"Protection from Energy!"
Wary of one another's untested strength, both Gwen and her opponent forwent the option to front-load spells, instead choosing to open the battle defensively, electing caution over risk.
Lok's choice was self-evident, creating a shimmering skin of elemental resistance that negated much of Gwen's offensive electricity outright, ensuring that even if he were stunned or blinded, his Earthen Shield could withstand any unforeseen burst potential from the Lightning Mage.
Gwen's choice was both puzzling and astonishing.
Wasn't she an offensive caster? The crowd wondered. What was an Elementalist going to do with a Shield? Especially one under the auspices of air and positive energy, both of which were insubstantial in defence?
A spiked boulder the size of a ripe jackfruit smashed into Gwen's static-charged Mana Shield. To the surprise of all, rather than shattering the transparent glass dome, the spike came to a crunching halt, turning the impact point opaque with congealed mana. In the next moment, the stone fell from Gwen's half-dome barrier and dissipated into motes of Elemental Earth.
The spectacle would have made perfect sense if Gwen was a Mage attuned to the Mineral talent, or perhaps a spiritually-modified talent of Earth, but she was a lightning Mage! How is it possible that an Elementalist could possess such an impenetrable Shield? If offensive casters could hold their own in a Shielding-duel, there would be no need for Abjurers on a five-person team.
For a Mage specialised in defence, a tier 2 Evocation was the best Lok could manage without risking mana burn and disorientation.
Four stalactites of compressed granite launched toward Gwen, covering the distance between them in the blink of an eye.
Gwen grit her teeth.
A miniaturised cumulonimbus cloud briefly appeared overhead before manifesting as a hazy field of electricity.
Her previously conjured Warding Bolt zapped away at Lok, triggered by his presence, leaving behind a dazzling white scar over his reinforced Stone Shield.
Immediately after, Lok's spears struck.
In the past, Gwen had withstood the assault of a tier 5 Magical Beast known as Wonka. Even with the burst of momentum and all its impressive weight, it had just managed to penetrate her non-newtonian barrier, and this was at a time when Gwen wasn't even a trained Abjurer. Now, Lok was just unlucky.
The seemingly deadly spears clattered against her shield, turning its frontal surface opaque before crumbling.
Gwen could see a spiderweb of fissures spreading across the first layer of her double-glazed mana barrier. Thankfully, her weakness became masked by the zinging arcs of electricity that showered the surrounding air spectacularly whenever her Shield shed its reactive energy.
When the Stone Spears failed to penetrate, the crowd gasped, looking toward one another to see if they were all witnesses to the same spectacle.
"Wall of Stone!"
All of Gwen's pieces were falling into place.
Ariel appeared behind Lok and instantly transformed into its Mongoose form, its static-charged body turning the Force Cage cobalt's surface with blue-white static.
A blast of fur from Ariel smothered the space where Lok stood his ground, a few tiny darts catching him unaware and penetrating his hastily erected Shield.
Such was the natural advantage of Conjurers, whose strength in numbers had to be endured or negated. Gwen's problem was that her education was yet incomplete. She had forgone Summon Elementals for Dark Tentacles and the defensive Faithful Hound, neither of which was of much use against a turtling Earthen Mage.
Lok cursed under his breath. He hadn't wanted to demonstrate his other abilities, but there was no helping it now. Slowly but surely, the electrical discharge was finding its way through the dart-like fur and numbing his body.
"Blank Mind!" The Mage activated his latent mental powers.
Gwen felt a deluge of psychic energy bypassing her Mana Shield and assail her consciousness. She became at once dizzy and confused as if injected with a sluggish agent that hindered her thoughts. It was a familiar feeling which she loathed more than anything in the world.
Fight it! An inner voice screamed as her body faltered. It was just as well that her Warding Bolt continued to fire, and her Called Lightning was falling into a steady pace of randomised electrical blasts. On the other end of the arena, Ariel sensed its Master's distress and directly assaulted Lok with a frenzy of blows, becoming a blur of whirling claw and flashing teeth against the Magus' Shield of stone.
Though Gwen could feel a part of her mind becoming cloudy and unfocused, she maintained control through force of will. From experience, she suspected that if she had lost her mind, Caliban would likely escape and attempt to make a feast out of every Mage in the club. She could just imagine it now, Caliban eating Lok before thrashing itself bloody upon the Force Cage.
Lok, meanwhile, had felt his spell connect with Gwen's mind.
He had anticipated her to fall limp, to cease her attacks, to beg or kneel or at least be held, even for a fraction of a second.
Instead, even after his mana became consumed, there was nothing. There was no feedback, no adjoining reciprocity that allowed him an estimation of his target's paralysis.
It was as though he had cast Hold Monster on a pet rock.
Then he felt the connection between himself and the spell cease, signalling the end of the Enchanter's hold on his target.
His Stone Shield was already a blaze of electricity that cascaded from top to bottom, turning the surface of the Force Cage a bright, brilliant blue. Where the Mongoose's fur had struck his shoulder, he was already feeling a numbness coming on.
Whatever had happened, his spell had gone to waste, and Lok wasn't foolish enough to flaunt his mind-flaying abilities in public. He had no desire to be gang-pressed into the Military for the second time, especially in a place like China, where the PLA kept a close eye on all Mind Mages.
Were they at a stalemate then?
But he was a Magus! The girl was sixteen, seventeen?! Mayhap younger? For a Magus to draw the match with the girl was no different from losing. He had to do something, anything, to ensure that his Master did not suffer any more loss of reputation.
Gwen, meanwhile, felt the mind manacles of the Mind Blank spell dissipate. She felt overcome by a seething vexation, having to fight her impulse tooth and nail to prevent herself from resorting to conjuring the Void. With a fully charged Void Bolt, Gwen was confident that it should bore a fist-sized hole right through the Stone Shield and into Magus Khun's chest— but that was neither here nor now.
"Stone Skin!" Magus Lok incanted loudly.
Unexpectedly, her enemy made the first move to break their stalemate.
Lok must have lost patience with his terrapin tactics and wanted to finish the match and salvage Dai's lost honour.
In an instant, the Mage became "The Thing" from an infamous Marvel franchise, only covered in layers of grey-blue granite, slowly moving towards her with the certainty of a glacier.
As for the Mind Magic, Gwen was still reeling from its impact. She was indignant and confused. Why hadn't Yuu called out the Magus for using an illicit spell? Was it legal for tier 1 Mages to employ mind-altering effects? Or did paralysis not count as mind-control?
Heedless of her woes, Lok came closer, trying to corner Gwen at one end. Gwen had no idea what the man intended, but she wasn't about to lose the advantage of distance. What if he had a melee-touch, mind-altering Enchantment that could control her? What if Caliban escaped?
In desperation, she chose the only spell she knew that would work on stone.
She held a dozen of the unstable crystals in her hand, vibrating dangerously in their volatile fragility.
What would happen when a dozen of her most disruptive spell erupted at once? How many times could the magnitude of a single spell increase with each reverberation? Gwen was no physicist; she could only speculate about the multiplicative effects of detonating sound and light in an enclosed space.
Faced with the advancing Mage, she threw the volatile shards toward the ponderous form of the despairing Lok, whose stony face twisted in dreadful anticipation as the crystals flew toward him in slow motion.
"CLOSE YOUR EYES!" Gwen advised the crowd, retracting Ariel to her side as she covered her ears, at once reinforcing herself with mana.
Above her, Magus Yuu reciprocated her command.
As the crystals ignited, Gwen summoned yet another Shield, a thin Void skin, within her semi-circle dome of non-newtonian particles.
BUNG! The resulting "Flashbang" may as well been a localised supernova.
The Force Cage grew white-hot as though it momentarily held the interior of a dying star. Violent, reverberating sonic energy and dazzling incandescence rocked the underground chamber. Were it not for the sheer power of the protective barrier, the observers were sure that the M would have erupted, perhaps launching off its foundations and landing piecemeal throughout the bay of The Bund.
After the concussion, the flare finally dimmed.
Unfortunately, though the Force Cage had tempered the thunderclap, there was no helping the phosphorescence.
Those who'd anticipated the flash felt their sight returning after several seconds. Those too slow to react became blinded for half a minute.
Those who'd refused to heed Gwen and Yuu's advice wailed and beckoned for Minor Restoration.
When the confusion finally ceased, those with enough vision left to see turned their attention back toward the duelling floor.
They had their answer.
The Lightning Mage, Gwen Song, appeared entirely unaffected by the explosion. She stood to attention, steadfast in trying to maintain a triple-set conjuration of Familiar, Warding Bolt and Call Lightning.
Magus Khun, meanwhile, had ceased moving entirely.
Sheets of granite fell from his body like a stone statue crumbling in a timelapse. Twin streaks of blood oozed from where his ears were just visible beneath the Stone Skin, flowing profusely past his cheeks.
Above, Magus Yuu swayed on his feet for a moment as his wits restored themselves.
Opposite the fallen Earthen Mage, the Lightning Sorceress dispelled her summons, then dropped to one knee. Her chest violently rose and fell as she panted profusely from the effort of managing a dozen spells in quick succession.
"THE VICTOR! MISS GWEN SONG!"
The voice of Magus Yuu rang across the club. The announcer felt as though he was in the midst of a fantastic dream. What a world, what a night, what a Bout! To think that junior Mage could defeat a Magus, and a retired Mind Reaver at that, with incantations no higher than tier 3 to boot!
Slowly, boos and groan began to spread among the losers who had betted on Lok, taking solace only in the pretty sorceress who had provided them with a blood-boiling Bout. Mayhap, years later, they may even be recounting to their peers that they were there when a new Magister began her ascent to power. Conversely, a small number of participants in the room was jubilant with joy and exaltation, throwing crystal credits at Gwen's feet.
ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED? Gwen wanted to take a victorious stroll through the arena space, but she felt too breathless to speak, and adrenaline rushed to react.
Forcing herself to stand, she patted down her skirt, turned to face the crowd and curtsied, bowing to each side.
Another round of cheers resounded, followed by an encore of cascading crystals. Gwen had intended to show herself as the humble victor, but it appears there had been a miscommunication of sorts. Still, she wasn't about to turn down free money.
Then Dai joined her on the duelling floor.
He approached her directly and bowed deeply, placing a hand upon his heart in a show of sincerity.
"You have proven yourself beyond doubt, Miss Gwen," he announced to the crowd in a volume audible to all. "For sparing Magus Khun, who is my bodyguard and my dear friend, I want you to know that I owe you a favour. If there is service that Dai Fung of the Clan Fung can perform in the future, please do not hesitate to make a request."
Gwen wasn't sure what the etiquette for accepting a concession of defeat was and so offered her hand. Shockingly, Dai took it and kissed her ring.
The crowd grew wild with cheers and applause.
Just as Gwen tried to speak, Dai turned to the club and lifted Gwen's hand in a gesture that made it seem as though they were BOTH victors.
You sneaky little! Gwen could only marvel at the smoothness of Dai's recovery. Here was a man groomed from birth to play to a crowd. What thickness of skin the man must have!
"Please play along." A glowing Message spell bloomed beside her ear. It was Dai. "I will double the winnings I owe you, an apology, and as a gift to our future friendship.
"Fine," Gwen answered the young Master.
"Wonderful. I'll have the club bring it to you."
Dai bowed again, then quickly retreated, overseeing his bodyguard's medical care, roleplaying the benevolent Master full of concern for his underling's welfare.
Gwen left the stage to return to her cousins.
As she descended from the duelling floor, men and women reached out and touched her arm and felt her hair, causing Gwen to shiver with discomfort. Canto had endured the same treatment, though the man had seemed to enjoy it. She hadn't thought much of it then, but now it was happening to her. Gwen just hoped that some mug didn't get too enthusiastic with their tactile devotion.
"Oh. My. Mao!" Tao's friends were beside themselves.
"Masterful Mistress! Please take me as your disciple!"
Gwen declined playfully. She would rather not have a group of rapping disciples helping her produce an MTV video.
Little-Dog and Mack-Daddy returned with a fresh round of beverages.
"Thanks," Tao intoned seriously, wiping the foam from his lips. "For what you did to Frederick out there."
"It was nothing." Gwen pulled her cousin in close and hugged him. "Feel better now?"
His fellow B-Boys gulped their drinks enviously.
"I am impressed, Gwen. You did great." Mina's voice had an edge of relief to it. "I can't believe Dai folded. He's a tit-for-tat kind of guy, even if he's an arrogant idiot most of the time. Now, if anyone wants to mess with you, they'd first have to ask if they want to piss on the Commissioner's son, especially if you intend to call in that favour."
"True, AND I got some funds for my living expenses in Shanghai," Gwen laughed. "More shopping tomorrow?"
Mina couldn't help but notice that Gwen's eyes lit up like electrically charged HDM crystals whenever she tittered about money.
"What's the score?" Tao regressed to his inner-city vernacular. "How much ya win for smacking a bitch up?"
Gwen tried to do a quick calculation in her head.
As if on cue, Magus Yuu appeared beside them, flanked on either side by two girls with such audacious fashion that Tao's eyes protruded from their sockets.
"Caught you at the right time, it seems." Magus Yuu grinned affably. "Wonderful match! A marvel! Truly inspirational!"
"Thank you for the kind words." Gwen bowed her head politely.
"Your winnings." Magus Yuu handed over a card. "Please attune yourself."
To their surprise, Gwen didn't know what to do. After an awkward moment of confusion, Mina aided Gwen by informing her that she needed to pour her Astral mana from her Elemental Gates into the card.
"You channel your mana into the card, like so…" Yuu demonstrated a simple cantrip.
Gwen performed likewise, and the number 3534 showed up.
"3534 HDMs!" Tao bit back tears.
His friends, likewise, were beside themselves.
Gwen had never held so much money in her second life.
Tao and Mina had to pinch one another. In one night, over two duels, their cousin from Australia had made more money than an NoM would see in a lifetime. In two hours, Gwen had made more crystals than Mina and Tao's annual allowances put together.
Granted, she had risked her life and limb, but the speed and volume in which their cousin acquired currency were terrifying.
"This here is a little contribution from us, from the House of M," Magus Yuu added, passing over a golden card imbued with intricate scrollwork of dragons in flight.
"Woa—" Mina couldn't help but bite her lip.
"What is it?" Gwen received the card carefully, balancing it on her hand.
"Contribution Credits!" Mina hissed. "They're the currency of favour from the Towers!"
Gwen had heard the term before from Richard, but she had never seen these 'Contribution Credits' in the real world.
"More precious than Crystals, rarer than Creature Cores." Magus Yuu tapped the card gingerly. "There are ten credits contained within, enough for a few small but challenging requests."
Gwen had no idea what Yuu meant, at least for now, but she wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Two cards, one crystalline and the other golden disappeared into her Storage Ring.
"One more thing," Yuu persisted. "As a young woman with a great deal of liquid currency, we would like to extend an invitation to you, from the House of M, to attend an Auction of Rare and Magical goods in a week."
Mina's ears perked up.
"Gwen, you have to go! He's talking about the legendary Underground Auction hosted by the House of M!"
"I would love to attend." Gwen had no idea what this Auction portended either, but if Mina wanted to go, there must be some merit involved. "May I bring guests?"
"Of course, Miss Song. We shall look forward to you gracing us with your presence once again." Yuu dipped his head. "For now, please enjoy the evening, or should you feel so inclined, issue another challenge."
"I am tapped out, for now." Gwen was out of the tricks she was willing to reveal, meaning her night had come to an end.
Magus Yuu thanked her again before disappearing into the crowd.
Gwen returned to her companions. They sipped their drinks and discussed the duel, though the music remained far too loud for engaging conversation. Several groups of men and women now hung around their perimeter, trying to make their way past Tao and his friends to speak to Gwen.
Then a bright blossom of Divination magic bloomed next to Mina's ear.
"Shit!" Mina's almost spat out her Daiquiri.
"What's wrong?" Gwen's face was as flushed as pink pippins; unlike the juices she had earlier, her celebratory drinks were alcoholic.
"Shush!" Mina answered the call. "Yeye?" she spoke sweetly into the Message. "Yes? Yes, Gwen is with me. Where are we? Oh, you know, young people places."
Gwen watched as Mina suffered what looked to be a torrent of invisible abuse.
Yeye, Gwen tried to think. That means Grandfather— OOOOh shit!
Mina tore the bracelet from her wrist and handed it to Gwen as though she'd just ripped a writhing leech from her arm.
"It's for you."
Gwen took the bracelet with trembling hands, hoping she sounded sober.
"Grandfather?" she answered sweetly into the Message device.
The corresponding voice flushed every ounce of excitement from her blood.
"Come home. Now."
"At once!" Gwen passed the bracelet back to Mina, holding the device between two fingers as though it had just tried to bite her.
"Well?" Tao asked blithely.
"Well, nothing," Mina sulked, already imagining the scalding.
"What's happening?" Tao persisted.
"You're getting a beating," Mina informed him with absolute sincerity.
"WHAT!?" Tao checked his surroundings. Was Frederick Lin still around? But even if he were, Gwen would protect him, right? She could kick the guy's ass twice over.
"If Yeye demands whose idea it was, he dragged us out here," Mina assured Gwen of their plan B. "Peaches is such a trouble maker, always taking us girls out to seedy places."
"Naturally." Gwen studied the siblings with a grin. She missed Percy dearly. How nice it was to have siblings!
Mina's madcap vehicular mayhem ended when they finally reached the model citizen's village of the Plum Flower. It was almost midnight, and the gated compound took on the quietness of a rural village, punctuated only by the sound of trickling water and frog song.
The trio stalked the perimeter of the Song compound before entering the cross-shaped courtyard. Unfortunately, the silhouette of a stocky old man awaiting their arrival informed them that their hope of a subtle return had failed.
"In the Communal Hall," Guo announced stoically.
Gwen, Tao and Mina stepped over the wooden threshold and faced the open space of the hall. It was now a vacant space furnished with a red carpet runner, accentuated by two chairs and a wooden chaise, adjoined by a collection of antique-looking melee weapons embellishing the interior walls.
"Where were you?" Guo stopped once he reached the middle.
"We went to a bar and enjoyed some food," Mina told the half-truth.
"I don't know," Tao played the idiot.
"M on the Bund," Gwen replied. "We engaged in some underground fighting."
The other two turned to look at Gwen with painful expressions.
"Tao took us there," she added hurriedly. Was she supposed to pretend to be deaf and dumb? Was that the siblings' survival tactic? Did they have any idea who their grandfather was and how many spies he controlled?
Tao's grimace resembled a man wounded by an unexpected shiv in the kidney.
Mina and Tao extended their hands.
Puzzled, Gwen did likewise.
Guo materialised a length of vicious-looking bamboo.
Tao sucked in his breath, allowing the pain to diffuse throughout his body.
Mina clenched her jaws as a strip of flesh across her hands began to welt. She had to force herself to restrain the restorative power of her Positive Energy.
Having never in her life been slapped or punished by Morye, Gwen flinched and retracted her hands.
"HMMM—?" Guo's displeasure at her withdrawal was a deep-throated growl.
Gwen winced, swallowing nervously. For an adult, the juvenile, corporal punishment was shamefully challenging to endure. She extended her hands again.
Her palms were on fire.
It was only then that Guo launched into a rant.
"THAT'll teach you all for 'street fighting'! You could have been injured!" he barked. "Ingrates! Do you think it was easy raising you?! You all want to fight so much? I'll send you to the North! You can fight the Undead all day and all night!"
Gwen held her tongue in check.
Guo fumed, watching the three nurse their swelling hands.
Unexpectedly, he then turned to Gwen and began to speak more tenderly.
"You won against the Grandson of the Huashan Lins."
It was a statement.
That was quick, Gwen thought to herself. Between her victory and their desperate journey home, it took about thirty minutes for the news to travel to old Guo's ears. Did that mean he had sent someone to keep an eye on her? Was it through a Scry, or was it an old school tail and tackle? So much for privacy.
"I did," Gwen affirmed.
"Then you managed to defeat Lok Khun, the bodyguard of Dai Fung. A Mind Magus," Guo continued.
"I did," Gwen again confirmed the events of their enterprising evening.
Mina and Tao regarded Guo strangely. Why the cryptic routine of rhetorical questions and answers?
"Come with me," Guo commanded Gwen to follow. "You two, go home."
Tao's face split into an enormous grin, barely able to believe he would not ensure an hour-long lecture.
"Reflection essay on why you were defeated, a thousand words," Guo added before Tao could make it out the door.
Tao sobbed. His sister had already escaped, too smart to stick around and be an eyesore.
Gwen followed her grandfather into the room where they'd previously held the family meeting. Guo took a seat and motioned for her to stand to attention. She couldn't help but notice that she was standing a lot these days; China was not a country where different generations sat together.
"Give me a moment." Guo fiddled with something on the tea table.
The gadget was a prismatic crystal pyramid that gleamed as it caught the light. Intricate Glyph work in silvery scripts covered its base, from which concentric, symmetrical bands covered the slanted panes in set intervals.
A thrum of mana lit up the strange device's core, then a projection of light formed a vaguely humanoid shape in front of Gwen.
A Lumen-Projector! Gwen flinched when an image sprang into being a meter away. She had heard about these things since forever. Back on the Frontier, it was rumoured that every middle-class tier 1 household had one. It sent and received real-time "Illusions" or whatever passed for Television in this world by empowering it with crystals.
When finally the glowing figure came into sharp focus, and Gwen felt her mouth form a perfect 'O' of surprise.
"GUNTHER!" she exclaimed, rushing forward to embrace the illusion only to miss and make a spectacle of herself.
"Gwen, my Sister-in-Craft." Gunther's chiselled profile and noble mien filled her body with familial warmth. "I hope—"
"Is it CONNECTED?" another voice interjected, pushing Gunther from the projection. A flash of auburn hair followed by an uncommonly beautiful face appeared, illuminated by a pair of lapis eyes rich with emotion.
"Alesia!" Gwen squealed with delight. "Can you see me!? Can you hear me?"
Alesia rolled into view, seated in a wheelchair propelled by some unknown artifice.
"Gwennie!" Alesia squealed excitedly, decorum be damned, not at all careful that she was a thirty-year-old woman. "Oh my God! It feels that we haven't seen each other FOREVER."
"I KNOW!" Gwen articulated her excitement with every limb she possessed, giddy with barely contained excitement. "You can't know how happy I am feeling right now! I can't even think straight."
Besides the projection, Guo appeared shocked by their overt familiarity. His expression was of one who finally accepted Gwen's word, though the new information wasn't something the old spy liked.
Gwen had to stretch for a moment because she had indeed pulled a muscle when she tried to catch herself from again hugging the illusory projection. Though the crystal possessed a limited field of view, the illusions were very much life-like.
"Where's that old man!" Alesia suddenly demanded. "I'd like to give him another piece of my mind!"
The room grew deathly quiet.
"Hey! Oi! What are you doing! Alright, fine—!" Alesia's disappeared.
Gunther reappeared in the illusory projection.
"Gwen, are you alright?"
"I am fine, brother." Gwen bowed respectfully, tilting her head and arching her back.
"That's good." Gunther smiled warmly. "I heard you've been engaging in local street fighting. I hope that's not your idea of a good time or 'being alright', as it were."
"How did you know about that?!" Gwen asked incredulously.
Gunther smiled secretively. "On a more serious note, Gwen, how do you like Shanghai?"
Gwen glanced at her grandfather, whose face was as expressionless as always.
"It was scary at first, but I am getting the hang of it," Gwen informed her brother-in-craft. "How're things in Sydney?"
"Chaotic, messy, but we're managing," Gunther replied. "Your Opa sends his regards."
"Please tell him I am alright."
"I have already."
"How's my brother? And mother, for that matter? Have the refugee transfers started?"
"It has, though Percy is the reason for our inter-city communication," Gunther informed her, his tone taking on a severe timbre.
"Oh?" Gwen felt her premonition tingling, though not from her Divination.
"Indeed," Gunther intoned. "Magus Song, may I speak to Gwen alone and inform her of our agreement?"
Guo paused to look Gwen in the eye, then left without saying a word.
"I am going to inform you of recent developments first. Then we are going to discuss the details. Is that alright with you?"
"Please, go ahead," Gwen affirmed cordially.
"Your brother, Percy Song, is coming to the Song Estate to study with Magus Song."
"Okay." Gwen had expected that much.
"You do not seem surprised," Gunther observed.
"Not at all. I was wondering the when and how, but not the 'if'." Gwen pursed her lips. "How did mother react?"
"Livid at first, but then sufficiently satisfied by the exchange." Gunther shook his head as if recalling an unpleasant memory. "She caused a scene at the registration office, as you can imagine. That was where Magus Song's men caught up with them. I had my people there as well, knowing what happened to you. After a less than cordial encounter, Magus Song and I became acquainted."
Gwen could very well imagine Helena causing a public spectacle while beside her, two teams of Tower Mages, one from the PLA and the other from the Commonwealth, faced off. In between their death stares, the standoff would be punctuated by her mother's ceaseless wailing, not unlike a cat running its claws across the length of a chalkboard. After a few minutes of her incessant screeching, both teams would lose all faith in their ability to resolve the matter and call for support.
"I believe it best for Percy to be given to his Clan, to be trained in controlling his Quasi-Negative arts."
"I see, that's good."
"If you are alright with the arrangement, then it puts my mind at ease," Gunther responded with evident relief. "Next, you will be beginning University in Shanghai as soon as you are able."
Gwen responded by nodding.
"Is there nothing that would surprise you?" Gunther seemed displeased somehow by her nonplussed reaction. "Why don't you inform me of my next piece of news?"
"That, I do not know." Gwen grinned winsomely. "Do tell."
"I shall, but first, details regarding your university education," Gunther continued. "I have offered to sponsor you through the Shanghai - Pudong Tower, but I am afraid the Commonwealth has limited reach outside of its old colonies. After an extensive conversation with Magus Song, it seems that you will have to attend selection trials for the Gifted and Talented to apply to your two target institutions, Jiantong and Fudan."
"That's a reasonable condition."
"I would expect as much. Both Universities lie at the epicentre of magical theory-crafting in the region of South-East Asia."
"One problem," Gwen pointed out awkwardly. "I am a high school drop out. How can I apply for an elite university?"
"Not a problem." Gunther broke into a mirthful smirk. "I have asked Bartlett to finalise your graduation certificate, and it should be making its way to you with Percy. Congratulations, Gwen, you were valedictorian of your graduation year."
"I am?" Gwen could see that Gunther was entirely serious. "I so am."
"How do you feel?"
"Would you believe me if I told you I feel like I graduated decades ago?"
Gunther laughed heartily.
"The final article is that I am sending Richard Huang down to Shanghai with Percy."
"OH MY!" Gwen's eyes grew round with pleasure and happiness. "That's wonderful news!"
Gunther made the satisfied expression of finally having seen the face he was expecting since their conversation began.
"Indeed. I am afraid the both of you will have to figure out your tuition fees, but I can at least provide you with the certification for enrolment. In that regard, I must say Richard is better equipped. I am still puzzled as to why he had stayed in Sydney. He could have left with Prince's, or applied for a Section 8 Visa for the Gifted and Talented. I suspect it may be something to do with you, Gwen, or maybe his parents, or both."
"When should I expect them? Where do I pick them up?" Gwen intoned with giddy expectation.
"Magus Song has arranged transport and escort. I would assume very soon, given the ISTC stations."
"I'll ask Grandfather then, how's Yue and Elvia?"
"Still in transit, I am afraid, though their families have been informed. Your Opa had a big party planned for you all, you know, though I am afraid that may now be indefinitely delayed."
Gwen's face paled at the implication.
"I won't be returning to Sydney?"
"Not for a few years at least, not until you graduate," Gunther informed her a matter of factly. "This is to be expected, of course. You are about to become an invaluable asset. Until you resolve your allegiances, I am afraid you're temporarily under the jurisdiction of the People's Republic of China."
"But…" Gwen felt stunned by the unfortunate news. She had thought Gunther would have been able to arrange for her to travel to Sydney, perhaps for a week or just to visit once a year.
"Silly girl!" Gunther suddenly chuckled, laughing at her dismay. "You can ask Yue and Elvia to come to you as well!"
"Indeed, after all, only you can help them."
"Connections, resources, and Contribution Credits." Gunther spelt it out for Gwen one after another.
"Connections as in knowing the right people to stamp the right documents. Resources to grease the wheels of bureaucracy, and finally CCs to get the Tower to enact on your behalf."
"I have CCs right now!" Gwen blurted out. "I have ten!"
Gunther burst into laughter.
"I am afraid immigration for a single Frontier Mage begins at 1,000 Credits," Gunther pointed out cheerfully. "With 10 CCs, you can probably issue a gathering quest for some tier 3 ingredients for alchemy."
"Oh," Gwen felt her charmed bubble disintegrate.
"Chin up, Mädel." Gunther consoled her. "Three years of University will pass in the blink of an eye, assuming you pass all your examinations and Field Trials."
Thinking of her Evee, Gwen felt infused with a burning conviction. Three years? It was nothing! For Elvia, for Yue, she could fight the world! She exalted her speculative future. With her talents, she could surely gather the CCs needed to bring her friends over for a reunion. What were a mere three years when she had the surety of rubbing Elvia's cute little face and kissing her cheeks as her reward?
"One final thing," Gunther interrupted Gwen's internal revelry.
"There is another opportunity to execute the plan our Master had intended for you in the Inter-High."
Gwen listened intently.
"Should you be accepted into Jiantong or Fudan, there is an international University Competition held for second and third years, overseen by the Tower Masters of the Mageocracy, stationed in Brussels. Master knew them well and even presided over many a competition."
"Right," Gwen's voice grew husky when she thought of her Master, lying cold and dead under Sufina's Heart Tree.
"Good," Gunther explained. "As before, this is your chance to shine. If you should demonstrate that the Void Element can be harnessed for the good of the Tower, for Mankind, then you may become a celebrated member of our Order. Maybe even invited in time to come to possess your very own demesne. Such is the prestige of distinguishing oneself in that austere competition."
"Is it difficult?"
"It's one of the most competitive student contests in the world."
"I was voted MVP but lost the competition."
"Oh." Gwen pondered the immensity of the competition's field of challengers. Just how challenging was this competition if even the mighty Gunther Shultz had to face inevitable defeat.
"How about Alesia?"
"SHUT UP!" Alesia's voice returned. She'd been listening in on them.
"She GOT DISQUALIFIED!"
"— NOOOO DON'T TELL HER!"
Gwen was happy that the two of them seemed to be getting along. Did her fellow Apprentices 'get together' yet? How would Jonas feel about that? Gwen whispered a benediction for Poor Jonas' unrequited love, feeling her heart sigh sadly for the old Romantic and his doomed, solitary amour.
Gwen waited until Gunther and Alesia had settled themselves.
"I have something to say," she said solemnly. "It's about our Master."
Her sibling-in-craft's faces grew solemn as well.
"I found Master's body in the Grot, along with Sufina."
Her siblings listened with rapt attention.
"Master's remains have been kept in stasis by Sufina. She has asked that one day, the three of us go and visit her together."
"Master…" Alesia's voice choked up.
"We will." Gunther's voice became cold steel. "We will bring him the head of Elizabeth Sobel."
"On a silver platter!" Alesia's eyes glowed an ochre-orange.
"I concur," Gwen iterated their mutual commitment.
"Then it is decided," Gunther reiterated for all of them.
A moment of silence passed as each of them allowed the vindictive promise to be digested wholly, with the oath of cold vengeance fortifying their resolve.
"Gwen, can you ask Magus Song to return?" Gunther intoned softly, holding his trembling emotions in check. Alesia did not fare nearly so well and so left the vision-caster.
"Yes." Gwen left the room and found her Grandfather alone in the stone garden.
"You have finished speaking?" he asked softly. "Is the arrangement agreed upon?"
"It is," Gwen whispered in return. "Gunther would like to speak with you again."
Watching her grandfather go, Gwen stood by her lonesome self in the garden and shivered.
What a strange and alien phrase.
To take a life.
To deliberately seek out and destroy another human being and exalt in the fact of having done the deed.
"O fie. Hold, hold, my heart. Remember thee. Poor Ghost, while memory holds a seat. From the table of my memory, allow me to wipe away all my trivial fond records, and thy commandment alone shall live—"
The words from her old world were now fragmented and incomplete. She was beginning to forget it all, losing track of the life she once had. Now she was the Avenger incarnate, whose blade shall weep the blood of her enemies, whose sport is to make mincemeat of hated flesh.
How much of her would remain Gwen, and how much of the Gwen she knew was left to give?
Only the future would tell.