Gwen tried on yet another pair of knee-high boots, finding the leather too cumbersome to maintain balance.
Outside of questing, her school runners should suffice. But that had been a bush trail, and this was the jagged landscape of the Outback, where leagues of knife-sharp stones crossed with burning sand, bisected by ravines of slippery moss and ankle-deep mud.
Beside her, Debora deliberated between wasteland punk and new world adventurer, assembling her outfit before Gwen could say slip, slop, slap.
"Looking a treat there, Debs," Gwen chewed her lips, wondering if she should give up.
Debora spun, having slipped into a pair of frayed denim shorts, slopped on an Akubra hat, and slapped on a tight singlet, she looked plenty comfortable. Compared to Gwen, Debora's Earthen constitution meant that she was highly resistant to the blistering sun. Gwen, on the other hand, had twin Air for elements, one of which drew from the Domain of negative energy. Ten unsheltered minutes under the sun and she would have wilted.
"Thanks," Debora Jones, cowgirl, replied.
Gwen sighed. She had anticipated a sexy wasteland wanderer look for herself as well, but knew she wouldn't make it half a kilometre exposing that much skin.
Eventually, she found a pair of white cotton, elbow-length skivvies that was breathable and comfortable. At the next store, she found cargo pants in charcoal. Another round of persistent searching located a pair of calfskin ankle boots. And to finish off, she found a checkered, hand-knit Afghan scarf, as well as her daily female necessities.
The shop assistants had been beyond attentive the moment Debora and Gwen walked onto the premises. They may not know who the two teenage girls were, but they did know Tess to be Surya's assistant. Added to the fact that Tess was acting as their driver; the NoM staff left no request unfulfilled. Certainly, Gwen had the right regal demeanour. She spoke carefully, politely, and formally, not at all abrasive nor rude to them. Debora meanwhile, was rougher, and the assistants couldn't quite place her within the limited spectrum of their Mage world know-how.
The town, Cessnock, was itself at the centre of the Hunters Region. It was a thriving resource town fuelled by the area's vineyards and primary agriculture. The commercial street was becoming gentrified thanks to the influx of individuals like Surya, who found great pleasure in owning an estate in the country that overlooked Sydney's tablelands.
Gwen paid with the notes, as crystals were primarily used for the exchange of magical items and consumables. The group then made their way to the 'other' side of the town, where now a booming exchange of magical goods was being traded in a local Enchanter's Market.
Though there were few items with practical applications for a Mage, the fair was nonetheless of great interest. Following Tess like two puppies, the girls had found great pleasure in sifting through trinkets and other minor magical conveniences of the day.
Gwen had never known, for example, that NoMs could harness micro-scale elemental effects without the ability to channel mana. There were items enchanted with minor glyphs that produced small flames or produced clean water by simply drawing upon the natural motes of mana in the atmosphere. Likewise, minor spell effects that Mages considered trivial such as the cantrip "Light" could be used by NoMs by simply inserting LDM currency sticks into the feeder slot. In this way, these items producing chilling and heating, minor telekinesis, or even small buffs like alleviating fatigue.
These cantrip items, Tess explained, were the mainstay of the lesser Enchanters, Mages who lacked the talent or resources to venture beyond the mid-tier. Unlike Surya, who made thousands of HDMs on commission alone, the majority of Acolytes relied on selling items of convenience to wealthy NoMs for a living.
Gwen nodded, eventually purchasing an inscribed leather belt with a bandoleer of pouches for tubes of potions that hung snug across her hips.
"So, NoMs can't purchase Magic Items to protect themselves?" Gwen was incredulous when Tess raised a point she'd been wondering since arriving at the market.
"Hardly," Tess scoffed. She then bitterly complained that such an ill distinction between NoMs and Mages would bring great chaos. Within history, Surya's Apprentice explained, several nations had already attempted arming the NoMs with empowered items. The results varied greatly depending on the period and the context. The European incursion into African Black-zones ended with bloody noses when the arming of slaves on the Ivory Coast resulted in the loss of said weapons to the Gnolls.
Today, those very Gnolls rove up and down the coast blasting bolts of human magics from appropriated Fire Rods. Worse still, unsavoury grey-market traders had discovered profit in selling said items to Demi-humans in search of Crystals, Creature Cores, and rare Ingredients.
"Why weren't those people prosecuted?" Gwen asked incredulously.
"It's one of the Tower's policies, or so Surya says." Tess shrugged apathetically. "The Grey Faction supply the weapons for the intelligent monsters to make war on each other. Now, they're too busy with each other to threaten the dozen or so Human cities on the coast."
"What if they turn against us?" Gwen asked worryingly. She certainly never learned this in their school's curriculum.
"Only humans can process stable mana crystals on an industrial scale, dear." Tess laughed haughtily. "They can use it against us, sure, but most of the items have a few dozen charges at best. In a drawn-out war, they'd be out in a month, and we'd have stockpiles for years."
"Not to mention," Tess reached between her bosoms, then pulled out a necklace. Attached to a length of twine was a fang about the size of Gwen's pinkie. "The Fang of a Wemic Patriarch. I bought it at an auction. Ninety-nine per cent chance it was traded and not hunted. I am saving it for when I reach the mid-tiers. Gonna inscribe a polymorphic, strength-enhancing animus onto it."
The conversation then turned to the town. Tess obliged by introducing the girls to the locals. The NoM ranchers were mostly men, a few women, and they were all as hard as cured leather. When Gwen mentioned that her Opa had asked her to help the ranchers with their roo problems, the settlers were more than happy to ask for help.
The first to make the request was a tall and well-built man named Rhodes, the owner of a vineyard not far from town. He had a not-too-beat-up Landcruiser beside him that hinted at a successful business operation and immediately took a liking to the girls. Once the quest for Roo clearing was given, he offered to pick Gwen and Debora from Surya's estate first thing next morning. Gwen agreed, and after an exchange of Message Glyphs, went their separate ways.
The girls then proceeded to have lunch at a delicatessen in town that specialised the Wild Land ingredients. The daily specials were Orange Zone Wood Mallard, and terrine of Horned Rabbit served cold with farmhouse vegetables. As the girls were broke, it was Tess' shout.
Late mid-afternoon, the girls finally came home, going their separate ways to do personal training. Debora worked in the foundry, perfecting her new Bronze Skin technique. Meanwhile, Gwen took the opportunity to try out her new Schools of Magic in a discrete, wooded alcove of Surya's Estate.
"Detect Magic." Gwen invoked the tier 1 Divination staple. Gradually, her eyes appear to have gain gained an Instagram 'filter', painting the world in multi-coloured hues.
Transmutation had a slightly lilac glow, permeating the lodge as Surya and the others worked. Enchantment, on the other hand, glowed golden and eggshell, though the School tended to borrow its hues from whatever cores or stones it was inscribed into. On Henry's manual, her Master had stated that as her proficiency grew, her Divination would become synaesthetic and innate.
Her second Divination Spell was stranger, and of course, the Estate had no traps that she could see.
Next, she attempted a few some self-buffing spells.
First, she shook out her long limbs, then she broke into a dead sprint.
Gwen leapt, her legs reinforced by Transmutation. She had a good affinity for the translocation spell as her body was mana-rich with elemental air. The description had prescribed an 'enhanced leap of about two to three meters. By her estimate, though she must be a good four meters from the ground.
Instantly, she regretted her curiosity. With limbs flailing, she fumbled through the air. This was precisely why her next spell was highly recommended before attempting "Jump".
Gwen's descent slowed. The spell didn't so much as make her lighter as immediately reduce the velocity and acceleration of her body as she fell. Perhaps if she had been a physicist, she could have a better understanding of the magical mechanics. For now, she could only accept that she was employing magic.
For an hour, she practised jumping and falling until her legs were sore with fatigue, but was still dissatisfied that she couldn't grasp the timing. From what Debora had described of her own abilities, she could scale buildings and walls by using a combination of the two spells. In fact, very skilled Transmuters could even scale near-vertical cliffs with nought but Jump.
At dusk, she returned to the Estate for a simple supper of meat and veggies. With Surya, she conversing about the town, the people they met, and the things they saw. Happily, Surya brought out a dozen vials of minor healing and mana potions, split the injectors between Gwen and Debora, then wished them good luck for the outing tomorrow.
Once her grandfather was gone, Gwen and Debora returned to their bedrooms, their alone time made awkward by the events of the night before. At her door, Debora lingered for a few seconds longer than Gwen, listening and hoping before her own door clicked shut.
Rhodes arrived bright and early the next day, his Landcruiser making a ruckus as it bit loudly into the gravel road.
"Magus Huang! Good to see ya, mate," the jolly rancher announced expansively, walking into the open atrium with a box of Shiraz and Merlot.
"Just Surya is fine, Jonathan." Surya motioned for an NoM servant to take the box before shaking the hand of the vineyard manager.
"Ha! Don't let the Missus hear that, she'd skin me alive."
"Well, you can be at ease here. My place, my rules."
Sharing the lark, the two men bantered until Gwen and Debora emerged in their adventuring gear.
It goes without saying that Debora was quite the sight in her shorts and singlet, her hat dipped low to just reveal her bright amber eyes. Compared to Gwen, her Transmutation techniques required a wide range of bodily motion for close combat, hardly conducive to easily damaged sleeves and pants.
Beside Debora, Gwen looked more like an aristocratic adventurer from the countryside of England, a tourist who had wandered in by accident. Gwen had always possessed the fair skin particular to northern Europeans, and now with the flux of her Void mana, she was becoming even paler.
Bemused by his girl's earnestness, Surya checked their gear. He made sure the girls count their mana and health injectors, and that Gwen carried tinder, ropes, a tent, bottled water, rations and so on in her Storage Ring.
"Opa," Gwen kissed her grandfather on the cheek. "We're off!"
Rhodes' vineyard was more famous than Gwen had thought. Even as an underage student, Gwen had seen his brand of Shiraz advertised here and there in the city. McGuigan's Estate, it was called; owned by a family of Mages for three decades. Their present host, he explained, was the Estate's manager and caretaker.
From the outset, the vineyard was a beautiful sea of stakes that stretched out until it ended with the curvature of the landscape. Built on a hilltop, it was a beautiful place that offered a vista of the valley below. Under Rhodes' care, a tour of the facilities was conducted, ending with the girls walking through the vineyard itself, touching rows of vines pregnant with amethyst orbs.
Eventually, the three of them struck a section of the fence which had been torn up.
"So yeah, the Roos are outta water at this time of year, and they come and wreak havoc on our grapes." Rhodes sighed. "They're trying to get to the reservoir we'd dug out back, but that water's for the grapes."
He picked up a few pieces of splintered wood.
"If its two or three or a dozen, it not a big deal, but its when the herds come through that they start doing real damage."
Gwen regarded the fences before her. These were not the cute little waist-high fences they had used in her old world. These were two meters tall fences barbed with lengths of knotted iron. For a roo to crash through a solid block of wood, how big were the bastards?
Just as she raised her hand, there was a commotion by the bushes. Right before their eyes, a big Red came hopping along without a care in the world.
Gwen's eyes popped at the sight of the thing. Sure, it was a little taller than she had expected, maybe two and a half odd meters, but the muscles on that thing! It was ripped beyond belief, as though it had fed on equal parts berries and anabolic steroids.
"Ooo, a big bugger!" Rhodes said appreciatively. "Look at the arms on that thing, what a beautiful bastard. Those legs! I bet it could take a full-sized Auroch head-on and come out on top. Pelts worth a few crystals if you can keep it intact."
Debora's eyes lit up.
"I got this," She said confidently. "Enhanced Strength! Enhanced Constitution! Bronze Skin! Jump!"
Before Gwen could intervene, Debora leapt into the fray. Gwen noted with irony that Debora's actions somewhat resembled a kangaroo herself. Her trajectory took her instantly toward the Red Ree, who regarded its assailant with complete disdain. When Debora firmly landed with a thud, it reared back onto its tail, growing instantly to a good three meters.
She watched as Debora relaunched herself, her dominant arm winding up a right hook. At her level, the force of the punch was enough to shatter stone and dent steel plates, if she connected, Debs should lay the big Roo flat.
To their surprise, the Roo caught Debora in midair with a well-aimed kick. It snapped her momentum in half, bent her body like a boomerang and sent her back where hence she came. With a yelp, the Transmuter tumbled through the air before striking the ground with a thud, skidding into the grassy knolls. Instantly, Debora recovered and stood up. Her face was flaming red, but she was unharmed.
The Roo was as surprised as Debora. It must have expected her to snap in half because it now grew warier. Visibly, it began to paw the air, looking like an expert boxer ready for round two. Debora hesitated, unsure how to proceed. She wasn't trained in Kung-roo.
"Deb! Close your eyes!" Gwen called out before uttering a well placed Flashbang.
She conjured the explosion right beside the twitching ears of the big Roo, catching it by complete surprise. Instantly, the Roo was smothered by a painful world of blinding light and sound, dropping onto its feet with a heavy thump. It then attempted to flee, its fight or flight reflex on overload. However, in its panic, it had instead made a bee-line for Debora.
And Debora was ready. As it came within range, she whipped around her athletic legs in a whirlwind arc and roundhoused it in the head. There was a crunching sound of bone as its trajectory changed, finally landing in a heap some distance away, its head facing an impossible angle.
"Whole pelt!" Debora grunted with effort, recovering from being winded by the big red. "That's a whole pelt, right?"
Their employee was covered in cold sweat, likely shocked that the two girls thought fist-fighting big Red Roo was a good idea.
"Yeah… that's a whole pelt," he muttered. Indeed, it was a good kill, and the pelt was entirely undamaged.
"Alright! Who's next!" Debora shouted into the distance. "Gwen! Get ready!"
The head of another roo rise from the bushes. A small cute joey with big brown eyes.
Oh no! Gwen thought to herself. Did we kill its…
A second head rose from the thick, dense grass. Bigger and far more badass.
Then a third.
And a fourth.
Then another dozen bobbing heads emerged in quick succession.
Big and red, tall and majestic. Muscles rippling with popping veins and an expression of blue murder.
"…" Debora moved between the herd and Gwen.
Two portals opened beside Gwen. Out came Ariel and Caliban, hissing at the creatures in front of them.
Rhodes felt his stomach tie into a knot, his heart reaching for his throat.
Two teenage girls, a ferret, and a what-the-fuck-is-that stood against a dozen roos build like brick shit-houses.
How the fuck, Rhodes wondered, did it comes to this?