The fourth week of the Summer Semester.
Magister Wen called Gwen into the Cognisance Chamber.
“You know, Gwen, it has occurred to me that there is a way to replicate Bar-gain-ginny,” Magister Wen informed her proudly.
“Oh? I am all ears!” Gwen looked up from her practice to see the master researcher's eyes glowing intelligently.
“Ha! You'd think the answer as far away as heaven, but it was right under our eyes!" Magister Wen smirked. "Remember how we managed to simulate the green lightning with nothing but a Lightning-based creature core?”
Gwen nodded eagerly.
Magister Wen pointed to Ariel; the marten immediately perked up, thinking perhaps that the Magister was trying to offer it an HDM chip.
“No need for expendable creature cores. There’s your elemental-mixer right there.”
“But I can’t channel the druidic essence,” Gwen explained. "Not into Spells and not into Familiars."
“Oh no, there’s no need for that.” The Magister stroked Ariel’s furry, folded ears. “You told me once that Ariel could be empowered with your druidic essence, yes? Would that not count as mixing your Lightning element with the Druidic one?”
Gwen considered it. It could just work.
“I think you might be absolutely right, Ma'am,” Gwen answered confidently. "Ariel, come here, yum-yum!"
She coaxed Ariel closer and urged the druidic mana to circulate through her body until it condensed at her fingertips, becoming a drip of congealed pale-green fluid not resembling simmering tree-sap. Her marten took her finger and greedily suckled upon it until almost half of her reserve was gone. Despite consuming two Vitae Fruits and a Lotus, her volume of Almuldj's essence remained inconsiderable.
As they were in the Cognisance Chamber, Gwen observed as Ariel took the essence within; as expected, Ariel's internal mana conduits began to pulse with emerald energy, mingling with the raw cobalt of Lightning.
“Alright, let see if my hypothesis is correct, give Ariel a whirl.”
Gwen ordered Ariel to step away and face the far side of the chamber, where an illusory target had been set up. She willed a surge of mana to enter her pet, watching the beast expand until it was almost the size of a small pony. The tiny horns Ariel possessed likewise elongated, becoming spiral swords branching off in the shape of a ‘Y’ atop Ariel’s mongoose head, giving it a menacing chimeric appearance.
She incanted Almudj’s variant of Lighting Bolt, feeling her Lightning element course through her body and enter Ariel’s combat form. Besides Gwen, Ariel's horns grew bright with hysterical electricity, then a blast of jade-green Lightning emitted from between the two horns.
The ozone stench from the energised blast was immense, so much that it filled the entire tennis-court sized training room with its oppressive odour. The illusory target became utterly obliterated as its glyphs fried, disabling the function altogether.
A piece of old world knowledge clicked into place for Gwen as Magister and freshman marvelled at the scorched tiles. The Cog-Chamber was built to withstand blasts and bursts up to tier 6. How was it possible that a tier 3 Lightning Bolt could punch through the shielding?
Magister Wen puzzled her head, but Gwen's mind floundered over an old National Geographic magazine. She recalled reading that there were two distinct forms of lightning. The first, Negative-charged Lightning, accounted for almost 95% of all strikes. These were usually up to 300 million volts and could blast apart trees and set fire to forests. Occasionally, when circumstance, chance and climate converged, nature allowed for the formation of a positively-charged plasma arc, a freakish occurrence with a current capable of exceeding 1 billion volts, amassing enough power to reduce an eighty-meter Californian red-oak to smouldering wood chips.
She had no idea what the ‘life’ energy of Almudj did to empower the lightning, but like her Guiding Bolt, as well as the accumulatively more powerful strikes of Blast Bolt, there seemed to be something about an excess of Positive energy that catalysed Positive-strikes.
The blast was exceedingly difficult to direct, but if Ariel could close in on the target, and she could open with Guiding Bolt...
Arguably, despite its complexity, Barbanginy seemed like a viable 'King Hit'; to borrow an Australian pub-crawl misnomer. She can't control the outcome very well, but the effect on an enemy would likely be devastating, especially on an opponent expecting a regular Lighting spell.
Magister and student then examined Ariel for damage and expenditure. It was worth noting that her magical marten had expended the Druidic essence it had consumed earlier. Other than that, Ariel appeared perfectly hale and eager for action.
Gwen attempted to produce another drop of the druidic essence, but her reserves only allowed for so much per day. Only her Void consumption could 'drain' her supply of Druidic mana. Gwen herself could not offer more than that which fatigued her; it as akin to how one could tire oneself out, but excessive, superhuman exertion would require a far more compelling stimulus.
“Wonderful, Gwen.” Wen busily recorded their new findings. “I would recommend testing again in a few days to obtain some standardised metrics. I'd dare say the Ba-gain-ninny's inherent combative limitation is severe, but it may be useful as an artillery option, especially at the higher tiers.”
“Of course, thank you, Magister.” Gwen double-checked her Astral-reflection below. The spell took no more out of her than a regular Lightning Bolt. Its only limitation was her ability to produce Druidic Essence - and like an artillery system, the need to load up her pet with powder.
* * *
Chen's advice proved sound.
As mid-term quickly approached, Gwen’s training regime with Caliban and Ariel was finally beginning to take shape. Mayhap because Caliban had already tasted, disturbed, harassed and terrorised everything molestable by its faceless muzzle, it had calmed itself significantly.
Her Familiar quietened once it acclimatised to external stimuli. Caliban was beginning to take her order as precedence over its curiosity. Though her growing command of tier 5 Conjuration likely contributed as well.
By Tuesday, Gwen had sustained the creature’s presence in the Material realm for four days.
Chen's attitude likewise improved once Caliban no longer slithered for Eunae, snapped at Wanli, or tried to nip at the other Familiars as they crossed one another's path. Ariel, in stark contrast, had become a model Familiar, a poster pet of the 'good boy' manifesto.
By now, Gwen was likewise making gains on Transmutation and Evocation.
Magister Wen had remarked earlier on the fact that her absurd VMI of 130 and over would do wonders for her training. Even so, her ability to bench the 'iron' of repetitive Spellcraft exercises exceeded even the high esteem of her Instructors.
The average teen-Mage measured close to 40 VMI, a talented Fudan student in the 70s, and those with bred-to-purpose bloodlines perhaps 80. With a nearly double mana capacity, those young Casters could acquire mastery over complicated Sigils with twice the efficacy.
Gwen had not measured her VMI since babulya took her to the Second-PLA Hospital lab for her biometrics, but she was confident that thanks to her growth in Conjuration, Evocation and Transmutation, her mana pool should exceed 140.
Had others comprehended the extent to which Gwen could continuously practice without tiring, they would have despaired at the snail's pace of their regular training. Besides, there was the advantage that Gwen's elemental affinity reduced her mana-costs and casting fatigue.
Gwen was no statistician, but her potential gains were evidently far more than four to five magnitudes surpassing the average bear. Petra had informed Gwen that it would take her a year to advance Conjuration from tier 4 to 5, but she had not taken into account that for all intents and purposes, her cousin was using training to distract herself from life's many dissatisfactions.
Unbeknownst to Petra, Gwen’s self-imposed workaholic ethos had given her a rare kind of focus, one more suited to perhaps, the Daoist isolationists of Wutang Mountain, or the esoteric swordsmen of Kunlung ranges. She left the house early in the morning for classes, took her lunch near campus, attended her afternoon classes, then trained before having dinner. She repeated this schedule for five days, then relaunched herself at the Training Hall whenever she had a few hours to spare. When possible, to save time and also to entertain her companionship with Mayuree, she ate together with the siblings in their loft. Richard returned home more often than not after his previous incident, but the young man still worked and studied, pursuing HDMs and CCs with a fervour that embarrassed even Gwen. Petra meanwhile, returned to her research schedule, now with the additional burden of compiling reports on her cousin’s Void metrics.
* * *
Week 5. Monday. Late afternoon.
Gwen burst through the front door, launching herself at the LRC device, positioned it just right in front of the couch.
She glanced at the clock anxiously, then tried to meditate to pass the crawling seconds that felt like hours.
She waited with growing agitation, her hazel eyes staring so intently at the pin-hole projection crystal that had she possessed optical powers, it would have burst into flame.
It came! She exalted the Gods for they are merciful and kind.
Gwen pressed the glyph to accept the incoming call, then sat back.
The projection began to manifest.
First, a few strands of glorious golden hair, then a pointed chin, followed by a dimpled pair of pink cheeks, then finally, luminous, ocean-blue eyes. As the rest of the vision materialised, it began to move.
“Elvia…” Gwen mouthed the name sweetly on her tongue. “EVEE!”
The two girls gushed as the projections on either side animated their illusory simulacrums, joined by Gwen's familiars.
Elvia looked as though time had held her intact and refused to change a thing. Her hair was longer, of course, now reaching her waist, but Gwen's golden girl was as adorable as the day she last saw her in Singapore. Her cheeks were puffed with baby-fat as before, her eyes as clear as sapphires, Gwen’s gaze dropped a little lower and indeed, nothing had changed on that front either.
“Oh my God! You look amazing!” Elvia however, noted the changes in Gwen’s appearance right away. When they’d last separated in Singapore, Gwen had fluctuated between hale, pale, and loitering almost weekly, pending on her use and abuse of her Void spells. The Gwen in front of her now appeared genuinely in peak physical fitness, possessing a rosy complexion, bright eyes, and glossy hair that hinted at an excellent mana-rich diet.
“Ha! Thanks, Evee! A lot has happened.” Seeing that Elvia was in good health herself, Gwen felt as though an anxious weight had lifted from her chest. “How’s school in England? Are you making friends?”
“I am doing well.” Elvia giggled. “Though there are too many classes. I’ve got Biology, Magitech, Clerical Studies, Pharmacology, it’s endless!”
As she spoke, a little green sprite popped up on Elvia’s shoulder and waved at the projection crystal.
“Is that Kee-kee?” Gwen pointed just past her ear.
“Kiki! Say hi to Aunty Gwen!”
Oh Lordy, I am an aunt now? Shouldn’t it be an older sister? Gwen reflected dejectedly.
“Hi, Kiki!” she greeted the flowery nature sprite.
Kiki was the dryad spirit that Elvia had picked up from Sufina’s island, an encounter that paralleled in many ways, Sufina’s meeting with Henry Kilroy, her Master of four decades. As with Sufina, Gwen had no doubt that should Elvia learn to treat the spirit well and allow it to grow, it would become immeasurable to her success as a Cleric. To her knowledge, high-affinity healers are a dime a dozen, but a healer who came attuned to a Primary-Elemental spirit of life and regeneration was sacred indeed. She could infer from Petra's lessons that in all of England, attuned healers would exceed no more than a two digit number.
For so long as she took care of Kiki, the potentially high-tier spirit would trivialise her lacklustre affinity.
A sweeping Mass-Regeneration, a battle-field wide Bless, a timely Resurrection on a newly-fallen Magister; such were the Clerical miracles that directed victory and loss on the battlefront.
When such incredulities were expressed to Gwen, not even she could fault Gunther’s proposal on sending Elvia to London. It was the best possible outcome for her friend, despite the demure girl having to endure loneliness and separation from friends and family.
Without further ado, the girls informed each other of their life since their last ‘video’ conference.
Elvia spoke of her anxieties since their separation: Her family left Sydney and received resettlement without incident thanks to Gunther. Her brother rejoined the Princes’ Academy in Munich; her father and mother took up new residencies in state hospitals. She arrived in London by herself, then immediately became lost on her way to the Nightingale College. Thankfully, the residents of London were more than willing to come to her aid, a kind old woman showed her to the police station. A Police officer walked her to the right tramline. The conductor showed her where to get off. A few local lads in prim public school uniforms then walked her to the College's entrance, where a porter took her admission letter and even transported all her luggage to her twin-share room.
But after she checked into the dorm, she had no idea how to enrol for her classes. When her new roommate found her anxious and teary, the girl guided her down to the Administration Office. The lady at the office was so touched by Elvia's story of separation from her family that she personally took it upon herself to enrol Elvia and ensure her smooth transition into College. When they passed the entrance, the office clerk introduced Elvia to the head Nun of the cafeteria and the Dorm Mistress.
"It was all very fascinating! I was really anxious!" Elvia exclaimed in her delightful demeanour.
Gwen nodded and nodded, then nodded again, marvelling at the friendliness of every single helpful person Elvia had met. She knew that those with Positive Energy affinity exuded an 'angelic' aura, but what was Elvia on now? Five? Six? How could mere mortals resist such a vision of exuberant innocence? They would be helpless before her doe-eyed onslaught!
Elvia continued her tale of conquest.
A few days later, Alesia’s colleague, a Magus called Dominic Lorenzo, arrived to find the ‘demure girl’ fully settle into her dorm life, surrounded by a small army of middle-aged ladies who grilled him incessantly for almost twenty minutes before he was allowed to speak to their 'precious'.
Escorted by Jenny, the overprotective lady from the front office and an incredulous Dominic, the trio then made it to the London Tower, where Elvia registered for a preliminary membership thanks to an introductory letter from Magus Shultz, a celebrated champion of the Commonwealth. Having then received all of Eliva's licences, the trio returned to the dorm, where Dominic contacted and arranged for the installation of the LRC device in Elvia’s twin-share room.
The news then spread that Elvia had high-level backing from the Towers, further evidenced by the unheard extravagance of receiving a personal LRC device. The dorm, however, deemed the device an inappropriate piece of equipment for a place consisting of entirely teenage girls who boarded, and therefore, was understandably lonely. The Divi-Telecom companies would have a field day.
After Dominic negotiated with the College's Mistress, Magister Celine Nightingale the 3rd, fully employing his Florentine charm on the ageing woman, a separate room was made available for the device. There was an added caveat that any of the girls can use the LRC, provided they pay the HDM cost and submit a prior application. Also, unlike Gwen, Alesia had outright purchased the device and gifted it to Elvia. For Elvia to make the device publicly accessible, therefore, the Mistress offered to pay Elvia the rate of 2 CCs per month for the privilege of allowing her peers to call home.
"Mr Lorenzo is soooooo good looking!" Elvia exclaimed. "When he came in, all the girls were staring."
"I'll bet," Gwen urged her to continue. Who cares about some upstart Adonis? She needed more Chronicles of Elvia!
At any rate, after all the fiasco, Elvia's classes started. Somehow, likely via the canteen Nun, news of Elvia's life in Sydney, the terror that befell her, the separation from her family, and her loneliness (not to mention her connection to Gunther Shultz) spread throughout campus. Brimming with self-righteous sympathy, instructors took it upon themselves to ensure that the poor girl had nought but the most gracious of receptions, easing her into her courses with gentle, guiding hands. When the time came to elect an SRC member for the class of 2003, the only name everyone recollected on their lips was Elvia Lindholm, and so Elvia had become unanimously elected to the Student Council.
"Let me see!" Gwen geeked out. SRC! Elvia was already accumulating power and influence! In response, Elvia showed Gwen a silver badge with a staff and twin serpents in the middle of a bough of an olive wreath. Inscribed at the very bottom, was Elvia's name.
"So, how was the Student Council?"
Elvia said that at first, she was terrified. When she stepped trembling and confused into the Council building, she was met by Magus Emily Greyson Rothwell, a teenager - a nineteen-year-old Magus! The handsome third year Student President took one look at Elvia's mid-tier affinity and melted at the spectacle of the coy and demure maiden half-peeking through the hallway door with her sky-coloured eyes.
"I got your back! If anyone so much as touches you, I'll break them in half!" the haughty Student Council President declared, drawing the girl to her bosoms. "Of course, I mean someone from my Knight retinue will. We're healers after all, hahaha!"
"She actually has Knights at her command!" Elvia exclaimed. "There's three of them serving her family, and they're all at the rank of Magus! They looked so amazing in their dress uniforms - Emily says that one day, I'll get Knights assigned to me too if I work hard."
"What's a Knight?" Gwen asked.
Elvia informed her that Knights were Combat Mages assigned to high-profile healers. Many Knights would follow the same Magus or Magister for life, becoming the subject of many an amorous young girl's fantasies. In a single-sex convent College such as the Nightingale School, the presence of Knights was enough to make the girls strive for their very best in attaining what would one day, be their very own partners for life. Both the French Hospitaliers and the English colleges had this tradition; though the Greek Acropolis school favoured an interchangeable retinue of guardians tied to the Temple itself.
Gwen’s felt her mouth open and close as Elvia regaled episode after episode.
Why was it that Elvia’s story was so incredibly heart-warming and enviously agreeable? Gwen couldn't help but feel that her retelling resembled an episode from the Tess of d'Urbervilles - while Elvia’s was the latter half of Silas Marner. What’s with the bloody difference? In just three months, Elvia acquired and iron-clad following of middle-aged mid-tier administration office ladies who’d venture to hell and back for their adorable angel, the pity and loyalty of her roommate, and the full support the SRC and its president, the darling star of Nightingale College.
God! Jehova! Yahweh! The world is not just! To be oneself is not safe! She wanted a refund! A do-over!
How was it that their encounters were so different? If Gwen were to get lost in London, she was sure the first thing she'd meet was an unmarked Van promising a modelling career and all she needed to do was get in. If she were to saunter into the college, someone would probably demand to duel her at the door. If she ate at the canteen, the Nun might just kick her out for asking for thirds.
Was her life cursed by a blighted star?
Gwen wept bitter tears of joy as Elvia regaled her ‘difficulty’. In return, Gwen told, euphemistically, of her own trials and triumphs at the hands of the Songs, as well as her consequent University life with Richard, Petra and Magister Wen.
Two hundred HDMs into their conversation, Petra came home, and Gwen introduced the stunning Russian beauty to her bestie. Petra was instantly in love with Elvia’s huggable adorability, while Elvia became stunned by Petra’s surreal glamour. In response to Petra’s intrusion into the privacy of their conversation, another face ducked into the protection, a striking punk-rocker girl with shocking pink hair and a nose stud.
“I am Elvia’s roommate, Sylvie Stratford, please to make your acquaintances,” the roommate introduced herself.
The four exchanged greetings all over again, then the call was finally at an end. The conference had costed Gwen almost 1/10th of her remaining funds. As much as Gwen would have liked to continue her communication with Elvia, her friend too had limited funds. But unlike academic life in Fudan, Nightingale was a practitioner’s College. As the girls trained and studied, they also received HDM-based stipends for serving in hospitals and clinics attached to the school. Unlike offensive casters who needed to expend mana continually and therefore drain crystals, the ‘practice’ carried out by the girls was also a source of income, their expenditure covered by the British Mageocracy's NHS program.
Elvia faded as she bid a teary temporary farewell, leaving Gwen alone with Petra.
“I like her,” Petra gushed, informing Gwen that 'another bites the dust'. “So that’s the famous Elvia Lindholm.”
“She’s my lifeline,” Gwen joked half-heartedly.
The girls then shared a call-out dinner, then settled in for the night.
The rest of the bustling week was to come.
* * *
Instructor Chen observed critically as Gwen demonstrated her command over the unruly serpent.
He had set up a gauntlet of sorts, a little maze of temptations and distractions for the Familiars. By raising and lowering the bulkhead doors, he created a kind of twisted corridor, where ‘rooms’ awaited the students and their Conjured beasts.
Some rooms had small summoned fauna that the creatures loved to consume, testing for ability to resist instinctual aggression. Other 'rooms' had enticing blocks of raw mana crystals with explicit commands such as ‘can eat after 2 minutes’ and ‘may only eat 50%’. Other rooms had little traps that shocked, surprised or directly assaulted the familiars.
Ariel managed to clear the rooms without incident, though it’s idea of ’50%’ was more akin to three-quarter. Caliban, to Chen’s surprise, did not trigger its self-defence even when struck by half a dozen Magic Missiles. As for it eating the entire block of raw mana crystal, Chen gave Gwen a pass. One could hardly demand a creature formed of hunger and gluttony to abide entirely by human command. That Caliban learned to obey Gwen’s commands was good enough for them to begin their next phase.
* * *
Meanwhile, Management and Economics had moved toward statistical dissection, making an already dry subject desiccated and disinteresting. Mayuree could barely open her eyes as soon as the lectures began. Gwen even caught Richard in the midst of a catnap during a particularly dense block of agricultural data.
For Gwen, picking the two subjects was the right choice.
First, there were the Hive Cities. Dubbed 'Districts' under the tier 1 cities, the hives were residences built with the best interests of the NoMs in mind - but invariably transformed into Kowloon Walled City of 1980s Hong Kong infamy.
A Hive began as the typical sort of benign dictatorship China was famous for, constructed to house up to 100,000 residents, with an upper limit of 150,000 people. The fifty-storey concrete forts served as both protection and sanctuary in the unlikely occurrence of an invasion. The bottom of the forts was quake-proof and fortified by glyphs, followed immediately by a level consisting of water purification systems and filtration depositories that processed the city’s hygiene amenities. Above the base began the commercial sector, with food shops and dispensaries run by the state and those living within the city’s walls. Above, street-level commerce is owned by more enterprising members of the township, invariably Committee members of the State, the Clans, and the Houses.
The Hive itself stretched upward, forty levels above where the resident's homes, drawn by lottery, determined where NoM Families stayed. When a NoM reached the age of 21, they were given the choice of occupying another ‘apartment’ or moving to another city. The typical Hive-city stretched from twenty blocks to fifty blocks, though the largest, located in Beijing, extended in an ‘L’ shape for almost sixty.
The top of the buildings had parks, open-space areas, gardens, cafes, more shops, some even housed swimming pools and other amenities. These highly-desired spaces, however, were at a premium; despite the presumed egalitarian state of a state-sanctioned Hive City, the gap in wealth was painfully evident.
Those living below had barely enough space to sleep and rest, crammed into habitat blocks like sardines in a can, sleeping four to a room vertically, formed out of wooden decking on bare concrete. Others nearing the mid-section had individual rooms, though more often than not shared with other family members awaiting their own sub-divisions. Near the top, the oligarchs of each Hive City had their abodes, sometimes an entire level or loft, to themselves.
The descent into organised crime, Triad activity, bloody contests between neighbourhoods, District disharmony and petty theft, became the norm.
The system of self-governance the PLA devised, where each ‘District’ had its own ‘elected’ Secretary to oversee the running of the cities, inevitably fell to corruption, rivalry, meddling from the Clans and Sects, PLA infighting, and ambitious free-lance Mages.
Over a period of rapid reconstruction from the 70s to the 90s, China kept on building an endless stream of Hive-Districts, fuelling its internal consumption and employment with ghost cities. Eventually, these cities became filled with NoMs.
As for the population living there, generating a Mage offspring that passed muster was the dream of every family. Should a family give up a potential scion talented in Magic to the state, they would immediately receive an ‘abode’ in the upper strata. Many a family had turned their fortunes around through such means, acting as living proof of the state’s generosity. But the ‘Uplifting’ policy had its limitations as well. Though NoM families often engendered multiple children, abject poverty and the irregularity of a Mage being born from a non-magical bloodline remained a significant deterrence to social climbing.
To feed a burgeoning population; the state built co-op farms across every inch of Shanghai's arable boundary. For many satellite cities, foodstuffs were externally imported. It wasn’t unheard of for a Hive to overthrow their provincial Secretary or brutally murder its ruling class over perceived or real injustice - but it was simple to suppress a city of 100,000 souls when one could cut off the water, grain and meat with a word.
The more Gwen learned about the cities, the more she grew pale with disgust and horror. Given what she had seen in Australia, she would far prefer the freedom and neglect of the ghettos and the slum, the shanty-suburbia of Blackheath to Calhoun’s behavioural-sink Ratopia.
Gods! To think she signed up for an excursion to Mega-City-Dredd! Gwen suppressed her regret and steeled her resolve - there was no helping it; if she wanted her own land in the future, she needed the first-hand experience.
What was it they said?
Read one book, and one has travelled one Li.
Walk one Li, and one has read a hundred books!