Veins of gold and blue spread across the floor of the tower-nest, reflecting the light of glow-caps and ore-flesh alike. Tiny thought-hisses pressed against my mind-nest, searching for instruction and meaning. I hissed back.
The multicolored veins relaxed, sinking further into the soil below them.
“Wow,” the-female-who-was-not-Needle said, her voice kept low and reverent. “That was actually...pretty.”
She turned towards me, resting on her shoulder once again, and reached out a hand to scratch at my head-scales. I allowed it.
Her boots softly settled on the loamy surface, moving in long-legged strides that brought us to one of the converted bad-things. With the way that its surface glimmered and glowed in the light, I could only imagine that it was happier this way.
How could it not be?
Her fingers reached out and plucked a berry, the deep purple of its surface contrasting nicely with the pale flesh of her hand. The roots below us, the rare few not fully converted, tried to twitch. The others held it back easily, spreading more growths through cuts and carvings.
Not-Needle never noticed the battle below her boots.
It wouldn’t last much longer anyway.
Her skin-mouth swallowed the berries one by one, filling up its stomach in an overwhelming hunger. When my own hunger rumbled again, spurred by the scent-taste being given off, I plucked one myself.
I spit it back out.
The scent-taste was better than the taste-taste. It was bitter.
“Don’t like them, little guy?” not-Needle hummed, still filling more skin-mouths. “I guess they’re an acquired taste.” She popped one into her mouth, handling it far better than I did. She actually seemed to like it. She was welcome to them; I refused to try another one, no matter how much the scent-taste made me want to.
Behind us, the Great, Useless Moving-Wall opened with its customary lack of resistance.
“You really shouldn’t be walking so far ahead, Valera,” The Unrepentant One said. “We need to keep our eyes on each other.”
“Oh, are we being careful now?” she asked, an unnatural bite to the sound. “Is that what we’re doing?”
“Look, I already apologized for that. Besides, the kid was right. She’s immune to the mist now. That’s something that we needed to know.”
The-female-who-was-not-Needle bit her lip. “Maybe, I just...I wish that you would have told me. It was dangerous.”
“No more dangerous than anything else we do. I was there to pull her out if anything went wrong. Besides, she wants to be a Seeker; she’ll have to learn to deal with danger. You can’t coddle her, and she doesn’t want to be coddled.”
I bounced a little as not-Needle let out a heavy sigh, her fingers digging in just a little harder on my head-scales. “...fine. I know. I guess that I just feel slightly responsible for her. She’s so young.”
The Unrepentant One laughed at that, [amusement] in his [Little Guardian’s Totem]. It was good to see that he was still keeping it pressed against his flesh. There was hope for him, yet.
“She’s no younger than we were when we became Seekers, Val - and she has a lot more reason to fight than we did. We turned out alright.”
“Yeah, yeah, alright. I’ll forgive you this time. I still want to know before she talks you into something stupid again. Someone has to be the voice of reason.”
“And that would be you?” The Unrepentant One asked. “The same ‘voice of reason’ that wanted to pick up a random Ascended monster because she thought it was cute?”
“And that worked out really well, didn’t it?” she said, sticking out her tongue. The scent-taste of the berries must have been affecting her a lot, if she was so eager to taste it on her tongue-flesh. “Plus, he’s definitely the cutest.”
“I guess it did,” he answered, baring his teeth and making more sounds of [amusement].
I got quite a few nice scratches after that.
A thought-hiss pulled at my attention; one of many, all but drowned out by the rest. I had been dealing with that for a long time now, long enough for it to become second nature. Each [Little Guardian’s Totem] was a spark in my awareness, though the further ones were far more faded. Their wearers still called out to me, though less than they once had. The [Little Guardian’s Focus] had helped with that, giving the Great Core’s Coreless something else to rely on. Then there were Tiamat’s thought-hisses, though she had been quiet recently. Too quiet, almost. I didn’t trust it.
But it was the last of the thought-hisses that called for me - the newest of them all.
The ones that I had sent above.
The walls of the tower-nest were lined with cracks and gouges; full of little places that had been worn away where plant-flesh pushed through. Some of them had been hard to see from so far below. Mana-light could only reach so far.
[Clinging Grasp] had solved that problem, letting me pull my way up the roughened and plant-free surface of the Great and Useless Moving-Wall with ease. From there, high above at its peak, it hadn’t been hard to find the cracks that I needed.
It was a little harder to reach them, but I did that too. The Grateful One had been [worried]. It was cute, but unnecessary.
And now, the thought-hiss that marked my success had come at last. It had taken longer than I would prefer; using [Spore Puppeteer] like this would never work against bad-things that weren’t rooted in place. Fortunately, the Lesser Core was lesser for a reason, and had given its bad-things something worse than legs.
There was nowhere for them to go; all I had needed was time. The thought felt fitting. Satisfying.
I looked up, tracing the line of blue and gold that disappeared into the darkness above, hissing in happiness.
The Great Core would soon have a tower-nest of its own. The first two floors were both nearly captured. The others would come just as easily.
There was nowhere to hide.
Lesser Core Skill: [Little Guardian’s Focus X] Increased.
[Little Guardian’s Focus XI] Acquired.
The thought-light flickered yet again as [Little Guardian’s Focus] increased in strength, causing me to let out a hiss of satisfaction. I could feel the results of the recent couple of days at the edges of my mind-nest; a great number of spore-growths clamored for attention, sending their questioning thought-hisses through its tiny wall-cracks.
My Coreless had taken me to more tower-nests, beating back the spore-mists of the Lesser Core and offering me its Little Puppeteers. I hadn’t reached the next level of [Spore Puppeteer] yet, but it was close.
More importantly, I had been able to send spores throughout the tower-nests we had found, planting the seeds that would end in their conversion.
And now, finally, the first of the tower-nests had been completely taken over.
I wanted to see it.
The-female-who-was-not-Needle stepped over the veins of gold and blue, already used to their presence. The roots didn’t react this time; the light of the Great Core had consumed them completely. They must have been overjoyed.
She walked up step after step, ascending the tower-nest’s many floors. Fruits and vines and trees and roots covered the great nest, all marked with beautiful golds and blues that ran across their plant-flesh and glimmered in the light of not-Needle’s second skin. I sent a thought-hiss in greeting; they twitched and swayed, bowing in response.
Not-Needle seemed to enjoy that, giggling at a tree that was particularly enthusiastic in its bowing. “You really have them trained well, huh. Can they roll over, too?”
She laughed again, but kept walking.
Then, finally, we reached the top floor. It, unlike the rest, was all but empty of plant-flesh. Instead, there was a series of fake-pedestals and other Coreless carvings that filled the room.
I ignored them, focusing on the moving-wall on one side, as poorly hidden as always. Not-Needle moved towards it, pushing the useless thing aside. Her ore-flesh fangs sliced outwards in rapid motions as she stepped past the moving-wall, cutting the nearby vines to shreds. A few twitched.
“It must have been a nice view once,” she murmured, looking through the gap in the vines. She panned her vision across the ruined city, her eyes narrowed to tiny slits - and then settled on something.
She pointed to the black-water’s edge, all the way across to where we had crossed on the darkwood notsinks. The area was covered in shadows cast by a forest of glow-caps, just as it had been when I had last seen it. There was one difference, though.
The shadows were moving now.
One of the shadows seemed to spill into itself, and then a mass of smaller shadows spilled out.
They started to fly across the black-water.