Wen's burning eyes made Gwen wilt.
How could the Void know satisfaction? It was insatiable by nature.
When she had abused the Void precariously in Sydney, her weight had dropped considerably at one point, so much that she could count her ribs.
When finally, she began training with her Master, Sufina was there with her vitality-enhancing Golden Mead. A single cup was to Gwen, a gentle Restoration, nourishing her body and her mind and dispelling the residues of Negative-energy in her body.
And additionally, with the Kirin Amulet's mystical aid, her voracious appetite had been kept at bay. Even consuming Faceless, a creature many magnitudes her aptitude, did not induce convulsions of mind-numbing euphoria.
Once she got to Shanghai, there was babulya's healing and the two Vitae fruits she consumed, which all provided ample buffers for her to remain relatively healthy. By that same measure, the vitality she now possessed was excessive enough that strangers mistook her for a healer.
With the amulet gone, all of that had changed.
The hunger that had awakened after her first encounter with Edgar at the Royal National had never known satisfaction.
Gwen searched for an honest answer for the Magister.
"Are you full now?" She demanded.
"I don't know," Gwen confessed. "I suppose I don't feel hungry."
"You've never described the hunger to us, Gwen." Magister Wen prodded her for clarification. "Can you describe it to us? Is feeding addictive?"
Gwen forced herself to relax her jaws. "The hunger of the Void... it's not hunger in the sense of a desire for food. Rather, I would describe it as a desire for completion."
"What is it like when Caliban consumes something?"
"It's akin to a man whose perpetual existence is one of voracious hunger. Sometimes, it was overwhelming, driven to gluttony. Other times, it feels like the ambient tinnitus of mana in a Dungeon," Gwen explained. "Feeding is the satisfaction of that hunger."
"I am not wholly in possession of that knowledge." Gwen shook her head. "Yes, one could suppose. Addictive in the sense that a starving man desires to feed."
Magister Wen exchanged a glance with her grandmother, who appeared concerned.
"For almost a decade, your infamous predecessor had no lack of resources to keep her satiated." Magister Wen tested the waters. "The world was at war. Humanity fought the Demi-humans, fought the Magical Beast tide; we fought each other. Mages galore, a perpetual buffet."
Gwen felt her spine run cold.
"No, we do not intend to send you into a war zone."
Klavdiya's benevolent eyes advised Gwen to remain collected.
"However, we DO need to make progress, Gwen." Magister Wen raised her voice. "You are currently ignorant of your limitations. You don't know the consequences of your magic. You don't understand the ramifications of your Consumption. What if you disable yourself during an engagement? What happens to your party? How does the Void influence your mind? What is its longitudinal impact, both mentally and physiologically? Is it powerful enough to overwhelm your faculties? We need answers, Gwen—YOU need answers. Answers too dangerous to be haphazardly gained in the field."
"The ultimate choice is yours." her babulya drew Gwen closer to the table. She touched Gwen's hand and massaged her fingers. It was then, feeling the paper-thin skin on Klavdiya's hands, that Gwen perceived her grandmother's true age. "You walk a violent path. I do not doubt you need these answers."
"I know." Gwen returned her babulya's gesture with a squeeze. "The greatest danger would be to do nothing."
"Precisely!" Magister Wen looked pleased. "I am glad you understand. Let us proceed then by assessing our strategies from now on."
Wen tapped the table.
"In the last six weeks, Petra and I, with the aid of Magus Kumiko, have collated data on your abilities, studying how the Void talent expends, collects, and utilises vitality concurrently with mana. If you're wondering, Gwen, I have sent the data to Klavdiya for analysis; she is fully aware of the self-harm caused by your talent, which is why I have her support on the matter."
"As such, let me explain our findings. First—there are two aspects to Void Consumption, both phrases we coined for our Paper. One: the inundation of your body by the Necrotic energies of the Void. Also known as Passive Negative-Energy Drain. Two: the expenditure of vitality to empower the vampiric effects of the Void to Vitae cost. We have observed that each manifests as a distinct outcome independent of one another. Both are harmful to your health."
"Gwen, when you use Void Bolt, a spell which you describe as lacking the vampiric effect of life-drain, the weakness you feel is the negative energy flushed into your Mana Conduits. I believe you can validate this, yes?"
Gwen acknowledged that, yes, her Void-based Evocations did indeed induce a negative energy drain.
"Conversely, when you empower Caliban to Consume, you have described the effect as 'taking a pound of my flesh'. Our collated data from your feeding sessions with Mai suggest that to activate Caliban's ability to take in the Essence of the creatures it feeds—there is a Vitae Cost."
"Yes! Essence! The Elves called it one's Life Force. The Dwarves called it Dasein; both refer to the abstract concept of 'being' that is peculiar to sapient creatures, from the smallest Faye to the most ancient Dragon. We, as scholars of human Spellcraft, call it Essence. Existing theory on it is incomplete, though Abstraction Theorem ABT3003, a third-year course, offers some answers."
Gwen inclined her head.
"Therefore, to account for Passive NED and VC, you require BOTH a constant source of magical healing, which will repair your damaged conduits and negatively-drained body, as well as a source to replenish your lost vitality."
"That's going to be difficult," Gwen observed. "Especially in the field."
"No doubt, we need to ready contingencies for your conflict-filled path. According to Petra, you fell unconscious when you Consumed Nephres Zalaam?"
"I did," Gwen confessed. "The vitality from that woman was too much."
"No doubt," Magister Wen quipped. "A tier 6 Healer, even a rogue one, would have amassed a life force many magnitudes that of your average Mage. Though some of it appears to have been converted by your Familiar into Void-matter."
"It didn't do that before," Gwen pointed out. "When I was in the Dungeon, the critters Caliban ate directly empowered my Void spells as vitality."
"Perhaps a condition of the Consume ability, then?" Petra noted. "You did receive it in the Dungeon."
"Maybe," Gwen wavered.
"Putting that aside for now," Magister Wen implored, laying out the brutal facts. "Here are your options."
"The first solution is to stop using Void altogether. Or employ no more Void as could be offset by your Druidic Essence. It means you can focus on acquiring items and Wildland rarities that will bolster your vitality."
"Solution two. We work on increasing your Affinity. We know that Caliban can consume Magical Creatures of the Air and Positive Energy variety to increase your Lightning Affinity. Concurrently, it may also be able to consume Void creatures to increase your Void Affinity. We have no idea how this will affect your physiology or mental state, but suffice it to say it will greatly reduce VC. The added boon to this solution is that you can be satiated with Magical Creatures, which I believe you have conceded to Consuming."
"Yes, Ma'am," Gwen agreed.
"Now for our third option. Prisoners on death row or Demi-humans slated for disposal. Every month, the CCP executes up to twenty Mages for various crimes, from grand treason to repeat offenders of particular vices to battlefield deserters. Though rare, they may possess interesting Schools of Magic or very particular talents that can be useful to you."
"Magister…" Gwen began, understanding what Magister Wen was trying to leverage.
It was an old managerial trick. Give someone three options: one is terrible, another is difficult, and the last is beneficial for the majority but morally ambiguous.
"I feel that is going too far." Klavdiya shook her head, her tone growing severe. "We didn't experiment on prisoners even during the Sino War! Do you think we'll go as far as the Japanese? Have you forgotten the atrocities of Unit 731?! That path strays too far, Marie, even for you."
Magus Kumiko blenched.
Even Gwen had heard that the infamous Nana-san-Ichi Butai experiments had sullied Japan's relationship with their neighbours. Their attempts to create superior bloodlines through bio and necromancy using Demi-human and human prisoners shook the Spellcraft community to its core. The refusal to publicly accept the existence of the Unit furthermore alienated Japan from its Korean, Chinese and South-East Asian neighbours. Even its Singaporean trade partners had snubbed the island nation as a result.
"Your granddaughter needs to know how her power works, Klavdiya. I guarantee you; these are dead men walking. They may as well benefit humanity one last time. Where's the fault in that? Gwen must ride the lightning or be utterly obliterated by it; would you like to see that instead?" Magister Wen confronted Klavdiya's unwavering eyes, then turned toward the culprit responsible for their conflict. "Gwen. You make the call."
The taste on Gwen's tongue curdled as Magister Wen, Magus Kumiko, Petra and Klavdiya expectantly awaited her answer.
She should make the call?
Such an easy thing to say!
Gwen had indeed ruminated upon her dilemma through the night, allowing the fleeting visions of her projections and speculations to pass through her mind like hues of colour across a kaleidoscopic spectrum. Time and time again, she mulled over her visions and revisions, decisions and indecisions, which the next minute would reverse.
She couldn't go on like this.
Not with Elizabeth Sobel huffing and puffing after her.
Not with her enemies clawing at the door of her stick-hutch home.
It wasn't as though her hands were white and sweet.
She would be a fool to believe herself unsullied.
Gunther's instruction during Blackheath.
Her killing of Faceless at Rosebay.
The pigtail girl in the Hengsha Dungeon.
The choice she made in D-109.
This world was tainting her little by little, tinting her in its colours. For how long could she remain undyed, believing herself above it all?
Didn't they say one had to break a few eggs to make an omelette?
One day, she would take up arms against the elements.
If so, why not prepare for it now?
Her eggs, her omelettes, her decision.
The others waited for Gwen to speak.
When Gwen met their eyes again, her eyes grew hard.
"I have given the matter much thought, Magister, and I realise that a decision must be made for all of us to move forward," Gwen spoke slowly and meticulously, as though she was ascending an increasingly steep set of steps. "Therefore, Babulya, Petra, Magister Wen and Magus Kumiko, please allow me a moment to explain."
She had to catch her breath to stifle the riotous rebellion in her chest.
"I did not ask for the power of the Void. I was at first naive and dismissive of what it brought and what it would do. I foolishly refused to acknowledge its presence, even as I abused it, used it, and revelled in the boons it brought. But, as a great sage once said: though we may not be interested in war, war is interested in us. Though we seek no company with conflict, conflict loves company."
"With Nephres Zalaam, I made a choice. I have mulled the decision in my mind over and over, and still, I could not think of a single reason why I would have left the woman alive. She was too dangerous, too damaging to those I love."
"Therefore, I did it. I took a life to benefit myself."
"With my choice, I embarked upon the path Grandmother had shown me when I first arrived in Shanghai. I now walk the Way of Asura, the Path of Violent Reckoning. With this step, I can no longer turn back. To regret is death. To return is to embrace failure. I would lose my freedom, my life, and most importantly, bring misery upon those I love."
Gwen wetted her parched lips.
"I am not a religious woman, but I wish to tell you this: 'though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.'"
The quivering in her voice faded.
"I will not fear because you, Babulya, are with me. Because Petra and Richard are with me. Because Uncle Jun promised he would help me. Because I have Gunther, Alesia and my friends here and in Sydney."
Her family's eyes brimmed with happiness and recognition.
“And you as well, Magister Wen and Magus Kumiko. You are my guide. Therefore, I give myself to you."
Magister Wen appeared lost for words. She raised a hand, touched her cheek to ensure that no liquid had unwittingly escaped, then opened her mouth to speak, only to recall that she was lost for words. Magus Kumiko also suppressed a shuddering sob, her youth and occupation making her far more sensitive to sentimentality.
Gwen repressed her own billowing emotions, then continued.
"Let's do it. Whatever happens in the future, whether we defeat the Void's taint or whether I must be put down like a rabid hound, I want to have no regrets because it was I who steered my sails into the sea of troubles."
Gwen bowed, forming a full ninety-degree arc, allowing her hair to fall past her shoulders.
"For my selfishness. Thank you. Everyone."
Klavdiya reached out and embraced her granddaughter, then kissed her endearingly on the forehead. Gwen hugged her babulya tightly, then welcomed Petra into her arms.
When they finally separated, Gwen embraced Magister Wen, flustering the awkward academic. When Magus Kumiko looked on enviously, Gwen hugged her as well, enveloping the small Japanese woman against her chest.
"I will help you as much as I can," Magister Wen's voice rubberbanded back to normality almost instantly.
"I- I will t-too!" Magus Kumiko appeared drunk from the drama.
"I'll keep you on the straight and narrow." Petra squeezed Gwen's fingers, assuring her of her devotion. "How can you go insane when we have to attend more of Tao's Godawful concerts?"
Klavdiya held her hand firmly.
Magister Wen coughed. The ambient beneficence proved too stifling for the academic. "Gwen. It's settled, then. Please wait for me to make the necessary arrangements. Both Towers will be informed, as well as Lord Shultz. I will consult with Dean Luo as well. Everything will be officially confidential. You will have nothing to fear."
"Yes, Ma'am." Gwen sensed such a weight lifted off her shoulders that she felt like she was walking on air. "Let us both move forward with great strides. I must reiterate that I do not wish for unnecessary experimentation beyond what we require to acquire the knowledge we seek."
"Of course, Gwen. It's all for Spellcraft. I wouldn't have it any other way. Do you have a preference?" Wen inclined her head solemnly.
"Preference for your next meal," the Magister replied. "Man, woman, Demi-human, Divination, Abjuration, something new perhaps, Illusion?"
Gwen directly suppressed the rising bile in her throat as a new weight crushed her short-lived positivity. She dearly wished that Magister Wen could at least feign concern for what their future held.
"Marie! Really!" Gwen's babulya interjected.
Gwen raised a hand to stop her grandmother.
"At your digression, Ma'am. I would suggest a School I have yet to possess. Will these prisoners be fully vetted?"
"Absolutely." Wen nodded. "I will be judicious."
"I see. Very well."
The sudden turn in the atmosphere dispelled the last motes of sentimentality lingering in the air.
"In the meanwhile, let's proceed with our original plan. I wish to expel my excess vitality and ready myself for what is to come," Gwen implored her seniors. "Magister Wen, is that alright with you?"
"More than alright, let us Enchant when the iron is soft enough to be inscribed. I can't say I am not intrigued. Klavdiya, Mai, keep an eye on Gwen. Petra, lend me a hand."
The two healers retreated to one side.
"How shall we proceed?" Gwen enquired.
"Gwen, summon Caliban, please," Magister Wen commanded.
Her serpent slithered from the immaterial.
"Stay," Gwen commanded.
With her increased mastery of Conjuration, the tug on Caliban's animus exerted by her will was on a new level.
Flush with Void matter, Caliban's exterior was almost entirely jet, absorbing the light. An oily sheen reflected off the creature's smooth, faceless chitin as it coiled about Gwen's ankles.
Magus Kumiko moved a safe distance away to construct her Summoning Circle.
"First, let's not waste all that Void matter." Magister Wen materialised a dozen Spell Cubes.
"Your previous weekly threshold is 27 VMI's worth of Void-infused mana." Magister Wen pointed to the Cubes
"These are 25 VMI Cubes. Fill in as many of these as you are able. Let's deduce a baseline index for what you have absorbed from the Healer for us to use as a Control for the future."
Gwen knelt by the Cubes and placed her hand on the runic surface.
Wen turned to her student.
"Petra, octagramic Warding, tier 3. Enhanced stability and extended duration. Start the sealing process at nine-tenth capacity."
"Yes, Master." Petra moved a little distance away and began to inscribe the floor with crystalline shards, creating a magical circle warded with Glyphs of protection and stability. It was an ability that only those who specialised in Enchantment could utilise. Even if Gwen were to acquire Affinity in the Enchantment school, she could not replicate the effect without years of schooling and experience.
Standing apart and again watched by three pairs of eyes ablaze with diagnostic magic, Gwen felt as though she'd been stripped bare and naked. Magister Wen made an especially intimidating figure with her wiry-thin frame and glowing glasses, the very caricature of a scientist likely to affect a catchcry such as, It's alive!
Petra took a few minutes to finish up while Gwen shook the nerves from her body. Upon completing the circular ward, she activated the circle with a jolt of mana, her invocation setting the glyphs alight.
Magister Wen inspected her student's work and found it satisfactory.
"Gwen, we will proceed in three stages. First, we will drain your excess vitality via Void mana. During this stage, keep a close eye on your health, and report any anomalies as you experience them."
"Good. Next, assuming you can continue, you will expend your Druidic Essence to depletion. Again, I must ask that you report any anomalies, especially of your satiation."
"Finally, at your discretion and judgement, you may experiment with what remains of your vitality. Know that Klavdiya and Magus Kumiko will be on hand to assist."
The magic circle itself was now humming. As Gwen entered the ward, she could sense the circulating energies of the magical construct providing a protective barrier that soothed the flow of mana within her body, significantly offsetting her anxiety.
When the cadence of her breath plateaued, she turned her mind inward, commanding her Evocation Sigil to channel a torrent of raw Void matter through her conduits into the Spell Cube. Instantly, as though pervaded by inky water, the cube turned tenebrous. Within her body, she felt the movement of void-tainted mana like slivers of ice through her veins, prickling and tickling her mana channels. Through it all, her excess vitality both fed and protected her against the flood of negative energy manifesting through her physical form.
"Sealing," Petra intoned professionally. "Switching to the next cube."
"Gwen, don't be afraid to let us know your limits," Klavdiya advised.
"I will, babulya."
Gwen began on the second cube.
A third followed.
Then a fourth.
And a fifth.
Midway through the sixth, Gwen stopped.
The excess vitality filling her physical form ceased. Triggered by the negative drain, her Druidic Essence activated, filling her mana channels with emerald energy.
"I am tapped out." Gwen paused. "Give me a moment."
She closed her eyes and inspected her Astral Body, envisioning its projected form, observing the motes of lightning and Void interplaying within a sculptural silhouette.
Already, she was feeling the buzz of abstract hunger hovering at the edge of her consciousness.
"I will now proceed with my Druidic Essence."
"Switching to a fresh Cube," Petra announced.
Her babulya readied a Restoration and a healing jolt of positive energy.
Meanwhile, Gwen embraced the familiar sensation of raw-void matter ravaging her innards as her Druidic Essence diminished.
"I am out of Essence." Gwen's complexion turned ashen as her Druidic Essence waned. She had filled a single cube.
"Gwen!" Kumiko inquired worriedly.
"Are you alright?" Her babulya held off on the Restoration.
"Shaa-Shaa!" Caliban cooed worriedly.
"I am okay," Gwen assured them. "Cali. I am fine."
Caliban laid its head to rest at her feet.
With her spectacles aglow with diagnostic enchantments, Wen inspected the interaction between Familiar and the Conjurer.
"Curious, the stored Void-mana within Caliban is independent of your conduits. Can you induce it into feeding you some of that energy?"
"Caliban…" Gwen demanded from Caliban its cargo.
"Shaa-Shaa!" Caliban rolled back and forth on the floor adorably, coiling and uncoiling as though it was trying to squeeze something from within itself.
"It doesn't know how," Gwen replied.
"Meaning it could, once Caliban attains a higher order of intelligence," Magister Wen noted. "Maybe coax it some more? Try to envision it."
Gwen exerted more pressure on Caliban.
"Come on, Cali! Out with it!" she urged her Familiar.
Caliban split its carapace, revealing its purple-skinned head with its lamprey's mouth.
"Something's coming!" Gwen noted. Perhaps a projectile attack? If Caliban could vomit forth a spray of consumptive Void matter, it would add a whole new dimension to its attacks.
A dagger fell onto the floor.
Caliban's audience froze.
A torrent of familiar-looking implements emerged from Caliban's gullet.
Caliban regurgitated a pile of wet, slime-covered hair.
Gwen recognised the fist-sized hairball immediately and felt her heart sink.
Something else landed on the Transmutation-enhanced pavement.
Her observers shifted their gaze toward the pile on the floor.
"Gwen!" Petra called out. "Don't touch that!"
"Mage Hand!" Magister Wen retrieved the object from the floor.
"Careful now, it's Warded," Wen warned. "Very potent as well."
It took Gwen a moment to realise what she was seeing.
A Storage Ring.
Nephres Zaalam's Large Storage Ring.