She had missed most of the blightbeast attacks during the year she’d spent dead. The incursion that Blue had vaporized didn’t really count, since she hadn’t had the opportunity to see them. The descriptions of the ridiculous horde of beasts and monsters really did not do the reality justice, because the sight of thousands of things crowded together was nearly overwhelming. As was the sound, and the smell.
Orrelin’s walls had served them well, corralling the blightbeasts so that dozens of earth cannons mounted on the wall could fire at staggered intervals, littering the ground with corpses. The weaponry wasn’t enough to keep up with the tide, and they weren’t quick enough to catch every winged thing that appeared from the hole in the center of the tile that everything was coming from. Giant birds, bats, and stranger things took to the air and attacked those manning the walls.
Some of them even crossed the walls, though in a way it was fortunate that they seemed intensely bloodthirsty, since that meant they didn’t go too far. It wasn’t particularly great for the Leyn, though they seemed to be doing well enough. Their exact form was difficult to discern, since they’d thrown up great strands of shimmering metal as a barrier and shelter against both stray blightbeasts and Orrelin’s own guards. She had the feeling if it weren’t for the blightbeast horde there’d be more than just a token force encircling the steel thicket.
To see more than occasionally glimpses of movement from inside the densely-packed metal threads she’d have to get closer, but she wasn’t interested in the Leyn just yet. It was the unending carpet of blightbeasts that concerned her. Despite the magical weaponry on display, they didn’t make an enormous dent in the swarm, nor did they stop the depletion taint the beasts carried from seeping into the heavily magical walls. The mana reinforcement was clearly failing, the stone chipping and shearing under the relentless tearing of claws and talons and teeth. Not to mention what it was doing to the soldiers above as it crept upward.
“That’s really bad,” Blue said. “Though I guess they could keep it contained for a long time since even if they broke out there’d just be more wall to get through.”
“Might as well get to work,” she said, and ignored the soldiers frantically trying to slaughter blightbeasts as she clad herself in her new armor. It was like a second skin, and meant she could focus her Skills more on movement and control than on toughness. It moved with complete fluidity as she stretched and changed from human form to something more suited to wreaking havoc.
The amount of [Chimaeric Neutronium] was strictly limited, so while she could make weapons from it, that made the armor extremely difficult to maintain. It was easier to just let it coat her and take a more warlike shape. The Scythe-Sister form was fairly good but the scythes had a limited range of motion and the form itself was not as large as it could be. Now that she’d hit the fourth tier, and had extra mana density to support it, she’d been working on something with a little more punch.
She launched herself into the fray as a dragon covered in starmetal.
Shayma couldn’t manage a full size version yet, but even what she could do packed a staggering amount of physical power behind it. Coupled with the neutronium armor, smaller things were instantly crushed while anything worth using a claw on offered no resistance whatsoever. Her tail was a severing whip, and even her wings could be used as blades. Every time she moved, she rent flesh and bone and set blood splashing, though it slid right off her armor.
Nor did she stint on magic. Blue’s [Hungering Dark] Field flickered into existence around her, chewing through anything she’d missed and annihilating small creatures outright. It also handily cloaked her exact location from the people manning the walls, not that they could hurt her through the new armor. All they saw was a black sphere moving around leaving disintegrating bits of beast behind, as Blue’s ANATHEMA had been changed back to depletion sources. Even brief contact was enough to consume a good chunk of dead matter.
She whipped out one paw to decapitate a flame-haired, ten-legged wolf-thing while smashing a diving hook-faced raptor from the air with her tail, racing along the perimeter of the wall. It was exhilarating to be so powerful, running almost as fast as she could teleport and eradicating anything in her path. It didn’t grant her much experience, not as a Trickster, but that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t like she needed it, anyway.
A stone projectile landed in front of her by happenstance and detonated, the shards pinging off her armor. She didn’t even feel it. In the direction where it had come from, smaller boar and wolf types were scrambling up the walls, scaling a small hill of corpses to try and jump at the defenders above. She dropped the [Hungering Dark] long enough to turn her head and loose a spray of blue-white stellar dragonsbreath, feeling it suck down her mana reserves even as the armor topped them back up. There were faint cries from the people at the top of the wall, but she’d only slightly melted the surface of the stone and left the blightbeasts as little more than ash.
“Damn! I don’t know that you’ll need the Fortress at all, there.”
“It’s impressive, but I don’t want to deal with a thousand acres of land all by myself.” Blue’s Field scourged the depletion taint from the land as she went along, but she was doing little more than relieving some of the pressure on the walls. Partly by killing things, and partly because she drew a lot of attention to herself. All the mindlessly aggressive beasts and monsters saw her as a valid target, even when something that looked like a ten-foot scaled chicken with fangs literally broke its teeth trying to bite her.
She tore its head off just afterward, but it was a good reminder that without the armor and the sheer lethality of her dragon form it would have been exceedingly dangerous to be in the middle of the monster mob by sheer weight of numbers. It didn’t help that, while the blightbeasts were densely packed and not very bright, there was no infighting and very little accidental trampling or other collateral. A normal fourth-tier would probably be worn down by the sheer weight of bodies at some point.
Shayma, though, just continued her sprint along the wall, anything nipping at her heels getting torn apart by a kick of her hind claws or crushed by a flick of her tail. She could see the Fortress as a speck in the distance, but it would still be some minutes before it arrived and cleaned everything else up. Until then, she just focused on taking care of trouble spots.
By the time the Fortress was looming overhead, she’d probably slaughtered over a thousand blightbeasts just with her claws and jaws alone, but even that had only made a small dent. They were still streaming out of the connection to the Underneath, like ants from an upturned hill. From the looks of things, Orrelin had been dealing with the swarm for weeks, though whether it had always been as dense as it was now or if they just couldn’t keep up with the reinforcements wasn’t clear.
“Okay I’m about ready,” Blue told her, and she took to wing, soaring over to the command post she’d noticed earlier, located at one of the wall intersections, and shifting down to her normal form as she landed. At least ten different arrows and four different combat spells were stopped dead by her armor in the process, most of which she could have avoided. In truth it probably wasn’t the best habit to get into, because there was no such thing as invulnerable armor, so she dispersed into spirit form and let an illusion of herself walk forward.
Even in spirit form she could feel the magic involved in Skill-driven attacks, but the sheer mana density of the [Chimaeric Neutronium] absorbed the damage. The noncorporeal form wasn’t immune to everything, and might have been more vulnerable to some things if it weren’t for [Unbreakable Promise]. The illusion affected not to notice such failed attacks, just casually walking forward, and after a few moments the commanding officer ordered his guards to cease fire. That boded well for his understanding of the situation, especially since Blue was paying very close attention.
“General Acatem,” she said, once again grateful for Blue’s ability to identify anyone near her. It made it far easier to get on with the important things instead of waiting for introductions. The man in question was having a hard time deciding whether to stare at her or the giant black fortress dropping down toward the ground. “Blue is about to solve your blightbeast problem. I advise you to get your men off the walls, or at least have them look away.”
The man confirmed he wasn’t a complete idiot by, after another glance at her and at the Fortress, barking orders for a withdrawal from the tile walls. The tiles were large enough that Blue’s point defense wouldn’t reach over the whole thing, maybe a quarter of it at most, but all those [Starlance] point defenses going off at once could blind a man. The Fortress kept descending as they continued the retreat, the sheer scale of it becoming more and more intimidating. It halted maybe fifty feet above the top of the walls, waiting in ominous silence.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Akatem said, approaching her. “I appreciate whatever assistance you can provide, but who are you? And what is that?” She was a little surprised that he didn’t recognize the Fortress, though considering the general state of enforced ignorance that Orrelin was operating in, perhaps she shouldn’t have been. Shayma made the usual introductions, then nodded in the direction of the Fortress.
“That is Blue’s Fortress, and it is more than capable of allowing Blue to destroy the blightbeasts and purge the depletion from your land. It may take some time, and I would advise not attacking it in the interim. Your government was less than helpful, so you may be ordered to seize either myself or Blue’s property. Don’t.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Akatem said, eyeing her cautiously. Of course, he’d seen her as an invulnerable dragon, so he was likely considerably more impressed than those who’d only seen her as a fox-girl. Her admission that she didn’t have the imprimatur of the Orrelin government made him obviously wary, even more so than before, but he didn’t make any further demands or ask any further questions. He just turned back to his men and continued giving orders.
He was interrupted by a blazing flare of light from the Fortress as hundreds of individual [Starlance] projectors picked out targets on the ground, followed by a crackling boom and the earth shaking underfoot as Blue landed directly over the hole to the Underneath. Shayma hid a wince. She still wasn’t at ease with the fact that Blue had destroyed Port Anell, and seeing the Fortress attacking rather forcefully brought that to mind.
He was using it to a far better purpose this time, however, so she simply waited for the sounds to settle. There were shouts from some of the Classers who were watching, and cracks appeared in walls in places where they had been weakened, but nothing she could see gave way. If something had fallen apart somewhere, Blue would probably fix it before he left. Probably.
“Oof, yeah, there’s still a lot coming up,” Blue told her. “Ridiculous how many of these things can cross under the ocean. You’d think they’d starve or something first, but nooo, tens of thousands of bloodthirsty monsters just show up from nowhere.”
“If they just starved on their way out, it would be too easy,” Shayma said, though One-Eye-Green had told her that the Scalemind scouts had found that anything outside of Blue’s territory had been scoured clean of non-blighted life. Not that they left Blue’s territory these days. Mostly because he’d expanded so far, but partly just because it wasn’t safe to do so.
“Either way this is going to take a little bit of time.” Blue’s ability to take over terrain was faster than ever, but with enormous volumes to attend to it still took time.
“I’ll go check on the Leyn while you do that,” Shayma said, looking to where the general was redeploying some of his soldiers around the Leyn fortifications. Blue seemed somewhat indifferent to them, but she wanted to see what they were like and, considering where they were and how they’d gotten there, offer them a lift away from Orrelin.
She flickered through Phantasmal space, dropping down from the command center to the webwork of metal in the next tile. Her Domain saw straight through it, to a network of razor-wire-edged tunnels of various widths. They weren’t all at ground level, either, arcing down into the earth or up into the air, making a rather effective defense against any lower tier human-kin or animals.
The Leyn themselves were very definitely not human-kin, or even humanoid. They looked like a bizarre mix of starfish and spider, with a seven-sided central body and seven limbs extending from it: four legs, two small, delicate-looking arms ending in long-fingered hands, and one larger, claw-like arm. There was an eye located on the angles of the body between each pair of legs, and a rather terrifying-looking mouth on the underside. She might have taken them for monsters or beasts if it weren’t for the fact that they were all heavily clothed, from puffy jackets stretched over the top side of their bodies and secured around their legs, to arm and leg coverings cinched tight with cord, to metal-tipped piton boots on the insectile legs.
“Wow, radial symmetry! Yeah, those are definitely alien. The Underneath is a bizarre place I guess.”
“Yeah!” She stared at them through her Domain, wondering how to talk to them. Her Domain made it a lot easier to study them enough to take a Leyn form, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to do that just yet. Just because she knew their form didn’t mean she knew anything else, and they’d find a brand new Leyn appearing out of nowhere and acting strangely far more suspect than her coming as herself.
「Iniri, do you know anything about the Leyn?」 Shayma sent, though she didn’t hold too much hope. Neither of them had known much of anything about the Underneath prior to talking to Ansae.
「I’m afraid not,」 Iniri said regretfully. 「Whatever records we had for the Underneath races were lost. I requested some texts from Ir but with Blue putting up that wall it didn’t seem urgent to go through them. One moment.」 She could almost hear Iniri’s instructions on the other side, and less than a minute later Iniri continued.
「They’re primarily metal Affinity, and there’s some entries on their diet and habitat. Ah! They can understand normal speech, and they’re usually led by someone from the highest caste in a given group. I don’t see any special warnings about how to address them, but I haven’t gone through the whole entry yet.」
「Thanks!」 Shayma replied. 「l’ll make do with that much.」 She couldn’t wait forever unless she was willing to force Orrelin’s hand regarding the refugees, and she wasn’t.
“I am Shayma Ell, Voice of the Power Blue. I’m here to speak with whoever is in charge!” She amplified her voice slightly, and her pronouncement was punctuated by the ground shaking again as Blue did whatever he was doing to wipe out the blightbeasts. She had a feeling when he was done, there wouldn’t be any more connection to the Underneath.
The nearest Leyn rotated so that its gripping claw, and the spear it was holding, faced Shayma’s direction where she stood outside the metal, while one of its legs tapped rapidly against one of the metal strands. Two other Leyn guards arrived at full tilt, clambering through the metal-strand tunnels to join the first. Shayma was a little put out about that; apparently she’d have to learn something else like colortongue, only she didn’t think that she’d get the benefit of the [Craft Hall] and a Bargain.
“Who are these three? Anyone I need to worry about?” She excluded her question from the Leyn, since until they understood her exact relationship with Blue, talking to someone who wasn’t visible was merely confusing.
“Kellarek Apatite-Spiral. Level 37 [Gemstone Spear]. Mullonok Topaz-Facet. Level 28 [Fire Mage]. Eslenee Ruby-Facet. Level 33 [Steel Summoner].” It was obvious enough which was which, or rather, who was whom. None of the three responded directly, and she was considering the best approach when a fourth individual appeared in her Domain, larger than the other three and wearing more elaborate clothing.
“Nillaren Diamond-Star. Level 52 [Merchant of the Sapphire Way].” Shayma nodded. That looked and sounded like someone who was in charge. Nillaren walked up to the barrier and poked Eslenee, who reached out with their gripping arm to grab the threads and bend them aside as if they were reeds and not steel.
“My name is Nillaren,” the Leyn said through the crack, its voice a little coarse and metallic but surprisingly normal otherwise. Or rather, his voice, since Shayma had enough time to study them through her Domain and the voice was definitely masculine. “I represent this caravan. What is it that you want, Shayma Ell, Voice of Blue?”
“I want to know what you know about the blightbeasts,” Shayma said, gesturing behind herself to the tile where the Fortress towered into the sky. “In exchange, I can offer you transportation out of Orrelin.” The eyes facing Shayma blinked and Nillaren rocked his body from side to side in something that was either a shrug or a nod.
“That seems more than equitable. I suppose these human attackers are of an accord with that?” Shayma wondered if the Leyn even knew where they were, labeling the Orrelin defense force by species instead of nationality.
“No, but it doesn’t matter. Blue, can you teleport everything here up to the Fortress?”
“Sure! Just give me a second, I’ll put them in the Scalemind area I guess, since they’re from the Underneath.” Even with her newfound spirit form, she had to be in corporeal form for Blue to take over an area, and she was still stuck when he did so, but he was faster now so encompassing the entire encampment wouldn’t take long.
“Teleport?” Nillaren asked cautiously, rocking his body in a circular motion this time, though what precisely that meant was anyone’s guess. “It will take some time to break down the camp and store everything.”
“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that,” she assured Nillaren. With her Domain she could see Blue’s territory spread out underneath the encampment, and even when the front passed out of her vision she had a good idea how long it would take for Blue to cover the whole thing. “You might want to tell everyone else to expect a change of scenery, though. In about ten seconds.”
Nillaren made some convulsive movement with its manipulator hands and raced over to the inner steel threads, beating a furious tattoo on the metal. Shayma silently counted down in her own head, then waved at Nillaren just before their entire camp vanished, leaving just an empty crater of dirt. Blue withdrew himself just as quickly freeing her to move once again. Another look around showed that General Akatem had gone off somewhere else, so she just shrugged.
“Bring me aboard, would you Blue?”
“Your wish is my command,” Blue told her, and she felt the tug of the recall as she reappeared at the heart of the Fortress. “Considering the way the other people acted I’m surprised those soldiers aren’t trying to attack the Fortress.”
“I think after your little display they know better,” she told him. “The man in charge didn’t seem blind or stupid, either. I doubt his superiors will be officially happy but I think he was glad enough to see someone else take care of this mess.”
“That would be a breath of fresh air. Anyway, speaking of messes, you’d better go over there before the Leyn encounter any Scalemind.” There weren’t many Scalemind in the Fortress, since they were still grappling with the concepts of farming and ranching, but few wasn’t none. She nodded agreement and pulled on the teleport Field that Blue had set up in her central room, shifting over to the Scalemind area.
The Chiuxatli had been quite busy over the past year. Each of the areas had started out as a fifteen hundred foot or so cube, and Expanded to around thirty miles in each dimension, but they weren’t just empty cubes. The Chiuxatli region was dominated by red sandstone spires, rising from the floor, jutting out from the walls, and hanging from the ceiling, forming a complex but open network of vertical surfaces, complete with waterfalls and hanging plants. The human area, by contrast, had discrete half-mile tall levels, each of which was fully landscaped.
The Underneath section was a sprawling network of caverns and tunnels, with both large open spaces and narrow ones. None of them were populated with animals for the simple fact that [Climate Flourishing] did not make a full ecosystem of animals. In fact, every animal created by the Skill was female, so there needed to be an existing population for it to go anywhere. Taelah had started making inroads on some of the areas in the Caldera with [Ecological Integration], but even a year wasn’t much when it came to that.
The Leyn encampment had been dropped in the middle of one of the larger caverns, in an area Blue had shaped to fit exactly so it looked like it had been built there to begin with. Blue had even set up the teleport point in the same spot relative to the Leyn, so she was facing Nillaren once again as she blinked into existence. The Leyn crouched down for a moment, almost flattening himself against the ground with its arms splayed, before straightening back up. Shayma figured that was pretty much a bow.
“Now, why don’t you tell me about how you ran into the blightbeasts? Plus if there’s somewhere you were going we might be able to get you there.”
“Yes, of course,” Nillaren said, his eyes focusing elsewhere for a moment. “We run the route from the Great Metal Dungeon north to the Chalcery Depths. There was a territorial clash between two factions at Kallindakari, the city we normally go through, so we circled upward to avoid it. That’s when we ran into the swarm. There weren’t many at first, but our guards became weakened and some even fell unconscious.”
“Depletion,” Shayma supplied. “The blightbeasts carry it.” One of Nillaren’s feet tapped the ground in a rapid pattern, then stopped.
“I see,” Nillaren said. “Then they will not recover.” Shayma just smiled, because she really enjoyed being able to do things like what she was about to.
“That’s not entirely true. For those who have been completely depleted, if any survive, Blue has a way to revive them. They’ll have to start their Class from scratch, and it is not free, but it can be done.” Nillaren was silent for a moment, then lowered himself to the ground again.
“Please. My nephew, my cousin.”
“You will owe a favor to a Power,” Shayma warned.
“Anything,” Nillaren said.
“Then it can be done. I will bring several of Blue’s citizens here, and they will be monsters, so prepare yourself accordingly.” Nillaren bowed again, and Shayma shielded herself from the Leyn to talk to Blue.
“Where’s One-Eye-Green? I’ll want a few Scalemind to help with the binding process.”
“She’s off talking with some of the people from Kinul. I’ll send you over. You know, I don’t have any idea what I’m going to get from a Leyn merchant caravan. Not that I’m complaining! Just thinking out loud.” Blue mused to her before spatial magic swirled up around her and sent her back to the Village. As Blue had said, One-Eye-Green was deep in discussion with one of the visiting youth, about irrigation of all things. Shayma waited until she was at a stopping point before interrupting.
“One-Eye-Green? I need some people to help me with a number of depleted Leyn, if you could.”
“Of course, miss Shayma!” One-Eye-Green said happily, baring a large number of teeth in a smile. Her evolution had given her more height and bulk, and made her fingers a little more dexterous, but had left her mostly the same as before. She’d also gotten a good chunk of levels in the bargain, bringing her up to a level 45 [Scalemind Ambassador].
“I’ll meet you in the Fortress. Blue will send you where you need to go.” One-Eye-Green nodded along, and vanished a moment later as Blue sent her back to the caves beneath the mountains. Shayma shook her head. She was still stunned by how absurd Blue’s teleportation was on occasion. With a flicker of thought she returned to the Leyn compound, which in the few minutes she had been gone was already starting to be deconstructed by their [Steel Summoner].
“They’re on their way,” she informed Nillaren. “So, Kallindakari?” The Leyn tapped his feet on the ground and blinked at her.
“After we ran into the swarm by Kallindakari, we retreated upward. But they kept coming, so we kept pushing upward. We didn’t want to go all the way to the Surface but we didn’t have a choice. It was that or be trapped in a dead-end cavern.” Nillaren made a grating, clicking noise. “I fear Kallindakari may be overrun.”
“We can take care of that once we’ve taken care of you,” Shayma assured it. “Can’t we?” She added as an aside to Blue, without letting Nillaren hear.
“Sure! I don’t know if we can establish a permanent presence there, and it’s not like I can bring the Fortress down into the Underneath, but it’s not a good idea to let blightbeasts kill off a city if we can stop it.”
One-Eye-Green popped into existence next to her with two Scythe Sisters she didn’t know offhand, and while the three guards were tense, they made no hostile moves toward the monsters. It was an interesting note on how One-Eye-Green had grown that she stood with her hands clasped behind her back while Shayma made introductions, and nodded to Nillaren with commendable gravitas.
“I am One-Eye-Green, [Scalemind Ambassador],” she said. “We are here to help!”
“Thank you,” Nillaren said, gesturing to the wire-lined passages behind it. “We are still working on access. I know that it is difficult for non-Leyn to traverse.”
“That’s no trouble,” Shayma assured it. “Lead the way!” She formed proper passage in her Domain for One-Eye-Green and her friends to follow, her Domain unmaking the razor wire as they passed and restoring it behind them, a solid stone platform underfoot adjusting for the uneven ground. It was odd to watch the Leyn walk, because he didn’t rotate when changing directions and had eyes that kept looking back at them while navigating through the remnants of the fortifications.
There were maybe fifteen total Leyn within the fortifications, five of them double the size of Nillaren and wearing harnesses that the various bags and cases on the ground obviously clipped to. Most of the rest were spread out, but there were three others off to the side on hammocks, and unmoving. It was to these that Nillaren led them, and Blue confirmed it.
“Yup, [Depleted]. Doublecheck their Affinities just so we don’t embarrass ourselves?”
“What Affinities did they have?” Shayma asked, stepping off to one side to let the Scalemind work.
“Metal, Metal, Earth,” Nillaren said, indicating the Leyn in turn, and Blue provided her with a Primal Source for each of them. Nillaren’s eyes glittered at the sight but didn’t say anything as she folded the unconscious Leyn’s smaller graspers around the Sources in preparation for the [Soul Prostheses]. One-Eye-Green didn’t say anything either, but by now Shayma was familiar enough with mind magic to see it going on, even if she couldn’t tap into it without shifting. Each of the three Scalemind chose a Leyn, with One-Eye-Green selecting one of the ones with metal Affinity and the other two Scythe-Sisters placing their scythes on top of their respective patients.
“And here we go.” Blue muttered. “Hoooold it…” He wasn’t talking to her, since she wasn’t doing the work, but One-Eye-Green knew what to do anyway. “Got it!” Blue said, and Shayma tapped One-Eye-Green’s elbow.
“It’s done,” she told the Scalemind, putting out her hand to produce the [Soul Prostheses].
“Now we can fix them?” One-Eye-Green asked cheerfully, waiting for Shayma to distribute the small orbs to the appropriate Leyn, to replace the Source that had crumbled away as soon the Scalemind had stopped.
“Yes,” Shayma said, and turned to Nillaren. “Those items will protect them against any further depletion and help support their new Classes. The Scalemind are helping ease them into that. They’ve lost all their Skills and Abilities, so the shock means they’ll remain unconscious without further help, even if their soul collapse has been stopped.”
“That’s soul magic?” Nillaren asked sharply, which Shayma understood.
“Not exactly. It’s something only a Power can do.”
“Oh.” Nillaren didn’t have anything further to say to that. Perhaps it still hadn’t quite come to terms with the fact that it was dealing with a Power. It watched for a few minutes longer before taking a breath. “How long—” it began, then stopped as one of the unconscious Leyn stirred. What had taken Shayma hours took real Scalemind only minutes, and the trio of [DEPLETED] Leyn returned to life. Nillaren rushed forward, and Shayma gave him room. Once he had come to terms with Blue saving three of the Leyn, she’d see about saving others. With luck, Kallindakari still held.