Gwen met with Jean-Paul and his Meister at Heathrow's ISTC station in a segregated tier set aside for military operators.
"… I'll go change," was Gwen's first reply after seeing the austere group's equipment. Of the middle-aged men and women gathered upon the oval long-range platform, all wore combat suits of one kind or another, their auras dense with Abjuration. A few who had the usual physique of Mineral or Earthen Abjurers even had Dwarf-forged plates, ensuring they towered over their contemporaries. Others sported enchanted leather or cloth-plating, crafted from synthetic, quasi-magical materials resembling Gwen's Shen-Teī.
"... Sorry, I should have said something." Jean-Paul's stooped figure blushed among the group. He had informed her of everything, including a long checklist of survival staples, but not that she had to preemptively dress for the occasion. As a result, the young sorceress looked startlingly out of place in her flared blouse, ankle-jeans and black heels, enticing wide, appreciative grins from her audiences' faces.
Gwen herself had anticipated that they would muster at Volgograd, but developing events meant Bekker had the intent to travel continuously.
"Take your time. We're waiting for the ISTC to calibrate." Meister Bekker did not appear to mind, though the Magisters and Maguses behind her all chuckled at the inexperienced "first-timer". Within the group, only the gloomy and solemn Jean-Paul shared her role of Magister-in-training. With Gwen joining the group, a nice splash of youth and zest was added to the otherwise severe war party.
When Gwen re-appeared, she wore a custom-spec bodysuit attune to both Lightning and Void in navy and black. The British-made ensemble she had told Walken to requisition was made-to-order and modified by Dwarven Runesmiths. From the unanticipated aesthetic improvements, Gwen could only deduce Walken knew her too well and presumed too much. For example, atop the sculpted knee and shin guards, the armour irrationally deployed a cloth skirt, much like her made-for-TV Shen-teī, an impractical design with no real purpose akin to Supergirl's predilection for cheerleading miniskirts. In actual practice, at high flight speeds, the mini-petticoat bellowed out and increased drag, especially if she were to fly backwards. Likewise, the suit's torso material adhered tightly to her svelte, eye-catching silhouette rather than sporting a hard-frame cuirass, directing many a raised brow and pats to the back of a breathless Jean-Paul.
"To be young..." the sentiment audibly spread among the veterans.
"To think..." one of the men sighed. "You used to look like that—"
"You're begging for death, Taylor," a female voice answered from the crowd.
The cabal of Magisters and Maguses laughed.
"You look lovely," Jean-Paul stammered.
Gwen gave the young man a one-over. "You're quite dashing yourself."
In reality, Jean-Paul's battle suit, together with the aura he gave off, gave the impression of a high-rent gimp suit. It was because the enchanted Griffin-skin was tanned black and then double-treated with sacred oils, giving the minimalist surface a unique lustre. According to the Void Mage, Jean-Paul's armour was one-of-a-kind and hand-Enchanted by Arcanists serving under Meister Bekker, making Gwen sentimental for her lost Master.
Her saltiness was quickly transmuted into sugar when she saw a familiar sight.
"Magus Kott!" It was Major Nils Kott, her Abjuration tutor. Reasonably, she had imagined the man returned to Germany after his exchange period was over, and their lessons had ceased the week prior. "How come you're here?"
The Magus' Gunther-esq bearing filled her heart with gladness. Of all her tutors, the laconic Nil was her favourite next to "Mistress" Le Guevel.
"I have decided to take on a well-paying quest before I return to Berlin." The Abjurer's smile made her feel strangely flustered. "It was a good deal of CCs, offered by a certain Lady from Ely."
At Nil's confession, Gwen no longer felt the sting of jealousy. If Jean-Paul had his Meister, then she had her Marchioness! In this regard, they were equals!
"Magus Nil remains a part of my team," Bekker reminded Gwen to wipe away her foolish grin. "You'll get your turn, but only if we can spare the Abjuration slot. If every Magister-in-training received a war hero Abjurer as a bodyguard, the Tower's testing system would collapse within the year…"
"He-he-he—" Gwen snickered, fluttering her lashes innocently at her disapproving elders.
Kott rolled his eyes.
Bekker shook her head, then introduced her to the rest of the team.
There were four Boer Mages among the lead Flight, Bekker's old crew from Tukkies, the same as Alesia's foursome of tightly-knit followers.
These were Magister Altus Schoeman and Louw Jonke, joined by Magus André Jouberts and Adriaan Pietersen. Together, the four made up Bekker's London Imperial Task Team. Gwen shook each of the men's hands and noted their similar features, such as their shocking heads of fair hair and their lightly-hued eyes. Considering Jean-Paul's origin tale and the men's mid-thirty ages, she couldn't help but wonder if the four shared a bit of history with the Void Mage.
The Shard Flights consisted of two teams, both lead by Magisters, each fielding four Maguses.
The Magisters were both men, one a Transportation Specialist, Colonel Eli Hill, the other a ridiculously handsome Diviner with an Ambassadorial rank named Frank Taylor who also served as the team leader.
The other eight Maguses, inclusive of Nil, Gwen greeted one by one, memorising their names and ranks. Altogether, the three Flights fielded One Meister, Four Magisters, ten Maguses, one Jean-Paul and Gwen, a strategic "War Mage".
Of their sorcerous classes, most of the Mages were multi-talented. Nonetheless, for their principal occupations, they were two Evokers, three Abjurers, an Enchanter, three Transmuters, two Conjurers, one Illusionist, one Cleric, and two Diviners.
As for their secondary schools, almost every member of the party could fight as individuals through Evocation or Transmutation, and over half of the party could act as temporary Abjurers. According to Jean-Paul, the gathered Mages possessed enough clout to plough a Frontier if need be.
By the time Gwen finished shaking the last woman's hand, they were approached by two customs officers.
"Magister Bekker, the ISTC array is primed and ready."
Bekker patted Gwen on the shoulder to stop her hobnobbing with the crew.
"Final equipment checks!" Bekker called out. "Confirm your manifests!"
"I am good." Gwen scanned over her multiple Storage Ring and the Elven Bag of Holding. Her standing order was to bring whatever she deemed necessary at her own expense. Jean-Paul's portion included food, water and shelter for them both; hers involved enough supplies to feed a Battalion of NoMs for months.
"Hope you all had a light breakfast," Bekker informed the Mages. "All of you, grab a buddy. JP, stay with Gwen. Move out!"
The Kyiv interchange took less than ten minutes, giving Gwen nary a look at Boryspil. However, from her furtive glimpse, she could deduce that the ISTC station was near-new, as indicated by its extensive use of aluminium and glass. It was also a way-station, involving only a single building with three service tiers. Comparatively, Heathrow sported four international and one domestic exchange relays, each buzzing like beehives.
Post Kyiv, the parties materialised at Volgograd, a town briefly renamed Stalingrad after a particular outburst of Communist fervour in Gwen's world, an administrative centre with half-a-million residents.
In this world, the Volgograd Frontier grew infamous after a bloody defence against German aggressors during the Pan-European War. In the wake of a battle in which NoM-staffed armies tested the new limits of Spellcraft. In the aftermath, with over a million NoMs and thousands of Mages' corpses littering the city, the Frontier abruptly grew into a hot zone of Necromancy, suffering yet another brief lull of war and turmoil before reconstruction could begin. In the end, it took until the 60s, after the earth was salted and blessed and the bodies were incinerated, that restoration began.
Then came the Beast Tide, and Volgograd's rebirth halted for another two decades. During this time, the Russian Frontier overran with every medium of native Elementals from Water Devils in the Volga, Harpies in the skies to Lycanthropic Hordes in the countryside.
Her Volgograd, therefore, had an age of no more than two decades.
"Are you alright?" Jean-Paul tugged her fingers.
"Perfectly fine." Gwen inhaled the silvery motes of Conjuration. The ISTC station here wasn't in the best condition, and its Mandala array had to burn off excess mana, vastly extending the cooldown timer.
Just outside the ISTC array with its plinking Glyphs, the group was greeted by the local Tower Master, Khokhlachev Eduard Mikhailovich, or Edik for short. Together with Meister Bekker, the two exchanged documents, news, then a handful of Storage Rings. After that, the group politely withdrew from the gawking crowd gathered in the array.
Outside, the sky starkly streaked with grey, its temperature as unforgiving as Frost Wolves.
"HOLY HELL!" Gwen quickly circulated Essence until her body warmed up. "It's minus twenty here!"
The rest of the parties also invoked various cantrips.
"About six under." Magus Bekker casually invoked a Resistance spell. "Not the best conditions for high-speed flight. You now know why we left earlier than needed."
"No joke." Gwen watched her half-gloved fingers return to a healthy pink. "Strewth, I am Australian, for God's sake. In my first fifteen years, I've seen snow once."
"The temperature can drop to minus forty or more while we fly," Major Kott notified her and the rest of their crew. "Magister Jonke and I will provide Cold Resistance buffs. We will refresh the necessary protections every 12 hours. Once we reach the Fire Sea, the weather should warm up significantly."
"Gather around—" Jonke lined up the team for Abjuration.
"Gwen, once we're on the open water, use the orb," Meister Bekker informed her.
"Good luck, Magus and Magisters." Tower Master Edick bowed his head. As a Frontier Master, a London Meister was arguably leagues above his station.
The other Magisters gave affirming return-nods.
Gwen bowed her head. When she looked up, her eyes met the Tower Masters.
"You're Kilroy's Apprentice." The Tower Master stated.
"I am," Gwen replied, squaring her shoulders.
"I am sorry for your loss." He held out a hand. "Master Henry was very kind to me in the past. If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask."
"I won't be a stranger." Gwen smiled. Even now, it amazed her how often her Master's name cropped up out of the blue from the mouths of strangers in high places.
"Good. I look forward to your safe return. Don't take either the Elementals or the Centaurs lightly."
"I'll take care." Gwen bowed again, this time from the waist.
"You can catch up with Gwen on her return." Meister Bekker patted the man on the shoulder with a friendliness she did not usually offer. The reason for Bekker's rare show of deference, Jean-Paul explained in a whisper, was because their first stop in the instance of their Contingency Rings triggering would be Volgograd Tower. The Rings Bekker had transferred across served both as gifts and as an emergency stash if the Frontier lacked in upper-tier materials, equipment and Potions. With Edick's confessed support for Gwen, Bekker did the polite thing by professing mutual support for Edick.
Gwen nodded in turn.
Even gestures as simple as this was an important lesson for future Magisters like herself and Jean-Paul. In the real world, little details made a Magister's work more fluid, and such things weren't taught in a walled garden like Cambridge.
The River Volga flowed from Volgograd toward the Caspian, so it wasn't difficult for the party to follow its blue-white length.
"In summer, the river is stunningly beautiful," the party's Diviner and a veteran diplomat to the region spoke as the Flights flew, transmuting his thoughts while bathed in a radiant halo of light.
The spell active around Magister Frank Taylor's head was a fifth-tier Divination staple called Circle Scry, a pulse-based, wide-range Divination spell used to detect unusual mana signatures and overt hostility with a radius tethered to the caster's Affinity tier. While the Ambassador remained somewhat aloof toward the others, his attitude toward Gwen, an Omni-Mage, War Mage and a fellow "Diviner" was softer than most.
Of course, Gwen suspected her achievements had a great deal to do with the Magister's friendliness as well. As a Diplomat Corp member, the man understandably placed her upon a pedestal due to her aristocratic connections and her successes in the Murk.
At the fore of the party flew Meister Bekker and her crew, while above them, shielded from potential attacks from below, drifted Gwen and Jean-Paul. On their present trajectory, across the vast expanse of water, the party's objective was Aktau, once the trade city of White Cliffs.
However, the distance to be covered involved three hundred kilometres down the Volga, followed by another four hundred kilometres of open water in soul-freezing weather.
At noon, the party officially exited the boundaries of human occupation and penetrated the Oblast Frontier. As a meandering serpent, the icy Volga wound through the frost-bitten landscape, a blue bruise across a vast expanse of unblemished snow.
"It wasn't this cold before the Tide," Magister Taylor's radio host voice broke the shield-induced silence. He would comment on the splendiferous landscape whenever Bekker led the group lower in altitude to prevent their barriers from building up entirely with ice and snow.
Even with their Mage Shields and Resistances active, Gwen could sense the chill from the whipping, howling wind outside, sending sheets of occasional sleet clattering against their oblong shells as their Flights pierced the wintry cold.
"Why is it colder now?" One of the Maguses asked. "More tears into the Para-Elemental Planes of Ice?"
"Not exactly," Taylor elucidated the group. "It's microclimate from the Fire Sea. You'll see what I mean once we get closer to the Caspian. The hot air heated up by the Prime Material's weakened fabric against the Elemental Plane of Fire is driving moisture into the upper atmosphere. It travels north, rapidly cools against the sea and the northern winter then falls as snow and sleet."
"Are we expecting rain on top of this?" One of the Magisters sucked in a breath of cold air. "Christ, no wonder it's a Black Zone."
"That's why we're avoiding the mountains and taking the route over the sea," Taylor said. "If we do run into storm clouds, we'll have to fly around them or drift closer into the Fire Sea."
"Will we run into Elementals?" Gwen asked after requesting permission to speak.
"With the Astral noises our mana signature are making?" Taylor gestured to the halo scanning for foes around his head. "Undoubtedly. The only question is, will they engage?"
"You and Jean-Paul can use our future foes for practice," Meister Bekker's words filtered through the Divination relay. "Have you fought pure Elementals before? Humanoid variants or otherwise."
Gwen thought of Ellen, Dean Luo's Familiar. Richard's Lea was a "pure" Elemental as well. Both demonstrated a way of fighting that was frightening to behold. Lea could turn herself into an invisible mist, after which she could instantly coalesce Water Tombs to trap Mages and prevent them from casting. Ellen, assuming she possessed similar abilities, could be even more dangerous, though, for outliers like Gwen, air lacked water's incompressible physics. If in her practice duels with Richard, she could shrug off Lea's Entombs, she did not believe Ellen's disruptions would fare better, at least not without Stinking Cloud.
"No, not wild ones," Gwen confessed. "I—"
"— CONTACT!" Magister Taylor's voice cut through the conversation like a Flame Blade through butter. "— but keep talking. It's nothing too serious. I just thought you'd like to see some of the locals."
Taylor's warning was itself interjected by the emergence of a dozen spears flying from the top of tree tips the three Flights of Mages passed.
"Trolls?" Gwen's Essence-enhanced vision needed no Scry to spot the shapes hidden in the evergreens. "Forest Trolls?"
"They must be very hungry and desperate." Taylor adjusted the party's flight path so that they fell just out of range of the spears. Nonetheless, a few clattered against the underside of Meister Bekker's barrier-protected party. "The changing weather has driven them upriver. They'll be sieging Volgograd soon, given another year or two."
"That won't happen though," the voice of another Magus answered Magister Taylor. "We'll send in a request. Berlin will Purge them before anything happens."
"Naturally," Taylor replied. "That is the way of things."
"Our workshop could do with some Troll-skin and Cores, actually," the Enchanters remarked. "Not much coming out of Red Peak these days, thanks to the Dwarves."
"You mean, thanks to Gwen?"
While the rest of the Mages chuckled at their sorceress, Gwen's heart grew heavy.
Monkey see— monkey do.
She was starting to see where the Mageocracy gets its peculiar vernacular.
At dusk, the Flights alighted in the shadow of a city that once housed close to a quarter of a million souls. Three decades ago, when the Black Dragon "roused" the Elementals and its rage had torn a tear large enough for the denizens of the Planes to eek through, Astrakhan was the first major Human settlement in its path.
As a result, the city's skeletal ruins splattered the linen landscape like a dried blood clot; its spindly streets flattened like the splayed ribs of a dead Titan.
The party landed atop the kremlin, the only structure to survive the Elementals' northward sweep.
"Lord Magisters!" a fur-clad group of Mages saluted them from knee-deep ice and snow. Their leader, as far as Gwen could see, was a Russian military officer. Quickly, the man presented his insignia Glyph; an announcement soon returned by Magister Taylor. "Captain Turgenev, 23rd Recon, Moscow Tower. Welcome to Astrakhan, milords and matrons, please follow me."
Gwen knew from Meister Bekker's earlier conversation that the 15th-century fort wasn't their final destination but a stopover.
Below, once the Mages made their way through a series of stone warrens, their present objective elucidated itself.
Eli Hill, their Translocation Officer, produced a Storage Ring for the Captain. "Here you are. Please double-check the list."
While the Moscow Captain emptied the supply of cans, food, HDMs and materials into neat stacks, the other military Mages approached with hot cocoa, coffee, tea and biscuits.
Unsurprisingly, Gwen became the foci of the young officers, who were all keen to know a future "Magister", or at least bathe in the presence of a War Mage as accomplished as she was comely.
While the older folk exchanged details of the Frontier and the Elemental Sea's latest news, Gwen did her best to integrate Jean-Paul into the conversation. Unfortunately, Jean-Paul's ability to socialise was as woeful as his outward appearance, a fact that compounded the difficulty of his future leadership endeavours. When Gwen furthermore noted that Meister Bekker's attention kept wandering toward them, she couldn't help but query if getting Jean-Paul closer to her involved a purer motive. Though it was arrogant to think so, Gwen did not doubt that there weren't many Void Mages who could hold up a party like she could or supply emergency vitality to a fellow Void practitioner if the matter was life-or-death. Bekker herself could look after Jean-Paul, but her Apprentice would spend more and more time away from his nest in the days to come. If anything, seeing Jean-Paul's woeful ability to string together trustworthy allies, the unflappable Mevrou must be fuming something serious deep inside.
After consuming half-a-dozen scones, two cups of hot cocoa and a week's worth of biscuit rations, Gwen left the amazed junior officers' presences and joined the main party's departure from the fort.
Gwen breathed in the frigid air.
Her Message Device read midnight.
Yet, the light filtering from outside the stone walls told her that there was still lingering daylight.
From the howling outside, it didn't take an Air Mage to know the winds had grown sadistic.
Emerging into the cold, Gwen's pupils grew abruptly large.
In the distance, stretching from horizon to horizon, emanating from the centre, then growing gradually blue and then dark, was an impossible sunrise in vivid hues of orange and magenta.
The Fire Sea! Her mind finally connected the name to the place, acknowledging the impossible visage.
Refracted upon a million-million sheaves of flint light, a great gate of heat and light thrust itself against the weight of a blue-dark sea, setting its long banks alight with supernatural fire, transforming the unfathomable waters a jadeite-green.
From a midnight Astrakhan, grey weirs of water rolled against the banks, snarling at the cold twilight as the hot air billowing from the distant shore drove north the freezing wind with long lines of lion's teeth in scintillating marigold. Everywhere, the Prime Material's natural clime snapped at the impossible aurora of eternal combustion, snarling and baying, fawning and mouthing to reclaim its domain, helpless with frustration.
The Fire Sea!
The domain of the Djinn! Beings utterly alien to human life, with physiologies and motivations unfathomable by creatures of mortal flesh!
"When we cross the mid-point," Bekker's voice drifted across the murk. "Re-buff for heat resistance. All Flights, prepare for engagement."