Gwen Song awoke to the melody of Grande Valse blaring at full volume.
She reflexively reached for the blaring device.
Good grief, she thought to herself. I must have drunk more than I thought. There was an office party, things had gotten rowdy, but why the hell had her phone taken a nostalgia trip back to the naughties? She better not have drunk dialled anyone.
With a wandering hand, she groped for her smartphone, then 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 an 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-
ABC Alert ~ 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, her tender fingers fumbling the unwieldy device. When was the last time she had held a phone with buttons?
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 in God's name? Her mind felt like a ball of wool. What the hell happened to my phone? Did someone steal her phone and swap it out for a Nokia 3310? 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 more akin to a tablet. A stone tablet? Was it paper-ink?
Gwen turned the device over.
There was no battery slider.
Her brain wasn't working.
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 staff who were sober enough to send her to a hospital.
On a sore note, her body felt like the morning after City to Surf.
Had her workaholic weekends and 2 AM insomnias finally caught up?
Gwen forced herself to calm down.
First, she had to orientate herself.
She was sleeping on a single bed.
More importantly, she wasn't naked or anything. She wore her PJs. For some reason, her silk nightie had transformed into coarse cotton. A sloppy, cheap-looking duvet covered her body. The print was vaguely familiar, a horrid, half-faded floral design commonly used for IKEA curtains.
The room was cramped, and the ceiling was low and oppressive.
The heck? Gwen's mind scrambled for details. Isn't this my bedroom? From when I was a kid?
Why was she in the bedroom of her teenagehood? What the hell happened to her bayside home? Her French-windowed abode which she bought with sweat, blood, and less-than-honest tax returns?
The bedroom within which she now occupied had existed in the distant past - when she was still in high school and living with her divorced father.
"What the fuck?!" She declared to the general air.
Despite her best efforts, the memory of her last conscious hours was a scrambled mess of whites and yellows.
Think! She closed her eyes, trying 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.
Here was her old home. Her original home. The apartment she grew up as a girl-child. Over yonder was the worn desk she had piled her laundry on. There was the basket for her dirty laundry. To her right was her study desk, which her father sometimes used as a Mahjong table. She could even see 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.
Her head split.
Not literally, of course, though it certainly felt like it did.
The headache that came on was like a jackhammer chipping away against the interior of her skull. Memories which she could not recall earlier flooded her brain, straining against the back of her eyes like two fingers pressed against her optic nerves. If anything, the sensation was akin to the time she had forgotten to take her quinine tablets in Brazil and had malaria shitting on her brain for a week.
I have an aptitude test today. A stray thought boomed across Gwen's consciousness.
No, you don't, Gwen dissuaded the voice in her head. You just had a staff party where you celebrated your consultancy's second anniversary. You drank and danced and forgot all about what cheap Rosè could do to a woman who was no longer in her twenties.
Today is an important day.
Another thought, unbidden, solicited her mind, accompanied by gut-wrenching anxiety. Her chest convulsed. She couldn't breathe.
I need to go to the Awakening Test.
Gwen fought back the acid 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 voice ceased.
She ran a hand over her forehead and found it covered in perspiration.
Now calmer, Gwen once again attempted to ascertain her present condition.
She ran her hands over the rough blanket cover; it was most definitely Made in China and likely from Target. Her abused teenage body knew the roughness well; during summer, the stifling fabric gave her hives.
"Alright," she whispered to herself. Her mind remained sceptical of her new reality even as her senses seemed helplessly invested in this new reality. Cynically, she pinched herself hard on the thighs until a welt appeared and her eyes moistened.
"Shit," Gwen affirmed her worst fears. "Now what?"
The small bedroom was as stifling as she remembered. There was a smell of mould coming from the ensuite.
Her monologue was interrupted by her bedroom door opening. Instantly, she 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 peeped in with a face still drugged with sleep.
“Dad called and said you have to get up now,” he murmured. “It's your PMAE today.”
Gwen quietly regarded the boy, mindful of any buttons or cross-stitching that would reveal a skin-suit.
Percy was her brother, an athletically-inclined adolescent with olive skin and large luminous eyes. He had thick lips of their mother, taking after the family's mixed 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 for decency.
"Hey! Get out of here!" she yelled angry nothings at Percy even as he yawned disinterestedly, then removed himself.
When she rubbed her eyes, her fingers came away with crusty chunks of dried mucus.
Hmm, Gwen crushed the particles between her fingers. Had she been crying?
With her brother gone, she pulled herself out of bed. There was a full-length mirror that ran the length of her built-in-wardrobe. Now that she was up, it was a good opportunity to ensure that all the pieces of her body were present.
What Gwen saw was the reflection of a dark-haired girl who was a little underfed but reasonably proportioned and filled in the right places. She had the pale skin and high cheekbones of her mixed father but had inherited her mother's eyes. Her striking eyes, afflicted with central heterochromia, possessed a centre iris speckled with amber, fading to dark hazel, hinting at her cosmopolitan origins.
Gwen pulled on her earlobes, watching her simulacrum wince.
So it was true.
She was indeed back in her teenagehood.
After a moment of deliberation, she removed her pyjamas.
The result was ambivalent.
When she had struck the big Three-O, she had wondered about her adolescent body. Would she have loved or loathed it? The only strangeness was her paleness. She was unusually pallid, almost as if she'd rarely seen the sun. By her recollection, she had spent the whole summer of 2001 hawking ice cream at Bondi and learning to surf. As a result, her limbs had acquired a healthy tan. Her present physique was far from fit, in fact, it was a little anorexic.
Gwen dug through the wardrobe and found something to wear. You're in the 00's; she reminded herself, don't get your hopes up.
She straight away ignored the flannel section of the wardrobe and arrived at a pair of cut-off jeans and a white tapered tee.
Gwen was one of those girls that had matured early.
As early as Primary School she had been mistaken for an older teen, experiencing the coming-of-age of those whose bodies developed before their minds. She had been denied children’ fares at carnivals and accosted by boys who thought her older. Once, she was propositioned by a middle-aged man who offered to buy her whatever she wanted.
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 Awakening.”
There was that word again, Gwen thought to herself as another wave of nauseating nervousness bowled her over.
"Get out!" she hissed. Percy fled.
She held herself against the mirror until the buzzing went away.
A little immodestly, she performed a self-examination.
It wasn't that time of the month.
Go to the test. The voice reiterated. I can't fail the test.
"Shut up!" Gwen gritted her teeth.
Mother will be so angry if I miss it. The voice continued as if thinking aloud.
"Fine! I'll go!" Gwen forced herself to stand.
The persistent presence faded.
She searched through her wardrobe again and located her blouse and skirt. She remembered being horrid at chores, 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. She Googled her fragmented memory and found the school blazer hanging in a separate section of the closet.
She changed to the new attire.
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 a 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, the family was on a limited budget.
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.
“Thanks,” Gwen replied, 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.
Following an internal, subconscious compass, she managed to board a train for the city.
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 humming 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 post-industrial Spellcraft age.
The journey towards Blackwattle Bay was enlightening. In her brave new world, trains ran on ley-lines, the means by which the city sustained its quasi-magical mechanics. All around her, geo-dynamic mana powered all of the city's infrastructure, the most valuable of which was the Shield Barriers.
A Shield what? Gwen pinched her brows.
Another bout of paranoia assailed her. Shuddering 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.
Strewth, what a mess! She swore internally. The infodump taxed her nerves. Apathetic to her distress, the soundless carriage silently made its way on enchanted rails into the heart of the city. Soon, Gwen found herself among like-patterned uniforms walking to school.
The day was Saturday, the day of the Aptitude Test, A.K.A 'The Awakening'.
'Awakening' to what though?
Magic - or so it would seem, the aptitude exam was for one's affinity for Spellcraft.
Mages? Magic?! Gwen shook her head, attempting to make sense of her new lexicon. Where the hell had she ended up? Was this a Harry Potter thing? Was a Proctor going to inform her that she was a wizard?
Gwen wracked her mind for details but found only acid reflux. She couldn't help but wondered if her new teenage body had a stomach ulcer, or at least, a better reason for roving from one nervous wreck to another.
Then her memories caught up.
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 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, one's aptitude for different Schools of Magic was entirely random.
Each individual from a Mage-blooded lineage had only one chance at awakening. Though the chances of becoming a Mage varied from geography to geography, the odds were rarely kind. Moreover, the convergence of genetic, physical and intellectual potential to rise to Magus, Magister and beyond were as rare as hen's teeth.
As for the vast majority of humanity, they were non-magical citizens, lovingly called NoMs. Hers 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. Among the numberless multitudes, there was a rare chance that they too, could awaken to Magic.
I can't fail the test! She reminded herself.
Okay! Fine! Gwen battered away her spirit of PMAE past.
She ruminated on her new knowledge.
So... this world was a Magical Apartheid, Gwen bit her lower lip as the unpleasant epiphany traversed her mind. Moreover, her imminent 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 inebriation prior? She had worked tirelessly to had a staff and company of her own, collecting a devoted team over a decade of trials and tribulations. They just had their second anniversary, and she had just renovated her house by the bay. Now she had to start over, reset her life?
She cursed under her breath and trudged with resentment towards her destination. In the distance, the Blackwattle campus appeared more extraordinary than her memory served. 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 rang out from the multitude of bobbing students walking the steep incline to the school's gymnasium.
Gwen turned to see a short, spry Asian girl rushing towards her with two imposing masses that rioted as she ran, her face round 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!"
Gwen recognised the overfamiliar girl as Yue, a Shanghainese girl whose family immigrated from the Pearl of the China Sea. Her china-doll face was milk white and porcelain, punctuated by the small pink of her mouth. Her eyes, two luminous crescents beset by prominent lashes, seemed to swallow Gwen with their softness.
"..." The sight of a friend she had not seen for a decade took the words right out of her mouth.
Yue Bai had been her closest and dearest friend back in high school, though 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.
Her alter-ego was still hoving around somewhere in the dark recess of her brain, dredging up recollections as she went about her business like the Ghost of Banquo hanging over his murderer's shoulder.
Beside her, Yue began an endless stream of small talk.
Gwen listened as her old friend chittered excitedly about the latest gossip; who got tested for what; who got picked for what scholarship; what 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 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 Prefect.
Upon the podium, the Principal began to speak.
“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, possessed a sonorous voice which boomed across the assemblage.
“Students! The Path of Spellcraft is glorious but fraught with danger and risk! Upon the PATH, you will be beset by countless temptations: forbidden knowledge, creatures horrid and terrifying, atrocities against humankind! But the way of Spellcraft is the way of survival, for only through magic can humanity eke out their place in the world. Make no mistake, let not the comfort of your daily lives confuse you. We are beset on all sides by forces far greater than Humanity itself. Compared to the creatures of the Wildlands, we are weak. Compared to the creatures of the Deep, we are few. Compared to the creatures of the Elemental Planes, we are mortal!"
"Yet WHY is it that Man persists upon the Earth? Why has man survived the aeons to establish our civilisation against all the odds? Against natural selection? It is because, in Spellcraft, we are united! We, the human race, are united in our dream of carving out our Eden!"
A cheer broke through the principal's oration. In the next moment, his voice took on a new intensity and volume.
"The PMAE is only the first step, but it is a significant one. It will define who you are and what you aspire to be. Do not fret; there is a place in our world for everyone. No matter your talent, you will be appreciated! The survival of one requires the survival of all!"
Thunderous applause greeted the Principal as the students roared their collective approval. The Principal motioned for calm, and the cacophony ceased. Gwen clapped along with those beside 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 schools of Spellcraft are sacred, be you Citizen, Mage, Magus, or even Magister - Only UNITED, can human civilisation push back the tide of the Wildlands seeking to subsume us."
Compared to their earlier applause, this one was more demure.
Perhaps each student was thinking of their chances at the hands of Fortuna, the lady of fate, pondering whether they would awaken to glory or anonymity.
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 monsters that threatened one's home? To speed up the limitations of time itself, and at the zenith of one's 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 ANZAC heroes whose statues adorned public squares, whose stories shaped their lives and their childhoods.
Gwen felt more memories of the past suffusing her present. Facing the dais and its ominous stone of destiny, something inside her chose to flee rather 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 a tidal pool at dusk.
Survival of humankind?
Magic to rule the world?
Cheat fate and escape death?
WHAT KIND OF A BLOODY WORLD IS THIS?