The next day, Gwen made preparations for her quest to find Elvia.
Her morning began with Lady Loftus at high tea, demonstrating the full extent of her appetite, and a woeful understanding of etiquette. The Marchioness, however, assured Gwen that her undisguised manners had a purity to them which she had not seen for years. After so much pretension, the Marchioness mused, she had lost the ability to tell whether anyone genuinely enjoyed eating.
Through three tiers of cakes and ices, the Head Mistress and Matron of Peterhouse prescribed Gwen's developments for the months ahead.
First and foremost, upon her return to Cambridge, she would commence her studies under Peterhouse's Senior Tutors, one for each of her Schools of Magic. Unlike Spell-orientated lectures at other universities, institutions with the clout of Oxbridge emphasised individual ability. An Acolyte, therefore, attended lectures given by instructors based on their goals and interests. Concurrently, the college organised seminaries for students with similar expertise to share and engage in research. Then, once an Acolyte settled on a particular course of knowledge, they underwent individual research.
And this was where Cambridge shone. For Gwen, "Supervision" provided the opportunity to explore her Schools of Magic in a theoretical sense, allowing her to examine each strength and weakness freely. In her case, personal tuition allowed the delivery of specialist knowledge at the instance in which she required it. For the semester of Lent, the Lady of Ely prescribed ten hours of supervision and twelve hours of seminars, in addition to any lectures she wished to attend. During the Easter Term, her training would favour practicals over theory. Then, finally, she would sit for a Magus-tier examination, and pending results, Michaelmas term would commence.
On a side note, Lady Loftus had responded with good grace to her capitalist ventures, particularly her explanation of the "Centurion" and "Legion" projects. What she desired in London, Gwen explained, was a base of operations where she could lay down roots, eventually importing a completed system from either Sydney or Yangon. Though sceptical, Lady Loftus professed that she would not oppose Gwen's nouveau rich crassness. High society was full of snobs, the Lady explained, but few could resist the crystal's call.
To show her support, and out of "grotesque" curiosity, the Lady Loftus offered Gwen a leasehold near the heart of London for her "Office". If Gwen could demonstrate a result that paralleled the "pie in the sky" she professed, then the Lady would consider backing her "Centurion" project.
The last of their conversation pertained to less pleasant prospects. As a part of tuition, Gwen had to participate in experiments and research which will contribute to Cambridge's understanding of Void Magic. The study would be carried out by the university's Magisters, drawing on the works of Magister Wen, slated to arrive with Petra post-Lent.
Concurrently, should Gwen allow the relevant researchers access to her Essence, the university would repay her by obtaining demi-human instructors. When Gwen mentioned that Ayxin had warned against investigating "Draconic-Essence," the Lady asked if her mysterious rainbow "patron" had forbidden the genuine employment of its blessing.
"No," Gwen had confessed— but wasn't sure if her answer could pass the pub test. Almudj, after all, did not care in the slightest. But to allow others to study Almudj? Was this a form of betrayal? What would the serpent think, if it did indeed have an opinion?
When she compared notes with Richard, Dick's schedule at King's was less about filling deficits in Spellcraft theory and more about revising missed coursework. Already, two upper-tier Magisters had expressed interest in helping him synergise new spells with Lea and in pushing his Conjuration to new heights.
Walken as well had left a note saying he had arrived— but was now missing in action. If anything, she hoped her mentor survived his wife's wrath. A woman's scorn was a terrible thing, indeed.
Finally, there was her fourth and most immediate concern, one that made Lady Loftus raise a critical brow— Evee. When Gwen again relayed her worries regarding Ystradfellte to her Head Mistress, the wisened Lady appeared exasperated. When Gwen insisted, the Lady relented, not wanting to end the year on bad terms.
"If you must know... Ystradfellte refers to the Demi-human lands south of the Red Mount— 'Rjoth zana indu', the Dwarves call it, 'The Peak of Red Stone'. Every winter solstice, the Crimson Peak fights its twin, the Crimson Peak, for dominance of the valley."
"I am so sorry," Gwen had to apologise for her confusion. "Could you clarify? I don't know anything about the area, other than that I should be there for my friend. The mountain is fighting itself?"
"It's alright." Lady Loftus was as kind as she was compassionate.
Her new mentor then explained that the region was richly blessed by the Elemental Plane of Earth, abundant in rare deposits. Every solar year, when the stars aligned, crystals as well as magical flora and fauna sprouted from the valley, inciting prospectors to try their luck.
As for the Crimson Peak "s", the name was a trick of history. On the west end of The Peak of Red Stone laid the Dwarven Fortress City of "Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth", or the Iron Citadel. When the early Saxons first encountered, then befriended the Dwarves, the Demi-humans claimed the land around a summit they called "Crimson Peak".
Opposite the Iron Citadel was a challenger to the claim, a depthless warren of Redcaps, Gobs, and Goblins ruled by Trolls. When inevitably, conflict broke out, the Trolls claimed that the Dwarves and their Human compatriots encroached on their homeland— also called "Crimson Peak".
Confused, the old cartographers, lacking the means to fly over the region, assumed that both the Dwarves and the Trolls lived on the same peak.
Instead, the two "Races" lived on opposing summits, separated by a good fifty kilometres. During the Beast Tide of '71, the Dwarves sealed their city, leaving their human "allies" to fend off the discharge of some hundred-thousand salivating, frenzied green-skins charging down the mount.
As a result, tensions with the Dwarves remain high to this day, especially as the Grey Faction had set up an industrial township at Merthyr Tydfil. As far as both sides where concerned, the town encroached on both Troll and Dwarven land, but remained discrete enough to be ignored by the warring demi-human factions.
"Why haven't we wiped out the er… Demi-humans?" Gwen asked. If this were China, the PLA would have planted a flag over their corpses.
"Vargan Giantbreaker is the third cousin to the wife of Deep King Madgrat Dragonhammer of Bavaria." Lady Loftus shrugged. "If they— why are you laughing?"
Gwen collapsed. The names were too funny. Was this a high fantasy novel? Thankfully, as it turns out, the names weren't literal. It just that Dwarven runes were bloody hard to translate and highly dependent on history and context which Humans lacked. To draw a comparison, biblical allusions like "Mathew" "Jean" "Adam" sounded like animal noises to a Dwarf.
"And what's this talk of regicide? I can see that the orient is NOT a good influence, Gwen. What the communists did to their poor Emperor…"
"My grandfather said it was the Japanese who—"
"I did say Orientals, dear." Lady Loftus patted Gwen's hand. "Don't you worry. There are no communists in London. Maggie uprooted the last of the socialists in her final term of government."
And that was when Gwen recalled that out of credits, currencies, Dragons and telecommunication, it was only toward Gwen's desire to employ NoMs as counter-balance against Mages that Lady Loftus had found wanting. Simply put, the very idea that an assembly of NoMs could hold a team of Mages responsible for flouting the law was, in her words, "morbid."
For Gwen, the integration of a tertiary NoM workforce with complete loyalty to the company that uplifted them from poverty was essential. To trust Mages, especially London's Mages, to not skim from the company's coffers, or to sell the company's secrets, was nigh-impossible. As Gunther had said, writing a Geas into an employment contract with an NoM manager was unethical, but not uncommon. So long as both parties consented, the Tower wasn't going to interfere, and even if they did, they wouldn't raise a ruckus over an NoM. To force Geas upon employees who were Mages, comparatively, was sure to turn heads.
When in turn, Gwen had asked what if they paid the NoMs well enough to engender loyalty, Gunther told her not to be so naive, and that only a Geas would thwart the bulk of magical-espionage.
Thus, with the blessing of her House Matron, a head full of warnings, and an unyielding spirit of adventure, Gwen hovered over Cambridge, taking in the vista. In her old world, a brochure once said that it was only from the sky that a traveller truly appreciated the scale of the university, and Gwen wholeheartedly agreed.
Cambridge was, simply put, expansive. From the enormously generous central courtyard of King's College, the university spiralled outwards, with St Catherines, Corpus Cristi, Queens and the massive estate of Pembroke to the south. To the east sat Sidney Sussex, Christ's and Emmanuel's, famous for its pond and its highly articulate ducks. To the north, Trinity and Magdalene marked the map. To the east of the River Cam, open fields dotted the landscape, enveloping the much younger Newnham, Wolfson, and Robinson campuses, the newest addition to Cambridge.
What Gwen also struggled to believe was that almost all leaseholds, discounting King's and Trinity, belonged to their benefactor, the Marchioness of Ely. From Cambridgeshire to Ely to Peterborough, Gwen could fly wherever she wished. No Provost or Mayor, Gwen imagined, fancied having their landlord breathing down their neck.
And that was the reason why the nobility, in her opinion, was stagnant. In Gwen's eyes, their wealth was built on land leases. Every generation, a lord added to their holdings. Twenty generations on, they owned the works. As gentry, they prided themselves not on productivity but passive income. Gwen snorted. How could that compare to human industry?
But now was not the time pull teeth from the gentry's mouths.
First, came Elvia.
For her quest, Gwen had initially been given a piece of unwelcome baggage. Since Richard was tied up with King's and wasn't a local in any case, she had been assigned a grudging Ollie as a guide to Ystradfellte.
By mid-morning, Ollie was shocked to discover that Gwen intended to fly the whole way, for he lacked an Unlimited Flight Licence.
Unfortunately for the Praelector, Gwen was in no mind to delay her meeting, and so left the poor man pinning her Message Device while she— privileged by House Shultz, Loftus and Ravenport, blasted off into the blue yonder.
"See you in Merthyr Tydfil! Just take the bus!"
"COME BACK!" Ollie's voice echoed through the courtyard. "THERE ARE NO BUSSES TO SOUTHERN WALES!"
Mathias Christopher Rothwell belonged to the Honourable and Ancient Order of St Michael, the Knight Protectors of Britannia.
All members of St Michaels hailed from one blue-blooded family or another. These rare youths, lauded for their ability but lacking in inheritance, were given a second chance in the Order, prestigious enough to be of use, but far divorced from ascension to be ambitious.
They were taught from induction that chivalry, honour and faith made them different and unique. And they believed it. Thanks to mass-entertainment, the visage of a Knight in shining Mage Armour coming to the rescue of a dame were etched into the psyche of the public. Over the decades, new Knight Aspirants began to believe in their hype, coming to internalise the mythos, personify their servitude with holistic devotion.
During martial demonstrations, it was these orders, from the magnificent Most Noble Order of the Garter, the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, of the Bath, of St Michael, of St George, and the more recent Order of the Commonwealth, that captured the popular imagination.
A Mage-Knight was, therefore, an extraordinary existence.
Though an upper-tier War Mage was arguably far more critical than a Knight, there were significant distinctions, made more so specialised by the function of each Ordo.
The Knights of the Garter, the most prestigious of the six Ordo Britannia, were directly tied to the Crown, counting only twenty-four individuals among their number. Their principal role was to act swiftly and decisively against all threats to the royal family. In times of crisis, each member was a Knight-Commander capable of leading the Empire's forces.
Comparatively, Mathias' Ordo Sancti Michael was an active troop consisting of an indefinite number of individuals serving as protectors and guardians. In particular, the Order's members serviced London's Great Hospitals and Colleges, providing a much-needed militant arm to the scholastic endeavours of London's elites.
Mathias had initially wanted to join the Order of St George, famous for their Dragon-slaying. His talents, unfortunately, had Awoken with a principle emphasis on Abjuration. When by the age of fourteen, he showed ability in Transmutation, his future as a Knight Protector became immutable.
Mathias was disappointed but not deterred. He knew from an early age that Knighthood was his only path to glory. As the fourth son of a branch-House, he was so far from the Rothwell line of inheritance that should he become the legal successor; there may not be a House Rothwell left for him to rule.
But Mathias remained driven.
"Don't believe in the Chain of Being." His landless mother had cradled her golden boy against her bosoms. "Believe in yourself."
And so, with the Rothwell blood and all its potential brimming in his veins, Mathias excelled. He sparred daily against his seniors; he trained until he coughed blood. He volunteered for thankless, dangerous missions without batting an eye. When finally the time came for his induction, he was given the rank of Knight at the tender age of nineteen, one of the youngest in the Order's history.
Then on the Michaelmas of his twenty-second summer, his most beloved cousin, the heir to House Rothwell, brought Mathias to her home. There, she introduced him to Elvia Lindholm, a Frontier refugee.
At first, Mathias had mistaken the flaxen-haired angel for a high-noble. Having escorted dozens of healers, he exactly knew what talent the girl possessed from the intensity of her Positive Energy. When the girl with the big blue eyes curtsied, Mathias could hardly believe that here, he was in the presence of a Spirit Healer. That was why once Emily explained what she wanted of him, Mathias had knelt to pledge his undying support without batting an eye.
To be Emily's Knight had been Mathias' dream, though that dream was a will-o'-the-wisp. But a foreign noble? An orphaned Baroness? That, Mathias was confident— he could bring under his wing.
In truth, Lindholm made an excellent Cleric. She wasn't the best chant in the Tome, but she was dedicated to her craft. The girl cared for patients, no matter how lowly, and she did not shy away from the blood and guts of the battlefield. She was selflessly loving and effortlessly garnered Faith from her patients. Her Spirit, Kiki, was also a prized Alraune, and a juvenile Spirit at that. With her Healer's aura, baby-face and curly blonde hair, Mathias could understand why Emily felt smitten by the Australian import.
Still, a commoner was a commoner.
But commoners had their uses.
For instance, if Elvia died under his watch, there were no penalties beyond a strike against his rank. Emily would be upset, but even she couldn't influence the Order of St Michael to act against him. Of course, Mathias would do his utmost to protect Elvia. He had, after all, sworn an Oath, and in agreement with his credo, his pledge was soul-binding. Until he was near-death, Elvia would remain safe.
But what Mathias could do was to take full advantage of the girl's expendability.
When serving with the masses, a healer was a member of an adventuring company. The dangers they faced were real, and death and injury happened as a matter of fact. Should Mathias be in the service of a genuine Viscountess from Royal Alfred's, he would not dream of putting his ward in danger. Everyone knew that a competent team of Knight Protector and Spirit Healer fought in the heat of battle. But the reality was that "noble" healers spent their time at the triage tent and damned those who couldn't survive the transit delay.
The hypocrisy of such an act was something Mathias always hated.
And in conversing with Elvia, the malleable little girl also expressed her desire to save as many lives as possible.
For this, Mathias was thankful.
Saving lives and fighting monsters. What was not to like?
"Cure Moderate Wounds!" Not far from Mathias, Elvia's flaxen hair, even bundled up tightly in a bun, was speckled with blood. "Kiki! Help me with the arrow!"
Not far from Mathias, Elvia commanded Kiki to worm her way into the gut of a Transmuter who had taken a barbed and poisoned arrow to the intestines, sucking up the shit and blood. Had Mathias and Elvia not been present, the chances of the poor sod arriving then surviving triage, even with a Healing Potion, were slim.
Mathias' reflexive mana shield deflected a sniper's arrow aimed at Elvia's neck.
"Eagle's Vision!" The Knight frowned, searching for the source of the sneak attack.
All around the duo, chaos reigned. Across a snow-blanked valley, snail trails of human and Demi-human activity had speckled the linen landscape crimson with ultra-violence. Here and there, parties of questing Mages flung spells against the bands of Redcaps dashing across the snow. Nearer to the valley's entrance, Gobs erupted from the tunnels and dragged prospectors down into the dark.
Unlike the pitched battles taking place across the saddle of the Crimson Peaks, the skirmish in Ystradfellte was a mess of NoMs, Mage prospectors, and adventurers.
On the side of the humans, thousands of hard-hatted crystal miners drawn to the region's yearly bloom of "Red Ore" fled from the mineral fields. Mathias did not fault the men nor their greed, for he too was engaged in a desperate bid for a better future. For a prospector, surviving meant that, potentially, they walked away with hundreds of HDMs, enough to buy land and retire to the country.
For the Mages, the swarming miners drew the Redcaps, Gobs, and the occasional Mountain or Frost Troll from the peak. Instead of venturing into no man's land, it was safer to defend the fleeing miners, get paid for protection, then harvest the Demi-humans for ingredients. The trouble then, was that as more Mages and miners showed up in Ystradfellte, more monsters poured from the mount.
As the Winter Solstice approached, the numbers snowballed. An avalanche of entrepreneurs rolled into Merthyr Tydfil, inundating the taverns, erecting whorehouses, opening butcheries and magical workshops. The locals, seedy, uncouth, and charging high-prices and dicing on who would return and who would not— demanded government regulation. The Tower obliged. Without it, the town would transform into a hive of low-born villainy.
Mathias' quest, therefore, was truly a thankless task, one that only individuals as poverty-stricken as Elvia could stomach.
In the distance, some two hundred meters away, Mathias saw their attacker. It was a Redcap Hob. A rare evolved Goblin of sorts, as tall as a man but three times as strong and ten times as hale. In his hand, the beast held a blacken yew-bow. On its back, a half-quiver of barbed arrows remained.
Mathias drew his wand.
The official moniker of a Knight's patented wand was "Spellblade", a part of a Knight's official arsenal of magical items. As warriors trained in close-quarter-combat, their wand was a device forged from Dwarven Runesteel and made to magnify Affinity. Rare and exclusive, Spellblades were forged for their owners by Dwarven craftsmen on a commission basis, then awarded to the individual Knight during their induction ceremony. Each had a name, and Mathias' was "Dawnstar", after his hero, the "Morning Star" Gunther Shultz, the saviour of Sydney and now its Master.
"O Christ, our Saviour, I am thy mace, thy implement of Chastisement." While Mathias gathered his will, motes of Radiance, intermingled with Faith, sheathed his blade in retina-searing brightness. With his Eagle-Eye, he marked the Hob.
The Hob turned, suddenly aware that the snow all around him began to glow. When he turned to flee, the halo followed, centred on the creature's back.
"HILF!" the Hob cried.
Its skin, scaly and warty and rusty like old blood, began to smoke.
"GARRRGH!" The creature ran into a mob of Redcaps. Its kin howled in amazement, hooting and kicking the rolling Hob, trying to put out the fire— then, without warning, the green-skinned assembly burst into incandescent flames.
"ARRRRRRGH—" Two dozen flaming torches spread through the surroundings, crashing through the polluted, mud-churned snow, setting others alight.
Mathias pressed the tip of his blade into the snow, allowing the metal to cool. As a Radiant Mage, his rare element fortified many of the Order's Faith-fuelled Magic, and his Spellblade multiplied the effect.
"Thank you, Sir Mathias!"
"Praise St Michael!"
With the backline of the Redcaps disrupted, the Mages and the Miners burst into a clamouring cheer.
"SIR MATHIAS!" the cry that now addressed him was the recovered Transmuter. The sod had been the parties' scout before he took an arrow to the gut. "There's a troop of Trolls coming this way! Led by a Rock Troll, big, burly bastard, built like a hill. It's tier 6— no, tier 7 at least!"
"I see." Mathias sheathed his wand. "Trolls regenerate. Is there not a Fire or Magma Mage among you?"
"Sorry." A young woman raised her hand. "I am only tier 4, Sir. Its resistance is much too high."
"Do what you must. Either way, I must stand by my oath to protect my Healer." Mathias flashed the blushing woman a winsome grin. "That said, I'll not let such a foul creature roam uncontested, you can be sure of it!"
"Alright lads, back to the fray!" an Abjurer yelled, gesturing toward the new wave of Redcaps trudging through the snow. "Sir Mathias is behind us!"
"Thank you, Sir Mathias, Lady Elvia." The Transmuter grovelled, snow and mud dripping from his cloak.
"Thank you for saving Thomas." His companion, the woman, bowed to Elvia. "We will make donations to your order and spread the word of your generosity."
Elvia waved the duo away with a smile. Mathias watched as the Healer's petite chest rose and fell, her cheeks ruddy with exertion. He could tell that she was suffering from spell fatigue. Mana-wise, Elvia should be fine. Wales, with its criss-crossing ley-lines, demi-human races and places of power, was immersed with power. If Elvia had time to meditate, her meagre VMI should replenish within the hour.
"HEALER! WE NEED A HEALER!" A group of miners emerged from the crest of a hill. Even in the snow, during the day, Mathias glowed like a beacon.
Mathias directed the wounded miner toward Elvia. Something had chewed off the man's right foot, likely a Gob digger. With every meter made by the Levitating Disk, a pint of crimson painted the crunching snow.
Elvia fell to her knees immediately.
"Kiki, tranq him, I need a tourniquet on that leg."
Kiki had been trained well. With one tendril, the Alraune injected a dose of dew into the man's stomach, instantly sending the prospector into a stupor. With another tendril, the Alraune lifted the man's leg, then stopped his bleeding by wrapping around his calves, cutting the blood flow.
"That has to go." Elvia performed a quick head to toe, then looked toward Mathias. NoMs cannot afford Regeneration or Regrowth spells. "Mattie, lend me a hand."
"At once, milady." Mathias raised his Spellsword. "Radiant Blade!"
A line of Radiance sliced the miner below the knee without so much as a hiss. The crushed leg came off, the wound fully cauterised.
"Heal Minor Wounds!" Elvia tended to the man's leg. "Faithful Restoration!"
The man's breathing slowed, his hands still tightly clutching a sack of crystals close to his chest. Mathias' lips twitched.
"Take him back to town and tell Matron Nadia I sent you," Elvia huffed, wiping sweat from her brow. She desperately needed to meditate.
"Thank you so much!"
"Don't thank me." Elvia pointed to the crest of her school: a stylised golden nightingale on a white shield adorned with three blue stripes. With a word, she conjured water to wash her hands. Her Healers' robes were immune to dust and grime, but even so, it looked bedraggled after dealing with so many victims.
Mathias likewise Prestidigitated the grime from his coat. On his shoulder, set against a spell-warded pauldron, gleamed an engraving of the Archangel Michael, sword raised, defending the unseen Mary from Lucifer. Below the enamelled image, the words "Auspicum Melioris Aevi" was etched in untarnished mithril. Against the snow, he looked resplendent in his Saxon-blue mantle in satin, handsome in crimson taffeta.
In the distance, a Troll bellowed.
"HEALER! IS MISS ELVIA STILL HERE?" a scream came over the hill.
Mathias huffed, watching his breath turn to mist.
Today was a good day.
Like a wandering comet, Gwen blasted past the rolling hills of southern Wales, her Shen-teī suit slicing the air. Where "New South Wales" was bushland from horizon to horizon, the English countryside had left no turf un-farmed. As far as two hours from Cambridgeshire, a stream of hamlets, villages and farmhouses ran the length of well-paved roads.
Flying in the country had its boon as well. Far from industry, Gwen did not have to worry about Knights encircling the capital challenging lone fliers with no business taking to the air. Flying alone, however, was an exceedingly dull affair. As with flights on planes, once the vista grew repetitive, one's thoughts wandered, then filled with ebullient Evees.
Two hundred meters from the ground and scattering the creatures below, she began to sing.
"I got some Crystals in my pocket (Dudoodududoooo—)
I got my licence in my hand (Dudoodududoooo—)
Getting down to Merthyr Tydfil (Dudoodududoooo—)
to see my cleric in a band (Dudoodududoooo—)
Evee, Evee— Evee put your wand down
Evee, Evee, Evee— put your wand down!
She's got the talent of a healer (Dudoodududoooo—)
She's working for the queen (Dudoodududoooo—)
She cures Moderate Wounds (Dudoodududoooo—)
to think she's only nineteen (Dudoodududoooo—)
Oh, little Healer, you're so scared—
you hardly make a sound—
Just listen to Cali's singing, Shaa! Shaa! Shaa—
Evee, Evee, Evee put your wand down
Evee, Evee— let your wand hang down
Feeling inspired, Gwen began another verse.
I'll meet you at the Mountain (Dudoodududoooo—)
and there I'll take you by your hand (Dudoodududoooo—)
I crossed an ocean just to see you (Dudoodududoooo—)
Time to make amends (Dudoodududoooo—)
Evee, Evee, Evee put your wand down
Evee, Evee— let your wand hang down
I left behind Ollie, (Dudoodududoooo—)
I hope he doesn't mind (Dudoodududoooo—)
I'll meet him in the valley (Dudoodududoooo—)
First I'll make sure you're alright (Dudoodududoooo—)
Oh, little Healer, you're so scared—
you hardly make a sound—
Just listen to Cali's singing, Shaa! Shaa! Shaa—
Evee, Evee, Evee put your wand down
Evee, Evee, Evee put your wand down
Evee, Evee— let your wand hang dooooooooown—"
She couldn't remember the exact lyrics, but that was alright.
Given another two hours, and Evee would be in her sights.
Giddy with anticipation, Gwen stopped to check the map.
Admittedly, it can't be too hard to find a big red hill, can it?
If so, why did the landscape look different?