The whole thing feels like some cult, Gwen thought to herself as the assembled student cohort cleared into blocks of bodies standing before ten crystal spheres. The 'Awakening Crystals' reminded her of E-meters she saw once on Castlereagh St.
These students, who had already had their affinity affirmed, were being tested for their aptitude for different schools of magic. The procedure was simple enough. A student stood in front of the stone and placed their hand atop of the sigil sensing crystal. The crystal then expanded its magical energies after completing the circuit, sending mana back to the recipient. Whatever Sigil the indicator reciprocated then betokened the student's proficiency in a School of Magic.
All of this was of course, what Gwen could piece together from the long-term memory of her swapped, otherworld body.
Official Spellcraft theorems privileged the idea that a trifactor impacted a Mage's talents. Their natural affinity for a particular School of Magic, the Element they attuned to, and finally their natural born intelligence for manipulating Spellcraft.
Either of the three could be developed later in life, but as humans had limited lifespans, those born with a headstart rose to the top of Spellcraft society with accelerated ease.
As far as Gwen could know thus far, there were seven significant schools of Spellcraft - Evocation, Transmutation, Abjuration, Conjuration, Divination, Enchantment, and Illusion. Each had their specialities, and each manifested a particular arcane phenomenon unique enough to be called a ‘school’. Other schools existed but were unique to bloodlines, cultures, and the mythos of religious sects.
* * *
[An addendum at the bottom of the Chapter has been included to clarify Spellcraft schools]
* * *
“OH MY God Gwenie, I am nervous as hell.” Yue clutched onto Gwen’s arm with a force rivalling that of the proverbial koala, known for having a grip strength many times its body mass.
“What do you want to awaken as?” Gwen shook herself from the dizzying remembrance. Spellcraft, schools of Magic, none of it made any sense to her.
“Evocation of course,” Yue squealed. “The cardinal rule of all magic is firepower, followed by firepower, and finally, some more firepower!”
“That would be pretty nice,” Gwen answered blankly. “Firepower for sure.”
“When we go out there during the Field Trip, we can blast away everything that comes before us!” Yue’s expression was dreamy and expectant, her china-doll face red with enthusiasm.
“... You know, going outside the Shield Barrier, kicking ass…”
“And KILL SHIT!” Yue made an evil looking grin, probably already dreaming of carcasses flinging through the air after a particularly robust pyrotechnical display.
“Muscle-headed idiots,” a voice interjected beside them.
The attention of the girls became diverted to that of a bronzed-skinned teenager wearing a uniform that was evidently a size too small. Her tartan skirt rolled up to her upper thighs, and they could see her bra strap against the taut-stretch of her white blouse. Her hair was dyed with a pink tip, though her natural colour would have been an alluring auburn brunette.
“What are you looking at?” the girl snapped.
Gwen felt struck by a strange sense of déjà vu. That catty demeanour was almost familiar. Gwen wracked her brain. Starcrossed memories of two lifetimes converged to reveal that the hot-topic with the resting bitchface was Debora.
Holy shit, Gwen mouthed silently. Debora Jones! Good grief that takes her back! As far as she could recollect, Debora was the faction leader of what was dubbed the bimbos by the academic crew, and ‘hotties’ by the boys in general. She had been friends with Gwen in her junior years, but their friendship drifted apart once puberty kicked in. In her old life, Debora was obsessed with Gwen because they were both as tall as one another, even more so than the boys. When Gwen’s family messily divorced, Gwen became withdrawn, and Debora had ceased to be a part of her priorities.
"Debbie-" Gwen began, but Yue was way ahead of her.
“I bet you’ll awaken in the school of the whore…” Yue remarked rudely. Her eyes scanned Debora's scandalous uniform. "Slut."
Gwen stared at Yue with genuine shock. Only now was she recalling that Yue was a mad dog when it came to cat fights. The petite Asian girl had a temperament like 40 grit sandpaper. She wasn't one to mince words when insults were needed. Yue could be cute when she wanted to be, but the petite girl had a fiery disposition and a rancorous mouth.
“My uncle and my father are both Transmuter Mages,” Debora retorted effortlessly. “What about yours? Conjuration specialising in boats? People like you should go back to where you come from.”
“This stupid Gweilo…” Yue let loose a string of unwelcome syllables that was half Chinese and somewhat English, “I'll awaken as a fire Evoker and burn your whore (whole) house down.”
She could probably do it. Gwen felt cold sweat permeate her forehead. Yue, you scary!
“You chicks gonna start pulling some hair, ripping some blouses?”
came another voice from beside them.
It was a boy with an utterly forgettable face, an acquaintance of Yue’s who lived not too far from her, one of those faces you never bothered to speak to on the bus. His eyes moved up and down Yue’s figure lasciviously, but when he gawked at Gwen, she gave him shade so cold that he choked on his words.
“Piss off you loser.” Debora scowled cattily.
“Come on people, make or break moment here.” A Prefect stepped in between them. “You’re all nervous, I get it, but don't forget your humility and manners as students of Blackwattle.”
Good luck with that, Gwen mused at the Prefect's words. Blackwattle was just a public, Government run school. There was the dignity common to all Mages of course, but it had nothing special in particular other than a campus that overlooked the harbour of the Industrial Zone.
"Go fuck yourself," Yue added testily before turning away. The boy's eyes met the Prefect's, who shrugged, then stood some distance away from the girls.
Gwen and Yue watched as students approached the dais, legs quivering and fingers shaking, placing their hands on the crystal.
Flashes of indistinct colour indicated schools of magic and elemental affinities, following which the students had their I.D Cards registered after a little one on one with the instructors.
Debora’s name came, and she stepped forward towards the crystal. One could see that despite all her bluster, her well exposed long legs still shook from the accumulated anxiety of anticipation.
The surfer girl placed her hands on the crystal and waited. From Gwen's uneducated perspective, a glow entered into Debora's hand and permeated into her body. Then it recycled through the crystal, causing the stone to illuminate. After a few moments, the glass atop the device glowed with the mana signature of the school of Transmutation, with a soft brown light indicating Earthen affinity.
Debora signed with relief, though she still felt a little disappointed that she was no more talented than her father predicted. She had wanted the School of the Evoker or Illusionist, to be a bright star upon the battlefield, a blazing maelstrom of power and fury.
“Your turn, Shorty." Debora looked at Yue before walking from the platform.
“What an annoying bimbo,” Yue spoke with bluster, trying to mask the demons wrecking havoc in her chest.
“Good luck.” Gwen’s own heart was pounding against her seated ribcage, quickening her breath and flushing her cheeks a shade of bright pink. From what she could gather so far, this Awakening ordeal was an extraordinary moment of bloody importance.
A few more students came and went.
When it was Yue’s turn, she made her way to the top of the platform and placed her hand on the assigned crystal. The same glow enveloped her small frame; then Yue felt her flesh squirm as the mana completed its circuit. When the radiance returned, it became a blazing glow of ochre, so bright that it illuminated half the auditorium.
A collective gasp emitted from the assembly.
“Evocation with a high tier fire talent!” an Instructor called out incredulously. “It's tier four affinity at least!”
The news was both welcome and shocking for the pedestrian populous of Blackwattle. Generally speaking, only bloodlines that had generations of Mages who practised the same style was more prone to producing high-affinity talents. Those with affinities married others with like-affinities, generating greater chances of begetting offspring with ever more prominent sympathies for a school or an element.
As far as anyone knew, Yue was a regular migrant fleeing the Magical Beasts. Her common heritage was precisely why her affinity caused such a stir, could it mean the rise of a future house or clan?
Watching Yue's sudden stardom seemed to trigger another bout of anxiety within Gwen. Such a wracking pain seemed to strike her diaphragm that she had to hold her breath as to avoid becoming a public spectacle.
Jesus, Gwen regarded the teenage body she was now inhabiting. Its last owner had conditioned it with a case of the nerves. She wondered still if all of this was just a bad dream and that perhaps when returned to bed, she could close her eyes and wake up back her old world. Maybe she was having one of those lucid hallucinations still, like in Midsummer Night's Dream. Inevitably, at some stage, she would have to return to reality.
As for her lucky best friend, Yue’s fire affinity would infer that with sufficient training, her fire spells would be several grades the magnitude of regular mages. Though not precisely stellar at lower tiers, should Yue make it to the rank of Magus or Magister, her spells would be stronger, more efficient, and manifest faster than her peers. In the immediate future though, Yue's greatest advantage was that Evocation Mages could hunt monsters from Tier 1, meaning the future for Yue was flaming bright.
The room erupted into applause, and Yue gave a smug look to the red-faced Debora, who quickly left to speak to her coordinator.
“Congratulations Yue!” Gwen was happy for her friend but found herself thrusted aside by the crowd of students and instructors who surrounded the newly crowned Queen of Flames.
“Evoker, tier 1 Water.”
“Oh, God! Please give me another go! I don’t want to be a fireman…”
“Abjuration, tier 1 Earth!”
“Transmutation, tier 2 Air! An arial Mage!”
“Yes! Just what I wanted!”
“Conjuration! Tier 1 water!”
“Oh, hell yeah!”
The crowd murmured and congratulated the newly minted Conjurer. Conjuration Mages were extremely powerful once they found their Familiars. In a place with as much water as Coastal Sydney, a water Conjurer could go far.
Gwen felt another bout of nerve wrecking anxiousness scrape her stomach-lining. According to her alter-world memory, the first awakening was by far the most important, for one's Primary school of magic determined the most synergetic school that would be available to a caster. To train one’s second school required painstaking repetition, and only those with the talent, experience, and luck of surviving combat in the field ever attained that rare opportunity to master a school beyond the first.
In fact, most Mages remained between tiers 1 to 5, happy with the gainful employment offered by the state's many institutions. The risking of life and limb, after all, wasn't for the everyman. The world outside the city might be full of monsters, but behind Man's Barrier Shields, they could live in relative peace.
“Gwen Song,” called out a voice that sounded to Gwen like a death knell.
The moment of truth, Gwen muttered to herself.
Gwen made her way to the platform and placed her hand on the crystal.
“Relax,” said the instructor.
You RELAX, Gwen thought, I don't even know what the hell I am doing.
Gwen's hand touched the cold stone. In an instant, she felt herself on the verge of collapse. Her clammy perspiration felt like glue on her blouse. She had no idea what was going to happen, and her body felt as though it was trying to shut itself down.
Get a grip! Gwen willed herself, but the body was neglectful of her command; whatever mental synapses that were firing within her physical form was entirely outside of her mental domain.
“Don't be so nervous, place your hand firmly on the crystal,” the instructor commanded.
With a trembling hand, Gwen gripped the crystal.
She felt the mana enter her hand like a surge of electricity, it travelled red hot up her arm and into her body, moving into her spine and surging like molten lead. Her world seemed to expand, her consciousness enveloping the room and extending beyond her physical self. She saw within her mind's eye arcane Sigils that represented the different schools, each cognitive illusions created by her Spellcraft-educated mind, fabricated by ingrained knowledge to make sense from the senseless, to visualise the incomprehensible.
The mana coiled and flowed, connecting her Astral form with her physical body.
Evocation! Evocation! Evocation! Come on! Gwen's current dearest wish was to stick close to Yue until she could figure this world out for herself.
Then a bright Sigil bloomed in her mind.
A golden glow.
But Gwen had no idea what the visions meant.
Then another sigil flared.
A bright and piercing beacon of light.
What the hell does that even mean? Gwen hissed with frustration. Do I touch it? Or talk to it? Is there a supposed to be a voice asking me if I want power?
Then another shade, blue this time, and yet another… a bright orange… a purple mauve… a pale green…
The blur of shades was beyond individual colours now; they seemed to amalgamate into a quickened form of crystalline brightness, brighter than anything Gwen had seen.
The colours blurred and became a nimbus, a twin world of light and darkness.
What the hell is happening? Gwen tried to orientate herself within the LSD light fantastic. What the hell did I awaken? Some strange new school? She better not have awoken in something weird, Gwen would prefer not be taken off to be gene stripped and studied for experimentation after less than 24 hours in this world.
Gwen opened her eyes and looked for her instructor. Maybe he could provide some guidance as to what she had awakened.
“Oh My God!”
“I can’ believe it!”
“Why God? Why not me!!!”
The room became chaotic with wild excitement.
Gwen’s instructor was also looking the other way with a grin on his face split from ear to ear.
“We have a healer!” someone positively shrieked. “Someone can tap into the Plane of Positive Energy!”
A green glow was fading from the other side of the auditorium, the student body crowding around a small girl even shorter than Yue. From her timid posture and gentle face, Gwen recognised the girl as Elvia Lindholm.
The Elvia girl was the invisible sort, but it seemed her existential uncertainty had now come to an end.
Clerics are a rare bird in any neck of the woods, as it required simultaneous awakening in Evocation and Transmutation schools, with the added caveat of having an affinity for the Positive element. Elvia’s blessing of a hybrid Awakening meant that she'd be fast-tracked to attain what common healers would spend a good twenty years trying to accomplish. Elvia - made special by her twist of fate, had become a cherished class of individuals that existed beyond social strata, for the world was always short on healers.
“O happy day!” the Principal harkened loudly.
There had not been a natural healer in the school for almost a decade. Having a healer like Elvia meant Blackwattle would receive a funding boost. The administration would have to hire a specialist to teach her, and the Education Department would be obliged to provide the very best. A school with two healers, a master and student duo! They would be the envy of almost every other school in the district! Usually, only the Selective class of schools had trained arcane healers. The regular school nurse was just a quasi-Cleric trained in applying remedy gels and administering potion-injectors.
Back in the real world, the instructor looked towards Gwen with an awkward, apologetic expression.
“I am sorry Gwen, we got a little distracted there.”
He looked into the mana crystal and saw the pale twinkling light in the glass, a transparent glow that was more daylight than any distinct colour.
“Hmm you have very low affinity…” he noted, but his brows were furrowed, “I don't see a sigil though... or an element...”
What? What do you mean you don't see a sigil? I saw them! I saw all of them! Those squiggly worm-like arcane marks, right? The things that looked like hieroglyphics married into the Hebrew alphabet.
“Could it be that you…found no affinity with any of them?”
The instructor’s unwelcome decree was like a death sentence.
Gwen felt a cold shiver of dreadful premonition on the nape of her neck.
“The transparent nimbus shows that you can tap into the planes and channel mana,” he said with a tone of surety. "But you don't have any affinity with any elements either, it seems. I am afraid you have what we call a null-base."
Not synergistic? Gwen searched through the brief impulse of her memory.
In a moment the anxiety attack that had been kept at bay by her curiosity returned with a force that crippled her. Gwen had to hold onto the pedestal to keep herself steady.
Synergy is a matter that related to how fast a Mage was able to progress in their schools. It also determined the variability of hybrid magic that Mages mastered as they choose their second, and eventually third schools. A poor synergy meant poor mana conversion efficiency. No matter how hard Gwen trained, she would be far behind those with innate talent.
"Careful now." The instructor held Gwen's shoulder in case she collapsed.
A flood of memories assaulted her conscious. Her family was still reeling from a messy separation; her father was a useless waste of space. Her mother had fully expected Gwen to awaken in something rare and precious. Her mother's disapproving scowl flashed before Gwen's eyes, and she felt the paralysis of the proverbial frog staring down a king cobra.
What was this absurd plot twist? What difficulty had her rebirth been cranked? Gwen tried to shrug off the abuse of her native-body, but the compelling force of conditioned biochemistry was far too potent.
Wasn’t she supposed to be overpowered and awakened to be the chosen one? Why isn’t everyone shouting and screaming that she was the Girl who Lived?
Gwen looked at her instructor dumbfounded.
“I am sorry Gwen,” he repeated with a sympathetic face. "But it looks like you’re just a common Mage.”