Chapter 178: I'm on a boat [Start of Book 5]
The last thing I see before I successfully pull myself out of the Realm of Crystals, is my own body—piloted by Suri—reaching out for me with a blank face, and grasping nothing but thin Aether.
The transition is not as smooth as usual. Instead of nigh-instantly appearing in the Realm of Imagination, I find myself in the chaotic void between realms I’ve only visited once before, when Goddess threw me out for my crime of killing a bird in her Realm.
Once again, I am bombarded with flashes of blinding light, knives of cold, and a kind of white noise that threatens to drown out my thoughts. However, this time, instead of spinning around helplessly, I’m flying somewhere.
Well, I say flying, but it feels more like I’m pulling myself through molasses, like some kind of resistance is trying to prevent me from moving in the direction I’m going.
I’m still moving forward, however, and since I’m thoroughly out of back-up plans, I have no choice but to squeeze shut my Imaginary eyes, cover my Imaginary ears, and stew in my anger.
All this time, Suri pretended to be helping me, guiding me. She acted concerned for my life when I got myself in danger—well, I suppose the concern might’ve been real, except it wasn’t concern for a charge, a protégé, no, it was concern for herself, for her spot in the competition!
I mean I actually won the whole thing, final tournament and all, and I still was to be nothing more than a slave. All that effort I put into training, fighting, all it amounted to was helping Suri climb the social ranks of her messed-up society.
A prize friggin’ poodle, that’s all I am—or was, I suppose. After all, I’m not quite sure what I am right now. A ghost? An untethered spirit?
Did I just... kill myself?
It’s a sobering thought, one probably few people have ever gotten to think. Well, assuming there’s no after-life in the Entropic Realm, like I suspect. Who knows at this point?
Those Peilor bastards... treating us like—like cattle. No, you know what? I’ve just decided.
I’m not dead. I’m just taking a sabbatical from living.
Of course, there’s some steps to be made and some questions to be answered before I start planning my second coming. Like if the connection to my body I just severed can even be restored, and if so how I’m meant to take my body back from Suri.
If I can even find my way back to the Realm of Crystals at all...
No, I have to find a way back, dead or alive. Dave, Jacob, Alec, Kaitlynn... they must’ve all been brainwashed by now, turned into ‘content’ little hosts. But I’m positive that conditioning can be broken, it all comes down to mental stats, and Espir. If I could just—
Suddenly, the pressure pushing back against me mounts. My eyes snap open, and I find myself in front of a translucent membrane of shimmering light. Through it, I see familiar, shifting vistas.
The Realm of Imagination, I made it!
With a final effort of will, I pull myself fully through, and the world around me goes white.
When I open my eyes, I find myself standing at the wheel of a huge three-master, its wood creaking as it crests a mighty wave, and begins to plummet down on the other side.
I stumble and grip the steering wheel to maintain my footing, only to find that it’s stuck, and doesn’t turn.
Glancing around for familiar landmark I find my vision is strangely distorted, yet there’s one thing that’s hard to miss.
I have only one word for the enormous creature staring down on me.
A massive tentacle stretches out towards my vessel, and I cringe, however, its limb doesn’t quite reach the suddenly fragile-looking wood.
Instead, it curls around what looks like a giant tube of some kind of transparent...
Hold on, what’s that brown thing up ahead?
The purple kraken pulls the cork out of the bottle with a deafening pop, and a rush of air sucks me out.
I gracelessly flop down on the wooden floor of the Timid Trident.
“Well, it was about time,” Akir grumbles as he returns the cork, and gently puts the ship-in-a-bottle back down. “You haven’t Visited in ages. If it wasn’t for this thing, I’d have thought you were dead.”
Actually, I recognise that ship... “You’re the one who found my toy boat!” I exclaim, staring up at Akir from the floor in gratitude.
“A patron did, actually, said they recognised your Espir,” he grunts. “I guess I’d been asking around for you, though...”
I dizzily try to get up. “Well, you’re a real lifesaver, I—”
Akir steadies me with a frown as I stumble. “Hold on, why are you Visiting when you’ve barely got Espir?”
I open my mouth to answer, when the light coming from outside starts to dim.
Next, the glasses begin to rattle on the shelf. Akir doesn’t pay it any heed however, even when some of them start to drop and shatter. Instead, he turns to the front door, looking alarmed.
And suddenly, with a clap like thunder, Goddess hangs in the centre of the room, her dark wings spread out and seeming to somehow cover the entirety of the back wall and ceiling, like I couldn’t possibly look past her.
The suddenness with which she appeared almost make it seem as if she’s always been there, as if the floors and walls and doors are meaningless to her. They probably are.
Akir immediately bows, appearing a little shaken, but Goddess ignores him, the cold dark eyes from her owlish visage trained on me, her feathery white brows furrowed.
I try to follow Akir’s example, but find myself unable to move under her heavy gaze, like a small rodent in front of a predator.
“Emma,” Goddess intones distastefully, her voice like a foreboding hymn played on a church organ. “We somehow meet again. I would find your obstinate desire to Visit my Realm flattering if your presence weren’t so unwelcome. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just...” Goddess trails off, her eyes fixed on the jagged remainder of my chain.
Akir follows her gaze and lets out a soft gasp.
Goddess glances at him. “Ah... little Akir. You’re still around, then,” she says, her voice turning melancholy, the intensity lowering from a church organ to a choir, but still maintaining a dark tone.
Akir straightens up a little. “I am, your Highness. Ehm, if I may—”
“Good,” Goddess says with a sigh, before she turns back and floats closer to me, her eyes falling on my chain with a glint that wasn’t there before. “Interesting,” she murmurs, her voice lowering further in intensity to become akin to a cacophony of ominous whispers. “You cut it yourself, didn’t you? Tell me: why would you do such a thing?”
There is genuine curiosity in her voice, and I clamp onto it like a lifeline. “To be free,” I quickly blurt out as the pressure weighing down on me abates a little, as if to allow me to speak. “Suri—the Peilor who was using me as a host—was about to start restructuring my mind, and I chose freedom over slavery... anyway I could get it.”
Goddess reaches out, ever so gently, and grasps my chain. An echo of the white-hot pain I experienced when I severed it earlier sears through me.
I let out a hiss but can’t move away as the pressure holding me down has returned, and Goddess doesn’t let go. Thankfully, the pain lessens to a throbbing when she holds it still to inspect it.
“Truly interesting,” Goddess murmurs. “It’s been a long time since anything’s managed to surprise me.” Her owlish gaze flicks up to appraise me, unblinking.
Akir clear his throat. “Your Highness,” he tries again. “Might I inquire what Emma has done to earn your ire?”
Goddess disconcertingly turns her head more than ninety degrees to look at him. “She Erased a sentient being,” she intones, her voice turning grand and terrible once more.
The word Erased in particular feels like slap in my face as its meaning drills itself into my head. Forced to Fade... I guess they don’t use the word ‘killed’ here.
Akir—bless him—reacts very mildly to my crime, merely blinking and turning to me with questions in his eyes.
The pressure Goddess still exudes makes it a monumental effort, but in my need to explain I manage to open my mouth and once the first words come tumbling out, the rest follow more easily. “It was an accident! I was just trying to scare the forest critters off so I could get to the fruit first, but they were so much faster than me, and so persistent, things just escalated. In the end, I was using a catapult to launch Extant pebbles at them, but I made it too strong, and one of the pebbles damaged this little bird’s Core... I never meant for—”
Goddess turns back to me and the weight of her gaze turns the remainder of that sentence into a strangled cry. Seconds tick by, feeling like minutes as she stares at me, appearing to deliberate over something. “You have put me before a conundrum, Emma,” she muses at long last, her voice taking on the quality of a whispered chorus once more.
I wait for her to continue, to explain, but she falls silent once more.
Akir speaks up instead. “Your Highness, if I may be so bold—”
“Yes of course,” he hurriedly continues. “All I wanted to say was, if your Highness were to grant Emma asylum, I would be most willing to take responsibility for her.”
Goddess cocks her head sideways, never taking her gaze of me. “Her connection is truly severed,” she says seemingly speaking mostly to herself. “Technically... Tell me, Emma. Would you be willing to denounce the Peilor and formally request asylum?”
She lets go of my chain at the same time the pressure holding me in place weakens, allowing me some degree of movement, and I nearly plant myself on my face as a result.
“I would, your Majesty,” I say, stabilising myself just enough to finally manage a shoddy bow. “I want nothing to do with the Peilor if I can help it. A-and I humbly beg for asylum and your forgiveness. I swear I’ve learned my lesson.”
“Teaching you a lesson was never my intention,” Goddess replies, the room turning cold with her tone. “And no lesson will undo the damage you wrought.”
I bow down deeper, keeping my gaze trained on the snowflakes now drifting down to the floor as frost forms in my eyebrows. “I realise that, your Highness. I truly do. I’m deeply sorry for the suffering I caused.”
Goddess remains silent for a moment. “Your plea for asylum has been heard,” she says formally. Then she turns to Akir. “You would vouch for her, little Akir?”
From the corner of my eye, I see Akir draw himself up. “She’s a good kid, your Highness,” he says. “Ignorant, foolhardy, extremely lacking in self-awareness, not to mention manners especially when it comes to respecting her elders—” He breaks off his sentence to clear his throat when he sees the withering glare I direct at him. “But... she has a good heart. She loves, and is loved. I would vouch for her.”
Goddess turns back to me. “Very well,” she says, her voice turning grand again as she silently floats a little higher, and the room grows dark. “I hereby grant you AMNESTY and ASYLUM.”
The words rumble through the spire, somehow echoing as though we were inside a cathedral.
“Make no mistake,” she continues, softer. “Amnesty is not forgiveness. It is a clean slate, a second chance. And asylum is not guaranteed survival. Your Espir is still draining quickly and how you stop from Fading in this Realm, untethered—and without harming anyone—is your own problem. But... I wish you good fortune.”
Then, with another clap like thunder, she disappears.
Thanks for reading! ^^
As I'm still doing some final sensitivity edits, the release of Book Three will be postponed till after Christmas. I'm nearly done though, so I still expect it to come out before New Year's at least ^^
This does mean that, if you're quick, you can still make into the list of Patrons at the back of the book by supporting me on Patreon ;)