Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth.
The Low Ways.
In every Dwarven fortification, auxiliary pathways existed as a part of the Demi-human's philosophy of construction.
Ironically, Gwen and her companions' route to reach the dim-Murk on the outskirts was the same one Thalmar had taken at the brothers Gul-Zūhs' behest, a transit involving rapid Teleportation Stations that resembled Dimension Doors, each with a range of a kilometre, and each hardwired through Glyph-wrought Runic nodes.
"I can see where we got our ISTC inspirations," Gwen remarked to Hanmoul's cousin.
"Ha! Yer Humans are good at 'borrowing' Spellcraft fer sure." Bumrorlim, who had volunteered as their guide, kept up a forced cheer. Though originally Gwen had wanted to perform her final act of cleansing alone, only Dwarves of a specific bloodline, possessing Glyphs of particular Clans, could utilise the auxiliary trail. As Hilda and Ebren had to wash their hands clean for what was to come and Hanmoul's position was too sensitive, Rori offered herself as their Judas goat.
Once the party buffed up, summoned their Hounds and settled their Familiars, they waited for their guests.
Gwen looked down the passageway, her eyes piercing the Murk until the tunnel angled away.
The brothers Gul-Zūh would soon arrive— that was her gut feeling.
Their ambush point was the only node by which they could safely access the Low-ways parallel to the now-defunct Dyar Morkk. An alternative for returning to the Caverns of Enlightenment would involve trudging through the Murk without an entourage, an unimaginable prospect for two scholars and a few exiled nobles.
A quarter of an hour later, her victims lumbered into view.
Together with the Gul-Zūh siblings walked the dejected form of Brugal Brumdahr and a small entourage of his relatives cast off by the Clan like a Murk lizard severing a bitten tail. None wore Golem plates, though almost all held onto Spellswords with their sweat-stained hands. The men's fine clothes, which they wore to the High Council meeting, were stained with dust and debris. Their flawless beards, which had been oiled and impeccably trimmed, struck out randomly, rebelling from the golden bands that kept thick strands in check.
The Deepdowners among them hissed and clanked, moving with an air of exertion. The brothers' Klads, Hilda had specified, must be returned to her people or consigned to the Void; in either case, Rori would witness the act and report back as necessary.
While the exiles approached, Gwen stifled her deep-seated feelings of discomfort for committing what any jury would agree to be premeditated murder.
Each time a little worm of doubt began to gnaw at her conscience, she danced on the seedling to stymie her natural compassion. These are the monsters who would murder legions of their own for a little power, Gwen reminded herself. If she were a regular Evoker, like those Adventurer-Mages, she would now either be dead or brained via Mon Calamari. In a kinder world, the defeated may deserve compassion; presently, no good governed her actions, only pragmatism.
Down in the dip under the tunnel's snaking ceiling, her victims stopped.
Above them, burrowed in the transmuted stone, Caliban coiled its serpentine body, ready to strike.
Gwen stood in the middle of the path, awaiting their arrival, a pale spectre of death, a lithe reaper in blue-white and blood-caked Shen-teī armour.
"… Magus Song," Brugal's voice croaked.
Gwen boldly measured each of her targets, her Void-tinged aura licking their Astral Souls with bouts of vertigo as invisible tentacle-tongues.
Earlier, she had asked Rori if the Dwarves could avoid the Dyar Morkk.
Rori replied that the Deepdowners could flee by turning the stone in any direction they liked, but how long could their mana last? Their Klads' offered powerful sorcerous effects unmatched even by Rock Smasher Golems, but that didn't mean they ignored the equivalent exchange of energy. Ten kilometres— twenty— that's how far they could dig. But then what? Break into the natural caverns in the Murk to battle flora and fauna? Dwarven expeditions rarely ventured from the Citadel without a resupply train and a Fabricator Engine with good reasons. That and Deepholm never lacked for Deepdowners, but that didn't prevent them from losing access to the Dyar Morkk.
The sound of deep-breathing respirators filled the quiet air of the passage.
Gwen steeled her resolve.
"This can be quick." She splayed both hands, praying that the Dwarves would resign themselves to their fate. At the very least, she could give them painless dignity. "And you can return to the earth. Or this can be complicated."
She felt sick hearing the words come out of her mouth.
How was it that Gunther and Alesia did their duties untouched by weaknesses of the mind? Even with cause, her skull swarmed like a nest of duelling scorpions busting out of a rotten, fungi-infested log.
Brugal's face grew three shades paler, as did the complexions of his Kin. With some desperation, he turned to Hanmoul's cousin. "Bumrorlim… yer—"
The newly minted Captain of the Murk Divers shook her head. "Perish with honour, cousin Brugal. What ye and yer Kin has precipitated is Varadam. Why does yer expect compassion when yer little better than a howling Aberrant? When yer chose to stand with Zairic and Zethoag Gul-Zūh, were yer not reminded that the lumen will always light the way?"
How simple and how faultless, Gwen thought. Varadam— Un-Dwarven. Brugal and the Keepers were in the eyes of their Kin no longer "Dwarves", for a Dwarf would have known better than to send an Eternal Soul and a hundred Iron Born to a purposeless death, then lie to the High Council, then swear by the Ancestors.
And if these are no longer Dwarves, then slaying them bore no more moral cost than crushing a Murk rat found thieving from the granary.
Opposite, the Keepers appeared to have made up their minds.
When faced with certain death, some chose acceptance.
Others fought to the bitter end.
Some acted only when it was too late.
Such paradoxes marked the nature of higher-thinking beings.
"OUR ALLIES WILT—" Zairic and Zethoag Gul-Zūh made Brugal's choice for him. Before their final taunt even finished, an eruption of Void sorcery smothered the Dwarves.
Phantasmal Forces from Gracie materialised as stabbing shadows to send the casters reeling, ignoring armour and defence, bypassing the Klads.
Hold Monsters spells freed from Spellcubes by Petra reinforced the psyche-devouring illusions, holding the Deepdowners in place.
Usurp ate up the ambient Earthen mana and half-manifested defence spells triggered from the Klads and the Spellswords.
And from Gwen came a merciless, wide-area suppression—
A miniature black sun dawned overhead amidst the Dwarves, draining away all life and vitality.
Brugal and the unarmored nobles were the first to be reduced to pale cadavers.
Comparatively, Zairic and Zethoag Gul-Zūh stood in place, unable to move, fighting the spell with their Klads.
Gwen ignored the mana sparking off their grotesque silhouettes and instead focused on increasing potency. When the unarmoured Dwarves died, she had felt a surge of vitality, but now her output far outpaced the drain. As anticipated, Enervating Orb was best against clumped, high-vital targets rather than against small numbers of elite units. Likewise, the penetrative impact of Enervating Orb against upper-tier targets was lacking.
A second black sun materialised beside the first.
The vital drain remained unsatisfactory.
A third joined the hovering twins.
She could cast as many spheres of enervation as her mana and vitality allowed. Simultaneously, so long as the orbs remained in orbit, they were self-feeding or relied on her vital pool but otherwise required no concentration to control and manipulate. With three in place, the flow of life energies doubled. That's how magical resistance worked. Rather than a percentile diminishment, a creature's spell resistance was a linear reduction like armour. Once superseded, the target may as well be defenceless.
The effort to maintain three orbs, however, was significant.
"Duck." Richard patted her back after she had counted to twenty. "I am pretty sure they're dead. You pour any more Negative Energy onto them. The corpses are going to rise…"
Gwen ceased her spell casting. She felt gutted and hollow, a symptom of overdrawn vitality, or so she told herself.
Not far, Brugal and his fellows were now dry husks, so dry that Gwen wondered if their remains were brittle enough to break from toppling over.
As for the Klads.
"Richard, can you do it?" she coaxed Ariel near, then slumped against the Kirin, not wanting to look at her handy work any more than she needed. "I am a bit tired."
"Sure." Richard took the lead.
Petra arrived beside her and placed her arms around Gwen. "Let's go home after this, Gwennie. I think we all need to see some sun. Else we're going to go mad. I bet Dede misses you."
Her other teammates agreed.
Gwen buried her face in Ariel. She wanted to fall into her Kirin's fur and sleep like the dead until she was back in London.
Whatever cleanup was left in Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth would be the domain of Ollie.
Richard approached the Klads with Bumrorlim, tasked to retrieve Klads once their occupants perished. After a few Glyph sequences, Zethoag's "unoccupied" Klad hissed open, spilling out its guts of tubing and white vital fluids.
Inside the oversized Dive Klad, the shrivelled body of the Keeper appeared like a giant infant with an immensely disproportioned head, his limbs almost entirely atrophied by disuse. Tubing connecting to the dermal suit kept his torso suspended in the runny, embryonic liquid while mechanical components protruded from plugs railed into the shrivelled flesh.
"… Jesus Christ." Richard gagged at the smell. "How come Hilda and Ebren aren't like this?"
"They're not relying on the Klad to stay alive." Bumrorlim put on a rebreather unit.
"You want to do the honours?"
The Dwarf obliged. That was her duty.
Bumrorlim pried open the helmet with a hiss, releasing the pressure and revealing the Deepdowner whole hog.
"… Unexpected." Richard now felt glad that Gwen hadn't succeeded in making the Deepdowners show their faces back in the Citadel, for though Zethoag still had his head, with his beard either shaven or fallen out thanks to the liquid, the Dwarf resembled a pale Aberrant more so than his stout Kin.
"No Sinneslukare…" Hanmoul's cousin emerged half-drenched in the milk-white gloop, one hand red with fresh gore from the corpse-husk. "Does this mean…"
"That they're WILLINGLY working with the Sinneslukare?" Richard marvelled with a whistle and then placed a sympathetic hand on the Dwarf, holding the Iron Born steady. "Goodness. If this is the standard with your upper crust, then Deepholm— is fucked."
"Mori" shivered with pleasure as she processed the reports flooding in from the Dwarf-controlled Murk. The majority of the missives were passed on from the Diplomacy Corp working under her Master. Others were from the Adventurers and the merchants operating in the Murk, detailing juicy tidbits about Cambridge's Void vixen, the limitless profit potential of the Dyar Morkk, and the grand meeting of the Citadels currently being planned in Bavaria.
Suffice it to say, the Devourer of Shenyang had done it again.
A dozen times, Morrigan had watched the lumen-recording Oliver Edwards had sent over, analysing every word, savouring every move the young woman made to corner the Dwarven nobility and their Deepdowner allies.
What a fiery catalyst the girl continued to be! If Morrigan had met the sorceress a millennia ago, she would have desired the girl to be her Champion, and she, her Goddess of victory!
The plots Gwen had revealed, exposed, kept for another day, and had yet to uncover were enough to make the Patroness of Secrets salivate. The Dwarves as well, though they were a race Morrigan had known since the dawn of Anno Domini, had demonstrated as much malicious political intrigue as their habitual abstractly hoarding of knowledge.
And the Sinneslukare! A whole race shrouded in secrecy! What delicious morsels might they provide if they were to escape onto the surface? Not even Morrigan had a holistic understanding of the Far Planes.
She wished that Gwen would remain in the Murk to oversee the final push into the Dyar Morkk, but Ravenport had capitulated to Lady Grey's wishes that Gwen returned to finish the trimester.
It was a shame, but then again, on the other talon, the girl's return meant "Mori" the crow could once more woo the sorceress for her Essence, though she had to take care so that Ravenport wouldn't grow rebellious to her little experiment.
Last time, when a simple "Mori" danced past the tip of Gwen's tongue, her Master had delved into a deep bout of suspicion, going as far as to invoke the old rites to make her speak.
Under such astral bindings, Morrigan was incapable of lying and so confessed to all.
"Mori" was contacting the girl to better spy on her.
"Mori" knew the girl had a habit of talking to animals, particularly avians.
"Mori" figured Gwen knew she was a Tower raven, so they may as well exercise transparency.
"Mori" stated that a tiny droplet of Essence for a being like Morrigan was nothing, a gift less substantial than a tuft of hair plucked from a herd of oxen.
That and she had other murders stalking Gwen in the dark, while "Mori" was merely a distraction. The more critical to the Mageocracy the girl became, the more eyes they needed on her, not so much to guard the girl but for preventing others from crossing her path. Likewise, if any agent with foreign designs would tempt their precious sorceress, Ravenport would be the first to receive a collection of freshly-plucked eyeballs.
Did "Dickie" believe her? "Mori" decided on yes.
Both her and Ravenport understood that while Morrigan was incapable of deceiving her contractor, their Faith-bond could not prevent her from withholding information on a contextual level, else the millions of messages entering the catacombs each year would explode a reigning Duke's head.
Sighing, her Master allowed the matter to lapse, promising to review the case pending the usefulness of "Mori's" contact with Gwen. To invoke a modern idiom, the Duke of Norfolk had bigger fish to fry, such as the fact that the Devourer of Shenyang had once more changed the whole dynamic of a battlefront.
In four days, she had soothed the Dwarves' protests, rescued the trapped Adventurers, rallied the Craftsmen and the Warrior Caste in supporting the Shard and opened up the Citadel's crafts to London's Grey Market.
Most importantly, she had rescued the "good" Deepdowners.
Then, she shucked two more out of their Klads like Oysters, not to mention lay waste to the Soul Core of a Balefire.
Morrigan recalled that the Duke of Norfolk had become so shocked that his mana momentarily escaped his control, making his favourite porcelain cup so brittle as to shatter, spilling Earl Grey all over his documents. The cup was one of four in a Royal Albert set gifted to him by the Queen, and now the collection's flawless symmetry had gone the way of the Deepdowners.
Compared to her overworked Master, Morrigan had sadistically savoured the colours flashing across Ravenport's stone-faced mien. Having known Mycroft since boyhood, she knew it wasn't every day that the unflappable Lord Marshall had to stop processing documents and pour himself a stiff tumbler of Macallan Highland single malt. The last time her Master had inhaled a glass alone in the dark was when the Red Dragon tore through Paddington after ripping a troop of Griffin Guards to shreds.
As for now, a hundred and one things required his attention.
"Morrigan—" Across the table, the Duke flourished his confirmation signatures over and over again across a dozen levitating data slates. "Send these to the Shard. Tell Simmons to prime the Teleportation Circle."
"Where to, milord?" Morrigan was very obedient these days.
"Buckingham," her Master replied. "Ser Douglas and I have an appointment."
"Is this about Magus Song?" Morrigan asked.
"It is." The Duke did not withhold his thoughts. "The reward this time will be substantial."
Morrigan pursed her lips.
Bind the girl? The Ex-Goddess of Secrets chortled. Could London afford a second Isle of Dogs to give?
While divinely ordained forces debated the nature of suitable rewards, the svelte source of the city's hypertension lounged on the Duck Pond lawn, enjoying the evergreen enchantment built into its surroundings. Presently, the Devourer-in-residence rested against the feathered breast of a docile Dede defenceless on the dew-laden turf, watching Lumen recordings.
Whenever students passed, they would politely skirt the domain of the indomitable duck. Freshmen would ask, "who is that?" To which College Seniors would tsk and say, "This is she! The Master of the Duck! Newly returned from the Murk!"
The newer students would then gulp and acknowledge their place in the food chain, leaving their HDM tithe under a glimmering bush already laden with crystals.
As for Gwen, she had decided to delve into work and education to banish her lingering feelings about murdering in the Murk. In another world, she might have managed with an electronic miracle of a device, watching minute-long videos of men and women making a fool of themselves in hopes of becoming "viral".
In this world, she alleviated her disquiet by budgeting for the Isle of Dogs and revising her end-of-Michaelmas examinations. Not that she needed it, for three of her first-year Magisterial courses were a cake-walk.
For Foundations of Politics and International Relations, all she had to do was compose essays based on real-world exemplars of dilemmas currently facing the Mageocracy. As the whole paper favoured speculation, she should have no issues bullshitting her way through to a High Distinction.
Likewise, Contemporary Issues in Government and Frontier Governance, and Politics, Peace and Persistent Prosperity required students to give in-person presentations, a skill that she already mastered. For her work, she chose to exercise a proposal for developing the Dwarven Frontier— unsurprisingly the definitive "Hot Topic" in London's Mage circles.
The one subject she lacked in confidence in was Advanced Astral Theory and History, the foundational course for Stage II Metamagical Dynamics and Advanced Metaphysical Manifestations, both compulsory courses she needed to complete her higher learning next year, after which a "normal" Magus or Magister candidate had to pick a specialisation.
From Maxwell's informative blabbering, Gwen gathered that upper-tier Mages slipped into specialisation based on the number of Schools of Magic they mastered, as well as their Affinity with each School.
Evokers specialising in Thermodynamic Mana Theory, for example, had the choice of joining rare Cabals attempting to master Climate Control.
Abjurers with Schools in Transmutation and investments in either Enchantment, Evocation or Divination gravitated toward Planar-Spatial Engineering.
Conjurers who wanted to fortify a complete understanding of transposing matter took up Astral Trans-Planar Dynamics.
Enchanters tapped into Transmutation, Evocation or Abjurations could alternatively take up civil and industrial applications in Civil Sorcery and Quasi-Magical Materials. Ones with interest in Heavy Industry such as Golem-crafting took up programs like Dwarven Magi-tech and Mechatronic Applications.
With her powerful Omni-Magic and her proportionally woeful knowledge of Spellcraft theory, Gwen was suitable for precisely none of those limit-testing courseworks. As each mastery consumed between one and three decades.
Compared to career scholars, she just wanted her qualifications to make substantial changes to the world around her.
For a "Political Candidate" like herself, Maxwell Brown, her career advisor and Supervisor, suggested participation in real-world excursions.
With her successful subversion of the Dwarven situation, the Shard, Ravenport's Department of Foreign Affairs and Oxbridge had officially recognised her uncanny ability to swing stalemates into stunning successes for the Mageocracy.
Hers was a talent that ventured beyond conventional Spellcraft, they said; the Tower Master who wastes nothing wants not. To misapply such a sorceress on Spellcraft that any Magister with enough time, talent, and resource could obtain would be a tremendous waste.
Instead, in the quoted praise of Lord Magister Seamus Burbank Hammond, Tower Master of London, Gwen was, "A lass with a true talent for the push and pull of diplomatic tango, leading the Mageocracy and its allies toward mutual profit." As there existed no higher praise from a man with so much sway in London's academic circles, the statement had graced the front page of every paper from the Sun to the METRO, framing an image of Gwen in her blood-stained Shen-Teī.
In Oxbridge's opinion, therefore, there was no better test for Gwen's subsequent years than experience and practice so that she could attain her self-professed goals faster. The girl's spell-damage potential was already at an eye-watering tier; what they desired now the mental fortitude to apply faultless governance.
"A year ago, we had all thought your adventure in Burma was a fluke." Maxwell had been very enthused by her return and her growing infamy. "And later, the Dwarven city as well. But now, you've tapped us into the Murk! Bloody hell! I, for one, will be the first to sign any application for extracurricular excursions, assuming you complete your accelerated theory work, of course."
When she asked, Maxwell implied that Gwen would be invited to participate in Frontier governance, pending her accolades from the Lent and Easter terms. Since the Spellcraft revolution, Oxbridge and Royal Imperial's affiliated Magisters had operated on a tenure system where Magister candidates travelled to various Frontiers to gather data, train local Mages, act as government auditors, or perform civil or military maintenance. To volunteer on such "Quests" marked the beginning of the "Magister's Path".
"Enlighten me," she had asked her guidance counsellor. "What's on the menu?"
"There's an ongoing civil war in the Niger Delta the Shard is struggling to mediate," Maxwell had said after taking a minute to tally the Shard's latest international atrocities. "As per the Mageocracy's foreign policy, we're on the side of the losing side."
"Ah—" Gwen nodded, for this was nothing but history repeating. "I take it the losers are losing a little too hard?"
"… very astute." Maxwell smiled, appearing to affirm his bias of her innate gift for foreign relations. "Indeed. We're pushing more resources in than we're getting out."
"Sounds straightforward enough. What else?"
"Mermen problems. This one's stuck around like rotting fish. I heard you were involved in one of the reports? There's talk they worship the 'Pale Priestess'."
"You mean the freighter Gunther returned?"
"Yes, in the South China Sea." Maxwell nodded. "Interesting pot of trouble brewing over there. Singapore's fleets are suffering a not-insignificant loss of transports, meaning they're forced to hire superstructural vessels from Denmark at reduced margins. Meanwhile, whatever this cult is, it's developing quietly out of control. We're seeing the Shoals as far as the Australian west coast and up to the Sea of Okhotsk. I don't know if there's any correlation, but the entire South-East Asian region has a SPAM shortage. The world's getting stranger, that's for sure."
Gwen considered her likeness that the Mermen privateers had pirated.
Ruì had continued the contract with Homel Foods to use her likeness for SPAM. Supposedly, this year's IIUC for China had straight-away returned to the dark days of grinding through the preliminaries via tears and blood. The pyrrhic victory was such agony to watch that citizens preferred propaganda reruns, bringing a new bout of recognition to the team and especially Lulan, who had all but disappeared from the public eye.
"Alternatively, if you want to try your hand at governance, Meister Bekker over at London Imperial will be taking Mage Flights to the Northern Steppes with your friend Jean-Paul," Maxwell spoke with sudden recollection. "There's a whole string of chaos whipping up within the southern Elementals Sultanates that's driving the Hoof-folk nuts. Very foreboding, even if we have no idea what they're up to or what the Americans stirred up this time."
"I thought Centaur-folk ran the Steppes?" Gwen recalled Richard had written a paper on the continued chaos in the region. In the Mongol days, the Demi-human Centaurs had an iron-age empire spanning continents. Pre-beast tide, the Mageocracy that replaced it possessed Protectorates stretching from the Red Sea to the Elemental Sea and from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Frost and Fire. Post-Tide, the Mageocracy was left with only trading stations eking out a living collecting whatever the Elemental Sultans of the Fire Sea were willing to trade. Were it not for the Djinns' preferences for warring among "worthy" threats such as their Kin; their sudden emergence would have cowed every terrestrial race.
"Neigh, the glory days of their Khaganate are centuries past." Maxwell had bitten back a smile. "Back then, they fought their own, they fought us, and they fought the Wildlands. Considering how reliant we were on physical walls and a handful of Mages holding up each city, it's no surprise their empire stretched from the South China Sea to the holy seat of Istanbul. These days, not much has changed— better food and water, more resilient animal husbandry and magical arms perhaps, but think about the foes they now face: Undead spilling through from Northern China, Bloodsuckers filtering through Lower Eastern Europe, Elementals flooding over from the Fire Sea, AND us, pulling their hind legs."
"Did you just..." Gwen could have sworn the cheeky Magister had tried to Dad-pun her.
"Their entire region's full of untapped Crystal veins, precious gems and minerals, rare earth metals, magical flora and fauna and everything in between," Maxwell explained. "Our success, Magus Song, implies enough materials to build a second London."
"Well then..." Gwen recalled grinning at her instructor, the tip of her pink tongue quickly dabbing her lips. "That sounds like a good place to start a Tower Fund…"
"Ha!" Her Supervisor had laughed. "So, which one do you fancy?"
"You forget who you're talking to—" Gwen recalled snorting hot air at her instructor. "If this is a multiple-choice question, Max, then I choose D."