Gwen promised to keep the entirety of Week 14 of the semester open. Her finals should be taking place on Week 13, mid-September. After that, she could be away with Jun on their Elemental poaching adventure.
What remained then, was seven more weeks of the academic term. That, and Gwen's impending trial by fire with the prisoner. Having made a choice with such a teeth-gritting expectation of imminent martyrdom; Gwen couldn’t help but sense that Jun's rare and precious devotion had taken the wind out of her sails.
As for her impending trial-by-murder, that morbid reality remained immutable. As a future Battle Mage, Gwen couldn't risk becoming burdened by unknowns when her life and the wellbeing of others were at stake. She was thankful then that Jun's offer had offered a detour. If nothing else, the inhumanity of the methodology required to feed her talent was no longer an albatross strung across her chest, asphyxiating her with its rack and rope.
With the rush of blood gone from her head, her euphoria was joined by despondency. In taking uncle Jun’s guiding hand, she couldn’t help but be reminded that neither her father nor mother had enquired after her since the semester began. There were no surprises there - but the moment lingered. Her parents - in this life or the last - remained carefree people in the pursuit of their individual happiness. As an adult, she couldn’t blame them for that. Wasn't herself also reaching out for that orgiastic green light across the bay? Wasn't she willing to kill for it? She was going so far as to murder a man to see how her brain ticked, wasn't she?
When she returned to the apartment, Petra’s lights were out.
Gwen hovered by the door apologetically for a few seconds, then left.
When her bedroom door clicked-shut, Gwen had soothed her ambivalent emotions. She would rather not trouble Petra if Magister Wen was indeed buttressing her agendas behind her and their babulya’s back. Her cousin’s loyalties would be unnecessarily conflicted, especially as she already had a history with another Master in Moscow. If Petra should abandon yet another instructor, it was unlikely she would ever be apprenticed by a third. As Jun said, Magister Wen provided a service, Gwen provided materials. It was an even trade. She was fine so long as she did not misunderstand that their relationship extended beyond give and take.
She wondered what Wen thought of Petra.
Would the old academic risk her life to shelter her Mineral Magic apprentice?
Gwen struggled out of her casual clothes and slipped into bed, sliding between the silken sheets.
"One Evee... two Evee... three..."
After a night staring at the ceiling, she finally felt the coming on of blissful, restful sleep.
* * *
Kusu stared at the twenty-odd implements in front of him.
“I don’t know,” Gwen confessed, making a hugging motion with her arms. “I squeezed Caliban real hard and… there they were.”
“Brother! What a fortuitous day!” Lulan gushed beside her sibling, hugging the young man until his face was scarlet.
Gwen had met the lot of them in Mayuree’s apartment, where she presented the loot of crystals from Nephres to her four companions.
Kitty took her share of the 1400 HDMs without so much as a blink, swiping her hand across the stash and dematerialising the cards with absolute certainty.
Mayuree however, refused, saying that she really had no need for HDMs, that it was barely pocket-change to her. When Gwen insisted, she threatened to spend it all on shoes unless her or the siblings were willing to partake in her generosity.
More arguments ensued, each party trying to outdo the other in modesty.
In the end, Gwen split the surplus three ways, giving herself, Richard and Lulan 1860 HDMs per head. Kitty looked as though she was going to speak up about 'her' share of the surplus, but a frown from Mayuree turned her intentions awry, leaving her sulking by the window.
“Thank you!” Lulan couldn’t believe that she, the troublemaker, would receive such a generous portion of the spoils. “Thank all of you!”
“This means we can take up the vacancy in Building 14,” Kusu added with immense relief. “Your aid couldn’t have come at a better time.”
“Lulan did all the hard work.” Gwen pictured the two scenes of carnage leading in and out of the tunnel section. The expression on the Abjurer's face as Lulan crushed his Shield and sent his head flying had imprinted in her mind like a photo still. “B-14? I am glad you’re both so close, that makes me happy.”
Kusu incanted something under his breath, and the daggers rose into the air.
Was it magnetism? Gwen wondered. Or was it a combination of Levitation and some other secret algorithm of magic? She had read that there was a Transmutation spell called Dancing Blade at tier 4, which allowed one to command an unattended blade to attack, parry, and defend on its own. Perhaps Kusu’s Huashan Sword-Magic was akin to this phenomenon.
“Still works!” Kusu announced, his face relaxing. “Thank you, Miss Song.”
“Just Gwen,” Gwen insisted. “Caliban did Consume your other daggers. Maybe they’re in there, somewhere.”
“What you have returned is already several months of my work,” Kusu bowed, then little sheepishly, he added a ‘Gwen’. "I wouldn't dream of demanding more than that. Whatever else Caliban can... retrieve, I leave it entirely to its discretion."
Kusu was an unusual Clanner, Gwen nodded at the young man's diplomacy. Losing him was most definitely a bad deal for Huashan.
With the siblings taken care of, it was time for her to attend her Classes once again. If there was an unexpected benefit to Magister Wen’s leeching of her void-matter, it was the loss of her healer's aura. Now bereft of her excess vitality, she could resume life as Petra’s ‘hot cousin’ and not a fount of wellbeing that drew eyes like a second sun.
“I am off!” she informed the others, turning on her flats and calling for her Familiars. “Message me if anything comes up.”
The others, Kitty notwithstanding, waved goodbye. Lei, Mayuree’s maid, looked at the stacks of empty plates lining the breakfast table.
She, for one, was happy.
The old Miss was back!
* * *
Conjuration was first, with Birch directing Gwen and her Familiars to their usual place in the front row.
“Gwen!” Lily, her fellow Conjurer, hailed her from across the room. “Wait up!”
“Hi guys,” Gwen greeted Lily and Pu of the unfortunate homophone, her peers from Evocation doing a double Major in Conjuration.
“How're the Districts? I am thinking of taking Management next semester.”
“Quite the adventure!” Gwen beamed at her acquaintances. “I’ll tell you about it after, over luncheon. I’am starving already haha.”
“Are you okay?” Pu ran his eyes over Gwen’s familiar figure. Preparing for the summer, she’d layered up in a spaghetti strap summer dress in navy with floral prints, leaving her bare shoulders to be covered by a cream cardigan. Appreciation aside, the acute Mr Un noticed that Gwen had lightly bruised eye bags and pale, bloodless lips the hue of peach petals.
“Not enough iron,” Gwen explained casually, dismissing Pu's concern. "Nothing a good steak and veg can't fix."
“Shaa!” Caliban nodded its head at the two.
“Hi, Cali.” Lily patted it on the head. Pu kept his distance.
"Eeee!" Ariel whinnied.
Lily took the marten with her hands and hugged it to her chest.
"Ohhh! So cute!" The girl looked rapturously happy.
“Take a seat. Magister Birch is starting.” Gwen moved her familiars to her left as the other two sat.
Birch soon assumed his place on the podium.
“Welcome back, students.” Birch did his usual walk around the elevated platform of the lecture theatre, scanning over the sixty-odd students with his eyes until his gaze rested on Gwen. “We will now begin our new topic: Teleportation Circles.”
“In our earlier lessons, we discussed the problems of translocation. For the next four weeks, we will discuss the single most important use of Conjuration - the transportation of Mages and other personnel throughout Human territories.”
“There currently exist THREE distinct forms of Teleportation - Personal - Assisted - and Powered. Personal teleportation involves translocation by Line of Sight; this includes spells such as Blink from the Transmutation School, or Dimension Door, from the Conjuration School. Upon manifesting the arcane phenomenon, the Mage is moved through the Astral Plane from one location to another with relative accuracy.”
“Assisted Teleportation is translocation assisted by Divination, typically a skill acquired by Translocation Specialists, requiring a rudimentary knowledge of the School of Divination. By tapping into the Divination towers’ loc-by-loc triangulation, it is possible for the caster to pinpoint a location for the spell to manifest. Recall your Ludwin-Clarkson formulae: the cost of translocation is proportional to the distance; in addition to the baseline cost of invocation. Make a note.” Birch paused for the students to catch up. “In areas without Divination Towers meaning non-human controlled regions - you will require a Diviner in your party to Teleport to unmarked locations. If you lack a Diviner, this can be offset by employing a Ranger Class operative - typically a Transmuter with Polymorph or an Illusionist with Improved Invisibility, who can plant translocation beacons.”
“Finally, Powered Teleportation such as that used by the Inter-State Teleportation Circle, commonly abbreviated as the ISTC - are connected by Long-Range Divination Stations. Rather than using the Mage’s mana, these Circles are empowered by HDM stores embedded within the mandala. Access to ISTC stations is heavily restricted, typically only utilised for military troop movement, or with a permit to visit other countries and inter-city Towers."
Gwen herself made a note to learn Teleportation Circle as soon as possible. The utility of the spell felt endless. If she could utilise her jack-of-all-trades talents, she could provide the party with the means of offence, defence, and extraction. All she had to do was pick up some formal training in rudimentary Divination pertaining to the Message spells and the use of the Divination Towers.
“Now, the intricacies of the Teleportation Circle…”
Gwen perked her ears as though Ariel hearing the jingle of crystals.
“... the baseline mandala, available from the public library, is the Ludwin-Clarkson octogramic containment circulation glyph. The preceding layers vary from caster to caster, though usually, we use a stabilisation glyph as such - see here - and insert transfusion circles at the fourth layer - and here - at the inner circle - creating a circuit that allows for the consumption of HDMs placed within the axis…”
The sound of pens scratching parchment and slate filled the lecture hall.
When Birch finished, Gwen realised that using the spell as a form of combat tactics was a bit of wishful thinking. The original template of the Spell was exceptionally fragile and easily disrupted. It also took two to three minutes to attune every individual beyond the inscriber of the Circle. It meant that though she could insert allies into a combat zone, she couldn’t extract people without someone holding down the fort.
When she raised her hand and asked the question, Birch answered that usually, an Abjurer formed a protective layer of Shields and Walls around the surrounded or besieged party, while the Translocation Conjurer worked on transporting the party to a safe location.
“Are there better variants of the Teleportation Circle?” Gwen asked.
“My personal Teleportation Circle can be attained for 55 CCs,” Birch answered her question with a twinkle in his eye. “It takes three-quarters of the time to prepare a companion for translocation, and it has a built-in Shielding glyph which can be personally empowered by your Abjurer. For students in my Course, there is a discount. The spell is usually traded for 64 Contribution Credits.”
Gwen wrinkled her nose.
Despite Birch’s dandy outfit and perfectly groomed beard, was he a miser? Teleportation Circle is a custom Tier 5 Spell! Not mangos at the market! Doesn't he feel embarrassed hawking his discounted spells to his students?
The lecture ended with Birch approaching Gwen and asking if her grandmother asked after him. When she replied with a most definite no, the Magister smiled bleakly, then left her with her peers.
“Something going on with Magister Birch and your family?” Lily was a gossiper at heart.
“Nothing worthwhile, just an old pair of alumna and alumni waxing sentimental,” Gwen replied offhandedly to offset any suspicion, not wanting to start any troublesome rumours. “Gran’s past 60 you know. I think Magister Birch might be mid-sixties. It’s the age when people get nostalgic about their youth.”
Lily nodded wisely.
“So.” Gwen touched a hand to her washboard abdomen, feeling hollowed out after just four hours. “Lunch?”
* * *
Magus Carol Young gave out the gradings for the students from the week prior, each report attached with a personal memorandum of advice.
“Good control, limited AOE potential, recommendation on acquiring a low-level 400 - 800 CC Spirit ASAP. More Adventuring and practicum experience should provide an increase in performance index. Rank 47 / 302.”
'A-' was the grade Magus Young gave her performance, a few tiers shy of ‘S’. Considering her effortless Grading in Blackwattle, Gwen thought of that old Confucian saying: there are 'people above people' and 'mountains over mountains'.
“Gwen,” the comment continued at the back. “As irresponsible as it is for me to suggest that you should ‘simply’ acquire a Spirit, I must stress that the ability to direct your attacks with IFF is central to Lightning Magic due to its inherent volatility. Once you reach tier 5, keynote Spells such as Lightning Wave become severely limited without an ability to Spell-shape, either learned or supernatural. Once you reach tier 6 and gain the signature spell of the Lightning talent - Chain Lightning - IFF is essential if you wish to use it pragmatically in the field. May I propose that you work up some CCs in the next 24 months as your tiers develop, putting out a Tower notice for a Lightning Spirit of any tier. Without this gift, you will be consigned to the Artillery Unit, limiting your immense potential.”
Though the lecturer was relentless in the delivery of her lessons, she offered sterling advice. Magus Young did not, of course, take Gwen's Conjuration into account, nor her Void talent. Gwen had so far chosen not to demonstrate her alt-element, though her instructor was likely aware of it.
Gwen wondered what Young would say if she told her that over the weekend, she had an ‘accident’ and now she was tier 4 in Evocation, that in the future, there may be more ‘accidents’ where she may very quickly come into possession of those tiers that her peers may take up to a decade to master.
That said, the prospect of large-scale AOEs, especially when exercised with Identify-Friend-Foe, appealed to her very much. Given the opportunity for future missions to collate fame, fortune, or CCs, she would much rather be in the midst of a Wildland Orange zone sending off savage Lizard-men, Serpent-folk, Hobs and Goblins. If possible, Gwen would very much like to avoid the labour of prying undesirable Mages from society's sides like barnacles off a ships' rudder.
As for the lecture itself, Magus Young continued to extol the virtues of possessing a Spirit. For the majority of students, failing to make A, she explained, was due to Friendly-Fire in a Danger Close situation. There was little point in having enough firepower to wipe out a building if one's collateral damage would kill more humans than they could save from a Demi-human or Magical creature infestation.
“Allow me to provide you with an anecdote,” the Magus explained. “During the Sinai conflict, the Egyptian Jackal Cult deployed a forbidden spell - Corpse Scarabs - which quickly bred out of control as a result of the absurd volume of carrion left by both sides. The demise of the Temple Necromancer by Israeli assassins further devolved the situation into anarchy. The Scarabs bore into the carcass of the fallen or buried themselves underground, then emerged weeks later as a voracious swarm that could blacken the sky.”
"The problem was that when they attacked, the Scarabs covered enemies, allies, everything and everyone. The defenders were helpless."
“In the end, the Tower brought in a Spirit-attuned Fire Magister. This rare individual, with the help of the Israeli Heavy-Golem 4th Division, managed to thin out the swarm enough for it to be dispersed, as well as decimate the enemy troops.”
A few more anecdotes of the battlefield followed before the lecture came to an end.
“In Week 9, I, as well as a member of the PLA 22nd Aerial Division, will offer a demonstration. For those of you currently in possession of Spirits, you will be asked to participate with the instructors. That is all. Dismissed.”
Gwen left Evocation full of brimming anticipation of her upcoming Wildland foray.
Refreshed with new funds, she treated herself to a buffet of Wildland cuts and vegetables at 'Uni-Rd Korean BBQ', reducing the proprietor to tears. For the entire two-hour allotment of her table, the grill had remained on full burn.
When she finally finished, feeling ‘full’, watched by the waiters and waitresses with stunned expressions, Gwen left a tip of 5 HDMs: 2 to cover the extra food, and 3 to help the waitstaff overcome the trauma of seeing Caliban coiled beneath the table.
Thinking of Magus Young’s advice as she walked home with her familiars, she made a note to pay a visit to the Guanghua Towers to check on new potential spells for her spell list. Even with her monthly deductions from the LRC Device hire, she still had 93 CCs remaining, plus whatever Jun could rope up for her from the Choi incident. Her savings meant that she could potentially purchase four to five new Spells at Tier 4, or one to two spells at Tier 5.
Utility or more offensive options?
Or perhaps, she could train up her Transmutation to gain Flight?
The night was young, and her stomach was full. Petra should be home soon, then they could mull over her Spell-list slowly over a nice pot of ginger-lime Tisane.