Gwen left the apartment in borrowed clothes; a modest pink minidress wore over a lacy white camisole. The events of last night weighed heavily on her mind, especially her left ring finger, where now a silvery band acted as guardian and ankle-monitor.
Now bathed under a cloudless sky, Gwen allowed herself to soak in the gentle radiance of the autumn sun. With some time to spare, she decided to take a few hours to walk and think. Her first stop Town Hall, from which Gwen made for Hyde Park. Once at the park, she returned to the old Cypress tree under which she had collapsed some half a year earlier. There, she found gashes scabbed with old sap where her uncontrolled Void blasts had removed chunks of ancient wood.
As she touched the indifferent wound, she grew vaguely aware that her birthday was today. Sweet-sixteen, she amused herself with the meaningless number. What was the passage of time for someone who had no certainty of what their future held? She felt like the proverbial plastic bag from American Beauty, behaving as the wind behaves.
More than ever, she wanted to see Yue and Elvia, though the girls were more than likely with their families. Yue had a regular thing with her father every fortnight, and Elvia either visited her family or worked with her Uncle and her mother at a charity clinic at the edge of the city. Refuting her immature desire, Gwen decided against needlessly disturbing her friends' family-orientated schedules.
Family, the plosive syllables made Gwen shiver. The body she possessed has family in this world: a brother, a father, a mother, uncles and aunties. Yet - it was invariably true that she was alone in this world of monsters and men, a solo traveller whose road bisected, but did not run parallel to others. That was the reality of it; the dirty nitty and gritty of it.
A second life, spent alone?
She didn't want that.
Walking down George St, she allowed the smells of the cafes and restaurants to distract her from her depression. Feeling ambivalent, Gwen focused on her growing hunger. She had eaten a very light breakfast, and it was now almost noon. She was midway between George St, bisecting Pitt St, and there were eateries every few shopfronts. In her eyes, the setting proved familiar but exotic, its decor no different to her old world even though the stores had different signage and many of the businesses catered exclusively to the magically-inclined.
Curiously, the pedestrian section she was on now appeared to have foregone modernisation. There were no glass fronts, gentrified shopfronts, or high-street fashion labels lining the boulevard.
The apparent difference, Gwen realised, was that her former home of Sydney had been a top-tier city; while current Sydney was a Frontier region recovered from Mermen occupation some three-decades ago. Most of its buildings were reconstructed facades of the old town mounded from sandstone, fabricated by Earthen Transmuters. To Gwen, though both cities were aesthetically similar, there was an air of dilapidation about this place that spoke harshly of the 'quality of life' here. Even on the main strip, she could see litter and trash befalling the alleyways.
To her surprise, she stumbled upon an old haunt not too far from the cinema.
In Gwen's old world, the coffee shop had been a quaint, chic little place popular with hipsters and trendsetters. The owner was an old man who always wore a loud vest, and whose hair changed styles pending his mood of the day. He had a daughter who was going to take over the business, but found love elsewhere, leaving the old man to grind out the rest of his days with his Arabica. Gwen rather fancied the old man, who flirted with her during lunch breaks.
But 'hole in the wall' Gwen had arrived at was deeply suspect. The only sign that there was something open was a rusty iron board swinging on its last legs that said 'coffee here'.
What’s the harm in having a look? Feeling nostalgic, Gwen convinced herself to commit to the coffee, no matter how terrible. Moreover, she was curious to see if the old man was here and if his daughter was still part-timing as a waitress in this parallel world.
"Hello?" She walked through the frontage. Thankfully, the interior was clean and tidy.
"Oh hi! Welcome," Gwen was greeted by a girl her age, with short, shoulder length hair and a waitresses' mini-skirt hiked well above her knee. Fiona, her name tag read.
Gwen smoothed her skirt and took a seat near the corner.
"What would you like?" Another voice called out. Gwen felt her heart flutter. The old man! The old man was here!
“Hi Gregor," Gwen stated in the manner to which she as accustomed to, trying her luck. "Flat white, extra shot, skim no sugar."
The old man paused at the discord between the unfamiliar figure of the girl-in-pink against the overtly familiar manner in which she ordered, then went about his business.
The coffee arrived.
Gwen took a sip of the coffee. The milk was watery and the beans acidic, nothing at all like the flat white she had anticipated. Oh well, some things were not meant to be. She thought sadly, feeling foolish.
A sudden awareness stabbed Gwen in the spine.
She moved her hand subtly to her back pocket, only to find that she was indeed wearing Alesia's skirt.
Her currency card! Her wallet! She had left it in Alesia's apartment! She had her student glyph on her keychain for public transport, for school meals and academic activities, but all private expenses had to come out of an account her mother had set up for her years ago.
Could she leave them her contact? Would Gregor accept that?
As Gwen mulled over the terrible coffee and her embarrassing blunder, two young men sauntered into the shop, their immediate bluster disturbing her train of thought.
"Two cappuccinos, make it quick!" They shouted rudely at no one in particular.
Gwen furrowed her brows; the old shop never had customers like this, one of the reasons why she had enjoyed its ambience. When the waitress, Fiona, brought the men two menus, Gwen could see that they were far more interest in her outfit.
“Told ya the service was good here,” one of them vocalised to the other. "What's your name sweetie?"
The waitress smiled and said nothing.
"Hey, what's your name?"
One of them read her tag.
"Fiona is it?"
"Are you still going to school, Fiona?"
"Come sit with us, Fiona."
Gwen felt the ire rise in her chest.
She watched the waitress escape with the men's order. When Fiona returned with the cappuccino, Gwen baulked at the owner's carelessness. Gregor! What are you doing! You should bring it out yourself! It would appear to Gwen that this world's version of Gregor was somewhat inept.
Gwen wondered if she should lend the father-daughter a hand, though there were too many unknowns. Gregor may be her friend in the old world, but here he was a stranger. With conscious hypocrisy, Gwen put aside her proposed motto of Noblesse Oblige.
"Sir! Hands off!"
Her dilemma escalated in the form of a yelp, a cry of distress and alarm. Gwen looked up from her cup to see that one of the men had taken the girl by the waist and was forcing her to sit with them. A cup spilt in the struggle, and now the duo was adamant Fiona was to blame.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing?!" Gregor shouted angrily from behind the coffee machine, producing what looked to be a wooden bat.
"As I thought," one of the young men grinned from ear to ear, "Jordie, they're both NoMs."
Immediately, his companion’s demeanour changed from peevishness to outright arrogance.
"What are we doing?" The Mage pushed Fiona into a chair, sending her skittering across the floor.
He raised a finger; a swirl of water encircled her father.
"You dare assault a Mage, NoM?"
Old man Gregor glared impotently at his two assailants. His wooden truncheon a joke compared to what they could potentially do to him.
"What... what do you want? You can't use magic ag-against us! That's against the law!" Fiona screamed at the two from the floor. "I'll Message the Police!"
The threat seemed to work.
"Watch your back, cunt!" 'Jordie' spat rudely at the girl still prone and terrified on the floor.
The two young men moved to leave, and that's when they saw Gwen.
FUCK! Alarm bells rang in Gwen's head. I should have left.
"Hey there, young lady," Jordie's eyes lit up. "You work here too?"
Gwen immediately moved for the door. Obligation or no, she's not getting involved with these walking shit-shows. As soon as she's out, she would call the cops. If a bystander called the police, there was no reason for these pricks to harass the shopowner.
But she had underestimated the motivation driving the pair of titillated hooligans. Already incited by their failed attempt at picking up the waitress, the two bucks gawked at the girl in pink blooming before them like an orchid. 'Jordie' scrambled for the exit. The moment he'd lay eyes on the girl, his heart grew sore with desire. There was something about the girl, prettier than all the lasses he had seen, that drove him to act. If he could get the girl to go out with him, the young man thought lasciviously, the envious looks on his friend's faces would be divine! It didn't matter if she was a NoM, he justed wanted to have her.
Gwen meanwhile was appalled at the man's audacity. Seriously? Are they accosting her in broad daylight?
"Move it!" she stated in a tone hinting at mass murder.
Instinctively, the young man backed away. Gwen took the opportunity to escape from the coffee shop.
Never goto dodgy cafes looking for nostalgia, Gwen promised herself as she made haste for the boulevard, where pedestrian traffic would ensure she could call the police unmolested.
Gwen made it no more than a dozen steps before he felt a forceful tug on her ankle, something sodden and wet pulled at her left foot, drenching her wedge sandals. She turned icily to see Jordie with an idiotic simper on his face, mightily pleased with a watery Mage Hand.
"I haven't even gotten your name yet," he quipped with a stupefying grin.
Gwen tapped into her Conjuration sigil, willing a mote of lightning to exist where the man stood grinning. The air beneath Jordie ionised, an arc of electricity gripped his ankle.
"Arrrghk!" Jordie cried out, leaping into the air and convulsing uncontrollably before landing awkwardly on the dirty pavement, compelling him to perform a freestyle rendition of 'the worm'.
His friend backed off with both hands in the air, his face suddenly the colour of ash. He wasn't about to piss off a Quasi-Elementalist.
"I don't know him that well, he's just a guy from work," he explained. "We just happen to be on break together."
The man had told the truth. They were common Mages from the Manufactorum. From the man's expression, Gwen could see that making himself scarce was his dearest wish of the moment.
"Don't move," she commanded, performing her best impression of Gunther.
She willed a mote of Lightning mana to circulate through her body, her irises glowed, forming two concentric rings of cobalt-electricity.
"I.Ds," she stated coldly. Jordie’s terrified companion produced both of their identity cards after patting down the groaning Jordie.
Gwen took a glance, two Manufactorum workers, low-level Mages whose talents only allowed them the ability to operate reinforced machinery, worthless when placed into the Wildlands or pitted against monsters.
"Don't come here again or bother the store owner," she continued, tossing back their IDs casually. "Or rough men will do to you what I can't be bothered to do right now."
"Of course, Ma'am... absolutely!" The two supplicated, one on his feet and the other on his knees.
Gwen observed as a thin veneer of Transmutation mana covered the man, empowering him enough to pick up his convulsing friend and beat a quick retreat. Gwen turned to leave, though the squelching of one of her sandals ruined her cinematic exit.
"Excuse me... Lady Mage..." A voice cried out. It was the waitress, Fiona.
OH SHIT, I haven't paid! Gwen's face caught fire. Should she dine and dash? There was a first time for everything, be it threatening to electrocute assholes or fleeing a four-dollar flat white.
"Thank you..." The waitress bowed deeply.
"It was nothing. Adieu!" Gwen retreated as she spoke, stomping from the alleyway with one plodding foot trailing water.
Once out on the main boulevard, she took the opportunity to stand in the sun with one foot out of her sandal, drawing eyes to her bare feet as she waited for the damn thing to dry.
She had another place she wanted to visit.
The pedestrian section of Pitt St had always been for luxury goods. Here, gigantic, gaudy display windows intimidated those with weak wallets. Though Gwen had a weakness for handbags, her preference had always been for artisanal and boutique products.
A block later, she arrived at an old Victorian Arcade called the Strand, happy to see another place replicated in this parallel world.
Unsurprisingly, the place housed shops she hadn’t ever seen before. Where once boutiques stores for bonnets, shoes, ties, and vests reigned; here, in this reality, crystals, magical trinketry and enchanted jewellery inundated the enclosed venue.
When Gwen proceeded through the arched gateways, a guard in a bright blue uniform gave her a warm and inviting smile.
"Welcome Madam, please enjoy your visit to the Emporium."
Gwen greeted the man back. Glancing above the guard, she saw a Detect Magic device.
"It's for keeping out the NoMs, Ma'am," the man spoke in a tone that was cordial and polite. "Please enjoy your stay; if you have any questions, I would be glad to answer them."
"Thank you." Gwen passed the guard uneasily.
Do they segregate shoppers here? Gwen was again reminded of her Apartheid analogy for the world in which she found herself. It was the first time she had seen a place bar NoMs from entry. Her old home in Forrestville never had any shops that kept out the NoMs; likewise, her school had NoM staff members, for whom the Principle encouraged equal treatment.
Now inside, Gwen's eyes scanned across a vista of display windows. She could sense the density of the mana in this place, so remarkable as to be almost palpable. Gwen approached the first shop, where a broad window displayed a dozen pairs of intricate earrings, set and cut with enchanted mana stones. There was a short description for each item, what its effects were, and the price tag.
Earring of Air Fortification
A boost to your ability to shape and control elemental air. Offers significant increase in efficiency to mana conversion equating to Tier 2 - 3.
Tier 5 Blue-Wind Fox, Orange Zone, Indonesia.
Crafted by Master R.J Tillerson, 4En. 4A.
~ 45 H.D.M Crystals
Had Gwen been drinking, the storekeeper would have had to wipe juice from the pane. As far as Gwen could recall, her summer job at the beach selling ice cream made regular currency in Australian Dollars which could only be used to purchase non-magical goods. Last she heard from Helena, her father made no more than 90 HDMs a month, which roughly converted to just under 50,000 roo-dollars. The conversion rate wasn't a reliable metric, however, as NoMs usually had no access to magical goods and services anyway. Additionally, Gwen had a suspicion that the Mage-controlled Frontier government took advantage of the exchange to keep the NoM population in their place.
She looked at the price again and felt her breath quickening. Gunther had said that Edgar’s Contingency Teleportation Ring could be anywhere between five thousand to ten thousand HDMs. Anyone with that kind of money likely didn't take losing an arm and a leg lying down.
Gwen looked up to see the shop assistant smiling at her serenely, a beautiful blonde woman with lovely cerulean eyes, stunning in a full set of enchanted earrings and a necklace.
"Would you like try out any of the items? We have a courtesy Cognisance resonator where you can test the efficacy of the items."
"No, thank you, I am just looking," Gwen replied. The woman gave her a curt nod before returning behind the counter.
Four shops down, Gwen found what she had desired since finding out they existed - Storage Rings. This 'luggage shop' had dozens of them, all in different shapes and sizes.
Storage Ring (minuscule)
Allows for the storage and retrieval of small items. Max Capacity 0.3 L.
Tier 3 High-Density Spatial Crystal, Orange Zone, Australia.
Crafted by Master G.D Cooper, 5En. 3T. 4E.
~ 80 H.D.M Crystals
She surveyed the selection with a growing expression of grimness.
Storage Ring (Medium)
Allows for the storage and retrieval of large items. Max Capacity 3000 L.
Tier 8 High-Density Spatial Crystal, Black Zone, South Africa.
Crafted by Master P.J. Kali Jr, 8En. 5T. 6A.
~ 1990 H.D.M Crystals
Gwen doubted if she had ever possessed that much liquid asset even in her old life. 1990 HDM Crystals? Her father could buy one if he forwent two-years' salary.
It goes without saying that having access to crystals would help her Spellcraft immensely. In her old life, her Consultancy had made good money, she had created an expert team who came up with efficient and creative solutions - but how her knowledge of finance, creative accounting, marketing and international business help her here? As far as she knew, only NoMs did those jobs in this world. They kept the little cogs of the economy greased, but Mages pulled the levers.
The bigger problem was that she was a high school student. She couldn't be a Mage, and also work like a NoM on the side, could she? From where was she going to get crystals to invest? The only person in her family with wealth to spare was Uncle Kwan, who had inherited his wealth from Grandfather, an Enchanter-
She paused. Perhaps she could work out something with her grandfather? A sponsorship she could pay back in a year or two. She remembered seeing him years ago, and the old man had been perfectly amiable. According to Helena, the old Mage was getting long in the tooth, and his mind wasn't what it used to be, but he was still a Tier 5 Enchanter! Not only that, he lived separately from Uncle and her Mother's new family in the Huang’s country estate. Between her charm and his senility - there was no reason he would ignore a granddaughter in dire need!
Gwen took another forlorn look at the Ring of Storage, ignoring the rapidly blinking eyes of the store clerk trying to catch her gaze. To think that a twenty-kilometre serpent could wipe out the city in one fell swoop and here she is, having the woes of money.
Somethings never change.