Sen opened his eyes and turned to look at the thing that Misty Peak was pointing at a little more urgently. He’d sensed it a while back and, perhaps foolishly, assumed that it would get out of his way. After all, he’d left thousands of that thing’s kin dead on the slopes of Mt. Solace. Standing in their way was an enormous spider. It was probably the largest spider Sen had ever seen with great hairy legs that were longer than his entire body. He regarded the spider with a neutral expression. It was likely it was there to kill them, but possible that it wasn’t. He resisted the urge to attack it on sight. He wanted to attack it, but that was all about an old grudge against regular spiders from his days as a starving mortal. Picking a fight that hadn’t picked him was something that he was less inclined to do under these circumstances.

“Aren’t we going to do something about that thing?” asked Misty Peak.

“We’ll see,” said Sen. “You might have noticed that it hasn’t attacked us yet, either.”

“Neither has that horde. It doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen at some point.”

Sen inclined his head in acknowledgment of the point, but he took a step toward the spider. It didn’t step back, but its great bulk seemed to lean back and it crouched lower to the ground. Sen nodded to himself.

“You know who I am?” he asked.

There was a quiet surge of qi and the great spider morphed into a form that was eerily similar to that of the queen he’d encountered on Mt. Solace. Dark chitin served as skin for the vaguely female form, while eyes like pools of reflective darkness stared at him. Even for Sen, that stare was unsettling.


“I know,” said the queen.

Not sure what else to do, Sen fell back on basics. “What do you want?”

“Why are you here?” demanded the queen.

Sen considered throwing that question right back at her but reconsidered. He’d assumed that she was being contrary by answering a question with a question. Of course, that applied human expectations onto something that was very obviously and disturbingly not human. If years with Falling Leaf and a few days that felt like years with the foxes had taught him anything, it was that pasting human expectations onto interactions with spirit beasts was a short path to misunderstandings. He had asked what she wanted. Maybe what she wanted was simply to know why he was in this forest. Sen decided to go with that until he knew otherwise. He gestured in the direction of the ruins.

“I intend to go into those ruins.”

The queen continued to stare at him with those creepy, unblinking black orbs she had for eyes. Misty Peak’s hand latched onto his arm and squeezed hard. She’d finally noticed what he’d been keeping his spiritual sense on. There were spiders everywhere around them. It was a disturbing echo of his last experience with them, except he didn’t have a convenient bunch of formations set up to help him. Of course, that had also been several advancements ago. He was pretty sure that he could accomplish the same thing here without those formations if it came down to it.


Sen glanced over to the fox woman who looked more than a little unnerved. Not that he could blame her. This was the kind of thing to give someone nightmares. He returned his gaze to the queen.

“If you don’t want them harmed,” said Sen, “I suggest you tell your children not to come any closer. Your intentions are questionable at best. I’m likely to assume the worst and act accordingly.”

There was an angry susurrus of insect noises from all around them. Individually, he supposed they wouldn’t have amounted to much other than to be a little startling. Coming from so many of the spiders, it was almost a sound attack in and of itself. Worse, it was a noise that seemed to bypass reason entirely and lance right into the most primitive parts of Sen’s mind. The part that either wanted to fight or flee. The hand that Misty Peak had wrapped around his arm bore down painfully hard in what seemed like a reflexive response to that noise. The queen took a step forward.

“Our intentions,” she said, the anger boiling up through her otherwise unreadable and alien face. “You’re the one who murdered us by the thousands!”

“Not by choice. I was pursued by another one of you queens. She hurled her children at me like one who was insane. I defended myself,” said Sen and his voice dropped into a deadly calm, “and I will do so again if you make me.”Stolen from Royal Road, this story should be reported if encountered on Amazon.

Sen had been so focused on the queen and all of the spiders around them that his extremely new practice of keeping the divine qi in his skin suppressed fell away. He only realized he was emitting a dull glow of heavenly qi when the queen let out a startled cry and took several hasty steps backward. He even heard a startled gasp from Misty Peak. He looked at the fox woman and smirked.

“What?” he asked, pretending he planned to do it. “Aren’t heroic types supposed to be blessed by the heavens?”

Her eyes narrowed. “We’re going to talk about this.”

“Probably not,” said Sen, turning his attention back to the queen and entirely ignoring the death glare that the fox gave him.

“What is this?” demanded the spider queen.

“Take it as a warning if you like.”

The silence that fell after that comment was more profound than Sen found entirely appropriate. He wondered if this was another one of those times when he was missing something because he didn’t understand the nuances of some spirit beast’s culture. After all, he could fit everything he knew about the spirit beast spiders into a very, very small glass. Had he just issued what amounted to a declaration of war? Provided them with a way out? Initiated a courtship? He couldn’t guess. As the silence stretched out, Sen became increasingly worried that violence was about to ensue. The exact kind of extremely visible violence that could well attract the attention of the horde. Sen thought that he could clear a path for him and Misty Peak to escape the spiders if nothing else, but he couldn’t do it quietly. It would be big and loud because the spiders took a lot of killing. He needed to figure out something else.

“Why did you even seek me out?” Sen asked the spider queen.

“When a predator invades your territory, you don’t simply ignore it.”

Sen considered that before he said, “Perhaps, but it’s not like I came looking for you. To my knowledge, I haven’t killed any of you here.”

“And how are we to know that you won’t when you finish with whatever brought you to this place?”

“You can’t know it for sure. On the other hand, I’m not really interested in you or your kind. The only thing I’m interested in right now is in those ruins. Once I have it, I’ll leave. You can accept that, or you can attack me.”

“So, we are to take you at your word?”

“That’s up to you. One thing you can know for sure is that if you do attack me here and now, I will kill many of your children,” said Sen, and then using a trick of air qi, he made his voice resonate like he was making pronouncements from the heavens. “They will die by lightning. They will die by fire. They will die by the blade. And I will become interested in you.”

With each of those dire statements, the spider queen flinched. Then, because Sen didn’t want to start a war immediately, he toned it all down and decided to try something very new for him. He’d negotiate.

“But neither of us wants that. So, I suggest a compromise. I assume you know where I’ve been staying?”

“We do,” said the spider queen in a voice that wasn’t quite steady.

“I will restrict my movements. Save when coming and going from that place, I will not venture more than a mile in any direction from the edge of that cleared area around the ruins. If you place watchers, I will not interfere with them. In return, I expect that they will not interfere with me or my purpose. When I am done in this place, I will leave in that direction,” said Sen, pointing toward the location of the distant road. “If I do otherwise, you’ll know my word isn’t to be trusted, and you should act accordingly.”

Another protracted silence ensued while the spider queen studied him. He got the feeling that she didn’t quite believe him, but that she desperately wanted to believe him. Maybe this one is saner than that other one I dealt with, thought Sen. He waited her out. He was certain that nothing he added would have a meaningful impact on her decision. She was either going to take the chance that he was telling the truth to avoid the fight, or she was going to order all of those spiders to attack them. Sen was surprised to discover that waiting for her to decide caused him far more anxiety than actually having it all descend into chaos and violence ever would have caused. He thought about that while the spider queen pondered her decision. It’s probably because I’ve got more experience with fighting, Sen realized.

“Very well, human. We will wait. We will watch. We will see what the word of Judgment’s Gale is worth.”

The almost anguished words fell out of his mouth before Sen could stop them. “Really? Even you call me that?”

Misty Peak drove an elbow into Sen’s ribs so hard that it actually hurt.

“Shut up,” she hissed before turning to the queen. “Honored matriarch, we are humbled by your forbearance.”

The queen finally turned her eyes to Misty Peak and made a noise that Sen might have thought was a snort.

“Foxes,” said the spider queen. “You always did know honeyed words.”

There was another gentle surge of qi and the queen transformed back into her massive spider form. Sen observed with his spiritual sense as the queen and her countless children withdrew into the depths of the forest, save for a handful that Sen assumed were left to keep a watch on him. Satisfied that the spiders were holding up their end of the bargain, he turned his attention back to the task at hand. He started to walk only to have Misty Peak seize his arm and spin him around. She was staring at him like he was a madman.

“Are you a madman?” she demanded. “You don’t try to cut deals with the spider matriarchs.”

Sen frowned. “Well, apparently, I do.”

Confronted with that fact, the fox woman seemed at a loss and changed the subject. “I wonder how she knew I was fox?”

“It’s probably that fog of untrustworthiness around you.”