"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 Outdated by at least a decade."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 living large in the first world. 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 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. Magister Wen pulled tendrils of energy away, like a woman meticulously picking away a clump of tangled 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? After all, the loot was from her enemy, whom she murdered, and now retrieved from her Familiar's gullet. Offering to unlock a chest didn't mean one could 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.
"The Warding…" Gwen tested the Magister's intention.
"Is dispelled, a trivial matter," Magister Wen informed her. "An outdated formulae indeed.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."
The group watched as 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. Therefore, a large storage ring was usually 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 modest 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, and then gave it a mighty squeeze, pondering if a Heinrich Manoeuvre could coax some more mysterious items from its gullet.
"Shaa-Shaa!" Caliban wiggled happily in her arms.
Her empathic link told her that it enjoyed being hugged and smooshed. To prove her point, 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 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 placed 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 hue of ash. Her irises took on the likeness of two bottomless, deathly orbs. Vertigo, like when she found herself alone and afraid in Hyde Park, made her body weightless.
"Oh, Gods…" Gwen moaned, feeling the strength fade from her arms, refuting the command from her mind; the half-filled cube fell from her hands.
"Shaa!" Caliban slithered back and forth with agitation, its limited cognisance preventing it from meaningful action.
Petra caught Gwen by the shoulder, suddenly drunk on deathly liquor.
"Gwen! Restoration!" Klavdiya's Restoration struck her granddaughter, dispelling the Negative Energy consuming her life force. Magus Kumiko's healing spell came 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 the 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 your body with excessive Negative Energy, permanent damage to your mana channels would be the least of your worries. Still. 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 smiled. "I don't want to see Gwen hurt either, Klavdiya. But that doesn't mean I can infer 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 cheekbones. She 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, amplifying Gwen's fatalistic choices.
"Shall we check the contents of the Ring?" Gwen took the opportunity to pivot toward a pleasant distraction.
Before the others answered, she 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, and 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.
Six Thousand 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 then moved 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.
The Director and the Magister exchanged glances.
Gwen moved on.
A box of twenty-four healing injectors, still wrapped in cardboard packaging, appeared.
A second box materialised, 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 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, and the higher the cost of an item's storage and retrieval.
"A Shielding Stone?" Magister Wen was the first to recognise the crystal core.
The Tower had criteria for size, purity, and clarity of Cores, which were 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 Core. "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 interesting hues.
Her babulya's brows furrowed. "Five-Stone Powder." Her voice was very serious. "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 injection 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 costs 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.
Silently, Gwen laughed at herself. In six days, she would follow 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 cursed herself. For a second, she fantasised about yanking the ring from her fingers and tossing it away like a fat spider.
"When I was on the Frontier, I found a Shield Station with the stone taken out," Gwen redirected her mind, 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. 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 will have to get the Dean to contact the MSS. 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 the Admin there?"
"I wouldn't know, dear. That's Bureau 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 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. 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 consumed a dozen beasties and a single... woman."
The awkwardness lingered like a floating feather.
"Gwen," Magister Wen retracted her decision. "As I said, it's your talent, your body."
Gwen pondered the proposal. 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 entertaining ignorance.
"I am curious as well," 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 at her commitment.
"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."
"Very well," Wen concurred. "Gwen had consented to human trials, and we 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 the Void's impact on sentient and sapient beings, not to mention the caster herself. Rest well."
Klavdiya affirmed the consensus. "Rest well, child. Magister Wen and I will be going over your data. Some must be submitted to the committees to facilitate your next experiment."
Gwen nodded sadly at her grandmother.
Sweet Saint Peter, she thought to herself. We haven't even done the deed, and our minds are already reeling from reality. For a second, Gwen wondered how Wen was coping with it, but one look at the apple-pink cheeks of her "Instructor" told her everything she needed to know.
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.
"Yes. 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 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."
"Sorry." Wen's tone softened.
"... I am sorry too. This business doesn't sit well with me." Klavdiya sighed.
"She'll be looked after. Eyes are watching."
"What's the news from upon on high?"
"Both Towers 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 practical and convenient. When did the CCP ever play by the rules? Only when it suits."
Klavdiya studied her hands. "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 eager eyes had an ethereal, unsettling glow to them. One that was not empowered by any magic or mana but by conviction, belief, and faith.
"What if we create an Omni-Mage?"
"There's no such thing!" Klavdiya retorted cynically. "The deities are just planar creatures and God-Kings, killable and mortal."
"Hahahaha!" Magister Wen laughed. "I should have expected such an answer from a Godless Communist Hospital Director. 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?"
"I can't judge that."
The two women stood side by side.
"Will you go see Secretariat Shi now?" Klavdiya asked.
"Yes," Wen affirmed. "Yourself?"
"I'll go see Dean Luo," Klavdiya answered. "He has to be involved for a test of such ethical ambiguity."
"Do you want me to perform the background check on our hapless participant?" Wen asked.
"We'll both do it." Klavdiya did not trust her friend at this junction. "I will brook no mistakes! I'll not have Gwen become a murderer of innocents."
With her final words, the Director of the PLA Second Hospital left the premise.
Magister Wen watched her peer 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. There was so much to analyse, so much data. Surely, after becoming the saviour of all Void Mages, there would be a possibility of Meisterhood for herself.
"Kilroy and Sobel…" Wen muttered to herself, her tone akin to one reciting a mantra. "And now, Gwen. 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. Curiously, non-magical food did not spoil, but mana-rich foodstuff did. As for her new ring, she would have to see what it did.
If she needed it, 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 trapped the heat, making the two-bedder stuffy and uncomfortable.
Petra located the wall panel and punched 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—SS," read a message.
SS? Gwen took a moment to realise it likely stood for Sylvie Stratford, Elvia's roommate.
Gwen turned on the Vid-caster and checked the news.
"—Prime 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—"
"—US and British Coalition expedition have ignored suggestions from the United Nations to push ahead with the retaking of regions lost to the Fire Sea, 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 New World Human forces into this biblical landscape is critiqued by its Chinese allies. The US has accused the PLA of undermining peace and stability in the Kazakhstani 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. 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, an official government channel showing snippets from parliamentary meetings, a classical music station featuring Chinese opera, and an emergency broadcast band overrode the others.
While the West touted 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 are impoverished and bored, and were often obsessed with icons. After all, many actors, musicians and idols were NoMs, offering the masses a lofty and unreachable dream of fame and fortune.
Gwen switched to 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 pure depression.
The more one obsessed with the news, the more one understood that all was not right with the world and that things got worse.
At least in this world, without the internet, things like 'fake' news have yet to become the norm.
The doorbell rang.
Petra took delivery, and 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 Gwen patiently packed away two bowls of soup, one serving of salad, half a dozen spring rolls, and a coconut sago pudding.
Gwen still had no idea where her food went. 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 told her to consume more Wildland produce rich in mana and vitality.
"With the amount you're eating, if you overeat NoM foodstuff, you will 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.
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.
An addiction to Consume.
In her old world, addictions were an 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. Gwen might have been a problematic wreck in her teenage years, but she knew better than to be sucked into that particular vortex.
As a professional money maker, 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. That had been fun.
"Good night, Gwen."
Once alone on her bed, Gwen scanned her new Storage Ring.
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 omitted from her show and tell.
Glancing at the door, she picked up the carbon-coloured slate, checked its crystal battery, and then activated the device. Unlike the intelligent machines of her Information Age, the slates were glorified notebooks whose surface could be turned into parchment, then inscribed and stowed. Most were American-made, though China's manufacturing sector had long since appropriated the device, defying 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 eyes light up.
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 be an inventory of business matters within D-109 itself. 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 in a format familiar to her.
There was the rectangular passport photo headshot.
What sent shivers up her spine was that she was looking at a picture of herself.
Public Practice of Magic ID:: 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 to Dean Luo. Gwen produced the carbon copy from her Storage Ring, then felt her jaws set grimly as the details and formatting matched perfectly.
What did this mean? She wondered. The incomplete data sheet raised more questions than it answered. Why would Nephres Zalaam have access to something like this? A document such as this could have gotten away from Fudan's archive only 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 didn't want to think. She just wanted everything to go away. Luckily, there was a person she could count on for that to happen.
With a few touches of her Message Device, Gwen made the call.
"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?"