“A friend in deed is a friend indeed,” Gwen replied drily. “But when a deed without need-”
“Surely its nothing so serious!” Mayuree took a moment to process Gwen’s disquieting quip. “What’s a paltry Elemental Core for a gesture of good will? Ariel needed the core, surely, and I could afford to gift one.”
“Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, Mayuree.” Gwen winced at the sound of Ariel’s gluttonous crunching from below, feeling its paws scribbling over her dress. “I am understandably grateful for the gift, but its such a grand offer, given so casually. Surely a girl must wonder-”
"It's a trifle! It's nothing! I am not asking for the world. Just the things that girlfriends do. Some shopping here, some adventuring there, I've got the backing, and you've got the firepower. What's not to like? We'll be like the dynamic-"
“Mia!” it was Mina who spoke next, evidently having had enough of Gwen's diplomacy. “Cut the crap. Gwen's not going anywhere with you. What are you up to?"
“Making a friend,” Mayuree insisted, her complexion glowering a shade darker. "What does it look like?"
“How does it look? Do we look like fools?” Mina snapped at her alumina. “We’ve known each other since High School! What do you want from Gwen? What’s your game? Is this one of your Divination ploys?”
Mayuree seemed stunned by the ferocity of Mina’s accusation. In Senior High, Mina, a Healer, held a position at the unequivocal centre of the social hierarchy while Mayuree remained relegated to the role of the eccentric Diviner who mumbled things best forgotten. Having Mina curse her out was like experiencing a blast from the unpleasant past.
Behind the petite Diviner, they could feel the hostility from Kitty and the three guards growing more palpable with each accusation.
“So this is all an act of generosity?” Richard interjected with a wave of his hand, his voice neutral and unmoved, which made him seem all the more sarcastic. “No strings attached?”
Kitty opened her mouth to retort, but Mayuree stopped her with a glance.
“You owe me nothing.” Mayuree raised her hands defensively toward Gwen. Her expression remained unreadable, though the faces of her companions were far less proficient in hiding their displeasure. Kitty’s scowl felt as though she could freeze the air without uttering a single cantrip. For a second, Gwen could have sworn she saw a few snowflakes.
"She better not, it's only 7000 HDMs," Mina churlishly defended Gwen. "You're not wrong on one point at least. It IS a paltry sum."
Well, this is awkward. Gwen thought uncomfortably. 7000 HDMs is bloody astronomical to her. Likewise, her ardent rejection of Mayuree would have been more effective if Ariel wasn’t chowing down with all its might. What was the Diviner's game? Would it involve endangerment of her life or those close to her? If so, she would rather scrimp and save to pay back the core as soon as possible. If not, a debt now for a favour in the future was a fair trade. No one else but herself knew how desperately she needed Ariel to keep up with her Conjuration, especially considering Caliban's overzealous disposition.
Gwen wracked her brain for a way to break the tension. If possible, she preferred to resolve the confrontation with diplomacy and tact, walk away with a win-win, or at least a compromise.
Then the familiar, eager, high-pitched voice of Tao took the words right out of her mouth.
“This hoe is trying to entrap you. Dawg!” Tao flew fingers of accusations toward Mayuree's direction, spittle spraying every which way. “It’s just 7 Gees, Gwen. I’ll cover that shit like a bitch in heat! You can count on Peaches. This shawty ain’t turning no tricks on us yo! No way- Arrgh-!”
A sliver of ice materialised rapidly on Tao’s Adidas jacket, its stiletto like point stabbing into the base of his skull.
Kitty glowered behind Mayuree with a murderous expression, her cerulean irises two pale orbs of eldritch nimbus trailing strands of rime across her cheeks.
“You should watch what comes out of that shithole.” The air around the box fell by several degrees as she spoke. “Offend Mia again, and I am going to shatter your filthy tongue.”
“Lea!” Richard commanded.
Lea instantly dispersed into a fine mist.
A rush of crystalising ice materialised around Kitty, falling like snow into the velvet carpet below.
“That trick won’t work on me.” The Ice Mage warned Richard.
“We’ll have to find out.” Richard’s face was impassive. “Ice Mage or whatever else; you beg all the same, man or woman.”
Struth Almighty! Gwen felt the tension between the two groups descend upon her like two sides of a crushing vice. How did the hell did this escalate so quickly toward violence?
It was Peaches, Gwen groaned internally, answering the rhetorical question. It was always fucking Peaches.
“You’re going to regret threatening us,” Kitty hissed.
Richard shrugged, his smile more chilling than her eldritch ice.
“Gwen,” he spoke to Gwen with a tone that matched Kitty's antagonistic demeanour. “Repeat what I said in Fudan.”
“Er…” Gwen tried to recall the conversation. “T-The rest we’ll feed to Caliban? Wait! Richard! No! EVERYONE! HOLD YOUR HORSES.”
“F-fuck!” Tao whined. “Dis stone-cold whore still trying ta shank me, Gwen. If ya gonna unleash the big C-dawg, better do it n- Ow! Oww! Arrrgh! Tsssss!”
Impressively, the intensity of Kitty’s limitless loathing for Tao was enough to manifest her magic; there wasn't even a need for an incantation.
The room descended into silence once again.
There was an audible, deliberate cough.
Eight pairs of eyes turned to see Magus Yuu clearing his throat.
"One moment." The Magus waited until he had their full attention.
“Ms Song, Ms Mayuree. I cannot consent to a display of Magic in a place such as the Hyatt-Regency. For all of your mutually beneficial interests, should you choose to proceed- I will have no choice but to report this public disturbance to the Police.” Yuu’s voice of reason brought the group back to reality like a well-timed Dispel Magic. “Which, I would assume, would be an undesirable outcome for all, considering your circumstances.”
The Magus was right. His soothing radio presenter's voice cooled their heads. They were guests at the Hyatt-Regency. One of the most extensive and exorbitant hotels in Shanghai. The stakeholders capable of creating such an architectural wonder would undoubtedly be intimate with the highest authorities of the PLA and the Towers, and their displeasure would shake the sandy soil of the metropolis with every stomp!
“You’re right!” Gwen intervened before Tao could speak. “Magus Yuu is entirely and unequivocally correct. We need to calm down!”
She took a deep breath, then continued.
“I believe there’s been a horrible misunderstanding.” Gwen continued. “Mia wants to be my friend - I am not adverse to having friends. AS SUCH - Mia and I would like a moment of privacy.”
Her eyes turned to Mayuree.
“Mia, can we talk? Just you and I, in private?”
“Of course, Gwen.” Mayuree too, breathed out as though a huge weight had shed from her shoulders. “Please give us some privacy, everyone.”
“Mia…” Kitty protested.
“Mistress…” The guards were likewise unwilling.
“I insist.” Mayuree raised her voice an octave.
“Let’s go.” Richard gestured to both Tao and Mina. They made for the door.
“Richard.” Gwen turned to him with a measured voice. “Take Lea as well, please. I’ll be fine.”
The Undine materialised and exited the room with the trio.
Mayuree's companions likewise left the box, albeit with unambiguous scepticism and paranoia. In Kitty's eyes, they were the ones who were right to be worried. Their Mistress was a harmless Diviner - Gwen Song was in possession of a devouring monster.
Magus Yuu was the last to leave.
“I shall ensure that your companions remain duly segregated,” the Magus assured them. “Please take your time. They will be in one piece when you find them again.”
The suave Magus retreated, closing the double doors silently behind him as he passed the threshold of the private box.
Gwen and Mayuree sat opposite one another as the clamour of the crowd below grew less boisterous with every departing guest.
“I am listening,” Gwen stated unabashedly. “You want to be friends? Fine. Friends should be honest, to a degree at least, so let's have it.”
Mayuree’s eyes glowed with the faint and subtle signs of Divination at play, dimming and glimmering with an ebb and flow that betrayed her conflicted thoughts.
Gwen watched her fingers tense and relax, alternatingly gripping, brushing, and tapping the saddle-leather of her seat.
Finally, it appeared that Mayuree reached a decision.
When the fresh-faced Diviner looked up again, she was no longer that childish, vacant sweetheart who’d being accosting Gwen since the practical exams. She was, Gwen could only presume, herself; one who's chosen to dispense, at least for the moment, her masquerade.
Mayuree gathered her thoughts before she spoke.
“I was there when you were at M on the Bund," Mayuree began, her voice retained its sweet soprano vibrancy, but now afforded a candidness that had been absent prior. “I knew it then that we had to become friends.”
“Because I need you,” Mayuree replied stoically, then realised how unconvincing she sounded; she leaned forward and repeated herself. "I need you so that I can live."
Gwen felt a hint of colour rise to her cheeks.
“Be serious.” She brushed away Mayuree’s vague fingers.
“No, I am serious,” Mayuree continued unabated. "Let me clarify. My Augury told me that I need you to avert a potentially deadly episode of my life, sometime in the future."
The explosive knowledge did not seem to faze Gwen as much as Mayuree hoped. But there was nothing she could do now; she had to foray onward for better or worse.
“The night I saw you, I felt electrified by a reaction from my Divination Sigil. I felt filled from the crown to toe by an intuitive knowledge. I knew then that I need you in my life, one way or another.”
“That’s…” Gwen wanted to say that's absurd, but then again, she reminded herself; her Familiar, a Lovecraftian battle-toad, had just swallowed a lion-goat-snake. Who was she to challenge the possible and impossible? There was also the autobiographical fact that she was herself tapped into Divination, albeit her sensitivity barely registered anything beyond imminent mortal danger.
“Preposterous? Of course, that's what it seems to someone ungifted in Divination. It’s a talent that is both vague and ambiguous. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. I only know that I can't be wrong.”
“No, I mean that’s believable,” Gwen replied.
“It’s stupid, I know…" Mayuree rambled on. "Wait, you believe me?”
Gwen channelled a stream of mana into her Divination Sigil and incanted a basic Detect Magic. Before her eyes, the world plunged into multicolour streams. She saw a fount of Divination well from Mayuree, strikingly illuminating an Astral Form surrounded by a purple-blue nimbus.
“Your element…” Gwen’s surprised expression mirrored Mayuree’s own. “You’re attuned to the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lightning?”
“Forget that!” Mayree’s eyes bulged from her already sizeable sockets, giving her the likeness of a doll. Her lips were agog. “You’re a Diviner?!”
“Among other talents,” Gwen replied carefully. In opposition to Mayuree, she felt more thrilled that she’d found another Lightning Mage. Maybe she could learn a thing or two, or they could discuss the subtler points of manifestation. If the girl had just begun their first encounter by stating the obvious, they would have been fast-friends without further ado.
The proviso, of course, was that Mayuree genuinely wanted to be her friend and wasn’t just looking for a shield to tank the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
“As for Divination- I dabble,” Gwen confessed with a feeling of mild shame. “Suffice it to say; I can empathise with your psychic intuition. My sensitivity barely registers through, I am afraid.”
“A tingling sense of peril is the expectant reaction, it's level 1 on Meister Warner's Divining Scale,” Mayuree concurred, still trying to fathom why her desired companion was now also a Diviner. It would have made the process so much easier had she known. “My abilities are a little more nuanced than that; I can register up to tier 4.”
“I never studied Divination." Gwen felt a hint of pink flush her face. "Never got the chance. I know how to Detect Magic, that's it."
Not that she would have invested in future-proofing herself anyway. There were far more critical spells in the Diviner's repertoire, everything from Detection to See Invisibility, to the all-time Illusion killer - True Seeing.
"Oh?" Mayuree seemed taken aback. "Sorry."
"Nevermind me, so do you have prophetic visions? Like the Delphi Oracle?” Gwen knew of no other Diviners. The Oracle was a household name, a visionary whose powers were said to have aided the Tower in minimising damage to humanity's cities.
“The Oracle is in a class of her own,” Mayuree answered modestly. “Like most Diviners, I can only sense the future as it pertains to myself. My intuition works through a prediction of whether someone will be boon or bane. A branch-manifestation of Augury, if you will.”
Gwen became reminded of Mina's first warning to her when she'd first mentioned Mayuree.
“Let me hazard a guess…” She studied the complex emotions of the Diviner’s soulful, amber eyes. “You read your fortune, huh?”
“I couldn’t help it,” Mayuree lamented. “Not after the near seizure I had when I saw you at the Bund. I can’t quite describe the sensation, because it's all abstract, but I knew that you were important. In my future, you feature very prominently as a boon, a very large, very necessary boon.”
“I should think I am a bane,” Gwen confessed. “What with Caliban and all the baggage I am carrying. I want to be entirely honest with you, Mia. I can’t prioritise your needs; I want you to understand that. There is too much I have to do.”
“That’s for powers higher than you and I to decide,” Mayuree did not appear disappointed by Gwen's honesty. “I don't know what you have to do either. Maybe you could incidentally find an object in a Dungeon that could save my life one day. Perhaps a beast that could have spelt my end dies by your hand. Mayhap even, we would be on the opposite ends of a Factional conflict, and you could think of this moment and choose to spare me. The future is a fickle thing, Gwen, as fellow Diviner, you would know as well as I the dangers of presuming the currents of fate.”
“Then why?” Gwen gestured with open palms. “Why go to all the effort if nothing is certain?”
“My Arcane Soul tells me so,” Mayuree’s expression was bittersweet and helpless. “Would you believe that?”
She paused for breath.
"Not to mention, I DO want to be your friend. You seem smart and beautiful, and you're surrounded by people who defend you because they are your friends, not because of your status or your influence. You may not understand how rare that is, Gwen, but I do."
"I trust her. She's a rare friend."
“The gift then? Just a ploy to get on my good side?”
“Can you consider it a down payment for pre-emptively saving my life? It doesn't have to do with our friendship at all.”
Silence again descended between the two girls as Gwen weighed the risks and rewards in her mind, measuring Mayuree's confession for authenticity.
Did she want to make a friend out of the Diviner? Could Mayuree offer her the 'mateship' Yue and Elvia did? Gwen knew the answer to that. But did she want to make an enemy out of the Diviner? No. The House of M, whatever its affiliation with Mayuree may be, was sure to be helpful in the future. If they could take advantage of Gwen in some manner she could not begin to comprehend, should she not also take advantage of the opposition party?
“I’ll take what you've told me with a grain of salt.” Gwen tested the waters. “So what now? We go our separate ways?”
“If that’s what you want.” Mayuree’s dejected words lingered in the air. “Must that be the case though?”
“Would you trust me, if our roles reversed?”
Mayuree considered Gwen’s antithetical counter, then sunk defeatedly into her chair.
That was the answer Gwen sought.
By now, Ariel had finished eating the core, lapping up the last of its remnant residue from her pencil skirt. With a cute twisting motion, it turned its belly toward her and paddled its pink-beaned paws until it coiled into a serpentine ‘C’. Then with a yawn that showed off its cutely protruding canines, it abruptly fell asleep.
Gwen dispelled her Summon Familiar, watching Ariel dematerialise. She made an empathic apology to Caliban, who had egged her for the opportunity to be let loose the entire time Ariel was out and about. Caliban was understandably upset - earlier, its prey had been stolen from its jaws, while Ariel just had a feast fallen into its lap.
Look! We’ll go somewhere where there are no people, and you can eat whatever you like! We’ll spend a whole day in the Wildlands! Soon! Gwen promised her increasingly sagacious creature. Repeating herself several times until Caliban attained comprehension. Satiated by the promise of a day of gluttony, the netherworld worm settled into its Pocket Dimension.
Gwen stood from her chair.
Below, she could see Mayuree's defeated eyes watching her warily.
“Hi, I am Gwen Song,” Gwen announced suddenly. "I am new here."
Mayuree’s face transformed from concern to comprehension, then to cognisance.
“I-I am Mayuree,” she replied with a voice that grew in confidence. “I am a Diviner. I am a scion of the House of M, third-in-line to succession.”
“That’s marvellous.” Gwen extended a hand. “I am principally a Conjurer, an Evoker, but I also dabble in Transmutation, Divination and Abjuration. I am a Void and Lightning Mage.”
“That’s a mouthful!” Mayuree took Gwen’s hand. “I mean, wow. Mao’s Red Stars. Really?”
“And I am a freelancer,” Gwen added with some deliberation. “Though you could say I owe the House of Song a great debt. So that's who I am with, at least for now.”
“W-would you like to join the House of M?” Mayuree blurted reflexively.
“Not on our first meeting, no.” Gwen shook the girl’s hand. “We should meet up for a luncheon sometimes, some tea and coffee. I am sure we’ll be seeing one another plenty in Fudan.”
“Of course!” Mayuree’s face once again assumed that youthful jubilance that gave her such an atmosphere of adorability. “I’ll pay! Whatever you want!”
“We’ll take turns,” Gwen said seriously. "It's called shouting your mates."
“Right! YES!” Mayuree eyes grew a little moist. Her pent up anxiety drained from her like water from a clogged dam.
“Great! Let us find our companions then. I hope they haven’t taken the hotel apart,” Gwen suggested jovially and turned to the door.
“Ha!” Mayuree followed.
As Gwen reached the handle of the double doors, her newly minted friend pulled her back by the elbows.
“Wait!” Mayuree took her by the arm with an urgency Gwen hadn’t felt before. “Did you feel that?”
Then she felt it.
A tingling premonition struck the back of her mind like a pail of frigid water. Danger. Not dire. But a threat nonetheless.
Both of the girls turned warily toward the door.
Unbidden, it opened.
A cloud of smoke came billowing inwards, smothering the surrounding air. Ambient light from the corridor outlined a slimly build male dressed in formal attire.
A gust of acrid tobacco accosted Gwen, sending her reeling backwards with a reflexive gag. Mayuree seemed more accustomed to the fermented smog, enduring it as though it were the beginning of a ritual.
As the haze dispersed, Gwen took account of the silhouette who now obstructed their exit.
The man was an Evoker, that much was obvious. She could sense the familiar mana condensed within his body, far surpassing her own. The Mage had a face that was androgynous in its quality, with cruel eyes that were almond shaped like Mayuree’s but lined with thick, dark eye-lines that gave him a pretentious, gothic air. His complexion was a hale tan possessed by those of South East Asian descent, his hair a dark auburn styled heavily to resemble backwards-sweeping blades. Upon closer inspection, his formal wear was a smoking jacket, casual but expensive, with a loud, blue-clover patterned dress shirt embossed with gold buttons imprinted with little 'M's. In the man’s left hand, he held a cigarette that glowered as he inhaled and exhaled, stirring the smothering vapours.
Where was Richard? Or Mina? Or Kitty? Gwen wondered, trying to spy a peep around the corridor. All she saw was more white-suited guards lining the entrance. Her Message device was in her Storage Ring, Gwen realised, she should have worn it when Richard left.
She turned her eyes toward Mayuree, who seemed frozen to the spot as though she'd suddenly transformed into a little girl who'd been caught red-handed at the cookie jar, or a froglet before a king cobra.
Well shit, Gwen wondered if this was the moment of crisis. Is Death coming for Mayuree already? She’d just befriended the socially awkward girl for less than thirty seconds ago, and the Grim Reaper comes calling in the form of Asian Tim Minchin toking on a fat cig?
“Is this the girl?” the man demanded of Mayuree.
His eyes fell upon Gwen with the palpability of a wet sheet plastered over her skin.
"You're the Lightning girl from the other night; the one who whipped Dai, no?" the man continued. "I must say, for a Guang-er-dai, Fung has good taste."
Who the hell was this asshole? Gwen furrowed her brows unpleasantly. Why was he here in the first place? More importantly, Gwen thought worriedly. Where were their companions?
“Hi Brother,” Mayuree said quietly beside Gwen.
“That’s Big Brother Marong to you,” the man retorted with a tone of joviality.
Ah, Gwen instantly recognised the situation in which they'd just found themselves. She was no stranger to an old-fashioned family rivalry.
"Where are our companions?" Gwen demanded.
“They're somewhere.” Mayuree's brother possessed a falsetto voice that was at once pleasing and sensuous.
"They're safe. Kitty and Richard are in the lobby." Mayuree had a mote of Divination glowing by her ear, signifying a silent Message spell in operation. "Brother Marong, Gwen and I have somewhere to be. Can you please move aside?"
Marong pulled his arms back to his sides and opened a space ample enough for one of them to pass.
Mayuree glanced at Gwen, nodded at her confidently, and moved toward Marong.
Gwen took a step forward and grabbed Mayuree by the arm, pulling her backward toward her chest.
Marong watched them with a look Gwen frequently saw on her cats.
Ah-ha, there it is. Gwen sighed inwardly. She knew it. If she were a walking, talking, sister bullying prick, she would have done precisely that. The guy was probably going to separate the two of them, and then play a cat-n-mouse game with Mayuree to see if his sister was willing to abandon Gwen. That way, he could split the two of them up, and force them into an antagonistic position.
“He’s fucking with you.” Gwen’s stepped in front of Mayuree, feeling her protective instincts kick into gear. “Hey asshole, what’s your problem?”
Marong seemed astonished by his new title.
“Did you just call me...” Marong’s mirthful smile faded from his lips. “No, never mind. I am more interested in what Mia wants from you. My servant tells me that she'd been chasing you like a dog-in-heat all afternoon.”
Mayuree’s expression hardened. Her mind was a jumble of questions. How had her brother found out? What did this mean for herself and Gwen? They had just made up! Why did Marong make an appearance now of all times?
Meanwhile, Marong seemed to enjoy the spectacle immensely.
“I mean you no harm." The Mage considered the pair intently. “I am just curious as to why my little sister is so interested in you. Surely a friendly chat is not beyond consideration.”
“I am not interested in men who bully children,” Gwen snapped at the offending Mage. If someone like this bullied Elvia, she would have sicced Caliban onto his ass; damn the consequences. Mayuree was no Elvia, but this Marong's lording over his sister seemed to flip all the switches in her body.
To her surprise, Marong laughed, while Mayuree's face became flushed with embarrassment.
“I am older than you…” Mayuree whispered stiffly behind her.
“Good for you,” Gwen blustered, but she had no time to be impressed. She turned back to Marong. “You letting us pass or not?”
“Is a few minutes of your time too expensive?” Marong remained firmly entrenched at the door. "A man has a right to be curious."
“You can’t afford my time,” Gwen riposted reflexively.
Marong blinked. Was a challenge? A proprosition? Was it an insult? A joke? A shot at his masculinity or just a slip of the tongue?
Gwen felt herself cringe the moment her words left her mouth.
It was just as well that she had enough of talking.
As the shockwave of sound resonated across the box and into the corridor, Gwen pulled Mayuree backwards, and the two of them fell from the balcony.
Gwen had endured enough of these situations to know its final port of call. If she agreed, there would be unpleasantness; refuse, and there would be unpleasantness. More talking was meaningless. She would choose neither of the well-worn paths in these wolf-filled woods.
It was just a Flashbang. These asshats should be right as rain once the tinnitus faded.
“Gweeeeeeneaaarrrgh!!” Mayuree screamed as she fell, her Divination failing to forsee Gwen's unconventional mode of departure.
By expending an exponential amount of mana, Gwen could transport a passenger with her through the ethereal space of Lightning with her lesser teleportation spell.
The two girls disappeared mid-flight as they fell - and reappeared on the unguarded floor of the theatre’s lobby entrance some twenty meters from where they had teleported with a burst of pyrotechnical lightning.
“I am going to be sick...” Mayuree suppressed a gag, thoroughly disorientated by the thrumming tinnitus in her ears coupled with the vertigo of being sent through the material plane via an elemental jaunt.
Gwen quickly dragged the confused Diviner with her through to the lobby and toward the Atrium. Once they were in the public domain, they would be safe from harassment. There was no possible way Mayuree's brother would dare cause a scene in the grand lobby of the Hyatt-Regency.
Richard, Mina, and Kitty, together with Tao and the three stooges, were waiting for them.
“Young Mistress! Ms Song!” Magus Yuu was there as well, looking decisively apologetic. “I am sorry, it was all I could do to prevent Master Marong from goading your friends to imperil themselves."
“Don’t worry about it.” Gwen waved him off. “Anyone behind us?”
Richard scanned the entrance to the theatre complex.
“We're clear,” he observed. "I tried to Message you. Another minute and I was going to send Lea."
“I’ll make Marong choke on his stupid Chungha!” Kitty growled vehemently beside Mayuree. Her usually cool and icy exterior was hot with agitation. “I knew it was a mistake to leave you alone!”
“I am fine, its okay.” Mayuree stared at Gwen with eyes full of admiration. “I had Gwen with me. I can’t believe we got away, just like that!”
“Erm…” Gwen fixed her dishevelled hair. “How do you usually deal with that asshat?”
“Through inhuman feats of endurance,” Mayuree quipped miserably. Then her face took on an epiphanic expression. “I usually sense him coming long before he's close. I can avoid him nine times out of ten.”
“Why not this time?” Gwen scanned their surroundings as well.
“I don't rightly know.” Mayuree curled her perfectly pink lips. "Divination is not an exact Spellcraft. At any rate, thank you for the prompt delivery from the presence of my pompous brother."
“I hope that wasn't the life-saving moment you had predicted,” Gwen joked.
“No, but please consider the debt of the crystal paid.” Mayuree took the opportunity to salvage a prior misstep. "You don't know how happy it makes me that we eluded that encounter, especially with your help."
“That’s still too much,” Gwen protested. "That was a costly bid!"
“Please,” Mayuree pleaded. Gwen could see the desire for redemption plastered all over her face. "I'll be perfectly honest with you; I had the crystal retrieved from our private collection. I am not spending 7000 HDMs, more like 4000."
“Alright, alright,” Gwen comforted the girl, more impressed that Mayuree found 4000 HDMs to be a paltry sum. Gwen knew she was taking advantage of the girl's desperate circumstance, but she wasn't, in her own words, one to look a gift horse in the mouth. "I'll accept it."
“If you're quite done, Gwen; let's get out of here first.” Mina eyed the theatre anxiously. “What if-“
“Let’s get on a move on then!” Gwen announced to the gathered group. “We should find somewhere to eat and re-introduce ourselves. Mia and I are renewing our friendship! We're getting to know one another from square one! Come on guys, my shout!”
Kitty, Mina, and Mayuree looked at one another puzzlingly. Did Gwen not just polish off a plate of canapes stacked four high a few hours ago? Also, what the hell is a 'Shout?'
* * *
One of the white-suited guards dispelled his Shield. Had it not been for a command to hold their positions, they would have retrieved the girls within a few breaths.
The smell of ozone hung heavily in the air, together with an electrifying feeling of static that set their hair to stand on end.
“Sir," the guard intoned politely. "Shall we invite the young ladies…more persuasively?”
“No,” Marong replied in a haze of smoke, his voice possessing more amusement than anger. "Have some tact, Ang; this is why you're still single."
Ang smiled awkwardly.
The smouldering fumes surrounding Marong parted as though stirred by a soft, unseen breeze. When the Flashbang had hit, a portion of it had congealed as if moved by a supernatural will, shielding him from the brunt of the blinding flash, as well as muffling the thunderclap.
“What an interesting girl.” Marong toked on his thin-white cigarette, allowing two jet streams of smoke to join the perpetual haze which lingered in the air. A few sparks fell as he tapped the hand-rolled tobacco with his fore-finger, sending a few amber embers to take to the air.
“Hyun, find out who she is.”
“Of course, Master Marong,” a second guard acknowledged Marong's command.
“Do it discretely, man. We don't want to frighten the poor girl.”
With the practised ease of a seasoned smoker, Marong allowed a mote of flame to touch his cigarette. A flare of brilliant fire burned for a brief moment, snuffing the stub expertly. The remaining length disappeared into a Storage Ring adorned with an elaborate geometry of precious gems.
Marong was glad he came to oversee the monotonous auction. How else was he going to catch his sister giving a 10,000 HDM core to some stranger? The one she'd gifted wasn't even the one on display. That had been the female heart. Her sister had gifted the male variant.
Who was this 'Gwen'? And why was his sister so zealously attached?
Whoever she might be, Marong chuckled. He was confident the girl would prove far more entertaining than just a pretty face.