Tiny black wings beat in the air, working with a vigor of something possessed - which, in a way, they were.
Tiamat’s brood had never stopped searching.
I could see them on the opposite shoreline, their forms wreathed in shadows, a twisting mass of darkness and equally-twisted flesh. Another host-hive collapsed in on itself as the bad-things within pulled themselves free. A third quickly followed.
The air filled with tiny shadows, each taking wing.
Other shadows could only wait, still trapped by the black-water that ringed the many-nest. I saw the twisted-flesh bad-things among them, though they weren’t the only ones. There were other thralls of Tiamat among them, their shadows shaped differently than ones that I had seen before, but they were too far away to really make out.
Tiamat’s thought-hisses smashed against the defenses of my mind-nest as she broke her silence, throwing dust and debris as the barrier suffered her wrath. Still, the walls held firm. With no moving-walls to provide entry, that was all that mattered.
I pushed the blasphemous Ascended to the back of my mind.
The-female-who-was-not-Needle muttered something under her breath, cutting away a few more swaths of the vines that surrounded the bridge before putting her fangs away. I approved; while the few bad-things that may have been among them might have slowed down Tiamat’s bad-things, they might have done the same to us. A few vines curled and swayed on the other side of the bridge far off in the distance, reacting to the bit of motion.
We both ignored that; the bridge itself was all but shattered at its middle, broken some time in the past by the giant mobile roots of the Lesser Core’s greatest bad-thing.
Flashes of [PANIC] and [FEAR] burst across the connections to my various Coreless as the clouds of bad-things came nearer, passing directly over the section of the many-nest that the Great Core’s Coreless had claimed.
“Oh no,” I heard not-Needle hiss under her breath, her eyes wide.
They didn’t stop; the [PANIC] dwindled down to [alarm]. Not-Needle let out a sigh of [relief]. I felt that as well; even my more experienced Coreless had been given trouble by groups of the flying bad-things. The weaker Coreless would have been nearly defenseless, though they probably would have been able to eventually win due to the healing that the nearby [Little Guardian’s Focus] provided.
A droning buzz began to build as Tiamat’s bad-things came closer, forcing my Coreless to make a quick decision. The space between us was rapidly closing.
“Guess they’re coming for us, little guy,” the-female-who-was-not-Needle said, rubbing her fingers against my head-scales. “Why don’t we set out the welcome mat, then?”
The Coreless turned, striding back into the tower-nest. She didn’t bother to shut the moving-wall, moving instead towards the stairs that led below. The buzzing grew behind us, drowning out the sounds of her boots against the steps.
Reaching the room below, she reached into one of the skin-mouths at her side, casting out broken fragments of luminous glow-caps. The plant-flesh remains cast their light in their little clusters, highlighting vein after vein of gold and blue.
They climbed their way up trunks of solid plant-flesh, worked their way across overhead canopies, and clambered down hanging vines, each little piece contributing to the greater whole.
“If you can control those things well, now’s the time,” the-female-who-was-not-Needle muttered, turning back around and reaching down to loosen the ore-flesh fangs at her side. They pulled free with a sharp snick of ore-flesh, the mana-light that they contained breaking the darkness even further.
The droning buzz grew a little louder, bouncing down the walls ahead of us.
I turned my attention towards my mana core, shifting a small portion of it in a now-practiced twist of [Mana-Life Conversion], readying myself for the worst. I had already seen how much trouble my Coreless had with the small flying bad-things. The [Little Guardian’s Totem] that pressed itself against not-Needle’s flesh would go a long way towards protecting her, but there were far more of the disgusting things than last time.
It was good to be prepared.
With that thought, I looked towards the tower-nest around me - and towards the numerous plant-flesh lined in gold and blue.
One thought-hiss, one idea, brought them to life.
Leaves and flowers rustled as plant-flesh twisted and shook, gold-blue petals that floated gently through the air. I heard not-Needle laugh beside me, staring in [excitement] as the plant-flesh around us prepared for battle.
Vines, all green and gold and blue, visibly coiled and uncoiled, stretching their lengths. Roots pulled themselves from their anchoring, splitting free from the ground below. Branches stretched themselves, wood creaking as they were forced beyond their natural spread.
And then bad-things entered the room.
The air filled with beating wings, bad-thing after bad-thing droning and buzzing. Their red-black carapaces dripped rotting fluid, releasing a fetid scent-taste that nearly caused me to flinch away. Each new beat of their gossamer wings widened the cracks in their shell-skins, the bad-things’ poorly designed bodies unable to keep themselves together outside of the safety of their host-hives. That didn’t seem to bother them; their wings beat and fluttered and droned, all while they kept falling apart.
The bad-things flew forward.
I let out a thought-hiss again. [Spore Puppeteer] showed its worth.
Gold-blue vines whipped outwards from where they hung, reaching for one another. They twisted and twined where their ends made contact, pulling themselves taut and forming a giant web of vines that blocked the bad-things from reaching us.
As the bad-things approached, the colorful web shifted, parts of it flexing and others loosening to defend the gaps between them. Occasionally, a vine would rip itself free entirely, batting aside a clustered mass of flying bad-things with a brutal swipe of flexible plant-flesh.
At the same time, a tree branch let out a crack as it threw itself around sharply, the plant-flesh bending unnaturally. The motion spit out a wave of needles that had been hidden within its surface, tiny things that shred through fragile wings and vulnerable eyes.
Tiamat’s bad-things answered in tandem, shifting their focus to their attackers. Their teeth, serrated to rend through durable flesh, cut away at the hard plant-flesh of trees and roots and vines alike.
None of it mattered. The Great Core’s plant-flesh followers were relentless, driven forward by the power of [Spore Puppeteer]. They didn’t care about injuries or pain.
A fitting opponent for Tiamat’s creations. They didn’t care either.
I felt not-Needle start to relax, her battle-ready stance loosening ever so slightly. Only a few of the bad-things had managed to slip through the defensive web of vines, few enough that the-female-who-was-not-Needle had easily sliced them into pieces. Shattered bits of carapace clung to her ore-flesh, tightly stuck by the clumps of rotting blood that had hidden underneath.
She put away one of her fangs, stretching down to swipe the shattered pieces away in [distaste]. Her hand came back up to reach for my scale-flesh, only pulling back when I gave her a warning hiss.
“Sorry,” she said, [apologetic]. “It’s pretty gross, huh?”
Not-Needle turned back towards the fight - if it could really be called that. Tiamat’s minions, as dangerous as they could sometimes be, were a poor match for the Great Core’s newest followers. Vines whipped, needles soared, and roots thrashed.
The bad-things fell in droves, their wings clipped and their shells shattered, only to be bound in twisting vines and heavy roots.
My only regret was that the thought-light had remained silent. It would have been nice to receive rewards from the actions of the bad-things that [Spore Puppeteer] converted.
One last bad-thing managed to slip through the gaps between the vines; they twisted and turned in response, swatting it as it passed by. Shell-skin cracked and wings buzzed furiously.
A single hiss, amplified by [Sound Shaping], sent it careening dizzily to the ground. Roots pulled themselves from the soil, wrapping around the disgusting thing. It thrashed and flailed; the roots held firm.
“Wow,” I heard not-Needle breathe. “That worked out better than I expected.”
I slithered down from my perch; a thought-hiss ended with a nearby tree’s root stretched out in front of me, a convenient bridge to the ground below. I followed it down eagerly.
The nearest of Tiamat’s fallen bad-things thrashed harder, spurred on by my presence. Just like before, the roots held firm.
I stretched closer, letting a few chosen spores fly free.