Wen's burning eyes made Gwen appear to wilt.
How could the Void know satisfaction? It was insatiable by nature.
The worst of it was when she 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 both her body and her mind in addition to dispelling the residues of Negative-energy in her body.
The truth was, with the Amulet's mystical aid, her voracious appetite had been kept at bay. Even consuming Faceless, a Mage-creature many times 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.
For the first time, she felt full.
The hunger that had awakened after her first encounter with Edgar at the Royal National had not known satisfaction the very moment Caliban stuffed a creature into its gullet.
Gwen searched for an honest answer for the Magister.
"Are you full now?"
"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?"
There was no use hiding it now, 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 kind of desire for completion - a lust for vitality."
"What is it like when Caliban consumes something?"
"It's akin to, I'd say, a man whose perpetual existence is one of voracious hunger, sometimes, it was overwhelming, driven to gluttony, other times 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 ravenous man desires to feed."
Magister Wen exchanged a brief glance with Klavdiya, 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, decade-long buffet.”
Gwen felt her spine run cold.
The Magister noted her disquiet.
“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. “What we all want is what is best for you, and right now…”
“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 going forward.”
Wen tapped the table as though it was a blackboard in a lecture hall.
“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 mentioned earlier.”
“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 - 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 are feeling 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 pixie 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 N.E.D 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, which is why we need to ready contingencies for your conflict-filled path ahead. 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 that you can focus on acquiring items and Wildland rarities that will bolster your vital-essence. As this buffer grows, so you will have greater access to your Void Powers. This is, of course, a stop-gap measure, one that offers the minimal risk for the minimal gain.”
“Solution two. We work on increasing your affinity. We know that Caliban can consume monsters of the Air and Positive Energy variety to increase your Lightning affinity. Concurrently, it means that 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 your mental state, but suffice it to say, it will greatly reduce VC, and Void Mana needed to manifest spells of the same magnitude. 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 concurred.
“Now for our third option. Prisoners on death row, or Demi-humans slated for disposal. Every month or so, the CCP executes up to twenty Mages for various crimes, from grand treason of the Human Race, to repeat offenders of particular vices, to battlefield deserters. Though rare, they may possess interesting Schools of Magic or very particular talents which can be of use 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, the last one is beneficial for the majority but morally ambiguous. More often than not, the upper echelons picked the most expedient option. As for ethics, penalties were tied to results; success meant it was swept under the rug, failure implied there would be hell to pay.
“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's a path that strays too far, Marie, even for you.”
Magus Kumiko blenched.
Indeed, the infamous experiments carried out by ‘Nana-san-Ichi Butai’ 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 snubbed the island nation.
“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 either 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.
‘You make the call.’
Such an easy thing to say!
She 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?
Whatever happens, it had to be by her terms, by her choice, via her explicit intent and instruction. She refused to be carried away like a raft caught in a summer squall; sent adrift upon a sea of troubles.
No. She would take up arms against the elements.
Her eggs, her omelettes, her decision.
The others waited patiently for Gwen to speak.
When Gwen met their eyes again, her once soft eyes were emerald-on-citrine.
She left her babulya's presence and stood before her audience, fatalistic and final.
“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 simply too dangerous, too damaging to those I love, as well as myself."
"I won't deny it. I took a life to benefit myself."
“With it, I have embarked upon the path which 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, I would bring misery upon those I love.”
“The choice Magister Wen has given me is the first mountain upon that path. The cliffs are steep, and the ascent difficult and precarious. I have seen it looming in the distance; I had shunned it for fear of injury. But I now know that there is no recourse. I must now scale its heights, then descend into its dark valley, tenebrous it may be, however uncertain its depth.”
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 quickly faded.
"I will not fear because you, Babulya, is with me. Because Petra and Richard are with me. Because Uncle Jun said he would be with me. Because I have Gunther, and Alesia and my friends both here and in Sydney. You will be my beacon of light in the void, the keepers of my sanity, my shields, even in my darkest hour.”
Klavdiya's eyes had become two clear pools of liquid brimming with happiness; Petra too, felt her chest tighten.
“And you as well, Magister Wen and Magus Kumiko. You who are my guides, I give myself to you.”
Magister Wen appeared lost for words. She raised a hand, then 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 as well suppressed a shuddering sob, her youth and occupation making her far more sensitive to sentimentality.
Gwen repressed her own billowing emotions, then continued.
“And so I consent to Magister Wen’s advice. I too, wish to investigate the depth of the Void’s powers. I too, wish to know how I would deal with the addiction - yes - the addiction of its deployment. I want to master the Void, not be mastered by it. I have no desire to be a burden to all of you, who risk life and limb to support me. 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. I own this moment; this choice is mine."
Gwen bowed, forming a full ninety-degree arc, allowing her hair to fall past her shoulders.
“For my selfishness. Thank you. Everyone.”
Magus Kumiko fought back a choking sob.
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 finally they 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 directly gazed at her granddaughter with eyes full of benevolence.
A moment of gentle silence lingered between the five-some.
“Enough time?” Magister Wen cut in. The ambient beneficence proved too stifling for the academic. “Gwen. It’s settled then. 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 as though walking on air. “Let us both move forward with great strides. I must reiterate that I do not wish for unnecessary experimentation beyond that which we require to acquire for 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, I mean,” 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 took on a whole new level.
Flush with void-matter, Caliban’s exterior was now almost entirely jet, absorbing the light itself. An oily sheen reflected off the creature’s smooth, faceless chitin as it coiled about Gwen’s ankles.
Magus Kumiko moved a distance away to construct her Summoning Circle.
“First of all, 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 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 onto its surface.
Wen turned to her student.
“Petra, octagramic Warding, tier 3. Enhanced stability and extended duration. Start the sealing process at nine-tenth capacity.”
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 once 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 the completing of 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 in the form of Void mana. During this stage, keep a close eye on your health, and report any anomalies as you experience them.”
“Good. Next, assuming you are able to continue, you will expend your Druidic Essence to depletion. Again, I must ask that you report any anomalies, especially pertaining to 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.”
“Gwen, you may step into the circle. At your leisure.”
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 replaced the cube in her hand with a new one. Magister Wen stowed away the stored energy for future experimentation. 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 its restorative 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 form furthermore lit by flashes of emerald.
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.
“Shaaa!” Caliban cooed worriedly.
“I am okay,” Gwen assured them. “Caliban, its okay! 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 of void-matter.
“Shaaa! 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 it purple-skinned head with its lamprey's mouth.
"Shaa~ hurrrgh~ hurragh!"
"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 on to the floor.
Caliban's audience froze.
A torrent of familiar looking implements emerged from Caliban's gullet.
Oh my god! Gwen stared.
"HUURRRRGH! Sha! Shaaa! SHAAAA!"
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 tou-"
"Mage Hand!" Magister Wen retrieved the object from the floor.
"Careful now, it's Warded," she 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.