Isle of Dogs.
Gwen plotted out her timetable for the foreseeable future.
She had four days until the New Years, a day of many celebrations. Yet for the Devourer, her holidays were looking like a period filled with preparations. After all, the Mageocracy's centaur crisis waited for no woman, not even one still idling on the invite to Trawsfynydd.
She decided to utilise all four Storage Rings for her imminent venture to work with Evee, undermine the Exeters and usurp more money yet.
One for sundry.
One for HDMs.
One for equipment and materials.
And her original loot Ring from Sobel's underling would hold shoes, shirts, skirts and personal effects like a wardrobe.
The Steppes, if it was indeed a crash course in Dark Age ethics, could not be easily overcome through municipal management. Yet, at the same time, Gwen couldn't help but feel strangely aroused by the thought of so much untapped chaos awaiting her therapeutic touch of order.
Even in this world's limited understanding of global macroeconomics, the Frontier was a meaty beast ripe for rapine. As the top-scorer in her governance and 4P course, Gwen had sniffed out financial dynamics even her lecturers lacked the perspective to see.
In the Purple and Black Zones, her teachers observed resistance to the Mageocracy's imperial government system, preventing investments from ruling class prospectors. They pointed their wands menacingly, principally as a means to subjugate, subdue or coerce local powers into servicing mutual interests, hence the Mageocracy's passion for supporting minorities and "losers" in regional conflicts.
Therefore, the profitability of Frontier ventures lay in untapped raw material markets made possible by infrastructural barriers to foreign investment. Australia, for example, outside its coastal Green Zones, possessed a Saurian-dominated north verdant with untapped HDM mines, lumber, agricultural estate and Magical Materials.
There, Gunther's diplomatic strategy of "shock and awe" alternated between the carrot and the stick, with Humanity conceding a clear-cut boundary they would not cross. In exchange, the Saurians had to operate a trade channel where humans could acquire materials and goods from the Daintree tropics. Concurrently, the Saurians had to resist the temptation to hunt outside their sizeable domain.
Naturally, considering the tribal politics of the Saurians, no small number of them overspilled from the prime rainforest as a result of inter-tribal conflict. In these instances, Gunther would demand the Saurians settle accounts on behalf of Humanity. It was a hard-ball method of "scorched earth, one only someone with the gall of Gunther could show their two-pronged neighbours.
Conversely, the Coral Sea was home to riches that would arguably make Sydney and Brisbane as wealthy as Singapore were it not for the unceasing vermin-tide in the form of Merman. Unlike the Saurians, whose home Gunther could threaten and who threatened Brisbane and Cairns in turn, there was no chasing Mermen Wave Riders five fathoms deep into the Pacific Kingdoms. As a result, like a reverse Rural Fire Service, Gunther and Alesia had to spend random allotments of their time setting ablaze rising waves of clamouring fish that could appear anywhere between Melbourne and Cairns— not that they minded. A significant portion of Australia's export produce came from the ocean, further exacerbating the endless skirmish.
If anything, history in her present world had proven the futility of Humanity trying to govern Demi-humans. As a whole, her species had settled on Democratic Socialism, Constitutional Monarchy, Theocracy or Communism. Conversely, the Demi-denizens of the world privileged entirely different social-political frameworks.
Take the Dwarves, for example. Hanmoul's homeland contains a social system that made no sense in Human terms. At the top of the Dwarven pyramid were Ancestors academics, venerated but removed from holding seats of power and politics in Deepholm. In the Cog Hall, the Dwarven council was formed by a feudal coalition of Clans and Guilds, together holding the reins of Dwarven society's mineral veins. Therefore, the Dwarven people ran a theocratic, decentralised feudal meritocracy with a socialist policy creation system that relied on tradition, honour, and general honesty.
How would that even work, knowing Humanity's propensity for anarchic outbursts of individualism?
Likewise, for the Álfar staying rent-free in her mind thanks to Dickie— Was there even a word for a system of government centred around the maintenance of a tree and a Wyrm? The Elves she had met so far all seemed to act both independently while at the same time appearing to know their exact, multiple roles. If she had to draw an analogy, the whole of Tryfan seemed more akin to a colony of Giant Hornets than svelte and lithe supermodel Elementalists inhabiting an arboreal pocket dimension.
Gwen exhaled as her eyes swept over the construction site with its teams of Golems large and small, hammering away at concrete and stone with bursts of purple Transmutation and vivid Evocation.
If possible, she wanted to delay her Tryfan visit until after the Steppes— but from the sounds of Meister Bekker's business there, one month might not cut the mustard.
And if she neglected the visit for too long, say until March or April, the favour Dickie promised might waste away, and she might even eat into the goodwill he owed her for the Dwarven situation.
Hence, she would visit Tryfan on Friday.
At worst, she would be back by NYE.
With her mind made up, Gwen set others to task.
For any other War Mage, even a Magister-tier operator, they would have to source their materials for their quests themselves or through relevant departments. A Tower Magister, assuming they had appropriate sectional powers from the Shard, could outsource the legwork to apprentices and aides.
For Gwen, she merely stopped by the Isle of Dogs with a list of the following to be delivered no later than a day or two into the new year.
50,000 HDMs, newly minted by the Bank of London in various denominations.
50,000 HDMs, in raw crystals of various Elements.
144 Potions of Healing.
48 Potions of Remove Disease.
25 Potions of Greater Healing.
12 Potions of Restoration.
6 Potions of Haste.
6 Potions of Heroism.
20 Pallets of Military Rations, assorted.
8 Pallets of SPAM in Regular, Cheese and Bacon.
2 Pallets of survival equipment, enough for three Mage Flights.
2 Dwarf-forged Omni-suits for small civil projects.
And armour and arms for herself, Evee, Mathias, and whoever might join them.
As Gwen's stay in the Steppes was strongly correlated with Meister Bekker's designs for her Tower Operations in the region, only she and Evee would be semi-permanent. Even if her family, like Richard or Petra, wanted in on the action, she would have to pay to get them teleported down, and even then, there was the risk of flying solo to find the Golden Pavillion in a Black Zone without Divination Towers. Unlike Evee, who had the Order of the Bath to back her, there would be no secret transit nodes for two 'lowly' Magus-tier casters from Cambridge.
As for armaments, a Dwarf-forged Spellsword was something Gwen had promised Mathias almost a year ago, but both parties had been so busy that what should have been a celebrated and longed-for kit refresh had wholly escaped them. After returning from Battle, she had reminded Walken of the fact. After that, the Magister had informed the Dwarves working at the Isle of Dogs manning the Fabricator. The next day, the Order of St Michael delivered the material components and an order outsourcing the manufacturing to Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth.
As for the armours, her Shen-Teī suit was presently in tatters and beyond its ability to self-repair. She could send it back to China, or she could order another one, but now Gwen was interested in something Hanmoul had mentioned a long while ago.
The possibility of creating armour from Big Bird feathers.
So that the Citadel could put hammer to anvil, she had given Hanmoul the go-ahead to craft something "local" that would serve as an improved suit of Shen-Teī. As a Mageocracy War Mage, to have Sinomach sent her a new bodysuit would likely tickle some beards, especially considering how the Shard felt about "Inferior" Communist state enterprises. Just as well, she disliked owing favours to the Greys and especially the Militants, not when she could manage the supplier herself.
She wanted something sleek and svelte and held up well against both elemental and physical damage, a quality that nothing short of Master-tier Dwarven Runecrafting would provide. As for the Creature Core component, she had several Hulk specimens with Negatively-aligned properties that would serve as the suit's conduits— considering her future abuse of Sanguine Mantle and Bone Shield; she didn't mind more Negative Energy drain.
And in the concourse of waiting for her suit to be made, she figured she might as well have one crafted for Elvia as well. The Order of the Bath possessed its own Enchanter Brethren, but Elvia wasn't of the rank necessary to pursue their services. As such, Gwen gave Walken instructions to find Elvia something suitably "Saint-looking" to both protect her friend from harm and harness Faith from folk she would rescue in their future expedition.
When she had mentioned this idea to Elvia during their restless night at the Ferrier's Cottage, the Cleric accepted her gift of a suit in the mid-five-figures range. She then asked: "Who am I saving? Is this for the Steppes?"
Gwen's response had been, "No idea, but I know from whom you'll be saving folks."
"Who?" Elvia had cocked her head with sweet, unknowing innocence.
In the end, Gwen decided not to risk Dickie's ire and the Elves' further impatience. Therefore, from London to Birmingham then to the skies, she had blazed her way north-west at full belt while following her Divi-orb, arriving finally at her fated meeting.
On the grassy knoll approaching the trade station, the Hvítálfar receiving her wasn't the lithe Hierophant Sanari but a black-clad warrior dressed in a scarab-shell battle mantle.
Arch-Warden Eldrin, she recognised the look if not the Elf. The Wardens wore mantles of different length, each resembling gossamer insect wings, with the juniors sporting a single pair of silken fabric. From the looks of the luxurious waterfall of semi-transparent material behind him, the Arch-Warden possessed no less than four pairs.
Was the fabric merely ceremonial? Gwen wondered as she landed with the biggest smile she could muster. Or were they magic items of sorts? Either a form of transformative armour or maybe something akin to wings that could enable supersonic flight.
Different to Solana's ageless mien of tender benevolence, Eldrin's face was more angular and cruel, with a hooked nose that reminded Gwen of a down-turned horned beetle. He was tall even for an elf, standing past two meters from greave to headpiece, all in satin crow-black.
Solana the white. Gwen mused to herself. Eldrin the black.
One took care of the tree and distributed its benediction.
And the other, if the cosplay was anything to go by, was the kind who dispensed violence in the dark, doing clandestine deeds to satisfy Solana's needs so that the rest of the Hvítálfar could look each other in the eye and say "May the Bloom be Eternal" without fear in their leafy warrens.
Gwen inhaled the nourishing air.
The first time she came to Tryfan, she had expected Rivendell with a twist. Now armed with renewed Planar knowledge, she had a better understanding of the Hvítálfars' position. According to Cambridge, the conjecture was that Elves were symbiotic colonisers of the Prime Material. Theirs was a way of the world that had been conceived in a time when men still walked with hunched backs, and Dwarves cowered from the hungry things swimming through the Murk.
"Greetings from the Shard." Gwen bowed deep as she landed. "I have come for an audience with Eldrin, Arch-Warden of Tryfan."
The Elf's pupils were the usual chromatic gold common to the Hvítálfar, and thanks to the dark garb of the Arch-Warden, Gwen felt as though acutely studied by an alien beetle with an insectile mind. From her position, boundless potential energy seemed to encase the Arch-warden's conforming bodysuit of chitin, making him appear melded with his carapace armour. In place of stitchings, straps and seals, the suit was unblemished by manufacturing, appearing wholly home-grown.
No doubt, Gwen whistled internally in her mind. The battle suit was unique, mayhap was as rare as the giant Red Dragon Core the House of Windsor displayed in London's Tower.
"Magus Song." Eldrin didn't even grace her with a nod. "You've kept us waiting."
"Duty called." Gwen indicated in the wrong direction that wasn't the Shard. For some reason, she felt strangely rebellious against Dickie's advice to fawn over the Elves like her peers in the Tower. "Lord Hierophant, you weren't standing here for months on end, were you?"
The Arch-Warden's facial muscled moved a micro-millimetre. "Come, we shall speak in a more appropriate place."
Gwen glanced at the phantom "Tree" in the distance that seemed to rise into the heavens. It was an impossible sight, for the weight of all that wood would make its physics akin to an inverted K2 sitting atop the Matterhorn.
"Okay." She followed like an obedient kitten.
Another Mage would question the wisdom of following an elite Elementalist into an abode within which they held complete control over time and space. As for Gwen, the last time she was here, Almudj had a heart-to-heart with the Bloom in White, momentarily transforming the elfin goddess into AC/DC's 1990 Australian classic, "Thunderstruck".
Gwen felt guilty that once more, she was piggy-backing on Al's good graces, despite her Patron having given no such consent. Of course, with the Path of power she had plotted out for herself, such crutches would not remain permanent. Within ten years, she was confident that she would attain Sobel's sorcery level, then far surpass her Master's wife.
Why Legion, of course.
Short of usurping the telecommunication conglomerate from her, no one in their right minds would allow such a categorical advancement in quality of life to be rescinded from the world.
Even if the Mageocracy tried their darndest, she wasn't worried.
Short of Undeath, they would have to pry the controlling shares from her cold, dead hands.
Beside her, without need for an existing tree, Eldrin willed a trellis gate into existence, then opened a portal into Tryfan.
"Tree Striding is SO incredibly useful…" Gwen remarked as she stepped through.
"Henry could do something like this," came the cold reply. "So can you, if you are willing to learn."
Inside of the portal, they unsurprisingly arrived on the foliage of the grand trunk. The pair was not near the heartwood, as Solana's abode had been, but a balcony overlooking the Cloud Sea below the Plane of Radiance, a sight that hinted at the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Steam having drifted close. They were on a private viewing platform, below which the Great Tree extended into the white unknown and above which the vibrant, jade-leaf foliage tapered toward a blue infinity.
There was an elegant table wrought of vines, fossilised and then carved meticulously with wood-shaping spells, erect amid two equally elaborate chairs. The motif, as far as Gwen could tell, was a narrative tapestry of sorts.
"I have waited upon you, Magus Song," Eldrin began. "Because in my capacity as Arch-Warden, I had been a companion to your Master, Lord Henry Kilroy."
"Thank you for being patient," Gwen said with a tone of apology. "I didn't know you knew my Master."
It was a white lie.
Considering that Henry had a bloody secluded abode where he lived with a bleeding Void Sorceress, there was no possibility that he was on bad terms with the head of security. Still, there was no reason to demonstrate her foresight. Against her seniors, especially older men, Gwen had long learned it was best to pretend that she was ambitious and brilliant but low on wisdom and cunning.
Eldrin gave her a critical glare.
The Essence in her Astral Body instinctively roused, stiffening her spine and adding colour to her cheeks.
"I understand that we are both individuals with more matters of immediacy than time," Eldrin remarked. "Nonetheless, it is The Bloom's wish that you come to understand the arrangement your Master and Tryfan once shared."
"Time? Our lives are as mayflies to willow's compared to yours, Lord Warden," Gwen returned. "Even so, I am surprised the Hvítálfar experience impatience."
The Elf studied her with his chromatic orbs catching the Radiant light. "You speak like one with a limited life, you— who is a calf of the old ones."
"I am still young." Gwen shrugged. "Two decades is all I've known."
Eldrin's unconvinced face made her self-conscious. She felt like an older woman trying to convince the young buck at the bar she was still in her twenties.
"The arrangement we had with Lord Henry stems from the Accord," Eldrin said. "A good number of your Human leaders on the continent you call Europe likewise share this understanding with our kind. Your species may be native to the Prime Material, but our kind has been here far longer than you. Without our presence, the Prime Material will be far more vulnerable to the Astral law of entropy. Without its Great Trees, the Prime Material would have never existed, nor would it continue to exist."
"I understood some of that," Gwen replied stiffly, conscious that they'd been standing the whole while. Unfortunately, since Eldrin stood still as a sentinel, and she had to oblige likewise.
"Magus Song." The gangly and giant Elf loomed. "Will you, as Lord Kilroy's scion, join our Accord?"
"Is Gunther a part of this?" Gwen asked in turn. "Is Alesia?"
"Magus De Botton and Master Shultz are a different breed compared to you and Lord Kilroy," Eldrin answered. "They stand at the apex of your kind, but they are not of interest to the Accord. Master Shultz would have suited our Bloom's purpose, but Lord Kilroy had by choice took him from our commonwealth into his. Now, in Master Kilroy's vacancy, we turn to you who is closest to him and whose potential may be greater."
"Hold up." Gwen put up both hands. "I'll have you know that no one ever explained what the Accord was to me. As far as I know, it's air."
Eldrin appeared to study her face to read the thoughts coursing through her head. "I see. Shall I elucidate its purpose?"
"Not if it means I have to join," Gwen said quickly. "Sometimes, ignorance is bliss."
"You are not curious?"
"Curiosity killed the Displacer Beast," Gwen replied. "Then sold its skin for five hundred HDMs at the Grey Market. I should know. I've got the coat in my Storage Ring. Beautiful colour."
"I see." Eldrin considered her words. "Then, in my capacity as Arch-Warden, I shall consent to give you a certain degree of clarity without charge. Do you still wish to know?"
Gwen was tempted to ask whether it was possible to discuss the issue in her flying Tower a decade from now but also recognised that the Elves were likely starting to take her seriously as a threat, or at least as an unknown element that shouldn't be left alone. Back in the day, Solana had said that they had left Henry to his devices— the consequence was Sobel, then and Henry's death.
Likewise, she still had to report on Sufina's proposal, though she would not make that demand of the Elves until she had some leverage to lubricate the discussion.
Gwen sighed at her indecision.
"You are a very peculiar specimen, Magus Song." Eldrin's expression remained unchanged. "How many of your kind have perished to be let into the Accord so that they may know the deeper secrets of the Prime Material, and yet, you dither at the threshold. We are offering an olive branch out of diplomacy, Gwen. And out of consideration that you are Henry's true Apprentice."
Henry's true Apprentice.
Her breath quickened.
She liked that.
"Fine, I'll bite." Gwen shrugged her shoulders. "Don't you know that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing? How much are you willing to give for free, and if I listen, what choice might I have in remaining neutral to Tryfan's cause? I wasn't staying away out of arrogance, Arch-Warden. I was staying away because there might be prospects far beyond what I can or am willing to handle."
"… And the council complains that you Humans rush forward without consideration for consequences." Eldrin finally revealed a less stern expression. "You may sit."
"And if I refused, were you going to portal me out?" Gwen rolled her eyes and sat. "I am all ears, Arch-Warden."
Eldrin joined her in the adjacent chair.
Elves have long torsos, Gwen observed. Eldrin's sitting height made her feel like he was still standing.
"The Accord," Eldrin began again. "Is both simple and complex. The World Trees are the source of the Prime Material's stability. In its health, there sits the Bloom in White, Master Tyfanevius, and we. In this, they are three and yet; all are one."
"There is always a woman, a snake, and a tree," Gwen mouthed to herself.
"While my kind has made our home here for longer than you can imagine, beings like Humanity are the true inheritors of the Prime Material. We Álfar are custodians— to maintain this balance, your kind as well must do your duty."
"Alright." Gwen thought of the Triffidus infestation she had purged. "But surely there's more to it."
"The Accord is an agreement to maintain the Tree's health, and thereby the health of this Plane we call home," Eldrin explained. "Balance, Magus Song, is more than Purging invasive species and defeating common enemies. Ecological maintenance requires delicacy, for it is an act of foresightful and constant, meticulous pruning. For all our sakes, the equilibrium is maintained. To do otherwise would contribute directly to the Plane's demise."
"Why does that sound so ominous?" Gwen asked.
"Because your kind has failed once already," Eldrin stated without any particular emotion. "Thirty-four Sun Cycles ago, the Great Mor Ereg withered, its Guardian turned on the Great Tree's custodians, and the basin from which some of your greatest ancient nations emerged erupted into a sea of flame. The "Caspian" boiled, Magus Song, and the Prime Material both our people hold dear was torn asunder by the Astral rent that took Mor Ereg's place. The sea changed, the land changed, the clouds shifted. The consequence, you should know well."
"The Beast Tide. The Black Dragon."
"Ancient Vynssarion, yes." Eldrin nodded. "The death of the tree robbed from the old one all sensibility. A being of his power, nourished for aeons by the Great Tree's roots, isn't a madness Elves without a tree could tame alone. As a result, the Elementals usurped a portion of our world— and the Astral fabric tethering together the Prime Material grew thinner yet."
"So, the Accord is a mutual defence treaty?" Gwen asked for clarification. "That's nothing out of the ordinary. Why the secrecy?"
Eldrin waited for her to finish.
"Maintaining equilibrium," he said carefully. "Is a difficult affair. Each Great Tree's pillar stretches only so far, and each tribe, be it the Hvítálfar, the Ljósálfar, the Svartálfar or our mortal cousins, the Träälvor, take a different approach. Some guard their duty with jealousy and hostility. Others chose isolation and seclusion. WE chose cooperation, becoming Wardens, servants to the great balance of all things, living or dead, elemental or native. If you so choose, you too may join the ranks of our kind, nourished by immortality, tethered by compromise."
"Our kind? Immortality?"
"Solana has already mentioned this," the Arch-Warden said. "The Great Tree nourishes the Wyrm, the Wyrm its Vessels."
"VESSELS?" Gwen's eyes grew wide, a torrent of thoughts flooding through her swirling mind. She wasn't sure how the Yinglong fitted into this western narrative, but her cognisance was no longer blank. "I think… I get it. Wow— is that what a Vessel is? Is that the purpose of the Dragons? Are you saying there are more Vessels like Evee and I all over the world?"
"Yes… and no. You are not unique in that capacity, at least. Just as Humanity isn't alone in this sacred enterprise..."
Eldrin left it at that and instead impassively studied her face for signs of further comprehension.
There was much to digest in Eldrin's words, and Gwen chose to do just that.
During the Triffidus infestation, the Shard had moved its military forces from Northern Ireland to put down the Far Planes' planar overspill. According to her lecturer, this was because of ecological conservation and a need to prevent further decay of the Prime Material's paper-thin boundaries.
Now Eldrin spoke of a more significant threat, a kind of Triffidus endgame, that of a Planar race spilling into the Prime Material and becoming a dominant presence strong enough to bend space and warp the elemental composition of Terra.
Unless the Elf was bald-faced lying about the Black Sea, then she could trust his assertion that someone fucked up in the 70s and didn't manage to hold the fort against whatever was undermining the World Tree thereabouts. The consequence, therefore, was the collapse of a planar junction to the south-east, earmarking a part of the world that had served as the cradle of Human civilisation in antiquity as a Black Zone.
As for the meaning hidden in between Eldrin's words, Gwen knew for a fact that there was something direr the Arch-Warden desired her to fathom through conscious cognisance. Only then could this "something" so ominous be acceptable to her.
One by one, she carefully masticated Eldrin's diction choices in her mind, hoping her Master's Translation Stone was up to snuff.
From the way Eldrin positioned himself, the Warden saw the Hvítálfars' position as guardians of sorts. Even his title of "Arch-Warden" sounded like it hadn't so much to do with defending his tree, but more so to do with a managerial role, something like a CEO.
The Triffdus of Angelsley.
The Elementals of the Fire Sea.
The Purge actions.
Each a volatile element not of this world.
Gwen wracked her brain, sifting the details through a sieve of logic.
What was Eldrin directing her to see? Why was the Accord a thing that folks kept secret? Why was her Master a part of it, but not Gunther or Alesia or the Mages more famous than herself at the University? As for those who are in the Accord, why would they obfuscate their participation? Why did even Dickie speak of it haltingly?
She cycled her train of thought once more, this time from the beginning.
Pieces fell into place.
She looked down at her hands.
They were white, pale beyond belief.
Her fingers were shaking.
Beside her, a slight display of affirming mirth displaced Eldrin's thin, severe lips, forming a pink gash like a fresh razor wound.
In accordance with—
To reach an accord by consensus—
A terrible understanding dawned, emerging from the Mountain of Madness like a gibbering aberrant baying for attention.
The role her Master played for the Hvítálfar burst upon Gwen as though hot slime from a foetid Void pustule.
In her old world, in Yellowstone, the wolves and bears ate the elk who ate the elm, the elm fed the beavers, the beavers built the dams, the dam prevented lowland floods, and the precipitation fed the highland elm. Like a spider's web, every ecological chain was welded to the other, with the removal of a single link spelling catastrophe. For decades, the Wardens of her world pruned the trees, bred the wolves, shot the elk, and balanced the ecological chain.
In this world, the Hvítálfar instituted a more nouveau method.
They invited the elms, the wolves, the beavers, the bears, the ravens, the salmon and whatever else lived in the Prime Material.
And among the species, they picked out a few stand-out individuals.
And then they told them the way of the world.
"Welcome to the round table. Let's keep this simple. Do you want to prune yourself? Or should we do it for you?"
Today, she pruned the Triffidus.
A decade from now, she may prune the Elementals out the Fire Sea.
Then one day, inevitably and for the greater good, she would prune her own.
That was the Accord.