"Fuck." Gwen saw her emerald co-op farm from across the horizon. The sight was so conspicuous that anyone from any elevation would immediately recognise the unsheltered food source suddenly blooming in the desert.
"Oh, Gwennie…" Her affected Evee reassured her from the back of a mewing Kirin. "I am sure the plants are safe. Look, there's no fighting, and everyone looks to be busy around the fields."
But the girl had misread her woe. In her anticipations, Gwen HAD desired that the seeds sprout like Jack's beans, and that's why she had bestowed them with the primal blessing of Almudj, whose will could turn the iron-dusted earth of central Australia pink with blushing lotuses in the wet season.
"Golos!" she called for her guardian beast of the Rat-kin.
With a splintering, wincing crash, the Wyvern emerged from among the pumpkin fields, expressing the power of a brutal body build for violence. The creature took a running leap, then joined the girls hovering above the foliage lake, worshipped by the fervent eyes of Gwen's ratty citizens below.
"This happened overnight?" Gwen stated the obvious. "Any trouble?"
"I ate a few stickybeaks." The Wyvern grinned. "That and your slave-kin haven't slept since you left. They've been moving the vines and saplings to new fields, working like Ryxi on his herb field. Speaking of which, how about we breed some carp? I'll borrow a dozen from Ryxi's pond, hee hee— watching the snake protest to Ruxin should be fun."
"Oi, no S-words in my house." Gwen protested even as she considered the potential of having Draconic Carp in the freshwater oasis. Indeed, it would make for a fantastic venture since Ryxi's carp were predominantly herbivorous, and Shalkar looked to have an excess of greenery. "And yes, that's an amazing idea if you can transport the things."
"Ryxi's Water Spheres should do it," Golos promised. "A few may perish though... in transit, hee hee hee..."
"Gwennie. I think you should consult Stian," Elvia advised. "What if the Dragon Carp find Rat-kin to be the perfect fodder?"
"True that." Gwen banished the idea for later. Nonetheless, she was reminded that there was such a thing as aquaculture in her old world. The combination was said to be ideal for conserving nutrients and water in a moisture-poor environment. "Let's go down and have a look. It's impressive, eh? I expect we should have food soon."
"You have food now." Golos led the way, pointing a claw at the leaves. "Not even Ryxi's herbs can grow at the same pace. That's why they worship you. The delicious Eels in my domain showed no less worship than your furry ones."
Gwen somehow doubted the Unagi-don living in Golos' fiefdom of food honestly thought of the Wyvern that way.
As the threesome landed, Gwen could see the potential her monstrous vital forces had allowed. Her plus-sized quasi-magical flora was positively Brobdingnagian because of Sen-sen's aid, Garp's poop, and Golos' obscene excretions. The pumpkin patches, in particular, were so thick with leaves the size of umbrellas that the Rat-kin were already harvesting cartloads of the stuff as fodder to prevent future fruits from missing out on the sun's blessing.
Thankfully, her labourers were doing shifts, and her dumb Wyvern merely couldn't tell them apart. While a group of rats worked, the others rested— simultaneously performing what looked like acts of vegetation veneration.
Beside her, the "Druidess" Elvia released Kiki and Sen-sen, who must have felt some kindred bond to the plants and thus fled into the field. As for why, Gwen assumed these Dryad-like Sprites probably liked to hug the trees or something, at least before they had to face the axe.
"Mistress." Stian emerged from the thicket of deep green plants. Everywhere, she could near the droning moan of the vines' growth, making the otherwise verdant Eden sound like it was haunted. "You have returned. How fare the Stout-kin's lands?"
"Massacred by Elementals," Gwen said. To Stian, at least, she felt no need for further elaboration. The Elder, out of all the surviving Elders of her rat-pack, had more than her share of Elementals razing rat-villages from the Eastern Sawahi to the Northern Steppes in his three decades of Exodus.
"My… condolences." The Rat-kin hung his head. "Mistress Elvia tells me you were close to the Stout-kin."
"Not these." Gwen inhaled in the verdant scent of squash leaves to improve her mood. "But yes, my friends in the north will be beyond distraught. I do suspect we will get visitors soon. A fallen Citadel is a major incident."
"Shall I ask the Centurions to prepare the guests' burrows?"
Gwen thought about the roughly hewn hovels the Rat-kin used for shelter. To house the future Mage or Dwarven delegation in hovels smelling of sand and wet fur with no windows and only holes for ventilation sounded like a recipe for catastrophe. "Any chance for huts?"
Stian turned his head to regard the enormous vine plants. "After harvest, Mistress. We can cure the vine-wood, extract oil from their bark and excess seeds, then use that as material. For now, I fear we can only shape the earth."
"Gwennie, I would think any higher-ups who show up would likely carry Portable Habitats," Elvia reminded her. "When do you suppose we can expect guests?"
Gwen considered her conversation with the Bloom in White. "A week, likely two? I have no idea how the southern campaign is going though. Someone from the Shard would take a few days at least, assuming the Elves tell the Shard— or we wait for Mathias, I would guess at least six days for a scouting party. There's no Divination Towers to anchor Teleportation points that I know of, and Magister Taylor said the Fire Sea makes Teleportation outside of ley-lines extremely inexact."
"What do we do now?" Elvia had an expression that said the last thing she wanted to do was sit around and do nothing while waiting for the plants to grow.
"Evee, you keep working on stabilising the phage— remember, we want a Remove Disease that reduces virulence but unimpedes infection rates for the Rat-kin. The best-case scenario is that any Centaurs will think twice about invading without crippling themselves in the aftermath."
"Gwennie." Elvia leaned in closer and lowered her voice. "If we suceed. What if the Rat-kin want to invade the Centaur's lands?"
"It's going to take major changes for even a chance of that to happen," Gwen stated the obvious. "Stian, even when the rat fellers dominated the eastern grasslands of the Sawahi, did you invade anyone?"
The Elder shook his head. "We are not a war-like people, Mistress. Conflict isn't in our nature. With the lives and the effort lost taking what belongs to others, we could cultivate more fields and restore more of the desert."
Gwen considered her earnest Elder rat, who in his worn robes, greying piebald fur and hunched form appeared the very picture of a church mouse. As a student of history, though, she felt sceptical of Stian's wisdom. That "our folk" weren't naturally war-like was to her merely an excuse for weakness. Peaceful they may be, fight they must to the last tuft of fur. Would the forces that had aided the Rat-kin ever allow rats to live in their private Eden while war and death raged all around them? Even if she were to shepherd the Rat-kin to a new Renaissance of food security and sustainable development, wouldn't they just become targets for every other foe lacking food, water and shelter?
If so, what use were Stian's hope they would remain Ratmaritan farmers?
"Well said. Tend the plants well," Gwen answered Stain's claim with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "Though let me say this. We, Stian, may not go forth and find war. But war... War will find us."
Gwen found herself unable to sleep for the three days of lulling peace that passed without incident, suffering the calm like the oppressive heat before a storm.
By day, she patrolled the emerging Rat-kin dens, visited Elvia and walked with Stian and the other Prefects, talking of matters to come.
By night, she and Elvia spoke long and soundly about the past, about Sydney, about Evee's experiences in the Ordo and Faith Magic and her feelings for Gwen's Master's thrifted, Demi-human Necromancy.
For a while, Gwen almost felt as if she and Elvia had returned to a simpler time.
In the Wildlands, there were no beeping Messages from Divination Towers and no subordinates needing her help on reports or Magisters studying her body for projects.
Just her, Evee, the cool interior of the Portable Habitat, and life on the farm.
It was an "escape to the country" experience Gwen had not anticipated, and as the days wore on, she realised just how desperately she had needed a wind-down of the pace she had set for herself.
In the meantime, her farmhands expanded exponentially to almost six thousand able-bodied rats rolling up their desert smocks to heap "spice" into new fields even as the newly-returned Garp carved out channels in the desert.
Of the labours at hand, it was Kiki, the floral Sprite that again wowed them all by using its innate powers to gather, then pollinate the flowering fields in the absence of insects, who would take weeks to arrive and to breed into sufficient numbers.
On the morning of the fourth day, after breakfast made by Evee, there came a knock on the Alarm spell left outside the Portal Habitat.
After the girls washed and dressed, Stian met them on the threshold.
There was a problem.
The "Control" field, with its mundane miracle of unimpressive growth, the rat explained, was developing in a suspicious direction.
"Mistress, it's trying to form a vine gate of some kind." Stian pointed to the beans. "We don't know if something is controlling it or otherwise, so we kept cutting it down."
Gwen first took stock that no rats were harmed, then she turned her attention to the unusual phenomenon.
True to the Rat-kin's words, she could see that two of the Centurions had teeth-axes in hand and were hewing away at what appeared to be fast-growing tendrils of prehensile vines attempting to form a structure of sorts.
Feeling a deep suspicion, she produced the Llias Leaf once more, having chosen NOT to keep the thing against her skin while she and Elvia shared their private moments.
Sure enough, her Llias 3310 was vibrating.
"Hello, Gwen here," she answered the leaf by holding it against her face out of habit, drawing a quizzical look from Elvia.
"Magus Song," the voice that spoke, much to Gwen's surprise, wasn't her demure and flawlessly beautiful friend, the Bloom in White, but the beetle-black Arch-Warden Eldrin. "Stop cutting down our gate."
Gwen blinked at the field and its heap of hewn vines. "Your gate? What gate?"
"The Trellis Portal." Eldrin did not nearly possess the patience of his counterpart. "What you have discovered is a matter of great significance, and we wish to send a representative to witness the fact first-hand. Without direct confirmation of the Elementals methods, Tryfan's cooperation with the Mageocracy and the Dökkálfar will suffer."
It took Gwen another few seconds to realise that Eldrin spoke of the beanstalks her Centurions were happily collecting for building materials.
"Let me get this straight." Her mind grew instantly displeased as the realisation struck. "You gave me plants for food, and the bloody food can grow PORTALS for your goons to hop through?"
"Correct." Eldrin sounded utterly unabashed by the fact. "Allow the gate to form, Magus Song."
The bastard! Gwen felt an acerbic ire rise in her chest. The logical part of her knew already that the Hvítálfar gave nothing for free and that there would be a cost to receiving their help and aid. What she had not anticipated was that the food came with the means to enable an invasion.
"No way, not without answers." she refuted at once. "What are your true intentions, Eldrin? What does our dearest Bloom want for Shalkar?"
"What's good for all." Eldrin's voice made her think of a swinging, scything blade. "Food for your slaves, stability for the Prime Material, woe for our Planar usurpers."
"They're free folk!" Gwen snapped back, transmitting her annoyance. Why do all of these uppity existences speak so unabashed of the Rat-kin's meekness like it's some crime of nature? "You know nothing, Eldrin."
"Do you think they'll be free merely because of your assistance? Who do you think you are?" Eldrin's arrogance was growing on her nerves. "Will they survive the Centaur's iron-shod hooves without our aid?"
"Our? No, I'll deal with the horses," Gwen growled into the leaf, transmitting her displeasure.
"Will you be their Queen and sovereign then? A human woman, the Devourer Queen of the Vermin! That would be a first even in your sordid history books!" Eldrin appeared unfazed by her confidence. "And for how many decades? Will your Mageocracy allow that liberty. Could our Bloom be humoured by such an act? Or—"
The Arch-Warden paused as if struck by epiphanic enlightenment.
"I see now. You wish to exercise that which is the natural talent of your phage-like race— you could prune the Centaurs from existence. Eradicate them once and for all— a feat not even your mid-land ancestors could achieve seven centuries ago. Over their bones, with your mastery over the Sand Wyrms, the Steppes could be tamed and transformed into your personal property. Better yet, you could use your filthy Svartálfar sorcery to subsume their souls, empower your magic, and force them into servitude. Is that what you wish, Devourer Song?"
Absorbing the abuse like a sponge, Gwen turned to her Rats.
If The Bloom in White had asked and asked nicely, with a promise of giving her some secrets of the Llias Leaf, then she would have being satisfied with building infrastructure for the Hvítálfar. Eldrin, on the other hand, could eat a big black Caliban.
Now that she knew what was going on, what's interesting was that only the "Control" field appeared to be sprouting a Trellis Portal. At the same time, the seeds affected by her and the Yinglong's Essence seemed to be unmoved by the trans-Planar command from Tryfan, which, when she thought about it, made a mystical but logical sense. If so, her accidental foresight to garner produce was doing her far more favours than just making food.
That and Evee's Inquisitor was right.
Fucking Elves and their agendas.
"Stian, uproot the Control field. Gogo. Burn all of it," she gave the command to send in the men and women with their teeth-tools.
"Magus Song, you would show such insolence?" the voice from the Llias Leaf rose in volume and hostility.
"Caliban! Ariel! Help out!"
Her creatures stood at the ready to return the plants to their senders.
The Llias Leaf grew uncomfortably silent.
After a dozen seconds, likely to see if she was tearing the vines apart, of which she was, another voice sounded on the Llias phone.
It was her masseuse, Sanari.
"Hierophant Sanari," she answered the pleasant, female voice. "How can I help?"
"Allow me to apologise for Arch-Warden Eldrin." The Druid's diplomacy was far more to her liking. "Matters have grown somewhat urgent, even for those of us for whom time does not flow. Although I fear we cannot bestow undue details without inviting you to join our communion of like-minded forces, I do beg for your patience and generosity. Tryfan requires access to the Steppes, and you are our closest Essence root to the source of our troubles."
Gwen's anger subsided at the apology.
"I don't particularly mind delivering this favour as repayment for the seeds," she said. "I should thank you for the food and the foresight. That said, I don't like being surprised."
"Again, we did not mean to be so abrupt. Warden Eldrin has been shocked, as we all have, by recent developments."
"I'll buy that," Gwen concurred. "So, what happens after you send an army? What happens to my rats?"
"An army? Magus?"
"That's Eldrin's job, isn't it? Pruning folk like stems from a Bonzai? What's going to happen to my freed rats?"
"Nothing," Sanari explained. "They are yours, Magus Song. Tryfan merely wishes passage for its allies, nothing more. By the Bloom's wisdom, I shall personally attend in place of Arch-Warden Eldrin. For now, please recognise the urgency of the matter."
"Who are these allies?"
"Common friends of circumstance," Sanari replied. "I promise that we shall minimally utilise the gate. In any case, its energies remain precious and limited."
"Fine. That's a promise then." Gwen did indeed recognise the urgency of the horror below despite the interval that must have passed since its inception. "Also, Eldrin mentioned that the Bloom could be convinced to be a patron of the operation I've established here?"
"We shall be amicable to discussing your needs if it so pleases you."
"… good." Gwen accepted that a verbal agreement was as much as she could coax before things took a turn for the sour. Unlike Eldrin, she had no desire to slap the smiling Sanari, and The Bloom had been pretty good to her, and supposedly— she was mates with her Master.
And at worst, once she repaid the favour, she could pollute these plants from Tryfan with her and the Yinglong's Essence, preventing further surprises.
"Stian, tell the men to fall back," she commanded. "Let's see what miracles our friends from the north can use to offset the impediments of space and time."
"Okay, that's a miracle, alright."
It took the better part of a day for the vines to grow into a Trellis Portal four meters in height, wrought of intricate Elven Sigils and interwoven sorcerous structures hidden from view.
Meanwhile, Gwen set about readying storage solutions for the rats' future Sunset Squash harvest. While she planned out ways to maximise space and economy, Stian gave lectures teaching the others that pumpkins could be stored for close to six months if kept in cool and dry places, flipped upside down to divert seedy ambitions.
When she returned to the field of interwoven beans and tomato vines, the Portal was in full bloom, likely because of the energies Tryfan was pouring into the structure from some unseen ley in the world.
The sight, Gwen had to admit, was to her a worthy spectacle.
The Trellis Portal was a four-meter, self-constructed arch in the middle of a field, under the ultramarine sky of the Sawahi, in a Black Zone. On its exterior, emerald foliage swayed with the wind as yellow, carmine, lilac and white blooms erupted in spontaneous bouquets.
A poor man's Star Gate? Gwen mused to herself. Just what was the limitation of distance on these things?
At the promised hour, the space between the frame came alive with the unique magic of Druidic Tree Striding, something the Hvítálfar had not been shy to demonstrate during her visit.
A white hand appeared, thin and elegant, elfin and a little alien as it pierced the veil of space.
Sanari, Hierophant of Tryfan, strode through the gate, followed by a second elf in beetle-black plate mail, with a scimitar the thinness of insect wings hanging from one thigh. The planar membrane behind them swelled like a bubble, then popped as its latent energies fled.
The thousand or so armed Rat-kin watching the entry turned their eyes from their Demi-divine visitors to their Priestess of the Pale Light. At her word, she could see, they would swarm the Elves with tooth and nail.
"Welcome." Gwen extended a hand to shake the two-meter woman with the guise of a humanoid praying mantis.
Sanari's golden eyes, pearlescent like that of a jewelled scarab's shell, swept across her rats, then lowered to regard her hosts— first to Gwen, then to Elvia.
"Thank you for your generosity." Sanari tilted her head, sending a lock of flaxen hair sliding past her ear. "I am among august presences, I see— not one, but two Vessels of old ones. I now understand why you did not fear Eldrin's ire, Magus Song. Thank you for receiving us. My companion is Elder-Warden Thiel, my instructor during my Cycle as a Warden."
The Elf in armour gave them a curt nod.
Gwen nodded back, choosing to refrain from formality. "To save time, I can show you where we found the Dwarves. Shall we?"
"We shall await our allies," Sanari surprised her by rejecting her offer. "They should be arriving very soon to assess the extent of the threat."
"The threat?" Gwen silently remarked that she had better not be the threat. "From who?"
"Outsiders, outcasts from the Great Trees." Sanari remained as cryptic as ever. "The details, I cannot relate. However, I may inform you that our common foe, that cabal dubbed by your Mages as Spectre, is likewise working with the Elementals and that their designs extend far beyond a mere, Dwarven outpost."
"Can you clarify?" Gwen asked.
"Clarity is what we're trying to discern," Sanari said. "Our Divinations thus far have been... impeded."
"Right." Gwen considered the situation at hand. Her curiosity demanded answers, but she had far too much on her plate already. "Can you tell me who has been informed and who I should expect?"
"I can." The softly spoken Elf considered her request. "To my knowledge, the Bloom has informed your Kingdoms' Duke of War, who has promised to invite the Thane-King of the Dwarves under Red Peak. News will undoubtedly travel fast to the Middle Kingdoms of Humanity in what you call Central Europe and the Commonwealth of the Mageocracy. The forces you have fielded in this part of the world will soon return as well, your Mages and the Horse Lord's horde. They shall soon convene where you've made the Rat-kin a home."
"... That's way too fucking soon." Gwen swore, then immediately regretted her reflexive vulgarity. "Sorry— what I meant was that's hardly good news for what I've got here. Any idea who will be the first to arrive?"
"The Dökkálfar would have been the first, consideing their grudge— but their low-ways have since been sundered, so they must now travel by borrowing the rudimentary sorcery of your Mageocracy. Thereby, assuming your young Knight Protector finds your southern expedition without fail, we should be expecting Meister Bekker first and foremost. The Khan's representative shall arrive shortly after, though for a different reason than the others."
Gwen noted the unconscious "rudimentary" slipped into the Elf's words. Of the incoming folk, she could imagine the Dwarves doing their grim business, after which she might ask for a few favours to help her build the rat's city. Bekker as well, once she saw the merits of Shalkar, should be taking the Rat-kin's side.
As for the Khan's representative, who could that be?
Saran? Or one of his generals? A scouting party lead by a Tumen could possess anywhere between a thousand and ten thousand horses— enough to give Garp a fatal injury and overrun the rats.
"Sanari." She considered the implications should the Centaurs prove less than diplomatic. "Can I trust you and the Bloom to support what's been built here?"
"We will always do what's best for the Prime Material's wellbeing," Sanari replied without commitment. "That is the design of the Great Tree and the purpose of our being."
"Does the propagation of life back into the Sawahi serve that purpose?" Gwen changed her phrasing. "Does restoring the biodome of the eastern grasslands aid Tryfan's cause?"
"Would the destruction of Shalkar, its fields, and the eradication of Rat-kin move against The Bloom's will and expectations?"
Sanari paused as if listening to a voice borne on the wind. "It does."
"Good," Gwen affirmed their common goal, understanding that so long as their mutual benefit exceeded what the Horse Lords could offer, her position remained unassailable. "In that case, stand behind me when I make my case to Meister Bekker and Ambassador Taylor. Together, Accord or otherwise, we'll bring some stability back into the Sawahi!"