Gwen awoke to the melody of Grande Valse blaring at full volume.
Conditioned by the habits of the early 2000s, she reflexively reached for her phone.
Good grief, she thought to herself. I must have been more drunk than I thought. There was an office party, but what the hell had happened to her ringtone? She better not have lost her work phone.
Gwen groped for the smartphone and made the familiar sliding gesture to unlock. Instead, her fingers encountered the unfamiliar sensation of physical buttons. She must have pressed the right one though, for the device began to blast some auto-play sound stream.
BBC World Service:
Red Dragon douses London in Sea of Flames, over two hundred dead. Suspected terrorists from Yemen placed a stolen egg on Metro. Authorities have linked activities to similar incidents involving Magical Creatures carried out by the Anti-Tower cabal known as Spectre-
Red Dragon terrorises the London Metro. Hundreds killed, thousands injured. Magister Livingstone, Mayor of London, calls the incident a day of infamy-
More terrorism, Gwen thought wistfully, finally finding the phone's mute button.
Slowly, synapses dulled by Moet & Chandon fired up one by one.
Gwen checked the date, fumbling the unwieldy device with fingers that felt tender and strange.
She was sure it was September 21st, but the year appeared to be missing a decade and a half. It was 2017 when she went to sleep, but now it was 2001.
What the hell? Her mind was a ball of wool. What the hell happened to my phone? Did someone steal her phone and swap it out for a Nokia 3350? That would explain the ringtone.
But it wasn't a Nokia either. The strange device consisted of a ceramic-seeming material, and the screen looked nothing like back-lit LED.
Hell, the screen was some form of a tablet? A stone tablet? Was it paper-ink?
Did she get roofied? In her own company, at her very own corporate party? That would be absurd. Even if she did, there were security guards and trained staff that should be sober enough to send her to a hospital.
On a more sour note, her entire body felt like she had hit the cross trainer four days straight.
Had her workaholic ways and 2 AM insomnias finally caught up?
Gwen pulled her bed covers and found herself in a room that was at once familiar and alien.
Her immediate surroundings consisted of a single bed. A sloppy, cheap-looking bed duvet cover modestly covered her body. The pattern looked vaguely familiar; it was a design she had not seen for over a decade.
The room was cramped and the ceiling low and oppressive.
The heck? Isn't this my bedroom? From when I was a kid? Gwen's mind scrambled for details of her last recollections.
Where was her bedroom? Her bayside home? Her two-decade-long mortgaged house that she finally bought with sweat, blood, and less-than-honest tax returns?
The room which she now occupied had once existed in her life, but it was a relic from the distant past when she was still in high school and living with her divorced father.
A sound of scratching caught her attention, and she looked down to see her beloved dog, Rin.
"What the fuck!" Gwen pulled the sheets around her chest.
In her memory, the mutt had already passed away. She had been grief-stricken by its passing, finding solace only in the fact that she no longer suffered from its room-clearing farts.
The 'pet' that accosted her was a dog only in the generic sense of the word. It was a mutt-like creature in the shape of a Shitzu-Maltese, but it had a blue gem embedded in the middle of its adorable face.
Gwen commanded her memory to pull itself up by the bootstraps, but her mind was a scrambled mess of whites and yellows. Her rational cognisance tried to take the helm, but the rudders were missing entirely. When she again tried to orientate her bearings, what remained of her common sense mutinied.
The creature regarded Gwen with soulful brown liquid eyes and gave her cold feet a wet lick. Its tongue was rough, more akin to that of cats.
Gwen retracted her feet in apprehension.
Once again, she tried her best to ingest the scene in front of her.
I should know this place, she told herself. Think! Gwen! Think!
In fragments, her memory came to her.
Here was her old home. Her original home. The apartment she grew up as a girl-child. There was the worn desk she piled her clothes on. There was the basket for her dirty laundry. There was the dog's basket. There was her study desk, which her father used as a Mahjong table. Upon it were her study guides.
But where she expected to see volumes on chemistry, physics, and literature, she instead saw thick bound volumes with strange names like:
Allenberg’s Primer for Astral Theory.
Otsu's Primer for Evokers.
Gwen felt the coming on of a sudden headache and felt a sudden throbbing of blended memories violently clashing within the confines of her fevered brain. It felt like that time she had forgotten to take her quinine tablets in Brazil and had malaria shitting on her mind for a week.
I have an aptitude test today. A stray thought struck Gwen's consciousness.
No, Gwen tried to dissuade the voice in her head. You just had a staff party where you celebrated your second year as a Consultancy. You drank and danced and forgot all about your shitty tolerance for cheap Rosè.
Today is an important day.
Another thought, unbidden, solicited her mind, accompanied by gut-wrenching anxiety that almost bowled her over.
No! Gwen fought back the acid reflux threatening to escape her oesophagus. Jesus Christ, someone must have slipped LSD into her drink. Now she was hearing voices in her head!
"Shut up!" Gwen threatened the ceiling.
The voices ceased.
She tried to collect her thoughts calmly and assess the situation.
Gwen ran her hands over the blanket covers; it was most definitely Made in China and likely from Target. Her abused teenage body knew the roughness well. She observed the methodical chaos around her; the room was a pigsty.
"Alright," she whispered to herself. Her mind remained sceptical of her new reality. Gwen pinched herself on the thighs until a welt appeared and her eyes moistened.
"Shit," she affirmed her worst fears.
The small bedroom was as stifling as she remembered.
Her internal monologue was interrupted by her bedroom door opening. Gwen felt her blood run cold. Trapped in a strange parallel world that was not her own, who or what could be coming through that door?
The door opened.
It was her brother, Percy, who came into the room with a face still drugged with sleep.
“Dad called and said you have to get up now,” he murmured. “It's your Awakening today.”
Gwen quietly regarded the boy before her, mindful of any buttons or cross-stitching that revealed him to be wearing a skin-suit.
Percy was her brother, an able-bodied youth with olive tanned skin and large luminous eyes. He had thick lips, taking after their absent mother, who was herself a mishmash of Chinese and South East Asian heritage.
Gwen pulled the cover over her collarbones and scowled at her brother. What kind of an idiot barges into the room of their teenage sister? She was hardly dressed to be decent in public.
"Hey! Get out of here!" Gwen yelled angry nothings at Percy; the boy yawned disinterestedly before removing himself.
Watching the door slam, Gwen pulled herself out of bed. There was a giant wall-length mirror that ran the length of the built-in-wardrobe, and Gwen took the opportunity to inspect her present condition for any deformities or, God forbid, additions.
What she saw was the reflection of a girl that was a little underfed but reasonably proportioned and filled in the right places. Gwen had the pale skin and high cheekbones of her father, but the dark hair of her oriental mother. Her eyes, hazel and speckled with yellow and green, hinted at exotic and cosmopolitan origins.
Not bad, Gwen had to conclude. She had a pleasant body to gaze upon, even if a little anorexic in places. Her figure was better than she recalled.
When Gwen had struck the big Three-Zero, she had wondered about her old teenage body. Would she have loved or loathed it? The only strangeness was her paleness. She was unusually pale, almost as if she'd rarely seen the sun. In the past, she had spent the whole summer selling ice cream in Bondi to pay for some new wardrobe, and her face, arms, and legs had acquired a healthy tan.
Gwen dug through the wardrobe and found something to wear. Here was the closet of the 00s; she reminded herself, and that she shouldn't get her hopes up.
She straight away ignored a particularly orderly section of the wardrobe. Instead, she found jeans and a white tee-shirt.
Gwen was one of those girls that had matured early.
As early as Primary School she had been mistaken for a late teenager and suffered the dubious experiences of those whose bodies developed before their minds. She was denied children’ fares at carnivals and accosted by boys who thought her older. Once, a businessman tried to proposition her, and she had to go straight to the cop-stop to report the scoundrel.
The door opened again; it was Percy.
“Why are you in your Sunday clothes?” he questioned in his youthful voice, “You need to be in your uniform for the Aptitude Test.”
A wave of nauseating nervousness struck Gwen as the words left her brother's mouth.
"Get out!" she hissed, and Percy fled.
Gwen held herself against the mirror until the buzzing went away.
I need to go to the test. An intrusive thought made itself pronounced.
"Shut up!" Gwen gritted her teeth.
It's important. Mother will be so angry if I miss it. The voice continued as if thinking to itself.
"Fine! I'll go!" Gwen forced herself to stand.
She searched through her wardrobe again and located the ironed uniform. She was horrid at chores, and her father had always been wildly negligent, so it must have been her brother who had collected and packed the laundry.
Good on you, Percy boy! Gwen made a note to thank her brother later. Gwen Googled her fragmented memory and found the blazer hanging in a separate section of the closet.
The Blackwattle High School senior uniform was a little loose around the bust but appeared otherwise handsome and prim. A grey-white tartan skirt, a navy blazer, and white blouse gave the costume the feeling of a private academy. There was a vest as well, but Gwen had forgone it for reasons of cost.
An alarm went off on her phone.
“You’re going to be late for the train!” her brother called out.
Gwen swore under her breath and opened the door to see Percy with a piece of toast packed in foil, the smell of acrid Vegemite and butter filled the air.
“Thank me later.” He grinned, revealing pearly white teeth. “And bring back lunch. I want shawarma from Fatima’s.”
“Thanks,” Gwen said, her teenage voice sounding strange as it reverberated through her skull. She had wanted more time to recollect herself, but the urgency of having to attend the Aptitude Test hastily drove her through the door.
* * *
The streets of Sydney's CBD were the same old familiar concrete and bitumen, but the transportation had shifted from the growl of fossil fuel into the thrum of glowing mana cores. For the moment, Gwen was glad that no airship sailed through the horizon like some dystopian Metropolis. For some reason, her newly amalgamated memories told her that mechanised flight remained one of the great puzzles of the age.
The journey towards Blackwattle Bay, however, was an entirely new enlightening experience. In her brave new world, trains ran on ley-lines, the means by which the city sustained its mana-constructs. In fact, mana powered all the infrastructure, the most important of which was the Shield Barriers.
A Shield what? Gwen tapped her head.
Another bout of paranoia assailed her. Unbidden memories informed her that humanity was hardly safe in this world, that despite the rule of Mageocracy over the Earth, much of it remained under the control of Demi-humans and Magical Creatures. The average man could only survive in safe enclaves, protected by magical barriers against the unknowable world beyond the shield barriers.
That's bloody horrible! Gwen felt stressed by the infodump. Apathetic to her distress, the soundless carriage silently made its way on enchanted rails into the heart of the city, and soon Gwen found herself among like-patterned uniforms walking to school.
The day was Saturday, the day of the Awakening, A.K.A the Aptitude Test.
Gwen wracked her mind for details of this 'Aptitude Test' and found the answer accompanied by a flight of butterflies fleeing her chest.
Wherein her old world had the SAT and the HSC, this world had the dreaded Projected Magical Aptitude Exam or PMAE for short. It was a make or break moment that determined whether one went on to become elites in society, or drones, working old and weary bones to maintain the city and its resource stockpiles.
What was worse was that unless one was born into a particular bloodline, the aptitude for different schools of magic was entirely random.
Each Mage had only one chance at awakening. Though the chances of becoming a Mage varied from geography to geography, the odds were 1 in a 100. Furthermore, the potential to rise to Magus, Magister and beyond were as rare as hen's teeth. The other percentile of humans were non-magical citizens, lovingly called NoMs. Here was a world where NoMs lived in the shadows of the Mages, working diligent lives as administrators, service personnel and labourers of manufactorums that churned out the necessities of life.
Mages? Magic? Gwen shook her head to make sense of her new lexicon. Where the hell had she ended up? Was this a Lord of the Rings thing?
I can't fail the test! She reminded herself.
Okay! Fine! Gwen battered away the ethereal thoughts.
Right, so this is world existed within a Magical Apartheid, Gwen bit her lower lip as the unpleasant epiphany crossed her mind. Moreover, this stupid Aptitude ordeal seemed especially dubious. Was her memory informing her that a single test determined if she would be a worker ant or an august queen?
Moreover, it was a test she had no control over.
That seemed ridiculous to Gwen, whose old world at least entertained the illusion of egalitarian meritocracy.
What of the life she'd been living only one drunken slumber ago? She had worked tirelessly to build her start-up company, collecting devoted staff over a decade of trials and tribulations. They just had their IPO, and she had renovated her bedroom by the bay. To start over, to begin again from scratch? How was that fair?
She cursed under her breath and trudged with resentment towards her destination. In the distance, the Blackwattle campus seemed more significant, more extraordinary than her memory recalled. An entire wing of buildings appeared appended to the existing sandstone facade that loomed over the bay. The Fish Market next door, the largest of its kind in Sydney, bustled with semi-magical bounty taken from the sea.
A chirpy voice called from the multitude of bobbing students walking the steep incline to the school hall.
Gwen turned to see a short, spry Asian girl rushing towards her with two imposing masses that rioted as she ran, her face rounded with adorable baby fat.
“Gwen Gwen!” The girl embraced Gwen and landed a quick peck on her cheek. “Ooo! I missed you so much! I am beyond HAPPY that we're doing the Aptitude Test in the same school!"
The overfamiliar girl was Yue, a Shanghainese girl whose family migrated from the Pearl of the China Sea - the Magical Capital of China. She had large, luminous brown eyes and prominent lashes that seemed to swallow Gwen with their softness. Her china-doll face was milk white and porcelain, punctuated by the small pink of her mouth.
The sight of a friend she had not seen for a decade stunned her into silence. Yue Bai had been her closest and dearest friend back in high school, but they had quickly drifted apart once their careers took them across different parts of the world.
“It's only been a month.” Gwen smiled back, trying not to be too obvious that the Gwen whom Yue had known wasn't in the driving seat.
Gwen felt that the alter-ego was still hoving around somewhere; not unlike the proverbial Ghost of Hamlet's father hanging over the poor Prince's shoulder.
Beside her, Yue opened her mouth and began an endless stream of small talk.
Gwen listened to her old friend chat excitedly about the latest gossip; who awakened in what. Who got picked for what scholarship. Which was the best element to pair with what School of Magic.
When the duo finally made their way into the hall, the rest of the student body was already waiting in the grand auditorium.
The headmaster and the instructors were in militant dress uniforms that reminded Gwen of decorated soldiers on ANZAC Day. She looked around the hall for more familiar faces but was quickly shuffled into place by a senior prefect.
“Students, staff, members of the chancellory, welcome to the 2001 PMAE. This exam is carried out statewide on junior-entering-senior, Year 10 students. In a moment, you will be asked to approach the dais and place your hand on the awakening crystal...”
A murmur spread across the auditorium as the officious announcement reverberated through the air. The Principal, a raven-haired man of advanced age, began to speak in a sonorous and resonating voice that boomed across the assemblage.
“Students! The Path of the Mage is glorious but fraught with danger and risk! Upon THE PATH, you will be beset by countless temptations, forbidden knowledge, and creatures horrid and terrifying. But the Path of Spellcraft is the Path of humanity, for only through Magic can man eke out their place in the world. For we are beset on all sides by forces far greater than Humanity itself. Compared to the creatures of the Wild Land, we are weak and physically vulnerable. Compared to the creatures of the Deep, we are few. Compared to the creatures of the Aether, we are mortal and fragile!"
"Yet WHY is it that Man persists upon the Earth? Why has man survived the aeons to build our civilisation where only natural selection would have won? It is because we are Mages, and we are united! We, the human race, are united in our dream of creating Eden!"
A cheer broke through the principal's oration. In the next moment, his voice took on a new intensity and volume.
"Know that this is a test not just of who you are, but also who you will be, what you aspire to be. Know that this is a test not just of what we are, but what we will be, what the human race will become generation after generation!"
Thunderous applause greeted the Principal as the student body roared their collective approval.
The Principal motioned for calm, and the cacophony ceased. Gwen clapped with those around her, not wanting to appear the stranger.
"All of you here already have affinity…. your studies in junior high have proven that you are worthy!” the Principal announced confidently, “Some of you, perhaps, may even become Magus… but know that all paths of Spellcraft are sacred, be you Citizen, Mage, Magus, or even Magi - Only TOGETHER Can human civilisation push back the tide of creatures that seek to subsume it."
Compared to the earlier applause, this one was more demure.
Perhaps each student thinking of their chances at the hands of Fortuna, the lady of fate. Glory or be forgotten, now was the moment of truth.
After all, the Principal had told a compelling truth. Who would not wish to possess the power of destruction and creation? Who would not desire to wield the raw elements of nature, to freeze one's foes with shards of eldritch ice? To blast apart the creatures that threatened one's home? To speed up the limitations of time itself, and at the zenith of power; laugh in the face of Death himself?
Infinite examples extolled these students. There were far too many Vid-casts they grew up on, far too many heroes whose statues adorned public squares, whose stories shaped their lives and their childhoods.
Gwen felt the memories of her old-self suffuse her present. Facing the dais and its ominous stone of destiny, something inside her chose to flee than face the music. Anxiety both her own and not her own assailed her body. She felt numb, numb for the world she found herself in, stunned by the chaos of emotions and thoughts that overwhelmed her like the flooding of a tidal pool.
Survival of humankind?
Magic to rule the world?
Cheat fate and escape death?
WHAT KIND OF A BLOODY WORLD IS THIS?