With how busy Gwen had been since arriving at the Steppes, two things that followed in the wake of her confrontation with Khudu and Saran came as a surprise.
One was the continued delay in the arrival of the Dwarven delegation.
The second was the sudden lull in everything, an eventless, week-long break so peaceful and pastoral that she felt as though running down a flight of stairs and then stepping into a pit of Şöpter wool.
But such was the irony of acute management. Once an executive officer ensured that valuable people were in place, there was less to micromanage, leading to the perception that most CEOs spent their time pursuing PR stunts, or in her case, adventuring hours.
In Ratsanto, Stian and the Elders looked after the management of the settlement. Strun and Garp, together with Golos, took up the task of security around the oasis, recruiting, dispersing or eating the visitors. Sanari single-handedly taught the Rat-kin about the new plants and instructed those with talent in rudimentary quasi-magical plant husbandry for their tree homes. Eve and Mathias attended the clinic, taking care of the sick, injured and newly arrived.
All of which left Gwen with nothing to do unless she wanted to join Gogo in harassing and bringing the Sand Wolves to heel.
In the morning, she awoke to Elvia, who had already been up since daybreak, making breakfast for herself and Mattie. Occasionally, the Prefects most familiar to her, such as Strun or Stian or Skaz and Ix, would visit with news of newly cultivated fields or exciting bits of governance related to newly-arrived refugees. However, with repetition, her rat-feed news stream quickly faded into obscurity. The only fascinating event became that of Golos, who ventured out at dawn and returned at noon, depositing Creature Cores of mysterious things he had eaten along his patrol routes, like a Gatcha-machine that dispensed collectables through poop.
After coaxing Sanari, she now had a viewing platform crossed with a cosy nook at the top of the tallest baobab tree from which to oversee her domain. To what she believed was the easterly direction, Elvia and Mathias had set up a clinic of sorts to process the ill, the injured, and the newly arrived. Strun, now the undisputed representative of the "Mistress", had been acquiring new bodies for Ratsanto by riding Garp to the local villages and making a show of the boons in Ratopia.
Or at least that's what the Rat-kin champion proclaimed. Gwen recalled but chose not to investigate that Strun had often lamented how the surviving villages had treated him when he was dying of thirst and starvation trying to warn them about the Necromantic Phage.
The crops themselves were already bearing first fruit. Sanari had said that the plants would expend much of their vitality after the first batch and that after two generations, agricultural maintenance would take precedence. To this end, Gwen had persuaded Magister Hill to inform the distant Magister Taylor, requesting the latter to send out an urgent request to transport Filtration Engines and Elemental Generators. As this was a part of her venture, Gwen offered to pay for all related Teleportation costs, even if the Mages have to put out CC quests on the Tower's Notice Boards. With a stable Shalkar, she explained in a letter, the Sawahi would stabilise, the Rat-kin could make their homes, and the Centaurs could recover.
With her mornings done, Gwen would walk among the tree-like vines, marvelling at the fruits growing larger and riper by the day, speaking to the Rat-kin who came to pay homage. The new rats, in particular, had received a vision from the Prefects that her acts were nothing short of divine intervention. As a result, visitors occasionally appeared bearing food, fruit and dried nuts to curry the "Pale Priestess'" favour. One time, she reached the middle of a Sunset Squash field only to find a crude statue of her carved out of white stone, wreathed in yellow squash flowers and surrounded by offerings.
What am I, a fertility idol? Gwen was amused that the statue not only had her likeness but added rat ears and a bump on the buttocks to suggest a hidden tail. Thanks to the inexpert hand of the anonymous sculptor, the visage looked like she'd visited Sawahi Disney Land and had bought one of those overpriced, made-in-China Mickey ears.
In the afternoon, she picnicked with Elvia and the Centurions in informal meetings, working out their dues and teaching the rats basic logistics by taking advantage of the arithmetics the Elders possessed to instruct her subordinates.
On the other hand, teaching the average Rat-kins turned out to be an ordeal.
The frustration notified Gwen of the need to establish formalised schooling systems to dig for talent among the rats and filter her furry minions so that they weren't just a grey-black mass of whiskered faces but individuals who could put their skills to the best use for Ratopia. To a certain degree, this was not difficult, as Gwen had done her portion of volunteer tourism in her old world in nations like Ghana and Tanzania. In the feel-good aftermath, she had admired the hybridity of profit-driven tourism and capitalist philanthropy, particularly when the volunteers couldn't stomach the heat and had unanimously self-funded a solar-wind system "for the collective good of the people".
Philanthropy and profit, in her opinion, thus made a fabulous pair— provided the latter doesn't override the "Non-Profit Organisation's" core principals, like building multi-storey offices in multiple cities and spending eighty per cent of the budget on administration and "consultation". If that were to happen, she would have to come down with Golos to address the board.
Evenings were equally quiet and romantic. Atop the tree, the ugliness of the excavated city-in-progress was hidden by the darkness, becoming spotlights of Daylight Globes and Maxwell's Camp Heaters, turning the oasis into alien acreages full of blinking fireflies. Strangest of all was the moving mountain that was Garp just outside Shalkar's approach, a literal dune that shook and quivered as the Shingleback dreamt, Gwen supposed, the same dream shared by Almudj.
Finally, at night, she would retire to the treetop and set up her Portal Habitat. Elvia would return by then, and they would sit under the stars to watch what she hoped was the Milky Way and not a billion portals into the Quasi-Elemental Planes, worlds pure in their energies, inferring that the true anomaly was their Edenic Earth. If that were the case, she would much prefer that stars were the spirits of past Khans floating on an isometric Astral Plane, looking down on the masses and running general commentary like horse racing pundits.
Then, thinking of the paperwork that awaited her once she got back to London in a month or three, Gwen would drift off into sleep, dreaming of the new income soon to fall into her future Tower's coffers and of her Evee next door.
It took a week more for the Dwarves to arrive, together with Temir Khan's decree a day prior.
The order was encased in a shell of elaborate gold and True Silver wrought into a scroll case. Its content was for the Mageocracy to oversee the region of Shalkar by nominating a Magister rank officer as its overseer, meaning, "not Gwen". The move, Gwen supposed, was to undermine what she had built— albeit after the initial moment of displeasure, she could only scoff at the Khan's lack of understanding of the Mageocracy's entwined politics.
If she had to guess, someone other than Saran probably proposed the ridiculous stumbling block. After their resolved conflict, the trio of Sanari, Saran and herself had spent some time outlining her wishes and desires for Shalkar, to which the Shaman had expressed no evidence of displeasure.
Instead, Saran had nodded sagaciously while looking at her with mixed reverence and caution, then offered her full support on the condition that Shalkar's spiced squash must flow.
Assuming then that she was an "ally" in Saran's corner within the Khanate, the trouble could only come from Khudu's warrior ranks, who couldn't have been happy when the Cherbi returned home to announce his temporary retirement, citing the reason that he had to replenish his stables.
Unknowable to the Horse Lords— that the Mageocracy would send an administrator had been within Gwen's calculations regardless of their childish politicking, as she had to return to her regular classes within two months from the date. What was curious for her was that her foes remained in the stage of an economy that emphasised personal ownership rather than commonwealth, a particular prospect which foreshadowed much of why their management of the Sawahi had been so impoverished, even with Saran taking cues from her Elven overlords.
There was, Gwen deduced, an uncomfortable parallel between the Mageocracy, Tryfan, the Steppes and her old world's Western efforts in Afghanistan. Her only hope was that her Rat-kin oasis would not become yet another mausoleum in a place famous or burying empires.
With all things considered, she took the decree with both hands while observed by the deliverer— a nobly dressed Eagle-kin, the couriers of the Khanate. She then dematerialised the priceless case into her Storage Ring to keep as a souvenir.
The item would make a good conversation piece for Maxine, whose support she needed to count on for Shalkar's produce to make it through London and beyond.
She could imagine it. Visitors to Peterhouse could say, "My, what an interesting and masterfully wrought scroll case!"
And Lady Grey would smile and say, "Indeed, it was from the year that Gwen Song, Henry's protege, rat-fucked a whole host of horses!"
Stifling her inner laughter, Gwen kept her mirth private to share with Elvia later.
A day later, the Dwarves arrived.
Welcoming the stouter delegation, Gwen was thrilled to see that the Mageocracy had her best interests at heart. It was because, whether by intent or by coincidence, the overseer to be stationed in Shalkar introduced himself as the long-faced and balding "Provisional Magister" Ollie Edwards.
Together with Ollie came the familiar face of Hanmoul, who gave her a bodily, manly embrace as they met, crushing her against his plated flight suit.
Before she could address her friends, however, her eyes were drawn to the reason why the Dwarves were so late.
There was a sizable entourage of Striders and other mechanical units, including a dozen Golems— then there was a pair of towering iron giants, each three storeys tall that strode across the Sawahi as iron-wrought Colossi compacting the sand with every footfall, transmuting the path upon which they trod. For Gwen, who had vividly shared a close encounter of the deadly kind with these Golems, she immediately recognised the Mana Signatures and unique Essence auras of the colossal Dwarves-in-a-box.
Siege Class Balefire Golems.
If the one she had fought was a powerhouse in itself, then these were akin to two city-scale elemental reactors on legs, making their way across the Himmseg— the blighted lidless world of the tall men. To expose such venerable elders to the lidless world must have been an endeavour in itself, fully indicating how seriously the Dwarven community took the news of her finding.
"Lassie, tis me pleasure ter introduce yer to some Elders O'mine. Feast yer eyes, Gwen, upon the eternal bodies of Engineseer Dhudreag of Clan Kül, hailing from the deep city of Zugspitze." Hanmoul's expression was locked into one of eternal reverence. "And this is Runemeister Skaghaem of Clan Bürumm-dal, descendants of the Ancestors, an elder among Elders, a white beard among the numberless Grey Scribes of Watzmann."
Gwen refrained from commenting that these Balefires possessed only stylistic beards carved into their articulated armour. From the sound of their names, it was safe to conclude that these were Germanic Dwarves from the central continent— where the largest active Dwarven undercity and its satellite citadels outside of Deepholm had their seat.
Straightening herself, she offered a learned greeting in Dwarven, introducing herself through a long string of titles that outlined her achievements, then asked the "Ancestors" for guidance. The act was longwinded, but it was necessary to show the proper respect— in the world of the Dwarves, only those with accomplishments and pragmatic contributions to society could speak words that possessed "weight".
"Greetings, Human Magus." The giant that spoke was Dhudreag, making him the elder of the two Balefire Dreadnaughts. The vox-box inside the Balefire roared as the sound rang out from its vibrating armour plates, visibly warping the air with heat and pressure. "Thou art the one who had aided the young ones and to whom the debt is owed."
A statement, Gwen noted with some satisfaction.
"Tis I," she said in what she hoped was old Dwarven from Deepholm. "Come ye for vengeance, wise old one as old as the stones?"
"Aye," the acknowledgement was like a thunderclap. "The Great Grudge of Vjalth Agaeth Kjangtoth, if found true, shall sound the horns of war across every Kjangtoth that still stands in the Prime Material. Our kindred's lost souls shall be avenged by every Dwarf whose heart still harkens for Deepholm. The Ancestor's Halls demand it. Honour demands it. Our Cores demand it."
Vjalth Agaeth Kjangtoth, Gwen gathered, must be the name of the destroyed outpost, something that translated to "citadel of molten sand" or "sand smelting city".
"It is heartening to hear a voice so resolute," Gwen hailed the Balefire. "If this young one may ask. Come you bearing knowledge for the reasons of its fall? Were the Elements after the Dyar Morkk?"
"Aye lass," Hanmoul answered for his elders, who nodded and went on their way. Shalkar to the Dwarves was never their destination but merely a waypoint, and for giants who needed no water, air, nor food, there was no reason to rest or delay. As for their mortal entourage— Dwarves were a hardy people. After explaining the urgency of the matter, the Commander of the Iron Legion briefly lamented the difficulty of moving the Balefires through Human-made Teleportation Circles, which had to be rebuilt by their Enginseers. According to Hanmoul, the news of the destruction of the Citadel and the wholesale murder of its stout folk had sent shockwaves through the Dwarven community. Such horrors had happened during the Beast Tide when the Aberrants had caught the Dwarves off-guard, but never again since the Sundering had a Citadel been butchered in the dark— until now.
"I needs ter go, lass. We'll talk more when we return—" Hanmoul eyed his Strider, now modified for the desert. "Unless yer wants to come to Vjalth Agaeth Kjangtoth with us?"
"I am afraid I must stay here and work things out with Ollie." Gwen glanced at her unwilling partner in conspiracy, recognising the futile frustration in his thinning hairline. "Right, Ed?"
"Just so we're clear." The provisional Magister instrumental for his role in the Dwarven alliance sighed. "Lady Grey originally asked me to bring you supplies, crystals, medicines, and to act as a guide for Hanmoul and his entourage from Bavaria."
"Aww. that's so kind of the Headmistress!" Gwen gushed.
Ollie made a face. "When I got here, Magister Taylor said that he had a wonderful opportunity for me, and it was an offer only a fool with no ambition of becoming one of the youngest Magisters in the Mageocracy would refuse."
"Oh no…" Gwen offered the young man a sympathetic smile.
"I said I would do whatever was needed, and all he had to ask." Ollie paused. "That was out of courtesy, by the way."
"Oh— Ollie." Gwen winced, wondering if she should console the man with a perfumed hug.
"He replied there's a position in Shalkar, soon to be a trade hub of the region, among the Rat-kin, and that you were responsible for its inception. Ergo, as I am a part of your Faction, and that Lady Grey trusts me implicitly, and Lord Ravenport had mentioned me by name, I was the perfect candidate to be stationed here."
"He's right, you know." Gwen nodded in agreement. "That's good money to be made here, accolades and wealth and reputation, all for the discerning individual."
Ollie stared at her. "There's no Vid-casts here, no Divination Towers. No pubs. I have no family, no friends— I have no one here. I can't watch the IIUC preliminaries or the competitions. There's no take out food, no Tower of Tandori. There isn't even an NoM on every corner crying, 'GET YER METRO! FREE NEWS FER WHAT AILS YA!' There's not even paved roads or sidewalks, or people..."
"Rat-people are people..." Gwen couldn't help but secretly smile at Ollie's casual mention of her achievements. In the last few months, the METRO had been blanketing London and its surrounding shires, becoming a quintessential start to the day for NoMs. "Look, I can get you the METRO, delivered every fortnight..."
Ollie gave her a withering look.
"Don't lose hope!" Gwen gestured to the milling furry bodies rolling about the place with industrial purposes. "How's London, by the way?"
"The same. Unless you mean how are your investments? On that front, Richard and Petra are keeping a tight lid on the problems with the aid of Magister Walken."
"More problems from the Militants?"
"From the Barlow Group, yes," Ollie confirmed her fears. "There's a dockside region the IoDRP and Barlow are fighting over. Your group offers premium incentives, but your opposition uses coercion, bribes, and other dirty means. It's quite the circus your family have gotten yourself into— The Ely Group versus the Barlow Group."
It took no fantastic feat for Gwen to imagine the tricks, turns and double-crosses happening all over the strip of industrial wasteland between Canary Wharf, Millwall and Cubitt Town. As her base of operations stemmed from Mudchute and Barlow from Billingsgate, the land in-between must have become a no man's land of real estate intrigue. That said, she was right to be away from the situation, for her position as a War Mage and a future Magister made her active participation impracticable, not to mention that she had yet to proclaim a particular Faction as her backer.
"Thanks for the heads up, Ollie." She took the provisional Magister's fingers and patted the blushing Ollie on the back of his hand. "I'll talk to you some more when we're in private. We'll be seeing each other lots. For now—"
She turned to the Dwarf, who had elected to delay his departure to inspect her agricultural operations, for his people likewise suffered from food insecurity.
"—Hanmoul, when you return, can I ask you for some favours? It's regarding developing this place for the Rat-kin. They helped me find the Citadel, you should know. Without Stian and Strun, none of us would be the wiser as to what had happened to Vjalth Agaeth Kjangtoth."
"If yer needs it, just say it," the Dwarf happily concurred without any reserve or hesitation. "I don't know how, lass, but the Debt of Hanzul between us grows with every meeting. How is it that yer running into such calamities with so much regularity?"
"Maybe it's fated to be?" Gwen said, turning her gaze to the bodies of the Balefire Golems walking into the distance. "Hanmoul, you ever feel that you are a node in the web of something greater like the low ways and that these seemingly random encounters— the Murk Ogres you call Sinneslukare— the Dyar Morkk— the Elementals here— and Hierophant Sanari yonder— are all connected?"
"Not the Horse Lords?" Ollie raised a good point. "Are they not the central players here?"
Gwen shook her head. "Nor the Rat-kin, they're all accessory to something… bigger."
"What der ya think that is?" Hanmoul said, perplexed by her sudden sentimentality for conspiracy.
"I have no idea." The Pale Priestess and Worm Handler of the Sawahi shrugged.
Ollie's rapidly ageing face broke into a rare expression of merriment. "So there's something Peterhouses' MVP doesn't know?"
"I wouldn't laugh." Gwen eyed the smiling scholar with a look of disapproval. "You think it's funny now, Ollie, but guess who's taking care of the aftermath once I am done solving the problem?"
At her foreshadowing, Ollie grew instantly glum at his self-fulfilling prophecy.
"We live in interesting times," Gwen said, feeling a slight shiver at her proposed premonition. Looking over her rats, she could only guess how long the peace could last. "Let's hit some shots. We'll pour one out for a future that's more... boring."