By mid-week three, Gwen could take Caliban out for a jog without inciting a public incident. When she'd first attempted the spectacle, she had far underestimated the visual impact of her innocuous exercise, even for an audience as attuned to the mystic arts as Fudan's student cohort.
It didn't take long for a new 'Great Mystery of Fudan' to circulated around the campus.
"If you go to Gouding Rd and Unversity Bullevarde around 8 AM, you may see a ghostly gweilo beauty jogging with a Mongolian Death Worm."
It was an absurd rumour, of course, but then Lumen-Pics began to circulate of a beautiful girl with bright hazel eyes wearing a spaghetti-string sports-top and form-fitting yoga pants fleeing from a monstrous Death Worm.
But Gwen paid no attention to the occasional click of a curious bystander. If passersby wanted images of Caliban, who was she to deny them? She was in public and on common land.
Her routine traversed through Fudan’s shaded avenues, where the early spring's wind hung heavy with moisture as it blew through blooming sycamores and mulberries, filling the air with the fecund scent of future fruit. With an elfin grace, she meandered between the dappled trees, her hair swaying from side to side. Fellow joggers, able-bodied and clean-cut, nodded as she passed; she nodded back, then sighed as they fled at thrice her cadence.
Her monstrous 'Mongolian Death Worm' trailed closely behind, slithering across the pavements with its rasping, chitinous underbelly raking the pebble path. Despite lacking a 'face', the worm seemed to sense its surroundings, avoiding the occasional pale-faced pedestrian too weak with revulsion to flee. Occasionally, when the armoured creature grew tired, it split its obsidian carapace four ways and panted from its lamprey’s mouth, drooling profusely as its tentacled tongues tasted the air. That was when the sidewalk became a private resting area.
Occasionally, they were stopped by Chengguan - but the city-guards were polite to a fault, more often asking Gwen for a Lumen-pic to show their colleagues.
Somewhere in the scuffle, an unassuming marten was accompanying the pair, but few onlookers noticed the white-furred cat-snake when the brain screamed blue-murder at a seven-foot Amphisbaenia slithering down Main St.
As Lumen-recordings of the new gweilo beauty spread, Gwen's infamy grew. One would presume the news of her Void talent would catch the popular imagination, but alas, it was Gwen's co-habitation with the ‘Ice Queen’ that set tongues wagging.
Were they an item?
Was THAT the reason why the Ice Queen refused to date anyone?
No no, they're cousins.
Oh. My. Mao.
Are you telling me that if you get to date one of them, you get to hang with BOTH of the girls?
Or so it goes.
* * *
Meanwhile, the stress of Caliban's constant company accumulated elsewhere.
Conjuration lessons were manageable. The Mages that she sat with - Lily and the unfortunately phonic Pu, had acclimatised to Caliban’s presence after giving it a pat on its faceless snout. The physical interaction with Caliban must have been a real thrill, for Lily squealed with such delight that half the lecture must have turned their heads. Consequently, a new vogue began in her Conjuration classes. Every student and their Familiars wanted to touch Gwen's Mongolian Death Worm.
What the fuck is a Mongolian Death Worm? Gwen searched her audience's eager faces when one of the girls near-fainted at Caliban's hidden lamprey's mouth. The attention was an acceptable cost; so long as people were willing to give Caliban a fair go.
Evocation was a more significant problem.
Overstimulated by sound and the flurry of rough magic and volatile elements in the air, Caliban had unsummoned itself twice in as many weeks when it escaped her mental-leash and fled into the fray, or tried to investigate some Mage only to be blasted by flame, ice, magma, air and stone.
Spell Shaping degenerated into a hot mess.
The first time she showed up with Caliban, she cleared half the lecture.
Micho Lee, the Magister presiding, became so upset that he made Gwen sit in the far corner by herself. In the subsequent week, news had spread of Caliban’s docility, and he had to again seclude Gwen by herself in the auditorium when students kept trying to attract Caliban with LDMs. When Caliban got overexcited and opened its carapace to catch a shard, it cleared the lecture again. After a third incident, Magister Lee personally Banished Caliban.
Impressive, Gwen had to admit. It was almost a chantless incantation.
Ariel meanwhile, took advantage of the situation to win hearts and minds, stuffing its mouth pouches full of crystal fragments.
For Bestiary, Chen grilled the students on their performances and recorded metrics for control, obedience and compliance from each of the student’s Familiars. Caliban waffled below average, while Ariel shone like a beacon.
“That is an uncommonly intelligent beast,” Chen remarked. “That Evocation-channel ability is something else, as well.”
Happy that her ‘good boy’ received recognition, Gwen ruffled Ariel's fur and snuggled it against her bosoms. The marten purred and whined, licking her face with its little pink tongue.
Meanwhile, the marten had struck up a friendship with Luyi, Eunae's doe, though both of them seemed to antagonise Wanli, Lu's Lightning Hawk.
Thanks to Luyi, Eunae had taken fondness of Gwen as well. The demure girl was clearly uncomfortable around the men, especially the braggadocio Lu. As Gwen watched the lithe healer manipulate her Familiar; she couldn't help but think of Elvia and her Sprite, Kiki. What were they doing now? She wondered. When would they install her LRC Device?
The one Conjurer that remained aloof was Lu, but none of the others found that fact surprising. He came from an austere Clan, he had a rare affinity, and he was in possession of an aerial mid-tier spirit. The Mage had reason to be proud.
When Eunae complained to Instructor Chen, the old man told them an interesting factoid. According to Chen, the side effect of Lightning affinity manifested as quickened metabolisms and an irrational sense of pride and possessiveness.
Oh? Gwen attempted a little introspection. Was she proud? Indubitably, though no more than her favourite femme, Elizabeth Bennet. Was she possessive? Which woman wasn't? Metabolism? She doubted her absurd ability to digest enough food for three fully-grown NoM males was a product of Lightning.
At any rate, Chen persisted in his hypothesis.
“Like a Dragon,” Chen pointed as if that explained Lu’s bratty braggadocio. Gwen could only presume he meant Chinese Dragons: four-footed serpents with tiger paws, eagle claws, demon eyes and fish-scales, sailing through the heavens without equal.
“Yes, I meant the Shenglong,” Chen clarified. “The ones encircling the Kunlun range.”
"Are there dragon-kin about the place? Can we harvest Draconic cores from the demi-dragons?" Gwen directed the critical questions. Ariel, as a little Draconic-marten? Yes, please!
“Don’t,” the Master Creature-Mage hewed her enthusiasm with a single stroke. “Dragons are avaricious and licentious, I can tell you right now that there’s not a species of creatures within a hundred kilometres of that nest which ain’t half-dragon something. Imagine a pack of lightning-breathing half-dragon rabbits, or half-dragon flocks of geese, or draconian fish. The whole damn range is guarded by Hobs as well: Draconic Hobs.”
“Are they dangerous? What do you think, little Miss? Most Magic just slides off their scales like water off a duck’s back. Just as well that a dragon’s worst enemy is another dragon.”
“You wouldn’t want a dragon core anyway,” Chen interrupted her. “If another dragon senses that you’ve captured, pilfered, usurped, or fed your familiar one of its species, prepare for a whole cabal of the flying lizards to descend from the heavens. No one. And I mean NO ONE fucks with Dragons for a reason.”
"How about ah-"
“I suppose a pseudo-draconic core is fine. I mean, there’s a shit load of them, whole bloody mountains worth!” Chen laughed. “Good luck getting one though. They’re resistant to magic and near-immune to lightning, what are you going to fight em with? Oh right, you’re Void as well… Look, just focus on training, alright?"
* * *
Friday night of the third week, Gwen sat with Richard in her living room.
The two listened to the demonic trill of the modem, aka her LRC Device, singing its song of unholy Divination. When the device finally connected to Sydney, they were treated by a vision of Alesia, invariably in red.
“Okay, Tiger - they’re here. Call me if you need me!”
This was a session Gwen had arranged for Richard. She had planned it since his return from Nantong.
“Richard! Oh my God, Richard! My baby!” Aunty Tali burst into uncontrollable sobs as soon as Richard’s image appeared to her in Sydney.
“My boy! How’s life in Shanghai?” Kwan’s eyes were red as well. “Gwen, it’s good to see you’re doing well. Has Richard been taking care of you? Is he being good?”
Gwen made polite small talk, then retreated to her room to give Richard some privacy. Petra had already recused for their benefit as well. The walls were thin though, made from pre-fabricated fibro, and so Gwen caught every word between her cousin and his doting parents.
In the living room, Richard spoke of recent events, his adventures with Gwen in the Dungeon, his work, and his progress on gathering the necessary CCs. His parents grew into a frenzy of worry, bidding Richard that they were in no rush and that his first priority should be his personal safety. It was all very heartwarming, nurturing in Gwen a prickling, resentful envy as the call progressed.
“Gwen!” Richard called for her.
Gwen emerged to the sight of Opa. Her age-old Opa, gnarled like an old branch but hale as sunshine, standing before the crystalline projector.
All her accumulated discontent diffused at once.
‘Opa!” Gwen cried out. “Opa! Opa! Opa!”
“My cute cucu perempua!” her grandfather’s familiar voice rang out. “I’ve missed you so, little one!”
She couldn’t embrace the illusion, of course, but Gwen made an effort.
“How are you? What have you been doing? What is going on over there? Where have you gone? How are the Songs treating you? I heard there was a Dungeon? Duels? University! Scholarships?!” A barrage of questions assailed her from the old man’s lips.
Watching her Opa’s face, Gwen forgot all about the 1 HDM call rate and began to answer her Opa’s questions one by one in meticulous detail, everything from Singapore to the Songs, to her dungeon, her exams, her farewell with Helena, her apartment-hunting and her university courses.
When she had finally finished, they were well into the evening.
“Very well, my cucu perempua, remember Opa loves you! No matter what the Songs say, there will always be an Opa here in Sydney waiting for your return.”
“Thanks, Opa!” Gwen wiped away some moisture from her eyes. “I’ll come back soon, I promise.”
Opa’s visage went away to be replaced by a very sleepy Alesia.
“Gwen! I am happy that you enjoyed your time together, but all of this is happening in my apartment…”
“Sorry!” Gwen apologised. “Please, I release you, O Djinn of Fire, return to your Plane.”
“Earlier, I contacted the Pudong Tower, and they said that your care package should be arriving at the Song Estate. My God, ocean freight is so slow.”
“My old address?”
“Where you first hole up.”
“Ah,” Gwen affirmed rigidly. “Okay, I’ll call Babulya tomorrow.”
“Right, I am gonna hang. This whole session is going to cost you 200 odd HDMs, are you alright for funds over there? I could… you know.”
“I’ll be alright,” Gwen dismissed Alesia’s generous offer. “I can do with some part-time work myself. Even if just to get out and get some air and exercise.”
“Kay.” Alesia leaned in closer. “Guess what? The Cambridge Tower Messaged me today as well. Elvia’s LRC Device is slated for installation! I’ll send you her Glyph-codes soon!”
“Awesome. Cheers, Allie,” Gwen beamed. Elvia! So close at hand!
“Ha, its a pleasure, Gwennie,” Alesia replied. “Ciao!”
The image faded.
Gwen laid back against the couch and took in the afterglow of speaking with her Opa and bathing in the boundless affection of an elder with unreserved tenderness. She wouldn’t be able to return to Australia for at least three to four years, but she was free to dream and fantasise about the eventuality at her will. What would it be like when she did return? Would Gunther have finished repairing the city? Would it once again be safe? Would it pass muster to become a tier 1 domain?
Gwen was once again alone. Petra was likely in bed, and Richard had left as soon as Opa made an appearance, gifting Gwen the same privacy she had given him.
Gwen poured herself a glass of milk from the fridge, heated it with a simple cantrip, then nursed its warmness in her hands. She watched the city blinking below, winking and glowing with all the lust for life that a metropolis of 22 million souls engendered. Arterial highways in streams of red and white formed three massive loops, each larger than then the last, reaching into a cityscape that illuminated the horizon.
Avoiding the reality was foolish.
She would go and see babulya on Sunday, and maybe, hopefully - Percy.
* * *
The lesson of the day for Conjuration was Mass versus Mana transfer over Distance.
Gwen felt a dizzying lightheadedness coming on as soon as the mess of formulas appeared on the illusory projection board.
“The amount of mana expended for mass transfer is inversely proportional to the square of the distance,” Magister Birch explained. “Be extremely wary of object density. If you should fail to translocate an object, the feedback will be of equal or greater force.”
Translocation was Birch’s speciality. With each additional lecture, Gwen was beginning to recognise its nuance. When she’d met with Alesia and her crew, it was Paul who was the Translocation Mage, specialising in Teleportation and other transit spells. The mousy man had also been the one responsible for evacuating the students at Rosebay, not to mention the one who set up the mandala array that allowed Magister Irene Ferris’ team to penetrate into the Sydney Tower. Gwen hadn't thought of the Mage as unique, but now she knew Paul was an irreplaceable genius.
“The understanding of what one’s limitations are, therefore, central to any Translocation Specialist.”
Magister Birch had installed two Mandala arrays on either side of the auditorium, one near the entrance to the hall, and the other where Gwen and Caliban had been segregated from the rest of the class. The Mandala itself resembled a six-petal lotus drawn onto the floor with glyphs that Gwen had seen before underneath the PLA Tower, at the ISTC when she’d first arrived in Shanghai.
“For small objects, the mana capacity of an average Mage is plentifully enough.”
The Magister demonstrated transporting a 5kg cube of iron between the two teleportation circles, filling the dark auditorium with the silvery light of Conjuration.
He then materialised a chunk of what resembled lead from his storage ring. An indent inscribed alongside the knee-height block of mystery metal indicated that it was 50kg.
“Unlike living bodies, which can be attuned to project astrally, objects without life must be given a Teleportation Metric Index or TMI. Furthermore, the simpler the makeup of the item you are transporting, the less chance of complications.”
The Magister transported the cube back and forth a few times, allowing the students to gauge the volume of mana required. Where the 5kg block had been near-negligible, the 50kg block clearly strained the Magister.
“Now for a cautionary demonstration.”
Birch produced what resembled an overly complicated gear-box within a glass-cased mechanism, and wound up the clockwork. He then teleported the construct between the two Mandalas. After the thirtieth time, there was a clonk, and the mechanism ceased its purposeless function.
“The more mixed material and intricacies are involved in an item, the more difficult it is to transport without the item becoming warped as it travels through the Astral Plane. This phenomenon likewise increases with distance, volume, and weight. There is currently no known way to mitigate Tellestolle’s Paradox; though the more experienced Translocation Mages can alleviate degradation with minor tweaks, or interface aid from Divination and Transmutation.”
The students duly noted Birch's wisdom.
It was knowledge gleaned straight from the horse's mouth.
“Now, some material variations.”
Birch materialised blocks of hard metal, collated shale, a block of sandstone, a slab of crystal and a chunk of fragile looking glass.
“Material resonance during transportation is likewise impacted by distance and mass.”
The Magister made the students record the volume and weight of each of the objects, then began a practical on ‘teleportation fatigue’ and the stress exerted on different materials.
The crystal shattered after the fifteenth jaunt, while the sandstone crumbled after the tenth.
“Who here, has experienced Long Range Teleportation before?”
When no one raised their hands. Magister Birch pointed to the girl with the Mongolian Death Worm.
Gwen looked up. Caliban hissed. Ariel flattened itself against her legs.
“You’re from the Frontier, no? How did you get here?”
“Teleportation, Sir,” Gwen felt her face glow as a few students in the audience snickered.
“How did you fare? Be honest with us.”
Gwen felt pressured to satisfy the Magister. The gaze of her fellow Conjurers made her skin crawl.
“I was sick all over the shoes of my escort,” Gwen spoke just loud enough to be heard. “I was disorientated and dazed for almost a day and night after.”
Her fellow students murmured.
“Indeed, thank you, Gwen, for sharing.”
Birch turned to the lecture.
“The human body, capable of channelling mana and responding to the magical energies of translocation, is largely exempt to the small inconsistencies of dislocation and displacement. However, not even the human body is immune to teleportation fatigue. Your organs and innards will be shifted and shunted before being set back in place by the Incantation, the more distance is undergone, the more severe the sickness. This is why long-range translocation must be executed in a place of absolute safety. Even the best of Mages will be disabled by the disorientation of distance.”
“My escorts were unaffected by the compression,” Gwen pointed out to the Professor.
“As they should be,” Magister Birch answered, then walked away.
Gwen stood awkwardly for a few more moments, waiting for an answer before realised that none was forthcoming; Birch simply continued on with the lecture.
She sat back down and ran a hand over Caliban to dispel her annoyance. Ariel ran its face against her other hand as well to quell her sullen upset. As she stroked both of her pets, the lecture looked on with a mixture of envy and mirth.
Far above Gwen, seated at the rear, was the forgotten Lu Fung, dazedly stroking the Lightning-Hawk perched on his shoulder. Just a week ago, he had entered the hall, the very centre of praise and envy. Then Gwen strode past him, sat at the bottom of the lecture with her friends, and the world instantly forgot that the fourth son of the Fung Clan existed.
Lu had spent most of the lecture studying the girl. Not far from Gwen sat their doe-eyed Korean compatriot of Bestiary. Since their meeting, Eunae's Familiar had held an unfathomable obsession with the gweilo girl; launching itself at the Void Sorceress as though she were a life-tree.
The memory of the absurd sight made Lu chortle mockingly. The nature inclined Cleric was gifted and talented, sure, but she would never make it to the frontlines at this rate. As a Conjurer-Evoker, Eunae wasn’t suited to combt. She was best as a utility Mage, proving heals, buffs, snares, barriers, dispels, shelters and other useful boons on the battlefield. If the girl had acquired a combative spirit, like the legendary Sufina belonging to Magister Henry Kilroy, she could one day become a force of nature, but alas, a glorified Cleric was all she would amounted to.
On the dais, Magister Birch was asking another round of questions, invariably concluding with Gwen Song standing and delivering a summation. More often than not, she succeeded. Rarely, she failed. There was evidently something going on, and Lu felt a sadistic mirth toward the mild-mannered bullying the Instructor orchestrated.
He had spoken to the other members of his Clan since the semester began, and was surprised when he found out that Gwen was the girl who thrashed Frederick Lin and had almost embarrassed Dai during one of their outings. When he’d consulted his First-Brother, the principal heir had told him to leave the girl well alone and to be curt and respectable when possible. Privately, Lu felt he needn’t bother, but he wasn’t about to go behind Dai's wishes.
Lu's eyes fell upon the gweilo girl again. Gwen returned to her seat, clearly agitated by the Instructor’s unwanted harassment. She had on a sundress for the day, and the ferret had nestled itself between her white thighs, curled up on her lap like a napping cat. Beside her, the dark obsidian worm meandered here and there, nibbling on her hair and occasionally nudging her knees.
It's little wonder, Lu affirmed with First-Brother’s stricken impression of the girl, that Dai was so interested in gathering her data.