Maxwell Brown, Professor of Advanced Spellcraft Theory at Emmanuel College, inspected the adjacent laboratory he had vacated for his new colleague, "Meister" Wen. For a while now, he'd been in an ebullient mood, ever since their schooling of the Void Sorceress began in earnest. As a member of the staff responsible for grooming the university's premier show pony and the Mageocracy's future workhorse, Brown considered himself a holistic devotee to the Omni-Mage known as Gwen Song.
On the subject of Void Magic, Gwen was a fount of untapped potential, providing answers for so many questions Deathless Kilroy had left long neglected for want of materials.
Answers to long-held enquiries such as how did Sobel grow so powerful and so quickly found a sterling reply in the rapid rise of Gwen from a mewling Evoker to ravaging a city. Likewise, the confounding question of Sobel's survival in the intervening years was now an answer free for the men of Spellcraft to plumb.
Deathless Kilroy! An existence for whom Maxwell Brown held the greatest ardour! One of the original architects of the later-day Mageocracy! The progenitor of the Towers! The maker of the witch who had reversed the Crown's downward spiral!
There was little wonder that the metaphysical child of Sobel and Kilroy should stand at the apex of the specimen pile.
After Sobel's initial success in subduing the Coral Sea and the Saurians, the Mageocracy had madly scrambled to secure more of her kind, hoping that each could turn the tide where Pax Britannia had been washed away by the Magical Beasts and demi-humans erupting in every province.
The first of the Mages to grace Brown's spectrometer had been an adolescent Evoker from Mumbai, retrieved by a Frontier survey team and brought to London for study. Brown's predecessor, Magister Alex Fleming, had been the one to receive the caramel-complexioned youth. Compared to now, it was surreal to recall that he too had been a bright-eyed Magus shoring up his doctorate.
As expected, their precious specimen had been handled with a silken cord, well-loved and fattened up before they began the rituals. It had been disappointing then, that their sorceress had become inert before her third set of Magic Missiles. Undeterred, they waited for the girl to recover, painted her a picture, then did their best keeping the permanently anaemic sorceress upright and casting.
The girl perished halfway through the team's second specimen, also a girl-child, this time from Hong Kong.
By then, Oxbridge's researchers had learned through corroborating evidence that Void Mage manifestations deviated from the norm. From Germany, France and the USA, all participants seeking to craft their own Sobel discovered that, whether kept in check or left to roam freely, no methods existed in the Imperial Spellcraft System to maintain a Void Mage's health.
To make matters worse, Tokyo University proved that even when denied the learning of Spellcraft, the Awakened struggled to survive puberty. Instinctually, the Void Mage grew increasingly unstable until, whether through mental infirmities or mana leaks, they imploded.
Contrastingly, an LMU specimen kept at lower tiers managed to live longer— surviving until her thirties in '97. The proviso was that the Void Mage did not exercise spells above tier 4 and did not use their powers often. That and a carefully arranged diet of Wildland cuisine had kept the pampered sorceress alive. Regardless, her Astral Soul grew more porous than threadbare linen, proving both functionally useless in battle and a drain on resources.
Undeterred, the quest for knowledge continued. In parts of the Mageocracy's domain less concerned with optics, eugenic programs fathomed the possibility that mutations, variances and freak accidents may stabilise the bloodline. Again, failures proved the norm, while success was a rare and unreplicated bird. To Brown's knowledge, a certain Meister Bekker from London Imperial, formerly of Pretoria, had succeeded in distilling a self-sufficient Void Mage with a comparable lifespan to normal Mages, possessing the potential to one day tap into the upper tiers. He had submitted a specimen request— but was denied.
Comparatively, Oxbridge's final, unenterprising specimen was another young woman, one living out her peaceful days in Lucy Cavendish. From the very beginning, poor Gracie had struggled with the simplest spells. Her Affinity was barely past two, and the girl's talent emphasised on Illusion, making even the simplest physical magic a death wish.
Perhaps he could arrange a meeting? Brown wondered. Maybe Gwen had something to offer her inferior counterpart.
Stepping up to the window in the old court, Maxwell Brown relaxed by taking in the tranquil Eden-scape of the Duck Pond. Watching waterfowls was a habit many of the colleges' senior staff developed throughout their years of tenure.
In his opinion, Cambridgeshire's wintertime only made the Duck Pond more beautiful. Well-pleased, Brown smiled to himself, filling his nostrils with the sterile scent of still-wrapped equipment, musty with a hint of salt from transit by sea.
Magister Wen's enrichment to the corpus-knowledge of Void Magic had been incidental. Her contribution, such as Gwen's profound ability to thrive through Void Consumption, was a freak accident of coalesced opportunities. Brown could only be thankful that during her time in England, the Magister had been well-trained in the Spellcraft Method. Her submissions on Gwen's growth had been a boon to the Void Magic community, a fact significantly contributing to the decision of awarding the much-undeserved title.
Once the "Meister" arrived, she would spend her time lecturing and teaching, as well as experimenting on the specimens the rest of Europe was sending Oxbridge's way. Thanks to Kilroy, the pursuit of the stable application of Void Magic had held a constant interest in the academic community. Now, after Sobel and Gwen's sterling performances, the tree was bearing fruit.
As a bonus, he would concurrently mentor the curio known as Spellcubes, a project Wen had all but abandoned after dedicating her time to the study of Void manifestations. The newfangled Enchantment, modelled after the same patterns used by Dwarves to craft Spellblades, was now the domain of Petra Kuznetsova, Gwen's cousin. As a thesis, the theory was sound. However, the overt disadvantage of the Spellcube system was the onus placed on the Enchanter, as well as the difficulty of teaching the spell to non-tertiary educated Mages. That the NoM manufactoriums could not even begin to replicate its spatial-encasement pre-shaped mana significantly limited the spell's viability.
Still deep in thought, Brown browsed the scene below with benevolence. On a beautiful, cloudless day like this, the snow sparkled, the waters refracted the clouds above, and it was only the ducks' frolicking that cast ripples into the sublimity—
"Oh my…" Brown came closer to the window.
Down in the courtyard, where a clear-cut, snowless path met the outskirts of the pond, he was bearing witness to an incredible sight.
First, there was that lone mandarine duck the pond entertained, now somehow half the height of a student, roving the grounds as though it owned the Crown land.
Then, there was a Kirin— Gwen's Kirin, roaming freely beside the duck, kicking up a fuss at the students.
Finally, there was the Void worm, Caliban, slithering to and from between the two creatures, appearing as though wrought from obsidian-glass.
Refracted against the window, Brown watched as they had cornered what looked like a first-year female student against the snow-line. Elsewhere, senior students stood, watching the show.
The duck quacked, flapping its wings and flashing the lass with its rainbow underside. Terrified, the girl threw a fistful of LDMs at the trio of creatures, then quickly retreated behind the second years.
Next, the Kirin approached. The mewling it made must have been thrilling, for the students instantly formed a ring around the creature to pat and molest its fur before awarding it everything from LDMs to HDMs to a ham-sandwich. The Kirin's name, Brown recalled with delight, was "Ariel". For a chimeric-Draconid, the name was apt, for its etymology drew from the language spoken by the Elementals surrounding the Sea of Fire, meaning the "Lion of God".
After the Lion of God came the Void fiend, only the watching students now scattered like seeds blown by a wicked wind, escaping from the hissing creature as though frightened deer in Peterhouse's park. Compared to "Ariel", the professor had doubts as to how the serpent's name came about. In the same Elemental tongue, the closest etymological link would be "Kalib", a term that inferred "yonder dog" or more precisely, "that which God has denied a human form". Again, the name was apt, but how could a Frontier teen possess such esoteric knowledge?
Maxwell credited the girl's late master once more.
As for the duck, the student body had come to call it "Dede". The meaning was a mystery. There had been a poll, and the name stuck.
Either way, Brown felt thoroughly impressed. According to Wen, Gwen Song had summoned these creatures when she was fifteen. When creating Familiars from the nebulous stuff of the Elemental Planes, one needed to have a complete understanding of what one sought. To bring into being such incredible monsters while so young— it spoke loudly of the profound lengths Kilroy had gone through to ascend his priceless specimen.
"Aeee!" the shrill screams of youthful females filled the courtyard.
Magister Brown refocused on the scene below.
Now the duck was chasing a student— a different one, round and round the pond.
"Damned duck! Desist in your vulgarity!" Another student, one who must have been an admirer, raised a hand in warning. "Last chance, fowl fiend!"
Brown furrowed his brows.
Students being harassed, attacked, maimed, accosted, robbed by the ducks was a well-honed tradition of the college. But a student stupid enough to attack the college's ducks? Now that was a crime worthy of a visit from the Praelector.
Brown snorted when the student released the lowest spell he knew; mindful at least, in using the non-elemental variation, meaning he could avoid reporting to the discipline committee.
"Quack!" Brown almost spat on the glass when, to his and the student's surprise, Dede swatted the Magic Missiles from the air with one sweep of its wing, then promptly delivered a broken-nose to its assailant with a resounding snap from its beak.
Maxwell Brown baulked.
Who the hell recruited this spell fodder? The duck-abusing imbecile! How much of a bookworm must the boy be if he couldn't even shield up to defend against a God-damned duck!
That said, Dede had certainly fattened up of late, supernaturally so.
Below, the boy rolled in agony, saved only when the girl he had been trying to help dropped a fistful of HDMs. Activating a suite of reinforcement magic, she bodily lifted her abortive white-knight in a princess carry, making for the infirmary.
Turning on his heels, Brown left for the pond.
Had a Blackguard been experimenting with his beloved ducks? The scowl on his face grew more intense the more he thought about the possibility. These were the college's waterfowls! Emmanuel's pride and joy! His ducklings!
When he reached the courtyard, he rediscovered the trio under the giant willow overlooking the pond, where Dede, Caliban and Ariel had pooled their loot.
"What the devil?" Brown activated a localised Scry from the Old Court's entryway.
The beasts were— Brown felt his world spin— splitting the loot!
Dede nudged the crystals with its beak.
One for itself, one for Caliban, one for Ariel—
Brown counted the HDMs and LDMs.
"Dede knows arithmetic?!"
The trio of creatures each took their share; Caliban in its mouth, the Kirin in a cloth pouch under its neck, and Dede gobbling the lot.
Quickly, Brown approached.
"Dede! Dada is here!" he called out endearingly, thinking kindly of his and the drake's history. Nervously, the Void snake and the Kirin drifted a distance away, likely wary of the man who had tortured their master to near madness.
A prideful Dede waddled up to Brown's crotch.
It had been weeks since Brown had paid appropriate attention to his avian companions in the pond. Such was the weight of his labour for Gwen, burdened atop of his usual teaching and marking duties, that he had hardly slept. Nonetheless, since the rainbow duck had appeared with regularity, he had thought all was well.
"By the Nazarene!" Brown now realised something had gone awry. "Dede, you're... positively monstrous!"
The drake was now larger than a swan, and Cambridge was no stranger to Wildland swans! Gone was the cuddly, waddly duck. What faced him now was an apex avian that could wrestle a sea eagle.
Calming himself, he activated the magic he had advised his Void student. "Commune!"
"Dede..." Brown's expression grew serious. "Who did this to you?"
"In a dress..."
"She fed you... her j-juices?" Brown's scalp crawled. What a sick, ill-minded monster! The college had surely fallen if such a degenerate was left to roam the campus. "Dede, who is this woman? Do you know?"
"Quack! Quack! Quack-Quack—Quack!"
"Yesterday?" Brown cocked his head, silently humming the strange tune Dede was barking out. "All your troubles... was furtherer away?"
Maxwell Brown's brows furrowed. What the hell did that even mean?
Not far, a Kirin and its companion snake fled for the safety of Deer Park.
Ollie Edwards felt that Gwen had received a dose of her own medicine when, during their luncheon, they heard the name Elvia Lindholm play across the cafe's lumen-caster. At first confused, then enthralled, his House-sister bolted upright from the lounge chair, halfway spilling her coffee.
"… That's right, Gilbert; there hasn't been an open scandal like this since the Duke of Norfolk reformed the Adventurer's Charter of England four years ago. If you recall, that incident was the result of Foreign Service allowing mercenary auxiliaries to participate in the Fourth Ashanti War…"
Before the brief interruption, Ollie had been discussing with Gwen the wisdom of allowing her Spirits to roam Cambridge, on advice offered by Lady Grey. It was a long-standing theory that more independent a Spirit could become, the faster its growth. Gwen had been stating that Lea, Richard's Spirit, should roam with the others. With Ariel and Caliban to protect her, no Mage would dare lay a hand on her cousin's Spirit— not without having to fight off a very angry Void Fiend. Ollie had been considering whether he should contract a first-year as Gwen's Familiar-sitter when Gwen suddenly grew fixated on the screen behind them.
"You're not thinking of flying to Douglas, are you?" Ollie's scalp itched.
"No," Gwen answered stiffly.
"… or Teleporting over."
"Maybe," his House-sister answered honestly.
"And leave your Dwarves to the cold?" Ollie reminded the girl of their most pressing concerns. "The first contingent of Runesmiths are due to arrive next week— followed shortly by Petra. Didn't you want to be there to supervise their meeting? You said 'Cousin Petra' would be thrilled to meet a master of the craft she has adapted for Spellcraft."
"Yes, yes." Gwen glanced at the vid-caster, her eyes cloudy with indecision.
"Why not just call Miss Lindholm?" Ollie studied the fidgeting sorceress. The girl had finally unlocked some of her more flamboyant attires, though the fabric remained demure enough for winter. Like Ollie himself, the patrons in the coffee shop stared regardless. One because Gwen was pleasing to look at, another because there was nary a Mage in Cambridgeshire itself who would not recognise the Devourer of Shenyang.
"I tried earlier." Gwen tapped her Device to try again. "See? No luck."
"I wonder what she's doing?" Ollie warily glanced at the news. The segment on Elvia had lasted barely ten seconds, the shot of the Cleric's bust had materialised for no more than four. The principle report remained centred on the going conflict with the Manx and how the newly revealed atrocity would strain any effort at making peace with the fey-blooded indigenous folk of the isle.
"I think…" Gwen began.
"Don't—" Ollie shook his head. "To remind you of the Lady's advice. You solve this one, and you'll be called to every conflict and every stalemate. There is no rest for those who give up their gifts so easily."
Gwen sighed. "You're right— you're right. Ah sweet Evee…"
"She'll be fine." Ollie wanted to pat Gwen's knees to reassure her but settled for his own. "She's got the Ginseng and Ser Rothwell, and she heals like anything. It'll take an army to take them down."
"I hope you're right." The Devourer of Shenyang sighed sulkily. "If anything happens to Evee, it'll take an army to pry me from the Isle of Man."
Elvia listened to the lecture from Dominic Lorenzo as their group made their way south with a sleepy Sen-sen nodding off by her shoulder, and Kiki swinging from tree to tree.
The info-dump had been teased from the helpful reporter when Mathias had asked, not without some manner of frustration, "What is the Manx dissatisfied about anyway? And what do they, in fact, want from us?"
The Manx's demands, Dominic clarified, was simple.
They wanted Humans to stop spreading across their lands.
They wanted their island back, the mana miasma dispersed and the ley-line untapped.
They desired sovereignty.
"The raids carried out by the Colonel and their auxiliaries forces are unprovoked, to say the least." The reporter parted the snow with a Wand of Flaming Hands, concurrently serving as a walking stick. "Its a part of a longitudinal operation in which Tarleton has been given free reins. Unlike the previous commander, who failed to contain the war, she's fresh from the Chad campaign, where the Mageocracy succeeded in removing the Bultungin— that's Lycanthropic Hyena-folk, from the Upper Niger Delta. There, she's built quite the reputation for ruthlessness. Even before that, she was well known for her involvement in the Fourth Ashanti War, for ransoming the King's captured children— one limb at a time, until their Queen lost her mind and the King lost the popular support of his noblemen…"
Elvia listened in silence. Behind her, the freed Manx prisoners followed obediently, awed by Sen-sen and charmed by Kiki. Of the six, the boy was the bravest and followed the closest. His name, Elvia learned, was "Sionn", meaning "The Fox", a moniker now diminished by the lack of long, pointed ears. His sister's name was Siofra, a somewhat literal translation from Manx, meaning "Elf-like", so named because she was uncommonly pretty, a comeliness that had done the lassie a great disservice.
Yesterday, in the aftermath of Elvia's revelations, the Colonel had arrived to disperse the soldiers, the reporters, and the dozens of locals working in the Fort. Yet, despite her whistleblowing, Elvia was neither punished nor scolded by the Fort's Commander. Instead, Colonel Susan Tarleton had assured her that the mercenaries would be trialled and punished for their crimes and that she would assume all responsibility for the actions of the auxiliaries.
Happily, the reporters received their lumen-pics and quotes, then departed together with the stickybeaks.
When Elvia demanded what was to become of the Manx prisoners, the Colonel had confided in her that usually, she would see their ashes scattered into the sea. But, as Elvia had saved her life, she would do right by her, and give her the prisoners as a reward— to heal, to kill, to keep as playthings or release into the wilderness.
"I have a war to run, sweetie." The Colonel had bitten the matter off with a smile that revealed nothing. "Now then, squirrelkin, run along."
Lacking Gwen's words and disheartened by the nonchalance shown by the other Mages, she had left Fort Nook saddled with six recently restored prisoners.
She wished— Elvia repressed her alter-instincts— that the Manx could teach Tarleton another lesson, only this time she wouldn't be there to heal the Colonel. She wished that the people in Fort Nook, rather than shying away or spitting at the Manx when she tried to find them food and clothing, would treat them any way other than as animals.
"… It's a wonder why the Manx believe we would ever leave," Dominic concluded his lesson. "This place was forfeited to the Crown by their ancestors who lost the war in pitched battles. Everything between Douglas, Avalon and Port Erin has belonged to her Majesty for five or six centuries. As far as the government's concerned, it's our outpost, our settlement, our ISTC—"
Lorenzo glanced at the Manx trailing behind them, trudging through the sleet-like snow.
"— our guests appear unconvinced."
"Chan eil sin fìor!" The Manx sister of the boy, the Elf-like one, struck out her tongue at Lorenzo. Unlike the older Manx, the girl spoke enough standard English to trade with the locals. "Our people have been here since the time of the Elves! The isle has been our home since a hundred-hundred years ago! Since the old days, we have made the Stone Circles, tended the trees, grown orchards and harvested honey all over the isle. Here is our root, our home; all you have done is cut down our woods and bleed the land to harvest your Crystals. Luchd-ionnsaigh!"
Elvia felt relieved that the girl had the energy to joust Dominic. It was just as well that the Manx's anatomy was human-like. When considering how much of Siofra she had to heal, how much of the girl's organs she had to re-align and repair— it was good that Siofra did not recall what the mercenaries had done to her.
Her present self-assigned quest was to take Siofra and the others home, a recourse Elvia had arrived at after seeing how Douglas' townsfolk treated the Manx. Their destination was the sky lake, a place called "Injebreck", a name Dominic Lorenzo had touted as meaning Ingi's Slope, a Nordic name, one that was undoubtedly un-Manx-like.
"If the name of your home isn't even in your language," the reporter had mocked the bronzed Manx girl. "Then how can the land be yours?"
His words seemed to upset the lass, who then did not speak again for some time.
The journey was not long. The lake was nary a ten-kilometre trek through shrub-land and low-woods, meaning they would be in and out before nightfall. Initially, the party consisted of only herself and Mathias. When Magus Fitzgerald caught wind, he and a few of the veterans she aided had asked for leave to escort Elvia on her search to appease her conscience. To no one's surprise, the Colonel refuted the men's request.
In the end, it was Dominic who volunteered to play guide.
And through Dominic, she found out the Manx lived only fifteen minutes Mage Flight away, and that the island was traversable in a few hours via the sky. What she had imagined as Wildland barbarians living in the dark and wending woods were, in fact, a stone's throw's distance from Fort Nook. Likewise, the war was waged by Humans on the isle's north, while the regions around Douglas suffered only from infiltrations.
For Elvia, the conflict was beginning to make sense— until her party arrived at the sky lake.
For a place the Manx kept calling a lake, Elvia knew what to expect; a serene pond, maybe a few ducks, reeds and fish, with possible encampments nearer the far bank. A place poorly defended against aerial assaults but sheltered against Magical Beasts.
What she found instead was a blighted plateau.
There was nothing.
Not even much snow.
A strange sense of déjà vu overcame Elvia at once.
The terrain was desolate but familiar, especially the pale pink of the salty lake-floor, where jagged hexagonal shards of raw salt pushed through the crystalised plane. Upon closer inspection, there was water, only the brine-like liquid oozed beneath the arm-thick crust, making the surface arguably a deathtrap.
All around the lake, trees withered where they stood or died after becoming covered by permafrosts of crystals, lining the edge of the lake like grave posts. Concurrently, a strange stink of rotting vegetable pickled in sodium haunted the party's nostrils. Much less fish, there wasn't even a bird in the cloudless sky.
Past the salt, after the party plodded across the side, she could see slimes, the primordial manifestation of rot and decay, clambering the edge of the alkaline lake where the salt had yet to grow. Nearer the brine's surface, the stench grew so terrible Elvia had to cast "Aid" on the whole party. Shouldn't this be where the Manx called home? Elvia felt her heart sink. Were they fighting the Mageocracy to the death to protect this?
"Was it always like this?" Mathias suddenly spoke.
"Of course not!" a reply came from the girl. "When I was younger, our home was beautiful. There were perch and bream in the lake, and waterfowl nesting by the tens of thousands."
Elvia struggled to think that the adolescent she had thought younger than herself was in her thirties. The Manx, thanks to their Elven blood, were long-lived and slow-maturing.
"How did it become like this?" Elvia asked the siblings and their fellows. Her eyes, however, fell on to Dominic, who seemed to know the isle's history better than they.
"It happens." Dominic's response was lukewarm. "Where the fabric between the Prime and the Planes grow thin— ah, but that's a story for another time. I do believe we have company."
"Halt!" Mathias raised a glowing fist, simultaneously rising an inch into the air, cascading salt that had crawled onto his combat boots.
From the far edge, striding through the few trees that remained, a host approached, olive in their attire, olive-haired and olive-skinned, with ears as long and tapered as flensing knives.
Before her Knight could draw his Spellblade, a palpable aura hundreds of meters in diameter erupted from Sen-sen. It was Dragon-fear, only there was no hostility, at least not yet. Instead, the stifling aura served as a warning that she came in peace, offering the gift of life.
Or— if these Elves would attack her or her party— the gift of Gwen.