I turn the camera over in my hands. It’s an old model. One I desperately wanted as a child but could never afford. That my parents could never afford.
Kaitlynn squeals and runs over. She snatches the picture from my hands, looks at it, and starts to laugh. “Oh my god, this is amazing! Where did you even get that camera?”
“I’m... not sure. Suri, can you explain what’s going on here?”
[You seem to have conjured some kind of device, Emma.]
“Really? I conjured it? But how, exactly? Also, is this thing real?” I wave the camera up and down as I talk, testing the feel of it in my grip. It definitely feels solid...
[You’ve conjured it in the exact same way as you’ve conjured objects before in the Dreamscapes I generated for you, and it’s just as real as those.]
Very real then, unlike your claims about generating Dreamscapes.
“Appraise!” Kaitlynn calls out. Then she frowns. “Kai says he can’t...”
Huh. “Suri, can you?”
[I’m afraid not, Emma. Honestly, you conjured this object; you should know its properties better than I.]
I turn it over in my hands. It looks and feels just how I’d imagine it... or should I be saying how I Imagined it? I can’t find any details like a serial number on it or something that I wouldn’t know, so I’m leaning towards the latter. “Well, doesn’t it have, like, a Toughness stat?”
[It’s not real, Emma. It isn’t made of matter, only Espir. It may feel real to your hands, but it can’t truly physically affect things in this Realm.]
Well, that’s an easy claim to test. I kneel down and press the camera into the sand.
Kaitlynn scrunches up her nose. “What are you doing?”
“Seeing if it’ll leave a mark,” I reply.
I press down on the camera, and contrary to Suri’s claims, the sand moves aside. However, when I pick it back up, the displaced sand falls back to become just as smooth as it was before.
I frown and attempt to use it like a kind of shovel to displace a bunch of sand, but again, the sand seems to just return to where it was seconds before. I try to flick a shell away with it next, but it moves around the camera with the displaced sand, and ends up exactly where it started.
“Okay, that is freaky,” Kaitlynn says.
“Tell me about it,” I mutter. Either Suri is expertly fucking with me, or she’s telling the truth.
At the very least, I can tell that the camera contains Espir. As does the picture, to a lesser degree.
“Are they here permanently?” I ask.
[No. They’ll fade away if you stop paying attention to them for a while.]
“That’s too bad...” Though it explains a lot.
Kaitlynn shoots me a questioning look, so I explain.
“Aww,” she says with a pout. “I wanted to keep this picture. Loudmouth looks so cute!”
Loudmouth looks up from his already half-empty bowl of seaweed. “Loudmouth not cute. Loudmouth tough and cool!”
“Sure thing, buddy,” I tell him over Kaitlynn’s giggles.
Suddenly, Kaitlynn takes the camera from me, and kisses me on the cheek. I freeze in surprise. A flash erupts from the camera, and a polaroid rolls out. Kaitlynn takes one look at it, and bursts into laughter.
I frown. “What’s so funny? Hey, let me see!”
She runs off, waving the picture at me with a big grin. This is a provocation I obviously can’t ignore.
Since my legs are quite long, I catch up pretty quickly, and send us tumbling down into the sand. I tickle her, and she squeals and struggles to turn around.
I end up straddling her thighs, with my face hovering right over hers, pressing her wrists down in the sands. Her laughter fades into a knowing smile.
My eyes flick down to her lips. I swallow thickly.
I shouldn’t. We can’t. When we get back to Earth—
Kaitlynn leans up and presses her lips against mine. They’re just as soft and warm as I remember. My thoughts fade as I melt into the kiss with a sigh.
We spend several minutes making out before I manage to pull away.
Taking in Kaitlynn’s flushed appearance and wide, happy grin, guilt washes over me. I avoid her gaze as I get up and say something about meeting up with the rest for breakfast.
I still help her up when she reaches for my hand, and don’t resist when she continues to cling to it as we walk away afterwards.
That’s my problem. I can’t deny her anything.
Anything but the truth about my sexuality, apparently.
A wave of stress washes over me when the boys come into view, and I quickly drop Kaitlynn’s hand before they spot us. She seems to take it in stride, even if her smile looks a little less radiant than before.
Kaitlynn happily shows off the picture of her and Loudmouth to the rest, and I quickly summarize what I’ve learned about it.
Dave’s eyes light up, and he studies my camera with restrained enthusiasm.
I can tell he’s holding himself back from fear of giving away exactly how interested he is in Espir. I just hope Suri and co aren’t paying such close attention.
He snaps a picture of Alec making a dumb face at the camera, and chuckles at the result. “Fascinating,” he murmurs. “Have you tried conjuring anything else?”
“No, not yet.”
He stares at me expectantly.
“Ehm, any suggestions?” I ask.
“Ooh,” Alec exclaims, sticking up his hand.
I point at him. “Yes, you, with the funny looking nose.”
“Uncalled for! But you can make up for it by conjuring me a cheeseburger.”
Huh. I shrug. “Guess that’s as good a suggestion as anything.”
Right, I can do this. It shouldn’t be too hard; I’ve conjured things inside the Realm of Imagination lots of times.
I take a deep breath and hold out my hand, trying to picture a cheeseburger on it. Everyone quiets and watches.
Jacob lightly coughs.
“Awkward,” Alec whispers.
I roll my eyes. “Sheesh, give me a minute.”
I frown at my hand and try to focus fully on the idea of a cheeseburger, the way it looks, smells, tastes...
I’m still missing something, and by now, it feels pretty obvious what it is.
I connect to my Espir. It stirs, and some of it immediately moves to my hand.
All of a sudden, I’m holding a burger. It feels warm on my hand, and some of the sticky cheese drips down onto my thumb.
Damn. That looks delicious!
I throw a calculating glance at Alec. His eyes widen, and he immediately attempts to snatch the burger.
I twist away and take a bite.
My eyes roll up. It’s been so long...
“Nooo,” Alec wails. “My burger!”
I attempt to swallow the bite I took, however my oesophagus remains disappointingly empty. I pull back to frown at the burger.
It’s whole again.
I hand it to Alec. He squeals happily. I absentmindedly go to lick the cheese off my thumb, but it’s gone.
Alec moans loudly as he takes a bite, but ends up looking frustrated when he tries to swallow as well.
He sighs. “It tastes so good, but it just makes me hungrier.” He hesitates, then takes another bite, first moaning in delight, then groaning in disappointment.
I shake my head. Idiot.
Dave starts asking questions about how I do it, and I explain, but his attempts to replicate the feat quickly run into the wall that is Espir.
He says he’s conjured some things during a Skilldream once, but he’s never contacted his Espir outside of those.
It seems like I’m the only one capable of pulling this off, for now.
Alec eventually gives up on my burger and dejectedly puts it down on the leaf that serves as his breakfast plate this morning.
“I hate tempering,” he complains. “At least with Electric Energy. I can never tell when the next zap is coming, and it drives me completely bonkers! Last night I couldn’t maintain a trance to save my life, let alone train any Qi Skills.” He glares at me, like it’s somehow my fault. I stick out my tongue at him.
“Well, a Vibration tempering isn’t very fun either,” Jacob grumbles. “I plugged my ears the entire time, but they’re still ringing. It just kept getting louder and louder. At one point I feared my bones might be coming loose.”
“Maybe fashion some ear-plugs for next time,” I suggest. “Anyway, how much did your Tolerances go up?”
Alec sighs. “From 16.3 to 24.4.”
Jacob scratches his neck. “5.1 to 15.9.”
Dave frowns. “That seems significantly less than the results Kaitlynn and Emma obtained.”
I lean forward and narrow my eyes at Alec. “How long were you inside for?”
“As long as I could stand it,” he snaps back. “Jacob wasn’t in for much longer.”
“There might be other factors at play as well,” Dave muses. “Differences between the various elements. Individual compatibility with specific elements...”
I sit back with a sigh. “Right. Suri did once say my compatibility with Toxic Energy is, like, unprecedented. I guess there’s nothing to it. We don’t exactly have the time and resources to test out everyone’s compatibility with different elements or something like that, we’ll just need to keep tempering until we reach 45%.”
“Easy for you to say,” Alec grumbles. He suddenly looks up and pales. “Oh god, am I going to have to temper every night once you’re done?”
I snort. “You think I’d let you hog it? In your dreams. I’m tempering Cold after I’m done with Toxic Energy.”
He looks at me with an interesting mixture of gratitude and revolt. “You beautiful, crazy masochist.”
When the rest starts to laugh, despite myself, I join them. Dave chalks it up as another point to Alec.
I still get the last laugh when Alec, still chuckling, reaches down for his burger, only to find it has already faded out of existence. Too bad the camera is gone too.
After breakfast, I take Dave out into the Hydrum to teach him how to swim like a proper merman, while Alec and Jacob continue their practice of breathing. Kaitlynn said something about playing with Loudmouth, allowing him some freedom of movement after being tied up for so long. I made sure she promised to keep him inside, at least, and have one of the boys within hearing range at minimum.
Though I seem to be making way at turning Loudmouth, I don’t want to leave any room for funny business.
Anyway, since only two people can temper a night, we still have enough crystals for days, so there’s no real rush yet to go hunting. The corners of the Hub are huge too, and densely populated, so I’m not too worried about there actually being a lack of crystals. Dave estimated, from what limited data we have, that everyone should manage to reach 45% Tolerance in the span of at most 10 temperings, hopefully fewer.
Still, I hope Jacob and Alec hurry up and gain Breath Control too, so we can go out with a full party. They both have Skills very suited to hunting under-Hydrum, after all. Definitely more so than Dave.
While I teach him, it’s also easy to find excuses to touch him, and send him some surreptitious messages. We manage to discuss most of what happened to me in the Realm of Imagination over the course of his lesson.
Dave is worried about how long the bird-calling whistle I made will last. Since it’s supposed to serve as a beacon for me to home in on and find my way back to the Realm of Imagination under my own power, it would be rather a problem if it faded away before I got there again.
If what Suri explained earlier about conjured objects disappearing when you stop paying attention to them for a while holds true, then my bird-brained friend might be not the most reliable partner in this. In fact, it might already be gone.
Guess I’ll have to find an excuse not to try and Charm Loudmouth tomorrow. Or maybe having an afternoon nap or something could help restore my Espir? That would be less suspicious, for sure, but it might not be enough...
Still, it’s worth a try. I could even have Kaitlynn suggest it. I’ll have to find a time to catch her up as well, perhaps at dinner tonight.
And then, it’ll be time for my next tempering.
I look at my designated oyster apprehensively. It’s just an hour, Emma.
Less, most likely. Especially since there’s still Toxic Energy in my system. I did eat a Blue Angel to try and get it down a little further.
Why the hell did I do that again? Oh right, cause I’m a friggin’ masochist.
I’m not, really. I just wanted more time in the oyster, because it’s a great opportunity to practise Qi Skills. Almost regretting it now, though.
Dave’s not looking any more enthusiastic. “Well, time to see what being irradiated feels like in this Realm. While stuck in a small space, under-Hydrum, that’s not unlike a coffin in shape.”
I pat him on the shoulder in sympathy. “You’ll be fine. Just make sure you stay conscious so you can pull out in time. What Skill are you going to practise?”
He sighs shakily. “Amplify. I’m hoping to get it to the third level, eventually. It’ll allow me to maintain control over the Vibration Energy in my arrows for longer, so I can actively direct it into my targets.”
I nod. “Sounds pretty neat.” The oysters begin to grind open. “All right, here we go. Good luck!”
Dave turns to smile at me. “You too.”
I dive down, enter my oyster before I can change my mind, and drop a Toxic Energy Crystal inside. The shell closes around me.
As the Hydrum around me begins to fill up with Lavi, Qi, and Toxic Energy, I pull out my Focus Crystal and close my eyes.
Now, what did Positive Inertial Energy feel like again?
The image of Calyx going through a series of motions appears in my mind’s eye.
I fill my Focus Crystal with Qi and get to work.
So, I got myself tested for COVID-19 today, will get results in 48 hours. They took a swab of my throat and nose, not a very pleasant procedure, but at least it was over with quickly.
Don't worry though, it's probably nothing. I had a mild case of a sore throat which is nearly gone by now, but since I'm a teacher, I want to make sure I'm clear to go to work on Monday. ^^
Other than that, I'm working hard on getting ready for publication. The first e-book is pretty much done, just adding bells and whistles at this point (front and back matter). Next week I'm going to start planning out the launch phase with my marketing guy. (Yes, I have a marketing guy; he's in my Pathfinder party. Come to think of it, so is my entire writing group, by now... Huh. ^^)
Anyway, if you're anxious to find out if I have the virus or not, check the Discord sometime late on Sunday (Invite link), and I'll let you guys know. ^^
Thanks for reading! And don't forget to hit that big green button and vote on your way out ;)