• hcmills

Chapter 206: Story time

While ‘mother’ is the closest meaning to what Elder Ori’s rumble expresses, I can tell it’s not a perfect translation.

He means the being that turned him into a bat-like creature, raised him, protected him, and taught him everything he knows.

‘Mother’ does feel appropriate.

“Who was she?” I ask, curious.

Elder Ori stretches out a clawed wing—the one he isn’t using to gently stroke Zuni’s back—and points to my left. Confused, I stretch out my Espir sense in that direction. When I hit upon what I recognise as the bottom of the massive corpse that takes up much of the cavern, comprehension begins to dawn.

“You were sired by Ancestor Azu?” I ask with raised brows, mainly to confirm. Zuni doesn’t seem to react to the statement, so I guess it’s common knowledge.

“Sired... yes,” Elder Ori rumbles, seeming to ruminate over my meaning before he agrees. “She was the Apex at the time. Then the Lantern King came.”

I frown. “She was the Apex? And he killed her by sending in a swarm like this?”

Elder Ori sighs. “Not like this. That swarm was much, much larger. It was the combined forces of many swarms, all guided by his light. Mother could have easily escaped, of course, but we—her children—were with too many, and she would not abandon us. So she stayed, and fought alongside us. Wave after wave of the creatures came, and despite her best efforts, many of us fell. Meanwhile, she expended more and more of her Espir, her spiritform growing weaker and weaker. Then, when the end of our struggle appeared to be in sight, the Lantern King joined the fray, ambushing her with a powerful strike. I still remember the sheer heat of it... Mother fought back fiercely, but in her weakened state, he managed to come out on top and swim off with her Core, leaving it to the swarms to finish us off.”

Elder Ori’s frankly incredible tale leaves me stunned for a long moment. Before I really get a chance to react, a relatively large bat lands next to him, bows, and reports something in a series of soft, worried-sounding squeaks. I can only make out a bit of it, something about a completed tally, and an address.

The kind you give to an audience, not a post office.

Elder Ori’s ears flick once. “I understand. Thank you,” he replies quietly, prompting the bat to leave again.

He reaches down with one massive clawed wing to carefully pluck Zuni off his leg. “I’m sorry little Zuni, but I have matters to attend to that cannot be delayed,” he rumbles gently, before lifting her up and basically dumping her on me.

I splutter, but raise my arms just in time to catch her.

Then, he lifts off with slow beats of his massive wings, leaving me with a distraught bat around my neck.

It takes a while to fully calm Zuni down, and by the time I kind of do, we’re informed that the Mourning will start in a bit.

I’m a little fuzzy on the details, as the messenger did not put a whole lot of effort into giving the meaning behind the concept of a Mourning, but I vaguely understand it’s a kind of funeral ceremony.

A little while later, the whole colony is assembled above the ancestor, hanging from the ceiling.

I’m seated on Kirri’s railing, looking down, while behind me, Zuni is being hugged by the sail of an emphatic boat-bird, that doesn’t really seem to understand what’s going on, but can at least read the room enough to keep quiet.

Below my dangling feet, Elder Ori is perched on top of his mother’s eyeless skull, waiting for the hubbub to die down.

Once the echoing squeaks have reached an acceptable level, he starts his speech.

“Brothers and sisters, friends... my children,” he intones solemnly. “We are here to remember. We are here to share. And we are here to mourn.”

Zuni untangles herself from Kirri’s sail, and perches on the railing next to me, wrapping her tail around one of my legs. I idly stroke it, my thoughts wandering off a little as Elder Ori’s speech continues. Is he genuinely addressing his people both as brothers and sisters and as his children? I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to how vague family ties are in Spiritual Realms...

“While it is healthy to experience and express our grief,” he continues. “We must not give in to our anger, we must not let our emotions con—”

“Why not?” an unfamiliar female voice interrupts angrily, causing me to blink open my eyes in surprise. “How many more times does this have to happen before we do something about it? How many more children do we have to raise only for them to Fade in our wings?”

Zuni’s tail grips a little tighter onto my leg, seeming surprised at the brazen interruption. Meanwhile, Elder Ori remains silent for a moment, as angry murmurs start to spread throughout the crowd.

Another voice speaks up, this time one that I recognise. “Hear hear,” Captain Zuo proclaims. “The guards have stood by and watched for too long. We’re tired of saying goodbye to our brothers, our sisters... our recruits. We’re tired indeed! We are hanging from the tips of our claws, poised to lead the Bloodborn and strike back, Elder, if you but say the word!”

Elder Ori sighs, the sound seeming to fall over the crowd like a blanket, dampening all of the murmurings to complete silence.

“I know you are angry,” he rumbles wearily. “But we must endure, for fighting the Lantern King is a foolish endeavour. We cannot defeat him. All we can do is hold out until he Ascends, and I promise you he will.”

“You’ve been saying that for a long time,” the angry female from earlier pipes up. “And yet he’s still here! How can you be so sure he will ever leave?”

“Because I understand his nature,” Elder Ori explains calmly. “There are two forces, two desires, driving Ascendants. Firstly, the desire to survive, and secondly, the desire to devour and grow. That he has stayed here for as long as he has, is a testament to the Lantern King’s patience. But make no mistake: someday, once he feels confident enough and his growth has slowed to a near stop, his desire to continue growing stronger will overcome his desire to survive, and he will move on.”

I shift uncomfortably, feeling called out for some reason. I mean, I have better reasons to Ascend though...

“Ultimately, there is nothing else keeping him here,” Elder Ori continues. “The Lantern King has no friendships, no family. He has no community. He will leave. And once he does, I promise to fight for the Apex position with all that I have, and return peace to our Realm.”

New murmurs erupt among the crowd, this time sounding more mixed in tone and emotion.

“But why do we have to wait?” a young male voice squeaks heatedly. “You say he’s too strong, aren’t you just afraid?”

A silence falls after this outburst. Next to me, Zuni softly hisses.

Elder Ori cocks his head, seeming to deliberate for a moment. “Yes,” he unexpectedly rumbles. “Yes, I am afraid. I am very, very afraid.”

Zuni gasps, and I can’t help but frown at the unexpected statement. Around us, shocked whispers make their way through the crowd.

“However,” he continues seriously. “My fear is not directed at the Lantern King. I do not fear fighting him, nor do I fear falling in battle and Fading. What I fear... is losing more of you. My children.”

This time no one interrupts as Elder Ori takes the time to take a deep breath. “Many times, I have told the story of how Ancestor Azu died,” he intones with a hint of melancholy. “Of how she toppled over on top of me, noticed my presence, and used her last words to reassure me. How she expended her final reserves to turn her spiritbody Extant, shielding me from the swarm feasting on my brothers and sisters, killing every last one of them.”

So that’s why she left a corpse; she actually turned her spiritbody into a lifeless, Extant object! But to think he lost his whole family, that’s so sad...

Elder Ori’s ears droop. “What I have never told, is how poorly I fared in the aftermath, how foolish I was, back then. I have never told you, because it shames me.”

At this point, the assembled colony reaches a new level of silence, one close to the oppressive, cloying kind I experienced when I just entered this Realm. It’s almost uncomfortable.

Elder Ori’s voice turns hoarse as he goes on. “I cursed the Lantern King for attacking us, I cursed my brothers and sisters for leaving me all alone, and I even cursed my mother, for not choosing to flee, for staying and dying just to protect me. My heart was clouded by pain, my mind by anger, and my ears plugged with stubbornness.”

I listen to his low rumbles with bated breath. If anything, Elder Ori is an excellent storyteller.

“And so, I came up with a plan,” he rumbles morosely. “I knew I could not defeat the Lantern King myself, but I had seen how effective the attack of a swarm could be. So when I set out to rebuild the colony, I did not do so with thoughts of camaraderie, of missing my brothers and sisters. The only thoughts in my mind at the time, were of revenge. I set out not to build a community, but an army.”

Soft, uneasy murmurs start going around his captivated audience once more, but not badly enough to disturb his tale.

“And then...” he says, pausing for a moment. “I was saved. By you, my children. Against my expectations, the love that had Faded from my heart, blossomed anew. I started to realise why Mother had stayed to protect her children, why she had even sacrificed her dying breath for me... and that, faced with a similar situation, I would make the same choice, without any regret.”

Zuni’s tail finally relaxes again around my leg, and I can’t help but smile. I knew he was a big softie. That scary eyeless face and those big sharp teeth can’t fool me!

The murmurs die down again, allowing Elder Ori to keep speaking undisturbed. “Thus, I gave up my plans of revenge, and placed the nets our colony had been working on to ensnare the Lantern King, as defences at the entrances to our settlement instead. Unfortunately, just when I had decided not to go to him... he came to us.”

My eyes blink open uselessly at the unexpected twist.

“At first, my trap worked, and I felt a thrill, a rush,” Elder Ori admits wryly. “I thought, perhaps I could get my revenge and save my children! Thus, I ordered a full out attack. And the Lantern King... obliterated us. He escaped from my net with laughable ease, struck back hard, then fled before we could do much more than superficial damage. Many, many lives were lost that day...”

The pain in his voice makes it hard to listen to. I shift uncomfortably on Kirri’s railing, feeling like I’m intruding on a private matter, even though this speech is about as public as it gets. Still, I have no intention of leaving, as first-hand accounts of fights with the Lantern King are very valuable to me.

“That day, I learned that all the plans I had made, even if I had gone through with them, would have been useless,” Elder Ori rumbles, his voice soft, yet easily reaching my ears somehow. “Even my strongest nets could not hold the Lantern King for long. And since—unlike my mother—he does not have anything to protect, he simply cannot be detained and worn down.”

Hmm. Sounds like it’ll be a challenging hunt.

However, I’m not too discouraged. Of course, I’m currently nowhere near ready to tackle the Lantern King. I have a lot of grinding to do still, and before that, I’ll need to learn how to hunt in this Realm at all.

But when I’m ready, I’ll give the Lantern King a taste of human ingenuity. With all the knowledge and ideas I’m carrying with me, I refuse to believe I can’t come up with a trap capable of holding him. In fact, I already have some ideas...

“The only good thing that came from that dreadful day when the Lantern King attacked Azu’s Respite,” Elder Ori continues, “is that he has grown wary of our traps and our numbers. He has not come here since, instead relying on swarms to attack us, to cull our numbers. What happened earlier was terrible, and my heart trembles for the ones we’ve lost, but please trust me when I say it could’ve been far, far worse.”

So he probably won’t be showing up here... that’s honestly quite a relief.

“And that is why I believe we must not attack the Lantern King,” Elder Ori concludes. “I’ve no doubt a failed attempt would only anger him, leading to worse attacks, and even if by some miracle we succeeded, our victory, our revenge, would come at an unbearable cost.”

The crowd interrupts in more murmuring, but the mood has clearly shifted away from the restless anger from before.

Well, I guess that’s a good thing. If they have as little chance of success as Elder Ori seems to imply, I’d rather they don’t provoke him before I’m—

“Ah ah, what about Emma?” Zuni suddenly pipes up loudly next to me, causing my eyes to widen uselessly. “You’re planning to hunt the Lantern King, aren’t you, Emma?”

Though my Espir sense is nowhere near accurate enough to show me clearly what happens, I can still practically feel over a thousand pairs of ears swivelling in my direction.

Geeze, kind of putting me on the spot here, Zuni...

I swallow, and make an effort to keep my voice steady as I speak. “Yes. I will hunt him, when I’m ready.”

“Ah, ah,” Zuni squeaks excitedly. “Then, maybe we can help—”

Elder Ori’s sigh once more blankets the crows. “I mean no disrespect to Emma,” he rumbles gently, “but the Lantern King has killed many Ascendants in his time as Apex. While I hope for her success, I do not believe their battlefield holds a place for the Bloodborn. Of course, any assistance she requires with her preparations, I will personally accommodate. If she can truly accomplish this magnificent feat, she will be the hero of our people.”

I purse my lips. Pretty words, but the message is clear. I’m on my own in this hunt. Well, that was always the plan anyway. Actually, that offer to personally help me prepare... well, I’d be a fool not to make use of that!

“Now, let us talk no more of anger, or foolishness,” Elder Ori rumbles quietly. “Let us mourn.”

A voice in the crowd breaks into a wail, in a way that suggests they had been holding it in for a long time. Except it’s not just a wail, it has a certain musical quality to it...

Almost immediately, other voices join in, weaving together seamlessly into a chorus of grief.

Zuni starts wailing as well, rocking side to side, and with a soft sigh, I turn to comfort her.

When the ceremony ends, I direct Kirri to hover near Elder Ori, and wait as bat after bat comes by to bow to him and he offers them some words of comfort.

Zuni went off to meet Captain Zuo and some friends a while ago, to hold a private ceremony for Lee, so I quickly grow bored.

Right when I start considering leaving and coming back some other time, Elder Ori speaks up, thanking everyone for coming to the ceremony, and gently but firmly sending them away.

I stick around, watching the line disappear without much hassle.

Finally, Elder Ori turns to me.

“So, what can I do for you, Emma?” he rumbles in a friendly tone.

I take a deep breath and finally make my request. “I need a better way to sense things in the dark. I was hoping you might be able to teach me something, with regards to that.”

“Teach you,” he rumbles his ears quivering in amusement. “Why yes, I believe I can. In fact, my next class starts in a bit. Why don’t you join us?”

Hold up, his next what now?

Author's note:

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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