• hcmills

Chapter 205: War never changes

Just as I’m about to ask what the alarm is for, I become aware of another sound, a kind of droning buzz.

“Ah, ah, we’re being attacked by a swarm!” Zuni squeaks. “I have to go help fight them off!”

She shoots off into the, well, dark, leaving me momentarily befuddled.

A swarm? A swarm of what? She hasn’t told me about those yet...

“Scared,” Kirri whines, her boom creaking as it swings back and forth.

“It’s okay, girl,” I reply soothingly, as I use tendrils of Devouring Energy to pull myself down from her mast to behind her steering wheel and anchor myself in place there. “They can’t hurt you. But...” I pause for a moment to consider. Ah, screw it. I haven’t hunted in far too long. “But they might hurt Zuni,” I continue more firmly. “So we’re going in to help her, okay?”

“Kay,” Kirri replies with a small voice.

I direct the tendril holding Akir’s trident a little closer to myself, using it to guard my back, as I’m not sure what I’m up against.

And also because I don’t want to lose it. I mean, I could probably retrieve it from the floor of the cavern after the battle, but that might be too little too late.

Moreover, I’ve seen some of the bats react to it, trailing it with their ears. Their weapons may similarly be made of bone, but they’re clearly nowhere near as refined or sleek. Also, despite being thinner, I’m willing to bet my trident is much sturdier than their shards.

Anyway, it’s gotten a little small for me due to my growth, but since I usually wield it with a tendril anyway, that isn’t much of an issue.

I really need to practise compressing myself down further sometime...

Of course, now’s not a great time.

Instead, I steer Kirri in the direction of the steadily increasing droning buzz.

I may not have ears like a bat, but I can do this much.

As I carefully manoeuvre Kirri in the direction of the incoming attack, more and more bats come flying by in my peripheral senses, all clutching sharp shards of bone in their tails. They come in all sizes—though not much smaller than Zuni, and none as large as Elder Ori.

As Kirri and I get close to the site, the droning buzz becomes nearly deafening, and combines with the sounds of fighting.

When we get close enough that my Espir sense picks up the spiritforms moving before us in a chaotic aerial melee, I don’t rashly rush in. Instead, I pull back on the throttle, bringing Kirri to a halt for a moment to study the situation.

Focusing on one section of the melee, I quickly manage to make out roughly what we’re up against. The swarm is apparently made up of these winged, ant-like creatures, though I think they’re four-legged.

Each of them is roughly my size, but that’s to be expected here. Any creature with a decent amount of Espir would have a reasonably large spiritform, unless they’re really good at compressing their Espir.

“Come on girl, let’s do this!” I cry, engaging the throttle once more.

I quickly steer her to a spot where a bunch of ants has encircled a group of Bloodborn, sharp mandibles clattering as they threaten to overwhelm the bats that now can’t make use of their superior manoeuvrability.

Kirri’s prow smashes into the encirclement, dispersing a portion of the angrily buzzing ants by sending them flying. The cornered bats immediately make use of the opportunity to escape, swooping right by me.

My tendrils twitch hungrily at the passing figures, but I keep them firmly under control. No friendly fire, Emma!

Thankfully, there’s plenty of prey I can sink my tendrils into.

The scattered ants quickly converge towards me. I face them, turning my back to the wheel, trusting Kirri to cover that side and find her own path for a bit.

Two ants land on the deck before me.

Behind me, Kirri’s boom smacks into another one with a loud crack, sweeping it off the deck and probably breaking its exoskeleton in the process.

As the first ant rushes in, mandibles clacking angrily, I break out into a manic grin.

I can tell it’s about as strong as I am—weak by this Realm’s standards—so I don’t hold much fear towards it.

More tendrils sprout, replacing my legs, and I turn into a whirlwind of death.

My tendrils lash out like whips. The cracking hits don’t deal too much damage, but they serve their purpose of drawing attention away from the actual attack. Akir’s trident turns into a streak as I whip it forward.

Unfortunately, my aim is a little bit off. The ant’s head was higher than I thought, and its thorax lower, leading to my trident glancing off its carapace.

Damnit, this is harder than it—

Suddenly, a prickling erupts in my neck, causing my instincts to scream at me.

I instinctively dodge to the side, only really noticing the much-larger ant that tried to charge me as it smashes into the steering wheel, crushing several of my tendrils in the process.

Crap, a soldier ant! And it can hide its presence!

I swallow hard, as it begins to dawn on me how out of my depth I am on this battlefield.

The soldier ant buzzes angrily but doesn’t move. Hold on, is it stuck? How?

A sweep of my Espir sense reveals the answer; one of its mandibles went straight through a gap in Kirri’s steering wheel, leading to the current situation of it failing very hard at freeing itself.

Clearly not the sharpest tools in the shed, these things...

Just as I think of a way to make use of the situation, one of the other two ants attacks.

Of course, I’m not so easily deterred.

Fending off the attacking ant with a bunch of hasty jabs, I manoeuvre myself over to behind the soldier ant.

Then I quickly form a pair of legs and brace my feet against the ant’s rear end, wrapping tendrils of Devouring Energy onto the railing up ahead for leverage.

“Kirri, spin!” I yell. At the same time, I contract my tendrils, using both feet to push hard against the soldier ant’s armoured rear.

The sound coming from Kirri’s steering wheel kinda reminds me of one of those wood chippers, as together, we shred half this soldier ant to pieces.

After taking that thing out, I shout at Kirri to quickly leave the battlefield even as I face off against the remaining two ants...

Outside of the heated battle, I rely on Akir’s proven battle style to fight both the smaller ants at the same time. Even against creatures like these, fighting two on one in the dark is no walk in the park. Only after a lucky strike manages to shatter the first ant’s Core, do I really gain the upper hand.

After I strike the final blow, shattering the second ant’s Core, I slump down against Kirri’s mast. As I metaphorically catch my breath, my tendrils pretty much on autopilot toss their Fading spiritforms down Kirri’s hatch, and start draining the leaking Essence.

While I consider it for a moment, I ultimately don’t return to the battlefield until the sounds of battle have died down.

One thing I learned just now, is that fighting in the dark like this sucks. In the chaos of battle, I can barely use my Espir sense to make out individual limbs, let alone read my opponent’s moves!

I can’t hunt like this, I realise sombrely. That friggin’ soldier ant almost got me just now.

If it hadn’t gotten stuck in Kirri’s steering wheel... Luck may save me a couple of times, but if I go out hunting like this, sooner or later I won’t return.

I need a better way to sense my surroundings.

First things first, however.

With a sigh, I climb to my feet and take my place behind Kirri’s steering wheel.

I direct her in the general direction of where the battle took place, to find a grieving people.

For a moment, I’m at a loss on where to go, the sorrowful keening and the press of flapping bodies in front of me overwhelming, but Kirri quickly takes over as navigator, spinning the wheel beneath my hands by herself.

Soon enough, I hear Zuni’s distinctive ‘ah ah,’ which Kirri has unerringly honed in on, clearly far better at navigating this confusion than I am.

As we get closer, however, I start to notice that Zuni’s ‘ah’s sounds a bit off. She sounds... not happy.

Moments later, I’m able to make out the reason. Though poorly, of course.

Zuni is cradling the head of a fallen, slowly Fading bat.

“Ah ah,” she squeaks sadly. “Lee...”

A jolt goes through me at the realisation it’s actually a creature I know. Meanwhile, Kirri moors alongside, uncharacteristically quiet and calm.

“Zuni... ah...” Lee manages to bring out. “It’s okay... I’m just... rejoining the Realm. I’ll... always... be with you...”

Zuni’s ears empathetically sign the affirmative, but she can’t quite suppress a keening wail.

I float up and over the railing, but remain hovering at a respectful distance, caught off guard by the sour feeling that erupts inside of me. I sniff, my nose suddenly feeling stuffy.

“Oh no...” I hear a relatively deep voice squeak, before Captain Zuo lands next to them.

“Mister... Zuo...” Lee squeaks softly, as his wings start to disintegrate. “Did... I...”

He doesn’t quite manage to finish his sentence, as his stomach also begins to Fade, but Captain Zuo seems to have understood him anyway.

“You did a splendid job, Lee,” he squeaks, warm but sad. “A splendid job indeed.”

The last thing to Fade, is Lee’s smile.

Moments later, Zuni flaps over, wailing, and flings her wings around me in a hug.

For once, my fight or flight response doesn’t trigger, overruled by my emotions. Despite the fact that there’s a vampiric bat pressing her face into my neck, I just put my arms around her and squeeze.

Captain Zuo sighs deeply, his ears still pointed at the spot where Lee just was. “Peace be with you, my boy,” he mumbles. Then, one of his ears swivels to me, and he follows it up by turning to face me. “Miss Emma, you appear to be leaking! Are you all right?” he asks in concern.

“Your Core isn’t damaged, is it?”

I blink, which just causes more tears to spill forth. “Oh, no, this isn’t Essence, it’s just... an expression of grief. I’m fine.”

Right. Crying must be a pretty odd phenomenon to an eyeless people.

“I just wish I could’ve done more to help,” I add, my grip on Zuni tightening unconsciously. “Does this happen often?”

“Only sporadically,” Captain Zuo replies with a sigh. “And yet, still far too often.”

“Why did these things attack?” I ask as Zuni’s wails peter out. While my senses aren’t terribly acute, I can still at least tell the armed bats decimated the ants, leaving little to no survivors, while losing relatively few. “Seems rather foolish.”

“They did not attack us by choice,” a deep, weary voice rumbles from above as Elder Ori touches down before us, prompting Zuni to let go of me and latch onto one of his stumpy knees instead. Elder Ori gently strokes her head with one of his clawed wings. “Lee will be missed, my child, but trust that he is still with us.”

Lee said something similar... is this just something they believe, or does it hold a deeper meaning?

As Captain Zuo salutes Elder Ori and tactfully leaves the scene, I shake my head at myself. This isn’t the time for questions about spirituality.

“They didn’t attack by choice? What do you mean?” I ask instead.

“The Lantern King sends these swarms to attack us, though how he controls them, I do not know.”

“I hate him!” Zuni wails unexpectedly. “I hate him so much!”

Meanwhile, the blood freezes in my veins at Elder Ori’s ominous words. “The Lantern King knows this place exists? He knows about the colony?”

“He is aware,” Elder Ori replies, his ears signalling the affirmative. “After all, he is connected to the Realm.”

Shit, that’s right...Also, he controlled that swarm? That most likely means he’s either using Willpower to command them, or he’s applying Persuasion. Probably the Radiance side of Persuasion, rather than the Charm side, in that case...

I swallow. “Are you sure the attacking swarms are controlled and sent here by the Lantern King? That they’re not just being chased out of their own territory for some reason?”

Elder Ori’s lips curl up into a faint grimace, revealing his sharp canines.

“I am quite sure,” he replies softly. “It is how he killed my mother.”

Author's note:

Hey y'all, I'm back! In case you hadn't noticed. ;)

I had a lovely holiday in the UK, only nearly died once trying to drive on the left, and now I'm back to work! (If you want to hear the full story, feel free to pester me on Discord.)

Hope you all enjoyed today's chapter, and 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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