"Master!" Gwen bowed toward her Master as he took a breather on the second-floor living room. "I am glad for your presence, but why are you here? I imagine a Mage of your station would be far too busy."
"When everyone thinks you're busy, you're surprisingly free." Henry laughed. "Come closer, Gwen, let's take a look at your progress. Surya tells me you have worked hard while on the estate."
Gwen stood in front of Henry and concentrated on activating her Sigils one by one.
Henry's eyes glowed with the scintillating hues of Divination, measuring the wavelengths of mana radiating off Gwen's Astral Body.
"I see significant growth in your Abjuration Sigil," Henry intoned pleasingly. "Your Evocation and Conjuration are moving nicely as well, though there are many more months of training there yet."
"And Tier 4 Lightning? Very impressive, Gwen. I can sense some growth in your Void affinity as well, though as always, I would act conservatively in its utility until you gain access to a source of replenishment."
Her Master inclined his head satisfactorily.
"Very good, Gwen, you have kept yourself busy."
"Thank you, Master," Gwen replied respectfully. "I wish to run a hypothesis by you if that is at all possible."
"Of course, child, go on."
Gwen informed Henry of her encounter with Wanka, about her suspicions regarding Caliban's elemental consumption. She watched Henry rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
"If this is true, Gwen, then I would venture to take you on some targeted 'Purges' in the next few months."
"That would be lovely, Master," Gwen answered delicately. "On that note, I am unsure what to focus on in the coming three months, do you have any advice?"
Sufina appeared beside Gwen again, caressing Gwen's hair greedily and coiling her tendrils around her waist. The dryad's leaves were now vibrant and glossy with the scent of spring.
"Conjuration, of course!" Sufina uttered with that sultry voice of hers. She had taken on Gwen's likeness after intoxicating herself within the presence of the serpent's primal vitality. Gwen wordlessly watched her doppelgänger strut about the place, stomping about with two pointed stilts that made up her otherwise curvaceous and well-formed legs. The sight was alien, to say the least, disturbing and discerning all at once.
Henry seemed used to Sufina's antics and simply allowed his Familiar to do as she pleased.
"Yes," her Master answered after a few seconds of deliberation. "For combat against other Mages, there are few schools as powerful as Conjuration."
"Can you elaborate, Master?"
"Sufina, can you demonstrate?"
"Of course, Henry."
Sufina moved with a graceful leap, performing an aerial pirouette before gracefully landing on the seamless marble tiles.
Henry concentrated on channelling mana into his familiar.
"Minor Elemental." Henry incanted, and a half-dozen shrubs sprung into life and began to form into a line. They faced Gwen and saluted with their stiff limbs.
"This is a useful spell, good for distractions and cannon fodder, but beware the next step." Henry fed his mana into the summons.
Immediately, their cute, shrubbery form turned cruel with splinters and spikes, the limbs of the miniature trees grew barbs that gleamed with venom.
"That took a significant fraction of mana," Henry noted. "Not an easy feat if your mana pool is low."
He dismissed the trees with a wave.
"Next, one of my favourites. Morden's Faithful Hound."
Gwen's eyes gleamed as a wooden dog appeared on the floor where the spell had struck. It was huge, easily the size of a fully grown Mastiff. The dog stoically gazed over the surroundings, taking in all that it surveyed.
"It can see in the dark, it can detect invisibility, and it can defend an area to its death."
Henry waved his hand, and the dog launched itself at Gwen, stopping an inch before her face. It was so fast that she had barely time to react.
"That's incredibly useful," Gwen declared, touching the wooden dog with her finger, patting its head. It even smelled nice. "Does it do much damage?"
"It can defeat a tier 3 Magical Beast at your tier, at my tier, it can take on tier 5 to 6 creature. It's a useful utility spell."
"Would I be able to summon, you know… a 'dark' dog?" Gwen asked carefully.
Henry tried to imagine that.
"What a terrifying suggestion." He shuddered at the thought. He had modelled his hound on the old hunting dogs they had in Hungary. What manner of exotic and nightmarish beings would emerge from Gwen's imagination?
Her Master dismissed the dog.
"Then there's this signature spell of the Transmutation school." Henry invoked the magic effortlessly. "Dimension Door!"
Sufina blinked out of existence and appeared a few meters away, waving at Gwen.
"Teleportation!" Gwen gushed with delight. Gods, she wanted access to teleportation as much as she wished to Fly. A Mage with both could only be endangered in combat if they were OOM.
"Yes, but a complicated spell to learn. If you fail to materialise or end up inside a wall, expect to be bruised black and red for a month, inside and out."
Gwen nodded solemnly, promising that she would learn the spell and not abuse its purpose.
"Finally, though not the most tasteful of spells, this is one of the most useful, especially with Sufina's help." Henry pointed at the ceiling. "Eilard's Dark Tentacles!"
Tendrils of barbed plants sprouted from the ceiling and began to search for targets. Not finding any hostiles, they coiled back, forming a hedge of lianas.
"Can you guess what the great boon of this spell is?"
"It can be cast on ceilings?" Gwen asked.
"Of course, there's that." Henry chortled. "I can trap, slow or restrain, as well as disrupt other Mage's incantations. Unlike the dog, which cannot move far from the spot, the Tentacles can be summoned within thirty metres of the caster and has a reach equating your affinity."
Gwen gushed. All the spells seemed so good!
"No new Evocation?" Gwen asked just in case.
"I wouldn't think so," Henry said. "Normal Mages do not train in multiple schools at once. My advice is to focus on Conjuration. The spells I have noted all possess excellent utility for offence, defence, and disruption."
"I shall take on your advice, Master," Gwen replied. "I shall learn Faithful Hound, Dark Tentacles, and Dimension Door."
Gwen also wanted the Minor Elemental spell, but she already had two familiars who consumed her mana and her vitality mercilessly. The hound was a persistent effect, and it could detect invisibility, implying that she would not be at the mercy of an invisible enemy like the last time at Elvia's manor. Dark Tentacles, meanwhile, just sounded as useful as it was nasty.
Then a thought struck her.
"Master…" Gwen asked. "Can I maintain two copies of each spell with my different elements? I have two familiars, after all."
Henry paused, then his eyed widened.
"Don't try it without supervision." Henry swallowed nervously. "I could access all four primary elements, but can only use one copy of the spell per invocation. You are special, though. As you possess two elemental gates, you may very well be able to summon two elemental effects."
The door to the private living room opened. Surya entered, his face alive with celebration.
"What'd I miss?" he inquired jovially.
The old Magus had enjoyed a rare night of things going his way. The wayward daughter had been put in her place. His son, Kwan, actually showed support for his decisions for once. His three grandchildren were all doing exceptionally well. The future looked bright.
"Good God, what's that!"
There was a mass of writhing tentacles on the ceiling of the second-floor living room.
Surya stared at Gwen, who flushed with excitement. He glanced at Sufina, who had taken on a scandalous version of Gwen's form and was flitting about the place.
Surya's artistic mind felt a sudden inspiration for a new art piece.
"Oh, just a demonstration." Henry snapped his fingers and the tentacles faded into the aether. "Gwen has chosen to specialise in Conjuration for now."
"I wish she had found Enchantment." Surya sulked. "I have so much to teach you as well."
Gwen forced herself to smile. She wasn't sure that she could stomach Caliban eating any other Mages while they were alive and kicking. That was a road that, once taken, was a path of no return. Elizabeth was the pariah that had taught them all that lesson.
"How are things down below?"
"Dying down," Surya replied. "You should be down there as well. The young folks are all clamouring for you."
"I will, thanks, Opa." Gwen hugged her Opa, then relocated downstairs. From the lounge, the duo watched her go.
As soon as Gwen was gone, Sufina instantly reached Henry's side, nursing him a cup of her Golden Mead.
"Thanks for coming out. I appreciate it." Surya expressed his gratitude.
"It's nothing. That girl is going to be terrifying in a few years. I only hope she can remain as pure and incorruptible as she is now."
"Ain't it about time you retired, old man? I just announced my retirement, after all. Give Gwen a few years, and she'll be running this place. Just gotta hold the fort until she's ready."
"Are giving up on the Salt child?"
"Yes, unless his mother gives up first. You saw what he's like out there. She's got her teeth well sunk into his neck. I wonder what the hell his father is doing. Bloody useless Abjurer that he is."
"Indeed," Henry replied drily. "How curious that Gwen would emerge from an otherwise mundane union. How fortuitous."
"Speak for yourself," Surya joked.
Henry smiled a wane smile and sipped his mead.
"I should be getting back. Tell Gwen I'll see her at the grot for Conjuration training every Saturday and Sunday in addition to her group work. I'll send over the Abjurer once their school starts next week."
"Thanks again," Surya noted. "Take care, mate."
Henry waved. There was a silver flash of Conjuration as the beacon at the Tower locked on, and he was gone.
"Hey! She's back!" Someone called out excitedly.
A dozen voices called out as Gwen descended the circular stairs that led down to the living room. She appeared even more striking now that her abilities were out in the open. Many who had thought Gwen merely an uncommonly talented sorceress now openly vied for her favour.
"Cousin." Richard sidled up to Gwen, drink in hand, passing her a flute of sparkling juice.
"Thanks, Richard, but you didn't have to give up your inheritance," Gwen said seriously.
"Nonsense! Do you think I could concentrate on being a legendary Conjurer if I had to deal with house politics and business deals? You ever wonder why Kwan was such a terrible Transmuter?"
"Well, if you put it like that," Gwen chided Richard mirthfully. "Are you hoping that I'd waste all my time dealing with the politics so you could remain top-dog?"
"The business of a Magister runs itself," Richard answered effortlessly. "People would fall over themselves to do business with a Tower Master."
"How could I possess a Tower?" Gwen asked. A base of her own was something that was still too distant to even imagine. "I am not even a Magus— I don't even have a single School in the middle-tier!"
"Bah, a matter of time." Richard raised his glass, and many of those listening to their conversation did the same. "To Gwen and her Tower. May I occupy the level below the Master Suite!"
Glasses clinked, waves of laughter passed through the guests.
"How many schools of Magic do you know anyhow?" Richard tested the waters, activating a subtle earring and its glyph.
"Why, who wants to know?" Gwen's eyes narrowed, Richard was using a private Message spell. "Just the two and a half."
"Not two and Transmutation, and Abjuration?" Richard lowered his voice, compressing it somehow so that it took on a conspiratorial air.
"Of course not, don't be absurd!" Gwen replied quietly, but she couldn't use private Messages spells yet nor possessed a Magical item to do so like Richard, so she had to lean in closer to his ears.
The intimate act drew envious looks from those who had been hoping for a closer interaction with the duo.
"Fine, at least tell me if your Opa is the giving you all the crystals to feed your familiars, I don't see you generating currency at all."
Gwen blushed. She had been using her Opa as a kind of a limitless credit card. Richard was right though, Gwen needed to disembark the Opa Sugar Train ASAP if she ever wanted to strike out on her own.
"It's a secret!" She playfully punched Richard in the ribs.
Richard's face blossomed into happiness. Gwen felt her skin crawl. Maybe he liked getting beat up? Did Richard have that kind of inclination? After all, nobody could be completely perfect, and Richard was no exception.
What Gwen didn't know, was that in her moment of celebration, she hadn't noted the little word game in Richard's line of logic. She had just experienced a moment of triumph which offered relief from her demonic mother. Her Master had shown her a fabulous future, and Opa had virtually proclaimed her as his heir. She was drunk on victory. It was in moments like these that men and women were often at their weakest.
Beside her, Richard was beyond thrilled. He had finally confirmed that Gwen had more than one familiar. It could only mean one of two things. Either Gwen had surpassed the constraints of existing magical theory and had developed an original spell to gain two Lightning familiars - or she simply had two distinct elements.
His eyes measured the ebullient girl beside him, scanning her remarkable physiology for clues. The blue glow that Gwen now maintained in her eyes was the effect of the Quasi-elemental Lightning, but other than that, she merely appeared paler than he recalled. Was it Air? Or Ice? He was dying to find out, but Gwen was accosted by a dozen people who surrounded her like supplicants around an altar of knowledge.
Richard felt a yawn coming on. Typically, the guests would be long gone, but thanks to the events of the night, they had chosen to stay on, far extending the hospitality of his father.
Would Gwen stay overnight then?
He wanted to know more about her as well, about her power, her past, her life growing up. These facts had all been denied by Gwen's spiteful mother, who had kept her removed from the family.
Curiously, he regarded his cousin, who flitted about the men and women effortlessly. She seemed so in her element, picking up conversations from here and there. Where did she acquire that kind of skill? Richard wondered. As far as he knew, Gwen had been gloomy and quiet, at least according to Helena.
"Thank you all for coming, friends! Happy New Year!" Richard's father was likewise growing irritated with the guests who insisted on staying. His household staff were all stifling yawns and straining to keep awake. Surya had informed him that Lord Henry had gone, so there was no more reason to be polite within his own home.
"Next time, friend!" he called out to them and began to make the rounds, shaking their hands and ushering them toward the door.
For the first time in her life, as a team of four - Kwan, Tali, Richard and herself, Gwen and her family shook hands and well-wished the guests at the door.
"Visit me at Lil's!" Petunia Wallace hugged Gwen before making her way out. "Transfer if you can!"
Once the guest was gone, the living room grew cold.
Gwen shivered, her dress didn't offer much protection, and the harbour air was frigid when blowing in from the Tasman Sea. Richard pulled a coat from his Storage Ring and placed it over her shoulders, catching her looking at him strangely.
"They teach you that in Prince's?" Gwen returned winsomely.
"Are you staying over? Surya is using one of the guest rooms. I'll get the servants to set up another for you."
"Please." Now that the public was gone, the tension drained from Gwen's body. "My feet... beautiful is pain."
Richard nodded and led his cousin into the house, where the housekeeper was already working way overtime.
"Thanks, Nam." He nodded approvingly to the middle-aged NoM woman. "After you're done, go get some shut-eye. I'll let Dad know that everyone can get a day off tomorrow, fully paid."
"Glad to be of service, sir." The housekeeper bowed and left the room.
Bypassing Richard, Gwen rushed into the bathroom and wiped away her mascara-laden lashes, her foundation and her bronzers.
"I'll be back." Richard left Gwen to her labour.
He returned half an hour later, changing out of his suit into comfortable shorts and a tight white-tee with a jug a mug on a tray.
"Gwen, are you decent?" He knocked.
Richard came in, Gwen was likewise in shorts and a white singlet. They even had the same pastel shorts. Richard laughed and placed the cup and jug down beside Gwen on the nightstand.
"What's your plan from here on out?" Richard inquired.
"Training, lots of training," Gwen replied happily. She couldn't wait to tap into those Conjuration spells at the higher tier. "Then group training with my team for the Inter-High, we're supposed to be getting a new member as well."
"What of all your secrets? Could this new member handle the likes of yourself and Yue?" Richard asked casually, leaning back against his chair.
"What secrets?" Gwen asked innocently, now that she was au naturel, her skin glowed.
"Oh you know, the fact that you have multiple schools," Richard pointed out.
"People know that already though."
"What about your second element? When are you revealing that?"
Gwen stared at her cousin.
Richard leaned in so that they were face to face.
"I want you to trust me, Gwen," he intoned carefully. "I am your ally, I proposed to give up the inheritance for you, and I've done just that. I merely ask that you don't keep me out of your life."
Gwen blushed. This Richard, what a thing to say.
"Is that a proposition?" She inquired coyly, lowering her voice, hoping to tease him a little.
"Are you offering?" He countered, his face not moving a muscle, his demeanour cool as a cucumber.
"Fine." Gwen relented. Somehow, she simply felt that this cousin, who did not exist in her world, was truthworthy. It was a gut feeling, but one toward which she held a strong opinion. "But no telling your mates at Prince's, Lord knows I have to square off against your school's elite team."
"I can tell you their stats if you like," Richard offered. "If you can keep a secret yourself."
Gwen considered the offer, all's fair in love and war, right?
"I do have a second element. It's— Void."
Richard drew in a shuddering breath.
"Can… can I see?"
He instantly caught his transgression.
"No, no, never mind. The cost of using a Negative element. Sorry, no need to show me. I believe you."
Gwen hadn't wanted to show Richard either, but she felt smitten. Richard had always seemed a curious creature to her. Sometimes, he felt akin to an esoteric monk. Richard often remarked on her beauty, but more in the manner of a man appreciating the gentle curves of a Bonzai. He was a gifted Mage - but didn't seem to crave magical power for the sake of power itself. Likewise, the way he blustered through one faux pas after another, was more so an act to push everything and everyone away— including his parents.
"It's okay, I want to show you," Gwen returned earnestly. "It's just an unempowered summon. I'll be right as rain after a good night's sleep and a hearty breakfast."
She gathered her wits and invoked the Conjuration Sigil.
"Caliban," she called out.
The netherworld worm slithered through time and space and made itself known in the guest bedroom.
"Shaa! Shaa!" Caliban sidled up to Gwen and nuzzled her lovingly.
Richard gripped the handrails of the tub chair with such ferocity that his nails dug through the leather. Gwen's cousin sat and regulated his breathing for a few seconds until his heart rate fell within acceptable parameters for polite conversation.
"That is a Void Beast." His voice shook. "They shouldn't exist. The academy has never found a specimen, living or dead."
"You know about them?" Gwen was surprised.
"I know of them," Richard replied. "Can I… touch it?"
Gwen willed Caliban to face her cousin. The translucent body of the obsidian servant wiggled its way towards Richard.
"Shaa! Shaa!" It showed off its best side, opening up a crack in is carapace to make the gurgling hissing noise which issued from its lamprey's mouth.
To Gwen's surprise, Richard placed a hand upon Caliban without a second thought.
"You're beautiful," he said, his voice suddenly cracking with emotion. "I feel... amazed."
Richard picked up Caliban in the manner of a sausage dog. Gwen could hardly comprehend what she was seeing. No one had ever picked up Caliban. SHE hadn't picked up Caliban herself.
Caliban seemed to enjoy Richard's touch. It writhed in her cousin's hands, coiling around his arm.
"Shaa! Shaa!" It joyous cooed.
Caliban, being coy?! Gwen felt that everything she had known about her Familiar had turned upside down. Caliban was trying to rub up against Richard like a cat! It was covering his hands with that viscus goo which leaked from its mouth. Oh, Gods! Gwen realised with a shudder. It's licking his hand! A Lovecraftian kitten? Was that even possible?
"Let me show you something as well, as a sign of our trust," Richard said, putting down Caliban to slither back towards Gwen. "Lea, come out and meet my cousin."
At his command, a sudden outpouring of Elemental Water that filled the room, upping the humidity ten-fold.
A female figure rose from behind Richard. Gwen saw a transparent face that was beautifully sculpted, with deeply set eyes and a high ridge-line nose. The hair, assuming she had hair, was a cascade of tiny waterfalls that fell from her scalp in eddies and swirls. Her upper body was lithe and likewise crystal clear, with well-formed breasts underneath a silk dress of aquamarine. With unblinking eyes without eyelids, the "girl" gazed at Gwen through two ultramarine opals.
"You… you have a Spirit?" Gwen's eyes concurrently glowed with excitement. She had only ever seen Henry's familiar, Sufina. Richard was the only other example of a humanoid Spirit she had seen to date.
"Picked up her on my Field Trip. Lea is an Undine. A high-tier Spirit."
It was now Gwen's turn to suck in her breath. An Undine! A water Spirit, a river ghost, a legendary creature that seduced and drowned unwary travellers. They were said to be intelligent to the point of being human. Like Sufina, Lea could take independent action, think for itself, and perform complex tasks.
"How can there be an Undine in Australia?!" Gwen asked naively.
"Prince's takes yearly Field Trips around the world," Richard explained patiently. "I found Lea in Scotland during our highland survivalist training."
The Undine then seemed to notice something about Gwen. It drifted across the bed. She touched's Gwen's cheeks. Her hands were cold but felt refreshing upon her skin.
"I like her, Richard!" Lea suddenly spoke, her annunciation achieved by the vibration of liquid particles. "She's got a wonderful aura!"
IT TALKS? Gwen swallowed. Not even Alesia's Caracal could talk.
Lea left Richard entirely and splashed into Gwen, drenching her upper body as it swirled and flowed excitedly, pasting Gwen's hair to her face in paintbrush streaks.
"What is this scent?" Lea kept asking. "It's so nice. I feel like I am somewhere else, somewhere older."
Richard had no idea what was happening either. He looked at Gwen expectantly. Gwen however, had noted more pressing matters. She wasn't wearing a bra, and now she was offering Richard a free show.
"Lea!" Richard commanded awkwardly. "Don't be so rude to our guest, pick up after yourself."
The water on her clothes and the mattress collated at once into a ball.
Lea winked, then returned to her pocket dimension. Unfortunately, clammy clothes didn't help either. Gwen made it known that she desired to change into a fresh set of sleeping clothes.
"Sorry." Richard's face was as stoic as ever. "And that's all. Good night!"
"Good night." Gwen tugged on Richard's sleeves. "And Richard?"
"Thanks for looking out for me."
The grin Richard returned was full of teeth. "No, Miss Song. I hope you'll be the one looking after me."