"Commandrumm, we're nae gonnae wait fer the Rockcrushers?" one of Hanmoul's Iron Borns sent over a discrete line on the comms.
"Nae lad, we've got the lassie here lending us a hand," his superior replied. "Besides, it'll take another two hours for a squad of Wyrm-hunters ter get to us. Where dae yer think that'll leave the survivors? There are twinti Dwarves in that farm, Tordok. You're gonnae answer ter their Clan elders?"
"Donnae think so." Hanmoul raised an armoured fist. "Squad Halt. Set up a perimeter patrol."
"I believe our objective is just up ahead." Beside the Commandrum, the human sorceress appeared to focus on something out of sight. "Yes, Cali tastes something fairly substantial, about six Striders arranged end-to-end. Sounds about right?"
"Aye, that's our brooder." Hanmoul was now sure that including their helpful artillery was the right choice. "Can ya see any of our kin?"
"There's close to two hundred motes of life in that tunnel," Gwen translated what Hanmoul supposed was a vision from her Void Familiar. "How do you want to proceed?"
"Normally, I donne say we britch from below." Hanmoul pondered their present condition. "However, I have it on good authority that Shale Wyrms possess the ability to sense tremors."
"Hyper-sensitive to light and sound?" The sorceress' face lit up.
"Only to subterranean vibrations," Hanmoul said. "We've used sonic attacks against them before, and lightning, and fire. The Wyrm nae donne have eyes. Like most Draconids, they're very resistant against all elements and near-impervious against lesser physical attacks."
"And you're positive that the Wyrm is draconic?"
"Aye. Tis a mongrel of sorts. Thar be True Wyrms living in the Elemental Plane of Earth. I would presume the Shale Wyrm aye an offspring, or perhaps a creature morphed by Essence."
"Ay believe so."
"Can it speak Draconic?"
"Yer ken Draconic?"
"I can translate it… " Gwen tapped the back of her neck.
"I donnae think ye can talk it down."
"Well." The sorceress appeared full of confidence. "As long as it's running on Dragon juice, I think we're good with non-diplomatic solutions."
"How sae?" Hanmoul raised a bushy brow. The lassie was good at shaving Trolls down to a ramrod, but this was a creature he and his men would take hours to exhaust! If half of his armoured units survived the operation and only one man perished, Hanmoul would have counted himself lucky.
"You'll see." The sorceress cracked her knuckles, then stroked her eyeless black dog. "Trust me, Hanmoul. That Wyrm's as good as worms meat."
"... There are spherical things, here, about two dozen of them— the same area, assuming those cocoon things are NOT eggs, should be your men. As with before, there are some strange formations here and here… so they're likely those subterranean Drop Bears we encountered, not to mention swarms of these worms with copper-coloured beaks..."
The Commandrumm plotted out the assault based on what Gwen termed "Ariel VR". Unfortunately, due to the hostages, they could not flood the tunnel with noxious gas or open up with a Maelstrom. What they could do, however, was to have Gwen's Familiars distract the enemy so that Hanmoul and his men could retrieve as many of the "storage cocoons" as possible.
Ollie raised a hand. "I do believe that I can conjure enough Phantasmal Force to double, or triple our forces."
"Aye, but the Wyrm sees through tremor, how good's yer ghosts?"
Ollie scratched his chin. "I could throw in some Mimic and Auditory Hallucinations, magnify the effect with Haunt."
"I have no idea what that means," Gwen declared for the Dwarve's benefit. "Ollie, can you explain in laymen terms the implications of those spells?"
Realising his error, Ollie patiently obliged. Phantasmal Force allowed him to create mock-visages of the Golem units. Mimic could, as the name suggests, mime the sound of the Golem's tangible qualities, including the vibration they made in transit. Auditory Hallucination, comparatively, directly affected simple creatures, being effective across an enormous range and coverage. Haunt was a single target spell that afflicted the target with hallucinations and phantom enemies, inducing sensory confusion or self-harm.
"Sweet." Gwen gestured to her twin Hound Pack, totalling eighteen individuals in obsidian and cobalt. The Lightning dogs, after her encounter with the Wolfhounds at the isle, now appeared closer to their terrestrial cousins. "How many Phantoms can you manage?"
"About three…" Ollie craned his neck proudly. "And I can manage six other layers concurrently."
Ollie's response reminded her of Tao. Sure, her cousin was stacking low tier spells, but in a way, the wannabe gangsta was a terrific Illusionist. Smiling secretly to herself, she wondered if Ollie and Tao would get along like a Wall of Fire.
"Alright, let's go with Mimic and Phantom then," she stated. "Hanmoul, you need to trust me on this. If that Wyrm has an ounce of Draconic in him, it'll stick to Cali like Gogo on Phelara."
The team wasn't sure what the analogy meant but made ready for the rescue operation, materialising runic melee implements from piston-hammers, chain-axes to whirling drills. Meanwhile, Gwen called Caliban into position.
"Make sure you get its attention," Gwen empathically commanded her Familiar to take whatever vitality it needed.
Just outside the cavern where the Wyrm brooded, Caliban began to bloat.
Gwen ordered her dogs into place. Post Caliban, they would be the first wave, followed shortly by a mixture of real and illusory Dwarven rescuers. Ollie had promised that at full throttle, he could guarantee an hour of faultless operation, more than enough time for their allies to flee with their targets.
"Ancestors' protect us," Hanmoul whispered what Gwen supposed was a Dwarven prayer. "May Nörn-Zur's Dousing Rod guide us to the motherlode."
There were many species of Shale Wyrms, pending on its elemental-genus and Draconic-origins. Prior to its exogenous metamorphosis, the creatures were said to be Earthen Worms living deep in the Elemental Plane of Earth, eyeless, blind, all-consuming but hardly malevolent.
However, once polluted by the Essence of the Great Wyrms leaking from the Unformed Land, the Earthen Worms began to change. First, they grew larger, more aggressive, becoming voracious. An Earthen Wyrm began its career by consuming other worms in its vicinity, collating what little Essence its unevolved cousins had gathered unto themselves in the manner of Dragons. Then, by moving further afield, it found other prey. Little by little, intelligence engendered from its non-existent brain, growing ever more ill-disposed until one day, it became aware of its life-long pursuit— to metamorph into a True Wyrm.
Rarely, one such creature ventured too far through the Elemental Plane of Earth. It struck a fracture where the fabric of reality has worn thin and found itself in the Prime Material Plane.
Suddenly cut off from the presence of its progenitor, the creatures grew slowly insane as their existential dogma grew futile, leaving them with little more purpose than to consume and procreate. In that regard, like most Planar annelids, the Earthen Wyrm reverted back to baser instincts, engendering eggs using its own hermaphroditic body to be brooded in nodes rich with mana.
And so it was that this particular flotsam of the protean Planar tides, having found such a place, cowed the natives, then made its lair in a seam abundant with food.
Here, it would breed, soaking its stone eggs in mana. Then it would watch as its young devour the morsels it had collected along the way, starting with prey, then finishing with its enslaved allies.
The sleeping Wyrm stirred before the sound could reach its hyper-sensitive follicles. When its proboscis tasted the air, the Wyrm's diluted Draconic blood ignited as though sulphur struck by lightning, rippling its carapaces from fanged snout to barbed tail.
Without understanding, the Wyrm's Essence-addled brain burned with agitation. Such resentment coursed through its bloated body that milk-white mucus poured from its pores, smothering its surroundings with strands of viscous silk.
A moment later, a creature stomped into the domain of its tremor-sensitive bristles.
The Shale Wyrm had never seen a bird before, but that did not prevent it from acknowledging acutely ancestral memories demanding its foe's demise.
"KE-KE—!" The Wyrm bared its four pairs of fangs, each set embedded within the other. Its organ gurgled and gnashed, brought to bear by the blessing of the Great Wyrms. Distending its neck, pulling back every muscle in its throat, the Shale Wyrm compressed the dozen acid glans hidden in its fleshy cavities, compressing its potent payload.
"GLUBLURRRGH!" Elemental Earth and Water, mixed with Essence and the creature's secretions, vomited forth as a blue-green sludge.
"SHAA!" Its avian assailant covered itself with both wings, shielding its face and body.
In the aftermath, the Shale Wyrm panted, its great, glistening frame undulating as it absorbed the surrounding mana, turning fields of brittle crystals into lightless dust.
Sulfurous gas rose from the granite flagstones as the all-melting compound slid from the bird's crow-coat, eating the floor in great mouthfuls.
"SHAA!" The creature continued its advance. Its wings unfurled to reveal a mouth that rivalled the Shale Wyrm's flesh-flaying apparatus. Below its crow-black feathers, a white pair of claws, so discordant against its sleek body, stalked forward with dreadful purpose.
Rising to the challenge, the Shale Wyrm uncoiled itself, segment by armoured segment.
Numberless symbiotic scavengers and parasitic hangers-on jolted awake at the behest of their usurping sovereign. With a growl more "Akch!" than throaty howl, it willed its dominated allies to expend themselves against the invader.
"Harath!" Hanmoul gave the order.
Over forty Golem-units rushed headlong into the cavern, following the pitter-patter of Gwen's streaming hounds. At the threshold of the cavern, a chaotic line of scavengers, everything from swarms of elementals like the parrot-beaked Copper Slugs to a family of menacing Hookas met the trespassers.
Grouped by themselves, Hanmoul would not have found the monsters to be insurmountable. Be it the iron-eating swarmers with their acidic breath, or the Hookas with their ambush, the Magical Monsters of the Murk had individual territories and quirks. Low in intelligence, these beasts were rarely a match for the organised Dwarves, who conducted monthly Purges to push from the Murk toward the Dyar Morkk, the low-ways. Indeed, only when commanded by a higher being to not fight among themselves did the tier of danger offered by the Murk multiplied.
The dim cavern grew suddenly bright with firelight.
A portion of the illusory Hammer Guards opened fire, while others dashed forward with no regard for their safety. The sorceress' conjured beasties performed just as admirably, splitting into streams to flank the monsters in their midst, sowing confusion.
"Tordrum, take Squad One left and start retrieving the cocoons. Grimgal! Take a right, you and Squad Two are with me!"
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
A rolling wave of corrosive gas, lime-green and glowing with supercharged mana, rolled over the lair's invaders.
"UP YER ELEMENTAL RESISTS!" Hanmoul punched-in the Glyph combination. "Keep moving even if yer legs melt!"
Up ahead, the lass' Big Bird survived the enveloping acid without so much as a step backwards. With a "Shaa!", it battered away the stone-melting sludge, then continued its march toward the Wyrm.
The Wyrm itself was as Hanmoul had feared, an escaped denizen from the deeper parts of the Elemental Plane of Earth. It was an adult, at minimum the size of a ten-carriage Vularm, stretching from cavern floor to ceiling.
How was the girl's bird, which was a quarter its size, hoping to defeat such a beast? Hanmoul wondered.
Or perhaps that wasn't the point, Hanmoul contemplated the match-up. Was the girl offering her Familiar as a selfless distraction so that, given the operative time frame, Hanmoul's men could pull as many cocooned eggs from the lair as possible? And, the Ancestors' willing, would find his kin still possessing the breath of life?
The Wyrm was wily. Flanking the Big Bird, it attacked with all four-sets of diamond-hard mandibles from the flank, while up above, its tail was poised to strike with an envenomed, spear-tipped barb.
"Girlie!" Hanmoul warned his companion even as the corroding fog sent up warming flares all over his diagnostic panel.
Hanmoul needn't have worried. An eruption of dark matter spewed forth as though a tenebrous capsule of ink, consuming the tip of the tail, followed shortly by a secondary nova. In the spell's passing, there was no explosion nor conflagration, not even a shockwave. There was only the eroded stump of what had been a tail, fountaining jets of oily, aubergine ichor.
In totality, the spell had removed but a finger from the Wyrm's mass. In practice, the Wyrm had been disarmed.
"SHAA!" The bird took flight.
Hanmoul didn't know much about birds, but from the mass of the house-sized avian horror, it should not have been able to lift into the air, at least not without reinventing Gul-Zūh's Law of Mass. Instead, the creature's muscles and ligaments make a mockery of physics. With a thunderclap of dark wings, it lifted itself above the Wyrm, forcing the creature's momentum-filled strike to pass harmlessly below.
Then the Big Bird landed.
A pair of white hands, slender and feminine, closed in around a segment of the Wyrm's torso, one against its spine, assuming it had one, and the other nearer to the base of its neck.
Hanmoul quaked, all rational thought momentarily fled his mind. As the creatures met in melee, Hanmoul forgot about the Copper Slugs gnawing at his armour's thigh and swarming over his men, both real and imaginary.
Hanmoul winced, suddenly filled with compassion for the Wyrm.
As had been done to the Trollies of Scarred Peak, the Big Bird's finger-claws first deformed the Wyrm's carapace, then rendered its soft-flesh into oozing clay.
"KAKAKAKA—" The Wyrm thrashed madly, perhaps in disbelief that it would be bested so quickly and so totally. Once again, writhing, twisting and turning, it opened its maw, glans at the ready, then smothered the bird with sulphuric acid.
The Big Bird simply did not give a krummp.
Hanmoul soberly forced himself to refocus on the task at hand. With a three-score of expertly-timed strikes from his chain-axe, he hewed at the Copper Slug's joints until the carapace gave way. Crushing the soft flesh with his mechanised, mana-charged fist, the Commandrumm then pushed through the acid fog to arrive at the brooding site.
Already, his men were hewing at the base of the cocoons, spell-shaping the granite to free their attached cargo. Locating an egg himself, Hanmoul set to work, mindful that not a dozen meters away, a terror bird was shredding a Vularm— carriage by squirming carriage.
"Buck! Take the Hooka on the right! Astro, retreat, then help carry the cocoons!"
Via Ariel's eyes, Gwen surveyed the battlefield, feeling every bit the all-seeing player of a real-time strategy game.
Ollie stood a meter away, refreshing the Invisibility on her armour while maintaining his Phantasmic Force, concurrently confusing the swarms with hallucinations. The young man was already one mana potion down and panting, though his face flushed with excitement.
"Ariel, get ready…" Gwen waited for the monsters to converged on the fleeing Dwarven armour before pushing Almudj's Essence into her conduits. "Ball Lightning!"
Where the interior of the cavern had glowed with fire and magma, it now grew hysterically bright as orbs of sizzling, viridescent electricity expanded amidst the pursuing swarm.
One by one, the Dwarves retreated with their cargos, some cradling two eggs, others having three cocoons chained together as a bouncing, skittering train.
"Invisibility—" Ollie obliged once more, an expert in Spellcraft but inexpert when it came to the art of war. He was also clad in the second-tier illusion staple, though as an ally, Gwen could make out a faded outline, as though her House-brother had become incorporeal. "Gwen, are we retreating now?"
"Sif!" Her blood was up. Who would retreat when their gamble paid off? The Wyrm was well-pollinated with Draconic Essence, and as one who had experienced the prowess of the Big Birds against Golos, she possessed not an ounce of worry that Caliban would not emerge with a new form. "Retreat? We're finishing this!"
"But you said…"
"I told him to trust me— whoa—" Gwen shuddered as vitality fled from her body, making her momentarily blank out. "Sorry, that had quite the kick—and he's right to do so. Cali will win, and we will reclaim this part of the mines for our allies."
Unable to refute her claim, Gwen's companion returned his gaze to the titanic struggle between bird and worm while Gwen returned hers to the general chaos of the battlefield.
"Chain Lightning!" She loved the fact that thanks to Ollie's illusions, and with Ariel acting as her portable turret, the enemy was wholly unaware of her lightning blasts' origins. "Invisible Familiar!"
"EE!" Ariel too enjoyed itself.
Like shooting Gobs in a terraformed pit, electricity arched between Ariel's sixteen pointed stag horns before sharing the Evocation favourite with the masses, ripping through the Hookas, liquifying a dozen Copper Worms, then circling again to ravage the foe anew.
"SHAA!" A cry of triumph echoed.
Caliban, missing feathers here and there, sans half the digits on its hands as well as a mortal segment of its neck, had removed enough Wyrm flesh to expose the Wyrm's sacred component— its Creature Core.
"Consume!" Gwen's heart pounded against her throat. "Cali! Do it now!"
Perhaps realising that the end was nigh, the Wyrm reverted to its lesser instincts. From every inch of its quivering flesh, a silky, viscous ooze erupted forth, making itself slick and slippery. Caliban's peeled, tooth-lined maw struck the creature's flank, only to come away frustrated, catching a throat-full of slime.
Gwen felt her understanding of Magic Creatures and their defence mechanisms fully renewed. All that vitality she poured forth, all that Void matter, and the mitigating offset was the power of Vaseline?! Nature does find a way!
"Fuck me. Cali, keep it pinned! Ariel! Lightning Bolt!"
Her alternative efforts were likewise disappointed by the Wyrm's primordial defences.
Her discus consumed itself about half-a-meter into the creature's flank, barely enough to slice off its lest rotund segment. Caliban made another attempt, but not only was it slipping on great gobs of slime from chin to chest, but its fingers were also losing grip.
Hanmoul's Message pinged. "Yer desiring to hunt the Wyrm?"
"YES!" Gwen hollered back. "Any ideas?"
"Don't you worry, Lass," Hanmoul's reply was full of confidence, as well as a hint of relief. "We'll keep it contained. Alright, lads! Let's turn up the heat for the lassies' cockie! Dragonbreath! Give it all yer got!"
Those of the Hammer Guards still retrieving the cocoons rushed past Ollie and Gwen, while others returning to the fray fired up both Spellswords. Beginning with Hanmoul, the Dwarves poured gouts of fire toward the slimy, shimmering Wyrm.
If anything, Gwen supposed, Dwarves would know how to temper a forge. Instantly, the temperature in the cavern shot up. The smothering slime dried up within a matter of seconds, becoming flaky and crusty. As for the great Wyrm itself, it writhed and turned, seeking an escape, only to be battered back by Caliban using its wings and its whip-like neck.
More and more Dwarves joined with their flamers, their mana-engines glowing blue-hot as the liquid crystal blew out. The air grew so hot that the cavern's stones sizzled while its inhabitants baked.
Ollie erected his Mage Shield, while Gwen found herself surprisingly resilient against the arcane fire. Her Lightning dogs seemed to largely ignore the heat, while her Void hounds skulked like murky skeletons among the wavering air.
The surviving swarms that fed on the Shale Wyrm's waste fled, while what remained of the family of Hookas perished under renewed volleys of iron-wrought spikes, impaled against stone hot enough to cook their insides.
The Wyrm made a wild dash against the granite floor, shaping the stone, seeking a way out. Unfortunately for their otherworldly invader, its fount of slime was no longer sustainable in its immediate environment. Even as it attempted to bore a new hole, the Dwarves sealed its exit with stone shaping spells fired from their Spellswords.
Caliban descended, breaking through the crispy, smouldering silk to tear away chunks of bruised and battered flesh. Where the blistering slime grew exposed to the searing heat, it quickly solidified, losing all viscosity.
At long last, goaded by a madcap Gwen howling "Consume! CONSUME!" Caliban enclosed the creature's Core with its tentacled maw, severing the Wyrm's heart from its Tyrian-veined arteries in a single tug, painting the Dwarves below with an arc of bubbling purple blood.
Rousing cheers went up as the Hammer Guards bathed in ankle-deep gore.
"Good work, Cali!" Gwen poured what vitality she had left into Caliban, restoring her fiend's battle-weary body. No doubt she would soon be deep in meditation, the intensity of which nothing short of a Void Shield would keep decent. From her present vantage, all that was left was to grind down the remaining foes. Caliban was, after all, full-fluffed and choked full of vitality, brimming with battle lust in its most aggressive form.
"Cali, Ariel, Buck, Astro, Ollie— clean up the rest." She fought off the shivers even as her limbs grew ice-cold. "Mummy's going to take a breather."
Gwen emerged refreshed and hale from her meditation, having Prestidigitated her armour while in seclusion. When her Void Shield faded from view, she found herself surrounded by a wall of metal standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
"They wanted to defend you while you were meditating," Ollie quickly explained.
Gwen gave her audience an appreciative nod. "Hanmoul?"
"Over there." Ollie's expression did not posses expectant joy, nor a look of burgeoning hope.
Bowing their heads slightly, the Iron Born Dwarves clanked aside in their cumbersome battlesuits. Further down the corridor, she could see Hanmoul and the others, flanked by his sergeants. Presently, the Dwarves were at the tail end of their egg-sorting labour. As she approached, she couldn't help but notice that the tunnel's walls were bruised with ichor in lurid, crimson shades.
That and beside the group, there were rows of Dwarven bodies caked in slime. There were three dozen in all, all of whom laid perfectly still.
"Shit…" Gwen muttered.
"We didn't know, but the Wyrm's venom takes life while preserving the flesh," Hanmoul announced for her benefit. "I am truly sorry, lass. You did all of this for nothing."
One of the armoured Dwarves cracked open the last cocoon. Once the content revealed itself to be the rock-like egg belonging to their kin-slayer. Swiftly, the Hammer Guard smashed into the egg, splatting embryo across the wall, then set the yolk aflame with gouts of orange magma from his Spellsword.
"That's all of them." The Iron Born saluted.
"I am sorry too, Hanmoul." Gwen walked through the rows of grey-faced cadavers. There were Dwarves both young and old, some with beards just reaching their neck, others as long as their waist. There were women as well, with fine whiskers and less prominent noses and jawbones and a certain softness to the brows. All of whom now laid side by side, still slick with the enzyme from the Wyrm's digestive systems.
Dearly, Gwen wished that she had an Evee to cuddle.
Her Void snake, now docile, communicated that there were no discernible motes of vitality to be consumed.
"We're grateful, lass," Hanmoul assured her, as if afraid of her displeasure. "Truly."
"I know." Gwen fought down the cold invasion of disappointment. She had genuinely hoped that they would find someone, anyone, alive and well. If even one individual survived, then any effort would have been worthwhile.
"We shall consign their bodies to their Clans."
"That's good to hear."
"The Clans will be in your debt..."
"That was not my intention." Gwen shook her head. Her intention had been two-fold. One, she wanted to bring back Hanmoul's kin alive. As for her secondary purpose, it was the selfish curiosity of wanting to pit Caliban against a Draconic foe.
"I've called for escorts and transports," Hanmoul continued. "We'll be entering through the Gate of Kazhul, sorceress. By my word, ye shall receive a proper welcome."
"You don't have to." Gwen wondered if her modesty was feigned even as the words left her mouth. She had desired the Dwarves' favour, that much was self-evident. They had access to technology and expertise that she could not beg from London, not with the nobles barring her way. "Hanmoul, I said we're mates, and if you see me as a mate, we don't need ceremony or repayment for offering a helping hand. If Ollie got nabbed, would you have aided me in his retrieval?"
Ollie gave her a strange look, demanding to know if her analogy involved extracting his blue-veined corpse from the gut of a shredded Wyrm.
"Nae, lass." Hanmoul wasn't in the mood for debates of modesty. "I'll not have yer slink into the city like a thief, not after what yer've done for us in aw home. The Clans will ken what you did and why yer're here."
Gwen could only nod, lamenting the murdered mirth that should have followed a thorough victory.
Up close, the Gate of Kazhul was twice the size and grandeur.
In her mind, Gwen always imagined that a hero's welcome set in a world of high fantasy would involve rose petals, trumpets, clarions, tapestries and adoring fans lining the battlements tossing streamers.
Instead, she walked beside Hanmoul, leading a train of grey-faced cadavers through the solemn halls embedded within the keep, watched by the lantern-like eyes of the Citadel's citizens.
Inside, she was in no mood to marvel at the architecture, the stained-crystal murals, the monolithic statues of Dwarven warriors holding up the ceiling. Instead, she was met with the despairing howls of families as they emerged from Citadel's depth to claim the dead.
Gwen stood and studied the gathered crowd while they watched her in turn. The citizens, as far as she could tell, were dressed in a variety of garbs closely resembling medieval tunics but adorned with gadgets and tools. Physiologically, the Demi-human folk known as Dwarves were essentially stout Humans, with the males being barrel-chested and rotund, while the females were thick-thighed and generously bosomed. There was an overt preference for unisex leather gloves, as well as knee-high boots, and far more uniformity than what one would expect in a Human enclave.
Hanmoul walked among those unfortunate enough to have to step up from the crowd to claim a body, patting shoulders and offering kind words here and there. Once identified, the segmented, self-propelled dollies used to transport the bodies followed the claimants, presumably taking the corpses to the Clan's abode to be returned to the Plane of Earth.
"Gwen— heads up." Ollie's silent Message bloomed beside her ear.
As prescribed, she looked up.
There, standing behind the keep's art-deco parapet, was a troop of black-clad Dwarves looking straight out of dystopian science fiction. Their leader was the one to whom Ollie referred, for the Dwarf was clad from head to toe in bound cloth and forge-pressed plating. The mask reminded Gwen of Daft Punk's signature helmets, while around the man's torso, form-fitting runic plating glowed faintly with warding magic. The Dwarf's arms were likewise covered in what looked like holy scripts, ending in a pair of overlarge gauntlets half-hidden in long, pontifical sleeves.
A Deepdowner, Gwen recognised the unusual look. Those who loathed the surface, and who considered anything outside the deep dark Vadam.
Their eyes met, or rather, she met the helmet's reflective exterior.
"Don't stare." Ollie coughed. "Remember what Hanmoul said."
And what Lady Astor had forewarned, Gwen cautioned herself as she returned her attention to the grieving parents, siblings, Clanmates, mentors and friends. The scene was touching, but she had seen it all before. Were such displays of human suffering no longer sufficiently woeful? She wondered, or was it because there was no Elvia here to ground her to reality, to put the proper emotions in place?
Cart by cart, the bodies were claimed until only one remained.
"A Clanless…" Hanmoul shook his head. "We get them sometimes, survivors from another enclave."
"What happens to him?"
"We'll consign him to the fire in the Hall of Names."
With the last body gone, Gwen breathed out.
"Let us return to the Rotary Guild." Hanmoul's expression remained sombre. "We've done well today, thanks to you. Woe for the dead, but joy for the living. And so the Great Cog turns..."
If Gwen had to describe the journey from the gate down to the imposing fortress known as the Rotary Guild, she would expound on the time she walked through Blackheath wearing a minidress. And like the residents of that down-and-out suburb, the Dwarves here did not shy away from a good gander.
As before, walking beside Hanmoul, she felt like an animal in a gilded cage being paraded through the avenue, attracting the eyes of men, women and children alike. Ollie followed, possibly making himself less conspicuous with his illusions, leaving her to take the brunt of the Citadel's attention.
Now and then, she waved back as would a friendly celebrity. Her audience's response was to shy away, cover their children's eyes, or gave her the Sign of the Thrice-jammed Cog. Such was the intensity of the half-kilometre journey from the gate to the guild that she felt exhausted despite the newly usurped vitality.
At the guild itself, Gwen and Ollie were ushered into an amphitheatre carved from the bedrock. The building had the look of a town hall, with its centre consisting of six monolithic pillars inscribed with Dwarven runes. There, not seated in the six-seat dais but standing on the stage to await her grace, stood Hanmoul's superior, the Master of the Rotary Guild.
"Miss Song, Magus Edwards," the Guild Master, much to the Human's surprise, spoke perfect British English. "Welcome to our humble abode."
"It's a pleasure to be here." Gwen bowed from the waist. "Thank you for satisfying my selfish request."
"Lord Engineseer." Ollie appeared to have studied the Murk Dwarf's hierarchy. "Though you know us already, allow me to introduce us still. Here is Magus Gwen Song of Peterhouse, Cambridge, War Mage of London and my House-sister. Please refer to this one as Magus Ollie Edwards, also of Peterhouse, Cambridge, London Tower. We are beyond grateful for your reception."
"No need." The Guild Master hand-waved the humans' simulated modesty. "From what our man tells us, you have been instrumental in aiding Hanmoul yet again! Young one, you now owe Miss Song a great deal."
"I shall endeavour to satisfy Haj-Zül's Debt," Hanmoul assured his Guild Master. A name that Gwen now understood as one of the Seven Ancestors; one who had repaid a debt with such magnificence that the tale had grown into a cultural aspiration. "First, allow me to introduce the Chief Engineseer of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth, Whurforlüm Ironførge, First of his Clan, First of the Citadel Council, Lord Librarian, White Beard, and my teacher."
"Hanmoul is too high-strung," the Guild Master scoffed at the breathless range of titles. "You may call me Whurforlüm, though I have given myself a Human name as well— Wilhelm."
"Lord Ironførge," Ollie genuflected once more.
"Milord Wilhelm." Gwen grinned at the portly old Dwarf. Unless she ignored the big white beard, the belly, the expansive, smiling face and the hale, rosy cheeks, it was impossible not to see Santa Claus.
"I am sure you are eager to tour the city, and indeed, make certain requests of Hanmoul," the Guild Master accounted benevolently. "I understand that a difficult battle had taken place. You must be exhausted and hungry."
"There's no need—" Ollie continued to play the diplomat.
"I could eat," Gwen confessed. Her candidness was well-founded. Draining vitality made one exceptionally hungry. Restoring it did nothing for the feeling of fullness, nor accounted for an empty belly.
"Then I am well pleased." The old Dwarf indicated to the exit. "Go and enjoy a banquet in your honour, walk the city with Hanmoul, think deeply of what you wish from us, then return here on the last day of your visitation. If I judge your demands acceptable, the Citadel will do its utmost to fulfil our side of the debt."
Gwen felt most agreeable, finding the old Dwarf the most pleasant fellow she had come across in a long time. If all Dwarves could be negotiated with like the Guild Master, she saw no reason why some manner of burgeoning trade couldn't be established between the races.
"Hanmoul, do show our guests to the Great Hall. You and your Hammer Guards have done well."
Hanmoul did not at all appear pleased by the praise. "No one was saved, Ser."
"Yet, the bodies of our kin have been returned to the Hearth of their Ancestors. None have become fat for the Wyrm. Who to thank for that, but your Legion and our guests?"
"... Thank you Ser," Hanmoul conceded. "I shall serve our people better from now on."
The Guild Master patted his student on the head, then directed his guests to the door. "Do enjoy yourselves, young Humans, but beware the potency of our beverages. Overlanders such as yourselves have required healing in the past due to reckless indulgence. It would certainly not do for our honoured guests to teleport back their Citadel!"
Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth.
The Guild District.
The Nut and Cog Rotary Tavern.
As a culinary light-weight, Ollie paled at the Dwarven tavern-feast presented to the two guests. Piled three-stack high, the small mountain of foodstuffs consisted of creatures, legumes and root vegetable he had never seen or heard. The most salient was an enormous platter consisting of a horned iguana roasted throughout and stuffed with a mixture of unnamable herbs in fat-soaked Dwarf bread. Next was a plate of golden carapaced beetles, each a handspan in length, boiled then seasoned with milk-butter from God knews what source. Nearer Gwen sat potentially a pheasant, but more likely a flightless raptor of sorts, steaming famously on a plate of grease-strewn rhizomes.
Then there were apple tarts.
And six types of mead.
And sixteen types of beer.
And seven types of cider.
And a grain-brewed something the Translation Stone forewarned as "Everclear".
And Ollie would have kept well away from the sauce bottle had he not been bombarded by requests from the Hammer Guard to pour one out for the fallen. Compelled by circumstance, the Praelector chose mead— and was down and out half a stein later.
"A round fer our Sorceress!" Sergeant Tordrum raised his tankard. "Two mugs, for saving us twice over!"
Without waiting, the Dwarf sculled the first, then took up the other. He managed half-way before he had to belch, a foppish act that drew boos and jeers from his peers.
"Wellie, YOO bloody scullie the Black Stout if yer so hale!" the Sergeant sputtered mead all over his beard. "Come on, do yer Ancestors proud!"
Gwen gave the mead a polite sip to ensure that it was to her taste. Hanmoul had said that the sticky brew was made from honey; though from what "honey" the Commandrumm had declined to clarify.
"I'll take you up on that." She stood with a stein in one hand. Tilting her head back, Gwen slammed down the sickly-sweet concoction without so much as a wrinkle of her brow.
First, there was silence— then a roaring cheer shook the roof as a dozen tankard hammered the table.
Grimgal, who turned out to be a ladette rather than a lad, handed her a brimming pewter mug.
With a flourish and a mote of circulating Essence, Gwen drank half the mug, paused for effect, then finished the rest. Taking a cue from her Chinese adventures, she overturned the stein to show that not a drop remained.
"Gwen! Gwen! Gwen!"
"That Human lass sure can drink!"
"Ach! By me beard! She might be a Dwarf in disguise!"
"Gwen, are you alright?" Hanmoul was sweating from every pore. The Commandrumm knew well the effects of Dwarven alcohol on the teetotaling Humans. What if the sorceress expired? Could their physicians heal a Human?
"I am feeling GREAT!" Gwen felt a flush of warmth flooding her innards, indicating that for the first time in a long time, she was beginning to hit that lauded drinker's high. "Who's next?"
"The Commandrumm!" Grimgal grabbed a clay bottle from under the table. "I've got an heirloom bottle of Everclear..."
"GRIMGAL!" Hanmoul slammed the table with a balled fist. "Yer trying to kill our guest, ya daft wrench?"
"Hold up. I am game." Gwen could already feel her Essence at work, detoxifying her blood at such an alarming rate. "What's the damage?"
"Stormbreaker Everclear." Grimgal's smile was full of teeth. "It'll be a real test. Our Commandrumm's a Berumm Fest Octobrumm champion; he can outdrink any Dwarf under the table, man or woman."
"I was a lad of fifty then!" Hanmoul protested. "Don't expect me to do that now. Argh, my poor liver..."
"Jesus," Gwen remarked, studying the Dwarf from head to toe. Outside of his armour and uniform, Hanmoul looked like Gary Oldman as a lumberjack. "How old are ya now?"
"A hundred and two."
"Holy shit." Gwen cackled. "How old are the rest of ya?"
"Hundred and Twenty!"
"Tordok's the young 'un— he's forty-nine."
"Nae old enough ter drink, but old enough ter pilot."
To settle her nerves, Gwen reached for the bottle of Everclear, uncorked the cap, then took a generous swig. The taste was akin to high-proof absinthe. Slowly, the liquid seared her gullet like a line of fire.
She belched. Her eyes watered.
A thundering outburst exploded across the tavern. Even Dwarves not affiliated with the Hammer Guards were now joining in on the action.
"Fer your information. I am EIGHTEEN!" Gwen called out, finally feeling the buzz. "HOW'S THAT, OLD MAN HANMOUL?"
The tavern grew silent.
"Gilthok!" Hanmoul grumbled.
"Ahahaha…" Grimgal snorted so hard she choked on a bit of yam. "Ya sure pick em young, Commandrumm. She can't be drinking with us!"
"Don't know about that." Young Tordok growled. "I wasn't yet fifty, and yer all made me piss ma-self. Me mum had to drag ay carcass home to face the Ancestors."
"She's a Human adult!" Hanmoul assured his men. "Fine. Gwen, pass it here."
"Hold up." Gwen was abuzz with inspiration. Unbidden, she felt the engendering of a beautiful epiphany. Thanks to the Everclear coursing through her blood, her thoughts were free-flowing and without inhibition. "I've got just the thing!"
From her ring, she retrieved the final bottle of Maotai that she had stowed. The lamb's fat jadeite flask caused a stir among the Dwarves, who marvelled at the intricately carved bottle made from a mineral rarely seen in this part of the world.
With a deft hand, she uncorked the bottle.
"Wot is that?"
"LASS! Bring me a fresh mug!"
"And a spot of the special sauce…" Gwen giggled, grinning like a demon, like a maniac alchemist, she materialised the rare whiskers she had harvested from Sen-sen, then deposited the lot into the fragrant sorghum-brew. In a set of crisp jade thimbles, she poured until the crystal liquid formed a brimming meniscus. "There!"
"What is that?" Hanmoul licked his lips.
"It's Soma, Ambrosia, the Drink of Gods," Gwen boasted. "One glass, and you'll be taking a holiday in heaven."
"Human brew taste like water!"
"It looks like water!" The other Dwarves jeered.
Gwen gave them the Sign of the Thrice-jammed Cog. "Commandrumm?"
The two very carefully raised their drinks— Gwen with the rest of the Stormbreaker, and Hanmoul with her doctored Maotai.
Hanmoul leaned in, allowed the cup to touch his lips, then in one gulp emptied the contents.
"ARRGHK!" the Commandrumm suddenly stood.
"Wot is it, Commandrumm?"
"Did the lass poison ya?"
"ANCESTOR'S COGS!" Hanmoul's face turned communist red. His pupils rapidly dilated as his body filled with righteous fire in the form of unadulterated vitality gathered from a Mythic being so powerful as to permeate a plot of land ten times the size of the Red Citadel. "WOT IS THIS? THERE'S SOMETHING IN ME BLOOD!"
"Hundred-year sorghum distilled with five-hundred-year Draconic Essence." Gwen's nonchalance froze the life-blood of all who awaited to share a drink with the sorceress. "Trust me, mate, for an old war dog like you, this sauce will do yer good…"