Of all the coursework Gwen had undergone during her Magisters' training, the one topic she had never thought to put into practice was city planning.
It wasn't that she was disinterested— only that she couldn't have imagined a situation where she alone had to make the educated guesses for how sanitation could be maintained while living space was maximised.
When Kokochu had said the fort wasn't enough for the rats, the Centaur had a point— the existing infrastructure held two thousand rats at best, while the remaining six thousand were scattered as though she had sown seeds in a wide arc.
To fit her whiskered people, what she needed was aid from the Dwarves, though the possibility of importing talent was close to zero. Curiously though, Strun had mentioned that there were entrances to the Murk hereabouts and that white-skinned fiends inhabited the gloom. Moreover, as Aberrants seldom ranged far from Dwarven settlements, she strongly suspected there should be an isolated Citadel somewhere below the low hills to the east and south of the Sawahi.
If she could get the rats to build their cities underground as warrens and bunkers, it would absolve most imperilments from the Horse Lords, the Harpies, and at least three out of the four principal Elementals.
Then, with basic safety absolved, the Rat-kin could engage in primary produce and commerce, both necessary to attain self-sufficiency.
After that, the existing twelve Clans under her command could then take time to absorb the other tribes. According to Bekker, after the campaign, win or lose, there would be a period of equilibrium where both sides would need to recover. In that lull, she would have the Rat-kin repopulate the Eastern Steppes and treescape the landscape to halt the desertification. Assuming she was right, even the Hvítálfar could be roped into providing support, for Sanari did infer that biodiversity was central to maintaining the stability of the Prime Material.
Hers was a viable, longitudinal plan, though, for the Rat-kin, it would be a challenging and blood-strewn Path for whom sacrifices would be unending, both before and after the fact.
For now, all she could do was provide her rats with as many advantages as she was capable of giving.
At first light, she had commanded Caliban to dive into the billabong to check its depth. Delightfully, the famed aquifer under the oasis was deep indeed, meaning there would be no shortage of fresh water for the Rat-kin, at least until she could import Elemental Water Generators and Filtration Engines to nix that particular problem in the bud.
After that, so long as the rats could trade for enough HDMS to power and service the generators, they should have few issues withdrawing water for agriculture. Once the conflict stabilised, she would have to tinker with the economy in the region until profitability was reached— though that was a problem for the future.
And for that— Gwen's hand wandered to the Druidic Satchel and its Llais Leaf. Unless she completely misread Sanari, the seeds should provide the food she needed to sustain her plan for the Rat-kin. Simultaneously, the concurrence that made her wary was how much the Bloom in White had foreseen, and if she was playing right into the hands of some multi-dimensional "Accord" the Hvítálfar were laying out.
"Strun," she called out via her Empathic Link. As a Soul Slave, the Rat-kin heeded her command, with her will diminished only by distance. The range was significant, for her link with Gracie only waned to the point of emotional ripples after the Teleportation Circle to Eastern Europe. Whatever the case, the nefarious sorcery maintained that a Master could induce suffering regardless of distance and that if Gwen's soul were to perish, all of her Soul Slaves would suffer the backlash, heedless of time and place. "Get Garp to follow the lines Ariel marked out; keep an eye on the labourer teams. I want those aqueducts completed as soon as possible!"
"YES! PRIESTESS!" came the earnest reply. "Your will be done!"
Elvia Lindholm and her trio of Knights arrived at Shalkar at noon.
More so than in Ireland, when she healed the Ordo's Knights in their running retreat against Balor's Wyld Hunt, her chest ached, and her head felt woozy.
She had always suspected that Gwen would grow unscrupulous under the guidance of the Nobles of London. Even her Rectrix had spoken of her peers in disdain, issuing regular warnings for the members of the Ordo to remain vigilant against the temptations of wealth and power. The ORDO— her Rectrix had declared, were the POOR soldiers of the Nazarene. What power and wealth the Ordo gathered was only for its missions and not for personal profit, and should any member feel otherwise; they were free to pursue the Path of secular authority.
Thankfully, Elvia and her party did not arrive at the site of a tremendous Necromantic Ritual.
But that didn't mean Elvia felt any less troubled. After watching the activity in the distance, Elvia began to understand why Walken had been so anxious about what Gwen would get up to if left unchecked.
"Lindholm, is that a Mandala?" Chaplain Hawkford inquired after his knowledge of Necromantic Rituals failed to satisfy his suspicions. "A Transmutation circle, perhaps, within which she could convert all life to Un-life?"
"I don't believe so, Lord Chaplain."
"Elvia's right. It doesn't look magical to me." Smallwater gave his two cents. "That's a lot of rats though, make them Skeletons, and this may as well be a tomb city in Asyut… Rothwell, what's your take on that thing digging the canals?"
"Though I am unlearned," Mathias said his bit of nothing. "I do believe that's a Sand Wyrm, Sir."
"I thought they're wild and uncontrollable?" Elvia noticed the Inquisitor watching her. That there's a tame Sand Wyrm was indeed a strange phenomenon, though one right up Gwen's ally.
"Gwen often charms Magical Fauna," Elvia offered what she knew to be an unsatisfying explanation.
"Magus Song had a moniker during the IIUC," Mathias suddenly reminded them of something profound. "They called her the Worm Handler, Sir."
"A Wyrm Handler? What arrogance."
Elvia felt her chest constrict, fighting to contain her despair over the misunderstanding. "I believe that's what they call a double entendre, Sir— during the broadcasts, Gwennie was exceptionally popular among the male members of the audience. That and her Familiar, Caliban, possessed means to penetrate its foes with its tongues, which are concurrently tentacles, with teeth."
Inquisitor Hawkford's expression was that of a man demanding to know if his juniors were fucking with him.
"It's true, Sir Hawkford." Mathias backed her up.
"That's her flying over yonder?"
"Correct, Sir," Elvia said.
"And underneath, that's a Rat-kin, riding on the Sand Wyrm, steering it with what looks like ropes tied to either side of its head."
"Indeed, Lord Chaplain." Elvia nodded. "I hope Wyrm husbandry isn't heretical."
"It's not an Undead Wyrm, and there's nothing in the manual against taming worms." The Senior Protector shrugged, grinning. "We should probably applaud Magus Song for bringing a Sand Wyrm into the Mageocracy's fold."
"What do you make of the Mandala she's drawing then?" Elvia watched her Chaplain squint. Her brain throbbed in sympathy for the Lord Commander, a man so used to solving problems with hammers that anything sticking out looked like nails.
She did sympathise, however— why would an Inquisitor follow a trail of heretical sorcery only to arrive at landscaping?
"I do believe, Inquisitor—" Elvia had recognised the "strange pattern" at once. For one who knew little about Superstructural Mandalas used to Conjure the Undead, it was self-apparent what Gwen intended to build. "The 'Mandala', Sir, is what folk in the secular world would call Urban Planning."
The quiet that followed was thankfully interrupted by their Senior Knight Protector. "Well, Kent? Shall we meet our sorceress? I am burning with curiosity."
"I am sure Gwen would be happy to see us." Elvia did not doubt that the moment Gwen saw her, all decorum would go out the Tower, and her friend's affections would come on as thick as molasses, especially considering she's had no one but rats to talk to for the last week. If she took advantage of Gwen's rudeness— then she could warn her of the pitfalls to come.
The foursome drifted forward, picking up speed until they were close enough to be heard with a Clarion Call.
"EVEEEEEEEE—" The sound of booming thunder rolled across the heavens as the meteoric acceleration of Gwen's infamously obnoxious Flight fulminated.
In the next moment, the lithe-silhouetted sorceress Dimension Doored in-between them with both arms open, enveloping Elvia before she could introduce her companions.
"YE GODS— THE HUMAN TOUCH—" Elvia became buried against the protrusions in Gwen's rubbery armour. The eruption of affection had come so suddenly and with such force that her cheeks flared a bright crimson.
"Gwennmmgnnn— these are—"
Hugging her tight, the sorceress took Elvia for a twirl before finally letting go.
"— My seniors, Lord Inquisitor Kent Crawford and Sir Thomas Smallwater, both of the Ordo."
Gwen greeted the two by shaking their hands.
"We've heard many good things about you, Magus Song." Sir Hawkford's eyes fell upon her friend. "But first, we are here to help. Elvia says that you had requested immediate aid."
"Thank you, Lord Chaplain, though I fear there is no longer a need. I have rectified most of my problems for now," Gwen said. "Though at the cost of almost two thousand lives…"
"Gwennie, if those are the Demi-humans you saved, then this is an incredible feat!" Elvia butted in, just in case Gwen meant she spent two thousand lives. Having worked with refugees in Northern Ireland and helped orchestrate evacuations in two separate campaigns, she knew precisely how impossible it was to organise a successful Exodus. "And you did it alone! You're always doing the impossible."
"Nothing's impossible with enough HDMs and prep." Gwen flashed a hand with no less than FOUR shimmering bands, three of which were Rings of Storage. "The ordeal's cost me a few crates, but the main thing is we made it."
"Well, Mattie and I are here to help," Elvia said quickly. "Aren't we, Mathias?"
"I am at your service." Mathias made a mid-air bow. "I am truly grateful for the Spellsword, Magus Song. We've also brought the supplies you requested from Magister Walken, though I fear Evee's and your armour was not ready by the time we left."
Gwen handwaved Mathias' apology like a diner refusing complimentary bread. "No worries, Matt. Don't fret over a mere Spellsword— that's for you to protect Evee. If you want someone to thank, pay your respects to Nesatin Smeltshield. He decided to rush your order ahead of the ones commissioned by the Griffin Guards; I just asked."
"Surely there's something we can do?" Elvia surveyed the Rat-kin below, most of whom were now gazing up at the flying five. "Have you set up a Field Hospital? A triage shelter? I can sense a great illness, Gwennie— something evil is brewing inside these Demi-humans of yours."
"Ah, yes, about that—" Gwen placed a hand on either side of her hips. "Evee, I need your medical knowledge."
Elvia breathed out. Even if the infected were Demi-humans, healing the sick left a good impression on the Ordo, who often contended with races outside of Humanity, and whose mission of mercy did not usually suffer from racial prejudice. Gingerly, she touched a finger to the holy icon hanging by her neck. "Anything, Gwennie, just ask."
"Very well." Her friend nodded amicably at her Chaplain and Senior Protector. By now, both of her superiors had relaxed somewhat. "What do you fellers know about Blood Plagues? Or how to ferment Necromantic phages? I need a hand propagating the one I've got, and I need to make sure its virulence remains at full capacity."
Inquisitor Hawkford stiffened. To Elvia's eyes, the man appeared relieved that his suspicions were right after all.
Comparatively, Sir Smallwater seemed puzzled by Gwen's complete nonplus confession, for her tone was no different to a housewife wanting help with an outbreak of garden snails.
"… Right." Elvia felt her insides grow weak. To think things were going SO well! "Before we take this further, Gwennie, could we get a PRIVATE moment to rest and clean up? I am all icky from flying."
"Companion Lindholm," her Inquisitor interjected, likely to rebuke her audacious partisanship. "I don't believe—"
"Of course!" As usual, Gwen was in no mind to refuse her requests. "This might be the Wildlands, but that doesn't mean I need to be a terrible host. You must all be tired."
"We're fine." Inquisitor Hawkford once more attempted to intervene. "Can you tell us more about this—"
"Don't be a stranger." Gwen laughed without guile then beckoned that they follow. Elvia ignored her superiors and Mattie's alarmed expressions, following her friend like a kitten as she parted the Rat-kin tide like mouse-Moses parting the Rat Sea, revealing a path to a glimmering portal. "Come on, I've got the Portable Habitat set up with cold drinks and fresh fruit. Help yourselves."
"Em…" Before Elvia could protest, her seniors followed them into the portal, with Gwen permitting her companions' entry. Mathias hesitated but still entered the grey space with its three-bedroom bungalow, knowing that he may have to fight his superiors at her command.
Inside the familiar room, Gwen directed them to the kitchen and fridge. While every strand of hair on Elvia's flaxen head threatened rebellion, her friend played the perfect hostess by showing her the spacious bathroom and retrieving for her a fresh towel.
LORD NAZARENE— Elvia's inner voice cried, begging the almighty for the necessary strength to guide her through this ordeal.
Just as Gwen was about to leave to charm her Chaplain and his Knight, she reached out with a trembling hand and grabbed her companion by the wrist. Gwen tugged at her arm to no avail as Elvia had applied her Draconic strength.
Gwen looked down, a little surprised. "Yes, Evee?"
"Let's…" Elvia gulped. She could feel her Draconic Essence reacting against the viridescent counter force flowing in Gwen's body. "Let's…"
"Go to the bathroom together..."
Gwen let loose a snort just as her cheeks took on the same beetroot colour as Elvia's. Going together to the bathroom wasn't uncommon back in high school, but since Blackwattle, the same occurrence had not happened again.
Behind her, she could feel Mathia's mana go haywire while her Chaplain and Sir Smallwater both stood from their seats.
Gwen's eyes flittered between the men and herself, then an understanding that could not be more mistaken dawned. "Right. Of course, Evee. I missed you dearly as well. Sorry, gents, please give us girls a moment to freshen up."
Then, in mockery of her smouldering nerves and cramping insides, Gwen gave her superiors a wink, as if to challenge whatever opinions they might have on two ladies sharing a moment, then allowed Elvia to take her away.
The door shut.
Elvia's mind raced. Would her superiors use the Eye of Providence? Or the Word of Revelation? She knew of only one way to ensure neither Sir Crawford nor Smallwater would attempt such a thing.
"Goodness!" she shouted at the door. "Gwennie! You've gotten so much more beautiful! What a figure you have."
Her surprised friend grew so scarlet she could have acquired a new moniker to rival Alesia. "Evee, I know we haven't seen each other for a few days, but wasn't our agreement that we would take a more natural course? Time, you know? Like we discussed?"
Elvia walked straight to the bath and turned on both the shower tap and the bath's spigot. She then turned to her friend with a look of complete seriousness.
"Gwennie, we need to talk. It's about the fellers outside." Knowing that time is of the Essence, Elvia incanted the keyword to undo her magical smock. Instantly, her garments loosened, transforming from a body-hugging combat robe into a loose cloak. Then, with a simple wave, she stowed her holy vestments into her Storage Ring. "They won't look— or listen— if it isn't— chaste. Not on mere suspicion."
"Right." This time, Gwen read her intentions. She unfastened several zips, then stepped out of her combat armour like she was peeling off a layer of skin.
"GOOD GOD—" This time, Elvia did not need to fake her emotional outpouring for the men outside. Though her friend's body remained hale, she could see the remnants of bruises both large and small where various body-boosting contingencies had forcibly knitted otherwise dire injuries. Observing the combat armour's inside-out shell, Elvia could see that its protective membranes had been shattered and that the twisted strands of magical fibre were rusty with what could only be dried blood. There was an odour as well, something between rust and the twain that unique to Negative Mana used to empower Necromancy, that spoke plainly of what Gwen had done to survive the past few nights.
"I know, I know—" Gwen escaped into the shower, then covered the door to affect some privacy. Once her other bleeding garments hung on the door, she stepped into the water, momentarily turning the tiled floor ochre. "I wanted to take a shower before you came, but it's been one thing after another."
Elvia fought the repression in her chest; holding the Tri-Crown icon hanging between her bosoms, she prayed for her friend with all her heart. "Heal thy faithful, Lord, and I will be healed— Blessed Aid!"
The white-tiled bathroom glowed golden for a brief moment.
Gwen let loose an audible moan like she was stepping out of four-inch heels after a long day working retail. "Christ, Evee, you're getting GOOD at this Faith business. I take it the chapel at the Isle of Dog is picking up believers by the container load?"
"Yeah…" Elvia herself sat on the toilet seat, confident that Mathias would duel the Inquisitor should they use Scry or Clairvoyance in a situation like this.
"What did you want to tell me?" Gwen's voice blossomed beside her ear. They were out of sight of one another but not out of Divination range.
"Gwennie, did you employ unorthodox magic to save the Rat-kin?" Elvia chose to cut straight to the chase. "The entire way here, we've been picking up traces of Soul Sorcery and Necromancy, among other kinds of... unscrupulous magics."
"Ah—" Gwen's tone, for some reason, sounded relaxed. "Yes, I've been using whatever means necessary to get my rats to Shalkar. Why? Is there a problem? The Tower has sanctioned everything."
"But not sanctioned for unsupervised usage..."
"Outside of London? The unspoken rule is don't ask, don't tell," Gwen's reply was atypical of the secular powers.
"Are the rules of the earthly world so… flexible?"
"Absolutely. It's the bloody wild west out here, Evee." Gwen made a face that imitated Dede. "Tell you the truth— I've been holding back. The Tower's opinion, which is also Brown's and Bekker's advice, was that I should use whatever I deem necessary at every opportunity. Practice makes perfect, or so the adage goes..."
The feeling of repression in Elvia's chest did not change. "Oh, Gwennie, you worry me so. What did you want with the Necromantic phage?"
"It's a long story, longer than a shower at least," Gwen joked at her expense. She then elaborated on the situation of her Rat-kin, victims of the Plaguemancers from Spectre.
"Spectre!" Elvia felt for a moment that the steam had become ice. "That's who Sir Hawkford and Smallwater are hunting."
"Damn righteous," Gwen said. "I'll talk to them. Get them to help."
"But... your 'magic'… I don't know how my superiors would react." Seeing that her friend felt no fear, Elvia self-medicated with a silent jolt of Calm Emotions, soothing her frayed nerves.
"They won't be a problem unless they desire to be." Her friend's eerie confidence was more worrying than her Necromancy. "Look, Evee, I know you're worried, but give me a chance to explain it in front of your peers. Trust me, the higher up they are, the more likely they'll agree with me."
Elvia couldn't help but feel that maybe her friend didn't understand just how high the matter could escalate. If Inquisitor Hawkford saw something he deemed excessive— not even the Tower could contest his accusation. Of course, the powers behind her could then free her, but the procedure would be lengthy and costly.
What Elvia feared then wasn't the consequence of Gwen's Necromancy-lite, but the fallout if she and her Chaplain came to blows. While Gwen's battle potential was there for all to see, Faith Magic did possess an edge over Spellcraft in the distinct manner of its manifestation, something regular IMS users could not begin to fathom. When gathered in the hands of someone at the tier of Sir Hawkford, it would take Gwen's Brother-in-craft, Gunther Shultz, to squeeze out a concession from the Fomorian-crushing Knight Commander.
"Evee—" Her friend addressed her silence. "We take any longer in here, and they'll be reporting you for something else. Look— don't worry about the Ordo, alright? I got it covered. Lady Loftus gave me a very long and detailed rundown, and though I can't say too much, let's say The Order of the Bath and I are natural chums, okay? Your Knight and this Inquisitor are going to LOVE me."
When her friend finally stepped from the shower, Elvia studied the synthetic orchid adorning the sink, hating the fact that she was in no mood for titillating encounters.
Gwen quickly dried herself with an Incantation Cube, donned her intimates, then slipped on something entirely inappropriate for meeting with clergy. True to her word, her companion wasn't troubled.
But could men like Sir Hawkford be moved so easily?
Comely and charismatic her counterpart might be, Elvia did not doubt that the Inquisitor had a mind like tempered iron and was immune to glamour, both magical and otherwise.
"See you outside, Evee." her companion exited with a rush of cold air. "And thanks for the heads up. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't have even considered wrangling the Order of the Bath. When Shalkar gets going, you're getting credit, too."
Gwen felt disappointed that the Knights did not liquor up with her Dwarven lagers, although they did help themselves to the platter of fresh fruit she had laid out.
Now freed of her bloodsoaked battlesuit, Gwen was feeling very pleased indeed. Not just because she and Elvia healed a little as a result of her Senior Knights, but also because she hadn't gotten this close to Evee since Sydney, since before things had gone strange and their relationship grew more tangents than an Aberrant had limbs. The naive fluster that Evee had shown— she loved that side of Elvia, especially her good-natured innocence and her well-meaning little acts of self-sacrifice. No doubt, if this Sir Hawkford did indeed have beef with her, then Evee by now would have left little doubt in the man's mind that his doll-eyed acolyte wasn't an obedient sister but a naughty, wilful minx.
For what's to come— an unexpected setup she had Elvia to thank— she wanted the Inquisitor on her side, which meant the Ordo would act as one of her Lightning Rods. If she could manage that, then another obstacle to the Rat-kin's newfound freedom would be exchanged for a support pillar.
After pausing at the doorway so her audience could take a good long gander, Gwen arrived in the midst of three stiffy silent Knights whose eyes couldn't believe what they were seeing.
Indeed, no Necromancer should look so vital.
Gwen didn't know what Soul Flayers looked like in casual, though she suspected heavy mascara, skinny jeans, and tour shirts for Cannibal Corpse might feature. Comparatively, her chosen battle outfit was white-on-white, a demure mini dress with a square window to show off her collarbones, completed by a teasing hem hidden by sheer chiffon. With her hair just dried and trailing the scent of floral shampoo, she thanked the men, then sat on the tub chair directly facing them, thighs crossed, feet bare, her dainty toenails red as rubies.
Mathias stood with his body against the tall back of the chair left empty for Elvia, his eyes finding scripture in the ceiling.
Sir Smallwater sat hunched forward with an appreciative grin, ready to participate in whatever game she invited them to play.
Chaplain Hawkford's gaze remained focused on her eyes. The man's expression was unflappable, though Gwen could sense his uneasiness. Taking a sip from his cup to mask the awkwardness, the Inquisitor finally allowed his gaze to wander, then sighed like a tired Pastor.
"Shall we wait for Companion Lindholm?"
Gwen agreed, then made small talk about London's high society.
A few minutes later, Elvia emerged fully clothed in her battle smock, which is to say white tunic and pants, with the tri-crown logo of the order imprinted on either rigid shoulder. Against her bosom, a holy symbol dangled, diffusing a golden glow that matched the fairness of her flaxen hair.
The Evee of now was also lovely, Gwen thought. Gone was the cluelessness of youth. Now her friend appeared efficacious and thoughtful, though a little tired.
Elvia's Inquisitor-Chaplain was the first to speak.
"Novitiate Lindholm, for reasons you very well know, may I request that you observe a momentary vow of silence?" Hawkford opened without diplomacy. While the man spoke, Gwen noticed his irises glowed as though haloed by the golden hour. "Magus Song, may I ask you a few sensitive questions? Know that my enquiry is for both your benefit, as well as that of our future Knight Companion."
"Of course." Gwen cocked her chin, then twirled a bit of hair about her collar bones. The more unbalanced her audience became, the better the latter impact of her words.
"What sorcery did you use on your Rat-kin to enable their passage from Nukus?"
"Potions, Potions, Potions, and Death March," she answered without pause.
"Death March?" The Inquisitor made a note with a raised brow. "Same as what the Centaurs use?"
"It's a unique variant. We've replaced the Green-skin Essence Sympathy segment with scripts intended for Soul Necromancy originally pioneered during the Great War. The baseline Sigil's Glyphs parallel the original. However, the hybrid Sigil scripts are my Master's invention and are known only to myself and a few select Cambridge Faculty members. A record is available for those with the right clearance."
Her candidness caught the Inquisitor by surprise, for the man had to take a few seconds to digest the fact before continuing.
"We also detected another kind of Soul Sorcery, a kind that has seen questionable applications when used in the South American Wildlands. Is that also by your will?"
"Soul Tap, yes," her candidness continued. "Very useful when you need the dirty truth in a hurry. I've been using this opportunity to test its elasticity and limitations. In the forefront of academia, Sir Hawkford, entire generations of Void Mages' livelihoods now hinge on my proficiency. If successfully paired with Sympathetic Life-Link— that's the other Blood Thaumaturgy you'll be accusing me of, we can stabilise the vital decay stemming from volatile Negative Awakenings. It's all very miraculous."
"You do not appear at all troubled by your descent into Necromancy, Magus Song." The Inquisitor's brows knitted. "I would venture to say that you seem proud of it."
"Should I not be?" Gwen looked to Elvia, smugly smiled, then looked back at the Inquisitor. "I was born in a backwater Frontier, but now I am the Devourer of Shenyang, the Liberator of Kachin, MVP of the IIUC, architect of the Tonglv Canal and the Isle of Dogs, co-Pioneer of common Void Sorcery, Ambassador to Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth and fellow to the Tree of Tryfan. At present, I am here for my Magister's training, testing myself by liberating the Rat-kin and to bring a new balance to the Steppes. Did you think I achieved these accomplishments by studying Spell Books at the local library? Where would the Ordo be if its members lack the same conviction and ambition?"
Gwen studied the Chaplain while her accumulative titles tightened the Inquisitor's lips little by little like a tiny ratchet.
"Hubris," the Inquisitor retorted. "... is a treacherous sin even for one so young, no matter the value you may bring."
"You didn't answer my question," Gwen replied with another beaming smile, shifting in her seat so that Mathias found renewed interest in the spotless ceiling.
"No matter, you have answered mine."
"Do I satisfy?" Gwen gestured to herself.
Hawkford's brows knitted.
"Tell me, Inquisitor." Gwen decided she would move on. "Who does the Ordo serve?"
"The Nazarene, for us whose blessed feet were nailed to the bitter cross."
"Indeed." Gwen made the sign of the cross. "For he is the way, and the truth, and the life."
The Inquisitor's coolness cracked. "Magus Song, even for someone in your position, it is unwise to mock the Ordo."
"Lord Commander Hawkford." She leaned forward aggressively so that a portion of her hair fell across her bare shoulders. "I meant no disrespect. Rather, I am frustrated. Did you know that almost nine days ago— yours truly happened to a group of hapless Rat-kin living as slaves without dignity or means of escaping drudgery, enslaved by pagans who worship the old ways? Touched by their suffering, I took their sick and dying and displaced them from becoming hamburger mince under the Centaur's iron hooves, then trekked across a desert filled with wolves, Harpies, Sand Wyrms, and Moses knows what else. I then fed them out of pocket and charity until we reached the promised land of their oasis, only to be shat on by the bloody Khan. As a learned Cleric of the almighty and all-merciful, are you seriously going to dismiss the parallels?"
"I see it," the Inquisitor replied with ambivalence. "You have done an admirable thing, Magus Song, but—"
"Inquisitor! By Him that raised me to this careful height, I have done nought that would go against my God-given conscience!" Gwen carefully raised the frustration in her voice. "Dear Chaplain, you do me shameful injury when you presume my vileness, know you not that the all-knowing watches us, even here in this Pocket Plane?"
"I shall not contest that." Hawkford appeared entered by her flurry of accusations. "Magus Song, I am not here to judge your merits—"
"JUDGE?! If the temple burning Mongols—" Gwen parried the Knight's counter, taking a mile when gifted an inch. "— have not been smitten by Him, then why should the all-knowing damn ME, who sought to save the meek? Blessed are the Meek, Chaplain! You all knew of the Rat-kin's plight! Yet no one helped them but me— a meek woman who knew nothing of their suffering! Yet lo! Here we are, dearest Inquisitor! Their salvation is at hand! Will you damn them? Who can say this isn't providence? YOU? Be you so mighty that you alone speak for the Lord of Lords?"
Gwen watched as Mathias hung his head. Besides the Knight of St Michael, Patron Saint of the Meek, Sir Smallwater shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
The Inquisitor raised both hands in protest.
"Magus Song… Your tongue is as wily as the thrice-damned serpent's." Hawkford spoke after a prolonged pause. "Yet, I cannot contest that you have spoken only the truth. Yes, we have taken little care of the troubles here. However, for the sake of our world and to prevent the tragedy that is the Great War, there must be discourse and consequence. Your Path isn't the first to cross ours, Gwen— and you won't be the last."
"Our path isn't crossed, Kent." Gwen fought back, her pupils aglow with supernatural confidence. "Nay, our Paths are parallel and supplementary, like the two rails of a track; one would falter without the other. For instance, Evee says that you are here for the Plaguemancers?"
"That is correct."
"Then you should know that the phage I am trying to preserve is the very one laid by your Plaguemancers. If you have means to track the plague, Kent, I'll give you all the aid and samples I can."
"Much obliged." Hawkford's eyes softened. "But why have you not eradicated the phage?"
"There was no need." Gwen moved on to the next phase of her subversion. "I need the phage to make a home for the Rat-kin and establish a haven. In the months to come, I will gather the scattered Rat-kin Clans of the Sawahi here."
"Your humble Rat-kin are immune to a Plaguemancer's crafted phage?" Hawkford raised both brows.
"In a manner of speaking, thanks to certain improvements on my part, most can endure the worst, with only the weakest and the lame succumbing to the fever. As for those who are newly infected, the phage often lies dormant."
"I hope this isn't yet another sanctioned heretical Thaumaturgy." Hawkford's judgemental eyes gleamed.
"No. Tis a virtue of Essence. Free-range and free of Necromancy," Gwen said. "As to how? That's Classified information. I urge you to petition London Tower if you wish to know more."
"This might be strange, Magus Song, but I find your total honesty... disturbing." Hawkford's truth-seeking glamour flickered as the man massaged one side of his temples. "I concede the point. Your disease is useful in what way?"
"It sends the Centaurs fleeing in every other direction," Gwen delivered her punchline. "I am keeping this gift from the Plaguemancers so that the Centaurs would stay away from Shalkar."
"And if they don't?" This time, it was Sir Smallwater who asked the question. "Horse Lords are very, very aggressive when it comes to territory."
"Then good luck to the Khan. A small force won't make a dent, not with Garp here. Conversely, a large and victorious Horde will return to Nukus laden with casualties and plague. It would be lose-lose."
"Of course, your tame Sand Wyrm." The Inquisitor grew contemplative. "And you… foresaw this?"
"Things happened." Gwen shrugged. "Life is full of ordeals."
"Magus Song, if you don't mind me playing the Devil's Advocate. What's the value in keeping Shalkar?" Sir Smallwater raised a hand, his tone now edging on respect. "And indeed, these bottom-feeding Demi-humans?"
"I plan to terraform the local area into an agricultural primary produce centre." Gwen felt relieved that she could finally draw her pie in the sky for the Ordo Knights. "Did you know that the Rat-kin were originally responsible for the spreading of crops and other plants that prevented the desertification of the Sawahi? The process is reversible, so long as we can keep the Horses away."
"You aim to establish plantations?" The Knight remained unconvinced. "What will you grow?"
Knowing the Knight would ask this very question, Gwen casually reached for a pouch resting on the side table, then retrieved a leaf pulsing with vitality.
"Good Lord." Sir Smallwater blinked rapidly. "Kent, she's got a—"
"I know." The Inquisitor motioned for Gwen to speak. "Gwen, are you party to that which cannot be named?"
Knowing that she had the men now dancing in the palm of her hands, Gwen smiled with teeth. "Maybe, are you, Kent? If so, we can speak more candidly."
"The Ordo is not, and never will be." The ex-Knight Commander shook his head. "Do your orders come from up on 'high'?"
"I shall not verify nor deny that fact." Gwen slipped a pair of fingers into the valve-like opening of the satchel to retrieve a few seeds for all to see. "Starling Tomatoes, Jade Cucumbers, Polar Beans and Sunburst Squash— and to quote my Druid Hierophant— 'These will thrive anywhere on the Prime Material, provided there's sun, soil and water.' Once we have a prolific supply of produce, precious food exports will bring a rapid expansion of the Rat-kin's domain. I don't know if you studied Planar Theory in the seminary, but when an eco-sphere recovers, the Prime Material's fabric will increasingly disfavour Planar invaders, limiting the growth of the Fire Sea, if not outright turning the Elementals into natives. If I succeed— and succeed I shall— then Humanity, the Mageocracy, and the Rat-kin will see wins on every front. AND the Centaurs will have abundant food to sustain their war against the Elementals."
To finish, Gwen willed a juicy apple to float from the fruit basket. Holding the fruit in the palm of her hand, she implored the Inquisitor by taking a bite out of the crisp flesh.
"Thereby, Sir Hawkford. Will you nip this sinner in the bud, or will you aid the meek, and in the process, bring long-lasting peace, prosperity and mercy to the Steppes?"
Opposite Gwen, Elvia's trio of Knights stared as though the Devourer in a short dress had suddenly sprouted horns and a tail.
"Oh, just one more thing." She had wanted to save her Ace-in-the-hole for a rainy day, but with Elvia here, she felt that the time was ripe for teaching her Evee just how tenable her position in the Ordo had become. "I say this with the utmost respect, Sir Hawkford, but after your victorious return to London, you should check in with your secular scribes as to why the Ordo's budget has been so generous."
Inquisitor Hawkford's eyes grew suddenly alarmed.
"Ah— I see you had a hand in the audit duties as well." Gwen passed the bitten apple to her off-hand. "To alleviate your suspicions, I shall confirm your worries. Battle's budget has indeed been generous of late, not only because the Lady of Ely had donated doubly handsomely, but because the Isle of Dogs also contributed. I shall say it here and now, Inquisitor Hawkford— I promise you, in my capacity as the Isle's CFO, that if the salvation of the Sawahi goes well, the Ordo's budget will increase to a degree equating the degree of our success."
"Ye Gods! May the Almighty have mercy on our souls..." Sir Smallwater made the sign of the cross with his Holy Symbol while facing her. "Damned succubus, tempt us not! Kent, what say you?"
"As always, we will do what's right." Inquisitor Hawkford disabled the Faith sorcery empowering his eyes, then pinched the bridge of his nose with a defeated sigh. "Magus Song speaks the truth— We are mere ministers of His grace, Thomas. Aiding the Meek remains a core duty of us Poor Soldiers."
Gwen happily stood from the couch, shook hands with her new conspirators, then sat beside Elvia with her arm around the Cleric's neck.
"What? How?" Her precious Evee appeared to be in pain after holding her promised silence. "If you could... Why did I even... ARRRGH—"
"Never mind that, Evee." Gwen rested her cheek on Elvia's head as she massaged the young woman's trembling shoulders. "Isn't it nice that God works in mysterious ways?"
The Western Steppes.
A mere hundred kilometres from the Fire Sea, the desert air burned even at dusk thanks to the planar tear, its breach of the Prime Material so violent as to be visibly distorting the landscape.
Dini Saran, Chief Shaman, Speaker for the Nayzağay Qani and its numberless Şöpter servants, sought shelter from the heat under the Glyphs laid down by the Human Mages aiding the Horde.
"Şöpters, leave me," she gave the command. Her followers obeyed without question, filing out of the cool tent and into the burning exterior to suffer the heat.
Saran touched a finger to her temple, allowing her consciousness to rang out, affirming that her Khan, Khudu, his other Orkoks and their allied Arcanists were resting from the midday victory against the Dao's Clay Golems.
Thus far, the campaign had progressed at an alarming pace— so exceedingly well that more than once, Saran had asked her Khan to halt his pursuit of the retreating Dao and Djinn for fear of needlessly losing their men to ambushes.
The Khan had given chase heedless of her advice— and against all expectation, emerged victorious with the help of the Human Meister Angela Bekker, besting the ambushes at every turn.
It was incredible, but Hyrcania, the old bastion of the Centaurs under Seljuk Khan some millennia ago, was once more theirs. Through the loss of only an Orkok's worth of Free Riders, they had pushed as far as it was physically possible to do so, leaving only the outer perimeter to cleanse and secure.
Now, Saran felt a horrible disquiet.
The Khitani Horde had bested the mirage-wielding Marids.
Beaten back the deceitful Djinns and even pushed back the magma-hearted Dao.
But where were the Efreeti Clan?
The Fire Sea— so-called because of the reigning authority of the prideful Princeling Zodiam, Son of Flames, that wanton, gluttonous bear of an Elemental, ancient bringer of firestorms and desolation, had amounted its defence sans its strongest soldiery— the infamous Brass Legion.
Their absence, Saran was sure, was the only reason for which Temir, so young and fearless in his courage, could penetrate this deep into the heart of the Fire Sea, a place where Elemental Fire ruled like a fierce tyrant over all other Elements.
Yet, in this promised of land flame and brimstone, where had its sulfur-breathing champions gone?
Again, Saran assured her privacy, then produced from her herb pouch a desiccated leaf. Promptly, she conjured mana and distilled Essence to the hand holding the leaf. The fibres hungrily absorbed what Saran made available, growing vibrant and plump as her figure appeared to wane in the aftermath like a wilted flower, her youthful face growing instantly old before beginning a slow recovery.
Saran had not wanted to use the Llias Leaf, certainly not because of an unexpectedly decisive victory.
Holding the leaf with both hands, she transmuted her thoughts and fears into the sympathetic fibres of the living leaf, calling upon one who had guided her since the time of Temir's grandsire.
"… Saran?" a thought came, borne on the hot winds blowing from the portal.
"… O Eternal Bloom." Saran infused her thoughts with the leaf. "I require your boundless wisdom."
"… An unexpected request from one so capable, but we will oblige. What ails you, child? Have the Elementals proven more powerful than the Council anticipated?"
"The opposite, your worshipfulness. We are at Hyrcania, our losses are acceptable, and morale remains high. We have pushed the Elementals far, but there has been no sight of Prince Zodiam, nor his brass-bound molten legions."
"… Most peculiar. How many Free Riders did you lose? Who did you face?"
"We have slain a little over a thousand of the Elemental Folk, including six Primarches of Earth, Water and Air. Our losses number just over ten thousand, though we will lose more to the Blood Fever when we return. I am sorry to report that the Elementals have allied with Human Necromancers to spread disease and famine."
"Without other nations to raid, the Sawahi struggles to sustain the Horde's appetites, O Eternal Bloom. After the war, there will be many winters of long attrition. Though we have many Elemental Cores to trade, I know as well as your sagely self that the Mageocracy will not make good on its promises."
"… Saran." To Saran's shock-horror, the all-knowing voice of her ageless sage sounded hesitant. "Has a visitor not appeared, bearing a Druidic seed-satchel by her side?"
"I…" Saran's thoughts flashed over the entourage of Human Mages. She had worked hand-in-hand with every Mage for the last ten days and recalled seeing no one with a Druidic satchel. "… I do not know, O Eternal Bloom. Please instruct this ignorant one."
"… Have you not seen a Void-wielding sorceress?" the voice grew solemn.
"I have, though the sorceress is far from the field, in Shalkar. We had expected to call upon her Creature— though now it would appear there is no need."
"… Why is she not with her companions? With the Khan? She has a way with words..."
"… The girl wished to spare several Clans of diseased Tasmüyiz. When her senior sorcerers humoured her wilfulness, the Khan thought it harmless to send her away and to teach her a lesson in futility so that we are in a better position to negotiate with the Mageocracy after the campaign."
The silence that followed was like whispering silk.
"O Eternal One." Despite the coolness of her yurt's interior, Saran's furry skin broke out in a terrific outbreak of oozy sweat, making the sheer fabric of her robes adhere like a second skin. "Has this one erred?"
"For our ultimate purpose…" the voice that came through possessed an uncanny tone Saran could not read. "You may have achieved a better outcome than any other member of the Accord had achieved in years."
"I thank thee, O—"
"… Though for your people," the voice continued. "Who may know?"
"Eternal Bloom?" Saran's fingers shook. "Should this one retrieve the Void sorceress from Shalkar?"
"I shall leave matters to you," the voice in her head said. "Fret not, Saran. While change itself may be unpleasant, that which endures must be endured, else boon will turn to bane, and the Khitani will join their ancestors in history."
"Please teach your fool." Saran prostrated while holding the leaf, the golden bell of her horns lowering until they touched the carpeted floor. "Guide this one as you always have..."
Saran prayed to the tree in the north.
She prayed to her ancestors, then prayed to the spirit of Great Gengis.
Unfortunately, no further elucidation came to Dini Saran, Chief Shaman of the Khitani Nayzağay Qani.
In the Llias Leaf's silence of thought, there blew only the scalding winds from the Fire Sea, driving the dunes eastward, eternally expanding the Sawahi.