"Gwen! Stop that!" Magister Brown erected a Shield so that the barrier enveloped both himself and Gracie. "She can't defend herself!"
"Surely not." Gwen retracted her soul-constraining aura. "Look at JP— he's not even flinching."
"Gwen…" Brown raised his voice several decibels. "With your history, you should know better."
Gwen looked to Gracie, whose face was beading with sweat. The young woman looked as though she would faint at any moment. Still, Gwen felt the need to leave a stern impression. If Gracie couldn't even take a harsh stare from a Void Sorceress on the fifth tier of Affinity, how could she stomach having a life-sucking parasite siphoning on her already disasterous constitution?
"Sorry Gracie." Gwen raised both hands. "Jean-Paul, explain yourself."
"Me? I-I— er—"
"Perhaps you should converse with Gracie before you blame Jean-Paul." Brown set the trembling Gracie down on a cushioned seat before returning to Gwen. "Your friend is the ward of the Mevrou, and Gracie is ours. Please don't presume you can compel either of them."
The young woman took another minute to fully recover, allowing Gwen more time to study the kept Void Sorceress. Though her frumpy dress hid her figure, she could see from her collarbones that beneath the fabric was a vitality-famished body in the process of consuming itself. It wasn't a matter of fat and sinew, as with cases of anorexia, but a deeper, more metaphysical malaise. Everything about Gracie was weightless and frail, so much that Gwen wondered if she could lift her with one hand— or if such an act would break an arm or dislocate a shoulder. She felt sorry for the girl, and also upset and angry and resentful all at once.
"Magus Song." Gracie's voice sounded like a ghost's. "I would not want to be a bother to your busy self."
"Bollocks," Gwen cut in. "We're both in Cambridge, and we're both Void Mages. If anything, now that we're acquainted— I would loath to leave you be."
"… Thank you." Gracie swallowed. "I think Magister Brown has told you that I am not well."
Gracie touched a white hand to her hair. "I am an Illusionist by trade. I can't exercise my spells every well, and I don't have any means of replenishing my vitality. Nonetheless, I understand that as I grow older and the talent continues to mature, my body won't be able to keep up."
"We've been looking after Gracie both nutritionally and through Clerical means," Brown interjected. "It is possible to keep Gracie hale if we simply pile on the Wildland ingredients—"
"I could chip in," Gwen said immediately. "You know how much…"
"— I fear between diminishing returns and the exorbitant cost, there's a limit."
Oh yeah, Gwen recollected from her Fructum Vitae adventure. Most effects from the Wildland's mystical ingredients lost their efficacy by half with repeated consumption.
Gracie' shoulders fell. "I've never been able to do anything myself. I am sick of it."
A pang of guilt hammered home the shame Gwen had kept at arm's length. She thought of Elvia, then she thought of Dede. Gracie had made a decision that should be respected, but why shouldn't she broaden the girl's options? Wasn't that sisterly solidarity? "Is marrying Jean-Paul a part of that?"
"The Mevrou has said that she has a way for me to keep hale," Gracie lowered her voice. "She said I could live a normal life, or even be useful as a Mage— if I so desire."
"And that's what you wanted?"
"I am sick of being kept." Gracie's breathing grew strenuous.
"I see. That's understandable. I don't fault you, Gracie." Gwen took a deep breath, then turned to her old party companion. "Jean-Paul, do you know why I am angry?"
"I listened to Mevrou Bekker?" The Void mage continued to study the floor.
"No." Gwen clicked her tongue. "I am upset because last time, we talked about all of this. We talked about respect and marriage and love. Do you remember that?"
"I said to you— there needs to be more to making babies than getting told you should. If there's no love, no affection, only desperate perpetuation or blind lust, then you're just animals— cows and bulls. Besides, we're talking about a kid here. A living, breathing, mini Jean-Paul or Gracie! Both our childhoods were fucked up— yours especially. Why would you think giving that to a kid is a good idea?"
Magister Brown loudly coughed.
"...Yes, Max, I know I sound like Elvia delivering a Sermon. I know I chose not to help Gracie, and that makes me a hypocrite and a Void-damned bitch. But this is about— dignity, I suppose. Jean-Paul, you failed to see that Gracie isn't just a womb you need to fill at the Mevrou's request. And Gracie, girl— you need to have more respect for yourself. You too, Jean-Paul, you're not just an inseminator." Gwen blushed heavily even as she spoke.
"The— er— Mevrou said 'love' should come tomorrow because Gracie needs to live today." Jean-Paul's nostrils flared. "She also says you're welcome to keep Gracie, but then she won't be responsible for Cambridge's candidate."
Gwen felt a massive migraine come on. Looking at the young couple squirm, she could see that some personal sacrifices needed to be made on her part to dissuade the pair. "Okay. I am going to tell you about some very unpleasant truths. Max, can we get some privacy? I need to inform these two why this baby business is not happening. You can listen in— but no questions."
"Is this classified information?" Brown wetted his lips.
"It's private and pertains to mine and Gunther's Master."
"Very well. To avoid Scry and Crows, may I suggest your Portable Habitat?" The scholar extended a hand. "You can set it up over there."
"Alright." Gwen led the foursome to the empty range. "Caliban! Ariel!"
Her Familiars materialised with a flourish.
Gracie's eyes grew wide. "Its… the Death Worm and the Kirin!"
"You two, keep guard." Gwen inserted the crystal, then laid down the pocket dimension. "Alright, you love birds, come inside. It's time to learn about the life-eating bees and the soul-sucking birds."
The Deer Garden.
Gwen held the inconsolable Gracie's bony waist with one arm, rubbing her back with another. Caliban rubbed itself against Gracie's leg, while Ariel lent itself as her support.
The story that Gwen had framed for the trio was that, fearful of her flirtatiousness among Sydney Tower's young men, Henry Kilroy had set her aside for a cautionary tale about a pregnant Void Sorceress.
Within her story, her Master had the misfortune of studying the unfortunate sorceress. Throughout the gestation period, the Void-talented Transmuter had grown so erratic and insane that she began to drain anything she could get her hands on from plants to dogs to manservants. In the end, at six month, her own body half-consumed the child. When the miscarriage occurred, what emerged was a mangled mass of aberrant, pulsing flesh, driving the woman mad. The poor girl then Voided herself, much to Kilroy's dismay, and that was the end of her unsung story.
"For me, all hanky-panky was off-limits." Gwen painted Henry as a stern father warning a rebellious daughter with a preference for miniskirts and heels. "Trust me— neither you nor your baby is going to survive. You can't breed Void Mages. They have to Awaken naturally."
Jean-Paul then tried to explain that Mevrou Bekker could circumvent this tragedy through workarounds— but Gwen retorted that if "Deathless Henry", husband to the vilest and most successful Void Sorceress in all history, drunk on Sufina's Golden Mead, could not protect this pregnant nobody— then it was unlikely a Meister from South Africa half of Kilroy's age could proceed with confidence. If Jean-Paul cared at all for Gracie, Gwen said, he should consider the risks. If he didn't care, then she would spank his ass with Lightning until he did.
There was silence. Then all three sighed long and hard.
By the time they left the portal and returned to the wet and dreary space of the Deer Garden, Gwen had delivered the promise that she would keep Gracie hale for now with her "Druidic" Essence— while Jean-Paul should renegotiate with his Mevrou.
"My Master will return next week," Jean-Paul muttered under his breath. "Could you speak to her for me?"
"Er…" Gwen felt her innards scrunch. Speak to the Mevrou? A Meister? Not one like Wen, but a ruthless elite who had figured out the quirks of Void Magic and could even make spells for her Apprentice? Someone who, according to Jean-Paul, probably presided over a state-wide eugenics program? Would she be debating with the devil herself? "Sure thing, JP. Just give me plenty of warning. Don't you dare throw me to the wolves like you did with Gracie."
Jean-Paul responded to her elder-sisterly authority in the only way he knew how.
Gwen sighed. She looked at Gracie; then she looked at Jean-Paul.
What a fucked up existence.
"You two." She mulled over the matter in her mind, toying with a solution. "You guys ever heard of a Worker's Union?"
A day later, Gwen convened at Peterhouse with Lady Grey, Magister Brown, Ollie and a representative from the Tower at the Master's building opposite the Old Court. In a room richly draped with crimson and furnished with rare wood, the imperialist coven plotted the demise of the Mageocracy's enemies.
"By the authority of London Tower, I now commence this formal meeting to discuss the deployment of the Shoggoth by Magus Song, Public Practice Licence No. 321530— Class VI War Mage," Colonel Sam Greyson, Administrative Official and representative of the Shard, spoke toward an omnidirectional recorder device. "Present with me are Marchioness Maxine Loftus of Ely, Magister Maxwell Brown of Emmanuel College and Magus Gwen Song of Peterhouse. Scribe Ollie Edwards shall serve as our minder of the minutes."
The speaker waited for his august company's silent input, nodded, then continued.
"I present to our members the developing situation in Northern Wales." Colonel Greyson punched a few Glyphs in the air visible only to himself. "Our allies in Snowdonia tasked London Tower with a Quest last June. The given objective was to exterminate an aberrant parasitic life form, the carnivorous extra-planar species known as Triffidus Celestus, an invasive Elemental flora plaguing the peninsula of Anglesey— allow me to bring up an image."
With a touch, the Colonel projected a lumen-cast illusion into the space between the observers.
"That's a Triffid?" Gwen asked with both brows raised. In her mind, Triffids looked like single-stem orchids and were kind of cute. "It's disgusting…"
In the image, a roughly phallic-shaped monstrosity writhed and turned. On one bulbous end, a massive head consisting of tiers of lilac, violet and sunburst petals tapered into a muscular shaft that propelled itself via malicious tentacles. From the barbed neck, its waist snaked downwards until it formed a mass of angry knots that serviced its locomotion.
"There are now three variants in the Triffidus species." Greyson breathed out. "During the first extermination, we sent a Flight of Magus-tier Combat Mages into Anglesey. The purge took a week, and their Quest reported success. In hindsight, the Tower should have sent specialists, as untrained Combat Mages could not have known that the flora left spores. When the next outbreak occurred, the Triffids were far more durable and immeasurably hardier, some even evolved. In October, we sent two Flights of veteran Combat Mages, together with a Botanist, Magister Valarie Banks, up to the region for a second round. The Purge was a success. However, Magister Banks reported that the Triffids had fundamentally altered the physiology of the landscape and that extermination would involve a longitudinal operation."
The image shifted to a map showing the spread of the Triffid contagion.
"Her prediction came true in early November. Adventurers Purging the region of regrowth reported seeing not two, but three variants of Triffids."
A second bestiary image came into view. This time, it showed a Triffid with no less than three heads, and its central torso was a mess of vines that entwined to form a reptilian body. As it slithered forward, the whole thing appeared both comical and terrifying.
"This variant, the adventurers call Hydraffid," the Colonel explained. "The Triffidus Hydrus possesses extreme regeneration. Size-wise, its three times the length of the Mono-Triffid while possessing extreme agility. Thus far, the encounter-tier is set at six. Unlike the normal Triffids, they do not hunt in packs."
Finally, a third image came into view.
"This came from our December expedition to study the creatures. We call it Triffidus Primus. It is an intelligent creature capable of reproducing crude but powerful Druidic manifestations. It can also summon its kind, rapidly regenerate, and is intelligent enough to utilise tactics. It speaks rudimentary Elemental."
The image depicted an enormous humanoid-plant hybrid half-buried in the mossy ground. Its face was a flower with a maw that resembled a carnivorous fly-trap. A massive mane of leaves surrounded its neckless head, and on both of its shoulders distended two Triffidus Celestus that served as limbs.
"We have consulted Snowdonia on the matter, and they have raised the level of alarm near their Grove. Though the Elves are fully capable of eradicating this invasive species, the Mageocracy's present treaties with the Hvítálfar dictate that regions outside of their Träälvor Warden's control remain within our jurisdiction."
"With resource comes responsibility," Lady Grey interpreted for Gwen. "In this regard, we're farmers given land to till."
The Colonel brought up another map. "Since January, the Triffidus contagion has taken no less than three dozen Adventurers— including one Mage Flight from the local Garrison sent to suppress its expansion. Thanks to the Isle of Man's ceasefire, we can now relocate Mechanised Golem units across the Menai Strait to Pili Palas. The operation was set to commence next week— until we received news that Magus Song shall be gracing us with her presence."
"How green is this region?" Gwen asked. "Colonel, have you been briefed about the Shoggoth's propagation abilities?"
"If need be, you may cleanse the peninsular entirely." Colonel Greyson indicted to the infestation map. "Only a bridge conjoins the landmasses. Our citizens who have not left the island have long become monster-fodder. On the other hand, the indigenous inhabitants on the isle are negligible. We tried to evacuate them, but they are either in hiding, have escaped, or are being used as food by the Triffids."
"All those villages are empty?" Gwen pointed to the hundred or so dots lining the coast from the English mainland to the Irish Sea.
"Some benign Merfolk and Avian colonies live near the coast," the Colonel explained. "Fear not, they can escape into the ocean."
"Let's say the Shoggoth grows too large." Gwen eyed the map. "Then what happens?"
"In Shenyang, it reached no more than three kilometres at the apex," Brown noted helpfully. "Mind you, that was a city said to have several thousand still-living souls. I think we should be fine. The amount of energy required to manifest in the Prime Material is astounding. For a Shoggoth, its maximum allowance is limited by your Void Affinity and Conjuration tier as well. Once its dimensional anchor becomes disrupted, the cost to remain in our world will directly be burdened by its internal supply of mana— and there is no way to resupply while on the Prime Material. Void as an Element simply does not 'exist' per se."
"Which is why before it disappears, the 5th Regiment Royal Gunners, joined by the 32nd Royal Artillery, will be conducting field exercises. Likewise, they'll be joined by specialists from Oxbridge and London Imperial, in addition to invited observers from our allies."
"Shock and awe?" Gwen raised both brows. "You're using this example to flex some muscles?"
"You could say that." Colonel Greyson nodded.
"We're assuring our allies, dear." Lady Grey's eyes twinkled. "Considering Sobel, it's best to keep you an open secret."
"And once the Triffids are gone, the moorlands should return to shrubbery and granite within the month with the Druids' help," Browned assured Gwen. "Worry not. We've checked with the Dwarves as well. They don't have a settlement in the area. It's a clean Purge."
"One more question." Gwen raised her hand. "Are the Triffids sapient?"
"In the same vein as most extra-planar lifeforms of a high-enough tier," Colonel Greyson affirmed. "Is that important, Miss Song."
"I mean, we negotiate and work with Dryads and the Alraune, don't we?"
"Not exactly, dear," Lady Grey joined the conversation. "Both your Master's Sufina and Miss Lindholm's Familiars were companions from an early age. In the wilderness, a fully developed Alraune is an upper-tier menace capable of siphoning away entire settlements if allowed to ensnare even a single man. Likewise, Sufina's kind can dominate entire regions if gone unchecked. They're not openly malicious, though one should always be wary when one's neighbours reproduce by predating on sons and husbands."
"Besides, the Triffids should not exist on our plane." Colonel Greyson's patience endured. "That and their evolution is too rapid to be left alone. I hate to imagine the diplomatic pitfall should they make it to Snowdonia. It would be Ysbyty Ifan all over again."
"What's Ysbyty Ifan?" Gwen regarded her betters. "It sounds Elven."
"Druidic-Gaelic, actually," Lady Grey answered her ward. "Ysbyty Ifan was where the Militants decided to challenge the Snowdonian Enclaves over ownership of Afon Tryweryn, the Lake of Crystals."
"A tragedy." Greyson made the sign of the cross. "Less so because of the lives lost, but more so because we asked a question and we didn't like the answer."
"That and none of us stopped the Militants from asking the said question." Gwen's House Mistress rolled her eyes. "The Crown too had made a misstep."
The rest of the room remained silent. Only a childhood friend of the Crown could offer such open criticism. For the rest, to speak too candidly was a danger in itself, and disingenuous as well, considering the power and prestige the jewel of Britannia had salvaged from the Beast Tide's aftermath.
"Elves kicked our asses?" Gwen noticed the change in atmosphere.
"I, for one, believe the humiliation was necessary," Colonel Greyson spoke carefully. "I think our heads got rather large after we recovered Australia and South Africa and parts of South-East Asia. The incorporation of new arcanistry from our Demi-human allies, as well as the plethora of new methodologies presented by the Grey Faction, had opened up avenues that Humanity was not yet ready to explore."
Brown and Loftus both raised their cups.
"… one more thing." Gwen looked around the room. "Am I one of those avenues?"
"Not you personally," Brown quickly interjected. "Sobel, on the other hand..."
"I see." Gwen made a mental note to petition Lady Grey in private, hoping her hostess was willing to dispense with the details. With everything happening at once, Gwen realised she had neglected to chase up her Master's old mates for their stories. "Please continue. I apologise for interrupting."
The tension in the room relaxed.
"Our operation will consist of the following." The Colonel returned to the map. "If you will observe…"
For Gwen, the Purge action was set to be in two stages. Stage one involved the capture and collection of Triffids to be kept in Stasis. The Royal Botanical Society requested a hundred specimens of the baseline variant, as well as up to twenty of the evolved species. Four Flights of Mages, together with Adventurer-volunteers, would be deployed across the strait at the forward operating base at Menai. During this stage, Gwen would assist the Purge and stock up on vitality for her Shoggoth, helping to ensure the safety of the academic staff.
The Shoggoth event itself would take place on the moorland, now a carnivorous forest crawling across tablelands formally known as Anglesey. In the aftermath, guarded by the Tower's Mage Flights, Gwen would deploy her Planar Ally, then retreat to the Forward Operating Base. As insurance, Dublin's defence-focused Tower had been put on alert and would mobilise in anticipation of an extreme event.
Observation of the Shoggoth would then take place, followed by suppression.
"… and this concludes the briefing." Greyson bowed. "Marchioness, Magisters and Maguses. Are we in agreement?"
His audience returned nods, or stood and bowed as the officer retrieved the recording device, bowed in turn, then made his exit.
"Ollie, Max, you may leave us." Lady Loftus permitted the men to leave.
Ollie bowed, gave Gwen an amicable look of caution, then turned for the door. Gwen's instructor performed likewise after a silent exchange with the Marchioness through pulsing Message spells.
Once the two were alone, the two women drank tea and made small talk about the news. Lady Grey informed her that a full biometric evaluation would take place before the mission to ascertain the efficacy of Caliban's Consume, not to mention the Shoggoth's baseline arcane emanations.
"Gwen," Lady Grey hailed the contemplative sorceress once the tiring details were exhausted. "After the Purge, would you like to take a break?"
"A break?" Gwen's eyes lit up. "I would love a break. This isn't a trick question, is it?"
"It's a sincere enquiry, dear. You've been working very hard both for yourself and for the Isle of Dogs. The college will fund this expedition for you. Would you like to spend a spell in Snowdonia?"
Gwen blinked. "We can visit Snowdonia now?"
"Of course, if you have the connections and the HDMs." The lady smiled. "That said, you won't be entering the Enclave unless personally invited. There's a trading post— Trawsfynydd, not far from the Grot where it's possible to spy the grand trunk of the Elfhome at Tryfan. It's a very popular destination for our well-to-do members. I suppose you can consider it a waiting room of sorts for those seeking an audience with the Masters inside the Grot. If you're lucky, you may even spy a Hvítálfar Elementalist training the youth on the Llyn. Moreover, there's someone there who we would like you to meet."
"Who would that be?"
"An ally of the Mageocracy, someone who has been helping us for a very long time."
"Not just any elf. A Highborn immortal."
Gwen swallowed. She immediately thought of Galadriel. Would it be like meeting a goddess? What would Snowdonia's Grot look like, she wondered. Hopefully, like Lothlórien. "Any idea what she needs from me?"
"It's a 'he'," Lady Grey assuaged her fears. "And I think you meant what you might need from he who is a thousand or more years old, likely older. He knew Henry Kilroy longer than any of us and can answer all the questions we're not at liberty to address— and only he has the authority to teach you a unique form of sorcery."
Suddenly, Gwen's Divination Sigil tingled. Instantly, Gwen's chest constricted, although with excitement or fear, she couldn't tell. The feeling of premonition travelling up and down her spine was making taste buds hallucinate. For some strange reason, she could taste eucalyptus.
"Nothing quite so rustic." Lady Grey's gaze was full of benevolence. "And don't count your cockatrices before they hatch. No one said the Master is willing to teach you— that, my dear, is a test where you're truly on your own."