A day later, Manager Xie called and told the girls that they could pick up the keys from the office whenever they desired. As such, the girls took inventory of what they needed, then had Tao’s chauffeur drive them, as well as Richard, around town picking out furniture, toiletry, as well as other necessities of life for the latter half of Saturday until finally receiving the keys to their new apartment.
Sunday, the girls returned with Magister Wen to the Yi-Fu Spellcraft Building and continued preliminary testing, recording Gwen’s biometric fluctuation as she fired off Void Bolt after Void Bolt.
“Minimal rebounds from your Evocation spells,” Magister Wen observed somewhat disappointedly. A dozen summoned creatures perished under Gwen’s spells before her Druidic Essence waned, but they could not replicate the fabled vampiric effect of the Void.
Caliban proved to be a superior research subject.
Now aware that it was being summoned to feed, the creature became far more compliant. Warming up to Magus Kumiko, the sometimes-serpent, sometimes-toad, occasional-spider and centipede monstrosity ravaged the magical chattel summoned by the Magus, all the while purring like a kitten.
When Gwen tried to command Caliban to transform into the creatures it had consumed, everything from scarlet-furred felines, carrion crawlers, dire wolves to even a horned-bear, the beast became frustrated and disruptive.
“Maybe it only transforms into creatures it bests, in the wild. Like in a ritualistic bout.” Petra made an unusual and unlikely proposition.
Gwen was thinking more so of Faceless, and how the void-woman-thing had tried to consume her body by taking it into its morphic form as though submerging her into a pool of corrosive pitch. Maybe it had something to do with creature cores, or perhaps power levels, or, as Petra said, it was about besting the opponent.
Under Wen and Kumiko’s watchful eye, she attempted both Consuming feeder-summons, as well as having Caliban wail away without using its Gila-ability. Though there was no conclusive answer to that hypothesis, Gwen did confirm that without her Kirin amulet, she was most definitely receiving the lion’s share of the vitality consumed by her void-Familiar.
Her new problem, which she felt best kept to herself, at least for now, was the persistence and consistency of the euphoric pleasure that came with Caliban’s consumption.
Being a woman of experience, she wouldn’t quite say that Consumption was ‘better than sex’, but it was undoubtedly a penultimate feeling of pleasure. To rationalise the peculiar attraction of the unbidden euphoria, she couldn’t help but think of the time Morye tried to cold turkey his smoking addiction; after forty-eight hours of cold sweats and dark mumblings, her father put a Marlborough to his lips and made a face like he'd entered nirvana.
A few times, her spine tingled when Caliban tore and ripped at its meal like a wood chipper turned roaring and thrumming, onto a cowering magical beast abducted from the Orange Zones. The omen was clear, but Gwen knew the danger - when it came to the Void, merely existing was a risk. At any rate, all she could do was ward herself against pursuing these all-consuming moments of transient rapture.
I can do it! Gwen told herself, confident that she could handle it. In her old world, Gwen herself was a woman of many habits; she liked her fine dining, her theatre, her shoes, her couture, but substances had never been her vice.
Exhausted and tired, Gwen returned to Mina’s apartment and readied herself for another big day.
* * *
When Monday arrived, Gwen, Petra and Richard came to their new abodes, removal truck in tow, and began to furnish their new homes. Magister Wen had lent Petra her Large Storage Ring, allowing Petra to pack all of her belongings from her B3 apartment in one convenient sweep.
Gwen took the room with the larger window at Petra’s behest, who insisted that she desired little more than a place to wash and sleep close to the campus. The girls laughed and made chit-chatter while their white goods arrived, followed by a contemporary couch, a dining set in the Saarinen Tulip style, a luxurious high-pile rug to warm their feet on the sofa, and a Noguchi coffee table.
When the living room was finally set up, Petra couldn’t help but marvel at the simplistic beauty of it. They had a Vid-caster on the far wall, a scandi cabinet in white polyethene and oak, equal-distantly framed by a glass coffee table and a low-back couch that made the room far more spacious than she had anticipated. When the workmen were done with their bedrooms, Petra marvelled at the ergonomic use of vertical space in a way that seemed natural and not all cluttered.
Gwen reminded herself that she needed to contact the Pudong Tower to install that LR Communication Projector, wondering if Petra was okay with having a crystal-core LRC Device located in the midst of their common area. The project had a slight delay though, for Gwen needed to access Fudan's Towers to trade in her CCs.
After the NoM cleaners made another round, collecting bits of cardboard, Gwen went next door to oversee Richard’s renovations. Her cousin, whose adolescence survived the dorms of Prince’s College, transformed his small living room into a bachelor pad. Lacking a Vid-Caster, Richard congregated four eclectic-themed couches, a battered table amongst a bric-a-brac of things that had arrived while Gwen was busy with her side of things. An old, iron-plate advert of a lascivious leggy blonde riding a ten-foot wand with the tag 'blasting away' insinuatingly adorned a back wall. The room resembled, Gwen realised, someone's idea of a college student's abode and Gwen couldn't help but wonder how much of it was Richard, and how much of it was for show.
“Where in the world…” Gwen marvelled at the fridge and the Magitech equivalent of a micro-oven. “...Did you get these?”
“Ha, I mentioned that I was moving and starting university, and some of my co-workers donated these.” Richard grinned.
Gwen felt immensely impressed. Richard had worked with the work crew less than a week, and they were already donating all their second-hand white goods and spare couches. As for the quality of the donations, she couldn’t say, but the gesture was something she could appreciate.
Returning to her room, Gwen saw Petra busily personalising her own, inspiring Gwen to return to hers to do the same. She carefully laid out her arsenal of attires which she’d acquired in her travels as well as salvaged from Sydney, then took account of her war chest: T-shirts by the dozen in pastel and plain. Skirts in the twenties, jeans in the tens and half a dozen pair of blouses, jackets, blazers, shorts and other assorted bric-a-brac accessories all poured into the built-in-wardrobe. Finally, she once again possessed ample space in her Storage Ring.
She would need to purchase more outfits, of course. There would be frequent gatherings, socials, outings, interviews and meet-and-greets in the immediate, three-year future. The golden vestige of teenagehood was the prime of a young woman’s life. Having been given a second chance, Gwen was keen to live it to the fullest.
* * *
The next two weeks thus came and went without incident, and the euphoria of living in a new home was soon drowned out by the noise of her busy schedule.
The renovation upstairs wasn’t nearly as bad as Manager Xie made it out to be thanks to their frequent absence. Gwen left the apartment with Petra early in the morning, as did Richard, whose work made him more often away from home than not.
Every few days, Gwen called her grandmother, even if she was sure that Petra would have reported their comings and goings with the precision of a military report. Her grandmother spoke a little about the development at home; her father's returning to Hebei to train, her uncle’s advice for her to stay safe, and then there was Percy.
Thanks to Guo calling in some favours, Percy was accepted into 'The' Shanghai Xiangming High School, the most prestigious government-sponsored school in the city. It meant that her brother would receive the best education under the most experienced tutors, in addition to placing firmly under the auspice of the PLA, for the school almost exclusively produced Mages who went on to join Jiantong University, and then a PLA career track.
“That’s wonderful news,” Gwen said nothing else and mentioned nary a word about the Kirin amulet. Her babulya likely already knew about her dilemma, and if she could have done something about it, she likely would. Nagging would only make her grandmother feel worse. “Would you like to come and see our apartment?”
Her grandmother promised she would - when work at the Experimental Hospital allowed.
In the intervening time, Gwen managed to book a private training hall through Petra’s connection. Her instructor-to-be, Magus Kumiko, offered to accompany her, but only if Caliban would not make an appearance. The Void-beast had grown obnoxiously fond of the master Summoner, seeing her as an indispensable fount of Wildland treats.
“EEeeeeEEEE! EEEE!! EEE~”
“OH. MY. GOD! Sorry! Are you okay?!”
Performing a ranged Flashbang, Ariel manifested the spell in front of its face and became instantly blinded and deafened, causing it to collapse onto the ground and writhe in epileptic ecstasy.
"Poor Ariel! I'll kiss it better, okay?"
Gwen congealed a droplet of her Druidic Essence and fed it to the marten. Ariel took the emerald dew within its lips, then sprang to renewed life, dashing to and fro with such haste as to resemble a bolt of lightning itself. She could feel her empathic link going into overdrive as the marten blazed across the training field, tearing up the conjured bitumen. She had tried to assuage Caliban in an earlier outburst of frustration and wilfulness, but the Void creature appeared ambivalent about the source of Gwen's primordial Lightning.
As the marten recovered, Gwen considered her new options.
It would seem that Ariel's horns could only duplicate her Evocation spells, allowing for a twin-cast from both herself and the creature, so long as she channelled the mana for both of them. As such, it seemed that the best way to abuse Ariel’s horns was to load up on Conjuration herself, then together with the marten, unleash Evocation spells from both herself and through her pet at an opponent’s blindside. In theory, the strategy seemed sound to both herself and Magus Kumiko, as Ariel could be mauling an opponent one second, then blast them with a bolt of Lightning a few inches away from their face. Gwen imagined the Hasted marten shimming up a Mage's trouser leg, and then- Zap!
“An exceptional ability and one rarely manifested.” Magus Kumiko observed approvingly. “It takes an incredibly dense and well-preserved core to pass on such a talent. Where did you find such a thing?”
“A favour,” Gwen confessed enigmatically.
“Beware of favours,” her instructor advised.
“I know.” Gwen agreed wholeheartedly.
Onibi floated toward the marten and nudged it. The marten purred and rubbed its face on the flames. Gwen knew that the ghostly fire felt more like strands of silk. Onibi was a thing from the Positive Elemental plane, and that was why it found rapport with Ariel, who was a being of Air and Positive mana, though mostly unstable positive mana; just as Caliban was primarily hungering Negative energy.
“Shall we try some target practice?” the helpful Magus offered, as much for her curiosity as any other. When one whetted a knife, there was always the overwhelming desire to test out its keenness.
“Sure.” Gwen closed her eyes for a moment of introspection. Even now, she marvelled at the volume of mana welling within her Astral Form. “I got plenty left in me yet.”
* * *
Gwen awoke to the most god-awful sound imaginable on the Material Plane.
“Do not use the levitation platform!”
“W-Wha?” Gwen pulled out of her blankets, pyjamas akimbo and half-asleep with grogginess.
“Gwen!” Petra burst through her door, wearing nought but her intimates. “There’s a fire somewhere in the building. We need to go.”
“Oh God,” Gwen groaned. “No! No! No! Not when Richard is away!”
They had just settled in for two weeks! How could she lose her home now? Her mind immediately thought of the potential of the fire being a scheme of some sort, but no one knew nor cared enough about herself nor Petra to set an apartment on fire, surely?
“It’s just an evacuation alarm." Petra read the panic on Gwen’s face. “There shouldn’t be any danger, I don’t sense any smoke, and there’s nothing I can see from the winter garden. We should be safe, but its best to go.”
Gwen rolled out of bed and searched for something to wear, finding a pair of stretch-pants and a light-weight parka to cover herself. All of her essential documents remained safely in her Ring, if the apartment should genuinely perish, all she would have lost was her wardrobe and her new furniture.
“Where’s Richard gone?” Petra asked.
“Working late. Staying on-site.”
Richard increased his part-time hours now that they had settled into the apartment. Gwen figured that her cousin must be hoping to make a sizeable sum before their semester officially began, for he would have scant opportunity for labour once the academic term consumed all their time. If Richard had been here, Gwen would not have entertained a single thought of being endangered by wayward flames. Surely, with Lea’s help and a liberal sprinkle from the Elemental Plane of Water, any fire could be quickly doused.
“Do not use the levitation platform!”
“Bloody hell, I can’t even hear myself think!” Gwen groaned as she struggled into her attire. Petra emerged a moment later in a singlet and her yoga pants.
The two girls made for the fire escape after locking their apartment, meeting their neighbours who were likewise fleeing down the stairs with faces full of annoyance and simmering anger.
“Do not use the levitation platform!”
The alarm system drowned out all conversation as the girls followed the crowd to the meeting point below, where already over a hundred residents chit-chattered, looking straight upward at the building and trying to figure out what was wrong.
The midnight air of Shanghai’s spring was stifling as usual, and the girls found themselves sweating despite their light attire. Such was the humidity of the weather, exacerbated by the thick mass of mana pollutants that hung like a miasma over the city.
“Hi, I am from 21-03.”
Within minutes, seeing the two girls alone and by themselves, a few bored and enterprising young men from the dorms were taking advantage of the enforced intimacy. Petra ignored them entirely, but Gwen shook hands with a few of them and introduced them as students from the university.
“Miss Kuznetsov! Is that you?” A young man uttered in disbelief once he came closer and saw Petra’s face, stunning even without any makeup. “I am… I can’t believe we live in the same building! To think we’re neighbours! I thought you lived in B3.”
Petra stared at the young man coldly until he apologised and made a retreat. Despite her putting up a frigid resting-bitch face, dozens of eager eyes shot toward the two girls, and soon the courtyard was liberally whispering about 'Miss Kuznetsov', as well as inquiring as to who the girl next to the celebrated ‘Ice Queen’ of Fudan was.
“Maybe a relative? She looks like a gweilo as well,” A girl commented.
“I think so; she’s almost as tall as Miss Kuznetsov…”
“Do you think she attends Fudan?”
“She must, she just said so to Lee.”
“I’ve never seen her in class though.”
It took a good ten minutes or so for the Fire Fighters to arrive. Gwen understood from reading PSA's that there was a Mage variant of Fire Fighters and there was the NoM variant. As the fire presented itself as non-destructive and localised, the NoM variety arrived to assuage the residents.
Another ten minutes passed where Gwen was harassed by interested parties, politely diffusing the situation with sweet smiles, vapid giggles and generous handshakes, with Petra watching on as though she had no involvement in her cousin’s predicament.
“Alright, everyone! You can go home. False Alarm! False Alarm!” the Fire Marshall declared.
“What the fuck?”
“Wocao! Stupid alarm.”
“Kaonima! Whoever set this off!”
“Who the hell triggered it!”
“Shit, I got to work in 2 hours!”
“I have a paper due in 5!”
Grumbling and far from happy, the crowd returned to the building.
Not wanting to be crushed by the weight of the people crowding the lifts, Gwen and Petra decided to take a walk around the perimeter and take in the ambiently lit rock garden at B1's exterior before returning to the main lobby.
As they entered the foyer, Gwen couldn’t help but have her eyes drawn to a pair of siblings also waiting for the levitation platform.
The familiar-looking girl was small and petite, cute with large and luminous eyes that made her look younger than her real age. She wore a pink terrycloth set in the Juicy Couture style prevalent in Gwen’s old world, tapering to her body with a tailored fit.
Beside her, a young man stood languishingly, not much taller than the girl beside him, attired in a grey-white set of matching tracks. He turned to the girls with a sheepish grin, blowing out a stream of smoke.
“Fancy meeting you here,” the man distinctly recognised by his love of eye-liners greeted Gwen. “What are the chances, hey?”
“M-Mayuree?!” Gwen blurted out a name that wasn’t much surprise.
“M-Marong?!” she then blurted out a name that was most definitely a surprise.
“What are the two of you doing here?” Gwen heard the blocks falling into place in her head even as the words escaped her lips; the two pissed off ex-tenants, the eager Manager, the sweet-rental deal, clicking into place.
“Ahahaha…” Mayuree’s flustered, embarrassed face looked as though she was about to burst into tears. “Hello, neighbours.”
* * *
“You set off the smoke glyph?!” Gwen didn’t know what else to say.
It was Marong who had set off the alarm. It was the Para-Elemental Mage’s first day staying in the penthouse suite, and he had entirely neglected the fact that unlike his own home, none of the safety devices in the newly renovated apartment was deliberately deactivated.
“It’s because that was originally my Master's-Suite…” Mayuree sulked, hugging a pillow on the L shaped couch resting on the lower-floor of the mezzanine. Above them, a glass-cage construction looked out over the campus, where the two Fudan Towers were fully visible, aglow with diffusing mana.
“Quit your sulking, Mia, the guest rooms all have ensuite too.” Marong leaned back into the couch without any sign that he’d thought himself in danger from Gwen and Petra.
The young man yawned then turned to the girls.
“I am more so surprised you’re here speaking with us.” Marong cocked his head toward Gwen questioningly. “Last we met, you were positively skittish!”
“Are you alright?” Gwen ignored the brother's goading and turned to Mayuree. “Is he bullying you, Mia?”
“Wocao!” Marong protested. “You make me sound like a scoundrel.”
“You are a villain! Meanie! Idiot!” Mayuree retorted churlishly.
“I take it you all know each other then?” Petra felt as though she was having the wool pulled over her eyes. “This is the Diviner you were talking about?”
“Yes, Ariel’s benefactor,” Gwen snickered.
“It was a trade!” Mayuree insisted. “A downpayment.”
“You shouldn’t have told your fortune,” Petra noted critically, looking the girl up and down as Mayuree clutched her pillow tighter. Petra's husky-blue eyes had that effect on small animals.
“So you’re the infamous Miss Kuznetsov of Fudan,” Marong smacked his lips together appreciatively. “Simply exquisite.”
"Mmmph,” Petra grumbled at him.
“And the infamous Void Sorceress. A pleasure.”
Gwen met Marong's inquisitive eyes.
“If only Kitty were here, she could be making us some tea,” Marong announced regretfully, holding his gaze without the slightest deviation. “Alas, our little storm in a teacup will not arrive until the semester starts.”
“Kitty is not my servant!” Mayuree hissed at her brother. "She's my friend!"
“And Gwen too is a friend. A friend to us both, right?” Marong smirked at Gwen.
"Maybe when we get to know each other a little more," Gwen chided the offensively confident Marong. "I am on Mia's side, after all."
"Ha!" Marong huffed disingenuously.
“At any rate, we should get back,” Gwen interrupted Marong’s self-aggrandising banter. “Mia, I know that you’re to thank for our lodgings, and I certainly don’t mind that we’re neighbours. If there's something you want to talk to me about, come to my apartment.”
“Sleep well!” Marong called out, waving a hand casually in the air. “The detector better be off! I could kill for a smoke...”
Gwen and Petra left the penthouse, followed closely by Mayuree.
“Look, I can explain. Please let me explain.” Mayuree followed them out the door, touching Gwen's arm over familiarly.
“Come down with us? We can talk in private,” Gwen offered. She was interested too, in how Marong came to be their menace-in-residence.
“Right now?” Mayuree hadn’t expected Gwen to be forgiving.
“Yep, come on.”
The three girls returned to 2203.
“Wow, nice setup!” Mayuree marvelled at Gwen’s contemporary living room when she entered. The girls set themselves up on the couch, and Petra poured the two of them each a glass of water.
“I am going to bed, scream if you need help,” the Mineral Mage quipped, then retreated to her room.
Mayuree watched Petra leave.
“The one and only Petra Kuznetsov, in the flesh!” Mayuree intoned with awe. “She’s as beautiful as the rumours say.”
“Petra’s a good sheila,” Gwen agreed. “She’s a ripper of a gal.”
“S-she-la?” Mayuree tried to replicate the slang without success. “Gwen. I am sorry I didn’t let you know beforehand!”
“It’s fine.” Gwen was starting to feel a bit guilty. She got an apartment that she couldn’t have otherwise accessed, for half the price, and now the bringer of her boon was apologising? There was only so much advantage a girl could take before she should blush for shame. “Look, I am happy and thankful. I owe you another one. “
“You’re not mad, are you?” Mayuree came closer to her face.
“No! Of course not.” Gwen took Mayuree’s hand to assure the girl, while moving her face further away. “I am more worried about you. Are things okay with your brother?”
“My half-brother,” Mayuree confessed candidly. “I don’t know. I moved some of my people to get this penthouse sorted out, but my brother barged in halfway with his people, then I had to concede the Master bedroom to him if I wanted to stay here at all.”
“And you agreed? What if he’s pushing you around? What's his game?”
“Well… I don't know. I wasn't going to Divine it...” Mayuree tried to place Marong, but even she felt lost for words. “He’s a peculiar sibling, I guess. I wouldn’t exactly call him malicious or cruel. He likes his jokes, and his jokes always go a little far. This one time when we're young, he set a goblin on me to see how long I could run before..."
“That’s abuse, hon.” Gwen patted the poor girl on the hand. “You should report that.”
“I don't think anyone would have cared until injuries started happening...” Mayuree looked the very picture of pity. "My family is... openly competitive."
Gwen felt her maternal feelings skyrocket. Mayuree wasn’t cute like Elvia, but there was a natural innocence about the Diviner that made one want to protect her, not unlike the feeling one got when holding a kitten or a puppy.
“You’re okay with being neighbours then? Even with Marong?”
“Yeah, he seems like an alright sort to me, to be honest. It’s fine to be a bastard when you're young. Kids are cruel. I am fine so long as he leaves you alone. Do you think he’s going to be a danger? What’s your deal anyway? Why are you here?”
“I got a half-scholarship,” Mayuree informed her. “I thought we could attend school together.”
“Can we even attend the same course?” Gwen asked sceptically.
“We can hang out on campus.” Mayuree came closer yet again. “I just wanted us to be close, for you know, reasons.”
“I wouldn't mind that. I don’t know anyone here, except for the people you’ve already met.” Gwen slid back an inch.
“That’s wonderful news!” Mayuree replied happily, then caught herself. “I mean, I am sure you’ll make new friends.”
“I hope so too. Did Marong say Kitty is staying with you as well?”
“Yeppers, she’s the one with full-scholarship.”
“Oh?” Gwen noted with surprise. So that’s the other winner of the LCSS. When she thought back on it though, the Wind Mage had demonstrated control far superior to hers. Her casting speed, tactical choice, and even her ability to use Flight both defensively and offensively, were leagues above Gwen’s. As for herself, she could only admit that for all intents and purposes, she was the immoral backdoor cheater who’d snatched her LCSS placement like a bandit before fleeing the scene of her crime.
“I hope you can work well together,” Mayuree prophesied hopefully. Her imploring puppy eyes made Gwen all the more guilt-ridden.
“I am sure we will,” Gwen assured her. “Look, it's getting late. How about we convene for breakfast tomorrow?”
“Sure! Come to the apartment! We have an Aunty there who will make it! She’s from the main house, and she’s a muse of the kitchen. Cantonese style, Japanese, Korean, Western, whatever you want, she can make it.”
“An Aunty? Your aunt is living with you?”
“Not an actual Aunty!" Mayuree corrected Gwen, "Our NoM Maid, she’s in the kitchen.”
“Wha? I was just there. There was no one.”
“I mean the pantry; she lives in the pantry. There’s a Maid’s room in it.”
“The p-pantry? Where was she when the fire went off?”
“We weren't in any danger, so she stayed behind.”
Gwen furrowed her brows and tried to imagine the strange spectacle. There was a living, breathing human being who was living, hiding, residing- in the fucking pantry the entire time, listening to them banter? What was she, Dobby the house elf? Did the Maid take socks in exchange for freedom?
“So… breakfast? I’ll get the Aunty to make something nice,” Mayuree beseeched Gwen expectantly.
“Alright,” Gwen relented, still wondering about the Scullery Maid. She also wanted to speak to Marong again, at any rate, see if she could press some information from the man as to why he was intruding into their lives.
“Okay! I’ll let her know. She’ll probably have to start baking. Western okay?” Mayuree answered happily before leaving Gwen’s apartment, satisfied that she would see her new friend again in six hours.
Gwen breathed out and returned to her living room from the door, shaking her head. Mayuree was, in a word, suffocating. Out of paranoia, she checked their apartment’s pantry, in case a NoM house elf came with the utilities. Thankfully, theirs was cramped and small and could only fit some plates, boxes of instant noodles, cases of SPAM, and a rice cooker Petra had bought with her.
Satisfied, Gwen returned to bed. Hoping to God that Marong would not set off the fire alarm again.