Over curry, Gwen explained to a distrustful Petra that she and Elvia had sorted things out for now.
Unconvinced, her cousin crossed her legs and scrutinised the Cleric from her flaxen head to her calf-skin booties, sizing the healer up like an exotic creature. "You've caused some grief, Miss Lindholm. What I wouldn't give to pick your brain..."
"Be nice…" Gwen raised a piece of cheesy nan to diffuse the tension. "We're cool now, Pats."
Across from the bickering cousins, the demure healer focused on hammering home the lava-vindaloo, her cheeks rosy and her eyes brimming with moisture. The girl was suffering, Gwen could see, but Evee was determined to fulfil her earlier prophecy.
"Don't force yourself," Gwen cautioned. She wondered why her Evee was taking enough spice to keep Petra confined to the throne— mayhap the Cleric was stress eating? Just the smell of the spice was making her lips heat up.
With Petra gawking like a Big Bird, Evee dared not speak, and for the duration of the curry, the sound of spoons scraping plates passed for conversation.
"So, I'll be keeping your Foundation running while you're away," Gwen said at last. "It'll do you good, I imagine. The Ordo has relics that collect Faith, right?"
"You don't have to." Elvia replaced her spoon. "I'll find the time to—"
"Nonsense, you don't have the skills or the manpower, at least not yet." Gwen cut in. "Besides, I am keeping it running for my people on the Isle. They're used to your face by now. No point changing it."
"But maybe one day you could use Faith Magic as well," Elvia said. "After all, with Caliban, anything's possible."
"You're not suggesting Cali should Consume a Knight or an Ordained Priest?" Gwen laughed. "Besides, I am not even religious. Faith Magic? The Anglicans would tie me to a cross and call me a witch. Say, is that all you're eating?"
Petra watched with fascination as Gwen wolfed the rest of their food, after which her abdomen showed nary a bump.
"I'll be going back to the dorm…" Elvia explained when Gwen asked for her immediate plans. "I still haven't told Sylvie and the others about what happened. They're probably wondering if I've been exiled to the Isle of Man."
"When are you expecting to be stationed at Hastings?" Gwen asked as they proceeded down London's infamously narrow streets, flanked by cars and lorries, driving a little too close for comfort.
"As soon as possible, I imagine, once I inform the Seneschal." Elvia edged against the sandstone wall as she was the slimmest. "I guess I'll see you later?"
The casual goodbye was enough to make Gwen stop in the middle of the footpath, attracting more than a few grumbles from the passersby who had to step out onto the asphalt.
"Yeah." Betraying her words, she hugged her dearest friend to her chest, enveloping Evee's body with both arms. Even after huffing the Cleric's hair and making Petra's blood pressure rise, she held on. "Oh, Evee. I am going to miss this."
"You said it yourself— I am only an hour away. And I will be in London now and then." Elvia hugged her back, albeit with far less force. "I'll miss you, Gwennie."
"Me too, stay away from any skirt chasers," Gwen warned her. "I know those white knightly types. Give them an inch, and they'll be in your panties next."
"Mathias will be with me, remember? He's sworn." Elvia giggled.
"If its Mattie, then that's fine. Just tell him there's a face-to-face with Gunther in it for him if he keeps you safe. He'll get it."
"… sure." Elvia pushed her away when Petra grunted beside them. "Gwennie, are you sure about the er..."
Elvia touched her ring finger.
"Of course, they're yours." Gwen hand-waved the gifts. "I got my IIUC replacement, and mine's a bigger Storage Ring. I'll be getting some cool stuff from our Dwarven friends as well. You make good use of those."
"Okay." Elvia touched Gwen's arm. "I'll be going now."
The two young women watched the Cleric saunter away toward Nightingale College.
"Good riddance—"Petra made the universal gesture for sweeping out vermin.
"Bloody oath, Pats..." Gwen warned her cousin.
After twenty-odd metres into the crowd, Evee disappeared. Gwen watched her Cleric turn the corner, feeling a little lost, wondering whether she did the right thing.
"Are you sure it's wise to let the little minx go?" Petra reached her side. "She's a Vessel of our foe, right? She knows too much."
"Her patron is the Order's problem now." Gwen patted Petra on the shoulders. "And in a way, Evee's right. I can't honestly say the Yinglong's done anything unforgivable other than giving Evee a dodgy dose of sovereignty. That and I still need Golos until my abilities catch up. Speaking of which, how was your lesson with the Runesmiths?"
"Very instructive." Petra's mood lightened. "I never knew how intricate contemporary Dwarven magic could be! Did you know that Chadwick's Constant could be paired with Giem's Equilibrium through parallel conduits?"
"I understood some of that." Gwen grinned broadly. "I'll have you know; your cousin knows more than just Shield now. I also know Alarm, and I am working on Resist and a Cambridge Edition of Mage Armour."
"Impressive." Petra bit back a smile. "How's your Enchantment?"
"Not sure, actually— I should be on the second tier of efficacy. Major Knott has been sweating me with inscriptions." Gwen stretched her neck. "What are your plans for the rest of the week?"
"Seeing as I'll be missing the Lent Term regardless, would you mind if I stayed in London to accompany the Masters?"
"Sure, it's no skin off my nose," Gwen said as they made their way through East End. "Magister Wen isn't going to mind?"
"My learning contract with her has been absolved," Petra said.
"What, just like that? You're not sentimental at all?" Gwen felt surprised by Petra's candidness. "She did look after you for three, four years?"
"Babulya looked after me," Petra corrected her. "Which reminds me, you've been neglecting a lot of folks back home. They've been asking for you."
Gwen slapped her forehead. "You're right! Tonight! Wait, tomorrow! I'll call home first thing in the morning!"
To Gwen's wonderment, a fortnight and then some elapsed without incident, vanishing the linen snow, replacing the sleet with warmer and wetter weather.
The Dwarves' construction projects continued full-steam, kindling her stock of HDMs as newly erected scaffolds transformed into warehouse buildings, brutalist offices and streamlined printing towers.
Lorenzo returned after a week's absence, bringing a list of names, mostly NoMs, who were willing to jump ship from the Herald Sun and the Telegraph. A few of the spook's old mates at the Guardian were keen as well, and after signing off their CVs, Gwen interviewed her future staff in person.
Petra finally enrolled, ultimately choosing Queens College. Gwen commissioned Ollie to find her cousin a rented house not too far from Peterhouse as Petra was a post-graduate student and therefore had the option of external accommodation. Once the orientation completed, the Mind Mage elected to spend most of her time on the Isle of Dogs, observing the Dwarves, bringing their daily skinship to an end.
Gwen met with Elvia once more before she left for the Order of the Bath, taking the girls shopping at The Strand and filling their rings with clothes, shoes, makeup, snacks and assorted bric-a-brac. Hastings was a sizable township— but its commercial offering was incomparable to the capital.
Before her pilgrimage, Elvia informed Gwen that she had asked Sylvie Stratford, her colleague at Nightingale, to stand in at her Clinic to work under Walken. Gwen recalled that the pink-haired girl had looked after her friend, and so and told Elvia that Sylvie would receive her guidance.
Concurrently, Gwen's lessons under her tutors persisted: art, music and Illusion with Le Guevel, abjuring Mandalas under Kott, frustrations under Patel, tea with Lady Grey, and outings with Dede with Maxwell Brown.
Then, one tranquil afternoon, while breaking bread with her duck, she was accosted by her tutor.
"What's wrong?" Gwen noted Brown's haunted expression. The man wanted something from her but was hesitant to initiate.
Finally, after some duck banter, the Magister cleared his voice and delivered the bad news.
The first instalment of Gwen's repayment had arrived. The college now desired her active participation in researching Void Magic.
"Gwen, I've come to speak to you as a friend, your teacher, and the researcher trusted by the Academic Council to plumb the depth of arcanistry pertaining to your Element."
"Really?" Gwen lifted her face from Dede's rainbow feathers. "You need my permission?"
"Of course dear, we're not the CCP." Brown gave her a sideways glance. "We always ask for permission, so long as you don't upset the powers-that-be by refusing."
Gwen laughed at the mirthful Catch-22.
"Why are you laughing? This is your life," Brown replied seriously.
"Oh…" Gwen's grin grew rigid.
"The necessity of quantifying Void as an Element, which will lead to new Spellcraft advancements and countermeasures against Elizabeth Sobel, is no laughing matter." The Magister's eyes were unmoved by her upset. "Of course, this is not just for yourself but other Void Mages as well. To pool together our knowledge, you'll be joined by your contemporaries."
"Other Void Mages? Who else is there aside from me?" Gwen was genuinely astonished.
"From London Imperial, there's Meister Bekker's boy, who recently returned from Pretoria. I believe you're acquainted?"
"The very same. And you'll also be meeting Gracie Hillbrook."
"And who would that be?"
"A Void Mage? Like Jean-Paul and me." Gwen's mouth half fell open. "Why haven't I heard of her?"
"We've been keeping her safe."
"Quack!" Dede struck out a wing in warning when Gwen's fingers dug a little too deep into its feathers.
"Come again?" Gwen placated the duck. "Cambridge has 'kept' this girl on campus?"
"She's not the most stable sorceress." Brown cocked his chin. "A good study of Sobel's deterioration over time, actually— besides, if the college didn't step in, she would have wasted away."
"Kept her like…" Gwen looked to Dede then to Brown. "… like a duck in a pond? How old is Gracie?"
"Twenty-one," Brown recollected. "Her birthday was last November. She's been with us for six years."
"And you want us Void Mages to meet and greet, show and tell?"
"An encounter that is in itself an experiment," Brown confessed. "We're still negotiating with the central continent's institutions for their candidates. Understandably, they're wary of you. Don't you think it's interesting? Did you have nothing to gain from Adventuring with Jean-Paul?"
"I suppose we had a good time." Gwen considered their experience with the Undead. Jean-Paul had indeed demonstrated a whole new tier of Void-based arcanistry.
"We think Gracie could use a dose of your optimism. She's recently become more unstable and erratic." Brown cautioned her. "Understandable. Nobody wants to die, of course, especially from Void consumption."
"That's… sad." Gwen felt a surge of sympathy.
"You're sweeter than you look, Gwen." Brown struck out his hand and patted Dede. "Dede's an excellent judge of character. Can I ask your permission to go ahead with the meeting of the Void Mages?"
"I am glad you asked, but why would I say no?"
"I am afraid you might feel compelled to save Gracie."
"What?" Gwen cocked her head. "Are you saying I should let a fellow Void sorceress die when I can empathise with the hunger, the terror, and the needless suffering?"
Brown's lips formed a bitter smile.
"Thanks to Wen, we now know your physiology is unique— and that your Druidic Essence is a transferrable medium." He stroked Dede's head. "I performed some tests on Dede, just to be on the safe side. Yours is a raw and primordial form of Essence. We don't know what Caliban ate to give it to you, or if the vitality is a unique part of your Astro-morphic frame— but it can benefit others."
"It only works on Magical Creatures," Gwen pointed out.
"Hardly. Have you tried giving it to humans?"
"Of course not."
"But you have," Brown reminded her. "That Chinese wine you dispensed so freely…"
Gwen raised both brows. "That was Sen-sen."
"A mere medium. Nothing we can't solve, or we can have Miss Lindholm provide the leaves on commission. We can even have Gracie train in Conjuration and whip-up a Familiar. I hope you understand the implications. The burden of life is something no one wants to bear. That's why I am warning you."
Gwen spent a moment digesting Brown's truism, gradually coming to terms with the entanglements Brown inferred. If indeed she could single-handedly prevent future Void Mages from dying with Almudj's Essence, utilise mediums of Wildland origins to infuse consumables with vitality— wouldn't the onus of her kind's livelihood be held in her dainty white fingers? As someone shouldering that obligation— the potential dilemmas and moral baggage were unfathomable. Even altruistically, the idea of Void Mages whose lives relied on her goodwill made her skin crawl.
"Please don't look like that. It's best to think of yourself as a medical specialist," Brown re-framed her growing unease. "You can save as many as you're willing— but no Cleric is morally obligated to operate on every patient."
"Yeah, that's a fucked up proposal if I ever heard one."
"Quack!" Dede agreed, dabbing her cheek with its bill.
"Please mull the matter over. You don't have to decide right away. Also, that was the lesser of our two problems." Brown smiled. "I was, alas, buttering you up for the bigger predicament."
"My womb is off-limits."
"... Your mind amazes me sometimes." Brown choked on his spit. "No, no— word has arrived from up-on-high to quantify the risk-tier of your Planar Ally. Factional interests wish to observe, document, then eradicate this creature you have dubbed the Shoggoth. I say this is a bigger problem because it isn't so much a quest but an obligation— one that pertains to your freedom anywhere in the developed world."
Gwen pursed her lips.
"Before you go and tattle… Lady Grey is in favour," Brown explained. "I don't think there's a living soul who would suggest that we should allow the contractor of a creature as inexhaustive as the Shoggoth, to exist unchecked and unexplained. For your knowledge, the Militants have been banging on the gates very loudly since your arrival."
"And NOW they tell me this? After how many weeks?" Gwen narrowed her eyes. "This would have been more palatable if it was a condition of coming to London."
"Then blame the Isle of Man for bringing the time table forward. We wanted more time for you to settle in as well. The more invested you are in us, the more we can invest in you. It's a two-way avenue." Brown returned her antagonism with calm logic. "If anything, blame that Cleric of yours who used your IIUC vid-cast for inciting the Militants. The Shoggoth can't be used as a deterrent if we have no idea what it's capable of deterring, or if it is quashable— a crucial distinction."
"They're going to blow up my Shoggy? What if they piss it off?"
Brown raised a critical brow. "In your report— you said that the Shoggoth is a mindless mass of mouths and that it does not possess intelligence. In the haste to get you inducted, the college assured the Tower that this was the case..."
Cold sweat instantly drenched the delicate fabric on Gwen's back.
"Right," she replied with the only acceptable answer.
"Then, we will proceed." Brown hovered a hand over her shoulder, hesitated, then moved onto Dede. "Gwen, are you certain the Shoggoth is a Planar Manifestation without an Ego?"
"Quack?" Dede gazed at her with its unsullied eyes of beady black, demanding the answer. "Quack-Quack?"
Gwen knew she had only moments to speak.
Was the Shoggoth capable of feelings or emotions?
Did it understand logos as humans did?
Was it a product of those stories she loved, or did the Shoggoth communicate the will of something swimming five fathoms down, deep in the depthless Void?
In all honesty— she desired a definite answer as well.
"Yes." Gwen crossed both fingers under Dede's feathers. "To my knowledge, I can say with confidence that Shoggy is an amoeba of hunger."
"Enlarge. Seeking." Patel commanded from behind the Wall of Force.
"Void Missile!" Gwen ramrodded the spell through her conduits, her lips muttering invocations while her fingers somatically assisted the mental incantation.
Soundlessly, three amorphous globs, each resembling a dark ball of tenebrous ink, whipped through the air to strike the bird-Golem used for target practice. As her spell struck true, a sound of springs released from ratcheted tension accompanied the sight of the bird careening into the firing range.
"Next. Extend Range. Delay. Simulcast."
Another bird fluttered into the range, this time slow and ponderous to lower the difficulty of her targeting.
"V-Void Missile!" Gwen fumbled but quickly recovered by repeating the latter portion of the spell. With her VMI and Almudj's Essence, the exercise of low-tier Void-craft proved little inconvenience unless the elevated invocations suffered from catastrophic failure.
As per her designation, the first set of missiles did not manifest.
"Void Missile!" She finished her second spell just as the first materialised. Together, twin globs of Void matter shot forward as though propelled by a catapult. The second struck true, taking the Golem by the wing. The first missed by inches, sizzling against the Wall of Force before dissipating.
"Enlarge, Explosive." the command came from Patel.
"Void Missile!" Fighting the spell-strain, Gwen just managed to complete the third spell. "Enlarge" required two additional Minor and one Major invocation. "Explosive" was trickier, adding seven Major invocations that required another twenty-two Minor ones so that the spell exploded on command and not the moment it left the gate.
This time, her missile sailed just overhead of the fallen target. At her behest, it erupted in a jet-black burst of Void, showering the surrounding area with droplets of corrosive, all-consuming ink.
"How's that?" Gwen smugly turned to her instructor. "I did it."
"You fumbled, and then you missed against a slow-moving target." Kareena golf-clapped. "Yes, congratulations, Magus Song, you did it."
Just as she was about to offer a witty riposte, her tutor redirected her attention. "Before you embarrass yourself further. Your audience is growing impatient."
Gwen spun on her heels.
On the bleachers behind them, shielded by yet another Wall of Force, was a group of Mages. Two, she recognised instantly. One was Magister Brown in his demure jacket and dusky vest; the other had an unforgettable face; the last, a young woman, was new.
Gwen quickly bowed toward her Transmutation-spellshaping tutor, then made for her observers.
"JP!" Gwen dismissed the barrier, her voice bouncing across the high ceiling. In the next moment, she embraced the young man, who was shorter than herself, then gave him two unreciprocated air-kisses on either side of his face. "It's good to see ya, buddy."
In response to her friendly overture, the pale young man with a face that only a Meister could love polymorphed into an overlarge beetroot.
Suddenly self-conscious, Gwen glanced down to see if she had unexpectedly shamed herself with a daring attire. These days, her attention often waned thanks to her mental toils. Some mornings, whatever she could unlock within the first ten minutes had to suffice. Presently, she wore conforming jeans joined by a zip-up sports top, hardly the sort of thing that could start a scandal.
More than likely, JP had not anticipated so warm a welcome— which, combined with his introverted tendencies, had made him flustered.
"… Hello." Jean-Paul unglued himself, extending each finger as though unfurling a row of sticky tendrils. "You look well."
Gwen laughed. For some reason, she liked JP's awkwardness. There was a genuineness to it that the smooth-talking folk at Cambridge with their titles and their upbringing could not affect even if they tried.
"Emm…" Jean-Paul glanced at the young woman beside him, bracing himself with an expression of a boy waiting for the whip to land.
Brown coughed. "Gwen, this is the sorceress we discussed, Gracie Hillbrook."
With one hand still hanging on Jean-Paul's shoulder, Gwen looked to her right.
Gracie Hillbrook stood five-foot-six with a luxurious head of hair that fell over both shoulders down to her chest. She had an angular face atypical of the English, with freckles bespotting her pale skin from ear to ear. From sunken sockets, dark eye bags that rivalled Jean-Paul's made her forest-green irises especially intense. If the girl could be healthier, Gwen would remark that the sorceress was pretty— though now the girl simply appeared perpetually tired. On her bony shoulders, Gracie donned a tunic that was one-size too large, beneath of which a drab skirt covered her to the ankles. The overall effect, Gwen felt, was a frailness that cried out for a pair of strong arms to hold her tight.
Their eyes met, the girl looked downward, not daring to meet her gaze.
"Hello." Gwen extended a greeting. "I am Gwen Song."
"Gracie…" the Void Sorceress swallowed the air before producing a skeletal hand. "Hillbrook."
"Nice to meet you." Gwen took the woman's enfeebled extremities. From the trembling in her digits, Gwen could sense the young woman was undergoing a whole range of complicated emotions. "You alright, Gracie?"
The sorceress withdrew her hand. "Magus Song, are you well-acquainted with Jean-Paul?"
The timbre in the woman's voice was enough to catch Gwen off guard. With a bemused expression, she looked from sorcerer to sorceress, trying to discern the source of Gracie's antagonism.
"Of course, JP and me, we go way back." She patted Jean-Paul's curved back. "He and I, we survived the Front together, demolished Dungeon-fulls of Undead in Shenyang! How about you, Gracie? When did you get to know Jean-Paul?"
"Only a few days." Gracie's expression remained irksome. To Gwen's dismay, the young woman turned to Magister Brown accusingly. "Sir, what is the meaning of this?"
Very carefully, Jean-Paul slipped from under Gwen's arm to stand to one side.
"Gwen." Brown's expression was cringeworthy. "Though it is not my place to say so, I should inform you that Miss Hillbrook is well on her way to becoming Mrs Bekker..."
"... What?" Gwen's immediate response was to snort. A second later, she caught herself. "WHAT?"
"Per our prior conversation," Magister Brown spoke slowly and meticulously. "Miss Hillbrook has decided to put her future in the hands of London Imperial's Meister Bekker."
Gwen's mind performed a mental pirouette before landing back in reality. A week ago, post Brown's petition, she had advised her tutor that she would not be providing for the Mageocracy's future Void Mages. Brown had concurred, stating that the Tower's wish was to respect whatever outcome she chose.
Now she was being told that Gracie Hillbrook and Jean-Paul Bekker were en-route on becoming Mister and Missus Bekker. If Jean-Paul had said that he had known Gracie since childhood, Gwen would have bitten off the matter with a smile— but Hillbrook had just admitted that she knew the guy for a few days.
The fuck did that portend? Her fingers grew numb— an arranged marriage? No, worse than that. Meister Bekker had a way to keep Void Mages alive— as evidenced by Jean-Paul, and Brown had said that Gracie wasn't going to last much longer. If so, was this young woman choosing to offer her body to Umzokwe's Master to stay alive?
A grotesque wave of repression suffused her abdomen, making her breathless. Gwen rarely felt such upset for someone she had never met. Gracie, poor fucking Gracie. As a fellow Void Sorceress, she completely understood the horror of extinction from self-consumption. She also empathised why Gracie would choose to risk-bearing a child over wasting away.
Did JP and Gracie know how fucked up it is to bear a Void baby?
Did anyone even know that Faceless was Sobel's kid? Or that Sobel went batshit insane on a Consume-spree because she was eating for two?
She should tell them— but was her Master's shame her secret to give?
As for Jean-Paul, the cocky prick—
"Oi, Bekker" Gwen heard her voice ring out, her tone as hollow as the Void. She glared at Jean-Paul, who she had thought was a nice enough chap, despite literally everything else. The very thought of Jean-Paul's frog-like figure sprawled out over Gracie's milk-white body made her want to punch his teeth inwards.
"Y-yes, Gwen?" the Void Mage intensely studied the floor.
"Are you for reals, JP?" A wave of expanding vertigo filled the space between them. Beside her, Gracie Hillbrook took a step back, her irises suddenly contracting as the Void mana still churning in Gwen's conduits tuned the air solid with pressure. "Mate, you ever heard of the story of Sir Bors of Avalon?"