The next day, a refreshed Hanmoul, buoyed by the Essence from Sen-sen, took Gwen and the hung-over Ollie around the Citadel on the Vularm transports, riding the mechanical caterpillars throughout the four districts. The entire journey, Ollie remained tight-lipped, utilising every ounce of will to stay respectable.
The Citadel, perhaps due to its vertical space, was deceptively compact, taking up little more space than the central Business District in Shanghai. From rim to rim, the largest dome stretched over twenty kilometres, sans the stalactites, with the furthermost edge an ever-expanding pockmark of unfinished construction eating into the mountain's interior.
In the Craftsmen's quarter, at her behest, she met a group of potential future employees in the form of Runesmiths and Tunesmiths, the Dwarven variation of Manufactorium Mages. A Runesmith specialised in the inscription of Glyphs, the foundation of Dwarven magic, while a Tuner, Gwen surmised, was akin to a mechatronic-engineer. Naturally, it took both specialisations to empower the constructs that turned the cog of the Dwarven industry. Upon further enquiry, those having attained mastery of both forms of Runecraft were called "Engineseer", or the antiquated title of "Mötorserumm", one who communes with machines. Other titles and professions existed as well, though the Machinists she wished to hire would hail from the principle ranks of Dwarven professionals.
Likewise, within the Craftsmen's Quarter, Gwen observed a strict hierarchy. The younger, bright-eyed Dwarves coming from notable Clans made up the bulk of the apprentice-tier craftsmen, asking after their Masters like ducklings. Once deemed sufficiently skilled, the next tier was the attainment of a "Journeymen" licence. The problem was that with the Dyar Morkk out of commission, there was no real "journey" to be had. As such, graduates generally apprenticed for another decade or so, emerging as mechanics capable of independent, unsupervised labour.
As a sizeable Dwarven stronghold, the Peak thankfully retained its share of Masters and Grand Masters of the craft. According to Hanmoul, the smaller enclaves cut off by the Murk had no such luck, meaning eventually, without the unlikely emergence of an anomalously talented individual, crafts and innovations stagnated forever.
Out of necessity, therefore, Hanmoul explained, Craftsmen were paramount in influence and respect in the Murk. Warriors like himself were hailed as heroes but paled in comparison to a Grandmaster. An Engineseer's work could power the entire city's fleet of Golems, or expand the city's arable food-shafts three-fold as a result of a new crop or an energy-efficient way to maintain the hydroponic systems.
Perceptive as always, Gwen steered the conversation toward the Deepdowners.
"Aye, yer ken. For the same reason, the Deepdowners eh held in high esteem. As Deepholm's elite, they exist at the apex of both knowledge and talent."
When Gwen asked if Hanmoul used the word "Talent" as the Human's do, citing her dual-elements, the Commandrumm nodded.
"Those deemed with 'talent' inherit their gifts from the Seven Ancestors," Hanmoul explained as they strode down the open avenues of the Craft Quarter. There were workshops as far as the eye could see, though much to Gwen's disappointment, the shopkeepers cared little for items suitable for Humans Mages. Most sold ready-made parts, such as Mana Engines, or a Flux Capacitor, or something that looked like a vehicle battery, or Spellsword blades, or parts for other Workshop's creations. "Rarely ay one of us Murk-folk borne blessed. It happens much mair frequently in the awld Clans, especially in Deepholm."
"You said all of you could Stoneshape to some degree." Gwen clattered alongside the Iron Born in her Mary Janes. Clad in her Magus mantle, she looked every inch the Cambridge-graduated sorceress she imitated. The Dwarves, Ollie explained, saw the ermine-lined robe as equivalent to the attire of a Master, if not in craft or skill, then at least in terms of power and influence. "Ergo, all Dwarves are talented in Earthen-magic?"
"The difference ay enormous." Hanmoul nodded. "We're scions of the Earth Mother, after all, and the Plane is mighty vast. Maybe I can demonstrate…"
The Dwarf looked around the shopfronts, then picked up a detached rod of iron. Holding the rusty pole in front of Gwen, he twisted the metal until it formed the shape of a pretzel. "There. A small gift from Bürumm."
Gwen hefted the iron pretzel with both hands. If she had the Yinglong's Draconic Essence, perhaps she could have managed to twist the metal. Presently, however, the rod remained un-malleable.
"Amazing." Gwen returned the sample. "I think I am starting to understand why we haven't 'stolen' much else from your people."
What she meant was that in all the Workshops she had visited, there were particular skills, talents, methods and applications unbefitting the one-mould-fits-all practice of production preferred by human industries. The rare Human Mage may mimic the Dwarve's magic, but the masses couldn't possibly achieve the same tier of expertise.
For this reason, most of the workshops were akin to mid-sized outfitters crafting custom parts for high-octane racers. The majority of the craftsmen were employed by the Guild, which served as a central body for commissions. Others worked as individual contractors, with certain specialists attaining an essential status. The scale and size of the operations were far below Gwen's expectations but made sense when considering that the Citadel held half-a-million Dwarves at best, barely the size of a mid-range Human metropolis.
Gwen received a second confirmation at the Mana Engine workshop ran by Master Rostrum Luggcrann, the supplier for Hanmoul's Striders. While she watched in silence, Gwen bore witness to the Dwarf sticking his hand, unprotected, into a bubbling vat of heated metal, moulding the engine frame not through precision machinery, but the mind. Components that would have required CAD software, machine beds and CNC cutters in her world had all been bypassed by intuition and "Talent".
An additional factor, Ollie reminded Gwen as she pondered the nature of Dwarven industry, was that Dwarves lived long lives— almost four-times an NoM's and twice that of a fully provisioned Mage. Sans industrial accidents, the Craftsmen were seldom in danger, meaning most Apprentices could hope to reach the stage of a Master in their second century. The Citadel's premier Grand Master of Runes, Master Grouzumin Zur-Himlegg, was in his fourth century and kept hale enough to drink two-century-old peers under the table.
For lunch, the trio stopped at an artisanal street for food. Though more than half of the cramped boulevard consisted of craft-beer and spirt-mixers, dozens of families had taken up the enterprise of improving Dwarven cuisine.
"Meat Smokers?" Gwen was surprised to find, of all things, a Journeyman chef engaged in the act of smoking an enormous side of Mud-land Iguana. "And hickory too!"
"Aye. We have got a keen interest for certain things on the Surface world," Hanmoul confessed. "Especially when it comes to scran. Stone-bread is…"
The Commandrumm made a face that suggested he wished he still had all of his original molars.
As Demi-folk with creation origins rooted in the Elemental Plane of Earth, the Dwarves could subsist on native produce, such as the lichen and fungi that proliferated in the Murk. When ground down and baked, the product was a nigh indigestible pane de "stone". When appropriately stowed, the bread kept indefinitely, growing more inedible with time, so much that one look at an old loaf was enough to curb all hunger.
When the Murk folk had first turned to the surface for quality of life improvements, one was the ever-present hydroponic systems that had replaced the moss and lichen harvests of yore. Culinary pursuits by renegade cooks had even introduced the nouveau profession of "Chef"— one that was met with considerable success in citadels all over Dwarf-land.
Once the lizard was greasing their insides, the tour continued.
Throughout the way, Gwen paid explicit attention to a particular technology she wished to appropriate for her operations— a Dwarven Magitech known as Echo or "repeater" Glyphs.
At her behest, Hanmoul took the pair to tour the Avenue of Cunning Artificers, a section of the Western Craftsmen's Quarter that specialised in Rune-tuning, magical accessories and machine-components.
The Workshop they chose to visit was owned by Braem Yufir-Flaskthane, a lady-crafter with a century of experience under her considerable girth.
"You're after old tech pioneered by Grand Master Khazül-Dal Bhordodd, of Deepholm." The boisterous Tuner was happy to entertain Gwen's acute curiosity. "Of course, the proviso is that yer's got a lode of Taveir to spare…"
From a storage box with indefinite dimensions, Braem materialised two nondescript looking crystals. Each was inscribed with complex Glyphs in Dwarven Runescript. Tapping a few invisible Glyphs only she could see, the artificer activated the left-most crystal, lighting up a pattern of Runes. A split-second later, a corresponding set of Runes glowed on the adjacent gem.
"The more refined the crystal, the more clarified the pulse, the greater the distance."
"How rare are these Taveir Crystals?"
"Rarer than Mithril in these parts." Braem's words made her wince. "The motherlode's in Deepholm. In the old days, we could order Vularm-trams of the stuff to be delivered. Now? We're substituting whatever we can scrap."
"Creature Cores." The Master Tuner shrugged. "Inconsistent as anything, yer ken. But it's the best a Tuner can do under the circumstances."
"Tier, Element, clarity, battle-damage, supply, ye name it." The crafter shrugged. "O how I yearn for the days when we could receive a crate of two hundred identical stones from the same lode…"
Gwen took notes, committing the knowledge to memory.
According to their verbose Tuner, the Taveir crystal's unique properties were empowered by resonator Glyphs. By likewise inscribing Creature Cores, a "poor Dwarf's" sympathetic resonance could be achieved across distance and space, potentially even Planes. The problem was consistency, for each pair was unique.
In this manner, the Dwarves maintained their equivalent of Divination Towers. To Gwen, the kit was akin to a magical form of Morse Code. The difference that was a skilled operator could add a near-infinite level of complexity, pending skill and materials. Additionally, paired with specially made equipment, it was possible to transmute the resonance into voice and vision.
The problem for Gwen, alas, was that "D-Tech" was highly dependent on Dwarven artisans. Whether or not a human manufactorium could reproduce the same effect remained anyone's guess. For her ambitions, therefore, D-Tech held both strength and weaknesses. The boon being she could have an exclusive, difficult to replicate operation— while the bane was that her supply-chain was highly dependent on volatile, inter-racial politics.
But it wasn't as though she lacked countermeasures.
Potentially, the technical hurdle could be lowered if say, a Dragon Prince were to supply quality Cores from Nagaland, Kachin and Manipur or Huangshan. Likewise, she needn't begin with voice or vision. Texting would suffice for phase one. Hell, a Pager system would work.
Later, she could commission Magisters to unravel or appropriate the tech. It wasn't as though Dwarven-magic specialists did not exist. Even Petra confessed that the progenitor of her Spellcubes sourced their inspiration from Dwarven Runic Magic.
When she proposed purchasing the Magi-tech, however, the Master Tuner broke into a high-pitched, snorting laugh.
"Fool lass! Yer grasping at the Phantom of Thul-Dâr! Hahaha…"
"The Guild can supply you with Echo Beacons," Hanmoul explained, a little red-faced. "But the Guild of Artificers cannot teach you the Glyphs or the Runes. Whatever tech that belongs to, and is derived from, the grand teachings of the Ancestors belong to Deepholm. Only the Council of Seven can authorise such an audacious transaction."
"Could I make a petition?" Gwen smiled, thinking of Ruxin's hoard. How many more HDMs had now accumulated from the Tonglv project? "I can be very convincing."
Hanmoul politely coughed.
"We've had scant contact with Deepholm since the Murk became flooded," the Commandrumm said. "You won't even be able to make a petition, lass."
"There's no one who can authorise a barter for the betterment of the Citadel?" Gwen extended her enquiry.
"No one would dare unless yer count the Deepdowners trapped here with us." Hanmoul shook his head. "Braem's right, though. There's no graspin' for Thul-Dâr's Phantoms. It would take a supreme act to move their stone hearts."
"Maybe if yer cod clear the way to Deepholm." The Master Tuner laughed at the Surfacers' expense. "Then one of them could just be desperate enough to shoulder the reprimand and the responsibility of hawk'n the Ancestor's Craft."
"You would have to convince our Thane as well. Without Deepdowner support, he won't act either." Hanmoul gestured to the gate, under which sat the Keep, a fortress-within-a-fortress that housed Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth's elected leader, the foremost Dwarf among the Clans. "It donnae be Vadam."
"But you can lend me personnel as well as sell me ready-made goods?"
"That the Guild can manage on its own, och aye." Hanmoul nodded. "We traded with humans before. Yer should cont yer luck that despite the grudge between our folk, there was nae directive from Deepholm to cut commerce. It won't be easy. First, you would have to convince the caravaneers. Most of them haven't ventured out in decades, much less traversed the surface. They're staying thrang just keeping the surrounding settlements supplied."
Gwen looked at Ollie, who nodded back that Hanmoul was telling the truth.
"How interesting," she muttered. "Right then. Shall we visit the lower regions?"
Gwen could see that Hanmoul was ambivalent about her desire to see the Dwarven equivalent of the slums, but relented after Gwen explained that she wanted to see all of the city, not just the prosperous parts. What Gwen withheld from the Iron Born was that how a culture valued the most vulnerable was a key determinant for market viability. Her's wasn't a metric for morality; instead, she was taught to structure a business around a society's strata. In countries where corruption wasn't so much a disease but natural gut-fauna, bribes were an investment expense. In nations where the Rule of Law held sway, agencies took their cut, but also provided guidelines and assurances. When in the past, she had advised for an Australian mining firm looking to expand in Bangladesh, half the expense usually for environmental protection had fattened the local councilmen. What was legal and what was ethical were entirely separate matters. In the holistic pursuit of profit, altruism was a privilege.
When their multi-segmented Vularm approached the working-class district called the Foundry, she immediately had flashbacks of Blackheath. She even felt a shiver when they stepped into the smog-filled suburb, where endless storeys of favela-structures made up the cavern's walls.
As before, Gwen became the immediate centre of attention. The Dwarven Citadel wasn't small by any means, but it was compact, which meant rumours spread like an aftershock. Anyone who kept their ear to the ground knew of the Human Sorceress who had consumed a Shale Wyrm. All who now laid eyes on the giantess wondered if she brought destruction or salvation.
To Gwen's studied eyes, the workers' conditions were leagues improved to what she had seen in Burma, and certainly better than the treatment of the dock labourers on the isle. For one, the teams of Dwarves manning the sky-scraper foundries all wore codified uniforms with protective Runes to shield them from the heat. There was OSHA, certainly, and the workers also appeared, at least on the surface, to be hale and enthusiastic about their work. If she had to present the atmosphere in familiar terms, she would cite case-studies of pre-Reagan Steel Belt. Whether as a result of propaganda or culture, the workers here had pride in their work and understood the essential nature of their labour.
"How's their upward mobility?" Gwen waved at the workers, who averted her eyes.
"They move well enough." Hanmoul pointed to the carts and pulleys powered by thrumming mana engines.
"... I mean their career mobility."
When she looked to her companion, Hanmoul remarked with sagacity that such was the difference between those who lived by the work of hands besides those with craft and talent, one may be comparing dirt and Mithril.
"If yer mean better jobs, we recruit Guards from here." The Commandrumm nodded back to the workers. "Some talents aren't gifted by the Ancestor's blood."
"Like riding the Golems." Hanmoul grinned.
"That's true…" Gwen fell silent. She recalled hearing that the American IIUC teams used NoMs as pilots for their custom-made Iron Golems. As someone who came from the working class, she knew not to underestimate dedication driven by a desperate desire to escape mediocrity. As for the central continent, Hanmoul likely referred to the Bavarian Clans, who had not only worked but lived alongside the Human settlements in lower Germany. "You don't use autonomous Golems?"
"Machine Souls are Vadam!" Hanmoul lowered his voice; his skin flushed two shades darker. "The Ancestors have forbidden such a thing!"
"Right, right." Gwen quickly changed the subject.
The tour of the Foundry District took the rest of the afternoon. The group furthermore visited the mine shafts, as well as a system of ventilators that connected to the outside world. These, Gwen guessed correctly, were the source of the giant mana-plumes that she had twice almost flown into.
Supper involved more roasted richness. This time, Gwen recognised the sickly-rich bread underneath the whole-animal roast as the infamous stone-bread. Despite soaking in saturated fat and smoke-cooked for up to ten hours, the discus bread's nutritional value remained immutable.
Following another round of riotous quaffing, one from which Ollie abstained, the Mages retired to their quarters.
Nearing the witching hour, Gwen informed Ollie of her plans for the steam bath, leaving her Praelector red-faced and pale-lipped at the jocular invitation. This time, she checked that the chamber was unoccupied before stepping into the all-enveloping waters.
Comfortable in the liquid-womb of the mana-rich water, she spent some time absorbing the sights of the day.
Foremost of all, she desired the Dwarven technology known as the Echo Beacons, as well as the Runic Glyphs that made the "signal repeaters" possible. By that same measure, she wasn't so naive to think that she would maintain a monopoly on Dwarven-tech for long. Once her profits came in, the technology behind the Towers would undoubtedly be copied and imitated. But— she wasn't worried. Her plans for Project Legion did not crutch on patented technology, but instead the arcane system she would devise with the help of data-tech, NoM employees, the House of M's Centurion program, and Gunther and Lady Grey's word with the Tower.
The implementation of a seemingly unique Magi-tech system, therefore, would leave a Shoggoth-sized red-herring for her future competitors. Without a doubt, they would misplace their methodologies, resulting in investments both futile and fruitless.
After which, she could snap up cheap assets like freshly picked legumes.
Then there was the matter of the Machinists, of whom she desired a dozen, split between Runesmiths and Tuners. Hanmoul had said that hiring a Master was possible through short-lease. The contract would last a stone-cycle, a geo-synchronised measurement closely matching the Gregorian calendar. Additionally, she was confident that among the isle, there were Human tinkerers skilled enough to absorb enough of Dwarven knowledge to maintain the machines once their stout tutors inevitably returned to their Citadel.
Tomorrow was their third day in the Guild. Hanmoul had promised a careful look at the lands surrounding the Dwarven Bastion, as well as a gander at the different types of Golems in the Hammer Guard's armoury. Gwen had rolled her eyes when Ollie made the request but allowed the Praelector the freedom of making his bed. She had half a mind to pass Hanmoul a note under the table, but then again, Ollie was right in that the Dwarves were Demi-humans and not something like an oppositional Human nation. Should the inconsequential matter escalate, what would happen to her plans for Evee and Legion? Did that make her a bad friend and a worse partner? She chose not to dwell on the hypocrisy.
The sucking sound of the pressurised door opening and closing announced the arrival of a late-night bather.
Gwen had wondered if her companion would return, and to her delight, she did.
"Magus Song?" The voice called out in the dark.
"Hildy. I am happy you've returned." In consideration of her new friend, she had dimmed the lights to their lowest setting.
"And so I have." From Hilda's tone, the Dwarven noblewoman had been expecting her as well. "Shall we continue our conversation? I have since grown curious about the surface. Can you tell me more about the profession known as Adventurers? And thank you for the jadeite. As you have surmised, we are indeed interested in its many properties."
"Of course." Gwen parted the steam with a wave of her hand. "But first, would you like to meet my Familiars? They're simply adorable."
The next morning, against all the odds and to Ollie's complete surprise, their tour of the hydroponic farms and mining pits proceeded without encountering a single Magical Creature for Gwen to devour. The lack of action was so unanticipated that, by the end of the four-hour route, the unmitigated tension had exhausted the Praelector.
Gwen, conversely, appeared deep in thought since the patrol began.
When Ollie asked what she was worried about, the sorceress simply replied that she was thinking about how to best approach Whurforlüm about her request.
As usual, Ollie offered advice based on humility and delicacy.
"No matter how much you desire funds for Elvia," the Praelector proposed with great understanding. "Don't offend. Know your limits."
"And what limit is that?" Gwen gave her companion the strangest look.
"… ten thousand HDMs?" Ollie scratched his head. The Illusionist was doing that a lot in recent days, so much that Gwen could see his hair thinning in real-time. "I am sure they have vast reserves of it leftover from the pre-Tide days."
HDMs? Gwen restrained herself from patting Ollie like a puppy.
Now elucidated by her midnight tuition, Gwen understood that the enclaves used human currency because of an unexpected schism following the Beast Tide. It all began pre-Dragon, with Humanities' Spellcraft Revolution. Against the advice of the Deepdowners, many of the Murk Citadels chose to trade with Humans, greatly accelerating the development of Spellcraft while enormously enriching themselves. Post-Dragon, cut off and geologically displaced from Deepholm, the enclaves either shut themselves away or opened up new avenues of trade with their Surfacer neighbours.
Prior, Dwarven currency, consisting principally of gold, Elementium, Adamantium, and precious metals like Mithril and True Silver, were minted exclusively by the Masters of the Iron Vault in Deepholm. In the decade that followed the Murk's spread, Thanes of various enclaves diluted their coins, resulting in economic chaos among the Clans. Following the near-collapse of the Murk's currency, as a compromise, the surface Clans agreed to switch to Human HDMs. It was a sound choice, as many Citadels lacking in resources now relied on Overland trade for raw materials. Concurrently, as Humans had little to no interest in expanding underground, the young race made perfect trading partners thanks to their greed for elemental minerals. In some places such as Bavaria, the two tribes even shared common racial enemies in the form of Green Skins and Magical Monsters that traversed the Overland and the Murk.
Their present enclave, Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth, was a regional power wealthy enough to minimise contact with the Humans after the perceived betrayal of trust. It's current Guild Master wished to test the waters of tentative trading— while the conservative faction headed by the Deepdowners were dead-set against being tainted by the surface.
It was a tug-of-war as old as time.
In their exchange, her bathing buddy had advised that the conservative Clans were deeply ingrained in the teachings of the Deepdowners, believing Dwarf-kind diminished by the disconnect between Deepholm and the Murk. For many of the White Beards, the quintessence of Dwarvishness lay in completing one's pilgrimage to the origin city to kiss the sarcophagi at the bases of the Seven Shrines of the Ancestors. For many of the Citadel's craftsmen, they still recalled the golden halls of Deepholm, its glimmering galleries adorned with jewels the size of Dragon eggs, and the monuments of Grand Masters adorned with plated Mithril. To the true Dwarf, not having touched the Blackened Forge of Gul-Zūh or inhaled the bitter air surrounding Nörn-Zur's Crucible made one deficient. If a smith never laid eyes on the original artifice of Haj-Zül, then how would they measure their craft? If a Tuner had never been dazzled by the ten-thousand scripts of Varekan-Kül, how would they know mastery?
It was only the young like Grimgal and Tordok who thought the stories of Deepholm a fool's errand.
Gwen had nodded in turn after Hilda unravelled the intricacies of Dwarven lore. Against all the odds, she sympathised with the zeitgeist of Hilda's lost people. Like the Biblical Magi of old, having followed the Northern Star and seen the divine body of Christ in Bethlehem, how could the pilgrims return to their countries in peace? What riches, what pleasures, what palaces could bring them peace of mind when they had witnessed the Nazarene cooing for milk? Without Deepholm, the learned Dwarves of the Murk were lambs without Shepards, living in guilt every day they grew diverted from their objective. Conversely, as the young struggled to understand their elder's obsession, the diaspora only grew. It was no wonder that Hanmoul's love of the surface and the deep made him a little schizophrenic.
To open up Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth, thereby, Gwen would first have to convince those whose modus was to delve deeper towards the low-ways. In the Murk, progress upwards had to be precipitated by advancement downwards.
In turn, Gwen had informed her bathing buddy that few things moved humanity like unmitigated profit. If the Citadel had made little meaningful progress on its own in the last three decades, why not seek external aid? Given enough incentive, legions of Adventurers would flood the Murk to harvest the Dwarves' foes and open new byways. So long as the residents of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth were willing to accept expatriates in their midst, the potential for cooperation was limitless. In truth, what had the Dwarves to lose? It wasn't as though Humans could inhabit the Murk; the claustrophobia alone would drive her kind mad.
Her companion said nothing, but Gwen could see the bolts spinning into place behind Hilda's eyes.
By the night's end, the noblewoman still hadn't informed Gwen of her true identity. Gwen remained mum, knowing better than to demand something her helpful tutor refused to give freely. Already, Hildy had told her plenty— enough for her to drive a good bargain with the Guild Master and to ensure that she had plenty of Dwarves manning the printing press.
For now, that was enough.
After all, not even Rome was transmuted in a day.