Chapter 151: X bird(s) with Y stone(s)
Pre-chapter Author's note:
It's been a while, but this week, I decided to perform a retcon. Specifically, I decide to rewrite this chapter nearly from scratch, and update it right away. Though I always take reader feedback very seriously—as I want to continually hone my craft as well as my story—I usually don't set out to rectify things right away. This time, I made an exception, as I felt the chapter in its previous form elicited negative feelings in many of you in a way I had not intended, and which detracted from your reading pleasure.
And I'm glad i did, because I think it turned out a lot better. So thanks again for all the feedback! ^^
P.S. I also added a related segment to an earlier chapter (148), for various reasons. I'll post it here, so you don't have to look it up before you reread chapter 151 ^^
New material from Chapter 148:
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?!”
“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!
Now, without further ado, the freshly rewritten chapter 151!
When I open my eyes, I find myself in the Timid Trident, next to a tipsy-looking Raindrop.
“Eh-ma!” she slurs, unsteadily rising from her barstool to her clawed feet. “We were just talking about you!”
Behind the bar, Akir grunts. “Good, you’re here. Please take this birdbrain to her nest to sleep it off; she won’t listen to me.”
Raindrop half-hugs, half stumbles into me, and I barely manage to steady her. “Nooo... I’m fine, let’s play!” she craws, leaning onto my shoulder.
Somehow, she’s a lot heavier than she looks, and I barely manage to stay upright with her hanging onto me. “Ehm, can’t we just snap her out of it?” I ask Akir uncertainly. “I mean, your alcohol isn’t Extant, right?”
He shakes his head. “Of course not. But she’s hardly had any; she’s simply overexerted herself. She needs to rest and recover.”
“M’not... sleepy...” Raindrop mumbles on my shoulder.
My brows rise as it hits me. Her mental faculties are slowing down because she’s low on Espir! “So you guys do need sleep?”
Akir snorts. “Only younglings like her, who don’t know their own limits.”
Ah. I guess if you produce enough Espir you can keep going indefinitely, so sleep is for the weak. Literally.
“Just drop her off at her home; I bet she’ll be out like a light before her head hits the straw,” he says a little more softly, wiggling a tentacle in a what I interpret as fondness.
“Sure thing,” I say, shifting Raindrop’s weight on my shoulder. “And, ehm, about last time... Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” Akir grumbles. “And I mean that literally. The last thing I need is more people coming to me with their sob stories.”
I stifle a smirk and try to prevent Raindrop from bumping into everything on our way out.
Outside, Raindrop takes a few unsteady steps away from me to stretch out her wings and shake her tail feathers in the light of the sun. Or, well, the enormous ball of fire that hangs below the clouds in the distance.
I snort as I notice the sign beside the door of The Timid Trident now reads, ‘Absolutely no line dancing of any kind. I mean it!’
Guess Akir tired of the pink elephants thing pretty quickly.
Then Raindrop slumps over and nearly faceplants, so I quickly grab her again.
She snickers as I hoist her back up, one feathery wing over my shoulder again. “Don’t listen to Akir, he’s a... meanie grump! I wanna play...”
I bite my lip to stop from laughing at the tipsy, already half-asleep birdgirl. “I think I know the perfect game. But we’ll need to go to your house to play it. Think you can manage to stay awake that long?”
She scoffs as she pushes off me. “Of course!”
I sigh in relief when Raindrop collapses in a giggling pile on the balcony of her spire-room.
We got a bit too close to a collision while flying here, several times. Thankfully, the people here seem to be quite skilled at dodging sleep drunk birdgirls.
With some difficulty, I manage to work Raindrop inside and into her nest.
“Wha—” Raindrop cuts herself off with a huge yawn. “What are we playing?”
“We’re playing hide and go seek,” I tell her, as I start looking for a blanket. I find one, featuring a gorgeous weave of a flight of birds over a sea of glitter.
“Ooh,” Raindrops caws sleepily. “Can I be the... seeker?”
“You sure can,” I murmur, draping the blanket over her. “Just close your eyes and count to a hundred, okay?”
“Okay,” she mumbles. “One... two...”
I wait for a moment longer, but there’s nothing more forthcoming than a light snore.
I smile to myself and quietly make my way outside, then take off.
Time to go look for a source of Espir, then maybe hit the pond of silence.
I arrive at the grove of fruit trees Raindrop had shown me a while ago, but find it pretty much empty of fruit.
Well, I expected at much. Still, this is as good a starting place to start searching for more food as any.
I suppress a sigh and take off again, deciding to follow the stream.
Soon enough, I come across some more trees I recognise as the type to carry the strange blue fruit that turns multi-coloured when ripe. They’re all in different stages of germination, it seems, some with tiny green buds just starting to develop, some blossoming, but none bear fruit.
Just when I’m starting to consider just heading for the pond of silence to make a ruckus, I spot another tree, somewhat hidden beneath a towering cliff, that’s bursting with fruit.
My eyes widen and I rush over with a swish of my tail, but I slow to a halt when I realise it’s all still blue and unripe.
I turn around with a sigh, when I hear it.
It’s a sound much like the pop of a bottle being opened, followed by a flash of multi-coloured light.
I turn around, and to my surprise, find one of the fruit has suddenly turned ripe!
I float over and gently pluck it.
It still tastes like rainbow.
Done eating the delectable treat, I toss the pit, and watch no fewer than seven motes of Espir wink into life inside of me.
I hear another pop, and turn to find another ripe fruit behind me. Smiling, I float over.
Frig yes! If I collect all of this fruit I could stay for at least—
Just before my hand reaches it, something swoops by and snatches the fruit.
Startled, I follow the parrot-like bird with my eyes.
I stiffen as I catch sight of flying creatures—feathered and otherwise—approaching from all sides.
Another nearby fruit lets off a loud pop and a multi-coloured flash.
I rush over, but a sugar-glider like critter beats me to it, ripping the fruit off the branch and gliding off with it, only for it to be snatched away mid-flight by a blur of coloured feathers.
Fruits ripen one after the other, but I’m nowhere near fast enough to beat the horde of flying critters to them.
I manage to obtain one more fruit as it ripens right in front of me, but even then it’s a struggle to keep it out of their little paws while I eat it, and I’m forced to actually leave the tree before I can eat it in peace.
I touch down by the stream, and glare up at the tree in frustration.
I need a way to get these critters out of here, or there’ll be nothing left!
Biting my lip, I consider my options. My eyes widen as I hit upon an idea.
I bring two fingers to my mouth and whistle, expending precious Espir to fill the sound with Charm.
A flock of critters rises from the tree and begins to circle me.
I smile my most Charming smile. “Hey little fellows, I have a request... I really need that fruit, so... could you please go somewhere else and let me have it?”
Chaos erupts, as, after a moment, a large portion of the critters scatters and begins to fly away. However, an equally large number circles me for a little while longer, than returns to the tree.
I swear I hear laughter from some of them, and see them giving me haughty looks.
Ugh, little bastards! All right, if Charming doesn’t work, maybe I can scare them off?
Soon enough, I return to the tree, fully prepared. When the next pop resounds, it’s followed by the obnoxious sound of an air horn.
The critters scatter away, and I quickly grab the fruit.
Unfortunately, they don’t fall for it a second time, and a blur of multi-coloured feathers snatches my prize.
So I step it up. With fireworks.
This nets me two more fruits, before the critters quickly grow used to the bangs, flashes, and waves of pressure.
Of course, conjuring all these toys eats away at my Espir reserves, but not as much as the fruits give me, so I manage to slowly fill up. Soon enough, I reach the point where I actually feel a straining as I start to go over capacity.
The next one I manage to grab—after a flashbang—I put in a little conjured pouch, that I can only hope will keep it safe. I just need a few more, then I’ll definitely be able to accomplish some stuff over at the pond of silence!
However, the tree is rapidly emptying of fruit, and the remaining critters are growing wise to my ways.
Sound and light aren’t cutting it anymore. I’ll have to get physical.
With a thought, I conjure the shotgun my father keeps locked in his gun safe behind the fridge, its weight comforting in my hands. He’s let me fire it once or twice. I remember its kick and the smell of burnt gunpowder. The exact details of the internal mechanisms elude me, but I don’t think it’ll matter too much.
The idea of using actual birdshot and seeing if I can consume not just fruit but meat, crosses my mind, but... well, I have no idea if that would actually do anything for me, or if they’d just Fade or something, and considering Raindrop’s reaction when I tried to eat a flower, I don’t think she’d approve.
Either way, all I want is to scare them off, so I make sure to Imagine rubber pellets before I turn off the safety and place my finger on the trigger.
When another fruit pops, I take aim at it, wait for the first critter to approach, and shoot.
The shotgun kicks my shoulder as it spews fire and rubber with a deafening bang.
As expected, the sound hardly startles the critters this time, but to my surprise, neither do the pellets! In fact, they hardly seem to take note as the small balls bounce off.
I turn my puzzled gaze to the shotgun, but it’s exactly how I remember it.
I Imagine a new cartridge, this time filled with lead, and take aim at the trunk of the fruit tree.
The shotgun gives another satisfying kick, but when I move closer to take a look, I see exactly zero damage on the rough bark.
Looking down, I find a scattering of tiny lead balls. They’re just lying there, between the needles.
An inkling of what’s going on begins to dawn.
Shit. My shotgun is the product of my Imagination, and these birds and trees are all Extant. It’s like when I tried to use my Imagination to make a flower grow, I’m just not affecting them!
So basically, whether I Imagine rubber or lead, there’s just no real power behind it, so this shotgun is useless. I sigh and pull on the motes inside of it, managing to resorb about a third of them.
Maybe I should just move on and—
Something bonks my head from up in the tree.
“Ow,” I mutter, having actually felt that, and finding the sensation distinctly unpleasant.
Rubbing my head, I notice the pit roll against my foot. I look up.
One of the birds up in the tree gives me a haughty look, then it lets out a burp.
I freeze, and look back down at the pit. Oh. So that’s how it works.
I look back up at the bird with a smirk, then start collecting pits. Just you wait!
It takes me some time to set up my second attempt, but I’m all the more proud for it.
A few more fruits have popped while I worked, but the frequency is slowing down as their numbers dwindle, and there’s still a couple left.
I take careful aim at the tree, and wait for the next one to pop.
The moment I hear the tell-tale sound, I pull the lever on my life-sized catapult.
The giant springs I Imagined are released from their coiled-up state and the large wooden bowl that holds the payload of Extant pits shoots upright.
The pits are launched at high speed into the gaggle of critters racing for the fruit.
This time, my method proves successful, as they scatter under the heavy pelting, and I manage to reach the fruit first, and stick it in my pouch.
The only problem is, now I’m out of pits.
A bunch of critters actually leave this time, but a few of the fastest remain, including the stinking bird that threw his pit at me earlier.
Another fruits pops. I kick my tail as hard as I can, but it gets there first and snatches it away
Annoyed and unwilling to let all my work on the catapult go to waste, I look for more ammunition.
My eyes fall on the pebbles in the stream.
Another pit hits me in the back of the head. I grit my teeth, positive of the culprit even without looking up.
When the next fruit pops, I once again fire my catapult.
The effect is... a little stronger than I anticipated. The pebbles punch holes in the bark, break branches, and one of them actually hits and launches the fruit off the tree.
Perhaps more importantly, one of them hits a bird—not the annoying one, unfortunately—and it crashes to the ground, limp.
I frown, scratching my head. Ehm, whoops?
As I’m pretty sure I can consider that latest fruit lost, I walk over to the hurt bird, a little concerned.
I’m relieved to see it moving a bit, as I approach, until I notice it’s wing.
It’s starting to Fade.
“Oh, shit,” I mutter.
I crouch down next to it with growing alarm.
It blinks up at me, tries but fails to roll over, and just seems mostly bewildered.
I study it, unsure of what to do, and frankly, a little torn.
On the one hand, I instinctively want to help it, try and prevent it from Fading, but have no idea how, really. On the other hand... well, this bird contains a lot of Espir, and absorbing it might go a long way towards lengthening this stay, and allowing me to practice resisting mind control.
Come on, Emma, pull yourself together; it’s just a bird, and you’ve eaten plenty of chicken without a shred of guilt.
Then again, it’s not really a bird, is it? It’s... a kind of spirit, an Extant being. How old might it get if it doesn’t Fade?
Actually, what kind of life cycle do the beings in this Realm even have? Akir suggested Raindrop was young, and would get smarter as she grew older due to an increased ability to generate Espir allowing her to sustain more complex thought processes... Was she a bird like this once?!
“Shit...” I mutter, getting kind of frantic. I quickly rummage in my pouch, take out one of my fruits, and put it down next to it. “Here, try—try eating this...”
It stares at the fruit for a moment, seeming dazed, then renews the struggle to get up, even as more and of its feathers flake off.
Shit, what do I—
“Eh-ma!” a cheery voice chirps behind me. “I found you!”
“Raindrop!” I exclaim as I turn around with my heart in my throat. “What are you doing here?!”
“We were playing hide and go seek, silly,” she chirps happily, looking far more energetic and sober as she lands in front of me with a fluttering of her wings. “I got bored from just looking, so I just followed the thread from the bird-whistle! What’s that?”
“Oh no, what happened?” Raindrop exclaims, practically leaping down towards the Fading bird.
“Well—nevermind that, is there anything we can do? I tried giving it the fruit, but—”
Raindrop jumps up and lets out a shrill, echoing shriek.
I stare at her for a second, uncomprehending.
“She’ll be here soon,” Raindrop says, wringing her feathery hands together. “I just hope it’s not too late.”
“She?” I ask, an ominous feeling building inside me. “Who do you mean by—”
Suddenly, a dark stormfront rushes in at unnatural speed and, in no time flat, covers the world in darkness. The sudden gloom is disturbed only by occasional angry flashes, as lightning serpents clash in the writhing overhead sea of clouds.
I gape at the phenomenon wide-eyed. The hairs on the back of my neck rise as I sense a presence behind me.
I turn to find Goddess staring at the Fading bird that’s somehow in her hands now, with infinite grief. The very sight of it causes me to tear up.
“Can you save it?” Raindrop asks tremulously.
“I’m sorry, child,” Goddess says, her voice a chilling requiem. “It’s core is broken, the very essence of its being leaking out. Nothing can be done.”
Then her owlish visage fall upon the catapult, the pebbles, and finally, me, turning dark and terrible.
“You... HOW DARE YOU?” she demands, her voice like the low notes of a giant church organ filling a cathedral with a blasphemous symphony.
My body is paralysed with fear under the weight of her gaze, which presses down on my chest like a mountain, but at the same time, I cannot defy her demand, the need to answer overwhelming. “I-I just wanted the fruit, to extend my Visit, and they kept getting in the way,” I stammer. “I didn’t mean for this to happen, please, forgi—”
The command is absolute, and the world obeys. The crash of thunder, the burbling of the stream, and all other sounds around us disappear in a single, jarring instant.
In the quiet, her voice is all that remains as it fills the world with its terrible splendour. “My Realm is one of peace. ‘No sapient being shall harm any being except in defence of oneself or another.’ That is a rule even your wretched masters don’t dare break!”
She sighs, and the tree roots around us droop lethargically as her mood shifts, the regret tangible in the air. “I knew letting you run around here was a mistake. One it’s high time I rectified.” She narrows her eyes. “Now the question just becomes how. Perhaps I should just blot you out of existence, see how you like being forcibly snuffed out. They do say the punishment should fit the crime...”
“Goddess, no!” Raindrop pleads, anxiously flapping her wings, apparently spared from Goddess’ oppressive command. “Please, please spare her! I’m sure it was an accident! Eh-ma is a good being!”
Goddess remains perfectly still for a moment, then lets out a sigh. “Ah, I’m sorry, my child,” she says, her face turning melancholy and kind, her voice gentle as a forest stream as she turns to Raindrop for a moment. “I’ve let you witness something unsightly. For your sake, I’ll spare her life. But, this will have to go.”
She lifts a hand. The necklace around Raindrop’s neck snaps and the bird-whistle comes flying over. The moment her hand closes around it, it turns to quickly fading dust. I can feel the connection I had to it recoil, the snap of the thread stinging in an unfamiliar way.
“I already tolerated this for too long,” Goddess continues firmly. “You’ll find someone else to play with.”
She turns back to me, and her cold gaze lands on me with all the subtlety of a dropped anvil. “Now, as for you... WHENEVER YOU TRY TO VISIT THE REALM OF IMAGINATION ON YOUR OWN, YOU WILL BE ASSAULTED BY THE FULL EXTENT OF THE HORROR YOU WROUGHT TODAY.”
This time, I notice the massive flow of Espir that enters me as the words brand themselves in my mind, providing me a brief flash of overwhelming grief.
Tears fill my eyes. If I had any control over my limbs, I would sink to my knees in utter bereavement.
“Under the circumstances, this will have to suffice,” Goddess mutters. “Now, BEGONE!”
And with that final command, I am ejected from Her Realm.
Oh Emma, look what you did now...
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