Dominic Lorenzo went by several names, some of which were public, and most of which were selectively known to friends in unusual places.
To the Mageocracy, Dominic was a murky ghost, one of the hundreds that made up London's grapevines. Together, he and his ilk sent bite-sized observations up the trellis so that problems could be propagated or pruned.
To Dominic's unknowing co-workers, he was a dapper, good-natured journo who was serious about his work but would never get promoted because of a meddlesome, naive sense of justice.
To Alesia De Botton, he was a compatriot, co-tethered by a debt owed to the late Master of Sydney.
Presently, Dominic engaged in a masochistic ritual known as, "reading the Sun Herald". Within London's battlefield of public opinion, he worked for the Guardian, winner of the BBC's Mithril Shield, comparatively, the paper in his hand was the editorial equivalent of coal dust.
Nonetheless, knowing one's foes was an essential part of Dominic's job.
He turned the page.
A headline in large, red writing seared his retina.
Norfolk's Secret: How a Customs Agent Uncovered Ravenport's Hidden Daughter.
THE DUKE OF NORFOLK, one of the most powerful men in London, was seen rushing back to his manor when a customs agent uncovered the Duke's ploy to mule illicit goods through a young Australian-Chinese sorceress by the name of Gwen Song.
In a Fireball revelation, Miss Song was revealed to be the youngest Apprentice of Henry Kilroy, the now-deceased Master of Sydney, a long-time associate of Mycroft Ravenport. A further inquiry carried out by the Herald Sun revealed Miss Song was the same Void sorceress who wowed audiences in September's International Inter-University Competition. According to internal memos, Miss Song was on route to receive a scholarship from Cambridge University when Heathrow intercepted the sorceress, revealing a cache of illicit goods. However, Lord Ravenport's court ally, Lord Seville, intervened to remove Miss Song from Border Force's custody. The young sorceress was then photographed entering Lord Ravenport's private vehicle, an exclusive Phantom IV gifted to the Duke by the Royal Family. Miss Song has not been seen in public since.
Lord Mycroft has been embroiled in scandals prior, such as the rumoured involvement of his son in the Fall of Sydney. Exclusive to the Sun, sources have acknowledged that the Void sorceress may be a secret daughter, engendered by an unintended tryst...
Dominic suppressed a smirk.
Secret daughter, sure.
The picture they had of Gwen was of her getting into the Duke's car, her lower body in crystal-sharp focus, while everything else faded into the backdrop. In a stark and titillating vision, one saw a single, contoured leg hanging outside the bible-black, beetle-shell carriage. As it was winter, the implications were self-evident.
But just in case the Sun's readers were too obtuse, the paper teased the imagination by pairing the article with a page three girl— a hopelessly underdressed Eurasian sorceress with dark hair and green eyes, eye-fucking the camera.
In a ham-fisted way, the unspoken inference fully demonstrated the near-supernatural magnetism a million tabloids a week held over the lives of the Lords and Ladies of London. For the apathetic public, there was nothing more satisfying than scandals that exhibited the snobbish gentry's basest desires.
In response, Norfolk's office had issued two denials over the claims saying that "any blood relations between the sorceress and Lord Ravenport" was "categorically untrue". A second line included the usual response from Windsor castle, "We deny that the Duke of Norfolk had any form of relationship with the young woman. The allegations are false and without foundation."
Dominic quickly checked through the rest of the paper to ensure that nothing else would catch Gwen by surprise.
It was on page seven that Dominic spotted the second mention of Gwen. This time in an article written by an actual journalist, detailing the replacement of George Reeves, Director of Operations at Heathrow. The article cited that not only had Director Reeves not questioned the illicit conduct of staff under his watch, but had stubbornly refused to cross the 'blue-line', being an ex-Major and all that. This time, however, the victim to be "shaken down" happened to be Gwen Song, Class VI War Mage of IIUC fame, and sister-in-craft to Lord Shultz, Tower Master of Sydney. The incident, the Sun reported, has caused significant grief within the foreign office.
Reeve's replacement, Deputy Director Rachel Swann, then offered a platitude: "We expect our leaders to conduct themselves professionally at all times and treat our nation's best and brightest with respect. Director Reeves has failed to meet these expectations and has been dismissed after a misconduct panel, presided by factional representatives from London Tower, the Public Safety Committee, and the Border Force Military Tribunary. Lord Ravenport, the speaker for the committee, instrumental in negotiating Miss Song's lawful release, has stated, 'The public has a right to expect absolute integrity.'"
"You've got to be shitting me." Dominic felt a vein throb. Gwen was in London for ten minutes, and she had already made it onto the most notorious paper in the city— twice. If the edition sold well, and House Ravenport suffering from a rash of ill repute almost certainly will— Gwen could kiss her privacy goodbye.
Dominic's device chimed.
The caller ID indicated that it was Ravenport's leggy daughter.
Speak of the hellcat, Dominic whistled. He dispelled the visage of the bare bosomed beauty on page three; once his mind was purged of impure thoughts, he tapped the Glyph for receive.
"Thank you, Mister Whitely," Ollie Edwards, Post Graduate Conjurer-Illusionist, thanked the miner who had been kind enough to give him a ride to Merthyr Tydfil. With great politeness, he laid down an HDM on to the seat. "Please take this."
Ollie had left London at five AM. After delivering a note to the Head Mistress of Peterhouse, he caught the ISTC to Oxford, a bus down to Gloucester, then waited for a cargo lorry to take him to Merthyr Tydfil. As much as a Flight Licence was useful, Ollie could not justify spending a year's worth of CCs on convenience.
An hour into the bumpy ride, when his buttocks complained of the spring digging into his thighs, he wondered if it was faster to teleport to London, then pay for a General Area Teleport above the resource outpost.
But, as always, Ollie considered the request from Lady Loftus a test.
With the Matron of Peterhouse, quests were rarely straightforward, and Ollie suspected that looking after Gwen Song was demonstrative of the Lady's faith in her Praelector.
When they arrived at Merthyr Tydfil, the town was as he had imagined. It was dirty, dingy, and looking like a mining town straight out of an '80s vid-cast before Maggie Thatcher put an end to all that.
"Keep the crystal," the squat NoM shooed the Magus away, tossing him back the credit-stick. "Careful, Magus. Them Dwarves are devious buggers, and them Trolls will make soup from your bones!"
"I shall. Thank you again!"
"Good luck finding your girl." The old feller winked.
"Right." Ollie then turned his attention toward the inn. Here was where the local militia had set up their headquarters. With a deep breath, he pushed through the oak double doors.
"Hello! My name is Ollie Edwards. I am Miss Song's Praelector from Cambridge—"
The place was empty.
There was plenty of evidence that the inn had been lived in, there was no doubt about that; the place was a damned Goblin warren, but there wasn't a single soul to answer his enquiry.
His answer bounced back from the vaulted, Tudor-era ceiling. Feeling his fingers grow clammy, Ollie exited the inn. Outside, the town went about its business.
"Good sir!" He flagged down a sauntering prospector. "What's the news? Where are Magister Hanford and his men? Also, have you seen a tall, Eurasian sorceress with green eyes? She has hair up to about here— and she's quite— pretty."
"Aye, you missed them an hour ago." The prospector's teeth had more yellow than white. "They've gone down to the gulch. A group of journos teleported in just after morning tea— said that the Devourer of Shenyang is going to clear the Red Gulch for Miss Elvia. Most of the folk are gone to take a gander."
Ollie's overlarge ears grew red. "You're joking. Who's Elvia?"
"No joke. The lass will take on the Trollies by herself. They said— oh, Miss Elvia's our healer. But..." The man shook his head. "Bollocks, I say. Even if she's Ravenport's daughter..."
The man patted his newspaper.
"She's WHAT now…" Ollie's eyes rifted to a familiar face on the front page. "Sorry, could I see that?"
"Sure." The man handed the paper over. "Help yourself. Mind page three, it's a little damp."
Frantically, Ollie read the front page, turning the slightly moist paper until he reached the prized double-spread. His heart froze for a moment when a modest Eurasian face stared back at him, wearing tiny garments, but relaxed when it wasn't Gwen. When his eyes rolled over the article, however, his breath grew difficult.
"S-secret daughter?!" Ollie's molars ached.
His mind raced. Daughter or no daughter, scandal or otherwise, he had to find the girl as soon as possible. What had the miner said? Red Gulch?
But where in Dwarf Land was "Red Gulch"? Was it where the miners went to smuggle the seasonal ore?
"How can I get there?"
"In there." The prospector pointed to one of those "ye old' shoppes".
Giving his thanks, Ollie pushed into the general store. Inside, a man dozed against the counter, awaking when the door-bell trilled. "Good sir! I am a Magus from Cambridge. I need to get to Red Gulch as soon as possible."
It took the fellow a few seconds to fire up his synapses.
"You and half the village," the shopkeeper snorted. "Don't worry, lad. I've got all the maps you can buy, all certified lodes with Troll Warrens marked and ready for prospecting."
"Which one's for Red Gulch?"
"This one." The man's swimming eyes reminded Ollie of a pair of poached eggs. "Now, that'll be five quid, young prospector! Best of luck!"
Ollie handed over 5 LDMs.
The shopkeeper produced a map from under the counter. "Here you go. RG-23, updated last week."
"What about those?" Ollie pointed to the hand-thick stack of maps.
"Oh dear!" the shopkeeper chuckled, one gold tooth glimmering sickly in the lumen-light. "Must have misplaced the Purge maps."
Hanmoul Bronzeborn didn't mind the surface.
The lidless world, with its green vegetables and elongated humanoids, was so much more interesting than the Deep Kingdom's endless crusade against the monsters of the Murk.
But for all its grandeur, the above-ground world possessed foes the Dwarves were ill-equipped to fight. That was why, when after the last Gob died, jade-flesh writhing under the Rockcrushers' grinders, the dazed Dwarves could hardly believe their eyes. It was as though a Dragon had come through the peak, swept through the green-skin horde, then left without demanding tribute.
And that was what worried Bronzeborn more than the horse-dogs that had eaten the Hobs head-first. Among the Iron Born, all acts of valour garnered recognition, translating directly to material rewards. The killing of a Hag, in particular, warranted a mention in the Ancestor Hall's record tablets. It was a rare honour, for scant were Hags that ventured out from the warrens, and rarer was the Dwarf who survived one.
With a heavy heart, Hanmoul saw the battlefield looted and cleared, then ordered his patrol to head for home.
At the council chambers, Hanmoul Bronzeborn made his report to a stunned Iron Command, then steered his shattered engine toward the workshop to be stripped and re-fitted. From the sound of the coolant leak in his cabin, the instrument panel's conduits must be a melted-mess, and the umbilical tether was shot. As for the actuator and the heat exchangers— Bronzeborn could only hope it held on for a few more meters.
"Deep Ancestors!" His foreman and mentor, the honourable Signerlig Bronzeborn, almost dropped his auto-wrench when Bronzeborn's Rock Smasher lumbered came into view. "Wot happened? Did a Black Dragon take a liking to yer Smasha?"
Hanmoul dropped the hatch. The pane caught halfway down on a broken sprocket.
"I am lucky to be alive, Siggy. Thank the Deep." The Commandrumm of the Hammer Guard kicked the joint until the metal gave way. "Yer would nae believe what we ran inter…"
After the tall tale was delivered, Signerlig poured the son of Dwomrul a stiff pint of rum brewed from the arse-end of Golden Sugar Ants.
"Go take a rest, Hanmoul." The Senior Engineer shook himself out. "Yer gonna get trouble when that lass comes calling, son. A Debt of Haj-Zül isn't so easily repaid."
"I know, Siggy," Hanmoul growled. "Gwen Song, that's her name. I'll take a strider inter Merthyr Tydfil tomorrow and speak with the Human Magister there, find out ter which Faction the lass belongs."
"Pray its the Greys." Signerlig walked a circle around the Rocksmasher. "Yer don wanna be trafficking with the War Mages. They'd just ask for another schematic, yer ken? Or more Runeswords."
The Commandrumm nodded solemnly. "See yer in a few hours, Siggy, take care of me girl."
"Don't yer worry yer hairy arse, I'll ave 'er fixed reit up."
Hanmoul made a detour on his way to the habitat to make sure there was at least one "Strider Beast" left in the garage. In the glowlight, the silhouette of the vehicle resembled a stumpy pill-bug, resembling the Black Scarabs so commonly found in the Dim.
With a tug, Hanmoul removed the oiled cloth.
He had to admit; the Strider was a beautiful thing. When dormant, the quasi-Golems appeared as though a geometrically shaped boulder. When active, however, the machine possessed a rare grace.
Hanmoul sighed. It was a shame then that the Deepdowners had proclaimed such machines Vadam, "Forbidden". According to the Deepdowners, the surface world held many allures to waylay young Dwarves, and no Engineer, not even a Hammer Guard, was immune to the corrupting seduction of the lidless world.
Naturally, Hanmoul took the warning to mean that the pale-skinned old codgers were neck-deep in mole-droppings. Ever since the Sundering Tide shattered the Underway, the surface had been the only reliable way of communication for the Deep Kingdoms. That was the sole reason, Hanmoul concluded, that the Dimland Dwarves now received recognition at all. To denigrate their cousins bestriding the surface, while also pushing them to interact with the knife-ears and the Humans, was hypocrisy.
Hanmoul lovingly patted the shell of the Strider.
For some reason, his mind lingered on the malignant form of the white-fingered bird wielded by the girl-sorceress.
What a magnificent creature!
Hanmoul felt an unexpected tingle.
What manner of a creature could it be?
The Dim was free of avians.
How was it possible that a flying monstrosity could concurrently exert such mechanical pressure with its digits? Was it a type of Dragon? The Dwarves knew Dragons better than anyone, but Hanmoul had never seen a beast like that. If possible, he would trade a vault's worth of gold to receive a pair of the bird's tendons as test-material.
"By the Deep Ancestors." Hanmoul tapped the Strider's segmented canopy. "I'll ask the lass tomorrow."
The final crate of HDMs fell into place.
"And this, Gentlemen, is the Mandala for calling on Golos, Princeling of Huangshan." Gwen ran her hand over the three-thousand HDMs she had conjured into place. A safe distance around the Mandala, spread out in a semi-circle, were her observers. Presently, the crowd included Magister Hanford and his team of Tower Mages; Mathias and Elvia, who stood the closest; and gawkers from the town, who came to see if the sorceress really could obliterate the warrens.
Already, the paparazzi were in a frenzy, their lumen-bulbs firing every few seconds. Gwen wasn't sure what Lorenzo said convinced the press to attend, but they did, en masse.
"Evee," Gwen extended a hand to her healer. "Hold my hand. Step into the circle to gain its protection. Gogo can get a little excited, and you're looking a treat."
Having seen the Wyvern on the broadcast, Elvia complied. Besides the Cleric, Mathias stood like an attentive clerk, ready to help.
Gwen then began the complex process of invoking the necessary mystic energies for materialising Golos. She had earlier requested a second audience with Lady Loftus, assuring the Lady that Golos would return after forty-eight hours. The Lady's advice was to leave Gwen to her devices, redressing her new-found freedom with the simple truth that censures resulted from failure.
"Meritocracy" was the watchword of the Mageocracy, the Lady sagely reminded Gwen, assuming peers of comparable standing.
For her show and tell, constructing her Mandala without aid for the first time had been harrowing, especially with a peanut gallery. Thankfully, she had repeated the procedure enough times with Petra and Walken to re-create the summoning circle.
Mid-invocation, the Glyphs sizzled as the Mandala's circuits flared into life. A little prematurely, a blinding bolt of lightning shot from the Mandala in reverse, stabbing into the landscape as though a sabre of light, birthing Golos into the world.
The crowd clapped and wowed.
It wasn't every day that low-tier Mages bore witness to a Planar Ally and a Draconic-one at that.
Golos, his sleek body well-defined with sinews, spread his wings and uncoiled his neck. The Wyvern appeared larger than Gwen recalled, indicating that it lived a good life smooching off Ruxin's good fortune.
"SUCH ABUNDANT MANA!" the Wyvern barked, both nostrils flaring. On its crested skull, colourful feathers scintillated with a metallic sheen. "Calamity, what is this place?"
"England," Gwen answered from below. "Gogo, meet my friend Evee."
Golos' prideful visage surveyed the press corps, the prospectors, the low English horizon, then turned his attention downward. "You smell different."
Gwen allowed her Essence to circulate. "How so?"
The Wyvern lowered his head. "You feel… older—"
"— And no longer like your brother?"
Golos turned his head this way and that. The Wyvern drooled. "You smell delicious."
"Hello…" Elvia's voice piped up besides Golos.
"No need to worry your pretty head, Gogo." Striking a pose, Gwen felt relieved that Golos' reaction was puzzlement and not hostility. Part of it may be their Planar Ally contract, but there was also wariness, history and respect. "Essence or no, Ruxin and I are business partners. Our interests run parallel."
The Wyvern sniffed her again. With a tongue as thick as her thigh, he gave her cheek a quick-tongued tap. "Calamity. I can't sense Father on you at all. Did you eat him?"
"There are older beings in this world than Daddy dear." Gwen pooled a bit of Almudj's Essence in her palm. "Care to take a hit?"
"Hello." Elvia raised a hand again. "Lord Golos. I am Elvia Lindholm. Here is Kiki, and this is Sen-sen."
Golos sniffed Gwen's hand, but to her surprise, the Wyvern turned away.
"Tempting, but no. The Essence from another shall not pollute my father's blood. Besides, we are not mates, and if we were, I should be the one to enter—"
"WHOA!" Gwen covered Elvia's ears. "Keep it to yourself, big guy. God knows who speaks Draconic here."
Finally, Golos took notice of the girl in Gwen's arms.
"I thought there was something familiar here." The Wyvern shifted its massive bulk, bringing its clubbed tail to bear. "I know you."
"Evee," Gwen translated. "He says he knows you. Gogo, how come you know Evee?"
Elvia froze. Despite Gwen's assurances, Gogo was one big Thunder Wyvern.
A few meters away, Mathias drew his Spellblade.
"You're the one Ayxin took for the Calamity." Golos chuckled.
"Sen-sen!" The Ginseng on Elvia's shoulders stood, waving its tendrils, it bowed. "Sen!"
"Hoho, a new Master," Golos rumbled, its reptilian slits finally focusing on Elvia. "This tiny mortal, mind giving her to me as an offering?"
"Gogo, don't even joke about that." Gwen slapped the Wyvern on the snout. "Say hi to Evee, she's important."
"She's skinny and unsavoury," Golos grunted. "Why, I could flatten her with one blow, swallow her with half a bite. If she were fatter..."
"I could have Caliban burst out of your gut."
"Insolence!" Golos barked, but it was their usual ego-joust. A moment later, the wyrm sniffed her partner, who stood as stoic as a statue while his muzzle prodded her bosom. "I see. You have claimed this female?"
Gwen paused, then began to smile. "That's right, Golos. Protect her well, and you'll be rewarded."
"Another one?" Golos rocked his giant head. "What happened to the Sword Mage? I like that one better. More bloodlust."
"Lulu's special," Gwen said sweetly. "Why? Did something happen?"
"Ryxi says she's arrived at Huangshan." Golos casually dropped a bomb on Gwen's lap. "He has taken a liking to your female."
"Oh?" Gwen raised both brows. "Ryxi isn't thinking of— you know? Is he? If so, give him a stern warning."
"HA!" Golos snorted. "That pallid, cock-less slug? He couldn't breed with a carp on a chopping board."
"Thank you, Golos, for that fine imagery," Gwen returned drily. "Well, give Lulu my love. I hope she does well in learning the old arts. Flying around on a sword! What will they think of next?"
"Enough talk, I grow bored and hungry." Golos reared to its full height. "What are we killing, THOSE?"
A lumen-blast went off just as Golos craned his neck toward the press gallery.
Surprised by the light, the Wyvern menaced the reporters, sending the townsfolk scattering. Magister Hanford and the other Mages from the Tower erected their shields just in case. Mathias, meanwhile, popped a Radiant barrier, first around Elvia, then himself.
Good, Gwen nodded. Good dog. "Friend, not food, Gogo. Today, we're going after Hags, Trolls and Hobs. You're going to be in the thick of it. I want you to eat as many as you can, really fill up that poop rope of yours. It'll be a bounty for us both, buddy."
"A battle! This pleases me." The Wyvern stretched its wings. "I shall be where the air is thickest."
"Go scout, and watch out for other Dragons," Gwen warned. "There's bound to be a few in England! If one challenges you, come right back."
Grunting, Golos took to the blue.
A few scattered claps escaped the observing crowd.
Gwen stood with both hands on her hips. "Sorry Evee, he's not fully trained yet."
"That's okay." Elvia was sweating enough for the two of them, considering the linen snow that stretched from gulch to hill and that the Shen-teī's regulated temperature, it was an impressive feat.
Gwen waited for the right moment, then returned her attention to the press gallery. Weathering a dozen blasts, she addressed the reporters.
"And that's Golos, perfectly competent and diplomatic to boot," she assured them. "Now, once Gogo checks the gulch. It will be time to make time for my friend Elvia Lindholm."
After five kilometres of Dimension Door paired with Wind Walk, Ollie Edwards had to stop.
Firstly, he was exhausted with spell-fatigue.
Secondly, a Dwarf was asking him for directions.
The Dwarf's armour bore the iconography of the Hammer Guard. From his relaxed demeanour, Ollie Edwards could guess that this was one of the Dim Dwarves, accustomed to living in-between "worlds". Presently, his conversation partner sat two meters in the air, held aloft by a many-limbed mechanical vehicle with dozens of skittering, sword-like legs.
"...Am looking fer a sorceress from yer town. A ladette— tall like a knife-ear, dark hair, bald-faced, blue plating, goes by the callsign 'Voracious Eater'. Could yer point a Dwarf in the right direction?"
A Voracious Eater? It took Ollie a moment to catch on that the Dwarf must be running a sub-par Translation Stone. The descriptions weren't exact, but Ollie figured that the Hammer Guard was looking for a beardless "Devourer".
"Are you after Gwen, by any chance?"
"Yer noe the lass?" The Dwarf appeared relieved. "Perfect. I got solemn business with her."
"Aye, right troublesome."
"Oh…" Ollie's blood ran cold. Was he too late?
"Aye." The Dwarf sighed. "So, yer headed for the sorceress?"
"I am." Ollie nodded. "Are you—"
A series of whirls and beeps interrupted Ollie's reply.
A billowing gust, punctuated by the great bell-beat of leathery wings, smothered the pair with powdery snow.
"WOT IN THE DEEP KING'S NAME IS THAT?" The Dwarf pointed at a passing silhouette. "A Thunder Dragon?"
Ollie shielded his eyes.
An inconceivably large Wyvern sailed through the sky, casting a magnified shadow over the ivory hills leading down to the Red Gulch. As it passed, the whipping wind in its wake sent up a storm of spiralling sleet. For some reason, Ollie was reminded of the snobs from Trinity who liked to show off in their expensive automobiles.
GOLOS! The name came to Ollie at once. What had Gwen done now? Why was an upper-tier monstrosity hooning about within three hours flight of London?
Ollie's blood turned to ice. Did his junior ask for permission? What if the Wyvern ate someone? What if it ate an NoM— OR— Ollie looked at the Dwarf. What if it ate a Dwarf?
Please, God, O Mighty and the Merciful, Ollie Edwards begged the ancient Nazarene. Let him make it to Gwen Song before something terrible happened.