Uncle and niece returned on foot, travelling in sullen silence, each buried in their ruminations. Gwen tried to reignite the conversation, but her uncle responded with scant and sodden interest, extinguishing any small-talk.
Sighing inwardly, Gwen excused herself, found a secluded area, let out her Familiars, then changed out of her dress. She first switched to her Flying Boots, finding the leather more suitable for trekking, then attired herself with a plain t-shirt and the skort, lamenting her missed opportunity to see a living breathing mythical dragon from yore. She had anticipated the encounter, wondered at the physicality of a being possessing every chimeric animal-part, fantasied about how inferior to Almudj the creature would be.
As she laced up her boots, she observed Jun in the distance, casually leaning against a tree, resting his eyes.
Was he thinking perhaps, of Ayxin, the Dragon-woman? A tenderness in Gwen's chest made her diaphragm cramp uncomfortably. Jealousy was a useless emotion, she knew - AND this was her uncle Jun, a man toward whom she should be infinitely grateful. Try as she might, subconscious longing and rationality rarely made bipartisan partners. If anything, her peevish pettiness surprised her. For a woman weened on the parable of the green-eyed monster that doth mock the flesh it feasts upon, she was eating it up.
Was it an Electra-complex thing? Gwen attempted some self-imposed Freudian psychoanalysis. She had paid her psychologist enough to learn a thing or two. Or maybe, she was merely a terrible sharer, a hoarder of affections, a proverbial, selfish bitch?
They had made it about half way when the two of them ran smack into an ‘ambush’ by a pack of Merfolk.
These were the classic bipedal kind, fish-faced and brightly-scaled, wielding crude spears with sharp obsidian tips that worked wonders against naked flesh and animal hide; omnivorous, vicious, and possessing of a dangerous low-cunning.
Her uncle stood back and watched his niece expend her peculiar frustration, testing her powers against regular foes who didn’t possess near-immunity to Spellcraft magic.
Having spent all of her vitality-stores, Gwen opened up with Lightning.
A single Bolt pierced three Mermen in a row: the first disintegrated, blown clear apart; the second had electricity gushing out of its eye sockets, the third fried. Behind the trio, a conifer caught fire.
“No~ my vitality!”
Surprised by the potency of her spell, Gwen switched to her Familiars.
Caliban and Ariel stalked through the forest, plucking up the escaping fish-men one by one. Compared to a week ago, barely a hint of colour touched her cheeks as her arachnid-aberration hunted down the fleeing opponents.
The ease of her hunt, both physically and psychologically, startled Gwen. After the prison and their poaching adventure, she had evidently crossed a threshold when it came to using Caliban’s most grotesque and unnatural powers.
She pursued the Merfolk for about half a kilometre, harnessing about a dozen individuals worth of life-force. After returning with a portion of her hunger sated and a spring in her step, she rejoined dear uncle Jun, and the two went on their merry way.
By evening, they arrived at the outpost.
Immediately, the two were accosted by a PLA patrol.
“Sir!” It was a man and a woman, leading a group of about ten NoMs.
Jun had approached, hands in the open and his I.D plainly visible.
“Captain Song!” The woman’s eyes burned with worshipful intensity. “Welcome back Sir! The Commander told us to look out for the two of you and to inform him immediately upon your return!”
Jun thanked the troop and commended them for their hard work.
The two Mages bristled with heart and conviction, while the NoMs gave Jun apathetic looks. The NoM conscripts were, as per doctrine, all-male; as men possessed higher combat potential, and having female NoMs about was a recipe for public outrage.
The men's eyes licked over Gwen, who paid them no mind. She was far more interested in her next meal. The crass vitality of the goblinoid merfolk was hardly sufficient after the draconic feast.
Another hour of magically-assisted trekking took the duo into the vicinity of the Anhui Military Outpost.
Having received word of their arrival, the Commander put on yet another banquet. A second officer’s dinner ensued. Again, the female Officers broke out the distilled spirits, though Gwen had wisened up to their attempts at loosening her lips.
After eating every other thing on the table that wasn't utensil or platter, the dinner ended in high spirits.
They stayed the night at the Commander’s behest, opting to leave by early morning.
Gwen informed Jun that she wanted to account for their loot, but her uncle advised patience until they could obtain privacy. Cores, particularly the fact that they possessed low to medium level cores from Draconic creatures, should be kept a secret. One core was fine; two was a surprise, three was pushing it. A dozen cores at once, all of the same type? A recipe for disaster.
The next day, after a pleasant breakfast with the Commander, the two were again on their way.
They had being absent from Shanghai a week by now, about half the anticipated time they would be away.
“It’s like I’ve got a new car,” Jun joked as he started up his Jeep, fully fuelled and polished inside and out by enthusiastic grunts.
As the two drove out from the base and hit the main road, the real world came flooding back; not just in the sense that they were on bitumen, finally seeing signs of human habitation, but that the surreal unreality of Huangshan was finally behind them.
“I am not looking forward to checking my Messages.” Jun adjusted his Message Device and changed the setting from LOS to roaming.
Oh yeah, Gwen reminded herself.
The trip was done, the voyage was over; she was back on land and all the things that she had left in stasis now becked and called for attention.
The matter of her training for the next few months.
The mind-blowing absurdity of her father's marriage.
The machinations of Magister Wen.
The displeasures of her grandfather.
The designs of her unseen enemies, such as a certain Lord Ravenport, or Spectre, or Outsiders, or Rogue Mages, or whatever they called themselves.
But there were more pleasant forecasts as well.
Dates with Mina and the girls around downtown.
A jam session with Tao just as soon as she could learn how to make music with Illusion.
Spellcraft studies with Petra.
Luncheons with babulya.
Maybe an adventure or two with Richard and his crew.
Checking up on Lulan and Kusu.
Mayuree, who was probably worried sick after a week without a peep from her 'fated' Gwen.
Calls to her friends overseas.
Aping her uncle, she likewise activated a glyph on her Message Device, a discrete bangle, switching the Divination to roaming.
Gwen cherished the din.
It was the sound of civilisation. Birdsong was nice, and pines were pretty chill, but she was a big city girl, and nothing comforted quite like the sound of a mass communiqué from friends and family. As any Instagram addict would know, there's nothing quite like a full inbox and a list of notifications that fell off the screen.
She tapped through the messages.
“Gwen, it’s Petra. How are the woods? I hope you’re keeping safe. Master has asked about you, and I told her that you’re still with your Uncle Jun. All the best with those Cores. Spirits are rare for a reason. Don’t worry; you can always save up CCs to get one. The main thing is to stay safe. It's kind of strange coming home to an empty apartment.”
Gwen played the next Message.
“Yo! Cuz, its the big T with the big P, PEACHES! Hey yo listen, er, last time you guys made a real-good impression at the show, and I was hoping that you and Pats could like, come to another show you know? This time for real there’ll be hunnies there, not just homies. By the way, Mina misses you too; she be so HIGH if you could come down to the next show!”
Gwen bit her lips amusedly then pressed the glyph for next.
“GWEN! Don’t LISTEN TO PEACHES. He’s got nothing! It’s another one of those retarded rap battles! I am not even going-”
“- HEY! Give that back to me! PEACHES, GIVE IT BACK! You're asking for it, you little ass. DAD! DAAAAD!!!”
Chuckling until her abdomen hurt, she pressed next.
“Gwen. Got a Message from London for you. Elvia called. I don’t know when you’re back, so that’s what I informed her. She said she’ll wait for you to get back. Petra.”
A familiar voice drifted out from the Messages' recorded audio.
It was Hai.
“Gwen! I have excellent news. After speaking to your new soon-to-be mother, she has decided that you should be her bridesmaid! WONDERFUL. Right? You’re a maid, I hope, and you happen to be at a perfect age! It’s a rare position! You have no idea how many beautiful girls were jostling for the hono-”
Gwen turned off the Device, her jovial mood instantly drawn and quartered.
“Uncle.” She turned to Jun, who had been listening to his very own Messages as they sped along the winding pass back to Hangzhou. “I just received a terrible piece of news from Father.”
Jun’s expression suggested he had also received 'the good news'.
“You can listen for yourself.” Her uncle pressed another glyph, and an audible Message from Guo began to play.
“Ah-Jun, where are you now? I need you to return to Hangzhou. Leave the moment you receive this Message. If your niece protests, tell her the Dragon-spawns are not going anywhere. I have just met with Sumei Liu. Your Mother and I are currently at his estate, trying to salvage what’s left of our mien. The wedding needs to proceed as soon as possible. Your brother has requested you to be his best man. This whole thing is moving faster than expected. Qīn's pregnancy will be showing soon. Your Mother is upset, to say the least. Let me stipulate, return as soon as possible-”
Then there was a brief second of silence, followed by a grudging postscript.
“- the both of you, be safe.”
“I guess we’re headed back to Hangzhou?”
“Don’t think we have a choice.”
They sighed together.
Their synchronicity was such that they both chuckled.
“Okay, let’s make the best of it,” Jun urged his niece. “You could dress up again.”
“No, no, no!” Gwen advised her inexperienced uncle. “Father just asked me to be a bridesmaid, meaning I absolutely cannot dress up. I need to dress DOWN. Its absolute taboo for a bridesmaid to have better makeup, better hair, or a better-looking dress than the bride. I’ll be wearing flats and making my hair as flat as possible. Then I’d have to hold her dress, follow her around all day; there’s going to be a lumen-pic Illusionist following us around, recording the whole thing. There’s going to be the ceremony, the reception, the dance, the line-up and farewell, speeches - my GOD.”
“You know awfully a lot about weddings,” Jun marvelled. “I’ve been to a few, but never… well. You know.”
“Not even as a best man?”
“Not even once.”
“Wow, that’s hard to believe.” Gwen raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“The guys I graduated with, there’s not many of them left,” Jun’s tone took on a more serious edge. “As for the guys I work with, the Ghosts - let’s say we’re usually not the kind to marry, much less have a life outside of our work. One of the guys did get married while under deep cover, and let me tell you, that turned out to be one hell of a situation.”
“Oh?” Gwen rather liked her Uncle’s stories of the ‘dark side’.
“Yeah. So, as 'best man', what should I expect? From the sounds of it, it's going to be a Western-Eastern wedding. It's all the rage these days, and I suppose Hai spent most of his life overseas."
Gwen had no idea, but she could make a few educated guesses. She had been to numberless weddings in Australia. All her friends and colleagues were in their 30s, meaning the vast majority of them were married.
Chinese, Indian, Thai, Anglican, Christian, Hillsong; she had been to all sorts, taking on roles such as the MC, multiple times a bridesmaid, and once as the maid of honour. Weddings were fun, even if they are highly stressful. They were also a top joint to meet well dressed and well-mannered blokes on their best behaviour. More often than not, her purse would be bulging with cards and numbers by the night's end. One time, she even took one home; the lumberjack’s beard had made the virile young man appear much older.
“Well, as you said, it’s a Western Wedding with an Eastern reception. There’s probably going to be a ceremony first, walking the aisle and all that. I don’t know if there’s going to be a Priest or not, probably not seeing as we’re in China. This means there’s probably a Celebrant whose going to do the rites, say a few interesting aphorisms. They’ll exchange vows; then we walk out under a shower of rice and flowers.”
Jun listened, fascinated by the strange details of the matrimonial world.
“Then there’s the reception. Which I can guess, is going to be a Chinese one. This means they have to do the tea ceremony; kowtow the heavens, the earth and the parents. The Eastern ones are pretty good for bridesmaids because we don’t have to do anything other than help the bride get up and get down in her dress, pass the tea, fill the pot and all that.”
"As best man, you have to organise a buck's party, though I doubt Qīn is going to like that, knowing Dad. Not to mention this is a shotgun wedding whether we like it or not. I guess you'll need to coordinate groomsmen, assuming there's going to be..."
A disgusting and resentful reality struck her cerebrum.
"Wait a second. Why AM I a bridesmaid? Doesn't Qīn have female friends? Relatives? Who is going to pair with you? WHO IS GOING TO PAIR WITH ME?"
Gwen recoiled; if she were to pair with some stranger, she would prefer been absent.
“How do you know all this?” Jun grinned at Gwen through his visors. “Feeling your age? Do you want to get married? Getting the jitters?”
The question caught her off guard.
“Sure, it’s every girl’s dream, isn’t it?”
Jun's tease gave her a jocular mental prod, nudging her defensive silence.
That’s a little presumptuous, isn’t it? Was the immediate thought going through Gwen’s head.
She had entertained the prospect in her old life, but an opportunity had never presented itself. The concept of matrimony was both the norm and the status quo, but like her literary heroines, she had wanted to enter into sacrament for love with a friend who was also a lover. The problem was that though there was no shortage of willing men, she had never felt any of them could compete for her freedom and autonomy. The idea that she would not be her foremost priority was a hard and bitter pill to swallow. Though potential partners were willing to give in to her demands, she wouldn't wish that sort of union on anyone, much less her spouse.
Her psychologist once told her that it was her fear of trust.
Dr Monroe had then suggested that she lacked role models.
Role models? Gwen had snorted with laughter.
Certainly, her father’s apathy and her mother’s screeching bipolar psychosis did not paint a pretty picture of married life. Gwen recalled having fantasies when she had been an adolescent that her parents weren’t her own, that she was adopted, or that she was a foundling; anything to suggest that her abnormal family life was no fault of her own. Her mundane-world childhood in itself was already traumatic enough; what the Gwen of this world had to go through appalled even her jaded sensibilties.
“I don’t know…” she fell into a contemplative silence.
“Look, sorry I asked."
Jun fell silent for a moment before pipping up once again.
"Say, you ever watched a movie called Stalingrad?” Jun suggested offhandedly.
“The German WWII film?” Gwen remarked.
What a strange pivot, Gwen thought. Did her uncle realise he touched a nerve? It was like she had felt insulted. Sure, she wanted to get married one day. But it wasn’t as though she could marry anyone because her ovaries were ticking down.
“Yeah, that’s the one. The one with the tanks and the suicide platoon.”
“Sure, it’s a classic, why do you ask?”
“Well, I have no idea what a 'tank' is, and I’ve never seen a Sticky Bomb either. Can you elaborate?”
“What, a tank? You’re the military man…”
Something in her mind clicked.
A sensation of numbness manifested, first from her toes, then travelling up her calves and into her thighs. The tingling continued until it became a sliver of ice, travelling up her abdomen, chilling her spine and twisting her diaphragm until it cramped. It crawled up her neck until her scalp itself was paralysed with paranoia. Her breath caught; she couldn’t will herself to take the next breath.
Her mouth opened and closed a few times.
The emptiness within her mind could rival the Bolivian salt flats.
“… you tell me,” she finished up, ten seconds too late.
“Gwen.” Jun kept his eyes on the road, his expression unreadable behind his aviators. “Would you like to get something off your chest?”
It took her battered brain another half a minute to catch up.
What did her uncle know?
How did her uncle find out?
Then suddenly, she could breathe again.
Stirred to defensive wakefulness by her cerebral agitation, Almudj’s Essence grew alive and animated, filling her mana channels with its blessing. Unlike the previous morning when she had been upset by Ayxin, her body inhaled, then exhaled, first profoundly, then in expeditious successions. A pin-prickle from behind her neck activated simultaneously. Though she had her doubts as to the true purpose of Ayxin's scale, she allowed it to induce in her body a cadenced meditation, expanding and contracting Almudj's Essence, massaging the passage of her emerald mana until the turbulent current calmed. After a few moments, she found herself relaxed and no longer held in the grip of crisis.
With her mind returning to lucidity, Gwen took note of the paths before her.
She could confess to her uncle and hope for the best, or she could play the fool and hope for the moment to pass. In this instance, she faced two divergent paths, two trails that bent in the undergrowth, preventing her from seeing past the woods that wend.
It was times like this that Gwen wished her Divination had been the rarer kind, like what Mayuree possessed.
To tell, or not to tell; that was the question-
But she knew deep inside that truth strives for light, secrets themselves may be hidden for a day, but at length, the truth-will-out!
What she now faced was a leap of faith.
How deeply did she trust Jun?
* * *
Jun kept his eyes on the road as Gwen's leaking Dragon-fear subsided. He was beginning to regret breaking the news to his 'niece' so soon, but his thought had been suffocating with the disturbing knowledge ever since they had left the Yinglong's domain.
Maybe that was the purpose; Jun questioned the Yinglong’s gift of wisdom.
Secrets had a way of festering and fermenting. If he kept this from Gwen, it would inevitably affect his feelings for his niece. First, he would see her differently, and then, he would notice her abnormal behaviour; that strange maturity she had exhibited since they had first met in the Sky-Prison would become more prominent, more self-evident. Each time she would attempt to hide her identity, it would sour their bond, he would feel cheated, maligned, untrusted by the girl to who he had given so much of his time and effort. Then, one day, he would tire of her, perhaps even grow to loathe her.
Indeed, now that he thought about it; the Yinglong's actions felt increasingly more malicious.
The Yinglong may market itself as a Demi-God transcending mortal concerns, but in the end, it was still jealously guarding its rice bowl. The dragon wanted to retain its territory, but it was wary of the Human neighbours next door. Fifty years ago, it could have wiped out Shanghai if it had been willing to risk its life. Now, with two Towers, especially the PLA Super-Structure, the Yinglong had no chance.
Though humans only lived a short lifespan, they were ingenious.
Though Dragons were wise and ageless, they were ruthless.
Millenia-old mafiosos who ran century-long cons.
If so, why did the Yinglong choose to remain in its hole, knowing that Humanity was only biding their time? One day, Jun was sure, Humans would spread across the Northern Steppes, vanquishing the undead, conquering the oceans. Even before the Spellcraft Revolution at the turn of the 20th century, Humanity had carved out its niche in the world. Now with the human cities inter-connected by trade, Spellcraft and the Tower System, the demise of the Demi-humans was only a matter of time.
Unless of course, humanity, or at least Shanghai, were to receive a considerable setback.
That was where Gwen came in, and the Yinglong’s vapid, vague Prophesy reared its ugly head. Jun wasn’t a man to believe in fortunes telling. The CCP had long since alienated China's mystic Diviner-Clans, choosing instead to follow the global trend on Spellcraft driven Divinations.
A Divined-warning, even from the Oracle of Delphi herself, was to be taken with a grain of salt. The Yinglong had called Gwen a Calamity, but what did that even mean? A Calamity, by Jun’s standard, had to be an all-consuming disaster that enveloped all without discrimination. In the past, Calamities predicted by the Oracle had been self-evident enough: Tsunamis caused by Merfolk; Incursions of Undead; natural disasters. If Gwen were to be a ‘Calamity’, did that mean she would trigger an event of catastrophic proportions?
More importantly, what did the Yinglong intent Jun to do? What did it expect ANYONE to do?
Was his niece a Calamity?
He recalled seeing Gwen sleeping, curled on her single bed, pale against the moonlight. The girl had breathed softly at first, then nearing midnight, she bemoaned something about ‘Evees’, then snored thunderously before fitfully returning to silence.
How in Mao's name could 'that' be a Calamity?
Jun had replaced her blanket anyway, despite knowing his niece couldn’t possibly catch a cold.
The simple gesture was another paternal fantasy ticked off his bucket list.
Therefore, it had to be a ploy.
Indeed, Jun grew troubled as he drew out a hypothesis.
He could have returned to the city to inform his superiors, or his father, that Gwen was indeed a ‘Calamity’. With confirmation from the Yinglong, the PLA could make doubly sure of the city's future prosperity by keeping the girl iced via indefinite Stasis, deep within Tianlianqiao.
As for the Dragon’s motivation-
Didn’t Gwen boast that she had connections to an older, more powerful entity dwelling in a Black Zone at Australia's centre? It was entirely plausible to Jun that the Yinglong feared this ‘Almudj’.
He felt invested in the theory because it explained Ayxin’s docility and the circumstance of their unscathed exit from Huangshan. There were more unearthed secrets the Yinglong had given him as well, ones which he had to return to Hubei to rediscover via House's archives before he could even begin to believe the Dragon’s information on the origins of the Song family’s Kirin heirlooms.
Now all that remained was to see how Gwen reacted.
How much did the girl trust him?
* * *
In Gwen's mind, she had already confessed to her beloved uncle twice over.
In reality, she was opening and closing her mouth like a fish trying to breathe on land.
All in all, she felt very Prufrockian; marked by weariness, regret, embarrassment and longing; a mess of emotions.
Summoning a bout of courage from Almudj’s blessing, she tried again.
“So... the German soldiers were being punished for desertion,” she recalled expertly from the film. “They had to fight the tanks because it was both punishments, and a means to prove themselves loyal soldiers of the Reich.”
FUCK, Gwen wanted to bang her head on something. That’s not what she meant to say at all! What the hell was she doing?
“I see.” Jun’s face was unreadable.
Gwen gave her cheeks a gentle squeeze.
She was burning up.
Jun did so much for her.
He had risked his life.
He was like a father to her, not an imaginary one either.
Surely, she could tell this man the single most critical secret of her second life, right?
She felt a strong desire to meditate again.
FUCK, if only Dr Monroe were here to mediate.
“I... want... to SAY... that...”
BLOODY HELL! She wondered if slapping herself across the face would help. Maybe she could stab herself in the leg with something.
“Gwen,” Jun interceded any further attempt by Gwen at painfully assaying the truth. “Just say yes, or no.”
“Are you the same Gwen Song I met at the Sky-Prison?”
Gwen considered this question without a truthful answer.
“Are you Hai Song’s daughter?”
“Are you a doppelgänger?”
“Are you an undead sprite, or a being who has died and come back to life?”
That was a more difficult question.
“No. I don’t know. I don’t think so. I never died as far as I know.”
“Okay, that takes a weight off my chest, haha.”
“Did you kill the old Gwen.”
It was true, far as Gwen knew. As far as she knew, the old Gwen likely fell victim to a Void-awakening.
“Can you leave this body?”
“Do you have a spare body or an original body somewhere?”
“No! I don't know.”
“Did you 'willingly' occupy your current body.”
“… No. Yes. I mean, I've grown into it now."
“Do you wish to destroy humanity? Do voices speak to you from the Void?”
“WHAT?! No!” Gwen protested. “I'm as human as anyone! I am… I don’t know. I don’t know anything, Uncle Jun.”
"Do you know a Yog-Sothoth?"
"No! It was a joke! I made it up! Yog-Sothoth is fiction! An excellent fiction, but PURE FICTION nonetheless!"
Jun snorted before he exploded into jovial hilarity.
Gwen listened to her uncle’s deep-throated mirth. The ridicule made her feel better; the pressure lifted from her bosoms. If Jun could laugh, then everything might be okay.
“Let me tell you what I told Ayxin.” Jun's voice came across both resonate and full of seriousness. “I told her that it doesn’t matter who you are. I told her that I did not know anything about this ‘Gwen’ that is now gone because I wouldn’t have known you existed anyway. The 'niece' I chose to help is you, and it is only you - the girl sitting right beside me now. You are GWEN, the one and only 'Gwen'. Do you understand?”
She understood every word, and the comprehension made her feel so light that she could take to the air and just drift away.
Yes, she could trust this man.
With her life story.
With her life.
“Thank you, Uncle Jun. I want to tell you my story if you're willing to listen.”
“I am listening,” Jun replied.
“Alright.” Gwen took a deep breath. “Here goes…”