Fighting blightbeasts was fun at first, but it was getting tedious. It was also so easy that she knew she couldn’t possibly be getting any real experience or advancing any of her Skills. For smaller things, she could just project [Hungering Dark] from her Domain and [Starlance] any survivors, and for larger things she could simply tear them apart with a [Chimaeric Neutronium]-enhanced claw. It made her grateful her Class actually wasn’t a combat Class, since now that she had the opportunity she’d found she really wasn’t a battle fanatic. No, her Class was a Class for fooling around and having fun.
“Yup, that actually got you more experience.” Blue’s confirmation helped, but she had a good idea of how to advance her Class even without it now. Killing blightbeasts in new and interesting ways, playing around with stretching the limits of [Chimaeric Neutronium] or her shapeshifting, or just generally applying her Skills in novel ways. She had an enormous breadth of Skills, with [Unbreakable Promise] and her Domain, so she needed to acquire the depth to go along with them.
“Not very efficient, though. It’s sad, but I can kill them faster than they can kill each other.” Goading the cave of mole-things into slaughtering each other had been an interesting exercise, reminding her of her very first combat experience with the so-called goblins of Vok Nal’s, but it had taken longer than she would have liked. They were blindly hostile toward non-blighted animals and people, but acted more or less normally in their depletion-saturated surroundings, so inciting violence was easy enough. In theory.
Actually figuring out how to make one of the creatures look like a non-blighted version of itself without giving herself away was more difficult. It had taken more than few tries, and the result was less spectacular when she could have just turned the infestation into paste. Of course, when she’d done that, the Xicoatli who had been watching had been somewhat disturbed by the sheer power on display.
Shayma was glad that [Hungering Dark] cleaned up the mess. Until she had started killing things in job lots she hadn’t really been bothered by the scent of death, but it got overwhelming after a while. Oddly, it wasn’t as bad in Scalemind or dragon form, but she tended to stay fox-kin if there were Xicoatl about. They seemed to like that more and in the caves it didn’t matter too much.
“As long as it gets done, I guess.” Blue didn’t sound particularly eager, and she didn’t blame him. This wasn’t like Kallindakari, where she had been able to save everyone all at once. It was a slog of sterilizing the closest infestations above the ground and under it to keep the blight from infecting Xicoatlan. A border of hundreds of miles, and she was responsible for the edges while Blue worked his way out from the Fortress.
“I’m starting to think it might just be better to use a [Contained Star] and scorch everything at once,” Shayma said, only half meaning it.
“Yeah, this is a long-term project. But at least I’m getting value out of it. I just wish I could see how close I am to a level without you doing the looking for me.” Shayma shook her head. Blue’s Status was as much of a mess as ever, but with her he actually had some idea of how far along he was toward his next level. Not something Classers got, but their levels were far easier to come by. “Oh, but do feel free to use the Sungun if you think it’s appropriate. That’s what it’s for.”
“You really know how to tempt a girl,” Shayma laughed. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t much of a reason to use such a powerful weapon, for the same reason Blue didn’t generally unleash his full [Starlance]. It didn’t just kill what was in front of it, but everything in its path.
“You know what? You’re almost done with the passes and chokepoints, right?”
“So far as I can see,” Shayma agreed.
“Maybe we ought to get in touch with Tzicue and see if he’s got any major problems anywhere. There’s a big difference between the locals not bothering you, and getting firsthand reports of anything weird. There’s no point in having you do useless cleanup now that you’ve relieved the worst of the pressure.” Blue seemed weirdly guilty about having her wandering around doing spot work, despite the fact that it was only a few days of labor. Though, thinking about it, they’d been going from one thing to another almost the entire time she’d been with Blue.
“Sure,” she agreed, reaching into her pocket space to pull out the obsidian rod. Fire Affinity wasn’t one of her native Affinities, so it took quite a bit of concentration to convert it. Fortunately the rod didn’t take much to connect with whatever magical item was on the other end. A Xicoatl, not Tzicue, appeared after a moment, composed of fire. He ducked his head to her.
“Shayma Ell, Voice of Blue?” He asked, and she nodded. “May I tell Tzicue of the Green what you desire?”
“I’m just curious to know if he’s gotten any reports of anything Blue or I should look into. I’ve secured the border here, more or less, but there could easily be parts of the Underneath we need to address.”
“I will pass that along. It may take some time to correlate the reports you wish, however.” The spokes-snake hesitated, clearly wondering how to ask her to give them extra time.
“I could come by the capital,” Shayma offered. “I have yet to meet Tzicue in person, and we can discuss things more easily.”
“We would be delighted to have you,” the Xicoatl said, empowered for that much, at least. “We have no Powers in Nicehapoca, so I beg forgiveness for any slights in advance.”
“I doubt we’ll have any trouble,” she assured him. “You’ve been more than hospitable so far.” Aside from the grumbling of the Xicoatl who didn’t like the feeling of dungeon mana, but they grumbled out of her hearing, or thought they did, so she couldn’t fault them. Prior to the Bargain, people in Tarnil had felt the same way.
“Then we shall be expecting you,” the Xicoatl told her, and bowed to her. She nodded back and stopped flooding the rod with mana, letting the simulacrum dissipate.
“Actually, where is their capital?” She asked after a moment. Blue laughed in her ear.
“I guess it doesn’t do much for the impression of all-knowing omniscience if we have to ask that,” he said. “I kind of know, though. But I bet we can just ask Tlulipechua. He probably even has a map somewhere.”
“Sounds good,” she said. “Bring me home?” In answer, she felt the familiar tug of the core summons and reappeared next to Blue’s core. She gave him a hug, then shifted into Chixuatli form before taking the teleporter to the Chiuxatli chamber of the Hedron.
Tlulipechua wasn’t too difficult to track down, once again playing with the younger generation. Shayma was pretty sure he was treating the whole thing a little bit like a vacation. It wasn’t like he was actually far away from the Caldera, not with Blue’s spatial abilities, but he’d barely been back. Though he couldn’t put off his duties forever; it was going to take years to clean things up. He set aside the infant Chiuxatli he’d been flying around and darted over to her, offering her a nod.
»What can I help Blue with?«
»I’m going to go visit Tzicue,« Shayma signaled. »I just don’t know where his place of residence is. I’m not sure what to look for when it comes to Xicoatli palaces.«
»Yes, I can believe that. It’s not obvious.« Tlulipechua flickered instructions, his guards relaying it out to wherever the pages were, and soon enough someone arrived with a map. It was brightly embroidered, mana-rich cloth, of course, stretched over a box with chambers matching the largest divisions. Different flavors of air swirled inside the chambers, providing a very clear picture to Chiuxatli senses.
»Here,« Tlulipechua flashed, tapping a spot with a claw. »It’s in a cold valley, all downdrafts. Everything is white, of course.«
»That does seem to be how Xicoatlan is,« Shayma agreed. »I believe I can find it.« With her Domain, she could at least see through the treetops. Though maybe the capital would be slightly more visible than the outlying settlements.
She bade Tlulipechua a farewell and left the Hedron, skipping through the distance with [Wake of the Phantasmal]. There was a noticeable difference between Nicehapoca and Orn, with the former being far more real in the Phantasmal Realm. She could still move quickly, but things didn’t fade quite so much, as if there were more magical or metaphysical substance there. Which there probably was.
Shayma passed through a few mountains, detouring around warded sections as if they were stones on a road, and emerging several hundred feet above the ground, somewhat close to her target. She still only saw the orange roads, but she could teleport along those easily enough, making her way down the mountain until she found traffic.
She bypassed a caravan, which was pulled by what seemed like giant wooly spiders, maybe cousins of the Leyn, and stopped at the entrance to the capital city. A large gate, wide but low, was hidden in a dip in the terrain, sheltered under the white-leafed trees, and manned by guards. Taking out the obsidian rod, she approached the gate openly, in her fox-kin form.
Apparently her exact description hadn’t been circulated to the gate guards just yet, because they went on alert as soon as she came into view. They didn’t seem to have weapons as such, but their lower set of arms were clad in long, articulated gauntlets, set in a defensive posture as she drew closer. The cloak of Blue’s Authority had a visible impact, their eyes dilating and hands shaking, but she had to grant that they were at least brave.
“Huh,” Blue said. “My overlay says those are warcaster gauntlets. Neat.” She agreed with him, though she didn’t appreciate them being pointed in her direction. Shayma was just about to make that point to them when one of them noticed the rod and pointed it out to the other. Instantly they both went from wary to submissive, clasping their hands together crosswise and bowing deeply.
“Herald,” one of them said.
“Greetings,” she told them in reply. “I am Shayma Ell, the Voice of Blue. I’m here to meet Tzicue of the Green.”
“Yes, of course, Herald,” the same Xicoatl said, gesturing her inside. She’d been in some of the fortress areas on the border, so she’d been expecting more subterranean architecture, but an actual Xicoatl city was far different.
The dome overhead was more of a lattice, and the white trees above did nothing to block the light of the sun. If anything, they enhanced it, making the interior incredibly bright. Despite the cold outside, the city itself was warm, with smokeless flames dancing in grated columns supporting the protective dome. Despite being the capital, it didn’t seem overly large, even taking into account the subterranean portions she could see through her Domain.
Every building was brightly painted with colorful murals, to the point where the colors actually clashed, all of them generally cylindrical and reaching from the floor to the top of the dome. They radiated out from the center, where Tzicue’s palace or equivalent was obvious by size and by the vibrant green and gold murals depicting the Xicoatl himself.
There was another set of guards at the entrance to the palace, but they recognized the ornate rod she carried far more quickly than the ones outside the city. Really, it was a town, but the Xicoatli didn’t seem to build densely.
“Herald,” one said. “Please, come inside.” She stepped through the doors, and stopped.
“That is a lot of gold,” Blue said. “Even by my standards.” Shayma had to agree. The interior might not have been large relative to any of the palaces that she’d seen, but there was an enormous amount of gold. There were solid gold mosaics on the interior, gold filigree and cloth covering the furniture, and even golden tiles covering the floor in complex patterns. Where there wasn’t gold, there were gems, in an astounding display of opulence.
The sound of scales on gold as a Xicoatl approached her made a unique noise, and Shayma wondered if there was more to it than just opulence. Dragons used gold extensively in their lairs to help insulate mana flows, and since Xicoatli had a serpent lower half, gold might actually feel more pleasant than stone. She’d try it herself, but since Tlulipechua had warned against Xicoatl form it would have to wait.
“Ezi of the Green, [Councilor of Flame and Gold],” Blue told her as the Xicoatl bent her neck in greeting.
“Welcome, Shayma of the Blue,” Ezi said. “Please, Tzicue is waiting to see you.” She beckoned for Shayma to follow her, leading her up a shallow spiral of gold to the next level, where Tzicue himself lounged in silk-lined bowl on a dais.
“Please, join me,” he said, waving his leftmost hands at a small golden table set with two bowls of steaming tea. No, not tea, she saw as she took a closer look through her Domain. Spiced chocolate.
“Thank you,” she said, sitting down on the cushion across from Tzicue. Unlike most palaces or throne rooms, Tzicue didn’t have anyone around other than Ezi and the guards outside. The gold dampened her Domain, but she could still see that the only servants were in another room. He lifted his bowl of chocolate and held it out to her as if in a toast, and she did the same before they both drank. It was amazing.
“Blue, we have got to get some of this in the Caldera,” she said as an aside.
“I’ll get right on that,” he replied, amused.
“This is excellent,” she told Tzicue, and he dipped his head.
“Xocolatl is one of our core crops,” he told her. “I shall arrange to have some provided before you leave.”
“I would appreciate that,” Shayma said, taking another sip.
“As for business,” Tzicue continued, “there is indeed a certain report that I would like to beg your help on.”
“As long as it has to do with the blight, Blue and I would be glad to deal with it,” she assured him.
“There is more to it than simply the blight,” Tzicue said, which for some reason didn’t surprise Shayma at all. “It is a matter of some delicacy.” Shayma just raised her eyebrows at Tzicue and waited for him to elaborate.
“I cannot demand that you keep this a secret, I can merely ask it. We have certain outposts underneath Chiuxatlan that do not officially exist.” Blue laughed in her ear, though he didn’t explain why. “When Chiuxatlan fell, so did these outposts. Regrettable, but it was always a risk. However, these outposts had a direct route underneath Xicoatlan, our own lowways. As you can imagine, they have become dangerous vulnerabilities, despite having collapsed the lowways where we could.”
“You’re worried about blightbeasts coming up under your cities now.” Shayma summarized. Tzicue sighed.
“We do not have a real lowway, no genuine access to the Underneath, for all that we do not mind the closeness of underground life ourselves. The project was meant to address that, and now it is an enormous festering wound. There is nothing there to save, I think. I would be most grateful if you could lance that wound.”
“Honestly, it’s probably a good idea to keep that secret. I know Tlulipechua is a good guy and all but it’s better if we’re discreet. Otherwise people won’t trust us.” Shayma nodded thoughtfully. She couldn’t even completely fault Tzicue for trying it, even if she didn’t approve personally.
“We’ll take care of your problem,” Shayma told him. “But there isn’t going to be much left of your outposts.”