Aurum stirred in his cave, eager for the fight. He dove into the watery hunting grounds I had provided for him. The little silver fish tried to flee, darting desperately this way and that, but his enormous gliding shadow always caught them; he dove through their bright flashing schools and scattered them, rising to the surface to swallow great gulps of air as cold water streamed from his jaws.
Hundreds of fish, grown fat in the time he was asleep, met their end sliding down his gullet as he feasted. Sparkling water sloughed away from his scales each time he rose. It was a mesmerizing sight.
He was in a hunting mood. A killing mood. His brother had died while he slept, and he was a proud creature; the death of a brother wasn’t only a loss but an insult.
His new companion scurried the edge of the water, catching confused fat carp as they were washed up close to shore by the frothing tides that surged up from Aurum’s hunting. He scuttled back to his den, beneath the snake-shaped pedestal of the salt-lamp that cast such beautiful shadows, and gnawed his prizes’ raw pink flesh.
I was happy to simply watch, to feel the movement and life of my old friend.
So naturally I was annoyed when an intruder roused me from watching Aurum hunt.
"I have come to receive Attunement, as per our arrangement!"
Suffi's representative stood on the edge of the ravine, slowly kicking rocks down the slope. I wished he'd stop. It was hard enough to soothe the spiders, to sing them sweet lullabies of calming emotions, without him kicking up a racket. Briefly I considered letting them eat him, but Suffi's anger wasn't worth the minor satisfaction of hearing the little piglet squeal.
And oh, he was shiny. In his dress armor he shone like a sparkling jewel, plates of steel polished to a mirror sheen set over a red velvet shirt. I could let my beautiful spiders peel him out like a shrimp, gnawing away all the unfortunate fleshy bits and leaving me the shiny husk. I really did consider it.
And then I sent Cabochon to speak to him.
The Arachne walked on his seven legs through the jungle of tilted glass spears that overlooked the ravine, appearing like a shadow among the beams of glittering green. I watched the fear slacken the dwarf's face.
He was clean-shaven, with a golden braid woven through his golden hair. A slick smile he probably thought showed confidence. More than a passing resemblance to Suffi herself.
Which would explain why she sent me this whelp, instead of a real warrior.
Cabochon shadow fell over him, stepping down from the glass jungle to tower above the pompous little creature.
“I- I have come to receive my Attunement, as per-” The dwarf stammered out.
"We heard you the first time." Cabochon smoothly interjected, cutting him off. “What is it you have brought us?”
Clutched in the dwarf’s hands was a steel-banded mahogany casket, and as he opened it, dark iron shackles and a spike of rune-engraved gold greeted Cabochon’s approving gaze. The implements of my revenge.
“As requested. Crafted with the most exquisite of the Halfhand clan’s skills.” He bragged.
Cabochon made every show of examining them, running a finger along the cold, cold surface of the iron manacles. There was a sting of pain like frostbite, the Mana that comprised his being threatening collapse where it made contact with the negatory metal. Smoke rose from his fingertip. He didn’t blink.
"Also, the Maker has requested your shoes." I could have choked with surprise. The expression on the dwarf’s face, and the expression I wore in my soul, were the exact same.
“My… shoes?” He said, as if speaking slowly would make the request sensible.
“Your shoes.” Cabochon held his gaze in absolute steadiness, and continued to stare, without affect, as the dwarf grumbled and slipped off his fine calfskin boots, dropping them into the coffer. Before his hand could retreat, Cabochon caught it by the wrist and gently traced his thumb in a crescent across the palm. A drop of blood welled up and was caught.
“I shall take your gifts to the Maker. You may return now.”
The dwarf was only too eager to stumble away, leaving his shoes behind.
WHY DID YOU WANT HIS SHOES? I asked.
Cabochon waited until the boy was out of view, and then smiled. It was a faintly terrifying smile. “Because we live under a sewer. Now, imagine what he’ll go through trying to wade home without them.”
I could have winced. I could also have laughed. I wanted to do both, but alas, my expressions were always a little limited. Cabochon was interesting. Far enough from human to be tolerable, but close enough to challenge me in ways my other creations did not.
He carried the blood back to me, smearing it onto the tip of a leaf for Argent to carry into her nest where I lay, safe among piled riches. The chaff of the jewels we had accumulated, the golden chains and rings I had no need for, were piled at the center of her nest with a little bed made of soft fluffy mosses beside the treasured mound. Every day she luxuriated in the growing wealth of her ratty empire.
Atop it all I sat, the crown jewel. She dislodged little rings and earring tassels as she climbed the pile to scrape the leaf over my surface.
And suddenly I was in the dark, the stone tablet descending from above as I faced the boy. He shrank back. I seemed to have that effect on people. Sadly, raw terror was only funny- oh, it was funny every time, who was I kidding?
LET’S BE DONE WITH THIS.
Yes, let’s. His thoughts were marinating, stewing, in the thick stuff of fear itself. I could feel it washing away the little things at the edge of his focus. Eroding at the minutia his mind had to juggle, making him slip up.
It was a way in.
And suddenly - without having planned for it, mind you - I saw opportunity. “I, Krait Halfhand-”
He began the sentence, but I squeezed down upon his mind like a vice, taking its weakened state as a chance to leap and press, molding his words to fit my purpose.
-WILL WATCH MY SISTER SUFFI’S ACTIONS AND REPORT THEM TO THE DUNGEON.
His eyes went wide, struggling to move his own lips. His soul-form was cloudy, indistinct, lacking the ability to shape itself clearly.
I KRAIT HALFHAND WILL TELL NO ONE OF THE FIRST TWO CLAUSES OF THIS CONTRACT. I added, forcing his mouth to bend and move in unison with my will. Forcing him to sign his name to a deadly contract.
Did they really think I would let this welp walk away with my Attunement, without extracting my own price? Or had I overestimated Suffi’s family feelings? Was she tossing her own brother away to test the waters? That made more sense. That is what I would do if saddled with a liability like this quivering fool.
“I, Krait Halfhand, will receive the Attunement of Jewels!” He gasped out as soon as he was released, each word engraving itself across the great tablet first in Common, and then repeating in any number of other tongues, each more obscure than the last.
With that the void-realm started to fade, leaving me with a last glimpse of him as he was in the real world, bent double and clutching the walls with sweat on his face. He seemed to have no clue what to do with himself, thunderstuck by my additions to the deal.
I felt a sudden nostalgia for Izzis, of all the useless creatures to concern myself with. His failed coup had left me with a strong understanding of how Contracts could be used. Without him, someone better equipped to take advantage of my ignorance might have been able to lure me into making a poisoned deal.
But enough of that.
I had revenge to do, and the tools in my grasp to do so. I had decided to modify the harpoon spiders, going to the limits of my abilities to make them larger, stronger. A great deal of my energy was given to reinforcing the harpoons themselves, making them steel-hard and able to pierce through stone.
I had to pour almost all my Mana in to achieve the desired effects on just a few. In the end they were nearly the size of cattle, hulking things with rust-red carapaces lined by shallow nubbled spikes along their legs.
Perfect predators for hunting the stone-lizard.
It was time. I had arranged all my weapons. I ordered Argent, then Cabochon to carry me, passing me from paw to hand as I tried to restrain the all-encompassing sense of wrongness that came with being moved, preventing it from spreading through my mental web of connections.
Held by Cabochon, we descended down into Aurum's chamber.
The nausea would only get worse as I began to dig. I needed a second entrance, one large enough to move Aurum, and there was nothing for it but to rip a hole in the foundations of my Dungeon. As fast as I made Mana from devouring the stone, I spent it to reinforce the walls against collapsing around us.
The light vanished. The darkness of the earth engulfed us. We tunneled deeper and deeper, piercing towards our enemies.