"Alesia, we don't have a participation slot, we're qualifying for one," Gwen explained carefully. "The big man even told us so, you are our instructor, and we can't apply without your written consent and appeal."
"I thought Gunther was taking care of that?" Alesia asked innocently. "He usually does."
"Alright, wait up, I'll call Gunther."
Gwen closed her Message Spell and inputted the glyph for Gunther, citing an emergency.
"Gwen, you shouldn't be calling me inside work hours."
"Alesia forgot to apply for the special provision entry."
"Impossible, I made sure she did, I had her sign the form. All she had to do was send it out to the committee."
"She said we just had to show up."
There was the silence on the other side of the Message spell, followed by a deep sigh like someone was pondering the meaning of life and had found it wanting.
"I'll call Alesia, hold on."
Gwen waited, twiddling her thumbs and dangling her long legs back and forth to offset her anxiety.
"Gwen, are you there?"
"Gunther! So what's the deal?"
"Alesia, you tell 'em."
Alesia cut into the conversation.
"Sorry Gwen," her sister-in-craft sounded like a puppy who's just been told off for shitting on the lawn. "I'll make it up to you guys! I'll fix it! I know a way for you guys to get an invitation."
"It's alright, Alesia." Gwen tried to sound untroubled, but she was just as annoyed as Gunther. Alesia's a grown woman for God's sake. She's almost thirty! If Alesia weren't an engine of destruction, she would probably be taken advantage of, a lot.
"So, there's an old rule we can exploit," Alesia continued with a more hopeful tone. "I am pretty sure that's how I got in last time. What you need to do is challenge a school that had a team in the top 8 last year, and if you can defeat them in the 1v1, 3v3 and 5v5— best out of three, you can take their seeded position in the tournament."
"Gunther?" Gwen asked. It seemed a rather dubious scenario.
"It's an old custom, and Alesia was the only one who had exploited it in the last two decades. It was implemented as a boast by the Greater Public Schools. They wanted to show the commoners that they were superior to any government-funded school."
"What's the likelihood that someone would accept this challenge? Can they decline?" Gwen inquired.
"They can, and therein lies in the problem," Gunther replied. "You have to make them an offer they can't refuse."
"Crystals? Spells? Favours?" Gwen asked, thinking of the scale on the back of her neck. "Rare Magical items?"
"Perhaps, but unlikely. These schools have deep pockets. I am talking something more concrete."
"Like?" Gwen asked quizzically, premonition tinging her spine. She was getting very good at detecting trouble when it came to herself.
"Like a sixteen-year-old girl who can tap into three schools of magic," Alesia interjected. "We need to offer you up, Gwen. If we lose, you join that school and become their show pony."
"I'll have to leave Blackwattle?" Gwen apprehensively measured the scenario. "No way."
"At worst." Gunther's voice was emotionless and rational. "At worst you might be compelled to be apprenticed to a Magus of the School. Of course, our Master won't let that happen, but it'll be a messy settlement. After all, who would willingly let you go?"
"She just has to win, easy peasy," Alesia said with a nonchalance that rivalled an invitation to coffee.
"Just?" Gwen's tone was such that even half a city away, Gunther could imagine her rolling her eyes.
"Pick a school Gwen can crush, Gunther."
"Hmm…" Gunther hummed. "Well, our Master's Rival, Magister Ferris, is the sponsor for Rosebay. If you're going to make an enemy out of a whole school of well-connected Mages, you may as well dig deeper into a hole that we'd dug already."
"Wouldn't that piss off this Magister Ferris?" Gwen sounded suspicious and sceptical.
"Oh yes, gloriously." Alesia could be heard clapping. "That woman's a real prickly pear."
"Gunther, translation please," Gwen implored her brother-in-craft.
"Ferris is from the grey faction, the ones who believe that we should be mingling with the Magical Races, trading with them, learning from them. She's one of the Ten who supports 'organ' trading for Magical components, like cores, spirits, 'unicorn horn,' you know the type."
"Since Alesia disgraced Magister Walken in the past, our Factions have always shared an antagonistic relationship."
"Yes. The Greys believe, wrongly of course, that the future lies in the Wildlands, that we should abandon the whole idea of human enclaves and join the sapient humanoids who live in the Zones."
"Wow." Gwen puzzled her head. Was co-existence so bad?
"Almost a crazy idea, I mean, sure, most of the Mages survive. Then what? We leave billions of NoMs, each potentially the progenitor of one more magical bloodline, to die? To be eaten by the monsters? Hell, where would you be, Gwen? You'd be dead or sold off before you even awakened."
Gwen recalled that her Master had indeed spoken sometimes in the past of his frustration with the so-called Grey Faction, whose operations included the Grey Markets. After her incident, Gwen recalled hearing from Gunther that Blackheath was likely a supply point for the Greys.
"Right, so we go to Rosebay, and?"
"Alesia will set it up," Gunther replied confidently. "If she's good for one thing, it's stirring up a hornet's nest."
"Hey!" Alesia uttered sulkily.
"Don't screw this up, Allie," Gunther warned her. "If you do, Master would have to use the Tower's influence to sponsor Gwen's team directly. That would be a significant detour to our intended goal."
"Alright, alright. Sheesh." Alesia closed her Message spell.
"Keep an eye on her, Gwen. I trust you more than Alesia." Gunther likewise terminated his Message spell.
Gwen bit her lips. Offer her up as a prize for a bet? She supposed it wasn't any worse than their original scenario. After all, she couldn't afford to lose a single battle.
While waiting on Alesia's negotiation abilities, Gwen mediated for the rest of the afternoon.
The more she knew about this world, the more she resented its dystopian roots. As a sterling example, her courses entirely omitted information about tier 1 cities. Instead, "capitals" were noted offhandedly as unattainable paradises. Additionally, Richard had mentioned something called Contribution Credits, a merit system that operated as magical currency in the Tier 1 cities, but her textbooks appeared wholly uninterested in such a thing. It was in consulting with her Master that she knew a whole system of merit existed with the Commonwealth's Towers.
Alesia's call came through two hours later.
"I'll pick you up in the Firebird. We're going to Rosebay to see the Headmistress, dress up."
Alesia abruptly hung up, as rash and fiery as ever. Was it the influence of her fire affinity? Gwen wondered. The bestiary had stated that the flame Djinn was indeed proud, arrogant, easily driven by impulse.
Gwen didn't like the detour, but she did prefer the issue resolved between themselves than ask her Master to throw his influence around.
Gwen dug through her outfits for something that would go well with her Mary-Janes. She dug through her mother's stockpile. She felt a little guilty for still using them, but waste not, want not— if anything she couldn't afford to splurge on luxury goods right now.
To her surprise, she did find something that was serendipitously appropriate. Soon, she re-emerged in a pleated-cady minidress, a long-sleeved white blouse, and a ribbon to tie together the formality.
Gwen examined herself in the wardrobe mirror. White blouse, black mini, dark, polished shoes, she looked the very picture of a blue-blooded young lady.
Gwen ventured below, delighting fellow students with a vision of class and grace. They came to greet her, some bravely asking her questions about the Lightning element while others gawked.
A sudden thrum in the air signalled the arrival of Alesia's Firebird, so red it hurt one's eyes. Vaucluse was twenty-minutes away.
"We're going to have a meet and greet with Mildred Stone, the Headmistress of Rosebay." Alesia stepped on the gas and weaved through the traffic. "I am sorry about this, Gwen, I was careless."
"I am sure it'll work out in the end," Gwen comforted her friend and sister-in-craft. "Just as you said, I just have to win, right? That was the plan from the very beginning anyway."
"True that." Alesia blasted past a truck. The lorry driver honked.
Past the bridge, the girls turned into the coastal road and watched the scintillating blue sea beyond the headland. It stretched magnificently, kissing a shimmering glow on the horizon that was the Shield Barriers.
"Beautiful, hey?" Alesia asked. "Murderous mermen aside, of course."
"Yeah," Gwen replied, her eyes buffeted by the wind. The breeze, the salty scent, the brine— she was reminded of her old life, of lazy Sundays by the sea.
"Rosebay isn't the best in terms of the qualities of its Spellcraft, but it has a long and established history of being an incubator for elites. Magister Irene Ferris herself was a graduate of the school and once served as its Dean. She still sits on the school's board, despite occupying one of the ten seats on the Tower Council."
"When we see the Mistress, you'll need to demonstrate Conjuration, Evocation and Transmutation. We're keeping Void under wraps. Let's not get them too excited."
Gwen nodded. She knew.
The ocean view persisted until they reached Rosebay.
Rosebay Private Girl's Catholic School perched atop a cliffside moulded by Transmuters into a three-tier escarpment overlooking a two-seventy degree view of the ocean. The primary structure of the school itself was a cathedral with twin spires that rose into the dying sky like lances. On top, twin pinions fluttered through the wind, decorated with a scarlet rose on an ultramarine backdrop.
Alesia's Firebird coupe turned into the entrance and slowed. The powerful engine-cores thrummed as they drifted towards the interior.
"Your business?" A greying security guard inquired respectfully.
"De Botton, here for Headmistress Stone."
"Of course, one second." The guard fired off a Message spell. They watched him receiving his orders, nodding and bowing toward thin air.
"I'll let you through now. There'll be someone waiting for you at the church."
Alesia swung the car toward the cathedral. It was even more impressive close-up, towering above the duo with its soaring gothic visage, its architraves shaped with arcane patterns of warding.
A nun awaited them at the side entrance, a skinny, older woman with a face like a skull, covered from head to toe in a penguin habit. She looked at Alesia's flaming red dress distastefully, lingering on her cleavage with a twist of her lips. Toward Gwen, her attitude was kinder. Though Gwen's dress was short, it was couture and matt black.
"I am Sister Teresa. You may come with me. The Headmistress awaits you in her study." She immediately turned and began to move, expecting the two to follow without question.
The trio climbed the revolving stairs, with Gwen noting that the cathedral was rebuilt into four levels, split into a stratum of classrooms, prayer rooms, staff rooms, and offices.
From the fourth floor, they looked out through enchanted windows that appeared as stained motifs of the Christian Saints from the outside, but served as unobstructed windows from within, giving them a breath-taking ocean and the barrier beyond.
"In here." The Mother Superior knocked twice and opened the door for them.
Alesia entered without a word.
Within, they met the unfriendly eye of a thin, gaunt-faced woman with silver-grey iris.
"Magus de Botton, always a pleasure."
"Magus Stone, likewise a pleasure."
The two of them exchanged praises and pleasantries.
"So, this is the prize student that you speak of, the promised protege. Gwen Song, is it?" Stone motioned a hand toward Gwen casually. "Stand up, honey, let us take a look at you."
Gwen stood and walked before the heavy mahogany table.
Magus Stone put on a pair of spectacles. Gwen noted that they were faintly glowing with motes of Divination magic.
"Take a turn. Let's see what you're made of."
She felt like she was a prized Bullock put up for sale, now being inspected for quality and pedigree. She spun slowly, gracefully, keeping her hands by her sides to tuck in her hem.
"My, you are certainly a lovely young thing." Magus Stone tapped her fountain pen against some parchments on the table. "Please manifest if you are able."
Gwen began with Evocation, opening the Sigil and producing an orb of lightning.
"Tier 4 Lightning! Impressive," Stone commented.
Gwen then conjured a Warding Bolt orb, which hovered as a glowing orb that orbited around Gwen before eventually dissipating.
"There's Conjuration, beautiful." The woman's voice ran dry.
Gwen extended a hand and produced the whip of lightning. She cracked it against the air, sending out a shower of sparks.
"And Transmutationm" Stone uttered, her voice full of wonder and awe. "I must apologise, Alesia, when you'd told me, I'd assumed you were up to your old tricks."
"So, what's the catch?" Stone asked Alesia suddenly. "She's one in a million. I've never even heard of this level of talent. Why offer her to us for something as trivial as the Inter-High? It isn't the International University challenge, you know. It's just a regional competition for the kids."
"There is no catch. We want your seeded invitation to the Inter-high." Alesia shrugged innocently, her big blue eyes glinting with earnestness. "That's all. Alternatively, you can give it to us, and Gwen shall remember you kindly a few decades down the track."
"OR— Give me the girl, and I'll sign it over right now," Stone offered.
"No can do." Alesia smirked, "that would be beside the point, we've got a team and a school already anyway."
"What if I said no? We're not having a contest?"
"Nothing. There's absolutely nothing I can do. Except maybe ask Lilith's, or Lakeview, or any other girl's academies or co-ed schools with a seeded position. Hell, why not ask a selective school? There's three in the top 8 after all. One was even champion one year."
"That was your year, no?" Stone breathed out harshly from her nostrils, her voice full of disdain. "I'd hardly call that a fair contest. A battle veteran from the Coral Sea Campaign against school children? I still have no idea why you qualified."
"Heehee." Alesia chuckled.
Magus Stone measured Alesia, trying to read her face.
"Is Gwen connected to your employer? Magister Kilroy?"
"Gwen, you tell her." Alesia gave Gwen a nudge in the gut.
"Yes, the Magister has been kind to me," Gwen spoke the half-truth.
"Hmm." Stone paused. "Master Kilroy is alright if Master Ferris wanted to Apprentice Gwen?"
"No," Alesia spoke truly. "He would be beyond livid."
"Alright, we agree to your terms." Stone signed the agreement in front of her, then turned it over, and slid the page across the table.
Alesia signed, then finally Gwen also signed.
Their signatures glowed golden for a split second.
"That's submitted to the Tower now, no cooling off period." Stone cunningly smirked. "I hope you don't mind that I was a little hasty in affirming our contractual obligations."
"Not at all." Alesia stood from her chair; her grin split from ear to ear. "I heard that Rosebay has one of the best medical facilities in the area, is that true?"
"Indeed," Stone affirmed.
"Good." Alesia motioned for Gwen to follow. She stopped at the door, her own blue eyes coldly meeting Stone's steel-grey orbs. "I'd make sure your best Clerics are on hand in two days. Gwen?"