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Wednesday brought a rare lull in the snow.

Two frigid evenings past Boxing Day, the zeal of gift-giving finally gave way to old enmities, restoring the city of London to cynicism as usual. At six-thirty AM sharp, from the icy coast of Canisbay to the southern-most part of Cornwall, the folk of England awoke to the sound of the paper boy's adolescent holler.

"DWARFIES to reopen the ye old RED KEEP! OLD Ally NEWLY back in the fold!"

In every news agency, tram station and vendor stand, similar images of the Gate of Kazhul, wide-open for the first time in three decades, splayed across the tabloids. Lower, nearer the article itself, a portrait that had now thrice graced the red-letter tabloids smiled winsomely at the audience with sparkling eyes, promising exciting things to come.

Over in Cambridge, Peterhouse, under the sheltered groves in the Deer Garden, over the clinking of heirloom silverware, Lady Grey shared a spot of morning tea with an old nemesis, "Dickie" Mycroft Ravenport.

With pleasure, The Lady of Ely revelled in the fact that she had been the very first to know of the Murk Dwarves' new stance toward the Mageocracy, and so had time to position her pieces just right. Though she had contributed nothing of note to the endeavour, the ambassador responsible for cracking the hard-headed Dwarves had been sent at her behest. In high-society, this meant Gwen's accolades were foremostly hers, then Peterhouse's, then Gwen's.

"I had to withdraw two Mage Flights and a triage team to babysit her unannounced caper," Ravenport intoned annoyedly. "You know what Ireland's like this time of the year. The Militia's short-staffed as it is, and now the Mercenaries are delving en-mass into Merthyr Tydfil like mud down a sinkhole."

The mistress of Peterhouse waited for a block of loosely-compressed sugar to wholly dissolve before taking a sip of her steaming, yearling Devonshire. "Is that so bad? London has effectively gained access to a virgin Dungeon, one that's untouched since the Beast Tide. Which of the central powers can boast the same? And it's close to home as well, no need for complex logistics. Surely your people stand to benefit more than they can lose?"

"We've no idea what's down there, Maxi." Ravenport buttered a scone with far too much marmalade. Unbeknownst to his enemies, the stone-cold, sable-clad Duke of Norfolk had a sweet tooth. "The girl reported that she fought a Wyrm! A mutated, draconic Earthen Worm."

"It's Gwen's Wyrm now," Maxine corrected her childhood companion. "Ergo, the danger is now sans Wyrm."

Mycroft meticulously masticated, swallowed, then continued. "There's no such thing as a free lunch. The Dwarves are not fools, least of all Whurforlüm. Did you know my grandfather was the last Tower Mage to confide with the Guild Master in person? Now I, his grandson, must broker a deal with the same Dwarf. You understand how vexing that could be?"

"A tad rich, coming from one who negotiated our treaty with the Hvítálfar," Maxine said carefully. "Aren't the highborn effectively immortal? The first Duke of Norfolk, working under Henry V, would have dealt with the same aldermen as you had."

"Wholly different," Mycroft refuted the implied hypocrisy. "The Hvítálfars are changeless, immutable, whereas the Dökkálfars are prone to change, only slower and more stubborn. A century from now, Snowdonia would remain as it has always been, out of touch— and reach— but can you say the same of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth? The girl wants to punch through the Murk and connect their citadel back into the Dyar Morkk. I shudder to think they would succeed."

"Is that so bad?" The Lady relayed her amusement at Mycroft's frustration. "You've been trying to tempt the Dwarves— well, OUR Dwarves, for years. You're just upset that Gwen did the job of the Foreign Office in place of your lackeys, am I right? At any rate, whatever muck will hit the Dwarves first and foremost."

"What an unkind thing to say." Mycroft sipped his tea, making a slight scowl. One of the reasons he did enjoy Maxine's company was that as equals, and as acquaintances since they were children, there wasn't too dire a need for facades and frivolities. After a long few days herding vipers, it was surprising how much one longed for candidness. "My Faction employs the finest men and women our country has to offer."

"I am reminded of an oriental idiom." Maxine fought back a grin. "Black cat, white cat, fat or lean, a good cat is the one that catches the mice."

"Now you're rubbing salt in my wounds." Mycroft sighed. "Enjoy it while you can Maxi. Your whelp will stumble sooner or later. Then you'll have to come to me to clean up her mess."

"Gwen can afford the reparations. Isn't that wonderful, Dickie? What a fortuitous investment Henry has left us, the gift that keeps on giving. All profit."

"Profit?" Ravenport's nostrils twitched. "You realise the Dwarves have submitted a hundred thirty-four requests for Resonators? One-Twenty of which was for overland travel to Central Europe. A mob of them to Sharr, a crowd to the Rila, a horde to Berchtesgaden and Lowland Bavaria. The Shard has decided to show our generosity and throw in diplomatic travel and Teleportation. Over in the mainland, their Towers are charging us arms and legs for the privilege of ferrying Journeymen to visit their cousins."

"Assuming twelve of them are Gwen's merry men, are any others staying in London?"

"Two dozen. Liaisons for the Freelancers. The Guild Master said they don't just want any riff-raff raiding in the Murk. There'll be cultural sensitivity training on both sides and a new licence office."

"And?"

"And what?"

"What is your department getting out of this, Dickie? Don't tell me a bloodsucker like you has suddenly caught an outbreak of philanthropy."

Mycroft twirled a dessert fork.

"We've sent visitation applications to the Germanic and Icelandic citadels, as well as Dwarven enclaves in the Eastern Reaches. Requests for visitation and overland travel should be flooding in as we speak. Naturally, we hope to recoup our costs and then some."

"How are our own responding to this?"

Mycroft's pursed lips edged upward. "It's been a while since we could commission regional Dwarven battle-gear. Just the demand for Spellswords is driving the Militant Faction into a tizzy. The Knight Orders as well are demanding a refresh to their armoury. For a few years now, the youngsters have been making do with re-forged facsimiles."

Maxine chuckled. "How desperate are the men?"

"The Order of St George has offered to send Knight Commander Springfield with a Squadron of his best Hunters to scour the Murk if it means the Ordo can have first-privileges on custom blades. The Griffin Guard is keen for updated Spell-lances, though understandably, the underground nature of the Murk has limited their application."

"You have this well in hand, I assume?"

"Naturally, a good blood-letting— by which I mean a public auction, is in order. We shall soon see who has deeper pockets."

"Boys and their toys." Maxine rolled her eyes. "No extra Golems for the Kingdom's forces?"

"The Red Citadel's designs aren't as easily modified as the German Mark IV's." Ravenport shook his head. "Besides, the contracts are set in stone. We're still waiting on a delivery of two-hundred by next year's end. The department's current budget does not allow for more."

"Nonetheless, you must be a popular man right now. More so than usual."

Mycroft affirmed the Lady's observation, then signalled a change in the subject by switching to an after-meal tea. As though hoisted by a poltergeist, the tea sets rearranged themselves.

"I always digress when it comes to you. Very unpleasant. Now— back to the subject of our sorceress. My sources from Hong Kong have informed me that the Communists are ready to make a move on her assets in Shanghai, in particular, her cut of Tonglv."

"To be expected." The Lady shrugged. "Would you allow a Chinese Magister part ownership of the Royal Docks?"

"You jest, but the clever thing is, they're accusing her of the very thing. Supposedly, she's supplying the Royal Docks. Naturally, rumours suggest she's consorting with myself."

"Supplying you with what, exactly?"

"The fanciful finance she sold to Shanghai via the Pudong Tower."

"Is it true?" The Lady of Ely raised a brow. "You did accost her at Heathrow. She told me all about it. Did the two of you consort beyond what's proper?"

"No, nothing of the sort."

"And did you, Dickie Ravenport, as one of the four major stakeholders of the Royal Docklands, deny such an accusation?"

Mycroft grinned like a shot fox. "I declined to comment, as did my colleagues."

The Lady shot her confrere a concerning glare. "Nanny always said you were a nasty boy."

"Nanny knows best. I wonder, though. Do you think the girl has contingencies in place?"

"You don't know?"

"Should I?"

Maxine covered her smirk with a side of scone. "If anyone should know, it should be you."

"What?" Mycroft shrugged. "What is she to me? Am I the Oracle of Delphi?"

The Lady of Ely looked up from her teacup. "On a brighter note. Have you finalised the roster for Snowdonia?"

Mycroft paused, sensing an unpleasant premonition rising to the fore. Maxine Loftus seldom made requests of her companions; when she did, the Lady of Ely expected satisfaction. "You jest."

"Don't you think it'll be interesting?" Lady Loftus' eyes became two smiling half-moons.

"Maxine." The Duke of Norfolk replaced the fine china, indicating that he suddenly recalled pressing business. "I really must be going."

"Dickie," his companion's tone grew dangerously charming. "Care for a wager?"

The Duke paused. "Go on."

"I'll loan you the girl for the Isle of Man if indeed she's caught flatfooted by the scheming Orientals. Else, you have to find her a suitable instructor."

Mycroft squared his shoulders "You wager that an adolescent, much less a Frontier bumpkin from Sydney, would possess enough personal or local clout to fend off an attempt by the Party to retrieve an infrastructural apparatus linked to gross domestic output? Am I to believe Lord Shultz will be shortly gracing Shanghai?"

"My confidence in Gwen nears the supernatural."

Mycroft let lose an undulating wave of uncharacteristic laughter. From the shadows among the trees, his footman, ever attentive Elliot Saville, materialised to aid the Duke in donning his outer coat.

Outside the warmth of the Warding Mandala, the frigid winter whistled through the gothic fruit trees haunting the Deer Garden.

"Fine." Mycroft donned his hat. "My scepticism is no less supreme."

On Maxine Loftus' face, the Lady of Ely blossomed as though Juno summoning a second spring. Raising her cup, she toasted the departing Duke.

"Til next time, Dickie. May our communist friends live in interesting times."

London.

The Isle of Dogs.

Magus Gwen Song; honorary Magus of Peterhouse, relayed the events of the past three days to her dearest provisional-practitioner of Magical Medicine, Elvia Lindholm of Great Osmond Street Children's Hospital.

Though it had been only three days, the stimulation afforded by the influx of HDMs had changed the atmosphere of Millwall from humid and mouldy to merely bedraggled. The streets which were previously choked with black snow, industrial waste and mud from the sea-swell had all been cleared, leaving the Victorian cobblestone exposed and glistening under the dreary wintery sun.

The dilapidated press, Gwen's targeted industrial operation, had likewise been unearthed by human hands wrought of flesh and powered by fragile hope, revealing a hint of its former glory. Gwen's only gripe was the townfolk's dubious grasp of sustainability. Downstream, a month on, the Royal Docklands would inevitably discover a glut of old trash clogging up its eastern in-takes.

"Was Hanmoul upset?" Elvia listened, the very picture of attention, "When you told him Ollie was a spy?"

"Not after I bribed him with a dozen Da-peng feathers," Gwen explained. "He forgot all about Ollie after that. Said it wasn't the lad's fault, and that he had to deal with the Clan Heads and the Deepdowners all the time in a similar fashion. Every time he came to Merthyr Tydfil, he took notes and bought information as well."

"Hanmoul's not among the twelve to come here?" Elvia spoke with disappointment.

Gwen shook her head. "The Commandrumm will be all kinds of busy dealing with the new operations to clear a way through the Murk. He's working hand-in-glove with our representative from the Shard though, so there's a chance he might be able to visit."

"A shame, I rather like Mister Bronzeborn."

"Yeah, he's a good bloke, one of the best I've met. Tell you what though. Give it some time and we can both look forward to working with him again."

Quickly, Gwen polished off her richly laden bowl of SPAM soup, a concoction of cabbage, tomato paste and copious amounts of Spam sliced and boiled until falling apart.

Her roster had left little time for cuisine. Since returning from Merthyr Tydfil, she had reported to Lady Gray, dropped off Ollie to recover his sanity, then jetted her way at maximum velocity back to her Evee. After spending a night cuddling the healer's hot water-bottle body, she had risen, rested and restored enough to expend her final few days of freedom.

First, there was Walken. Then, she had to locate Dominic Lorenzo and recruit him for the free paper gig as soon as possible. When her Dwarves arrived in a month, she had a feeling that things would be moving very quickly indeed. Assuming all went well, she should be wrapt in secret studies, meaning she had to have delegates set up and ready to go.

"So." Gwen studied her flaxen-haired companion. "Ready to add a second Spirit to your menagerie?"

"Sure am!" Elvia nodded, bobbing her fringe back and forth. Each day Sen-sen remained an unattached ginseng was a source of disquiet and danger for the not-so-well connected Cleric. "Have you found Master Walken?"

"Lady Loftus gave me his country house address," Gwen said. "No wonder he's disappeared from Cambridge, the old dog's in Brighton."

"The resort town?"

"The very one." Gwen grinned. "Lucky for us, eh? We can take a stroll along the beach. Eat ice cream by the ivory pavilion."

"It's winter and five degrees out..."

"... buy scarves, shoes and dresses from the Lanes, dine on sea scallops by the seashore."

"I thought we're there to find Master Walken's family."

"That too." Gwen laughed. "I take it all's well in Millwall? Are you fine to be absent?"

"Not really…" Elvia sulked. "The other Clerics aren't giving it their all."

"Is Mathias not doing his job?"

"He is," Elvia quickly interjected, pointing to the lone figure of the Knight patrolling the aid station and the food hall. "I guess the Tower hires find it strange that we're treating the NoMs, destitute ones at that."

"Did you tell those snobs Lady Astor and Lady Gray are your sponsors?"

"I don't think we are…?" Elvia cocked her head.

"You are," Gwen assured her friend. "Trust me on this. Why else would they offer?"

"Umm…" Elvia pursed her petite, pink lips, the picture of uncertainty.

"I'll have a word with Mathias and our trio of hired help." Gwen flashed her Peterhouse Magus emblem. "I spent good CCs on those Clerics. They had better be OoM at the end of every shift, or somebody is going to suffer a stern word from Caliban."


Gwen was very much glad that Brighton was where Walken had chosen to hole up because she adored the resort town in her old world. Of course, her glee had little to do with its famous beach— Australia's beaches were incontestable when it came to the quality and quantity of bronzed-bodies being tanned. Instead, she longed for its white-domed pier, its orient-influenced Royal Pavilion, its trendy art-house cafes and restaurants.

As for the journey south, flying toward the curvature of the coast with Evee princess-carried against her torso was itself a pleasure. The squirming, squealing girl's fright gave her no end of sadistic joy as she pumped more and more mana into her flight spell, piercing the air with such velocity that Brighton came within view within the hour.

Mid-way over the rolling hills of West Sussex, the duo encountered a flock of Razor-billed Starlings, appearing as a vast net to enmesh the pair. A robust burst of pseudo-Dragon-fear from Ariel was enough to spare the ten-thousand or so spatchcocks. The farmhouse below, however, was left inundated in a sudden downpour of panicked deposits, spontaneously inspiring a scene from Hitchcock's "The Birds".

Closer to the sea, once accustomed to the skin-ship, her companion relaxed, staring in wide-eyed wonder at a vista which only those willing to pay the gratuitous cost of Flight could see.

"I should learn a faster Flight Spell," Gwen murmured. The velocity was as therapeutic as Evee's delightful squeals. "I recall Allie employed Greater Flight."

"It's a higher-tier Transmutation though," Elvia jittered as they plummeted downwards. When the seaside pavilion rapidly approached, Gwen cut their velocity via a rapid series of Dimension Doors.

When finally the duo appeared on the ground, it was to the shock of the Town Guards on the watchtowers, whose Scrying diagnostics implicitly surmised that anyone licensed to be flying into town would not appreciate overcurious public servants.

"Erg— pebble-sand." Gwen grimaced. The idea of landing on Brighton Beach with Evee had been so enthralling she had neglected the impossibility of walking on loose pebbles in four-inch heels. Of course, the annoyance aside, she had good cause to loathe the touch of cold, clinging sand-grit. "It's coarse and irritating and gets everywhere."

"Sorry…" Elvia apologised.

"What for?"

"I wasn't there for you when Debbie…"

"It's all in the Void now." Gwen dismissed her friend's concern. "Really. Caliban can be very therapeutic."

Both wishing to quell the rising sentiment, the two unfurled the town map.

Elvia's attire matched the winter decor, with her petite figure bundled in a knee-length overcoat and enclosed by a pair of suede booties. Gwen was her usual stubborn self, preferencing a light autumn-dress with stockings, vying for maximum comfort. Thanks to Almudj's blessing, the ravages of the seasons seldom touched her skin, though as a Sydney-sider, she had never bothered with winter-wear across either of her two lives.

"Walken's address…" Gwen diverted her attention to the legend, both brows sulky with confusion.

"Allow me." Elvia turned the map ninety degrees. "It's close."

"Shall we fly?"

"The apartments here are tightly staggered." Her helpful Elf steered them onward. "You'll never find it. Besides, it says 11/43 Chester Terrace, Brighton East. We'll have to consult the locals. The buildings here all look the same."

"Right," Gwen relented. There was certainly nothing wrong with a seaside stroll with Elvia.

Once they cleared the beach, she was pleased to find that the ivory-facade Brighton was famous for had not faded in this world, but expanded to encompass entire blocks. Though her present world lacked many quality-of-life improvements in information technology, its sorcerous means of erecting buildings was second to none.

"It's beautiful," Elvia marvelled as they strolled through King's Parade, overlooking the lapping blue-green waters of the English Channel on their left. The Lanes remained as Gwen had recalled, though more built up, with a significant extension of the Lanes. Gone, however, were the trendy boutiques—instead, trinket-makers, jewellery-crafters, and an assortment of fabric-sellers, seamstress' abodes and gift-emporiums had replaced the familiar sights. After an eye-opening meander, Gwen made a note to take Elvia to a sweets shop called "Charlie's Crystal Emporium", a business with patrons spilling out the doors. Secretly, she hoped that there would be something akin to Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans of Potter-lore. Surely that would be a fun game to play with Evee.

After a few twists and turns from helpful, neighbourly individuals who seemingly appeared out of thin air to aid Elvia with directions, the duo looked upon No. 11/43 Chester Terrace, Brighton East.

Unexpectedly, the abode was not an apartment but a townhouse with shared walls, as was proper for those with the means to afford the view. Impressively, the beach-facing home was three-storeys tall, crammed between two identical apartments in the same Regency style that made Brighton such a throwback to the halcyon days of empire.

Gwen inhaled in the frigid sea air. Despite the Shielding Stations shimmering in the distance, there was almost no detectable trace of mana miasma.

"Bloody good location," she remarked, glancing at the marina and its collection of private yachts. In a world of Mermen and monsters, a vessel spoke loudly of the owner's confidence at sea. Barring the most unfortunate of cases, it was a Mermaid's great misfortune to run into a group of eager Maguses and Magisters fishing for rare specimens. "Well then, shall we?"

"Shouldn't we Message Master Walken first?" Elvia withered in the shadow of the stately townhouse, plausibly worth more than a whole student wing at Nightingales.

"His device isn't in service." Gwen shrugged. "Besides, it'll be interesting to see what he's up to, don't you think? Maybe he's intimately catching up with his estranged wife."

"Gwen!" Elvia appeared scandalised. "You have the wildest imagination... Maybe we should wait?"

"It's almost mid-day, and he's unemployed," Gwen snorted. "Barring coitus interruptus, she'll be right, mate."

She pressed the doorbell.

A delightful chime thrilled.

A brief lull later, the door opened, revealing a young brunette who could only be one of Walken's daughters. Unmistakably, the girl sported the same charcoal-coloured eyes as her father, an unusual hue among Saxons. Beatrix or Angie? Gwen wondered. The girl had the look of a second child, meaning she must be Angie.

Their eyes met.

Gwen put forward her most endearing, benevolent, winsome smile. She felt almost maternal toward the girl, notwithstanding the difference in their age. Having guided Walken with a tender hand in Shanghai, her feelings toward her colleague's children were full of benevolence, especially Angie, who suffered from Mana Asthma. Just as her Master had taken care of Angie, so would she.

"Good Afternoon! My name is Magus Gwen Song, this my colleague, Elvia Lindholm. We're here to see your father, Magister Walken."

As she announced herself, Angie's smile arrested, then like the coming of permafrost, the girl's expression grew increasingly rigid. An Ice Mage? Gwen applauded Walken's genetics.

Despite the unanticipated chill, Gwen maintained maximum amicability.

"Is your father in—"

"MOTHER!" the girl cried out suddenly, her voice crackling with ice. "THE WHORE OF BABYLON HAS COME FOR DAD!"

 

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