"Eat up! Eat up!" Gwen peeled another Crystal-Shell Scampi for her brother, reserving the creamy prawn head for herself to suckle. After the match and feeling mightily hungry due to her workout, she had decided to shout the family a Wildland feast at Sails, a restaurant owned by the House of M. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, she also called Tao, Mina and Petra, though the latter declined, citing that she was synthesising unspeakably sophisticated magic.
"A young boy needs more protein to grow!" She spooned a famously steaming scallop onto Percy's plate, feeling particularly motherly after the long absence. "Percy, I give you permission to invite me to your formal."
"Not on your life!" Percy endured his sister's teasing. "And I can eat by myself..."
"Hahaha." Gwen poked at her brother with the peeled prawn. "Feeling salty over getting arse kicked?"
Percy snapped at the prawn, almost biting her fingers, eliciting much mirth from their extended family.
"Here." Tao likewise slapped a fillet onto Mina's plate, fulfilling his filial duty. "Eat up."
Mina's lips twitched. She turned to Gwen. "Your IIUC match was amazing. You should have called us over before you fought Percy. I wanted to see your magic for myself!"
Initially in the brother-on-sister duel, Gwen had restricted herself to tier 4 spells and below in addition to setting Ariel and Caliban to watch. Taking advantage of the fact that Percy could Blink but not Dimension Door, she played tag with her brother throughout the duelling cage, occasionally blasting Percy with jolts of lightning while he gave chase, bounding from wall to wall like a jacked-up Pika, throwing salt shards that ricochetted from her double-shields. Eventually, Gwen managed a Warding Bolt and Call Lightning, leaving Percy awkwardly stuck between defence and offence. After her brother grew frustrated, she allowed him to go all out, pelting her with Salt Bolts, blasts, sprays, cages and explosions while she leisurely summoned her hounds. What followed was Percy howling in frustration as a half-dozen horse-sized Deerhound chased him about the chamber, yelping and sparking as Percy leapt and Blinked, ultimately pinning him and giving him paralysing licks.
Outside the barrier, Guo and Klavdiya had grown slack-jawed. It was one thing to hear about the prowess of their granddaughter, and quite another to see her in action. The effortlessness with which Gwen toyed with Guo's pride and joy was painful to watch, ratifying the reality that indeed, Gwen had already fought several bouts against Titan and Mythic class beings.
"I prefer a date over six-feet tall." Gwen continued her poking, seemingly determined to displace Mei. "Maybe a set of nice stilettos will get you up to speed."
Percy growled. So far, he managed a meter sixty-six.
"Yo a Transmuter, dawg, polymorph another six-inches and yo be golden." Tao wiggled his pinky, then snapped a snow crab's leg in two. "Dang, dis some expensive shit, Gwen. You making bling?"
"I am indeed making the bling." She made a gang-sign with a prawn-head and a crab claw. "Hows the crew?"
"My bros be doing finer than yo ass—"
"Alright, alright" Mina intervened before their grandfather could sour all the sashimi with a scowl. "Tao, you came to ask Gwen something, just say your damn piece, and say it properly!"
"And what would that be, Peaches?" Gwen sidled closer to her cousin, watching his eyes pivot.
"Er…" Tao began to sweat. "When you heading to the states, dawg."
"I hear yoz going ta be going overseas soon, worldwide! I ma hit up the west coast on biz, ya know? With pops. I wanna be dere when you do. We can cruz and chill in dem hills."
"You want to hang out in LA?" Gwen gestured in surprise with a scampi-tail.
"Tao's doing well with his shows," Mina explained. "Our Dad's been to the states a few times on business, so it shouldn't be too hard for Tao to apply for a visitation permit."
"Why do you want to come with me?" Gwen cocked her head. "Why not get a travel agent, or go with a tour group?"
"Whats a tour group?" Tao's brows formed the Chinese pictogram for eight. "Naw, I was jus thinking, ya know? Your crew, mah crew, hanging out. Full Gansta! Maybe bring Petra..."
Gwen again turned to Mina for a translation. Mina rolled her eyes.
"I wouldn't recommend bringing Tao," Guo intervened, his expression darkening. "The Americans aren't a part of anything, not even the Mageocracy. They're a big country but hardly unified like we are. In their cities, the bourgeoisie lives like kings while the proletariat lives like the meanest animal."
"I ain't going to find trouble," Tao protested vehemently. "I am going for music! For art! Ya dig?"
"Erm…" Gwen felt torn.
"He won't bother your delegation," Mina passed on what Tao had failed to communicate in his gobbledygook lingo. "I think Peaches wants to time his visit with your IIUC so that he could have some backup if he gets into trouble. Where he wants to go isn't exactly the safest parts of the city. He'll be with his boys, and you guys could meet up if you can spare the time."
"Yeah, we need some hunnies—"
"Ah…" Gwen realised the truth. She clapped her hands. "Assuming we're in L.A, I am happy to do that. Peaches?"
"You da top, Gwen!"
"I am going to speak to Bao," Guo grumbled darkly.
"Oh, come on, dawg!"
"Yeye," Gwen intervened. "Maybe this is good for Tao. He can see the world outside of Shanghai, open up his horizons. Maybe he can find himself over there and come home a changed man."
"A tour at the Front would make him a changed man."
"A changed man, Yeye, not a CHANGED one. I don't think Aunty Nen would like that." She patted her grandfather's hand. "At any rate, I fully support Tao wanting to better himself."
"Erg." Mina shot her brother a look of contempt. "Gwen, you put it so eloquently."
"Yeah, you tell em!" Tao threw Guo a "W", though Gwen halted him from digging himself deeper.
"Work out the kinks with your father, alright, Peaches? Also, I have no idea when I am going. It could be next month. It could be as late as February."
"Leave that to me." Tao puckered his lips. "You just do your thang."
"Alright…" she tugged free a crystalline glob of flesh from the twitching lobster. "I'll let you know."
The coming Monday, Gwen forced herself to return to training with Walken. Making big bucks, feasting with family and chumming with her cousins was all very relaxing, but her true vocation was the tireless pursuit of magical prowess.
"I have confirmation from the Dean that Petra will be joining the international portion of the IIUC," Walken informed her when they stopped to rest. "Are you surprised?"
"Not really..." she confessed.
Walken waited for Gwen to explain herself.
"...for one, you and Marie have been raging on about this Omni-Mage business. And though Petra's skillset isn't optimal, her Spellcubes are extremely flexible, AND she's the only one Wen can trust to keep an eye on me. Not to mention Wen's probably frothing at the mouth for more data. Additionally, with Petra, we shouldn't be suffering another Mind Magic incident, I hope."
Walken smiled. "Well done."
"To be straight, I think you're hyping up the Omni-magic thing." Gwen summoned a mote of Enchantment, then allowed the golden glow to fizzle. "I don't feel much different."
"It'll take time and research," her instructor assured her. "Rome was not built in a day, after all. Do keep in mind that the Imperial Metric for magic isn't exact. Spellcraft represents our best observations of magical phenomena. With your unprecedented range of Schools, who's to say you won't break new ground? Hmm? Von Shultz's Radiant magic is a good example. What Kilroy did with that boy was nothing short of a miracle."
"So, I should continue to experiment with Signature Spells like Chakram?"
"Naturally, though you have much more distance to cover yet. Of course, you could rely instead on the expertise of others. Not every Mage can be Archmage Bilby Bigglesworth, or his master, the Magi Morden."
"Are you volunteering, Eric?"
"I am humbled by your expectations." Walken bowed, tipping an invisible hat.
Gwen chuckled. After Burma, she felt that the taut tension that existed between them had slackened somewhat. She would never forgive the man for what he did in Sydney, but she was beginning to see where Gunther had been right- that it was far more useful to keep Walken within arm's reach.
After the pleasant prophecy of good things to come, two more hours of Conjuration followed through a concourse Walken had conjured. By its end, Gwen had run her mind haggard with spell-fatigue.
In the afterglow, Walken conjured a chair and lied back against the spine. "Gods, I am no longer even a middle-aged man. I should remember that."
"Your VMI and mental fortitude are impressive," Gwen remarked. "I am struggling to keep up."
"I hate to imagine what you would become in a few decades." Walken materialised a wet towel to place on his forehead. "Ah, that's better."
"What do you think we should do next?"
"You want to keep going?" Walken made a face. "I veto your enthusiasm."
"For tier 6 Conjuration, I mean," she snorted. "I'd love to learn Teleportation Circle, but I lack proficiency in scripting Mandalas."
"Well…" Her instructor rested his eyes. "In terms of added combat utility, I would venture to learn Bilby's Hand, something in between Evocation and Conjuration. The Evocation variant allows for push, pull and crash, while the Conjuration variant allows for longer duration and more complex manipulations. Henry, I recall, had a variation which allowed for significant dexterity, and could even act as a shield. Lightning isn't the best medium, but with your current VMI, raw mana or Void would make a viable option."
Gwen's lips puckered into an 'O'.
"If you want raw power, there are loftier targets." Walken produced a thermos, then poured each of them a cup of Cylon. "How do you like that Titan-class magma one-eye Seoul summoned."
"Strong as all hell." Gwen nodded eagerly. "Can you conjure one?"
"I can." Walken nodded. "Planar Ally isn't a rare spell, just an expensive and bothersome one. It takes weeks to set up initially, even for the best of Conjurers, then after that, at least an hour to recreate the mandala. It also requires you to be an Enchanter, or have an Enchanter on hand."
"We got Petra and me."
"You're an illiterate Enchanter," Walken remarked drily. "Worse than a novice."
"Petra, I choose you!"
"Even so, we're talking about Quasi-Elemental beings here. Back before the IMS was a thing, folks worshipped them as Gods. A Planar Ally isn't a Familiar you're summoning, but a living, thinking, elemental being with individual agendas."
"Depends." Walken sipped his tea. "A mundane Mage summons an Avatar of Fire, a Djinn, something like the demi-humanoid Salamander Chen Hufei has tamed, but much, much more powerful. Its first instinct is to burn everything, turn each and everything it sees into its habitat in the Elemental Plane of Fire. To the Salamander, the Prime Material is too cold, too moist, and it hates it here. Should you, the Conjurer, try to bend it to your will, you're surely going to piss it off, so your first fight is with the very thing you conjured."
"The spell has control mechanisms built into it, of course, but it varies from caster to caster, monster to monster, and Mandala to Mandala," Walken explained. "We know that there are civilisations of Elemental beings that exist in the Planes, just as they do in our world. If you take up extra-planar studies as a Post-graduate in Europe, you may know more, but for now, there are three steps: conjuration, subjugation, then contract."
"Which consist of?"
"Elementally aligned crystals generally work well," Walken continued. "Creature Cores make better bargaining chips, as are particular forms of flora. In the olden days, Druids and Shamans would offer willing or unwilling colleagues, kins, maidens, kids, whole villages, the enemy city. You name it."
"And in exchange?"
"They perform favours. Though your Kyoto allies may know more, likewise, should you encounter Spirit Casters or Blood Priests from the Inca regions, they have unique rites with far more intricate methodologies. In that regard, the Mageocracy's knowledge is vastly inferior. The Commonwealth favours predictability over all else, after all."
"Well, I've got lots of Crystals," Gwen declared confidently. "And I could also prepare Cores if need be. What are we talking about, ten-thousand HDMs?"
"To begin, then more with each additional favour. I shall invite Wen if you're truly interested. She's the superior Mandala scribe." Walken then indicated to Caliban, who was playing by rolling itself like a cigar back and forth across the hall, sparking mana flares from the barriers. "That and ready a sturdy containment field. Can you imagine what would come out, if that's the calibre of beings you're trafficking?"
"Righto," Gwen called Caliban and Ariel to her, then made them invisible for the outing. "I'll let Pats know."
Outside, Gwen felt a chilling breeze the moment she exited the training hall with Walken in tow, feeling as though someone or something had walked across her grave.
Puzzled, she checked her attire, consisting of spats under her skirt and a conforming sports top under a jacket. Though the temperature had cooled in autumn, she felt plenty warm thanks to her draconic-constitution, so why was it that her thighs were covered in goosebumps?
"What's wrong?" Walken caught his student shivering.
"I am not sure." Gwen reached behind her head and gingerly probed Ayxin's scale, noting its dormancy and thanking the Yinglong that she wasn't having another draconic-episode. "I think something tripped my Divination Sigil."
"That's not good." Walken glanced about the place. "Aella!"
The Couatl materialised.
"Ariel!" Gwen sent out her Familiar as well.
Both creatures surveyed the perimeter.
"Where you headed now?" Walken put on a newspaper cap as they entered the dying sunlight.
"Supper with the team," Gwen indicated to the north of the campus. "There's a new bun shop. Think Petra will mesh with the others?"
"She has her ways." Walken grinned. "I wonder if her ice queen exterior is her true self, or if she's deliberately trying to alienate her past. To my understanding, Moscow's Mind Mage training for their agents involves very peculiar benchmarks for sociability."
"I like her just the way she is," Gwen confessed. "If she's suddenly all flirty, I don't know…"
Walken looked up, seeing that Aella had returned.
"Safe!" Aella announced, accurately mimicking human speech.
"Ee ee!" Ariel agreed.
The two then proceeded across the campus, nodding at star-struck students as they passed, suffering the occasional lumen-bulb. In the distance, the sound of motor-hoons in their obnoxious vehicles filled the air. Once she and her instructor paced past Fudan's Handan Campus, Walken paused, indicating that he would now part from her.
"Eric, where do you live?" Gwen felt suddenly curious as to where a former Magister and one of the ten most powerful human beings in Australia would make their home. All around them were high-rises in concrete and glass, surely one of them held her instructor's penthouse.
"Er…" Walken appeared visibly uncomfortable. "Why?"
"I am curious." Gwen noted the man's tenseness and grew proportionately curious. "Well?"
"I'd rather not say."
"Oh, come on, Eric," Gwen chortled derisively. "A Magister like you, in which one of these buildings do you make your lair?"
Walken pointed to a flat between two gleaming, multi-storey buildings.
"NO WAY!" Gwen gestured at a brick and mortar flat wedged between two buildings, an old 80s communist-bloc apartment straight out of Nineteen-Eight-Four. "You live in that?"
"It's homely enough." Walken evaded the subject. "In Oxbridge, I lived in a dorm the size of your bedroom for five years. In Sydney, I lived in the Tower. It was far easier that way. Didn't Henry live in his Grot? It's no different."
"What about your family?"
"They're here and there, scattered across Europe and Oceania. I have daughters. You know that, right?"
"You're still married, aren't you?" Gwen wanted to know why Walken had so much free time to spend in Shanghai.
Without warning, Walken abruptly parted from her, crossing the street with such haste that a car screeched.
"Eric..." Gwen realised she might have stepped on a landmine. She berated herself for the intrusion, realising that perhaps, even Eric had limits to his patience. "Well fuck—"
But her instructor was already gone, leaving her feeling like an ass.
Walken closed the door to his flat, simultaneously activating his defensive rings. He had felt watched the moment he and Gwen crossed the campus, and now he knew it wasn't Gwen that their watcher was watching.
The mouldy flat was crowded with old books and unpacked boxes. It wasn't so much that Walken lacked the will to tidy the place, but that the unit was a temporary abode and he saw no need to make himself overtly comfortable in a home that arguably, he may need to abandon quickly.
And now, it would appear he had an unwelcome guest.
Upon the latch, he had placed a piece of semi-transparent Moonlit Moth silk. The material was hypersensitive to magical interference and readily dissolved when magic touched the locking mechanism. It was a mundane, non-magical method of detecting magical intrusions, one he had learned from Kilroy long ago. With Mages having access to Lock and Unlock, nothing short of an offensive barrier would deter intruders, and Walken wasn't about to invest in a site he used only to rest his eyes and stow mundane materials.
Still, his intruder had chosen wisely. Aella was too large to fit into the old flat, meaning an unsuspecting Walken would not be able to conjure his Familiar.
Should he attack first? He wondered, then decided against a preemptive strike on the basis that if this were some PLA Ghost or a spook from the Militant Faction, killing their agent would only invite more suspicion.
As he placed his coat on the hanger and stowed his scarf, he readied a Dimension Door- one that would safely deposit him outside. That was another reason why he had chosen the old flat - 80s buildings lacked the complex arcanistry of materials that disrupted teleporting into and out of the structure itself. Concurrently, blowing away a decrepit old apartment was far less likely to attract the ire of powerful people, and more importantly, influential cohabiters who would demand answers.
Inside the crowded, paper-strewn living room, he felt a presence.
"I see I have a guest," Walken intoned as he entered the corridor, addressing the silhouette within. "Is it too late to welcome you to my humble abode?"
A few streets away, Gwen's mood was lightened by a satisfying feeling of schadenfreude when she spotted a haphazardly parked convertible in a loading zone being ticketed by a patrol officer.
Loud cars belonging to well-to-do Fu-er-dai wasn't unusual, though what caught her attention was the offensive way it had been parked, for four distinct tire marks lead from the opposite lane, suggesting that the car had slid into place with a great stink of rubber and mana exhaust.
Curiously, the vehicle was a glaring crimson, Italian-made convertible, resembling an old-world Alfa-Romeo married with a 918.
"Ma'am, is this your vehicle?" a youthful officer demanded of her, seeing that both the foreign car and the girl appeared prohibitively expensive.
"Nope, I am just admiring." Gwen sidled closer, catching a crimson shawl behind the driver's sea, the kind that a woman with a head full of autumn-coloured hair might use to prevent her flaming tresses from blowing out while driving.
Could it be? She studied the vehicle for more clues, feeling uneasier by the minute. If her Sister-in-craft had come to Shanghai, surely she would be informed. Gunther would have called, meaning she should be at the ISTC, picking up Alesia in person, then whisking her away to the Waldorf Astoria for tapas, jazz and drinks.
The officer cast her a curious glance before resuming his patrol, likely wondering when he'd seen her face.
"Excuse me." A middle-aged Asian man suddenly materialised from the crowd, his expression the exact opposite of calm and collected. "Are you Gwen Song?"
Gwen immediately placed herself behind the convertible, creating some distance between them. There were many NoMs about, and a fight would only endanger the public. Not far, the officer was still out and about.
"Who's asking?" She sent Ariel overhead. There was a subtle stink of ozone as her Kirin grew in size.
"Alan Ma, at your service." The Mage inclined his head while spreading both hands to show that he meant her no harm. Very slowly and carefully, he held out his identification. "PLA Tower. I hold the rank of Magus. My Uncle, James Ma is your instructor."
At the mention of her colleague's name, Gwen relaxed Ariel's hypersensitive vigilance.
"Miss Song." The Magus was sweating like a greased up pig. "I take it that you did not see Magus de Botton?"
With a sudden clarity, the source of her unease became clear.
"SHIT!" Gwen swore loud enough for the whole street to hear. "WALKEN!!"