"Debs, are you sure you can't make it?"
Gwen watched her friend's face contort with agony. She had petitioned Debora about the possibility of attending the Xmas dinner at Elvia's, but Debbie's response had been negative.
Though Gwen had not expected it, Debora's parents were devout followers of the Nazarene. For the family, Christmas Mass was a holy rite. This year especially, the Arch-Bishop Anthony Fisher tended the flock at St Andrew's, a rare treat for Sydney's devout.
"Are you not religious yourself?" Gwen asked.
"I am religious out of habit." Debora smiled evasively. "The family's always gone to Church, so I grew up with it. Never had a choice in the matter. I even attended all the Sunday services until high school."
Which likely coincided with puberty, Gwen nodded understandingly. When h school rolled around, Debora had started wearing shorter skirts and tighter shirts, becoming a part of the 'popular' crowd while Gwen contested with her family drama.
For Gwen's part, her mother worshipped only the one true God called the social ladder. As for Morye, considering the number of girlfriends he cycled through, the man may as well be a disciple of Eros. As such, Gwen's religious education remained non-existent.
But that didn't mean Sydney itself was a secular city.
In a world of Mermen and monsters, Faith Magic was real, even if rare and highly secretive. Officially, according to the mandatory scripture classes at school, all the major religions were established by ancient Magi whose achievements may as well be divine miracles. Gwen, however, had never met a religious individual. Sydney's faithful, split between Catholics, Protestants, the Church of England and the Pentecostals, usually stuck to their wealthier suburbs.
As for the Tower itself, modern Spellcraft perceived the old religions with ambivalent scepticism. After all, the social cost of challenging well-established orthodoxies was measurable. Historically though, the Church, the state, and the Mageocracy had enjoyed matrimony for almost two centuries. To its faithful, the Church taught that the Wild Lands were the devil's preserve, while the cities of man were the candles in the darkness. Some denominations even taught that Mages were a part of God's ineffable plan and that those who Awokened were the anointed.
"... sorry," Debora finished sulkily. "I've been a brat for the last few years, and still my mum's been good to me. Faith or not, I have to go and pray with them."
"That's fine, Debs, I'll eat enough for the both of us!"
"Arrrgh! You better not lose your figure!" Debora teased. "Man, I am going to miss you so much!" Debora moaned.
"I'll miss you too, Debs," Gwen said earnestly. She meant it too; after a whole summer spent cheek to cheek, the two girls as close as two kookaburras on an old gumtree. "Stay safe."
Debora swung herself from Gwen's bed. Her friend's eyes twinkled before she pouted in an exaggerated, sultry manner.
"One for the road?" Debora whispered winsomely, indicating a finger to her lips.
Gwen leaned in— then kissed Debora on the forehead.
"Get going, Debs! I have to get up at sunrise tomorrow, Avalon is six hours away from Pokolbin."
Debora reached the door with a sigh. "See you at school."
"Have a Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year."
"You too, Gwen."
The door closed.
Gwen laid out her outfit. From her wardrobe, she picked a high-waisted skirt, a white sleeveless blouse and a pair of ankle-strap heels. She also double-checked her transit card and her student ID.
Elemental Affinity :: Quasi Elemental - Lightning (3)
Her temporary ID displayed an already impressive statistic for a girl of sixteen. For the next year, she would train for a future of fame, fortune and influence. Such was the pie in the sky her Master drew.
It was an admirable Path for Mage of her talent, yet at the same time, it was a future that filled her with was gut-wrenching anxiety. Becoming a Magister or a Tower Master holding tens of thousands of lives wasn't at all like running a consultancy. Real people, full of flesh and blood, could have their lives enriched or diminished at her whim. Was that a responsibility she was willing to bear?
Gwen pulled her t-shirt overhead, stepping out from her sleeping shorts.
The Gwen of sixteen didn't have an answer for that.
The Gwen of thirty was likewise ignorant.
Her only recourse was to keep on treading and keep her head above the murky water.
The next morning, Tess drove Gwen out to the station, where she took the first train into the city. From Central, she took a cab to reach Avalon.
Elvia's haunt was one of the wealthier regions of the Sydney Frontier, situated deep within a stretch of coastal water views known as the Northern Beaches. To Gwen's knowledge, the area was exclusively for Mage, especially those closely associated with the Mageocracy. Their peninsular, Avalon Beach, was a headland that extended out to one of the principal Shield Towers at the northern reaches of the city - Barrenjoey Station.
The driver, a feller in a turban, was talkative and friendly, complimenting Gwen's attire before speaking out about the woes of working on public holiday. Overfamiliarly, the driver explained that he had two daughters who were turning seven and ten, and spoke at length about his anxieties regarding their Awakening.
"You are so lucky." The man grew giddy when Gwen stated that she'd come from an ordinary family and that she had no idea why she was a Lightning Mage.
"You must have done something great in your past life." The driver observed, grinning from ear to ear. "The way of karma, huh?"
When the taxi had finally arrived at Elvia's address, Gwen was mightily impressed. Though not as absurdly elaborate as Uncle Kwan's Kirribilli manor, Elvia's home was far more modern. From the hill, the Lindholm's multi-storey home cascaded for seven levels down to its private jetty.
As Gwen was fashionably late, the parking area was already inundated with expensive-looking cars.
"Happy holidays!" The NoM driver waved to her before pulling carefully from the driveway.
Alone for the moment, Gwen straightened herself and corrected her attire. She had worn her hair au naturel to complemented her pale skin and striking eyes. In the reflection, she could see that her mothers' gifted heels exaggerated her attire, lifting her calves and giving her long legs shape and definition.
Exhaling, Gwen loosened her arms, then strode towards the door. She depressed the doorbell, and a jingle later, the front door opened to reveal a youthful blonde woman with bright blue eyes, maybe in her early twenties.
"Oh my!" the woman exclaimed. "You must be Gwen!"
"Hello." The two shook. "I am Gwen Song, and you must be?"
"I am Elvia's mother, Elaina."
Gwen felt genuine shock and surprise. "Miss Lindholm, I could have sworn you're Elvia's sister!"
Her compliment was entirely serious. Elvia was sixteen! If so, when did Elaina give birth to her? How is it that the woman looked not a day over twenty.
Elaina's laughter filled the doorway.
"Welcome." Elvia's mother beamed, revealing brilliantly white teeth that starred in their very own dental commercial. "Come in, come in. Elvia couldn't stop talking about you the entire time we were on that cruise ship."
They shook hands. Elaina possessed that rare genteel mannerism which some women affected effortlessly, impressing Gwen against as she entered Elvia's home.
"Elvia!" her mother called out. "Guess who's here!"
Gwen held her breath as the sound of heels musically approached. Her friend, the one and only Evee, appeared at the top of the stairs, a little breathless for the effort.
Elvia was attired in white, as Gwen had anticipated, in a one-piece garb involving both lace and frills. The girl had grown in the two months since she had seen her, with a bit more curvature to hint at an indulgent lifestyle of buffets.
The two embraced, Elvia slamming into Gwen's torso to bury her face into Gwen's bosoms. Gwen likewise wrapped her arms around the petite blonde girl and squeezed.
Instantly, Gwen felt completed.
"Ain't you two sweet," Elvia's mom cooed, fixing her daughter's hair. "Come on down when you're ready, Elvia can introduce you to the rest of the family."
"How have you been, Evee?"
"Gwennie— so much has happened! Uncle took me to a conference; we visited some refugee camps for NoMs; it was terrifying! How about you? Did you do anything interesting?"
"Aah—." Gwen squeezed Elvia's cheeks. "Where do I start? How about we meet and greet your family first? It's the polite thing to do. I love you dress, by the way."
"I like yours as well."
The duo descended the stairs.
"Did you hear from Yue at all?"
"Nothing, I was so hoping she could make it today."
"Damn, that's a shame."
"Where is Yue anyway?"
"She's training with Alesia," Gwen said. "Probably kicking ass somewhere. I am sure Alesia has Yue well looked after."
They soon arrived at the second floor, where a massive living room led onto a multi-level deck, interconnecting the middle and lower levels.
Impressively, her friend's house even had a private jetty.
There were already people everywhere, a good thirty to forty adults and a dozen children. Despite the crowd, however, the unusual design of the house negated the limitations of space.
"There she is!" Elaina raised a glass to toast.
The attention of the room turned to Elvia and herself, a few individuals raising their glasses, while others inclined their heads, then returned to their conversations. As one, Elvia's family moved from their respective circles towards them.
Of the group, Gwen recognised only Elvia's uncle, Hans, a senior Medical Mage who had been instructing her friend.
Elvia's father introduced himself as Frederik Lindholm, the patriarch of their little clan. Handshakes soon exchanged all around, but when she arrived at a young man with the classic Lindholm blue eyes, he sneered at her.
Surprised, Gwen performed a double-take.
"Erik! Manners!" Elvia's father snapped.
Gwen felt Erik's eyes measure her up. Rather than interest, Erik's gaze was full of antagonism. In retaliation, Gwen gave the young man the biggest, brightest smile she could muster.
Like Elvia, Erik was good-looking lad, with delicate features and deeply set eyes. The boy's appearence, however, was decisively boyish. Gwen grinned, thinking that Elvia could have made a pretty cute bloke.
"My apologies." Erik bowed, a hand resting against his heart. "I am merely awed at the austere presence of my sister's idol. The Lightning Evoker, Gwen Song."
Frederike looked as though he wanted to smack Erik, but Elaina gave the young people a disarming smile, then directed Elvia's father away.
"It's nice to meet you too," Gwen replied, her voice somewhat wary of this antagonising development. "We haven't met before, have we?"
"No," Erik confessed. "But I have heard many nice things about you already from my friends."
"Oh?" Gwen was even more puzzled now. She certainly had no friend beyond her immediate circle.
"Patrick and Derek," Erik said offhandedly.
"Who?" Gwen was genuinely confused.
"Patrick and Derek."
Gwen shrugged. Who the hell were Patrick and Derek?
"Patrick... and Derek..." Erik repeated, sensing her indifference, the boy's face grew flustered. "They met you at a party in Kirribilli."
Gwen wracked her memory. She recalled that when she had gone to Uncle Kwan's. Some of the boys had tried to get a little handsy. She couldn't remember their names though; she had been trying to concentrate on not obliterating them.
"He means Dickhead and Emo."
A voice called out from behind. From the ease by which the profanities flowed, Gwen knew the source to be her cousin.
"Richard!" She spun. Behind her stood a bespectacled young man looking handsome in semi-formal, his Oxfords polished to perfection.
"Cousin," Richard said blankly without any particular emotion, but Gwen sensed that her cousin was happy to see her. They hugged and exchanged cheeks. Richard's embrace was a little wooden, but it felt good, like slotting her body into a groove.
"You smell nice," Richard remarked. He looked over at the red-faced Erik, then pointed to his cheek, where Gwen had just kissed him. "Are you jealous, Junior Erik? Gwen did not give you a loving peck on the cheek, did she?"
"What!" Erik's face was the hue of pork liver. "What are you even talking about, Richard? What does that have to do with anything?"
Richard's eyes twinkled, his glasses dangerously refracting the midday sun.
"Gwen, do note that Erik is lashing out because he is physically attracted to you, Gwen," Richard observed dryly. "Hormonal attraction can often be confused with hostility."
Elvia was reddening too, but unlike Erik, she was suppressing her uncontrollable laughter.
Gwen turned to Erik and lifted the hem of her skirt, performing a curtsey that showed offer her long and shapely white legs.
"Is that true, Erik?" she teased. "Do you like me?"
"No!" Erik blustered. "Elvia— she— shit! Why the hell am I even explaining this! Richard! Stop it!"
At Erik's expense, the trio burst into hyena-like laughter.
"Gwen, there's something on your clothes." Oddly, Richard reached out and brushed at the fabric of her dress, picking what was probably lint from a shirt sleeve.
"You'll probably have to show him a thing or two later," her cousin continued, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. "According to the rumours, you shamed my juniors from Prince's."
He then turned to Elvia, apparently now satisfied that Gwen's dress was spotless.
"Not to mention, according to Elvia here, you'd kick his ass in a second. That's quite the boast, coming from Blackwattle Bay."
Gwen glared at Elvia, who looked away guiltily.
"Evee, is this true? Have you been tongue wagging?"
"Erik was mocking my school, our school!" Elvia huffed.
Gwen flicked Elvia's forehead delicately.
"Evee the troublemaker," Gwen admonished her friend mirthfully before turning to Richard. "So, how come you're here?"
Her cousin was watching Erik, who had joined his other friends from Prince's. Currently, they were giving Gwen's group the stink eye.
"I was invited by your friend here. She had heard about me from her brother."
"She also told me that I was the only person in the family you could stomach."
"... and also that my father was a fat bastard."
"Surely Tali's aright? She's cordial, as far as I know," Richard framed his question in a manner that seemed entirely academic.
"yes, Aunt Tali is a fine lady," Gwen agreed. "It's more so Uncle Kwan that scares me."
"Kwan's just doing what he thinks is best, regardless of whether its best for you or I," Richard observed drily. When again, Richard referred to his parents by name, she sensed in the young man's voice a certain sense of detachment. "But, I digress. Do enjoy the party, cousin."
"Thanks, Richard, I think I will," Gwen returned to her flaxen-haired companion.
"Show me around the house? I want to see your room!"
"Sure!" Elvia slipped an arm into Gwen's elbow. "Come on!"
Richard strolled over to his juniors from Prince's.
All animosity aside, the boys were perfectly mannered when dealing with their senior. As a school, Prince's was very particular about mannerisms.
"Gentlemen." Richard inclined his head towards them, returning their greeting. He regarded Elvia's brother, whose face immediately grew several shades redder. "What is with that horrible performance Erik?"
The other two took a step away from Erik
"You embarrassed me," Erik accused Richard sulkily.
"You embarrassed yourself." Richard's tone contained neither hostility or mockery.
Erik looked downcast. Here was his house; he ought to be able to tell Richard to buzz off. However, he didn't dare. Richard belonged to the Four Houses as a Prefect. Meanwhile, he was just a junior Abjurer. Speaking unkindly to Richard would undermine his standing within the school's hierarchy.
"Are you going to take it?" Gwen's cousin demanded without warning.
The boys looked up at their senior incredulously.
What was Richard up to now?
"The pride of Prince's College had been trodden on, yet you fled like a little bitch. Then, instead of thinking about how to make things right, you all sit here and lick each other's wounds like milksops."
"You want us to show up your cousin?" Erik inquired carefully. "You don't mind if we embarrass her?"
"You think you can embarrass Gwen?" Richard scoffed. "You'd be lucky she doesn't 'kick your ass'. Did you think Elvia was lying to you?"
At the mention of his older sister's words, Erik's blood was up.
"Senior Huang, are sure about this?" one of the other boys intervened. Lightning was rare, but it wasn't Void Magic. Prince's had students proficient with Quasi-Element as well, and they were hardly indomitable.
"Erik, it's your party, your call, bro." The other, a dark-haired youth, pushed Elvia's brother with a hint of smugness. "It doesn't have to be serious. We can drop her in the harbour, make a show of it. That sort of thing."
Erik tried to imagine a bedraggled Gwen pulling herself from the water, water cascading from her dress. He would like that. It would be a bonus if his haughty sister cried as well.
"I am asking you again, Senior Huang, you are not adverse to our challenging of your cousin?"
"None at all. Not only that, if you do defeat Gwen, I'll personally vouch for you at the next student council election."
"Alright!" Erik gave an expression full of expectation. "Lionel, Todd, you guys with me?" The other two boys nodded.
"Great, I'll speak to Father. Let's see if we can duel on the jetty. I need somewhere with access to water."
Richard watched his juniors go.
"Ah, to be young." The Prefect chuckled to himself.
Within his immutable heart, Richard sensed a sudden flutter of anticipation. From the moment Gwen had walked into the room, he had sensed the familiar aura of Conjurers radiating from her body. Furthermore, in her experience, Gwen had left behind the tell-tale traces of crystal residue left by feeding Familiars. Having practised Conjuration for most of his life, Richard sensed without a doubt that his conjecture had to be correct.
And if Gwen did possess a Familiar— then her talent would be monstrous beyond belief!