• hcmills

Chapter 207: Turn your face away

Time-keeping is not something the bats are very adept at, which makes a kind of sense, in a community without any form of day and night cycle. Instead, they simply communicate when things are about to start. Unfortunately, they do this with signals that are too high-pitched for me to pick up, so I have to rely on Zuni to come fetch me when Elder Ori’s next class goes into session.


The way Zuni all but pushes me into Elder Ori’s skull-mansion and politely asks him if I can join, does absolutely nothing to reduce my association with being a little kid that’s getting dropped off for her first day of school.


It doesn’t help my irrational embarrassment any when I realise my fellow students are but pups who only get up to my hips as they crawl around.


Actually, crawling is too grand a word for what some of them are doing; they seem barely capable of rolling over!


Right, these must be ‘newborn’ bats...


Not only do they need to learn how to use their new senses, they apparently still have to get used to their new spiritforms in general.


Despite their lack of development and control, I actually catch them speaking in simple sentences. What’s more, they’re apparently already at a mental stage where going to classes is worthwhile.


Looking at the size and density of their Spiritforms, I estimate them to have Espir Pools of about 1000 motes on average, which is pretty much the minimum requirement to sustain sapience.


It’s interesting how many creatures are out there with far more Espir, who seem to rely on nothing but instinct. Somewhere, I expected complex thoughts to arise automatically within creatures with enough Espir to sustain such thoughts, but I guess that’s not how it works...


Actually, that may not be entirely right. I get the feeling complex thoughts do arise automatically here, but just very slowly. And it seems if you want to speed up the progress, a catalyst is needed. For example, the hatching Raindrop did on Mr Fluffyb—I mean, Dio. And whatever the bats do with their prey, apparently.


Kirri is also ahead of the curve, and making steady progress... Perhaps she’s simply picking things up from constantly being around other sapient creatures?


Anyway, Elder Ori politely points out a seat for me, and before I know it, Zuni is zooming off again.

“Ah ah, bye Emma,” she squeaks. “Have fun!”


I wave goodbye, smiling wryly.


“Ho ho, now where was I?” Elder Ori rumbles slowly.


I suppress a sigh. Glad as I am for this opportunity, I can already tell this class is going to be a slow endeavour.



I’m not sure if it’s due to my presence or if it was already on the program, but Elder Ori gives a surprisingly informative lecture.


Even if it is, as I feared, nail-bitingly slow.


I must admit, I’m surprised to learn that hearing is only a small factor at best in how the bats get around. Their ears are important, but most of them use their ears largely in combination with a kind of advanced Espir sense.


Elder Ori calls it ‘tuning in.’


That alone doesn’t tell me much. However, the impression I get from the way he talks about it, is that what I’m doing can only be called a very rudimentary sense in comparison.


Though when I answer Elder Ori’s question of what I can do, he tells me even this much is already considered quite extraordinary.


By all rights I should’ve realised it by now, but sensing Espir in the first place is something most creatures in Spiritual Realmspace can’t do.


The simple truth is, I never considered it. Heck, since everything here is made of Espir, in some way, every sense is a sense of Espir. However, there’s a big difference between being able to sense the result, what Espir portrays to be, and sensing the underlying energy that makes it up.


It’s different in the same way that—back in the Entropic Realm—touching a wall with my hand would be different from being able to directly sense the charges and electric fields that hold the wall together on an atomic level. Or the difference between reading a message on my erstwhile phone and directly interpreting the electromagnetic waves that carry the information to it.

I’m odd in this way likely because I first became aware of my Espir, and only then started to Visit the Realm of Imagination on my own.


However, in this dark Realm, more creatures than usual develop means of sensing Espir, or to hide their presence from predators who can. Which explains why I wasn’t able to sense the moth.


The senses of the bats, however, seem to be on another level.


Unfortunately, as this is a relatively young batch, the class is nowhere near the practical portion of that topic.


As many questions as Elder Ori’s lecture answers for me, his words lead me to even more.


And so, as the lesson winds down and some adult bat-creatures come pick up their pups, I linger.


When the last bat-parent has cleared the skull, Elder Ori’s hulking figure slowly turns to me.


“So,” he rumbles in a friendly tone. “I can tell your hunger for knowledge has yet to be sated. What would you ask of me?”


Since Elder Ori is offering, I’m naturally not going to be polite about it.


“After the recent attack, I’ve realised there’s no way I can safely hunt relying on just my current senses,” I confess. “Hell, I might not even be able to find my way back here if I left. Please, teach me how to tune in.”


Elder Ori hums thoughtfully as he sits down before me, a large clawed wing coming up to scratch his chin. “Pleased as I am to have such an eager pupil,” he rumbles, his ears quivering lightly in amusement, “I fear you are too impatient. Mastering the basics is very important! Trying to fly before you can crawl, you will inevitably end up hurting yourself.”


“But I’ve already got the basics down!” I argue, waving my arms around for emphasis. “I can sense Espir! Heck, I can conjure stuff, I can change the shape of my own spiritform, I even regularly immerse myself in my own Core, and meditate to suppress and assimilate the alien Essence I’ve taken in. I’m ready for the more advanced stuff!”


Elder Ori’s ears swivel around for a bit, and his head tilts ever so slightly to the side. “Tell me, Ascendant. Why is it, that you are in such a hurry?”


“It’s... a long story,” I say, my brow furrowing as I fold my arms across my chest. “The short version is that I came down to the lower Realms from way up above, and there are people counting on me to return to them, stronger, so I can save them. Moreover, one of them, my, ehm, lover, is currently in the hands of... another Ascendant. They’re higher up in Realmspace, and if they reach the top before I catch up, I fear she will become much harder to reach, so I really have to hurry.”


Elder Ori’s ears widen somehow as I speak, and only return to normal a few seconds later. “Well, then I understand your haste. But I will still caution you to have patience. From what little I know, Ascending is no easy task; if you are lost along the way, you won’t be able to save anyone.”


I let out a sigh. “I know. You’re right. However, I haven’t made it this far by backing down from a challenge. I know I’m nowhere near ready to take on the Lantern King, but I am ready for this, I promise.”


Elder Ori seems to mull this over for a bit. Finally, his ears move up and down once, in a way I’ve learned signals agreement. “Very well,” he rumbles. “I will teach you. Come.”


And with that, he suddenly floats up from his seated position, and with a single flap of his wings, soars out of the mouth of the giant skull.


I scramble to get up and launch myself after him.


Where is he taking me?



Elder Ori leads the way, slow and steady, through a series of tunnels. It takes what feels like a couple of minutes before I’m officially lost, which doesn’t help my nerves.


But if Elder Ori wanted to hurt me—or do anything to me, really—there’s little I could do anyway, so I grit my teeth and continue following him.


Finally, Elder Ori comes to a halt when the tunnel we’re in opens up into a decently sized, round chamber.


At first, I expect it to be some kind of echo chamber, but I find there’s actually a bunch of large mushrooms growing here out of some kind of soil. In fact, mushrooms cover nearly every surface of this room, dampening the sound and making it feel almost unnaturally silent after all the time I spent in the ever-lively colony.


Elder Ori glides forward for a bit and lands on top of one of the larger mushrooms. It sways a little as he touches down and turns around to face me, but holds.


“Come, sit,” Elder Ori says, stretching out a clawed wing to indicate the slightly lower mushroom in front of him, which I soon realise is exactly in the centre of the room.


I do as he asks, turning my mermaid’s tail back into legs and sitting down cross-legged on the spongy surface.


I can’t help but wonder what these mushrooms look like. They’re probably just plain white though, as they’re growing in a dark cave where pigmentation is useless.


“So,” Elder Ori rumbles. “You wish to learn how to tune in. Before you learn how to do, however, you first need to understand.”


I nod, listening intently, not daring to interrupt.


“As you may be aware,” he continues, “the way you currently sense your surroundings relies on your awareness of the Espir in your own spiritform. It is in a way no different from hearing, except perhaps that it doesn’t come as easily to you. Though if I’m honest, when I first met you, I was surprised you could hear at all with those tiny ears.”


His own, massive ears once more quiver in amusement.


I smile wryly, and suppress the urge to make a sarcastic retort.


I might not even be able to find the way back if he abandoned me here...


“Yes,” Elder Ori continues, “it is much like hearing, for your sense relies on feeling how your own Espir moves on the tiny waves produced by motes of Espir around you.”


My brows rise a little. “Wait, so Extant materials send out fluctuations as well?”


Elder Ori gives another ear-nod. “They do, though their waves are much calmer, and therefore harder to detect than the Espir of living beings.”


Ah, that would explain why I started to unconsciously notice the presence of nearby creatures, but not of other stuff... I must’ve slowly started to turn my Espir sense into a passive sense, slightly on in the background even when I wasn’t paying attention to it!


Then I frown. “Hold on, and what I’m doing is not tuning in?”


Elder Ori hums. “I can hear why you might think that, but no. It is not. What you are doing is ultimately only sensing what happens to your own Espir. Tuning in, means connecting to the Espir around you.”


Interesting!


“And how do I do that?” I ask eagerly.


“Well, there’s no one method to tune in,” Elder Ori rumbles. “You will need to find a way that works for you. But, it all comes down to the same thing: you must open yourself up to the world around you, and feel how everything is connected. That is why I brought you here.”


I lift a single brow. “Is there something special about this cavern?”


Elder Ori’s ears fold over a bit, in what I understand is meant to signal denial. “It is not the cavern that is special, but what is inside it. Go ahead, try and sense your surroundings, and feel how they are connected.”


Frowning, I direct my Espir Sense away from Elder Ori and spread it out into my surroundings.


At first, nothing particularly stands out about the mushrooms growing here. They’ve got big, slightly rounded caps supported by sturdy stalks. Below that is the mycelium, which at first sight seems like nothing but a tangled mess.


Then I notice something odd.


A kind of pulse travels down a nearby stalk. It seems to fizzle out when it hits the mycelium, but I have a hunch this is what I’m looking for, so when I notice another pulse travelling down a different stalk, I zoom in on it, directing my full focus to the mycelium underneath.


And indeed, the pulse doesn’t actually dissipate where it hits the tangled mycelium. Instead it splits, and continues to travel along many different hair-like roots—or ‘hyphae,’ I suppose—leading directly to different stalks.


Hold on, maybe these things aren’t separate organisms at all!


But how does that help me? I’m not part of it...


Maybe I’m thinking about this wrong... I know there are fungi on Earth that spread out through an entire forest, forming a singular, massive organism, but that doesn’t mean this is the same kind of thing. First of all, these mushrooms are not organic, they’re spiritual beings. They’re probably all separate beings with separate Cores, they’re just... connected.


Well, let’s see if I can ‘tune in’ to their connection.


Tendrils of Devouring Energy burst out of various spots on my body, stretch out around the mushroom’s wide cap, and reach down towards the mycelium.


It’s a bit far—about thirty feet down—but I can still reach it.


At the mycelium, I slow my approach, hesitating for a moment to see if Elder Ori is reacting to any of this, but he seems to just be quietly observing.


Thus I steel my nerves, and reach out, leading with a single tendril.


The moment it reaches the mycelium, I’m hit by a sudden and powerful urge to attack it and start draining its Espir, but I forcibly suppress the impulse.


The hyphae in the mycelium still seem to feel my hostility—or the hungry nature of my energy—and shift aside as if to avoid my tendril. This makes it quite easy to penetrate deeper into the mycelium, but not to connect to it.


I bring the tendril down to the middle of the mycelium and hold it perfectly still. The hair-like hyphae shift around but continue avoiding it, so I try something different.


I activate my Charm and send it down along my tendril.


Finally, a change occurs. A single hypha reaches out and touches my Charming tendril.


A pulse travels through it into my tendril, and continues all the way up to me.


There’s not much to it in terms of meaning, it just feels like a hesitant probe.


Still, I’m getting somewhere, so I reach down with the rest of my tendrils, pushing Charm through all of them, and insert them into the mycelium.


Slowly but surely, more and more hyphae touch upon my tendrils, and the pulses flowing through them start coming my way.


I frown, trying to make out some kind of meaning from the increasing flow of rhythmic pulsing entering my tendrils.


As the number of connections increases, so does the frequency of the pulses, and I start to notice repeating patterns.


It’s... kinda like music!


The stream of repeating rhythmic patterns swells, ebbing and flowing through my tendrils. Minute changes occur to the patterns and spread through the mycelium as it sings to me.


Slowly, meaning begins to filter through the soothing patterns. There aren’t thoughts being communicated so much, but there is sensation, feelings. One of the caps is distressed as there’s a large weight pushing down on it, causing its stalk to compress. Other caps sing it soothing lullabies. Others still are expressing joy, jealousy, melancholy, for various reasons.


It’s a choir of voices singing to and about each other, each with their own lyrics and rhythm, and yet their song is somehow a harmony, rather than the cacophony it ought to be.


Their music fills me to the brim, drowning out my thoughts and eliciting a sense of amazed wonderment.


Inside my head, a map bursts into life, detailing the structure of the entire mycelium, including me, somehow accepted as part of their collective, and it’s massive. There are truly millions of hyphae in this small cavern, travelling up the walls and ceiling to more mushrooms, forming a near-perfect sphere and we’re all singing, pulsing, forming a beautiful symphony of shared thoughts and feelings, together forming a whole that’s far greater than the sum of—


“Emma!” a concern-laced voice thunders.



Author's note:

Thanks for reading! ^^ Book 1: Unnatural Laws Book 2: Unusual Enemies Book 3: Unimagined Adventures Book 4: Unchained Potential Discord/Mailing List/Patreon

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