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A note from Wutosama

 

Gwen emerged from the lecture wholly impressed by the breadth and depth of knowledge demonstrated by the resident scholars of Cambridge. What imprinted on her the most was how the lecturer scholar framed each point of expertise with history and context, often from a multitude of cultural-racial perspectives.

Though seemingly dry, these leys of reference acted as vectors within her mind, linking hypothesis and speculation to attain a new elucidation of the role she may yet occupy in the event of aiding Sufina's ascension, leaving her hungry for more.

Once the lecture was over, a few brave freshmen approached Gwen to say hello and offer notes. Gwen replied with big smiles and handshakes, thanking them for their welcomes. On their Message devices, they exchanged contact details, making sure to flair their Colleges and professions.

When others saw that the Class VI War Mage was amicable to such exchanges, a small line formed to greet her, only dispersing when one of the Beadles appeared to growl at the students, scattering them so that the next lecture could carry on.

Once she extricated herself, Gwen made haste for Emmanuel College, where she was now late for her appointment with Gracie Hillbrook. Lucky for her, she had the privilege of flight.

"Gwennie!" Gracie looked up from the data slate she was studying. "How was Singapore? Did you finish your quest?"

"Things got somewhat complicated." Gwen checked the laboratory for signs of their instructor. Wen was missing as well, though that was because the soon to be Meister was touring the Colleges, giving lectures on the physiology of the Void Element. "Where's Maxwell?"

"Lecturing." Gracie yawned, replaced the data slate, then took up another. "I am sorry to hear your quest didn't go as planned."

"Things seldom go as planned." Gwen shrugged. "But it'll sort itself out. How are you feeling?"

"Never better." The Void Illusionist passed her a slate. "My Elemental Affinity is almost at tier 5 now. The lower-tier spells take much less effort, and the drain on the higher-tier spells isn't nearly so taxing."

"That's wonderful." Gwen had a look through the specs. "How's Conjuration coming along?"

"I've got the theory pat-down." Her Void-afflicted compatriot paused. "I expect tier two isn't out of the question by the year's end. Forgive my rudeness Gwennie, but no luck on your Master's Familiar spell?"

"None-what-so-ever." Gwen shook her head sadly. "Sorry to disappoint, Gracie."

"I am already beyond thankful." The young woman motioned to her data slates. "I'd never thought I'd prove useful, much less have a chance at using my talents. It's all thanks to you."

"No need to be humble with me; you're the one who endured." Gwen thought of the ashen Gracie after Gwen had muddled up an overzealous Essence Tap. That particular experience, Gwen figured, was one that aptly suited the hyperbole of 'worse than death'.

"Have you settled into your classes for the trimester?" Gracie asked. "As a graduate of sorts, I can help."

What the girl meant was that she had spent almost six years listening to lectures and studying the various courses Cambridge had to offer while serving as the college's resident guinea pig. Though her practical theory was unimpressive, Gracie was a capable administrator and scholar, even if somewhat bookish and unlearned. For the Void Sorceress who had not expected to live past thirty, academia was where she excelled.

"I am taking Advanced Astral Theory and History, Foundations of Politics and International Relations, Contemporary Issues in Government and Frontier Governance, and finally Politics, Peace and Persistent Prosperity," Gwen recounted her courses.

"No sorcery lessons?"

"I'll be taking those privately, paid by CCs, though I'd rather attend practicals," Gwen clarified. "Are you keen to come along? Jean-Paul said he's all in if we're going to adventure somewhere. All we need is a Cleric and an Abjurer."

"If you've got something in mind, I am in." Gracie nodded vigorously. "After Michaelmas?"

"Between that and Lent," Gwen agreed. "I am thinking of volunteering up north, in Ireland."

"Where Miss Elvia is stationed?"

At Gwen's behest, Gracie and Jean-Paul had both met Elvia. As expected, the happy healer was wholly unaffected by the Void casters' Negatively aligned presence. When both grew enamoured with Elvia, Gwen affirmed a hypothesis where Negative Affinity Mages had a predisposition to enjoy the company of those with highly positively-attuned Elements.

As for Gracie's well-placed speculation, Gwen could only laugh. "Or maybe the Murk. I feel a bit guilty for leaving it entirely to the Adventurers. I want to visit Hanmoul, as well."

"The Dwarves would like that. I think Richard would like that too. More than going up to Ireland." Gracie paused. "I believe you told me the higher-ups told you to stay away from Ireland?"

"Ahahaha, that's right." Gwen disguised her awkwardness with a smile. "Well, if you don't need a top-up, then I am off to see Dede, care to join me?"

The sorceress shook her head. "I have to finish these before Supervisor Brown gets back."

"Is it weird that we study under Max?" Gwen remarked. "While he studies us? And that's our graduation thesis— how to survive and prosper as a Void Mage?"

"At least with Sir Maxwell as our Super, we're free to do as we please." Gracie possessed far more grace than Gwen. "And he's expert enough at everything to teach us what we need."

A fact that was mostly true, Gwen conceded. Peculiar as the duck-rearing Magister was, Maxwell Brown came as advertised, an expert in more or less everything, a self-taught Omni-Mage in name and an ambitious magical discoverer of yet untamed frontiers.

"Suit yourself." She looked around the laboratory once more, her eyes bouncing from instrument to instrument. "Alright, I'll be going."

Cambridge.
Emmanuel College.

The enormous form of Dede the duck floating serenely on the school's now-infamous pond drew furtive glances from the freshmen who tiptoed by, some going as far as to weave illusions to hide their presence.

Others walked taller, having already paid their tithes for the month, and so laughed and jeered at the juniors who confusedly retreated from the brimming waters.

"QUACK!" the drake roared, sending a ripple of water to lap at the pool's edge. With only two powerful strokes, it approached the sedge and parted the stalks, drying itself as it waddled toward Gwen.

"Hey, buddy!" Gwen patted the duck on the head. Compared to nine-months ago, Dede was now the size of a small horse or at least the height of one. Though he hadn't received an official weighing, some suspected the duck possessed a good ten stones of pure avian sinew and muscle beneath its vibrant feathers. As for the mallard's strength, Gwen had once seen Dede fish a work Golem that had lost control at the fish docks out of the water.

In recent months, Dede had taken up crashing Mage Duels whenever they were held in the open, often subduing both contestants before extorting from them HDMs. When the students complained, they were told that the duck was a vital experiment the Magisters of the College were carrying out and if they wished their HDMs back— they should at least be strong enough to best a duck. Naturally, the instructors forwent the fact that Dede was now at minimum at the seventh or eighth tier, requiring a Magus-lead party of Single-School Mages to subdue.

"Quack!"

Gwen fed the duck a drip of her Essence. "You won't believe what happened."

"Quack? QUACK! QUACK!"

"Yep, didn't go well at all. Getting the Scale back just got crazy complicated."

"Quack?!"

"I know, I am disappointed too." Gwen sighed, finding solace in stroking the duck's back, wondering with a small mote of paranoia if that's how Almudj felt when dealing with her.

"Quack!" Dede flapped its wings.

"Oh?" Gwen looked up toward where the duck had gestured. "Your friends are back?"

Above, she saw a host of crows, or perhaps Jackdaws. Once their eyes met, the dark-feathered avians quickly alighted around the duck, forming a circular murder.

"Caw-Caw!" The leading bird was familiar to her, for the bird was near twice the size of the other Crows and had a keen intelligence about its eyes. "Caw! Caw!"

Dede placed a wing over the raven.

"You've become good friends, eh?"

"Caw!"
"Quack!"

Ambivalent as to whether she should learn 'Speak with Animals', a second-tier Divination spell that took significant energy to master, she released her Familiars to benefit from the Empathic Link.

"EE! EE!"

"SHAA!"

Across the pool, the group of freshmen that had been gawking at her gasped, some in horror, others in barely contained excitement.

"Hello!" the raven bobbed its head.

"So." Gwen made sure her skirt was tucked before she addressed the bird. "You're not Mage, are you?"

"Nay!" The answer was no. When the Crow first began to talk, it almost blew Gwen's mind. When it appeared the Crow only knew how to say a dozen words, she had grown immeasurably disappointed.

"Sure you're not a Familiar?"

"Nay!" the raven replied with a negative.

"So you're a wildling, here in London?" she knelt to inspect the raven once more, checking its leg for bands or Storage Rings. "And you don't work for a Mage?"

"Ya! Ya!" The raven hopped closer, its eyes were as bright as polished Mithril, with both irises the colour of quicksilver.

"What a beautiful bird." Gwen struck out a hand and slowly inched toward the raven. The raven leaned in and allowed the sorceress to pet its feathers. Its feathers, Gwen noted, had a metallic sheen, but the section around its neck and belly were incredibly soft and felt good to touch.

"Quack!" Dede approved of her acceptance as she stroked the bird.

"Alright, alright." Gwen calmed Magister Brown's favourite duck. "Here—"

She gathered a mote of Essence.

"Ya!" The raven took the mote, grew suddenly stiff for a few seconds, then danced happily by hopping about here and there, performing a little dance. All around them, the murder cawed, some flapping away, others joining in some unholy ritual by fanning their tail feathers. To Gwen, her goal was to give Dede a friend and companion. Originally, she had thought Dede would have picked one of the female ducks for apparent reasons. As it turned out, Dede was more of an inter-species fanatic with exotic tastes, not unlike a North Shore trust-fund kid with yellow fever.

"… Just a mote." Gwen patted the duck. "We don't want Max in a huff now, do we? Your mate's going to live a long time, Dede. And she'll have no enemies that can outfly her."

That last part rang true, for she had seen the enhanced raven in flight. Thanks to her Essence boost, the bloody thing was a streak of Void-coloured lightning.

Having now reported to both sorceress and duck at Emmanuel, Gwen's errand concluded.

Outside the college, Gwen checked her Message device. Seeing that both Petra and Richard had not responded, it was safe to assume the two preoccupied and she would be enjoying her butter chicken alone.

Like herself, her family members' new lives at Cambridge had been full of enterprise.

Petra, for instance, had taken up with the Dwarves, learning directly under Yossari after receiving the college's benediction for extra-curriculum credits. In the months that she had remained in London, she had not only picked up a fan club but also made a name for herself as the researcher of the Nephrite Spellcube, a systematic spell-stowing system surging in popularity among the junior Mages studying Enchantment.

Hers was a much-desired outcome that aligned with Petra's original objective, for her Magus Thesis' submission was the founding of an "Enchantment-based Spell-storage System that increased the Versatility of Enchanters". Through her improvements to the project initially began by Wen, Petra's patented Spellcubes were now longer-lasting, easier to maintain, and more adaptable in the number, type, and Meta-magic they could capture. That an Enchanter could, upon taking on the mantle of a Spellcube user, replicate five-to-six instances of her party's spells, or begin the adventure with a trove of healing, restoration, detoxification and detection spells would also significantly improve the quality of life for Adventuring Enchanters— a Mage Class infamously restricted to either item-combat or illicit Mind Magic. The Spellcube, in Petra's words, wouldn't make Enchanters frontline fighters— but it would make Enchanters the most versatile School of Magic outside of Transmutation and Conjuration.

But there was a caveat. Aside from needing an enormous VMI and a high Affinity, copycat spells lacked the intricacy of the original. For instance, an untrained Illusionist still had little to no control over the manifestation of an Illusion. Likewise, upper-tier Transmutation like Investitures and other polymorphic spells used by Mages without Affinity in Transmutation would end in spectacular and horrific deaths. Even Divination, when used by a non-Diviner, could drive a Mage insane with its flood of voices and thoughts, just as anything beyond essential healing of wounds by unguided application of pre-condition flow of Positive Energy would hasten a patient's demise.

Petra's unannounced goal, however, was something Gwen understood to be quite controversial— the creation of Spellcubes that could be used by Non-Mages. It was with great irony that her cousin's unnatural ambition had its origins in Magister Wen, whose altruism gave way when a Void Sorceress fell into her lap.

Whatever the case, Petra's goals were clear and within reach, and that was something to envy.

Conversely, Richard's two trimesters at Cambridge saw the Conjurer take to London's social scene like a fish to water. Perhaps it was because her cousin had been reared by Prince's into the Old Boys' culture, or maybe he was simply that charismatic, Richard was already a junior vice-chair in one of King's oldest societies, with the motto being "All the King's Men", or "The most Exclusive Society of the Kinsmen"; both of which reeked of obnoxiousness.

Of late, her cousin had passionately advocated her visitation of one of their stag parties, promising a bevy of men lusting to enter her service at the Isle of Dogs. To Gwen's knowledge, Richard wasn't joking either. To date, at least twenty of the junior staff at the Isle of Dog's various projects were members of King's College. If the trend continued until the Isle's final phase, she might very well be the figurehead of a newly formed "Old Dog's Club."

For this reason, Gwen had felt the temptation to humour her employees. But then, inevitably, she thought about Evee still slogging through blood, shit and Spellfire in Ireland and the sheer hassle of having to smile and nod and pretend to listen to someone talk about their family or their magic as they licked her over with their eyes. When she thought of that, even her half-hearted interest waned.

On the sorcerous front, Richard had finally surpassed a major Conjuration milestone, reaching the seventh tier of expertise by mid-September. Concurrently, with his Abjuration skills bottlenecked at five, her cousin considered between picking up Transmutation or Illusion.

For a Water Mage, Transmutation was a staple School of Magic that offered everything from Advanced Spellshaping to body-morphic magic. On the other hand, even without Transmutation, Lea, Richard's Undine Familiar could double as a gateway, leaving Richard to exercise the School of Illusion. The latter's advantage was that water, being a soft-Abjuration element, benefited most from obfuscation, evasion and deflection rather than erecting hard-shield after hard-shield like Earthen, Crystal or Dust Abjurers.

Other than that, Richard had taken out a small loan from the family bank, AKA "Gwen", to purchase an apartment in the Isle of Dogs.

"Here is my home now," the land-owning Mr Huang had said with a smile. And Gwen had felt secretly very happy indeed.

And so, inspired by her cousins, Gwen readied herself for the attainment of her long-promised slice of personal paradise, a domain she could mould as she saw fit to recreate some of that nostalgia from her long-lost homeworld.


Peterhouse.
The Old Court.

From her dorm, Gwen primed her body for the nine hectic weeks of tutelage that would culminate in a slew of assignments and examinations. Thankfully, for the first year, the course content of her chose subjects of governance were all case study reports, wherein during her second year, she would have to engage in active field surveys. Of her courses, therefore, it was only Advanced Astral Theory and History that consisted of a written examination. That said, with her Essence-enhanced memory and her grandmother's Ioun Stone of Clarity, she felt confident her grades should satisfy.

As for her remaining waking hours, she continued intermittent lessons with her tutors, as advised by Lady Grey, as well as her monthly meetups with her House Mistress to discuss concerns, progress, and to enjoy High Tea. Though the Marchioniness did not offer the selfless devotion of her Babulya, Gwen steadily received her bi-weekly dose of human affection.

Overall, her planning had paid off. With the Westferry Print Works handed to Lorenzo and the Isle of Dogs presided over by Eric Walken and a growing battalion of NoM auditors, she had time to focus on academics and personal development, researching her Master's Tomes for other forms of potentially degenerate arcanistry.

Shockingly, her planned peace lasted six weeks.

Then, one cold November morning, while she and Gracie burned vitality and mana in the belly of an advanced Cognitive Chamber, trouble came calling in the shape of a Dwarf and a reporter.

Her callers were Yossari Vildrenbrandt, Alchemist Master of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth and Dominic Lorenzo, who after hearing the Dwarf's request deemed it best that he accompanied the Master.

"Gwen." Yossari was in a right tiff; her face was the colour of at least six slammed steins of finest stout. "Greetings from the Murk, Lass. I've got a Message from Lady Hilda. Think yer got sometime fer us?"

"Always." Gwen bid Gracie to take a break, then mopped the sweat from her excited face with a towel. When Gracie asked if she should leave, Gwen bid the girl stay. Glancing at Lorenzo, she then addressed her Dwarven ally. "You look atrocious. Has something terrible happened?"

"Aye." The Dwarf's shoulder's drooped. "A Deepdowners duo, newly arrived from Bavaria, has detained Hanmoul and Hilda. They're livid that she opened up the Murk to Human Adventurers and want to rescind the treaty we signed with the Shard. Hanmoul's people tried to reason with them, but they've got the Citadel rightly rilled up. The Guildhall's split in our favour— for now, though I don't know fer how long if the Iron Guard's Captain and our Deepdowner is absent from the council. Yer've met our nobles, haven't ye? Bunch of self-serving Murk rats!"

"I thought we're doing well down there." Gwen cocked her head in mild confusion. "I mean, casualties are a thing of course, but you guys are down to the Deep Murk, aren't you? New Citadel and all that. More progress in a year than three decades."

"Tis true." Yossari appeared sheepish. "The Deepdowners though, they would rather we never pierce the Murk at all than to do it with Human help."

Conservatives, Gwen acknowledged with a frown, were as a species the same all over the world, superseding even the boundaries of the Planes.

"Wait up." Gwen stopped the Alchemist. "If those buggers ain't from Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth and the Murk's under path is still being cleared, how the hell did they get over here to London?"

"Using the Murk's upper strata Keystone Gates," Yossari explained. "They exist still, it's an old magic belonging to the Deepdowners. These Keystones work so long as Deepholm stands, that's also how we know our Ancestor's Halls still stands stalwart against the lurkers in the dark."

"But they don't connect to Deepholm?"

"Not anymore."

Gwen considered her Alchemist's words. "Well, I am all for doing you favours, if you know what I mean."

"Aye, I know yer mean the Fabricators." Yossari despaired. "Suppose that's why they took Hilda. They said she broke the Code of the Engineseers and the Artificer's Laws laid down by Haj-Zül Brumdahr by sending the Engines and their Seers to the surface and allowing their secrets to be studied by infidels."

"They don't think I am owed a Debt of Haj-Zül?"

"Not really…" the Dwarf's face grew scarlet. "They want to pay you off with Crystals, as they do with the subterranean Draconids around Deepholm."

"Does it look like I need Crystals?" Gwen growled in a manner no less menacing than Ruxin.

"It's not as though Dragons need Crystals either," Lorenzo reasoned. "In the eyes of these old, deep-down Dwarves, we Humans are no less prone to purposeless hoarding."

"… I'll concede that point." Gwen rolled her eyes. "So, what do you want an outsider like me to do. Void these bastards and bring Hilda back?"

Gracie, who was drinking her water, suddenly choked.

"That is ill-advised!" Lorenzo interceded. "Gwen, you'd start a war between Bavaria and the Towers there. If you murder those Deepdowners, either the Shard gives you up, or there will be a multi-front civil war with the Murk."

"Somehow, I doubt that." Gwen passed the possibility of such a conflict through a mental filter. "That would mean we'll be fighting the Murk Dwarves, and the Murk Dwarves have far more to benefit from siding with us than with the Deepdowners. As long as the Dyar Morkk isn't made accessible, no one's going home— meaning they'd be risking their current 'home' for the sake of a few expatriate preachers who can't even get them to their real homes. In my opinion, unless the Citadel Council gets taken over by religious fanatics, there's no way they'd choose all-out war."

"Aye, well said, lass." Yossari appeared immensely impressed. "But there are fanatics fer sure; the only question is how many. We were thinking, how about a demonstration of yer powers like the one that so impressed Whurforlüm and Hilda? These Deepdowners, they've lived in their world of crystals and minerals for so long, they have no idea how powerful yer kin can be and how necessary yer all are in reconnecting us to the Dyar Morkk."

"You say 'convince','" Gwen made a gesture like Caliban menacing prey in its spider form "Do you mean like this?"

"Nay, not threatening the Murk rats." Yossari put up both hands. "Yer can frighten them by aiding us Purge a Dweller Den—" The Dwarf's bushy brows then wiggled. "— Yer could also diplomacy them with yer juice."

Gracie's eyes grew as wide as hen's eggs.

"Mistress Yossari." Lorenzo cut in. "Our young lady isn't that kind of sorceress."

"She means Essence Maotai," Gwen assured Lorenzo that Yossari had the best of intentions. "Get em licked and they'll give Hanmoul and Hilda back?"

"If they can't be convinced even then." Yossari's expression grew dangerous. "Guildmaster Ironførge's patience isn't infinite. We Dwarf's don't lust after warring— but if war sits on yer like a flatulent Greenskin..."

Gwen mulled over this piece of information for a moment more, matching in her mind what knowledge she had gained about the Dwarves in her many months at Cambridge.

"Yossari, I think it's got to be something else," she said. "The stakes are too high for these Deepdowners if they're just here to bugger with our Adventuring arrangements. These full-plate maniacs travelled via the surface, the very Vadam thing they hate just to tell the Red Citadel 'no humans'? That's ridiculous."

"Lass, I wouldn't hide anything from yer." Yossari's voice took on a serious tone. "If yer suspicious, there's no obligation ter come. We're 'mates' whether yer wants ter help Hilda or nay."

"Of course I'll help," Gwen told the Dwarf. "My Void Mages and I need a good stretch after so much time cooped up inside the Cog Chambers. Lorenzo, what's your take on this? How about you, Gracie?"

"I think it's good publicity," Lorenzo said. "That said, you might have to ask for some favours from Lady Grey or Astor. They're both involved with parliament, have business with the Dwarves, and possess direct access to Lord Ravenport. The Duke of Norfolk is in charge of the Foreign Affairs Office and will have a far better lead on why these Deepdowners are here now of all times."

"Dickie, eh?" Gwen realised she hadn't thought about the man for some time. Such was the peace offered by London that her mind focused only on her studies— that and the act of rolling her investments to fleece the City of London of tax incentives. "Gracie?"

"I am happy to help," the girl said nervously, though her eyes were bright and anticipatory. "I've always wanted to go on an adventure outside of London."

"Nice. I'll go and see Lady Grey then. Yossari, you want to come?"

"I shall await yer decision at the Printing Press." Yossari shook her head. "The lidless cave here makes my head spin. It's worse than the knife ear's forests. There'll be rewards, Gwen— if you succeed, Lady Hilda will owe yer a great deal, and her family tapped into rich seams in Deepholm."

Gwen laughed, as did Lorenzo. More than Crystals, both knew how urgently Gwen needed those Fabricators to keep up the speed of development on the Isle. Without the Dwarves' aid, her projected timetable would stretch out by three-fold.

"Alright." She patted the Alchemist on the shoulder. "We'll get to the bottom of this, Yossari."

"Aye, lass, I knew we could count on yer!" Yossari gave her a big hug around the waist. "Can't wait ter see the look on those blasted Deepdowner's faces when yer deploys yer beasties!"

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A note from Wutosama

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