Gwen explained her anxious hypothesis to Petra and her Master, nursing a cup of hot tea to ease her troubled mind.
“Spilt Milk,” Petra responded mercilessly. “Your amulet is gone, and that’s that. Stop thinking about it.”
“I know, I know,” Gwen answered miserably. “I would have given it up anyway, I suppose. It caught me by surprise, that’s all. The whole interaction with the Vitae-Mana was passive. It's my fault that I never noticed.”
"Any chance I could convince Klavdiya to bring it in for some tests?" Magister Wen asked hopefully, her voice full of academic curiosity.
"I don't think Grandfather will consent to that," Gwen remarked wryly.
“The good news, I suppose,” Magister Wen asserted. “Is that you found out now and not while you’re in a Dungeon or carrying out a quest. Now that would have been a disaster. At any rate, you shouldn't rely too much on items.”
“So, can you still cast Void spells safely?” Petra continued, asking the important questions. “You’re gonna need it for what you’ve planned for the next eighteen months.”
“I can, but my recuperation between heavy bouts is going to be extended,” Gwen hypothesised. “From my experience, there's a threshold as to how much Void matter I can channel before it begins to take a toll.”
“Can you clarify?” Wen asked from the other side of the bench.
“Drowsiness, nausea, fainting spells, crippling fatigue, anorexia,” Gwen counted the symptoms from her memory.
“Sounds like symptoms of Negative Energy Drain.”
“How did you deal with this in the past?”
“I had a healer top me up while we fought,” Gwen replied. “My friend Elvia had that position; then it was Mina, my cousin who’s currently studying to be a Cleric.”
“You poor child!” Magister Wen grimaced sympathetically. “The impact of elemental affinity on the physical body is hardly mixing hot and cold water! The abuse you must have endured!”
“I seem to do alright,” Gwen protested. "My late mentor, Magister Kilroy, had assured me as such."
"Magister Kilroy..." Magister Wen recalled the report she had read on Gwen's past. "I am sure he had his considerations, but that is no long-term solution."
“Grandmother healed my injuries when I came to Shanghai as well.”
“I don’t think high-tier Restorations, consuming hundreds of HDMs worth of materials, available only from experimental hospitals in capital cities - are going to help you in the Wildlands, on the Frontier, or during a six-month siege against the Undead.” The Magister shook her head. “My dear, we need to find a way to make sure you stay in one piece!”
“I can’t say no to that.” Gwen smiled weakly.
"Right, that settles it then. Petra, we're using the SPEC, give me a hand."
Gwen watched as Magister We set up the three crystalline cubes in a contraption which arrested the captive elemental-cubes in mid-air between two plates. The constructed device looked as though the magister had erected a holographic projection, within which were her three energised cubes of distinctly different mana.
"Petra, get Gwen a coat."
Obediently, Petra dressed Gwen in a lab coat enchanted with Shielding, Elemental Absorption, and Sterilisation glyphs.
Coming closer, Gwen could see the suspended Spell-Cubes hovering over a triplicate of pins that teased motes of mana from them.
“This is an Allenberg-Erwin Elemental Spectrometer,” Magister Wen helpfully informed their novice research partner. “It’ll visualise motes of Elements injected into a suspension field simulating the Astral Plane. I am going to test a few interactions. This way, we can get a better understanding of how your elements interact in an isolated plane.”
Wen incanted an arcane command, allowing the Almudj-Cube and Lightning-Cube to each release several motes of mana.
Unbidden, the primordial mana from the emerald-cube met a mote of lightning-element midair in volatile conjunction, then emitted a brilliant blast of emerald-green.
“Barbanginy!” Gwen recognised the energy right away. “That’s Almudj’s lightning!”
“B-ba-barga… sorry…” Magister Wen sprang her tongue on the first attempt. “The fabled, mythical serpent of Australis, no? A fascinating existence, to be sure. Extinct, in fact, anywhere humanity has made their domain. Your report was an equally fascinating read. Maybe the Cryptozoology folks would like a chat. For our interests, are you able to incant or summon this admixtured Lightning?”
“Barb-an-gin-ni,” Gwen allowed the word to roll off her tongue. “I don’t think I can, to be honest. I can move the mana around in my Astral form, congealing it for expulsion, but I can’t work it into spells.”
“Yet, you’ve cast this Barbanginy before?”
“Once or twice before, yes, when the serpent’s will was with me.” Gwen's voice took on a forlorn tone. Where was Almudj now? Asleep somewhere, maybe in Uluru, mayhap coiled up deep underground, perhaps resting upon a rainbow. She felt an impulsive desire to see her 'kin' again but knew her want to be an irresponsible fancy.
“Interesting, maybe we can work towards that.” Magister Wen jotted down a few notes onto a data slate. “Allow me to test a hypothesis.”
Wen materialised a seed and floated it toward the centre of the Spectrometer's suspension field.
She guided it under the Almudj-Cube.
One incantation later, the seed took on a few motes of the emerald mana and sprouted, bursting into a small, inch-long vine.
“Master, that’s…” Petra held her hand to her lips.
“Oh yes,” Wen grinned. “That’s a Bolivian Stone Pear sprout.”
“But the seed…”
Magister Wen looked upon Gwen with the eyes of a woman in love.
“Indeed, the seed was a sterilised specimen,” Wen looked over at Gwen. “The Ag department would be over the moon. How much of this mana do you think you’re able to synthesise?”
“About… a single tier-2 spells worth, per day?” Gwen tried to estimate the volume she had injected into the Cube. “At my current rate of recovery, likely less.”
“A shame. It's not every day that we see Druidic Essence manifest in a human, but no matter. That brings us to our next demonstration.”
"Druidic Essence," Gwen mouthed to herself, finally finding a name for the phenomena.
With a word, Wen coaxed a few motes of Void-matter and Life-matter into suspended motion. Another incantation brought out additional specks of the emerald-mana. Interestingly, the motes did not cancel each other out. Instead, they glided around one another as though two immiscible liquids repelling one another at some undetectable, molecular level.
"Interesting, no?" Magister Wen intoned with great reverence. "This serpent mana of yours, it is not a raw, elemental force. It is an arcane-compound, spell shaped by a mythic beings' will and intent, capable of restoration and growth."
Magister then produced another cube and injected a cloud of Positive Energy, colourised with a bright pink pigmentation, into the controlled platform.
"Positive energy from one of our healers. "
Like some ravening beast, the cloud of Void-matter moved across the air and struck the diffuse pinkness, feeding hungrily upon the energies of life until both elements faded into nothingness.
“Oh dear.” Gwen watched the spectacle with ominous comprehension.
“Indeed,” the Magister intoned sagely. “Gwen, your serpent’s energy never did negate the damage done to your body by the Void - it was instead a Shield and a restorative. On the other hand, flooding yourself with positive energy may protect you, but it also diminishes your Void affinity. If you wish to maximise output, heal after the fact, not during the channel.”
“But I could feel myself draining the vitality provided by healers when I cast Evocation and Conjuration,” Gwen tried her best to recollect working with Mina and Elvia. “Surely that would have neutralised my spells if the elements were mutually consumptive.”
“As for that, we must turn to further experimentation.” Wen then introduced a new medium to the mix.
A creature core floated into the midst of the levitation field.
“I am very curious as to the function of your Kirin amulet,” Wen pointed to a floor to ceiling whiteboard where dozens of arcane formulas made their presence known. “I hypothesise that this is the answer.”
Wen introduced a mote of the Amuldj-mana toward the thumbnail-sized creature core, where it immediately entered the Magical Creature’s remains, affecting an inner glow to the sphere. Then, the Magister applied an Evocation glyph, a simple Bolt. The resultant energy that manifested was a blue-green arc of electricity that sizzled the air magnificently.
“That’s Barbanginy!” Gwen uttered, impressed by the ease of the manifest.
But it was the next demonstration that astounded her.
The core took within itself a mote of Void-matter, then manifested a bolt of midnight-black lightning which whipped through the air and struck the protective pane of the Shield behind the testing station, gouging a Lichtenberg-figure shaped scar across the force-panes.
“That’s…” Gwen watched the demonstration. “That’s my Void bolt!”
Magister Wen set off a half a dozen bolts in quick succession.
Suddenly the barrage of bolts ceased. The core shattered.
The trio watched the nucleus crumble.
"That's you," Magister Wen allowed the dust to settle around the spectrometer. "One can assume that prior to your awakening in the void, the amulet likely protected you somehow. After your acquisition of the serpent's Druidic essence, it became less useful but remained a bulwark against excessive abuse of the Void element."
"So, I've lost... a crutch?" Gwen tried to think of an apt analogy. "I've lost my emergency breaks?"
“A strange way to put it, but sure." Magister Wen gave herself several moments to gather her thoughts. "Gwen, describe your Void manifests before you obtained the serpent’s energy.”
"It was before the Field Trip, long before I knew the serpent existed..." Gwen began. "The Awakening test was that day..."
She told them of the first time she had manifested the Void. She was in a park, feeling rather upset with herself. There was a moment of darkness when she got a little too emotional; then she woke up a few hours later sans handbag and wallet.
The second significant event was when she’d manifested it was against Edgar. Her outburst had taken the Dust Mage's arm and leg, as well as half his face, but also took enough out of her to make her lose consciousness. After that, she came into possession of Almudj’s mana and accessing the Void became more manageable and less injurious.
“What advice did the late Lord Kilroy give you?”
“To always have someone who could tap into the healing energies of the Positive Plane on hand, and to feed off the vitality returned by spells.” Gwen annotated her Master’s recommendations. “When Caliban consumes enemies, I can feel it returning vitality to me. Sometimes, when I use Evocation spells, I can also feel something akin to it, but its never as distinct as that of my familiar.”
Magister Wen jotted down notes as Gwen spoke.
“Tell me about the Dungeon again,” Magister Wen proposed. “Describe in detail what it was like.”
Gwen tried to put into words the ethereal hunger that came with Void magic. When they had taken down the blue Gilas and the reds, she had felt Caliban’s pleasure and shared in the bounty of life it provided. When they had assailed the Elder Gila, Caliban could not only restore itself but keep Gwen’s reserves fed as it wormed its way through the massive Salamander’s body. The only time she ever felt satiated was when Caliban fed.
Again and again, Magister Wen cross-examined Gwen's recount, nitpicking at minor details.
“Which still leaves the question of how the Kirin amulet factors into the dynamic of your elemental interactions,” Magister Wen recorded her findings enthusiastically. “I will make an appointment to peruse the University’s Greater Cognisance Chamber right away, as well as order a few disposable Magical beasts from the Conjuration department. I believe that it would be in the interest of all of us, to get to the bottom of this.”
“I can’t say no to that,” Gwen sat back in her seat dazedly, gazing at the set of suspended Spell-Cubes holding her mana captive.
“It'll take a few hours to arrange. Go with Petra and arrange your lodgings. I would highly recommend trying to find something very close to campus. With your difficult condition and the amount of work you will be putting in, I would not be surprised if you topple into bed every night! If you wish to push yourself hard, Gwen, you need to learn to recuperate.”
“We’re trying,” Petra sighed. “There’s nothing within thirty minutes or so with reasonable prices or facilities. I am going to take Gwen to the lower Campus today, see if they have anything available there.”
“I could always share with someone; there were a few of those available.”
“Not safe, not with the number of secrets and talent that you’re holding. I’d imagine it wouldn't do your roommate any service either,” Petra pointed out.
“How do you mean?”
“You’re going to get a lot of visitors once news of Fudan's Void Mage spreads around campus. I would HATE to be your roommate if every other hour of the day I had people asking me about you, wanting to give something to you, demanding access to you, refusing gifts, accepting gifts, failing to deliver after accepting a gift… and that’s just the beginning.”
“I would hesitate to be my roommate too,” Gwen understandably affirmed Petra's worries. “I'd probably hate my guts.”
“Which is why I live alone.”
“I see your point.”
"Why don't you girls go get some fresh air. Take Gwen through the gardens, see if that helps her recovery. Go on, off you go.” Magister Wen battered her hands to shoo them away. “Don’t take up space if you’re not here to work. Gwen, maybe its best if you stayed with Petra for now.”
"There's also Richard," Gwen reminded the Magister politely.
"He's a young man in a Tier 1 city. He's perfectly happy without you looking over his shoulder, trust me." Magister Wen seemed to misread Gwen's concern. "I'll Message you when the Chamber is ready, meet me at the Yifu Spellcraft Building, expect 1400 or so."
"We're not like that," Gwen noted with dismay, but the Magister wasn't listening; she was already in the midst of a Message with the Yifu administration staff.
"Let's go," Petra urged Gwen to follow; the girls hung their lab coats, and left to make the best of three hours.
* * *
To their wonder, a pudgy NoM in an expensively tailored suit was waiting for them downstairs at the entrance of Henglong laboratory.
“Manager Xie?” Petra wasn’t at all expecting to see the balding NoM outside of his office. Xie looked as though he had run the whole distance from the eastern end of the campus as well; even with the cooling glyph on his blazer, the man was sweltering from head to toe.
“Thank Mao I caught you both. I would hate to have intruded. Have you found a place to rent yet?”
“Not yet, why?” Gwen replied, studying the man as he mopped his face with a handkerchief. “Do you have any unexpected vacancies?”
“You're as good as a Diviner! My goodness, it was difficult to get a hold of you, Miss Kuznetsov!”
“I am not fond of unsolicited Messages,” Petra stated cooly. “But allow me to apologise. What’s the matter?”
“I’ve got two apartments opened up just this morning! Both of the tenants have just terminated their lease. As a result, I've got vacancies at B1-2203 and 2204.”
Petra knitted her exquisitely arched brows.
Building 1- Level 22, Suite 03 and 04?
“What’s the rental price?”
Manager Xie’s face split from ear to ear.
“Due to the emergency nature of the vacancy, the owner has requested that the rooms are occupied as soon as possible. As such, they are willing to accept rental well below the market value.”
“How much?” Petra pushed the Manager.
“75 HDMs for the two bedrooms 2203, and 50 HDMs for the single.”
“What’s with those prices?” Gwen asked the manager puzzlingly. According to her research last night, the prices drastically increased once they got closer to Campus. The rooms should be fetching at least 140 to 200 HDMs.
“I am simply offering what the owner has requested.” Manager Xie mopped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. “Would you like see for yourself?”
“Right now?” Gwen asked, equally curious as to their strange turn of fortune. In her experience, there was bound to be something wrong with the property if the owners were so eager for tenants. Perhaps they were infested with infectious vermin? Or the previous tenants had left it in a mess or destroyed some of the vanities? Mayhap the owners were laundering money through the rental income, and could not allow the cash flow to cease. Or, knowing this world, the apartment was haunted, that would be as good an explanation as any. For sure, a cheap, haunted flat fit the trope of a ‘place too good to be true’ very well.
“Of course, if you’ll follow me. It’s only a kilometre or so across the campus. B1 is the first building in the new Student’s quadrant. We should be able to see it as soon as we pass Guoshun Road.”
Petra’s expression was sceptical as well.
“Let’s see for ourselves then,” her cousin affirmed the desire to see the place with their own eyes. “I’ve got a See Invisibility cubed. Let’s see if we can run a Detect Magic through the place as well. Can you cast Detect Traps?”
* * *
As they arrived at Building 1, two large trucks and a half-dozen removalists were carefully loading furniture.
“The apartments should be undergoing a thorough cleaning,” Manage Xie explained.
“Already?” Petra felt impressed by Xie's zealous professionalism; she was not a Mage often surprised, much less by a NoM.
“Owner’s request. I cannot claim credit, ha!”
They entered the lobby of the luxury apartment block, where a dumbfounded looking young man was sitting on several suitcases. When Manager Xie came inside with the girls in tow, the young man’s complexion changed from a wan despondency to a shade of beetroot.
“...” An internal battle seemed to wage within the young man's mind, but the Mage chose presently to leave without a word.
“What was all that about?” Gwen pursued the curious incident with Xie. “That was the old tenant right?”
“He was,” Xie replied.
“Why is he leaving?”
“Who knows?” Manager Xie smiled at the girls with his usual amiability, his face folding until his eyes were two thin, happy lines. "Perhaps a family emergency?"
The levitation platform took the girls up toward the 22nd floor. When the door opened, they became greeted by a riot of activity.
Three removalists and half a dozen cleaning staff toiled between the two open apartments.
“Careful! careful!” A young woman was directing a piano out of what appeared to be 2203. She turned to regard the trio when their elevator pinged.
“I would say hello neighbours, but I am leaving,” the girl hummed mirthfully. “I hope you enjoy your stay here. It’s a wonderful place to finish the years at Fudan, assuming you get to stay until you graduate.”
Before Gwen could answer, the parallel levitation platform pinged close.
“That would be our other ex-tenant,” Xie noted with the same care as one having spotted a mildly interesting potplant. “Which apartment would you like to see first?”
“The two-bedder,” Gwen pointed to 2203. For 75 HDMs, it was a steal. Whatever was happening, she felt inclined to take advantage of it. Furthermore, if the apartment turned out to be not haunted by the ghosts of disturbed indigenous spirits, she would entertain a bold proposal for Petra.
The trio passed the removalists and found themselves embroiled in the midst of NoMs scrubbing the carpet, dressing new drapes, and fervently scouring the kitchen.
“Maybe now is not the best time.” Manager Xie looked around the controlled chaos of bodies busily at work refitting the kitchen. “Forgive me for my blunder.”
“It’s fine.” Gwen walked through the room and took in the breathtaking view of the skyline. At level 22, she could see the entirety of Fudan’s campus. The only taller building within her immediate view was the Fudan Towers. When she turned to the right, she could see the 2nd PLA hospital at Wujianchang, followed by the urban sprawl of Building 2 to 25. To her left, the Second Orbital Highway shot into the heart of the city, where the PLA Tower’s superstructure loomed like a perched spider across the web-work of crisscrossing highways.
The apartment was not ultra-modern like Mina’s Waldorf suite. It was what one expected from a property developed for profit over style. The living room was a rectangular extension of about twenty odd square meters, just enough to fit a three-person couch and a Vid-caster. There was an independent bathroom next to a laundry renovated with wood-patterned tiles. The open kitchenette was a modest assemblage beside the entrance, possessing just enough space to cook meals for one or two, with a built-in refrigerator fitted into the gloss-white polyurethane panelling. Its two bedrooms were spacious and clean, with deep built-in wardrobes and enough room for a queen-sized bed, a single sideboard, and an ergonomic desk.
“It’s perfect,” Gwen found that beyond all expectations, they had arrived at the Goldilocks Zone. The apartment was not overly luxurious, it was close to campus, and it was within a price range she and Richard could afford.
“Excellent. Shall I prepare the contract?” Manager Xie implored them hastily, as though he had expected her affirmation. “Your option is for annual or quarterly leases, though the annual contract has a smaller fee for breaking your rental agreement.”
“You don’t need to perform a credit-rating check?” Gwen asked the eager-faced manager suspiciously.
“I am sure we can trust LCSS candidates not to flee the City, ha!”
“Gwen,” Petra tugged on Gwen’s sleeve, her face uncharacteristically demure.
“Yeah, Pats?” Gwen turned to her cousin.
Petra took Gwen to one side with a look of secrecy and guilt.
"I am going to run some Detection spells while you check the contract. Do you know how to read a rental agreement?"
"Of course," Gwen flipped back a few strands of loose hair. "I've rented before."
Petra nodded and produced Divination based spell-cubes, convinced that something had to be wrong with the apartment. She allowed an array of Detection spells to manifest and went about examining every nook and cranny.
Gwen collected herself and turned to Manager Xie.
“Manager Xie, may I inquire as to the possibility of subletting to Miss Kuznetsov, or perhaps taking out the rental on a twin-share?”
An expression of hesitation appeared on Xie’s face for but a moment.
“The Wess-M-Rutherford Property Group welcomes Miss Kuznetsov. If she so wishes to join you in leasing the apartment, I shall further terminate her existing B3-703 contract without penalty.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Gwen raised an attractively tapered brow. “Why Manager Xie, I had thought you the kind to preserve every penny in the Company's cache.”
“I am but a humble purveyor of residential space,” Manager Xie stepped back and bowed gingerly. “The customer’s word, contractually obliged, is law. Who would refute austere customers such as yourself, Mr Huang, and Miss Kuznetsov?”
Gwen cocked her head and studied the smiling Manager.
"I spoke to a few colleagues and became well informed of your noble bearing," Xie confessed humbly. "I ask for generosity and forgiveness if you are offended."
“Not at all. Let’s see this contract then. Strike while the iron is hot,” Gwen pushed. She wasn’t sure why the owner of the property was so breathlessly eager to have the property rented out so quickly, but if her old life had taught her anything about renting, it was that there were no second chances to snap up a bargain.
The duo proceeded to the smaller of the two bedrooms, away from the hustle and bustle of the cleaners. Xie materialised a short novella with the header for ‘WMR Property Group Tenancy Agreement.’ Gwen flipped through the Tenancy Agreement like an old hand at shuffling poker, observing the usual Clauses and by-Clauses.
“Please take your time.”
Except for the prohibition of Magic usage that would affect the property in any way, the rest of the agreement was distinctly similar to what one would have expected in her old world. The Rent of 75 HDMs per month included mana conduit, heating as well as water. There was even the option of taking out a parking spot down below in the garage, though Gwen had no designs on acquiring a vehicular licence as of yet.
Petra returned with a face full of puzzlement.
"It's clean." Petra met Gwen's imploring eyes with a nod of assurance. She then looked out the expansive bedroom window thoughtfully. "What a pleasant view."
"Pats," Gwen pulled her closer and tapped the contract. "I just spoke to Manager Xie..."
Gwen explained that if her cousin should desire, they could take up a co-rental agreement and share the apartment.
"That's... wonderful!" Petra was surprised and delighted by Gwen's offer. Her rental costs were almost 70 HDMs a month and ate up a significant chunk of her grant. "Are you sure?"
"Of course! We can share the rental costs, and have safety in numbers, right? I would feel so much safer with you here, and Richard as well, of course. Not to mention we can save on food costs, energy, the whole shebang!"
Petra considered her options and found that she was not at all adverse to living with Gwen. In fact, her Master would probably applaud her decision to keep an eye on her precious Void and Vitae specimen; she had stated as much already before they left.
"Alright," Petra nodded in agreement. "I am in."
"Alright! Roomies!" Gwen held her cousin's hand a danced a quick jig before collecting herself. "I am still going through the contract, one moment."
Gwen returned her attention to the legal gobbledegook.
“13.13 and 13.14,” she pointed out after a few minutes spent in silence. “Are we responsible for environmental damage resulting from self-defence?”
“If an Arbitrator deems yourself to have lawfully defended yourself, then no. The offender, in this case, will be responsible for all incurred costs.”
“And if they are dead?” Gwen raised her brow.
“D-dead?” Xie seemed caught off-guard by Gwen’s composure. “You would fight to the death?”
Gwen looked at Petra quizzically. Do Mages in the Tier 1 cities kiss and make-up after they are defeated or something? Do one’s assailants apologise and offer compensation? She could imagine a confrontation in the Frontier ending with the two parties shaking it off and reconvening for another go on a better day.
“Er... Fatalities are very rare in T1 cities," Petra explained. “Crimes are low, and incidence rates are far and in between. The entire city is within Teleportation range of the Special Spells and Tactics Unit, which means response time for tier 5 infractions is usually within a few minutes. If something does occur, there’s little that can escape the tender attention of the MSS or the Diviners of the Metropolitan Major Crimes Investigation Unit.”
Cops? She could call on the cops?!
What a self-evident revelation! She had been so enamoured in the bloodsport of the Frontier that she had not at all considered that there is actual law enforcement that could come to her aid. But had she not seen law-enforcement twenty-four hours ago, stomping on a poor NoM who refused to leave his Hutong home? If the Chengguan were the equivalent of City Guards, then naturally there were the equivalent of high-tier Arbitrators, and if there were armed Arbitrators, then of naturally there was the equivalent of SSAT. How else was the city going to keep a lid on the boiling mass of egos that simmered beneath the facade of congeniality? For every Mage willing to contractually engage in a Lawful duel, there would be at least three who preferred to ambush their competitors. For all the talk of security and peace within the city, there were surely larceny, robbery, burglary and grand theft that would be unchecked without an equal or greater force hammering down with the cold steel mallet of brute justice.
Had Petra not stated that there were public executions? It meant that even in this alt-world PLA, the CCP had a judicial branch servicing the city’s population. How else could society function when the well-connected, the well-to-do and the well-bred flouted its laws? How else could a place where privilege and stratum impoverished the rule of law maintain order?
Next time, all she had to do was keep safe and ping 119 on her Message device. Call the Police indeed!
Armed with new confidence, Gwen returned to the contract and scanned the rest of the pages.
“Everything seems in order,” Gwen noted to Petra. “There's three months deposit as a bond paid upfront. I’ve got the currency on me right now.”
“You can seriously read that elf-speak?” Petra gazed upon Gwen with the expression of one having discovered a new continent. “I had tutors for that so that you know.”
“I…” Gwen realised she couldn’t possibly affect a conceivably believable excuse. “It's not a difficult read. The Ioun Stone takes care of the heavy lifting.”
Petra glanced at the contract and then back at Gwen. If her cousin was capable of understanding that particular piece of arcane document, then textbooks and arcane lore should offer no great obstacle, right? She would push Gwen harder! Now that they lived together, Gwen shall never know another morning of sleeping in! They would complete Goudling’s Core Primer within three weeks!
“Let me give Richard a call.” Gwen activated the Message function on her device and dialled in Richard’s glyph.
“Rich, I found a place to stay 5 to 10 minute from the campus. Single dwelling, high up, relatively new facilities. 50 HDMs a month, next door to Petra and me. What do you think?”
“Struth, that's a good price. Sign me up. You and Petra huh?”
“Ya. We're going to be roomies! I’ll send you Manager Xie’s contact and address. I’ll put down your deposit now.”
“No worries then, I'll go see him later. Fix you up later.”
“Thanks; also, I'll be crunching some tests with Mag Wen and Pats in the arvo. I'll be late.”
"Yeah alright, cheers. Give us a shout if you need help."
Gwen ended the Message.
“Here,” Manager Xie passed over a gilded fountain pen. “I’ll have it ready by the weekend, two days from now. Please inform the strata if you wish to have heavy furniture moved. You can call me anytime, and I mean anytime - if you have any enquiries.”
Gwen placed her initials on each page before signing at the front and back. Petra cosigned beside her on a second column. A receipt glyph signalled Manager Xie's receivership of their deposits, then the matter concluded.
“There will be some noise as the top floor will be undergoing renovations,” Manager Xie guiltily informed them after the fact. “There maybe be some noise for the first week or so, between 9 AM to 6 PM each day.”
“That's fine. I don’t have any furniture, at least not yet. Petra?”
“Just the usual. I can borrow Master’s Storage Ring; it’s no bother.”
“Alright,” Gwen turned to Xie, and the trio shook hands. “A pleasure working with you, Manager Xie. I look forward to moving in very soon. Richard will see you after his work.”
* * *
The two girls exited Apartment B1 of the Student’s Quarter jubilant with the prospect of their new residences. Following the jubilant Gwen like a mother hen watching a newborn chick taking her first steps, Petra couldn't help but allow her mind to wander.
Was this not the first time that her cousin, a girl of almost seventeen, had to find her lodgings? She seemed like such a veteran, her decision making so decisive and assured. She could even sift through the legal script used in those rental contracts. The poor girl. For how long had she been alone, struggling with the frivolities of life? Damn her father and mother for leaving Gwen to fend for herself for so long.
“What now?” Petra heard herself asking her younger cousin. She had not expected to finish their errand so quickly and with such convenience.
“Lunch?” Gwen felt the buzz of the Void’s insatiable hunger distinctly now that Almudj's mana muted itself from over expenditure. “I could eat.”
“Alright,” Petra gave her cousin a pat on the shoulder. “Let’s go.”
* * *
The girls returned to Magister Wen just before two, meeting the emerald-eyed Mineral Mage by the Yi-Fu Spellcraft Building, another renovated piece of ageing brutalist architecture that survived the aeons. Thanks to the L-shaped construction and the soaring foyer, the white-on-salmon palette loved by the university appeared far more aesthetic than at Hengsha and elsewhere.
Within the elongated section of the west wing were the Cognisance Chambers, ranging from the size of a studio to that of an auditorium. As a Meister candidate and a head researcher at Fudan, Wen had the privilege of perusing the Chambers at will.
To test her hypothesis, Wen commandeered a chamber approximately the size of an indoor-soccer field.
"How serendipitous," Magister Wen delightfully replied when Petra told her of the development on their property hunt. "Take care of her, Petra. Gwen is very precious to the University, and to ourselves."
If that wasn't loaded rhetoric, Gwen remarked, then nothing else could be considered euphemistic. Wen's candidness sat well with her though. It was far better to have someone tell yourself the precise reason they wanted to help, then to be used without consent or sanction.
They were met in the Chamber by a woman who looked to be in her mid-twenties but had the bearing of someone much older.
"Magus Mai Kumiko, Assistant Professor, Department of Conjuration," The woman introduced herself.
It was the first time Gwen had seen a Japanese person in Shanghai. Both the city and the country had bad blood with the island nation thanks to the Sino Conflict in the 50s, not to mention the PLA had built its grass-roots around castigating the Japanese 'threat', so it was quite the surprise to see a Dai-Nippon national in the flesh.
"It's nice to meet you."
The Conjurer had light brown eyes adoring a face blessed with soft, supple complexion, framed by a shoulder length bob woven with auburn highlights. Her bearing and posture were posed and controlled, elegantly upheld by a hip-hugging pencil skirt and a white blouse accessorised with a red ribbon tie and tall slim heels.
"Mai's teaching the supplementary Conjuration class," Wen introduced Gwen to the Assistant Professor. "You'll likely see each other again very soon."
The three women exchanged greetings.
"I'll be in your care," Gwen stated.
"More like I'll be in yours, Miss Song," Mai confessed candidly. "I am very much interested in your Familiars. Especially the Caliban."
"I'll do my best not to disappoint," Gwen flashed the instructor a confident smile.
"Let's begin," Magister Wen said impatiently beside them. "Alright, Gwen, let's see what has the masterful Deathless Henry so enamoured!"
There was a thrum as Mana crystals clinked into place, then the room fell into darkness. A gradual light began to circulate until the floor became a mirror-plane, reminding her of the lessons taught by her Master. Feeling stunned by the spectacle, Gwen fought back an onslaught of nostalgic melancholy and turned her attention toward the reflection underfoot.
There, captive beneath an illusory pane, her Astral Body glimmered.
Held intact within the glass sculpture of her anima, was the hungering Void, the cracking Lightning, and a little something else: specs and motes of emerald green, swimming freely through a sea of alternating light and dark.