Gwen's last twenty-four hours spent in Shanghai were so satisfying that she considered taking an overnight hop over to Sydney to slug a few stubbies with Surya.
It was a tempting impulse, though one overshadowed by her impending reunion with Sufina.
According to conventional Spellcraft lore, dearest "Sufi" would have lost most of her Henry-acquired Humanity by now, for without the anima or animus of a Mage fostering an Elemental, personality reversions were inevitable. Luckily, for Kilroy's Apprentices, higher-order beings like Sufina immutably retained their intelligence.
As for her present aftermath, once she and Lulu had liquored themselves up to the neck, a relieved Kusu had taken his sister and Ruì home, with Wei and Yung driving the Songs back to their respective manors. At their penthouse, Tao had made Gwen promise to contact him as soon as she had plans for the United States. Mina, meanwhile, made sure their father kept in contact with Gwen through the House of M.
The next morning, at breakfast, Gwen emerged in her silk PJs to a grumbling grandfather griping about her reckless hen-fight with Lulan, relishing the opportunity to tell her off once more.
"I'll try to come back during Golden Week," Gwen promised her family while she nestled in her Babulya's arms like a smug cat after tipping the soy sauce bottle. "Between the Isle of Dogs, the Void Union, Dwarves, Elves and Cambridge, I am going to be flat-out. I think there will be planned field exercises too. Ruxin's expecting a lot more HDMs as well..."
Her Yeye gazed at the ceiling, perhaps to question an ancestor, then bade her go her way.
"I am so proud of you." Her Babulya sighed while stroking her grandchild's hair.
Gwen agreed, self-satisfied by a feeling of accomplishment. Things had gone swimmingly for her in the last nine months; other than a dozen lawsuits and underhanded competition against London's notorious news rags, her two-year plan was well on track.
"Fingers cross I'll find my keepsake," she breathed out, hoping her run of good luck would continue.
"You are certain this 'keepsake' is with your Master's Familiar?" her Yeye asked.
"I used it on Henry last," Gwen said confidently. "I've managed without it just fine, but after everything the Elves said, it seems quite a bit more important than just a memento."
"Do be careful." Her Babulya worriedly patted her hand. "Dryads are extremely pernicious creatures, especially if they're once the companion of a master Mage."
"I'll take care," Gwen promised before turning to Percy to give her blushing brother a sloppy kiss on the forehead. "Take care, little bro. Don't push yourself too hard."
Percy's hug felt a little limp compared to her full-bodied enthusiasm. "Goodbye, sis."
Then she was away, escorted by silent Wei and chatty Yung back to Hongqiao's ISTC interchange. At the gate, she hired an LRM Device to quickly send Gunther and Alesia a notification that she was on route. After that, it was time for goodbye.
"Good luck, Magus Song."
"Stay safe, Gwen." The relieved Wei and Fung both bid her farewell.
"See you again next time!"
With a final nod, Gwen stepped into the blazing circle of quicksilver Conjuration, then was gone.
Changi ISTC Interchange.
The usually fluid flow of passengers streaming forth from the furthest-reaching ISTC station in the southern hemisphere stopped to stare at the sight of a pair of rare figures in the arrival lounge.
One was a Germanic giant with dark hair, silently simmering with a gentle, barely contained radiance. Without apparent effort, the Mage appeared a Demi-god even while dressed in an unbuttoned shirt and a loose tee, drawing wholesale adoration from the milling multitudes.
Standing beside the man was a stunning redhead, her loose head of autumn hair cascading from her shoulders and down her back. She wore red as well, pairing a light-pink top with a billowing, retina-searing carmine skirt and ruby wedge sandals, cutting a figure that appeared as bold as a dab of blood on laundered linen.
As a combination, therefore, the pair slowed the traffic to a standstill, unaccosted only because six of Changi's best security officers stood by, keeping the crowd at bay.
The arrival lounge's glass doors slid open.
A young woman no less distinct than the pair emerged from the ISTC portals. The crowd cooed, tantalised by the sheer luck required to win the genetic lottery thrice within the same bloodline. When the two women hugged and exchanged cheeks, there was an audible, collective sigh.
"Let's go," the man declared, glancing at the travellers forming an ever-thickening semi-circle around them. "If we stay any longer there'll be a complaint from Tower Master Lee."
Escorted by the guards, the trio soon found themselves victims to the city's unyielding summer. As always, the humidity native to Singapore was enough to glue fabric to skin.
Outside the terminal, the trio's youngest was surprised to find that there was no escort to deliver them to the docks.
"Er… how do we get to Abang? It's a hundred kilometres out. Weren't we hiring a ship?"
"No, you goose," the sister-in-red laughed. "We fly, of course."
"To Riau island chain? There are a thousand or more islands out there. What if we get lost?"
"Don't you have an Omni-Directional Orb?" the man asked. "I figured we could put it to good use."
"I haven't tested it on the open ocean," the girl gulped.
"Don't worry." The woman patted the girl's head. "Worst comes to worst; we've Teleportation Scrolls that'll take us back to Singapore Tower."
Flying through Singapore's mana-miasma made Gwen feel as though she was swimming through coconut laksa. The heat was a symptom of the city's prosperity, for the same multi-layered ring of Resonance Shields that kept the monsters at bay also served to stifle the sea breeze, transforming the bay into a giant heat trap.
Worse still, they had to fly low and slow while within the city limits, and so took almost thirty minutes to clear the harbour and shipping lanes, finally arriving on the open ocean. There, hovering above a blue meniscus horizon, she sighed with happiness as the salty breeze cooly kissed her sunscreen-smothered legs.
Once her clothes sufficiently dried, Gwen set the Omni-Orb to hover while she drifted toward Abang.
As expected, the Orb began to fly in the opposite direction.
"How useful." Alesia whistled. "Draconic Core?"
"Yep. From a Dragon sans asshole." Gwen followed the Orb. She had no idea how it worked, only that it hadn't failed her yet. Once attuned, all Gwen had to do was to will in her mind the "right" place, and the Orb would begin to float in the "right" direction in an entirely mystical manner. Once, she had experimented by desiring Chinese food after a late night of auditing on the Isle of Dogs. Dumbly, Gwen had followed the Orb for twenty minutes, finally arriving at a mid-night Hotpot joint operated by an immigrant family in Croydon. The next day, when she consulted with Diviners at Cambridge, the mystics informed her it was safest to rely on the Orb for translocation and orienteering and nothing else, lest she became misguided to places where she "had causation" but no business nor desire to visit.
"How fast can you fly?" Gunther studied the Orb with interest before turning to the women.
"About one-thirty, if I push it," Gwen said. "I am running tier 5 Transmutation at the moment."
"I can do one-fifty in short bursts." Alesia looked to Gunther. "One-ten consistently. Are we racing?"
"Unlike you two, Transmutation isn't my strong suit." Gunther laughed. "I'll be burning Crystals instead."
The Tower Master pulled up his trouser leg to reveal the inscribed pair of boots. "Primarch Roc Core… tier 16."
The corner of Gwen's lips twitched. It was good to be a Tower Master.
"It is indeed." Her Brother-in-craft grinned, reading her mind. "Something to keep you motivated, but do go at a speed of your choosing. I'll take the rear."
"Are we going like this?" Gwen pointed to her skort, which looked like a miniskirt but was, in reality, a pair of comfortable shorts, then to Alesia's flowing maxi. "There's a lot of creepy crawlies on the island. Flesh-eating plants and such. Flying's fine, but the trek is going to destroy our clothes."
"We can change into leathers once we land," Gunther suggested. "I bought enough for all of us, though I doubt we'll run into anything near our combat-class. Unless, of course, you're thinking of taking on Sufina."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Also, does Singapore's Tower Master know about Sufi?" Gwen asked. "I mean, is she common knowledge to the higher-ups?"
"They know, but they don't know," Gunther replied. "They know that Master's Grot's somewhere in the Riau archipelago, but no one knows which island or which grove. Lee knows, but he's an ally. He was also keeping out unlucky Adventurers when Master was alive, but not since."
"Do you think anyone's harrassed Sufi?" Gwen furrowed her brows. "One would presume Master's Grot holds many treasures, not that there was any while I was there, but it's logical to assume that a Master's Tower home would be as provisioned as the one I found in Tryfan."
"They'll be a nice snack if anything. You should know that Sufi could drain a lesser Dragon down to the marrow if she wished," Gunther assured her. "I don't think you ever had an opportunity to see Sufina in full bloom. Master was already past his prime when he took us on as his Apprentices, but Sufina's the type that grows stronger with age. Don't forget she's also capable of manipulating space and time inside her Grot. Who or whatever tries to access Master's home is going to have a wonderfully terribly time."
"Yeah, Sufina was the one sustaining Master in the end," Alesia concurred sadly. "Were it not for that Void bitch, Master could have lasted another century or two at least."
In the silence that followed, Gwen solemnly sent the Orb forward. When in use, the Omni-Orb traversed a little faster and further ahead than its owner, regardless of the user's velocity. It was another one of those occult occurrences only proper Enchanters with mastery over contemporary and ancient methods could truly fathom.
"I'll lead." She sent her Familiar forward as a windbreak. "Ariel!"
Opening the flood gates of Elemental Lightning, she pumped her channels full of crackling electricity, then shot toward Abang as an arc of blue-white energy, trailed closely by a streak of scarlet and then the casual figure of a Tower Master following with neither flare nor showmanship.
Though Gwen was a Diviner, she had not received training beyond Detect Magic. As a novice, therefore, she lacked the means to attain the meditative state required to function as a Divination node. It was a lack that limited the trio to line-of-sight communications; a restriction made null by the open sea but may grow cumbersome in a dense, death-filled jungle.
Presently, midway through the Singapore Strait, Gunther and Alesia watched Caliban resupply on a shoal of Golden-eyed Travelly in its carp form, stocking up on Vitality for whatever trouble might greet the pair on Abang. Watching the hunt was hair-raising, for though Caliban's river-carp figure lacked the sleekness adopted by ocean predators, its advantage lay in two-meter long lamprey-tipped tentacle-tongues capable of snatching prey from two body-lengths away. While her Familiar ate, Gwen marvelled at the ease of collecting vitality from the ocean. Indeed, as her tutors had taught, the sea remained a limitless Frontier barely penetrated by Humanity's shipping fleets.
Not to be outdone by its darkling sibling, Ariel also joined in, emerging now and then with a fish half the size of Gwen's torso, revelling in the slime and slick, drenching its fur with semi-transparent blood.
Once they were in motion again, Alesia updated Gwen on Yue's rise within Sydney's militia. While Gwen studied, Alesia explained, the infamous "Violent Flight" with Yue, Whetu and Rona had become a CC farming powerhouse throughout Oceania's coastal waters.
"Yue is an able combatant, but her Fireball diplomacy bottlenecks her promotion pathways." Gunther's Message blossomed beside Gwen's ear. "I tried putting her on administrative duty in June; she burned down the records office after a spat with one of the Senior Managers."
"Jeff was stealing from the Tower," Alesia's interjection arrived a split-second later.
"Jeff continues to be one of my best Arbitrators." Gunther looked away from his wife. "Sure, he's using Tower funds to socialise and supply favours, but his negotiations always prioritise the Tower's interest."
"That doesn't absolve him of pilfering the Tower's resources," Alesia snapped. "Once a thief, always a thief."
The Tower Master of Sydney sighed. "What do you think, Sister?"
"Tell him to fuck right off, Gwennie."
Gwen had a feeling Gunther was using her as a Wand of Persuasion, or a Shield.
"I would have demoted the man, but kept him on with a bonus. I would also promise to doubly promote him if his work ethic improves," Gwen said after a moment's pause. "That or open an expense account for the man to use if he needs extra funds to get his job done— after a public apology. I don't mind if my managers need to shower clients through the company, I mean, who can afford the out of pocket expenses as an individual? Even bribes are just an expense if the outcome is good."
"… you sound like Walken," Alesia sulked.
"And Eric's a good manager." Gwen decided to side with Gunther. "Your personal feelings are not wrong, Allie, but if you want Yunnie to be anything other than a glorified spell turret, she needs methods other than setting folks on fire. I am not critical. Gunther's just telling it like it is. Think about the Isle of Dogs and how many people are dipping into my honey pot. You can't imagine how many pies-in-the-sky I had to conjure to convince people to risk their crystals. The NoMs as well— there's over six-thousand now working for the Westferry-Millwall Printing Press. Another four thousand's working on the construction site. There are ten thousand more, servicing the ten thousand labourers, their families, and the local small businesses. No amount of Fireballs is going to make that happen."
"I want Yunnie to do better than me," Alesia confessed. "I know I am not good with these things like you."
"Don't fret, Allie. You're not 'wrong' wanting do what's 'right'," Gwen assured her sister-in-craft. "You just be you, and Yue can be herself. In the future, I'll have a spot for Evee and Lulu and Yue in my Tower. I think I'll need folk like them to tell me when I've gone too far. In that regard, we all need a bit of Alesia in our lives."
"Hear that?" Alesia snorted at her husband.
"Well said," Gunther laughed. "I wouldn't exchange Allie for all of Sydney."
Gwen's flight speed dipped as her Siblings-in-crafts crammed their moon-eyed sentiments down her throat.
"Please get a room." Gwen tried her best not to think of her Evee's milk-white face and how snugly the Cleric had fitted in between her arms. "And— hold up, what's that?"
Of the trio, Gwen possessed the sharpest eyesight by far.
Upon the simmering, fish-scale horizon, she could see the silhouette of ships, a dozen of them or more, stretching between a series of islands. A few looked like trawlers; a few more had the shape and size of coastal patrol vessels. The mothership, however, possessed the distinct cumbersome form of an 80's' supertanker, a medium-sized carrier used by militaries all over the world.
"Is that—?" Alesia furrowed her brows when Gwen pointed out the ship adjacent to their destination. "Abang?"
Gwen squinted. "This can't be a coincidence."
"I wager it might be." Gunther supplied a less sceptical perspective. "I mean, if they're here for us, there would be at least a strike cruiser or a troop carrier. Look at that thing. The barriers are so weak I could sink their cargo-carrier from here. The silhouettes look ancient. Considering where we are, they're probably from Malaysia or Indonesia."
"Then what do we do?"
"I'll go," Alesia said, exhaling sulphur. "If they attack, that's that."
Gunther stopped his wife. "Gwen, can you handle this?"
"Me?" Gwen glanced at the specks on the horizon. "Sure."
"Let's see if our sister's practicals are as amazing as her theory," Gunther said to Alesia, concurrently talking with his eyes. "Don't worry about her safety. She's got both Familiars and Dimension Door. Even if something catastrophic were to occur, I burn a Teleport Other scroll and displace the both of you before you burn your rings."
"Sounds good. Either way, let me check it out first," Gwen noted Gunther had that particular look. "Don't worry, Gunther. I'll engage if the need arises. Ariel! Cali!"
While herself remained visible, Ariel and the now Big Bird Caliban took on the guise gifted by Invisible Familiar. She then buffed herself with a suite of spells ranging from Ability Enhancers to Sanguine Mantle. She felt tempted to deploy Reactive Bone Armour, but suitable Creature Cores didn't exactly grow on trees. Conversely, there was no harm in a little blood-letting, and so Lesser Sanguine Mantle demonstrated its versatility once more.
With Gwen gone, Sydney's Tower Master turned to his wife.
"So much for exercise…" Alesia displaced her mana until her skin once more grew cool. "What do you think? Doesn't look like a sanctioned resource fleet to me."
"It's a poacher fleet," Gunther agreed. "Bad luck for them. Poaching in non-international coastal zones is punishable by Death or Stasis. Lord knows what the Demis will get up to if we don't draw a line in the sand."
"Are you sure it's coincidence there's a fleet near Sufi's island?"
"Good chance it is," Gunther remained positive. "Half of Sydney knows I am away— or at least a Teleportation Scroll away. That and I've got multi contingencies set up if something happens to either of us. Even if that's a United States strike-cruiser armed with an Obelisk of Disintegration, we'll still sink it. Besides, if need be, Lee can teleport the mobile Tower here in less than it takes to chase us down, Gwen especially."
"Think she'll handle it?" Alesia asked once Gwen's figure shrunk to a speck.
"I'll run a Scry," Gunther burned a scroll, concurrently conjuring a mirror showing the area traversed by Gwen.
"You couldn't have Scryed instead of sending her?" Alesia said. "You can be so nasty sometimes."
"Our little sister's been in polite society for too long," Gunther explained, drawing his wife closer, so they stood shoulder to shoulder. "This is the Wildlands, Allie. Gwen needs to know there are far more desperate folk out there than those who are after her profit margins. Besides, I am keen to how our little Void Fiend has gotten with the program since Blackheath. What good is a tier VI War Mage if high-living mills away her bloodlust?"
"… what do you think she'll do?"
"With her tier of Abjuration? I would say she'll suffer a moral quandary for ten minutes."
"That's hardly fair," Alesia complained. "Usually we have a party and a ship of our own to deal with poachers. Without a prison ship for prisoners, what do you want her to do with the survivors?"
"They're dead men by law," Gunther said without any particular feeling. "Besides, this close to Sufina and Master's Grot, I am not too confident in my capacity for compassion."
"Still thinking this whole thing is a coincidence?"
The Tower Master of Sydney appeared thoughtful. "If Gwen sinks the carrier, then yes."
"And if they manage to take her down?"
"Then we better save a few survivors," Gunther remarked drily. "And dig through their brains to see who is pulling strings…"
"HAILING ALL VESSELS! STOP YOUR ENGINES, POWER DOWN YOUR SHIELDS."
Gwen's air siren greeting rolled like thunder over the ships anchored across the island chain. On approach, she had the choice of engaging stealthily or openly. Considering the size of the fleet and the pressure she could exert as a Mageocracy Magus, she chose the former.
As expected, like a kicked ant's nest, the decks suddenly filled with people, with about one in a dozen possessing a low-tier mana signature.
When she drifted closer, she could see that someone had docked several of the vessels against the island where Sufina made her home. That and the fact that a long chain of floating logs trailed from the coast to the ships, with several mid-sized cargo carriers loading the wood onto their rusty decking.
Loggers? Gwen's brows furrowed in an unfriendly manner. According to Attenborough's Bestiary, Dryad Groves did produce inordinately prized lumber, not to mention Dryadic Heartwood harvested from their hearth-tree made precious wand and stave ingredients. The harvesting itself, however, was often a deadly affair.
On the island, she could see men in Golem-suits, going at the Banyan treeline hammer and tongs, filling the air with mana miasma and the crash of whipping chainsaws chewing on wood. With many kilometres to the heart of the island, either the Dryads didn't care, or there was a resonator keeping them at bay.
Around the cumbersome carrier, smaller ships in the form of rusty tub vessels were trawling for fish with enormous nets stretching from bay to bay. On the factory-carrier itself, she could see metric-tons of silvery bait-fish piled in between the crude hulls, feeding into a churning metal mouth.
Loggers and fishers? An idea was beginning to form in her head.
Was this a poaching fleet stealing from Purple and Black Zones under the protection of city-states? According to her Commonwealth Territorial Treaties handbook supplied by Le Guevel, wasn't the offence punishable by imprisonment, stasis and for the Captains, death?
Gunther wasn't expecting her to be judge, jury and executioner, was he? Gwen felt suddenly nervous. For some reason, she thought of Blackheath.
"THIS IS MAGUS SONG OF LONDON TOWER," Gwen declared via Clarion Call as per protocol. Hopefully, these dodgy looking vessels could provide some evidence of their innocence. If anything, she dreaded the inevitable use of force to convince the poachers to leave Sufina's island. "STATE YOUR—"
Her Divination senses tingled before the mana signatures below could complete their circuits. Reflexively, she erected her double-glazed Gunther Shield.
SPAK! SPAK—SPAK! SPAK! SPAK—SPAK!
A dozen Magic Missiles enhanced by whatever Mandala was inscribed on the ship to increase the range of the Mages' spells washed over her spherical barrier like pelting hail, turning half of her globe white with impact. The last attack was an Acid Arrow, indicating something of an Ooze Transmuter onboard the vessel. When she replenished her barrier, she could even see NoMs wielding charged-wands fed by cumbersome mana-batteries.
FUCK! She swore silently. Gwen Dimension Doored about a hundred meters out, reappearing some distance away. "HALT—"
Her Divination Sigil pinged again.
Another round of ship-enhanced low-tier Evocation blasted her Shield. Individually, the spells were negligible, but the sheer volume of attacks landing on her was both draining her mana and preventing her from casting. Worst of all, the attacks were unceasing, with smaller spells hitting every few seconds in between the volleys.
"Gunther!" She Messaged her Brother-in-craft back while gaining altitude. "These idiots started attacking me!"
"We can see that." Gunther's Message came back. "Poaching in Singapore's waters awards eighty lashes— effectively a death sentence for non-Transmuters. Harvesting Dryad wood and threatening the unspoken peace Singapore has established with the Demi-folk is likewise punishable by swimming with the Merlions."
"You knew they were poachers?"
"You just confirmed it."
"God damn it!" Gwen growled in frustration. These bastards had a deathwish! She had already Dimension Doored three times!
"How are they targeting me?" she asked Alesia through another Message, sensing that Gunther was up to his usual tricks.
"Their command ship's got a Divi-loc on your mana Signature," Alesia's voice sounded amused. "You could fly out of range, but we need to get on the island anyway, meaning we'll have to bypass these goons regardless— unless you want to wait a day for the coast guard? So, you want to handle this or should I oblige? Gunther can be done in fifteen minutes."
"We're killing them, just like that?" Gwen demanded darkly, suddenly realising her siblings had sent her out for a reason. "Come on, that's ridiculous. There's like a hundred— two hundred people on those ships, likely more!"
"Are they not presently trying to kill you?" Gunther asked. "Need I remind you—"
Gwen corkscrewed through the air to no avail. Having studied and worked mainly outside of combat for nearly nine months, Gwen knew her Flight was rusty. Then again, it wasn't as though she could dodge Divi-guided Magic Missiles anyway.
Just as Gunther's warning reverberated through her head, a foursome of Elemental Orbs, each resembling green boils, burst about her person, fracturing the first layer of her Shield. If she had been a lesser Mage, a face full of noxious acid would be her present condition.
Slipping away through yet another Dimension Door, Gwen took a good long gander at the Mages flinging spells at her person. Through her Essence enhanced eyes, she could just make out the Poacher's leader, a scruffy Ooze Evoker or Transmuter throwing low and mid-tier spells her way, dressed in a tattered combat suit. The rest of the poachers, both NoMs and low-tier Mages, appeared to be just that— low-tier nobodies and NoMs. To her eyes, the men looked Indonesian, with oily skin the same hue as Surya's.
"Shaa!" Caliban expressed a desire to board the vessel.
"EE! EE!" Ariel suggested an Essence-infused Maelstrom.
Gwen chose to dodge for now.
Gunther's advice at Blackheath seared her brain like a branding iron, as fresh as a jagged flesh wound. In her head, however, she couldn't help but think about the same desperate people who had been starving in Millwall and Cubitt before she arrived. These guys were poachers, not blood-thirsty pirates. They're just folk trying to make a living off the edge of society by providing for the Grey Market. Is trying to make a living punishable by death? Killing NoMs for poaching was such a medieval act, no matter how Gunther framed it.
Gwen flew up and up until she was out of range and the ships were once more miniscule.
Undeniably, Gunther was right on one point.
They DID try to kill her.
She had flown for several minutes just now without retaliation, and the bastards hadn't let up. As her Babulya would say, even Buddha loses patience when struck in the face three times.
Inside her chest, a raging torrent of hysterical electricity threatened to spill. Below, the poacher fleet appeared as tiny as sand, a mere speck, a pinprick on the goosebump of an orange, its rusty vessels the colour of rotten pulp.
And above them, their unhappy arbiter of fate hovered, an indecisive goddess holding back the power to split the bean-green sea asunder.