Gwen took a break from biometrics and practice, choosing instead to spend her third semester weekend with her babulya. It had been almost six weeks since Gwen had seen or spoken to her brother, burdening her with a growing sense of guilt. She had lost him once in her old life - she couldn't miss him a second time.
As for Percy's own neglect, Gwen chose forgiveness. The boy was just a teenager seeking affirmation from Guo, a figure of authority and power. Unlike Percy, Gwen wasn't an adolescent; she didn't have the excuse of immaturity and inexperience. Percy's negligence was a product of circumstance and upbringing. Her abandonment of her baby brother would be a choice.
"Don't fret, your grandfather isn't home,” her babulya assured Gwen as she stepped from the sedan. Gwen had been quiet the whole while because her Divination senses had been grating her, agitating her with an anxiety that was like an inner itch she couldn't quite scratch.
Gwen scanned the courtyard.
“Percy's inside,” her grandmother comforted her. “Go see him, he should be training right about now. Leave your familiar and pick up the package later.”
Gwen nodded and made her way through the familiar layout of the Song estate. There was no doubt that news of her faux-excommunication had spread, for the servants avoided her as she passed through the long corridor of the siheyuan.
When she arrived at the training hall, there were sounds of exertion audibly emanating from within.
“Come in!” Her brother’s voice reverberated.
The sliding door pulled back to reveal Percy, son of Hai, heir apparent to the Clan of Song, Guan-er-dai in residence.
“Sis!” Percy appeared startled to see his sister sauntering back into her old abode.
The boy - or more accurately the young man - Gwen adjusted her mental demarcation, was half-naked and bathed in sweat. The boy had inherited their maternal grandfather’s southern complexion, giving his skin a bronze expression. It was evident that Guo had been training and feeding Percy well. Her brother looked as though he’d picked up at least 10 kilograms in muscle mass, concentrated across his chest and arms, which had acquired definition. His face as well, which had always appeared juvenile to Gwen, was starting to take on their father’s famous jawline.
“Who’s this handsome young man? Where did my baby brother go?” Gwen broke the ice with a genuine compliment.
Percy grinned, then greeted her formally. His voice was deeper as well, more resonate and powerful. There was confidence now that the boy had lacked in Sydney.
Percy became conscious of his undress as Gwen began to engrave his biometric progress with her eyes. With a nonchalant gesture, the boy materialised a towel from thin air, wrapping its length around his shoulders.
A Medium Storage Ring, Gwen noted. How quickly they grow up.
“How’s training going?” Gwen stepped into the renovated training hall. The gym barely resembled the spartan space she had called home for three weeks. All manners of equipment had been introduced to the once empty room. Body-building machines, target platforms, stress-bars with adjustable tension. One would have thought Percy was training for the Mageocracies' Commonwealth Games.
“I’ve got a lot to catch up on,” Percy explained, watching his sister's eyes. “I am repeating a year in Xiao Ming, did you know that? There are three years of Middle School in China. I am supposed to be in second-year, but Grandfather made me start from the beginning.”
“Are you much older than your peers?” Gwen asked, wondering if her brother would be bullied.
“I am not the oldest, no,” Percy answered with a smirk. “Did you know the school is Co-ed? Thank God, I thought I was going to be stuck for another three years in an all-male campus.”
That last comment was delivered in such a familiar intonation that Gwen immediately thought of their father.
“Percy, if you spend your time chasing skirts…”
“No! No way!” Percy’s complexion took on a reddening shade. “As if I have the time!”
“Let Dad be your anti-role model,” Gwen warned her brother with a crooked smile. “So, how’s the magic coming along?”
“I'm officially an Evoker! They told me I am suited to Transmutation as well, but for now, I am going to focus on Evocation. Grandfather says Evocation-Transmutation is an excellent combination for Quasi-Elemental Salt. It's the same as Uncle Jun!”
“Wow! That’s wonderful!” Gwen wanted to give her brother a congratulatory hug, but the young man was still steaming odiously. “Can I see? Are you able to use Salt safely now?”
“Yes,” Percy boasted happily. "It's thanks to..."
His gleeful mien froze mid-expression.
Gwen followed Percy's guilty gaze until her eyes rested on his chest.
There, a length of red string ended with a pale coloured pendant in milk-white jade.
The Kirin Amulet!
Suddenly, Gwen felt the ground beneath her give way.
Her face paled as an impromptu anxiety attack ignited her Divination Sigil.
Was something amiss with the amulet?
Her pupils focused upon the Kirin Stone.
Why was it opaque-white? Gwen couldn't help but feel that something was terribly amiss. She hadn’t even noticed it when she came in precisely because she was anticipating a spot of jade-green on her brother's chest. Now the Kirin core had taken the colour of lamb’s fat, with barely visible pink-veins of marbling running throughout its semi-opaque centre.
“C-congratulations.” Gwen fought past the sudden assault, her tongue felt as heavy as a slab of stone.
Jesus, she must look incredibly guilty to Percy; freaking out after seeing him using the core. It wasn't as though she could explain the subtler points of passive Divination to her brother; it would sound like an excuse less believable than the truth itself.
“Master, I mean Grandfather, taught me how to use it…” Percy intoned carefully, his body tensing at his sister's evident queerness. “The negative energy feeds into the Amulet and becomes displaced by the essence held within.”
“It… does that?” Gwen restored herself by sheer force of will. “You can tap into its store of essences now?”
Percy unconsciously took a step back, just out of Gwen's reach. His sister had a hungry look about her, especially the way she glared at the amulet with bloodshot eyes. Despite the stillness of the air outside, the interior of the training hall was beginning to take on a nipping coolness.
“Yes. I can use the Kirin core.”
It was a statement, Gwen noticed. A show of determination.
“It was painful at first, but I powered through it. I can use it now, would you like a demonstration?”
“Here, let me show you.” Percy moved away from her.
There was a churning of Evocation mana; a sudden drying of the air. The accumulated sweat on Percy's brow instantly evaporated.
A sliver of silvery Salt, formed into a razor-sharp crystal, appeared in the air, then shrieked toward the target-platform. It struck the transmuted surface with a thud, then shattered into thousands of ice-like fragments.
The residual salt scattered about the platform suddenly collated, then erupted once again, sending out a shockwave ringed with jagged salt-shards.
After covering the intended area of effect, the Salt faded into the aether. The target board, torn and blasted, began to restore itself.
“What do you think?” Percy turned to his sister, expecting her to be thoroughly impressed.
But Gwen’s attention was focused on his chest, where the marbled vein of red embedded into the milk-white jade throbbed as though alive. He couldn't help but notice that her chest rose and fell with the same cadence as his own, in sync with the ebb and flow of mana within the Kirin core.
“Wonderful,” Gwen announced distractedly. She even clapped a few times. “You’re progressing so fast!”
“Thanks, Sis.” Percy smirked. He would take what he's given. It wasn’t often that his sister offered praise. “Say, I gotta take a shower and finish up here, do you want to stay for lunch or…?”
“I’ve got errands,” Gwen declined Percy’s offer, her mood miles from her usual hospitality.
It was the damned amulet.
It was all she could think about, driving her to distraction. Was it jealousy? Was she envious of the fact that he was using it? She knew it was silly to feel possessive over something she had willingly given up. All she could do was grin and bear it until the constriction in her chest went away.
“Babulya is still waiting,” Gwen added unconvincingly, too preoccupied to even continue her act.
“Alright, Sis.” Percy paralleled his sister's aloofness.
“Take care of yourself, Percy. I’ll come to visit now and then.”
“See you later, Percy.”
Gwen left the room and walked stiffly from the training hall toward the central courtyard. In between her subsiding Divination-driven anxiety and her self-loathing, she was reminded of another explanation for the amulet's altered state.
Was it possible that a little bit of Almudj was still in the amulet? Was all of it spent, or could there still exist a tiny sliver of the mythical beast within the Kirin stone?
Gwen paused by the tranquil water feature to gather her thoughts. She was out of the east wing now, away from the shadows of the white walls and into the light of the central garden.
She closed her eyes for a few seconds, feeling the warmth of the sun on her hair and shoulders. The damned Divination was at peace now, acting as though it had known nothing. Within a minute of her meditation, she cleared her mind of its distasteful palate of paranoia. At any rate, her Divination Sigil was only tier 1, not to mention her stolen talent was mundane and untrained. What good could possibly come from responding to such a vague and unreliable thing? She thought of Mayuree and the advice the superior Diviner had given her.
"Don't look into self-premonitions, not if you want to have a life. Let it be. Be ready. If you're wrong, you've wasted your time. If you're right, you've wasted your time."
From her old world, Hamlet had expressed a likewise sentiment:
We defy augury: there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, it's not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it will not be, yet it will come...
In English, it meant, 'Fuck it, whatever, I am ready for it.'
But she wasn't Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.
She was fortune's fool.
* * *
Percy stumbled into his shower shaking with nausea. He didn't even bother removing his pants as he stepped into the frigid stream of running water.
The coldness calmed him somewhat, drowning the fever in his brain.
There was... something in the Amulet.
He had first thought it a part of the ritual. After all, Guo had stated that their predecessors killed thousands, if not tens of thousands, of magical creatures, including Demi-humans, in their Clan's history.
The secretive technique that grandfather had taught him, bypassing even grandmother, allowed Percy to redirect the 'yin' energies of the Salt element into the amulet to be purified. That way, the amulet both protected his body from corrosion and provided him with additional mana, passive empowerment, and enhanced constitution.
That was the idea, at any rate. Percy only ever half-trusted the mumbling mysticism Guo fed into him. The man was a master indoctrinator, but Percy had already experienced years of that sort of thing at Prince's. Any and all spell and ability inevitably tied into the greatness of the House of Song and its four-five centuries of history. No matter, he played along; it made Guo happy, and that was what mattered.
As his training began in earnest, the amulet changed. As he channelled more of himself into it, its jade-green exterior fell away, becoming something that resembled a fleshy stone, not unlike a windowed-haworthia.
Grandfather had become amazed and told him that this showed he was well-attuned and well-suited to the yin-stone. He even patted Percy's head tenderly as his eyes grew moist with sentimentality.
Percy chose not to tell Guo the whole truth. He dared not.
How could he tell his grandfather that he feared the thing that lurked within the family heirloom? That he felt stricken with thalassophobia, the fear of dark things in the deep waters of the open sea, whenever he perused its fortifying powers?
Something... prowled within the Kirin Stone, but Percy knew not what.
Now he knew it had something to do with his sister.
The moment she walked into the room, he felt consumed by an indescribable agitation, overwhelmed by a shapeless, vague longing.
Thankfully, unlike his sister, Percy was far better at controlling his emotions. He knew she felt the same agitation when her exquisite face turned white, then pink.
When she left, the feeling subsided entirely.
Percy allowed the shower to run.
The frigid water was heavenly.
* * *
Gwen took luncheon with Klavdiya not far from the Song Estate, at a little eatery her grandmother recommended. For a place of questionable decor and hygiene, the food was surprisingly tasty, specialising in Xiaoxiang stir-fries.
Distractedly, Gwen listened as Babulya explained that Percy was doing well in his new school. That he made new friends with other kids from the notable Houses, even becoming popular enough to be elected to the SRC.
“Grandfather is alright with the whole fertility thing?” Gwen enquired. Wasn't the old man obsessed about an heir?
Her babulya explained things were well in hand.
“We’re keeping a very close eye on Percy, not to mention his affinity has a long way to go. The Kirin-stone will negate the negative effects as well, becoming more efficient at filtering the negative drain with time,” her babulya explained.
Gwen couldn't help but recall the first time her father had handed her the Kirin Amulet; she had asked him if it was unique in any way.
“It brings fertility and fortune.”
Bloody hell, Gwen sighed at her own naivety and her father's irresponsible indifference. How the hell was she to know Morye was dead serious.
“I see.” Gwen accepted her grandmother’s answer. Why didn't any of them fret about HER potential infertility. Was it because she possessed the druidic essence? Or that Gwen could forsake the Void and choose her Lightning instead? Come to think of it, was she even expected to have children? That idea had consumed Helena since Gwen had acquired her uncommon comeliness. Children... Gwen sipped her tea absent-mindedly. Even across two lifetimes, the idea of bearing a child seemed entirely abstract. Gwen had no desire for children in her old life. As for her new life, she certainly felt no renewed impetus.
She tried to concentrate on replying to her babulya's kind questions about her lessons and her tests with Magister Wen, but the thought of children turned her mind once again to the Kirin Amulet. What was that undecipherable Divination warning supposed to mean? Her head felt swollen with a feverish uncertainty. Her brother's simple attunement to the Kirin core and Almudj's essence why did her anxiety fade bloody hell the blatant favouritism and the inbuilt sexism the heirloom and her void magic Caliban the future her womb children fertility children of her own the future the lessons live with others feeling sorry for babulya if she was stronger maybe she could have made a difference her grandfather and her father whats with the white stone but what would why did they-
Gwen felt the pandemonium of her thoughts stir with a start. She turned from the tenebrous spiral of her waking daydream to see her uncle pass through the entrance of the eatery, hailing her and babulya with one hand raised.
“Captain Song!” the owner, a balding old man, saluted Jun as he passed.
“Good to see you, Corporal Chen. How're the kids?”
“Ah-Wong is doing well, the usual?”
“Please,” Jun dismissed the owner politely before arriving at Gwen and babulya’s table.
Gwen stood to greet her uncle, but Jun motioned her to sit.
“Ma’am.” Jun pulled up a chair. “Gwen.”
"Hi, Uncle Jun."
“Just made it?” babulya asked cryptically.
“I had a few minutes to spare,” Jun laughed. “But yes, I made it in time.”
Gwen’s eyes darted between her two elders.
Each time Gwen regarded her stubbled uncle with his circular beard, she wondered how it was possible that two siblings raised under similar circumstances could be so different. They looked almost like twins, with the same envious jawline, the butt-chin, the lifted cheekbones from her babulya, and dark eyes from their grandfather. Yet for all their genetic similarity, one was the most frivolous, allergic to responsibility human being she had ever known, while the other was the most responsible person in her immediate orbit.
She felt struck by a sudden fancy.
Would life have been different if Jun was her father? The hypothesis was absurd, of course. She could not possibly imagine Jun being attracted to Helena. On the other hand, being raised by a father who affirmed and cared would have worked wonders for both of her lost childhoods. Yue once joked that she had ‘Daddy issues’, Elvia found it funny as well, but Gwen's laughter never touched her eyes; she knew her herself too well. In old Sydney, she had consulted a therapist, and they had worked out her problems: She was generally physically distant, often emotionally absent. She seldom felt secure in a relationship. She had a swaggering, independent, can-do attitude that covered up her anxieties. She truanted regularly, sought cheap thrills and endangered herself needlessly. She had poor academic performance throughout her teenage years. She was more often than not drawn to older, much older men. All of which was bottled up and kept in check by her workaholic ethos.
So what now? Gwen had asked her psychologist.
"Let's start you off on Celexa and Buspar, and we'll go from there? Okay?"
Freud knows what else was simmering underneath her submerged psyche.
The whole thought of fathers, mothers, men and wombs was making Gwen feel nauseated. Maybe she should find a supply of Seasonale to keep a lid on things, as so to speak, should the levee break.
“Gwen, you in there still?”
Gwen's glazed pupils refocused. Jun’s worrisome face materialised close to her own.
“Sorry, Uncle Jun,” she apologised for her disrespect. Ever since the episode with Percy, she’d felt as though her mind was mired in muck. It was as though some deeper part of her psyche was diverting all her rationality awry.
Jun exchanged a glance with babulya, who must have passed over a Silent Message of some kind, for when Jun faced her again, he reached out and covered her hand with his own.
"Gwen, are you alright? You can tell me anything."
It was a simple gesture, subconscious, but it was something her father had never done for her. With Morye, there was always a distance, a pane, a degree of separation, to Gwen, their father-daughter moments always seemed so rare and unanticipated.
“I-I am alright.” Gwen could think of no other reply. It wasn’t as though she could complain that she felt peevish and upset that Morye hadn’t taught her how to use the Kirin-Stone, or that she desired the amulet returned to her because she was waxing sentimental for a Mythic serpent capable of reducing Shanghai to rubble. Should she tell her Uncle that her Divination Sigil was driving her to madness? Her Uncle Jun meant well, but not even he could possibly begin to-
Then Jun pinched her nose.
It was such a puerile move that Gwen felt stunned by the innocuous invasion of her private space.
“You don’t have to be an adult all the time, Gwen. You’re a child. Act like one.” Jun held her gaze intact as he spoke. “We’re family, right? No matter what father thinks. You’re my niece, for Mao’s sake. To me, there's only one of you in the world. I want to protect you as much as your Babulya and my brother.”
Gwen’s hazel eyes met her uncle’s immovable gaze.
“I don’t care what Guo says - or what your father thinks - or what Percy wants to do with the House, you're a part of MY family. I like you, Gwen. I've liked you since the day I found you in the MSS Holding facility. I want you to know that I am very proud and happy for what you have done for Mina, Tao, and Petra. My mother thinks the world of you, and I do too. Can you believe that?”
Could she believe him?
She wasn't the trusting sort. Only time would tell.
“I believe you,” Gwen’s voice assumed her usual, confident cadence. Her uncle's kindness was like a dose of positivity that she sorely needed after that amulet-induced anxiety attack. “Thank you, Uncle Jun. I am alright now.”
Klavdiya exhaled a with a relieved expression of ‘good job’ for her youngest.
"Sorry, babulya, I was distracted earlier," Gwen apologised to her grandmother as well. She must have made babulya feel awful.
"That's okay dear," her babulya returned kindly.
Jun squeezed his niece’s delicate hands, feeling the smallness of her thin fingers caress his calloused palm. But before Jun could enclose his hand, Gwen retracted her palm from his sandpaper grasp.
Jun felt a pang of disappointment.
The poor girl.
Behind the counter, Chef Chen added twice the usual amount of beef into Jun’s favourite chow-fun, his eyes moistened by the splendiferous scene of Confucian piety.
Gwen touched a hand to her face, feeling a phantom pain pinching her nose.
“Sorry.” Jun laughed. “Did I bruise it?”
“I’ll be fine, I’ve got my druidic essence, after all.” Gwen wrinkled her celestial appendage cutely. That was the thing about Jun; he was so nice, and she couldn’t tell if the man was two-steps ahead of her, or if her uncle’s benevolence was instinctual. Surely, someone with the moniker of the ‘Ash Bringer’ did not acquire such a chilling nickname by being Mr Rogers!
Jun’s food arrived.
“Hmm.” her uncle raised a critical brow. “It’s saltier than usual.”
* * *
Gwen returned late to the apartment.
Alesia’s care package remained unmolested by Customs thanks to Jun’s influence. Gwen had stowed the box away in her ring and had forgotten all about it after the emotional exchange with her uncle in the early afternoon. After assuring her of his support, he then listened to her worries and anxieties for an hour, going as far as to promise her that he would assist her Evocation when she reached Tier 4. She did not, however, inform him of Percy.
"How about we go on a little trip," he had teased her. "A little adventure to train, just you and I. I know a place where you can work on boosting your elemental affinity."
Gleefully, Gwen had told him she would like nothing else.
Smiling to herself, Gwen tore at the cellophane tape.
“Gwen, what in God’s name are you doing?” Petra watched with curiosity as Gwen tried to search for the seam.
“Open the box?”
She knew that spell.
The arcane energies of the Knock spell ran along the edges and unsealed the cellophane ducting within the span of half-a-second.
Gwen took out the contents.
There was an assortment of goods within, each in individual packaging. Some were cellophane wrapped, others were in boxes of plastic or cardboard, there was even a ball of foil. On top of the items was a letter.
Gwen opened the envelope. Inside was a Message from Alesia, Yue and Gunther. The card itself had a picture of a drunk Koala saying 'no worries, I am just old enough to get pissed.'
“Have a happy Sweet-Seventeen!
The very best from all of us who are rooting for you.
Your siblings and friends.”
The loftiest package was the first to be unwrapped, revealing an impressive pair of thigh-high, double-stitch, calf-skin boots, its brass heels inscribed with elaborate Transmutation glyphs.
“Use these until you learn how to cast the real deal-” read the attached note.
Petra ran a cubed Identify over the magical boots.
“How delightful, a pair of vintage Boots of Flight!” she cooed delightfully. “It's an older model. These feed off your mana rather than Crystals.”
“Perfect for me then,” Gwen thought of the savings she could engender.
“Until you OOM mid-flight,” Petra warned her, immediately pointing out why the old models were retired.
“I'll be careful,” Gwen chuckled. “There’s inbuilt Feather Fall, right?”
“As long as you're not OOM over a lava pit, an icy lake, or a sulphur mine…”
“Haha, who the hell would OOM while flying over those!” Gwen chided her cousin humorously.
“...” Petra had a pained expression on her face.
Gwen unfolded the next package.
It was a poncho made from what first appeared to be cashmere.
“Ah, civilian class Optic-Camo.” Petra was proving a font of Magical Item knowledge. “Slip it overhead, lets’ see the build quality.”
Gwen slipped the poncho across her shoulders. The fabric loosely hung over her chest and back until it reached her thighs.
“Activation glyph should be on the right side, inside tag.”
Gwen examined the glyph key.
The poncho shifted in colour until her torso blended into the living room so that it looked as though Gwen was split in half, becoming a disembodied pair of legs and a floating head. It came with a hoodie that covered her head.
“Full body Optic-Camo are military-issue only,” Petra informed her roommate before Gwen could complain about the strangeness of having ‘half’ a chameleon-cloak. “The civilian model will keep you safe from prying predators and beasts from the sky, as well as giving you relative cover if you remain stationary.”
The final few packages were foodstuff from home.
Rolls of Auroch jerky, so tough that they defied digestion.
A few boxes of the locally made NoM chocolate biscuits known as Tim-Tams.
A satchel of golden kiwi-fruit, currently in season.
Two kilograms of dried Mangos from Cessnock; a gift from her friends down at the ranch.
Collating her loot, she apportioned them for sharing with Petra and Richard, as well as their upstairs neighbours. As for the Magical Items, she stored them within her Ring.
A pair of Boots of Flight and a Camo-cloak. Gwen could guess from the strategic selection that Gunther and Alesia expected her to do more than just study within the sheltered confines of Fudan.
She had several options where that was concerned.
One - Gwen could take up a weekend occupation working with the local Adventuring Consortium, though it was an unlikely endeavour. Gwen doubted Magister Wen or her babulya were about to let her trapeze into the bush with a group of strangers.
Two - The University Dungeoneering Club - a better option, and one her overseers are more likely to agree to. The danger is tailored from novice to expert, and higher level Dungeons are overseen by Magus, or even Magister escorts.
Three - Make a party of her own - team Cousins, for example - and take up Questing on the weekends. This was the most viable option, but also the least likely; each of her members had their own occupations and circumstances. Petra could maybe squeeze out a few days, but could Mina and Tao open up the same weekend? Could Gwen’s tightly packed schedule match up with Richard’s and the others? Could they profit enough to make it mutually worthwhile?
She had more immediate fish to fry.
It was the end of Week 3, and in 21 days, she would have two mid-semester practicals and the excursion to the NoM hive city, the ominously named District 108 and 35. On the Metropolitan Map, 35 appeared to be located on the outer ring of the Second Orbital Highway and the Fourth-Intracity bypass, while 108 was almost fifty kilometres toward the direction of Hangzhou.
It was a change in her routine she highly anticipated, but it also meant she had only three weeks to leash Caliban to her will, make her Conjure Elemental battle-ready, and learn at least another Evocation spell or two to use with Ariel.
As for her Familiars...
Gwen looked up to see Caliban attempting to swallow a mango whole, egged on by Ariel, who was itself munching on a kiwifruit. Realising that Gwen was watching, Caliban spat the mango back out, smothering the orange-red fruit in grey goo.
She sighed despairingly.
Three weeks to sort out this lot.