Chapter 204: Anybody have a map?
I speak with Elder Ori for a little while longer, about the colony—that’s what they call their community, apparently—and how they survive out here, and soon enough we hit upon the topic of the caterpillar I killed. Which I, of course, lied about to Zuni.
“Ah yes, poor Cuddly,” Elder Ori rumbles. “Truly a shame what happened to him. But I suppose everything turned out all right in the end. Though a couple of creatures came loose when Cuddly’s webs Faded back here in the colony, they were easily subdued, and no one was injured.”
Oh man, I hadn’t even considered that!
Perhaps honesty is the best policy in this case... I have a feeling Elder Ori suspects the truth of this matter already anyway.
I clear my throat. “Actually, I’m the one who killed him. Kirri got stuck in his web, you see, and then it approached us...”
Elder Ori’s ears quiver in amusement. “That’s quite all right, Emma. You couldn’t have known, and I wouldn’t blame you for acting in self-defence, let alone the defence of your friend.”
“Well, to be honest, Kirri probably would’ve been fine,” I reply with a wry smile. “She’s quite sturdy.”
“Sturdy!” Kirri echoes.
Elder Ori lets out a bark of surprised laughter. “Oh my, I’m sure you are, Kirri, I’m sure you are.”
“Sure,” Kirri chirps back happily.
“Tell me,” Elder Ori asks, his voice suddenly coming from right next to one of my ears, even though he hasn’t moved. “Why is it that your friend appears to be trapped in an Extant husk like that?”
I gently stroke Kirri’s steering wheel. A shiver passes through her planks. “She... got hurt,” I reply, sending my voice in only his direction so Kirri won’t hear, as I’m not sure how much of what we say she’d comprehend. This kind of thing thankfully isn’t that hard to do in the Spiritual Realms. “It was my fault. A very powerful being managed to temporarily keep her from Fading, but couldn’t repair her Core. She could only fuse her with this vessel. It’s definitely not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative, and who knows? Maybe we’ll find a way to change her own fate someday.”
“There’s a benevolent being with such power?” Elder Ori asks in surprise.
I nod, knowing he will catch the small gesture and be able to interpret it. “The Apex of the highest known Realm.”
“Most intriguing,” Elder Ori rumbles. “Thank you for explaining this to me; you’ve expanded my world-hearing.”
Huh. Yeah, I guess it makes sense he would call it that... “No problem. So... now what?”
“Zuni will return in a moment, and bring you to a place to stay and acclimatise,” Elder Ori says, leading me to wonder how she knows to return. “You’re welcome to remain in our colony for as long as you wish, granted that you do not harm anyone, or eat any buildings.”
His ears quiver at that last remark, showing me it’s a joke. Mostly.
“You can drain some Espir from the cocoons if you wish,” he continues. “But be careful not to overdrain any, and don’t damage their Cores. We try to keep them alive.”
“That’s very nice, but I think I’ll decline,” I reply. “Kirri is loaded with Extant plant matter and stuff, and I don’t need much anymore.”
It’s mostly de-needled cactus flesh from last Realm. Not particularly tasty to my tendrils, but filling enough.
“Then I wish you a pleasant stay,” Elder Ori says as Zuni comes flapping into my detection range. “And if there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask.”
Once more, I sweep my Espir sense around my seated spiritform, absentmindedly fiddling with Kaitlynn’s bracelet, and let out a sigh.
While the accommodation Zuni led me to took me by surprise at first—I still don’t exactly know what it used to be—I’ve since gotten quite sick of sensing the same four wooden walls and the pile of huge but abandoned gears and springs pushed to the sides.
Maybe some kind of clock?
The fact that it’s actually made of wood is quite interesting. I bet they thought I wouldn’t be able to eat it. Heh. Suckers.
Or maybe it was simply available as the bats prefer to live in the mushrooms, and I’m overthinking this.
Anyway, I am still quite pleased with the nest I made in the middle, from the silk Zuni brought over after I complained about the lack of comfort, but even that is starting to seem grating when I try to zoom my senses in on it to detect more details.
I can kind of feel the fibres when I do this, but I lose focus on everything else around me, so it’s not that useful.
Still, progress is progress. Having spent some time practising, I can now stretch my senses out a bit farther and swivel them around a bit faster.
I get the impression, however, that despite what I’ve achieved, my senses are still nowhere near as acute as those of the Bloodborn—as the bats call themselves.
The difference doesn’t help make the transition any less awkward as I settle into the colony. Nor does it help that I get the feeling that I’m constantly being scrutinised from somewhere just outside of my detection range.
It’s a kind of instinctive reaction, a prickling in my neck, and while I might’ve written it off as paranoia in the past, I’ve learned to trust my new instincts. Mostly.
Anyway, it would be no more than sensible of them to be keeping an eye on me, so I try not to let it bother me.
Like I try not to let it annoy me that even Kirri seems more capable of sensing her surroundings than I. Even though it makes sense that she’s had to develop new senses, considering that she doesn’t have eyes or ears anymore, it still stings a little to lose to a boat.
All right, that’s not fair. Kirri is much more than a boat.
A point which is demonstrated by the sound of Zuni’s high-pitched laughter coming from outside, where she’s playing with Kirri.
Zuni’s been a doll. I’ve learned a lot from her about the colony and this Realm.
For example, I now know this is the colony’s only settlement—though there are some outposts with rotating guard details—and it’s called Azu’s Respite. Apparently, it’s named after the huge corpse of the female ancestor of their people the settlement is literally built upon.
I’m quite certain she’s also the source of the sharp bone splinters the guards wield as weapons, though I haven’t asked.
Other than that, I’ve learned that this Realm is known as the Realm of Darkness, though it used to be called the Realm of Above and Below.
Apparently, this is because the Realm is split into two sections, the underground and the aboveground. The underground was always dark, but the aboveground used to have light. That is, before the Lantern King—which is apparently and unfortunately something similar to a massive anglerfish—usurped Azu as Apex and stole it.
I still don’t quite understand how Azu managed to leave behind a corpse, but I’m not surprised she used to be the Apex.
I’ve also learned more about the creatures inhabiting this Realm.
Surprisingly, one of the most common things to wind up in the webs of the bats are a kind of sugar gliders, with a bizarre life cycle.
They’re born out of acorns.
As in, there are a kind of giant trees up there, from which these acorns fall, from time to time. The sugar gliders eat some of them, bury some of them—which sprout into new trees—and take some back to their nest, to... hatch, somehow.
Weird stuff. Anyway, it used to be that they didn’t come underground that much, but since it’s dark everywhere now, they come foraging here as well, for some of the smaller mushrooms.
Not all of the species from above have adapted well though. Apparently there used to be a lot of birds above ground as well, born of the blossom of a different kind of tree, but neither those trees nor the birds are doing great in the dark.
In general, the underground species have obviously had it easier. It took a while for the originally already eyeless Bloodborn to even realise something had changed. The mushrooms are probably still in the dark about it—pun intended. Though they have spread to aboveground.
Their life cycle is just as weird as that of the sugar gliders, by the way. I found this out for myself, when I witnessed a mushroom inside of Azu’s Respite—meaning someone’s home—give birth to a caterpillar.
I guess it explains where Cuddly came from. Poor thing.
Those caterpillars then go on to make webs and hunt until they turn to moths, which spread spores from which new mushrooms grow.
The circle of life, I guess.
Things work a bit different for the Bloodborn themselves. Their lifecycle isn’t really a cycle.
If I didn’t find them disturbing enough yet, it definitely didn’t help when I learned that the ultimate fate of the creatures stuck in the webs around here isn’t death or release, but assimilation into the colony.
They really are vampiric bats.
Honestly, creepy as it is, it’s not a bad thing. Their prey have to hang there and be drained of Espir for a long time by the younger bats, but they ultimately—thanks to something the elder bats do, somehow—get to be reborn, adopted, and grow into sapience in a safe environment.
I let out another sigh and try to get my focus back to practising using my Espir sense.
It’s no use, however. To be honest, I can tell my progress is slowing down regardless, and it’s starting to get to me.
I can’t get stuck here. Kaitlynn might be getting farther away from me as we speak! Maybe I should just bite the bullet and start hunting already...
At least I’ve managed to learn a great deal about the creatures inhabiting this Realm before I start hunting them, which is a real luxury for me.
Though Zuni did say there were still a bunch more beings she hasn’t told me about yet...
Outside, Zuni squeaks happily as Kirri manages to find her once more, and it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Well, I might as well go ask her about those beings, see if I can learn some more about my potential future prey, ’cause this is getting me nowhere. So far, I’m leaning towards the sugar gliders being the most suitable to hunt at first.
Also, I’m super bored.
With my mind made up, I resolutely open my eyes—then close them again, since they’re quite useless.
Shaking my head at myself, I get up, unfolding my legs, and lightly kick off from the floor.
At least I’ve gotten used to switching gravity on and off here, and moving around in a zero-G environment.
Well, it’s more like choosing to follow gravity or ignore it, rather than switching it on or off.
Either way, I float toward the round hole that serves as an exit, easily stretching out some tendrils to grab hold of the edges and slingshot myself out.
Though I’ve spent most of my time practising in my little wooden room attached to the wall, I’ve still explored the cavern enough with Zuni that I’m not worried about losing my way out here. Again.
More importantly, I can clearly hear Zuni squeaking ‘Ah ah!’ in the distance, followed by Kirri’s reply of ‘Ah!’
She seems to like imitating the sound, but she’s still mostly sticking to monosyllabic outbursts.
My sweeping, stretched out Espir sense finds them, and I form my mermaid’s tail to change course accordingly.
“Hey Emma!” Zuni squeaks happily, turning her ears towards me from where she’s crouched on Kirri’s prow.
Kirri immediately slows down, chirping, “Emma!”
Hearing my name coming from a twenty-foot long, winged ship should be weird, but it’s frankly adorable, and helps settle my mood a little.
“Hey girls,” I reply, flying over to scratch Kirri’s mast a little, eliciting a hug from her sail.
Zuni quickly launches into a full explanation of the imaginary adventure they just experienced—some kind of treasure hunt, as Zuni has gotten obsessed with pirates ever since I explained the concept—but I can’t quite keep my mind from wandering to Kaitlynn.
Perhaps my sigh was a little too noticeable, because Zuni stops her rant somewhere in the middle, and turns around completely so she can keep her ears pointed at me more easily.
“Ah ah, Emma, is everything okay?” she squeaks.
I clear my throat. “Yeah, no, I’m fine, I’m fine. Just having some trouble making pro—”
Suddenly, a loud, warbling sound echoes through the settlement, causing me to instantly unleash a protective web of tendrils from my body, one of them dangerously waving my trident around.
“What was that?” I ask the second it ends, struggling to suppress my instinctive fight or flight response.
“Ah ah,” Zuni squeaks, sounding somewhat panicked. “That was the alarm bell!”
“Well, what does it mean?”
“It means alarm!”
I’ve got to stop asking that question...
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Anyway, this is the last Friday of June, which means—as I've announced before—I'm officially going on my first break from posting chapters in three and a half years. The next new chapter will appear on the fifth of August!
(Doesn't mean I won't be writing at all, by the way. I do hope to build up my buffer a bit again; it's currently down from 10 chapters to 7...)
Anyway, stay healthy and safe, everyone! 😊