“You are certain?” Henry asked again. “If my suspicions are correct, then there is no turning back from this, Gwen. There will be no shield of ignorance left to protect you from the full force of temptation. Caliban's supernatural hunger would hardly compare to what allure this knowledge could hold.”
'I won't turn from knowledge, Master."
Henry drained the last of his mead.
“Then let us proceed to the Greater Cognisance Chamber.”
The same guards were on the platform as when they had left, enviously appraising Gwen’s luck to be visiting the chamber with a mentor the magnitude of the one of the Ten. Toward her 'Seniors', Gwen acted both coy and friendly, the three of them sharing pleasant banter while Henry kept himself occupied by meditating.
“They like you,” Henry noted when they stepped into the privacy of the Chamber. “You could do well here if you choose to return after your studies. The Tower always needs young blood. Oceania is a volatile region.”
“I’ll consider it, Master.” Gwen smiled anxiously, she would worry about her future after her moment of truth.
With a thrum, the Chamber activated. Gwen stepped into the centre as the glyphs completed their arcane circuits. Below her sandals, her Astral Soul projected outwards, the entire floor becoming a mirror plane splitting the material world above and the Astral world below.
Henry proceeded in a perimeter around Gwen, muttering to himself as he did so.
“Try to activate the Sigils as I call them out, Gwen.”
“Yes, Master.” Her heart pounded. What was Mark so interested in and what had he uncovered regarding Elizabeth Sobel?
Her illusory Astral Body was alluring as usual, a delicate art sculpture of the female form with long and elegant limbs, radiating motes of light and darkness that alternatively expanded, then consumed one another.
Gwen channelled mana through her conduits. The sigil of Evocation blazed before her, brighter than she recalled.
“Your proficiency has yet again improved, Gwen. Making good progress towards tier 4.”
“That’s…” Gwen felt a dark premonition begin to rise from the back of her mind. “That’s impossible, Master… I was only Tier 3, two months ago! The training times are exponential! I couldn’t be tier four even with relentless training for the next twelve months!”
“I see,” Henry replied with no particular emotion, not even a hint of question or curiosity. “Let us proceed.”
Gwen switched to the other Schools of Magic by using well-practised minor incantations. Not far from her blazing Evocation Sigil, her Conjuration flashed a bright silver.
To her disappointment and relief, it was the same as when she had been last tested. It had grown a little, but the difference was nothing like the sudden spurt of the Evocation sigil.
The light of the Conjuration sigil faded. Gwen constructed with meticulous care the Abjuration Sigil used for the activation of the Shield Spell. She was well-trained, but even so, it would take at least a second for her to manifest.
Then, instantly and without warning, the Sigil for Abjuration formed.
It glowed warmly beside the others, a gunmetal Sigil of protection.
Gwen regarded the arcane symbol before her with disbelief. No. The spectacle can't be real; it couldn't possibly be real. Was there a problem with the Chamber? Was the illusion showing her falsehoods rather than a resonance?
“Master…” her voice trembled, from fear, horror, or excitement she could not know.
“A poorly awakened Abjurer too, I see…” Henry again commented without any particular emotion. “Pay it no heed, continue.”
Her back grew sodden with sweat, soaking her cardigan.
Another dim glow, this time weak and ineffective.
Gwen was almost choking on her discoveries now. What did it mean? What could it infer? Was this what Mark was trying to expose? If so, she was in far more trouble than she had thought.
“You’re going to need a bit more training to start using Message spells. Attunement to Divination Towers is an art unto itself.” Henry was relentless, commenting upon each shocking surprise as though they were dishes at a degustation.
“Master…” Gwen moaned, she was almost afraid to continue. What if it was true? What if it was real? Void Magic was a Pandora’s box! It was stealing fire from the Gods! How can anyone with an ability like this end well?
“Illusion…” Henry commanded.
“I… I don’t know how, Master,” Gwen breathed out a sigh of relief. It was true. Illusion had been too difficult for someone so practical and lacking in imagination.
Gwen had to take a moment to stifle her quickened breath and allow her heart to return to a cadence that allowed for the concentration necessary to maintain cross-class Sigils.
In front of her Master, she drew the Sigil within her mind, first the minor incantations, and then-
It blazed, a deep-purple luminosity that was visible, clearly defined.
“Ah-h! Tier 1 already! How fortuitous. A useful and versatile School, Gwen.”
“Oh… Oh Master, I… I…” The moment the sigil triggered, Gwen felt her chest constrict, her body shook, quivering with both ecstasy and distress.
“One final School… Gwen.”
One more? One more! How could she stand yet another school? It was too much! It was overwhelming. Her life was already turned upside down by her Void Magic, and now it was going to gift her with even more boon and bane? She began to hyperventilate, her guts knotting and churning as she fought the panic. Within her stomach, not even the Golden Mead was staying down, she wanted to hurl, but she was in the midst of a Cognisance Chamber, Lord knows what would show up in the illusion.
A refreshing wave of clarity washed over her quaking mindscape, replacing her anxiety with a quiet, contemplative peace.
“Thank you, Master.”
“Don't thank me yet." He smiled weakly. "Enchantment.”
She attempted the final school.
Thankfully, there was nothing. There was barely a glimmer.
"Now for the elements." Henry motioned for her to get on with it.
Gwen froze on the spot.
"No! That's impossible!" Gwen whimpered.
"That was an ill attempt at humour, I am afraid." Henry smirked uncharacteristically. "It warms my heart to see that even the infallible Miss Song is capable of anguish."
"Master!" Gwen flashed her hazel eyes.
"I believe we have proved Mark's pet theory, no?"
"I am... fortune's fool," Gwen weakly reflected upon her new gifts as the Cognisance illusion faded.
"Aye, Fortuna is indeed a strange and fickle mistress..." Henry concurred; his voice heavy with uncertainty.
"What now? Master?" Gwen inquired carefully.
"I saw those dossiers which Mark had thrown out when Gunther took him in." Henry shook his head. "I believe he was... scrying on you the entire time you were trapped, and Caliban was active."
Gwen felt a shiver run down her spine. He was watching her being captured, tied, packaged, readied for shipment. He was watching Caliban butcher those poor prisoners.
"I dare say he had a list of the prisoners, and... it adds up, I am afraid. There was an Abjurer in there, a few Evokers, two Transmuters..."
Gwen felt sick, her blood abruptly cold with dread and wretchedness. Those new Schools of Magic she had gained, they were not hers. They were the talents of people who were murdered by Caliban. She was a thief, a plunderer, a grave robber. Her knees felt giddy and weak. She had to find an open space and sit, try to orientate her bearings.
"Indeed... what now?" Henry pondered as Gwen hugged her knees, looking forlorn on the floor of the all-white chamber. So many secrets, he mused to himself; they keep piling like soft snow on the mountaintop.
But secrets and Magisters made good companions.
Henry knew not a single Magister who did not have some dire intrigues of his or her own. After all, was not his wife a mass murderer who'd mutilated almost a hundred souls? The Bloody Countess of Eger who terrorised the Hungarian countryside? Small secrets were like gnats, always wearing one away, but big secrets? They were more like a whetting stone that kept one sharp and focused. The life of a Mage seeking the Path was already akin to living on a blade's edge, one slip and there was only death or disgrace. Furthermore, if and when Gwen came into the power she desired, how trivial would all her other secrets be? She merely needed to hold one close to her bosom, and that as enough.
The problem was how to bring Gwen to this understanding? She had just professed to embark upon a righteous path of not murdering her enemies. Yet, her rare gift demanded that she consume human lives to fuel her Path of idealistic pacificism. Such complex contradictions! What absurd reflections of reality and life!
To Gwen's surprise, her Master stood by her side, radiating a sullen melancholy.
"I believe that the greatest mistake we had made was keeping Elizabeth's secret," Henry began, smoothing out his wrinkled jacket. "I don't intend to make that mistake again."
"I have consulted with Surya on this, and we have concluded that only when the world recognises your ability, allowing it to glitter over all faults - would you would be safe."
Gwen gazed at her Master uncomprehendingly.
"Have you heard the story of the Heart of Flames, Gwen?"
Gwen shook her head. Her family was not exactly one for sweet bedtime stories.
"The short of it is that an Arabian Sultan once found the most coveted Creature Core in the world, uncovered from the nest of a long dead Ancient Red Dragon. The core was astoundingly beautiful, and when channelled, provided control of the fire elements equating that of the highest Djinn."
"As one can imagine, the Sultan was afraid, terribly afraid of others finding out about his possession, so he hid the core about his person, only producing it in times of war, as well as in the dark of the night, gazing upon it lovingly and calling it his most precious."
"But, secrets never get buried for long, and many came to covet the Sultan's greatest prize. First, the Sultan became the target of larceny and theft, but when that failed, his foes turned to his family. His sons, daughters, his wives: one by one, enemies from within and without took them. Still, the Sultan refused to give up the core. Ultimately, it was only upon his deathbed, still holding that stone, that he realised his Sultanate was at its end. He had no more heirs. The Core could not pass on his legacy."
"Centuries later, when the Heart of Flames eventually passed into the hands of the Britannic Mageocracy, Queen Victoria made an important and unusual decision. She did not hide the core, but instead declared it a national treasure! She split the core in half, mounting the larger portion upon her sceptre, and the minor portion her crown. She called them her most precious objects, openly declaring to an adoring public that if they wish to see the stone, they merely needed to pay homage to Queen and Country before the Royal Palace during the annual celebrations."
"Did that deter the thieves? I doubt it; such is human nature. But the brilliance of that core now shone with such light, that no shadow could approach it, for an entire nation acted to protect it! The Heart of Flames! The symbol of the Empire! How could anyone dream of theft? Something so debased and unscrupulous! It would blemish and discredit the very heart of a nation! Do you recall our passionate, nationalistic jingo?"
Gwen shook her head.
Henry cleared his throat and began to sing.
"Bring me my wand, of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of Desire:
Bring me my Stone: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Heart of Fire! "
"Who could dream of violating that? The stone was sacrosanct!"
Henry eased over to give Gwen a reassuring pat, his hands hovered here and there, before finally resting on her cheeks.
"Do you understand, child?"
Gwen nodded. She understood - she finally comprehended why her notebook placed such emphasis on winning the Inter-High competition, on getting into Sydney University with the most prestigious of scholarships. She was to be a panda bear. For despite its world-renown desirability, if one tried to steal, assault, or even molest a Panda, one would anger an entire nation. So what if she had powers far exceeding the average bear? Rarity was leverage.
The keynote was becoming an existence both indispensable and unique. That would be Gwen's metaphysical double-glazed shield. So long as the powers desired the utility of her talents, so long as she could be their beacon of hope, she was safe. Factions conflicted amongst themselves, and many would have selfish designs on a Void Mage, but that competition was leverage. Just look at Elizabeth. What greatness could she have achieved without her madness? Even in her guilt as a mass murderer, she had been ironclad. At the end of a dark day, no uncertain threat from an insane Mage could remotely match the certainty of extinction from the Wildlands.
"But... my consumption ability..." Gwen felt her heart and mind racing; there was one last barrier to dispel, one last knot to untie.
"I am afraid there are no good answers to that," Henry confessed. "Yet that is precisely the point, no? You must own up to your choices, be accountable for your actions. For the abuse of Greatness..."
They said the next few words together, Master and Apprentice achieving a kind of cognitive resonance.
"... is when remorse is disjointed from power."
The shackles of doubt fell from Gwen's wrists, replaced by a feeling of liberation suffusing her body. Driven by impulse, she embraced Henry.
The act seemed to surprise the old man; who for a moment had not known what to do with himself. Their intimacy persisted though, Gwen digging her face into his shoulder, at which point he sensed a wet warmness upon his collar. Was it her breath? Or perhaps a few drops of his Apprentice's rare emotions?
He returned her embrace, her body young and supple; his, gnarly and knotted by time.
Meanwhile, Gwen had recovered from her impulsive moment and was now burning with embarrassment. In her old world, people would have mocking called it a paternal complex. They would be right, of course, but was it her fault she had never had a father-figure across two lifetimes? Morye had been mostly apathetic, somewhat aloof, and positively allergic to responsibility. Meanwhile, Henry untied the knots in her chest, untangled her worries and opened the floodgates of gratitude. There was a welling of emotion that she never really understood; before she realised, she was in her Master's arms, finding catharsis and resolution.
They separated; the old man looked just as embarrassed as she was.
"I am thinking of announcing to the Tower that you are my Apprentice, Gwen," Henry informed her suddenly. "After the Inter-High competition."
Gwen smiled. There was no need for words.
Henry made an effort to straighten his posture, groaning at the burden of physics involved in the act. Gwen shifted on her knees to brace her venerable Master.
"I supposed now you should return to Surya and enjoy the rest of your Summer Break."
She blinked. Summer Break? Good grief! It was still the summer holidays! She had a whole month of December before school resumed in mid-January. With all that had happened, it seemed as though a lifetime had passed since she left for Mark's office!
"Will you go?"
Her Master had a point. She couldn't go back to the dorms yet; no one else was home. She couldn't go back to Morye's, Helena's, or stay at the Tower - there was only Surya's.
"Yes, that's a good idea. You should look into solidifying your new Schools of Magic. I'll speak to Surya, and we'll get you some basic Transmutation and Divination spells. Keep this between the three of us. No one must know until the right time, not even your friends."
Gwen nodded again, looping her arm around Henry's waist like a faithful granddaughter. Arm-in-arm, the duo made for the levitation platform, the doors to the Cognizance Chamber closing behind them silently.
The platform descended; down and down, round and round, plunging towards the uncertain embrace of Lady Fortuna.