As soon as he establishes that I’m genuinely receiving his messages, Dave bursts loose. ‘All right,’ he taps, ‘we have to be careful not to give away what we’re doing. Our Personal Guiding Systems might still be able to intercept this communication if they monitor the sensory information transferred over our Lavi flows.’
‘Act natural: got it,’ I rub back, staring intently at the oddly shaped tongues of red flame flickering in front of me. “At least the fire in this Realm is pretty, am I right?” I say out loud, in an effort to keep up appearances.
Dave hums in agreement. ‘Good,’ he taps. ‘The reason I’ve been racking my brain for a hidden way to communicate, is actually a certain incident that involved you. Remember back when you ‘pranked’ me and Alec by pretending you were about to remove your eye-crystal?’
I shift slightly in the sand but suppress my frown. ‘Ehm, vaguely?’
We continue making small talk out loud in between our messages, inane stuff about the island, the froggos, and our teammates. I feel like it sounds pretty genuine. I hope it does, anyway.
‘I don’t think you were pretending,’ Dave taps. ‘I believe you were serious, and were, at the last moment, led to believe that you weren’t.’
I blink. ‘I’m not following.’
‘You waited until Kaitlynn was out of the room before you announced your idea to us. And, though I know you’re a pretty good actress when you want to be, you seemed dead serious. Then, when you were about to pull out your eye-crystal, you had this blank look on your face for a moment and then suddenly claimed it was a prank.’
I close my eyes for a moment and breathe deeply, fighting to stay calm so I don’t give us away. ‘You’re saying I got mind-controlled? My thoughts about what I was doing were rewritten?’
‘That’s what I’m afraid of, yes,’ the reply comes after a short, out-loud anecdote about some event in Dave’s youth.
Jesus. I try to remember the day Dave claims I got mind-controlled, but it’s all kind of blurry. That’s probably not a great sign. ‘Shit. You may be right.’
Was it Suri?
Dave nods imperceptibly. ‘Then the question becomes, why do it so unsubtly, right in front of us? It really feels like a desperate move, so there must be something more to those eye-crystals than we’ve been told, if they’d go to such desperate lengths to protect them.’
‘You’ve been thinking about this a lot, haven’t you?’ I rub back.
‘I think it was self-defence,’ Dave taps. ‘I bet it was your Personal Guiding System that exercised that control over you, in order to protect the eye-crystal, which indicates there’s a more significant link between our eye-crystals and our Personal Guiding Systems than they want us to know.’
‘What about Alec’s eye-crystal?’ I counter. ‘That one got whipped out during the Fourth Trial and tossed around like a pebble.’
‘Was it? I mean, if you think about it, it was either in our hands or the chief’s the entire time. He could’ve just tossed it in the bushes somewhere, dropped it in the river, but he didn’t.’
‘Well, the froggos do worship crystals,’ I rub, and follow it up with a stupid joke about Loudmouth out loud.
Dave chuckles. ‘Yes... that’s also quite interesting, isn’t it?’ he taps. ‘They worship them.’
‘Look, it’s interesting, but it’s all speculation,’ I rub. ‘If we’re operating under the assumption that any of us might be subjected to mind-control at any time, then our priority should be coming up with countermeasures. I would love to just rip out my eye-crystal right now, but that doesn’t seem like a viable option.’
‘Agreed,’ he taps. ‘Ripping out the eye-crystal could at most serve as a last-ditch method. If you did it fast and sudden enough, you might pull it off before you’re stopped.’
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. ‘In the meantime, we need to raise Mental Fortitude,’ I rub.
‘I was thinking we could use your Dreamcloud Energy for that,’ Dave taps. ‘Or your Charm, I suppose, but I’d have to pass.’
‘I don’t blame you,’ I rub back. ‘We’ll have to be careful not to raise suspicion about why we’re doing it. We should also probably limit the frequency of these conversations, and only involve others on a need-to-know basis, lest the AI pick up on what we’re doing. However, I have some stuff of my own to tell you, before we call it a day...’
A twitch in his cheek, a nervous tremor in his leg, these are the only clues that give away how much Dave’s suppressing his excitement. ‘So, you managed to bring objects out of a Skilldream, and they contain Espir, and disappear after a while. This is fascinating. Seems like there’s more to these Dreamscapes than they want us to know as well.’
I barely stop myself from nodding. ‘Definitely. I’m particularly intrigued by that bird-girl-thing I met. Suri said she was a figment of my imagination, but since I brought back a feather from her, I’m not so sure.’
‘You’re right. If that being was real, the implications are incredible,’ Dave taps back. ‘If there’s one, there must be more. A race of beings that inhabit Dreamscapes, seemingly unaffiliated with whomever built this death-trap... If only we could take like an unsupervised Skilldreams to look for them, imagine what we could learn.’
I stop rubbing for a second when an idea hits me. ‘Actually, there may be a way to look for them, but it’s going to be risky... and we’ll need Kaitlynn.’
‘Go on,’ Dave taps.
‘So, what do you think?’ I rub.
‘It is risky,’ Dave taps after a moment. ‘Perhaps incredibly so. But we face death on a daily basis out here, and risk being mind-controlled even if we survive, so I say go for it.’
Coincidentally, it’s around this time that Kaitlynn comes flouncing back. She stops in her tracks with an odd look on her face when she spots Dave and I sitting huddled up together.
Dave tries to play it off by getting up and stretching exaggeratedly, then announcing that he’s going to answer nature’s call.
I suppress the urge to facepalm. At least he’s providing me some time alone with her.
Kaitlynn hesitantly waves at him and sits down next to me, still looking at me oddly.
“Hey, you,” I say, shooting her a warm smile as I casually put my arm around her.
She stiffens for a moment before snuggling up against me with a slight blush creeping up her neck.
That was the easy part. Now I have to convince her...
I can tell it’s hard for Kaitlynn to control her fury about the suspected mind control. Her anger bleeds through her trembling fingers into the skin of my lower back.
At least it helps convince her that I need to take this risk.
‘Does it have to be you?’ her fingers ask.
‘It does,’ I rub back with conviction. ‘I’m the one who met that bird-girl; I might be able to find her again. Also, there’s a clear link between Dreamscapes and Espir, and I’m the only one with any experience with that stuff.’
Her fingers still for a moment. ‘Fair enough. I’ll do as you asked.’
She gets up. Her smile looks a little forced, but there could be any number of explanations for that, so it shouldn’t be too suspicious. “I’m going to grab us some snacks!”
She skips off.
Dave comes back and sits down. I don’t look at him or say anything. Kaitlynn’s words just now should have been enough to tell him the plan is on, and any kind of knowing look might carry just a bit too much meaning and give us away.
I feel like I’m a spy or something, operating behind enemy lines.
I hide my unease with a dig at Alec, that makes Dave chuckle. I can tell his heart isn’t in it.
Soon enough, Kaitlynn is back with a small backpack. She skips over to Dave, all smiles. He holds out his hands and she dumps a handful of jicca nuts and birberries in them. Now that we no longer have a steady source of these, and we no longer eat them for every breakfast and lunch, they’ve become kind of a snack to us.
She heads for me. My heart races in my throat, but hopefully Suri will think it’s just a reaction to Kaitlynn’s presence.
Not an unreasonable thought, to be honest. Damnit.
I hold out my hands without looking at them. Kaitlynn looks me in the eyes and reaches down blindly. From the corner of my eye, I can tell Dave has turned away to watch the shoreline.
Kaitlynn dumps a handful of food in my hands as well. My eyes follow her as she sits down next to me, and I, seemingly thoughtlessly, bring one of my snacks to my mouth.
I half-expect to be stopped any second now, for Suri to take control of my mind and—
[Emma, don’t eat that!] Suri chimes.
A wave of hesitation washes over me at the urgency in her voice. However, perhaps Suri didn’t have enough time to react, or I had simply steeled my mind sufficiently, because I bite down on the Carriage of Dreams anyway. A powerful burst of Espir erupts from it and immediately floods my mind.
Suri’s shocked chime of [Oh no!] is the last thing I hear before I pass out.
I find myself inside a forest of blue, upside-down trees with roots that reach high into a starry purple sky.
Well, I’m definitely in a Dreamscape. In fact, it looks familiar.
Beneath my feet rests a yellow, pink-dotted mushroom the size of, well, a carriage.
Another Carriage of Dreams? No, wait, those are pink with yellow dots... Is this like its Dreamscape twin?
Looking around, I just see upside-down trees in every direction, so I decide to climb one to get my bearings. Unfortunately, I keep slipping down the smooth blue bark and landing on the forest canopy, which consists of blue branches with grey, spear-sized pine needles, stretched out between the trees.
After a couple of fruitless minutes, I spot my first living being.
It looks kinda like a cross between a bunny and a squirrel, with orange fur. It eyes me curiously, before turning around.
Stunned, I watch it literally hop up the trunk of the tree, defying gravity, then I apply my palm to my face.
Right, this is a Dreamscape.
When I remove my hand again, I find myself shrinking. No need to feel small, Emma.
I take a steadying breath and return to my regular size.
There probably isn’t anything like air here—let’s not think about that.
Instead, I set my foot against the trunk, and attempt to walk onto it.
For a moment it seems to work, but then I fall onto my back.
I frown. It has to be possible. If that bunny can do it, then so can I.
I get up, and stubbornly try again. I fall again.
I keep trying. I try to visualize myself doing it, actually walking up the trunk, and it helps a little. I can feel a kind of wavering the moment I set foot on the trunk, like gravity is confused for a second, before it snaps back to what I’m used to.
Actually, it’s not really what I’m used to anymore. That’s Earth gravity. In the Realm of Crystals, the tree would have its own gravity.
I visualize myself being pulled onto the tree by the gravity it applies. This time, when I set foot on the trunk, gravity shifts, and I find myself walking up unimpeded.
Higher up on the trunk, I can see the little the bunny-squirrel, again eyeing me curiously. Bunny-squirrel is a bit of a mouthful. Burrel? When I get closer, however, it launches itself off the trunk and spreads its limbs wide.
Flaps of skin at its sides spread out, and it glides away, going up and down as it pleases, once again ignoring gravity entirely. Not a burrel then, more like a mix of a bunny and a sugar glider. A bunny glider!
I shake my head to clear them of my random thoughts and follow the trunk up to the top of its highest root to look around.
The forest of blue roots stretches out around me in all directions. On one side, I spot a mountain wreathed in thunderclouds, on another a glittering sea.
I have no idea where to go, and the distances are ridiculous. Walking isn’t going to get me anywhere.
I consider gliding like the bunny glider, but when I look down at the forest floor, my heart sinks, and I quickly crouch down on the root I’m standing on to hold onto it, convinced that I’m about to fall.
This isn’t going to work... I need a better method of transportation.
One thing I did learn how to do, is conjure objects.
I conjured a jet ski once. Should I try to conjure something like a helicopter? Except I don’t how to fly one of those either...
I let out a frustrated sigh.
Maybe I’m going about this wrong. What I really need is a way to find that bird-girl. Where did I even meet her? Would she even be in this Dreamscape? Should I start making bird-calls? Maybe I could conjure a bird-whistle, or something.
I snort at the idea. What would it even need to sound like? Though to be fair... this is a Dreamscape.
Seeing no better options at the moment. I attempt to conjure a bird-whistle.
After conjuring and tossing down an ashtray, a gumball, and several staplers, I’m finally holding a whistle with the head of a bird.
I blow on it, and somehow every single bird call I know—and some I’m sure I’ve made up—come out simultaneously.
For a moment nothing happens.
Then a loud cacophony erupts as seemingly every single bird in the forest answers.
I look around wide-eyed as birds fly up all around me and come swarming my way.
They converge into a swirling vortex of feathers, of every imaginable colour, and then some.
What am I, a Disney princess?!
As if cued, a couple of birds from behind drop a wreath of flowers around my neck.
That does it. “Settle down, you crazy birds!” I yell.
The vortex dissipates as the birds scatter. Many fly away again, but a good number—hundreds—settle down on the roots around me, and watch me side-eyed, with curious gazes, letting out occasional warbles and chirps.
I glance around. There are birds in all shapes and sizes here, but none of them are even vaguely human.
Well, that was an unexpected success in a way, I guess. However, this is clearly a whistle for calling birds and not bird-women.
Frowning, I sit down to attempt another conjuring of the whistle I need, this time watched by a captive audience of feathered friends. With every weird object I conjure in failure, a chorus of amused sounding bird-noises comes forth.
It’s not ideal for my concentration, but it’s not the reason I ultimately give up. The truth is, I simply have no idea what it would need to sound like. I mean, what’s the use of a whistle that calls out: ‘Hey bird-girl-thing, come here!’? I can literally just shout that.
Also, I realize with some alarm, whenever I conjure something, I feel a little weaker. Like something is drained from me in the process. Espir, perhaps? Are conjured objects made of Espir, like the objects I brought back from the Dreamscapes?
I try Meditating to see if I can detect Espir inside, but it doesn’t seem to do anything. There’s no Lavi flows inside of my body... actually there’s no Lavi, period. Or an actual body, I suppose. Perhaps I should try something different.
I visualize my senses dimming, one by one. Since this is something I’ve experienced quite often, it’s not hard to imagine, and it soon works. As my senses dim, for the first time, I become aware of the presence of a kind of motes of light, floating around, with a familiar feeling.
Espir! I knew it! There’s tons of it here!
In fact, it’s not just in the air around me, but also definitely in the bird whistle, and in fact in the trees and birds as well. Especially the birds, in fact; they contain highly concentrated Espir.
I turn my gaze inward and find that my ‘body’ contains Espir as well, though not quite as concentrated as the birds. In fact, as I watch, one of my motes of Espir winks out.
Oh boy. What happens when I run out?
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