Gwen felt intoxicated when she stumbled out from the lecture, followed closely by Mayuree.
Her MBA! Less valuable than Yue's ability to provide Firepower! Firepower! Firepower!
She stumbled back to the apartment like a ghost and buried herself into the soft linen folds of her bed. EVEE! EVEE! EVEE! She chanted like a Mantra. This whole time she'd imagined herself taking to economics like a duck to water, now she felt like a cat that'd accidentally slid into a cold bath. She wanted to hug something so badly! But she wouldn't receive Evee's Glyph until her companion's communication device was authorised. She could try to contact Alesia or Yue, although 3 PM might be a little too early considering the timezone.
"Gwen, are you okay?" Mayuree peeped up on the other side of the bed, eyeing her companion worriedly. Gwen opened a bleary eye, and Mayuree saw a predatory glint spark from Gwen's hungry gaze.
Gwen arrested the unsuspecting Mayuree and hugged her fiercely, feeling the softness of the girl under her as she rested her chin on Mayuree's soft head of dark brown hair. The girl grew beetroot, turning rigid as Gwen held her, unmoving, for five whole seconds.
"Okay!" Gwen breathed out, releasing Mayuree from her enveloping arms. "Thanks, Mia, I needed that."
Mayuree's chest rose and fell. Her mouth moved several times to make a sound, but the petite young woman felt like a Displacer beast and took her tongue.
Gwen sat upright on her bed.
"Sorry," she apologised.
"It's alright. Are you okay now?"
"I am okay."
"What was that about?"
"Nostalgia? Impulse? Sentiment? When I was in Sydney, a friend, Elvia, was close to me. She was a dear little thing, a tiny blonde angel. She's a healer, but she's gone off to England to study abroad." Gwen sighed and met Mayuree's amber eyes. "You reminded me a little of Elvia. I didn't hurt you, did I?"
"No, no." Mayuree's complexion resembled a cooked lobster. "I am still in one piece."
"Great, I am glad to hear it!" Gwen chuckled, then felt the call of the Void. "Are you hungry? I am famished."
"Coming up then? Ah-lei can make us something. Anything you like."
"If it's not too much trouble."
"Ha! Of course not!" Mayuree replied richly.
Well, not for you, Gwen thought sardonically, unable to help herself. Still, there was no point wasting Mayuree's generosity; it wasn't as though Ah-lei would be freed from the labour of making lunch for her young Mistress if she didn't attend.
Gwen bounced off her bed, sending the small Mayuree tumbling away.
"Is western okay?" Gwen inquired, offering the girl a hand. She regretted the puerile act she had committed earlier, but she had felt in a childish mood. It was just one of those days. Maybe her anticipation for the conference with Elvia was subconsciously altering her habits. Now and then, whenever she missed her Evee, her insides felt like the interior of an ants' nest.
"Whatever you want." Mayuree grinned at her friend. "Whenever you like!"
Beep-KeeeEEE—HUUUUUU- PSSSSSST- Ka-ka-ka—Ssss—HSSSSS!
The LRC Device made an infernal noise that resembled two cats mating violently. Having survived the days of dial-up, Gwen found the sound more endearing than grating; she knew that the din of kitty-love was, in fact, Divination glyphs in search of a target.
Click—a projection appeared of a woman in a red cotton nightie.
"Jesus Christ, who the fuck is this? Do you know what time it is?" A bleary-eyed Alesia scowled at the projected image.
The vision of offended femininity turned her face toward the prism.
"Gwen?" Alesia's brows took on a life of their own.
"Hi!" Gwen made a mental note that this particular Glyph was Alesia's home address.
"Oh wow! You got it installed?! Good work, Tiger!"
"How's it going, Sister?"
"Recovering, chugging along. How about you? Bloody hell, you look right buggered."
"Erg, how bad does it look?" Gwen placed a finger under her eye to prod her eyebags. "I guess I've had a big week."
"You look like something a drunk dingo dragged into the camp, haha!" Alesia laughed at her own Outback humour. Gwen joined in, genuinely appreciating the outback humour.
"Well, you're looking rather nice. Nightie and all. Waiting for somebody to slip into bed?"
"Sure, in my dreams. How about you, huh? Shaking your tail feathers at all the young fellers up there in Shanghai?"
"Oh, I was flat on my back all week—thanks to a week of CLASSES! Christ. It feels like tests have taken over my life. I assure you, Sister, I have had no time for the lads."
"I find that had to believe," Alesia chided Gwen's rebuff. "Surely there are some hot hunks in Fudan. It's a tier 1 city! There's sure to be a yummy someone to catch your eye, yes? You're young! Live a little, don't sleep on a cold bunk!"
By now, Gwen was beside herself. Trust Alesia to act the old wand! Wasn't she the thirty-something virgin? A female Wizard? The gall of this woman to mock her young and innocent heart! Speaking of which, Gwen was suddenly reminded of how her Sister-in-craft and Gunther are getting along.
"Enough about my amorous adventures, how about you, Sis? Are you and Gunther now making the beast-of-two-backs?"
"—Wow. Christ, Gwen." Alesia reprimanded her churlishly, her face glowing. "How do you come up with this stuff!"
"Um—are you saying you haven't progressed at all? Fine, I give consent! There. What are you waiting for?"
"He's busy, and that's not an excuse either, just the reality," Alesia's voice took on a more serious note. "But, we're together now, at least."
"Oh ho ho!" Gwen made her eyebrows wiggle expressively.
"No! Get your mind out of the gutter," Alesia blasted back in good humour. "He's worried about my health. You know, he still cooks for me sometimes."
Gwen felt the sting of being single. Gunther's cooking was divine. "He's running the reconstruction of an entire city, and he's got the time to cook for you? Girl, you have to jump that bone before some other hussy gets him!"
"Gwen!" Alesia rocked backed and forth. "You've become such a naughty girl! How many boyfriends have you had?"
"I've been living cleaner than a nun in a cloister," Gwen replied tacitly.
The two women traded a few more jabs before moving on to the matter of Gwen's subject selections, of which Alesia approved.
"I can be your Transmutation tutor in the future," Alesia announced confidently. "Anyway, since we missed your birthday, Gunther and I have sent you a care package. It'll take a while to clear Customs, though, especially in China. I hope it gets there in one piece."
"I'll look out for it, thanks, Sis!"
"Anytime, Sis!" Alesia's smile was so warm and inviting Gwen felt her heart flutter. "Anyway, you know these LRC calls cost an HDM per minute, right?"
"Ahahaha!" Alesia snorted. "I hope you're not low on funds!"
"I'll get a job," Gwen said miserably. So much for all-nighter calls with Elvia or Yue.
"Okay, I'll let Yue know it's set up. And get someone to chase up Elvia. It's a two-way charge, by the way—bloody Diviner-Communication companies. Probably run by vampires. See you later, Tiger!"
"See ya," Gwen watched as the device died.
She looked at the clock.
Yes. It was time to look into part-time jobs.
Gwen emerged from Magisters Wen's session feeling like a cat stuck in a tumble dryer. How absurdly long was her week? She hadn't felt that kind of elongated distortion of time since she was training under the schedule set by her Master.
Yet, now with half a day to herself, she had no idea what to do.
Petra was busy.
Mayuree was off to see her family.
Richard worked like a madman.
Neither Mina nor Tao was available.
She couldn't just call babulya out of the blue and ask her impossibly busy grandmother to keep her company.
Her father was out of the city. Her uncle was probably saving the world on a secret mission.
Percy? Gwen baulked at the thought.
It was so strange how complicated life seemed when one had a family. In old Sydney, she could spend whole weekends cooped up with two cats that kept her company, a good book on her Kindle, and a bottle of Mexico's best-distilled agaves by the sideboard. Paper White in hand, she would lounge languishingly on the porch overlooking the ocean, a Tequila Sunrise sweating against the Australian sun, a kitty or two nuzzling at her ankle. Later, when her body grew stiff, she would do a little yoga and meditate to the sound of the ocean.
She thought of all this.
Then returned to the training hall.
And on the seventh day, Gwen rested.
As Petra and Richard were both out, she called for takeout.
After receiving looks of pity from the NoM delivering a family-sized lunch, she sat down by the kitchen table and ate by herself. She then cleaned up, switched on the LRM Device, then sent a Message for Yue to call her when she was back in town.
Then she went back to sleep.
At 5 PM, she left the apartment and jogged around the neighbourhood, from University Boulevard down to Guoding, from Guoding Rd to the second campus, then doubled back through the tree-lined centre of Fudan to the Guanhua Towers. From there, she took a sprint down toward her apartment, then cooled off in the garden. Her muscles, so disastrously worn out by her experiment with Transmutation, had rallied around her Druidic Essence.
As she materialised a towel and wiped her face down, she saw a Blue-Green utility vehicle with the label "Greenland Construction Group" imprinted on the side panel. A familiar figure stumbled out from the passenger side, spoke at length with the driver, then stumbled toward the entrance.
"Richard! Jesus! Are you alright?" Gwen rushed over to her cousin.
Richard looked as though he'd lost five kilograms overnight. His face was sallow, and his skin had a sickly tinge. He peered up at Gwen with eyes that were on the verge of exhaustion.
The kind-faced old guy in the Van gave Richard a look of empathic misunderstanding and a thumbs up before driving off and honking the horn twice.
"Yo. I am back."
"Good God, Richard, what happened?" Gwen caught her cousin.
"Just a little incident, nothing too serious." Richard immediately attempted to diffuse her anxiety. "I just received a few Cure Moderates, so ol' blood-bag is right as rain. Don't you worry?"
"Dick!" Gwen wrapped his arms around her neck to support her friend. "This is not a laughing matter! Where did you go? Who was that in the car with you?"
"The foreman, he's got another two blokes in back, but I think they should pull through."
"Jesus, tell me what happened."
They entered the lift.
"Nothing catastrophic, if you must know," Richard articulated tiredly. "Damned River Mermen didn't uphold their part of the ceasefire. They collapsed an upper section of the Dam we were working, flooded the entire lower-valley past the Yellow River up South-East Nantong."
Gwen could almost imagine the raging torrent of water-bearing down on her cousin, bringing with it construction concrete, boulders, rebar, and other debris.
"Are you wounded? Do you need more healing? I could ask babulya or Mina to come."
"No, it's fine." Richard had no desire to leave unfulfilled favours in his wake. "Boss shouted me two potions already. I am just a little dizzy, is all. The healing took a lot out of me."
Gwen wasn't a healer, but she could tell Richard had sustained a potentially fatal wound.
"Oh, a few cracked ribs, contusions, internal bleeding, that sort of thing. But everyone lived!"
"Struth, Dick." Gwen deposited him on the soft sofa. "How are you now?"
"I feel like shit."
"What do you need? I'll get it for you, anything."
"Got something to eat?"
"I'll call take out."
"I need… meat. Something with iron in it."
"You got it!"
As they waited for takeout, Gwen demanded Richard relate every detail.
In pursuit of Contribution Credits, Richard had answered a Quest from his foreman for a clean-up crew to clear out Magical Monsters from their construction zone.
Richard's team spent two weeks clearing out the monsters with limited success. As with anything involving large masses of water, creatures tend to hide in the nooks and crannies of the meandering river. Even with Lea's ability to displace liquid, they struggled with completing the Purge request.
On the fifth day, Richard's party ran afoul of Gill-Gobs, or Mer-Goblins, ravenous little creatures resembling Goblins with jaws built like that of piranhas. These creatures were hyper-aggressive, with a tendency to swarm when the pack grew too large for their underwater warren or when their homes were destroyed—which was the case.
Richard held off a dozen single-handedly, but there were well over a hundred, each more agile in the water than even Richard with Lea's aid. Again and again, he regenerated Shields for himself and his allies, pulling them from the water, but even so, they were overwhelmed. Richard did his best, but it wasn't until help arrived in the form of a construction Golem dropping ten tons of gravel that he had his hair-breadth escape.
By the time he swam to shore, Richard was wounded all over his body and soon lost consciousness thanks to blood loss. After that, he woke up in Shanghai Metropolitan Hospital.
"Bloody oath..." Gwen felt her tear ducts loading up on Water Bolts. She had considered the possibility of Richard becoming injured before, but this was a return ticket to the afterlife and back, and it had come out of nowhere! She wasn't one for tears over the odd broken bone, but Gwen couldn't prevent her mind from spinning like a top when she considered that, but for a healing potion, she might have lost Richard.
"It's only to be expected," Richard tried to assuage her growing paranoia. "Who doesn't get injured while Adventuring?"
"But not like this! You almost died!" Gwen knelt by her cousin's side and cupped his face. "You're not allowed to die on me, do you understand? Under no circumstances can you die."
"I understand." Richard closed his eyes and gave her an assuring smile. "I didn't mean to put myself in that much danger. It was an unforeseen accident."
Gwen wanted to say something akin to 'never again', but she wasn't a naive waif anymore. If she desired Richard to accompany her on the IIUC tour, it was with absolute certainty that their life and limb were on the line.
When the food arrived, delivered by the same NoM from lunch, Gwen sat by Richard's side and tore up his order of baby-back ribs, feeding her cousin by the spoonful.
Petra arrived an hour later, just after 7 PM.
"I went and collected a Lesser Restoration from Babulya." Without knocking, she opened the door and strode toward Richard with a Spell-cube in hand. "Dropped by the hospital as soon as I got your Message. Mina's on-route as well."
"I'll be fine," Richard chuckled painfully. "It's just a scratch."
"You were almost worm-meat!" Gwen protested.
"Nonsense!" Petra allowed the spell to diffuse Richard's body. "He'll be fine after some bed rest."
A warm glow suffused Richard's body.
"Well, that's nice." Richard breathed out. "You don't realise until after the fact how much healing takes out of you."
"It's possible to die from healing, as stupid as that sounds," Petra advised. "Your boss means well, but he's an idiot. Two potions could have hollowed you out entirely. How badly were you wounded?"
"He couldn't have gotten you a Restoration?" Gwen interjected critically.
"You should have asked for a transfer to the 2nd PLA Hospital," Petra continued.
"Too true, Richard. Babulya would have taken care of you."
Richard shook his head.
"I'd rather not owe them anything, the Songs, I mean."
Her cousin's answer caught Gwen off guard. Hadn't she boasted only weeks ago that she'd broken free, weaned off the teat?
Petra slapped Richard on the back of the head.
"Don't be a prideful idiot!" she scolded him, her eyes glancing at Gwen. "You think Babulya cares about that? Don't think so little about our grandmother!"
"Okay..." Richard gave a half-hearted promise.
"Promise me you'll ask Babulya for help next time," Gwen demanded.
"Of course," Richard replied. "Thank you, both of you."
"Where's Lea?" Petra asked curiously about Richard's usually very inquisitive Spirit.
"She's tired, resting," Richard assured them. "Defending the others took a lot out of her."
Which meant whatever attacked them had been strong enough to destroy Lea's morphic form. Gwen realised. Richard wasn't telling them the whole truth.
For the second time, the door opened without being knocked on.
"Richard!" Mina came into the room and made a beeline for the Water Mage. "Oh, Mao! You look terrible!"
Her cousin immediately revved up her best healing spell.
"Mina, He's already got a—" Petra tried to stop their overzealous cousin.
The mid-tier spell consumed the ingredients in an instant. In the next second, a surge of excessive Positive Energy forced the immortal part of Richard was out of his body.
"Too… too much Restoration—" Richard's eyes were rolling toward the back of his head as the Positive Energy ravaged his physical form.
The girls watched the Water Conjurer convulse.
"Dick, are you alive still? Should I call Babs?" Gwen asked carefully.
Her cousin pulled himself up by the armrest and regarded the three girls. Gwen found herself kneeling by his side. Petra stood impatiently by the other armrest, one hand resting on her hips. Mina's eyes were misty with anxiety.
"Er..." Richard awkwardly moved his legs.
Gwen grew instantly distracted by Richard's growing haleness.
Petra followed Gwen's gaze, her face transforming from worry to passivity, then into her usual frigidity.
Mina's face took on the warmth of molten magma.
Gwen supposed that it was only natural. After all, Eros and Thanatos were the Freudian forces that constituted the human condition.
"Too much healing," Richard muttered weakly. "All the blood has gone from my head."
But there was no one to answer him.
The door slammed, and the girls were gone.
On Tuesday week, Gwen received her Sustenance Bangle—two of them. One white and one black, colour matched to her Familiars.
As instructed, Gwen channelled her Conjure Familiar through the wrist-rings, first calling forth Caliban, who emerged in its serpentine form, then Ariel as a horned marten. Even in its principle shape, Caliban was monstrously large, well over seven feet of obsidian glass sculpted with interlocking, semi-transparent chitin. Ariel, thankfully, juxtaposed Caliban in its fuzzy and adorable docile form, staring at the world with golden eyes sparkling with curiosity, sniffing its surroundings with its dark nose.
Her fellow students had their Familiars out as well.
Eunae with her doe.
Ji with his tiger-cub.
Bao, with his waterbird.
Ming, with his floating koi.
And Lu with his sweet-as-anything Lightning Hawk.
They kept a distance away from Gwen, who stood with a cute marten over one shoulder, and what looked like an abominable amazonian armoured earthworm coiled around her white ankles.
"Acceptable." Instructor Chen finished inspecting the lot of them. "Now, we go for a walk."
The troop began to shuffle out from the underground, emerging into the daylight of Fudan's secondary campus.
The Bestiary students immediately caused a stir as they stepped into the public space, drawing eyes from all over. Mages and passersby from the surrounding area began to gather as they gleefully pointed out the unusual nature of each Spirit and approximated their owner's origins.
Then the crowd fell silent as Gwen emerged with her twin Familiars.
"SHAA—!" She could sense Caliban's burgeoning hunger through their empathic link.
Caliban did not ask for permission before it slithered away and made a line for what Gwen presumed was a Positive-Energy channeller. The fresh-faced young man was pointing at Caliban and saying something to the tune of 'Wocao! What the fuck is that?!" when the serpent about-faced him.
"Caliban! Back!" Gwen commanded her pet.
Caliban reared to its full height like a cobra, almost a meter and a half off the ground, and attempted to halt itself before it ran into its unfortunate victim.
"Arrrrragh!" The young man understandably screamed like a woman.
"Eeee!" his girlfriend joined in soprano.
"EE-EE!" Ariel scolded Caliban.
"Shaa—Shaa—" Caliban sang.
The crowd understandably went wild.
"Caliban! No! Come back!" Gwen pleaded with her wild Familiar.
But, it was too late.
A volley of relatively harmless Magic Missiles struck her Void Familiar, causing it to open its carapace and actively demand from Gwen the vitality needed to activate its combat form. Before she willed it to back down, the Bangle kicked in, and Caliban was gone. When the culprits realised they had attacked someone's Familiar, they quickly fled the scene, with the crowd breaking into scattered cheers and mocking jeers.
The rest of her classmates looked over at Gwen with expressions of disbelief, schadenfreude, and amusement.
Instructor Chen pinched the bridge of his brow.
Gwen felt an ardent desire to flee the scene right there and then, but her pride did not allow such a pitiful display of surrender. She made sure that despite the beetroot complexion of her face, she was in complete control of her body language. Placing one leg in front of the other, she regally rejoined the others, wearing Ariel like a minx-scarf around her neck.
"Pitiful," Instructor Chen snorted mercilessly. "Go home and meditate. Work on bonding sessions. Run routines until they learn to stay by your side."
"I could manage with Ariel," Gwen retorted defiantly.
Chen shook his head.
"Go home," he commanded.
Defeated and humiliated, Gwen stalked from the scene, aided by her new mastery of Expeditious Retreat.
The rest of Week 2 began with a bang.
Ariel slept smugly on the thousand-thread count bed sheets.
Caliban slept in a cot that Gwen had purchased and was covered with a plastic tarp. The netherworld worm had a tendency to drool in the middle of the night, and the first night she'd shared a bed with it, she awoke at 1 AM with a pool of viscous goo collecting across her chest and arms as the sleepless serpent meandered back and forth listlessly.
Then, on the second night, she realised an even bigger problem.
Caliban, a thing of the Void, did not sleep.
Like a bleary-eyed mother, she had awoken in the middle of the night, startled and upset, to find Caliban wandering the bedroom, snuggling up in her clothes or digging up her trash. By morning, it had consumed three pairs of thankfully non-enchanted intimates, including a favourite bra.
Comparatively, Ariel had controllable bouts of curiosity and mischief, whether running into traffic to investigate a particularly loud vehicle, harassing student Mages for Crystals, or zipping across sidewalks to startle the innocent sausage vendor.
Following Instructor Chen's advice, she began taking both Familiars into the garden to run routines with a "shadowing" technique.
If they succeeded, then it was LDMs treat time.
Sit. Wait. Hold for 10 seconds. Reward again!
Unlike unintelligent pets, Familiars have an Empathic Link with their Masters and thus, what the Master wished. Therefore, she had to establish unambivalent dominance to polish up the mental control of her pets.
Ariel trained like a duck to water, but Caliban remained easily distracted and skittish.
According to her Instructor, there was little else for her to do but keep desensitising her pets to external stimuli and creating a strong sense of discipline and routine. If she could get her Familiars trained in their passive form by Week 7, she could move on to Combat Training. If not, he would advise her to give up on being a Creature Mage until such time that her Conjuration becomes sufficiently forceful to compel her Familiar into absolute obedience.
However, taking that route meant her Familiars need always be weaker than herself by half a tier. As such, Gwen had no intentions of giving up. Whatever it took, she was determined to pin Caliban's dogged will under her stiletto heels.