Evening descended on the Isle of Dogs.
In the not so distant past, not a single soul would stalk the streets of Millwall at midnight lest they were fleeing from a muddy mugger or a vermin-infested hostel. Now, there was an enormous flow of folk, both Mages and NoMs, loudly meandering their way through the boisterous stalls.
Unlike the usual markets catered toward farmers selling their produces or Mages who sold Enchanted trinkets, the "Millwall Night Market's" focus was unsanitary comfort cuisine of all kinds catering to the twenty-four-hour construction schedule. Once past the entryway, the smell of coffee wafted through the frigid air, joined by the ambient scent of newly installed heating elements blasting the crowd with diffused radiance. Past the beverage stands positioned for quick sales, the town's favourite street foods lined the first few rows, luring in customers with the scent of sizzling bacon and melting sour cream on steaming potato. Deeper inside, the sound of fryers turning raw fish into crispy fingers of delectable white flesh joined the glooping of hot soup pouring into waxed cups. Pie stalls by the dozen, each no larger than a van, sold an array of baked goods from the home kitchens of the residents, adding to the income of sons and husbands who invariably worked on the construction site.
On this evening, while the Isle's insatiable mistress looked into the possibility of an incursion into the Deep Murk, Richard Huang, Eliot Cox and Luka Spencer relaxed after a long day of labour.
Thanks to Richard's connections, the duo, together with others from King's, worked to complete internships in the most-advertised private infrastructural development district in London, one that expanded exponentially thanks to the aid of Dwarven engineering overcoming both shell and mud. Each of the Mages had already survived the baptism of combat; what they needed now to qualify as administrator Maguses was the experience to assuage the scepticism of their Cambridge Supervisors.
Of their present meal, Richard had ordered the Fishermen's Pie, a local delicacy made by an old matron over on Tiller's Road who usually sold out before her cart could make it past the ferry. Naturally, Richard had charmed the baker, and so she habitually reserved a pie for the "nice young man" on Thursdays. Eliot stuck true to Fish and Chips, being a faithful Londoner. Finally, Lukas settled for a plate of farm to table sausages swimming in greasy gravy, a decision he now regretted because the stall owner, a Mr Dobson, was better at selling bangers than he was at making them.
Presently, the trio was watching the locals put on a shit show.
The street theatre involved a party of security officials, likely not from Millwall, Mudchute or Cubitt Town, albeit outfitted correctly, having a chat with the dubious sausage-seller.
"Don't be a bore, Dobson, the Late Night Opening Surcharge is 3 HDMs, clear as day," shouted the leading Mage, a Transmuter of sorts with a wand knocking by his knees. From the smoke-ring at its tip, the man was no stranger to using it. "You know the drill."
Dobson, the purveyor of Luka's mystery meat, appeared wholly indignant. "Bollocks, ye lot collected th' late-night supervision fees just yesterday! I gave ye two HDMs!"
"Who told you to open past midnight?" The Transmuter had a face that only a mother could love, and that's assuming the mother was an Orc. "You know this."
"I did not!" The owner moved a hand over to the tongs that had been sitting in oil.
"Oi, oi." Another fellow, a Fire Mage from the looks of the mana carelessly leaking from his body, lit up a finger with a mote of fire. "Don't get testy now."
"You're charging what, a quarter LDM for a plate of sausage." The Transmuter dipped a digit into the bubbling gravy without fear for the heat, stirred the watery sauce, then watched the oil drip. "And that's not even including mash and whatever this slop might be. Is that even potato? It looks like flour..."
"That's good feeding, that is!" Dobson was indignant. "At that price, that's cutting me own throat!"
Richard's lips curled.
Luka pushed away his plate.
What puzzled the trio was that these "Security" wore the blue-black uniform of the locally contracted guards looking after the labourers and workers flooding into the Isle of Dogs.
"I didn't know thugs wore uniforms," said the Ice Mage to his companions.
Gwen's cousin let loose a low snigger. "Where've you been, Luka? It's only natural that the biggest thugs wear the flashiest uniforms."
"What are these guys? They look like the guards the boss hired."
"They're from the private security firm Magister Walken engaged to keep an eye on the NoMs," Richard said. "Sentry Holdings? They're certainly taking some liberties."
A tray of gravy struck the floor, flooding the cold night air with the delicious smell of melted fat swimming in a savoury soup. Somewhere, a crow cawed, likely offended by the sound and smell of spilt offal.
"Jesus, Dobson, the amount of lard in that thing." The Transmuter lifted both hands. "Bloody slippery, eh? Just slipped off the cart. You should secure the load before you hurt someone and cause some damage. If that happens, it'll be another 8 HDMs. I mean, look at your stall, there are a dozen health violations at least."
The stall owner's face turned the colour of duck liver.
Besides Richard and Eliot, Luka stared in horror at his half-eaten, sawdusty bangers.
"Should we do something?" Eliot nudged Richard. "This isn't going to do the Isle any favours."
Richard told his friend to hang on.
"Fine. Here." Dobson appeared to have made up his mind. Reaching into his apron, he produced a stack of greasy LDMs and threw it down in front of the Transmuter in a fit of frustration. Perhaps it was by choice, or maybe by chance, but the stack of bundled paper and crystals landed in the still dissolving pot of lard.
"Pick that up, NoM." The Transmuter's expression lost the amicable, mocking mirth. "Do it now."
"Just leave me alone," the stall owner growled. "I am trying to make an honest living here, ye bastards—"
Before the man could finish, the Transmuter-in-uniform launched a kick that sent the cart of profane sausages surging forward until it struck the rail preventing visitors from falling into the Thames. The top half of the cart snapped off entirely, breaking free from the frame to tumble into the river, sending the bangers downstream to poison unlucky fishes.
"Consider that an official warning," the Transmuter said to the sausage sizzler with a scowl, his face full of sadistic satisfaction. "Next time you sell meat that comes from God knows, we'll be less lenient."
The stall owner took a deep breath. Richard could see Dobson was shaking from head to toe as though he was the one that had just taken a dip in the Thames and not his sausage cart. He could fight, of course; the hot air of courage was free. Unfortunately, against a team of Mages, he would be slitting his own throat.
"You can't do this," the man said quietly. "The Devourer won't allow it."
The hoodlums broke into scattered laughter. "We're the security here, old man. If you want to file a complaint, you can take it with Mr Smithen. Now pick up those crystals and clean them."
"You think you can do whatever you want…" the sausage seller spoke as though in a trance. "You're wrong, here is the Isle of Dogs."
The Transmuter's patience evaporated.
But before the man could loosen his shock wand, one of his companions held him back with a pat on the shoulder. "Mr Dobson is free to do business, or not, Jared. Don't over-complicate a simple thing."
The Transmuter shrugged off his friend. "Count yourself lucky, NoM."
The stall owner had more mouth to deliver, but the older man who spoke up silenced him with a look. "I think that's enough, Mr Dobson. As we said, the Isle of Dogs isn't a good place for NoMs, not anymore. There's good money to be made if you choose to leave, and a businessman has to spend Crystals to make Crystals. I hope you understand how fleeting opportunities can be."
Dobson's eyes remained downcast. The Evoker retrieved the money with a Mage Hand, cleaned the LDMs and notes, then stowed the lot. "Sell your home, go to Greenwich, find a wife and pray one of your kids Awakens. That's the best you can hope for."
With the theatre now at an end, Eliot turned to Richard. "Who is this Smithen?"
"I am assuming the guy running the security company looking after the Millwall Market." Richard dabbed the corner of his mouth. "But how does someone this dirty get past Walken? Or is our Magister complicit? Nah? A few HDMs? Even ten-thousand HDMs, wouldn't be worth Walken's meagrest effort. The situation stinks like overnight oysters if you ask me."
"What're are you thinking?" Luka's tone grew worried.
"Something very entertaining." Richard grinned. "As for now, they've won my curiosity."
An hour later, the trio from King's lurked outside a recently refurbished apartment converted into a commercial unit for office space, listening-in via Richard's Familiar and a Scry Scroll. After watching the same crew shakedown a dozen stalls, they now had a decent idea of the men's modus operandi.
Outside the converted residential building, signage depicting the logo for the "Sentry Holdings" was displayed prominently. There were even flyers they could take from a concrete box transmuted into the stonework. To the residents, on the surface at least, the security firm appeared entirely legitimate.
Inside, on the second level, Lea hovered in her mist form, invisible and silent, observing the events inside the soddy office.
"Here's our take for the evening, Sir." The Transmuter emptied his Storage Ring of LDMs, notes and HDMs onto a countertop presided over by a burly Mage in an ill-fitting suit.
"That much?" The man whistled. "That's a lot of sparkles for a food market run by NoMs."
"Their clients are mostly Mages," Jared explained. "Transmuters, Conjurers, Enchanters, white-collars and builders. The Devourer pays well."
"Any trouble?" The man known as "Smithen" cocked his head to study his underlings. "No one spoke up?"
"Nothing so far." Jared slapped his chest. "We're all battle-hardened, Sir. A single look from one of us and those desk jockeys would go soft at the knees."
"You were not followed?"
"We triple-checked," the older Evoker assured their leader.
"Good. Do be careful you don't run into the Devourer, and stay away from the Dwarves."
"Goes without saying, Lieutenant."
The man growled.
"Sorry, James," the Transmuter apologised. "Force of habit."
Smithen rapped the table with his knuckles. "There's too many Crystals here."
"Too much?" Jared appeared puzzled. "If anything, they've got more."
"Take too much, and their business won't survive." Smithen materialised a cigarette. Beside Jared, their Fire Mage ignited the fag's tip with a slick flick of the wrist. "We're shearing sheep... You're butchering them."
"… Sorry, Lieu— Smithen." Jared half-saluted before he stopped himself. "Shall I return the money?"
"No need, but stay low for a bit," Smithen declined. "Tell the men to stand down for a few days as well, take some rest and relaxation. If you want to work, reinforce Team Two and Six while they clear out the rest of the undesirables in Sector Seven, Canary Lane. I want the whole street sealed and sold by the end of the month. Is that clear?"
"Too easy, Sir," another voice commented from behind their leader. "This beats hunting monsters any day. Who'd have thought there's so much HDMs in civilian property development."
"Watch your mouth," Smithen snapped at the voice from the back. "You better get your mana conduits wired together, Cater, or someone is going to take a giant shit on you one day."
"Sir! Yessir!" The man saluted while the other laughed.
With the conversation over, Richard commanded his Undine to withdraw, concurrently terminating one of the several Scrys he just happened to have stowed, because that's what any respectable Mage would have on their person at all times.
"Thoughts?" he asked the others. "Act natural; we're just passersby."
"Military Unit? They look like a platoon to me. Not a Mage Flight, maybe grunts returning from the Frontiers?"
"It's not unusual for ex-military Service folk to work security," Luka agreed. "Bit unscrupulous though."
"You fellers don't see what they're doing?" Richard regarded his two bookish companions. "They said they're trying to get the NoMs to sell their properties."
"So?" Elliot appeared puzzled. "All the NoMs are trying to sell at the moment."
"You think those folks are buying land at the market rate?" Richard snorted. "I bet they can turn around tidy profit auctioning those properties. After all, if all the NoMs are selling, then the market's oversaturated, but if you can hold onto a few to push back redevelopment, there's a lot that suddenly comes into play."
His companions made faces of elucidation.
"Okay, are you going to… deal with them?" The hesitation in Eliot's voice was because after working beside Richard for nearly a year, he and Luka had come to acknowledge a particular side of the talented Mr Huang. When it came to his cousin, the Water Mage was a two-legged Dire Hound.
And like a good hound, when it came to their Master's property, Richard Huang was the sort whose cruelty attained apex inspiration at the slightest provocation. For instance, during the earlier months of the Isle of Dog's excavation, the trio of Questing Mages had caught a group of river thieves stealing construction supplies.
Within hours, Luka and Eliot saw their friend in a whole new light. It was like another Richard whose heart was as black as his jet-like pupils suddenly rose to the surface and took command.
The same afternoon, the formerly tight-lipped thieves gave up their contacts, after which a root-network of dealers, traders and dodgy drafters was exorcised from the parkland expansion project. Later, Richard had even received a commendation from Scotland Yard and a personal endorsement from Magister Walken.
"My public practice of Magic Licence is too low-tier to deal with these." Richard regretfully shook his head. "Besides, if it's just some corrupt employees, I can drag them before the Arbitrators. Our little theatre troupe there has higher ambitions, or so it seems."
"If they're all ex-Military Mages, then yes." Luka nodded. "Typically, Mage units are broken up and sent to different cities and Frontiers specifically to prevent this sort of thing."
"You have to admit, it's a novel way to farm HDMs," Elliot agreed. "Fleecing NoMs is one thing, but gutting them out of their homes? Who'd have thought such a thing was so profitable?"
"Something to be nipped in the bud then." Lea materialised behind Richard, hugging her Master by the neck and making the two Cambridge Mages blush with her teasing eyes. "Lea says Smithen keeps a Storage Ring full of documents. Probably the accounts to show his employee lest these army dogs eat more than their allocated fill. For now, let's find Dobson and gather a few more witnesses for Magister Walken before he slits his own throat out of desperation. If we're going to clean house, I want the place scoured down to the foundation."
Peterhouse Deer Gardens.
"Would a mere ten days of absence suffice?" Lady Grey replaced her cup with a clink. "The Dwarves are inviting you into the Deep Murk; there are horrors there rarely documented with abilities beyond what the Bestiary has recorded."
"Which is why our team will be a good fit," Gwen replied with complete confidence. "Caliban is extremely versatile, and I can bore through the ground with its Wyrm form if the need calls for it."
"Don't fret. I am not opposed to your desire to give our Dwarven allies a helping hand, nor doubting your abilities." Lady Grey answered with the pose of a swan. "Can you concurrently pass your semester though? Even with an extended exam block?"
"Not a problem," Gwen promised. "I'm well ahead on my governance courses, and I should be able to catch up on missed lectures for Planar Theory through recordings. As for Spellcraft— I need field practice, anyway."
"Some of my new friends have volunteered to Lumen-cast the Lecture. Magister Andrews has consented on account of my work with Magister Brown."
"Of course." Lady Grey nodded. "New friends are good. Who will you be taking with you?"
"Myself, Gracie and Jean-Paul," Gwen said. "I am bringing Richard as our Abjurer and Petra as our utilitarian member. Except for Richard, we all need to put in some field exercises and collect statistics for our spells."
"Your Cousin, the Mind Mage?"
"Yes, but she hasn't use Mind Magic for a while."
"MM is a useful skill to have." Lady Grey smiled serenely. "Very well, how do you hope to keep Gracie safe?"
"I'll borrow a Golem Suit if I have to, but I think we should be fine." Gwen recalled Gracie sweating in her comically ungraceful armour. "Unlike our unfortunate compatriot-Adventurers, we've got upper-tier Contingency Rings and, with the new Forward Operating Base they've erected, we should have working Divination Towers as well."
"What manner of Monsters will you be anticipating?"
"Elemental creatures of the Murk, of course— but Aberrants as well. Maybe Cali's getting a new form soon."
"That would be a troublesome encounter for an adventuring party."
"Less so for us," Gwen laughed. "Between Jean-Paul and me, we've got something upward of twenty Hounds and three Familiars. Richard's has Lea on double duty Abjuration as well. Together with the Dwarven Iron Guards, we're a veritable expedition, hahaha…"
Lady Grey chuckled politely, though her steel-coloured eyes remained wholly serious. "Don't underestimate the Murk, dear. The Dwarves' military is no less than ours. Theirs has been a generational struggle, and I don't see why the addition of three Void Mages would make their task any easier."
"Noted," Gwen answered thoughtfully. "I'll be careful."
"One more thing." The Marchioness of Ely waited for Gwen to settle before making her point. "If you wish to put the Dwarves into your debt once more, it will need to go through the Foreign Affairs Office. We can't have rogue War Mages haphazardly pulling their weight in the Murk now that official diplomatic ley-lines have been ratified. Put in a report through Ollie at least. Have you spoken to Dickie of late? Or has Dickie found someone to speak to you?"
"Not at all." Gwen lifted a brow. "Does the Duke of Norfolk have business with me?"
"As a matter of fact, yes." Lady Grey chuckled. "He's been asking about you."
"Er…" Gwen felt the sheer fabric on her back grow suddenly clammy. "Any reason? I haven't Consumed anything or made any significant asset acquisitions. Is this about the tattooed Mermen? That's not my fault."
"Tryfan wants to know when you'll be visiting." The Lady smirked. "Their Chief Warden, Eldrin, was expecting you as early as March, and then you simply disappeared."
"The Hvítálfar? What do they want now?"
"They did give you access to your Master's abode, dear. And you came home laden with loot, no? There's the Accord, of course, though that's hardly important if like Gunther, you plan to stay well away from the central continent. That said, you're not Gunther or Alesia. The foundation of your Void resistance, alas, is married to the quintessence of that which the Elves hold dear. Moreover, thanks to Sufina's offer, you would have to consult with our long-lived friends sooner or later. Perhaps it is wise to lend them an ear?"
"… Right. And what's Dickie's part in this?"
"He's our liaison," the Marchioness reminded her. "As a part of his duties, Lord Marshall Ravenport oversees the Department of Foreign Affairs. Not as an elected official of course, but as an overseer of sorts for the Crown's interests."
"And Her Majesty is interested in this?"
"The House of Windsor is a stakeholder, yes." Lady Grey inclined her chin. "So I would take every precaution. You've done a great deal very quickly, Gwen. All the more reason to step lightly, because the more you've gained from the Mageocracy…"
"…The more I have to lose."
"And the more your allies and family has to lose," the Lady affirmed her fears. "Life anywhere involves 'give and take'— what you need to remember, Gwen, is that if you are to give— then don't be shy when the time comes to take… neither the Elves, the Crown, or the Shard are tight-fisted when the need is dire."
"I think I understand," Gwen returned the Lady's inference. "How do I schedule a meeting with the Elves?"
"You have an outstanding invitation to Trawsfynydd," Lady Grey reminded her. "Shall I leverage a favour for you? Some support from The Shard and the Duke for your second visit to Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth could do wonders for publicity even if you need nothing else."
"Please." Gwen grew glad she came to visit her mentor. "Thank you, Milady."
"It's what Henry would have wanted." Maxine Loftus willed away the tea set. "And it's the least I could do for someone who has turned my dog kennel into some of London's most desirable new addresses."
When an ecstatic Gwen arrived at the Isle of Dogs a day later to find Richard, she was instead invited into the Bunker by her cousin for a meeting with her Executive Officer.
Together, the two relayed the antecedents of a dastardly ploy to undermine the Isle of Dog Redevelopment Project's betterment of the local NoM's finances.
"… so it seems they're from the Militant Faction." Eric Walken swirled the Devonshire tea to mix in the milk. "And they're here with two express purposes. One, to make a quick snatch and grab off the local NoMs, and two— to sell our leases to bidders from their Faction, likely with some goal of achieving a measure of influence within the Lease Holder's voting council."
"Not surprisingly, the Barlow Group is providing the funds," Richard appended Walken's explanation. "And I have it on good word that the Exeters are involved in the upper echelons of this infiltration program. Do you have a feud with them?"
"I don't even remember their first names," she explained.
Once the heat drained from her brain, Gwen tried to make heads and tales out of the hidden crisis that now afflicted her regional development project. The idea that someone somewhere would seek to profit from her deeds was entirely within expectations. In her mind, so long as potential profiteers tapped into the crystal seam without endangering her operations, then she would welcome the competition. What Walken and Richard uncovered, however, was no different than some carrion grubs digging at the roots of her HDM tree!
"So, you want to deal with the Dwarves first, or deal with this?" Richard asked. "Magister Walken has some ideas."
"Eric?" Gwen's voice was icy. "Your advice?"
"That depends on your thirst for satisfaction." Walken eyed the young sorceress within whose body swirling motes of Void-tinged mana rose and fell. "How vengeful are you feeling, and how high do you want this petition to go?"
"First, I want to nip this in the bud," Gwen said, repositioning her legs to relax her waist before her body grew over tense. "With extreme prejudice."
"Alright." Walken replaced the porcelain. "You want to Void the thieving hand privately, humiliate the culprits publicly, or both."
"I had a feeling you would say that," Eric Walken remarked drily. "Very well, I propose we allow our perpetrators to hang themselves first— after that, we'll make a big stink and go after their employers."
"The Militants are trying to coerce land from the NoMs to resell," Walken explained. "But we handle the contracts. First, we'll add a clause to all future contracts especially outlining the voiding of a lease with stiff penalties when it is obtained through unscrupulous terms, such as intimidation. I've included something similar in Section 11 already, though, with help from my associates from the Shard, we can ensure the new clause is well-shielded from all litigious enquiries. After that, I'll have the auditors go over the sales and record every transaction, where the HDMs are coming from, where they're going and so on."
"At the same time," the Magister continued. "I'll have these military thugs tagged and their dealings put on file. The NoMs might suffer for now, but we'll do our best; informing NoMs of our plans would not do them any favours— it may endanger them instead."
"Agreed." Gwen nodded. "We can make it up to them after."
"That's right," Walken agreed. "Through evidence-gathering, we'll build an internal case, and then I'll have an Arbitrator we can trust at the Tower set up a case file. I've spoken to Lorenzo, and he says Cabal Number Five might be interested as well, considering the Isle is an infrastructural project for the City of London and any time the military tries to tap into civilian coffers, the Crown grows very upset indeed. Officially, England can't have Mages going around fleecing NoMs of their hard-earned luck. A narrative like that, if left to fester for long enough, would be akin to dismantling the Commonwealth."
"But we're putting the story on the METRO anyway." Gwen's grin grew cruel. "Since we're both the victims and the investigators."
"Oh, of course," the Magister smiled with teeth. "The best way to get those in power to move is to embarrass them— not enough to enrage, but just enough to nudge them in the right direction. When their reputations are at stake, you'll be amazed how fast those sluggish politicians can move."
"… Speaking from experience?"
"That's uncalled for." Walken rolled his eyes. "But I am sure you can imagine the fallout when Lorenzo puts the title 'Rob the Poor and Feed the Rich— Militant Greed Knows no Bounds.' on every paper in London."
Gwen licked her lips. "How do we know it's the Exeters behind this?"
"The offending military units 'retired' here to London come from Militias under the control of their House, mostly returning from the Niger Delta," Richard explained. "That and I think they're taking an extra cut on top of whatever the Barlow Group is trying to accomplish— typical entitlement if you ask me."
"Their infiltration is my responsibility," Walken apologised. "The security company came as recommended, and the other areas they patrolled reported positive outcomes. I'll be questioning Magister Vorne when the time comes and give you a proper answer."
"No one reported the coercion?"
"The Night Markets enjoyed a low level of criminality," Walken said. "Of course, now we know why."
"Yeah, all the criminals went out of business once the mob moved in." Gwen rolled her eyes. "How do we want to deal with this in the future? I have a feeling this isn't going to be an isolated occurrence."
"We'll use this incident as a public warning," Walken said. "Go and build up some momentum with the Dwarves, get your name circulating through the paper again. When you return on a chariot of infamy once more…"
"… We'll close the net." Gwen cackled wickedly. "New headline— 'Rats out to Play when the Mistress is Away.'"
Richard laughed. "And afterwards, we should deal with these Militants in public out of righteous anger in defence of our NoM citizens. If anyone else wishes to fleece the IoDRP, then they should beware of our Devourer who descends with dark hair. For though she brings Crystals, she also eats men like air!"