Gwen returned to reality to see Caliban scraping its long claws against a crystalline wall, headbutting the barrier and drooling grey goo all over the transparent pane.
“Gwen!” Petra called out urgently her. “Get it under control!”
The Mages were in no danger, Gwen realised, but there was something to be said about a three-meter Lovecraftian monstrosity bashing at one's Shield with talons the length of one's arm.
“Caliban! To me!” Gwen petitioned angrily for her familiar to return her side.
When the 'Consume' had taken place, she had momentarily lost her reins on the creature. On a Familiar less inclined to act on instinct, it would have stood stupefied, or remained obediently passive, but on Caliban; it meant the netherworld-fiend began to seek out its next meal.
Caliban wasn't stupid, and it knew that one of these allies dispensed delicious treats.
Sniffing the air for mana, it could sense the fount of vitality that was Mai Kumiko. Caliban didn’t want to hurt Mai, Gwen could feel that much, most certainly not consume her. Instead, like a Great Dane too dumb to know its strength, it was trying to goad the Magus, in its unique way, to produce more treats from the Summoning Portal.
When Gwen reestablished the empathic link, she could feel its frustration simmering like a pot of proverbial toads in hot water.
“Caliban!” Gwen leashed the creature mentally to no avail.
Wrought now with even greater frustration, Caliban turned to the three women behind the Crystal Barrier and howled.
“Shaa! Shaa! HISS!”
Magister Wen quickly jolted down their interaction.
“Fascinating! So it's intelligent enough to not berserk! Gwen; looks like you need to work on your mental commands, maybe get the creature conditioned,” Magister Wen advised, her emerald irises lovingly eyeing the monstrosity beating down on her nigh impenetrable barrier. “Mai, summon another thing. I want to see what it does. Gwen, are you able to leash it or not?”
“I can continue, but this little bugger is a bloody handful!” Gwen tried snarling and growling at Caliban. “Caliban! HEEL! You want me to go over there? Fine! I am coming! You better not regret this!”
Wen double-checked her notes.
"Can you confirm that the last ability your Familiar used had a restorative effect?"
“Yes Ma'am, but not enough to match its expenditure,” Gwen replied in all honesty. Although Consume appeared to nourish her far more than Caliban's regular attacks, her vitality remained in deficit, meaning she could not abuse the ability in succession.
“Can Caliban eat without using your mana or vitality?” Wen asked a crucial question that was likewise hovering on the edge of Gwen's mind.
“Small creatures, yes. Ideally, something that can’t fight back.” Gwen thought back to when Caliban was sweeping through the Gila-infested pocket dimension.
The three women watched as Gwen reached Caliban and placed both her hands on to its back. For whatever reason, the creature responded far more favourably to tactile stimuli. Was it because the Void-beast lacked physicality and form in the Void? They pondered, watching with interest as Gwen laid a hand on Caliban’s broad, wart-strewn back and caressed its toad-skin, its ridges and bumps.
“Caliban, calm down,” she said to the creature softly. "Be a good boy."
Caliban ceased its restless antics and turned to face Gwen with its faceless mien. She could sense it sniffing her body, her hair, enjoying the sensation of her touching its skin.
"Good boy," Gwen cooed. "There's plenty to eat if you'd just listen."
Just as Gwen thought she had everything well in hand, Caliban reached over her shoulder with its three-meter reach and snatched at something with its dragging arms something behind her.
“Onibi!” Magus Kumiko was aghast. “Gwen! Stop it!”
“Caliban!” Gwen pounded her Familiar, but the damn thing was too large, its hide too thick. She may as well have struck a golem with her bare hands. In its attempt to get away from Gwen’s berating assault, Caliban bowled her over with its cumbersome body, not possessing the spatial awareness necessary to move with sufficient agility. Overwhelmed by the creature's girth, Gwen fell onto her buttocks for the second time.
“EE?! EeeEE! EEEEEEE!”
Beside Gwen, Ariel had stomached enough of Caliban’s arrogance. It had watched obediently, as a Familiar ought to do, its delinquent half-brother thrash and trash its surroundings like an uneducated young marten incapable of understanding their Master’s command! What was Caliban's game? Did its empathic link to Master get fed to the dogs! A stupid worm is stupid!
Ariel sent an empathic command to its Master, wishing for the mana necessary to defend her. Its answer came in the form of a generous surge of electrified Lightning element filling every inch of its body with power.
With a simple command, Ariel released its power.
* * *
Gwen felt like an idiot who’d suddenly seen the light.
When Ariel requested to contest Caliban, she suddenly recalled something that her master had said when the two Familiars first appeared to her.
"Looks like her elements are oppositional rather than cooperative... She's going to have her hands full trying to wrangle them together. Hopefully, one will check the other.” She recalled her Master stating with great wisdom.
Since then, Caliban and Ariel had rarely fought in tandem, Gwen generally used either one or the other. When she did use the two together, it was almost always against enemies with overwhelming odds, leaving the creatures with little opportunity to bicker and contest.
Wasn’t that the point though? Had her master not specifically pointed out the obvious?
A semi-circle of electricity arched from Ariel’s cute little horns.
A command came bidden to Gwen, learned from her Empathic link with Ariel. As the words issued forth from her lips, she felt the satisfaction of having a childhood fantasy she had long possessed fulfilled. She was, after all, a child of the nineties. There was little to do in her negligent household but to keep company with the soapbox, and for a child, there was nothing more significant than that rare, golden hour from 7 AM to 8:30 AM.
“P-er… Ariel! Thunderbolt!”
A torrent of Lightning channelled directly from her Evocation sigil, possessing the same intensity and power as if she had issued forth the attack, connected the space between Caliban and Ariel.
The line-blast struck her dark Familiar full in the chest and forced it to release the quivering, terrified form of the Onibi flame, sending it packing toward its owner through some innate Blink.
To Gwen’s surprise, the Lightning blast from Ariel seemed to trigger something in Caliban, her creature shrunk in size, losing its Transmutation empowered morphic field until it became an obsidian serpent of about two metres in length and the size of her thighs in girth.
The two creatures slid toward one another and joined into a ball of black and white, nipping, hissing, clawing, and wrangling one another on the floor, blazing back and forth. Feeling Caliban possessing the upper hand, Gwen helped Ariel cheat a little by supplying it secretly with a smidgen of mana to empower its Haste.
She then watched agog as her familiars fought, thinking of Ariel’s new ability.
Did the horns replicate her spells? Or was it an innate ability for Ariel? It would require additional testing, of course, but either way, it meant she could use her familiar as a secondary source of Lightning damage. Considering Ariel’s innate ability to Haste itself and crawl, roll, duck, and sneak around the battlefield, it would mean the creature offered an excellent source of offence that could arguably come from anywhere.
She turned excitedly to regard the others. Like herself, Petra watched the two Familiars bemusedly. Magus Kumiko comforted her terrified Familiar, while Wen furiously tapped her data slate.
Ariel and Caliban continued to fight with boundless energy, sending bits of fur flying here and there, with Caliban dripping its oozy saliva, or perhaps blood, it was impossible to tell, all over the Cognisance Chamber’s polished floors.
“Alright! Stop!” Gwen commanded them both.
Ariel leapt from the melee expertly, far too fast for Caliban to follow. Caliban snarled and continued to spin in a circle, only stopping when it realised it had bitten its tail with its circular maw.
“To me!” Gwen intoned, fortifying her voice with a jolt of mana. “Sit! Heel!”
Ariel returned to her instantly, the very picture of a model Familiar.
With great reluctance, as though a delinquent thrashed by a stern mother, Caliban slithered beside Gwen sulkily. Gwen couldn't help but notice that its serpentine form had changed since Gwen had last seen Caliban in its original shape. Its worm-like body now resembled a mass of roving, congealed ink, while Caliban's carapace had become opaque. Its faceless head, with its massive, singular piece of smooth chitin, had a disturbing, erotic elegance that made any observer uneasy, especially knowing that it could split to issue forth lamprey-lipped tongues.
“Bravo.” Magister Wen clapped softly. “Well done, for whipping it back under your fold.”
Magus Mai did not appear at all convinced.
“Gwen, how’re you feeling?” Petra asked carefully, observing her cousin.
After demonstrating the majority of her spells, conjuring two familiars, and exhibiting their abilities, a brilliant sheen of perspiration now covered her, plastering the fabric of her dress to her white legs. In the pale brilliance of the Cognisance Chamber, her eyes glowed, lit by the static mana that circulated her body.
Below Gwen’s physical body, her Astral Form was a blend of inky, tenebrous motes of Void bisected by brilliant flashes of Lightning. Hues of Conjuration, Evocation and Transmutation appeared and disappeared, creating a curious contrast that made it seem as though her cousin was lit from below by a quicksilver pool.
Beautiful, was the first thought that came to Petra’s mind.
Gwen was beyond elegance, she was ethereal, unreal, as though she was not of this world.
“I think I need to take a break." Her cousin raised her hand gently. “I am getting a little woozy.”
She was almost OOM, the three realised. The succession of spells, the drain on her vitality, the fiasco with her unruly familiar, the bout between the marten and the void-serpent that followed, all of her feats had been performed without rest. Restoration and Healing did much for the body, but Spell-fatigue was a weariness of the spirit.
“Let’s finish up here.” Magister Wen nodded affirmatively. “There is much to be done, and we have no reason to rush. Thank you, Gwen Song. You have shown us something truly unique and worthwhile.”
Petra left the crystal barrier and approached her cousin, heedless of the serpent that now coiled miserably around Gwen’s ankles. She had ridden Caliban as a spider, Petra thought confidently, she had full confidence Gwen could keep the creature docile in its serpent form.
“Eeee!” Ariel leapt toward Petra and made an infinity coil around her legs before begging with its paws, like a monk praying fervently.
Petra retrieved an LDM crystal and fed it to the marten, who turned to look at Caliban gloatingly as if showing off.
Provoked by the marten’s goading display, Caliban opened its maw by splitting its carapace, extending two thin, long tentacles, one blue and the other red.
Wordlessly and mildly disgusted by the vividness of the fleshy organs, Petra allowed a lamprey lip to take another LDM crystal. With the blue tendril satisfied, the red one further implored Petra, relenting when Petra wordlessly issued yet another shard.
Now in possession of two shards, Caliban turned to Ariel and hissed triumphantly.
Not to be bested, Ariel turned to Petra and opened its two beady eyes of heart-melting pity to maximum capacity. Petra had no choice but to lose another LDM.
“Alright, enough is enough, you two.”
With a call fraught with fatigue, she coaxed the two to return to their pocket dimensions.
The thrum of the chamber began to diffuse, and soon the illumination globes resumed their function. The four women found themselves in a room with floors covered with glistening fluids. Some from the now consumed Blink Dog, but mostly from the excretions Caliban left behind everywhere.
“I’ll send for a cleaner.” As the lowest member of her group of three, Petra volunteered for the trivial task.
“Mai, can you take care of this?” To their surprise, Magister Wen interceded.
“Of course, Magister,” Mai nodded. It was a nuisance, but she could do that much for being involved in something so groundbreaking. Behind the Magus, the Onibi flame hid from Gwen, quivering in fear.
“Gwen, Petra. We’re going back to the Lab. I need your help to confirm our initial findings.” Wen then turned to Mai. “We will continue the experiments, two days from now. Do you wish to be a part of our fact-finding mission? I can offer you third place on the Co-Authorship.”
“I would be honoured to be a part of your research.” Magus Kumiko bowed.
Wen nodded approvingly.
“Good, take care of Gwen when the semester begins. All of our findings will be made public in good time, but I advise discretion until we are ready to publish. You may inform Master Birch, and he can speak to me personally if he too wishes to participate.”
“Very well then. Gwen, Petra. With me.”
With Petra holding Gwen steady, the three women made for the Hengsha building, leaving behind their fourth member to ready the place for its next user.
* * *
A technician, attired in the pale blue uniform of a maintenance officer, watched the women disappear between the rows of Mulberry trees lining the avenue.
He proceeded to the botany quarter, where he met a young woman in the adjoining rose garden, blooming with the splendour of spring's floral bounty.
“Get on with it, this isn’t a date.” The comely woman scowled, her fluttering lashes cutting the air with annoyance.
The technician smiled wryly and produced a recording crystal.
The woman impatiently placed the recording medium within a viewing device, and observed the Illusory projections held within the card-like sliver of crystalline data.
The two touched hands, then currency passed between their Storage Rings.
“They’re going to be back in two days.”
“Good. My Master will offer the same rate for the additional sessions as well.”
“No. The price is for an exclusive. You know what will happen if you cheat us, or if someone finds out.”
“I know.” The technician swallowed nervously.
“One would think so. See you in two days. Don't be found out.”
Turning on her heels, the woman in white left the maintenance officer to ponder the choices left to him. The woman was right in one regard; the opportunistic technician knew what would befall him if he tried to cheat her.
* * *
“We can use a spectre-index to represent your vital cost and expenditure numerically,” Petra pointed out helpfully as the three women poured over the data collected from the afternoon’s experimentation.
“We still haven’t carried out indexing on your Evocation Spells either, I would suggest benchmarking with Void Bolts, testing with small animals and moving up from there.”
“I want to try out Ariel’s new abilities and see if it meshes with my other spells,” Gwen informed her seniors. She needed a field of some sort. It wasn't as though Gwen could fire off blasts of Lightning in public. “Also, if Ariel could truly keep a check on Caliban, it would provide a temporary solution to one of my pressing issues.”
“You can't suppress Caliban entirely?”
“It still possesses a mind of its own, I am afraid. If it becomes overstimulated, I am not sure it will listen to my commands.”
“Can it take on a Blink-Dog form now?” Wen inquired.
“I am not sure; it’s the first time I have used the Consumption ability in that sort of setting. Normally, Caliban burrows for the cores, then consumes the creatures from within.”
"Mao below, that's terrifying," Magister winced, trying to picture the serpent borrowing under a Magical Creature's skin.
The three Mages drank their Oolong. For supper, Wen had sent the NoM staff in the building out on an errand to bring food from University Boulevard. Now they were sorting through the data while enjoying their infusions and glutinous osmanthus cakes.
“At any rate, you’re saying there’s terrific feedback from the Consume?”
Gwen nodded, chewing on the florally scented jelly. She swallowed before she spoke.
“I am positive. The feeling is indescribable, it's as though I am starving, or maybe thirsty to the point of exhaustion, and then suddenly encountering the Golden Nectar of the Dryads. Incredibly intense, I almost blacked out.”
“Do you think…”
“I hope it dulls with repetition, yeah,” Gwen replied worriedly. The sensation was one of pleasure - comparable - if she had to find an analogy, with the proverbial Soma of Huxley’s famed novel. It was delight without effort, rapture without cause, a feeling of fulfilment in the metaphysical sense, a genuine jolt of unadulterated gratification. It was cocaine. Even now she was feeling the buzz, the fuzzy aftermath of having a surge of life and mana suddenly filling her body. It was ambrosia, a moment close to immortality.
"Do you think it will be a problem?" Magister Wen asked earnestly. "We can probably do something about it via a dampening item. Maybe a Ring of Protection from Mental Command, experiment with various mental-Abjurations, that sort of thing."
"I'd like to see if its possible to resist it naturally," Gwen advised her companions. "I think I've had enough of crutches for now."
"The choice is yours, but we'll look into it regardless," Magister Wen affirmed her decision.
"Don't push yourself too hard," Petra spoke to Gwen with a worried expression.
"It's fine. I'll take care of myself. I promise."
“Your initial report from Klavdiya said that Caliban's consumption of Mages ballooned your capacity for mana, is that true?” Magister Wen continued.
Gwen nodded again.
“Do you think Consume could increase your… vitality? Become healthier? Stronger? Faster? Who knows.”
“I don’t feel any different,” Gwen confessed a half-truth. She was feeling a sense of satisfaction that was difficult to put into words.
“Are you adverse to- er... human testing?” Magister Wen dipped a finger into the water to test Gwen's tolerance.
“I AM,” Gwen retorted sternly. There was no way she was about to start murdering human beings to test out her abilities. That was the way of Elizabeth Sobel; she’s trying to hunt the monster, not become the monster. "Please, Ma'am. I don't want to harm anyone, insofar as much as we can."
“Of course, I am merely asking,” Magister Wen replied unconvincingly. “You are alright with experimenting on summoned creatures, yes?”
“I am," Gwen agreed hesitantly.
“Alright then, how about Demi-humans?” Wen tested the waters again. “Ugly, inhuman ones? I guarantee you won’t even know. We'll use nothing remotely simian.”
“Please, no…” Gwen insisted.
“Okay, I understand.” Magister Wen gave her an affirming smile. Gwen tried to hear the gears grinding in the Magister's head, but the Magister allowed nothing to escape her.
The trio looked down at the planned Papers for the next year and a half:
Initial Investigation of Void Mana to Vitality Conversion Ratio.
Affinity rate for Void Spells: A Comparison.
Void-Matter Interactions Material Data.
Effects of Consumption on the Caster:: C: G. Song F: C. Song
Longitudinal Study of the Extended Use of Void Magic:: Gwen Song
Druidic Essence Material Data.
Most of her slated tests centred around Gwen's Void talent.
Magister Wen then offered the modus ponens that the strange, pleasurable effect of the Consumption ability was both a part of Caliban’s skillset, as well as exacerbated by Gwen’s loss of the Kirin Amulet, which would have acted as a mediating force between the exchanging Void and Life energies within her body. What she was feeling now, the Magister proposed, is merely the raw, unfiltered comings and goings of rough magics violating her senses.
"Mayhap you could try to locate a second, similar device? About fifty CCs at the Tower will likely get you an answer. As for purchasing one, you might have to wait until you become capable of performing Quests for the Tower."
Wen furthermore informed Gwen that she could refuse any of the papers the Magister had planned but also promised that the research data would be used to gain her a position at the Pudong Tower as soon as she invests herself into Shanghai's political scene.
“By Second Year, I guarantee you.” Magister Wen brimmed with confidence. “With the old Magisters at Pudong, mayhap even the Magi himself taking an interest in these findings, your safety in Shanghai is assured!”
“Won’t the PLA interfere?” Gwen asked.
“That would be Pudong’s problem,” Magister Wen answered with a smirk. “With your ties to Kilroy’s apprentices, it's not as though the PLA could have a use for you, at least not without significant reconditioning. But if they did that, you’d be useless to them.”
“Don’t worry your pretty head about it.” Wen batted a casual hand to and fro. “You’re perfectly safe.”
Gwen wondered about that, but her outlook was agreeable with Magister Wen's proposal. The research helped Gwen immensely as well, allowing her far more nuanced knowledge about her abilities and their limitations, all the while performed in a relatively safe location under supervision and support.
"Well, about this spectrometer..."
* * *
As it was a Friday night and the city's vibrant 'night owls' were all out and about, Petra escorted Gwen home. Mina’s apartment occupied a very trendy part of Shanghai, and the weekend attracted all manners of unsavoury characters into the neon lights of the Bund and beyond.
“I hope our apartment is ready by Monday,” Petra commented as they passed by a troop of young men and women outside a nightclub, drawing dozens of eyes as they passed. “God, I hate places like these. So many people. All the time.”
Gwen’s Message device buzzed.
“Mina and Tao are over, how close are you to home?”
“I am with Pats, about 10 minutes, why?”
“They want to eat out, want to come along?”
“Sure, I could eat,” Gwen replied. Unlike the previous days, she did not feel the incessant hunger. It was unusual because she had most certainly excessively used Void Magic today.
“Great, tell Petra we’re going to SHOOK! on Nanking. The Address is 23 Nanjing East.”
“Alright, see you there soon.”
Gwen informed Petra, who knew of the place, and Mina, Tao and Richard soon joined the two. Mina flashed a card at the manager, and the group bypassed the half-a-block line outside and ventured straight in.
Within, the young Mages had a booth to themselves, staffed by private Waiters and a Chef who cooked Wildland cuts of tender meat on a fire-enchanted slab of stone.
Richard and Tao knocked down expensive European beers while the girls had cocktails. Gwen initially thought of ordering a mock-tail but forwent the consideration for her drinking age after becoming peer pressured by her two girlfriend-cousins.
An account of the day exchanged between them; then small-talk was made regarding their new place of residence.
“WMR Properties?” Mina raised a tapered brow as she sipped her Signature Blue-Moon. “Huh, it figures.”
“Why, what’s wrong?” Gwen turned to her cousin for some sincere advice.
“Probably nothing.” Mina shook her head. “The M in WMR belongs to The House of M, but they own lots of properties around the city anyway. WMR is a corporate conglomerate group, after all.”
“Ah, you mean Mayuree,” Gwen realised Mina's concern. “You think this is another favour?”
Mina shrugged, putting a spoonful of truffle to her lips and chewing thoughtfully before answering.
“If you were renting anywhere from Waitan to Laoximen, around the Jinan District, you’d be looked after by my Dad, so I’d dare say its fifty-fifty. The big merchant consortiums own most of the properties around the CBD.”
“Well, thanks for the heads up, I’ll keep an eye out.”
Gwen turned to see how the others were doing.
“Yeh Dawg, I am telling ya. Yo gotta come to one of our shows man! It’s the bomb. You gone be impressed, I guarantee it! Drinks on me! VIP! Yeeeah!”
Tao was extolling the virtues of his underground shows, hosted by ‘crews’ of cosmopolitan men and women who worshipped the latest trends from America.
For Gwen, if a ‘trend’ like the latest iPhone could make its way across the sea, that would be far more satisfying. Having spent almost fifteen years of her life with a smartphone, using a device capable of only Messaging and making Calls was agonising. She had no idea where things were, what district had what businesses and services, and could get lost in the city if she did not follow someone or asked for directions. Until she had carefully explored the downtown and could call herself a local, it was unlikely she would venture too far out of the CBD and the Campus district, at least not alone.
“Gwen, come on, you gotta come to one of my shows, just one!”
“Okay, Peaches. I will. I promise,” Gwen replied sweetly. “Petra and I are a little busy right now though, but definitely once things cool down.”
“Alright, alright!” Tao whooped loudly, and the two cousins made a low-five.
“Pussht!” Gwen leaned backwards dramatically, expecting Tao to do likewise.
“…” Tao stared at her as though he’d slapped her, which was what Gwen's sideways tilt, followed by the strange sound effect, seemed to them.
The others turned to look at Gwen as well, searching her face for answers.
Gwen felt her pale complexion flush pink and beetroot.
Ah nuts, she blinked. She could guess by now that this world did not have six seasons of Fresh Prince to culture them in the art of the low-five.