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A note from Wutosama

Edited 19/01/19

Gwen made it back to the dorm just in time for dinner. She ventured into the cafeteria, eyes scanning for Yue and Elvia, but couldn't find them anywhere. Had they not returned yet? She thought to herself, disappointed at her friends' absence. Tellingly, the rest of the student cohort were likewise absent, likely as a result of the averted crisis.

"Gwen," a soft voice called out meekly. Gwen turned to see a girl rolling towards her on a wheelchair, her bronzed legs angled to one side, too tall for the limited extension of the footrest.

Debora! Gwen felt her heart drop. She can't believe that she had forgotten all about her friend. Though a lot had happened, to clean forget about the girl she had electrocuted was unforgivable.

"Deb..." Gwen fell in beside Debora, dropping to the girl's eye-level. "I am really sorry..."

"It's okay Gwen, I know... I know what happened," Debora assured her softly. "Instructor Alesia told me about it at the hospital. I am glad you managed to knock me out, otherwise..."

Gwen took Debora's hand in her own.

"Can we talk for a moment? Up in your room?"

“Yes, I would love that,” Gwen agreed, feeling awkward that they were airing their traumatic laundry out in a half-empty cafeteria, filled with the sound of clinking plates.

"Thanks," Debora concurred. Reflexively, Gwen moved to push Debora to the levitation platform.

"It's alright; I got it." Debora incanted softly, and the wheels began to move. "Gotta keep up the practice. I still gotta to catch up to you and Yue."

Once inside, Gwen could see that both Yue and Elvia were out. The cleanliness of the room was evidence of that.

"There's a letter for you," Debora pointed out.

Gwen picked up the envelope. Inside was a scented card with embossed words in italic.

Gwennie! Look up!

Quizzically, Gwen looked up.

'BANG!'

A burst of light erupted from the ceiling. Gwen shielded her eyes, simultaneously opening a conduit to her Evocation Sigil, flashing her eyes electric blue in the darkness. With Debora here, she couldn't just open up a Shield, but she was confident that any ambushing enemies would cope a blast of lightning to the face.

Instead, banners fluttered from the ceiling.

"Happy Birthday!"

"Happy Birthday!"

"Sweet Sixteen!"

Cries of jubilance surrounded Gwen, startling her so much that were it not for the intimate sound of those familiar voices, she would have let loose her cantrip. Instead, she became covered in confetti and strings.

Happy Birthday? Her mind spun. That's right; it WAS her birthday today!

Gwen gawked as her friends materialised in her room. Some cheeky bugger had used an Illusion spell to make the room look unoccupied!

"Oh, you guys!" She couldn't help but gush. Elvia and Yue both embraced her. Jun and Henley were here as well, busy unleashing more poppers, sending out streams of colour and sound.

"Sweet sixteen!" Elvia, on her tippy toes, gingerly pecked Gwen's cheek.

Gwen cheeked her friend in return and took in a whiff of the Positive Mana radiating from her golden girl. Oh, how she had missed this!

Yue joined the duo and hugs were given all around, even to the boys.

The girls had prepared a cake for Gwen, a cute tri-colour sponge cake. A table full of food catered by the kitchen below reminded Gwen she had yet to have dinner. In the midst of jubilation, Gwen found herself beside Debora, again apologising for what she had done.

"I am fine," Debora divulged intimately. "My nerves took some damage, but with continued physiotherapy and restoration magic, I'll be good as new in a month or so."

She tried to prove her point by lifting her legs, achieving only an inch of movement.

"Deb..." Gwen placed a careful hand on Debora's thighs, feeling the trembling flesh under her fingers. "If there's anything I can do for you..."

"Don't worry." Debora looked up at Gwen, then motioned with her eyes towards Jun. "Although if you don't mind... I want to ask you a favour for the future."

"Anything, Deb, just let me know."

"We... I don't want to push my luck... but if you want to make it up to me, promise me that you'll give me a chance to join your team, I want to be a part of what you guys are doing."

"..." Gwen looked at her old friend in surprise. They had their adversarial relationship going for almost half a year now, and the 180 took her by surprise.

"Sure, I'll speak to the others," Gwen promised, recovering after a moment's deliberation. Debora had demonstrated ample ability. Should Elvia and Yue oppose Debora's inclusion, it would not be because of her talents.

"I don't think we'll be having any more Field Trips," Gwen added uncertainly.

"There's a compulsory Quest in an Orange Zone next year, right before we start our graduation and military service," Debora pleaded, her moist eyes looking more vulnerable than Gwen had ever seen them. "Two of my team members will be gone by then, as will you Abjurer and Diviner. I need this Gwen. I need to do well for my future' sake. I hope you can understand."

"I understand, Deb," Gwen answered. She empathised with her old friend. Debora was hard working and talented, but her Spellcraft wasn't rare in talent or affinity. She may be outstanding in a regular school like Blackwattle, but skills like hers were a dime a dozen in the State's Selective Schools and privileged private academies.

"Take care of your self," Gwen comforted her old friend, patting her on the hand. "I'll speak to the others, I promise."

"What're you guys talking about?" Yue imposed herself upon them, a plate of sliced cake in each hand.

"I'll tell you later," Gwen replied. "Thanks so much for organising all of this."

"No sweat." Yue grinned. "It was Deb's idea actually; you never told us your birthday you know."

"Oh?" Gwen was surprised to hear that. She's technically thirty plus sixteen now, an old spinster! Where are my cats! She amused herself with an old clichè. I was your age, we trained through sun, wind, sheaves and snow and had to walk six miles through a Purple Zone to get to school.

"Thanks again, Deb."

"So," Yue continued. "Sixteen, you got one year to register for the mandatory service, what did you think about my offer? Wanna join with me?"

"Sounds like a plan," Gwen replied, though she knew Yue had a far brighter future ahead. If Yue became Alesia's Apprentice, and Alesia was her sister-in-craft, did that mean Yue had to bow and call her Aunty Gwen?

"Well, enjoy the cake! I'll get some more. You want a drink, Deb?” Yue regarded her old arch-nemesis. “Man that thing could use a cup holder huh? Why not transmute one?"

Deb laughed.

"I am only using it for a week or so; then I start on crutches."

'Ding!'

Gwen's Message Device pinged.

"Excuse me."

She moved outside into the corridor.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Gwen." A masculine voice came over the phone. "Happy Birthday."

"Dad?!" Gwen replied in earnest surprise.

"Don't act so surprised, as if I wouldn't know your birthday. You’re sweet sixteen after all. It feels like just yesterday you were still a little girl. You grew up so fast. I hardly had time to notice..."

Was the man reading off a script? Gwen marvelled at her father's sudden verbosity. Usually, they exchanged a dozen sentences a day. In all honesty, she didn't know how to respond. This man was her father, but not in a sense that felt real or concrete. She did, however, have memories of another sweet-sixteen where she worked the graveyard shift at McDonald's, being paid award wages and feeling pleased about making almost $20 an hour.

"Thank dad," she said finally. "It makes us happy that you called."

"Principle Bartlett Messaged me and told me of some things that happened. I am sorry I wasn't there for all that… I hope you don't think too badly of me."

If Gwen was still the insecure daughter Morye had known, she would probably be in tears, or at least drunk with sentimentality. As an adult, Gwen knew her father's call was a result of guilt-tripping on his daughter's birthday.

"That's alright Dad. I understand. Let's have lunch sometimes. It'd be good to talk."

"Thanks." Father and daughter each played their parts. "That's good to hear."

"Dad, can you do me a favour?" Gwen had one more task for her wayward father.

Her father's response was one of hesitation.
Well, that didn't last long, she scoffed. At least her father was back to normal.

"Do you know Grandfather's number? For his country estate?"

"Ah, of course. I think I do... I'll message it to you, are you thinking of visiting?"

"Yeah, there are some questions I need to ask him."

"When are you going?" Her father's voice was full of relief. Maybe he thought she was asking him for money.

"Tomorrow if possible."

"Want me to call him? He hasn't seen you since you were ten or so, I am pretty sure he has no idea who you are if you just called out of the blue."

"He's not that senile, is he?"

"Oh... it's pretty bad. He was rather paranoid when I saw him last year when he made me and your mother visit with Percy... I think he forgot we were separated."

"I wasn't invited?"

"..." Morye's silence spoke louder than words.

But blood as thicker than water right? Surely her grandfather was just senile or something. Surely he wouldn't mind answering some of her questions or giving her a hand with access to some cheaper magical items. Aren't grandfathers supposed to dote on their granddaughters? It came with the territory.

"Can you call him?"

"Alright. Happy Birthday, Gwen."

Morye hurriedly ended the Message, leaving Gwen alone in the empty corridor. Behind the oaken door of her dorm room, she could hear the girls laughing.

Feeling melancholic, she leaned against the wall, thinking of the serpent, of Henry Kilroy, of the Tower, of the friends she now possessed, at once overwhelmed by the surrealism of it all.

When Gwen woke up in the mid-morning, there was a Message spell awaiting on her device. Her father had contacted her maternal Grandfather, and he was expecting her.

"Gwen, can you take Percy with you? Your grandfather hasn't seen him in forever, but I am busy today. Just drop by the house and pick him up, he'll be waiting."

Gwen chose not to speculate as to why her father was busy on a Sunday.

In her old world, Surya Indra Huang was a retired professor, a former engineer who retired rich. Her maternal family traced their genealogy from a long line of native tea traders working for the Dutch trading consortium. There was an awful colonial air about the family history that Gwen found both fascinating and abhorrent, involving multiple feuding wives, loveless marriages, and lawsuits over land. Caught on the losing side of the feud, Surya migrated to Sydney, laid down his roots and re-married.

In this world, Gwen was less sure. All she knew was that her grandfather was an eccentric Enchanter who made the family fortune bountiful enough to set up his son and daughter to not know the worries of money. He had a tumultuous relationship with his children after Gwen's grandmother passed away from illness. For some reason, Gwen had seen him two, maybe three times in the last sixteen years.

Nonetheless, Gwen washed up and made her face. When she opened her wardrobe though, she saw a bag that she had not noticed in the hustle and bustle of last night. It was one of those folded, high-quality boutique bags used by branded stores. There was a card attached, and Gwen knew without reading that it had to be from her mother. With mixed feelings, she withdrew yet another Miu Miu dress, a one-piece in navy. The top was modest, covering her shoulders with a short sleeve; its length though. was notably in the style that her mother adored, the hem a few inches above the knee.

How many dresses for a Storage Ring? Gwen wondered.

At least she didn't have to think of what to wear, Gwen comforted herself. She opened the card that came with the package:

'Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen ~ Hope you like the dress. Wear it next time we luncheon.'
                
                                                                                                      - XXOO. H.H

Not a single word of apology or remorse, Gwen snorted as she dropped the card back in the bag. As usual, the dress fit her impeccably. If nothing else, her mother knew Gwen's figure like the back of her hand. She then found a pair of beetle-black Mary Janes that went well with the dress, then slapped on mascara, gloss, and two generous dashes of eyeliner.

She kissed the girls goodbye as they lazed in bed, grunting and flailing when she pecked their cheeks, then made for the station. It was Sunday, and she had to catch an interchange service from Redfern to Forrestville.

At the station, she was surprised to find Percy was already waiting at the ticket gates.

"How?!" Gwen marvelled, hugging her brother.

"Had to leave. Do you remember how thin our walls are? Dad's banging his-"

"STOP!" Gwen buried the boy's face in her bosoms. She released the boy once she was satisfied that she had sufficiently reconnected with her brother. "How you been, bud?"

"Worse now that I gotta visit a weird old guy instead of shooting hoops with my friends."

A typical teenage response. Gwen acknowledged. All's well with the world.

"Alright, blame me, it was my fault. I made Dad call Gramps," Gwen confessed. "How about another hug to make it up to you?"

The gesture drew smiles from several other passengers whose gaze had lingered on the leggy teenager, whose presence was a spot of beauteous blue dispelling the dreary monotony of public transit.

Percy blushed.

"Not when you're like that," he replied. In his opinion, his sister's heels and the hem of her dress drew unnecessary attention.

"Too bad!" Gwen embraced her brother again, pressing him against her chest because he could be such a cute little boy when he acted his age. Give it a year or two, and she would be too self-conscious to hug and kiss him so playfully.

"Stop!" he cried out.

She ruffled his carefully combed hair.

"It's good to see you too, buddy."

"You too." Percy rubbed his forehead vigorously with his sleeve. "Can we go? Please?"

The siblings took the Country Link interstate out west beyond the main confines of the city. Two hours away from Sydney and up north was the tablelands that fed the city, magically maintained by Mages and tilled by NoM farmers.

The Huang country estate sat on a piece of land bordered by vineyards in a region called Windsor Downs, named after the British Imperial household of Windsor. It covered three acres; itself converted from an old winery into a sort of semi-modern country estate. Though initially intended as a holiday home for the Clan, it had long since been used exclusively by Surya Huang as his private abode, preferring solitude over the company of his children.

When the train had finally arrived at Maitland, the two grandchildren awaited a pick up from the manor,

After a quarter of an hour, the boxy shape of a vintage Mercedes rumbled up, a trail of wasteful mana swirling in the dust. The doors closest to Gwen and Percy opened up, revealing a woman in a rather daring outfit; a pair of cropped jeans and a spaghetti top exposing two mountainous white globes.

Percy's eyes popped out of their sockets. Gwen slapped him on the head and made him sit at the back.

"Hi, I am Melissa, but you can call me Mel," she introduced herself once they were all in the car. "Master Surya is expecting you."

"Hi Mel," Gwen replied. "It's nice to meet you."

Melissa cranked the gears of the old Merc. The car began to move.

"Mel, what do you do at Gramps?" Gwen asked, her hazel eyes searching for answers. The way Melissa dressed, she could be anything.

"I am his Apprentice," Mel replied.

What? Gwen's gaze moved up the girl's voluptuous figure. She certainly did not look like an Apprentice.

"There's two of us at the estate," Melissa dropped another bomb.

Oh? Gwen turned her attention back towards the road. Melissa had a gentle face, but what was with that outfit? Gwen was starting to feel a little conscious in her choice of attire. Maybe she should have gone super casual? Perhaps her grandfather hated the couture, prim and proper look? She glanced in the rearview mirror at Percy, who wore cargo shorts and a baggy, plain polo shirt.

"How's gramps? I haven't seen him in years."

"He's doing well, a little grabby, but he's a good Master."

Gwen furrowed her brows.

"It's all harmless fun," Melissa intoned casually. "We're used to it. I mean, its a great opportunity he's given us to learn some advanced techniques. He is an artist, after all."

That's sexual harassment! Gwen wanted to blurt out. What do you mean you're chill with it?!

Ahead, the estate came into view, revealing a large bungalow in the style of an outback manor. Gwen took a deep breath and prayed that her grandfather wasn't a pervy old codger.

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Wutosama

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