Kumiko was the first to arrive at the staff training hall. By the time Klavdiya and her throng of youngsters had arrived, she was ready to go. Magister Wen had by then been informed by Gwen's grandmother of their plans.
“I am having Kumiko nourish Gwen,” Klavdiya had informed her friend and colleague before they left the apartment; her statement short and abrupt.
“Of course, we all want what's best for her.” Magister Wen’s reply came after a few minutes, her voice measured and calm. "I am in a meeting, do you need me to observe? I can be there in an hour."
"No need, we'll take care of it." Klavdiya's tone lost some of its terseness. "Thanks, Marie."
When Gwen struggled to outfit herself, flailing about like a fish, her cousin intervened. Petra expended a cube of Enhanced Strength, then effortlessly princess-carried Gwen, sweatpants and all, down the levitation platform, ignoring her feeble protests. The parade drew amused and curious looks as they moved, lead by Kladviya, trailed by ferret on Death Worm cavalry.
When they arrived at the training hall with her reddening like a beetroot from head to toe, Petra finally allowed Gwen to stand on her own two feet.
“That was entirely unnecessary.” Gwen was sufficiently energised by the rush of blood, though standing so suddenly made her woozier than she had anticipated.
“If you eat all that junk again and have another episode, I’ll do that again,” Petra promised her mirthfully, but her eyes were entirely serious. “I am taking Babulya’s advice to heart, fair warning, Cousin. Hope you like your lightly salted meat and vegetables.”
Gwen groaned. It wasn’t as though she had intended to OD on street food. She had to eat, and it was far easier buying whatever tasted good. Bloody oath, she still had a Beggar Chicken in her ring!
“Walls of Force are in place,” Magus Kumiko notified them helpfully. “We can begin anytime.”
“Babulya, can you give me a pick me up before I feed Caliban?”
That was another caveat Gwen was anticipating. If she was sufficiently diminished, the vital cost of a Consumption might just wipe her out before Caliban could be empowered.
Gladly, her babulya provided the extra shot of invigorating positive energy.
Magus Kumiko called out incantations in quick succession, filling the Force Cube with a flaring burst of silvery Conjuration. When the light solidified, the gathered Mages were staring at a befuddled Wildland boar.
Caliban audaciously rubbed up against the invisible panes of the wall, causing the boar to immediately go berserk. It rushed the Wall of Force and struck the pane with such resounding force that it split its nose and broke off a tusk, sending a splatter of dried mud against the surface.
Clever worm, Gwen thought.
Gwen re-summoned Caliban inside the Force Cube, giving it the command to consume from her the pound of flesh required for it to assume the Gila form.
In the next moment, Caliban teleported in as a giant nine-foot tall bipedal Gila, its skin dark and tenebrous and its fore-claws each ten inches long. When Gwen readied herself for the backlash, she found that her vitality had not diminished, not even by a single mote.
Caliban’s internal stores! She recalled what Magister Wen had pointed out during their first session with those two men from the PLA and the Pudong Tower. Caliban could store excess vitality as Void-matter within itself. Did this mean it no longer used her life force as a battery?
Her curiosity became disrupted by a sudden bout of action.
With neither her explicit instruction nor command, Caliban launched itself toward the cowering boar. With a single swipe, it tore inch-wide gashes across the boar’s mud-caked hide, splattering the panes with fresh arterial gouts of vermilion.
Incensed by the injury, the boar became enraged, entirely ignoring its flesh wound. It dug in its heels and charged, trying to cannonball Caliban with its heaving mass. Caliban waited until the last moment to suddenly frog leap, urged by Gwen's rather purposeless outcry of 'dodge it!'. As it sailed over the charging beast, its limbs impossibly twisted as though they possessed no cartilage, then dug into the spinal ridges atop the mud-covered swine. When the boar further attempted to dash Caliban against the floor, Gwen’s creature landed, tearing out a chunk of flesh from the swine’s neck so large as to make the audience wince.
A torrent of thick blood poured from the creature, sending it crashing against the further wall, leaving a bloody skid mark several meters long.
Caliban roared once or twice, then opened its maw impossibly wide.
Even as the oinking creature defecated in terror, Caliban's contracting tentacles were cramming the boar headfirst into its open mouth, swallowing the swine wholesale.
* * *
“Bravo!” Magus Kumiko applauded Gwen.
Gwen stared slack-jawed and sick to her core at her Familiar.
What-the-shit? Her mind reeled and spun, a thousand and one paranoias playing across her standing hair follicles. She had not given Caliban a single command! Of its own free will, it had executed an Onslaught then finished off the boar with a Consume. The whole time, she hadn’t given it a single mental command. She hadn't! She was thinking it, but no explicit instruction had issued from her lips! What did that mean? Did Caliban feel no need to obey her if she was no longer its battery? She felt like a jilted bride!
A freelance Caliban was more dangerous than-
A wave of ecstasy struck Gwen's depleted body. The rain after a prolonged drought. The vitality from a tier 3 Tusker-Charger was nothing compared to Nephres Zalaam, but it was palpable. She held on, riding the wave of pleasure without being swallowed by the sensation. The euphoria came and went after several heartbeats, allowing her to gather her wits quickly.
“Caliban, return!” she commanded, expecting the worst.
To her complete and utter surprise - Caliban came bounding back like a nightmarish labrador retriever, its goofy toad-face sagging as its jowls drooled from the contraction.
As it approached, it even turned back into its docile serpent form.
Caliban coiled itself against her ankles, purring, happy that its stomach had experienced nourishment so soon.
“How do you feel now?” her babulya asked, watching her face flush with colour.
To the others, a notable transfusion had taken place. Gwen's hazel eyes reclaimed their beautiful lustre. Her dermis was once more tender and soft, her hair glossy and dynamic. From a wilting anaemic, she had taken on the likeness of one in the bloom of youth.
“Once a week,” Klavdiya notified Magus Kumiko.
“Hai, once a week.” The Magus bowed reflexively toward the Senior Director.
"No more diets," Klavdiya sternly informed her granddaughter. "This elastic vitality of yours, coming and going every other week, surely it can't be good for you."
Gwen was then advised to return to bed. She might appear to be hale, but appearances were deceiving when it came to health. Her indigestion wasn't something that could be solved by vitality. Having lived an evil diet, Gwen could only hope that her revitalised Druidic Essence could provide the remedy she required.
For now, the rooting hog of gluttony had been put to rest.
Gwen would forgo Economics.
As her babulya had said, "You've done enough for today."
* * *
Gwen felt well enough to attend Professor Ma’s class.
Richard had returned from his quests in the Hangzhou region, happy to receive his share of HDMs and the loan of her Opa’s Medium Storage Ring. When she further informed him of the additional CCs they received from Jun, the young man was ecstatic.
“I’ll have to thank him,” Richard declared. “What do you think he would like for a gift?”
Gwen honestly had no idea. It seemed Jun knew far more about her than she did about him. Maybe in their trip together, they would get to know one another a bit more informally as uncle and niece.
By the end of the lecture, Professor Ma issued new homework - the students must produce a 6000 word report on their experiences in the Districts, reflection on what they had learned and gained through walking and working in a place where NoMs were the norm.
Though a groan emitted from the crowd, the report was no trouble for Gwen. She could likely hammer out- 'write' out the sixteen-page document in a single night.
A pair of small and feminine hands slid around her waist in an overtly friendly gesture. Gwen turned to see Mayuree blinking her chestnut eyes, her lashes meeting like two petals of a Venus Flytrap.
“Can you help me out?” the Diviner begged. “I foresee I will fail without your help!”
For the sake of academic conduct, Gwen knew she should have refused, but she owed Mayuree so many dinners and lunches. Sometimes, Gwen felt like an ungrateful cat, returning nightly to Mayuree’s loft for watering and feeding, only to disappear after the meal. Surely a little ghostwriting could go a long way in repaying the girl’s generosity. She would make sure Mayuree understood every word.
“Okay,” she agreed, catching a dirty glance from Kitty. “But you’re the one doing the handwriting.”
“Pufft, handwriting,” Mayuree scoffed, hugging her tightly. “I’ve got a Dancing Pen!”
* * *
Gwen was working with Mayuree through her report, watching jealously as the Dancing Pen produced flawless and florid scripts across the parchment when Petra Messaged.
“Call for you.” Her cousin’s Message resounded through her device. “From an Elvia Lindholm? Your friend in London? We spoke last time.”
When Mayuree looked up to ask if this was Elvia, AKA Evee, Gwen was gone.
“Did she just…”
Mayuree looked around, bewildered, but there was no one to answer her. Kitty was writing her report in her room. Marong remained away for business at home. Lei was in her pantry-room.
Did Gwen teleport through the floor?
* * *
“JESUS!” Petra jumped when Gwen appeared next to her in a flash of Conjuration mana. “Gwen! Use the Lev! It’s dangerous to Dimension Door indoors!”
That much was true. There was too much clutter, and the spell wasn’t exact. If Gwen had materialised into something, the ‘shunt’ moving her physical form to the closest displaceable point could cause significant injury. At worst, she could twist or sprain a limb from the whiplash.
“ACCEPT!” Gwen punched the glyphs. “Sorry Pats! Won’t happen again!”
The illusory projection began to manifest.
Petra retreated to the kitchen to make herself a cuppa; she had recently found a vendor selling grapefruit and citrus-peel Ceylon. As the pleasant scent filled the living room, Elvia’s projection began to move.
The blonde girl appeared even more angelic than last time she’d seen her. Against all improbability, her healer’s aura could be palpably felt even across time and space.
The girls exchanged ‘phantom’ hugs.
“How are you? How're things? What 'mission' did you go on?”
“Oh, it was incredible! Horrible- but also incredible! How about you, Gwen?”
“I’ve got a story to tell. I am telling ya,” Gwen informed her erstwhile companion. “How are you doing for credits? These calls ain't cheap.”
The Long-Range Messages were double charged. The Telecommunication division must be up to their necks in HDMs.
“I am doing lots of good! I’ve worked plenty, earned lots, and I’ve never spent the stash Alesia loaned me.” Elvia familiarised Gwen with her financials, her ocean-blue eyes alive with happiness.
Petra filled her tea flask, then left for the bedroom. There was little privacy anyway, and Gwen wouldn’t have minded her watching, but the Mineral Mage knew not to overstep their familiarity. Boundaries didn't have to be pragmatic. Sometimes, it was a matter of respect.
Gwen returned a curt, affirming nod of appreciation; Petra acknowledged the gesture, then left Gwen to her angelic healer.
“You go first!” Gwen adjusted the projector so that she could sit without the sensors cropping off her forehead.
“Okay!” Elvia leaned in closer as well. The girls were now seated as though they were intimately sitting at a coffee table. “I told you last time that Miss Rothwell, that’s Emily Rothwell of the er… Rothwell family - took me under her wing, right? Well, I started my work for the Student Representative Council...”
By her admission, Elvia’s charmed life continued under the shelter of Emily Greyson Rothwell, the darling daughter of Lord John Rothwell, the Duke of Somerset. Having taken on the duties of secretary and personal assistant to the 'Lady Duchess' of Nightingale, she enjoyed unfettered access to the considerable resources of the third most prestigious Healer’s college in the world.
As for the semester, Elvia attended classes without incident, enjoying the friendship of peers she had acquired since arriving at London. She passed her exams with flying colours with a little help from her instructors, who took pity on the fact that she had to ‘suffer’ through a Frontier public high school. When the time came for practicums, Elvia was assigned to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, one of the most coveted placements in London.
As its namesake inferred, the fabled GOS was the premier hospital for the care of children anywhere in the world’s Capital cities, with an impressive roster of 1 Meister and 9 Magister-level Clerics presiding over its Board of Directors and Department Heads.
Those who intern at GOS would graduate not only with the most praise-worthy referees - but also a network of connections that extended as far the House of Lords, whose number made up four of the ten seats.
“Wait, let me guess,” Gwen tried to extrapolate what may have taken place, mindful of Elvia’s prior history. “One of the Directors took a fancy to you?”
“How did you know! You’re a Diviner!” Elvia cooed, giggling with glee as Gwen returned a meek smirk. “It was Lady Astor who found me wandering around the ward! She’s a Viscountess. Gwen, you should have seen her house at Cliveden! It’s HUGE! I mean, it's beyond huge! There are ten bedrooms in the upper level and a French Dining room and a library with all kinds of Spells and first editions manuscripts and there’s an entire lower level for the NoM Servants and the Butler was a Magus who cooks…”
After a good ten minutes of Downton Abbey, Elvia edition, the girl finally moved on to her placement. After several weeks in the hospital serving as assistant to one Doctor or another, she was sent out with a crew to the Frontier counties to assist in the effort of repelling Demi-human invaders.
Gwen had no idea what the ethnographic makeup of England was, but from Elvia’s tales of Trolls, Hobs, and the ‘Celtic Elves’ - commonly known as the Wood Elves; she guessed they had a lot of Demi-humans.
“We got to meet one of their healers! It was incredible! Amazing! Kiki took to the Druidess right away! They're soooo beautiful, all of them look like models. They have these incredibly cool tattoos on their faces, which turned out to be Enchantments!”
The story was quickly moving beyond Gwen’s comprehension. As every minute was another HDM, she opted to nod and smile as Elvia delivered her fantastic tale. What Gwen could discern after twenty-minutes of her superlative ‘OOOs’ and ‘Ah!’ was that Elvia served in a Field Hospital safely embedded in a Green Zone for almost a week while the benign Demi-humans, aided by the Humans, pushed back the ‘savage’ Demi-humans.
“In the end, only two of our Mages died,” Elvia announced proudly, her voice growing more distant and hollow.
“That’s wonderful.” Gwen cheered her on. “I am sure you did all you could.”
“They were brought in too late, all we could do was ease their pain.” Elvia’s smile was wane. “Did you know only Mages ranked Magus and above meet the criterion for deploying higher-tier healing spells in a triage centre?”
“Now I know,” Gwen affirmed Elvia’s jaded address. According to Elvia, reagents for advanced healing spells were finite, with a bottle-necked supply restricted by trade with the Wildland Elves.
Immediately, Gwen thought of her cubed Regenerate. She didn’t regret her investment in Lulan though. The now lucid Sword Mage was proving to be a good friend with a clear head. She wondered if this restriction was also the reason why Lulan’s Clan never sought out healing for her, though from the way she was treated, fear and malice was far likelier the culprit.
Elvia’s floral sprite made an appearance without warning. It looked sturdier than when Gwen had last seen it. With its folded leaf resending a skullcap and its white stems forming its limbs, it was quickly taking on the form of a future dryad.
Caliban and Ariel made themselves known.
“Kii! KI!” Kiki fell out of sight.
“It’s scared of Caliban.” Elvia reappeared, the petal of her mouth issuing forth a delirious string of laughter.
“Evee, I miss you and Yue so much,” Gwen confessed, thinking how the girl was so close, yet so far away. What she would give to give Elvia a flesh and blood hug about now.
“I miss you too, Gwen.” Elvia’s eyes became misty. She swallowed hard, then perked up. “Tell me about what you did since we last talked.”
“Alight, so the whole thing started after Mid-term Exams…” Gwen delivered her recent adventure, readjusted for PG viewing.
* * *
“I am sorry…” Elvia’s eyes were swollen after Gwen told her the truth. “I didn’t know…”
Unlike Yue, who shared a link with Alesia and Gunther, Elvia had never been privy to the depth of Gwen’s depraved talent. When Gwen finally told her that she had Consumed a human being, Elvia was stunned for the duration of a HDM.
“Its okay, if it's you, I know you’ll do the right thing,” Elvia finally managed to ingest Gwen’s tale, though from her expression the Void was a hard truth to digest.
Gwen then reminded Elvia about Edgar, expanded on the Ravenport ordeal, and of Elizabeth Sobel and their connection to Nephres.
“Oh! My! God!” Elvia touched four dainty fingers to her peach-hued lips. French tips, Gwen noted, life was good in Europe. “Lord Ravenport?! Mycroft Ravenport? He’s a Duke in the House of Lords!”
“What do you know about him?” Gwen's eagerness was breathless.
“I don’t know,” Elvia confessed, crestfallen. “I’ve only ever seen him in the papers and on vid-casts. I can ask Miss Rothwell though.”
“What’s he like in the British media?”
“The London Gazette had a picture of him just a few days ago. Tall and dark? I suppose? He looked really gaunt, kind of scary and miserly too. The papers said he’s a part of the Tories - that means the Conservative Party. I think one of the articles said that he was all for purity and wanted the Commonwealth to return to the old days of the Britannic Empire.”
“That’s about what I pictured too.” Gwen bit her lip worriedly. “Is he influential?”
“I think so?” Elvia evidently cared nothing for politics, though a reasonable education wasn't out of the question. “He’s on the papers a lot! Always looming over someone and looking incredibly upset. The cartoons often make fun of him and his Party.”
Roo’s balls, Gwen swore under her breath. When someone could only be insulted in satire, you knew they were dangerous. That can’t be good, especially when the Ravenport Sr gets the message that she was the one responsible for Ravenport Jr’s demise. Didn't Gunther hint that her father crushed his balls? Bloody Oath. She was floating up shit creek without a paddle. Was she safe in Shanghai? From what she knew, the tier 1 Capitals loathed Mages from other cities barging into their territory. She just hoped that China had enough tension with London to not offer the Lord a reprieve in the form of an extradition treaty.
“Well, I gotta grill one chop at a time," Gwen replied dejectedly. "I guess I'll see what happens after tomorrow. I guess there's no point worrying about Puritan Sr when I gotta murder a guy in cold blood tomorrow for Spellcraft-”
“I don’t care!” Elvia announced suddenly, her blue eyes defiant and glowing. “I don’t care what you do. You’re always going to be the Gwen I met from Blackwattle.”
Hearing Elvia's shrill proclamation of irresponsible affection immediately turned her frown upside down.
“Thanks, Evee. You don’t know how much that means to me. I’ll do my best to keep walking on the straight, sane, and narrow, for you guys.”
“I’ll visit! I’ll be your healer! We’ll never be apart again!” Elvia promised idealistically, her aching heart clouding her judgement. “Wait for me! Three years, right? I should graduate in under three years! I’ll come to find you in Shanghai.”
“Okay.” Gwen reached out and touched her fingers to Elvia’s phantom appendages. With a hook and pull, the two girls made a pinky-promise across space and time. “That’s a promise.”
Elvia nodded fiercely.
“Alright, time to go. I got a helluva day tomorrow,” Gwen announced. “If possible, I’ll Message you and let you know the results. I'll think of you when I murd- er- or maybe not. Either way, knowing you're around, I'll be fine.”
“You have to! I’ll be waiting! I am not going anywhere until you do!” Elvia’s white face filled the projection.
“I promise. Good night, Evee. I'll call or Message.”
Elvia kept nodding, mumbling promises until Gwen hung up.
Gwen stared at the projector as though in a trance.
“You alright?” Petra met her at the door of the bedroom, dressed in singlet and panties, evidently ready to sleep.
Gwen turned her gaze upward, then nodded.
“Rest well. I’ll wake you 0800 sharp,” Petra announced. “Master Messaged me earlier, its all arranged. We’ll be going to Tilanqiao Prison first thing.”
“The…” Gwen felt her scalp crawl. "The 'Blue-Basket Prison'?"
“Yeah.” Petra instinctively reached out to touch Gwen’s increasingly clammy hands. She hadn’t expected it to be in Tilanqiao either, it was not a place any Mage wished to ever see in their lives.
Even Gwen knew about the infamous Prison, located in the Hongkou District. The compound was initially built by the British Mageocracy during the Colonial Occupation, and then later taken over by the Ministry of Public Security. Currently, it served as a nightmarish symbol of the shadow cast over Shanghai by the Ministry of State Security and the Internal Security Bureau. The stories that escaped from the prison were pure nightmare fuel.
It was said to be the harshest Mage prison in the world, second only to the now-defunct Alcatraz in the United States. False imprisonment, extortion, torture, the murder of political prisoners, organ harvesting - there was little that escaped Tilanqiao Prison when it came to humanitarian crises. It was a five-star fortress of atrocities, worthy of Orwell’s Mini-Luv moniker.
THAT was where they were going?
Gwen shivered, thinking of what horrors tomorrow would bring, on top of what horrors she would bring.
"Come on, let's get you to bed," Petra urged her.
When Gwen finally came to lucidity and self-awareness, she was already in bed, and Petra had returned to her room. Shivering, she slid her body snugly into the silky cotton.
“Evee… Evee… Eve…”
Gwen invoked the mantra of peaceful sleep.
But try as she might, Hypnos refused to give his blessing.