Metaworld Chronicles

by

Wutosama

Chapter 39 - The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep

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A note from Wutosama

Edited 26/01/19

 


“Read through it carefully,” Mark advised. “How you wish to execute the mission is also the purpose of our exercise.”

Gwen read through the document with a pace which surprised Mark, then read through it again as insurance. As she had noted prior, the Quest involved escorting a young woman from Blackheath to Surry Hills.

“Why would a NoM Escort need a Mage to accompany her?” Gwen enquired, confused by the context even after reading the document twice.

“Mmhmm…” Mark made a sound that that was both amusement and impatience. “Do you know where Blackheath is?”

“I know it’s within city limits…”

“And yet, you have never travelled beyond the inner west, correct?”

"No..." the Diviner was correct.

“Have you ever been to a suburb with NoMs, and I mean only NoMs?”

Gwen pondered Mark's sardonic inquiry, realising that, no, she had indeed never trespassed a suburb exclusively inhabited by NoMs.

“No…”

“What kind of place do you imagine it to be?”

Gwen had no answer for Mark's enquiry. A slum perhaps? She had seen the poverty-stricken ghettos of Sydney in her old world. There were hobos sleeping parks and the occasional guy smoking crack by alleyway. It wasn't that bad.

She shook her head.

“So there you have it, that is why you are chosen specifically for this simple task.”

“Specifically?” Gwen raised an eyebrow.

“Of course, tailor-made to your specifications." Mark Chandler chuckled, his demeanour choric and morose. "Henry specifically asked me to have you thrown into the lion’s den, although in all honesty, it's more of a rat den. But, you get the idea.”

“Is the girl special in some way?” Gwen pursued the matter. She couldn't understand why anyone would spend upward of 200 HDMs to recover a young prostitute. Was there a conspiracy of some sort? Was she a femme fatale with dire information?

“All life is special,” Mark replied evasively. “But I have spoken too much. You are meant to be speaking to the employer yourself, not to me. It's your Quest. If you don't wish to take it, go home to Henry. He'll find a spot from you in a Tower Kill-Team, I am sure.”

He pointed to another envelope on her desk.

“Your Licence.”

Gwen popped the yellow envelope, and inside was an ID made from the same trans-fab material as her student card.

Gwen Song
Conjurer (2)
Evocation (3)
Lightning (3)
Age:: 16
Achievements:: [N/A]
Sponsor [Mark C. Surya H.]
Agency:: Black Cat

“That card allows you to perform minor magical feats within city limits: a provisional public practice of magic licence."

There is also a pamphlet regarding the licence, as well as a contract.

“Read through these carefully. If you are fine with it, then sign here, and here.”

Gwen chewed through the heavy-handed legal documents. She glanced at Mark, feeling a detached suspicion engender in her chest. A licence for her to attack others? They weren't expecting her to kill or maim people, were they?

“Did Alesia have a similar experience?”

“Your sister-in-craft was sent strictly on away-missions far from human civilisation…”

“Right." Gwen tempered her paranoia. If Mark knew about the Apprenticeship, it was self-evident that her Master trusted the Diviner. The whole thing was a test; if she went about zapping people and burning down their houses, its not a good look for her proclamation of Noblesse Oblige.

She read through the documents again.

“Says here, that I am allowed to use deadly force to defend myself within the city limits… am I to anticipate that someone will be using deadly force against me? In the city?”

“That’s a clause the Tower has negotiated with the Frontier government. If indeed a NoM or a Rogue Mage threatened your life, you could hardly be expected to use your weakest spells."

“Doesn't that seem a little excessive?” Gwen couldn't help but wondered what were the odds someone would threaten her life on this Quest.

“It’s not a perfect system. See there, how I am your sponsor?”

“Go on.”

“I am personally held accountable for your choices. If your actions turn out to be criminal offences, it is my job to cooperate with the police to take you in.”

Gwen held the card between her fingers; it felt more substantial than her student card, denser.

“I take it the card also tracks my location?”

“It also tracks significant magical activity,” Mark added. “But nothing detailed or substantial. We're only a Frontier city, after all. Sydney isn't London.”

“I see.”

Gwen was no longer surprised that her privacy had been fed to the dogs. Her Master was tracking her; the school was tracking her, God knows who else was tracking her.

She signed the documents, watching the parchments disappear into Mark’s Ring.

“Well, I better get to work then.” Gwen stood from the chair and eased down her dress. “I suppose the Madam is expecting me. Say, is there a story behind the fact that both the bordello and the cafe share the same name?”

“There’s a long story behind that,” Mark replied distantly. “You see, I would tell it one day, but…”

“…maybe when we're acquainted. I read you loud and clear. Can I consult you if I have any questions?”

“Of course, I am your guide and mentor after all, here is my Message glyph. Do you know how to use Message yet?”

“Not without a Device, no.”

“I’ll teach you someday - if you make it through this one.”

“Thanks, I’ll be going then.”

Gwen knocked on the very same door she had left two hours ago.

“Welcome back.” The same Madam opened the door with that big red smile of hers. “Dame Agnes Kitson.”

“Gwen Song. I’ll be in your care,” Gwen replied. “Are you the client?”

“I am paying, but no, I am not the client. Come on in,” The Madam ushered her in. “Your client is in my office. She’s worried sick from waiting. Mark said you'd be here earlier.”

“Sorry, the red-tape took a while," Gwen apologised. "I am here now.”

They went through the corridor. Inside, the decor was modelled after a decadent period of French history, classy, despite the nature of its business. Within, she drew curious glances from women in various states of undress. Gwen praised her timing, it was noon, and the place would not be taking customers until much later. Instead, the girls were having tea and coffee, watching Vid-Casts in the common room.

At the back of the double-terrace, the duo reached what looked to be the Madam’s office, a converted master-bedder. Inside, the Madam introduced Gwen to a young woman named Sally Cantwell.

“Sal, this is Gwen. Gwen, Sally Cantwell.”

Her 'Client' possessed auburn hair that fell around her neck in ringlets, pale green eyes, and a face that was comely, sporting a girl-next-door vibe that Gwen knew to be particularly popular with certain kinds of men. By that same measure, though Gwen herself was uncommonly svelt, men often found her intimidating.

Gwen offered a hand in greeting which the girl frightfully shook. To her chagrin, Sally made the supplicating gesture of holding her fingers with two hands.

“Mistress Mage, I am so glad you could help us,” Sally supplicated.

“Please, just Gwen.” The sycophantic manner of Sally's plea made her skin crawl.

Sally looked to Agnes for guidance; the latter nodded once.

“Miss Song, Gwen, thanks for coming, I am… hoo..."

Agnes patted the poor girl with a jewel-encrusted hand.

“The NoMs from areas beyond zone fifteen don’t get to speak to many Mages, much less Quasi-elementalist elites,” Agnes explained patiently. "They get spooked easily."

What about you? Gwen wanted to ask. Agnes looked like she could do some damage.

“Sal, calm yourself. Gwen is an affable young lady. You can speak to her as if you were speaking to me. She won't hurt you or try to take advantage of you.”

“A-alright.” Sally caught her breath. “Hello, I am Sally Cantwell…”

“Nice to meet you, Sal.” Gwen appropriated the nickname, hoping it would put the girl at ease. “Tell me about your sister, Stacey.”

Sally retold them what Gwen already gathered from the dossier. The sisters were from a poor District known as Blackheath, a place inhabited by working and underclass NoMs. The girls had a troublesome, abusive family which made them left school and home prematurely. They found work here and there, eventually finding their way to Agnes’ place. The Madam treated them well, gave them a place to stay, and things were dandy for about half a year. Unlike Sally, Stacey had a soft spot for their family back in Blackheath, returning with gifts of money and foodstuffs fortnightly. Just a week ago, Sally and her sister had the opportunity to be tested for affinity thanks to a curious client. To their surprise, Stacey registered as an Illusionist with an affinity for Water. Awakenings later in life were rare but seldom significant, so Agnes had thought nothing of it. But, when Stacey returned to Blackheath for the weekend, she evaporated.

“She didn’t leave a Message or anything?” Gwen asked incredulously.

Sally stared at Gwen blankly. Agnes coughed gently to upset the awkward silence.

“NoMs can’t use Message spells, not even on Devices. They can’t produce mana…” Agnes said softly, instructing Gwen’s ignorance with a tone that was now less than pleased. “They could do it if they had access to mana crystals of course, but Sally had no training.”

All of which costs crystals, Gwen recognised awkwardly, especially as LDM and HMD exchanges inflate in areas lacking Mages.

“Do you know if Stacey is safe?” She pivoted back to the mission, knowing she appeared out of touch.

Agnes tapped her ears, where there was a large ruby earring.

Gwen noted that Sally also had one, though far less expensive looking and far subtler.

“I had Mark run an Augury, so we know where she is. I had the device designed so that if the girls are hurt, really hurt, I would know. She’s still wearing the earring, which means she’s at least unharmed.”

“So this would be a rescue and escort request then?”

“I sure hope not.” Agnes made a face, her red lips pressing together tightly. “I don’t know why Stacey can’t come home by herself, but your job is to bring her home. How hard can it be to convince a dozen NoMs to leave a girl alone?”

“Do you think they could be holding her because she awakened as a Mage?” Gwen asked Sally.

Sally moved her head in a way that was neither a confirmation or a denial.

“People back home... dislike like Mages.” She muttered incoherently, afraid to insult Gwen. “So maybe that's why? I… I don’t know. I hope they don’t hurt Stacey.”

“She’s safe dear…” Agnes pattered Sally’s hand, tapping her ruby earring. “I know, trust me.”

Man, this is messed up. Gwen organised the scenario a few times in her head, running the narrative through her mind. From the sounds of it, she needs to enter a slum where people are going to be hostile, keeps the NoMs at bay, find the girl, then return with her to the Black Cat Bordello.

“Well, can ya do it?” Agnes demanded, growing a little annoyed at Gwen’s hesitation. “The clock is ticking.”

“Yes, I’ll accept the Quest,” Gwen replied solemnly. It wasn’t as though she could refuse. The whole thing was a test to see if she could handle going out into the real world.

The women shook to seal the deal, after which Agnes expelled Sally from the room.

“Gwen, Can I speak to you for a moment?”

Gwen nodded.

“So, Gwen Song.” Agnes smiled broadly. “You’re all over the grapevine these days.”

Gwen smiled innocently.

“You’re Henry’s… protègè and Surya’s granddaughter, right?” Agnes grinned with mischief, an expression unbecoming on an older woman.

“Oh, how are you acquainted with Magister Kilroy and Magus Huang, Ms... Missus Kitson?” Gwen ventured a question of her own. Was this woman a member of the Codger’s Club?

“You can call me Kitty.” Agnes chuckled. “That’s what the boys call me.”

“May I call you Agnes instead?” Gwen insisted. She'd rather not call Agnes by her pet name.

“Just Agnes, then.” Agnes shrugged. “Gwen, I wanted to ask you something, then you can be off.”

“Sure, go ahead.”

Agnes stalked around Gwen in a circle. Casually, she brushed a hand past the hem of Gwen's skirt, sending the fabric riding up her pale legs, exposing their impressive length before falling back into position. Gwen yelped and looked at Agnes peevishly, questioning her uninvited harassment. If Agnes had been a man, she probably would have slapped, or zapped her.

“So, not much experience with boys? Don't go out much?”

"..." Gwen stared, forcing herself to remain polite. The hell's wrong with this woman? “Not that its any business of yours. But is that going to be a problem?”

“Well...” Agnes cocked her head. She pointed to Gwen's dress. "Did Mark put you up to this?"

“What do you mean?” Gwen furrowed her brows. What's wrong with her dress? It wasn’t as though she was going deep into Abu-Dhabi and had to wear a hijab. Blackheath was two hours away from the CBD! Even if she wore the minidress into the Wildlands, it would only be a minor inconvenience. Was there a dress code for working as a mercenary?

Agnes caught Gwen's prickly annoyance with a scowl of her own.

“It’s nothing. I was just worried about your shoes. They look mighty uncomfortable for walking long distances.”

The matron chose to say nothing. In her mind, Mark could do no wrong, and Henry couldn't be wrong if he tried. The Quest was Henry's pupil's baptism of fire, designed to teach her that real life followed no instruction manuals. The girl would emerge from her trial stronger and wiser, as per Henry's purpose, or she would fail and return to the crucible.

“Good luck." Agnes slapped Gwen on the bottom, pushed her from the room, then closed the door.

What a rude woman. Gwen gave her smarting bum a gentle caress. From the woman's overly familiar tone, she certainly fitted into the Old Codger's Club.

Once she exited the bordello, Gwen made for Redfern.

Blackheath station was within walking distance of Cantwell's divined location. As for Blackheath itself, she knew the suburb only in name. It belonged to part of Sydney strange and unknown to her.

But her greatest fear was becoming lost.

Gwen knew her orienteering was sub-par. That was the problem with this world: no Google Maps, no Tripadvisor, no satellite imaging. For all the bluster of Mages moving mountains and boiling the seas, she couldn't so much as access a pin, pointing her in the right direction.

All she possessed was a map provided by Mark Chandler and an address: Rogan Crescent, Blackheath - G6: D23. A physical map! Gwen grimaced. The last time she had touched one was in junior Geography. The process was so primitive that Gwen felt lost trying to find north.

Nonetheless, she played out the scenario in her head. Ideally, she entered what she assumes to be a house: a single abode, a shack. She would demand from the occupants the whereabouts of Stacey Cantwell. She would recover the girl, ideally safe and sound, then take Stacey back to the Black Cat, at worst firing off a few spells to frighten the NoMs who may try to stop her, or at worst, unleash her Familiars.

The reality was likely going to be different, of course. The mission was a test as well as a Quest, judging from Mark's evasiveness.

With her mind still running analytics, Gwen took 7th Line toward Greater Western Sydney, one of the largest NoM regions within the Frontier city. Station after station, passengers boarded and alighted, mostly Mages and NoMs with useful professions. Once she was past the City-Circle, the number of individuals in their Sunday best changed to that of working-class outfits. After Strathfield, the Mages thinned out, and NoMs began to inundate the carriage. Past Granville, these men and women too alighted, leaving Gwen alone with a few unsavoury looking figures that now lounged here and there in the abandoned carriage.

She pulled out her Message Device. A simple display read 15:44. The sun outside boiled, blasting the cracking pavements. During Sydney's summer, the sun sets after 8 PM.

She was getting close, and her heart was beginning to race, matching the crashing undercarriage as it pounded the rails. The further she travelled, the more persistently the suburban-scape dissolved. The scenery outside had changed from that of suburban houses to cramped apartments, and now they were quickly growing denser, becoming more compact.

'Bing Bong~.'

"Next stop, Seven Mills, the service will terminate in Blackheath. This service will terminate next stop."

Gwen's sense of alarm grew in intensity as station after station; the sky contracted while the temporary buildings expanded. They were at Seven Mills now; only the landscape was nothing like the Sydney she had known.

The station wasn't under shade cover, yet it felt as though she was underground. Arching her neck to see, she saw that an outbreak of haphazard construction had taken over the station, jutting here and there like architectural cancer.

'This train terminates next stop.'

As the train began to move again, plunging deep into the slums, Gwen realised her terrible naivety.

This Blackheath was not the Blackheath she had known. It was not dilapidated houses and working-class men languishingly in front of beat up Holden Commodores. It was not scantily clad women with too much make up getting catcalled by youths wearing popped collars. It wasn't even dodgy looking migrant men and bummed out Aborigines napping on the sidewalks with their dogs.

It was a city unto itself: a municipality of NoMs, a township built without the help of Transmuters fabricators, without the conjured pylons or the reinforced magic of the Abjurers. It was a suburb carved out by hapless NoMs eking out a living at the edge of the Mages' city. Blackheath was made from scraps and leftovers. Above and below, it was bones piled atop of bones, each skeletal houses cannibalising the next for parts.

The train was pulling up into station now, although Gwen hadn't moved from her seat. She was no longer sure of what to do. How was she going to find this address in a place like this? The damn suburb expanded as much horizontally as it did vertically! From the shelter of her carriage, she could see some NoMs milling about outside the platform. Some of them appeared to be vagabonds, old men living under stitched pieces of sheeting. Elsewhere, more threateningly, were wayward looking young men who assembled under an abandoned bus shelter, surrounded by a ring of acrid looking smoke. A woman stood under a doorway, backed against a wall by a large man drinking from a bottle. There was a scene of money been exchanged, then they both disappeared. Not far, a dog sauntered through the thoroughfare. One of the young men threw a bottle. It missed, the dog fled, and his friends roared with cankerous laughter.

Still petrified like a Greco statue, Gwen considered her options.

She looked outside at the walls that shielded the rails, and saw an articulate and aesthetically pleasing graffiti tag:

'Fuck Mage$,' it elegantly read.

She was confident that the other one said something to the tune of:

'$$ape B$tches'

Apart of the script was covered up by a series of dollar signs. Sufficient to say, Gwen had no faith in hoping the line read 'Grape Britches.'

Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit, her mind moaned. How far up shit-creek was she? Maybe she could do this tomorrow? She can come back wearing daggy sportswear.

That fucking Agnes. Gwen realised. She knew, she fucking knew. 'These boots ain't made for walking,' my ass.

She pondered her next course of action. Her train service had terminated. Either way, she had to leave the train to catch another train out of here. She had to find Stacey and do her duty. She had to do this.

As the Goddess of Victory used to say: 'Fuck it, Just Do It.'

Gwen took a few seconds to pump herself up. There was no turning back. She can't return to Mark in disgrace. What would be her excuse? Mark, I was frightened by poor people? What would her Master think? What would Opa think?

With renewed confidence, she moved toward the exit. As she stood, a few remaining passengers followed, moving to block the doors.

FUCK.

She looked up, meeting the eyes of a lanky looking feller in a workman's overalls. With a pounding heart, she turned and saw another man, older and uglier, blocking the back exit. A third man was making his way towards her, this one was taller, with a beer belly that hung over too-tight jeans.

Instinctively, Gwen pulled on her dress, forcing the hem down another inch. She backed away sideways, wedged between two seats in the midst of the carriage. Whatever she chose to do, she preferred not to be sucker-punched by a sneak attack.

"G'day, young lady." The man tipped his invisible hat mockingly.

His eyes licked Gwen like a tongue, measuring her all over. The other two sniggered.

"I was wondering," the man said piously. "If you might have some crystals to spare me and me-mates?"

Crystals? Gwen could see the man's stained teeth and already felt sickened. She backed away a little more, almost pressing herself against the glass, but that seemed only to excite her assailants.

Test number one? She wondered. Could she get herself out of this dilemma without three smoking corpses?

"And if I do?" Gwen tested the waters, unsure where she was going.

"Why, then we would leave ya well alone."

The other two persisted in their ogling.

It's just a few crystals-

Gwen caught herself. No. Giving the men crystals was not a solution to her problem, it was an invitation.

She swallowed nervously.

Ariel, get ready. She commanded her Familiar; her marten had been feeding off her Empathic Link. Slowly, Gwen sensed the beginnings of a plan forming in her mind.

"Fine. If you let me get through the door, I'll give you something."

The man nodded smugly, then motioned to his two companions.

They watched as Gwen moved outwards carefully, ensuring that none of them stood behind her. The men hungrily eyed her bare legs, white and smooth, juxtaposing the oily sheen of their scabby skin. The trio followed her confidently as she made for the sliding door. When she arrived at the threshold, Gwen paused.

"Here's the smallest change I have on me." She materialised a crystal shard. It resembled a mana crystal, but within was the churning, volatile mana of a Flashbang spell. She tossed it towards her would be assailants. The men watched it sail through the air, clinking and falling onto the floor of the train.

Gwen ran as the men greedily groped for the crystal, their friendship instantly dissolved by potential profit. Behind her, the automatic doors slid to a close.

Sprinting at a dead bolt, Gwen covered her ears as the carriage erupted in sound and light.

 

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A note from Wutosama

Chapter Ref :: 


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About the author

Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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