• hcmills

Chapter 189: Free fallin’ [REWRITTEN]

Pre-chapter note:

I performed a pretty extensive rewrite of this chapter, with the goal of raising the stakes of Book Five, and giving it a more important place in the main plot. I hope you'll like my changes, enjoy! ^^

My heart beats a mile a minute as I apprehensively stare at Starmother. Her timing is simply too good, it can’t be a coincidence. But the question of how she knew to come right now will have to wait, as there are more pressing matters.

“Mara. What a lovely surprise,” Goddess says dispassionately, yet with a twinkling of anger in her eyes. “You are correct. Emma is leaving. She, being a loyal subject of mine, did not wish to be a cause of conflict. Thus, she decided to remove herself from the equation. You are free to witness her departure of course, but I would be very cross indeed if you sought to intervene.”

“Oh, by all means, proceed,” Starmother says, her voice smooth and warm and her smile knowing. “I wouldn’t dream of interrupting.”

I can feel a little imaginary muscle in my cheek twitch. Then what would she call what she’s doing right now?!

Unsure, of what to do, I spare a moment to glance at Starmother’s cloaked companions.

The smaller of the two has their cloak tightly drawn, shadows spilling forth in an unnatural manner to fully hide their features. The only thing that stands out is some bulk on their back beneath the cloak, suggesting they’re carrying a backpack or something like that.

The one with the larger, hulking frame is less well-hidden. What I can make out of its face beneath the hood combined with the sweeping tail behind it suggests a reptilian shape.

Other Peilor?

Its yellow, slitted eyes catch mine and it glares at me, baring its teeth.

“Now now, Lio,” Starmother says. “You heard our host. We are to observe, not interfere.”

Lio... where have I heard—

My eyes widen as I recall what Suri said. That’s the Peilor who was riding along with Bruce! And the very same asshole who tried to sabotage me with that impact on Big Bortha and the spider-troll!

Lio breaks off our staring contest, to give Starmother a deferential bow. “Of course, my queen.”

A tense silence falls over the throne room. Unsure of what to do, I glance around wide-eyed, one hand on the throttle.

“Go ahead, Emma,” Goddess commands, nodding at me when I look over. “No time to dawdle.”

Suddenly, I hear her continue inside my head. ‘I don’t know what Mara is playing at, but since she brought servants, she is unlikely to resort to overt hostilities. They wouldn’t make it out alive if she did. Either way, this situation is a precarious one. Holding the portal open takes up much of my concentration, so I need you to leave quickly.’

I swallow, my eyes darting between Starmother and the portal. Kirri shivers beneath me with tension, but she holds still like a champ until I gently engage the throttle.

The crowd, now including Starmother and her friend, watch in silence as Kirri and I start moving towards the portal.

For a brief moment, I believe my departure might go off without a hitch after all.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Starmother drawls unconvincingly. “I did actually bring a certain someone here who’d like to say goodbye to Emma before she leaves. Surely that’s allowed? After all, that’s the whole reason for this gathering, isn’t it?”

My heart starts beating in my throat, hope and dread burgeoning as I receive a vague premonition of who I’m about to see.

I unconsciously pull back on the throttle. Kirri jerks to a stop, cracking her sail in confusion, even as my head inexorably, unstoppably turns back to Starmother’s first cloaked companion.

The cloaked figure reaches up, and pulls back their hood, revealing a mess of blue hair.

I stare at the revealed features in disbelief.

Her horns are gone, as are the pale silvery skin colour and the ruby red eye-crystal, but it’s unmistakably her.

It’s Kaitlynn.

Did Starmother really bring her, could it just be a conjuration? How can I—

Her storm-grey eyes catch mine, and she gasps, then smiles in delighted surprise. “Emma!” she calls out, her clear voice ringing through the hall.

It’s her.

Suddenly, there’s no doubt in my mind. I can’t even tell exactly how I know, but I do.

I swallow, and tremulously smile back. “Hey, Kait... what... what are you doing here?”

She blinks, as if momentarily confused by the question, then her gaze clears up. “I came to get you! The Peilor totally aren’t so bad as we thought, they’re really nice to us now that we’ve proven ourselves, and the Council is considering real citizenship! It’s just a little hard to negotiate since we’re lacking our representative...”

You could hear a pin drop in the throneroom in the meaningful pause she leaves.

It’s definitely her, but...

I close my eyes and take a deep breath, before forcing myself to look at her again. “That’s great, sweetie... could you show me what’s on your back, please?”

She cocks her head to the side. “On my back? Oh! Yeah, the Peilor gave me these to get around up here, aren’t they neat?”

Her cloak falls away, revealing Kaitlynn wearing a short-sleeved floral sundress and a pair of wedged heels, with only a wristband woven of multi-coloured strands as an accessory.

Under normal circumstances, the sight of Kaitlynn in such an unfamiliar outfit would’ve been enough to stun me, but my attention can’t help but be drawn away by the pair of cyan, crystal wings spreading out from behind her back.

My gaze hardens as I take them in.

Did they really think I wouldn’t recognise the colour?

“I see,” I bring out through gritted teeth. “Long time no see, Suri.”

A strange change passes over Kaitlynn’s face, her expression first freezing, then suddenly moving in a way that just clearly isn’t like her, as she drops her smile with a sigh. “Hello Emma,” a familiar metallic voice speaks, coming out in sync with the movement of Kaitlynn’s lips.

My grip on Kirri’s steering wheel and throttle tighten, my knuckles growing white. I knew it. Kaitlynn’s being controlled.

“I’m a little insulted you expected that act to fool me for even a second,” I tell her tersely.

In response, Suri glances dryly at Starmother.

Starmother laughs. “Seems you were right, Suri, she is too clever for her own good. Oh well, it hardly matters. She’ll still be coming with us, one way or another.”

“What is the meaning of this, Mara?” Goddess demands. “I’ve told you before, Emma is—”

“Free to do as she chooses, correct?” Starmother interjects with a serene smile. “Therefore it is up to her to decide to come back with me. If she does, all will be forgiven, if she does not... Well, I think deep down, Emma understands what’s at stake with her decision here.”

My blood freezes in my veins. While Starmother isn’t making any concrete threats, her meaning is clear.

If I leave, her displeasure will be vented... on Kaitlynn.

Goddess’ voice erupts inside my head once more. ‘Emma, do not listen to her; she’s trying to stall you, to waste my energy. If you don’t leave soon I’ll have to close the portal!’

I stare at Kaitlynn’s dispassionate expression with bloodshot eyes, trying to make an impossible decision.

Am I willing to give up our last hope of freedom, to spare Kaitlynn the suffering? Would she want me to? Would Starmother even bother to actually torture her if I leave? Can I trust that she won’t torture her anyway if I surrender?

In my immense concentration, I nearly miss the shifting of bodies behind her. Glancing behind her, I suddenly lock eyes with a certain purple octopus.

Akir nods at me.

I inhale, and take a leap of faith.

Turning around, I thrust the throttle forward. Kirri takes off like a racing horse finally getting the green light.

From the corner of my eye, I catch Starmother glancing at me in surprise. “Oh? My, what a ruthless child, I really hadn’t—”

She’s interrupted by the loudest, most exaggerated sneeze I’ve ever heard.

I barely catch a glimpse of the surprised expression on Kaitlynn’s face as she flies past me like a streak of blue and cyan shot from a cannon.

Before anyone can react, she disappears into the swirling lights of the portal.

I immediately push the throttle to its maximum setting, feeling Kirri practically vibrate with excitement as she shoots forward.

I’m coming, Kaitlynn!

Behind me, I hear someone inanely call out ‘gesundheit’ and I glance back to catch Akir scratching his head faux-apologetically.

Starmother stares at him for a split second, before bursting into laughter.

Suddenly, a tendril of pink energy flares off from her and lashes out.

Gasps come from the crowd as it latches onto... Lio.

“My lady, I—aah!”

With a whip-like motion, the tendril swings him around and flings him after us at high speed.

At the same time, Kirri crosses into the portal. A tunnel of rippling darkness, lit only by tiny pinpricks of light, envelops us. Immediately, it feels like we’re pulled down by an irresistible force.

It’s a familiar feeling, actually. It reminds me of the moment at the top of the rollercoaster, right as you start the initial plunge.

Freefalling. That’s what it is. We’re freefalling through Realmspace.

Lio ragdolls through the portal right after us, heading straight for Kirri’s rear, all flailing limbs.

I push the steering wheel forward.

An excited shudder passes through Kirri, before she flaps her wings and rockets down, into the darkness.

Starmother’s surprisingly clear voice echoes after us strangely. “Weren’t you ‘willing to go the extra mile,’ Lio?” she mocks. “Well, here’s your chance. Remember to bring her back alive!”

Above us, the portal snaps shut with a crack like thunder, leaving us to speed through the darkness alone.

Bring her back alive. As in me.

As expected, Starmother is only interested in my unique situation of being cut off from my physical body, and cares little for the lives and safety of her subordinates.

Well. I don’t care much for them either.

All I care about, is what’s currently freefalling below me.

Kirri and I are already quickly gaining on Kaitlynn, when Suri—still in the shape of a pair of crystal wings on Kaitlynn’s back—spreads herself wide and manages to stabilise their fall.

Kaitlynn glances back, and a few flaps of, well, Suri’s spiritform, brings her alongside Kirri.

“Emma, where are we going?” Suri’s voice asks in consternation through Kaitlynn’s mouth. “Why can’t I pull myself back to the Realm of Crystals?”

“Not a great feeling is it?” I bite out, anger flaring up at seeing Suri use Kaitlynn’s spiritbody as a glorified mouthpiece. “Being thrown into a portal to another Realm against your will!”

“Another Realm? We’re going to another Spiritual Realm?” Suri asks, a mixture of horror and intrigue in her voice.

I grit my teeth, reminding myself to choose my words more carefully. “Maybe. Wouldn’t you like to know?”

My mind races. I badly want to demand Kaitlynn’s freedom, maybe barter using information or cooperation, but I can’t! Kaitlynn currently has no good way of taking in Espir, so her connection to Suri is all that’s keeping her alive.

Moreover, if what Akir said about the Peilor tracks, Suri could very well have an Espir Pool of over 3000 motes! On the one hand, that’s good news, as it means she’ll have enough Espir to keep her and Kaitlynn safe and alive, but on the other hand, it means there’s very little I can do to her!

At least she hasn’t tried to take control of me directly yet, probably worried that I’ll pour all of my Espir into defending myself and end up Fading.

“Why must you always be so difficult?” Suri snaps, putting Kaitlynn’s hands on her hips in a way that inanely reminds me of my mother. “Can’t you see I only want what’s best for you?!”

“You don’t get to decide what’s best for me!” I retort. “Look, if you want to stand a chance of finding your way back up, you’re going to need my—”

“Aaah, unbelievable!” Lio yells from behind us, the sound hiss-like, distorted by his thin, reptilian lips. “Suri, you worthless pebble! First you ruin my run with Bruce, and now this!”

I glance back to find him falling after us, seeming to have stabilised himself, judging from the lack of flailing limbs.

Suri uses Kaitlynn’s face to shoot a haughty glance his way. “I ruined your run with Bruce?” she demands. “Don’t blame others for your own shortcomings, dear, it’s quite unbecoming.”

“Shortcomings?” Lio shouts back, incensed. “I had a perfect run going! Bruce was ruthless, ambitious... and then a little Solith runt comes along with her ridiculous dark horse candidate! Such a waste of potential!”

“We defeated him fair and square,” Suri retorts, bristling. “You’re the one who tried to sabotage us by cheating, you dull rock!”

Well, at least she’s saying we and us, instead of I and me...

I shake my head at myself. C’mon Emma, focus! We need to get rid of this guy, because there’s clearly no way he’s going to be cooperative...

“Leveraging the advantages of a higher station isn’t cheating, it’s politics,” Lio replies, his eyes narrowing into slits. “Of course, that’s something a bottom dweller elevated beyond her station like you wouldn’t understand. All you’re good for is ruining perfectly laid plans!”

Squinting up at Lio, a strange distortion behind him catches my attention. Is the tunnel collapsing behind us? I turn around to look at what’s happening in front of us, but there the tunnel seems to stretch endlessly before us.

“Or, maybe,” Suri replies icily, “the defects in your lattice translate into holes in your plans, and that’s why they keep falling apart at the slightest resistance.”

“How dare you!” Lio screams. “No, it’s your fault Bruce failed, and it’s your fault I got thrown in here!”

Suri huffs out a breath and rolls Kaitlynn’s eyes. “Look, thrilling as I find this discussion, how about we save it for after we’ve returned safe and sound, hmm?”

Lio’s eyes narrow as he glances around at the rippling tunnel around us, then he turns a grin at Suri that gives me a bad feeling. “We could do that, yes... but the thing is, Starmother really only tasked me to return Emma.”

The hairs on the back of my Imaginary neck stand up.

Next to me, I see Kaitlynn stiffen, before the pair of cyan crystal wings on her back wrap around her.

A split second later, a swirling ball of fire smashes into her, and explodes.

A fiery conflagration expands outwards towards Kirri, and a wave of destructive heat washes over me. I cry out in pain as I’m flung against the deck, my exposed skin blistering and turning red.

Blinking through my tears, I can only watch in horror as Kaitlynn, still wrapped in Suri’s wings, shoots towards the rippling darkness lining the tunnel.

The next thing I know, she plunges into it, and disappears from view.

My eyes widen. As Lio’s laughter rings out from behind me, my voice seems stuck in my throat.

What just—did they just get ejected into the Realmvoid?!

A bright spot catches my attention. Through the shimmering, flowing wall of darkness, I can distantly see what looks like a bubble of rose-coloured light passing by.

Another Realm! And it’s close to where they exited... Okay, that’s good, that’s good.

I quickly suppress my inane urge to steer out after them. Rather than stand any chance at rescuing them, I’d just end up dying myself.

I’ll have to trust Suri is smart and capable enough to move towards the light.

It’ll be fine... as long as she doesn’t abandon Kaitlynn.

As I glance down at my blistered skin, and will it to rapidly restore, I catch sight of something on the deck.

It’s the woven, multi-coloured bracelet Kaitlynn had on her wrist.

It’s covered in soot, and has some smoke curling off of it in places, but seems otherwise intact. It seems like the clasp simply came loose in the turbulence of the blast.

I grab it with shaking fingers, and carefully put it on my left wrist as I get up and stumble to the steering wheel.

I idly note that Lio’s attack just now burned away about 4 of my 37 motes of Espir. That’s more than a tenth, and it didn’t even hit me.

Thankfully, Kirri—being made of Extant wood as she is—doesn’t seem damaged apart from some light charring.

Still, I’ll need to get rid of him, and fast, or I’m screwed.

“Kirri, I need you to go faster, girl,” I whisper to her steering wheel. “As fast as you can, okay? We need to lose him!”

If the tunnel is collapsing behind Kirri, maybe I can dump him in the Realmvoid if I get far enough away from him.

Thankfully, Kirri seems to have reserves in the tank, as she furls up her flapping sail, folds up her wings like a falcon in a dive, and starts to drop like a brick.

Behind us, Lio’s laughter immediately dies down. “Hey! Come back here! YOUR SPEED FRIGHTENS YOU. YOU WISH TO SLOW DOWN.”

The commanding words drone into my ears and shake my very being. The speed at which we’re travelling suddenly seems dizzying, the rippling tunnel wall passing by far too fast. My grip tightens on the throttle as I’m struck by a powerful urge to pull it back.

However, trying to use fear to get me to slow down after that fireball just now was not his brightest idea. The fact is, terrifying as our speed now seems, the threat of fiery pain and capture from behind is enough to keep me from giving in long enough that I can pour some Espir into the corner of my mind that tastes of mountains and iron, and activate my Mental Fortitude.

Or whatever the Spiritual Realm equivalent of that is. I get the feeling discrete stats really are a unique property of the Yin-Yang Realm.

Either way, it helps. The intense fear immediately lessens as my spiritform toughens and stabilises, and my fingers stop shaking.

“Get glorbed!” I shout back angrily.

Thankfully, the command appears to have only been aimed at me. Lio doesn’t seem aware that Kirri is a separate being, not just a vessel, otherwise I might’ve been in trouble.

Actually, I might be in trouble regardless.

Because when I glance back again, Lio has suddenly sprung a massive pair of wings and is managing to keep up by working them furiously.

More realms pass by in my peripheral vision, in a host of different hues.

How far down are we already? Shit, I need to ditch him before we reach our destination, or I’m toast!

I can’t get captured by Lio. I need to rescue Kaitlynn!

Unfortunately, despite Kirri diving as fast as she can, we don’t seem to be losing him. In fact, he’s gaining on us.

Wait, is he?

My eyes nearly bulge out of my skull as Lio’s form swells up, and he turns from a creepy reptilian figure into something more akin to a dragon.

“I grow weary of this chase!” he roars. “If you won’t submit, you’ll taste my wrath!”

He opens his maw, and an angry red glow wells up in the back.

Shit! There’s no room for evasive manoeuvres in this dark tunnel, and my fragile spiritform cannot handle his flames.

There’s really only one thing I can do.

I draw my Devouring Energy back up through the small hole between my legs at record speed, and practically dive over the steering wheel to reach the open hatch in time.

Bags of pulpy wood break my fall as searing heat passes overhead.

As soon as it passes, I shakily get to my feet and stick my head out.

It looks like I made the right call.

Kirri’s steering wheel is on fire.

As is most of her rear deck, actually, and one of her wings.

Lio’s laughter echoes through the shimmering tunnel as he flies up higher to lay eyes on me. “Hiding will only delay the inevitable, little human. I’m going to burn your whole boat!”

Shivers pass through Kirri’s planks, her boom whipping around wildly in pain or panic as more red heat wells up in the back of his maw.

At the same time, however, red-hot fury wells up inside of me. First he plunges Kaitlynn into unknown dangers, and now he wants to kill Kirri?! I rage internally as I grab a bag of Extant wood pulp. Over my dead spiritbody!

Right as the red glow in the back of Lio’s throat reaches its zenith, I fling my projectile overhead at full force.

It collides with his flames right in front of his wide-open maw, and bursts apart in a choking cloud of wood pulp that sets his whole stupid face on fire.

As Lio chokes and splutters, his attack effectively aborted, I leap out of the hatch.

This is clearly the best—quite possibly only—chance I’m going to have to get rid of him, so I press my attack the instant the idea pops into my head.

Standing on the wrong side of the steering wheel, I push the throttle back to the rear. All the way back.

Despite the fire and chaos, Kirri follows the command to a tee.

She spreads and tilts her wings—even the burning one—and brakes as hard as she can.

Lio’s still rubbing the burning Extant wood pulp from his eyes, so he never sees it coming.

He crashes into Kirri’s burning rear hard. The smack rattles my bones, and for a moment I fear I broke my beautiful boat-bird, but Kirri’s made of sturdier stuff than me.

Which I perhaps should’ve taken into account.

Kirri jerks forward as they collide, and my face smacks into the steering wheel. It hurts, but the real problem is that—as I’m no longer anchored down by my Devouring Energy—the impact sends me flying.

I shoot forward and bounce off the mast, to the side.

Kirri’s railing passes underneath me. I stretch out a hand towards it, but miss.

Whether through sheer desperation or deeply rooted survival instinct, I manage to whip a thick tendril of Devouring Energy out through the palm of said hand, and curl it around the railing.

At least Lio doesn’t fare much better.

As I desperately try to hang on, from the corner of my eye, I see his large form drift off course, shaken by the collision, and hit the rippling darkness that makes up the side of our moving tunnel.

He roars defiantly as the darkness spills over his body, dragging him down. His wings beat, and for a moment, he seems to resist being pulled under. Then he’s gone.

Just like that, his shape also disappears into the Realmvoid.

Not a moment too soon either, for in the distance ahead, there’s a rapidly growing spot of deep blue, which I highly suspect to be our destination.

With a heave and a grunt, I manage to get my other hand on the railing.

I breathe a sigh of relief, when something brushes my foot.

Startled, I glance back to find myself also touching the rippling darkness.

For whatever reason, whether it’s the collision, the burning wing, or just the fact that no one’s manning the steering wheel, Kirri is drifting off course, and her bottom is now scraping the edge of the tunnel.

“Nononono, pull up, girl, pull up!” I cry out. “We’re almost there, it’s just—”

Unfortunately, it’s too little too late.

The resistance is already dragging Kirri down. With a heaving groan, she plunges through the rippling darkness, out of the tunnel.

The shock of entry rips my hand loose, and I’m flying solo, ragdolling through the chaotic Realmvoid, with no sense of up or down.

Author's note:

Thanks for reading! ^^

Book 1: Unnatural Laws

Book 2: Unusual Enemies

Book 3: Unimagined Adventures

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