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A note from Wutosama

7500 word Super Chapter

Time... to sleep. 


To her shame, Gwen fell asleep on her babulya’s shoulders. She had at first been kept awake by a wild night of increasingly anxious speculations, but the abrupt release of tension when her babulya took her hand brought on what ten hours of darkness had failed to provide.

When was the last time she had felt so nervous? The HSC perhaps, the Australian University Entrance Exams. Her academic record had sucked; if she furthermore failed her external exams; tertiary education would be out of reach. Gwen recalled swallowing her own vomit as she sat at the exam table.

Now she was nearing another test.

The killing joke was that Gwen was herself the executor of the murderous scenario, one that arguably was more challenging than writing 3K word essays on Tess of the d'Urbervilles and W.B Yeats.

Then there was the fact that they were about to enter Tilangqiao Prison - a place synonymous with living hell.

Who was to say the PLA wouldn't have her ‘disappear’? According to rumours, more than one dissident had evaporated in its uncertain depth. The moment Tilanqiao’s Colonial era thrice-Enchanted, twice Transmuted gates swallowed her, she would be cut off from the outside world.

When she stirred, it was because her babulya had opened the car door. A frigid gust instantly displaced the cosy air of the sedan's cocooned interior.

Why was it so cold? Gwen wondered. Wasn’t it summer?

When Gwen looked up, she felt oppressed by the infamous gate of the Tilangqiao Prison, five meters tall and three meters across, looming over their vehicle. As the women alighted, her hands unconsciously wrapped her grey cardigan tightly over her camisole. Doubtlessly, the chilling presence of the prison was the source of her uncontrollable shivers.

As for the prison itself, the word that came to mind was austere. The gate was concrete and sandstone, with several layers of square tiles in scarlet making up the threshold, weathered to the hue of dried blood. What was imposing was the thickness of it, the weight of the high walls that stretched until a corner bent it out of sight. Above, four sentry towers marked its perimeter, with a fifth central building watching over the rest. The prison did not have an overwhelming presence above ground, taking up no more than five blocks. As for its depth though, Gwen had read once that no one but the highest officers of the MSS and ISC knew the true extent.

The sedan pulled away, leaving Gwen with Petra and her grandmother. Magister Wen said she'd meet them inside, while Magus Kumiko had stated she would not be joining them. As a Japanese national, she had no desire to visit the famous prison.

The guard at the gate examined their papers before Messaging his superior. His eyes lingered first on Petra; then on Gwen.

As a Mage prison, Tilanqiao was unisex, though the two genders were housed in separate areas and overseen by gender-segregated staff. The token attempt at curbing abuse, however, did not prevent certain rumours escaping from the prison and into the public; another reason for Gwen’s hair-raising paranoia.

To her immense relief, the giant gates did not boom open to swallow them. Instead, a side gate, near invisible, pushed itself open. A short, balding man with a greasy forehead emerged, scanning the three women with deadened eyes.

“My name is Ji Tongli. You can call me Warden Ji. Good to see you again, Director Song,” the unassuming man introduced himself before shaking their hands. Gwen noticed that his fingers were so calloused as to feel as though she was caressing toad-skin.

The women introduced themselves in turn.

“I will take you to Professor Wen.” The stoic official offered them neither small talk nor an attempt at amiability. “You may follow me. Keep your hands against your torso. Do not speak to anyone. Do not touch anything. Ms Song, Ms Kuznetsova, you will be scanned by diagnostic Scrying, but you will not be physically searched. That is the greatest courtesy I can offer. Should you betray my confidence in Director Song, a cell will be your abode until further notice. Am I understood?”

"Yes Sir!" The girls stood to attention.

As per babulya's instruction, the girls were fully attired, preferencing lose, non-magical clothing. Only their faces remained exposed for identification. Both of the girls likewise had their hair tied into ponytails-buns. Klavdiya's precautions had been another reason for Gwen's gut-churning paranoia. Except for passive-effect Magical Items, the girls had been advised to leave everything at home, or in their Storage Rings.

The foursome soon entered the side corridor, its interior severe and without decor, not even dust settled on the floor. Above, multiple Daylight spells were in full effect, their sterilising light erasing all shadows.

At the end of the corridor was another set of doors presided over by two guards, Mages the both of them. Gwen detected that one of them was likely a Transmuter, while the other was an Enchanter. They were low-tier, at least lower than her. She noted the wands they carried on their thighs.

Warden Ji conversed with his guards in low murmurs.

“It’s alright, dear. We’re perfectly safe.” Their babulya comforted her granddaughter and grand-niece. “We’re not going by the prison blocks. We’re going straight to the middle chamber, where the interrogations take place.”

The glow of glyphs faded.
The double-door opened.
The foursome proceeded.

Gwen noted that the warding-glyphs reactivated almost instantaneously as the doors shut behind them. As the party penetrated into the prison proper, the atmosphere changed. There was an oppressive presence, palpable and tangible, which now lingered in the space between door and corridor, growing more ominous with each successive section.

“Magic dampening,” Petra informed her cousin, giving the physical repression a name. “Nothing but basic cantrips can activate here without an explicit exclusion of your Mana Signature.”

To test Petra’s theory, Gwen attempted a faux summon of her Familiars. When she activated her Sigil and channelled her mana, there was a sluggishness that prevented her Spells from completing its arcane circuits.

“Unpleasant, isn’t it?” Petra likewise felt something crawling under her skin.

It was helplessness. Gwen recognised the reaction from when she'd discovered her 'generalist' talent in Blackwattle. It was a crippling sense of confusion, stemming from the loss of one's agency. A Mage without magic was a King without his army, a carpenter without his tools, a NoM bereft of his limbs. A sense that one was made incomplete and unwhole. It was likely the reason why her grandfather had put her in a cell with anti-magic warding when she had first arrived in Shanghai.

The current corridor ended. Another set of doors. Another set of guards. The prison was intentionally built like a maze.

“This way,” Ji directed the trio.

Though Gwen’s babulya seemed at ease, the two girls were beginning to perspire, their nerves fraying as eyes both physical and arcane canvassed their bodies, likely wondering if the girls were guests or future inmates.

When a much larger door in a different hue of charcoal opened, the girls crossed over into a courtyard. It was their first sight of the open sky since entering the compound. Ten minutes in, both Gwen and Petra felt as though a lifetime had passed.

They were now in a wire cage section - the exercise yard.
Here, the girls had their first glimpse of the prison population.

Having watched Oz, Prison Break, and, for her guilty pleasure, Orange is the New Black, Gwen was pretty sure she was an expert in prison stereotypes. Though she and Petra were demurely dressed in clothing that hid their figures, she did not doubt that Petra at least would cause a riot. After all, Tilanqiao was a prison, a mill of the human soul. In a place like this, ‘fresh meat’ was about the only thing that could drive a man, or a woman, wild with anticipation.

Then she was met by an eerie reality.

To their right, they saw the male prisoners. Mages, all of them.
To their left, the smaller quadrant reserved for women was empty. A barrier separated the larger and lesser half of the Prison, from the space between the sections, it was evident the two genders did not mingle.

One of the scenes Gwen had been contemplating was the infamous incident from Silence of the Lambs when Clarice Starling copped a hair full of bodily fluids from the psychotic Migs. They had Petra with them, after all, and Gwen wondered if anyone from the prison would be driven as wild as Tao's rival, 'Big Sammy'.

But there was no hooting.
No shouting nor jeering.
There wasn't the stomping of impassioned feet, nor the aggravation of violent men shaking the bars, frothing at the lips.

There was only a sullen silence. That and the sound of laboured breathing.

There weren’t nearly as many prisoners as Gwen had expected. A mere thirty-odd Mages of various ages, almost exclusively Han-Chinese, sat at the benches or stood against the exercise bars, beyond which were shimmering Walls of Force. They stared at the girls with shrunken irises swollen with pink vessels, but the inmates did not move nor make a sound.

They watched like though dumb statues as the girls passed, led by the Warden. To Gwen, the identically dressed men resembled flesh golems deprived of their scripts, awaiting command.

“Your stewardship is as steady as always,” Klavdiya praised the Warden of Tilangqiao.

“My job.” Warden Ji snorted. “I do it well.”

“That you do,” her babulya confessed. “No deaths this month.”

“No.” Warden Ji's lips curled. “Thanks to your help.”

Klavdiya's healer's aura seemed to relax the tone of Ji's body language. Above them, the twenty-story concrete block in faded blue, endearingly called the 'The Blue Basket' loomed, sapping the warmth of the sun as they stepped into the shade.

More guards met them at the door.
They scanned the girls layered clothing with a wand.

Finally, after what felt like an hour of aimless wandering, the foursome entered the basement of the main building. The B-1 was hollow at its centre, creating a long rectangular descent extending downwards in a double-helix spiral.

The wind blowing from below had a strong scent of antiseptics.

“Gwen, Petra. You can close your eyes if you want,” her babulya said after a moment of deliberation. “There’s nothing here of interest that will do you any good.”

Gwen and Petra regarded one another. One was thinking how things could be worse than being eaten alive by a Faceless skin changer, while the other recalled her encounter with mind-wiped internees under Moscow Tower.

The foursome waited for the levitation platform, which arrived a few minutes later, delivering a troop of four guards armed with lethal-looking implements on their thighs.

“Sir!” The guards saluted.

Ji inclined his head.

“LG-24, Interrogation and Observation Chamber.”

“Sir!” the operator hailed the command.

How stoic, Gwen noted.

The platform began to move.

The familiarity of the transit system filled Gwen with a wave of nostalgia. It reminded her of Sydney. Standing to attention beside Master Kilroy, she had traversed the Sydney Tower in this exact manner, guided by the Tower’s staff. For the first time in a long time, Gwen pondered what had happened to those guards she had befriended, wondering if they had survived.

The girls saw their first ‘VIP’ after twenty meters, where presumably the 'P' stood for Prisoner.

A gruff old man in orange overalls sat in a cell with nothing but an iron slab for a bed and a stainless steel toilet bowl. The cell was too small for the man to fully stretch out his body, forcing him to use the bowl as a seat so he could fully extend his feet. As the party passed, his eyes widened. The man launched himself at the transparent pane, plastering his whole face trying to get a glimpse of what he thought were two teenage girls.

“Dissident.” Ji had been warmed up enough by babulya to start playing the tour guide, speaking like a man describing the local fauna. “He tried to rile up the NoMs in Jiangsu against the local Secretariat. After the local security forces lost him in the mountains, the Aerial Division stationed in Jiangsu caught him gifting his ‘supporters’ to the Jueyuan to garner their support.”

“What’s that?” Gwen couldn’t help her curiosity. “Jueyuan I mean.”

“Humanoid apes,” Ji replied. “The Jueyuan elders know how to use Magic. The most distinct aspect of their society is that there are no females.”

“How do they-” Gwen reflexively began.

Petra stopped her right there.

“Oh.”

Ji continued to explain, humoured by the girl's interactions.

“When a Clan of Jueyuan gets out of hand, they become a force of reckoning. A small outpost is no match for a troop of a hundred Jueyuan. Even a teenage one can rip your arm off with its bare hands. Not to mention their shamans can use primitive Clerical and Druidic magic.”

The levitation platform proceeded.

The party bypassed by a dozen other prisoners, with Ji providing them with what passed for entertaining anecdotes.

“That last one, the one with her pants off? She’s a real piece of work,” Ji’s voice remained entirely flat and unassuming, even as the girls' faces were crimson from the last encounter.

The moment Gwen had met her eyes with the deranged female inmate, it was as though a strange compulsion had overcome her senses. She tore away her prisoner’s uniform and spread herself against the invisible pane, then-

Then babulya forced the girls to turn away from the obscene sight.

“Forbidden magic, that one.” Ji chortled coldly. “Some lost Clan or another. Her magic involves a forgotten Yin-Yang witchcraft where she drains her victim’s vitality through coitus. It was a thing, I am told, back in the Dynasties, the self-styled Emperors used such methods to prolong their longevity, going through dozens of concubines a month. She looked your age when she first came in. Without replenishment, she’s gone back to her real age.”

Gwen had taken a good gander before babulya thwarted their curiosity. The woman looked to be in her forties, looking like a meth-addict from her old world.

"Filthy wretches, the lot of them." According to Ji, no one imprisoned in Tilangqiao was 'innocent' or undeserving. Gwen chose to take his words with a grain of salt.

The bottom of the LG-24 was where they arrived finally. More PLA correctional officers secured the room beyond. thereiform was navy-on-grey camo, making their silhouette distinct against the bare white of the concrete.

“After you.” Ji motioned to the women.

The party entered.

Gwen felt a trickle of ice puckering the segments of her spine.

As they entered the rectangular chamber, Gwen felt the Magic Dampening fall away, though she was sure that it could be reactivated at any time.

She looked up from her lead-like feet. There he was. Her victim.

In the middle of the desolate room dressed in pale polished concrete, was a man brass-bound to an anchored chair. The man sat without sound; his body slumped and passive. His face was hooded, with a section in breathable mesh.

Gwen approached the man in a trance, as though her body was no longer her own. She felt as though she was a marionette pulled by stubborn strings. For a brief second, she entertained the idea of immediately summoning Caliban to inhale her victim. The ordeal would then be over.

“Gwen, I am glad you're here,” a voice issued forth from up on high. The party chased the source until they faced the far-right wall. The wall was Illusory, Gwen realised, something akin to a one-way mirror. “I am here with a few officials from the Ministry and the Pudong Tower. You've met them before. We’re ready to proceed when you are.”

The voice was Magister Wen’s.

A thrum of magic could be sensed flowing through the walls. From the prickling on her skin, Gwen knew it to be the activation of the diagnostic spells particular to the Cognisance Chamber.

She forced herself to face the hooded prisoner.

So what now? She’ll do the deed, then leave for lunch?
Should she talk to the man? Or look him in the eyes? Explain why he must now die?

“What was his crime?” Gwen asked. Magister Wen did promise that her victim would be thoroughly vetted.

“Terrible and heinous, I assure you. A mass murderer. It's all confirmed.” Magister Wen’s voice came from somewhere indistinctly above. “Warden, if you will.”

Warden Ji moved to discard the man’s hood.

“That’s not what we agreed on,” babulya moved to stop Ji. “What's the point of seeing his face? Just get this over and done. We’re not here for sadism. We’re here for knowledge.”

"It's alright, babulya," Gwen intervened. "I want to see - I need to see. I am taking this man's life, how can I not give him a final measure of respect? Warden, may I have the honours?"

"Gwen..." her babulya's face was equal parts concern and fatalism.

Annoyed by the delay, Ji stepped back.

Gwen took a deep breath, then approached.

The hood came off.

Her hazel eyes grew as large as hen's eggs.


* * *

“There she is. Is she ready?”

Magister Wen affirmed that Gwen was indeed 'ready' as Warden Ji led the party into the room below them.

A troop of military men stood beside the Magister by the observation window, with a fourth leaning casually against the far wall.

Furtherest from Wen was Wing Commander Derrick Webber, standing ramrod straight and looking downwards toward her specimen with benevolence and goodwill.

Major Wong of the Internal Security Bureau was next, more relaxed than his western counterpart. Tilangqiao was, after all, Wong's home ground.

The man standing closest to Wen was the Committee Chair of the Ministry of State Security, her specimen's grandfather, Klavdiya Song’s husband, Guo Song. The man's face was a mask of unknowable impassivity.

There was their uninvited guest. A fourth man who had arrived with Guo.

Jun Song. The Ash Bringer.

A man who had outlasted all expectations of his volatile elemental talent to become the Hero of the Northern Front.

Decades ago, Marie-Roslyn Wen had offered to dissect Jun’s talent in return for research that may preserve his body against the Ash talent. The family refused, not even her friend and confidant, Klavdiya Song, then only a Department Head, consented to her offer.

She wondered if someone from the PLA had considered scrutinising Guo's bloodline for signs of Demi-human ancestry.

Guo was Salt.
Hai was Salt.
Jun was Ash.

And now Gwen was Void and Lightning.

She could hardly believe it when Klavdiya told her. What's more absurd was that Guo was apparently against the girl's inclusion in the family!

The old hound's negligence was pure serendipity, a convergence of stars.

Had the old man not expelled the granddaughter, Klavdiya would have never come to her for help. Wen could hardly believe that in her remaining lifetime, there would be an opportunity to investigate the incomplete research abandoned by Henry Kilroy and Elizabeth Sobel!

As for why Guo loathed the girl, Wen had a theory.

She believed, notwithstanding imperfect evidence, that Gwen must be a bastard. The eldest son absconded, had he not? And now he returned with a teenage daughter. Wen had even uncovered that Gwen's 'mother' was a worthless Fire Mage! Two tiers from a NoM! Who was Hai kidding? How the hell does a Water-Negative Mage and a Fire Mage produce a Lightning-Void progeny? What freakish miracle was that? She was a woman of Spellcraft!

So she dug deeper, sending out her feelers into the Commonwealth's Towers. There, she found that information on Gwen was censured! Not only that, it was at the behest of none other than the Morning Star, Gunther Shultz! When Wen further inquired with the desperate Klavdiya, she came to the knowledge that Gwen had been attached hip to hip with Henry Kilroy before he died.

The puzzle pieces were falling into place.

Sobel was the single most accomplished Void Mage in modern history.
Kilroy was her spouse, the pioneer of research carried out on Sobel's talent.
So what did that make Gwen, the only Void Mage to not only survive her awakening but flourish thereafter - thriving as though ignorance was her Shield against the Void.

Coincidence?
Wen did not believe in coincidence.

Against all reason and evidence, Klavdiya’s granddaughter did not waste away like every other Void Mage the Towers had managed to scrounge up over the years.

As an outlier specimen, the girl was peerless. With the data gleaned from her negatively drained body, Wen was sure she would be hailed as the premier academic of her generation, the progenitor publisher of an original theory.

MEISTER Marie-Roslyn Wen would be the God Mother of a new branch of Elemental Magic, to be recalled and remembered and referenced ten thousand times over; immortalised in the appendices.

Whenever she thought about the future within her grasp, Wen felt an insatiable hunger, an unquenchable drive to push the girl just a little bit further.

She had done well so far.

The incident at D-109 had been just the beginning, a touchstone. The persuasion of Klavdiya followed. Now, the Towers from both the PLA and Pudong had pledged their support. Both sides had offered her unfettered liberty in exchange for a means to generate Void Mages. As dangerous as such beings might prove to be, the potential of cowing the Demi-humans as Sobel had done was immensely appealing to the Magi of the Towers.

The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi had stated as much that great calamities lie in the future, though truth be told, the spread of human cities was synonymous with disaster.

As for a more immediate premonition, Wen couldn’t comprehend why the Ash Bringer weighed her with an annoying smirk. To her knowledge, the former Grey Ghost was no longer a part of Internal Security. Had he taken on a more covert role? Or was the man here in the capacity of an Uncle? Her imperfect knowledge irked Wen to no end.

The victim she had chosen for Gwen was likewise a psychopath possessing immense talent. Lu Bing was a Clanner from the Frontier District of Qingcheng with a taste for Mage blood. The boy had awoken as a Dust Mage, then succeeded as a Conjurer-Illusionist. It was unfortunate that the young man had acquired a Scroll of Drain Life from the Rogue Mages, outlaw practitioners of Necromancy, learned the spell over a period of several months, then began a killing spree. For Years, Qingcheng City was convinced that a Ghoul was loose in the sewers. It wasn't until Bing's gluttony outgrew his caution that he was discovered. A chaotic melee ensued, resulting in the death of two acolytes and a Senior Mage.

Since then, the man had been imprisoned in Stasis for almost two years.

Would devouring the Dust Mage increase Gwen’s affinity to the Void?
Would Gwen acquire Illusion as a school?
Were there diminishing returns on how many tiers she could steal from others? How about the girl's VMI, did that have a limit?
These were legitimate questions for herself and her specimen.

They would both benefit.

Wen was also interested in the mental and physiological aspects of the Void and its impact on the user. Was the hunger an addiction, or was it madness, as Sobel had shown? Could it be controlled, or was it more akin to a gradual transformation? Could it be offset or satiated?

The answers lay somewhere in the girl's body. The more Gwen could be pushed; the more accurate her statistics. Then the girl would break, but that was data Wen sought as well. Some would say, as with Material Spellcraft, the boiling point was the most crucial data of all. Didn't Gunther Shultz boast that the girl couldn't be broken? Gwen had only herself to blame if she did.

But none of her considerations addressed why Jun Song now bothered her.

“Welcome, Gwen,” she stated to those below. “… We’re ready to proceed when you are.”

Klavdiya had wanted the man's face covered. It was a stupid sentiment, but Wen had allowed it.

"... I want to see..."

Wen almost snorted. The girl was entirely uptight and self-righteous! Maybe she WAS Guo's granddaughter. That part of them was practically identical.

The hood came off.

Beneath it was a familiar face. A face Wen had never seen in real life, but whom she knew from an exchange a little more than a week ago.

"CHOI?" She let loose the exclamation, then immediately regretted her tell-tale outburst.

Her eyes widened in nervous incomprehension, darting to Jun then to Guo.

Wen felt cold sweat oozing across her back, drenching her linen blouse. She had to circulate a sliver of Mineral-tinged mana through her body to steady the pounding of her heart, forcing her skin to retain its unflushed paleness.

How the fuck was Choi here? Her mind rioted with speculations. What was the meaning of this?

* * *

“SECRETARIAT CHOI?!”

Gwen was aghast.

“CHOI?”

The voice that came from above suggested that the Magister was no less surprised than Gwen.

Secretary Choi’s beady eyes were now two dilated orbs staring into the middle distance. It took only one glance to know that the space between the man's eyes was devoid of all human discourse.

Gwen was unpleasantly reminded of Magister Lee’s mockery of the Resurrection spell, where he ridiculed the idea that the body could be utilised even if the mind was gone.

Forcing herself to breathe again, she leaned in closer to the Secretariat’s face, watching her pallid appearance reflected in his glassy orbs.

* * *

“Where’s Lu Bing?” Magister Wen snapped at her audience before realising that she had trespassed protocol. She was a civilian; they were the PLA and a member of the Pudong Tower. If anything, they should be the ones dressing her down. As the Mineral-mana completed a circuit, Wen's fevered brain cooled. “Please accept my apologies. I was merely surprised that my candidate had been replaced.”

When she met their mocking eyes, Wen felt her skin prickle with goosebumps. They’re all in on it! The thought struck her like one of Gwen's Flash Bangs. The bastards!

“Miss Wen,” Guo began, his choice of title inferring just how little he thought of her. “Let me make a point very clear for you. Gwen is a Void Mage, and a Void Mage is a calamity waiting to happen. Unfortunately, others like my colleague here, are in disagreement...”

Guo’s bulldog face barely moved as he spoke, giving the MSS hound master the impression of an inexpressive statue. The filtered glow from the illusory wall further cast an indifferent light across his hawk-like nose.

“For this reason, I understand that rumours have circulated of my dismissal of Gwen. This is true. I do not trust the girl. She is an anomaly; an impossibility made flesh. I know not her mind, and I resent her allegiance with the late Henry Kilroy.”

The old man’s presence seemed to grow as his voice fell lower. Though she stood perfectly still, Wen felt as though cornered by an ancient beast. That was the difference between an academic against one who had survived a global conflict, a civil war, followed by a Political Purge.

“But my dislike, my loathing, my repudiation of my granddaughter; are private matters. A personal preference. If Klavdiya wishes to aid Gwen, that is her choice, HER undertaking. I have to respect her decisions. If Klavdiya believes her actions are for the best, I will not interfere, just as she had not intervened in mine.”

The MSS Secretary's voice dropped an octave.
Wen was sure her shirt was now drenched.

“YOU - on the other hand. Who do you think you are, Miss Wen? You’re an Expat, not even a member of our Party. You’re from the Commonwealth, are you not? Your parents fled to England. That’s where you received your education. Your loyalties are only to yourself. You don’t respect my wife. You don’t respect the girl you’re using. You don’t even care for my grandniece, your 'apprentice', who thinks the world of you. They’re just pieces of a puzzle to you.”

Magister Wen was too wise to offer an immediate rebuttal. Even if she could, she had to wait until her body resumed its full faculty. She was reminded of the rumour that Guo was a Mind Mage. Wen was no slouch against Charms, but the old man's mental pressure was immense!

“Jun.”

When Guo turned away from Magister Wen, his son approached.

“Observe the fate of Secretariat Choi.” Jun tilted his head in the direction below. “Magister. You’re a researcher, a damn good one. But even the best researcher can't write her papers from a cell in Tilangqiao."

Wen felt her spine tense when the prison's name played across Jun's lips.

Her eyes drifted toward Wong and Webber.

“We remain in full support of your ‘Research’, Magister.” Wong inclined his head. “This is a private matter between you and the Song family.”

“I am inclined to agree.” Wing Commander Webber furrowed his brows. “Certainly, Pudong would prefer a more organic approach to Miss Song’s Void talent. I must inform you, Madam, that there exists a long-standing request from Magus Shultz that Pudong ensures the safety and freedom of Miss Song in Shanghai. Had I known that today and the District incident were begotten by yourself, I would have advised patience.”

Neither rebukes nor agreements, Wen damned her 'allies' silently. When she thought about it, why were they even laying Choi's bullshit onto her doorstep? All she wanted was to nudge the girl in the right direction.

“I would hardly think it’s fair to-“ she protested.

“Klavdiya had been upset. Very upset,” Guo interjected suddenly. “I hadn’t seen her so stricken since the Purge when her friends were accused.”

There was something about the man’s voice that made Wen wish she had sewn her mouth shut.

“I see what you're trying to do. I do not condone what you are trying to do.” Guo’s eyes were now observing his granddaughter. “But I suppose a calamity is called as such precisely because it cannot be avoided.”

“…” Wen decided remaining silent was likely her best option for the time being.

They watched the girl marvel over Choi's mind-cleansed appearance.

“Magister.” Guo's decision to use her proper title filled Wen with immense relief. “Do your job. Nothing more.”

Magister Wen turned to the scene below.

The Path of Spellcraft never did run smooth. These militant meatheads would never understand. Like the old Faustian allegory, so long as knowledge could be gained, the ends justified the means. Who could judge a Meister after the fact? Did the Confucian liturgy not state that the sea of knowledge knows no shore?

Desist?

She had run this far without pausing for breath, how could she stop now?

Wen turned to Guo.

"As you wish, Secretary Guo."

* * *

“Gwen, please proceed,” Magister Wen's command called out from above after an uncomfortably long bout of silence.

Before Gwen could summon her wits, Jun appeared beside the three women and the Warden.

“Uncle Jun!” Gwen's greeting had a tone of ambivalence.
Much of her present circumstance was beginning to make sense now.

“Gwen.” Jun grinned at her. “I’ve prepared for you a dossier of Choi’s inglorious service to the State. Let’s say the Secretariat could have died ten times over and his sentencing would have been insufficient.”

“It’s alright, Uncle.” Gwen had mixed feelings about her Uncle's intrusion. “I trust that you-”

“Don’t.” Jun halted her flattery, then handed over a data slate. “Trust yourself first and foremost. Read it, then make a decision. If you choose not to do this; no one can force you.”

Gwen turned her attention to the slate, where the magic-parchment showed MSS records for Choi's 'confessions', extracted via a cocktail of Compel Truth and Enfeeble Mind.

“Jun.”
“Uncle.”

“Mother. Petra.” Jun greeted the others in turn. "Let's give Gwen some space."

Above, Magister Wen watched in sullen silence as her aborted endeavour took on a twist of its own.

* * *

Distribution of Illicit Substance
Human Trafficking
High Treason

The list of jargonistic 'state' crimes for Choi made little sense to Gwen, though career highlights such as the 'Trafficking' of underage Mages stood out to her. According to the transcript, Choi was running 109 like a dynastic bureaucrat-scholar, making the 'locals' fight and quarrel with one another for stability and amusement. As for Treason, Choi had confessed to trading state-sanctioned magic-tools, glyphs and materials to Wildland rogues in exchange for precious ingredients and exotic fauna.

The verdict from Internal Security was 'Summary Execution', followed by the reduction of the man's remains to ash to prevent Necromantic tempering.

Choi was a dead man walking.

Gwen was to be his deliverer.

* * *

Gwen returned the slate to Jun.

“Gwen, don’t fret. Choi was such a babbling lunatic by the third reading that we had to Mind Blank him to prevent him biting off his tongue.”

So she was executing not only a condemned criminal but also a vegetable, Gwen pondered her renewed circumstance. She knew it was ungrateful to resent her uncle, but having her resolve deflated in such a manner felt like a slap to the face.

Gwen took a step forward, approaching the man formerly known as Secretariat Choi until she was an inch from his face.

"Mr Choi, do you know me?" She gazed into the man's empty eyes once more.

Behind her, babulya and Jun exchanged a concerned glance.

"Nurrrgh..."

"I am Gwen Song," she declared. "I was there in D-109. You sent Nephres Zalaam after me. I Consumed her with my Void abilities. In a few moments, I will consume you as well. If there is anything you would like to say, you can make your peace now."

Choi drooled, his eyes unblinking.

Gathering her wits, she made some space between them.

“Caliban!”

The netherworld worm slipped into the material plane.

“Shaa! Shaaa!” Anticipating what was to come, Caliban opened its head carapace to reveal two tentacles, one cobalt and the other crimson, symptomatic remains of its Gila-feast.

“I am proceeding,” Gwen informed the assembly above. The thrumming floor increased the pitch of its mana-wells; its diagnostic magic cranked to full.

As Caliban came closer, Choi's body began to shudder. First shivering as though he was cold, then with greater violence as the netherworld worm coiled around his torso. When Caliban came as close to his face as Gwen had, Choi began to thrash in his seat.

"NEeeaaagh~! Neaaaagh!"

The sound that issued forth from his lips were like that of a bleating goat. The Ex-Secretariat struggled with such ferocity that the skin of his wrists broke, opening a vein on his cubby-white forearm. A spurt of arterial blood escaped as the man strained against the brass manacles, sending a dash of crimson to splash onto Gwen's white runners.

"What are you...." Jun's expression soured. Was the girl toying with Choi? "Gwen, just do it."

"I need to see this," Gwen's voice drifted across the room. "I can't avert my eyes, Uncle Jun, not now. Not ever. No matter what Secretariat Choi had done, he isn't a side of veal we're feeding to Caliban."

"Gwen." Jun's jaws set displeasingly.

"I am sorry." Gwen redoubled her focus. "Please bear with my wilfulness for a little longer. Caliban!”

Before its observers, the serpent engorged, its carapace splitting until the formerly six-foot snake became a nine-foot pulsating monstrosity of chitin and bruised flesh. Two lamprey-tipped tentacles shot toward Choi, one ramming into his throat while the other penetrated his abdomen.

Choi’s body shook; a hint of hysterical terror came and went, then his eyes rolled upwards as muscle and ligament distended. Caliban's tentacles tugged Choi's loose flesh like a ragdoll caught between two taut ropes.

Petra, Babulya and Jun all watched with fascinated horror. Was this what Gwen wanted to see? Was this what she wanted them to see? Was she trying to tell them that this was the horror she must now endure with every victim?

Gwen stood only half a meter away, her camisole and pants splattered with carmine, her shoes spotted with gore, her pearly teeth gnashing so fiercely.

Her choice, her responsibility, her remorse.
She had to burn this moment into her mind; else she was no better than her Master's estranged and insane wife.

‘Crack!’

The grotesque onomatopoeia indicated that there was now enough of Caliban inside Choi's chest to overburden the ribcage. There was solace that Caliban had sought Choi's brain through his throat and not his eyes, for if the man could scream, Gwen felt she could kiss goodbye the sweet innocence of sleep forever.

Without warning, Choi's stomach ballooned, as though the man had become instantly pregnant. His bloodless mien lost all expression. There was a final twitch, then Choi's limp head hung itself against his spine. His hanging eyes bulged, his ocular nerves finally severed at the stem.

The heart, the liver, the brain - Gwen suppressed the repugnance rising from the pit of her stomach.

She would burn this vision into her skull.

“Hurrrgh…”

It was Petra who first lost the fight against her body’s rebellious revulsion.
The Mineral Mage materialised a crystalline cube and deposited her breakfast.

Gwen meanwhile, patiently anticipated her tithing of Caliban's harvest.

It came.

The euphoria that struck her was somewhere between a tier 3 Tusker Boar to half a Nephres Zalaam. Akin to the Schmidt Pain Index, Gwen figured she should mentally compile a Caliban Index, with Nephres at 10 and the small-fry at 1.

With an arm holding onto babulya for support, Gwen weathered the incoming tide of pleasure gnashing her innards; perceiving herself as a standing stone amidst breaking waves. Her eyes rolled, her legs shook, her hand gripped her grandmother’s shoulders, clenching until it was pale and bare-knuckled.

But she held on, conscious and lucid.
Her eyes had not moved from the cadaver of a man alive mere moments ago.

“Enchantment and Illusion,” Jun informed her, shaking his head at her pigheadedness. “Those are Choi’s Schools of Magic. Tier 4 Illusion was his natural talent. Tier 4 Enchantment was what he chose as his minor; though I’d dare say Enchantment was the more skilful of the two. It took us quite some time to get through his mental shielding. As for his element, I believe it was Water.”

Gwen opened her eyes, her orbs alive with vivid vitality; her irises brilliant emerald and citrine-topaz.

“Gwen, how do you feel?” Magister Wen’s voice resounded from up on high.

“I feel… myself.”

The perpetual hunger Gwen had endured for the week had entirely disappeared, making her wonder if all her suffering had been a waking dream. Her complexion became rosy and flushed, her limbs brimming with potential. She stood straighter and felt taller; her stoop disappeared, her swan’s neck extended effortlessly. Even her hair appeared fuller.

Petra packed away her Vomit-Cube and incanted a cleansing Prestigitation.

“Sorry.” Her pale-blue irises fell upon Gwen with renewed respect. “I thought I knew, but in hindsight, I guess I knew nothing.”

“Can you activate Enchantment and Illusion Sigils now?” Compared to Petra's introspection, her Master's tone was breathless with curiosity.

“I don’t know how,” Gwen addressed the Magister's eager demand. She never had the choice to learn any spells from those Schools. “Caliban might take a while to transfer those talents.”

“Unsummon Caliban,” her voice suggested. "Perform your usual meditation. As I said before, all the necessary components for recognising Sigils are a part of theory by indoctrination, you couldn't miss it if you tried."

Caliban had by now returned to its docile form entirely of its own volition. Gwen reached down and picked up the bloody worm bodily.

Her babulya and Jun gave each other another worried look. Was the girl feeling alright? Was she silently protesting?

Gwen's behaviour could be incredibly thoughtful and endearing, but sometimes, her reactions took on a whole new slant.

They watched as she wiped Choi's bodily fluids from Caliban's seamless face, then gazed at her bloody hands.

“Shaa?” Caliban struggled in her arms, nodding its faceless mien and wagging its spear-like tail.

“Return.”

Caliban dematerialised.

Gwen turned away from the gory remains of Choi’s mangled body. Turning her mind inward until she was within her inner world. Wen was right. The recognition of Sigils was ingrained knowledge. Through her mind’s eye, she saw past the glowing beacon of Evocation, beyond the silver-brilliance of her Conjuration and a multitude of others, until she caught the pale-blue illumination of Illusion. There was no Enchantment. She saw nothing of the School's ochre-gold glow.

Gwen opened her eyes.

“Illusion.” She breathed out. “I see it.”

By now a pair of janitors had been called in to clear away Choi’s body. The Corporals came in with impassive faces, zipped up Choi's corpse in a dark polyester bag, then left with numb expressions. When they passed Gwen, she sensed the fear radiating from them like a stench.

“Very good, we're done here.” Magister Wen’s voice had such relief in it that one might have thought she was the one who'd just cannibalised a man in cold blood. “We’ll be having another biometric session Sunday midday, twenty-four hours from now.”

“Yes, Ma'am,” Gwen replied.

She thoughtfully rubbed the sanguine liquid between her thumbs as it grew viscous and sticky with each passing second, the human life within fading cell by cell.

With a flick of the wrist, she produced a cleansing cube. A single LDM later, Gwen was once again pristine. The irony did not escape her as she snorted mockingly at her particular regard for cleanliness.

Gwen then turned to her silent family, who'd been watching her ritual with mild alarm. “Babulya, everyone, shall we?”

“I don’t suppose lunch is out of the question?” Jun half-jokingly suggested, hoping to diffuse whatever nerve Gwen had snagged in the execution of Choi. "Maybe vegetarian?"

Petra’s pale face indicated that lunch was the last thing on her mind. Gwen gave her a brief hug, squeezing Petra against her body and telling her not to worry.

The role-reversal seemed to have caught the prideful girl off-guard. Her expression grew grim with the realisation that for all her blustery big-sisterhood, Gwen had seen horrors she couldn’t begin to imagine. Who knew that Caliban could become such a nightmarish abomination? She watched Vid-casts with it coiled by her ankles for St Peter’s sake! It had played catch with her and slept on her lap!

“Dessert and ices, I think,” Klavdiya suggested. The Director then turned to her son with a bemusement expression. “Jun, can you tell me why your father is up there?”

Gwen froze. Had grandfather been watching?

“Ah~ you knew?” Jun scratched his head. "I thought those walls hid everything, even Detection spells."

“I know now.” Their babulya chuckled mischievously. “I was wondering why Marie had suddenly become so demure. I take it Guo's poured a bucket of cold water over her?”

“Grandfather…” Gwen glanced up, imagining his coal-like eyes looking down. Gods! He’d seen her feed Caliban! The blood! The gore! The monstrous nature of it all! She'd even denigratingly smeared herself with symbolic self-loathing! He MUST think that she's bat-shit insane by now!

“Don’t fret.” Babulya touched a finger to Gwen's cheeks. “Let’s have tea first. Then we can talk.”

“I'll leave Gwen in your careful hands, mother. I am going back to base,” Jun informed them. He bowed toward his mother, then turned toward his niece. “Remember what we discussed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

“Thank you, Uncle Jun. For looking out for me.” Gwen hugged him gratefully. Her uncle had wanted what he thought was best for her, even though it was a cop out.

Remorse, she reminded herself, thinking of her boastful promise to Henry and Sufina. The day she no longer felt remorse, was the day she stood shoulder to shoulder with the woman who murdered her Master.

Watching Jun depart with a wink and a grin, Gwen couldn’t help but put a hand to her chest, searching for the oppressive presence of conscience.

Her heart was calm.
But then it skipped a beat.

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About the author

Wutosama

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

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