The rest of the afternoon was spent in quiet relaxation at a garden cafe.
Extraction from the prison was more expedient than the trio's entrance, with Jun and the Warden escorting their guests through yet more twisted side passages. From what Gwen could discern, the whole prison was specially built so that any imperfect knowledge would result in escapees becoming trapped or lost in the prison’s depth.
"No Teleportation Circles exist for going out," the warden informed them.
Gwen figured she wouldn't want to be Teleporting in either.
Though the grotesque execution remained a recent memory, their desire for discussing Choi’s mercy-killing extinguished once the group exited Tilangqiao's austere interior. Jun parted from the girls, and they caught Klavdiya's chauffeured sedan toward the Bund.
Once the smell of blood had been sufficiently diluted by a precisely brewed flask of Buddha's Tears, babulya griped that both of the girls did not yet have boyfriends.
“Gwen's still a lass, but Petra, you’ve been here for almost three years now. You're nineteen and then some!”
“I am not interested in relationships.” Petra shrugged, sipping her high-grade Jasmine.
“I hope Wen’s asexual obsession with Spellcraft isn't rubbing off on you.”
Despite apparent lack of any hilarity, the trio chortled and snickered. There was an inane hysteria about it all, as though the women were drunk on laughter.
“No, babulya, that’s not it.” Petra had to return her cup on the table to avoid spilling the tea. “I am more interested in finishing my thesis on the Spell Cubes, I guess.”
Their trilling twitter drew attention from the other guests, some amused and others annoyed.
"I saw a guy asking after you, Baili? I believe? He looked like a top bloke. Why not give him a chance?" Gwen poked at her cousin mischievously.
“How about you?” Petra poked back. “There are lots of rumours, you know. I can dismiss Kusu, that guy’s a sister-holic, but how about Dai? His cousin was very upfront about how much the Princeling of Nantong asked after you.”
“Just a man who owes me a favour.” Gwen brushed Petra’s riposte aside with a deft parry. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
“The Fung Clan has a good reputation,” babulya cut in. “They shouldered the cost of developing Nantong and even opened up their Clan’s secrets to the Towers. A very progressive group of Clanners, a new wave, if you will.”
The girls went on talking and babulya chimed in now and then. They paraded around the prickly perimeter of the morning’s events like women circling a barrel cactus, afraid that a single slip would break the skin and draw blood.
The tea was refilled by a NoM Waitress several times. The triple-tier of petite-fours disappeared, as did the black-sesame chiffon cake, a house special.
“I better head back,” babulya informed the girls. “I bet Guo’s got a long list of grievances to launder.”
“I understand, thanks for everything, Babulya.” Gwen offered to pay for the meal, but their babulya would not have it.
“Take care of her, Petra. Gwen, take care of Petra as well.”
“We will, Babulya,” the girls replied in unison.
The military saloon arrived a minute later.
The girls watched their grandmother go.
“It’s still early,” Petra noted, reading Gwen’s face for an outbreak of sudden distress.
“I want to learn Illusion spells.” Gwen’s words caught the Mineral Mage by surprise. She had thought her cousin would mope and simmer in misery for a few days at least.
“To the library then? Reserved access offers common incantations from Tier 1 to 3.”
“You beauty! We’ll go there first, and then to the Henglong Laboratory.” Gwen stood from the chair and unwrinkled her clothes. “I want to surprise Tao!”
* * *
Gwen and Petra discussed viable Illusion spells as Magister Wen carried out the necessary measurements on Gwen’s new biometrics.
Though not at the level of her babulya’s lab, Wen had loaned an Indexing Engine from Klavdiya’s hospital to save Gwen from continually moving between Henglong and the Second Experimental.
“1.81 to 1.85 is what I am seeing,” Magister Wen noted, scribbling into her data slate. “Congratulations Gwen, you’re an Illusionist now.”
“Thank you, Magister. I appreciate your patience and experience.”
“It’s my job.” Gwen couldn’t help but detect a sardonic ring to the Magister’s voice, though she chose to disregard the Magister's passive-aggressive displeasure. A line had been drawn in the sand, and now the proper thing was for the both of them to respect their distance. As Jun had said, give and take, nothing more.
Petra said nothing as Gwen and her Master conversed, sidestepping one another with overt politeness like two sabre-dancers.
Gwen thanked the Magister again.
“I’ll be drafting my reports to the Towers. Goodnight.”
Wen told Petra to lock up, then left the girls to their devices.
“Too bad you’re not quite tier 2,” Petra waited until her Master was gone. “The good Illusion spells are all 7 to 9 Major incantations or more. Invisibility, Mirror Image, Magic Mouth, the works.”
“I think I’ll have my hands full.” Gwen smirked. “Can’t believe there was a spell called Invisible Familiar.”
“I feel so sorry for whoever has to deal with Caliban now more than ever.” Petra grinned, shaking her head. When her cynical laughter ceased, she shivered despite herself.
Her cousin had almost ripped the page from the book when she saw the inscription for the Creature Mage support spell.
Casting Time: 7 Major, 2 Minor Incantation
Components: Somatic, Verbal
You wrap your Familiar in a shroud of invisibility. This spell functions as a Lesser Invisibility when applied to one’s Conjured Familiar. The Familiar is near impossible to spot until it enters combat form. When in docile form, the spell remains active until the caster dismisses its effect, or is OOM.
Combat functionality aside, having Caliban being invisible was the most useful thing Gwen could imagine. It would do wonders for her interactions with others if she wished to have Caliban manifested out of sight.
As with all Invisibility-spells, she needed to register an application at the Tower to be ‘sanctioned’ with its possession. Should she be discovered in the future with an ‘illicit’ possession of Disguise Self, Invisibility and other similar 'incognito' incantations, she may be paying a more meaningful visit to Tilangqiao.
Other than Invisible Familiar, Gwen made requests for Clarion Call, Ventriloquism, Auditory Hallucination and Disguise Self.
‘Disguise Self’ in particular, Gwen was very keen on adding to her repertoire. The spell allowed for minor alterations of her attire, the colour of her hair and eyes, and her general ‘aura’ to be more eye-catching or discrete. The description further informed her that the true version of the incantation - Greater Disguise Self - was censured in all Tower controlled regions. It was the same ordeal with the Transmutation spell, Polymorph Self. Both the civil government under the CCP and the Mageocracy under the PLA and Pudong Towers discouraged any magic which would complicate the identification of individual Mages.
With her new utility spells accounted for and her biometrics sent off by Wen, it was time for the girls to retire.
* * *
Elvia had been informed, as had her siblings-in-craft in Sydney.
Alesia in her usual bravado told Gwen not to mind.
“Shit happens,” the callous Battle Mage informed her. “Unless you’re on the Frontier, all the tier 1 big-wigs rise to the top by stepping on human corpses. Don't sweat it. Fuck ‘em, just so long as you’re alright.”
Gunther berated his fairer, though far more hot-headed half, then held a serious heart to heart with his Master's youngest. Gwen's paternal brother-in-craft then explained with great patience, that her choice showed great maturity, and that he was proud of her decision to face Choi head-on.
“I am actually far more worried about Yue. I hope she doesn’t take after Alesia too much…” He sighed, clearly exhausted from his work as Chief Administrator. “Look, we should get going. Gwen, you’re the one who enlightened Master about Noblesse Oblige and Militant Pacifism, as we are your siblings, we’re behind you. Do not doubt your choices, do what you think is necessary. Master trusted you because he saw something in you. You’re not going to become Elizabeth Sobel.”
Thank you! Gwen's fear for her sibling-in-crafts' disapproval disappeared like snowmelt. Thank the guiding stars for Gunther and Alesia, even if her sister-in-craft possessed the emotional quotient of a yam.
As for the absent Yue, she was ‘living it up’ on the Mermen Front, kicking ass and taking names. Already the soldiers were calling her “Little Red”. The moniker alluded to Yue's Master of course, but the title amused Gwen. She felt sorry for any Big Bad Mermen Yue might run across. She would probably set her grandmother's house on fire, then watch it, the farm, and the surrounding bush burn.
“She almost at tier 5 Evocation,” Alesia intoned proudly. “Her Transmutation is coming along as well. Nothing like death and danger to get your tiers up.”
Having thus received both confirmation and affirmation of her milestone, Gwen then threw herself into her studies with a frightful passion. In addition to her classes, she practised and trained in the early morning and late afternoon, varying her Schools of Magic.
Illusion proved to be a mixed bag. The Spells she had acquired for utility worked perfectly. As for the ones she had learned to impress Tao, they proved far too challenging without a tutor.
Clarion Call was an easy spell she learned in a day, projecting her voice until she could be heard almost a kilometre away. When she tried the spell in her private training chamber, she had nearly deafened herself.
Ventriloquism was more difficult. At higher levels of expertise, it was used explicitly in conjunction with other Illusion incantations which created sounds both real and falsified. All Gwen could do was throw her voice a dozen meters, which made for little more than an impressive party trick.
Auditory Hallucination was the spell which proved to be her first hurdle. As the incantation manifested, she was meant to visualise, for the lack of a better word, the sound she wished to generate. What she lacked, however, was an ability to translate the ‘sound’ within her mind into spells. It was as though she was feeding analogue signals into a digital system. After a few dozen attempts, she managed to mimic her speech. As for the music within her mind, the spell either ‘failed’, or produced a jumble of sounds which jarred her ears.
Baby steps - think of it as learning a new instrument, Gwen narrated to herself. Everything takes time, especially when she was using the 'spell' as a means of translating ‘thought’ to ‘sound’.
On Thursday, she received the green light for Invisible Familiar but lost her appeal for Disguise Self. The reason was that the board did not deem her request ‘productive’ and that the spell was ‘unnecessary’ for a Fudan Student. Furthermore, an addendum suggested that she was welcome to re-apply once she has 'chosen' a career path.
The operative clauses did not escape Gwen.
It was unlikely that the Towers would consent to spells like Invisibility, Disguise, Alter-self, and other spells common to espionage for someone in her shoes. They probably had their hands full just tracking her Teleportation Ring on a daily basis. Never mind that these spells would easily fail muster under a pair of diagnostic goggles or a Dispelling Ward. Any measure to aid her evasion was a measure too far.
Of course, she could ask for help from Gunther or Jun, but Gwen declined the temptation. There was no need to rock the boat - yet.
* * *
Magister Wen continued to receive her fortnightly allotment of Void and Druidic essence.
Their relationship had changed since Guo's intervention, with the Magister keeping a respectful distance from both Gwen and her babulya. Petra meanwhile, played the monkey-in-the-middle, trying to soothe tensions.
The poor apprentice may as well be pushing through wool.
Where Wen’s snide remarks were jagged crystal and pointed criticism, Gwen’s politeness was weightless cotton. Sometimes, the air between Master and cousin was thick enough to spread with a butter knife.
Just the other morning, Petra found no less than two strands of white hair on her brush.
* * *
With Gwen's courses entering their final weeks, her workload drastically increased.
Magister Birch began to introduce elements of Divination into his curriculum, dividing the class into those doomed to rely on devices, and those gifted enough to progress to the next stage. Gwen took to Divination like an Undine to water, making the Magister smack his lips thoughtfully as she Dimension Doored to and fro, masterfully displacing herself from beacon to beacon.
As for Evocation, Magus Young made good on her promise of showing off ‘Spirited’ Evocation. Each of the students received a chance to ‘experience’ the IFF possessed by the lucky few. Lu volunteered when it was Gwen’s turn, skilfully arcing blue flashes of plasma around her person to strike targets behind or beside her. When she enviously fluttered her lashes at Wanli, the hawk's Master demonstrated a new mastery. Unlike his first lesson with Instructor Chen, he could now utilise the hawk’s AOE without harming allies caught in its range.
For Gwen herself, she worked on pushing her Evocation toward Tier 5. Without Caliban’s aid, it would take her at least until the middle of next year. The delay would be used to fortify her existing talents. She would focus on the efficacy and speed of her Evocation incantations.
As for new spells, Magus Young recommended the late Magister Larsen’s Ball Lightning.
“Until you get a Spirit, 'seeking' spells are likely your staple within a mass-melee," the Evoker advised.
The cost of the spell was 72 CCs, not to mention Gwen lacked the tiers necessary for the time being.
“You’ll grow into it,” Young informed her. “Think of it as loosening the tier 5 bottleneck.”
Gwen was more so looking forward to self-seeking Void orbs that explode.
Days whizzed by in the blink of an eye.
She had too much to do and too little time.
If there was a solace to her workaholic ethic, the hectic schedule had driven any thoughts of Choi entirely from her mind. She took this as a good thing, for it implied that there was something to be forgotten, rarified as the feeling may be.
She had also uncovered an unexpected boon, proffered by her supernatural vitality. Gwen found that she never suffered from 'true' physical exhaustion. Haggard as she may be after an eight-kilometre campus-circuit, she was up and at em five minutes later. Her only limitation was mental and spell-fatigue, which needed to be cured through sleep and meditation.
By Week 10, Gwen had successively kept Caliban and Ariel manifested for eight days. She submitted the results to Instructor Chen, upon which she received his congratulatory accolades.
“That’s it.” Chen spread his hands. “You’re welcome to keep attending, of course, there are three weeks left, but if you want to progress further, go to the Front. Congratulations on passing the course.”
Gwen insisted there was more to learn, but Chen shook his head.
Ariel had been a sterling example of obedience in the obstacle run; Caliban had scored in the median as well. Gwen thus considered Chen’s words, taking to heart the military man’s advice. The Front loomed large on her list of places to visit, but she would consult with Jun as to whether ‘real’ experience was necessary for her participating in the IIUC.
* * *
Economics moved from Macro to Micro as the term progressed, shifting from the resource trade between the cities, enabled by the mass-freight services between the Frontier and the tier 1 hubs, to individual power brokers.
Cities such as London, with its proximity to friendly Demi-humans, thrived not on mineral wealth, but on essential ingredients and reagents for spells.
Other cities such as Paris and Rome, thrived on lingering vestiges of soft power left over from their dynastic history, retaining unrivalled influence through their institutions.
A particularly interesting place which made her ears perk was the Vatican.
“The ultimate seat of Faith Magic,” the instructor had blatantly stated as though reciting hypnopaedic dot-points. Gwen raised her hand, but Professor Jiang wasn’t a Mage and couldn’t explain the subtler points of Faith Magic.
Faith? The moniker smacked of mysticism. Her babulya had remarked more than once that there was no such thing as Gods. If so, what constituted a Deity? Even in Australia, religion was just that - a public spiritual service. It wasn’t as though the Cardinals and the Bishops flew through the air at the behest of higher powers. Then again, the Frontier had gone so far as to censor Spellcraft textbooks. Lord knows what else the ordinary people of Sydney were kept from knowing.
When she asked Professor Ma, who confessed to desiring her intellectual company, the academic provided some clues.
“Ha! Not even your average Magus would know the answer to that question.” Ma chuckled. “What we know about Faith Magic is that it taps into the collated animus of those who believe in a particular doctrine. It’s an ancient sort of Magic; some say the Egyptian God-Kings were the first pioneers, or the Israelites, though both of those ‘faiths’ have now reduced themselves to more orthodox forms of Spellcraft. I suppose the Christian Church has retained a stranglehold on Faith Magic for some time; they never did lose their seat of power. No conquest, no diaspora, no loss of home or hearth. A few civil-wars though, Luther and all that, but they’ve kept together for the last two thousand years pretty well.”
“How come Fudan doesn’t have a course on Faith Magic?” Gwen enquired.
“What a silly question!” Ma mocked her unworldly conversance. “Isn’t it obvious? There are no state-religions in China! All forms of organised faith are seen as a challenge to the CCP. You know what I think? All magic, in the end, is just Spellcraft. You know what they say, any phenomenon that can’t be explained is always seen as divine providence. That’s why we have Spellcraft; to take us out of the mystical antiquity and into the modern world of reason and rationality. Observable and replicable - that's our motto."
“I see, Sir. Would you happen to know the mechanics behind Faith Magic?”
“You’re barking up the wrong tree.” Ma collated his lecture-notes, just as well that he was alone. None of the other students possessed any desire to keep a NoM Professor company. “Don’t overthink. Focus on what you do know. Your finals are coming up, yes? Don’t get distracted. Excellent essay, by the way. A+. Keep up the good work.”
“How come you know so much about Spellcraft, Sir?” Gwen felt puzzled that neither Birch nor Young had answered her enquiry. Petra knew little to nothing about it either. She had said that Moscow Tower was ambivalent about Faith Magic, though religion held palpable influence across the Russian Frontier, especially in the Faith Capital - St Petersburg.
“I came from a lineage family.” Ma snickered tragically. “What can you do? If the Gods do exist, they’re cruel bastards. I suppose I did pretty well though, all things considered. We can’t all be Void and Lightning, you know.”
The Professor departed after that, leaving Gwen to regret that she had brushed an open wound.
* * *
“Dai would be very pleased if you could join him.” Lu held in his hand an invitation for the heir apparent’s 22nd birthday.
The looks she was getting from those who had seen Lu’s invite was palpably hostile.
“Tell Dai I won’t be able to make it,” Gwen refuted the public invitation loudly, then more quietly, she added in confidence that she would thank Dai personally should a future opportunity arise. “I have a very important excursion coming up, and training for the IIUC tryout, I hope Dai can understand.”
Lu seemed disappointed. The invitation was gifted regardless, in case Gwen ‘changed her mind’.
Gwen was determined not to be tempted though. She had no confidence in the people at these high society gatherings. It was one thing to say she had bad luck, but so far Gwen's encounters with assholes were almost 100%. Either she lived under a blighted star, or she needed more clout to make herself irreproachably unapproachable, especially to those wooing her with questionable designs. With her plate brimming with to-do’s; Gwen had no time to propagate yet more trouble.
The weeks thus rolled by, and soon the time for examination was upon them.
Gwen prepared her mind and body as the countdown struck the final day of August. She had trained with Petra, sparred with Lulan and Kusu, and further polished her skills with Richard ‘tanking’ her endless assault of Evoked and Conjured lightning.
The academic theory was nothing noteworthy; she was a paper tiger - no, Paper Dragon! She just hoped there wouldn’t be Kusu and Lulan 2.0 waiting to challenge her during the practicals.