“So that’s how it is.” Gwen finished explaining the situation to her gathered compatriots at the cafeteria while Alesia stood sheepishly beside her, nursing a cup of hot Milo.
“So,” Yue rapped her fingers on the table. “You telling me that we get to skip all the boring stuff? That sounds alright to me.”
“I am afraid it’s sink or swim, all the way," Gwen reminded everyone, just in case they had yet to understand the scope of their new deal.
“I don’t see a problem with that,” Yue grinned confidently. “Boom, straight to the Top 8! You're here to make a big splash, right? What could be bigger than that?”
“Reckless, but I agree.” Debora nodded beside Yue. “I want to show off my abilities, a real showcase, and that can only be achieved by challenging the best.”
“It’s all choice to me, bro.” Whetu made his opinions known. “Nuffin's getting by my punamu in a hurry.”
“I’ll do my best!” Elvia uttered cutely, joining the circle of affirmation.
“Alright!” Gwen extended her hand and place it on the table. "We're cool then?"
"Let's do it!"
Gwen took a deep breath, she'd been waiting for this moment.
“All for one!”
The group cheered.
Gwen felt profoundly sad that this world had no Alexander Dumas. So many missed opportunities! She’d really have to tell the story to the girls someday, convert the Musketeers into the Three Magus, or something.
“So, when do we bring the pain?” Yue inquired.
“Thursday noon, the Rosebay Private Girl’s Academy,” Gwen affirmed. “Public exhibition match for the seeded position in the top 8. There’s going to be a sizeable audience, I am lead to believe.”
“At the very least, Magister Kilroy and Ferris will be there,” Alesia butted in. “Two of the highest powers in the land. There's no better audience than this! There will be a number of high ranking Magus attending too, but they're mostly the Magister's entourage.”
“Oh,” Elvia's small face turned paler than her bedsheets. “So many powerful and famous people. Master Kilroy is the leader of the Tower! Master Ferris is very famous as well for her Divination and Illusion!”
Debora’s eyes glowed with anticipation.
“So, how are we doing the matches?” Yue asked. “I know we’re doing a 5v5, but who's doing the 1v1 and the 3v3?”
“Gwen will be fronting the 1v1,” Alesia stated. “That was a part of the agreement.”
“Wouldn’t they just buff their Mages with Lightning Resistance?” Debora noted. “That’s what I would do.”
“Not with Master Kilroy there. No pre-match buffs. No way to gain an unfair advantage.”
“What if she had to fight an Abjurer who's specialised in Earth? That's a terrible matchup for Gwen. What if they're an illusionist and Gwen makes a mistake or misfires a spell?”
Alesia shot Debora an exhaustive look.
“That's for Gwen to overcome. Out there in the real world, you don't get favourable match-ups. Your enemies will try to counter you at every turn. How we play the hand we're dealt with is the mainstay of what differentiates a skilled mage from a bad one. Not to mention that out of all the people here, Gwen has the least problem with flexibility.” Alesia intoned from personal inexperience, her voice unusually solemn and stern. "If Gwen couldn’t even overcome that, she’d have no place fighting for top dog at the apex of the Inter-high pyramid."
“Ma'am," Debora acquiesced.
"How about the 3v3?” she pivoted the topic and proposed instead.
Alesia grinned ominously.
“We only need to win best of three, so I was thinking of having ya-self, Yue and Whetu standing in for the three-man. After all, I dare say that chance of Gwen having to blow her 'ability' is pretty high if Rosebay takes this seriously.”
The Debora and Yue regarded one another with surprise.
“I am game.” Debora declared instantly. “So long as she’s capable of controlling her friendly fire.”
“I am game too,” Yue replied. “So long as she’s capable of not walking into my Fireballs.”
“Ah~ Youth.” Alesia shook her head wisely, giving, the impression of an all-knowing zen master. “You girls will be spending tomorrow with me on the Training Field. You better not embarrass Gwen out there, she’s counting on you!”
“Yes, Master!” Yue saluted.
“Ma’am!” Debora inclined her head affirmatively.
"If there's nothing else, go and get some rest." Alesia brushed her hair back luxuriously. "Dismissed! We'll gather here first thing Thursday morning. I'll have transportation sorted out by then."
The rest of the crew affirmed the order and went their separate ways. Gwen and the girls returned to their dorm room.
"How do you feel about all this, Gwen?" Yue inquired, landing on her bed with an expression of gaiety.
"What must come, will come, the readiness is all," Gwen replied confidently, it was a saying she was truly taking to heart these days. Her confidence wasn't unfounded either, for she had theory-crafted many scenarios and outcomes with Alesia, the vast majority of which demonstrated that victory for Gwen was assured.
"So, what happens now?" Elvia asked carefully. “Does this mean we win and then we’re in the competition?”
“Yep, pretty much. First stop, Rosebay, next stop, Stadium Australis.”
“Eeep! I thought as much!” Elvia hugged her pillow and rolled around her bed, messing up her sheets. “All those eyes watching! I’ve never shown my spells in front of so many people, you guys! What if I miss a healing spell? What if I embarrass everyone?”
“Oh, Evee,” Yue hastened over to the adjacent bed and pushed Elvia toward her bosoms. “If anything, it's that exhibitionist Debby who’s going to embarrass us.”
“Has Debs got her element imbued clothing yet?” Gwen asked. Debora's used Blink a dozen times in training but had always ended up in a gross state of undress. Alesia had said that it took exceptional expertise to Blink without damaging one's attire, and Debora was still working on her tier 3 foundations.
“Master said she’ll source it by Thursday,” Yue replied confidently. “We have our own uniforms too. They’re supposed to be resistant to spell-force, dirt, heat and cold.”
“Nice,” Gwen wondered what they’d look like, imagining the green and gold uniforms that classic Australian Olympians used for international competitions. Something in that style would be wonderful.
“Well, good night,” Yue said. She wiggled under her summer blankets, closed her eyes, and was instantly asleep.
“That amazes me every time,” Gwen noted in a suppressed voice.
Gwen tried to sleep for over an hour, but the scenarios of the competition kept playing over and over again in her head.
“Gwen,” Elvia whispered softly in the darkness.
“I can’t sleep at all,” Elvia paused nervously. “Do you think…”
Gwen opened her blankets.
“Come on over, plenty of room for a cute little Evee.”
She felt Elvia’s soft, boneless body slid under her thin sheets. The petite blonde girl was wearing pyjamas, but Gwen just had on a singlet and her cotton shorts. With Elvia's entry, her sheets were instantly filled with that scent of life which suffused the healer at all times.
“You smell so nice.” Gwen breathed in deeply.
Elvia giggled, but her mirthful immaturity quickly metamorphosed into a voice that was trembling with uncertainty.
“I didn’t want to say in front of the others, Gwen, but I am awfully nervous.” Elvia crawled a little closer and whispered into Gwen’s ticklish ear. “I am so scared right now. What if I can’t heal you guys? What if someone stops me? What if I am too slow and one of you gets seriously injured?”
“You’ll do fine, Evee, you always have. When have you ever failed us?” Gwen hugged the little girl closer, feeling her soft breath against her neck. She felt so nice, like holding a little kitten in-between one’s arms. Her oxytocins must be going crazy at the moment.
“Please don’t let this be the time I screw up.” Elvia prayed to the empty room.
“It won’t, Evee. I promise you.” Gwen affirmed. She lowered her lips and kissed Elvia on the forehead.
“Can I stay?” Elvia begged, it was still the summer and the room had no cooling unit, but Elvia’s hands and feet were ice cold.
“Of course, Evee, I’ll warm you up.” Gwen cuddled her.
Elvia sheltered in the warmth that permeated from Gwen, whilst Gwen herself was half-drunk on Elvia's intoxicating scent of life. The two of them laid side by side and were soon fast counting kookaburras on the old gum tree.
Gwen wasn’t sure what to make of Wednesday.
At Alesia’s behest, the group didn’t have class, but Yue and Debora were both absent due to their 3v3 training with Whetu.
Elvia likewise, had gone to see her uncle, wondering if Hans, who had served as a combat medic, had anymore last minute wisdom to part.
Gwen didn’t want to spend the day alone. Having spent three-months constantly surrounded by people had established a feeling of collectivism which made her momentary isolation more pronounced than it really was.
So after some deliberation, Gwen called Richard.
“Oh hey!” his voice answered from the other side of her Message device. “Am I free? Not yet, but I can be. One sec.”
“Richard! No! This was wholly unplanned, I don’t want to bother you if you are busy!”
From a distance, Gwen could hear Richard announce with certainty that was he leaving.
“Okay, I am free. Where do you want to meet?”
"Richard! Really! I don't want to inconvenience you."
“I am not inconvenienced at all. My schedule is clear for the rest of the day.”
“City or something quieter? I know a new place that was just built, lovely Wildland ingredients. Want to try?”
“Sure, I want to ask you some stuff about Rosebay, if you have any idea.”
“Of course, I’ll tell you what I can.”
The address which Richard had given was too far from the station and so Gwen had to take a Taxi. She kept her casual attire of jeans and a white-tee, keeping a minimum profile as she ventured into Alexandria.
When she’d arrived, she was surprised to find that an industrial area had been converted into some sort of a farm-house cafe. It was as though someone had taken an old warehouse and gentrified it with aged oak and industrial-chic. Business was booming when Gwen stepped in, but she quickly found Richard in the crowd.
They exchanged cheeks, drawing eyes from the passerby.
“Let’s head in.”
Gwen was surprised that Richard had already booked a seat.
“It’s so busy, Richard, how did you get a table so quickly?”
“My brother-in-craft’s family at Prince’s owns the place.” Richard laughed, tapping his storage ring. “I got a VIP insignia. They reserve a few tables for friends and family of the place at all times.”
The waitress as cute and her skirt was short. She cast a few doe-eyed glances at Richard before taking their order.
Coffee was first to arrive. Richard had his cold-dripped, a classy choice. Gwen stuck to her pedestrian iced coffee drenched with condensed milk.
Gwen told Richard what she’d already see at Rosebay, as well as Alesia’s dossier on who she thinks might bet Gwen’s challenger.
Richard shook his head.
“Not that Alesia is wrong, but Rosebay is hardly going to face you with students that you already know. Most schools have a few students that they reserve for events just like your one. These kids are typically ones who go on to become core members of the school's alumni, typically, they're talented scholarship students without big backings from their own clan, so their loyalty is foremost to the school itself."
“How do you know this, Richard?” Gwen asked out of interest. It was highly unusual that Alesia hadn’t mentioned any of this, she had been meticulous with the details of the top students in Rosebay.
“Because I am one of them.” Richard smiled and sipped his coffee carefully, letting the robust flavour roll over his tongue. “Even though I am ranked no.1 in the school of Conjuration, I have never participated in public matches for Prince’s. My position as a Prefect also comes with the role of Praetorian, someone who sets the record straight if an overwhelming force comes to challenge the school. I am not surprised Alesia is unaware of this, as she’s neither involved in Spellcraft competitions nor the private school scene.”
“Isn't this a big secret then?” Gwen asked, a little surprised. “And you just told me, just like that?”
“Just like that,” Richard tapped the table with his nails. “What’s a few secrets amongst chums like us.”
“I am very grateful then,” Gwen said seriously.
“Call it a favour then.”
“What do you recommend I do? I’d have no idea what to expect then?”
“Well, there’s a method which you could try, if you’re willing to put some faith in me.”
“Shot,” Gwen affirmed. “I’ll tell you what I can.”
“I need your spell list.”
“…” Gwen wasn’t sure about that. To give away her spell list would mean that Richard knew exactly what she could be capable of. What if he leaked it to Prince's?
“Trust me.” Richard reached out and took Gwen’s hand. “I’ll never betray you. Not in this lifetime.”
It was at this moment that the waitress arrived with their food: Wildland pheasant in cranberry reduction, and South Atlantic bluefin tartare in lime-pine ponzu. The waitress eyed their hand-holding wordlessly and carefully laid down their plates before retreating with a defeated expression.
Gwen felt defeated. Perhaps it was the look in his eye. Perhaps it was their shared experiences so far, but Gwen wanted to believe in Richard.
“Okay, I trust you.”
“Wait up, let me set up a private Message.”
Gwen meticulously told Richard of her spell list, but only her Conjuration, Evocation and Transmutation.
Richard’s hand shook a little when sipping his coffee.
“Gwen, how are you learning tier 4 spells so quickly?”
“Not my secret to give. Sorry, Richard.”
“Of course. Forget I asked.”
Richard analysed Gwen’s spell list.
“Wow, to think you have access to that already. I think... I would recommend this…”
After another night of cuddling a nervous Elvia, the girls were awakened by Alesia banging a pot-lid of some kind. Where did she even get a pot-lid? The woman doesn’t cook!
They stared bleary-eyed at the dark-haired beauty, who then materialised individual bundles of clothes atop their beds.
“Ta-da! I had the order rush-made. Cost me half a bag of crystals! Damage resistant, self-mending battle dresses! I’ve given Debora and Whetu theirs, and these are your own. All in Blackwattle colours.”
“Aww yeah!” Yue leapt from her bed and tore through her package.
The paper wrapping pulled apart easily to reveal a smart looking short sleeve blouse in white, with the right breast pocket blazoned with Blackwattle’s Heraldry. The skirt was pleated and chequered, with a silver-grey tartan crisscrossed in black and white. There was a blazer as well, but only the blouse and the skirt were enchanted to cut costs. They were still a government school after all. Even with Alesia’s string pulling, the school couldn’t afford to give five students a full regalia of gear. Gwen had asked her grandfather if he was willing to contribute, but Surya had told her that competitive items were limited to specific types, such as those that preserved life. Her elemental-absorption scale, for example, could only be triggered when she received damage, but most matched ended with the breaking of a Mage’s mana shield, signifying that a Mage was OOM or no longer capable of self-defence. His other reason was far simpler. Magic items weren’t cabbages! You can’t just ask for five sets in three months from an artisan! It would take a major fabrication division months to weave the self-mending fabric necessary to craft a damage resistant suit. Each strand had to be transmuted individually and then woven together. Surya wasn't a tailor, he was a trinket maker.
The girls suited up. They looked smart and preppy in their pleated skirts. They had their existing school-shoes, which were polished pairs of oxfords. Gwen opted for her 'glamoured' Mary-Janes, whose black leather befitted the outfit and had the added benefit of matching the damage and dust resistance of her new uniform. A simple tie finished the accessory department, creating a cute bow from their finger-width, silver-trimmed ties.
“Hey!” Yue uttered with surprise, stretching her chest out and bending her elbows. “The shirt! It shapes itself!”
“That it does,” Alesia gave her pupil a thumbs up. In certain departments, Yue was peerless.
“Not a fan of these?” Gwen questioned Alesia, seeking a confirmation to a question she’d had for some time. “Your Djinn form shreds everything you wear.”
“I could, but then I’d have to wear the same outfit all the time.” Alesia nodded her head sagely. “Where would be the fun in that?”
The rest of the team met in the elevator lobby. It was interesting how their uniforms had subtle differences. Elvia's blouse had long sleeves for better protection. Debora's shirt was sleeveless, her skirt was shorter, allowing her to perform more acrobatic movements as well as accentuating the toned curvature of her athletic legs. Whetu's shirt was like a second skin against the hilly terrain of his pectorals. His personal uniform had a tie which he wore loose, it's black material matching his long pants, which had been converted into a straight-cut pair of regular-fits. They noted that Whetu wore instead heavy, steel-toed leather boots with an impressive array of metallic studs.
When the members had finished inspecting one another's new uniforms, they were greeted with the unexpected sight of the academy's staff waiting for them in the atrium.
Principal Bartlett was waiting for them, along with their tutors and instructors. The morning students all gathered to gawk at the spectacle as the team of five emerged into the atrium in their new attire.
“Gwen! Elvia, Yue, Debora, and Mr. Taranga. I bid you fair tidings for the journey ahead. It brings me much joy to know that despite what little contribution the school could provide, you are now going out there to challenge the world in our name."
Gwen bowed low and the others followed.
A murmur broke out amongst the student. The fact that Blackwattle would be challenging a top 8 academy had yet to be spread amongst the students. Gwen and company had kept it amongst themselves.
“That is not true, Sir. We owe so much of what we have today to you, Sir and Madams, whatever the outcome of this competition, we shall not forget all that you have done for us.” Gwen replied formally without a second thought, bringing broad smiles to the instructor’s faces.
Before the other students, teacher and student clasped hands with firm shakes.
Mr Rawson even made a rare appearance with a Lumen recorder, taking an account of this sacred moment when Blackwattle, a government high school without a rank, is going to challenge one of the top 8 schools in the state. How would history remember this moment? If the girls succeed, would they become a Selective School? What of the students here? Would they receive the necessary training and funding to become the elites of the Mageocracy?
“Alesia, take care of them!” Bartlett intoned emotionally to Alesia. He still recalled the first time that he’d called upon Alesia to help Gwen. The girl had been taken hostage by her family, ready to be showcased and sold off to join some private school. Bartlett was at his wits’ end and had called in all the favours he could, including an old associate of the war, Henry Kilroy. Unexpectedly, Kilroy had responded, and after series of escalating events, Gwen had become something that exceeded his wildest expectations. What would people say in the future when Gwen had her own Tower? Would they say, ‘Ah, she came from Blackwattle, the Selective School who was headed by the late Principal, Edward Bartlett?’ How would history remember him if Gwen were to become a Mage that opened up more living space for mankind? Would they muse, ’Oh, did you know that it was Bartlett who first recognised her talent and gave the legendary Magister her first taste of privilege and power?’
“Oh, they’ll return safe and sound! Else there wouldn’t be a single brick left standing in Rosebay!” Alesia laughed and the instructors followed awkwardly. They weren’t sure if the Magus was kidding or she was serious. With Alesia, anything she said could be taken either way.
"You guys ready to head out?" A familiar voice called out.
"Paul!" Gwen waved excitedly. It was Alesia's Conjuration specialist who had appeared at the door.
"Hey Gwen, looking mighty fine there! You eighteen yet?"
"Soon, Paul," Gwen smirked winsomely.
"Not old enough to be dating, but old enough to killing," Paul lamented a cardinal truth of their cruel world. "Well, if you ladies are just about finished, I got the Rosebay Tele-Circle fired up and waiting."
Motes of Conjuration mana drifted through the air, falling like dandruff onto the student’s new uniforms.
“God! What is with this archaic incantation! That efficiency! My God, when did they build this thing?”
“Looks like something they did when the school was constructed, feels like the 70s,” Paul the Conjurer answered. “We get this a lot in the older institutions.”
The rest of the teleported crowd gawked at the soaring Cathedral before them.
The open sky!
Yet more impressive was the scene before them.
Their gaze fell from the impressive building toward an ocean of blue pleated skirts and dark penguin habits that faced them.
“Welcome to Rosebay!” Mistress Stone greeted them with open arms.
“WELCOME TO ROSEBAY!” The crowd of girls behind them announced at once.
There was a muffled explosion in the sky and Yue ducked out of instinct, causing a few laughs to break out amongst the crowd of younger girls. Debora shot Yue a look of consternation and mockery, which was returned by a 'hmmph!'
Above Gwen and the others, a cascade of rose petals began to fall, conjured by an incredibly useless but highly aesthetic signature spell.
“Cor Unum!” Stone commanded in archaic latin.
“HEARTS AND MINDS!” The girls answered, their sweet voices filling the courtyard.
Just as the Blackwattle crew had thought the show of force was over, the younger girls began to sing, their angelic voices divining joining the falling of the petals. They were soon joined by the older girls in the chorus.
For our Lord God Almighty reigns
For our Load God Almighty reigns
Are You Lord God Almighty!
Worthy is the Lamb,
Worthy is the Lamb!"
Gwen and the crew felt frozen to the spot. What kind of reception was this! It was the grandest, most impressive thing they had ever experienced in their lives! How do they even begin to respond to this?
Then Gwen became distracted by the layout of the training field behind the girls. She saw silhouetted upon the VIP platform, two austere, seated figures. One sported the familiar tweed jacket and vest, attended to by the slim figure of a woman with bark-like skin and autumn leafs for a head of air. Beside him, was a middle-aged woman with two streaks of white hair running through her crowned hair, piled atop her head into a kind of high-piled braid. She had a severe look about her that radiated power and competence - this would unmistakably be Magister Ferris, one of the ten and the patron of Rosebay.
The choir fell away, and Magus Stone opened a path for them.
“I am looking forward to working with you, Gwen Song. Magister Ferris is very interested in you herself. When you rise in the world, please remember my humble service.” She spoke as Gwen passed, walking in front of them.
Gwen thanked the mistress but said nothing more. Exposing the bet would only make her companions unnaturally nervous. The stakes were plenty high already. Besides, she wasn't sure if Debora or someone might see her 'deal' as some kind of betrayal. Afterall, anyone would probably be incredibly pleased if they were scholarshiped in a school like Rosebay - full of a promising future, potentially averting the disastrous Military Service.
The Blackwattle crew felt like a trope of exotic beasts, watched with fascination by four hundred girls all dressed in blue habits tipped with emblazoned red roses.
“Oh my goodness, look at that girl’s skirt! It so short I could see her knickers!”
“The leading one is so pretty! Master Stone seems to have taken a liking to her.”
“Oh my, look at that one, she’s so solid! Those muscles! Is she a wrestler?”
“Who knows, I heard that regular students have to do manual labour to pay for tuition!"
“Eek, how dreadful!”
“Hold up! Look at the short Asian one.”
“Who cares, she’s just some migrant, I want to know about the tall one.”
“No! Look closely!”
“Holy hell, her… bust! Is it real?”
“It’s padded! Padded I tell you!”
“Woa! What’s that thing?”
“The big guy? Maybe he’s a manservant.”
“He’s so big.”
“I think he’s kind of dreamy.”
"No way! What is on his face? A tattoo?"
“Look at his feet! It’s bigger than both my feet.”
“You know what they say about men with big feet, fufufu.”
“What do they say?”
“Shush! Mother Superior is coming.”
“… that they need really big shoes!”
They were escorted into the courtyard and placed before the audience.
The duelling platform itself was a generous field about a hundred by fifth metres, halved in the middle by a dividing line. The exterior of the platform was lined with enchanted blocks of magic dampeners and portable shields which prevented the battle from spilling onto the observing audience. Gwen noted that the ground itself has been additionally inscribed with Conjuration and Transmutation glyphs, indication that it could be repaired or transformed at the whim of the administrator into different landscapes.
On the oppositional side, a team of girls shuffled in. They were all so indistinct, virtually all wearing identical blue habits with the red rose chest pin. Gwen could only tell them apart by their height as well as the mana that radiated from them.
“Detect Magic.” She muttered under her breath.
There were motes of Divination magic on the other side as well. The teams were getting an edge by checking one another out.
Gwen measured the mana emerging from the other side.
A positive energy healer.
Another Evoker, Earth again.
Then there was a girl clearly different from the rest, whose elements were a strange mix of fire and earth, and whose school appeared indistinct. This must be a member of the reserves, the so-called Praetorian of the school's fortunes.
Gwen knew what that meant - much like herself, whose sigils gave off a chaotic confusion of mana, the girl was likely a Magus-in-training, capable of tapping into at least two schools. At any rate, the other team had both regular members and reserve members. Gwen's team had only five. They could not afford to lose a single member, nor expose too much of their abilities before the 5v5. Richard's advice resounded in Gwen's mind. She had a decision to make.
The teams gathered before Kilroy and Ferris, who nodded affirmatively as they all made the supplicating gesture of deeply bowing before the superior Mage.
After all that hubbub at the teleportation gate, the rest of the contest seemed rather spartan on ceremony. Inspections were carried out by Alesia and Stone on oppositional team members, satisfying the requirement that the students did not carry contraband items. Their Storage Rings were confiscated for the time being as well, in addition to any portable devices, as well as healing, buffing, or mana potions. Stone had paused when she saw Gwen’s scale but said nothing as Ferris herself chose to remain silent.
When all was stated and done, the two Magus, Stone and Alesia, presented themselves below the Magisters and announced that they were ready to proceed.
Some form of a lottery must have taken place, for the field transformed in the next instant into small crested hills and wild grasses that looked fully capable of tangling an unwary traveller.
Magus Stone turned from the platform towards the two teams.
“Gwen Song, Blackwattle Bay! Versus Julia Fiore Muller! Rosebay!”
Gwen stepped into the field and watched her opponent do the same. It was the tall girl with a para-element and two schools.
Julia removed her habit-like outer uniform to reveal a form-fitting bodysuit in blue and red, skin-tight against her athletic form. She looked well muscled, giving the impression of a Debora who spent far too much time in the Gym. Her hair was cropped short, leading Gwen to suspect that she likely had a full-body effect.
Gwen breathed in and out, calming her quickening heart. She had one shot at this. She had faith in Richard. She had faith in herself.
Above, the command to initiate was given.
“May the best Mage win the day!”