“You’ve tiered up?”
Instructor Chen’s abilities of observation were sharp as a tack.
The moment Caliban completed the obstacle course, ignoring the howling summoned creatures, delicious treats and abrupt stimuli, he had confronted her with the question. When Gwen's usually disobedient Death Worm wiggled, crawled, and squeezed itself through to next stage, Chen knew he was right.
“Yessir,” Gwen replied with a toothy grin.
“Too fast. You'll ruin your foundation.” Chen furrowed his brows, screwing up his face until she could see a dozen lines on his weathered face. “What’re you taking for supplements? Nothing illicit I hope. One should never pull up rice-sprouts to hasten the harvest. No good can come of that.”
Bloody oath, the man was keener than a razor, Gwen reflected with renewed respect. Supplements? She wondered how Chen would react if she told him that she took her steroids in human sacrifice.
“Nothing of the sort Sir. I had a lot of help from Magister Wen, and I am training diligently.” Gwen hoped her vapid innocence was enough to deflect the Instructor’s suspicion.
“Baagh,” Chen grunted, clicking his stopwatch. He checked her Sustenance Band. “At any rate, keep your Familiars manifested. You’ve got six odd weeks to pass the course. Remember, seven days straight.”
“Look, if you’re doing as well as you’re proposing, sign up for the Frontlines during the Winter Break, head up north and rack up some CCs. There’s no replacement for real combat experience. Don’t waste your talent by becoming one of those greenhouse ‘geniuses’ who are useless in the field.”
Gwen was inclined to agree.
Her precarious planning and subsequent inflexibility when dealing with Lulan’s sudden intrusion spoke loudly of her need for more experience. If the District episode proved anything, it was that the more she wished to do things ‘her way,’ the more foretelling her tactical decision needed to be.
Not far from where she conversed with Instructor Chen, Eunae stood by her doe, ready to unsummon her forest-sprite, Luyi, should Caliban's docility proved to be a farce.
Over the weeks, except for Wanli, the prideful Lighting Hawk who thought itself leagues above the rest, the other Familiars had formed a sort of social club. Ariel and Caliban weren’t at the level of intelligence to possess speech with their human Master, but their ‘Shaaa!’ and ‘Eeee!’ could be partially comprehended by the other Spirit-familiars such as Ahu, the Fire-Tiger, or Feifei, the Water-Crane.
Watching the Familiars make their adorable sounds at one another reminded Gwen of doggy-daycares where hounds as diminutive as Ariel and as enormous as Ahu socialised through barks, whines, and growls.
“Gwen.” Lu approached the student and instructor with his majestic hawk perched above his shoulder.
God damn. Too cool. Gwen sighed at her peevish saltiness, observing Wanli with the same discrimination that Lu observed Gwen in her tank-top and denim skirt. What she wouldn't do to get a piece of that lightning Spirit, Gwen pouted. Why it looked so charismatic that she could just run her fingers through its electric feathers. Gwen pictured Wanli lifting off her shoulders. Or, she could be riding a horse, and while galloping, Wanli could alight on her arm! In the Wildlands, she could have the hawk scout from up on high while sending her a stream of intelligence, making trivial the positioning of monsters and enemies so long as her Familiar had a clean LOS.
“Hi Lu, how was your weekend?”
“Good, very good. Brother Dai held a gathering at the Four Seasons, lots of families and heirs. He would have loved it if you could have attended as well.”
“I was rather preoccupied I am afraid.” Gwen smiled affably. “Tell Dai I said hello.”
“Will do.” Lu tried his best to prolong their small talk. “How’s training for Caliban coming along?”
“Grudgingly.” Gwen studied the young man, watching his eyes dart about her body subtlely. She couldn't help but notice that Lu seldom liked to meet her eyes while they conversed. He preferred to focus on her chin, her navel, or her legs. Curiously, Kusu adopted the same body language. She wondered if they were indeed that uncomfortable speaking to her, or if there were some ingrained social-cultural aspects at play. What she’d heard from Pu and Lily one time, was that within the Clans, acting in accordance to hierarchy was absolute; eye-levelling inferred one was speaking with an equal.
Was she then Lu's superior? Why was Lu, the possessor of a Spirit of Lightning, afraid of her?
Gwen thought of Dai, and how the young man had tried to 'have a go at her' only to be beaten back like an obtrusive dog panting at her heels. She hoped the quick-witted young man didn’t hold a grudge. As the sole male heir of the Police Commissioner and by that extension, one of the most influential power progenies she had met, he could easily complicate matters while demanding unsavoury favours.
Certainly, she couldn't imagine life would have been easy for her if Dai had pursued the matter.
As well connected her babulya and Magister Wen might be, she couldn't envision the two of them confronting the city’s most prominent para-military civil servant to complain about harassment. The matter would be resolved, of course, but it would be lose-lose for all parties, with 'face' lost all-around and grudges becoming embedded.
That Dai had not contacted her again, nor made his presence known except through Lu, spoke loudly of the young man’s intelligence and the comfort by which he navigated the upper-echelon of society.
Thinking of the 'favour' Dai still owed her, she recalled that Lu too had immediately apologised to Chen after his beatdown by the Instructor’s Magma-Salamander. Whatever it is they’re teaching the kids in the Clan of Fung, it was a damn sight more useful than whatever education the other Clanners were receiving for high-society.
Caliban finished sizing up Luyi, gave it a lick with a tentacled tongue, then returned to Gwen.
“Gods, I am starving.” Gwen felt hollowed out by the three-hour lesson between breakfast and lunch. “Eunae, you up for some Sushi?”
“Sure,” the Korean girl pipped up. She had made good progress with her doe. Luyi was now no longer running off without her express consent, even when troubled by Caliban, though that may be because the Conjurer herself was acclimatising to the presence of her ‘Mongolian Death Worm’.
After offending Eunae with her gluttony, Gwen paid for lunch, then left for Advanced Spell Shaping.
I better save my Tower Visit for Wednesday, Gwen mentally rescheduled her imaginary calendar. This food business that she’d thought under control was taking up more time than she had imagined. Gwen wondered if any of the instructors would consent to her snacking in class.
The cost of her almost exclusively mana-rich diet was nearly 70 HDMs a week, a price unimaginable to her Blackwattle peers in Sydney. As for her inventory, Gwen knew she was just shy of 3000 HDMs. She was also in possession of an assortment of potions and raw crystals that could be traded in for another 1000 or so.
Still, she promised herself that she should investigate a sustainable source of passive income to feed her growing appetite.
An appetite that may grow more exorbitant yet, unless of course, she could alternatively afford a steady diet of living things large and small…
* * *
Magister Michio Lee had on a shirt so tightly that his toned pectorals strained at the buttons.
As per usual, a gaggle of giggling university girls sat at the front row, well away from Gwen's serpent and her marten and as close as humanly possible to the handsome, wealthy and talented Magister, whose jawline possessed an animus of its own.
One reason for the girl’s audible panting, Gwen could reasonably guess, was for the Magister’s choice of a narrow-waisted, closely tailored attire. The summer air outside was unbearably sticky and hot, and the Magister’s urbane choice of clothing served his triangular figure well.
With his horn-rimmed glasses, Michio reminded Gwen of an Asian Clark Kent. One whose ego could probably bend steel.
In a way, Michio reminded her a little of Gunther. Both were hyper-competent, though Gunther, either because of his Germanic heritage or his time in Australia, had a laconic cool and ease of confidence which superseded Michio’s peacocking.
Returning from Mid-Semester break, Magister Lee continued his instruction of theorems which would ultimately, Gwen guessed, lead to the third year courses that deconstructed existing Magical theory in favour of free-form doctrines drawing from multiple sources, including that of Demi-human magic.
“… Which brings us to the nature of hybrid magic, the most common of which, not surprisingly, is the Conjuration-Evocation ‘Biomancy’ used by Clerics. As I have annotated in Week 4, the existing schools of Magic are pigeon-holed by current proven theory. Though spells utilised Major Incantations specific to their Sigil; many are in fact, supported by minor incantations tied to auxiliary Schools of Magic. For example - in Heal Moderate Wounds - Conjuration provides the matter, while Evocation supplies the power. In advanced healing spells such as the tier 6 Full Heal or the tier 7 Regenerate, Transmutation provides precision.”
“Let's go back a little further. The Clerical - Or I should say, the 'Healing Talent' - is tracible back to antiquity. In the Classical Era, when Magic was beginning to be discovered by humanity, 'healing' was the most useful and revered School of Magic. Among the recorded history of Spellcraft, healing spells remain the most preserved 'School' of Magic in existence. Not only that, the Big Three of the Apothecary Colleges: Nightingale, The Acropolis, and The Hospitallers of Saint John, have never withheld knowledge from other like-minded institutes. This is why we have the Clerical Class. It shows that truly, for Spellcraft to exceed its current state, knowledge should be disseminated!”
A few scoffs resonated from the back row. Gwen knew those to be the Clanners, who, as a fraternity, always sat together.
Lee ignored them.
“What most of you are not aware of, seeing that Healers have their hyper-specialised training, is that the Clerical School is a mixture of the common schools of Magic, with each spell tailored for those with the Positive Energy Talent. It is living proof that anyone could attain different Schools of Magic. Bless is an Enchantment based Spell. Healing Word is Evocation. Protection from Disease and Poison is Abjuration. Guardian of Faith is both Abjuration and Conjuration, and so on.”
Michio Lee paused on the podium for dramatic effect.
“What if I told you that one of the most important spells of the Clerical School - Revivify - is a form of Necromancy?”
Shocked murmurs rang through the classroom.
Even Gwen felt the hair stand on the back of her neck.
“Ha! Yes! Though Necromancy is banned, many of our most stable Clerical Spells are indeed, Positive Energy variations of their Necromantic foundation-spells! You think Resurrection, one of our most precious spells, is Evocation?! No!”
Michio Lee appeared to enjoy watching his students chatter nervously. His lectures were as melodramatic as they were opinionated.
“Shocked? Don't be! What I am telling you is common knowledge. All you have to do is keep digging and keep reading. Necromancy, in the end, is just another form of Spellcraft. It's not the knowledge we fear, it's those who use it to nefarious ends! No, no! Quieten down! There is no need to fear censure. Mr Hong! I said DOWN! We'll have none of that in my lecture. Most of you, the vast majority of you, will never have the chance to have Resurrection performed upon you. The exception among you would be…”
Michio’s eyes scanned the crowd.
“You - you - and you…”
The crowd followed Michio’s fingers through the multitude of faces.
Individuals pointed out by the attention seeking Magister either straightened their spines proudly or hid their profiles with their notes. Lu Fung with his spirit, Wanli, was among those indicated. Finally, Magister Lee’s eyes fell upon the front row, where the girls held their breath.
“…and you, most of all.”
A hundred or more pairs of eyes converged on Lee’s final target.
Gwen wondered if she could have grabbed Ariel and used its furry body to cover her face as a ferret-beard. There was no point though. Petra's cousin with the 'monster' was an official campus exhibition. One did not bring a Mongolian Deathworm into class without becoming the ire of every student who either broke out in peevish jealousy or who felt slighted at her preferential treatment by Magister Lee.
“Of course, there are problems with our pedestrian variety of Resurrection. Unless one looked to true Necromancy used by the Death-Cults, the Resurrection of the Clerical School suffered from many flaws, the chief of which is the partial loss of one’s Astral Body. At best, you’ll retain your sanity and lose half of your powers and talents. At worst, you could be resurrected as a drooling idiot.”
Magister Lee amusedly looked over at Gwen with great interest, making her unconsciously tug lower the hem of her dress. His gaze then shifted to the back row, to the Clanners.
“What the degradation doesn’t impact, of course, is one’s ability to pass on, or engender the next generation of uniquely talented Mages. That's the prime reason why you, Mr Hong, would likely be resurrected. Useless as you are, you'll make an acceptable stud for your relatives.”
An uproar rang out over the lecture hall.
Lee shot back a derisive snort of laughter.
“So take good care of yourself!” Lee announced loudly, looking pleased with his performance and the student’s reactions. “Don’t die! Resurrection is a fool's game!"
* * *
Gwen suffered through Supplementary Conjuration with Magus Kumiko, dizzy with hunger.
She had slept through the alarm and as such, had to forgo breakfast for a glass of cold milk and lukewarm coffee. At first, she felt fine, feeling confident she could fight the hunger. By the second hour, her agitation had transferred to Caliban, who was going around tasting everything from the floorboards to the door handle, to other Conjurers who fled from the obsidian worm in alarm.
"I need to eat," Gwen confessed to her instructor. "I need something right now."
“I can help, but...” Magus Kumiko offered to feed Caliban after the lesson.
“I'm going to grab a bite real quick,” Gwen replied vaguely. “I'll be alright. I'll be back if I am able.”
Gwen barged through the door of the training hall.
Magus Kumiko wanted to give chase, but she had twenty students waiting on her help and instruction.
Outside, Gwen forced herself to endure the five famished minutes it took to walk back to the apartment.
The hunger, for the lack of a better word, could be split into two distinct stages. The first was a feeling of hunger that could be attributed to a physical sensation of desiring nourishment and fulfilment. It was equal parts physiological and psychological, a sensation which Gwen knew well from her earlier days fooling around with low-tier Void spells. It wasn’t so much reliance as it was a need, a desire for sustenance rooted in the instinct for survival. This psychosomatic component was something she could consciously combat, subdue with her force of will. Growing up being taught by her mother that appearance was paramount, she wasn't a stranger to crash diets.
Beyond the 'conscious' strata of the Freudian iceberg was the incessant mewling of a subconsciousness demanding to be satiated. Gwen was beginning to learn first hand the unpleasant aphorism that hunger could change everything one thought one knew about oneself.
“Lei! Can you make me some chow real quick? Something hot and filling?” Gwen stumbled into Mayuree’s apartment to see a shocked Lei, who was cleaning the place. "Just give me something, anything, Lei... quick."
While on the levitation platform, she had thought about materialising a packet of instant noodles, chomping straight into the snap-dried gluten. That or open a can of the ten or so allotments of Spam in her Ring. It was only the thought of Lei's cooking that prevented her from becoming a culinary savage.
It took a least a few minutes to prepare a clarified-broth noodle soup, so Lei brought out the cold-cuts first. Gwen thought nothing of the fact that she was supposed to dump the toppings onto her soon to arrive hot noodles, digging in with a passion. Her tongue encountered the cold, hard meat first with delight and then disgust, the solidified fat and salt abrading her taste buds. When Lei returned with hot soup, Gwen was already half-way through a mana-rich length of braised Aurok, the unhappy and the happy meeting in her stomach in an all-consuming ecstasy.
“You’re going to choke!” Lei’s eyes were two wide orbs as Gwen took the noodle soup and almost dumped the scalding hot contents into her mouth.
Gwen's eyes went wide, almost as if a part of her was somewhere within watching her reflexive gluttony in horror. For a moment, watching Gwen cramming the butt of beef into her mouth and pressing her palm to her lips, Lei had thought Gwen was feeding on her own flesh.
“Miss Song!” Lei stepped forward worriedly, afraid that Gwen would somehow injure herself. What sudden madness had overcome her usually prudish self? Why was Gwen like this?
Then Gwen choked.
For such a slender woman, there was only so much food Gwen could orally engulf at once. When finally she swallowed, she felt the gnashing of her organs storming against the furious hunger as though two Magisters galling one another with fire and ice.
“Water…” Gwen pounded the table.
Lei returned with a jug and a glass.
Gwen drank, then felt a sudden upheaval.
She ran toward the open kitchen, grabbing the bin, then hurled her guts into the metallic can.
“Shaaa!” Caliban slithered toward her crouched form and nudged her sides.
“Eeee! Eeee!” Ariel ran in circles, screeching worriedly.
Lei became so alarmed and frightened that she promptly dialled Mayuree with the self-powered Messenger Device in the living room.
When Mayuree dodged her next class and arrived some ten minutes later, she was looking at an exhausted Gwen, makeup smeared and clothes soiled, nursing a jug of hot water against the kitchen bench.
“Mao! Are you alright? Should I call your grandmother?”
“No, no… I am fine, Mia. I am fine now, really.”
Lei had been kind enough to heat up some plain porridge, which blunted the worst of it.
Gwen had spent the last few minutes trying to convince herself that it wasn't a total loss. There was a lesson here - when suffering from supernatural hunger; do not consume solid food. Soup, congee, porridge, gruel, meals which were easy to consume in large amounts as well as being gentle on the stomach was vital.
“God, you’re a mess.” Mayuree didn’t know what to do with herself. She wanted to help her friend but had no experience looking after anyone or anything. “Lei, help Gwen to the bathroom and help her wash.”
“I am good, just get me to the apartment,” Gwen insisted.
“Are you drunk? Did you get drugged?” Mayuree asked the crucial questions.
“Likely an aftereffect of the Friday event.” Gwen pointed out. “I've been experimenting with my limits, with Magister Wen and my Babulya.”
“Oh.” Mayuree now appeared even more concerned.
“There’ll be a resolution on Saturday,” Gwen stated a half-truth. “After that, everything should be fine for the foreseeable future.”
“Of course,” Mayuree replied, clearly disbelieving Gwen’s assertion. “Let’s get you to your room first.”
Gwen struggled off the barstool.
Aided by Lei and supported by Mayuree, the trio deposited Gwen into her bathroom. Lei helped Gwen out of her soiled clothes while Mayuree waited in the living room. The NoM servant wiped her down, then left as Gwen showered.
When Gwen emerged in a new t-shirt and shorts, Mayuree breathed a sigh of relief.
“Goddess, don’t scare me like that.” She glanced upward to appeal toward some unseen force, as though issuing an apostrophe in a play.
“I didn’t know you were religious.” Gwen seemed amused by the fact.
“It’s an old custom from home - when we had a home,” Mayuree answered melancholically. “The worship of mythical beings is not banned there.”
As to where 'home' was, Mayuree hasn’t been forthcoming; though she did extend an invitation for Gwen to visit during Winter Break.
That was the only clue Gwen had gotten from the girl regarding the origins of the House of M. A lost country, perhaps, or a destroyed township, was Gwen’s guess. A displaced people, seeking to return home.
If her hypothesis was correct, then Mayuree’s family may be another example of the mass diaspora experienced by those who lived on or near the Frontier. Everytime a human region fell, all the Mages, NoMs, Clans and Houses had to find a new home. Often, the survival of the bloodline did not naturally imply the continuation of a Clan or House. Sometimes, the loss of things, of homes, and of land, was enough to diminish a people so significantly that they ceased to exist within a few generations.
Gwen applied the addendum to her Mayuree memory-logs, then fell onto the couch exhausted.
Training was out, but she’d hoped to visit the Tower still.
“You should rest,” Mayuree suggested, touching a hand to her forehead.
“No rest for the wicked.” Gwen smiled weakly.
In the end, thanking Mayuree and Lei profusely, she convinced the duo to leave her alone so she could nap. After a short shut-eye, she snacked on some Spam Toast, then departed for the Guanghua Towers. She needed sustenance, but more than anything, she needed a constant source of distraction from the idle fantasies of the Saturday only three days away.