The Isle of Dogs.
Richard Huang, General Manager under Executive Officer Eric Walken, carefully studied the city's reporters as they piled toward Millwall's old dock, one of the few industrial structures that survived Gwen's remodelling for its utility in unloading construction materials.
How like a gaggle of geese they seemed, Richard observed from behind his ensorceled spectacles, watching the men's and womens' anxious faces while around them, the hazy smog of spring lingered, clinging to the last vestiges of an unusually long winter.
"Mister Huang. Miss Kuznetsova." A few of the journalists greeted him as he and Petra took their place near the front.
Compared to the reporters from the Sun and the Telegraph, the folks from the METRO could make an appointment with their boss sorceress back at the Bunker, and so they stood about smoking and joking, huddling for warmth and coffee.
"There they are!" someone called out from the left, an NoM dockhand who, like the hundreds of others, wanted to be the first to witness the Devourer of Shenyang's return, as well as the rumoured Rat-kin that accompanied her.
For the working NoMs of the city who were free from the intrigue and politics of sorcery, such a sighting would provide for many a conversation after dinner with the family and with their mates, told and retold with more fabulous embellishment each time until "Strun" was a nine-foot-tall demon rat with horns, holding a staff with a screaming bell, leaking emerald Void Essence as he befouled London's holy ground with his vermin-phage.
"Lea, let me borrow your eyes." Richard tapped into the Empathic Link between himself and his Undine, channelling the Spirit's vision as she floated above the Thames' placid channel. If indeed this Strun was as monstrous as the reports suggested, then he would have words with Gwen about picking up more strays on her adventures. In Shanghai, Lulu had thankfully turned out for the best, but Richard had always suspected Lulan's transformation was a product of serendipity over choice. Later, when they picked up Golos out of the blue, Richard had felt equally impressed as he was alarmed, for the creature's prowess came with the enormous baggage of a Mythic bloodline, one toward which Gwen favoured turning a blind eye. Even if her uncle Jun was ploughing Ayxin's fields like Garp in Shalkar, until the unlikely event of a harvest, there was no guarantee that the Yinglong was on the same team as her family— or China— or Humanity for that matter.
While he organised his thoughts, Lea obliged his request. Momentarily, Richard's eyes became covered by a cataract-like pane as his Greater Empathic Link took over his senses.
"I'll never get used to that." Petra, tall and regal in her officious pants suit, remarked beside him. As agents of the LoDRP, they were Gwen's second and Walken's immediate subordinates; and whether because of trust, talent or nepotism, it was only natural that they were the ones to greet their returning CEO. "Didn't your Lecturer warn you to use Possession sparingly? It'll screw with your head if you're not careful."
Richard laughed, his voice hollow and unreal. "Lea knows her boundaries, as do I. Ah— I see them now. Gwen's looking presentable as always, dressed for business. I see Elvia and Mathias— a little more coffee-coloured than when they left— and there's the rat."
"Is it as monstrous as the papers say?" Petra also appeared anxious; despite seeing the images, they all knew Strun was no ordinary "Rat-kin".
"Nothing like what those paper pushers are selling." Richard chuckled. "No, it's a noble specimen if you ask my opinion. Ah, she's stroking its head— typical. And it looks like it's enjoying it."
He was not surprised because Gwen stroked everything from Caliban to Golos to Evee, a Knight Companion of the Bath.
Petra shook her head. "We still haven't figured out how that damned menace of a duck fits into all of this, and she's picked up another one?"
"It's ugly—" Richard spoke again, this time in the tone used by Lea. "Ariel's cuter. It's only marginally better than Cali."
Petra shivered. Visibly, the Mind Mage's skin broke out in goosebumps. "Christ, Lea—"
"Lea, don't speak through me." Richard's voice returned to his own. Aware of just how creepy it was for Lea's sweet, seductive voice to emerge from his lips. "A pet it might be, but it's Soul-linked to the Afaa al-Halak. Presumably, it's near un-killable with conventional means. The report said it could perform Demi-human sorcery within the Conjuration and Transmutation domain. Shadow Teleport coupled with innate Haste— Don't you think that's interesting? Besides, we both read up on Soul Tap. Suffice to say, we can trust the rat to have Gwen's best interests at heart."
"Yes, I supposed Strun could be worth befriending and studying." Petra puckered her unconsciously pouty lips, then signed. "On another note, I hope Gwen can put an end to the fiasco with the Barlow Group. It's taking far too much time from my research with Master Vildrenbrandt. The Dwarven Runesmiths are around, but the Greybeards can't stay away from the Citadel for long, especially with what Gwen found in Shalkar."
"The Pale Priestess Giveth, and the Pale Priestess Taketh." Richard stole a line from the scriptures he'd been taught since his formative years at Prince's. "Can you blame her for introducing you to the opportunity? Even if Yossari has to return, what's not to say you could visit the Citadel next time as a Cambridge scholar? Didn't you hear that even Dwarves from central Europe went to see her in Shalkar? All she has to do is ask. In Germany, the Ancestral Forge is supposed to rival the one in Deepholm in size, if not history."
Petra nodded, appearing more considerate of the mess their cousin had left them. "I suppose when the Dyar Morkk is reconstructed, there'll be new opportunities for contact with our allies in the Murk."
"Assuming we don't dredge up what the Dwarves are fighting and regret ever digging past the earth's crust." Richard laughed, then turned once more to the arriving barge, willing Lea to float closer. On the forefront of the barge, their oblivious cousin appeared in deep thought, unaware that he and Petra had shouldered the work she had abandoned at the Isle of Dogs with unorthodox methodologies.
For a man who fancied himself as the Majordomo of Gwen's future Tower, his work in matching wits with the Barlow Group was good practice for prodding the elasticity of Gwen's sphere of influence. As for the exercise of his talents, there had been many opportunities of late, as their opposition consisted of ex-Military Mages now living on civilian paychecks while lacking civilian understanding of Londons' innate rules.
After he had put a stern word to the first few instances of Barlow Mages coercing the locals into cheap sales or forcing them to "hold out" against the LoDRP's land acquisitions for expansion, the Barlow's "employees" actually approached him in person. As a civilised magic wielder, Richard recalled feeling floored by the audacity of the act. He knew from his father, a slum lord in Sydney, that there were dark dealings in real estate and that money made men lose their minds. Still, for him— a Cambridge Magister candidate, one promoted to King's College by Lord Mycroft Ravenport to receive a "personal visitation" was nothing short of astounding.
Naturally, he persuaded the men to leave in the friendliest, most bedraggled terms.
Ever since their initial discovery of Barlow's thugs harassing Mister Dobson of his dubious sausages fame, matters had escalated to a degree even Richard had not anticipated.
With Gwen gone, he one night found three men waiting for him just outside Millwall, where Gwen's leased domain under the Marchioness of Ely ended and the privatised land bought by the Barlow Group began. He approached them, an innocent pedestrian following his weekly routine to return to Cambridge via the Shard's underground Teleportation Circle, a simple man enjoying a simple stroll along the Thames.
"There's the villain," one of them said. "The torturer."
"The fiend!" Another had the gall to badmouth Richard as they moved into formation to cover his escape routes.
"How the tables have turned! Bastard."
Richard had no idea what they were talking about, for all he had done was encourage the ex-service members to confess their sins in front of a Lumen-recorder of their own volition. Richard did not see himself as possessing the kindness of his cousin, but in his opinion, his lawful treatment of these unlawful folk was kindness in itself. Against some other Mage, say Lulan— there's no regenerating limbs from mince.
"Hope you enjoyed making Joyce suffer, scum— now it's your turn." The men, Richard recalled, were very talkative.
He recalled putting up both hands in protest because he wasn't a man of senseless violence. Joyce might have pissed herself, but no harm came to her in the end, and the lass left with all her limbs and her health.
"Gentlemen, before you protest— You do realise this is Greater London—" Richard was kind enough to offer a warning. "And that I am a member of Cambridge, while you fellows—"
He readied a spell as he feigned panic. In all likelihood, the men were not on any official employment rosters. Men who performed the rough deeds at the behest of more competent men in darker suits seldom had monthly salaries deposed into the Bank of England.
"— are Rogue Mages, drowned men walking."
Then he gave the men his most convincing, brightest smile, something Gwen would do if she were in his shoes.
The men— one Conjurer, an Evoker and an Illusionist, were not happy. They attacked, evidently trained in pack tactics, meaning the Conjurer immediately attempted to ensnare Richard with Chains of Ice. At the same time, the Evoker unleashed a volley of meta-magically enhanced Aerial Missiles to disable his limbs. The true killer was the Illusionist, who stuck him immediately with what looked like a Nauseating Visage to prevent Richard from conjuring his Spirit.
They were trying to take him alive— which to Richard was as stupid as skinny dipping in a lake with an Undine.
Why hadn't the men ambushed him without a word? Richard could guess at the psychology at play. The thing with these ex-Frontier soldiers, he self-remarked, was a particular emphasis on thuggery. Perhaps they were used to being better equipped, organised and planned than their foes, or mayhap they still thought they were dealing with a belligerent civilian— but didn't these men have superior officers to guide them? At the very least, they should research his magic. For a year now, Richard had spent no small amount of effort marketing them to the university, particularly to the Senior Chair in Conjuration at King's, who then took on a personal interest in developing Richard's skills as a Spirit Mage.
Therefore, unfortunate for the men with nefarious intentions, their victim's body had shuddered as if struck, then turned to water.
Naturally, the men froze in their tracks.
Elemental Avatar was upper-tier sorcery from the School of Transmutation. On paper, Richard was a dedicated Spirit Conjurer with a dash of Abjuration. Perhaps that was why the thugs had been so confident in carrying out their attack, knowing that Creature Mages were weak on their own if their Spirits were yet to manifest.
What they didn't know was that Richard's Affinity had reached such a state of efficiency that, combined with the rare supplementary items he'd acquired through Mia's trade channels, he could keep the Undine manifested at all times, so long as he wasn't OoM or unconscious. That and his Affinity uniquely offered access to Elemental abilities specific to his Undine.
Thereby, in a desert, Richard might have had some trouble with the thug trio, having to resort to fleeing from their assaults before he could find justified ways to squeeze out information from their lungs like water from a sieve.
Unluckily for the thugs, Richard wasn't one to bank on luck— but the bank of the River Thames. And when beside a body of limitless water not already infested with Elemental beings, there was very little an Undine and a Spirit Conjurer with Affinity above the eighth tier could not do.
Once freed, Richard firstly hailed for help using a panic device for the Shard's VIPs, one that both provided his location to the Tower and the Municipal Police, while simultaneously alerting the Bunker of his whereabouts. It was a part of his thrifted loot from looking after the Dwarven delegation at Westferry, one in which he had put in two extra orders, one for himself and the other for Petra. He chose not to thrift one for Gwen, as anyone foolish enough to waylay a sixth tier War Mage of the Void Element could only hope that enough of their body was left for identification.
The siren compounded his foes' confusion, catching them flat-footed in a moment of paralytic indecision between fleeing for cover and continuing their assault— leaving enough time for Richard to pump his liquid mana into Lea, instantly elevating the placid Undine into the fury of a suddenly-appearing summer squall.
Reflexively, the Conjurer Dimension Doored away.
The Evoker raised a Fire Shield that was instantly extinguished.
And the Illusionist enacted an Expeditious Retreat while leaving behind several well-made Mirror Images to confuse Lea.
Richard allowed the men time to reconsider their strategy as they scanned the area for his whereabouts. Little did the men know that he was now imbued with Lea's Elemental Dispersion and that without a large scale Evocation from a Fire-based Element scorching a whole block of the city, he could not be ferreted forth. It was all a part of the stratagem he had set up before taking on the Barlow Group— and if indeed he could bait them into burning a block of NoMs to root out a ratty Water Mage, then he was more than happy to send a recording of "Spectre" working for the Barlow Group to the Shard, or Dominic Lorenzo.
While the men cursed and grumbled, Richard had bid his time by thinking about what was still left at the King's cafeteria at this time of the night. More than likely, the Salisbury steak was gone, but he was on good terms with the maids and so could coax up a plate of SPAM-stuffed toasties if need be.
After a few indecisive seconds, the men had made the wiser choice of a withdrawal, knowing that Arbitor Mages should be Teleporting into the area. In a way, Richard could guess why the Barlow Group chose to strike now, for Magister Walken had worked out a reduced rental deal in one of Gwen's new skyscrapers for lease to the Greater London Metropolitan Police. It was offered at a loss— but Gwen was more than happy to get on the side of the City Guard if it meant their uniformed presence could sit on the Barlow Group like an anvil on the canvas of their villainy.
Besides, Walken had reasoned that there was nothing quite like having a secondary Police Headquarters in the local vicinity to encourage the remaining NoMs to sell their leaseholds and move to greener pastures. Though the adage went that the innocent had nothing to hide, there was something naturally oppressive about jackbooted Mages with Wand slung by their thighs that made even the most obedient NoM sweat like oven-roasted capsicums.
Just as the last man rounded the corner, Richard had struck. Within a split second, the air around the man grew impossibly thick with moisture, catching the Conjurer off guard. Before his friends could help and the man could erect his Mage Shield, a Water Tomb enveloped the ex-serviceman and dragged him a dozen feet backwards.
At the same time, a frazzle of silvery light on the other side of the docks indicated the arrival of Richard's "rescuers," meaning the Mages could do little more than continue to flee.
Richard applauded their quick decision. For now, the goons' nightmare was over. Later, they would envy the fate of their happily arrested companion, for Lea had marked the men for a late-night visitation.
When the Officers had arrived with their Wands drawn, they found Richard waving at them all friendly-like. Once he introduced himself as one of the executives of the LoDRP, he explained that he was walking home when "One" vagabond attacked him for his HDMs and Storage Ring. Though caught by surprise, he was undaunted by the ambush, which led to their present meeting.
To the attentive officers, Richard voiced his fears that his assailant would unduly escalate to harm civilians in their attempt at daylight robbery; ergo, he had to entomb the villain for the safety of the NoMs in the area.
Richard refused their apology and commended the Officers on their prompt arrival, informing them that their Commissioner of the Arbitrators, Magister Hollyhock, was his alumni. And that he would be delighted to read about their exemplary work in the METRO newspaper.
The Officers thanked Richard, then took the speechless man away, sparing the Conjurer a lengthy date with the beautiful Lea.
An hour later, he and Petra had paid one of the men a visit in their homes. As for which one— Richard flipped a coin, a charity that surprised even himself.
In the man's run-down apartment, however, Richard felt astounded by the audacity of the bloke's arrogance, for the men dared to work as mercenaries for the Barlow Group and still had the gall to return home after such a blunder. Was the Militant Faction that unaware of its position? Richard wondered. Or were these simply expendable bodies? Over the months, Lorenzo's stories had reported more often than not on the dire straits of the Militant Faction, which was why the Barlow Group was so desperate for quick money— but for their recruitment to be so lax and unselective? They must genuinely be short on HDMs.
Thankfully, Petra had a quick chat with the man in a way that only a Mind Mage with her unearthly allure could achieve— via veiled threats delivered with great diplomacy. If it were up to Richard, a simple Water Tomb, a loved one, and a kitchen timer would conclude matters in a manner of minutes.
Once they received their confessions of who had given the order, for what purpose and at who's behest, the pair left the man's family some HDMs to leave the city until it was safe, then Richard made his way to Cambridge and Petra to the Bunker to report to Walken.
The encounter was only one of the many incidents that occurred while his cousin was gone, but watching Gwennie's pale face drifting into view, the incident stood out to Richard as a cute conversation he would share with Gwen— once he edited a few bothersome details.
In any case, their portfolio against the Barlow Group had grown significantly as the bidding war escalated from frowns to sneers to public shouting matches and finally to underhanded thuggery. Now that his cousin had returned, the other side would likely intensify their pressure. Their boss, Walken, wanted to put down their foot and close the chapter as soon as possible, even while the novel chugged on.
Therefore, with a heart full of anticipation, Richard Huang, Magus of Prince's College, looked toward the barge as it parted the misty morning. He enjoyed working for his cousin. He had always said that he would repay Gwen for all she had done, only that his achievements so far were merely interest and not principle.
With Lea's vantage, he was the first to see and hear the incoming flock.
"CAW— CAW— CAW—!"
A murder of crows, over a hundred in number, was roving toward them like the glove of some unseen hand. Among them was a splendid drake— a Mandarin Duck the size of a mini-sedan, sailing through the air with the arrogance of a miniature Golos.
"Christ!" Richard swore in surprise while Lea cooed with delight. How is Dede not being shot down by the Griffin Knights patrolling London's airspace? Dede was a harmless jester, but who in London would know that this duck who could peck through sheet metal and lift a hundred kilos of loot from the fish market was harmless?
Richard suspected the crows. If Gwen's information was correct, these weren't the naturally occurring urbanite avians of the metropolis, but sorcery-tainted, Spirit-linked eyes from the Tower of London. Assuming Dede had managed to befriend such a flock, it was then reasonable to think that a line of communication to the Guards of the Royal Griffin Stables at least existed.
"CAW— CAW— CAW—!"
"Look there!" Someone in the reports' pit shouted, amazed by the sight of the approaching murder.
"They're not coming here— are they?" Someone trembled, making Richard wonder if he had something to hide. "Why are the Tower's eyes coming here?"
On cue, the birds turned toward them.
When the murder reached the space overhead, they swerved around the invisible body of Lea, leaving no doubt that these weren't your everyday birds but ones imbued with the means to read the flow of mana and sense the invisible.
Below, the concussed and confused dockhands aided the barge's arrival, tossing ropes and catching lanyards.
Gwen was the first to descend, appearing with a constipated expression of dismay at the enormous duck's illicit appearance in London. All around the sorceress, the crows began to swarm overhead, creating the spectacle of a giant, black funnel.
"CAW— CAW— CAW—!"
The ear-splitting sound of the crows' cawing was like Petra casting a dozen Mind Spikes at once, making those weak to the noise cower while others covered their ears, grimacing and wincing and swearing under their breath.
Still, the crows came, relentless in the bell beat of their fluttering wings. As they passed overhead like a thundercloud, Richard could see that these birds were enormous, each possessing wing-spans more akin to that of sea eagles. Round and round, they flew above his cousin, who appeared resigned to her fate as the press took their Lumen-recordings, a sorceress with a rat, standing on the lip of a cargo barge while a hundred crows aligned around her, alighting on every pole and canopy.
"QUACK!" The duck landed with a metallic thud, thuggishly waddling toward her until it stood beside the rat.
The rat, naturally sensing that the duck was its senior, stepped back.
Nodding, the duck struck out its head to be stroked.
Without words and still stunned by the crows, Gwen obliged.
"CAW— CAW— CAW—!"
"CAW— CAW— CAW—!"
"CAW— CAW— CAW—!"
Richard ordered the Undine to mute the clamour as the inner dock of Millwall once more filled with the sound of crows and their crude, cruel laughter gleefully cramming every cranny and crevice.
His cousin really did have a knack for making an entry. In fact, he could already see tomorrow's headline—
"Kennel Mistress of the Dog Returns, Crows forwarn of Calamities to Come!"