• hcmills

Chapter 203: Rezunion

While Lee chatters on about Zuni and Captain Zuo and how exciting it is to be a guard, I take my time to slowly and carefully steer Kirri after him. Since we’re behind the gates, there’s probably not going to be any more traps, but I’m not taking any chances, constantly swinging my Espir sense around to look for anything weird.

If that first trap had been something more lethal than a net...

Something to keep in mind for the future.

However, as far as I can tell, the cave we’re in is pretty bare. I do notice the parallel strands of web—or maybe it’s rope at this point—running along one side, probably heading for some kind of main settlement or hub.

And indeed, the cave eventually merges into a slightly bigger one which seems to open up into a large cavern up ahead.

Even before we reach it, I hear the sounds of flapping wings and squeaks echoing our way. It seems quite lively!

Lee flies on, unperturbed by the general hubbub, so I straighten my spine and follow.

For some reason, flying through complete darkness into a large cave full of bats sets me on edge, but I push through.

This is quite possibly the safest place in the whole Realm. As long as the local population doesn’t decide I’m either a threat or a nice meal, of course.

I swallow.

We enter the cave, and I pretty much immediately lose track of the lines that run along the wall as they disappear around a corner somewhere.

Even if they hadn’t, I probably would’ve lost track anyway because of the sudden overabundance of impressions that threatens to overwhelm me.

I bring my Espir sense back closer, centring it around myself instead of swinging it around lighthouse style like I did before. It decreases my range to about thirty feet around myself, but that’s more than enough.

Bat-like creatures swoop by left, right, up, and down.

I hear them squeak things like ‘What’s that?’ in passing, but they seem otherwise unconcerned about Kirri’s presence. Or mine, for that matter, which suits me just fine. The last thing I want right now is to suddenly become the centre of invisible attention.

“This way, Emma!” Lee squeaks helpfully.

I’d totally lost track of him there for a moment. Whoops.

He leads me in an upward spiral around something. Only after the traffic around us lessens a little do I unclench my hands a little from the steering wheel, and cautiously sweep out my Espir sense.

There appears to be a large structure in the centre of the cavern, overgrown with huge mushrooms. When I sense a little closer, I find that many of the biggest mushrooms have been hollowed out, and are fitted with roosts and little knickknacks.

I can’t quite make out what the structure underneath them is, but from the feedback I get about its surface texture, I’m guessing it’s some kind of dead tree like back in the Realm of Imagination.

There are curious bats hanging from many roosts, turning their ears to follow Kirri. They’re not the only things dangling though. Beneath many mushrooms are cocoons of web, with something inside. As I watch, a relatively small bat flaps over and lands on one, then appears to bite down. The creature inside jerks a little but quickly goes back to hanging limply.

Ah. They’re vampiric bats. Great.

I guess I understand their system a little now... The bats rely on the webs of the caterpillars to catch things, then cut loose the prey and bring it back here to feed on. Then they try to keep the prey alive so they can occasionally drain their Espir.

I’m guessing the creatures eventually perish somehow anyway, or they wouldn’t need to keep hunting. Or perhaps they’re set free to strengthen again, or something like that.

It seems like a cruel fate regardless, but I’ve grown pretty numb to such things.

Still not as bad as those bloody carrots.

“Ah! Zuni isn’t home!” Lee suddenly squeaks. “Oh, never mind, I think I know where she is, follow me!”

I shrug, and steer after him once more.

As we continue up, I try to make out the shape of one of the strung-up creatures, curious what the caterpillars—and by extension the bats—prey on, but I can’t really tell.

It’s probably not a moth, at least. Those things are terrifying, and wouldn’t be stopped by a little webbing.

We slowly spiral upwards, until at last we reach the top of what I thought was a tree.

For when I bring Kirri to a halt in front of the huge, sharp-toothed, eye-socket-less skull on top, I realise it really isn’t.

It’s the giant, fossilised, somehow sitting corpse of a creature suspiciously similar to the bats living in its friggin’ tomb.

The material beneath the mushrooms I thought was wood must’ve been leathery, dead skin, like the surface below the skull here.

Does that mean this creature’s spiritform didn’t Fade after it died, but became Extant somehow? How is that possible?

Does it have something to do with how powerful it was? Because going by its size, this thing—

Zuni’s excited voice echoes out from inside the skull, breaking me out of my reverie. “Ah ah, there she is! See, Elder Ori, I told you I didn’t make her up!”

“So you did, Zuni, so you did,” Elder Ori replies with a chuckle. His voice is the lowest of all the bats I’ve heard so far, and when he comes crawling out on all fours, I understand why.

His form dwarfs Zuni’s as she comes flapping out from beneath one of his massive wings. He’s even bigger than Kirri!

“Hail Elder!” Lee squeaks in a respectful tone. “Oh, and hi Zuni!”

“Hi!” Zuni replies, just before she lands right next to me on Kirri’s railing, wrapping her tail around it. “Hi Emma!”

Despite myself, I flinch back a little, my hackles rising. Only when Zuni fails to attack, do I slowly release the tension from my body again. “Ehm, hey Zuni.”

“At ease, guard,” Elder Ori rumbles at Lee in a slow and friendly manner. “Did you come here to report something?”

“No!” Lee replies. “I’m just here to escort Emma and make sure she doesn’t eat any buildings!”

I can’t help but cringe upon hearing that.

Zuni’s ears swivel, as she turns back to me in surprise.

“Is that so?” Elder Ori asks amusedly.

“Yeah!” Lee squeaks, sounding far too happy about it. “She ate one of our nets but she’s Zuni’s friend and she doesn’t mean us any harm so Captain Zuo let her in through the gate and now she’s here!”

“I see,” Elder Ori rumbles with a hint of mirth in his voice. “Well, you better return to your captain quickly then. I’m sure little Zuo misses you already.”

“Sir yes sir!” Lee squeaks, before flapping off and calling back over his shoulder. “Bye Zuni!”

“Bye!” Zuni replies instantly, continuing to speak without barely a pause. “Did you really eat a net Emma? Ah ah, that’s such a waste!”

“Well, if someone hadn’t left me behind,” I reply, some irritation bleeding through in my voice, “I probably wouldn’t have ended up in the net in the first place, you know?”

Zuni’s pointed ears droop down a little. “Ah ah, sorry Emma! I got so scared when you mentioned the Lantern King! Elder Ori always says to stay as far away from it as possible and quickly go home when you hear it come!”

“Do I now?” Elder Ori rumbles amusedly. “It does sound like something I would say. Oh well. Zuni, why don’t you go home for a bit to calm down, hmm? I’d like to have a word with your new friend in private.”

“Ah ah, okay!” Zuni squeaks. “Bye Emma!”

“Oh, ehm, bye?” I manage to bring out before she allows gravity to take hold of her for a moment, and falls backwards from Kirri’s railing.

With some trepidation, I turn the focus of my Espir sense over to Elder Ori.

As I watch, he suddenly reaches up to grab hold of the large fangs attached to the upper jawbone over his head, and, in a single, smooth motion, flips himself upside down to wrap his tail around them and hang from it.

He takes a moment to properly fold his wings around himself, his large ears twitching and flicking this way and that, before he speaks. “Well, well... I must confess, you present quite the enigma to me, Emma.”

“How so?” I ask cautiously. “Ehm, revered Elder.”

Elder Ori may give off the vibes of a genial grandfather-type, I’d rather be safe than sorry. After all, if his size wasn’t enough to tip me off, the impression I’m getting from my Espir sense is also telling me not to mess with this being. If I had to guess, I’d say his Espir Pool lies around a size of 5000, more than thrice my own!

For comparison, the Apex of the last Realm only had an Espir Pool of about 3000 motes.

Elder Ori chuckles. “Just ‘Elder’ is fine, little one. As for why you’re an enigma, well... You’re clearly a recently arrived Ascendant in this Realm, yet, while I certainly detect some bloodlust on you, you seem very much in control, and completely unlike the ruthless, ambitious beasts that usually seek to Ascend.”

Bloodlust, really? Kinda ironic, coming from a giant vampiric bat...

Then again, I know I’m just hearing his intended meaning. The pun I hear in what he conveys is meaningless to him, as he doesn’t speak English.

More importantly, he certainly knows a lot!

“How can you tell I’m an Ascendant?” I ask, cocking my head to the side, curious.

Elder Ori’s ears quiver subtly with mirth. “You’re still trying to see.”

I can’t help but smile wryly at his statement, as indeed, I seem to have unknowingly opened my eyes again at some point. My eyelids flutter shut once more. His senses are clearly on point as well!

“The Lantern King stole the light from this Realm a long, long time ago,” Elder Ori explains. “His lure is all that still shines. Most older creatures from this Realm know not to go near it, but Ascendants are usually sucked right in, desperate to see. Not you, though. You, came here.”

“I was sorely tempted, believe me,” I reply dryly, scratching my head a bit. “But I value my little life a bit too much to rush towards such an obvious trap.”

“Obvious. Hmm, indeed,” Elder Ori hums. “Such intelligence, while rare, is not unheard of. No, it is your civility that troubles me.”

I stiffen, my instincts screaming at me to flee or fight as Elder Ori’s presence seems to loom over me. Anger rears its head as well, boiling through my veins at the perceived threat.

“I can’t help but suspect,” he continues, his voice still calm, but with a sharp, hidden undercurrent, “that you’re just pretending to be civilised, and in your mind, you’ve already marked us all as easy prey, gathered here for your convenience.”

I swallow, my hand itching to reach back for my trident, but I fight back the aggression and manage to speak through gritted teeth. “I’m not pretending. I swear.”

Elder Ori’s presence bears down on me for a few seconds longer, before his ears twitch, and it abruptly disappears. “Well, your self-control is sufficient, at least,” he muses. “Tell me, why should I risk letting an Ascendant loose around my people?”

I blink, the rage ebbing away a little now that the threatening presence suddenly vanished, allowing me to think a little more clearly. I take a deep breath and draw myself up. “Elder Ori, I bear your people no ill-will. While I do seek to continue Ascending, I intend to do all my hunting on non-sapient creatures, outside of your tribe. All I ask, is that your people shelter me while I adapt to the conditions of this Realm.”

Elder Ori hangs still for a bit, even his ears motionless. “Many have tried to unseat the Lantern King, what makes you think you will succeed where countless have failed?”

“You said it yourself,” I reply, steel in my voice. “I’m different.”

“You are but you aren’t,” he replies cryptically, his ears quivering lightly. “But even if you somehow manage to succeed, this might not make me happy. A new Apex usually comes with cataclysmic changes. What would become of our Realm under your rule? Or that of your successor?”

I blink. That’s... not something I had considered before. Once I’ve taken down this Realm’s Apex and move on, I’ll leave behind a power vacuum and once a new Apex rises, it will reshape this Realm to suit its needs.

If light returns to this Realm, what would happen to Zuni and the rest of Elder Ori’s people?

I frown, thinking hard, then my expression eases. “Then, once I’ve defeated him, I’ll instruct the Realm to transfer my status to you.”

Elder Ori’s ears perk up. “Oh?” he exclaims in surprise. “Can such a thing be done?”

I shrug. “So far, the Realms I’ve become Apex of have all been very cooperative, so I don’t see why not.”

“And you would be willing to trust me with that power, even while you’re still here?”

“Trust is a two-way street,” I reply with conviction. “If you’ll trust me not to harm your people, I’ll trust you to let me leave once I transfer my status. Frankly, I don’t see why you wouldn’t. So, do we have a deal, Elder?”

Elder Ori seems to study me for a moment, then his ears quiver happily. “We have a deal, Ascendant.”

Author's note:

Good news: the second audiobook is officially done! It just needs to pass through ACX quality control, and then it will be up on Audible. (Should take about two weeks.)

The next one should take even shorter to complete, though I won't make any guarantees. ;)

Thanks for reading! ^^

Book 1: Unnatural Laws Book 2: Unusual Enemies Book 3: Unimagined Adventures

Book 4: Unchained Potential Discord/Mailing List/Patreon

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