The Isle of Dogs.
Adjacent to the thrumming warehouse housing the multi-storey print-engine of West Ferry, a visiting Mage or a labourer seeking work would find the infamous and imposing visage of "The Bunker", a multi-tier building with six "meagre" storeys above the Thame's waterline.
Constructed by the Dwarves via the secretive means of their runic Fabricator Engine, The Bunker served as home to the IoDRP's headquarters. From the entryway, one entered through its obsidian-glass foyer into a large, hundredth-scale display of the Isle of Dogs, constructed in minute detail and updated weekly to reflect the changes brought by the corporation to the ex-industrial region.
Past the imposing frontal facade, the visitor was then imposed upon by the polished concrete ceiling meeting the reflective dark marble, cascading as a static waterfall. Further in, within aesthetic, art deco alcoves nested the Levitation Platforms, each with their irrespective tubes delving some ten storeys deep, descending into the shell and chalk stratum of London's underground until it struck the igneous bedrock.
Currently, of the sixteen tiers of office space, only seven levels were in active use. The foyer with the model and open room mimicking the Dwarven Guild Hall was one, while underground levels four and five were slated for Gwen's small army of accountants. The sixth and seventh underground tiers initially had been empty. At Gwen's behest, however, she had remodelled the linked-stratum to have artificial sunlight, plants and a mock-nature scape, creating a break room for her employees. She had conceived of the notion after observing Ruxin's indentured servants, such as those from Tonglv who had wronged her in Shanghai, looking like they may prefer oblivion— albeit not without Ruxin's release. Once the sceptical Dwarves completed the section, both they and the Bunker's employees found respite from their endless labour under their ever-burgeoning workload, opening Magister Walken's mind to whole new levels of micromanagement, such as controlling how employees spent their leisure time to increase productivity.
Of the upper storeys, the tallest section overlooking the docks served as a boardroom for general meetings. Expectantly, its floor to ceiling glass canopy offered an unobstructed view of Mudchute Farm to the left and Surry Quay to the right. The vista wasn't a million HDMs, considering the scattered semi-urban industrial landscape, but the water view gave the observer a soothing sense of unobstructed space nonetheless.
When asked if this was the foundation of her Tower by Yossari, Gwen replied that there was no way a second Tower could exist in London, considering that she had to compete with the original "Tower of London" and now on top of it, the "Shard".
If and when she came into a personal floating, phallic-shaped fount of sorcery, it would likely be somewhere akin to Shalkar. In that instance, her first task would be to bring together the scattered communities of Humanity there to establish a foothold. In her Cambridge history classes, she had been informed that the first Towers, conceived none other by Magister Henry Kilroy before the Beast Tide, were built for that specific purpose. The fruition of Kilroy's plan had been a lucky break for Humanity.
Through the use of its strategic-class Planar Suppression and ley-line tapping Tower Cores, regions overrun by Elementals and Monsters were quickly quelled, and Humanity's major population centres preserved.
The notion of "Zones" was then established and written into Spellcraft and geopolitical canon. And in this way, the world had come together to salvage what remained of man's civilisation from the brink of oblivion and even prosper.
Meanwhile, the Wildlands continued to be bastions of unpredictable danger. Outside a Tower's domain, safety was merely a question of divinable risk. Even Green Zones like the Royal National back in Sydney could turn, as Almudj had demonstrated, from a verdant source of HDMs and produce into a cataclysmic battlefield in a matter of days, assuming that a monster of sufficient tier and power could slip through the Shielding Stations.
Ergo, the easiest and riskiest way for anyone to become a Tower Master was to strike out and mark one's territory, sanctioned by their state and other stakeholders. Likewise, to encourage adventure over complacency, a "future Master" with sufficient clout and sorcery was expected to leave their Tower, as a young Dragon might the home of their Patriarch, unless they were the heir apparent, as Gunther was to Henry. Instead, they would strike out to pacify the region, then appeal to the Mageocracy or whoever was their governing body to erect a Tower and serve as its Master— usually until they were dead or replaced.
Such was the Mageocracy's way— and also a core reason why Walken had preferred schemes over actually founding a Tower of his own.
When Gwen had reasonably asked about the Americans and how they went about their Tower building, her Empire-minded tutors had scoffed at the Capitalists and their notion of Manifest Destiny. They had explained that the "Wildland West" was excess, constrained anarchy, and unfettered capitalism transmuted into a nation of self-aggrandising entrepreneurs. Gwen took the hostility to mean that her tutors disapproved of the United States until one of them intimated that there were yearly expeditions of London's triumvirate college Magisters been lured overseas with the promise of power and position— only to face the reality that the USA was a place where one was "free" to succeed or fail.
"A nation of individuals," one of Cambridge Magisters had duly informed her. "Take that however you will, but it's certainly not a Commonwealth for 'common' wealth."
Gwen felt she understood the lesson better than her peers. London was a society built on the tried and true step ladder of classism called the Chain of Being. It was why the British Mageocracy found their cross-continental cousins' buccaneering attitude bewildering and yet strangely thrilling. In London, there wasn't anyone who acted like the industrial magnates in the States, not even the Queen, whose position was derived from the Church and was in service to the Crown, its people, and Noblesse Oblige.
In the Commonwealth, men like Jonathan Gilt of the Ether Engine or Henry Ford of the assembly line did not become living mythoi but bookends with individual annotations in the appendices of history. In England, not even Gwen's Master, the preserver of Humanity, had wielded a perverse amount of political influence. In the USA, however, such men transcended mortality to become living embodiments of human potential, inspiring countless others to create like-minded empires where the greatest profit for the greatest many was the greatest virtue in a nation where the free market was democracy distilled and the quintessence of personal freedom.
For this reason, Gwen greatly desired to visit the continent, mindful that she had promised to take Tao when the opportunity next came about. For now, she had to secure her bases and establish the foundations of her empire. Therefore, with smiles and an air of triumph, she came into the top-level boardroom with her Rat-kin in tow to greet her staff and board members, most of whom were new faces recruited by Walken over the last year.
A chorus of greetings passed from every door and corridor as she strode by, inflating her ego and each praise stroking the Lightning Element inside her Astral Body, setting it to purr like a tickled Tom.
In the open boardroom, Walken awaited her from the head of the long, oval table, on which Gwen could see scattered newspapers with headlines from her arrival a day ago. After feeding the birds with her body, she had felt compelled by Dede to take a quick jaunt with Richard back to Cambridge to speak to and report her findings to the Marchioness of Ely. At Peterhouse, Maxine had received her gift of the Khan's Golden Scroll Case with the greatest joy, kissed her on the forehead, then thanked her for her service not only to the Mageocracy but to Humanity itself.
"Gwen, you are Henry's Apprentice. There is no doubt!"
The matchless praise was one which Gwen had not at all expected, and it had set her face aflame until she had to introduce Strun to her Boss, and then Brown and Gracie, who came to greet her as soon as news of her arrival reached the college.
Gracie and Strun appeared to instantly bond with a friendliness that bellied their differences in gender, language, culture and species, which Gwen suspected had something to do with the fact that both were Soul-linked to her Astral Body and thus, connected by a compulsive spiritual resonance.
After a long supper regaling her tale and asking Strun to speak of his people to a wide-eyed crowd at Hall, the rat received a suite beside Gwen's private abode for the night. Later, Petra and Richard had joined her for an extended late-night conversation. In detail, she had told them of her suspicions surrounding the Dyar Morkk and the wonders wrought by Tryfan and as a result of Sanari's Druidic crafts. Petra especially demonstrated a hunger for the knowledge of the Elves that lit up her pale-crystal irises like a cat's in the dark, with Gwen laughing and promising that the next time an opportunity arose, she would invite her cousin to share in the bounty. Richard then regaled her with an unusually morbid "funny story" about his investigations into West Ferry's competition with Canary Wharf. The punchline was proof of the goons hired by the Barlow Group, backed by the Militant Faction and antagonists like the Exeters. As for the method of Richard's discovery, though Gwen could see that her cousin was in the right, Dick's casual cruelty continued to make her skin crawl. Even his reassurances like "No worries, there was no harm done, and everyone walked away in one piece" didn't stop her from having a rash of goosebumps.
In the morning, after signing paperwork and pre-filled forms written by Petra to report the success of her Magisterial expedition to the Steppes, she had left the rest of the bureaucracy to Magister Brown, then returned with haste to the Isle of Dogs.
"Welcome back, Calamity." In the Bunker's conference room, Walken's face was full of fatherly warmth.
The Magister and sorceress embraced, offering courtesy kisses to one another's cheeks.
"Boss." Lorenzo shook her hand.
Gwen hugged the man anyway. "Thanks for the article."
"It's my pleasure to expose your corrupt self," Lorenzo smirked. "Did it have the intended effect?"
"We won't know until trouble comes calling." Gwen smiled sheepishly. For the sake of the METRO's reputation, she had asked Lorenzo to do a few hit pieces on their owner and founder, doubly serving as an ironic humblebrag to bolster Shalkar's reputation.
With the amount of staff now involved in the upper management, the handshakes took some time. Afterwards, Gwen urged Strun to repeat the performance of his Desert Epic at Shalkar, this time for the starry-eyed crowd at the office. When finally all curiosities were satisfied, she laid out the new work arranging an import and export division for Shalkar for her fresh-faced managers. Without pause, all of them promised that Strun's people would never starve again.
Then, finally, it was time to settled down and discuss the "Executive" business at hand.
With a sweeping gesture from Walken, the rest of the staff was politely cleared out, Strun included, leaving only Gwen, Walken, Lorenzo, Richard and Petra. In the future, Gwen wondered, would Mayuree, Marong, and perhaps Ruxin also join them in the chamber?
Walken, who had by now mastered his version of her patented "PowerPoint" Illusion sorcery, hand-waved the room into darkness.
"Right, let's not beat around the bush." The Magister conjured into being a pyramid of cascading headshots, together with a map of their holdings. "I do believe the time has come to call in your favours, Gwen. We're ready to push for Canary Wharf."
"The acquisition of south dock is completed?" Gwen glanced at the vista outside, though it was the wrong side of the docklands. In her memory, acquisition and discovery of the Isle had run into a brick wall. "I thought it would take until June."
"The timetable is no longer certain, despite our best efforts," Walken conjured up details of the development proposals. "As you can see, we need South Dock and the old Warehouse District to connect the Pinnacle building between Canary and Millwall and to provide underground access within walking distance to the Marsh Wall Underground. The alternative is to build the Pinnacle where we've already submitted plans for the Millennium Harbour. We can use the land south of the dock as well, but as you know— we've promised the City of London that we would not impede onto Sir Magister McDougall's Memorial Park. To move the monument would cost us goodwill and a great deal of political capital. Richard can tell you more."
"Dick?" Gwen looked to her cousin.
"The Barlow Group has succeeded in acquiring the suites here— here— and here— and more." Richard nodded at the Magister, turning several annoyingly disjointed blocks scarlet. "Unlike the others, these were sealed and delivered, all legal and willing sales with no undercuts."
"How?" Gwen furrowed her brows. "Did we not offer enough money?"
"Not everyone's eyes turn green when it comes to profit." Walken snorted at her remark. "These owners supported the Militants. That's not so surprising, is it?"
"That IS surprising, actually." Gwen signed. "I maintain that we didn't offer enough. Everyone has a limit. Now it's going to cost us more."
The others pondered her train of thought in silence.
"I see. Nonetheless," Walken said. "The Barlow Group now refuses to sell said suites. They'll BUY our share, though— even above the market value. Presumably, they're trying to starve us out of Canary Wharf, but their management does not know our finances as well as we know their backers, so there's that. Either way, the status quo is that we're at a standstill."
"Buy our land? They're dreaming." Gwen puckered her lips in annoyance. Before Shalkar could turn a profit, a significant amount of HDMs had to be invested and passed around, which meant anything delaying the construction and the sale of her waterfront developments raised the risk of her business losing liquidity. "Alright, so what's the plan?"
"Richard, if you will elucidate our employer?"
"We go for the jugular," Richard pointed to a few of the unfamiliar faces in the hierarchal pyramid of the Barlow Group's Executives. "The Barlow wants to delay our projects, so we'll pay them back likewise. That's Wilbur Elliot Marriott, Ex-Magister and now renowned Hotel magnate. Beside him is Jonathan D. Nassar of the Hilton Group."
"Marriott and Hilton Holdings?"
"— Yes, and the joint-holders of the Waldorf Astoria properties. Your friend, Lady Astor, has a sizable stake in the ownership as well."
"Alright." Gwen studied the faces of the men in their late forties. "Elaborate."
"They're going to build hotels on Canary's land holds or at least convert their new constructions into free-standing hotels. They're quite determined, as we all know how hard it is to find land to build anything in central London. For both groups, the Isle of Dogs is a great opportunity for our American friends to make a foot hold."
Gwen did indeed know, for the presence of both Westminster Chapel, Buckingham Palace, and other historical structures meant that the central CBD area forbade super-structural constructs that may "overshadow" these important historical and symbolic edifices. It was one of the reasons why Dwarven construction, with its underground emphasis, enjoyed such popularity among London's developers.
Yet, until "The Devourer of Shenyang" had transformed the industrial wasteland of the Isle of Dogs from trash to treasure, it had simply not occurred to London's developers that a private enterprise with HDMs and foresight could convert cheap, affordable land into high-demand infrastructure. Of course, not all developers had Gwen's accountants, a block of leasehold as grand as the Marchioness of Ely's Millwall, Cubitt and Mudchute, or the means to materialise an additional subway line via Dwarven Magitech.
"Over the last few months, Pats and I have collected more than enough material for the Old Bailey," Richard pointed to Walken's Storage Ring. "There's no doubt that these—"
The young man pointed to a few more faces Gwen had not seen before. "These are the ones giving orders."
"You have proof?" Gwen asked. "Irrefutable proof? Did you steal the Barlow's Mercenary ledger?"
"There's more than enough correlation," Walken chided her scepticism. "When forty fingers and countless witnesses all pointed toward these men, a definite pattern emerges. We've been cautious, you know. We pressed charges when the opportunity arose, but we never pushed the envelope. As a result, I think the Barlow Group believes we either lack the evidence or are too afraid to challenge them openly. Whatever the case, we've stowed enough circumstantial and financial evidence. For this reason, we're counting on you to make sure we get a favourable judge."
"How am I going to do that?" Gwen snorted. "I am a Magus, not a Marchioness. I am not even a Magister yet."
"Ravenport owes you, as do Astor," Walken replied with complete confidence, alluding to her accomplishments since arriving in London. "You said he wanted you to go pay lip service to the Elves, and you did. Not only that, you did the Elves at Tryfan a great favour, or so you say, which means you did our Duke of the Foreign Affairs an even bigger favour. He could refuse, of course, but what kind of precedence would that set? Is it not said that a Ravenport always pays his debts?"
Gwen's flawless brows furrowed.
"You want me to talk to Dicky to repay a hypothetical favour— and that favour is to appoint a biased Inquisitorial Arbitor of the High Court to investigate these claims?"
"Yes," Walken nodded. "Problem?"
"No," Gwen mockingly moved a few inches away from the old schemer. "You know, Eric, you're downright nasty. What's the end game?"
Walken chuckled, his eyes glinting with sadistic malice. "My friends in the Grey Faction have been visiting me of late, now that there's HDMs to be made. They've told me that the Militants have all but lost the land war in the Niger Delta against the Lycanthropes— something about inability to discern between locals and the foe, not that they're any different down there in the Black Zone. Within months, all their mining efforts are going to go up in smokes, meaning their loans will be due very soon."
Gwen made an "o" of appreciation with her lips.
"They've been paying the interest, but once the income ceases, their assets will be on the auction block by September. If they manage to buy our land and can thus build their hotels, it would mean both the Marriott and the Hilton Group would extend their golden fingers to prop up the facade of Barlow's financial stability— but if we were to mire them in a legal battle, and destroy their reputation— and then leak their financial position through the METRO, accuse them of hiding their insolvency—"
Gwen winced at Dominic Lorenzo, her smiling Chief Editor. "I don't think our METRO ought to be used like that."
Unlike politics, a good business was built on a foundation of arithmatics. While businesses built on air could float, their failure would be no less catastrophic than the lofty heights they reached by means of rumours and heresay.
"It's fine if it's the truth," Lorenzo interrupted her. "We're not pretending to be anything we're not. Nor are we being selective about what's been reported. If the IoDRP were to sink to similar methods, you could prime a Void Bolt at my head, and I would still pen the editorial."
"Of course, aren't you the courier who delivers the truth that sets the masses free?" Gwen's chest grew a little fuzzy with warmth at finally meeting a member of her cabal with the right moral compass.
"Guilty as charged," Lorenzo roared with laughter. "Well said, Boss. Shall we go ahead?"
Gwen's lips formed a red line, woeful at the fact that this world had never really understood the allure of an open media, not that hers had been fair nor free. Still, she had to be wary because the Fourth Estate of public opinion was a powerhouse no single person should control, even if her METRO were doing its best to bring about a fairer view of the world for the uneducated. She also felt glad that her labours were now bearing fruit— between West Ferry, the Isle of Dogs, and Shalkar, the gospel of profitable philanthropy she had birthed was now punching above its weight. That said, Gwen understood her venture as a balancing act on a tightrope between two precipices. One wrong move— and one would fall below into the avaricious ocean of the free market, becoming feed for the glinting, pearly teeth of the golden-eyed, gilded Sirens below.
"That said, the problem is Shalkar." Walken watched her face as he spoke. "We need those funds."
"To acquire Barlow's properties when they collapse? Isn't this a bit too soon?"
"Yes, wasn't that your plan? To eventually strip our competitors and cannibalise their profitable divisions?" Walken affirmed her hypothesis. "I don't think Shalkar will be as profitable as Canary Wharf. It's folly to pursue the er, 'good will' too deeply."
Gwen understood her Executive's concern. It was God-given that a Faery Dragon in hand was worth two in the Wildlands. However, there was a whole race of Rat-kin in Shalkar awaiting the deliverance of her angel investment. Their Centaur "allies" had also been promised a share in the profits to purchase food and fodder for their Golden Pavilion and replenish their numbers. Her Executive was correct that there weren't immediate profits in Shalkar, but the man didn't see the whole picture.
"We need Shalkar, and not just for profit," she waited until Walken delivered his conjecture on the first quarterly report before speaking once more to refute her officer. "If anything, the true treasure isn't the Barlow's lands, but a favour from Tryfan for when we finally get to tap into our 'real' business."
She reached into the folds of her dress and removed what looked like a leaf the size of her palm. Then, with mock ceremony, she placed the thing before her peers.
"This is mine," she announced with confidence. "Or at least, it is mine to use as I see fit— until such time that I am not."
Eric Walken, Magister, furrowed his brows. The man had left London early to seek his fortunes in Australia, the one place where trees and Elves were exceedingly rare, and so knew not what Gwen had presented.
"Gwennie." Petra gulped, her clear irises aglow with diagnostic mana. "Is that what I think it is?"
Walken blinked as puzzle pieces fell into place. "An Ilias Leaf? Did y-you take a Leaf from a WORLD TREE? And then you brought it here?"
The unspoken question that followed, Gwen could see, was likely "Will the Elves burn down West Ferry to get it back?"
"It's not THAT special." She stepped back, wiggling her shoulders in glee at their reactions. "That said, THIS, ladies and gents, is a transdimensional, cross-Planar communication device! This— if we can crack the code, will be the foundation of a new Magitech that will change commercial communication— forever!"