Elvia's only knowledge of the Träälvor was through Nightingale's extracurricular classes on Prime Material beings tiered as "better attuned" than Humanity, by which the lecturer meant "older" "troublesome" and "a hard nut to crack".
That said, indigenous Elves from the Enclave on the Isle of Man was not the Nordic Träälvor of yore. Where the bestiary had prescribed the Träälvor Demi-race as fair-complexioned with dark hair and lithe silhouettes six to seven feet tall, these native "Träälvor" were much shorter, with their leader standing half a head shy of Gwen.
"Miss Elvia. I fear your warning has fallen on long but deaf ears," Dominic Lorenzo drily observed.
"Why?" Elvia whispered back to their Diviner. "We brought back their kin!"
"Yes, but I don't doubt the Colonel has made a habit of baiting the Manx," Dominic reminded her of why they were here. "If you wish to speak to them, you'll have to first quell their mistrust."
"How do I do that?"
"Nothing engenders respect like a show of restrained force," Lorenzo advised. "Worry not. Ser Rothwell and I will keep you safe."
Elvia nodded, her face turning bright pink.
The party watched while their prisoners shuffled forward, with the boy and girl waving goodbye at Elvia, unaware of what was soon to follow.
"Clann!" one of the Manx, a middle-aged woman standing behind the Elves reached out, urging the youths to hurry.
An upraised hand halted her affectionate outburst. Beside her, the leader of the Elves stepped forward.
"Our cousins applaud thy gall, invader," their leader's voice covered the distance without effort, sounding as though susurrated from the surviving trees. "But doth thou think all would be forgiven if thou returned our kindred? A hundred lives lie in the embrace of the Earth Mother by thy efforts. How shall thee atone for our kin thy sorcery hath made mute?"
"That doesn't sound sylvan," Elvia whispered.
"That's... old English." Lorenzo raised a brow. "Their leader must have learned our tongue centuries ago."
Elvia concentrated Essence onto her optic nerves, bringing the "Elder" into sharp focus. From afar, the Wood Elves' leader reminded her of a wind-tossed oak of sorts. On closer inspection, their clothing, which Elvia had initially taken to be Druidic Bark Skin, revealed itself to be woven membranes of organic matter, a sort of living-armour. Likewise knotted through the Demi-human's hair and clothing were branches and twigs with tiny leaves.
The Elder's face, Elvia discerned, possessed an elfin appearance that betrayed the caster's advanced years, making the gruff leader appear ageless. Like the Manx besides him, the Wood Elve possessed large, oval-shaped eyes tilted towards at an angle like a feline's, with crisp lilac irises that added an exotic mystique. Beside the presumed Alderman, stood a pair of near-identical sisters, likewise clad in skin-hugging bio-outfits, each carrying tall staves topped with entwined vines brimming with Primal mana.
"Enclave Druids," Lorenzo silently dispensed his knowledge. "It's safe to assume the old one is an Arch-Druid. In our language, his title is Primach."
Elvia raised both hands in a show of diplomacy.
"Noble Primach of the Enclave, I have come in peace and returned your kin," she announced, unused to hearing her voice spoken so loudly across so distant a space. "And to hear the grievance of your people."
"A Sun Knight, a Priestess, and a Mind Seer, on an errand of arrogance." The Arch-Druid shook his head. "Tìr-Mara's descendants shall not be deceived, Human. Thou wilt be ransomed for the return of our kin. Guardians! See that these invaders art chastised!"
"Steady now," Lorenzo's steady voice soothed Elvia's strumming nerves. "He's testing us to see if we're here to talk, or if there's an ambush."
"Evee! Six O'clock!" Mathias conjured a Shield of Faith into place before she even noticed the shimmering of space around them, like mirages on a hot day. "Dom!"
"Purge Invisibility!" Dominic, a veteran of many warzones, expertly wove his detection magic into place.
The instant Lorenzo's nova of revelation rang out, no less than three Manx Cats appeared within charging distance, sleek as midnight, elongated and elegant, with raised haunches that menacingly waved prehensile tentacles tipped with sucker-mouths, hungry for tender flesh.
"I see them!" Mathias' Radiant Aura burned golden, swiftly condensing into a suit of Faith-laced plate mail. "I'll take the front and left."
"Primach! Tha-iad nan daoine-math!" Siofra and her brother began to shout that they were friends and not foe. Elvia's heart had already reached her throat when, thankfully, an eruption of tendrils coiled around the ex-prisoners, delivering them to safety.
Concurrently, the rest of the tendrils entwined into a six-metre colossus wrought of vicious dog-thorn, reminding Elvia of the Amazonian Brutalisers from Gwen's IIUC highlights.
"A Thorn Elemental!" Mathias ignited his Spellblade. "That's mine—"
"SCROOWORRRL!" Before Mathias could retort, the trio of Manx Cats made a sound that sounded like a high-pitched tumble drier on its last legs. By inches, the apex predators prowled closer, keeping their bodies low, their tentacles rising into the air as though tasting prey.
Dominic backed away toward Elvia, covering her right flank.
Their assailants inched closer.
Despite Lorenzo's spoon-fed foresight, Elvia's adrenaline-addled brain was a mess of instincts clambering over one another, each demanding redress. In her prior forays, Mathias had made all the decisions and calls. In Sydney, Gwen was their fearless leader who yelled out the commands. Now, she was beginning to understand just how rare it was for a Mage to think straight while confined in a narrow alleyway with three tentacle-panthers looking for a feed. Should she defend first or attack? What of the Manx's counter-attack? How to minimise harm to her teammates? Would maiming, then mending the Druids count as overt hostility?
Thankfully, Alesia's old contact came to her aid once more. "Miss Lindholm, taking down their Elemental might blunt their fervour."
Elvia willed her Ginseng into action at once. "Sen-sen! Kiki!"
"SEN!" Her Ginseng dug its tendrils into the ground with such palpable force that the salt-encrusted earth split and cracked. This time, she did not dilute the Dragon-fear.
"MEOOWRRRL!" As one, their opponents' ears, both cats' and Demi-humans', simultaneously flattened. The six-legged hunter-killers staggered back, their bodies and minds caught in the disharmony of primal fear and wilful lucidity, their tentacles ramrod straight.
On the far side, the Elven party grew briefly viridescent. The twin druids by either side of the Primach rammed their staves into the salt-sodden earth, engendering twin rows of growth in the form of a trellis of thorns.
A viridian, vital glow Elvia had once seen on Sufina travelled underground through some secret means and suffused the cats, dispelling the paralytic Dragon-fear.
"That would explain why they were unfazed the first time," Lorenzo called out. "Incoming!"
"STHKARRRWL!" The largest of the recovered cats leapt.
Mathias's armour flickered, indicating that a full dose of Radiance now coursed through his conduits. In his dominant hand, his Dwarf-forged Spellsword warped the air with simmering heat.
In Dominic's leading hand, an Abjuring Rod was ready to deploy its defences.
But the Cats did not attack.
They were waiting for the Elemental.
With a shackle-sound of thorn-parrying-thorn, the lumbering giant crossed the distance in great strides, making for her party.
Her Ginseng rooted itself with a thump.
In the next-second, an enormous root, shaped vaguely like a carp, leapt from the cracked ground to intercept the thorny giant, collapsing it via its mid-section to pin the giant to the floor with an ear-splitting sound of wood breaking wood.
At the same time, hidden coils of arm-thick roots erupted all around her party, grasping for the Manx Cats.
Caught by surprise and dulled by the Dragon-fear, Elvia was sure the Manx Cats would be short-lived combatants.
Her jubilance proved no less short-lived.
Just as Sen-sen's tendrils recoiled around the sleek beasts, the creatures Blinked away.
"Well, shit." Dominic drew a second wand with his off-hand and marked the space in front of him in quick succession. "Reactive Barrier! Listen for—"
"Nine O'clock!" Dominic shouted.
Elvia was still trying to untangle the chaos when Mathias activated his Spellsword and Relic. With one hand, the Knight pressed his healer behind him while his sword drew a cross in the air. "Radiant Guardian!"
A shield bearing the heraldry of the Order of St Michael, as metaphysical as it was solid, briefly flittered into view as the Manx Cat materialised with a guttural snarl. Extending claws as long as fingers, it swatted at the Knight. The blow struck; Mathias grunted, parrying the murder-mitten even as it shaved away chunks of amber mana.
"Kiki!" Elvia's floral Sprite leapt into action. Now that it could sense their opponent, it quickly filled the trio's front-right flank with a thorn-trellis vibrant with poisonous flowers. The barrier was enough to deter the charge from Manx Cats, though from the sight of the emerald sap filling the air with every swipe, Kiki's sleep-inducing power was of no use.
Across from her party, the twin Druids continued to chant, regrowing the Thorn Elemental to subdue her Ginseng's counter-attack. Elvia suspected that if she were to send Sen-sen fully unleashed, she might be able to turn the tide. Unfortunately, she also had no idea if Sen-sen in such a state could be controlled, much less commanded to apply finesse. Besides her, Mathias retaliated with fiery Radiance, grunting whenever a tentacle or claw swiped at the Guardian spell keeping the trio safe.
For a dozen exchanges, tentacles flailed, tendrils curled and regrew, and two titans wrestled in the salt-strewn earth.
"My mana isn't going to keep up," Mathias growled when the lead Manx dodged a Lance of St George from his smouldering Spellblade. "I'll need to potion if they keep up the pace."
"Barrier!" Dominic barred a tentacle with his wand. "Same, I brought enough cartridges, but I doubt they'll let us reload."
"Sen!" Of their party, it was only Sen-sen that dominated, trashing the Thorn Elemental's futile efforts to reinforce the Blinking Manx Cats. Frustrated, Kiki misted the air with perfume and poison, though again, the anaesthetic appeared to have little impact on the snarling felines.
"We need more offence," Dominic observed. "Ser Rothwell?"
"I can't both attack and defend."
Elvia shook her head.
"Not even Magic Missile?"
"... I haven't practised."
"Well then." Dominic dissuaded a sucker-mouth with a pane of solidified air. "Miss Lindholm, you are aware of the alternate application of Biomancy on living creatures, yes?"
Crack! Sen-sen pummelled the Thorn Elemental with its roots, tearing off a limb with a drake-headed tendril. In an instant, the Thorn Elemental's sap painted the salt-strewn hilltop.
"Yes…" Elvia felt an ominous premonition.
"Then it's up to you to subdue the Blinking bastards." Dominic pointed at the Manx Cats. "Use Aid, blend everything you've got into it. Faith, Essence, Mana, the works. Benedictions-class Clerical spells suffer no cooldowns, correct?"
"Yes…" For very good reason, her mind reminded her of that time uncle Hans liquified a Mud Mage.
"Good. Your buffs are so strong they can be used to stagger. If the cats can be incapacitated, we can parley."
Elvia wasn't sure if Lorenzo's was the correct path forward. The decision, however, was quickly taken out of her hands when Mathias lost a chunk of his manifested armour to a hungry appendage.
Subdue the Druids with Sen-sen?
Or bless the Cats?
"AID!" she raised a hand, gesturing toward the tentacled-toms, calling upon the power of the Almighty and the bottomless vitality of Sen-sen to wish the Manx Cats well. "Aid!"
Instantly and involuntarily, a soft glow suffused the confused Manx Cats, energising their fatigued bodies. Visibly, the cats' bodies bulged, their pupils grew large, and even their fur turned glossy.
"Aid!" Another jolt of heavenly fortification struck the shapeshifted Druids. "AID! AID! AID!"
"Moorrrrwl!" A much-blessed Druid gnarred and grumbled, appearing as though suddenly intoxicated.
The rapid din of combat lulled. The Arch-Druid and the twins from across the battlefield watched with perplexed expressions.
"Moorrrrwl?" The leading Guardian paused its assault, suddenly sensing that a part of its polymorphed physiology had gone awry.
"Hoo boy…" Dominic swapped his wand for a lumen-recorder.
Elvia's face burned. She understood very well what happened when too much of Sen-sen's Essence was infused into her healing.
"Murrrrrl!" As much as the Guardian tried, it was impossible to ignore its perilously engorged seventh leg, a swollen club of tortured flesh. When the feline attempted to move, it's distended organ swung from side to side, dangerously scraping over the salt-encrusted floor, reducing its agility by half.
The two bothered beasts eyed their untouched companion, a lucid female empowered, but otherwise unmolested by Sen-sen's yang-energy. Suddenly apprehensive, the Guardian took an uncertain cat-step backward.
Mathias lowered his sword to stare.
"Good Lord, they've got barbs…" Dominic quietly intoned, "Let us wait and see if our Arch-Druid wants to continue. Miss Lindholm. Keep your blessing hand hot and ready for benediction."
On the far side, Sen-sen's tendrils wrapped around the Thorn Elemental's neck and waist, with a booming crash of splintering timber, it tore the thing in twain.
"Sen!" Ginseng flexed its tiny, root-knotted body.
Elvia wetted her lips. Ginsengs were well-known for fortifying male potency. Likewise, Draconic Essence was liquid libido, as evidenced by the infused creature-hordes occupying the territory of a landed Dragon.
Without pause, the female feline fled for the whereabouts of her Primach, while the other two Blinked away into the woods, leaving only a musky trace of their passing.
An awkward minute of silence hung listlessly between the two parties.
"Well fought," the Primach said at last. "You may... approach."
Still burning with embarrassment, Elvia smoothed out her working robes, a white-on-cerulean robe that covered her from chin to ankle. Mathias dispelled his Mage Armour and followed closely behind. Dominic carefully stowed his Lumen-recorder.
Closer, Elvia could see that the expressions on the Druids were sombre. The Manx she had rescued, including the siblings, hid stoically behind their kin, leaving Elvia to face their Elder.
"Thou has... circumvented our Guardians." The Elder Druid glanced at the sky for a moment before extending a twig-like hand. "Without harm, which is commendable. Thou may call me Golion, son of Iliynore, Primach of the Snaefell Enclave, Tìr-Mara's Protector and teacher to the Manx. I now greet thee in the custom of thine kinfolk."
"Elvia Lindholm. This is Ser Rothwell, my Knight, and Ser... Lorenzo." Elvia reciprocated by extending a hand.
The two gingerly shook. The Druid's skin felt like paper.
"Having satisfied thine ordeal, I now invite thee to partake in our generosity."
The twin Druids parted, revealing a path that led to a sole remaining elm struggling to hang on to the last vestiges of life. The sisters chanted in synchrony, raising their twin-staves until the tree's bark split open, revealing a depthless chasm.
The spell known as Tree Striding was an infamous Druidic staple that ensured no trees large enough to be a threat existed within the concrete walls of Douglas and Fort Nook.
Unsure of how to proceed, Elvia glanced at Dominic, who assured her with a nod.
"I accept your generosity, Primach Golion." Elvia bowed.
Still perplexed, the Primach led the way.
"Evee... never use Essence when you heal or buff me," her Knight reminded her as he passed, placing her between himself and Dominic. "You know our code. Death before dishonour."
Above the desolate sky lake, Colonel Susan Tarleton hovered with her Mage Flight, the loose cords from her combat jacket flapping angrily.
"You'll be taking responsibility?" she spoke not to a fellow Mage, but a crow perched atop her Sergeant. "That was the Gorlion and the twins, you know. We take any of the three and keep them entertained for any amount of time, and the fairies will fold like napkins."
"Caw! Caw!" croaked the jet-black crow, cocking its head.
"I politely decline." Tarleton's icy mien grew somehow colder. Everything about the blonde, from her glacial blue eyes to her tightly knotted bun, spoke of war-worn hardiness. "We in the Militant Faction are not your flunkies, Lord Marshall. If you wish her preservation, get the Order to do it themselves, or submit an official channel request."
"Caw!" The crow lifted itself, then fled toward the uncertain arc of the expanding horizon that housed the English coast.
"Fucking politicians." Tarleton spat, turning to her men, she orientated herself back toward Douglas. "Bird's the word, fellers. Hunt's off!"
Without a sound, the Colonel and her obfuscated Mage Flight departed, leaving the pilgrims below free to perform their insubordination.
"Crystal-Crystal— Crystals—" the chirpy sorceress hummed under her breath, delighting Eric Walken with the simplicity of its sinful rhythm. "It's a rich Mage's world—"
"My my, you're in a good mood." Walken kept pace beside his future employer. Presently, with Aella, Ariel and Caliban in tow, they were drawing eyes from all over the isle.
"It's been a good week, Eric." Gwen tapped along on her freshly unlocked Mary Janes, sending her long skirt aflutter. "Did you hear about Tonglv?"
"No. I am no longer privy to that sort of information." Walken shrugged. "More victims?"
"Ha!" the girl's bell-like laughter thrilled his ears. In the three years that he had known her, Gwen had seldom appeared happy, and so her sun-soaked visage was a rare treat. "This is waaaaaaay better. Remember how I told you about the Tonglv triumvirate and how they would be going after my share of the project?"
"Go on." Walken slowed his pace to take in their unimpressive surroundings. Here was where he was soon to be installed, no less in a dog house belonging to Lady Grey. Still, it was his duty to harness an impression of the region before he toured the place in an official capacity. "I am all ears."
"Mayuree Messaged, saying the trio made their move." The girl grinned mischievously, her eye glinting like whetted knives. "They pushed to confiscate my share, saying that I worked for foreigners. What they didn't know was that I already gave away my share to Ruxin."
"The Lord of Nagaland?" Walken filled his lungs with frigid air, tasting a stink unique to areas affluent with NoM activity. "The Dragon we encountered in Kachin? The one you cited as a relative of sorts?"
"That's right." The girl puckered her lips. "The greedy guts tried to extort my Ruì— you remember Ruì? They were six-miles high on their white horse until Ayxin and uncle came in—"
"You mean Captain Jun?"
"It's Dragon-whipped Jun now." Gwen's tone grew sulky with sugar. "… anyway, Ayxin and Jun showed up with an army of spooks from the Ministry of State Security and ran the lot of them through the bureaucratic blender."
"What, all of them?"
"Half the Fungs in Nantong, with Dai escaping the chopping block because he followed my advice." Gwen smugly struck out her chest. "Good corporate governance meant he need not be entertaining at the Front, and he will now inherit the Clan. Isn't that amazing? Who could have thought that NOT embezzling funds from a government infrastructural project by putting relatives in key places to short-sell stock and land could keep a man from Shenyang?"
Walken furrowed his brows. From what the girl was saying, it sounded like a massive Purge had happened on a mid-scale governmental level. If so, how many lives had been irrevocably changed? A thousand? Ten-thousand?
"It's not like I didn't warn them!" The girl's ebullient mood continued to fizz. "Zero tolerance for bullshit was my first lesson during our initial talk. I ran them through the importance of auditing, of gutting anyone that tries to subvert Ma's work, but no, they preferred eating the bitter fruit of avarice…"
Walken considered the girl's words, reading the not so hidden subtext.
"I think I understand." He halted their progress down Millwall's abandoned dockland. "At least, I understand your veiled threat."
The girl paused. Her lovely eyes drew blanks. "Wow... Shit, Eric. I didn't mean it like that…"
"It's quite alright. I wouldn't trust me either if I was in your position. Suspicion is a very healthy thing in a relationship like ours. We must gain mutually, as you have said, for true partnership. Audrey would prefer that, as well."
The girl chewed on her lower lip.
"Maybe a formal employment contract isn't so necessary," she said suddenly. "It was on Lady Grey's advice that we make one. I could probably persuade her to forgo the guarantee."
"I am sure you could," Walken refused the goodwill, finding himself surprisingly at peace with an otherwise shameful binding. Then again, his history spoke for itself. "But that's alright. She owns this place, and you're merely its manager— and I, your under-manager. Correct? Let's give the Lady peace of mind."
"It's nothing like that," Gwen reassured him with a smile. "Here's the thing. I've fashioned our investments into various divisions, each with vertically integrated stakeholders, with a core party as the proprietors of the parent company. The Isle of Dogs is merely an asset on loan, with monthly repayment tithes. What it means is that we're all shareholders, you as well, so long as you remain our partner and Executive. That's why you're my subordinate only in a corporate sense. Eric, if you're dissatisfied, it's important that—"
"Gwen, there's no more to explain." Walken shook his head, though the faint mirth on his face remained. "For now— we remain equals. The journey ahead is long, my dear. Let us walk in his hour, as though the future has no power..."
The words from his heart seemed to touch the girl somewhat, for he could see her throat bobbing.
"What's wrong?" Walken stopped to study the sorceress now staring out onto the half-frozen water. Sometimes, when he disregarded her uncommonly youthful face, Gwen's silhouette reminded him of someone older— much older, shouldering an unseen weight.
Fortunately, the sentiment passed once he recalled that Gwen was a Void Sorceress with a vitality-tank and that once he wedded his fate to the Shard's second Sobel, there would be no recourse, only sink or swim.
"How's Angie?" Gwen asked.
"No recurring symptoms so far, but it's only been a few weeks."
The girl nodded. "To answer your earlier question. I was wondering what life would be like if we could speak like this before the fall of Sydney. Do you think things still would have happened as they did?"
Walken settled himself beside his conversation partner, though he possessed no answers for her particular line of enquiry.
"Missing your Master?"
She inclined her chin. "And Allie, and Gunther, and Sufina."
"Well, I wasn't exactly a friend," he reminded her. "I don't think you would have listened to anything I said, not with Alesia screeching beside your ear to Void me at the first opportunity. If ever we were to speak, it would be through Henry, I think. Alas…"
"I still haven't forgiven you," Gwen said suddenly.
"For what you tried to do in Shanghai."
Walken turned his head ever so guiltily. "Would a heartfelt apology suffice?"
Without hesitation, he cleared his throat.
"Eric, stop…" The girl interrupted Walken before he could continue.
Walken waited for his student to speak.
Behind them, their Familiars frolicked, too preoccupied with the open space to be bothered by the subtle emotions coursing through their Empathic Links.
"… I wasn't serious."
"Well, I was—"
Walken's words became lost in a sudden jumble of sound, interrupted by a line of lorries rushing past the snow-strewn road, freshly shovelled by the inhabitants. As one struck a pothole, clods of river mud, as well as sprays of snowmelt, half-washed over the two Mages, forcing them to erect quick barriers or risk becoming soiled.
"Cali, get back!" Gwen commanded her Void fiend to stop chasing the accelerating flatbed.
The trucks' destination was the print works, now a hive of activity compared to the abandoned docklands. Turning the corner, they saw a ring of NoMs a dozen bodies thick, gawking at something nearer the entrance.
"I do believe our guests from the Murk have arrived ahead of schedule." Walken pointed at the dozen or so segmented trucks now visible outside the print works. Once they rush past the warehouse, he caught sight of the Dwarf-made Golem Engines unloading from the trucks.
These were the "Fabricators", the distinguished units used by Dwarven crafters. As an ex-Overseer of the Grey Faction, he knew well how the Dwarves managed their resource-colonies, called Citadels. Each of the engines had a particular function, from digging to smithing to construction, creating the necessary structures and machine-beds used for Dwarven manufacturing. A complete six-Golem host, given the span of a month, could carve out a new outpost in the Murk capable of sustaining itself for centuries, assuming supplies and raw materials were plentiful.
"Let's hurry!" The girl quickened her pace. "I hope they're not upset."
"With whom? With one holding the Debt of Haj-Zül? You would have to go beyond all conceivable dignity." He followed Gwen's clacking heels as they crossed the rough asphalt.
"Let's hope it never gets to that." Gwen's reply had a hint of paranoia to her tone. When he followed her eyes, he could see that she was looking at the NoMs. It wasn't so much that the isle's folk would harass the lauded Engineseers, but that there was a lot of Dwarven cargo, and should something go missing—
Walken took a deep breath.
Here was London. If an NoM was caught stealing from a Mage, hard labour awaited. Should the Mage strike out at said NoM, a stiff HDM and CC penalty applied. In the event of the transgressor's death, a tribunal could theoretically sentence the offender to six-months of Stasis. However, rare was said sentence— non-existent even, unless politics was involved.
If one of these peasants were to offend an august personage by doing something nigh-unthinkable in Dwarven society— stealing— what would Gwen do to her new citizenry?
The Eric part of Walken wished his student would never have to face such a dilemma. As for Magister Walken, he could barely suppress the morbid anticipation of seeing his boss' first trial.
The Isle of Man.
The visitation to the Grot was going as well as expected.
Once inside, questioning glares from the Grot's inhabitants had greeted the new arrivals, replete with menacing stares, glowers, the rattling of quivers, the hiss of critters, and mothers hiding their children behind leafy-attires.
The interior landscape of the Grot was frankly sublime, made lesser only by its compactness, consisting of a verdant valley of proliferating emerald greenery hanging from plinths-mantles rich with orchids. All around the Grot's edge, skyward junipers reached for the vibrant cerulean distance, appearing as though cumulus clouds of shamrock on chartreuse adorning columns of towering wood. "Tìr-Mara", the Wood Elves called their home, a garden of wood and sea— their humble island abode.
Of their party, Kiki appeared to be wholly enjoying herself, flittering from leaf to leaf, lapping at the dew and hugging the occasional flower. Comparatively, Sen-sen scoffed at the offering, compared to the vitality and grandeur of the Yinglong's valley, Elvia presumed, the home of the indigenous Elves must feel like the Isle of Dogs.
Nonetheless, Evee considered that she should be lucky to be invited into an Elf home, something not even Gwen has had the pleasure of experiencing.
Once seated, Golion, scion of Iliynore, Primach of the Snaefel Enclave, presented them with sticky meads of wild-honey and fresh fruits from the orchard, delighting the visitors. They then discussed the matter of a certain Colonel Susan Tarleton, and the campaign of terror said Colonel had covertly carried out to flush the Manx from the southern portion of the isle.
Taking a leaf from Gwen's book of Essence-bribery, Elvia begged from Sen-sen a hair-thin tendril, which she then used to infuse a jug of floral mead.
As expected, the Elves grew mightily thrilled by the foreign Essence, rapidly warming up to both herself and her Familiars. Once the scented alcohol ran dry, laughter flowed freely.
What made Elvia curious, once each of their company introduced themselves, was that of the thirteen present, only three were the Manx. All the other who's who of Tìr-Mara's Druidic council consisted of the indigenous Träälvor.
Once the conversation turned to the released prisoners, Elvia candidly confessed to Siofra's suffering— and the fact that she had healed then saved the young woman from the burden of bearing a poisoned fruit.
As expected, the Manx clamoured for war.
The Elves appeared more appreciative of her morbid kindness.
Their concern was that the ISTC station appeared to be drawing far too much mana from the land, resulting in unpleasant changes to the isle's elemental physiology.
On and on the council laid out their grievances, until, at the end of a long-winded airing, Dominic raised a hand.
"Speak, Ser Lorenzo—" the wizened Arch-Druid had done his best with his unruly council. "Withhold nothing. We hath lent thee our ears— now gift us thine thoughts."
"Thank you." The reporter stood. "Protector of the Manx, most gracious Primach, as time is short, please forgive this humble one for conferring the stark reality the Manx face should they refuse the Colonel's threefold partition."
The table grew silent— the Druids, including the two who had earlier fled with their erection between their legs, all ceased their melodic, chant-like chattering.
"I present these findings with the most ardent humility." Lorenzo bowed from the waist. "— please think of what you're about to see as an act of complete earnestness and kindness, I wish only the best for our Elvish allies."
Elvish, Elvia noted. But what about the Manx?
With that, Lorenzo materialised a Lumen-projector, inserted a recording crystal, then waited several seconds for the Druids to protest. When none intervened, he pressed the Glyph for "play".
A familiar scene sprang into view. A city in ruins, dark tunnels, a malevolent miasma punctuated by strange moans. A montage of a city overrun then rapidly panned through every monstrosity from Abominations to Corpse Hulks to Zombies legions a kilometre wide.
"You would unleash Defilers onto our island home?" The Elder stated calmly, his purple eyes hidden behind two narrow slits of flesh. Across the rest of the table, his Druids began to clamour.
"Nothing of the sort, please observe."
A piece of eerie background music began to play. The projection flashed, the vision panned upward toward a sickly grey sky, then down slowly toward the silhouette of a stricken Frontier.
"… Shenyang…" A voice-over in the sultry voice of the female announcer pronounced with dread, gravid with desolation. "A city lost to the dead, taken by the numberless followers of Juche; a Necropolis lorded over by a deathless Lich…"
Mathias blinked at Elvia, who stared back, equally confused.
Why was Dominic Lorenzo playing a recording of Gwen's IIUC Match?