Chapter 192: Bigger fish
With the return of my full consciousness comes an awareness of the current state of my spiritform.
Blinking my double-lidded eyes in confusion, I look down.
My upper body seems relatively unchanged—if strangely squat—but my waist seems to split apart not in a pair of legs, but into a large collection of purple tentacles made of Devouring Energy, currently clinging to Kirri’s underside as she cuts through the surf.
Much of the blue leather making up the legs of my Imaginary pants is torn or even ripped off entirely, but the part protecting my modesty is thankfully intact, and I quickly confirm the presence of the Moral Compass.
It’s Extant, so I’m not worried about it suddenly Fading away if I forget about it or anything, but I really don’t want to lose it, as it’s precious to Akir, so I should probably find a safer way to carry it on me. Maybe fashion some kind of Extant necklace—
My heart skips a beat as I quickly check my wrist, only calming down when I find Kaitlynn’s bracelet still there.
Looks like even with how out of it I was, Kaitlynn was still on my mind enough to keep it intact.
As I move on to studying my fingers, which have elongated and grown scary looking claws, I’m suddenly hit by the strange feeling that there’s something missing in my field of view...
I lift my oddly shaped hands up to my face, and make some probing touches.
Ah. My nose is entirely flattened into two slits. Moreover, my ears and eyebrows seem to be gone. Actually, all of my hair is gone!
Ugh, this is even worse than that time I slowly started turning into a mushroom...
Body dysmorphia hits me hard. I want to hurry up and change back, preferably in front of a mirror, but Kirri is still moving, dragging me along, and—
Wait, Kirri! I realise for the second time. I’ve found her!
Some small part of me is shocked by the ease with which I control my many tentacular limbs to swing myself out of the water and on board, but I’ve got bigger squid to fry.
With my limbs spread out and gripping onto any and everything, it’s easy enough to keep my balance as Kirri crashes through wave after wave, fleeing frantically.
I instinctively reach for Kirri’s panickedly spinning steering wheel with several tentacles.
It’s a mistake. Though my spiritform feels unprecedentedly solid, Kirri is still much stronger than me, so my tentacles immediately get tangled up and ultimately ripped off by the spinning wheel.
I hiss at the awful tearing sensation. A flash flood of primal anger surges up inside of me, urging me to lash out in retaliation. I manage to suppress it and, slightly bewildered, file the odd experience away for later examination.
Instead, I open my mouth to speak, but salty water comes out instead.
I sputter and cough the liquids out of my rather shrunken-feeling lungs, and draw my first breath in what feels like a very long time.
“Kirri, it’s me, Emma!”
Despite not having spoken for a very long time, and the probably severely degraded state of my vocal cords, I manage to sound quite normal. Of course, I don’t technically need to move any part of my spiritform to produce sound, it’s just what I’m used to.
However, Kirri ignores me and continues her panicked movements, her boom swinging to and fro, her wings shipping at the water as if she’s trying but failing to lift off.
Maybe I look too different?
I close my double-lidded eyes and try to concentrate on my shape despite the chaos.
A moment later, my leather boots hit the deck and I open my singly lidded eyes with a happy sigh. Without the support of my tentacles, I immediately stumble, nearly falling overboard, but I manage to grip the railing.
“Kirri, stop!” I yell. “It’s me, Emma, I’m back!”
This time, she stills, her wings freezing mid-beat, her boom mid-swing, and her wheel mid-spin.
“That’s it, good girl!” I coo loudly at her, as she slows down.
However, for some reason she still seems agitated, spinning her wheel left and right, and swinging her boom with a keening wail somehow.
Why is she... shit, the trident!
“I’m so sorry, Kirri, I’ll pull it right out, I promise; I wasn’t thinking straight!” I bring out in a rush, trying to sound soothing regardless.
I step up onto the railing at the side of the ship, and with hardly half a thought, a thick tendril of Devouring Energy sprouts from my coccyx and wraps around the railing between my feet before I dive into the churning water below.
I don’t even bother making a tail. Instead, I simply turn around to face the trident sticking out of Kirri’s hull, lift an arm, and launch another tendril of Devouring Energy at it.
It wraps around the trident and contracts, drawing me forward even as I reel the tendril back in.
I have to say, I’m really enjoying the amount of control I seem to have over the stuff now.
Once I have a firm, two-handed grip on the trident, I flip upside down, put my legs up against Kirri’s hull, and pull.
It takes some wriggling and swearing, but I manage to pry my weapon loose.
I’m quite happy to see that the holes it leaves behind, while kinda deep, don’t penetrate all the way through the thick wooden planks, so there shouldn’t be any leakage.
With my inspection finished, I flex the long tendril of Devouring Energy emerging from my coccyx and fling myself all the way back up out of the water.
My landing on the deck is a little less dignified. Guess I need to get used to having legs again.
Kirri flaps her wings in happiness. Her boom swings around but stops right in front of me. Next, her mast leans over, and she somehow manages to wrap me in her sail.
Laughing, I accept the hug, trying to wrap my arms around her boom and mast at the same time. “I missed you too, girl, I missed you too.”
Kirri doesn’t seem too inclined to let me go just yet, so I attempt to take stock of my surroundings.
Though my memories of most of the time I spent in this Realm are pretty blurry, I’m quite certain this is the first time I’ve exited the water. In fact, I didn’t even know I could in this Realm.
Looking around, this gap in my understanding of the Realm I’m in starts to make a bit more sense.
Because we’re not exactly on the surface of the large plane of water I expected. Instead, we appear to be inside a large, hollow sphere.
Basically, we’re floating inside a massive underwater air bubble.
We’re not the only ones here either. In fact, there are all kinds of sea-creatures flying overhead.
The majority appear to be different kinds of fish, relying on huge fluttering fins to stay adrift, but I also spot some soaring ray-shaped creatures and a kind of bloated, floating tentacled masses. There are plants as well, seaweeds with huge balloon-ish growths keeping them afloat, and others with spinning leaves, twirling through the limited sky.
I study the eclectic wildlife with great interest. There appears to be little hunting going on, which suggests this place functions as a kind of safe haven for these flying creatures.
It seems like gravity is not optional in this Realm, as every single one of them appears legitimately adapted to a form of flight. That would explain why Kirri can’t fly here; she’s simply too heavy in a Realm with unignorable gravity like this.
Though there is something odd going on... Interestingly, the winged and twirling creatures and such, appear to always stay parallel to the nearest surface.
Which suggests gravity is pulling things down towards the water, but since there’s water on all sides, the very centre of the bubble might actually be a near zero-G environment...
Straining my neck to look up, I confirm that there appears to be a large mass of resting or even sleeping creatures way up in the centre.
It takes some coaxing, but Kirri eventually lets go. She still seems a little shaken, jittery, but apart from the holes I made, physically unharmed.
That might just be because the materials she’s made of are so tough. I have a feeling I’m not the only predator that attacked her...
Just to be safe, I check the area below deck as well. Thankfully, my darkly glittering Imagium tools are still secure and present, as is most of the wood pulp.
The Extant caulk Akir sent along is still here as well, but I’ll get to fixing Kirri up later.
With a sigh, I sit down on a couple of bags cross-legged. Tendrils of Devouring Energy emerge from my coccyx and start refilling my reserves at a good rate. I’ll have to wait till I’m full to check what exact size my Espir Pool has grown to, but I can’t resist a quick internal glance to count my motes.
My brows rise as I find I’m currently already up to 84!
Well, it seems my lost time was at least not wasted. Still, I’m very concerned with figuring out what exactly happened to me, and how I can prevent it from happening again.
After all, this is already the second time I’ve lost my sense of self in a Spiritual Realm. And this time, I was lost for a lot longer.
If I hadn’t bumped into Kirri here... what would’ve become of me?
Suppressing a shudder, I decide to redirect my focus to more fruitful questions.
My memories of the time I spent hunting are vague. It’s mostly a jumble of emotions and sensations. Pain. Hunger. The taste of spiritflesh and victory.
A thrill passes through me as I think of the hunt and my Devouring Energy pulses hungrily at the thought.
Closing my eyes with a frown, I turn my gaze inward.
There’s a lot of Devouring Energy coiled up inside of me. I guess that’s made possible by the increased density of my spiritform. It doesn’t seem to present any problems though.
Now the question becomes, what exactly happened to me?
I suppose I must’ve instinctively shut down some thought processes to conserve Espir at some point... Forgot about the grand scheme of things and lost myself in a kind of haze of hunting, remembering only my need to grow stronger, and not what for.
What Akir said about being a ball of rage and hunger when he showed up in the Realm of Imagination is starting to make a lot more sense now...
Hold on, that reminds me...
I retrieve the Moral Compass from my pocket, and flip it open.
I can’t help but freeze up when I find the needle swinging back and forth, passing by Good and moving at least a quarter of the way to Bad before turning around each time.
Is it saying my hunting has been amoral? But I honestly did it to survive...
Hmm, actually, it’s probably not capable of doing something as complex as judging the morality of my actions, right? I mean, that would take a considerable intellect—not to mention insight into my thoughts, to do properly—and this thing doesn’t even appear to be sentient...
Akir said he wasn’t quite sure how it works, either, but it’s clearly measuring something.
I’ve got a nagging feeling I’m on the verge of figurings something out, accompanied by a prickling at the edge of my mind.
No wait, they’re two separate things...
Suddenly, I become aware of a burning sensation, deep in my being.
It’s very weird. It simultaneously feels new and foreign—and rather painful, I might add—and completely familiar to the point I barely noticed it was there.
I must’ve gotten used to it while I was under... Wait, I remember this feeling!
It’s the burning caused by alien Essence, fighting to keep its autonomy inside my Core.
A chilling notion sweeps through me, rapidly cooling down my spiritform to the point goosebumps form on my skin.
I direct my gaze deeper with a sense of urgency, using the pain to guide me to a part of my being that has lain practically unexamined thus far.
When my full, undivided attention hits the shell of my Core, a strange feeling washes over me, and what little sense I still reserved for the world outside fades away...
On the other side of the shell lies a dark void filled with dancing, glittering lights that flow in great, slow swirls.
That must be Essence!
Most of it shines a bluish-white into my disembodied eyes, but as I gaze around in wonderment, other colours jump out at me.
Nearby, a clump of orange Essence comes together into the shape of a huge crab, slowly snapping its pincers.
A little farther away, pink Essence draws up into a massive, majestic squid-like creature.
They both start to drift towards a spot in the centre, too bright for me to clearly make out, and I follow them, curious.
As we move closer, more and more constellations of differently-hued Essence appear, all moving the same way.
As they get closer, things seem to speed up.
Slow, languid strokes turn sharper, more vehement.
The crab begins to froth at the mouth, the squid lashes with its tentacles and—
A massive beam of bluish-white light envelops the pink squid in its entirety, blasting its structure apart and washing all the alien colour out of the Essence until only bluish-white remains.
Shocked, I look back towards the centre where it came from. My disembodied eyes adjust, and I can finally make out what’s there.
It is a gargantuan avatar of me, made of bluish-white Essence packed so densely that it appears almost solid.
And it’s fighting off these coloured-Essence creatures from all sides, with blasts of light from its palms, feet, and even eyes.
However, as I watch, a particularly fast, yellow manta-ray-like thing manages to reach my avatar and take a bite out of its hip before a giant fist grabs and crushes it.
The flare of burning pain accompanying the bite makes me wince.
Ouch, what the hell?!
Suddenly, something odd happens. The avatar glances at me, and for a moment, I lock eyes with... myself. It’s a very strange, uncomfortable feeling, and after a split second, I can’t help but avert my gaze.
It was not unlike looking in a mirror, but seeing through into my mind, my very being. Like looking at pure me.
Or rather, a representation of me, because at the same time, I’m me.
That avatar... I feel like it’s not really a separate being or anything, but more like a metaphor. Perhaps it’s simply what’s inside my Core, represented in a more meaningful way...
So then what does this scene in front of me mean? Is that my sense of self, my identity, fighting off outside influences?
As I turn my gaze back to study the avatar more closely—though avoiding its eyes—I can’t help but notice the streaks of colour dancing through its interior.
Crap... I’ve totally been taking in too much Essence, haven’t I?
I hurry on over in my disembodied state to take a closer look.
Veins of coloured Essence appear to be making inroads from various ‘wounds’ on its exterior.
Oh shit. This is definitely part of why I lost myself!
Slightly panicked, I try and reach out for a nearby coloured piece of Essence, to clean it, somehow.
As soon as my attention fully focuses on it, however, the colour disappears like snow in summer.
Oh? Looks like I might be able to help myself here...
I waver for a moment about if I should get started right away, but as I’m currently inside what may very well be the safest place in the whole Realm—Kirri’s cargo hold—and have no more pressing issues than this one, I decide not to waste any time.
And so I dive inside my avatar, and diligently start cleaning up one vein of coloured Essence after another.
Despite my eagerness to clean this mess up, I do try and stay aware of myself and my overreaching goals this time. I’d rather not lose myself for a third time, especially not when I’m defencelessly stuck inside myself.
It turns out to be a good decision when I faintly notice a shaking coming from outside my Core.
I quickly abandon my task and snap my attention back into my spiritform.
As soon as I do, I realise the shaking is much worse than I thought, and the only thing keeping me in my seat are my tendrils of Devouring Energy.
I quickly draw those back in and practically leap onto the deck.
Kirri makes a keening whine at my appearance, sounding relieved, but in contrast, my heart jumps into my throat.
Because Kirri’s being sucked into a massive whirlpool, and as I watch, a gaping maw full of teeth opens at the bottom.
So. The last couple of weeks have been unprecedentedly busy and chaotic for me. That's mostly because I had to divide my attention between:
The production of the second audiobook
Trying to get the mess with the pricing and distribution of the first audiobook sorted (Still not fixed)
Editing book four
Preparing for Comic Con (only to get a fever the day before from Covid, and ending up spending the whole weekend in bed, unable to attend...)
And of course, keeping up with scheduled posts and regular chapter production
And I have to admit, it's been a bit much ^^'
The last thing I want is for the quality of my writing to suffer as a result.
I recently received some reader feedback on book five. In response, I asked for suggestions, and received some really good ones. So, I've decided on doing some editing from Chapter 188 onward and retcon the changes in. I'm deliberately being vague about what I'm planning so as not to spoil anything, but I feel like it'll be a real improvement to the plot and the book overall.
I'll probably try to do the initial changes next week. I'm not sure if I'll get all the little subsequent edits done, but I'm going to try.
However, adding this on top of my packed schedule, means that, for the first time in three and a half years, I'm falling behind on my writing. I do have some buffer, and good hope that I'll be able to catch up again soon, but it's still annoying and kinda stressful.
One thing I've concluded as a result, is that I'm going to need a month off.
Specifically, the month of July. We've already got two trips planned for that month, and I think it'd be good for me to just... not work for a bit. Recharge.
It will be the first time in three and a half years that I don't upload weekly chapters...
Anyway, that's it! I just wanted to let you guys know in advance. ^^
Thanks for reading!
Book 1: Unnatural Laws
Book 2: Unusual Enemies
Book 3: Unimagined Adventures