Like many estates of the Outback, The Manor was a single, sprawling level fabricated from a composite network of glass, wood, and transmuted fibre-cement sheeting. The Estate had an artistic air, a modern facade; favouring an elevated cantilever construction that extend the house over it's sloped foundation. The manor thus gave the impression of been almost a part of the landscape when viewed from the front, whilst the back veranda, a good twenty meters of decking, extended beautifully toward a vista of rolling tablelands.
Melissa kicked the handbrake and threw the stick into neutral, the engine making a sound of air deflating as its mana cores coughed and died, clinking as it cooled. Gwen opened the passenger side door and extracted her slim legs, long and white, one after another, the unergonomic design of the old vehicle hell to enter and exit; the sunken seats preventing her from modestly removing herself. Gwen was regretting her choice of wardrobe with every growing nuisance.
"Nice stalks, you Helena's lass?"
"Yeah, do you know my mother?"
"Was it a nice meeting?"
Melissa laughed, slapping Gwen on the back so hard she stumbled against the car.
"Funny gal huh?" She grinned crookedly. "Come on in, the master is waiting."
The entrance was a set of heavy glass doors that offered a clear view of within and without; a luxury of privacy and space that was only available to country estates. The interiors were dark wood lit by the permeating natural night, the floors a dark grey, the walls blonde pine and floor to ceiling glass. Artistic sculptures of various materials were placed here and there.
Upon closer inspection, Gwen noted that what she had thought to be abstract figures were in fact hyper sensuous statues of women in various states of undress, the moulding of their breasts, waists and buttocks so expertly done as to almost posses realistic qualities. Additionally, the visage of the figures were contorted artistically, writhing in a manner that seemed alive and in motion.
She covered Percy's eyes, who had been inspecting a gigantic sculpture at the centre of the atrium, mesmerised by its indecency.
"These... are Grandfather's work?"
"Oh yes, some of his best," Melissa slapped a plump, black, obsidian buttock. "He gets incredible commissions on these you know."
"Anyway, if he's not here to greet us, then he's probably in the workshop."
They followed through the house's atrium and onto the veranda. An infinity zen garden made in the style of a small, minimalist lake extended towards the horizon, mirroring the blue sky. It created a whole world of blue beyond the decking, at the ends of which was a separate section of the house where steam and smoke bellowed out.
What. Gwen felt quizzical confusion. That's not what a workshop is supposed to look like. She had read her in text books that an Enchanter's workplace was more akin to a watchmaker's workshop. They were supposed to have small boxed shelves of precious materials hidden in a large elevated table, upon which were dozens of intricate instruments used to make glyph and sigil scripts. Small carving knives, pinpoint accurate sculpting blades, large, enchanted lens with optical enhancements for detailed work at near microscopic levels - that was the illustration that had been provided.
Instead, as the heavy iron doors opened with ponderous momentum, Gwen was blasted by a hiss of cooling steam that sent her dress flying, forcing her hands to firmly arrest the wayward hem against her buttocks. She was looking at what seemed to be a smithy. There were anvils, moulds, carving blades, dozens of filers, tongs, and what seemed to be a small mountain of some dark ore.
There was another hiss of steam, and Gwen watched with incredulity as a bronze statue in the shape of a sensuous woman appeared, stark naked, walking towards them. She looked just like Melissa, with similar facial features, her absurdly sized chest, now freed from the bondage of clothing, and wide hips that reminded Gwen of classic Greco statues. The woman walked towards Gwen, bronze filaments of hair swinging heavily to and fro.
HOLY SHIT. Gwen shouted in her mind. A FUCKING GOLEM.
Her grandfather created a golem!
A living construct! It was said that a Golem was the highest level of craft possible for a Enchanter. That the most powerful Enchanters in the world could combine powers of Conjuration, Evocation, Transmutation, with incredibly complex scripts to create Clay Golems, Iron Golems, and other assorted mechanical Beings.
These creatures were at the apex of man's foremost weapons against the Wild Lands, for they were virtually indestructible, resistant or immune to many elements, and could even be enchanted further for combat! An Ironman Golem would be sweet… Gwen gushed, her heart pounding at the immense possibilities. How incredible must her family be, if Grandfather could create Golems? Why had she never heard of this?
She covered Percy's eyes. Golem or no, this was no place for a child. Those swinging fun-bags were far too realistic to be PG-13, bronze or otherwise.
Percy was already rigid with shock, this trip was opening up a brave new world.
"Hey Tess," Melissa greeted the Golem.
"Yo, welcome back," it replied.
Then Gwen observed the texture of metallic bronze fade from the skin of the Golem, returning to that of flesh, though still toned and tanned. The glinting hair too, returned to a dull brunette. The woman known as Tess turned to Gwen, whose hands covered Percy's eyes, and whose mouth was agog, and smirked.
"Never seen a Bronze Flesh Transmute before?" She asked mirthfully. "You can't work here without knowing at least Resist Hot and Cold, ideally Resist Fire."
I have made a terrible mistake. Gwen was glad that she had not blurted out something about bronze golems, that would have been incredibly embarrassing. Tess walked over to a counter and placed a ring upon her finger. She summoned a loose bathrobe, and dressed herself immodestly.
The steam was clearing by now and Gwen could see the figure of an gnarly old man staring at yet another artistic creation. He was almost dwarfish, with dark skin that looked like a walking walnut Treant. His frame was skinny, almost skin and bones, with a bulbous head that swung back and forth on his stick thin neck, offering the likeness of a bobblehead. Her grandfather had never been tall to begin with, and in the shrinking bones of his old age, with the added burden of a hunched back, he could barely reach Gwen's chest. Even now he was performing some kind of moulding spell upon the dull glowing statue, the metal deforming where his hands touched, shaping this way and that as though it was clay putty and not iron ore. They watched in silence as he continued to work, stopping only when the iron had become too cool to mould easily.
"Do you like them?" An old voice that sounded like rattling nails called out, echoing through the chambers of the spacious smithy. "That big one took me almost a month.”
He pointed to a rather voluptuous creation.
Gwen wasn't sure whether she should bow or perform some other supplication she was unaware of, so she curtsied. This seemed to please the old man, who took to walking around her slowly, ponderously eyeing every inch of her like a man inspecting an art piece at an auction.
"They are lovely," Gwen replied, watching her Grandfather making the rounds, herself pulling Percy further away from the statue. The boy seemed mesmerised by all the stimuli.
"Started making them a year ago!" Surya announced. "You mother refused to let your brother there take over the family business. So I've taken to work on something I always wanted to do."
He seemed to have finished inspecting Gwen, and nodded in satisfaction.
"You Helena's girl huh... I remember you," Surya began, "you were this big.”
He made the motion of waving a hand at the height of her hips.
“I remember your eyes, you got your mother’s eyes… and now you're a giant!" He laughed at his own joke and Gwen made a polite chuckle, hoping it would build some rapport with the strange old man.
"Lovely legs, very good shape," he observed, "your father didn't look anywhere near this good, and your mother never had a figure like that, you really lucked out."
"Thanks Grandfather," Gwen emphasised. Now I know where mother gets her obsessive body image compulsions from.
"Good, good," the old man continued, "you model?"
"No Grandfather, I am a student Mage."
"Really? You any good?"
"I am a Lightning - Evoker, Grandfather."
"No shit? really?" He raised a white bushy brow, the effect was like watching a white caterpillar come to life on his face. "Where the hell did we pull you from? You sure you're Helena's daughter? Morye loved to screw around you know, you father raised all kinds of hell with Helena, that poor, stupid girl."
Surya's frankness made Gwen nervous and she could only smile and nod in return, hoping that she wouldn't say or do something to upset her patriarch.
"Still, a quasi-elemental huh?" Surya rubbed his chin, once again examining Gwen as if was some newly uncovered artifact of immense interest. "Your mother tried to sell you off to the highest bidder yet?"
"Not yet, Grandfather." Gwen replied truthfully. He knows his daughter well.
"Heh," he chuckled, and Gwen chuckled with him. "What did they tell you about me?"
"..." Gwen didn't know whether to lie or tell the truth. The old man seemed plenty lucid to her.
"They told you I was a crazy old man right? A real nutcase?"
"Actually, they never talked about you at all, Grandfather."
Gwen had repeatedly inserted his title into her replies, hoping that the idea of a young girl calling Surya that endearing title would bring forth some form of filial sentimentality.
When her grandfather next spoke, it was with a tone of seething anger.
"Typical... typical... ungrateful kids, I gave them everything... hmmph... call me crazy..."
Gwen realised she had better divert his train of thought before he traversed any further over the chasm.
"Percy is here with me," Gwen brought her brother forward, in the manner of one performing a show and tell. "Your dearest grandson!"
"Hmmph!" Surya grunted with annoyance, still muttering angrily.
"Whoops! You've set the master off!" They were interrupted by a voice that was smokey and easy like whiskey. Gwen turned to see Tess with a face full of concern, still in her robe. "His mind tends to run off the rails at times, you have to be careful. If you set him off, it could be hours before he recovers."
Gwen watched incredulously as the woman sidled up to her grandfather, pressing her body onto him like mother coddling a child.
"Surya~ Surya, you want to have a drink? Something to eat?"
Gwen watched her grandfather's face slowly relax, the anger draining from him like the tedious drip of cold cut coffee. Eventually, the wrinkles on his face seemed to relax, and he once again took note of the world around him.
"Huh? Oh, Tess, yeah, sure, water for me."
She's his nurse! Gwen realised. How sweet!
"Are you Grandfather's apprentice too?"
"Yep, I am his Transmutation apprentice. Mel is his Enchanter."
"Oh," Gwen looked at Melissa, who had gone to get some water for the old Magus.
"Thanks for looking after him," Gwen said earnestly. She had never had to take care of anyone in her life, but from she had just seen, it couldn't have been easy.
"Just give him a coddle, dear," Teresa winked at Gwen. "He's sweeter than you know."
Alright... Gwen looked at Percy expectantly, whose eyes returned, No way I am hugging him, you want him, you do it.
"You guys want anything?" Tess asked.
"Just water, thanks."
"I'll have a coke," Percy noted.
"Sure, I'll be back,” Tess gave Surya a peck on the forehead. "You keep interrogating him."
* * *
"We're entirely professional, if that's what you were thinking," Having regained his lucidity, Surya commented as he walked Gwen out of the workshop towards the wondrous vista of the infinity feature and the back veranda. "Not at all like your father, so don't even think in that direction."
"Of course, Grandfather," Gwen followed demurely, watching him deciding between a wicker couch and a small alfresco dining set. He chose the dining set as it offered both Gwen and Percy a seat.
"So, why are you here? Your father was pretty vague on the subject," Surya began.
"Grandfather, I wanted to ask you some questions," Gwen said sweetly. "That and I so wanted to see you…”
That brought a smile to Surya's cracked lips.
"Heh..." He grinned in the expectant manner of a placated grandfather.
Gwen had masticated the framing of the question dozens of times in her head, but couldn't find a way to say it euphemistically. She took a deep breath.
"I am in need of funds, Grandfather," Gwen confessed, "as well as magical items."
Percy burst out sniggering, forcing a rush of air through his nostrils, gazing up at his sister with a look which said, 'Really? You're here to beg?'
"Helena not giving you an allowance?" Surya looked at Gwen skeptically. “Your father's broke or something?"
"I would rather not," Gwen replied, lowering her voice in a display of modesty. "I would prefer to make my own income if possible, but I wasn't sure how to go about it.”
"Yeah.. yeah I can see that." Surya thought a little about Gwen and her circumstances, and acknowledged that in her place, he would also prefer not to be in her mother's debt.
"How about your Uncle? He's got the lion's share of what I had left them, and made good on expanding the Clan's fortunes as far as I know."
Gwen explained what had happened the last time she went by the Manor.
Surya shook his head disappointedly.
"Social climbers..." He sighed, "all those years of Craft and hard work, and my own kids are just social climbers without their own Path."
"Well, Richard is doing very well... he got a commendation to the Four Houses at Prince's..."
"I heard," Surya looked at his Granddaughter, whose features looked nothing like his own. She was tall, lithe, had hazel eyes and dark hair. She looked like a foreigner. "So you're the reason Richard got that placement. How well do you know this Alesia? Even I've heard of her, old military hero, big deal a decade ago."
"We're just acquaintances," Gwen lied, "she's my instructor."
Surya seemed to mull over the news in his mind.
Tess and Melissa returned, and proper introductions where given. They were sisters that Surya had found by chance whilst selling his art works. One was a Transmuter, and the other an Enchanter. They took a liking to the old master’s craft, and Surya was happy to have them as his live-in students. Since Helena was adamant that Percy would attend Prince's, which meant attending to the Four Houses, which also meant that he would be traveling away from Sydney, it would not possible for him to take over the family business, Enchanter or no. One thing lead to another, an they were now apprenticed under him, meaning that Surya was in the process of passing onto them his craft, his estate, and his items. In this world, the Convent of Craft was far more binding than that of the blood of the womb. They laid down the drinks, and left Gwen and company to their privacy.
"So what is your Path?" Surya continued to grill Gwen about her life.
She told him of her desire to finish high school, enter the military and join one of the government agencies. It was typical of any high-achiever Mage wannabe, but it was realistic and Gwen certainly had the potential with her mid-tier lightning affinity, which would only grow from here.
"...And for that, you need money and items." Surya finished.
"Yes Grandfather," Gwen affirmed.
"What makes you think I am so generous? After all, we have only met twice so far, this been the second time."
Gwen felt her business acumen tingle, the tone of her Grandfather’s voice had suggested an affirmative decision, only that he was finding a valid excused to do so. The degree of his 'help' therefore, would be dependent upon her own offering and sincerity.
"I have this..."
Gwen opened her hand, and there was the shimmering chromatic scale that the Serpent had given her. It glinted under the sun with a prismatic display of rainbow hues.
Surya exploded from where he had sat and grasped Gwen’s hand, his own fingers trembling.
"Where did you get this?!" He uttered in disbelief, spittle landing over her palm.
Gwen smiled and shook her head. She could feel a tingle in her mind, the Geas was in full effect.
"I see," Surya swallowed with great difficulty, his chest heaving and breathing with great difficulty.
"Is it clean?"
"Is it yours?"
Gwen remained still.
Surya considered his options. It was evident to him that his Granddaughter was keeping some dire secrets from him. The object was, by his expert eye, something that belonged to a Being of at least Ancient class. It was an exceedingly rare material that appeared only once or twice a decade, generally after an extensive Subjugation or Purge action. It was serpentine in nature, and considering the news in recent days, Surya had a pretty good guess as to where it had come from. Why did Gwen have it? What could cause her to come to possession of such a thing? These were questions she apparently could not answer, and whose answers he was not sure he entirely desired.
Was it normal for an Enchanter to receive mysterious and rare ingredients? Certainly. The profession would hardly exist if every prudish Crafter were bothered by the source of their materials, be it through the proper channels, or perhaps the Grey Market under the Tower, or even the fearful reputation of the Obsidian Exchange. The more an Enchanter worked on expensive and exotic materials, the greater their craft could grow. At the proficiency of Surya's skills, nothing short of black zone materials could help extend his craft. This was a rare opportunity.
That's enough, I think. Gwen closed her hand, cutting off Surya's bulging eyes and longing gaze from the shimmering scale in her hand.
"Would you like to work on it?" Gwen asked. I need to shift the position to my favour, that he becomes the beneficiary of the favour, and I become the benefactor.
Well no shit I would like to work on it, Surya thought sulkily. He regarded his Granddaughter in a new light. She wasn't here to beg... no... she was here to negotiate! He felt a smile reach his lips, and found himself smiling despite the suspicion that he was been played. Was she only, fifteen? Sixteen? Her mother never had a mind for such a thing, Helena was always an open palm that that asked for more.
"What would you like to have it crafted as?" Surya spoke carefully.
"Something defensive, I am very weak in terms of shielding and fortification."
"Hmm..." Surya pondered the options. The Scale had the properties of all major elements, which meant that he could potentially create something unique and highly specialised. "How's your shielding spells?"
"I can manifest, but it's rather weak against solid projectiles."
"Well," Surya began, " I can make you a elemental shift item with an inbuilt Shield attunement. You'd be able to make any prime elemental shield as if you had affinity in that element."
Gwen pondered the pros and cons of the proposed effects. The most important aspect of this was the advent of casting Water Shield, which was near perpetual and self regenerating, or the Earthen Shield, which could ward against hard-point attacks.
"The core material remains, and we can always add to it once you become more proficient," Surya added, "or maybe even gain access to some other Schools. The main function of a multi-element core like this object, is its ability to help you channel mana into different elemental types, though you could only attune a single, specific, spell.”
Gwen felt her heart skip a beat.
"Does that mean I could use all the prime elements?" She had to force her voice to be calm, collected, and only mildly touched by the wondrous news.
"With limited efficiency," her grandfather shook his head. "Tier 1 or 2 at best for elements not attuned to your own body, and a boost to your lightning abilities."
"Oh," Gwen replied disappointedly. For a moment, she thought she had found a game breaking cheat.
"That's already over-powered, I'll have you know!" Surya joked, "my God! if you were a Conjurer, you would be truly breaking the limitation of mid-tier Spellcraft! Imagine that! You could summon any of the four prime elementals and attune yourself with any beastie that had been generated from those Planes!"
Gwen looked at her Grandfather awkwardly. A titanic battle of truth and deceit raging within her. She had only one opportunity to create a unique magic item.
Surya stopped his chuckling, looked at the expression on Gwen's face, and read in there something that stopped his heart, right there then and there.
"You... you..." He stuttered, his eyes two blazing orbs of expectation, his mind conjuring an unlikely hypothesis. "You're shitting me..."