For added insurance, Gwen conjured Caliban.
"Shaa?" Caliban scented the pitch-darkness, reporting nothing 'living' within her vicinity.
"Arcane Sight!" With her Familiar's assurance, she took a few precious seconds to activate her Divination.
Gwen's emerald irises glowed viridescent, dispelling the darkness. Not surprisingly, she was in a warehouse— one packed to the rafters with boxed and warded ingredients. Gwen recalled that the Mandala used to be in her Opa's workshop, though now it seemed that her grandfather's sanctum had been abandoned for some time.
With her enhanced vision turning the stacked boxes of materials phosphorescent, she stepped around the wards, then located the door. There, she found her exit locked with Transmutation and warded with offensive Abjuration. With her limited knowledge of Enchantment, dispelling the protection was impossible.
"OPA?" she called out. "HELLO?"
"OPA? It's me, Gwen!"
Gwen checked her Message Device. Surya's Glyph was inoperative.
Gwen hammered the ceiling after sensing no retaliatory Enchantments.
She recalled Gunther had said that there were NoMs living on her grandfather's property. Surely, someone would hear her and find her Opa.
"HELLO?" This time, she added Clarion Call.
"SHAA! SHAA!" Caliban aided its mistress as best as it could, rising on its tail to drum the roof with its tentacled tongue. “SHAAAAA!"
Surya Huang laid in his bed, watching a fly entrapped within the gossamer half-covering his bed.
Usually, the Enchanter possessed a carefree disposition. More and more frequently, however, Surya had found himself in what Tess dubbed "one of those geezer moods".
It wasn't that Surya wanted to be depressed. Sometimes, the deviation of his present circumstances from his hopes and dreams simply caught the veteran unaware. For a self-professed family man, few things were more demoralising than not having a family nearby.
After the Coral Sea War and after Agnes' rejection, Surya had settled down to build his Australian Dream. He had found himself a devoted young wife, engendered two lovely children, and thanks to his mate Henry, enjoyed both fame and fortune. The future of House Huang had looked bright, and the aspirations he nurtured for a grand estate crawling with dozens of grand and great-grandchildren seemed at hand.
Now, he slept alone in his enormous bedroom, thinking of two-dozen ways to fry a panicking blue-bottle while his once-manicured estate crawled with despondent NoMs.
Surya tried his best not to think of his children, but the memory of their sweet, smiling faces vying for their father's attention made him both nostalgic and upset. Kwan had always been ambitious, and Surya couldn't fault his son's appetite for wealth— for that had been the pie in the sky he had painted the boy in his youth. As for Helena, her marriage to Morye was the final straw that broke the camel's back.
And as for his grandchildren; he had seen Richard only a dozen times in his life. Percy, likewise, had always thought of Surya as senile codger. As for the one that was abducted, Surya sighed. When would he see his cute cucu perempuan again?
"Mel?" Surya croaked.
No response came.
His other Apprentice was away as well, likely working out yet another gripe for the NoMs.
"Hehe." Surya reached under the bed and produced a bottle of Bundaberg's finest overproof. Tess and Mel forbade him from drinking the strong stuff, but the girls were far too used to their Storage Rings to notice that the folds between the bed base and the mattress served as mundane storage.
Shimming up his fort of goose-down pillows, Surya groped for a glass in the gloom.
"Here's to you, my cucu perempuan— stay safe."
In one swig, Surya knocked back the amber liquid, allowing the alcohol to suffuse his mind so that the bubbling bile of unhappiness could once again settle in its well. Soon, the sweet and sticky sugarcane rum suffused Surya's insides, warming up his stick-thin body.
"Opa?" echoed a muffled cry from below.
Surya squinted in the curtained light. Just in case, he turned the bottle over, making sure Tess hadn't replaced the damn thing with Cane Toad extract to teach him a lesson.
There it was again!
Surya broke out in a cold sweat.
How could Gwen be HERE of all places? Thousands of kilometres from China? If anything, shouldn't she be headed for London? And even if she was, why would she be in the walls? And if she was in the walls, why was she haunting him?
Gingerly, he sniffed the bottle, then swilled the liquid to check for impurities. Maybe Tess mixed in the toad-juice with the rum? That sneaky little witch needed to be spanked!
"SHAA!" came a spine-chilling shriek, this one straight out of Surya's fevered nightmares.
THUMP! Something was striking the walls below.
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
Goddess! Surya felt his heart leap to his throat. Was this an indigenous spirit, come to punish him for building a house—
"Anyone home? I am going to Dimension Door out!"
Surya again tried to discern if the voice he was hearing was real or hallucinatory. He recalled something about the workshop beneath his bed, but the overproof rum was remarkably potent.
A concentric ring of raw electricity ignited the air, materialising a feminine figure in a mini-dress. The room illuminated for a second, then without warning, his cucu perempuan, the cutest, most beautiful granddaughter in human history, stood staring at him, her face a mask of horror.
"G-Gwen?!" Surya spluttered.
"SHAAA!" Besides the girl, her serpent, as black and phallic as the day it was born, screeched with delight, slithering onto the bed.
Gwen's eyes glowed with supernatural sight, her pupils capturing every detail in crystal clarity.
"Y-you're REALLY here?!" Surya spluttered.
A torrent of repressive, gut-churning, spine-wrenching terror radiated from the girl. Under that gaze, Surya felt his body transform into a boneless anemone.
"O-OPA! W-WHY-WHY are you NAKED?!"
"A man's home is his castle," Surya explained, nursing his old bones. Thanks to Gwen's Dragon Fear, he had fled his bed and dressed so fast he had sprained his back and shoulders. "I sleep naked because it's hot. It's a sauna this summer."
"You're an Enchanter!" Gwen glowered, rubbing her eyes. "There are cooling Glyphs in your room! On your bed! And also leather cuffs— why are cuffs—"
"A man's got needs—"
"I am a servant of Eros," her Opa explained, pointing a thumb at one of his many erotic statues. This one appeared to be a poor woman kneeling over, submitting to two Calibans.
"Shaa?" Caliban appeared confused.
"Is that the only thing on your mind?" Gwen quickly retrieved her innocent serpent before it could be corrupted.
"Its art, and yes, I am very creative."
Gwen reformatted her long-term memory to hard-wipe the mental image of her grandfather reenacting "The Nude Maja", consigning her recall to Caliban's gullet.
"Okay, let's leave it at that." Slowly, her expression softened. Hesitantly, after checking her Opa's robes for stains, she opened her arms. "Now that you're decent. Come here, Opa."
"My cucu perempuan!"
Gwen cradled the frail old man in her arms.
Two years ago, when she had last done the same, her Enchanter grandfather had felt larger than life. Now, her Opa appeared drained of all his vivacity. Even held against her bosom, the grinning old man barely reached her chin. Even his hands, one pressing the small of her back and the other gripping her arm, felt like bird claws.
"How's your health?" Gwen asked her grandfather. "Gunther tells me a lot has happened."
"Yes, indeed." Surya exhaled. "Too much…"
"Well." Gwen pulled up a chair. Outside and below the estate's elevated veranda, makeshift shelters stretched from east to west, falling away where Surya's boundary fence met the neighbours. "For once, I've got all the time in the world."
From Gwen's Singapore misadventure to her family in China, Burma, and elsewhere, Opa and cucu perempuan exchanged stories of the past two years. When finally, the conversation fell to her deceased Master, her Opa fell silent.
For Surya, the fall of Sydney and the death of Henry Kilroy had come as a profound shock. Now, out of his original party, only he, Mark, Agnes and Elizabeth remained.
"To think Deathless Henry would leave this world before I took the long walk." Surya shook his head.
"Hold up." Gwen's brows knitted. "Chandler's not dead?"
"He escaped the Tower in the ensuing confusion." Surya breathed out. "Or so I've heard from Gunther. Your Brother-in-craft suspects that someone had to have aided Marc. It's a moot point, though. He's a Necromancer now, with a bounty on his head across all of the Mageocracy. What kind of life is that?"
"Did he escape into the Wildlands? Become a Rogue Necromancer?"
"It's possible. You didn't run into Marc in Shenyang, did you?"
"No." Gwen hesitated at the possibility that Chandler HAD escaped to Shenyang, and that one of the many faceless victims of her Shoggoth was a man responsible for her pain, shame and misery. "Not that I would know."
"A shame." Surya shook his head. "Although he was a companion, I would have preferred him deceased. With Henry gone, we need closure."
"Me too," Gwen concurred. Having experienced Necromantic magic firsthand, her desire to see their mass-murdering "Craft" scoured from the earth was no less constant than Gunther's or Alesia's. "How's Agnes and the ladies?"
"They're doing well." Surya grinned. "Agnes had the girls hide in the Black Cat when the city flooded. Thankfully, Surry Hills wasn't completely inundated by the Mermen tsunami. It's a hilly place, as the name suggests. She and the local militia managed to fight off the vanguards and establish a defensive cordon. For now, business is booming. She's expanded the business and the shelter. Some of the girls visit monthly to model for me."
"I didn't need to know that."
"It's nothing inappropriate. What's wrong with young ladies helping an old man find joy—"
"Please." Gwen handwaved her Opa into silence. "So, what do you think about Dad? Now that you know everything, I mean. The Song family, why he's in Australia, the works."
"I dearly wish my counterpart could beat the bastard black and blue every Tuesday," Surya growled. "Hiding his talent! Seducing my daughter and abandoning my cucu perempuan! Leaving you to be abused by his new in-laws, then ploughing some hussy half his age and even having a son with her? There's no justice in the world, I tell you. If there is a God like the Christians say, that salty bastard would have eaten dirt during Sydney's siege."
"The communists are godless," Gwen reminded her Opa. "But I concur, Morye or Hai— he's a failure, much less a father."
"But his family seems a decent lot," Surya agreed whole-heartedly with Gwen's vitriol. "That Grandmother of yours seems like a decent sheila. And sweet Petra…"
"Won't be coming to Australia." Gwen almost regretted pointing out that the leggy Russian brunette in the IIUC footage was her cousin. "To change the subject, you haven't heard from my mother at all?"
"I'd imagine you would have heard from her," Surya returned guiltily. "I mean, she's in China and all, and so were you."
"We had a clean break." Gwen put together her hands; when she opened them again, a Vitae Fruit was resting on her palm. "I gave her back her youth. We're done."
"Ho!" Surya's brows arched with surprise. "Where did you find this?"
"I've collected this and more." Gwen smiled at her Opa. In her eyes, her grandfather looked far too old for a Magus of his station and skill. Considering individuals like Walken appeared perfectly youthful, no more than a dandy gentleman in his forties— why should her Opa look like something the cat dragged in? "Some wine, some tea, some herbal supplements, all of which will make you haler and younger."
"There's no need." Surya flexed his wiry-thin arms. "I've been like this for decades."
"The supplements I've brought are so potent that an Ash Mage with an affinity higher than tier 7 may be conceiving a half-dragon child as we speak," Gwen spoke as she laid out her gifts one by one. "I wonder what an artist such as yourself can do with such an infusion of life?"
"You desire another Uncle or Aunty?" Surya was incredulous. He took her fingers with an earnest look of disapproval. "I know Hai has neglected you, but I didn't think your problems were so serious—"
"Let me stop you right there," Gwen spluttered, slapping her Opa's wayward hand. "I mean your health! Don't be insulted Opa, but you look like hell. You look like a desiccated coconut!"
"I live in on a farm, looking after thousands of refugees! With no son, no daughter and no grandchildren!" Surya chuckled. "Why do I care about my looks?"
"You should because you're going to live a LONG TIME." Gwen pinched Surya on the thighs, making the old man yelp. "Ten, twenty, FIFTY years from now, you'll still be by my side, right? I need an Enchanter for my Tower."
"You're going to be a Tower Master?"
Gwen nodded. "I want to make life better for the people who helped me come all this way. If possible, I want to carve out a place for the NoMs as well, so they aren't just livestock for the Mageocracy."
Surya gawked at his little girl, now suddenly a giantess.
"Was this Henry's idea? The Noble Obligation thing?"
"It's Noblesse Oblige, and the idea was mine," Gwen said. "Master felt responsible for the NoMs— but to him, they're still just second class beings. I want to make their place in society worthwhile, at least economically."
"Really? And what are NoMs to you? From the position of the Mageocracy's future Omni-Mage, I mean."
Gwen pointed a finger toward the folk milling about below. There was now a makeshift community living on her Opa's estate. Considering the difficulty of relocation, Gunther had offered to gift Surya with a similar piece of land elsewhere.
"Opa, I am going to tell you something that I haven't told anyone yet. Not seriously, at least. Can I trust you to keep a secret?"
"Of course, if you can't trust Opa, who can you trust?"
Gwen smirked. "Okay, here I go—"
She took a deep breath.
"Opa, I feel that NoMs, our fellow human beings, possess within their multitudes a great and untapped potential. I am not speaking of NoMs who may one day Awaken as Mages, but NoMs with skills, talents, and gifts in their own right. Some may become great theorists of mathematics and physics. Others become traders, entrepreneurs, artists, poets, and writers. Within the untapped multitudes, we may very well uncover ideas and merits that will change humanity far more fundamentally. In my opinion, a million NoMs given proper training and education far exceed an Omni-Mage's greatest potential."
"Bloody oath." Surya sipped his rum, feeling flushed with warmth and vitality. "You're going to pull some whiskers. I'll tell you that. People will die."
"People die every day and everywhere as we speak. Nonetheless, that's what I believe in," Gwen continued. "Right now, we dig and dig and dig away at our Frontiers. Killing demi-humans, harvesting Wildland ingredients, mining for crystals. BUT what the humans don't realise is that the biggest bounty lies in themselves."
"The humans?" Surya snorted.
"Us, I mean."
"But resources are finite."
"And our planet is plenty." Gwen shrugged. "Opa, I believe without a shadow of a doubt that even if there are seven billion of us in this world, we would still be perfectly able to supply an excess of food, water and shelter to our species, dickheads notwithstanding. What's limiting us isn't Monsters or demi-humans— it's our irrational 'apartheid' for those who lost the genetic lottery."
"I don't know what to say," Surya confessed. "I am just an Enchanter. All I know is how to make Magical Items and sculptures. You must have met some great teachers in Fudan. Is this a part of their Communist Manifesto or something."
"Not really, but there are parallels." Gwen allowed the matter to drop. If her Opa believed that this was what she learned in China of all places, then so be it. "Now, on the matter of Enchantment— what do you think of my new talent? Can I carry on the House of Huang as you had envisioned?"
"Ah, yes." Surya rubbed his hands together, his face brightening at once. "NOW THAT'S WONDERFUL NEWS!"
Gwen remained at Surya's for three days, catching up with Mel and Tess, teaching them how to consume the Draconic-tea from Fur Peak and making sure that her grandfather wouldn't overindulge, causing his lower body to explode.
Concurrently, she spoke at length with Surya about her plans for the future. More explicitly, she had relayed the requirements she and Marong had discussed for Project Legion's fleet of Divination Stations.
To Surya, who had long lost the passion for the crafting of magical items and mandalas, the Legion Project appeared to ignite an old fire. That or Gwen suspected, her supplements had regenerated the gnarled synapses of her Opa's eros-addled brain.
According to the old Enchanter, Gwen and her partners would have to supply five critical components for her "Carrier Network" to manifest in reality.
First, they needed a steady supply of high-quality Creature Cores, ideally harvested from a plentiful, renewable source to ensure consistency. When Surya noted the impossibility of such a thing, Gwen immediately thought of Golos. If Ruxin or Gogo could arguably put some effort into subsuming Magical Creatures, then it was entirely possible to generate caches of middle to high-tier Cores consistently.
Secondly, "Legion Corp" needed to recruit a group of specialised Enchanters. These new-fangled Magitech-crafters must possess the capacity to engrave reactive Mandalas that interacted with the "datum" Gwen wished to traffic. Of greater difficulty was an even rarer breed of Enchanters who specialised in information algorithms and Crystal Cores. These individuals, Surya explained, originate from Palo Alto, a place dubbed the Crystal Valley— the birthplace of the Crystal Core commonly found in Data Slates and Lumen-Recorders. Upon hearing the name, Gwen blinked, thinking to herself that, OF COURSE, such a place existed.
Thirdly, Gwen needed to make contact with the manufacturing giants that made the Message Devices. Only by convincing the creators of these devices to use her private network could she arguably enact her plan. A caveat that would doubtless burden her goals was the fact that she was attempting to give NoMs the means to widely adopt Message Devices— a fact that may not sit well with manufacturers in Central Europe, Japan, and Korea. Gwen replied that those who do not innovate, stagnate; and that in time, the market would ensure her detractors fall in line. Her Opa shrugged. He wasn't an economist and could not comment.
Fourthly, as she intended to work with the Towers, a working relationship would have to be established with the Master of each region where her "Carrier Network" hoped to exist unmolested. There, she would have to deal with the unfortunate reality that Tower Masters followed Factions— and her benefiting the Grey Faction, for instance, may spoil her chances of planting Towers in another Faction's domain.
Fifth and lastly, the Legion Corporation needed to lease land. To start, Gunther and Marong had no complaints in supporting her hobby. Likewise, from Lima to Cuzco, Gwen was sure to receive a fair shake of the sauce bottle. In other locations and in dealing with less favourable individuals, however, the tithing and service paid to spiteful stakeholders may sink her profits entirely. Gwen's response to Surya's paranoia was that as with all business dealings, localities had to be dealt with on a geographic basis. She was well aware of the risks and would handle the rollout with the utmost care.
Of all of her Opa's advice, the ones she truly heeded were the ones on Enchantment. It would seem that her plans for the next five years now involved a trip down to "Crystal Valley". The reality of how specialised modern Magitech had become was no less arcane than the Renaissance of home computing in the early 2000s. For Gwen, to number herself among the likes of those groundbreaking, world-changing entrepreneurs was a daunting endeavour, offset only by her promise to Tao. Were the Jobs and Gates of this world Enchanters, or were they neglected NoMs awaiting discovery? Gwen shivered just thinking about the potential innovations she may yet make in Palo Alto.
And so it was, three days after her arrival at the tablelands, the Devourer of Shenyang kissed her well-rested Opa on the forehead, then once again said her farewells.
As for her next destination, it wasn't toward Sydney, but an encampment in the interior, a place where she had last met her kin.