Richard dropped in late morning after a quick breakfast with the girls, informing Gwen he would return by Thursday.
Lulan, meanwhile, was out like a light.
Meeting Petra below, Gwen felt refreshed and clear-headed, her mental fatigue erased by the riotous night.
Compared to Lulan, she felt perfectly in bloom. With her current constitution, another five shots of Vodka would not have made a dent.
The girls took public transport to Wujiaochang and entered the hospital through the main gate. A fresh-faced Red Guard halted their progress, though a quick call to Klavdiya resolved the matter without further ado.
"Sunday shift," the girls' softly smiling babulya explained. "Most of our labs are shut, so they cycle in the recruits for the experience."
"What's the purpose of having NoM guards?" Gwen asked out of curiosity. It wasn't as though an NoM could stop a Mage from entering if they wanted.
"As witnesses to any incidents, and to ward off those who genuinely wander into the wrong place, as you may have."
"Besides, the labs are magically warded," Petra explained. "Just like Fudan's experimental laboratory. Do you think anyone can just come and go from my Master's domain? Master assigned your ID and mana signature to level 2 access after our first lesson."
Gwen thought of when one of Petra's admirers aimlessly wandered back and forth in the corridor, too afraid to approach the door. She had assumed the man was just unusually shy.
Inside, the lab was as impeccably clean as Gwen's last visit, smelling faintly of sterility and bleach. Gwen followed her grandmother to the changing room cupboard, where she had stowed a hospital gown that was large enough to keep her modesty.
"I heard you all went out last night. Is this true?" Babulya inquired, a gentle smile touching her face.
"Oh yes, with Mina and Tao," Gwen replied happily. "We went to one of Tao's shows. It was quite exciting. Afterwards, he shouted drinks."
"Shouted, hmm?" Her babulya wasn't familiar with the Aussie slang.
"To repay us for showing up to support him," Gwen laughed, eyeing Petra. "Pats is very popular on campus, you know. She must have turned his showcase upside down with her presence. There was this rival of his, Sammy, who was so enamoured he disrobed on stage."
"Oh my! I should have a word with this young man's family!" Her babulya knitted her brows. "Yes, Petra is rather popular, hmm? Did you know that when she first arrived, I had to knock back two to three proposals a month, asking for her hand?"
"Babulya!" To Gwen's surprise, Petra blushed.
How cute! Gwen gabbled internally. She hadn't seen Petra acting like a young woman at all. Most of the time, her resting expression could lower the temperature of any room she entered. Her previous post at the Moscow Tower had made her incredibly jaded to love.
Gwen wondered if, without her 'elderly' self as a guide, she would also become cynical.
"Haha." Their babulya laughed. "I should count myself lucky, eh? I've received a few for you as well. You should know."
"Oh yes!" Klavdiya's eyes twinkled. "Would you like to know from whom?"
"Do I want to know?" Gwen inquired of Petra, seeking wisdom from her predecessor.
"You don't," Petra advised. "Imagine running into someone at the university, then realising that the ublyudok had asked for an Arranged Marriage."
"Haha." Their babulya amused herself with the prospect. The joy of having beautiful and talented granddaughters! "Alright, enough talk. Gwen, you know what to do, yes?"
"Yes, Babulya." Gwen, now changed, fitted herself into the wall-mounted machine that measured, scanned, and recorded her biometrical data.
Klavdiya read out the script's data entries one by one, the octave of her voice rising with every record.
"My heart…" Gwen's babulya had to hold onto one of the protruding manipulator arms. Petra quickly rushed to her grandmother's aid, taking the opportunity to see the script herself. "Gwen, these numbers are astounding."
Though her grandmother knew what had occurred, Gwen elected to provide more explicit details of her cannibalistic act. When she had finished her story, Klavdiya touched her fingers against her thin lips.
"Goodness, I'd presumed, but—this is unimaginable!"
"My training should have taken me close to Evocation 4 and Conjuration 5," Gwen explained. "As for the rest, I guess the statistics speak for themselves."
"Let's see your Affinity before we get ahead of ourselves," Klavdiya calmed herself and tapped the console. "There are more at play here than just numbers."
Gwen approached the Awakening Stone device and placed both hands on the orb.
"Begin when you're ready."
The stone glowed brilliant white for several seconds as Gwen poured her Lightning charged mana into its conduits.
“4.82… hmm…” Klavdiya noted on her data slate. "Again?"
The next value returned 4.83.
The one after that, 4.82.
"An expected increase. It's in line with the amount of practice you've been doing."
Gwen again placed her hand atop the orb.
"Yeah." She took a lungful of air. The last time she had performed the same test, her grandmother had to supplement her vitality with a Restoration. "Here I go."
The orb grew dark and inky.
Gwen sensed the tenebrous tendrils of the void caress her conduits, raging against the oppositional forces of Almudj's druidic essence. Her vital force was enough to rebuff the negative energy drain.
Slowly, very faintly, the bulwark of her fortified vigour diminished.
She ceased her channelling.
"4.22," Klavdiya breathed out. "How do you feel?"
"I feel fine, Babulya."
Klavdiya held the scripts in her hand, wearing an inquisitive expression of trying to fathom the scores.
"One more station," she informed her granddaughter. "Then we can talk."
Gwen stepped into the chambered mechanism of a machine that resembled a chest-compression trainer. She grasped both handles and connected the device's mana circuitry with her conduits.
As before, she imagined herself pushing the mana in her body outward. Astral forces poured from the aether within her body, streaming through her mana channels. A free-floating mote of Divination entered, then quickly dissipated into her Astral Body.
The indicator rose and fell until it reached equilibrium.
"You're past your old record." Petra had been watching over Klavdiya's shoulders.
Gwen continued to channel, forcing everything she possessed into the machine.
"Enough!" Klavdiya had to catch the stream of scripts pouring from the data slot with both hands. "Take a rest."
Gwen's chest rose and fell as she caught her breath.
"How's it looking?" Gwen asked.
"189." Klavdiya made a face. "Monstrous."
"That's about two Senior Mages rolled into one, if you're wondering." Petra's face was still recovering from the shock. "Gwen, you have three times the VMI I do."
"But your Cubes hardly use any mana," Gwen protested.
"I don't think that's the point," Petra teased her. "You're a one-woman mana battery! They should send you to power the siege engines. Tell them you can jump an Iron Golem straight up."
"Well, babulya, what do you think?" Gwen enquired. "Does this mean I am more proficient in my two Major schools now?"
"I am not sure, to be honest." Her babulya held the scripts. "I'll need to consult with Magister Wen. Why don't the two of you get some lunch? I'll go and see Marie now. We'll eat and talk. We'll call you in a few hours and continue."
"Alright, Babulya," Gwen replied, seeing how distracted her grandmother was. She hoped her affinity increase wasn't something with a deadly side effect.
"Where do you want to go?" Petra asked.
Gwen remerged in her sundress.
She was feeling a little hungrier after that liberal expenditure of Void matter.
"I know a little place where they sell Beggar's Chicken."
"A beggar's…?" Petra's expression was sceptical. "Is that hygienic?"
"Oh yes!" Gwen assured her with eager eyes. "We can take one back for Babulya as well. Babulya, it's a wonderful dish! You have to try it. I can store the whole thing in my ring. Is that okay, Babulya?"
"Sure thing, dear. I'll be sure to share it with Percy and Guo." Her grandmother was shutting down all the machines absent-mindedly while still muttering about the numbers on the scripts.
Gwen felt her enthusiasm doused somewhat at the mention of her brother and grandfather. Petra patted her shoulders. For now, they could only leave their babulya to her devices.
After polishing off a Beggar's Chicken in a jam-packed Fengbo Village, Gwen received a Message from Magister Wen to attend the training hall at Fudan.
"Let's go," she meticulously wiped her hands, ensuring that she finished her winter-melon soup.
Petra left an HDM on the table.
The boss and his wife bowed several times as the girls left, hungrily watched by the patrons who had each ordered the same expensive dish after watching the two girls working through theirs.
"Boss!" several patrons called out at once. "Take away! I am late for work!"
Magister Wen, babulya, and to their surprise, Magus Kumiko met the girls at the training hall.
The Magister informed them that she had prepared a private chamber to continue investigating Gwen's newfound powers.
"Worry not, we'll get to the bottom of this yet," Wen confidently informed Gwen, though Gwen wasn't sure what the bottom meant.
The training hall was about the size of an indoor soccer field, twice the size Gwen had hired for herself. In juxtaposition to the outer rooms, the inner chambers were reserved for staff and Warded for confidentiality.
"Alright, Gwen." Magister Wen held a slate with her updated biometrics. "Let's see some tier 5 Conjuration, shall we?"
"I haven't tried it yet, Ma'am," Gwen confessed. "I couldn't get the Conjure Elemental Swarm to complete its circuit before."
And it wasn't for lack of trying either, Gwen sighed. A tier 5 feedback was enough to give her a ringing headache and ongoing nausea for about an hour. Should the recoil be unexpectedly robust, she could be put out for a half-a-day.
"Now's a perfect time then, go on," Wen urged her. "Klavdiya is here to take care of any mishaps."
"Marie's right. Have confidence, dear." Gwen's babulya informed her. "Even so, do be careful."
Besides the Director and Magister, Magus Kumiko was scanning Gwen's scripts with her lips half-parted.
"Gwen, this… this is incredible," the Positive-Conjuror apprised with awe. "I'd been debriefed by Magister Wen, but this just puts us to shame."
Gwen smiled awkwardly. Kumiko was the only one not entirely in the know. From the looks of it, Wen merely used the Japanese Magus for convenience. After all, they would need a constant supply of her Summon to feed Gwen's hunger.
"Gwen, you may begin. Tier 5 Conjuration, don't forget," Wen urged.
Gwen walked some distance away until she was far enough from her observers that they could safely be shielded behind the Walls of Force, erected for the observer's protection. This essential convenience was also why they had chosen a training room rather than the Cognisance Chamber.
Thus watched by her seniors, Gwen slowly drew in her breath, relaxed her mind, and allowed her breathing to reach a comfortable, natural cadence.
Her fingers moved slowly through the air, like a conductor of some invisible music, weaving a spell through her inner world. Her lips invoked incantation after incantation, aiding in the mnemonic delivery of complex support Sigils.
As the stacked incantations took form, she felt the stress placed upon her mind ratchet rapidly. Here was where she had failed before—when her mental capacity and trained expertise were no longer sufficient to sustain the pseudo mandala formed within the recess of her Astral Form. Upon failure, the whole incantation stack would overflow, and the injected mana would feedback into her Astral Body. Without a VMI like hers, a lesser Mage could be struck dumb by the flood of excess mana, potentially sustaining extensive injuries to their conduits.
Bit by bit, she piled on the final components of the magic Magister Wen had tailor-made for her based on her Master's unique Conjuration technique.
The last part of the chant fell into place with the snugness of a final puzzle piece sliding into its final position.
Gwen's hands ceased.
Her lips spoke the last words.
A flood of lightning-charged mana entered the Sigil from her Elemental Gate.
From the other side of the room, the others watched. Both Kumiko and Klavdiya had access to the Clerical variety of Detect Magic which allowed them to perform Spellcraft examinations, surveying the movement of Gwen's mana through her conduits. Lacking the diagnostic spell particular to biomancy, Petra and Magister Wen perused especially modified Spectacles of Detect Magic, which replicated the effects.
"Fascinating," Magister Wen couldn't help but declare her enthusiasm. "She's like an incandescent font of mana!"
"This is her first time?" Klavdiya inquired, likewise impressed.
Magister Wen continued writing on her slate.
"A smooth transition, uninterrupted incantation too; no external aids either," Kumiko observed, hoping to make herself useful. "Though her casting speed suggests she's a novice, how interesting—Oh!"
Gwen finished her last invocation.
Two bolts of white-hot Lightning cut across the space in front of Gwen.
First came a pair of enormous cobalt horns, then a scale-covered reptilian face with incandescent orbs for eyes. In the next moment, both creatures freed themselves from the Planar-tear, transitioning from the Elemental Plane of Lightning into the material realm.
"Arc Runners!" Magister Wen clapped impressively. "Wonderful!"
Petra made a note to ask her Master about these half-lizard-half-bulls later.
The two elementals noticed their observers immediately and dashed the foursome, running headfirst into shimmering panes of force. Repeatedly, as though dumb and deaf to their surroundings, the creatures continued the assault until they were spent.
As the hysterical electricity faded, Gwen's silhouette could be seen. Excess elemental Lightning arced from her body onto the tiles, likewise circulating through her eyes as two concentric cobalt circles. Her hair stood on end, lifted into the air by the static.
Her grandmother chuckled at the sight of Gwen's electrified appearance, amused and proud all at once.
"Gwen, come. Take a deep breath. Release any excess mana from your body. Let's discuss what we've seen so far." Klavdiya motioned for her to join them.
Unfortunately, the training hall was spartan and without detail.
"Mai, can you bring some chairs and tables?"
Magus Kumiko was a Conjuror at a sufficient tier to Call Greater Objects. The Summoner walked a small distance away, then beckoned for a small round table and four chairs, inviting a burst of silvery Conjuration.
"Thank you, dear. The old bones aren't what they used to be." Wen sighed with relief.
Gwen's eyes quickly darted between her babulya and Magister Wen.
It was true! She realised, a little shocked. Magister Wen looked like someone in their fifties, while her babulya could be mistaken for someone in their late forties!
The senior Mages sat.
Out of respect and solidarity for Gwen, Petra opted to stand.
One of the things she was most interested in, Magister Wen explained as tea and shortbread were summoned, was how Consume subverted the existing dynamics of known Spellcraft.
"You should have learned that 'quotients' for certain Schools of Magic refer to the Affinity one possesses in conjuring a particular type of arcane phenomenon," Magister Wen explained. "Transmuters modify existing things, Conjurors call for and summon creatures and beings, Abjurers generally have an innate protective instinct, and so on."
"As for tiers, there's another can of worms here. Tier 4 doesn't mean one is 300 spells away from reaching tier 5," she continued. "The scaling system is simply a metric developed to ballpark the expertise required to utilise particular Spells of a specific complexity or magnitude. It is why you can train in higher tier spells to increase your overall 'tier'. Though if you're not careful, a particularly nasty mana burn could set you back years."
"In the Frontier, if you recall, the average Senior Mage had a cap of tier 5 to 6. Those without talent, when pushing tiers, risk more than they gain. Likewise, training in lower-level spells has diminishing returns, failing to provide overall expertise once they become almost second nature."
It was true, Gwen noted. Her 'lock-unlock' use of Knock and Lock could only go so far in aiding her Transmutation.
"As such, the Path of Spellcraft is one in which one must constantly risk one's cultivated faculties to push forward. Endlessly learning new spells, adventuring, gaining alternative means to increase one's Affinity, and so on. It takes vast resources, risk, and time to break through the 'ceiling at six'. It's not a Path for everyone, and very few make it."
The Magister sipped her tea.
"Now, Gwen—for your particular situation," Magister Wen began anew. "I suspect that what you're gaining is not what a 'tier' usually refers to, a Mages' expertise and experience within a School of Magic, distilled through a formalised metric system. I suspect that what you're gaining is the Affinity by which your Astral Body can process such specific types of magical phenomena. You, personally, have not gained greater knowledge or expertise, but you will experience less spell stress and fatigue."
The foursome took a moment to take it all in.
Magister Wen continued her rumination while Gwen digested the scholar's hypothesis.
"I am going to tell you something that's a few academic ranks above your means to know," Wen began again. "The 'Tier' System, also known as the Imperial Metric System, is imperfect. The visual manifestations we have come to accept as the norm are merely numeric simplifications."
Gwen nodded. She understood that. Not even a century of Natural Philosophy could explain the common, observable phenomenon in her old world.
Magister Wen looked to be expecting her to be baffled. Finding no perplexion, she raised an eyebrow.
"Can you explain?" Wen tested her test subject.
Gwen gave the matter some thought, then began to speak with great care.
"I will try, Ma'am. What you're suggesting is that current theory is something we 'know' but do not 'understand', much in the way the ancients built their lives around the seasons but could not conjecture why the seasons happened, nor why each season was the way it was. By that same logic, what we see inside ourselves is a cognitive projection shaped by years of education and study, taken as fact and seldom questioned. Our view of Spellcraft, therefore, is a 'system' rather than a description of its raw, explicit nature."
"Can you clarify?"
Gwen wet her lips, then continued. "It's about projection and visualisation. Much in the same way that when we think of a cat, we envision a 'feline' in our minds and can even go as far as to interact and imagine ourselves playing with it—and so it goes in quantifying these Astral and Planar forces that do our bidding."
Magister Wen blinked several times before a broad smile touched her usually severe lips.
"Very well, can you elucidate then? What constitutes a 'tier'?"
Gwen gave the matter some thought.
"In circumstances without the variables of talent, bloodlines, Affinity and Spirit-links, a tier is a precise measurement of one's processing abilities. The capability to concoct and manifest a certain complexity of incantations within one's astral and physical body before the mind becomes overstressed. However, with those variables, one must also consider the compatibility of the individual Mage with the spells they are learning. The more one ascends the tiers, the more significant this Affinity becomes."
Lulan's woes, Gwen thought, came to mind. The girl had forced herself to learn an unsuitable style of magic, almost destroying her conduits and her sanity. Using sheer willpower to supersede one's limitations should be a calculated risk, not a rush of blood to the head.
"Correct." Magister Wen tapped her slate. "You are a very talented academic child. If all else fails, you will have a sterling career as an analyst."
Gwen's babulya beamed.
"Petra taught me well, Ma'am," Gwen replied modestly.
Petra's face was red for the second time today.
Gwen also felt embarrassed. She had lifted the entire analogy from Plato's 'Allegory of the Cave' and his 'Other Dialogues'. In Gwen's philosophical reasoning, the Astral world, which Mages saw as projected shadows on the wall. In this parable, therefore, one had to consider that someone had made the cave, fire and shackles. This 'someone' would be the Imperial Metric System, where one was ingrained in learning and envisioning Arcane phenomena from an early age. She supposed that had she been an NoM: she would have been shackled to the cave for the rest of her life, never understanding that the shadows are a representation, a 'tier' of understanding in itself.
"Which means, in the practical sense," Magister Wen circled back onto their initial discussion. "You are appropriating the 'talent' of those you consume."
"I think it's best if we picture it like this—" Her cousin created a crystal lattice. "The bottom one is what you're born with."
She allowed the first segment to stand on the table.
"This next section is what you're appropriating from others."
Petra added another block atop the first.
"Last is the result of your training. "
Petra put another block on top of the second.
"Together, they make up your 'tier' index."
Gwen walked the circumference of the demonstrative visual metaphor.
"How many stolen talents could I train? I could currently use an Abjurer's Shield and Transmutation and Divination. Could I reach tier 9 simply by stealing?" She asked.
"I dare think there have to be diminishing returns," Magister Wen said. "Otherwise, 'someone' would be a Demi-God by now."
Sobel. Gwen inclined her chin solemnly toward Magister Wen. The Magister does know about Elizabeth Sobel.
"But, here's what's viable right now. You will be able to pick up spells easier, far easier, in your practical training. Unlike your peers, you won't ever experience 'bottlenecks' in your Spellcraft progression like the rest of us. At least not until the higher tiers," Wen proposed proudly. "Unless you're thinking of Consuming every Magister you can lay your hands on."
"I don't intend to," Gwen replied somewhat sensitively, pivoting the subject matter. "What's a bottleneck?"
Both Klavdiya and Wen chuckled.
"Erg..." Magus Kumiko sighed enviously. "A bottleneck is when someone training in a School outside their natural Affinity. The lack of compatibility within their Astral Body is too much for the individual to overcome. For instance, I am at Conjuration 6 but struggle to get Evocation past tier 5."
"For Mages who are not, well… YOU, Gwen," Petra joined. "The more we practice a particular school, the more our Astral Form eases into that School of Magic. It's what we call Specialisation, and Enchanters such as myself and Magister Wen especially focus on this sort of phenomenon to stabilise our creation process. For the average Mage, it takes decades of practice in a single School to align body and mind. Likewise, this phenomenon impedes a specialist Mage from training in other Schools of Magic."
"Indeed." Magister Wen affirmed approvingly of her disciple. "What happens when a Mage has access to all the Schools of Magic from an early age? What does that do for one's physiology? What could it mean when each school reaches a particular tier of Affinity or expertise?"
"What happens?" Gwen asked.
"No one knows!" Wen's voice rose an octave and took on a life of its own. "Perhaps you're the answer! Thanks to Caliban, Gwen, we may open new chapters in Spellcraft theory!"
Gwen tried to speak, but Magister Wen was too excited to let her interject.
"Imagine! Gwen! A Mage versed in all Schools! Even ones we don't know about! You would be the ultimate Generalist! A Generalist-Specialist! Haha!"
"That's too much!" Gwen blustered, wary of where their conversation was headed. She hadn't intended to snap at Magister Wen, but the pie in the sky in the Magister's comment had touched a nerve. What was it that Nephres had taunted her with? Was that what happened to Elizabeth Sobel? Did her Master's wife also begin her spiral of madness with death-row inmates?
Gwen wrung her hands nervously. Did it come to that? Would it come to that?
"Marie…" Klavdiya interceded on Gwen's behalf.
The zealous academic caught herself.
"Of course, of course!" Magister Wen calmed herself.
The girl had to eat, didn't she?
Magister Wen felt giddy with anticipation.
"Now, onto our second agenda." Magister Wen collected herself.
She exchanged a glance with Klavdiya, then moved on to the keynote agenda of their meeting.
"Now, my girl," Magister Wen began. "Are you ready to test the limits of your satiation?"