Like many estates from the Outback, The Manor was a single sprawling level fabricated from a composite network of sandstone, glass, timber and transmuted cement. From afar, the Estate had an artistic air, a contemporary facade; viewed from the front, it melded into the landscape. At the back, a good forty meters of decking extended beautifully toward a vista of rolling tablelands.
Melissa kicked the handbrake then threw the stick into neutral. With the power cut, the engine's mana cores coughed and died, clinking as it cooled. Gwen opened the passenger side door and extracted her legs awkwardly, for the sunken seats preventing her from modestly removing herself.
"Nice stalks, you Helena's lass?"
"I am, do you know my mother?"
Melissa laughed, slapping Gwen on the back so hard she had to prop herself against the car.
"Funny gal huh?" She grinned. "Come on in; the master's waiting."
The interior of the estate consisted of dark floors and stark walls, favouring glass wherever possible to let in the natural light. Here and there, artistic sculptures made of various materials sprouted seemingly at random.
Upon closer inspection, Gwen realised the abstract figures were hyper sensuous statues of women in various states of undress. The moulding of their breasts, waists and buttocks expertly shaped as to possess an uncomfortable realism. More disturbingly perhaps, the figures were contorted artistically a manner that made them come alive.
Gwen covered Percy's eyes, the boy had been inspecting a gigantic sculpture at the centre of the atrium, mesmerised by its indecency.
"These... are Grandfather's work?"
"Oh yes, some of his best." Melissa slapped a plump, black, obsidian buttock. "He gets incredible commissions on these you know."
"Anyway, if he's not here to greet us, then he's probably in the workshop."
They penetrated through house's atrium and onto the veranda. Beyond the deck, an infinity water garden extended towards the horizon, mirroring the blue sky. It created a whole world of blue beyond the decking, at the ends of which was a workshop bellowing steam and smoke.
What the hell is that? Gwen mentally checked her textbooks. The building at the end looked more like a forge. An Enchanter's workplace should be akin to a watchmaker's workshop, possessed of small boxed shelves of precious materials hidden in a large elevated table, upon which were dozens of complex instruments used to make glyph scripts.
Instead, from the ponderous door came a hiss of cooling steam that sent Gwen's skirt flying, forcing her to arrest the wayward hem against her buttocks. Within, she saw anvils, moulds, carving blades, dozens of filers, tongs, and what seemed to be a small mountain of ingots.
With wonder, Gwen stared as a bronze statue in the shape of a voluptuous woman appeared, stark naked, walking towards them. She looked just like Melissa, only freed from the bondage of clothing, sporting wide hips that reminded Gwen of Greco statues.
HOLY SHIT. Gwen's mind gave her a good kicking. A FUCKING GOLEM.
As complex constructs, Golems were the highest level of craft possible for an Enchanter. Clay Golems, Iron Golems, Crystal Golems, they were invaluable tools of industry and war. As a Frontier city, Sydney invariably suffered a shortage.
Was this a Bronze Golem? Gwen gushed, her heart pounding at the immense possibilities represented by this female construct. How incredible must her family be if Grandfather could create Golems?
But why were there nipples on a golem?
Gwen's brows furrowed.
Her gaze fell lower.
Ho boy! She covered Percy's eyes. Golem or no, this was no sight for a child. Those swinging fun-bags were far too realistic to be PG-13, bronze or otherwise, not to mention what was carved out downstairs.
Percy was already rigid with shock, his mind penetrating into a brave new world.
"Hey Tess," Melissa greeted the Golem.
"Yo, welcome back," it replied.
It took a moment for the metallic bronze to fade from the skin of the Golem, returning to that of flesh. The woman known as Tess turned to Gwen, whose hands covered Percy's eyes, and smirked.
"Never seen a Bronze Flesh Transmute before?" She asked mirthfully. "You can't work here without Resist Hot and Cold, ideally Greater Resistance."
By now, Gwen was glad she had not blurted out something about Bronze Golems. Tess walked over to a counter and placed a ring upon her finger. From within, she summoned a robe.
The steam was clearing by now. Gwen could see the figure of a gnarly old man staring at yet another artistic creation. He was almost dwarfish, with dark skin and sinewy arms. His frame was skinny, practically skin and bones, with a bulbous head that swung back and forth on his stick-thin neck.
Even now the old man was moulding the glowing statue, the metal deforming where his hands touched, shaping this way and that as though it was clay putty and not heated iron.
"Do you like them?" A voice that sounded like rattling nails called out, echoing through the chambers of the stifling smithy. "That big one took me almost a month.”
He pointed to a voluptuous creation.
Gwen wasn't sure whether she should bow or perform some other supplication she was unaware of, so she curtsied. Her action appeared to please the old man, who took to walking around her slowly, ponderously inspecting every inch of her like a critic at an art gallery.
"They are lovely," Gwen replied, watching her Grandfather making the rounds. She held onto the overstimulated boy with an iron grip, praying Percy wouldn't pop an erection in front of their grandfather.
"Started making them a year ago!" Surya announced. "You mother refused to let your brother there take over the family business. So I've taken to work on things I always wanted to do."
Gwen turned to look at Percy, who shrugged.
"So you're Helena's girl. Yeah, I remember you," Surya began. "You were this big.”
The Enchanter placed a hand at his chest. Gwen was tall even as a kid.
“And now you're a giant!" Surya laughed.
Gwen too effected a polite chuckle, hoping it would build some rapport with the strange old man.
"Lovely calves, excellent contour." Surya's inspection continued. "Your father was a short bastard if I recall, and your mother has a fat ass, you lucked out."
"Thanks, Grandfather," Gwen was beginning to see where her mother gets her obsessive body image compulsions.
"Good, good," the old man continued. "You model?"
"No Grandfather, I am an Acolyte."
"Really? You any good?"
"I am a Lightning Evoker, Grandfather."
"No shit? really?" He raised a bushy white brow; the effect was like watching a caterpillar come to life on his face. "From whose arse did we pull you out? You sure you're Helena's daughter? Morye loved to poke around, you know. Helena was an ingrate, but your father screwed that poor, stupid girl over more times than I can count."
Surya's frankness made Gwen nervous. All she could do was smile and nod, hoping that she wouldn't say or do something to upset her Patriarch.
"Still, a Quasi-elementalist." Surya rubbed his chin, once again examining Gwen as if was some newly uncovered artefact of immense interest. "Your mother tried to sell you off to the highest bidder yet?"
"Not successfully," Gwen replied truthfully. The man knew his daughter well.
"Heh." Surya chuckled. Gwen chuckled with him. "What did they tell you about me?"
"..." Gwen wondered if she should lie, but decided against it.
"They told you I was a crazy old man right? A real nutcase?"
"Actually, they never talked about you at all, Grandfather."
Gwen needlessly drilled their relation into her response, hoping that the idea of an endearing granddaughter would bring forth some form of filial sentimentality.
Despite her best effort, however, her grandfather flew into a wrathful trance.
"Typical... typical... ungrateful kids, I gave them everything... hmmph... call me crazy..."
Gwen realised she had better lower his blood pressure before he blew a gasket.
"Percy is here with me." Gwen brought her brother forward in the manner of one performing a show-and-tell. "Your dearest grandson!"
"Hmmph!" Surya grunted with annoyance, still muttering angrily.
Percy punched Gwen in the rib.
"Whoops! You've set the master off!" Gwen turned to see Tess approach with a face full of concern. "His mind tends to run off the rails at times; it could be hours before he recovers."
Gwen watched as the woman sidled up to her grandfather, pressing her body into him like mother coddling a child.
"Surya~ Surya, you want to have a drink? Something to eat?"
Gwen watched her grandfather's face slowly relax, the anger draining from him like molten bronze from a crucible. Eventually, the wrinkles on his face relaxed. He looked up, once again taking note of the world around him.
"Wha? Oh, Tess, yeah, sure, water for me."
Phew, Gwen relaxed. Had her grandfather lost his shit, that would have been the end of her visit.
"Tess, are you Grandfather's apprentice too?"
"Yep, I am his Transmutation Apprentice. Mel is his Enchanter."
"Oh," Gwen looked for Melissa, the woman had gone to get some water for the old Magus.
"Thanks for looking after him," Gwen replied earnestly. Having never taken care of anyone in her life, she couldn't imagine the hassle of looking after someone suffering from senility.
"Just give him a coddle, dear." Teresa winked at Gwen. "He's sweeter than you know."
Gwen turned to Percy expectantly.
Her brother's face informed her that there was no way he was hugging his grandfather and that she should be the one to do it.
"You guys want anything?" Tess asked.
"Just water, thanks."
"I'll have a lemonade." Percy raised his hand.
"Sure, I'll be back,” Tess gave Surya a peck on the forehead. "You just keep interrogating him."
"Mel, Tess and I are entirely professional, just so you know," Having regained his lucidity, Surya explained as he walked Gwen out of the workshop towards the infinity feature under the back veranda. "Not at all like your father."
"Of course, Grandfather." Gwen followed demurely, watching him deciding between a wicker couch and a small alfresco dining set. He chose the dining set as it offered both Gwen and Percy a seat.
"So, why are you here? Your father was pretty vague on the subject," Surya began.
"Grandfather, I wanted to ask you some questions," Gwen said sweetly. "That and I wanted to see you."
Her declaration brought a smile to Surya's cracked lips.
"Is that all?"
"But... in truth, there is a more dire reason for my visit. I am in need of funds, Grandfather," Gwen confessed. "As well as magical items."
Percy almost spat out the glass of lemonade he was nursing. He gazed up at his sister, demanding to know if she came all this way to beg. If so, why the hell was he here?
"Helena not giving you an allowance?" Surya looked at Gwen sceptically. “Your father broke or something?"
"I would rather not," Gwen replied, lowering her voice modestly. "I would prefer to work for an income if possible, but I don't know how to go about it.”
"Understandable." Surya thought a little about Gwen and her circumstances and acknowledged that in her place, he would also prefer not to be in her mother's debt.
"How about your Uncle? He's got the lion's share of what I had left them. Isn't he living in a new house in Kirribilli?"
Gwen explained what had happened the last time she went by the Manor.
Surya grumbled cynically.
"Social climbers..." He sighed. "All those years of Spellcraft and hard work, and my kids are just social climbers without a Path."
"Well, Richard is doing very well. He got a commendation to the Four Houses at Prince's..."
"I heard." Surya regarded his Granddaughter, whose features looked nothing like his own. She was tall, lithe, and had her mother's hazel eyes and dark hair. "So you're the reason Richard got that placement. How well do you know this Alesia de Botton?"
"We're acquaintances," Gwen lied. "She was my Instructor."
Surya mulled over the news in his mind while Gwen waited in silence.
Tess and Melissa returned once more with snacks. Surya took the chance to properly introduce his Apprentices. The girls were twins that Surya had found by chance while selling his artworks. One was a Transmuter, and the other an Enchanter. They took a liking to the old master’s craft, and Surya was happy to have them as his live-in students. In this world, the Convent of the Craft was far more binding than that of the blood of the womb, and so the girls became Surya's constant companions.
As for Percy, Surya gave the boy a few kind words, then nothing more. Since Helena was adamant that Percy would attend Prince's, which meant serving the Four Houses, which involved travelling away from Sydney, it would not be possible for Percy to take over the family business. At any rate, Percy had to Awaken first, and the chance that an Evoker and an Abjurer would produce an Enchanter was slim indeed.
"So, what Path are you taking?" Surya continued to grill Gwen about her aspirations.
"I can't conclusively say, but here's what I do know..."
Gwen told him of her desire to finish high school, enter the military and join one of the government agencies. It was typical of any high-achiever Magus wannabe, but it was realistic and Gwen had the potential.
"...And for that, you need money and items." Surya finished.
"Yes Grandfather," Gwen affirmed.
"What makes you think I am so generous? After all, we have only met twice, once with you as a child, and again now."
Gwen felt her professional acumen tingle, the tone of her Grandfather’s voice suggested willingness, although the man desired a more valid excuse. The degree of his 'help' therefore, would be dependent entirely upon her sincerity.
"I have this..."
Gwen opened her hand, and there was the shimmering chromatic scale that the Serpent had given her. It glinted under the sun with a prismatic display of rainbow hues.
Surya exploded from where he had sat, clasping her hand.
"Where did you get this?!" He uttered in disbelief, his spittle landing all over her palm.
Gwen said nothing. She could feel a tingle in her mind; the Geas was in full effect.
"Is it yours?"
“Who gave it to you?”
Gwen remained mum.
Surya considered his options. It was evident to him that his Granddaughter was keeping a secret. The object was, by his expert eye, something that belonged to a being of at least Ancient tier. Such a scale was an exceedingly rare material that appeared only once or twice a decade, generally after an extensive Subjugation or Purge. Considering the recent news cycle, Surya could manage an educated guess as to its origin. If so, why did Gwen have it and why can she not speak of it?
Either way, he was tempted.
An Enchanter receiving rare ingredients with questionable origins was the mithril standard for the tetragram-glyph. The profession would hardly exist if every prudish crafter were bothered by dubiously sourced materials, be it the Grey Market under the Tower, or the Obsidian Exchange. The more an Enchanter worked on expensive and exotic materials, the greater their craft could grow. At the proficiency of Surya's skills, nothing short of black zone materials could extend his Spellcraft.
Hoping the temptation was enough, Gwen closed her hand, cutting off Surya's longing gaze.
"Would you like to work on it?" She proposed, blinking her long lashes.
No shit I would like to work on it, Surya grumbled sulkily. He regarded his Granddaughter in a new light. She wasn't here to beg - no, she was here to negotiate! A curious smile touched the old Enchanter's lips; he found himself smiling despite the suspicion that he was being played. How old was the girl now? Fourteen? No, with a figure like that, at least Sixteen. Her mother never did possess a mind for manipulation, Helena was an open palm that rudely asked for more.
"What would you like to have it crafted as?" Surya spoke carefully.
"Something defensive. I am lacking when it comes to shielding and fortification."
"Hmm..." Surya pondered the options. The Scale possessed the properties of all major elements, which meant that he could potentially create something unique and highly specialised. "How's are your Shielding spells?"
"Terribly weak against solid projectiles."
"Well," Surya began. "I can make you an Elemental-Shift item with an inbuilt Shield attunement. You'd be able to make any Prime Elemental shield as if you had Affinity. Though that Affinity is going to be minimal."
Gwen pondered the pros and cons of the proposed effects. The most important aspect of this was the advent of casting Water Shield, which was near-perpetual and self-regenerating, or the Earthen Shield, which could ward against hard-point attacks.
"Give it some thought," Surya proposed. "Personally, I suggest a passive item. Active items prevent you from casting other spells, so its uses are limited."
"Oh," Gwen replied disappointedly. For a moment, she thought she had found a rule-breaking cheat.
"A passive item can be just as potent. It could increase your resistance - in this case, all Primary Elements, which make up for eighty per cent of all Mages. Ah, if only you were a Conjurer, it would be pretty interesting if you could use Elemental Shift to bring to life all sorts of Elemental beings. There used to be a Mage I know that could combine all four elements - a Plant Mage, wouldn't that be great?"
At the mention of 'Conjurer', Gwen gazed at her Grandfather awkwardly. A titanic battle of truth and deceit raged within her. Should she tell him the truth? She didn't want to waste creating an item that didn't take advantage of all her Schools of Magic.
An expression of indecision appeared on Gwen's face.
"What, you're a Conjurer?" Surya sputtered, his mind conjuring an unlikely hypothesis. As an Enchanter, he was hypersensitive to motes of mana from different Schools. When Gwen froze on the spot, he knew his suspicion was right. "You're shitting me!"