Through Ariel VR, Gwen watched their mutual Void minions make short work of the undefended Aberrant nest, paying particular attention to the strange monsters' alien nature. Overall, her opinion of the "Aberrants" was paralleled by the Triffid nest she had Purged months earlier. Only this time, her foe's uncanny appearance was a chimeric cocktail of otherworldly Transmutation mangled by bootleg Flesh Grafting.
The "lair" itself was the stuff of 80s' monster movies, all sinew and slug skin strew from cavern to floor in convulsing lumps. The "womb", if Gwen dared to use such a term, involved pulsating tumours stitched together with pallid growths of unnamable anatomy, adding sacks and satchels of embryonic fluid to the glistening, dermis-clad walls.
Mildly unnerved, Gwen was thankful that Umzokwe and the leeches possessed the right physiology for reducing quivering neoplasms into primordial gloop. With brutal efficiency, JP's summons penetrated, then slurped the embryotic fluid as a lukewarm soup, first injecting their victims with Void ink, then sucking the symbiotic creature of all vitality before physically taking the "meat". Her Hydras were comparatively dumber and slower than the dogs and the worms, albeit they could expand their jaws to swallow pallid eggs wholesale.
"Did anyone ever find out who or what is responsible for the Aberrants?" she asked the party once her mind retracted from Ariel. "I mean, these things don't grow on their own, do they? They're nothing like Gobs or Snots. Something's making them, I suppose?"
"If we ignore the Deepdowner's legends," Hanmoul's cousin spoke from her vox, eager to be helpful as she had only fired a dozen shots during the engagement. "And focus purely on what the Guild has discovered, we can trace the Aberrants to the denizens that lurk in the pockets between the Planes, are you familiar with those, Magus Song?"
"In a manner of speaking." Gwen thought of the Hengsha Island, where she had as a novice encountered the Gila. The monstrous, flesh-warping, gene-splicing lizards were also a form of Aberrant Magical Creature, now that she had access to higher learning. They also possessed parasitic means of propagation that involved seeding the prime material's denizens with invasive seeds. The Elder Gila that Cali had taken down wasn't too smart, but it had populated a whole pocket plane with its kin, despite it being a single monster. Even after its demise, so long as its children lived on— Hengsha would always be the Gila's domain.
"Then know that we have encountered other civilisations in the Murk— ones with hostile and invasive designs."
"Have you ever seen these 'beings' in the flesh?" Richard asked.
"Wait," Gracie intervened. "Ser Rori, do you mean to say the Dwarves have evidence of upper-tier creatures?"
Gwen turned to the Void Sorceress. "I thought modern theory contested their existence and classified them as Magical Creatures? The texts I read suggest Demi-planes are something akin to the Unformed Land dreamt by Dragons."
"Meister Brahe's Demi-Planar thesis declares that they do exist." Gracie nodded. "But lacking the Dragons' reality-altering willpower, the Demi-Planes should be seen as leftover Astral Matter that, like floating hulks drawn by the ocean currents, meet to create slapped-together worlds. Naturally, these worlds' unstable environments imply that their inhabitants are doomed to become refugees. Their homes are in a state of flux, though their destructive scale may be measured in tens of thousands, if not millions of years."
"How exciting!" Gwen marvelled. "And from this bricolage of realities come the Aberrants, yes?"
"Indeed." Their Iron Guard guide waited for the Mages' bookish excitement to die down. "In one of the expeditions led by Hanmoul, he says that he caught a glimpse of one of these 'dark intellects'— a Dwarf-like being with the face of Caliban's mouthparts…"
"Tentacles?" Gwen moved her fingers just under her nose, wiggling her digits just so. "Like this?"
"Aye." Rori nodded. "He says that it can control the Aberrants with its mind and that the monsters are subordinate to its will. In its presence, the Hulks fought until every mote of life was exhausted."
"The paper I read." Gracie raised a hand. "Said that Meister Brahe's 42nd Deep Expedition uncovered the corpse of a Lung Fish the size of a double-decker bus. The carcass, after a thorough dissection, revealed a brain as large as a sedan, inferring extensive telepathic, telekinetic and other cerebral capabilities."
"So these 'Aberrants'," the Dwarf said. "They're trying to break through the Prime Material through the Murk, where the fabric of the Planes grow thin enough for monsters to pass. Their goal, I would imagine, is to infect enough of us— or whatever they can get their tentacles on— to establish a beachhead to deliver the rest of their kin, assuming they have a civilisation."
"Well, if the bloody buggers are live-grafting folks they find, as demonstrated by what we just fought." Gwen winced. "I'd imagine there's a civilisation alright, although they sound like terrible neighbours."
"It makes a lot of sense." Petra's brows furrowed. "You know, now I am wondering whether all those stories of Changelings and missing villages in Moscow have anything to do with these 'Far Plane' creatures. Though rare compared to Lycanthropy outbreaks or Undead raids, the stories are very consistent from year to year and always involve unidentifiable monsters."
The party grew silent while they pondered the facts.
Compared to her contemplative companions, Gwen's mind delved a little deeper courtesy of knowledge the Bloom in White had gifted. As much as she felt disassociated with the Murk's problems, she couldn't shake the feeling that the Elvish talk of "Trees" "Snakes" and "ageless women" may be explicitly linked to the Dwarves' present dilemmas.
If she was to assume the same problems occurring in the Murk were to afflict "Himmseg", what would these Aberrants do to Human cities with their surplus of impoverished millions? Would Human townships provide food to walking tumours scouring the landscape to enable passage from their dying home? And if indeed a group of sapient, intelligent beings arrived with capacities greater than Humanity, how should the Commonwealth receive them? Considering how much trouble they had with Triffids, what if something bigger and badder slipped across the threshold?
A part of her preferred their present circumstance. Let the monsters lurk in the Murk, her heart whispered. That way, the solution was self-evident and expedient.
"Let's go find Hanmoul." She checked in on her Familiars and Hydras and then informed the group that their monsters had completed the Purge action. "How's your haul, JP?"
"So-so." Jean-Paul balanced a palm in the air. "They're not very vital, these Aberrants."
"Well, we are in the Murk." Gwen regarded the space around them. "It's not exactly Amazonia down here."
"And we very much appreciate London's generosity in the food trade," Bumrorlim said. "Did you know that a few years ago, we had to vote whether to eat the spuds or use them to brew alcohol…"
Two hours later, Gwen's Omni-orb struck gold.
Considering the nature of their quest, she had expected to find Hanmoul surrounded by the bodies of his fallen kin, an ugly wound down the side of his face, frothing blood and wielding a chain axe with a bare-bosomed lassie by his leg.
As this was real-life, her Lightning Hounds found the "Iron Legion" of about a hundred Dwarves holed up in a natural cavern, wondering why the assaults from the Aberrants had suddenly ceased.
"Girly!" Hanmoul unlatched his armour at once, an act that spoke dearly of his feelings for their friendship. "I'd expected Master to send a squad or two, but YOU? Brumdahr's beard, yer've made me a happy lad to see his lucky lassie, HA!"
"Hanmoul." Gwen drifted close enough so that the two could shake hands. "Always a pleasure to catch you in the thick of it. Did you wait long? We ran into quite the pack on the way. A furious bunch that numbered in the hundreds."
"And yer did away with em as yer'd done with them Trollies?" Hanmoul rubbed his hands. "Yer a veritable reverse-Fabricator! My Legion is in yer debt again!"
"I'd be dishonest if I were to suggest I didn't come down here with that in mind." Gwen stifled a snigger. "Anyway, how are your folk? I brought healing spells, food, HDMs, booze, the works."
"Aye, we've been fighting for a few cycles." Hanmoul's face sagged. "If yer got some Maotai, let's see it. Is it ter good stuff?"
"I could juice it up, yes." Gwen felt happy that her friends had suffered no significant losses. Hanmoul's expedition had a dozen walking-wounded and thirty-odd disabled suits, including two Smashers; numbers that would have risen sharply had she not Purged the nest. "G'day, mates. Tordok, Tordum, Grimgal, you're looking worse for wear."
"I've seen better cycles." Grimgal slapped her Rock Smasher's cracked canopy, wincing when a sheet of crystal fell out. "When did you arrive at the Citadel? I am shocked those Deepdowners let you leave. I was telling Hamoul that they're sending us out to fail."
"Got here a cycle ago and left the Citadel right away," Gwen said. "As for permission, I never asked."
Grimgal burst into laughter. "There's something to be learned there."
"Ah, I wouldn't if I were you," Grimgal's Commandrumm warned his ace pilot. "Who are these, lassie? I see there's more of yer kind now."
Gwen brought her party up one-by-one.
"Right, this is my crew— Here's Jean-Paul, a Void Mage like me. Gracie's new to this but a Void user as well. You already know Richard and Petra, the latter is receiving guidance from Yossari. That tank of a brute over yonder you should know as my meat shield. Gogo, say hi."
At her introduction, Golos near-swallowed his tongue with indignation.
"Lord Golos." Hanmoul bowed.
"... Dwarf," the Wyvern greeted the Commandrumm, then growled at Gwen. "No manners."
"Haha." Gwen chuckled. "And of course, here's one of yours."
"Cousin!" Bumrorlim finally managed to get a word in edgewise. Exiting her engine, she and Hanmoul embraced. "It's good to see you're safe, Hamm."
"Thank yer for coming for us." Hanmoul held his cousin for a few more seconds before releasing the female Dwarf. "I am truly blessed by Bürumm-Dal to have you lot at me back. I'd thought we would have to grind our way out, to think we'd turn the tide, and so soon!"
The two guards that came with Bumrorlim also made their presence known to Hanmoul's Iron Legion. With the ice broken, the parties briefly mingled to share the news.
"Sorry to interrupt." Gwen waited until the greetings were over. "As much as I'd love to break out the booze right here, we still need to find Hilda."
"Aye, lassie." Hanmoul's expression grew serious. "That we do. I've tracked her to the 'Hydra's Head', but then we were ambushed by the pale-faced stink bugs. We'll have to backtrack and retrace her progress."
"There's no need." Gwen turned her palm upward, at which point she materialised her Omni-Orb.
In the lamplight from the Smasher Golems, the slowly twirling orb was a thing of alluring beauty. "Do you trust me, Hanmoul?"
"With all me heart, lass." The Iron Guard Commandrumm exhibited such faith that Gwen blushed to think of what she desired from him in return. "I am in yer hands, girly, but can yer clarify what yer ken?"
Gwen briefly described the orb's functions, emphasising that it consisted of the Core of a Dragon and that it was gifted to her by an ancient and influential member of the Yinglong's family. "… So where ever this leads, we'll find Hilda, but we'll need to move fast. The more ground we can cover, the better the Divination will perform."
Hanmoul turned to regard his Legion. "Grimgal, how many Swiftstriders have we got with us?"
"If we tear down the Smashers and take parts from the Golem suits— sixteen?" Grimgal checked her instruments. "We can do it within the hour. The rest of the IronGuards can progress independently to secure our return route, Foreman Khzaarum can lead, and Engineseer Bakkar can be his second."
"We won't let you down, Commandrumm." A White Beard popped his hatch to salute Hanmoul, joined a moment later by a second Dwarf with greying hair and a runic spectacle replacing his right eye.
"If I lose even one Iron Born, consign me to the Soul Forge." Foreman Khazzrum's pupils blazed like twin coal beads as he made the vow.
Hanmoul patted both on the shoulder. "Right— We'll make haste then—one hour rest and retooling. Engineseers, yer with me, Runesmiths, assist yer Seers. We leave after one hour."
"Great." Gwen was happy there would be a minimal delay and that she did not have to leave Hanmoul behind. If and when they found Hilda, she wanted to keep all of her VIPs close. "Now, just one more thing. We'll be running with Hounds, packs and packs of em, so it's probably best your men get used to them."
"Nasty little nippers?" Hanmoul regarded the Lighting Hound pack that had found them. "I've seen em before."
"Oh, there's a few more this time." Gwen grinned with anticipation. "And let me tell ya, Hammy, these bad boys don't just nip…"
"It's just a concussion." Hilda's Keeper's voice traversed through the haze. "Unclench yer teeth, breath deeply, relax yer muscles and let the suit do the work."
Hilda's hand came away from her head, half-expecting to see a smear of muddied blood on her glove. Fortunately, reality proved her expectations false. Her "Khro Klad" was a one-of-a-kind improved by generations of Engineseers, a priceless relic passed down from the pinnacle of Deepholm's Machine Hall, serving as insurance for a true-blooded scion. Unlike a regular Klad, within its spinal columns, powerful Cores collected by the Clan's warriors and Enchanted by its Runesmiths contained the power of a foundry.
Hilda Kül-Hildenbrandt couldn't recall the last time she had participated in combat.
Though the Ancestors did say that piloting a Kald suit was like stilt-walking a bipedal Strider; she had nonetheless allowed her overheated Core to overwhelm her head, making Hilda wish she could hook up a coolant pipe into her brain.
"Help me up," she said out of habit, though her suit was perfectly capable of uprighting its staggered occupant by tapping into magnetic forces. Eben's gauntlet locked behind her pauldrons, then brought her to her feet. Compared to her Klad, his suit was monstrous and antiquated, passed down through a lesser lineage and therefore a product of function over form.
"Yer shouldn't have—"
"I know." Hilda brushed her Attendant aside. Not far, her Iron Guards were being chewed out by their sergeant. Her close call wasn't their fault, though. She had miscalculated her Tremor Shift and as a result, had slid inadvertently into the fray. Hilda could only imagine what must be going through her guards' heads when it happened; likely, the moment in which the Aberrant Hulk knocked her clear, their first thought was to bolt their brains out lest folk at the Citadel found out their failure. "My apologies. It won't happen again. How's the battle looking?"
"We're barely sustaining our advantage." Ebren changed back to his external vox speaker, his voice once again becoming grating and mechanical. "The Human Mages are exhausted. Without rest, they'll be nothing but slag to be ferried. The Iron Guards are largely fighting hand-to-hand now. The Fabricators are on full crank producing mana fuel. Once that falls behind, we'll be cutting our fighting size by half."
Hilda ran diagnostics while she surveyed the battlefield. In times like these, she wanted to tap into the Khro Klad's reserves and share the abundant energies bound within its stowed Cores. If she were a Grand Engineseer, she would have the authority to dismantle the suit— but alas, someone of her age, even if they possessed the skill, could not attain the title— and even if the Ancestor's Hall were to make an exception, it wasn't as though she could return to Deepholm to receive the blessing.
"Thrice-Jammed Cog!" Hilda swore— an act that scandalised her partner but expelled the air of frustration in her chest. "If only I wore a Battle Klad!"
"You're the august scion of a Maker-Clan, Milady." Keeper Ebren huffed into his rebreather to remind her of a Deepdowner's decorum and dignity. "Leave the grunt work to the Iron Borns. We are what the Ancestors have made us."
"I don't doubt that." Hilda raised a hand to signal that she was alright. The diagnostics that returned from her suit indicated that forty-seven separate implements in her finely tuned Klad would require maintenance. "How's your Klad holding up, Ebren?"
"There's enough functions left, as always." Ebren's voice took on a note of mirth. Pipes trilled and pressure-flooded chambers hissed as he moved. "It will take more than a Hulk to bring this one to his Ancestors."
"Captain Bronzehorn." She nodded, then spoke into her vox box. "Report."
"Esteemed Engineseer." The Captain's voice reverberated through her ear-piece. "The tide is thinning even though our killing count has rapidly diminished. Either the Murk monsters are exhausted, or we may have allies finding their way to us. Should I send out a scout?"
"But we have no Striders to spare. You are confident the Wave is ending?"
"Aye, Mistress." Her Captains answer was punctuated by the sound of his Smasher Axe buzzing through a host of skittering limbs. "My men can clear a path. Please give the word."
"I can Earthstride," Hilda said. "Do you—"
A hand touched her shoulder.
"— Please remain here, for all our sakes," Ebren denied her request to join the fray once more. "There are many suits requiring repairs and wounded Iron Guards needing your assistance. If you must help, Lady Kül, let it be from behind the battle line. No one can mend a wrangled Golem Plate as well as you, Milady. The men would fight to the death, and when they do, they would prefer it if they fell defending you and not chasing you."
"It's a scion's duty to—"
"I will go." When she tried to push Ebren away, her actuators flashed yellow. Her Keeper's Klad possessed more strength than her surface diagnostics could fathom, Hilda suddenly realised. All of the Dwarves here had untapped depth— a stark contrast to herself, who felt shamefully at her limit. All the more important then, that she made good on her promise to punch through the Murk to the Dyar Morkk. How else could she repay the sacrifices made by her Murk-kin? Bringing them home to the Ancestor's Hall to receive the Cog's benediction would be the least she could do as their Engineseer.
Hilda taxed her rebreather with another long sigh.
"— Mistress!" The voice of Captain Bronzehorn burst through the intercom. "No need fer a Scout, Milady! Reinforcement! They've arrived!"
"Who is it?" Hilda's voice grew shrill and hopeful. "Is it Hanmoul?"
"Nay, Milady," the Captain said. "Their Glyph reports a Legion from the Citadel! It's Engineseer Thalmar and His Murk Divers!"
"Angus the Eminent?" Eben's helmet turned to regard her own. "The venerable White Beard is thirty cycles south of three hundred! How is he even piloting a Golem? He was bed-ridden!"
Hilda felt concurrently glad and ashamed. "How many of them? How are they fairing against the Centaurs?"
"Our reinforcements number only in the dozen." The Captain's tone grew strange. When he next spoke, his voice grew breathless with loss. "But they are approaching fast. Mistress— I regret to inform you that the Engineseer has given himself to the Soul Forge."
"The White Beard has…" Hilda choked. To deliver oneself to the Soul Forge would be to deny their Cores the chance to return to the Ancestors and the Elemental Plane of Earth. In the aftermath, one's Essence would also burn like a wick until every mote was exhausted. "I've decreed the act VADAM! Who dares— Zairic and Zethoag! Those Murk moles! How could they?"
Eben's shoulders appeared to sag at the news as well. "Hilda, maybe it's best to speak to the Engineseer first. Remember the lessons of Nörn-Zur and not reach for conclusions without evidence."
Hilda nodded. Gathering her wits and then her guards, she made for the battlement where her troops had been slogging it out with the Aberrant horde, retreating to newly Transmuted battlements every time the ground grew soaked with corrosive body fluids.
Since they had been surrounded, the Fabricators had bunkered down almost three kilometres, but Hilda's men had retreated more than that, resulting in a buffer no more the length of a Citadel spire between the front and back lines.
When she arrived, she could see the Balefire Golem— a medium variant newly cast from Orichalcum and vivified with Runes of Electrum, Palladium and Mithril. Below the battlement, the re-forged Dwarf was currently pillaging his way through the Aberrants, wielding the Elements with the ease of a Grandmaster Machine Smith refining impurities in the Grand Forge.
At five meters tall, the Engineseer formerly known as Emgus Thalmar, venerated White Beard and Maker of Arms was without peer. Compared to the muted blips of Dwarves in Diver Suits beside him, his mana signature burned as a miniaturised Radiant phenomenon ripped from the heart of the Quasi-Elemental Plane, smouldering with enough energy to power all of Hilda's Iron Guards and then some.
To Hilda, who had from her earliest childhood spent her time under the watchful eye of sleepy Deepdowners and their retinue of Balefire Guardians, she could only lament her helplessness.
"Hilda Kül-Hildenbrandt— true scion of Varekan-Kül, Bringer of the Lumen!" a booming voice cried out from the battlefield to reverberate against the cathedral cavern, its intonation thick with old Dwarven still spoken in Deepholm. "Be at peace, girly! Thine kin has come for thee!"
"I welcome thy guiding hand!" Hilda made the Blessed Cog sign with both hands raised above her head; her mood compressed as though caught in a gigaton hammer press. As with the Dwarf addressing her, she too utilised her vox caster. "Khorok Umgor welcomes thee, venerable Seer! Our gates open to receive thee!"
A rapid series of ground-shaking explosions, each triggered by Lava Bursts conjured by the old Engineseer, appeared to tear the reinforced cavern asunder, sending down an avalanche of boulders to crush the Aberrants, concurrently stymying the flow of flesh leaking in from the northern-most cathedral cavern.
Behind the Balefire Golem, the Murk Divers— select units made for rapid transit through the Murk— finished off the stragglers with Stone Lances issued from their Spellswords, skewering the trapped Aberrants so that their still-living bodies formed grisly, writhing totems.
"Open the gates." Hilda's concern was only for the sacrifice made by their oldest Engineseer. Even as her Klad unconsciously moulded the stone to create stairs that would hasten her descent, all she could think about was the debt she now owed the usually aloof instructor. To die for a Deepdowner was a fate many warriors wished for— but Thalmar was a venerated White Beard, an authority in his field. That such a man would give up his flesh and blood to bring their prideful priestess home was the ultimate sacrifice.
"Let us welcome our saviours." Hilda was glad her suit hid her over-emotional face. "I will greet Engineseer Thalmar myself— any less would be an insult to the Debt of Haj-Zül."
Taking on Gwen's advice, the Dwarves prioritised tools, medical supplies and transport space under the assumption that Hilda would be neck-deep in Aberrants. Assuming there was a "quick-in"— they would purge the Obsidian Cavern of Aberrants and regroup with Hilda to uncover the nest. In the off-chance of a "quick-out"— Gwen and company would stimy the tide while the Dwarves dumped supplies to ferried out as many men and engines as they could salvage. There remained also the fact that Golos had scented an undeclared expedition of Dwarves, though in their present circumstance, they would have to deal with that particular detail as it emerged.
For now, Hanmoul's Iron Legion would return to the Hydra's Head interchange to set up checkpoints and secure their retreat, ensuring that the return path to Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth remained unimpeded. Meanwhile, Gwen's train of Hounds, Dwarves, Humans and Striders, accompanied by flying, hovering, striding and slithering Familiars was ready to depart.
"I can't wait to see the look on Hildy's face," Gwen remarked to her companion. "Well, on her helmet. Those Deepsuits are surprisingly expressive, what with the circular visor and the articulated helmets."
"Aye, if yer kin desire ter use the Dyar Mokk," Hanmoul agreed. "Then yer'll need the Deepdowners in yer debt. Once we bring back Hilda, we'll have to find a way to deal with Zairic and Zethoag Gul-Zūh. Any clues on how yer wanna do that, lassie?"
"We'll do our best." Gwen grinned with confidence, her eyes full of mischief and anticipation. "What else can we do but tell the old men that they now live in new worlds?"