"You've got my support, whatever you choose." Petra paired her assurance with a maternal peck to Gwen's forehead.
"Cheers." Gwen massaged her puffy eye bags. "Thanks, Pats. I'll sleep on it for now."
When a minute-long hug from Petra in the morning failed to dispel the vitriol churning in her chest, she knew she was in no condition to make rational choices. As such, emulating the Prince of Denmark, Gwen opted for procrastination and delay.
For the next few days, she continued her Conjuration, Translocation, Utility-Divination and Evocation as before, restrained to the front row, passively running her Invisible Familiar.
Her old friends from the previous year, Lily, Jon and the unfortunately named Pu, accompanied her, watched over enviously by the rest of their cohort as an irksome Magister Birch delivered his lecture.
“Ah~, I want to see Ariel!” Lily moped, running her hand across an invisible belly, looking ridiculous as she stroked the air.
“After the class, sure,” Gwen promised.
Ever since the Fudan DC incident, she had suffered incessant requests to see her Familiar wherever she went. Sometimes she entertained these demands. More often than not, she politely declined or fled.
“You know, Gwen, you’re the talk of the campus,” Jon, the Enchanter aspirant, observantly remarked. “They say you defeated Tei Bai and that you’re going to enter the IIUC on Fudan’s behalf.”
“Woa, you’re entering the IIUC?!” Lily cut in. “That's super elite!”
“Gwen’s an elite, not like us,” Pu reminded their companion. “Who else you know can tap into both Void and Lightning, possess a Mongolian Death Worm and a Kirin?”
“Maybe we should follow Gwen from now on?” Lily half-joked. “What do you say, Gwen?”
“You’re welcome any time,” their elite companion laughed, her mood improving. “I’ve got no Clan and no Tower though, we’ll be vagabonds!”
“How about a Quest or two?” Pu pushed to see if their alumna was merely modest or genuinely interested.
“Sure, if I’ve got time. It’s always good to stretch out my legs,” the object of Pu’s enquiry returned. “I’ve got a party of my own, but I’d love to do something with you guys as well. My magic isn't going to improve being cooped up all the time. So long as you pick a weekend, she'll be right.”
It took a few seconds for her slang to sink in.
“Ooo! I look forward to it! Adventuring with an elite!” Lily, the least bashful of the threesome, was shameless in taking advantage of Gwen's generosity.
Pu laughed awkwardly, knowing full well that anyone who could give Tei Bai a run for his crystals wasn’t likely to think much of folks sitting on tier 4 magic.
Beside their Evoker companion, Jon’s face grew flushed. Like his friend Pu, Jon had a feeling that whatever danger Gwen faced on the regular wasn’t going to be for mundane students like them.
Watching Lily's boisterous optimism, Jon reminded himself to admonish his companion. While Gwen was their friend and associate, she would never be a comrade; their distance, as it were, was unbridgable. If anything, a Mage with Gwen's prospects and family connections could only be their superior; believing otherwise would bring calamity, both now and in the future.
While Gwen flitted in and out of her third week of classes, rumours had spread of the Black and White Kirin of Fudan, attracting curious stickybeaks both local and Districts away. Thankfully, Orientation was officially over, leaving visitors to ponder where Fudan DC's new mascots had gone.
As for those lucky enough to happen upon Gwen's duty-hours, they managed to catch a glimpse of a noble Kirin and a God-awful creature that made the viewer ill even from a distance. Indeed, if that netherworld abomination could be a black Kirin, a Displacer Mauler could be an Shíshī.
“Sir Caliban is an acquired taste,” a Fudan student haughtily informed his Jianqiao opposition. “You wouldn’t understand until you see its owner in the flesh - we’re calling her the Kirin Lady now.”
“What did you use to call her?”
“The Worm Handler.”
“Hahaha, what?! That sounds like-”
“SHHH! Don’t let the Duelling Club members hear you. She’s their idol on a pedestal now, well - her Familiars are.”
“Okay, okay.” The visitor looked around conspiratorially. “So, where can we see the owner?”
'The Owner' was halfway across the campus, agonising over Eric Walken’s help.
“No!” Elvia’s lament poured through LRM Device. “No way!”
“YES WAY!” Gwen groaned. “And then, he told me that I was an ‘unofficial’ Apprentice!”
“I know, right?”
They had already spent the rare hour conversing about Gwen’s latest encounter. One by one Gwen had consulted her peers for advice. The hardest and longest came from her brother-in-craft. Gunther’s final opinion was that he would be keeping this quiet from Alesia and that anything other than Spellcraft from Walken should be taken with a grain of salt. With Yue, Gwen's unexpectedly collected companion intimated that she too would be keeping this latest travesty from her Master- that and Gwen should engineer 'training accidents' at every opportunity.
“He’s bound to let his guard down. Maybe suddenly drop your top or something, and while he’s surprised and horny - POW! Right in the kisser.”
“… Thanks for the advice.” Gwen took Yue’s word with a fistful of salt. “I am not equipped for that strategy, unfortunately. I'll pass.”
As for her friends and family in China, their advice concurred with Gunther’s most rational assessment. If she turned down Walken, where the hell was she going to find another pseudo-draconic, high-affinity Conjurer with two decades of experience working with her old Master? As for Richard, her cousin was all in.
"Use 'em and dump 'em." Richard gave her a thumbs up. "Suck 'em dry, Champ."
Elvia was her last port-of-call. The last member of her immediately intimate companions from that incident. She had wanted to contact Surya as well, but her Enchanter maternal-grandfather lived way out in the tablelands with his hands full looking after refugees. Getting Surya to travel to the Tower or Alesia's apartment was a chore in itself.
“Gwen, between you and me.” Elvia suddenly leaned in conspiratorially. “What did you get from Yue around Xmas time?”
“Oh?” Gwen materialised the hairpin. “I got an opal hairpin. What about you?”
Elvia’s profile grew strangely withdrawn.
Wordlessly, Elvia produced a box from her Storage Ring, then opened the rectangular container to reveal a set of ivory chopsticks.
“Wooo, nice,” Gwen cooed. “Same material as mine. It’s got a little curvature to it too. Monster-teeth?”
“Oh, Gwen~.” Her friend touched a hand to her temple. “It’s a set of Lizard-kin baculums.”
“What the hell is that?” Gwen cocked her head. She had neither Google nor a dictionary in her apartment.
“It’s a p…”
“P?” She twirled the hairpin between her fingers expertly.
Elvia looked around to ensure no one could hear her next words.
“It’s the PENIS bone found in humanoid species of Lizard-men!”
With a sudden jerk of her hand, the penial-fashionista hurled her baculum with the revulsion of one suddenly finding a fat, foreign phallus prodding one's fingers.
The business-end, weighted for pleasure, stuck into the drywall with a thunk!
Like a rudely-erect sundial, Yue’s ill-humoured phallus mocked her from up on high. Holy shit! Gwen felt ill. She had worn that thing in front of everyone! She had boasted of how well it matched her outfit!
“That Yue…” Gwen recalled her Uncle’s discomfort while they conversed. Her face burned. “I am… going to pay her back. We must pay her back!”
“Count me in!” Elvia’s eyes grew swollen.
“Why, what did you do, Evee?” She wondered if Elvia too had been using the sticks as a hair ornament.
Evee's lament erupted with anguish.
“Sylvie caught on to what they were, but not before I ate lunch...”
By the week's end, at the Dean's polite behest, Gwen consented to a meeting with Walken to discuss what they would be doing. Before she could invest in Walken's venture, she had to rationally and logically consider the boons and banes. With a few months until trials for the IIUC started, and roughly six months before the IIUC itself began within the Inter-Asia region, those choices came with weighted consequences.
“Come at me.”
“You want me to attack you?”
“You are sure?”
Gwen couldn't believe it. She didn't even have to drop her top or nothing.
A streak of arm-thick lightning flashed between them.
A swirling mandala appeared mid-air. Where Gwen’s Lightning had struck, the invoked plasma harmlessly drained into Walken's revolving glyphs, glowing only for a second before her energy faded.
She stared then glared at Walken with equal parts resentment and awe.
“A tier 5 Transmutation spell, useful for defending against Mages with conforming Elemental alignments.” Walken grinned. “Did you forget that I am a Magister? Is that all you have?”
Gwen had indeed forgotten that Walken was a Magister. The last time she had seen him, the prick was in the midst of being bitch-slapped by Sobel. But the man was indeed a Magister. As such, Walken should have at least three Schools of Magic at tier 6 and above. If Conjuration was his Major School of Magic, what were the others? Transmutation was a possibility, and Evocation most likely. Walken never did invoke Illusion, Abjuration did not favour Air, and Creature Mages seldom took high-tier Divination or Enchantment.
“Elemental Sphere!” Gwen pumped out a second spell before Walken even finished.
Her sphere struck Walken’s Lightning barrier.
Rather than imploding, her sphere melded into Walken’s Shield, seemingly consumed by its surface.
“Childish!” Walken sneered.
A dark sliver sped toward Walken.
She shouldn’t have, but taking a hatchet to Walken's kisser would make her very happy indeed.
For a second, Gwen wondered if Walken was an Illusionist after all. A portion of the Magister's Shield detached itself, incandescently hovering half-a-meter in front of his body before catching her bolt like a baseball mitt.
The two energies collided, the Lightning neutralising her prideful bolt without so much as a sizzle.
“You’re a long, long way from Sobel if you want revenge, girl,” Walken snorted. “As for your battle-instincts, I have to wonder; what did Henry see in you?”
“Ha!” Walken dropped another Aegis. “That's more like it!”
This time, her two-stage Evocation imploded.
She watched as a nova-ring of paper-thin ink washed over Walken’s body, filling her heart with jubilation.
"Ha-" She spat.
Rationality returned in the next moment, draining the warmth from her bosoms. FUCK! Her fingers clenched and unclenched. She’d done it again! Did she go too far? What kind of trouble was she in now? But she was goaded! Could they blame her? He was using her dead Master to drive her into a corner!
After a split-second of enveloping darkness, the Void-matter consumed itself.
Walken was gone.
Staring at the space her adversarial Instructor once occupied, Gwen baulked. GONE?! Her mind performed a double-take. Shouldn’t he be cut in half?
“That was wonderfully executed, Gwen Song.” Walken’s voice came from above.
She raised her head to see the man standing upside down on the vaulted ceiling.
A last-minute D-D? An Illusion? Mind Magic? But she has her earrings. Gwen reminded herself. If that was an Illusion, her wards should have chimed.
“You seem surprised.” Walken looked down at her. “Didn’t Henry tell you that at our level of mastery, we supersede the need for audible low-tier Invocations?”
“You must feel so superior up on that ceiling,” Gwen retorted even as the hateful Magister invited her to launch another assault. “It must feel great bullying a novice like me."
“Such an inane humility. ” Walken drifted from the ceiling via Feather Fall, landing with a grace that put Gwen's flight to shame. “Would you feel better if I had praised you? Patted your head? How is it that you still think yourself an Acolyte?”
“Am I a Magus then?”
“You’re knee-deep in carcasses, for one,” Walken mocked her, watching the girl flinch. “And you’ve consumed Monsters that would take Magus-tier casters, working in tandem, to defeat. You must be the most ill-informed Acolyte in the world to think of yourself so lowly. Does our little celebrity of Fudan not recognise her majesty?”
Gwen bit her lower lip until it bruised.
“Glad to see our training paying off already.” Walken’s speech grated on her nerves. “Tell me truly, do you desire to master your Affinity, Gwen?”
“I do.” Gwen raised her chin defiantly. “Are you here to help? Or were you selling snake-oil to the Dean so that you could have a bed and roof over your head?”
To her disappointment, her sarcastic riposte failed to connect. The man's ego was part-eel, part-ass.
“There are three reasons for your imbalance,” Walken began, suddenly serious.
The shift in atmosphere caught her off-guard.
She waited for Walken to continue.
“Well?” the Magister demanded.
“Didn’t Henry teach you any manners?” Walken scratched his neatly-cropped beard. “If you want help from someone, a little politeness could go a long way.”
“Is there another Magister here?”
“Are you senile?”
“I see,” Walken sighed. “I am sorry that we’ve wasted each other’s time. Good day, Miss Song. I am sure Mister Lu and the others could benefit from my efforts with a more assistive attitude.”
To her surprise, Walken turned to leave.
It’s a trick!
The arrogant bastard!
He knew she needed his help!
Well, fuck him. Gwen rebuked Walken mentally. She could ask Ayxin!
The Dragon-kin seemed like she had her shit together. Furthermore, she hadn't asked uncle Jun yet; maybe he'll figure something out.
That makes no sense, you nincompoop! The better part of her brain screamed that Ayxin was a fucking Dragon-Mage. Why the fuck would a Dragon have problems with their nature? Being arrogant and prideful was the same as breathing. What could Ayxin teach her? How to hoard crystals? How to take over a mountain? How to use political clout to ensnare her uncle Jun? Which follicle on Ayxin's body showed that she had humility and control over her arrogance?
On the other side of the training hall, Walken had arrived at the threshold.
“Wait!” The better part of Gwen called out. She would have to give the old bastard this round.
Walken's backward glance had the manner of a Bond villain.
“...” Her voice caught in her throat.
Walken reached for the door.
“That’s my intent.” Walken's gaze turned her complexion as pink as pippins. “But its good to know we’re off to an amicable start.”
She slowly exhaled.
“Both in a professional capacity, and private capacity, I do wish that you may benefit from our relationship,” Walken spoke with a solemnity that surprised her. “To that end, I am going to be very honest with you, brutal even.”
Though not entirely convinced, Gwen nodded.
“Good, take a seat.”
Her Instructor raised a hand, conjuring a table and two seats.
The same trick as Dean Luo, Gwen recognised the chantless Conjure Object. The signature was distinct and familiar. Were the two related somehow? How did they know each other?
A dark Grot.
A circular table and two chairs.
Herself, and a mentor.
The nostalgia was too real.
“Listen well.” Walken caught her attention by tapping the table audibly. “There is no 'cure' for your affinity.”
“I am sorry?” Gwen stared at Walken.
“There is no helping it.” Walken met her eyes. “That’s how it is.”
“Are you fucking with me?!” she spluttered bewilderingly.
“Language, young lady,” Walken chided his unhinged protégé. “Not to mention you should let others finish before blowing up. It looks to me that you have a patience problem too, do you possess excess Fire as well? A spot too much of the 'Yang', as the Orientals say?”
Her teacher made a shushing motion.
“I said there's no 'cure'. I did not say Affinity-traits are unmanageable.”
Gwen pursed her lips.
“To begin, there are three factors involved in your condition.”
Walken raised a finger.
“One - you are too young. Your body, as it were, isn’t capable of managing both the Draconic-essence and the Lightning-affinity. Take, for example, your exceptional strength and agility. No boon exists without consequence. If you exercise powers beyond what your natural body is capable of, then these very same powers will influence you in subtle ways. If you wish to have the proportional constitution of a Dragon, then you will suffer the arrogance of one. Such is life. Nothing is ever so convenient as a gain without a cost.”
Gwen guiltily thought of all the times she had taken advantage of her new physique. Morning runs, moving furniture, punching Richard, pushing Dai, walking in four-inch stiletto heels around campus without so much as a pinched toe.
“Two - your Spell List and theory-craft are atrociously mismanaged. A Mage, even a genius one, slowly acquires spells throughout his or her long years. Take, for example, Magister Larsen. How long did you think it took for him to progress his Signature Magic? I’ve met the man in person so that you know. He became a Magus at twenty-three, perfected Lightning Sphere at twenty-nine, then Ball Lightning at thirty-four. How about you? Buoyed by your affinity and your draconic body, you throw around spells that took the man three decades to achieve-”
“I learned the spells before-”
“The point,” Walken interrupted her protest. “Is that you’re a supernaturally-powerful child wielding a sword twice your height. You possess no finesses. You are a brute, a bruiser, a copy-cat abusing powers beyond your ken, throwing invocations like boulders. Neither your physical nor your Astral Body has had time to accustom itself to the growth of your affinity, which is why you’re so easily influenced.”
She groaned. Walken's advice was connecting all the dots she couldn't previously align.
“Finally, though this is only a theory. I suspect Henry never intended to let either of your Elemental Affinity exceed the other to this extent.”
“Master had arranged for that?”
Walken leaned in from across the table.
“What affinity were you while under your Master’s care?”
“3-Lightning and 3-Void, then 4-Lightning and 4-Void…” Gwen tried her best to recollect Henry’s estimate. She never did receive an exact numerical value then, nor did she obsess over her ‘statistics’. Other than her very first evaluations, she had never recalled Henry fussing over her numbers like her instructors in Fudan. Likewise, he had restricted her to a pragmatic set of useful spells. She had never felt rushed or short on time, not even when the Inter-high competition loomed. It was heaven and hell compared to her present state of affairs.
“Do you believe there was a purpose to it keeping your affinities so closely aligned?”
Was there a ‘purpose’?
She had no idea.
Alesia and Gunther both possessed single-elements. Alesia was a Fire Mage through and through; even her Master had been worried about how she reacted around others and had shielded Alesia from situations where her temperament would adversely impact her Quests.
As for Gunther, his affinity appeared more boon than bane.
For his youngest Apprentice, her Master had always favoured her wit, intelligence and charm over her ability with spells. Gwen had taken Henry's adoration as the natural way of things. After all, Gunther took care of the big problems, while Alesia was always available as a battering ram when the need arose.
How plausible was the application of her Master's Middle Path to her Elemental Talents? Could the two even correlate? Balance in all things? Had Henry ever mentioned anything like that?
“I see you know nothing,” Walken’s cynicism resumed. “Shame. I'd thought the two of you closer.”
“What would you know about that?” Gwen fought down a taste of bile, fighting a thorn digging at her bosom.
“Enough to suspect that Henry knew what he was doing,” the Magister candidly apprised her past. “Your Master wasn’t one for academic publications or CCs, though he has been around for a very, very long time.”
“What do you mean by that?"
“Oh come on, Henry didn't even tell you his age? How old do you suppose someone called Deathless Henry could be?”
Swimming upstream against her simmering ire, Gwen hazarded a guess. Since his tryst with Sobel happened in the 1970s, she’d place her Master as an early 1940s guy.
“Seventy-something,” she declared. "Elizabeth was almost a decade younger, I recall."
“A keen estimate.” He snickered. “The data I obtained from the Ministry of Records for Sobel showed that she was born in 1952, making her twenty-four when Noosa Heads happened in 1976. A young noblewoman, at the prime of her life! As for your Master, records state that the late Marshall Kilroy was thirty-six at the time.”
Eh? Gwen wrinkled her nose. If Sobel followed her Master out of London a few years prior, wouldn’t that mean 'Lillybird' was in her twenties, perhaps her teens?
“Mages, especially powerful individuals, have no difficulty in accessing life-extending ingredients,” Walken continued. “If your Master perished in his seventies, why was his appearance so venerable? Why the ironic moniker?”
“Elizabeth had mortally wounded him,” Gwen remarked, withholding details in case Walken was attempting to milk her for intelligence.
“Of course, we all know that. The man drinks his Golden Mead like water!” The Magister knocked the table with his fingertips. “How is it that we call him Deathless Henry?”
“He’s a Plant Mage,” Gwen retorted. “He can regenerate wounds and tap into the essence of life via Sufina. I've seen it!”
Walken admired her impetuosity with amusement.
“How presumptuous you profess to be! Are you suggesting that you know more about Henry Kilroy's magic than I, who has been his rival for a decade? How much time have you spent with him? Less time than he and I have had meetings!”
Gwen stared at her fingers, refuting Walken’s goading, refusing the satisfaction the man must derive from degrading her.
“Think about it, child,” Walken implored. “Your Master: so wise, so powerful. He was there when the Tower System was founded, you know. That was in 72’ after humanity managed to wrestle our capitals from the Beast Tide. Do you recall your history lessons? First to activate was the converted Tower of London, then Paris, Munich, Rome, The Acropolis in Greece, by the time Sydney got its Tower, it was 1982. When in 68' me and my alumni erected Oxford University's faux-Tower, you know who I saw? Henry Kilroy, not a young man, but certainly a man much older than I was. Mid-thirties, perhaps? Who knows? Already, he stood beside my House-master. Imagine my surprise when I met him again in 73’ during the Coral Sea Reclamation! He had held jurisdiction over the entire northern Front of the Brisbane Line! First as a Commander, then a Marshall!”
“I don’t understand,” Gwen interrupted. So much of Walken's words abrogated her knowledge of Henry's past. “What are you trying to say?”
“I am not too sure myself.” Walken leaned back in his chair, then faced her with both hands splayed. “Sobel, Kilroy. Void Magic. There’s history there that you and I do not know and lack the means to excavate. I doubt even Gunther knew your Master's history.”
Gwen opened and shut her mouth a few times.
Walken was right, the bastard was a prick, but he wasn't wrong.
She vividly recalled that Gunther had been caught flatfooted by Paul Chandler as well.
“At any rate, good talk.” The Magister patted his knees. "Let me know if you want to continue."
Walken studied the girl's conflicted, confused eyes, then rose so that he stood over her. When after a minute an answer failed to present itself, he walked beside his pale-faced mentee.
“You know, I was there when you first came to the Tower in April. I saw you teleport into the Tower along with De Botton. I had my eye on you then. The scent permeating from your body was unmistakable."
"What do you mean?" Scent? She gave her collar a quick sniff.
“Imagine, Gwen, if Alesia hadn't acted her insane self. You could have come to see me right after Henry. I would have offered you so much more, Gwen, knowing who you are and what you could do, I would have-"
"No!" She pushed herself from the chair, turning to face Walken with her amber-emerald pupils. "Don't you dare!"
"You and I..." Walken raised a hand both to summon his Familiar and to Message the Administration Desk. "Operator, Instruction mode."
Walken’s Winged Serpent materialised, immediately flocking to Gwen with a passion unbecoming of someone else's high-tier draconic-Spirit.
“Tssss! Gwen! Treat! Treat!”
Gwen battered the serpent away. She wasn't in the mood.
The room thrummed.
Two Astral Projections appeared on the floor.
Her gasp was audible. She could see Walken’s refraction below! The Magister was opening himself to her, showing her his Astral Soul! What was the man thinking? She was an enemy! She wanted his head on a silver platter!
Unlike her dancer’s sculpture, Walken’s Astral silhouette was a sagely male figure surrounded by his elements. Within surrounding streams of companionable Air floated thunderous clouds that sparked and glowed with Lightning.
An Air Mage! Gwen observed. And via Aella, Walken tapped into the Gate of Lightning as well. From what she could see, Walken and Aella's Master-Familiar sympathy put her and her creatures to shame.
But more than magic, it was Walken’s candid transparency that stunned her. Not even Gunther had shown her his Astral Soul. She had never seen Yue's or Elvia's this distinctly. It was only her Master's and Alesia's that she'd ever witnessed up close and with such intimacy.
"Bring out Ariel, Gwen."
Obedient and dazed, she obliged.
"EE! EEE!" Ariel flowed toward Aella, muzzling the serpent's wings as Aella nuzzled Ariel's horns.
“You and I…” Walken willed his Winged Serpent to approach Ariel.
A viridescent spark passed between them.
“EEeee!” Ariel flew into a frenzy of uncontrollable joy.
“Kin! Kin!” Aella hissed, dancing back and forth.
"EE! EE!" Ariel followed suit, swishing its tail.
There as no mistaking the smell of eucalyptus and sea salt permeating her senses.
It was the Essence of a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains; of rugged mountain ranges, droughts and flooding rains. The Essence flowing from Aella was mana drawn from a red earth singing and Dreaming of a vast brown land.
“I wonder.” Walken stood with both his hands behind his back. “I wonder what would have happened then if you had not fought my invitation. If De Botton had not attacked my men, and we had the opportunity to begin as allies. Would it have been possible, that you would have become my Apprentice, my Kin? If so, would Sydney have happened at all? Would Henry still be alive?”