By the time the beer dried up, the three teams had become well acquainted. At Gwen's behest, each member of their Dalian foray was to deliver a show and tell, like on day one of a tutorial class.
The first to volunteer were the boisterous New Zealanders. Their captain, Rona Manaia, a stock-standard Water Mage, announced that he would spend the match in the backlines. His speciality, Illusion and Conjuration, may work wonders on intelligent enemies but was hapless against the Undead. When asked if he was a 'quaterling', Rona raised a toast.
"Yeah bro, me old woman's a halfie." The captain's endearing vernacular had Gwen in fits. "Don't knock me mum for her size though. She's sweet as they come."
"It's true," Yue cut in. "Mrs Manaia's pavlova? Ernnnngh!"
As Yue grunted in a most unladylike manner, Gwen peeked at the Purists from Pretoria. Surprisingly, Schalk and mates appeared entirely chill with the idea. If so, it was true what Richard had once said, that among the Purists, there were factions. For pursuers of unadulterated magical might, unions with higher-order demi-humans were encouraged. What united the Purists, therefore, was mutual loathing for NoMs.
"Whetu Tikitiki O Taranga." The biggest of the gathered students half-stood so that he wouldn't head-bump the greasy ceiling. "I employ Punamu. I am our team's Abjurer-Defender. I can use a little Transmutation."
In addition to Gwen's friends, the other members of Auckland were the Wikiriwhi brothers, Maka and Timoti, both Spirit-bound Magma Mages and Evokers. Maka minored in Transmutation, while Timoti was skilled in Conjuration. Their other relative, Rongo Winiata, was a rare Water Evoker.
"Too bad you and I couldn't duel." Rongo grinned at Richard. "Oi've heard of ya, Mr Undine."
"I am happy to oblige whenever." Richard looked the big man up and down. "Your spirit, its a whale, isn't it?"
Rongo abruptly lifted his shirt, revealing chiselled abdominals like those found on a polished statue, from his chest to his left lumbar, an enormous ta moko depicting a flat-headed fish impressed Gwen to no end. "Not whale, but He-Mango-Tohorā! Whale Shark!"
Richard whistled. Lulu covered her face.
Soundlessly, Lea manifesting beside him, dazzling Richard's audience with a beauty only a fay could possess. Chuckling, she handed him a cold beer. "Thanks, love."
The two men watched one another. The whale shark evidently could not manifest Rongo a cold one.
With a laugh, the next candidate, Otikoro Aperahama, announced himself as Auckland's Water Abjurer-Transmuter.
The man beside him, a giant heavily tattoed with dog-skin ta moko, introduced himself as Tua Kahurangi. He was a Sand Mage, a talent that knitted Gwen's brow and brought on unpleasant memories.
"Ruihi Keeti, Enchanter, Earth." A robust woman with dazzling ember eyes and big bushy hair stood to reveal twin arms tattooed from fingertips to her undershirt. Most jarring was the ta moko that gilded her neck to her chin, giving the impression of a beard. "My speciality is defensive buffs through the sacred art."
"And I am Opi Raharuhil, Diviner-Enchanter, Air." A slim woman as tall as Gwen stood, she sported more ta mojo than her already impressive sister-in-craft. "I specialise in the ta moko of attack."
The last of the Kiwi crew wasn't a New Zealander at all but a Sydney-sider on loan, one that grinned mischievously at Gwen before telling her story.
"My mother's an NoM," Yue declared when it came to her turn, wiggling her brows at Pretoria. As expected, a few of the members sobered up with conflicted expressions, dimming the mirth.
A dozen pairs of eyes drifted back and forth as Yue shit stirred. Fengbo Village was no place to duel.
"Good for you," Schalk broke the ice. "Are you expecting one of us to smash the table and call you a squib? I could oblige if it makes you happier."
"Schalks, you don't mind someone like Yue?" Gwen cut straight to the chase. She'd been worried about how the two would interact.
"Why would I mind?" Pretoria's captain snorted. With his pale eyes gleaming, he stood to face the half-blood sorceress. "Miss Bai, are you willing to bear me a child?"
"FUCK NO!" Yue's spray of Tsingtao missed Gwen by an inch. "Gwen, tell him he's dreaming!"
"Schalks, I am afraid Yue's not a good fit..."
"Of course she's not." Schalk grinned, the young man's charisma was palpable. "Now then, shall I rage and fume at a half-breed with no interest in partnership? We're allies of circumstance. She may do as she pleases, as will I. We Boers are objectivists, Miss Song— we're nothing like those British or the American hypocrites. Please don't lump us together."
"You surprise me more and more." Gwen raised a glass. "To your health."
"Gesondheid!" Schalk raised his bottle of half-finished beer. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Schalk Hertzog. I am a Mineral Mage, I major in Abjuration, and minors in Conjuration and Enchantment. Just so, I possess lesser talents across the spectrum. My great-grandfather is the great J.L. Barry Hertzog, a hero of the Boer Union of the old Cape. Though my ancestor's statue has been removed from the Union's lawn, he is immortalised by the Hertzoggie, a delicious jam-tart, my favourite dessert. As of today, I am the first Mage in my family to be beaten unconscious by a beautiful young woman, live, and on international vid-cast."
Gwen nursed her glass, half full of guilt and the other half sloshing with wounded pride. She wondered if Schalk was willing to accept compensation, but what could a Mage of his stature possibly lack?
"Gwen." Richard nudged her. "Announce your list of Schools, then give him the bird."
"Richard!" Gwen hissed at her cousin like a cat, causing the table to burst into laughter.
Next to introduce herself was Alizea Kock.
"Alizea, Ooze. Transmutation Conjuration. Controller." The woman flopped in her chair. "Please get on with it."
The rest of South Africa's team followed their captain and vice-captain. Ella Goosen was the Earthen Abjurer-Conjurer who commanded gold-laced minerals. Lencho Afrika and Mariete Afrika were cousins who both Awakened in Lightning Evocation and had reached tier 6. Pieter Zietsman was an Ice Mage Transmuter-Abjurer, and Pretoria's second defender. Their controller, Altus De Waal, an Air Illusionist, confessed to joining Auckland's captain on the backbench. Lastly, Pretoria's two utilitarian casters were Izette Rautenbach, a Cleric hailing from the Convent of the Reformed, and Heila Anderson, a Diviner.
"And you, sir?" Gwen finally turned to the young man half-sunken in his chair. It was the moment she had anticipated since finding out from Schalk that Jean-Paul was a Void Mage. The news had come so unexpectedly that even now, Gwen doubted Schalk's words. If Jean-Paul was a Void Mage, why couldn't she sense anything? Not even her Detect Magic saw anything but raw and mundane sorcery from the unassuming man.
"My name is Jean-Paul Bekker," came a tiny whisper.
"And are you a Void Mage?" Gwen studied the bloke whose face had been left half-finished by a cruel creator. When the man opened his mouth to speak, her heart leapt.
"Yes. I am a Void Mage," Jean-Paul's reply was a mosquito's hum. "I major in Conjuration… and Evocation."
"See? I told you. Jean-Paul is a bonafide Void Mage, with a Void Spirit to boot. Though he was thrust upon us, I can vouch for his skill," Schalk spoke in his dumb companion's stead. "Maybe the two of you could get acquainted? If you're willing to take him off my hands, that would be a blessing."
The teams looked to Gwen, then to Jean-Paul and back again. Surely, Elves weren't interested in malnourished Hobs?
Jean-Paul had never felt so much self-loathing as he had in the last few hours.
He knew he had a face even his whore of a mother would struggle to love, that his appearance was so lame and unfashionable that dogs barked when he neared. Still, until he had to sit in public with Pretoria's fair-faced contestants, he had never realised just how different he was to others. For most of his life, under Mevrou Bekker, the shape of his face and the contour of his gaunt silhouette mattered less than the Demi-humans Umzokwe took for sport.
Before he left, the Mevrou had said that beauty was in the eye of the beholder. Yet, here in a stranger's city, on a strange continent, sitting beside his object, a fellow Void sorceress, her perfect visage caused him physical pain.
How could he execute Mevrou Bekker's desire when his face frightened the girl? He wasn't Schalk, who could charm the undergarment from a woman without spending a single HDM. In all his life, Jean-Paul never even had a lady-friend, much less a girlfriend. Other than Mevrou Bekker, the number of times he sat alone with a woman could be counted on both hands. For now, all he could do was watch his breath steam the air.
Goulding B1's sky garden measured only a few dozen meters across, and now that winter approached, all the plants and flowers were withered.
"Are you not cold?" Jean-Paul eyed his female companion, who wore nothing but a silk shawl over her otherwise naked shoulders. As for himself, he wore a jacket and an overcoat.
"Not at all." The girl shrugged. After the duel, she had switched to casuals. "I find the weather's refreshing."
"I hate London's weather." Jean-Paul fought to find a common subject. "I miss Pretoria's Jacarandas every year."
"I miss home too. We have Jacarandas in Sydney as well, only they're red, and we call them flame trees." The girl smiled. When she glanced at him, Jean-Paul felt a strange heat in his abdomen. "So… Jean-Paul, shall we get to know each other a bit better?"
Jean-Paul's complexion turned the colour of plums. Get to know him? Already? He wasn't at all prepared! Things were progressing somewhat faster than he had anticipated.
"I mean, you've seen mine, it's only fair you show me yours," the sorceress reiterated, sensing his hesitation. With a finger, she stirred the fabric of space and time, tearing a rip into the ever-familiar nothingness of the Void.
"Shaa!" Her Familiar, Caliban, slithered into being.
Even as a fellow Void Mage, Jean-Paul sensed the hunger radiating from the creature. Different from Umzokwe, he could sense that the beast was younger, less experienced. He could also sense that though Caliban had fed of many a lifeform, very few of its victims were intelligent. Was Caliban a Spirit like Umzokwe then? Or was it a dumb beast? Jean-Paul couldn't tell, not without inspecting Caliban thoroughly.
The serpent approached. Jean-Paul remained very still while it sniffed his hands.
"Shaa!" The creature nuzzled his hand. Jean-Paul's brows stitched. Why does the thing remind him of a cat?
"I shall show you." Jean-Paul likewise stirred the air. "Umzokwe!"
Mirroring the sorceress's Familiar on the adjacent bench, Umzokwe slithered into being. The only difference was that his leech made nary a sound. Unlike the boisterous Caliban, Umzokwe was an ambush predator.
Soundlessly, his great white leech sniffed the air, its segmented body engorged with stowed vitality. In the dim light of the sky garden, his creature was pallid, as pale as Jean-Paul himself. When hungry, Umzokwe resembled a flatworm. Now that it had fed, it was a bloated, car-sized maggot.
"Shaa!" The creature known as Caliban slithered closer, sleek and hungry, reminding Jean-Paul of its slim-limbed mistress. "Shaa?"
Umzokwe sniffed its brethren from the Void.
A vibrant feeling of near-hysterical hunger travelled across his Familiar's empathic link. Not daring to meet her eyes, Jean-Paul studied the girl's heeled-wearing feet. The girl's aura was palpable now that both their Familiars grew excited. How did she control the Void's call? By what means did she stave off its incessant appetite?
Below, Umzokwe opened its maw, within which pink tentacles akin to parasitic worms peeped forth.
"Shaa!" Caliban's carapace split, revealing two appendages, one pink and the other blue, reminiscent of an anatomy model's painted arteries.
Gingerly, their Familiar's touched tips.
Jean-Paul blanched; his mind once again engulfed with the insatiable hunger transmuted from between their Familiars. He grunted, or perhaps he groaned, he wasn't sure. All he knew was that the girl's creature was hungry and that it could eat every living being in B1 and still have space left over for B2.
Slurp! Lick! Squelch!
Umzokwe reared, its many-segment body undulating as though mimicking the noontide.
"Shaa!" The obsidian serpent retreated.
"HUUURRRRK!" Umzokwe opened its maw. From within the darkness, half-a-torso emerged. The head, mostly annihilated by Jean-Paul's Void spell, remained tethered to the neck by a loose ligament.
Jean-Paul blinked, his arm-hair erecting like bristles. It took him a second to realise that this was the Hartebeest Centaur he had stowed in Swaziland. The fiend had been raiding the local villages for food and women; only this time, it had found Umzokwe where it had expected a virgin.
How sweet! Jean-Paul's face formed a rare smile. His Familiar was sharing its bounty!
"Shaa!" A happy Caliban dove onto the slime-slathered, half-mangled cadaver.
"Miss Song— it seems that Umzokwe has found a friend." Jean-Paul looked up, finally full of confidence. For the first time since they conversed, he met her wondrously hypnotic eyes, noting that her pupils shrivelled to pin-points. He took a deep breath. "May we be—"
"NOOOOO! NO GOD NO!" the girl's blood-curling scream was enough to wake the neighbourhood and blast Jean-Paul off his seat. "CALI! NOOOOOOO!"
Gwen figured it must be karma.
How often had she frightened the bejeezus out of her friend and foes with Caliban? Most of the time, it was unintentional, but after a while, she felt a sadistic rush whenever her enemies reacted to seeing her fiend for the first time.
Despite her initial loathing, she had grown uncommonly fond of Cali's slick carapace and its cute, bobbing, bulbous idiosyncrasies. Even its tentacles, conditioned in her head to resemble sloppy dog-tongues, were adorable in a lamprey-tipped, soul-sucking way. Even Cali's spider-form had grown on her, and now she enjoyed riding her Familiar like a great Strandbeest.
But this THING.
It was too much.
An aura of vertigo aside, the thing was semi-opaque like mutton fat and slick with ooze from tip to tail. As its segments undulated, she could see bits of its organs shifting back and forth, haunting its interior.
Void beasts were scentless, but even so, Gwen's brain assaulted her with recollected synaesthesia. When she was a child, her mother had asked her to bring up the groceries. Not wanting to carry such a heavy load, she made several trips, only to forget a frozen chicken, wedged in the garage. When a week later her mother returned, she dragged Gwen by the scruff of the neck down to the garage on a thirty-degree day. There, Gwen was given explicit orders not to return home until the place smelled fresh as new. When she finally gathered the courage to open the bag of swarming flesh, she near lost her mind.
So it was that despite the freezing air, Gwen began to sweat. In a second, her shoulders glistened with the effort of appearing in control. Within the recess of her mind, a voice wanted to vacuum the leech-beast wholesale. Even with her legs exposed, her knees perspired while one heel tapped ceaselessly, transmuting her agitation against the sandstone tile like a staccato drum.
When furthermore Jean-Paul's maggot opened its maw, Gwen felt a new wave of revulsion overwhelm her better judgement. She wanted to excuse herself and take an hour-long shower.
Conjuring an excuse, she looked at Jean-Paul; the Mage was gazing at their pets with a look of benevolence. Following his eyes, her attention turned to their Familiars— then she regretted possessing eyes.
Caliban and Umzokwe were shaking hands.
But worms do not possess hands. Gwen baulked as the horrid spectacle assaulted her sanity, taking no prisoners.
Slurp! Lick! Squelch!
As though mocking her distress, their creatures became tongue-tied, giving Gwen the impression of a deep-throated kiss.
Her eyes watered. She felt a hysterical madness coming on and wondered if this was how Void Mages grew infamously psychotic.
"HUUURRRRK!" Umzokwe projectile vomited, covering Caliban with a milky goo.
Something landed, splattering her Mary Janes. It was a face— no, half a face, near-consumed by something akin to Void Bolt. Gwen's eyes followed the flap of skin. There was a hairy torso there, and an arm, all very much human.
"Shaa!" Caliban's delight fed into their Empathic Link.
The sensation was such that Gwen grew momentarily confused, too late to stop Caliban from sweeping up the carcass.
"NOOOOO! NO GOD NO!" she cried out, her voice suddenly hoarse as her belated dinner rose from the deepest part of her Astral Soul. "CALI! NOOOOO!"
"Is it safe to leave them like that?" Richard stood beside Yue, observing the twin silhouettes below in B1's sky garden.
"Think she's going to eat him?" Yue stood so close to the glass that she frosted the panes. "Could give her a boost, you know."
The two gave one another an expectant look. Was this another stray cat Gwen would soon add to her collection?
"I can set up a Scry…" Mayuree gently coughed. "To maintain... subtlety, it'll just be audio. Gwen's very sensitive to targeted Divination."
"We shouldn't—" Lulan protested.
"It's for Jean-Paul's safety," Petra, who had been observing the interaction, butted in. "I don't trust Gwen to leave the man alone."
"Let's take this up in my penthouse." Mayuree pointed upstairs. "We can… protect Jean-Paul from there. If need be,"
"She's a thirsty one," Yue agreed. "You know her love of masochism. And that dude is a walking shit-show. His mates just left him like a bad smell. What the fuck?"
"But—" Lulan felt torn. There was something indescribably wrong about Scrying on her friend and saviour. Was this why Kusu was concerned? That all of these people surrounding Gwen had one chopstick longer than the other?
"No time to waste, let's go." Richard opened the lift. "Come on!"
Upstairs, Lei provided tea and snacks so that the voyeurs could spy in comfort.
"…Jean-Paul, shall we get to know each other a bit better…"
"I mean, you've seen mine, it's only fair if you show me yours…"
"I shall show you…"
"Ergn..." Jean-Paul groaned.
Gwen's closest companions regarded one another.
Then came the sound of what sounded like a jousting pair of tongues. Before anyone could comment, the spacious living room resounded with the sweet music of copulating tendrils.
Lulan sat hugging her knees, her face redder than a beetroot, her innocence wild with feverish imagination. Petra gazed into her cocktail, wondering how to face her cousin after all this. Richard sat grinning without a word. Mayuree covered her ears.
"Wow." Yue paced back and forth. "I didn't think Gwen had it in her. Jean-Paul? FUCK! What about Evee?"
"… Mind Magic?" Richard raised a finger.
"Impossible." Petra shook her head. "She's resistant to glamours, and she's wearing a Mind Shield."
"Maybe a Visual Scry could help clear this up." Mayuree raised a hand. "Give me a few seconds."
"Do I need to see this?" Lulan groaned. "I don't want to see this. Kusu is going to be so mad."
"What if." Yue paused. "She's eating—"
"NOOOOO! NO GOD NO!" came a hysterical outburst.
In an instant, Yue Blinked from the penthouse to the balcony, ten storeys above the sky garden. With her enhanced spells, she could blast the prick to cinders while sparing every hair on Gwen's pretty head. Channelling mana to her eyes, she saw the two figures below, one female and one male, and their Familiars.
Her best friend was performing an obscene manoeuvre on Caliban. From her vantage, she saw that Gwen had Cali caught and cupped between her chest and her torso. With a violent, thrusting motion, Gwen dry-humped Caliban, choking her snake. Not far, the Void Mage with a face like taut foreskin kept apologising profusely. Adjacent to the heaving girl and the bowing guy, a disgusting maggot-thing swayed back and forth as though enjoying the sound of Gwen's high-pitched shrieking and Caliban's gagged singing.
"Is she alright?" Richard's voice drifted across, not at all worried. "Did Caliban eat the guy?"
"I don't know." Yue stepped back onto the balcony, her understanding no longer within the realm of reason. "Bloody hell, I am so fucking confused right now."