The family made space for Morye next to Gwen out of politeness, but the pleasant atmosphere prior was now shot and done to death in a dark back alley. Demurely seated next to her father, Gwen could feel her stepfather regarding Morye with near-tangible antipathy.
When two men who had slept with the same woman sat at the same table, particularly in the presence of the former's children, a feeling of contest or enmity was unavoidable.
It was not so for Gwen's father, who was as cool as the proverbial cucumber, without a smidgen of annoyance or care. He spoke quietly to the people he knew, asked them about their survival experiences, and even cracked a few jokes to nervous laughter. Not even Surya's growls and death-stares could faze Morye's come-what-may repose. Whenever Helena, Surya, or even Kwan tried to undermine Morye, they had the distinct impression of punching wool.
"I was looking for our daughter, you should know." Morye turned to a startled Gwen, who didn't believe a word her father said. "I tried to call her many times."
If there was one person at the table who seem to stagger Morye's impervious demeanour, Gwen was it. For some reason, her father spoke to her with a feeling of reservedness, carefully formulating his words and thinking twice before delivering them. As he told his tale, Gwen measured Morye with her untrusting eyes, sceptical about her father's purpose.
She knew that he had met her brother every other weekend for a luncheon, or had frequented one of his school's Spellcraft competitions.
With herself, he had cut himself off since the day she walked out after he'd prematurely brought a girlfriend over. She could guess that to her father; his wayward little girl had changed beyond all recognition. Gone were her timidness, the insecurity, the panicky obsession with her appearance. The Gwen seated herself next to him now possessed an air of supreme confidence about herself, a kind of surety that came with age. She wore very little makeup, suggesting she'd grown out from that particular phase of her life, but remained uncommonly pretty even without effort. Thanks to Almudj, her skin was pale and flawless, as tender as that of a child's. Her figure as well, which had always been a little anorexic, was now supple and shapely, attesting to the good life she must have enjoyed for the last year. Watching his face, her father seemed happy but likely had no idea how much her former self had been battered, bruised, starved and mistreated.
"Thanks, Dad." Gwen felt strange calling a man she'd already rejected and forgotten in both lives with the endearing moniker of 'Father', but there was no helping it under the circumstances.
Her father appeared to wrack his brain for something to say that would break the icy tension between them. "So, how's the VOID Magic coming along?"
Suddenly, all sound and action ceased at the table.
Morye looked around the table and saw the astonished expression of each member frozen in different stages of surprise, shock, confusion, disbelief, and murder. To Gwen's chagrin, it was only now that father realised with a sudden outbreak of cold sweat across his brow that he'd made a terrible blunder.
Gwen's mouth opened and closed for a few seconds, but no words ushered from her paling lips. She knew now how her mother felt. She wanted to strangle Morye right here, or at least punch him squarely in his stupid face.
Her grandfather had buried his face in both palms and was trying to breathe without inducing an aneurysm. Tess and Melissa seemed to be in the know, and so looked downwards at their plates, finding a sudden interest in their half-eaten sandwiches. The military men that had come with Gwen said nothing. Instead, they looked as though they were ready to murder everyone on the table if Gwen would only give them the command.
On the table, only Kwan, Tali, Helena, Percy and Tang's faces looked as though they were seeing NYE pyrotechnics for the first time.
"The… Void element, was it, Gwen?" Helena said after what must have been half a minute. "One of the scarcest taboo elements, said to be second to none in offensive ability?"
Beside her, her husband Tang's face was less kind. As a retired Colonel and a Senior Enchanter himself, he immediately realised the correlation that may or may not exist between the crisis and the suspicious coincidence of Gwen's talent.
"What do you know about the Black Sun?" Tang demanded with a voice that boomed across the veranda. "Are you involved with the Mermen incident? What happened to Lord Kilroy?"
"Colonel Tang," Jonas intoned dangerously. "I'd advise you to consider your next words very carefully."
Tang felt the killing intent flow from the three men at the end of the long table. Instantly, his expression resembled a Gob who had triggered a Glyph of Warding and knew that his leg was forfeit at any moment. However, the man's suspicions were sound as he had been present when his wife was disgraced. Unfortunately for Tang, Gwen knew that his hypothesis no longer mattered; certainly not with three Combat Mages breathing down his neck and whetting their knives.
"Sorry." the strength seemed to drain from the retired Colonel as he apologised to Gwen. "It's the stress, the heat. I wasn't thinking straight. Please forget what I said."
Alongside her husband, Helena's face was alternating between shades of ash and carmine. Gwen cringed when she studied her mother's eyes. The Void Element! She must be thinking. The same talent as the war hero, Elizabeth Sobel! Even from a distance, she could see the gears and cogs of Helena's mind tick, foreshadowing great things that had seemed just out of reach a moment ago.
As expected, Helena slowly moved her eyes until she met Morye's. The careless fool was now scratching his head apologetically in that scrappy, slipshod manner that irked Gwen inconsolably.
Her mother must be wondering where the Element had been hidden. Surya's talents were Enchantment and Fire; her talent was Evocation and Fire. Their late grandmother was Transmutation and Water, which had passed onto Kwan, then onto Richard.
Was Helena regretting leaving Morye now? Gwen wondered. There was no doubt that the answer was negative. If Helena had stayed any longer with the capricious incarnation of irresponsibility, she would have probably murdered the prick in bed with an ice pick. What mother dear regretted was all that potential talent that even now was going to waste. If only her father could have used his talent, then she might be married to another Gunther Shultz.
The others at the table were watching Morye with the same thoughts. With the prevalence of inherited talents, Gwen and Percy's uncommon Element of Negative Energy could only come from God himself, or from this blithe idiot who was even now stuffing himself with their sandwiches.
"Please, Major Durn, no need to be like that." Surya looked towards his children and their spouses with eyes that glowed like two notes of dark, smouldering coal. "I assure you, those present here can keep a secret. If I recall, Gwen's talents would be made public in time, though that time is not now."
"There's been a change of plans, Opa," Gwen bowed to her grandfather. "Now that Ma— Magister Kilroy has passed."
"Of course." Surya nodded understandingly. "Later then?"
"I should hope so, Opa. There'll be plenty of opportunities, I am sure."
Her grandfather observed a moment of silence, then turned to the table. "You. All of you. Swear on your Astral Souls that you will not speak a word of Morye's blunder."
Kwan was more than happy to oblige, as was Tali. Surya noticed that Richard had been entirely unfazed this whole while.
"She told you before?"
"Around about three months ago, Grandfather."
Tali and Kwan regarded their son, who then swore by his astral soul that he would keep faith with Gwen's secret. Though such oaths were non-binding, they manifested a phenomenon whereby the constant reminder of one's betrayal of the pledge would ultimately influence the progress of one's Spellcraft training, especially when it came to attunements which directly drew power from faith and belief. And though there are individuals who were sociopathic enough to ignore the oaths they made, it was no less a token demonstration of one's willingness and sincerity associated with oath-making.
Tang followed without incident, and then their attention fell upon Helena, who gritted her teeth through each word, exhausted the by the effort of the simple pledge.
"Percy, you too." Surya was merciless.
"I don't want to." Gwen could see that Percy was at a rebellious age and saw the push to make him swear some incoherent oath for his sister as a clear sign of favouritism.
Surya's fuming displeasure could have lit the tablecloth on fire.
"Opa, it's okay," Gwen intervened, not wanting to make things any more awkward between Percy and herself. From Alesia, she knew that the oath was less so magical compulsion and more so psychological trickery. Her Sister-in-craft had once boasted to Gwen that when she compelled oaths from felons, she would brand them with fire. That way, each time the miscreants thought about reoffending, the ache from their scars coerced them to reconsider life's choices.
"Ungrateful little weasel," Surya spat, clearly displeased about Percy's challenge of his authority.
The table regained its awkward silence. Once more, the murderous gazes of its inhabitants gathered upon Morye, who happily drank his chardonnay.
Without a doubt, the luncheon was at an end.
"We'll leave it at that." Jonas stood from the table. "We'll be getting ready. As soon as our number five and our documents arrive, we're leaving."
Morye raises a finger to stop the Healer. "Ah, about that…"
Gwen turned sharply to her father.
"Dad, I don't mean to be rude, but why are you here?"
Morye's guilty face turned to face Gwen with a look of helpless consternation, like a sailor who'd been shanghaied by his mates and now found himself bound for Barbados.
"I am your fifth man!" he announced with the flourish of a third-rate magician shouting 'ta-da!'
"Yes, excellent, Father." Gwen made an expression akin to seeing her dog shit on the front lawn in front of guests. "So why are you here?"
Morye's face grew tragic with wretchedness.
"I was told that I had to accompany you on this journey because you are a child and thus had to be accompanied by a guardian."
"I am thir… I am Sixteen! Dad, I am not a child! Besides, I have some of the most capable men in the military with me. Not to mention I can take care of myself."
Morye turned to regard the three military men, who grinned at him confidently as if to say "We're happy to leave you behind."
"No!" Morye affected an expression of disbelief and hyperbolic grief. "You don't want me to come?"
"I don't," Gwen said coldly. Her father had already ruined their luncheon, and the man had only been here for an hour. Gwen wanted nothing more than to leave right now, supply or no supply, but she had to wait.
"Good, please call Gunther and tell him that I've been discharged," Morye said quickly, handing Gwen a Message device that was already dialling.
To Gwen's surprise, it connected.
A Private Message spell bloomed beside her ear.
How the hell could a mid-tier Abjurer just casually call the Paladin of the Tower during a crisis? Gwen shot her father a look of ambivalent emotions and quickly moved away from the table. With the absurd number of NoMs going to and fro, she retreated instead to the second living room, shutting the glass doors being her as she did so.
"Brother Gunther, what's happening, why is Morye our fifth member?" she quickly asked her craft-sibling.
Gunther's mirthful voice came through the spell's aural invocations.
"He's there? Good. I am sending the documentation now. Ask Surya to retrieve the package from the Teleportation Circle he'd set up for your training."
"Thanks, Gunther, but how the hell is my dad going to help?"
Gunther's voice became more severe as he continued.
"Gwen, just how much do you know about your Father?"
"He's a useless, lazy lout, a womaniser and a faithless scoundrel who is a Water Abjurer? I think he was tier 4 or 5; I am not sure. He works some menial technical job at a Shield Station."
Even behind the pulsing Message Glyph, Gwen could feel Gunther wincing at every barbed insult.
"But… I suppose Morye was a nice enough Dad. Kept us through the darker time when Mother was away. I don't remember having wants for food, shelter or clothing while he stayed with us. Even though we lived in a working-class neighbourhood, we felt safe."
Gunther fell silent as if gathering his thoughts.
"He gave you the pendant, the one that ended saving our lives, right?"
At her Brother-in-craft's reminder, Gwen felt her conscience mugged in the night by her balaclava-clad guilt wielding a nail-studded bat.
Her father had indeed given her the pendant. But it was Morya who had idiotically implied that it was for childbearing, hadn't he? What kind of a lecherous father gave their daughter a fertility pendant? Had her father anticipated this day or was he as clueless as he appeared?
"You may be interested to know," Gunther continued. "That your father was the only survivor of incident Zero at the Watson Bay Shield Station. That's where your father worked. Of all the Mages stationed there, including a guard unit Senior Combat Mages, your father, a 'useless technician' was the only survivor."
Now it was Gwen who grew uncertain. She recalled seeing the station blow up. She remembered the moment with clarity.
"Before we even knew of the Mermen invasion, I received a call from your father, specifically asking for you and your brother's whereabouts. When I'd asked him what happened to the assailants, do you know what he told me?"
"No, Gwen. He told me they collectively committed suicide."
Gunther's re-telling wasn't funny, but the event was indeed in the style of her father's morbid humour.
"Another thing. When my recovery team went in, the debris was covered with negative energy residues collated in powdered white crystals."
"Salt!" Gwen mouthed to herself in silence. For someone with her life experience and keen intelligence, it wasn't difficult to join the dots.
Her father's survival.
The Salt residue.
"Not only that, we found one of your old acquaintances at the scene."
"I am not familiar with his co-workers," Gwen continued to dig through her alter-self's memories. She had recalled seeing her father's co-workers when she was younger, but her memory was indistinct.
"We found the remains of a certain Edmund Moore Ravenport at the scene."
"Doesn't ring a bell."
"Also known as The Dust Devil, or the Mind Mage, Edgar."
Suddenly, Gwen found herself short of breath.
"The body was in quite a state, I am afraid. Crushed, drained, limbless, castrated."
Gwen felt her mind reeling with visions of Edgar, the man who had come close to violating her mind and body. At that moment, she had tasted the malice and darkness that lied in "Edgar's" heart and knew that his capacity for malevolence was unfathomable. How could a Mage like that die so unceremoniously? She'd been loathing their next meeting, playing the scene over and over in her head, and now, without warning, the bastard was worm fodder?
"Wait, did you say 'castrated' as in the..." Gwen tried for a euphemism. "Servants of the Sultan's harem sense?"
Gunther chuckled uncomfortably.
"Rather violently, I am afraid. Dashed eggs and all that."
"Well, that's what the report stated in its exactness, there wasn't much left. Anyway, why do you think someone would go to such length to inflict so much pain on such a man? I mean, it's not much exactly a stretch of the imagination, after all, your father risked exposing himself just to extort you and your brother's location. If you don't mind me saying so, Gwen, despite Morye's insouciance, he cares a great deal for his children."
Gwen looked outside toward the long table, where his father was helping himself to the decanter. Surya was in low conversation with Jonas, while Richard spoke jovially with Morye while ignoring his mother's frantic tugging of his shirtsleeves.
In an accidental Renaissance sort of way, the scene somewhat reminded Gwen of an infamous supper. Would their family ever be together like this again? What would happen once they go their separate ways?
"Gwen?" Gunther stirred her from her daydream.
"I think I understand."
"Good. Far be it that I should come between Father and daughter, but I hope you resolve your differences. Also, I would very much like to know what that Kirin pendant does, and if we can replicate its effects. I am waiting on reports on your father's past, but mayhap he is willing to let you into his head a little."
"I'll try my best."
"Excellent, Sister. I am certain Yue, Elvia, and Whetu await your timely rescue. Godspeed."
Gwen moved out onto the veranda. From the direction of the workshop, an NoM servant approached with a package covered with protective glyphs.
"For Mistress Song's party." The maid placed the box on the table and curtseyed before leaving.
The family turned to address the incoming Gwen, who held the inert Message device in her hand and looked at Morye intently.
"I've confirmed with Gunther, he's our man," Gwen announced to the group.
Paul, Taj and Jonas gave one another looks that suggested they had just stepped dog shit.
"I won't pull your leg," Morye said to them when he caught their constipated expressions. "If you don't pull mine."
"Dad's got a commendation from Gunther," Gwen backed up her father, having gained a new, previously unfound confidence in the flighty fellow.
Despite their disbelief, the package passed down to the group, where Jonas opened the Glyphs with a secretive invocation. Within were several metallic plates constructed of some composite material that resembled thin pieces of flexible carbon plates. When the Healer channelled a mote of mana into the card-like object, it projected an illusory field that held his headshot, biometrics, affinity and Rank.
When Gwen received her identification, she saw that the range of her abilities had been underreported, as expected.
Multiple Transit Pass
I.D: 2840598 01
Eyes: Hazel - Green
Hair: Black (Warm)
SoM: Evocation, Conjuration
AFT:: Quasi-Elemental - Lightning
There was also a line of small print that could be just visible in the indent: This Pass is for valid Transit holders only, effective within the territories of the Mageocratic Commonwealth.
There was a careful balance to her falsely advertised talents. If Gwen's skills appeared mundane, her retinue would cause suspicion; if she were overtly unique and precious, her lacking a substantial entourage would also bring trouble.
Feeling the card in her hand, Gwen wondered if Gunther was trying his best to emulate his late Master's methodology. Gwen knew that she couldn't be grown in a greenhouse and still hope to attain the same level of Spellcraft as Alesia and Gunther. If Gunther was happy to let her roam as she pleased, then she was glad to take the opportunity.
When she earlier received the Teleportation Ring from Gunther, an unspoken understanding had passed between the Siblings-in-craft. The message was simple- all Gwen had to do was survive. In her mind, she understood that she had to prove herself worthy of Gunther's protection, just as Gunther would do his best to ensure that she would survive to try again.
Morye took his I.D and examined its contents.
"Mineral Mage," he mused. "Well, I suppose it's close enough."
With the luncheon utterly disrupted by Morye's blunder, the rest of the group had little desire to persist in the family gathering. They broke off into private assemblies across the long veranda, exchanging members once in a while to build rapport for the days to come.
Thanks to Tang's presence, Helena stayed away from her ex, which came as a great relief to Gwen and Percy. The teenagers, meanwhile, had formed their huddle separately from the adults.
"Now can you tell me what's going on with the family?"
Richard was about to pivot to another topic when his cousin's serious eyes cornered him.
"Well, we're shit broke," he confessed candidly.
"How?" Gwen demanded. Her Uncle might be a conniving, name-dropping charlatan, but his real talent in investment brokerage seldom failed the family.
"The Mermen invasion, of course," Richard replied nonchalantly. "It's the normal thing during a large scale invasion. It's not like it hasn't happened before, just not to Sydney, and not to us."
With nonchalance, her cousin explained their dire straits. As a Praelector candidate from Prince's, Richard had received the opportunity to attend university in London. There, he'd planned to earn enough accolades to eventually move his parents to the tier 1 city itself, from which their rise into the upper strata of the Mageocracy could begin.
Unfortunately, even with his prodigious talent, mere talent proved insufficient to gain a full scholarship to the colleges he desired to attend. Now with the sudden destruction of the property market and their family estate in Sydney, Richard could no longer afford the price of immigration, not to mention the cost of renting and staying in London's upscale educational districts.
"There's also the problem of Policy," Richard continued to explain. "In a state of emergency like this, the standard procedure is to move all non-essential Mages from the Frontier City and assign them to the closest Tier 1 city willing to take them. From there, the rarer talents are, 'divvied up' for the lack of a better word, by the power brokers."
"What happens to those with mundane talent?" Gwen asked suspiciously, thinking of their friends in Blackwattle.
"Bundled off to another tier 2 cities, I imagine," Richard replied. "A new life, as the propaganda would say, though I imagine it's a case of waste not, want not."
Gwen's eyes had an ambivalent look to them.
"So you are going to a tier 1 city?"
"As a refugee, not as a student." Richard sighed. "We don't get a choice of what cities we are assigned. As refugees, we'll be living in segregated zones from the rest of the tier 1 folks. Knowing the snobbery of the citizens there, I'd half expect them to see us as little more than NoMs."
"No." Richard stopped Gwen before she could make the suggestion. "Why do you think Kwan came here first thing? Surya's doing the right thing here, spending the family's money to help the NoMs and those Mages who wish to stay here. The NoMs will be living under some pretty feral conditions until the city's cleansed and the stations repaired. They could be here for years, living in these concrete boxes. At any rate, you need more than just money to bend the rules. I'll hit up some of my seniors and see what they can do."
"So what's your projection?" Gwen asked. She wasn't sure how many people knew that Richard had already contracted an Undine, but surely someone of his talent would be a clear stand out even if they were forced into special refugee zones somewhere in a tier 1 city.
"Making sure my parents are safe. I suppose. Then I can focus on the new world. I am confident we'll be fine wherever we go. At any rate, I look forward to you visiting our new home."
"What about you, Percy?" Gwen turned to her brother. "What's mum's plan?"
The young man looked up at Gwen with questioning eyes. Percy had an expression that looked as though someone had stolen his lunch. Gwen could understand how the boy felt. A proper Awakening, a rare elemental talent, a bright future— all of that had been within his grasp. Then before he'd even enjoyed any of it, a tsunami of Mermen had dashed his dreams and washed his hopes out to sea.
"Dad, I mean step-dad, is staying to repair the city. That's what his manufactorum specialises in, fabrication. I doubt mum would stay here if she's allowed to go to a tier 1 city though, even if it's in a special exclusion zone."
"So that means you'll be going as well if it comes to it?"
"Richard said that with my talent, I'd be able to continue schooling."
"It's true. I doubt a Tower would let someone with Percy's elemental talent just languish. He's likely going to be picked up in processing and sent back to school. Maybe even a school like Prince's, they got branches and brother-schools in all the major Frontiers."
"How's Prince's holding up?" Gwen asked out of curiosity.
"Gone," Richard shrugged. "No Shield Station, no school."
Gwen nodded. She'd heard that the influential Houses all had connections linking back to tier 1 cities. For those born to privilege, the invasion's extraordinary circumstances merely compelled an accelerated timetable for their return to the main branch.
They kept up the small talk for a while longer until the conversation was interrupted by Paul.
"It's time to go," The Translocation Mage announced. "We'll be taking the Teleportation Circle to the Tower, then to Brisbane, then to Townsville. There are a few inland hops from there until we get to Darwin. I hope you had a light lunch just now. It's not going to be gentle on the stomach."
By now, Gwen was no stranger to teleportation, but this was her first foray into inter-continental travel.
"Luckily, Gunther's done a bang-up job." Paul grinned affably. "We're clear for uninterrupted travel until we board the Freighter in Darwin."
"How long until we reach the island?" Gwen inquired.
"Assuming we find a ship in Singapore willing to take us." Paul's eyes fell towards Gwen' Storage Ring, where a hundred military-issued, high-density mana crystals sat in a pouch. "All in all, I'd say seven to eight days."
Gwen almost spat out the glass of water she'd been nursing.
"Seven to eight days!" she uttered in disbelief. "How long does it take us to get to Darwin?"
"About ten hours, most of which is waiting for the Teleportation Chambers to be attuned."
"A ship, more specifically, we'll be boarding a cargo freighter. There are ones that go out every day."
"We can't teleport to Singapore?"
Paul regarded the inexperienced girl before him. Sometimes, it was easy to forget that Gwen was a teenager who'd never been outside of her Ivory Tower.
"No, Singapore is not a part of the Oceania Council of Ten. We have ongoing treaties, but the "Fortress Port" has sovereignty within its territories."
"But Gunther could ask for us to go direct, can't he? We're in a hurry."
"By what capacity do you propose we make the proposition?" Paul's brows furrowed. "Do you know anyone there? Does Tower Master Lee owe you a personal favour?"
Gwen found that she had no rebuttal for Paul's rationale.
They were Three Senior Mages with Military Ranks, one zealous apprentice to a deceased Magister, and one unwilling loafer, venturing into a Black Zone. Why are you going there? An official Singaporean Magus would question. What lies at the end of so much risk and effort? "We're saving three junior Mages," they'd reply, and their stunned audience would surely demand that they owe up to the undeliverable truth.
"Gwen," Richard interjected before Paul became irritable with Gwen's dissatisfaction over the delayed travel arrangements. He took her icy palms and held them in his own, which were dry and warm. "Your people have done their best in the circumstances. You have to trust them if you want them to help you. Don't let your feelings go over your head."
The tactile warmth of Richard assurance brought her back from the anxious edge of impatience. Gwen took a deep breath and calmed herself, measuring their circumstance.
Could Yue stay put for nine more days? Could Whetu last that long? Elvia should be fine, but there were many unknowns to which she couldn't even begin to guess.
"I am sorry," Gwen said to the two boys. "I have to go."
"We'll be out of contact once we leave Darwin," Paul reminded her cousin and her sibling. "If there's' an emergency, get Master Surya to contact Gunther, and he'll try to get ahold of us."
Gwen fiercely embraced her family.
"Percy, take care of Mother. Richard, good luck with the relocation. I hope to be back before it happens, but please keep me updated."
"Will do. Hopefully, we'll see you soon."
"Goodbye, Sis." When it was Percy's turn, her embrace grew fiercer and more maternal, pressing the embarrassed boy tightly against the small of her body before kissing him on the forehead.
Back on the veranda, the rest of the family waited.
"Opa, I have to go."
"I know." Surya came and embraced Gwen, his body frame poking into her ribs as usual. "Be safe, my little cucu perempuan."
"Take care of her." Surya turned to the others, who saluted the old Enchanter.
"We will, Sir." The men saluted.
Gwen turned to her mother, who'd been laconic since Morye had blurted out that she was a Void Mage.
"Good luck," her mother replied before they embraced, performing the familial ritual with duty rather than feeling.
There was also Tess and Melissa, who gave Gwen a tearful farewell. Tess handed over a large ration of Roo jerky, a full kilogram's worth, which she made Gwen promise she would save for an emergency. Melissa meanwhile, had prepared a bottle of eucalyptus oil, "for the bugs," she explained "bugs as big as your face".
Gwen held the flask a little closer to her chest.
"Right." Paul pointed the way to the workshop, where the Teleportation Circle awaited. Soon they would be away. Gwen would leave Sydney for the first time in her life.
A cry from the crowd impeded their progress.
"Ms Song! Gwen Song! Please! A moment!"
The voice wasn't from their party, but from the crowd of refugees gathered on the property's camp. The family turned to see an auburn-haired woman with amber eyes, middle-aged and well kept, waving frantically in their direction.
Gwen recognised the woman's face with a sinking sensation. She'd never seen her before, but it didn't take a Diviner to guess that she was the mother of the late Debora Jones.
To be the harbinger of bad news had always been one of the most challenging endeavours an individual could undertake. It took immense mental fortitude and incredible empathy for an individual to become capable of looking a mother in the eye and state with absolute certainty that their child had died.
Gwen considered herself a woman of spirit; she could stomach pain, disgrace, and trauma when performed upon herself, but it didn't mean that she had the stoic forbearance necessary to bring such mental anguish to another.
One must be cruel to be kind. Gwen reminded herself.
"Let her through," Gwen said, mindful of the several seconds in which she'd stared at the woman in wide-eyed horror. Two of the militiamen keeping order in the Refugee camp allowed the woman to pass.
Debora's mother was an Earthen Transmuter. With only a modest talent for Spellcraft and elemental affinity, she'd worked part-time at a local manufactorum and was principally a homemaker. When the evacuation began, and the list of inland locations for temporary shelters came up, she saw Surya's estate and used what little connection she had to move her family to the Hunter's Region.
When she saw Gwen with the Master of the house, she must have recognised Gwen instantly. She must have seen the lumen-pics her daughter had brought back, especially the ones with her daughter's arms wrapped around the waist of a sorceress with bright hazel eyes.
"Mrs Jones," Gwen approached Debora's mother and extended a hand.
The formality seemed to catch Debora's mother off-guard, causing her to hesitate before taking Gwen's hand.
"Just Verna is fine."
"I am sorry." Gwen bowed before Verna could persist in any small talk. There was no point to it. No matter how they twisted and sidestepped, the outcome was inevitable.
"Why… are you sorry?" Verna's face turned the colour of fresh sheets.
Gwen remained bowed while Verna stammered. Jonas moved up and helped the woman steady herself.
"She was brave until the very end, Mrs Jones. I couldn't have had a better companion."
Verna steadied herself, and then her expression turned cruel.
"That's it? How can you be so heartless?" she accused Gwen. "Debora said she was your best friend! She said that she admired you!"
Gwen felt the palpable disappointment in Verna's accusation. She knew she couldn't blame the woman, nor herself. If she had been Debora's friend, if she had spent a year with her friend, if her friend had died in her arms, then she could have spoken of every detail in Debbie's eulogy.
But the reality was far from Verna's desired truth.
In the end, she was not Debora's friend. She didn't even know Debora. Instead, the thing that had taken Debora's form had directly resulted in her Master's death, her real friends' displacement, and the city's loss of life.
In an instant, her heart grew cold. She wasn't a saint. She couldn't possibly waste another minute here, conferring with this woman of no importance who'd only accuse her of abandoning her daughter, who knew nothing!
Her eyes turned to Taj.
The Senior Sergeant came between Verna and Gwen as Debora's distraught mother continued to pour out a torrent of hysterical abuse. Jonas tightened his grip on the woman as well, ready to give her a jolt of Calm Emotion if she should turn violent. Though they frowned at Gwen's apparent coldheartedness, they had a long journey ahead.
In the end, it was Surya who took the disconsolate mother away, speaking to her softly with kind words.
Taj caught up with them a moment later at the entrance to the workshop. Morye had long since escaped the spectacle and was waiting for them within. Paul was readying the Circle. Jonas gave Gwen a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
"It's alright if you want to grieve," he suggested helpfully.
Gwen shook her head.
"I am alright," she replied, looking toward the silvery glow of the active Teleportation Chamber within. "Let's go. Delay as we may, time waits for no one."