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A note from Wutosama

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Christmas Mass was as magical as Gwen had anticipated, involving four rows of adolescent girls in white, each carrying Globes of Illumination, filling the sandstone cathedral with heavenly voices. The head girl, an elfin blonde, wore six illuminating Ioun Stones, appearing haloed with radiance.

The service opened with popular hymns, then a rousing speech by the Bishop of Exeter on the nature of giving in the spirit of the Nazarene. Choir favourites followed, mostly in English, a few in Latin, followed by Lady Astor's well-wishes to the attendees. At the service's conclusion, a basket came and went for donations to the poor. Gwen filled in Elvia's and Mathias' tithe, not wanting the penniless duo to lose face, as her Chinese cousins would say.

The Duke of Norfolk, Gwen noticed, had no time for something as trivial as charity and carols, having gone his merry way as soon as the garden's business concluded. With the sourpuss gone, she could relax and enjoy the spectacle of Christmas at Cliveden.

Post sermon, a Faith-laced Blessing from the Bishop warded the crowd from illness and disease and dispelled the British winter. After the final "Amen!" was delivered, the guests exited the private cathedral. Following the night's activities, they gathered outside the Duelling Pavilion, where servitor Mages had engendered an early spring.

From what Gwen could see, Cliveden ran a proper setup, with underground barrier generators hooked up to the estate's ley-lines. The terrain modifying Transmutation slabs also appeared more complex than the ones she had seen in Rosebay. Overhead, the shimmering Walls of Force extended upward well over fifty meters.

"So, do you think I'll be duelling folk or eating monsters?" Gwen queried her companions. Unlike her previous locales, Lady Astor's well-dressed guests meandered, all the while attended by the staff. Rather than a gladiatorial pit, the hedge garden made the arena akin to a rich man's menagerie, where the contestants were the exotics on display. "Or eating fo—"

"MAGICAL Beasts, I would imagine," Mathias interrupted from behind Elvia, now serving the pair as their chaperone. There was a maid-attendant as well, though the smiling, middle-aged woman said nothing and simply allowed the trio to wander.

"Mattie, stay here with Evee while I scope the joint," Gwen reassured her friend, then stalked her way down to the lawn. The Knight should know what to do if someone 'handsy' showed up— to shield Evees from undesired attention was the modus operandi of a Knight Protector.

As for herself, Gwen knew her luck with parties. If she could get away without at least one Lightning-fried challenger, she would be doing well.

Currently, the duelling arena was occupied.

Inside, a bloke in his mid-twenties, an Air Evoker-Transmuter by the looks of his mana signature, squared off against an Owl Bear. With her enhanced vision, Gwen could see that this was no ordinary Magical Monster, but a rarer variant. Its feathers, for one, were warding off the Mage's endless stream of bolts with ease, glimmering a dark-shade of turquoise as they resisted the Mage's magic.

"SCREEEEEE!"

A jet blast of concentrated, icy air just missed the duelling Mage, clipping his mana shield.

An Owl Bear! Using spells! Gwen baulked. Even the monsters in Britain were in a different league.

"Hammer Press!" The young Mage's AoE was a muffled gong reverberating across the battlefield, compressing the air in a broad circumference to paralyse the monster. "Beast! Submit!"

"SCAWWWWL!" The Owl Bear forcibly escaped the grinding plates of pure force conjured by the Evoker. In its wake, the bear left behind fistfuls of bloody feathers and great gouges of dirt where its powerful claws propelled its body.

"Thomas! Give it up!" Other spectators, which Gwen could only presume to be Thomas' mates, hollered at the challenger. "You've bitten off more than you can chew!"

"Shut up, Poins!" Thomas pirouetted mid-air, dodging a blast of pointed feathers and another jet of blue-green rime. "Missile Swarm!"

Gwen whistled.
The spell wasn't overpowering, but it was the definition of finesse. As though shedding feathers from an invisible wing, some two dozen Magic Missiles, self-seeking and brimming with mana, peeled from Thomas' shield even as he continued to duck and dodge.

It was too bad, then, that the variant Owl Bear's feather-plated coat proved resistant to his spells. In a dogfight, Gwen had no doubt; the man was an exceptional opponent. Against an ice-based tanker, the battle was woefully matched.

"Hoo-Hoo!" The Owl Bear raised a fluffy, feathered paw. A flood of viridescence burst forth from its chest, flooding its bulky frame with emerald motes of glowing energy.

"H-healing Renewal?" Gwen recognised the effect. She had seen Mayuree use the low-tier Clerical heal when her mana was low. It was a slow and gradual restoration, unlike the bone-itching, flesh-warping harshness of Cure Wounds.

On the Owl Bear, however, the impact was immediate. Visibly, its feathers grew back, broken flesh knitted as though new; the monster even appeared to grow an inch.

"Too bad, Tom!" Thomas' friends burst into laughter.

"Bah! Dimension Door!" More so discouraged than defeated, Thomas exited the duelling arena.

A round of polite applause resounded, then fell to silence as Cliveden's hostess arrived with her entourage. Across the blue lawn, Lucy Astor locked eyes with her guest.

"Gwen— care to try?" Gwen's host succeeded at redirecting attention toward her proclaimed guest of honour.

"Against that?" Gwen fired back a smirk, trying to guess whether her hostess was serious about wanting to see her deploy the infamous devouring, as was seen on TV. "Your ladyship, this Owl Bear has seen fairer days, I fear. It would hardly be a fair fight."

A clamouring round of ambivalent murmurs rang through the court.

"Arrogant simp..." Gwen sometimes regretted having such sharp ears.

In the next moment, a hint of colour touched her cheeks. It would appear her feign modesty wasn't as well-received as she had thought. Should she change gears then? Tone up the arrogance and entitlement?

"You there— !"

It was too late; her miscalculation had attracted the attention of the duelist and his friends.

"— might you demonstrate your superior skills then?" Thomas landed not far from her, slowing from a full descent to a casual stroll. Closer, perhaps dazzled by her beauty, the man's tone relaxed. "My apologies, you are—?"

"Gwen Song," Gwen nodded. "From Sydney."

"A Frontierswoman?" Thomas raised both brows.

"A Frontierswoman? Ahahaha…." Lady Astor's floated across the lawn like a silver cloud. "Don't let her pretty face fool you, Tom. Who we have here is the Devourer of Shenyang."

Thomas bowed from the waist while a dozen others converged. As always, Lady Astor's presence possessed a palpable gravitational pull.

"Gwen, let me introduce you to our rare guests and your future colleagues."

Gwen curtsied, mindful of her fashion choices. The younger of the men appeared appreciative; the women scandalised, while the older folk hid their reactions.

"You've met Tom," Lady Astor indicated to Thomas the Air Mage. "And this is his brother, Joshua Freemantle. Over yonder is Dylan Downer, heir to Parker. Ah— young Wakerworth! Glad to see you've made it, this is Gwen..."

A dizzying array of names and ranks sprouted from the Lady's lips without missing a syllable.

Gwen shook hands, curtsied, nodded, grinned and smiled until her facial muscles were half-paralysed.

Finally, the Lady's attention alighted on a pair that Gwen had been wary of since the beginning.

"Countess..." the greeting came as one voice.

"Allow me to announce the future Lords of Exeter, Magus Edward Poins and Benedict Thomas, of House Holland."

Gwen curtsied at the twins, both curious and a little alarmed that suddenly, the crowd grew silent. Looking up, she saw that the brothers had the same facial structure, though one sported a frightful head of dusky grey, while the other was a flaming carrot-top.

"The Devourer of Shenyang," Edward mouthed sulkily. "In the flesh."

"She looks better in the flesh," Benedict appended his brother's observation. "You look a treat, my dear."

Lady Astor remained smiling, heedless of the brothers killing the mirth.

Caught flatfooted, Gwen studied the duo before her true feelings boiled over. Everything about the Exeters appeared tailor-made, from their tapered vests, their fingers full of rings, to their shiny, thrice-enchanted Oxfords. Assuming the men weren't putting on a facade, they were walking, talking "Old Boys", the Polo Men, Tom Buchanans, men whose egos superseded their Astral Bodies.

"Interesting choice of dress," the ashen-haired one continued.

"Oriental," the other remarked. "But you don't look oriental."

The "Exeter" folk, Gwen concluded, looking from the brothers to Lady Astor and back. These must be the crowning roosters of the inbred-coop. Their indifference wasn't just toward her— it was toward their host as well.

"Thank you, do you like it?" Gwen was beginning to really miss her Dragon Fear.

The men closed in, caging her with their overt interest.

The skin on her thighs prickled.

Gwen recognised the all too familiar gaze. When had she last suffered such repression? Walking through Forrestville, it had been a daily affair; then there was that incident at Huang's, and after that, Dai at the House of M. The Exeter twins were not studying a fellow student of the arcane, but browsing over an exotic animal, a rare mutant.

Summoning a surge of Essence to circulate her conduits, she met them head-on.

The air grew suddenly thick.

Gwen smiled, showing some teeth.

The men grinned back.

Gradually, the back of her sheer dress grew soaked with sweat. Even without Ollie pouring warnings in her ear, her Divination senses warned her to speak softly and carry a big Caliban. The men's ability to project their aura, not to mention their Spellcraft, was superior.

"It's a pleasure to meet you all..." Squaring her shoulders and forcing her spine to straighten, Gwen kept her balance. The twins appeared amused by her resilience, Gwen imagined they must be a pair of cats amazed by a mouse squeaking in protest.

"… and Gwen here, of course, is this year's MVP." Lucy Astor touched a hand to Gwen's silken shoulder. "Now, she's going to demonstrate some of that Void Magic for us, aren't you, dear?"

"I shall," Gwen answered with a winsome smile. "Shall I take care of the… Owl?"

"Absolutely. Everyone, let's give our Devourer some space."

The crowd parted.

Instead of jumping into the fray, the Void sorceress paused. If the twins were going to cause her trouble, Gwen mulled, she rather not fight them in a flimsy silk dress.

"Milady, may I change into something more durable?"

"Here and now?" Lucy Astor appeased the crowd at her expense. "I understand you've roughed it against the Beast Tide in South America and the Undead Tide in China, but here in Cliveden…"

Though embarrassed, the reignited laughter softened the mood somewhat.

"Gwen..." Elvia, having reached her side with Mathias, pulled at Gwen's sleeve, her expression indignant and protective. "I'll show you to the change rooms."

"Thanks, Evee." Gwen slipped an arm in her Cleric's elbow nook, glad for the opportunity to be out of sight. Taking solace in Elvia's warmth, she fortified her spirit, then addressed her audience. "Lady Astor, my very merry fellows, I shall return shortly, and I shan't disappoint."


Edward Poins and Benedict Thomas watched with pleasure as their little mouse scampered from the fray.

Of all present at Cliveden, the Exeter twins uniquely felt insulted by the presence of the MVP upstart. From the perspective of blue-veined noblemen, their ire was well-directed.

They too had once been IIUC contestants, both Edward and Benedict were on the winning team of '98, under the banner of Oxford. But the well-bred brothers did not go around gifting themselves titles as gregarious and grotesque as "The Devourer" and the, "Omni-Mage", nor proudly proclaim one's earthen blood as Draconic.

Unlike the mud-blooded Frontierwoman, House Holland's peerage was the stuff of legend and lorel! Their progenitor was the begetter of Kings! Within their veins flowed the purest blood of the Plantagenets!

They were the direct descendants of John Holland, father to Henry Bolingbroke, patriarch to Henry of Monmouth!

Henry the Fifth!
Henry of the golden reign!
Henry, who seeded an empire!
Henry the Undefeated!

Within the potential of the Exeter's bloodline, existed a natural, untaught grandmaster of sword, sorcery and statesmanship.

If only the mewling waif could understand the grandeur of their ancestor!

Did she know, for example, that at the tender age of seventeen, Harry, Prince of Wales, known as "Hal" to his boisterous mates, bewitched the world with his presence at Shrewsbury?

Had the girl been educated, she would have known that the Holland bloodline heralded the first instance in which a Human Mage subjugated an overwhelming Demi-human force!

In single combat, the former Prince of Wales slew the fabled Arthurian Knight Percy Northumberland. Armed with a conjured Black Blade, the future King harvested "Hotspur's" crown of garlands— said to be woven by Elven maidens, to be piked and displayed before the gobsmacked Druidic allies of Owain Glyndŵr.

As for Glyndŵr himself, the young prince had captured, then redeemed the howling caster by wrapping the Arch-Druid's intestines around his life-tree before purifying the heathen in righteous fire.

Could the girl conceive of a bloodline so talented as to subjugate the Elven enclaves of Snowdonia, subdue the Circle Wizards of Edinburgh, and suppress the Dwarves of Ben Macdui?

She should visit the London Musem!

There, the Frontier simpleton could be educated by Lord Scribe Holinshed's Chronicles. She would learn that in Henry's campaign to reunite the English and French throne, he took the Fortress of Harfleur in two weeks with exhausted, outnumbered, and malnourished troops!

Then, without pause, their King miraculously demolished the French retribution on the plains of Agincourt! Theirs was a King of firsts! The first to demonstrate nouveau tactics such as mixing magic and martial mettle. The first to widely employ Circle Wizards, trapping the superior French army in a "Quagmire" while flanking, swift-footed Elven archers made them into pincushions. Once decimated and demoralised, the King's men-at-arms, supported by Dwarven Ironborn, simply moved into the field and hacked the opposition into mincemeat.

Oh, the glory! Would the simp ever know that after Agincourt, Henry roped into service Mermen allies, deployed to route the Genoese mercenaries hired by Emperor Sigismund? That the triumphant, unstoppable Henry took Caen in a week and all of Lower Normandy in another month. That Rouen was promptly besieged, then sacked to feed his growing army— that Henry herded the wasteful mouths of women and children, into the hungry, productive mouths of his Mermen allies?

Sure, the Pontiff may have censured Henry as the "Mad King", but the man still arrived at Paris to forcibly wed Catherine of Valois, the French King's daughter, successfully uniting the Franco-Saxon throne.

Their only regret was that, like a fading comet flaming with all the grace stolen from heaven— on August 1422, Henry the Fifth, the Northern Star of England, died, aged twenty-seven.

The cause was unknown. Henry's celestial fire simply extinguished, as the physicians of antiquity would say. The King's "humours" were no longer in balance, and thus, his Astral Soul could no longer maintain its position in the firmament.

The King was dead! Long live the King! The shadow cast by the young Mage-King was so vast that each scion who hailed from John the Gaunt believed that one day, by anointment, chance, or proper breeding, another celestial Plantagenet would arise.

THEY would be the ones to unite the human world!
THEY would crush the welkin beneath Britannia's ironwood stave!

Such was the position of supremacy from which the twin-sorcerers of Exeter saw their upstart, bushy-tailed sorceress sauntering about the courtyard of yet another upstart, Lady Lucy Astor.

And to flaunt her body so boldly! The brother's nostrils flared. To tease them so outrageously and act the coy waif! So unmannered, uncultured, and uncouth! Why— if she were not a Class VI War Mage, they could just gobble the girl up!

Therefore, without so much as a Telepathy, the duo agreed that the Wildland wildcat, who was a walking affront to the very visage of nobility, must be put in her place. Who did she think she was? What even flowed in her bastard, mongrel blood?

For though the Crown now sat with the House of Windsor, the scions of Gaunt did not perceive themselves diminished. The Windsors are a branch of the Plantagenet, but the Hollands blood ran purer than Mithril.

The future, as far as the patrilineal Plantagenet Houses were concerned, was one of male succession and blessed-blooded intermingling. In their minds, all true Englishmen harkened after the golden age of celestial Henry.

Such was the ineffable order of the Chain of Being!
Such was the Divine Right of House Holland, under whose auspice this "Omni-Mage" usurper must be taught her place!

 

 

Gwen returned in her Shen-teī cloth-plates, drawing wows and coos from the crowd as they recognised the visage from the IIUC broadcasts.

Greetings flooded in as other guests arrived for the demonstration, crowding beside the pavilion.

But though the crowd's blood heated up, Gwen's motivation had grown cold.

The Owl Bear— it was meditating.

Even when she teleported in with a thunderous Dimension Door, it remained docile, sitting like a hermit, drawing what mana it could from the tapped ley-lines under Cliveden.

Was this thing intelligent? Gwen felt a bout of doubt; the sort she had wholly abandoned while the IIUC went on and endless battles drowned her better judgement. Now, after a long few months of peace and a few days with Evee, her sanity had rebounded enough to plague her conscience.

Was it because— Gwen cautioned herself; that the Owl Bear looked kind of cute? It did, after all, have the head of a great horned owl, possessing moody, expressive brows. Its body was large, about four meters from claw to crest fully extended, and completely round. The colouring of this variant species was dusky ice near its tail and a fresh turquoise on its wingtips. It was a beautiful creature, and to see such a thing slain for sport made Gwen rebellious to her present purpose.

"Ariel!" She summoned her Kirin, much to the delight of the onlookers.

"Caliban!" Her Void fiend drew both cheers and applause. The crowd continued clapping as Caliban's palpable vertigo aura rippled forth from the Quasi-Elemental Plane of the Void.

"Ariel, go chat to it," Gwen commanded. "Give it a zap if it's hostile. Cali's got your back."

"EE EE!" Ariel asked for a jolt of Almudj's blessing, and Gwen fluffed her Familiar until it glowed radiant like a rainbow.

The crowd's response was a mixture of envy, desire and wonder. A Kirin was rare enough, but Ariel was as unique a Kirin as the Owl Bear was different from its crazed, Wildland cousins.

"EE! EE?" Ariel hovered a few meters from the Owl Bear. "Ee!"

"Hoo-hoo!"

"Ee—ee?"

"Hoo-hoo—"

Gwen focused on her Empathic Link. With Ariel growing more intelligent by the day, she could discern more complex thoughts. From the character of Ariel's translation, the creature was too demotivated to fight. It was instead resigned to its fate, ready to receive a dignified death.

Furthermore, when Ariel scented the creature. It informed her that the Owl Bear wasn't the creature's original form. Her Familiar could sense that within the Owl Bear's body was a whole other thing with wildly different Essence.

"You've got to be shitting me," Gwen muttered. "That's a Polymorphed being?"

Now she was truly demotivated.

"Shape-shifted— actually." An intrusive Divination spell bloomed beside her ear. "We caught it near Dartmoor, raiding the local villages' winter stores. It's a fun little bugger, ain't it?"

Gwen turned her head slowly to see who was sending her unsolicited Messages and saw that it was one of the twins— the ashen-haired elder of the two.

"Do go on," the speaker urged. "Don't tell me our all-devouring lioness is getting cold feet?"

Here it comes. Gwen bit back a retort. What was his name? Edward-Poins? Or just Edward? Cold feet? Gwen fought off the annoyance. What joy was there in destroying a defenceless creature?

"Lady Astor," she called out with Clarion Call. "This creature appears to be both intelligent and capable of sentimentality, I would prefer to consume something stronger, far more savage, and larger, if at all possible. Anywhere between tier seven to nine is fine."

"Is the Owl Bear not to your liking?" Lady Astor's voice rang out.

"There's no sport in it, ma'am." Gwen had just enough time to wonder what might then happen to the docile Owl Bear when the teleportation Mandala fired up once more.

When the sizzling Conjuration cleared, it wasn't a monster that appeared, but Edward Poins Holland.

"Milord Holland?" Gwen quickly retracted her Familiars in case Caliban desired a snack. She looked to Lady Astor, who said nothing, while all around the arena, the crowd grew intense with anticipation. "What is the meaning of this intrusion?"

"Allow me to give you a helping hand," Edward's voice had barely reached Gwen's ears when the man faded away, quite literally, into tendrils of smoke.

"Sir, I don't need your—" Gwen protested.

"SCRAWWWK!" The Owl Bear bolted upright, then slammed into an invisible wall with such force that it almost cracked its beak. A split-second later, bars of smoky, barely tangible force materialised like ethereal fingers, forming a bony, clawed hand in the guise of a cage.

"Oi! You leave that damn Bear alone!" Gwen snapped. "That's my prey…"

"Wrong. It belongs to me, you see," the whispy Mage's smile gave her the shivers. "I caught it, after all, and offered it up as tribute for some fun and games. If our bitch isn't keen on bear-baiting, then I shall play the hound…"

Did that cunt just call her a— Gwen's mind reeled.

"It's defenceless!" She gestured toward the Owl Bear, even now the smoke cage closed in, crushing its body and distorting its thick, plated feathers. Louder and louder the creature screeched, its wailing growing to such a pitch that Gwen could hardly hear herself think. She wanted to slap some sense into this sadistic blue-blood but knew that with Elvia just below her and Lady Astor and Lady Grey anticipating diplomacy, she couldn't afford to offend the man, not over a Monster.

"A mere Force Cage," Edward rematerialised, this time closer. "Come, surely you could counter such a thing."

Listening to the bone-crunching wailing from below, a rush of blood touched her head.

So this was the point. Gwen realised. The fucking bastard was showing her up.

"Or a well-aimed Disintegrate? Hmm? No?"

"I am still a student, milord…"

"We were all young, once. So, NO Obliterate? NO Beam of Annihilation? Surely, a Destruction wouldn't be too much to ask for?"

The Force Cage was now half the size of the Owl Bear, and the creature's pulsing innards were spilling from the gory spectacle. It was dying, but not dead.

"COME ON! Do something! The damn thing's suffering!" The smug face drifted yet closer, almost teasing her while scant laughter broke out across the arena's perimeter. "How about a Dispel? It's tier three Abjuration. Omni-Mage! Show us the goods, put crystal where your mouth is!"

Gwen drifted away from the psychopath.

Below, the Owl Bear breathed its last.
Once its life-force ceased, its shape began to shrink until it resembled a furry Hob, only larger and hairier.

A Bugbear, Gwen recognised the mangled shape from its distinctly crested brow and bat-like ears. A brutal thing, but a thinking, feeling being all the same.

"Good show, Omni-Mage." Edward reached out to pat her shoulder. When Gwen retreated, the man offered her a smile full of teeth. "We'll be seeing you around, Devourer."

Gwen watched the Mage teleport away in a puff of acrid smoke. The scion of House Holland was a Smoke Mage, and from the looks of Force Cage, the man had at least one School of Magic touching tier 7.

"Gwen," Lady Astor's guiding voice was neutral as can be. "Don't mind them. Come back and enjoy the evening. There's more to Cliveden than duels, I assure you."

"Alright." Gwen sighed. Should she have Consumed the Bugbear? Here was a being, clearly with a mind of its own, giving up the fight to preserve its dignity.

As for her performance?

Gwen shook herself out of her stupor. She mustn't let the Holland pricks work up her edge. She was the current IIUC's MVP, right? The ceremony was in January. Why would she worry about a dinner show? It was meaningless violence.

"Gwen, are you alright?" Elvia waited on her as she returned with a dazzling Dimension Door, regretfully packing away a still-hungry Caliban and an upset Ariel.

Lady Astor gave her a measured look that was equal parts "stay away from the Hollands" and "its time to take Elvia and enjoy another part of the garden".

"I am fine, Evee," Gwen relieved her pent up stress on her friend. "Shall we... call it a night?"

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Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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