Advertisement
Remove

A note from Wutosama

Don't forget to Vote!!


“It’s called creative-art therapy.” Dr Siobhan Monroe ignored her client's laughter, bearing her ridicule with the patience of a saint. Her client, as usual, wasn’t taking her disorder seriously. “I am not making fun of you, Gwen, give it a go.”

“Fingerpainting? Really?”

Siobhan pointed at the overlarge canvas.

“You did say you couldn’t paint even if your life depended on it. Nonetheless, the therapeutic outcome is valid.”

“Oh, come on.” Her client gave her the biggest, broadest smile she could muster. “I’ve been doing very well, you should know. The Celexa’s keeping a tight lid on things. It's fine.”

“My job is to wean you off the pharmaceuticals, not make you dependent,” Siobhan reminded her client. “Now be a good girl and let's dredge up some of that abyssal oil you keep talking about.”

“Siobhan, I paid for an hour with you - I am literally wearing Chanel in white, and you want me to finger-paint while you talk shop about my father. Really?”

“I got you a single-use raincoat.” Dr Monroe pointed to the clear plastic overcoat. “Don’t forget, you’re paying me very well. Imagine all that money going to waste. Your tendency for disassociation isn’t something I made up, Gwen. You’ll drown in it if you never touch the bottom.”

“Arrrgh! Fine! You know me too well,” her client grumbled. “What are you, my psychologist?”

The two women laughed. Siobhan knew she shouldn't be getting close to her clients, but Gwen was exceptionally personable. Across the table, Dr Monroe's patient obediently slipped into the transparent rain-coat.

“I hope you’re ready.” Her patient stuck her hand into the cold, congealing acrylic. “I am in the mood for Edvard Munch.”

"Would Sydney have happened at all?"

Time dilated.

At first, her mind grew hot with incandescence. Every word, every spittle issuing forth from Walken’s mouth added fuel to her raging bushfire. Her retorts blurred and blended until each refutation she had prepared to rebuke Walken’s accusation grew fuzzy and indistinct.

What had been anger blossomed into doubt, then from doubt came fear, viscous and sticky, clinging onto her conscience with the consistency of tar, slinking up her thighs, throttling her throat.

Meanwhile, looming above her, Magister Walken watched like a rock-spider.

"Would Henry still be alive?”

Gwen wilted at the weight of his allegations.
Instantly, her complexion grew pallid; her pupils contracted, her petal-pink lips gasped; the blood in her torso froze, cold perspiration permeated the sheer fabric of her blouse, and her feet grew weightless.

Then came a vertiginous sensation of falling and whirling, and that was when she recalled the portrait she had painted for Dr Monroe.

She had wanted to do 'The Scream', but instead, she painted a big black vortex, round and round, swishing and swirling until half the canvas was black.

"That's your panic attack." Dr Monroe was beyond satisfied. "Now you know what it looks like."

How strange that she had forgotten all about it.
Dr Monroe had even billed her for the second hour.
Was her Almudj's Essence the source of her superior recall, or her Ioun Stone of Clarified Thought, or something else?

"Gwen?"

At the sound of the Magister's voice, her mind grew as cold as a slice of eldritch ice: shame, regret, remorse - all of her stifling, maddening emotions suddenly drained away as though a plug had been pulled.

Her vertigo receded.

Two years ago, she would have folded like origami, then from that compressed space would emerge a hungering Void, seeking to consume something, anything, trying to fill the uncertain emptiness.
But the Gwen of today wasn’t the mewling girl-child of yesteryear.
She had friends: Elvia, Yue, Lulan, Mia and the others.
She had a family: Babulya, Petra, Richard, Mina and Tao, Guo and Percy.
She had companions like Alesia and Gunther.

As for Walken, the man was and still is a lying sack of lukewarm shit, and she shouldn't trust him beyond how far she could blast him.

What dead and unenterprising eyes the man possessed, Gwen cocked her head slightly to get a better look. Where’s his conviction? If she had to convince someone that their loved one had been a liar, a crook, the black hand behind a world of misery, her pupils would burn with belief, her irises aflame with fervour.

But Walken’s orbs were two lumps of deadened charcoal.
It was the mark of a man who had never believed in anything in his life, living from day to day, making faces to meet the faces that he meets.

Creed without credence lacked all credibility.
It was Henry who taught her that.

Comparatively, her Master was a firm believer in words. By both their reckoning, great men with great oratory had changed the flow of history, made possible the impossible, freed the million-multitudes from slavery, ignited dreams, incited revolutions, immortalised their ideas for better or worse.

In her old world, anyone with the inclination and the interest could become a student of history’s greatest wordsmiths. Some were fictional, crafted by old Masters to inspire and teach. Others were the vanguards of progress, freeing others even as they remained imprisoned behind walls of segregation and prejudice.

Thusly shielded by the great wisdom of her old world and bulwarked by the love of family and friends, how could Walken’s venom work its sinister virulence? Did he expect that she would turn to him instead?

Now caught by the cold logic of hindsight, she reeled from the onion-stench of Walken’s lie-strewn mouth. As a young girl, she wouldn’t have recognised his ploy, but how could a 21st-century woman with a half-decade long history of therapy have missed an arrogant prick’s attempt to gaslight her?

Within Walken's play, she was Paula Alquist; Walken fancied himself the insidious Sergius Bauer, the murderer of her mother, and her fealty was the jewel he sought. Through insults and rewards, Walken was wearing her down, using everything she held dear as ammunition, tossing in morsels of truth to dim her lights, telling her that she was crazy, insane, unstable, while convincing her that her beloved Master was a liar.

Had Walken taken her for a child?

But of course, that was the point. Wasn't it?
She was in the body of an adolescent.
Her comely face and nubile body were naturally disarming.
What had Walken said? That she was a supernaturally-powerful child wielding a sword twice her height? Wouldn’t it be a riot if he knew that she was wielding a mind twice her age, filled to the brim with otherworldly knowledge?

Gwen moistened her eyes to disguise the fact that her lucidity had returned, then took the instance of Walken’s smug satisfaction to lay down plots and inductions of her own.

Walken had the knowledge she wanted, but she wasn't willing to pretend none of this happened, nor could she tell him to fuck right off back to his swamp. Rather, she wanted satisfaction, retribution, and to see that smug smile wiped off his fucking face.

“Ariel! Get away from that thing!” she screeched at her Familiar to separate from Aella. “That thing may be kin, but it’s less than kind!”

“Shaa!” A materialised Caliban came between the Kirin and its amorous companion.

“EEE?” Ariel pulled itself away, unwilling to follow its Master’s unfeeling demand. “Eee! Eee!”

Her Kirin was upset, but there was no helping it.

The feeble essence emitted by Aella the Couatl was real. It possessed a smidgen of the rainbow serpent’s colours, like a long-lost relative one immediately recognised because she had her mother’s eyes. It was this specific energy that Walken had used to abuse her senses, to warp her sense of reality.

“Ariel, Caliban! Come back!”

Her creatures were honest to a fault and unsuited to deception. In hindsight, Gwen realised that was also why Walken had allowed his Familiar to become acquainted with her. It was because Aella was entirely ‘innocent’ and by association, she wouldn’t doubt his ‘honest’ intentions.

“Play!” Aella cooed at her.

“Sorry, Aella.” She brushed away one of its enormous wings. “I am not feeling well.”

Cycling a few motes of Void was enough to turn her skin ashen, effecting a snail-sheen of sweat across her face, her hands, and her thighs.

“Gwen.” Walken’s mask grew pregnant with worry. “Are you feeling alright?”

“I don’t know.” She smiled at him with trembling lips. Her hands were shaking. Was it attributed to her narrowly missed psychosis? Or was she unnerved by her attempt at deception? “I don’t know anything anymore.”

“Well, let me give you something to tide you over.” Walken took her hand, then placed something in the midst of her palm.

The touch of the hateful man’s fingers seared her skin like a branding iron. It took everything in her power to stop herself from gagging.

A Message Orb. It was another Message Orb.

So the positive reinforcement for her pliantness was another one of her Master's Ioun Stones.

“Sir?”

“I have many more.” Walken touched her hair in a fatherly manner.

Reflexively, she drew away.
It was too much.
Thankfully, her manipulator chose to keep his distance, likely not wishing to startle his victim.

“I hear you have made a lot of crystals Gwen.” Walken returned to his seat. "Your appetite for economics can only be described as draconic."

“I did, Sir.” Gwen lowered her chin, then peeked at her adversarial advisor in a way that emphasised her passivity. “A girl’s gotta eat."

“Ha, you’ve got that right. I mean no offence, child, but your Master’s Credo, the Middle Path, is not suited for one as naturally avaricious as you. Still, if you wish to persist, I want you to know I’ll do my best to help you.”

Unsure of what to say, Gwen touched a finger to a corner of her eye, smearing some of her make up. When she looked up again, she was the very picture of pity.

Opposite, Walken caught the despair and disillusion in her vacant pupils, swallowing before he could continue.

“I have a proposal: a hypothesis: provable only through practice. I do not know if the method will succeed, so you will have to trust me. I know that’s hard, perhaps impossible, but such is the hand you've been dealt. There are few people alive who possess the same affinity, talent and blessings as you and I.”

She hugged her chest so as to prevent herself from physically unscrewing the man’s head like a lightbulb.

Should she agree? She needed time.

“No, don’t answer yet.” Walken reached out, then with great gentleness, placed a hand on the stunned girl’s shoulders. His victim shuddered. “Think on it.”

Then cooly, his objective accomplished, Walken left.

When Gwen felt relaxed enough to breathe again, she was alone. Suppressing her turbulent impulses, she cupped the Ioun Stone in her hand and activated the glyph for playback.

“Eric,” her Master’s voice floated through the air. He sounded younger, more robust than the previous recording. “Here’s the inventory I’ve set up for the Seventh Expedition. We don’t know if the Divination Towers will be up in time, so I am having this delivered to you in person. Here’s what I managed to commandeer…”

After a mind-numbing ten minutes of army rations, blankets, potions, low-tier magic items of convenience, clothing, transport and quasi-magical implements, Gwen confirmed her disappointment.

Walken thought a recording of Henry reading out a grocery list was enough to bribe her over?

Fidgeting with the stone, she evaluated her lack-lustre performance.

To think two years after she had a freak out at Hyde Park, Walken had almost triggered another Void-leak. Were it not for the friends and family she now had, she would have dived into that dark abyss and given herself to whatever old and forgotten thing that lurked in the Void. With her affinity and her vitality now, what would have happened?

Back in her old world, Dr Monroe would have called it a Depersonalization episode, a moment of manic hysteria accompanied by a sudden divorce from one’s physicality, becoming alienated from feelings and emotions, acting out in ways uncontrollable by the conscious psyche.

Likewise, Dr Monroe had said that if she could learn to trust, and if she could normalise her interpersonal dependencies, then her episodes would lessen, then cease.

Five years and one inter-dimensional reincarnation later, her psychologist finally earned her $300 plus GST an hour consultation.

As for what came next -

Boil, broil, grill or sauté?
How many ways could she cook the knowledge from Eric Walken?

“God you look tired,” Petra remarked during breakfast. “What happened?”

“Cutting back on my draconic-caffeine.” Gwen moaned, letting her head rest against the table. “Give me another cup.”

“I don’t think regular coffee is going to help.”

“Hahaha… well, there’s not much else I can do at this point. Can’t let it get to my head,” Gwen lamented.

“So, are you going back to Walken?”

“Gotta pay him back three-fold.” Gwen forced herself to sit with her back straight. “In the meanwhile, he can sweat.”

“Why’s he so interested in you?” Petra poured her another cup. "Here, I'll fix your hair."

“Maybe I am his ticket back into the good graces of the Grey Faction?” Her cousin shrugged. “Maybe he thinks he could do a better job than my Master, or maybe it’s because the man's afraid. I know that if Alesia were here, one of them would probably be dead by now. If I am on his side, I can keep Alesia off his back.”

“Now there’s someone with no concerns regarding their affinity-traits.” Petra chuckled.

“True, I can see why Alesia chose to stay in the Frontier when she could have lived an easy life in a tier 1 city. She’s affinity 5 or 6, I think, probably 6, and it was higher when she had her Scarlet Caracal.”

“What about your friend Yue?”

“4, when she started. Maybe 5 now.”

“And you’re edging toward 7…”

“Ergh…” Gwen groaned. “Don’t remind me.”

Petra laughed, pulling on Gwen's hair with a brush.

“Yeah, yeah.” Gwen produced the Message Orb. “Say, can you take me through this thing again?”

Gwen waited two weeks before she relented to booking Walken.

First, she wanted to have a go at managing her Essence usage. Since acquiring Almudj’s blessing, she had subsisted, consciously or otherwise, on the trivialisation all of her physical ailments.

More so than the euphoric pleasure of her Void Consumption, it was small blessings like not having to deal with menstrual cramps, fatigue, insomnia and indigestion that made Almudj’s powers endearing and highly addictive. It’s like Celexa and Buspar and Ibuprofen, taken together; a miracle panacea just like the old advert uses to say: ‘Have a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down, and she'll be right, mate.’

Now removed from the creature comfort of her draconic-cocaine, she became difficult, cranky, snarky, tired, meandering and forgetful all at once, confirming that her Essence did indeed impact her mental faculties.

Her first slip-up occurred during overtime on Friday night, desiring to finish, she grew roaring drunk on Draconic-essence, high as a drake as she soared through the tedium of paperwork and practice, then took her co-workers out for all-night hot-pot.

By Saturday, she had to acknowledge that her inhuman schedule was impossible. Between her blistering metabolism, her unending hunger and her insomnia, the only thing keeping her stitched together had been Almudj’s blessing.

Meanwhile, heedless of her strained fortitude, classes continued unabated.

Working as Ma's Teaching Assistant was soothing in a way. While Professor Ma gave his lectures, she graded papers, wrote tutorial questions, composed hypotheticals, and provided graphical data. A few lessons in, a nasty rumour spread about her relationship with the squib Professor, but then a public trashing of the mouth-breathers from her Duelling Club seniors quickly put a stop to that nonsense.

Economics proved far more enterprising. As a socialist state, the CCP’s operatives ran most of its major industries as ‘state’ enterprises lorded over by Clan heads and ancient Scholar-bureaucratic families. As a land abundant with resources and low on Demi-humans, China had set itself up as the food-bowl of the South East Asian region, producing grain for export to the surrounding Frontiers. Though the course materials lauded the economic model used for mass-hydro farming, Gwen foresaw the very same mistakes Australia, America and Brazil had made in her world. When an enterprise or state began to pursue an endless annual increase to production, they turned to increasingly unsustainable methods to fuel supply. When expansion involved draining lakes, diverting rivers and flash-burning land for agricultural space, a downturn was inevitable. Like a coiled spring waiting to snap, the Demi-humans and Magical fauna pressed into the margins of what little wilderness that remained was a ticking Warding Glyph.

In Gwen's opinion, the Su-Hang region was a case of having all of one’s eggs stashed precariously into a big basket. In her old world, rapid economic elevation of China’s poor had consumed most of its arable land by producing 20% of the world’s food supply in 7% of the world’s viable agricultural zones, relying heavily on industrial fertilisers. As for her present world, what if an extreme weather event happened? Or an angry, ancient dragon came to visit? Even if Shanghai had stores to outlast the year, what about the Frontier? Where would their supply of wheat, rice and maze come from? What would the NoMs eat when rice costs an HDM a kilo?

Gwen proposed these enquiries to her fellow students and made them compose reports on the short term and long term economic outcomes of disaster-events. Later in the semester, she would teach them how to use data extrapolation for future-proofing.

If even a single one of her peers managed to save a single District on the Frontier, then her job was done. Her Master would be proud.

Concurrently, Divination progressed as well as could be expected.

The class took place in one of the Expatriate-designed ‘International classrooms’ west of the main Fudan campus, in a private ‘training’ hall filled with Creole fetishes. The Instructor was a Caucasian matron by the name of Madam L’Croix, a bloodline Diviner like Mayuree.

To improve her students' basic Detect Magic, the Instructor arranged incense burners with different incense sticks enchanted with an assortment of Schools of Magic. The students’ job then, was to use Mage Hand to pluck apart strands of magical-motes wafting through the air. The idea was to sharpen one's synaesthesia for Schools of Magic, discerning additional details like intensity, duration, and signature.

Gwen had found the bead-wearing Diviner Magus charming, though her Instructor kept a polite distance from the infamous ‘Worm Handler’ of Fudan.

When an opportunity arose, Gwen asked the woman if she had offended her in any way. The Diviner smiled and blinked her eyes unconvincingly. Just being professional, the Diviner informed her, though Gwen suspected her Instructor might have carelessly tossed some bones.

Diviners! She felt a little insulted. They should stick to teaching pragmatics and keep their noses out of other people’s futures!

“Everything alright, Miss Song?”

It took Gwen a moment to re-orientate her surroundings.

“Sorry,” she apologised. “I have no excuse.”

Magister Lee had caught her napping, and the whole lecture had tuned in to watch.

“Don’t burn yourself out.” Michio Lee’s face glowed with supernatural amiability. “You look like something my cat dragged in.”

Gwen attempted to laugh off her embarrassment.

She was truly sorry. Spell-shaping was one of her favourite classes at the moment. Michio was an excellent lecturer, and his contemporary theories were easy to understand. As for her coursework, the ultimate goal of the Advanced Spellshaping was for each student to genuinely attempt a Signature Spell.

Nine-months on, even the self-absorbed Magister Lee had heard of Gwen’s prowess. The reason he was so nice was that Lee had proposed she create an original, minimum tier 4 Void-spell.

“Lightning spells are a dime a dozen!” her instructor had informed her. “Now Void magic, that’s something to see! I want the characteristics of your Void magic used exclusively!”

But what should she create?

Two types of spells made up the Imperial Metric System.

One, Magical phenomena translated from old magic into the IMS.
Two, original spells created via the Imperial Metric System.

Some ancient arcana, such as the ubiquitous Fire Ball, Magic Missile and Lightning Bolt, has since straddled both worlds, each with distinct metamorphic variations when used by Mages of varying skill and talent.

Morden’s Hounds were a case-in-point for old, translated invocations. Lacking the pure pragmatism of newer magic, the spells of old tend to possess flair and flavour, persisting through the ages via a combination of mythoi, record keeping and tradition.

New magic pointed to the late Magister Larsen’s Lightning Sphere and Ball Lightning, which drew upon increasingly more complex sigil-stack, but whose effects were explicit and simplified.

In experimental theory, minor and major incantations were stripped and distilled into various effects. The effect, range, shape, area, form, time, duration and phenomena could all be customised if one knew the theory behind weaving a particular School’s arcane algorithm.

The complication, alas, laid in creating a spell stable enough to manifest without blowing up, or having its feedback knock the caster’s teeth out.

Most ‘creations’ did not succeed.
Those that did seldom proved useful.
And new invocations with safe, widely applicable utility were as rare as hen’s teeth.

Petra and Wen’s Spell Cubes were a sterling example of a successful Signature creation with niche application and limited public utility. Even with all their combined genius, the material and effort invested into creating unique spells weren't likely to provide a profit in CCs or Crystals. The pursuit of knowledge, alas, remained a labour of love.

But Gwen just wanted a high-score to pad her High Distinctions; if she could create a useful, original Void Magic akin to Flashbang, all the better.

So far, her choices were limited.

If she wished to create an original attack spell, she had to choose between Monster or personnel. Monster-wise, very few spells came close to the efficacy of Morden’s Hounds. As for anti-personnel magic, where was the line in the sand that separated useful utility and murderous psychopathy? Take, for example, her Void variant of Cloudkill.

The very thought made her skin crawl.

A tier 4 Void Magic.

Gwen racked her brain without success, too tired to think.

Maybe she could milk an idea out of Walken?

In all honesty, she’ll have to sleep on it.

“…”

For the second time, the rest of the lecture fell into a curious silence.

Magister Lee’s chiselled jaws clenched. His Radiant Aura flared, forcing those sitting too close to shield their eyes.

Luo’s pompous prodigy had fallen asleep, again! Not only that, it looked as though she was dreaming!

“If the Middle Faction outnumber the others, why not force the matter?”

Gwen sat demurely in a low-back chair, having her hair braided by Sufina’s long, twig-like fingers. Just now, she had been conversing with Henry about the Middle Faction’s ongoing feuds with the Militants and the Greys.

“That’s not how we work.” Henry sipped his Golden Mead. “The sensible centre isn’t a position; it’s a compromise. Even within our Faction, there are those who favour the Demi-humans, those who love or loathe the NoMs, and those hungry for conquest.”

“Wouldn’t that make our Faction’s influence unstable?” Gwen furrowed her brows. How can anyone get anything done if no one can agree on a position?

“Ah, good question.” Her Master amused himself with the sight of Sufina consulting a salon-magazine. “In truth, our vulnerability is also the source of our flexibility. Those from the Militant Faction owe us from when we had sided with them on matters of mutual benefits - like the Purge of Katoomba. Walken’s Faction owes us for barring the Militant Faction from the Central Coast, where the Greys had set up a commodity-exchange with the Sandskin Mermen Tribe. Each time, we benefit a little, here and there, keeping the peace, slowly ratcheting up our position.”

“Oh, I get it!” Gwen nodded enthusiastically. Sufina slapped her head, demanding she stay still. “We’re putting the other Factions first, going for win-wins wherever possible. That way, we build up resources and goodwill no matter which Faction is taking the initiative. By the same measure, we don’t have to commit too much of our resources, allowing us always to keep a hand in reserve!”

“And if we are not in agreement with our fellows?” Henry questioned his Apprentice.

Gwen paused.
In the next moment, her eyes flamed with industry.

“We’ll leave them be if they succeed. Negotiation support in the case of a pyrrhic victory, or save their asses to preserve the balance!”

“Excellent!” Henry ruffled her hair. “Well done!”

“Bloody hell!” Sufina screeched. “Henry! Really?!”

“Sorry, Sufi.”

“Haha, don’t worry, Sufina, maybe I can do yours.” Gwen shook out her voluminous dark tresses, turning, she caught a handful of Sufina's 'hair'.

Sufina considered her offer with scepticism, her prehensile, vine-like hair forming instantly into a stylish Scandinavian triple-braid.

“Alright, alright.” Gwen sat back down. “I am all yours.”

Gwen opened her eyes.
There was a group of students mobbing her.

Or rather, they were mobbing Caliban and Ariel, taking advantage of the fact that she had passed out to play with her materialised, no longer invisible Familiars. Ariel was receiving the benediction of its worshippers, while Caliban twirled her hair with its tail.

Her brain slotted back into place.

“Miss Song, you’re awake.” A guilty member of Lee’s lecture stepped away from Ariel. “We were… er… looking after your Familiars for you.”

“Oh? Ah…” Gwen opened and shut her mouth a few times.

Shit! She had fallen asleep in Lee’s lecture. What’s more, it was a Wednesday!

FUCK! She was late for work!

‘Ding!’
‘Ding!’
‘Ding!’
‘Ding!’
Her Message Device chimed now that she was awake.

Ruì's voice blossomed beside her ear.

“Ma’am! You’ve got a meeting with Magus Maymaruya at 3 PM!”
“Ma’am. Should I reschedule?”
“Ma’am, Magus Maymaruya says he’ll wait, but it’s been an hour…”

“God damn it!” She pumped herself full of Almudj’s Essence, then bolted from the room.

“Ruì! Tell Dai and Ken I’ll be right in! Tell Magus Maymaruya I AM SORRY!”

March came in like a lamb, filling the campus with blossoms, dispelling the long winter.

Gwen took her time getting to the training hall, draining an XL milk tea of human kindness along the way before tossing the emptied vessel into a bin. At the double-glass doors of the training hall, she examined her reflection. Dressing for conflict, Gwen had picked out a white and floral sundress with an off-shoulder neckline to accentuate her springtime youth. She even bought a broad-brimmed hat. Since Walken convinced himself that was she was an emotional, adolescent airhead; she would play the part and make an honest man out of her instructor.

This time, for round 2, she wouldn't be Antonio.
This time, she would be Portia, and he would be her Shylock.

Advertisement
A note from Wutosama

Chapter Ref :: W.B Yeats - The Second Coming 

Bonus ::  Gwen's Outfits  (new outfit added for end of CH) 
Glossary and Magic System :: Glossary 

Voting for the novel :: Voting button  

 

Note:: Looks like someone's screwing with reading rankings again. Picked up 22 -> 29    0.5 ratings in last 12 hours. Thankfully the book now has so many ratings that it literally does 0.01 difference.


About the author

Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

Achievements
Comments(102)
Log in to comment
Log In

Log in to comment
Log In