"Well, that was an unfortunate slip of the tongue," Magister Wen apologised for her faux pas. Under most circumstances, referring to a deceased Master by their famed alias would be well received, but alas, Gwen's Master had held a peculiar title.
"Uwa~!" a strange exclamation issued from Mai, dispelling the awkwardness set up by Wen's lacklustre apology. "Dual-element! Oppositional too! Wh- what is that green mana? Triple-element?"
"Just some Druidic essence, dear." Magister Wen clarified the phenomenon. "Save your shock, Mai. Else we'll be here all day."
"Incredible!" Mai inspected Gwen's Astral projection in the likeness of a watchmaker probing a Patek Nautilus. "Beyond incredible. Usually, isn't this impossible?"
"Magus Kumiko!" Magister Wen snapped at the Conjurer.
"Forgive me!" Mai bowed politely and retreated behind Magister Wen, demurely assuming her place.
A vivid surge of ochre mana manifested around the Conjurer.
A glowing bushel of ghostly flame floated before Gwen's instructors, casting a ring of yellow-orange illumination around the trio. Gwen felt life-energy cascading from the summoned spirit like a fount opened into the Positive Elemental Plane.
A Positive Conjurer! And from the looks of it, a Creature Mage. Gwen wilfully stopped herself from reaching out to touch the hovering flame. To think she would see a Spirit from that exalted plane of Positive Energy, an existence too rare for her Frontier origins.
"Is… that a Lantern Sprite?"
"Yes, but not a Spirit, unfortunately." The Japanese Conjurer caught Gwen's starry-eyed worship. "Onibi is a form of spirit-lantern from my homeland. When I manifested my Familiar, it came to me."
"Amazing, what does it do?"
Magus Kumiko responded by activating her Spite's unique ability. "Healing Circle!"
In Gwen's astral reflection, she could see a stream of Positive energy issuing from her body, becoming tethered to the Lantern.
"A countermeasure," Magister Wen noted dutifully beside them. "I would be lying if I said our experimentation wouldn't tax you. Let me warn you again, Gwen. Knowing your true potential isn't going to be a pleasant jog across Fudan."
"I understand." Gwen turned to her seniors brightly. "If this is the cost of knowledge, then I'll pay it gladly."
"That's the spirit!" Wen nodded approvingly. "Now, let's start with the basics. Give me a repertoire of your spells, starting with lightning."
"Yes, Ma'am!" Gwen replied, sensing that her teacher was just as excited as she was. After taking a deep breath, she redoubled her focus, closed her eyes, then began to pick at the walls of reality, readying her body for the manifestation of sorcerous phenomena.
Once she hit the fourth-tier spells, the mental and physical exertion grew palpable. It wasn't so much that she was running out of mana, for her pool was almost double or triple the average Mage, but that her chants and calculations induced immense mental stress without allowance for the cooling down of her cognitive faculties.
Gritting her teeth and wishing to show Magister Wen her conviction, Gwen redoubled her efforts.
"Morden's Faithful Hound!"
Gwen appeared and reappeared in a series of conflagrating lightning. Staggering a little, she turned to face her audience. Her milk-white skin glowed under the refractory illumination of the Cognisance Chamber. So much Lightning-mana had flooded her body that her eyes sparkled with two concentric rings of electricity, with an occasional discharge arching from her hair onto the floor.
Petra, Mai and Magister Wen regarded one another with astonished faces.
"Did we just witness Morden's Faithful Hound?" Mai's voice shook. "That spell involves Evocation, Conjuration and Transmutation all at once! How's that possible? Also, why is her Dimension Door offensive? How did she trigger a Lightning Nova on exit? Her incantations! The mana channels! Are they all Signature sorcery?"
"Fascinating indeed." Magister Wen was furiously running her fingers through her data slate. "Petra, did you know of this?"
Petra partly shook her head. "Only recently. I was informed that several of her key spells were hand-taught by her Master."
"So they are Signature Spells?" Mai looked as though she could burst into song. "Those Conjuration incantations are original?"
"Especially Morden's Hound… Did you know the Tower no longer has a version that allows for elemental shifting?" Wen slid a finger across the slate violently. "These were taught to you personally, Gwen?"
"By Master Kilroy, yes." Gwen dispelled her persistent effect Conjurations to conserve mana.
"Mao..." Magister Wen forlornly shook her head. "All that knowledge lost."
"Hold on, Ki-e-ru-i?" Magus Kumiko spluttered beside them. "Magister Kilroy? H-Henry Kilroy? Master of Ordo Arcana?!”
"The the same, he passed in March, in Sydney. You recall, right? We watched the Vid-cast on the news."
"Uwa—" Mai turned to Gwen, then bowed from the waist. "I am very sorry, Gwen. I was inconsiderate!"
"It's alright, Magus." Gwen stifled the shuddering in her chest. Who'd have thought? She knew her Master had deep roots—but to think Henry had so much clout even in an entirely unrelated region of the world. But then again, when Gwen considered her Master's other disciples, such as the Scarlet Sorceress, famed and feared across Oceania, capable of going toe to toe with Magisters twice her age—and his other student, the Morning Star who could singlehandedly handle a Leviathan, it was she who lacked the correct perspective.
"Gwen, let us move on. Your Familiar, please." Wen's emotions very quickly returned to their usual coolness.
Gwen nodded. "Ariel!"
A blast of lightning struck the floor.
Ariel materialised with its tail in the air, striking a pose.
The little marten appeared more girthy than before, now reaching the height of Gwen's thighs. From its round face, its dark eyes glimmered intelligently. After the Eland Core, Gwen palpably felt that her Familiar appeared more robust than before.
"EE—EE!" Ariel proudly showed off two cute little horns that now protruded like spiralled triangles from its head. Thank God! Gwen praised the higher power above. If Ariel had met Tao's prophesy, she wouldn't know where to hide her face.
"Your familiar is beyond adorable!" Magus Kumiko gushed, clearly possessing a weakness for cute things. Disregarding her position, she dropped to one knee. "Hey there, Ariel! How are you?"
"EE—EE!" Ariel looked to Gwen for permission.
Gwen gave her consent.
Ariel then leapt toward Mai and rolled over onto its belly, flashing its soft fur. When Mai stroked the creature, it caused arcs of electricity to spark away from the marten spectacularly.
"What a wonderful Familiar." Mai had none of the distant demeanour of Magister Wen.
Not far from her aide, Magister Wen rolled her eyes.
"Very well. Let's see the Void element. Mai, get ready. Just as we discussed," Magister Wen commanded.
Gwen returned to the centre of the room.
"I am beginning."
She aimed for the other far side, where walls of force were in place to absorb the impact of her spells.
"Call Void Lightning!"
Gwen had only used her Void element for the Call Lightning once when they ambushed the Elder Gila. The sustained channel from the self-guided bolts consumed both mana and vitality, making the spell ineffective except for extreme measures when damage output had to be maximised.
In her present condition, two spells at tiers 3 were her limit.
After another volley of Void Lightning, Gwen felt her vitality wane; without a cache of the Druidic essence, the volatile element would soon begin to consume her body.
"Are you able to continue?" Magister Wen spoke from behind Gwen. "Magus Kumiko has you in safe hands, I assure you."
Gwen resumed her efforts.
"Dark Tentacles!" When the final invocation left her lips, a sudden flurry of writhing Void-matter erupted like a blossom of obsidian sea anemones, radiating a wave of nauseating vertigo across the chamber.
Onibi glimmered, fortifying Gwen and her observers.
"Mao!" Magister Wen stepped around the manifestation, examining it with great interest. "Fascinating! See here how the Void coils around a tear in space. Likewise, the prehensile nature of the tentacles is far different from the normal variant. Yours is almost like a living thing!"
Perhaps sensing Wen's presence, a few of the tentacles reached for her body.
Gwen mentally attempted to stifle the tentacles' furore. Naturally, the flailing limbs ignored her, for her "dumb" spell was not capable of differentiating between friend or foe.
Without effort, Magister Wen manifested a crystalline Shield and allowed one of the tentacles to touch the mineral barrier. Gwen felt the contact hotly in her Astral Body, then felt more of her vitality drain as the tendrils dug into Wen's creation.
"Incredible penetrative power." Wen jotted down more notes as the tentacle whittled down her shielding. "Excellent against hard shields."
"Let's try something incorporeal! Shield!"
With a new invocation, the crystalline shell of Magister Wen's Mineral Shield gave way to that of a transparent mana barrier. This time, the tentacles thrashed against the invisible forcefield without penetrating its exterior.
"How curious." Wen took more notes. "Ironically, a low-density shield can halt the corrosively Void-matter."
Gwen felt her breathing becoming easier while Wen made her notes. Behind her, a steady stream of positive energy fed gently into her torso. She could see the conduits at work, smothered by the blazing glare from her own Astral Body. She had seen the same phenomenon manifested when Sufina was in Magus Kumiko's place, channelling a steady stream of life force as she trained, repeating spell after spell. Compared to the meagre Onibi, however, Sufina was far more nourishing, both paled against Almudj's blessing, but Sufina's embrace had felt motherly and warm.
"Keep the spell up, Gwen," the Magister commanded.
Gwen quickly stabilised her output.
Her instructor came close and studied the reflection of Gwen's Astral Body underfoot. There was an astonishing exchange happening below. Within the projection of her metaphysical body, the ink-like movement of the Void-matter soaked in the Positive Energy before exiting through her palms and manifesting some distance away as a blossom of grasping tendrils.
"So the Void can directly convert healing energy into life-matter for the host body?" Wen studied the phenomenon. "Gwen, try activating your Druidic essence."
Gwen spared as much concentration as she could to command the emerald motes to move. Unfortunately, they would not manifest even when gritting her teeth and grunting with exertion.
"I can't." Gwen huffed after another exhaustive attempt. "They're not activating."
"Hmm, how about Lightning?" Petra asked helpfully. "As counter-elements, they should disrupt one another, but what if you could somehow counter the effect of the Void-drain with the Positive aspect of Lightning?"
"Maybe it's worth a try." Gwen closed her eyes and tapped into the Quasi-Elemental Gate of Lightning.
Wen looked like she was about to say something but stopped herself.
A torrent of pale-blue mana surged throughout Gwen's Astral form.
"Arrrrgh!" Gwen felt as though stricken with a sudden blow to her temples. She involuntarily staggered back as a burst of radiant energy flared from her torso, forcing the Void-matter to surge in all directions. The force of the sudden expulsion caused her to fall onto her buttocks, stunned by the volatility of the elemental cocktail.
The Dark Tentacle dissipated.
Ariel ran to her and began to lick her hand frantically.
"Oh my God! Gwen, are you alright?" Petra knelt beside the stunned sorceress as she orientated herself. "Are you alright?"
With the ringing still in her head, Gwen couldn't find the words to speak.
"Forgive me. That was my mistake," Magister Wen apologised stiffly. "I should have stopped you."
The Magister produced a Spell Cube s choked full of Positive Energy the shell positively hummed.
"Greater Restoration!" The healing energy of the upper-tier spell struck Gwen and cooled her Void fever like a bucket of ice.
Gwen felt her mind clear and her flesh mend. She looked dazedly at Petra and her two instructors, one worried and the other furiously engrossed in her notes.
Petra did not know what would happen, Gwen acknowledged with a chill—But her Master did. From now on, incidents such as these would be the 'price' of Wen's knowledge.
Should she refuse?
Gwen told herself she should not.
She also wanted answers, and if a bit of skin off her back was the price, then so be it.
"Let's take a break, shall we?" Magister Wen suggested.
"I can continue." Gwen pushed herself off the floor. "Let's continue. We need to summon Caliban next, right?"
The three women nodded.
"I am not sure how well I can control it."
"You're in safe hands," Magister Wen assured her. "So is your Familiar. At worst, nothing a Force Cage or a Stasis can't resolve."
Petra nodded confidently at Gwen, affirming her Magister's confidence.
Gwen closed her eyes and called out for Caliban, rousing her monster into consciousness from the tenebrous embrace of her Astral womb. Caliban had not expected a call from its Master so soon, and the opportunity to once again taste the delicious air of the Material Plain filled its lamprey's maws with delight.
Instantly, Gwen's Astral projection turned dark as crowskin and black as pitch. The gathered Mages watched as the void-matter drained from her Astral projection, taking with it the meagre glow of the Druidic Essence that was only now beginning to recover. A tear in the space above them formed, then like a monstrous obsidian placenta, a toad-thing slid from the gap between Planes and landed with a wet plop between them.
Gwen's complexion turned the colour of paper before the stream of gentle healing returned her vitality.
Two sharp intakes of breath punctuated the chamber. While both Kumiko and Wen had been told accounts of the Void-toad, seeing the damnable creature meters away in the flesh still possessed the full impact of gazing upon a dreadful nightmare. Even now, Gwen felt her nerves falter, for Caliban's gaze was like the abyss, only now the proverbial Void was sniffing the air and turning its faceless mien towards them.
"Caliban! Heel!" Gwen commanded, forcing her voice from her lips as the supply of Positive Energy intensified. Fuzzily, she felt the invigorating energy gently keeping her upright. What Wen had said was true. Compared to Mina or Elvia's rough healing, Kumiko's subtlety was far more capable of reinforcing her health.
"Shaa—Shaa—" Caliban's hulking form stalked here and there.
Ariel playfully ran up the trunk of its massive, triangular torso and rested on the faceless head, dancing a jig. Caliban groped for its long-term nemesis and sent the playful marten skittering away.
"Caliban! Stay!" Gwen willed her creature to tarry.
Caliban turned to regard its Master, its pores breathing in her scent.
With the sound of something slithering from a gash or an open wound, it opened its lamprey's mouth, ejecting twin lengths of tentacle-tongues from its maw. One was blue, and the other was red.
"Steady… steady…" Gwen reached out and touched one of the tentacles, guiding it away from her with her hand before petting Caliban's faceless head.
"Shaa—Shaa—" Caliban refocused its senses toward the source of positive energy behind her.
"No. That's a friend." Gwen informed her toad-minion. "Not for eating."
"Shaa—Shaa—" Caliban protested. Onibi, Gwen suspected, must appear very delicious. "SHAA—!"
"If you're not going to be a gentleman, I am putting you back!" Gwen warned her Familiar, scalding it with everything she had. She pictured dispelling the creature and felt Caliban hesitate. Then like a devious cat, it tried to move past her for a better look. Just a glance, it empathically told her—nothing else.
"SHAA—!" Caliban batted her aside, though gently, with its two tentacles that were the girth and size of her arm.
Gwen pushed back.
"I said no!" She gripped one of the tentacles and used it to reign Caliban's face away from Onibi. "Heel!"
"Shaa—!" Caliban made a token struggle, neither willing to forfeit a meal nor ignoring Gwen completely.
Beside the Master and creature, Petra, Magister Wen and Magus Kumiko watched the spectacle with their lips hanging limply.
"That's…" Kumiko was as pale as she was. "Is that a Death Gila?"
"It's a Void-beast in the morphic form of a Red Gila," Petra pointed out helpfully. "Gwen's creature seems to be able to tap into her Transmutation talent at the point of its summon. So far, I've seen it as a snake, a spider, and this thing. Maybe it can turn into more forms; I don't know."
"Blessed Yamatai." Magus Kumiko eyed her Onibi nervously. "Onibi is going to be okay, right? That thing looks… hungry."
The two women turned to Wen.
Petra's Master was positively quaking with delight. When she spoke, her voice erupted as a torrent.
"A Void Beast! A living, walking, hungering Void beast! Petra, do you know what this means? We shall be the first to document the habitation and physiology of a shapeless, formless thing in the flesh! The first since Sobel! Accreditations for the Meistership, fallen from the sky! Mao—I owe Klavdiya favours I cannot possibly repay. A Paper on the Void beast. Another upon the properties of Void Magic! Another and another on the impacts of Void sorcery on its users. We'll be publishing for years!"
"I am sure Gwen will be happy to help out, Master." Petra looked toward Gwen with a face full of apology.
Gwen fought down her nausea, not entirely unhappy that Wen was so stoked but unable to fight off the sinking feeling in her gut.
"Of course, I am getting ahead of myself." Magister Wen recovered by laughing dryly. "Oh, Petra. We have to take care of your cousin. She is far more precious than you know."
"I know." Petra reached her side, then thought better when Caliban tried to give her a hearty lick.
"Mai, have you readied the summons I asked for?"
Magus Kumiko turned to the Magister nervously.
"We're feeding that thing?"
"Aren't you curious?" Wen's eyes were two glowing orbs of scintillating emeralds. "We're the first Mages to witness in detail the workings of the Void since that girl's Master, Henry Kilroy, aided in forming the Tower system with the help of his wife."
Magus Kumiko checked her Storage Ring. "Of course, Magister. I am ready."
"Gwen!" Magister Wen called out. "Is Caliban ready to feed?"
Gwen concurred as she fought Caliban off Onibi. Her Familiar was now salivating globs of grey-goo saliva large enough to form a sizeable puddle on the floor. Silently, she wept for her soiled dress. "Just in case, Caliban might get a little excited. So please take care of me and try not to hurt it!"
"We'll do our best!" Petra promised, answering for her Master.
Behind the girls, Magister Wen was aglow with an array of borrowed Divination magic. Her body was pen poised and slate steady, readying herself to become the first to bear witness to the inner workings of a Void Mage first-hand.
Magus Kumiko stepped forward.
With a wave of her hand, she released several glyph-stones that shot from her ring toward the ground ten or so meters from Gwen. The stones landed erect, then conjured forth an octagramic pattern that extended around each invocation until a silvery Mandala grew visible.
"Summon Magical Beast!"
The Mandala burst into silvery flames. Unlike Conjuration spells, Summon spells tore creatures from the Elemental Planes into the Prime Material, whether willing or not. Before casting such a complicated spell, extensive research was necessary. Hosts, even swarms of helpful magical creatures, could be contracted if they were intelligent. But if the need was dire, unintelligent creatures could be effectively abducted at random by summoners if they had set up corresponding compulsions. Magus Kumiko now manifested such a spell, unsuspecting Elementals kicking and screaming by their Creature Cores through space and time.
A silvery flash of mana splashed across the Cognisance Chamber.
When the Mandala burned out, a confused dog-thing sniffed its surroundings. The creature resembled a tremendous hound of some sort, with bat ears and small, red beady eyes that glowed like motes of cinder. Its maw drooled while a protruding line of distended spines ran the length of its back to end in a tail that resembled a whip.
"A Blink Dog!" Mai frowned. These were not dangerous, but they were apt at fleeing.
Beside her, Magister Wen was far faster than her fellow Magus. A professor skilled in both Abjuration and Conjuration, the Magister immediately disabled the phasing ability of the fabled Blink Dog, sealing its fate as Caliban's snack.
Caliban turned to Gwen with its faceless head.
Gwen urged her Familiar forward.
“SHAAAAAA!” Caliban turned to the dog and charged.
"GRRR—!" The Blink Dog charged Caliban in turn.
At the moment of their meeting, the dog turned aside and took out a chunk of Caliban's soft, rubbery flesh.
Caliban turned its ponderous body toward the dog and lashed out with its limbs.
The dog's Blink ability must possess a cooldown, for this time, it was swiped by two claws the length and girth of harvest-scythes, impaling it through the left lumbar.
The creature coughed up a lungful of blood as Caliban lifted it from the air and moved it toward its maw.
"Yip! Yip! Hhunnnn—" The dog's whimper grew weaker as Caliban's twin tongue wrapped around the creature and crushed its ribs.
"Cali—CONSUME!" Gwen made a move before the opportunity wasted itself.
Once more, her Astral Body turned darker than black, forming a visible line of void-matter fed into Caliban as the creature bulged and engorged with mana. With a shake of its massive shoulder, Caliban reared back and opened its lamprey's mouth, widening until all musculature and bone seemed to distend to accommodate its abyssal maw.
There was a sound of suction; then the yipping dog was gone.
"Oh—" Gwen felt a sudden, unexpected surge of vitality. "What—"
The exchange came on like a sudden summer squall.
A wave of indescribable pleasure, a feeling of satiation she could barely begin to comprehend, filled her mind and muted all thoughts. She trembled from the sudden euphoria as, in the span of several breathes, all the vitality that had made the dog a living, breathing magical creature passed through her body.
She had never consciously experienced the aftermath of Consume, not like this. Not when she trained with her Master, not when Caliban fed on the NoMs and the Mages, not when it assailed the Elder Gila. Was it because of Caliban's new ability? Was that the root of this euphoric exaltation of satiation? Or was it because of her missing appendage, her pound of flesh that she had traded away to Percy to dismantle Guo's shackles?
For several seconds caught in time, Gwen forgot to breathe.
"STOP!" a voice resounded beside her. "Gwen! Stop your Familiar!"