It took only six more days for the fated '/' Gwen had marked off on her calendar to become an 'X'.
As it was a Wednesday, she cleared her schedule of both classes and work, practised a few mock-interviews with Walken, filled herself up to her throat with Magus Kumiko’s summons, then joined the others for her afternoon appointment.
According to her Instructor's insider-information, unless she cock-up by boasting about the dubious nature of the Void, its hunger, and her many mental malignancies, her selection was assured. Additionally, a case for Lulan and Richard's inclusion should be put forward in the manner of a 'package deal'. If one had leverage, Walken remarked, then leverage away.
Nonetheless, the waiting room and the attention of two dozen others made Gwen ever more conscious of the expectations laid at her feet.
“I feel sick,” Gwen expressed a distinct desire to retire to the bathroom to practice Rodin's Thinker.
Petra, Richard, Lulan and Kusu gaped at their ventilating sorceress.
“It's the anticipation.” She tried to put her eccentricity into words. “I can't help thinking that something's going to go wrong."
“Once bitten, twice shy?" Richard pointed out. "You did fail some pretty important tests, I recall."
“The first was when I was ten.” Gwen retrieved her alter-ego’s memories. “I failed the first aptitude test and got placed into a public high school when I turned twelve.”
“You did?” Petra had never been privy to her cousin's true mediocrity.
“Now that I think about it, she tanked her PMAE too,” Richard appended the other’s knowledge of their almighty sorceress. “Did you manage to pass your AMAE?”
“I skipped it, remember?” Gwen grinned guiltily. “If I had gotten back to Australia, we would have continued onto Year 12 and then had our Advanced Magical Aptitude Exams in July.”
Her friends, particularly Lulan and Kusu, stared.
“Y-you’re not even a high-school graduate?” a gobsmacked Kusu stuttered. “You don't have a Higher-Education Magical Aptitude Certificate?”
“Ah-ha-ha…” Gwen cringed.
“Wow, that's impressive."
“Incredible!” Lulan gazed upon Gwen with awe. "I had Questing Credits, but you received an LCS scholarship without higher-education qualifications?"
The combined visage of the Flowers of Fudan was drawing attention from all over, though as usual, the ever-resourceful Mineral Enchanter had earlier set up a Privacy Ward.
"You enrolled younger than I did though," Gwen praised the youthful Lulan. "I mean-"
The corner of her eye caught a pale and lithe silhouette.
There was no mistaking it. Gwen could spot the pale-skinned pixie a mile away.
“I’ll bring her over.” She left the group before the others could react.
As she approached, Kitty seemed to drift further away. When she finally got to the other end of the hall, watched by the two dozen or so contestants scheduled for the first round of interviews, the girl was gone.
“That’s strange,” Gwen moped when she returned to her friends. “I think she’s avoiding me.”
“Well, you can be exceedingly bothersome,” Richard quipped. “Caliban sniffs and licks everything; you leak Dragon-fear without warning, Ariel zooms around the apartment, knocking down anything not bolted down, leaving a fine dusting of fur over every conceivable surface, including my cereal.”
“Hmmph! Sif!” Gwen pouted. "My babies are perfect!"
The others joined the jeering.
“At least you're not nervous anymore.” Richard cracked his knuckles. "Nor am I, to be honest. Walken's a good bloke to have around."
“I am scared,” Lulan confessed. Though Walken gave her a pep talk, she had little in the way of a true speciality. “What if I don’t make it, Gwen?”
“Oh, Lulu, you’ll be fine!” Gwen hugged the girl close to her chest, feeling her thudding heart jackhammer against Gwen’s own. “You did well against me in our sparring sessions. You’re kick-ass, okay?! Just wait till we find a Spirit for you and finish our Signature Spells. You'll be an unstoppable Panzerschreck!”
"Armour... scare?" Richard laughed at her Gwenism. "What?"
Between herself, Richard and Lulu, the three of them were making decent headway. Their current problem was the lack of sufficiently powerful propulsion. Lulan’s ‘sword draws’ materialised her blades as she spell-flurried, using the kinetic energy of her heavy-blades to crush or slice her targets. With an alteration to the original spell, it should be possible to exponentially increase the expulsion rate of Elemental Iron by reducing the weight and mass of her Conjure Blades through compression. Assuming it was possible to attain a projectile velocity of a large-bore gun, which Gwen recalled to be almost a thousand meters-per-second, they could then work on generating torque to stabilise Lulu’s shot. Unfortunately, as a half-assed physicist, Gwen could only half-guess as to the mysteries of conserving angular momentum, leaving facts to trial and error. Had she been forewarned of her interstellar adventure, she would have taken the subject for her HSC.
“Oi, I think one of us is up." Richard was the first to notice the Proctors standing at the door.
“GWEN SONG - S.I.D: 12598 S0203, are you present?” an announcer called out, his voice permeating the room.
“PRESENT!” a shrill voice answered. Gwen took a deep breath. "Wish me luck!"
"You won't need it," Richard scoffed. "Don't forget to give us a plug!"
“Gwen Song, S.I.D: 12598 S0203,” Gwen announced to the tribunal overlooking her selection.
The converted training hall had a lesser Cognisance in effect, materialising a stream of Quasi-Elemental Lightning as her boot-heels echoed through the enormous chamber. Observing her were four Adjudicators: one she knew, one she had seen prior, and two she did not. Chief among the gathered was the Dean, Jiang Luo, sitting beside the Chief Registrar, a lady-Magister called Clarine Lee. To her left was a Caucasian man she had never seen before. To her right, was another, a grey-haired Asian man with an austere appearance. These two had the bearing of Tower officials: presumably, one was from Pudong, and the other was a CCP Tower Mage.
“Miss Song, we welcome you to the 2004 IIUC selection interview. In the next few minutes, we will ask you for a demonstration, as well as answer a few questions. Should you wish to withdraw, you may do so at any time.”
The voice that spoke was shrill and sharp, belonging to the Registrar.
“Dean Luo and I will adjudicate, while Magister Eckermann and Wu will affirm or reject our decision. A majority of three out of four is needed to pass. Should our votes tie, you will be included as a reserve member.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Gwen straightened the hem of her cotton blouse. All in all, the scenario reminded her of the time she had to apply for a Citibank 'Young Women in Banking' Cadetship grant.
For this momentous occasion, she had taken great care to dress her team. Richard, thanks to his tall and athletic bearing, made for a natural model. With a healthy dash of gel to style his hair, an expensive jacket, boot-cut chinos and a pastel shirt, the young man was effortlessly cool. Lulu was a little more challenging, for the girl had a reputation and Gwen wanted the interviewers to see her as someone adorably in 'control' of her notable capacity for ultraviolence. After dragging the wide-eyed girl through half a dozen shops in K-11, she dressed the petite athlete in semi-formal belted shorts, knee-socks, booties, and a linen jacket in sunburst yellow. Kusu was, of course, confounded by Lulan’s new look, which to Gwen signalled a sign of success.
As for herself, she had a very particular appearance in mind. Considering the infamy of her worm-handling moniker and her reputation for sassing authority when confronted by her betters, her preference was for something ambivalently wedged between youthful exuberance and earnest industry. Her usually straight-brushed hair was thus left loose and comfortable, juxtaposing an upper body hidden demurely behind a neutral-toned long-sleeved blouse. For her lower body, she favoured full mobility with a pair of cargo shorts that showed off the entire length of her white legs, ending with a set of pumped steel-toes.
The style was minimalist, military, and urban-chic, clean in the extreme, but simultaneously aesthetic and pleasing. Gwen's only regret was that Petra wasn’t competing. If so, she could guarantee her cousin's selection on the Vid-cast ratings alone.
“Miss Song, why do you wish to participate in the IIUC?”
Walken had coached her on this topic already, and so Gwen channelled a mote of her Essence to fluff-up her confidence before attending to her viva voce.
“Lord Magisters - Dean, thank you for giving me the opportunity to be here. For your consideration, I would like to offer an official and a private rationale for my inclusion in Fudan’s IICU team. In the capacity of myself as a student of this austere tertiary institution, I would like to put myself forward for Fudan because the university has helped me in my time of need. When I arrived as a refugee from Sydney, terrified, helpless and confused, it was Fudan who offered me - a mere girl from the Frontier - an opportunity to study with the best Shanghai had to offer. For this reason, I wish to repay the Dean for his generosity and to show the world that Fudan is a first-class institution.”
The observers took notes. The Dean beamed.
"Why do I want to join the IIUC? I fear my rationale is a selfish one. I desire a stage, one of of great influence. I am a Void Mage, and we all know that Void Mages are unstable, self-destructive, deranged and dangerous. This is simply not true. For me, the Quasi-element of Void is a tool - one via which I will exact a price on the Demi-humans who dare to invade our domain and slaughter our people! I will use the IIUC to prove to the world that Void Mages are not to be feared, but celebrated! That Mages like me will be the catalyst of a lasting peace! That one day, atop a Tower of my own making, Humanities' enemies will quake in its shadow and loathe the prospect of war!”
‘CLAP! CLAP! CLAP! CLAP!’
‘Clap... Clap. Clap...’
Confused by the other's inaction, Gwen searched for the second source of ecstatic applause, finding Ellen clapping mirthlessly beside her boisterous Master.
The other three Adjudicators marked the Dean with unfriendly warnings before turning back to Gwen.
“Miss Song. What is your desired position?”
“Offensive Caster or Battlefield Controller, Lord Magister.”
"Very well - begin your presentation."
Gwen stepped back and took a deep breath. After careful deliberation with Walken, they had decided on one hell of a show and tell. For weeks she had been preparing a spell that would not only impress, but demonstrate her absolute control over the Void.
After raising both hands, she paused for drama.
“You may feel a slight discomfort.”
Gwen drew a finger through the air. A Glyph materialised, darker than black, gnawing into the fabric of space and time. Entwined with Almudj’s Essence, Void-matter flooded through her mana conduits, feeding into the modified Conjuration staple made timeless by Magi Morden.
With herself as the epicentre, a wave of Dragon-fear and vertigo radiated from Gwen’s body. Having anticipated her spell, the Dean was already channelling mana through his Astral Soul to offset the side-effects of Gwen’s creature-conjuration, snickering as his peers paled in unison.
As for the Dean's pet subject, she was now wreathed in midnight, visible only thanks to her viridescent irises casting a pale emerald glow across the Draconic-deerhounds slithering into being from a rift in space.
All were familiar with Morden’s Hounds. Most of them had seen the unique effects of Draconic-magic as well and arguably, at least two of them had seen Void Mages up close, but none had ever borne witness to the terrific visage that was the amalgamation of all three.
Dean Luo was the first to shake himself from the horrid sight of Void-tinged deerhounds. Activating a suite of diagnostic magic, he took an intimate gander at the alien creatures now paddling across the training hall’s floor.
Visually, the creatures were dogs - large ones at that, measuring a good two meters from head to toe, though the proportion of the animals appeared to possess more head than any other anatomy. That was the disconcerting thing: Void-clad in obsidian plates, about half of the hound consisted of a large, phallic-shaped head that ended with no face, but what presumably was the beginning and end of a meter long jaw. From between the slit, a viscous grey-goo oozed as the Void-beasts prowled, all seven of them.
The beasts' alpha slinked into being.
“Shaaaa!” The jet-black Death-worm screeched.
As one, the hounds stood to attention.
The Void Sorceress turned to face the judges, her complexion heart-breakingly pale, as fragile as white-jade porcelain.
“They obey every command,” Gwen explained, not a hint of exertion to her voice. “The hounds have also inherited the Elemental traits of Void-beings. In tests conducted with Magus Kumiko’s summoned creatures, they can recover from physical damage by consuming bio-mass. Furthermore, unless fully Banished or dispelled by Lightning, the creatures persist until their vitality is exhausted.”
“They also draw their constitution from your health; do they not?” Magister Eckermann, the grey-haired Tower Mage from Pudong, enquired with a conservative air.
“Yessir,” Gwen affirmed the Magister’s suspicions, though she did not append the Magister's enquiry with additional details.
“They are capable of pack-tactics?” the CCP Magister queried.
“Indeed.” She glanced at her dogs.
Immediately, her pack separated, each taking on a corner as if guarding the general perimeter.
“What of their prowess?” Registrar Lee continued the line of questioning.
“Exceedingly lethal,” Gwen stated without exaggeration. “They are yet to be battle tested in the field, though thanks to Magister Walken and Magus Kumiko’s generosity, the pack can dismantle a Tier 7 Bristle-back Hog without losses. I would say that against creatures below the giant-category, my deerhounds’ prowess remains… unmatched.”
“Very impressive,” Dean Luo spoke loud enough for the other’s to hear. “She has my vote.”
The others shuffled in their seats.
Registrar Lee glowered at the Dean.
“We're not supposed to inform you in person, Miss Song. But since the Dean is so adamant and your performance so extraordinary; I shall concur.” Registrar Lee raised her hand.
“I have no objection.”
“Neither have I.”
“Right.” Dean Luo beamed at his protege. “Gwen, congratulations. Second round trials will begin in Semester two, near the ides of June. We will be testing your teamwork. Assuming everything goes well, you’ll be looking to represent our institution!”
Gwen bowed deeply.
"As to that very matter, Dean, Sirs and Madams, may I have a minute of your time?"
"Go ahead, Gwen."
The others remained silent.
"Sirs, Madam, you may know already, but my cousin Richard Huang and my companion Lulan Li are also keen to prove their mettle in the IIUC. We're a team, and together, we are all at our best. My cousin Richard and I came first in the Hengsha Island Dungeon even before we came to Fudan. As for Lulan, she has been Adventuring with Richard and myself, and we have managed to clear the Nantong Water-Ghost's lair without incident, going so far as to rescue a scion of the Fung Clan. Together, our complementary skills become multiplicative, greatly increasing our operational efficacy. If I am to be my very best in acting for Fudan, I wish to have my left and right arms by my side."
"I understand," the Dean assured her.
“Miss Song, you may leave now.” Registrar Lee insisted. "We will take your account into consideration."
“Thank you, Lord Magisters, Dean - Thank you for your guidance."
With that, she packed her creatures, then retreated to the exit.
Once outside, a dozen pairs of eyes converged on the eye-catching girl with the impossibly pale legs.
“Richard, cover me.” Gwen stalked across the floor, her boots striking staccato steps as she pushed past the crowd.
Very quickly, her friends surrounded her.
Gwen materialised a half-bottle of Maotai she had earlier purchased and chugged the rest in one go, exhaling a sweet scent of distilled sorghum as her vitality regenerated, returning a spot of colour to her cheeks.
“Do you think imbibing alcohol is considered cheating?” Gwen packed the bottle away. “Would it count as a potion?”
“Of course not.” Richard grinned wickedly. “If anyone else can afford it, or can slam it down as you do, they’re welcome to replicate our strategy.”
“I think they might ban it once the cat’s out of the bag,” Kusu warned her. “If you can convert the vitality from treasure-grade consumables like Maotai, wouldn’t that imply an unlimited capacity for Void?”
“First I’d have liver failure,” Gwen returned seriously. “My body's still stuck processing the booze. It’s not as though I am an alcohol-fuelled combustion engine.”
Kusu cocked his head.
“Nothing.” Gwen stifled a burp. “There it goes. Yeah, I don’t think Maotai is a long-term solution either. Maybe some of that Spiritual Ginseng…”
“Ask your Grandfather?” Richard implored.
“Naw, he’s saving for babulya and Percy,” Gwen replied sweetly. Though Guo could use a few extra years, he still wanted to reserve the best herbal ingredients for his wife and his grandson. To Gwen, that was an entirely respectable sentiment.
“And owe Ayxin? No thanks,” Gwen reflected sourly. She hadn’t seen the pair of them in forever. She wondered what they were doing - well, she could guess what they were doing. It was more so a question of Axyin popping out a litter of baby Ash Dragons. Rather than the proverbial Queen of Dragons, she could be 'Aunt' of Dragons.
“So, how did the whole thing go?” Lulan asked anxiously. "What should I expect?"
“Well.” Gwen cleared her head. “When you first walk in, you’re going to be hit by A LOT of diagnostic magic…”
“So, what do you think?” Dean Luo sat in his office, attended by his cosplaying Familiar.
The other three Magisters lounged comfortably in tub-chairs and sofas dotting the Dean’s Roaring Twenties' smoking room, recently renovated after a disastrous mishap involving a hysterical Ellen.
“The Void Sorceress' a shoo-in, I’d imagine.” Hans Eckermann, the Proctor for the Pudong Tower, sipped his coffee.
“Of course, if you dare deny her, Eckermann, I’ll fight you.” The Dean chuckled. “And her friends?”
“The Water Mage is an interesting character,” Magister Wu remarked after swallowing a mouthful of scalding tea. Unlike western variations, the green-tea from Fur-peak was best taken at its hottest and most fragrant.
Gingerly, Ellen flittered about, acting the attentive maid.
Magister Wu Gusong of the Shanghai Tower, more commonly known as the CCP Tower, regarded Dean Luo’s Dutch wife. He was aware of the theory that humanising one’s Spirits allowed them to attain higher tiers of Affinity and hastened their spiritualisation, though he’d rarely seen anyone bother with something as nebulous as clothing their Familiars. The latter, in Wu’s opinion, was an indication that Luo was a confessed sexual deviant.
“How so?” the Dean pursued the matter. “There’s no taking back a vote.”
“It’s his aspiration that I find strange.” Wu cocked his head, turning away from Ellen’s distracting visage. “Not an ounce of self-promotion, but an assurance that his presence will ensure Gwen Song will emerge victorious from the competition? That’s a first. One would have thought he was a foster-child of her House, not an expatriated student from Prince’s Frontier Scholarship program.”
“Did you read the report I attached?” Luo glanced at the others. “It's Richard Huang’s second-year proposal for the subjugation of the lower-Nantong delta’s remaining Demi-humans. He's been exterminating them with the Li girl, joined by a rag-tag team of local Mages.”
From their blank expressions, the answer was no.
“Ellen.” The Dean materialised a stack of reports. “Give these out.”
The others took a minute to read through the reports.
“Monstrous!” The Chief Registrar spat when she got to the recommendations segment. “I can see this working, but Mao…”
“I’d love to recruit him for the Grey Ghosts.” Magister Wu whistled. “I want to say he’s needlessly cruel, but you have to admit, it’ll work.”
“Is this boy the kind of influence we want on the girl?” Magister Eckermann pointed out what they’d all been thinking.
“Undoubtedly,” the Dean interjected. “You remember what Seoul U did to us last year? There’s a naivety in our young Mages, hand-reared by Clan and in a green-House, that must be offset by someone with a practical focus.”
“But Gwen Song was raised in Oceania, was she not? Why isn't she like this?”
“She's fair and of the gentler sex, perhaps?” the Dean alerted the others with a useless bit of information. “Stubborn and altruistic too. Not debilitating by any means, but it’s there. She won’t look kindly on the sort of length her cousin is willing to go. In my opinion, the two together make for a perfect balance between prim propaganda and pragmatic problem solver. She’ll give us good optics, I am sure. You've all seen her. The Vid-cast ratings will be phenomenal.”
“The last time we broadcasted the IIUC live…”
“...Was a disaster.” Dean Luo shook his head. “Don’t worry; I’ve got a good feeling about this year. If anything, I'll take responsibility.”
“Fine. What about the excommunicated Clanner?”
“I voted yes to offer Gwen Song more autonomy,” the Dean explained. “On a team of five, she could have operation authority if it’s three to two. Gwen can occupy dual-roles of Control and Offence, while Li can be an Offensive-interceptor. The cousin can likewise occupy dual-roles as mobile Defence and Battlefield Controller.”
“Agreed.” Eckermann made his opinion known. “Assuming this report is true. She's a fantastic soldier. What she lacks in talent, she makes up in enthusiasm. Did you see her Questing data? Two thousand and four hundred plus confirmed kills. She could be a career officer, at the very least a decorated NCO."
“I’ll agree for the sake of the Water Mage, not for your protégé,” Wu declared, glancing sideways at the Dean. “I want to see him in action. If he’s as good as I think he is, I want him enrolled in the Ghosts."
“You can try.” The Dean opened both hands. “I won’t stop you.”
Magister Wu ignored the Dean's quip and returned to sipping his tea.
“I guess my ‘nay’ vote doesn’t matter then,” Registrar Lee grumbled. “We’ll reconvene in June for the team selections.”
“Very well.” The Dean applauded himself. “Ellen, see the guests out, then go give Gwen and her friends the good news.”
“The announcement is one week from now, Sir,” Ellen, trained in processing simple paperwork and reading the calendar, informed her Master.
“Ah~, what’s the harm?”
“You have another thirty candidates to interview, Sir…” Registrar Lee frowned. “Please don’t play favourites. This is an important event for many of the students. Even a reserved position is a highly sought-after accolade.”
The Dean grumbled.
“Fine. Ellen, get me Walken.” He ignored the others. “Gentlemen, Elaine, we're done here.”