Surya coughed and cleared his throat.
"Friends, thank you for coming tonight. I hope that you have all enjoyed yourselves. I know that in recent years, I have been somewhat reclusive, an old hermit hiding in my workshop, so before we begin. Let me apologise for my irresponsible absence."
Scattered applause answered Surya's self-depreciative jest. Many of the guests were indeed interested in why the old Enchanter had emerged from his self-imposed exile half a decade ago.
"For the young among you who are wondering who this old, talking scarecrow could be, I am the Master of the Huang Clan, its Patriarch, Surya."
He turned his face to find his children within the crowd.
"Kwan, Helena, come to me."
Gwen watched her uncle and her mother walk from the crowd and stand underneath Surya, who lorded over them via the second-floor foyer that overlooked the open living room and afforded a magnificent view of the ocean.
"My children, the fruit of my loins."
"Father." Kwan bowed respectfully.
"Dad." Helena curtsied, the side-slit of her dress splitting distractingly, drawing eyes from around the room.
Surya nodded. Of the two, it was Helena whose life he lamented. His daughter's beauty, especially in her youth, had blatantly outshone every other facet of her life. It afforded her such convenience and advantage that it had consumed her. Only now that Helena's comeliness was inevitably waning with each passing year, she grew desperate and scornful.
"You have done well for yourselves," Surya continued. "I applaud you for expanding the family fortune and allowing the clan to flourish."
The crowd clapped, almost all of them were friends and associates of Kwan. The New Years party had been planned for months, but Kwan had only known about Surya's desire to be present a fortnight ago. That was why he was nervously smiling and golf-clapping along with the crowd. Where was this charade going? Kwan wondered. Why did Surya come out of his reclusive existence as an eccentric artist?
"Yet," Surya continued. "Wealth, money, land, crystals, these are all but a means to an end."
The crowd fell silent.
"Look around you. Forget the canapés, forget the beverage in your hands, forget this mansion, forget the harbour view. Look - LOOK out there and see the reason why anything matters at all."
The crowd turned. There was the dark pier, scintillating with lights that refracted off the softly sloshing sea. Beyond the harbour, there was a thin sliver of light upon the horizon - the Shield Barrier.
"Survival! That is all!" Surya raised his voice. "That is the only thing that matters. None of this. Not this House, not the wine in your hands, not the expensive clothing on your back, not the money in your pockets— it is only our ability to carry on that matters."
The crowd was now confused. Was this suitable for a New Years speech? They certainly didn't come here to listen to sermons. Was Kwan's father senile?
"Survival." Surya bit the word with his teeth clenched. "Richard, Gwen, Percy, come."
The children gathered behind their parents. Gwen could smell her mother's perfume rolling off her like a tide, triggering unpleasant memories deep within her consciousness.
"The next generation, my pride and joy."
"Grandfather." Richard bowed - legs slightly apart, his shoulders squared, a vestige of Prince's discipline.
"Grandfather." Percy bowed casually, inclining his upper body.
"Opa." Gwen curtsied, crossing a slender white leg over the other, arching herself gracefully.
Gwen commanded the full attention of the crowd. Tall and majestic, her presence inspired a form of awe. Her natural grace was such that viewers were first overwhelmed, then overcome by a sense of disbelief that something so perfect could exist so close at hand.
Looking at the crowd, Surya could read the faces of those below. Appreciation, jealousy, and outright desire, it was plain who was thinking what.
"Survival," Surya repeated pointedly. "I am very pleased with my grandchildren. Kids, tell the guests about yourselves."
The guests regarded one another.
Richard was the clear winner, a Conjurer with unfathomable talent. Percy had yet to awaken, but he was most definitely going to be something special. Gwen was recently exposed as a Lightning Evoker, impressive in itself.
Richard stepped up.
"I, Richard Huang, have reached Tier 5 in Conjuration. I am currently progressing onto my Tier 1 Abjuration Sigil. My affinity with Water is currently 5."
The crowd exploded.
"He's almost a Magus!"
"At Eighteen, no less!"
"Kwan, you old dog! Your House is on the up and up!"
"You're going places lad!"
"Congratulations, Master Huang!"
Surya settled the crowd.
"Percy, how is your progress?"
Percy looked at his mother, who nodded conspiratorially.
"Grandfather, I am not yet fully awakened to my abilities, but I can inform you that I do possess a unique talent."
"Oh?" Surya raised a bushy eyebrow. "Do tell, my grandchild."
Percy sucked in his breath, making an expression that resembled someone anticipating a vicious blow.
"I have this." Percy opened his hands and channelled mana through his body. His face paled.
Percy's fingers grow frosty with ice.
The crowd stepped closer.
Percy's face paled even further, painfully groaning with each passing second.
An older guest picked up a thimble full of the white crystalline material and rubbed it between his fingers.
"Salt!" he uttered with a voice several octaves higher than his normal range. "Percy's a Salt Mage?!"
Others also took pinches of the stuff as Percy gracelessly panted.
The crowd tasted the Salt to test the validity of the man's claim; they crushed it with their fingers, feeling it dissipate as the mana diffused into the air.
The resulting uproar was grander than Richard's. The guests instantly piled compliment upon compliment onto Kwan and Helena, toasting the family on their windfall.
Percy too received endless praise from people in the room both young and old, envious and genuine, bathing in a moment of triumph. His pale cheeks flushed with a rose-pink of pleasure and vanity. He had been keeping the secret at his mother's behest for months, but it had been all worthwhile. Glancing at her brother, Gwen saw that Percy stole a look at her face.
Gwen felt a chill as the implications of Salt flashed through her mind.
According to Gwen's Master, the element of Salt was the union of the Negative Plane and the Plane of Water. It was a versatile element, capable of creating barriers, projectiles, and at higher levels, debilitating desiccation. It was a peerless element against living creatures, especially against water-based beings.
What Percy did not know was that his sister's worry wasn't for herself, but him. Even now, she was reeling with dread and horror. SALT was an element that, like her Void spells, fed on the life of the user. Percy was just a boy! How is it possible that a boy going through puberty was burning his vitality to perform a fucking show and tell?
Gwen grit her teeth. She wanted to slap her mother across the face. She needed to warn Percy, then hug him to her chest.
Gwen looked up at Surya, whose expression was ambivalent.
"Sorry, Gwen. It looks like I need you to show off more than your Conjuration," her Opa whispered through a private Message spell. "Show them a potential, but reveal nothing concrete."
Gwen nodded at Surya, affirming his advice.
The small gesture did not escape Helena's hawk-eyes. Even now, she smirked with pleasure. She just knew the old codger was up to something, and that her son's unique talent had disrupted whatever the hell the old fool had planned. Yet, what could trump her son's unmatched ability?
It took Surya several coughs and a resounding slap on the oakwood bannister to finally calm down the crowd. They were now all gathered beside Helena and Kwan, leaving Gwen isolated on the other side of the room.
Kwan was less than thrilled that Helena's boy would one day outstrip his own, but Richard had his accomplishments in the present. Richard was going to a tier 1 city. Lord knows when Percy could do the same.
The volume finally fell to a murmur.
"Finally, we have a member of the family who may be a stranger to many of you. Here, is Gwen Song, my grandchild and Helena's first. Gwen, can you please tell us about your talented self."
Gwen turned to the crowd and gave them a dazzling smile.
The crowd was now significantly less impressed with her exterior talents after the last two bouts of pleasant surprises. After all, if Gwen was merely going to say that she was a Lightning Evoker, she was still dead last in a trial of three contenders.
"I am a Tier 3 Evoker."
The crowd golf-clapped.
The expectant crowd was then both confused and puzzled when Gwen began an invocation NOT from the School of Evocation. With relish, Richard recognised her Conjuration School of Magic, grinning as Gwen worked her sorcery.
A bolt of lightning struck the marble floor, materialising into a marten that gazed upon the crowd adorably.
"Eee! Eeeee Eee!"
With a jolt of mana, Ariel grew into its combat form, becoming the size of a large, electricity-clad mongoose that snarled and spat. The stunned audience felt their eyes bulging in their sockets, their hands covering their mouths in disbelief.
"I am also Tier 3 in Conjuration." Gwen snapped her fingers, and a halo of electricity erupted from Ariel.
"Tier 4 in Lightning."
The crowd had gone silent.
Gwen retracted Ariel, and the creature stepped back into the pocket dimension, fading from sight with a crack of localised thunder.
"One last thing..." Gwen channelled a little magic to tease the guests' appetite.
Gwen extended her hand.
A whip of pure plasma erupted from her hand. She flailed it overhead effortlessly, allowing its length to writhe and crackle.
"Though it is a work in progress, I have attained some control over the Sigil of Transmutation."
"How is that possible?" A shrill voice blurted out. Gwen wasn't too pleased to see that it was Percy, her brother, who had made his doubts known. "It must be an illusion! Grandfather hired an illusionist!"
Richard stepped up.
"Any decent Mage worth their SALT could tell you that Gwen had just now manifested both Conjuration and Transmutation. Don't make yourself more idiotic than you already are, cousin. If you want to attend Prince's, you need to have class."
Percy appeared as though someone had just caught him by the throat and choked him. Besides Percy, Helena's face was turning all kinds of colour, from a blanched white to a dark liver.
Richard began to clap.
Then Surya clapped.
Clap, clap, clap, the sound of applause filled the living room.
The guests joined in, first one, then a dozen. Soon all of them were clapping, even Kwan and Tali.
Gwen blushed with overwhelming pleasure, her ego becoming well pampered.
The family's guests were ecstatic. They were witnessing the rise of a Magister. An existence that numbered under thirty even in a nation as large as Australia. Considering Gwen's age, what if she becomes the Master of a Tower? A being whose policies decided whether they lived in poverty or prosperity, whose decisions dictated who lived and died to the Beast Tide.
Besides his cousin, Richard felt such delight. He knew it! Richard couldn't wait for her to graduate so that they could go on some adventures together, test out their powers against forces unknown. With Gwen's versatility, he needed to do was to train his Abjuration Sigil. It would be glorious. They would be the dynamic Conjuring duo!
Meeting her cousin's, Gwen flashed Richard a heart-warming smile.
Surya banged on the bannisters again.
"Alright, alright, settle down. As you can see, the House of Huang is going places."
The crowd laughed, earnestly this time. Laughs and hoots and shrill whistling echoed across the vaulted living room.
"Now that we are properly informed, here is my officious decision. The reason why I took this opportunity to speak to you."
Surya took a deep breath.
"As many of you may know, I am an artist first, and an Enchanter second. I have little interest in maintaining our clan. One of the sole reasons why I remain the Patriarch is that the head of a House must be at minimum a Magus of good reputation."
"As such, I desire to retire from my role as Patriarch in the coming years, and I wish to confer my estate and my powers onto younger strengths so that I may spend my final decade, or two, doing the things I love."
"My decision, therefore, is to choose Gwen—"
"NO!" A voice shrieked across the hall, interrupting Surya's speech.
It was Helena, Gwen's mother.
She was trembling with rage. She could scarcely believe her ears. This had to be a joke! The clan, the estate, all of it was supposed to be Helena's! Tali had told her that Richard had been selected to transfer to London, to finish his education in a tier 1 university. It meant that eventually, Kwan would also leave for London with his wife. It implied that Helena would be the sole heir to the clan, the only one of her generation left in the country. So what that she wasn't a Magus? Who else was there take it from her?
Her palms sweated. The House, and Surya's investments, the country estate, all of it should one day be hers.
Now the old fool wanted to give it to Gwen? She saw the way he looked at Gwen. Percy? Fine, but not Gwen, not that little vixen!
And in that case of what her? What of Percy? Gwen would receive all the resources of the Huangs. After all, the little harlot had three schools to train, and that meant exponential expenditures. She could just see it now, the old codger laughing behind her back, Gwen cackling like a hyena behind Helena's back.
"You can't do this!" Helena's hazel eyes flashed with fire and fury. "It's not right! I'll serve you to the courts! I'll challenge you at the Tower! No patriarch can deny their children their rightful inheritance!"
Besides his sister, Kwan agreed. Richard as heir? Fine, but how could Gwen come out of nowhere steal their resources?
"You dare challenge my decision, Helena?" Surya intoned dangerously. "Perhaps I should disinherit you right now, but that would disqualify Percy. Would you like that?"
By now, Percy's face had gone from ashen to deathly. How was he going to compete with a Magister in training? He wasn't even adequately Awakened. When he became a Mage, Gwen would be a Magus. When he became a Magus, Gwen would be a Magister!
Looking at his sister, Percy realised the strange bitterness eating at his chest. He gave it a name, and it was jealousy. Unbidden, he wanted to lash out at her, to impale her through the chest with a pillar of crystalline Salt.
Richard raised a hand.
"I don't want the inheritance anyway. Well done, Gwen."
"Richard!" Kwan called out in alarm.
"Son!" Tali held a hand to her lips.
"It's true." Richard turned to his parents. "I'll build my own legacy in London. It's far better for me that Gwen expends the wealth we have gathered here, then join me overseas. Think of it father, with Gwen and myself in London or Shanghai or New York, how could we fail?"
Kwan knew that his son had a fair point. Did he honestly want to contest a future Magister over something as trivial as wealth? If Gwen or Richard were to come into their own, he would have power and influence, connections and business opportunities for days.
"Richard, take it back…" Tali was still begging her son.
"No," Kwan interrupted his wife. "The boy knows what he is doing."
"But…" Tali felt cheated.
"Come here." Kwan pulled his wife aside, signally their acceptance of Surya's decision.
The crowd's attention shifted back towards Helena, who was still squaring off against Gwen. Her husband, Tang Hu, reached her side to calm her, but the woman was now livid.
"I refuse to accept your frivolous judgement!" Helena snarled. "She's a Song! She'll never inherit your name. Richard should be the heir, or we could change Percy's surname, and he could be the heir!"
Her hysterics only seemed to make Surya more determined.
"Helena, silence. You cannot be the heir because you are useless!" Surya shouted the insult, striking his daughter like a blow. "You cannot survive what will come for us all! We are NOT safe in our enclaves, there're monsters out there, you dimwit! Only the best of us will survive!"
"You're insane!" Helena screamed back at Surya. "You're senile! The Coral Sea War is over! We've had peace for two decades! We're not in the Eighties, old man! We live in new worlds!"
Surya's brown skin grew purple with rage.
"Opa!" Gwen's voice called out, her voice soft and mellow and full of care, a juxtaposition of her mother's dagger-sharp notes. "Please don't be so mad, you're getting much too excited."
"You!" Helena turned to her daughter. She broke free from her husband and advanced on Gwen, striding towards her like an Arabian dervish, a storm of emotions fulminating fury.
Gwen's heart rose to her throat.
She fought down the bile threatening to spill from her oesophagus and faced her mother, channelling a calming flow of electric mana to give her eyes that distinct quality which had made her felt intimidating and in command.
Her mother stopped an inch from Gwen. She was about to slap her daughter, but then realised she would be striking a future Magister. Suddenly paralysed with indecision, Gwen's mother waited for her husband to reach her side and restrain her.
She would use another approach.
"How could you!" Tears the size of marble gushed from Helena's eyes as though she was the one who was the Conjurer. "I gave you so much, Gwen! I gave you everything! I bought you the clothes on your back! I gave you that dress you're wearing right now!"
The sudden change caught Gwen off balance. She'd been anticipating a fiery slap across the face. Now she didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Her mother was much too talented an actress for her good. Even in a situation like this, she wanted to guilt-trip her? Did she think Surya had just given an eleventh-hour speech on survival because of PTSD and dementia? It was like her mother lived in another reality.
Tang's face was red too, touched by his wife's outpouring of emotion. His eyes begged Gwen to give them a reprieve, anything that will stop the pain of this public disgrace. Unfortunately, Gwen could no longer afford that generosity. She wasn't about to ruin her Opa's great plan by being soft and compassionate toward a woman she knew to be a snake in the grass, a Snake-kin wearing human skin.
"I'll be sure to pay you back ten-fold, I promise. You'll have more ill-fitting dresses than you know what to do with," Gwen replied earnestly. "I'll still take care of you, mother. Like you said to me, you may not be worth much, but you won't starve to death."
"You!" Helena collapsed into broken sobs, a wailing woman overcome with grief.
The crowd murmured, their faces red from second-hand embarrassment.
Gwen grit her teeth.
Surya looked as though he was thinking of striking this daughter down here and now.
"Enough!" a voice called out above them.
The crowd had thought the utterance came from Surya, but Gwen knew that it had not. She knew that voice too well, too personally.
Beside Surya, there was now another gentlemen, older looking, in a tweed jacket and a dark blue vest.
Sufina the dryad leapt gracefully from the second-storey railing. It landed amidst the crowd, enveloping them with shivering, fallen leaves of autumn as her colour changed from crimson and ochre to a vivid, vibrant emerald.
The gathered were amazed by the sight of a Demi-human woman with a dress of leaves and flowers who embraced Gwen, instantly smothering her with a dozen kisses.
"Oh! I missed you so much!" Sufina rubbed her cheeks against Gwen, quivering with unadulterated joy. "That energy! Your vitality is stronger than before! Oh, I adore it."
"I can't believe you made me wait in that room for a whole thirty minutes," the second speaker said to Surya. "I could have used a cuppa and a cucumber sandwich."
"Sorry, things got a little out of hand," Surya apologised. He continued complaining in muted tones. "Who'd think my bloodlines have Water, Salt, lightning and void. What the hell is wrong with my bloodline? Am I old Prussian aristocracy?"
The second speaker patted his friend on the shoulder, then approached the railing.
"You all know who I am," he stated as a matter of fact. "I come to serve as the arbitrator for Master Huang, as a personal favour."
The crowd knew who had addressed them, quivering with dizzying excitement.
A fabled War Hero.
A Sovereign within these lands.
He was Henry Kilroy, Magister and Master of the Ordo Arcanum Oceania, head of the Council of Ten.
"After consultation with the patriarch of this house, I concur that Surya's decree as Patriarch is sacrosanct, I have thus taken the liberty to verified, then entered his request into the Tower's records."
"Furthermore, from this moment onwards, the junior Mage known as Gwen Song is under my protection. Any information pertaining her talents is strictly classified Tower business."
Henry's gaze inclined downwards upon the stunned Helena, whose mouth was still making an 'O' for horror.
"If any of you have questions or would like to challenge my judgement, let it now be known, or hold your peace."
There was silence, a silken silence immediately pursued by the synchronised sound of knees striking cold marble.
In the next few seconds that transpired, the crowd, Kwan included, had fallen to one knee and made the ultimate gesture of supplication, their hand placed upon their hearts in a pledge of affirmation.
Helena stood her ground, although by now she was a mess of flesh in her husband's hands, who also knelt respectfully. Though not in a military sense, Lord Kilroy was nonetheless his direct superior.
"Then that is all," Henry intoned satisfactorily, his stoic voice of command taking up a lighter tone.
The sound Sydney's harbour fireworks erupted across the bay. In the next moment, the whole city came alive with music and cacophonic pyrotechnical displays.
"Happy New Year," Henry said to them all, raising a hand to hail the kneeling guests. "May you all live long and prosper."