Before she went to bed, Gwen sent a LR Message to Elvia via the LRC device, petitioning for a conference on Sunday. It wasn't so much that she was going to reveal one of her direst secrets to Elvia. It was the solace she could gain by speaking to the healer and seeing her angelic face.
Likewise, she sent an urgent communication to Gunther as well, asking to speak to her brother-in-craft about the encounter, concurrently requesting an opportunity to converse with Alesia, and Yue if she was available.
But first, there was her morning session with Magister Wen. Together, they could obtain some numbers, investigate a few possibilities, then go from there. Any plans made in haste would be purposeless if their knowledge was incomplete.
Gwen took another shower to wake up and wash away the fatigue. Her body felt tense and strung, yet her mind felt sluggishly strained by insomnia.
Towelling herself dry, she received a Message from Mayuree. The Message spell bloomed beside her ear.
"Ah-Lei is making breakfast now, come whenever - XXOO."
The kissy noises are little cringeworthy, Gwen had to admit, but the Diviner meant well.
Petra was up as soon as Gwen finished with the shower. Her cousin rinsed and brushed out her hair, slipped into smart casuals, and was ready and waiting by the time Gwen made up her face.
When the two girls arrived at the mezzanine of the lofty penthouse, Lei was busily plating a western style breakfast of petite sandwiches, fingers of French Toast and fresh butter-cream pancakes.
Lulan and Kusu removed themselves from the long table at once, ejecting themselves from their seats. Together, they bowed as Gwen entered.
“No! Don’t do that!” Gwen moved to intercept, flustered by the formality.
“Told you so,” Lulan complained at her brother, relaxing.
“That doesn’t matter.” Kusu shot his sister a glare of annoyance. “This is proper!”
“Please, you’re making this awkward for me…” Gwen walked past the pair casually, inferring that truly, she wasn't keen to stand on ceremony. "Come on, let's sit together."
“See?” Lulan scoffed.
They turned their eyes toward Petra.
"Petra Kuznetsova," the Russian brunette introduced herself. "I am Gwen's cousin and roommate."
“Miss Kuznetsova.” The both of them tipped their chins respectfully. Petra was as infamous a second-year as they come. The Flower - or as some would say - the Ice Queen of Fudan.
“Pleased to meet you.” Petra shook their hands. Like most people meeting Petra for the first time, the effortless intimidation given off by her stunning appearance made her aloof and distant. Gwen had figured that this was a defence mechanism. In Petra's own words, strangers who were overtly friendly almost always desired a piece of herself, her talent, or both. In Gwen's opinion, her incomplete training at the Moscow Tower had given Petra a very cynical outlook toward people in general.
“Gwen! Welcome! You’re up nice and early!” Mayuree descended from the second floor in a loose shirt and shorts. “Let me freshen up, I’ll be down soon. Kitty’s already up, she’s such a light sleeper.”
Kitty sat a little way off on the couch, facing the magnificent view of the Fudan campus below. She raised a white hand and waved it flaccidly, communicating her ambivalence at Gwen's presence.
“Talk to you soon, Mia.” Gwen waved back as the Diviner disappeared. "Kitty, good morning."
Lei brought over a freshly brewed set of coffee and tea.
“This is Lei, Mayuree’s maid,” Gwen introduced the siblings to the masterful woman running back and forth between the kitchen and the dining. “Don't underestimate her because she's a NoM, her breakfasts are magical.”
“Ah, you're too kind, Mistress Song,” Lei simpered, sliding the beverages onto the table soundlessly. “You and Miss Kuznetsova are looking so pretty as usual! Your skin looks amazing today, almost like... healing Mages.”
“I have a healthy appetite,” Gwen returned Lei’s complement awkwardly. “It's all your nutritious cooking, Lei. You're spoiling me.”
Lei allowed a happy smile to touch her lips, then returned to her labour.
Richard joined them a quarter of an hour later. Together with Mayuree, the party presided over pancakes and coffee, discussing their plans for the immediate future.
“I am going to see Magister Wen for my check-up, then I guess I'll be returning to classes on Monday.”
“I’ll be returning to Nantong for a short while.” Richard sipped his milk tea. “For the next few weeks at least, I'll be out of Shanghai four days out of seven.”
“You need to relax a little, Dick,” Gwen chided her workaholic cousin. She was a compulsive worker too, but her training at the range didn’t endanger her life on a daily basis. Questing gave practical experience, generated CCs and provided credit, but Richard left himself with no time to learn new spells or engage in Arcane theory. In his own words though, her cousin had informed Gwen that working with Lea was what helped him develop his skills the most. Working allowed him to strike multiple birds with his limited stones. He exercised Conjuration constantly while employed under gainful employment, and got to practice Abjuration; a School of Magic best practised in the field. “I am sure Uncle and Aunty would rather wait than have you risk your life.”
Richard thanked her, but otherwise offered no verbal confirmation of heeding her advice.
“I am with Gwen, back to classes.” Mayuree chopped into her pancakes, smothering them in Wildland beechwood honey. "Here's hoping I can take it easy today and tomorrow, got to finish off some family requests for Divination."
“Classes & practice.” Kitty’s answer was abrupt and short.
“We’ll look for a place to stay first.” Lulan poked her pancake curiously, having never seen such delicately made Western food. For the last sixteen or so years, her morning diet had consisted of rice and pickles. “Then back to class. I am with Richard though, most of my classes are Questing credits.”
Petra wasn't on the same level as the regular students and so left herself out of the conversation. She couldn't participate even if she wanted, her research was classified.
“Where’s Marong?” Gwen asked inquisitively. “Haven’t seen him in a while.”
“As it should be,” Kitty replied jeeringly. Gwen wondered if this meant she was in a better mood than expected.
“Brother has gone home for a while. There have been some issues with the family business.”
“Don’t know.” Mayuree shrugged. “I didn’t have any foreshadowing visions, so it’s either nothing serious or…”
“Or it's beyond my ability to foresee.” Mayuree shook her head. “Worry not, brother will take care of it. There's also second-sister to take care of things back at the HQ.”
Gwen had asked Mayuree about the family before, but the girl's answers remained evasive. Not wanting to step on any toes, Gwen figured Mayuree would tell her when the girl was comfortable enough to reveal the House of M's mysterious origins.
The breakfast continued until Gwen was full, which was only three pancakes. Lei had prepared three stacks in anticipation of her abnormally large appetite and became notably upset that her labour would be wasted.
“Are you feeling well, Miss?” Lei regarded Gwen worriedly. “You usually finish the whole plate! No need for a diet!”
“I am fine, Lei, thanks for asking.” Gwen pushed the rest of the pancakes away, she glanced at the clock. “Alright, Petra and I better get going. Magister Wen is likely waiting for us. Mia, thanks for the breakfast as usual. Lei, it was delicious.”
“Bye Miss Song!”
“See you in class on Monday! Call me if you want to do lunch and let Lei know if you’re coming for dinner.”
“Will do.” Gwen directed herself to face Lulan and Kusu. “Good luck, I know the rental market can be brutal.”
“We should have enough to scrape by,” Lulan assured Gwen. “I’ll take care of Kusu.”
'Should have,' Gwen winced, reminding herself that she was still in possession of a thousand HDMs once belonging to the siblings. I should return it, Gwen thought. If she was going to help the Li's; a little more generosity couldn't hurt. It wasn’t as though she needed the money immediately.
“Kusu, I’ve still got your HDMs…” Gwen produced ten 100 HDM currency cards from her ring.
Kusu’s refusal to meet her eyes suggested that indeed, he could REALLY use 1000 HDMs to get through the current semester and the next.
“No, I’ll be fine,” Kusu replied with eyes that longed for the currency cards. “I’ll live… off… my… sis…”
The sheepishness of the young man broke Gwen's heart.
She shoved the cards toward him.
“On loan then, from me,” Gwen informed him. “I’ll tell you when I need it back.”
Kusu looked as though he was still going to refuse, but Lulan extended her hands and took possession of the currency cards.
“We owe you again, Gwen,” Lulan said, her voice taking on an affected tone.
“It’s nothing. I also came to Shanghai from the Frontier so I know how hard it can be without a steady source of income,” Gwen assured the siblings. “I got to go. Good luck.”
Kusu bowed again, this time from the waist. Lulan hesitated for a moment, then mimicked her brother.
Mayuree glanced from Gwen to the siblings, then back again.
Arrrrrgh! She thought to herself. How come no one thought of asking her for a loan? Seeing what Lulan could do down in D-109, she was perfectly happy to take on the siblings. What was 1000 HDMs to an heir from the House of M?
Who wouldn't love to have two ex-Clanner Sword Mages indebted to them?!
* * *
Magister Wen was waiting for Gwen and Petra at the gate to the Cognisance Chambers. By mid-June, the weather continued to be unbearably warm, the verdant greenery encircling the Yi-Fu Spellcraft Building was beginning to fray and dry. The heat however, failed to impact the senior researcher, whose cheeks were rosy with giddy anticipation, hungry for new data for her journal.
“Gwen! You’re here!” Magister Wen's cold fingers felt like steel cables. “Oh, you poor dear! That must have been a horrid experience! Terrible, yes! But Wonderful all the same!”
“It was bittersweet, for sure.” Gwen allowed the Magister to touch her arm and cheeks. She was beginning to empathise with how blue-ribbon cows felt at the Sydney Easter Show.
“Nonetheless, I have full confidence in you.” Magister Wen pulled herself away. "Think of it as a new page, if you will. You have my full support!"
Gwen felt goosebumps crawling up her thighs.
The magical haze over the city trapped the heat, but even so her bare legs reacted as though a chilling wind had blown through the shaded avenues.
“How curious.” Magister Wen curled her lips. “You have a very particular aura about you. A Cleric, perhaps. Can you write a report for me later? Fill out a survey? A scale of one to ten, that sort of thing.”
"Sure thing, Ma'am." Gwen wasn’t sure if Magister Wen’s academic disregard was making her feel better or worse. Wen's open admiration for her action, Gwen felt, was precisely the sort of dangerous thinking she should be avoiding.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Magister Wen was all smiles. “I’ve booked the big one! This way!”
The largest of the Cognisance Chambers was almost two tennis courts in size and took fifty HDMs to power a session lasting no more than an hour. Gwen had no idea why Magister Wen had booked such an exorbitant fare, only that she should speak quietly and be very wary.
As the trio reached the threshold, they became accosted by two men in military uniforms. From the rank insignias on their collars, Gwen recognised one as a PLA Major, while the other was a rank Gwen guessed to be an air force Captain, bearing a sky-blue lapel with three stripes. The Major was evidently Han Chinese, carrying the ubiquitous sobriety typical of senior PLA. His counterpart was a dark-haired Caucasian man with a prominent Roman nose.
“Ma’am?” Gwen swallowed twice rapidly. It's a bit early to sell her out, wasn't it? Magister Wen hadn't even completed her papers yet.
“No need to fret, my dear.” Magister Wen patted her hand, though Gwen noticed that the Magister had taken the opportunity to grasp her by the wrist. Was she afraid that Gwen was going to make a run for it? Where was she going to go? “These men are here for your own good. They’re neutral observers informing the highest power.”
“Observers of what?” Gwen inquired carefully.
The implication made her knock-kneed. Her morning pancakes threatened to make an upward journey; she could almost taste the tart berries tickling the back of her throat.
“Let’s us speak inside, away from prying eyes.” The Caucasian man opened the door. “I mean you no disadvantage, Miss Song, though I cannot say the same for our mutual friend.”
“Hmmph!” The PLA officer grunted, proceeding through the threshold.
Inside the Cognisance Chamber, the vast, egg-like sphere of white tiles made a strange, spaceless spectacle. There were no definitive edges for the viewer to gauge the distance, giving the viewer the impression that they'd stepped into a place unconstrained by dimension.
“It’ll be okay,” Petra assured her. “I don’t know who the other guy is, but Commander Webber will look after you. Sorry, Gwen, I had no idea Master had invited observers. I could have informed you beforehand otherwise.”
With a whisper, the door shut behind them. For a few seconds, the only audible sound was their collective breaths echoing faintly through the acoustic ambience of the chamber.
Magister Wen shifted to Gwen.
"Your observers will now introduce themselves," she began. "I'll let them finish their introductions."
The man with the protruding Roman nose spoke first.
“Wing Commander Derrick Webber, Miss Song. Attached to the Pudong Tower. I am currently assigned under the 2nd Specialist Aerial Mage-Wing of her Majesty’s Royal Armsmen, at your service.”
The PLA Officer beside the man scoffed, the British sure love their verbosity.
“Major Wong, PLA,” the Chinese soldier announced stoically.
After a formal bow, Gwen extended a hand to shake. She was a civilian and as such could afford more personal gestures of greeting. Webber took her fingers and passed them under his lips, arching his back to effect a genteel address. Major Wong shot the Commander a look of disgust.
"Very good, I'll take it from here." Magister Wen came between them. "Gentlemen, you may stand there, and you, there. Good."
"Gwen," she continued. "As you know by now, these men are from the PLA Tower and the Pudong Tower. Both Towers have been keeping an eye on your progress. News of your unique talent has reached some very HIGH places. This is a good thing, Gwen - an opportunity."
"High places, Ma'am?"
Wen pointed a finger upward toward the ceiling.
“So they tell me,” Wen replied, glancing at the two men. “At any rate, these men are not here to interfere with your life, they are here to confirm the contents of our paper. Please be at ease.”
That’s easy for you to say, Gwen slightly creased her brows. What was she to show and what was she to hide?
Magister Wen motioned to the operator.
The chamber dimmed.
Space became indefinite as the illusion took place.
Standing at the Chamber’s centre, Gwen’s Astral Form materialised below her, a sculptural spectacle of light and dark with motes of emerald appearing and disappearing.
The two men produced data slates and began to scribe onto the transmuted surface.
“Gwen, cycle through your schools please.”
Gwen nodded, then turned her mind inward.
The Sigils flared one after and another, made material by the Cognisance Chamber’s illusory projection.
When she opened her hazel eyes again, her orbs glowed with vibrant mana.
Magister Wen’s wizened face resembled a ripening pippin. Petra stood beside her and observed quietly. The two military men scribbled furiously on their slates.
The entire room was basked in the glow of illusory Sigils, from the silvery-white of Conjuration to the pale purple nimbus of Transmutation.
“Congratulations, Gwen.” Magister Wen clapped her hands.
Perhaps wanting to place more emphasis on the matter, she paused before continuing.
“Or I should say, Magus Gwen Song?”
"I am sorry?" Gwen almost lost her concentration. "M-Magus?"
"Ha! Did that surprise you?" Wen chuckled, her hands meeting by the palm. "By Frontier standards, you are indeed already a Magus! We're a little more discerning here in Fudan though. I doubt you would pass muster in theory-craft."
"So you're saying..."
"Oh yes," Magister Wen gushed happily. "Both your Conjuration and Evocation look to have reached the mid-tiers, making you an unofficial Magus!"
Gwen knew she should be happy. Summoning the joy to celebrate her ascension, however, was another challenge altogether.
"Let's have a demonstration for our gentlemen observers," Wen instructed her. "What are your Tier 4 Evocation Spells?"
"Just Elemental Sphere, Ma'am," Gwen felt almost embarrassed to say that as a 'genius' Sorceress, her entire spell list numbered under twenty and was primarily preoccupied with low-level incantations.
"Go ahead then."
Gwen nodded, turning to the far side of the egg-shaped dome. As she cycled through the necessary preparations both mental and somatic, her observers once again began their furious scribing.
Petra watched Gwen's astral form tap into the Elemental Plane of Lightning, filling her mana conduits with vivid electricity. The mana coalesced in her torso, then flooded forth as the spell manifested.
Like a pressurised pool of liquid finding escape, the lightning-charged mana escaped from the crucible of her Astral Body, becoming a controlled arc of plasma which traversed toward its target destination, then imploded before rapidly expanding outwards, first as a semi-dome sphere, then as a burst of static electricity.
"That's Einar Larsen's Signature Spell." Wing Commander Webber raised a brow in pleasant surprise. "I know this spell too. It is not an easy incantation to learn!"
"It's all I know," Gwen peeped modestly.
"You're only seventeen!" Commander Webber informed her confidently. "When I was seventeen, I was still receiving detention at Sandhurst for failing muster! A tier 4 Signature Spell at seventeen and you feel ashamed? You shame me!"
His counterpart tapped his slate.
"It's impressive," Major Wong concurred. "Please continue."
"Are you alright to perform a Void variety?" Magister Wen asked her carefully.
"Yes, Ma'am." Gwen was also interested in seeing what would happen if she should try to expend some of this excess vitality she felt brimming with.
She resumed her labour.
Below, her Astral Form assumed a tenebrous ichor of sinister obsidian. The gathered Mages felt a tingle of vertigo as a nauseating awareness assailed their physical bodies.
The spell manifested as an expanding bubble of sable ink which then exploded outwards in a swirling pattern of Void matter. When the spell ceased, it had caused extensive damage to the self-repairing tiles below.
"How do you feel?" Magister Wen asked carefully, observing Gwen's Astral Body returning to its usual admixture of lightning, void, and an occasional mote of fleeting emerald.
Both of her observers had to do a double-take before resuming their scribing.
Gwen checked her state of being. She felt fine. There was no feeling of Negative-Energy drain anywhere on her body.
"Excellent! Very good," Magister Wen had reached her own conclusion from observing her Astral projection. That was the thing with the Cognisance Chamber - there was no place to hide. Everything was, for the lack of a better word, in plain sight. "Wonderful, Gwen! We've found an answer for the self-consumption problem suffered by Void users!"
Gwen shuddered to think what Wen could mean by that.
"I don't see any diminishment though," Magister Wen tapped her chin. "Gwen, bring out your Familiars."
At the appearance of Caliban, the two men held their breath, though only for a moment.
The Cognisance Chamber's mirror-like floors refracted the mana signatures of her creatures. Caliban was a roving mass of dense dark energy many times its actual size in the Material Plane. Ariel, meanwhile, had a signature to match its diminutive size.
"How curious!" Magister Wen walked around her Familiars, then beckoned Caliban closer for a better study. The two military men unconsciously stepped back.
Wen produced a fist full of untreated crystal, scattering the shards in front of her.
Caliban snagged one with a tentacle then munched away, slapping its tail against the floor as it did so. Ariel caught another with its little paws before nibbling away, arcing electricity as the mana discharged.
Carefully, the Magister materialised a Spell cube, then placed it next to Gwen's Familiars.
"Do you see the similarity?" the Magister inquired of Gwen.
Gwen saw that beneath the unassuming looking Spell Cube, there was a mass of glowing elemental fire in vivid orange.
"Caliban is storing... Void matter?"
"Something to investigate, for sure," Wen nodded. "There's so much we don't know. Your predecessor didn't exactly leave notes, and her husband was a very zealous protector."
Elizabeth Sobel and Henry Kilroy, Gwen duly noted. She wondered what Magister Wen knew. According to her Master, many in his confidence had known the truth, though now, they were either dead or held positions where such a thing was no longer of significant concern to them. Indeed, from the touch of her Master's tone, the upper echelon should have some clue as to the true nature of Elizabeth Sobel. The fact that for years she was promoted as a war hero and one of the central figures in reclaiming a global front against Demi-humans though, likely prevented widespread recognition of her current occupation as a terrorist.
Gwen glanced at her two impassive observers. Neither of the men appeared to possess any misgivings about Wen's musing.
Magister Wen though appeared to have had enough of them.
"Gentlemen, have you seen enough? Any more would violate our agreement."
Two sets of eyes fell upon Gwen. The PLA official appeared dissatisfied, but his protest was interrupted by his counterpart, who stowed his slate and inclined his head.
"I will take my leave. You shall have Pudong's support."
Major Wong grunted a likewise affirmation.
The trio watched the two men leave by the exit. Gwen wondered how it was that they could find the door unerringly in the illusion of the chamber.
"Well, that went pretty well, don't you think?" Magister Wen peeped up.
"'Well' how?" Gwen's voice came across as a little more reproachful than she intended.
Petra came closer and touched Gwen's hand.
Magister Wen waved her apprentice away.
"Would you believe it if I told you that these men are not here for you? The drinking gentleman's heart is not for what's in the cup, as so to speak."
Magister Wen chuckled.
"They're here to ensure that each other did not unduly gain an advantage they could not account for. The Pudong Tower, the PLA Tower, two sides of the same coin; rivals since China joined the coalition of nations. There's history there if you're interested. Petra can tell it to you sometime."
"So, they're here to make sure we're not favouring one side over another?"
"Yes, dear," Magister Wen applauded her. "I always ensure that both sides balance one another. It's best they contend with each other before they contend with you. Don't you think?"
"I see, Ma'am," Gwen considered the Magister's words.
"At any rate, this meeting wasn't supposed to happen for some time. I had originally scheduled it for the end of the year. If anything, your rapid progress is to blame."
"You've attained a significant level of Spellcraft, Gwen. I know you're just seventeen, but you must consider the practical outcome of your growing talent. How could either Tower sit idle when you have progressed past a level capable of flooring a few Mages in a duel, to a level capable of pacifying small population centres?"
Gwen felt her stomach lurch.
Wiping out a town?
Who did they think she was?
Elizabeth Sobel came to mind...
"If you wish to maintain a decorum of autonomy, Gwen," Magister Wen advised. "You must pay the cost of privacy."
"I'll be... under observation?"
"Yes, no, not as such." Magister Wen battered her hand dismissively. "No more than me, or Petra, or any other Mage of significant note. We know that you're connected to Magus Shultz and Kilroy's line, the Lord Protector of Sydney had stated as such. Don't look so surprised - It's only natural, after all, Kilroy's wife - was - one of the signature agents of the Coral Sea War and the most famous Void Mage of the mid-century."
She's also a signature example of how south things can go, Gwen muttered internally.
"Sufficient to say, stay away from factional politics. Once you do choose a side, you will lose the protection you currently enjoy. Unless of course, you can find enough prestige and accord to stand on your own."
That would be Gunther's plans for the IIUC; Gwen acknowledged her brother-in-craft's foresight. If the three of them stood together, and if their Master's old connections could lean in to put weight on the matter, it wasn't unreasonable for herself to remain independent.
"At any rate, don't overthink it," Wen advised. "Much of this is beyond what you can do personally. We're done for today though. Klavdiya couldn't book the laboratory on such short notice. She will attend to you tomorrow, around noon. Make sure you report to the hospital."
"Should I go home?" Gwen's thinking was still firmly stuck on the paranoia of a PLA panopticon.
Then again, she tried to convince herself. It wasn't as though 'privacy' was any more sacred in her old world. The government had your tax records and medical records. Google and Facebook had your private 'likes' and 'dislikes'. A thousand and one companies had your address, phone, and emails logged to spam at their pleasure. All of which was hidden behind gargantuan TS&As that no one, including herself, ever read.
"No! Go relax, have some fun! Go to a cafe or go do whatever it is that young girls like yourselves go and do. Take Petra with you. Mao knows she needs a break too. You've had a long week, Gwen. Don't tire yourself out."
Magister Wen's advice was surprisingly lax. Perhaps it was because her anticipated 'sample' filled her with joyous anticipation, Gwen imagined. Maybe the Magister was right. She needed to relax and rest her mind.
Magister Wen approached the exit, then paused by the door.
"Have you changed your mind regarding our earlier discussion?"
"Ma'am?" Gwen inquired. Which discussion was that?
"About feeding your talents in a controlled environment. Death-penalty prisoners, Demi-humans... lots of potential there, remember? Now that we have an inkling as to how your consumption works, it would be a net positive outcome for all of us, not to mention society itself, no? Perhaps you have a preference? Rapists, murderers and slavers. I know you're squeamish, but give it some thought, alright? The choice is yours.”
"..." Every follicle of Gwen's hair stood on end.
"Shaa?" Caliban raised its head and looked toward her, feeling itself in its Master's thoughts.
"One more thing - NO Spellcraft training," the Magister reminded her specimen. "No duelling and excessive display of Magic either! I want to see tomorrow's biometrics exactly as we've left it!"
Petra reached her side and shook the stupefied Gwen from her trance.
"Come on." Her cousin squeezed her numb fingers. "Let's have some tea and see who else is free."