Gwen wondered if she could replace the flimsy hospital gown with a swimsuit or a silk robe.
The sheer fabric made her feel exposed, especially with the silhouette of Wen bending over the Glyph panels, reminding her of the unpleasantness that filled her early days in Shanghai.
Back then, she had been desperate— both to please and to find out more about her latent Void talent, a combination that resulted in her consenting to Wen's suggestion of testing Caliban on a human being.
The results had been spectacular— even from the braindead Choi, she had extracted his talent for Illusion. In its aftermath, however, she had dreamt of the man's expressionless face, half-drooling even as Caliban tunnelled under his tremulous rolls of fat.
Beep— Beep— Beep—
Pinned to her chest, just above her heart and below her breasts, Glyph-clad devices the likeness of scarab beetles pulsed with light as her body channelled its energies. A thin veneer of sweat plastered her skin, making her feel all kinds of icky. Connected to the nodes was a thrumming thinking-engine feeding a stack of Wen's Spellcubes, each tenebrous with Void Mana, drinking in the pale light. A year ago, before Almudj's blessing, she could fill three or four— now, she had just managed a dozen.
"Gwen. No need to push yourself." Petra was ready with a warm robe even though Gwen did not fear the cold. It was the sterility of the lab, the smell of pristine equipment, the tang of metal-on-metal that made her skin alive with goosebumps.
"She needs to push her limits for the accuracy of the data." Wen's voice was no less sterile as she performed her calculations. "I can't believe Cambridge hasn't been collecting data the whole time you're here."
"Maybe they think of me as a person," Gwen replied with unapologetic sarcasm. "Having a lucid Void sorceress is more important than having data."
"Wishful thinking," Wen said. "Their deference is because you swallowed Shenyang."
"I'll take it," Gwen said.
From across the glass pane, Wen touched a few Glyphs only she could see. "This will sting."
"Strewth!" Gwen flinched when the beetles attached to her skin suddenly bit her. The one attached to the base of her skull was especially nasty. "What the hell?"
"Blood and skin samples." Petra stopped Gwen from removing the scarabs. "If you recall, the sensors are for your heart, liver and—"
"I know, I know… jeez…"
"We're done. You may remove the dive nodes now, Petra," Wen informed her ex-student.
Her cousin carefully tapped the seamless plating that married the scarabs to the tubes feeding back into the Spectrometer. With a squelch, the little lamprey-attachments loosened, leaving red welts marked with rows of tiny needle-teeth punctures.
"Oh, you're bleeding." Petra reached for a cotton pad. "You weren't bleeding before."
"I am dry on Essence." Gwen steadied herself with one hand against her cousin. "And I am running on mana fumes."
"You look terrible." Her cousin agreed. "You look like that Gracie."
Unable to staunch the blood naturally, Gwen accepted a low-tier Heal Minor Wounds from one of Petra's spellcubes. After she healed, Gwen forwent the robe and slipped on her intimates, followed by a loose cotton one-piece dress from her ring. Once her hair was tamed and her feet adorned by a pair of kitten heels, she was ready to meet the others.
Jean-Paul milled about just outside, half-hunched against the wall with a slumped Umzokwe blowing bubbles onto the floor. Both were exhausted, as the sorcerer's Void admixture took from both himself and his Familiar. On the opposite wall, sitting and hugging her knees, Gracie appeared both diminished and drained.
"How are you all feeling?" Gwen smoothed out her dress. "I am starving."
"I could eat," Jean-Paul concurred.
"I want to sleep." Gracie buried her head against her lower limbs. The sight was so pitiable that Gwen materialised a jacket for the young woman's shivering shoulders. "Sleep for a week."
The door to the laboratory next door slid open with a hiss, revealing Brown in his tweed coat. "Well done, you three. I've got the results. Would you like to share them?"
"I don't mind," Gwen shrugged.
Gracie said nothing.
"… here's the script." Brown appeared to think better of reading the numbers out loud. "There— at your discretion. Ask me questions."
Petra took a step back, but Gwen positioned the script so that her cousin could read it anyway.
Unlike the simple line-scripts from Fudan, Cambridge's Spectrometer encompassed visualisations, depicting everything from Affinity for School to Mana Efficacy to aggregate scores for her Different Schools of Magic. The row on the left indicated Wen's last measurement of her talents, while the row on the right showcased the score assigned by Cambridge.
"Luckily, Wen trained in England," Brown explained. "Meister Bekker as well."
Together, the girls read the report.
Lightning: 7.12 (7.57) — 7.17 (7.84)”
Void: 5.23 (5.33) — 5.42 (5.56)"
"The kids have grown thanks to adventuring with Dede," Gwen remarked to Petra. "Looks like socialising the Familiars does help. My affinity hasn't grown much, though."
"Thanks to diminishing returns, you would hit a soft cap around the sixth tier," Brown spoke beside them. "Where's Wen? She might offer some better insight."
"She's occupied," Petra offered a non-committed answer. Gwen understood that Wen was taking some time to adjust. In Shanghai, she had been lauded and celebrated as the city's precious Meister. Here, the polite indifference was maddening.
"Your mana growth appear to have stunted." Brown watched as Gwen turned the page. "We both know the solution to that…"
Gwen read the summary.
VMI: 345 — 352
Her growth, Gwen noted, was indeed minimal considering all the work she had put in.
"Maybe it'll expand after the expedition?" Brown read her disappointment. "There's nothing like combat for a Mage to grow, and you're one hell of a Battle Mage, or so they tell me."
"Yeah." Gwen mulled over the various indices. "Let's see the damage."
“Evocation 5.62 — 5.71”
“Conjuration 6.23 — 6.27”
“Transmutation 4.07 — 4.70”
“Abjuration 3.01 — 3.50”
“Divination 1.78 —2.00”
“Illusion 2.56 — 3.21”
“Enchantment 2.11— 2.78”
"Other - 4.78," she muttered to herself.
"… Other?" Gwen's brows furrowed. "What's 'other'?"
"Our spectrometer takes into account talents other than those measurable by the IMS." Brown's voice took on a calming tone. "Other is… assorted efficacies other than the Schools mentioned above. They're more common in students with exotic bloodlines."
"That seems rather helpful." Gwen re-read the sheet. "Druidic magic?"
"One would hope." The Magister smiled. "You have a rather exotic Astral Body that filters Essence, after all. It's only fair you would have an affinity for unconventional arcanistry."
"Maybe it refers to something older." Gwen thought of Almudj. Maybe it's the Dreaming? She thought to herself. Holy shit! That would be amazing. "How do I find out what it is?"
"I am told you will be receiving an instructor from Snowdonia?"
"In Snowdonia—" Gwen corrected her tutor. "I don't know who this 'Master' could be, Maxine would not say."
"I shall enquire no further."
"Suit yourself." Gwen kept reading. "I see that Evocation and Conjuration have reached a bottleneck."
"It's only natural," Petra observed. "Your Enchantment and Illusion was going up by leaps and bounds— Transmutation especially."
"I did a lot of Spellshaping," Gwen confessed. "Nothing but Void as well."
Gwen turned the page, saw Jean-Paul's profile image, then handed the sheet over to her compatriot.
"Er... I've seen yours before…" the Void Sorcerer confessed. "Would you like to see mine?"
"… phrasing." Gwen amused herself, then took back the script. "Oh, this is very interesting."
"Evocation 5.27 — 5.34."
"Conjuration 5.61 — 5.71."
"Transmutation 2.12 — 2.35."
"You can access three Schools of Magic, JP?"
"I was a Conjurer by trade. Many of the spells I utilise require Spellshaping and Multi-School focus from the very beginning." Jean-Paul's lips formed a lopsided grin. "It's not so hard if it's all you've ever known."
"Elite training, eh?" Gwen read on. "Void Affinity— 5.80 (6.45) and a VMI of 220. That's impressive, JP."
"It's not so impressive when you consider that I was…" Jean-Paul's tone grew devoid of any particular emotion. "… tailor-made."
Woodenly, Gwen read on. There was a shorter section of the paper stack that remained— Gracie's biometrics.
"Gracie, do you mind?" Gwen offered a platitude. "If I am sponsoring you, I would like to know what we're dealing with."
"Help yourself." Gracie's face grew red. "It's incomparable to your talents."
Gwen quickly studied the graphs.
Illusion 2.44 — 2.48
Void Affinity — 4.11 - 4.12
VMI - 43-45
"Your Void Affinity is quite high," Gwen remarked with surprise. "How often do you train?"
"That's almost pure talent," Brown explained in Gracie's stead. "Keep in mind that affinity denotes efficacy. Void Mages Awakening with low affinity have lower chances of survival."
"But higher affinity means more mana leaks…" Gwen's brows furrowed. "Jesus, we're fucked from both ends?"
"What a wonderful way with words you have, Gwen. Yes. There's a Goldilock's zone involved. You were lucky to have Awakened in Lightning concurrently," her tutor remarked. "Wen says your affinity began around two?"
"Something like that," she replied. "Master Kilroy had said I shouldn't be bothering with Void Magic for a long while, at least until I was an adult. It wasn't until I got to Shanghai that I started using it regularly."
"And that would be thanks to Wen." Brown made an unpleasant face. "A fortunate woman who met a very lucky specimen. A less talented Void Mage would have perished in her laboratory."
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Gwen smirked.
"Your Affinity was only two?" Gracie looked up, her face full of hope.
Pre-Faceless, it probably was, Gwen thought, mentally banishing the howling, laughing, screaming mien of the tar-like shapechanger as Caliban slurped her up like a line of stubborn snot.
"Yeah. I had some close calls, but things worked out," Gwen assured her newest companion. "Somewhere up there, a hidden hand hath the steerage of my course."
"Are you religious, Gwen?" Gracie responded to her Gwenism by stretching her limbs like someone trying to figure out independent muscle groups. "That sounded biblical."
"No, not at all," she replied, helping Gracie into the jacket. "Let's go get some piping hot curry. After that, allow me to prescribe some medicinal spirits. JP, Gracie, you're coming with me."
"Where to?" Jean-Paul looked to Brown for permission, then turned back to Gwen when Brown concurred.
"To the Runic Underground!" Gwen grinned. "I wanna take you to a Dwarf Bar."
The reason Gwen had elected to take her compatriots to the Dwarf Bar was that finally, after placing the order in early December, her new stock of Maotai had arrived.
At the docklands, she was received by Wally, who made his report for the week, then lead the foursome down to the warehouse, where Gwen gazed with benevolence upon the virginal pallet of life-giving elixirs.
Unfortunately, these were no longer the Dynastic-era distils, but decade-old variants available to the mass market. The House of M had acted as her agent in the auction and had succeeded in securing a pallet of the precious liquid for the open market. Its present value was well over ten thousand HDMs, a hit to the wallet even for someone like Gwen— though she knew that with her special constitution, these liquids could open doors no volume of crystals could begin to pry.
With a wave of her hand, twenty-four cases of six bottles each disappeared into her Storage Ring.
They then toured the isle with Gwen selling its sights and prospects, making a detour via the printing press to say hello to Lorenzo's gang, likewise meeting Eric Walken.
"I've found those ghostwriters you were after," Lorenzo reminded her. "When do you want to meet them?"
Gwen informed Lorenzo that things would have to wait until after the Triffidus Purge.
"Such a shame our paper isn't ready for this headliner." Lorenzo sighed. "Remember, no interviews. You'll be on the Front Page of our first edition. 'An Audience with the Void Sorceress'."
Walken's concern was more so concentrated on the Void Mages.
"An interesting development." The Magister's gaze made Jean-Paul and Gracie uncomfortable. "I can see where this is going. It's fine, I suppose. Just be careful out there. And don't drink too much. Last time, you frightened the wits out of the NoMs with your midnight screeching."
Gwen apologised, then unapologetically and without adieu, made for the bar.
"Any 'mate' of Gwennie's is a clan of ours!" Yossari Vildrenbrandt slammed back the thimble of Maotai. "Phua—! This Firewater kicks like an overcharged Strider!"
"This is the Maotai I've been telling you about." Gwen studied the Dwarves as they threw back their heads, then wiped their beards or whiskers. "I've added some vitamins as well. How is it?"
Yossari smacked her lips. "Curiously vital. It reminds me of Elven sap-mead. What's in it?"
"A criminal amount of fermented sorghum," Gwen explained. "I am told that the volume of harvest required to distil this one bottle could feed the township that makes Maotai for a year. It is a luxury for an era of prosperity. The older distils' all gone now, more or less. No one had the food to spare to make Maotai during the Sino Conflict, and then the Revolution, and then the Beast Tide."
"We've got spirits like that in Deepholm." The Alchemical Master poured herself another thimble. "What vitamin?"
"A bit of Druidic Essence." Gwen smiled. "My secret concoction, what do you think?"
"Earthy, with a hint of oak, a little bitter." Yossari swirled the metal vessel. "Needs stronger legs. Not nearly mellow enough. Yer no Brewmaster, are yer?"
"I was a bit tired today." Gwen looked at Jean-Paul and Gracie. "Maybe it'll have more kick when I am fully-charged."
Jean-Paul was staring into his cup, half-slumped against her shoulder, his face red from the neck up. Gracie looked like she was warm and fuzzy and could do with a nap about now. Her complexion was much better, though Gwen doubted a mere 75 HDM crystal bottle of booze is going to fix her swiss-cheese Astral Body. More than likely, at least for now, she would have to add another leaf or two to her monthly Sen-sen Tax. Before she left for the Triffids and then Snowdonia, she would very much like to possess a bottle as close to the Sen-sen Original as possible prepared for her mysterious mentor.
"I'll ready another batch later," Gwen informed the Dwarves, who between them had already demolished no less than six bottles. "Trust me. When it's at full strength, it'll grow you a new beard."
For the next few days, Gwen's tutors readied her for the excursion. Le Guevel conjured a few life-like Triffid illusions to get her acquainted; Patel drove her up the wall with IFF spellshaping, and Brown busied himself with coordinating the Void trio. Her last lesson of the week was with Nils Kott, who wanted her to finalise proximity wards.
"How's this?" Gwen looked up from the floor, where she had been busy inscribing a Warding Circle.
"Fair— but too slow considering we're on a levelled plane with no debris and no howling Triffid. Some field exercises would do you good." Major Kott walked around the circle scratching his chin, inspecting her work.
Gwen pumped mana into the inscription rod, liquified the precious materials contained in its cartridge, then continued her mental chant while her hand moved the cumbersome wand over the floor. "Sir. Some of my largest gains in recent months are in Abjuration and Enchantment."
"I've been informed." Kott smiled warmly. "I am glad you're taking this seriously, Magus Song."
"No need to be so formal. Just Gwen's fine." Gwen gazed up at the square-jawed German. "Thank you for teaching me so well. I never knew that Enchantment and Abjuration had so much synergy and that it could be used offensively as well. I've banked enough CCs to pick up Repulsive Field, Spell Siphon and Core Shatter. It's hard to imagine a defender capable of smashing monsters to smithereens."
Gwen's tone of worship was because she had finally gotten a glimpse at the true potential behind Abjuration when she tapped into the upper tiers. For instance, the sixth-tier Repulsive Field created a movable Wall of Force in a semi-dome that not only functioned as a barrier but created multiple 'sponge' layers. These buoyant barriers then worked to absorb incoming attacks, ultimately unleashing an omnidirectional wave of destruction. Likewise, Spell Siphon at tier five could drain mana from an area to dampen a variety of effects, serving as the basis of Anti-Magic Mandalas inscribed by Enchanters. As for Core Shatter, Gwen had only recently discovered that such an Abjuration spell existed at the seventh tier, being capable of casting a "Banish" with such brutality that lower-tier Creature Cores would explode, instantly slaying their foe. When such a spell was deployed against a Creature Mage, Kott had warned her— weak-willed Conjurers may suffer permanent damage to their Astral Souls, akin to what Alesia had sustained.
In her mind, therefore, Gwen imagined a scene in which hundreds of Triffids hammered on Kott's Repulsive Field. Then, at the apex of the spell's potential energy, the Abjurer concurrently unleashes an AoE Core Shatter on the field itself, sending an explosion of erupting bodies flying every which way.
"You have a long way before you get there." Kotts snorted. "Whatever the case, don't get cocky, and don't underestimate a wildland creature's hunger for life. I've left instructions for the crew to have you perform the Wards for their camps. If you fail, somebody may very well die due to your negligence."
"I'll do my best." Gwen saluted, giving the man her best smile. The more time she spent with the Major, the more she admired his stoicism. Likewise, as with most Abjurers, there was a natural protective aura they exerted which she found to be calming.
Major Kott looked downward. She followed his eyes, wondering if the instructor was seeking out something he liked.
"If that's your 'best', I would be cautious in that Triffid-infested Purple Zone. Re-inscribe this hextogramic ward right now." The Abjurer-Enchanter knitted his brows. "And stop getting distracted while you're inscribing. Abjuration isn't Evocation! A wrong stroke could mean a life lost!"
The Duck Ponds.
A few days later, after some back and forth, it was decided that Richard and Petra would accompany Gwen, Gracie and Jean-Paul. Together, the fivesome would make a party of a sort, with Richard as the defender, Gwen and Jean-Paul as the damage dealers, Gracie on support, and Petra on utility.
The rationale given by the university was that they wanted London's three Void Mages to get to know each other better by observing one another in combat. Through feats of broil and battle, Brown explained, the participants may awaken particular instincts, or reach new states of clarity not possible while living in Cambridge's greenhouse.
Gwen had no complaints, neither did Jean-Paul, who had full confidence in his and her appetite for destruction. It was only Gracie who had never been to a Purple Zone, and who hyperventilated over the prospect of seeing a live-fire exercise of two battle-ready Void Mages against truck-sized monsters.
On Gwen's lap, Dede the duck coiled its massive body, mesmerising Gracie with its rainbow hues. Around the pond, Caliban and Umzokwe wrestled on the lawn, sending screeching students fleeing for the Old Court. Ariel drifted overhead, napping in the warm sun.
"Between my dogs, Familiars, Richard and Lea, you'll be right as rain," Gwen assured the Illusionist. "The university will also provide you with protective items, so this is more like a field trip of sorts. Besides, we're not the front line. Mine and JP's job will be stocking up on vitality while we travel with the Botanists."
"Indeed," Jean-Paul chimed in. "Anglesey is Gwen's proving ground. We're just there to observe."
"And you'll get to meet Golos," Gwen said to the Void Sorceress. "You said he was your favourite out of the three on the vid-cast, right?"
Gracie nodded. She had said that she admired the raw power and majesty of the Thunder Wyvern. Gwen was more interested in the copious volumes of Triffid Cores Golos could bring to the market. Once the Triffids ceased to exist in the wild, she could operate a soft monopoly until someone found a way to farm them safely.
"Great, as so long as I have a stern chat with the horny lizard, you two can hang out." Her voice took on a chill that made the two Void Mages shiver. "If he's as cheeky as before, you guys will get to see how Caliban tames Drakes."
As for reaching the peninsula, only Gwen possessed a Flight licence, and so they would first take the ISTC from Paddington to Birmingham, then from Birmingham to Liverpool. Once outside Liverpool's airspace, they would be free to utilise Flight spells. The distance, as Gwen could see between the coastal port and Bangor, was exactly fifty kilometres, meaning an hour's flight at worst.
"That said, how're you feeling?" Gwen asked the young woman. Wen's tests had been exhaustive, so much so that Brown had brought in a Cleric. "Are you taking your nightly Maotai?"
Gracie's luminous eyes lowered with shame. Once the sorceress found out that Gwen was sharing the source of her vitality to keep her hale, she hadn't known how to express her gratitude. Gwen didn't mind. She wasn't helping Gracie for her appreciation. At least now she had confirmation of Brown's hypothesis. After two biometric scries, spectrometry and blood works, it was determined that her "Druidic Essence" could indeed be a stop-gap for Gracie's decline.
The Maotai, as a Wildland component, would eventually lose its efficiency as Gracies' body began to reject the rejuvenating effects. However, the same diminishing returns did not apply to Gwen's Essence, which Gracie's body appeared to absorb readily. What it meant, therefore, was that a Maotai-like medium could catalyse 'Druidic Essence' to fortify physical and Astral bodies, even with its potency diluted.
The confirmation meant that Gwen could arguably juice-up elixirs that could allow Void Sorceresses to keep their health. The problem was that, should Gwen fail to provide said elixirs, lose the ability to produce Essence or die in battle, the fate of all Void Users addicted to her life-giving salve would immediately be sealed.
There was also a longitudinal predicament. With Gracie's affinity, the more capable her body became in sustaining the demands of her talent, the more robust its growth. What should be a sufficient volume of Essence today may not be for tomorrow. If they were to multiply the demand by ten-fold, or a hundred-fold— then what?
But Magister Brown had an answer for that too. It wasn't as though a Void Mage could not be kept upright through periodic injections of Positive Energy, Faith Healing and Wildland rarities— as was the case with individuals reportedly living in the central continent and the USA. If they took that approach, Gwen's talent was merely another unsustainable delay of the inevitable. What the researchers desired was Umzokwe and or Caliban as a sustainable addition— a way to tap into the lamprey-Sprites theorised to exist within that realm of pitch and nothingness, awaiting a human mind to give them shape.
"I am feeling better," Gracie replied demurely.
"Quack!" Dede offered his sympathy. "Quack!"
Gwen patted the girl's hands in a show of solidarity. "Get some rest, Gracie. We'll be leaving first thing tomorrow. JP?"
Jean-Paul, half-draped over the park bench watching Caliban french Umzokwe, was smiling.
"What's up?" Gwen said, watching the master of the White Leech.
"This is nice." Jean-Paul's lopsided grin once again marred his face. "I am feeling an abnormality in my chest."
"A what now?"
"Like a current of warm water." Jean-Paul's expression changed as he did his best to explain. "I feel less constricted."
Gwen was about to ask Jean-Paul if he could clarify when the realisation struck. She tilted her head, studied the confused young man, then broke into a generous grin. Without a word, she reached out to give the wretch a big hug. "Come on, Dede. Gracie, you join in as well."
Flustered, Jean-Paul sat with slack limbs while Gwen enveloped him in a manner akin to Caliban's spider-limbs. Gracie dreamily joined in a moment later, her arms encircling Gwen's waist to dig into Dede's soft, luxurious feathers.
"How about now?" Gwen said to the blushing young man. "Even better?"
"Yes." Jean-Paul's breathing grew rapid. "Am I ill?"
"Oh, you poor thing." Gwen rubbed her companion's hunched back, running her finger over the ridges of his spine. "JP— that is what we call ordinary happiness."