When she was eleven, Gwen's parents separated. Custody, alimony, property splits, embittered family taking sides and caustic dialogue all took their toll. It had been a terrible time for the teenage Gwen, who through it all, tried to take care of her brother Percy.
In the end, she powered through and believed herself stronger for surviving the drama. She suffered a few psychological tics- but it was nothing a North Shore therapist couldn't resolve, especially aided by pharmacology, the 'magic' of her old world.
She had believed her past behind her, yet here she was, ambushed by her second adolescence.
The district they lived in, Forestville, was primarily for working class Mages and NoM civilians. The streets were narrow and cramped, and her area of the neighbourhood, lovingly designated Zone 11, was filled with stifling habitat blocks smothering one another’s access to sunlight, ensuring that the vast majority of residents lived in permanent shadow.
"Give us a kiss sweetheart!"
"I could play with those legs for days!"
Catcalls from the locals were a common occurrence in Forestville. The district was, after all, filled with unemployed NoMs and luckless Mages half-hanging out of windows in their sweat-stained shirts.
Gwen hastened her pace and made for the apartment.
She paused in front of the gates, attempting to recollect herself. Now that her talent was set in stone, she had people to disappoint.
At the thought of her mother, Gwen shuddered involuntarily.
Her memory threw up the vision of a fierce, beautiful, vivacious existence offset by hare-brained schemes and bouts of irrational jealousy. Mid-life crisis combined with a bi-polar personality had ensured that the old Gwen lived in abject terror of her mother's slightest displeasure.
Her alter-self couldn't understand why her father - Morye Song - a half Russian, half Chinese Abjurer, a ‘success story’ migrant, chose to remain in her mother's orbit.
But Gwen did.
The reason was simple.
Economic reality was a bitch.
The apartment under which she stood belonged not to their father but their mother, or more accurately, her Clan. It was only by their mother's charity that their unambitious, skirt-chasing father could afford a comfortable lifestyle for the kids. Simply put, the economic impetus of a roof over their heads bound Gwen and Percy to their mother, likewise serving as a Sword of Damocles held over the head of her ex-partner.
She pushed through the gate and entered the complex.
The six-storey building did not possess a Levitation platform. The physically demanding ascent gave her more time to catch up with memories of her alter ego.
Her parents had met while studying, catching on like a house on fire. By Gwen's recollection, it should have ended there. Yet, something alike to opposite attract seemed to have found one another, and the easy-going Morye Song married the rebellious Helena Huang.
Of course, the brightest candle burns only half as long, and her mother was gunpowder.
By an age alter-Gwen was old enough to understand, their different upbringings had made them less in kin and more in malice. Helena was an ambitious princess, Morye was a laidback bloke. It was all very Edward Albee.
When Gwen grew up a hale and mundane, tested to reveal precisely nothing by the divisive age of 10, the marriage had reached its limit.
“Your blood is weak,” her mother had announced one day, long before her brother Percy displayed his potential.
The argument escalated, and more than just dinner was destroyed that night.
Then revelation came that her mother had found an old flame, a former admirer, an industrious tier 4 Earthen Enchanter-Magus who had a lingering crush on the vivacious girl of his dreams.
Rationally, it was a reasonably prudent and pragmatic choice. For if and when the Shield Barrier failed, would one prioritise some no-name Barrier Abjurer, or would one preferably be escorted to the nearest Freight-Carrier as the partner of a vital Fabricator?
She ascended the last flight of stairs, out of breath and feeling torn. How should she deal with her parents? Could she even see them as her own? Certainly, they were the biological parents of this body she now inhabited, but-
Gwen turned the handle.
Was her father home? She wondered. Discerning his work schedule at the Barrier Station was difficult. After the divorce, Morye had found rebirth in playing with younger women.
Was a little payback for her mother's possessive ownership over his children? Then again, Gwen reminded herself, in this world or the last, Morye's priority had always been himself.
She arrived at the door, turned the keys, and entered.
Percy was chewing through Allenberg’s Primer for Astral Theory on a desk covered with notes. From the looks of his copy, her brother had sunk far more hours into it than she ever did.
“I am back!” Gwen announced to the world.
“Welcome back Sis,” Percy addressed her.
Gwen dropped off the books in the cramped living room, then slumped into the decaying foam of their two-decade-old couch.
“What you having for avo-tea?” She asked.
“The usual, Sambal Eggs.”
“I'll have it on bread.”
“Do it yourself ya lazy bum!” her brother replied tartly.
"Make it for me! Please?"
"Arrrgh! Stop pinching me!"
Percy made afternoon tea, and the two shared a meal of dubious eggs.
“So…” Percy said finally, “how goes the aptitude test?”
"Evoker, null element," Gwen admitted with a bittersweet tone.
"Congrats!" Percy raised a fork to toast, then realised what his sister had said. "Oh."
"It's fine." Gwen put on a wane smile.
She supposed it was better than being a NoM.
Percy went to a Selective High School, where the guy that no one wanted to pick for a ball game would be minimum tier 2 something. Percy himself was probably tier 3 at worst, higher if he got lucky.
Telling him that she awakened as a no-element Evoker was akin to the old world version of informing a peer on the U Syd Med-track that you managed to get into an Arts degree at a vocation college. She felt embarrassed just saying it.
The peppery-chilli eggs turned to ash in her mouth.
"I am happy for you." Percy tried to say something comforting, but he was just a kid with an adolescent's emotional quotient. Percy's education placed exceptional emphasis on talent, privilege, and the promise of a holier-than-thou future. From the look of consternation on his face, Percy appeared abashed and confused. Gwen knew that Percy of all people would be aware that once they were on their career tracks, he would never see her again except for Christmas dinners. After all, the exact thing happened in their old life together; this world may be different from old Sydney, but many occurrences ran on parallel rails.
"It's okay," Gwen said finally after a moment. "Thanks for caring."
"I'll be in my room, got a lot of work to cover,” Percy replied in kind. He packed the paper plates and dropped them in the bin before returning to his room. "You do the pans."
Gwen growled. This world or that one, she HATED doing the washing.
Gwen pulled her face from the Primer manual spread out in front of her. After another more hours brushing up on theory, she once again felt the itch for some practicum.
Their apartment was built on the top floor and had access to the rooftop, thanks to fire regulations.
Gwen recalled the feeling of trying to summon the Mage Hand and found herself a comfortable spot in the sun. She opened the manuscript of Black’s Transmutation Cantrip for Beginners and turned the page.
Casting Time: 1 minor Incantation
Range: Visual, up to ten metres
Duration: 1 minute + variable
The caster creates a hovering hand capable of manipulating small objects.
Gwen could see why the process was considered arcane. Beyond general advice, there was almost no indication on how to manifest the phenomenon; her manuscript was particular to the author. If she were to peruse different editions, they would possess different annotations.
She calmed her mind and tried to think of nothing, banishing her anxieties and worries for the moment.
Invoke the Sigil.
Channel the mana.
In her mind's eye, she caught sight of a School-less Sigil, requiring no astral attunement. She felt something pour from her thoracic diaphragm and traverse under her skin. A tingling sensation exited her fingers with a lilac spark, then in front of her, a semi-transparent hand manifested.
No, not a hand. It was more like a ‘presence’, a constrained force that was moulded and shaped by her will. She imagined it lifting up her manuscript, and felt the phantom feeling of weight upon her fingers. So that’s why it’s Phantom Hand, Gwen realised. It was much easier to replicate the arcane phenomenon by drawing upon physical synaesthesia.
So that's somatic casting, Gwen mused to herself. Most spells required at least one free hand to indicate direction and expression. It took years of practice to forgo the somatic component, longer to forgo the verbal component.
She played with the telekinetic hand for a minute, lifting and moving pots and plants that littered the rooftop, noting the diminishment of the spell’s effect over time. She wished that there was a numerical value to mana, but apparently, that was too difficult to apply systematically and universally. Additionally, as the spell drained mana from her Astral Body, she could feel the onset of a mental fatigue like the brain drain one felt when trying to solve a complicated equation for too long.
Alright, she told herself. Not a bad start.
Satisfied, she produced another textbook, Otsu's Primer for Evokers, and turned to the only level one Evoker spell without any elemental affinity - the ubiquitous Magic Missile.
Casting Time: 1 Major Incantation
Range: Visual, about 30 - 40 metres
Launch three or more projectiles of force at a designated target. When used in its default capacity, this spell possesses line-of-sight target seeking.
If she registered as a tier 1 Evoker, she would need to be sufficiently proficient in demonstrating an Evocation spell.
Once again, Gwen uttered the invocation for the Evocation school.
It felt stupid completing her invocation with a boisterous 'Magic Missile!', but she had no other instructions to follow.
With measured confidence, her mind tapped into the celestial conduit of the Evocation Sigil. She tried to envision three objects of force, each shaped by a keen edge.
Invoke the Sigil.
Channel the mana.
The expectant thud of three projectiles chipping concrete did not manifest. Instead, a sudden, dizzying sickness overwhelmed her. With a violent start, she doubled over and retch up a serving of fried eggs, curling up upon the concrete pavement like a cooked prawn.
Gwen groaned, keeping her head perpendicularly rested on the side as to avoid choking on her vomit. Insufficient ability to tap into the pathways of magical schools meant that unspent mana fed back into her body, the book had stated as much.
After a quarter of an hour, she returned to the kitchen and washed out her mouth.
No more chilli eggs before practising, Gwen reminded herself.
She then returned to the rooftop and hosed down the area with the garden sprayer.
The Primer inferred that the only way to overcome mana sickness was efficient activation of the Sigil, and that came with experience and talent - ideally a combination of the two.
Gwen steeled her spine, settling again into her mind’s eye.
Another episode of gut-wrenching nausea followed her second attempt.
Right, no solid food before practice, Gwen cleaned up after herself. She felt the slow onset of despair as denial turned to anger.
By her third attempt, Gwen failed to manifest the Sigil. She was mana drained, or as the popular parlance would have it- she was OoM, out of mana.
No blue, no spell. An exacting law of Spellcraft.
Three spells and I am out. Gwen thought to herself, feeling her mana recollect slowly.
The more she failed, the more Gwen grew frightened of what her failure implied. Driven by tenacity as much as anxiety, she continued to experiment well into the evening, choosing to push past the toll it took on her physical body.
When finally the last drop of stomach acid had been dry-heaved, she sat back in a daze and pondered the possibility of accepting her traumatising reality.
She turned again to her books, trawling through every word and paragraph to find some clue. Had she been the scion of some great, influential house, they would have found Tutors, associates and allies to teach her, but Gwen was all on her own, and only she could be the instrument of her metamorphosis.
The mesh door opened behind her.
The baritone voice of her father pierced through the threshold.
“Good Gods!” Her father's eyes widened at the terrifying state of the rooftop, filled with scrunched kitchen wipes and the contents of his daughter’s digestive tract.
“Hey Dad,” Gwen replied weakly.
“Gwen! What are you doing! You little Idiot! You can’t rush these things!” Her father’s voice unusually worried and tender. He extended a hand and Gwen took it, feeling her father's affirming grip retrieve her from the floor.
“I know, Dad. I had a long day, that's all,” Gwen returned. She regarded her other-father in the light of the mauve, dying sun, and saw in his eyes genuine worry.
The Morye of this world was ruggedly handsome, with a chiselled jawline and high cheekbones carried over from his Eastern European heritage. His eyes, two dark brown orbs, were soft and gentle. Curiously, he was a few centimetres shorter than his teenage daughter, although considering her six-foot height, his limited stature was barely noticeable until they stood side by side. An imperturbable man of carefree nature, there was a quiet masculinity in Morye that seemed to attract particular types of women.
“Thanks for asking,” Gwen answered softly, struggling to erase the edge in her voice.
“Don’t be so cold,” her father responded, sensing the distance in his daughter. “Come on. I bought some wonderful stuff for dinner.”
She returned with him down into the apartment, where Percy was setting up the dinner table.
“Roast wild quail,” her father stated. “From the Wildlands. It should help you replenish your mana.”
Unlike domesticated beasts, many of the flora and fauna that lived beyond the human cities possessed qualities beneficial to Mages.
The culinary fare was another point of disparity that made Gwen’s desire to equalise her position more difficult. The scion of a wealthy Magus family would have consumed nought but quasi-magical diets throughout his or her life, and in a world where every ounce of mana counted, it made a significant difference.
“Let's eat,” Percy begged. “I am a growing kid!”
“Alright, go ahead." Gwen chuckled, sliding into her seat as her family dug into the food.
“I am happy that you made it as a Mage,” her father said when the quail had gone the way of the dodo.
“I am glad too,” Gwen remarked, unconvinced.
“So, an Evoker huh?” Her father grinned. "It’s a great school for progression, pretty good for getting out there into the Green and Orange Zones.”
“Yeah.” Gwen nodded, wondering if she should confess to her father that she was not technically a true Evoker, merely registered as one.
“If there’s anything you need…” her father began.
As her memories continued to meld, Gwen felt torn by a dissonance of logic and emotion. Her unbidden memories threw up a brief vision of her father disinterestedly watching her mother dash their dinner to pieces, sardonically putting an apathetic cigarette to his lips as she screamed and raged. The whole while, Percy hid in her room while Gwen had peeked from a gap in between her bedroom door.
“It's okay Dad." Gwen recovered from the disturbing recollection. “I’ll manage, and I’ll let you know if I need anything, I promise.”
“Alright.” Her father smiled wearily, unsurprisingly breathing out with evident relief. "You’re a big girl. You let me know.”
With dinner over, Gwen wanted to return to the rooftop, but her father disallowed it, citing the disturbance it would cause to neighbours if they saw disorganised, impulsive flashes of mana blasting from their building.
“Hey, before you go…” the man continued. Gwen could see her father's Adam's apple bobbing back and forth. It was a tic, her father always did this when he was forcing himself to commit to something.
“Your grandfather gave me this when I came into my talent.” Morye removed a jade pendant in the shape of a Kirin, a mythical chimaera. “I want to give it to you, now that you too have become a Mage.”
Gwen took the pendant in her hand and felt the residual warmth remaining on the jade.
“Thanks, Dad, I'll cherish it,” Gwen replied, feeling surprised at her father's offer. From the corner of her eye, she could see Morye staring at the jade longingly for a moment more. When she looped the pendant on her neck, he seemed to resign himself to his decision.
“I am glad to give it,” he said finally, giving Gwen the expression of one releasing some great burden.
“Is it special in any way?” Gwen asked gingerly, testing the waters.
“It brings fertility and fortune.” Her father laughed to himself.
“Please be serious,” Gwen asserted coldly.
“I have no idea.” Her father shrugged. “It's a keepsake from the old country.”
“From Grandfather?” Gwen pushed the question a little more. Her father had very few triggers - though questioning how their family had become lost in the Old Country was one of them.
“Go get some rest.” As expected, her father 's answer became evasive. A look of weathered annoyance spread across his scowling face.
“You have a big day ahead," he warned her. “You need to report to your mother.”
Her supper immediately threatened rebellion.
"I am going to sleep."
With dinner concluded, Gwen retired to her room.
She slipped into a hot shower, summoning the meditative Zen of shower thoughts.
What a day.
She woke up firmly wedged between a rock and a hard place.
Despite her best and most ardent attempts, it was impossible to invoke that damn Evocation Sigil. She had spent so much of her time reeling from illness, that she could not successfully evoke a tier 1 spell.
A tier 1 spell! Gwen baulked at the thought. What would happen when she had to practice spells with two-digit incantations? Would her head explode like a crushed melon?
Little wonder, so few people make it past Magus, she thought to herself. The mental toll could crack one's brain like an egg.
Exhausted, she returned to the same bed from which she awoke, its sheets still unmade.
Hopefully, when she woke up again, it would be beside seaside Sydney.