• H.C. Mills

Chapter 76: Life's a beach

I stare at the drain, where the brightly coloured plumage just disappeared.

My heart starts to race as a memory resurfaces of a bird-like woman, with brightly coloured feathers.

A woman Suri told me was just a figment of my imagination. Did I just imagine this, too?

No. There’s clearly something else going on here.

Suri hasn’t reacted at all yet, could it be that she didn’t notice? I had been staring at the wall for some time; perhaps she wasn’t paying attention.

[Your heartbeat has accelerated a lot. Is something the matter?]

I nearly jump out of my skin but manage to control myself.

“Hmm, oh ehm, it’s nothing,” I say shooting for casual. Not knowing what to make of this event, I instinctively want to keep it a secret, so I scramble for another topic. “Say, ehm, that makes me wonder; how much of what I sense do you actually experience?”

[Hmm. Well these aren’t your five minutes, but I guess this could be construed as a practical question, under the right circumstances, so I’ll humour you.]

She took the bait! I suppress a sigh of relief.

[I can of course see through the Radiation Processing Crystal and detect the flow of energies in and around your body with them—before you ask, that’s also how I interpret sounds: by recording the changes in Vibration Energy through it. However, if you’re wondering if I experience your physical sensations, then no; only when we are mind-melded. The reason I can monitor your heartbeat is that it affects the flow of Lavi in your body.]

Huh. This was actually pretty interesting. Go me?

[Hold on a second. Was that an attempt to dodge my question about your heartbeat?] Suri chimes.

“What? No!” I say too quickly.


[Emma, what are you hi—ah, of course, I should’ve known.]

I blink. “Should’ve known what?”

[Oh, come on, Emma. I’m not stupid,] Suri scoffs.

Oh god, she’s on to me. She saw the feather, and realized the connection I made and—

[You’re naked, in the privacy of the shower, and then you ask how much of your physical sensations I can experience; if you want some privacy to masturbate, all you have to do is ask.]

I blink, then cover my face with my hands.

“Oh my god, we are so not discussing this,” I say, “I don’t—”

My protestations die on my lips. This is all kinds of awkward, but frig, it’s the perfect lie, and she’s handing it to me on a silver platter.

[Honestly, you humans and your hang-ups about sex. Look, this doesn’t have to be a big deal; there’s nothing wrong with a little self-pleasuring. In fact, if it’ll help you get your baser drifts under control so you can focus on surviving, then I wholeheartedly recommend it. Just say the word and I’ll tune out for a bit.]

I... but... damnit!

I sigh. “Please do.”

[Thought so,] Suri chimes smugly. [I’ll let you alone for about 30 minutes then. Have fun!]

I stand there for a moment, waiting for something to happen, but I don’t sense any change, no leaving of a presence, or something like that.

Is she actually gone? Damnit, I have no way to be sure!

Because that’s one inevitable conclusion I have to draw here: Suri lied to me. Therefore, I can’t trust her to tell me the truth about other stuff.

Now what? If she’s actually still keeping tabs on me...

Oh god, I’m going to have to pretend to masturbate, aren’t I?

How the hell did I get myself into this mess?

And so, with a head full of distracting thoughts and implications, I wind up having to fake an orgasm for the first time in my life, whilst pretending to masturbate under the shower.

Of all the weird shit that’s happened to me since I came here, this takes the cake.

After my shower, I join the others on the couch and lay awake, staring at the ceiling while Kaitlynn uses my stomach as a pillow.

Are Dreamscapes actually real? Are they even ‘Dreamscapes,’ or are we simply given drugs and taken to some other location?

No, the Dreamscapes really do have a very different vibe, like anything’s possible. I distinctly remember conjuring objects in there, and if we were just high, it wouldn’t be such an effective method of teaching us Skills.

And yet, they can’t be as illusory as they’re claimed to be if I managed to bring something back.

What about the memory loss, is that normal, or is it induced for some reason?

I glance at Dave, who’s lightly snoring nearby. More than anything, I want to pick his brain about this, but... even though he’s so close, I can’t. I can’t think of any method of communication that can’t be listened in on, as our AI’s collectively are able to see and hear everything we can!

A secret code? We’d have to decide on one first, and they’d witness it. Also, objective friggin’ meaning. A puzzle or cryptic message? Same problem, and even if that weren’t an issue, it’d have to be something that advanced Artificial Intelligences aren’t able to crack, for some reason.

Pretend that we want to have sex, and ask our AI’s to tune out?

Again, I don’t trust them to not secretly keep tabs on us. God, we’d basically have to have actual sex just to keep up the ruse, and then they still might listen in.

Clearly not an option, also not worth it, just to discuss something in secret that we can’t directly do anything with. Guess I’m on my own for now.

Survival will still have to come first, but... maybe I can try a little experiment tomorrow.

After a lot of mulling and planning, I finally drift off to a restless slumber, full of confusing dreams.

The next morning, I once again seclude myself to take a Skilldream.

I have to decide which one first, though; the subject matter shouldn’t really matter for the experiment I plan to run, after all.

Now that my friends know about Charm, and I may be able to actually start learning how to use it, taking a Skilldream for the Dreamcloud Purpose for Infuse starts to seem like a pretty good idea. I can just imagine myself in the future, leading a host of froggos through a Trial, having them kill everything for me...

And even by itself, the Dreamcloud Purpose could be very useful. If I could Infuse some darts—or better yet, my breath—with Dreamcloud Energy, that could prove a powerful tool.

“All right,” I say, my mind made up. “Half a Skilldream for the Dreamcloud Purpose of Infuse, please.”

I should be able to manage with just half, since I already have the basic Skill, and still have some dregs of ground Dreamcloud pollen saved to use as a reference.

[Coming right up!] Suri chimes pleasantly, and the world fades to black.

When I wake after my Skilldream, my memories are, as always, vague.

I heard you can train yourself to remember your dreams, by keeping a journal of them. Could that possibly work to improve my retention of Skilldreams as well, or would that be wasted effort?

Not like I even have a journal anyway. Or a working pen.

I shake my head imperceptibly.

Focus, Emma! Did you succeed in what you set out to do?

A blurry memory of a pitch-black beach comes to mind. That must’ve been where Suri took me. The question is, did I manage to stick something in my hair again? I can’t even remember if I tried...

I yawn, keeping my eyes closed as I stretch out my arms legs, and secretly check my hair for sand, or anything else that’s beachy.

I quickly go through all of it, front to back, but don’t feel anything out of place.


Did I perhaps imagine that feather after all? I guess all I can do is keep trying, though it’ll have to wait until after the next Trial, probably. I don’t really have time for another Skilldream.

[Good, you’re up. Better get started right away,] Suri suggests.

I sigh, but take out my Focus Crystal and the pouch that holds my last bit of ground Dreamcloud pollen.

I carefully take out a pinch of the fine powder.

Since the Toxic Energy in this stuff has Purpose, I can’t just inhale it up to my Tolerance Limit; my Toxic Energy Tolerance does mitigate its effects on me, but it doesn’t block it completely. Maybe only if I reached 100% someday, would I be completely immune.

I stare at the pinch, using the energy vision of the eye-crystal, and try to get a feeling for what this Purpose is all about.

The first thing I notice is a difference in the colour. Regular Toxic Energy has an almost aggressive colour; it’s purple with flashes of something a little pinker, maybe fuchsia. The Toxic Energy in Dreamcloud powder is much calmer, and coloured much softer, more like lilac.

The energy still consists of tendrils, but like the colour, the behaviour of the energy is also much calmer. The tendrils undulate in a soothing... almost hypnotic rhythm...

Woah. I shake my head. Staring at it too intensely might not be the brightest idea. The more intense the contact, the easier it can get its hooks in me.

Hooks... a blurry memory pops up from the Skilldream. A kind of jellyfish that Suri showed me, washed up on the pitch-black shore, that had hooks on its tentacles.

My eyes widen. I take out a fresh pinch, as the energy in the previous had started to fade with the exposure to Aether.

I take another close look at it. Closer than the last even, as I’m trying to see if—yes! There are tiny hooks on the lavender coloured tendrils of energy!

Satisfied, I back off. Some half-forgotten sensations from the Skilldream rise in the back of my head; Dreamcloud is... insidious. It’s kinda like the wolf in sheep’s clothing, pretending very hard to be harmless. It sucks its victims in by getting its hooks in their mind, and pulls them in the direction it wants them to go.

I’m definitely starting to get a feeling for this Purpose; This shouldn’t take too long.

It doesn’t. After using up about half my Qi, trying to impose this Purpose on the Toxic Energy as it forms, I get the following message.


Now that that’s done, it’s time to get serious about my training for the big showdown with Jacob.

And the next Trial, of course.

First, I use up the remainder of my Qi trying out some sick moves with Decrease Inertia.

Now it’s time for the main part: figuring out how I can best use Breath Control level 2 in combat.

The first thing I want to try is something I did underhydrum in the previous trial; forming ropes of Aether to restrain someone with.

Since I don’t have any other test subjects, I use it on myself.

Of course, even though I can pack the Aether much more densely than I used to, and have much finer control over it thanks to the nuclei, it’s still not as suitable for binding things as the viscous Hydrum is. Still, I control five breaths now, and using all of them in tandem, I find they can restrict my own movement pretty well.

My control is much stronger when the Aether touches my skin though, so this might work a little less well when I use it on someone else from a distance. But still, definitely useful.

My next idea is to try and use my breaths as a kind of cushioning, to defend against blunt force impacts, but possibly also to break my fall someday.

This turns out to be a little harder than I first imagined.

The distinction between my breath and the surrounding Aether is getting clearer and clearer as I advance in this Skill, and it’s now possible for me to see a kind of membrane outlining the outer edge, with thin connections to the nucleus.

Basically, each of my breaths is kinda like an inflated balloon. Using them as ropes to tie someone up is kinda like making balloon animals. Trying to land on them to have them break your fall would probably kinda be like, well, jumping on a pile of balloons.

I’m stupid enough to try anyway.

Some of my breaths scatter away under the force of my landing, one of them bursts under my ass. All in all, it’s not pleasant or practical.

As I sit on the ground rubbing my sore lower back, I belatedly wonder if I might be able to fuse them together, for better effect.

I never tried it underhydrum, because it wasn’t necessary. I did combine them into a single tail, but they were still separate breaths then. The Hydrum I exhaled wasn’t more pressurized than the surrounding Hydrum, so it didn’t behave like a balloon and shaped much more easily. It was also viscous, so the different exhales easily stuck to each other.

I start to experiment. Truly combining my breaths into one requires for the outer membranes to break open, which at the start leads mostly to sudden deflation of my breath balloons. Eventually, however, I manage to fuse two breaths into a single, larger one.

During another attempt a little later, I manage to add a third before the structure destabilizes. Soon enough, I add a fourth, then a fifth, and, to my surprise, a sixth. Apparently, having the nuclei close to each other helps stabilize them, and allows for them to last longer.

Either way, it’s like this that I manage to create a kind of mega-balloon, taut with condensed Aether.

I put it on the floor, and once again attempt to land on it on my back.

To my surprise, it bounces me back up.

Well... that can actually also be pretty useful, but not if I want to cushion my fall. Landing on that thing from up high would just result in me bouncing off into something hard, probably breaking my neck or giving me whiplash in the process.

I need something a little more like an airbag. That means it needs holes to vent the pressure. But I can’t actually make holes in it; it would just deflate immediately!

Can I make holes in the split second before my landing? Unlikely.

Hmm. How do I make holes that appear the moment I land...

My eyes widen. That’s it! I don’t have to actually make holes; I just have to weaken certain spots in the membrane, so the pressure will rip holes there when I land on it, but the overall structure remains intact!

Boom, instant airbag!

Excited, I get to work.

Obviously, this idea requires a considerably more complex manipulation of the Lavi in my exhales than anything I’ve done previously, so it takes a lot of practice, but eventually, I pull it off.

I only take breaks when my Qi refills, to pull off some aerial stunts with Decrease Momentum. Now that I’m getting a feeling for how the Skill affects my accelerability, it’s almost child’s play to perform increasingly complex manoeuvres, especially considering how high my Agility is.

I keep working on Breath Control in the meantime. After some more practice, I can even easily switch back and forth between airbag and balloon mode. And it works like a charm. I now keep my breaths on my back as a kind of cape, fused into a whole. I can jump on my back and have it bounce me back up, or quickly switch to airbag mode and have it deflate underneath me to catch my fall.

It even works better as a binding tool, fused into a whole. I can’t just insert someone inside of it, as that would require me to break open the membrane, but I can easily twist it around someone’s limbs to immobilize them like a kind of straitjacket.

At dinner, I hear about the exploits of the rest.

Kaitlynn finally gained Telepathy. She hopes we may be able to stay connected a bit after exiting the Trial.

Perhaps inspired by her idea, Alec had Dave teach him about the second level of Telepathy—which indeed turns out to be connecting to multiple people—and managed to gain it.

In return, Dave had him explain about the third level of Meditation, and worked on that, but didn’t manage to break through yet.

Well, it’s a hard Skill to master, I know all too well.

Jacob spent his time honing his sword skills and his Yang Qi momentum Skills.

Kaitlynn pesters me about the Skilldreams I took, so I decide to tell them about my new Infuse Purpose, figuring it’ll be a nice way to throw Jacob off the scent of how I plan to deal with him. Judging by his grimace, he takes the bait.

We’re holding the match an hour and a half before the Trial, so we’ll have at least an hour to replenish our Qi and do our final preparations afterwards. But first, we’re getting one last good night’s sleep.

As I curl up on my side on the couch next to Kaitlynn, something pricks my hip.

There’s something small yet hard in my pocket.

At first, I’m confused. Then a thought strikes me like a bolt from the blue.

I carefully rub the eyelid covering my eye-crystal, pretending like I’m just rubbing an itch, while I surreptitiously draw the item out of my pocket to glance at it with my actual eye.

It’s a tiny, pitch-black conch shell.

Son of a beach.

Author's Note:

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