• hcmills

Chapter 196: Instinct

I replace my trident on my back, grab the axe where it lies amidst Schlorpy’s spasming tentacles, and continue cutting a path forward, until I at last peel away the final layer of spiritflesh and reveal Schlorpy’s damaged Core.


It’s huge—roughly the size of a bowling ball, in fact. However, I know that doesn’t say much about the contents.


It probably just scaled up to match the size of Schlorpy’s ego—I mean, spiritform.


I send a thick tendril of Devouring Energy into the large crack in the Core’s surface, and start drinking hungrily of Schlorpy’s Essence.


As expected, it’s rich and heavy, burning my tendrils as the little I manage to absorb goes down.


I don’t expect any scavengers to make it here very quickly, but just in case, I spread out my Devouring Energy tendrils in the tunnel behind me to serve as an early warning system.


Next, I reform my legs and sit down cross-legged. Closing my eyes, I retreat into my own Core to carefully monitor the incoming Essence, and get started on converting it as quickly as I can.


As I’d hoped, nothing comes to bother me as I eat my fill. Slowly but surely, the struggle inside my Core increases in intensity, until the situation starts getting a touch of danger.


At this point, Schlorpy’s Core isn’t even half-empty, but despite how little of it I manage to absorb, already close to a sixth of my Core is filled with Schlorpy’s dense Essence, so I force myself to stop.


The reason the situation is already getting so tense is mainly the gap between Schlorpy’s and my Essence density. If his Essence gets a foothold in that avatar of myself, I feel it could have some very serious long-term consequences.


Anyway, I wish I could take the Core with me for later, but by the time I’m ready to absorb more Essence, it will have Faded anyway.


Moreover, its presence in the water outside would definitely attract the attention of every single scavenger in a hundred-foot radius, if not more.


At which point, they would likely swarm me to fight over it. Not a situation I’d like to be in.


I understand the instinct of these creatures very well. I nearly became one, after all.


As I’m wavering, a strange sensation comes over me. A mind—large and slow—brushes against mine. There’s curiosity there, maybe some trepidation. Despite that, it feels like it offers something.


A connection.


My eyes widen as I realise what’s happening and I quickly allow the connection to form.


Information floods in, and for a brief moment, I feel the shape of the entire Realm, feel how it curves, where it’s bent, and how it flows.


Unexpectedly, the shape of the Realm is entirely spherical. The outer layer is all sandy ocean bottom, and there are dozens and dozens of huge air-bubbles spread throughout.


The stream of information is dizzying, and I can’t afford this kind of distraction right now, so I quickly tamp down on it, until the connection becomes little but a presence in the back of my mind.


I did it... I’m the Apex!


At last having achieved my main goal in this endeavour, I allow myself to bask in my victory for a moment. But not too long, of course.


I better go get back to Kirri.


And so I decisively get up, turn around, shift my legs into a mermaid’s tail, and start swimming back out of the tunnel.



Initially, the tree being pulled out was quite worrying, as with Schlorpy’s mouth able to close again, my only avenue of escape was effectively sealed. However, in his death throes, Schlorpy provides little impediment to my departure. The twitching motions of his lips are more than enough to allow me to quickly slip out. When I do, I find that the former Apex is indeed being swarmed by dozens of scavengers.


Thankfully, they’re all focused on ripping into his decaying spiritflesh before he fully Fades, so I’m able to swim past them freely.


In fact, if anything, the nearby scavengers seem to unconsciously move farther away from me as I pass.


Mmm, am I giving off a sense of pressure as well now? That could be troublesome...


While these small fries might be intimidated, I’m suddenly convinced that stronger beings who sense it will come challenge me for the position of Apex.


In a way, holding the Apex position is like being king of the hill. It comes with certain benefits, but it also paints a massive target on my back.


I better get out of this Realm fast.


Still, I can’t resist glancing back at the hulking carcass that once was Schlorpy, already growing blurry at the edges.


Truth be told, he was a magnificent creature. Ruthlessly ravenous, of course, but also majestic, ancient, and one of a kind. As I look back at him, instead of feeling proud at taking him down like I’d expected, I feel a pang of sadness.


Sleep soft, Schlorpy.


I quickly shake myself out of my sudden bout of sentimentality, blaming it on loneliness, and take off.


I’m on my way, Kaitlynn... Hang in there.


A few strong kicks of my tail quickly send me shooting up towards the still-nearby bubble where Kirri’s waiting for me. Up at the surface, I spot the floating silhouette of my magnificent tree, surrounded by more scavengers.


I guess there’s still some bits of Schlorpy stuck on the sharp thorns.


Thankfully, Kirri has steered well clear of them. The place where her hull breaks the surface stands out clearly as well, and with a sweep of my tail, I quickly rocket up towards her.


Kirri is happy to see me as always when I launch myself on board, shifting back to legs mid-air and catching myself on a multitude of purple tendrils.


Despite my speed, I barely manage to land on her deck before her boom swings over and she wraps me in a sail-hug.


“I know, girl, I know,” I murmur. “It’s good to see you too. Now please let go of me, because I need to concentrate.”


Kirri reluctantly obeys, and I immediately descend below deck. The moment I’m surrounded by her smooth wooden planks, I feel much more at ease.


But I can’t get lulled into a false sense of security.


I may have been able to take out Schlorpy, but this Realm is still pretty darn big. Though my recollection of the time I spent hunting below the surface may be vague, the sparse memories I do have of large shadows moving in the distance definitely stand out.


I need to get out of here, and fast. But how? Let alone breaking through the sandy bottom layer at the edge of the Realm, I can’t even get Kirri out of this bubble!


Actually, that’s not right, is it? I don’t need to travel to the edge of the Realm to enter the Spiritual Realmvoid at all.


After all, Realmspace isn’t like a physical, three-dimensional distance between Realms. It’s more of a meta-physical distance that has to do with the Espir-density of a Realm. Leaving and entering the Realm of Imagination could be done anywhere too, and the portal that brought me here opened up in the middle of Goddess’s throne room.


Feeling positive that I’m on the right track, I jump to my feet and make my way back up to Kirri’s deck.


With my hands firmly on the ten and two positions on her steering wheel, I breathe out slowly. “All right, let’s do this.”


Closing my eyes, I re-open my mental connection to the Realm.


It takes a couple of seconds before awareness blooms on the other side of the connection. Once again, I sense a slowly blossoming curiosity and apprehension.


Information begins to flow again, but I firmly block the offered awareness of the entire Realm.


Instead, I send it a nonverbal request for permission to leave.


Seconds tick by. It feels like the Realm is glacially considering it. Right when I’m starting to wonder if it understands at all, a sense of loosening filters through my self-limited awareness of the Realm, and I instinctively know what it means.


All right, I should be allowed to leave now!


I’d kinda hoped for a little more, like a portal opening up, showing my destina—


Hold on. How am I supposed to navigate?


I mean, I studied Akir’s map of course, but he did say it was probably quite outdated and rather incomplete. In fact, I’m pretty sure the Realm I’m currently in wasn’t even on it, and I’m not exactly keen to get lost in the Realmvoid.


I’m positive by now that Suri and Kaitlynn must’ve found their way to a Realm, at least. I don’t know about Lio, of course; at the very least I’m quite sure he didn’t enter this Realm, or he would’ve found and captured me by now.


Which probably means he either got lost in the Realmvoid and perished or entered a different Realm as well.


Knowing my luck, it’s the last one. Let’s just hope I don’t run into him in the future...


Banishing my useless thoughts, I refocus on my connection with the Realm, and try to request information about neighbouring Realms, in an upward direction.


Again, I don’t immediately get a response, but this time I know to be patient and wait for the Realm to parse my intention.


Eventually, it gets back to me, sending three separate images directly into my mind. Or actually, they’re a little more than just images. They’re impressions.


The first and nearest is of a red, arid Realm, that comes with a sensation of dry, oppressive heat.


Not a great place to sail, I take it.


The second one is simply... grey. The grey of stone. It somehow comes with a feeling of towering mountains.


If there’s mountains, there could be rivers, but still...


The third and farthest one is more promising. I get the sense of a lush Realm filled with many kinds of plant-life, and definitely plenty of water, probably gathered in streams, maybe even lakes.


Bingo.


The sense of distance I get is vague, but I get the feeling all three fall within a reasonable range, which makes my choice easy.


Climbing higher faster may be somewhat risky, but it will also get me back to my friends faster.


First, however, I need to succeed in actually leaving this place. I open my eyes again, and consider how to proceed.


To do, well, anything, in a Spiritual Realm, you need three things.


First, you need Espir to power whatever you want to do. Obviously.


Second, you need the Realm’s permission.


Finally, you need belief. You need to believe what you’re doing is possible, and that you can do it.


For example, the Reason Kirri can’t fly in this Realm, is that she lacks the Realm’s permission. Kirri definitely believes she can fly—in spite of her massive size and weight—and she has plenty of Espir to power that flight, but the Realm’s rules don’t allow her to defy gravity like that. The creatures capable of flight in this Realm are all pretty light, and properly built for the task.


Now, while I already acquired the Realm’s hesitant permission to leave, stepping outside of a Realm into the Realmvoid isn’t something I’ve ever done before. I’m confident I have enough Espir to accomplish the task, but in order to successfully perform the feat, I still first need to believe I can.


And that’s easier said than done; I can’t just believe whatever I want on command. I need something to help me take that step in a way that feels natural to me.


A metaphor.


I suppose I could try to imitate the portal Goddess made, but... well, the whole ‘stone ring floating unsupported and opening into swirling darkness’ thing feels a bit above my paygrade. And also something that the Realm’s strict gravity limitations might not permit.


Forming a whirlpool that sucks us down and out of the Realm might be more realistic, but I doubt Kirri would appreciate that particular method very much right now, and I need her to cooperate.


After all, even once we’re out, we’re going to have to rely on my Imagination to provide a metaphor for us to travel and navigate with, and that’s definitely going to involve sailing.


Honestly, the most obvious answer would probably be to try to produce a kind of Spatial Energy equivalent here, and use that to rip the very fabric of space. Still, that kind of portal into nothing would probably even require an Inverse Spatial Energy equivalent, and I literally only used that once in the Yin-Yang Realm.


Moreover, my experiments with trying to teleport in the Realm of Imagination did not go so well. Goddess allows a lot, but ripping the fabric of space is not something that can be done up there, especially with only a few motes of Espir.


Which is the main reason I’m hesitating. I could probably pull it off with some practice, but time is of the essence now, and if I have to guide us on a journey up through the Realmvoid, I can’t afford to waste like half my Espir on trying to rip through space.


Shit, I should’ve considered this issue before. That’s what I get for growing impatient.


I know slow and steady wins the race, but I can’t help but be anxious about Kaitlynn. The rest of the Blue Dragons aren’t in a great situation either, of course, but they should at least be safe, for the time being. Either way, I need a better idea, and I need it now.


Using my connection to the Realm, I request a view of its layout, and after a slight delay, the spherical mental map appears before my mind’s eye once more.


Ugh, this would be much easier if I could actually reach the border of the Realm... But how am I supposed to get there if the whole Realm is lined with sandy ocean floor? Kirri can’t even leave this air bubble, because she floats!


If only this Realm had a sky or something to fly to the edge of, and a clear up and down.


Suddenly, the Realm sends something over the connection of its own accord, as if replying to my thoughts...



Author's note:

As some of you may have noticed, the audiobook version of Unnatural Laws was unavailable for a bit, but it's back now!


The bad news is that I had to re-publish it, and thus lost all of my rather excellent ratings and reviews...

The good news is, that since it went Audible-exclusive, I now actually have codes to distribute!


So, if you'd like to help me out by checking out my audiobook and leaving a review, feel free to hit me up on Discord to ask for a code! ^^


Either way, you can find it here: Unnatural Laws by H.C. Mills | Audiobook | Audible.com


Oh, and yes, the second audiobook is nearly done, and will be here shortly. Probably somewhere in July, depending on how long ACX takes with the quality control. ^^'

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