I crack my eyes open a sliver, and a blue blur swims in my vision. As I open them further, I’m relieved to find it’s Kaitlynn and not Raindrop.
“Emma! Oh, thank goodness—are you okay?” she rattles off quickly.
Hmm. That sounded a little rehearsed. I hope our AI’s won’t get suspicious. At least the concern in her eye looks very genuine.
“Yeah I think I’m okay,” I mumble, my voice raspy with disuse. I blink and attempt to sit up, but black spots appear in my vision and I drop back into her lap weakly.
Kaitlynn catches and cradles my head in her hands. “Woah, easy there,” she says, smiling a watery smile. “You’ve been entirely unresponsive and unmoving for over an hour. If it weren’t for the fact that you were still breathing, we’d have thought you were dead!” Good, she’s starting to sound more natural.
Dave appears in my vision, looking exhausted but relieved. “You really gave us a fright there, Emma. We tried all kinds of things to wake you up—I even attempted to Restore you—but nothing seemed to work, and our Personal Guide Systems weren’t much help either. Do you have any clue what happened?”
Not bad Dave, not bad.
I groan and stretch my stiff muscles, content to lie in Kaitlynn’s lap for a little while longer. “You know, I haven’t the foggiest. It feels kinda like I’m waking up from a Skilldream, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t learned anything... it’s all kind of a blur.”
That’s a lie. I remember what happened pretty darn well. Seems like the process of receiving a Skilldream might contain some intentional obfuscation of our memories. Sly bastards.
Now for the real test, to see if we’re pulling this off.
“Suri, do you have any idea what happened to me?”
[I do indeed. You seem to have ingested the Carriage of Dreams, as it was mixed in with your snacks for some reason.]
Oh boy, she sounds pissed. I hope she’s not on to us!
“The Carriage of Dreams?” I murmur. “Right! That shroom I found. You’re saying I’ve been tripping balls for the last hour?”
[Something like that, yes,] Suri chimes in a clipped tone. [Judging by how long you were out, you nearly stayed in it. I bet it was Rose. I don’t know how she pulled it off, but this is just like her, the jealous bitch. You need to beware that Dave boy from now on, you hear me?]
Oh wow, she’s way off base! This is perfect! Still, I gotta act natural...
I frown. ‘I trust Dave with my life, Suri,’ I subvocalize. ‘And it was Kaitlynn who handed out the snacks, whom I suspect is even less willing to harm me. Can’t this just have been a freak accident?’
It’s silent for a beat.
[Perhaps. Just do me a favour and be careful, Emma. You’ve done such a good job in the Trials so far, it would just be a terrible waste for you to lose your life now.]
‘That we can agree on,’ I send back. Though I’m more concerned with getting out of here than overcoming these shitty Trials.
I make another attempt to sit up, and this time succeed. I glance at the Status Bar in the corner of my eye.
Oof. Looks like I had very little Espir left, by the end.
I frown. Actually, I had very little Espir when I went in since I used it all trying to Charm that damn froggo.
Then I realize something that makes my brows rise to my hairline. My Espir pool has expanded! By 50% no less, as I’m pretty sure it was at 14 Onkh. Is this all the effect of the Carriage of Dreams? Did the influx of Espir replenish my pool as well as increase its size?
I’m itching to share this and all of my experiences with Dave and start theorizing, but trying to surreptitiously discuss my findings right now would be incredibly foolhardy. Therefore—as we’d planned beforehand—we quickly retire to bed now that I’m awake again.
As I suspect is becoming our new norm, Kaitlynn is the little spoon. I’m still caught off-guard however when she wriggles around in my arm to daringly kiss me goodnight on the lips.
Yup. Definitely caught off-guard. That’s why I just smile and tell her to go to sleep, instead of explaining to her we really shouldn’t as it’ll just lead to heartbreak in the future.
Guess I’m building another house of cards, waiting to see when it will collapse. When will I learn?
The next morning, I quietly extract myself from Kaitlynn’s embrace and head out of our hut.
I stretch in the Twinstar’s warm glow. “Status Window please.”
Hmm. No change in my Mental Fortitude yet. Then again, I was only in the Dreamscape—I mean, the Realm of Imagination—for a little over an hour. I’ll have to be careful not to call it that out loud...
At least my Espir is full again. However, now I’m faced with a dilemma. If I’m going to try and get back into the Realm of Imagination, I’ll need to have all of my Espir, but I also need it to practise using Charm on the Froggo. And it would be suspicious if I suddenly gave that up right now...
Perhaps it would be better to hold off on trying to go back there for a bit, so I can at least get a chance to share my findings with Dave and Kaitlynn. We’re in a pretty stable situation right now, so we can probably afford to lay low for a bit, so it at least seems random when I suddenly, ‘accidentally,’ enter the Realm of Imagination.
Though I’ll first have to actually manage that.
For now, my goal is clear. Drain my Espir by practising Charm, and hope that my Espir Pool grows a bit in the process of refilling while I sleep.
I head for Loudmouth’s hut.
As I get close, a loud rattling noise grows more and more prominent. At one point I have an irrational fear that Loudmouth is using a chainsaw to cut through his bindings, but when I enter the hut with fingers plugging my ears, I find him snoring.
Since my hands are occupied, I kick him lightly in the leg.
Loudmouth wakes with a startled croak. “Ba-bad monkey! Leave Loudmouth alone!”
I unplug my ears with a sigh. “Good morning to you too, Loudmouth.” His oddly wide pupils follow me warily as I take a seat on a little stool in front of him. “So, are you going to tell me your name today?”
“Loudmouth will never tell you!” Loudmouth croaks loudly.
I smirk. “Right. Let’s see about that.” I take out my Focus Crystal and give Loudmouth a slightly larger dose of Dreamcloud Energy than last time. His jaw goes slack.
I close my eyes for second and easily find and activate my Espir. Now that’s more like it!
I put on a winning smile and try to visualize being completely irresistibly Charming. A kind of heat fills my eye as I gaze at the bound froggo in front of me. “Now, Loudmouth,” I say softly, “are you sure you don’t want to tell me your name?”
Loudmouth’s eyes fixate on mine and he swallows audibly. “Name... name is Loudmouth.”
I did it! Frig yeah!
The window that pops up is the cherry on top of my victory pie.
I take a deep breath and manage to calm my wildly beating heart.
I give Loudmouth a slight smile. “Good boy. Now, why don’t you tell me a little about yourself? How did you get your name?”
Loudmouth has a dopey smile on his face as he looks at me. He swells up a little in pride at the question. “Loudmouth got name from chief!” he practically shouts in my face. “Chief said Loudmouth have very loud mouth, that’s why name should be Loudmouth!”
“Really now, the chief herself?” I ask, fighting to maintain my poker face. “That’s great. And what were you doing when we found you?”
Loudmouth blinks dazedly. “Chief said Loudmouth best at sounding alarm,” he brags. “That’s why Loudmouth get many guard duty at the oyster cave. Many many guard duty.”
He actually looks a little wistful. I frown. “You were there on your own, right? Was that usually the case?”
Loudmouth looks down, breaking eye contact with me. “Yeah, Loudmouth mostly...” He trails off and frowns. “Loudmouth feel funny... Why is Loudmouth answering questions?”
Hmm. Looks like he needs to look at me for Charm to work.
I’m burning through my Espir quickly, so I grab his chin and force him to look at me again. “You were lonely weren’t you, Loudmouth? Did you have friends at all?”
His eyes go blank as he looks at me. Then his face droops.
Damn. Looks like I was right on the money. I’m honestly starting to feel bad for him, but this is exactly the kind of in I need. “You know, I could be your friend if you want... Loudmouth.”
His gaze turns surprised, then he lights up. “Really? Loudmouth can have friend?”
Oh, you poor frog.
I smile at him. “You can have several.”
Loudmouth’s initial enthusiasm dims a bit when my Espir runs out. The way he looks at me has definitely changed, however. His eyes are still wary, but less hostile, and more confused.
Still, it’s too soon to release him, so I check his bindings and leave as Kaitlynn comes in to bring him breakfast.
He openly drools at the food this time. “Maybe Loudmouth will try just a little bite... to see if it’s poisoned.”
Kaitlynn lights up at his concession.
Good lord. I wish I had a camera to capture this moment.
I shake my head fondly.
If this were the Realm of Imagination, I could just wave my hand and conjure one.
Kaitlynn glances at me and narrows her eyes in suspicion. “What are you grinning at, weirdo?”
I smirk and bring my hands up to mime snapping a shot at her. The moment I pretend to press the button however, I feel a click.
Bewildered, I pull the camera in my hands down from my eyes. A polaroid rolls out depicting Kaitlynn as she strikes a ridiculous pose, with Loudmouth in the background, drooling and trying to surreptitiously stretch out his tongue towards some seaweed.
What the hell?
Man, these are weird times. On the one hand, I want to go out there and join a protest, on the other hand, people really shouldn't be congregating right now.
Somebody should come up with a better way to protest. ^^
Hope you're all staying safe and healthy!
As always, thanks for reading, and you can hit that big green button if you feel like dropping a vote!