Chapter 120: Basic math
“All right, thanks anyway,” Dave says with a sigh. “Rose, end call.”
I purse my lips and fold my arms across my cuirass. The whole gang is clustered on the beach, geared up for battle and ready to go. All we need is a destination.
Dave rubs his temple. “Samuel says their groups still has even numbers, and they’re not lacking crystals, major or otherwise.”
“Same as Lily then,” Jacob mutters. “Any reaction from Calyx?”
I shake my head. “No, they again ignored my friend request. I figure they’ve blocked me by now or something.”
[They haven’t,] Suri chimes unexpectantly.
My brows raise to my hairline. “Really? That’s interesting. Are you even allowed to tell me that?”
[Oh my, I seem to have slipped up. How terrible of me.]
Very convincing, Suri.
“We all make mistakes sometimes,” I say with a grin, “don’t worry about it. Anyway, if that’s the case—and with us about to leave—I don’t see any reason to be polite about this anymore. Suri, please send Calyx a friend request once every three seconds, until they either accept or block me.”
[As you wish,] Suri chimes, sounding amused.
Alec lets out a guffaw. “Nice one, Emma.”
“31 to 6,” Dave intones.
Alec groans. “Are you seriously still keeping track of that?!”
I tune them out, counting the seconds until something happens. I’m up to about 41 when Suri breaks the news.
[Calyx has accepted your friend request.]
I smirk. “Call Calyx.”
The others whoop and cheer, but I quickly shush them. Calls are auditory after all; Calyx will be able to hear them if—
<You are annoyingly persistent, Emma,> Calyx practically growls over the line. <This better be good.>
“Good day to you too, Calyx, how’ve you been? I’m doing well, thanks for asking.”
<Yeah yeah, it’s nice to hear from you and all that. And I’m peachy,> comes the gruff, kind of quiet answer. Perhaps they don't want to be overheard? <Now what do you want?>
“I’m calling to inquire about the state of your party,” I say, “and to ask if any of you require a partner to leave the Hub with. For example: you. We, ehm, we haven’t been able to contact Bob... did something happen?”
Calyx is silent for a moment, then sighs. <Yeah. A lot happened. Bob died in our group’s failed assault on that medium island we were planning to conquer.>
“I’m sorry for your loss. He seemed like a cool guy.”
<He wasn’t,> Calyx replies with some mirth in their voice. <Total nerd. But yeah, I miss him. Anyway, his parting left us with three, so I tried to convince Peter and Mia that we should contact you guys and get me a new partner. They were a little worried that I would just end up abandoning them, however, as you guys already had an island, and only really wanted one extra to even out your numbers. Then Peter received a call from Samuel, who wanted to join forces to take an island. This seemed like a much better deal to them—equal footing in the negotiations and all—so they begged me to at least help them take the island before going off to look for a new partner.>
“I see,” I say with a frown. I don’t think I like where this is going.
<We hit the same island again,> Calyx continues. <Their defences were already weakened, and this time we were with 7 instead of 4, so it went a lot better. I helped this guy—Steve—take out the chief. I figured that was going to be it, but it turned out Steve’s partner perished in the assault. He was the healer type, supposed to stay out of the engagement, but he got snuck up on by a Hoplite from behind. Poor bastard never saw him coming. And well...>
“You stuck around as Steve’s new partner,” I conclude with a sigh.
<Bingo. Leaving at that point seemed like a dick move. I, uh, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about it sooner, though. I guess I felt guilty about letting you down, or whatever.>
I’m quiet for a moment. “I forgive you. But, you do owe me.”
Calyx is quiet for a moment. <I suppose,> they agree reluctantly. <What do you want?>
I smile. “Nothing right now. Just keep that in mind. Suri, end call.”
I take a deep breath and turn to face the rest. “Looks like Samuel’s party is with six. Steve, Calyx, Bruce, some people called Peter and Mia, and Samuel himself.”
Dave frowns. “That might complicate Operation Weakest Link. Do we need to consider alternatives?”
I shake my head. “It remains our best bet, with the smallest risk of escalation.”
Kaitlynn huffs out a breath. “I still don’t like this plan. Does it have to be to the death?”
I sigh. “There’s an odd number of participants in this Hub, Kait, and it seems like all those left either already made it or are going to make it to Level Three. In the end, someone has to die. All we’re doing is taking it in our own hands to decide who, and making sure it’s not one of us.”
Kaitlynn is quiet for a moment. “It’s not that I don’t get it, it just... I don’t like it. It feels like we’re crossing a line, doing something inhumane.”
Dave nods. “I don’t like it either, Kaitlynn, but it just makes too much sense from a strategic point of view to abandon the plan on moral grounds.”
“I don’t really see the problem,” Alec says with a shrug. “The end result is the same; one person dies.”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes. It’s good Willpower training.
I take in Kaitlynn’s sombre expression and hesitate. “You know, you don’t have to come with...”
She frowns at me. “What? No, of course I’m coming. Even if I can’t agree with the plan, I wouldn’t leave you to go through something like taking another human’s life without emotional support.”
“Of course, this is all assuming Emma wins,” Jacob grumbles, looking kind of constipated.
I face him with a smirk. “You already saved the day once, Jacob. You gotta leave something for me to do. Moreover, I promised to stop at nothing to get you—to get us a sixth. And I keep my promises.”
Jacob smiles wryly but nods his head.
“Anyway,” Dave adds, “that’s another reason we need to take matters in our own hands: there’s no telling how the Hoig are going to respond to what happened at their stronghold, so it would be wise to strive for a rapid departure.”
I nod. “Right, that little terrorist strike from Jacob and Loudmouth probably really poked the hornet’s nest.”
Loudmouth sighs softly.
I grimace and turn to face him. “Sorry, that was insensitive. I know you didn’t mean for that to happen to your people.”
Poor froggo must be devastated by how many of his kin likely died in that collapse.
Loudmouth blinks. “What? Oh no, is not that,” he croaks softly. “Loudmouth just sad Friends are leaving.”
Or not. Wait, does he even realise how many deaths he’s likely responsible for? Best not bring it up.
Kaitlynn comes over to hug him, despite the sliminess of his skin. “You know we wouldn’t leave you behind if we had any other choice, right?”
Loudmouth nods. “Loudmouth knows. Loudmouth will trust Friends come back someday, like promised.”
I nod at him determinedly. “Once we get out of this death-trap, it’ll be our first order of business. Anyway, if there are no further objections, I suggest we get moving.”
As I’m about to take my first step, however, Alec clears his throat. “Speaking of promises...” he says, trailing off with a shit-eating grin on his smug little face.
I stop and groan. Damnit, I hoped he’d forgotten about that. “Fine, fine. Let it be clear though that I’m doing this under protest and that I resent past Emma for promising this last night, even if she was drunk.”
Dave nods seriously. “Let the record state that the defendant shows what appears to be genuine remorse for her past actions. You may proceed with your statement.”
I blow out a breath through my nose in amusement, then strike a dramatic pose, fist raised high. “Blue Dragons, move out!”
My and Dave’s maps confirm that Samuel and Calyx are currently on the same island, which, not so coincidentally, is our destination.
We travel under-Hydrum, accompanied by Elizabeth and Loudmouth. He was a little wary of her at first, but now he’s clinging on to her, wearing the biggest smile ever.
The rest of us are, understandably, tense.
I’m constantly going over moves and countermoves in my head, even though I know them by heart by now. I’ve been sparring with Jacob a lot in preparation of today.
It feels like the way over takes an eternity, but eventually, inevitably, we reach the conquered froggo village Samuel and co are staying at.
<Initiating dramatic entrance,> I send to Dave for relay. I still can’t make quite enough tethers to get everyone.
Loudmouth regretfully lets go as I motion him to, and I kneel down on Elizabeth’s back.
<Leap for me, Elizabeth!>
She follows up my command enthusiastically, and launches us out of the Hydrum, heading straight for the beach.
As soon as her jets engage and she stabilizes, I stand up, brandishing my spear.
“Yo Meathead!” I shout. “Guess what? It’s time to finish what we started!”
With her jets still blazing, Elizabeth glides down slowly towards the shallows in front of the beach, providing me with an excellent view of the village in the meantime.
Several figures move about as I approach, seeming pretty frantic. One jumps off the watchtower and stumbles upon landing.
Good. We want you guys off-balance. Things’ll be easier that way.
Elizabeth touches down gently in the surf. I leap off and stride onto the beach. The rest bursts out of the Hydrum behind me and lines up next to me, but spread out, so we don’t form an easy target for potential area-affecting Skills. Like Kaitlynn’s breath attack.
Loudmouth remains in the Hydrum as promised, as back up.
I plant the butt of my spear into the sand and wait for Samuel’s team to approach us.
Samuel shows up first, carrying a spear made of purple crystal and looking highly alarmed. Steve is right behind him, carrying a sword and shield combo.
Calyx stalks over as well, wielding their staff, surprise flitting over their face. They’re followed by an unfamiliar twosome I presume must be Peter and Mia, who respectively carry a bow and arrows, and a shield and axe combo.
Finally, Bruce shows up, his face truly thunderous. He’s wielding a sword in his left hand and the stump of his right is wrapped in a leather vambrace that ends in a nasty dagger.
They remain kind of spread out as well, though less uniformly. Calyx joins Steve, standing to the right, Peter and Mia move to the left, and Bruce stops next to Samuel in the middle, straight across from me.
Judging by their horns, there are only two Level 3’s among them: Calyx and Bruce.
I have mixed feelings about the fact that he’s levelled. On the one hand, it means he’s significantly stronger, but on the other, it makes it significantly more likely that he’ll fall for my provocations.
Also, I don’t like how he looks even more muscular than before.
“You just don’t know when to let it go, do you?” he growls at me. “You f—”
“Bruce, please!” Samuel pleads. “Let’s at least try to solve this in a civil way.” Samuel plants his spear into the sand, mimicking me, and holds his hands placatingly in front of him. “Emma, I won’t pretend to know what brought on this sudden hostility, but I’m sure we can talk—”
“Tell me, Samuel,” I interrupt. “Do you know your odd numbers from your evens?”
He blinks in confusion. “Yes? I don’t...” he trails off.
Calyx’s eyebrows rise. Bruce’s frown deepens.
“I’m sure you’re aware that there’s currently seventeen participants still alive in this Hub,” I continue. “All either Level 3 or getting there. Which means there is one person too many in this Hub. And I have a pretty good idea who that person is.” I level my spear and use it to indicate Bruce.
His face darkens. “So, miss high and mighty gets to decide who lives and dies now? You really think a lot of yourself, don’t you?”
I narrow my eyes at him. “That the council allowed you to leave Hub Two after what you did was an error of justice. I’m just here to correct that.”
His eye flits back and forth over my party, holding a bit longer on Jacob. “Oh, so it’s justice? When’s my trial? Who’s representing me?”
I remain silent.
He laughs mockingly. “That’s what I thought. You call it justice, but you’re the one playing judge, jury, and executioner. I only did what I had to do, to survive!”
“Yeah, well, trying to survive is all we’re doing too,” Jacob replies coldly.
Samuel, who’s face has gone purple, draws up his chest and sputters a protest. “Preposterous! You think we’ll just stand here as you gang up on one of us? You may... all be level Three—Jesus—but there’s still six of us and only five of you!”
“Actually, I’m here to challenge Bruce to single combat.”
A stunned silence falls over the party opposite us. My friends didn’t like my and Dave’s plan initially, of course, but they ultimately agreed it seemed like the best way to prevent the worst-case scenario: a full team on team battle, resulting in who knows how many casualties.
I sweep my gaze over the rest of Samuel’s party, and raise my voice. “This is between me and Bruce, and we will settle it fairly. Only one person has to die today, and it’s going to be either him or me. If Bruce wins, the Blue Dragons promise to leave the Hub in peace. If I win, one of you will be joining our team.”
Bruce rakes his eyes over my figure, assessing, a calculating look in his eye. “And why would my team agree to those terms?”
I meet his eye coolly. “They can disagree all they want, but if they interfere, this will turn messy. We really only need one of you to survive, after all.”
“Interfere?” Peter lets out a bark of laughter. “Hey Bruce, remember that time you had your cronies try to drown me back in Hub Two?”
Silence falls over the group, as several eyes widen and turn to Peter.
He grins, but in an angry way. “You really hadn’t recognised me, had you?” he asks, studying the look on Bruce’s face. “And to think I’ve been walking on eggshells, trying to figure out if you had.”
“How did you...” Bruce trails off, his face darkening.
I share a glance with Dave. So THAT’s how the first team figured it out!
Peter laughs again, harder. “How did I what, survive? Finally connected the dots, have you? You know what, it’s all Hydrum under the bridge. After all, your cronies forcing me to choke on a liquid is what helped me figure out we could breathe that stuff before anyone else did, which ultimately allowed me to get to the Stardrops first, and get that position of first team to leave the Hub you so desperately wanted. That must really sting, right?”
A vein throbs angrily on Bruce’s forehead.
“So, really, I’m not too mad about the attempted drowning,” Peter continues. “On the other hand... you did steal my Minor Lavi Crystal.” He turns to Mia. “I feel like grabbing our crystals and getting out of here, how ’bout you?”
She smiles. “Sounds perfect to me.”
Peter turns back to Bruce with a smile, and chipperly says, “Good luck with you deathmatch against the Toxic Dragon!” He then shoots a salute over my way. “Kick his ass for me, Emma!”
I grin back at him. “Thanks, I will.”
Samuel gapes after them and starts to sputter as they begin walking away. “We helped you gather those crystals!”
“Yup, much obliged!” Peter calls out, waving his hand without even looking back. “Hope to see you in the next Hub!”
“B-But Bruce killed that—”
“Oh put a sock in it,” Mia sneers over her shoulder. “He has this coming. You’re just too blind to see it.”
Samuel grips his spear tightly, then looks pleadingly at Steve, while Bruce and I continue to stare each other down.
Steve moves to step forward, but Calyx holds him back, shaking their head.
Steve turns to them in surprise. “Calyx, what—”
Calyx rolls their eyes. “You’re too good for your own good, Steve. This isn’t our fight. We should leave too.”
Steve frowns. “You expect me to walk away when one of our team is to fight to the death?”
Calyx shrugs. “If you want to stay and watch, that’s fine with me. However, if you’re going to act suicidal over this, I may have to reconsider our partnership. I hear the Blue Dragons have an opening anyway.”
“We’d be happy to have you, Calyx,” I say with a tight smile.
Steve glances at Bruce, a frown heavy on his face. Some unspoken communication passes between them, and he steps back, folding his arms over his chest. “Fine. I’ll stay my hand, as long as it remains single combat.”
Calyx shoots me a look that says, ‘We’re even now.’ I grin and stick up a thumb in reply, before resuming my staring match with Bruce. He widens his stance, narrowing his eyes a little. I do the same, tightening my grip on my spear and Focus Crystal.
Samuel pales, and steps forward, slightly between us. “Emma, this isn’t right,” he says. “Think about what you’re doing!”
“Enough, Samuel,” Bruce says calmly. “It’s obvious by now this delusional bitch is set on trying to murder me today. Just step aside and let me handle it.”
Samuel seems to want to protest, but ultimately sighs and steps back.
Bruce cracks his neck and rolls his shoulders back, like a walking cliché.
“So, where do you want to do this?” he asks, eyeing me carefully.
I shrug. “Here’s fine with—”
A sudden flash of yellow from the Focus Crystal tied to Bruce’s left wrist signals the start of our duel.
Son of a bitch.
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