Gwen now possessed such anticipation for the Amazon that her excitement was enough to displace the reek of excrement.
It had all begun the morning after Golos' foray into the jungle. Taking her morning jog, she came across what could only be the largest, foulest pile of draconic expulsion she had ever seen. The reality that dragons could "poop" was proven by Caliban, but of course, for creatures like Ruxin and the Yinglong, it was absurd to imagine them squatting over a litter box, roaring with effort.
It was only Golos, still a few centuries from maturity, that obsessed with eating and rutting. Nonetheless, Gwen had never seen journals or articles written on draconic-expulsions. Somewhere, a post-grad Magus could pursue a Magistership if they knew what she knew.
The whole ordeal began the night before. True to Gwen's demands, Golos had transformed, then introduced himself as their new leader. Almost without pause, he asked Petra if she would like to rut. Petra politely declined and suggested maybe Gwen could sample the goods. Golos then thoughtfully enquired if she would like to rut, and Gwen returned that Caliban was desperate for a Wyvern form.
Golos remained undeterred. A wyvern's gotta eat; he explained — a wyvern's gotta rut.
"A Wyvern's gotta shit?" she had replied sarcastically.
And here was her answer.
A turd-consuming Void Sphere was halfway vocalised when she spotted a glint.
Her nose wrinkled. A Creature Core?
Holding her breath, doubting her eyes, she approached the pile.
The previous day, Golos had eaten until he was sick. There had been tapir-like boars, monkeys with three tails, boar-sized frogs with translucent bellies, and an unlucky Titan Boa.
All of which slid down Golos' gullet without complaint.
Dragons, Gwen recalled the lesson from Ruxin, were beings that grew stronger by drawing nourishment from their hunt. When consuming other creatures, a dragon "fed" on their Essence as well. Concurrently, she thought of the Kirin Amulet and how it absorbed Essence from slain beasts into its Core. Perhaps, she realised, this was the real reason for the Amulet's abilities. Mysticisms aside, it came down to unadulterated, draconic mechanics.
As for Gogo, her test subject was a mere Wyvern, but one she was willing to risk.
Could Golos mass-generate Cores gastronomically? Though she had no dire need for HDMs, Cores were almost always in short supply. There were many Enchanters, but never enough ingredients for experimentation.
Full of hope, she dug into the pile, ferreting for treasure. Her Detect Magic, honed and trained after a semester of Divination Utility 101, cried out that this wasn't what it was designed to do.
THERE! Her heart sang as her nose died. Golos' poo was obstinate, but she was strong! It's a durian, she told herself. I am splitting a durian.
"EUREKA!" She raised the scintillating orb to the light.
I have to thank Ruxin, Gwen reminded herself, maybe shout the dragon dinner. Golos was the best summon a girl could want. A Planar Ally that paid for itself.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
The team's jubilation was short-lived.
Inbetween a dream involving Gogo-golden-durians, simultaneous activations of Fudan's Message bangles shook Gwen and her companions from the lull of slumber.
"Mia?" Gwen punched the Glyph, half dazed. "You're back?"
"WE'RE COMING IN HOT!" Richard's voice filled the darkness, a moment before Rene lit the room with a pair of Dancing Lights. "Ten minutes! We're ten-Ks out!"
"Are you safe—"
DANG! DANG! DANG! DANG! The sound of alarm bells ringing through the fort brought the outpost into full-alert.
"Get ready!" Richard's voice came through. "We brought a shit load of Harpies! They're all CCs!"
"Got it." Gwen leapt from the bed. She pulled the combat suit over her intimates, then parted the privacy curtain. Unlike her previous skin-suit, Shen-tei's transformative function saved her the trouble of wriggling into a shed skin. She activated her Message again. "Everyone, get that?"
"Outside already," Tei's voice returned. "I'll go set up the defences."
"Give me one minute." Rene's muffled voice came from the adjacent bed. The Magma Mage was a heavy sleeper.
"Lulan and I will go with Tei." Petra's Message indicated she was already outside as well. "Inti and his team just arrived."
With a sound of hissing air, the suit's material adhered. She spent a second stretching out the kinks, then Dimension Doored outside.
"GOLOS!" she cried out into the darkness.
"Here." Golos yawned, leaning against the fort's battlement.
"There's a buffet of CCs incoming," Gwen informed him.
"Never ate a Harpy before." Golos affected a toothy grin.
"Help yourself." Gwen conjured both Ariel and Caliban with a thought. "Watch out for friendlies."
Another Dimension Door later, Gwen arrived at the eastern battlements. In the typical Incan fashion, the observation post at Marcapata was formed of shaped stones staggered so that they slotted seamlessly. The design was highly resistant against impact and earthquakes. Here and there, Glyphs were carved in gold, bolstering the fort's magical defences.
"I see the flock now." Gwen's night-vision was near-supernatural. "Bloody hell, that's a biblical volume of Harpies."
"Can you see us?" Richard's voice came through. "Jiro's almost out of mana, look for the Fireball!"
In the bible-black night, a brilliant flash of orange caught the contestant's eyes.
"I see you." Gwen squinted, channelling Almudj's Essence into her orbs. "The Message device registered only seven of you…"
"The others are hopefully back in Cuzco." Her cousin's voice took on a hard edge. "It wasn't easy breaking through the canopy and outrunning the birds. Don't worry. There wasn't any foul play."
Gwen glanced at Inti's group, noting their grim expressions. From the faint glow at Inti's ear, he was likely conversing with Tica. Before she could withdraw her gaze, Inti caught her watching.
"Miss Song." Inti pointed to the flock in the distance, a roving mass of indistinct shadows. "I am going to open with a wide-area AoE. Unfortunately, I do not possess the ability to differentiate friend from foe, can you tell your team to retreat?"
Gwen frowned. "Why risk striking our allies? We can do it together. All of our AoEs possess IFF."
Inti cranked up his aura. "My spell works best if the enemy is densely clustered. The opportunity will soon be lost, so please tell your team to retreat. We shall share the CCs, I assure you."
Before she could dissuade the prince, Inti rose into the air.
Sensing a stubborn parallel between Inti and Golos, Gwen opened a channel to Richard. "Dick, you and the others need to get moving."
"Wall of Water!" Richard stabbed himself with an injector, wincing as his VMI shot to a tenth of its usual maximum. "Lea! Left side!"
"Coca!" Tica followed suit, blasting the flock with massive webs dozens of meters across. Her spell was efficient and useful, but the Harpies had since caught on. This time, the birds had their rainbow-plumed priestesses in tow, considerably boosting the flock's overall prowess. "We need to move."
"Pack them tighter!" Richard commanded. "Jiro!"
"FLAMING TEMPEST!" Jiro had reached his alchemical limit fifty-kilometres ago and was now running on fumes. He covered their flanks, driving the pursuers closer, then stumbled as his movements momentarily faltered.
"I got him." Mayuree burned another Magic Item, blasting forward with Jiro in tow. She had spared no expense since the parties had escaped the temple ruins via the Harpies' tree-top lairs.
"Sanctuary!" Eunae relieved the Harpies' attention on their Fire Mage. "Watch out! Shield of—"
A blade of air, razor-sharp and ten-meters tall, split Richard's cascading Wall of Water in twain. It continued to travel, forcing Richard to sharply bank.
"Fuck!" Richard cursed. His left leg felt suddenly hot and cold. The combat suit had helped, but the light plating wasn't able to negate the entirety of the Wind Blade's damage, leaving him with a gash that stretched from calf to thigh. "Eunae!"
"Healing Word!" Eunae deftly switched from Shield of Faith to a minor invocation that could be used mid-flight. "Incoming!"
Richard cursed. He was almost OoM. The team's other defenders had already done their jobs. Uturunku had been the first to go, being the least capable and the slowest flier of the group. Rather than hindering the party's escape, he had chosen instead to delay the Harpies' advance.
After that, it had been Anita's turn. As a Mineral Abjurer-Transmuter, she possessed the second slowest flight-speed.
About a hundred kilometres later, Sumatika offered herself, though the Water Mage halted the flock only momentarily before she was swamped by Harpies clawing at her flesh.
Now, it was his turn to corral their CCs.
"GO!" He stopped. "Lea, keep them off me. Thirty seconds!"
"Richard!" his teammates cried out. "An AoE is coming!"
"GO NOW!" The Water Mage's face turned cruel. From his ring, he withdrew a rod of pyrite. Ever since Seoul, he had paid close attention to potential applications of Cloud Kill.
The Harpies swooped, their screeching voices filled his ears.
His spell would take six-seconds to manifest, and another ten to reach maximum range. He intended to hold them for a minute, but if the demi-human casters intervened, he had no idea if he could last that long.
Faced with a roving, endless tide of flapping wings, Richard felt as though he was reliving the Beast Tide of 71.
ZWING! Came the sound of a fast-moving metal object.
A Harpy that had careless clawed at him exploded into a puff of dark feathers. The slab of shaped iron continued onward, its momentum unimpeded, skewering, smashing and maiming six-more creatures before it tumbled into the forest below.
ZWING! ZWING! ZWING! ZWING!
Four more volleys followed, clearing the space around Richard.
Lulu! Richard applauded the girl. Gwen had picked a real gem.
"DICK! WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU STILL IN THE BAIT BALL?" Gwen's voice barked beside his ear.
Richard scoffed. How massive could this AoE be? But, his vice-captain's orders needed following. He stowed his bar of pyrite, then shot downward toward the safety of the canopy below.
Behind him, the night sky grew suddenly bright.
Where Richard had been, the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Radiance gave birth to a star.
An incandescent ball every bit as brilliant as the celestial orb that brought life to the clay of terra lit the darkness with the collated faith of the Inca.
The Harpies closest to the orb melted like wax, their feathers suddenly alight; the fat of their goose-skin sizzling to a crisp as their eyes boiled in their sockets.
Richard too felt a numbing sensation across his posterior and his scalp. He smelled the sizzling of flesh and the acrid scent of hair set aflame. Lea evaporated with a wail, retreating into his pocket dimension.
He began to fall.
"Bugger." Richard puckered his lips thoughtfully. Assuming he didn't die immediately, Gwen would have to buy him a new Contingency Ring.
A burst of silvery Conjuration heralded the arrival of his timely saviour. Gwen caught him by the arm, then slung her cousin across her shoulder with ease. Where her fingers swiped his neck, a sheet of foaming material and scalded skin slid apart.
"Three stars for elemental resistance," Richard joked.
"I'll let Yeye know." Gwen activated a Spell Cube with one hand while her semi-dome Shield sizzled. "Hold on."
A series of gut-churning Dimension Doors later, they were back on Condor's Rise.
"Wocao! You look like a baked goose!"
"See…" Richard pointed at the glowing sun in dismay, his heart throbbing with agony. Below its brilliance, Harpies were falling like flies.
The team shielded their eyes.
"See what, Richard?" Gwen felt for his pulse. She then uncorked a bottle of Maotai and fed her cousin a mouthful.
"CCs!" Richard spat, his eyes watered. "Our CCs!"
The rest of the team breathed out. If Richard was crying over Contribution Credits, then he should be fine.
Behind them, Mayuree, Eunae, Tica and the rest were now landing. Like Fudan, Cuzco's team immediately surrounded their Mages, with the quiet girl, Mallqu, delivering a few healing spells of her own.
Gwen greeted her team members with open arms, heedless of their bloody attire and pungent aroma.
"You've worked hard." She hugged Mayuree tightly, then held Mia's head against her chest.
"We did it." Mayuree was keen to report on their success. "We…"
"Later." Gwen released the girl, then embraced Eunae. "Eunnie, thanks."
Jiro waited in line.
Gwen struck out a hand.
Jiro's shoulders fell.
"Just kidding, ya goof." Gwen pulled the young man close, then gave him a big bear-hug, lifting him from the ground. "Good work! Thanks for taking care of them."
Jiro retreated, pushing his bones back in place.
"Poor Anita." Gwen sighed after Eunae told them about the three contestants who chose to impede the flock. "I'll reward her later. A custom Boots of Flying that can raise her maxim speed perhaps, or a handful of Cores."
After Gwen, Tei debriefed the Explorers to clarify the situation in case tension with Cuzco rose unnecessarily.
"Where's Gogo?" Gwen realised her Wyvern was gone.
"He said something about barbecued quail," Petra informed her. "Ah, the Harpy flock is dispersing."
"EE?" Ariel complained.
"SHAA?!" Caliban salivated.
"I'll go find Golos." Gwen patted her Familiars. She was sure that they would remain dissatisfied and antsy until they spent their pent-up energy. Additionally, she was interested in what Golos could "retrieve".
In the distance, the artificial sun had dissolved.
Over the horizon, the real sun rose, painting the thin black silhouette a blush of orange. As for the forest below, the trees had turned to charcoal. Where stumps remained, a hellish wasteland full of smouldering Harpies quavered.
"Go, we'll take care of Richard." Tei patted her on the shoulder.
"Right." Gwen spotted something ponderously sifting through the smoking trees. "I'll D-D over."
"Gwen, wait—" Rene pointed to Cuzco's team. "What do you make of that?"
Curiously, Auberon and three additional proctors were now escorting Musi, Kusi and Mallqu toward the epicentre. Inti remained with the exhausted Tica, listening to her tale.
"I'll come with." Petra stood.
"Alright, let go." Gwen took her cousin's hand, then made up the distance with teleports.
Upon arriving at ground zero, they were surprised to find that many of the Harpies were still alive.
"SHAA SHAA!" Caliban nudged a smoking pile of feathers, dissatisfied that its prey wasn't screaming for help.
"EE!" Ariel wasn't opposed to grilled wings, though it preferred victims who weren't entirely helpless.
How curious, Gwen made a mental note. Neither of her Familiars fancied themselves scavengers. Was it draconic-pride? She wondered, or something to do with their growing sapience.
Downwind of the foetid air, she spotted Golos dragging still-kicking Harpies from the branches, crunching them in his jaws.
Gwen twisted her lips in mockery.
A few minutes later, the proctors arrived with their wards. The group alighted where the cluster of Harpies was the densest.
"Miss Huamani-Inka, you may begin." Gwen noticed that Auberon's stone-cold attitude was leagues from when he had dealt with her. Before she could judge the Baron of Shenfield for being biased, however, Kusi retrieved a leather orb from her storage.
Petra audibly gasped.
"Is that a human head?" Gwen asked her cousin very quietly.
"Yes," Petra confirmed.
"No." Petra observed the goosebumps that had risen all over her arm. "It's a shrunken head."
"What does that mean?" A revulsion came over Gwen which she hadn't experienced since Mark Chandler kicked at her diaphragm. She knew about shrunken heads, but not whatever this was. "Magically speaking?"
"I think they remove the skull, then stitch it back together." Petra kept her cool far more readily than her cousin. "You can see how well it's embalmed."
Across the field, heedless of the two girls from Fudan, Kusi began her ritual by raising the mummified head like a lantern. Stamping her feet, she began to speak in the tongue of the Shuar, a lingua franca beyond Gwen's means to comprehend.
Behind the dark-haired Shaman girl, the quiet Mallqu invoked some unknowable sorcery of her own, shuddering as a palpable source of vitality left her body.
Gwen swallowed, at a loss for words. She and Petra stood as though petrified, gaping at the open practice of that which must not be named.
"Help!" an enfeebled cry broke Gwen's stupor. She searched her perimeter and discovered a Harpy covered in burns, its once colourful feathers crudely begrimed. It was a Sky Priestess, Gwen recollected. In Ma's Bestiary, only select, sapient variants of Harpies could become noble Harpies.
Across the ravaged field, their eyes met.
"Kill me..." the thing pleaded.
But before Gwen could react to the unexpected plea, Kusi's ritual reached its climax. At the Shaur's command, a glut of Negative Energy began to accumulate inside the shrunken head.
"Ariel! Caliban!" She quickly retrieved her Familiars. "Golos!"
A soundless burst of Negative Energy washed over the wasted woods, smothering the wounded, stifling the croons and groans of the surviving demi-humans.
A purple light burst from the desiccated face, drawing a visible torrent of Essence into the undead apparatus.
Golos reared its plated head, its jaws suddenly grim.
"A Desecrator," came a grumbling roar from deep within the Wyvern's throat, wrought in ancient Draconic. Gwen could see every scale bristled with displeasure. "Gwen, that human must die!"
"MISS SONG!" Auberon put up a hand when a wave of dragon-fear disrupted the flow of purple-Essence. "Miss Huamani-Inka's craft is sanctioned by the Tower. It exists as a religious exception to the rule. I would classify it as no different from your unorthodox Planar Ally."
Gwen carefully shifted between Golos and Cuzco's Team.
"Calamity." Golo's tone grew dangerous. "If this were to occur in my father's domain, your city is forfeit."
"Peace," Gwen responded to both Auberon and her Wyvern, channelling her Essence to suppress Golos' overspilling aura. "Lord Lucas, I understand your concern. Golos, this isn't our business, and here isn't our home. Stand down."
"Good." The Baron of Shenfield exhaled. "I shall refrain from commenting further, but I applaud your understanding."
"No… no… no…" cried a squark from afar. The surviving Sky Priestess was rapidly wasting away. "… the daughters of the Sky Mother must return to the sky…"
The creature's hapless mewling reminded her of Chandler's sister, whose soul had been trapped in the Death Orb. Compared to that, Gwen imagined, consignment to the Void must be merciful oblivion.
"Void—" Gwen summoned a single-stage Void Sphere to her lips, but Golos was faster. With a gulp, he scooped up the bird-woman wholesale.
"Better this way," Golos spoke with his mouthful, a formidable feat. "It is only right that she returns to the Unformed Land."
One by one, the banshee wails ceased.
The dark ritual had reached its conclusion.
"We will win," Kusi's voice drifted across the death-soaked clearing. She then turned to the proctors. "Sir, we wish to return to Inti."
"Of course." Auberon likewise made sure he stood between Golos and the Shamaness. "Miss Song, thank you again."
Gwen and her cousin were soon alone with their Wyvern.
"BLEEURGH!" Golos regurgitated a mess of charred feathers and mangled flesh, mimicking what he had witnessed in Nagaland.
Gwen and Petra leapt back.
"It lives." Golos gloated at his new trick.
"Pats!" Gwen felt her heart skip a beat. Here was an excellent opportunity to exercise the middle path. "Can you heal it? I want to speak to it."
Petra dropped two cubes at once, simultaneously activating both a Restoration and a Cure Moderate. She wasn't about to question her cousin's motives when the Harpy could have perished a second later.
"Spell's working, but its life-force is fading." Petra frowned. "Sometimes, that which is taken cannot be restored."
"Not always." Gwen intuitively knew what to do. She hadn't watched Sufina for a year and learnt nothing. Circulating her Essence, she fed a drop of Almudj's panacea into the Harpy's lips, careful not to let its razor-sharp teeth snag her fingertips.
"More Positive Energy." Gwen held the saliva covered Harpy as it convulsed.
Petra obliged. An over-supply of healing energies resulted in cancerous growth, but she wasn't about to fuss over a demi-human's longitudinal well-being.
"Cali, Ariel, come out." Gwen materialised her Familiars.
In the ankle-deep grit, the Harpy's feathers rapidly moulted. The burnt plumes fell from its chest and its arms, exposing two shapely mounds for a split-second before a downy fuzz hid the creature's shame. Gwen baulked at the sight of avian-mammaries. From her Bestiary, she had imagined Harpies were birds with human heads. Instead, the woman's lower body was undeniably like her own but for a pair of enormous eagle-claws. Its upper torso was likewise no different until one saw its elongated fingers, reminding Gwen of an archaeopteryx. In place of hair, the Harpy sported a fringe of beautiful, blue-green feathers akin to a lorikeet's. When finally the Sky Priestess' facial features regenerated, Gwen marvelled its long-slitted eyes, each set with ruby-red irises.
As a woman pulled from the underworld, the Sky Priestess inhaled sharply, its dilated pupils contracting into focus.
Then, it remained very still while a Void Sorceress, a Mineral Scholar, a Kirin, a Death Worm and a bus-sized Wyvern loomed over its quivering body.