On Tuesday morn, Gwen set out her schedule while basking in bed like a lounging lizard. She managed to jolt her brain with just enough juice to generate an itinerary:
- Work out a Spell-list with Petra after breakfast.
- Check out her CC balance at the Tower and see what’s for purchase.
- Establish a training schedule between November and early February.
- Try to catch up with Gunther and co.
- Contact Elvia.
Her Message Bracelet pinged.
Petra had called to inform her cousin that Magister Wen had received ‘the good news’ and was thus expecting Gwen’s august presence at the 2nd PLA Hospital.
“Oh.” Gwen's mood instantly fell several fathoms. “Okay, I’ll be there in an hour.”
In her smallclothes, she walked onto the winter-garden to check the weather. With the quiet death of September, Summer had come and gone. Below, the oak and mulberry trees lining University Avenue were transforming into a river of brushed orange and daffodil yellows.
Thinking of the hassle of changing into the hospital gowns, Gwen elected easy ankle-pants and a silk pullover sweater she had bought in Hangzhou that hung loosely over her body. She tied her hair into a knotted bun and rounded the outfit with her peep-toe Hermès. If there was one thing she loved about her insanely expensive magical-shoes, it was that damage-resistant, elementally-attuned, self-cleaning couture could be worn whenever, making the purchase of artisanal goods actually worthwhile.
She took the subway, the same route Petra had shown her but in reverse, picking up a milk-tea on the way. Alighting from Wujiaochang, she then proceeded through the internal stratum of the hospital's megastructure until she reached the lab.
“Miss Song, Magister Wen and Director Song are waiting for you,” a guard informed her politely.
“Cheers, Cheng.” Gwen waved.
Cheng beamed, he had not expected the girl to remember his name.
“Have a nice day, Miss Song.”
Gwen was surprised herself, given the perspicuity of her recall. Even with her babulya’s Clarified Ioun Stone, her memory was hardly eidetic. Was it a condition attributed to her newfound Draconic-essence? They did say Dragons held grudges forever.
She entered the sterile laboratory.
There was Magister Wen, seated by the affinity-machine, her pale crystalline eyes scanning over slates of data placed beside and in front of her.
“Gwen.” She managed a smile, evidently less salty over Guo’s rebuke now that some time had passed. “Welcome back.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.” Gwen nodded curtly, bowing succinctly. “Where’s Grandmother?”
“She’s with Petra.” Wen patted a seat beside her. “Come, sit. Let’s talk.”
Gwen kept her expression as ambiguous as possible as she ‘took a seat’. Her rip-roaring, palpitating heart, however, failed the subtlety test. The distinct impression Gwen felt was that she was seated next to one of those tigers you took a picture with while in Bangkok.
“Come on. I won’t bite.”
Gwen sat, her face a wholesome apple-pink despite her best efforts.
“Look.” Magister Wen cleared her throat. “I am sorry.”
Gwen blinked at the Magister.
“I have allowed my curiosity get the better of me.” Magister Wen extended a hand. “Truce?”
Gwen stared at the hand as though Wen had suddenly shoved a barbed tentacle in her face. She had known that Wen was awkward when it came to things like ‘empathy’, but asking for a ‘pass’ in the aftermath of having Gwen murder a stranger in the name of Spellcraft was a little too strange.
But - she took Wen’s hand anyway.
It took two to tango, and Gwen was confident she wouldn't be cheated again. Like a great statesman once said: "There's an old saying in Tennessee—I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, 'Fool me once, shame on...shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.'
“Of course,” Gwen smiled amiably. “Let’s work together as before. We're both stakeholders, are we not?”
“Very good!” Magister Wen stepped back, then stood awkwardly, unsure of what came next. “That was easier than I’d thought, to be honest. I had anticipated resistance or outright rejection.”
“Nothing so complicated! We're colleagues, and also...” Gwen decided to do a little politicking of her own. “Secretary-General Miao sends his regards.”
Wen visibly paled.
“Yes. Yes indeed.” She forced a cringeworthy smile to her thin lips. "The Secretary's office did say to keep you out of harm's way."
Watching Wen fidget, Gwen regretted borrowing the tiger’s terror, hoping that her spontaneous indiscretion would not make Petra’s tutelage under Wen more awkward than necessary.
The laboratory’s glyph-protected doors opened.
“Gwen, you’re here!” Petra’s voice greeted the two already within the room.
“Gwen, how are you feeling?” The other voice belonged to her babulya.
“Alright!” Wen clasped her hands, interrupting the irksome public display of affection. “Let’s get some numbers!”
Magister Wen stared at the script in her hands with such intensity that one wondered if her colourless, crystalline orbs would fracture.
“Lightning - 6.54.”
“Void - 4.32.”
“Just how many mid-tier Lightning Creatures did you consume?!” Wen’s complexion appeared as though she had enjoyed a glass too many of chardonnay. “You were at 4.8! Your affinity growth is worthy of two decades of dedicated practice!”
“Gwen.” Petra nudged her cousin. “Stop teasing my Master, bring out Ariel, I want to see what it’s giving you.”
“MAO's Tomb!” Wen spluttered. She had known that Gwen had a ‘Kirin-like Familiar’, but the visual confirmation was shocking nonetheless, especially as she had known Ariel in its infancy. In fact, by her recount, only a few weeks ago, Ariel had been a furry marten.
The two girls bit back laughter.
Seeing as Gwen, Petra and even Klavdiya were having a go at her expense; Wen took several seconds to compose herself.
“Petra, help me set the machine up to measure Ariel,” she commanded, putting a hint of steel back into her shaky speech. As one of the very first individuals to encounter and study Gwen, she knew more than anyone else what the girl’s absurd growth portended. Her research with the Void was making steady headway. If she could replicate its effects, a Meistership was assured.
As for their immediate question: If Gwen’s affinity was 6.54, how much of it was courtesy of Ariel?
Spirits did not ‘add’ tiers of affinity in a linear sense. As denizens of their respective elemental Planes, they allowed for greater efficacy in energy transfer, spell manifestation, and of course, provided IFF.
“6.35,” Petra announced once Ariel’s portion was read out.
“A low-tier Spirit.” Wen touched a finger to her data-slate, seemingly relieved. “Ladies, we are in rare company.”
Though both Klavidya and Petra had already known Gwen’s abilities, they nonetheless gaped with awe. Wen’s semi-sardonic remark was no joke. How many Mages could arguably boost a natural affinity over 6? How many Mages could look forward to their Spirit Familiar ultimately reaching a tier capable of adding a multiplier that could push it to 8 or 9? Would there come a day when Gwen’s tier 3 Lightning bolts possessed double the damage and range while necessitating a negligible volume of mana? Her tiers of Conjurations could be kept active almost forever. Her Dimension Door could range hundreds of meters while requiring a fraction of the cost.
Gwen squirmed, unused to the feeling of familiar face gazing upon her as though they had spotted a tap dancing panda bear.
“I wouldn’t celebrate yet.” Wen coughed, interrupting the moment of revelry. “Affinity doesn’t come free, you should know. Gwen is going to see some interesting mental and physiological changes too.”
The coldness of Wen’s pragmatic advocacy doused Gwen’s affirming flame. It was true. She had already felt the influence of her prideful Element driving her onward even when the best course of action was to reverse course. Likewise, thinking of her uncle Jun, it was evident that without the Kirin Amulet, he would have become an apathetic cadaver incapable of caring for his most basic needs, kept alive only by servants and a team of attentive physicians. As for Hai, Gwen had no idea what the effects of Salt were. Despite being a quasi-element, it held only trace volumes of Negative Energy, making the Element more akin to Water.
The next indexing machine wasn’t nearly as taxing on the women’s suspension of belief.
“There’s significant growth on both your Primary schools,” Wen noted. “Did a lot of fighting, did you?”
A lot of fighting was an understatement.
She fought Merfolk, Draconic-fish, Draconic-deer, a Thunder Wyvern, then a whole fruit salad of Mages and even a Magus.
An increase of 4, Gwen wondered if it was because of her extended bout against Golos, or if there was some mana floating around all those creatures she had gleefully Consumed.
“Petra.” Klavdiya turned to her grandniece. “How’s Gwen’s theory-work?”
“Passable,” Petra noted. “Unless you're thinking of having Gwen take the Magus examination. Then no. She’s not even a second year.”
Klavdiya turned to regard Gwen’s confused face.
The girl was oblivious! It was adorable.
“Mao’s ghost.” Her grandmother grimaced mirthfully. “I hope they won’t disqualify you for misrepresenting yourself. I don’t think there’s a Mage in all of Shanghai who can take down an actual Combat Magus in a one on one duel.”
“Puahaha.” Gwen chuckled, pulling Petra close to her. “That’s the plan! Let em underestimate me, and then BAM! Crystals!”
Behind the trio, Wen watched; her irises two pools of sterile, distilled water. If Gwen and her family had been more conscious, they would have noted the Magister's fingers trembling as her paper-thin lips formed an upward curl.
As it was already noon, Gwen and Petra farewelled their babulya, then took lunch at a local deli selling Hongkong style bbq pheasants.
“Far too greasy for me.” Petra polished off a leg, leaving the rest of the carcass to the ravenous Gwen.
“Food in Hangzhou tasted so light.” Gwen swallowed, ignoring the usual stares from pedestrians and patrons. “Salt, sugar, and saturated fat, that’s Shanghainese food in a nutshell, haha.”
“Well, don’t forget the soup.” Petra pointed at the extra bowls that came with the meal. “What say we check out Fudan T2? I am interested to see if your contribution to Morden’s Hound sold well.”
“Oh yeah~!” Gwen quickly spooned down the sauce-soaked rice. She had forgotten all about Morden's Hound because Gunther had said he would take care of it.
With both semesters over, the Tower was on half-staff roster.
When a young man took their petition ticket, his eyes widened.
“You’re Miss Petra Kuznetsova! And you’re Miss Gwen Song!”
Ooo, Gwen mused. Are we famous? Or rather, am I infamous?
“No Mongolian Death worm today, Ma'am?"
“Caliban is taking a break.” Gwen reminded herself to let her Familiars 'air out' as soon as they got back to the apartment. Both at Mayuree’s place and with her hospital visit, she had put off re-summoning Caliban.
At the mention of its name, her Void-Familiar’s pocket dimension became agitated, indicating its desire to be out and about.
“So, how can I be of service?” The young man’s eyes glowed, feverishly taking in the splendour of the Flower of Fudan and her cousin, The Worm Handler. He could hardly wait to tell his friends. He had met and served THE Worm Handler, in person! Too bad she didn't have her worm with her.
“Checking on my CCs,” Gwen smiled and pushed over a signed slip.
“Of course, Ma'am. It’ll only take a moment.”
The young man returned a minute later with Gwen's data-slate.
Gwen tapped through her profile.
There was a note attached as well:
'Gwen, the Tower has granted you access to Morden's Blood Hound and Hound Pack. In exchange, get Magister Wen or someone to help you with a report on how Master's Signature magic interacts with the spells. The Pudong Tower has been advised and should provide you with the scrolls - Gunther.'
“Petra, I’ve got…” Gwen passed on the number discretely.
Her cousin’s husky-blue eyes widened.
“We’re going to need a private office,” Petra informed the helpful clerk. “And bring us the Spell Catalogue. Oh, can you check if Gwen has any items from Pudong?”
“Yes, Ma’am!” For some reason, the young man saluted.
The clerk escorted the two of them to a private chamber with opaque glass walls, then returned to deliver the thick volume of spells-for-sale. Under his other arm, the young man carried two scroll-cases reverently.
"These are keyed to you mana signature, Ma'am."
Petra gave the young man a dazzling smile, then clicked the doors shut, blocking out his stupidly grinning face.
She materialised her tablet, several notepads, and pens.
“Alright, sit down.”
Gwen obediently followed her cousin's orders.
“Write down your Spell list,” Petra commanded her. “Let’s see what we can do in the next ten months!”
The girls spent the next few hours drawing up a chart of Spells Gwen may very well benefit from if she were to become a one-woman-party.
Her Evocation was steadily working its way toward tier 5. Her acquisition of Ariel as a Lightning Spirit meant that with IFF, she could now be far more liberal with her range of Incantations.
For tier 4, Evocation staples such as Ice Storm and Wall of Fire, which both had Elemental-shift variations, would both up Gwen’s combat utility as well as her AOE potential.
Likewise, for tier 5, she had the incredibly useful Evocation-cum-Conjuration incantation ‘Bilby’s Hand’, a spell made famous by Magister Bilby Bigglesworth, the youngest disciple of Magister Morden. It was also a spell her Master had once shown her, though back then the possibility of her using the spell seemed so far away.
Casting Time: 41 Major, 40 Minor Incantation
Range: 1 - 20M
Components: Somatic, Verbal
A Signature Spell of Magister Bigglesworth adapted for modern Spellcraft. It is said that the Late Magister wished to improve on his favourite spell as an acolyte - ‘Mage Hand’. This variation of the Magister’s famous telekinetic incantation may be used by both Conjurers and Evokers, though knowledge in both schools is necessary to maximise the spell’s efficacy. Upon manifestation, a prehensile human hand between 1 to 2 meters in height appears. The Mage may control the manifestation as Mage Hand, commanding at will the phantom appendage to grasp, manipulate, push, pull or attack the target. The Elemental-shifted variation is intended for Mages with material elements such as prime, quasi, and para-elemental variations of Earth and Water.
“I am not so sure.” Gwen mulled over the possibility of ‘grabbing’ her opponents. What kind of Magister specialised in groping their targets? Did he grab a Dragon by the... neck? Perhaps a Centaur by the... mane? Or maybe a Lamassu by the... paws. With a famous spell like this, the Magister could grab whatever he wanted.
“Its absurdly useful,” Petra corrected her cousin. “You could retrieve things from afar, save people from torrents, push back boulders; it’s one of the most versatile spells anyone could have. Not to mention the non-Elementally shifted variety is usually used for pacification. You’re still into that sort of thing, aren’t you?”
“I’d say so.” Gwen sniggered. “Okay, I’ll keep it in mind. Still, 53 CCs!”
“You won’t regret it,” Petra assured her. “Let’s keep going.”
Cone of Cold, a spell firing away a blast of Lightning or Void Matter in a 90-degree cone extending up to 15 Meters, was another impressive AOE Gwen could now utilise at tier 5.
As for the future, Petra pointed out that tier 6 brought the most potent spells a Magus could arguably employ without the need for mandalas. Maelstrom, Chain Lightning, Blade Barrier, all three were tried and true damage-dealers capable of changing the tide of a small battle.
At the mention of Maelstrom, Gwen’s lip stiffened.
She recalled the story of Elizabeth Sobel when the woman had first awakened to the Void. Her Master’s wife had then opened up a vortex which turned the Battle of the Brisbane Line, culminating in Sobel’s descent on to a dark and insane path of endless hunger.
Would the same happen to her if an endlessly consuming miniaturised black hole opened up atop thousands of enemies?
Gwen dispelled her doubt with annoyance.
She was better than Elizabeth. She had the wisdom of Sobel's failure to guide her. She had Henry’s instruction. Moreover, she had her friends and family, she had her Almudj’s Essence. And unlike Sobel, her powers were gained through Caliban indirectly.
“Now, about Conjuration…”
So far, Gwen had only a single tier 5 Conjuration spell - Conjure Elemental Swarm.
“I’d say pick up some of Morden’s spells, especially since you’re able to get a discount since you’re the originator of the new Elementally-shifted incantations.”
"Got em right here!" Gwen announced proudly. "Freebies!"
She opened the scroll-cases.
At tier 5, there was Revised Morden’s Bloodhound.
At tier 6, there was Revised Morden’s Bloodhound Pack.
Once she could push into tier 6, with her VMI and her control over her Familiars, she could summon Caliban, Ariel, a single bloodhound, and a pack of up to a dozen dogs. She would indeed be a one-woman army! She could harass her enemies with her hounds, then let loose either an AOE or single-target assaults with Evocation, or even supplement the ‘swarm’ with Conjure Elemental. Just thinking about the glory of a pack of Lightning-dogs or Void-mongrels had her proverbial tail wagging!
Going beyond the Hound-based options were other Conjuration staples such as Cloud-Kill, which filled an area with motes of Lightning or Void, perfect for dispersing mass-troop movements.
Additionally, tier 6 in Conjuration marked the entry point for higher-order spells such as Planar Ally, a spell which bound a semi-intelligent tier 6-8 creature temporarily to the caster’s service. Likewise, Arcane Gate was the precursor to Teleportation at tier 7, allowing long-range, non-instantaneous transfer of the caster across vast distances.
“Arcane Gate and Teleportation are Tower-only spells,” Petra pointed out helpfully, observing her cousin’s eyes aglow with passion. “You need to be a registered Sanctioned Magus to submit the applications for learning them. Anyone caught breaking the rules: be it Clan, House, Magus or Magister, is going to have to answer to the full force of the Council. Usually, a Mind Wipe would be the kindest punishment. In the worst case scenario, you could get iced. That’s why its easier to give one’s followers Teleportation Scrolls.”
“I guess that makes sense.” Gwen thumbed the pages. A state can’t allow folks to come and go nilly-willy. It would make the idea of border security a joke. “What else we got?”
“Here, I’ve outlined my suggestions. These are all utilitarian spells, by the way. Some of them you can’t use without theory. Next semester, you can pick up some Utility-courses to up your WAM, or take Secondary-Magic classes for things like Divination.”
Gwen browsed through Petra’s notes, one hand on the spell-list and the other on the Spellbook.
Only one spell was highlighted for Transmutation - Flight, arguably the most important spell to master, and one that paired with every other School of Magic. But it was also the most time-consuming. She wasn’t just getting her metaphorical Provisional Driver’s licence; what she needed to acquire was the ability to circumnavigate like a boss while slinging spells, like Frank Martin in the Transporter, or Dom in the Fast and the Furious movies.
As for Abjuration, Petra recommended against taking advanced courses that required extensive specialisation. Her Spell-list thus included only the staples.
Tier 1 - Resistance, Endurance, Mage Armour, Alarm
Tier 2 - Obscure Divination, Static Shield, Repulsion Shield
Tier 3 - Ward, Explosive Glyph, Barrier
“Bloody oath, that’s a lot of spells!” Gwen blurted out.
“All practical.” Petra nudged her. “They’re not difficult to learn. I’ve neglected Dispel Magic, Dispel Curse and Negate Ward. Those are far too specialised, you’re not going to be working at a Shielding Station, so there’s no point wasting time on theory. Even if you did, there's a snowball in the Elemental Plane of Fire's chance you of all people would be called upon in a time of need.”
“I am barely tier 2!” Gwen protested. "No way I am getting Abjuration to tier 3 in 10 months in addition to everything else."
“Well, work on it. You could also pay CCs to study advancing Shielding theory with one of the Magisters. Where did you get your Signature Shield from again?”
“Well, I don’t know if there’s going to be someone like the Morning Star in Fudan.”
The girls continued down the list.
“Divination is going to be problematic,” Petra confessed. “You can ask Mayuree about it as well, but insofar as I know, if you want to serve as the Party’s Message relay, you won’t be able to cast high-tier spells yourself."
“Too much static in the brain?”
“More like you’ll be maintaining a Message mandala,” Petra sketched out the ‘problem’ for Gwen on a piece of scrap paper. “As you can see, the more ‘people’ you support, the more likely you’ll be inundated by their thoughts. There’s a reason Diviners are trained from the age of ten. Neither you nor I can handle it. Personally, I never Spell-cube Divination spells other than Detection Magic. If you want to play that role, get a Magic Item for it.”
“Hmm…” Gwen touched the list with her index finger. As before, it was an impressive list:
Tier 1 - Detect Traps, True Strike, Hunter’s Mark
Tier 2 - Arcane Sight, Aura Sight, See Invisibility.
Tier 3 - Link Familiar
“That’s the one that allows you to look through your Familiar’s eyes,” Petra pointed out. “It’s going to be a chore to train up your Divination, but with a flying Familiar, I’d say it’s one of the most useful spells a Mage could have.”
Ariel Surveillance? YES PLEASE.
“I can imagine,” Gwen mused, giggling to herself.
“Finally.” Petra moved her finger to the bottom of the Page. “I don’t recommend learning Illusion at all, but if you must - here’s a list of helpful spells for the IIUC. Keep in mind that like Abjuration, you’re going to have to attend beginner, intermediate, then specialist classes if you want to use the School in Combat.”
“What’s wrong with Illusion?”
“One, it’s useless against golems and the undead. Two, most of it requires so much concentration you need to be standing still while casting. Rare is the day that you see a flying Illusionist, but then again, you’ll be competing in the IIUC, so who knows? Illusion is big business in the States and Europe. Here? Not so much.”
Gwen took note of Petra’s recommendations.
Tier 1 - Auditory Hallucination
Tier 2 - Haunting Mists, Mirror Image, Minor Image, Magic Mouth
Tier 3 - Hypnotic Pattern, Haunting Vision, Lingering Image
The list appeared as though she was going to operate a Rocky Horror House at a freakish carnival. What if she learned to summon visions of Lovecraftian Transvestites from Transylvania? After all, she had the entire 20th century’s horror genre to plagiarise. What if she paired Caliban and her Void-hounds with yet MORE gut-churning terrors?
There's potential there.
What the hell would they call her after that?
“You’ve got so many options that it’s become a burden.” Petra patted her cousin's head, hoping she hadn't burnt Gwen's brain. “Take your time. For now, work on your two main Primary Schools of Magic and get used to the Lightning. Didn't you say Caliban has a new form too?”
"I can't test Caliban without live targets. Richard mentioned a dungeon, didn't he? Can you make it?"
"I'll see," Petra answered. "It'll depend on duration, and my Master's schedule."
She collated her notes, then closed the Spellbook. It would take time and advice to ruminate over her Spell-list. Maybe she could get a second opinion? Perhaps one of her lecturers was willing to give her some of their time?