Gwen stood regal as a Tudor Rose in the sunken amphitheatre, garbed in ivory and carmine, possessing a poise befitting a virgin queen.
Directly overhead, positioned just so that they could still look down on the petitioner, sat the Grand Council of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth. To her right, appearing with the air of a funeral, sat a trio of iron-clad Deepdowners in their all-enveloping armour, attended by a train of sycophants. To her left sat the Clan Heads, representing the common interest of the citizens. Finally, directly ahead, Whurforlüm Ironførge, Master of the Rotary Guild, surveyed the proceedings.
Earlier, Hanmoul Bronzeborn, Commandrumm of the Hammer Guard, the Iron Born scion of Bürumm-Dal Irøngut, had appraised his case for satisfying the Debt of Haj-Zül. In its aftermath, Gwen registered her demands.
"… in turn, I wish to obtain the aid of my brother-in-arms for my industrial endeavours. MY petition shall be satisfied with a staff of no less than twelve technicians split among Tuners and Runesmiths, including one Alchemist, lead by a Master, to travel with me to London for the duration of one Stone Cycle. Between our Adventurers and your Technicians, there shall be mutual benefit and common gain."
"AND they won't work for free. All employees shall receive an attractive stipend," Gwen continued with relish. "In minerals, in HDMs, in knowledge if they so desire, or the freedom to journey to Bavaria and back."
The Guild Master, Whurforlüm "Wilhelm" Ironførge, nodded encouragingly. The Clan heads, appearing as a cluster of beards, held various expressions from uncertainty to disdain to ambivalence. The Deepdowners were unreadable thanks to their masks, though Gwen could sense their flesh-flensing stares just the same.
"My last petition, as Commandrumm Hanmoul has noted, is for the Magitech Enchantment known as the Echoing Glyph to be supplied to my firm, 'Legion' Proprietary Limited, as an exclusive patent secured by London Tower."
A nervous ripple spread from left to right.
One of the Deepdowners growled, sounding like a seismic rumble.
"AHEM—" An uptown Dwarf with a beard the size of a broom made his displeasure known, then rose from the semi-circle rows of the amphitheatre.
"Magus Song." The Dwarf made a show of drawing eyes from around the room. "I must object."
Gwen acknowledged her "objector" by relenting the floor. She was not surprised that the Deepdowners had nominated a noble to kneecap her request. If Hilda hadn't warned her, she would now be furious that the Dwarves were undercutting Hanmoul's obligations. As the noblewoman had said, the Deepdowners' faction loathed even a single mote of Earthen Mana escaping the earth. Opposing her attempt to bring Humans in, or to bring Dwarves out, came as naturally to them as breathing.
Gwen studied the fine-bearded Dwarf. From what she had seen of the Dwarves' frugal fashion, her present opponent was excessively-dressed for the part. His beard, for one, was bound in what looked like Mithril bands, and the Dwarf's hands were encrusted with enchanted jewels. Making his way up the dais, the Dwarf lord stopped as soon as he gained the height advantage.
A politician; Gwen recognised the Walken-esque sneer.
"As we ur among Clan, fowk an' friends, Ay shall speak candidly."
Her bullshit senses tingled. The bastard had come with a speech! Gwen quickly glanced at Ollie. Her Praelector was already sweating buckets from her earlier proclamations. Ollie was a scholar, a student, a primrose of fantastic breeding, but one of Ravenport's finest he was not.
Around the amphitheatre, a murmur of agreement met the nobleman, making Gwen suspect more than a few were conservative plants.
"Ye all ken my name— Brugal Brumdahr." The Dwarf pointed his considerable chin down toward Gwen's general direction. "Mine Clan has been the theme of honour's tongue since the time of Haj-Zül Brumdahr, frae whose loins we ur issued. Ay dunnae think there is a better Iron Born to speak of the Debt and the honour of repayment other than Ay. If any of ye in this hall ken themselves moor suited tae speak for the Clans, then dear friends, make your voice knoon..."
The rhetorical question met with silence. Gwen sought out the Guild Master with her eyes. Up top, the master craftsmen seemed content to see the drama play out.
"Aye, we agree, then," Brugal continued. "Under our law, as in our LORE, the debt between Haj-Zül Brumdahr to Bürumm-Dal woz a matter of rivalry, friendship— or loove, if the Matrons have their say—"
The Clan Heads laughed.
"— Aye, Bürumm-Dal's admiration and love, was the source of his Debt of life. Yet, to call what we owe this mercenary, this free-lancer, this hired Goorumm from the Overland the Debt of Haj-Zül— it pains me. The honour of our home, the honour of Clan Brumdahr, has never been so diminished! The Debt is something we rejoice in, and yit, when news reached me lugs that we are sending our wee jimmies and Masters of the Rune to Lundun? To that blighted, lidless place? I cood nae sit idle, mah friends."
The barely veiled insult sent a touch of heat to kiss Gwen's cheeks. More than her pride, however, she felt for Hanmoul. Already, the Commandrumm's face was scarlet, like a trodden-on Displacer Beast, his beard was sticking end-on-end.
"Dunnae look at me so peevish, Hanmoul. Yer know I honour the Hammer Guard and yer battle-kin. But yer gotter ken, me man, as yer was valorous, so I supported yer. But as yer trade our kin to the Overlander, I must oppose ye. Aye, yer saved our fellow Clansmen— Just last night, I quaffed to yer health! But now, Commandrumm, I see yer ambition has out-grown the boundaries of yer duty; and so I must put yer back in yer Golem, lad."
"—Hanmoul, let me finish," Brugal's voice grew hypnotic. He turned away from Hanmoul and instead faced the assembling of Clan Heads seated here and there around the upper quadrant of the amphitheatre. "As yer can see, the Commandrumm aye offended. BUT is anyone here equally vexed that I wish tae preserve our purity? Our culture? Our doctrine? LOOK! Gaze upon the visage of our Lore Keepers, and see how they seethe! Who dares say that ay acted out of turn? Who can say Brugal am wrong? Misguided ye art, Hanmoul, we know yer yearning for the surface lad— but upward is not dae way."
Hanmoul choked as the noblemen dragged his petition through the Murk, too upset to compose a rebuttal. Gwen could see that the Commandrumm was a fighter, not a debater.
"What say ye, Witch? Did yer think our kind so innocent as to allow yer tae abscond with our knowledge?"
"Abscond?" her lips split to form a forced smile. Without the beard to go with the grin; however, she wasn't sure if the Dwarves could be sufficiently titillated. "You, Ser, must be unaware of the contributions I have made to your esteemed city. The Wyrm? The Trolls? Was Commandrumm Hanmoul so lacking in charisma that you feel personally insulted by his achievements?"
"Dunnae speak of Hanmoul ter me, lass. He is one of our own. Yer Mageocracy harkens after our Golems and our Mithril. Do tell, Witch, what do ye intend to do with our craftsmen? Excavate our secrets with yer Mind Magic?"
"I do object!" Ollie raised a hand. "Sir Dwarf, you mistake my sister's purpose. She's after Crystals, nothing more!"
"Then why not ask for Crystals? The human lust for HDMs is well-known."
Gwen gave Ollie a withering look, then took a deep breath. Brugal put on a good show, she had to admit; but she was no stranger to smarmy snakes in business suits. The self-proclaimed descendent of Haj-Zül whats-his-name talked a good game, but little did the Dwarf know he was now in the big leagues.
"Are you an artificer or a warrior yourself, esteemed Sir?" She tested the waters.
"Do yer mock me, Magus?" The Dwarf's brows knitted.
Gwen's sultry lips formed a thin red line. With her eagle-eyes, she could see that Brugal's hands had not seen a day of labour. She felt sorry for Hanmoul. How disappointing it was that not even the Dwarve's meritocratic society could escape the malaise of inherited wealth.
"I wouldn't dream of it, Ser Brumdahr." She feigned ignorance. "But I fear you have misread me from the beginning. Such a misconception is unbecoming of a Clan Lord."
This time, it was the Brugal's beard that bristled.
"Your worries were apt, Ser," Gwen observed, then she addressed the entire assembly, including the Deepdowners. If the barrel-shaped lawyer wished to play the rat, Gwen mulled darkly; then she would play the piper.
"Friends, Dwarves, Fellows of the Murk; I humbly beg for a minute more of your time."
The Clan Heads maintained a polite silence. The Guild Master shifted in his seat, while the Deepdowners sat unmoved.
"I understand Ser Brugal's many insecurities. They are well-founded, for Ser Brumdahr is the theme of honour's tongue, and indeed, so are all of our present company. However, if Ser Brumdahr wishes to speak ill of my dear battle-mate, Commandrumm Hanmoul, then I too, shall throw in my gauntlet."
Together with her pantomime, she opened the tap on Almudj's Essence, arresting her viewers with supernatural, newfound confidence.
"When we first met, Ser Bronzeborn was fighting for his life. Not for his gain, nor for honour or glory. Thanklessly, he was protecting the ventilation systems that lead from the surface down to the heart of your city. The gallant engine of his Rockcrusher had been torn apart by a Brutaliser, ripped limb from limb, bleeding liquid-mana and blue-green coolant over the linen snow. One bite from the Troll and Hanmoul would have perished. Oh, when I found him, my friends! The Commandrumm bled from every pore; his courage had congealed against his armour in strands of coagulant gore! And YET he carried on!"
Gwen paused, taking a step so that she rose a little up the dais, matching Brugal's gaze. "Was this ambition? Was he fighting for the LOVE of Himmseg? Or was it Dwarven dogma?"
Brugal's expression grew worrisome. "Even a tongue of True Silver won't—"
"Ser Brumdahr!" Gwen spun without warning, turning on Brugal like a viper. "Ser! I am EIGHTEEN— a 'wee' lass. A True Silver Tongue? For shame, Ser! Is mine a face of cunning? But then again, I can't refute your claim. Unlike YOU, I am NOT the theme of honour's tongue."
Before the Dwarf could retort, she raised her voice once more, this time weaving a spot of Ventriloquism so that her suppressed emotions reverberated across the amphitheatre.
"When I met Ser Bronzeborn again, it was at this very Citadel. At its gate, a toothy horror with a dozen tongues hailing straight from the deepest, darkest depth had found its way into your abode. There, the guards informed us that the Wyrm had Dwarf-napped your kin! Your Clansmen! Your family and citizens! For egg-fodder! For WORMS MEAT!"
Her audience flinched as her irises glowed, circulating a dazzling play of colours. "Naturally, possessing no desire to risk my life, I shrugged. I am a greedy, conniving Human Sorceress. I just wanted to be let into the Citadel and stake my claim—"
"BUT— Ser Bronzeborn wouldn't have it! He was an avatar of Dwarfdom! Naive and altruistic! He wanted to help without the backup of the Rockcrushers! He arrested my wrists— like so, and looked me in the eye and said 'Lass, my kin aye down there.' I asked him what was in it for me, and he said to me, 'Whatever yer desire, Human, from mah beard to me bones.'"
Hanmoul stared with his mouth half-open, likely wondering if the Jäger Bombes addled their collective memory.
"I was moved."
Suddenly, without warning, Gwen took a step upward so that she now rose above Brugal. "But I digress. What do I know? I am not like Ser Brumdahr over yonder, the bloody theme of honour's tongue, whistling, whistling away like a leaking steam-vent."
The noble blinked.
"BRUGAL!" Gwen suddenly spat, a spot of spittle striking the Dwarf like a bolt of lightning. "When we were neck-deep in Wyrm-spit and up to our crotch in Copper Worms, where were you and your honourable men?"
A chuckle broke out from behind the row of Clan Heads. Someone was enjoying the spectacle. On the central platform, Whurforlüm twirled the gavel in between his fingers, fighting back a smile.
Brugal Brumdahr took a step back, only now realising he was seized in the jaws of a proverbial Wyrm.
"Ser Bronzbeard risked his life and the life of his men to bring back the bodies of your kin so that their Spirits could be consigned to the Stone," Gwen drew out the timbre of emotion in her voice. "But what would he know? He's not like you, Milord Brumdahr. He's not the theme of bloody honour's tongue."
Her cadence picked up.
"When we brought those poor Dwarves back to the gate, we spoke to the families as their husbands, wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters lay there, cold and unmoving." Gwen implored the Clan Heads, taking another step so that she towered above them, matching the Guild Master's platform with the help of her heels. "Were you among them?"
She leaned down to deliver the coup de grâce.
"What did you do for them? Brugal?"
"Blame Hanmoul? Did a Wyrm eat your conscience?"
"Was this the Commandrumm's lauded love for the surface?"
"If Hanmoul's a turncoat, then what are you?"
"I-insolence!" Brugal's face had grown to encompass the likeness of a cornered mole-rat. "Yer— ye—"
"I think you should sit down." Gwen patted the Dwarf on the shoulder. "You're not yourself, Lord Brumdahr."
To achieve the desired effect, she momentarily flooded her conduits with Void. Borrowing from the exercise she had learned from Ayxin, Gwen focused her intent until Brugal visibly lost his balance. Then, with a kind, helping hand, she steered him toward his seat.
Slowly, for visual effect, Gwen straightened her spine. "Anyone else got—"
The assembly, with exception to the Guild Master and Gwen, collectively flinched.
One of the Deepdowners rose to his considerable height, standing a whole head taller than the rest in their custom, hermetically sealed armour.
"ARROGANCE!" A booming voice, projected as though through a loud hailer, deafened the room. "ALL IS VANITY."
"Keeper Muirrigg!" The Guild Master, as Gwen's bathing buddy had predicted, came to her aid as soon as the Deepdowners breached their custodial duty. "Your opinion is appreciated but not needed, Ser. As per the Ancestor's teachings, the Keepers of Lore shall not interfere with the ruling of a Citadel."
"I AM SAVING YOU FROM YOURSELVES." The Deepdowner had a voice like gravel. "THIS FEMALE, CAN YOU NOT TASTE THE DEATH ON HER SKIN? SHE IS VADAM, A WALKING CALAM—."
Gwen felt her lips twitch.
"BAH! Ay have had just aboot enough fer this!" Hanmoul stepped in front of her, his hand half-drawing his Spellsword. Gwen could see that her impassioned defence had ignited the Commandrumm's berserker-blood, as was expected of a scion of Irøngut. "Scorning the Debt of Haj-Zül! Insulting mine battle-mate! That es proper Dwarven now, AYE?"
"Both of you! Calm yourselves!" Whurforlüm slammed the table with a miniature war hammer. "Your distemper shames us all!"
"THE SURFACER INVITES OUR DOOM," the Deepdowner persisted. A swirl of unadulterated Earthen mana flooded the space where the man stood. Gwen knew not how Dwarven Magic worked, but what she sensed was no less than a tier 5 Transmutation.
"CALI!" Gwen conjured Caliban, materialising in the middle of the amphitheatre the living embodiment of the Deepdowner's dread. Whurforlüm stayed the guards with a wave of his hand; a few of the Clan Heads reached for their wands, though none chose to act. Behind the Deepdowner, their entourage made a show of rattling mailed gloves and magical implements.
"If I may speak?" Gwen's Clarion Call shook the room while Caliban soaked the attention like a sponge.
"As I said earlier." She pointed to her serpent. "There has been a miscommunication. If you allow me to finish without interruption, I shall ratify all concerns. If you remain unsatisfied after, I shall leave and never return. But if you deny me, then I shall exact my price with interest."
"Gwen!" Ollie appeared entangled in a nightmare. "P-put away Caliban now!"
"Ollie." Gwen placed a hand on her Praelector's shoulders. "Sit down and keep Ser Brumdahr company. He's looking faint."
Confused and shaken as to why Gwen reprimanded his perfectly sensible advice, the Praelector did as told.
"Now." Gwen returned to her captive audience. "You accuse me of wanting to steal your precious Dwarven Golems. I have no idea where you even got this idea. I don't need your Golems, be it the Striders, the Rockcrushers, or the Irongrinders because of a simple fact—"
Before the audience could react, rippling waves of nauseating feed-back flooded the chamber. Caliban began to moult, its carapace growing grotesque as her Familiar bloated. From the size of three Dwarves standing head-to-toe, it grew and grew, filling the spacious amphitheatre until the enormous council-chamber felt claustrophobic.
The Dwarves, captive in their elevated seats, reared back as Caliban continued to expand.
Unlike the Wyrm whose Core Caliban had consumed, the Void Wyrm was a horrifying thing, possessing more mouth than any other physiological apparatus. When her Familiar finally finished its bloated metamorphosis, leaving the Void Sorceress covered in a sheen of cold sweat, it stood thirty meters from end to end, possessing enough tentacles to pluck the whole assembly into its maw.
"G-GUARDS!" The Deepdowner hollered— a reasonable reaction.
"HOLD!" Whurforlüm thankfully rescinded the Deepdowner's demand. Gwen fought down the heebie-jeebies wrecking her chest. She could act out because last night, Hanmoul had gifted the Sen-infused Maotai to his teacher, curing the old Dwarf of his rheumatism. It was an unseen debt, and now the Guild Master was using the encounter to repay her unsolicited favour. When the old Dwarf met her eyes, she knew that now and in the future, her insolence would be tolerated just once. "Magus Song, I believe you've made your point."
"Your monster is no match for our Balefire Dreadnaughts!" Brumdahr growled from beside Ollie.
"Perhaps," Whurforlüm pronounced mockingly from up on high. "But will you consign your Spirit to the Ancestors to empower it, or will a younger kin volunteer? The theme of honour's tongue, indeed!"
"Whurforlüm! You would side with a Surfacer?"
"I do not have 'sides' Brugal," Whurforlüm's voice carried a tone of retribution. "You wear away our patience, boy."
Brugal swallowed his next words. Behind him, the table of Clan Heads suddenly found great interest in staring at their lap. The Noble caste may shout at the warriors or holler at the Overlanders, but an Engineseer's words, and a Grand Master's at that, carried supreme weight.
"Caliban, return!" Gwen quickly withdrew the Void mana pumping into Caliban, though there was no salvaging the spent vitality. With a whine, her Void Wyrm shrivelled, then disappeared. Her complexion paled. Where the Big Bird form was demanding but efficient, the Wyrm form was sheer gluttony.
"Just so we're clear," Gwen walked down the granite tier and stepped carefully into the middle of the amphitheatre. "I don't need your HDMs."
She dropped a crate worth at minimum five-thousand, splattering the lowly seated audience with Cali-goo. Instantly, the atmosphere grew thick.
THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!
The vapour grew so dense as to paint the cold stone, affecting a luminous hue.
"There is… ten, twenty more stacks in the piggy," Gwen made a show of walking around the stockpile flashing her Storage Ring. "And countless more lodes are resting beneath Manipur, Kachin and Nagaland, awaiting my beck and call."
Elevated on the steps, Ollie and Brugal sat beside one another, both with their nostrils flaring, sucking in the mana-rich fog. The Praelector's eyes were bloodshot, while the Dwarven noble's hypertension made his fingers tremble.
"So you see." Gwen brushed a sticky strand of Caliban's mucus from her Magus' mantle. "I bring you neither doom nor gloom."
To the Guild Master, she bowed her head. "To Midlord Ironførge and the Rotary Guild, I bring the winds of change to dispel the air of stagnancy that has shrouded Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth for three decades."
Then, she faced the Clan Head sitting like ducks in a semi-circle row. "To you, my lords— I am an investment, one that will bring your people and your Citadel unfathomable fortunes."
Finally, she turned to the Deepdowners. "And to my friends of the deep, you denizens of Deepholm. I promise hope, hearth and home, down below the Misty Mountains cold…"
"NAE—" The Deepdowner stood, no longer willing to let her do as she pleased. The Runes on his armour blazed red, orange and ochre even as Gwen readied her double-glazed mana shield. Had she failed? Gwen cursed internally. Maybe the HDMs were too much.
The Dwarf stumbled.
A second Deepdowner, the one who had sat beside the gravel-voiced gruff, struck the first so hard that his helmet almost cracked.
"Argh!" To Gwen's surprise, the stricken Deepdowner, rather than retaliate, retreated a step before dropping to one knee. "A-Apologies, Lord Engineseer."
Gwen raised an arched brow. An Engineseer and a Deepdowner? The leader of the trio of fishbowl-wannabes must be gifted indeed. More curious was the fact that even among Deepdowners there existed such a difference in prestige. Hilda had given the impression that the folk-below were a monastic order of Lore Keepers.
As the leader of the Deepdowners rose, the entourage behind her shrunk away, either bowing or falling to one knee. From the patterns on the master-crafted armour, Gwen recognised the individual. She had seen this very Deepdowner coming into the Citadel observing her from the parapets.
"As Master Whurforlüm has said, it is not our role to interfere." A pleasant, melodious female voice reverberated through the chamber, one that was acutely familiar to Gwen's ears. "Well said, Magus Song."
Gwen blinked. She recognised the voice, she realised, though she had been banking that her bather-companion was either the Thane of the Citadel or at worst, a wife or daughter. Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined that she could charm a Deepdowner while tits-up in a sauna. "Strewth… Hildy?"
"Your gift of gab is almost as pleasant as the Ancestor Scald, Billelynn Møsvian." Hilda's projected voice grew mirthful. "You have my vote, Sorceress. I'll be watching and waiting."
"Mistress…" Hilda's Deepdowner attendant rose in surprise. "The Human—"
"Ebren, another complaint and you will be joining the craftsmen we're lending to Miss Song. Imagine that, brother, strolling in Himmseg under a cavern without a ceiling."
At his mistress' rebuke, Ebren broke like a rusted factory spring. His containment suit seemed to shrink as the Dwarf within deflated.
"Hilda!" Gwen called after the Deepdowner, stepping out of Caliban's muck. "Can we have a word?"
What she wanted to know was if their encounter had been serendipity, or if the Deepdowner had sought her out.
"In time, we shall speak again in Dyar Morkk's vaulted corridors." Hilda was already half-way down the hall. In a moment, her entourage enclosed around the Deepdowner, cutting off the sight of Hilda's lumbering armour. "I would be disappointed, Magus Song, if that day does not come to pass. You bluster well, but I hope your actions speak louder."
"Gwen, what's happening?" Ollie watched his fingers jitter while he circulated mana to bring the feeling back into his toes. Up ahead, Gwen rode in a separate Strider with Hanmoul while Ollie himself sat next to a grinning Grimgal. Since leaving Red Peak, he had wondered how he would explain the occurrences to Lady Grey, and what Peterhouse would think of their newest position as a noted ally of the Dwarves.
In their sockets, his eyeballs felt heavy and swollen. There was an indescribable ache in his belly.
Why hadn't Lady Loftus told him that Gwen was the heiress to a Dragon's hoard? That she carried more HDMs on her person than the ancestral vault of Baronettes? If only the lady would laugh and tell him that Gwen was, in reality, a polymorphic Dragon playing silly buggers in the mortal world. And that speech she gave! The way she whipped the Dwarven noble until the poor sod's face imprinted in the granite, the way she peeled back his 'honour' until the man was stark naked and shivering in the limelight of mockery and laughter…
Could he, a second son from the hills, really steer this Dragoness toward propriety? Was it possible for a man to tame a Displacer Beast? Can a Cabal of Wizards herd Drakes? What if she thought him too fussy and decided to put him through the same crucible? Would there be enough blood left in his shame-wrung body to keep his heart beating?
"You just keep doing your job, Ollie," Gwen's Message came back with a hint of mirth. "I think we did rather well, don't you think? New trade route, new allies, new staff, a whole region opened up for adventuring. All in a day's work, eh?"
"Please don't say 'we'."
"Don't be shy, Ollie. I couldn't have done it without you."
"No-no-no," Ollie moaned. The fluttering in his diaphragm was getting worse. He felt sick.
"You were my moral support, you know; we're like a... dynamic duo. I knew you had my back."
"Lady Grey will be so pleased."
"Gwen, I am begging you…"
"You're my guy, Oz."
Ollie groaned, vexing Grimgal, who disliked men who couldn't keep their liquor, or their nerve.
"Stone bread trouble?" she asked with a hint of sarcasm. "It goes down hard and comes out like a high-grit grinder. Is your bung—"
Grimgal's passenger shook his head, hugged his knees in the cramped cabin, then stared out at the woodlands swishing by as the Striders pounded through the trail. Ollie Edwards, Magus and Praelector of Peterhouse, had been homesick for London since the first day they drank Dwarven Rum. Now, he wished he had stowed a bottle away to drink away his consciousness.