“Those arrogant fools,” Tor Kot said, pacing back and forth while his Pale Mantis elites looked on. “Blue is not going to sit by and let them invade Einteril. He made it pretty damn clear that he’s going to take issue with anything that spreads depletion.” He suddenly whirled about and shook his finger at Miriam. “Not a chance! I’m not going to risk losing any of you. If we could get some sort of paired device without the depletion collapsing it that would be one thing, but as it is…” He trailed off and then nodded at Charlene. “Yes, exactly.”
Tor Kot spun around and strode to a heavily enchanted desk, running mana through part of it. An illusion of Yit Niv appeared, with her spider guards. The woman had visibly aged after her faction’s expulsion from the central Council, with threads of silver and white in her hair, and her expression upon seeing Tor Kot was resigned. It was if she only expected bad news from him.
“Queen Iniri sent a message to me on behalf of Blue,” Tor Kot said, foregoing any pleasantries. “Our esteemed council has decided to go to Einteril to power up their cores. Blue isn’t happy about this. The idiots probably thought he wouldn’t care because of what he did to Port Anell, but of course they didn’t bother to ask me.”
“I see.” Yit Niv considered Tor Kot. “Perhaps we should not be concerned. Blue can punish them in any way that he wants and it would hardly affect us. We certainly aren’t sending anyone along. Though, how did Blue know, if I haven’t even heard anything?”
“It’s undeniable that he’s a Power. When it comes to them, there’s no telling what’s possible.” Tor Kot waved it away. “The problem is that if Blue goes after them and destroys them like he did Vok Lim, we’ll be losing more cores at a time we can’t afford to. Until and unless Blue comes and closes the rift we’ve still got a job to do.”
“Good luck trying to get the Council to listen to you.” Yit Niv said dryly. “The only replies they’ve sent me are receipts for my taxes.”
“They really do blame the loss of those war cores on us,” Tor Kot sighed. “I guess it’s hard to hold dead people to account. I will try to warn the Council but we need to decide what to do if they don’t listen.”
“Contingency green? Grey?” Yit Niv suggested, and Tor Kot made a face.
“I’d rather not even mention those aloud.” Tor Kot said with a warning glance. “Besides, we may need to make a contingency Blue at this point. Regardless, I don’t like the direction things are going.”
“If you can stop them from deploying you might at least buy some time,” Yit Niv observed. “I wouldn’t want to lay odds on how long it would take Blue to solve the issues over by the bird people’s continent, but it still won’t be quick.”
It wasn’t going to be quick. No matter how I did it, I was going to have to end up taking over the whole country, all at once or bit by bit, and without a Bargain to supercharge the process that was not quick. It was faster with the [Burrowing] trait, thankfully, but the sheer scale of it was daunting. It might have been faster to scorch the whole thing with [Starlances], but I didn’t want to turn Chiuxatlan into a glass desert. I’d have to fix it, and that would take just as long as doing it right in the first place.
Of course I might have to, or at least fly around zapping things with the Fortress point defenses, just to get the spread under control. I wasn’t sure if the blighted, depletion-heavy mana was self-perpetuating yet, but burning all the blightbeast wildlife with fire would probably slow things down. It also reminded me there were huge chunks of the Underneath that needed the same treatment before they started causing more trouble themselves.
I had to begin somewhere though, and I started out by clearing the passes that the Xicoatli were defending. There were only a few of them, mostly located by rivers coming out of the mountainous terrain, and it was easy enough to find the semi-permanent fires or lava flows created by the Xicoatl Classers. Such barriers didn’t stop anything that flew, but there seemed to be a number of anti-air defenses buried in the mountainsides, small bolts of fire and earth flying out to hammer into the smaller blightbeasts that tried to fly up above the slopes. The air defenses surprised me, but then I realized it made sense to have them, since they bordered the Chiuxatli.
The point defenses made quick work of the chaff, and Shayma went out to hunt down things outside of my immediate range as I sort of bumped the Fortress into the side of the mountain. The major problem the Xicoatl had that they couldn’t deal with was less the actual beasts, which were fairly effectively dealt with, as the fact that the blight was creeping forward under and over their defenses in the wind and earth mana. So I hooked myself into the landscape and started purging everything.
Frankly, the Xicoatli weren’t too happy about it. I’d forgotten that to other people, being inside my area effect was very much the feeling of being deep in the dungeon and that wasn’t exactly restful. Each of the passes had a garrison dug in to guard it, or rather, several of them, spaced along the walls of the pass, which meant there were a lot of the snake-people around.
Shayma got good use out of the obsidian seal, though so far as I could tell everyone knew what the Fortress was. It was just that there was a big difference between knowing that the huge hovering black dodecahedron supposedly had permission to be there, and having the king’s seal to prove it. Or whatever Tzicue’s title was.
Tzicue’s comment to Tlulipechua about a Xicoatl fortress made a lot of sense after I got an intimate look at their architecture. They certainly weren’t a subterranean race, but they build underground as much as above, with low enough ceilings that upright bipeds would feel claustrophobic. Despite the lack of verticality, everything was clean, brightly lit with magitek and light pipes, and fully furnished. A nice place, for snake-people. They’d be well-suited to dealing with the Underneath.
Tlulipechua spent a lot of time out on the surface of the Fortress, looking over what we could see of Chiuxatlan. I’d cautioned him against actually flying out there, due to the depletion in the environmental mana, but he spent a good chunk brooding over the state of the country. In truth it didn’t look too bad, discounting the fact that almost all the artificial structures had been absolutely ruined, but I didn’t know what it looked like before. I didn’t have much attachment to all the remnants of buildings and things, but Tlulipechua clearly did.
The only real interruption came not from the blightbeasts or the Xicoatli, but from other inhabitants of the area. Ones I’d not even thought about, because in Orn the only local examples lived inside the Caldera. But in Nicehapoca, they had dragons.
Four of them came winging down from Xicoatlan’s peaks. To judge from my prior experience, one pair was volcanic and fire, and the other was glacial and water. Unlike the young ones who had simply thrown themselves at the Palace without much thought, these circled wide around the Fortress. Which actually made me wince, since that took them into an area with depletion, completely unnecessarily.
“I’ve got some dragons here, Shayma. I think I’ll just see if Ansae wants to deal with them.” Considering she was cleansing blightbeasts from deep inside a natural cave system a dozen kilometers away, I didn’t think it was necessary to interrupt her.
“Good idea,” she said. “My dragon form isn’t exactly intimidating quite yet. Not to real dragons, at least.”
“Hey, Ansae? I’ve got some dragons here that I need to talk to and tell that they ought to come in closer to stay out of the depletion taint.” Ansae perked up at that, blinking as she unfocused from her arcane worktable.
“Oh? It’s been a long time since I was in Nicehapoca. A very long time.” She got to her feet, stretching out like a cat and then flexing her wings. “You won’t mind if I invite them into Hedron, will you? At least until the depletion is purged around their homes.”
“I don’t actually know exactly where their homes are, but sure, go ahead, so long as they’re your guests. The dragon part is still empty since everyone has lairs in the Caldera.”
“Excellent,” Ansae said. “And thank you for thinking of it. The issue of dragons being affected by depletion is, as you can imagine, rather dear to my heart.” She paced out of her study, tail flicking back and forth. “For you they would be stubborn, but they will certainly listen to me.”
“Just stay on the Fortress, I don’t have that much range on my mana compared to the Caldera,” I warned her. I didn’t expect she’d be even the slightest bit careless, especially since she could see my mana, unlike most everyone else, but I didn’t want to take the chance.
“Of course,” she replied, and stepped through the portal I opened, emerging on the top surface of the Fortress. Since she spent all her time inside my Caldera, I’d forgotten how potent her Presence was. I wasn’t sure if she restrained it to be polite to me, or if being inside my territory actually suppressed it. Or some combination of the two.
The moment she stepped out of the portal her Presence slammed into the surroundings, physically dislodging snow and ice, bending trees, and causing the circling dragons to falter midflight. It also shattered my portal, which wasn’t a big deal, but it went to show how powerful she was without even exercising a single Skill. Not content with that much, she tilted her head back and roared, something loud enough that people inside the Fortress could hear it. From what I could see it echoed through mana, though it didn’t use any itself. Another reminder that Ansae was far, far ahead of me in magical knowledge and prowess.
“What was that?” Shayma asked, pausing in her application of stellar fire.
“That was Ansae.”
“Gods above, that is terrifying. Even for me, and I know her!”
“Yeah, she’s like that!”
The other dragons stopped circling, instead heading straight for the Fortress. Of course, I had the point defenses turned off, but I did wonder how well they’d work if they were turned on. The only dragons I’d seen were Ansae, and a bunch of young and naïve outcasts. I didn’t have any real reference point for how powerful proper dragons were.
Oddly enough, they were all around level 120 or so. That put them firmly into fifth tier territory, were they human-kin, but dragons didn’t level and tier up quite the same way. It was more about Skills and evolution with them, and I didn’t really have the metrics to judge. That said, I was pretty sure these dragons were on the old and powerful side, and not just because they’d been appropriately cautious in approaching a giant black fortress.
Level 122 [Dragon of the Rising Inferno]
Level 120 [Coatlmaw of Magma]
Level 124 [Glacial Wyrm of White Mountain]
Level 122 [Atocoatl of Springs and Waterfalls]
Ansae watched them come with a cold aloofness that would have done any royalty proud. Her presence pressed on them the entire way, and by the time they landed the four seemed to be visibly laboring to move. It was pretty heavy-handed, or rather heavy-pawed, but The Silver Woe was not exactly subtle.
“Is that who I think it is?” Xialetl muttered to Ixil. He spoke in an undertone, but if I could hear it, so could Ansae.
“There’s only one dragon it could be, but what is she doing here?” Ixil whispered back.
“Stop whispering and greet her before she gets mad!” Ynxin hissed, shoving the Hoiceps forward with her wings.
Ixil snapped back at her, teeth closing a bare fraction away from the other dragon’s scales, and then settled herself and stepped forward. Xialetl matched her step for step, approaching Ansae, and bowed to her. Behind them, the Nixhual pair prostrated themselves as well. It was interesting, considering they were actually higher level than the fire and magma set of dragons, but human-kin didn’t judge rank strictly by level so it was probably stupid to think dragons did.
“May I know if I have the honor of addressing the Great Lady, The Silver Woe?” Xialetl asked, completely politely. He had a pronounced accent, rather more sibilant than the way Ansae pronounced things, which only made sense if they hung around the Xicoatl.
“You do,” Ansae said, fully magisterial. It still threw me a bit to see her act so differently with outsiders, but then, she wasn’t just Ansae with outsiders. It made me appreciate that she wasn’t generally The Silver Woe with me. “I am here with my associate, the Power Blue, to purge this land of depletion. Chiuxatlan has been compromised.”
The four dragons exchanged glances. I could guess they had some idea of that, though I doubted they recognized how bad the problem was. My ANATHEMA gave me a special sensitivity to depletion and Ansae could see it because she was Ansae, but for everyone else it was something that was felt only when it afflicted them. Until constructed magic started failing, its infiltration into regular mana flows was practically invisible.
“We know that there were depletion issues in Chiuxatlan that had forced them to evacuate,” Xialetl offered. “But we aren’t aware of the extent of the issue.”
“Anywhere outside this construct you run the risk of depletion,” Ansae said bluntly. “The mana you feel is Blue’s, and it prevents depletion from existing within it.”
“What would you have us do?” Xialetl asked, looking around at the bare top of the Fortress. It probably didn’t look very accommodating from the outside.
“I will be in the Fortress for some time and will be accepting audiences. I trust the dragons of Nicehapoca have not forgotten their courtesy.” The corner of Ansae’s muzzle twisted upward in a smile. It was a transparent enough ploy, satisfying the requirements of a mandate by a proud dragon and a Power while still offering them shelter, but it also wasn’t something they could turn down. I took the cue and opened another portal behind Ansae. Now that the pressure of her Presence had equalized somewhat, it wasn’t likely to collapse.
“Yes, of course, Great Lady,” Xialetl said gratefully, spreading his wings and gesturing the others to join him with a jerk of his head. Ansae watched them take off, then stepped through the portal to the center of the dragon chamber in the Fortress. Unlike the Caldera, the Fortress chambers had at least a skeleton of infrastructure, but only that. If the dragons moved in, they’d have to do some work.
Since she actually had a little bit of mana available, that wasn’t an issue for Ansae. I wouldn’t have minded slapping something together for her, but apparently she felt like being a bit spendthrift. It looked like impressive spellcraft, but her mana pool didn’t drop more than a dozen points when she crooked a claw at the ground and pulled a pavilion out of it whole. She was even faster at shaping rock than I was.
The dragon chamber itself had, effectively, one floor dedicated to each Affinity, though I’d left some blank floors for the ones I didn’t have yet, though it was more like a giant spiral than discrete levels. Dragons needed plenty of air space, after all. What they didn’t need was balanced mana to provide a pleasant variety of surroundings, so the spiral was full of extremes. Blinding lights, murky shadow, flowing magma, frigid ice, permanent thunderstorms.
Like the other chambers, it wasn’t actually done. It needed inhabitants, and it needed dwellings, and the work that only those who were living there could provide. In Ansae’s case, I was sure she could have dwelt anywhere, but her advice had included a mana-neutral island in the middle of the chamber, and that was where I’d put her. In hindsight, it was obvious that was where any arbiter would sit, given how Affinity-oriented dragons were. Though, Ansae was the only all-Affinity dragon, so there really wasn’t anyone who could quite fill the role.
“Hmm.” It didn’t feel quite right to have everyone drop in on Ansae’s island, and besides, the vertical portal looked a bit weird on the top of the Fortress, so I decided I’d try something big and flashy. That seemed to be my kind of thing these days anyway. It took me a minute of concentration, but I turned the entire top surface of the Fortress into a portal. Or rather, two portals, cut halfway down the middle, one leading to the ice area and the other to the volcanic area.
“Hmm?” Shayma asked.
“Looks like we’ve got some dragon visitors for a while. Top side of the Fortress goes to the dragon habitat now so they can find their way easily. They’re technically Ansae’s guests but you should probably swing by at some point just so I can welcome them on my behalf as well.”
“Oh, sure! I’m almost done here anyway.” Even in the short time that I’d been focused on dragon dealings, she’d sterilized the cave and swept it with Fields to clear it of blight and moved onto the next. In the grand scheme of things, the caves and other nooks and crannies weren’t that big a thing, but they were all close to the Xicoatli lines, so it was better to be safe than sorry.
“I’m really not certain the Xicoatli properly appreciate what we’re doing. Ah well, we’re not doing it for them anyway.” If they’d realized that I could overhear their complaints, they likely wouldn’t have been making them, but I didn’t take it personally. Mostly I ignored it, like I ignored all the conversations in Tarnil and the Caldera, but I got the idea that the rank and file Xicoatl thought the Fortress was creepy. Which, fair enough, it kind of was from the outside.
I could have pulled Shayma back through core recall if she’d asked, but instead she shifted to dragon form and took off again. Without her armor on, she wasn’t silver like Ansae, but rather she’d styled herself in fox-red and white. It didn’t match any Affinity, but that was fine. She wasn’t a normal dragon.
“Changed your mind about showing up in your dragon form?”
“Well, I was thinking, and it’s not like my normal form is all that impressive to human-kin,” Shayma said. “I could look more imposing but I don’t, so it shouldn’t matter in dragon form, either.”
“That makes sense to me. I suppose it might be easier if you were super big and scary all the time but that’s really playing to other people’s expectations so no. You’ll be you and they just have to deal.” Shayma laughed, which was a surprisingly loud noise as a dragon. Big lungs meant a big noise.
“That sounds like what I’d do anyway,” Shayma admitted. “Plus I admit it’s sometimes fun when people underestimate me. Or you.” Then she sobered. “Well, until it gets people in trouble. I need to be more aggressive about that.”
“Yeah, I notice that Ansae always has her Presence up. I don’t know if she can suppress it completely; I think she had some kind of active warding blocking it before I came along. It might be best to always have some of that hanging around you unless you’re trying to hide.”
“You’re right. I’ve mostly used it as a hammer, but Ansae uses it like a cloak. Or a badge. Hm.” Her muzzle crinkled as she thought, which looked pretty silly in dragon form, but she smoothed it out by the time she reached the Fortress. Shayma dropped in through the fire portal and angled her flight toward Ansae’s pavilion, pulling my Presence around her as she went.
By the time she reached it, Ansae was waiting for her, head cocked slightly as she examined Shayma. I was half expecting her to laugh, but she didn’t. She did, however, look inordinately pleased.
“I see you’ve accepted the supremacy of the draconic form,” Ansae said as she landed.
“It’s certainly powerful,” Shayma said diplomatically. “I’m not really a fan of being quadrupedal, though.”
“You have wings if you need to carry things,” Ansae told her breezily. “But that’s a common complaint from bipeds.”
“So any other thoughts?” Shyama was clearly fishing for compliments or at least opinions.
“You’re wondering why your dragon form isn’t as large as me.” Ansae laughed. “Shayma, you’re just too young. You’ll need another two or three decades to get to adult size, unless you decide to age yourself somehow.”
“I suppose I could, but it feels wrong.” Shayma shifted herself back to her normal fox-girl self.
“Then you shouldn’t. You’ll be fine, especially now that you’ve decided to really embrace Blue’s mantle.”
“I hadn’t really thought about it, but it was stupid not to have it around me all the time before, wasn’t it?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not.” Ansae flicked her tail, curling it about her forefeet where she sat. “You aren’t Blue. Blue isn’t you. It’s not a simple decision, and some things you have to learn and decide for yourself.”
“It seems simple to me,” I put in.
“Yes,” Ansae agreed, then raised a single claw. “It does now. Would either of you have been so eager before?” She waved it away. “Regardless, it is certainly a good idea with dragons. You don’t want to waste time fighting for them to acknowledge your authority.”
“Do you think it would work better if I stayed in my normal form, or dragon form?”
“Whichever you choose is how they will think of you in the future, no matter what form you’re in,” Ansae said, in lieu of a proper answer. Sometimes it was frustrating how she often didn’t give real advice, but she never said anything useless. In fact, it seemed to be some paradoxical wisdom about how giving unqualified advice turned out badly. She preferred people make their own choices, rather than acting as proxies for what she would do. “Either way, the sheer weight of mana you bear will impress them.”
“I didn’t even think about that. Yeah, [Unbreakable Promise] is probably really imposing to dragons. I guess it’s best to only use dragon form for combat stuff?”
“Yeah. It’s fun, but it’s not me.”
“A shame,” Ansae said, but she was joking. I was pretty sure, at least. Sometimes when she made comments like that she wasn’t, and her deadpan was good enough that I couldn’t tell until she followed up with something serious. Shayma could tell easier than I could, for some reason.
“If I were a dragon, that’d mean there was a dragon that Blue liked more than you,” Shayma told her with a grin. “As it is, you can claim to be his favorite.”
“My ego does not ride on Blue’s approval,” Ansae said loftily.
“Well, it ought to,” Shayma said. Ansae just snorted. I was pretty certain Ansae enjoyed having someone who treated her like a normal person. Even if she weren’t imperious with everyone else, her Presence had a notable effect. Shayma and I weren’t really affected by it.
They bantered for a few minutes more before I spotted a full sixteen dragons headed toward the Fortress. Aside from Shayma, it was the first time I’d seen anything but full-sized adults, and judging from the sizes some of them were very young indeed. There was even a pair latched onto a sort of barding that one of the adults was wearing, too young to fly. Or at least, fly that far.
They circled once above the Fortress, looking at the portals and discussing it in low tones, but it didn’t take long for them to divide themselves into two groups. The fire and magma related dragons went to the hot area, and the water and ice related went to the cold, though of course the actual breakdown was more complex.
I watched them spread out, the younger dragons and parents heading for the inside of the spiral where the Affinities were less intense. It only made sense, since the youngest ones clearly hadn’t chosen their Affinities yet, and even native draconic toughness could only go so far. It also really helped my ego to see their eyes light up at the sight of entire swaths of stellar and metal and gravity Affinity rich areas. I knew it was great, but I liked seeing other people agree.
It only took a few minutes for the dragons to claim their areas, pulling a few items out of their bardings and sculpting small platforms for themselves, before gathering back up to go see Ansae. Clearly they didn’t know that Shayma was there too, to judge by the reactions as they lit down on the pavilion. A fraction of dismissal, then shock as my Presence hit them, then wary reappraisal. I could tell Shayma almost ruined it by wanting to coo over the baby dragons, still riding atop their mother, but she persevered.
“Great Lady,” Xialetl said, once again speaking for everyone. “May I present the dragons of Xicoatlan.” His eyes slipped to Shayma, but he didn’t ask. Ansae lifted her head imperiously.
“I welcome you to the Hedron,” she said. “Though only on my own behalf. It is, in fact, the territory of Blue.” She tilted her head sideways at Shayma.
“I am Shayma Ell, Voice of Blue. He also welcomes you to the Hedron, though this portion of it is under the Great Lady’s authority. The Silver Woe has his full support. While you are here, feel free to make any minor alterations you want, though for any major changes to mana flow, ask.” Xialetl dipped his head.
“We thank Blue for the shelter,” he said. “We have been able to feel the mana shaping we’ve done slowly unraveling, falling apart at the edges. There hasn’t been anything we have been able to do about it. Here, even if we can’t see it, we can feel how crisp and clean everything is.” I wondered if the older dragons would be faster to pick up the trick of seeing my mana from Ansae, or if I’d need to do the anvil trick again. It would be instructive either way.
Ansae holding court was part the queen addressing her subjects and part worried children asking things of their mother. When Xialetl said that their mana sculpting was falling apart, that was something that had clearly shaken all but the youngest of the dragons. Even they had picked up on the mood, and it was only when their parents released them to gambol around in a fairly tame pocket of water and grass that they seemed to relax.
“If their manascaping is starting to break down, then Xicoatlan is going to need almost as much repair as Chiuxatlan does,” Ansae said grimly, once the dragons had scattered back to their chosen areas. “I can’t go out and I know Blue’s perception does not extend as far as mine does, but there must be places we don’t see where the blight has made inroads.”
“For some reason, I’m not surprised. This is going to be a long project.”