Metaworld Chronicles

by

Wutosama

Chapter 107 - An invitation from a Doppelgänger

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A note from Wutosama

 


Alone at last, Gwen tried to measure the short stick handed to her by lady Fortuna.

So she’s a spy now.

Gwen Song, a femme fatale of Mata Hari's fame.

Should she find a red dress and a chaise lounge to malinger so that she could be smouldering jazz, languishing smoke and mirror all at once?

She didn’t have a chaise though, all she had was a stainless steel protrusion from the wall with a foam mattress that made her sweat profusely.

Gwen glanced at the stainless steel throne embedded into the floor, attached to the drinking fountain.

Nature called.

Was someone watching? Was there a guard looking at her through some lumen recorder right now? Would someone burst in if she answered her biological needs?

Gwen frantically tried to activate her Storage Ring, but the dampener stole away even the thimble of mana she required to enable its spatial effect.

“Is someone there?” she announced to the general vicinity of her cell.

No one would come. Of course.

But the silence was hardly reassuring.

There was no Telescreen here for her to turn her back to, no corner in the room for her to be just out of sight.

She looked at the stainless steel water throne again.

Fuck it. Gwen convinced herself. Why torture herself?

She'd seen enough reruns of MacGyver.

Convincing herself the guards should understand, she tore the sheets from the foam mattress's steel frame and wrapped them around her upper body. Then she proceeded to perform a pantomime charade of a one-woman tent, trying to find a viable way to protect her privacy while also meeting her needs.

The problem was that she needed two hands to hold up the cotton canvas of her 'tent'.

Arrrgh! She groaned inwardly. Why didn't she pick a dress to wear!

Defeatedly, she sighed.

At least her bladder was no longer about to explode.

“Cut the feed. All of it.”

Colonel Guo Song of the Commission of the Ministry of National Defence, Deputy Secretary of Internal Security and Anti-Reconnaissance Division and Chairman of the Confidential Communications Committee leaned back in his chair.

The lumen display embedded into his office wall ceased its broadcast of the Scry spells directed towards the cells.

He had been curious as to what his granddaughter would do, what she would attempt, of whether the girl would venture to escape, perhaps faking an illness or use her allure to blindside a guard.

He wasn’t curious now.

If anything could convince him that the girl wasn’t a spy, it was watching her spend two inexpert minutes field-dressing a foam mattress and using thin sheets as a bathroom stall. Didn’t she know how Scrying worked? Scrying worked through walls, through concrete, through any non-magical containment, and a sheet of cotton certainly wasn’t going to help.

In a way, he was glad.

Unless Gwen was intelligent enough to be playing Planar-Chess with them, she was finally acting as one of her age and experience should be doing.

Digging through a dozen manila envelopes, Guo pulled Gwen’s file from a pile of missives and reread it.

Wei had submitted their report as soon as they arrived, delivering a detailed reading of Gwen’s life insofar as could be discerned from their source at the Singapore Tower.

Her biometrics are within acceptable parameters of deviation.
Her talents merely read Lightning (3), Evocation (3) and Conjuration (3), which was a blatant lie.

Mother: Helena Huang.

A nobody from a nobody Clan, a descendant of long-lost glory banished from the verdant colonies of the Indonesian islands, long since mingled with the blood of the Europeans— an ordinary Mage of no importance.

Father: Morye Song.

The traitorous whelp, the one who fled the mainland, leaving behind his parents, his clan, his future, all for some absurd notion of western liberty, a coward escaping from the duties he was born to fulfil.

Curiously, the Singapore Tower had lacked any data beyond that. There wasn’t any mention of the son, this Percy Song, Gwen's Master, or her position in Sydney's Tower.

Was someone deliberately censuring her data? The Singapore Tower would have received its knowledge from Sydney. For such a minimalist volume of erudition to exist, the source would have been someone the Singapore Tower trusted enough to rubber stamp.

If so, who are his granddaughter's backers in Sydney? The Contingency ring was a telling clue in itself. There were only a handful of people capable of giving such a treasure away.

More curiously, how did Gwen acquire so many Schools of Magic?

The Frontier cities were not like the Capital cities; they did not possess the resources to awaken and train their children from an early age. Gwen would have been fourteen-fifteen when she awakened, meaning she had achieved in a year and a half an impossible feat— a feat attainable only by the ancient Houses, a feat the Clan of Song was incapable of conceiving.

To achieve her proficiency level, it meant she had to have access to abundant resources, instructors of the highest degree of competence, a safe place to train and learn, especially one with access to a Greater Cognisance Chamber.

That meant, of course, the Sydney Tower, the only place where such resources were possible.

The late Master there, Henry Kilroy, was a well known Magister within the Circle of Mages of the Commonwealth, serving under the British Mageocracy. He was an old school Mage, a survivor of the Magical Beast uprising, a veteran of more wars than modern Magisters had birthdays.

A week ago, reports had flooded Guo’s desk; assessments of the Sydney crisis, whispering of Spectre and the rogue Mages that live on the fringe of the Wildlands. There were reports of an enervating Black Sun that bloomed over the city, a Strategic-Class Ritual of the Void Element. There were also unreliable reports of a Mythical serpent that supposedly swallowed the Ritual, itself an almost absurd idea. There was the Mermen incursion, which came as no surprise. The Mermen saw attacks on Frontier cities as a rite of passage for their foot-soldiers, weeding out the weak and thinning their ranks to blow off steam, redirecting the masses' bottled up aggression elsewhere before it turned upon the Dynasty.

The brief report ended in Singapore, where an escort of Senior Mages serving under the Crimson Sorceress, Alesia de Botton, accompanied his granddaughter. When questioned, however, his granddaughter had declined to inform them of this connection, offering no erudition of her ties to the premier Militant of the Coral Sea. The girl was hiding her guan-xi, but it wasn’t difficult for someone like Guo to join the dots.

Guo closed his eyes for a moment to conclude his conjecture— that Gwen was somehow attached to the upper echelons of the Sydney Tower, that expectantly, they would come knocking soon.

But Sydney was a sea of fire and flood as they speak, so that "soon" was likely going to be drastically delayed.

Then there was the matter of Gwen's unusual talent, an affinity for the Void— a rare and dangerous element, sanctioned by the Politburo Magics and Sorcery Committee as a Class 4 Restricted Sorcery.

Guo’s fingers rapped the sturdy wood of his mahogany work desk.

Henry Kilroy’s war hero wife, Elizabeth Sobel, was a Void Mage. There was intelligence that she wasn't deceased, that she joined the Rogue Mages of the Wildlands, a group called Spectre.

Was there a connection there? Who was teaching his granddaughter Void Magic? Was she learning it all on her own? How was his granddaughter associated with the now-deceased Magister, and was there a connection between Gwen and the Void Sun that appeared over Sydney?

Difficult questions, with dangerous answers, Guo thought to himself.

He reached for his cold tea.

“Heat.”

The water began to steam gently.

It took great skill to heat Pu’er tea to an exact eighty degrees with a single cantrip.

He turned his mind to the other matter at hand.

Percy Song.

A grandson.

His legacy.

His wife had three children before he was rendered too infertile by his affinity with the energies of Yin.

Song Nen, the harvest.

Song Hai, the ocean.

Song Jun, the soldier.

Jun, the youngest, was everything a man could ask for in a son, but his immense affinity for the Yin also made him woefully infertile from an early age. By the time they needed him to act as the heir, it had been too late.

Nen inherited her mother's talent for the Yang. She bore two children, Tao and Mina, but they wouldn’t be inheriting his name.

Guo had thought that the line of Song would have ended with Jun, but now Hai had returned. Not only that, he bore two children, a boy and a girl.

Most importantly, a boy with the surname of Song.

Guo felt in his heart a solace that he could barely contain without bursting into exuberant exclamation. A man should have a legacy! A Clan needs new blood! With a grandson whose name was Song, the family surname could survive, and this was a comfort Guo could take to the grave. What a boon of unexpected fortune born from the calamity that was his wayward son! Finally, he could visit the Ancestors' Hall and tell them that the line would remain, that they needn't adopt a branch family member to fill the gap. Finally, Guo could face the grave with the peace of knowing that he had left something in this world that was tangible.

But Guo had to act fast.
Like himself, the Yin energies of elemental Salt possessed the boy.

It meant that they must retrieve the boy and put him in training as soon as possible. He must learn to control his powers, learn to minimalise the damage to his body. Percy must undergo extensive rituals with the Amulet's blessing to bolster his defences against the draining of his vitality.

Guo clenched his hands, balling them into a pair of tight fists.

“Thank you, Ancestors, for this blessing,” he exclaimed silently. “I’ll not fail the Clan of Song!”

A polite knock came from the door.

Guo relaxed, returning himself to his usual, calm demeanour.

“Come in.”

“Colonel.” It was Captain Fu, his aide. “Jun— Captain Song has just entered the compound. Should I bring him here?”

“Did Ah-Jun state his purpose?” Guo furrowed his bushy brows, his jowls jiggling with disapproval.

“He has informed the administrators' office that he is removing prisoner 1403's and placing her under house arrest. The order comes from the office of the Internal Security Deputy Chairman, Secretary Li.”

Guo sighed; he had anticipated interference. He would have preferred to observe his ‘granddaughter’ for a few more days, having arranged a host of probes to plumb her hidden talents.

“It's fine. And Fu, remember— not a word gets out.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Guo took a sip of his tea and pursed his thin lips. His eyes fell on the report in his hands.

The girl was in trouble, but she was also his granddaughter.

Disposing of her was out of the question; it was heartless and, importantly, a waste of potential.

Returning her to Sydney was likewise out of the question. The Americans and the Brits, even the Central Europeans, would have a field day if they could get their hands on a teenage Magus with Yin and Yang dual-Elemental Affinity.

No, for the girl to grow, she would need backers. That would mean having her worth proven and sanctioned— itself a trial by fire, like a koi trying to leap over the dragon gate; it could cost her life. In his country, it is said that the Kirin who soared above the planes of servitude and slavery must command strong winds, for it is a sad spectacle to see a noble beast strapped and saddled by mortal men.

What a thing for Hai to bring into the world. What an irresponsible father his son was. What a burden for an old man and woman to bear.

"Fu, I am returning to the compound. Tell Corporal Bao to bring the car around."

"Yes, Sir!"

If he knew his wife, the banquet was already being prepared.
All that was left was to see how honest Gwen was willing to be.

“Um… can I ask if Colonel Song is coming back anytime soon?” Gwen inquired the NoM Corporal who came to deliver her first meal in China, batting her lashes to entice a response from the stone-faced guard.

She may as well be wringing blood from a rock.

The young man averted Gwen's gaze as though she was the mythical Medusa.

She was sure it was a test.

The minuscule, five-foot-four Corporal looked as though he’d never heard of a dangerous Void Mage before, opening a small segment of the portal so that he could put the tray into her cell.

The tray consisted of two steamers, a bowl of soup and a square box of rice. Also, she’d been given metal utensils in the western style - a knife, spoon, and a fork.

She had no mana, of course, but had she been a real espionage agent; she could surely dice the man a dozen ways and use his access to escape somehow.

The Corporal obliviously retracted his hands and left the cell, still avoiding her gaze.

“Thank you!" Gwen called out.

The Corporal fled.

Gwen sighed.

She opened a steamer. Inside were pork buns, like the juicy kind she’d had in her old world. They had become popular enough to be almost omnipresent in the late 2010s, mainly where the Australian-Chinese congregated.

Perhaps the food was poisoned or drugged?

There was no need for that. It wasn’t as though the Colonel Grandfather lacked for mind-reaping Mages.

She picked one up and popped it into her mouth.

Hot! Hot! Hot!

The internal juices were boiling. Does this world even have microwaves? The searing pain inside her mouth was a pizza-pocket disaster the temperature of the sun.

The tray below held more buns, this time a vegetarian option. Gwen guessed the mere fact that her meal wasn’t mouldy bread and grey water was evidence enough to suggest that her grandfather had at least acknowledged her existence.

She won't be harmed; he had told her, though his tone was hardly reassuring.

Gwen wondered if Gunther had gotten the word and was trying to figure out a way to retrieve her. Would her brother-in-craft realise that Percy may be a target as well since Morye was himself a target? Would Gunther feel accountable for sending Morye with Gwen? Was the circumstance of their abduction entirely outside of Sydney's sphere of influence, especially now that the Tower was in ruins?

She didn’t know the answer to any of these questions.

She could only sip the salty pork-bone soup and use the spoon to mash the buns into the empty bowl before eating them, sitting crossed-legged in the manner that she had done so when they ate bush tucker back in Australia.

It was food for NoMs, greasy and insubstantial, without an ounce of restorative mana.

But she was very, very hungry.

She was still trying to masticate through a bun, her burnt lips glossy with grease, when her father’s face suddenly appeared at the perspex panel, grinning from ear to ear.

“Puuufft—!”

The apparition was so startling that she spat out the dumpling, sending forth a spray of pink-mince and fatty-lard all over the pane.

“Sorry!” her father's phantom exclaimed. “Shall I come back later?”

Gwen swallowed.

There had been no fanfare from the guards.

How was it possible that her father had come here? Wasn’t he bloody and bruised? Had he been cured, healed, restored? Was he free? Was this what he had meant when he told her earlier that she should be free soon? Why not just say it to her straight? If so, why the ambiguous communiqué?!

“Not eating then? Well then, how are you?” It was Morye's voice, but not his voice. This voice was deep and resonant.

He was looking at her with a mouth full of delight, trying to hold back from laughing out loud. Different to her father, there was sunniness about the man that made her feel strange inside.

“Morye?” Gwen replaced her bowel onto her tray. "Morye, what did grandfather say about Percy?"

Her ‘father’ looked at her strangely.

“Who is Percy?”

Gwen moved to a splatter-free part of the perspex pane.

Their eyes met.
Morye's irises were of a lighter hue; this ‘Morye’ had eyes that were like two obsidian orbs, the eyes of her Grandfather.

‘You're not Morye," Gwen stated awkwardly, her heart pounding like a jackaroo.

“I am Jun. Jun-Song, I suppose you can call me Uncle.” Her uncle's smiling face even had the same way of curling the edge of one lip, though Jun's was less sardonic and more jocular like there was a big joke somewhere that only he understood.

“Uncle…” Gwen tried to wrap her mind around the doppelganger thing. Her grandfather had said something about a brother. “Are you Morye… Hai’s twin?”

“He’s older by a year.” Her uncle maintained a satisfied smirk. “Sorry for surprising you.”

“It’s alright.” Gwen looked around for a napkin, eyeing the bedsheet. So much for first impressions.

“One sec, I’ll let you out.”

To her surprise, the perspex screen dematerialised. Gwen, who had a hand pressed against its surface, fell forward into her Uncle’s arms.

“Woah there, hold it steady.” Jun chuckled, bracing Gwen as she slipped from the cell. Outside and away from the anti-mana shielding, she felt immediately restored, as if a woman dying of thirst had plunged into the sweet pool of a fresh-water oasis.

Just like that?
Was she free to go?
What about her grandfather’s ire?
Could she just waltz out of here, right now?

Gwen pulled herself away, her face beet-red. There was a strange sense of familiarity that she felt when their hands touched, as though she'd known the man for a long time. It was a puzzling enough feeling that she paused to take a good gander at ‘Uncle’ Jun.

His face was like her father’s but had in its possession a tighter musculature that made his jaws more defined and gracile. His eyes were darker than Morye’s, his brows bushier; Gwen further noted alarmingly that rather than a broad, five-o-clock shadow, Jun sported a villainous goatee. She hoped at once that this didn’t mean Jun was her father’s mirror-world villain, though it was difficult to imagine anyone could be more destructive than her father when it came to hurting his loved ones.

“Uncle Jun,” Gwen began. “Can I leave?"

“You can leave this cell; if that’s what you’re asking. You can leave this facility too.” Her uncle answered, scratching the back of his head abashedly. “But if you’re wondering if you can leave the city… well, that’s a conversation for another time.”

“Oh.” Gwen's face transformed from gladness to dourness.

“Chin up,” her uncle intoned merrily. “You'll love it here. Let's get some fresh air and I'll tell you about what's going to happen from here on out.”

When they approached the double doors, Jun knocked.
The doors slid open, revealing two guards who saluted crisply.

“At ease.” Jun ushered Gwen through without so much as batting an eye. The guards had made no motion to impede their exit, which eased her frayed nerves.

“Thank you, Uncle Jun.” She simpered sweetly, wondering if her 'uncle' responded to charm better than her marble-miened grandfather. “Thanks for getting me out of there.”

“Don’t mention it,” Jun beamed back, giving Gwen a boost of confidence. “Although, we should get moving before the old man changes his mind.”

“No more tests? Or interrogations?” Gwen glanced back at her cell, her voice hopeful and uncertain. She wasn’t about to go back in there without kicking and screaming, but her grandfather did not seem like someone who would let an allegation of espionage just walk through the door.

“He's just paranoid.” Jun’s voice was more resonant than her fathers, more distinct and debonair. “Not to mention I am supremely confident in your future honesty."

Gwen looked away, hoping that her flushed face wasn't too noticeable.

The reinforced compound they proceeded throughout began to change after the second level, the exposed concrete giving way to matt-white walls smelling of diffused silica.

They soon approached a checkpoint, where intervals of lumen-globes threw their shadowy outlines against the partitions.

“We’re not going to teleport out?”

“Not possible,” her uncle informed her. “There are Teleportation Circles here that you can teleport into, but once you’re in, the only way out is on your feet.”

She then saw the soldiers, a dozen of them stationed at the checkpoint. When they had turned the shallow corner, a few of them sat at a table with what appeared to be a scanning device. Two men stood alongside an iron gate with bars as thick as Gwen’s arm, refracting the cold light from the corridor beyond.

Is this the final barrier? Gwen wondered. Was her deliverance beyond this particular portal?

“Officer present!” The soldiers saluted.

“Comrades.” Jun saluted back.

“Sir!”

The corporals all looked to be in their twenties, but the officer was an older man, a Sergeant by the looks of his lapels. He measured Gwen with his eyes, alternating between curiosity and consternation.

To her surprise, the sergeant offered Jun a cigarette, which he accepted.

One of the corporals lit the fag with a flame cantrip, watching as Jun took a luxurious pull.

“American Marlboro? When did you get so tasteful, Cho?”

“Heehee, glad you like it, Cap, got it from my uncle, over at Putong.”

“It’s smooth as hell; I'll give you that. I’ll bring you something next time as well if I get a chance.”

“Sure thing, Captain. Now, if I may inquire—” Chow pocketed the red-white packet. His gaze moved over to Gwen, who tried her best to look innocent.

I am just a teenager. Gwen willed herself to look as harmless as humanely possible. I am a bipedal lamb.

“Is your withdrawal… off the record?”

Jun rapped the old Sergeant's shoulder appreciatively.

“Chow, are you suggesting I would attempt to circumvent the bureaucratic stranglehold of our fine intelligence establishment?” Jun asked with mock incredulity.

“Sir?” Chow smiled nervously, immediately trying to laugh off his scepticism.

“It’s alright.” Jun comforted the veteran. His rice bowl wasn’t going to shatter today. “This is a family matter. Powers greater than we are at play here. Give me the discharge form.”

The sergeant breathed a sigh of relief and handed Jun a slate, which he signed with a flourish.

“There we are.” Jun gave the man a friendly grin. “No one is going to dissipate into thin-air today, hmm?”

“Heh, you know it, Sir.”

“Gwen?” Jun motioned for her to follow, and she demurely obeyed, keeping her eyes downcast. What did he mean by dissipating? Did people just disappear around here?

A set of dense, multi-pronged keys was produced, unlocking the intricate mechanical lock embedded within the transmuted iron gate.

When Gwen and Jun had passed, the soldiers looked at one another and wiggled their eyebrows.

“What do you suppose that was?” one of the men asked his Sergeant, still feeling star-struck.

“Who is he?” another guard asked, then added more meaningfully while licking his chops. “And who’s the young lady?”

Sergeant Chow turned to the one who spoke.

“Su, how long you been here?”

“Two months, Sir.”

“And you’ve never heard of or seen Captain Song?”

“Wait, that was Captain Song? THE Captain Song?”

The rest of the men nodded.

The Corporal’s face burned.

“Do you think it's too late for an autograph?”

The rest of the men broke out in uproarious laughter, punching the embarrassed soldier in mockery.

“I’ll get one for you next time, Su.”

“Who was the girl, Serge?” the corporal gave the man a thumbs up. "She was like this."

“Don’t know, didn’t see her go in, and I’ve been on duty the last three days.”

“Think she’s an actress or something?”

The men turned to look at Slow Su with ridicule. If the intelligence office were keeping members of the Cultural Performance Committee in its secretive holding cells, it would undoubtedly be dangerous to be wagging tongues in jest.

“Corporal Su?”

“Yeah, Serge?”

“Shut up and go back to your post. The rest of you, zip it.”

Chow felt the weight of the slate in his hand, looking up to see the distant figure of the girl walking up the stairs. Who was the girl? He wondered. When she had passed him, his hair had stood on end.

Whatever she was, his combat instincts told him she was no less dangerous than Jun.

Another checkpoint later, Gwen and Jun exited the basement level and entered the interior of a public building with a civic centre's facade. Gargantuan marble columns held up towering ceilings adorned with etched bronze plates, florid with imprints depicting the founding of the Communist nation.

To Gwen, the feeling of space was immediately liberating after having spent a day and night inside the containment chamber, with nought but bare concrete walls and a perspex pane for companionship.

Exhaling loudly, she stretched out her body, enjoying the open air, feeling her bones creak.

Her actions drew strange looks from passersby in dark suits and olive khaki, a few others in digital-camo. It was her foreignness, her height, her being the odd one out. Immediately, she retracted her arms and tried to make herself smaller.

Her uncle stopped beside her and gave her an appraising look.

“I am afraid your height is going to give you that reaction wherever you go in the city, Gwen. You're as tall as a man, even taller if you're going to wear fashionable clothing. Think it'll bother you?”

Gwen shook her head; she was used to it. It cost her nothing for others to stare, and at any rate, it wasn’t as though she could help it.

“Are you the same height as Dad, Uncle Jun?" Her uncle was just a smidgen shorter than her.

“I am superior by a centimetre.” Jun smirked, his eyes sparkling mischievously. Now that they were away from the uncertain light of the bunker, Gwen could inspect Jun in the light of his full glory.

Jun's face was more defined and taut than her father, more muscular and chiselled with darker eyes that gave him a solemn demeanour. He had on a casual jacket over a white Tee, wore over tapered military cargos, completed with a thick, brown leather belt. Underneath the dark blazer, his shirt wrapped around well-defined pictorials that were like carved granite.

Gwen had never thought her father good looking, although many women would contest that her father was very handsome. But now that she’s seen the same face plastered onto her uncle, she had to admit that her father's innumerable willing victims may be onto something.

Jun warily pulled his jacket inward.

“I don't like that look,” he laughed. "What? Too strange seeing your father's face on mine?"

Gwen laughed as well. It felt like the first time she’d smiled in weeks, even though less than forty-eight hours had passed.

“You're dressed for the weather, at least. It's a steamer outside today.” Her uncle straightened up, then struck a thumb toward the sunny space just outside the building’s enormous floor to ceiling doors embossed with oriental motifs. "It's a short walk to the car though, let us proceed as quickly as we can."

Gwen followed Jun across the threshold, where she felt something wash over her body as they passed. Some barrier spell, maybe, or perhaps a scanning Glyph, Gwen wasn’t sure. There were so many things here, contraptions and magic items of convenience, all of which Sydney lacked.

Immediately, a wave of hot air struck her like a hammer, plastering her with humidity. It felt as though she’d walked into a sauna.

“How is it? Monsoon season in Shanghai.” Jun chuckled as he watched Gwen wilt like a flower under the sultry heat.

“It feels like Singapore—” Gwen groaned. “Are there overlapping Shield Stations here?”

“Ah, you know the microclimate well,” Jun gave her a thumbs up. “Too many magical effects in too dense a location, generating far too much heat. Without the easterly breeze from the South China Sea to take away the miasma, the city cooks like a crab steamer.”

Gwen felt as though she was melting. Her eyeliner wasn’t waterproof, so if they stayed any longer, she would be crying like a Demi-human with a calamari lineage.

A hundred meters later, her arms and legs were dripping with a sheen of moisture. There was something about the heat that made it even worse than Singapore or the Jungle. In a way, the feverish metropolis was like a sad metaphor for her present condition, caught within the city, unable to escape, slowly simmering as she simmered in the crab pot.

They proceeded to the end of the civic century’s concrete superstructure, where a row of cars parked end to end.

“B-7.” Jun drew a glyph in the air. It floated toward the attendant, an elderly looking man with a blue Municipal Officer's uniform.

“Right away, Sir.”

A moment later, a levitating platform retrieved an SUV, gently depositing the vehicle onto the pavement. What Gwen couldn't help noticing was that the man was an NoM, and yet here he was, operating a magical device.

“Bill it to Internal Revenue,” Jun told the man, who bowed from the waist before returning to his post.

Watching the NoM attendant leave, Gwen turned her attention to the car, wondering what it was that people in the ‘tier 1’ cities drove. In Sydney, the vehicles mainly consisted of older models. To her surprise, Jun's SUV was a Jeep, or at least it looked like a Jeep. It had four elongated slits across the front grill that formed the focal point of a boxy facade. Additionally, the urban 4x4 sat on lifted suspension and custom archways, with an open-air roof protected by a sturdy roll cage.

“That’s your car?” Gwen asked her uncle despairingly, dripping sweat from every pore. She hoped that the car would have been an enclosed space to dry her out. From the looks of it, she was more likely to leave an embarrassing Gwen shaped sweat-stain on her uncle’s pristine leather seats.

“Good grief, Gwen.” Jun urged her to get into the car.

Instantly, her drenched body became cooled by a pleasant breeze.

The open-air vehicle was air-conditioned! An air-conditioned convertible! O, the miracle of Spellcraft! She praised the minds that created this boon; the world had become a better place for their invention.

“How do you guys live down-under? I heard it hits forty-five down there.” Jun hopped in. “There’s a decanter in the glove, cups too if you're thirsty.”

“Its dry heat, so it’s not that bad,” Gwen replied, feeling the cold leather luxuriously. True to Jun’s word, a nozzle connected to an endless decanter was installed conveniently next to some paper cups. Gwen placed a cup under the spigot, watching it dispense cool, purified water.

The water was enough to refresh her mind and body. She was still hungry, but the water could tide her over until more substantial food could be sourced to feed her Void hunger.

With an incantation, her uncle started the Jeep, revving up its mana-cores. Unlike the Commonwealth nations, the Chinese made vehicles were left-hand drive. The mana engine thrummed until it grew into a throaty roar, transmuting its power through her feet and legs.

Her uncle materialised a baseball cap and a pair of aviators from a Storage Ring. Wordlessly watching her Uncle, Gwen wondered if Jun resembled a Eurasian James Dean.

“Welcome to Shanghai.” Her uncle grinned, his thin lips opening to reveal pearly-white teeth. “Ready to meet your Grandmother?”

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Wutosama

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

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