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 and Richard took inventory of what they needed, then had Tao's chauffeur drive them around town for furniture, toiletry, and other necessities of life in a 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.
Comparatively, Caliban proved to be a superior research subject. Now that it was being summoned to feed, the creature grew far more compliant. Warming up to Magus Kumiko, the sometimes-serpent, sometimes-toad, occasional-spider-cum-centipede ravaged the magical chattel, all the while purring like a kitten.
When Gwen commanded Caliban to transform into lunch, meaning everything from felines to crawlers, her beast grew frustrated and disruptive.
"Maybe it only transforms into creatures it bests, in the wild. Like in a ritualistic bout." Petra offered an unlikely proposition.
Gwen was thinking more so of Faceless and how the void-woman thing had tried to consume her body by submerging her ego into a pool of corrosive pitch. Or mayhap it had something to do with Creature Cores or even power tiers, but that would take real-world evidence.
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 made her flush with shame, was the euphoric pleasure that came with Caliban's Consumption.
Having lived as an adult prior, she wouldn't quite say that Consumption was 'better than sex', but it was undoubtedly a feeling of pleasure. To rationalise the peculiar attraction of the unbidden euphoria, she would compare its metaphysical ecstasy to a smoker who, after seventy-two hours going cold turkey, finally torched a Marlborough to his lips.
A few times, as Caliban tore and ripped at its meal like a wood chipper, all she could do was ward herself against the growing desire for more of these moments of transient rapture.
But in the end, it was manageable. In Gwen's old life, she was a woman of many pleasures; she liked her fine dining, theatre, shoes, couture, and with the money she made, few vices were out of her reach.
Even so, she never reneged on her exercise regime, her yoga, or her sessions with Doctor Monroe.
She was exhausted most days. But at the very least, she never lost control.
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 an 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. 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, her cousin 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.
"I never knew you could make such a small space so..." Petra struggled for words. "...spacious."
Gwen thanked her cousin for the praise, then reminded herself that she needed to contact the Pudong Tower to install that LR Communication Projector and Petra for permission, which she gave.
After the NoM cleaners returned to clean up again, Gwen oversaw Richard's renovations next door. 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, and a host of bric-a-bracs that had arrived while Gwen was busy with her side of things. On one wall, a lascivious leggy blonde riding a ten-foot wand with the tag "Blast Em!" insinuatingly adorned the central space. On another, Richard had beer adverts collected from God knows where. The place 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 ancient fridge and the Magitech equivalent of a micro-oven. "...Did you get these?"
"My co-workers donated these." Richard grinned. "For saving their lives a few dozen times."
Gwen exhaled with pride—Richard has known these men for 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 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 pairs of blouses, jackets, blazers, shorts and other assorted accessories.
Naturally, she desired more.
There would be frequent gatherings, socials, outings, interviews and meet-and-greets in her immediate, three-year future. At the very least, a secondary walk-in closet was quintessential in living life to the fullest.
The following two weeks thus came and went without incident, and her busy schedule soon drowned out the euphoria of living in a new home.
Thanks to their frequent absence, the renovation upstairs wasn't nearly as bad as Manager Xie made it out to be. Both herself and Petra left the apartment in the morning, as did Richard, whose work ensured he was rarely home.
Gwen called her grandmother every few days, even though she was sure that Petra would have reported their comings and goings with the precision of a military report. In turn, her grandmother spoke a little about the development at home, such as her father returning to Hebei to train, her uncle's advice for her to stay safe, and then there was Percy.
Thanks to Guo's overt nepotism, Percy was accepted into Shanghai's Xiangming High School, the most prestigious government-sponsored school in the region. Within, 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, followed by 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 probably would. "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 Wen's connection. Her instructor, Magus Kumiko, offered to accompany her, but only if Caliban did not appear.
Ariel was proving to be a true boon now possessed the means to manifest most of her spells externally.
"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.
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. 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.
"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, and even then, it's a matter of luck. 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, for the ghost-flames were as soft as silk. Onibi was a thing from the Positive Elemental plane. Ariel was a being of Air and Positive mana. In this way, both Familiars were fast to make friends.
"Shall we try some target practice?" the helpful Magus offered, likely mindful of Wen's orders to keep Gwen on her feet.
"Sure." Gwen closed her eyes for a moment of introspection. "With Onibi here, let's drain the mana pool!"
Gwen awoke to the most god-awful sound imaginable on the Prime Material.
"Do not use the levitation platform!"
"W-Wha?" She slid 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 who would set an apartment on fire to get at herself or Petra?
"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 it's best to go."
Comforted, Gwen rolled out of bed and searched for something to wear. She wasn't too worried now, for all of her essential documents remained safely in her Storage 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 her cousin must be hoping to make a sizeable sum before their semester officially began, for he would have few opportunities for labour once the academic term consumed all their time. It was a shame, for Lea would have snuffed the flamed with a wink.
"Do not use the levitation platform!"
"Bloody hell, I can't even hear myself think!" Gwen groaned as she struggled into her attire. The two girls met their annoyed neighbours in the stairwell, who were likewise fleeing down the stairs.
"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 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 took advantage of their captive audience.
"Miss Kuznetsova! 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 frigid resting-bitch face, dozens of eager eyes shot toward the two girls, and soon the courtyard was liberally whispering about "Miss Kuznetsova", 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 Kuznetsova."
"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 an 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 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 petite and cute, with large and luminous eyes that made her look younger than her actual age. She wore a pink terrycloth set in the Juicy Couture style prevalent in Gwen's old world, drawing Gwen's eye.
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 with the eye-liners greeted Gwen with a grin. "What are the chances?"
"M-Mayuree?!" Gwen blurted out the name.
"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 Tetris 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 that the safety devices were not deactivated.
"It's because that was originally my 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." Marong leaned back into the couch without any sign that he felt any danger from Gwen and Petra.
The young man yawned.
"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?"
"For shame!" 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 sighed. "Gwen, is this the Diviner you were talking about?"
"Yes, Ariel's benefactor," Gwen said.
"It was a trade!" Mayuree insisted. "A downpayment."
"So you're the one who foretold 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.
"And you're the infamous Miss Kuznetsov of Fudan." Marong smacked his lips together appreciatively. "Simply exquisite."
Petra glared at the man.
"If only your servant girl were here, Mia. She could be making us some tea while we feud." Marong looked about them with impatience. "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 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 are 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. "This time, 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 with far too much familiarity.
"Alright, come in then. We can talk in private," Gwen offered. She was interested 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."
Mayuree watched Petra leave, then turned to Gwen. "Wow. The one and only Petra Kuznetsova, in the flesh! She's as beautiful as the rumours say."
"Yep. Petra's a top sheila," Gwen agreed.
"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 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 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 then my brother barged in with his people, then I had to concede the master bed if I wanted to stay here at all."
"And you agreed? What a sadist! What's his game?"
"Well… I don't know. I wasn't going to Divine it..." Mayuree tried to place Marong but appeared as lost as ever. "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 the Diviner's natural innocence gave her the air of a kicked kitten.
"You're okay with being neighbours then? Even with Marong?" Mayuree asked.
"Well, if you don't mind and if I don't have a choice. Do you think your brother is going to be a danger? What's your deal anyway? Why are you here?"
"I got a half-scholarship for Fudan," 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. Do you mind?"
"I wouldn't mind that. I don't know anyone here, except for the people you've already met." Gwen gazed at the ceiling.
"That's wonderful!" 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?"
"Yes, she's the one with a full scholarship."
"Oh?" Gwen noted with surprise. So that's the other winner of the LCSS. When she thought back on it, the Wind Mage had demonstrated control far superior to hers. Comparatively, she was the immoral backdoor cheater who'd snatched her LCSS placement like a bandit 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 home country, and she's a kitchen muse. 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."
"She lives in the what?"
"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."
"Jesus…" Gwen looked at the ceiling once more.
There was a maybe fire. And there was a living, breathing human being also hiding in the fucking pantry the entire time? What was she, Dobby the house-elf? Would Mia's maid take socks in exchange for freedom?
"So… breakfast? I'll get Aunty to make something nice."
"Alright." Gwen relented, still wondering about the Scullery Maid. She also wanted to speak to Marong again to ask why he had intruded 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.
Out of paranoia, she checked their apartment's pantry just in case an NoM house elf came with the utilities. Thankfully, theirs was cramped and small and could only fit Gwen's SPAM boxes, instant ramen, and a rice cooker Petra had brought.
Satisfied, Gwen returned to bed. Hoping to God that Marong would not set off the fire alarm again.