Before I can even think to struggle, to escape, the lightning hits.
I barely have time to notice the black spider stretching one of its legs forward before my sight disappears again in a flash of white. All my muscles clench up as a great electrical current runs through my body.
The sound of that thunder once again shakes my insides.
I spit out more blood. My thoughts are fuzzy. The only reason I haven’t lost consciousness yet is thanks to the pain – or is it because of the pain? I suppose it’s a matter of perspective.
The point is, I survive.
When my sight returns to me, the leg of the black spider is still outstretched. Faint white smoke wafts from it, quickly dissipating in the violent winds.
Well, this wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience, but the black spider definitely suffered the brunt of that lightning strike. If I had been hit directly, there is no way I would have gotten away from it with such light damage.
But… that was clearly a deliberate action, wasn’t it?
The black spider deliberately extended its leg so that it would receive the lightning in my stead.
Why did it do that?
Why did it help me?
Demons don’t help me. They try to kill me. It’s been that way from the very start.
Why did things suddenly change?
Before I can try to extricate myself from the black spider’s embrace, its weight on my back suddenly increases a hundredfold, leading us both to cast off the wind’s shackles and drop out of the air, straight down.
Right. That would have been one way to make myself reach the ground – create an extremely dense block of ice and use it as a weight to force my body down. I really should have thought to do that earlier. I can only assume that I panicked more than I’d want to admit.
The wind had really carried us quite high, though. By my count, fully twenty seconds elapse before the ground abruptly interrupts our fall. The black spider and I crash violently, blowing a crater into the earth, deep cracks splitting open for a good 20 meters in every direction.
I’m the one on the bottom, so the impossibly heavy weight of the black spider pounds down onto me, burying me into the ground. Still, it’s nothing dangerous, compared to what I just went through. I’m only stunned for a few seconds.
When I recover, the black spider is still lying on top of me. Its bulk is sheltering me from the wind, letting me catch my breath.
…It’s not trying to eat me.
It’s not even making a token stab at me with its bladed legs.
It really is helping me, isn’t it?
Since my situation has suddenly become less desperate, I reduce the flow of blood-qi coursing through my body, returning it to a more reasonable rate. The pain lessens a bit. I only pushed my meridians past their limits for a few seconds, but they have already cracked. It will probably take upward of several months for them to heal, and during that time, I won’t be able to use as much magic as I’d like.
I let out a tired sigh and stay peacefully underneath the black spider, giving my body time to heal.
(So… Is that a… friend of yours?)
Oh, right. Phineas was meditating the last time the black spider appeared. He wouldn’t know about it.
[It’s one of the demons living on this floor. I think. But it’s not aggressive.]
(Indeed. And a good thing that is, too. Because I wouldn’t like your chances if it were. Actually, I wouldn’t like anyone’s chances. Have you noticed? Its body…)
(Right. It’s the first time I see something like that. Where on earth did Miroslav find such a creature? And why isn’t it hostile? Is it because it sees the adamantine on your body and thinks you’re the same as it is?)
Well, don’t ask me. I’m just as surprised as you are. I’m also wondering how it managed to appear all of a sudden, a few hundred meters up in the air, in the middle of this cyclone.
(Strange, strange… Oh, and by the way, I really don’t recommend you do that again.)
(Force your qi past the capacity of your meridians. That is nothing short of suicide. I’m surprised your body didn’t explode on the spot.)
[…I’ve done it before. I know when to stop.]
(Yes, well, I still wouldn’t recommend it. Just a little more and you might have ended up dead. And I along with you, I might add. At best, you’d have spent the rest of your life – which wouldn’t have been such a long time, admittedly – as a cripple.)
…But I do have confidence in my ability to control my blood-qi. I know my body enough to realize when I’m pushing it too far, and this isn’t it. I might have harmed my meridians, but it’s still well within the limits of what I can endure.
I ignore Phineas as he continues scolding me and focus on directing small streams of blood-qi to the most heavily damaged parts of my body. Then, it takes only a few hours for my skin to fully grow back. In the past, it would have taken much longer, but over time, my body is responding better and better to my own blood-qi, as if it’s getting used to it.
When it’s done and I’m completely fixed, I press my palm against the black spider’s belly and push it away.
It lifts itself off me without resistance.
I slowly stand up. Inside the crater our fall dug into the earth, the wind feels a bit less violent than it does outside it. It’s not comfortable, by any means, but it’s not quite enough to flay off my skin.
I look at the black spider. It’s standing calmly next to me, returning my gaze. It’s almost twice as big as the last time I saw it. It’s nearly two meters in length, and as tall as I am. It is quite an impressive sight, looking at it from up close. A jet-black, enormous spider. If I hadn’t spent the last decade fighting monsters all uglier than the last, I would probably be traumatized by the simple sight of it.
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing. With Phineas, I at least had my experience interacting with my family and the stories from the books I’d read helping me find the next step, but how do I communicate with a spider demon?
Neither of us can talk.
I’m not even sure it would understand language.
[Phineas, can demons be tamed?]
(Nope. No way. Absolutely impossible. All demons are ravenous, insane monsters that kill everything on sight. Or that’s what I would usually say. But then there’s you. And there’s the lizard-man. And there’s this thing, too. So… maybe?)
…I have to say that your advice is remarkably helpful, today.
Before I can ponder more on the next course of action, the black spider suddenly approaches me.
Its body is rapidly shrinking. Soon, it’s back to the size it showed in our first meeting, yet it continues to shrink. In just a few seconds, it is no more than five centimeters in length.
I kneel down and reach my hand out to it.
Phineas sucks in a breath through clenched teeth. (Careful! Don’t spook it! Imagine a giant suddenly reaching down to grasp you in their hand. How would you react, exactly? Try to be as non-threatening as possible, here.)
I falter for a moment, and instead of directly going for the black spider, I slowly, gently put the back of my hand against the ground in front of it. The spider climbs onto my palm, light as a feather, hooking its legs into my skin – shallowly enough that it doesn’t hurt – so that the wind won’t blow it away.
I stand up and bring my hand in front of my eyes.
Phineas quirks an eyebrow at me. (What?)
[No, I’m talking to the spider.]
(With your soul?)
Phineas chuckles and shakes his head. (No matter how loud you shout, it’s not going to hear you.)
…Then, what am I supposed to do?
As I consider the problem, the black spider starts to shrink once more, until it is barely half a centimeter long. It’s so small it seems I could crush it like a bug if I just clenched my fist. But it’s still adamantine, after all. I’d probably fail miserably if I tried.
And then, the black spider leaves my palm, skitters up my arm, my shoulder, my neck, and disappears into my hair.
Does it want to come with me?
…Or does it want to make a nest on top of my head?
I will have to say no to this, please.
Wait a minute.
Is that how it followed me up in the air, when it protected me against the lightning?
The last time I saw it, when the lizard-man died, I didn’t notice when it disappeared. Did it shrink and hide in my hair while I wasn’t looking? So it was with me the whole time?
I’m not sure how I feel about this. It’s a little scary. It could have killed me at anytime.
It could still kill me at anytime.
I’d really rather not have a demon follow me around. Especially one I’m not sure I can kill.
It’s not conducive to my peace of mind.
And even if it’s not aggressive, even if it wants to help me, I don’t like the idea of relying on anyone. I can accept Phineas teaching me things, since I’ll be the one to put these things into practice, and I am – somewhat – grateful to the black spider for saving my life, but I don’t want to make it a habit. I shouldn’t need rescuing. I must be able to survive on my own, no matter what kind of danger I’m facing. I don’t demand of myself that I actually fight and defeat all my enemies fair and square. I can run, or hide, or cheat. I can do anything as long as it allows me to survive. But I need to be the one to do it. Receiving such direct help… weakens me. It weakens my resolve.
I don’t want someone to help me survive or kill demons.
What I want, is someone to talk to.
I suppose that this too might be a form of help, in a way, but I don’t care. I just don’t want to be alone anymore. I don’t want to talk to hallucinations of Nerys and Father who pop out next to me out of nowhere and disappear just as abruptly. I can try to force myself into believing they’re real for the time the conversation lasts, but afterward, it leaves a bitter aftertaste when I realize I’m slowly becoming insane.
I want to talk to someone real, someone who can actually –
Phineas said that, once my soul got strong enough, I would be able to use telepathy, right?
[Is it possible to use telepathy to communicate with animals?]
(Some people can do that, yes, but it’s a separate magic, different from the raw telepathy offered by the soul. You won’t be able to do the same, since you don’t have the proper runes within your dantian. The only animals you could talk to through soul telepathy are animals who’d also understand regular, spoken language. Godbeasts and such.)
Godbeasts? Beasts that are gods?
Can animals develop souls, too?
Well, I suppose it’s not that surprising. If 8th-rank and 9th-rank beasts exist, it stands to reason that there would be god-rank beasts, too.
[What about this black spider? Could I talk to it?]
(You’ll just have to see if it understands your words. Since you’re mute, you’ll either have to wait until your telepathy develops and check then, or try to communicate with it through gestures. If the spider responds to them correctly, it’ll prove that it’s intelligent enough to also understand telepathy.)
I suppose I’ll have to try.
In just a few days, Phineas will be going into dormancy.
But if I can talk to the black spider in his stead, that would be fine, wouldn’t it?
Let’s try this.
In any case, even if I wanted to forcefully drive the black spider away, I’d probably get killed in the attempt. At the very least, if I intend to start a fight, I should wait until I’m out of that cyclone. In the meantime, it can stay with me.
I just hope it’s not going to change its mind and suddenly attack me.
It should be fine, I think. If it wanted to do that, it had plenty of opportunities during the past week, after all…
With that out of the way, I climb out of the crater, my shoulders hunched against the scouring wind, and start searching for the stairway down to the 52nd floor, along with my new… pet.