Chapter 188: Here I am
Let me make one thing clear: I am not a horse girl. Never was, never will be.
I mean, I enjoyed Spirit—I mean, who wouldn’t? That soundtrack is dope—but I’ve spuriously avoided contact with any real-life horses.
The experience of trying to break in my very own wild mount, even if it is a boat-bird, does nothing to convince me I was in the wrong there.
And yet... there’s a greater sense of satisfaction to succeeding in training her than I had expected.
I nudge the right-most lever back towards me a sliver, and Kirri lifts her prow in response, soaring upwards.
I spin the wheel left, and she banks right, spiralling up now on her majestic wings.
Relaxing my grip, I allow Kirri to return the wheel to its neutral position. Then, I push the right and middle lever all the way down.
The right one tells her to point her prow straight down, which she does without a moment’s hesitation.
The middle one is the throttle.
Kirri folds up her wings and dives down like a kamikaze aeroplane, heading straight for the glittery sea.
“That’s it girl, steady now, steady!” I shout over the breeze. “Wait for my signal!”
I can feel tremors pull through her planks as we accelerate, two tons of wood on a crash course with the surf below, but she holds out, resisting the urge to pull up.
Finally, at the last moment, I yank back hard on the right-most lever. Kirri unfolds her wings and pulls up as hard as she can.
I push the lever back to its neutral state and let out a whoop as she draws perfectly level with the sea, skimming over the gentle waves.
Finally, I pull back on the throttle and push back the left-most lever.
Kirri flaps her wings, braking, then folds them in as she performs a textbook water-landing.
Her mast creaks as her sail unfurls and she swings her boom around to catch the wind.
“Good girl!” I croon at her, scratching the steering wheel. The splashing behind me informs me Kirri happily wags her rudder in response, and I chuckle.
Then the biggest test of the day comes. A swarm of birds comes flying over.
I say nothing, do nothing, just watch as a shiver passes through Kirri. Her mast droops a bit once they pass, but ultimately, she lets them, without trying to join or chase them.
My smile threatens to split my face in two.
Before I can compliment Kirri some more, a familiar voice interrupts me from behind. “Eh-ma!”
I crane my neck around, as I am currently quite literally rooted to the spot. Tendrils of Devouring Energy exit through both my foot soles into holes leading into the cargo space below deck, where they munch on Kirri’s dwindling load of pulpy wood.
Raindrop crashes into a hug. My Espir Pool has reached 37 by now, which is of course still absolutely nothing compared to hers, so the impact certainly rocks me.
“Where’s Mr Fluffybutt?” I ask once she disengages.
“His name is Dio, silly,” she giggles. “And he’s resting at home, all tuckered out from playing, the poor thing.”
Truth be told, I’d figured as much. Dio’s pretty clever since his hatching, but that just works against him. He doesn’t have the Espir reserves yet to keep up with Raindrop in play.
“Is Kirri being a good girl?” Raindrop asks, hopping over to hug the mast next.
Kirri creaks happily, swinging her boom around and seemingly trying but failing to wrap Raindrop in her sail somehow.
I fondly shake my head at their antics. “She sure is. I think we may be ready to leave, to be honest.”
Raindrop stills for a moment at that, then releases Kirri’s mast and turns back to me. “Oh,” she chirps. “Already?”
I shrug. “Well, I’ve got some last preparations to do, but yeah... I’ve got to leave at some point, and the clock is ticking.”
Raindrop fidgets with her claws, the feathers on her arms tickling the deck as she does so, and eliciting another shiver from Kirri. “Maybe...” she trails off.
I raise a brow at her. “Maybe what?”
“Maybe I should come with you?” she blurts out.
“I mean, you’re still so fragile, Eh-ma,” Raindrop trills, flapping her arms agitatedly. “I’m worried!”
I stare at her for a moment longer. She has no idea what I’m actually going down there for, does she?
After weighing my words a little longer, I sigh and shake my head. “I’m sorry Raindrop, but I can’t ask that from you. What I’m going to be doing isn’t... fun. Moreover, Dio needs you around.”
Also, I honestly don’t think Goddess would even consider allowing it.
Raindrop’s shoulders droop. “You’re right. I know all that, I do, I just...”
“Thank you, for offering,” I tell her sincerely.
Raindrop sniffs, still looking put out.
“You, ehm, wanna be at the wheel for a bit?” I offer.
Raindrop snaps her eyes up at mine, beaming like a kid on Christmas morning. “Can I?!”
Note to self: Never get in a vehicle with Raindrop behind the wheel, ever again.
In the short time I tolerate her behind Kirri’s steering wheel, Raindrop nearly manages to make me seasick—or airsick, I guess—which never happens.
Kirri seemed to enjoy herself, at least. I guess it’s good to know I can push her a bit further still, should push come to shove.
Either way, it’s almost a relief when Raindrop leaves.
Almost. I’m sure she’ll come wave goodbye when the time comes for me to depart, but still. It feels too much like a farewell for my tastes already.
With a sigh, I direct Kirri to the top of a cloud. I’ll never get tired of the way the soft white fluff swirls in her wake.
The ball of fire sinking into the clouds in the distance lights up an enormous mountain I think I Visited once with Suri in hues of red and orange, making it contrast gorgeously with the purple starry sky above.
This really is a paradise. Am I heroic to leave it all behind, or just mad?
I guess only time can tell because I’m still resolved to do so. More so than ever, in fact, now that I have Kirri. After all, she’ll never truly become one with the boat—let alone gain sapience—unless I take her down there and provide her with the Essence she needs.
I mean, she seems to have integrated well enough already, but I can still tell her motions are somewhat wooden—pun intended.
Right now, she’s still the spirit of a bird, trapped in a bulky wooden vessel. Now, the vessel might never become too malleable, but for her to truly become a boat-bird-spirit, she needs my help.
So I take her down to the workshop, for a resupply.
Thankfully, after our extensive training together, flying through Hangspire is a completely different experience. Though I can tell Kirri is jittery from all the different stimuli, she handles it like a champ and properly follows my mechanical instructions.
Even when I step off the deck for a moment to open the massive doors from the inside, she properly waits for me, like I’ve taught her.
I careful fly her in, and start loading her up with some additional wood pulp.
I’m tempted to load her full of the stuff, but suppress the urge. If I take too much, Kirri will become less manoeuvrable. Moreover, the whole point of going down there is to hunt. If all goes well, I’ll hardly need any.
I settle for filling her cargo space about halfway with tied-down sacks of the stuff—Extant sacks, woven from dried plant matter. They’re digestible too, and they help keep the woody pulp in place.
Kirri gets a little fidgety from sitting still for so long, so I allow her to roam the room a bit, calling her back when I’ve prepared another couple of bags.
When I turn around from loading the last few, I take in a sharp breath.
“Jeesh, don’t sneak up on me like that!” I complain to Akir, who’s floating right in front of me.
“Right, sorry,” he says, not sounding even half as grumpy as usual.
I blink. Even though I know his usual grumpiness is an act—or that he at least plays it up a lot—it’s still weird to see him serious like this.
“I heard you’re almost ready to leave,” he continues.
“Wow,” I drawl, putting my hands on my hips. “Word travels fast here.”
“This is a city full of bored, immortal beings,” Akir grunts with a little more of his usual sass. “There’s nothing they love more than gossip.”
I crack a smile. “I guess that makes sense.”
Akir grunts his agreement and drifts past me over to the steering wheel. “I also hear Raindrop offered to come with,” he offers after a beat.
I sigh. “She did, yeah. Wow, these people like their gossip.”
Akir snorts. “Heard it from Raindrop herself, actually.”
“Ah. Fair enough.”
Akir nods. He’s quiet for a moment. “I considered it too, you know? I don’t want you to think I didn’t.”
I stare at him. “Akir... you’ve done more than enough for me. You don’t need to explain.”
Akir shakes his head. “I want to explain anyway. First of all, you have to understand that I wouldn’t be able to come as I am now.”
I frown. “What? Why not? What could possibly stop you?”
“The Lower Realms are too fragile,” Akir explains. “The density of my Core would rip it apart if I tried to enter, like an elephant trying to balance on a glass table.”
“That’s... quite the analogy,” I mumble, a little stunned. Suri would probably love it. The bitch.
“But that’s just an excuse,” Akir says with a sigh. “I could still come; I’d just have to purge my core of a little over nine-tenths of its essence.”
“Purge? That sounds painful. And permanent.”
Akir shrugs. “Power isn’t that important to me. I could regain most of it on the way back up anyway.”
I nod. “So what’s the real reason?”
“I made a vow, to Mirta, that I would never hurt another being, ever again.”
I let out a sigh. “I understand. Thank you for telling me.”
While I said he didn’t need to explain—and meant it—I still feel better for having heard his reasons. Before, a small part of me couldn’t help but be disappointed when he confirmed he wasn’t coming—even if another part was disappointed with myself for being disappointed.
To be fair though, I believed with Akir’s current strength, this whole mission would turn from a dangerous quest to a walk in the park. Therefore, some selfish part of me couldn’t help but wish he’d come along—honestly more for my friends’ sake than for mine—even though it would make him even more complicit in all the killing I’m about to undertake.
It is an odd thing. Is it fair to resent someone for not helping you when they have the means to, even if they don’t owe you any help?
I guess it depends on the situation. I’d be pretty pissed at someone who couldn’t be bothered to, say, throw me the ring buoy they were holding if I swept past their boat in a river, screaming for help. But I could forgive them for not jumping in after me, even if they were a better swimmer than I.
Knowing his full reasoning not to come along, it’s much easier to let go of any negative feelings I may have still guiltily harboured about it.
“However,” he says gruffly. “I’m not sending you off empty-handed.”
A tentacle appears from behind him and presents me with a familiar shape.
The Timid Trident.
Not the bar, of course, but the actual bone trident it’s named after.
The sleek Extant weapon seems smaller than I recall, only about a foot longer than myself, but still looks insanely sharp, its three long tines converging to impossibly thin points.
My eyes widen and I tentatively reach out to accept. “Oh, wow! But... Akir, are you sure?”
“Least I can do,” Akir grunts, letting go of the shaft when my fingers curl around it. “You’ll need a good weapon down there. Don’t go losing it now; resizing it was a bitch.”
“I’ll take good care of it,” I promise him, studying the off-white bone weapon reverently
Akir shrugs. “It’s just a killing tool, Emma. I was actually going to destroy it once. Only changed my mind ’cause I figured it would serve as a good reminder of my vow.”
Hmm. So he says, yet I wonder if he kept it to punish himself, perhaps.
“Anyway, I’m not going to miss it half as much as these,” he continues, before presenting his toolbag, and starting to pull out one Extant tool after another.
There’s a saw, a hammer, a chisel, an axe; they keep coming. All made of Extant wood and a kind of Extant, forged metal known as Imagium.
The Imagium is almost entirely black, but it has two odd features that make it stand out. First of all, it gives off a very dim, deep-purple glow that reminds me of a black light, and secondly, when held in direct light it... glitters.
However, it’s also one of the strongest Extant materials available, and supposedly a pretty difficult material to acquire and even harder to forge.
“Now these, I’ll be wanting back,” Akir warns me. “And that also goes for... this.”
He lifts up a tentacle and, turning it over, reveals a small brass item that flips open.
I blink at it. “A compass? Ooh, that could come in handy with navigating.”
“I doubt it,” Akir grunts. “This is a moral compass.”
I stare blankly at him. “A what now?”
“It was a gift from Mirta,” Akir continues softly, ignoring me.
Reading the melancholy off his face, I look at his gift with new eyes.
It’s a little brass box that easily fits in the palm of my hand with a glass window at the front. Beneath the glass there’s a needle pointing up towards a little tag that reads ‘Good.’ Below, there’s a tag that reads ‘Bad.’
“She gave it to me to aid in my rehabilitation,” Akir explains unprompted. “Back when I first got it, the needle swung wildly back and forth, reaching almost all the way to Bad. It took a long time before it finally stabilised entirely on Good.”
“How does it work?” I ask curiously.
Akir shrugs. “I haven’t the foggiest, to be honest. All I know, is that climbing up through Realm after Realm is a bloody process, which will eat away at your sanity and your sense of self. You won’t be able to prevent that entirely—especially if you’re in a hurry—but hopefully this will help tell you how bad your condition is, might help prevent you from going off the rails entirely.”
I swallow and, with newfound reverence, take a careful hold of the offered item.
“Thank...” I trail off when Akir’s suction cups don’t immediately release it, leaving us hovering in a kind of awkward limbo. Finally, reluctantly, he lets go.
“Thank you,” I tell him sincerely, fighting not to let the muscles next to my eye twitch as I carefully flip it shut and place it in my pocket.
He clears his throat. “Look, I don’t care much for the trident, but... the other stuff, I’d rather you return someday. So you better not die down there, you hear me?”
No longer able to contain myself, I step forward to give him a hug. His skin feels odd under my fingers, tough, yet pliant, warm.
After a moment, he reciprocates, wrapping a few tentacles around me and giving me a careful yet tight squeeze. “Yeah, yeah, I’m going to miss you too, kiddo,” he says with a sigh, acting for all the world like I said it first. “Now come on; I can’t let you leave before I’ve shown you how to properly wield my trident, otherwise you’ll just embarrass me out there.”
Thankfully, the halls of Goddess’s palace are broad enough for a flying boat-bird to pass through to without much hassle.
Kirri’s clearly curious about this new environment, but requires little more than a few gentle corrections to stay on her best behaviour.
As we float into Goddess’s throne room, I find it a lot fuller than I expected.
It seems half of Hangspire has gathered on the left side of the room to see me off. I recognise quite a few faces from the volunteers who helped build Kirri’s body, and patrons from Akir’s bar, but there’s also quite a few I don’t recognise, probably just here for the excitement.
And of course, there’s Raindrop—holding on tightly to little Dioxoroc—and Akir, both standing closely in front of Goddess’s dais.
Goddess regards me silently as we float over. To the right side of the room—the part devoid of spectators—I spot a large, free-floating ring of crystal.
Its purpose seems clear enough, so I spin the steering wheel, and Kirri turns in place until she faces it.
Finally, I turn my gaze to meet Goddess’s eyes.
She opens her mouth, and out pours a sound like a majestic choir praising the heavens. “You are about to undertake a most dangerous journey. Whilst I cannot speak towards the wisdom of your choice to do so, I will commend your bravery.”
Kind of a back-handed compliment there, but fine. I’ll let it slide, since she’s helping me.
“You’ll be pleased to hear that I managed to locate a water-based Lower Realm,” she continues. “Even I cannot determine its specific circumstances over such a distance, but I believe it is your best chance. So. Are you prepared?”
I close my eyes and take a deep breath, going over my mental checklist one last time.
Kirri’s cargo space is half-full of wood-pulp, and now features a number of darkly glittering Extant tools. Akir’s handy bag which seemed bigger on the inside than the outside unfortunately wasn’t Extant, so they’re securely mounted on the walls instead.
On myself, I’m wearing only an Extant skin of fruit juice, and Akir’s trident.
Well, I’m not standing here naked, but my clothing is really just part of my spiritform.
I’d considered taking some kind of Extant clothing, but no one here produces things like armour, and it could prove rather restricting, as my spiritform is quite malleable, capable of changing size and all that, and Extant stuff generally isn’t.
I exhale through my nose, catch Goddess’s gaze, and nod.
“Very well then.”
Goddess stretches out a hand towards the ring of crystal. Her face turns serious, a concentrated frown marring her normally stoic features.
A wave of power flows through the room, like an untouchable wind, before an inky-black portal winks into life inside of the ring.
My heart pounds in my throat as I stare at the flickering lights swirling inside a pool of darkness.
“There, it is ready,” Goddess intones, keeping her hand raised towards it. “Remember to keep in the middle of the tunnel, lest you be lost into the Realmvoid. I can only do so much from up here.”
I swallow and nod. It’s not the first time I received this warning, but it sounds a lot more ominous seconds before my departure.
“Go now,” she continues, “and may you have good fortune on your travels.”
Before Kirri and I can even start to move towards it, however, a familiar, honey-like voice interrupts.
“Oh, what’s this? Going somewhere, Emma?”
My head snaps around, and at the entrance of the throne room, my eyes find a glowing mass of pink energy, flanked by an unknown figure.
Shit. Starmother is here.
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