Before Jean-Paul became the protègè of Meister Bekker, he was a foundling with no name. According to his file, his mother was a prostitute, an unenviable position in the days of South Africa's regime change. A six-word abbreviation indicated she had died giving birth to her life-leeching son in an alleyway in Sunnyside. As for his father, any number of hundreds of Johns could have contributed to Jean-Paul's miraculous genetic makeup.
As an infant, Jean-Paul bid his time at the Sacred Heart Kinderhuis, an orphanage located in Pretorian platteland, a place that used to be a pumpkin farm. The modest acreage was composed of a vaulted chapel attached to a schoolhouse with a semi-detached dwelling. Together with the occasional neighbour, the orphanage was presided over by one sister Annett de Mulder, a flaxen-haired cleric-cum-caretaker.
For Jean-Paul, Sister de Mulder's Positive Affinity was a blessing, for the pallid child with the horrid constitution couldn't have survived anywhere else. Yet, here with the generous-souled sister, his health held on with the tenacity of a spider thread.
Compared to the other children, who prospered or starved pending the season, Jean-Paul's body possessed an incredible ability to subsist on anything given to him, no matter how unnutritious or unsavoury. When strife broke out in Pretoria and sister de Mulder's brood of some two dozen were reduced to soupy rice and pumpkins, Jean-Paul stubbornly thrived like a vermin, subsisting on the thinnest milk and the soupiest porridge for months.
Diseases also seemed to take to Jean-Paul like flies to a carcass, for though he had contracted everything from cholera, dysentery, smallpox and a strange rash on his pale, colourless flesh, he rejected all calls to a higher purpose. As a result, his arms and legs grew covered with scars and scabs from his ceaseless picking, and as his height sprouted, ringlet stretch-marks scored his encrusted skin.
"Jean-Paul, you're as tough as a warthog!" de Mulder had teased him once.
"Nee nee nee," the other children revolted. For some reason, they never liked Jean-Paul, whose bulbous eyes made them afraid. "Jean-Paul is an Umzokwe!"
Jean-Paul did not know what the word meant. He was neither the youngest nor the eldest orphan, but he was the least popular by far. Perhaps it was because of his upturned nose, which was so different from the straight-ridged or flat-button organs the other children possessed. Or maybe it was his grotesque pallidness, which juxtaposed the pale-pink or the creamy nutmeg of his fellows; either way, Jean-Paul was born alone and preferred to be alone.
Just once, Jean-Paul had asked her what the nickname meant.
"Ah…" The sister's well-loved eyes grew awkward. "You are named after 'John' the Baptist, who christened Christ. It's conjoined with 'Paul', the teacher of Tarsus, he who spread the words of the saviour. As for your surname, we'll see when your adoption arrives, hmm?"
"No, I meant 'umzokwe'," the boy inquired, his blue orbs sucking the sister's soul.
"It means the blessed one."
Later in life, Jean-Paul said a prayer for the sister to atone for her little white lie. "Umzokwe" was a Zulu word for leech. According to Meister Bekker, who applauded the children's wisdom, the word referenced not the common leech, but the deathless blood-suckers that inhabited the Vaal River. In popular myth, if one were to chop an umzokwe in half, two would emerge a week later. Older, Jean-Paul would learn that "umzokwe" had another meaning. It was one derived from an ancient Zulu custom— the slaying of sinners by bleeding them in a river full of umzokwe. For the Boers who bore witness to the trials carried out by the Sangoma, "umzokwe" was a word they took to mean 'cruelty'.
Every so often, the orphanage was visited by men and women looking to adopt the children. Prior to their new homes, the children studied Spellcraft, awaiting the day when they would be selected. For an orphan, the age of thirteen was the longest they could stay under the care of sister de Mulder, after which those who failed an early Awakening would attend a state-sanctioned school.
Once, when Jean-Paul snuck into the chapel to watch the process, he saw the sister bring out what he would later recognise as the Awakening Stone from the storage room.
"Lightning, tier 1." One of the men grinned at Johan, a haughty thirteen-year-old who often picked on Jean-Paul. "Geluksvogel, you're getting adopted."
"Well done, Sister." the bearded leader left a bagful of crystal credits on the altar, what Jean-Paul now identified as HDMs. "See you in six months."
Sister de Mulder bowed from the waist. "Please take care of Johan, Lord Magus. He is a good boy with a good heart."
That was the last Jean-Paul saw of Johan, and he was happier for it.
When Jean-Paul turned ten, news came from the Boers up the road that the British abolished the old laws, and a new coalition was in power. The celebration was so drawn and so vast that even in the platteland of Pretoria, they could hear the sound of fireworks and spells firing off from Johannesburg. Mister Nieuwoudt, their neighbour who was in Pretoria when it happened, said that the party had lasted three days and three nights; that the NoMs hung wands across the Johan Rissik Bridge so that sparks showered on the trains and trams, heralding the end of a misguided era. Cries of "Long live Johannesburg!" resounded through the city, reaching even Jean-Paul's ears when a group of NoM labourers drove by the farm, screeching wildly.
For a while, things in the city had remained hopeful. But when time passed, and nothing changed, the jubilation fermented faster than sauerkraut.
One night, only six-months after the political sea change in the city, Jean-Paul was awoken by the sound of shouting in the chapel. A fidgety sleeper mocked for his permanent eye-bags, Umzokwe snuck into the chapel by wiggling into the storeroom's underfloor crawl space.
To his chagrin, it wasn't the lord Magus who had come to visit, but a group of strange men armed with clubs and what appeared to be shock wands, like the one sister de Mulder kept locked in her office. The weapon was a necessity, for occasionally if a group of Gobs appeared and the neighbours were busy, the sister would have to shoo the monsters herself.
"Bitch, where did you send my sister?" A man pushed sister de Mulder against the dais from which she usually conducted her lessons.
Sister de Mulder kept her eyes downcast. "I do not know, Mattys. I am just a caretaker."
Slap! The man struck her with a blow so savage that Jean-Paul almost leapt from his hiding spot. In his mind, the strike may as well have been a thunderclap.
"Hoer Heks! Where is my sister? What have you done with her?
The man turned. Now that Jean-Paul could get a better look, he could see that his face was familiar. It really was Mattys, a boy that had left the orphanage some four years ago. His sister was two years his junior, a fair and auburn-headed lass with long limbs. Jean-Paul recalled that she had happily Awakened as a Fire Mage and had been adopted by a Magus.
"WHERE IS SHE?" Mattys struck the sister again, an act that made Jean-Paul flinch. He wanted above all else to bite the man in the neck, to tear his throat; but, somewhere in his head, wedged between the floorboard and the foundation, he understood his helplessness. As a child yet to be tested for Affinity, Jean-Paul was wand-fodder. Could he charge out and headbutt the man? Could he stand and defend sister de Moulder even if he possessed the will?
In the room, the sister remained defiant. "You cannot cow me, Squib. You're a disgrace to our kind. How dare you join the NoMs to conspire against your superiors? They'll murder your future children, I guarantee it."
Mattys paused. Jean-Paul held his breath. He was ignorant then, and the sister's vitriolic voice shook him to his core. Never before had he seen the sister so bitter and so angry. Even with her body pressed against the dais and her arms pinned by the men, her pride astonished him.
"Brett." Mattys' response was to place a hand upon sister de Mulder's motherly bosoms. "Can you guess the sister's age?"
"Twenty? Thirty?" The older man's expression darkened. "Why?"
"She's forty at the very least!" Mattys tugged at the fabric so that the sister's collar came loose, revealing the white flesh beneath. "She's a Cleric, you know. When I studied under her, the textbooks say that healers have the sweetest bodies, full of youth, that they'll survive even the harshest abuse."
The other men laughed. As a child, Jean-Paul understood but did not understand why their laughter stunned his ears and made his chest feel like exploding.
Thankfully, the group's leader, the bearded Brett, told Mattys to leave the sister. Mattys insisted that the sister paid for her crimes as a sorceress, and it wasn't until Brett intimidated the men with a Lightning Wand that they backed away, muttering something about "Just having fun".
"Sister." Brett turned to sister de Mulder. "We'll be taking some supplies; then we'll be on our way. Is that agreeable?"
Sister de Mulder nodded, hugging her habit against her torso. Jean-Paul could see that she had turned as white as a freshly laundered sheet. When the men left, sister de Mulder knelt before the cross and prayed. Jean-Paul wanted to return to bed, but the sister's suppressed sobs had by now paralysed every nerve and sinew.
As a teenager, Jean-Paul asked the all-knowing Meister Bekker about who the men were. The Meister explained that encounters like the one Jean-Paul had experienced happened all over the country. The policy changes forced upon the Boers by the British were an experiment designed to encourage exodus.
"There's bad blood from the war, the memory of what the Mageocracy did to our women and children..." the Meister's lips pursed. "Don't mind it, Jean-Paul, that was another time and another place."
Thanks to Mattys' overzealous looting, when winter arrived, the orphanage had neither food nor mana crystals to survive the cold. Even with aid from their neighbours and Sister de Mulder's magic, several of the younger children perished.
When the promised time of the adoption came, the men and women who arrived weren't nearly so kind as they had been before. As usual, Jean-Paul snuck under the floor.
"What did you tell the Coalition?" This time, the Magus had not come to exchange the cheer.
"Nothing, sir," the sister spoke true.
"We lost two farms, totalling twenty acolytes. Magus Rylond paid with his life. You were on the list of people they spared. Do you mean to tell me those NoMs left you alone out of kindness?"
"I…" Sister de Mulder paled. "I bribed them with food."
"Then you have aided and abetted the enemy. Corli, you're clear to proceed."
That was the first time Jean-Paul saw Mind Magic. He would see it in employment many times as yet, but this was the moment he would always recollect. Pressed against his juvenile brain, the sight of sister de Mulder's screaming as her eyes rolled into her head branded him forever. While he crawled in the earth, not unlike that of a white, pallid leech biding its time in winter; sister de Mulder drooled over her habit, her eyes dilating as though possessed by a demon.
"Did you tell the rebels were the other farms are?"
"But you did give them food?"
"Where did they go?"
"How many men?"
"A dozen... more..."
"Did they do anything to the children?"
"What did they want?"
"Where is the sister now?"
"Magus Kruger's office."
"Did you tell them any of this?"
"They left you alone?"
"They struck me…" The sister's eyes were wide and vacant. "Mattys tried to rape me. I was going to kill myself."
The Mages fell silent.
"This country has gone to the fucking ogres. Corli, heal her."
"She needs a Lesser Restoration. Sir, we're tight on potions."
"Do it. Gather the Flight. We'll hunt these dogs down and give them a taste of their own medicine."
The wooden planks creaked. Jean-Paul felt the Magus come close to where he hid under the floor. There was the sound of a Flare spell striking, then the acrid smell of tobacco. When the men left, Jean-Paul dragged the sister through the corridors and to her bed. There, he covered her with a blanket, then fed her the potion on the altar. The last thing he recalled was that he fell asleep beside her, but awoke in his bed.
When winter ended, Mattys and his gang returned.
"YOU HOER! You sold us out!" The man's voice burst through the splintered door before the smoke could clear. "They killed Brett, you bitch! They necklaced him!"
That was the first time Jean-Paul heard of the torturous form of execution known as "Necklacing" derived by NoMs and carried out on Mages. When a Mage became sufficiently subjugated, his or her assailants would tie a rubber tire around their neck, then set the thing alight with a Scorcher. As the victim attempted to douse the flames with complete futility, there would be clapping, often to the tune of his or her spluttering Mana Shield. In response, disgruntled Mages sometimes returned the favour, often as a warning, occasionally for sport.
For now, the children sat stunned at Sunday service, staring at the silhouette of the madman stepping through the door with a dozen others, each dressed in outlandish bric-a-brac of salvaged uniforms.
"Children, leave now! Go!" Sister de Mulder gave the command.
Together with the other foundlings, Jean-Paul streamed past the crowd of NoMs. While the other children fled for the schoolhouse basement, however, Jean-Paul made directly for the sister's office. There, he found the key for the storeroom, entered through a hole in the roof, then unlocked the chest containing the Awakening Stone.
Across the thin walls, Jean-Paul could hear the horse-laughs, the groans and grunts, the choked screams and the tearful pleading. Thump! SLAP! Thump! Came the thunderous sound of flesh hitting flesh, followed shortly by the din of sister de Mulder rolling painfully across the floor. For a little while, the commotion almost took on a rhythm, but then the sister began to howl like a gutted Hob, all dignity forsaken.
When the spark from the Awakening Stone jump-started his Astral Form, Jean-Paul felt consumed by an alien ecstasy. Never before had he felt something so intense, so full of malice that he struggled to breathe. His throat burned, and Jean-Paul tasted such hatred for these NoMs that the desire for their extinction consumed his mind. When her scream intensified, Jean-Paul wondered if he had gone insane, for even behind a door and a corridor, he could smell the frothing blood, the heady musk and the mutton-stink radiating from the sweltering men.
Without warning, his chest grew hollow, expelling Jean-Paul's frustrated feelings. It was as though a balloon had burst inside him, or that a stiletto had punctured his bloated torso. Something inside him cut loose, and Jean-Paul possessed neither the will nor desire to suppress the unnamable thing scratching at the edge of his consciousness.
He screamed into the Void, and something shrieked in reply.
As volatile mana filled his conduits, Jean-Paul knew only one thing. That unless he acted, he would be consumed by regret. For his tireless caretaker, Jean-Paul would open the lid, unwind the seam, untether the leash, unbind every delicate tendril if it meant that her suffering would cease by a single second. If he were to do nothing again, if he were to hide and hold his breath, hibernate like a leech, he would prefer oblivion.
Like a fetid stream overflowing, Jean-Paul's Astral Body tapped into the Sigils, Glyphs and Gates he'd been learning for the better part of his adolescent life. Magical formulas flashed through his mind, leaping from textbooks and the inscriptions to clash and collide in his feverish cerebellum.
"Umzokwe!" Jean-Paul invoked the vision he had dreaded since childhood, calling into being the very thing that had haunted his dreams. The men were monsters, Jean-Paul argued. To defeat them, he had to be the bigger beast.
In the chapel, the vaulted roof grew suddenly clamorous with howls and screams, minging with the sound of sister de Mulder's insane howling.
Pallid and segmented, sinuous, slimy and ever-hungry, Jean-Paul's beast visited its wrath upon the source of his anguish. It had manifested on Mattys, swallowing the man wholesale into its tripartite lips with nary a slurp. Then, well-fed on the Squib, it warded off the blows from the low-tier wands to consume the others one by one, using its viscous saliva to glue them to the chapel's floor. When the last assailant disappeared screaming and kicking into its slurping gullet, Umzokwe turned to the quivering sister, even now bleeding out on the crumpled rug. His fiend possessed no eyes, but even so, Jean-Paul saw.
"Jean-Paul…" the sister's voice was barely a whisper. She knew it was her pale-skinned ward, but she couldn't see. Earlier, the NoMs had taken her eyes in their cruel antics. "Con...gra...tulations..."
When Jean-Paul unlocked the door, there was only his monster left.
In greeting, Umzokwe clicked its teeth, its semi-translucent flesh undulating with pleasure. It was hungry still, and so was he.
Jean-Paul couldn't recollect much after that, but Meister Bekker told him that when the Enforcers from Pretoria arrived, they found a pallid, skeletal child sitting alone in the ruined chapel. There were wands stolen from the security forces scattered here and there, but no other survivors.
When he had regained his senses, Jean-Paul had arrived in the city on the hill, the place he knew was the administrative centre of his country, Pretoria. There, among the falling flowers of ten-thousand jacarandas, he met a woman with the scent of mouldy scrolls and yellowing paper.
When his escorts bowed from the waist, Jean-Paul understood that he was before a rare presence. As he had performed before the age-worn statue of Christ in the chapel, the newly awakened Void Mage knelt.
"Jean-Paul." The woman whose eyes were the colour of a cloudless sky spoke his name. "Welcome to Pretoria. From this day on, I christen you— Jean-Paul Bekker."
"Nee, nee, Jean-Paul. You shall refer to me as Mevrou."
His new sponsor was Meister Engela Bekker, one of three Meisters to grace the Cape of Good Hope. Under her tutelage, innumerable tests were carried out on Jean-Paul, who understood that his life was worth precisely as much as the utility Mevrou Bekker could derive from his plaint body. Without complaint, Jean-Paul came to heel, never once complaining of pain, not even when the diagnostic machine made him violently ill. Day after day, he practised the knowledge his new master gave him. Though his constitution continued to wane, Jean-Paul remained tough, wiry and stoic, a paragon apprentice, docile and diligent in equal measure. No matter Mevrou Bekker's pleasure, he left no curiosity unsatisfied, no single flap of skin unpeeled. In the beginning, he was made to call on Umzokwe until he grew emaciated. By twelve, Umzokwe could be manifested for six, eight, ten hours before he lost consciousness. When it came to feeding time, Jean-Paul-cum-Umzokwe ate whatever the Meister willed, be it animals, Magical Creatures, Demi-humans, NoMs or the occasional Mage. When he wasn't baiting Umzokwe with live prey, he studied, working toward his fifteenth spring.
When he finally came of age, Jean-Paul took to the dais to receive his biometrics. As a confidential project reared hand to mouth like a pet by a Meister of the Republic, Jean-Paul proved the rarest of specimens.
It was a memorable day for Jean-Paul, for Mevrou Bekker hugged him, embracing him against her chest. She had always loathed his touch, though that was something Jean-Paul had come to anticipate from others, and so this was a special moment.
"Jean-Paul, come. It's time you met my colleagues."
Forty-eight hours later, Jean-Paul had travelled across the world. Standing in a stranger's land, he looked up at the grandest sandstone building he had ever seen, wrought with the most intricate murals imaginable. At the relief's centre was a shield adorned by seven golden lions and an open spell scroll. Scripts in a language he had never seen spelt out the words "Spellcraftia imperii decus et tutamen".
"Mevrou," Jean-Paul recalled asking his master. "What does that mean?"
"Spellcraft knowledge is the crowning glory and the safeguard of the Empire," the Meister intoned, her face unreadable.
In London, Meister Bekker's tests continued, as did Jean-Paul's growth. More and more, he came to understand his place in the world— that he was a unique existence. In the half-decade he had spent in Mevrou Bekker's laboratory, Jean-Paul met other Void Mages, though they seldom lived long after their Awakening. The volatility of their element, the Negative Drain associated with its utility, was biologically insurmountable for all but the rarest candidates.
In that regard, Jean-Paul's Umzokwe was capable of storing the life-force of the beings he consumed. As per Meister Bekker's findings, Demi-humans and humans were the most nourishing, followed by higher-tier Magical Beasts. Thankfully, the Mageocracy's endless conflicts of interest meant there was seldom a shortage of Demi-humans.
In the intervening years which followed, Jean-Paul often heard a name— Elizabeth Sobel. A woman whom the Meister said was the best of his kind, the Mageocracy's magnum opus, its chef-d' œuvre. If Jean-Paul could prove himself half as talented as Sobel, the Meister promised, he would find both purpose and pleasure in life.
When his craft matured, Jean-Paul prepared himself in the Purple and Black Zones all over the world. In most instances, his Mevrou stood a safe distance away with a data slate, directing him to complete one feat or another. "You've done well," Mevrou Bekker had kindly informed him when he was eighteen, though sadly, he wouldn't be a second Sobel. Jean-Paul undertook the criticism without complaint; he was merely a canvas on which Mevrou Bekker painted her colours, and so continued his questionless compliance. Though the pair seldom stayed at London Imperial, the Mevrou had a tradition of returning to her homeland each spring to flee the British winter. A sentimentalist, the Meister longed for the lilac and purple Jacarandas that turned the boulevards of Pretoria indigo.
"Jean-Paul, return home," the Mevrou called him one October morning, pulling him from the depth of Swaziland. "I need you to see this."
Two days later, Jean-Paul sat beside the Meister as she played a broadcast from the latest IIUC, a competition the Meister often mocked as student politics.
The vid-cast showed a girl.
A girl who was like Jean-Paul, and was yet dissimilar.
A sorceress who tapped into the Quasi-elemental Plane of Lightning and Void.
A smiling lassie with pale skin that didn't resemble the leeches living in the Vaal, but whose dermis glowed with smooth and supple vitality.
A young miss surrounded by companions and friends; men and women who trusted her enough to put their lives on the line.
A Void Mage who transformed into a dark egg, swallowing a Beast Tide.
"A second Sobel," Mevrou Bekker informed the pale-miened Jean-Paul, then sighed deeply. "She's Kilroy's hidden apprentice, as you are mine. One wonders how one man, not to mention a dead one, could find two diamonds in the rough."
When next the Meister placed a hand on Jean-Paul's shoulder, the warmth he longed for sent shivers down his spine. He had been in Swaziland for months and it had been a long time since a fellow human had touched him.Yet, he couldn't help but feel ill.
"Jean-Paul," the Mevrou's voice filled the recesses of his mind. "Ever thought about acquiring a lady-friend?"