• hcmills

Chapter 208: All we hear is...

Elder Ori’s voice seems to swell and echo inside my skull, until—for a moment—it drowns out the fungal harmony.

My eyes immediately snap open. Of course, I still don’t see anything, but at least I’m wide awake.

I swiftly withdraw my tendrils from the mycelium. The connection immediately breaks as I pull them all the way back into my body, still seated on a spongy cap. Only then do I realise there are tears streaming down my cheeks.

My fingers shake as I numbly wipe at them in the deafening, cold, lonely silence.

“Wow,” I hoarsely manage to bring out. “And thank you.”

Elder Ori hums, sounding relieved. “You’re welcome.”

I take a few deep breaths, as I try to come down from that insane trip.

“Was that... supposed to happen?” I finally ask.

Elder Ori’s ears move up and down, meaning yes. “As I said, flying before you learn to crawl, it is dangerous.” His ears swivel thoughtfully. “However, it usually does not get out of hand this soon or this fast. The method you used to connect is very... direct.”

I raise a brow at him in the dark. “How is it usually done?”

“Most of my students immerse themselves by listening,” Elder Ori rumbles. “Of course, my students are usually shaped like me,” he continues, his ears wiggling in amusement. “Your path towards tuning in may be different, but I trust the outcome will be similar.”

“My path, right...” I scratch the back of my head, then lift my brows. “Because I’m not there yet! What I just did wasn’t actually tuning in, right? I mean, I only connected to this bunch of mushrooms, really, not to ‘the Espir around me,’ as you put it.”

Elder Ori hums. “Indeed.”

“So... listening to the mushrooms is a kind of training exercise?”

“Very astute,” Elder Ori rumbles. “Yes, connecting to the mycelium is indeed an exercise, of sorts. It serves both as a way to let you get used to the experience of actually tuning in—which is quite similar—and to help you develop a technique for tuning in. You see, that network of hyphae connecting the mushrooms, is much like the network connecting all the Espir that makes up the Realm. We call it ‘the fabric.’ Tuning in means connecting to that, and listening to what the fabric is singing about.”

I blink a few times, trying to parse all of that. Singing fabric. Sure. Not the weirdest thing anyone’s ever said to me. Probably.

“However, learning to connect with the mushrooms has some uses of its own as well,” Elder Ori rumbles. “For example, it’s how we control the gates.”

Right, that weird mushroom gate where I met Captain Zuo and...

Even though I didn’t know him that well, Lee’s death still smarts.

“If you’ve mentally recovered, I’d like you to connect to the mushrooms again,” Elder Ori continues. “Since you’re able to do that, we’ll be moving on to the next step. This time, I’ll be tickling one of the mushrooms with my tail, and your goal will be to tune out the rest of the information so it doesn’t overwhelm you, try and isolate which one it is, and point at it.”

Hoo boy.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Elder Ori rumbles kindly.

I nod, and once more extend my tendrils...

I try several times, but ultimately don’t succeed at Elder Ori’s task even once. Every time I think I’m getting something, the chorus of mushrooms overwhelms my mind, and I have to abort.

I at least learn how to do that unaided after a few attempts, which is nice.

Still, I’m not exactly stoked about my progress by the time Elder Ori declares the lesson over, and it seems he can tell.

“Don’t be discouraged, little one,” he rumbles. “You are doing very well. Try not to think of this as giving up; sometimes, it is better to take a flap back and rest a little, so you can listen for your goal with fresh ears.”

I sigh, but nod.

He leads me back through the winding tunnels, and leaves me at my new home with a promise to make time to help me again soon.

I flop onto my nest and let out a deep breath, still wired from the whole experience.

Unprompted, my mind once more conjures up an image of Kaitlynn, smiling at me.

My hands clench into fists. Ugh, I’ve gotta figure this out! Things were going so well, I cannot get stuck in this dark bloody Realm!

Sitting up in a lotus position, I mentally go over everything Elder Ori told me again.

So, the bats mostly find ways to use their ears to tune in, which makes sense. I might be able to learn how to do it that way as well, but I’ll probably never be able to match them in skill if I do...

Elder Ori’s right. I need to develop my own method. However, now that I think about it, I’m not sure if I’m on the right track.

Using my tendrils to probe the mycelium makes sense, but using them to tune in to the fabric of Espir around me? Not so much, perhaps.

What did Elder Ori call my method again? Right, ‘very direct.’

So, perhaps what I should be doing between now and my next lesson, is to come up with a more indirect method to connect, something that I could more easily adapt to actually tuning in...

“All right, go ahead,” Elder Ori rumbles, once more seated on the large mushroom in front of me.

I nod, eager to test my new method in action.

Devouring Energy emerges from my spiritform once more, but this time only in two spots.

Specifically, two tendrils rise from my temples, rising up only a couple of inches before ‘solidifying,’ more or less.

They remind me a bit of my ram’s horns, but that’s not what they are. They’re antennae.

After all, what’s better at tuning in than a radio?

And so, with my eyes closed, I start to Imagine my antennae becoming permeable to Espir fluctuations from outside. I Imagine the motes of Espir inside moving along with those motions, in a way that’s similar to how electrons inside an antenna would interact with electromagnetic waves.

It takes some doing, some tweaking of the shape and orientation of my antennae, making them slightly taller and slimmer, but finally, I start to feel something.

Kinda like something tickling at my mind, white noise drowning out all meaning.

So I move to the next step. Amplifying the signal.

Suddenly, it feels like something breaks, some thin barrier standing between me and something that envelops me entirely, and information comes pouring in.

There are rhythmic pulses, speaking to and about mushrooms, but there’s more than that. There are airy flutes singing about joyfully dancing through the room and between the mushrooms, with deep underlying harmonics like from a massive pipe organ about sturdiness and restful slumber. Overpowering all of that, however, is an eerie hymn about blood, screeching violins duelling about taking and giving life, an ever-expanding web of blood that suddenly approaches and grabs something

The connection suddenly breaks, and I snap back to myself. Pain wells up from the top of my head and I reflexively hiss and unleash all of my tendrils at the threat in front of me.

“Emma, calm down!” Elder Ori rumbles loudly, paying no heed to the puny tendrils of Devouring Energy wrapping around his large form.

I freeze, the fury ebbing away as I start piecing together what happened.

My Espir sense focuses on the Fading things Elder Ori is holding in one of his clawed wings.

My antennae. He snapped them off.

“You stopped responding, and the outline of your spiritform was starting to get blurry,” he continues, speaking more slowly again. “If I had not acted, you probably would have Faded.”

I swallow thickly. “Wha—how is that possible?”

“Your new method worked better than anticipated,” Elder Ori rumbles severely. “You tuned in.”

I blink. “I did? But then why...”

“Compared to listening to the mushrooms, connecting to the fabric is far more dangerous,” Elder Ori explains. “Many a creature has lost their sense of identity in the connection, forgotten their own existence, and thus dispersed into the Realm, becoming one with the fabric. It is the same as what happens when you Fade. The gust returns to the wind.”

If you forget your own existence, you cease to exist? Yikes!

I swallow heavily. “I see. Thank you, again.”

At the same time, this answers some of my questions around Fading, and what Elder Ori meant when he said Lee would always be with us. His Espir has become part of the Realm... perhaps any mote that winks out does.

“It is no problem. It is rare for me to have a student who continually exceeds my expectations,” Elder Ori rumbles, his ears quivering in amusement. “Still, your success is a double-edged sword.”

“What do you mean?” I ask with a frown.

“You have not made any steps yet in filtering information,” Elder Ori rumbles. “Yet you are already tuning in. This makes it far more dangerous for you to practise. Ripping off your antennae was a last resort. If I had been a bit slower, it might not have worked at all. Perhaps it would be better to try going back to your previous method for a while.”

I bite my lip, then shake my head. “No. I want to keep going. If you’re willing to keep watching me, that is...”

Elder Ori studies me for a moment—I think—his ears barely moving. Then he chuckles. “Very well. I will do my best to keep you safe, Ascendant.”

I let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”

“It’s all right,” he rumbles in a friendly tone. “I publicly promised to provide you with all the support you need, after all, and I have nothing but time. However, we should not continue here; let me take you to a more suitable location.”

The place Ori takes me to is an entirely empty cavern with a practically perfectly level floor he directs me to sit down on.

He then crouches down close to me but hides his presence, so as not to overwhelm me.

Despite these precautions, there are a few more hairy moments, but I ultimately survive to the end of my second lesson as well.

One thing I find really helps is actively using my Mental Fortitude. Elder Ori is quite surprised when I do, and then laments that he’d assumed I had no knowledge of such things yet.

Still, though it makes things a little safer, even with that, I can only hold out for a little bit before the flood of information overwhelms me.

There’s just so much going on, even in as bare a room as this! The air keeps bumping into stuff, the stone constantly grumbles about stress and the pressure it’s under...

Elder Ori’s eerie blood hymn is also still present, though very muted, and whatever he’s doing to hide his presence doesn’t stop the air from singing about bumping into him or the stone beneath him from complaining about his weight. Apparently even a being as powerful and knowledgeable as him can’t completely hide from someone tuning in, which is actually kind of a relief.

Anyway, while I know I ought to be quite pleased with my progress this time, I can’t help but feel a little frustrated for being stuck on this last step.

If I could just figure out how to filter out the unnecessary information, I’d be ready to go hunting!

But that’s not so easy to do, because how can you determine what information is relevant, without processing it?

I need some way to decrease the information flowing in, but without excluding things I need to know...

I could try to filter something like direction, but Elder Ori warned me off of that.

Some bats do it, apparently, using their ears to aim in what direction they want to tune, but Elder Ori called it a too restrictive method, and he generally advises against it.

I asked him how he filtered, but apparently that’s kind of a taboo question. Something about it being possible to use such information against someone. Whoops.

I guess their society isn’t entirely without its internal strife.

Anyway, Elder Ori was kind enough to indulge me a little, and tell me it has something to do with the information coming in with a certain rhythm somehow.

I could try something like that, I suppose, maybe something with pulses. I feel like it’d be kinda like dancing in one of those nightclubs with a stroboscopic light, though. Meaning I would know where everything is, but perhaps not how fast it’s moving, or even in what direction...

There’s gotta be a better way.

Honestly, it’d already be a great help if I could just tune out all the extraneous friggin’ detail of air bouncing around the tiniest little grooves in everything.

Hold on... that might be it!

Author's note:

Thanks for reading! ^^

Book 1: Unnatural Laws

Book 2: Unusual Enemies

Book 3: Unimagined Adventures

Book 4: Unchained Potential

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