“Here, catch,” I tell Jacob, then toss him a Vibration Crystal as I stroll out of the Hydrum onto the beach near our camp.
It’s one of three crystals we scored during our rather successful hunt. The prime krah may be a little bigger and their shells a little tougher, but they’re still not that hard to take down, especially if you can move fast enough to catch them by themselves. Especially Alec’s lightning and my Infuse work really well on them, as they’re Yang.
Speaking of Alec, he’s running ahead, eagerly lugging a couple of ‘prime’ cuts of krah. I’m already looking forward to what he cooks up. I’ve always loved prawn.
But dinner isn’t for a while yet, and I have plans.
I move closer to Kaitlynn and inconspicuously grab her hand as we walk back to camp.
She smiles at me.
I scratch at her palm with my middle finger, giving it a hidden meaning. ‘Now would be a good time.’
She blinks, then yawns kind of exaggeratedly. “Fancy taking a nap with me before dinner?”
I smile at her, trying to make it look genuine. It’s not difficult. “Sure.”
Step one, accomplished.
Jacob frowns at us, but doesn’t say anything.
Dave claps a hand on Jacob’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s go give Alec a hand.”
Nice one, Dave. I resist the urge to glance at him. He already knows what I intend to do, and that kind of visual communication could easily give us away.
[Isn’t it about time for you to work on Loudmouth?] Suri chimes.
For a fraction of a second, I believe she’s completely seen through me. I force myself to remain calm and shrug it off. ‘Later,’ I subvocalize back. ‘He’s not going anywhere, and it’s Alec’s turn to temper tonight, so I’ve got time.’
She doesn’t interrupt again, and I fight off a sigh of relief.
Kaitlynn and I enter our hut, and curl up into our usual position, wherein I’m the big spoon.
She grabs my hand and pulls my arm around her midsection. Her thumb rubs over the back of my hand, meaning, ‘Be careful.’
‘I will,’ I rub back with my nose on her neck.
I don’t cross my fingers behind my back. Cause that would be suspicious.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how I might be able to pull this off. Now I can only try what I’ve come up with.
I close my eyes and go into a trance. The little flute I gave to Raindrop appears before my mind’s eye. I picture it being connected to me by a thin, red thread. I surreptitiously access my Espir and attempt to actually conjure the thread. It’s hard to tell if I’ve succeeded, but eventually I can tell my Espir is doing at least something, so I begin trying to Imagine leaving my body, and following that thread to another Realm.
Let’s hope this works...
A surprised squawk startles me out of my trance. When I open my eyes to look around, I find myself in a large nest made of twigs, face to face with a very happy Raindrop.
“Eh-ma, you came back!” she trills. “I knew you would!”
She grabs my wrists and pulls me up into a spin. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and before I know it, I’m laughing and jumping around with her. I spot my flute hanging from a cord around her neck, safe like she promised.
A glance out of a large round hole leading outside sobers me up.
I move into the doorless doorway and gape at the sight before me. “Where... what is this place?”
Raindrop warbles out a laugh. “This is Hangspire, silly!”
A playful shove sends me staggering a few paces onto the balcony outside Raindrops nest.
It’s a fitting name, for what appears to be a city of spires that seem to hang—otherwise unsupported—from a fluffy white cloud. I look down over the balcony’s railing and, way down below, spot a familiar ocean of glitter.
Overwhelmed by vertigo, I take a step back from the edge.
As I look around, I find that—aside from a plethora of birds and bird-people in the city in more colours than I know of—there’s a variety of other fantastical creatures flying about. The pressure of the cacophony they create together pushes down on me like a physical weight.
One such fantastical creature, that looks not unlike a manatee in a three-piece suit and a top hat, comes drifting by horizontally, and eyes me curiously over the edge of its flute.
I mutely raise my hand in greeting, and in response it blows some bubbles in funny shapes out of its flute, along with a jaunty tune.
One of the bubbles looks like me, and even seems to change facial expressions with me when I widen my eyes at it.
It’s quickly forgotten when a giant centipede-like thing crawls up the spire behind it, the suction cups beneath its boots making a concert of rhythmic plopping sounds. The manatee quickly falls into the rhythm with its flute.
There’s more creatures, far more. A sounder of pigs with wings flies by, narrowly avoiding the floating harp that’s playing itself. From a balcony around another spire, a being that appears to be a cross between a snake and an accordion looks at me like it finds me as weird as I find it. A grumpy chest clatters vertically up another spire on hundreds of little feet, and bares its teeth at the giant rabbit that’s hopping from spire to spire when it almost lands on top of the animated piece of furniture.
“Isn’t it great?” Raindrop chitters as she hugs me from behind, entirely unmindful of my personal space.
“It’s something, all right,” I mutter, as I carefully pry off her clawed hands.
“Let’s go play!” she suggests unperturbed.
Before I even have a chance to respond, her feet are around my waist, and she lifts me off the balcony with a flap of her arms and zero regard for the laws of physics.
The second we pass over the railing, I make the mistake of looking down. As a result, I immediately freeze up in terror at the vast expanse of empty space between me and the roiling ocean of glitter.
I don’t really uncoil until we enter the cloud that’s somehow holding up Hangspire and it mercifully blocks my view.
We burst out of the top in short order, and Raindrop releases me. For a moment, my heart clenches, as I begin to descend again, but Raindrop lands on the cloud before I can and when I hit the cloud I find it’s turned soft yet bouncy.
Very bouncy, in fact, as it takes several bounces for me to come to a halt. A vague memory of Suri taking me to similar clouds bubbles up in the back of my mind. Right, these clouds do weird stuff with inertia.
“Come on, Eh-ma, let’s play!” Raindrop chirps, and I look up to find an enormous, castle-like playground full of strange structures that look positively enchanting under the purple starry sky.
A smile that I’m sure is positively giddy burst forth on my face, and I launch myself after her. There are cloud platforms to bounce off everywhere, slides made out of rainbows, and beings playing all over.
I’m not sure exactly how much time passes, before I’m finally snapped out my playful mood by a wave of fatigue that washes over me.
I glance inside myself with a frown. Shit, only 11 motes left! Is each mote like an Onkh? In that case I’m already like halfway through my reserves, and I haven’t—wait, what am I doing?
I manage to come to a halt on top of one of the bouncing platforms, effectively halting the game of tag I was involved in as my mind whirs.
Crap! I should be asking questions and learning things! Damnit, this place is messing with my head...
Raindrop lands next to me with a flutter of her wings. “Hey, why’d you stop? You’re still it, you know! Oh! Was this a trick?!”
She backs off with a squawk when I turn around.
I reach out to her in reflex, which probably doesn’t help convince her when I say, “No wait, come back!”
She hovers nearby, and watches me suspiciously.
“Raindrop, I can’t play anymore, I’m running out of Espir!”
That catches her attention. Her face drops in something resembling a pout, and she flutters back down. “Bats! Already?”
I nod. “I’d love to stay for longer though... is there any way for me to extend my visits? Maybe resupply my Espir while I’m here?”
She blinks. “I don’t know. I’m not a Visitor.”
I frown. “Well, where do you get your Espir?”
She cocks her head sideways. “It just kind of bubbles up inside me, I think? If I play too much or think too hard I start to run low, and get sleepy.”
Interesting. Does that mean she generates her own? Perhaps that’s the only way to exist here unsupported. And effort makes it deplete faster, so Meditating might help me extend my visit a little like last time, but that’s ultimately no solution.
“Is there any way to take in Espir from around you, or take it from another being, like by consuming them?”
She squawks and pales. “Co-consume? What a horrible word! I don’t think it’s possible. I hope it’s not possible!”
I sigh in frustration. There has to be way to extend my visits, aside from increasing my Espir Pool. I’m not going to get anything done here, otherwise.
Playing around doesn’t help either, Emma.
Perhaps I’m simply asking the wrong being. Raindrop is a bit of an airhead, after all, and there are plenty of other creatures around this time.
I glance around for a suitable conversation partner, but, well, they’re all playing. From the antelope-like humanoid to the waddling clawed bathtub.
All thoughts of conversation are forgotten when I spot it. A fortress, no a palace—a gorgeous, magnificent palace—that’s floating by itself in the distance. If I thought the playground was shaped like a castle before, it now seems like a more of a minor stronghold.
The palace is a fantastical mess of towers and walls that go up and down in ways that shouldn’t make sense but do. The whole thing is a pretty shade of sea breeze green, and it sparkles like it contains more stars than the night sky.
“What is that?” I ask, pointing at it.
Raindrop turns to look. “Ah, that’s the home of Goddess!”
I frown minutely, unable to tear my gaze away from the sight. “There’s a Goddess in there?” How much Espir would it take to conjure and maintain a floating palace like that?
Raindrop clucks out a laugh. “Not a Goddess, silly. Just Goddess. She rules over most of the Realm, and she’s very nice. Hey, maybe she can help you stay longer!”
I take a look at my Espir. 10 motes left. Well, it’s worth a shot.
“Could you take me to her?”
My worries about having to wait long for an audience turn out to be unwarranted. I Meditate for what feels like only a few minutes before the servant who had heard our request—a bird-girl not unlike Raindrop, though in more boring colours and less ditzy—comes and gets us.
Raindrop, whose incessant chattering I’ve been ignoring for as long as we’ve been here, squawks excitedly and kind of hops through the door. I’ve only recently noticed that she doesn’t ever walk. I follow behind her at a more measured pace. Though still quick, cause my time is running out. 7 motes left!
My breath hitches when I enter the great hall. Not because of its splendour—which it has plenty of, with its high buttressed ceilings and wall-covering murals—but because of its occupant.
Goddess is also a bird person, but unlike any I’ve seen. She has the darkest of skin covered and accentuated by the purest white feathers. Powerful looking wings are folded neatly behind her, entirely separate from her arms, unlike Raindrop’s. Her face resembles that of an owl, with a classical curved beak, piercing black eyes and feathery white eyebrows.
More importantly, power rolls off her in waves. She’s a shining beacon of Espir, and I have the disturbing feeling that she could Imagine me into oblivion with a thought.
Only when Goddess meets my eyes with a curious glance do I snap out of my daze and quickly make a deep bow.
Dave would have a field day, with his bird fetish. I suppress a grin at the inappropriate thought.
Meanwhile, Raindrop hops forward and jumps into a hug.
Goddess smiles with her eyes, and it’s like absolution. “Welcome Raindrop. Your visit brings joy to my heart, as ever.” Her voice harmonizes with itself somehow, filling the room like a large church choir would.
Raindrop chitters back happily. “Goddess, Goddess! Meet my new friend!”
She hops back towards me, and all but drags me forward until I’m below the platform Goddess is perched on.
Goddess stares at me unblinkingly. I quickly avert my gaze back down, flustered, and clear my throat. “Greetings, ehm, your Holiness?”
Her chuckle is like a warm bath. “Highness will do, Visitor. Though my people call me Goddess, I am more of a ruler than some kind of Heavenly Mother.”
I nod—even though Heavenly Mother seems like a perfect way to describe her—and cautiously look back up.
She eyes me with interest, still unblinking, but that may just be an owl-person thing. She turns to Raindrop and says, “Why don’t you go play in the palace for a bit.”
Raindrop pouts in her unique manner. “Awww, but I just got here, and I have so much to tell—”
Goddess places a gentle finger on Raindrops beak, and she falls quiet.
I need to learn that trick.
“We’ll talk later, Raindrop,” Goddess gently continues. “Your friend doesn’t have much time.”
She’s not wrong. Six motes left...
Raindrop flies up, chittering at me all the way that I definitely need to come play again. I wave at her as she dives into some kind of hole in the wall, leading Goddess knows where.
Goddess is studying me again when I turn back. “Tell me, why have you come?” she asks.
“I’ve come to ask—no, to beg your assistance,” I immediately answer, the words tumbling out without much control. Damnit, Emma, keep it together! I take a moment to breathe and calm down—even though breathing is optional here—and continue. “Specifically, to help me learn how to gather or produce Espir while I’m here, so I can visit this Realm for longer periods of time.”
Goddess looks into my eyes as if she can see straight past them into my soul. Actually, if I have a soul, then she’s probably already pretty much looking at it.
“I see,” she says at long last, her expression closing off a little, and she shakes her head. “I’m sorry. I cannot help you.”
I blink. “Cannot?” I ask carefully. “Forgive me, your Highness, but I have a hard time believing there’s anything you cannot do.”
Goddess chuckles, but it’s distinctly darker and less comforting than last time. “I admit, what you ask lies within my capabilities, but it’s not something I’m willing to do.”
I frown. “Why?”
“I can’t trust you.”
The contrasts between the warmth still in her voice and the cold truth in her words throws me for a momentary loop.
I can feel the imaginary blood drain from my illusionary face. “But—I swear I mean you no harm!”
She shakes her head. “I don’t fear you, child, but the knowledge you ask for is dangerous. What I fear, is that anything you learn might end up in the wrong hands. And not without reason, I should think.”
The knowing, pitying look in her eyes causes a lump to form in my throat.
I swallow. “You’re aware of my situation?”
Goddess cocks her head sideways. “Not the specifics. Your presence here is intriguing. You should be a puppet, yet you’re dancing free. Why is that?”
I frown. “I’m not anyone’s puppet. I think. But I am stuck. A prisoner of sorts. Trapped in a Realm where I don’t belong.”
Goddess’ eyes light up. “Interesting. I thought your form was familiar. You’re from the Entropic Realm, aren’t you? A ‘human.’ ”
Hope flares up in my chest, though it’s somewhat dimmed by a wave of fatigue.
“Yes, exactly! Man, I’m totally letting myself get side-tracked by minor goals—we’re trying to escape and go home. That’s all I truly want, no dangerous information or whatever necessary, just a one-way ticket home. Is that something you could do?”
Goddess cocks her head sideways. “You’re asking if I could remotely send you and a group of your friends from the Realm of Yin and Yang to the Entropic Realm? You overestimate my power child, or at the very least, its reach. In a way, the Realm of Imagination is even farther from the Realm of Yin and Yang than your home.”
The Realm of Yin and Yang? Not the Realm of Crystals? Interesting, but it can wait. Four motes left, I have to hurry!
“Please, Goddess, I don’t want to be a puppet or a prisoner! Isn’t there something you can do?”
Goddess looks at me for a long moment, then slowly shakes her head.
“I’m sorry. Even if—as you claim—you’re not a puppet, you’ve still got strings attached.” She reaches out and lightly touches the suddenly visible chain that leads to my body. I feel her touch viscerally, like something wrenching deep in my gut. “Your spirit is bound to your body,” she continues. “Imprisoned in their Realm. If they came to suspect my involvement, it could lead to... problems.”
Another wave of fatigue washes over me, and I desperately clench my hands into fists. “Who are ‘they’? At least tell me who or what I’m dealing with!”
Goddess narrows her eyes at me. “You don’t know? Then I’ve probably already said too much. I think you should leave now.”
As my hope sours, it’s replaced with anger.
“So that’s it, then?” I ask heatedly. “You’re just going to sit here in your fancy palace and turn a blind eye to our suffering? I know you could do some—”
Her face darkens, and with it the room, nay, the world. “Do not presume to take such a tone with me!” her voice thunders, transforming from a heavenly choir to a force of nature.
My legs give out under the weight of her gaze. As soon as my knees hit the floor, I’m frozen in place as if tied up in invisible shackles.
“Perhaps I should cut this string right now, give you some real freedom for the mere minutes you would last,” she continues, grabbing my chain between two clawed fingers, her voice less angry but still terrible.
“Your highness, forgive me,” I manage to bring out, my teeth chattering in terror.
She looks at me for a long while, then sighs, her voice taking on the nature of a babbling stream. “I’m going soft with old age. I’ll let you go this once, for Raindrop’s sake.”
The invisible shackles disappear, and I feel like I can breathe again. I get up on wobbly legs.
Goddess seems to grow even larger before me. Suddenly, she’s right in front of me. Her eyes begin to shine with a dark light as she lifts her claw and touches my forehead.
Her voice drones in my head, proclaiming, “YOU WILL NOT COMMUNICATE ABOUT ME OR RAINDROP WITH ANY BEING NOT NATIVE TO THIS REALM.”
Her words bore themselves into my mind like an objective truth, and I know I won’t. It feels like I’ve always known it.
As suddenly as she’d appeared before me, Goddess returns to her previous size and position, the glow in her eyes gone. “You’d best leave now, while you still can.”
I nod mutely, grab my chain with shaking fingers and yank it twice. I cling on tightly as it pulls me out of the Realm in a flash, then all goes dark.
Man, milestones really sneak up on you ^^'
Or maybe that's just me ;)
Either way, thanks for sticking around for 100 chapters!
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