Of all the goodbyes, it was the inevitable handwringing at Shanghai Hongqiao's ISTC terminal that Gwen dreaded the most.
As anticipated, there were high sentiments from all her relatives, though none was more so heartbroken than her dear old babulya.
"I'll come back and visit as soon as I can," Gwen promised, cradling the old woman in her arms while the others watched. "Give me a year or two, and I'll teleport back. A few thousand HDMs and a hundred-odd CCs are no obstacle for your granddaughter."
"You have to take care of yourself in London!" Her babulya had held together reasonably well the previous week, though not so now. "And this Lady Grey, how do we know she's trustworthy?"
"She's an old friend of Gwen's Master," her grandfather intoned with annoyance, embarrassed by Klavdiya's public display of devotion. "And the Morning Star himself promised the Marchioness would look after Gwen. Stop worrying, dear. She is in good hands."
"It's true!" Gwen kissed her babulya on the forehead, cradling the small babushka in her arms. "I'll be well sheltered. Besides, who can take me on? I've got Cali and Ariel! At worst, I'll throw in Golos. They'll have to bring an army."
"That may be— but a girl should only be so arrogant," Guo criticised her overconfidence. "You'll be meeting some of the finest Mages in the Mageocracy. I would venture to say that there are at least a dozen competent casters among them."
"Pufft!" Tao snorted. "That's why the Party's lily ass exchanged Gwen for English Magisters, true dat?"
"That's classified information," Guo growled, his eyes narrowing dangerously. "Who told you this?"
"Cao…" Tao paled.
"He heard it from me," Gwen apologised. "Yeye, Babulya, I know the two of you have done so much for me since my untimely arrival—"
"I don't know about that, Yeye didn't do shit!" Tao objected. "He wanted to cage you like a bitch!"
"I'll put YOU in Tianlanqiao in a moment!" Guo's face turned scarlet.
"Peaches, shush!" Mina pulled her brother back. "What's wrong with you?"
"Tao's just agitated," Gwen intervened. Moving between the human fruit and their grandfather. "Peaches, you'll miss me, right?"
"You know it!" Tao made a gang-sign. Then, the black sheep of the Wang and Song deflated. "It was fun having you, Gwen. Thanks for coming to mah shows and helping with my lyrics. And for Petra not kicking my ass. And for talking to the old man about music."
"The pleasure's all mine." Gwen pulled both cousins in for a big hug. "Okay, gotta go. Give Uncle Jun my love."
"I will, dear." Her grandmother embraced her again. "Come home soon."
"I'll call as soon as I find a place." Gwen squeezed her grandmother, absorbing her babulya's boundless affection by hugging her tightly against her torso.
Finally, Gwen turned to her conflicted brother.
"Keep up the good work, bro." She grabbed both his hands and squeezed. "I'll wait for you."
"No need." Percy leaned in for a hug, finding his sister meeting him halfway. After rocking the young man back and forth so that the pair appeared floating at sea, Percy pulled himself away. "I am going to catch up to you, Sis. While you train, watch me make our family proud and powerful."
"Good!" Gwen patted his head. "Kick some ass out there, bud. But always remember— stay safe. And don't make Mei cry, else I'll come back here and beat you raw."
"That was the sappiest farewell I have ever seen," Yue greeted Gwen on the opposite side of the barrier. "And I've seen plenty of Frontier send-offs."
"Sorry," Gwen apologised. "I am not used to having a family."
"Nah, it was cute." Yue shrugged. "It makes me happy, you know? Back when we were kids, you were all kind of gloomy and depressing. Your mum was a psycho bitch, and Morye was a right cunt, shit was the pits."
"Yeah." Gwen glanced at her still-waving family outside the Force Barrier. To her amusement, even Guo was waving, albeit discreetly. "Those days are behind me."
"You sure you're okay not going for the parade with Whetu? Team spirit and all that? Promos and stuff."
"Nah, I am a merc," Yue said. "Whetu and the boys, they're the heroes."
"I suppose. It's a shame I couldn't hang out with the Kiwis some more."
"I am more so surprised Dick's not coming with us."
"He's going to settle his family down, then meet us in London. We're on entirely different enrolment schedules. I've also got a lot on my plate before I can attend classes."
"Yeah, like running a bloody empire of greed. Are you as rich as Lulan's yapping? Or is she mostly hot air?"
"Ha!" Gwen grinned. "I've got enough to get by in London. I can borrow crystals to invest as well."
"How much have you got on you?"
"What, right now?"
Gwen held up six fingers.
"Six hundred HDMs?" Yue snorted. "Very impressive."
Gwen gave her friend the stink eye, demanding to know if she was as thick as her bosom was mighty.
Gwen snorted through both nostrils.
"One-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero—" she whispered the numbers across a silent Message. "And then some. Marong had it prepared for London. I am going to need an office, among other things."
"Christ of Naz—"
"Shhh!" She pulled the Evoker closer. "— and I've banked up just over 3000 CCs…"
Yue slapped away her friend's wayward hand. "Oi, now you're just showing off. Peaches' ain't kidding, Dragon-girl."
Gwen giggled, grinning like a shot Wyvern. "What can I say? You're talking to a bona fide rich-bitch."
When Gwen had come through her first ISTC Station, she had been so sick that she could hardly breathe. Now, with her Conjuration hitting the upper-middle tiers and her conduits brimming with VMI, she could barely feel a tickle as she translocated across thousands of kilometres.
Their first stop was Singapore's ISTC, one of the most extensive networks in the southern hemisphere. At the island nation's vast sorcery-inclined shopping mall, Gwen purchased some new clothes, a dozen pairs of shoes— all magical, and some local specialities for Gunther and Alesia. Yue followed her clicking heels, disturbed by the ease of Gwen's capitalist-spendthrift, lacking the words to voice her working-class agitation.
Two hours and a sumptuous meal later, the duo entered another ISTC platform and made for Sydney. This time, there were no complications or abductions, only a flash of Conjuration and a horrid feeling that a part of them remained thousands of kilometres away.
"Welcome to Darwin," a troop of Tower Mages greeted the new arrivals. "Please register your multi-passes at the Administration Block."
After receiving their stamps and Glyphs, the girls made a snack out of fish and chips, then awaited their turn. Forty minutes later, they embarked on yet another ISTC array, hopping from Townsville to Brisbane, then to New Castle, and finally Sydney.
"Huzzah! HOME AT LAST!" a cry of jubilation interrupted the hurried transit of travellers in Sydney's newly built ISTC terminal.
From the exit gate, the staff and the guests were enchanted by the visage of a svelte young sorceress floating across the marble floor, making for the exit.
Once outside, the girl spread her arms wide as though praising the sun, then twirled, tantalising the onlookers with her pale limbs and long hair.
To their surprise, the sorceress retreated no more than a few seconds later, escaping back into the shade to join her companion, a flustered Asian sorceress in military cargos and a tank top.
"Affinity predicaments?" Yue stepped into the sun beside her friend. "We're just into December, but the avo's always a right broil. Is the Aussie summer proving too much for you?"
"I could feel myself cooking." Gwen scrutinised the snail sheen of sweat covering her arms and legs. Gingerly, she examined herself for sunburn. "The Radiance index here is insane! And there's no mana miasma to diffuse the sunlight either."
"Ha! Would you like me to get you a parasol and a cup of tea, my lady?" came Yue's mocking laughter. "You're not even in London yet, and you're already acting like a shrinking violet. Ah, well— I suppose the London fog should agree with you."
"Ah, well indeed—" Gwen circulated Almudj's Essence, not wanting to show up to Alesia and Gunther's supper partially Polymorphed into a lobster.
Unlike in Shanghai or elsewhere, her body was brimming with vigour, as though empowered by something far more substantial than herself. If she were a religious person, she would almost believe herself at the mercy of a higher power. But, the feeling lasted only a second. In its aftermath, everything, even the air and the asphalt beneath her Mary Janes felt intimate and connected.
Gwen inhaled deeply, held the air in her lungs, then exhaled.
Yue glanced at the shuttle busses, each vomiting lungfuls of unspent mana.
"Good for you," she said finally. "So, should we take the T-Circle, the shuttle bus or a taxi? The city's completely changed since you left. Knowing your sense of direction, you might end up back in China."
"Let's share a cab." Gwen beamed, once again stepping into the sun; this time, she felt as though bathed in warm water. In the distance, she could hear the laughing of kookaburras. "Along the way, you can tell me all about it!"
"So, where you lovelies from?"
To demonstrate that some aspects of Sydney remained immutable, the taxi driver kept glancing at his rearview mirror at the two girls seated behind. Compared to the vigilant Yue, Gwen didn't mind the occasional gawker. Her dress wasn't exactly Victoriana, and her contoured calves were arguably a tantalising distraction.
"First time in Sydney? Where to? I could show your ladies the best view of the CBD if you're keen. We're on the up and up. Sydney's an up-and-coming tier 1 city!"
"Mate— keep your eyes on the road," Yue warned their driver. To show that she meant business, the sorceress materialised an ID, one that displayed her Military Rank and her Public Practice of Magic number. Thanks to a ruby-red "5" beside her Schools of Magic, the driver grew instantly attentive.
"We got business at the new Tower. Head north after Kinsington, then swing through Paddington until you hit Town Hall."
"Right away, Ma'am!" The driver half-saluted. "No problem."
The midday traffic through Kingsford proved light as the girls made for the heart of the city. Along the way, Yue ran a running commentary on Sydney's altered landscape.
"You'll see it once you get to Master's place..." Yue spoke at length about the carcass of the Leviathan still parked in the harbour. Thanks to the tsunami that engulfed the coastal suburbs, everything eastward of the Royal Botanic Garden had to be rebuilt from scratch. Once the Mermen inhabiting the organic treasure trove were purged, the Leviathan had then been worked to the marrow, transforming Elizabeth Bay into a maritime strip mine.
Together with the east, most of Sydney CBD's quadrants had been demolished by the invasion as well. Thus far, only the central segment from Macquarie Street to Barangaroo had been reconstructed. Likewise, the crumbling, historical architecture of the city had been all but cleared, leaving wide avenues ripe for modern urban planning.
As their taxi passed worksite after worksite, Gwen saw that Gunther had tirelessly transformed his home, ensuring Sydney could no longer be easily invaded. In between the gleaming concrete and glass, the Tower Master had installed watchtowers, Divination Beacons, Shielding Stations and Barrier Checkpoints, forming an intra-city defensive grid.
"Wow— look at that! Amazing."
The biggest difference, in so far as Gwen was concerned, was the appearance of Sydney Tower. In the past, her Master's residence had been primarily a concrete fort. Built in the early 80s under Henry Kilroy's guidance, it's sole purpose was as a military installation. Now, taking a leaf from Singapore and Hong Kong, Gunther had revamped the Tower by building an extension beside its original self, marrying curved glass and transmuted steel with the sandstone facade of the brutalist original. Side-by-side, the two buildings possessed an asymmetric appeal, symbolising not only the power and wealth of Sydney's Tower Master; but both the city's past and its bright future.
"The new roads are so wide!" Gwen cooed, very much a bumpkin entering the big city for the first time. "Whoa, Martin's Square is now a pedestrian zone? And there are so many shops! I haven't seen half of these brands! Where are they all from?"
"Mostly Europe," Yue answered, trying her best not to imagine Gwen buying up the inventory. "Gunther gathered A LOT of Mages in Sydney. Thanks to the reconstruction, our employment market is incredibly lucrative right now. Master says Sydney has the highest concentration of low to mid-tier Mages in Oceania."
"What about the NoMs?" Gwen scanned the streets. In so far as she could tell, an equal volume of NoMs and Mages jostled through the crowded avenues.
"They're mostly relocated to satellite hubs outside the CBD like Parramatta, Castle Hill, Lakemba, Blackheath and so on. Now that the old NoM districts are gone, they won't be able to afford the city's centre. All the buildings here are brand new."
"That's terrible." Gwen frowned. "How about public transport? Did Gunther provide new lines to those areas?"
"The city council's working on building tramlines into the suburbs where NoMs refugees have rebuilt. They started when I left a few months ago, but I don't think there's been much progress."
"What are the refugees doing for crystals?"
"Menial jobs, I'd imagine." Yue pointed to a crew of hard-hatted workmen digging out a pit on the road, supervised by a Transmuter in a hi-visibility jacket. "Most of the folks our family used to know from Forrestville are labourers now. You know; installing drywalls, running mana conduits, tiling, flooring, carpentry, that sort of thing. Gunther says that the NOMs are getting by just fine. I am just happy that mum's doing alright, I got her a position in the Tower's refugee relief unit. She's working the soup kitchens."
"That's kind of her..." Gwen checked her reflection against the blurring city. Indeed, some things remained immutable, even under a benign dictator like Gunther.
In the rearview mirror, she noticed that their driver was once again glancing at them. This time, it was their topic of conversation that made the man beyond curious. That they kept name dropping "Gunther" now and then was also highly suspect— for what business could two young women have with the highest office of Sydney? The most perplexing thing, Gwen mused, was probably why two chicks on a first-name basis with the premier Mage of Sydney had to take an NoM's taxi.
"Yunnie, does Aunty like working for the Tower?"
"I made sure the staff knew she was the mother of Yue Bai, Apprentice to the Scarlet Sorceress." Yue scoffed. "Anyone trying to bully mum will be served to the homeless, medium-rare."
"Jesus." Gwen snorted. "And you didn't get a visit from HR?"
"Never mind," Gwen withdrew her Gwenism. "How's Uncle Bai?"
"Dad's alright. He got a cushy managerial position thanks to Gunther. We're no longer living in Forrestville, by the way. The Bais are moving up in the world! We bought a new place in Vaucluse, not far from the ferries. We got those now too, by the way."
"Nice." Gwen recollected scenic Vaucluse from her old world. "That's right next to the water. Not worried about another Mermen invasion?"
"Not with Gunther in charge. That Leviathan's provided plenty of materials to upgrade all of our Shielding Stations. Its skull now serves as a permanent military installation. We've got it towed to the Watson Bay inlet, right at the entrance into Sydney— they're calling the new island Mermaid's Head."
"Classy. I suppose there's always a boon after the bust."
"There's only a boon if your city happens to have an arse-kicker capable of decapitating a Leviathan five kilometres out, with minimal preparation and no Tower backup."
"True." Gwen wondered if Gunther had gotten even stronger since his world-famous battle. "Gunther was Master's Ace."
"Pufft, then what does that make you? The cat—"
"Ma'am," their driver interrupted. "This is as far as I can go."
The taxi pulled to a stop.
Gwen materialised four LDM sticks. "Keep the change."
"Cheers," the driver intoned reverently, happy for the sorceresses to depart his coarse and common vehicle.
Outside, two guards in Fascist-white quickly accosted the girls. Different from the uniforms in Gwen's memory, the Tower's imposing attires had taken on a para-military aesthetic. The men's Merskin belt, Gwen noted, sported both a wand and a Sonic Suppressor.
"Girls. You're in a restricted area. Please leave." The first guard placed a hand on the knob of his weapon. When Gwen responded to the man's menace with a wholly nonplussed smile, his tone softened. "Sorceresses, why are you here?"
"Mate, we're here to see the Tower Master." Yue drew a Glyph in the air, which Gwen assumed to be some sort of passcode. "Take Gwen here to the Teleportation Platforms and inform Master Shultz that his little sister has arrived."
The guards regarded one another.
The one that had addressed them suddenly slapped his thigh.
"You're Gwen Song!" The young man opened his mouth wide enough to swallow an egg. "I've seen you on the Vid-casts—!"
The second guard slapped the first on the back.
"That's Miss Gwen Song you're speaking to, Private Jones." The senior of the two saluted. "Corporal Gris, at your service, Ma'am."
"Hello." Gwen inclined her chin politely. "Sorry for the hassle."
"No trouble, Ma'am." The Corporal bowed. "Please, this way. Jones is just a little star-struck."
With the guards leading the way, the two waltzed into the Tower's interior. Along the way, Gwen made pleasant small talk as she had always done, leaving the men well impressed.
"How come they didn't recognise you?" Gwen leaned in beside Yue. Now below the Tower, she was delighted to see that the exterior cladding refracted the sunlight like the scales of a certain Rainbow Serpent. Inside, the multi-storey foyer was breath-taking, more akin to an ultra-luxury hotel rather than a central government office.
"I don't much like coming here." Yue shrugged. "Master doesn't either. She says there's too much hot air. We generally spend our time in the Frontier zones."
"But the IIUC Vid-cast..."
"Gwen, you underestimate how memorable you can be." Yue smacked her on the bottom. "Now get! I've got places to be."
"You're not coming with me?"
Yue pointed a thumb to a sign that had the words "Teleportation Circle Access", followed by an arrow.
"Nah, all that classified stuff you and Gunther are going to sprout is going to give me a headache. Besides, you're going to chill with your family..." Gwen's friend parted from her without so much as an adieu. "... and I am going to see mine."
"Come in," Gunther's baritone voice resounded.
Gunther's secretary, a middle-aged Diviner, opened the double-doors for Gwen. Located at the top floor of the new Tower, the oval office offered a horizon to horizon vista of Sydney's harbour and its south-western suburbs.
"Brother!" Gwen made a bee-line for her sibling-in-craft.
In the two years since Henry's passing, Gunther had been her rock, fluidly assuming the stewardship of their Master's orphaned Apprentice.
"Sister." Gunther stood, as imposing as always in his surreal handsomeness. With outstretched arms, he caught the girl running toward him. "You look good. You're a young woman now."
"Gods, I missed you." Gwen buried her face into her brother-in-craft's chest. "You have no idea how happy I am to be back here. I swear to God, a bloody lifetime has elapsed since we last spoke in person."
"The feeling's mutual." Gunther awkwardly patted his "Sister" across the back. "Also, that's some strength you've got in your arms. Please try to refrain from squeezing out my insides. I am not a tube of toothpaste."
Gwen laughed, releasing Gunther just enough for him to feel his spine realign. With great relief, he directed her to the visitor's chair.
"First things first," she declared, flashing Gunther's Contingency Ring before chanting the secret Glyph to deactivate its magic. With a deft pull, she removed the ring from her ring finger, then placed the thumb-sized, un-glamoured diamond in front of her brother-in-craft. "Here you are— Thanks for the loan, Gunther, but your live-saver is killing me."
"You should keep it." Gunther appeared puzzled by her rejection. "It makes me happier knowing that you're safe."
"No thanks, Gunther. You forgot to mention that your heirloom is a unique artefact the likes of which the world will never see again." Gwen lamented. "You told me this was a 'decent' Contingency Ring. You DID NOT say that it was an irreplaceable, last of its kind Magic Item crafted by the House of Asscher, whose chief inscriber passed away a decade ago."
"Regardless, the utility is what makes it precious." Gunther shrugged. "What use is it otherwise?"
"How about you save it for Alesia." Gwen pushed the ring forward. "Or Gunther Junior. He or she would need it, knowing Alesia."
Gunther smiled secretively. "Are you sure?"
"I am sure. Besides, I've acquired one of my own." Gwen flashed the Continency Ring on her ring finger. "It's a Gavin Company 'Brilliant Round' from South Africa. Like yours, it's also an Eye Tyrant's Core. A friend of mine put in a good word with the company."
"A Mineral Mage from Pretoria."
"The young Hertzog?" Gunther nodded. "He's from good stock."
Gwen cocked her head; her thick lashes fluttered uncertainly. "Gunther, have you been spying on me?"
Her brother-in-craft leaned back in his executive's chair. Despite the inhuman hours spent at the desk, Gunther did not morph into a "Dad" as she had hoped. Conversely, where Magus von Shultz the Combat Mage had reminded her of a warring Apollo, Tower Master von Shultz took on a gentler, bookish air.
"I kept tabs," Gunther replied, studying her face. "The Master of your other companion, Meister Bekker, doesn't have the best reputation. And Jean-Paul Bekker isn't exactly known for acts of chivalry."
"He was a cool guy."
"Cool— and cold, and ruthless, and just weird enough to be dangerous." Gunther picked up his ring, then slipped it onto his left index finger. "I've gotten wind of the deal he offered you, and no, Meister Bekker does NOT have my blessing."
"O, Gods..." Gwen's face turned instantly scarlet.
Gunther raised both hands. "I won't interfere with your life, Gwen, but I won't be kept in the dark. Is that agreeable."
"I should say no." Gwen half-leaned against the table, nibbling her bottom lip. "But such is life, I suppose. I mean, are you going to give me privacy if I chucked a tantrum?"
"No," Gunther candidly replied. "You're our little sister. You haven't even come out to society yet. You're also a Class VI War Mage."
"After Shenyang, you've been compartmentalised as a strategic asset." Gunther's smile betrayed the seriousness of his words. "There won't be limitations to your freedom as such, I've seen to that— but your general whereabouts and those with whom you associate will be made known to us. In Sydney, I can keep you out of the Tower's eyes and ears, but once you're in London…"
"I understand." Gwen nodded. "The perils of power, huh?"
"Especially when combined with youth," Gunther returned. "Once we're done here, I am going to send Emily to help you with getting your ID updated. For now, I'll grant you an Unlimited Class V Public Practice of Magic Licence. You should be able to use spells up to tier 5— but as always, there will be penalties if you abuse your privileges. Even as your brother-in-craft, I won't show favouritism in enforcing the rules of my city."
"Thanks, but I won't be in Sydney for long."
"Two weeks? I am going to visit Opa and spend some time down at the Hunters. Hang out with Yue and Alesia, probably. Other than you guys, I am all alone."
"That and I brought you this—" Gwen passed a hand over Gunther's table, materialising five tomes, each as thick as her wrist.
Gunther picked up a leather-bound volume and flipped through the covers. The content was, demonstrably, both familiar and arcane.
"Accounting? Auditing? What is this?"
"A gift of knowledge for all the help you've given me. These are Professor James Ma's internal memos, collated into a manual for NoM trainees. I would venture to say that this is the sole reason Tonglv kept within budget AND managed to generate profit without wankers skimming the proceeds." Gwen's explained. "For a Tower Master up to his neck with delegated infrastructural projects, I'd imagine they're going to be quite invaluable."
"Really? That's quite the gift." Gunther opened the first volume on corporate governance. After scanning the first few pages, he nodded. "But why NoMs?"
"Ah, now that's a million HDM question." Gwen's eyes grew mischievous. "But I know how busy you are, so let's save the details for dinner. I wonder, what fine cuisine will the most bad-ass Mage in all of Oceania prepare for his prodigal sister?"