Petra massaged Gwen’s stuttering legs as her cousin squirmed and groaned.
“I am not a spell-bank you know. Unless we’re Adventuring, I don’t stock up on those spells,” Petra chided Gwen, who moaned as her masseuse's fingers worked over the inflamed flesh. “Transmutation Utility doesn’t teach you the physiological and morphic aspects of these spells, so be careful with the revised Incantations. We can always get you a Transmutation Tutor in the future if you’re so keen on getting up close and personal.”
“It was an idiotic fancy.” Gwen gritted her teeth as Petra worked over a knot.
“Turn around,” Petra commanded.
Gwen flopped over like a flaccid fish flipping itself.
The sorry sight of the languished Gwen made Petra laugh as she began work on her hamstrings, working her way down to the quads.
“Is the Druidic Essence helping?” Petra asked. She had advised that Gwen focus on circulating her emerald essence through her body to take advantage of its regenerative properties.
“I'd say- oh goodness!” Gwen took in a breath of cold air. “I can f-feel the soreness fading away, but you’re doing God’s work, Pats.”
Petra had quite a shock when she opened the door to find Gwen transformed into a mass of convulsing flesh caught between the sofa and the coffee table. It wasn’t until she poked Gwen with her foot in the buttocks that the girl began to scream blue murder.
“Three more days to go, and you get your break,” Petra advised her. “Feel like doing anything this Sunday?”
“I think I am going to r-r-rEST!” Gwen whined loudly when Petra pressed an elbow over Gwen's gluteus.
“Delicately, Pats! You’re breaking the girl!”
Gwen felt a sudden tingle as her Divination senses pinged.
Above her, a sadistic playfulness touched Petra's husky-blue irises.
* * *
Gwen had practice, followed by Management, followed by practice.
It was only by virtue of her abnormally large mana pool and her Druidic essence that Gwen was able to pile together two sessions bisected by her Gen-Ed, which served to restore her mana.
From 0900 to 1200, she took to the practice field and focused on repeating her Conjuration incantations. Gwen warmed up on the cantrips, moved her way up to Dimension Door, then concentrated on progressing toward the next tier.
For her advancement toward the fifth tier, Magister Wen had prepared a new Incantation for Gwen, contributed by Magus Kumiko.
Based upon the altered Invocations used by Master Kilroy for Dark Tentacle and Faithful Hound, Wen had reverse-engineered three tiers of Summon Elementals: Minor, Lesser, and the basic tier 5 Summon.
At first, Gwen had been disparaged by the fact that she was forced to acclimatise her method to the mundane variety. When she mentioned this to Magister Wen, the helpful Magister intervened, showing Gwen that higher spells are quintessentially the same formulas worked into increasingly complex spell-layers. Confidently, she informed the Void Conjurer that there was no reason why her Sigils couldn’t process the usual formulas in Kilroy's Signature style, at least until tier 6; beyond which she would need to tap into supplementary mandala arrays developed especially for her altered-School.
The rest was a matter of familiarity, accuracy, stability, and speed.
Speed was paramount to combat.
The time it took to manifest magical phenomena varied, depending on utility. Her staple escape spell, Dimension Door, was tailored especially for speed by Magister Kilroy and as such, took just over a second while possessing minimal somatic components. Faithful Hound, however, as a defensive spell with many conditional modifiers, took almost two minutes. Dark Tentacles, as an entrapment spell, took about four to five seconds, while sustained barrage spells such as Warding Bolt and Call Lighting each took two to three seconds.
When she began with her new spell, Conjure Minor Elemental, she took almost two minutes to complete the new calculations in her mind, carefully drawing the mana into her sigil and willing the spell to manifest. Her target time was just under 5 seconds.
According to Magister Birch, the difference between 'Summon' and 'Conjure' was their different foundations. Conjuration originates from the Latin term ‘conjuratio’, a phrase popularised during the shift between the Dark Ages of Middle Europe to the Golden Age of Florentine Renaissance. It was an epoch with many concurrences: the splitting of the Papal States into the warring factions of the Romagna; the birth of ocean-faring magic which began the age of colonisation; the rediscovery of Roman and Greek Spellcraft; the renewed interest in the notion of Republic - all of which made for a cocktail of conspiracy and progress. It was during this time that early Conjurers such as Dante Alighieri and Johann Georg Faust, a German philosopher, discovered the way to bind elemental forces onto human anima, allowing humanity to ‘control’ and ‘communicate’ with the forces they once worshipped as divine. Since such times, a Magic Caster who summons creatures for the specific intent of performing tasks and waiting upon their desires labelled their school of thought Conjuration.
Meanwhile, Summoners, or spells that ‘summon’ creatures or things, were founded under far less academic circumstances. Archives as ancient as Egyptian hieroglyphs told of ‘summoning’ ancestral spirits, divine avatars, elemental Gods, and so on. The phrase itself is an uncertain corruption of the original Latin ‘evocatio’ which has since being appropriated by the School of Evocation to mean the summoning of raw elemental power. For Conjuration, a Summon thus represented the translocation of semi-sentient and mindless creatures compelled, but not controlled, by the Summoner. This imprecision was why Summoning was shunned. Early summoners called forth all kinds of mayhem and chaos by accident. From summoning Succubi from Astral civilisations that then went on to topple nations, to accidentally calling out fiery fiends from the depth of the Elemental Plane of Fire; to the spread of occult malignancy such as Vampirism; all of these legends had the common root of ambitious but unwise Summoners at their centre.
Summon Elemental, therefore, was a flood of leaping, howling, hooting creatures rushing toward one’s enemies, appearing and disappearing just as quickly.
It was a spell not very well suited to Gwen as a junior, but now with the boon of her abnormally large mana pool, she could genuinely ‘flood’ her enemies.
The 'minor' creatures for Gwen’s Lightning element was rather a misnomer in itself, for what she called forth was a swarm of sparks that flew toward the direction she desired. The more mana she channelled, the greater the duration and volume of sparks that manifested. If she was willing to OOM, she could sustain the spell for a whole five minutes to the average Summoner’s one; bringing a happy cheer to Magister Wen’s face.
"Don't you see, Gwen?" Magister Wen clapped happily. "Your ability to hone your Sigils is at many times the capacity of the common Mage! My dear, you'll be tier 5 before the year is finished! No slacking off now!"
When she attempted the tier 4 variant after an hour of trying to close the Spells’ circuits, she could only sustain the spell for a minute, even with all her mana. The sparks though had evolved into a swarm of Lightning Scarabs, or so it seemed; Gwen did not profess to be an elemental entomologist.
As for the tier 5 variety, she had so far no success, only raging headaches from mana feedback. Petra had said that it would take her at least half a year, at best four months, of weekly devotion to even begin casting the spell without risking mana exertion.
Nonetheless, it was good practice for her progress toward tier 5; all Gwen could do was to keep milling at the stone of experience.
As for the Void variety, Magister Wen had explicitly warned Gwen to leave her curiosity well alone until they could gather sufficient data. She had no desire for Gwen to be recorded in Spellcraft history as the first Void sorceress to waste herself during a mundane session of enthused practice.
When she exited, sweat-soaked and pallid from the privacy of her practice room, she was met by several of her peers from the Conjuration class.
“That’s Gwen Song,” she heard one of the students whisper under their breath.
Gwen looked up toward the group waiting along the exterior corridor and prepared herself to greet them. What she received, however, was disparaging glowers ranging from interest to loathing, admiration to antipathy.
When she came close enough to inspect her antagonists, she saw their colour matched practice equipment and enchanted uniforms. Gwen also recognised somewhat sardonically, that several of them shared very similar and distinct facial features.
Either these were a troop of six brothers and sisters - or these young Mages belonged to the Dynastic Clans of China.
Gwen pulled her gym-towel tightly around her bare shoulders, covering her sweat-soaked bosom. Following her habits in the old world, she had taken a leaf from Queen ‘yoga pants’ Petra and purchased sporting attire. This world had yet to catch up on the notion of active women’s wear, but that didn’t prevent Gwen from acquiring a combo consisting of a pair of high-rise boot-cut yoga pants, a pink tank top, and comfy white sneakers. Her highness Kuznetsov had been so impressed with the active-wear combo that she immediately invested in several colour-coordinated combinations herself.
As for her current encounter, both Petra and her babulya had warned her that there was merit in associating with the ‘Clanners’. They saw all outsiders as the enemy, and they jealously guarded their secrets while hypocritically coveting the skills and talents of Mages they saw as inferior.
Gwen felt her spine tingle with foretelling Divination.
She lowered her head and kept her gaze downcast.
It wasn't worth it, at least not for now.
Somebody else whistled.
Unsurprisingly, someone cracked a lascivious joke.
She quickly passed the small group to the sound of jeers and a few sniggers.
What a bunch of asses, Gwen cursed under her breath. Lucky for her, several of her subjects had Mid-Term exhibition matches. She promised herself that she would repay them three-fold then, revenge best served cold, and so on. Until then, she would assume the form of the tortoise, and endure the buckled burden of humiliation.
* * *
“Gwen, its good to see you,” James Ma, Professor and one of the overseers of their scholarship interview, greeted her as she entered the auditorium. “Is Mr Huang not with you?”
“He’s Adventuring until next week, Sir,” Gwen replied meekly, not wish to appear to possess the come-offish air of the Mages who thought themselves superior to the NoM scholar.
The Professor seemed more relieved than disappointed at Richard's leave of absence.
“I suppose we all have our priorities. Very well, take a seat.”
The beautiful thing about having the quick-drying yoga pants in a boot cut style was that she could slip on a zip-up velour jacket, and her active-wear would transform into casual wear. For Thursday especially, when she had practice sessions in the morning and the afternoon, she wouldn’t have to change multiple times. At worst, she had her Prestidigitation cubes.
Mayuree joined her a few minutes later, and the two cuddled up near the front. The Diviner held no interest in Gen-Ed. She instead spent the lesson dozing on and off on Gwen’s shoulder. For Mayuree, a pass was enough.
Gwen, on the other hand, was scribbling down sources like a mad woman.
“Following the Leviathan Accord by Meister Thomas Hobbes, Non-Magical Humans were given rights of their own, becoming an integral part of human society. To trace the history of Hobbes' writing, one needs to acknowledge the French Meister and father of modern political philosophy, René Descartes; himself informed by classical predecessors such as Plato and Aristotle, who saw the merit in providing Non-Mages with a fighting chance at making themselves virtuous - useful - to Human society beyond as a resource to create more Mages.”
"Of course, during antiquity, Mages were divine heroes, sons and daughters of the Pantheon of Gods, so we mustn't anachronistically judge their limited understanding of egalitarianism."
James Ma was an excellent lecturer, possessing the precise sort of aptitude that Gwen admired. His gold-rimmed glasses glinted as he spoke, and the cadence and intonation of his speech made the somewhat dry lecture far more interesting than its subject matter.
Unfortunately, very few of her peers shared her sentiment for the NoM histories.
The class, when she had last heard, was meant to be almost 300 strong.
Right now, there were about a hundred of them in the lecture, and half of them were either listening with dazed expressions or quietly engaged themselves with private affairs hidden in the back row. As a NoM, Professor Ma couldn’t challenge the students bodily, meaning he had to do his best with passion and rhetoric, hoping that at least a few of the Mages graduated with enough knowledge to have some sympathy for their NoM brothers and sisters.
The first lecture was on Rights, or more precisely, on the ‘Universal Guarantee of Equal Rights to all Human Beings,’ but the passionate lecturer may as well be playing guzheng to the proverbial oxen.
“It was the British Oxford Think-tank, headed then by the Meister John Locke, who first roused the idea of universal human rights for all. He stated that rather than law, human rights should be an existential creed; as a moral principle, enshrined and protected by all.”
“Human Rights, in sharp distinction to the two-tier system of Mage and Non-Mage laws practised around the world pre-17th century, refer to the 'RIGHTS' ‘to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being. This right is to be inalienable regardless of nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status. This 'right' is an egalitarian, universal constant, the very thing which separates us from the Demi-humans. A rejection of social Darwinism.”
Mayuree snuggled against Gwen’s arm and opened a bleary eye, then closed it again. The lecture was to her a lullaby.
Gwen eagerly jotted down the keynotes to Professor’s Ma’s informative representation of what she internally termed the NoM-Mage Apartheid.
“Some of you will one day be given a demesne to govern on the frontier, an area deemed important enough by your tier 1 city to require a guardian. As steward representative of your Tower or Provincial governorship, you will hold the power of life or death over the citizens under your care. You may be the protector of a township, the Arbitrator of a district, the Paladin of a Tower, or even the Tower Master him or herself, presiding over millions of lives.”
“It is then, and only then, will you realise that all humans, NoM, Mage or otherwise, bear the burden of upholding the rights of their fellow citizens. The privilege of holding so many lives in your hands may prove a stressful affair, but it is necessary for the survival of mankind.”
“Why else does humanity persist today as the most prosperous terrestrial race on Earth? The Sea Folk far outnumber us. The Elven race possesses far more knowledge and Magic. The Dwarves are far more industrious and wise. The Dragonkin are to us, what Gods are to insects. BUT, why is it that Humans, whose practice of Spellcraft only began in earnest during the Spellcraft Revolution at the turn of the 19th century, have such dominion over the planet? Why is it that we, who are weaker by all accounts, continue to survive and prosper, despite the fall of Frontier and city, year after year?”
The entire lecture now listened attentively. It had taken the Professor a while to rouse his audience, but at last, his Spell slinging pupils were listening to his climatic message.
“It is because of Good Governance!”
“The rule of Law! The respect for NoMs and Mages! The working together of all of humanity! That is how we survived! We have produced more Mages in the last fifty years than all of humanity’s histories put together since the time of the Magi Moses and the coming of the Prophet Jesus Christ! Right now, more Mages are serving in the frontlines, the cities, studying to become Magus and Magisters like yourselves, than any other time in the history of the human race!”
“Good - Governance!” the Professor reiterated. “That is the greatest power of all and the most difficult thing to master in the world.”
Gwen completed her notes with a flourish. Her eyes glowed with passion and enthusiasm. Ma’s lecture was fantastic! Such wisdom! Such sagacity! Such foresight! Gwen felt giddy with ambition, her skin crawling with goosebumps.
She could do it! She felt such confidence that if she should inherit or be gifted a demesne, she could bring forth a faux-democratic utopia! At the very least, she could bring such egalitarian fare to her people that they would no longer suffer the yolk of unemployment and existential nihilism. She would endow her people with purpose and produce! She would make the Mages see sense in raising the NoMs toward positions of meaningful participation in society! What intellectual gems and wonders lie hidden in the untapped masses?
“… There will be an excursion to District 108 and District 35 in Week Six.” Professor Ma pulled out an image of a sprawling hive city shot from the air. Gwen recognised it as one of the ‘forest’ of apartment blocks for NoMs which she could see from the Third Orbital Highway. “If you wish to participate, sign off a Security Clearance form 10-B outside the drop box beside my office.”
After the Professor concluded the lecture and finished issuing homework reading and reports, Gwen shook herself from the revelry of new knowledge and turned to regard Mayuree.
The girl slept sweetly beside her, curled up like a kitten, a sliver of drool leaking from one corner of her lips and forming a silvery thread across Gwen's dark yoga pants.
Gwen watched the Diviner’s eyes flutter slightly.
“Is it time for lunch?” Mayuree asked groggily.
“Sure.” Gwen chuckled, shaking her head and helping her companion into an upright position. “Let’s go get some fish’n chips; I got another three hours of Evocation practice after.”
* * *
The Tower technician that came to install her LRC Projector felt his blue cotton uniform drenched in cold sweat as soon as the door to Gwen’s apartment opened at 8 AM.
Two gweilo girls, looking as though they walked out from calendar-catalogues, greeted him. One had eyes like pale clear ocean water, and the other with an emerald-ochre complexity that seemed to consume his soul.
Feeling starstruck, he ambled into the living room and marvelled at the extravagance of the girl’s living room. The view from the building was incredible, nothing like the brick wall outside his Shanzhouzhen apartment which grew mouldy every monsoonal season.
He was a tier 4 Enchanter trained in Specialised Magitech Communications equipment, but even so, he felt distinctly inferior to the two women who sauntered about the apartment. As he employed a wand to Stone-Shaped the wall and tap into the mana conduits buried deep in the concrete, he fantasised about what it would be like to live in the building.
One of the girls, the hazel-eyed beauty, stopped to regard his work, making his hand jittery with nervousness. She smiled at him! Mao! He returned her gesture and tried his best to maintain a straight face.
* * *
Gwen chewed on her Spam toastie as the Tower technician laboured away on his knees; undividedly dedicated to his work. She hadn’t expected the technician to arrive so early, and so had to slap on a pair of briefs and a T-shirt, but was glad the man was consummate enough in his labours as to not be a bother. Petra had risen as well, likewise in tee and shorts. Her oversized shirt, however, hung at an awkward length; exposing too much leg but covering enough of her buttocks in a way that was more suggestive than intended.
Gwen glanced at the technician again, whose focus was so intent upon his work that his eyes watered. Such professionalism!
With the LRC Projector installed, she would be able to talk to Yue and Elvia, not to mention Gunther and Alesia. With a little patience, she could even commune with her Opa, and Richard with his parents. It was a worthwhile investment for sure.
But first, she had classes.
The final class of the week - Economics.
* * *
As before, the Gen-Ed for Economics took place on the upper campus. Gwen quietly pushed through the door and snuck into the lecture hall; happily, the Professor ignored her.
Mayuree waved, and Gwen stole up the aisles until she reached her companion.
“Hey there, Kitty.” Gwen waved to the girl beside them.
Kitty nodded, then turned back to her note taking. She was a studious individual, unlike somebody sitting between the two of them.
Gwen materialised the slate she borrowed from Petra’s lab and tried to make head and tail of the lecture's progress.
The lecturer was on the topic of currency.
“… The first instance of Mana Crystals used as currency was undertaken unknowingly by the Church-Templars from the 12th-century Crusaders; originally escorting members of the nobility on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Though the four major Crusades against the then indomitable Sultanates between the 12th century and the 14th century remained a failure, it nonetheless opened up the Mediterranean to commerce and travel, consolidating Papal leadership, galvanising medieval romance, philosophy, and of course - Economics…”
How interesting! Gwen scratched onto the device’s parchment-like surface. It was just like using a Kindle Paper-White, only powered by forces of arcane mystery; though in truth, Gwen reminded herself, any technological device of sufficient advancement was no different from magic. The people of this world could call meteors from an alternate dimension - but her world had smartphones and the internet. A Mage may be able to conjure an amorous Incubus of some kind, but could they stream bass to trout, up to 4k, on their Message devices?
Below, the lecturer was unaware of Gwen's smug superiority.
“As it was near impossible to transport precious metals and large volumes of coinage, raw mana Crystals, then the currency of Wizards, Warlocks and Sorcerors, became popular among the common people as a trading currency.”
“Over time, mercantile empires seeking to take advantage of the Crystal currency rose and fell with the onset of disasters both natural and supernatural. Too much hoarding of crystals attracted Magical Beasts sensitive to such things, such as Dragons; while too little lead to shortage and conflict. It was only after the Undead incursion of WWI that the newly formed League of Nations established the World Banking Regulations Body, where the G9, a collection of Western Nations, joined by the U.S from the New World, brought legislative recognition and fiscal management to Crystal currency trading.”
“As is common knowledge, Mana crystals, as a resource essential to Spellcraft and Magi-tech, is generated from the earth. It is longitudinally perpetual, but finite in volume and harvest. As such, it serves as the basis for our resource-backed economy, as a trading stock sustained by near-linear growth and demand. We have a finite amount of crystal producing regions generating a calculable volume of Crystals - and this reserve is set against market trends and needs of the Tier 1 cities. It is such predictability which affords the LDM and the HDM their role as the currency choice of not only humanity but Demi-humans as well.”
Crikey! Gwen heard herself cry out in dismay and disbelief. Struth, fuck me dead!
Crystals are friggin Petrol-Dollars! No wonder the fiscally infantile economy of this world never collapsed! Before the Americans created a stranglehold on Petroleum, the world economy pre-WWII was rife with instability, exploitation, economic bubbles and fiscally irresponsible governments printing currency like toilet paper. Not that the 21st century faired much better, but the U.S succeeded in wrangling the G20 onto the Raft of the Medusa that was its Barrel-based currency.
Why was it that the U.S could quantitatively ease their economy almost indefinitely after the GFC? Why was it that the U.S could outspend the G19 on military single-handedly? It was because it had an infinite capacity for inflation without upset - for the only way to drastically devaluate the U.S dollar was to unpin its stranglehold over the Crude.
So long as the world used Petroleum as its lifeblood, the world supported the hegemony of the Petrol-Dollar! Why did the U.S rapidly destabilise the Middle East oil nations in the 90s? Non-OPEC countries wanted to trade in Yuan and Rubles! Why did the north of Africa become a hotbed of U.S intervention? The incumbent Dictators had forgotten the terror of the Cold War and were selling their oil in Euros! The invasion of Iraq and intervention of Libia had geopolitical rationales, but there was also an undercurrent of Crude-currency at play. The whole house of cards built on tethering the USD to the Barrel would collapse if the status quo became disrupted.
Nobody wanted to see that!
The world had drunk the milk of carbon-paradise for too long!
So that’s why! Gwen felt as though she had put the final piece into a 1001 puzzle set. So that's how it all worked! This world's economy functioned on the stuff of legends, the Crude of the Gods! Clean, self-perpetuating, virtually infinite Crystals that grew from the earth where the foundation between the Prime Material and the Astral grew thin!
It was as though the Reserve Bank was the Earth itself! A self-capitalised reserve bank with infinite-capacity and zero-interest-rate! The financial systems of this world could operate like an inebriated motor-hoon, and they still wouldn’t veer into bankruptcy.
The only way for a nation to lose everything was to lose its people.
To lose its Mages and its manual labourers.
Its capacity to extract crystals.
To usurp the Wildland.
No wonder no one saw the need to keep the NoMs employed and productive.
No wonder almost all gainful employment involved venturing into the Wildlands and fending off the encroachment of the wilderness, the Magical Beasts and the Demi-humans.
No wonder the socialism in this world treated the NoMs like bodies bred to fill gaps.
No wonder the capitalists had little regard for creating hegemonic conglomerates.
No wonder slums like Blackheath were a dime a dozen in Sydney.
In its particular way, this world had already reached a self-perpetuating equilibrium; its macro and microeconomics balanced by a resource that was infinite and self-regulated. The gifted few were the Triple-Alphas; the Clans and Houses the Alphas, the Mages Betas, and the NoMs the semi-moronic Delta and Epsilons! Mustafa Mond would be proud!
No wonder, Gwen felt a sudden sadness overcome her weary soul, no wonder only the NoMs engaged in finance. No wonder the Frontier was rural and exploited. As a Mage, all she had to do was open up new vistas on the Frontier, and all the currency that grew within her demesne...
...belonged to her.
Money, for the lack of a better phrase - would appear from thin air!