Khorok Umgor, or the "Obsidian Caverns" in the Lingua Franca employed by Humanity, was the deepest established Murk outpost from Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth, some two hundred meandering kilometres from the Citadel's gates.
Presently, it served as the forward operating post of Red Peak's push into the Dyar Morkk, the low-ways by which the Earthen folk had for generations travelled to and from Deepholm. In recent months, they had come close— very nearly piercing the Murk to touch on the vast earthen veins hollowed out by the Axis Mundi's flow of ultra-dense energies. The Dwarves' rapid progress was because the "deep" held many treasures considered priceless up on the lidless world. Take, for example, the veins of Orichalcum that appeared now and then, long hidden by the tectonic shifts of Terra's crust. Only the Dwarves knew how to safely tap the maximum volume of raw metal from the golden ores to sell at-cost to the Adventurers who then returned to the surface with loot worth a dozen times their salary and employ.
Despite its dangers, the Murk was an untapped treasure trove providing secretive and rare ingredients that the sorcerous casters of Himmseg desired. Take, for example, the peaceful but deadly Myconids, whose spores and stems made for potent potions of illusion and fantasy, or the Core of an Evil-Eye, an apex predator as ancient and intelligent as Dragons, only aberrantly twisted by the energies of the sub-spaces between the Elemental Planes. Both were prime examples of death and danger for the wayward Adventurer— but should a Mage be successful in their suit, they were also career-making feats that would set a Mage for life.
Then there were the Aberrant beings, malformed things with pallid skin and no face, with only a mouth of yellow teeth and acidic saliva. Some say that they used to be lucid and native inhabitants of the Murk before the Black Dragon destabilised the Planes, others say they had always existed but hid in the grey spaces between the Astral and the Elemental. Either way, these creatures unique to the Murk offered little in the form of usable, salvageable material, but at the same time possessed indescribable abilities wrought of raw chaos, propagated by survival.
Sometimes, they appeared as ravening swarms in the tens of thousands as bulbous, Gob-like "Gibberlings" with arms and legs and no eyes, roving from place to place, eating and evolving until they attained their full humanoid form. When left unchecked, they melded into a Behemoth, a misshapen titan of spindly legs and fleshy carapace crawling its way up from the depth, smashing Golems and crushing the Citadel's etched walls. Most Aberrants, when they died, had their swollen-body erupt into toxic ichor, making fallow an entire region and forcing its inhabitants to relocate. For this reason, both in appearance and behaviour, the Aberrant creatures of the Murk belied Human logic and Dwarven attempt at subjugation.
Khorok Umgor, therefore, was an absolute necessity for both Human and Dwarven expeditions into the Murk, for this far down, the only light and food suitable for consumption was what the pioneers could bring on their persons or in their rings. Even water became a rare resource because once delineated from the Elemental Plane, what could be conjured consisted only of sulphuric sludge that had to be neutralised and distilled.
And it was here that Hilda Kül-Hildenbrandt, scion of Varekan-Kül, Bringer of the Lumen, was made hostage by her ambitions. For many months, her gamble on Human ingenuity had paid its dividends in rare Earth minerals. Understanding both Humanity's drive and its greed, she had told the Guild to sell all collected ore and mineral back to the Adventurers at cost, ensuring that the next wave to arrive would be twice as greedy and ten-times in size.
And for a quarter of an earth-cycle, that had worked.
Unfortunately, just as the expedition progressed close enough to the first ley-stone of the Dyar Morkk, the Keepers of Umgor èron Varèkan arrived to throw a wrench in the Golem's gearbox.
As with her and Ebren, the senior Deepdowners came as a pair.
But Zairic and Zethoag Gul-Zūh were far older than herself and her partner and held much higher positions in the hierarchy of the Keepers. Their Citadel, Umgor èron Varèkan, the "Cavern of Enlightenment", was one of the sacred places of learning built and maintained by the descendants of Gul-Zūh, the chief arithmetician among the Seven Ancestors. Within its vaulted halls were kept the holy rites of Machine-Life that gave vigour to the Dreadnaughts, the Dwarves' most capable defenders.
Hilda wasn't sure if Zairic and Zethoag arrived because they had felt a shift in the Elemental Plane of Earth that signalled the Red Citadel's imminent success, or if they had come to execute some nefarious design— but the pair did assume near-immediate control thanks to the all-too-willing nobles.
That, Hilda confessed, had been her misgiving.
With Gwen's intrusion unbalancing the status quo, she had pushed the Nobles and left them little to no dignity, heaping upon them the shame of the Citadel's stagnancy. Unlike those greedy Murk-Dwarves, she had endured enough— if she had to be daring, or as Ebren would say, radical, then so be it.
That was what had set off the nobles— that and her giving away the extraordinary resources the Humans had uncovered so that the Nobles wouldn't have an excuse to stay and loot. For losing their lode, the greedy, entitled cogs must have felt her actions were personal.
Outside the newly built keep, the sound of claw scraping on metal and spells erupting on carapace continued to fill the outer courtyard with a choir of ultra-violence.
Her Iron Guards, supported by the Human Mages, fought with heart and soul against the aberrant, spindly creatures of maimed flesh as they scaled the walls designed to form a killing field for Spellswords and ranged spells. Fire, Ice, Lightning, Magma, all forms of raw elemental power smashed into the pallid bodies of the jittering beasts dashing madly for the warm flesh sweating inside the sealed cavern.
Though they were trapped inside Khorok Umgor and cut off— Hilda reminded herself— they were far from helpless.
Concurrently, deeper within the keep, the Foundry Engines continued their work, chewing up the cavern's interior and spitting out girders of iron to grind out the resources the Citadel's defenders required to keep fighting.
So long as their numbers kept up, help would arrive and a bigger, better defended Forward Operating Base would be there to greet their allies. That or they would eventually dig their way to safety.
The gates toppled, though that too was within the Engineseers' designs. Within the "shattered" wall, its metal plates were interlinked by woven cables that instantly ensnared the maddened Behemoth making its entry, turning its body into a living stopper that prevented its allies from skittering past.
"FIRE!" came the cry of Dwarven Captains stationed in the inner courtyard. "Lancers, Concentrated Fire! Drain yer batteries then prepare fer Hand-ter-Hand!"
The Golem-suited Iron Guards opened up with both the Spellwords on their arm and mounted on their back, turning parts of the mesh-gate contraption red-hot while other spells pierced the Aberrant Behemoth with missiles of mote-sharp obsidian spikes.
The Magma Missiles, each etched with explosive runes, erupted into ten-thousand jagged splinters, shredding through the creature's innards and taking the animals behind it with equal gusto.
"They're retreating!" The Citadel's Diviners broadcasted from the Møsvian's Chamber of the Watch down in the fort's belly. "Clear the field! Ready for another wave! Human Mages, go and rest. Iron Guards, check equipment and replace your ammunition! Take the injured down to L3 Infirmary. Repairs at Station L2!"
Hilda looked away from the projection of the battle on the wall and back to the ancient map in front of her.
More than the fight, she was frustrated by her kin. Why did Zairic and Zethoag show up now of all times, and why are they so desperate to stop the Red Citadel from rejoining the Dyar Morkk? She could understand their ire, but even so, to leave an entire Battle Group isolated and unprovisioned?
"Captain Bronzehorn," she answered the Missive. "Battle Report."
"The Human casters are burnt, and we're short on Magma crystals," came the voice of Ebren in her Communication Crystal. "Quartermaster Legg says the excavation isn't keeping up and our fuel supply's near critical. The seams here are suitable for settlement, but not for protracted combat."
"I see…" Hilda had no solutions against hard arithmetics. She and Ebren could escape this hell if they wanted, but that would mean abandoning the five hundred or so of her Kinsmen here, including at least forty of Hanmoul's most elite Iron Guards, and the sixty-odd Mages who had taken up semi-permanent residence in the Murk.
For now, the Deepdowner could only hope that her allies arrived before they had to fight the Aberrants hand-to-hand, gauntlets to claw.
That— and something smarter didn't lurk in the Murk, awaiting its chance.
The work residence of The Duke of Norfolk, Lord Marshall of Britain and its military forces, rested between the Chief Whip's Office and the Clerk's Chamber, generously lit by a waist to ceiling window overlooking the Old Palace Yard. Though the suite itself was large, it was made small by the portraits of Ravenport Patriarchs of the past, each a holder of the title. In the centre of the abode, seated upon the thumb-thick carmine Ursa skin-rug, sat an enormous desk both physically and metaphysically representing the imposing weight of the Office of the Earl Marshall, eighth of the Great Officers under the Crown.
To the suite's right was a series of perches, richly lacquered, upon which several quasi-magical ravens perched, relics of an earlier age without Divination Towers and now acting as the eyes and ears of the Goddess of Secrets bunkered below Westminster.
Above the fireplace, another relic of days bygone, a set of ornate armour, triple-Enchanted from under-layer to polished cuirass, set below a Helmet of Truth Seeing, besides of which sat a Shield of Warding and a Smiting Hammer still stained with oxidised gore from the Spellfire Treason of 1605. The bloodstain was said to belong to one of the chief conspirators, and though validity could no longer be obtained, the story remained.
It was in this august office now that its holder, Mycroft Ravenport, pondered the overzealousness by which Morrigan executed her duties of late, lacking complaint and possessed of a hyperactive efficiency that made him wonder if he had accidentally left out pints of blood, possibly after a nasty paper cut.
For his next appointment, he was to consider a request from an old colleague, the Marchioness of Ely, one of the several surviving lines with a lineage as ancient as his own. Hers was a history based on academia, a testament to the foresight of the first Marquis of Ely; the man who leased the bulk of his lands to a group of despondent scholars fed up with the peasantry of Oxfordshire's calls for witch-hunts.
The matter was regarding a pet project of hers and his— Gwen Song of Cambridge, who was revolutionising the Mageocracy's methodology of weaning future Void Mages.
Through a series of serendipitous encounters, the sorceress had survived then acquired a means to hybridise Shamanistic sorcery and Svartálfar Essence magic into the Imperial Magic System, utilising her bricolage-Affinity to enable what no Void Mage had ever attempted— to share vitality with a bound subordinate. The experiment carried out with Gracie Hillbrook was a gamble, but one that came to fruition when the Illusionist could finally practice spells of her own accord. It meant that future Void Mages, should they risk having a small chunk of their Astral Body "Consumed" by Gwen Song and added to the Devourer's burgeoning Body of Essence, would no longer fear self-annihilation. With enough practice, they too could attain the Affinity equilibrium required to utilise sanctioned Necromancy for sustenance.
As for Maxine's present petition, their sorceress was going to the Red Citadel of the Dwarves to accrue favours, and she wanted him to make it official.
Arguably, a tier 6 War Mage should not saunter their merry-own self into war zones for personal favours, but Gwen Song was a private citizen with the designation of a War Mage and not the employment of one. It meant that though the girl might be restricted from many things, she was not by law forbidden from acting. The girl was still green— an honorary Magus and a city-killer, but laughably, a pupil.
But a "student" with a net-worth measured in millions of HDMs— Ravenport cautioned himself. And the war potential of an upper-tier Magister-led platoon, and she possessed enough connection to Elves and Dwarves to take a walk in their abodes and be welcomed for it.
Unbidden, his head throbbed.
Barely a year had passed— but in his mind, it felt like he'd been hearing about the girl for a decade. Indeed, she made the back pages more often than not, and the METRO was more than happy to its mistress in the public eye. In the beginning, he imagined that the lass would be bound by her investments in London, only now she appeared to be dragging the city into the next century by sheer will, brutalising the toes of anyone who barred her path.
"Caw!" A raven shook him from his gently disquieting reflection. "Caw! Caw!"
"Tell the Blackrod to send her in," Ravenport informed the raven. The bird bobbed its head, then snuck back into its cubbyhole. A moment later, the heavily stained doors opened with a yawn, revealing the Blackrod in his plain sable robes, stepping aside just in time to unveil a girl wearing far too little for winter.
"Magus Song." The Duke of Norfolk made the motion for her to enter, his brow creasing a little. "Welcome to the Marshall's Office."
"Milord Norfolk." The girl curtsied expertly, waited for himself to grow comfortable, then sat.
This show of manners surprised Ravenport, more so when her poise and stance proved nearly faultless. Someone had done a very miraculous job with etiquette, he thought. There was a world of difference between this and the girl who had eleven months ago stepped into his car with half-a-mind to duel him.
Unfortunately, English modesty had yet to infiltrate the Frontier lass' fashion sense. Invariably, it was impossible to avoid the unnecessary volume of flesh the girl left exposed underneath her grey tartan skirt; a sight made poignant by the visitor's chair deliberately placed apart from his table. In his eyes, though the girl was fully covered from neck to waist in a charcoal blouse, it was a feign modesty that made her lower limbs positively exhibitionist. If Charlene had ever worn something like this— they would likely need to have a stern word in private.
Nonetheless, the Void Sorceress did well to distract him from his worries. As a Negative Energy Mage himself, he was unused to seeing their kind so hale and healthy, lacking the pale-pallid hue of faux-Undeath.
Fighting an innate sense of fatherly disapproval, he met the girl's vivid and demanding irises.
"Do you know our plans for the Red Keep, Magus Song?" He decided not to waste time on pleasantry. Maxine was unlikely to reveal to the girl the topics discussed in the House of Lords.
"I was not informed," the girl said. "But I could guess."
"Can you now?" Ravenport's fingers joined to form a contemplative wedge. "Do tell."
"I imagine London dreams of integrating the Red Citadel's resources into its transport infrastructure through direct trade and sharing of technologies and Spellcraft." The Devourer made her hypothesis. "Now that the Dwarves are once again roaming the surface, they've become a problem. A capital city can't rest easy knowing that a major military force lies within Teleportation range of the city, so the threat has to be neutralised through either hard or soft power."
"Not bad." Ravenport mulled over her answer and found her insight satisfactory. "A bit bookish and oversimplified, but sound."
"… Did I miss the complications caused by the Shard's Factions?"
"You did," the Duke of Norfolk acknowledged the girl's quick-wittedness. "Indeed, the Factions have their special interests, and it is difficult to find a compromise when ideology comes into play. That said, sometimes it is best to let things happen naturally, and just as you brought the Dwarves into our fold, so you should bring them closer. I am aware that you are acquainted with one of their Deepdowners?"
"And was this intentional?" Ravenport allowed his pleasure to show. "You do know that speaking to one is 'Vadam'."
"Yep. Ollie told me."
"Ah, Magus Oliver Edwards. A promising young man." Ravenport recalled the reports composed by the sleep-starved Illusionist. He also recalled the elfin young man with a bright future had a dire case of balding, which was a rather strange ailment, considering the resources Cambridge candidates could access.
"How did you commune with one so amicably?" Ravenport asked, curious as to how the girl managed the feat.
"… I rather not say." The girl's cheeks took on a hint of colour. "The circumstances were not proper."
"Curious… this Deepdowner is female, yes? Hilda, first daughter of Grand Engineseer Kül and Matron Hildenbrandt, each the respective heir of their ancient Houses."
"Right. But that's the first time I've heard of it," Gwen readily confessed.
"You don't know the Deepdowner's name?"
"Not her surname. I called her Hilda or Hildy…"
Ravenport didn't know whether to be impressed or disgusted; after nine months of reports on the girl, however, he felt a strange kinship for her bumbling tomfoolery, which somehow always seemed to turn out alright.
"I see." He took a moment to compose himself. "In your opinion, 'Hildy' is open to the Mageocracy's intervention in the Murk?"
"Absolutely." Gwen nodded. "She's a conservative, but she's fully aware of why the Red Keep hasn't made progress in thirty years. As things stand, they're losing more Dwarves than they're breeding from their limited population to the expeditions, so it's either eventual annihilation or taking a gamble that Human greed can push through the dark to tap into the Dyar Morkk."
"The Dyar Morkk." The Duke of Norfolk leaned forward. "The veins of the Elemental Plane of Earth from which transit can be made safely across the planar boundaries, utilising no additional advanced Spellcraft or Magitech than mechanised transit and if one had patience, one's own feet. It's a resource in which the Mageocracy is very interested."
"It'll reduce infrastructural costs for transportation and Teleportation by ten-fold." The girl nodded. "But it belongs to the Dwarves, does it not?"
"A crude way of putting it." Ravenport crossed his fingers once more. "Understand this, girl. A natural resource doesn't 'belong' to anyone by right. The owner is merely he or she who has the power to keep it."
"Are you telling me to rob the Dwarves?" The girl looked shocked.
"The Dwarves have lost the right to the low-ways," the Duke explained with patience. "Think, for example, of our predecessors over in Italy. Rome in the days of Augustine possessed the largest network of roads anywhere in the western world— but when the Holy Empire contracted, what do you think happened to those same roads?"
"Appropriated," Ravenport said. "They became the arterial highways of trade between the splintered nations of the bygone Roman Empire, each section owned and maintained by feudal lords for their benefit only."
"I can see the benefit, but the Dwarves are going to go ham…" the girl appeared hesitant. "I mean, I understand why us using it is better than letting it rot. But then again, how are you going to help me if I say yes?"
"I will officialise your visit as a War Mage." Ravenport put his plan into motion with complete awareness of the risks he took. "The Crown will prepare official documents. You'll be going into the Murk to save our citizens and stabilise the region for safer adventuring, as well as lend a hand to your personal friends, Hilda and Hanmoul. With an official sponsorship, no one in the Red Citadel, not even their Deepdowners will dare detain you or prevent you from taking necessary action to 'protect our kin'. Whatever atrocities or mistake 'our' Warmage might make, I shall shoulder— whatever gains you make, conversely, will be to the benefit of the Mageocracy."
"Diplomatic immunity, eh? And what if I start a war?"
"Impossible, unless you raze the guildhall or Consume the Deepdowners in plain sight."
"… are you saying…" The girl's eyes widened, a reaction that pleased Ravenport. He felt a small satisfaction, like observing the first carvings of an intricate sculpture taking place. "I could do away with one in an alleyway? Chomp-Chomp?"
"The Dwarves have their factions as well." Ravenport laughed. "The Deepdowners have their place at the heart of Dwarven society, but the perils of power are the same anywhere and everywhere. Their priests of knowledge aren't living in the vaulted halls of Deepholm, and yet they still wish to rule? It's terrifying how ignorant conservatism and tradition can be."
The Devourer gave him a strange look. "I see. I'll take your advice into account. Anything else?"
"Yes, actually." Ravenport cleared his throat. "Gwen, can you please report to Trawsfynydd at your earliest convenience?"
"… Why?" the girl dared to ask.
"You are expected."
"They can't come to see me?" The girl huffed. "I am busy. Tell em I've got Dwarves to help."
"If you wish, I can arrange it so that Master Warden Eldrin comes to see you." Ravenport could see the girl's stubbornness. However, as a father to a very wilful daughter, he understood young women and their rebellious phases. "In that case, the state will be involved, and hours of the unnecessary ceremony will transpire before you speak in private. By private, I mean that your topic of discussion will be on the record."
To Ravenport's surprise, his intimidation did not appear to have the effect he was anticipating. Instead of baulking, the girl crossed her legs, took a few seconds to unwire her brain, then smiled. "Say I do the Office of the Duke a favour and go see the Hvítálfar, what's in it for me?"
The Duke of Norfolk held back on stating that it was her duty. "And what does our Devourer desire?"
"I need a favour for the future," Gwen said. "It's not much, and I promise it will be to both our benefits."
Ravenport studied the girl's intelligent eyes, trying to read past the swirling mana turning her irises a brilliant shade of amber and green. A trap? The girl wouldn't dare, and Maxine wouldn't allow it. Even if the girl succeeded in inconveniencing him temporarily, his retaliation wouldn't be something she could handle, at least not without leaving the Mageocracy for good.
"I am willing to entertain the idea," Ravenport confessed. "But the Office of the Lord Marshall does not draw blank cheques. Can you clarify?"
"Well, you know me." The girl smiled infectiously. "I am an ideas person, and so I have great ideas involving an alternative way of funding a Divination Tower network. I am confident it will work, and my investors will shoulder all fiscal responsibilities, at least until we have a working example, at which point the Mageocracy may wish to buy-in. What I want, Dic— Milord Ravenport, is a nod from you at the right time so that I can be left alone to make it happen. If you can do that for me, then I promise you that you and the Grey Faction will have first dibs on investment opportunities."
"A communication… business?" Ravenport tried to imagine such a thing. "You want to compete with the Towers?"
"I could tell you, but then we'd be business partners," the girl said calmly. "Our trust is fragile. I am still recovering from the trauma caused by your son."
Ravenport ignored the contraction in his chest.
"Never get personal," he warned the girl with a pearl of silent wisdom becoming of his station. "There is an unspoken rule of engagement among the nobility, and that's you never go after one's family. Once you cross that line, any conflict that might see resolution becomes a free-for-all unto the destruction of one party or the other. It's why your cousins can enjoy every opportunity at Cambridge and why your healer's free to do as she wishes."
"… noted." The girl must have realised she had misstepped. "It's nothing personal. I apologise for my ill-humour."
"Nothing personal?" Ravenport once more studied the girl, searching inside himself for some sympathy that might have emerged over the months. What he found, the Duke of Norfolk realised— was wariness. He couldn't read the girl, not entirely, which against a teenager was an absurd prospect.
Yet, here she was, an enigma in an immodest dress— a Void-filled silhouette with unplumbed depth.
"I mean, we are not personally acquainted," the girl said. "We've spoken less than a dozen times, and you promised you wouldn't hold Edmund against me. I wouldn't say our interactions are entirely positive."
"Hmm." Ravenport wondered if he should have held that particular Sword of Damocles over the girl, but chose concession for now. Whatever happened, he would have to see if she could indeed work a second miracle and usurp the Dwarves' secret passageways for the Empire's use. For the Mageocracy, whose primary transportation involved slow-travelling ships and absurdly expensive Teleportation Circles, even the bones of what the pre-Beast Tide Dwarves could manage was a boon. "I can't promise you anything until I see a clear picture of your Divination Towers."
"Then how about this?" The girl grinned. "If I need you to stand behind me for a matter that's entirely legal and within your jurisdiction. If and when 'it' happens, promise me that you will pursue the matter reasonably and to its natural conclusion."
Ravenport scanned his mind for Morrigan's most recent reports. "The matter with the Exeters?"
"... are you spying on me?" The girl furrowed her brows suspiciously. She glanced at the Ravens.
"Caw! Caw!" The birds protested.
"I see." The Duke of Norfolk considered the pros and cons, weighing each outcome within his mind. "That's acceptable."
"Great, then I am off to see the Elves after my exams."
The Duke nodded.
"When are you leaving for the Red Peak?"
"Whenever the documents are ready," Gwen said. "That and we're waiting for Jean-Paul to receive the green light from Mevrou Bekker."
"I see." Ravenport put his hands together, a sign that they were done. "Good luck delving the deep. You will have the Shard's support, as well as the Foreign Office's official sanction. Just remember, if you renege on duties or act overtly out of self-interest, there will be punishments."
"Yep." The girl stood. "Goodbye, your Grace."
"Caw! Caw!" The ravens called from the loft's entryway.
"See ya later, Mori."
And just like that, the girl was gone.
Ravenport sat at his table, balancing the Dwarves, measuring the Elves and thinking of Void Mages, his mind drowned with possibilities the Mageocracy might entertain shortly. There was the matter of the Exeters as well— But of course, if the Militants are stupid enough to leave behind evidence, and if Walken were to act as the prosecutor, it would be unprofitable to stand in the way of 'public' justice.
At some point, he looked up at the raven pruning its feathers and felt a strange disquiet.
Mori? Ravenport suddenly felt an icy suspicion stabbing at his chest. Had the girl called his raven Mori?
"Mori!" The ravens cried out, parrying their beaks against the hardwood, appearing entirely innocent and unknowing. "Mori! Mori! Mori!"