To her shame, Gwen fell asleep on her babulya's shoulders. She had been kept awake by a wild night of increasingly anxious speculations until her babulya's care 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. Gwen recalled swallowing her 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, arguably more challenging than writing 3K word essays on Tess of the d'Urbervilles and W.B Yeats.
They were about to enter Tilangqiao Prison— a place synonymous with living hell.
Inevitably, they arrived.
When Gwen looked up, she became oppressed by the infamous gate of the Tilangqiao Prison, five meters tall and three meters across, looming over their vehicle.
Once inside, 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. From the ground, the tallest building was only five storeys. As for its depth, Gwen had read once that no one but the highest officers of the MSS and ISC knew the true extent.
The sedan pulled away. Magister Wen said she'd meet them inside, while Magus Kumiko had stated she would not join 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. However, the token attempt at curbing abuse did not prevent certain rumours from escaping from the prison and into the public.
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 his fingers were so calloused that they felt like 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, and 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 tight, non-magical clothing without pockets. Only their hair and faces remained exposed for identification. The girls had also been advised to leave everything at home or in their Storage Rings except for passive-effect Magical Items.
The foursome soon entered the side corridor. Above, multiple Daylight spells were in full effect, with sterilising light erasing all shadows.
At the end of the corridor was another set of doors presided over by two guards. Gwen detected that one 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 happen."
The glow of Glyphs faded.
The double door opened.
The foursome proceeded.
Gwen noted that the Warding Glyphs reactivated instantly as the doors slid closed. As their party penetrated the prison, an oppressive presence, palpable and tangible, now lingered in the 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 explicitly excluding 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, a heavy sluggishness prevented her Spells from completing the arcane circuits.
"Unpleasant, isn't it?" Petra affirmed her feelings.
Gwen agreed. She felt the numbness as the sensation of helplessness, a crippling sense of confusion from losing one's agency. A Mage without arcanistry was a King without his army, a carpenter without his tools, an NoM bereft of his limbs. It was 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 pair of guards followed, looking identical to every other junction.
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 sweat, their nerves fraying as eyes, both physical and arcane, canvassed their bodies, likely examining them for potential.
The girls soon crossed into a courtyard. It was their first sight of the open sky since entering the compound. Ten minutes in, Gwen and Petra felt like 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. Fresh meat was the only thing that could drive a man or a woman wild with anticipation in a place like this.
Instead, she met an eerie reality.
To their right, they saw the male prisoners.
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.
But here, there was no hooting.
No shouting or 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 and the soft susurration of labouring men clinging to life.
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 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 for 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 hues endearingly called the "The Blue Basket" sapped the sun's warmth as they stepped into the shade.
More guards met them at the door.
They scanned the girls layered clothing with a wand.
Finally, after 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 the interior had a strong scent of antiseptics.
"Gwen, Petra. You can close your eyes if you want," her babulya said after a moment of deliberation. "Nothing here of interest will do you any good."
Gwen and Petra regarded one another. One thought nothing could be worse than being eaten alive by a Faceless skin changer, while the other likely recalled her time with 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.
The platform began to move.
The familiarity of the transit system filled Gwen with a weird 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.
A gruff old Mage 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 the 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.
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. They need to multiply, and they're fond of humans."
The girls said nothing. The levitation platform descended. The party continued past 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. The crazed woman tore away her prisoner's uniform and spread herself against the invisible pane. Then her 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 the man's words with a grain of salt.
The bottom of the LG-24 was where they finally arrived. More PLA correctional officers secured the room beyond.
"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 it could be reactivated at any time.
She looked up from her lead-like feet.
There he was.
In the middle of the desolate room, dressed in bright orange, 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 hers. She was a marionette pulled by stubborn strings.
"Gwen, I am glad you're here," a voice issued from above. 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? Could she 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.
The regret she felt was immeasurable.
"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.
Far 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 adjacent, more relaxed than his western counterpart. Tilangqiao was, after all, Wong's home ground.
The man 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.
Then there was their fourth, an uninvited guest.
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.
For a long while, Wen had 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.
They were a group of very talented people with a rare genealogy.
Thankfully, the old dog's loathing of his grandaughter was an act of serendipity, a convergence of stars that drove Klavdiya to her for aid. Were it not for fate, Magister Wen could not have imagined 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. She had uncovered that Gwen's 'mother' was a worthless Fire Mage! Two tiers from an NoM! Who was Hai kidding?
How would a Salt Mage and a Fire Mage produce a Lightning-Void progeny? What freakish miracle was that?
So she dug deeper, sending out feelers into the Commonwealth's Towers, the more she uncovered. 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 learned 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 on Sobel's talent.
So what did that make Gwen the only Void Mage to flourish thereafter?
Wen did not believe in coincidence.
With the data gleaned from Gwen's 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, 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 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, the potential of cowing the Demi-humans as Sobel had done was immensely appealing to men like Gunther Shultz.
But why was the Ashbringer here?
Even now, 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 perfect. 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 and transformed into a serial killer. 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.
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?
The more Gwen could be pushed, the more accurate her statistics. Then the girl would break, but that was also important data. As with Material Spellcraft, the boiling point was crucial knowledge. Didn't Gunther Shultz once 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..." The girl said.
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.
Wen's mind grew blank.
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 a shrill scream, then immediately regretted her tale-telling outburst.
Her eyes darted to Jun and then to Guo.
Cold sweat oozed 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 could hear the blood pounding her skull.
"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 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 Towers. If anything, they should be the ones dressing her down. "Please accept my apologies. I was merely surprised that my candidate had been replaced."
She felt her skin prickle with goosebumps when she met their mocking eyes. They're all in on it! The thought struck Wen 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. Not true. Yes, I do not trust the girl. She is an anomaly, an impossibility made flesh. And I resent her allegiance with the late Henry Kilroy."
The old hound's presence seemed to grow as his voice fell lower. Though Wen stood perfectly still, she felt cornered by an ancient beast. That was the difference between an academic against one who had survived a global conflict and 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.
Magister 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 Communist 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 did not offer a 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 man's mental pressure was immense!
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 twist when the prison's name played across Jun's lips.
Her eyes drifted toward Wong and Webber.
"We fully support 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 noted. She wouldn't die today.
"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."
The man's voice made Wen wish she had shut her mouth.
"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 beak 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 forced her fingers to curl into a fist. The Path of Spellcraft never did run smoothly. These militant meatheads would never understand. Like the old Faustian allegory, the ends justified the means so long as knowledge could be gained. Who could judge a Meister after the fact?
She had run this far without pausing for breath. How could she stop now?
"Gwen, please proceed," Magister Wen's command called out from above after an uncomfortably long silence.
Before Gwen could summon her wits, a familiar figure appeared beside the three women and the Warden.
"Uncle Jun!" Gwen's greeting had a tone of ambivalence. She did not want to see her uncle when she was in such an immature state. That said, much of her present circumstance was beginning to make sense now.
"Gwen." Jun grinned at her. "I've prepared a dossier of Choi's inglorious service to the State. 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 and then handed over a data slate. "Trust yourself first and foremost. Please read it, then make a decision. If you choose to quit, I support that as well."
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." Her grandmother hugged her son.
"Uncle." Petra shook his hand.
"Mother. Petra." Jun greeted the others in turn. "Let's give Gwen some space."
Above, there was only sullen silence from Magister Wen.
Distribution of Illicit Substance
The jargonistic 'state' crime list 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 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 reducing the man's remains to ash to prevent Necromantic tempering.
Choi was a dead man walking.
And she 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. She knew it was ungrateful to resent her uncle, but having her resolve deflated in such a manner felt like a slap.
She approached 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.
"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 you want to say anything, you can make your peace now."
Choi drooled, his eyes unblinking.
Gathering her wits, she made some space between them.
The netherworld worm slipped into the material plane.
"Shaa-Shaa!" Anticipating what was to come, Caliban opened its head carapace to reveal two tentacles, one cobalt and the other crimson.
"I am proceeding," Gwen informed the assembly above. The thrumming floor increased in pitch; its diagnostic magic cranked to full.
As Caliban came closer, Choi's body began to shudder, 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 thrashed in his seat.
The sound from his lips was 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.
Jun's expression soured. "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." Her uncle'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. His eyes rolled upwards as muscle and ligament distended.
Gwen stood only half a meter away, her shoes spotted with gore, her pearly teeth gnashing fiercely until her gums bled.
My choice, my responsibility, my remorse. Gwen had to burn this moment into her mind, or else she was no better than her Master's estranged and insane wife.
The grotesque onomatopoeia indicated that there was now enough of Caliban inside Choi's chest to overburden the ribcage. If the man could scream, Gwen felt she could forever kiss the sweet innocence of sleep goodbye.
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, and Choi's limp head hung against his spine.
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.
Petra 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.
The euphoria that struck her was between a tier 3 Tusker Boar and half a Nephres Zalaam. Akin to the Schmidt Pain Index, Gwen figured she should mentally compile a Caliban Index, with Nephres at ten and the small-fry at one. With an arm holding onto babulya for support, Gwen weathered the grotesque tide of pleasure gnashing her innards, perceiving herself as a standing stone amidst breaking waves. Her limbs shook even as Gwen's fingers gripped her grandmother's shoulders, clenching until it was pale and bare-knuckled.
But she held on, conscious and lucid.
"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 she 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, and her swan's neck held her aloft effortlessly.
Petra packed away her Vomit-Cube and incanted a cleansing Prestigitation.
"Sorry." Her cousin looked away. "I thought I knew, but in hindsight, I knew nothing."
"Gwen, can you activate Enchantment and Illusion Sigils now?" Compared to Petra's introspection, the voice of Wen from above 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 a theory by indoctrination. You couldn't miss it if you tried."
Caliban 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.
Gwen starkly smiled. Calmly, 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.
Gwen turned 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 feel it."
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, leaving 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 that one might have thought she was compelled to be present by coercion. "We'll be having another biometric session Sunday midday, twenty-four hours from now."
"Yes, Ma'am," Gwen replied.
With a flick of the wrist, Gwen produced a cleansing cube. A single LDM later, she 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. "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 arms and telling her not to worry.
The role reversal seemed to have caught the prideful girl off-guard.
"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 timid. I take it Guo's poured 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! 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.
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.