For the fifth time, Agnes had to intervene, preventing Henry and Mark from saying something that neither of them could take back. At first, Surya had aided her, but after Mark accusing his granddaughter of being a Void-tainted Calamity, the old Enchanter became firmly entrenched with team Kilroy.
Had there always been this much vitriol hidden beneath it all? Agnes wondered if all these years she had known her friends at all. In her mind, no displacement could change the fact that they were companions, comrades, mutual survivors.
With Surya, she had kept in contact often, meeting for luncheons now and then. Henry was too busy managing the controlled-chaos of the Tower, but he made an effort. Mark ran his own Agency two doors down, sharing a working-relationship with Agnes, who fed him information and the latest news from her contacts and clients.
When Henry called them all to meet at Mark’s cafe, Agnes had no idea that the friction between him and Mark had escalated to such a boiling point. That was as clear as pure mana when she walked into the loft of Mark’s terrace. Mages, particular at the level of Magus and Magisters, exerted an arcane pressure with their abundance of mana; walking into that room was like trying to push past a Wall of Water.
Mark sat at his table, brooding.
Henry sat on a chair made by Sufina, scowling.
Surya sat in another corner, a young assistant behind him, grumbling.
How is the terrace still standing? Agnes wondered. If this had been her bordello, the place would have collapsed.
The heart of the problem was Gwen. Agnes understood that, but that was simplifying a complicated matter; like blaming a bushfire on a single lightning strike.
Gwen was merely the spark.
The fuel of regret and undisclosed desires had been falling for years, piling and piling until it was bone dry and knee deep. From what Agnes recalled, the old boys had kept their problems to themselves, typical of military men. They never engaged in a back-burning of their pent-up grievances, and now the Wall of Fire was ten-meters tall.
Agnes felt that she should shoulder some of the blame, she provided the quest, after all, but how could she have known? According to Henry, it should have been a comedy of errors, giving his whelp a taste of the real world. Gwen was supposed to return with a scraped knee, maybe upset, likely sullen, moaning about the disparity between NoMs and Mages.
As it turns out, Mark had been fermenting a great Mea Culpa, to prove Henry wrong once and for all.
Her fault was that she had left all the intelligence to Mark. After all, he was the Diviner of the bunch, one of the best scryers in the city. Mark had told her the usual; ruffians, the homeless, a few desperate souls who would try to have a go at Gwen. That Stacey was up to her usual troubles, flirting with the Blue on her return trip home. It was supposed to be educational, eye-opening, didactic. Gwen was to gain a broader perspective toward who she worked to save, to ask herself if she was willing to risk her life to rescue those surviving on society's generosity, to question if she could stomach the ugliness of it all; to let her understand the circumstances of those without her advantage. Henry even had a speech prepared, his favourite subject: the responsibilities of those who are great, and the limitations of its exercise.
Then, of course, reality blew open the door with a Fireball.
According to a seething Henry who was burning up his life-mana like a screeching kettle, Gwen had run headfirst into Mage-stock harvesters. A den of slavers - and not just any slavers either. It was a branch which belonged to the rogue Mages. A shadowy collective of invested parties ran by Outlanders and covertly supported by the Houses, the military, and prominent industrialists. Usually, the Tower turned a blind eye, stamping their feet only when necessary. Henry's Faction knew that so long as NoM ghettos existed, these sort of things were unavoidable.
So they bickered. The highest Magister in Sydney, a decorated Diviner Magus and an old Enchanter: bickering like old men with dementia at an asylum, ranting about the past.
“Shut up! ALL OF YOU!” she shouted at them. They glared at her sulkily. “Where is Gwen now?”
“Gunther is teleporting back as we speak,” Henry replied, his tone decisively glacial.
“Then we wait,” Agnes remarked with exasperation. “Tell her the whole story. You should learn to see past your noses for fuck's sake.”
Henry and Surya grunted and grumbled, glaring at one another with unfriendly expressions. It was only Mark whose eyes gave Agnes the shivers.
But for now, they wait.
A teleportation circle blazed and died in the basement of the terrace. Gunther brushed the silvery-motes from Gwen's hair and clothes. Stacey was still naked and incoherent, so the Radiant Mage found a guest room, wrapped her in a blanket, then glamoured her to sleep.
He returned to Gwen with a towel, then wrapped it around her shoulders as they made the torturous journey up the narrow stairs.
Before Gwen had breached the top, she felt the pressure of projected mana in the air. It was only by retreating against Gunther that she could proceed.
“Gwen!” Surya’s voice called out. “My cucu perempuan! What have they done to you?”
Gwen rushed from Gunther’s arms to fall into her grandfather’s embrace.
She wanted to bury her head in his chest, but her Opa was too short and bony. Instead, the man awkwardly embraced her, giving the impression that she was the one providing comfort. The others watched, some smiling, others expressionless.
“I brought a friend.” Surya pointed to a girl behind him.
Gwen confusedly looked past Surya, before seeing a familiar visage behind them. That well-tanned skin, that tall, lithe figure, that shoulder length hair which had finally grown out.
“Debora!” Gwen couldn’t believe her eyes.
“Gwen…” Debora smiled nervously at her friend. The girl looked nervous. She was in front of rare and eminent presences, even if they sounded like bickering children at this moment.
“I was interning with a famous Transmuter… who happened to be your Grandfather. When this whole thing happened…” Debora held Gwen's hand. “I volunteered to come as soon as I heard.”
“Oh… oh! Debbie!”
Gwen left her grandfather’s gangly canoodle for Debora.
The two girls embraced, their similar builds and height allowed Gwen to bury her face and feel the envelopment of something soft and familiar. It was what she needed; not the embrace of a patriarch nor a mentor, but someone on her level. In return, Debora likewise held Gwen close to her, the two girls sharing a moment of intimate empathy.
They were interrupted by a displeasing snort.
“Perhaps we should proceed with this show trial?” Mark demanded sardonically.
The girls separated. Sufina summoned a bench, then joined them. She likewise gave Gwen a tight, albeit wooden hug, then offered her a mug of Golden Mead. Despite been flanked by two allies, Gwen continued to shiver uncontrollably.
When finally she looked up to meet Mark’s bespectacled, myopic eyes, her blood boiled. I had trusted this man! He had sent her out on a suicide mission! Was he not her Master’s and Grandfather’s friend and ally? Opa had said that this man saved his life innumerable times! Why had he done this?
The anger was empowering: Gwen straightened her spine, squared her shoulders, then sat defiantly forward.
“Why did you send me there?” Gwen invoked imperially, her suddenly severe tone of voice raising a few brows. “You told me nothing. I was told to pick up Stacey. But there was no intelligence. Nay, I should say, you misled me on purpose!”
The transformation from mewing girl to stoic prosecutor seemed to catch them all by surprise.
Gunther raised a brow. She was doing well, considering what he'd just made her do.
“You were sent to be tested, Gwen,” Mark replied without emotion. “And so you were.”
“That’s a crock of roo-shit!” Surya protested loudly.
“Mark, enough with your pedantry!” Henry likewise interjected.
“You accuse me of a crime whose origins lie in your blindness! We in this because of your hubris!” Mark fired back!
“How dare you! Who do you think you are?” Henry scoffed.
“I know that I am not one of the Ten, but so what?" Mark retorted. "Are you going to exile me? Put me in Isolation? Strip me of rank and membership?”
“Shut up! Both of you!” Agnes once again had to step in.
She adjusted a hair that fell out of place.
“Gwen, I am sure you’re as confused about this as anyone could be, so I am going to speak. The rest of you shut up until I finish, or I swear…”
Gunther took a stand behind Henry. Mark shot him an unfriendly glance but kept silent. Surya nodded to Agnes from his seat. Henry sat without movement or expression, conserving his limited energy.
This scene looked familiar, Gwen suddenly realised, trying to think of an analogy from her old world: the three wise men? No, more akin to the three monkeys: Eyes, Mouth, and Ears, symbols of arrogance, ignorance and hubris.
Agnes took a deep breath, organising her thoughts. She walked around the room, eyes scanning for an old memento to jog her mind. A lumen-recording lying amongst the bric-a-brac caught her eye. Removing it from the wall, she presented it to Gwen, pointing to each of the individuals within the sepia image.
There was a stern but handsome looking middle-aged man with a tailored moustache.
“This is Henry, your Master.”
A young man with a face like a skull wearing a dark expression
“This is Mark.”
An old man with her Opa's face.
“This is Surya. He looks old because he is ugly.”
Next was a young woman with an intrusive cleavage, a heart-shaped face and light eyes.
“This is yours truly.”
Strangely, Agnes did not point to the last woman but instead to a girl who was in the background. She was cut off, but Gwen could see her bright and innocent face behind Henry.
"This is Jane Chandler, lovely lass." Agnes paused. "She is Mark's sister."
The room said nothing.
Agnes then finally pointed to the last woman. A sullen looking girl with dark hair and bright eyes. She had a small but well-proportioned frame, a compact torso with long limbs. Despite her demure, downcast gaze, she was uncommonly pretty. Gwen knew girls like that; their neediness drove men's protective instincts wild with possessiveness.
“And finally, this is the source of all our troubles: Elizabeth Winsted Sobel.”
The room held its breath. Gwen was sure someone was going to disrupt the peace, though both Henry and Mark held their tongue.
“She is… or I should say 'was'… a Void mage like you, Gwen."
There was a sucking-in of breath. Debora gasped, staring at Gwen with her eyes wide open. Gwen squeezed Debbie's hand, promising to explain later. She found it ironic that Debora, her once rival, would be the first of her friends to know the truth.
Agnes paused awkwardly, looking towards Henry. The Master of the Tower waved a hand casually, allowing her to continue.
“So, before we go any further, I want to make this very clear,” Agnes resumed her disclosure. “The origin which has sparked your incident, Gwen, is no fault of yours. You are the innocent party in this, regardless of these old men's personal opinions, understand?”
Gwen did not understand, at least not yet, but she nodded.
Mark snorted sarcastically, drawing glares from the others.
“Right.” Agnes nodded. “So here it goes…”
“The five of us were some of the first Mages sent into that hellhole known as the Brisbane Line. We didn’t have the know-how of urban combat or wilderness survival back then, so the attrition rate was high. To give you a bit of a history lesson, The Coral Sea War started in the 50s, by the time the 70s rolled around, we were on conscription by lottery. You guys know what that is right?”
The girls affirmed that they did. Mandatory Military Service for Mages evolved from those early days of conscription.
“Good. So, it was the five of us. Three of us were Australian locals, Henry came from a tier 1 city, although he had been in the country for a half-a-decade, Elizabeth was originally from London, not only that, she was only with us because of Henry..."
The situation had deteriorated faster than the weather changed in the jungle. The orders that came through was to hold the Line at all costs. Already, the Militia had conceded the northern half of Queensland, losing hundreds of Mages with every kilometre pushed back. The new line was their wall, behind which was Brisbane city: there were no more lines of retreat.
First came the Rippers and the Goannas, mere fodder with teeth and claw, testing the barriers and wasting the Mages' mana. Then came the siege breakers, spear-points of heavily armoured Saurians, cunning and fearless in their savagery. When the Mages were at breaking point, the wyverns came from the skies breathing acid.
What started as a Purge for the reclamation of lost land quickly become a rout. Humanity had stirred the hornet's nest.
Henry could sense his section collapsing through Sufina's root tendrils. He was a plant Magus, a rare and powerful magician in this forested battlefield, but even he had his limits. Agnes was already exhausted, having churned out Fireball after Fireball, reducing a whole chunk of the swarm to cinders. Mark was still giving out commands via Telepathy and Shared Mind, trying to bolster the men's courage with buffs and relaying the injured to the triage station. He hadn't slept for days; his eyes were bloodshot, deeply sunken in the sockets of his gaunt face. Surya was meditating, trying to recoup his mana. He had spent it bolstering their defences with Iron Skin and Mass Resist Elements. Then there was Elizabeth. Poor Elizabeth. She had left the shelter of London city for Henry, and now she was stuck in this living Frontier hell. She was an Evoker, an Air element prodigy, but even then she was woefully underprepared for the brutality of the trenches. She had been the sort of girl who showered twice a day and took hour-long baths; the type who like to hold conversations over tea and cupcakes. But now Henry's 'Lillybird' was matted with blood and ichor, her once flawless skin covered with cuts and infected rashes. Henry watched her fire off another volley, taking down a wyvern rider before it could drop its cargo of acid. Their eyes met, and he saw her disorder, a sense of unbalanced despair that hinted at the horrors churning in her mind.
"Fuck!" Agnes fell back into the trench; a barbed arrow lodged in her shoulder. "This shit better not be poisoned."
"You know it is," Surya remarked worriedly. "When did your buff run out?"
"Don't know." Agnes winced.
Surya scrummaged through his bag and produced a potion.
"The last one, better make it count."
Agnes grunted and pushed the arrow through, snapping the mid-section. She poured a bit of the potion onto the orifice in her shoulder, then chugged the rest.
"Sufina!" Henry commanded.
The dryad appeared beside them, channelling a stream of controlled positive energy into the wound. Agnes watched her flesh mend, leaving behind a welting red scar.
"Good enough." Agnes spat between grinding teeth. "Hate how that itches so much, its worse than the pain."
A Message came through. The line had collapsed all over. The Militia was bringing up the last of the reserves, but it was to be a final stand. Their section was forfeit, but a retreat was suicide. They might as well make it easier for the junior Mages, knowing that every additional lizard they took down was pure profit.
Mark dispelled the Glyph, the Message no longer mattered.
"We're the only section left for in this region," he stated without any particular emotion, grinning stoically. "I guess this is where we say our last words."
"Wall of Fire!" Agnes used up the last of her mana and brought themselves a few more minutes.
The team regarded one another, the orange flames casting a warm glow over their exhausted faces.
"It was a pleasure working with you all," Mark began.
"You've all been more real to me than my half-dozen brother and sisters," Agnes continued.
"I rather not die," Surya said sullenly. "But I couldn't have asked for better company."
"It was a pleasure and an honour," Henry added.
"..." Elizabeth had nothing to add. Henry moved to embrace her, feeling his lover reciprocated woodenly. It was fine. Not everyone could drink danger as 'twere wine of life, and jest as they reel and fall.
"I'll protect you to the very end, Liz," Henry promised. "The very end."
"I need a glass of water," Agnes said.
"I got better." Henry motioned to Sufina, who palmed over a wooden cup of Golden Mead.
"The stuff of heroes!" Agnes cheered. "Imagine if we had this back in the day, we could have kept going for weeks."
"Well? What happened next?" Gwen asked. They were up to a good part. She hadn't wanted to get caught up in it, but Agnes was an excellent storyteller. The old men had even stopped interjecting and were nodding, grunting, and agreeing with one another.
Agnes drained the cup.
“Alright... Just as when we’re about to find out if there was a God up there, one of the Saurian Behemoths broke through the Wall of Fire. That thing couldn't give two shits about my spell; it came over the wall with a mouth full of Mages still screaming and shouting. Then it swung its head, and we got covered in bloody pieces of our old mates."
"As you can imagine, that was pretty terrifying. I mean, fuck, dying is dying but being eaten alive? Getting turned into lizard shit? That's a piss poor way to go. Just as we were wondering if we could go for a suicide attack and take it down, Lizzy finally lost her marbles. She started screaming about how she didn’t want to be eaten alive, how we should kill her first and spare her the trouble.”
At the mention of Elizabeth, Mark’s softening face once again became rigid.
“We weren’t going to kill her of course, the rest of us was going to fight to the last man. Hell, even if I wanted to, Henry would have stopped me. She then grabbed Henry and started screaming hysterically. ‘Kill me! Kill me, please! For fuck’s sake don’t let me be eaten!’ I still remember it as clear as yesterday.”
The group grew silent once more. Agnes was a good actress. That desperate plea was as authentic as if they had listened to Elizabeth’s hysteria in person.
“Then Henry went down, just like that. None of us knew what was going on at the time; we thought it was some an ambush ability, a poison dart. Sufina started going nuts, saying that something was draining her life. Then the Behemoth stamped out the flames and bam; the Swarm was upon us, that was it, fucked to the bitter end."
"Of course, we're all here now, so no spoilers," Agnes continued when Gwen audibly gasped. "Especially not for you, Gwen. You can probably guess what happened next. Liz must have awoken to her Void element because when she channelled everything she had into a suicidal Air Vortex, she instead popped open a black hole into the Quasi-elemental Plane of the Void."
A what?! Gwen wanted to call her Agnes out there and then. No amount of magic could create the gravitational pull of a collapsing star! But then she realised that this was not a 'black hole' in the scientific sense, but an unstable portal. The operative principle, so it seemed, was the fact that it acted as a vacuum into the Void.
"Everything got sucked up in there. Trees, grass, rocks, Rippers. Have you ever seen a lizard the size of a house sucked into a hole the size of a coffee table? Messy, very-very messy. The Saurians were going nuts! They just kept coming at it, and it just kept sucking. The whole while though, Sufina was feeding her life-force into Henry, and Liz was drinking him up like a milkshake!"
"That horrid woman..." Sufina recalled some rather unpleasant memories.
Henry shook his head.
"Anyway, we lived." Agnes reached for another drink.
“That’s a light way to put it,” Surya blurted out. "We were this close to drifting into the vacuum of another world, Agnes. You make it sound like we ate some bad kababs. Come on; you gotta dramatise it a little more…”
“Shut up, Surya,” Agnes snarled. “So we were expecting to join the Saurians, and that’s when Surya confessed to me. He told me that he wanted to die between my breasts.”
Surya choked trying to swallow his cup of water.
There were some chuckles. Agnes continued her story.
“Then, as quick as it had started, it was all over, we had cleared out half the swarm in our section, and the rest were making a run for it. Bam! Mission accomplished. A whole Batallion's work, done in ten minutes by one black hole. We didn't know why until later."
"Of course, Liz was burned out, as was Henry. None of us was sure what had happened. We carried them back to the line. It was an easy trip though. It wasn't until months after the fact that we found out the Saurians worshipped the Sun God, so when a black hole that drank all light ate half their shock troops - you get the idea."
"When we finally got back to base and healed up, Liz told us that she had awoken to something. Some form of Negative Energy. She wanted us to keep it a secret because we haven't seen anything like it before. She didn't want to get taken in and get dissected, probed, cut up."
"If we had reported her, it would have been the end of it," Mark said suddenly.
"Yeah well, hindsight's twenty-twenty, hey?" Agnes retorted. "Lizzy was still our mate back then. She was a little moody and not very brave, but she was as good a sheila as any in a tight spot. At any rate, if a mate of yours didn't want somebody probing her gut, who were we to refuse? She just saved all our arses!"
"We were expecting to lose Brisbane, and now suddenly, we were the victors. All because of of Commander Kilroy. No one had seen what happened, and Henry concocted some story about us killing a high priest. I mean, there were like, a few thousand Saurian bodies around us? There was a mostly chewed up behemoth right in front of our trench! When they picked through the bodies, there were at least half a dozen Saurian Priests!"
"We got promoted, we got bonuses, our families got relocated to safer zones. We were drunk on our success. No one knew how we did it, only that we did it and we saved the day. Things were simpler back then: no Towers, no supremacists, no Grey Factions, no Shadow Guilds, none of this Spectre bullshit. People were trying to survive, NoMs and Mages. They started trotting us out for propaganda; we didn't complain, we were like celebrities."
"Big mistake." Surya sighed.
"No shit." Mark spat cynically. "They separated us. We had to go to different zones and support the troops. That was the beginning of the end."
"Henry tried to stay with Elizabeth as often as he could, but he was being groomed to be a bigwig. Liz was the darling of the bunch. She was well-spoken, from a good family in a tier 1 city, a real poster girl, you know? Think I look good? You haven't seen a real doll until you've seen Liz in that dress uniform, I heard they cut her hem two inches higher, and recruitment was up ten per cent. Man, she was a knockout."
Henry smiled nostalgically. Mark's face grew darker.
"Anyway, they sent her out to F.O.Bs to rally the troops and all that. Mark transferred to the intelligence division. Henry stayed on at H.Q. I wanted to retire, so I had no part in all that glam."
"What was Opa doing?" Gwen asked curiously.
There was an awkward silence.
"I was drunk," Surya said at last. "We lost a lot of friends..."
Agnes nodded understandingly. "I was with him for a while..."
Surya turned beet red. "I confessed to your grandmother later..."
"Anyway... while on Propaganda duty, the base came under attack. Not Saurians this time, but Merfolk, apparently they didn't believe in the Saurian's story about some angry Sun God, go figure, right? Then stuff happened."
"Stuff ... happened?" Gwen looked at them confusedly. Why the vague detail now?
"Yep, stuff, because no one knows. Elizabeth Winsted Sobel was the only person to return from that base. A single woman out of five hundred Mages and two thousand odd NoMs."
"Not no one," Mark interjected suddenly. "Somebody knew, but Marshall Kilroy covered it up."
"So how did you know?" Gwen asked. Mark had been away; in the intelligence division. Was he stalking Elizabeth?
"I know... " Mark spat between clenched teeth. "Because my sister was on that base when it all happened."
There was a crack. A hairline fracture appeared in Mark's gold-rimmed spectacles. Opposite Mark, Henry brooded. His throat bobbed once or twice, but he ultimately elected to say nothing. When Mark next spoke, his voice held the enmity of a Blade Barrier.
"Assuming Master Kilroy doesn't silence me in the next ten minutes, let me tell you the monstrous truth hidden from the world!"