I stare unseeingly at the broken mirror in front of me until the tears stop coming. I wipe the wetness off my left cheek and glance down at the shards.
Huh. Looks like a kind of crystal. Kinda weird that it’s this fragile.
Then again, my spear is pretty tough.
I shake my head. What am I doing, getting all upset about love of all things, when we’re out here fighting to survive?
Right. It’s not like I have time for a romance anyway. And things being as they are, with my sexuality temporarily being warped by this crazy Realm, and our goal being to return to Earth, Kaitlynn and I are simply better off friends. And I’m okay with that. I’m okay with that.
A memory comes unbidden, of the soft press of Kaitlynn lips, gentle but firm. Heat begins to pool—
I shake my head as if to clear it like an Etch-a-Sketch. I need a distraction. High time I took that Skilldream I’ve been saving up for since forever.
“Status Window please,” I croak, my voice hoarse from crying, yet determined.
Thank goodness I managed to at least hold back from buying even more liquor.
Since this is the last Skilldream I’ll be taking in a long while, there are some additional matters I want to take care of during it. First of all, there’s something Suri promised me a while ago.
“Suri, if I take my Skilldream for Distort Space, can you work in a little training for me on how to consciously use my Charm stat?”
[I think I can make that work, yes. You won’t remember it very well, but hopefully you’ll get a better feeling for it. Of course, you’ll need to practise it on actual living beings to really master it.]
“We’ve been over this; I’m not practising on my friends,” I tell her. “I’m sure I’ll find more appropriate targets in Hub Three. Anyway, one Skilldream for Distort Space, please.”
[Coming right up.]
In the final moments before Suri whisks me away, I mentally go over the second matter once more.
During my last Skilldream, I managed to bring back a small black conch-shell out of the Dreamscape, which has since mysteriously disappeared. It’s risky, since I don’t know what’ll happen if Suri notices and finds out I know she’s been lying to me, but I have to try and bring something back again.
Even if it’s just to prove to myself that I’m not crazy.
I come to in a bleak, lifeless desert. The fine grey sand is strewn with cracked bones, and overhead lies the smothering presence of a heavy blanket of dark clouds.
The only bit of colour is Suri, appearing as usual as a goddess of horny anime-fans.
She looks up at the clouds. [Good, I believe it’s just about to start.]
I follow her gaze. Something shifts inside a particularly dark cloud and a barrage of bubbles start to pop out of the bottom. The bubbles—ranging from the size of a marble to that of a house—drift down gently.
When the first one bursts open some distance from us, it signals the start of a spectacular transformation in the land beneath. Wherever a bubble deposits the precious water it’s made of, life springs forth.
Small sprouts pop up and immediately start to develop into fully formed trees, but it doesn’t stop there. The bones strewn everywhere begin to grow flesh, ligaments, and skin, until the finally fully formed animals get up to do their thing.
I gape in wonder at the strip of instant rainforest that’s shooting up in front of me as the cloud passes over. However, as quickly as life blooms up beneath the rain of bubbles, it also dies out again as the bubbles move on. The trees wither and crumble in the blink of an eye, the animals drop down and decay back to a pile of cracked bones in seconds.
[Quite a sight, isn’t it? The transience of life in all its miserable glory. Goodness, am I glad I’m not part of that cycle.]
I blink and shake myself out of my reverie. “Yeah, well, it beats never existing at all.”
[A sensible notion from your point of view, I suppose. Now, let me show you what we’re here for.]
Suri makes a grasping motion with her hand, and a bubble the size of a coconut drifts down towards her, to end up floating above her hand.
With a snap of her fingers, Suri conjures an unsolved Rubik’s Cube inside of it.
I raise a brow at her.
[Humans consider these things puzzles; I think it’s quaint,] Suri chimes in response.
I blink, and when my eyes reopen, the Cube is solved.
[Anyway, look closely.]
I zoom in on the bubble and the world around it fades from view.
Suri closes her hand, and the bubble shrinks. The Rubik’s Cube inside of it shrinks along.
[This is essentially how Distort Space works,] Suri explains. [You form a boundary of Spatial Energy, and then manipulate either the space inside or outside of it by deforming that boundary. Afterwards, when you relinquish control, the boundary will dissolve, and space will snap back.]
Suri pops the shrunken bubble with her free hand, and the Rubik’s cube snaps back to its previous size.
“Woah,” I say before frowning. “Wait, you can manipulate the space either inside or outside? Why is it either?”
[Because space in the Realm of Crystals can be pushed, but not pulled.]
[I don’t know; that’s just the way it is. Essentially, this gives you two options: you can either shrink the boundary, causing the space inside to compress, or expand the boundary, causing the space outside of it to stretch to accommodate what you’re doing.]
“Okaaay... I can imagine the first one quite well, and I definitely see potential uses, like dodging attacks—”
[That is a common application, yes.]
“—but that second one? Can you give me a practical example?”
[Of course. Expanding a boundary is often used to enlarge openings. For example, you could make a small opening in a wall and then enlarge it to a size you can pass through, or reach through to grab an item, or launch a projectile through, etcetera.]
I frown. “Couldn’t I accomplish the same by shrinking myself though?”
[It’s often a convenience thing. For example, if there’s a hole halfway up a wall and you shrink yourself, you’d have to climb up there to get through it. If there’s an object you want to grab on the other side, you’ll have to go there and absorb it into your bubble and then return again. If you want to bring your friends along through an opening, you’ll either have to form multiple bubbles—which is an advanced technique—or create a really large bubble and move in a group, which is both costly in terms of Qi and impractical.]
Colour me convinced.
“This Skill sounds amazing, I can’t wait to do stuff like that!” I enthuse.
[Well hold your horses; you’re just learning the first level. We’re going to start by manipulating space in one dimension. Now, grab yourself a bubble.]
One long-ass Skilldream later, I get up very stiffly, but still full of enthusiasm.
Even if it’s only in one dimension, the effects of this Skill are just too cool, and I can’t wait to try it for real.
But first I need to see if I pulled off my little experiment. Obviously, I can’t have Suri notice what I’m doing, so I take my time to surreptitiously check my pockets while I stretch out my sore muscles.
Well, well, what do we have here? I carefully finger the object I come across in my right hip pocket. It’s a small hard cube, with a familiar feel to it. Is this... a tiny Rubik’s Cube? Why that, of all things?
Well, I guess it doesn’t matter much what it is. All that matters is that it’s something I clearly didn’t have before, which proves that I brought something out of a Dreamscape again.
I’m not crazy!
Now, for the second part of the experiment: seeing if this one’s going to disappear as well, and if so, after how long.
In the meantime, I have something important to do: gaining Distort Space.
Finished with my stretches, I sit back down on the bed and begin with trying to form some Spatial Energy.
With a ten-hour Skilldream under the belt, this part isn’t all that hard. All I have to do is visualize the endlessness of space and insert into my Qi the will to become a drop in that inky-black ocean of nothingness.
Yup. Not hard at all. I totally didn’t just spend hours in a literal black ocean of nothingness with Suri to get some kind of grasp on these concepts.
I focus my will and turn an Onkh of bluish Yin Qi into inky-black, almost liquid looking Spatial Energy. It radiates cold and desolation.
Suppressing a shudder, I pull a droplet of the energy from the crystal and guide it with one of my hands to a jicca nut.
Size matters, when it comes to boundaries. My current conversion ratio from Qi to Spatial Energy should be 1:2 at best, so I might barely be able to form a boundary large enough to contain me if I fill my Focus Crystal to its full capacity of 10 Onkh of Qi.
Obviously, that would be a rather wasteful approach to practising. And I’m going to need some practise, ‘cause when I try to expand the droplet of Spatial Energy into a bubble around the jicca nut, it promptly pops and dissipates.
I steel myself for a lengthy session and pull out another drop.
Roughly an hour and a half later, I’m staring at a rather slim-looking jicca nut, enveloped in a boundary of Spatial Energy, squeezed together in one dimension of space.
I release the boundary, and the nut pops back into its regular shape. I stick it in my mouth in triumph and lie back on the bed with a sigh.
I stealthily touch my hip-pocket once more. The Rubik’s Cube is still there. So far so good.
Now, let’s see what I can remember from the instructions Suri gave me about Charm.
I close my eyes and frown in concentration.
There was something about Charm being a stat only available to Yin beings... right, Suri said it works much better on the Yang! I suppose that means the Radiance stat of the Yang similarly influences mostly the Yin. I’ll have to watch out for that.
Although this is useful info, what I was hoping to get from this was mostly practical experience with activating Charm. And from what I remember, the first step towards that is getting in touch with my Espir.
Espir, unlike Lavi and Qi, apparently isn’t spread out over my body but concentrated in a single place: my brain.
I start by trying to get a look at the energy inside my skull, but whatever I try, I ultimately run back into the same problem. How do I look at what’s literally behind my eyes and essentially inside my mind?
Perhaps this is the wrong way to go about it... I don’t actually need to see it, after all, I just need to connect with it.
I go into a lucid trance and dim each of my senses, one by one, until it feels like I’m adrift in a dark void filled with nothing but my mind and the flows of Lavi inside my body. I stay like that, trying to sense, something, anything.
At first, all I notice is the rhythmic pulsing of my Lavi flows and the thoughts running through my mind. After a while, I manage to tune those things out as well.
Eventually, I notice a vague aura of sorts. In the relaxed state I’m in, it takes me a moment to realize its origin, but when I do it almost disrupts my trance.
It’s the tiny Rubik’s cube. Somehow, I am able to feel it, with all of my senses dimmed.
Woah. I hope Suri doesn’t Meditate too often. However, this is certainly interesting... Suri described Espir as a kind of mental energy that only recovers when I’m asleep, so there being a link between Espir and Dreamscapes seems quite probable.
I take my time to study the weak aura coming off the Rubik’s Cube. As I focus on it, it gradually becomes clearer. If I had to describe it, I would call it... playful. While the object appears static, it’s aura definitely isn’t.
Eventually, I notice a kind of resonance, with something in my mind.
Wait, this feeling...
I follow the weak sensation and finally manage to connect to a familiar, playful presence in my mind.
This is it! My Espir!
I play around with it for a while, stimulating it, breaking and re-establishing the connection, until I’m satisfied that I have a grasp on how to find it.
Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to use it on. I’d love to experiment with the Rubik’s cube, but that seems way too risky.
A rumbling in my stomach ruins my concentration. Right, it should be about dinner time already.
I check my Qi. Looks like I spent at least an hour entranced, since my Qi Pool is already filled up again.
That means I have more than enough Qi for a demonstration of Distort Space. Since I haven’t yet made a boundary of the size I’m thinking of, I first use 10 Onkh for a practise round. Thankfully, my conversion rate has increased to 1:3, and I now have the Skill, so it’s not hard to pull off.
Since I can only Distort Space in one dimension, my options are Anorexic Emma, Cardboard Cut-Out Emma, and Dwarf Emma
It’s gotta be that last one, right?
And so, half a minute later, I walk out into the living room standing about 3 feet tall, with all of the features of my body squished together comically in the vertical direction.
“What’s up guys?” I say, using a high, squeaky voice for effect.
Dave spits out some Hydrum he was drinking, Jacob nearly jumps out of his skin after turning around, and Alec almost ruins the dinner he’s cooking with how hard he’s laughing.
Kaitlynn blinks and smiles fondly. She looks nervous.
Crud. That’s right.
All of a sudden, I’m not much in the mood for jokes anymore either.
The boundary around my body pops, and I rocket back up to my usual height. It’s a very weird experience that leaves me momentarily disoriented.
I avoid eye-contact with Kaitlynn for the time being and make small talk with the boys until Alec finally declares dinner ready.
Compared to the lavish celebratory feast Alec prepared yesterday, this meal could almost be called sober, but it still looks and smells really good.
Kaitlynn shyly sits down next to me. I swallow down some saliva.
Well, it’s not like she’s going to whisper hard questions into my ear during dinner, I just have to—
<Hey Emma,> Kaitlynn sends.
Shitshitshitshit, that’s right, she knows Telepathy as well!
<Sorry to bother you during dinner,> she continues, <but ehm, I’m pretty sure we fell asleep together, and when I woke up you weren’t there. I just wanted to know if everything’s... okay.>
<Yeah, no, everything’s fine,> I send back, glancing over to throw her a quick smile. <You looked too peaceful, and I was restless so...>
I trail off. Her eyes catch hold of mine for a second before I turn back to my meal.
Frig. How much does she remember?
<Oh. Okay then,> she sends.
Kaitlynn tentatively reaches out to my left hand with her right and intertwines our fingers between us on the couch, mostly out of sight of the others.
I almost inhale some of the food in my mouth, but then I catch sight of the blush on her cheeks. My heart skips a beat, and I suppress the urge to jerk my hand away.
All right, she remembers enough, it seems. I know it’s the right thing to do, but how the hell am I actually supposed to say no to this girl?!
I’ll have to talk to her about what happened between us later. This isn’t the time or the place.
<Ehm, Kaitlynn, could I ask you to keep what happened last night to ourselves?>
<Oh? Well, I don’t mind, but you might have a small problem in that sense.>
I frown at her. <What do you mean?>
“By the way, Emma,” Alec chooses that moment to say, with his mouth still half-full. “How did you get that big bruise in your neck? It looks nasty.”
This time, I really inhale some food and end up coughing it all up again.
Damnit, I shouldn’t have broken my stupid mirror!
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