According to Niccolò Machiavelli, any leader worth his or her salt must paradoxically be the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot wrangle wolves. Therefore, it took a fox to trigger the traps and a lion to terrorise the wolves; else a prince would only be prey.
For this reason, Gwen did not despise her reputation as the "Devourer of Shenyang". She even worked to cultivate her infamy, for Nick also said that fear was better than love, and given enough profit; every advantage to break faith would be pursued. In contrast, the threat of bankruptcy preserved loyalty like no other.
Ergo, in her mind, Zairic and Zethoag, octopus-bearded or otherwise, were fools to think they could compete with her and Hilda's gospel of progress. As frogs in the same well, Zairic and Zethoag's factionalism offered nothing of note to the folk who held up Dwarven society's base.
As she approached the inflated Brugal, Gwen passed the sweltering Ollie and patted his shoulder. "Take a seat, Oz, I got this. There'll be accolades and rewards once you deliver the good news, trust me."
Bathed under the gaze of hostile Dwarves, Gwen slow-strutted up to the dais, then made a stand with her legs slightly apart and her off-hand aggressively resting on her hip. Gazing down on the smug noble, she then raised a reprimanding finger, imitating a headmistress chiding misbehaving schoolboys.
The theatricality was enough to make her party members cringe, but the Dwarves appeared enthralled, for they were simple folk not usually given to grandstanding.
"Scarcely a word comes out of your mouth without it being a lie," she stated openly, weaving in a spell of Clarion Call so that her confidence filled the vaulted hall. "Since when do Dwarves deceive so readily and without embarrassment? Are you in actuality an Aberrant dressed in Dwarf-skin, or has one of those Murk-Squids replaced the real Brugal Brumdahr?"
The Council Chamber expectantly erupted with collective protest, though Gwen's focus was on the two Deepdowners behind the Guildmaster.
She sensed the Dwarves' elevated vitals and knew her choice words had struck a nerve.
"Yer defence is ter accuse me of lying?" Brugal spluttered in disbelief. "ME! BRUGAL! The theme of honour's tongue since the time of Haj-Zül Brumdahr—"
"Brummy, I thought we're already over that Honour of Theme's Tongue crud." Gwen waved her hand dismissively. "Look, you have a recording. So what? It's 'hearsay', a word on the wind! Why are you so confident? Were you there, Brugal? Did you see me murder the Iron Guards of the Third Legion with your own eyes? If so, why didn't you make a Lumen-recording? Why didn't Farron?"
The Dwarf snorted at her weaselling. "Farron is the Captain of the Murk Divers! She has served the upper spire for sixty cycles, never failing in her tasks! Guildmaster Whurforlüm— perhaps yer could inform this clueless Human that a lying usurper cannot doubt Captain Gahrol's report!"
"Magus Song." Whurforlüm's voice remained neutral. "That was indeed Farron's voice, and if that IS her— Captain Farron is as trustworthy as Brugal proclaims. If you insist that Lord Brumdahr is deceiving the High Council, the onus of proof shall fall on you."
"Fine, where is Farron?" Gwen whipped around to face Brugal once more. "If I am accused, I want it told to my face. I did not expend mana, vitality and my one-of-a-kind suit fighting Aberrants for twelve hours just so that a faceless Message recording can twist the truth and paint me as a turncoat."
"Farron Gahrol has not returned." Brugal's voice grew low. "A highly unusual prospect. Perhaps ye can tell us where she went?"
"Me?" Gwen smiled. "What makes you think I would know?"
"Her last communication was of ye, Magus Song. If yer pacified the Third Legion, what's to say yer Wyrm hasn't discovered Farron?"
"So now you're accusing me of murdering Farron?" Gwen reared back with a look of disgust. "Why not accuse me of nixing your Deepdowners as well? By reputation, I rarely leave witnesses."
"HA!" Brugal's eyes lit up. The precarious "gotcha" she had allowed him was making even his moustache erect. "The Human confesses! Yer the reason we lost Mistress Hildenbrandt and Keeper Ebren! Woe betides the Kin of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth who art cheated for so long, Kinslayer!"
"BRUGAL!" A bark erupted from the warrior faction. Hanmoul was not having it. Gwen blinked, she had told the Dwarf to act the best he could, but improv-club champion he was not. "YER SCUMMY MURK RAT!"
Gwen pretended to stop the Commandrumm. Hanmoul strode on stage in his Dwarven plates and performed the only rebuttal he knew— by grabbing the startled Brugal by the silken collars and—
Hanmoul must have an iron plate embedded in his forehead, Gwen thought, for the Dwarf head-butted the nobleman with the force of an oaken beam striking a brass temple bell.
"ARRRGGGH—!" Brugal fell back, tripping over his own feet as his brain rattled against his skull. "B-brute! Yer a brute, Hanmoul! How can yer defend a Kingslayer?"
Hanmoul wasn't done yet.
Maybe it was the lack of sleep, or perhaps it was the pressure from their obfuscated Deepdowners clad in Golem plating below the dais, Hanmoul's eyes glowed with mana like a miniature Balefire. The Commandrumm, Gwen suspected, was living out his fantasy of pummelling the slippery noble to death before their big reveal, knowing he may never get a chance like this again.
"STOP— help!" Brugal rolled left and right when Hanmoul tried to stomp his guts out. Dwarves were uncomplicated people; if Brugal had any martial merit, he would have defended himself— if not, a beating wasn't unreasonable. For this reason, the High Council watched impassively. On their side, Hanmoul's men did not move for obvious reasons, and from what Gwen could see, the opposition lacked enough love for Brugal to jump in.
"The Commandrumm's gone berserk!"
"Barbarity! Strip him of his title!"
"This isn't the pre-Sundering…" A Whitebeard rolled his milky eyes. "Fool young un's..."
To Gwen's bemusement and amusement, the nobles yammered and shouted— yet no one stood up for Brugal.
Her heart grew strangely sympathetic.
"ENOUGH!" A booming command halted the Commandrumm in-between his impassioned gutter stomps. "SON OF DWOMRUL! WHURFORLÜM! THOU KIN OVERSTEP TOO FAR!"
The Deepdowners were smart, Gwen observed, to place the onus of fault on Whurforlüm.
Catching a glance from the Guildmaster, Gwen placed a hand on Hanmoul's shoulder, appearing not unlike a cruel mistress holding back a deranged attack dog. Underneath his armour, Gwen could feel Hanmoul's body smoulder with wrath, the heat of his burning blood transferring across the dermal cladding to warm her fingers.
"Peace, Commandrumm," she said loud enough for all to hear. "We know you're not the traitor here. Have faith, those who put their interests over that of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth will receive their just desserts quicker than you think."
Not far, Brugal picked up his torn body, fixed his jacket with a dignified air, then wiped the blood from his bloodied nose.
"Yer'll pay for that." The noble swallowed what must be a set of teeth.
Gwen ignored Brugal and instead looked up toward the Deepdowner behind Whurforlüm. "Milords Zairic and Zethoag— You're Dwarves underneath that Klad, yes? What should one say to a Noble who peddles lies as easily as he breathes?"
"THOU DARE—" Both began.
"Tone down your vox mods," Gwen barked back dismissively. "What's there to hide?"
Her abrasiveness possessed such high grit that the two bit-back their next words. When they replied again, their roaring accusation was proceeded by rippling Earthen mana.
"VADAM WITCH!" Zairic or maybe Zethoag declared. "GUARDS! EJECT THIS HUMAN FROM THE COUNCIL HALLS."
From the noble faction's quadrant came the clanking of armour. Unfortunately, the guards' progress ended at the base of the speaker's dais, where Hanmoul's men stood in their way with crossed arms.
The move was enough to trigger a flurry of additional guards with gleaming impractical Golem armours polished to perfection.
That particular reaction catalysed a roar of protest from the Craftsmen's section, causing more Hammer Guards to rise, some clad in Golem plating and others materialising spellhammers and spellswords.
In a matter of minutes, the Chamber had split in twain, with the nobles of the upper spire taking the west wing with a faction of the commoners' aldermen. The neutral Iron Borns native to the Citadel formed a barrier toward the east wing, joined by Craftsmen with weaponised tools.
Ollie stood with the rest of the diplomatic cabal behind Gwen, joined by her party members, who appeared entirely relaxed and in need of exploded corn covered in crystallised caramel.
The atmosphere grew gradually thick enough to slice as the ambient mana clashed.
"THOU WOULD DEFY HEARTH AND STONE?" The deeper of the two voices that Gwen anointed as Zethoag ran short of patience. With a grunt and a series of hisses and clicks, he shifted the enormous bulk of his Dive Klad and made his clanking way down to the lectern platform, followed by his brother. "SHALL THIS ONE REMOVE HER HIMSELF?"
Hanmoul moved to intercept and was in turn blocked by Gwen, who stood without a change in stance or expression, waiting to call the Deepdowner's buff.
"UN-DWARVEN!" Zairic declared. "PITH VADARAM!"
The declaration caused some consternation among the Dwarves still unsure of which side to join.
"Milords." Gwen circulated the Essence she had since mustered, pushing herself through the haze of clashing mana. "Pray, answer my enquiry— what makes you think that these Dwarves, your warriors and craftsmen, are 'un-Dwarven'? What makes you think you're 'Dwarven' when overt deceit is Vadam by nature?"
"THOU ART AN OUTSIDER," Zethoag declared. "WE ART THE LEARNED KEEPERS OF UMGOR ÈRON VARÈKAN! OUR WORD IS LAW!"
"Aye! The Keeper's words art backed by lore," Brugal retorted now that there was a Deepdowner by his side. "Give up the lode, Human. Yer cannot win without despoiling the city yer need to profit. Yer path to the Dyar Morkk art blocked, Usurper!"
Gwen laughed in Brugal's face.
It wasn't every day that one got to skin a cat hedging multiple lives.
"Magus Song!" Gwen's simple, honest fun was interrupted by a call of clarity from the Santa-Dwarf seated above the pitched battle below. "We are igneous folk, Gwen. Please get on with it."
"Very well." Gwen swiftly returned to the meowing Deepdowners and their cat-in-heat, Brugal.
"Friends, Kin, good masters of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth," she announced to the hall. "I am innocent, as are my companions of these accusations— because I have irrefutable evidence that the demise of Ser Ebren and Lady Hilda came from within the Citadel itself. Commandrumm Hamoul and I did our best, but our effort was overwhelmed by treachery and deceit. I didn't initially mention this, because who would want to doubt our allies' veracity? Yet, never would I imagine that your esteemed Keepers would attempt to lay the fault on me."
"LIES!" Brugal spluttered.
"VARADAM!" the trio called out as if in sync.
"If ye has evidence, then illuminate our minds!" Brugal's voice rose in volume, though his tone dipped from confidence to doubt. With the two Deepdowners behind him, however, the noble was entirely committed. "That or accept expulsion, Human! Yer art a Calamity upon our Citadel, yer very presence soils the sacred stones of our domain."
Gwen ignored Brugal and turned instead to the Deepdowners. "How about a round of Ankrumm?"
The room collectively paused at her unexpected demand.
"… Gwen." Ollie's silent Message bloomed beside her ear. "Ankrumm means er… 'contested wager', yes, but the implication is that the loser quaffs enough beverage to pass out, so I am not sure what you intend here…"
"… Oh." Gwen's cheeks grew rosy. She had genuinely intended Ankrumm to imply honour-bound acquiescence or ante.
Nonetheless, Brugal's perplexed expression and the stunned silence from the Deepdowners was pleasing enough.
"… Also." Ollie's voice filtered across once more. "Some Deepdowners abstain from alcohol. It's a part of their monastic preservation. Umgor èron Varèkan is one of those places."
Gwen felt light-headed. A little knowledge was a troublesome thing.
"Ankrumm!" Hanmoul dismissed her consternation, joined a split-second later by Yossari and Bumrorlim. Following their examples, the warriors and the craftsmen roared. Of all the Dwarves, their castes' delight in destroying ethanol-processing organs were most widespread.
"Ankrumm! Ankrumm! Ankrumm! Ankrumm!" Gwen concluded the peanut-crunching crowd also did not care for such a thing as snobbish Keepers from the Cavern of Enlightenment. Even across races, the division of class was an easy sentiment to underestimate. If a group of Darjeeling-drinking Magisters in Cambridge showed up in Leeds to lecture the local labourers, they should also expect awe to sour into loathing.
"Ankrumm! Ankrumm!" Even the conservative aldermen appeared affected.
Gwen took another step forward, bolstered by the jeering. Even if her Ankrumm was a faux pas, it was Brugal and the Deepdowner's problem now.
"Ankrumm?" she cheekily made another attempt at butchering Dwarven cultural conventions.
"This isn't a tavern." Brugal's retort was pure venom, an effect exaggerated by his bruised face. "If you desire Ankrumm, Magus Song, then let us up the ante. By mine honour and my Clan, I call for Bëldarak!"
The crunching peanut gallery quietened.
"You'll have to enlighten me." Gwen spread her hands and shrugged her shoulders. "What's Bëldarak?"
"The Trial of Truth, as told by Byllelynn Møsvian in warning to the Dusk Kin of Fulroth-Däl, traitors to Deepholm," their Guildmaster delivered his impartial advice from above. "If you have faith that your words will illuminate the lies of your foe, then speak the vow."
"And if one breaks the Vow?"
"For us Dwarves, it means having one's Clan name stricken from the Ancestor's Halls. It would mean our Core would never rejoin the Elemental Plane of Earth, never to be reborn or remembered, no matter one's achievement." Brugal's voice rose several octaves. "Do yer dare, Magus Song?"
Ah, Gwen nodded. Collective punishment. Very good. "I am not a Dwarf."
"—I'll swear in her stead." Hanmoul raised a Brugal-stained gauntlet.
"—And I'll accept exile, including pulling all of London's forces out of the Murk." Gwen grinned wolfishly.
The colour drained from Brugal's face.
Opposite, Ollie lost all colour as his diplomatic corp scrambled.
Her party munched on ration bars in place of exploded corn.
"I double-dare you..." Gwen's taunt lay ticking at the Deepdowners iron-clad feet. "As the Guildmaster says, let us all abide by this Bëldarak. Let truth light the way."
Perhaps not expecting her to call their bluff, the silence form Zairic and Zethoag Gul-Zūh was deafening.
"Well?" Gwen wasn't about to give her enemies time to balance the risks and rewards. "I thought you folk were from Umgor èron Varèkan, the cavern of Enlightenment. Isn't that where Varekan-Kül sang that 'The lumen in the dark always lights the way'?"
The aphorism had been taught to her by Ebren, who suggested that a few well-known psalms could sway the mood of the Council.
Brugal's eyes flittered from her to the Deepdowners, but Gwen could see the poor sod was at a loss for words. Maybe he thought she had misunderstood the implications of betting on the Bëldarak, or perhaps he thought she was bluffing as well. Either way, the noblemen's blackened-eyes hardened like burnt honeycomb.
"House Brumdahr accepts the trial of Bëldarak."
The Council Hall collectively inhaled.
"Brummy, I don't give a Murk squid's entrails about you or your Clan." Gwen's next words made their exhalation catch in their throat. "I want those behind you to stand trial. I want their apology or their commitment to this Bëldarak. If you speak for them, tell them to shut their beaks and return to their swamp, or Bëldarak. We don't need librarians steering the business of the Citadel, especially liars who can't take a Jäger Bombe."
Following her multi-pronged assault, Brugal's complexion polymorphed into Ollie's when he delivered Farron's Message. With his flushed lips forming a severe line like a slit-wound, the pallid noble turned to his masters for direction. Gwen knew the Dwarf did not dare speak for the Deepdowners, but that was the point. Her deal with Hilda was to hammer Zairic and Zethoag Gul-Zūh into the Void. Without pushing them against the wall, how could she rip off their masks? Only with the pair permanently removed could Hilda and Whurforlüm bulldoze the conservative faction and move their people toward cosmopolitan globalisation.
"THOU—" Zairic the younger wound up but was cut off by Zethoag the older with a swipe of a gauntlet-clad hand.
"WE ART KEEPERS OF LORE. LORE CANNOT BE DENIED," the older made his case. "HUMAN, IF THOU HAST PROOF, CLAN BRUMDAHR SHALL ACT AS SURETY. THOU ART NOT DESERVING OF MORE."
Gwen tsked. The old codgers are trickier than she had imagined.
Then again, if they were smart enough to trap Hilda and Ebren and try to make her cop the responsibility for their death, she shouldn't be surprised.
Brugal Brumdahr took on the look of someone who in his very bones knew he was looking into a depthless abyss and that Hanmoul was about to shout "This is Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth!" and give him a final stomp.
Gwen subtly looked up at Whurforlüm, whose beard twitched affirmatively. As a people, the Dwarves were too honourable to endure.
"I swear by this Bëldarak of yours," Gwen decided to maker her move before Brugal grew any softer and slipped out. "If my evidence fails to satisfy, then I shall remove myself and all Human presence from not only the Murk but the city itself. Furthermore, I shall pursue no further the death of our Mages."
Brugal's breath came hard and fast. He glanced once more at the Deepdowners, then puffed out his chest like an unapologetic bushranger wearing a noose. "I accept. I, Brugal of Clan Brumdahr, swear by my Ancestors. By Bëldarak, I speak the truth and seek not to deceive mine Kin. If there is deceit, then I shall accept exile from Clan and Kin in Deepholm, seeking forgiveness in the Hall of the Eternal Cog."
As the Dwarf spoke, his spine straightened and his voice grew firm. Such was the power of desperation, Gwen observed with a mote of empathic sadness. How strong was Brugal's hope? Did he not see that his masters had refused to back his sacrifice with their own?
"Good, are we now witnessed?" She turned to the Deepdowners, glanced at her co-conspirators, then toward Whurforlüm.
"Thou art witnessed," Whurforlüm delivered his verdict, speaking for the otherwise silent High Council. "Proceed."
"Good. Here's the truth." Gwen passed a hand over the dais, releasing her cargo with a clang. "Let's hope you can handle it."
The crowd of Dwarves leaned in, some physically, others with remote-viewing devices.
"Farron Gahrol!" One of the Dwarves from the noble quadrant confirmed their suspicions. "She killed Farron Gahrol!"
Gwen rolled her eyes, then pointed to the facial portion of Farron Gahrol, Captain of the Murk Divers.
"… What is that?" An alderman had to step back from revulsion. "Has it mated with her head?"
"That's… a Sinneslukare!" a helpful and more knowledgeable voice declared from the Craftsmen's wing. "I am sure of it! I've seen the diagrams in the bestiary! A Mind Eater!"
"Impossible! They're a myth!"
"What do yer call that then?"
While the crowd argued, Gwen studied the Deepdowners Zairic and Zethoag. Once more, she could sense their disquiet through their fluctuating vitals. For someone with her hyper-attuned senses, focusing on a particular detail like the sound of fluids pumping through tubing wasn't as tricky as it would seem.
"Earlier, you said—" Brugal appeared lost for words, his face ashen. "That's—"
There was no question that the body belonged to Farron. Any Dwarf worth their salt in any capacity could check what remained of the Glyphs embedded into the Captain's body to declare without a shadow of a doubt that the flesh was Farron's, even if the head was not.
"Are you allied with the Sinneslukare, Brugal? Are you bartering Kin to the brain-calamari for power and profit?" Gwen prodded the panicking noble to see if he would jump into the abyss of his own accord.
"NO!" Brugal's refutation came as a scream. "Never! How dare—"
"If not you, then is it them?" Gwen pointed a finger toward Zairic and Zethoag. "You swore, Brugal. You imputed that I was killing Iron Guards and may have murdered Hilda and Ebren, but your proof hinged on this thing? An Aberrant that has taken over the mind of your precious Captain? The theme of Honour's Tongue, indeed!"
"I didn't know…" Brugal moaned. "How could I know?"
"I think you mean they didn't tell you," Gwen addressed the Deepdowners once more. "Well? Are you guilty of alliance with the Aberrants, milords?"
"WE ART DECEIVED AS WELL." The pair did not relent but stood taller instead. "HUMOUR US, HUMAN. WHAT HAS THOU DONE WITH THE ESTEEMED ENGINESEER THALMAR?"
"Thalmar?" Gwen raised her chin. "Who or what is that?"
"DOTH THOU THINK US FOOLS?" came the retort from a pair of hissing suits. "WE FEARED THY TREACHERY, HUMAN. WE ASKED THE ETERNAL THALMAR TO RETRIEVE OUR SISTER. HE DID NOT RETURN NOR DID HE REPORT— THEREFORE HE MUST HAVE PERISHED BY THY HAND."
The murmuring Council Chamber grew quiet once more.
All who entered the Soulforge had their names engraved upon the Ancestor's Hall's hallowed plaques, and so all knew of Thalmar, once Engineseer and now an eternal engine. Gwen could see that the knowledge they lacked was that Thalmar been sent on a secretive and seditious mission.
"I don't know who Thalmar is," Gwen lied as effortlessly as she breathed, confessing that she didn't know anything about Thalmar other than the echoing agony of his dispersing soul as she pulled its Essence from the Golem's Creature Core, a detail she omitted. "But if you're going to accuse me without evidence, then I've got a good one, just for you."
She moved her hand across the dais once more.
Three more bodies appeared, all preserved by Caliban.
One was intact, the rest were mostly digested but for the head.
All possessed the inert brain-attachments of the Sinneslukare for all to see.
"Here's an accusation," she said to Brugal. "Your precious Murk Divers were trying to set the Aberrants onto us. They were mind-controlling the Crawlers, Centaurs, Hulks and making them attack us relentlessly. How else do you think Hilda failed to hold Khorok Umgor? She had a LEGION with her, Brummy. Twenty Rock Smashers, forty men and women in Golem plating, forty engineers and auxiliary staff AND she had a Fabricator Engine digging up minerals to manufacture fuel and ammunition. How do you lose with a setup like that if not for infiltration?"
The Council Chamber exploded at her revelation, causing Brugal to shrink.
"Now, now." Gwen gestured for the members of the crowd to approach and inspect the bodies at their leisure. She addressed her primary targets once more. "Milord Deepdowners— where were we?"
Zairic and Zethoag Gul-Zūh both raised their gauntlets. "MAGUS SONG, THOU TREAD A DANGEROUS PATH."
"Yeah—Nah." Gwen shook her head. "I don't think so. You know what? I think that under those armours of yours, we might find some suckers..."
If the High Council had acted prior like the audience of a tragic opera, now came the moment when all the devils of hell spiralled into being around Dante Alighieri, descending into the abyss whilst a sea of strings screeched on the minor scale.
"Care to remove your helmets?" Gwen placed a hand on either side of her hip. "Show me I am wrong. Else there's no reason for us to return to the question of my guilt."
"YER DARE?!" Brugal inflated like a blow-up noodle man. "T-these are our sacred Deepdowners!"
"These are your sacred Sinneslukare!" Gwen bit back with a snarl. "Guildmaster! As an ally of the Citadel and friend of Hilda, I ask for the Council to take action in the interest of the city's security! These two, honoured as they are, have acted to obstruct every attempt at contacting Deepholm, going so far as to endanger Kin, if not outright result in their demise. Until we have confirmation, no justice can stand!"
As she spoke, electricity sparked, for such was her delight in vengeance.
Of course, she had no evidence that the Deepdowners were Sinneslukare. She was bluffing. Her outright accusation of the Deepdowners was a Hail Mary pass, one that as far as Gwen could see, had no setbacks. With Hilda and Ebren hidden among Hanmoul's Iron Guards in the second round, a game-winning touchdown was a matter of time.
If so, there was no reason NOT to attempt such sensible manipulations.
What if she guessed correctly and accidentally saved the whole Citadel from Sinneslukare subversion? The Saviour of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth as a title would surely turn some heads, especially Dickie's, who she needed to rat-fuck the Militants out of her Isle of Dogs.
Which was why she felt no need to respond to Brugal but instead stood and awaited the Deepdowner's response.
To her surprise, the Deepdowners were slipperier than Murk eels.
"WE ART DISAPPOINTED," the pair spoke in twain to their perplexed audience. "DOTH THOU BELIEVE THAT THE ABERRANT MINDS OF THE FAR PLANES WOULD KNOW THE LEGACY OF NÖRN-ZUR'S ALCHEMICAL CREATIONS? OR OF GUL-ZÜH'S OIL-BEGETTING FORMULAE?"
Zairic pointed an iron-clad digit at someone in the noble faction. "WOULD A SINNESLUKARE BE ABLE TO ATTUNE THE FROST-FLAME GLYPHS OF HOUSE VADOR?"
Zethoag addressed the aldermen from the commons. "CAN A SINNESLURKARE DISMANTLE AND REASSEMBLE A THREE-CENTURY TIEFWASSERFILTRATION UNIT MADE BY ENGINESEER KASTOR KORRUUM?"
Gwen sighed as the audience murmured their approval. As the Deepdowners said, the peanut-crunching audience did not think that a squid-brained Dwarf could employ apex-tier Dwarven blood-runes, and even if they did, the real knowledge of Deepholm isn't something so quickly usurped without accumulated effort over centuries.
In only a few sentences, the pair had turned the silence against her. Such was the boon of having home ground.
"You do not wish to remove your visor and prove your innocence?" Gwen said. "Then at best, infiltrators you are not, but traitors you still are. Your Klads are not off the hook yet, milords. Why did you prevent Hamoul from receiving resupplies? Why was Hilda left to her own device for months on end in Khorok Umgor? Why are you blaming us, who fought side-by-side with Hilda and Ebren, and not yourselves for her demise when you confessedly did 'nothing'?"
"WE REFUTE THY ACCUSATIONS." Their twin iron bodies appeared immovable. "IN THESE HALLOWED HALLS, ONLY DEEPKIN MAY QUESTION DEEPKIN. AND NEVER A HUMAN. WHERE ART THOU EVIDENCE? OR ART THOU BUT PEDDLING HEARSAY AND DECEIT? ART THOU A PAWN OF THE SINNESLUKARE?"
The nobles lent the Deepdowners their greedy ears, with more than a few broadcasting their open agreement. Their hopeful faces said that having Gwen's accusation turned against her was a breath of fresh air.
Conversely, Gwen was happy that finally, she had gotten the Deepdowners to invest.
"I think." She approached the pair but stopped short of facing them directly. "That even if you're unwilling to show your true faces, you should be willing to enter into our Bëldarak contract. Did you forget that I fought the Aberrants, purged their nests, rescued my men and secured Khorok Umgor only six hours ago? And you say I am a liar? If you're so guiltless, shouldn't you at least have the honour and the gall to commit to a vow? Even Brugal gave his name— what makes you better than anyone else here? Do they not deserve you? You who hail from the Cavern of Enlightenment?"
Once more, the silence turned against her foes.
Gwen knew that the Deepdowners would not take the oath. They were too slippery for that, and their natural position ensured that no Dwarf, not even the Guildmaster, could force them into such a contract of truth.
With the stalemate dragging out, she figured prolonging the agony had lost all profitability. It was now time to strike for the jugular and put an end to the charade.
"I see," she said. "Tentacles might have caught your tongues, but here's someone who does wish to have their grievances heard— Hanmoul? Bring forth our witnesses."
Hanmoul ordered his Iron Born to spread out.
From their number, two stepped forward, clanging onto the stage in their damaged Golem plates. At the Hammer Guards' behest, the crowd was forced back, leaving only Gwen, the Deepdowners, Whurforlüm and their two newcomers in the middle of the dais.
The first Golem armour released its torso and helmet, revealing the face of a youthful Dwarven woman still dressed in the dermal-layer of her Klad. The second armour showcased an older Dwarf, a venerable-looking fellow with white hair and a knotted beard in a shabby, loosely-hanging dermal-suit.
The crowd was not familiar with either of their faces, but there was no mistaking their identity. Each Deepdowner, Gwen supposed, had their unique auras, ones that were unmistakable when put on full display.
The fairer of the pair opened her hand and produced a Glyph for all to see.
"Lady Hilda Kül-Hildenbrandt!" Brugal's orbs appeared almost to remove themselves from his skull. "Lord Ebren!"
Sounds of rushing fluid erupted from Zairic and Zethoag's Klads.
"Milords Gul-Zūh," Hilda's tone hailed from the glacial caverns close to the Para-Elemental Plane of Ice. "Engineseer Thalmar sends his regards. Hanmoul!"
Without delay, Hanmoul released the "corpse" of the Guardian Balefire, filling half the dais with the enormity of the unmoving Golem.
The grand hall ceiling was a dozen meters in height, even so, the five-meter form of the dead Balefire appeared to fill the place from granite nadir to lumen-runed zenith.
From the sound of their hyperventilating suits, the brothers had finally lost their composure. Beside them, Brugal appeared as though he had lost his mind.
"Clan and Kin!" Hilda refrained from using her vox-caster, relying instead on her sweet and feminine voice. "You know me— as I have been among you for the last three decades and more, stoking the crystals in the Hall of the Eternal Cog so that our glorious city burns as a bright beacon against the endless Murk."
Hilda waited for her audience to quieten.
Already, Gwen could see bodies belonging to vocal objectors attempting to retreat. A few even tried to exit the High Council Chamber, though the Guildmaster had given express orders to let none leave. When they hissed at the guards to move, the Hammer Guards' Spellblades hissed back.
"Lord Thalmar…" Hilda's voice reverberated. "... Came for us. Valiant as he was in life, he fought with every mote of mana against the Aberrant horde. Yet, even with his indomitable spirit, the combined might of the swarm, together with the wicked mind sorcery of the Sinneslukare, proved too much. Even with the arrival of our Human friends and Commandrumm Hanmoul, the Murk Divers infected by the Aberrant brain-worms proved too wily and disruptive. While Ebren and I were besieged by their pallid bodies, the swarm was driven into an unholy frenzy, exhausting the hastily-forged Thalmar with their unholy sorcery."
"What she said," Gwen finished up for her companion. "I am sorry I couldn't have done more, Hilda."
Hilda shook her head, touched Gwen's gloved hand, then looked up to the brothers Gul-Zūh. "I do not know if both of thee art still Dwarves, Lord Keepers, but I know that you withheld my resources. I know that you delayed Hanmoul and that you're the reason this— all of this—"
The female Deepdowner's voice grew suddenly firm and vengeful. "A HUNDRED DWARVES! Keepers Gul-Zūh! One HUNDRED gold-blooded Hammer Guards born of iron! Gone! Perished! Reduced to Murk meat by the Aberrants because two errant scholars coveted influence and power they should not have wielded to begin with!"
The brothers' Klads continued to ventilate.
They were in a room full of angry Dwarves, Gwen observed. Most importantly, they were in a room with her. Surely these Gul-Zūh folk weren't thinking of making a break for it? What would be the point?
"THOU HAST NO PROOF…" came their vox-warped retort full of incoherence, grasping at Murk reeds to battle the sucking mud of despair.
"Are my absent Hammer Guards not proof enough?" Hilda's voice was almost a feral snarl. "Is your support for this—"
She pointed to Farron's rotting squid face. "— not enough?"
She pointed to her and Ebren's Klad, even now sitting empty. "THEY KNEW THE RUNE GLYPHS TO UNLOCK OUR KLADS, GUL-ZŪH! Do you expect to tell me SOMEONE ELSE present could access the Hall of Records?! That there exists another Dwarf in Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth, a Deepdowner Keeper, who comes from Umgor èron Varèkan?"
And that was it.
Gwen unclenched her mind.
That was the Maximised Lava Bomb.
She had no idea how Hilda became un-Klad in the first place— but this tale they concocted was as good as a mithril-clad biblical revelation delivered straight from Hilda's mouth.
"Ironførge!" Hilda turned to Whurforlüm, who had been awaiting this moment for the last hour. When finally she called on him, the old Dwarf visibly glowed with pleasure. "By the Lumen and the Runes of my Ancestors Hildenbrandt, Varekan and Kül, I proclaim a Decree of Exile against these two shameless ingrates, these unDwarven bookworms that may even now be calamari!"
Whurforlüm rose to his full height, which wasn't very tall, albeit the Earthen mana radiating from the Guildmaster could probably levitate a nimble-bodied Àlf. "I CALL FOR A VOTE—"
"NO NEED," Zethoag's voice cut across the Guildmaster's command. "WE CAN SEE THAT THOU HAST PLANNED THIS, LASS OF THE LUMEN. THOU SENIORS ART MOST DISAPPOINTED."
"IF WE ART NOT WELCOME, THEN THE KEEPERS OF LORE SHALL LEAVE THE CITADEL AND RETURN TO UMGOR ÈRON VARÈKAN," spoke the other. "THERE NEED NOT BE BLOOD SPILT, FOR THE BLOOD OF KIN IS GOLD."
The atmosphere visibly relaxed.
So much for nixing the bud in-house.
She looked to Hilda, whose expression remained unmoved and acknowledged that they would soon proceed to her auxiliary backup plan. It was an outcome she loathed— but that didn't mean she would shy away. Long ago, in as a dark and claustrophobic a place as the Murk, she had learned a hard lesson from Gunther. Her late Master as well had demonstrated the consequences of allowing sentimentality to fester until sepsis took his life.
"BRUGAL." The brother did not abandon their fool. "MAKE WAY."
Gwen watched, pregnant with hope that someone would throw a spell or stab one of the Deepdowners in an attempt to pry open their helmets.
She was to be disappointed, for these were Dwarves.
They were honourable, foolish and romantic, with reverence for the elderly and the wise hardwired like nerve stems into their cast-iron brains.
Instead of anger, the mob watched in silence, their eyes full of shame. Notably, it wasn't shame heaped upon the Deepdowners and Brugal— but that they fell for lies and powerplays. In the aftermath, a hundred Dwarves or more were dead, as was an Eternal Soul, and if not for Humans, Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth would have lost Hilda and Ebren too.
From the dais to the cog-driven doors, there was a path of a hundred metres.
Gwen could imagine that for Brugal and his Clan, the slow-retreat must have felt like an eternity.
Across from her, Hilda too sunk into her Golem armour, too emotional to speak, unable to swallow the self-loathing of lying to her people. Besides her, a kind Whurforlüm wisely repeated ancestral anecdotes in his calming radio operator's voice to soothe her toiling mind.
The exit doors rolled to either side.
A troop of Iron Guards, soon to be joined by others, marched out in their Golem plates, Spellswords raised to expel the disgraced deceivers of Kin. Ebren stepped from the dais, said his peace, then left with the Hammer Guards, for somewhere out there was a Balefire Dreadnaught that needed coxing.
Silently, Gwen retreated to stand beside her Human counterparts.
"… That was…" Ollie licked his lips nervously. "Did you just start a coup?"
"In China, we call it 'The People's Will'," Gwen drily replied. "Dickie would likely need to know all the details, after all, and you're the bringer of the good news."
Ollie looked into her eyes then furrowed his brows. He was reading her, Gwen could see, and from the twisting grimace now distorting his face from relief to horror, she could see Second Secretary Edwards's hair-roots cry out in pain. "What? What is it? What else are you going to do? Please, Gwennie— not more trouble…"
"No, not more trouble." Gwen looked at her crew, who stood and nodded. They were rested now, meditated and restored and ready to rumble.
She patted the future Sir Oliver Edwards on the shoulder.
"For Christ's sake, Gwen," Ollie pleaded. "What are you planning now? Where are you all going? Can we talk about this first?"
"Don't worry. We're nixing trouble." Gwen's smile did not reach her eyes. "I am closing the deal I made with Hildy, Ollie. Tell Dickie to post Quests for survey teams and guards. After today, the Shard will have unfettered access to the Dyar Mokk from John o' Groats to Southsea."