The great blue feline, lying on a soft double mattress with his eyes closed, let his mind and soul relax into a state of tranquillity, except for that single thought.
On the other side of the mattress was a small, yet thick, black disc. It hummed, maybe in a tone of acknowledgement. From within its black casing, a light started to glow, a hemisphere of brightness that expanded, breaching the disc's shell. A tendril grew from the hemisphere, snaking its way to the feline's temple, and entering it. Despite the presence of the tendril within him, the feline remained relaxed, unmoving, and thinking nothing at all. The tendril spread throughout the body, touching the mind, enveloping the soul. As it did so, it changed colour, from pale orange to bright cornflower blue. The hemisphere continued to grow, and it took a new shape, echoing that of the feline that it had attached too. Limbs, a head, a tail; all these were taking shape and gaining definition. The tendril reached into the deepest part of the mind, collecting every last detail. Large beads of luminescence started moving along the string of light that connected the two felines, from the real thing to the glowing simulacra. Information, straight from the mind, and an exact copy of the soul, separated into drops. Despite being relaxed, the feline could feel his mind and soul being snatched away from his body. All his memories were leaking out, leaving behind only copies that were locked in limbo. His brain was in flux, old and new memories were being jumbled and reassembled, causing him to envision dreamscapes that looked so realistic, yet there were minor details that gave away the illusion. Carrying the final remnants of his soul, the tendril detached itself from the prime body and retracted into the radiant copy. The light started to solidify and become corporeal, dimming its colour and gaining a distinct pattern. The smooth surface spiked into a fine fur that, if touched, would be indistinguishable from the real feline's pelt. The cloud of mental energy formed into a fully functioning mind that made nerve connections throughout the body.
A pair of eyes.
A pair of eyes opened slowly, blinking a few times.
They saw a great blue feline, lying on the mattress, not moving, not even breathing…
... yet still thinking.
Syradeus Shalan was a researcher who possessed the power to become an energy ghost… or rather, to create an energy ghost. He possessed a powerful battery that contained a grand amount of energy that could decompress itself and form an exact duplicate of Syra's body, which could be controlled mentally. To "go active", the battery had to be nearby, and a combination of intense relaxation and strong concentration were needed to channel the essence of Syra's mind and soul into a new body. But from then on, the mental link between the two bodies could stretch to infinity. Syra's prime body was crippled; despite being able to walk, he struggled with climbing and swimming. For his research missions in hazardous environments, his e-ghost was active in the field, while his prime body remained within his apartment, watched over by his flatmates. Although it was not moving while the e-ghost was active, the prime body could still be damaged, and the mental link meant that any pain experienced by the prime body would be felt by the energy-ghost; a fact that could affect missions terribly.
It was his flatmates that entered Syra into the Race for Aleria. He didn't want any fame or fortune… but the thought of all he could earn from the hides of the tyrannical dragons was enticing… and he had made it through the first round. Syra felt glad in the thought that his flatmates were thinking they had made a good decision in signing him up. His first round was exhilarating to say the least, and he anticipated his next challenge.
Syra looked at his curled up prime body, lying on the mattress. He had gone to lengths to inform the residents of the checkpoint not to disturb his body; there wasn't any pen and paper on hand. His word of mouth plan had been successful; he hadn't experienced any spasms of pain while active.
The prime body was wearing an unusual accessory: a harness like multi-strapped bandolier. Syra's e-ghost put his hand softly on the bandolier, and took hold of it. As he did, the bandolier reacted to the presence of great energy. The three fastenings on the left side of Syra Prime's body loosened, the plastic joints receding. Syra carefully lifted the bandolier, sliding the trapped parts gently from underneath the weight of Syra Prime's body, and around his tail. With the bandolier in both hands, Syra folded it together multiple times; as he did so, the fabric fibres fused together, simplifying the bandolier into a single loop with a deep pocket. From a hollow space underneath the mattress, Syra picked up a long turquoise gadget, and slipped it into the pocket. He hoisted the bandolier around his front right haunch, and headed off to the checkpoint garden.
Syra had scheduled to meet a friend of his, Chigi Taj, in the garden. Clocks had been erected throughout the checkpoint; however, they did not tick forward. They all counted down... down to zero, when the second round of the Race of Aleria would commence. Syra had planned going active well; he'd arrive at the garden with Chigi just arrived. He stepped outdoors, into the checkpoint's stormy perimeter. The sky was always dark here; the sun could never penetrate the massive thunderhead that eternally loomed over the checkpoint. Syra wondered why on Eama they chose to construct the checkpoint here. For seclusion? At least they had installed a forcefield around the place. Gazing up into the stormy sky, Syra walked around to the garden. But when he got there, he saw not the fuzzy white creature he expected to see, but a slightly taller green being with stubby legs, a bush on the top of her body, and flowers and berries growing on her.
"Er… you're not Chigi, right?"
"Chigi? Er… no, I'm Leah. Chigi was… er…" Leah casted her mind back to the past, trying to remember who Chigi was in this race. "Er… fuzzy white thing? Like a chameleon? Rather twitchy?"
"Yep. That's Chigi. Chigi Taj, my room-mate back in the Eama Capitol. It was nice to see that he had won, he was really nervous, as you saw in the teleporter room. He really had a tough time against his opponent, Quentin. One of the great surprises of Round 1 was Chigi's victory. Hmm… I wonder where he is. He was supposed to meet me here right now…"
"Here I am!" said a voice from behind. Up came Chigi, the cute and fuzzy contestant with a fluffy, flexible, far-reaching tail, curled up upon his back. "Hey there, Syra, sorry for the wait. That food that Riley serves is delicious! Can't get enough of it. So, who's this you're talking to? Oh… is that… no…"
"What? What's the matter, Chigi?" asked Leah, looking at Chigi's gaze. It seemed to be focused on one of the berries growing on Leah's bushy back.
"No… nothing… I was mistaken… I thought that berry was… but it wasn't… but it still looks delicious!" Chigi suddenly let out a long thin tongue, which zipped out at lightning speed, and snatched off the berry from Leah's back. "Hope you don't mind, Leah", said Chigi through a mouth full of fruit.
"Oh, I don't mind. It'll grow back, that's what berries do."
"Well, Chigi's here." said Syra. "Fancy staying around to chat with us, Leah?"
"Oh sure", said Leah, happily. "What does Chigi think?"
"Oh, she can stay. Hopefully she'll grow a few more berries for me! So, what do you want to chat about, Syra?"
It was a nice conversation. Leah got involved too, and Syra and Chigi eventually realised that Leah never introduced herself properly to them. Leah told them about how she arrived here from a far-off dimension. Syra looked a bit anxious when Leah mentioned coming from so far away.
"What's the matter, Syra?" she asked, a bit worried for him.
"You come from far away, right? Me too. My homeworld is a long way away from Aleria. I'm separated from my old colleagues… but I've made new friends on Aleria. They've been great; we've known each other for years now… they were the ones who entered me into the race. I didn't have any motive, but they must have seen something amazing in me and my power. And the thought of great fortune… enough for me to afford a way back home?"
"Oh, I won't need winnings to afford to get home," replied Leah. "My friends, the elemental guardians… they're working on linking up their dimension… my dimension, with this one. By the same portal I travelled through, probably. Fixing an error. Locating me. Hope they come soon… but not before I finish with the race. I'm enjoying it so much…"
"That's nice to know" said Syra, calmly. "Chigi, why not tell Leah why you're entering the race?"
"Well er…" replied Chigi, his eyeball darting around in separate directions, "remember when I saw your fruit and got excited? I thought it was… the Augu fruit. It's the only cure for a disease that is troubling my kin… and crops are so scarce, especially this… there is but one fruit left in my local shop, and its price has increased manifold. The winnings from the Race of Aleria are the only way I can afford it, I feel… this race matters so much… no wonder I'm so nervous all the time…"
"There there, Chigi… we all love you" said Syra. He leaped up, pouncing at midair, the battery within him shining brightly, light permeating through his fur. As he did so, his form became more ethereal, and changed to a new bipedal stance, his forelegs becoming arms, his forepaws gaining opposable thumbs. His bandolier passed through his shining body, gripping firmly around his waist as it became corporeal again. The fabric loop had split in two, with a lower, thicker loop gripping his right leg. Syra crouched, and picked up Chigi, stroking his fuzzy white fur to comfort his shakiness.
"Thank you, Syra…" said Chigi, very happily.
Syra put Chigi down, and looked at Leah's awed face. "So, impressed by the abilities of the energy ghost? That's great…" As Syra opened the pocket of her bandolier, another entrant arrived at the garden, speaking in a mysterious language.
"Oh?" said Syra, looking at the new arrival while slipping the turquoise object from his pocket over his right hand; some sort of high-tech gauntlet? "Er… what did you say again?" asked Syra to the newcomer, while looking at his gauntlet, and interacting with the display it projected, hovering above his palm. As the newcomer repeated her phrase, the gauntlet inputted the audio, and displayed a translation.
"She says that she's interested in me because I changed shape…"
The foreign creature continued to speak in her tongue, with Syra reaching out with her gauntlet, perhaps in a bid to get a clear translation. Her fur was predominately orange, with a black mane, stripes, paws, and tail, and a white underbelly, and she had black feathery wings. Around her front wrists she wore bracelets. Around her right wrist, a bracelet made of jagged mineral, with white twine knotted around it. Around her left, a bracelet of purple fabric, studded with metal.
"Her name is Tyger," read Syra from her gauntlet's display, "and she's a Regit. She comes from afar too, and she's a rarity on her planet. They're a noble race… Tyger…" Syra looked down and spoke into his gauntlet. "Mind if I scan you? It's for science. You won't be harmed." Tyger nodded her head.
"Oh, I ought to explain. This is my data reader. It stores a lot of information, and has a lot of useful functions, and contains a dart gun at the back, but I hope not to use it violently. I'm scanning Tyger to add to the data banks. Maybe I can use this data back home in Eama, once I'm out of the race, or maybe even in my homeworld, should I return…"
Syra let a bar of light shine out of his palm, and shone it across Tyger, from many angles. "Hmm… that should do." The scanning light retracted into Syra's palm. "There. It would be good to know more about you though. You say you shapeshift…"
Tyger raised her right paw forward. "Ghan", she said. Her left paw. "Khan". Then, many more alien words. Syra's data reader listened to every one of them.
"Hmm… she doesn't want to shapeshift" dictated Syra. "Her shapeshifting abilities run on solar energy, and of course there's no way she can get that here. It takes 2-3 hours-worth of energy for her to change form, so there's no way she'll demonstrate now. But… this is interesting… what's this about magical Regit powers?"
More foreign words. More translation. More insight into Tyger's powers.
"Transformation of matter? Anything you touch?"
"Transform the bracelets? Bow and arrow? Sword? Hammer?"
"Bipedal like me? But that will take a whole round to charge up!"
"Well, that was interesting, very. Thanks for this. I wonder if any of us will face you in the next round?"
"Hey, I never showed you my transformation!" exclaimed Leah. "I'll only do it once; I don't want to waste energy either… even though I am gaining loads by resting in the garden. Look out Aleria…"
"…let all of nature within me grow bountifully… FORM ADVANCE!"
It was time to impress these rival shifters, and Leah let in all that green goodness around her into her system. She felt herself grow, full of nutrients; thorns pierced the bush on her back. "What do you think? Bear in mind I have a transformation beyond this, I'm just saving it for the next round…"
"Pretty awesome, I think." said Syra. "Tyger doesn't look impressed. What about you, Chigi?"
"I like that! Transformation AND berries! You're so great, Leah…"
Leah smiled, and as she did, a small red and yellow flower blossomed on the side of her head, just near her left ear. Chigi took a smell of its aroma. "I consider myself to have adopted this flower, you know."
"Well, goodbye." said Leah, "Not long to the race, need to get some more rest. Farewell, all!" Everyone said goodbye to Leah, as she returned to her bedroom. On the way, she passed Chi, who called her over.
"Oh hey, Chi, what's up?" greeted Leah.
"Just seeing how you're doing. I see you've used that Form Advance thing. Very interesting. And new flowers, too! I'll have to take some samples."
"No, don't! Could be painful. Just pull out a berry, that'll grow back. Oh, and I ought to get back to my first form." Leah shrank back down.
"I see you were talking to Syra. Yes, he's cute. I glomped him so much back on Eama. Maybe I should do it again… for old times' sake. You know how much I love thec ute contestants!"
"Hey, seeing you reminded me… what happened to Arezo?"
"Arezo… oh… it's… you may want to talk to her opponent, Kysar."
"That flying shark with a water tank? She… lost? Oh no… I was rooting for her!" Leah dashed off, in search of Kysar, who was found in the bedroom asleep. She looked pretty damaged compared to when Leah first saw Kysar, bruised, and with her right eye covered up by a taped-on patch. It must have been a hard-fought victory. Leah walked around, and considered waking Kysar up for information about Arezo, but looked up and saw the tank on the top of Kysar's body. There was a new fish in the tank, grey, with purple eyes. It looked oddly familiar… Arezo?
"Arezo? Is… is that you?" asked Leah to the grey fish.
"Yeah… yeah… I'm a fish now..." replied Arezo. "And I'm totally fed up of it… stuck in this tank… no freedom…"
"How did you get in there? I thought you lost the race! Only one competitor can use the exit teleport, right?"
"Well… it looks like fish are excused from that rule. It was horrible… I was running through the desert, the teleporter in sight… Kysar was right beside me; she was pretty angry, she thought that I deserved to be disqualified for attacking her. She lashed out her long prehensile tongue, and curved it around my left leg, tripping me up; the tongue spilled slimy saliva all over my foot. As I fell, my leg felt weird. It was as if all the bones in the area the tongue was touching were melting… my foot ached so much… I looked behind me at my foot, and saw fur smoothing down and turning scaly… the gaps between my toes were lengthening, the flesh between them dissolving, forming into a thin membrane. My foot was becoming webbed."
"I couldn't go around with webbed feet… if Kysar's saliva can mutate flesh, would it affect wood?"
"Who knows? But I had trouble with my webbed foot. I hobbled towards the teleporter, my webbed foot slipping around, while I used all my powers to prevent Kysar from winning. I summoned a jet of water, and blasted Kysar into the air. But what comes up must come down, and I couldn't escape the plummeting shark. Kysar landed on top of me, crushing me, with my torso right inside her jaws. As they sunk down into my body, I experienced such excruciating pain, and realised that if I wanted to escape her hold, I had to face my fear… eyeballs. I had to poke her eye out."
"So that explains the eyepatch. Three cheers for the Alerian Health Service, I suppose."
"I damaged her, but she did more damage to me. Bleeding all over my body, and drenched in saliva, I crawled along the desert, slower and slower, as my legs shortened and weakened, losing all structure, turning into fins. My tail split into two, the space between them filled with a concertina of spines. My skeleton was being mutilated, like a thousand construction workers in my body were rearranging it. My ribs felt like were being compressed in a vice, as my body got thinner and shorter, and a dorsal fin pierced through my back, shredding my shirt. I was so weak, and Kysar's tongue was wiggling all around, attempting to lick my face and complete my hideous transformation. I looked down at my hands; they were losing their fingers, but there was still a mild aura around them. I focused so hard, so painfully… send out a sandy beast to attack Kysar… I commanded it; all the while my arms became fins. As the bones broke, my construct became harder to control. Kysar smashed it, and flew towards me. Her tongue encircled my body, and lay upon my head. I couldn't get over how small I was now. As the saliva dripped down my face, I became short of breath, my respiratory system mutating. Passages were being blocked and diverted, as gills ripped open on my transforming face. I passed out, thinking nothing but memories of my past as a Lupiren. When I wake up, I was inside this tank, with no company but these guys… No escape… I want to be Lupiren again…"
"Don't worry. Unless Kysar turns me into a fish first, I'll try and find out a way to turn you back. But… becoming a fish… for me, that's a fate worse than death. The guardian of all that is green, becoming a helpless creature of the water."
"You won't be helpless. I can still use my powers, just with less strength and control. It's pretty miserable actually. All aspects of fish life are. But I've noticed something…"
"We're a lot alike, you and I. We both have the power to control the elements. Of course, you're different; you can only control one element, yet are more adept. I have powers over many, yet my skills are weaker… even more now that I'm a fish."
"Don't worry, I'll help you regain your true form. Here's hoping that Kysar wins, and me too. And I think I know which entrant to ask about a cure. I just hope he wins the next round as well. Gee, I'm tired. I'd better make like Kysar and get to bed. Round starts in a few more hours."
"Same to you…" said Arezo the fish, closing her eyes and sinking into the depths of the tank. Leah trotted off, lay on her mattress, and began resting for round two.
Hours later, it was time to make groups once more. The competitors gathered in the teleporter room. The place where they entered the checkpoint would be the place where they would leave it. The signs that once displayed where the competitors had arrived from had been blanked out, showing naught but static. In the middle of the room stood Nah'Yair, Vespera, and Carlos. Nah'Yair was checking off all of the entrants on a list, and, once she ticked the last one, she told Vespera that it was time. Vespera cleared her throat and began talking to the congregation in the room.
"So, the time has come once more to participate in a race against an opponent. Once more you'll be paired off against another of those in here, in a planet somewhere throughout Aleria. This time, you'll be racing through some more exotic locations, but same race rules apply. First to the teleporter gets sent to the next checkpoint, the loser gets picked up and sent back to Eama. However, this is one difference this time. Nah'Yair, if you would."
"Thank you, Vespera." said Nah'Yair, taking the microphone. "Now, this time, you'll all be sent to your races at the same time. Yes, that's right. This is how it's happening. Once the teleporter gates open, you can enter, one to a teleporter, not arguing. It doesn't matter which you choose. The race locations will be randomly shuffled between the teleporters once all have entered. When I press this button, the locations will freeze and be selected, and you'll all be beamed. It's fairer, but riskier… mistakes could happen. We all pray for a clean start with no accidents. So, without further ado, please enter your teleporter."
The gates opened, and the entrants made their way to their nearest teleporter. The gates closed in front of Leah. All she could see was Nah'Yair, her hands hovering above the button.
Her hands dropped, hitting the button.
"Let round two… begin!"
Leah was zapped away. Off to some exotic location…
But it's hard to call somewhere exotic when it is right in the middle of a thick thundercloud.
The floating islands of Ka'Duu'm.
Meanwhile, back in Leah's home dimension, things were going on. Once more a gathering had congregated in the main plaza, and the guardians were about to make another presentation. Viktor stood at the forefront of the stage and started his speech.
"So, welcome back. As you may have heard, or seen, this dimension is in a state. With Kai gone, there are no winds. With Leah gone, there is no growth of nature. Our food production is stagnant. And I am partly to blame, because it was my mistakes with my first portal that caused us to lose Leah. She went far off to a dimension so far away. We'll get her soon. But first, I want to show you something. My new, improved portal. The VM2. This time, we've been taking things steadily. Terra has been taking a few trips to a nearby dimension. Terra, could you come up and describe your experiences?"
Terra advanced, to applause, and a few whistles as well. "Thankyou!" she happily responded. "Well, the trips to this nearby dimension have been silky smooth! Viktor, you've done a great job constructing and stabilising the VM2. I feel really confident for the next stage. The dimension itself, I know it's nearby, because I can feel it in the air. A familiar-feeling aura, a feeling of home. The dimension is very similar too. They've got a great desert for sandboarding. Friendly folk live there. In fact, to confirm the proximity, I asked if they'd seen Kai flying around the dimension. Yes, she has visited there. Which brings me on to this: the rescue of Kai. Today, I shall be heading through the VM2, to Kai's dimension. With Viktor's new, more accurate calculations, we have pinpointed her location, and it's there where the VM2 shall take me. Hopefully I'll be returning to this stage with Kai in tow. If successful, we shall set our sights on the ultimate objective: travel to the furthest reaches. Leah's location."
"OK, everyone! Wish me luck!"
Terra leaped into the portal, as the plaza erupted into applause.