Gwen was up again at 8 AM, ready to meet the world ahead. Richard was already gone, having left at 7 AM for his Questing credits. She and Petra made breakfast, drank their coffees, then went their separate ways.
A cloudy horizon hung over the vista, with looming clouds hinting at thunder. Gwen took precautions by switching to her thrifted boots and jeans, made casual and unassuming by a V-neck Tee. When she put on an old Tee, the fabric appeared to have shrunk in the wash, leaving a smidgeon of flesh exposed about her navel.
No biggie, Gwen narcissistically admired her teenage figure; there was a particular window of opportunity in a girl’s life when a little mid-riff was not only acceptable but fresh and delightful. Satisfied, she stowed a water-proof jacket in her ring and left the apartment.
Bestiary and Care of Familiars took place down on the lower campus, south of Guoding Rd. The tiered construction of the arena reminded Gwen of rice paddies as she descended the stairs into the concavity of its exterior landscaping. According to Petra, Daishan Stadium tapped into a leyline that bisected the Guanhua Towers and the five-path epicentre of Wujiaochang.
The reason for this exorbitant feat of engineering became apparent when Gwen reached the mezzanine and spied in front of her a vast field almost 50 meters across and over 100 meters wide. Surrounding the platform was a circular arrangement of bleachers twenty chairs deep at the shallowest dip and over fifth rows at the highest nosebleed section.
Here was the home ground for the Fudan University teams, where various competitors vied for magical dominion across a dozen Spellcraft sports. According to Petra, here was where the final selection of the Fudan Inter-University team would take place. First, they would be shortlisted based on accomplishments and accolades; then the top twenty could challenge one another for placement positions in single matches or team contests; ultimately producing five core and five reserve members to participate in the illustrious International Inter-University Competition.
Taking a deep breath, Gwen entered a side entrance where a corridor led her down toward the containment field array below. Here the Bestiary class took place, below the arena, where facilities double-dutied in the off-season as holding pens for Summoned beasts and Familiars, allowing them to square off against one another, obtain metrics for their skills and practice fending off a variety of Magical Creatures.
She saw a few familiar faces from her Conjuration class in the Bestiary section, as well as a few new students which Gwen assumed to be her seniors. As she entered the underground, an instructor arrived from the bay door where two vice-like panels of steel unfolded, resembling a giant maw. It was a bulkhead freight section, Gwen recognised the contraption from her journey to Singapore. In the event of failed Force Shields, the steel bulkheads offered significant impediment to all but the most powerful of elemental creatures.
The instructor himself was a grizzled Asian man with a square face and small beady eyes that glinted with intelligence. His distinguishing feature was a nose that was deformed and askew as if someone had struck its bridge repeatedly. Rather than a seasoned Mage, the shabby, dishevelled attire of the man reminded Gwen of a NoM machinist.
“My name is Instructor Chen Hufei,” Chen announced himself. “I am a simple Conjurer, not a Magus and certainly not a Magister, so no need for formalities. My highest rank in the PLA was as an NCO, so don't worry about that either.”
A slight murmur echoed around the underground chamber.
“I have, nonetheless, served with the 42nd Battalion and 83rd PLA Canton Division across four Tours of Duty and two Purges. Since retiring from the PLA, I held the position of Warden for the Canton Wildland Reserve for over two decades. Rest assured that the training you will receive, and the advice you shall receive is the result of experience and experimentation, each tailored to your specific needs. Any questions?”
The room fell silent.
“Good. For those of you in possession of Spirits, proceed to Sectors 5 - 12, I will be overseeing your training. For those of you with mundane Familiars, proceed to Sectors 22 - 27. Sergeant Pei will be overseeing your training.”
The groups began to split. There was an air of expectant haughtiness from those already gifted with spirits.
“Is there a Gwen Song?” Chen called out suddenly.
“I am here, Sir,” Gwen answered.
As expected, a dozen pair of eyes from both sides to centred upon her. Gwen felt less conscious in her jeans than when she wore a dress but moved her hands across her midriff nonetheless. The body was prideful but the mind, the mind was very self-conscious indeed.
“You’re with this side.”
She peeled from the first group to mixed expressions of confusion, disappointment and envy, then joined the second group, whose faces remained dismissive. No one would claim to be No. 1 in Spellcraft, but extreme competitiveness typified the academic field. A particular arrogance bred by unceasing contest was that until proven, all Mages fancied themselves better than their uncontested peers. The same especially applied to Mages from the Clans and Sects, who thought themselves naturally superior to the ‘organic’ variety of grassroots students.
There were five members with Gwen’s group, all of whom were older than her. They were four young men and one girl. The girl Gwen recognised from her Conjuration class. The men were likely Second Years.
Gwen followed behind them, mindful of the junior and senior system that the university seemed to have inherited from the old Confucian Analects. They soon arrived in sector 5.
The ‘chamber’ was a misnomer in itself as they were under the stadium and in the belly of what Gwen saw as an underground carpark. The sectors were themselves simple micro-arenas closed off by bulkhead doors a dozen meters wide and four meters high, which ran parallel and perpendicular to the massive concrete pillars that held up the superstructure above.
“Alright everyone, let’s introduce yourselves.”
Gwen’s companions arranged themselves in chronological order by seniority, with Gwen standing at the back row looking awkward as she loomed almost half a head taller than the tallest man present. She was the same height as Feihu, their Instructor, but her ankle-length boots added another inch-and-a-half atop her gangly frame, giving her the likeness of a crane among bobbing chooks.
“Nihao everyone! I am Ji Lu, I am a tier 5 Conjurer, and this is my Spirit partner, Ahu.”
A burst of flames escaped from the Mage’s chest and formed into a cat with intelligent eyes. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that the orange tabby was a tiger-spirit, portending its destructive potential.
A round of golf claps echoed through the chamber.
“Hello, my name is Chan Baoguo, I am a tier 4 Conjurer and Tier 3 Transmuter; this is Feifei.”
Following Lu's fire was water. Baoguo’s animal was a water bird of some sort, mayhap a crane or a shallow-water stalker. The summoned crane obediently followed its Master and stood to the side, fully understanding its partner's orders.
The next student had an unassuming water-sprite as well, a low-tier spirit, but a spirit nonetheless. It would appear to Gwen that Water Spirits were the more common kind, but that came as no surprise; Earth was, after all, a blue planet.
Candidate No.4 announced himself with a burst of vibrant Blue-Green energy that leapt from his chest and frizzled the ceiling above them.
A Lightning Elemental! Gwen’s bosom rose and fell with awe as the young man announced himself to be Lu Fung, of the Clan of the Nangtong Fungs. Gwen recognised the Clan name, as it belonged to Dai, the inheriting son of the Police Commissioner of Shanghai’s Metropolitan Security Bureau. She thought of her rather unpleasant history with Dai, though they had since amicably resolved their differences, and wondered if this particular Fung would recognise her.
Lu’s Spirit Hawk soared through the air majestically before returning to him. A hawk! Gwen wanted to squeal in delight. Now there was a proper Spirit of Thunder and Lightning! Once the crackling lightning faded, they could see that the creature resembled a sparrowhawk, but Gwen had no doubt it could grow to many times its present size if empowered with mana.
"Screeee!" the bird of pray screeched.
Wanli, whose name meant 'ten thousand li', alighted on its master’s shoulder.
Holy shit, Gwen had to stifle an unbidden impulse of admiration. She had to admit the Spirit Hawk was incredibly imposing. Having it land like that was an astonishingly voguish move; like the gut-tingling feeling of watching a Fu-er-dai step out of a brand new Ferrari 488. The owner might be a dickhead, but it didn't diminish the panty-dropping allure of a Pininfarina designed marvel. The Ferrari is without sin!
“Eunae, your turn,” the instructor implored the girl in front of Gwen.
The quiet girl nodded palely, likewise impressed and intimated by the ravishing display put on by Lu’s hawk. She hadn't spoken a single word since they separated from the group, Gwen realised; not to anyone.
“My name is Eunae Lee, and this is Luyi!”
A mote of pale emerald energy manifested in front of the girl as something akin to a fig-tree begin to materialise, first forming four legs, then a lumbar, followed by a slender neck, a tail, liquid eyes, then a black, pointed nose.
It was a deer! Gwen gasped. It was beyond adorable! The forest sprite then looked upon its surroundings with curious brown eyes that sparkled with intelligence. The mana radiating from the creature was of such familiarity that Gwen almost stepped forward to touch the mewling Familiar.
A nature Familar! The girl, this Eunae, possessed a Sprite just like Elvia!
“Luyi…” the girl cuddled the deer’s neck.
Her familiar struggled from its Master's embrace and bolted right toward Gwen.
“Luyi!” Eunae’s eyes filled with anxiety as the flesh of her flesh, the quintessence of her Conjuration, the child of her imagination and her contracted soul mate, abandoned her like an odious smell and ran head-first into Gwen’s leg. Upon reaching Gwen, it began to nuzzle her, seeking the source of the delicious scent it had sensed earlier.
Gwen looked up with a horrified expression at the poor girl, who was now on the verge of tears.
‘Luyi’ gazed up at Gwen with its soulful brown eyes, too human to belong to a mere beast, and made a puckering motion with its lips.
“I know you got it. Give it up! Hoss!” it seemed to say to her.
No! Your master is watching! Gwen grimaced at the forest-friendly critter trying to bedevil her into yielding a trickle of her Druidic essence.
“Go back to your owner,” Gwen urged the creature.
The faux wood-doe bleated adorably at her. It then rudely nudged her thigh gap.
The men sniggered.
Gwen swore under her teeth and bodily picked up the doe, much to the dismay of Eunae, then dragged it across the concrete to deposit it in its owner's lap.
“Keep a leash on your Familiar,” Gwen reprimanded the Conjurer sternly.
“Y-yes!” The girl nodded furiously, stroking her precious Spirit-doe.
Now that Gwen had taken a better look at Eunae. Though Eunae was a Korean name, the girl had a Eurasian look about her, one that Gwen couldn’t place in any terrestrial geography.
“It would appear your lack of authority over your Spirit is as serious as your instructors say,” Instructor Chen observed dryly. He then turned to Gwen. “Miss Song, if you would finish the introductions?”
Gwen left Eunae and found a safe spot far away from the others.
She then moved another ten paces or so away.
“She must have a big Familiar,” someone commented.
“How big can it be?” Another one of her peers scoffed.
“She’s not a Spirit Conjurer right?”
“Heh, I bet she’s got connections higher up, that’s why the instructor is personally taking care of her,” Lu Fung intoned sardonically.
No one had humanoid Spirits, Gwen pondered as she readied her familiars for summoning. It was a testament to the rarity of Richard’s Undine.
“You may proceed.” Instructor Chen glanced at the other students with an expression she knew well. It was the smug look of expectant schadenfreude. Chen must have gone over her records already.
Gwen called out her Lightning beast. The marten materialised, rolled, then struck a pose. It then sniffed the air and ran toward her, making infinity tracks around her legs as it joyously celebrated rapturous freedom.
“Haha! What the hell?!” Lu could be heard chuckling from across the threshold.
“It’s a mundane marten!”
“A common beast!”
“Wait, its not a Spirit?”
“It looks altered though, its got horns.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that it's a dumb animal. Haha, what a waste of talent!” Lu snickered.
Gwen blushed annoyedly at the insults and called Ariel to her. She scooped up the marten in her arms and kissed it on its forehead. Ironically, unlike Gwen, Ariel was too dumb to understand human speech and thus was incapable of being harmed by the foul remarks of wicked men.
Eunae meanwhile, became even more confused. Why did her Familiar run to Gwen? The girl was a Lightning Sorceress! What did that have to do with her Nature Familiar? Was her pet maybe attracted to her appearance? The girl was tall and pretty, and she had uncommonly clarified eyes, but there were no reasons for her doe to choose a stranger over a Soulmate. Eunae held onto Luyi tightly, her eyes full of wariness and incomprehension.
Instructor Chen made a motion that said ‘get on with it’.
Gwen stepped back.
Caliban fed recently. He had been obedient. She was hale and healthy. She had to be confident that it was going to be harmless. Gwen would not let her Familiar sense her insecurity since Caliban could sense fear like a dog seeking out its poop.
“Caliban!” she called out.
"What the f-"
"She has two?"
A slit opened in-between time and space.
A long, spindly leg cut through the air before stabbing into the concrete floor. Another soon joined the first, then another and another, each resembling disjointed, anorexic fingers. Caliban slowly emerged in its spidery form. Sensing its mistress’ displeasure at the peanut gallery, it had chosen to emerge from the nether in full Lovecraftian glory, wholly uncensored. Ten pairs of grasping legs skittering across the floor, raking and rasping against the concrete floor. Its back-carapace pulsed with expansion and shrinkage like a beating organ, its semi-translucent plates of obsidian bleeding ambiguous grey goo as it flexed. When the final length of its tail emerged into the Material Plane, it extended a pair of blue-red tentacles from its slurping underside and caressed Gwen’s cheeks. Behind it, an appendage of barbed-razors on steel cable whipped through the air like a puppy tail.
Wocao, that's fucking magnificent, Instructor Chen applauded internally. What a Buddha-cursed monster, it's like something that crawled out of the nine-fold underworld.
A moment of complete silence hung in the air, humming with the tension of a taut violin string.
Then all hell broke loose.
The junior Mages took a defensive stance and even manifested their Shielding spells, their familiars stood at the ready to defend their Masters against this monstrosity.
“Luyi! Aeee- Ommph!”
Eunae’s doe bolted right into its mistress and bowled her over, then fled the scene, sprinting across the hall in full gallop.
Lu Fung’s Sparrow-hawk rose to the air and bellowed a challenge, sending out a shower of sparks. The Mage himself had turned as pale as a ghost. He tried to keep his blood up, but his legs were knock-kneed and noodly.
Caliban sensed, as Gwen had done, the familiar mana radiating off Eunae.
‘Click… click, click c-click click c-click…’
It began to skitter toward the Korean healer for a closer inspection. Caliban might not possess a brain, but it recalled fondly the memory of the old man who fed it food and petted its faceless mien without fear. If Gwen was its Mistress, then the old man was what Caliban would have considered an equally important authority figure, though the old man's nature spirit never seemed to enjoy Caliban's company.
Instructor Chen muttered an incantation under his breath, then observed the proceedings.
"Caliban, stop!" Gwen commanded her creature. "Hey! Big guy! I said stop!"
She felt no malice nor hunger from Caliban and pulled at her creature half-heartedly as it dragged her along toward the shaking Eunae. Downwind, the poor girl fell onto her buttocks and was desperately calling for her familiar.
Luyi appeared before Eunae in a flash of silver Conjuration.
"Luyi! Protect me!"
Luyi took one look at Caliban, then fled the scene like a bandit on a fast horse, or deer, as the case may be. To the discerning viewer of Gwen’s world, the scene reminded her of the infamous video in which a mother doe abandons its fawn to a cheetah with the decisiveness of a meth dealer fleeing the police.
“Luyi…” Eunae was inundated with snot and tears as Caliban approached, hoping to whatever higher powers that watched she had not soiled herself. Damn her Spirit! Damn it all! Why must it be so wilful? Why was she so weak? She wished at this moment that she had never contracted the forest sprite at all.
“No! No! Aeee!! Save me!”
Ah, the infamous duet, Gwen slapped Caliban on its cephalothorax, bidding it to back away before the girl became entirely deaf, dumb and insensible.
“Feather Shard!” Lu Fung commanded his Familiar.
The attack came out of nowhere. Even as the other three junior Conjurers relaxed, realising that the monstrous vision was no danger, Fung had entirely lost his cool. Perhaps the Master of Wanli had not thought Caliban’s skittering approach as benign; maybe the induced hysteria had overwhelmed his shuddering will, but the reality remained that Lu Fung opened up a barrage from his Spirit hawk.
A deadly, long-range AOE Lighting assault.
Instructor Chen immediately saw that Lu’s attack would miss the agile Caliban but catch the novice Cleric in its area of effect. The inexperienced Clan-bred fool wasn’t trying to save the girl, as he had initially thought; he was reacting to a fight or flight reflex.
“Caliban, help her!” Gwen commanded. Unlike other elemental Familiars, Caliban’s physical form regenerated so long as she provided the vitality. It was a double-edged ability. It meant that so long as Gwen had a healer with her, she was capable of keeping Caliban in fighting form against any enemy, so long as they did not banish, or completely disable her creature.
Caliban needed no coaxing to protect the healer. The Void-spider lumbered over Eunae with supernatural haste and flared out its carapace. Below, Eunae afforded an unmitigated view of Caliban's second mouth below its thorax, where a slit opened to reveal a lamprey’s mouth where multiple tentacles, each with independent mouths, waved at her.
Eunae fainted dead away as shards of bladed lightning rained down around the beast and the beauty.
“Idiot!” Instructor Chen swore at the panicking Lu Fung, then invoked his own Familiar. “Huonu!”
A stench of rotten eggs and brimstone filled the air as a massive three-pronged claw reached out from thin air and seized the hovering lightning-hawk, sending it crashing into the ground. A pulsating mass of scaly flesh followed, crimson with flowing magma and smoking with ash and sulphur.
The gathered students opened their mouths in awe, their fear of the Caliban-thing momentarily forgotten as they witnessed the full fury of a Tier 7 Spirit Familiar - a Magma Salamander.
Chen's partner was no common Spirit, for a true Salamander possessed not the amphibious likeness of a creature in-between frog and newt, but a half-humanoid giant with the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a snake, akin to that of the Greco-Lamia. They were native Spirits existing upon the Plane of Fire.
Instructor’s Chen’s Familiar did not fully materialise, however. After the lightning-hawk became a pile of smouldering silvery residue, Huonu faded from the scene, leaving behind globs of magma and an unbearable stench of sulphur.
“Wanli!” Lu Fung glared at the instructor in shame and fury. It would take days for his Familiar to restore itself in its pocket dimension, perhaps even weeks.
“Intemperate fool!” Instructor Chen howled at the cadet. “All of you! Attention!”
The lucid students quickly stood to attention. The three who stood ramrod straight had seen military duty and presented themselves for inspection. Gwen helped Eunae to her feet, having now regained her senses; while Lu stared defiantly with barely contained rage at his instructor.
Instructor Chen nodded approvingly at the three seniors but then turned upon the girls and the inconsolably furious Lu.
“You three are the worst Creature-Conjurers I have never seen!”
“How dar- Blargh!”
Instructor Chen punched the air before him, and two meters away, Lu Fung fell to the floor and discharged the contents of his breakfast.
“Shut the FUCK UP! You shit stain!” The militant instructor’s voice was like a thunderclap. “This is your last warning. Another strike and you are out of my class. I will personally see to it that Fudan removes you from its roster. Do you understand?”
“I- I understand-”
“What was that?!”
“I UNDERSTAND! Sir!” Lu shouted back at the Instructor.
“Now stand back up and act like a man, you boot scum! You think you’re top dog because you have a mid-tier spirit? Think again, worm! Your Clan bought you that Thunder Hawk. You did not tame it! You did not fight for it! You did not scale the twenty-thousand steps of Kunlun's Evergreen Peak to steal the egg from the Heaven-Splitting Crag! You think you’re something? You’re nothing! Worthless!”
Lu remained standing, inflated by nought but the sheer force of his indignation.
“You don’t even know how to control your hawk’s ability! You can’t aim its AOE! It can’t even I.F.F! What a waste of a beautiful Spirit on a piece of amphibian shit.”
Eunae stood shaking and shivering no more than a dozen meters beside the screaming Instructor, while Gwen had commanded Caliban to skitter away quietly and hide behind her. Ariel meanwhile, dug into her T-shirt and quaked with terror.
As expected, the nature Spirited healer was the Instructor’s next victim.
“Where is your Familiar, Miss Lee?”
Eunae looked at the Instructor as though he had demanded she strip down and give birth; her face was equal parts incomprehension and stunned terror.
“WHERE IS YOUR FAMILIAR?! CONJURER?”
“Luyi!!” Eunae wailed helplessly, summoning her Familiar once again. The girl was in tears now, crying out for her Familiar to appear while trying to retract her bubbling snot. When finally her doe materialised, it took one look at the Instructor and turned to flee.
“Luyi,” the Instructor said in a voice filled with command. “Luyi, down.”
To their surprise, the skittish doe dropped to one knee.
“Do you want to protect Eunae, Luyi?” Instructor Chen spoke calmly and softly.
Luyi bobbed its head vigorously.
“Then you can’t let her fear affect you, okay? I know that’s how Empathic Link works, but you have to know that you’re stronger than your mistress. You’re her protector. Do you understand?”
Luyi nodded again. That was the thing with Spirits. They understood human speech, and they understood human empathy.
“Okay, you’re a good girl, aren’t you?”
Luyi licked the old Conjurer’s hand.
Instructor Chen rapped Eunae’s forehead.
“You have much to learn.”
“Y-yes Sir!” Eunae's head bobbed like a drinking bird. It was cute and adorable, watching both the girl and the doe nodding together in synchronisation.
Gwen was just about to smile when her half-formed grin froze on her face.
Instructor Chen turned toward her.
Oh shit, oh shit oh shit! Gwen’s inner dialogue crapped itself.
“They told me to take special care of you.” Chen approached Gwen until he was no more than two inches from her. She could still smell the sulphur on his skin, feel the heat radiating from the Magma Mage like a glowing furnace. The man’s eyes, Gwen couldn’t help notice, was two glowing orbs of flaming coal. She had to circulate a thimble of Lightning mana to resist the pressure he was exerting upon her. “Your link with your creatures are untempered, and that makes them a danger to yourself and your allies.”
“I am sorry, Sir! I will take greater care with my familiars in the future!”
Chen looked past Gwen at the massive spider-thing behind her.
“Caliban, come here!” he commanded.
Surprisingly, Caliban came.
The scorpion-spider thing roosted itself until its belly touched the floor.
Gwen’s lips formed an ‘O’.
Instructor Chen produced two raw, uncut fragments of mana crystals and offered them to Caliban. The creature extended two tendrils and retrieved both pieces, then fed them into its maw, crunching them luxuriously as it enjoyed the burst of raw mana infusing its body.
“Gwen, tell it to return to its lesser form,” the Instructor told her.
Caliban focused on its meal instead.
“You also have much to learn.” Instructor Chen shook his head. “How did you manage to tame this creature? I find it difficult to believe that it would have come to you naturally. It is too powerful, too wilful and far too volatile.”
“It’s a long story, Sir…”
“Next time then.” Instructor Chen patted Caliban on the forehead of its faceless carapace and retreated from them. Gwen had to produce a piece of LDM and feed it sneakily under her shirt, for Ariel had watched the instructor feed its half-brother and was wondering if it too should take on the role of the troublemaker. After all, it appeared that Caliban got rewarded for harassing the Mage with the familiar scent.
Instructor Chen returned to the bulkhead entrance of the section.
“Your task!” Instructor Chen announced. “Is to temper the connection to your Familiars. Get them to remain in the Material Plane! You will eat with them. Sleep with them. Go to Class with them. They will become a part of you, and you a part of them! They will not be unsummoned until you are OOM!”
There were groans all around, but Gwen had to regard the nightmarish bulk of Caliban with alarm.
Eat with it? Sleep with it? GO TO CLASS WITH IT?