“What in the abyss is going on over in Orn?” Moren Anell demanded. Toreq Anell frowned in reply.
“Language, Moren,” he said, entirely by reflex. “Clearly we underestimated the intelligence capabilities of Tarnil and Blue and the rogue Ell they have.” Toreq consulted his notebook. “Sienne Ell betrayed us quite early, too long ago for any procedural leaks. Perhaps the handler?” He looked to Risu Anell.
“Cerasul was not incompetent. I suspect there’s some powerful divination at play. Perhaps related to the Ells. They are related, however distantly, and that’s not something we’ve bothered blocking. Maybe in the future…” Risu tapped ash from her kiseru. “It doesn’t matter. For the moment we need a response.”
“Pull back everything but jade-level operatives,” Moren said. “Everyone else is getting taken anyway, no point in leaving anything for what’s-his-name, Ir, to gobble up.”
“Wright,” Toreq said absently.
“Then we’re in agreement.” Moren said, completely missing the exasperated look that Toreq gave him. “Risu, what do you want to do with our void agents?”
“Be circumspect. If they can track Ells directly, we have to move them at the last minute, when we see an opportunity. Besides, what we’ve learned about Blue implies there is some serious power there. We must spike it before it can be turned on us.”
“How do you propose we do that? It’s a long way away and our agents have not had significant success.”
“It’s always best to simply give your enemy more targets.” Risu observed. “We will see what we can stir up.” Toreq nodded and made a note in his book.
“I will leave that to you. In the meantime we have the immediate consequences of this property loss to deal with. We have the Courser contracts—”
“Import from Grevin,” Moren said. “They’ve been pestering us anyway but Ir’s metal has always been cheaper.” Toreq made another note.
“Very well. Now, the Talliene carnival has been getting their pets from Orn’s southern clans, but we might be able to substitute…”
Shayma returned with a nice chunk of loot for herself and Iniri. Technically for me, too, but I didn’t have anything I could do with expensive brandies and spices and objects d’art. They’d make good fodder for winter festival gifts, if nothing else. If I hadn’t already been wealthy beyond measure, the haul would have gotten me part way there.
The takeover of Anell’s property was nowhere near total, but it was damaging enough from the reactions I got to witness. It was unfortunate that I didn’t get a better read on their intentions, but I couldn’t force them to use my name when they were planning out their next acts. I just needed to make sure I paid attention when they popped up on my perceptions and hopefully I’d get enough warning to head off whatever mischief they had in mind.
“Now that was fun.” Shayma grinned, arranging her loot in one room of her beach house. She had enough that it really took a room to hold it, statuettes and paintings and currency covering all the desks and tables. “I really feel like a proper adventurer, even if normally they don’t actually loot warehouses. Look at all of this!”
“Yeah, it’s quite a haul. There’s really nothing like a big room full of shiny things to make you feel wealthy.”
“There really isn’t,” Shayma agreed with a grin. She picked up an Ir-minted gold coin and rolled it across her knuckles before flipping it back onto the pile. “How are the Ells I picked up doing?”
“Still under mind surgery. Sienne is thinking about moving the rehabilitation area to the northern mountains, but I was waiting on that until you discussed it with her.”
“Huh, I wonder why.” Shayma frowned thoughtfully. “I haven’t really seen much snow, though.”
“You’ll have to ask her, but I suspect it’s because it’s just as isolated but there’s more stuff to do. Islands aren’t terribly exciting. Relaxing, but that’s not what void types need.”
“True.” Shayma grabbed a piece of candy from a small paper bag and popped it in her mouth. “So how did things go here while I was gone? Taelah said she met Tlulipechua.”
“Yeah, that went actually pretty okay.” I understood why Tlulipechua had attacked One-Eye-Green, even if I didn’t appreciate it. At least he seemed contrite enough about the mistake. “Now that you’re back, I’m hoping to get them started on warding and the Fortress. Ansae’s agreed to work out the actual warding template or schema or however it works with spells, so maybe we’ll start with the Fortress.”
“We need to get that flying anyway,” Shayma agreed. “Let’s see if he’s up for it.”
The ship that Tlulipechua had arrived in formed the foundation of the new Alpha’s Eyrie, the Chiuxatli version of the royal palace. They weren’t exactly a monarchy, but it was close enough, and Tlulipechua had his ministers and messengers flying in and out at all hours. I wasn’t sure the guy had even slept for the past couple days. The flower that Taelah gave him was displayed prominently in his open-air office, and people seemed to really appreciate it.
The additions to the ship weren’t much more than some cloth-enclosed rooms with light wood foundations and a few stone supports, and one of those had been set aside specifically for Shayma. Appropriately enough, it was enclosed in blue – the precise blue of my faux-core, and so of my real cores – though without the subtle striations and movement. I’d have to get whatever dye they used for that, though it was probably at least partly Skills.
Shayma popped in, and the moment that she stepped out of the room someone went winging to inform everyone that Blue’s Voice had arrived. Given the speed of Chiuxatli communications, by the time she reached the hanging fabric that marked the entrance to the Eyrie proper there was an honor guard waiting for her. It was fortunate she had the ability to teleport and an enhanced physique, too, because the Chiuxatli didn’t do steps. Down or up was just a sheer wall, the intervening space often as not used as storage or display, so a human-kin without any kind of movement Skill would be out of luck.
“I need to figure out a Chiuxatli form,” Shayma muttered, hopping across a large gap that would have been a staircase for any landbound race. “Flying seems too useful.”
“Yeah, maybe practice it after we’re done here.” It wasn’t flying that was too useful, it was shapeshifting. Being able to take on not only the form of another species but the biological benefits it provided was practically cheating. It made me wonder if some of Ansae’s absurd senses were just from her figuring out the mana biology that other species used and integrating into her base form.
Tlulipechua bowed as Shayma entered, his plumage flickering welcoming colors. Usually he met petitioners without his various advisors, the ministers he kept around himself as government apparatus, but in anticipation of the topic he had his Flight-Mother and Labor-Minister and Spell-Minister with him. The one that had mouthed off at the first meeting was around somewhere, but definitely not included this time.
“Voice Shayma, welcome once again. Is Blue ready to demonstrate the work that needs doing?”
“He is,” she agreed. “It’s in two parts, mostly. The warding for the Caldera, though he’s having an expert draw up some spell schema before you start. Today is just for familiarizing yourself with the terrain. The second part is the flying fortress he’s making. We’ll want your professional opinion on that in its entirety, since it’s a converted capture from the mage-kings and hasn’t been properly developed yet.”
“By all means,” Tlulipechua agreed. “We do think of ourselves as having some expertise in airborne devices and mechanisms.” He added some extra instructions to his companions, and they all picked up wooden tablets with slotted pigmentation sticks to take notes with. Chiuxatli writing wasn’t discrete symbols so much as geometric patterns of dots, with the different colors for different trains of thought about the same subject.
As soon as they looked ready to go, I opened a portal, putting it on the outside of the Caldera on the rim directly above the Eyrie. With the way spatial expansion worked, that was simultaneously not very far up and some fifty kilometers above their starting point. They all went through, Tlulipechua inhaling air and mana on the other side as he took in the surroundings.
“Some fifteen miles across, yes? We’ll fly the perimeter.” He added the command in colortongue and launched himself into the air, shooting off around the outside of the Caldera. The others followed, though not as quickly. Tlulipechua was fast, enough that he’d get ahead and have to pause for a bit for others to catch up. Given the way colortongue worked, he could get pretty darn far before they were out of range, so his running commentary was rarely interrupted.
Even if I could theoretically understand colortongue, that didn’t mean I actually knew what most of the jargon Tlulipechua was using meant. Some of it was clearly talking about the way the winds flowed and smelled or tasted, but other parts related to divination magic and nodes and interstices. The one thing I could easily make out was where he marked down good places to anchor the wards, intersections of mana and geology that made them candidates for long-term spellwork.
“Looks like they’ll take maybe thirty minutes or so? They’re really fast.” I told Shayma, tracking their progress around the rim of the Caldera. The Chiuxatli habitation bonus made it far easier than it had been before, since I wasn’t restricted to just near the ground anymore. “Definitely ought to get that form down. It’s not as fast as your [Phantasmal Wake] over long distances, but there’s no reason you can’t combine the two.”
“Oh that’ll be fun. Plus the dragons seem to really enjoy flying, it’s got to be a rush.” Shayma flickered into Chiuxatli form for a moment before reverting. “That is really strange, though. I don’t like having no real eyes to see stuff with. Even with my Domain it feels limiting.”
“Yeah, it’s quite a drawback.” I wondered how difficult it would be to give the Chiuxatli form eyes, or if it would just be better for her to use illusion to signal with colortongue and try for a different flying form.
“Also, it’s weird seeing the Caldera from this angle.” She peered over the lip into the spatially expanded crater. From that angle it seemed almost miniaturized, though twenty kilometers was still pretty darn big. “You’d never know it was here from down the slope.
“Spatial manipulation is pretty amazing,” I agreed. The Chiuxatli flight drove that home as they circumnavigated the six-thousand-kilometer interior diameter in less than thirty minutes. If they had been inside the Caldera when they did that, they would have had to travel something like ten times the speed of sound. Instead, they had a quick but still relatively unhurried flight, noting local landmarks and getting a good idea how to begin future work.
«We will need to send teams to survey the surroundings in more detail,» Labor-Minister Heitulpa flashed when they landed again. «Is it possible to safely transition from the interior of the Caldera to the exterior here?»
“Yes,” Shayma said, not needing a translation. “Though the land that way is Tarnil, and that way is Nivir, so you won’t want to go too far afield without proper negotiation.”
“Certainly,” Tlulipechua agreed. “Before we start on that, this fortress that Blue wishes us to address?” It was a big black blob in the distance and pretty obvious to me, but given that Chiuxatli didn’t have eyes, they may not have recognized it for what it was. Especially since at the moment it wasn’t doing anything but sitting in place. I hadn’t even finished putting gravity engines on it. I wasn’t even sure my design for gravity engines was good enough, let alone the best.
I set up another portal for them to get to the Fortress, putting them on top of it. It was a polished flat black surface, which seemed to make them slightly uncomfortable. Since they couldn’t signal black, it was probably like a big empty silence. Shayma waved around at the five-by-five-by-five kilometer floating hunk of rock, which hadn’t moved much from where it had come to rest during the second invasion.
“This is the outside of the Fortress. We haven’t really put anything into it yet, not weapons or defenses or even propulsion, though Blue is working on that. It’s converted from one of the mage-king war core islands, but of course with Blue involved there won’t be any depletion.” Shayma’s description made for some excited ripples bouncing back and forth between the four Chiuxatli, but Tlulipechua stuck to being the official spokesbird.
“I can sense a great amount of wind mana, but this is solid stone. How is Blue intending to move it?”
“He has gravity materials. There were mage-king air engines, but for various reasons he prefers to use gravity magic.”
“Perhaps for the best, considering the dimensions. If you will excuse us to examine it?”
“Of course.” Shayma gave them permission, and once again they headed off into the air. In three dimensions their flight patterns were more complex, but they obviously were used to such navigation. In truth the wind around the Fortress was rather tricky, all those flat angles making chaotic vortices, updrafts, and downdrafts, but they didn’t have any trouble.
“It appears to be mostly solid?” Tlulipechua asked after he returned. “There doesn’t seem to be much active magic.”
“Yeah, I knew I’d have to rip up and redo everything anyway, so I haven’t bothered doing anything with the interior. I really want this to be powerful, and that means magic, so I figured a blank slate was the best starting point.” Shayma only really translated the last part, and Tlulipechua flashed acknowledgement.
“I will have to see your gravity magic drives, but — you are asking for a design from first principles?”
“I am,” I said, and Shayma answered in the affirmative for me.
“It will take some time, though I already have some ideas. May I ask, is it possible to apply the spatial workings of the Caldera to this fortress?”
“Yes, but I wasn’t planning to.” It didn’t really seem necessary to me. It was already huge, perfect for an intimidation factor, and that would be more than enough room to run the magical wiring. Tlulipechua was silent for a moment at her reply before he bowed to Shayma.
“I would beg you to reconsider. There is an opportunity here that humbles me to even speak of.”
“Oh?” Shayma’s ears perked forward and her tail swished enthusiastically. “Do tell!”
“This could be more than just a fortress. It could be a great sky-faring city-country, with spaces for every race Above and Below, a monument to Blue’s power. We could design each space to suit, habitation and wilderness, route mana to enchantments to connect them to each other or display the outside, everything our craft allows.”
“I mean, I hadn’t really thought about doing much besides the weapons on it because of the work involved. I’m curious as to why he wants to do more than that.”
“Blue wishes to know why you are volunteering for a greater task than the one he initially set you,” Shayma said. Tlulipechua was silent for another moment, his plumage cycling through emotional colors without words.
“This exile of my people is not a joyous or a proud thing,” he said. “I do not object to the price Blue demanded, but that does not mean I relish it. If the result of our labor would be such a great work, something we can be proud of for generations to come, that would make things different. The laborer should have a job worthy of his craft.”
I understood what he was saying. Busywork did nothing but waste everyone’s time, and while I didn’t think setting up defenses and weapons for my fortress was that mundane, it was probably simpler than they could do. What Tlulipechua wanted to make was an arcology, and a multispecies one at that. Not the sort of work I was looking to put in, but if they wanted to do it for me, I didn’t see a good reason to turn it down. I did want to think on longer timescales than just the next few years, and while I didn’t have any use for such a thing now, I was sure there’d be one eventually.
“I like the sound of it. Shayma, how about you show them the sample room so they can see what they have to work with, for crafting stuff for it. Then I can show them the gravity drive setup I have, and maybe they can suggest things, but it can’t be an actual enchanted item ‘cause I can’t use those. That should help them figure things out, but it’s going to be a huge undertaking.”
“Blue accepts your proposal. If you follow me, I will show you what additional resources will be available for planning and execution.” Shayma sounded official enough, but I could tell she was kind of giddy at the thought of a giant floating arcology. I opened another portal to the sample room, and left them in Shayma’s hands as Iniri called for my attention.
“Blue, it’s time to bring you in on a discussion I’ve been having with Emperor Wright,” she said.