"Oh, wow." Gwen choked up, conquered by a torrent of welling emotions. Before her very eyes, engraved onto the Tower's dark, marble floor, was a glowing Teleportation Circle. "I can't believe it's still here."
"I couldn't bring myself to disenchant it." Gunther's tone grew paternal as he patted Gwen's shoulders. "I had the Mandala preserved after we relocated. It's only one-way now, but very much still functional."
"That's fine." Gwen stepped around the old Teleportation Circle. Her grandfather had inscribed the one in Pokolbin, but her Master had engraved its twin in the Tower. "I'll go and visit Opa tomorrow. I don't think I can fly back in time for dinner if I go now."
"Maybe you should inform him of your arrival."
"Naw." Gwen shook her head. "I want it to be a surprise. Is he hale?"
"Your grandfather lives an interesting lifestyle," Gunther said, keeping a straight face. "If he's sick, I would have known."
"Even if Opa's not," Gwen joked, admonishing Gunther's stoicism. "I can bring him back from the dead."
Gunther coughed. "Let's not get carried away."
"How do I access the circle? Tomorrow, I mean."
"I'll arrange clearance for you." Gunther tapped his Message Device. "Look, I've got to get back to work. Alesia should return in an hour. Yue won't be joining us?"
"She's got the family to attend to," Gwen said. "It's been almost three months since she last saw her mother."
"How admirable," Gunther approved. "See you at dinner, Gwen."
"Will do." Gwen gave her brother-in-craft another hug. "Thanks for preserving the Mandala."
"No need." Gunther grinned. Before Gwen could speak, he patted her head. "To Alesia and I, you're the only family we've got left, so don't rush, you're still young. When you return from London and Sydney has settled, we'll go visit Master and Sufina together. Then, we'll find Sobel."
As the fiancee of Sydney's Tower Master, there was no particular reason for the Scarlet Sorceress to stay in her old apartment. Nonetheless, out of sentimentality and or stubbornness, that's what she did.
Located north of Lavender Bay and overlooking Wyatt Park, the former "Bay Lodge" of Nelson's Point had survived the Leviathan with no more than shattered shopfronts and flooded basements. The aftermath, however, saw Alesia's building playing home to the abruptly displaced refugees of the eastern suburbs. At her behest, the lower floors and the old commercial centre had turned into soup kitchens and its multi-story parking lot into temporary shelters.
But once the crisis passed, the once august locale had lost all of its well-to-do owners and tenants. Furthermore, its new inhabitants were no longer named Mages that graced Sydney's social circles. Instead, newly wealthy migrants filled the skyscraper's middle floors, while the lower levels were converted into restaurants and cafes catering to the new flux of foreign workers.
Alesia de Botton's residence in the penthouse suite, therefore, had become a fable of sorts. For a building located not so conveniently across the bay from Sydney's new Tower, it was difficult for the inhabitants to conceive that the premier Mage in Oceania and his wife lived a few floors up.
Presently, within the lodge, in a closeted chamber shielded from Divination, Gwen materialised.
With an irrepressible sense of nostalgia, she brushed the motes of sizzling Conjuration from her dress. Three years ago, she had teleported with Alesia into this very spot, knowing almost nothing about the world within which she had found herself. Then, after changing into a borrowed dress, they had gone to see her Master, Henry Kilroy.
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
"Gwen— is that you?" Alesia's voice rang out before Gwen could even walk through the door.
"Alesia, it's me!" She called back. "Er… I can't open the secret door. Did you change the Glyph?"
"Ah— Gunther had new wards installed. One sec!"
There was a din of stomping feet, then the wooden panel slid into its hidden recess, revealing a familiar face. Compared to when Gwen had first met her sister-in-craft, the Alesia de Botton of today appeared older, more worn and threadbare compared to the vivacious woman Gwen had met almost three years ago.
The pair embraced. Alesia delivered a mighty hug that wholly enveloped her sibling-in-craft. She kissed her twice, once on each cheek.
"You've scared us almost to death!" The sorceress pulled herself away. "A Lich! Who the hell fights a Lich?!"
"It had me pinned!" Gwen protested. "Did you watch the whole thing? I did my best to try and bluff it, but the damned thing wasn't afraid of Dragons. It was either fight or flight. I mean, it was tossing Disintegrates like confetti!"
"I saw— at any rate, no more Liches for our Gwen-Gwen." Alesia kissed her again on the head. "Gods, that was too close. Fucking Chinese organisers, I just knew they would be full of shit."
"No one anticipated a literal Lich."
"Well, I think you should have burned Gunther's Ring as soon as you saw the limp-dick bastard. Fuck the competition. There's no merit in celebrating dead champions."
Assaulted by Alesia's foul-mouthed kindness, Gwen melted in her sister's arms. Finally, here was someone whose reaction was entirely within the range of rational and reasonable expectations.
"Still, I survived!" Gwen intoned sincerely. Thinking of her future majordomo, she decided to test the tension between them. "Walken saved my life, you should know. I survived thanks to him."
"No—" Alesia wagged a finger rudely in her face. "Walken saved his arse. If you had died, Gunther would have reduced him to cinders. Hell, I would have scorched the bastard from inside out, starting with his marrows."
"He almost died saving me. I had to CPR him back to life."
"It was an act of desperation," Alesia insisted. "But enough about that snake. So, London, eh? Looking forward to it?"
"Oh, absolutely." Gwen grinned from ear to ear. "Cambridge and Elvia, what's not to like?"
Alesia laughed, inviting Gwen upstairs to the penthouse. As before, Alesia proceeded to her fridge, inside, as per Gwen's initial visit, were rows upon rows of beer.
"Jesus, Allie, that's no way for the First Lady of Sydney to live."
"Ha! Did Gunther tell you?" Alesia raised an elegant brow.
"Tell me what?"
"I am Missus Shultz now."
"WHAT!" Gwen almost crushed her can of stout. "WHEN?"
"When I got back from Shanghai." Alesia giggled. "After speaking to Ayxin, I decided it was time. Gunther and I, we're not going to find some else like ourselves. If a Dragon could find the courage to straddle the human she loves, why not me? It was a civil ceremony. We're both far too busy to organise a wedding and there are far too many young hussies in the Tower aiming to be Missus Shultz I didn't want to invite. That and I have only Yue and you, and Gunther his thousands of contacts..."
Gwen appeared devastated.
"Allie! WOE IS ME. The matrimony of de Botton and Shultz was supposed to be THE event of the decade! We're talking LORD GUNTHER von SHULTZ here! The King of Australia! You could have had an Opera House wedding dressed in white, with a train that stretches from Circular Quay to the Bennelong's lawn! The hair! The jewellery! The Vid-casts! The— THE CATERING! ARRRGH—!"
"Hahaha..." Alesia's laughter shook the window panes. "You're so funny."
"No, seriously!" Gwen almost tore out a clump of her precious hair. "I wanted to be your bridesmaid! O my God! How can this be? One of my most fervent dreams, shattered by inconvenient scheduling! How is Gunther okay with this?"
"Gunther preferred it. He was oh-so-relieved when I told him we should just get the Governor-General to come and officiate at the Tower. Fifteen minutes was all it took. Gunther zipped the old feller up to his office; then it was all over. I've got the certificate witnessed and sealed and everything. You want to see?"
"I do, but still—" Gwen felt physical pain. A civil ceremony? She could imagine the riot if William and Kate decided that a Westminster wedding was too much of a hassle, and so got notarised at the motor registry. "You have to give me time to digest this thing. I can't believe it. Gunther and Alesia, hitched! In an office! By the GG!"
"It's not so bad." Alesia drummed her tummy absentmindedly.
"Holy COWS—" Gwen's lips trembled, as did her fingers. "Are you…"
"No, not yet." Alesia smiled. "You know how it is. The more talented a Mage, the harder it is for us to conceive. That's why sorceresses marry young— and why you're so damn popular. As for us, we're trying, but nature is going to take a long while to get here."
"Well, you can give it a push! Are you menstruating on the regular? Have you counted your ovulation days?"
"What kind of question is that?" Now, it was Alesia's turn to splutter. With her expression suddenly reserved, she regarded Gwen with suspicion. "And what would you know about pregnancy?! Have you got a boyfriend yet?"
"What? No way."
"Then— HAVE YOU BEEN WITH A BOY?!" Alesia pointed a trembling finger toward Gwen's face.
"Allie, the only dudes I chill with are family, workers, and Dragons—"
"HOLY SHIT, GWEN!" Alesia quivered with disbelief. "IS IT A DRAGON?! GUNTHER is going to be PISSED. Are we talking about the Wyvern or the Thunder Dragon? OR BOTH? Two at once? Jesus— Look, it doesn't matter, they fry all the same—"
"No! No! No!" Gwen crossed her fingers to form an X, warding away Alesia' sudden hysteria. "Absolutely no boys! AND NO DRAGONS."
"You better not be lying to me—"
"Look, if you recall, my Babulya is the director of the Second PLA Army Hospital," Gwen declared with a straight face. "I am a girl, and she's an experienced medical practitioner. Naturally, in the course of our filial conversations, we've discussed such matters that pertain to female anatomy and fertility."
Alesia's shoulders fell.
"Then why aren't you dating?"
Gwen rolled her eyes. "So, are you and Gunther having problems conceiving?"
"Not as such." Alesia squirmed. "It's just how it is. All older sorceress will run into the same problem. The more magic one possesses, the more problems a woman encounters. Some folks say since our lifespan increases, it's only natural for our fertility to decrease. For me, since I am a combat sorceress, I've sustained quite a bit of damage in my youth. If you recall, during that time we ran into your snake, Edgar and his goon took out a chunk of my gut. Then, during Sobel's invasion, I burned up half my conduits. All that healing takes a toll. Upper-tier mystic ingredients don't just fall from the tree, you know."
"Bloody hell, Allie." Gwen held her sibling's hand, feeling her cold fingers tense. "Don't you worry, you're still young…"
"Young?" Alesia snorted. "Now you're making fun of me. My body's probably all kinds of beaten by now."
"Nah, you don't have to worry about that." Gwen grinned mysteriously. "Injuries? Accumulated body fatigue? Pufft! That's nothing. Let's wait for Gunther. For you guys? I've got the good shit..."
"Gunther, you've CHANGED." Gwen stabbed her fork into the oily breast of a roasted Teak-beak Goose. "TAKE AWAY, really?"
"You have only yourself to blame." Gunther massaged his eyes. "I spent the whole afternoon reading those manuscripts you left me and lost track of time. It's going to take a few months to gather the personnel, but I expect we should be able to get a division of scribes up and running before the next financial year."
"You'll need to establish an Enforcer team as well, filled with Mages you trust. Folks will do anything to dodge their taxes and cheat the government of its rightful dues. Killing, I'd imagine, would be the least of your problems."
"Still, that's no excuse for sub-par food!" Gwen hissed. "Look at this greasy skin! It's burnt! And this meat, it's dry! You think Allie will get hale enough to bear a baby if she's eating takeaway from Phat's on George St?"
"Can we not talk about babies?" Gunther grimaced, looking toward Alesia for help. When Alesia grinned, he disapprovingly raised both brows. "What do you know? You're a kid. Do you even have a boyfriend?"
"My Babulya's a doctor!" Gwen rudely waved her fork.
"So you keep saying." Gunther rolled his eyes.
"Bah!" Gwen turned aside with a huff. "Men! You can lead a Sleipnir to water, but you can't make it drink!"
"Gwen— leave the baby-making to Gunther and me." Alesia attempted to calm their youngest, who was both excited about the future and upset over the food. "So what's this big gift you keep hinting at?"
"I had other gifts prepared, but now that I know what you need..." Gwen walked to the end of the table, where the tabletop wasn't inundated by a dozen takeaway containers. "... BEHOLD!"
With a wave of her Storage Ring, she materialised a white-jade bottle of Maotai with a scarlet label.
"This is half-century-old Maotai, brewed by the masters of Guizhou from the rare Wildland Red Sorghum and kept sealed under the ley-line beneath the brewery for five decades. It was bottled before the Communists took China."
With another gesture, she materialised a sealed box radiating Enchantment.
"And is a half-millenium-old ginseng raised by Dragons." She opened the box. "Ta-da!"
"Kii—KII?" The Ginseng Sprite, again disturbed from its slumber, gazed up at Gwen with its faceless mien. As before, her Dragon-fear held it in place. Already, the Ginseng was missing most of its right limb, some of its left leg, and most of the tendrils. "Kii?"
"Don't worry bud." Gwen held the Ginseng down with one hand. With her other hand, she summoned a thin disk of Void, not dissimilar to the cutting edge of her Chakram. "You won't feel a thing."
"KII?!" The Sprite let loose a piercing shout. Its protest was fruitless, for Gwen soon snapped-shut the box and held within her hand a segment of its right-most extremity.
"Noisy little bugger."
"Jesus, Gwen." Alesia held a hand to her lips.
"I don't think you should be doing that." Gunther was equally aghast. "To my knowledge, certain groups of powerful Demi-humans may not find your usage... kosher."
"Not to worry," Gwen assured her siblings-in-craft. "It exists to be eaten, after all. The dude who grows these does it out of boredom. It walks and talks, but really, it's just a herbal supplement."
"That looks like a low-tier Spirit to me," Alesia pointed out. "A Draconic one at that."
"— and now!" Gwen ignored her siblings. "We apply some Essence to the herb in question."
Gunther and Alesia sat transfixed as a pool of viridescent Essence, unadulterated in its purity, collected on their sister-in-craft's palm.
"That's pure Druidic Essence." Alesia had seen Gwen feed her Familiars motes of the stuff, but had no idea Gwen could pump Essence outside her body like a liqueur from a bottle.
In her hand, the root from the Spirit Ginseng began to sprout little tendrils. Gwen exalted in the act, for here in Australia, Almudj's gift flowed far more accessibly than when she was elsewhere.
After absorbing the viridescent fluid in her palm, Gwen expertly unstoppered the bottle of half-century Maotai, then cupped the opening, forcing the struggling "herbal supplement" into the alcohol.
Instantly, a fragrant scent of alcohol combined with the bitter redolence unique to ginseng permeated the air.
At the final step, she re-stoppered the Maotai, gave the elixir a good shake, then presented the precious liquid with a winning smile.
"And there we have it. The panacea to all your ailments. Whatever injuries you have sustained in the past. Gone! Back pain? GONE. Work stress? NO MORE! Age lines. A thing of the past! Ailing libido—"
"Okay— okay." Gunther put up both hands in surrender. "Gwen, I know what I am looking at. Dare I ask how you got your hands on this, and how much it costs?"
"About four hundred HDMs for the bottle, which isn't terrible, considering a limited stock exists. The ginseng, comparatively, is priceless. I doubt there's more than a hundred of its ilk still cultivating in Huangshan. The gardener's a prude, or so I've heard. As for the Essence, that's all me— and Almudj."
"I see." Gunther eyed the bottle. "It certainly looks and smells potent. I can feel the vitality from here. Is it safe to imbibe?"
"I wouldn't drink more than a thimble a day," Gwen warned her siblings. "About a quarter of the bottle is enough for me to summon Caliban's Bird or Hydra form without needing to replenish. As for safety, my family in China can vouch for its potency. We've had it twice so far, everyone's doing well as a result."
"That's good to know." Alesia licked her lips.
"But that's not all!" Gwen made a second pass at the table. A whole stack of assorted goods materialised, some boxed, others bundles, yet more items were crystalised in Petra's cubes.
"This is from Fur-Peak, a tea that has absorbed the Essence of a Mythic-class Dragon. It likewise restores vitality and boosts vigour, but should be drunk slowly over a year."
"Here's some Dragon-carp meat from Gogo. He's been a good boy. Considering how virile he is, I suspect there's something in his favourite food. Did you know he knocked up a pheasant? They're not even the same species!"
"These are lamb-fat jadeite talismans. I've requested one for the each of you. It will ward away Negative Drain, protect you from evil, and bring good luck— or at least that's what my mate Ruxin says. As a five-century-year-old Thunder Dragon and the lord of Kachin, Nagaland and Manipur, I reckon he knows his jade."
"You still traffic with this Ruxin?"
"Of course, I am his financial advisor. Alesia's informed you I hope. Allie's mates with Ayxin, Ruxin's sister."
"Hold on." The Tower Master of Sydney wondered when his sister-in-craft would stop dropping one Fireball after another. "I know that you're involved with the Draconic Clans in China. I also know that your Uncle is 'involved' with one. Can you repeat the last part?"
"Sure. Alesia knows Ayxin. Ain't that why you guys got hitched?"
"No," Gunther said. "The one before that."
"My role as a financial advisor?"
"Yes, please explain?"
"What's there to explain? Dragon has crystals, and by supplying me with a commission-based salary, he now has more. It's win-win."
"And this Ruxin has invited you into his vault, has he?"
"Think of his treasure hoard as a bank." Gwen made a box with her hands. "I am working on multiplying the hoard rather than let it grow mould. In turn, I take a small cut for myself and use an otherwise static resource to benefit mankind. Currency is so named because it must flow, Gunther, you should know that. At any rate, this way, the more prosperous our cities become, the more crystal Ruxin accumulates both in his lair and on paper. Ergo, the humans leave the Dragon alone, and the Dragon sees the humans as beneficial."
"But a Dragon is a Dragon," Gunther pointed out. "To it, we're chattel."
"If Ruxin is any indication, Dragons are a decent sort, certainly no worse than the monsters in our midst. In my experience, they're creatures characterised by a love of land, crystals, and laziness. Satisfy all three, and a Draconic ally becomes a great boon."
Gunther and Alesia exchanged disbelieving glances.
"It's true." Gwen smiled. "For example, you know I've got some stake in Tonglv, correct? Soon, the old codgers are going to make a move on my cut of the action. Additionally, I won't be able to defend myself in their kangaroo court."
"I could pay them a visit," Alesia offered. "That'll sort them out."
"No need." Gwen smirked impishly. "I've arranged it so that Ruxin is now the principal benefactor of my portion of the Tonglv Fund. I've given him all my assets in China as collateral for his future financial support."
"So you're the advisor to Ruxin— and Ruxin is the custodian of your investments?"
"Bingo! Imagine what will happen when the Fund stops paying out to my accounts— which are now Ruxin's accounts. When the Thunder Dragon sees the pricks stealing from him, what will he do to those poor sods in their ivory tower? Ruxin's father is a Mythic Dragon, and Huangshan is only a hundred kilometres from Nantong. For a being that literally controls the weather over China's rice bowl, what would be the implications?"
"Strewth, Gwen." Alesia watched the goosebumps run up and down her arm.
"HA! What will the mighty Central Commission for Discipline Inspection think when news reaches them that a bunch of greedy bastards are taking China's largest city to the brink of starvation over a mere matter of a few hundred-thousand HDMs? Suffer in your jocks!"
Alesia turned her chin slowly to gaze at Gunther.
Gunther met his wife's eyes with a cocked brow.
"Are you really the Gwen we know?" Alesia placed a hand on her sister's forehead.
"I don't know whether Master would be terrified, pleased or both." Gunther exhaled. "Gods, Gwen, what a horrible scheme you've hatched. It's like a page out of the Grey Faction's manifesto."
Gwen allowed Alesia to squeeze her cheeks. Whether her sister was being proud or admonishing, she couldn't tell.
"Gunther, those crystals are rightfully mine," Gwen declared, her face pink thanks to Alesia. "I designed the Tonglv Fund from the ground up. I gave them the means! I trained those auditors and brought Professor Ma on board as well. The hours I poured into making the system work could have gone to my Spellcraft! If they wish to usurp my share, then they should be ready to pay the price. You said it yourself, didn't you? We have to be cruel to be kind."
"I think that was you..."
"Gwen." Alesia drew Gwen closer. "I think you're growing up a little too quick for my comfort."
Gunther, comparatively, appeared less worried and more so wary. "Gwen, tell me truthfully. Did Eric Walken instruct you to engage this ploy?"
"Sorry to disappoint, but the credit is all mine." Gwen met her brother-in-craft head-on. "I believe that this result is the culmination of opportunities I have cultivated in China— My father's family, the Dragons of Huangshan, Tonglv Canal, Professor Ma, the auditors, the Centurion Credit Program— and now, Legion Corp."
"Legion Corp?" Gunther and Alesia both raised their heads.
"YES! I was hoping you could give me a hand so that I can help Sydney help itself." Gwen's voice took on a peculiar and hypnotic cadence.
With a word, Gwen activated the Illusions she had practised for Ruxin. In front of her sister and brother-in-craft, a map of greater Sydney and its Green and Orange Zones materialised.
"What is that?" Alesia asked.
"THIS is the end goal of Legion Corp! Make no mistake, our motto is simple: We're with you, and we're Legion."
The next morning, Gwen awoke while her siblings slept next door.
For the first time in a long time, Gunther called in late for work. It couldn't be helped, for an all-night discussion of Sydney's future had taxed the man to exhaustion.
That and Gwen suspected from the Sound Ward on the second floor that the two may have too eagerly partaken her alchemical aids. As a long term imbiber of vitality-rich elixirs, she could only imagine what effects so much vigour could have had on two individuals in the prime of their lives. For sure, if Ayxin was confident in offsetting decades of Ash-usage, Gunther and Alesia should have no problems.
Gwen ate a can of heated SPAM with a spoon while her siblings napped, then wrote the two a note to say that she would Message from Surya's. With her Flight Licence and Gunther's gift of Glyphs, it wasn't difficult to cross the bay then take a taxi from the Ferry Terminal.
Once inside the Tower, two cadets respectably chauffeured her into the depth of the old Tower.
"Miss Song, please call us if you need anything." The guards bowed deeply.
Gwen returned their offer with a nod, after which the duo disappeared down the familiar levitation platform.
The room she once used still appeared as it always had been. In the past, she had come and gone from the Tower via this very Mandala, splitting her time between her Master's domain, Blackwattle High, and Surya's Estate. For a long while, she had thought that her quiet, routined life would continue until the end of high school, perhaps even the end of university.
But that part of her life was long gone.
Expertly, Gwen materialised an inscriptor in her dominant hand, carefully, she traced the outline of the Mandala. Now possessing the talent for Enchantment, the magical formulae no longer appeared mystical and unknowable. Within the circle, Gwen observed both the works of her Master and her Opa, each distinct in their execution of Weinberg's Parallel Conduit and Higgs' Parabolic Equaliser.
With her other hand, she materialised a dozen HDMs and slotted them into the dimples carved onto the floor. Power nodes, these were dubbed in the parlance of the Enchanters; designed to channel and consume the latent energies held within the mana crystals. For her present transit, however, the Tower's internal conduits would provide the necessary mana.
"Teleport!" Gwen spoke the final invocation.
With a stirring of dust, the Mandala activated, flaming with silvery Conjuration. In the middle, the Divination portion of the Mandala returned pure-white and vivified, verifying its linked-twin hundreds of kilometres away.
The room flashed.
Time and space lost all meaning.
Quicksilver Conjuration fell all about Gwen's body, swirling and swirling until the mana was spent.
Gwen opened her eyes.
She had arrived at her destination, and all around her was darkness.