“In all the history of Fudan, you are the first," Petra reprimanded her cousin.
Gwen made a face, sipping miserably from her iced matcha-latte.
Sitting on the table was Ariel in its docile form. Gwen figured she may as well continue Instructor Chen’s ongoing training in which the students keep their Familiars manifested at all times. Below their table, the eight-foot body of Caliban in its obsidian serpent form coiled around the girl's legs, wrapping a length of its body against Gwen’s ankle as it basked in the summer's sun.
An additional boon was that having Caliban and Ariel around deterred strangers from approaching the pair. Though Caliban was aesthetically pleasing in its passivity, the faceless worm-snake nonetheless filled viewers with disquiet.
Beyond the immediate distance, the patrons ogled at their pleasure. Gwen paid them no heed. She was with Petra, and the girls were used to the fact. Her sundress was modest and comfortable, and Petra's preference for form-fitting activewear was profoundly discriminating. A writer once wrote that a woman's beauty did not belong to her alone, though Gwen's personal wisdom was to dress in good taste, for that choice was hers alone.
The two girls were waiting on Mina and Tao, who’d wanted to meet up for a luncheon. The cafe they’d chosen was a new place renovated by the owner to resemble an extensive garden shed. Perennials, fed on a diet of quasi-magically enchanted water, bloomed heedless of the season, expending their vitality for a few precious months until finally, spent, they were replaced by blossoms of a different season.
“The Language of Flowers,” the shop was called, located not far from University Boulevard in a rezoned district gentrified by sorcerers moving in from the suburbs. One observance Gwen made as they sat was that the population was predominantly of the magical variety: young and old, acolytes and neophytes, joined by the occasional Magus. It was a deceptive climate. If one never left the CBD of Shanghai, one would have thought the city primarily occupied by Mages. The reality, as Gwen had learnt, was that outside of the CBD, even in a city of 100,000 like D-35, there would exist no more than a hundred Mages, and one Magus at best within each district.
“First of what?” Gwen thought back to the two military men who’d parted less than amiably from each other, turning her attention back toward her cousin.
“The first Magus that has the spell list of an acolyte, haha!” Petra chuckled, sipping her iced coffee.
A NoM waitress with bright eyes and a waspish waist brought out shortcakes and petite-fours. Petra dropped a few LDMs, telling the worshipful girl to keep the change.
Gwen watched the girl retreat happily into the shopfront.
"Ahhh..." she leaned back in the elevated garden-chair and stretched. "What do you suggest I should learn?"
"Figure out what you're missing." Petra shrugged. "Maybe go Adventuring or Dungeoneering for a bit and get a feel for what spells you want to pick up."
"I have no time~" Gwen tapped her fingers against the beading waters on the tall glass of her matcha-latte. "I need to complete my classes first."
Magister Wen’s latest proposal knocked against her chest like a drum.
“Death-penalty prisoners, Demi-humans... lots of potentials there…”
Gwen had been so stunned Petra had to drag her from the room.
She couldn't help but be reminded that Nephres had said precisely that. That they began by giving Elizabeth prisoners. Was it true then? Did her Master authorise such a thing? Then again, Gwen ran some rational interference before her imagination could run wild. Her Master and Elizabeth were in the middle of the Coral Sea War. They were fighting to ensure the entire east coast colonies of Terra Australis survived. After that, it was one war zone after another for almost a decade.
Try as she might to calm her nerves, Magister Wen's 'good intention' buzzed in her ear like the tinnitus susurration of a mosquito.
The very act of logically measuring the pros and cons frightened her, setting her mind to reel with breathless horror. What was the bane in becoming a professional executioner whose labours strengthened her affinity to all schools of Magic?
Only her sanity. That was all.
Sensing itself in her thoughts, Caliban shifted from its resting position. Gwen felt the cold caress of her Void-creature's obsidian body against the warmth of her skin.
Could she send Caliban against her future enemies, knowing the horror of being consumed by the Void? If she chose to subsequently 'consume' all her enemies, what portion of her intent would lie in self-defence, what division would be given to ambition, and what share would be driven by the strange hunger that would surely awaken once her current store of vitality was spent?
How steep was the slippery slope ahead? At what junction does the incline become impossible to steer or navigate? At what degree did the slant become free fall? Would she combust before she struck the ground?
She was hungry for skills and affinity.
But then her hunger would be insatiable.
What would become of her then?
What makes a man, if all he cared for was sleep and feed? A beast! No more!
A dark Audi sedan disrupted Gwen's internal philosophising. The door opened, the engine plinked, then two familiar faces emerged.
Tao 'Peaches' Wang had a way of sauntering where the gait of his 'gangster' strut made him appear mildly intoxicated at all times, wavering back and forth like he was ducking an invisible boxer.
“Yo! Mah bi-b… er… eu… tiful ladies!” Tao was instantly the ire of every patron in the cafe. "Gwen, you looking sweet-ass!"
“Eeeee!” Ariel greeted the newcomers.
"Wassap! Mah smooth Cat-snake brother!" Tao fist-bumped Ariel's paws, bringing a broad smile to Gwen's lips. Lacking Elvia's divine presence, it took someone like Tao to divest herself from ethical dilemmas that plagued her Path every inch of the way.
“Shaaa! Shaa!” Caliban hissed its greeting from under the table.
"Sup? Big Dick Caliban!"
One of the patrons began a coughing fit. Another spilt her tea.
"Peaches! Stop it!" Gwen was already beside herself.
"Petra! Yo yo..." Tao turned his attention toward Petra.
Petra's husky blue eyes were two orbs of pale crystal.
"Good afternoon, Peaches. How are you?"
"I am doing well," Tao replied solemnly, his fingers subconsciously forming a gang-sign.
“Pats! Gwen!” Mina bypassed Tao’s stooping figure and embraced her cousins. Both Gwen and Petra were a head taller than her, making the gesture more self-conscious than she anticipated.
When Tao received a peck from Gwen, someone audibly gasped. As per his unique style, Tao's choice of all-weather Adidas, paired with a broad-billed baseball cap, cared little for Shanghai's latest trends.
“I heard from babulya that you had a tough time at the Districts,” Mina began, her oval eyes glimmering with sympathy. “I am here if you want to talk about it.”
"Aww, thanks, Mina. I appreciate that."
“Me too, dawg.” Tao nodded affirmatively. “If you want my advice, you should write a song about it and mix it up with sick beats! That way, you can expel yo demons, dawg. BOOM! Then you feel all released, like Yo just took a huge shit, growing a tail - ya know?”
“Thanks, Peaches, I’ll take your advice into careful consideration,” Gwen thanked her cousin kindly, stifling the roaring hilarity escaping her chest.
Horrified, Petra couldn’t dispel the vision of this ‘tail’ that Tao had driven into the recess of her mind.
“Don't think about it,” Mina advised, catching Petra's pained expression. “Instead, think about spell incantations. I find that reciting my healing mantras helps immensely. I don’t know how he comes up with this stuff. Maybe he’s a genius?”
“Lyrical Gee! Bi-b-booya!,” Tao stopped himself. “Dis bad boy's moonlighting at the Shan tonight! Gwen, Pats, treat yo-self and check out the boys and me down at the Club making sweet noise!”
“He means he and his friends are performing at the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai - basement B2,” Mina translated. She paused, looked as though she wanted to add something, but refrained from doing so. "I'd say it's the usual shit-show, but the Waldorf Astoria is a very nice hotel. We can stop by before or after and have drinks. They're famous for their cocktails."
“Mimi, you gotta stop stepping on mah tail, bitch. Don't be putting the B-boyz and me down in front 'o Kuz! That’z not cool.”
“Nobody calls me that, Peaches.” Mina rolled her eyes expertly, evidently having had plenty of practice. “Besides, you’re upsetting Petra. Stop talking.”
Petra had just dispelled the imagery of the proverbial tail, and now she was introduced to a yet more disturbing premise.
“Here’s yo tickets, Gwen.” Tao produced two golden slips, one for Gwen and the other for Petra. “VIP, backstage access, front row, whatever you need!”
“Wow, you really are putting on a show.” Gwen took the tickets and passed one over to Petra, who took it dubiously. “There’s going to be an audience other than… us… right?”
“AHAHAHAHA, you funny Gwen!” Tao laughed nervously, providing a hasty addendum. “We got a fan club, bitches galore!”
Both Petra and Gwen turned to Mina, who took on a troubled expression.
Bitches, huh? Gwen considered the claim. She supposed that the heir of Wang Xin Enterprise would naturally possess a fan club - the Gold Digger's Club.
“He’s not lying,” Mina confessed. “Don’t look at me, I don’t know how it’s possible either.”
Gwen regarded the ticket in her hand.
‘Battle of Rhymes’ the tagline said. ‘The Waldorf Astoria Shanghai, basement 2…’
She wanted - no - she needed to blow off some stress: alcoholic refreshments, music and good friends in a high-class hotel sounded like just the 'ticket'.
“I’ll go,” Gwen announced her participation with as much fatalism as Lulan confessing to her misdeeds at D-109. Her mind was so strung up and tightly wound that if she didn’t unleash some of that tension, she was sure to explode at a less unfortunate time and place.
A hip-hop party? Sure, she’d been clubbing in the old world more often than she could count.
“Petra, do you have the time to chaperone me? I could go by myself if you're busy.”
Tao looked over at Mina with the look of a drowning man begging for rescue.
“I’ll pick you guys up and take you home if you’re coming,” she offered. "Peaches will pay all incurred costs, including unlimited drinks."
Petra chewed her lip for a moment, looking as though she was about to reject the offer until Gwen touched her arm gently.
“Alright,” she acquiesced. “Nothing untoward better happen, Tao. Magister Wen will be very upset if something happens to Gwen. If one of your fans decides to get handsy, it's your funeral.”
“Of course! Aww yeah!” Tao visibly pumped a fist in victory.
Tao and Mina's drinks arrived: a spritzer for the sister and a beer for the Illusionist rapper. The trio made small talk about one another, with Gwen stating that she'd save her adventure at D-109 for when they could speak in a less public space with less commotion and more intimacy.
"Great idea," Mina assured Gwen. "The Astoria once had the longest bar in the world! It's a relic from the old colonial days. You're going to love the cocktails."
Gwen pointed her finger at herself.
"I am not eighteen yet..."
Saying that about herself made Gwen a little happier for the fact.
"We know the management, don't worry."
Tao joined in and started on something about Gwen being 'barely legal'. Mina dismissed her brother before their cousins could change their mind.
“Okay! You the boss! Hoss!” Tao happily sauntered off to pay the bill. “See you guys at the show!”
Mina made sure that Tao was out of sight before she apologised.
“He’s getting better, believe it or not,” she told them. “He’s much more confident after Hengsha Island. Thanks, Gwen.”
“I can’t help but feel deeply suspicious,” Gwen observed Mina's halting speech and guilty expression. “What’s at this show? Why does he want me and Petra to attend so desperately?”
“Let's talk at the shops.” Mina slid off the barstool. “The choice to attend is yours. Tao's too simple-minded to hold grudges, thank Mao. He’ll be sore for a while, but whatever your choice, it won’t leave a scar.”
“Coming, Pats?” Gwen asked Petra hopefully.
Petra considered her Master’s earlier advice. She wasn't about to let Gwen into the lion's den alone. If nothing else, she was going to bring a full complement of her Spell-Cubes.
“Sure, let’s relax for the rest of the day.” She stepped from the stool. "I think I am going to need a drink or two before the night's over."
* * *
The reason, as Mina explained over a selection of party dresses at K-11, was that Tao had made a careless bet.
“Again?” Gwen spluttered.
“What is it this time?” Petra scowled.
“Please don’t get upset.” Mina braced the girls for impact. “So, what happened was that Peaches... boasted to his circle of friends that he played a pivotal role at Hengsha, saving the two of you.”
“That seems reasonable,” Gwen affirmed that Tao did make a good contribution to their hunting down of the Elder Gila. “I can accept that.”
“…” Mina waited until Gwen finished. “Naturally, he told them that the two of you are his… close acquaintances.”
“We’re family, I am cool with that too.” Gwen held up a mini-dress and pressed it against her chest. The colour was beautiful, but the cut did not conform to her waist.
“Not his exact words, I take it,” Petra added coldly, feeling the fabric of a sheer blouse between her fingers before letting it fall.
“No, not exactly.”
“What did he call us? His whores?” Petra was relentless, cutting through the evasive euphemism with the keen edge of a crystalline shard.
Mina was visibly sweating.
“No!” Gwen looked aghast, think of the ubiquitously annoying hip-hop clichés from her old world. “Really? We’re related!”
“I don’t think he means it like that…” Mina interjected before Gwen's opinion of Tao soured entirely. “More like, you know, helpers.”
“We’re his 'shorties?” Gwen jeered.
“We’re his ‘bitches’,” Petra’s frigid tone could rival Kitty’s arcane ice.
“I’ll concede to that,” Mina muttered. “Look, he means well…”
“How exactly?” Gwen demanded as the trio left the shop and entered another.
“You know Peaches,” Mina tried her best. “Or not. I guess you guys don’t. BUT you know he doesn’t mean half the things he says. They just kind of come out of his mouth, like an illness. Like his 'ill' rhymes.”
“Tourette's Syndrome,” Gwen suggested helpfully.
“I don’t know what that is, but sure,” Mina said.
“It’s a neurological disorder where people fail to suppress unwanted premonitory urges,” Gwen said. “Though saying the word ‘bitch’ every other sentence is hardly a part of the spectrum.”
“Is this disease recorded in a book?” Petra's attention perked up.
“I heard it from someone in Australia once,” Gwen lied. “There was a guy called Gilles de la Tourette, who had severe muscular and verbal tics that he couldn’t help. He’s dead now. His tic got him while chanting a spell and he blew up.”
“Oh.” Petra seemed disappointed.
“I get what you’re saying. I suppose its just Peaches being Peaches. So then what happened?” Gwen continued.
“Some of his 'friends' doubted that this whole ordeal about Hengsha is real,” Mina spoke with exasperation. “To be honest, I still can't believe we came first. Anyway, Peaches got riled up, a fight ensued, he got his ass handed to him - and now they have a bet.”
“Who's this bet with? What's it about?”
“Well - if Peaches can prove you’re his… er… helpers,” Mina replied. “Then he gets a favour from Sammy Gu, and Sammy’s limited edition Roadster.”
“If he loses?”
“He has to give up the Battle of Rhymes by singing about himself being a filthy liar, and Sammy gets to keep Tao’s car.”
“Tao has a car?” Petra raised a sceptical eyebrow. She didn't know Tao could drive.
Mina pointed a finger toward her chest helplessly.
“I have a car. It’s ‘our’ car,” she moped.
Gwen inspected the arch of a pair of ivory-white platform pumps, inspecting its make and design.
“Look, I’ll help out,” she declared sweetly. “To save your car, if nothing else. Petra, what do you say? We just have to show up, right? He's not expecting us to... do anything else, I hope. ”
"I'll break both his legs," Petra stated matter-of-factly. "Uncle Wang would probably thank us."
“There, there.” Gwen patted Mina, drawing her into her arms. “You poor little thing.”
“I am older than you.” Mina reddened, pushing Gwen away.
“I am bigger than you.” Gwen grinned, towering over Mina in more ways than one. Mina was a year Tao’s junior and the second oldest of Team Cousins. It was her ageless appearance which was misleading. Where Petra could easily be mistaken for a stunning model in her mid-twenties, Mina could be mistaken for a junior high-schooler.
“Hmmph!” Mina turned her head, pouting.
This made Gwen snort fitfully.
“Well, let’s pick something out then,” Gwen announced to the girls. “Party frock or something more subtle?”
Petra checked the price tag, then furrowed her brows.
I wonder what would happen if Petra attended in her yoga pants, Gwen mused to herself. Perhaps this could be the beginning of a new religion.
“Pick whatever you want,” Mina steeled her resolve before making the offer kindly, a mischievous smile touching her lips. “Tao’s paying.”
* * *
The girls arrived back at Fudan B-1 just after 4 PM, where they could change into their newly acquired outfits for the evening to come. Petra and Gwen watched Mina longingly gaze at her Audi as they extracted the contents of their shopping, amused by the sudden sentimentality Mina felt for her sedan.
Didn’t Joni sing that 'you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?' Gwen waxed nostalgia. Though Mina shouldn't have to part with her Audi if things went according to plan.
It was a stupid bet. Not even Gwen could deny that. One that could only occur between adults whose who I.Q was disproportionately lower than their financial thresholds. There was such a word for it in Shanghai - the Fu-er-dai, or the progeny of the mega-wealthy. It was just as well that Tao's vice was his passion for music and not something more nefarious.
As for the Wangs, Gwen had since gotten a decent idea of where the family fortune came from. When an opportunity presented itself, she had accosted Patriarch Wang regarding the source of his success, hoping that it could serve as a reference point.
Excavation & Exploration!
The Patriarch was a self-made man!
As a mediocre Evoker, the Patriarch Wang was a man who made his fortunes through quick wit and opportune investments. At twenty-three, the Evoker quit the PLA military tract and joined the CCP’s administrative bureau to polish up his 'guanxi'. At thirty, he had established himself with the necessary connections and favours to leave the administration branch and open his own resource extraction company, Wang Xing Enterprise. A thirty-six, he owned three companies. The first, WX Capital, extracted crystals from contracted Green and Orange Zones. The second, WX Construction, was a state-owned co-op company that built infrastructural projects for the state. The final venture, WX E&E, was a co-operative partnered with the Towers, serving the explicit purpose of opening up new zones for resource harvesting.
The success of Bao Wang, therefore, wasn’t the originality of his ideas nor the expertise of his magical talents. It was his supreme ability to balance the interests of those he had to contend with. Within the twin Towers of Shanghai, he was known as ‘Fortune God Wang,’ the man whose generosity knew no bounds. Within the CCP, ‘Bao of the Bund,’ was an endearment known at the highest echelons.
He was a man without power in the arcane sense, but whose influence could shake all of Shanghai. Gwen was sorely impressed! Though Mina dismissed her father’s exploits, Gwen understood that Bao had succeeded in the envious task of creating a triumvirate, conjoining the stakeholders of Shanghai through profiteering. To touch Wang Xing, meant that the Tower would receive reduced dividends! To undermine Wang Xing, would imply a delay in CCP infrastructural projects!
Of course, enjoying such favours meant that one must never carelessly expend them, and Wang Bao was a very frugal man indeed. There was a careful balance here to be maintained between services rendered and debts owed, a precarious path no less dangerous than Gwen’s ingress onto the way of violent reckoning.
How was it that such a man married Nen? Mina's air-headed mother? Gwen was beyond curious.
According to Mina, Bao had met Nen Song, Gwen’s aunty, at a charity gala. The unwary Nen helped Bao with a spilt drink, kept him company, then bid him goodbye, all without remembering who he was. Even when Bao arranged for repeatedly fortuitous meetings, she blithely recognised him as the poor man with the ruined shirt.
“You don't care who I am or what I do?” He had asked her incredulously on their third date.
“Why does it matter?” Nen replied with complete earnestness. “You’re Bao.”
Bao Wang was sold.
“I can’t believe he doesn’t have a mistress,” Mina remarked once, to which Gwen responded by choking on her char-siu bun. “In Shanghai, among the rich, they say three’s company; two is none. All my friend's fathers, and sometimes their mothers, have a 'side dish'.”
The one regret that the Patriarch Wang possessed, therefore, was that their only son, the heir to one the more prominent fortunes in Shanghai, wanted to be a musician.
“I use the word ‘musician’ lightly…” Mina gibed when Gwen asked what Tao would be performing in the evening. “That tongue-flapping Western thing they do… I don’t know…”
Gwen didn't mind at all that Tao wanted to be a rapper. The phenomenon had changed the very landscape of music in her old world. She pledged to herself that given a chance, she would watch some of those banned American Vid-Casts and offer Tao some advice, plagiarised from the USA of her past.
The two bedroom apartment proved too small for the three girls to change at once, so they took turns between the two bedrooms and the one bathroom, conversing loudly with one another through open doorways.
Gwen’s selection was a matt navy A-line mini-dress with a modestly plunging V-neck, its hem shortened precipitously to emphasise her lithe white legs. Both light and airy, the form-fitted fabric was enchanted to expand and contract slightly, allowing the lining to stretch without hampering the wearer’s movements.
Petra, who had a military upbringing and had a distinctly Eastern European perception of modesty, stripped down and struggled into her simple outfit in a matter of seconds. She had no desire to doll herself up for the likes of Tao, and so attired herself without apparent effort. When she emerged in a denim miniskirt and black t-shirt, made up with nought but lip-gloss and the barest of eyeliners, Gwen felt aflutter.
“Oh. My. MAO!” Mina wasn’t sure if the strange sensation bursting from her bosoms was jealousy, worship, or awe.
Unlike Gwen, whose limbs were supple and refined, Petra had the sort of vivacious figure that was smouldering fire and oozing desire. Her naturally sculpted legs, partly from training and partly from her affinity with Minerals, was shapely without excess, long and endless, tapering at the ankles with the elegance of a ballet prima donna. Following the natural contour of Petra's lithe body, Gwen became increasingly smitten with breathless reverence until finally, her inevitable meeting with Petra’s pale-blue eyes immobilised her with their intensity.
Gwen looked away. That was a dangerous moment!
Mina likewise had to shake herself out of a Petra-induced stupor.
Petra provided such astronomical sex appeal that Mina felt there was no point trying. Her defeated choice encompassed a loose varsity shirt that emphasised her bust, paired with a saddle skin belt on short denim shorts, completed with dark knee-socks and pump ankle-booties.
So it was that the girls emerged in entirely different styles, each becoming of their preferences and personalities.
Gwen’s was elegant and debonair, distinctly party-girl and entirely suitable for the Waldorf Astoria.
Mina’s was fresh and urban-chic, cute in her pastel.
Petra’s was ‘I don’t give a shit, this is how I dress anyway,’ - though Gwen had no doubt that if the three of them stood in a line, very few observers would notice herself and Mina; at least for the first few seconds anyway. There was very good reason Petra had been hand-picked by the Moscow Tower to be their femme fatale, Gwen postulated dangerously, she could have been a modern-day Lucrezia Borgia.
“Where’s Richard?” Mina released the question she must have tasted on her tongue all day, her face blushing adorably. “Is he... next door?”
“Richard’s away on errands,” Gwen informed her. “He’d be over otherwise, even if it's just to check on us.”
“… oh, alright.” Mina looked disappointed by the news. “Next time.”
Mina pivoted the conversation to Tao.
According to her, Tao’s so-called Battle of Rhymes was slated to begin around 8 PM. The girls could get there around 7 PM and load up on some drinks before they had to be subjected to Tao’s music.
“You sure we're not going to be harassed?” Gwen tugged on her dress, bringing the hem a little lower. "I shouldn't expend any magic..."
“Peaches’ friends will be there,” Mina assured them. “Dad is well known at the Metropolitan as well. If you’re worried, I’ll have a word with the management. The backers for the Hotel are not the sort of people the average Guan-er-dai or Fu-er-dai can contend with.”
“Alright,” Gwen nodded sceptically, uneasy at the prospect of yet another asshole whose brain became checkmated by their erection having a go at her, or Petra for that matter.
Gods, she shivered. There would be nothing left of the prick but a smoking pair of shoes.
When she’d spoken about her many terrible experiences with Petra, her cousin had become sceptical.
“I’ve been harassed now and then, but never like what you've gone through,” Petra scanned her cousin expertly. “Trust me, I’ve had enough training in to know that you’re not the type to drive men crazy. The occasional pervert - I could believe - but all the time? Maybe you’re just unlucky?”
“But it keeps happening!” Gwen tried to rationalise the phenomenon. “The NoM on the train, I could somewhat understand. But Richard’s juniors at my Uncle’s was just weird, especially after I met them again and they were perfectly fine. There’s Dai as well, who lost his head, and those Mages in the Dungeon we were in. I mean, you were there too. Did anyone try to have a go at you?”
“Have a go?” Petra had snorted with derisive laughter.
“Ergh... you know.” Gwen grabbed at the air with her hands.
“Never mind,” Gwen changed the subject.
The reason for her concern was Elizabeth Sobel. It was impossible not to think of her Master's wife when her own reflection in the mirror was pale and loitering.
Sobel had an allure about her - a kind of hunger that was infectious. She was beautiful, but when Gwen tried to picture the woman again, she had found that compared to Petra, or even Alesia, Sobel was only slightly above average. What the woman possessed instead, was an incredible presence, a kind of 'attraction' and 'allure' that Gwen had no words for.
A pang of hunger and a madness, perhaps.
A feeling akin to standing at the perilous precipice of a cliff and having a sudden urge to leap.
Gwen blew a lungful of air through her lips.
It was a wishful hypothesis at any rate. A more plausible answer was that Gwen simply had the worst of luck.
At any rate, she looked at the clock; it was almost 630, they had better-
The LRC device blared its unholy chorus.
Gwen bolted for the projector. Despite the cruel pedi-device strapped to her thin ankles, her movements appeared entirely dextrous, suggesting to her companions that she could handily outrun a prehistorical Magical-beast should the necessity arise.
The call was from Gunther.
“Do you want us to clear out?” Petra inquired as the call connected.
Gwen considered her cousin’s proposal. She could bring Mina into her circle of confidence, of course, but sometimes the truth wasn’t worth the trouble. Mina’s life was happily naive and carefree, there was no need to drag the healer onto her Raft of the Medusa.
“We’ll wait for you by the lift,” Petra informed her. “Come on Mina. You don’t want to hear this.”
Mina followed Petra out the door.
Gwen turned to the device as the illusory projection manifested.
“Gwen!” Alesia’s worried face appeared. “You said there’s something dire and urgent? I got Gunther here with me and… WHAAAAAT! NICE! What are you wearing? Are you going out?”
The tale of misfortune hovering on the tip of Gwen’s tongue became stuck in a barbed wire snare.
How dangerous could Gwen's circumstances be if she was in a party dress and stiletto heels?
“The dress is… for another matter. I’ve got something important to inform Gunther and yourself,” Gwen said seriously.
“Ohhh! You look lovely!” Alesia gushed, her blue eyes twinkling. “What did you do to your skin?! What product are you using? Is it an Enchantment? Some kind of fruit from the Wildlands? What sort? How much for a dozen?!”
“Phua! I can’t get enough of my little sister! Such a beautiful child! How come you never dressed like that around us in Sydney? Bachelors would be beating down the door if-”
“Alesia!” Gwen had to flap her arms as though she was trying to take flight with invisible wings. “It’s important!”
“Alright Alex, come on, let Gwen speak.” Gunther’s voice could be heard beside Alesia.
“Fine, fine,” Alesia relented, grumbling. “Get a load of Gwen's stalks, Gunther. Don’t look too long though. No cheating on me!”
Gunther’s face came into view. He raised one brow critically, then smirked.
“I see you’re doing well in Shanghai,” he chuckled. “Boyfriend?”
“No, no!” Gwen waved her hand in front of her face frantically. “Gunther, I got something to tell you. It happened. I ate a lady the other day and stole her talents.”
“You did WHAT?!” Alesia pushed Gunther away from the cube’s projection. Her eyes were wide with disbelief. “Like, with a fork?”
“Like in Blackheath, I mean,” Gwen corrected herself. “I had Caliban take her in one gulp, though I am pretty sure that like before, you know... the brain, the heart, and the offal…”
“Was she alive?”
“And kicking…” Gwen’s hollow tone echoed her devastated conscience.
“Did she deserve it?” Alesia inquired, unperturbed. "It's fine if they deserved it."
“That’s why I am calling,” Gwen began. “It’s about Elizabeth Sobel…”