Listening intently to Sanari's guileless saleswomanship of the Trellis Portal, Gwen began to recognise why the Mageocracy sent out its scroll-smart pupils into the Wildlands.
Where in Cambridge, even with all its Magisters and libraries, would a Magus get such a hands-on, in-person practicum other than in Black Zones via serendipitous solutions to unfolding crises?
For instance, who in Cambridge could or would instruct her in the sorcery of the space-time magic of the immortal races?
"… The Tellis' constraints, therefore, are meaningful for both ourselves and our allies. First, only a true servant of Tryfan, imbued with the Essence of the Great Tree, or as a vessel of Lord Tyfanevius, may utilise the leys that deliver its power across the Prime Material."
Tyfanevius, Gwen recalled, being the Wyrm in the World Tree's roots.
That was the triplicate Solana had decreed.
What interested Gwen was the symbolic iconography— that a phallocentric reptile was the Guardian of a life-bringing tree and that both were linked to a womb-bearer. If this were her old world, she would have written the matter off with a smile and a nod to Nordic-Grecian-Biblical mythoi. In this world— she wouldn't be so dismissive, as one never knew what lurked beneath the extra-Planar roots of the Axis Mundi and its network of pillars.
As for the Trellis Gate, she was sorry to say there was no possibility of commercial viability.
First, only Tryfan or another Elven commune could grow the gates through the powers of its Druids.
Second, only those born of Tryfan and imbued with its blessing or are a Vessel to its Guardian may pass through the leys.
While human agents could use the gates to travel around the world, utilising Storage Rings as transportation modules, these very agents would effectively be defectors whose very lives were held in the Hvítálfar's unseen web.
Thereby, the Dwarven low-ways remained the preferable option. Expensive and complex it may be, the Dyar Morkk was a tool, and tools could be lent, imitated, or usurped.
Whatever the case, her guest offered her services, and as the Hvítálfar went about her business, Gwen studied Sanari's interactions with the others.
Golos, for one, appeared in awe of the Elf's svelte figure. According to the Wyvern, there was something inside the Druid that was older than even the Yinglong. In conversing with the Hierophant, Gwen had never seen her Thunder Wyvern so polite in all their years of association, going so far as to use his humanoid form and wear pants. It was as though, she observed, her creature was secretly afraid of Sanari, much like how the Elf avoided Caliban, only Gogo seemed unable to discern why he felt so anxious beside the sunny Elf.
Comparatively, her Rat-kin loved the Druidic Demi-goddess in pale gossamer and gold, so tall and lithe that most of her stooping rats reached her thighs, and even Strun only touched her shoulder with both ears erect.
In the three torturous days that they then spent waiting for the arrival of the Rat-kin's future fate, Gwen watched Stian take advice from the Druid and made a note of the Hierophant's generosity in teaching her minions.
To Elvia, whose mastery over her Familiars was self-taught, Sanari similarly withheld nothing about instructing Kiki and Sen-sen on their innate powers.
Watching her peers reap the benefits, Gwen sincerely shared the temptation her Master had felt at Tryfan.
The romanticism of Druidism! A proper Life Bringer!
When Sanari saw the Rat-kin puzzle their heads over the notion of shelter, the Druid had walked among her ratfolk, a true goddess of the Prime Material, then coaxed vines from the fields so that they formed sturdy homes and abodes, plumbing-inclusive.
The process was equally terrific and awe-inspiring for Gwen. In Sanari's mastery, the Magus from Cambridge understood that in addition to magic, there was also quasi-magical engineering and sylvan architecture at play— a synthesis achievable only by a very long life.
Where Gwen and her council of twenty had been convening under the blue yonder like tribals, Sanari willed into place entwined vine-totems that met as a dome, then extended outwards like an umbrella twenty meters in height and thirty in diameter, forming a newly transmuted species of yurt-tree.
A vine-wrought baobab! Gwen recognised the familiar shape at once.
With patience, Sanari explained to the dazed Rat-kin that the interior would be a sheltered space for the Rat-kin to rest and hide from sun and sand. Outside, shade provided by the exterior foliage would cool their bodies and collect the morning moisture, storing water for emergencies.
Watching her companions follow the Elf like curious kittens, Gwen could only marvel as the Druid made her rounds around Shalkar, encouraging aquatic plants to stifle evaporation from the open oasis and commanding deep-tapping hedges to form windbreaks around the various fields.
At first, Gwen had half a mind to tell Sanari to cease her actions to prevent unnatural ambitions from Eldrin. Once she saw the literal improvement in quality of life, however, she changed her thinking to include Sanari as a part of her bargaining with Bekker and company— for very quickly, Shalkar's non-existent architecture was being transformed into a proper township.
As for Sanari's companion Warden, the male Elf appeared and disappeared, seemingly at will, speaking nothing and answering nothing, and so Gwen chose to banish Sanari's shadow from her mind.
By the fourth morning since Sanari's arrival, three trees stood on the flat horizon, utterly changing the aerial vista of Shalkar.
Gwen pondered her evolving perspective as she watched furry and naked rat-pups scamper up and down the tree with effortless ease. Could she have been wrong, and that true calling for Strun's people was as arboreal species? Could it be that her plans for an underground city were unfounded after all?
The disadvantage for both was that the Rat-kin were incapable of mimicking either architecture. However, the possibility of rats learning to use Golem Suits remained, while there was no hope for Druidic Rat-kins.
It was a shame, for tree homes offered food, natural shelter and served The Bloom in White's notion of stabilising the Planar fabric of the Prime Material. As for how well the trees would hold up to Centaur or Elemental assault in a desert— she guessed only time would tell.
For now, the practical thing to do was to take advantage of Garp in creating safety tunnels in every direction away from Shalkar.
Her schedule proved short, for that same afternoon, Mathias returned with Meister Bekker's entourage.
Looking at the nervous Void Mage, Gwen found herself once more surprised by Jean-Paul's Master.
"Master says so long as your plans put the Mageocracy first, we'll support it," Jean-Paul blabbed his orders like a man clearing a severe case of constipation. "We're almost done in the south— but Master says it was too easy and therefore deeply suspect and that if you've got something better suited for the incoming peace, then you may count on her support."
"Magister Taylor has received directions to remain impartial," a second voice, Jean-Paul's superior, notified Gwen with a gaze of ambivalence. Together with her Void Sorcerer, the Mage flight had arrived with the party's Transportation Specialist, Eli Hill. "Thereby, you have command and responsibility for what's to come. Should matters sour, I will transport us to somewhere safe."
"Thank you, Magister Hill." Gwen bowed. "I'll not disappoint the Ambassador."
Gwen quickly introduced the party to her companions at Shalkar.
Jean-Paul scratched his head, his complexion growing pink as he eyed Elvia, Mathias, the mountainous humanoid Wyvern, the giant rats, and the golden Elf among them.
The Void Mage's eyes fell upon their Elven Hierophant.
"G-greetings, m-may your bloom be eternal!" Jean-Paul stammered forth fragmented phrases recalled from his lessons. "Glory to the er… tree."
"Relax." Gwen guided her comrade in Consume to shake the Elf's hand.
Sanari withdrew her digits, visibly fighting to ward away the stink of Void Mana oozing from Jean-Paul like sweat. Jean-Paul instantly mistook the gesture and visibly grew shrunken and dejected, appearing the very picture of pity.
Magister Hill rescued the moment by taking the Elf aside and delivering a long-winded greeting in what Gwen suspected was perfect Elven.
"Evee, Mattie, can you take Lady Sanari and the Magisters to the conference room?" Gwen gestured proudly to the largest of the baobab trees, the interior of which she had persuaded Sanari to populate with a circular table in the manner of Arthur's and his knights of yore. "I'll finish up here and meet you in half an hour."
"Of course, Gwennie."
"Don't spare the Sen-sen Maotai."
Somewhere in the green thicket, a Ginseng shuddered.
Evee led the Mage Flight and Magister Hill away, trailed by a serene Sanari.
"So, how goes the war?" Gwen asked Jean-Paul once the others were away. "Speak candidly, JP. If Meister Bekker's happy to give me a hand here, then I am happy to look out for both our interests."
"The campaign was successful, if unexpectedly so." Jean-Paul visibly relaxed without the company of the High Elf, Elvia, and the judgemental eyes of Hill and his compatriots. "The opening volley between the Elementals and the Horde were as one would expect— a flesh grinder. Shapeshifted Dao, the size of hills rose from the sand as cyclopean golems to crush the Khan and his troops, aided by laughing Djinns willing the air into sandstorms that could strip the tissues from your bones."
"Jesus Christ." Gwen tried to picture the war. "How did you deal with that?"
"Master and the others took care of the elemental assault." Jean-Paul's chest swelled with pride. "With prepared Mandalas, Master and the others disrupted the Planar ley used by the Elementals, transmuting the Dao's bodies so that they couldn't maintain their shapes or regenerate. Our Hunter Killer Flights then sought out the Djinns re-forming above and sealed their Cores while dog-fighting their conjured Sprites. At the same time, our supporting teams below buffed and maintained the Centaurs' momentum. The seesaw went on for many days until, at the threshold to the Fire Sea, the Dao General, Shebeed The Silent, met Tamir Khan head-on, resulting in a titanic duel as he tried to halt the Horse Lords advance."
"Can you describe the Dao General?" Gwen asked. "Was he humanoid or monstrous?"
"Like an enormous fanged Dwarf with no lower body, armoured in sandstorms." Jean-Paul used both hands to illustrate the fact. "Holding a war hammer the size of a building, smashing at the ground to disrupt the Horde's spearhead."
"Holy shit!" Gwen exclaimed, awed by her imagination in place of Jean-Paul's literary paucity. "And then?"
"The Khan summoned the strength of his Horde to attack the giant's weak spots," Jean-Paul replied with wonder. "He disarmed the Dao General with pilums to the fingers, then pressed on with the assault before the Dao could regenerate his limbs and retrieve the fallen mallet. Thankfully, the Dao never had the chance, for Khudu, Cherbi of the Khan's elite Khesig, lead his Orkok to harass the Dao's priests in the rear, breaking their sorcerous support, thereby allowing Master to divert the flow of Earthen mana."
"Then the Elementals fell back?"
Jean-Paul shook his head. "There was no retreat. We fought a war of extermination, Gwen. Our strategy was to prevent the Elementals from synthesising the Prime Material through sealing or dismissing their higher ranks back into their Planes. If we could achieve this without losing our ability to fight, then we've won."
"Losing the ability to fight?" Gwen cocked her head. "Like OoM?"
"It means having enough bodies remaining to halt the Elementals' greater manifestations," Jean-Paul said without any particular emotion of note. "Higher Elementals can't be destroyed but can be banished. The lower ones merely return to the primordial in their native elements. For both the Centaurs and the Mageocracy, if we survive with excess troops for the next conflict, the balance would tip, thereby we've succeeded."
And so it is with a world where old men plot and young men die. Gwen shuddered, suddenly reminded of an adage of war.
"So…" She felt deeply uncomfortable knowing her next question. "Did we win at a discounted cost?"
"Exceedingly so." Jean-Paul exhaled with relief. "Our losses are just over twenty-thousand horses and about thirty Senior Mages and Maguses, including one Magister from London Imperial, despite his Contingency Ring. We nearly displaced Magister Hill as well, which is why he's here to take a breather— but thankfully, Major Kott was there to hold the line against the Efreeti Flame Dervishes."
"T-TWENTY THOUSAND?" Gwen choked on her companion's ironic relief. She had lost two thousand rats and thought it the end of the world. Twenty thousand? How high was the corpse pile? Lazarus, the Khan's Necromancer, must be dancing on the mass graves. "What the fuck? That's like, one in ten of every Free Rider we saw at Nukus!"
Christ. Gwen cursed. To think she had cursed those young stallions playing rat-Quidditch, and now, many of them had given up their lives for a cause from which she would benefit.
"It isn't as bad for the Centaurs as it is for us," Jean-Paul parroted something his Master must have said. "A combat mage takes ten to twenty years to train. The Centaurs are born warriors in a culture of physical supremacy. Almost all male members of the tribe can fight, meaning they'll replenish those numbers in four-five years, likely less."
"I get it, but still—" Even having seen the scale of destruction at Shenyang, Gwen still felt horrified by the prospect of commanding two hundred thousand men to charge toward the enemy, knowing that anywhere between one-tenth and half would not return. How can a living-breathing warm-blooded being gain enough hardiness? Gwen felt her skin crawl, knowing that she might need to make such a call. Even in victory, what would she even say to their families? To twenty-thousand familiar faces living in the same city?
"Now, all eyes are on you. After the campaign comes the matter of recovery, which means food the Mageocracy owes the Horde." Jean-Paul looked to the verdant horizon, products of her labour. "Beware, Gwen. Considering the miracle here, the Khan should be coming for Shalkar. They were preparing even as we left..."
The Centaurs arrived two days later.
Gwen had toyed with the idea of delaying their meeting via Garp, who could cover every approach to Shalkar with walls and pitfalls but decided against using a tactic that would only incense the Horse Lords.
Curiously, as the Horde emerged on the horizon, making an ominous silhouette from one hilltop to another, Gwen could not spot Temir but saw Khudu, Cherbi of the Khesig Guard, the Khan's second. She was just about to comment on the fact when Sanari, who had joined her as she and the Mages exited the baobab trees, pointed to the richly dressed figure of a painted Shaman.
It was Dini Saran— the Khan's Şöpter advisor.
Was Saran then the Khan's nominated mouthpiece? Meaning, therefore, Khudu must the spear?
But then again, the Khan's absence made sense, for "Gwen Song" was merely a Magus of the Mageocracy, an administrator with land and slaves given to her by the Khan himself. To have the ruler of the Steppes personally address the matter would be akin to Ravenport personally confronting the head of a local labour union.
Then again, Gwen considered the spontaneous Eden behind her— having now seen what was at stake, would the Cherbi send for his Khan? Or would the General and the Dini seek to resolve matters as the Khan's proxies?
"While you and the Khan's representative make your terms, I shall privately convene with the Faun," Sanari explained without elaboration, which Gwen read to infer that the suspiciously ageless Saran was likely a thrall of The Bloom, similar to their designs for herself. "I should remind you, Magus Song, so long as the Prime Material is maintained, Tryfan does not intervene in worldly affairs regarding resource or governance."
"Of course," Gwen did not challenge whatever private "Accord" Sanari had planned. Either way, she would wield the Druid and Tryfan as her bargaining chip. If the Horse Lords did not do due diligence, that was their problem.
Thereby, against the overwhelming might of Khudu's Horde, Gwen brimmed with confidence. Even now, behind the vine-line, Strun and Garp's Empathic Links informed her that her preparations were complete. In a total diplomatic breakdown, her rats would escape through a tunnel her Shingleback had dug under Shalkar.
And in the case of a worse catastrophe, Strun had even plotted routes for the Rat-kin to escape to the destroyed Dwarven Citadel.
With her worries gone, Gwen could now focus on dissuading the horses from war.
First, there was the threat of contracting Blood Fever; then, she would intimate the danger of the Mageocracy refusing to provide food. As an addition, she would inference the hypothetical disapproval of the Demi-god Hvítálfar.
And if the Centaurs would disregard all threats to wean themselves from relying on Shalkar for fodder and forcibly take the oasis— then she would scorch the place with her Void Swarm and leave not even a slice of squash for the fuckers.
Mutually Assured Destruction— that would be her ace-in-the-hole.
It was a madcap threat, but she suspected even Temir Khan should fold under such a circumstance, assuming the Horse Lord's pride could stomach the fact.
An hour later, likely proffering time for the victims to stew over their fate, the Horse Lords sent their representative— a long-maned stallion who had been one of Gwen's drinking companions. Compared to his pampered visage at the feast, the armoured youth was visibly scarred by rough healing, though he seemed hale and happy for having proved himself the better of their Elemental foes.
At a hundred paces from the gates, the horse stopped. She recognised the bloke as Besutei, one of the Khan's princelings.
"Magus Song!" Besutei called out. "Our Cherbi seeks a meeting on the hill, away from the diseased Tasmüyiz!"
"Good! I shall attend the Cherbi!" Gwen shouted back via Clarion Call. "Likewise, send your Dini Saran. I have a guest here that wishes to commune with her in private. She should know who it is."
She pointed to the shining Elf on the oasis' edge, so out of place with her golden hair and ivory robes that it was impossible not to notice.
The stallion seemed taken back by the fact that Gwen would request such an essential personage in their entourage attend to Shalkar but galloped back to return the message.
Gwen turned to her companions.
"Gogo, you're with me. Evee, take Sen-sen and Kiki and make sure the horses don't try anything funny. Mathias, stay with Evee, but we might need you to command the retreat if they start charging down the Hill. Use Strun and Garp as best as you can. Sanari?"
"I shall meet Saran there, in full view." Sanari pointed to the forest-like fields of squash. "At that distance, we'll have shelter and privacy."
"Right." Gwen took to the air, having ensorceled herself with the necessary protections preemptively. If there was one aspect about the warding spells she loved, it was the subtlety of her alter-Bone Armour and Sanguine Mantle pre-manifestation. "Stian, I leave the city to you. Don't bother defending the crops as there's plenty more Sanari can provide if these get destroyed. Prioritise the lives of our folk and get them ready for evacuation."
"We can fight, Mistress." Stian's face was grim but determined; his ears erect with rage. "We'll infect them all. Even a scratch or bite will do. Their wives and children will pay the cost of their arrogance in pus and boils."
"For our Pale Priestess!"
Her rats' eyes glowed green.
"Don't fight for me, but home and hearth." Gwen applauded the Elder by parrying their fervour. "As always, fighting to the death is a terrible strategy. Trust me. The Horse Lords won't persist, not like the way you imagine. If anything, get ready for peace— a very-very expensive one."
The Rat-kin and her Prefects nodded, understanding but not understanding.
Golos arrived at her side in his human guise. A brute with a rough-hewn face just under three meters tall, with arms and legs the size of tree trunks, with teeth protruding from scaly, purple lips.
"Let's go," the Thunder Wyvern urged her. "I yearn to see you bring forth calamity."
Midway, Gwen met Saran and her escort of elite Horse Lords and exchanged words on the southern campaign's outcome. There, the Dini stared at her with such a complex expression that Gwen could cut the tension with a Void blade. If she had to guess, the matter likely involved her hijacking of the Tasmüyiz from the Khan's hooves and her undermining a foundation block from Temir's unchallenged pyramid of power. That said, Gwen felt no guilt, given that Saran had presented her a task to fail. Either way, an understanding passed between the two women as they left— hers cold and aloof, and Saran looking like she would use Consume if she could.
"Magus Song, our troops at Shalkar. What have you done to them?" As soon as she landed on the Hill, the Khan's Cherbi cut straight to business with an accusation, so rude as to not even offer a nod of respect. "Where is my cousin, Kokochu?"
"Scattered like seeds to the wind," Gwen replied with complete seriousness. "I fear that Shalkar was empty of honourable Horse-folk when we arrived. Nary a shred of integrity remained."
The Cherbi snorted, intimidating her with a battle-honed body that was to her more so eye candy. When she glared back sardonically, the Centaur's eyes grew hard like peach pits. Below, she could see his steel-capped hooves, each the size of dinner plates, pawing the soft sand.
The Cherbi had come with all the men the Khan could spare, in so far as she could see. If she discounted the potential of hidden reserves, there was at minimum two thousand riders at a glance, each with javelin quivers bulging with honed steel.
"You test us, Magus Song. Those were our kin. Kokochu was my blood-kin."
"You're welcome to visit and investigate." Gwen pointed to Shalkar. "We have no gates, no fences even. You're my guest, Lord Cherbi— please make yourselves comfortable while your investigators seek out where your folk had fled. Walk among the rat falk, speak to them about the pumpkin spice, if you fear no fever..."
Khudu stepped forward.
"That's close enough." Golos raised a massive hand, an enormous fang poking out from his twisted lips. "Shit if you must, mortal, or leave this place."
"This 'place'." Khudu disregarded Golos' warning, much to her Wyvern's delight. "Belongs to Temir Khan."
Gwen tsked. She had consulted with Hill prior and had anticipated the Cherbi's naive claim to ownership. Shaking her sagacious head, she wagged a finger at the Cherbi like an offended kindergarten teacher. "Let's not delve into legalities, Lord Cherbi. The Steppes is a freehold administered by Temir Khan's government. Your folk have signed no agreements with your neighbouring nations in any direction, nor do you respect their sovereignty when you do. If I were you, I wouldn't embarrass the Khan with such trivialities, least of all by claiming a system of laws you have no desire to recognise. Besides, I was given Shalkar to house the Rat-kin by your Khan. Has he since rescinded that order? Does Lord Temir do backsies?"
"The Khan did not give the order..." The Cherbi appeared taken back by her legalise, though that didn't prevent him from pointing to the food. "… for you to do that—"
"What?" Gwen cocked her head with a sly, foxy smirk. "Is it illegal to bring prosperity to the Steppes? Is it a sin to grow food and shelter? What's the punishment? Where is this law written or spoken? Point to the totem of convention in the Golden Pavillion, Khudu, and I'll hand over Shalkar on a platinum platter."
With her repeated goading, the Cherbi's passion rose, along with the latent power of his overstrung body. Would the Cherbi be like this if Saran was here? Gwen wondered. Was Sanari thereby doing her a solid?
Golos rebuffed what he saw was a mere warrior-class peon, drawing vis-a-vis with the giant horse. "Try me, lunch. Your kin was delicious."
Heeding the ping from the Divination Sigil, Gwen stepped back and raised a Mage shield.
Khudu and Golos moved at once, the Horse Lord swinging from the right while Golos lead with the same, both aiming at each other's faces. For she who stood front row to the first Wildland World Boxing Championships, the meeting was no different to the collision of two meteoric objects.
The clamour of fist meeting jaw, bone meeting meat fulminated. What was taking place between the Cherbi and Golos was the confluence of the Centaur's Shaman magic against the Yinglong's Essence in a Thunder Wyvern's perfect body.
The sand below the two exploded as their bodies swayed to either side, erupting as an impromptu flower of silica as the impact reverberated as a thunderclap.
Golos was down on one knee when the sand settled, his head twisted in a fatal position.
Comparatively, the Cherbi had skidded down the dune, using the slide to absorb the impact, and so appeared uninjured despite his shameful retreat from their contest of strength.
If Golos had been a Human Transmuter specialist, he would have died. In that outcome, whatever loss of honour that might be perceived would have been buried by the death of Khudu's opponent. Instead, her Wyvern cracked his neck back into place, stretched out his ligaments and muscles, spat out teeth, then mocked the retreating Horse Lord with a snarl.
"I should have evaporated the slave with my breath," the Wyvern explained to her in case she thought he'd lost. Through their Empathic Link, she could tell the Wyvern was hurt— though his rapid regeneration would resolve the matter in minutes. "I still can..."
Patting the Wyvern on the arm, Gwen strode past her champion. With all the awed horses watching from below and with the Cherbi looking grim, she sensed the moment was ripe to hammer out an iron-bound guarantee.
"I hope that's worked out any kinks in your system, Lord Cherbi," she once more addressed the Horse Lord, more respectfully this time to save the horse his long face. "As Temir Khan and I are both busy people, I need you to speak up. Listen well, Old Master of the Steppes— a new order has dawned, only this time, there's bread for all willing to sit at the table."