• hcmills

Chapter 148: In the arms of a squid

The next morning, I decide to make use of the opportunity provided by my full Espir Pool to Visit the Realm of Imagination.

I appear on a familiar beach of black sand, looking out over a vast sea of glitter.

Next to me, Raindrop puts the finishing touches on a window in what I can only describe as a full-sized palace of pitch-black sand.

“Eh-ma!” she squawks, the talons on her legs carving holes in her pristine wall in excitement as she launches herself at me for a hug.

“Hey Raindrop. Training for another competition?” I ask once she releases me from her feathery embrace.

“No?” she says, cocking her head sideways. “What kind of competition did you think I was training for?”

“Eh, like a sand-castle-building competition?”

Her eyes go wide. “That. Sounds. Awesome! Oh my Goddess, we should organise one!”

“Okay, just—you know I still can’t stay long, Raindrop.”

Her face drops, which I can somehow tell, despite the beak. “Awww.”

“But, maybe someday?” I offer. “Of course, we’ll first need to figure out how to help me stay here longer... last time, you mentioned something about trees that grow self-sustaining—or, what was the term?—right, Extant fruit that I’d be allowed to eat. Think you could take me to some of those?”

She perks right back up.

What a precious being Raindrop is. Who knows, maybe I really will get to help her organise a sandcastle-building competition someday.

I swim through the air after Raindrop mermaid-style as she leads me to a small clearing next to a stream in the upside-down forest. A few of the upside-down trees next to the stream have strange multi-coloured fruits growing off the branches spread along the ground.

That is, the ripe fruits are multi-coloured. Most of them are a solid blue and clearly unripe. Perhaps because the few ripe ones are being pecked at by birds.

Shit. There’s hardly anything left!

I manage to score an uneaten piece and stick it in my mouth, just to check if the idea had merit. It tastes like rainbow. After a moment, a single mote of Espir winks into existence inside of me.

Well, it’s something. Isn’t there anything more abundant I could absorb Espir from?

My gaze falls on the stream.

Huh. I mean, it’s Extant, right?

I crouch down next to it and bring some to my mouth in cupped hands. While the water feels refreshing going down my Imaginary throat, the Espir inside of it just floats out of my body, like the stuff in the air does.

I shake my head with a sigh. Maybe it needs to be specifically produced for consumption for it to work, or something? Would eating a plant or animal even work, in that case? Maybe if I killed and cooked something... Or perhaps the difference is that it needs to have been alive.

Too many questions, not enough answers.

“Know of any other groves of fruit trees?” I ask.

Raindrop shakes her head. “Well, I know some orchards, but we can’t just take other’s people’s belongings, of course.”

Hmm. Theft is an option, but the last thing I want is to give Goddess another reason to dislike me.

I frown. “They must serve the food they produce somewhere, right? Are there any places in town that provide food or drinks without recompense?”

I could ask for virgin drinks in the Timid Trident, but frankly, staying in this Realm for longer wouldn’t be worth it if I had to pay for it with an unending stream of stories while stuck to a barstool.

Unfortunately, from what I make of Raindrop’s excited chittering tangent about other places I could frequent, I find that they come with similar hang-ups.

It sounds like products all come as a trade of some sort, for everything from poems to puzzles to arts and crafts. Time-consuming stuff, which is the opposite of what I want.

I sigh. “Let’s head to the Timid Trident. I feel like a drink.”

To my surprise, the ‘No questions’ sign outside the bar is gone. There’s a new sign in its place, however, that reads: Do not Imagine pink Elephants inside the bar!

“Seems like a counterproductive...” I trail off when a small pink elephant is launched through a window accompanied by the sound of Akir’s muffled curses.

Shaking my head, I push open the door, trailed by a giggling Raindrop. I immediately spot several badly hidden pink elephants, which Akir doesn’t seem to notice as he floats back to the bar, grumbling all the way.

If I wasn’t sure before that the ‘no questions’ rule he instated because of me was just a kind of gimmick, I’m sure now. The few patrons currently present appear to be having a blast breaking the new rule, at least.

Anyway, the advantage of bringing Raindrop to the Timid Trident, is that she talks non-stop.

Naturally, this leaves Akir with little chance to ask me for a story.

From the sour look he shoots me as he fulfils my third order, he’s seen through my little scheme but is helpless to counter it.

I wink at him and swat away the tiny pink elephant who’s been trying to steal a sip with its adorable little trunk, then take a long drink of my Favourite Childhood Memory. Mmm, nostalgic.

Anyway, the reprieve Raindrop’s rattling provides me comes most appreciated because I can use some time alone with my thoughts and a stiff drink.

I idly study the bar around me, taking in its nautical setting, trying to determine which things are Extant and which aren’t.

As far as I can tell, all the important structural components like the walls, floor and ceiling, are Extant. Probably a good idea. If a level of this upside-down spire suddenly disappeared because people stopped paying attention to it, I Imagine that might cause some trouble for the downstairs neighbours.

Or not. I’m not sure.

Most of the decoration appears to be Extant as well, but the tables, chairs, and most of the glassware appear to be fully Imaginary. I guess that makes cleaning up after-hours a lot easier.

Seriously, what was that Sloan guy even doing here with his broom?

Wait... is there even such a thing as after-hours here?

Too bad I can’t ask—

My thoughts grind to a halt mid-sip. With an effort of will, I prevent my favourite childhood memories from coming out my Imaginary nose.

Akir lifted his ban on questions... I can just ask him stuff now without bending over backwards to avoid formulating it as a question!

My mind races, mulling over questions I might ask.

Akir takes his sweet time, but eventually responds to my raised hand.

He stops in front of me and gives his equivalent of a frown at my still half-full glass. “Why did you flag me over if your drink isn’t even finished yet? Stop grinning at me like that or I’m leaving again.”

“Oh, it’s nothing important,” I reply sweetly. “I just thought of some great questions.”

Akir groans. One of his tentacles rubs the area above his eyes. “Fine,” he bites out. “But only because Raindrop’s driving me bonkers. What did you want to know?”

I smile in victory, but waste no time savouring it. “Last time we spoke, you told me a little about the difference between things that are Imaginary and things that are Extant, and it led me to wonder... am I Extant?”

Akir lets out a surprised burst of laughter. I blink at him, idly noting the little pink elephant walking over the plank behind him, knocking over glasses.

“Wait, you were serious?” Akir asks after a bit.

I just glare at him.

“Yes, you’re Extant,” he clarifies at last. “You wouldn’t have the mental capacity to even consider that question if you weren’t.”

Ah. A very Descartian argument.

“But if I tried to stay here for too long, I’d Fade, just like Imagined things,” I argue.

Akir snorts. “You’d Fade because you’d run out of Espir, not because there were no longer any Extant beings around to validate your existence with their attention.”

“Okay,” I say with a nod, accepting the distinction. “Then why does that only happen to me and not to you or Raindrop?”

Two of his tentacles move upward in a wave-like motion resembling a shrug. “We produce more Espir.”

My brows rise. “More? So I do produce it?”

Akir stares blankly at me for a moment. “Yes, you do. Of course you do. How could you have any if you didn’t?! Honestly, if I’d known this was the level of questions you needed answered, I might’ve thought twice about that sign...”

“Well, geeze, I didn’t know where it came from,” I reply defensively. “And you know, I might’ve noticed if I actually produced enough to sustain an Extant being!”

Akir sighs. “That’s not... Look, basically any amount of Espir could sustain an Extant being. The problem isn’t the absolute amount you produce, it’s that there’s a mismatch between how much you generate, and how much your higher mind functions waste coming up with new ways to annoy me.”

It takes a moment for the meaning of what he’s saying to sink in. I’m using my Espir too fast... because I’m thinking? Actually, I could’ve guessed that much earlier; after all, meditating here slowed down my Espir consumption!

“So... you’re saying I’m too smart?” I ask with a smirk.

“To sustain yourself with the amount of Espir you generate, yes,” Akir clarifies. “You’re not that smart.”

I snort. “Wait, is that why Raindrop’s so...”

“Dumb?” he asks dryly.

“I was going to say... ditzy.”

He nods. “Yes. She’s young, her...” Akir trails off for a moment. “She doesn’t generate enough Espir yet to support overly complex thought patterns for long. She’ll grow less ‘ditzy’ as she matures.”

I study him for a moment, then decide not to comment on the obvious skip in his last sentence. For now. After all, he’s finally answering my questions!

“So... why do I have this mismatch? I mean, going by that logic, shouldn’t I have the thought process of a goldfish right now?”

“Try a worm, maybe.”

Yeah no, sure, don’t sugar-coat it or anything...

“Anyway, you’re not from here. I’m guessing back in the Yin-Yang Realm, your thought processes are supported by some physical structure. When you come here, that support falls away, and you burn through your Espir instead to maintain the kind of mind processes you’re accustomed to.”

“That... wow,” I manage. “That makes so much sense! Is that also why my Espir Pool only refills when I’m asleep? Because my mind isn’t as taxed?”

His tentacles make a shrug-like motion again. “How would I know? You’re the one Visiting from a physical Realm, not me. Now, can we wrap this up already? I have customers to attend to, and I can only do so much from here.”

I glance around, and indeed find that the bar has started filling up, and that some of Akir’s tentacles are stretched out much farther than should be possible to mix drinks for some of them. “All right, one more question. Why is it that some Extant things—like those fruit juices you use—can restore Espir, and other stuff, like water and air, can’t?”

He glares at me, insofar he’s able to with his odd octopus eyes. “This is why I didn’t want questions,” he grumbles. “Look, I’m sorry, but this is touching on a... subject forbidden to Visitors.”

My eyes widen at his admission. “Are you all under orders from Goddess to keep certain things hidden? Wait, are they orders, or like, you know, orders...”

Akir shakes his head, evidently catching my meaning. “Goddess doesn’t go around laying her will on people willy-nilly. Now, if you’ll excuse me—”

“No wait, I have one more question!” I practically shout as he starts to turn away.

He turns back with a sigh. “Yes?”

I swallow. “Akir, how do I defend myself against... that. Mind control.”

“Against Goddess?” he asks after a moment. “You don’t. You stay out of her way and in her good graces.”

I shake my head. “Not Goddess.”

He falls silent for a bit, staring at me. “Well, you could practice withstanding beings or places trying to influence your mind, to toughen your mind against that sort of thing—”

I slump a little. He’s obviously just talking about this Realm’s equivalent of training my Mental Fortitude, which I’m already trying to do anyway.

“—and learn how to wield your Espir against it.”

I blink. “Wait, you can use Espir like that?!”

He nods.

“But even if I figure out how, it wouldn’t do me much good since the amount I have is pitiful, right?”

He nods again.

“And you’re not allowed to tell me how to get more,” I conclude with a sigh.

He grunts and stares at me for a moment longer. “Let me know when you want another drink; you look like you could use a few. They’re on me.”

I thank him and watch him leave, still a little dejected, then lift up my drink.

I pause. Hold on... was that a hint? Actually, since he mixes these drinks with Extant stuff... consuming Extant stuff refills my Espir Pool, but maybe it also helps to grow it!

Not like I needed another a reason to drink, but I’ll take it!

A few drinks later, my head begins to spin a little, which provides me a good view of the slowly filling bar. It’s fine though, I trust Akir to keep an eye on me and not let me Fade.

I idly replicate the glass my latest drink was poured in, giggling a little at the idea of making it seem like I had way more drinks than I actually have. It looks close enough in shape. I can’t seem to duplicate the contents though. That might have something to do with the Extant ingredients, but I think it’s mostly that I don’t understand this drink.

I study my replica-glass a little closer. I Imagine my connections to the motes of Espir used to form it as thin red strings and watch three of them appear.

I wonder...

I pull on the strings in an attempt to reclaim the motes. There is some resistance, and ultimately, one of the three strings snaps, but the other two hold fast and I manage to pull two motes back into my body. The glass shatters, only for the shards to Fade into nothing.

Well, that could come in handy.

As the bar grows increasingly busy, filling up with patrons and pink elephants in all shapes, sizes, and shades of pink, Raindrop starts flitting around, greeting people she knows.

It’s fine. Some drinks taste better alone. And since drinks are ‘on Akir’ for me right now, he doesn’t pester me for stories either.

Still, at some point he slides over, even as he uses his tentacles to mix drinks literally left and right.

“All right, tell me what you’re moping about,” he states, with a reluctant sigh.

I frown. “I’m not moping. You’re moping.”

His alien eyes stare at me, unamused. “Yes, you are. The last three drinks you ordered were ‘Confusion,’ ‘Misery,’ and ‘Forever Alone.’ ”

Ah. That’s why the tiny pink elephant slunk off after I finally let him stick his trunk in my glass.

I take another sip, then promptly push my drink aside, suddenly feeling a little less enamoured with it.

“Try as I might—and no matter how much I already regret taking down my ‘no questions’ sign—I can’t ignore a cry for help that desperate,” Akir says. “So go ahead, tell me what you’re moping about and make it snappy, because neither of us has a lot of time.”

I let my breath out in a huff. “Akir... I think I’m in love,” I whine.

“Gosh, you don’t say,” he deadpans.

I roll my eyes. “Oh, shut up. You’re, like, an invertebrate, what do you know about love?”

“So you’re in love,” he says, bluntly ignoring my question. “I fail to see the problem.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” I start, trying to find the words to explain my conundrum. “I think I’m in love. But, we’re like, in this totally different Realm, right? And there’s all kinds of weird stuff going on. There’s people messing with our heads with mind control, and there’s these weird fundamental laws that give us affinities, which messes with our sexualities and leads to this-this, Yin-Yang pair-bonding stuff, and I just... what if my feelings aren’t real?”

It’s a sobering thought. Literally. I look pleadingly at Akir, experiencing more clarity than I have for the past five drinks. He gazes back seriously, for once having stopped his polishing and mixing. I blink, then chuckle at myself.

“What the hell am I doing... asking an Imaginary octopus for—”

“I may be an invertebrate, but it sounds like I have more of a spine than you do,” Akir snaps.

I stare at him, wide-eyed.

“And—skipping over your clearly still lacking understanding of the Imaginary and Extant—I may be living in the Realm of Imagination, but that doesn’t mean I’m not real,” he continues. “You seem to have some very odd ideas about the concept of real. For starters, how can a feeling not be real? If someone insults you, and then afterwards explains it was a joke, does that make the hurt you felt fake, somehow?”

I frown. “I guess n—”

“Of course it doesn’t,” he interrupts. “If you feel something you feel it. A feeling may be unjustified, it may be misinterpreted, it may be wrong, but it is never imaginary.”

I blink. “Huh. That’s an interesting point.”

“So, we’ve established your feelings are real, what are you going to do about them?”

I sigh. “Look, I just... I feel like I need to be sure. Even if my feelings are real, they might still be influenced or even caused by an external factor, like the Yin-Yang stuff. And... if that’s the case, what would happen if that external factor was removed? What if my feelings just disappeared

“Well, how do you feel about her here, then?” Akir interrupts again.

I glance up at him, startled. “Her? I never said—”

“This isn’t the first time I’ve seen you drunk. I’ve heard all about your girl. Now answer the question.”

“I—the question... wait, what do you mean, feel about her, here?”

Akir waves his tentacles in a way that seems to indicate, all around us. “In case you haven’t been paying attention, this isn’t the Yin-Yang Realm. There’s nothing Yin or Yang here, and that includes you. So, how do you feel about her, when you are here?”

My mind boggles for a moment, then it clears up. I think about Kaitlynn, and warmth blossoms inside my chest. I want to hug her, protect her, kiss—

My cheeks darken. “I ehm... shit.”

Akir grunts, then leans in closer and stares at me intensely. “Look, missy, I don’t know what all’s going on at the other end of that chain of yours, but I know one thing. Love, is the truest feeling of them all. The most worthwhile. To get to experience Love... it is a gift most precious. So don’t you dare squander it.”

I gape at him. He holds my gaze unflinchingly, seemingly waiting for something.

After a long moment, I nod at him.

He draws back, appearing satisfied with my acquiescence. “Now get out of my bar before you Fade. I just renewed my license.”

My mind races as I blindly reach out and grab my chain—that Akir can apparently see—to give it a tug. At the last moment, I turn to him and say, “Thank you.”

In the last glimpse I catch of him before my chain yanks me away, I swear he somehow smiles at me.

Author's note:

Thanks for reading! ^^

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