"Gwen, NO." Elvia's svelt figure interposed itself between Golos and the impending eruption of ultraviolence.
From raising the hand of God, Gwen found herself suddenly diminished.
"Evee, step aside." Her voice grew low and loud like impending thunder.
"Gwen. No." Elvia's response was accompanied by Kiki crawling up her arm to sit on one shoulder. Before Sen-sen, the Alraune had proved too heavy for the small-framed healer. Now, that was no longer the case. "This isn't Lord Golos' problem."
"The hell it isn't!" Gwen growled. "Gogo! You know what you did! Get your ass over here."
"For aiding your mate in attaining her heart's desire?" Golos lacked even the barest token of repentance. "Upset that I satisfied where you could not, Calamity? You should be thankful for our 'sister' receiving what you had left disappointed."
"Our? Is Ruxin a part of this? Is Ayxin?" Her mind furiously worked through the list of Dragons who might traffic Elvia against her. "Is your fucking father involved?"
"You overstep," Golos snapped back, leaking Dragon fear in the manner of an upset puss dissuading predators. "Calamity, watch yourself."
"Gwennie!" Elvia stomped her feet, her blue eyes flashing with annoyance. Usually, Gwen would have remarked that her healer's upset made her all the more adorable. With Sen-sen, however, a truly upset Evee was a catastrophe.
Fuck! She ground her teeth. She knew she should have diced the little Ginseng fucker for spice when she had the chance. "Evee, you're not yourself, that's the Essence talking. Why this? Almudj is big enough for both of us."
"Almudj is Almudj. And just as it knows its mind." Elvia's golden hair streamed as she spoke. "I know mine. You're not Almudj's sock puppet, and neither am I."
"Evee, seriously." Gwen wanted to reach out, grab Golos, and wring the Wyvern like a wet rag until all the blood and poop oozed from every orifice. Her Evee! Her poor little Evee! Look at what they did to her beautiful Evee! "Don't do this."
"I am serious, Gwen. Dead serious." Elvia approached, leading with her eyes and her small, glistening mouth.
Gwen took a step back. "Evee…"
"Or are you saying my choice doesn't matter?" Elvia's accusation snapped like a whip. Elvia's irises were blue, so blue that they hurt Gwen's eyes. "Must you choose for me? Must a higher power choose for me? For all of the Nazarene's divinity, Father Maxwell says the Almighty gives us free will. Do you deny what I've chosen for myself, Gwen?"
"Evee, I didn't say that."
"Then a little respect would go a long way, I think." Elvia's words crammed Gwen's tongue back down her throat. "Gwennie, you can't just get mad at Gogo without asking why."
Gwen wanted to say "of course" she could; as a grown woman, she could do and say whatever the fuck she wanted. But she kept her mouth shut because she could see in Elvia's eyes she would have to bypass her healer first.
"You going to hide behind Evee, Gogo? A big Wyvern like you?" She tried a different approach.
"I see you squirm, Calamity." The Wyvern appeared to be enjoying himself. Why the fuck wasn't her Wyvern an idiot at a time like this? "Haha! As Father said, there is a foil to everything! As water is to fire! Metal to wood! So you are helpless against our Moxt Myvish! She's your Argonite!"
Argonite being the draconic equivalent of kidney stones, or so Golos had once overshared.
Gwen felt her face grow hot. She was so pissed off she could feel the Lightning encircling her irises, empowered by a feverish desire to make Golos into a Caliban sock puppet.
"Your hypertension is at a dangerous level, Gwennie." Elvia reached out with a compassionate hand. Gwen stood her ground. If she gave in now, what precedent would that set for Evee? For her stupid drake?
Soft and gentle streams of mana flooded Gwen's conduits, bathing her in lukewarm water. The anger that had simmered against her throat and made her voice hoarse suddenly abated. Unbidden, her heart-rate slowed, and the depth of her breathing grew shallow. Without biting her tongue, she would have moaned.
"God damn it, Evee…" She breathed out, deflating as her rage died like Golos double-teamed by Big Birds. "What am I going to do with you."
"A hug would be nice." Her healer was inches away. "There's still five hours until midnight."
As commanded, she hugged her healer, allowing the sickly sweetness to envelop her annoyance like raw honey. The girl's soulful presence was akin to the milk of paradise.
"Hee." A pair of prying eyes interrupted her revelry.
"What are you staring at?" She snapped at her leering Wyvern. "Fuck off, Gogo. Go back to Ruxin and tell him I am very cross with you. Next time, if there's a next time..."
"Ingrate hag," Golos grumbled. Languishingly, he stepped back into the Summoning Circle. Momentarily, the Wyvern's humanoid shape flashed blue and white, turning Rendfrey's workshop quicksilver before his material body dis-corporated across space and time.
A precious silence descended, accompanied by the stink of curry.
"Miss Elvia…" Walken gently raised his voice, understandably impatient. "If I may ask…"
Her healer left her arms.
"I believe Sen-sen's leaves can be crushed and infused within Miliberg's Remedy-All Tonic to suppress Angie's condition," Elvia acknowledged Walken's concern. "Gradually, her constitution will improve, though I am unsure how many dosages it may take. May I recommend you take her to GOS, where I work, and put up a slate for Angie?"
"Yes, that's satisfactory." Walken nodded. "Thank you, Miss Lindholm. I'll do that tomorrow."
Unused to her assertiveness, Elvia's face grew scarlet. "Think nothing of it, Magister Walken, you've been such an indispensable help to Gwen and myself. It's I who owe you a favour."
"Hahaha..." Walken too, wilted under Elvia's sincerity.
The corner of Gwen's left eye twitched.
"... And my most sincere apologies, Magister Rendfrey." Elvia bowed to the owner of the workshop. "I haven't gotten used to Sen-sen's power yet."
"No problem, not at all." The now-recovered Rendfrey mopped his forehead. "The old heart isn't what it used to be. Dragon Fear! How exhilarating!"
"Allow me." Elvia raised a hand, "Peace be upon you, Magister. Aid!"
A golden halo encircled the Enchanter for a split second, disappearing as quickly as it appeared, suffusing Rendfrey's face with unbridled vitality. Straightening his back and neck, the Magister suddenly stood taller.
"Oh my." Magister Rendfrey inhaled and exhaled with great enthusiasm. "My girl, we need to get you to a Cog-Chamber! I insist, and I shall pay! What I wouldn't give to see your biometrics!"
Thanks to Walken's glib coaxing and a promise of favours from Rendfrey, the party of four arrived at a rotund Cog-Chamber.
Gwen wetted her lips at the intimate familiarity. The Cognition Chamber which they now occupied was the same as the one Henry had used to teach her, a memory that made her chest sore. How strange it was that the shoe was on the other foot— that she now plumbed Elvia's potential, while Evee stood in her place, wondering what lurked inside her Astral Body.
"Shall we recluse ourselves?" Gwen applauded Walken's foresight to offer the girls privacy. Different from biometric readings, the matter of one's Astral Soul was deeply personal.
"Please." Elvia bowed her head. "We shall soon be done, Lord Magisters."
Walken and Rendfrey exchanged a look.
"Of course, of course. Let us waste no time. You girls wanted to see the New Year's fireworks, yes?" Rendfrey added regretfully. "You won't want to miss that! What a wonderful occasion to celebrate with a show of colour! That said..."
"Operator, you may begin," Gwen announced to the general air once they were alone.
The air thrummed.
The distance disappeared.
The mirrored lake interior manifested.
And upon that illusory, parallel plane, a divine presence dawned.
"Holy shit, Evee…" Gwen had never seen Elvia's post-Sydney Astral Body, and so could not comment on Elvia's Affinity before Sen-sen's capitulation. To her knowledge, Elvia was gifted, but not so talented as to receive an invitation to Nightingales without Gunther, placing the girl at an Affinity apex of four-on-five at best. For Sydney, such an Affinity was well above average. In the Mageocracy's heartland, the benchmark for receiving the esoteric craft of Faith-weaving demanded purer talents. "What am I even looking at?"
"There's so much mana..." Her healer's untainted, joyous excitement was turning Gwen's bones to jelly.
Elvia's Spirits appeared beside her.
"ARRUGH!" In the Cog-Chamber, one's eyelids only worked marginally. Gwen had only felt such blinding, stabbing pain once before— when Alesia decided to show off in front of Henry and had seared their newest sister's retinas. This time, it took several circles of Essence to adjust to the lumen range.
"Kiki! Kiki!" The Alraune bathed in the light from her mistress, visibly growing taller and plumper. As for the blasted Draconic Ginseng, it fed its mistress a steady stream of raw mana through their Empathic Link, their conduit so thick as to distort the illusory space conjured by the chamber.
"What do you think?" Elvia twirled, or not, Gwen couldn't tell because Elvia was a stadium flood-light. In ripples, Positive Energy rolled out from around the girl's feet, brushing up against Gwen's heels like thick, heavy water.
Without a word, Gwen stepped from her Mary Janes and stood upon the Cognition Chamber's chilly floor, barefoot and bare-legged. Visibly, the outward ebb of Elvia's Positive Energy, that golden nectar of mana, began to swirl about her vague Void and electrified Lightning. Where their Astral Body's edges met, she saw for the first time, the outer walls of her energy-hungry aura absorbing Elvia's pearlescent motes of life.
The pleasantness was indescribable.
The tactility of Evee's Positive Energy halo was different from the violent consumption and the cresting climaxes offered by Caliban's Consume. Her healer's blessing was, Gwen blushed, a thing of womb water, a gentle envelopment that made her calm and sleepy and docile. For someone like herself, who subsisted on Almudj and lived each night as the patron saint of insomnia, the temptation to simply drown herself in Evee's chamber of the sea was all too real.
"Does Sen-sen have a combat form?" Gwen changed the topic. "Does Kiki?"
Elvia shook her head. "Kiki is still young, though she could be used if I need battlefield control. As for Sen-sen, I don't think I can command it's full power, at least not yet. Can you teach me how to use Dragon-Essence?"
There existed not a single ounce of desire within the entirety of Gwen's being that wanted to pass on the knowledge Ayxin had imparted.
"Gwennie?" Elvia's imploring eyes pulsed with star-fire.
"… sure." Gwen folded like a napkin. "It's largely instinctual though, all I can teach you is the meditation and a general idea of how to wrangle the impulse."
"Thanks, Gwennie. Let me finish up for the sensors."
With a final word, her healer's Astral Body turned supernova, bathing the room in light, casting behind Gwen a dancing line of macabre shadows, writhing like uncertain Calibans, eating away at the fabric of space and time.
New Year's Eve.
Near midnight, the Thames lit up with vibrant Illusions and cacophonic Evocation. From behind the gargoyles lining the upper strata of Nightingale College, Gwen sat with her healer resting against her shoulder. Around the pair, their Familiars ran free: Kiki and Sen-sen paced around the rooftop, Caliban played pillow against her back, and Ariel drifted like a carefree cloud.
Though the eclectic, floral atmosphere was heartbreakingly evocative, Gwen's heart grew heavy, and not just with the weight of her Evee.
She had wanted a stronger Elvia.
She had fancied her Evee to be special, unique, a cut above the rest.
That was why, unsure of what else she could offer Evee, she had given Elvia crystals, bling, and Spirit.
But not like this.
Gwen understood what it meant to be the victim of the Yinglong's Draconic Essence. She knew all to well its intoxicating effect, the powers it offered, the way it bolstered her confidence to supernatural heights. She also knew that the Yinglong's Essence came at a cost—and that cost was a little snippet of one's self, the portion that was doubtful, cautious and meticulous.
"Sen!" Sen-sen wiggled back and forth, terrified and yet intrigued by the height, enjoying its restored limbs. Sulkily, Gwen observed that within its tiny body rested a reservoir far more significant than what Gwen herself had accessed, and now its resources were Evee's to abuse as the healer saw fit.
"Kiki!" the Alraune Sprite appeared more humanoid than its prior incarnation as well. It's leg tendrils were more limb-like and less akin to green caterpillars. It even had a little waist to go with its bulbous upper body, shaped like a rare stargazer lily.
And though Elvia had placated her unrest with a darting peck on the lips, a sourness remained, like sugarcane left fermenting for too long.
Was it because Elvia was no longer hers alone?
Or was it because Elvia had pledged herself to a different patron?
Over-possessiveness was poison, Gwen had learned the lesson from Dr Monroe, but she just couldn't shake the feeling that a precious thing had been denied. It was a perception that, if she had to vocalise her dissent, was akin to having one's stock portfolio two-grand short of a million, missing that sweet seventh digit.
A great cheer rose from below. The hospital staff, those soon to be on duty, took the opportunity to share the joy of entering a new year.
"Cold?" Elvia adjusted her head so that she rested yet more of her body on Gwen's torso. "Here, I'll warm us up."
A gradual heat transferred from Elvia's body to hers. With hyper-tier Affinity, Walken had said; unusual things happened to a Mage's Astral Body. With her Affinity to the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lightning, much of her body chemistry had been affected. As for the Void, that she was alive and well was itself a miracle of modern Spellcraft.
With Evee, with the addition of TWO spirits, one Sufina's wily Junior, the other a Ginseng masochist, had gone beyond even that. Earlier, when the script from the Cognition Chamber spat out its numbers, both Magisters had steadfastly denied the accuracy of its numeric output.
"An Affinity of FOURTEEN?" Walken had raised a brow before passing the data slate to Rendfrey. "Well done, Gwen. We have coaxed a Celestial Archon from the Positive Plane. Our next step should be to call the Church of England and tell them we recovered the long-lost Spirit of Saint Cuthbert. Your knighting ceremonies are next week."
"A hyper-tier Cleric would cause a wave with the Vatican, what with their anointed saints and all." Rendfrey chuckled nervously, mopping sweat from his brow. "So er… we agree to keep this between us for now?"
"Yes." Walken passed the data slate back to Gwen. "The instrument isn't made for measuring twin-Spirits. I shall go and lodge Elvia's Spirit Registration with the Tower. We can leave the specifics for later. No doubt, there will be questions for Miss Lindholm shortly. Best leave this to the state's Clerical apparatus."
"When you get back to Great Osmond Street," Gwen likewise warned her healer. "Try not to bring back the dead accidentally."
"Like you?" Her healer's lips were coy.
Gwen recalled shivering then. The Magisters had downplayed the fact, but she could see on their faces the beginnings of trouble which none of them was equipped to forestall. Perhaps that was why her nerves remained frayed even now.
Had she, in her haste, in her love, in her all-consuming desire for Elvia's elevation, bypassed the threshold of theoretical Spellcraft? Had Elvia, the recipient of best intentions, accidentally ascended into quasi-Godhood? She had wanted Elvia to be unique.
But not like this.
Christ Almighty! Gwen fought back a morbid impulse. Like the fabled Victor Von Frankenstein, what had she created?
And the bleeding Draconic Essence!
Had the Cog-Chamber even taken that in to account?
GODS! What would Yue say when she found out?
What would their oldest friend do to her if she found out how badly she had mangled Evee's body? Thinking of Yue erupting with the fire and fury of a fully-formed Tandy, Gwen's limbs grew covered with goosebumps.
"Gwen, you're shivering again." Elvia remained oblivious. What was the healer thinking? Gwen wondered. Probably how many more Blessings she could give at the Isle before she was OoM. Her healer's selflessness could be infuriating at times. "How's that possible? Between Almudj and my Bless, you can't be ill."
"I am just…" Gwen licked her lips. Evee's hot waterbottle aura was making her a little dizzy. "… so happy, is all. The fireworks, this city, everything's just so beautiful."
"It is, isn't it?"
A floral display in the form of a peace lily, white-hot and glimmering with mana, showered the pair with their multi-coloured light.
A cheer broke out all across the riverbank, welcoming the arrival of 2005.
Three supernovae in quick succession.
"Happy New Year, Gwennie."
"Happy New Year, Evee."
Little Evees, each at a fraction of the healer's Cog-Chamber luminosity, erupted all over London's skyline, turning night into day.
With her nostrils still hinting at her healer's heavenly redolence, Gwen left her healer's college for Cambridge. In her immediate future, she would return every few days in the first week of January. Her precious hours, however, would be for business, such as at the Isle of Dogs, or to check up on Evee's progress with Draconic meditations.
A new year.
A new beginning.
Back home, on New Year's Day in Australia, most families opted for a spring clean, meaning every window and door of every house would be open, littering the lawn with trash from the last twelve months.
In London, with the temperature below six and snow up to the ankle, there was no such bustle. The magically inclined families would mostly be recovering from their food coma, lazing about in cosy houses with logs of inscribed yew burning gently, drawing in heat from the Elemental Plane of Fire.
The NoMs, if they were well-provisioned, would have something to celebrate as well. If not, then as little body heat should be expended as possible in this trying time.
Feeling affected by the view, she circled the blanketed city as it slept. The fallen snow had obscured the city's Districts, hiding the unseen suffering lurking in its industrial borders. When Gwen did a lap around her demesne, the children waved at her. For her subjects, the sight of the sorceress in her out of season dress had become commonplace. Now, with their bellies full of SPAM and the streets cleared of mud and refuse, the kids had excess energy to burn.
Gwen waved back, happy that the mud of Mudchute, salt of the earth had gained a little reprieve. When she circled the farm, Wally the caretaker gave her a smart salute, then commanded the dogs to give a great howl as she passed. It was a simple gesture, but one that made her well-pleased, a feeling that juxtaposed her prior oppression.
Was this Noblesse Oblige? She wondered. What had begun as sophistry to suck up to the old Magister was now manifested in reality. If her Master was alive right now, would he be weaving a garland of praises for her head, and would he be praising her with fatherly hugs and kisses?
It was difficult to believe sometimes; when she stepped back to take it all in, of all that had happened and what was soon to transpire. What began in Sydney as a vague desire to survive comfortably had morphed into a chimeric monstrosity with more heads and tails than she could count. At first, plunged into the inky, Spellcraft sea, she had blundered onto her self-driven quest out of jaw-clenching reflex. Like Pac-man acting on instinct, she had consumed foe after foe without overthinking, desiring only to live her second life freely.
Promptly, she entertained a dangerous thought. She had time, and indeed, the capital to do an "Hai Song". With what she had amassed thus far, she could retreat to Sydney, take up a side-gig clearing out Mermen or difficult and dug-in monsters to bide her time. Barring that, she could even find a cushy, laid-back position within the CCP if she so desired— although that might piss off Percy.
The point was that she could— but would not— be Hai's daughter.
She had made hard promises to too many people whose lives now depended on her maintaining momentum. That, and she was caught up in the undertow of things bigger than herself.
Gwen sped up.
She felt trapped. An ironic emotion, seeing as she was blasting across the English countryside at over a hundred kilometres an hour, an austere member of a select Cabal with the clout to go wherever they pleased. Wanting to leave the feeling behind, she pumped more and more mana into her spell, shrinking the radius of her barrier so that she could feel the whistling wind scraping against Gunther's double-glazed shield.
She had been reborn into this world, free, in a fashion.
Now she had the legacy left her by Master, Henry Kilroy, compounded by her siblings' promises to hunt down Sobel. She had the burden of Tonglv's success and the rise of her family's fortunes in Shanghai. Elsewhere, she had Mayuree and Marong in Myanma, and dragons dreaming of Centurion and Legion. There was also the IIUC's aftermath, Lady Grey's patronage, the Isle and its expectant folk, the printing press, the promise of Deepholm.
For all her freedom, she was everywhere in chains.
Unconsciously, Gwen upped her velocity once more.
Far below, confused farmhands waved at the rumbling contrail of mist and snow, unsure of whether this New Year's omen signalled weal or woe.