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The idea of "free newspapers" wasn't original.

In Germany, at the turn of the twentieth century, an entrepreneur named Charles Cullmann attempted the nouveau business model with minimal success.

Unable to compete with the prevalence of yellow journalism in unregulated tabloids, it took until the 1950s for San Francisco to see its first sustainable free newspaper, and the early 2000s for the emergence of Metro, a Swedish model from Luxembourg that focused on public-transit distributions.

What Gwen could see in London, therefore, was a massive market gap for an essential information service— 'free' transit rags for the tube, the bus, the country-link, and the waiting lobby of the ISTCs.

When Gwen had visited old-world London, she had ignored the red-top tabloids sold by News Corp and friends. But she had picked up copies of the Metro, left here and there and given to her at every exit, sometimes by panhandlers looking for coins. Though she had never studied journalism, the business model by which a "successful" "free paper" operated was well-known to her profession.

The essential issue was that journalists weren't business consultants. What the early wordsmiths had fumbled was targeting the right demographic. If in the epoch of mobile entertainment, rags like the Metro remained profitable, then it was self-evident that a world where folk happily bought newspapers, there was an unsaturated market. What's more, unlike her predecessors' wrangling of the counter-intuitive free-distribution model, her "Metro" would be spared the cost of trial and error.

To start, she could release a bi-weekly edition while the new editorial office collected talented writers. The sections needn't be lengthy, exclusive, or comprehensive. A few articles would be all: the national news, the international press, gossip columns, sports and entertainment, an adventure's column. The psychology of need-to-know was human nature.

Beyond the mundane, she would curate the paper's main feature— content "for" and "of" the millions of NoMs milling about London, holding up the city's infrastructure. Content like baking recipes with grandmotherly sob stories, chicken soup for the soul. That and human interest anecdotes, life in the day of who's who. The occasional tale of woe and success, the Mage "commoner" and the NoM who rose to prominence. A small section entitled "Weird" or "Humour of the Day", where editors rated memes of obscenely-shaped vegetables.

And of course, an "Ask Evee" segment, where folk could post in questions about whatever, replied to by Elvia's ghost-writers, or herself, if she's inclined.

The exchange, as it were, would give Mages insight into the multi-dimensional lives of NoMs. Meanwhile, the NoMs could freely read the exploits, dangers, and wonder of the Mage's world straight from the horse's mouth.

And— Gwen grinned. She had at minimum a hundred serials in her head. Assuming she could find a good NoM writer to act the revenant for her plagiarised authors, the "Fiction" section should keep eyeballs firmly glued to each edition.

She even had a potential partner in mind— Dominic Lorenzo.

If the man was as good a journalist as his peers reported him to be, would Alesia's old war bud choose to switch roles from frontline journo to editor-in-chief? Oi, Dom— care to run an influential paper? She would ask him. One with above market-pay and a ten per cent stake for a five-year contract, with a second share-offer if circulation metrics met certain thresholds?

Gwen wetted her lips, drawing strange looks from her companions.

She was getting ahead of herself. For now, she needed to inspect the condition of the printing press.


"Holy hell, what in the Wildlands is this?"

Gwen wondered whether she had wandered into the innards of a steampunk dystopia.

Once the daylight globes burned bright, the abandonment of the "Halifax" Printing Press revealed itself.

"This thing is a monster!" Ollie marvelled at the mechanisms— a thousand, perhaps ten-thousand times more complicated than a mid-tier strategic Mandala. "What Machinist could tame something like this?"

Gwen agreed. Even in her old world, machinists were a dying breed. Outside of the underlying semantics, Gwen knew little to nothing about manufacturing. As far as marketing was concerned, once a recommendation was made; things happened, then products materialised. What happened in Shenzhen, China; stayed in Shenzhen, China.

What the trio was looking at— ignoring a collapsed section of the conveyor system, was what Wally dubbed a "Koenig & Sconebolt MK IV".

From gate to gate, the warehouse was enormous, a stadium unto itself. Even so, it was choked from cargo gate to delivery bay with bits of protruding blue metal.

"The core components came from Würzburg, Bavaria— north of Munich and east of Frankfurt," the keeper of the isle explained with some difficulty. "Dwarven artifice, I am lead to believe. This one was built about thirty years ago. It's been repaired now and then, of course. Expanded too, but alas…"

Her groundskeeper lacked the jargon, and Gwen lacked the know-how. With her limited intuition, Gwen did her best to comprehend the mechanisms by confining her attention to just one section of the press.

From the eastern quadrant, she could see small Golem-suits previously used to move large rolls of paper. Most of the Golems currently sat half-rusted beside piles of mouldy cylinders. Further down, roles of conveyor belts connected drum-feeders— presumably where the paper rolls could be attached— feeding a foursome of three-storey tall towers.

"These are the presses?" Gwen drifted closer.

Despite the disuse, she could smell the viscous ink, pungent and distinct, assailing her nostrils. She had once heard that fresh newspaper-ink resembled baked bread, though now they affected a sour fetor. There was the stink of machine oil as well, churned to the consistency of tar, as well as opaque lubricants still dripping through fissures and canals. The printing towers themselves were encased in a protective metal shell, still glowing faintly with mana. As for their insides, Gwen didn't dare to look.

"Printing Engines," Wally corrected her, shaking gunk from his gumboots. "The press-making machine requires a Mage to operate, a specialist by trade. It's in another section of the building."

"I see." Gwen followed the presses' inter-connected "ley-lines" until she lost herself in the two-dozen rows of feeders snaking through the warehouse. At its end, she found a mechanism with rusted blades and precisely shaped funnels. Beyond that, more platforms, more swirling conveyers until finally, she saw the light of day at the western sector's bundling bay.

Strangely, this section did not appear nearly so ruined as the eastern quadrant.

Further evidence supporting her observation appeared in the form of ink— buckets of the stuff, still fresh from the smell of it, lying beside a plinking roll-press. The hint of mana, unlike at the primary engines, was still strong. There was Evocation, Conjuration, and a heavy dose of Transmutation and Enchantment; all rolled into one.

"Wally!" she called out to her assistant. "Get over here. I think I've found something."

It took the others almost ten minutes to navigate the innards of the printing press.

Without so much as a grimace, Wally stuck a hand into the rollers and felt its press-plates. "Still wet. Someone's been using this section."

"What is it? A small printing engine?"

Wally growled. "Aye, ma'am, looks like parts clogged together from that mess over yonder. That's OUR spare parts, mind you. The Marchioness is owed debt."

Gwen looked at the rusted, tangled heap that was once a fully functional newspaper press, said to churn out a hundred thousand papers a day. Now, it looked like a machinist's nightmare.

"Locals?"

"We'll see." Wally uncovered a panel. With some hesitation, he punched in a few Glyphs, and the van-sized press churned into life. A roll of almost-exhausted paper began to turn. From the top of the machine-tower, several drums slowly spun, some taking up ink from a plumbed feeder, another glistened with purified water.

A loud hiss, followed by groaning metal turned the cogs, flywheels spun, sparks flew here and there, then the rear of the machine shat out a quart of black oil.

CHONK! CHONK! CHONK!

A pair of teeth at the bottom of the press gnashed. Somewhere to the left, a roll of prints emerged.

Gwen picked up a sheet.

There was a Mandala-looking inscription on the letterhead.

"The Tower of Tandoori," Gwen read. "Serving the finest exotics from the East Indies. Butter Chicken, Tikka Masala, Chicken Biryani. Catering available. Call 20 7237 2247 for a booking. 14 Duchess Walk. Closed Mondays."

Wally smacked his lips.

"I am not sure what I expected," the gruff soldier stated blankly.

"Revolutionary pamphlets?" Ollie remarked, taking one to read himself. "A secret meeting place? Spectre Cabal?"

"Yes, Spectre meets there on Mondays." Gwen stowed a copy in her ring. She now knew where to have lunch.

"Someone's going to pay."

"For using our parts?" Gwen shook her head. "If they can bang this together from that, we need to find them and give them a job."

Wally's face turned indignant, as did Ollie's. "They're burglars!"

"Industrious ones, with skill and innovation," Gwen corrected her groundskeeper. "Put that on your to-do, Wally. Find out who these people are. Tell them they're in no trouble and that they should keep working here. I formally give consent. However, they should refrain from looting the press until I can get someone to come in and have a look. Also, I need an office near here, or in here— but away from the noise."

Wally bowed his head.

"Gwen, you can't be serious about this printing business," Ollie spluttered. "This is such a waste of your time! You're an Omni-Mage, what are you—"

"Ollie— let me stop you there." Gwen waved a hand so that she cut him off mid-sentence. "In time, I shall prove you wrong. Until then, just watch. Don't forget— you're not my keeper. If I require advice, I shall ask for it. If Lady Loftus did not trust in my abilities, she would have sent you to the isle instead."

The Glyph on the wall proved a little excessive for Ollie, whose mouth pursed sulkily. Frustrated, he scratched his head, shedding a few hairs.

"Wally, call the owner of this place. Tell them I have assumed control of the lease-hold. Negotiate a price for all this 'junk'. Emphasise the scrap metal— and say the 'estate' needs its debts repaid. If they're willing, we'll call it even. If not, call me, and I'll explain to the Marchioness just how much she stands to profit. Tell Halifax— tell them the interest is accruing as we speak..."

"But there isn't..."

"There is now."

"I see." Wally swallowed. "I'll not disappoint, ma'am."

"Good, get it done. As for the clean-up, you have until mid-January." Gwen materialised a crystal box. "Here's two-thousand HDMs. Keep a record of all your expenditures, and Message me if you need to make extra-large purchases over a thousand HDMs."

"No such need." Wally opened the currency-box. "I shall locate and clear out the old office. I recall it was in the northern quadrant, beside the press-plate storage. The local labourers are inexpensive."

Wally pushed back a thousand HDMs.

Gwen pushed back.

"We'll do a soup kitchen. And free lunch for labourers. Meat, vegetable, all that." Gwen gestured to Elvia. "Put everything under Evee's name."

"What?" Elvia raised both brows. "Gwen, what are you doing? That's your money!"

"Call it an experiment." Gwen conjured another set of 100 HDM currency cards. "Which reminds me. Take these and get a clinic set up in the local town hall. I'll hire a few temps from the Tower. I reckon 'Elvia's Blessed-Heart Foundation' sounds about right. Get her face known, maybe make some iconography. Ollie?"

"Y-yes?"

"You're an illusionist, right?"

"I am."

"Good, I want a big projection of Evee at the soup-kitchen and clinic."

"But—" Elvia protested before Ollie could interject. "Gwen, it's all your money!"

"I can spend my money how I wish." Gwen patted her Evee on the head. "You wanted to help the villagers, right? Are you going to refuse now? The charity will be in 'your' name. I'll be its director and you, its spiritual spokesperson. I can compensate you if you're unwilling—"

"I'll do it!" Elvia's eyes grew bright. "I want to help the villagers!"

"Of course, whatever your heart desires." Gwen's smile grew calculating. "Get Mattie to come as well. Damned Knight's got to earn his keep. My future taxes will be going into his upkeep."

"Alright..." Elvia nodded obediently.

"Good. Wally?"

"It will be done, ma'am." Wally saluted. The housekeeper appeared appreciative of the fact that every command came bundled with HDMs.

Gwen produced her Prestidigitation box and cleaned her hand and soiled boot, likewise running the cantrip over Elvia and the rest.

"What now?" Ollie drew a shuddering breath before replying through petulant lips. "Back to the villages? Feed the poor? Give jobs to the masses? Hug an NoM child?"

"I like your enthusiasm," Gwen said with a smirk. "Let's head back to the Tower. I need to check the estate's CC count and put in requests for healers— after that, let's bring the charitable spirit of Christmas to Millwall and Cubitt."


His fringe had thinned.

Ollie came to that realisation when finally, dead tired, the trio returned to the estate at Mudchute.

Between his thumb and forefinger, he held a few loose strands.

Gwen's hair was black and velvety, so healthy that Ollie oft felt an urge to wrap a fistful around his hand. Elvia's was fair and flaxen, full of Positive Mana. Wally was half-bald and had little to lose, meaning these definitely belonged to him.

Following the horrid printing press, they had walked around the city non-stop. First, they went to London's City Council Chambers, where Gwen spent almost three hours working out how to lodge a new Charity Organisation under her and Elvia's name. Unfamiliar with the city's nefarious bureaucracy, she grew dangerously frustrated until a middle-tier manager, sweating from every pore, materialised to appease the irate War Mage.

After that exhaustive encounter, they returned to The Shard to recruit no less than ten healers to be stationed in the Isle of Dogs for three months, spending 300 of her credits and 300 from the estate's coffers, as well as another thousand HDMs.

In the late afternoon, starving and irate, the trio arrived at the Tower of Tandoori. Gwen ordered Demi-human dishes that smelled and tasted as intense and fiery as they looked, giving Ollie such an upset that he had to circulate mana for hours just to keep his intestines inside his lower body.

When he asked the girl how she faired with the aftermath of this "Vindaloo", the bright-eyed sorceress replied with complete candidness.

"I am used to the heat, to be honest. That and I've got these magical undies—"

"NO!" Ollie held her mouth before quickly removing his hands as though he'd gripped a sizzling branding iron.

Red-faced, he admonished her for discussing drawers in public, shushing his House-sister in the strongest possible terms.

"Never say that in polite company!" he warned her, as Lady Loftus has instructed. "Never! Some topics are taboo! They're unmentionable!"

The girl had laughed in his "prudish" face, which made Ollie's chest sore. He could see in her eyes that she understood, but simply did not care.

Afterwards, following a report from Wally, they returned to the isle to inspect the future address of the temporary clinic.

That was the other thing driving Ollie up the wall.

First, why did she care at all for NoMs? From the way she spoke to them, he could see that her inappropriate social-distancing was genuine. There was no superficiality in the way she talked to the muddy-booted scum dredged up from the thalweg of the Thames. In his eyes, Gwen chummed with the common muck as naturally as she interacted with him! A Magus of Cambridge! What was worse, she had taken the same tone with the Marchioness!

When they had first met, and Gwen had sat beside the Lady of Ely, he had thought her a noble— plausibly, as they whispered in the corridors, a bastard of Ravenport.

Now, he had no idea, for only someone who had spent much of their time among the folk of the street could understand their cockney accents. To Ollie, the damned NoMs sounded like they were clearing their throat or gargling rocks!

And this clinic business, the speed in which it was happening was giving him whiplash. Did the girl have no concept of capital? Or rather, who was supplying her with her seemingly limitless war chest? She hadn't even sold her Creature Cores yet! Between the morning and the evening, some two thousand HDMs had been dispensed into Millwall and Cubitt, enough for a term of Spellcraft training, with lodging!

Without delay, lured by the promise of cold, hard LDMs, men had lined up to clear out an old warehouse while women by the dozen scrubbed the floors. By the mid-afternoon, beside the new "clinic", a small mountain of garbage threatened to tip into the river.

At first, when Gwen used Bilby's Hand to compact the trash, Ollie had thought she was about to throw the lot into the Thames.

Then the girl blasted the trash with Void.

Ollie recalled screaming another "No!"

VOID MAGIC! That rare and priceless resource of the Empire, an element that taxed the body and soul! Every use diminished the caster until they wasted away.

"We can't be polluting the Thames, Ollie old boy." Gwen had furrowed her brows before letting loose another tier 4 Elemental Sphere. The first stage all but consumed the remaining pile; the second stage levelled out the terrain. "Don't wrinkle your face like that. I am good for a dozen of these without too much drama."

The NoMs fell about fainting and vomiting at first— then appeared to adapt with a frightful resilience befitting the verminous multitudes.

In the late afternoon, Mathias Rothwell, a Knight from the Ordo of St Michael, rendezvoused with their party. Ollie had imagined the Knight an ally, but the quiet young man went about enacting the behest of his healer without complaint.

Afterwards, at supper time, all the servants from Mudchute manor descended, using the cleared warehouse as a base, they started a soup kitchen of sorts, serving Spam.

SPAM! Ollie's vindaloo-ravaged innards cramped just thinking about it. Spam and cabbage soup. Spam, egg and rice. Grilled Spam with mustard. Spam in brown sauce. Ollie's innards revolted just thinking of the mysterious Wildland meat.

"Hang in there, Ollie!" Elvia had mopped the sweat from his brows, soothing his tortured soul.

"Evee! More benedictions!" Gwen cracked her whip. "Come get your SPAM and BLESS! Groups of five! Don't rush, plenty to go around! Those who worked get first dibs and a second-serving!"

"Thank yee, missus! Thank yee so much!" There were some two thousand people between Cubitt and Millwall, meaning the manor's staff had to work until midnight. Ollie had thought at first that the NoMs would rush the tables, or swarm Miss Elvia and was going to conjure some illusory deterrents. Gwen, however, was way ahead of him. All around the perimeter, a dozen pony-sized Wolfhounds, best-in-breed, kept the crowd honest. Additionally, her Void snake hissed at rowdy individuals while her Kirin hovered overhead, sniffing the sycophants petitioning the visage of Elvia he had earlier glamoured.

All the while, the stoic Mathias stood guard beside Miss Lindholm, one hand on the pommel of his Spellblade, smiling serenely at the NoMs, glowing faintly with undisguised Radiance.

When finally, all was said and done, Ollie sat in his room, trying to digest the last twelve hours.

The reason for his whiplash, he slowly realised, was that Gwen had made good on all her pledges— that was the cause of his ontological crisis. When he and his fellow Mages debated at Speaker's Corner regarding the malaise of London, it was just that— talk.

Which among them would walk among the destitute?
Who would want to spend Christmas and New Years feeding the poor? Even Ollie, who saw himself as a pillar of propriety, had worked for Saint Vincent's twice in his life. Once when he was a Prefect at Eton, leading by example, and once during his first year at Cambridge.

Comparatively, since the Frontier girl came to London, she had escaped to Wales, obliterated two armies of Trolls, saved a Dwarven Commandrumm, dug out a Hags Core, titillated the tabloids, and now she was bringing alms to the poor? And tomorrow or the day after, a troop of Clerics would arrive to treat the sick of Millwall and Cubitt, gratis. She had even declared compensated employment for those who labour to maintain the township! Sweep its streets! Shovel the mud into the river?!

And Gwen had promised new roads, new buildings, new jobs at the printing press and in construction, all in one speech— all in front of a warm and just-fed audience still buzzing with Elvia's Blessing. She even said that there would be a Magister who would later arrive to oversee the operations and maintain the peace, one who had experience lording over a continental Frontier.

Ollie's temple throbbed.
There was so much to digest that his brain felt like Butter Chicken.

When he closed his eyes, the faces of the smiling folk haunted him. These bright, hopeful mouths, loudly chewing Spam, their lips red as ketchup. Were these NoMs the norm? He wondered. He knew NoMs, of course. They worked at the Tower as janitors and cleaners, semi-invisible in their grey tunics and white hats. Out in the country, he'd seen happy and well-fed NoMs, but these usually worked for a benevolent Lord or Lady on large, expansive estates.

He had never seen NoMs, their clothes grimy with scum, hands grubby with the dockland's ever-present dust, laugh and cry and eat and talk about their families. Was a job sweeping the docks worthy of roof-rattling cheers? Was a position ferrying bricks enough to make a grown man weep?

"They'll soon turn back into their dreary, conniving selves," or so he told Mathias, who humoured him with a nod.

But nothing explained his hair.

He was only twenty-six! The Praelector despaired. There was no pattern-baldness in his bloodline, so it must be something else. A disease? That was impossible, for the ever-attentive Miss Elvia would have known.

What could it be?

 

Christmas descended, blanketing the estate of Cliveden.

Unlike the Commonwealth-wide Midnight Mass held at Westminster by Primate Archbishop Lorde Wembley, Lucy Astor's gathering served a more earthly purpose— the collection of social currency.

It was because Lucy Waldorf Astor was not like the other Lords and Ladies of the English nobility.

First of all, she was among the wealthiest, which instantly rose her above the ordinary, blue-blood claptrap.

Secondly, she was American by birth.

Thirdly, and perhaps with more complex than most would admit— she's not an Astor, nor a noble.

Which is not to say the upper crust looked down on her. Instead, it was her being a stranger that made her endearing. In days of yore, the Astor family had its roots in old England, holding a traditional seat in Plymouth, Sutton. At the turn of the last century, the English side had dwindled, while the American branch prospered profoundly in the New World. When, after the Beast Tide, no more British Astors remained to inherit the title, the American Astors sent their first son, Waldorf Astor, across the ocean to take care of business.

It was a subversive move, for the famous Waldorf was an infamous alcoholic with a choleric temper to match his bank account. His birth mother perished when he was a boy, and his ambitious step-mother had given birth to a second son with prodigal talent.

Though many of the nobility of London looked down on the young Waldorf, they humoured him for his wealth, a resource sorely needed to rebuild Britain's tattered, post-tide Empire.

And this was where Waldorf's young, charming wife came onto the scene.

Beautiful and possessing a cutting wit, she diffused one crisis after another, tying together a web of patrons. Thanks to her guidance, the Sutton Astors regained its place among the House of Lords. The Chain of Being was restored, and in time, the wonderful and always charming Lady Astor gave birth to an heir— "Bobby".

And for two decades, things were reportedly well.

Until Bobby perished in the Mediterranean, fighting an otherwise mundane battle against the Mermen. If the fight had been better fought, or perhaps if the stakes were higher, Lord Astor might have taken his son's death better— but the fact remained that Bobby died in a foolish mishap. It was unfortunate, but by the time their son's body teleported back into Athens, the Merman's venom had all but turned half his blood into jelly. The Temple of Apollo did what they could, but in the end— a promising young Mage died because he and his team forgot to equip themselves with upper-tier injectors. It was a purposeless death— nihilistic as mud, and all the more unfortunate for Bobby's uncommon blood.

Now heirless, it took five years for Lord Astor to drink himself to an early grave. An impressive feat, considering the Astor's access to medicinal and magical healing. In his final days, Dwarven brew proved too potent for modern magic, even when interwoven with Faith.

Pragmatically, the New York Astors desired to reinstate their claim by having her remarry a nephew or a branch member. Lucy told them they would have to Transmute a ring onto her cold, dead finger. She wasn't afraid of them; with so many entwined interests, the Brits had her back.

Widowed and still grieving the loss of her son, Viscountess Lucy Astor assumed her role as the Heiress of Cliveden. To prove herself, she would replace Waldolf's seat in the House of Lords with another in the House of Commons.

Of all her nest eggs, the GOS Hospital for Children proved her favourite, largely because her husband had sponsored the hospital in Bobby's name. Waldorf's charity had proved sound, for Lucy had gained a position sorely needed to distract her from the unyielding grief.

In a way, her famous parties served the same purpose, especially when paired with politics.

From noon, high tea was served at the grand hall, followed by an endless stream of canapés flowing from three kitchens, servicing the hundreds of guests flooding the concourse. In the chapel, the choir practised with the nuns, while the Bishop of Exeter polished his sermon. Out on the estate, hundreds more strolled through the extensive gardens, engaged in amorous rendezvous in the maze, or fought duels in the gymnasium.

Trailing the room with a train of silvery silk, Lady Astor glided as though mercury slipping through the air, her poise unmatched by the younger upstarts with their pushed-up bosom and smokey eyes. Though she was no longer young, her generosity with crystals had afforded whatever longevity the Wildlands could supply.

"Milady." A maid curtsied beside her mistress, awaiting her pleasure.

"Yes, Lily?"

"Miss Lindholm has arrived," the maid replied.

"She has?" The Lady's smile was genuine. "I am well pleased. Is our little angel alone?"

"No, ma'am. She's brought company."

"Oh?" Lady Astor's ruby-red lips grew rigid. A young man, perhaps? She felt a mote of disappointment. "Who has taken my adorable little cherub under his wing?"

"Gwen Song, milady." The maid lowered her eyes, her voice trembled. "Miss Elvia is with the Devourer of Shenyang."

 

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