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A note from Wutosama

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From Condor’s Rise, the IIUC proctors and the local garrison watched with ambivalent expressions as Fudan's menagerie entered the viridian expanse of Amazonia.

As pay back for Inti's detour, Fudan had volunteered the thankless task of first-contact. It was a risky move, though the proctors did not doubt for a moment Gwen possessed the means for an all-consuming alpha-strike.

“People are not going to believe this,” Tei shared another set of opinions. “A Void beast, a Kirin, a Wyvern and now Harpies, are we a Beast Tide?”

“They'll love it.” Gwen flew behind her Kirin's slipstream. “Golos is a Huangshan local, and we dealt with macaques before, right?”

“But these are HARPIES!” Tei baulked. "They're not even half-breeds. They're the real deal."

“Isn't that amazing?” Gwen turned to their guide. “Phelara, how long have your people inhabited Amazonia?"

The Sky Priestess levelled herself, carefully adjusting her velocity.

“Mistress,” the Harpy said. “Our progenitors came from the sky. In the beginning, there was only the Sky Mother. When she grew lonely, she birthed the egg of the Sky Father.”

“Ooo,” Gwen cooed. “Immaculate Conception, very nice. Go on.”

“When the Sky Father grew out its feathers, it longed for the Sky Mother. Together, they made many eggs, each engendering the different tribes of the sky-kin.”

“How Grecian,” Gwen thought of Gaia and Uranus. “How many tribes are there?”

“Over forty with which we keep in close contact,” Phelara supplied the intel without reserve. “The Copper Claws had been one of the larger tribes.”

Gwen caught the loss in Phelara’s tone and felt unmistakable remorse. The birds' flocks had been doing their thing, living day to day without care until disaster had risen from below without rhyme nor reason.

“Don’t fret, little bird,” Golos’ reassuring voice sounded beside her. “There will be countless young ones in the years to come. Strong by virtue of my blessed blood!”

“I look forward to that day, Lord Golos.”

Golos beamed.

“Exactly how many eggs is the bird lady planning to lay? ” Lulan asked suddenly.

Gwen's lips quivered, loathing the prospect of having to explain polygamy to Lulan, wondering what Kusu would say if he knew.

"There's a teapot full of tea," Golos snorted. "And there are many cups waiting to be filled..."

"Gogo!" Gwen tried to prevent the corruption of Lulu.

Golos burst into lewd laughter. Below the flock, a cloud of birds rose into the air, fleeing in all directions.

"Phelara," Gwen changed the subject. "What lies in the deep forest? At the centre of Amazonia?"

"I do not know," the Harpy apologised. "Some say there is a great tree that holds up the sky. Some say there are ancient beings there, Godlings in their own right, guarding the heart of the forest. Our Cloud Father says that there are worse beings than trolls. Either way, we never venture past the Wall of Woods."

"The wall of wood?" Gwen asked. "What's that?"

"A great forest of trees taller than the emerald sea." Phelara's eyes grew reverent. "Beyond which, the Cloud Father says lies the domain of the ageless ones."

"And what is what?" Gwen felt her boundless curiosity tickled yet again,

"I do not know." The Harpy's voice grew remorseful. "We are told not to ask."

"Aww..." Gwen comforted the Harpy. "Don't fret. Tell me instead of the trolls."

"Yes, mistress..."

Enthralled by the cruelty of the nefarious trolls, Fudan's journey continued as a bee-line on the mapping slate. Whenever the flock approached a new Harpy nesting site, Phelara flapped ahead to herald passing, securing an unmolested passage.

"We're close," Tei remarked eventually. "Gwen?"

"Phelara?" Gwen passed on the enquiry. "Where are your kin?"

“I am not sure. There should be nest guards. SISTERS! WHERE ARE YOU?” Phelara's response was to loudly screech in rapid succession. "This is most strange. My sisters should be stationed here, as is their duty."

Gwen scanned the horizon for a miniature sun or at least signs of smoke. Though it was unlikely, Cuzco might have deceived them after all, choosing to infiltrate the ruins directly.

“Our nests may be under attack.” Phelara too searched the horizon for clues, though the mist-shroud limited aerial surveys. “If an enemy proves too strong, our warriors will sacrifice themselves to exhaust the enemy. But, as it stands, our flight is diminished by half."

"Do not fear." Golos offered his service first before turning to Gwen. "Calamity, I am going to help."

“Don't bugger off just yet." Gwen held her Wyvern in check. "Tei, what's your take on this?"

“We'll have to deal with Phelara's troubles when we return regardless,” Tei affirmed Golos' desires. “If so, let's resolve it now.”

“Why not leave it for Cuzco to solve,” Petra advised.

“I am with Petra,” Rene said. "It's not like we owe Cuzco. Circumstances change all the time."

"I am with Tei." Lulan was eager to fight, ensuring that the ayes have it.

“Good, I prefer to keep our word.” Gwen turned to the Sky Priestess. “Lead on, Phelara!”

Ascending to a higher altitude, the group maximised their speed. Soon, they caught sight of a flame-ravaged forest smoking gently, adding to the mid-day haze.

"There!" the Sky Priestess squawked.

Above the treetops, a massive flight of Harpies encircled an unknown something, forming a whirlpool of coppery feathers.

"Something stinks!" Golos barked, his voice suddenly unsure. "Father's feathers! What is that scent?!"

“Mistress, my flock is under attack!” Phelara accelerated amid a chaotic bell-beat of clamorous wings. “Sisters! Aid our kin!”

"You're right, what IS that?" Like Golos, she too had caught an offensive presence.

"!"

As Ayxin's scale licked her spine, Gwen additionally noted that her Wyvern hadn't bolted like a bloodhound after a hare.

"Alright, Familiars at the front." Tei didn't need draconic instinct to sense that trouble was brewing. "Formation C. Lulan takes the rear. Buff up!"

Up ahead, the encircling mass of Harpies began to exercise the sort of manoeuvre more typically seen in the ocean, where swarms of silvery school-fish formed massive bait-balls to deter predators. When Phelara’s flock joined the encircling Bright-Feathers, a burgeoning polyp of overlapping, coppery feathers rapidly expanded until, like a pustule, the avian mass burst into shrieking, free-wheeling birds.

“Wocao!” Rene, now clad in Lava Skin, let loose a sulphurous expetive. “What in Mao’s name is that?”

The being that emerged from the floundering flock was enormous, at least half the size of Golos. From a distance, the gargantuan bird appeared to possess the misshapen head of a man attached to a condor's body. Its nose, which Gwen had at first mistaken for a beak, was long and hooked; its lips, a thin, severe line, extended from ear to ear, revealing rows of human-like incisors.

With a snap, it snagged a Harpy from the air, crushing the poor thing between both sets of teeth, its prehensile tongue wringing the bird of its bodily juices before spitting the carcass back at the flock with disdain. When it flew, its feathers sliced the air with the sound of metal-on-metal, affecting a noise akin to windchimes.

“A Da-Peng!” Golos banked to a halt, his expression gravid with dread. “Impossible!”

“Mao! A Big Bird!” Tei discerned that the avian-titan possess claws that resembled six-fingered hands. “Aren't they extinct?”

"Slaughtered to the last by the Mythic Dragons." Lulan too knew the popular legend.

“So, an extinct species...” Petra materialised a lumen-recorder. "The question is, what's it doing here?"

Gwen attempted to reconcile the monstrous being in front of them with the semi-baked alphabet-teaching yellow bird of her childhood. “Big Bird? What's a Big Bird?”

"Dragon-eaters," Tei whispered in awe. "In ancient times, they hunted dragons for sport. When the great drakes allied with the Yellow Emperor, they drove the Da-peng to extinction. It's all recorded in the Analects of the Mountains and the Seas. The last Da-peng perished in a stew for the Emperor..."

“I don't understand, how can there be Da-Peng still in existence?” Golos appeared shaken by their present reality. "Father is never wrong!"

Gwen was just about to retort when a puzzle piece clicked into place.

"Gogo." She shared the Wyvern's dismay. "I think I know why there are no dragons in Amazonia or in the Andes."

As a scion of the Yinglong, Golos was smarter than the average drake. When it realised what Gwen had hypothesised, his gonads quailed.

"In Amazonia," Gwen declared with a fatalistic air. "Your kind lost the war."

"So..." Rene raised a hand. "Do we keep fighting?"

"We must fight." Tei reminded them of their present condition. "I don't fancy fighting the trolls with that thing looming over us."

"We'll feed it to Cali!" Lulan was raring to go.

“Gwen,” the Russian suddenly caught Gwen's arm. “Lulan's right on the money. Didn't you say Caliban needed a flying form? If we use Bilby's, I think we can do it.”

The Void Sorceress' orbs widened. All doubt evaporated. From their safe vantage, Gwen studied the Da-peng. Indeed, Big Bird was a worthy combatant. As her enemies grew in power, Caliban's choice of polymorphic forms grew rarer and more demanding. In Shanghai, she had even considered asking Jun to take her on another tour, maybe to Kunlun to hunt the Thunder Birds.

"Cali?" she asked her hidden Void beast.

"Shaa!" Caliban was keener than Golos after a dry spell.

"KAKAKA!" a great cry, half-bird and half-human, split the air. With a single thrust of its wings, the Da-peng broke through the Harpy's encirclement, pursuing something.

"Wocao! It's after our bird!" Rene spluttered.

"Well, that's sealed the deal then," Gwen gave her commands. "Tei, Pats and I are going to immobilise it with our Bilby’s Hands. Neither of us can have our concentration disrupted.”

“Not a problem.”

“Golos! What do you know about Big Birds.”

“They’re immune to draconic magic… and highly resistant in general. Also, they're strong.”

“Anything else?”

“Nothing." Golos appeared wary. "Not even Ruxin has seen one in the flesh."

“Don't worry, Gogo. Mama's got the big bad bird covered." Gwen teased her Wyvern.

A surge of lightning exploded over Golos, boiled over like an over-filled kettle.

“FIRST BLOOD IS MINE!” Golos blasted off into the distance, ready to deliver his payload.

Gwen motioned for their rear guard. “Lulu, can you cover Gogo?”

“With pleasure.” Lulan had been watching the Da-Peng scythe its way through the flock, tracing its movements as it missed Phelara by a wing-length.

A faint, jade-green emanation suffused the Earthen Mage's Iron Skin as she tapped into her Naga Spirit, briefly materialising five subtle serpent heads across her arms and her neck.

“All at once?”

“Go for broke.” Gwen began her spell.

“True Strike!” Petra dropped unto Lulan a Divination buff she had saved for just the occasion.

“Rene?”

Rene kept her eyes affixed on their prey; her Salamander Spirit feeding her Lava Skin.

The Da-peng dived, closing in on Phelara, ignoring her wind blades.

"Now!"
“Panzerschreck!”

Ahead, Golos accelerated, transforming into a blur, affecting a sound like rolling thunder.

SCHWING!

As one, Lulan’s weighted arrows accelerated from the Elemental Plane of Earth, racing past the crackling Wyvern.

“BARAKA!” The bird suddenly banked, spluttering Harpy blood like a mangled sprinkler. Before Golos could deliver its breath attack, the Da-peng split its maw wider than a dump truck, then let loose a shriek so cacophonous that Gwen had to hold her ears from half-a-kilometre away.

As though beset by invisible turbulence, Golos’ trajectory floundered. His aerodynamic form crumbled. Against all expectation, the Wyvern roared, writhing in agony, crashing into a tree.

“KAKAKA!” the Da-peng cackled.

“Gogo!” Gwen cried out, shocked that her Wyvern wasn't up to snuff.

CLANG!

Lulan’s missiles struck, unaffected by its hideous birdsong.

CLANG!

CLUNG!

TANG!

THUNK!

“KAAK!”

Screeching roars of deforming metal polluted the air.

The first Panzerschreck had sent the man-faced condor back into the flock. The volley that followed then struck the creature unerringly, ping-ponging it into the arboreal sea.

“Lulan, another round.” Gwen kept herself within range of Tei’s defences as she and Petra drifted closer. “Phelara! Help your kindred! We'll take care of it.”

A great squark split the Harpy flock, dispersing the winged females while Gwen and her party moved in to inspect their prey. Parting the trees, they saw that Lulan had outdone herself, for one of her stabilised projectiles had pinned the Da-Peng’s inner wing to the trunk of an enormous acacia. With its body nailed against the fibrous wood, the fiend's fingers failed to purchase the smooth bark, leaving it momentarily helpless.

With Ariel and Tei at the fore, the party approached.

Upon closer inspection, the Da-Peng did indeed possess human hands for feet, with six digits on each foot, tipped with claws akin to inwardly turned scimitars.

"HAKAKUU!"

The Da-peng was screaming blue murder at Gwen and her party, its feather-strewn face twisted in irrational hate and agony, outdoing Gwen's Translation Stone.

“Gogo, get over here!” Gwen commanded her fallen Wyvern. Knowing the lineage of Dragons and their ilk, Gwen suspected there was something very much ingrained in the blood that prevented Golos from exercising his usual enthusiasm. “What’s wrong with you?”

Golos climbed the air.

At the sight of Golos, the Da-peng began to howl and cackle. It salivated uncontrollably.

“It’s calling for help!” Petra called out. “Lulu!”

“Panzerschreck!”

TANG!
CLUNG!
THUNK!

Two more Panzerschrecks drew a line of sparks across the bird’s chest and abdomen before ricochetting off into the canopy. The third penetrated a tender portion of its belly.

"KAK!" the bird wailed.

“Holy hell that’s some defence,” Gwen whistled. “Anyone else wants to have a go?”

“Lava Spear!” Rene punched the man-faced bird with a lance of lava. The projectile spent its energy, then crumbled. “Ergh, it's like hitting an iron plate.”

Lulan drew an emerald-green blade of iron. She gave its honed edge a swing, eager to test her mettle.

“Lulu, don't get too close,” Tei stopped Lulan before she went toe to toe with the thing. “Its physical abilities must be immeasurable.”

"Ariel, you stay back as well," Gwen had no desire for Ariel to be put to sleep before they could nuke the troll fort from orbit, and she had no means to cast additional offensive spells while maintaining Bilby's Hand. 

"EE!" Ariel instead made itself a barrier for its mistress. 

“Then I shall kill it, and gift it's head to Ruxin!” An ashamed and newly returned Golos loosened his jaw. “ROAR!”

“Wait—“

A line of lightning obliterated the bird and the tree behind it.

“Idiot!” Gwen swore.

Golos stared, dumbfounded that his dragon breath slid past the Da-peng's exterior like water off a duck's back.

“Bloody hell!” Gwen berated her thunder-headed stepchild. “WATCH OUT!”

The bird was free.

The Da-Peng must have figured Gwen for the alpha of the pack. Twisting its torso to bring its grotesque head to bear, it lunged at her as though launched from a catapult.

“Tomb Stones!” Tei’s hands were a blur. A collated barrier of raw mana and compressed Dust instantly shrouded his vice-captain, taking the momentum of the predatory pheasant in full. With a din of metal on stone, the bird's claws crumpled the first few inches. Thankfully, its sword-like nails failed to reach Gwen's abdomen.

“Dust Tendrils!” Tei appended his defence spell with an additional meta-magic component, wrapping the bird with tendrils of dust. “Hit it while it's slowed!"

"KAA!" The bird bit Tei's barrier, shredding a layer of its magic. The Negative Energy contained within the dust, however, was enough to subdue it for the briefest moment.

"NOW!"

The Da-Peng’s forced error was enough for Gwen and Petra to complete their pre-planned spells.

“Bilby’s Hand!” the girls invoked as one.

A pair of palms crushed the Da-Peng from either side, each ethereal appendage five meters across from pinky to thumb, shimmering with raw, translucent mana. Ever since Alesia's induction, Gwen had practised the fabled spell of the legendary Bilby ceaselessly, especially now that Petra had joined the fray.

Forming a vessel of pure force, the pair of Bilby’s Hands pressed in on the Da-Peng, creaking its bones even as dire feathers sliced into the mana-made flesh.

“KAK!” The bird howled in frustration, literally eating away at the girls' spell. “KAK! KAK!”

“Keep it pinned!” A surge of heady adrenaline kicked at Gwen's vertebrae. “Caliban!”

Caliban slithered into being atop the thrashing bird.

"KAKA?"

The Da-peng's panic was written all over its face.

“SHAAA!” Her Familiar decided its serpent form was appropriate for the occasion. It opened its maw, then let loose its twin tentacles.

“KAKU!” The bird twisted its lower limb, snatching at Caliban. It caught the serpent by the lower-mid section, then squeezed.

Gwen gaped as a bubbling dribble of stuff oozed between its hand-claws. Since Burma, Caliban's carapace had grown sturdier by magnitudes. Nonetheless, in-between the pink digits of the Da-peng, her Familiar may as well be a caramel-filled churro.

Besides her vice-captain, Lulan gulped, imagining herself being squeezed out like lotus-filling mantou.

“Gods, it’s strong!” Petra strained with visible effort. Lacking Gwen's VMI, she was struggling to maintain the hand at full force.

Gwen, meanwhile, wrote an empty vitality-check for Caliban to cash, confident that Big Bird should provide her with a subsequent windfall.

"Shaa-shaa!" The faceless portion of Caliban slithered up the Da-peng’s torso, shedding its lower body with less care than a Bobbit worm.

“KAA!” This time, it was the Da-peng's neck that distended. Its humanoid face full of insanity. With a snap, it tore off Caliban’s head, filling its mouth with ichor and gore.

Gwen stifled a grunt as her vitality fell.

“SHAA!”
“SHAA!”
“SHAA!”

Three heads sprouted where there was one.

One little Caliban went for the open wound.
The second Caliban assaulted its eyes.
And Caliban number three performed the Golos special.

Not far, Golos howled sympathetically, reduced to a peanut gallery by the Da-peng's unique physiology.

“CONSUME!”

Caliban erupted into an indistinguishable mass of tentacles, carapace, flailing fingers and gnashing teeth. The Big Bird writhed, a web of lampreys tunnelled under its goose-skin, its milk-white eyes rolled back in deathly ecstasy, giving way to probing proboscis. At its extremity, pink, elongated digits curled as synapses fired for the last time.

Caliban's audience gaped with fascinated horror as the globular mess of feather and flesh reformed itself. When finally the churning gumbo of guts and giblets unwrung itself, they saw a coiled-up Death Worm, ready for its nap.

“Shaa!” it belched forth a furball of feathers.

Quickly, Golos collected the evidence.

"For Ruxin and Father," her Wyvern explained. "I need to tell them that the Da-peng still live."

"Good idea- WHOA!" Petra too pilfered a pile for future research, surprising herself when the weight of a singular sheaf tipped her off balance.

Yet, the same feathers drifted through the air as though weightless.

It was an oxymoronic phenomenon, but not one for which Gwen had time.

“I need a place to 'meditate'. Golos!” Gwen retrieved Caliban, sensing that Big Bird’s palpable vitality was about to ravage her innards. “Guard me until I recover.”

This time, Golos obeyed without question. With the thoughtfulness of a well-trained hound, it bore her downward, then alighted on a branch the width of a two-lane viaduct.

The rest of her party followed.

With Caliban arrested in its pocket dimension, Petra unsummoned her Bilby's Hand.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to Cali.” Rene shook at the recent memory of the Da-peng's demise.

“Good.” Tei patted her on the back. “Sanity's in short supply in our party.”

Lulan drifted close, more contemplative than before.

“Gwen.” Petra took up a defensive stance. “The Harpies are returning.”

“Tell Phelara to hold.” Gwen maintained her lotus pose. “Pats, privacy barrier, please.”

“Water Sphere!” Petra dropped one of Richard’s spells, encasing her cousin’s body.

Golos brought to bear its clubbed tail, segregating its mistress from the others. From above, the pair appeared as though a drake safeguarding its blue egg.

In the next moment, Phelara broke from the host of Harpies, tweeting in excited tones.

“She wants to thank us for saving her tribe,” Golos translated in Gwen's absence. “Their leader wishes to meet with us.”

By the hundreds, the great flock alighted around Fudan, threading through space until plumed bodies weighed down every branch and bough.

Phelara returned, following a regal Harpy, the first male of its species Fudan had seen.

Compared to the females, the male was a splendid specimen, a brilliant hued peacock with three impressive locks marking its forehead. Its pupils, each a vivid scarlet, was punctuated by pearlescent, green lashes. Beneath its delicate, effeminate features, a tapered torso covered in teal-green plumage smoothed out as it hovered, held aloft by elemental air.

It bowed.

“Saviours,” the Cloud Father spoke in Quechua. “We are—“

“Silence!” Golos raised its head threateningly. “My mistress is preoccupied. Do not approach.”

"EE!" Ariel swished its tail. 

The happy atmosphere grew awkward.

"Esteemed master," Tei intervened. "You may speak to me while our sorceress completes her meditation. We are delighted to have been of service in your hour of need. Our companion is overprotective, but Golos' brashness infers no insult."

The humans and the Harpies gazed at one another, ignoring the muffled groans escaping from the aquamarine water-barrier.

"There is no offence taken," the Harpy's leader spoke with great care. "My name is Aerivela. I am Cloud Father to these young ones."

"Well met." Tei bowed, instructing his team to do the same. "We are aware of our trespass..."

"It is the Sky Father's will that has brought the Godling here," Aerivela trilled musically. "It is we who are indebted."

"What was that creature?" Tei indicated to the dark stain where the Da-peng had been pinned.

"An ancient one," Aerivela intoned with reverence. "They live deep in the forest, beyond the wall, beneath the great tree. Since time immemorial, the ancient ones have acted as the guardians of the forest's centre. For one of its kind to appear here is neither expected nor a calamity we could anticipate."

"A great tree - a World Tree?" Petra perked up. "Where do the elves dwell? In Amazonia's interior? What colour is their skin? Caramel? Ebony?"

Aerivela shook his head. "I would not know, human-kin. None of our kind has ventured past the Wall of Wood. We are happy enough with the domain which the Sky Father has granted us."

"I see," Tei cleared his throat. "Has Miss Phelara informed you of the tragedy at Condor's Rise?"

"I grieve for our loss..." the male Harpy exhaled. "Though—"

SPLOSH!

Behind Fudan's Mages, their vice-captain reemerged into the world, balancing herself against Golos's many-spined tail.

“Their leader is here to speak to us,” Tei informed the disorientated sorceress while she circulated her Essence. “That's him there, the peacock.”

“Oh?” Gwen paused when Tei accused the Harpy's leader of peacocking, but then she saw the peacock. “Oh, I see! Good work, Cap."

Golos uncoiled itself while Gwen straightened out her attire, pulled back her hair, then climbed the air.

“Greetings, Scion of the Cloud.” Gwen crossed her arms across her chest as Phelara had advised. "We come in peace."

According to her endearing avian, the way to convince Phelara's leader lied in presenting herself not as an invader, but as an emissary of sorts. The higher Harpies were a sanctimonious lot, and so the best way to ensure cooperation was through shock and awe.

Both of which had been amply supplied by the Da-peng's demise.

“Great emissary from beyond the treeless sea,” the brightly hued priest's eyes sparkled. “This one humbly welcomes the Godling to our abode.”

 

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Bonus ::  Gwen's Outfits 
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My Australian internet is so bad that my word-editor lags and I've had to redo many parts... what the hell is happening! It's 2019! 

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Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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