• hcmills

Chapter 182: Incubation time

As I step through the opening, I’m greeted by the sight of a familiar plumage. Gradients of bright shades that range from red to purple to blue cover the back and arm-like wings of my favourite bird-girl.

Raindrop hasn’t changed a bit.

She doesn’t appear to notice me, as she continues humming to herself and fussing with something in her nest.

I glance back at Akir for support, but he pointedly turns his back to me, and starts grumbling at the mushrooms.

Ugh. Fine.

I clear my throat.

Raindrop turns around. Wonder spreads across her feathery face, her beaky mouth falling open and then curving impossibly upward. “Eh-ma!”

I smile wryly at her. “Hey Raindr—oof!”

My greeting is interrupted as she launches herself into me with an excited squawk, flinging her wings around me and causing me to stumble backwards.

After Akir’s earlier demonstration of power, however, I can’t help but feel like she’s actually being quite careful, and I stumble in spite of that.

After a moment, Raindrop pulls back. “Eh-ma, how are you back here?! Did that fussy lady bring you?”

I frown in confusion for a moment. Oh, she means Suri. “No, I’m here on my own—well, Akir is outside but—anyway, it’s kind of a long...”

I trail off when I spot the huge, ominous black egg in the middle of Raindrop’s nest. “Ehm, Raindrop, did you... lay that?”

“Hmm? Ah! No silly, that’s Mr Fluffybutt!” she squawks happily.

I blink. “Hold on... are we talking about the same Mr Fluffybutt that brought you to me when I first visited the Realm of Imagination on my own?”

“Of course!”

“Well, wasn’t he a fully grown... bird?”

Calling him a nightmarish black-feathered killing machine would probably be rude.

“Exactly!” Raindrop coos.

It’s quiet for a moment, as I stare at Raindrop, and she beams back at me. This is getting us nowhere.

“Okay, so what’s he doing here? Like, inside of an egg,” I try.

“He’s hatching, silly!” Raindrop trills with a giggle. “I’m helping him incubate!”

Is this like playing house for bird-people?

Before I can ask, a loud crack echoes through the room.

Raindrop lets out an excited warble. “He’s starting! Oh, this is so exciting!”

There’s a large crack in the black eggshell now, through which an even more ominous red glow shines. I watch, perturbed, as more cracks spread, until finally, a small, clawed fist breaks through.

All of a sudden, the eggshell shatters, bursting apart in fragments that keep breaking into smaller pieces until they fade. What’s left behind is a small bird-boy in a triumphant pose. He’s styled much like Raindrop, with arm-like wings, clawed hands and feet, and a beak-like mouth. However, his feathers are all black, and his eyes are still an ominous shade of red.

“Mr Fluffybutt, you did it!” Raindrop calls out as she enthusiastically sweeps him up into a hug.

“Aack, put me down!” Mr Fluffybutt complains. “And don’t call me that; my name is Dioxoroc! Either call me that or Lord Deathwing!”

“Aaaw, so cute,” Raindrop coos, not appearing to even remotely consider putting him down. “I’ll call you whatever you like, but you’ll always be my little Fluffybutt!”

“Oh? Congratulations, Raindrop,” Akir grunts from the doorway. “I didn’t know he was this far along already.”

As Raindrop appears preoccupied with the still struggling little bird-boy, I turn to Akir for answers. “Is this... normal?”

He considers this for a moment, then shrugs. “It is for bird-people. I think I just crawled into a hollow space under a rock when I gained my sapience. My memories of way back when are a bit blurry.”

“So, that’s what this is about? He’s become sapient?”

Akir nods. “It’s a major event in any being’s life in this Realm. And a cause for celebration.” He turns to the excited bird-woman dancing her hatchling through the room behind me. “Hey Dioxoroc, how’d you like a take a trip on Emma’s new ride?”

Dioxoroc perks up. “Can I, Raindrop, can I?!”

Even though I was only away for a second, it’s still a relief to return to my seat and spread out my tendrils.

Being without a source of Espir is kinda anxiety inducing, now that I have literally no recourse if I run out.

We set off as soon as everyone’s boarded, Akir taking over the directing of the swarm of mushrooms this time, so I don’t have to waste what little Espir I have available.

After some discussion, ‘Lord Deathwing’ finally agrees to be called Dio, as his full name is kind of a mouthful, and Raindrop keeps butchering it.

Despite his many protests to the contrary, he also doesn’t really seem to want Raindrop to put him down. At least, not until he grows fascinated by my mushrooms, and flies straight up out of her arms to play with them.

Raindrop turns most of her attention to me, only occasionally shooting a worried glance upwards from where she’s sitting on an Imaginary roost next to my throne.

I tell her about everything that happened. Raindrop makes all the right noises, from commiserating hums to gasps of shock, but I’m still not quite sure how much she really understands.

“So you’re permanently stuck to this chair?!” Raindrop squawks around the end of my tale.

I stare at her. “No—well, most of the time, but—you do remember me walking into your house just now, right?”

“Ah, that’s right!” she chirps, her eyes lighting up. “That means you could stay with us! My floors are Extant and you can totally consume them if you want to; I bet they’re much tastier than this old stuff! Oh, Miss Take might not like it though—that’s my downstairs neighbour, she’s a hoot!”

What an unfortunate name...

“Ehm, that’s... that’s a really kind offer, Raindrop, but I’m fine, really,” I assure her. Before narrowing my eyes. “You know I don’t actually taste the wood, right?”

“Oh, thank goodness!” she chirps.

I can’t help but laugh at her earnest expression, and she quickly joins in.

We sit in companionable silence for a bit, watching Dio chasing mushrooms around in a way that causes knots to form in the ropes holding them. Akir chases after him from time to time, grumbling exaggeratedly, much to the kid’s delight, and untangles the knots with impossible ease.

Only a small sliver of the ball of fire that passes for a sun here still hangs beneath the clouds, painting them in shades of pink and orange, and lighting up the sea of glitter that stretches out beneath us, as well as Goddess’s crystal palace, floating in the distance.

It’s beautiful. Peaceful.

At some point, I fall asleep again, only waking when Raindrop manifests some kind of magical mom-instinct, turning around abruptly just as Dio starts swinging from one of the ropes attached to a mushroom. “Dio sweetie, be careful, don’t hurt the nice jellyfish!”

He pouts, but disengages.

Raindrop turns back to me, looking exasperated but happy. “Oh! Sorry for waking you...”

“It’s fine,” I say, shaking my head fondly. “They’re mushrooms, by the way, not jellyfish.”

Raindrop giggles. “They’re the same thing, silly.”

I open my mouth to contradict her, but then fall silent, and look up once more.

They really do look like jellyfish... is that like the next step in their evolution or something? After all, unless I’m mistaken, the memories of that bird seemed to suggest she was born from a flower...

“Hey, Raindrop, can I ask you something?” I ask after pondering this for a bit.


I lick my lips. “Were you... were you a bird once too?”

“I was!” she chirps, confirming my suspicion. “I was the cutest little bluebird. I don’t remember much, except that I used to visit Goddess, because she fed me the yummiest fruits!”

All of a sudden, realisation dawns over me. “She helped you hatch, didn’t she?”

“Yeah! How did you know?”

I close my eyes, rubbing my forehead. She’s basically Goddess’s surrogate daughter. Shit, that explains so much... I can only Imagine what Goddess might’ve done to me if Raindrop hadn’t stuck up for me. “Call it a hunch. No wonder she cares so much for you.”

“Goddess cares for all living beings in this Realm,” Raindrop states, seeming completely oblivious to her privileged position. “She used to say she wished she could just put me in a little box and keep me safe, but that she’d never want for me to feel locked up, so she trusts me to be responsible and stay safe.”

I smile at her. “That’s lovely. You should take Dio to visit her sometime. I bet she’d love that.”

“Aack, you’re right!” Raindrop squawks, perking up, then launching herself off her roost to chase after Dio, and possibly drag him off to the distant palace right away.

A small blue feather from her plumage flutters down into my lap. I pick it up and study it, reminded of the time I brought one with me to the Yin-Yang Realm.

I blink, surprised at the Espir density I find inside of it.

I look up and squint at Raindrop’s distant form, in an attempt to estimate the size of her Espir Pool.

That’s... way more than I can count. Isn’t Raindrop still considered a youngling?!

I turn my attention inward to my own Espir Pool, currently full thanks to my nap earlier. Thirty five motes. How long did it take me to add that single mote of Espir?

Raindrop waves happily—and Dio reluctantly—as they fly off. I wave back.

Akir makes his way back down silently as I stare after them, contemplative.

“Akir,” I start without turning to him, “how long do you think it will take for me to grow my Core to the point I can sustain myself without an external source of Espir?”

He shrugs. “Hard to say. Growth rates vary. Even if you’re relatively fast though, it’ll take a long time.”

I let out a sigh. “Well, can you give me like a ballpark figure of the size my Espir Pool would be by the time my Core is strong enough?”

Akir grunts and takes a moment to think about it. “To maintain this kind of cognitive load... Definitely more than a thousand motes, probably around fifteen hundred.”

My eyes widen. “Are you serious? I’d really need that much? Like, about how big is Raindrop’s Espir Pool, because I was trying to estimate it, but I couldn’t quite—”

“I believe she’s getting close to an Espir Pool of two thousand motes.”

“Wait really?” I ask, alarmed. “Then how is she still so ditzy?!”

“Fifteen hundred would be enough for just your base level mental faculties ,” Akir clarifies. “To live comfortably, account for times of greater mental focus and participation in fun activities like play, you’d probably want something closer to three thousand.”

I groan. “That’s going to take ages. Actually, would it even be enough? How much do you think I’d need to return to the Yin-Yang Realm and wrest control of my body?”

“That’s even harder to say; the few Peilor I’ve come across were all very different. They’re not great at Espir manipulation, but their Skills at mind control are quite excellent... To be on the safe side, you’d definitely want it to be a bit bigger, say double, at six thousand. With a Core of that size and some training, the average Peilor would not be able to sway you in any way, I reckon.”

I close my eyes, and drop my face in my hands. I’m going to be stuck on a piece of wood for ages. Even when I’m self-sustaining, I’ll need it to help me grow.

Actually, there might not even be much point... “Akir, how long would you estimate that would take me, in terms of time in the Yin-Yang Realm?”

I can tell I’m not going to like the answer by the way he avoids my gaze. Finally, he sighs. “The growth of your Espir Pool is about linear with the strength of your Core, but that growth slows down as it gets in the higher ranges. If you continue consuming wood like this with a pool of 6000 Espir as your goal, it would take... anywhere between this long and that long, and probably most of that hollowed-out tree.

Somewhere between six centuries and three millennia, my mind helpfully translates.

My mind freezes for a moment, as it processes the concept that I might genuinely never get to see my friends and family alive again.

I take a deep breath and look up. “Akir, there has to be a faster way to grow my Core. Please tell me there’s a faster way.”

He’s quiet for a while, and turns aside as if to ponder something. “There is,” he at last, softly says. “But I cannot recommend it.”

Author's note:

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