It took Mathias a full second to digest the Void sorceress' earth-shattering accusation. Besides the Knight, Magister Hanford's open mouth could have swallowed a duck egg.
"I beg your pardon?" His jaw clenched, turning Mathias' neck a bright pink. That thrice-damned Alraune! To think the blasted bulb was a flower on top, but a serpent beneath! "What are you on about, young lady?"
The sorceress stood between himself and his ward. "Do you deny your dereliction of duty?"
"Absolutely!" Mathias allowed his Radiant mana to circulate. "I warn you, Miss Song. The honour of a Knight isn't so cheap that a nobody from a Frontier could waltz in and point fingers. I swore an Oath to protect Miss Lindholm!"
The Knight's sword-hand burned with a phosphorescent brilliance.
"That my Faith remains is a testament to my service!"
Mathias allowed both Faith and Radiance to inter-mingle. His face glowed; his blonde hair engendered a halo. "Miss Song, you test me again and again, for no reason other than petty jealousy over my guardianship of Miss Lindholm. I implore you, with complete sincerity and politeness, to cease your belligerence! We both want what's best for Elvia."
But the girl did not back down. Instead, she raised Elvia's hands. "Then how do you explain Evee's poverty of items? She's been questing with you for how long?"
"SIX MONTHS!" The girl continued without missing a beat. "If there is such a demand for Evee— and yet she's penniless— then as her manager, you're bloody hopeless! If she isn't profiting, then who is profiting OFF her?"
Mathias had never felt so insulted in his life. He never knew anger could influence the flow of mana. Now he did.
"Did I hit a nerve?" His accuser stood with one hand pointing and her other against her hip, not unlike a pissing tea kettle. "Where were you when Evee got bullied? When they overworked her, why didn't you campaign to give Evee a fair go? Look around you— where are the OTHER healers with burned-out brains? Is that a testament to their apathy, or your ineptitude? Or Both?"
"Milady's compassion—" Mathias was finding it hard to speak.
"—Is not your social capital!" The girl's voice was like a gale. "Kiki tells me Evee gets attacked by monsters, every day, every fucking time!"
"The Spirit lies!" Mathias growled. "Evee's never lost a hair. Elvia, tell her how I've shielded you!"
"Sophistry!" The girl's rudeness grated like a rusty saw. "Your bull doesn't pass the China-test, Mattie. Let's cut to the chase. Show me your hands."
The girl extended her hand. "Here, let me help: Ring of Evasion— Ring of Storage— Ring of Contingency—"
Mathias's complexion shifted from scarlet to white. His Radiant mana hammered at his skull, tolling like church bells. The Contingency Ring on his left index finger was burning his skin as silver burns a Lycanthrope. The ring was from his Order. It wasn't his to give— or was it? Mathias no longer knew the answer.
The girl pulled his healer's hand forward. "Here. I know it's hard, but let me show you the rare bird called 'giving a fuck'."
With a zap of electricity, the girl pulled two bands from her fingers, materialising a third in her offhand.
"Gwennie," Elvia protested in alarm, her whole body pulling helplessly against the taller sorceress. "You can't! That's Gunther's Ring! Alesia's going to be pissed! I am not worthy!"
"I can, and you are," the girl retorted, then slipped the Contingency Ring onto the Elvia's trembling fingers.
Mathias' eyes grew round when he caught the Beholder's Core mounted in the Contingency Ring. When furthermore his ears registered Elvia's protest, the implication slammed into his skull like an empowered Missile Swarm.
Gunther? Which Gunther could afford a Contingency Ring made from a Beholder's Eye Core? Alesia? He knew of only one sorceress called Alesia.
"Evee, relax. I returned brother's heirloom in Sydney," the Void sorceress explained. "This one's a discounted facsimile from Pretoria."
"It's too expensive!"
"More valuable than my peace of mind? Hardly—" The Void sorceress slipped on the other two rings as well: her Ring of Evasion, and what looked like a Medium Storage Ring. "There! You see, Mathias? Evee's now snug as a bug. Now that's Evee husbandry, 101."
"M-Miss Song," Mathias murmured, his mind still reeling from the revelation. In his chest, the anger and the resentment drained away into the Ethereal Plane. "By Gunther, do you mean Lord Shultz, of Sydney Tower?"
"Who else?" The girl assumed her tea kettle pose once again, fully intent on filling him up to the ears. "He was Evee's immigration sponsor. Do you take offence to that?"
Mathias felt as though struck by a bolt of livid lightning. Every hair on his body stood on end. His spleen ached. Why hadn't Emily told him? Why hadn't Elvia mentioned a word of her connection to the Tower Master of Sydney? Why, if she had so much as dropped a hint, he would have duelled Royal Alfred's Knight to secure every holiday from here to next year.
Master Shultz! Mathias' mind felt as slow as a snail's crawl. Against his right thigh, Dawnstar hung like a lead weight.
"Well, Mattie?" The girl's supply of spittle was endless. Her eyes flashed like that of a fixated hawk on a fleeing prey. "Now do you see—"
Mathias' body was in motion before his mind conceded. In one, swift action, the Knight dropped to an armoured knee.
"MY HEART WAS IMPURE!" In one smooth draw, Mathias presented his Spellsword, then offered it to his accuser in a gesture of supplication. "Lady Lindholm, I beg for your clemency!"
Gwen braked so hard she stuttered, biting her tongue. Behind the Void sorceress, Elvia cringed and whimpered, the cost of the rings flaying the flesh from her fingers. Across the counter, Magister Hanford choked on the mead, then began to cough uncontrollably as the rogue booze shot up his sinus tract.
Ascending toward the second floor, the Void sorceress and the Spirit Healer ventured upstairs, joined by a Kirin, a Void serpent, a Ginseng and an Alraune.
Below, the two men prepared to call it a night.
"That young lady's quite the orator." Hanford rummaged below the counter, then pulled out a bottle of ancient-looking rum, poured himself a glass, then filled a second goblet. "Now that's over, care for a pint to calm the nerves?"
"I don't— sure." The Knight hesitated but did not decline the Magister's sympathy. By the creed of temperance, a Knight was only allowed to imbibe alcohol as a part of the Sacrament. Luckily for Mathias, a Knight of St Michael was also an anointed Cleric by trade, fully equipped to deliver Mass or authorise a marriage.
"Bless, O Lord, this drink which Thou hast created. Here, by Thy holy name, I receive the blood of thy body and soul. Amen."
As per the ritual, Mathias drained the chalice in one gulp.
"Hmm..." Hanford double-checked the bottle's back label. "... shit."
Mathias wiped his booze-stained mouth, breathing slowly to fight down the alcohol. In an instant, the Knight grew pale. "By St John, I feel as though afflicted with Negative Drain. In St George's name, what is this thing? My gut's fallen into the seventh circle of hell..."
Hanford winced. He should have known from the bottle that the rum was Dwarven. That and virgin Knights were famous teetotalers.
Carefully, Magister Hanford poured himself a half-shot. "Will you be joining us tomorrow?"
"Wherever Miss Lindhold goes, so shall... so shall I..."
"I see." Hanford raised a foaming toast for the boy-Knight who survived the Devourer of Shenyang with four limbs intact.
"Here's my belated Amen— and here's to keeping your job. Sir Rothwell. Good night."
"That's right. I am a good Knight." The Radiant Mage slumped into a tub chair. His belly growled. Dwarven rum wasn't for the faint of anything. "O Christ, shield me from this unholy fire."
When Elvia's companion saw the modesty of the inn's bedroom, she straight away offered the Portable Habitat she had "neglected" to return to Melbourne Tower.
An HDM and a few minutes later, the girls and their menagerie of flora and fauna relaxed in the interior of the Habitat, sprawled out across the spacious living room. Kiki and Sen-sen wandered all over, investigating every nook and cranny. Caliban took up residence on the carpet, coiled and comfortable, while Ariel, now lap-sized and docile, rested against Elvia's legs.
There, in the privacy of each other's company, Elvia related the dream she had appropriated from Gwen's Outback adventure.
"Yeah! It was like you were there!" Elvia painted for her friend the strangest dream she ever dreamt. "There was Uluru and the Rainbow Serpent, and we were Singing the Snake..."
Gwen smacked her lips. "Did rain come from a cloudless sky?"
"Yes! Then Almudj came out of the rock! And there was red water everywhere."
Her friend's expression grew contemplative. "So, you were Kalinda, and I was the Tjupurrula... how curious..."
Once the dream-talk ceased, the atmosphere grew contemplative.
On her fingers, Gwen's rings weighed heavily on Elvia's heart, stifling her breath.
In the ensuing silence, Elvia drew on some of that courage she had so admired in Faux-Debora, slipping across the couch so that she sat on Gwen's lap. Sensing a lack of protest, she then laid her back against her friend's supple torso. From Gwen's hair, she could smell the faintest hint of eucalyptus.
"What's wrong, Evee?" Gwen read her mood like a book.
"Gwennie," Elvia heard herself lament, her voice almost a whisper. "Why me?"
The paranoia that twisted Elvia's gut wasn't uninvited, but something she had known since Sydney. As a mere healer, one without charisma, character, or backing, what could she possibly gift to Gwen? What aid, no matter how trivial, could she deliver to the devourer of a city?
"Don't say that," Gwen scolded her with a snort. "You're more important than you think."
"But I am not." Elvia felt her friend shifting beneath her. After repositioning her legs, Elvia now used her friend's thigh as a pillow. "I am not strong, and I know I am not smart. Mathias isn't wrong, you know. I am a liability."
"Nope, stop right there." Gwen's fingers prodded Elvia's button nose as though a stop-start button on a Golem. "You're a special person. You just don't know it."
"I watched you and Yue in the IIUC." Elvia rested her cheek against the palm of her friend's outstretched hand. "I kept trying to imagine how I could have helped, but I don't think I can. Be it Sylvie, or Emily, or even Lady Astor, everyone thinks of me as a tag-along. Nothing more."
"That's quite the imagination you got there." A finger wiped away the string of wetness flowing down Elvia's pippin-pink cheeks. "Christ, Evee. Relax. Man, I should install a vid-caster in here."
Elvia sighed, feeling all the more guilty for her friend's sympathy. Doing her best, she choked back a sob.
"Alright, now I feel like an unsympathetic bitch." Gwen patted her head. "How about you put a stopper on the tap and let me explain."
Elvia did her best. The mind was willing, but the flesh was tender.
"In life, Evee..." Gwen began, dabbing her face with a tissue. "...there are folk who pop in and out of our orbit."
"With some, we grow intimate— Petra, who you know; or Tao my fruity cousin; or the iron-hearted Lulan. These are honest folk with dreams and aspirations. Their goals, I respect, and when our paths bisect, I want to help them."
"Then, there are selfless souls like my Babulya; or Uncle Jun. Like Opa, they want to see me prosper and do well. But with these folks, their love comes with anticipations and expectations, and of course, should I misstep— disappointment."
"Then, there are the folk who walk a parallel path. Ruxin and Gogo the Dragon siblings of Nagaland; Marong, my business partner; Magister Walken, who sees in me a kindred spirit on the path to relevance. Guo, my legacy obsessed grandfather— these folks I work with because our goals align and our interests are complimentary—"
Elvia listened, bathed in the warmth of her friend's enveloping embrace.
"And finally, there are those who are closest to our hearts. Yue takes a spot. Alesia and Gunther are my unconditional allies. Percy of course, he's my little brother after all. Richard as well has sacrificed much— though thankfully, I've managed to even the odds of late…"
Gwen's irises burned with a gentle light.
From within her friend's arched body, Elvia felt a curious resonance. In her chest, below her throat, the thrumming Essence felt like heartburn.
"...And there's you, Evee."
Elvia's complexion grew hot-pink, whether due to nervousness or embarrassment, she didn't know.
"Some might say that being normal and nice implies a lack of character, that a lack of ambition makes you a lesser person. But to me, that's what makes my Evee endearing. What I admire in you, Evee— is your simplicity."
"That's right." Gwen parted her flaxen hair, knotting the strands around her fingers. "You know, Evee, I've been fighting non-stop for four years now. Sometimes, I think about the places I've seen, the monster's I've eaten, and wonder how far I've drifted from a bedroom with an ocean-view."
Elvia recalled that indeed, an ocean-view bedroom had been her friend's dream.
"Can you imagine that, Evee? Before meeting Master Henry, all I wanted was a three-bedder at Potts Point. Now, I harp on about being the Master of a Tower. Christ! A cloud-clapped Tower, Evee! Tall as anything—staffed by thousands! But then, after Caliban burps and Ariel's gone to bed I think to myself— what the fuck am I doing? Right now, I can buy TEN houses by the sea. Why aren't I retired by the ocean, fighting Mermen from my porch?"
"But…" Elvia felt her friend's frustration through the emphatic link of their mingling essence. "You can't retire. You're the Devourer of Shenyang."
"Aye, that's the rub— the calamity of so elevated a life."
Her friend breathed out for what felt like an eternity.
"I miss the old days." Her friend's face was an inch from Elvia's head. "You and me and Yue, going to Blackwattle, eating at Market City, Yue fellating paddle pops and making us laugh, all in that cramped sauna we called home. I miss my Master, as well. Henry and I only shared a year, but he was so kind to me, more than anyone I knew in all my... years. I miss Sufi too, and not just because of her Golden Mead. Her emotions were always so pure."
"Kiki!" Elvia's Alraune, having returned to check on its mistress, patted Gwen on the shins. A few inches away, Caliban sniffed the Flower Sprite's bulb disinterestedly.
"Sometimes, I can't help but imagine what would have happened if Sobel never happened to us, or if I had been stern enough to listen to Yue and kicked Debora out. Imagine that— You and I, and Yue, in Sydney for the next three years. We could have made a party of our own with Whetu and Richard. The SIMPLICITY of it, Evee. That's what I miss more than anything."
All Elvia could do was nod.
"If you're afraid you've got nothing to contribute, Evee." Gwen's lips hovered over her own. "Then I'll give you a job."
"Yes, Evee. One only you can do. You see, after the Trolls, the Undead, the Dragons, and the people; I need something to anchor myself. What I mean, Evee— is that I need an anchor that isn't mountains of Crystals and cloud-clapped Towers. What I need, Evee— is something more concrete than the pageant of popularity and the phantasms power, do you understand?"
Elvia shivered. "What can I do?"
"Be Elvia Lindholm." Gwen's voice grew low and husky. "That, to me, is more precious than anything."
"But I am not special. Not like you."
"Then I'll make you special." The conviction in Gwen's voice made Elvia's spine suddenly rigid. Her friend's next words were barely a whisper, but it fulminated within the recesses of Elvia's mind.
"Evee— I don't want to be another Sobel."
Against her cheek, Gwen's thighs were clammy.
A part of Elvia wanted to get away, to slip from her friend's lap and flee the Habitat. What Gwen had just told her, the "Job" Gwen had offered— could anyone bear such a burden? Could she? Could a weak-willed waif serve as the foundation of a sorceress who may one day change the Mageocracy?
Was Gwen being selfish?
"Kiki?" Her Alraune stroked her arm with an elongated tendril. "Ki?"
"Sen!" Sen-sen as well, perhaps reading Kiki's distress, touched Elvia's toes and prodded her pink digits.
Her friend grew silent, awaiting a response.
Elvia felt queasy.
Was she up to the task?
In truth, she had no idea.
In truth, she missed Mathias already.
Her glory-seeking Knight was a knee-deep pond; Gwen was the abyssal ocean.
"Kiki!" Her Alruaune thumped its chest as a sign of solidarity.
Courage, or was it Essence, flowed into Elvia's chest. Kiki was right! So what if she dived head-first into the Void? Gwen would do just as much for her, so why couldn't she do the same? Whether she could hold Gwen back was one question. Whether she was willing was another. One needn't inform the other.
"Gwennie?" The brimming Essence in her conduits overflowed.
Unfortunately, having acquired Almudj's blessing only an hour ago, the rising ardour Elvia had felt wasn't Essence. Instead, it was reflux from her oesophagus, caused by her threadbare nerves.
And so, to conclude their first conference in two years, against the softness of her best friend's awaiting body, Elvia Lindholm poured out her soul.
"Evee! Evee! Evee, let your wand hang down..."
Gwen hummed as she changed, readying herself for the day trip. In the master bedroom, Elvia slept like a lamb, exhausted after a lengthy apology and an even longer shower.
Still, even a rancid Elvia sparked joy. Gwen could hardly complain when her little healer grew so happy that she vomited on the couch. That had been her fault, she later realised. Evee had languished for the better part of a day without taking a meal, and though Almudj's Essence provided many gifts, a full stomach wasn't one of them.
Her Shen-teī armour tightened, enclosing her athletic figure with a hiss, kissing every inch of her dermis.
On a nearby pedestal, Gwen aligned more gifts readied for Elvia. The first was a spare suit of Shen-Teī in white. To their premier model, Sinomach Heavy Industries had been very generous with their samples, especially after the IIUC's unprecedented viewership. Also on the pedestal was her Radiant Diamond Ioun Stone.
Last night, Mathias had folded like cheap origami, but she couldn't trust the Knight, at least not yet.
As for her losses, Gwen did not consider the items critical to her ventures in London. Seeing as she was a Class VI asset, surely the Mageocracy would give her a sizeable discount on a Tower-issued Conti-Ring. As for the Ring of Evasion, now that her split-second Dimension Door well-exceeded the range of most AOEs, Magister Ferris's handcrafted item now felt meagre. And as for the Ioun Stone, Elvia would better benefit from its shell-hardening than herself, who could pump the equivalent of a dozen Mages' mana into her Gunther Shield.
Already, for their first outing visiting the Troll warrens around the Gulch, she had a plan.
The dastardly Duke of Norfolk had name-dropped Elvia to serve as a warning, but now, Gwen considered the advice with kindness. That those with fingers in her future would see Elvia as Gwen's weakness was a certainty. If so, why should she step lightly and keep her best friend from the limelight?
Through her Master, Gwen had learned that recognition could be utilised like a Force Wall. From Gunther, she had learned that though one spoke softly, it didn't hurt to tap the table with a big stick. And if there was anything Alesia taught her, it was that infamy could be just as useful as fame.
Her out-bond Message chimed.
"Miss Song?" an accented tongue echoed by her ear. "This is Dominic Lorenzo. Alesia said you'd call. How do you like London? And how can I help?"
"Hi, Dom." Gwen's voice was sugary sweet. "Thanks for answering. I am so sorry to impose on you so soon, and without a luncheon first to get acquainted."
"Ha, don't mind it, anything for Alesia's sister," the man replied with enthusiasm. "Not to mention you're the talk of the town. Have you read the Telegraph? You're all over page three! I wouldn't dream of dining with a tabloid girl in public."
"Er…" Gwen paused. "What's this about?"
"You know, Lord Ravenport. Hahaha, you young sorceresses sure move fast these days."
Gwen blinked, wondering if the tavern received daily papers. "I am at Merthyr Tydfil right now."
"Near Red Peak? What's a lass like you doing on Dwarf land?"
"Long story," she said. "Look, we'll meet up and talk later, Alesia said to ask you if I needed help. She said you're the man with the connections."
"And so I am. Go on."
"Lovely." Gwen cleared her throat, putting aside the tabloid business for now. "So— I am about to clear a Troll warren near Merthyr Tydfil, something called the Scarlet Gulch—"
"Ah, the place where Earthen Crystals sprout about now—" the voice paused. "Hold up— doth my ears deceive me? Did you say you want to PURGE the area?"
"You could say that. I've got some stake in elevating one of my friends to the public eye, a healer. As such, I was wondering if the media was keen to see a Void Sorceress single-handedly clear a valley of green-skins in defence of a fellow sister dual-wielding sapient Spirits…"