"You want to go and see Sufina?" Gunther's knitted brows implied to Gwen that her request may not go over as well as she had hoped. "The island's a Black Zone, and its under Singapore's jurisdiction, not ours. Besides, who are you going to take with you?"
"Er…" Gwen stopped herself before blurting out that she would be visiting with Ariel and Caliban, maybe Golos. Instead, she weaponised her long lashes and vivid eyes. "I don't suppose either of you has the time to spare?"
Gunther sighed, not exactly exasperated, but assuredly not a happy-chappie.
"Alesia?" The Tower Master turned to his wife. "What's your take?"
Alesia sat on the sofa. Often, when the conversation steered to the deceased Henry, the sorceress grew absent-minded. "To Master's sanctuary?"
"Now Sufina's lair," Gunther corrected his wife. "For all intentions, it's a Dungeon. Escaping from the maze without killing its owner is improbable."
"I suppose it has been almost two years," Alesia agreed. "I wonder. Does Sufi retain her humanity still? She'll remember us, I am sure, but I don't think she'll be amicable. She'll be a living tomb-guardian by now."
Gunther drummed his fingers against the table, then turned to Gwen. "I can't let you go — not this time. We can't contact Sufina, and we can't accompany you. I could arguably call on Jonas and the boys, but they've got important missions elsewhere, supporting your friend Yue. We're short-handed as it is."
"Gunther, you're the Tower Master, surely…"
"I can put out a Quest, and we can pay with CCs, but who can we trust to enter Master's home? We can't Geas mercenaries, at least not legally. Besides, I refuse to allow a stranger to enter a place so intimate to our past. Not to mention you're there to dig for secrets. What if Sufina isn't friendly? What if she refuses to let you enter? Are you going to Consume the island? Consume Sufina or her Kin?"
"I don't think it'll come to that."
"There's no reason why it won't." Alesia played tag-team with Gunther. "It's a BLACK ZONE, Gwen. The creatures there are completely hostile, especially to women, for which they have no use. I mean, for a man, things could be worse, you get the idea. Either way, there will be no mercy. Dryads will fight to the death to defend their Grove, and you're more or less unstoppable in a jungle setting. Will you nibble away until they cough up the island's secrets? Threaten Sufi by eating her sisters one by one?"
"Bloody oath, Alesia," Gwen retorted, her tone growing tense. "Alright— what would you do?"
"If we were to force a meeting with Sufina in the future, it should involve a surgical intrusion into the island's centre. Pending on Sufina's response, we'll decide, as siblings, what to do." Gunther declared. "I should also mention that at some point in the next few years, I would like to recover our Master's remains. His mausoleum is still empty as we speak. I would prefer his remains safely interred and warded."
"You don't mind hurting Sufi?" Gwen's lips grew stiff.
"Now you're acting churlish. Don't put words in my mouth." Gunther's measured tone matched his command for Gwen to calm her farm. "I said we'll decide as siblings. TOGETHER. If leaving Master's body with Sufina is the final recourse, then that's what we'll do. If Sufina has gone completely off her rocks, then she's a danger and a monster. And we'll do what needs to be done."
"But Master's books—"
"May, or may not be in the Grot," Gunther reiterated. "Where did you get the idea that our Master would stow his tomes with Sufina? Master understood more than anyone that once his mutilated body waned, Sufina would be too powerful for other Mages to inherit. Keeping decades of research embedded within Sufi's abode is rather short-sighted, don't you think? How is any of us going to access them?"
"But—" Gwen's face grew scarlet.
Gunther cooly refilled his glass of water to the exact millimetre.
"And this 'Almudj's Scale'." Gunther sipped the ice-cold water. "Why did you visit a Mythic without informing Alesia or myself?"
"Does she need to?" Alesia called out from the couch. "Gwen's an adult."
"Her attraction to trouble notwithstanding, there are three million souls in Sydney and its regions." Gunther remained unfazed by Alesia's protest. "Allie, I am speaking in my capacity as Sydney's caretaker. Not as Gwen's brother. I am berating a Class VI War Mage; now more than ever, as AN ADULT, she is liable for her selfish decisions. Master would agree. Do you?"
"Fine, but get off your high horse," Alesia pushed back. "Gwen knows what's up."
"Does she?" Gunther's scorching gaze descended on Gwen's skin like the scorching sun. "Gwen— where is your Draconic-strength? Your Dragon-fear? Your Draconic-resistances?"
"Brother's right." Gwen deflated, wilting in her seat. Self-consciously, she gripped the hem of her dress. "I should have consulted with you both. I was following a gut feeling. I didn't know Almudj was the jealous type."
"Creatures that exist outside of mortality and time do not suffer human emotions," Gunther refuted her oversimplification. "But be your patron a Snake, Dragon or Land God, they're unequivocally possessive. Alesia's Elemental, if you recall, had refused to relent her body. As far as the Efretti was concerned, a Plane-touched body, once touched, was effectively a part of its being. Imagine being asked to—"
"It's not that complicated," Alesia interjected. "Gwen, imagine if a London Magister demanded you hand over Ariel."
"Stealing a Spirit? Is that possible?" Her complexion paled.
"Only if you are near-death or recently dead, and the Spirit is willing, AND there's a compatible Mage immediately available," Alesia explained. "But that's not the point, what would you do if someone tried to usurp Ariel. Try to imagine it, Gwen, put some gut feeling into it, be honest."
Sometimes, Gwen hated her overactive imagination.
"I'd Consume the fucker, wipe the bastard from the Material Plane," she confessed. "Is that bad?"
Alesia grinned. "I'd do worse, but that's the feeling. That's what Almudj should be feeling, assuming it has feelings."
"I am Almudj's Familiar?"
"An interesting analogy." Gunther appeared contemplative.
"Look, I get it." Gwen shivered, her arms and thighs covered in goosebumps. "I can see why Almudj was pissed."
"And thankfully, not interested enough to visit Sydney." Gunther pointed to the Illusion-empowered map of Sydney hovering in his office. "All things considered, the serpent is a well-mannered Mythic. I plan to leave it alone, where did you say it made its abode for now?"
"Good, I'll inform Adelaide to keep a wide berth. Are you able to communicate with it?"
"Not until I get my scale back." Gwen returned to her original request. "I last left with Master, if you recall."
"I wasn't there," Gunther replied glumly.
"I remember," Alesia said. "But then what happened?"
"I don't know." Gwen tugged at her skirt, crumpling the fabric. "I didn't see it after the battle. When I visited Sufina two years ago, I couldn't sense it either."
"Then where else could it be?"
"It has to be in the Grot," Gwen replied. "Unless Sobel took it."
"Hell's bells, I hope not." Gunther grimaced.
"I'll second that." Alesia raised a glass of Fur-Peak green tea. Since Gwen's return as a self-professed authority on pregnancies, she had been taking daily supplements.
The three sat in silence, each aghast at the worst-case scenario.
"Lord Shultz," the broadcaster on Gunther's desk chimed. "Your next-next appointment is also here and waiting."
"Tell em to fuck off," Alesia shouted at the crystal on the table.
"Tell them to wait," Gunther interceded. Turning to the women, the Tower Master of Sydney stretched his broad shoulders. "We're out of time, but here's my proposal. For now, go to London, and start your studies. I'll arrange for a recess before Michaelmas next year. If you remain convinced the scale is in the Grot and that Master hid his tomes with Sufina— then we'll visit her together. As your seniors, it is our pleasure and duty to accommodate your needs. Is that agreeable? Before you reply, I hope you understand that me being away from Sydney for a week is no mean feat. The city's ongoing restoration— including your proposals for both the new Port Authority as well as Legion, cannot be left to their own devices."
"I understand." Gwen bowed her head. "Thank you, Gunther. Sorry I was rude."
"Not at all, I do like it that you spoke your mind, Gwen. Your brother is not so thin-skinned as to be offended by a little sister."
Gwen grinned. "Thanks, Gunther."
"Good." Gunther stood to show them the door. "Now, both of you need to be on your way."
"When are you leaving?" Alesia gave Gwen a much-needed embrace outside Gunther's door. "Yue's going to miss you. Again."
"I know." Gwen sighed. "But we can visit one another now. It won't be like before."
"True." Alesia separated from her not so little sister. "For you, at least. I don't think Yue has a few thousand HDMs to spare. So?"
"After that meeting? Day after tomorrow," Gwen declared. "I hope to be in London before Christmas."
"Oh-ho!" Alesia appeared to have read her mind. "A white Christmas with Elvia?"
"That goes without saying." Gwen's smirk was positively predatory. "I'll be her present, and she'll be mine."
"Not to disperse your Cloud Kill, but it's only verified that Elvia's cohort will be in London," Alesia warned her sister. "As for Evee herself, she could be on a mission or working overtime in an away hospital. If she's religious, maybe secluded meditation? Nightingale Acolytes are a busy lot."
"That would be terrible." Gwen controlled herself, taking deep, lungful breaths. "But I'll track her down. First thing I am applying for in London is an Unlimited Flight licence."
"And how are you going to achieve that?" Alesia cocked her head.
"CCs make the world go round. I checked. It's seven hundred fifty for Limited and fifteen hundred for Unlimited." Gwen laughed haughtily. "I've got my references all lined up as well. One from Walken, one from Gunther, and one from Lady Grey, I hope."
Gwen chuckled. "Would Gunther rather deal with Scotland Yard when they arrest an unlicenced Omni-Mage blasting across London's airspace?"
Justine Maxwell Loftus, The Marchioness of Ely, "THE Lady Grey" to her enemies and "Lady Grey" to her friends, studied an iconograph of Peterhouse's crest.
Compared to the younger houses, the oldest constituent college of Cambridge University lacked a florid Coat. The simplicity couldn't be helped, for the arse end of the Dark Ages wasn't an epoch known for radical iconographers. Stoic in its plainness, the Arms consisted of four pale gules within a border of gules charged with eight golden crowns. For seven centuries, the Coat stood, unyielding to change, attested by the sad fact that Lady Loftus remained the sole female Master of Peterhouse since its inception, heedless of its astounding roster of women Magisters.
Nonetheless, Peterhouse remained a bastion of brilliance.
Among its exalted alumni was the Mage responsible for decoding multi-tier Dwarven Runecraft— the posthumously titled Meister Charlie Babbage. Likewise peering down on the Marchioness was the hung portrait of the honourable Meister Jamie Clarks Maxwell, grandfather to Justine's late husband, famous for his study of energy conduits. Beside Jamie hung the picture of Meister Thomson, more popularly known as Baron Kelvin, first of his name— for pioneering magical manipulation of climate events.
"All is well..."
Under the austere gazes of these world-changing men, Justine listened to the droning voice of Vice-Chancellor Butterfield.
"... the girl will be leaving tomorrow, hopping through Sydney, Brisbane, Townsville, Darwin, Singapore, and stopping at Yangon. On the 17th, the girl is scheduled to set foot in Istanbul via Mumbai's Inter-Continential Circle. Assuming she's in one piece after that jaunt, her next stations are Rome, Paris, then London. The Customs Office has sent out the paper works. The girl's Classification has caused a few headaches, but we'll manage."
"Will she be arriving at Cambridge directly?"
"Actually." Vice-Chancellor Butterfield's voice grew concerned. "She is going to stay in London until after Christmas. The missive from Lord Shultz said that we should expect her just before or after New Years."
"She'll be staying in London? Alone?" Justine Maxwell furrowed her brows. "We'll be on Michaelmas break, just what is the girl planning to do? Has she booked a hostel?"
"The girl is said to be unreasonably attached to an old friend," Alfred Butterfield replied. "An undergraduate at Nightingales by the name of Elvia Lindholm, formerly of Sydney. They survived the fall of the city together."
The Lady's expression relaxed. "Permissible, though I WILL see the girl as soon as she arrives. She must be inducted without mishap. Ensure she makes the trip down to Cambridgeshire. I'll take care of matters at Peterhouse."
"And Lindholm— where have I heard that name? It sounds northern."
"The girl is Lady Astor's ward."
"Ah—" Lady Grey clapped. "I remember now. Lucy did mention she had a new pet project. Is the girl unique in any way?"
"She's a Spirit Healer with a juvenile Alraune. She's also unaffiliated. A complete independent."
"Really? How quaint."
"And another thing, Maxi—"
Lady Grey's eyes narrowed.
"— Justine. Lord Gunther has signed off on the girl applying for an Unlimited Flight licence. He has asked for your understanding."
"Are you our number three?"
"No, Magister Walken has that honour."
"Eric Walken? The idiot of Sydney? Why are they acquainted?"
"He did save her life in Shenyang," Butterfield expressed a grudging measure of respect. "Tied down and entrapped a North Korean Lich, he did— made us Oxbridge boys proud. What's more impressive, of course, was that by all accounts, he had effectively died, only to be brought back by the new technique Magister Jamison is pushing in Stanford. A shame. We could have used the technique for our Clerical faculty."
"I don't see why we can't." The Lady Grey glanced at the portraits hanging above the mantle. "It's a race to publish, after all. She who is cited most, is cited best, is it not? There's going to be so much work to be done. I am certain Miss Song will prove a potent dose of vitality for our ghoulish faculty. Under my watch, she shall bear the torch Henry had so abruptly left behind."
"I hope she won't disappoint." Butterfield adjusted his mantle. Of all the classical buildings in Cambridge, he disliked the Old Court the most. The decor used far too much heartwood, and the portraits tended to follow you with their eyes. "She is after all, firstly from a penal Frontier, and secondly from the Orient. I would not be surprised if she is uncouth, lacking in discipline, and possessed no idea of her place. I would remain cautiously optimistic, Justine."
"I think she'll make quite the splash." Lady Grey motioned for Vice-Chancellor Butterfield to leave her to her thoughts. "Go. Tell Gwen she must visit. And that when she does, Peterhouse shall hold Hall in her honour."
"Very well." Alfred Butterfield turned to leave.
"Have— her robe prepared. If she comes in wearing a gauche outfit..."
"Or brandishing adverts..." The vice-chancellor left the horror unsaid.
"Let's hope not." Lady Grey shivered. "Henry's ghost, I hope old Deathless isn't turning in his mausoleum. No one likes being accused of Necromancy."
Gwen's parting at Sydney Tower consisted of Gunther, who dropped by for thirty-seconds; Alesia, who kissed her on both cheeks; Yue, who held her like an abandoned joey; and her Opa, who wept like a woman.
"Come home soon!" Surya bawled. "Don't forget, your love child is safe in our hands! We'll nurture it with all my heart!"
"What?" Yue was just about to let go.
"Legion!" Gwen hissed under her breath. "He means the Divi-Tower project! Stupid Opa."
"It better be." Yue relaxed. "When you see Elvia, give her my love."
"I'll hug her until she passes out, then say 'From Yue with love'," Gwen promised.
"Okay, deal." The girls parted. "See you in a while, crocodile?"
"Yep. I'll be in contact! If you want to visit, just holler. I'll cover the ISTC tickets."
"Nah, I'll pay my way. Quit showing off, ya rich bitch." Yue chortled. "Seriously though, stay safe out there, watch out for those Ravenport bastards."
"I'll keep my eyes wide-open."
After another hug and a wet, slopping kiss from Surya, Gwen retreated behind the barrier.
"I'll call when I can!" Gwen waved a final time when the white-uniformed guards politely steered her toward the stage. "Stay safe, everyone!"
A blast of retina-searing Conjuration later, Gwen was gone.
"And just like that, she's on another adventure," Surya lamented.
"Like the wind." Alesia dabbed at her eyes. "She's a busy girl."
"I am hungry," Yue complained. "Hungry and sad."
"Alright!" Surya slapped his knees. Ever since taking Gwen's supplements, all of his old war wounds had ceased to ache. He felt like a younger man, one with a weekly appointment at the Black Cat. "Let's eat! Whatever you want, anything in the city. My shout!"
The thing with ISTC stations, Gwen realised, was that they were so uniform in their aesthetic that rapid transits felt like glitches in reality.
Her final stop on the first leg of her journey was Yangon, where she held a meeting with Marong to deliver the trade agreements Gunther had set up between the two nations. To Gwen's delight, Mayuree, who she had thought returned to Shanghai, had delayed her trip just so that they could catch up. Arm-in-arm, Diviner and Omni-Mage embraced for a long while, reminiscing the deaths, dangers and dares the duo had shared.
"Your body, its changed," Marong, professed expert in Gwen's physiology, spoke over iced cakes and sweet tea. "What happened?"
"Stuff." Gwen's eyes informed her ally that as much as she wanted to share, the information wasn't hers to tell. "What do you see that's different?"
"It's your smell— Sorry, I don't mean to be crude," Marong apologised. "It's no longer similar to Lord Ruxin's, at least not anymore. I am smelling something, older, or younger. It's strange, intoxicating even, but I don't know—"
"It's a blessing akin to the Yinglong's, but not like the Yinglong." Gwen gave all the hints to which she was privy. "I was hoping Ruxin would be here. I've got questions only he can answer."
"I can Message Lord Ruxin. If you like," Marong offered. "Believe it or not, the Master of Manipur, Nagaland and Kachin has taken to our Magi-tech like a Dragon to the heavens."
"Hmm..." Gwen pondered the prospect of litmus testing her Essence but ultimately declined. For now, keeping the status quo was preferable, especially as she was mid-transit. "Nah, let's not tempt fate."
"I tried divining your future, Gwennie, and as usual, its weal and woe in equal measure." Mayuree rested her head against Gwen's shoulder. "That said, Marong's right, you smell great."
"Ha." Gwen laughed awkwardly.
"Shall we head to the banquet?" Mayuree pulled at her hand. "Brother's prepared a feast fit for a royal."
Gwen sensed her tummy growling happily. If anything, her increased Void Affinity, the digestive prowess of Almudj's Essence and her lighting-charged metabolism, made her "Temple" the equivalent of a food furnace.
"Let's go." Gwen allowed herself to be tugged along. "Marong, you can brief me over dessert."
Past Yangon, Gwen's ISTC hopscotch felt like flipping through a Contiki brochure.
On her second leg, the first city on her itinerary was Mumbai, said to possess one of the largest ISTC station in the East Indies, second only to Singapore. In Gwen's earthly memory, she recalled a colonial city resplendent with old architecture but dense with smog, skirted by a brown-grey Arabian sea that alternatively smelled of brine and raw sewerage. In her contemporary setting, all she caught was a glimpse of the mana miasma; then she was whisked away by guards wearing red berets and crisp uniforms. When she grew paranoid as to why she alone out of the travellers had an armed escort, she was reminded of her Multi-Pass's new markings by a Custom's Officer.
Class VI War Mage
Feeling obtuse, Gwen apologised to the junior officer. If she was the Mayor of Mumbai, and a cruise missile wearing heels wandered through her airport, she would have taken the same precaution.
And so, without so much as a vindaloo, Gwen arrived at Istanbul, where an armed escort awaited her eminence. Not exchanging a single word, she was marched, with excessive politeness, to her next stop.
The denial of Turkish Delight was a glimpse of the life Gunther had foretold. For a girl of her age, lacking titles, backers, Faction and a TOWER to belong to, she was the dictionary definition of a loose cannon bouncing through someone's else's city.
At Rome, her "guide" was a Magister all too happy to talk. Their fifteen minutes together were enough to yield an invitation to Castel Sant'Angelo on a future date of her choosing, as well as her first European contact card— that of Magister Isabella Conigliaro.
"We owe him so much," the Magister had professed while holding Gwen's hand. "If you are in Rome, I'll be at your service."
In Paris-Charles De Gaulle, a stop that would have been wondrous had the ISTC Station not been built within what looked like a converted catacomb, more friendly faces graced her arrival. Her trio of hosts hailed from the infamous Tour Montparnasse— said to enjoy the most beautiful view in all of Paris because it offers the only vista without the Tour Montparnasse.
"I imagine you'll find generosity wherever the Towers are old." The lead Magister provided Gwen with a glimmer of optimism. "Lord Kilroy may no longer grace our presence in the light, but his achievements have cast a long shadow."
"Much like the one cast by the plus laide Tower in all of L'Europe," a younger Magister added sarcastically. "Nonetheless, you are more than welcome to visit our hideous abode."
"Leon is joking. Renovations are being negotiated with the Dwarves of Mont Blanc." The leader of Montparnasse's trio flashed his junior a dirty in a way only the French could manage. "For now, please enjoy yourself in London. We await your coming."
"Oh, I'll be back." Gwen's credit-counting fingers itched just thinking of the fashion houses she had skipped for no reason other than sovereign borders and passports.
Waving goodbye to her "new friends", she once again stepped into the Teleportation Circle.
This time, finally, after an eternity of warping space and time and trading HDMs for distance, she had arrived at her port of call.