The red Alfa must have moved a dozen meters in the last ten minutes.
So that’s why it was a long ride ahead. Gwen realised when they finally passed the Harbour Bridge. The Mage-world might be full of magic, but traffic jams were a cardinal rule of any universe.
“We should have changed,” Alesia sulked, full of annoyance as yet another carload of stickybeak passengers wolf-whistled. Gwen tried to sink lower into her seat, but their carmine sports-coupe provided no such cover.
They were already absurdly conspicuous driving down the M1 in a blazingly red classic convertible, its racing spec, straight-eight engine growling and thrumming like an orc, leaving trails of inefficient mana burn. Adding to their engine of wanton attention was Alesia and Gwen's couture dresses and their startlingly gorgeous faces, further slowing traffic to a standstill. An SUV of young men out on their Sunday drive had been floating beside them for a good twenty minutes now, resulting in Gwen feeling carsick.
“If this was a Tier 1 city, I could be using my flight licence,” Alesia complained bitterly, flipping the bird to yet another driver that drifted too close. Her Instructor’s demeanour reminded Gwen of Yue, though Alesia was altogether more svelte and collected.
“Ma’am…” Gwen asked carefully. “Am I your apprentice?”
“Do you want to be my apprentice?” Alesia gave Gwen a red-lipped smile.
“Wouldn’t Yue be a better option? She’s Fire-talented, and an Evoker like you.”
“That’s not what I asked.” Alesia kept her eyes on the road as the traffic began to move. “Do you want to be my apprentice?”
“Can I be honest, Ma’am?”
“I have no idea what it means to be your apprentice…” Gwen confessed; as an adult, she knew the value of blatant honesty.
"Ha." Alesia laughed. "Okay, Let me explain..."
She informed her that there were Apprentices, and there were 'apprentices'. In the classic sense, an Apprentice was someone who stood to inherit the material wealth and mental knowledge of the Master. The exchange was that the apprentice essentially offered free labour for the duration of their apprenticeship, living cheek-to-cheek with his or her master, a domestic servant-cum-student-cum-assistant, and heir.
In the traditional sense, it made no sense for Gwen to be Alesia’s apprentice. They were different elements, and that meant a considerable divergence in spell philosophy and theory. Likewise, if Alesia were to fall, her most valuable possession, which was her Scarlet Flame Spirit, could hardly migrate to Gwen, who was not a Fire Mage.
Then, of course, there were the apprentice-in-name. These were more akin to students following a tutor, or a postgrad following a professor. These relationships were typically temporal, taken in exchange for some measured outcome, such as researching a particular spell or done as a favour for one’s alumni.
“I like you, Gwen,” Alesia said after listening to Gwen’s queries. “Hardworking, outspoken, you remind me of myself at your age, though our circumstances are a little different. For one, your parents are arseholes, and mine were eaten alive.”
"You'll get over it." Alesia brushed back a wayward ringlet. “Let me ask you something though. I want you to think about it carefully.”
“Do you WANT to attend Lilith & Prince's?” Alesia demanded, much to Gwen’s surprise. “Do you understand the opportunity you are giving up?”
Gwen ruminated in silence. Pragmatism versus sentimentality made bitter pills with jagged edges. The rational answer was obvious, but she had already walked that path long ago. Was she happy? Arguably. But she had lost people and connections she'd rather keep this time around.
“I want to stay with Yue and Elvia,” Gwen said at last. “There's no meaning to my success if I can’t share it with them.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Alesia seemed pleased with Gwen's answer. “A little romanticism never hurt nobody.”
“So, about the apprenticeship…”
“You’ll be under my protection for now, though I am afraid my regular job will take me places you can't follow. Still, the right people in the right places know who I am, and they’ll either give you a hand or at least, leave you alone.”
“An apprenticeship-in-name?” Gwen affirmed softly, a little disappointed.
Alesia laughed, giving Gwen a glance from her ultra-marine orbs before returning her attention to the road.
“I may take on Yue though,” Alesia added nonchalantly. Gwen felt a pang of unbidden jealousy. “She’s a good fit, don’t you think?”
“I think so too,” Gwen answered, dispelling any doubt. She was too old for peevish envy.
“That mean’s I’ll be taking her with me when the time comes, a few years around the world and all that,” Alesia continued. “What do you think?”
“It would be her lucky day,” Gwen answered earnestly.
“Well, don’t get her hopes up.” Alesia laughed. “Impress me next week on the Field Trip.”
“We’ll do our best, Ma’am.”
They turned off the highway and made for the dorm, driving under the thrum and throttle of the thirsty engine for a few more minutes. The Gwen of her heart felt a little dejected, but the Gwen of the mind knew that Alesia did an incredible thing for her. She owed this woman more than she can begin to repay.
“Miss...Alesia…” Gwen cleared her throat. “Thank you so much for what you did today. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and I had no idea what was going to happen, but you came to my aid when I needed it the most.”
The dorm came into view. Alesia pulled up inside the bay. Around them, students stopped in their tracks to stare.
“It was a favour for Principle Bartlett, get him some chocolates later,” Alesia informed Gwen cooly. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. When she spoke again; her voice was softer. “But I also did it for you, Gwen, because I believe you were worth saving.”
“Thank you, Ma’am, for everything.” Gwen quaked with emotion. Alesia's unexpected kindness was the first time since coming to this world that she had felt such strong passions of dependence. Gwen had Yue, of course, and Elvia, but they were kids, vulnerable and unwise themselves. Alesia was the sort of mentor she needed; someone who could empathise and understand her turmoils.
Seeing Gwen’s worshipful appearance, Alesia’s cheeks took on the hue of pippins.
“I’ll see you at the Camp tomorrow night.” She waved Gwen goodbye. “Get some sleep Tiger; it's going to be a tiring week.”
The girls celebrated Gwen returning in one piece. She told them a play-by-play of what had occurred at the party, as well as Alesia’s incredible eleventh-hour prevention of Gwen potentially committing a homicide.
“Those guys are assholes,” Yue hissed. “That Derek piece of shit would be missing half a face if he tried to paw me.”
I don’t think anyone would dare to paw Yue, Gwen and Elvia riposted in their minds.
“Well, Patrick was alright, just a little too hung up on his family’s fortunes,” Gwen continued. “But Richard was the bomb.”
“Your cousin sounds like an alright bloke,” Yue agreed, “you can unleash him in an argument and people would be speechless. Did you see what he could do in a fight?”
“Didn’t get a chance.” Gwen shook her head. “He said he was shortlisted for the Four Courses or something? Instructor Alesia gave him a commendation.”
“The Four Houses,” Elvia interjected.
“Are they like nobility?” Gwen asked. “We have aristocrats now?”
“Come on, everyone knows about Princes!”
“…” Gwen had been so preoccupied playing catch up on magical theory that she had neglected the mundane aspects of her school life.
“Out with it then,” Gwen confessed her ignorance.
Elvia explained that the Greater Schools established in Sydney and Melbourne were not schools founded by the Frontier government, but frontier branches of venerated Tier 1 schools stemming from the old country. The greatest and most prestigious of these schools, Prince’s, had close ties to Cambridge, Oxford, The London College of Magical Arts, and the much-lauded Imperial College of London. Each of these major players had established a House, an alumni club of sorts, which handpicked talented students to be ‘elevated’. As to what that meant exactly, Elvia was unsure since her father had never met anyone who had enjoyed these perks.
Probably what Principle Bartlett was extolling, Gwen thought.
The privilege of avoiding mandatory military service.
The privilege of citizenship in a Tier 1 City.
The privilege of attending ancient institutions, the progenitors of Spellcraft.
“You know, Elvia, it’s been bugging me for a while, but why are you not attending a school like Lilith's?” Yue demanded after listening to Elvia’s exposition into a world she had no idea existed.
Elvia’s sapphire irises met Gwen’s, and the girls read on her pale face the self-evident answer. If someone like Gwen could be gobbled up with ease by such a world, then someone like Elvia had no chance.
“Right, sorry I asked.” Yue withdrew her question apologetically.
“Father said it was best if I made normal friends, and marry away from those… people,” Elvia replied. "I don't regret it. I am thrilled I got to meet both of you.”
“Me too, Evee.”
“Me three,” Gwen declared. The trio then held one another' hands, a gesture which further affirmed Gwen's conviction.
“Let's kick some ass starting tomorrow,” Yue announced. “We have to pay back Miss Alesia.”
"How can we not?" Gwen quipped. "Aren't we the dynamic duo?!"
They were up bright and early, each lugging a backpack tied down with bedrolls and supplies. Their prim uniforms had been replaced by sports uniforms, which consisted of tapered T-shirts. The girls had the choice of dry-fibre skirts, spats, or shorts with knee socks, and the boys had the option of tracks or shorts with tall socks. Elvia and Yue felt comfortable in their skirts, but Gwen preferred spats.
Wish I had a Storage Ring, Gwen pondered as she hoisted her backpack. She had a portion of Elvia’s supply too because the small girl became instantly dwarfed, looking like a blonde-haired snail. Elvia had mentioned that her family did possess a few Storage Rings, though she lacked access to the rare device as losing one would be akin to totalling a car.
Their coach was a regular old bus with spotty air conditioning, rumbling as it made its way towards the Shield Barriers. As the excursion approached the limits of human habitation, Gwen recognised the risen forms of Shield Towers reaching like daggers for the sky, each sheathed within nigh-impenetrable rectangular buildings called Shield Forts.
The Forts were akin to cannon fortifications used during the war against the Beast Tides of the Wildlands. They resembled dark obsidian mounds that rose from the scrubland a hundred metres into the air. Each of the Forts was said to be self-repairing and damage resistant. From the tip of the protruding tower, a single mana crystal, gargantuan beyond belief, could be seen half-hidden. In Senior Spellcraft, Gwen and company learnt that these artificially constructed towers could project resonance barriers spanning hundreds of kilometres. A skilled Barrier-Abjurer could further alter the height, thickness, and even elemental quality of the shields to deal with whatever the Wildlands decided to throw at the human cities.
“Hey Gwen, your father is a Barrier Mage, right?” someone asked.
“Yeah, not here though.” Gwen had no idea where her father was stationed. Even in her old life, Gwen’s father wasn't forthcoming about his employment, merely stating that he ‘worked for the council.’ When Gwen finally left home at 16, she couldn’t care less where he worked.
At the checkpoint, border staff screened and scanned the bus for anything questionable, after which the kids were finally beyond the obsidian gates.
“Alright everyone, listen up!” the baritone voice's owner was their survivalist Instructor, Ranger Boone. “We are now beyond the sanctuary of the shield wall. You have just taken your first step into the real world.”
A clamour of murmurs resonated across the coach; Boone waited for the kids to be quiet.
“Our base camp is another two hours away,” he orientated the students. “Groups 1 - 5 will be going to site Alpha, and Groups 6 - 9, that’s us, will be going to site Beta.”
“Instructors and medical staff will be onsite at all times in the main base camp. Your job is to accomplish at a minimum, three of the five objectives. On the third day, you will report for roll call in the main base camp, before returning to your designated camping sites.”
“Role call!” The Instructor announced, producing a ‘phone’ that Gwen now knew acted as a Divination beacon. Each of the students had theirs issued when they enrolled. Their Instructor’s variant possessed the ability to track secondary devices.
The Magi-tech constructs were of intense interest to Gwen, who lived through the explosive informative age of the internet’s exponential world dominion in the 00s, though she had yet had an opportunity to investigate such matters. Supposedly, tier 1 cities produced Magitech, while the Frontier used hand-me-downs.
“Sync check your Devices. They are augur-locked to reveal your location and inform us in the event of serious harm or injury,” Boone repeated a few times what he'd been drilling into the students. “DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT be separated from your device for any reason, and do not give your device to anyone else.”
Outside the window, Gwen watched the sparse shrubbery turn to bushland, and finally into forests of swarthy Blue Gums twisting their white branches sinuously like human limbs, reaching for the ultramarine sky.
“Gwen, your Device,” Boone’s voice snapped beside her.
“Here you are, Sir.” She produced her Message Device and watched it play through a series of beeps that informed the user it synced.
“Good luck.” He nodded. “The Principle has high hopes for your group.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Concrete bitumen gave way to roads paved with crushed stone, finally becoming dusty fire trails of red earth.
The central base basecamp consisted of a few permanent concrete structures spanning an area no more than a football field. One was a two-tier structure with glass windows that served as the Instructors’ residence. Another was the meeting hall, a fortification suitable for hosting a hundred or so adults. The most valuable building, however, was the one attached to the Instructors’ dwelling.
It was a large, communal outhouse-hybrid-bathroom, and from the looks of it, it had a shower section.
Jun and Henley met with their female counterparts after the second bus alighted.
Each of the pre-assigned teams formed up, gave their well-wishes, then made for their designated areas by tracking progress on a handheld map.
We better not get lost, Gwen looked at the map worryingly. She had barely passed orienteering.
“Hey!” A voice called out as they reached the edge of the campsite. The group turned to see Debora and her trio of Transmuters. To their shock, she had cropped her beautiful ponytail and now sported a pixie cut.
“Debs!” Gwen greeted her childhood friend.
“May the best woman win!” Debora called out across the camp.
“WE"LL KICK YOUR ASS!” Yue announced confidently, her voice like a thunderclap.
Debora flipped them the bird before disappearing into the bush.
The group then made its way through an undergrowth that quickly grew difficult. Now in the wilderness, Gwen took a moment to take it all in, measuring it up against the ‘wilderness’ of her old world.
Their designated fire trail led over a ridge and down a gully, along the way, ring-barked trees stretched out like gnarly fingers amongst overgrown ferns and chaotic, hoary grass.
“Look at that!” Yue pointed, and the group noted an enormous gumtree over thirty-metres in height, with a semi-hollowed trunk that resembled the mouth of an open cavern. Red blood crystals formed on its surface where insects or natural elements had stripped away the bark, giving the impression of a distorted face weeping blood.
“Blood Gum,” Jun observed. “Henly, anything?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Henley replied after blasting it with a few Detecting spells.
The group moved in the trained formation in which they had become accustomed to, carefully foraging through the bushland for potential dangers.
“One target, six o clock, elevated, stationary, medium,” Henley announced suddenly. The group halted. Jun readied himself.
An adult goanna, a black brute of a beast, made its lazy way down the side of a tree. It was medium sized, sure, but to the students, it felt enormous, larger than life. They watched its beady eyes measuring them with neither interest nor hostility, its forked tongue flicking this way and that.
“Do we kill it?”
“It’s just fauna, leave it,” Jun advised. “No benefit in killing something like that.”
The thing moved closer out of curiosity.
“Or not…” Yue swallowed, allowing a fiery spark to escape her hand. She had been apprehensive of snakes and reptiles since she was a child.
“Wait…” Jun laid down a small barrier of frost, which seemed to deter the reptilian creature, directing it away from the group.
“Fuck me,” Yue breathed out. “They're bigger in real life.”
“They grow up to six metres…” Elvia stated helpfully. Yue's skin came alive with goosebumps.
“Let's keep moving.”
The group made it to their designated camping area and had the rest of the afternoon to build their shelters. Alesia had taught the group, who lacked a utility mage, some cheap and easy tricks to create housing, such as using ice to lock branches and other components in place before tying them with rope and securing them against trees. Though nowhere as competent as what the Transmuters or earthen Abjurers could have constructed, the group nonetheless manage to create their shelters to code, elevated and hoisted above the ground to avoid snakes and insects just as the sun began to fade.
“Alright, that’s one objective accomplished,” Jun declared after inspecting their work. “Some light please?”
“Dancing Lights.” Both Gwen and Yue laid down some glowing lights that illuminated the area in six-meter increments. Yue’s were the warm glow of daylight, while Gwen’s had the cold quality of the electro-illumination used on public transports.
“What’s for dinner?” Yue asked.
“Got it covered,” Elvia began pulling out an assortment of instant noodles, as well as a stock pot. “Let's eat something yummy today before we have to hunt down Wildland game tomorrow.”
“Could have taken that goanna actually,” Henley suggested. “Maybe it tastes alright?”
Yue made a gagging noise.
“I brought SPAM,” Gwen announced happily, producing a few cans of her favourite mystery meat.
They made a controlled magical flame beneath the pot and heated a big batch of spicy noodles. Elvia had also brought a dozen plates and cups, fabricated by Transmuter manufactorums into lightweight, sturdy materials that reminded Gwen of durable plastic.
Jun laid down a perimeter spell that would set off an audible Ping! should any undesignated creatures penetrate its coverage.
The group ate and washed up with some melted ice made by Jun.
After a brief clean up, they rolled out their sleeping bags. Yue and Elvia could share a shelter as Elvia was tiny, and Yue was rather petite herself. Gwen could barely fit into the humpy she had made and realised she had to sleep by curling into a foetal position. The two boys slept separately.
The group laid out a watch order before retiring for the night, thinking of the next six days of unknowable trials and dangers that awaited.
A persistent Continual Flame kept the perimeter lit: it was still far too terrifying for the girls to sleep in the complete darkness of the Wildlands, without the comforting light pollution of the city to assure them that the Shield Barriers were operational.
Yue and Elvia chatted in the humpy next door. Gwen herself was alone with her thoughts, thinking about Instructor Alesia, about her friends, about the Quest ahead, feeling her eyelids grow heavy as darkness fell.