• hcmills

Chapter 133: The cake is a lie

Turns out the difficulty of Inertia Manipulation doesn’t scale linearly with the difficulty of the Skills that were integrated to form it. This is due to the fact that the second level of Inertia Manipulation doesn’t just involve switching energy types at the drop of the hat, but also using them concurrently.

Top-grade Skills really exist on a level of their own.

Still, I’m not unhappy that I could only afford half a Skilldream. I’d hate to imagine what my neck would have felt like after the full twelve-hour one... I’ll just have to work a bit harder to compensate.

Frankly, I’d expected that my improved ability to remember Skilldreams would be enough, but the point I’m stuck on is something Suri pretty much glossed over.

She took me to an area I’d never been to nor heard of, a kind of cave system filled with a bright pink fog that swirled and eddied as it flowed in and out, pushed and pulled by unseen forces.

Despite her watching me as I were about to reveal my long-lost evil twin or something, I’m pretty sure I managed to make it through the full six hours without slipping up. She even seemed to relax about halfway through.

Suri first focused on teaching me how to project swirls away from myself in the fog, then moved on to showing me how the outward and inward spiralling swirls interact.

As soon as I got back, I started off enthusiastically, and with promising gains. Of course, I now have a significantly larger Qi Pool at 65 Onkh, which helps tremendously, as it directly scales with how much I generate, and thus still fills up in about an hour. That’s more than one Onkh of Qi per minute; plenty to comfortably practise Skills with.

There’s also the Toxic Energy I’m constantly taking in which I can also turn into Qi, but frankly, that doesn’t do much in terms of Qi generation. After all, the 0.6 Onkh of Toxic Energy my spear generates per minute still have to be converted at a 10:1 ratio, leaving effectively 0.06 Onkh of Qi per minute. Even converting a ‘full tank’ only generates about 15 Onkh of Qi, which is barely a quarter of my full Qi Pool.

If I’m honest, I find the Reconversion Skill extension a bit underwhelming so far, but I’m determined to keep practising it. It can never hurt to improve my conversion rate, after all.

Anyway, I soon managed to tenuously direct whirls of first Negative, then Positive Inertial Energy away from my Focus Crystal. Normally, that would probably have been enough to gain level 2 of both Decrease or Increase Inertia, but since I fused those Skills, I now need to make both of them at the same time and point them in opposite directions.

“Ugh, couldn’t you have just let me train both Skills to level two before combining them?” I whine at Suri.

[That would’ve just made combining them harder, as you would still have had to learn how to do this first.]

I roll my eyes. “Well, Jacob’s in for a treat when he gets Decrease Momentum level 2 and starts trying to fuse his Skills, I can tell you that.”

Honestly though, the opposite swirls bit isn’t the problem. From what Suri taught me, getting these swirls of opposite types of Inertial Energy spinning in opposite directions will actually help stabilize them both, and I’ve gotten quite used to focusing on two things simultaneously thanks to the second level of Distort Space.

The problem is the energies. Specifically, I’m struggling with forming both of these types of energy simultaneously. I’ve always formed them separately, by concentrating my mind on their essences, which are polar opposites; a sense of unfettered freedom and acceleration for one, being stuck in molasses for the other.

Now I’m supposed to keep both of these opposing ideas in my mind at once, like a kind of Orwellian doublethink, which seems impossible.

Once again, I manage to set up one swirl, only to watch it crumble as I try to conjure the second type of energy.

I’m hit by a very strong urge to swear and break something, but I suppress it. There’s no point in getting frustrated. Even if I’ve been at this for hours, and time is running out, and—

I take a deep breath, and try to refill my Focus Crystal.

Except, I can’t, because I’ve actually managed to run out of Qi.

I sag in defeat.

[You appear to be stuck,] Suri observes.

“No shit,” I snap, then sigh. “Sorry. That was uncalled for. It’s just very frustrating; I feel like what I’m trying to do is a paradox, like it shouldn’t be possible, and therefore my efforts are by definition wasted.”

[Well, then I can see why you wouldn’t succeed.]

I blink. Right. Maybe that’s the real problem. Maybe it’s just like a math test; once you start considering the question might be wrong and therefore impossible to answer, you blind yourself for the solution. And the questions are rarely wrong. Clearly what I’m trying to do isn’t impossible, or it wouldn’t be in the Skilldream shopping window. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

I’m silent for a minute as I go over the whole process again in my head. In the end, I have to conclude that, even knowing that, I still don’t see the answer.

[Perhaps it’d be best if you tackled it again later with a fresh mind,] Suri suggest.

I groan. “Ugh, you’re right. But this really sucks, you know?”

It really does. If I hadn’t combined the Skills, I could’ve easily had both of them at the second level now, because while my control is still sketchy and my range isn’t great, I definitely managed to project both types of Inertial Energy outward in such a way that it no longer affects me. But since I don’t have the next level, I can currently only do so manually—so to speak—and not with the kind of speed and finesse that a combat situation generally requires.

Guess there’s nothing I can do about it, for now. It’s not like I can unmerge the Skills or take another Skilldream. I’ll just have to take my time to figure this one out.

How many Trial Points do I have left anyway?

“Status Window please.”

13, Trial Points, huh... yeah, not much I can do with that. Guess I’ll go see what Kaitlynn’s up to.

When I enter the living room, I find Kaitlynn in a combat stance, a look of utter concentration on her face. She’s holding one of her throwing knives and it glows bright orange. As I watch, a bubble of Astreum forms around it.

“Haah!” she exclaims as the bubble suddenly elongates into a lance which curves off to the left until it strikes a wall.

She follows it up by throwing her still-glowing knife, and hits roughly the same spot. To my surprise, it actually sinks partly into the wall and sticks there.

I clap politely. “Taking some inspiration from Bruce’s fighting style, I see?”

Kaitlynn looks over with a happy if somewhat sheepish grin. “Yeah... he was an ass, but using a weapon to channel Heat is just really practical.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” I say dryly. “I have the scars to prove it.”

She rolls her eyes and places her hands in her sides as she turns to me. “No you don’t. You Regenerated those, remember?”

“What about my psychological scars?” I prompt with a pout.

“Aww, you poor baby,” she teases. “Want me to kiss and make ’em better?”

There’s a beat of silence, in which I may or may not glance down at her lips.

I clear my throat. “Ehm, anyway, I take it you succeeded with the third level of Heat Vision?”

“Yup,” Kaitlynn says, taking the change in subject in stride. “Check it out.”

Her brows furrow in concentration, and then her eye lights up orange. The glow doesn’t stop intensifying at the point it usually does, however, and instead continues getting stronger until I can feel it Heat up my face.

Looking behind me, I can tell from my shadow and the way the light falls on the wall that she’s actually projecting a cone of Heating light in my direction.

The glow fades away. “I’m a human flashlight!” Kaitlynn exclaims happily. “According to Kai, this is the highest level of the Skill, but I was right, it can evolve!”

“Sweet. What’s the evolution called?”

Kaitlynn cocks her head sideways and looks up. “Kai says it’s a medium-grade Skill called... Heated Glare? Seriously?”

I snort. “And I thought your naming sense was bad.”

“Hey! I resent that!”

“Duly noted.”

Kaitlynn studies me through narrowed eyes, but with a smile underneath. “Fine. Anyway, since I’ve got 29 Trial Points left and it’s a medium-grade Skill, I could afford half a Skilldream...”

I suck in a cheek. “Suri, time?”

[2 hours, 14 minutes, and 37 seconds left of your mandatory waiting period.]

I shake my head. “Too risky. Best save them. You should practise first anyway. Who knows, maybe you’ll get there entirely by yourself.”

She lets out a sigh. “Yeah, you’re probably right... Hey, how’d it go with your Skilldream? You haven’t said anything...” She trails off, no doubt at the sour look on my face. “I’m sure you’ll get it soon.”

I nod. I’m sure I will. I just wanted to already have it now. I take a deep breath and try to let it go. Hanging onto my frustration won’t help us in the next Trial.

Kaitlynn coughs awkwardly. “So ehm, what do we do now?”

“Well, I think you had the right idea,” I say gesturing at the throwing knife still stuck in the wall. “However, I think it’s high time you upgraded to a weapon with a bit more... reach. Especially now that you have Increase Momentum.”

I walk over to where my stuff is stashed, next to the loveseat-couch. “And as it happens, I have a spare spear,” I finish, tossing my greysteel spear at her, before picking up and spinning my crystal one.

She catches it and gives it an appreciative look. “So... spar?”

I smirk, drop into a defensive stance, and gesture at her to ‘come at me.’

A flash of yellow—accompanied by a maniacal grin—sends Kaitlynn hurtling towards me.

Roughly an hour before the end of the mandatory waiting period, we’re forced to stop using our Qi and energy reserves, since we need them full at the start of the Trial, which could be at any time once the clock runs out.

We decide on taking physical rest as well, and to have another meal. I guess this is brunch, kind of.

Kaitlynn seems tense, but I assume it has to do with the upcoming Trial.

I actually feel pretty calm. We’re as well-prepared as we could be. Suri has even allowed me to retain my Espir after the last Skilldream.

“How do you think the rest is doing?” Kaitlynn asks.

I blink. “They’ll be all right, I’m sure.”

She sighs.

“Dave’s probably got a whole teamwork strategy worked out,” I add. “While Alec’s probably just being his usual annoying self, without a care in the world. I hope the slacker at least finally gained Decrease Inertia, after I made him that artwork and everything...”

“Oh yeah? Did you get Lightning Manipulation yet?” Kaitlynn asks teasingly.

I snort. “Shut up. That’s not the same; I’ve had other priorities.”

Honestly, I haven’t given it much of my attention. At level 1 that Skill is at most useful in close combat, and it’s not like I can casually combine it with my far superior Inertia Manipulation.

Especially not before I learn how to form two types of energy simultaneously, damnit.

“Uh huh,” she responds mockingly.

I give her a light shove, but it’s enough to send her tumbling off the loveseat with a shriek.

Whoops. Guess I don’t know my own Strength.

Naturally she pounces on me to retaliate.

Even without Boost Physical I’m still stronger than her, but I play along and let her overpower me for once.

I end up straddled, with my hands held above my head, and Kaitlynn grinning down at me.

Then she glances at my lips. I am acutely aware of the warm weight of her thighs on mine, the scent of her hair, and the firm press of her fingers around my wrists.

Kaitlynn bites her bottom lip, then, with a groan, drops her forehead till it rests on mine.

“We, ehm, we should stay focused,” I whisper hoarsely.

After a moment, she nods slowly, her nose rubbing against mine. “Right. I guess I’ll... practise my throws some more.”

I miss her presence the second she gets up.

Once the clock runs out, there’s little for us to do but wait. We spar some more from time to time, but I’m too distracted to take it very seriously, and we’re too worried about hurting each other right before the Trial to go all out.

The tension is slowly driving me nuts, and I can tell Kaitlynn isn’t doing too well either.

This is torture.

It isn’t until almost three hours later, that the door leading onward finally rumbles open.

[Your Trial is ready,] Suri chimes. [You have 600 seconds to enter. Good luck, Emma.]

At first, it’s a relief that the wait is over. But soon a wave of new nerves over the unknown hazards we’re about to face swells.

I walk up to the door feeling fully prepared for anything, but when I see what’s behind it, I still freeze.

“Son of a bitch,” Kaitlynn swears next to me.

The sight in front of us immediately causes me to flashback to a distant past, in which I innocently slung hotdogs.

Because right there, suspended in an upright stone ring, hangs an awfully familiar, swirling, dark-blue portal.

Author's note:

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