Chapter 198: Riders on the storm
Confused and surprised by the sudden change, I reopen my eyes.
Kirri’s sail billows in the inexplicable wind, her mast creaking and her boom swaying. Waves form in my river of light, disturbing the serenity of the scene.
It takes me a moment to understand what’s going on.
The disturbance isn’t coming from within me, as my mind is still relatively tranquil, which means it’s external.
However, there’s obviously no such thing as wind in the Realmvoid. At least, not physical wind.
It’s a chaos storm!
By nature a chaotic environment, the Realmvoid is far from a static place. Phenomena like chaos storms—a sudden and directed uptick of the belligerent chaos—tend to travel around, catching travellers by surprise.
The sudden wind picking up is the result of the chaos ‘blowing in’ from the side being translated into my travel metaphor!
The effects, however, are far from metaphorical. Kirri is banking heavily to port side, and we’re veering off course, balancing precariously on the edge of the silver river leading towards our destination!
I grasp the steering wheel and attempt to counter-steer. There’s a lot more resistance than I expect, but I barely keep us on our course.
Visibility decreases as the chaos storm builds in intensity. The twinkling stars around us become covered in storm clouds, heavy, black, and pendulous, and rain starts to come down, harshly pelting my spiritform.
Lightning flashes off to starboard, a warning of worse to come.
“Hold on, Kirri, we’re going to get through this!” I shout over the winds, as much to her as to myself.
Gritting my teeth, I hunker down behind the steering wheel, and prepare myself mentally to weather the storm.
Turning around is the farthest thing from my mind right now, as there’s no way I could navigate back through this onslaught anyway.
As the storm picks up, my focus narrows down to the here and now. To the glowing, freezing hail stinging my skin, to the way Kirri creaks and groans as we move up and down the swelling waves in the river of light. To how her sail snaps in the winds that nip at my hair and clothes.
It’s only a matter of time before I lose track of the river of light altogether, and the moment that thought enters my mind, the metaphor shatters.
The rains and the winds disappear, replaced by what it actually is: undiluted chaos that bombards me from all sides, though still mostly from starboard. Flashes of light and strange otherworldly howling discombobulate me, a constant, overwhelming bombardment that destroys any possibility of coherent thought.
Nonetheless, I cling on to the integrity of my spiritform, trying to focus on the steady presence of Kirri’s Extant wood beneath my tendrils and feet and hands as she tumbles through the void, the rolling movement making my stomach churn.
Then, slowly but surely, the storm starts to lessen again.
Hope flares up inside of me as rational thoughts begin to form again.
I managed to maintain our course through most of the storm, so we were only adrift for a little while. We can’t be too far off.
As soon as the bombardment decreases to a somewhat tolerable level, I once more close my eyes, and pour my full focus into re-establishing the travelling metaphor.
However, my effort falters, as I stumble on an important obstacle.
I’ve lost track of our destination. In fact, I’ve lost track of our orientation. Frankly, I don’t even know which way is up or down, as we’re currently still spinning quite randomly, and there’s no way for me to locate the nearby Realms through the chaos without a metaphor.
I could potentially establish a different kind of metaphor to search for them, one of being cast adrift and looking for land, but I’m wary of expending too much Espir experimenting for an uncertain result.
More importantly, the storm might be weakening, but it isn’t gone yet. Every second I waste, it’s pushing us farther away from our goal.
There has to be a way to tell up from down, there’s a clear difference in the pressure from the void, but how do I—
My eyes jump open as it hits me.
I can use Kaitlynn’s bracelet!
Despite the chaos bombarding me, I can still feel its comforting presence on my wrist. I focus on it, and a thin red string soon appears before me, leading to the left.
That way! No wait, hold on...
The truth is, while Kaitlynn and Suri are probably up higher in the Realmvoid, I can’t be entirely sure they are... For all I know, they might’ve fallen for a long time before they chanced upon a Realm.
There’s a better way! The toy boat!
Akir has it publicly displayed in his bar, in a glass case in full view of his patronage, where it gets as much attention as possible, reducing the risk of it ever Fading accidentally. He said it could serve as a beacon home, should I never need one again.
And though I’m far from reaching the Realm of Imagination, my connection to it can only point up!
I quickly focus on my connection to it, and another thin red string appears before me.
As expected it leads in practically the same direction as the bracelet’s connection with Kaitlynn, with only a minor deviation. Interestingly, the connection to the toy boat feels noticeably thinner and weaker.
Because it’s farther away? That would mean Kaitlynn is indeed stuck somewhere between here and the Realm of Imagination!
With some difficulty, I force myself to focus on the problem at hand, and use the direction provided by Kaitlynn’s bracelet to forcibly re-establish my metaphor.
A river of silver appears below Kirri, stabilising her spin. It leads up into the distance, below my chosen red string.
There’s still a side wind coming from the chaos storm, but the clouds in my metaphor are dissipating as I keep a firm grip on the steering wheel and direct Kirri forward, up.
The only problem now is that the path I’m Imagining most likely leads up to a Realm that’s still far too distant for me to have a chance of reaching. I can only hope to spot the lush Realm I was headed for along the way as I continue up, before I run out of Espir...
Nervous sweat drips down my neck as I wait for the clouds to fully disappear, and reveal the starry sky behind them.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so weak; I’m down to a fifth of my Espir Pool!
Finally, the first twinkling lights appear, and I can start scanning for spots of colour.
Come on come on come on... we’ve been sailing for so long, we have to be—wait!
A spot of bright orange up and to the right of our current heading reveals the location of another Realm.
Well, that’s not what I was aiming for, but... I’ll take it!
A quick mental exertion causes the river of silver to branch off into a slow upward spiral that levels out in a path straight up towards the mysterious orange Realm, and a tug on the steering wheel sends Kirri onto it.
As we get closer, the Realm’s shimmering membrane becomes clearer. Looking at its shifting hues, I get a sense of something fruity and sweet.
Heck, this Realm might be even better!
Despite how large the Realm has grown in my vision, it still takes an awfully long time before we actually reach the membrane. By the time we do, my metaphor is cracking at the edges.
I manage to keep it going just a bit longer, fashioning a portal where my river of silver hits the membrane, and quickly sailing through.
The orange Realm ended up being... not as pleasant as I’d hoped.
There were at least streams of orange goop to sail on for Kirri, but...
Honestly, the less said about that Realm, the better. Either way, I’ll never look at carrots the same way again.
After we finally managed to defeat its ridiculous Apex and escape that hellhole, Kirri and I moved on to a purple Realm that was all sky, and filled with bird-like things, which was both lovely and heartbreaking.
Kirri wanted nothing more than to make friends and play with them, but this being a lower Realm, the only reactions my lovely massive boat-bird was met with, were fear and aggression.
Kirri was quite morose after she finally figured that out. The fact that I then started to hunt and kill the bird things didn’t help her mood.
Murdering your way through Realms is unpleasant work, but I kept going, kept my nose to the grindstone until I grew numb to the slaughter.
I have to keep going. For my friends, for the ones we left behind.
After I slew the massive, six-winged monster bird that served as the purple Realm’s Apex, I found that the pickings for a next Realm were slim. None of them seemed like Realms where there was much water or where flight was an option, so I ended up choosing a sandy grey desert Realm.
That might not seem like the best idea at first, but I was banking on an idea that popped into my head.
You see, ever since we arrived in that horrible orange Realm, Kirri’s started showing signs of mental growth.
I didn’t notice at first, but once I realised her Espir density was increasing like Goddess had predicted, it became increasingly obvious. From that point on I made sure to always store my prey below deck, so that some of the Essence leaking out of their Cores would end up absorbed into her wood.
After we arrived in the desert, it took me some time, but I eventually managed to convince Kirri that the grey dunes were not much more than very slow waves, and she could totally sail through the sands.
Once I succeeded at that, Kirri perked up again a little from the morose state she’d entered in the avian Realm, as she seemed to really enjoy launching herself off of dune ridges to catch some air, like an experienced surfer might do with a wave.
I guess she took me quite literally in that sense.
As for me, I’m not enjoying the desert so much. However, after taking down the giant four-clawed scorpionesque Apex, I do finally reach my preliminary goal of 1500 Espir. I think. I’ve stopped trying to count a while ago.
Either way, at this point, there’s roughly an equilibrium between my Core’s natural Espir generation and the consumption of my basic mental faculties. That means I’m finally able to survive independent of draining things!
Of course, that’s just if I’m idle. More complex mental tasks like problem-solving or high-concentration activities like hunting will still slowly drain my Espir Pool, requiring me to eventually either rest or refill it from an external source.
Anyway, it’s a major milestone that I’m very glad to have achieved, and a great reminder of how much I’ve grown.
Not that I really needed a reminder, to be honest...
It took me a while to notice, but as the size of my Espir Pool increased, at some point, my spiritform started growing larger as well.
By now, my length has increased by at least a foot. I used to be able to easily duck under Kirri’s boom, now I usually walk around, lest I have to limbo my way beneath.
I’ve tried shrinking myself down of course, like I used to be quite capable of back in the Realm of Imaginations, but I quickly learned that compressing Espir down grows progressively more difficult with Espir density.
Basically, this is already the smallest shape I can currently take.
That’s not to say I’ll continue growing linearly as my Espir Pool increases in size. A bigger Espir Pool would help me exert more force on my Espir, allowing me to compress the Espir further. However, the minimum amount of space I’ll occupy will still increase due to the increasing amount of Espir contained in my spiritform.
Still, I’m not too worried about it. After all, Akir managed to compress his massive Espir Pool down to a size smaller than my current form.
Not to mention Goddess... Her form is definitely larger than mine, but the difference isn’t that exaggerated.
Of course, if I don’t practise compressing my Espir, I really will continue to swell up until I no longer fit on Kirri’s deck.
For now I still do, and it’s not like it’s the only issue I’m ignoring.
The last time I pulled the Moral Compass out from beneath my cuirass to check my state, its needle was wildly swinging back and forth, almost hitting the halfway point to Bad.
Whatever. I don’t feel much different, and I have to get to Kaitlynn, so I decide to shelf these issues for later, and move on to the next Realm.
However, just as I turn my back on the cactus-needle-riddled corpse of the now-former Apex and start using my new authority to lift the flight restrictions of this Realm, I suddenly hear a voice.
“Fly!” it says chipperly.
My idle deliberations about what Realm we should visit next are immediately forgotten as I nearly jump out of my skin.
Thick tendrils of Devouring Energy immediately and reflexively sprout from several strategic places on my body, including my coccyx, elbows, hand palms, hips, and from in between my shoulder blades.
One from the latter category menacingly twirls my trident to ward off the potential threat.
I turn around, carefully eyeing the surrounding sands, but spot nothing unusual.
When nothing attacks and no threat appears, I slowly relax my posture, and take the steering wheel back over from a tendril sprouting out of my left hip.
“Ugh, we’ve been here too long, Kirri, I think I’m hearing things,” I mumble, my voice hoarse from the dry air.
“Hear!” the voice replies happily.
I tense up again, then blink. “Wait, Kirri, was that you?!”
Kirri happily sweeps her boom, and chirps, “Kirri!”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” I mumble, breaking out into a smile. The skin at the corners of my mouth cracks a little from the odd, unpractised motion. “It’s nice to hear your voice, girl!
“Nice!” Kirri agrees.
At this point, I’m not entirely sure if she’s just repeating things I’m saying, but at least the first word she said came from her own mind.
“So, you want to fly?” I ask, my hand teasingly hovering over the ‘flight’ lever.
“Fly!” Kirri demands, sounding impatient.
I relent and pull the lever.
Kirri kicks up a small dust storm with her wings as we fly up into a sky that—for once—is a nostalgic shade of blue, and I return to my deliberations.
The closest two Realms that the grey desert Realm shows me, I immediately reject; they’re too close, and nothing is more important for my growth as the gap in Espir density between me and my prey.
No matter how fast I’m growing, it still feels too slow.
It’s quite difficult to keep track of time here, so I can only make a rough estimation, but I’m quite sure I’ve been at this for what equates to months back in the Yin-Yang Realm.
Things seem to go a bit faster here, as things go at the speed of thoughts, so to speak, but not to a ridiculous degree. What feels like two hours in here is probably the equivalent of like, one out there.
It’s definitely not Narnia levels of time dilation.
Anyway, the third Realm is quite a bit farther out, but... it’s entirely dark. The vibes I’m getting from it aren’t great either, so I’m giving that a pass as well.
It’s really between the fourth and fifth Realms, which are an icy white and a bright pink respectively.
The pink one looks best on paper, but after my experiences in the Realm of Creepy Carrots, I’d much rather not take my chances.
The icy white Realm gives me a sense of deep cold, which might not be perfect for sailing, but sounds absolutely delightful after my long stay in this bloody desert.
Besides, I’m willing to bet I can convince Kirri she could sail through snow as well. Especially now that she’s starting to talk.
As soon as I’ve made up my mind, the shimmering membrane appears before us, summoned by my will.
I politely bid the Realm goodbye, and pass through the swirling portal onto a wide river of light under a sky of twinkling stars.
Out in the Realmvoid—like every time I travel to a new Realm—I take some time to study and compare the connections leading from me to the toy boat, and from the bracelet to Kaitlynn.
Staring at the two red strings floating over my river of light, I frown.
Frankly, I don’t feel like I’m actually getting closer to her... It seems almost like the difference between the strength of the two connections keeps weakening, like Kaitlynn is similarly moving upwards.
Damnit, if that’s true, then that’s all the more reason to hurry.
I have a feeling it would be a lot harder to free Kaitlynn from Suri’s control if she manages to bring them back to the Yin-Yang realm.
At least she’s keeping Kaitlynn alive...
With a sigh, I engage Kirri’s throttle a little more, hoping to speed our travel up, even if I know it’s but a drop in the bucket.
Unfortunately, our luck this time is poor.
While my previous two trips through the Realmvoid could only be described as smooth sailing—pun intended—this time, we once more get caught up in a storm.
While my mastery over void-sailing has increased—as shown by the broad, steady river we’re traversing—we’re quite a bit higher up in the Realmvoid by now. The pressure provided by the chaos here is therefore noticeably stronger, and the storm is exponentially worse.
Dark storm clouds and raindrops the size of beans limit the visibility of our surroundings, letting through only the bright flashes of lightning swiftly followed by rumbling thunder that reverberates in my stomach. Meanwhile, massive vortices break out between the waves rampaging through my milky-white river, threatening to swirl us into unknown depths.
“Scary!” Kirri cries over the storm.
“I know, sweetie,” I shout back, the term of endearment feeling odd in my mouth. When was the last time I called Kirri that? I can’t seem to remember... “We’ll get through this! Just hold steady!”
However, a particularly large wave proceeds to pick Kirri up and pushes her all the way to the edge of my river, allowing us to peer over into the starry abyss below.
“Dark!” Kirri cries.
As I hurry to stabilise the metaphor, I miss an important detail.
Kirri’s cry wasn’t a reaction to the abyss on port side.
My eyes widen and a rare chill travels up my spine when I finally notice how far we’ve drifted off course. A strange suction force appears to have gotten a hold of us, and is drawing us ever closer to starboard.
Finally, I notice the barely visible shimmer covering an otherwise completely dark sphere next to my river.
The image of the stormy sky and the churning milky river trembles but holds.
Then a particularly powerful gust of wind pushes Kirri over the edge of the river, sealing our fate.
Kirri spreads her wings, but it’s to no avail. We quickly accelerate towards the dark Realm that’s somehow drawing us in.
All I can do in the seconds before we hit the outer membrane, is brace for impact.
Thanks for reading! ^^