Gwen spent the next two days resting and relaxing with Gunther, touring an endless stream of cafes by the Thames, their conversation meandering from familial to foreign with complete ease. When she begged for updates, her brother was happy to humour his little sister.
Foremost of her Australian connections was Surya, who after Sydney's siege had transformed his art-ranch into a refugee camp. For her Grandfather, Gunther was happy to report that the old artist was back to his old trade, this time creating erotic artworks inspired by her summoned monstrosities.
Comparatively, Alesia possessed no such leisure. Sydney's outer regions continue to be a mess and she and her team, whose members the Scarlet Sorceress had retrieved from Yue, ceaselessly snuffed out fires on a Frontier where every flora and fauna preyed on Humanity.
When Gwen asked after Yue, Gunther informed her that Gwen's former schoolmate, the "Violent Sorceress" had founded another team together with Whetu and Rona Manaia, the quarterling Captain of Auckland U. As with Alesia, Yue engaged in an endless stream of errands under Sydney Tower to earn the CCs and HDMs necessary for improving her craft.
"You mean violet sorceress?" Gwen asked.
"I sometimes wonder if Yue's your Changeling double," Gunther mused to himself. "She's been walking the path Master had originally planned for you. Learning from us, performing quests, building a team and gaining accolades in Australia. That said, what you've managed for yourself, sister, be it arcanistry or industry is nothing short of astounding. I am in awe."
"Speaking of Changelings." Gwen reacted to the familiar word, "The Elves said I might be one. Does the term mean what I think it means?"
"I would assume so. Master had the same thought, though other than your Essence, you lack all the signs."
"Talk in tongues, lunar morphic instabilities, speak with animals, visitations from Spirits, drift off into dreamscapes for prolonged periods, growing a horn..."
"Ha!" Gwen snorted. "I've done the occasional 'Dreaming'."
"A Fey dreams because they dream of home. They certainly don't dream about running Towers and making Crystals," Gunther remarked drily.
Gwen laughed out loud, half-covering her mouth as Le Guevel had instructed. Beside her, Gunther caught her infectious mirth, drawing eyes from other patrons.
Gwen grinned. She relished the looks of envy when strolling with her Radiant German Adonis, especially with her arm hooked inside her brother's elbow. She could only guess what the Londoners thought— but took pleasure at their lip-biting and eye-popping. Savouring the intimacy, she then relayed to Gunther everything that had transpired, beginning with Ravenport, then Lady Grey, her tutors, Ollie, Walken, Jean-Paul, Petra, the Dwarves, the Elves, and her new "servants" from Tonglv.
Out of her assemblage of ambivalent foes and allies, Gunther's concern was unexpectedly not for Ravenport, but for Ruxin, the now-official Master of Manipur, Kachin and Nagaland.
"I have yet to conspire with True Dragons." Gunther mulled over her clingy retelling until his coffee had to be re-heated with a glare, Superman-style. "More than when we first spoke, what surprises me is your presumed familiarity. Ayxin is a half-human Dragonkin, so her motivations I can sympathise. Golos isn't a worry if you think Caliban can subdue him— but Ruxin is a five-century old Asianic Dragon, I wouldn't trust it any more than I'll trust our western Chromatics."
"A reasonable caution," Gwen's response was cheeky. "Though as Ruso's financial manager, I reckon our connection is arguably more reliable than if we were, say, in an amorous relationship. Ruxin and I, we're bound by mutual profit. If he betrays me, his future as the undisputed king of crystal mountain will be in jeopardy. Where I need his money to grow, he needs me to grow his money. Our trust is forged by links of pure HDMs."
"I see. Then why did you say the Yinglong is wary of you? Are you leading Ruxin astray?"
"Ha! I wish. Naw, it's worse than that..." Gwen grimaced.
With some pain, she carefully explained her meeting with Elvia, the mistake she had made in giving Elvia Sen-sen, and the present strain of their friendship. Considering that Gunther was the closest thing she had to family outside the Songs, she left no leaf unturned and no closet locked.
Gunther listened with an attentive ear, commenting when he desired clarity.
"So, thoughts?" Gwen concluded with Elvia disappearing into the crowd. "Re: Evee, I mean. Who do you think is at fault?"
"To assign fault is childish— I think you and Miss Lindholm should remain each other's support." Gunther's unreserved acceptance was equal-parts unexpected and daunting for Gwen. "Love is hard. It took me a long time to comprehend and accept Alesia's feelings— considering I watched her 'mature' from an angry, psychotic adolescent who wanted the world to burn into the lauded Scarlet Sorceress. As such, I'll refrain from giving Romantic advice. Heck, even if Master was here, I doubt he could help, especially if he had stayed single for..."
"A hundred and fifty years?"
"After which he fell for Sobel. I do think, however, that you owe Miss Lindholm an apology."
"Why?" Gwen's tone grew sullen. Of all her people, she had expected Gunther to be on-side.
"Is it so hard to understand? I speak for Yue and Alesia when I say that your power trajectory is nothing short of monstrous, sister." Gunther gave her a side-long stare. "For all of us, this is a wonderful thing, and if Master were alive, he'd be quaffing Golden Mead with joy— but have you considered how hard it is for your friends and allies to keep pace with your accomplishments?"
At Gunther's words, Gwen felt the uncomfortable click of some terrible box opening inside her chest.
"I can't speak for your cousin Petra, or this girl, Lulan that you've befriended, but I can tell you with complete confidence that your growing authority has put a lot of pressure on Yue. For myself, a parallel would be Allie. For instance, I've known for a long while that she trains herself ceaselessly because she doesn't want to be a burden if she wishes to stand beside me. Though it may seem arrogant to say so, I doubt there are many casters in the Mageocracy that can match my prowess. Don't you think that puts particular insecurities into Alesia's head?"
"What's worse, you and Yue came from the same school. She was your better, then equal for some time. Now, not so much. That's why she's been questing night and day. She knows that she can't ever be as good as a Void Mage, just as Alesia's Fire will never best my Radiance. Why do you think I consented to give Yue Allie's Nightmare? I know exactly how your friend feels, Gwen, though I fear you haven't given the matter much thought, considering the expression you're making right now."
"Fuck… you're right. You're right." Gwen felt her throat constrict as Gunther kicked out her legs and set her to dangle. "Shit, so in the end, I AM the asshole."
"Now— Elvia. You're telling me that this girl loves you, and has professed to have loved you for several years. She's a healer— a lauded position in Sydney, sure, but hardly special compared to a Void Sorceress, especially not one with a Shoggoth. In London, where you can have as many healers as you desire, she's less than nothing. I can only imagine how Miss Lindholm must feel while watching these Magisters and Magus' heads spin as they dance to your every whim. So why should you be shocked when she's offered a way to level with you— to be your equal, to become 'special' as you are? How else is she going to stay beside the love of her life and not have her place taken by a better cast of supporting Mages?"
Gwen groaned, her face alternating between hues of red.
"That's reason number ONE to return to Miss Lindholm. Now, let us not forget this Yinglong." Gunther patted her head, perhaps wondering if he'd gone too far. "Do you recall the saying, keep your friends close and keep your enemies closer? Elvia Lindholm happens to be both, so that's reason number TWO."
"Okay, okay, I'll visit her Convent." Gwen fell back against her chair, completely helpless; her limbs had lost all strength and sensation after that asphyxiating rude awakening. "Gunther, you'd make a wonderful shrink."
Her Brother-in-craft studied her face, pondering her Gwenism. A moment later, he gave up and instead offered her a fatherly grin.
"I'll shout." He drained his chai. "Let's go. Didn't you want to show me the Isle of Dogs?"
On the isle, she showed Gunther what she had achieved with the Dwarves, introducing her Brother-in-craft to Master Alchemist Yossari Vildrenbrandt and her team of crafters tuning up her printing presses, squealing when Gunther started to speak in fluent Germanic-Dwarven.
While touring his sister's future propaganda rag, Gunther spotted Dominic Lorenzo advising the NoMs. Their eyes met, then with an unspoken understanding, the two men convened, leaving Gwen to contend with her stout companions. When they returned, they gave one another firm handshakes, then returned to their prior occupations.
"What did you talk about?" Gwen burned with curiosity.
"You know Dominic's a Ghost, or something like it, correct?" her Brother-in-craft asked.
"More or less. Allie said as much. Is that going to be a problem?"
"Not until you're a problem, but he'll advise you before that happens. For now, he's volunteering to be your canary."
"Aww, that's sweet."
Gunther shook his head.
They patrolled the two-storey printing towers. Yossari had been using her unique skills to create ink for the rolling presses.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Gwen said proudly. "Did I do good?"
"I hope you'll do some good," Gunther chortled. "A word of advice, though. No matter what happens, you cannot disparage the House of Windsor. As little as they're involved in open politics— when they do…"
"Righto," Gwen promised. "May her Majesty's bloom be eternal."
Gunther gave her a strange look.
After that, Gwen prepared her body for an awkward meeting she had been anticipating for some time.
"Magister Walken." Outside, across from the canal of the outer dock, Gunther stood stiffly opposite the man partially responsible for their Master's death. With Henry as a hot topic of late, the atmosphere grew instantly stifling.
"Lord Shultz." Eric Walken's lips appeared parched. Gwen had given her business partner the head's up, and the old fox had consented; still, finding closure with Gunther was no easy prospect.
"Eric has been helping me with just about everything," Gwen affirmed once more for Walken's benefit. "From the IIUC to the Isle of Dogs. He's been indispensable."
Her Brother-in-craft looked at the silent Walken, then extended a hand. "Thank you for saving Gwen's life, Eric."
"No, no, it is I who should thank Gwen for the opportunity. My wife and children are in her debt as well." Walken shook the ex-Paladin's gesture of forgiveness. "I couldn't say it the last time we met— but I am truly sorry, Gunther."
"Then let us not speak of it again." Gunther released his grip after a moment. "Gwen has forgiven you. Alesia has chosen not to dwell, and my feelings were never as pronounced as theirs. If you're going to be Gwen's associate, I would prefer a genial relationship."
"I see. I am happy with that." Walken tested their new friendship. "Cheers."
"No worries, Eric," Gunther replied in Australian.
"… That's it?" Gwen felt the tension drain from her chest. "No punch up? Not even a spell?"
"Your Brother-in-craft isn't so childish, unlike someone we know." Walken took a jab at the beaming girl. "What good would hysterics do for either of us?"
"Master Walken is right," Gunther agreed. "You would do well to learn from him, little sister."
"From an old villain like him?" Gwen turned aside. "More like he's learning new tricks from me."
Walken pretended not to hear. "How long will you be staying, Gunther?"
"Not long. I'll be returning tonight," Gunther explained. "Just so you both know. I've given some of Sobel's items to the Sixth Cabal. Mostly her old, intimate things. Though Sobel should have anti-Divi arrays in place, I doubt she expects someone to source her intimates from two-three decades ago. Spectre's been quiet of late, as have the Merman and the Saurians, and that worries me. There are reports of their activity up in Greenland, near the Arctic circle."
"There's nothing there but snow and Elves," Walken said.
"I am sure London's investigating," Guther returned. "Maybe the items will help."
"Imagine if we manage to catch her thanks to Master's preference for French negligees..." Gwen smirked.
Of the looted memorabilia from their Master's wife, Gwen had decided to gift Gunther the lot except for six dresses which she kept out of curiosity and spite. She couldn't help it. With no immediate desire to return to the Elves, her concern for Elven-couture had out shone her loathing for Sobel. When Gunther appeared uncomfortable, Gwen grew adamant that fashion was without sin. Besides, she had answered; the offending articles appeared hardly worn, if ever.
"Why do you suppose the old cat's so deranged?" Gwen said. "Why is she so deadset on dragging us into the undertow?"
"If you don't mind a self-evident answer," Walken helpfully chimed in. "Here's an axiom. Where there's an old-world order, there will be folk wanting a new world order. Its the way of things."
"But why?" Gwen stood beside the two men gazing out at the Thames. "What does she want? Better pay? Bigger house? Tower by the sea? Rarer dresses? Fresher seafood? Another husband?"
"Speak for yourself?" Walken chortled. "If only it were so easy to tame Sobel."
"I think Elizabeth wants do undo our Master's work," Gunther spoke after listening to their banter. "She was his partner. During the Beast Tide, they were putting out fires and quashing monsters while he tuned the Factions and raised the new Towers. Perhaps she thinks that Master used her— or that by destroying his legacy, she'll finally find closure."
"Say she succeeds, and then what?" Gwen frowned. "Does Sobel enjoy being hunted and hounded and never knowing a day of peace? How crazy do you have to be to give up all foreseeable pleasures to feel better about being rejected by a husband who took offence to you eating the locals?"
"It takes great conviction," Walken replied to her rant. "To succeed the state of power Sobel has attained, and to enact her tier of atrocities. I doubt creature comforts are what moves her."
Gwen sighed. "What I'd give to take a stroll in her head."
"You'd probably go mad," Walken said. "Sobel's insane, no matter how you twist it. She was willing to put a whole city to the sword to get at Henry."
"Did Master never speak of Sobel to you, Gunther?"
"Not in detail, no." Gunther shook his head. "Never mind the past, little sister; the die is cast, and our fatal collision is now written in the stars. Even if Master turns out to be a Lich King who raised Sobel, it doesn't change our quest nor our conviction. As soon as your education finishes, or if we discover the woman's hermitage— you, Alesia and I shall go on the offensive. We'll pursue her to the ends of the earth."
This time in the afternoon, the Thames stank of mana miasma.
When Gunther spoke again, his face was that of an Ex-Paladin. "Excuse my Dwarven, sister, but for Master and for Sydney, be it the bitch or Spectre, BOTH must burn."
The same evening, Gunther returned to Sydney as foretold, refuting Gwen's suggestion that her brother should stay for a short, impromptu holiday. It was a lost opportunity Gwen lamented, for she had been looking forward to seeing Elvia's Knight lose his damned mind when Gunther casually turns up for dinner at the Tower of Tandoori.
At Heathrow, hugs were had, though Gwen dispensed with tears and sighs. If she missed Gunther enough, it was a simple matter of taking a week off and burning three to four thousand HDMs, pending her Teleportation route.
As for herself, she returned to her usual schedule— now with additional sessions of tuition with Dede. In Emmanuel's Old Court, with Maxwell Brown beside them, she came to know that thanks to Lady Grey and Gunther's involvement, the Shard had delivered its judgement in record time.
Most important was the decree that all recovered spells regarding the late Magister Kilroy would now belong to her, who was his rightful heir. All future magic thus derived from her Master's research would be marked as such, with the royalties going toward the siblings-in-craft.
As for her haul from the Elfin Grot, the Shard had divided them their irrespective Restriction Classes to stifle their spread.
First, baseline invocations such as Hydra, Void Fire and Desolation Aura possessed no restriction as they were Void specialities and were no more dangerous than other magic used by Negatively-aligned Mages.
In contrast, Class I Restricted spells applied to Bone Shield, indicating invocations with dubious origins re-tuned for ethical applications. There was still much work involved, for the originals were derived from pre-war Death Magic and used human components. For Gwen to safely utilise magical materials and non-human substitutes, the ethics board had to approve a Tower variant.
Different to Class I, Class II Restricted spells applied to all sorcery with ethically ambivalent applications, with Cloud Kill as a prime example. The exchange of these spells was strictly controlled by the Tower, with every user requiring registration via unique mana signatures. For Gwen, these included her future "Abjuration" spells such as Sanguine Barrier, Mantle and Armour, both of which still had to pass muster before a variant that utilised Magical Creature as ingredient emerged.
Of Class II spells, Flesh Stitching and what Maxwell dubbed as "Death March" landed on the watch list. Both derived from Shamanic mysticism, these arguably necromantic spells worked best with "willing" allies and so complicated their viability. Of the two, Death March was the nominated subject of Maxwell's paramount research, with Gwen and Gracie as volunteers to test if she could share some of her boundless vitality with the weaker sorceress.
For her selfless actions, Gwen's reward was Enervating Orb, a spell derived from Void Enervation. With sufficient Spellshaping, she could deploy the Signature Void spell in its fifth-tier Evocation-Conjuration configuration. It would be her first individual Signature Spell, for only she was uniquely equipped to stomach the initial cost of the exorbitant manifestation.
Analogously, Class III restrictions applied to the Essence Sorcery sourced from Svartálfar Druidism, likely because of pressure from the Hvítálfar. Of her current list of candidates, these included Essence Tap and Soulfire, spells that were useful to a uniquely positioned "Vessel" such as herself, but otherwise useless to the Mageocracy's Grimoire. Categorically, Henry's unfinished Essence Magic was pigeon-holed between the School of Evocation, Conjuration and Transmutation, seeing as its invocations and Glyphs drew heavily from similar Affinities used in Necromancy. As for her potential practice of these spells, the Shard had declared it private enterprise. These spells solely belonged to Gwen, and she was responsible for their upkeep and secrecy. If her variation of the sorcery disseminates, then the Tower would soon be knocking on her door.
There was also a selection that became outright outlawed.
These sat between Class IV and V, with IV being a slippery slope spells like "Raise Companion", and Class V spells being "Conjure Wraith". Even when Maxwell argued the case that Gwen was arguably a trustworthy individual— being tied to the House of Loftus and Shultz, the Tower chose to err on the side of caution. Without cause for cultural or religious exemptions and extraordinary adventures, the Shard asserted, these spells should remain untaught. The Tower's sole responsibility was persecution with extreme prejudice in the event of abuse.
"Why not just confiscate them?" Gwen demanded. "Leaving it with me seems irresponsible."
"Regulating secrets is a fool's errand," Maxwell explained mirthfully. "The Shard is happy enough to know who to find if people in London start raising their dead pets."
"So I am bearing the burden alone? That's stupid. So much for Transparency."
Brown laughed. "Transparency is insurance. Who would be foolish enough to declare their collection of old Necromancy Grimoires only to practice said sorcery in public? It pays to have the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the Tower's Enforcers. Our Paladin, Horace Marshall of Knightsbridge, is no less zealous than your Brother-in-craft. You would much rather the man accost you at the door than crash through your window on his Griffin."
"Quack!" Dede concurred, adding brevity to their conversation. "Quack! Quack!"
"Agreed." Maxwell Brown patted the duck on the back. "It's not going to be an easy few months ahead, Gwen. Are you certain you can keep up the pace? You've got the isle, and now all these new spells."
"I'll manage somehow."
"Well, I trust you know best." Brown shrugged. "You did say your Druidic Essence substituted sleep, right?"
A day later, after Gwen convened with Keridwen Le Guevel for Illusion classes, her worldly tutor produced some extracurricular reading for her to digest, namely the latest edition of the Herald Sun.
"Gwen dearest. You're famous all over again."
Gwen remained stoic as Le Guevel had taught. There was no mistaking the image of her posing in her Shen-teī suit splashed across the front page. Behind her was a panoramic spread showing the Shoggoth sprawled across Anglesey. At the bottom, there was a candid image of her looking fresh at a coffee shop with a male companion. Gunther's face was blurred out.
"TRIFFIDUS EXTERMINATUS" screamed the headline in eye-watering scarlet. "The Mageocracy's new Void Sorceress a veritable one-woman-unnatural-disaster," announced the first bleed out. The next bleed declared her "A double-edged blade" and a "clear and present danger to all foes of the Mageocracy".
She flipped to the double tabloid spread.
"Woe for the Orientals," read the next title line. There was a picture of Golos looking smug, below which was a line-up of her newly acquired "Indentured Servants", and an article speculating with surprising accuracy about her "trafficking" with Dragons.
Le Guevel next directed her attention to the editorial section, where no less than six of London's influential Magisters gave their opinions on her performance. Two praised her as a beacon for the Militant Path, while three condemned her for such callous demonstrations of power that would frighten allies and incite enemies. Only one critic was concerned that her Shoggoth could impact trade relations.
"I see that no one has mentioned Shoggy folded after several dozen artillery rounds," Gwen remarked sarcastically.
"Playing up your abilities to sell papers gets the blood boiling," her tutor said. "And playing you down gets the public frightened and weary, so they buy more papers."
"What do the others say?"
"See for yourself." Le Guevel displayed the other spectrums.
The Telegraph proved marginally less obnoxious than the Herald Sun, while the Guardian appeared to be firmly against her brazen deployment of the Shoggoth.
"So I am now a darling of the Militants?" Gwen snorted. "And the Middle Faction's against the whole thing?"
"The Middle Faction is fragmented." Le Guevel's smoky eyes studied her face. "Few sit truly in the middle like our Lady Grey."
"And the Grey faction?"
"Any conflict they chose to support is usually quite profitable," her tutor reminded her. "Unprofitable wars seldom start in times of peace. Just think about the Isle of Man. If the island was a Black Zone like the Elemental Sea, you might be able to drag the Militants into the fray with calls for Human supremacy. Conversely, the Greys will fight you to their death with lofty calls for peace and respect for Demi-human sovereignty."
Gwen shuddered at the mental gymnastics required for such a thing.
"But that's not your problem, at least not yet." Le Guevel laughed. "Now let's see this new spell of yours, shall we? Void-based Illusions, how exciting!"
That's how much time Gwen had left before her commencement at Cambridge if she were to enrol in the Michaelmas Term.
Her remaining bridging period was adequate, given CCs and Crystals heaped on her person by Peterhouse.
In Maxwell Brown's words, enrolling in Cambridge wasn't an issue, for her backing was stout enough to overcome even the strictest, most cynical proctor. Instead, it was for her benefit that she must reach a level of Spellcraft expertise that matched the elite attendees so that she may blossom into a true Cambridge Magister.
Echoing this point of view was Kareena Patil, who parroted that anyone hoping to supervise ten-thousand rubes and their surviving the Wildlands must possess no blind-sides.
In this regard, the duties of any Magister worth their salt was unending and multifarious. If a Frontier lacked an Enchanter of sufficient talent, who would maintain the Filtration Mandala? When the Shielding failed or faltered, where will she find an Abjurer of the fifth tier to repair the circuits? Could she maintain the Militia's equipment, or reconfigure Wands necessary to repel a particular type of foe? How about if a Wyvern ate their Divination Tower? Or their construction Golem was damaged during transportation? Or the crystal-powered mana barrier failed? What of the Thinking Engine used by her administrators to stow data on her citizens? How does a Magister urban-plan without the plans?
And there were non-magical problems as well, from finance to accounting to economics, to agriculture, Demi-human lore, law both Human and Non-Human, and NoM husbandry galore, all of which were covered by the courses she would be completing from Michaelmas onwards.
To the common folk who were the salt of the sea and the muck of the mire, Patil declared, a Cambridge Magister was a superhuman being; the apex of Humanity.
Of course, in reality, no Magister could single-handed perform the tasks she had nominated—be it under their talent or through peers they've met during the period of their education. There were limitations to both magic and human resources that prevented Humanity from colonising parts of the world hostile to their presence.
"Which is why every institution dreams of fielding an Omni-Mage." Patil's amber eyes critiqued her in the manner of a Crufts' judge watching a blue-ribbon pooch struggling to fetch. When she next spoke, Gwen could sense the uncertainty oozing in-between the Transmuter's exotic accent. "And if it takes a Void sorceress usurping talent from her lessers..."
Her tutor left it at that.
The point was, Gwen had a distance to go.
Whatever the Magister's opinion, she understood that her arrow had now left the quiver. Her path was set; her aim and faculties clear and present. Knowledge, arcanistry, crystals, property, Magisterhood and Evee, she expected to consume them all.
Gwen inhaled until her ribs ached.
Six months was neither long nor short.
If only there was a spell called "Training Montage".