• hcmills

Chapter 201: The interwebs

Upon hearing the newly arrived creature—that appears to be about my size—actually say something, my mouth falls open and I unconsciously mutter, “No way...”

“Eek!” the thing squeaks, flapping its wings in startlement. “It speaks!”

“Ehm, yeah, yeah I do,” I reply, my tongue not entirely cooperative, as I’m still out of practice. “As do you, unless I’m imagining this...”

“Ah ah, I sure hope not!” the thing replies. “I’d hate to just Fade out of existence when you stopped Imagining me!”

I blink uselessly, then close my eyes again to help keep my senses focused on the creature I’m conversing with. It’s still quite some distance from me, but I can vaguely make out that it’s shaped roughly like a bat. “Right... Well, I wouldn’t worry too much. I’ve never Imagined anything that can speak before.”

Well, technically speaking, I’ve used a conjured image of myself as a mouthpiece before, back in the Yin-Yang Realm. But that doesn’t count. I think.

“Ah ah, thank the Elders,” it replies, sounding relieved. “Wait, wh-who are you? Did you do this to Cuddly?!”

“Well, I’m Emma,” I drawl. “And, ehm... nope. He was definitely like this when I got here. I, uh, I was just seeing if I could save him, but... it doesn’t seem that way.”

I slowly withdraw my tendrils as I say this, trying to not do it in an overly guilty or sneaky way.

It seems bluffing is another thing I’m out of practice with.

Anyway, I thankfully already have quite a bit of ‘cuddly’s’ Essence burning in my Core. I can tell my progress is going to speed up again if I can keep hunting here.

But before that, I need to establish relations with the unexpected locals. I really hadn’t anticipated coming across sapience in what should be a lower-middle Realm, but I am oh so thankful that I have.

That’s also the main reason I just lied. This is the first creature I’ve come across down here that can speak in full sentences, and since I’m not willing to sour our budding acquaintanceship just yet, I’m not about to admit to killing what appears to have been its pet.

Focused as I have been on growing and travelling up as fast as I dare, I still have a desperate need for some socialising, and Kirri’s monosyllabic answers just aren’t cutting it.

“Ah ah, poor Mr Cuddly...” the thing squeaks as it circles down.

I tense up as it approaches, but it just perches on Cuddly’s rear and starts stroking its Fading skin with a kind of claws sticking out of its wings.

Definitely bat-like...

Except for the fact that she doesn’t appear to have eyes at all. Also, the long, rat-like tail that seems to be clutching a large splinter of... bone?

“So, do you have a name, too?” I ask, relaxing a little but keeping a careful, ehm, mind’s eye on the talkative, armed creature.

“Ah, I’m Zuni!”

“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Zuni.”

“Really? Wow, what a nice thing to say!”

For a moment, I’m too floored by her enthusiasm to respond. I guess that’s not a concept beings often express around here...

Quickly rallying myself, I forcibly push through the awkwardness of disuse to continue using my voice. “I’m actually kind of new to this Realm... do you think you could tell me a little about it and its inhabitants?”

“Oh! Sure!” Zuni squeaks. “But we probably shouldn’t talk here; Elder Ori’s always berating me, telling me I take too long to bring back the prey, but I can’t help it, Cuddly’s just so cute! Well, he was cute, I suppose...”

My hackles rise. “The... prey?”

“Yeah, Cuddly’s prey! That thing caught in his web,” Zuni clarifies, seeming to lift a winged claw to point at Kirri. “Though I’m not quite sure what that is...”

“That’s Kirri, actually,” I say, my voice dropping a little, as I barely keep myself from growling. “She’s my precious boat-bird companion, and also, quite inedible.”

Well, not to me, technically, but that’s neither here nor there.

“Ah ah, I’m so sorry!” Zuni squeaks. “We better free her!”

Before I can utter a word, she leaps off of Cuddly’s Fading spiritform and swoops down towards Kirri.

My grip on my trident immediately tightens from an irrational surge of protective anger that wells up in response to her approach, but I manage to contain myself.

I can’t help but find these instinctive responses a little troubling. I really haven’t socialised enough lately... She probably couldn’t even damage Kirri’s wood if she tried!

Well, maybe with that bone splinter she could...

Thankfully, as expected, Zuni doesn’t appear to have any ulterior motives.

She circles Kirri once, and as far as I can tell with the shitty resolution of my Espir sense, all she does is stretch out one of her winged claws towards the web. Instead of entangling her, the sticky threads unexpectedly seem to simply part in her wake.

Within moments, Kirri has been detached from the web. She immediately tries to flap her wings and leave it behind, but there’s still a lot of webbing tangling up her wings and sails.

After some frantic struggling, she ceases to move, and softly chirps, “Help!”

“Ah ah, your boat-bird speaks too!” Zuni squeaks excitedly, even as she dives back in and lands on Kirri’s railing, forcing me to suppress another irrational surge of rage. “Wait, a boat-bird? So strange! I’ve never heard of those before! I bet Elder Ori knows all about them though, he knows so much...”

As she prattles on, one of Kirri’s wings is slowly regaining its freedom under her deft claws.

At least, I’m assuming they’re deft, considering how fast she’s working.

Honestly, if I had to cut through all those webs, it would probably have been faster to wait for Cuddly to Fade. After all, his conjured webbings will naturally Fade with him at that time.

Since there’s little I can do but wait, I resolve to try to calm down and find out what I can in the meantime.

“You showed up here pretty quickly,” I rasp, interrupting her monologue. “How’d you know Cuddly caught something?”

“Because of the vibrations in the web!” Zuni squeaks happily, finishing up the first wing and flapping around to switch to the other side. “Cuddly hardly ever moves, so any time the line rings, it’s basically because he’s caught something. Of course, some prey will escape, so there are still some false alarms, but overall, Cuddly does a great job! Or, well, did...”

“So, your people keep many of these caterpillars?” I probe. “And you just take their prey? Don’t they need to eat?”

“No!” Zuni squeaks as she finishes up Kirri’s second wing. “If they eat too much, they’ll grow bigger and bigger and become furry silk moths! Those things are terrible!”

It sounds like Zuni may be shuddering at the thought, but I really can’t tell in this blasted darkness. Which reminds me...

“By the way, I saw a light earlier, do you know—”

Zuni—who by now is flying circles around my happily creaking boat-bird—somehow, illogically, manages to freeze in mid-air. “Ah! You saw the Lantern King? He’s near?!” she practically shrieks, the sound actually painful to my ears.

“Ehm, yeah, I—wait, where are you going?!”

Zuni hightails it without another word, speeding up rapidly into the distance.

I knew not heading to that light was the right call...

Cursing internally, I immediately sweep down to Kirri, who’s still stretching her wings, and plant myself behind her steering wheel.

“Kirri, go!” I shout, pushing the throttle to the max even as I stretch my Espir sense to the limit in an attempt to keep track of Zuni’s frantic flight.

I’m not about to lose my quarry—I mean... precious conversation partner.

Moreover, the things Zuni said clearly imply there’s a kind of society of creatures like her here. And if there’s one thing I desperately need right now, it’s a safe haven in which to grow accustomed to this Realm.

I do my utmost to steer Kirri along a path that traces Zuni’s route, not daring to stray and risk getting snagged in another hard-to-detect web.

Unfortunately, with her heavy bulk, Kirri is nowhere near as nimble as Zuni. If I could tell what part of Zuni’s erratic flight pattern is actually necessary to avoid the obstacles along the way, we might’ve been able to keep up. However, my senses are already stretched thin trying to look as far ahead that I can still see Zuni at all.

Soon enough, even that becomes impossible.

After I steer Kirri along the remainder of what I remember of the path Zuni took, I’m left with no choice but to bring Kirri to a near halt, and bring my detection range much closer so I can actually make out any webs that might be barring the way.

As I do, I find that much of my effort in tracing Zuni’s path may indeed have been superfluous, which doesn’t help my mood any.

Still, as we continue moving in the general direction Zuni was travelling in, another vague resonance appears in my Espir sense, indicating a web on starboard.

Sensing it sends shivers down my spine, and my initial gut reaction is to steer well clear of the nigh-undetectable danger, but then I have a thought.

Earlier, Zuni said something about a ringing line that told her people a prey had been caught...

Instead of moving away, I carefully move Kirri closer to the web and start inspecting its edges.

At some point, I’m quite sure I detect the presence of the giant caterpillar who constructed it, but it’s sitting idle in a little hollow in a nearby wall of rock to which the web is attached, so I leave it be.

One thing I discover is that we seem to have moved out of the large cavern filled with pillars into a much narrower cave or tunnel. This might explain why we didn’t run into a web sooner: perhaps the caterpillars can’t quite span the distances between the pillars.

Or perhaps it’s simply the territory of scarier things, like the furry silk moths and the Lantern King.

My money’s on the Lantern King being the Apex. But that’s for later concern.

Right now, what I’m most concerned with is finding—ah! That!

From a spot near where the web attaches to the rock wall, a single, unassuming strand leads deeper into the cave.

It’s on the other side of the web, so I manoeuvre Kirri around and past it. It’s a good thing the web doesn’t cover the cave’s entire diameter, but then again, the bats harvesting the prey of these caterpillars wouldn’t allow that to happen, since they need a clear path to pass through as well.

Heartened by my discovery, I continue tracing the line of silky web along the cavern wall. Soon, I find it being joined by others, running in parallel.

That confirms it! As long as I continue following these, sooner or later I should—

All of a sudden, warning bells start ringing in my head as a resonance not unlike that of a web appears within my short detection range.

However, it’s already too late. The web of unknown origin surrounds Kirri in a flash.


Author's note:

Exciting news: Book Four: Unchained Potential is releasing tomorrow! ^^

You can get it here: (It's available for pre-order!) https://books2read.com/whisperingcrystals4

Thanks for reading! ^^

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