"Fine." Gwen spat vehemently. "I'll hear you out, but first— answer my questions."
Faceless nodded with a mannerism Gwen was used to seeing in Debora's face. In contrast to her now alien appearance, the effect was extremely unsettling.
"Where's Debora? The real Debora, I mean."
Faceless pointed to her chest.
"If you mean her body, her morphic form, she's in here," she paused and looked Gwen in the eyes delicately. "If you mean the girl you had known. She is gone."
Gwen had anticipated as much. But even so, the confirmation caused a distressing contraction in her chest; made worse by the fact that she couldn't move her limbs or stretch her torso.
"When do you suppose?" Faceless returned Gwen's inquiry with a question of her own.
Gwen searched through her memories of Debora.
"During the training?"
"Before our time in the desert?" Gwen intoned bitterly. Those were happy memories. It was in the desert that Debora tried to kiss her. The very reminiscence that it could have been Faceless the whole while shook Gwen to her very core.
"Yes, before that."
Gwen instantly felt ill. She suppressed the acid reflux in her oesophagus, then took a moment to temper her riotous emotions.
So, it wasn't Debora who'd kissed her.
It wasn't Debora who'd invited her to bed.
It was this thing— this creature all along.
All memories of Debora exorcised from her mind, all the times they ate together, laughed and joked, jogged around the school. All those memories, now mutilated by Faceless' confession. Where she'd thought kindly of Debora's cheerful face, Gwen now felt repulsive revulsion and repugnance with every recollection.
Stun by the memories, she dug through the events of the yesteryear and found the precise, disastrous moment. In hindsight, it was so glaringly obvious; the incident stood out like a red, weeping sore.
"During the Field Trip, when you returned to us, in the bunker. You apologised, and I was surprised that you had a sudden change of heart."
Gwen had to take another breather to process Faceless' confession. Lowering her head, she watched her chest rise and fall, rise and fall, breathing in and out.
"What were you doing there? Were you already Debora when Edgar found us?"
"You were pretending to be Dominated? He'd cast a spell on you."
"Edgar didn't know, but yes, I was pretending. I've seen it done many times before. It wasn't difficult to act the part."
"But he injured Debora! He drained her life!"
"He certainly didn't hold back. If he'd gone too far, I was going to tell him, but then that would have ruined my plans."
"Yes, one that far exceeds Edgar's mad dog antics," Faceless' expression was difficult to read. "Though I was Edgar's partner, my ultimate role, was to infiltrate Henry's inner circle, to uncover my father's habits, his schedules, his likes and dislikes, his moments of strength and weakness."
Faceless's face began to change again, becoming a middle-aged man with a greying beard. Her voice became deeper until it transformed into the baritone of a man.
"I was Alesia's Tower liaison first; I'd assumed control of this body and was using Alesia to try and penetrate Henry's faction. I'd leak her information from the other Factions, the deals that the Grey Faction was making, the experiments carried out by the Militant Faction."
"There was a problem, though. Alesia herself never thought of myself as a member she could trust or value, and thus the doors to the inner circle had always been closed to me. I suppose that even though she was so simple-minded, she instinctively knew not to trust a turncoat, especially one that professed their undying loyalty."
"Why Debbie?" Gwen demanded bitterly. "She had nothing to do with Master. She had nothing to do with any of this."
"It was a whim at first," Faceless replied with a tone that smacked of nostalgia. "I found her in the woods, wandering and clueless. She was an uncommonly comely girl, and I liked to collect spare forms. As a polymorphic shapeshifter, one never knew when a form would become useful."
"That's it?" Gwen's voice cracked a little. "She died on a whim?"
Faceless was relentless. "Yes. People have died for lesser reasons. What makes Debora special?"
"Then what? You came sauntering back into camp?"
"I did. You may be pleased to know that in Debora's final moments, her thoughts were of her family, and you."
"Yes, the old Debora possessed powerful feelings for you, even if they were ambivalent. Feelings that I inherited when I took her body."
"How does that even work?" Gwen questioned angrily. "That's not how Polymorph functions!"
"Yet for you and I, that's exactly how it works." Faceless raised a hand to pull at his or her face. A film of darkened void energy began to emerge, dissolving the face's physical form until he became a dark and indistinct silhouette. The dark mound of flesh that was Faceless' mien changed shape as the density of her body became fuller, taller, more toned and shapely— becoming one again, Debora.
Debora with her bright, amber eyes full of life.
Debora with her bronze, youthful limbs, sweaty after an uphill sprint. Debora, with her vivacious passion, with every emotion written on her face.
"Let's talk like this," Faceless continued in Debora's voice. "I am not… fond of my original body, I am uncomfortable, in my skin."
The fiend recounted their earlier topic and continued.
"My Polymorphy is a condition of the body, unique to my Void Magic. If you are willing, I'd be happy to teach it to you. Imagine it, Gwen, you could be anyone you want to be."
"So you're a body thief," Gwen accused the pseudo-Debora.
"Something like that. If you must know, I was far more interested initially in your body."
Gwen felt her skin crawl.
"Why the surprise? Think of it, Gwen, you were the perfect candidate. A dark horse with no background, no allies, no Faction and no House, a tabula rasa! You were perfect as an instrument for infiltration. You had prodigious talent, you had caught the eye of Alesia de Botton, and you had virtually no friends apart from that Healer and the Fire Mage."
Gwen chose not to meet Faceless' eyes as her cadence became more pronounced and excited.
"If I could have gotten some time alone with you in the confusion of Edgar's ploy, then…"
"That's enough…" Gwen muttered. "Why did you stop?"
"As I said, I had inherited many of Debora's strongest memories and emotions. The girl was obsessed, and through Debbie, I found something that I had not felt myself, not in all the years that I'd taken the faces of others. I found myself deeply interested, Gwen Song. Your vivacity, your lust for life, your intelligence and your whimsical speeches. Most of all, when I saw what you did to Edgar in that cave, I realised something."
"What was that?"
"We were meant to be."
"You disgust me."
"Ha! How many Void casters do you think exist in this world? Mother was one; I, another. I had never seen others. Could you try to understand, even for a second, what it's like to know that you're different, a loner, a singular existence, forever alone - then suddenly, you find someone who is just like you?"
"We're not the same!" Gwen snapped.
"Oh, but we are." Faceless grinned sickly. "Did you not enjoy Caliban's powers? His meals giving you the ability to be Abjurer, Diviner, Evoker and Conjurer? Did you not feel that unmitigated hunger that could find no nourishment in nature? Do we not share a world where our secrets could never see the light, shareable only with one another."
"That's not true!" Gwen spat. "I never asked for this!"
The retort seemed to anger Faceless. The fiend's face grew distorted and loathful.
"You think I asked for this?!" Faceless howled at Gwen. Her face was a mask of pain and fury. "You think I wanted to be born like this!?"
Her form shifted again, this time reconstructing her entire body into the darkness of the Void, consuming the elemental garb Debora had been wearing. When her body once again materialised, she was stark naked. Gwen saw a figure mangled with scar tissues, its flesh pallid and grey.
Faceless' anorexic, malformed body compelled Gwen to shudder, for one limb was longer than the other, its stem gangly and bat-like. When her gaze fell upon Faceless' chest, there was a slight swelling that indicated aborted puberty; when her eyes fell lower, she saw nought but an indistinct mess of ambiguous flesh.
"Life does not take when surrounded by so much death— when prolonged to the Void." Faceless ran a finger down her chest, down to her belly button, where a small length of knotted flesh had welted over. "My mother certainly didn't think I'd survive, though thanks to her boundless curiosity for testing the limitations of her consumption ability, I'd acquired life through the unwilling sacrifices of others."
"Gwen," Faceless asked mercilessly. "Do you think I asked for this?"
Gwen's first instinct was to apologise and say that she was sorry, but the impulse caught in her throat. Faceless was the murderer of her friends and her Master! Gwen couldn't summon the empathy to feel an ounce of sorrow for the aberrant being.
Faceless resumed Debora's form, though now she was stark naked. The sight was such mockery, for it reminded Gwen of that precarious night in Surya's country estate.
"Now, are you ready to hear my offer?"
Gwen subtly strained against her bindings. They were still well secured, but as Faceless grew emotional with each new diatribe, she could feel them loosening and tightening. Should she listen? Gwen wondered. She didn't have a choice, did she?
"Tell me, how did you turn Walken? Why does he think that you're on his side?"
Faceless crossed Debora's arms across her chest.
"When you and I returned to school, I sought opportunities to get closer to you. Why do you think we kept meeting one another on our morning jogs? I knew that you would have taken that route."
Faceless' cadence resumed its hypnotic drone once she became absorbed in the telling of their history. She could see from Debora's face that the shapeshifter had truly enjoyed, even cherished, those memories. She spoke of her experiences as Debora as truly her own, not the stolen moments of a body snatcher.
"At any rate, I needed to get closer to you somehow. If I couldn't kill you, then I must somehow get closer to you using the identity of this girl. The original Debora was such a hapless, untalented Transmuter, a waste of her affinity. She was a brute, lacking the finesse required for high-tier Transmutation."
"At any rate, I supplemented her Transmutation abilities and managed to get Barlett to secure work experience under a particularly 'renowned' but seedy Transmuter."
"My grandfather," Gwen replied. If there was a single silver lining to the Mermen invasion, it was that the inland areas were entirely unaffected. Whatever happened to the coast, Surya and his apprentices would be safe to evacuate at their leisure.
"Indeed, I became a good student under Master Surya, though I must say, your grandfather was awful handsy."
Gwen did not find the humour in Faceless' jocular jab of her Opa.
"When we received news of the whole Mark Chandler ordeal, I volunteered, citing falsely to your grandfather what close chums we'd been at school. The old man was beyond pleased with our relationship, didn't even give a second thought to bringing me to comfort you."
"Then, to my surprise, and mortification - I met my target. I was finally in the same room as Henry Kilroy— my damned father."
Gwen recalled the day and felt such regret pressing down upon her conscience.
"To meet my father for the first time… I couldn't take my eyes off him. I stared at him, you know, dreaming of what could have been. He was so kind to you, Gwen, so full of love and support, all the things that I'd never received from Mother."
"So that's why I propose that we share another bond, Gwen. It is too late for me, but through you, I could vicariously live the life I always wanted. A life of being pampered and guided by a father who'd expected great things from me."
"You're sick," Gwen retorted, but her riposte was without venom. The recollection of Henry's kindness struck her with sorrows that cut to the bone.
"After we left Chandlers, I sent a Message with a lumen recording to Walken. Then after that, we had spent our wonderful summer together. When we kissed…"
"Shut up!" Gwen interjected. "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"
Faceless waited until Gwen could recollect herself.
"Mother had been feeding him information for some time now, snippets of information here and there, that would turn him against Henry. Even the exchange he had suffered from Alesia de Botton a few years ago was our doing."
"When I returned to the Tower next, I sought out Walken in person. In exchange for his promise to elevate my position, to sponsor me for a scholarship at the Arcanum of Sydney, he placed me in a Truth chamber, where he 'verified' certain parts of my memory. He was an Enchanter, you know, but his methods lacked finesse. When the man was satisfied, he sent me away, tasked with gathering more evidence, and that was when you'd invited us to go on your Outback adventure."
"To digress a little, you know what was funny?" Faceless asked.
"What?" Gwen tested the restraints again.
"Of all the times, it was when you were doing that sweat-drenched nude dance with those filth Indigenous folks that I was truly in danger. Since I was Edgar's partner during that incident, that damned snake knew who I was the instant it manifested in you. Remember that bolt of power you shot at the tent? I knew it was coming. I had to set up a decoy and blink into the river! Thank God the serpent was a primordial simpleton, else it could have told you the truth."
Gwen's mind blazed with renewed hope. The Rainbow Serpent! If what Faceless said was true, then surely Almudj would come to her rescue. If she could tap into the scale—
Gwen felt a sudden, sinking feeling. Where was the scale?
She had placed it on Henry to help him heal. With the Grot evaporated into thin air, so had her scale. Once more, cold despair wash over Gwen's shivering body.
"As for the rest, it was easy. I kept feeding Walken bits and piece of maligned information taken from my memory - either work I had done with Edgar or work I'd performed for mother. Together with Henry's steadfast support, Walken had been fully convinced that you were a family of Void Mages treating the Tower like your demesne, its people like cattle."
"The rest, you should be able to figure out yourself. Walken had messaged me, telling me to take you into custody. I'd done so, but it wasn't for his benefit."
"How did Elizabeth get into the Grot?"
"I shared Ferris' Glyph with Mother," Faceless shrugged, suggesting that much should be obvious. "I learned the key when Ferris gave it to Paul. It was a complex Glyph— but hardly an octogramic mandala. As for the Grot, so long as Sufina is dormant, it isn't capable of rejecting intruders, at least not ones who are friendly to the Grot's 'inhabitants'."
"So that's the long and short of it," Gwen said finally.
Though they had conversed for some time, no one had appeared to accost them; no wandering soul had been shocked to find a stark-naked girl standing over another, bound wrist and ankle tied by a prison of sand. Gwen was hoping that at the very least, there would be Mermen present to distract Faceless.
"Are you ready to listen to my offer?" Faceless asked, her voice now edged with impatience. "There's only so much time before mother finishes the Mages up there."
"I want us to be partners."
"Impossible!" The very thought was aberrant.
"Shut up, listen, and don't interrupt me." Faceless tightened the sand around Gwen, cutting off her protest. "Gwen, you have a talent that few can boast of possessing. You may not truly know it, but only Void can truly defend against Void. With your abilities, you could one day stand up to even Mother, assuming you're given the time to grow."
"Furthermore, you even have the impossible boon of possessing Lightning, the very element that opposes, and indeed dispels, spells of the Void."
"This means that if you were to survive this ordeal, you could one day become someone who even mother will fear. In a duel of power, she wouldn't be able to penetrate your Abjuration Shields, but you can fracture her defences with Lightning. Do you understand what I am telling you?"
Gwen nodded despite herself. Once again, her position and circumstance had become uncertain.
"For that, I am willing to spare your life. I am offering myself to become your protector, your shield against mother's wrath until you can take her down, freeing the both of us."
Faceless' offer made sense, but Gwen felt all the unwillingness in the world assail her.
"I…" The words caught in her throat. She wanted to tell Faceless to go and fuck herself, that as Yue had promised, she was going to make Faceless feel pain and suffering in a way that the aberrant being couldn't even begin to imagine.
Yet, Gwen was no saint. She wanted to live. How much had Gwen endured since coming to this world? How could she just let it end here?
What if she said yes?
The very notion was sickening to her.
The faces of her friends and family flashed before her eyes.
Yue— whose animated china-doll face was forever mirthful and burning with passion.
Elvia— whose very presence was an angel that was a balm for her soul.
Alesia— whose fiery temper and desire for justice burned as hot as her scarlet flame.
Henry— whose kind eyes and old hands guided her every step in this alien world.
She couldn't possibly agree.
Sometimes, death was preferable to cowardice.
Sometimes, the line had to be drawn, this far, and no further.
Just as Gwen sought to deliver her ultimatum, a ripple of nauseating energy expanded like a concentric ring from above. An explosion sundered the heavens, interrupting their moment of truth. The Tower, which had been invisible some half an hour ago, became suddenly visible, hanging languishingly above in the blue yonder. A bellowing dust cloud erupted from its tallest Tower, sending down cascading pieces of stone the size of skyscrapers.
Something began to materialise atop the fallen spire.
A dark sun.
A black hole was sucking in all light, with thick tendrils of void-matter that lashed out as though they were alive.
Faceless turned to Gwen, her face no longer patient and willing.
"Make the decision now," she snarled at her. "What'll it be, Gwen Song?"
Gwen met her enemy vis-a-vis, her ochre-hazel eyes glowing with concentric rings of electric blue.
"Fuck your offer," she spat. "Do your worst."
To Gwen's surprise, Debora's face lost all emotion.
"Fine, have it your way."
Debora's likeness melted away as Faceless once again turned black and ambiguous, taking on the property of the indistinct Void. The creature lowered its face toward Gwen's, as if ready to deliver a full-mouthed kiss. It's sour breath washed over Gwen's face as its maw opened to reveal yellowing teeth.
"Maybe it's better this way," Faceless intoned emotionlessly. "We'll be together, whether you like it or not."