Gwen found her father sitting in a miasma of cigarette smoke, forcing her to keep a discrete distance. Morye had a nervous, agitated air about him, as though the very act of reminiscing the past to deliver to his daughter irritated him to no end.
Watching Morye taking a long toke, Gwen wondered if there was such a thing as air purification spells, a kind of Prestidigitation that would remove undesirable particles from the immediate vicinity.
She waited for her father to finish his cigarette, but when the man pulled yet another from the packet, her patience became paper-thin.
"Well, let's have it then," Gwen said cattily, wrinkling her nose. She forced herself into the room and took a seat by the bunk, feeling the unpleasant sensation of tar-infused smoke soaking into her hair.
"What do you want to know first? The pendant? The Songs, or your Mother?"
"The Pendant," Gwen replied, caring more for pragmatism than for curiosity.
"That's going to involve some bad shit, but fine." Morye closed his eyes and tried to gather his thoughts. "So, the pendant is made from the Core of a Kirin. You know what a Kirin is?"
"Good. What do you suppose it is that the Kirin Core does?"
"Takes in the souls of dead monsters?"
"Not exactly. It takes in the 'Essence' of magical creatures at the moment of their death. How do you suppose Creature Cores work?"
"We learned that they were the 'heart' of Magical Beings, where their vital force resides," Gwen parroted from her textbook. "When a creature dies, its Essence, element, vitality, life, whatever the nomenclature, dissipates into the Astral realm. For most creatures, the Essence is contained within the Core— a condensed orb of crystallised mana that becomes more compact with seniority."
"Is that all?"
"Umm... the reason why it is near impossible to harvest Cores is that, at the moment of death, the energy held within bursts forth, seeking an escape into the immaterial Astral. This force is so powerful that the Cores of most low tier creatures crack, or dissipate."
Morye tapped his ash into an iron tray.
"That's not entirely true, Gwen. When a Core reaches a certain level of density, they become near indestructible. Of course, hunting down such a creature is nigh impossible for low-level Mages."
"To answer your question as to what makes the pendant so special, the Kirin stone is one such item. As a byproduct of its natural density, the inscribed Enchantment consumes the escaped energies. As to its usage, I would suggest trying it out and see if you can pick up a few extra cores on your adventures."
Gwen recalled that her late Master had once told her that the amulet was part of something larger, the heart-stone of something ancient and powerful. Henry had been correct that the "Core" had a capacity for storing Essence, a fact her father now confirmed.
"How do I use it?"
"Wear it on you when you deliver the killing blow. Sometimes it works, other times, who knows?"
"Is this a famous item?" Gwen questioned. If the Kirin stone was going to be something that others covet, she'd better keep it well hidden and out of sight, or perhaps even return it to her father.
"Only amongst those in the know." Morye swung the cigarette through the air, drawing a Chinese pictogram that Gwen didn't recognise. "Not many of those left now, not after the Communists came through the old country."
"How do I use the Essence?"
Morye regarded her guiltily.
"I'll be honest with you." Morye puffed out. "I have no idea. Never learned that particular trick."
"Who gave it to you?"
"From my father to me, and from me to you." Morye seemed to grow agitated at the mention of his father. "If you must know, you are only in possession of half of it. The other half is with the family."
The family. Gwen noted, processing the information.
"Tell me about 'the family'." Gwen perceived her father's impatience and pursued the matter, waving a hand to bat away the smoke. Morye had the distinct feeling of been held under lamplight and interrogated.
"If you mean 'our' family," her father stated after a momentary pause. "The story is not for me to tell, but I'll let you in on what I can disclose."
Morye took a deep breath, taking on an expression of one combating some internal demon.
"First of all, you have a set of living paternal grandparents who are alive and well, at least last I checked."
Gwen paused, blinking her big bright eyes at her father as her brain tried to process the information, feeling as though she was forcing a square peg into a round hole. Morye averted his gaze as Gwen's pupils turned sharp and critical.
"What?" Gwen uttered suddenly, an edge of iron rising in her voice. "I have ANOTHER set of grandparents— but you didn't think that was important enough to tell Percy and me? What the hell, Morye? What the actual fuck?"
Gwen didn't lose her head often, but she felt herself seething with resentment and contempt, so much that she felt as though something was going to erupt from within her body. Her eyes grew electric, becoming two concentric rings of crackling lapis that sizzled as her rampant emotions took hold. In her old life, she had never had a chance to spend time with her paternal grandparents before they passed, but in this world, they were alive and well and yet she had no idea they existed? Her father had spent the last decade fooling them that he was orphaned! What could compel a man to do something so absurd?
Her father groaned. "I told you it was going to complicate things. You're the one who wanted to know."
"How— how is this my fault!?" She wanted to slap him again; maybe Shocking Grasp the bastard. Her skin crawled all over. "Okay… okay, keep going, tell me about my NOT DEAD paternal grandparents, go on."
"You also have a paternal aunt and uncle…"
Gwen placed her head between her hands and tried to slow her breathing. The stupid cigarette smoke made her dizzy, and her father's bombshell revelations didn't help one bit. She looked up after a minute or so of meditative introspection, her eyes bloodshot with stress and pent-up emotions.
"Okay, go on."
"A few cousins…"
"That's fine." Gwen's voice trembled. "Just get on with it. What about them? Where are they? What do they do? How are they now?"
"They're in Shanghai." Morye looked around and found a bottle of water. He shook it towards his daughter, but Gwen declined. "As for the rest of your questions, I can't answer them because I haven't seen them in about fifteen years..."
So her father was from a tier 1 city— Gwen allowed the knowledge to sink in. What she couldn't understand was why anyone would leave Shanghai for a Frontier town like Sydney.
"Why did you leave Shanghai? I assume you were born there?" Gwen asked.
"I was," Morye replied. "I am the first son of the House of Song."
"A 'House', with a capital H?"
"No, no." Morye waved his cigarette. "Old bloodline, new House. The Revolution uplifted us, so no history, only status."
None of those things meant anything intelligible to Gwen, least of all the idea of a Communist revolution in a world of magic and monsters, least of all because her Frontier history class had left students wanting. Her father caught her incomprehension.
"Have you heard of old-world cultivators?"
"Never mind then. Suffice it to say, you have an extended family somewhere in Shanghai, China, and maybe some relatives from the Eurasian Steppes, though I've never met them myself."
"Jesus, how many relatives do I have?!" Gwen snarled at her disinterested, apathetic father. "Why am I finding out about this now?"
"Because you asked." Morye shrugged. "What, don't like the answer?"
Gwen fantasied about summoning Caliban right there and have the thing give her father a good tongue lashing. The infuriating lout! To think she'd thought he was getting better and that he cared enough to come out here and risk his life for her! The man was unbearable! At once Gwen felt a surge of sympathy for Helena, empathising with why her mother was so offended all the time and so withholding in her affections.
"Fine, because I asked," She moped, unable to find the words to express her exasperated emotions because she never had family in either of her lives. "Putting that sid, tell me about mum."
"What do you want to know?"
"Does she know?"
"About your talents!" Gwen gnashed her teeth. "Do you have to make this so… difficult?"
Her father gave her a look that said she didn't want to know the answer to that rhetorical question.
"She has an inkling," he said after another agonising drag on his cigarette. "But alas, she has no evidence."
"And you just... lived in mediocrity this whole time?"
"Hey! We were happy for a while, raising you, married despite Surya's protests."
"There is no 'and then'. Your mother couldn't handle being ordinarily happy. I couldn't stomach her psychosis. I needed space. So she left. End of story."
Gwen regarded her father's self-righteous explanation with incredulity. The absurdity of it, the sense of selfish entitlement that radiated from his self-depreciative face made her sick with loathing. How could such a human being even exist in this world? How could it be possible that such a person brought forth herself and Percy?
"Okay! So if you hate each other's guts, where Percy come from?" Gwen asked suspiciously.
Morye turned to look at Gwen with an awkward expression.
"When a man and a woman love one another very much…"
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Dad!" Gwen snapped, stomping her foot on the galvanised flooring. "I mean, why did you get back together again?"
"You know your mother, surely." Morye pursed his thin lips. "She can be very possessive. If you want the details, I'd advise against it."
Her father had guessed right. Gwen didn't want to know about that.
"Why did you leave China?"
"Ah, a good question."
"Can't say, it's confidential."
"Gwen, don't be difficult."
"I want to know, tell me."
"Why? Why do you deserve to know?"
"FUCK! JUST TELL ME ALREADY!" Gwen shouted at her father; at last, her patience was exhausted.
"Because I KILLED someone I shouldn't have! That's all you need to know!" Her father snapped back at her. "It doesn't involve you in the slightest, not then, and not now. Okay, you know what. This conversation is over. Now be a good girl and shut up! We will go and get your friends, we'll take them back to Sydney, and then we'll luncheon every few weeks, OKAY? Go to bed. You have a long day ahead."
Gwen stared at her father, her conduits tingling with Void mana. She was no longer sure what was true or false because she had come for answers and was now left with more questions.
The pendant was a precious item that could draw out the Essence of magical beings as they died - but was that all it did? What had compelled the Kirin stone to regurgitate its Essences when she needed the serpent's aid?
Then there was her paternal family, now no longer deceased but alive in China. Would she want to meet them? Would they want to meet her? What would they think of her frontier upbringing? Was one of 'them' also in possession of the Void talent, as she did?
Then there was her mother. Gwen still couldn't believe that Helena just gave up on her father. That must have been a fate worse than death for a social climber like herself. But then again, Gwen gazed at her father— trying to squeeze the truth from this man was like wrangling blood from a rock. If she were married to a man like him, death would be preferable.
Her father exhaled.
The tobacco smoke was getting to her now, making her throat itch and her hair stink.
"I need a shower," Gwen announced, fought down the questions bubbling in her throat, then left.
Once his daughter was gone, Morye extinguishing his cigarette.
"Control Wind," he incanted, and a gust of air cleared the cabin of the smoke.
"Good grief, I'd thought she never leave," he said to the door as the wind blew the thing shut, plunging the room back into thankful silence. Sighing, he renewed his meditation. In less than ten hours, they would be in Singapore, and knowing Gwen, there was bound to be more trouble.
Gwen scrubbed herself raw cleansing the fetid tobacco stench that clung to every inch of her skin.
Still burning with disquiet, she pulled the water through her hair and allowed it to drip between her shoulders. The ship's showers were fir only for Dwarves, though thanks to a Conjure Water implement, it had no lack of freshwater.
They had less than ten hours before Singapore became a reality and she would have to get ready for the obfuscation they'd undergo at customs. Though Gunther's Multi-Pass allowed them access through the Commonwealth territories held by Singapore, it was very much unlikely that the local authorities would be happy to know that they were going to stir up a hornet's nest in the Kapulauan Riau archipelago.
Putting her head once more under the facet, Gwen thought about her friends, her Master, her Siblings-in-craft, and about her unknown paternal relatives. Threads, all of them, tying her to this world, lashing her with a hundred ropes of nerve and sinew like the bound Gulliver in Lilliput.
Her left hand turned the facet.
The falling water slowed to a drip; beading droplets trickled from her torso and down her thighs to pool at her feet.
For now, she reminded herself— the only folk that mattered were Evee, Yue and Whetu.
After six agonising nights, Singapore appeared on the horizon.
First came the human-made islands, dozens of them, each sporting a concrete structure that indicated the presence of a Shielding Station, each akin to crystalline daggers stabbing the sky.
Between each structure, a thrum of energy signifying the resonance hung between the city and the outside world, giving the South Sea trade fortress a surreal, mirage-like appearance.
Gwen fingered the Kirin amulet gently as they passed the barrier, feeling the Core grow hot before once again matching the warmth of her skin.
While her heart pounded, the others gathered on the top deck. Jonas had informed her that they had travelled to Singapore once before, with Alesia on a Purging quest for one of the satellite islands. They knew the local Tower, therefore, and should pass without incident.
The main Shielding Station guarding the city sat at the tip of Sentosa. Perhaps inspired by the local fauna, the Singaporeans had built a gargantuan Mer-lion statue, a half-fish, half-lion creature local to the South China Sea famous for bringing good fortune. Holding an enormous Shielding Crystal in its mouth, "passing of the Mer-lion" officially dictated that they were now within the territorial jurisdiction of Singapore Tower and its provincial government.
According to her companions, though Singapore can be considered a Frontier like Sydney, it enjoyed an unusual eminence due to its proximity to the tier 1 capitals of the South Sea, existing as a gateway to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. As a result, Singapore was immensely wealthy for a Frontier of its size. Here, all of its citizens, both Mages and NoMs, enjoyed some of the highest quality of life possible in Humanity's hinterlands.
Another reason for Singapore's rise as the crème de la crème of the Frontiers was the institutional reformation the city had undergone under the Magister Lee Kuan Yew, more endearingly known as 'Uncle Lee". Before the loss of the Micronesian islands to the Mermen, the Magister introduced significant legislative reforms, such as an 'uplifting' program that offered citizenship, housing and gainful employment to any awakened caster across Micronesia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Though policy infamously caused a "sorcerous drain" in the surrounding regions, while greatly enriching Singapore and its cache of service Mages that staffed the city's manufactorums.
For their entry into the fortress city, the party had chosen a believable backstory that Gwen was the scion of a notable House in Melbourne, friend to the Magister Guldric Uther. If challenged, the party would reply that they were in Singapore to procure supplies before returning to Melbourne and that Magister Uther would back up their story.
To appear the part, Gwen had spent the morning picking through her outfits, looking for the right sass to assume the air of a spoilt adventurer princess, one uptight enough to be travelling with an entourage of Senior Mages.
She settled on an old dress she'd found on Surya's estate, a simple floral one-piece that reached just above her knees, with a hem that blew out beautifully like a reverse tulip. Unlike before Almudj's blessing, she found little need for makeup, for her flawless complexion left no doubt that her persona had not seen a day of labour.
The men didn't think it their business to comment on her attire and her father wasn't keen on talking, but Gwen did run into a few agog sailors that showed she had done very well indeed.
As they pulled into port, Gwen realised they had skipped the crystalline skyline with its ship-like Marina Tower and instead arrived in a deep-sea port with enough shipping containers to form a bastion of steel crates and floating platforms. All around her, cargo cranes sprouted like mushrooms after a monsoonal shower, dotting the horizon with a forest of claws and pulleys.
A disembarking platform made its way from the dock towards the control tower, just a level from the top deck. The writing on the docking arm read "Pasir Penang Terminal 3".
After farewells were had with the crew, the gangway gave Gwen a feeling of mild vertigo as they crossed the hundred or so meter drop onto the central harbour platform.
The Freight Station maintained a small Customs Station at its far end, a significant distance from the cargo processing assemblage, giving the group ample time to gather their stories and unify any contingencies as they approached the moment of truth.
At Customs, they were greeted by two Customs Officers with Chinese-Singaporean likenesses. Seeing Jonas and the others in their military uniforms, the guards stood respectfully and saluted.
"Good morning Sirs - Ma'am. The City of Singapore welcomes you."
"Greetings, we're looking to enter the city on business." Jonas nodded, reaching into his jacket for his pass-card.
Paul and Taj likewise presented their cards, allowing the Singaporean Mages to transcribe them behind a counter, where the passes' authenticity became verified.
"They're verifying the Glyphs embedded within our cards against the ones authorised by the city's immigration department," Jonas explained to Gwen in the tone of her instructor. "When challenged, have your Pass out immediately and remove any accessories that may impede examination of your facial features."
"Yes, Sir," Gwen replied dutifully. One of the guards glanced toward Gwen when Jonas spoke, lingering on her face a second too long for comfort. Gwen met the young man's eyes and smiled. As anticipated, the Customs Officer blushed and turned away, which made her laugh. The exchange gave her a little rush.
"Miss, your Pass, please."
Gwen pulled the Pass from her Storage Ring with a flick of her fingers, further verifying beyond doubt that she was from a family that was rich and rare.
The Customs Officers marvelled at her Quasi-elemental talent; their eyes sparkled when they returned her multi-pass with both hands.
"Thank you." Gwen beamed at them, revealing gleaming white teeth.
"Our pleasure, Ma'am," one of the men replied. "I hope you enjoy your stay."
"I am sure I will." Gwen leaned in before moving past the counter, feeling their eyes following her around the gallery. "Say, what's good in Singapore, what's the best place for Seafood?"
"I'd recommend Jumbo by Long Beach."
"It's the River Walk for me, maybe Palm Beach?"
Though she should be interrogated, the young men were instead recommending restaurants. Gwen played along, asking them about their favourite spots in the city, laughed imploringly, and enquired about seafood, turning what should be a severe atmosphere into one of joyous delight.
"How dangerous," Paul said to the others.
"I wish Alesia would learn some of Gwen's charm instead of intimidating the shit out of the Customs Officers."
"Hear, hear," Taj recollected with a painful grimace. "Remember that time we got detained in Hong Kong because they thought we were Triad?
"Erh, don't remind me." Paul groaned.
"Eh? What happened?" Morye asked out of curiosity.
"After Alesia made a scene and Paul intervened, they threw him in a holding-cell with actual Triads. After he laid them out, Paul ended up with a gang of 'brothers for life' that wanted to help us navigate the Nine Dragons district. Alesia ended up having to call Master Henry to assure Hong Kong Tower that we were legitimate military officers and she was not an imposter pretending to be the Crimson Sorceress."
They chuckled as Gwen passed without incident, stowing the Pass with a click of her fingers.
When Morye underwent inspection, one of the Officers stopped him before he could exit.
"Are you father and daughter, Sir?"
Morye affirmed that they were.
"Is something the matter?" Gwen came striding back towards the Customs desk, heels-clicking one after the other.
"Just for the record. It's nothing to worry about, Miss. Enjoy your stay in Singapore."
Past Customs, the group entered Singapore proper. The moment they ventured outside, however, Gwen felt the crisp indoor atmosphere dissipate. A sweltering heat smothered every inch of her body, plastering her arms and legs as though an invisible being had draped a warm film of plastic over her skin.
The heat! The humidity! It was incredible. When they were at the port and moving through the sea, it hadn't felt nearly as oppressive, but now that they were outside the city's glass and concrete megastructures, it felt as though they had walked into a lukewarm sauna.
Gwen made it no more than a hundred meters in the open when her chiffon dress hugged her thighs like cling-wrap, making progress near impossible. She suddenly discovered new things about the human body, such as that knees could sweat.
"Good God!" Paul moaned. "Give me the blistering heat of the Outback any day of the week!"
"Alright, let's find us a shrimp-boat Captain," Taj announced, his face likewise melting.
Jonas hailed two taxies from afar.
"Where to?" an South East Asian taxi driver asked them.
"Hello. We're looking to hire a boat and do some fishing, what's a good port to charter?" Jonas got straight to the point. "Got any good recommendations?"
"I can help," the Taxi driver answered with a moustachioed grin, his eyes moved up and down Gwen's attire before turning to regard her retinue. "You looking for luxury or sport?"
"Sport. We're short on time, ideally, head out and back in a day or two. Find us someone willing to play guide and navigator."
"Okay, get in. I take you to Jurong Port, many private ships there. You got money, someone happy to take you for sure."
Gwen ducked into the Taxi as Jonas held the door for her. She rode with Morye while the others rode in another Taxi behind them.
To her unfamiliar eyes, though they were far from famously ultra-luxury areas such as Clementi Park or the high-density district of Hougang, the industrial areas of the city's urban crawl still felt considerably more developed than Sydney. The roads were extensive and better maintained, the streets spotless and without garbage. The buildings stood in blocks rather than sprawls, with clean, centralised designs that involved contoured, modern-industrial aesthetics.
What caught Gwen's attention, in particular, wasn't so much what the city possessed, but what its streets seemed to lack.
There were homeless hobos in Sydney even in the best areas, sprawled on the streets every few blocks, begging for change. The phenomenon was especially prevalent in the city's industrial and commercial areas, where Gwen attended school. Here in Singapore, there was not a single hint of poverty. Instead, its overwhelming prosperity was making her nerves jitter.
On every other avenue, black-uniformed militiamen in urban combat fatigues with duckbilled hats and glyph-embedded glasses carried alchemical bandoleers across their uniforms, concurrently armed with Combat Wands that extended from hip to the thigh.
"Morye." Gwen turned to her father, hoping to break the ice tension. "What do you suppose that wand is?"
"Likely utility spells like Move Earth or Shape Stone." Morye turned to the Police Officers as they passed. "Impressive gear though, those are likely Detect Magic goggles. I bet that uniform is elementally attuned too."
In Sydney, most Mages carried a few Magic items covertly. Gwen had never even seen the Sydney Police with Combat Wands, much less decked out in a suite of magical gadgets. In Sydney, only the Tower Mages came equipped.
They turned into Jurong Fishery Port and proceeded until both Taxis were facing the entrance of the Fishery.
Gwen paid the talkative driver with her card, then disembarked into an area where already, the stench of seafood busy at decomposition permeated their nasal cavities.
"Well?" Gwen wished already to be on a ship heading out to sea. "Let's find us an entrepreneur, shall we?"