Gwen heard the hiss and clangs before she saw the Deepdowners Hilda and Ebren.
As a matter of station and rank, Hilda led the procession, followed by Ebren. Behind their clanking Klads, Petra and Gracie stalked at a polite distance, though from Gwen's vantage, the scene resembled two prisoners escorted by their wardens.
As for herself, she sat with a purring Caliban to her right and Ariel cushioning her left in the lotus stance, with her shoulder resting against her Kirin's mane. Richard and Jean-Paul stood a distance away, documenting the dead. Hanmoul and his crew busied themselves with the wounded or stood as nervous guardsmen awaiting their spiritual leader's arrival. As for Golos, the Wyvern's healing proved far too slow in a place so lacking in the Elements he required, and so Gwen had sent her ally home. There may be a battle to come, but considering the skyscraper-sized Balefire standing guard over Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth, there was little doubt that the next fight would be with words.
From afar, Gwen studied the Deepdowner as she walked, feeling a palpable sense of purpose in the way the Dwarven priestess placed one foot ahead of the other, like a martyr headed for the stake. As for Hilda's purpose, Gwen needed no divination to discern her desire.
At two meters, the clunking footfalls ceased.
"Lady Hilda." Gwen put on her best, most disarming smile. "We humans have a saying— revenge is a dish best served cold."
The domed helmet dipped, where the rebreather connected to the broad base, the mechanism inhaled and exhaled. "Aye, I find Humanity's diamonds of wisdom pleasing."
Beside Hilda, Ebren lurched forward on one knee.
"MAGUS SONG, WE ARE IN YOUR—"
"Ebren." Hilda halted her partner before he could bowl Gwen over with vows of gratitude. "No modulations. These are friends to whom we owe the Debt of Haj-Zül."
"Of course," Ebren's natural voice broadcasted through his crude vox. Unlike Hanmoul, Ebren's voice was pleasant and mellow. "Please accept this one's apologies for my earlier rudeness."
"Accepted." Gwen knew the straight-laced Dwarves far favoured forwardness to meandering politeness. "But let's discuss where we shall go from here. The mind-controlled Legion is neutralised, the Mon Calamari are slain, and the Balefire Golem has—"
Gwen paused to look at Hanmoul, whose brows wiggled with alarm.
"— been pacified."
"That goes with saying, I think." Hilda tilted her helmet. "Well done, Magus Song. I would have thought the feat impossible."
"You are not upset?" Gwen raised a brow.
"For banishing a selfish, Clanless traitor who put continuation over that of his people?" Hilda shrugged her shoulders. "It's a bitter truth that our Guardian has fallen. BUT, the alternative is unthinkable. For simply being here and speaking to you in my Klad, Ebren and I will count ourselves blessed by Møsvian's luck."
Considering the Calamari-headed Aberrants the two just escaped from, Gwen could only agree. "Thank you for understanding, Hilda."
"We're the ones to blame," Hilda said. "Now, shall we get on with business? We Dwarves aren't much for revenge, but by Brumdahr, we hold a grudge. This betrayal cannot go unpunished. Our people need to scour this scourge with flame and chisel."
"I like the way you think." Gwen leaned back, feeling every joint in her body creak. She hissed, then took a deep breath to re-circulate her recovering Essence. "So, mind telling us what's the deal with the Calamari?"
"Aye, the 'Dark Intellects' of the Planes between Planes." Hilda did not deny her narrative prompt. "Deepholm had known of their existence for some centuries, though never in my life could I imagine that a brood would do such untold damage to our Clan. Our Kin of the North from the Citadel of Helzink dubbed them the 'Sinneslukare', meaning Will Devourer. They were meant to be chronicled creatures from before the Sundering, Murk Ogres of the mind, myths, but obviously, that is no longer so."
"Sinneslukare." Gwen breathed out, happy that she no longer had to worry about copyright. "What can you tell me about them? More importantly, if you don't mind me asking— if you were out of your Klads, how are you fine? Don't they eat brains?"
"Magus Song..." Ebren cleared his vox.
"It's fine." Hilda walked in front of Gwen, then sat cross-legged. "We need Magus Song's help to re-establish credibility in Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth's Hall of the Eternal Cog. Let's not repeat the prideful mistake of our ancestors by pushing away potential allies in our time of need."
"I am all ears, Lady Hildenbrandt."
Hilda extended a gauntleted hand covered with intricate Glyphs.
Gwen took it.
"The rot goes deep, I am afraid. Deepholm itself is either under threat or threatened." Hilda's voice blossomed as a private Message spell.
"Or fallen," Gwen drily added.
"Unthinkable," Hilda denied her companion's pessimism. "Deepholm is home to millions and more. A hundred swarms of Aberrants wouldn't breach its Outer Rims, much less the Inner Sphere. Besides, if a city of Deepholm's magnitude ceases to revolve, the Prime Material's Citadels won't escape unscathed. That and the portals only we Deepdowners can activate to expedite travel in the Dyar Mokk remain functional, and those function by drawing focus from the Loci Engine at the heart of the Revolving Hall."
"A city of brass may not need living Dwarves. Anything's possible if it decays from the inside," Gwen said. "The leadership becomes insular and selfish and removed from the people. They get replaced..."
"I'll concede that possibility," Hilda said. "But deny that things can be as bad as that. As for why Ebren and I remain safe, I fear the Sinneslukare that had assumed the mind of Captain Farron Gahrol had more important plans for us, ones I suspect had very much to do with infiltrating Deepholm proper. In my Klad and wearing my Glyph, there is a real possibility that they could penetrate deep into the city's core."
"He aided them, but no."
"Alright. How come the squids didn't give you a head-bug?" Gwen asked.
"Successful parasitism requires toxins of the mind, and time," the Deepdowner explained with a mild tremble to her voice. "I was informed that willing subjects make better adherents, and suffer... far less degradation."
"Why did they have Ebren tortured?"
"I had until my Keeper bled out to make a decision..."
"... So, either you agree and get brained, and Ebren dies— and you get brained and..."
"Do not ask me how their cruel mind works," Hilda said distastefully. "I cannot fathom their sadistic joys."
"Aye, so now you know. May I speak without the guise of politics, Magus Song?"
"I need to return to Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth. I need to regain the prestige I once wielded. I need to expel Zairic and Zethoag Gul-Zūh, who may or may not be supporting the Sinneslukare, or even be of their kind. I need vengeance for my lost Legion of Iron Guards, and to honour their loss, I am determined to pierce into the Dyar Mokk. However..."
Hilda paused. "I do not know how."
Gwen almost choked on her spit. "What?"
"Ebren and I..." Hilda spoke with a voice that was far too feminine. "We are crafters, Lore Keepers, scholars, Runesmiths and Engineseers, Magus Song. We are not..."
"Warmongers. Disruptors. Usurpers."
"... I see." Gwen nodded. "I guess you're looking for a Consultant. Well, you're in luck. For my part, I am happy to say someone must pay dearly for the needless loss of our Mages. Someone has to pay in blood."
Gwen studied the smooth and featureless surface of Hilda's Klad-suit. Naturally, she could read nothing. "So, I'll be blunt. I've recovered our Mages, and now I am returning you, Lord Ebren here, and Commandrumm Hanmoul to Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth. We've got a diplomatic corp set up to settle accounts once we get back. Do you want London's full weight behind you? No problem. Give us access to the Low Ways once we punch through."
"Humans utilising the Dyar Morkk?" Hilda gave pause. "That's unorthodox. The Low Ways are Dwarven."
"Is it though? Tell me more about your success in keeping out Aberrants and brain-Calamari so far?" Gwen gripped Hilda's gauntlet with renewed strength. "The Shard's emphasis is to find alternative pathways to expedite resource transfer between London, Dublin and the European mainland. Assuming the Dyar Morkk indeed offers stable planar short-cuts, how much of it currently lies fallow? How many nests of Aberrants have taken up refuge? How many more years until all of the Iron Born are brained by the squids? Can Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth afford to play silly-buggers with the Sinneslukare?"
Hilda grew contemplative.
Gwen gestured at Hanmoul and relented on the silent Message.
"As Hanmoul's friend, I am happy to be your deliverance." Gwen looked at her reflection in Hilda's visor as earnestly as she could manage. "Take the initiative to throw your lot in with us, and you'll have plenty of chips on the negotiating table. Tradition? Sure— but is it as important as gains from opening your untapped infrastructure? Think of the progress and the profits made possible by relenting. For example, new stations to house the transit nodes; Human Mage Flights replacing Dwarven Exploratory Teams; taxes collected from the transfer of goods. Gateway fees, withholding fees, dockage fees, small business for folk from the Citadel, commissions for your artisans, and unfettered access to resource from the surface— Sure, it sounds wonderful to say, 'this is the Ancestor's way!', but think about what common folk in the Citadel want. It's not spiritual elation, Hilda. The labourers want their daily Dwarf Bread, the artisans want work, time and resources to perfect their craft; Hanmoul and his warriors to fight monsters, not Dwarves and rogue Balefires..."
Her eyes sparkled with the promise of investment returns.
"And we want the same thing too. Human or Dwarf, I think of screwing Zairic and Zethoag as an absolute win-win scenario."
Hilda did not move.
Gwen rested her talkative fingers on Hilda's palm. "I mean, you can choose slow and steady— but then what? Your Deepdowners are culprits of this sedition! Will you ask for help from other Citadels? Even assuming one of your distant Kin chooses to aid you, what's the mutual benefit? How can you trust folk who offer aid when the cost outweighs the gains? You can trust the Mageocracy to hammer out a deal and stick to the rails— because mutual profit is the gospel of cooperation."
"You've banished my doubt, Magus Song." Gwen could see Hilda's breathing apparatus rising and falling. "Will you aid me in seeking redress, Magus Song?"
"You can bet you Kiad I will." Gwen figured she might as well do Dickie a favour now and ask for more favours after compounding interests. "Now, I am no expert on Dwarven intrigue, but from what Hanmoul told me, the whole thing we just survived was a trap. From what I saw, I don't think the Sinneslukare own Thalmar, do they? He didn't give a shit about them getting Devoured."
"Correct," Hilda said. "Thalmar was acting on behalf of Zairic and Zethoag."
"That's good news then."
"Gwen," Hilda reminded her. "Despite the role Ebren and I hold within the hierarchy of our people, we are, as I said, Craftsmen and scholars. We pursue objectives and devise mechanisms to achieve those goals. Politics isn't in the blood of us Ancestral families from Deepholm, hence our failure to detect Zairic and Zethoag's deviation from honourable conduct."
"That means Zairic and Zethoag are also new to traitorous intrigue, no? Their ploy had no alternatives and was hugely reliant on killing or braining all of us."
The Deepdowner paused. "Aye, I think."
"Good, help me up."
The party of Humans and Dwarves solemnly watched as the Deepdowner and the Human sorceress clasped palms, with Hilda helping the resting Gwen to her feet.
"Shaa!" Caliban purred.
Ariel swished its tail.
"Whatever happens, I don't think our party will be much good in a fight in Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth," Gwen said after checking the condition of her body. Even now, the disjunction caused by the forceful deployment of Essence Tap was wreaking havoc with her Sigils and Elemental Gates. Her vitality was also nearing rock-bottom, and her companions were near OoM.
Unfortunately, her wounded adventurers could not wait to receive proper treatment, nor could Gwen's party dally lest more complication would throw the developing situation in Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth into disarray.
Looking at the expressionless Hilda, the kneeling Ebren and the stone-faced Commandrumm beating himself over his failure to protect their Deepdowner, a cunning plan formulated in her head.
Gwen's grin was full of teeth. "You know, we have another saying in the Himmseg..."
"What is it?" Hilda asked, suddenly feeling fearful of the alliance with the wolfish Void sorceress.
"There's more than one way to skin a cat…"
Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth
The Centre Spire.
For the Iron Legion to slink through the side gates with such discretion could only mean one thing— shit had hit the fan.
Usually, after marching through the pavilion, the procedure involved a general assembly that broadcasted the Legion's losses with Scribes from the Hall of the Ancestors taking the names of those returned to Deepholm. The commanding officer would then retreat to a private meeting to compose a detailed report for the Guild before his presentation to the High Council, assuming the failure did not require immediate redress.
During this same process, family members of the warrior caste would receive their exhausted Kin, or receive their bodies. Other members with the requisite training would then volunteer to enter the Guard, replenishing the diminished numbers.
However, this time the defeat grew dire enough to trigger a meeting of the High Council.
"The Deepdowners Kül-Hildenbrandt and Varekan are lost to the Aberrants. The Third Legion is annihilated, and the First Legion decimated." That was the news that spread across the city's carriageways, flooding the Guild Hall's floors until it reached the ears of Ollie Edwards.
"…Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!" Ollie Edwards, Second Secretary of the Diplomatic Corps, felt as though he had lost every follicle of hair at once, even the stubble on his chin. "GOD DAMN IT, WHERE'S GWEN?"
"She's returned with Hanmoul's Legion," Magister Millard, Chief Aide, declared with a measured tone of ambivalence. "Her party managed to eradicate the Aberrant threat and secure Lord Hanmoul. We don't know the details, but the subsequent attempt to retrieve the Deepdowners did not go well. The word from the lower tiers is that Magus Song has overextended her abilities trying to rescue our Mages."
"Is Gwen unwell? How are the others?" Ollie felt his spine grow cold, more so than the news that the Dwarves had lost two of their religious leaders. How was he going to answer to Lord Ravenport now? How will he address Lady Grey if Cambridge's precious Void Sorceress suffered setbacks under his watch?
Ollie calmed himself with a quick circulation of Elemental Air.
Gwen might have fallen short of her boast to return with Hilda and Hanmoul, but she returned nonetheless with Hanmoul and the First Legion. Assuming the rumours were sound and the Third Legion was sleeping with the Murk fishes, it was arguable that their demise had nothing to do with Gwen. As London's representative, therefore, his job was to secure the best outcome for his nation despite the obstacles in their way.
"Ser Millard, gather the corp." Ollie suppressed his nervousness, then called on his seniors in the room. "Magister Turner, Magus Mason, will you accompany me to the High Council? I shall act as Gwen's shield in this regard. How many of our Mages did you say returned with her?"
"Thirty-Seven, with another four in critical condition already Teleported to London. At the Magus' advise, they are undergoing physical examinations and decontamination before being released back to the city."
"That's… thirteen— Fourteen Mages total MIA or KIA," Turner reminded Ollie.
"Enough to make a fuss?" Ollie put up a pained expression. He didn't like the idea of politicising the dead, but there was no choice now.
"If we upsell the Shard's sentiments, yes," Magister Millard affirmed their Second Secretary's strategy. "Enough to maintain the status quo, I would hope."
Ollie searched his mind for the weasel words that needed to be said to the Dwarven High Council. Shamefully, in service to Gwen, he found them quickly enough. Whatever the moral cost, Gwen's merits in the Murk must be protected, while her failures had to be cast-off as outside Humanities' control.
"Right." He straightened his jacket with his hands. "Make the request. London will not retreat until our grievance is heard!"
"Gwen!" Ollie's heart sunk as he crossed the floor to meet their exploratory team. Thankfully, all three Void Cabal members had returned intact, with only Gwen looking worse for wear. "Good gods! What did you fight?!"
The young woman famous on the front page for her faultless if scandalous appearance was looking sore all over. From her singed and frazzled hair to her blood-caked armour, Gwen looked as though she had spent the last few days fighting a Gigaton Press at the Hall of Forging. The infamous Shen-teī suit that she had worn since her IIUC days was missing fabric and plating, exposing some of the inner mesh, and where her skin showed, Gwen's complexion was a clammy, unhealthy Aberrant white.
He quickly greeted the others, nodding especially at Jean-Paul and Gracie, whose safety was technically also under his charge. Gwen's crew looked worse for wear, but not physically abused as she did.
"Three swarms and a nest." Gwen's lips looked parched and cracked, her eyes tired and sleepy. "We cleared out the first swarm getting to Hanmoul, then had to clear a nest and fight two foes while being sandwiched between Khorok Umgor and the Hydra-head. After that, we had to clear infested Dwarves from Khorok Umgor, but by then it was too late to save Hilda."
"Long story, but the Aberrants can eat brains and take over bodies..."
"My god!" Ollie tried his best to imagine the slaughter and found his mind limited in its capacity for carnage. "Is that what happened to the Deepdowners? Did you recover the Deepdowner's…"
"We didn't see them." Gwen shrugged. "But we recovered their Klads."
"Good." Ollie patted his heart. "Have you spoken to anyone else on the council yet?"
"Just Whurforlüm," Gwen said. "Hanmoul gave him a full report with my consent. The Guildmaster is on our side. You're all here to help, I assume."
"Of course." Ollie bit back the sourness simmering at his throat. "They said you were wounded and that you failed in all but one of your objectives, but this isn't as bad as it looks. I was afraid you had Consumed the Deepdowners."
Gwen gave him a strange look.
"Not our objective. We cleared the tunnels and got our men and women back," Gwen said, then audibly sighed. "I am sorry there was nothing I could do for the ones we lost. Some of the deaths are my fault. I'll submit a full report when we get back to London."
"You did your best." Ollie touched the sorceress' hand and winced. When his gloves came away with flaking gore. "Are you sure you're alright? Is your Essence healing not working? You look worse than ever."
"Not enough vitality." Gwen shook her head. "I took a few spellcubes of healing so I'll be fine. The sickness is for show. We'll need the sympathy of the Council for what's to come— oh, there it is."
CLUNK-Clunk! Clunk! Clunk—
The enormous cog-shaped doors to the Hall of the High Council began to part, indicating all members close enough to be present had now entered the chamber via means unknown to the Human guests waiting in the atrium.
Inside, the semi-circle audience chamber filled from wall to wall, crest to dip with Dwarves, a veritable sea of beards hid sat atop a variety of clothing from oily craftsmen's garbs to the fine livery of Nobles from the Upper Spire.
"Our guests, do proceed to the dais," Guild Master Whurforlüm Ironførge's booming voice invited the Human party into the room. "Our friends from the Shard, please take your place to the right while Magus Song speaks of the dire circumstances we now find ourselves."
Behind the Guildmaster, flanking either side, sat the Deepdowners Zairic and Zethoag in their Deep Diving "Klads". As the brothers moved into place, he could hear the gurgle of fluids pumping through valves, triggering the hissing pistons fueling their rebreathers.
Ollie and the corp took up seats on a transmuted section with resized granite suitable for a human's sitting height. Gwen and her party sat at the fore, with Gwen remaining upright while the rest took their places in the sunken pit ringing the raised dais.
Opposite, in the Warrior Caste's section, Ollie caught Bromlim and Hanmoul sitting with Yossari still in their torn and soiled battle armour. Behind them sat many Iron Guards still in their Dwarven Plates, most of which was dented and damaged, with one trickling blue coolant. As Gwen said, the necessity of theatrics demanded suspensions of decorum.
The crowd murmured, growing in volume until Whurforlüm quietened the room by raising a gauntleted hand.
"Magus Song, as our guest and the rescuer of our Commandrumm, I invite you to speak first."
"Thank you, Guildmaster. Friends, Craftsmen, Nobles, lend me your ears, for my tale is solemn..." Gwen relayed a harrowing tale of trial by combat with quiet dignity, beginning with the ambush at the Hydra's Head, followed by the raid on the Aberrant nest, the finding of Hanmoul, and finally the bitter battle at Khorok Umgor that resulted in fruitless nothings.
After her epic concluded, she invited Hanmoul onto the dais.
With great solemnity, Hanmoul verified Gwen's narrative, then materialised the two empty Klad suits.
The sad silhouettes of Klads without their Deepdowners materialised, punctuating the council chamber's dour atmosphere with a lonesome, reverberating clang.
"… Whatever happens, my heart rests knowing that Hanmoul is safe and that his Iron Guards, together with our Mages, could return home to speak with their fathers, brothers, mothers and children." The Mageocracy's premier Void sorceress returned to the Human's side of the Council Chamber. "And that's all I have to say about that."
The chamber murmured.
"The Council thanks you for your service, Magus Song. Your actions have gone beyond the boundaries of duty," Whurforlüm proclaimed from up on high, flanked on both sides by grimly visored Deepdowners.
Gwen retreated. Ollie stifled the butterflies in his stomach, gained assurance from his peers, then motioned for his place on the dais.
"O, Masters of the Citadel!" His act was interrupted by an unexpected interjection from the ranks of the Noble quadrant. "Allow this one to speak for his kin."
Ollie's eyes focused on the silken attire of Brugal Brumdahr and knew immediately that here was a born shit-stirrer trying to practice his natural talents. As a member of the Diplomacy Corp, however, he was not in a position to silence the Noble, at least not before the Dwarf Gwen had prior shamed exercised his opportunity to outrage the Council.
"You may speak." Whurforlüm likely did not wish to appear to favour the Humans.
"Start taking notes and have a retort ready," Ollie informed his aides, who responded by laying their hands on data slates with the poise of duelists resting their palms on the oaken shafts of Wands.
With the same flourish and arrogance as his prior performance a year ago, Brugal, direct line to Haj-Zül Brumdahr, strode until he stood beside the two suits of empty Klads. The Dwarf ran a hand down the side of Hilda's armour as if in reverence, then looked up at the two silent Deepdowners behind the Guildmaster.
"SPEAK YOUR HEART, BRUMDAHR," came the supporting act from the Zairic.
Brumdahr turned to face the chamber.
"Magus Song," the Dwarf spoke with an elevated pitch of accusation and mockery. "Before I raise the enormous question ay yer culpability in the loss of our dearest mistress Hilda Kül-Hildenbrandt, last of the Varekan-Kül outside the Halls of Deepholm, she who brings the Lumen into our halls— allow me tae say this: Ye and ya ilk, yer greedy Human folk, will NEVER have reign in the Dyar Morkk!"
Ollie felt his hair roots wilt as the accusation rang out.
He knew that within the Citadel, the conversation regarding the Dyar Morkk, whether as a joint-project or as a lease, had been met with doubt. Never had he imagined there could be overt hostility.
"We were at peace, Magus Song, before the arrival of yerself and your Himmseg Kin! Now, gaze upon at what yer've brought us? War! Endless War! Not only the fight against the Red King of Scarred Peak but Aberrants besides! Murk monstrosities beyond comprehension! Our Kin has lived a hard life, Magus Song, but we were content, and we survived because of the purity of our purpose, our tenacity as Dwarves!"
Brugal's resounding voice rang across the stone halls.
"That's the Stone's Truth!"
"Out with the Humans!"
Compared to the Noble Quadrant, the craftsmen's section remained mostly mum, though the commons and the quadrant inhabited by the upper spire Dwarves grew increasingly loud.
"—my friends." Brugal silenced the group. "Now, we have lost a Legion! AN ENTIRE LEGION! The Third Legion of our finest Iron Guards under Captain Bronzehorn! One HUNDRED golden-blooded Kin in the prime of their lives, LOST!"
Ollie felt his breaths deepen as the noble's incitement filled the room.
"Yer is trying ter twist the truth!" Hanmoul growled over the group. "Brugal, yer scummy—"
"SILENCE, HANMOUL! By mine House's honour, I'll cast yer from the title of Commandrumm!" Brugal's face flushed with the excitement of victory. "Yee failed to return with, Engineseer Hildenbrandt and Keeper Ebren! Yee helped Humans more than our Kin! Please don't embarrass yer duty any more than yer already has!"
Hanmoul appeared on the verge of popping a gasket.
Ollie grew contemplative. Looking at Gwen, he could see that she appeared stunned, or at least devastated and different to her usual confident self. The battle, he figured, must have taken its toll.
Satisfied, Brugal continued.
"I do not mean in any way to disparage the memory of Lady Hilda, but allow me to say this. Her dream of Deepholm was right, but her methods were wrong. Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth was happy and content; we donnae need the Humans to help access the Dyar Morkk. Had we taken the same path in our pure way— the Dwarven way, slow and steady, there would have been no tragedy. Our lives are long, and our Kin would still be alive."
A ragged cheer broke out among the council chamber's upper half, infecting the lower half through its riotous volume. Ollie smelled the conspiracy in the air as clearly as the stink of violence on Gwen's armour, but he had to be patient.
"In my capacity as the head of House Brumdahr, I motion, therefore—" Brugal took a deep breath. "—To EXPEL the HUMANs and return Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth to its original path!"
"Nonsense!" The Guildmaster struck his table with his gauntlet. "Brumdahr, you overstep!"
"WE SUSTAIN THE MOTION," a pair of mechanically synced voices rang out from behind the Guildmaster before he could continue. "IRØNFORGE, THOU ART A DWARF. ACT LIKE ONE."
Ollie knew that it was now or never. With complete disregard for the disarray in his mind, he stood from the block of granite that served as his chair.
"The Shard objects together with the Guildmaster!" He amplified his voice with Clarion Call. "As the representative of London and in our capacity as an ally of the Citadel, we oppose to Ser Brumdahr's outrageous attempt at undermining the trust that we have spent centuries cultivating."
"Centuries?" Brugal snorted. "For a race that matures in the same span as a Murk Eel?"
Laughter filled the same portion of the chamber.
"Master Whurforlüm!" Ollie raised his voice, drawing from the ever-thinning air to inflate his courage. "This rudeness is unbecoming. Must I remind the Council that we have paid dearly as well? Our men and women have given their lives in service of the Citadel's cause, of Lady Hildenbrandt's shared desire to bring her people home to Deepholm!"
"They died for HDMs!" Brumdahr shouted.
"SILENCE!" Whurforlüm barked. "Do you wish to be expelled?"
"— I understand that your people have suffered dire losses." Ollie continued to speak, ignoring his hecklers and receiving notes and suggestions from his aides via their silent Message Devices. "But we too, have lost lives: seventy-six in the nine months since the operation began, and fourteen just now in the tragedy of today. They too had Kin in London. Mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, some even children, though that may be difficult to conceive for long-lived folk such as yourselves. They came here to Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth to pursue a dream and to aid in a cause. One, they too desired to return our allies to their ancestral homes, and two, they too risk their lives to unearth the secrets of the Murk!"
Ollie felt himself fall into a comfortable rhyme as he continued, with annotations from his peers flowing into his mind as a stream.
"And regarding Aberrants, Lord Brugal— Do not think for a minute that they appeared because of us! They were there, always! Since time immemorial, they had lusted after your city and your Kin, ambush them in the Low Ways! In your Empire before the Beast Tide, how many of your folk have perished to keep the path operational? If you accuse us Humans of inciting the Aberrant swarms— then what say you of your Ancestor's efforts?"
"Dare you to accuse us of failing our Ancestors, Human?" Brugal's face twisted as cruelly as Ollie's logic. "When my ancestors ruled the Murk, your forefathers were still chattel under the hoofs of the Mongol Shaman-Lords!"
"That may be true." Ollie felt buoyed by supernatural confidence. "But is that relevant to our present case? Are you saying that our Mages have died for a cause— your cause— of no worth? Is that your opinion of our belief in Lady Hildenbrandt's hopes for her Kin?"
"You warp words as well as your sorceress." Brugal sneered. "But no matter how you twist and turn, Magus Edwards of the Shard— the Dyar Morkk is closed to you! Your toxic solicitudes will not mar the mind of our people, Human. Us Dwarves are tempered iron, and we shall not yield even if you hold our natural honour hostage!"
"Then you do confess that—"
"Brugal—" Whurforlüm growled.
"SPEAK!" A metallic holler came again from the twins behind the Guildmaster, sounding like raw Pyrite being crushed and sorted in a circular press.
"Of course, my Masters." The Noblemen bowed. "Let me ask you once more, Magus Edwards. Do you concede your presence in the Murk? Will the Shard retreat while our people remain on friendly terms?"
"Never, we will honour our word." Ollie folded his arms. "I trust Master Ironførge and the High Council to honour theirs. Gwen and I will never concede that we would abandon our comrades in their hour of need."
"Camaraderie? Yer say?" Brugal's expression sent another jolt of ice into Ollie's spine. "Hahahaha— so be it! Yer put this on yourselves, Humans. MAGUS SONG!"
The noble turned to Gwen. "That was a good story you told, but allow me to cast a shard of Lumen in the darkness of your tale. Here, I have a Message from the esteemed Captain Farron Galrol of the esteemed Murk Divers…"
The Noble produced a crystalline device Ollie recognised as a Resonator, one used by Dwarves to circumvent distance and distortion within the Murk. Under the gaze of all, Brugal pressed a Glyph.
Before Gwen could respond, the device began to play loudly.
"… Lords, the Devourer of Shenyang is making quick work of the Aberrant Swarm. The monsters are numerous, but they are no match for the Void Mage's voracious hunger. Her creatures, the Earthen Wyrm and her dark dogs are even now breaching the walls of Khorok Umgor. Her ravenous fiends have already overpowered the Iron Guards under Lady Hilda's command, and I fear for her and Lord Ebren's safety…"
The Message ceased reverberating around the room, but its intent was clear.
Ollie felt the pit of his stomach fall and his testicles withdraw, killing all future potential for virile hair growth. Did Gwen eat the Deepdowners after all? How did she get Hanmoul to cooperate with her?
Slowly, he watched Gwen rise to her feet once more to take the stage.
An inexplicable change had overcome the girl's tired expression.
Her eyes gleamed.
Her lips curled.
There was as perceptible hunger about her vital body.
It was the look, Ollie realised with a gulp.
The look of a very hungry Caliban.