• H.C. Mills

Chapter 75: Featherfall

Pre-chapter Author's Note:

Chapter's a day early, because I have plans tomorrow. Enjoy! ^^

I feel much better with everything out in the open, but it’s still a little awkward to be around the rest right now.

Thankfully, I have the perfect excuse to seclude myself: it’s high time for my first Skilldream.

Sitting on my bed alone in my room, I’m still agonizing a little over my options. Okay, make that a lot.

[So, one Skilldream for Decrease Inertia?] Suri finally prompts me.

I sigh. “I mean probably, but—ugh, Status Window please?”

Honestly, there’s nothing on here I don’t already know. I just want to stare at that total a little longer. I mean, 151 Trial Points! Will I ever have that many again? I’m so very tempted to just take Distort Space and damn the consequences right now. I could always follow it up with Increase Inertia to make up for the lack of improved combat capabilities.

Learning two big Qi-based Skills in the same preparation room may be a bit of a stretch though, with my limited Qi Pool. Perhaps I better stick to my original plan: Decrease Inertia still sounds like tons of fun, and would probably synergize really well with my new and improved Breath Con—hold on.

I sit up and move a little closer to the transparent screen floating in front of me, frowning at what I just spotted. There is something on here I didn’t know!

“Suri, why didn’t you notify me that my Mental Fortitude went up?”

[Hmm? Oh, would you look at that, must’ve slipped my mind,] Suri chimes.

That’s weird.

“Actually, how did I raise it?” I ask slowly. “I mean, I haven’t had a Skilldream in ages and—”

[Ah yes, you wanted the Skilldream for Decrease Inertia, right?] Suri chimes, interrupting me. [Let’s get started.]

“Whu? No wait, I’m still—”

I’m in heaven.

There’s no other explanation possible, as I’m currently literally lying on a fluffy pink cloud under a purple night-sky, and being watched by a serenely smiling Goddess.

Since it wouldn’t be a proper Heaven without some angels, I am currently attempting to make one by moving my arms and legs on the fluffy surface, but it just reforms in my wake. This doesn’t deter my giggling efforts, of course.

[All right, I need you to focus now, Emma,] Suri admonishes me gently. [We’re here to train, not to play.]

“But it’s so fluffyyy,” I whine.

[Yes yes, I’m well aware, but—]

“This is the funnest place in the world!”

Suri sighs. [This isn’t ‘the world’ dear, not really a place either.] She glances at me, and when she continues speaking, she does so in a very different, almost conspiratorial tone. [But, you know, the fluffiness actually isn’t the ‘funnest’ thing about these clouds...]

I sit up straight, wide-eyed. “It’s not?!”

Suri shakes her head. [It’s the bounciness!]

Three seconds later, I am soaring through the air, bouncing from one cloud to another at ridiculous speeds, with hardly any strain to my muscles. It’s as if my body’s as light as a feather.

[The bounciness, although arguably the ‘funnest’ aspect,] Suri lectures while serenely floating after me, [isn’t the most interesting feature of these clouds. The most interesting feature is how their mere presence drains your inertial mass.]

Something clicks in my mind and I stop bouncing. Except that proves a little harder than I expected.

It takes series of increasingly small bounces later for me to come to a complete stop. Once my feet are suitably grounded in a cloud, I turn to look up at her. “They drain my inertial mass? How does that work?”

[Ah, I see the inner child has retreated, good.]

I blush, and bashfully scratch my nose while starting to shrink a little.

[No need to feel small, Emma. This place has a way of bringing it out in us.] She stares at the clouds wistfully. [Even I’m a little tempted, but we’ve got work to do.]

Right. I nod and sit down on the fluffy surface expectantly. It takes a few bounces and a lot of Willpower to sit still.

[Now, once again, the clouds in this Dreamscape I’ve conjured don’t contain actual Inertial Energy, but they contain a close analogue. Observe carefully.]

She waves her hand, and a brick appears. It drops onto the surface of the cloud and deforms it with its weight.

Then the cloud rebounds to its original shape, sending the brick flying up into space.

I watch it disappear wide-eyed.

[As you can tell, coming into contact with the clouds quickly drained the brick’s inertial mass, making it much easier to accelerate. It will recover soon enough now that it's far away from the clouds of course. This is the effect you need to achieve with Qi in the real world, in order to gain this Skill.]

I nod absentmindedly and stick some cloud in my mouth. It tastes like cotton candy!

[Stay focused, Emma,] Suri chimes. [I’m going to conjure some objects on the surface of the cloud near you, and I want you to do me a favour and watch carefully how the energy in the clouds drains—]

A blue blur bounces off a cloud above us and comes crashing down onto the cloud in front of me.

Some part of my brain, upon noticing the colour, jumps up and shouts ‘Kaitlynn!’ and I glow with happiness at the thought.

Against my expectations, Kaitlynn doesn’t bounce on the cloud in front of me, however, but tears right through it, leaving a circular hole in the cloud.

[Ugh, this is why I don’t like coming here,] Suri mutters, facepalming as I jump through. [Wait, Emma, where did you go?! GET BACK HERE!]

Her voice reaches me while I sail down the hole and I cringe a little. Well, it is kinda rude to just run off... but it’s Kaitlynn! Suri will understand, surely.

When I come out of the hole at the bottom of the cloud, I find myself high above a massive forest, with no Kaitlynn in sight.

Huh. Where did she go?

I ponder this question for a good second when a voice interrupts me.

“What are you doing?”

I look over and find myself face to face with a strange blue birdwoman, who is definitely not the blue-haired girl I had mistaken her for. I am momentarily disappointed by this, but then curiosity wins out.

The birdwoman has bright pink eyes, claws for feet, wings for arms, and is covered from head to toe in brightly coloured plumage in different shades of red, purple, and familiar blue. All in all, she makes for a striking image.

“I’m falling,” I finally answer earnestly.

The creature blinks owlishly, still steadily flying down next to me. “Is that fun?”

I have to think about this for a moment. “It’s kinda exhilarating,” I reply, looking down at the rapidly approaching forest. “Though I sort of fear the landing.”

The birdwoman cackles, “I like you; you’re funny! Play with me!”

I perk up at this notion, but our fun is immediately cut short.

[There you are,] Suri chimes in relief. [Honestly Emma, you can’t just run off like that.]

“Suri!” I yell happily, spinning around mid-fall. “Look I made a new friend; though she’s not Kaitlynn like I thought at first...”

Suri smiles warmly at me, before glancing at the birdwoman and intoning, [BEGONE, PEST.]

The birdwoman shrieks and flies off in a burst of multi-coloured feathers. Some of them enter my mouth, and I end up hacking and coughing to get them out.

Suri grasps onto me. The world around me warps, and the falling sensation disappears. Suddenly, I’m back up in the cloud.

“Suri,” I ask frowning, “What was—”

[Nothing important dear, just a figment of the imagination. Now, where were we?] Suri chimes. [Ah, yes, do me a favour and watch carefully, Emma.]

I close my mouth and sit in rapt attention as Suri conjures a laundromat a few feet above the cloud, which quickly bounces up comically high.

I find the following notification hovering in front of me when I wake up, head still feeling a little blurry.

“Ah, sweet!” I say, grinning happily. “It’s been a while. Status Window!”

I nod happily. At 7 and a half hours, this was my longest Skilldream yet; guess that’s what it takes to raise it now.

A vague memory comes unbidden. I frown. “Hey Suri, was Kait—no... was there some kind of blue birdwoman in that Dreamscape you made?”

[Hmm? Oh yes, there was something like that. You must’ve conjured it subconsciously.]

I blink. “Really? I can conjure not just physical objects, but living creatures as well?”

[Of course. You can dream about living beings as well, can’t you?]

Well, that’s true...

[It was just a figment of your imagination, surely inspired by your own fantasies,] Suri chimes reassuringly. [Now do me a favour and try to gain Decrease Inertia before the effects of your Skilldream start fading, hmm?]

Right, I need to stay focused on what matters: Decrease Inertia.

If I can achieve a fraction of the freedom of movement I vaguely recall, this will have been more than worth basically half of my Trial Points.

I start by inserting some Qi into my Focus Crystal, causing it to glow blue. The minimum amount of Qi required to activate this Skill is 5 Onkh, so I can’t leisurely experiment. I need to make focused, dedicated attempts to gain this Skill. Best case scenario would be if I manage it in five attempts or less, so I don’t run out of Qi and am forced to wait for it to recover while the Skilldream keeps fading.

I close my eyes and attempt to visualize, or rather conceptualize the energy I need to form. Inertial Energy is strange, and far more abstract than Toxic Energy. It has no explicit Purpose, but it does have a kind of shape, a sensation I now associate with it.

It’s a kind of bounciness, the feeling of changing momentum you most clearly experience when you do something like hit a tennis ball with a racket. Or better yet, when you hit a bouncy ball with a stick.

Those suckers take off.

That’s the kind of feeling I’m trying to emulate and project onto my Qi: a tool to help rapidly change something’s momentum.

Of course, that’s not the whole story of Inertial Energy, as it can also be used to Increase Inertia, but I don’t have any experience with that, so this’ll have to do.

And it does. My conversion rate is not great, but I finally manage to form some pink glowing Inertial Energy. Maintaining control over Qi is something I’m pretty used to by now, so I was able to take my time with this a little, which was nice.

Unfortunately, I‘m not used to Inertial Energy, so I lose control over it before I can figure out how to tell it what to do, and it leaks out of my Focus Crystal, dispersing harmlessly into the surroundings.

I take a deep breath, go over the experience and the next step in my head, and try again.

Boom baby! On the fourth try, I succeed in creating a draining spiral-like effect inside my Yin Focus Crystal, which sucks the inertial mass from everything in close vicinity for about one second.

[Well done, Emma,] Suri chimes. [You’re a natural!]

Euphoric with my success, I jump up.

My head slams softly into the ceiling, and I bounce back down thanks to the elasticity of my neck, before landing heavily on my feet, after my inertial mass recovers.

[I take it back,] Suri chimes. [Do be careful; you can easily hurt yourself with this Skill.]

No shit, Sherlock.

I look up. The ceiling is kinda low in here, but it should be high enough to practice some of the manoeuvres I envisioned with this Skill. The higher-ceilinged living room would be more suitable, but I’ll have to make do.

I don’t want to tip Jacob off about my abilities after all; that would just be no fun at all.

And so, a pink flash emanates from my Focus Crystal as I use the last of my Qi to attempt a standing backflip.

It’s a moderate success; I get more air than I expect, which causes me to slightly overshoot the landing, so I transition into a backward roll and end up back on my feet.

I’ll have to come back and practice regularly whenever my Qi has refilled, but for now, I might as well head for the living room.

“Ah there you are,” Kaitlynn calls to me the moment I enter. “About time!”

I raise a brow at her. “Miss me much?”

“Nah, that’s not it,” she drawls cheekily, before turning serious. “Actually, I need your help.”

Turns out, Kaitlynn wants to learn Breath Control; a decision I wholeheartedly support. However, she only had 46 Trial Points left, so she couldn’t afford the full 50 TP Skilldream, and wound up taking half a Skilldream instead.

Unfortunately, that didn’t prove to be enough.

“And now I’m stuck,” she says, a hint of irritation in her voice. “I’m pretty sure I’m doing something wrong, but I don’t remember enough from the Skilldream to figure out what. So, I was hoping you could take a look and help me figure it out?”

She pouts at me and bats her lashes.

Pssh, who needs Charm? Like I could ever say no to her.

I open my mouth, but Alec is making a racket as he gets started on dinner, loudly conversing with Dave. Jacob heads off into his room as I watch, likely so he can continue practising his breathing in peace. He’s gunning for level 2 in Respiration, I believe. That won’t help him much during our fight, but it’s still a worthwhile investment of his time.

“Yeah, Jacob’s got the right idea; this isn’t a good place to focus,” I say, before winking teasingly at Kaitlynn. “Wanna find somewhere a little more... private?”

She blushes and nods. So cute!

Inside my room, Kaitlynn demonstrates her ability to expel a jet of Aether, and its power is definitely not lacking.

“But I’m not gaining the Skill,” she whines. “What am I doing wrong?”

I frown. “Hmm, I can’t really tell like this... hold on, let me try something. Ehm, bear with me here.”

I step behind her and work my hands up her sides beneath her shirt until my palms rest lightly beneath her bra.

“W-what are you doing?” she squeaks.

I grin. “Relax; I’m just trying to get a sense for what’s happening inside your lungs. Now take a deep breath...”

I close my eyes as she breathes in, and attempt to sense what’s happening.

Unfortunately, there’s too much interference from the rapid pulses of Lavi flowing beneath her skin. I make her breathe in and out some more, but I’m not getting much.

“Hmm... this isn’t working,” I admit. “Time for plan B.”

I remove my hands and the tension leaves her body. She turns around to face me, her pale skin flushed adorably pink.

I stifle a snicker. This just makes me want to tease her more. Which works well with the plan B I just came up with.

“All right, I’m going to try something else,” I say, stepping closer to her until I look slightly down on her face from inches away. Kaitlynn goes wide-eyed but doesn’t step away.

“We’re going to synchronize our breathing,” I explain, sounding a little huskier than I intended for some reason, “so that you breathe in as I breathe out and vice versa. I’ll hopefully be able to tell what’s going on by controlling the Aether in your lungs directly.”

What I don’t tell her, is that, frankly, I don’t really need to stand this close to do that. It’s just more fun this way.

Kaitlynn swallows and nods, still bright pink.

I take a deep breath and begin, closing my eyes as I gently pushing my breath over her lips and into her mouth. She takes it in further.

It’s surprisingly intimate, with how much feedback I get back from the Aether, but I manage to maintain my concentration even as I abruptly get an in-depth sense of the shape of her lungs.

The thought flashes through my head that this is an incredibly vulnerable position Kaitlynn has placed herself in; it would take very little effort on my part to terribly damage her lungs like this.

Not that I would ever do that, but the trust she’s showing still makes my chest ache a little.

We exchange breath a few times, and I’m starting to get a feeling for what is going on, so I step back, almost brushing against her lips in the process. Somehow our lips were closer together than I’d expected.

I’m feeling a little flushed myself this time, but under the circumstances, I guess that’s pretty normal.

“Right, I think I figured it out,” I quickly say.

Kaitlynn’s eyes are half-lidded, but she shakes awake as I start speaking. “Right. Ehm, go on, tell me what I’m doing wrong.”

“You’re too focused on the result,” I explain. “The key difference between Breath Control and Respiration isn’t in how hard you can expel Aether, but in how much control you have over the Lavi in the Aether.”

She blinks and then facepalms. “Ah! I’ve been trying to make really powerful jets of Aether like you, but...”

I nod, smiling kindly at her. “But that’s the wrong way to go about it; you’re probably trying to compensate with your muscles what you lack in control over the Aether. Remember, all Skills are only to do with energy manipulation, not with physical motions.”

She nods along, scrunching her nose up in thought in a cute way.

“Actually, now that I think about it,” I continue, able to think a little more clearly now that the blood is draining back out of my face, “the difficulty in learning Breath Control is probably the fact that you have to take hold off Lavi that—while within the confines of your body—is not really in your body. It’s not your Lavi yet. Respiration is a Skill where you learn to take that Lavi into your body and make it your own, while Breath Control is about taking control over the Lavi you leave behind in the Aether and using it to control your exhale.”

“I think I remember some of that now from my Skilldream,” Kaitlynn muses. “I better go practice this quickly.”

I nod and turn around to give her some privacy when she tackles me in a hug.

“Thank you so much for helping me!”

She kisses my cheek.

I leave my room with a little extra spring in my step.

Kaitlynn succeeds shortly before dinner and comes running out of my room to excitedly hug me again. I don’t get another kiss on the cheek, however, which leaves me strangely disappointed.

I must really be starved for attention, after all this solitary training.

Anyway, during dinner, we discuss the gains of the day.

Jacob managed to gain the second level of Respiration shortly before dinner, while Dave attempted to follow in Kaitlynn footsteps and gain Breath Control. He’s been at the third level of Respiration for quite some time now, so it’s not unreasonable for him to try and evolve the Skill without a Skilldream, but so far he hasn’t succeeded.

I guess the last Trial really drove home the potential of Breath Control. And they haven’t even seen level 2 yet.

Alec’s gains were the most surprising, and also the most literal ‘gains.’

He actually raised his Strength to 14, finally catching up to Dave and Jacob!

Damn, I had this idle fantasy of beating him in an arm-wrestling contest without Boost Physical. That would’ve been hilarious.

Guess I’ll have to train some more.

After a sumptuous dinner and a relaxed evening mostly spent recovering and discussing plans for future training efforts, it’s time to go to bed

Like most nights spent in the preparation rooms since Hub 2, I take a hot shower in my private room before going to bed. Well, bed, let’s face it: I’m most likely going back out to sleep on the couch in a pile with everybody else.

As I rinse out my hair this time, however, something unexpected comes loose.

I only catch a glimpse of it before it flushes down the drain, but what I saw was unmistakable.

A small, blue feather.

Author's Note:

Happy new year everyone, and thanks for reading! ^^

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©2018 by H.C. Mills