With matters settled and the countdown begin, the paper pushers of the big three in London now returned to their machine caves of ink and mechanisms to hammer out tomorrow's headlines. To counter the Sun and the Telegraph, the METRO made an exception to release a Special Edition, a run paid entirely at the expense of the METRO itself. The overt publicity was part of Charlene and Gwen's stratagem, for the public hungered for the new and unusual, leaving no possibility that their rivals would not answer the call.
The second the METRO's men returned from the girls' luncheon, the Dwarves were ready, the engine greased, and the rolls of paper primed. All around the isle, its NoM army had been fed, briefed, and injected full of vim and vigour by a passionate speech from Lorenzo. He had explained that their Mistress of Hounds was fighting on their behalf and that her victory or loss would determine their future livelihoods. The result was a resounding furore only the oppressed could enact when their daily bread was on the line.
Two hours later, still-hot copies of the new editions reached the usual paper handlers and their friends and family as well, and anyone who held a stake in the development of the Isle of Dogs. Mages, NoMs, even Dwarves, Dede and a flock of idle Tower Crows took their share of the METRO, then disseminated the svelte visage of the girls and the smug Exeters across every transit node in London and beyond so that even in the misty town of Swansea, tongues soon wagged for the BBC to broadcast the duel.
For the participants, the unintended impact of the operation was the spontaneous creation of camaraderie. For once, the Mages, NoMs, the skilled and unskilled, the professional and the working class on the Isle of Dogs grew united in a singular love for their Mistress.
By the next edition of the Sun, all news of the continued protests at the Isle of Dogs had been erased from the frontal lobes of the forgetful public as every front page, willingly or otherwise, now lauded the Ravenport girls, with the Exeter Twins somewhere behind the pair with their heads half-cropped.
As organised by Charlene, the national broadcaster then contacted the pair, who happily gave permission for the bout to be recorded for posterity and to be transmuted "live" through the Mageocracy's Divination channels. As for their opponents, Gwen needed no foresight to guess that they would not turn down the opportunity even if they had the intent or means to do so for fear of appearing weak or unsure.
What remained then was the settling of their third number.
In observing the Lumen-casts of the Exeter's prior bouts provided by Charlene, House Holland's ability to match skill to boast was without doubt. "Poins" was a Smoke Mage with a wicked twist, for the boys excelled in the usage of the sorcery of "Force" or the telekinesis of "pure" mana. Force Cage—Wall of Force—Missile Swarm—Bilby's Hand—Morden's Blade—these were the arcanistry that served as the backbone to the usual arsenal of obfuscation utilised by a Smoke Mage. In a live bout, it was near-impossible to position "Poins"—a noted Evoker-Illusionist, who Charlene suspected may also be a dabbler in Mind Magic.
Comparatively, "Thomas" took after Gunther in his approach to arcanistry. The Illusion magic used by Thomas was a source of wonder, visually wreathing the young man in a nimbus of obfuscation, not through insidious shadows, but blaring, retina-searing light. The Force magic used by Thomas were likewise more potent and possessed of far more damage potential than the subtlety preferred by Poins.
In viewing a rare recording acquired by Charlene, Gwen winced as she positioned herself as Thomas' opponent, shrinking in horror as her mana rapidly drained from the endless assault from superheated steam and jabbing shards of Force, held immobile by an invisible Iron Maiden while waiting for her inevitable, impending demise.
For the twins, Force Magic and Illusion was their privilege, one that shored up the weakness of the Smoke and Steam Elements, something Gwen had initially sought to overcome by inviting "Iron Slab" Lulu to London for an exchange program. However, from her research, Lulu versus Force Magic would result in a war of attrition. And if Gwen had to favour a victor, she had no doubt two boys born with True Silver spoons in their mouths would fair better than an abused Sword Mage from Huashang.
"Nonetheless, you ARE suited to fight Thomas," Charlene observed over her Darjeeling. "Bone Armour for the Force Shards, and Void Shield for the Steam."
Presently, the two sat on Emmanuel's infamous Drake Pond lawn, joined by a duck, a crow and a rat. While Gwen had fancied a picnic, Charlene had her butler and a team materialise a table, chairs, and even sunshade in addition to the cakes, tea and ices.
"I could take both, just not at the same time." Gwen touched a hand unconsciously to her chin. "Ariel is highly resistant to the miasma of Smoke and near-impervious to poison and debilitation. Cali is nigh-indestructible so long as I prime my vitality stores. Considering we last met in the arena a year ago, they probably think it's possible to dismiss the Familiars and stun me into submission. What they don't know is that since visiting Tryfan and surviving Shalkar, I've learned some extra things about Creature Magic from a very generous source."
"Abjuration isn't their strong suit, but they could have a true Abjurer as their number three," Charlene remarked. "And we've already discussed your weakness against Mind Magic."
"Yes." Gwen nodded, her lips tight at the recollection of unhappier times. "We would still win, I think. You might have to pry Cali off the brothers, though, or the Mind Mage foolish enough to sever my Empathic Link. In that scenario, your Relations Officer is going to be working overtime."
"Mistress! Please let me fight." Strun fell on all fours, causing Dede to quack in protest. "I'll repay you with my life."
"There's no need," Gwen reminded the rat for the tenth time. "Strun, you'll be not only fighting the Exeters but taking the glory from someone on our side who will be dying for the privilege. I don't anticipate that I'll lose by any means, so why should I risk your life?"
"But I am your… Kaglhesh," Strun muttered a word which Gwen understood to mean "One who shields," but really, considering the context of the Rat-kin's warring traditions, "One who lived as fodder".
"I'll consider it," she relented. She wasn't against having Strun fight, considering the Rat-kin shared her vital stores and had an excess of lifeforce from Garp. The problem was that without Garp in London, Strun's limitless regeneration was severely handicapped, meaning she wasn't about to risk her Rat-man without the surety of victory. Likewise, even if Strun won, she doubted London's high society would very much like seeing one of their brightest disembowelled by the teeth of a Mongolian Death Worm via a "rat".
"QUACK!" Dede flapped its wings.
"I'll consider your proposal too." Gwen gingerly placated the raging duck.
"Mori," Charlene addressed the crow in their midst. "Any news?"
"I guess that's to be expected." The girl shrugged. "I guess Father would have found out by now, but we're not being given that privilege."
"Daddy not helping?"
"I am fighting to show my independence, after all," Charlene said. "Father's right not to intervene. What if the Exeters chose to do the same? Neither of us wants to cross the unspoken line. If our Fathers were to fight, they certainly wouldn't need us as fodder."
"True that," Gwen concurred. "So, to surmise?"
"I don't mind Richard, though your cousin's Sprit could range from absolutely crushing to completely useless. Remember, the fight order is randomised, hence the blind matches."
"So, we can trust the organisers at the All England to make things truly random?"
"If we can't trust the Royal Accreditation League, then who can we trust?" Charlene's reply held more sardonicism than truth. "The League has too much to lose to favour one side or the other."
In the girls' hypothesis, there were a few troublesome archetypes House Holland could easily access that made the pair wary. The first was a Faith Caster from the Order of St George, whose monster-hunting naturally positioned them as allies to the Militants and whose Knight-Captain was a close relative to House Holland. To bring one of the Clerical Battle Mages would wag tongues but wasn't absurd enough to offset the bout's credibility.
In that case, Gwen would undoubtedly have something to worry about, for her Necromancy faired poorly against Faith Magic, and her Void Element performed just as poorly against Faith-laced Radiance.
On their end, Charlene had her own "Knight" to call upon, one with an actual grievance against the Militants. Likewise, there was also Elvia to consider. Though she had not seen Elvia taken to a deadly bout, Gwen possessed enough knowledge of Draconic lineage and Faith Magic and enough understanding of Sen-sen and Kiki to know that her little Evee was now a legitimate contender. What Evee lacked more than anything, Gwen guessed, was viciousness.
In her mind, Force Magic was strong, but could it best the strength of the Yinglong distilled into a root vegetable? Likewise, just as offensive Faith Magic possessed natural advantages against Spellcraft, Elvia's defensive magic and vast vital and mana arrays made her Shield of Faith a bulwark against all danger. Additionally, it wasn't as though a Cleric of the Ordo, even a junior one, could be poisoned or gassed, or even swayed by Mind Magic, as Gwen might. Besides, should anyone delve into a Vessel's mind, Gwen was sure that a disgruntled snort from the Yinglong would explode the head of the Mind Mage like an overripe melon. In that regard, the Dragon's possessiveness for its Vessel was far more potent than Almudj, who was more of an absent father.
Barring a Faith Caster, whoever they picked, the possibility of fighting a legitimate Mind Mage was a significant concern. If Petra was anything to go by, Mind Mages were specially bred through Affinity and talent, and most would have achieved an early peak in their craft by their twenties. In addition to looking svelte or suave, they additionally possessed another form of sorcery as their "cover", just as Petra had her Enchantment. For all Gwen knew, she could be fighting an Abjurer in a battle of attrition, or in the worst case, a skilled Quasi-Elemental Illusionist, who could momentarily disable her with a Feeble Mind or Sensory Jolt.
"I could requisition a capable Mind Mage of our own," Charlene noted over her sugared tea. "Then again, I don't know how useful that would be. The Exeters possess excellent training against Mind Magic. You've been taught to shield against such attacks as well since your arrival, haven't you?"
"More or less." Gwen nodded. "Petra's very helpful in that regard. That said, it's not my forte."
"It's a shame Gracie met you so much later in life. A Void Mind Mage with Illusion? Now that, I wish to witness! Which is why I do think Jean-Paul can work," Charlene said. "If you can give him and his pet some of your Serpent Juice, his 'Usurp' should be able to counter anything the Exeters pick on their end. At the same time, I would be astonished if the student-scion of Meister Bekker of Pretoria could even be influenced by spells not cast by the most senior of Mind Mages. Besides, the boy is chomping at the bits to help, not to mention his Meister will owe us a favour, win or lose."
"I suppose," Gwen considered Charlene's proposal. Firstly, a persistent goal of her work in London was to promote the "Void Cabal". Secondly, when she had asked Jean-Paul, the bloke was more than eager to have her back. Though Angela Bekker had shrugged, her silent consent nonetheless indicated the duel was a good way for Jean-Paul to shore up his "stud" credentials.
Charlene replaced her cup. "Alas, that's how things stand. Quite exciting, no? The thrill of the game is as riotous for us as it is for the spectators. So many variables and outcomes! Now you can see why Duelling is a favourite pastime from Avalon to the New World."
Gwen concurred, for her fingers had been tingling with Elemental Lightning in anticipation.
"What I find curious is that the most important thing is information security," she said. "You said we don't have to settle until the day arrives?"
"Three hours before the match, according to the Duelling Association's rules, yes," Charlene affirmed her understanding. "There's an art to the process. I'll take care of that, of course. Until then, we'll have our numbers on standby."
"Then I propose Jean-Paul, on my part. Elvia's Ordo is never happy when she becomes involved in secular conflicts," Gwen said, fighting the urge to see Elvia kick-ass with the fear that she could be shamed or injured. "Jean-Paul will be happy to be on standby. What do you think? Should I recruit Lulan? As far as I know, she's still training with the White Serpent of Huangshan and performs regular Purge Quests on behalf of Tonglv. I don't know how you're going to get her to London, though?"
Charlene raises a brow. "Did you forget who I am? Who my Father is?"
Gwen conceded that indeed, the Duke of Norfolk who looks over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would not have trouble rubber-stamping a temporary Visitation Permit for one medium-tier Mage from China. For Gwen, whether Lulu fought or otherwise wasn't so much the point as the prospect of seeing an old friend. The duel was an excellent excuse to get Lulan to come and see the world and open up her horizons, with the only shame being that Kuso would have to stay behind to continue his work with Tonglv.
Still, she refrained from the impulse.
Lulan was the type to fight to the death, and Gwen had no idea what she would do if that happened.
"And on my end." Charlene pointed to the list she had earlier produced. "Make a choice, I suppose. Either way, I can provide both my Champion and our number three if I call for it. Likewise, if you're worried, I can detour by Queen's College and pick up our Mind Mage."
On the list were rows of names Gwen had heard of only in passing, within which three made her shortlist.
Glenn Roswell was the IIUC Captain of Charlene's generation, a Mineral Mage Abjurer-Conjurer with a skillset similar to Lulan, except that the man used a Draconic-crystal Spirit that manifested "Dragon Glass".
Alexis Perry, a woman in her twenties, was akin to Gwen possessing a Class V War Mage status. Dubbed the "Little Scarlet", she was a Radiant sorceress in possession of an Efreet Sprite she harvested from the Elemental Sea. If they were to employ Alexis, the strategy need not involve anything more than sitting back to watch the foe melt.
Her eyes fell lower down the list, then stopped at a line Charlene had circled.
Unlike the prior two, Aiden Rothwell was a name she had previously heard from Elvia. The young man was the grandson of Evee's Rectrix, a direct descend serving at the Ordo of the Garter. The Word was that he recently returned from the Niger Delta with a big bone to pick. In the Delta, the Militants had absolved all operations and progress made by the Ordo in their Mission of "Mercy", then wrote them off as collateral. In the makeup of their team, Aiden would play a role opposite that of Jean-Paul, being a supporter, disruptor, Cleric, and damage soaker all-in-one. Unlike Elvia, Aiden was a Faith Caster through and through, capable of a variety of magic unique to his Order's eldritch secrets.
Usually, an ancient Ordo like The Garter would not allow their young Knights to participate in petty politics. Considering the circumstances, the connections, and the stakes in the case of Lady Charlene Ravenport, however, the Rectrix of the Order of the Garter had given consent.
"Very well, I'll ready myself and Jean-Paul on my part."
"And I'll bring Glen, Alexis, and Aiden to be finalised on the day." Charlene struck out a hand.
The girls shook once more.
"Do we need to coordinate anything else?" Gwen breathed out. Since the earliest morning, they had played out hundreds of scenarios, giving her the type of headache usually constrained to tax auditing.
"No. But if you wish to know more, you know where to find me." Charlene rose from her chair and signalled for men to begin the cleanup. "See you on Saturday, Magus Song. Let's hope that for all the effort we've committed—the outcome is both proportional and worthwhile."
The All England.
In the days of yore, the All England had been set up as a club for the Nobility to practice their duels without deadly injury to either spectators and contestants. Over the century, its practices had been borrowed, improved and adapted by Duelling Clubs worldwide to become the "Oxford" standard.
After the Great War against the Masters of Unlife, the traditions saw further development in the New World, where the cities had not been ravaged by a decade of spellfire and decay. In their peculiar, extravagant way, the Americans added terrain transmutation, larger arenas, more robust spell allocations, and the allowance for pre-duel buffs to add to the spectacle.
Many of these wonders adopted by the "Harvard" style of Duels ultimately flowed back into England, forcing the organisers to embrace the advent of randomised terrain, environmental conditions, and allowance for double barriers and, thereby, higher tiers of magic. Consumables remained taboo, while craftables were allowed if personally inscribed and designed by the duellist, except for personal defence items solely for self-preservation.
On the day of fate, the spectators filled into the All England's second Duelling Arena in droves, having waited at the gates since the earliest hour. Most were the well-to-do Mages here for their usual entertainment, though curiously, the bookies observed an inordinate number of NoMs compared to the All England's usual demographic of patrons.
Though Gwen herself would not know the totality of it, her and Charlene's duel with the Exeters had been circulating among the NoMs under their employ as a sort of existential duel determining the future direction of their livelihoods. Far from caring about bloodlines or corporations, what the NoMs who read the METRO had garnered from Lorenzo's craft was that here was the battle of the Progressives and Conservatives. One advocated for keeping the non-magically aligned folk in idle squalor. Conversely, the Gwen represented the forces that would see the NoMs have a "Fair Go".
Thereby, for any who was able to save and spare a ticket for the All England, they did so, acting out a divine duty as witnesses to the making of history.
The arena, therefore, possessed an unusual and boisterous mood, one that had not gone unnoticed by the powers that reside above the duelling ground, above the commentator's podium, and even above even the private suites, where the Duke of Norfolk had cancelled his meetings for the day to attend.
When Gwen and Charlene re-emerged from the registrar's office to a shower of silvery lumen-bulbs, they were joined by Jean-Paul Bekker, scion and Apprentice to Meister Engela Bekker of Pretoria and London Imperial. Beside them stood another young man who appeared the Void Mage's polar opposite, the sunny and blonde-haired Sir Aiden Rothwell. Unlike Jean-Paul's all blacks, the man wore his signatory Garb of the Garter, consisting of a plumed hat, velvet cape and Christ's Cross gules on an ivory shield, casting the Knight in a striking light beside his haughty-heeled mistresses.
For the onlookers, however, it was the girls who truly stood out.
Charlene took once more to the unconventional pants suit favoured by the continental female Magisters in Paris, appearing simultaneously severe and svelte with her smoky eyes and imperious aura of command. She would not be fighting and so had chosen to impose and impress with her presence instead.
Moreso than Charlene, Gwen's new garb had the tongues of the Magisters and Maguses wagging at once.
Stepping into view, Gwen appeared in a form-fitted armoured battle suit forged from what appeared to be crowskin.
The girls didn't know it, but the eyes of her observers were already wandering from the girl to the upper observatory where the Duke of Norfolk surveyed the events below with a critical eye, their minds ripe with confirmed suspicions.
Who else in London had access to magical feathers of such quality and in such rich blackness that when struck by the light, the feathers appeared to consume the motes of Radiance?
For the girl to show up wearing a suit of enchanted feathers could only mean one thing—that the rumours were accurate and that at least once, Lord Ravenport had forgotten to send a Footman as a stand-in. To the crowds' knowledge, there were only so many Tower Ravens of such magical quality in existence, and to harvest only the best feathers for the creation of such garb would require the sacrifice of more Ravens than their minds dared entertain.
Meanwhile, Gwen bathed in their misunderstanding, well-pleased that she had upped the nobles in a game of items. According to the Runemasters at the Printworks, Yassari and a whole platoon of craftsmen had spent hundreds of hours working out a method to preserve the unique attributes of the Da-Peng feathers. As a result, her new suit possessed several logically improbably properties relating to the primordial foes of the Draconic races.
The foremost was its imperviousness to damage, meaning Gwen need not worry about an attack perforating the suit to injure her innards. To this end, Yassari had delivered a warning that while the armour was impossibly sturdy, it did not defy the laws of energy conservation. Should Gwen be struck by Golos' barbed tail, she would not become Swiss cheese, but her body would nonetheless suffer enough blunt-force trauma to induce organ failure. It was why MKII Dwarven Golems favoured disposable reactive shells more than the older stubborn, immovable Dark Iron variants.
Secondly, the suit was well suited for agility, possessing incredible weight should she strike or charge an opponent while simultaneously being weightless in flight. The paradox was so strange that even now, Yossari's folk could not reproduce its properties and could only mark it down as a chaotic, primordial trait of the Da-peng derived from the Age of Dragons, where the birds hunted lizards for food and sport at a time when the Seven Ancestors yet recorded the rules of the world.
The third property of her new suit was gobsmacking, albeit useless in the duel. She was nigh "impervious" to the magic of common Dragons. As to the degree of her immunity, Yassari said that there was no way for the Dwarves to test the item without letting the crow out of the coop, but they were confident even Golos' breath would slide off the feathers like Magic Missiles off Dede's back.
Finally, the fourth property was one to which Gwen felt rather proud. Her item was unique, for having the suit made involved both hunting the Da-peng that lived within the Wall of Woods in Amazonia AND having the connections to a Citadel's Heart Forge. When Gwen had registered her ownership with the Shard, the Magister there informed her that she could loan the item out at an exorbitant price should she wished. Of course, she didn't need the money—which meant the only means to borrow the suit would be in CCs or through bartering favours.
Therefore, dressed in her snazzy new suit, it was with buoyant confidence that Gwen looked forward to ripping the Exeters a new one, knowing that wardrobe malfunctions would now be a thing of the past.
At the threshold of the Duelling Arena's entrance, Gwen could already smell the excitement outside in the thousands of bodies eagerly awaiting the emergence of the contestants.
Beside the foursome, the Assistant Adjudicator received the signal, then bowed toward Charlene and Gwen.
"Miladies. The authority has been given, and you may commence at your leisure."
Gwen took a deep breath, then inhaled the buzz of excitement now sweeping over the crowd like a droning mana thrum. "Charlene?"
"I am ready." Her partner smiled. "Magus Bekker? Sir Rothwell? Are you ready?"
"At your service, Milady." The Knight's voice was bright and charged with anticipation. "Victory or death."
"I will not fail." Jean-Paul's expression was ashen, possibly from his pre-game preparations but more likely from stage fright.
"Very well." Gwen took the first step forward. "ONWARDS!"
Lord Mycroft Ravenport stood a perfect distance from the invisible Wall of Force acting as a fail-safe from potential debris, gazing downward at the arena where his daughter, his "love child", and their two camp-de-aides entered.
That Charlene and Gwen were now Witches of the same Cabal had been well within his expectations, been that Charlene had taken NoMs as her political unicorn, while the girl had an obsession with NoMs since Australia. The cost of the union had been a portion of the Norfolk Fund, though Mycroft was happy to pay it, as tethering the girl to the Mageocracy's interests had been his plan from the very beginning.
What he had not anticipated was how quickly the girls would confront their natural enemies in the conservative Militant Faction, nor had he expected the girls to march forward with such momentum. A part of him felt relieved, for Charlene could then truly stand on her own and wash away the stain that Edmund had brought upon the family. His second wife as well, could finally shut up and return to holding her head with haughtiness. Concurrently, another part of him, the invariable part that remained the father to a little girl in happier times, couldn't help but feel like he should secretly snuff the idiotic twins like two fragile candles in the dark. To have designs on Charlene! The shamelessness was dizzying, for not even their father had dared broach the subject.
But to shelter his Manticore cub meant Charlene would never come of age nor stand on her own. If Kilroy's Apprentice could crawl from the Frontier to stand in the All England, then why shouldn't his daughter, possessed of nobler blood and more significant resources, manage the same if not greater?
Slowly, Mycroft's eyes drifted across the Duelling Arena toward the west entrance, where already, the Exeters were cracking jokes and giddy with glee at the trap they had laid for the girls.
Besides the men were their invitee from the New World, a young man who had demanded to come to London because he had heard that the Dwarves here were sharing their knowledge of Golem making Magi-tech.
To his knowledge, the Militant Faction had arranged the man's entry into London. However, the young man likely did not know that the woman responsible for the Dwarves coming out of the fold had no relations to the Militant Faction and were, in fact, a stalwart antagonist to the Faction's interests.
Beside the threesome on an enormous levitation platform sat the young man's war engine, a murderous machine made for a singular purpose, designed from the Mana Core to its fibrous pseudo-sinews to hunt the most dastardly of Magical Beasts.
Were he to disregard his role as a father, Mycroft would feel impressed by the Militants' and their multi-pronged ploy.
Foremostly, there were no Mages in London who knew how to fight an MK III Centurion Custom with its variable array of Spellswords, Wands and warding magic. Likewise, the number of Mages in London who could confess to having ever fought an American Golem Engine vis-a-vis and one-to-one could be counted on one hand.
Yet, since the young man had "made" the suit himself and were its chief designer, the All England had grudgingly allowed it. Indeed, such inclusions were not uncommon in the International Inter-University Competition, though rarely did anyone other than the Americans field such outlandish items that were useless in cramped Dungeon and across the vast tracts of the Wildlands.
Secondly—Mycroft licked his lips in mild frustration—had any Mage of the girl and her friend's calibre ever fought an NoM? One that could potentially best them should they allow the slightest slip? If he were in Gwen's position, he would protest and demand that the Exeters show their honour as scions of Spellcraft. To make a Norfolk duel an NoM? The very idea made his skin crawl. And in addition, there was a potential of loss? In that case, Mycroft would abide by nothing less than tearing the Golem apart and reducing the pilot to a screaming, shrivelling husk while he stared impassively at the twins who dared to insult him.
But for his daughter, who purportedly supported NoMs?
Or Gwen, whose softness was as infamous as her Void Sorcery?
Indeed, Mycroft had to concede with a grudging, silent growl—that for once, not all the brains had been bred out of the Golden Blood of Henry.