In the upper floors of the first tower-nest that I had converted for the Great Core, my Coreless weaved past vines and branches and roots of blue and gold, slipping between the gaps with ease. When there were no gaps to be had, plant-flesh simply moved aside, spore-roots twitching themselves to provide us passage.
“It’s a little eerie, isn’t it? Good, but eerie,” the nameless male Coreless said, making quiet sounds of muted [wonder] and slight [anxiety] as he reached out to brush his fingers against a nearby gold-blue vine. It gently curled away from the touch with a lazy ripple of plant-flesh, still following the instructional thought-hisses that I had sent out not long ago. “Part of me wants to flinch and dive away every time I see movement from the corner of my eyes, even if I know that everything’s fine and these things are on our side now. Hard to fight against the idea that everything not human is out to kill you, I guess.”
“Says the idiot that decided it was a good idea to poke at them with a stick not that long ago. Rowan...if you’re so jumpy, why would you do anything that might antagonize them? And now you’re touching them again,” Needle said from just ahead, turning around slightly to stare at the previously-speaking Coreless. Strangely enough, her stare didn’t seem to possess the power that the-female-who-was-not-Needle’s had; the Coreless only bared his teeth slightly, rubbing at the back of his neck.
“It’s better to make sure? I’d feel more worried if I hadn’t done it? It’s good to challenge your fears? I don’t know, pick one. All I know is that it worked out fine, so it must have not been that stupid.”
Whatever he said, it seemed to lighten the mood a bit. Most of the Coreless had their [Little Guardian’s Totem] flash with a dim [amusement], though Needle’s held more [exasperation] than anything else. Her eyes rolled back in their sockets for a long moment, which was a bit worrying, but the [Little Guardian’s Focus] must have healed whatever injury might have caused that, since her eyes went back to normal not long afterwards. I would need to watch for that in the future. Did all of the Coreless suffer from spontaneous bouts of blindness sometimes or was it just Needle?
I couldn’t even tell why it happened, which was a little frustrating. Hopefully she wouldn’t just lose control of her eyes like that in a more dangerous situation. I doubted that she could navigate by scent-taste alone with her terrible Coreless senses. Still, she didn’t seem worried by the sudden loss of control. Her faith in the Great Core must have been even stronger than I thought, to be so unconcerned.
I gave her one of my proudest hisses. The-female-who-was-not-Needle may have been a little jealous - I didn’t really bother to check her [Little Guardian’s Totem] to find out - because she almost immediately began to lavish praiseful scratches upon my head-scales. She got a slightly less proud hiss, but still seemed more than content with it.
“If you say so,” Needle finally said, having recovered fully from her temporary blindness.
“I do,” he replied, baring his teeth before pushing his way through another set of gold-blue vines that hung from the equally colorful branches above. Just like all the others, they retreated at his touch, peeling back in an undulating wave.
The Coreless went silent for a while after that, reaching yet another set of stairs that led to the next floor. Their thick-clad feet sounded sharply against the steps, the only source of noise to be found - until the unnamed Coreless’ silence was finally broken again.
“Still, it’s...impressive. Something like this. Part of me understands the Council’s worries, even if we’re not going along with their wishes. Humanity could never just control the things around us this easily, not without years and years of trying to breed monsters to be more docile and failing more than not - but an Ascended can just eat the right thing a few times and then…” he cut off his noises as the Coreless exited the enclosed spaces of the stairs, reaching the next floor of the tower. Like all of the other floors before it, it all but glittered in the light of the Coreless’ ore-flesh, forming a scene of golds and blues that almost seemed to spark with an inner light of their own.
“And then this, with what seems like hardly any effort at all. It puts things into perspective, I guess. How small we are,” he said, glancing back at me as his mouth worked. There was a deep [gloom] in his [Little Guardian’s Totem], twisted and tempered by the heavy scent-taste of [realization], like a sharp tang on my tongue. “Humanity never really had a real chance of winning, did we? Not if something like this can come so easily to an Ascended, even one that seems smaller than we could ever be.”
The-female-who-was-not-Needle made a few noises of her own, vibrations rubbing lightly against my scale-flesh. “Maybe not,” she said, looking down, one of her fists clenching and unclenching itself. “Maybe not. But do we really have to win on our own?”
She looked up, letting her hand reach out to scratch at the underside of my jaw. I leaned forward slightly, hanging in the air as it slowly pulled back. “However it happened, we have help now - even if that help isn’t human itself. It would be stupid not to do what we can with that help just because we’re afraid of what it might become. Something needed to change so things would be able to get better. I think that this could be it.”
They were silent again after that, just walking through rooms filled with gold and blue until we reached the top of the tower-nest. The highest floor looked the same as it had before; the only plant-flesh to be found were bits and pieces of darkwood carvings and slabs, arranged in a way that I was sure held more meaning for the Coreless than it did for me.
The moving-wall was still open wide where not-Needle had left it, a gaping mouth, eager and hungry. It swallowed us whole, and we stepped onto the bridge one after another. Or, at least, the Coreless did. I just clung to the-female-who-was-not-Needle’s shoulder as she stepped onto it.
One after another, they leaped the gap where the bridge had broken, feet kicking out into open air. I tried not to look down when the-female-who-was-not-Needle jumped across, desperately holding onto her ore-flesh with a mixture of [Clinging Grasp] and [Constriction].
Suddenly dying from an unexpected fall would have been so infuriating - especially because, as my Coreless moved across one tower-nest bridge after another, the scent-taste of the Lesser Core grew heavier and heavier on my tongue. With the highest floors clear of plant-flesh, we only had to defeat a couple of defenseless moving-walls to reach each new bridge. We moved quickly.
Every so often a bad-thing vine of the Lesser Core, its blasphemous plant-flesh hidden within a group of other not-so-bad-things, would try to reach out and grab at my Coreless as they walked. It didn’t do much more than slow them down; their fangs of ore-flesh were too sharp, and their reflexes might have been even sharper.
I only managed to set fire to a few before the Coreless cut them down, causing the thought-light to flicker until I received something that seemed long overdue.
1 Trait Point Gained.
I focused, trying to bring the thought-light to the forefront of my mind. It had been quite a while since I had last seen it in full.
Species: Snake, Ouroboros
Major Title: [The Snake That Eats Its Own Tail] [Little Guardian]
Minor Titles: [Minor Mana Core] [Venomous Retribution] [Touched By Fire]
Innate Traits: [Venomous II]
Blooded Traits: [Paralyzing Venom IV] [Poisonous Blood III] [Illusion Spark IV] [Clinging Grasp III] [Sound Shaping VII] [Chains Of The Creator I] [Anticoagulant IV] [Constriction I] [Spore Puppeteer V]
Resistances: [Piercing Resistance - Intermediate I] [Venom Resistance - Intermediate II]
Trait Points: 1
Core Skills: [The Endless Cycle] [Chrono Fire]
Lesser Core Skills: [Mana Manipulation XI] [Mana Venom XI] [Mana Fire VI] [Little Guardian’s Totem MAX] [Life Essence Manipulation III] [Life - Invigorating Bite XI] [Little Guardian’s Focus X]
Level Rewards: [Traveler] [Mana-Life Conversion]
Description: A growing Ouroboros, symbol of the eternal.
With only one trait point saved up, I was still a long way away from being able to increase what I now thought of as one of my most useful abilities, [Spore Puppeteer] - almost requiring that I reach my next reward at level 40 before I could do it. Still, I had a feeling that I would be able to get there fairly soon. It was a shame; if Spore Puppets gave me experience for their victories when they fought, I might have even reached it already.
Even so, I didn’t think it would take long.
Below, the ruined many-nest seemed to be growing ever-greener, glimpsed occasionally through the gaps in the vines. Thick clouds of mist stretched their tendrils in almost every direction, blotting out the view of the many-nest itself. The trunk of the great darkwood tree sprouted from nearby, a giant mass that dwarfed the tower-nests through which we traveled.
It seemed that my Coreless weren’t moving cautiously anymore, no longer trying to clear out sections of the spore-mist one by one; they wanted to defeat the Lesser Core just as quickly as I did. I could taste it, closer than it had ever been. Even if I hadn’t tasted it on my tongue, I would have been able to tell. It was there, buried somewhere beneath the clouds of green mist.
Maybe I would be able to increase [Spore Puppeteer] after all. One way or another.