Gwen swivelled with haste to wakefulness that she gave herself mild whiplash. She met the surprised expression of the nightshift nurse, one hand still hovering over her shoulder.
"S-sorry," Gwen mumbled, lifting her head off the bed. Her eyes blinked, still puffed from the exhaustive emotions of last night. When a silver thread of drool lingered between herself and Alesia's sheets, she reddened with mortification. Together with her dishevelled hair, it gave her a pitiable, tragic air.
"There's a foldout bed in there, sweetie." The nurse, a middle-aged blonde woman with a gentle face, stifled a mirthful chuckle and pointed her to the guest's couch. They were in a VIP room reserved for executives and thus, the furniture allowed for overnight stays. It wasn't unusual for loved ones, Apprentices, or close associates to desire the opportunity to remain watchful over the patient.
"Thank you." Gwen removed herself from the bedside. It must be early morning now, for a soft phosphorescent escaped the drawn curtains. In a few hours, the new day's sun would shed its light on the full extent of the disaster below.
The nurse patiently recorded the biometric readings of Alesia's condition before turning to Gwen.
"Do you want something to eat, hon? We have a full-time kitchen down the hall. There's an officer's mess on the second level as well."
Gwen intended to decline, mindful of Alesia, but the motherly matron's reminder signalled to her subconsciously that she hadn't eaten since the morning. They were supposed to be having a luncheon after the Rosebay challenge, and now it was the next morning. She had gone without food for a full seventeen hours.
When her stomach loudly protested, the nurse couldn't help but audibly chuckle.
"Come on then." she inclined her head. "It's just downstairs and across the hall. I'll take you over."
Gwen stood and followed the nurse.
"My, you're a tall one!" the woman remarked as they proceeded down the hall. "You might want to get a fresh change of clothes. The canteen's a real riot of folks at the moment. Mostly junior officers."
It was then that Gwen registered that she was still wearing the loose robe she had slung over her body after her gleeful murder of Faceless. It was still speckled with dark blood, especially when combined with the hospices' slippers. If she sauntered into the mess right now, she would resemble an asylum escapee.
"Yes, I'll change first, thank you."
The nurse smiled gently and directed her to a suitable changeroom, sliding herself between the narrow doors into a mirrored cubicle.
She pulled the robe from her body and stored it within her ring, then wiped herself down with a wet towel. The cubicle had a tall mirror that ran the length of the door frame, within which she could see herself. Against all expectation, she appeared hale and well-toned, different from the anorexic body she had inhabited for the last six months.
It was the gift of vigour from Almudj, whose restorative essence had given her a new lease on life.
How long would it last this time? She wondered. How many Void spells could she sustain before she appeared spent once more?
Sobel had seemed immune to the bane of negative enervation.
As for herself, who knew?
She raised a hand and touched the jade Kirin around her neck, caught between the swell of her modest breasts. Its texture was smooth and fleshy in the manner of lamb-fat jadeite, cosy, like her flesh and blood.
The Amulet was another secret to unravel in the days to come.
Putting her thoughts aside, Gwen sorted through the folded piles of clothing held in stasis. With consideration for the company of stone-faced Mages and crisply-uniformed officers, she opted for the penguin-coloured dress she'd worn for Rosebay. Her Mary Janes, now a veteran of many crisis and combats, had seen better days.
The shit these shoes had seen— Gwen puckered her lips. Maybe one day the pair would awaken as an enchanted pair of sentient shoes. I have no mouth, and I must scream, and all that.
While she brushed out her shoulder-length hair, coiling the dark cascade into a convenient braid, she an unbidden thought struck her chest.
According to Faceless, Debora had been dead since a year ago.
If so, who was going to tell Debora's parents and how should they recount it? Would a kindly worded letter from the Frontier government suffice? Debora's parents were well aware that their daughter was best friends with her, and had even seen lumen-pictures of the two of them, cowboy hats and all, hanging out arm-in-arm in the outback.
Just the thought of those moments made her ill.
With a wave of her hand, Gwen collected her towels, her clothes and her makeup, packing away her troubled thoughts along with the miscellanea. After a final inspection of her reflection, she left the changing stall and made for the canteen.
The mess hall wasn't far from the VIP wards, accessed after descending a set of stairs and traversing through the corridors. The galleries of the Melbourne Tower were created for utility rather than security, focused upon the pragmatic delivery of goods and services to the frontline Mages. The section which Gwen inhabited was reserved for officers, with the medical wards situated on the lower floor, a few corridors from the junior officer's shared quarters, while the senior officers had their quarters on the second floor.
The nurse had been right. Gwen heard the noise before she'd even neared the rowdy premise. When she'd arrived, engineers, soldiers, medical staff and officers packed the mess to the rafters. Food was served buffet style in heated trays. Beside each counter, a loose line of hungry Mages made their way through the selection, primarily congregating near the roasts.
Curious eyes rose from saucy plates to regard Gwen as she entered, surprised to see someone of her age present within a Monastery-Fortress of Melbourne Tower. A few of them grinned, making her doubt herself. The bacon looked good, however, and so she ignored their enquiring looks. Retrieved a tin tray, she proceeded to gather a towering assortment of toast, muesli, yoghurt and packets of fruit preserves. When she passed the bacon line, she again felt her skin crawl. Was it her Divination Sigil? As a novice, she couldn't tell. A few chuckles exchanged amongst the junior officers, then much to her chagrin, one of the young men began making his way over.
Gwen found a table that was already seated and placed her tray upon the stainless steel benchtop. The already seated soldiers were pleased to see a teenage girl joining them, but then noticed the young man purposely approaching them.
The junior officer must be somebody— because the men and women around her left their seats without so much as a glance.
Gwen cursed. Lower her head; she hoped that appearing so engrossed in her breakfast that the man would surely take the hint and realise that conversation was undesired.
A looming shadow appeared over her buttered toast.
Without a clang, the young man sat across from her, placed his hands under his chin, and stared at her intently.
The presumptuous officer wasn't a bad-looking sort, but she was hardly in the mood. The single stripe of blue-on-navy by his collar indicated his rank as Pilot Officer, likely one of the Aerial Combat Mages stationed within the Tower. Gwen knew most of the young Mages stationed in the Sydney Tower, which meant this particular junior officer was either from Melbourne or Brisbane.
"Hey." the young man split his lips to reveal a set of gleaming teeth. "The name's Daniel. What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?"
Gwen wasn't a novice in the art of the insufferable "pickup". She could read his braggadocio like a cheap book. Usually, she would move away or politely bear with the unwanted attention, but she was in no mood to be pushed around by some entitled imbecile.
She looked up from her plate and met his eyes, channelling a little lightning to her eyes so that her iris took on an intimidating electric hue. She raised a piece of toast in one hand, and without breaking eye contact, proceeded to butter it.
"If you don't speak English, I've got a Translation Stone you can borrow."
Gwen followed up by patiently lathering strawberry jam over the toast. She folded the bread over and delivered the calorie infused morsel to her mouth. Still maintaining eye contact, she chewed.
Daniel held his composure, but when his friends began to snigger, his patience was at an end.
"You know, it's rude to ignore someone who's speaking to you. Who's your Master? I ought to have a word about your manners."
Gwen's eyes glowed.
A static charge passed between the metallic benchtop and the offending heckler. Daniel tore his hands from the table as though bitten by something fierce, tumbling backwards and tripping over his seat. With a clang that drew every eye from the room, the junior officer fell onto his elbows and made a right spectacle of himself.
"You little bitch!" He spat, climbing up on all fours. "How dare you! I am an officer of the Frontier Aerial Service!"
Gwen felt such ire simmering at her throat that she was confident murder was an option she was willing to consider. Her eyes, two vehement orbs full of malice, was ready to swallow the young man whole. With a word, she'd all on Caliban, and then—
"Oi! Miss Song doesn't want to speak to you," they were interrupted by another junior officer. This one added a quick, "Sir" after glancing at her harasser's lapels.
Gwen swallowed the murder rising in her chest, and regarded the three who'd come to her aid. She was surprised to find that she knew these young officers. The one who had spoken was Julius, one of the young men she'd often conversed with on her trips to visit Master Henry.
"Out of my way, Cadet," Daniel spat. "I have business with that girl."
"I am afraid I can't do that, Sir," Julius said again.
The other two beside him stood lockstep with the cadet. Watching the spectacle, someone in the crowd asked his neighbour who might this 'Ms Song' be. Another turned to address the questioner.
"Lord Henry's protege."
"The late Lord Kilroy?"
"The very same."
A few of the watchers took on expressions of schadenfreude.
"Poor Hopkins, there goes his promotion. Wait til Lord Gunther hears about this."
"Rest in pieces."
Her harasser's face turned ashen.
Gwen wondered if now was a good time to brush the matter off. There were Mermen below and a city to be Purged.
"Hopkins! Stand down!" a voice familiar to Gwen called out from the corridor.
"Sir! Yes, Sir!" Hopkins snapped to attention, his subliminal training kicking in.
The rest of the canteen likewise stood to attention as a man badged with triple stripes, two broad and one thin, entered the mess. A secondary insignia with a stave and two entwined serpents showed that the officer hailed from the medical corps. As the crowd parted, the military Mages moved to salute, while the civilian Mages stood aside to show their respect.
"Major!" Daniel Hopkins stood ramrod straight, sweat already beading on his forehead.
The moustachioed officer turned his seawater-eyes toward Gwen and gave her a benevolent smile.
"Jonas!" Gwen uttered in surprise. "You're here!"
"How could I not be?" Jonas replied. "I am sorry I couldn't be there when it all went down."
"I am sorry too." Gwen sighed, brushing a wayward strand of hair from her face. Her voice became low and ridden with guilt. "Alesia's badly hurt."
"I know, we're here to see if there's anything we can do."
Two more figures appeared behind Jonas, edging through the crowd.
"Gwen! Good God, am I glad you're alright!" Paul came through the crowd and embraced her, squeezing her tightly. "After I sent you guys through, we'd lost contact! I almost died from worry!"
"I am alright right now, but…" Gwen squeezed the Conjurer back, feeling guilty that she had to be the bearer of bad news.
"Yeah, I know."
"Hey Sparky, I am glad you're alright."
The Abjurer exchanged a hug with Gwen as well.
"Thanks, Taj," Gwen returned the big man's hug. "Where's Billy?"
"He's locked up with the intel division until all of this's cleaned up," Taj replied. "Else he'd be here in a heartbeat. You know he's still got the hots for you, right?"
The men shared a good laugh at Gwen's expense. Through dozens of years apart, what they shared in common was a special love for Alesia.
As Gwen and the decorated squad freely conversed, the crowd around them could no longer contain their curiosity.
"Did you see that?" a voice spoke excitedly. "The girl's acquainted with Major Durn."
"There's also Captain Phillip and Captain Mckay!"
"You idiot, didn't you hear, she was the late Lord Henry's protege."
"But Lord Kilroy's only got two…"
"Use your brain!"
Having exchanged pleasantries, Jonas turned to the petrified statue that was Daniel.
"No rest for the wicked, Hopkins, you're on double duty for the next fortnight, is that understood?"
"Sir! Yes, Sir!" Daniel's voice rose an octave higher. Any punishment was preferable to Lord Gunther's displeasure.
Daniel snapped a salute and moved past them. He paused when he reached Gwen's side.
The man bowed.
Gwen nodded, embarrassed to be the centre of attention.
"So, making trouble and its not even 6 AM." Jonas chuckled and pulled out the bench below them, offering Gwen her seat. "You want to join us in the upstairs mess? It's for senior officers, better food, better decor, less noisy."
Gwen shook her head.
"I was done anyway."
"You should eat more! You're stick and bones! Put more meat on there like Alesia."
A wane smile cracked across Gwen's lips.
A female junior offer brought them tea and coffee, setting them down carefully beside each of them. Gwen was surprised to find that she was among that number.
"So, a hell of a mess, huh." Paul began, "What'd you guys do?"
Jonas went first, speaking about his experience during the entire ordeal. With the incoming Leviathan and the loss of Message Towers, he'd gathered up the men under his command and made for the CBD. There, they'd met up with other officers leading rag-tag bands of civilian militia and made a stand against the incoming tide of Mermen. As the conversation continued, Jonas admiringly spoke about seeing Gunther flitting about the city, as well as hearing a strange story about a masked Mage with the power of pink salt, saving civilians wherever he went.
"You too?" Taj raised an eyebrow. "One of my junior officers said that she was saved by a Mage who changed the Mermen into pillars of pink salt."
"Katie from the third ground division."
"Oh, she's a nice gal, glad to know she's alright. Fantastic Transmuter, that one," Paul commented with a whistle.
Their conversation skirted around the topic of Alesia for a while, with Gwen listening bemusedly to their military banter.
"So, what happened to the Rosebay girls, the juniors, I mean?" Gwen asked Paul.
"After you guys left, we holed up for a while. But when things started to get shaky, I used the emergency glyph key that Ferris left behind and opened up a Teleportation circle to their sister school, Lilith's."
"Did everyone get out?"
"Yeah, thank God. Lilith's three suburbs away from the Parramatta River, so they weren't flooded. They WERE hella surprised though when their teleportation circles fired up by themselves, though. Almost blasted us when we started appearing by the dozen."
"What did you do afterwards?"
"Tried my best to link up with the boys. Didn't find anyone, not with the Tower down."
The group kept on with small talk for a while until Jonas paused mid-conversation to listen to a Message. The medical Mage turned to the table and stood from his chair.
Gwen stood up so fast that the bench shot out behind her, almost tripping Paul as he tried to rise.
"Let's go together," Jonas advised.
The group followed.
They made their way down the corridor and up the stairs until they reached the VIP ward. The very same nurse was clearing out a cart full of bandages and other medical supplies.
She looked up to see Gwen and her company of ranking officers.
"My, my, you cleaned up well." She beamed brightly at Gwen before turning to Jonas and tilting her head respectfully. "Doctor Durn."
"Sister." Jonas nodded back. "Is Magus de Botton's condition optimistic?"
The nurse said nothing. She handed over a chart clipped to her cart. Jonas' face turned a shade darker as his eyes scanned the report.
"Jonas…" Gwen fought the acid reflux.
"Let's go in."
The four of them filed into the room.
Alesia was leaning against a pillow, staring out the window through drawn curtains. Though early, the horizon outside had already taken on a warmer hue, casting the room in a soft, velvety shadow. The bed had been elevated, giving Alesia a comfortable incline upon which her head rested.
The once vivacious Mage's lips were bloodless, her cheeks sallow and sunken, her bright eyes became buried in two dark, concentric circles.
Gwen's eyes moistened. To see Alesia like this, so wasted and defeated, was heartbreaking. To think the first time she'd seen her, Gwen's thought Alesia the most beautiful, most vibrant woman she had ever seen in all her years.
"Gwen, everyone." Alesia's sonorous and sultry voice now had an exhausted quality to it.
"What happened?" Gwen questioned Jonas. "She wasn't this bad yesterday."
Jonas sighed deeply and moved to the bed.
"You always push yourself so hard…" he said softly.
The other two were visibly disturbed as well. Palpably, the atmosphere grew despondent.
"It's soul burn," Jonas replied. "An advanced form of mana burn. When a Mage channels mana to manifest spells, they tap into the Astral Body, via the means of command Sigils, tapping into the elemental planes to empower the phenomenon. When mana burn occurs, unspent mana lingers in your astral body and causes physical harm to your body in the material realm."
"Soul burn is when a Mage tries to over channel spells beyond their capacity and ends up exerting their Astral Body itself. When one's soul is damaged, the physical body grows frail and consumptive."
"Is there a cure?" Gwen inquired anxiously.
"Time and care," Jonas said, turning to Alesia. "Meaning no more combat for the foreseeable future."
"I am serious," Jonas intoned sternly.
Before Jonas could speak again, Gwen reached out with a trembling hand for Alesia.
"Alesia," Gwen began. "Can you tell me if…"
"The girls are alright," Alesia replied confidently, guessing Gwen's enquiry. "Whetu as well. They're in the Grot still."
"They're alright?" Gwen asked sceptically.
"Hypothetically, of course. What I mean is that I don't see why the trio wouldn't be alright, so long as they remain in the Grot."
"Where are they now? Where's the Grot?" Gwen inquired desperately. She wanted nothing more than to teleport into the Grot right now and rescue her friends.
Alesia's eyes fluttered with fatigue, becoming short of breath from the exertion of speaking. Jonas moved to support her back, channelling a gentle stream of positive energy into Alesia's torso.
"Thanks, Jonas." Alesia breathed out. "Gwen, I say the girls are alright because the Grot is a real place, not a pocket dimension that collapses when the caster dies. What Master had created was a direct portal that led into the mystical home of the Dryads, Sufina's private sanctum. It's in a Black Zone."
"A Black… Zone?"
"A place not fit for human habitation."
Gwen's distress mounted.
"You said they were safe! If they're in a Black Zone…"
"I know, let me finish." Alesia continued after a short pause. "Neither Gunther or I know where the Grot is exactly, but I know that it's in a place called Kapulauan Riau, an uninhabited island-chain off the coast of Singapore."
Gwen's skin turned clammy.
"That's… Mermen territory." She recalled her Geography lessons. Most of the cities of Micronesia and Indonesia peninsular was lost a decade ago. The only beacon of human civilisation there now was the port-city of Jakarta, as well as the most significant transport hub in Oceania - the Fortress city of Singapore.
"Never fear, the Sprites who inhabit those islands are old and ancient. I would rather venture to say that they're worshipped by the Mermen, who trade them the treasures of the sea and the occasional human for Golden Mead."
"What do they need humans for?" Gwen asked alarmingly. "Do they eat them?"
Alesia's face took on a spot of colour.
"Anyway," Alesia coughed. "Usually, when a conjured a creature loses its Master, it also loses its ego, its animus, together with important, shared memories. However, sentient creatures such as Dryads have independent memories that exist outside of the empathic link shared with the Conjurer. It means that as long as the girls remain in the Grot, Sufina should be caring for them as we speak."
"He'll be… kept busy, I imagine."
Gwen's quizzical look made Alesia roll her eyes.
"What I am saying is that they're all safe, at least for a while. Dryads have long memories. As long as they don't try to exit the Grot, they'll be fed and kept plump and healthy until rescue arrives."
"Presuming they stay put?"
"But Yue's with them."
Gwen's stipulated point made Alesia think about her apprentice. Her eyes stared into the middle distance after masticating a few scenarios in her head.
"They may be in immediate danger." Alesia's face took on a paler hue. "We need to rescue them as soon as possible!"
"What's the fastest way to Singapore?" Gwen asked.
"No!" Jonas lifted his hand from Alesia's back; the sorceress sagged back into the cushions. "You need to rest!"
"Jonas, please…" Alesia begged.
"No means no."
Gwen looked from Jonas to Alesia.
"I have to find them," she said sternly. "I don't know how, but I have to. I am beyond persuasion."
"It's too reckless, Gwen!" Paul interjected.
"Paul's right, you're just going on a suicide mission." Taj likewise offered his advice.
Gwen felt taken aback by their logical apathy.
"I need to go," she spat back at them, feeling a boiling, irrational resentment rising in her chest. "I'll go myself if I have to."
"How?" Taj, who was more unmediated thanks to his Earthen element, snapped back at Gwen. "You have no ship, no power, no resource, no team. How are you going to go?"
Gwen's fists balled on reflex. Suddenly, she wanted more than anything to punch Taj's face. Yue and Elvia. They were her friends! Her only family in this world! What was there to live for if not for the company of Yue and Elvia? Had it not been for them, she would have lost all hope in this second life, taken by the undertow of the Void.
If only she could be like Alesia or Gunther— having the power and freedom to do what she needed! If she was powerful like Gunther, or even Alesia in her prime, she could fly off right now and save her friends.
"Shut up!" Gwen felt her voice croak. Unbelievably, the frustration was causing her to tear up. "Shut up, please."
Taj lowered his eyes. "I understand how you feel, but your wish is impossible."
"How about..." Paul interjected.
"We can't," Jonas cut off Paul's rhetorical question. "We have duties here."
"But I can't leave them! I need your help!" Gwen pleaded.
Her demand hung in the air, strangling the conversation until Alesia disrupted the awful tension.
"Alright folks, listen to me." She spoke plosively, wincing she did so, pronouncing each of her words with forceful intent.
"Taj, Paul, Jonas. I am asking you—"
"Alesia…" Jonas began.
"Shut up and listen," Alesia intoned assertively, demonstrating her famously short fuse. "I am not dead yet."
Alesia took a deep breath.
"Nothing gets past this room."
Taj nodded. He formed a circular invocation with his hands. A clear mana shield sprang up around them, cutting off sound and contact from outside.
"Gwen is the youngest apprentice of my Master."
The three held their breath.
"She is far more talented than me. She can access Conjuration, Evocation, Divination, even a bit of Transmutation."
Three throats swallowed simultaneously.
"She is in command of the Lightning element, as well as the Void."
The men turned to Gwen for affirmation.
The teenager nodded demurely.
The men quaked.
Alesia continued her merciless onslaught. "So listen well to what I am telling you now..."
"One day, Gwen will become more important than all of us. One day— she will bear the legacy of my Master, become an Omni-Mage who will carry on the will of Noblesse Oblige. One day, she may be the Sorcerer Supreme who brings peace to our cities, mayhap even to humanity itself. Do you understand?"
"Alesia, that's too much..." Gwen began, but Alesia cut her off. The exhausted Magus turned to face her teammates with eyes that were serious and purposeful.
"But Gwen is not yet strong, just as I wasn't strong when you'd all first met me. When I needed help, I had you guys to back me up, to fill in for my weaknesses, to look out for me. You guys were my pillars."
The men listened intently, their eyes filling with nostalgia and remembrance.
"Gwen also has pillars," Alesia continued. "She has a kind and loving friend with a fiery temper, just like me, called Yue Bai."
"You all know Yue and how fond I am of her. When I think of her, I think of myself when I was younger. Her talent is likewise extraordinary, and may one day exceed even mine. Assuming she has a chance to grow."
"Gwen has another pillar, her spiritual and physical support, called Elvia Lindholm."
"Elvia is sweet and innocent and loving; when you hold her in your arms and smell her hair, you can feel at peace. She is a restorative balm for the soul."
Alesia had to take a deep breath before continuing.
"Gwen cannot lose her supports. She cannot lose those girls, just like I cannot lose you guys. If any of you guys are in danger, if any of you are stuck in that Grot, I would jump off this bed right now and crawl over to Indonesia, do you understand?"
The trio listened intently; a gust of dust must have blown into the room, for allergies simultaneously afflicted their eyes.
"I can't tell you the specifics, but I am telling you right now, that were it not for Gwen, you'd all be dead. We owe her our lives, all of us! My life, your life, his life, Gunther's life, every Mage in the damn city! She did that for us, without asking for anything in return. So when I ask you to help Gwen, it is so that you and I can pay back just a little of that debt..."
The room was silent but for the sound of Alesia's exhausted panting.
Jonas was the first to reply, then the others followed earnestly.
"Good. I am tired." Alesia sunk back into bed, her face white as a sheet. "You ungrateful bastards almost killed me all over again."
"Thank you." Gwen held Alesia's hand and kissed it. She raised the cold flesh and placed it upon her cheeks, where it became stained with the wetness escaping from her eyes.
"Little fool," Alesia said quietly. "Take care of my men."
The four of them watched Alesia once again fall asleep, her chest rising and falling with comfortable cadence. They filed out of the room and gathered in the corridor.
"We're in your care." Jonas nodded solemnly towards Gwen.
Gwen turned to the three of them and bowed deeply.
Paul interjected, preventing her from making the full supplication.
"We're all banking favours with a future Magister," the translocation specialist joked. "Anyway, we want to do this. For you, for Alesia, it's important to us."
"I am glad I can help as well. I was feeling something awful back there," Taj confessed. "Though we're missing a number for a full party."
Jonas tapped his fingers against his knees.
"Don't get too ahead of yourselves," he warned them. "We still got a major hurdle ahead."
The three turned to regard the Major.
"What?" Jonas looked at them incredulously. "You don't think Lord Gunther is just going to let Gwen waltz into a Black Zone, do you?"