For what felt like a Microsoft minute, Gwen's blanked-out mind showed "page not found".
When her thoughts came to, her protest choked up with offence and outrage compounded by outright existential woe.
Opposite, the Arch-Warden watched her expression for a while, then raised a hand to halt her increasingly outlandish emotions from erupting between her ears and blowing her brains out.
"Magus, your Void is leaking." Eldrin's golden eyes gleamed. "Do not fret. You are not a member of the Accord yet. Even if you are eager to participate, it takes decades to prove one's mettle. There will be tests of loyalty and dedication, and the temptation to use the information we provide to the advantage of Humanity will be many. When you are ready to join, you will have no such qualms."
"J-Join?" Gwen spat, glaring at Eldrin with undisguised aversion that she allowed a Gwenism to lapse. "Why would anyone with any sense of goodness put themselves in that position? Gods! This is just another Coalition of the Willing, isn't it? Thanks for the knowledge, Arch-Warden, but no thanks."
"Do you consider your disregard as good as our experience?" Eldrin appeared genuinely amused that he had a resistive sorceress on his hands. "Then again, your kind do proudly pronounce that ignorance is bliss. You are not wrong. For a short-lived species, many generations may yet pass in prosperity and peace. Many of your rulers would consider that arrangement completely acceptable, so long as their generation blooms and wilts without suffering. Nonetheless— the Accord would not want one of its future members to take the wrong, nor would Henry if he were alive."
Gwen took a deep breath.
She re-arranged her thoughts.
If the Arch-Warden thought he could bully her into obedience, then the bastard had a whole Caliban coming for his buns! Nonetheless, she wasn't drunk enough on Lighting Affinity to try and headbutt the Elves, at least not with a face as delicate as hers.
What should she do then if she could neither accept nor outright deny?
"Has Tryfan ever pruned itself?" Gwen asked, her tone growing churlish, probing Eldrin for cracks.
"No," Eldrin categorically denied her accusation.
"Well, well, doesn't that come as a surprise. Would you do it if it came to it?"
"A moot question." Eldrin shook his head. "Another member of the Accord will perform the deed if a race's members will not. You need not dirty your hands. That is also a part of the Accord."
"How bloody convenient." Gwen's mind raced. "I guess that makes reaping your blood all the more acceptable. So long as you're not strangling any babies— it doesn't matter how many dozens perish in a fire, right?"
"Your vitriol art misled," Eldrin replied with an annoying amount of patience. "Allow me to elucidate— what you proposed as self-pruning, Magus Song, is something that need not occur if your people exercise self-governance. In this, we have set an example as the Hvítálfar. For all our might, we have constrained our numbers for aeons and restricted ourselves to our modest living space. Even Guardian Tyfanevius, whose kind possess a natural inclination you know well, is restricted within the Great Tree, much to his frustration."
Gwen half-listened to the Arch-Warden, her mind still bushwacking the dark to escape the Elf's grim entanglement.
"To take your people as an example," Eldrin continued. "Humanity's vivaciousness is beyond belief. Even when the world was young and your kind was without sorcery, you thrived, going so far as to manifest ripples in reality through sheer force of belief. You are aware of how voraciously your species has progressed, Magus Song, are you not?"
"Maybe, enlighten me."
"'Spellcraft', the source-arcanistry Humanity now wields to sustain its seat of power," Eldrin said. "Has its origins in us. Your kind has taken the gentle boon we bestowed to ease your resistance against the Planar-usurpers into something that strains the Prime Material. In aeons past, the Accord's early progenitors consented for your people to inherit vast tracts of Terra that would fall into ruin and disjunction to Core-bearing colonists. Yet now, your kind has grown numerous enough to test the Astral fabric's elasticity. Your cities..."
Eldrin shook his head.
"We've grown too powerful?" Gwen raised both brows.
Eldrin's lips grew mocking. "Too prideful, too ambitious, too intemperate."
"Okay— so NOT too powerful, but annoying enough to be of concern," Gwen minced the Elf's choice of diction. "Exactly how much of our Spellcraft is based on yours?"
"I believe that's enough talk of the Accord." Eldrin stopped her with a dismissive gesture. "Any more, and our allies would accuse me of bestowing undue partiality. Perhaps they already shall, but that would be a burden I have brought upon myself. You are very astute, Gwen, for one so young. So, how now?"
"One last question." Gwen raised her voice. If she desired to delay, then the first thing she had to do was set fire to Eldrin's evergreen coolness.
Inhaling deeply, she settled on delivering a kidney blow.
"Tell me true, Arch-Warden. Was Sobel one of yours?" Her voice rose an octave as she circulated the overspilling Void mana throughout her conduits, priming her accusation with an aura similar to that of the Elizabeth she had encountered in Sydney. "If you want me to join, then tell me the truth. Was Lizzy a willing agent of the Accord or a rogue one?"
The Arch-warden's golden orbs shrunk as motes of Druidic mana coursed through the Elf's conduits, reacting to her Void aura. His brow gave the slightest wrinkle, which she took to mean annoyance.
Before she could pull back the pressure, Eldrin responded.
A near-physical wave of Dragon-fear radiated from the Elf, almost balling her over with its intensity. Fighting the unbidden butterflies taking flight from her abdomen, Gwen kept up her demanding gaze even as her skin grew clammy and the hair on her thighs stood on end, rising from her knees to her neck then back again like a Mexican wave.
"That's a nice reaction." Gwen felt a thrilling surge of masochistic satisfaction as yet more demands danced on the tip of her tongue. Eldrin's Dragon Fear was purer than even Golos' as it strummed her every nerve, mangling her innards and rousing Almudj's irritated Essence. Forcing her jaws to unclench, she continued her barrage. "Ha! How about this, then? Will the Hvítálfar abide by the Rule of Law and prune the Svartálfar or the Ljósálfar?"
"If it comes to that…" Eldrin scowled.
"So, you HAVE exterminated Álfar before?" Gwen pursued with a quick follow-up. "Has the Accord had a go at a Dragon yet? Are the Asiatic Drakes a part of the Accord? How about the Merman of the Seven Kingdoms? — Holy shit! Was the Mermen invasion of Sydney the work of the Accord?"
Against Gwen's barrage, Eldrin's expression grew darker and darker until Gwen finally saw the blood clotting against his pale, flawless skin. The fire in the Arch-Warden's eyes likewise grew in intensity. When she resorted to taking his silence as a "Gotcha!" the Dragon Fear radiating from the Arch-Warden became solid tendrils kneading her trembling figure, grasping at her neck and running spindly-little spider-fingers down her spine.
"There's the rub! If the Elemental remains active, does that mean Humanity's safe so long as the Fire Sea remains a present threat? How about the North Korean Undead and their Juche? How do the Undead figure into—"
She raised her voice and asked more questions, allowing the word vomit in her mind to pour out and drench the scoundrel from head to foot like Void bile from Caliban's gut.
"— and the Dwarves! How about Deepholm's troubles, are you guys in cahoots with Calamari—"
Finally, to her immense relief, just as she flinched in anticipation of a smack on the mouth, Eldrin growled, turned, then walked headfirst into a newly-formed trellis Portal. Before Gwen could finish her tirade, the Arch-Warden dematerialised.
For several seconds, she drank in the blessed silence, the elevated emotions in her chest finally returning to a mortal plane. After calming her nerves, she breathed long and deep, picking her spent sanity off the floor.
She wasn't Prince Hamlet, but she knew well the value in delaying her "benefactor" with false fire. Sometimes, the only way out of a blind date was to meander breathlessly about cats, then sneak out for a bathroom break from which there was no return—
Unfortunately, her resounding success in annoying the elder Elf had now left her stranded in a room atop a World Tree, where wandering without a guide may annoy millennia-old Elementalists by the hundreds.
"Solana?" she addressed the wall. "Are you watching?"
No reply came.
"Come on, I know you're watching." She furrowed her brows. "It must get pretty boring up in the atrium with the Heartwood, what with no midday Vid-cast programming and all."
Eeeearygh— The vine-barrier leading to the balcony yawned open.
Gwen snorted. It didn't take a Meister to know that the leader of the Elves was watching her performance. Eldrin might have a temper, but she was under no delusion that Solana would be tricked. In fact, now that she thought about it, maybe Eldrin just couldn't be bothered playing with a lesser individual like herself.
With her spirits dampened, she made for the door—
— And almost ran face-first into Sanari's silk-bound bosoms.
"Lady Sanari—" Gwen stopped herself just in time to prevent unintended intimacy.
Sanari stood awkwardly by the door, evidently blocking the exit with her body.
Gwen chose not to force her way past the flustered Elf but instead waited to see what the Hierophant had to say. The female Hvítálfar's golden eyes were rich with clashing emotion, revealing far more than the cold, metallic rings in Eldrin's dying-star orbs.
"The Bloom in White has a gift for you." Solana produced a vibrant-hued satchel woven from two leaves, each half the breadth of the female's impressive handspans. Upon closer inspection, Gwen realised both blades' veins had fused so that the entire leaf-purse appeared a single living organism. "It's for your venture in the Northern Steppes; Lady Solana says that this would be of help."
Tilting the satchel, Sanari allowed a handful of dots to fall from the pouch's slit-opening.
"Seeds?" Gwen possessed no knowledge of botany beyond basic Google image. All of her indoor plants had died to neglect or her cats. A green-thumbed colleague once remarked her winter garden of starved or overwatered plants was a one-woman botanic Holocaust.
"Starling Tomatoes, Jade Cucumbers, Polar Beans and Sunburst Squash," Solana counted the misshapen forms with the gentleness of one bobbing the heads of her children. "All produce commonly planted here at the tree. With Lady Solana's blessing, they're able to thrive anywhere on the Prime Material, provided there's sun, soil and water."
"And these are for me?" Gwen asked, wondering why Solana would gift her plants. Considering the nature of the Black Zone, wouldn't a suit of what Eldrin wore be more helpful? "What am I to do with… squash?"
Sanari's consternation indicated one innocent of esoteric knowledge.
"Don't worry. I'll not look a gift-slav… horse in the mouth." Gwen reflexively passed a hand over the container. "Ow—!"
The mana feedback gave her fingers quite the kick.
Nursing her bruised hand, she looked at Sanari.
"This is a spatial container for living things," Sanari quickly explained. "You cannot store an item such as this in your crude spatial devices."
"Ah." Gwen realised her error. In the human world, seeds were not alive, nor Bags of Holding. From the looks of it, the seeds contained in the Elven "living" Bag of Holding was not only brimming with vitality and Essence, but even their container was ripe with the lifeblood of the World Tree. "It's a bag specialising in storing things with life?"
"It nourishes the seeds." Sanari nodded. "All Druids have one."
"And… it's for me?" Gwen grinned with teeth, all repression from Eldrin's bullying forgotten in the face of glorious loot. In a world where hand-bags were no longer necessary, having a cute Elven satchel was all kinds of tasteful.
"Yes…" Sanari regarded Gwen's avarice-misted eyes with hesitation.
"Is this available for trade at the way station in Trawsfynydd?"
"This is a gift." Sanari looked scandalised. "It's for Druids, Magus Song! How can such a sacred thing, woven from the leaves of the World Tree, be bought with human currency?"
"Of course, you're right." Gwen nodded in disappointment. It was a shame that she couldn't get one each for her female companions, at the very least for Evee, who could surely make use of such an item better than she did.
Sanari exhaled. "And this is for you as well. It needs to be kept in the Druid Bag to remain hale."
The Heirophant produced a green parchment.
At first, Gwen had thought the thing a document, but the inscriptions on the irregularly shaped piece of vellum-like material did not mask the fact that it was once fresh foliage. Its Elvish patterns— ones she recognised as Hvítálfar Glyphs of sorts, had been applied so intricately and in such complex, microscopic detail that there existed no possibility it could be done by hand.
"What's this?" Gwen received both items. Sanari looked like she was giving up a child.
"A Llais leaf, the kind that inspired the rough sorcery of your Divination Mages," the Druid explained while wincing. "If you would nourish the leaf with your Essence, it is possible to transmute thoughts and Messages to the Bloom."
"Really? But I'll be out of the range of any Divination Towers," Gwen said, her fingers shaking a little. "How would this work?"
"So long as The Bloom's Essence remains nourished and the vine-script remains intact, the Llais leaf will speak to its progenitor. Our Druids who staff the Grove of Voices may then transmute your Message through the trunks of the Great Tree, though our Lady in White would require no such intermediaries."
A Thundering Shatter rang out in the interior of Gwen's skull.
She studied the leaf, her lips suddenly more parched than when she mouthed-off Eldrin. A rising wave of entrepreneurial enterprise stirred within her, warming her from belly to chest, bringing the blood to her cheeks.
"You didn't mention the range." Her voice trembled. "What's the range?"
"Within the Great Tree?" Sanari's brows furrowed.
"Within the Prime Material…"
"The Great Tree IS the Prime Material."
She had to circulate several jolts of Void to crush the madcap endorphins now inundating her brain. Eyes gleaming, she caressed the leaf, all the while studying Sanari's disturbed-mien to see if the Druid was boasting. When the Druid said nothing else, she returned to holding the Llias leaf like a Knight Templar holding the One Grail.
Did the Elves have any idea?
Did Solana have any idea what the Llais leaf meant for a race struggling to get a Message from Central to Katoomba, much less London to Istanbul? The sheer cost in diplomacy, HDMs, Tower investments and maintenance of a Divi-Tower network could bring a city-state to its knees! Not to mention someone could blow a Tower up! If the Isle of Man were to lose its Divination Tower, then the lower half of Ireland, not to mention Northern Ireland, would fall into darkness. There would be no coordination, no reinforcements, not even news. No one would know if the Fomorians swept the isle and wiped away all human habitation in a week-long Wild Hunt! Most importantly, low-tier Contingency Rings would be useless!
Was this knowledge a part of the Accord?
Or could a pretty girl simper her way into acquiring the design?
Or mayhap Sufina could manage a simulacrum of the same sorcery?
Her mind was suddenly pregnant with possibilities, her imagination bathed in the wonders of Elven Magi-tech and the opportunities it brought for Legion.
She should apologise to Dickie; Gwen felt stuck by a stray thought, her heart suddenly filling with unbidden love for the dickish Duke of Norfolk who had begged her to speak to the Elves. To think she had put off visiting Trawsfynydd for so long! For almost a year, she had communed with her Dwarven allies for possibilities of borrowing Echo Crystal technology, only to conclude that even if the Ancestors allowed such a trespass, there would be no Mother Lode to provide the raw materials without accessing Deepholm.
And yet, here, in plain sight, the Elves already had matured Magi-tech rearing to go.
She decided to double-check, lest her excitement mislead her reading of the situation.
"So, the range is unlimited?" she announced each word with deliberate care. "I can use this anywhere on Earth? How rare is this leaf?"
"The Llais Leaf only communes with the Great Tree of its origin." Sanari's expression remained perplexed. "For our kin, it is common practice to detour through the Grove of Voices if we are to venture far from home. As Lord Eldrin has said, our kind possesses little enough desire to leave our sacred grot, so when necessity calls, we always take its sounds, smells and Essence with us. Even if we were to venture to another Plane, the Llais keeps us tethered to Tryfan."
Jesus, a real-world manifestation of the Axis Mundi Theory, Gwen noted from her Planar lectures. Something that for Humanity was in the realm of quantum physics, but for their Elven counterparts, something of the fabric of life on the Prime Material.
"And this script…"
“A manifestation of Hvítálfar Druidism,” Sanari confirmed. "The Bloom in White said that if you are keen to learn…"
"I would have to join the Accord?"
Her boiling blood cooled.
Her trial period was over.
But what she uncovered was enough for now.
For the Llais to work, she needed three things— Essence, a World Tree tapped into the Axis Mundi, and Hvítálfar Druid-Arcanists.
Of the three, she could arguably access the former two if Sufina remained keen to play ball. As for the final component— there was no lack of Scholars in London obsessed with Elven sorcery. If Sulfina lacked the knowledge, perhaps a big-brained Meister somewhere could create a facsimile for ten thousand HDMs. If not, how about a hundred thousand? How about a percentile stake in the business? Undoubtedly, the driving force of greed and ambition would take Humanity to new heights once more.
Suddenly, the dream of owning a commercial, continent-spanning communication network didn't seem so distant after all.
"… The Bloom said that as the Elementals are our direst threat," Sanari, unable to fathom the strange excitement on her face, decided to continue delivering the Lady in White's sentiments. "You may ask her for advice. The Steppes is also a part of the Accord, and the preservation of the Centaurs natives is central to the region's stability."
"Centaurs have Cores." Gwen pointed out.
"They have habited the region far longer than your kind has possessed written language." Sanari pointed in turn. "Lady Solana says you mustn't take Lord Eldrin's approach of the Accord too seriously. In her eyes, the nurturing of life is far more important than the taking of it."
Gwen pursed her lips to stop herself from unveiling a sardonic smile.
Solana, the good cop. Eldrin, the bad cop. One white, one bl— Gwen quickly derailed that train of thought. The point was, had she been a "real" young woman with only a few years of adulthood nursing her brain, she might have exhaled with relief and believed Sanari's innocent and somewhat vacant eyes.
"Her magnanimity has put me to shame," Gwen said. "I understand. Is that all?"
"Yes, that is all."
"Then one more thing," Gwen reiterated. "The seeds are a personal favour Solana is gifting to the Centaurs, and the Elias Leaf is free of charge. The use of either will not accidentally land me in the Accord, correct?"
"Correct." Sanari appeared insulted by her insinuation.
"Alrighty then." Gwen dared not demand that she needed Solana's word. To do so would harm her social capital. By that same measure, asking Sanari to give hers would serve no purpose other than making the situation more awkward.
"Shall I see you out?" Sanari appeared relieved by her willingness to leave.
Gwen looked around the balcony, then at the splendiferous view of the deadly Planes.
She looked toward the tree's apex and decided to express her gratitude. "Thank you, Lady Solana. I very much appreciate what I've learned during my visit, and I'll make VERY GOOD use of your boons, I promise. And of course, I'll take care of the Centaurs."
There was no answer to her farewell, or if there was, it was only the susurration of the World Tree, yawning gently toward a radiant Plane of eternal light.
The day before NYE, at a carefree luncheon with Lady Grey at Peterhouse, Gwen received a Message from Meister Bekker to be on her way. The disruption was very business-like, signalling that her student days of drinking and flying wherever she pleased, whenever she wanted, were likely at an end.
According to Jean-Paul, the situation in the Golden Pavilion was rapidly developing, and that the Nayzağay Qanī was on the move to meet the Elementals in the region. The Meister and her Flights were to reinforce the Magisters working at Kaplankyr effective immediately, meaning Gwen had the option of travelling with them or travelling alone to find them.
The latter was unacceptable, as not only was the danger excessive, the Meister was counting on her Divi-Orb to guide them hastily toward the Golden Pavilion.
Immediately, Gwen Messaged Walken, who had completed the inventory with immediacy. As for her new battle suit, Yossari regretfully conceded that Gwen's variant would likely arrive weeks later, at which point she should be planning for Elvia's arrival. The Cleric and her knight could, therefore, take delivery of all their items.
"Milady, what's Ollie doing these days?" A nervous administrator's sweaty face flashed through Gwen's mind as she bid the Marchioness happy holidays.
"He's enjoying his promotion, though he's gone home for the holidays." Lady Grey's smile was all-knowing. "Shall I call upon him? I am sure he'll be useful even in the Steppes, assuming you can find a use for him. That said, you're an assistant administrator, a student under Meister Bekker. To have Ollie as your assistant would put him in an awkward position, don't you think?"
"… Yeah-Nah," Gwen affirmed the Lady's wisdom. "Ollie needs a break."
"That he does." The Lady's eyes were kind and pure, not at all bloodshot with sadism as Gwen's appeared. "He's an earnest boy, but he worries too much."
"Well, then." Gwen invoked her Flight Spell without the need for somatic nor verbal components. "I'll return with the good news."
"I am sure you will, dear." Lady Grey toasted her with a cup of gently steaming Earl Grey. "Venture forth, sweet sorceress. Deliver unto the Orientals the best of our majesty and mercy, but if need be, spare not the rod of the Mageocracy!"