The exit from the Grot involved enduring silence from Gunther and Gwen while Alesia said goodbye to Sufina with tears and kisses for their Master. When finally they emerged from the Grot into the natural light, Gwen inhaled the insufferably humid air with rare relish. Beside her, Gunther readjusted his Message Device, then informed them that they were several hours off— and that the time in Sufina's home appeared to pass slower than in the material world, a testament to Sufina's undiminished prowess.
After that, the trio made for the thunderstruck Akimvrishka, where Gunther announced they would soon leave to attend to their duties as Officers of Sydney Tower, leaving Gwen behind to cater to the consequences of her compassion.
While the ship conditioned itself for the voyage from Abang to Singapore, the siblings took a moment to bounce one another's thoughts against the forecastle.
"If anyone can clarify all of Master's intrigues from his early years as Morden's ward to his last days with Sobel, it would be Sufina." Their resident Tower Master paced back and forth, pondering the new hand they had just been dealt. "All I can say is that Sufi is far too cunning a being for our little sister to wrestle by her lonesome self."
"Yeah, I mean— if she can Essence Tap from Al, a legit Mythic," Gwen agreed by raising both brows in genuine worry. "For sure Sufi's got nasty tricks hidden up her canopy."
"At least Master's safe," Alesia disapproved of her siblings' antagonism. "That counts for something."
"Oh, of course, he's looking better than he had in years," Gwen remarked drily. "That's no joke either. I wouldn't be surprised if he got up and started calling our names."
Gunther chose not to comment. "It's too bad we can't keep a closer eye on Sufi. Her sanctum is all but impenetrable by Divination."
"Just as well. I mean, we're keeping our Master's condition between us, right?"
"No worries there, what's there to tell?" Alesia scoffed with a snort. "Borderline Necromancy isn't exactly something to boast about."
"I've no doubt Sufi can perform Necromancy if she inclined. If she has access to Master's conduits and spells, I don't see why she can't figure out a workaround for Negative Energy." Gunther leaned against the rails. "Your thoughts?"
"My head is this big right now." Gwen mimed with her hands the act of holding an overripe melon. "That said, Essence Tap isn't Soul Tap per se. Its sorcery used by the Dark Elves. I am using it as a way to catalyse Greenkin Totemcraft, and my variant has been certified by The Shard. Granted they're similar, as both spells share root Sigils in their IMS conversions. The distinction is there; however, Professor Brown was very particular. With Essence Tap and Sympathetic Life-Link, we're going to figure out a way to help other Void Mages."
"I meant the flesh-stitching," the Ex-Paladin corrected himself. "It takes a practised hand to instantly repair organs afflicted with Negative Energy, not to mention Void Mana. Did you know that it's far easier to manipulate Negative Energy than to neutralise it with Clerical sorcery? That's why the Necros are so adept at using Death Magic without catastrophic self-harm. I don't know anyone capable of performing such a feat as the Master had managed, especially when the surgeon is concurrently the dying patient."
"He is 'Deathless' Henry," Gwen concurred. "A guy two centuries in the making has got unplumbed depth for sure. I mean, not even you knew about his Hungary adventures until the Chandler incident."
"That's true." Gunther nodded. "Albeit Master never asked for our past either. I guess it's a little too late to regret not exchanging a few secrets. I respected him too much to keep digging."
"What's your big-bad secret?" their Void sorceress grinned wolfishly. "Is it about your family in Europe?"
"Do you have a good secret to trade?" Her Brother-in-craft regarded their smirking sister. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours."
"Oi! That's unfair," Alesia interrupted them. "You two know everything about me! I don't have anything to bargain with!"
"You haven't told Allie about Europe either?" Gwen said incredulously.
"That part of my life is dead and buried." Gunther met her eyes with caution. "As Master once said, I am not dwelling on the past, and neither should you."
"And that's how we end up knowing nothing about our Master." Gwen grinned at her hypocritical brother. "What if our Tower Master had a secret fiancée in Europe?"
"They better be damn good at Abjuration—" Alesia huffed.
"Need I remind you it's YOUR Grimoires we're after?" Gunther gave Gwen a flick on the forehead. "If you want to know, we'll talk later. For now, I need to put contingencies for Sufina into place. Allie, we're leaving before our homewrecker causes any more trouble."
"Aww, you've upset your brother!" Alesia laughed.
Gwen smirked in turn. "Say hi to Surya for me. Tell Opa I'll drop in mid-semester if I can."
"I shall." Gunther reached out and patted their youngest on the head. "Will you be fine with this lot?"
"I'll send out the Familiars and the Dogs," Gwen assured her siblings. "Fair flight, Brother. You too, Allie. Take care!"
With nothing else left to be said, the trio changed into their civilian attires. After the fact, the siblings embraced once more, then the husband and wife pair was on their way.
Watching the diminishing pair of companionable silhouettes slipping through the air, Gwen couldn't help but think of Evee. She imagined the two of them as the same couple fading into the horizon and tasted an anticipatory sweetness on her lips. After a moment, however, her chest grew sore, and her mood grew strange, so she poured her feelings into her clamouring Familiars, furthermore whipping up a new pack of Void and Lightning dogs and their alphas, Astro and Buck.
Presently, her Void Hounds had a hint of serpentine to their sleek heads and a low-gloss petrol-sheen attached to their oily bodies, making her wonder if the continued growth of her Essence-producing Astral Body had anything to do with the morphic detailing. Comparatively, her Lightning Dogs resembled little Ariels, shaggy with manes of stabbing electricity that anaesthetised her fingertips, but were otherwise related to the Wolfhounds found on the Highlands.
"EE! EE!" Ariel cooed.
"SHAA! SHAA!" Caliban was more interested in what lied in the belly of the ship.
"Nanang!" she called out from the forecastle deck, summoning the third mate. Naturally, Caliban was now First Mate and Ariel, her handsome second-in-command. As for herself, she now assumed the role of the Captain of this Raft of the Medusa.
The Indonesian skipper grovelled, albeit at a safe distance.
"It's time," Gwen commanded the group who insisted on falling to their knees every time Ariel or Caliban passed. Strangely, the men and women felt less inclined to bend the knee for the Familiar's two-legged mortal Mistress. "Set course for Singapore!"
"EE! EE!" Ariel gave the order for full-steam ahead.
"ARRRROOOOOOO—" The hounds bayed.
"Aye-aye, Lord Ariel!" the Third Mate relayed the Kirin's orders. "We should arrive at Singapore's coastal waters in ten hours!"
At day-break, the Akimvrishka met a Coast Guard Cruiser hosting a mid-tier Mage Flight as they crossed the strait of Batam. Gwen flew out to meet the Mages, growing glad when they did not attack but proclaimed to be sent by Tower Master Lee at the behest of her Brother-in-craft.
"We'll take it from here, Ma'am." Captain Chen saluted. "The Akimvrishka will be docked and decommissioned, its cargo inspected, re-valued and sold at auction. We'll credit your share of the CCs and HDMs for capturing the illicit vessel."
"What of the crew?" she asked, mindful of her original purpose.
"As a favour to the Devourer of Shenyang, there shall be a measure of leniency," the youthful Captain assured her, though Gwen knew her Brother-in-craft shouldered the real favour. "If they pass questioning, the crew can choose indentured service for five years, or try their luck at the public lashes. After that, they'll be deported to their Frontier homes once processed. Of course, we'll give the Mages a choice to work in Singapore if they prove obedient."
"They would stay after all that?" Gwen watched the crew of the Akimvrishka and was surprised to find that the sailors appeared quite happy to be arrested now that they no longer had a meeting with the Mermen below the Singapore Strait.
"We regularly recruit from the locals near the Java sea." Chen's gaze swept over the men and women bound with arcane-cords enchanted with a modified Lock spell. "Though it seems the Wildlands have had a talent boom of late if the pirates are soaking up Rogue Mages by the hundreds."
"Is the fortress city not interested in enriching and securing the Javanese islands?" Gwen asked.
"I wouldn't presume to discern our regional policy, Ma'am," Captain Chen apologised. "I will inform you, however, that the zone ratings for the regions of Sumatra, Kalimantan, and the Indonesian enclave changes with the currents; until there's a way to stabilise the region or purge it of Mermen, our city isn't going to get over-ambitious. The late Prime Minister Lee has our developmental plan mapped out, and under his legacy, we haven't misstepped so far. Is our arrangement for the crew acceptable to you, Magus Song?"
Gwen took a gander at Nanang, their Third Mate. She had spent the night conversing with the Water Mage and his seamen, eventually coming to empathise with their origins and the culture of piracy that afflicted the Java Sea. From history, she understood that the continental coastline linking India, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam had seeded the island chains of the South China Sea from Palawan to Port Moresby.
The Human settlements of the Javanese Frontier were a loose compilation of coastal settlers from the continents who had interbred with the Demi-humans of the South Sea. On those verdant and deadly paradise islands, men and women afflicted with scales, tails, fins and gills were commonplace in the Orange and Purple Zones. Closer to Singapore, only a handful of Green Zones like Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur were safe for unsullied Human habitation.
As a measure against the unpredictable tides, the folk had taken up worship of Elementals— most often the land gods, other times local monsters with religion and beliefs derived from the mainland from which their diverse people had first arrived.
In the decades following the Beast Tide, international recovery efforts had increased sea trade one-hundred fold, bringing food, education and technology to an otherwise forgotten colonial Frontier. It was because, as a result of the proportional increase in security and resources, the number of Human settlements in the South China Sea increased exponentially.
"Yes." Gwen conceded that if she were to do something for Nanang, it would be out of mutual interest and not some half-baked compassion she felt by merely sharing a Maotai with the Mages to boost their chances at surviving the lash. "And the matter with the Mermen using my image?"
"We'll lodge a report with the Tower," the Captain said. "As for the Homel Food Company, I am afraid you'll have to approach your patron yourself. The Mageocracy has limited sway with the Americans."
"Understood. Thank you, Captain Chen." Gwen dipped her chin. "You've done well."
"It is we who should thank you for gracing Singapore." The Captain saluted. "And for capturing these pirates. I am certain the information provided by the crew here will lead us to their caches and allow us to intercept their shipping routes. There have been ships missing in the South China Sea since February; we've no doubt more pirates are behind the incidents, perhaps even working with the Mermen."
Gwen nodded. "Then I shall be returning to London. If there's anything else you need from me, the Tower has my offices' contacts for both Cambridge and the Isle of Dogs. One more thing though, may I donate the proceeds from the ship's inventory? Does the Singapore Tower have any Frontier aid programs for building schools, farms, medical facilities and so forth in the region of Java?"
"We do, though that's outside my jurisdiction."
"Then please inform Master Lee of my desire to see the lives of the survivors improved," she said. "It wouldn't do for their kin to take up piracy once more. If a city wants to nip the problem at the root, it has to start at the bottom with education and opportunity."
"By your will, Magus Song."
"Then you have my thanks." Gwen took a step back, her body drifting slowly into the air. "Please keep me informed."
With the Captain nodding, her mind at ease and the Mages below saluting in awe, the Class VI War Mage zapped across the horizon as a blue-green streak of fulminating lightning, wiping the fate of the otherworldly refugees from her conscience.
London's October was a relatively dry period of the year suitable for both summer and autumn attires thanks to its cooling, mid-teen weather. It was also the season when the city's deciduous trees transformed its emerald avenues into cosy fire.
For her second international transit, Gwen's ISTC hopping proved uneventful, arriving and exiting Heathrow without so much as an inventory questionnaire from Customs, after which she made for the Isle of Dogs.
In early October, the Isle had four projects under concurrent construction. With two months to go on her Fabricator hire, her Executive Officer Eric Walken had engaged the Red Citadel in talks to extend the lease— on principle, however; the Dwarves refused to allow precious Engines out of the Murk once the Debt of Haj-Zül was repaid. It meant that, if Gwen were desperate, then she would have to further the Debt by applying herself to the exploration of the Murk; a prospect that had grown grim of late as the Dwarves and the Human Adventurers delved deeper into the abyss.
Of the projects, three were residential high-rises with commercial space below. The fourth was a twenty-storey business building and the first of the Isle's ambitious attempts at attracting government agencies to take up a long-term lease. From Lady Grey, Gwen had heard that Scotland Yard was looking to relocate from Victoria Street. In her old world, the Police Headquarters had eyed the Embankment opposite Westminster for their renovated headquarters near an address close to No. 10 Downing. In her present London, proximity to the Shard was far more critical than closeness to parliament, meaning if the building offered a low enough rental for a large enough space, the City of London may just take up her offer. For the Isle of Dogs, having a critical government department take up residence would officialise the newly revamped district as a second city centre and bring about an avalanche of business. In Gwen's plan, the influx of Mages would naturally gentrify the region and push out the NoM residents, who could make a tidy sum from selling their piecemeal leaseholds and taking up better residences in Greenwich and Charlton twenty minutes away, bringing advantage to all.
Naturally, the rapid rise in land price and the ballooning of wealth would require her auditors to keep a keen eye on the Crystals flowing into and out of the Isle. Transparency was paramount for reporting increased economic activity she brought to the region; a key metric when haggling for additional permits.
Arriving overhead above the ferry pier, she entered the Printing Press via the rafters, where a loft had been constructed to accommodate her unorthodox mode of entry. This late in the afternoon, the Press was a steaming, churning, screeching chaos of organised mayhem. From the delivery bay, Worker Golems piloted by trained NoMs moved barrels of unenchanted ink into the mixing room alongside four-legged Mitsubishi MK-Vs hauling paper rolls by the pallet.
This late, the Dwarves were no longer a common sight, with most of them working in the deeper regions of the Press some six-storeys down from the ground floor, regulating the engines' mechanical and alchemical gut-flora so that the belts and rollers above could churn out circulation West Ferry vomited into London and beyond daily.
In the west quadrant, where magical dampening had been put into place to hinder the noise, Gwen found Lorenzo and the editorial staff debating over the front page. Before entering, she took a moment to listen in to see what nastiness her team got up to in her absence. Within, Lorenzo voiced that Adventurers serving as front-line fodder for Murk Dives should be the centrepiece of the next edition. At the same time, his assistant, a war journalist Diviner called Wyatt Bennett, felt that the story would shed an unflattering light on their boss.
"Gentlemen!" She stepped in without knocking. The Editorial Room, as per Lorenzo's demand, had an open door policy. "What ails my board of truth peddlers?"
"Boss!" Lorenzo nodded. "Alright, Wyatt, ask her yourself."
"Magus Song." Wyatt's expression appeared wary. "There's been unacceptable casualties in the Murk. The Dwarves still speak fondly of you, but the public's opinion of the alliance has taken a nosedive. Most of the Mages who came back from the Murk laden with loot in June now returned in body bags after encountering monsters of a higher tier than the Red Citadel had anticipated. The Dwarves have done what they can, and last I heard, they are securing a beachhead to building a new Forward Operating Citadel. Nonetheless, at minimum, a quarter of the first wave of Adventurer who went in did not return."
"Yikes." Gwen grimaced. "My condolences, but I am involved, how?"
"You aren't." Bennett sighed. "The other papers are saying it's all your fault, though."
"I see." Gwen gave the matter some thought and realised there wasn't that much more spin to be spun. She was responsible for open trade with the Dwarves, and she did invite Human Mages to loot the Murk. From December to March, she had taken in the fame and the kudos, now, she should shoulder some of the blame. "Get some statements from the Dwarves and just tell it as it is. It's futile to convince folk who don't trust the sight of their eyes nor the words striking their ears anyway. Whether they're a vocal minority or a Cabal with a chip on their shoulder, leave the matter to Walken."
"See?" Lorenzo grinned at Bennett. "You can trust Gwen to fight falsehoods with the truth."
"Yep." Gwen gave her editors a confident grin. "For journalists, The Sun can't seem to heed the advice that one shouldn't quarrel with anyone who buys ink by the barrel. Don't despair, Magus Bennett, once our reach supersedes those yellow rags, I'll buy their devalued shares, and we can initiate a hostile takeover. The METRO will have the last laugh; you have my word…"
"I'll be looking forward to that!" Lorenzo laughed as well, with the rest of the editorial department following more confusedly.
"Anyway, I got a cool story for you guys." Gwen waited for the room to calm. With a casual invocation, she conjured up a few Illusion-empowered projections of pictures taken with a Lumen-Recorder. "Check out the tats on these…"
In detail, she told the others of her discovery in the South Sea, then informed Lorenzo that for this incident to fade, they had to control the narrative. As she possessed the raw images and the first-hand account, she would provide them with some riveting interviews and theories, and they could be the ones to initiate the enquiry.
"Excellent, I'll go and generate the Quests at the Shard right now." Wyatt volunteered.
"Keep the rewards on the highest tier," Gwen advised. "If by some off chance someone does find out why the fish were wearing my face, I want to be informed pronto."
The others agreed.
With her impending infamy sorted at least for now, Gwen then visited Walken, finding the Magister buried behind a small mountain of accounts, files, contracts and reports. Walken's present office, now lovingly dubbed by the locals as the "Bunker" thanks to the Herald Sun, had recently completed an expensive leather and oiled oak renovation.
"When are you coming back to do some real work?" The Magister demanded of the giggling girl watching him from the safety of the doorway.
"Saturday," Gwen said. "I've got Lectures all week."
"Ah, yes." Eric Walken nodded, appearing to recall that his boss was still a student. "How's Sufina? Did you retrieve the Scale? From the lack of changes in your general aura, I am going to say no."
Gwen made her way into the office, searched around the polished facade and found the liqueur cabinet.
"Aren't you a bit young for that sort of thing?" Walken remarked on her casually topping off a glass of Dwarven rum. "Care for a cigar to go with that?"
Gwen took a swig, then topped the glass again once her body warmed up. "You correctly guessed that we saw Sufi and had a chat. After that, we made a deal."
"Free to elaborate?"
"Somewhat. I need your advice on something…" Gwen took a moment to gather her thoughts and to filter out what could be said and what to withhold from her business partner, then relayed what she could about Sufina's angel investment offer. Walken grew increasingly silent as she explained, then fell into a delicate mood.
"… Shultz is right; you need to speak with the Elves. A private World Tree could become a Human-Demi-human dispute issue." Walken spoke after a while. "As for what London can offer, consult with the Marchioness of Ely. Don't worry about secrecy, and don't fret over the news getting out."
"Why? Wouldn't privacy be better?"
"This is one of those rare instances were the more people know of your capacity to establish a potential Green Zone, the less advantage they'll have over you by whatever means. As with your Void talent, you're a prize for others to win over. All you need to do is accept the best deal offered to you."
"And if someone doesn't want to compete fairly?" Gwen grinned. "That's only to be expected here in London."
"Then bring it up in public and let the world know." Walken grinned back. "You do have a newspaper, after all, one that's free. I look forward to the day our company offers lands partitions in a safe zone."
"Hahaha…" Gwen sipped her rum. "You know it!"
With her mind at ease, Gwen addressed her underground staff, dropped off Chinese souvenirs for her Dwarven Engineseers and Alchemist, then made ready for Cambridge. On her final tour around the Isle of Dogs, she inspected Evee's clinic-soup-kitchen-orphanage and spoke to some of the staff to ensure that whatever Elvia had left in her care ran swimmingly, then was on her way to report to Lady Grey.
There was a lecture, Gwen recalled, set for the next morning— one that encompassed the very thing she now needed to comprehend: Contemporary Planar Theory.
The "New" Museum Site east of Corpus Christi and north of Pembroke was a bit of a misnomer. It was a common misunderstanding for folk who hadn't grown up around Cambridge or had siblings talented enough to attend the prestigious college. Like the other sites in Cambridge, the New Museum, which was two centuries old, consisted of Spellcraft libraries dedicated to the study of Magical Theory. The inner court was home to august offices of learning like the Old Cavendish Building with its Regency facade, sitting beside the neo-Victorian exterior of Mond Hall, where Dwarven artisans once more graced. Its resident scholars were famous for carrying out breakthroughs in Spellcraft, serving as home to Meisters like Allenberg and Goulding, surnames synonymous with textbooks. Most famously, the site was home to the posthumously awarded Evoker-Conjurer Magi James Chadwick, discoverer of the "Mote"— the invisible, smallest unit of metric possible for mana.
It was here in the McCrum Lecture Hall that junior students newly arrived for the Michaelmas Term had their first taste of Cambridge's free-range learning style— that and their first stickybeak at the leggy Devourer of Shenyang.
"On the lore of Axis Mundi—" Magister Addison Andrews, first Chair of Cosmology and Planar Theory at Corpus Christi, persisted with her lecture, pointedly ignoring the eye-catching celebrity in their midst. At Cambridge, though there was no shortage of lords and ladies— the love child of the Herald Sun's back and front pages nonetheless remained a cause for distraction. The Void sorceress' daring outfit notwithstanding, the professor's professionalism was undeterred.
"— Also known by folklore across the continents as the stem of the cosmos, the loci of the world, and simple 'The Pillars' by our Demi-human compatriots, exist as a metaphysical conceit tied to nature. For the academics among you learned in the subject, you will know that the idea is closely tied to current conjecture on the application of ley-lines. Such is because, across our known world, the understanding of Axis Mundi varies. Under the auspice of Christendom, we associate the Axis with trees— as in the Tree of Knowledge, at the centre of which lies Eden."
The lecturer took a drink of water while the projected Illusion of a woman, a man, a tree and a cheeky snake changed "slides".
"In the metaphysical sense, this is a localised belief. The Axis Mundi is, in reality, is akin to Conduits. Such Conduits form through the natural flow of energies between the Planes, derived by forces in a manner akin to estuaries, governed by nature and as such, bound by the laws of the Prime Material. For example, the Chinese have for thousands of years believed that their Middle Kingdom to be the loci of the Axis, though our history strongly disagrees with theirs. The Central Continent is a nation where trees are not venerated— likely because of the lack of Elves, or some other historical calamity. Rather, what they worship is something else. Magus Song, I believe you're well-acquainted with China since you're a Fudan alumina, what do you suppose replaced the Western tree in the Oriental psyche?"
"Er…" a husky, alluring voice piped up. "Mountains? The Five Peaks?"
"Correct." The lecturer awarded the girl with a happy clap. "Mount Heng, Mount Hua, Mount Emei, Mount Tai and Mount Huang. Each, unsurprisingly, is habited by?"
"Correct again. Each is home to Wyrms— though that will be for a future lecture. Today, we explore the presence of Axis Mundi as folklore in Planar Theory. If we look toward regions where Elves have less impact on the cultural history of the world, Humans and Demi-humans seldom perceive of the Axis as a 'Tree'. The Japanese, for instance, believed that Mount Fuji serves as the loci ley-line for their island nation. The Teotihuacan tribe of the Aztecs built mock-mountain ziggurats and blessed them with Mage blood to attract the Quetzalcoatl to roost. The summit of Delphi, where the Oracle resides beneath the Great Olive Tree, as well, serves as a half-way example of such nodes."
"What of Demi-humans?" a voice asked from the crowd.
"In Demi-humans, the mythos of trees-as-Axis proliferate. If we look to the Spirits who dominate the Indian subcontinent through theocratic rule, then one may look to the sacred Bodhi Tree where the Magi Buddha attained Enlightenment. A radical example would be Temple Mount, north of the Fire Sea where the Elemental's sacred Flame Tree has torn open a gash into the Elemental Plane of Fire. Distressingly, the Fire Tree isn't a Pillar supporting 'our' Plane, but rather the Efreets' charred home. Finally, for the Were-folk of the Lower Niger Delta, who I am sure you've read about in the METRO, the Sacred Grove of Osun-Osogbo is yet another domain, albeit with neither mount nor tree but a low-lying rainforest. Concurrently, one should not dismiss human-made objects used for worship. The famous Pyramids, for instance, serve as 'Pillars' of Undeath that provide Necromantic mana to the Undead roaming its vicinity, as well as sustain the slumbering Pharaohs and their sleeping God-Priests."
"Are our Towers… a part of the Axis Mundi?" the Devourer of Shenyang asked from the front row.
"Excellent question." The lecturer's voice took on renewed energy as she fell into a familiar rhythm. "But that lecture is slated for week eight. First, let's continue our unpacking of Ley-lines and the pragmatic purpose of harnessing the Axis for the grand purpose of Human expansion!"