"Halt!" Nils Kott, Gwen's Abjuration Instructor, called for the cessation of crystalline bombardments on her opaque, double-glazed Mana Shield.
"Very impressive, Magus Song." Professor Brown, who had insisted on joining the pair in the underground testing hall, boisterously clapped with cupped palms.
"You'd have to thank Gunther." Gwen dispelled her barriers. "It's his Signature Shield."
"A complex algorithm, requiring a creative application of external knowledge." Brown's brows remained raised. "And one well-suited for an energy-based Elementalist with high VMI. I am delighted you have it mastered so profoundly."
"So 'profound' it is the only Abjuration spell she knows..." Kott's brows remained furrowed. "A miracle, considering Magus Song's achievements."
Gwen chuckled guiltily.
Magister Brown matched her feigned mirth. "Hardly. I've studied the unedited broadcasts. You have a knack for monster slaying, Gwen— something you shouldn't dismiss so out of hand."
Kotts remained unmoved.
Earlier in the week, when Major Nils Kott had grilled her on the basics of Abjuration, Gwen told the Abjuration specialist that she knew "Shield" and ONLY "Shield". In the intervening few seconds, there had been an awkward silence when they both waited for the other to speak.
Eventually, it dawned on the wide-eye Kott what Gwen meant.
While her time at Fudan taught her the theoretical basics of "Utilitarian" Abjuration, her application of knowledge seldom extended beyond the necessary. Her lack had all but dashed Major Kott's expectation that Gwen was looking to progress into her 'fourth-tier' of expertise— a tier from which an Abjurer mastering two-dozen spells would fall into one or more of the six pathways. Instead, Gwen had to ask Kott for clarification, which the Abjurer dutiful delivered.
"Combat Abjuration" involved various forms of shielding, resistance and mitigation of incoming damage, both physical and elemental and rarely, psychic.
"Structural Abjuration" inferred the protection of structures through inscriptions and Glyph Wards, such as those utilised by Enchanter-Transmuters in heavy industries.
"Strategic Abjuration" comprised the protection and shielding of particular locales, a branch that served as the basis for the Resonance Crystals used by the Shielding Stations.
"Tactical Abjuration" was the warding of an individual's magic against other Mages, including portable Ward-setting and wide-area reinforcements.
"Restorative Abjuration" referred to the original purpose of Abjuring magic— the removal of harmful sorcery. It was a branch that emphasised removing wards, disenchanting protections, and decursing when employed in conjunction with Clerical Faith-craft.
Finally, the last function of Abjuration was the hardest and most sought-after skill set, that of "Spell Piercing". As the name suggested, the sole offensive branch of Abjuration emphasised on spontaneous dispelling, disrupting and breaking of enemy invocations. Gwen's bane, the infamous "Banish" that sent her reeling more often than not, hailed from this particular offshoot.
When initially Kott asked which area she wanted to focus on, her choice was Combat Abjuration, which she already had a foot-in-door, and Spell Piercing.
Now, Nils Kott delivered his verdict.
"I spoke to Magister Patil," the Major informed Gwen sternly. "She says that you are incapable of spontaneous meta-magic Spellshaping?"
"True, thus far," Gwen clarified her insufficiencies. "Give me time, and I should be able to do it for the lower tiers."
"Without spontaneous Spellshaping," Kott disregarded her deliberation. "Even with Divination-assisted live-analysis, 'Counterspelling' would prove nigh-impossible."
Gwen implored her instructor for more information. It was Magister Brown who answered.
"Counterspells are the most distinguished form of mana-manipulation. For instance, you require at the very least four to six seconds to weave up a Dark Tentacle. In that interval, an opponent who has studied your spell list may employ Saussure's Parallax-Matrix to agitate your mana-channel, causing you to mana burn yourself. For Evocation, a well-timed Wall's Quad-Helix Spell Jammer could prematurely ignite the mana as it forms, causing you to self-harm with Void. A feat Major Kott is well-capable of performing. It's a fate diminishable by employing Signature Spells. That said, a true Spell Piercer is capable of near-instant analysis and reconstruction. Against such an opponent, it is best to use group-tactics. Unless you're an Abjurer of equal-talent, your only recourse, regardless of your power, is to flee..."
Kott's stoicism was unflappable.
"...But I am sure Major Kott is teasing you."
"How so?" Gwen asked. "It seems logical to me that such a Mage should be near-indomitable against a fellow caster anyway."
"The number of Mages capable of spontaneous mid-tier counterspelling in London, I would count no more than a hundred. The best are at the Meister tier, followed by a majority of Magisters and a handful of Maguses. Also, the faster the spell, the less chance of interception. This is why high-tier combat Mages prefer to use small scale, mid-range magic in rapid succession as opposed to the grand sorcery of the seventh tier and above. I mean, if you're going to be spending anything between six-seconds to a minute invoking a spell, you're certainly expecting an Abjurer to shield you. If you're alone, invest in long-range bombardments and make a habit of first-strike via Divination. Who can disrupt a spell they can't see coming?"
At Brown's words, Gwen felt better.
"Could I turtle against a Spell Piercer?" She raised a point she had prior put to Major Kott.
Magister Maxwell Brown snorted. "What is that?"
"She means if she can egg-up in a Void Shell while casting spells," Kott explained Gwen's slothful proposal. "That the answer is a tentative 'yes' is an offence to Abjurers everywhere."
"As an Omni-Mage," Gwen explained for her instructor. "I can devise a Shield, while simultaneously Scrying my surroundings. I could do it right now, technically, by using Link Sight with Ariel, though I am finding it almost impossible to cast upper-tier spells while my senses are preoccupied. I was discussing with Major Kott if there's any way to replicate the same spell Sobel used in Sydney, what Magister Walken calls the Dark Egg."
"Devouring Chrysalis." Brown raised an all-knowing digit.
"Hmm?" Gwen blinked.
"The spell is called the Devouring Chrysalis," Magister Brown repeated himself. "It's in the archives on Sobel. You should know that our House Master at Emmanuel's was on a first-name basis with Deathless. You should visit, sometimes, if you're interested, I can submit a request."
Gwen happily declared she would desire nothing else.
"Out of curiosity, I am told you've taken a liking to our pond? Have you taken an interest in our humble abode? You're as welcome at Emmanuel's as Peterhouse..."
"No no, just the ducks," Gwen denied the desire to jump ship.
"The Ducks?" Brown snorted with surprise. "They speak, you know."
"… they speak?" Gwen cocked her head. "In English?"
"Of course not! But with Commune, from the School of Divination…"
Major Kott growled.
"… my apologies." Brown raised both hands. "Nil, she's all yours."
"To answer your question, Magus Song. You'd be a sitting duck. No Spell Piercer worth their salt is going to find much trouble with your low-tier Void Egg— even if you are using Lord Shultz's' variation."
"And yet, brother seems to do fine."
"I imagine Tower Master Shultz would have no problems reducing a counter speller to dust before they could analyse a single Glyph." Kott's lip formed a tenuous curl. "The Morning Star's offence is his best defence."
Another Gunther fanboy, Gwen marked Kott down in her mental notebook. Her brother-in-craft's accumulated kudos was something she dearly desired. When would she be able to imitate the sun like Gunther and be respected by men and women halfway across the world?
"Do you plan on teaching her Enchantment still?" Magister Brown was not very good at keeping his mouth shut. "It seems you have your hands full with Abjuration."
"A good foundation takes time." To Gwen's chagrin, Kott did not deny that his student was less suited for advanced Abjuration than he could ever imagine. "Decades, preferably."
"Perhaps I could offer an accelerated pathway?" Magister Brown's eyes twinkled. "Miss Song, you must forgive Major Kott and Magister Patil. Though humble, your instructors are authorities within their respective fields. Like Lord Shultz, they represent the convergence of talent and effort— while you represent a most curious incongruity— an excess of talent, spoilt by inexperience. My proposal, therefore, is that in lieu of militant learning, I could empower a holistic learning experience..."
Major Kott closed the spell tome in his hand, cutting off his compatriot.
"Since you are occupied, this is as far as we go today." Her instructor rose from his seat. "Complete the unfinished Mandala diagrams in chapter three and six by Thursday, before your IIUC ceremony. I imagine there will be an interruption to our schedule once your social obligations take a front seat. Practice well, and practice often. You need it."
"Understood, Major." Gwen carefully opened the thigh-thick volume to the indicated chapters, where annotations had been made for her. All she had to do was to follow Kott's precise instructions.
Next, she waited for Brown to take his leave. Instead, the man invited her to come closer.
"Such impatience! So much for being a Mineral Mage." Maxwell Brown's lopsided grin sent goosebumps running up her thighs. "Now then, my dear, shall we streamline your learning methodology? Intuitive sorcery, alas, is the rare privilege of casters like you and me."
"I don't believe it. You look— tired." Richard felt genuinely shocked when three days on from their prior communique, he and Gwen met on the Isle of Dogs.
"Shit. One sec." His cousin closed her eyes and engaged in an intense minute of concentration. Visibly, her pale and lustreless skin once again assumed its vital glow, her eyes regaining their attractive sparkle. When she exhaled, signalling the completion of the Essence circuit, Richard could visibly see the weeds around Gwen's feet grow ever-so-slightly, each blade reaching out to bootlick his cousin's beetle-black Mary Janes.
"I mean it as a compliment," he rephrased his comment. "You look like you've been studying hard."
"And I have." Gwen shook out her arms and legs. "You have no idea of the corners I've painted myself. My tutors are borderline obsessive. I think they're taking revenge."
When Gwen explained what Brown had convinced the others to set up, he could only shake his head at their wastefulness. So many HDMs, it was only Gwen that could command such frivolous strategies.
"How's Elvia?" he changed the topic when Gwen complained of a throbbing brain. Richard felt nothing particular; the flaxen-haired beauty was useful only as a source of mental consolation for his moody cousin. She was, in his mind, a medicinal flower whose bud-juices, if applied in excess, turned to the "Blue" so popular with the NoMs. When Gwen spoke of gifting Elvia the Draconic Ginseng, Richard rolled his eyes. Once again, sentimentality had ridden roughshod over rationality. As for Elvia's confession, Richard cared for nothing. The purpose of desire, he reasoned, was motivation. Attainment killed the magic.
It should be bloody obvious to all that his Void-fed cousin walked a path few could follow. Any beings caught in her orbit need possess both the arcane and mental aptitude to endure the course. Elvia Lindholm had never been anything special, if Gwen were Jupiter, then "Evee" was no more a Galilean pseudo-moon to Yue's Ganymede or Petra's Europa.
Elvia Lindholm, a celestial object? What horror would that bring to the balance? The collisions, chaos and annihilation engendered by such a thing sat against everything Richard hoped for. So what if there were tentacled felines? If some Druids could extinguish the girl, Gwen was better off without the baggage.
"Evee's doing well." Gwen recollected their last exchange. "Already, she's making a name for herself. I guess that Magus Kilkenny must have set things up so that she would be well-supported."
"… Fitzgerald," he reminded his overtired cousin.
"...Oh, yes, of course, how could I forget Gatsby?" Gwen massaged her temples while sprouting a nonsensical Gwenism. "Sorry, Dick. Too many Mandalas. It's all that's in my head."
"Perhaps a quest might soothe your fever, Duck." Richard rather liked the new nickname he bestowed her. "You could join us in the sewers. Slimes can be very exciting."
Gwen shot him another withering look. "Another outfit? Oh, the hassle—"
"Hey." He shrugged, pointing at his Wellington boots, then at her ankles, bare up to her knees. "Is it my fault Lea and I are perfect for the job?"
At the mention of her name, Lea materialised, keen on soliciting Gwen for Essence. With a wave of his hand, Richard banished the Undine back into its pocket dimension.
"Not now, sweetpea," Richard apologised to his Sprite. "Remember what we discussed. You're as good as Ariel, but I am no Gwen."
"Low-key in London…" Lea's voice drifted through the air, making his hair moist.
"That's right." He soothed his Undine with a jolt of mana. Looking around the entry to the Isle, he could see crows on the treetops and the roofs of the townhouses. In the distance between the pier and the townhouses, two discordant, upright figures came into view.
"There's our men. I'll get them— ELIS! LUKA!"
The two young men who came to join them were dressed in camo-patterned training-outfits, the same as Richard. The shorter of the two sported sandy-blonde hair, the taller, matt-black. Seeing Richard call out, they quickly approached.
"Dick! You're early!" The first bowed from the waist. "This must be the divine employer."
"You've been hiding her from us." The second young man, Luka, broke into a nervous grin.
Gwen performed a half-curtsy, but the two university students shirked back.
"Please don't." The two laughed nervously. "Dick, how about you introduce us."
In high society, etiquette dictated that one must be "introduced" to one's superiors. A carcass must not walk into a conversation like a clueless rustic as Gwen had done on every occasion.
"Duck, this is Elis Cox, third son of some Viscount somewhere in the Frontiers. He is our Evoker, a Lightning Mage like yourself who part-times in Illusion. He dreams of leaving for the colonies one day to make a name for himself."
"My pleasure, Dick," Elis shook hands with Gwen.
"… and this is Luka Spencer, a nobody like me who just happened to work hard enough to claw his way to the top of the food chain. Luka has the rare talent of Ice, perfect for Slimes. He hopes to become a Civil Engineer."
"I am an Enchanter-Transmuter." Luka shook Gwen's hand as well. "I am afraid I won't be much use in combat. But I can repair the wards and put new ones in place to filter out the Slimes to prevent future inundation like the present. Please call on me again if you are satisfied with my work."
"That sounds lovely." Gwen smiled, and Richard watched his mates from King's melt. He had met the duo during Lent O-week, and after some back and forth, had deemed that these two were talented enough to be useful, but sufficiently disconnected from nobility to offer an uncomplicated friendship. It was this sort of respectful partnership that Richard believed was the perfect and proper attitude his cousin should cultivate, especially considering her lack of friends.
A puzzling reality for a girl who had debitors by the dozen, a lover or two, Family who loved her— but non-existent social life, discounting Lady Grey, her Familiars, and now, a duck.
Richard was beginning to miss Petra. Even a Lulan or Mayuree keeping Gwen company would do.
"Well, then." Richard gestured to the sludge-slathered iron gate just below the waterline. "We're going to get started. Assuming no complications, I imagine we should finish within a few hours. Are you coming or will you be shouting lunch?"
"Lunch." Gwen took one look at the moss-caked brickwork and denied his invitation to participate in building rapport with the boys from King's. "After, come find me at the estate. I'll be checking Wally's books and auditing Elvia's soup kitchen."
"You're going to relax by working?" Richard remarked before inspecting the present state of the docks.
From what Gwen had told him, the region was in a poor state before Elvia set up her "Foundation" here on the Isle. With a steady stream of HDMs fed to the furloughed workers, the place appeared to have regained a mote of life. For once, children were playing on the quay rather than huddling at home to conserve their body warmth. He could also spot folk going about sweeping the concrete and hosing off the mud. Elsewhere, across the eastern dockyard, several flatbeds were parked outside the printing press, dragging out great gut-fulls of scrap metal from a collapsed section of the warehouse.
Richard shuddered to think that Gwen was using her Void magic to dispose of trash in a shady, NoM workhouse district. If her instructors were here, the one with a wand up her arse, Patil, would probably need a Calm Emotion from Elvia.
He had no idea if the Isle of Dogs would ever grow into the 'second hub' of London as Gwen proposed, but he could see the potential in an easily accessible peninsula close enough to see the Shard in all its glory.
"See you later, Dick. Take care of Elis and Luka."
"Til lunch, Duck." Richard parted from his cousin with a scented hug before returning to his companion's jealous eyes.
"You two close?" The question came from Elis.
"Not nobly close." Richard's lips curled "That said, if you're feeling it, her warmth's still lingering. I'll do you a solid. How about a second-hand hug?"
The ides of January came on like snarling Ice Troll, blanketing London with alternating gales of powder and sleet.
Gwen woke to the sound of her Alarm spell blaring away beside her skull, inconsolable but for a placating algorithm Magister Brown had demanded to enforce spontaneous spell-construction as a part of her daily living.
When she finally fell out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom, her hair falling about like that of a wet hag, she suffered the distinct pleasure of deciphering a spell-disjunction before the illusory Ward would allow her unvetted access to the porcelain bowl.
Likewise, the hot shower she had so dearly desired accosted her with a minor Mandala puzzle requiring an articulation of random Glyph-formulae selected from her textbook.
At the door of her fridge, breakfast was locked away by a Ward that required a precise spell-strike from a magic missile demanding three combinations of meta-magic, randomly selected by the embedded arcanistry.
After a meal of eggs, Spam and toast, she arrived at her walk-in wardrobe, thankfully devoid of further interruptions, and reached out for a figure-hugging long-sleeved dress.
A split-second later, an Octogramic Ward demanding a combination of Transmutation, Enchantment and Illusion keys overlaid itself over the wardrobe. In real-life, the Ward would trigger a tier 5 spell-strike linked to the specific element HDM it was empowered with— though presently the boobytraps in her apartment hungered for solutions.
As before, if she so desired, Gwen could ignore the probing puzzles and wear the dress anyway, though that would disappoint her instructors, who had each contributed to her anguish.
"This has to be Le Guevel," Gwen complained to the frigid, general air. Near the window, the heating duct, a thing almost two centuries old, plinked in the cold. Unlike most, Gwen's otherworldly constitution made her effectively immune to the cold, though heat and humidity still proved a challenge.
She rummaged through the rest of her closet. An A-line tunic assaulted her eyes with a stronger Mandala than the first. The thigh-length one-piece, one of her favourites, demanded a tier 4 Illusion glyph she had never even seen before. The knee-socks could double as a minor thesis.
"Jesus Christ…" Her scalp crawled. To think Le Guevel had the patience to sort her fashion wear by tiers of indecency. To test her hypothesis, Gwen laid hands on a white blouse that covered her from chin to hip.
Not a damn thing.
Her hand shifted toward a minidress.
A flurry of eye-straining illusions exploded forth whenever she touched the fabric.
Above, she could see little carvings engraved onto the racks. If she wished to cheat, Gwen supposed, it was a simple matter of swapping the hangers.
But that was beside the point.
Sighing, she took down a heavy cotton skirt that reached her ankles in demure grey. Her other hand reached for a three-quarter-sleeve top. As expected, the puzzle-pieces were simple enough that her shame could be covered in under a minute.
She reached for the pump heels.
A half-dozen Mandalas blossomed.
For the plethora of colleges dotting Cambridgeshire, the Chapel remained the centrepiece of each school. Some, like King's, held royal patronage and served as the home to the Queen's Choir. Comparatively, though not the largest nor the most magnificent, Peterhouse's lacquered arches provided an intimacy that the transmuted marble at King's lacked.
“Deus est caritas, et qui manet in caritate in Deo manet, et Deus in eo: sit Deus in nobis, et nos maneamus in ipso. Amen…”
The final words of Peterhouse's College Grace, read by the Vice-Chancellor, faded into the candle-lit air.
A smattering of lumen-bulbs turned the panelled interior quicksilver. With perfect poise, Marchioness Maxine Loftus spoke sternly of solidarity and tenacity in these trying times of the Empire before relenting to the Chief Proctor from Brussels— Magister Helmut Peeters.
For Gwen who stood in her subfusc and crimson mantle, the rows of staff, the faculty, and the gathered students returning to attend the Lent term delivered a vivid flashback to her first day at Blackwattle. The speaker, a platinum-haired, fatherly Director of Events from Brussels, appeared a simulacrum of Jules Bartlett, her old principal.
"Mages, Maguses, Magisters— it gives me great pleasure today to welcome you all to this concluding occasion of the 2004 IIUC. With me today are our esteemed host, the Lady of Ely, Vice-Chancellor Lord Alfred Butterfield, fellow members of the campus, and finally— the object for which we are here gathered— Magus Gwen Song."
Polite applause greeted the Chief Proctor.
"It takes a village— or as it were, two colleges, to raise a Mage to prominence." Chief Proctor Peeters was happy to sail on without a hint of irony. "And tenacity. And Persistence. And experience, for which Gwen Song has exhibited much— certainly no less than many of us today who survived the Beast Tide. From Sydney to Shanghai, and now Cambridge, our starlet is a Mage dear to every leyline a Tower has touched. In Burma, Magus Song has shown leadership and wisdom beyond her years. In Cuzco, she created miracles in a land famous for revelations in saving Lord Inti. Then again, in Dalian, China, she took that expertise for which she is now famous, and applied it to the direst threat facing Humanity— the Undead."
"While many of us, Proctors included, sat safely in our armchairs— Miss Song faced a Soul Eater and taught the renegade the meaning of humility. In her subsequent engagement, she confronted a Lich, fighting the fiend to a stand-still until aid arrived in the form of Magister Walken of Oxbridge—"
Walken bowed. Bulbs flashed. In the stands, Gwen saw his wife and child clapping happily.
"As for what came to pass— I need not tally for you here. Even now, the rebuilding of Shenyang proceeds at full flight, with our allies of the Orient industriously revitalising the Liaoning Frontier to cage the threat."
More bulbs flashed, vivifying her two-toned irises. Standing in full view of the gathered crowd, Gwen studied the many faces present. Most on either wing, Ollie included, hailed from Peterhouse itself, roped by the Lady into filling the gallery. Others from Kings and the fraternity colleges, including Richard and his friends, sat nearer the exit.
"… Magus Song, step forward."
Gwen's Mary Janes clacked across the polished, mirror-shine floor.
"By the power invested in me through the International Inter-University Tribunal, I present to thee, the title of Most Valuable Participant in the 2004 competition year."
Outside, a brass clock struck noon; inside, applause assaulted the vaulted roof.
"...As well, it is with great pleasure that we also present the accompanying prize— An MVP Contingency Ring, wrought with treaties ratified by each and very Tower from London to Tokyo to Auckland."
In a manner not unlike a proposal, the Chief Proctor materialised, then presented a clamshell ring-box. The Creature Core that accompanied the betokened life-saving jewel scintillated as the lumen-globes fired, vivifying its Glyph-lit interior. Like a knight receiving her first Spellsword, Gwen knelt on one knee as instructed, first collecting a Tyrian sash over the rainbow-hued cloth provided by Peterhouse, each representing a proficient School of Magic, then bowing to receive her reward.
A ring of such stature— ratified by all states, was a rare and precious gift indeed. It was a thing whose value did not lie in the cost of creation nor the rarity of its materials, but in the political capital it represented.
A Mage that arrived at a Tower bearing such a ring was fortified by favours, treaties, alliances— and threats of expulsion should a Tower fail to uphold the universal agreement that led to the item's creation.
In front of the lumen-recorders, Gwen placed the ring onto her finger; her silhouette made mercury by the sheer volume of flaring bulbs. In front of an envious audience, she invoked the silent Glyph passed onto her by the helpful Magister Peeters, then raised a dainty white hand to signal that the reward bonded to her Astral Soul.
"I look forward to your future service, Magus Song." Magister Peeters stood to one side, leaving Gwen in the limelight. In turns, she briefly joined hands with Lady Grey for the photo-op, then again with Magister Butterfield, then was once more alone.
From the crowd of reporters, the familiar face of Dominic Lorenzo came into view. Out of the thong of thrusting pens and jostling gestures, Gwen hand-picked her future Editor.
"Magus Song, would you like to say a few words to the future contestants of London for bringing home such as auspicious title?"
"I would," Gwen proceeded as rehearsed. "I want to thank my teammates from Shanghai, Lady Grey of Peterhouse and Dean Luo of Fudan, my colleagues, my mentors, and my brother and sister-in-craft for this honour..."
She paused for effect.
"But I would also like to point out that while we are warm and snug here in the Chapel, bathed in the music of the spheres, there are Mages out there— Mages like my friend Elvia Lindholm of Nightingale's, fighting to save lives, labouring to keep the Mageocracy in one piece. Milady's speech was no sentiment— it is the reality of where we, as a society, stand today."
"Miss Elvia Lindholm?" Dominic feigned surprise. "By who you mean the upstart Cleric with a Draconic Ginseng Spirit and an Alarune? The favoured of Lady Astor?"
The other reporters grew silent. A few began to scribble in their notebooks.
"The very same," Gwen's imploring presence filled the dais as she tapped into her well of Essence. Her next words were enough to vibrate the stained mana-crystals depicting St Peter's reception of the Nazarene. "My selfless Evee! Volunteering in Douglas! On the Isle of Man! Pulling Mages from the brink of Death while fending off the Manx! Putting duty before pleasure, even the attendance of her dearest friend's international ascension! Evee, if you're watching, stay true to the course! All of us here, we're cheering for you!"