Dominic Lorenzo, a veteran member of her Majesty's Sixth Cabal, congratulated himself with an invisible pat on the back.
All that groundwork he had laid on the Isle of Man, the interviews, the gratuitous drinking, the "friends" he made in the Brig, the covert recordings of their activities, all of it was coming to fruition faster than a reporter could push onto his editor. It was insane how fast things moved whenever Gwen Song's unseen hand got involved. Considering that Tarleton, the "Ogre of Niger" was at the helm, he had expected the scandal to stew for many more months while fatigue blunted the jingoism. And like all good smut, the public just couldn't get enough.
Now, via the vehicle of Elvia Lindholm's best intentions, he had arrived at the heart of the fray, no longer an observer, but a participant capable of steering the course of events; an agent of history, rather than its eyewitness.
The prospect was peculiar because usually, both of Lorenzo's jobs required distance and objectivity. As a member of her Majesty's Ordo of tattle-tellers, he and his ilk were sworn only to the Crown, existing as threads on her Majesty's gown of eyes and ears. Together, they informed her highness of which wild growths weighing down her magnificent trunk was next in line for pruning.
The isle was one such bower that needed trimming, though compared to the ongoing horrors that were the Niger Delta, the Coastal Mermen and the Elementals of the Fire Sea, it was merely a stubborn twig. What magnified its notoriety was the proximity of it to the trunk, which weighed on the Crown not because of the scale of the victory or loss, but because of chest-beating populism propagated by parties behind the Herald Sun.
"MANX OR MAN?"
"TERROR ON DOUGLAS"
"THIEVES IN THE NIGHT"
Dominic recalled wincing every time he saw his publication, the Guardian, beside the red font of the Herald Sun like a slap to the face. His articles, with titles like "The Isle of Lives Lost", simply did not pluck the same heartstrings as a portrait of parents holding the inert body of their arrow-riddled son. And don't even get started on tragedy paired with bared bosoms on Page Three!
A worrisome fact of the isle's conflict was that the Factions themselves, initially put in place by the Towers' architects to decentralise power, now pandered to goals of their own. His superior had said that it was the inevitable consequence of long-range communication and ISTC stations, allowing the Factions to find like-minded allies across the globe.
Take the Isle of Man, for example, and the unfounded aggression against the Manx. The war should have been preventable, but the militants had come to see themselves not as a branch of service to the legislative assembly of the Empire— but a part of some ideological holy war waged for Humanity, a global behemoth, too big to fail, that fed on Human and Demi-human lives. Thanks to the proliferation of rags like the Herald Sun and its backers, inclusive of industrialists, noblemen, politicians and foreign investors, the public had been split in twain, dichotomously sundered into those clamouring for human supremacy, and those who turned a blind eye.
And the Greys, for better or worse, pursued power as the prophets of the profit gospel. On the surface, they were the proponents of peace, advocates for integration. Beneath the beneath, Dominic secretly documented what Creature Cores the men trafficked, and what specimens in the form of appealing Demi-humanoids became available thanks to the war. These, more often than not, were transacted into London for the nobility's exhaustive entertainments.
Juxtaposing all that was Elvia, her eyes wet with second-hand remorse as she related events at the Brig. The commanding, crystal gaze the girl affected reminded Lorenzo of a simpler time, where for a stint, he had been a scalpel, scouring rotten flesh from the Mageocracy's bloated hide.
That was when he had first met Alesia De Botton. It was the nineties, and the Sixth Cabal had tracked down the remnants of a coven responsible for war crimes hailing back to the German occupation of Europe. Lorenzo had brokered the discovery, and seeing that ex-members of the Shultz family's inner circle were involved, the power merchants in Britain extended a courtesy to the Paladin of Sydney.
With star-struck eyes, Lorenzo had anticipated the arrival of the man they called the Morning Star. Instead, he met a fiery redhead in her early twenties.
It had taken him several meetings to connect that vibrant, vivacious visage with that of the striking, flame-wreathed face used on propaganda posters.
The Scarlet Sorceress! Lorenzo cautioned himself. Kilroy's infamous attack dog! The Coral Sea Witch!
As it turned out, working with Alesia was pure sublimity.
The Cabal would uncover a nail—
And Alesia would hammer it down, no questions asked, performing her task with such conviction that Dominic wondered if the sorceress belonged to one of the Knight Orders. Amazingly, even when that very finger of the Crown pointed itself at family members who had aided, and indeed profited, from the coven of Rogue Mages and their ill-reputed work, the Scarlet Sorceress was ruthless. Whether she simply did not care, or that her sense of justice was beyond the politics of context, she left only smouldering infernos in her wake.
After six months, their operation was concluded; the gangrene was scoured from the flesh, and the Mageocracy, now freed from boil and pustule, could heal. Calls for her head came from every Faction, but once she returned to Sydney, all complaints disappeared into the depth as though weighted with lead.
As a once ambitious public servant, Lorenzo was in love.
In the intervening years, the Scarlet Sorceress had sought him out many more times, from expurgations to headhunts to naive blonde healers. To Lorenzo, the Scarlet Sorceress' ethos was unfazed and unchanged by time. Comparatively, the deeper he supplanted himself from his labour as a journalist, the further he drifted from the Sandhurst scholarship boy who had sworn to protect the Empire's people.
Then in November, he had received a private Missive from De Botton, stating that her sister-in-craft would be making her way to London and that the forces were trying to groom her into a second Sobel.
"Looking out for her would be a direct conflict of interest," Lorenzo recalled confessing with complete candidness.
"Oh, no, no, no." Alesia's laughter had flooded the Message spell. "You just keep an eye out. Gwen's slipperier than a Hagfish Merstrider. She'll have them lapping Essence out of her hand soon enough."
Lorenzo had wondered what Alesia meant by lubrication and lapping—
Until he had met the girl on Red Peak, corralling Greenskins and pulling Dwarves from the jaws of annihilation, smiting Trolls via Void Dogs, leaving not even a shred of flesh behind, while concurrently at London, the girl snagged the old printing press at the Isle of Dogs, secured the domain as her demesne, then thrice scandalised the Lord Marshall. Furthermore, far from disproving herself as the bastard of Ravenport, she leveraged the rumour, leading to the Lord Marshall expending favours to speak to him, a mere ghostly grunt, in person. Finally, as a reporter, he could only gawk at the snowballing momentum of Gwen's misadventures in enthralling the Herald Sun, the Telegraph, and The Guardian, playing both victim and benefactor.
Just as Lorenzo was beginning to wonder if the girl would take a breather, she left him a Message while he was digging up dirt on Tarleton.
"Sup, Dom! I am starting a modest newspaper business, likely the largest in London. Keen to be my Editor?" Gwen had told him. "Also, I need you to look out for my five-century-old-Mythic-Essence-enhanced-Cleric on the isle. Cool?"
The news that the headliner herself would now print the papers took Dominic some time to digest, but he was interested. He felt keen as an enchanted bean, if he had to be honest, because Gwen's paper was free, and because it was for the NoMs to read. A newspaper for the NoMs? By the grace of England's Virgin Rose! Why hadn't HE thought of that? Then again, so what if he did? Did he have the crystals? The clout? The connections? Political ambition? He wondered what the powers-that-be would think of Kilroy's seed weighing in on London's political discourse, but possessed no real answers— domestic policies were the domain of the Fifth Cabal.
The Sixth's task was the subversion of friend and foe outside London's borders and within its Frontiers.
A task to which he now committed himself.
Across the oaken table, his captive audience grew glummer the longer the vid-caster played. Lorenzo had chosen the broadcast used for the IIUC recap after Gwen's coronation as the MVP. It had everything: whether it was Gwen choking the "Death" out of the Soul Eater— or her bringing forth the Shoggoth— or her duelling the lich— and when she stood beside Lady Grey to receive the Contingency Ring.
Using Gwen as a deterrent had been on Lorenzo's mind since he witnessed her prowess on Red Peak. As an agent of the Cabal and as a scholarship boy, Lorenzo always did his homework. Three decades ago, Henry Kilroy had subdued many realms with the help of his all-consuming wife. Naturally, this included conflict hotspots like the Isle of Man, on which the repressed Manx had taken the opportunity to throw off the Empire's yoke. Ergo, by that history and logos, Lorenzo was willing to bet his Astral Soul Golion had seen Sobel in her prime.
Now, he and his party waited for Golion; descendent of Iliynore, Primach of the Snaefel Enclave to respond.
"The Usurper Sobel, is it?" The Arch-Druid's tone was wary.
Dominic nodded, waited a moment for his heart to calm, then shook his head to refute the Primach's observation.
"Not Sobel, lord Druid." Lorenzo pushed the recorder-player forward and left it sitting on the table. "Magus Gwen Song, a sorceress with far more potential, greater empathy, and autonomy. A pacifist at heart, a businesswoman and a dreamer well-concerned with the common folk."
Lorenzo stood aside so that the whole table could see Elvia.
"As evidenced by her dearest friend, our priestess, the kindhearted Miss Elvia Lindholm."
The Primach regarded their Cleric. Elvia held her own by meeting his gaze.
The Arch-Druid leaned forward, his purple eyes twinkling dangerously. "Art thou advising our Grot is forfeit? That Tir-Mara itself is forfeit should the Manx refuse to concede?"
"No! Gwen wouldn't." As Lorenzo anticipated, Elvia protested, rising from her seat. "She would never do that, not to people, never. She's not Sobel. We found Sobel in Sydney. Gwen hates her guts— she killed Gwen's Master!"
Lorenzo bade the shaken Cleric sit.
"Please understand, Arch-Druid, that we have come in opposition to Colonel Tarleton. Your people, the Manx, were slated for executions, and Miss Elvia, a volunteer healer, whisked them away from the jaws of extinction to your Grot. As for myself, I am but a humble minstrel of the written word— one who has seen too often how far the Mageocracy is willing to go."
Lorenzo placed a hand on Elvia's shoulder, an act that drew an unfriendly stare from her Knight.
"The war— this war— it is deeply ambivalent for our people. The Mageocracy is averse to having atrocities so close to home. With the news of Tarleton's rapine breaking in London as we speak, there will be only a short window where public sentiment has turned its tide."
He turned to the trio of Manx Elders present on the table. Consciously, he switched to high Sylvan, aided by his upper-tier Translation Stone.
"Milords of the Manx, as a political correspondent, I must provide you with the truth, no matter how unpleasant. You rail against the ISTC— an understandable grievance— but the ISTC station is here to stay. Its presence is pivotal to the Mageoracy because uniquely, your home offers interference-free translocation between Edinburgh, Dublin and London—"
Lorenzo retrieved a handful of the Druids' fruity offerings.
First, he rearranged the sweet stalks of Wildland rhubarb into the shape of the Union Jack. "Here we have London with its outward expanding Mageocracy, perched like a fat spider."
The reporter then placed a golden apple and a red-skinned pear to the east.
"And here lies Ireland, home to Tuatha Dé Danann, your mound-hearth cousins on the Isle of Dusk and Dawn, vassals to Sythinthimryr, she who guards the Great Tree on Carrauntoohil."
Closer to the rhubarb-asterisk, a juicy feijoa rolled into place.
"And here endures the ivory hall of the Hvítálfars in white-spired Snowdonia."
Lastly, Lorenzo let fall a handful of grapes and lychees, signifying the Mageocracy's concerns to the north. "And finally, beyond Glasgow and Edinburgh, lie the Sundered Hills, home to our most common foe, the custodians of Cairn Gorm, the Son-Kings of Balor the Fomorian."
While the Primach pondered the fruit-founded cartographic display, murmuring in near-silent Sylvan to the other Elves, Lorenzo circulated mana to calm his broiling mind. Finally, with steady fingers, he placed a grape in between each location.
"And equal distant… is Douglas, whose ley-lines are free from the influence of Loch Lomond, Carrauntoohil and Snowdonia, existing in perfect, triangulated harmony."
Lorenzo wetted his parched lips.
Could these native Träälvor be moved? Would they pull the Manx back and delay the inevitable for another half-century while the ley-line altered the southern ecosphere?
"And what do you say of the threat of Sobel?" The Primach returned in high Sylvan, a dialect the Manx only half-understood.
"There is nought to be said, milord," he replied. "What I've shown you has been shown across the world, from your Enclaves in Snowdonia to the Wildfire Gulch on Wilkinkarra, it is no secret that such a being now bides her time in the Mageocracy."
The Arch-Druid turned to Elvia.
"Gwen would never unleash the Shoggoth here, not against the innocent." The girl rose to the occasion once more. "Lord Druid, I swear by the Nazarine, by his Almighty Father, and on my Astral Soul."
Lorenzo could see the Primach's eyes turn in his skull.
Were they doing it? Lorenzo gulped. Could the old Elf be convinced?
"Lord Primach!" Across the table, nearer the end, the three Manx Druids rose on indignant feet. "The south is our home. We've lived here since you've known our ancestors."
"—You can't leave us!"
"...You would resist the Humans until the last Manx?" The Primach cocked his head, his lilac pupils pulsing with an inner light. "Or do you suppose that Snaefell Enclave would fight your enemies until its last Elf? We are the Guardians of Tìr-Mara, Alderman Eòghan. We promised to protect your people, but the Träälvor shall not be a shield for the Manx's troubles."
"We cannot hold our home if you leave!" Another of the Manx Druids was beginning to panic. "What they're doing to us, to our people— Primach, you cannot abide by—"
"And now you tell me what my people can and cannot do." Golion shook his head before glancing at Lorenzo's party. "Did you forget our pact? Just as our sovereigns in that paradise of Snowdonia had left us with autonomy, so we have not interfered in your dealings with the Humans. YOU chose to fight them. They have made their proposal, Eòghan. What is yours?"
"O-our what? Primach?"
"What do you offer your benefactors, other than destruction and ruin? Can you deliver the peace we desire?"
"You're... abandoning us?" the Manx Druid named Eòghan turned to fume at Lorenzo, Elvia and finally Mathias, who sat silently beside his Cleric, stoic as a statue, one hand on the pommel of his Spellblade.
"... Whatever your accusation, your Manx brothers and sisters shall have shelter, food, and space…" Golion touched a hand to his brow. "Eòghan, do you wish that we should fight for your home when you cannot? Why should the Träälvor of Tìr-Mara bleed for you half-bloods? Our Hvítálfar cousins do not fight for us. Why should we for you?"
"Primach." Eòghan's long and elegant eyes grew hard with hate. "These humans, they will come for the north eventually."
"Perhaps." Golion's interest appeared to wane. "Or reasonably, like every Human empire since they confronted us with sticks and stones and your ancestors were their's and not ours, the threat will cease to exist— the land will heal— and no Elf need perish unnaturally."
While the Manx grew pale, and the Primach returned his attention to Lorenzo.
"Do enjoy the fruits of thine labour and ours." The Arch-Druid took the words right out of Lorenzo's mouth. With that, the Primach stood, an act echoed by the other Elves, then began an agonising march away from the table to a private conference elsewhere in the meeting hall.
The three Manx Druids followed with bows and scrapes, pleading with their elders.
When Lorenzo sat back down, all the tension drained from his body at once, leaving him semi-paralysed. Had he done it? After all these years, was he now the one directing the headline?
On his right, Elvia's delicate face drifted closer, full of confusion and question. "Mister Lorenzo, what did they say? Why are the Manx so upset?"
"They came to an inevitable conclusion, dear Evee. All thanks to the opportunity you provided with your selfless kindness." Lorenzo gazed benevolently upon the girl who would assume credit for his hidden labour. "I should congratulate you, Miss Lindholm, you've done it. After this, you can stand beside Magus Song on your own two feet."
"Done what?" The girl's breathing grew rapid. She wasn't stupid, and from the looks on the Manx's faces and the Elves who averted their eyes, she should be able to guess what the outcome had been. Nonetheless, Lorenzo chose kindness.
"Why the war, Miss Lindholm. It's done, at least for two decades. Only two paths now lie ahead of the Manx. Relocation— or eradication."
As was promised to Gwen, the Dwarves-on-loan at the Isle of Dogs numbered a total of twelve.
Two Runesmith Enchanters.
Seven Senior Apprentices.
And one Master Alchemist.
Of the number, Nesatin Smeltshield and Doussed Wyvernbreaker, both Tuners, made up the Engineseers who would be revitalising the printing press, aided by their Journeymen, Vaz, Thakaen, Kilmug and Grutgruli; an all-beard contingent of volunteers eager to tour the Overland and its pubs.
The Runesmiths consisted of two white-beards; Thulgig Flinthide and Danmurim the Glum, with the latter possessing a ruinous face thanks to a grim machine accident. They too were joined by their Apprentices, Grut, Skori and Ori, of which the last two wore fake beards because Human males had unquenchable thirsts.
Finally, a Golem, better yet the bottom half of a modified Golem Suit, rumbled beside Gwen. Upon the platform, standing head and shoulders above her host, Yossari Vildrenbrandt introduced herself as their Alchemist. Unlike the other female Dwarves, her pilot's jacket made no move to hide her femininity, a fact that drew considerable attention not only from the grinning Dwarven men but from the NoM crowd as well. Much to her delight, Yossari revealed herself to be the "Master" sent by Guild Master Whurforlüm.
While Walken briefed the others, Gwen settled beside the thrumming leader of the Dwarf party. Reaching up, they shook.
"Hanmoul's my nephew." The smiling matron shook Gwen's hand via an articulated gauntlet. "He's told me a lot about you, Magus Song."
"I hope its all good." Gwen laughed.
"All interesting, at the very least." Yossari paused, leaned in, then appeared to fixate on her IIUC Ring. "Huh, that's one of ours."
"Ours?" When she tried to withdraw her hand, she found her fingers well arrested.
"Your Contingency Ring, the setting is of Dwarf-make." The Alchemist turned her hand over, taking a closer gander. "Ah yes, here it is— Master Gemsmith Lindknottr of Vaduz. Very interesting how our cousins in Bavaria are getting along. Love to go there after this. And this Storage Ring— my, it's an old one, from before the war in Europe, not one of ours though."
With a smile and a gentle yank, Gwen freed her hand. "You must be very knowledgable about Magical Items, Master Vildrenbrandt."
"It's a hobby." The Alchemist's eyes swept the print works. "So, is this where we're holed up?"
"I've booked a hotel." Gwen pointed at the horizon, where several structures jutted skyward, one of which was the Thames Regency, whose accommodations for Demi-human dignitaries came with recommendations from Lady Grey.
Yossari audibly snorted. "Aye, Hanmoul did say yer one to overthink. Der yer believe yonder Murk-boots would be willing ter leave the Earth Mother's embrace when they're away from home? Nay Lass, just tell us where to dig."
"Dig?" Gwen looked about the vicinity of the printing works. The parking bay was enormous, but not that enormous.
"Yer got jurisdiction over this lot?" Vildrenbrandt pointed to a section beside the outer dock's rectangular mass of half-frozen water.
Gwen followed the articulated mechanical digit. Hanmoul's aunt was eyeing a section of the old freight road labelled by the London Metropolitan Council as "A-12-06". Presently, it was home to a row of townhouses abandoned once jobs dried up.
"I don't think you'd want to live there," Gwen replied with a note of caution. "Filth, vermin and poor construction aside, those folks at the Shard would crucify me if our Dwarven guests are put up in anything but the best we can offer. Did you know there was talk of accomodating you in St James' Palace?"
"Ha!" Vildrenbrandt chuckled, dialling a few nobs here and there. "We're a humble lot. How much space do you think was in our keep? We're far more comfortable sleeping in our workshops. Look, can yer offer us that block of land or not?"
"It IS vacant, and I do manage it, but there's not much bedrock." Gwen mimed her warning with her hands, wiggling fingers to show the groundwater. "You're not thinking of starting now, surely? I've got a Habitat, and I can probably get a few more on loan—"
"You're the local Thane then? That makes it easy." The Alchemist clunked past her without so much as a pause. "ALRIGHT, LADS! Over yonder's where we'll construct our outpost! Nesatin! Doussed! Yer on the Fabs with me! Thulgig! Danmurim! Get on the Diggers. Journeymen! Yer on material duty!"
The Journeymen ran for their Golems, while the titled smiths merely nodded and made their way to the Fabricator Engines. A thundering hiss of steam blew up Gwen's skirt. By the time she tamed the fabric, Walken had returned to her side, furrowed like a scrunched ball of paper.
"You got permission for the Dwarves to build a fort in the middle of London?" The Magister raised a very valid point. "Since when was the Municipal office that pliant?"
THUMP! THUMP! THUNK!
Gwen's reply was lost in the din of a four-metre Golem, the first of its kind to invade England's capital city, thundering past the shore-break on its stumpy, cobble-crushing feet. In storage, the Fabricator-Golem had appeared to Gwen a giant steel box painted in sunburst yellow, scuffed with the signs of hard labour and smelling faintly of crude oil. Now unfolded, the 10-ton Golem was a monstrosity with a pair of bi-folding piston-feet each the size of vans. Hissing steam and howling jets of superheated mana from its exhaust, it lumbered forward in lurches, leaving footprints large enough to form future archaeological dig-sites.
Behind it, a second engine unpacked, tall and lithe with the look of an orange-black six-limbed mantis. This one, Gwen guessed, should be a transformed crane of sorts, for its arms and limbs could be extended via means of inter-locking hydraulics.
The third and fourth "Digger" Fabricators were a smaller, bipedal model with an enormous mana-tank almost three-quarters the size of its entire body. Its foursome of forelimbs consisted of nine-segment manipulator-arms with tiny crystalline tips, making Gwen suspect they were specialised Spellswords of some sort.
Comparative to the bitumen-chomping behemoths, the smaller construction Golems piloted by the Journeymen were akin to the combat suits used by Hanmoul and his men, only odd-looking, boxy, and cumbersome, tottering along on stumpy legs busy with exposed pistons and a large mana tank nearer the back. These possessed the usual assortment of manipulator gauntlets, underneath of which were slotted Spellsword crystals.
Sorceress and Magister watched with wonder as the Alchemist-driven Fabricator anchored itself with self-digging bolts to the ground. With a monstrous shudder, it pivoted from the waist; then blasted a trio of brick townhouses with a pure stream of Transmutation magic. In front of their very eyes, the council-housing wilted. Glass, brick, terracotta, bits of metal and even the old fence collapsed into sand and silt.
"Are you sure those are unoccupied?" Walken tapped Gwen on the shoulder. "Did someone do a survey?"
"Wally said..." Gwen's blood suddenly ran cold. Spinning on her heels, she turned to her crowd of NoMs. "OI! YOU LOT! ARE ANY OF THOSE OCCUPIED?"
Most of the NoMs shook their head.
To her chagrin, a few nodded.
In the next moment, Gwen parted the crowd like a biblical Magi, isolating the group that had nodded. In her presence, the NoMs quailed. "WHO? Who is living in there?"
"Derek and his family were taking turns with another lot of vagrants from Blackfriars." The NoM day-labourer pointed to the whereabouts of the quickly liquifying buildings. "I don't know if they're still in there though."
"SHIT!" Gwen turned to face the Golems, Clarion Call on full blast. "Master Vildrenbrandt! STOP! There are possibly people in there! Please refrain from liquidating my citizens!"
"Arrghk, they'll be alright," the Alchemist's voice came from above, projected through a Vox output. With an ear-splitting roar, a blast of raw mana tore through the rapidly atomising structure. Over the Thames, an enormous cloud of fine particles settled over the frigid water, revealing the base structure of the abandoned townhouses. Old mud, dried brick, rotten plumbing and sewerage pipes covered the lowest floor, looking like a wasp nest cleaved in twain.
Also exposed was the wide-eyed, newly-nude family taking shelter in the abandoned townhouse, squinting at the sight of a screaming Fabricator Golem, a hundred-strong throng of NoMs, and their mistress and manager of the Isle of Dogs.
"Our Transmute to Dust only works on the non-organic matter. Nothing living will be harmed," Vildrenbrandt noted smugly. "Not without a little tweaking, anyway. None of your folk hail from the Elemental Plane of Earth, do they?"
True to the Alchemist's word, there were masses of unnamable organic matter, their true compositions too horrible to consider, that now lay about in splotches. Likewise, though much of the fabric on the poor NoMs had been disintegrated, somehow enough remained, making the audience wonder.
The sewerage began to pulse.
Gwen suddenly recalled that in Dwarfland, the water closets were all unplumbed, quasi-magical devices.
Across the Thames, the wind blew in.
With her supernatural sense of smell, Gwen was the first to gag. In an instant, she and the crowd were turned captive victims by the raw and horrid smell of an NoM-empowered Stinking Cloud formed of human excreta, fermented by time, mixed with urine, garbage, refuse, enlivened by fleeing dock rats the size of cats.
"Ironborn! Deep Gas Protocols!" The Alchemist was the first to call out. "Looks like we've hit a seam! Journeymen! Get those humans out of here!"
The Golem units switched to internal filters.
"Walken!" Gwen staggered from the inadvertent biological warfare breaking out over the lower docks, every meal from Sunday to now threatening to return to the above-ground world. Every breath was agony; every syllable filled her tongue with foul-tasting particles. "Wind Wall! WALKEN! Gurrrk— WIND WALL!"