"Sir, are you sure certain 'doping' is allowed?" Gwen remarked to the hawk-nosed Adjudicator, whose eyes glowed with equal parts regret and Divination at Umzokwe's feeding habits. Behind the man, the crowd in the stadium shared the man's fascinated horror. Beyond that, Gwen had no doubt wealthy viewers watching the scene at home were likewise having second thoughts about buying hi-resolution Lumen-projectors.
"I'd like to have a stern word with anyone who would dare protest. I mean, New World John over yonder fielded a God-damned Centurion Custom." Charlene's eyes stared daggers at their reserve bench, where the pilot, academic and Wand Smith simmered with agitation, waiting for the match to end so that he could apologise to Gwen for joining the "wrong side".
Previously, the Exeters had allowed their man to go, possessing neither the spontaneous wit to rope their pilfered Magi-tech Smith back into the fold or the clout to detain a named Academic from MIT in public. Perhaps, Gwen thought, the Exeters hadn't given up after all—though private vengeance had to be served with clandestine subtlety, for her METRO would report that the Hollands had cheated an NoM to waylay a Knight.
Unfortunately for Charlene, the advantage Gwen had gained was lost when, upon his return, Sir Aiden Rothwell communicated without recourse his inability to continue the bout lest his Faith was despoiled by dishonour. For Gwen, who had not taken the man's self-righteous Credo into account, Rothwell's decision to "pull out" came as a disappointment. In her eyes, it was with great luck that they had snatched up a victory from the jaws of defeat, only now she was left with a half-hearted apology.
Still playing the serene sorceress, Charlene steered her aside, then bid the Knight a job well-done and that House Ravenport would remember the Ordo's favour. To save the man face, she then begged the Knight to speak to his duelling partner, explaining that they were both victims of the Exeters' deceit. In conversing with the NoM, she assured the man, their mutual victimhood would absolve him of the guilt assailing his Faith.
Afterwards, for their pre-game prep, Gwen helped Jean-Paul get ready by fattening Umzokwe. As for their opponents, Benedict Thomas prepared by suiting up in a grimly visaged padded cloth plate with the help of his aides.
"Shuu—shuu—shuu—" Besides Gwen, with visible susurrations from its undulating sinews, Jean-Paul's Familiar convulsed with pleasure.
From the silence that engendered, she could only wonder if the world was ready to face the debut of an albino Umzokwe the size of a horse, undulating and glistening with grey-tinged slime as its semi-translucent body pulsed with secret juices secreted from her ungloved hand.
For Gwen, the feeding was no different from Ariel or Dede taking their daily vitality tax. For her observers, the uncanny sight of the dozen hot-pink tentacles slithering from Umzokwe's maw with a life of their own to wrap Gwen's hand and forearm was a sight many would never forget.
Was it because Umzokwe made no other sound other than the sucking and slurping? Gwen pondered the optics while the tendrils massaged her hand, lapping up every mote of viridescence. Disparate to the sensual, Lovecraftian horror of Caliban, Umzokwe forced the observer to be inundated by an aversion that stemmed from carrion and rot, entropy and decay.
Not far, a red-faced Jean-Paul shivered, likely benefitting just as much from her gift to Umzokwe.
"Enough?" Gwen implored the giant leech while thinking of Garp and Strun, the latter being commanded to watch the match from the Bunker lest he "leapt in" to defend his Priestess. As much as she wanted to fill Jean-Paul, only her Soul Tapped sycophants could receive the total dose of her benediction. To Soul Tap Jean-Paul as she had done for Gracie, however, was out of the question.
With the sound of a stubborn plunger unsticking from a bathroom bowl, she yanked her arm and hand from Umzokwe's writhing, squirming interior, sending a splatter of semi-clear juices across the Adjudicator's Oxfords.
Jean-Paul wordlessly handed her a towel to mop up the excess while the leech cooed and rubbed up against the sorceress.
The crowd collectively regained the ability to breathe.
Then finally, with a word from the Adjudicator, the man professed that the spectacle was over, simultaneously announced their next bout—that of "Magus Jean-Paul Bekker" against "Lord Benedict Thomas Holland".
Mycroft Ravenport waved away the guests who had approached him, then returned his attention to the match below.
Unlike the bout with the Golem, the fight between Meister Bekker's Apprentice and a member of the Exeter Clan drew the full attention of the VIP section in the upper viewing platform. For the upper crust observers of London, the matchup was an age-old debate between the "Power of the Old Blood" against the "Upstarts of Spellcraft."
Mycroft himself did not subscribe to the prideful contest. However, as one of England's oldest families, he knew well there was a time when Spellcraft was not the universal norm of magic. In the epochs before the Great War, generations of their Ancestors had coasted to victory and triumph through discoveries of blood that boiled with arcane power unique to humanity.
To the spectators in the grandstand, the Exeters represented the preservation of old magic—or at least a facsimile of that which was lost. Theirs was a talent that could seldom be reached by academic discovery. Instead, their power came from distilling the blue blood of nobility as an Alchemist might search for True Gold. Modern Spellcraft, to the Exeters, was not the foundation but bright plumes of feathers that adorned the knights' helm, an essential catalyst, but hardly the base upon which the family had carved out its bloody fortune.
Conversely, Jean-Paul Bekker was the quintessential representative of a Faustian arcanistry taken to its natural conclusion through experimentation. For those familiar with Bekker's published work, Jean-Paul resulted from the Meister's attempt at recreating the raw talent of Elizabeth Sobel, the champion-turned-villainess who made her mark during the Beast Tide. Jean-Paul's powers did not begin with divine intervention, as per the scions of Henry Dawn Star, but in an orphanage of bastards. His was a talent that, like his carrion Familiar, was distilled rapidly from a systematic selection criterion of the survival of the fittest, moulded by the Meister in the manner of a Necromancer Flesh Grafter until he could stand toe-to-toe against the peerage.
The irony did not escape Mycroft Ravenport. Nonetheless, for the spectators, theirs was a contest that differed significantly from the debate of whether NoMs could be given magical arms. What he saw instead was the ideological contest between the old families and the new scholars who vied for supremacy to see who was the advent of the Mageocracy's magically-driven future. A conflict that was now played out in earnest.
"Scald!" Thomas was the first to cast. There was no "Ladies first" against an opponent so visually unappealing.
The crisp, final syllable erupting from between the Steam Mage's lips spontaneously engendered a mass of superheated vapours to flood the transmuted battlefield, framed to resemble the interior of a "catacomb" type Dungeon.
The randomly generated setting held both advantages and disadvantages for the contestants, a fact appreciated by the spectators, who could only grimace as the last bout all but smashed through the terrain with brutal disregard.
On the Hollands' side, Thomas proceeded with care, flooding his surroundings with the Element of his calling, not only obscuring his body but transforming bodily into an incorporeal form.
Opposite, the audience bore witness to Umzokwe's swiftness as it slithered through the gaps of the catacombs to discretely approach the Steam Mage, forcing its slimy body into impossible cracks too small even to fit a hand, much less a monstrous worm with the girth of a draft horse. Likewise, Jean-Paul himself wove together skins of protective sorcery, covering himself from head to toe in a dense membrane.
Would Thomas' Elemental Avatar survive a Void Usurp? Mycroft suspected the rest of the VIPs had just as much anticipation for the encounter, for Jean-Paul's display had another purpose—the demonstration of "stable" Void Magic to the public.
In recent years, even with Cambridge's publications, Void-based Arcanistry still carried the baggage of its misunderstood reputation for self-destruction and instability.
The bad reputation was because, during Sobel's prime, her hound master had kept details of the Void Sorceress on a tight leash, offering little to no elucidation for the academic community. Conversely, thanks to Gwen, dozens of institutions among the three Factions now looked forward to the Second Renaissance of Void Arcanistry, hailing for a dire herald to correct the record.
Momentarily, the two forces met.
Starkly different to the brutal power of the Golem and the glimmering honesty of Faith Magic, both Void and Steam were subtler in their offence. To the stadium's right, Jean-Paul wove into place a miasma of seemingly living Void particles, something of a Morden's Living Shroud, to separate from his body. For the unlearned viewers, the sorcery was something akin to a conjured creature, likely in the form of a Nightshade or a Spectre.
On the other hand, Thomas' steam merely hinted at hiding a creature of sorts, which Mycroft knew to be the Steam Spirit Theranos, an acquisition that had cost the Militant Factions both lives and favours. As one who knew the history of the modern Mageocracy in its entirety, the Duke of Norfolk could only wonder at the cost of such vanity. Both Holland and Bekker were invariably not "self-made" as, say, Gwen or Kilroy had been, and both had spent excessive volumes of resources to develop their wards. If so, could the boys' ascension even be considered a boon to the Mageocracy? Indeed, if the NoM had demonstrated anything, it was that the resources spent making his Centurion Custom a reality was a far cheaper alternative than the blood, time, effort and affront to nature paid to try and re-capture living lightning in a bottle.
A shattering HISS—! Interrupted Mycroft's thoughts. Below, the conjured forces of Void and Steam had found one another.
Jean-Paul's miasma of jet instantly contracted in the form of a living thing, shrieking as Thomas' steam rapidly expanded to envelop and annihilate the amorphous mass of animated ink. Yet, just when it appeared to be overwhelmed, the nebulous Void-form swirled onto a spontaneous vortex. The effect, Mycroft could guess, stemmed from an impressive remote casting of "Usurp", Bekker's Signature Sorcery based upon the infamous Maelstrom utilised by Elizabeth Sobel.
Instantly, the superheated steam was sucked into the swirling black mass, which then rapidly expanded as it made for the rough whereabouts of Benedict Thomas, ignoring the obfuscation of the Mage's body within his sea of steam.
Ravenport observed the others marvelling at the versatility of Void Matter as an element.
Unfazed, the older Exeter twin waited until the mass came closer, congealing itself into a solid force once more in the manner of an Earthen Wyrm, coiling its body to strike—
Then Thomas uttered the final words to the masterful arcanistry of his Clan.
No sooner had the final invocation materialised the magic did a contracting cage of force, perfectly crafted on each side with panes of pure kinetic energy, enclosed the tenebrous blob of Void ink. There was a rebellious thump from within the "Box", then a flash of dull silver as the Abjuring mana of an upper-tier Dismissal manifested.
The crowd cheered. However, Ravenport could see that Jean-Paul Bekker's actual assault had yet to begin. While Thomas busied himself with the remnants of the Void-ooze, the Void Mage was readying himself for a multi-pronged combination assault.
Umzokwe, that horrid leech-creature from the Void, finally slithered into place, then burst from a loosened pile of transmuted stone, making a bee-line for Thomas. Simultaneously, it violently ejaculated a sizzling torrent of what looked like putrefied offal, the stench of which Mycroft could only begin to imagine from its eyeless face.
"Infused Blast!" Came an instantaneous riposte from Thomas, wasting not a split-second before the sixth-tier artillery-class sorcery manifested in its "Quickened" form, waylaying the incoming leech with a superheated battering ram of scalding, rapidly expanding vapours.
The sticky ejecta was the first to meet the column, instantly displacing into deadly splatters that sizzled the Walls of Force. The clash appeared surreal, but from what Mycroft knew, there were no less than three spells involved in the "Infused Blast". First, there was a ram of pure force giving the blast its battering prowess. Next, the dispersing ram sent shattered shards of force all over the body of Umzokwe, scoring, blistering and rupturing its skin, thirdly cooking the creature so spontaneously that the stadium collectively winced at the second-hand agony.
Umzokwe landed with a thud, recovering even as liquified flesh slid from its body in sheets. What was more disturbing was that renewed flesh, glistening and unharmed, then instantly regrew as it continued its assault.
The unnatural sturdiness of the supernatural creature, Mycroft could see, was likely a product of the girl's handiwork, something of a boon associated with her Mythic-connection as a Vessel. After Shalkar, there had been significant interest in the girls' latent talents. Were it not for his intervention and those in the Middle Factions who felt indebted to her Master, there would have been no peace for the possessor of such a power. That said, Mycroft did not doubt that like her Master, Gwen was someone whose predilection for morning dips meant they could not help but stir up the reposed mud.
As with the earlier meeting of Elemental and Void, the leech now reached the Avatar-body of Thomas' making.
Knowing what's to come, Mycroft steadied his breath, then counted to three.
On two—there came the discordant clamour of superheated steam filling Umzokwe, who was using its tentacles to envelop the Exeter's scion—what it received instead was a rapid expansion of compressed gasses so violent as to create a visible shockwave.
The Walls of Force shook, taking the brunt of the explosion, instantly misting over as the barrier generators cranked their dynamos to overdrive. For a second, it felt as though the stadium had itself leapt into the air. In the commoner's stands, the NoMs screamed, unused to such displays of power. Conversely, the Mages sighed with appreciation and awe, for the blast continued to expand for several seconds before the resultant pressure escaped into spatial vents connecting back into the Elemental Plane of Air.
In a lesser duel, the pressurised air would have wounded or incapacitated Thomas' opponent. Fortuitous for Gwen, Jean-Paul was no ordinary opponent, nor had his training been less gruesome than the trials of war which House Holland set for its young successors.
When the steam cleared enough for the spectators to see, they saw that Jean-Paul remained standing, clad from head to toe in a shroud of Void Matter so that he resembled a humanoid, bipedal Umzokwe. Had the Creature Mage withdrawn his Familiar? Ravenport wondered with some surprise, or was this another form of magic that Bekker had recently developed for her boy?
He had his answer in the next moment as Jean-Paul failed to manifest a renewed leech but instead leapt into thin air, dematerialising as though a slit through the Prime Material had swallowed him whole.
An Astral Jaunt! Mycroft felt his heart stir for the first time since the battle began.
Unlike Gwen and her peers' Blink or the Dimensional Doors, Astral Jaunt was a wholly different form of transposition. Rather than drawing on existing theory from the School of Conjuration—an Astral Jaunt directly created a spontaneous Pocket Plane around the user, transporting them through their Elemental Plane to appear where the user willed. It was a higher-tier form of Arcanistry that did not leave behind mana signatures or required Divination markers that would give one's position away.
Nearer the other side of the now shattered catacombs, Thomas condensed into enough of a humanoid form to inspect the work he had wrought. To his satisfaction, there wasn't enough of Umzokwe to be found, having been wholly vaporised in the cataclysmic eruption of superheated air and water expanding from the Force Cube he had created to withhold its destructive glory. Thomas' spell was one of the Steam Mage's Signature sorcery—although the arcane construction possessed no official name and was born from mechanical motion created from control and talent. Curiously, Mycroft recalled the rumour that Thomas had conceived of the notion while observing NoM Magi-tech crafters in America, when an Ether Engine exploded, unleashing enough compressed, liquid mana to flatten the garage and make "In-N-Out" of its engineers.
To create the "bomb" that Thomas had used, a Mage in control of Elemental Steam only needed to compress their element into a pin-point form, then use Spatial Conjuration to create a "container" of force to constrain the power. The greater the compression, the more layered the "box", the more destructive power the bomb possessed.
For this reason, though the secret of Thomas' craft was an open one, only a hand of the Exeters specific to the line had managed to reproduce it. For most, the dearth of compatibility and skill meant they could not create a manifestation of sufficient destructive potential.
Whatever his opinions on the Hollands, Mycroft had to admit that the result was an impressive form of controlled chaos, of anarchy in a box unleashed, worthy of a leader in the Mageocracy's new generation. It was also a counter to "Usurp", the Signature Spell of the Void-School of Arcanistry, for the Void Mages' corruption ability would run face-first into the panes of force, which would then trigger the explosion.
Despite his pessimism, Mycroft stifled his anticipation, for he still wished his daughter luck.
Meanwhile, from a slit below and beneath the Steam Mage, Jean-Paul's retaliation emerged from a rent in space-time.
The wonders of Astral Jaunt!
With it, a Mage could remain hidden in his Pocket Dimension of Void, ignoring the chief limitations of barriers and even solid walls or floors, key weaknesses of Dimension Door and Blink!
Not one, but two rents in the Prime Material materialised, dissipating the Elemental Steam inundating the space around Thomas. Within a split-second, the drained mana field bloated the orbs of tenebrous Void, then—
The next stage of the Usurp spell-line was the release of stolen mana in the form of a nova-type Void blast titled by Bekker as "Implosion".
To counter the effect, Thomas likewise unleashed hell.
The similarities between the ultimate effect of both Thomas and Jean-Paul's spells did not escape Mycroft's amusement. For the majority of the stadium's audience, all they could see was the sudden meeting of twin forces, one dark and one light.
Void and Steam. Two elements of extreme rarity, with Steam only marginally more common than its opponent. Within the protected barrier of the duelling area, the abstract phenomenon of a rapidly expanding force meeting its opposite.
For the average Mage, there were no words to describe the jarring interaction other than a kind of tempest-tossed mutiny, a concurrent clashing of elemental chaos. The sound that engendered from the enclosed space, a chest-thrumming drone, was both the wail of a high-pressure system and the shrieking of air and water rapidly disappearing into the Void.
How could mortal bodies sustain such injury? Survive such an assault? When the steam cleared, the crowd had their answer, and Mycroft had his prediction ascertained.
Jean-Paul was a talented lad who cared little for his safety in completing a task he deemed sacred—but there were barriers that a Mage could not overcome with conviction alone. In that regard, Mycroft felt his daughter did possess rotten luck when it came to the ticket draw.
Perhaps, pitted against Poins, Jean-Paul's subversive sorcery would have had a natural advantage. Facing the overwhelming power of Thomas' boxed Steam Eruptions, however, there wasn't the concentrated mana of Fire, Earth or even Water to steal. Conversely, the naturally nebulous nature of Elemental Steam, especially in the hands of a true maestro, was an effective counter against the corrosive nature of Void.
The clincher, Mycroft had anticipated, was a case of "if" Jean-Paul's creature could survive the bomb and thereby regenerate to harry the Steam Mage while the Void caster fought at a distance. To then close the space and meet Thomas head-on was a move that took immense courage, or masochism, which Jean-Paul possessed in equal measure. In regular combat, no Mage worth their salt would dare to fight a Steam Mage vis-a-vis, considering their all-pervasive Element and its ability to negate hard-point defence and cook one's opponents alive.
Now, Meister Bekker's ward lay on the floor, oozing viscous globs of Void from blurry burn-wounds that would require an upper-tier Regeneration. Amazingly, the man was still conscious, a true testament to his ability to withstand agony.
Above the panting young man, Thomas was forced out of his Steam Avatar and floated a safe distance away from his opponent, with bits of his armour becoming corroded as he too tried to control his uneven breathing.
All around the two, the transmuted landscape had nearly disappeared. In a real catacomb, both would have likely perished from the imminent collapse of the passageway.
The close encounter of the deadly kind, Mycroft wagered, had possessed more intimacy than Benedict Thomas predicted. To underestimate Jean-Paul, whose deeds had been overshadowed by Gwen's achievements in the IIUC and elsewhere like Shalkar, was a mistake the boy would not make again. In hindsight, Mycroft wondered if the Void Mage had intended Umzowke to be a sacrificial lamb so that the Steam Mage would let down his guard and allow the Void Mage to get closer. If Mycroft himself had entered the battle with perfect knowledge, he too would have needed the means to offset Thomas' advantage, forcing an encounter so that, at the very least, there was a possibility of victory.
Incredibly, Jean-Paul forced himself to stand.
The stadium collectively winced, then inhaled agonised breaths as sheets of what appeared to be skin mixed with magical matter slid from Jean-Paul's body.
The resilience of a Void Mage! That vitality! The irony wasn't beyond Mycroft's understanding, but still, he felt impressed by the fact that Bekker's ward was not only alive but fully functioning.
"Finish me," the crow on his shoulder reported back as Jean-Paul's saying. "Or we continue."
All the while, the boy was regenerating with the likeness of a Mud Element Salamander. Visibly, the wet flesh hardened, the jelly-like flesh congealed, then little by little, mobility returned to the man's body. At this display, the other nobles and Magisters around Mycroft expressed their approval. Usually, the flesh was weak, and the mind was strong, and that itself was praiseworthy. Now, the Void Mage had shown that both his flesh and mind possessed enough elasticity to survive this and a more significant crisis. Whatever Bekker had achieved, even if her creation did not reach the level of Sobel's tier of destruction, she had nonetheless created something to rival the Noble Houses.
Even if Jean-Paul could not best the Holland's scion today, the nobles present would be reminded that the Void Mage had been picked from a runt's litter. Unlike the Hollands' Golden Blood, he was an urchin survivor, a bastard of no origin and history. Therefore, if enough energy and time were spent scouring the masses for men and women like Jean-Paul, and if Bekker could capture that lightning with a bit of aid from Henry's hellion, then there should be good reasons for new funding among the Meisters' circles.
But there was another caveat as well.
Jean-Paul wasn't the only Void Mage.
He wasn't even the best Void Mage, for all knew that the greatest was behind.
As Mycroft had anticipated, the girl did not abide by Jean-Paul's sacrifice. Continuing would result in a tie—something Jean-Paul had likely counted on by betting his life, for his maiming would directly provoke Meister Bekker, a figure of considerable influence in the Militant Faction. In that regard, the Void Mage's misfortune was that their Captain was a creature prone to soft-hearted empathy and compassion.
"No, I can keep fighting."
"I wasn't asking, JP. Get the hell back here, now."
Mycroft felt an upwelling of disapproval in his chest.
A compassion that inspired loyalty was an admirable quality in a leader but arguably limited when one aspired to be a Tower Master. As history foretold, those who survived the trials of serving a Tower Master would not look upon their leader with awe but with a gnawing sense of jealousy and loathing. If all had paid the price in blood to erect the Master's Tower, then why should one woman stand at the apex, possessing all—when themselves were left only with the dregs?
Shalkar, it seemed, was perhaps kinder than Mycroft had anticipated. Like a good Spellsword, the girl needed further tempering to cleanse her pretty head of the remaining impurities.
Didn't Singapore say they had trouble with an emerging Mermen tribe that collected SPAM cans with Gwen's likeness? Mycroft could only marvel at what comedy of errors could engender such an occurrence, but the Malaysian archipelago could teach a good lesson in necessity. There were other fires elsewhere as well that could do with a touch of Shalkar. The Adriatic Sea, for instance, had reported a resurgence of Mermen raids from the Seven Kingdoms, an occurrence echoed by reports from the Aegean. If history could be trusted as a marker, all of it pointed to the eventual resurgence of a Mermen Beast Tide: one that, with careful pruning and management, could be delayed for decades or absolved entirely through stirring up civil conflicts in the deep sea.
Then there was the matter with the Dwarves and the Elemental Sea—though he would prefer to keep the girl out of the Murk for a time.
While Mycroft pondered plans for the girl, the Adjudicator below announced the match in Thomas' favour, then bid the contestants return to their corners. Despite a grilling from Gwen, Jean-Paul refused to yield to the infirmary and chose to stay as a wrapped mummy on the sidelines. Once more, with her characteristic indecision, the girl relented to the guilt trip.
On the Hollands' side, Benedict Thomas retreated to his corner to be stripped of his damaged armour for a new suit, all the while replenishing his reserves by taking the maximum allowance of mana potions in-between matches.
Charlene glanced for the umpteenth time toward the grandstand, then approached the girl, at which point the two conspired for their final chance at victory. Through the eyes of Mori, Mycroft listened to their conversation.
"What do you think? Can you handle Thomas?" Charlene was asking the girl.
"He's tired, and he's shown his trump card, so yes." The girl nodded with confidence. "Jean-Paul's done a good job."
"He's done no less than Sir Rothwell," Charlene agreed. "What's your approach?"
"I've got a plan to play it safe and wear him down," the girl said. "Whatever he's doing uses an enormous amount of mana, while I've got Conjuration for days. Besides, I am not sure how Caliban or Ariel will take that bomb blast. I am sure Golos could tank it, but it isn't as though I could ask for an hour or two to draw the Mandala."
"Nor would London appreciate the sudden appearance of the Scion of the Yinglong." Charlene's mood, it seemed to Mycroft, was more relaxed than he had anticipated, likely because of her confidence in Gwen, which Mycroft shared. For one, he knew for a fact that the Militants had not received the complete and unabridged report from Shalkar, for he was the one who had withheld details such as her relation to Tryfan and the full extent of her connection to Mythic beings like the "Snake" and the Yinglong, or her curios acquisition of "Faith".
"So." The girl stretched her gauntlet-covered fingers, flexing the wonderous crowskin that made even Mycroft desirous. "Let's get this show on the road, shall we?"
Indeed, Mycroft mused as the girl signalled the Adjudicator to open the next match, giddy for the interesting times ahead for the Exeters of House Holland.