Lulan caught Gwen as she passed through the lawn leading up to the Guanghua Towers. It was easy to spot the girl even in a loose frock because no one else had a Mongolian Death Worm with a ferret riding on its head trailing behind them. That and the fact that she parted the crowd like an icebreaker through a frozen sea.
Lulan called out reflexively, then instantly regretted her cavalier familiarity. Gwen looked like she had somewhere to be, not to mention she looked dog-tired.
As the Void Mage came closer, Lulan couldn’t help but notice that her saviour’s distinct ‘aura’ had changed from that of brimming confidence to one resembling that of a burnt out NoM ending a long day at the Manufactorum.
“Lulu, finished your classes?” Gwen asked the Sword Mage. “You and Kusu settled in yet?”
“Almost.” Lulan fell in step beside her. “It’s not like we had anything to move.”
That much was true. Herself and Kusu had decided to forgo all their ‘belongings,’ which included some bedsheets, a dozen changes of clothes, and assorted mementoes from the Clan. Together with the apartment, they had been excommunicated from Huashan, Luwei, their father, the Clans.
“I am sorry to hear that.” Gwen patted her shoulder.
“Enough about me, how about you?” Lulan couldn’t help but study her saviour’s face intensely, observing Gwen's puffy eye bags and the fissure of blood vessels surrounding the whites of her hazel iris. “Not sleeping well?”
“Something like that,” Gwen replied vaguely.
Gwen wondered if someone experienced in going cold turkey could have offered her a pointer or two. Morye, for example, had tried and failed to quit tobacco at least a dozen times. Following Lulan's gaze, Gwen touched a finger to her face to prod her puffed-up eyes. Clearing her throat, she noted that her tonsil felt sore and hoarse as well. Gwen sensed that something was coming on, but Magister Wen had previously celebrated Gwen's immunity to mundane diseases. Once her Druidic Essence regenerated, she should be as right as rain. As for when that would be, only time could tell.
“If there’s something I can do for you…” Lulan wanted to help but knew not how. She hadn’t had a chance to look after anything, ever. Kusu was usually the one who pampered her, even as the red mist made her brother's life a waking nightmare. Thanks to Gwen though, those days were behind them.
“I am just tired, that’s all.” Gwen’s voice was a little distant. “You want to come up with me? I am browsing for new spells and checking to see if my Uncle’s CCs have come in. There should be some for you as well, I assume.”
Lulan fell into step beside Gwen.
Though Lulan had been the Clan's pariah, she was still a cog in the Clan's collective. As a sterling footsoldier, she had always been surrounded by company, both junior and senior. Privacy and alone-time was a thing of myth. Now, as a wayward drone estranged from the hive, she was feeling the sting of isolation.
It wasn’t so bad when Kusu had been with her. Her brother’s presence calmed her anxiety and reminded her she wasn't alone. But now that the Semester had begun and she was without a companion, Lulan felt directionless. Without immediate access to a Clan sponsored Party, she had to wait to be assigned to a PUG.
She tried to recall how she used to pass the time when the red haze still held her mind hostage.
Adventuring for Credit, purging Green and Orange Zones with the other members of the Sects. Training with her Clan-mates, sparring and making pleasant if uninspiring chit-chat. Eating at the long table, watching her fellow Clanners mock the ‘upstarts’, deriding talented ‘Rogue’ Mages like Gwen, like Kitty, or break out alternatively in peevish admiration and jealousy for their ‘betters’ like the Fungs of Nantong.
There were less pleasant memories too. Getting berated by an elder for one trespass or another, real or imagined. The frequent public beatings, the laughter of her peers as yet another bamboo rod broke against her body.
After an unpleasant bout of soul-searching, Lulan found that against all reason, that she felt nostalgic for the past.
When she first sat alone with a takeout box in the middle of the Guanghua Tower’s famously scenic lawn, listening to the sound of sycamores swaying in the summer wind, what she felt wasn’t the romanticised tranquillity poetically written on silk-screens.
She felt instead, a paralytic sense of loss; a diminution, depletion, an impoverishment of her being.
The freedom. It frightened her.
When she saw Gwen coming by, she as though a woman swept into the open sea had found a sudden length of rope extended from a passing vessel. As for the ship's destination, she wasn't inclined to know. That she wasn’t adrift in the open sea, tormented by distance and horizon, was sufficient.
* * *
The duo arrived at the Administration level, took a ticket at the Spell-List counter, then studied the list of Spells available for exchange with CCs.
When they consulted the front desk, Gwen was informed that she was sitting on 163 CCs. Uncle Jun had come through with the matter involving Choi.
“What are you on, Lulu?” Gwen proudly invited Lulan to verify her accumulated CCs.
The receptionist took some time to retrieve Lulan’s records, emerging from the back room after some time with an apologetic smile.
“372 CCs, Ma’am.”
Gwen’s smugness shattered like a brittle sheet of glass.
“I did a lot of questing,” Lulan explained. “But there was nothing really to spend it on. The Iron Heart technique is unique to Huashan. All my other spells are mundane versions you can acquire from the University’s public records.”
372 CCs! Gwen wanted to berate Lulan's unthinking naivety. This entire time, she could have demanded medical treatments! How simple was this girl to not even know that? Had her Clan withheld that information from her? Did Kusu know? She wanted to shake Lulan by the shoulders.
But then Gwen thought of her history of naivety. They were both doe-eyed 'Frontier' girls, unknowingly wandering into the deep dark of the sinful city. It was too bad for their opportunistic assailants then, for they were both she-wolves.
As for Lulan's CCs, the system was working as intended. Despite Huashan usurping the girl's assets, the Tower ensured that no one could take away her contributions. From now, any injury from training could be offset by medical care paid for by the Tower. Not to mention Gwen could beg her grandmother for a favour.
Her attention now turned to her own resources.
Emboldened by her unexpected windfall, Gwen discussed with Lulan what would benefit her current repertoire, with Gwen liberally informing Lulan of her Spell list. Though an unassuming act of trust, Lulan felt flushed by the confidence demonstrated by her companion.
“I am using a Specialised version of Shield by Magus Shultz,” Gwen answered when Lulan asked how she managed to block her sword strikes without a hard-point Shield. “If ever Gunther permits, I don’t mind teaching it to you guys.”
Lulan shook her head vigorously. The Clans hoarded such secrets, often kept by the Master from the Apprentice until their deathbed. It wasn’t unusual to hear a Clan Master tell the age-old joke that a well taught Apprentice would steal their teacher's rice bowl.
The girls were then directed to a small private room where they may peruse the Tome, a catalogue of spells the Tower has on record.
“How about this one?” Lulan pointed to a page gilded with a golden edge. The girls were currently hovering over a section with several entries on Lightning. Unsurprisingly, the Nordic Lightning-Evoker Einar Larsen, the Magister generous enough to offer his intellectual estate to the public, was chief on the Spell List. Gwen scanned the entries, thinking of what Petra had suggested over tea and biscuits. Jun did say she could be the Second Coming of Thor, did he not? Maybe she could try her hand at being the Second Coming of Magister Larsen?
The page displayed a tier 5 Evocation Spell.
Casting Time: 50 Major, 31 Minor Incantation
Range: Seeking, LoS, 100M
Components: Somatic, Verbal
Duration: Instantaneous + Persistent.
Magister Larsen’s mid-tier Signature Spell remains one of his most sought-after Incantations. The Spell manifests up to (N) plasma orbs of lightning which function independently as Magic Missiles. With a somatic command, the orbs strike (Y) targets within the caster’s line of sight. Each orb generates a small explosion dealing electrical damage.
(N) Number of Orbs may vary.
(Y) The number of targets must be one or above.
The spell was impressive, but it was tier 5, just beyond Gwen’s current proficiency. As Larsen’s masterpiece, the cost was 72 CCs, more than double the tier 4 Elemental Sphere. She could purchase it now and begin training, then ’grow into it’, as Petra would say.
The girls continued their browsing, favouring Petra's recommendations.
Grey’s Warding Shield
Casting Time: 20 Major, 7 Minor Incantation
Components: Somatic, Verbal
Duration: Persistent + Sustained.
A modified Fire Shield allowing casters of different elements to make use of the Shield's reactive capabilities. Composed originally by Magister Charles Grey, Sydney University, the spell creates an offensive barrier which retaliates against Melee and Close-Ranged Foes with a 360-degree semi-dome coverage. While the spell is active, all soft-point projectiles are nulled by reactive bursts, with an additional elemental bolt counter. A popular spell for pinpointing invisible or hidden attacks.
Another exciting and supremely useful spell, one that reminded Gwen of Yue's early experiments. She felt tempted by its utility, though she was satisfied with her non-newtonian variation for now. With her absurd VMI, she could weather hard-point assaults for hours.
With some effort, she shifted the catalogue's encyclopaedic entries to another section; scanning through the index until she found the Conjuration-Familiar section. A familiar name greeted her.
Casting Time: 48 Major, 33 Minor Incantation, Preparation
Components: Somatic, Verbal, Glyph
Duration: Persistent, 24-72 Hours
Another Signature Spell of Magister Morden, Conjurer Supreme. A continuation of Morden’s lifelong preference for quasi-magical hounds, the spell Conjures forth a bloodhound capable of tracking a target through any terrestrial terrain. The Hound is capable of combat, varying from tier 3 to tier 4. This spell is best paired with Morden’s other Signature spells, as intended by its creator. As with many of Morden’s spells, this variation remains incomplete due to damage to the original manuscript. Elemental-Shift is therefore not a part of this spell.
Thinking of Henry's tutelage in her 'complete' Morden's Faithful Hound, Gwen quickly located the ‘other spells’ in the series.
Morden’s Bloodhound Pack
Casting Time: 201 Major, 42 Minor Incantation, Preparation
Components: Somatic, Verbal, Glyph (M)
Duration: Persistent, 24-72 Hours
Another Signature Spell of Magister Morden, Master Summoner. A continuation of Morden’s lifelong passion for quasi-magical hounds, the spell Conjures forth up to a dozen bloodhounds. Each hound possesses the equivalent combat ability of tier 4 - 5 Magical Creatures. The hounds are telepathically linked and are capable of employing pack-tactics against single enemies. Morden originally designed the spell for the hunting of Trolls in his homeland of Scotland. A Hound Pack accompanied by a Creature Mage versed in support Magic would find no trouble dealing with a tier 6 - 8 Troll, Hill or Stone Giant, and other Demi-humans of the Giant subclass. As with many of Morden’s spells, this variation remains incomplete due to damage to the original manuscript. Elemental-Shift is therefore not a part of this spell.
Gwen imagined herself commanding a dozen handsome hounds, exhausting a 10-meter giant. Even as a speculative projection, the scene set her heart to quicken with anticipation. The cost for the spell though was a whopping 118 CCs.
She flipped the page. There was one more, a spell Gwen had seen Elizabeth Sobel use once before.
Casting Time: 512 Major, 217 Minor Incantations
Components: Somatic, Verbal, Material
The famous Signature Spell of Magister Morden, Master Summoner. This spell creates a blade of compressed force which is near-invisible. The blade possesses a Vorpal edge capable of passing through most non-magical constructs. The conjured implement can be commanded at will to attack one’s enemies, equating a Dancing Blade with the indestructible attribute. Morden famously used this spell to behead the Stone-King of Dunsinane in a single stroke, breaking the morale of the Giant-kin’s army during the Battle of Perthshire in 1922. As with many of Morden’s spells, this variation remains incomplete due to damage to the original manuscript. Elemental-Shift is therefore not a part of this spell.
But Sobel had used a Void-version, Gwen recollected. It was so sharp that not even Whetu's thousand-latticed Punamu Shield could withstand more than a few blows. She shuddered to think that in combat, the sword could persist for hours, striking every few seconds.
As for its purchase, the cost of the spell was not only astronomical; it also required an application for a face-to-face interview, as well as three referees.
The girls allowed the book to rest against the table. It was a hefty tome.
Wasn't this just like two girls window shopping? Gwen amused herself with the delightful realisation. She was with a girlfriend; they were looking at costly Spells of Mass Destruction and fantasising about using them on their foes while being too frugal to afford any of it.
Rested, Gwen turned to another section of the Spell List and found what Magister Birch had noted earlier.
Shielded Teleportation Circle
Conjuration (5) Abjuration (1)
Casting Time: 70 Major, 11 Minor Incantation, Preparation
Components: Somatic, Verbal, Material
Created by Magister Luis Birch of Fudan University, Shanghai, this variation of the Teleportation Circle spell has an additional component which allows a Party Abjurer to directly protect the Circle’s Glyphs by expanding a half-dome Shield toward the extremity of the Magic Circle. An improved mandala algorithm likewise has given this variant a shorter activation delay.
The spell was listed at 64 CCs, implying that the Magister’s 55 CC offer was a sizeable discount for his students.
She also browsed the utility spells for lower tiers.
Divination had a suite of Detection Spells she could pick up from between 5 and 20 CCs.
Enchantment had several self-buffs, from Heroism to Strengthen Body. The spell she'd likely covet, however, was the tier 2 Hold Person. Lulan said that even herself had been the victim of such an Enchantment.
As for Illusion, a simple command of Phantasmal Sound allowed her to create music like Tao, while Illusion staples like Invisibility hinted at almost limitless opportunities for abuse. Another spell of great interest was Disguise Self, a spell which allowed one to change one's appearance subtlely. Both Invisibility and Disguise Self required a registered Practice Licence grading of M, meaning Military or Para-Military.
Abjuration likewise offered keen options for defence or dispelling.
At 5 PM, Gwen felt again too hungry to continue. She wasn’t keen on testing her resolve this time, and so left the Guanghua Tower to find a restaurant that sold comfort food. Escorted by her Familiars and joined by Lulan, she discovered a congee-hotpot joint and ordered for the table.
When the small cauldron of congee arrived, she piled in Wildland wood-ear mushrooms, a South Sea seafood platter, and other ingredients. When the admixture was cooked into the congee, she dug in with a ferocity that frightened her companion.
Lulan herself was bloated after two bowls, making small talk as an inordinate amount of mana-rich congee flowed into Gwen's stomach.
As Gwen sucked out the creamy filling of a prawn head, Lulan observed her companion’s cheeks take on a pinkish hue.
"Did you er... want one?" Gwen enquired.
Lulan shook her head. Her usual diet consisted of five-grains, pickled vegetables, and steamed flesh of Magical Beasts.
For dessert, they had a salad bowl's worth of tapioca and sago in Wildland coconut-cream. Lulan’s teeth ached when she delivered a spoonful to her mouth, tasting a sweetness as heavenly as it was heavy. She looked over at her friend, who seemed to thrive on the sugary injection, with an ambivalent sense of awe.
“I’ve finally warmed up.” Gwen stretched out her arms. “You had enough, Lulu?”
“I am full, thank you.”
At first, Lulan had demanded they split the bill, but seeing as Gwen had eaten enough for four Lulan(s), she grudgingly accepted Gwen’s generosity.
The girls thus returned to B1, where Lulan bid Gwen goodbye then returned to her new abode in B14, happier than when she'd left it.
As for Gwen, she felt the urge to retreat quickly to her apartment. The congee had been as delicious as anything, but it appeared to disagree with her somewhat fiercely.
* * *
Gwen didn’t show for Transmutation Utility the next day.
When she further did not answer her Message, Mayuree was worried enough to truant, returning to Guoding Road B1.
She knocked on the door of 2204, then became supremely surprised to be greeted by a kindly old woman with an aura of benevolence. It took her a moment to acknowledge that this was Klavdiya Song, Gwen’s grandmother, as the woman had on a white doctor’s coat and wore her hair in a tight, severe bun.
“She’s inside, dear, come in. You are Gwen’s friend from upstairs, Mia, am I right?”
Mayuree nodded. The woman had a face with Gwen’s likeness, though she lacked the height and the haughtiness. As a healer, the grandmother appeared youthful everywhere except for her neck and the skin of her hands, as well as a slight sag to her shoulders which betrayed her real age.
When Mayuree entered the bedroom, she saw that Petra was there too, looking worried.
As for Gwen herself, she was propped up on pillows, looking deathly.
“Oh, Goddess.” Mayuree swallowed, her heart catching in her throat. “Gwen! What happened? Is it your, 'you-know-what' talent?”
“Argh…” Gwen appeared to be in pain. Her once shining eyes formed two thin lines, her whites were wholly bloodshot.
Caliban was coiled up in what looked like a laundry-basket baby-carrier, while Ariel was purring softly by the end of the bed, warming Gwen's feet.
Mayuree touched Gwen's clammy hands, then choked back a sob.
Unexpectedly, Petra chuckled.
Mayuree shot Gwen’s cousin an annoyed look. Gwen's life was not a joking matter! If the sorceress had been consumed inside out by the Void, she could have died then and there. If Gwen were to perish, what would happen to herself? Who was going to be her ‘saviour’?
“I…” Gwen grimaced, too troubled to speak. “Petra, explain-”
“Gwen!” Mayuree urged her friend to remain in bed. “What can I do? I can get anything, Ancient Ginseng! Life Lotus! Just let me know! I got crystals!”
“Calm down, Mayuree.” Petra rose from her seat, her face devoid of worry. “Gwen’s not sick from her magic. She’s got food poisoning.”
Mayuree looked from Gwen to Petra, then to Gwen again.
“Too much junk food, too quickly. There’s not enough vitality even in Wildland ingredients, so she over-ate. Her physical body couldn’t take all the gunk she was stuffing into it. The food around Fudan has far too much NoM ingredients, sugar, salt, oil, soy sauce, Lord knows what else. That and I'd dare say she ate the seafood in that congee a little too soon, or maybe it was the mushroom, who knows?”
“Oh…” Gwen groaned. “It's like there's two roos boxing in my gut.”
Mayuree felt as though ten bags of rice had been lifted off her chest.
“What does she need?”
“Essence, for the lack of a better word. She needs to feed the Void.”
“Like…” Mayuree looked over at Gwen. "You know..."
“Yes, I know about it,” Petra affirmed that they were on the same page. “That or survive on a steady diet of Wildland fruits, the rare ones.”
That would be several hundred HDMs a meal, assuming one a week, Mayuree calculated. That’s also assuming Gwen’s appetite does not grow with her mastery. Not bad, Mayuree thought. It seemed like fair upkeep for such a preciously rare talent.
Gwen meanwhile, was in pain for both herself and her piggy-bank.
She had acquired via looting, gambling, and other less than sustainable means a total wealth of three to four thousand HDMS, together with Magic Items worth much more, but which she could not possibly trade away. It was the classic problem of having wealth, but not the liquid currency by which to invest nor expand.
Perhaps, as her babulya and Jun had stated, it was time to diversify herself into Adventuring or Dungeons Crawling. There was a verdant buffet out there, one which she could partake at her leisure. The minimum attendance for a course to pass was 10 out of 13 weeks, though further absences could be negotiated pending a student’s results in the finals. With her grades, it shouldn’t be difficult to take a week or a day or two out of her theory-classes such as Economics or Management, to tramp and trudge around the Wildlands with the Fudan’s outdoor Clubs.
When Petra had discovered her faint-headed and famished in the morning, The Mineral Mage had immediately infused her cousin with a Lesser Restoration. Serendipitously, it was the one which she’d kept initially for Lulan after the girl returned from the Astoria vomiting seven ways to Shanghai.
Nonetheless, the ordeal was an experience and a valuable one. Gwen now knew the extent of the debilitation brought by her deficiency in ‘essence’. She’d been fully prepared to consume her remaining Fructum Vitae as well, though babulya’s timely arrival had prevented that, anticipating her troubles, though not the source of it.
Thanks to a further infusion of healing energies from her babulya, Gwen’s deficiency of vitality was momentarily replenished, kicking her Druidic Essence with the necessary agitation to multiply. If there was a valuable lesson learned here, it was that mortal food was insufficient in keeping up with the demands of her Void-tainted physical body. She could not sustain herself by eating non-stop unless she was willing to subsist, like the fabled Elves, upon the fruits and produces of the Wildland.
That was why after thorough physical examination, her babulya happily blurted out somewhat amused, that the pain Gwen was feeling wasn’t the hungering Void consuming her living flesh from inside out, sapping her of all vitality. Instead, it was the destructive and volatile mix of oily stir-fry, hot rich soup, and icy dessert pounding at her digestive organs which brought on the episode.
“Keep a healthier diet.” Her Babulya motioned for Petra. “Dear, you keep an eye on Gwen. She is only allowed healthy and hearty food until after Saturday.”
Petra stood to attention. Klavdiya then turned to Gwen.
“Call Kumiko, dear. I don’t care what Wen thinks. We’re getting you fed.”