Gwen had good reasons for conjuring Golos.
Firstly, the Wyvern was no regular Planar Ally, but a true-to-life corporeal being with a Core, capable of sustaining himself indefinitely. Secondly, Golos was bound by his oath to Ruxin and just as beholden to Ayxin, so she had significant leverage over the unruly creature. Thirdly, since Fudan had chosen cooperative play, there was no reason why she shouldn't abuse every resource.
Golos, therefore, embodied great profit, moderate cost, and a median magnitude of risk.
Then there was a fourth reason.
Amazonia didn't appear, at least near its edge, to possess a dragon-host. In consulting with Inti and his peers for the last three days, she had grasped that the Incan variation of a dragon was akin to something of a chimaera, with the head of a llama, the maw of a puma, condor wings, snake's body, and a fish's tail. In a way, it was similar to a Kirin, though unlike the meddling Chinese dragons, "Amaru the Dragon" had more in common with Almudj in that it seldom if ever manifested.
According to Tica, the rainforest had a clear hierarchy with well-defined territories. Predatory birds and Harpy flocks occupied the emergent layer; simians, the canopy; fungi and lesser life forms in the dark zone of the understory; and finally, trolls and stranger megafauna occupied the forest floor. The apex predator that defied these boundaries was the Amazonian Jaguar; a creature sleek, midnight black and perpetually hungry, possessed of two or more puckering tentacles. Such a creature, Tica explained, was king whether across the arboreal realm, the forest floor, or the waters of the Amazon river.
Comparatively, Dragons, as a whole, were predators above the ecological pyramid. If so, what happens when a semi-trailer sized Thunder Wyvern was introduced? After all, in Huangshan, she had seen Magical Beasts lying down like carps on a chopping board.
The potential gains made her giddy.
She finished her chant with a flourish, conjured a bolt from the blue, then waited for the Glyphs to cool.
The living lightning solidified.
Her audience marvelled, gasped, opened their mouths in abject awe. A smile touched Gwen's lips. She felt a surge of satisfaction, mingling with the lightning massaging her conduits.
Golos' armoured eyelids slid open, pulling back both membranes. The brute was magnificent as always, like a maned lion overlooking a herd of gazelles.
"What needs killing?" The Wyvern yawned, tired after the long transit. Its gaze swept the perimeter and spotted the Peruvians. "Those?"
"Back, foul beast!" Tupaq stood in front of his future sovereign. A split-second later, he was the size of a troll and sporting the head of a magnificent golden puma.
Golos' nostrils flared. "Eugh, musky. I prefer those females behind you."
The girls behind Inti readied their spells.
"Don't be a dick, Golos," Gwen intervened, then introduced each of their observers. "Those are our allies, that's our proctors for the IIUC, there's my team, and those are civilians. Okay? NO EATING FRIENDS!"
Golos reared its serpent's head, a few feathered plumes, inherited from his father, glistened with a rainbow hue. Without opening his mouth, the Wyvern was a majestic thing.
"Where in Huangshan am I?"
"Amazonia!" Gwen clapped both hands, snapping him to attention. "Isn't it exciting, Golos? You're in South America!"
"Are we near Shanghai?" Golos crackled with lightning. "I sense lots of life, all strange. And those people, they smell strange."
Gwen furrowed her brows.
"Golos, do you know where America is?"
Golos snorted. "It's across the ocean."
"Near Japan." Golo rolled a reptilian eye.
"Strewth, you poor thing..."
Gwen patted the Wyvern on the knees, watching the electricity arc from his blue-white scales to her fingers, eliciting additional gasps from her disbelieving audience.
Golos spotted Lulan and Petra in the audience.
"You, I know you."
Lulan waved back uncertainly.
"Both of you smell like Naga." The Wyvern sniffed. "From Brother?"
"Whoa! WHOA!" Gwen raised both arms. "That's privileged information, dummy. Tell you what, you look hungry. We'll agree to a few ground rules, and then I'll undo the circle so you can explore. There's much to show you, and most importantly, tons to eat."
"Good." Golos snapped its jaws a few times, dislodging globs of thick saliva.
"I think you'll like it here." Gwen grinned at the Wyvern. "Now, for the quest ahead, we're competing…"
"Eat now, talk later." Golos' nostrils flared, forming two white-hot furnaces. "Hungry."
"… fine." Gwen struck Golos in the ribs, then turned to her teammates and her proctors. "Sir Lucas, Inti, everyone, if you would excuse me, I need to take Gogo for a walk."
"Gogo—" Golos protested.
"Where are you going?" Auberon appeared to be wrangling a massive migraine.
Gwen pointed to the Amazon.
"A walk in the park?" Gwen smirked.
"Miss Gwen?" Inti raised his voice.
"May we observe our new ally?"
"Golos?" Gwen wasn't sure if her Wyvern was the sort to enjoy a meal in private or in public.
"If they keep out of my way," Golos grumbled. "Undo the circle. Also, what is Gogo?"
"We'll corral the beasts for you, Sir Golos." Inti far too quickly accepted his new reality. "Tupaq here is an excellent hunter. You shall have no want of prey!"
"Lord Inti!" the three girls behind him were aghast. "No!"
Golos snorted lightning.
"I like this one." He gave Gwen the evil eye. "Why can't you behave like this?"
"Why can't you be like Ariel?" Gwen fired back.
"HMMPH!" Golos nudged Gwen with its flank so that she stumbled. Gwen knew that Golos felt confused by Ariel. Strictly speaking, Kirins were many rungs above wyverns in the draconic-pecking order, not to mention Gwen's Familiar possessed the essence of a primordial being.
"Anyway, no funny business. Alright? I am going to let you out now. Petra?"
"Go ahead." Petra made the sign for "okay".
Gwen made a quick invocation, watching as the glow from the Glyphs faded. When Golos left the circle, he noticed a crate of HDMs which had yet to be drained.
"Ooo, is this for me?" Before Gwen could protest, the crate disappeared.
"YOU have a Storage Ring?" Gwen furrowed her brows. "Why?"
"Ruxin wants souvenirs." Golos stretched out his wings. From tip to tip, its arms exceeded twenty-meters.
"Is our newest member safe to be around?" Rene recalled being informed about Golos.
"Let's stay away for now," Petra offered sagely. "At least until it's fed."
Auberon and the other proctor exchanged looks of consternation.
"Sir." Lucy trembled as the Wyvern's depthless, slitted eyes registered all the food it could potentially eat. "Is this… cheating?"
"Inti, what are we going to do?"
After watching Gwen's "Gogo" hunt, Inti cooly meditated over the new revelations of Fudan's potential. Unfortunately, his peers possessed nothing of his level-headedness.
"Do what, exactly?" Inti faced the three girls, each young, talented and a potential future concubine. All three were from the Shuar, an essential political and geographical ally of the Empire. Misi was a shapeshifter; Kusi was a Soul Priestess; behind the two look-alike girls, Mallqu, whose name meant little bird, was a Spirit Shaman.
"What are you going to do about that monstrosity?" Misi snarled, attracting a discouraging look from Tupaq.
"Peace, sister," Kusi stifled Musi's upset. "Inti, what do you make of this Chinese Amaru?"
"He's a Thunder Wyvern, actually." Inti remained in his meditative pose. "Her Kirin is closer to Amaru. Nonetheless, it's a beautiful brute, did you see how its scales caught the light? Gwen's a gifted girl, that's for sure."
"Waters of Titicaca!" Misi boiled over. "Don't you want to win?"
"Win?" Inti sighed. Even discouraged, the prince's aura was overwhelming. "We're here to recover relics of our people. That's a win."
"OUR people," Inti reiterated the collective pronoun. "The Shuar are as much a fabric of the Empire as I. How else could the Shuar's unique craft be accepted by the powers that be? You know how the outsiders treat Necromancy. The Shuar—"
"A label with no meaning." Kusi shook her head. "Inti, you should know better."
"Cuzco, the Inca, and the Shuar cannot survive alone." Inti's words flowed like golden honey. "How many years have your people fought the trolls? How many settlements are do you have left in Amazonia?"
"Are you mocking us?" Misi snarled like a jaguar. "If Tica were here, she'd give you a tongue-lashing."
"That was not my intention, my apologies." Inti raised both hands in an offer of peace. He grinned handsomely, a harmless, affable prince of the Inca. "As I said, we're in this together. Mallqu, do you have anything to add?"
The quiet girl shook her head. She appeared younger than the caramel-complexioned tribeswomen, with a face far more delicate than the headstrong Misi and paler than the soft-lipped Kusi.
"Then let's not worry about our wyvern-shaped boon." Inti gestured to the coiled monster out in the courtyard. "Fudan will repel the trolls, as will we. With a bit of luck, I dare say we can cleanse the ruined city entirely."
"That brute is going to destroy everything."
"No matter." Inti shrugged. "The relics are sealed in the old vaults. The upper city is a ruin for a reason, you know. In all likelihood, it's a troll fort by now."
The three girls stood while Inti returned to his meditation, one frustrated, one anxious, and one possessed of no particular emotion.
"Get some rest." Inti's soothing voice floated through the air. "I suspect Tica will be back soon."
The lost Antis region.
By the account of early Incan explorers, the Amazon river was once a nameless serpent that spanned the horizons. Upon its death, its body then transformed into the great river, with its bones, flesh and guts becoming the river's life forms.
It was a good story, one that everyone in Cuzco knew.
Tica Chuquipoma-Yupanqui, however, did not take heed of this outlandish, outdated tale. According to her Master, Amaru, much of the mythos that surrounded Incan lore had been debunked by Spellcraft and western natural philosophy. The Apu, for example, were Magical Beasts. Amaru "turning in its sleep" was merely tectonic plates shaking the Andes. "Inti's birth and rebirth" likewise, was a solar eclipse. When she considered that the Aztecan Theocracy continued to sacrifice virgins to bring back the sun, she couldn't help but be cynical.
"According to the map, we can now follow the tributary upstream until we find the temple, or at least where 'three rivers meet'." Richard, her counterpart, studied the glistening river. The last few days had been a trial in itself, involving trolls, jaguars and walking mushrooms that erupted into an ocean of spores when they died. Were it not for Eunae picking up the slack; the contestants may have already sent a team member home to Cuzco.
By day four, both groups agreed that finding the river and back-tracking was more accessible than discovering tributaries smothered by overgrown greenery. At the very least, Magical Creatures that lived in the river kept to the water, affording the flying Mages more leeway compared to an overland trek.
An Undine emerged from the scintillating water, ensorceling a human-sized fish with a silvery body and blood-red fins.
"This thing was lurking below us." the humanoid-elemental tossed the fish from side to side.
"That looks good for eating." Richard studied the trashing river-monster, chomping at the air with its dagger-teeth. "What is it?"
"A Pirarucu." Tica recognised the scarlet fins. "Red Fish."
"Tonight, we feast on Pirarucu steaks," Richard declared.
The others cheered half-heartedly. They were all exhausted by the humidity and the unceasing combat.
Nodding, Tica materialised her Sundew Familiar on the palm of her hand.
"How is it upstream?"
"…" the Sundew wiggled its tentacles.
"That many? How far's the inlet?"
"…" Coca contracted and expanded.
"Can we go around?"
"…" The tentacles performed an Aztecan Wave.
"What's the matter?" Richard washed his hands. The Pirarucu couldn't be stowed in the Storage Ring while it was alive, so he and Anita had just performed culinary fish-surgery.
"Troll encampment barring our way, a big one. Twenty-thirty individuals at least." Tica chewed her lower-lips. "We can't bypass them without pushing into the canopy. If we detour, the combat will alert them anyway."
"Likely. Urqu can check from a distance."
"I need specifics to make a judgement. Mayuree?"
"Out of her range." Tica shook her head. "The trolls will scent you before you're close enough."
"Scent?" Mayuree sniffed her dirt-covered hands.
"Body odour, shampoo, your perfume…" Tica's counsel made the Diviner's skin crawl. "Troll Hunters, the thin ones with the long limbs, they have hyper-sensitive olfactory organs."
Richard considered their options.
"Hmm." He materialised a still-bleeding fish head. "What if a person's covered in this?"
Mayuree gawked at the lifeless eyes in horror.
"You can wear it like a helmet," Richard explained. "Wear the carcass like a coat..."
Their Diviner began to gag.
"Wait," Tica urged him to pack the fishhead. "We don't need the fish. I can cover us with Coca."
Mayuree breathed out.
"Okay, but let's test the theory first," Richard said. "I'll go with them. If nothing else, I can D-D Mia in a jiffy."
"Fine," Tica conjured a handful of Coca clones in her hand. "Put these on, and I'll do the rest."
An hour later, Mayuree, Richard and Urqu returned.
"Right." Richard tapped the map of the region their Diviner had scouted, perfectly happy with the wiggling Sundew sitting atop his head. "Here's the plan…"
The village which the party's scouts had observed was a settlement carved into the riverside, a primitive affair consisting of thick logs staked together to form a circular fence. The troll-home was a gathering outpost for fish, for they saw evidence of a drying rack, netting, as well as dozens of carcasses stacked in a pile, awaiting butchery beside a smokehouse.
"About ten warriors, two shabby-looking shamans, and the rest look like labourers," Richard said. "At least I think they're labourers. They have no tusks. What does that mean?"
"Likely youngsters, that or de-fanged slaves captured from other tribes," Tica returned. "To become a warrior; an adult troll has to survive in the jungle alone, the trophies they bring back as proof of their prowess determine the pecking order."
"Teenage trolls?" Richard scoffed, shaking his head in wonder. "Eh, they burn all the same."
The team again looked over Richard's plan.
On the map, several Xs marked the spot. These, Richard had explained, offered the best vantage to enable a raging, all-consuming forest fire. Thanks to Urqu, they could control the wind, and with Jiro and Qari, they could control the blaze. Together, they would herd the trolls into a narrow channel conveniently devoid of flames.
Then, within this short corridor of safety, Tica would entangle the lot of them, simultaneously unleashing Coca. Richard and Sumatika would play control, keeping the trolls penned. As for insurance, Tica would use faith-magic to bestow a round of raw radiance upon their hapless victims.
"Speed is key." Richard traced the Walls of Fire with his fingers. "Don't hold back on mana. Anyone need potions?"
The group shook their head.
"Good." Richard stood. "Good hunting."
Tica wetted her lips, already imagining the Inca's wrath falling on the savages. That, and the CCs she would gain for Cuzco.
With the newly risen sun, Golos scampered up the cliffside, dislodging chunks of stone and vegetation that had grown out over the centuries.
Once back at the fort, the Wyvern found a grassy knoll, then rolled over as though he owned the place.
"... those long-nosed pigs are as good as Ryxi's fish."
"Oh, there'll be plenty of fish as well." Gwen found a place to sit beside the big beast. "I heard there are catfish in there half your size."
"Burp!" Golos belched. "The snake was much meatier than I thought. I thought of Ryxi screaming for help while I ate it, hee hee hee…"
"See how good you have it, Golos?" Gwen pressed the Wyvern while he remained satiated. "In serving me, you'll have no want for crystals, for meat, or whatever."
"Serve you?!" Golos moved his neck so that he was snout to face with the girl.
"ERGH, your breath!" Gwen gagged; assaulted by a redolence akin to concentrated cat-breath.
"Hoooo!" Golos laughed childishly, then huffed in her face, glob and all.
Gwen Dimensioned Doored away, holding back a Chakram. Her draconic-constitution had given her finely-tuned senses, ones which she now deeply loathed.
Golos continued his deep-throated laughter.
"Bloody hell. Stay here and don't wander off." Gwen realised she had to change immediately or at least activate a laundry cantrip. "When you're done digesting, come find me in your human form. I'll introduce—"
The Wyvern snubbed her, turning away disinterestedly. It then coiled its semi-trailer body like a cat's, facing the sun to warm its scales.
Gwen stomped her feet in frustration.
The bloody thing was begging for a Caliban in the arse.
"Inti, you're not going to believe this," Musi interrupted Inti's morning rites. "Fudan's sorceress has gone mad."
Quickly, Inti exited the guard's room.
There, in the central courtyard, he saw her.
The spectacle he witnessed was shocking enough to warrant a hasty sign of the sun across his chest. He then moved closer, drawn by morbid curiosity.
"What in Titicaca's name is she doing?" Kusi held her lips with her fingers.
"Void madness?" Inti offered a suggestion. From Amaru, he had heard that those who dabble in the Void tended to be a little uneasy in the head. Still, he had never thought to witness such an unbalanced display in public, much less in the middle of the IIUC.
Currently, in front of Inti, watched by the proctors and others, Gwen Song dug through a pile of offensive wyvern excrement the height of her waist.
Not far, holding their nose and observing with expressionless faces, her teammates formed a protective perimeter, shielding Gwen from anyone who may, as it were, compete with her for the pile.
Feeling a rare revulsion coming on, Inti scanned the fort for signs of the Wyvern.
He soon spotted a hulk taller than even Tupaq, with a head of blue-silver and a ridged face only somewhat human. It didn't take a Spirit Shaman to guess that this was Golos in his poorly construed human-form, a realisation that filled his heart with yet more ambivalence.
"EUREKA!" came a triumphant cry from Fudan's principle sorceress. "YOU BLOODY RIPPER!"
Inti fought down a gulp of bile. Did she mean the Wyvern had blood in its stool? Was she a specialist Conjurer with a degree in veterinary care? He had heard of such Mages overseas, and the Temple too possessed virgins who could care for Magical Beasts.
A glint caught his eyes.
Gwen Song held a Creature Core aloft. From its appearance, Inti knew that it belonged to a Titan Boa- an elder-specimen.
"What…" he mouthed, accidentally swallowing the fetid air. Besides him, Tupaq and the three girls who had joined him gagged.
Across the pile, the proctors stared hard.
A tier-5 or 6 Titan Boa Core wasn't rare, but it was a good thousand or more HDMs.
And now, Gwen Song had found one in a pile of shit.
Was that why the girl spent HDMs like water? Inti couldn't help but feel his economic acumen was being challenged. Where others dug crystals from the ground, she found thousands of HDMs by stomping through turds?
"I knew it!" The girl pulled her long limbs away from the offensive material, then quickly activated a laundry spell-device, soaking her suit and dispelling the sludge. In her other hand, she held three-more smaller Cores.
With great joy, she skipped toward the suddenly apprehensive Wyvern.
"Gogo!" she moved to hug him. "You magnificent draconic bastard!"