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A note from Wutosama


With their course set and objectives aligned, Gwen and her crew presented themselves to the Quarter Master of Melbourne Tower to receive their arboreal adventure equipment.

The old Sergeant was a gruff and bearded veteran Mage missing several digits of a finger and brace holding the left side of his body steady. As the man spoke, Gwen could see the scars on the man's face flush with blood, a sure sign of improper healing.

"What you're dealing with is a primordial jungle with vines as tough as steel cables which regrow in a day. It isn't going to be a walk in the park, lass! Yer sure yer head'n in with the Major?"

The Quartermaster appeared sceptical as he eyed Gwen up and down.
"Show me yer hand."

Gwen did so.

"Ye barely got a single callus on there! Yer fingers are as smooth as a baby's bum! I am warning ya lass; the woods out there is no place for a wee princess-like yew. Yer be bled and scabbed by the time ya first day's done!"

Gwen felt her forehead perspire with consternation. It wasn't as though she wanted to assume the youthfulness of a newborn babe. But it wasn't as though she could explain that a nether-world shapeshifter had eaten her old body and that the man was complaining about her newly regenerated dermis.

Besides her, Alesia's crew chuckled mirthfully at every grievance made by the wizened Sergeant.

"Ah Brune, give her the gear. We'll make sure she's alright."

"She some bigwig's daughter? Why are yer buggers playing honour guard?"

"That's on a need to know basis." Paul winked at the Senior Sergeant. "From up on high."

"Bah!" The Quartermaster resumed his item sorting. "Three Healing Potions and two Mana potions P-P. Five Cure Poison. Five Remove Disease for the party. Using it sparingly, we're running low thanks to the Mermen. Alright— here are five pairs of skin-suits, four sets of fatigued combat mesh, four pairs of Waterproof hikers, Two lengths of Magic Rope, one Decanter of Everlasting Water. Bring ya own woollen socks - I am out of stock."

The Quartermaster paused and looked up at Gwen, raising a sceptical brow before unhappily handing over what looked to be a model house and a bulging bandoleer.

"One Portable Habitat and One hundred HDM crystals, military issue."
The men each passed their fingers over the assigned items. By consensus, Gwen became tasked with carrying the restorative potions, as well as the water supply.

When she received a model of what looked like a small cabin, she had to ask what it was.

"Its a pocket dimension habitat, you know?" Taj was surprised Gwen noted that she had never seen such a thing. "They're pretty common for camping in zones through which sleeping in the wilderness is hazardous."

"What does it do?"

"You put the crystal in here," Taj mimed placing an HDM crystal into a slot that fed into the toy cabin. "It generates a small pocket dimension that only attuned individuals can see. Inside the portal is a Conjuration based persistent effect that mimics a cabin. We can safely rest, cook and heal in there for twelve hours per crystal, maximum of three crystals per cycle."

"That's incredible!" Gwen marvelled at the toy structure, turning it round and round in her hands.

"It better be for a whole HDM." Paul winced. "Rank and file get ten HDMs, officers get twenty to fifty. Most of it goes to buying magical stock, training, and replenishing mana. We should only use the cabin out of necessity. I mean, for an NoM, one HDM is about a month of their wage as a low-level maintenance engineer."

"Is that... very little?" Gwen asked. Had she been allowed to procure items, she may have had paid more attention, but thus far she hadn't needed worrying about resources. Her Opa has been a very sugary grandfather.

"Yeah-Nah, NoMs get paid in currency, not crystals." Paul looked at her strangely. "I am talking conversion here, so it's probably really skewered. After all, what's an NoM going to do with crystalised mana?"

"Oh." Her face grew bright pink. She'd hadn't had much consideration for income since Opa had taken up her finances. Furthermore, Henry had provided her with all the training materials and spell components. LDMs, HDMs, currency— she had much to learn about this world still. If Gwen ever wanted to put her old-world skills to the test, she would have to find some time to re-hone her gifts for her present context. As for her immediate concern, that was far more straightforward— she had to become an Omni-Mage of sorts, master multi-schools of magic, then work on synergising her options.

Paul leaned in conspiratorially.

"Gunther's ring is worth about ten thousand HDMs."
Gwen felt the immense weight of the ring on her ring finger.

"Without the Contingency enchantment…"

The weight now felt as though a neutron particle studded her ring.

"The price of having a tier 8 Enchanter engrave the spell is minimum five thousand HDM…"

The blood drained from Gwen's face. Her palms became sweaty and nervous.

"That excludes the materials for the enchanting, and the fame of the Enchanter, so one might say the Contingency Ring is priceless."

Gwen shot a nasty look at the Translocation Mage, who chortled satisfyingly to himself as he drank in her agony.

"Alright! I've got the confirmation." Jonas intervened between the two of them before Gwen could respond. "Let's go see Master Surya."

Their reverse-exodus flight proved heartbreaking.

This far inland, there was little evidence of the Mermen incursion. Unfortunately, that didn't mean that the countryside had remained idyllic and unaffected.

Below Gwen's party's flight path across the landscape, convoys of cargo transport conveyed from the tablelands down to the city, bringing much-needed food and water supplies. In reverse, caravans of NoMs in vehicles of all sizes with men and women crammed like sardines into military trucks alighted into temporary refugee zones. According to Paul, until the city purged the Mermen and the Shield Stations could be repaired, the refugees would sojourn here under the Frontier Government's martial law. The process could take months, perhaps even a year, and even then they shouldn't be optimistic about the prospects of rebuilding their home.

"Half a year, assuming no Mermen attack, no Tier 1 city pulling our resources, and no Factional bullshitting," Paul quipped in response. The others chuckled. Neither of those elements was likely avoidable.

"Maybe the Factions will settle down, I mean, surely the big Three are willing to work together under Gunther. The Grey busybodies are half-way responsible for the shit show, Gunther is the de facto leader of the Middle Faction, and the Militants are Gunther's fanboys," Paul continued. "The little Factions won't cause disruptions needlessly, so it'll be the external power players we need to look out for."

Gwen and her company made a strange spectacle as they soared over the makeshift camps. Three military men in green-olive fatigues are flying in an arrow formation, flanking an inexperienced girl in a black skirt and white blouse, silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky.

Paul had taken the opportunity to teach Gwen how to fly, but it would take hundreds of hours until Gwen would wrap the elemental air around her like an extension of her body. To subconsciously operate the Flight buff while casting spells and dogfight was as skill few possessed and even fewer Mages will master.

It took them two more hours to reach Surya's estate, by which time the sun had begun its descent toward the horizon.

Her Opa's home no longer had the idyllic look of an outback oasis. Instead, the entire frontage had been converted in record time into a receiving zone for refugees and supplies, with a line of trucks idling outside the property waiting to get in. Unlike the property owners adjacent his estate, Surya was a genuine survivor of the last Coral Sea Conflict and a veteran of many evacuations. The moment the news of the breach in the Shield Wall had reached Surya's ears, he had instructed Tess and Melissa to be ready for the influx of refugees.

Presently, rows and rows of transmuted stone and iron formed self-contained makeshift shelters, hundreds of them, stretching from one side of the estate to the other. Its once blue lawns of emerald buffalo were now strewn with the refuse of NoMs fleeing danger and tragedy, littered with cardboard, clothing, and odds and ends of the lives the refugees had left behind.

Most tellingly, the infinity pool had been transmuted into an aqueduct that provided fresh water to the camp. The moulding workshop where Surya made his sculptures had become a transmogrified open kitchen where dozens of men and women milled about with plates and pots.

"Your Grandfather is an incredible man," Jonas intoned with genuine awe as he slowed their descent and flashed his badge at one of the Military Mages manning the perimeter. The young man saluted and pointed them to the main house, which was now a temporary clinic.

"Yes." Gwen didn't know enough about her Opa append the comment, but the compliment nonetheless filled her with a giddying sense of pride. When they'd landed, there was a welcoming party waiting for her.

"Richard! Percy!" Gwen squealed gleefully and leapt towards her kin. Richard had been the first to contact her when she'd thought all as lost; his well-wishing had filled her with the audacity of hope. Her brother too was a sight for sore eyes. With all that had transpired, she felt a sudden pang of guilt for not thinking overmuch about Percy during the crisis. Seeing his wane smile and ashen face now, she felt her heart abuzz with mixed emotions of maternal, sisterly love and indignant disappointment that he'd not so much as sent her a single Message during the entire ordeal.

"Hmm—GNNHMM!" The sound of a throat clearing diverted her gleeful advance.

"Opa!" Gwen changed her trajectory midway and flew into her Opa's bony arms, almost bowling the old Mage over.

"My cucu perempuan!" Surya embraced his granddaughter, enjoying the softness of her body enveloping the scarecrow likeness of his own. T

"Oh, how I've worried!" Her grandfather appeared revivified by the release of tension brought on by the physical evidence that his granddaughter was unharmed. After the story she'd told him, the man had likely imagined her in direr straits.

"I've missed you too, Opa," Gwen brushed her lips over the whiskery beard of his cheeks, feeling the stinging itch of her grandfather's bristles poking into her tender flesh. Even though they'd spoken prior, a physical meeting held a special feeling that Message spells couldn't replicate.
When her Opa finally released her from his embrace, satisfied that she was in one piece, Gwen turned to Percy and Richard. The euphoria of the moment had passed, so Gwen delicately asked if their evacuation from the city had been fortuitous.

"I just arrived a few hours ago." Richard smiled broadly, though Gwen could see the fatigue written all over his face. "I can hardly believe how much of the inner city has gone down. It's been a long day for many of us. Are you feeling alright yourself?"

"Is something the matter?" Gwen asked. If something was troubling Richard, she wanted to be able to lend a hand.

"Nothing I can't handle." Richard tried to brush off her concern, but Gwen distinctly felt that the young man was trying to avoid making her anxious.

"Richard…" Gwen realised from his expression that her curiosity would have to wait.

She turned to Percy, who'd watched her interaction with Surya and Richard silently. They say that growing girls changed every other month, but in Gwen's eyes, the changes occurring in Percy were no less surprising. Having seen him only a few times in the last year and a half, the boy more and more resembled their father.

Like Morye, Percy had that strange, indescribable handsomeness that was becoming of mixed heritage children, with a strong jaw and a well-spoken chin, but a delicate mouth and an effeminate nose. His eyes were darker than the hazel that Gwen and Helena shared, giving him a more distinct, prominent appearance where Gwen's fair skin and light eyes. His complexion took its tone from their grandfather, awarding him a honeyed tan that falsely gave the impression he was an outdoors type.

"Hey buddy, how's life been?" Gwen carefully touched her brother's nerves.

"Alright, I suppose, until all of this." Percy looked unkindly towards the NoMs milling about the place before sighing. "I was going to enrol in Prince's, you know."

"I am sorry to hear that," Gwen replied, unsure now of how to approach her brother after disgracing Helena at the Huang's Estate.
Holy shit! Kwan's home!
Her uncle's estate!
Suddenly, it struck her, Kwan's manor was in Kirribilli!

Gwen spun around and caught Richard just as his attention turned inward, causing the young man to regard her with a disconcerted apprehension.

"Richard, your family…"

"They're safe and inside."

"Buy your home! Your family's properties! Their investments! Your Tier 1 studies..."

Richard tried to put on another grinning face, but the straight-spoken young man was terrible at hiding his emotions.

"You know how it is. You win some; you lose some. I guess two decades of peace had us on the back foot."

"Oh, Richard…"

Before Gwen could pursue the matter, Surya instructed them to convene in the East Wing. The rest of the building, including the guest rooms, had been converted to service the refugees.

When they made their way through the central atrium, Gwen felt a slight tingle of premonition triggering her Divination talent. She paused to regard her surroundings and caught a familiar pair of heavily mascaraed eyes meeting her own.

Helena Huang regarded her with a complicated expression, then sighed.

"Mother." Gwen curtsied after the smallest pause.

"Gwen," Her mother greeted her. Gwen's eyes scanned the space around her and saw that her stepfather was nowhere near.

"Tang's helping with the shelters," Helena retorted with a hint of pride in her voice. "His manufactorum is bringing supplies to us as we speak."

That was not what Gwen wanted to know, but she paid Helena the fished compliment nevertheless. The mother and daughter then regarded one another for a few more moments, each wondering if something of substance might be exchanged.

"I am glad you're alright," Gwen said at last.

"You too." Helena was putting on a brave face, but Gwen could see that the woman was a mess beneath her stoic, self-aggrandising forbearance. Her mother's makeup was usually impeccable; with sharply contoured shadows framing her vivid eyes and lips that were well defined and outlined. Now her eyes were a little smokier than usual; her lips merely mattered with a dull crimson that felt cheap and negligent. It didn't mean that she wasn't her usual self, of course. Even now, as others passed them, they'd stop to steal glances at the striking pair; though more so at the effortless sensuality that oozed from Helena. Strangely, Gwen felt a trickle of sympathy for the poor woman— how tiring it must be to live like Helena, to be so wary of what others thought at all times.

As they measured one another for weakness, Helena noticed the three burly men who'd taken up positions beside Gwen were her bodyguards. The mana radiating off these men suggested the Rank of Senior Mages at the very least, while their cold demeanour inferred they were seasoned combatants of many battles.

Her mother's expression tightened.
Gwen could guess her thoughts by reading her stiff upper lip.

Only a year and a half ago, her daughter had been a mewing teenager whimpering at the utterance of every critique from her lips. What could her daughter have done to gain so much influence with those from up on high? What use had the late Henry Kilroy found for her daughter? How had she wormed her way into the good graces of someone like Gunther Shultz? There was her talent, of course, but hundreds of Mages had talent. Why Gwen?

But Gwen wasn't about to humour her mother.

"Gwen, in here," Surya's voice came from behind the double doors of the second living room.

"I am coming!" Gwen called out. She turned to Helena.
"Please be safe, mother."

Her mother nodded.

"You too," she said, her lips growing parsimonious. Helena felt no shame in confessing that her wayward daughter frightened her. "Stay safe, Gwen."

Gwen reached out to embrace her mother, who returned her affection after an awkward hesitation. As they exchanged cheeks, Gwen noticed that her mother's generous application of Chanel No.5. Where previously she had dreaded the scent, it now felt almost nostalgic, reminding her of the few times when they'd genuinely shared some mother-daughterly moments of innocent happiness.

"Gwen, come on." Surya had been watching them. "You can kiss and make up at dinner. What was it that you wanted to know? Shultz wasn't clear on the details."

Gwen left her mother standing as she entered the room with Surya.
The second living room was likewise a mess. Most of the statues and artworks had been stashed within to make space for the clinic.

"Right," Gwen found a place to sit.

Surya left for a brief moment and returned to materialise a decanter of cold water and several glasses. Gwen took over from the venerable Enchanter and poured for the men in the room, mindful of her junior status amongst them.

Alesia's men timidly took the glasses from her tray, mindful that Alesia never had in her life performed anything remotely resembling cordial appreciation of her party members. Ordinarily, it was the men who fetched cognac or whiskey so that Alesia could wet her whistlers as she talked over them.

Surya took a sip from the water and looked at Gwen with gentle eyes.

"How are you feeling now?" he asked his granddaughter.

Gwen recalled that only last night her communication with the old Enchanter had been choked with uncontrollable emotions, confessing to Surya what she had done and how Henry had died. In his face, she could see that Surya too shared unspeakable grief. A portion of it was over his friend's death, while the latter half was for the trouble their lack of vigilance brought upon his granddaughter. After all, he had been there when they 'confirmed' that Elizabeth had died. He'd also voted to support censuring Mark when the neophyte Necromancer announced that Elizabeth was still alive. What could the Enchanter be thinking? Gwen wondered. What if they'd instead chosen to pursue the matter, they might have uncovered Elizabeth's tracks? Prevented the tragedy to come?

More than that, Gwen realised Surya's guilt was exacerbated by Debora Jones, whose original body had been a skin-suit for Faceless. Her grandfather must be feeling a deep-seated dread for his stupidity in bringing Faceless to the meeting and catalysing Sydney's demise.

Thankfully, she knew her grandfather was a military man; despite his artistic sensitivity, he knew that there was a time for grief and a time for action. Now was not the time to mope over the loss of a friend and ally, but the time to ensure that the city survived and his legacy continued.

Playing the dutiful grandchild, she extended a hand and held Surya's own, feeling the empathic warmth of resonant grief flow between them. With a voice that trembled, she told Surya about her desire to save her friends.

"The Grot, huh?" Her grandfather took another sip before fossicking through his memory.

Jonas had come prepared and produced blurrily taken aerial lumen-recordings of the archipelago between Singapore and Jakarta. A circle had been drawn around a small group of islands, where a red dot marked a blurry smidgen of green with a handwritten title - Kapulauan Riau.

"You're going to be in for a hard slog," Surya forewarned them. As he recollected what he could, he informed them that 'Deathless Henry' had already become a famous moniker amongst the deployed Mages when their team first formed. Henry was older than all of them by at least a decade, though his presence had always felt younger thanks to the influence of his Dryad familiar and her supply of vigour rich essences. "Tis the milk of paradise," Henry had joked. He was happy to share it, but Sufina was frugal when it came to the golden mead.

"Well, the story goes that the island contains a groove of rather xenophobic Dryads," Surya continued. "Of the man-eating variety, that is."
His face took on a redder shade as he met Gwen's inquisitive, anxious eyes.

"You know what that means, right?"

Gwen's cheeks blossomed. Paul had explained rather explicitly what 'it' was that Dryads usually took for sustenance and sport.

"Right," Surya coughed. "So the story goes that Henry was one of the Mages who advocated scouting and mapping out the region during the seventies so that we could find potential locations for further FOBs against the Mermen. When he and his squad got caught by a sudden sea-sprout, they were blown off course onto this island, which today we call Kapulauan Riau. The location of the island and its archipelago is incredibly convenient, for it was within Greater Teleportation distance of Vietnam, Singapore, the Malaysian coast, and even Brunei."

Jonas and the old Magus discussed some geographical details before continuing.

"They explored the island for the first half a day without incident, but then they ran into the island's inhabitants. As you can imagine, this would be the millennia-old Bayan-tree Dryads that reside at the island's centre. I remember Henry telling me that his men were overwhelmed by the Dryads after a few days of being kited through the woods. The fairy-folk have a Fey-charm ability that muddles the mind, especially when it comes to young men."

Surya stopped to take a sip of water.

"When it came to Henry, however, he told me that since he was naturally a Mage aligned with plant-life, he managed to, 'convince', the Dryad to come with him instead of drawing him into the woods."

Paul whistled.

"The boss's Master must be close to the tier of a Magi if he can kidnap a wood nymph from her people. That's a helluva reversal."

Surya nodded in affirmation.

"Sufina was still young, of course, a century at most and so more pliable to becoming a bonded familiar. It was fortunate for both of them. I'd always thought. I've never seen another plant-Mage like Henry, and Henry had never encountered a suitable magical creature like Sufina since."

Her grandfather's audience agreed.

"Now that brings me back to the point I was making," Surya continued. "While you will be fighting your way into the island, you mustn't attack the Dryads themselves."

"How strong are they?" Taj inquired. "General class for the mature ones? Giant class for the Elders? Titan for the mother-tree?"

"No no, nothing like that." Surya waved his hand. "Nothing so exaggerated. A tier 3 Fire Evoker can take down your average Dryad without breaking a sweat, Soldier class at best. Only the Matron, who feeds off the grove, could arguably approach the Commander class, or tier 7 thereabouts. I am saying that once Sufina returns to the fold, she would be far more powerful than your average Dryad, maybe even approaching Titan class on her own. If you start killing the Dryads, you'd be killing her kin, and then you'd have to face her wrath."

"But she'll remember us, right?" Gwen asked anxiously. "She'll know who Yue and Elvia and Whetu are."

Surya dipped his chin ever so slightly.

"She's a sentient being, so she'll have memories of friend and allies. However, when a contracted creature is released, there's a loss of the empathic bond. When you have shared a telepathic connection with a partner for over three decades and then suddenly it's gone, you're bound to be feeling a little crazy. Gwen, you have animal companions, so you wouldn't know just how much feedback the loss of a spiritual companion gives you, but it is said to be worse than death. I've even heard of Conjurers committing suicide when they lose their Familiars. The feeling of losing a sentient spirit is said to be the soul-rending feeling that you'll never again know completion or happiness."

Gwen took in a nervous breath of cold air. In the stillness of the room, they could audibly hear the quickening of her erratic breath.

"Sir..." There was a rap on the door.

"Afternoon tea?" Tess's bright face looked into the room. "Hi, Gwen!"

"Hey there," Gwen said weakly, still thinking about her friends and now with the added trauma of projecting the paranoia of losing her Familiars.

"Let's break for a bit. We have to wait for our last member anyway," Jonas suggested. When he walked past Gwen, he gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "It'll be alright. We'll recover your friends safe and sound. You'll see."

Gwen followed the rest of them onto the alfresco dining area of the veranda. Everyone was present: Richard, Kwan and Tali, Helena, Tang and Percy, Tess and Melissa, Gwen and her companions. A large table was set, modestly filled with simple sandwiches, bits of leftover roast carved into cold cuts, and fresh fruit.

"It was all we could do under the circumstance, Sir." One of the NoM maids apologised to Surya, who gave her a gentle pat on the head and excused her. Gwen looked at them and felt her heart skip a beat when her gaze met those of NoMs that milled about the refugee camp. Here they were, barely surviving on the supplies given to them by the Military, and no more than a dozen meters away the Mages of the household were having a picnic.

They probably had no idea that what they thought was a feast was a horrifically underrepresented afternoon tea for someone of Surya's position, but their resentment was nonetheless palpably felt. Nevertheless, her grandfather paid them no mind, though Melissa seemed genuinely displeased by the looks they were getting.

"Ungrateful serfs," she mumbled to Tess, just audible under her breath. "If it weren't for Master, they'd be dodging Mermen while knee-deep in seawater right now."

Tess patted her sister's hand and told her not to mind.
Surya tapped a glass.

"Family, friends, I am grateful that all of us could be here today," the old patriarch began appearing touched that all of them had survived the calamity. "Though the past few months had seen some great turbulence, I hope that in this time of crisis, the family can remember that blood is thicker than water, and that no matter how far we roam, we remember that unity brings strength and prosperity."

"Hear, hear!" To Gwen's surprise, Kwan began to clap frantically.

Everyone else followed, some more vigorously than others.

"Now," Surya continued when the applause died down. "I wanted all of us to be here today, because even though in the next few months we may go our separate ways, compelled by different circumstances, I want all of you to at least remember that today, on this day, we are one family."

"All of you are close to me." Surya's voice became full of emotion. "It means so much to me that—"

"Am I... am I late?" The Enchanter's speech was interrupted by the appearance of a lone figure walking onto the veranda.
Gwen's' eyes grew as large as quail eggs.
Surya's face grew three shades darker.
Helena almost spat out her sparkling chardonnay.

A casually dressed pauper walked in on them dressed in straight cut jeans and a stained white shirt; his hair cropped informally to give an indifferent air. Still, the man possessed a ruggedly handsome mien. The only flaw immediately noticeable was his height, which fell below Helena's desirable magic number of six-feet.

"Er…" Gwen's father instantly realised that this was perhaps not the best time to exit the lobby and make his presence known.

Likely, Gwen guessed, the man thought that since the family was all present, he may as well get all the scowling over and done with at once.

"So, am I interrupting something?"

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A note from Wutosama

This is the 2020 Edit Session for Vol 3! 

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Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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