Then there was light.
Without warning, darkness turned into day, blasting every inch of the holding cell, eradicating every inch of shadow.
The dazzling glare flooded the inside of Gwen’s eyes with a stark whiteness that sent her into a blind panic. She rolled off the bed and onto her knees, meeting the cold floor with her knees. As before, the grey tiles thrummed with anti-magic resonance, forcing her to rest for a moment on her elbows. With some effort, she forced herself up against the wall to face the perspex pane, feeling her eyes adjust painfully to the sterile glare of the omnidirectional illumination.
A resonating clang echoed across the corridor, followed by the creak and groan of hinges. The sounds of boots striking concrete foreshadowed two olive uniformed soldiers parading past Gwen’s cell, their eyes staring straight forward.
Another pair followed, rigidly moving with mechanical efficiency, their shoulders decorated with a single band joined below by a set of phoenix wings crossed over with two staves. They proceeded until they were right before Gwen's cell, then turned their backs toward her.
Gwen held herself steady with one hand against the wall. The glare was giving her a headache. For how long had she slept? A few hours? She felt hardly rested.
Trying to ignore the throbbing in her brain, she studied the guard's uniforms, trying to figure out any similarities between this world and her old one, despite knowing nothing about China other than a cheap tour she had gone on in 2006 that kept taking her to shopping destinations.
The soldiers wore doubled breasted tunics, with four pockets equal-distantly placed across the chest and waist. Up top, a crimson band encompassed a broad-brimmed cap; at the centre, a crest displayed five golden stars looming over the Forbidden City.
Chinese soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, Gwen guessed.
But that still didn’t explain her abduction.
A voice barked from the corridor, starling Gwen and driving her backwards. She stepped away from the perspex pane as the expressionless face of a middle-aged Chinese man came into view, flat and dispossessed of remarkable features.
This one was an officer; his lapels sported a single vertical stripe with two gold stars. She tried to simper at the stoic man, but he turned away from her, just as the two soldiers had done.
Gwen felt the smile fall from her face.
How does one communicate with captors who refused to look you in the eye?
The two grunts and the officer saluted smartly at the corridor, just out of Gwen's line of sight.
Ah, Gwen thought to herself, that must be the bigwig.
She was right.
Even from inside the room, she could feel the Mage's aura, thick and heavy, weighted with supernatural pressure. It was akin to the feeling Gunther gave off when his but much more congealed and condensed.
Finally, her capture came into view.
Gwen carefully inspected the senior Mage. He looked old enough to be in his sixties, with two slabs of impressively drooping jowls that gave him the impression of a bulldog akin to an English Prime Minister. When he stopped mid-step and turned his head to face Gwen, she met his dark obsidian eyes, cold and intense like the core of long-dead stars.
Perhaps she should say something? What was the etiquette for an abductee of the MSS when greeting a Commandant?
"Sir? May I asked a question?" Gwen tried her luck, adding a higher octave to her voice to sound more juvenile. Surely, the imprisonment of children, even ones standing at six feet, wasn't a standard practice of the Secret Police handbook.
The old Commandant's lips moved to form a thin line. The frown was barely perceptible, but it sent shivers down her spine.
Who was this old codger? Why was he displeased with her? They didn't even know one another.
Her gaze attended the emblem affixed to the man’s neck and shoulders.
Two stripes - four stars.
A four-star general? A Colonel? Gwen had no idea how PRC insignias worked, but it was evident that the codger was from the Military's upper echelons.
He began to move.
She had to get his attention.
“Sir! My name is Gwen Song. I entered this facility with Morye Song, my father. May I ask—”
The old general left her line of sight.
He left! Gwen was agog with disbelief. Why stop to gawk if he wasn't keen to talk?!
Beside her cell, the perspex pane of her father's cell was made immaterial.
“Atteeeen-tion!” the officer called out with that barking voice of his.
Gwen could hear the sound of her father scrambling to stand.
The new crisis next door dispelled the immediacy of her predicament. She ignored the guards posted in front of her cell and plastered her head against the perspex pane, trying to see and hear what was happening next door.
Was this a ‘General’ whose 'family' her father had killed? What was going to happen to Morye, and how could she help, if at all?
Gwen called on her mana reserves to no avail. Even her kirin amulet ignored any attempt at summoning its powers. Only passive effects feeding on a Mage's residual energies, like her Ioun Stone, appeared to operate. If only she could somehow retrieve an HDM, the mana contained within be enough for her to summon Caliban or Ariel to aid her father and break out of the prison.
"Shit!" Gwen grunted quietly, drawing a severe glare from one of the guards.
It didn't help. The thrum of anti-magic floorboards was tyrannically draining every mote Gwen could summon. In her present condition, she couldn't even feel her Sigils, much less will enough mana to command her Astral body to tap into her Elemental Gates.
“Hello, old man,” Her father's voice came through, a little muffled by the perspex barrier. "How ya been?"
“Do you know how long I’ve looked for you?” the General stated severely; his speech had a heavy accent that not even the translation stone could displace. Hearing the hardness in his voice, Gwen felt the hair standing on her arms.
"TWO DECADES! For twenty years, I searched high and low, you ungrateful white-eyed wolf!”
“Well, I am here now, ain’t I?” her father replied. "You got me."
There was a shaky quality to his voice that Gwen had never heard before. Her father was scared! The infallible Morye was afraid? Gwen wanted more than anything to witness this improbable spectacle. Who could this 'old man' be?!
"Are you ready to meet the wrath of your maker?" The coarse voice of the commandant dripped with malice.
What! Gwen's mind buzzed. Was her father going to be executed in cold blood? She placed both hands on the screen, deforming her face against the pane.
"No!" she cried out, smashing her fists against the glass. "Dad!"
Whatever her father might have been, Gwen still felt the bonds of kindred blood between them. The last thing she wanted to see was Morye murdered!
“Repent, you ingrate!” The voice that came through the corridor was ripe with emotion.
A vehement snap tore the air asunder. There was a sound of cured hide striking flesh, followed immediately by her father’s painful grunt.
“You ungrateful, unfilial bastard! Do you know how worried your mother was?”
“Do you know how many nights she cried herself to sleep?”
“Do you know many favours we pulled searching for you all over China?”
“Do you know that Jun relinquished his promotion to save you from court marshall?”
“Get up! You're have not had enough yet!”
“I… I can’t... I can’t see out of my left eye,” Her father grunted and spat, likely discarding a bloody glob of loose teeth. “Can we take a break? Do this after I get a few heals in?”
There was a flash of familiar mana.
“Arrrrgh!” Morye howled, followed by the sound of a body writhing on the floor.
“You insolent wolf! How dare you! Your poor mother! Once you pay your respects to her, you'll be seeing the ancestors!” the gruff voice of the General reverberated from wall to wall, barely able to contain the rage caught in between each syllable.
Safe in her cell, Gwen tried to process the string of pronouns coming her way.
The old man had called Morye the ‘ungrateful son' and mentioned 'your brother’ and 'grandmother'.
Wouldn’t that mean that the brutal commandant was Morye’s father? He was her Grandfather! Her paternal Opa!
The knowledge caused her to almost collapse against the pane of her cell. Did this mean they were saved? There was no way her father could be killed by his father, although it would seem that he'd be shedding a layer of skin before his ordeal was over.
Gwen breathed out. The terror of the moment was forgotten, and she felt buoyed by unforeseen hope and elation.
After a while, she looked up.
The old Commandant looked down on her half-kneeled figure.
When had he moved?! The old codger was like a ghost!
More importantly, was he willing to talk?
Gwen stepped away from the pane and tidied herself against the refracted visage of her reflection.
She was not dressed to meet the elderly, that was for sure.
She was wearing white khaki shorts cut off a few inches above her knee, her long legs bare except for sneakers. Her blouse was cropped above the elbows, tapered against her waist with a flared, rounded collar in the French style. Her hair, as before, was loosely styled around her face, which thankfully had the barest of makeup.
The cold codger looked to be the type to expect their grandaughters in prim and proper black on white.
But it was too late now. It wasn't as though Gwen could have known Opa Two was going to be here. She had been in Singapore less than twenty-four hours ago, walking around in the stifling heat, where her attire was entirely appropriate. Gwen wished she had something to cover her legs, which left a little too much to the imagination, and perhaps a camisole or something to give her upper body a more prudent, rather than frivolous, air. It was in situations like this that a pair of horn-rimmed glasses would have done wonders.
“De-phase," Opa Two commanded.
The perspex dematerialised, allowing the middle-aged officer, a guard, and her grandfather to pass.
Gwen noted that unlike those in the Sydney Tower or anywhere in Sydney, the men took little note of her uncommon comeliness. Was it a condition of their training? Or the professionalism of soldiership? Or perhaps she was simply too freakishly large and unaesthetic in their eyes. She knew from her old world that Asians very much preferred the ‘small’ and ‘cute’ rather than ‘Brobdingnagian’.
“Greetings, Grandfather.” Gwen wasn’t sure how to respond, so she performed a western curtsey.
The general nodded.
Good, Gwen thought to herself.
"You are older than I imagined.” The general's voice was low and resonant.
Gwen moulded her face into an affable simper.
“Lower the draining frequency,” the Commandant ordered his second, who ordered a guard, who manipulated a series of Glyphs invisible from Gwen's point of view.
The thrum of the floorboards dimmed.
“Child, manifest your talent,” her grandfather said, his voice commanding and firm. He stood with his legs stiffly apart, his hands placed behind his back like he was inspecting a piece of military hardware.
Her magic?! Gwen felt a few motes of mana coalescing, enough for an impressionable spell.
“Perform your Magic,” the old man repeated.
More excuses would probably just cause "Gran" to get suspicious. Perhaps, it was best to show rather than tell. Salt was a Quasi-element, and so was her Lightning.
Gwen pointed to an empty spot on the dampening tiles, facing away from the General and the soldiers. She didn’t want to expose all her cards, but she had to impress.
A bolt of Elemental Lightning arched from her fingertips toward a distant tile, at which point the incandescent energy fizzled, leaving a scorched splatter mark.
Gwen turned to her grandfather, wondering what he thought of her rare quasi-talent.
“Yang… and Air? Not Yin and Water, how curious." Her grandfather's face took on a thoughtful expression. "A rare talent indeed."
Gwen breathed out as the man's expression softened.
"What are your Schools of Magic?"
"Evocation." Gwen paused for dramatic effect. "And Conjuration."
It wasn't as though she could have shown her grandfather anything else. What she suggested was precisely written on her student card and Multi-Pass, which she was sure the MSS would have inspected. To show anything else would imply that her card was false and that she was hiding something, resulting in inexplicable falsehoods.
Her grandfather nodded approvingly.
"A rare talent indeed, child. Are you gifted with other blessings?"
"I am afraid not, Grandfather."
"Just as well then. Your talent pleases me greatly, you should know. Your grandmother has an Affinity for the Yang. Mayhap you inherited it from her? I believe she would be happy to meet you."
"I would hope so, Grandfather."
"You have your Grandmother's features," her grandfather continued in an affectionate tone. "You look just like her."
"Ha, I am sure Grandmother's beauty is peerless," Gwen remarked. Her grandfather was easier going than she thought, at least after what happened to Morye.
"Tell me, daughter of my ungrateful son, what is it that you do. In Sydney, I mean." Her grandfather's tone remained amicable.
"I am a student," Gwen replied demurely. "Although the fall of the city has impacted my school year, so I guess I need to find a place to graduate."
"That's unfortunate to hear, child." Her grandfather motioned for the two men beside him to exit the cell. "Would you mind if I helped? There are some schools here, in Shanghai, which would love to have their very own Quasi-Elementalist."
"Oh..." Gwen considered it for a moment, strangely glad that she could find another Opa. "I am afraid I need to return to Sydney first; I have friends that are worried sick."
"It is good to have friends." Opa Two walked through the shielding and invited her to follow. "Are these friends your teammates? Companions?"
"We're very closs—" Her speech cut short as she ran face-first into the barrier.
"Opa— Grandfather?" She felt her stomach lurch, echoing the painful bump on her head. Gwen needn't guess what was happening; the implication was obvious enough.
Her grandfather shook his head.
"How easy it must be for you to lie."
Gwen stared at her grandfather, whose once kind demeanour became sharp and cynical. She could feel the mana gather within him as his ire rose. Gwen felt as though she had plunged into a pool of icy water. Goosebumps formed all over her skin, sending her into a terrific shiver. She wanted to move away from him, but her body refused to budge. Was this what it was like to face a high-level Mage of a tier 1 city? It was as though her very blood froze. Her teeth chattered as she tried to formulate another lie but could find nothing intelligible to say.
Her grandfather turned to the middle-aged officer beside him.
“Tell the MSS to do their job properly next time. As for this one, get them to find out what she knows and who she is. I want a thorough vetting, leave nothing unturned.”
Gwen felt a sudden panic overcome her calculated calmness. Leave nothing unturned? Was she headed for Room 101? Was she going to be tortured with rats? Was holding back her talents a mistake? What was Chinese O'Brien expecting? Give her to the MSS? What does that mean? Is she NOT going back to Sydney? Shouldn’t he be saying, "Let her go home? She’s uninvolved and innocent?" Why was he so paranoid?
Her grandfather turned to face Gwen with an impassive expression.
"Is there anything you wish to confess?"
"Grandfather..." Gwen didn't know what to say. What was there to confess? She didn't even know what the old codger wanted.
"What do you want?" She tried to calm herself as best as she could.
"I don't know what that means."
"The full range of your abilities, to start." Her grandfather was relentless. "Then your associates, your Master, your employer."
"I..." He thinks she's a spy?!
"I am not a spy!" Gwen blurted out, then immediately bit her tongue. "I mean... why would you think your Granddaughter is a spy?"
"Your 'acting' is pretty poor if you're trying to imitate a sixteen-year-old child," her grandfather snorted disdainfully. "Didn't your handler run you through the proper protocols?"
"I am sixteen!" Gwen retorted.
"Of course, and I am to believe that my teenage granddaughter is so superior as to be unfazed by the Ministry of State Security! To calmly inform her friends that she is to be abducted by strange men in dark suits! To walk into the infamous Sky Prison without so much as twitching a brow! What are you anyhow? A skin changer?"
"I am just... me!" Gwen wailed. How could she get this old codger to believe her?
"Then there's the evidence hanging from your fingers," her grandfather growled. "Mastercrafted Ring of Medium Storage, Contingency Ring of Teleportation, Ring of Evasion!"
"Tell me, my Granddaughter. How does a teenager, much less the daughter of my worthless son, gain access to close to Fifteen thousand HDMs worth of magical items? Does your father run the Sydney Arcanum? Is he the Master of the Tower there? Had my son finally decided to be useful?!"
"I..." Gwen choked. What could she say that wouldn't implicate her?
"So tell me, Gwen Song, Grandaughter of mine— who are you?"
"I am not your enemy! I am not lying, and damn you for thinking so!" Gwen fought the pressure emanating from her grandfather, pushing back against his force of will. "Look at me! I don't even want to be here! You took me against my will! YOU THINK I WANT TO BE HERE? I wanted to be in Australia, amongst the ruins, rebuilding my life! With my friend and my REAL family! There is nothing, NOTHING! That I want from you!"
Gwen's face was a livid shade of liver now, red with rage. Her grandfather's face was a dark shade of scarlet.
"Dad!" Gwen wailed out, her voice beginning to crack. "Dad! TELL HIM! Tell him I speak the truth! Tell him to send me back!"
No reply came from the adjacent cell. Was Morye unconscious or was he too afraid? Gwen prayed that it was the former, else her wrath would know no bounds.
Her grandfather turned to the middle-aged officer beside him.
"Captain, initiate the Cognisance field."
The tiles beneath Gwen's feet began to shimmer a shade of grey, vibrating until they took on a mirror-like polish.
"What are you doing?" Gwen pounded the perspex pane. "What is this?"
"Your last chance to give up the truth," Her grandfather intoned flatly. "I hope you value your life."
"Damn you!" Gwen hissed at him. Her Void Element! What would happen if the Chinese military found out? Presently, she owned God knows how many other people's talents. She hadn't visited a Chamber since Henry last tested her aptitude after the Mark incident. What would even show up?
The shimmering stopped.
Gwen swallowed nervously and looked down.
There it was, her Astral Body, reflected beneath her in all its glory.
A glass sculpture of glass resplendently refracted in a mixture of darkness and light, Void and Lightning in a precarious harmony. There was something else within her glass figure as well, motes of emerald energy that surged between the light and dark branching out in Lichtenberg forks that appeared and disappeared.
"Yin and Yang?" Her grandfather's brows furrowed. "Fu, run a Greater Dispel Magic through the cell."
A halo of white-blue energy shimmered and passed through Gwen from head to toe.
The guard, the Captain and her grandfather stared at Gwen as she stood with both hands against the pane.
"Now, do you believe me?" Gwen choked out between gritted teeth, shame, resentment and fury filling her head with white noise. "I am innocent. I am real."
"Sir..." The Captain looked at his senior officer dubiously. "Shall I... continue?"
Her grandfather grew contemplative.
"Give her some mana," he ordered. "I want to see what she is made of."
The tiles ceased their thrumming.
Gwen felt her body suffuse with mana, merging from the aether into her Astral Form. The dark motes became darker than black, the lightning began to arc and jump, forming complicated patterns within the exquisite glass sculpture.
A Sigil flared brightly, the sign of Evocation.
Another followed, even more brightly than the first - the silvery-mithril of Conjuration.
Her Grandfather sucked in a cold breath of air.
A Magus at Sixteen! The girl wasn't lying to him.
What talent! What a boon for the family!
Then a third, glowing malevolently in the mauve diffusion of Transmutation.
Gwen's audience fell silent.
FUCK. Gwen closed her eyes and resigned herself to whatever may come. It was over. They knew now. Her secret was out. All that was left was waiting to get dissected. That and stomp her father's brains out. Yue and Evee, all she wanted before they took her for parts was a chance to speak to them again.
"Sir..." The Captain was beside himself, his eyes as large as hen's eggs.
A fourth Sigil began to form.
"PURGE!" Her grandfather raised a hand and touched a hidden glyph in the air that Gwen couldn't see.
All magic drained from the room; Gwen was once again standing atop the grey-tiles, thrumming gently against the arch of her aching feet.
"Are you satisfied?" Gwen questioned her grandfather with a husky voice drained of vitality.
"All of you." Her grandfather turned to the others. "Out."
The men shuffled out obediently.
"Level 6 protocols. Full censure."
Gwen watched as her Grandfather's minions left.
So her grandfather was a Committee Chair, not that it meant anything to her.
"I am coming in."
To her surprise, he entered the cell, bypassing the perspex pane entirely. She silently watched him as he walked past her, exposing his back toward her, then sat patiently on the bunk bed.
He looked up to face her, his bulldog's face now genuinely filled with gentler emotions. Gwen wondered if she had passed some test and if her interrogation was at an end.
"Are you hurt?"
"No," Gwen said quickly. Maybe she could salvage this yet. Maybe there was a play here. She so desired to see Elvia and Yue. She was sick of this place, of this claustrophobic cell. She wanted to leave as soon as possible.
"I want to say I am sorry, Gwen, but I am not," Her grandfather stated as a matter of factly. "I believe you. I do, but your dishonesty troubles me."
"Ask me anything." Gwen tried to modulate her voice, but one couldn't help but be frigid after a reception like that.
"Are you alone in Australia?"
"My mother. My brother. My Opa."
At the word 'brother', her grandfather's eyes lit up like those of a blood hound's, becoming two orbs of dark ice.
The cordial atmosphere was suddenly gone.
The pressure from the old codger made Gwen’s knees knock. Her premonition screamed at her to avert whatever was coming her way. Cold sweat oozed from her pores.
“I… er… I need to sit down.” Gwen found herself slumping against the adjacent wall.
“Tell me about your brother.”
There was something about his voice, cold and hard, that compelled the truth from her.
“His name is Percy. Percy Song,” Gwen heard herself reply. She commanded her lips to stop moving, but it was as though she was having an out of body experience, floating above the figure of her physical shell, feeling as though she'd become a marionette.
“He had attended Sydney Selective for Boys. He is talented in the craft. He is thirteen, turning fourteen.”
“What is his element?”
Gwen felt the words gush from her lips, unbidden and uncontrolled.
Her grandfather visibly stiffened, his face taking on an emotion that was difficult to read.
The pressure disappeared. Gwen could hear herself gasping for breath. She willed herself back into her body, pushing away the strange force that had sent her into a bout of obedient confession. She didn't know how it was for other Mages, but it was easy for her to resist compulsion once an Enchantment's initial impact grew exhausted.
Her grandfather's intense eyes regarded her unpleasantly.
“You have had counter-espionage training?” His face once again grew suspicious, his jowls stiffening with displeasure.
“No!” Gwen braced herself against the wall. “Just... No! Oh, for God's sake! I am not even a Highschool graduate! I don’t even have my graduation certificate! I am still in my final year! Stop imagining me as something I am not!”
“Explain then how a high school student can resist the compulsion of Suggestion incanted by one trained in the interrogative arts.”
Gwen felt the panic she had averted earlier strike back with accumulated intensity. This new grandfather of hers was far too neurotic and erratic. What did the old codger do for a living? Why the secrecy and the constant accusation that she was a spy?
“Opa… Grandfather, Committee Chair, please, you have to believe me. I am Morye’s daughter! Just ask my father!”
“His name is not Morye!” her grandfather snapped at her, his voice rising several octaves. “It’s Hai! You don’t even know your father’s real name!?”
An aura of nauseating mana erupted from the Mage. Shards of salt crystalised from the floors and the walls. A few slivers even hung from her hair.
“I am innocent,” Gwen growled, her voice growing firmer with every syllable. "But you don't care, do you? Well, fuck it then! Broil me! Grill me! Burn me alive! SEND ME TO THE RATS! Beat me to a pulp! TEAR OFF MY FACE! It won't change a thing!"
Her grandfather shook his head sadly.
"You won't be harmed," he said quietly, then lifted himself from the bed and walked clean through the screen. "But you won't be leaving here either. Guards!"
The Captain and four dispassionate guards reappeared. First, they proceeded next door, where two of the Guards retrieved her battered father. Morye looked beaten within an inch of his life. His face was a bruised and bleeding mess.
As he passed her cell, he turned to look at her with eyes full of sympathy and sorrow.
“Dad…” She placed a hand against the perspex, wondering if he had any advice to offer.
"You'll be alright," Morye spoke with a mouth full of blood and broken teeth, sending a spray of crimson spittle against the pane of her cell. "You'll be out soon, trust me."
“Dad!” Gwen called out, but it was too late.
Her grandfather was gone as well. The guards retreated, still ignoring Gwen as she frantically pounded on the pane, calling out Morye’s name - no, Hai’s name, over and over again.
The double doors boomed as they shut, leaving her alone amongst the row of containment cells.
Gwen stared around her cell, dazed by the suddenness of it all.
What had just happened?
Then a terrifying epiphany struck.
What if her paternal grandfather wanted to take Percy away from her mother? What could Helena do to resist? Her clan was helpless against any power from the Tier 1 cities, much less one that seemed as invested as her paternal grandfather. Her mother had pinned all her hopes and dreams on Gwen's brother, and now she was going to lose her only son because Gwen blabbed like an idiot?
Gwen felt a cramp in her stomach, but it wasn't just from the hunger.
She fucked up.
And then she fucked up again.