• hcmills

Chapter 202: Gatekeepers

Rage wells up inside me at the sudden attack, but all I have time to do before the descending web hits me is to lift my arms and cover my head.

Unexpectedly, the material that hits my arms isn’t sticky at all. Instead, it’s a light, silky-soft material.

This isn’t a web, it’s a net! Some asshole laid a trap!

Bellowing angrily, I try to rip it apart with my bare hands, but soft as the material feels, it doesn’t give an inch.

It’s Extant! Friggin’ bastards!

It actually makes a lot of sense to use Extant materials for a permanent installation like this, as it might otherwise simply disappear after being left unattended for too long.

However, I’m not much interested in the logic behind it right now. While my mobility isn’t hindered too much beneath the light net, Kirri is once again properly tangled up and panicking, and I’m pissed.

Soft, extant ropes like these must have been made from something plant-like, and therefore digestible. Thus, with barely a thought, I whip out my Devouring Energy on all sides and start hungrily attacking the net.

The feedback I get from my tendrils instantly tells me a whole lot more about the stuff it is made of. It’s clearly been painstakingly weaved from ultra-thin strands of Extant material. Unexpectedly, the flavour suggests it isn’t plant, but fungus-based, meaning they’re probably a kind of hyphae.

The Extant hyphae offer little resistance to my Devouring Energy, and the hole I’m eating into the net swiftly expands.

“Oh no, oh no! Mister Zuo, something’s wrong, something’s wrong!” I suddenly hear a boyish voice squeak.

I immediately shift my Espir sense over to the direction it came from. To my surprise, I find that, up ahead, there’s a structure.

Well, calling it a structure is perhaps a bit of a stretch. It’s more like a loose palisade, formed by a row of what seem to be long and thin mushrooms that together bar entry through the bottom half of the cave. To my surprise, I find a second row growing down from the ceiling, covering the top half. The mushroom’s caps meet in the middle, seemingly forming the lips of a giant mouth.

The source of the voice appears to be behind the defensive structure somewhere, thus preventing me from clearly detecting it.

After a moment, a slightly deeper voice squeaks a reply in annoyed resignation. “How many times do I have to tell you? It’s Captain Zuo. When one is on duty, one must always follow protocol, and—”

“Captain Zuo, something’s wrong, something’s wrong!” the boyish voice interrupts.

There! I finally manage to locate them through the palisade of loose mushroom stalks. The speaker is another bat-like creature, excitedly flapping its wings while hovering in front of its larger superior, who appears to be hanging upside down from a rocky spike on the ceiling.

A sound not unlike a long-suffering sigh echoes around the small cave as Captain Zuo gives up. “Fine. What do you consider worth disturbing my nap for this time, Junior Guard?”

“I caught a UFO in the net, sir, but it’s eating its way out!”

“What?! Why the fuzzy mothballs didn’t you lead with that, you guano-for-brains?!” Captain Zuo shrieks, dropping from the ceiling and flapping wildly to stabilise himself.

By this point, I’ve successfully devoured a hole in the net big enough to free one of Kirri’s wings, causing her to calm down a bit.

‘Seeing’ this with my Espir sense and listening to their somewhat humorous conversation, also helps cool my rage a little, and I thus manage to pry my firmly pressed-together lips from one another, and open my mouth.

“It’s okay!” I state in as neutral a voice as I can muster with my hands still clenched into fists. “We mean you no harm.”

“Sound the ala—huh?” Captain Zuo squeaks, breaking off awkwardly in the middle of his sentence.

“Captain Zuo, it’s speaking to us!” the excitable Junior Guard pipes up. “What does the protocol say about that?”

“The ehm, hmm, the protocol, ehm...” Captain Zuo sputters and trails off, before rallying. “Listen, I don’t have time for your questions right now, Lee, so be quiet!”

For a moment, the only sound in the cave is the flapping of wings.

“Ehm, you there...” Captain Zuo states, raising his voice. “Why are you eating our net?”

For a moment, I’m struck dumb. “Because... I’m caught in it, and I’d like to get out?”

“Now listen here, young lady,” Captain Zuo squeaks. “If you wanted out you could’ve just asked. Eating another’s things without permission is very poor manners. Very poor manners indeed!”

“You tell her, cap!” Junior Guard Lee cheers.

I can practically feel a vein throb at my temple, and I obstinately continue freeing myself. “Really? I’m the one with poor manners here?! What about you, laying traps for unsuspecting travellers! Is that good manners?”

“Ooh, she’s got you there, cap,” Lee chatters.

“W-well, but... getting stuck is but a temporary inconvenience,” Captain Zuo argues. “Those nets take a very long time to make, young lady. A very long time indeed!”

“Good point, cap!” Lee squeaks. “You’ve got her in a bind! Well, she was already in a bind, I guess...”

Ugh, these idi—wait, why am I wasting my time arguing with them?

Who’s the real idiot here?

I take a deep breath, and try my best to calm down. “All right, I’m sorry. If I stop ‘eating’ your net, will you untangle us please?”

“Sure!” Lee squeaks immediately.

“Hold on a moment there,” Captain Zuo quickly interjects. “What if she attacks us?”

“Oh don’t worry; she clearly said she meant us no harm, cap,” Lee replies.

“But—she could’ve lied, you guano-for-brains!”

Lee gasps.

Before they can say anything else, however, my tendrils bite through a crucial portion of the net, and it falls free.

A silence falls over the cave.

“Ehm, whoops?” I say sheepishly, my anger finally fully cooled.

Kirri stretches her wings and sail, seeming a lot calmer than the last time she got freed. Already getting used to being captured, huh?

Captain Zuo lets out another long-suffering sigh. “Fine. You’ve had your fill of our net, now please leave.”

“Actually, we’d like to come in, please...”

“Why?” Captain Zuo asks suspiciously.

“Well, safety, for one,” I tell him frankly, taking control of Kirri again to slowly hover her closer to what I presume is a gate of some kind. “We just arrived in this Realm, and it’s quite an adjustment. This thing opens, right?”

“What about our safety?” Captain Zuo argues. “Your friend is pretty big, I don’t know if I’m comfortable letting her in on such a flimsy reason.”

“Well, ehm... we’re... also visiting a friend?” I try. “Her name is Zuni, perhaps you’ve seen her come by?”

“Oh, you’re a friend of Zuni’s!” Lee squeaks. “Why didn’t you say so sooner? Yeah, she just came by, seemed to be in a real hurry! I tell ya, normally she stops for a chat, but—”

“Perfect,” I interrupt. “Well, could you let me in and point me in her direction, please?”

“Hold on, Lee, I’m not sure about this...” Captain Zuo squeaks slowly.

I can feel I’m starting to get annoyed again, but I push down on it and decide to switch tacks.

“You know, that palisade of yours looks pretty tasty, what’s it made of?” I ask in the most innocent tone I can muster.

It’s silent for a beat.

“Aargh, fine!”

The double palisade indeed turns out to be a gate, which opens at some kind of hidden command by Captain Zuo, the many stalks shortening and fattening as the caps draw away from each other, opening into a wide maw.

It would probably look very creepy if I could actually bloody see anything!

As I manoeuvre Kirri towards the gap, I catch some faint sounds of whispering, and swivel my Espir sense to find Captain Zuo and Lee hovering huddled up together.

I narrow my eyes and suppress the urge to immediately reach for my trident. Stay calm Emma, no flying off the handle. Man, my nerves must be really frayed from all this darkness...

I can’t spare them much concentration anyway, as I have to carefully guide Kirri through the gap that’s barely big enough.

Just when I’m considering turning Kirri sideways and getting her to fold in her wings, her mast bends over backwards.

Wait, can Kirri sense her surroundings in the dark?!

Actually, that makes a lot of sense. She doesn’t exactly have eyes, after all...

Damn. Perhaps I should’ve relied on Kirri to flee instead of trying to steer her. Though I can’t be sure if she would’ve noticed the web where I didn’t. She didn’t seem to anticipate it when we flew in...

No, wait a minute, when we entered this Realm, the first thing she said was ‘Dark,’ wasn’t it? So she must be able to detect light at the very least...

Someday I’ll be able to ask, I guess.

I’m shaken from my thoughts when Lee comes flapping over to awkwardly hover near Kirri’s railing.

“Hi! I’m Lee!”

My Espir sense tells me he’s quite similar in shape to Zuni, if a bit bigger. Like Zuni, he appears to be wielding some kind of weapon in his tail. Something pointy.

“Nice to meet you, Lee,” I say, keeping a wary eye on what I suspect to be a spear of some kind. “I’m Emma, and this is Kirri.”

“Hello!” Kirri chirps unexpectedly.

I’m not sure how much of our earlier conversation she managed to understand, but she seems to have picked up on my more relaxed mood at least.

“Oh, hi!” Lee squeaks excitedly. “Gosh, what a nice thing to say; it is pleasant to meet the both of you as well!”

Right... definitely not an empty platitude these things—or people, I should probably say—are used to.

Behind him, near the swiftly closing gate, Captain Zuo pointedly clears his throat.

I sweep my Espir sense over to him and find he’s similarly armed, though his weapon—much like he himself—is significantly larger.

Thankfully, I’m not picking up any aggression in their postures, and I slowly start to relax further. Though not too much.

“Oh, right!” Lee squeaks. “I’m supposed to escort you to Zuni, while keeping an eye on you and making sure you don’t eat any people’s homes! You’re not going to eat anyone’s homes, are you?”

Captain Zuo groans.

Despite myself, I laugh. It feels... oddly freeing. I guess it’s been a while.

“Don’t worry,” I reply, idly noting that speaking has started to feel a little more natural again. “I’ve had my fill. For now.”

I ultimately can’t resist the tease, but from the snort-like breath Captain Zuo releases, I think he picks up on the teasing note in my voice.

“That’s great!” Lee squeaks excitedly. “Just follow me, I’ll take you both to Zuni right quick!”

He turns and flaps off, and I gently engage Kirri’s throttle to set off after him.

“See girl?” I murmur to Kirri. “We’re going to be fine.”

Author's note:

As you may recall, I did once actually write an 18+ bonus chapter for Book Four. I ultimately decided not to include it in the official e-book, as I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I still made it available to people who did want to read it via my mailing list.

That means it's available to you guys through that path as well now, so if you still want to read it, all you need to do is go to hcmillsofficial.com/sign-up/ and fill in your e-mail address to sign up for my mailing list:

Then, near the bottom of the welcome mail—within the list of my published works—you’ll find a link to the bonus chapter. Enjoy! ^^

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