“Petra, run a Dispel on this thing,” Magister Wen commanded.
Petra approached the hovering ring eagerly, once again donning her diagnostic goggles.
“A Pentagrammic Ward,” she announced after a few seconds of focused observation. “It’s a western style protection algorithm, Master. Outdated by at least a decade.”
“I’d hardly think Nephres Zaalam was a local. Someone likely warded it for her some time ago.”
“It’s rigged to destroy the pocket dimension.” Petra prodded the illusory glyphs which only she could see. “Master, I am not confident enough to Dispel something of this level without risking the contents.”
“I would very much like to see the contents of that ring.” Gwen glanced again at the pile of hair on the floor before speaking with great care. “It may be of significance to Magus Shultz and me.”
“Your ring, your discretion,” Magister Wen affirmed both of the girls' concerns. “Let’s see the Warding first. Petra, I'll take over.”
Gwen had never seen a Dispel performed on an enchanted object before.
She activated her meagre Detect Magic, just making out the vague shapes of glyphs. Tendrils of energy were being pulled away by Magister Wen, like a woman meticulously picking away at a clump of tangle twines for the loose string which would unravel the whole knot.
After a few more minutes, the Magister held the Storage Ring in her hand, its warding negated.
“Here.” She tossed it toward Gwen. “Your spoils.”
That Magister Wen did not check the contents of the ring first herself struck Gwen as an incredibly generous feat. Was it because her earlier speech had engendered enough rapport to allow for mutual respect?
She found that unlikely.
There had been a palpable distance between them even as they embraced.
Perhaps it was decorum? The 'loot' was, after all, a ring from her enemy, whom she murdered, and now retrieved from her Familiar's gullet. Offering to unlock a chest didn't mean one got to peek or keep what was inside it, to do so would be violating the unspoken norm. Perhaps one of Gwen's companions may have issued a challenge for the Ring, but certainly not someone as unrelated as Wen herself.
It was also equally likely that the Magister may have considered the Ring and its content Gwen’s personal problem. If so, it was a not so subtle indication from Wen that she had no intention of involving herself with Gwen outside of their mutually beneficial research. Their relationship was strictly one of giving and taking.
“The Warding…” Gwen tested the Magister's intention.
“Is dispelled, a trivial matter,” Magister Wen informed her, generous in her show of support. “An outdated formulae indeed. Likely a Rogue Enchanter. It’s not like those Wildland exiles could attend the latest International Conference on Advanced Warding Algorithms and Mandalas.”
Magus Kumiko pouted despite herself. How many more years would it take before she graduated from her Medium Storage Ring? Would Gwen be a Magister by then? She wondered if she should take a gap-year from academia and Adventure for two semesters.
Gwen donned the ring. She wore her Contingency Ring on her left ring finger, her Ring of Evasion on her right, her Medium Storage Ring on her left index finger, and now her new ring on her right index.
A few more rings and she could rival Mayuree.
In general, Mages seldom wore more than one Storage Ring. The larger the ring, the more mana was required to stow items of a particular size and density. A Large Storage Ring, therefore, was usually an item enjoyed by those with significant mana pools, such as a senior Magus or a Magister.
Gwen made a note to gift her Opa's ring to Richard, who had a smaller Medium Storage Ring. Her cousin would keep her keepsake safe, make good use of it, and return it to her in good time.
“Caliban, anything else you got in there?” Gwen picked up her obsidian serpent with some effort, hugged it to her chest, then gave it a mighty squeeze, pondering if a Heinrich Manoeuvre could coax some more mysterious items from its gullet.
“Shaa! Shaaaaaa!” Caliban wiggled happily in her arms.
Her empathic link told her that it enjoyed being hugged and smooshed.
A rude tentacle attempted to give her a lick, splattering grey-goo as it wiggled back and forth.
The rest of her party stepped back politely.
Gwen took a moment to collect twenty-odd inscribed implements. When Gwen examined a slimy dagger, she realised that they were more accurately short-swords without pommels or handles, allowing the blades to interlock like scales when controlled en-masse.
“Let’s complete our investigation before you inspect that ring,” Magister Wen advised impatiently. “I hope that break was enough for you to catch your breath.”
“I am ready.” Gwen turned her attention back to the task at hand. Petra handed her the final Spell-cube.
“Be careful. You’re draining your vitality now, right?”
Gwen nodded, then place both hands on the crystalline cube.
The cube began to fill.
Gwen gasped, shivering as she sought to endure the ice in her veins. The skin on her arm, torso and legs turned clammy and cold with sickly sweat; her complexion took on the pallor of ash. Her irises took on the likeness of two bottomless, deathly orbs. A sudden sense of vertigo, that familiar feeling which she had not felt so poignantly since she found herself alone and afraid in Hyde Park, made her body weightless.
“Oh, Gods…” Gwen muttered, feeling the strength fade from her arms, refuting the command from her mind; the half-filled cube fell from her hands.
“Shaaa!” Caliban slithered back and forth with agitation, its limited cognisance preventing it from meaningful action.
Petra caught Gwen by the shoulder as she tripped on her own feet, suddenly drunk on deathly liquor.
Klavdiya’s Restoration struck her granddaughter in the next moment, dispelling the negative energy consuming her life-force. Magus Kumiko’s healing spell struck next, restoring her to lucidity as positive energy flooded her mana-channels and revitalised her cold flesh.
Gwen gasped for air, her dilated irises regaining their focus.
“You’ve pushed yourself too far!” Her babulya took her frigid hands and warmed them between her palms.
“I am alright… “ Gwen leaned on her elbows, feeling he crystals digging into her flesh. “Thanks for the pick-me-up, Pats. Babulya. Magus Kumiko.”
“Looks like that’s your limit.” Magister Wen ticked off a set of data on her slate. “I would be cautious, Gwen. If you inundate yourself with excessive Negative Energy, I dare say permanent damage to your mana channels would be the least of your worries. Very good, Gwen, I’ll run these numbers and generate the numeric indices for you.”
Her babulya pulled Gwen beside her protectively.
“I hope we’re done, Marie.” Her voice had taken on a tone of distinct displeasure.
“Are we?” Magister Wen replied. “I don’t want to see Gwen hurt either, Klavdiya. But that doesn’t mean I can inference her limits with guesses. Our actions are for her benefit as well. You of all people should know there are sacrifices for knowledge.”
Gwen’s grandmother knitted her brows, looking pensive. Gwen wondered if she regretted her consent.
“I am sorry, Babulya,” Gwen apologised. "Magister Wen... is trying to help, in her way."
“Then I am sorry too.” Her grandmother brushed a stray strand of hair from the arch of Gwen's pointed chin, pulling back the dark tresses from her cheekbones. Her eyes lingered on Gwen's flawless face, then sighed defeatedly. "I understand, but it doesn't mean I wish it on my dearest grandchild."
The vast space of the oversized training hall made the moment bleaker than either Gwen or Klavdiya intended. The abundance of space seemed to amplify the coldness, making Gwen's fatalistic choices seem more poignant than she had expected.
“Shall we check the contents of the Ring?” Gwen took the opportunity to pivot toward a pleasant distraction.
Gwen swept her consciousness over Zalaam’s - or rather - HER new Large Storage Ring, sensing it attune to her mana signature.
“I will now display its contents,” Gwen announced. No one had demanded to see the ring’s inventory, but she had read the curiosity in their eyes the moment the ring 'tinked' on the tiles.
Six banded metal boxes, elongated and rectangular, materialised beside her boots.
She knelt, flipped the clasp, then released the catch.
A row of neatly embedded HDM crystal currency cards appeared.
100 HDM in a row of ten.
1000 HDMs per box.
6000 credited currency in total.
She would split this with her party, Gwen decided. Especially Lulan and Richard, who could most definitely use the money right now.
She moved a little to the side, unleashing a knee-high pile of raw, unprocessed HDM and LDM Crystals. If she had to ballpark, she'd guess about a thousand HDMs.
So far so good, Gwen swept her mind over the next few items.
The Director and the Magister exchanged glances.
Gwen moved on.
A box of twenty-four healing injectors, still wrapped in the cardboard packaging.
A second box, half-used.
A crate of assorted potions.
“Oh!” Petra interrupted her cousin’s selfless show and tell. “A Potion of Invisibility!”
“An item high on the list of alchemical contrabands,” Gwen’s babulya warned. “You should be very careful, Gwen. Hide it, or destroy it, but don't let anyone know you have it. Present company excepted, I would hope.”
Gwen nodded, putting the crystal-clear potion aside for now. Magus Kumiko squirmed when Gwen's babulya shot her a sideways glance.
Next, her mind brushed over something substantial.
A crystal core the size of a medium sized sofa successfully materialised beside Gwen after consuming almost a quarter of her mana. Given an average Mage with only 50 VMI, they wouldn't even be able to store or retrieve the core. The higher the density, the greater the weight, the more magically inclined - the higher the cost of an item’s storage and retrieval.
“A Shielding Stone?” Magister Wen was the first to recognise the crystal core.
There was an austere criteria for size, purity, and clarity which could be used to create resonance Shields that could ward away Wildland beings and creatures. A deep-earth crystal mine generally only produced enough condensed cores to supply two to three Shielding Stations.
“Now this is a rather dire development.” Klavdiya stepped around the stone. “Gwen, I don’t suppose you have anything else in there that can pinpoint to whom this core is supposed to be delivered?”
Gwen took a few moments to scan the rest of the ring, then shook her head.
Next, she produced several crates of minerals in a number of interesting hues.
Her babulya’s brows furrowed.
“Five-Stone Powder.” She drew in a cold breath of air. “What else have you got in there?”
“That’s a highly illicit alchemical product.” Petra glanced at the ring on Gwen's finger worriedly. "Distribution carries a death sentence under the CCP."
Five-Stone Powder was a concoction made by Taoist alchemists from an infusion of ground realgar, sulphur, turquoise, ochre, and amethyst. Each of the stones possessed elemental attributes. When catalysed by an infusion of mercury, it created a highly addictive affinity-booster that considerably raised one’s connection to the Elemental Planes for a short period. The downside was the potential temporary insanity often caused in those vulnerable to mind-altering effects. As with all boosters, there were significant diminishing returns once the body acclimatised to the dosage.
Gwen brought out everything else of interest within the ring.
Things that reminded her poignantly that the Ring’s previous owner wasn’t just nutrient for Caliban. She was human. A person. A being who pursued the wild beauty of life, even if she did err on the wrong side of their morality spectrum.
The mundane sight pressed the air from her lungs.
Morality? What morality? Gwen reminded herself bleakly. The pot was calling the kettle black. In six days time, she would be following in Elizabeth’s proud footsteps. There would be a man condemned to die, and she would take his life in the most repugnant way possible. We’re such fucking hypocrites, Gwen felt her mind revolt with remorse. For a second, she thought of yanking the ring from her fingers and tossing it away from her like a fat spider.
While she ruminated, the remaining foursome regarded her ‘loot’.
6000 HDMs in currency.
1000 HDMs in raw crystals.
Twenty-four healing injectors.
A dozen mana injectors.
A crate of assorted potions from Cure Poison to Remove Disease, to rarer varieties such as Resist Elements.
A Potion of Invisibility.
A sofa-sized Shielding Stone.
Enough supply of Five-Stone Powder to feed a District.
A curious and highly suggestive collection.
"When I was on the Frontier, I found a Shield Station with the stone taken out," Gwen spoke, thinking back to her misadventure with Debora and company. "Later on, Gunther told me that the same Stone was used to cause a frequency overload that detonated and destroyed the outer segment of Sydney's Shielding Wall."
“I see. Rest assured that would not happen here. At any rate, keep the currency and the crystals. The potions too, including the Invisibility one,” Magister Wen advised. “As for the Stone and the reagents for the Powder, I am going to have to get the Dean to contact the Internal Security Bureau. It looks like there’s much more going on at D-109 than any of us thought.”
Gwen thought of Secretariat Choi’s beady, weaselly eyes.
“Hadn't Uncle Jun taken care of him?”
“I wouldn’t know dear, MSS business.” Klavdiya avoided taking the conversation any further. “Your grandfather usually deals with the aftermath of Jun’s work. Speaking of which, Jun would like to speak to you sometime soon. He wants to have a chat with you, regarding all... of this.”
“Alright babulya, I’ll call him,” Gwen promised.
Circling the perimeter of the ill-gotten loot, she packed away her plunder, leaving behind the crystal core and the cargo of illicit reagents.
“How do you feel now?” Petra asked Gwen as she exercised the capacity of her new ring with an expression of permeant distraction.
“I am good,” Gwen replied, a careless white lie no one believed.
Gwen touched a hand to her diaphragm.
“Nothing I can't handle.”
“I am ready,” Magus Kumiko announced eagerly. “Bring Caliban into the Force Cage. Let's get you some vitality to ease you through the week!”
Gwen was about to oblige when Magister Wen obstructed her.
“Perhaps this is an opportunity to test exactly ‘how’ addictive your desire for satiation may become. You can safely experience if it should impact your thoughts, your physiology, make voracious a particular appetite, for food or otherwise,” the scholar declared.
When her babulya rose to protest, the Magister cut her off.
“Gwen lives only a few minutes away, after all. Should anything arise, both Kumiko and myself can be made available immediately. She will be perfectly sound.”
“Still, that’s a little rushed, don’t you think?” Klavdiya intervened. "She's only had a dozen beasties and a single..."
The silence lingered like a floating feather.
“Gwen," Magister Wen retracted her decision. "As I said before, it's your talent, your body. You make the call.”
Gwen pondered the proposal. Magister Wen read her better than anyone, her babulya included. She wasn't one to delay till tomorrow what could be done today. There was a certain gratification in getting these questions about herself off her chest. Whatever mechanic or trait her hunger would induce, there was no benefit in escapism. As a Mage and an academic, she desired to move forward without any doubts as to where future pitfalls may dwell.
“I am curious too,” Gwen informed Klavdiya. “I’ll be alright Babulya; Petra is with me as well. Let’s give it a few days and see how it goes. As we say in the Frontier, she'll be right.”
Klavdiya could only nod. Too distraught to acknowledge her attempt at diffusing the tension. Grandmother and granddaughter, they were both committed now.
“Master,” Petra intoned as she stood by Gwen’s side. “If you think we're finished for the day, then I wish to take Gwen home to rest. We have classes tomorrow.”
Her Master's mien looked as though she could have experimented and sampled until Kumiko, her babulya and Gwen were all OOM. What issued from her lips, however, were thoughtful words of understanding.
They had made great strides today. Gwen had consented to human trials, and she had gained invaluable data regarding the mechanical operations of the Void as an element. All that was left was to test the breadth and scope of its impact on sentient and sapient beings, not to mention the caster herself.
“Very well, girls. Rest well.”
“Agreed,” Klavdiya completed the consensus. “Rest well, Gwen.”
As much as Klavdiya wanted to send Gwen home and put her to bed personally, there were slews of data waiting to be analysed and unpacked. She and Wen would likewise be overwhelmed by the red-tape necessary to proceed with the ‘live’ experiment next Saturday. Klavdiya was doubly mindful of her promise to fully vet the ‘offering’ with her connections before such a ‘meal’ could be presented to Gwen.
Sweet Saint Peter, she thought to herself. Talk about self-delusional euphemisms, what the hell have we become? We haven’t even done the deed, and already our minds are reeling from the reality of it. For a second, Klavdiya wondered how Wen was coping with it, but one look at the apple-pink cheeks of her old alumina told her that the scholar had no such qualms, only impatience for more data.
“I’ll show them out and make sure Gwen's alright,” Magus Kumiko added hastily, seeing that the Director and the Magister wanted to converse further in private. Their conversation was likely leagues above her grade, academic or otherwise.
* * *
Watching the trio close the door behind them, Klavdiya turned to Wen.
“You’re really doing this?”
The two women met one another’s eyes.
“Don’t you mean ‘we’ are doing this?”
“Marie, I respect you as a friend and colleague, but I won’t forgive you if-”
“You can’t keep Gwen under a rock forever," Magister Wen scoffed. "Someone’s bound to dig her up and try to take her away. Would you rather she get taken, kicking and screaming? Will you fight the world? Will Guo? At least with us, she gets to walk her own Path.”
“A difficult path for one so young.” Klavdiya studied the age lines on her hands, the most telling part of her body, feeling her age. “So many ways this could go wrong.”
“What’s the recourse? You could send her back to Sydney. I know you’ve got connections within the Foreign Affairs Committee. Now’s the chance. Before the powers that be get involved. Send her away. Do it.”
"Don't test me, Marie."
"... I am sorry too. This business doesn't sit well with me."
"She'll be looked after. Eyes are watching."
“What's the news from upon on high?”
“Both sides have promised to remain observers for now. But you know how it is. Guo survived the Second Purge, didn’t he? Promises are only kept when expedient and convenient. When did your people ever play by the rules? Only when it suits.”
“…” Klavdiya bit her lips. “Marie, how far do you intend to take this?”
“As far as she is willing.”
“And if she is as strong as Shultz promised?”
Magister Wen’s eyes had an ethereal, unsettling glow to them. One not empowered by any magic nor mana, but conviction, belief, faith.
“What if we create the Overmage by accident?”
“There’s no such thing!” Klavdiya retorted cynically. “The deities are just planar creatures and God-Kings, killable and mortal.”
“Hahahaha!” Magister Wen knew she should have expected such an answer from a Godless Communist Spellcraft Director.
She glanced at her friend and alumina, catching Klavdiya's gazing into the middle distance. Wen touched a finger to her jaws. Laughing was rather tiresome when you didn't use the muscles often.
“Imagine, Klavdiya, a being who can tap into every School of Magic, and whose ability allowed herself to steal from others the Essence of life,” Magister Wen’s face became as pink as pippins. “Yet, this Übermensch is thinking, benevolent, and full of altruism and compassion. How do you suppose history will perceive such a being?”
The two women stood side by side.
“There is a line here, Marie,” Klavdiya stated coldly. “We will reach it, and then we shall cross no more! I hope you understand that if you wish my, and Gwen's support. Will you go see Secretariat Shi now?”
“Yes,” Wen affirmed. “Yourself?”
“I’ll go see Dean Luo,” Klavdiya answered. "He has to be involved for a trial of this ethical ambiguity."
“Do you want me to perform the background check on our hapless participant?"
“We’ll both do it.” Klavdiya was already walking away, leaving Wen to stand alone in the training hall. “I will brook no mistakes! I'll not have Gwen become a murderer of innocents.”
Magister Wen watched Klavdiya close the door behind her, clearly entered by the task ahead of them.
The elderly scholar took a stroll around the empty hall, stopping by the crystalline warding, then strolled past Kumiko's defunct Summoning Circle.
Her mind brushed over the eight or so cubes stowed in her ring, brimming with Void-matter. Who'd have thought she would have enough fuel for her demonstration to the Tower Magisters within a day of submitting her report? It was as though fate itself was desiring her success.
“Kilroy and Sobel… ” Wen muttered to herself; her tone like one reciting a mantra, her crystalline, colourless eyes aglow with a supernatural hunger. “How strange is the way of Karma.”
* * *
“Oh! I’ve still got a beggar’s chicken in my ring!” Gwen realised when Petra and herself entered the apartment. “I’ll give it to Babulya the next time.”
The pocket-space of Storage Rings differed from one Enchanter to another. Her Opa's mastercrafted ring held non-magical items in stasis but allowed for thermodynamic changes. Hot food cooled, and cold stuff returned to room temperature. Likewise, the non-magical food did not spoil, but mana-rich foodstuff did. As for her new ring, she would have to experiment.
Petra had said that there were Absolute-Stasis Rings, but those were ten times more expensive and used only by alchemists and other professionals who dealt with fresh Wildland produce.
Though the clock only struck six, the summer sun glared fiercely into the apartment. The shut windows furthermore trapped the heat, making the two-bedder stuffy and uncomfortable.
Petra located the wall panel and punched in a few glyphs into the climate control, activating the cooling glyphs inscribed into the ducting.
As fresh air began to circulate the room, Petra made herself comfortable, then pulled out a bundle of pamphlets for local takeout.
“How hungry?” Petra enquired.
“Famished,” Gwen replied. “The usual.”
Petra Messaged the local Vietnamese restaurant and ordered enough for a family of four, prioritising soupy comfort food in the form of pho and rice rolls.
While they waited, Gwen checked the LRC Device for any replies.
There was exactly one Message waiting for her.
“Elvia away on Mission - will return next week - S.S,” read a message. ’S.S?’ Gwen puzzled her head, then realised it likely stood for Sylvie Stratford, Elvia’s roommate.
Gwen turned on the Vid-caster and checked the news.
“- ime Minister Tony Blair speaks out against the influx of migrants seeking access to London from the Frontier regions. Riding on a wave of anti-immigration movement and focusing on the internal development of the Britannic Mageocracy, the Prime Minister has successfully rallied-”
“- U.S and British Coalition expedition have ignored suggestions from the United Nations to push ahead with the retaking of Babylon, angering Demi-human tribes in the Frontier region. The Middle-East has long been a hotbed of religious and sectarian conflict, and the intrusion of the Western Human forces into this biblical landscape has many Chinese experts worried. The CCP has officially offered humanitarian aid to those fleeing the region, despite criticism from the U.S that the PLA is undermining peace and stability in the region…”
There were only seven ‘TV Stations’ on Chinese Vid-cast streams.
CCVC-1, CCVC-2, Shanghai-ONE and BBC Pudong were undoubtedly filtered for the Chinese audience, largely focused on producing propaganda Vid-casts about a particular historical event or a contemporary piece on spreading human hegemony across the South China Sea and beyond. The remaining three channels, Shanghai-PEARL, Shanghai-Media, and Huaxing, offered mass-entertainment, music, and other shows crafted by Illusionists. There were other regional channels as well, an official government channel showing snippets from parliamentary meetings; a classical music station which featured Chinese opera, and an emergency broadcast band which overrode the others.
Where the West often thought of Vid-casts as something akin to illumination, the CCP saw Vid-casts as an easy way to brainwash the impressionable and the vulnerable, especially the NoMs, who in their poverty and the boredom, were often obsessed with a particular show, icon, or drama. After all, many of the actors, musicians and idols were NoMs, offering the masses a lofty and unreachable dream of fame and fortune.
Gwen checked BBC Pudong.
"- On the Northern Front, a new Undead Tide has emerged from Pyongyang, threatening Seoul and the Chinese port city of Dalian. In response, the United States held tripartite talks in Beijing on April 23-25. Multi-party negotiations with Seoul, Moscow and Tokyo to discuss aid stalled when the United States refused to give up interests in the South China Sea. The Central Committee has since withdrawn its support for an alliance, citing territorial tensions with Japan and South Korea…"
Gwen turned off the Vid-cast.
Just like in her old world, the news-cycle was a necessary evil.
The more one obsessed with the news, the more one got the impression that all was not right with the world, and that the shape of things was always going pear. Maybe that was why depression was rampant in the information age. There were too many sources of bad news blaring for attention, 24/7.
At least in this world, without the internet, things like ‘fake’ news had yet to become the norm. What one had instead was 'official' stories.
The doorbell rang.
Petra took delivery, then the two girls sat down to eat, making small talk as they picked through the food. Petra stopped after one bowl of noodle soup, then watched as her cousin patiently packed away two bowls of soup, one serve of salad, half a dozen spring rolls, and a coconut sago pudding.
Where does it all go? She wondered if Gwen’s gullet had become like Caliban’s.
In all honestly, Gwen had no idea either. Her body absorbed it all. Her stomach could be so full as to be painful one moment, then fifteen minutes later she was hungry again. When she discussed it with her babulya, the Director had told her to consume more Wildland produce rich in mana and vitality.
“With the amount you’re eating, if you overeat NoM foodstuff, you’re going to get a very upset stomach. The human digestive system can only take so much, dear. You’re not a minotaur - did you know they have four stomachs?”
Gwen could see where babulya was going. NoM food made her bloat.
It was just as well that the restaurants around Fudan all catered toward Mages. With the surrounding districts becoming rezoned and gentrified, the only NoMs left were the ones who worked at Fudan or as service staff to the local industries.
After the meal, Gwen sat in a food coma for about half an hour, feeling infused with warmth. As her metabolism cooled, however, the hunger returned.
Was there an addiction to Consume or wasn’t there?
What form of addiction could serve as an analogy for existential hunger?
In her old world, addiction had minimal abstraction. There was always a gateway moment - a harmless bit of fun. Maybe a joint of weed at a party, or a pill at a rave. Then harder drugs followed, greater varieties of euphoria, crazier doses, sometimes dangerous, always thrilling. Gwen might have been a problematic wreck in her teenage years, but she knew better than to be sucked into that particular vortex. Older, as a professional, she had prescriptions to guide her foray into pharmaceuticals. When the Prozac she was prescribed lost its edge, it was replaced by its more potent cousin with half the half-life, Cipralex.
The girls cleaned up, then Gwen bid Petra good night.
A hot shower later, she clicked-shut her bedroom door and turned the locking mechanism.
Seating herself on her bed, Gwen scanned the Storage Ring again.
Tomorrow, she would give the daggers back to Kusu, then split her loot with Lulan, Mia, Kitty and Richard.
Sweeping her hand across her bedsheet, she produced three data slates.
Slates which she had sensed in the ring but chose to keep hidden from Magister Wen.
Glancing at the door once more, she picked up the carbon-coloured slate, checked its crystal battery, then activate the device. Unlike the intelligent devices of Information Age, the slates were glorified notebooks whose surface could be turned into parchment, then inscribed and stowed. They were initially American made, though China’s manufacturing sector had long since appropriated the inscribed device for themselves, flouting protests from the American Towers.
The familiar sight of tables and numbers appeared on the first slate.
Gwen quickly scrolled through the sheets, over three hundred in total.
The 'Invoice' segment made her chortle.
A treasure trove of potential information, even if the client details were filled in with code, with annotations such as ‘E.M203-HZ45-003”.
The second slate proved to an inventory of business matters within D-109 itself. Browsing through its details, Gwen spotted several instances where the recipient of casements of Five-Stone Power, Mage-stock, or Crystals was explicitly addressed to Secretariat Choi.
Good, she thought to herself. More fuel for the fire.
The third data slate displayed a profile page of a sort in a format that was familiar to her.
There was the rectangular passport photo headshot, beside it was first name, last name, notable biometric features, birthday, all the expectant data.
What sent shivers up her spine was that she was looking at a picture of herself.
Public Practice of Magic I.D:: 9840598 001
Hair: Warm Brown
Height: 181 CM
Father: Hai Song
Mother: Helena Huang
Notable Members of the Family::
Guo Song. MSS Committee Chair.
Klavdiya Song. Director 2nd PLA Experimental Hospital.
Jun Song. Captain, PLA. Grey Ghost (Retired)
SoM: Evocation (Min), Conjuration (Maj)
Elemental: Lightning / Void
Magic Class Permit (A)
The data on the document was so familiar because she had seen it before. It was the one that her grandmother had handed into Dean Luo. Gwen produced the carbon copy from her Storage Ring, then felt her jaws set grimly as the details and formatting matched up perfectly.
What did this mean? The incomplete data sheet raised more questions than it answered. Why would Nephres Zalaam have access to something like this? The only way a document such as this could have gotten away from Fudan’s archive was if someone deliberately disseminated it. If so, why were her extended Spell-Schools removed? Especially as her Dual-Elemental talent was gloriously displayed.
Her head throbbed, she felt hollowed out. Her thoughts were a jumble of mishmashes scenarios jostling for attention against the ambient hunger. Gwen stowed away the slates, then called her Uncle.
“Gwen? What a pleasant surprise! I wasn't expecting a call until next week. How are you? Did the examinations go well?”
“They did, thank you, Uncle Jun,” Gwen replied. “Listen, I’ve come into possession of Nephres Zaalam’s Storage Ring, and there’s some fascinating accounting information she’d kept which I think will be of interest to you involving her dealing in the city, and with Secretariat Choi. Do you have time to talk?”