A few more days of tuition and exhaustive data gathering came and went.
After supper, Richard returned from his extended outing looking like he had gone through all kinds of muck and hell, smelling as though he’d lived the last two weeks in the belly of a whale.
“I really should have borrowed those cleansing glyph-cubes from you,” Richard joked as he opened the door to his apartment and stripped off his shirt to reveal a torso sinuous with toned musculature. Her cousin was not a stocky man, but there was definition there that made his long-limbed body pleasing to the eye.
He filled the tub with water and dropped a pile of clothes into the soapy mess.
“Oh?” Gwen couldn’t help but notice the upgrade. “A Medium Ring of Storage? Congratulations!”
“This thing?” Richard waved his hand. “It’s a small-medium, just a cubic-meter, nothing like yours. I won it in a duel, ha. Fair and square.”
“Did you guys manage to finish the foundation for the Nantong Suspension Bridge?”
“Naw, it’s gonna take a while.” Richard shrugged. “Got some Fresh Water Mermen that are set up near there. Keeps attacking the crew. PLA wants to hammer out an agreement, that or send in a Purge team from the Nantong base. So it’s going to take week or so. I am back here until it's sorted out. Come on! We’re going to start university! Got to see the Course Advisor first though. How are you doing in that regard?”
“Petra’s taking care of it,” Gwen smirked. “She’s taken over as my mother and mentor.”
“She’s a top gal,” Richard nodded approvingly. He then cleared his throat. “Do you mind? No free shows.”
“Whoops, sorry,” Gwen turned her back toward Richard and walked into the living room.
Richard emerged ten minutes later, scrubbed to within an inch of his life.
“I am reborn,” he moaned with relief.
He flung himself into the double-couch on which Gwen sat, sending her almost bouncing off the other end. It was an old couch made by a master artisan, and the springs were a little too enthusiastic in evoking Newton’s laws.
Catching herself on the armrest, Gwen pulled her long legs under her buttocks to keep her feet warm; Richard meanwhile, leaned back, arms wide, and laid his head against the worn headrest.
As her cousin rested his eyes, Gwen continued her story.
“So, quite a bit happened while you were gone. I already told you about Mia and her brother, right. Well, the other day I went and made a clean break with mother. I spoke about our experiences, watched her stunned response to everything I said, and then I gave her a Vitae Fruit and…”
Gwen looked over at her companion.
After more than a week away from home, Richard appeared more interested in rest than her minutes of the last two weeks.
Gwen chuckled to herself.
Feeling maternal, she pulled herself carefully from the couch, leaned over, and kissed her cousin on the forehead. She then found a blanket and placed it over his chest and shoulders. The Shanghai summer was yet to pass, but the night air had begun to chill as the monsoonal summer wound down toward autumn.
There was much to do tomorrow.
She had to finish her tests: one academic; the other for academia, before the Semester began in just over a week.
* * *
“Where are we going?” Gwen asked Petra when she emerged from her bedroom. She had never seen Petra dress up so lavishly in the months they had been together. Her tutor, companion and cousin had on a little-blue-dress, and by God she was magnificent! Gwen had seen plenty of strapless midi-dresses before, but what Petra wore could turn heads so quickly that victims could sue for involuntary whiplash. She even had lipstick on, a deep scarlet that resembled two petals of blood.
“I thought I told you; we’re going to Mina’s Karaoke Party at M on the Bund.”
Before Gwen could continue her appreciation of Petra’s jaw-dropping attire, her cousin pushed Gwen into her room, where a dress was already laid out for her.
“What is this?!” Gwen took the dress from her bed quizzically. It was beautiful, the fabric as soft as flowing water. At first, she had thought the garment a simple one, but once she had it in her hands, she realised that it was backless all the way down to her mid-torso, tied together with a pink bow. The front though, was modest and fully tailored, tapered as to emphasise her bust.
Her eyes glanced at the label.
“A Miu Miu!?” Gwen gasped, looking toward Petra with incomprehension. The Miu Miu wasn't a gift from her mother, undoubtedly. Who else would buy her frivolously expensive couture? Not her father and certainly not babulya. It can't be Petra, nor Richard.
“Just put it on, we’re going to be late!”
“Just do it already!”
Gwen pulled her skivvy over her head, wiggled from her shorts, then slipped the dress over her shoulders. It fitted her perfectly, down to the last millimetre of fabric that clung to her shoulder just enough so that the fabric felt as though it floated. The hem reached just past an acceptable line of modesty, exposing the envious length of her legs dangerously; whoever ordered the dress either had supernatural powers of Divination, Gwen speculated or had access to her biometric data.
Petra tied the bow for her and left two pink streamers reaching just past her shoulder blades.
Gwen found a pair of white pumps to match the dress, then quickly lined her eyes with wingtips while Petra brushed out her hair. She matched Petra’s lipstick, feeling a little mischievous, then the two made it downstairs to see Mayuree’s chauffeur waiting with the Maybach.
“Young Misses, the Mistress is waiting at the M already.”
Petra shuffled into the rear seat and pulled Gwen in with her.
Gwen placed a hand on the hem of her dress, which proved a little too short for carelessness, and began to ask a series of questions. Whoever ordered it tailored also had less than pure intentions, Gwen's chilled thighs informed her, still trying to figure out who was her mysterious benefactor. Tao? That would be unlikely as well. Mina would have gotten her something that sparkled, Gwen was confident of that.
“Enjoy the mystery! Just go with the flow.” Petra churlishly quipped, not letting a single slip of information past her lips.
But Gwen had already pieced two-and-two together after Petra’s eyes grew mischievous. She was a perceptive woman, after all, she had an inkling as to what was transpiring.
It was May.
It was 2003.
And that meant she was going to be seventeen.
She had celebrated her last seventeen birthday with acquaintances from University; people she'd met for no more than a year.
By the Gods! She felt young and old at the same time.
Petra's meagre attire, the Karaoke Party that came out of nowhere, the expensive dress on her bed, evidently not a gift from her mother because it fitted, it all added up. All she had to do was relax and enjoy the ride.
That, and pretend to be at least a little surprised.
* * *
“Ghetto Platinum! Barely Legal!”
A cacophony of voices exploded as Gwen entered the interior of the privately booked function room at M on the Bund. Confetti, balloons, and projections both physical and illusory filled the room as she became showered by congratulatory greetings.
“Oh my God! You guys shouldn't have!” Gwen did her best to communicate her delight, though her happiness was effortlessly genuine, gushing from her in torrents of bell-like laughter.
Mayuree was there, as expected.
Petra, of course.
A jubilant Tao.
Mina clapped her hands adorably, standing next to Mayuree.
And Marong? Unexpected, but Gwen could see why he wanted to tag along. The man’s eyes hadn’t moved from their dresses since they entered. She still wasn't sure what Marong wanted from her or Petra. There was no way they would allow him to wiggle into their panties, but if the man desired something academic or business related - Gwen wasn't adverse to an injection of capital.
Her eyes scanned the rest of the suite.
Babulya wasn't here.
Nor her father.
No uncle Jun.
Naturally, no Percy, but that came as no surprise.
But it was enough, Gwen was wise enough to know that other people had their circumstances. Time, as the poet once said, makes it easier to be wise. She had long since learned to take a walk in the shoes of another, becoming capable of empathising with their choices.
“Babulya sends her regards.” Mina caught Gwen’s flash of disappointment and immediately moved to clarify their grandmother’s intentions. “She’d even passed on a gift for me to give to you!”
“I appreciate it very much,” Gwen returned Mina’s explanation with a smile of her own. “I’ll thank her personally later, thanks, Mina.”
Mina breathed out and laughed, feeling a sizeable weight lift from her shoulders.
The private function room was a VIP section of the M on the Bund’s restaurant section, which had karaoke facilities embedded into the P.A system. Some enterprising Magitech-Illusionists had managed to interface a large-scale Vid-Cast crystal into the wall so that one side of the room functioned almost like a cinema.
"Feel ~ your body close to mine ~ ~ ~. "
The problem was that Gwen knew none of the songs, even if they sounded vaguely familiar. She could find the tune in her memory, of course, but the dissonance between the melody of her old world and the new made it impossible to predict the next note, be it soprano, mezzo, or contralto. Fumbling with the words and halting with the cadence of her voice, Gwen did her best as her companions agonisingly endured the lacklustre singing with grimacing faces. The sonorous torture resulted in a new understanding; or misunderstanding: Gwen couldn't sing for shit.
Thankfully, it was time for the last song.
The cake wheeled into the room was enormous. An enclosed lotus in green and pink, with an exterior that resembled jade.
“Goodness!” Gwen marvelled at the spectacle. “That’s a cake?!”
“It’s a Seven-Fold Jade Lotus from Taihu, the lake in Suzhou,” Richard clarified for her. He had come to know many bodies of water surrounding Shanghai thanks to his labours. “Also, your singing is worse than your Flashbangs! Hahaha! You should open up a duel with a tune.”
“Richard!” The girls chided.
“Aha! Hear hear!” It was Marong who applauded the one man brave enough to tell the world the truth they all had to endure in silence.
"Haha... N-not true!" Tao bit his tongue when the girls turned their eyes upon him.
“That’s my gift to you,” Mayuree proudly presented herself. “Of course, we’re all going to partake in it, but I got it especially for you! Make sure you eat the lotus heart at the centre. It'll help your emerald mana!”
Mayuree then lit the top of the lotus, and the whole platform began to rotate slowly. One by one the petals caught the Illusory flame, then the lotus ‘bloomed’ as the thread which held it taut unfolded, becoming a fuchsia-pink wonder. A delicious, sinus-clearing fragrance, part lake-in-spring and part floral, spread throughout the room.
Unable to contain her giddiness, Mayuree urged Gwen to blow out the illusory candle.
“I wish that we can remain friends and family forever, and I wish for all of our good fortunes!” Gwen spoke aloud as she blew out the flames. It wasn’t the etiquette, of course, but it left a fuzzy feeling the hearts of all those who attended.
Mayuree then retrieved a ball of pink-green petals from the centre of the lotus, a cluster of buds yet to be given the opportunity to bloom.
“Here, the heart,” Mayuree had an expectant grin split from ear to ear as she presented her birthday gift to the woman who may yet one day save her life, directly or indirectly. “To your health.”
Gwen took the Lotus-Heart from the girl’s tiny hands and placed it to her lips.
“One gulp~” Petra advised. “Don’t chew it. That’s the best way to consume mystic flora.”
Taking her cousin’s earnest advice, Gwen tried cramming the fist-sized ball of petals into her mouth. Thankfully, the leaves were soft and pliable, filled with water and capable of significant compression.
“Mmmph- it's bigger than I thought, I can barely fit…"
She met Tao's half-smiling degenerate expression.
"Ghurrghk... Oh, God damn it Peaches..."
Gwen coughed and choked.
The girls laughed and chuckled as Gwen crushed the lotus between her teeth, massaging her chest a few times to ease the passage. As the magical flora dissolved, Gwen felt a burst of vital energy passing through her chest and into her abdomen, warming her instantly as though she’d just being through a sauna. A sheen of sweat broke out over her forehead, her arms and her legs, covering her exposed back. Gwen breathed out expansively and felt the fatigue of her studies fall away.
Within her body, Almudj’s essence rejoiced at the boon of primal energy, growing wildly as the motes multiplied, becoming more robust and invigorated.
When Gwen glanced up again at her companions, her skin was glowing with divine splendour, momentarily thrifted from the gift of the lotus, said to be the essence of renewal, the heart of rebirth; the very place where Buddha entered the wheel of reincarnation. For a few transcendent moments, Gwen seemed to her family and friends beautiful beyond compare.
Marong had to swallow several times in quick succession as he watched the girls pull petals from the lotus and bite into them, each delighting in the gift of vitality and youth bestowed by the rare bounty, and each enjoying the flash of divine radiance that encompassed their bodies.
"Oh~ you look amazing, Petra! Marry me!" Mayuree exclaimed, her eyes aglow.
"Your skin is glowing!" Mina quipped, jokingly running a hand over Petra's thighs. Petra sternly slapped her daring fingers, soliciting a sharp squeak from the petite girl.
Marong knew that the fruit had cost his sister another 1100 HDMs, perhaps more, knowing the season, and couldn’t help but wonder about his sister’s designs. The amount Mia had spent was almost a quarter of what her talent had generated for her estate this year. Was the Void Sorceress worth such an investment? Not to mention these were non-contractual gifts, merely goodwill, likely a waste of time.
But he wasn't unhappy to be present. The dress he had picked out for the Void girl was perfect. The dark velvet matched her porcelain skin with an aesthetic minimalist that pleased him immensely. He was happy that he had not left that critical choice to his fashion-blind sister, who had been dressed by her Maids all her life. Curiously, he looked toward the only other man in the room and wondered if his fellow had shared his appreciation.
He looked straight past Tao toward Richard.
Richard grinned at him.
He grinned back.
There we go, Marong thought pleasantly. We’re friends already. That was easy.
Richard meanwhile, turned to Mina as the music pumped.
“That Marong, he looks strong,” Richard noted dutifully. “I don’t think I can take him, at least not alone.”
Mina turned to look at Richard strangely.
“Why do you want to fight him, Richard?”
“Curiosity and instinct.” Richard shrugged. “He’s a wolf.”
“How do you know he's a wolf?” Mina glanced a few times at Marong. The man caught her watching and winked. Mina didn’t mind the man, but she disliked men who wore eyeliners. They seemed to her to be delinquents. The androgyny of the Smoke Mage made her uncomfortable, and the cigarette smoke that lingered around him odiously did not help matters either.
“I know my kind.” Richard received a petal from Mayuree and took a bite. The taste was like drinking honey-water, but the vital force within was palpable. He wondered if it was possible to keep a piece as a panacea for overwork. “Lea!”
His water spirit materialised and squealed in delight as Mayuree passed the humanoid Spirit a petal too. There was plenty to go around. The entire mass of the Lotus was more than enough to feed a dozen people, much less a group of teenagers. There would be enough left for Petra to keep in stasis.
With the ‘cake’ finished, it was time for gift giving.
The groups sat around the U shaped couch built around the wall with Gwen seated at the centre on an ottoman.
“The Lotus is from Mia, of course, and you’re wearing my gift already,” Marong declared. “I must say, it suits you perfectly, Miss Gwen. It was well worth the HDMs.”
Gwen thanked the Smoke Mage nervously, allowing Marong the privilege of appreciating his gift. So that's who gifted it, Gwen felt her lip twitch just a millimetre, pulling at the too-short hem.
“Thank you so much, Mia. Marong too, such a thoughtful present. And Mia, your gift is too rare and too thoughtful.”
“It’s a trifle.” Marong crossed his legs and waved his hands in front of him. “The House of M is at your service.”
“That’s my line!” Mayuree huffed and blocked Gwen from her brother’s sight with her petite frame. "Stop looking! By Mao, you're terrible!"
The room laughed rancorously at Gwen's expense.
“This is from Babulya,” Mina opened a small trinket box and retrieved what looks like another Ioun Stone. “This is a Stone of Clarified Thoughts. It’ll help you concentrate and think, as well as improve your memory retention.”
“How lovely!” Gwen took the box and pressed it to her bosom. “I’ll be sure to thank her as soon as we finish!”
“This is from your father and Uncle Jun,” Mina produced another package from her Storage Ring. "Uncle Jun provided the HDMs; your father picked the gift."
Gwen pulled open the packet, revealing an intricate pink box.
She opened the box. and saw the offending item.
She snapped the box close.
“What is it?” Petra leaned over.
Gwen’s face grew as pink as the box's salmon exterior.
Mina caught the label on the box.
“Ooo,” she cooed. “I got a pair of those too.”
Petra took a gander as well, lifting the lid slightly.
“Uncle Song is a strange but a very thoughtful father…” She returned the gift, somewhat disturbed but also acknowledging the wisdom. Maybe, she thought, she could purchase herself a pair as well. She could most definitely use it during long hours of delicate experiments.
“Those are surprisingly useful,” Richard recognised the box as well. “I’ve got several pairs myself, for men of course, and in briefs. Let me say that when you’re adventuring in the wild, surrounded by God knows what, the last thing you want to do is to leave the Party and find a place to have a good squat. Hell, I know of a place in Malaysia where there are larval parasites in the river that can crawl-”
"Where do they crawl into?" Marong pursued the subject. "Pray, do tell. I need details."
Now scarlet, Gwen’s stowed the box in her Ring.
“Tell Dad thanks,” she quickly asked Mina to move on. “Thanks for the heads up, Richard. Marong. No.”
“You know," Marong quipped, "As a soon-to-be goddess of the University, that thing is going to be indispensable to your image.”
“Why?” Gwen asked quizzically.
“Well,” Richard burst into laughter. “I’d imagine that when we’re out on Quests and Field Duties, no one would like to find their Goddess having a squ-"
"- I mean, there're parasites that-"
“OKAY! THANK YOU!” Gwen waved them both away. God, these immature men were worse than children. Still, Goddess of the University? That sounded nice. There were plenty of pretty girls in university though, and she likely had no time for a popularity contest.
“This is from me.” Petra materialised a gift 'box' as well.
“Pats! You shouldn’t have. You’re helping me so much already!”
“Nonsense, here it is.” Petra pushed a crystalline cube into Gwen’s hands.
“Yes,” Petra announced proudly. “It is from Master and I. We paid a special visit to the Tower and met with Chief Apothecary Dao of Pudong.”
“A Tier 7 Regeneration, the activation trigger is with me, I'll tell you later,” Petra announced proudly. “It will mend your flesh, restore your health, even attach lost limbs. Its duration is unknown but, I would suggest two hours minimum.”
“A second life!” Gwen gushed and embraced her cousin. “Thank you so much, Petra. Master Wen too. Your present is beyond precious. You must have spent CCs on this! Pats! I ever so grateful!”
“I am happy you like it.” Petra hugged Gwen back.
The others were immensely impressed. There were no more than a dozen Magister-healers in the city and only two who were tier 8 in their attainment of Clerical spells. Magister Dao was as famous for his healing as his aloofness. Usually, only his apprentices attended to requests. This gift of Regeneration was a rare gift indeed, for the Mage who had its blessing could continue to fight, heedless of minor injuries, until the spell’s duration ceased. Whether on the battlefield or in times of peace, it indeed the gift of a second life.
“Alright, now for our gift,” Mina announced after Gwen separated from Petra.
Herself, Richard and Tao walked beside a table covered with a dark cloth.
Richard coaxed Lea into some hidden contraption behind the table.
Tao began to incant his Illusory projection spells, filling the surrounding space with airy motes of pale luminance.
Mina fiddled with a device for several moments.
“Gwen, are you ready?”
Gwen nodded. What could it be? She wondered. What’s with all the fiddling and the secrecy? Was it a puppy or a kitten? Maybe a young Magical Beast? No, that would be absurd. She had two familiars already.
“Here we go!” Mina manipulated a button, and there was a thrum of mana.
The black cloth fell away.
A petite Asian girl about the height of Gwen’s shoulder was standing before them. She had large, luminous brown eyes and prominent lashes that gave her a wilful demeanour. Her china-doll face was milk white and porcelain, punctuated by a small pink mouth. When Gwen’s eyes fell lower, she had full confirmation that the girl before her was who she thought she was. There was no one else she knew who won the genetic lottery like that.
“YUE!” Gwen choked. “OH MY GOD, YUE!”
She rushed forward to embrace her friend, still reeling from the fact that Yue was here. HERE! In Shanghai! What a gift this was! WHAT A GIFT!
“Gwen…” Yue began to move.
Gwen crashed into her friend, fully expecting to be cushioned by her gift of surplus flesh; instead, Yue burst into a pool of water that drenched Gwen from head to toe.
“Eeeek!” Lea collated her watery form and renewed the Illusion.
“I am not ACTUALLY here, Gwen,” Yue laughed at her bedraggled friend, who by now had water streaming down her dress and her face. “I am being projected via the LR COM Device onto the water spirit in real-time though, so you can imagine I am right here beside you.”
Gwen paused her rollercoaster of emotions and oriented herself as to what Yue meant.
Tao provided the Illusion.
Mina provided the loaned LRC Device.
Richard provided the medium for projecting Yue.
The trio managed to synthesise a combination of Magi-tech and Spellcraft that simulated a real ‘Yue’ which Gwen could touch and feel, albeit not embrace violently nor pash lovingly. How long had they spent on this project? The undertaking must have taken weeks!
“Oh, you guys!” Gwen felt such joyous enterprise filling her heart. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”
The trio laughed jovially and took their seats.
‘Yue’ joined the party, and the music once again blared.
* * *
“Yep, Evee’s gone on her merry way,” Yue informed Gwen after the others left them some room for privacy. “I am training hard too, almost up to tier 5! I am spewing blood every other night, haha. Alesia’s pushing me pretty hard. I am dog-tired every night, I tell ya.”
“God I wish you were here,” Gwen lamented.
“You think I don’t?” Yue chuckled. “Wait for me; I’ll come and show all your tier 1 upstarts what a real Fire Mage looks like.”
“I eagerly await the day,” Gwen replied.
Yue asked Gwen for the latest news, and Gwen unreservedly told Yue of what had transpired.
“Seriously, fuck that old guy,” Yue huffed. “Fuck him in the Chink-eye.”
“Yue, you’re Chinese too,” Gwen couldn’t help but smile. “I’ve got Babulya on my side though.”
“I want to beat the shit out of your useless brother.” Yue kept on going. “Beat him black and blue, the little cunt. Burn his pubes off, and he can go back to suckling on his mother's tits.”
“Alright, alright,” Gwen had to calm her down. “Jesus, your mouth is as foul as ever.”
“Doing work with the military. Broke the two thousand Mark just the other week,” Yue boasted. "They call me the Kill Monger, ha! Imagine that. They need to man the fuck up."
“Amazing!” Gwen marvelled. “What’s plaguing the city still?”
“Just Mermen.” Yue shrugged. “Wish there was something more significant to hunt other than stragglers in sewers. The crabs are pretty good, especially the big bastards. Tastes divine with some soy sauce.”
Ah, Frontier banter. How I missed thee. Gwen allowed herself to indulge in the scene of Yue chewing on a crab leg after a few well-placed Walls of Fire. Yue then told Gwen that her Opa missed her terribly, but was otherwise doing well.
“I’ll try to contact him when my LRC gets installed,” Gwen told Yue. “Maybe a month or so at the longest. I can’t wait to see Evee as well. How was it when she left?”
“Tears, lots of tears, but she looked cute crying too, stirs something dark in you, yeah? Haha,” Yue chuckled sadistically. “She kept saying your name as well. I guess she’s expecting you to call her soon.”
“I’ll try my best.”
“Yep, Master says she’s already moved into a dorm in London, near the Cambridge campus. She got a contact there to help Elvia set up. She’s sharing a room with some other Cleric studying at the Nightingale College. I don’t know the details yet, but you can speak to herself soon.”
“I will, thanks, Yue. I look-”
The illusion of Yue faded.
The disappointment came so suddenly that Gwen could hardly react.
Tao’s apologetic face appeared behind Lea.
“Sorry, OOM,” Tao said despondently. "Never tried Greater Image for like, hours."
“Sorry from Lea too! I am tired!” Lea apologised, then returned to Richard.
“Machine’s out of crystals as well,” Mina tapped the LMC Device. “I’ve lost the feed. Did you have a good time, Gwen?”
Gwen pushed herself from the ottoman and moved to the middle of the room.
“THANK YOU! Everyone!” She announced, bowing deeply. “Thank you for everything!”
The girls made a big huddle and exchanged hugs and cheeks as the party finally wound to a close, with Marong watching enviously by himself alongside other two men. Gwen was feeling a bit tipsy by then from the dessert wine, and so Mayuree and Petra escorted her back home. Arriving at the apartment, Gwen took a quick shower, then fell onto her bed, feeling all the happiness she could muster.
What a night! She thought to herself, to be seventeen for the second time.
In less than one week, her university life would begin.
Somehow, the future looked impossibly bright, so bright that for a split second - Gwen couldn’t help but blink.