• H.C. Mills

Chapter 96: Second star to the right

As an experiment, I try to reach out and grab one of the motes of Espir that swirl around me, but it slips through my fingers like they aren’t there.

I wait for one to pass under my nose and snap my jaws around them. It comes out through my cheek.

Damnit, I guess using this illusionary body of mine for such things isn’t going to work.

Another mote inside my fake body winks out, and since I’m paying attention, I feel a very slight swell of something like fatigue sweep through me as it does.

Definitely not good.

I still have dozens of motes left, but the way this is going, I’ll be running out soon.

The warning Suri once gave me rings through my mind: ‘it’s possible to get lost in the Dreamscape formed by a Carriage of Dreams.’ I really need a way to find or contact that bird-girl, or someone, soon, if only so they can help me find a way out of here again.

However, since conjuring uses up Espir, I can’t just keep trying random things.

Think, Emma, think!

I glance around, racking my brain for a solution.

A lot of birds have left by now, but there’s still a decent number perched on the roots around me.

If I were an actual Disney princess, these stupid birds would be helping me, instead of staring at me like I’m a freak.

I blink. Maybe they can help.

Hesitantly, I hold up a finger. The birds stop chirping. For a moment, nothing happens, and I almost lower my hand out of sheer embarrassment. Then, a pretty little white bird comes flying over, perches on my finger, and proceeds to eye me curiously.

I clear my throat. “I need you to find someone for me.”

The bird cocks its head sideways.

Right. How do I explain...

A thought strikes. I hold up my other hand, palm facing upwards, and attempt one more conjuring.

I close my eyes and dig deep, not willing to waste any Espir on frivolous failures.

After a few seconds, I open my eyes. A small blue feather lies on my palm. The bird on my finger seems spooked. It flies off, chittering happily as it re-joins its friends on the nearby roots.

Damn. Whatever, let’s see if this works.

I stand up and hold up the feather above my head.

“Do any of you recognize this?” I ask. The cacophony around me stills once more. “Please, I need to see the person, ehm, bird-girl, who has these kinds of feathers.”

After a moment, the birds resume their chittering and chirping.

However, one particularly large bird, wreathed in shadows, doesn’t join in. Some long-forgotten instinct freezes me in place as a pair of glowing red eyes open up and fix me with a stare. The beast lifts off with slow, steady beats of its heavy wings.

I follow it with a wary gaze as it rises in a slow circle. It looks kind of like a hawk, but with pitch-black feathers trailed by shadow, and glowing red eyes.

It lets out an intimidating caw before suddenly diving down towards me. It stretches out its claws. I shriek and shield my face with my free arm.

It beats powerfully with its wings, and the razor-sharp claws touch down gently on my arm. I cautiously open my eyes, to find it staring intently at the small blue feather in my other hand.

Hope wells up inside of me. “Please,” I say. “Can you bring her to me? I don’t have much time...”

It turns to look me in the eye and lets out another loud caw. Then it snatches the feather out of my hand with its beak and flies off.

I watch the shadowy bird disappear in the distance at high speed. Well, that went better than expected. Did it really understand though?

Another small wave of fatigue hits me, letting me know another mote of Espir winked out.

I don’t think I have much choice but to trust that it did, cause I’m running out of time and options. What I need now is a way to slow down the process of my Espir burning out...

It turns out Meditation is effective at reducing energy consumption here as well. However, it’s not capable of stopping it entirely. My supply of Espir slowly dwindles. As it does, I feel more and more fatigued. Moreover, my skin is turning wrinkly, and my hair is greying at an alarming rate.

It’s not real, it’s just your body reflecting how you feel. Keep it together, Emma.

A bit of concentration on my part reverts me to my youthful look, but another mote winks out when I do.

Damnit, that costs Espir too. I better do as little as possible. That bird may be my only hope now...

I enter a deeper trance, hoping to reduce my Espir consumption as much as possible.

My trance is finally broken by the appearance of a familiar figure. A woman with feathered, arm-like wings that’s not wearing any clothes, but is instead covered in bright plumage, in a gradient of colour that moves from red to purple to blue.

“Bird-girl!” I call out in relief.

“Funny furless monkey!” she responds happily.

The pitch-black hawk with its nightmarish eyes caws, appearing annoyed at being left out.

“Thank you, thank you so much,” I tell the hawk.

The bird-girl giggles. “Blackie is such a sweetie, isn’t he? Who’s a good boy? You are!”

She strokes his head. ‘Blackie’ turns away and caws haughtily. Still, it leans into her touch for a moment before it flies off.

The bird-girl shakes her head and giggles again. “Awww. There he goes pretending to be all cool and aloof again.”

I shake my head to clear out the cobwebs. I’m down to my last dozen or so motes of Espir, and the fatigue is playing me parts.

“Anyway: yay!” the bird-girl chirps, excitedly flapping her arms. “You’re back, and without that bitch. Now we can play! Ooh, you wanna be race car drivers? How about cowboys? Or we could join the pirates and hunt down that kid in green tights!”

“Hold on,” I say holding up a hand as if to physically stop the avalanche of suggestions spewing forth from her beaky lips. “Ehm, we can definitely play later, but I need to talk to you first.”

Her face screws together into a mockery of a pout. “Baaah, talk is boring, I want to play!”

Damnit, I need to get her to cooperate. “Oh, yeah, no we can totally play. In fact, I know this awesome game called 20 Questions!”

She blinks. “Is that fun?”

“Ehm, yup. Very. It’s a game where w—I ask you twenty questions, to get to know you better.”

She frowns. “I’m not sure—”

“All right!” I call out excitedly. “Now remember: you have to answer as well as you can, that’s the goal of the game. Ehm, I’ll give you a point if you do.”

She perks up. “I love points!”

Of course you do. I suppress the urge to shake my head. “First question! What’s your name?”

“Ooh! I know this one: it’s Raindrop!”

“All right, nice to meet you Raindrop. My name is Emma.”

“Eh-ma,” she repeats with the utmost concentration, sounding out my name like she’s tasting it.

“Right. Second question: What can you tell me about ‘that bitch’ I was with last time.”

Raindrop cocks her head sideways and frowns in concentration. “Okay, wait, I know this one too... ehm, lemme think.”

Seconds pass. I can feel a headache start to form. “Just... tell me anything you know about her, and I’ll give you a point.”

She perks up. “She’s a Visitor like you! Do I get a point?”

A Visitor? Interesting. “You do!”

Raindrop lets out an excited warble. “I love this game!”

“Me too! Second question, what’s a Visitor?”

She giggles. “That’s almost too easy. A Visitor is someone from outside the Realm of Imagination, who’s stopping by for a visit.”

The Realm of Imagination? Is she saying... this is another Realm?

I clear my throat. “Right you are, another point! Next question, how do Visitors get here?”

Raindrop frowns. “Ooh... you’re increasing the difficulty. Mmmmmmmmmmmm. Okay, I do know Visitors don’t come here entirely; they leave part of themselves behind.”

“Are you talking about their physical form?” I ask.

She perks up. “Yes, that!”

I nod. “You get a point, but ehm, this is a multi-point question, so what else do you know?”

“I also know there are some Visitors like that bitch you were with, that bring others here to play. Though they never let me join.” She pouts again, if you can call it that.

“Okay, that’s... half a point. But how do they get here?” Come on, give me a clue at least!

Raindrop shrugs. “I dunno, how do people do anything? Don’t they just use Imagination?”

I frown. Something about the way she said it seems to suggest a bigger meaning of Imagination than what I’m used to. “Imagination... is that something like Espir?”

She giggles. “No, silly, Espir powers your Imagination.”

“Right, of course. That’s another half-point, but now for a full three points: how do they use their Imagination to get here?”

She huffs. “This question is too hard, Eh-ma. Can’t you give me a hint?”

I blink. “Ehm, actually, I really don’t know.”

She giggles. “What? Don’t be silly, Eh-ma. You’re here, aren’t you?”

How is she making this much sense all of a sudden?! Maybe I need to try a different approach. I clear my throat. “Well, yes, I do know one way to get here, but I can’t use it again. So... if you want me to come play with you again, I’m going to need your help to find a way to come back here.”

A serious look overtakes her face. “Help. Okay, I can do that. Let me think.”

She closes her eyes with a frown. I check my Espir. Only four motes left? I still don’t know what happens when I run out... but I have to find a way to come back here before I leave!

The seconds tick by. Just when I’m about to interrupt her thought process, Raindrop opens her eyes with a triumphant squawk. “I’ve got it! Someone taught me a trick once to help find her in the Realm of Imagination! All you have to do is Imagine something and give it to me, then later you can follow your connection to it to find your way back to me!”

Raindrop holds out her claw-like hand towards me, beaming happily.

Sounds like she took the finding part literally... actually, this might still work though. But I don’t exactly have Espir to spare.

After a moment’s hesitation, I grab my bird flute and put it in her hand. “Will this work?”

Her eyes go wide. “A whistle that calls birds? Goddess that’s cool! How the flap did you Imagine this?!”

“Will this work?” I repeat. “Because most objects I conjure—I mean, Imagine—fall apart after a while.”

She nods happily and hangs it around her neck from a string that appears out of nowhere. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep it intact. I’ll treasure it forever!”

I sigh in relief, before a wave of exhaustion—the worst one so far—washes over me. When Raindrop turns her eyes back towards me, her eyes go wide. I glance down, following her gaze. My legs are transparent.

“Eh-ma, you’re Fading,” she cries out. “You better leave before you run out of Espir. I know playing is fun, but we can play some other time!”

Oh shit.

I swallow heavily. “Raindrop, how do I leave?”

She looks at me in alarm. “Why are you asking me? I never leave; I live here. You’re the visitor!”

I barely keep them my eyelids from fluttering shut. They feel like they weigh a ton. “Come on, Raindrop, you must know something. We won’t be able to play anymore if I Fade.” I think.

She starts moving her head around erratically, her eyes flicking all over the place. “Ehm, ehm, ehm... I don’t know! Can’t you just follow that tether?”

I blink. “What tether?”

She points at my stomach. “There, that thing coming from your belly.”

Is there really something there? I blink, then glance down. At first, I don’t see anything, but then I squint, and a vague outline appears. Something long and thin kind of protrudes out of my bellybutton, and from there disappears in an unclear direction. Is it like an umbilical cord? No...

I grab onto it, and its appearance stabilizes. “It’s a chain,” I mutter in wonder.

“Sure,” Raindrop chirps with a shrug. “It’s a chain.”

I frown. “Wait, am I really seeing it or am I imagining it?”

Raindrop cocks her head. “What’s the difference? Look, we’ve no time for riddles, Eh-ma, you’re Fading fast! You have to follow your chain and leave.”

I follow the chain with my gaze, to where it disappears in the clouds high above us.

“And just how am I supposed to do that?”

“You have to use your Imagination, Eh-ma!” Raindrop chitters. “Quick, while you still can!”

Use my Imagination? But how? Unless...

I narrow my eyes, grab onto the chain with both hands, and yank it twice.

For a split second, nothing happens. Then the chain is almost wrenched out of my hands as it begins retracting. A wave of exhaustion washes over me, but I hold on by the skin of my teeth.

Raindrop flies up to follow me for a bit, but she soon can’t keep up as I’m being pulled upwards at increasing speed.

“Bye Eh-ma,” she chirps happily. “Come back soooon!”

My vision begins to blur as I’m pulled into a dark void filled with swirls of light, and I black out.

Author's note:

Thanks for reading! ^^

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