For Ollie Edward's second venture into the Murk, the Dwarves utilised the Grand Gates of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth, an honour usually reserved for Deepdowners, dignitaries and victorious Generals returned from deep-reaching campaigns. With great gravity, the ancient gates slid back on the carved path worn into the stonework. Against Human impatience, the enormous stone slabs' movements appeared glacial and tectonic, inducing an innate breathlessness in the onlookers.
This time, their party passed under the Seven Ancestors while escorted by a dozen clanking Striders. Leading the entourage was the foremost sorceress of their expedition, Magus Gwen Song— though she was not their leader— that honour had fallen on the shoulder of Ollie, the recently graduated, newly appointed Second Secretary of the Diplomatic Commission of the Commonwealth and a "Special Envoy" established by his Grace, the Duke of Norfolk. It was a burden he loathed to bear, considering his knowledge of Gwen, but then again, a junior officer had no choice in assignments.
Behind the profusely sweating and perpetually nervous diplomat whose sweat ran like a river walked three Void Mages, possibly a number never before seen in any expedition anywhere. The senior of the young women among the party was Gracie Hillbrook, Void Illusionist and adventuring novice. She was followed by Jean-Paul Bekker, ward of Meister Bekker of London Imperial and a renowned veteran Void Mage, besides which walked Richard Huang, an Abjurer-Conjurer Spirit-Elementalist. Their final member was Petra Kuznetsova, Enchanter extraordinaire and the Spellcube Replication System's architect, once a Moscow Mind Mage.
Behind these august young men and women were Ollie's crew, the diplomacy corp of the Mageocracy, a dozen Mages possessed of far more wisdom and experience than the over-powered youngsters.
Ollie possessed little comprehension of why Lady Grey and Lord Ravenport had tapped someone like himself to lead the expedition, though he had his suspicions.
"Gwen likes you," the Marchioness of Ely had said with a tone of strange sympathy while occasionally glancing at his hairline. "Look, Gwen will listen if it's you. The girl's very sensitive when she's dealing with people to whom she owes debts of gratitude."
For Ollie, receiving a position based on connections rather than merit filled him with deep anxiety and an unbidden fear that he would ultimately prove inadequate. But, as he had no choice, Magus Edwards could only ignore the acute tingling in his scalp and tell his House Mistress that he would not fail.
CLUNG! CLUNG! CLUNG!
Immeasurable weights, slowly shifted by mechanical and magical means, waylaid Ollie Edward's worries with the fanfare of London's great church bells. It took ten minutes for the gates to fully open, by which time Gwen had grown visibly impatient.
"Steady," Ollie warned his sorceress. "Let's see what they're up to first. Like we discussed, it is unlikely Hilda and Hanmoul are in immediate danger or caught within an active conspiracy— else our arrival would only hasten their demise."
"I hope yer right," Yossari, the returning Alchemist, declared her worries to her Human allies. "Deepdowner politicking is right fierce, yer know. Most of them see the commoner Dwarf as Murk fodder."
"Don't worry, Yossari, we'll get em back... or if the worst happens..." Gwen left the rest unsaid, with implications that made Ollie's stomach burn.
Fortunately, after analysing the known data, he and the corp had conveyed to their strike-team that whatever was arresting their VIPs must be a slow ploy. What the Deepdowner newcomers desired was a mistake or a misstep on the part of the Citadel's old leadership so that they could legitimise their power grab. Any activity that directly resulted in the Captain of the Iron Guard or the Deepdowner Hilda's explicit, murderous extinction would only lead to revolt.
"Holy shit." Gwen mouthed out loud as they entered. "This isn't normal, or is it?"
"Nay, lass," Yossari growled. "Tis a show of arms— right disrespectful!"
Ollie looked up. Two fleets of towering engines and plated suits greeted their entourage; the models on display were not the ceremonial kind but variants kitted out for a direr purpose. Most of the silhouettes they recognised as the standard Rockcrusher armours used by the Iron Guards, consisting of blocky, humanoid shapes on two or four legs, pending on the configuration, sporting Spellswords attached to the underside of pistoned gauntlets, as well as mounted on the pauldrons.
Behind the Smashers sat the larger models, more jagged in appearance, with armoured hulls akin to Land Sharks, sloping from the geometric front to a tapered back. These had haunch-sections that looked like they could slide out to reveal Spellswords, but were otherwise mechanised battering rams with an appearance of imperviousness.
"What the hell is that?" Gwen remarked as they entered the central square. Beyond, they could see the Guild Spire, though presently a monstrous Dwarf blocked their view of the stalactiform building that connected the enormous cavern from base to ceiling. When juxtaposed against the other Golems, the mechanical construct was positively monstrous and distinctly humanoid.
Ollie was observing the construct as well. By his estimation, the overlarge Machine-Dwarf measured three to two storeys in height, with a shoulder-width just as generous. From its barrel-shaped belly, the thing looked designed to block or clog the Dwarven transit tunnels. On one arm, it possessed a Rune encrusted gauntlet radiating the lilac hue of Transmutation in a clawed fist. Impressively, on the other, a six-bladed, rotating array of Spellswords hung beneath the gauntlet, speaking expressively of firepower. As they approached, the thing's empty eye-sockets smouldered with twin beans of "Radiant" fire. To Ollie's horror, the Dwarf-Golem then shifted its stance as though standing so long was fatiguing its metal, an act that was so uncanny that its observers felt a queasy unease.
"I think…" Ollie searched his memory. "That's a Balefire Dreadnaught…"
"A Balefire Golem, here?" Gwen's brows grew furrowed. "Aren't those forbidden or something?"
Ollie Edwards agreed; a Balefire Dreadnaught, to his knowledge, was the final form of the War Golems utilised by the Dwarves and one of the chief instruments of Dwarven desperation. The difference between a Balefire unit and an ordinary Golem was that the former manifested as an Elemental. Within the heart chamber of the humanoid thing smouldered the Core of a high ranking Dwarf.
"What do you think they're up to?" Gwen asked again.
For now, Magus Edwards had no answers for the Mageocracy's metaphorical Black Blade of Calamity. If he had to guess, the purpose of the Balefire Dreadnaught was the same reason the Mageocracy had sent Gwen, as a deterrent to emphasise the consequence of regretful actions.
What he didn't understand was that while Gwen could summon the Earthen Wyrm form of Caliban at a significant personal cost, the Dwarves would have to sacrifice one of their own— or so the legend goes. If this show and tell was done purely for intimidation, then just how committed were these Deepdowners?
"Guests! Welcome!" to Ollie's relief, the Dwarf that greeted them was Whurforlüm Ironførge, Guildmaster of the city's crafters. Behind him, the Iron Guards saluted by raising their Spellblades.
"Master Wilhelm!" Gwen spoke out of turn before the Dwarf before Ollie could speak. Behind him, the Diplomatic Corps collectively sucked in a hot breath of sulfurous air.
The two shook, after which the atmosphere grew less tense.
With the old Dwarf came his Foremen from the Craftsmen's Quarter, as well as a few inconsequential Nobles that stood on the side of the city's makers' consortium. Compared to the High Council Gwen had addressed a yer ago, the gathering was less than half its size and missing most of the Citadel's upper crust, including the prideful Brugal Brumdahr whom Gwen had put to shame.
The Guildmaster spoke at length with Gwen while she leaned over him, then made the rounds while both parties exchanged greetings through tactile means, some genuine, others hoping to measure one another's intentions.
"Let's speak inside the Hall." Whurforlüm "Wilhelm" Ironførge steered the procession toward their right, angled just enough to avoid the smouldering Dwarf-Golem.
"What's with the big guy?" Gwen blurted out. "I thought Balefires were Vadam."
The Guildmaster sighed. "Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth has undergone some changes of late as a result of a resurgence in... religion. Please, this way, and do take care when circumventing Engineseer Maggurn, the Soul Forging process is far from perfect, and even in life, he was foul of temper."
Ollie took a glance at the Balefire Dreadnaught known as "Maggurn".
Within that hollow recess of its head, twin suns stared hard at their contingent of Void Mages. Naturally, Gwen stared back with a smirk, utterly unconvinced by its prowess.
Beside the sorceress, Ollie Edwards felt his sweat grow sticky like gruel.
Things are about to get complicated, he felt, and he had good knowledge which one of them would be doing the arse-wiping.
The Diplomacy Corps from the Shard received a lower segment of the Guild's spire for their workspace. The Devourer and her companions conversely occupied the upper layer reserved for rarer guests of the Guildmaster. Without complaint, the Human Mages set up their temporary residential and office spaces within the Guild Hall's art-deco and neo-brutalist vaults while Gwen's party made themselves comfortable.
Meanwhile, the sorceress herself, Ollie Edwards and Yossari were were invited by "Wilhelm" to converse in private in the safety of his workshop.
"Hilda and your Mages are encircled within the Obsidian Caverns." The Guildmaster wasted no time in informing them of the developing situation. "Hanmoul's gone with a contingent of his best Iron Guards to find her, but he hasn't reported back in ten of your sun-cycles."
"How long has Hilda been gone?"
"Close to twenty cycles by the Himmseg's reckoning," the Santa-look-alike master crafter said. "The men and women you're trying to bring back to the lidless-world last sent a Message around that time as well."
"Our Mages are with a Deepdowner?" Ollie almost choked on his surprise. "How is that even possible? Shouldn't her Grace and that other Deepdowner with her be staying away from 'Vadam' folk as much as possible?"
"Not with Zairic and Zethoag forcing her hand." The Guildmaster sprouted two names with which Gwen and Ollie had not yet familiarised themselves. "Hilda was trying to push through to the low-ways before her rivals could convince the High Council to remove the humans. With her acting as an example, progress will proceed smoother and with more compliance from the Dwarves on the frontlines."
"I take it Zairic and Zethoag are the new Deepdowners?" Gwen asked. "What makes them more special than Hilda? I thought she's rich as anything?"
The old Dwarf nodded. "They're from Umgor èron Varèkan, it's a sacred place of sorts— an Academy like your Cambridge, and they're old, ancient, even for Dwarves."
"Older than Longbeards?" Ollie asked.
"Older by a century," Yossari said. "Walking miracles. They are Kirkja— holy, in a sense."
"Four hundred-year-old Dwarves?" Gwen furrowed her brows. "They must be half-rotted inside those suits."
"The Deep Suits prolong life, this is known," Ironførge said. "But that is a topic for a fairer cycle. Out of the four contingents of Iron Guards under the Craftsmen's Guild's command, one is with Hilda, one has left with Hanmoul, and one must remain within the Citadel. Our circumstances leave me nay choice but send out our last fighting kin with yer, a difficult proposition to aid Hanmoul and recover Hilda. The Murk has gone mad of late, with the Aberrants agitated by Hilda's progress."
"If it's urgent, then my group can move right away," Gwen agreed. "But we'll need guides."
Besides her, Ollie shot Gwen a shocked look of disbelief.
"You'll have them," Guildmaster Ironførge said without pause, ignoring the Second Officer. Gwen could sense the disquiet behind the old Dwarf's stoic face just by observing his trembling beard. "I'll send Bumrorlim Vildrenbrandt with you. She's Hanmoul's cousin and Yossari's niece and a renowned pathfinder. If there's any Dwarf who could track Hanmoul close enough to activate his Repeater signal, it would be Bumrorlim."
"Aye, Bumrorlim's a reliable lass," Yossari agreed. "Not as much of a scrapper in a tight tunnel like Hanmoul, but a good scout with a clear head and quick wit."
Gwen repeated the name a few times to commit the words to memory. "Right. We'll be a party of five. Having anticipated something like this, I've got provisions for the next six months, or enough to feed a hundred Dwarves for a few weeks. And booze, lots of booze. Don't worry, mate. I'll find Hanmoul and bring him and Hilda back right as rain. Also, we might not need so many Iron Guards with us."
"You do not?"
"My companions and I have plenty of Familiars and Summoned Creatures," Gwen assured the Guildmaster. "Too many allies in a tunnel inundated with Void Magic are bound to get complicated. Why don't you lend me Bumororlim and two others of your best to look after her? We will certainly move faster that way."
"This is good news, and we are in your debt once more," the Guildmaster emphasised the word 'debt'. "The Upprumm Nobles have an elite Legion to themselves, and I was afraid they and the Deepdowners might attempt to overrule the High Council by force in the unfortunate instance that Hilda untimely ascends to Deepholm's Ancestral Halls."
"So long as Hildy's alive, she'll be right," Gwen assured the Alderman Santa of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth. "Okay, are we clear to proceed?"
"Gwen." Ollie felt such alarm that his hair stood on end. Taking a deep breath, he reached out to the sorceress to arrest her hand. "Magus Song, may I..."
"Not now, Ollie." Gwen battered his hand away.
"I have already arranged for your departure." Whurforlüm rose from his seat with a squeak from the assistive exoskeleton underneath his robes. "May Pathfinder Bürumm-Dal guide your way to Hanmoul and Hilda."
The Virnbaduhr low-ways.
"YAAAA—!" Hanmoul Bronzborn, Son of Dwomrul, tore an Aberrant Crawler limb from limb with a roar of his turbo-charged engine, splitting the thing roughly down the middle with a single zig from the protruding disc-sword attached to the gauntlet of his Smasher MKIV. Newly restored, the Golem had been re-tuned and made more apt for Hanmoul's growing skill by Engineseer Signerlig. "Sergeants! Square up and tighten the rear bulwark! Prepare to receive the injured! COVER FIRE!"
Burning lances of Magma and cutting shards of dark obsidian sang through the air, turning the interior of the twisted cathedral cavern the hue of sunset. Above them, Hanmoul could see hundreds more of the eyeless crawlers, their white teeth gleaming like polished lambs-fat nephrite. The majority of the monsters possessed six or more limbs, though some managed to scale the bluffs even with maimed extremities. All were naked and pallid, a condition endemic to creatures living in the Murk whose ancestors had their origins in the Himmseg.
Swinging his Spellblades in tandem, Hanmoul fired off a flurry of obsidian discuses, hewing a particular robust Aberrant Crawler that had overwhelmed one of his men into ribbons of wet flesh. Much to his disgust, even with its bones shattered, muscles torn and innards spilt, the thing still gnawed at the visor of Tordok's Golem suit.
"Thank ye, Commandrumm." The Dwarf wiped the ichor from his helmet once his hands were freed to tear the Aberrant's head from his chest guard. Using the hairy end as a mop, the Iron Guard cleaned his visor before discarding the carcass back into the gibbering crowd. A second later, the body became engulfed by a small river of gnashing teeth. "Rejoining the group!"
"Yer coolant's leaking." Hanmoul mended the Golem Suit with a quick blast of frost, freezing the tube where green cooling fluid leaked between bent mental and a ring of teeth marks.
"Returning to the Phalanx, Ser!" Tordok fled past the Rock Smasher and made for the retreating line of Iron Guards.
Beside Hanmoul, Grimgal arrived in her Smasher MK III to take his place at the rear, announcing her arrival by letting loose a long line of Magma Bolts, shaking a dozen Aberrants from the ceiling to smoosh onto the uneven, rock-strewn floor. She followed up with a few Fireballs that superheated the air, driving the light-fearing Aberrants back some fifty meters. "Commandrumm, you need to re-arm and refuel."
The Commandrumm glanced at the Crawlers writhing on the ceiling, turning the shadows alive with their pale bodies. "Nay lass, we'll fight on til the wounded gets back to the sealed cavern. There, we'll whittle em down. I'll be damned if there's more of these carrion eaters than we've got mana!"
"We still have to find Mistress Hilda," the Sergeant reminded him. "That's our main mission. Are we going to have enough fuel?"
"Either way, that's a moot errand without clearing this lot," Hanmoul refuted his Sergeant. "What good will it do if we arrive with ten thousand of the buggers on our arse? Assuming Hilda's alive, we'll only endanger her Highness."
Grimal aimed her wands toward the ceiling. "Transmute Stone!"
A dozen spikes penetrated the bodies of the Aberrants as they crawled, skewering a few while sending five or six to tumble onto newly risen ground spikes.
"Think we'll have reinforcements, Commandrumm?"
"I wouldn't count on it." Hanmoul checked his liquid mana counter. "You know the way. Old Downers politick, and young Dwarfs die. Besides, if we don't manage to recover Hilda, I don't think any of us will be welcome in the Kjangtoth for long."
"How about the Himmseg, then?" Grimgal brought together two sections of the cavern to crush the advancing Aberrants like a giant set of teeth closing in on spindly toothpicks. "Ask Gwen for a spot below her isle."
"Nay lass," Hanmoul growled. "We're the Iron Guards! We bring back our Deepdowner priestess, or we return with her to Deepholm's halls as Honour Guards!"
"You're going? Just like that?" Ollie's eyes grew as wide as hen's eggs. "You can't leave, can you? Can Gwen just leave, Carol?"
"I believe the War Mage does possess the privilege, Sir," Carol, the aide to Second Officer Ollie Edwards, informed her superior.
"Ollie." Gwen patted the flustered diplomat on the shoulder. "I am leaving to make things easier for you."
"How?" The man rapidly blinked. "Gwen, if you're going out into the Murk with the only Void Mages under the command of the Shard to kill or be killed by whatever is in the Murk, how does that help our negotiations with Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth? The politics here are more delicate than thawing ice."
Gwen's smile grew disarming and confident.
"If I ask for permission, it's a sign of weakness and a sign that we're unfocused," she said. "Also, keep in mind that I am well within reason to immediately go and rescue our men and women in the Murk and that it's completely within my character to run off at the first sign that they're in dire danger."
"Unpredictable passion matches Magus Song's profile," Officer Carol reminded her superior. "Though I cannot advise that she do as she pleases, we can't stop her either. However, I do believe this is within Milord Ravenport's expectations."
"It isn't unthinkable to negotiate with their High Council, is it?" Ollie begged. "What if they use this opportunity against our alliance?"
"Don't be a soft-cock, Ollie. diplomacy would only delay us," Gwen assured her assigned arse-wiper. "Clear action needs no explanation. Excessive excuses would only undermine our appearance of conviction. If the High Council complains, tell them the Guildmaster has briefed us, and that we're performing as requested. You do know there's dodgy politics at play. Hanmoul and Hilda are pivotal to our interests here in the Murk. If you have to negotiate with the new Deepdowners— I think we'll be back to square one, with the whole Citadel going back into isolationist lockdown."
"I... I see." Ollie considered her words. "And you're going with only three bodyguards?"
"I like to think of it as us being the main force and the Dwarves as our guides," Gwen said. "Besides, I am going to bring Golos."
"Yep. We're going to need Gogo's Draconic strength, I think."
"You can summon Lord Golos here?"
"Without doubt," Gwen said. "As long as I can channel Lightning, it'll be fine. Remember, Golos is conjured through the Quasi-Elemental Plane and since Petra is with us, we'll be quick."
"Beware that your Affinity may wane," Ollie warned. "Remember your briefing. Here in the Murk there are dampened Elemental zones where the Plane of Earth has its ley-lines, and only Petra in your party draws from the Elemental Plane of Earth."
"I wouldn't worry, Gogo is much more sensitive to the wax and wane of Elemental Affinities than anyone else in our party."
Ollie exhaled deeply. "No point stopping you, eh?"
"Yeppers." The Devourer looked out the window at the bustling craftsmen's city below. "I've already informed the crew, and they're rearing to go. Here's hoping we find Hanmoul and Hilda in one piece. Wish me luck, Ollie."
The Second Officer took a long, deep breath. "Good luck."
"Thanks." She gave him a quick hug about the head, ruffling his hair. "I'll be back in a jiffy. You'll get your medal, buddy, don't you worry your thinning head."
While the cloth-plated Human Mages hovered past the gates near the Citadel's northward exit into the Murk, unhappy miens questioned pallid faces ripe with fear nearer the city's bottom.
"You let them go?" An iron, raspy voice droned through the mouthpiece of a rebreathing unit. "What is the meaning of this insufferable incompetence, boy?"
"The Guildmaster let them go." Brugal, the scion of House Brumdahr, moped the cold sweat from his beard. "Without good cause, I lacked the means to stop them."
"We gave you command of the House Legion!" the second synthetic voice growled like an engine, at the ends of which a loud hiss followed. "Stop them by force if you must."
"We're not ready to confront the infidels, not yet," Brugal explained in a whisper, not daring to raise his voice. "There are those among the troops that still need to be purged and replaced. Besides, the Humans are leaving with a single party of Mages, including the Wyrm Tamer."
"Truly." The anger diffused somewhat. "The meddlers did not leave with the Craftmen's Legion?"
"Nay," Brugal's voice regained some of its former dignity. "Just the five, and Vildrenbrandt's niece plus two more guards in Swiftstrider MK V's. That's all."
"Interesting, do they not know the Murk is insidiously dangerous?" the first Deepdowner voiced with a hiss from a valve. "There are creatures down there no beings from the surface can imagine. Have the Humans grown so confident in only ten Earth Cycles?"
"They may very well have, and I would not be at all surprised," the second said. "But still, the fools underestimate the dangers of the dark, hmm... if they become overwhelmed by the Murk before they're capable of finding either Commandrumm Bronzeborn or the Kül-Hildenbrandt brat, that would be a tragedy."
"Aye, tis would be a shame." Brugal Brumdahr's eyes moved away from the expressionless lenses covering the Deepdowners' faces in tessellated plates of semi-translucent crystal-glass. With the Deepdowner's consent, he focused on manipulating his Echoing Crystal to deliver new orders for the House Legion's Commandrumm. Herding the Aberrants was a daunting task, one that only those fully devoted to the Deepdowner's secret crafts could manage.
"By the honour of my Clan, the Humans won't venture far, O Masters of Dwarfholm," the noble promised his benefactors.
"See that none return," the voice of Zairic and Zethoag Gul-Zūh spoke in perfect tandem. "Else your entombed soul shall next serve the Kjangtoth in its only useful capacity."