The Llias Leaf vibrated like an eco-friendly Nokia 3310.
Gwen couldn't speak for the device's ergonomic usability, but its "signal" was certainly without fault, for even in the depth of the Murk, travelling in a tunnel dug by a Shingleback Wyrm, it worked.
"Vessel of the Old Ones." Solana's voice, or more accurately, The Bloom in White's thoughts, invaded her mind via some intangible form of Elven witchcraft. "How may Tryfan be of aid?"
"I have something to report," Gwen said. "Something so terrible I am going to struggle to put it into words, so you'll have to bear with me."
"Ah—" Solana's patience, transmitted as a mote of vitality from the Llias Leaf in conjunction with her words, felt both warm and infinite. "We have received word on the troubling winds blowing your way, Magus Song. Know that Tryfan's generosity not only extends to you but to those you wish to speak for as well. If I may ask, how fares the Rat-kin of the Steppes?"
"The Rat-kin?" Gwen furrowed her brows. To care about the rats now sounded a bit hypocritical, for when had the Elves in the High Tower ever cared about the Tasmüyizs' long-drawn suffering?
"Are they fed? Have our seeds bloomed yet? The Essence of the Great Tree that has blessed our life-giving grain ensure that for several cycles, that which germinates will provide sustenance for the mortal races."
There it is! Gwen welcomed the relieving hit of endorphins. If she weren't in such a dour mood, she would have punched the air for guessing the objective of The Bloom in White's creeping tendrils. The Elves must have known that she would need food for the Steppes— if so, were the Rat-kin a part of their plan?
"Oh, er… I haven't checked on the seeds yet." On the other hand, Gwen felt a stress-inducing suspicion that when she would returns to Shalkar in the evening of the new day, there might be some plus-sized and unanticipated surprises waiting for her. Hopefully, the beans would not have overgrown to the point where they're eating her rats, rather than the other way around. "That said, Solana, I am not here to talk about the Rat-kin."
There was a pause and a feeling of curiosity. "I see. What else can Tryfan do for the student of Kilroy?"
"For now, you can listen." Gwen took a deep breath, then began to transmit her latent emotions. "To build the rats a home, I thought I would go and find some Dwarves. One of my scouts reported witnessing Aberrant activity in the Murk nearby, so I took my Sand Wyrm—"
"Your Sand Wyrm? Do you mean Caliban?" Solana's transmission grew in intensity.
"Naw, Garp's new. He's one of those Afaa al-Halak. Look, that's not important. I rode the Wyrm—"
"You rode a primal—"
"—AND we dug our way through the Murk until we hit a Dwarven tunnel of some kind. It was covered in runic scripts, though I think the Runes were dormant. The interior was enormous, taller and wider than any of the tunnels I saw in Eth Rjoth Kjangoth."
There was a pause.
"How fortunate. You have likely found a section of what the Dökkálfar call the Dyar Morkk, the Low-ways," Solana sounded impressed. "Disconnected they have been for thirty season-cycles at least, but sections of it still function under the great land masses unbroken by the Elemental of Mud and Water."
So THAT's the Dyar Morkk? Gwen made a mental note. Isn't that what London's trying to unearth in their alliance with Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth? Before she left, Ravenport and the Grey Faction were all gung ho for trying to find new ways of moving cargo and troops throughout England and the greater Commonwealth of her majesty's "Ex-Colonies".
"Right, so we found indications of combat, what looks like Fire, Magma and Ash Elementals fighting against Hammer Guards of the Golem Legions. From the appearances of the burned-out corpses, the retreating defences stretched for about a kilometre, probably longer since we breached it near the middle— after which we were in there for an hour at least. When we got to the Citadel, it was a total shit show..."
The Llias Leaf, as a miraculous device Gwen wished to emulate for her future Legion project, transmitted not only thoughts but empathy as well. While Solana appeared capable of controlling what she projected, Gwen possessed no such option. Consequently, she poured her horror into the leaf without reserve, closing her eyes to best picture the holocaust of the Dwarven Citadel.
When she finally finished her descriptions and her suspicions of who might be responsible, the leaf-line on the other side of her box-and-cosmic-string magical telephone grew deathly silent.
"This is grave news—" the Bloom in White paused. The floral Hvítálfar's voice was calm, and through the leaf, Gwen perceived nought to suggest the Elf was shocked by what she saw. Nonetheless, the absence of all emotion was itself a glaring clue that Gwen took to mean the High Priestess of the Hvítálfar was thoroughly rattled. In the interim, Solana fell so silent that Gwen began to wonder if their signal had dropped. When she finally spoke, it was with a tone of finality. "We thank you for the news, dearest student of Master Kilroy. Do keep the leaf against your skin. I shall contact you once I've made the enquiries."
The pulse of life and Essence from Tryfan abruptly ceased. The artisanally inscribed Llias Leaf was once more a piece of mundane vegetation.
"So that's the Llias Leaf in action." Elvia's eyes landed on the emerald foliage. "Gwennie, I am confused. Inquisitor Hawkford said the leaves are only given to the Hvítálfar's prized agents, whose goal is to maintain the World Tree's hold on the Prime Material. But he also said you couldn't be a part of the Hvítálfar's ploys."
"Yeah-Nah." Gwen shook her head. "I am no Elven agent; we're just using each other, that's all. Not unlike me and Dickie."
"Richard?" Elvia looked relieved to change the subject from their earlier journey through the ashen hell. "He's such a dear, and he's so loyal to you."
"I mean Ravenport," Gwen remarked offhandedly, too distracted to change her thoughts and words. "The one with the Tower Ravens."
"To the secular world, Magus Song, he is Lord Mycroft Ravenport, Marshall of the Kingdom, Protector of Albion," Mathias corrected her. "The seminary teaches us that if one wishes to be respected, they should always speak of others with respect, even in private."
The Knight remained shaken from the sights in the Citadel, so Gwen forgave the young man's stiffness, likely equally anxious that he had to leave Elva for a few days to report on their findings to the expeditionary force in the south-west. Now and then, herself included, she found it hard to believe that they were only a few years out of Sydney. Juxtaposed against every other atrocity in her Path of Violent Reckoning, she had to remind herself that even folk like Mathias, who had seen war plenty, had no immunity against PTSD and not yet enough weathered to become completely jaded.
"Noted." Gwen patted Garp on its deck-sized bum, then scratched Strun about the ears to release the rats' pent up tension. "Will you be travelling forthwith, Mathias? Can you navigate in the dark?"
"I'll make a stop at Nukus, then follow the supply stations southward," the Knight proclaimed, a feat Gwen could not begin to manage without her Omni-orb. "Please keep Elvia safe."
"I will," Gwen promised. "Nothing will come close to harming her, I promise."
"Mattie, our quest was to help and protect Gwennie." Elvia slid an arm around Gwen's elbow to show her affirmation. "Besides, I've got Sen-sen and Kiki as well, and whatever happens, I can always heal myself."
Feeling a little peculiar about Elvia's superior physical prowesses, Gwen acknowledged the Cleric's confidence. How strange it was that if her sweet little Evee assaulted her and Mathias with any seriousness, she could likely concave their chest and shatter their bones.
Nodding, Mathias lifted into the air.
"Stay safe, Mathias." Gwen gave her benediction. "Tell Bekker the occurrent here, no more, no less."
"Come back soon!" Elvia did not appear particularly stricken with the idea of her companion of two years going for a stroll through a Black Zone.
The girls watched as the Knight in the polished armour glowed like a miniature sun, then blasted off into the distance as a Radiance-infused aurora.
"Well then." Gwen struck out a hand to invite her healer. "Shall we? Strun will drive Garp home. Meanwhile, we need to check on Stian and the fields."
"You've only just planted the seeds a day ago." Elvia pointed out an obvious fact. "Even with Sen-sen and your Essence, I don't think they'll be growing that fast."
"Yeah, er…" Gwen felt strangely thrilled now that their third wheel was gone, a welcome distraction to the horrors below. "I received some news that these were the giant beanstalk kind… and that er… they came imbued with swift-growth."
Elvia understood her meaning at once. "Oh dear, we better get back."
"Agreed. Ariel!" Gwen conjured her Kirin, then placed Elvia atop the purring Lightning Familiar. "Hold on, Evee. We're going to go fast!"
Mycroft Ravenport, Eighteenth Duke of Norfolk, Earl of Arundel and Surry, Lord Earl Marshall of England, just had a good day, a terrible occurrence for a man in his position.
"It's a rather quiet and relaxing evening, isn't it, Morrigan?" Mycroft couldn't help but tempt fate.
Morrigan, Ravenport's Keeper of the Kingdom's secrets, cocked her avian head with a "Caw!"
"Truly," the Duke said. "It's worrying."
At noon, Morrigan had laid out the reports for his review.
Foremost of the post-new-year news was that revenue was up on all accounts, both for the London Metropolitan region and the Grey Market under Morrigan's watchful obsidian eyes. The bulk of the city's unusual income stemmed from the stamp duty offerings from the properties sold within the metropolis, almost a quarter of which took place on the Isle of Dogs. From the number of digits in a single accounting line Morrigan had pecked out, the volume of HDMs flowing through that once rural node of London not under the control of either three Factions both made Ravenport exhilarated and made him anxious for the lost benefits to him and his allies.
Apart from the passive property taxes and sky rocking land prices, infrastructure expansion and thus overall employment of the city was also at an all-time high. For this boon, he had the Dwarves to thank, who, after a long negotiation and a longitudinal trade arrangement for barley, hop, fresh fruit and Mage Flights, offered two Fabricator Engines and its crew on lease. The Royal Arsenal Commission's Enchanters, as well, had taken the opportunity to section out vast swaths of Woolwich for the creation of joint-race Dwarven arms Manufactoriums.
Another source of unanticipated income was the booming construction north of the Isle of Dogs. There, the Barlow Group's full-throttled investment into Canary Wharf aimed to contest the development across the water, resulting in the rapid gentrification of Deptford. Consequently, unemployment for NoMs and low-tier Mages in the region neared one per cent as both sides scrambled to acquire labourers.
Naturally, there were conflicts aplenty as a result, mostly involving arm-wrestling between the LoD Redevelopment Project and the Barlow Group's attempt at cashing into the real estate surge. The girl's cousin, an amicable young man with a brilliant, pragmatic mind Ravenport had his eyes on, was leading the crusade against the thuggish, underhanded work of the Militant Faction.
It was a shame that the gifted one was the girl and not her cousin, for the young man had a mindset that meshed well with Mycrofts' expectations of competence.
The Grey Faction, thanks to the young man's tipoffs and Morigan's efforts, had amassed enough evidence on the Militants' ham-fisted greed to demote a half-dozen Marquises into Earls and Viscounts to commoners. While he wouldn't want to constrict the collar of the Mageocracy's hunting hounds directly, he and the Crown's mutual offices agreed that a stern reprimand, followed by a stark and hateful penalty, was best practice— one that additionally allowed him to repay the girl's favour.
For now, he allowed the boy to borrow the tiger's terror, hilariously wielding the Dwarves' presence like a hammer whenever the Barlow group sought to usurp a portion of the yet-undeveloped property by taking advantage of the ongoing political honeymoon period. Whenever the Redevelopment Project's construction met with sabotage, an angry Dwarven foreman would lead a team of Golems next door to protest with extreme prejudice, delaying the Barlow's construction by weeks. Within the last month, London's Metropolitan Arbitrators had been summoned so often to the Isle of Dogs that the Commissioner seriously began considering Magister Walken's proposal of discounted office space for a new HQ.
And on a Dwarven note, Morigan's reports showed that investigations by The Shard into the Dyar Morkk were progressing well. Together with the Dwarve's Golem Legions, the Tower's elite Mage Flights had bulldozed Aberrant nests by the dozens, reclaiming one inactive node after another. Negotiations with the central continent, particularly with the German Councillor and the Bavarian Thanes, had also been catalysed by the hope of linking long-lost Citadels for the denizens below with the promise of practical transportation of troops and goods for the citizens above.
Thinking of further negotiations to come, a voice in Mycroft's head in the form of Morrigan's "Caw!" reminded the Duke that there was a green-eyed Calamity who was responsible for all of the above. As a self-caution, the Duke reminded himself to remind the girl that she was merely a catalyst, while the men and women of London did the heavy lifting.
On another fortuitous report, Dublin had indicated that the Wyld Hunt was officially spent and gone for ten months and would no longer harry the war budget. The Sixth Cabal's report on the insurrection in the Niger Delta was comparatively ambivalent— though that was a problem for the Militant Faction, whose greedy push via the Barlow Group was precisely for the recouping of lost revenue in the heart of Africa. Finally, the open-ended issue with the Fire Sea's expansion appeared to be contained by Meister Bekker, at least on the surface.
Worryingly, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's plans for the Steppes, involving the pruning of the Centaur's potential and the containment of the Elemental incursion, had met with such a low body count that he felt confounded by its resolution.
Likewise, that the girl wasn't a part of the campaign and therefore did not take up precious moments of his limited attention was as relaxing as worrying, for he was confident the Shoggoth should have been necessary to distract the Brass Legion.
On his home front, there was good news as well.
Charlene would soon graduate Summa cumme laude from Cavendish in the fall semester and join the Foreign Office. Quinn, his oldest, should soon return from his Ambassadorial Office in Pretoria now that the new year had come and gone and the ides of January was upon them. His second wife, the lovely and air-headed Everleigh Eden of Avon, was also busy tending to her peer-gathering projects, which spared him the effort of facing her doubts.
Thanks to the damned Sun's baseless accusations of infidelity, both his wife and daughter had entertained the idea of meeting the girl responsible for his idiot son's death— Everleigh for baser reasons, and Charlene out of curiosity for a brother she'd rarely seen. Though Ravenport had explained that Edmund had effectively killed himself by working with Spectre, an instinctual part of him felt curiously keen to witness that meeting.
Nonetheless, while Maxine's darling hellion was away and out of Morigan's feathers, life was quiet, and therefore good, and therefore had only one direction to go.
"Caw! Caw!" Morigan chimed in.
"Ah—" Ravenport relaxed, exhaling his pent-up, formless anxiety. "Bad news? Excellent."
"Milord, you're going to love this." The Raven switched to common speech as it landed, transforming itself into the bloodless mien of a pale beauty with crow-black hair that reached her waist. In the woman's hands, she held an emerald leaf glistening with the arrogant Essence of Tryfan's Great Tree.
"… that bad, eh?" Ravenport received the Llias Leaf, took a deep breath, then allowed the Essence to infuse his mind. He was a man that believed in balance, for there was pleasantness in moderation.
"Eternal Bloom." He willed away the innate empathic link built into the Llias Leaf. "How may my humble Office aid Tryfan?"
"Our Dear Duke of the Accord," came the effortless and ageless voice of the High Priestess. Curiously, Mycroft felt that he had detected a certain breathlessness. "I do apologise for being the harbinger of very dire news. A situation has arisen involving our Outcasts and your Rogue Mages."
Mycroft Ravenport unconsciously sat a little straighter.
Elves cast out from the Eden of their Great Trees.
Mortal— but no less masterful than their ageless cousins.
Refocusing his mind, Mycroft banished the girl, the Isle and the budget from his mind.
"Dire, you say?" the Duke of Norfolk waited on the clarification. "To what degree?"
"Uncertain as of yet, though the source is quite reliable," Solana said. "I received direct, empathic confirmation first-hand from your favourite. Are you surprised?"
The girl's smug face, in the most unwelcome sense, once more invaded Mycroft's mind. Feeling a tender throb in his kidneys, Mycroft touched two fingers to his temple, scratched his brow, then sighed. "I am not surprised at all— not at all."
"We should thank the girl,' Solana continued. "For if we mobilise now, we may yet discover the true intent behind their senseless act."
"Right." Mycroft forcibly banished all stray thoughts. "Tell me what you're willing to divulge, immortal Solana, then we'll see how London may hold up its side of the Accord."
As the Elder of Clan Jildam, Stian was no stranger to the quasi-magical flora of the Sawahi.
For years, sometimes even decades, the seeds of drought-resistant flora in the desert would lay dormant, surviving even in the intestines of the Afaa al-Halak to await the coming of the wet season, soaking up the meagre mana in the sand.
When the wet finally arrived, week-long torrential downpours would penetrate deep into the dry bedrock of the desert, refilling its deep aquifers and reshaping the dunes into momentary valleys with rivers of raging quicksand.
The result of such a natural endeavour would tease forth the dormant energies stowed within the seed pods. Overnight, in a matter of hours, wildflowers of every kind would emerge in every corner. Fragrant zones of jade foliage, together with roving masses of suddenly appearing bees and other insects, would then assail the Sawahi to pollinate and procreate in an orgiastic explosion of life.
That, in Stian's long memory, was supposed to be the way of the world.
Ever since the Tide and the emergence of the Fire Sea, however, the rain season had barely touched the desert. Even when it did fall, downpours reduced to sprinkles, and what water his Clan in its halcyon days could collect was insufficient in sustaining their pastoral wonders.
In a matter of months, the moisture farms had failed.
The crops withered.
Stian recalled that the underground aquifers and their ownership became a matter of survival, turning Rat-kin on Rat-kin, Clan against Clan.
The resulting wars in the days of Stian's youth were as epic as they were senseless, accomplishing nothing other than feeding the ever-larger Afaa al-Halak with the bodies of millions of fallen Rat-kin, a sign that the land mother was reclaiming what it had once given.
Later, as the Elder of the Tasmüyiz living under Tamir Khan's careless tyranny, he came to know that this was not the land mother's displeasure with the Rat-kin, but the result of extra-planar conflicts far greater than what ratty farmers in a desolate part of the world could begin to fathom.
Now, Stian once more saw a sight he had not seen since childhood.
Of the fields, his Priestess— or Mistress, as she now demanded to be called— the smallest acreage was already blooming with vines a handspan in length, with hundreds of the saplings already flowering after a generous sprinkling of water.
That was a miracle.
And then there were the seeds blessed by the Priestess of the Pale light's lifeblood— the hallmark of a TRUE miracle.
Foremost of the rapidly maturing plants were the beans and tomatoes. A variety the Priestess was said to have received from Demi-god protectors' of a tree that held up the world's fabric like a giant yurt-totem. Together with the beans, the thousand or so seeds planted by the Rat-kin with the help of a "Kiki" and a "Sen-sen" were already taller than the Priestess. All were now arm-thick and groaning as their length and girth visibly extended with every passing minute.
The cucumbers, comparatively, required far too much water to properly propagate. They would have to be relocated closer to the oasis, or until the Priestess' "Elemental Water Generators" could be brought from her homeland.
Most impressive of the foursome gift of seeds was the pumpkin, which she had called the "Sunset Squash." These seemed most adaptable to the poor soil of the Sawahi and appeared to thrive in the "Spice" gifted by Lord Garp.
In the fields where the "Spiced Pumpkins" had been planted, not only did they have to relocate crowded plants into the newly prepared areas, the hundred-odd remaining vines had already inundated the original plantation with a sea of broad green leaves each larger than a Rat-kin. By dusk, the field was exploding with fragrant bursts of yellow flowers, and Stian was considering getting his Rat-kin to pollinate the plants to speed the germination of fruit.
By that speed and scale, Stian shivered; just how many pumpkins would they harvest?
More importantly, at yield time, just how much fodder could they produce from the leaves, which were itself edible and delicious to the Rat-kin?
With clean water, Stian thought, and hale produce whose tonnage brought hope by equal measure, just how much of the life Stian recalled could be restored, nay, exceeded?
Yet, even as Stian's heart filled with gladness and joy, he simultaneous shivered, fearful of the coveted bounty in front of him.
Would Temir Khan come for their boon?
Would the Horse-lords demand all their produce for "protection" once more?
Would the Priestess' Mageocracy honestly care, as she had proposed, for mere rats?
Stian was wise and old enough to know that just as they could not trust Temir Khan in protecting the Rat-kin, their faith in the Priestess should remain one of spiritual gratitude instead of pragmatic reliance.
If indeed the Priestess could provide them with water and food, then he and the Prefects must hurry to enact the next stage of the Clan's restoration. They must make profits, as their prophet had foretold, acquire funds so that their walls could be built high and the warrens deep.
The Rat-kin under the Priestess were twelve Clans, many with mixed blood, split among a hundred Centurions with transformed constitutions. If they could gather the scattered tribes who fled from the war, their numbers should swell close to two hundred thousand. And as many hands performed lighter work, they could then develop Shalkar in every direction, not just the east.
As for the phage— Stian had come to acknowledge their Priestess' commandment that the disease was a blessing for the Rat-kin. However, in place of her boundless benevolence, he and the Prefects all agreed that the disease conjured by the Necromancers was lethal only to the infirm, frail, and starved Rat-kin. Even if a thousand died— a million might live a decade from now— that was a price acceptable to any slave. For they who lived under the Horse-lord's hooves, they who were playthings slain out of boredom, or be sent out and worked until their death, any opportunity, at any cost of giving their scions a better life, was welcomed.
AND, as the Elder of his tribe and a grandfather, Stian needed to remind Strun that as the Priestess' foremost representative and the first Wyrm Rider in an incalculable number of generations, it was his role to procreate as often and produce as many scions as possible in the hope that many would inherit his traits. Garp, too, if they could capture a female Wyrm, would provide the Clans with a hopeful future. Many Rat-kin would die in the endeavour, but it would be worthwhile.
Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow, that was the Rat-kin's meagre lot— to seek salvation at any cost, that was the dirge song of the meek.