“This tower looks to be as close as we’re going to get,” Will said, making noises at the other Coreless. A few careful bites from their fangs had sliced apart the vines around us, bringing the roiling mists below the bridge into sharper relief. I could tell that the Coreless were nervous, even without delving into the depths of a [Little Guardian’s Totem]; I was nervous too.
We had managed to move past a large number of the great darkwood’s roots, pushing further than ever into the Lesser Core’s field of effect. Even then, the passage of the shifting root-maze had left damaged bridges and faulty tower-nests in its wake, breaking through the structures with a mass and power that I couldn’t help but envy.
So far, my efforts to convert the great darkwood tree had been rather slow. It was just too large to be anything but. Still, I was beginning to get a sense of a few of its more-infected roots, pushing at my mind in giant clusters of thought-hisses. Some were even nearby, their thought-hisses stronger than the ones that rested further away.
Still, my own thought-hissed commands went almost entirely unanswered. Even those roots weren’t yet followers of the Great Core, let alone the giant darkwood itself.
If it weren’t for the gathering bad-things at the edge of the black-water, I might have chosen to just wait. It would have been easier to defeat the Lesser Core, if I had full control of its strongest guardian. With my instruction, it could have shattered through the defenses of the Lesser Core with ease.
That would have been immensely satisfying.
“At least the Guardian Statue’s effects are still reaching us here. Things might have been much more difficult for us if it wasn’t,” Will finished saying. “Still, it doesn’t look like this will be easy.”
“Did you ever think that it would be?” Needle replied. She had taken out most of her needle-fangs, placing them against the ground and checking on them one after another, testing their edges and securing any bits that had come loose.
“I let myself hope a little sometimes.”
A drop of blood ran down one of the needle-fang’s shafts, the wound that it had created already closed. She snorted, paying the now-closed wound impressively little mind. “Well, keep hoping. Maybe next time we’ll find a weak Core like Doran and Valera managed to. How did that one go again? Oh right, they lost it when a tiny snake swallowed the thing.”
“Hey!” both The Unrepentant One and the-female-who-was-not-Needle shouted out, equally [indignant] about the noises Needle had made. She stuck her tongue out at the two Coreless, a [mischievous] twinkle in her eyes.
“Yeah, I...don’t think something like that is likely to happen again,” Will replied.
Needle snorted, baring her teeth in full. “I guess we’re doomed to deal with the hard ones, then.” She started to gather her needle-fangs again, picking them up one by one and placing them within their skin-mouth.
“I guess so,” he said, sighing and beginning to look over his own bits of ore-flesh - not that he had anywhere near as much to look over as Needle did.
After brutally shoving her hands into the stomachs of the skin-mouths at her side - which was probably extremely uncomfortable for them - the-female-who-was-not-Needle leaned over the edge of the bridge and looked down, her eyes trailing a path down the vines until they disappeared into the roiling spore-mist below us.
“Are we sure that nobody wants to rappel their way down some vines that may or may not object to it? It’d probably be faster than the stairs,” she said, making noises at the others and biting back a hint of [discomfort].
“You know, I’ve always had a hidden desire to plummet to my doom,” the male Coreless said in response, fiddling with his own skin-mouths. His voice was dry and drawling, [amusement] and [discomfort] oddly intertwined within his [Little Guardian’s Totem].
“You might not, actually. As long as you survive enough for the healing to start, you’ll probably be fine to break a leg or two.” The Unrepentant One said after looking down for himself, the sounds just as dry.
“Oh, well nevermind then. It’s just no fun without a sure death at the end. Guess I’ll pass this time around.”
Will coughed harshly, the sharp sound more than enough to gather the attention of the other Coreless. “Elara, why don’t you take the Little Guardian off of Valera’s hands and stick with Kala in the back for at least the first bit. Take a while to watch what everyone does and where they go so that nothing gets tangled when you finally join us. It can take a bit to get used to fighting in a group without tripping over someone.”
“Hey, that only happened once,” the-female-who-was-not-Needle grumbled, making noises at Will and plucking me from her shoulder. I didn’t resist, though I made sure to reapply [Clinging Grasp] on her hand just in case. We were far too close to empty air for comfort.
Fortunately, my fear of falling was unfounded; The Grateful One reached out, the motions as unnervingly and unnaturally smooth as always, plucking me from not-Needle’s arms in turn. A few gentle scratches later, and I had a new perch.
It was much softer than I was used to; The Grateful One, unlike the other Coreless that I typically allowed to carry me about, had no skin of ore-flesh to press against my scale-flesh. It meant that she was more vulnerable than the others, but the increased comfort was a plus.
“Alright then, let’s -”
Will’s noises were cut off by a series of far louder noises; ones that had at this point become rote and familiar. The shifting of the root-maze.
The ruined many-nest rumbled below us as giant roots resorted themselves, beginning to lift themselves up before they would set themselves back down again somewhere else. Each powerful limb moved heedless of anything in its path, whether or not that thing refused to move. I could make out the sounds of a great many crumbling nests that had made that fatal mistake, and could only hope that the shifting roots had stayed far away from the nest that held the [Little Guardian’s Focus].
Because they definitely weren’t staying away from us. Then again, I had already noticed there were a few nearby - I just hadn’t thought that it mattered before. The roots didn’t seem to have any real sense beyond touch. It would have taken a bout of terrible luck to actually be in danger from one.
Apparently, we had terrible luck.
It was the senses that came with [Spore Puppeteer] that warned me first; the clustered thought-hisses of an infected root that grew louder in my mind with every moment.
And then I saw it, a giant limb of plant-flesh rising from the mists behind the nearby tower-nest. Clouds of green clung to its flesh, only to fall away as the root continued its rise. Its surface was scratched and mottled, riddled with scars won from battles against the many-nest itself. Here and there, glow-caps sprouted from its surface, forming bright clusters of light that just barely reflected tiny bits of gold and blue that I knew hid themselves in those scars.
And then it started to move sideways, looking for a new place to set itself down. Uncaring that a giant tower-nest was blocking the way.
It had already won many battles against the many-nest; I doubted that it would lose this one.
I tuned out my Coreless’ noises of [PANIC], sending a flurry of furious thought-hisses at the cluster of spores that had begun to work through the giant root. They tensed and pulled as hard as they could, snapping under the strain.
There were far too few to make a real difference; they only forced it to slow, pressing against the tower-nest with a sluggish touch.
It was no less powerful for that - or not enough to matter, anyway.
The tower-nest broke as the root pushed its way through, and the bridge began to shake and crumble alongside it. Then, it started to lean - and there was only one direction to go from there.
Down and into the mists.