"Left or Right?" The casualness of Gwen's voice betrayed the rarity of Ruxin's leftovers.
"The left one," Lulan replied, halfway between a dream-come-true and a waking nightmare. "Gwen, this is a higher-tier Spirit!"
"Good." Gwen retrieved the Core as one might a packaged sirloin from the supermarket, then tossed it between Lulan's lap. "Here, it's yours."
"NO!" Kusu blurted beside his sister, rattled by the fortune fallen from heaven. "That's a debt we can't repay. In all of Huashan, there is a single Sword Spirit! You're buying Lulu a ring already. We can't—"
"Why would I demand reparation?" Gwen pushed the Core into Lulan's unresisting hands so that its odds and ends poked her thighs. "I need an offensive caster who can kick arse in Europe. What's fairer than that?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Kusu spluttered. "Gwen, be reasonable. Lulan, give it back."
Lulan agonisingly lifted the crystal.
In response, Gwen procured the second Core, then tossed it toward Petra.
"Here Pats, my tuition fees."
Petra caught the Core, then ran her hand over the surface. In the past, Petra informed Gwen of the impossibility of her finding a unique, higher-tier, sapient, sentient Spirit. A Mineral variation was astronomically scarce, which was why she had given up long ago.
"Hmm, condensed Nephrite. Interesting. I'll let you know if I can attune." Petra wasn't nearly so shy. "Lulu, just so you know, the earlier you receive a sapient Spirit, the easier it is for them to attain humanoid forms. Gwen, are you sure?"
"Thanks." The girl inclined her chin. "The benefit will be mutual."
"Absolutely." Gwen nodded back, then turned to Lulan and Kusu. "See? Is that so hard?"
Kusu looked at his sister, who hugged the Core like a newborn.
"Those are… priceless," Richard butted in, renewing his understanding of Gwen's generosity. "Perfectly preserved high-tier Cores are as rare as hen's teeth."
"But their value lies in use, not worth." Gwen shrugged. "Think about the Jade Pillar. What good had it done in the hands of the Tyrant? I don't need currency, and I don't wish to hoard. Their only worth to me is what they can do for Lulu and Pats. I could trade them away as well, but I doubt an equitable trade would be possible."
"You say that." Richard smacked his lips drily. "But you could have bought a high-rise building near the Second Orbital…"
"You're overestimating their exchange rate," Mayuree chipped in, enlightened by Gwen's disregard for gifted treasures, so different to the late Me Nu and Maymyint. "The Cores are rare, though they're unlikely to find buyer, even with Spirits. We're looking at anywhere between 30,000 HDMs to 150,000 HDMs, and Mages with bloodlines worth that kind of investment usually don't lack for Spirit Cores."
Lulan begged her pale-faced brother with pleading eyes, who relented after a defeated dip of his head.
"Lulu." Petra motioned for her to get up. "Gwen, you still have that private training room booked?"
"I am coming as well." Gwen grinned, motioning for the others. "Let's see some magic!"
"Kusu, chill!" Richard slapped Kusu on the back so that the young man wouldn't asphyxiate. "Don't mind it so much. Everyone gets a fair shake of the sauce bottle on Team Gwen, eh?"
"Fair dinkum," Gwen added yet another Aussie slang to the mix, confusing the siblings to no end. "No worries, Kusu, Lulu'll be right."
The rest broke into laughter.
"Umm… Miss Song?" Ruì meekly implored at her mystic betters as they casualy exchanged gifts worth more than her lifetime earnings. "Can I go home now?"
"Gwen! Come quick! They're everywhere!" Mayuree's Message burst through the ceiling, causing Gwen to rise from her bed with such force that her bedframe threatened to revolt.
"Oh, Goddess!!" Mayuree yelped at the pale wonder suddenly materialising in her living room. "Lei, get Gwen a robe!"
"What is it— Oh my God! Lei!" Their ill-dressed intruder performed a double-take, then embraced the NoM woman with suffocating passion. "You're safe! You're back! Thank God!"
"Miss Song." Lei winced as her bones creaked. "I can't breathe."
"S-sorry!" Gwen released the matronly woman from her death-grip. "I am just so happy to see you again. We've been surviving on takeout…"
"Let me get you a robe, Miss Song."
Lei quickly retrieved a robe from the laundry.
"So, what's the matter?" Gwen studied the spotless penthouse, wondering if Mayuree had seen rats or cockroaches.
"Look down." Mayuree indicated toward her panoramic panes.
Below, like a maliciously conjured swarm, a milling assembly of three dozen reporters and their crews meandered through B1's external garden.
"What do we do?" Mayuree pressed against the glass. "Last time, you got in so much trouble."
"Let me ask." Gwen wasn't sure if she had permission to deal with the paparazzi herself and so turned to her master of dubious schemes. She punched in the Glyphs, then waited for the Divination to connect. "Eric?"
"Gwen." Walken sounded tired. "What's happened?"
"Mia and I have been blocked in by the paparazzi at B1," she explained, playing the Message aloud. "I need to take my team to T2 today to get their rings registered and Contingency contracts validated. Judging from the crowd, did we win?"
"I am not going to ruin it for you." Walken's tone was effervescent but evasive. "Just so you know, Luo and I have been dealing with your fallout for the last three days. It's good that you called because we're conscripting you for the day. There's going to be a press conference at the Guanghua auditorium, where your scores are announced. As for you, get dressed, impress the gallery outside, then get back to the campus. Richard and the others won't be needing your supervision, even if you're paying for their rings."
"Actually, Marong's paying."
"Good God." Walken bit his tongue. "I don't know if I am impressed or appalled."
"Our interests are mutual."
"Of course," her instructor concluded with a patronising pause. "Now go. Call me when you get here. Magister Wen is looking forward to sampling your latent abilities."
At the mention of the zealous researcher, her joy soured.
"Alright, Eric." She turned to Mayuree and Lei, still wearing borrowed bathrobes. "We gotta doll up for the press."
"What are you going to wear?" Mayuree averted her eyes from the second floor. There would be nine of them at the conference, making the reality of Kitty's passing all the more poignant. "What do you think I should wear?"
"Vice Captain Song!"
The mob of reporters moved forward, then staggered back when confronted by a blue-white Kirin pacing beside an obsidian Deathworm.
After which the creatures' owner arrived.
As one, devices were raised, buttons depressed and glyphs fired. For a few brief seconds, the frontage of Gouding B1 grew incandescent.
To the press corps, the Familiars' mistress was magnificent. Raven haired and crimson-lipped, she appeared a treat in crow-black chiffon, hiked just enough so that the pale length of her white legs induced voyeuristic guilt. As she approached, popping lumen-strobes vivified her hazel orbs, punctuating the click-clacking of her Mary-Janes.
The girl stopped just short of the gate, flanked on either side by her Familiars.
"I need to report to Fudan for a medical, but I am happy to answer a few questions." Fudan's Vice Captain teased the crowd with a red-lipped smile, then chose to privilege the CCVC-1 crew.
"How do you respond to rumours of your involvement in Burma's liberation?" A state-sanctioned reporter levitated a recording instrument toward the sorceress.
"Serendipity and chance, an incidental affair which cost our team greatly." The girl's shoulders drooped. "Though the outcome has favoured humanity, we lost Kitty Liang, our Controller and our friend in the incident. Whatever good that may emerge from our victory, I dedicate it first and foremost to her memory."
The journalists quickly jotted down her words.
"You." Fudan's Void Sorceress next picked a young man in a newspaper cap.
"Are allegations that you brutalised Seoul's Chaebol true? News from Seoul is that three of their members returned to the city's Tower."
The girl lowered a hand as to scratch the faceless obsidian surface of her purring Void-creature. "Ah. Talk about a loaded question. No - Fudan was not involved in sending them back. During the competition, Seoul U engaged in bad faith tactics, actions that resulted in angering a local Land God, who then punished Seoul for their unlawful trespass. We were just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. That said, Fudan did indeed crush Seoul U in a two-on-three duel."
"Is it true that you bested a high-tier dragon-subtype Magical Beast in single combat?"
Before answering, Fudan's Void Sorceress gathered both Familiars around her waist, attracting another shower of captured lightning.
"I did, and the battle was arduous and hard-won." She smiled for the cameras. "It was a Naga, by the way, a brutish beast of many heads, tireless in its ferocity. Our triumph was thanks to the unique skills offered by my team members. A concerted effort, of which I played only a small part."
"Miss Song! Will you be joining the PLA T—"
"I am sorry, here's where we must part," Gwen apologised. "We have matters to attend to at the campus."
Their subject then brought forward a petite Southeast Asian girl, as well as a stunning Russian the reporters recognised on record as Gwen Song's cousin. When all three stood side by side in sable, the journalists realised that the girls' choice of colour was for their aforementioned, deceased companion.
Collectively, the girls bowed.
The reporters parted respectfully, though not without a third tempest of lumen-pics.
Both Walken and Fudan's Dean applauded the demonstration of humility and camaraderie when Gwen called the others to inform them of the dress code for the Press Conference, which would follow after Wen finished poking the girl's innards.
Begrudgingly, Gwen had left Mayuree to accompany the others to Guanghua T2 while herself, Walken, Magus Kumiko and Luo joined Wen and Petra at the Cog-Chamber attached to Wen's Heilong Laboratory.
After an exchange of social superficialities, they were ready to begin.
"Gwen, follow my demonstration." Petra handed her an HDM crystal imbued with fire and what appeared to be a rod of steel. "Enchantment is a little different. We need to acclimatise the Sigil before we move onto biometrics."
Obediently, Gwen palmed both items, looking for a slot to insert the crystal like a battery.
"That's a pre-inscribed Glyph rod," Petra explained, amused by her cousin's clueless fidgeting, recalling that Gwen had come from a public high school. "All that's missing is the transfer invocation. It's only three Major incantations. Ready?"
Wen punched in few Glyphs only she could see, activating the Cognisance illusion with a thrum while Petra baby-talked Gwen through the process.
"How's the paper coming along?" the Dean entreated his top Gwenology researcher. "There's been a lot of interest from all three Factions."
"With this, we can publish soon," Wen informed her employer, then held her breath while their subject aped her cousin's rudimentary Enchantment. "Watch."
"Imbue!" Gwen commanded the rod in her hand.
The crystal shattered.
"Too much mana!" Petra slapped the HDM out of her cousin's hand. "Careful! Are you alright?"
"I am fine." Gwen shook her fingers, unharmed but for a spot of redness. "This is harder than it looks."
"Enchantment is the most difficult School of Magic," Wen called out from afar. "The Glyph and inscription system was originally borrowed from Dwarven Runes and antiquated runic scripts."
"Like English thrifting words from German and French," Gwen noted where she possibly could have gone wrong. From the sudden flare-up, she likely imagined the manifestation in the manner of one expecting Conjuration or Evocation.
"Let's try again." Petra produced a water-imbed HDM this time. "This one's safer."
"Alright." Gwen took account of both.
"Follow my lead." Petra resumed her demonstration of guiding her mana through her conduits, explaining the arcane process of drawing Elemental energy into Glyphic arrays.
The crystal exploded, showering both Gwen and Petra with conjured water.
"Getting better." Petra wiped away a face full of clear liquid, looking up to see Gwen tear-stained with squid-ink, both upset and discouraged. "Less mana, imagine an eye dropper, not a water hose."
The duo succeeded on the fifth attempt.
"If you activate your Enchantment and direct the mana here…" Petra demonstrated with the imbued rod, now looking worse for wear. "Water emerges where the quadragramic Mandala creates a small channel into the Elemental Plane of Water. A parallel Eikman's Circuit allows you to adjust the force, while these secondary Bravlovski's Nodes function as an on-off trigger…"
Petra's unwitting jargon reminded Gwen of when the company's egg-heads were trying to teach her how to administrate the company's website. Very quickly, she realised her time was far better spent wining and dining clients than fiddling with IT.
"Congratulations." Walken extended a hand to Wen. "It's done."
"Can we confirm her metrics?" Luo found himself sweating profusely. "Important people need to be notified."
"Petra!" Wen called out. "We're moving onto biometrics!"
"Umm... are we not testing her Void Familiar?" Beside the Magisters, Magus Kumiko raised a demure hand. More and more, she felt drawn into some strange conspiracy. "If so, may I go?"
Luo slapped his forehead.
"My apologies, Magus Kumiko." The Dean dipped his chin. "Please proceed. Miss Song, is your Familiar ready?"
Gwen's response was to conjure Caliban with a thought. More and more, her Familiar spell was attaining reflexive mastery.
"Shaa!" Caliban slithered into being, happy to be out and about again after the showing in front of the press. "Shaa! Shaa!"
Magus Kumiko meanwhile, set up her usual Summon Creature a safe distance away.
Where she had drawn the glyph array on the floor, an untethered Tusker Boar appeared, dragged through space and time, reformulated from the raw Essence of the Wildlands.
"Caliban!" Gwen readied herself, noting the presence of Onibi behind her, ready to deliver whatever Positive Energy Magus Kumiko could spare. "Naga form!"
Caliban coiled then leapt toward the stunned porcine beast. As with its stag-transformation, its carapace split, weeping spurts of dark ichor as its serpent form perished. First, its midsection grew grotesquely pregnant, then with the likeness of a bloating balloon toy, the rest of its body elongated. Without warning, three heads mushroomed where one had existed, each coagulant with jostling chitin, forming faceless miens in the manner of bullets. A second later, with the force of a runaway carriage, Caliban rammed head-first into the cowering boar, bowling it to the floor.
"ONSLAUGHT!" a shrill command filled the Cognisance Chamber.
Magister Wen's fingers blurred as she annotated the recording.
Caliban's armoured heads began to split; from each lamprey-lip erupted a mass of tendrils and tentacles, some with the likeness of bloodworms, others more akin to squid tentacles barbed with hooked-teeth.
The porcine beast's squeals reached a new feverish pitch, mirroring the harrowing discomfort felt by Gwen's advisors until finally, the noise cut short with a gurgling whimper.
The demonstration had lasted no more than half a minute, but already Magus Kumiko found herself sick twice over, exacerbated by Onibi's mass transfer of her Positive-charged mana into Fudan's headlining sorceress.
When the monster snapped itself shut, she found herself heaving yet again.
"How is it?" Wen wetted her pencil-thin lips. "Compared to the Stag or the Gila?"
"I don't think the Naga-form is usable without support, or a great deal of excess vitality," Gwen confessed. "When the heads came out, I could hardly move."
Stoically, Wen then requested defence data, which Gwen consented for both Spellcraft and her personal curiosity.
In quick succession, a dozen projectiles, almost ethereal, struck Caliban's carapace, driving it backwards and tearing off a chunk of bloody chitin.
"How is it?" Walken looked over Wen's shoulder.
"Much tougher," Wen remarked, moving away.
Gwen took a deep breath while she massaged her ribs. Though Caliban took the damage, their empathy had grown more intimate.
"My turn. Gwen, are you ready?" Walken raised a finger.
She flinched as Walken's spell singed Caliban's carapace.
"Draconic resistance?" Wen remarked.
"I think so," the Dean agreed. "Walken?"
"I concur." Walken beckoned Caliban to slither closer, then fed the beast three HDMs, one for each head. "Usually, Caliban is weak to oppositional elements. See the scuff here? I think it repelled some of the lightning. Fascinating! It looks like Marie has her work cut out."
"Shaa!" Caliban waved its three heads.
"I'd imagined more heads." Luo walked a circle around her Familiar, offering his tithing. "Five-plus-one, wasn't it?"
"I don't think I have the vitality," Gwen offered her thanks to Onibi and its master. "Thank you, Ma'am, for always helping us."
"You should take care," Kumiko warned her student. "If that had been anyone but you, they would have lost consciousness. I think the more heads you conjure, the more it taxes your body, and the more powerful your creature becomes."
"She could probably manage four if she had a mind to." Wen tapped her tablet. Heedless of Gwen's clammy complexion nor her colleague's disapproving expressions. "Now, let us obtain some stats."
At Wen's private laboratory in the Heilong building, Gwen sat on a bench, wrapped in a towel while her new biometrics were printed out.
"Looks like we've got a disproportional increase in Evocation and Transmutation, in addition to Enchantment as a new metric." Wen, Luo and Walken crowded around the scripts as they emerged, with Wen reading out the results. "Here they are…"
A collective exhalation resounded, leaving Gwen to gape in shock-horror at the unexpected boost in both Evocation and Transmutation.
"Gwen?" Petra reached her side, noting the sudden change in her cousin's body language. "Are you alright?"
"I..." Gwen fanned herself with a hand. "I just… I need a moment."
"Your VMI is now on record as 302 from 254." Wen looked up. "Had a good meal? There should be diminishing returns, according to our studies. You said there was one Mage who was Consumed, who are the others?"
"Alright, that's enough." Walken stepped in between the researcher and the two girls.
"Nominal increases, about 0.2 in both elements, impressive but nothing out of the ordinary. 6.67 and 4.51. There's still a way to go." Wen exhaled with exasperation. "Wasting opportunities is most unbecoming if you're serious about winning."
When Gwen confronted Wen's critical eyes with her bloodshot orbs, the Magister dutifully pursed her lips.
"Need I remind you we have a conference later?" The Dean cut in before the academic could dig herself deeper. "Petra, I think Gwen could use some fresh air before the conference."
Seeing that her cousin looked about ready to snap, Petra happily obliged.
"Go take a break, but don't leave the campus." Luo ushered the two girls out of Wen's laboratory. "There's a few hours still. Get some food, get something to drink, and get Gwen cleaned up. I am counting on you- Fudan is counting on you."
With the girls gone, The three Magisters each took up their poisons.
Magister Wen had initially procured water, though realising the sanctity of the moment, she accepted Walken's thimble of eighteen-year-old single-malt.
"First, a toast." Walken raised his glass. "To our girl of many talents."
The three clinked.
"I need more data." Wen wasted no time in speaking her mind. "Her team is down a member, isn't she? Take Petra. She's been taught the right mix of contingencies to deal with matters in Europe, she's a registered Mind Mage, and she's still below the age restriction."
"That's not a bad idea, actually," Walken agreed. "Gwen's one weakness would be against Mind Magic. Certainly, there's potential."
"I'll lodge the request." Luo raised his glass.
The three clinked.
"So, I am assuming we're all thinking the same thing: an Omni-Mage at last." Wen turned crimson from the spirit. "How shall she thank us in the future?"
"I'd be delighted if she doesn't purge the three of us," Walken snorted.
"Why would she?" Wen turned her cup, frowning bemusedly. "We made her. I taught her the theory. I unclouded her fear of the Void, made it into an exact science. My apprentice, Petra, filled her empty little brain with knowledge. Shouldn't she be grateful?"
"Ah- Marie." Walken shook his head. "That's why you're a researcher and not a politician. You've got less empathy than that girl has in her little finger. We're all benefiting from her ascension; you have to remember. She doesn't owe us anything. We're tagalongs, parasites, enablers of her appetites. Who knows how or what she would think or do in the future?"
"But she's a nice lass." The Dean licked his lips apprehensively. "Even the death of a house slave was enough to drive her wild. How many of us could manage that?"
"That's because she hasn't tasted the bitter pill of power." Walken chuckled. "Her type is especially prone. The power of sovereignty is fraught with temptation, after all. An Omni-Mage? More like a walking invitation to conflict and disaster! Can you imagine it? Our bumbling Gwen, saving her 'Mates' but abandoning a city to be ravaged, or perhaps vice-versa... Once, twice, it takes a toll…"
Walken tapped his forehead.
"...if and when it happens, and it will happen - she won't be able to sleep. She'll drink to excess, and then she'll get over it. Then it happens again, and the cycle repeats, only the refraction period grow shorter. It starts with this Kitty, and then who? Petra? Mayuree? Richard? After a decade pursuing influence and power, sacrifice becomes business as usual. So long as your family, your friends, your clan, your Tower, your Faction benefits, the means justify the ends."
"I am happy to say I did not ever enjoy that much privilege." Luo slugged back the thimble. "She's such a do-gooder. And she's neither greedy nor power-hungry, you never know..."
The others nursed their cups.
"None of that matters to me." Wen ran a hand over Gwen's bio-metric scripts. "I want to see the Übermensch. I want to see Void Magic prosper. I want to be referenced in every paper and every journal. If I can have that, she can Consume me for all I care. A creation consuming its creator is rather poetic, don't you think?"
"I envy the simplicity of your fervour." Walken refilled their glasses. "I really do."
"I'll drink to that." Luo lifted his tumbler. "As for now, let's head to the conference, shall we?"