When Gwen moved into her first apartment, the loneliness of coming home to an empty abode blindsided her. Previously, she had always shared dorms and rooms with girlfriends, and for short stints, poorly chosen boyfriends.
So she adopted two cats from the RSPCA.
Ariel and Caliban, just like from The Tempest, making her cranky old Prospero, the Conjurer supreme of Shakespeare's play.
Just as she was ready to embark on a life of being a forever-single cat mama, her very responsible vet told her that she shouldn't take the kittens home for another month - not until they were weaned and desexed.
It was the longest wait of her life.
For the next two months, Gwen relived that special hell, at the brink of her willpower as her Familiar tickled the inside of her brain, demanding to be let loose into the Material Plane, while she did her best to hide them from the world.
It was only on the weekends, in the privacy of Surya's estate that she could free her inhibitions, allowing her marten and ophidian free reign.
With the help of an exceptionally nutritious diet, she was tempering her body to sustain her Void Familiar. Even so, in combat, she could only keep Caliban empowered for two odd minutes before her vitality began to wane. Ariel, on the other hand, fed off her plentiful lightning and could be maintained for almost an hour.
As such, Gwen figured that Caliban would only be truly effective in an area with a significant amount of consumable biomass, such as that of a monster's den. Speaking to her Master, she hypothesised that Caliban's strength lied in its miniscule mana cost and high vitality-drain, which had to be offset by an external source of vitality.
"It's an extraordinary creature, I agree," her Master had remarked. "But, as with Evocation, avoid using the Void until you grow stronger. Take measured steps, don't run."
She promised to remain vigilant.
Episodic interruptions aside, the grind continued. Each morning, Gwen jogged with Debora, herself becoming a notable Transmuter. Time had seemed to restore Debora to a sunny disposition, as well as reawakening her competitive streak. During one of their sessions, she once again implored Gwen to include her on the team, to which Gwen agreed to give her priority as their first choice.
Lessons with Alesia also continued, fortifying a number of her tier two and three spells. Concurrently, Gunther and her Master taught Gwen new Conjuration spells in addition to Evocation staples.
Lightning Blade was a manifestation which allowed her to conjure a persistent blade of energy, it was suitable for close combat and possessed a paralytic effect. Gwen dubbed it 'The Taser'.
Warding Bolt allowed her to create a floating energy sphere that persisted for several minutes, striking three times at any targets that came close. A particular quality of Lightning, Gwen noted, was that even defensive spells were overtly offensive, subscribing to the philosophy that the best defence was offence.
When Gwen requested non-lethal spells, Master Henry had sent over two scrolls for debilitating manifests. Blinding bolt, which caused optic damage, and Thunderclap, which caused the enemy to be deafened and disorientated. Upon receiving the spells, Gwen saw no reason why they should be separate in the first place. After all, stun grenades existed in her old world. She made the idea known to Alesia, and the two worked to create an original spell that, though lacking damage, could induce blind, deafen, and disorientation simultaneously. Additionally, thanks to her Conjuration and Evocation, she could cast both the spell in a persistent, globular variation or directly as an explosion.
Not one for originality, Gwen named it 'Flashbang'.
The most interesting of her new spells was a persistent target spell in the form of a cloud called Call Lightning that randomly discharged Lightning Bolts at irregular intervals. Gwen gushed when she realised it worked wonders with Guiding Bolt and Ariel’s static needles.
Thursday nights were spent with Gunther.
During one such training session, she discovered that though Gunther's Radiant Shield was a molecule-thin film of light, they somehow blocked all her best spells. When queried, he smirked and told her to work on basic Abjuration, scoffing at Gwen's dismay when she parroted that only Abjurists could engender 'real' Shields.
"Never underestimate the power of innovation and hard work," he wisely intoned.
He then proudly introduced Gwen to the concept of Single Spell Mastery.
“There are many ways in which a Mage builds on their Spell List and the most arduous of which is absolute mastery over a single low-tier invocation."
“How would that help?” Gwen asked quizzically. “That seems counterproductive. Why not train for higher tiers?”
“Not all Mages can reach higher tiers in multiple schools like you and I.” Gunther shook his head at her naivety. “A Mage's power is bottlenecked by talent, by affinity, and by access to resources. For example Gwen, how many crystals did you use in the last half a year?”
Gwen did the math.
"About... fourteen hundred LDM crystals and .... one hundred HDM crystals?"
"Yes - and that's excluding your tuition fees, your special diet, the magic items that were used to train you, the ensorceled training grounds. You've spent close to a five hundred HDMs just at school, Gwen. How much did you say your father made?"
"... two thousand a year, give or take."
"You see my point?"
"I see your point, Gunther," Gwen mumbled guiltily.
"This is why mundane Mages may only focus on low-tier spells. However, they can become so proficient in the casting of say, the basic Magic Missile, that from simplicity comes spectacle. Some magic can be so ingrained within a Mage's mind that they may invoke it in a fraction of the time, it may be more potent, it could cost far less mana, all independent of the Mage's initial School of Magic. A sterling example would be 'Flight', a staple necessity for all Combat Mages."
Gwen nodded demurely.
"Personally, my Shield spell is the result of two-decades of training. For Quasi-Elementalists like us, poor defence is a huge weakness. But...”
Gunther asked Gwen to come closer, when she was almost touching his chest, he summoned a semi-dome Shield which enveloped both of them.
“Feel it," he suggested. "Tell me what you think."
For a mischievous moment, Gwen pondered the inappropriateness of giving Gunther's washboard abdominals a 'cop'. Thankfully, decades of sexual harassment training dissuaded Gwen from her hormonal impulse.
Gingerly, she reached out and felt Gunther's Shield barrier, to her surprise, it had the texture of cornstarch.
“These are... motes of pure mana!” She exclaimed. “You're using a double layered shield with pure mana wedged in-between?"
“Give it a punch.” Gunther grinned.
Gwen punched the barrier and felt the plasticity instantly grow rigid.
A non-Newtonian fluid? She was in shock. Could physics apply to mana? It seemed to her that magic was 'magical' precise because the conjured elements appeared to override earthly laws of physics. How else could she summon electricity without a dynamo, or Yue conjured fire without friction or a source for fuel?
“My 'Shield' is a Signature Spell of mine,” Gunther informed her conspiratorially, amused by her awe.
But Gwen was awed for the wrong reasons. She understood that where a normal Mage had a relatively equal volume of mana dispersed within a single Shield, Gunther had motes of pure mana manifested as fine particles within a parallel membrane. When an external force struck the voluminous ‘fluid’, it compressed the space between the motes, hardening the Shield while consuming the attack's kinetic and elemental energy.
“Incredible…” Gwen discerned that perhaps, she was similarly capable of using this method. Though it was beyond her ken to create a double walled Shield, the theory was sound.
“I bet… that I can penetrate your Shield.” she turned to Gunther mischievously. “What do I get if I succeed?”
“Ho? Bluster and arrogance, how Alesia of you!” Gunther lifted one corner of his mouth in a lopsided grin. "Name your price."
"If I can penetrate..." Gwen coughed. "... your Shield, you have to teach it to me."
“I've never sold the spell's secret, not even to the Tower, for CCs, HDMs or favours.” Gunther grinned. "But you've piqued my curiosity, come on."
She took a stance.
Resembling a katara, a hovering mass of cobalt lightning crackled above her wrist.
“Promise not to move?”
“You have my word.”
Gwen slashed the katara over Gunther's Shield, watching the mana congeal, the white-line healing in a matter of seconds.
“Not going to move at all?”
“Not at all.”
For her second attempt, Gwen slowly pushed the dagger against the surface of the Shield, watching the surface sizzle. Slowly the hardened particles of compressed mana dispersed, becoming viscose as Gwen pushed ever so gently inwards.
Just the tip, she bit back an immature smile as her blade penetrated her brother-in-craft's pride.
Gunther baulked as the blade slid slowly through his Shield, millimetre by millimetre, surely and steadily.
“Impossible!” His steady voice rose an octave. “How did you know? Did Master tell you?”
Mages were inherently a secretive bunch. It was especially bad form for a Master to tell one apprentice the secret of another.
“Oh, it's not hard to figure out…” Gwen dispersed her conjured blade.
Gunther regarded Gwen with renewed respect.
“You win.” He placed both hands against his hip. "I'll teach it to you. Got time to visit the Cog Chamber? Copying my Astral projection will drastically reduce the time it takes to learn Secondary Spells."
Besides Gwen, Yue and Elvia had each reached their milestones. Yue managed to attain whatever conditions Alesia had set, informing them one night, ecstatic and happy, that Alesia had made her an offer of Apprenticeship. All that was left was for Yue to finish high school.
“I wonder what that means for my Military Service?” Yue pondered aloud. “Do I serve with Alesia, does she have a Unit? Maybe it's a special unit? Do you think I'll be in the Special Air Service?”
Yue’s fantasies aside, Gwen had no idea either. She would have to ask her sister-in-craft.
On the other hand, was she in the same boat as Yue? Was she was still subject to conscription. Without incident, Gwen knew she would be starting her service November next year. If she chose, she could muster for physicals in January and join the Reserves by July, as Jun and Henley had done.
Comparatively, Elvia would be absent due to classes for Advanced Restoration, Combat Triage, and Internal Medicine. Where Gwen and Yue’s regular instructions involved extensive knowledge of Magical Creatures and Spellcraft theory, Elvia’s were far more specialised.
“We’ll be together again come next year!” Elvia promised when Gwen lamented the separation. “We have to team up for the final exam in June after all! I’ll be sure to have more buffs and blessings in my repertoire!”
"Gwen, it's time for you to gain some practical experience," her Master informed her one morning.
"Yes, Master." Gwen bowed her head.
She wasn't sure if she looked forward or dreaded the prospect of employing her spells in the real world. Socking Sufina's puppets was one thing, tasering a real person? Electrocuting a guy with Lightning Bolt? Her only solace was the prevalence of healing magic that made most injuries survivable.
Regardless, the day of promise was upon her. The academic year ended, and students left the school for extracurricular programs suited to their specialities. Elvia would be away with her uncle. Yue had training with Alesia and would be doing subjugation fieldwork down the coast. On their last jog together, Debora had told Gwen that her family had arranged her to work part-time with a famous Transmuter Magus. As for herself, she informed the others that she had part-time work, which was technically not a lie.
First thing in the morning, her Opa called, informing her that all had been arranged and that Mark 'Mac' Chandler, proprietor of the Black Cat Agency, would be expecting her.
“Dress in your Sunday best,” Surya advised her. “That's what Mark requested, anyway. He's a good bloke, and you can trust him. Otherwise, I'll personally punch his lights out."
Oh yeah, Gwen recalled. Mark was another one of their 'old mates'. Out of curiosity, she asked her Opa if there was an old codger’s club where all his war buddies congregated, mayhap an RSL which they frequented. Surya's sobering response was that there wasn’t enough of them left.
“Terrible time, that was.” Surya shook his head sadly. “You kids don't you how good you have it with your updated Spellcraft metrics. Back then, our spells were horse-piss, the enemy out-numbered us, and anti-magical beasts training was non-existent. Guerrilla warfare was a shit-show. The life expectancy for a flight of Mages landing in the North Queensland jungle was about fifteen minutes. If you survived that, then you had until nightfall.”
"Jesus," Gwen mouthed. "Sorry."
“You got 'Mac' to thank for me being here, he and Henry and..." Surya cleared his throat. "Mark saved our asses plenty of times with his array of Arcane Eye, Detect Invisibility, and Telepathic Bond. When you meet him, be polite, listen to what he says, and don't piss him off!”
Feeling her Opa's worry, Gwen was keen on making a good impression.
Feeling curious and speculative, she picked through her other wardrobe and produced a navy button-up one-piece dress that taped around her torso and ended above her knees. The weather warmed as summer came, so Gwen forwent the stockings and matched the dress with her Mary-Janes. For a formal touch, she carefully combed her hair until it fell neatly over her shoulders, then applied a light touch of gloss, liner and mascara.
The result was a prim young lady who wouldn't look out of place during Melbourn Cup luncheon.
With an address in hand, she made the journey to Surry Hills by public transport. Her destination was not too far from the transit station, where she walked the rest of the way, enjoying the brisk Sunday air.
Her destination was an old sandstone building that looked ancient and archaic. It was a terrace, a converted working-class home now among some of the most expensive properties in Sydney. The building had a lovely red door set against intricate ironworks. The wrought signage showed a black cat.
Gwen pressed the buzzer and was surprised to hear a husky, whiskey voice asking who she was.
“I am Gwen.” she smiled at the glassy scrying crystal atop the door. “You were expecting me, I believe.”
The door opened, and Gwen was momentarily stunned by the scent of heavy perfume assaulting her nostrils. A heavily made-up blonde woman stared her down, wearing audacious lingerie.
Gwen blushed, catching a wayward nip. The woman, whom Gwen dubbed 'the Madam,' looked upon her with a critical eye.
“Ain'tcha a little young for this line of work?”
It took Gwen another agonising few seconds to realise her mistake. The red door, the barred windows, the perfume, the exposed nip. Damn those old codgers, where the hell did they send her?
“May I inquire as to the address of this Black Cat Cafe?” Gwen forced a smile to her lips. It wasn't that she looked down on ladies of the night, it was that right now, it was noon. “I may have mistaken the address.”
The woman grinned with too-wide and too-red lips, producing a card from her cleavage.
'Black Cat Bordello.' The card read. 'For your pleasure.'
From within the corridor, Gwen could see other women in similar states of undress.
“Right.” Gwen moved back stiffly. “I have the wrong address.”
“You better hope so!” The madam laughed in that croaky voice of hers. “You working here would shut us down in a heartbeat!”
Gwen turned to leave, but the Madam caught her arm.
“You’re not entirely in the wrong place,” she chuckled. “The place you’re looking for is two doors down, look for the print ‘Black Cat’, not the animal.”
“You gonna be working for Mark?” The madam asked curiously.
“Yes Ma’am,” Gwen said carefully.
“Well then, we’ll be seeing each other.”
“Thank you,” Gwen replied cooly, her friendly mien juxtaposing her scarlet face. Let's hope we don’t see each another again, Gwen thought to herself. At any rate, she had been the idiot. To think she had mistaken the picture for the address.
Two doors down, Gwen found the right door, a white one this time, set into a sandstone facade. The frontage was a wild growth of neglected native shrubbery, within which may have been a set of tables and chairs some years ago. The paint was peeling a little from the door, and flakes of it fell when she knocked.
Doesn't look used, Gwen puzzled her mind at the sight. Was Mark's operation on hiatus?
“Come in, its open,” a distant voice called from the second floor.
She turned the knob and felt the accumulated oxidisation groan. When the door finally opened, Gwen entered a private museum.
Or at least, a place that had the look and feel of a museum. Hundreds of items small and large hung on the walls. The collection consisted of bits and pieces of magical beasts, feathers, claws, patches of skin, and what looked like a desiccated paw. Other collectables were anthropological, such as painted tribal masks, spearheads, the pommel of a sword. Glass cabinets lined the corridor, filled with trophies, scraps of documents, pieces of minerals, and what looked to be fragmented mana stones.
“Up here!” a voice called out. Gwen noted amongst the chaotic details of the terrace's interior; there was a set of stairs which lead upwards.
To her surprise, the claustrophobia prominent on the ground floor opened into an attic office that made from a spacious living room. The decor was strictly academic, reminding Gwen of an Oxford study. A skylight working in conjunction with twin bay windows lit the room with a gentle ambience, revealing an ancient table in the middle of the room, inundated by a scattered bric-a-brac of, pens, inks and bottles. In Gwen's measured eye, the impressive collection could only belong to Dr Indiana 'Mark' Jones.
With a shuddering gasp, notebooks apart to reveal a gaunt-faced old gent with a frighteningly high domed skull. Mark 'Mac' Chandler wore gold-rimmed spectacles with an intellectual air, plagued by a receding hairline. His eyes, two dark obsidian orbs, appraised Gwen as she approached.
"So you are Gwen Song,” he spoke with a voice that rose and fell like listing timber, clear and pronounced, each syllable bitten with absolute precision. "Welcome to the Black Cat."
Gwen bowed, feeling that a man of this calibre and seniority would prefer austerity over frivolity.
"You're probably wondering, 'what cafe?'" He smiled with thin, pursed lips.
Gwen nodded. The only sign that this place may have been a cafe was the overgrown garden and those sets of cafe tables and chairs.
"It is a long story; perhaps I will tell it once we're acquainted."
"Of course, Sir."
Gwen stood before Mark like a young trooper at attention. Her Mary-Janes were comfortable, but any shoes that came with a proportioned heel suffered the existential contrariety of style and comfort. It was time to turn on the old charm.
"So, Henry tells me that you not only abide by his beloved Credo but understands it better than our Faction's veterans."
"It was a moment of inspiration, nothing more." Gwen dropped the 'Sir' to see if that could ease the formality between them. When Marc's eyes caught the light, she noticed a pale white tinge. Was the man using Divination on her?
"I see. Henry also tells me that you are the recipient of an incredibly rare and unusual talent. Not one, but two schools of magic, moreover, you're blessed by both Lightning and Void. Is that correct?"
"Good, care to answer a few questions for me, Gwen?"
"What do you think of the lesser evil?"
"The lesser evil?"
"Indeed." Mark persisted in the unexpected tangent. "There lie two choices ahead of you in a moment of crisis. It is the eleventh hour. To defeat a powerful enemy, you must sacrifice a companion Mage. To fail is the greater evil, for behind you lie ten thousand Non-Magical civilians, many of which may yet awaken to become your peers. But only by sacrificing a dear friend, can others be saved. What is the right choice?"
What a curious question. Gwen pondered. Was this a test? Was he testing to see if I was a classist?
"Would you like the answer to what I ought to do, or what I would do, Sir?"
Mark raised an eyebrow in surprise.
"No hesitation, and two answers already?" He seemed pleased by her spontaneous response. "Go on."
Gwen took a deep breath.
"In a dilemma, one must consider the utility of one's actions. Would my companion Mage posses more utility than Ten Thousand NoMs? If the answer is yes, then I would save the Mage. If the answer is no, then his or her sacrifice is not in vain. If there are no definite means of measuring that utility, then the moment is beyond right or wrong. Either action is acceptable."
Mark considered her answer.
"How cold-blooded. How astute. And what of your second answer?"
"May I speak frankly?"
Gwen thought of Yue and Elvia, then summoned up the courage to speak her heart.
"To err… is to be human. In the eleventh hour, I do not believe I am capable of giving a shit about right and wrong. At that moment, I would gladly take on the burden of ten thousand dead to save my friend. I am not a Saint, Sir, and doubt I would ever be. All that I can ask for is to be understood and mayhap, forgiven."
Mark gave an unexpected start, moving rigidly for a moment before he began to chuckle, his laughter resonating across the chamber.
"You are certainly not one of Henry’s Paladins," Mark stood from the chair. Gwen noticed that he was the tallest man she had seen yet. The man was almost two metres, stick thin and elongated. He wore charcoal pants, brown oxfords and a dark vest against an ivory silk shirt.
"Tell me, Gwen, do you truly believe in the Credo? Be honest with me."
"I believe it, truly," Gwen brought a smiled to her face. "But not to the exclusion of all else."
"A fair answer..." Mark appeared to consider her words. He then extended a hand. "I am beginning to like you, Gwen Song."
"Thank you. You're rather interesting yourself. Mr Chandler."
They shook, his fingers long and skeletal, so long as to swallow her hand.
“I wonder what manner of a life you must have lived, to possess such wisdom at the age of sixteen,” he remarked quizzically.
Gwen began to sweat.
"Not that its any of my business. You're Henry's ward, and so you are mine also by proxy. Come, I have tasks for you."
He walked over to a side-table and pulled out a chair.
"This will be your workstation. After a mission, you shall provide a written report. I believe you are proficient in this?"
"More than proficient."
"Good. Now take a seat, and I will explain."
Gwen walked over to her new table. Obediently, she sat.
There was already a file on her table; a dossier that looked like a classified document. A Quest! Gwen's heart pounded. What could it be? Monster subjugation? Recover item? Defending a particular location? Was she working with a group or solo? She had learned about all of this in one of her classes.
A point of difference between this world and hers was that those with talent and tolerance for risk could always find gainful employment in resolving the one-thousand-and-one problems caused by the chaotic flux of energies.
For her new home was a place where boogymen were real. Here, destruction stood over men’s shoulders day and night, where within the woods, monsters had marauded since time immemorial: for the Wildland was the devil's preserve; the Frontier, humanity's last stand. From within the Shield Barrier, the affirming flame of civilisation kept eradication and enslavement at bay.
Therefore, for necessity, adventure and profit, men and women practised Spellcraft. And Gwen, only sixteen, was readying herself to join the ranks of those fine Mages seeking to make the world a better place.
She opened the dossier and scanned through the brief.
Her eyes widened in disbelief. Was this a joke?
"An... escort quest?"
She stared at Mark in horror.
"I have to escort an Escort?!"