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In Gwen's impressionable adolescence, there had been mandatory Christian-study in place of actual counsellors. Post Thatcher, Australia, like most liberal economies, had embraced a new wave of bible-thumping the likes of which had not been seen since the '50s. It was the zeitgeist of a conservative right-wing boom aghast at the freedoms offered by the rock' n' rolling '80s, a riposte against the rise of alt-pop, hiked-skirts and the modern woman.

The pastor, plagued by gaggles of giggling school girls, gave up discipline within the hour and opted for the fire and fury of hell to inspire virginity for Jesus.

Gwen, being the tallest, prettiest poppy of the lot, would be singled out more than once to endure such a sermon.

The Whore of Babylon was often the topic of such an episode.

"The Mother of Prostitutes! Abominations of the Earth! She with whom all the kings of the earth have committed fornication!"

The pastor, recently divorced as per the spirit of the wanton age, would exhaust himself in bumbling ecstasy, his wandering eye regularly resting on the Eurasian in their midst. Thankfully, it was the age, and not something more sinister. Only recently had the "Gooks" made headlines as kingpins of heroine and the "Chinks" fled Tiananmen en-mass to Sydney's shores, allowing, "the bloody Wogs" a relieving breath of unmolested air.

When the same words emerged from the perfectly formed face of Angie, Gwen had to fight off the stunned donning of an all too disturbing mantle. It made no sense. In this life, her pastor would have wept like a child at her prudence.

Was Walken's daughter daft?

Gwen knew she wasn't a "whore", not by any metric. Naturally, she understood the biblical implication; the school chaplain had called his whore wife nothing else.

Quickly, she glanced at Elvia, who appeared equally slack-jawed and wide-eyed, completely lacking in understanding. Evee had once remarked that a puss at work had labelled her with the title, though Gwen had yet to get around to skin that particular cat.

"I am sorry?" Gwen opted for diplomacy, choosing to understand that there might be a misunderstanding. "Young lady…"

"GWEN? You're here?"

The familiar face of Eric Walken, ex-member of the council of ten of Oceania, appeared in the corridor.

"Eric!" Gwen waved. "Yes, I am here. Why wouldn't I be?"

Angie's face fell once more.

"Oh, dear…" Walken stopped in his tracks. To Gwen's eyes, her old nemesis-turned-ally looked quite a bit different from his Machiavellian self. In Sydney, Walken had been the aloof politician. In China, he had persisted in the air of a prideful English Magister, always appearing a rung above the rest.

Now, with his gold-rimmed spectacles, scruffy beard and apron, the Magister appeared emasculated. There was now an unmistakable air of domesticity to the older man that made Gwen doubt her eyes. She rather fancied the newly mellowed Walken, even though he was so divorced from the Mage she had imagined him to be. "… I think you better come inside first."

Despite her father's amicability, Angie was not having it. "Dad, are you serious?"

"Possum, don't be rude to our guest."

"MOTHER!" The girl fled.

Gwen and Walken looked at one another eye-to-eye.
Walken looked tired.

VOOMP!

A Dimension Door appeared and disappeared, revealing who could only be Audrey, Eric's wife. In between the fading motes of icy Conjuration, Gwen spied a dark-haired woman with the likeness of a lark. At first impression, the wife of Walken seemed sweet and sincere. She was short, as per her bird-like guise, with a narrow body, a small face and teak eyes. She dressed well in a full-length cotton-skirt and a pale-blue cashmere cardigan, certainly better than her aproned husband, carrying a demeanour that was dignified and portrait-ready.

"You must be the delightfully unattached Miss Song." Audrey's voice, like her appearance, was sharp and controlled. "Do come into the kitchen."

"Audrey," Walken raised his voice. "This is most improper. Gwen's a guest and an important one at that. Show her to the living room."

Gwen involuntarily gulped when Walken's wife swept the gathering with her matronly gaze. Having enjoyed no experience of domesticity of any kind across two lives outside of compelling Percy to cook, she felt genuinely lost for words.

"In the kitchen," the wife insisted. "Angie, you may make our guests some tea."

The daughter stomped away, as did Audrey, leaving Gwen standing in the corridor, watched by a confused Elvia.

"How's London?" Walken said awkwardly.

"Not the catch up I expected," Gwen replied to the unspoken question.

"Mmm." Walken sighed. "I had wanted to prevent an incident, but now that you're here, maybe you can help us resolve our differences."


The country kitchen inside the townhouse was larger than Gwen had expected from the outside. Since the family occupied all three levels, the back porch had been knocked out and extended to the exterior, creating an oblong, half-dome winter garden. Around the kitchen table, the family sat for the impending presentation of their father's head on a silver platter.

"My apologies for Angie," Audrey began, her lips thin and severe. "Angie. Apologise."

"Sorry, Miss Song." Angie inclined her chin. To Gwen, the girl looked to be in her late teens or very early twenties. Like her father, her keen features made her appear maturer than her years.

"That's fine." Gwen hand-waved the prior insult. It wasn't as though she could extract satisfaction from Walken's family, so the apology was a moot point.

Audrey began the proceedings with a nod.

"To formalise our introduction, my name is Audrey Walken— of House Coke of Leicester, Norfolk. The late Earl Thomas Coke was my father. I am his surviving daughter. You've met my second, Andrey Coke-Walken, currently studying at London Imperial. Our eldest, Beatrix, is presently a Magus serving in Edinburgh. Finally, as you well know, Eric is currently unemployed."

"Gwen Song, provisional Magus, Peterhouse, Cambridge and Class VI War Mage," Gwen answered stiffly, matching the woman's terseness. "My companion is Elvia Lindholm, a provisional practitioner of GOS and Nightingales. Also, your husband isn't unemployed."

"Really?" Audrey spooned a sugar cube into a steaming cup of English Breakfast. "Do tell."

"He will very soon be working as an Executive Officer on several operations involving the Isle of Dogs and an infrastructure project for the rest of London."

"Working 'under' you, I presume?"

"You are correct." Gwen left her tea untouched. From the wife's tone and the way Walken clenched his teeth, she was beginning to put two and two together. "Audrey, I am sensing a great deal of uninvited hostility. Your husband is correct in claiming that there has been a misunderstanding."

"Very well." Audrey pursed her lips. "I am not unreasonable. Enlighten us."

"Eric?" Gwen turned to Walken. "Care to clarify the problem?"

Walken cleared his throat. "The fault is mine."

"Naturally—" Audrey stirred the tea.

Gwen agreed, as did Angie.

"...After our unfortunate incident in Sydney." Walken's face took on an uncharacteristic hue. Gwen had never seen the man so flustered, not even in front of a Lich. "I er… never quite communicated to Audrey the extent of the trouble I was in, what with the exile from Sydney and all..."

"… fuck me." Gwen winced. "Eric. REALLY?"

Beside her, the well-informed Elvia gasped.

Gwen now understood the source of Walken's humility.

"A temporary affair. As you know, I was repairing the damage from the fallout, and indeed, good progress has been made."

"True." Gwen nodded.

"What progress? From a regional administrator to unemployment?" Audrey chided her husband with her icy eyes. "That's progress, is it?"

Walken waited for his wife to stop interjecting. "At any rate, for amply good reasons, I was off the grid while in China— the family was still provisioned materially, of course. Unfortunately, the trouble here began when they broadcasted the IIUC."

"You didn't realise they would show your face?" Gwen cocked her head. "You were our team advisor. You knew the Proctors by name."

"I had made a request," Walken answered. "We had been right as rain up until the incident with the Lich. It's hard to avoid the vid-casts when one's nearly deceased."

"Ah…" Realisation dawned.

"Daddy risked his life for you!" Angie could no longer hold her tongue. "He wasn't home often, but he always came back! Now, because of you, Daddy disappeared for almost a year! We haven't heard a peep from him since the Fall of Sydney, and when we see him again, he's on the vid-cast with you wrapped around his neck! Who are you to him anyway? Why would he do that for you?"

Puzzle pieces clicked into place. Already, Gwen felt irked by the drama. She needed Walken up and running on the Isle of Dogs, not dealing with trivial domestic disputes.

"Angie, manners," Audrey quietened her daughter. Turning to face Gwen, the older woman's face was the picture of judgement. "I don't know how your folk do things in Australia, but we Brits hold certain ceremonies as sacred. The facade of matrimony must be upheld on the highest pedestal. In private, if Eric wishes to seek the warm and inviting company of a young sorceress such as yourself, then I have only my lack of allure to blame. However, what you have done to our reputation as a household is irreparable. Beatrix has already received many a mocking remark, and Angie here can barely keep her head held high. I, myself, as the chief victim of his affair, should consider myself lucky that I have sympathetic companions and friends in high places. What I ask from you then, is merely the impoverished gift of truth."

Gwen opened her mouth wide enough to fit two boiled eggs.
What. The. Fuck.
Walken's wife was suspecting she and old man Walken were bumping uglies because the old dog had neglected to churned her butter? The very thought of herself and Walken as non-platonic professionals made her drier than a slab of biltong.

"According to Eric, you're simply a stepping stone back to where he should be," Audrey continued, her words making Walken squirm like a cheap steak on a sizzle-plate. "He expects us to believe him. Of course, I want to, but the evidence is difficult to swallow."

"What evidence?" Gwen demanded, her tone growing churlish. Being labelled a biblical destroyer and being accused of being a homewrecker were wholly different tiers of insults. What evidence did Audry possess? Was the woman going to show her a vid-cast of Instructor Walken teaching horizontal Spellcraft?

"You're easily worth the candle; I'll give you that." Audrey's eyes spoke volumes of what the wife thought of her attire, particularly the breathability offered by the autumn fabric. "Not that I don't trust Eric's temperance— rather— I know him too well."

Gwen shot Walken a wilting glare.

Walken's wife lowered her teacup until it clinked. Turning to her husband, she cooly continued. "I don't think, if it came to it, that you would die for me, Eric. Maybe for the girls, but not for me. You've always been an absent father and inattentive husband, but I always believed in your adherence to the gentleman's code. Now, you've another significant other— Miss Song here, which begs the question. What should your wife think, Magister Walken, when her husband is willing to give his all, NOT to his daughters, whom you've left here in London: Beatrix in that godforsaken Frontier; Angie with her asthma; nor to his loyal spouse— but to Miss Song?"

"You're missing the point," Walken appeared blindsided by his wife's audacity. "I've explained everything! More than once! Gwen's not like that."

"Like what? I somehow doubt this teenager is supplying you with the power and influence you crave. What she can offer, and what you may give; is self-evident." Audrey delivered her verdict. "So that leaves us with a natural conclusion. Ergo, Eric— I want a divorce."

Silently, Gwen mouthed the words, "Holy shit."

"Divorce? DIVORCE?" Walken's Adam's apple bobbed like a buoy at noontide. "Christ, Audrey…"

"It's only fair if you can't even pretend to play the faithful husband. At first, I had my doubts. Then I saw her kiss you— or revive you— or so you say, on the vid-cast, broadcasted across every respectable home in London and beyond. Still, I reserved my judgement, pushed my boundaries of belief, until the truth came out. We've all read the tabloids. Gwen Song, Void Sorceress, the maybe daughter of Mycroft Ravenport— your old patron and Factional chum. That was the final straw, Eric. Now I know why you did what you did— though I can't fathom why she could bear reciprocating the advances of an ageing, greasy eel. The mystery's gone, Eric. To the air, be free."

"Rubbish!" Walken's face blushed scarlet. "Why do you think I was away all the time? Why was I alongside Gwen in the IIUC? I was WORKING! Working to ensure that one day, we would be influential again. That one day, the girls could return to Holkham Hall!"

"Never mind the ancestral estate, Eric. That's not your business, not anymore. We wouldn't dare take up any more of your time."

Walken appeared to fight his hypertension with every mote of mana remaining in his unemployed body.

"HOLD UP." Gwen raised her voice. She had seen enough. A few clarifying words should clear the whole thing up in a jiffy. "This is ridiculous. Audrey, Eric, Angie, can you at least listen to what I have to say before burning your bridges?"

Three pairs of eyes converged on Gwen.

"Gwen, tell them." Walken massaged his heart.

Imperiously, Gwen sat up straight and dosed herself with a jolt of Almudj's Essence. Crossing her long legs, she squared her shoulders and extended her swan-neck. "Fair warning. I will NOT be interrupted."

The women snorted.
Walken nodded.
Elvia briefly met her gaze, her blue-eyes wild with alarm.

Gwen began.

"First, Audrey. You are mistaken. Eric and I started as enemies at each other's throats. My Master, if you haven't read the backlog, is Henry Kilroy, Master of the Ten, and victim to your husband's grievous miscalculation. He's dead now, in no small part thanks to Eric. Later, when Walken first approached me in Shanghai, we almost came to blows. When my sister-in-craft, Alesia de Botton found him, she chased him across the university district flinging Fireballs. In time, he assumed the role of an advisor for Fudan's IIUC team, of which I was vice-captain. We went through the rounds, eventually ending up in the Chinese Undead Front. A Lich ambushed me, and not wanting to lose all his efforts in making it up to Alesia and my brother-in-craft, Gunther Shultz of Sydney, he risked his life to do what's best for him. Having lost a gambit, I shared with Walken some of my life. That was the broadcast where I revived him from the brink of death."

Walken nodded at Gwen, then at his wife.

"This is why we're close." Gwen patted Walken on the shoulder in a familiar manner. "I don't know if you've ever fought a live Lich, but we survived one. At that moment, our lives were inextricably entwined. That's the reason why I trust him, and he trusts me. For Combat Mages, there exists a special bond of camaraderie that's difficult for civilians to internalise. But fear not, our bond is platonic and professional. With your husband beside me…"

Walken inclined his chin in approval.

His wife, however, grew more frigid with every word.

Besides her mother, Angie's mouth twisted with loathing. "Disgusting…" Angie mumbled. "Dad, you're disgusting."

"… and as my Chief Executive Officer—" Gwen bit her tongue. Her audience wasn't listening, though God knew why. Having come from a family championed by Morye no.1 in her old world, and Hai no.2 in her new world, she knew she was ill-equipped to be a family consultant. But Gwen had thought her monologue thoroughly diplomatic. If she were her mother's daughter, she would have slapped Audrey right in her sulky mouth.

In any case, the wife was giving her the piss. Was exploring the beneficial bond between her and Walken insufficient? Perhaps Audrey needed to hear the jingle of crystals. How about a spiel about the profitability of Legion? Or the Isle? Or her Dwarves?

"Eric." The wife spoke before she could continue. "We can make it to the Shard and get the forms signed before they shut."

"Audrey, my patience isn't without limits..." Walken undid his apron. Understandably, her companion had suffered enough.

It was just as well; Gwen shrugged mentally. An unattached Walken would probably devote himself to work more readily than one with baggage. After his liberation, she could settle Walken down on the Isle as her majordomo. Once the Dwarves arrived, he would know how to deal with them. There was the matter of trade with the Red Keep as well, involving the import of jadeite and Maotai and other materials from Burma and beyond. Post commencement of her Spellcraft lessons, Walken would keep matters well in hand.

"Dad, you're ridiculous…"
"Not now, Angie..."
"Don't you dare silence her! You're just a Baronet if even that!"
"You two do whatever you want, and I don't complain…"
"What do you call this then? Are you not complaining? I must have gone mad…"

Once the noise began, Gwen tuned right out. It was amazing how some habits could cross over two lifetimes. Family disputes were all the same, everywhere. Vaguely, she felt sorry for her future officer, but really, Walken's family business was his own. All she could offer the man was work to free him from strife.

It was generosity enough.

"STOP! ALL OF YOU!"

The cry that rang out like clarion to quell the quarrel came from the unlikeliest of sources.

Elvia stood, pale-faced, red-eyed and panting.

"You're all wrong!" She howled at them, a little lioness clawing at the air. "GWEN ISN'T A HOMEWRECKER!"

"Who are you to say so?" Angie challenged Gwen's companion. "Who are you to her?"

"I am…" the girl paused. Gwen met her Evee's glimmering eyes. What was her cleric up to now? Why should she care about Walken?

"Evee—"

Then Gwen got her answer.
Without reserve, hesitation nor warning, Elvia Lindholm; her sweet little Evee from Avalon— kissed her full on the lips.

Gwennie was digging her own grave.

From what Elvia knew of her friend's familial history, Gwen was the last person who should be giving Walken advice about marriage. The scenario was so insane that, as soon as they had passed the door, Elvia suspected Gwen would be swimming upstream through a river of shit.

How in God's name could two workaholics: one a power-hungry career politician who had left his family for almost a decade to work on the Frontier; the other an orphaned daughter of Hai and Helena— rekindle the flames of a snuffed marriage? The two arsonists of love might as well douse Brighton in Dwarven promethium, then invite Yue to start a bonfire.

When Gwen's explanation strayed into how important Walken was to her immediate future, Elvia had cringed so hard her chest cramped. When again, through the lens of meritocracy, Gwen had raised Walken above and beyond the boundaries of ordinary friendship, her heart grew sore.

If even herself, who knew Magister Walken was not Gwens' carnal companion, was feeling such jealousy and frustration, what would Walken's family think?

There was also Gwen's cold-heartedness, her complete disdain for the fact that a man was about to lose a wife and two daughters. How could her dearest friend be so kind, and yet be so insensitive to others? It was a side of Gwen she had rarely seen, one that sent shivers quivering down Elvia's spine.

In private, Gwen had once remarked that family was a love that grew about the bone. If so, why should Walken slave away in the salt-mines of regret and bitterness for Gwen's convenience? Why not let go? Leave him to his family?

As expected, following Gwen's tirade, Walken's wife and daughter descended into self-harm, feeding on each other's flesh. As for Gwen, as soon as her friend's eyes glazed over, Elvia knew the girl had gone over a cliff and would not be coming back.

There was only one person present who could bring back the trio from the brink, and it was herself.

"STOP! ALL OF YOU!"

Her new-found sternness surprised even herself. When Angie, the foolish daughter of the Magister, furthermore challenged her with the absurd question of who she was to Gwen, all of her pent up frustration and longing cascaded into an unopposable, barrelling impulse.

It was a threshold that she had told herself never to cross, no matter how much she desired it. Growing up in Avalon by the bay, she understood the importance of boundaries all too well. Her house had overlooked the Shield Walls. These invisible barriers, these curtains of civilisation, were the final frontier of Sydney. Once past the shallows, past the final stretch of the continental shelf, came the dark water— murky and muddled and mired with Mermen.

Now, she crossed it.
Thoughtlessly, she had stepped past the sandbar and plunged into the deep dark before her mind even registered that her feet were no longer touching the seafloor.

"To Gwen. I am the only one that matters." The voice that spoke was alien and strange, almost as if not her own. She must be sleep-talking, Elvia thought. Only in her dreams had she ever been so full of surety and confidence.

From her pocket, the newly awakened Kiki, stirred by the turbulent emotions welling up inside her torso, made itself known with an equally elated, "KIKI— KI!"

"Gwen isn't for your husband," the voice of God continued. "Not now, not ever. So you have nothing to worry about."

"Ki-ki!"

The room sat in stunned silence, including Gwen, now the victim of a Gorgon's gaze.

"Mister and Missus Walken!" Elvia wasn't sure if she could maintain her ethos after her implied logos of love, but she was up to her neck now and paddling free. She had only the experience of her sickeningly-loving parents as an anecdote— that and fifteen years of Sunday Service at St Mary's. "Earlier, you said that you hold 'certain' ceremonies sacred— inferring that you made a vow to love and care for one another in sickness and in health, till death do you apart. Is this true?"

The couple nodded.

"Where were you married?"

"St Andrews…" Walken's eyes darted between Gwen and then herself.

"By a priest?"

"A Bishop…" Walken intoned drily.

"Then why do you neglect the Lord's sanctification? Did St Paul not say that husbands should love their wives, just as Christ loved the church, for he gave up his life for the latter? And YOU, Ma'am. As one with children, TWO in fact, how can you talk of divorce so carelessly? So selfishly? He who loves his wife loves himself. Man and woman; yolk of the one egg, who shall mock the flesh of their flesh? Why should Angie and Beatrix lack their parent? What kind of blasphemy do you propose to teach your children?"

Audrey stared, bewildered by Elvia's accusation of apostasy.

"… We're agnostic," Walken's wife interjected woodenly. "Papa wanted the chapel wedding."

The atmosphere grew somehow even more awkward.

"Do you love your wife, Magister Walken?" Elvia cashed her chips. She was all-in.

"… I do." Walken nodded sheepishly.

"Say it then. Affirm yourself, Magister."

Walken's scarlet face was no less carmine than his wife's. "I do still love you, Audrey."

"Do you, Audrey, still love your husband?"

There was hesitation.
However, compelled by Elvia's angelic aura, Audrey nodded.

"Say it."

"I… don't hate him."

"Angie? Do you want mum and dad to go their separate ways?"

"Jesus, I am in university…" Angie cowered in her chair. "Miss Lindholm, please don't make me say this."

Elvia channelled her inner Gwen, pouring positive mana throughout her conduits until she appeared to glow with unadulterated altruism. Likewise, tapping into what little Faith she had collated in the last few days, she threw in a silent invocation of Bless, turning a few motes of her outward projection golden.

"… I love you both…" Angie cringed against the chair, every inch an Undead compelled by the sun. "Oh my God… someone Void me right now."

"Then love each other deeply, because only love shall overcome the multitude of your sins," Elvia repeated the often spoken mantra drilled into her brain by the Matrons at Nightingales.

"And another thing." She wasn't finished just yet. "Why do you think we came all this way? We're not just here for you, Sir Walken. Not at all! Gwen knew about Angie's mana asthma, and I may have a way to deal with her condition in the interim."

"You do?" Her companion blinked. "We did?"

"Of course. Did you forget? We came to seek Master Walken's aid in making a Greater Familiar contract-circle," Elvia announced. "Through Sen-sen, we may once again gain access to something akin to Lord Henry's Golden Mead, or at least a facsimile. If the Essence of Mythic Dragons isn't going to overcome something as worldly as hyper-inflammation of the respiratory tracts, then I would be supremely surprised by the Yinglong's existence beside Shanghai's world-class miasma."

"Y— you have Golden Mead?" Walken and his wife spoke up at once.

"Not if you don't corroborate with Gwen."

"We'll cooperate." The Magister affirmed his new loyalties.

"Yes, it was all a misunderstanding." Audrey inclined her head. "My apologies. Angie, apologise."

"Umm..." Angie appeared confused. "Sorry?"

"GOOD." Elvia's aura of benevolence faded. "Do everything in love. Amen."

She sat back down.
Just as her external crisis faded, her internal uproar rang out like an air siren. Slowly, she wrapped her arms around her torso, curled her knees into a foetal stance, then folded herself like origami.

A threshold had been crossed.

She was out now. Out and out. Out past the shallows, past the sand bar and the rolling white shoals brimming with mana, out where the sun burned bright, glimmering as blinding shards of scintillating silver, fleeing toward the great blue yonder; unbound and outside the shelter of Sydney's Shielding Stations.

 

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