Alesia returned to find the girls sharing a meal of military rations for supper, feeling the unspeakable texture of mystery meat caressing their revolted taste buds. Even in a world of Spellcraft, rations remained optically unrecognisable nutritional sludge.
“You want in on the Officer’s mess?” Alesia laughed when Gwen told her that she had just eaten a meat pie in liquid form. “We had a three-course meal, choice of steak, fish, or chicken, all Wildland cuts.”
The girls were indeed interested. Alesia promised to send them something nice at her earliest opportunity.
“I am going to have to borrow Gwen for a few days, a week tops,” Alesia then informed Yue and Elvia. “Gwen has seen too much, so we’re going to have to brainwipe her.”
“What!” Elvia leapt from her bunk.
“She’s joking Evee, yeesh…” Yue pulled Elvia down. “You're joking, right?”
Alesia chuckled. Full of uncertainty, the girls awkwardly reciprocated the mirth.
“I promise you Gwennie will be fine,” Alesia stated, glancing at Gwen.
Gwennie? Gwen made a face. Am I a stray cat?
“When do we leave?” Gwen asked.
“How about now?”
Gwen looked over toward her friends, who both possessed expression suggesting they weren't ready to be parted so soon.
“Is tomorrow possible?” Gwen guiltily requested of Alesia.
“Sure, I’ll make the arrangements with Paul, he'll appreciate the rest.”
“Thank you, Ma’am," Gwen answered gratefully.
Alesia casually dismissed Gwen's gratitude.
“Your school is going to have some major disruptions as the new Instructors come in, so expect to stay home or at your dorms over the next few weeks.”
The three inclined their heads. By now the news of the Instructors who had perished had spread, extinguishing the gleeful, come what may attitude of the cohort.
“See you tomorrow!”
As the night crept in, the girls pushed their bunks together and again slept side by side, feeling safer for the familiar company.
Jun and Henley came to visit, thanking Yue profusely for taking charge of the chaotic situation. Their Diviner had yet to recover from the cataclysmic event, his happy-go-lucky lustre succumbing instead to a numbing depression. Jun himself likewise took on a stoic air, assuming an attitude that was no longer convivial.
Unlike the girls in First Year, the boys would have their final exams in three months, after which they would be graduating. With all future Field Trips cancelled or delayed, their military commissions were no longer guaranteed.
After the boys said their goodbyes, the girls turned to their futures, speculative as it may be at the given moment.
“I am sticking with the military track,” Yue declared after organising her thoughts. “We all have to enrol as soon as we turn sixteen anyway, so I am going to apply for an officer cadetship position.”
Gwen wondered if she should inform Yue about Alesia’s intentions, though she knew better than to run her mouth. Her bombastic companion then boasted she was approached by several recruiters who had drawn for her a lovely pie in the sky.
“That’s awesome,” Elvia congratulated her friend. Unlike her peers, she would be enrolled at the Sydney Arcane University to study medicine and the healing arts. Upon graduation, she would serve two years under the Royal Army Medical Corps, after which she was free to pursue specialisation.
“What about you Gwen? You could join me in the military! You know what they'd call us?” Yue’s eyes were full of anticipation.
Oh God, Gwen grimaced.
"The... Dynamic Duo?"
"You're damn right!"
When it was Gwen's turn, she found herself lost for words. In truth, she had no idea what she wanted to do beyond gaining more proficiency in Spellcraft. Join the military? Gwen felt no particular adversity toward killing magical beasts, but if they had to fight other human beings - people like Edgar, there was little chance she could stomach such a thing. If anything, a job where she could take advantage of her old world knowledge in enterprise or administration would be ideal.
At the thought of fighting other human beings, a vision of Edgar's stumps squirting in tune his beating heart paralysed her lips. She could taste the saltiness of his iron blood dashing like hot lead over her face.
Nausea washed over her like a tide as the violent synaesthesia came and went.
"Gwen, are you alright? You're white as a sheet!"
A dose of Elvia's Positive Energy dispelled the hollowness in Gwen's bosoms, restoring her breath to a normal cadence. With both arms, Gwen enveloped her flaxen mascot, warmed by Elvia's angelic presence while simultaneously haunted by the inevitable separation their futures would bring.
“Alright, its fired up.” Paul finished linking the last of the glyphs after expending the requisite volume of HDMs to light up the Teleportation Circle, brushing crystalline dust from his trousers. “Have a safe trip, you two.”
The Circle activated. The world flashed cobalt and silver. There was a feeling of being lurched through something concurrently tangible, yet immaterial, followed by a sudden displacement, akin to falling in a dream.
The last thing Gwen saw was Yue and Elvia waving their hands at her, then in the next moment, she was in a dark room filled with arcane scripts and wards, glowing that pale blue-white glow of Conjuration.
A taste of sour bile filled her mouth.
“Still in one piece Tiger?” Alesia asked. “Didn’t accidentally leave behind anything did you?”
“I am fine…” Gwen replied, swallowing discretely, then patting herself down to ensure that nothing was indeed amiss.
In her old world, Teleportation was nigh-impossible. Spatial displacement ran into all kinds of problems from quantum physics, energy paradoxes, loss of mass, as well as the intellectually morbid idea of continuous death and rebirth. According to Alesia’s description though, the spell wasn't teleportation in the literal sense, but a kind of wormhole movement achieved by creating a jump through the fabric of the Prime Material Plane - their world - and the Astral Plane.
“Where are we?” Gwen realised she should have asked before they had left. Alesia simply said that they were going to see her Master, but Gwen had no idea as to their destination.
“Well, right now we’re in my apartment,” Alesia coaxed her to follow. “We need to be a little more formal where we’re going.”
They exited a chamber akin to a set piece from some mad wizard’s dungeon. Past the heavy iron door, Gwen was surprised to find themselves in a penthouse overlooking Sydney Harbour. The scene was familiar, for Gwen had seen the same view from an adjacent cove - that of her uncle's manor.
“Bradfield Park?” Gwen announced, surprising herself by identifying all of the landmarks. “We’re back in Sydney?”
“Yep.” Alesia went by the glass facade of the open kitchen and popped the fridge, pouring herself a glass of water before motioning the jug at Gwen, who declined. “Nothing like a well-enchanted network of Teleportation Circles. Expensive to use, of course, but very convenient.”
“But…” Gwen felt her mind reeling. They were four hours away by bus! Two hundred kilometres in an instant!
Gwen had seen how many crystals Paul had to burn. It was enough to keep her training for a month! All that to save six hours? She made her incredulous discovery known to Alesia, who laughed, spilling a little water.
“Oh Gwen, what you call 'resource' is chump change at our tiers,” she informed Gwen jovially. “Our stipend alone is about ten thousand LDMs a month, or four hundred HDMs, give or take. If I were in a tier 1 city, my pay would double.”
Gwen flushed with embarrassment, feeling like an Amish rustic enquiring about motorised transport. Beside her, Alesia walked toward the panoramic vista of the harbour, her lovely face framed in the reflection of the floor-to-ceiling panes.
“Look, you can see your Uncle’s house just around the bay.”
Gwen joined Alesia at the window, feeling more nostalgic than impressed. Her North Shore office at Milson's Point shared the eastern portion of the same cove. Though the buildings were different, the landscape itself remained the same.
“When Bartlett called me, I was standing right here. For a while, I entertained the notion of dropping in from the sky. But the CBD has airspace restrictions, so I ended up taking the car.”
“Thanks again for saving me, Ma'am.”
"Ah, don't mention it," Alesia grinned.
She drew past the windows with the ease of a dancer, gesturing for Gwen to follow her up to the second level. Above, marble tiles gave way to darkly stained spotted-gum. Alesia’s bedroom was huge; its walk-in-closet was bigger than Gwen’s bedroom.
The grandiose luxury was dizzying, more so because Gwen had previously achieved the same strata of wealth. Now returned to her teenage poverty, the good life felt as out of reach to her as the shimmering waters of Lavender Bay below.
Alesia removed a few outfits from a closet that was a dozen segments deep, then began sorting them by style, storing spares in her spatial ring.
“Find whatever fits and put it on, something semi-formal,” she advised.
“Where are we going again?”
“A sombre and solemn place where people have a stick up their arse,” Alesia cautioned her student. “We're going to see my Master. He's a stickler for dress code. Say's it shows sincerity.”
Gwen uncomfortably sifted through Alesia’s wardrobe. Almost everything was red, leaving her with scarce choices for subtlety.
Her Instructor opted for a maroon, high waisted pencil skirt paired with a dark sleeveless cotton top. Gwen herself took on a vermillion-tartan bell-skirt and a white blouse with pan-collars and flared sleeves; finished with a pair of black heels.
“You’re a natural!” Alesia commended Gwen for walking in four-inch heels without tripping herself. "Well done!"
“I've always had good balance,” Gwen tactfully acknowledged her Instructor's praise.
After makeup, the duo returned to the Teleportation Circle. Once inside, Gwen watched Alesia fiddling with the glyphs until the circle once more lit up with the silver-blue light of Conjuration.
“When we arrive, there’s going to be some very unpleasant people. Stay cool, and stay behind me.”
The circle flared; they were suddenly elsewhere.
Instructor and student materialised on a dark obsidian platform, framed by a well-lit ceiling. The interior of their immediate surroundings consisted of geometric decor extending in every direction, beginning a network of corridors. There was a sterile, hospital-like ambience about the place, so quiet that Gwen could hear herself breathe.
Two guards, jackbooted and attired in ivory, approached from a guard station overlooking the Teleportation Circle.
“Major De Botton,” One of them furrowed his brow at Gwen.
“Ma’am, your companion is unauthorised for access." The other accosted them.
“I know that.” Alesia squinted at the man’s breast badge. “Cadet Edwards.”
“Please hand her over to us for quarantine.”
One of the guards moved to take Gwen's arm, only to be checked by Alesia, who placed herself between Gwen and the sentries.
“I need to see Magister Kilroy.”
“Do you have an appointment, Major De Botton?”
“No, do I need one?”
“I am afraid so, Major.”
Alesia snapped her fingers and sent a Silent Message to her Master.
“Master, I am here, and I have brought the anomaly,” she spoke to the air. Though her mouth moved, the others heard no sound.
In the next moment, a Message spell bloomed beside the guard’s ear. The sentries regarded one another before turning to face the two women.
“Proceed to platform five,” the guard named Edwards stated with suppressed impatience. “The Magister will see you now.”
Gwen cluelessly followed Alesia and their two escorts. Edwards kept glancing at her curiously, ogling her legs, while the other remained deeply critical of their presence.
The foursome soon mounted a Levitation Station. Without a sound, it began to drift, travelling through the lattice network of corridors and platforms that to Gwen, appeared to extend forever.
They were ascending rapidly, Gwen deduced when her ears popped.
At the apex, their platform docked onto an open terrace. The only notable decor was a set of double doors in stained oak, intricately carved with leaves and vines, with a garland of laurels meeting at the apex. The threshold resembled a portal to another world, somewhere far removed from the human artifice of the city.
Narnia? Gwen wondered. She could no longer be surprised.
Alesia took Gwen’s hand protectively in her own, then moved toward the door, giving the guards the cold shoulder as she did so.
With equal disregard, the guard descended.
“Walken's dogs!” Alesia swore cattily. “Told you they had a stick up their arse.”
“Where are we?” Gwen asked for the third time.
“You’re about to find out, feel free to ask him yourself.”
The double doors parted as though on cue, swing aside with a classic yawn and creak. As the portal opened, the sterile light became bathed in a warm, iridescent glow. Gwen's jaw fell as a scent of evening star jasmine enveloped their surrounding.
Past the threshold, the expectant rigidity of floor gave way to the soft depression of rich loam, burying her thin heels. She watched Alesia remove her shoes, then followed suit, feeling the turf between her toes like a fine fleece.
“Impossible…” Gwen mouthed, her eyes protesting the impossible splendour.
They were no longer in some office building, but an elfin grot, covered from ceiling to floor in viridescent mosses, grasses, and small white flowers.
In the middle of a natural atrium was a set of furniture consisting of a modest bed, a table for four, transmuted wooden chairs, and rows upon rows of bookshelves formed from the walls itself. From the ceiling, globes hung like fruits, diffusing a gentle light.
“Alesia… is this paradise?”
“… Not exactly.” Alesia giggled, her face full of expectation of what's to come. “Here is what you call a Pocket Dimension.”
Gwen breathed in the fecund air, drunk on the surplus of oxygen.
Suddenly, a pair of hands, rigid and smooth, place themselves on her shoulders. From behind Gwen came a pleasant scent of incense cedar. She turned, finding herself facing an exquisitely beautiful face, impossibly perfect, possessing twin irises in the form of amber crystals.
A giantess now held Gwen captive, a woman in flowing robes of moving bark, barely covering a pair perky, sculpted breasts narrowing into a wasp’s waist, supported by long, anatomically impossible stems. Upon closer inspection, Gwen noted with dismay that it was her face which stared back at her, though the creature had made herself sickening perfect, a product of wishful fantasy.
“That’s Sufina,” Alesia introduced the woodland Sprite. “She’s Master’s nanny.”
“Greetings,” Sufina intoned. The voice, Gwen noted, did not issue from her lips. Instead, it reverberated from the walls.
“She… she’s a… tree-being?” Gwen wanted to say Monster, Magical Creature. She caught herself, however. Anyone would be upset if a stranger carelessly called them an animal.
"I am a Dryad, a Spirit-Kin."
Sufina lifted her hands from Gwen's shoulders, then effortlessly strode across the room on stiletto-like legs, floating about the place with supernatural grace. Taking a cup from a cupboard, she returned to Gwen a moment later.
Caught in a midsummer night's dream, Gwen obediently sat on one of the wooden stools. Sufina materialised several oaken mugs of golden liquid and a basket of dark brown bread, along with a block of floral butter.
“Treat yourself,” Alesia recommended expertly. “It’s not every day you get to eat Dryad produce fresh off the teat.”
“I am sorry?” Gwen looked at Alesia with a shocked expression, glancing at Sufina's outrageous chest. “Off the what?”
Alesia knocked back her mug of golden liquid.
“Oh! That hits the spot. Gwen, you gotta try it.”
Gwen took the cup in her hand, then gingerly drank. The liquid was thick, viscous, more akin to sap with a hint of floral honey. It was restorative ambrosia, formed of mana and vitality. She took a second sip; the fatigue of last night peeled from her body like old bark off a sprouting gumtree.
“I am glad you like it.”
Gwen looked up from her golden mead to see an old man with a trim white beard wearing an olive tweed jacket and a maroon vest. His face was weathered and worn, with a pronounced scar across the right of his temple nearly touching his right eye, bisecting powerful, prominent brows. As he came closer, Gwen noted the gent’s cheeks were sallow, hinting at a fragility that his straight and well-poised body betrayed.
“That Golden Mead, it’s all that’s keeping me alive these days.”
“Master,” Alesia curtsied, then lowered her head. "This is Gwen Song."
Gwen stood, then curtsied, then bowed, then stood awkwardly, her thin legs turning to noodles.
“So - you're the anomaly.” The old man's iron voice filled the cavern.
“Gwen.” Alesia’s reverence rose to a crescendo. “I give you Lord Henry Kaine Foster Kilroy, Magister and Master of the Ordo Arcanum Oceania!”