• hcmills

Chapter 152: Ratrace

Pre-chapter author's note:

Hey everyone! ^^

First of all, thank you all very much for all the feedback on the previous chapter!

And I say that without any irony, because it is very useful to me. In fact, it's one of the main things I love about serialising my story online.

After all, I'd much rather find out there's things you don't like here, than in a one-star Amazon review on an e-book that's already been bought and paid for ;)

Normally, I just make notes of any useful feedback for my inevitable rewrites, as the changes I come up with often span multiple chapters and would be a hellish inconvenience to try and update over three online platforms.

This time, however, I decided it was worth it—and doable—to try and work something out in the short term.


I've rewritten the previous chapter nearly from scratch, so you may wish to read it again, before you continue! ^^

Getting thrown out of the Realm of Imagination is kinda like being out on a stroll on a lovely spring day and then suddenly getting dunked into a darkened tank of ice water.

Disorienting, painful, and altogether just very unpleasant.

I spin through a dark void with no way to tell what’s up or down as I am bombarded with sensations. Flashes of too-bright light blind me, knives of ice tear at my quickly disintegrating form, and a kind of white noise fills my mind, threatening to overwhelm my ability to form thought.

I flail blindly for my chain and somehow manage to grab hold of it with the remaining fingers on my left hand. I clutch at it with all the force of will I can muster, and tug more desperately than I ever have.

The chain goes taut, and then with a rush, pulls me away.

Back in my room, I jerk out of the lotus position I was in and fall off the bed.

“Son of a bitch,” I curse, lying in a heap on the floor, clutching my head, the terrible throbbing inside only compounded by the freshly forming bruise on my hip.

[Good grief, what happened?] Suri chimes.

“Just a… bad cramp,” I bring out through gritted teeth. “Don’t worry about it.” Holy shit, that was scary!

[Odd,] Suri chimes. [Well, you have been at it for a while, perhaps a little activity will do you good.]

“Yeah... in a minute,” I get up to stretch, then lie down on the bed, thoughts whirring through my head.

Well, that was a disaster. So. In the Realm of Imagination, no sapient being is allowed to harm any other being. If that’s such an ironclad rule, why didn’t anyone make that explicit to me sooner?!

I guess it must seem self-evident to creatures living in such an idyllic place. Ones not forced to fight and kill for their lives on a daily basis.

I should’ve just cut my losses after the flashbangs stopped working. Damnit, I just had to get greedy again!

And another paid the price. The memory of the bird—no, the being—starting to Fade in front of me, makes my stomach clench. I shake my head, as if to erase the thought in the hopes it will take the queasiness with it.

What else did Goddess say, something about my wretched masters? I really don’t like the sound of that... Sounds like Goddess knows what’s going on here, and it may just be as bad as we feared. There’s no gold at the end of this rainbow. Whatever they have planned for us after the Trials is probably nothing good.

Which makes it all the more crucial for me to have access to the Realm of Imagination, but Goddess just took my ticket to that Realm away, and then some!

I shudder at the memory of the overwhelming grief that assaulted me.

At least she didn’t stop me from entering entirely, only from doing so by myself. She must have some kind of understanding with whoever is running this shitshow. Perhaps something to do with the Skilldreams? It does seem odd that those are happening in her territory.

And what was that place I ended up in just now? Something like the space between Realms?

I have too many questions and far too few answers, but this isn’t the time to go looking for them. What’s done is done. I’m still alive, so all hope is not lost. I better focus on the next Trial instead of putting myself even more at risk.

I come out of my room in an understandably shitty mood. Kaitlynn is sitting on the loveseat with her eyes closed, so I slump down next to her and, with a groan, rest my head on her shoulder.

She stirs a little but otherwise doesn’t react.

The only reason I don’t drift off is probably that I literally just napped.

Eventually, Kaitlynn turns to press a kiss on the top of my head. “Hey you. Everything okay?”

I nod wordlessly, though I’m not sure I really am.

As always, Kaitlynn picks up on it. She turns to me fully and puts her arms around me, pulling me further onto her. I rest my head on her soft chest and sigh as she strokes my hair.

“It’s going to be all right,” she murmurs. “You and me together? We’re unstoppable.”

I close my eyes with a nod, and will myself to believe it.

We eat a simple dinner, finish up our final preparations, and go to sleep. With the coming Trial looming over us like a dark cloud, neither of us is in the mood to get frisky, so we just lay there, Kaitlynn spooning me from behind.

One more Trial. Then, one more Hub. But what comes after that?

Perhaps what I’m most afraid of, is that we’ll get separated somehow. Especially since the next Trial involves every single participant. I doubt there’s going to be a merry living room for everyone afterwards.

“What’s going on in there?” Kaitlynn whispers, tapping gently on my temple. “I can practically hear the gears grinding.”

I wriggle a little until Kaitlynn loosens her grip on me, and I can turn to face her.

My eye pierces the dark, drinking her in. “I wasted so much time. Now I fear we’re running out.”

She stares back quietly for a moment. “At least we had this week. I’ll be honest, it’s more than I expected.”

A tear drips down my cheek and onto the hard, scratchy pillow. “I’m sorry.”

She gently shakes her head and kisses another tear away. “Don’t be. I’m glad.”

“I love you,” I rasp out, the words that have been ringing through my head for minutes finally making their way past the lump in my throat.

Her smile starts out watery but quickly turns blinding. “I love you too.”

She leans in and I kiss her like it’s the last time.

Soon after, things take a turn for the steamy after all.

Standing before the exit, I nervously check the straps on my armour and the integrity of the changed section.

We were already wearing two small Focus Crystals each, one tied to the wrist and one on a thread around the neck, but since we’re now using our respective medium Focus Crystals a lot as well, we integrated those in our cuirasses. I totally look like Iron Man when the big black octahedral slotted against my chest lights up bluish-white with my Yin Qi. Alec would be proud.

This way, we can maintain continuous conversion cycles between Qi and our respective energies, and still have Focus Crystals available for various Qi-based Skills.

Of course, after all the practice we got in with our now nigh-inexhaustible Qi, we’ve got a few more new tricks up our sleeves than just the conversion cycles.

Next to me, Kaitlynn stares the door down, her jaw and shoulders set in determination.

In my head, I count down the final seconds.

The door grinds open, revealing a small room without doors. My heart sinks when I see the two pods.

We share a glance, but this is a race.

We can’t waste time on hopefully pointless goodbyes.

Kaitlynn steps into her pod, and I hop into mine, craning my neck for one last look before it closes around me.

A portal opens around me almost instantaneously to whisk me away.

The other end of the spatial tunnel dumps me in a huge hall, easily a hundred feet wide and high, and stretching out even farther in the distance. The walls and ceiling are made of smooth grey stone and covered in gently glowing crystals, but the floor is, well, a little absent. Beyond the ridge I’m on, it drops down into a giant pit I can’t even see the bottom of.

Pillars rise from the pit, supporting platforms at various heights, a variety of familiar obstacles like rope swings, bars, tightropes and trampolines providing a means to cover the distance between them. Together, they provide multiple crisscrossing paths across to the distant other side. I count at least six different paths starting from this end of the hall.

To my immense relief, Kaitlynn appears five foot to my left.

She’s not the only one, either.

Five foot to her left, there’s Jacob, then Mark, Alec, and Dave. To my right I find the rest of the participants, starting with Calyx and Steve. We’re in the order we left Hub Three.

I turn back to check out my friends, relieved to see them, then do a double take.

Jacob is still in his Hoig Skinsuit, but he wields only a spear in his left arm, as his right arm ends in a stump at his elbow.

Shit, what happened to him?

From the way he glares at Mark, I feel like his partner might’ve had something to do with it, but I don’t immediately see how.

Dave’s smile quickly drops a little when he spots the same issue I did, and then even further when his eye lands at something in front of me.

I glance down. Oh, right. He’s looking at my missing foot. I’m an idiot.

I shoot him a quick wink, to let him know I’m fine.

Finally, when I catch his eye, Alec salutes with a big grin on his face. It takes me a moment to realise what’s weird about that. Oh, he’s got his eye back!

The thought flashes through my mind right before a window obscures my view.

Shit. Twelve participants and only eight doors. I knew they’d pull something like this.

Before anyone can take so much as a step, Jacob raises the spear in his left hand, still facing Mark.

Mark pales and raises a hand, shield still strapped to his back. “Wait, Jaco—”

With a grunt and a flash of yellow, Jacob suddenly swings his spear around. The blunt end smashes into the side of Mark’s head with a crunch.

Mark hits the ground like a sack of potatoes. Some blood immediately starts to pool, as Jacob spits on the ground next to him. “Asshole.”

“Holy shit, what went down between you two?” I blurt out.

Jacob glances at me, and his frown softens a little. “I’ll explain later, we’ve—”

“Well, that wasn’t very nice,” a sultry female voice remarks from above and behind me.

I whirl around to find Dominique floating over the giant pit, surrounded by several floating discs of Boreum.

Behind her, Mia bursts into movement, running onto one of the paths and jumping for a bar swing.

Dominique eyes one of the reflective floating discs and clicks her tongue. Without even looking back, she fires a bolt of lightning from the tip of her spear which sends Mia into a fit of convulsions that cause her fingers to slip from the bar.

We all stand frozen, watching transfixed as she plunges down into the dark depths, fate unknown.

“Did your parents never teach you not to break borrowed toys?” Dominique continues leisurely.

Steve and Calyx share a glance and take up defensive positions, Focus Crystals glowing. Behind them, I see Lilly and Onni do much the same.

Seems like neither pair is willing to risk moving onto the platforms with the Lightning Bitch overhead like that.

I don’t see anyone else. Looks like Peter didn’t make it. Nor whomever Dominique wrangled up to go with her.

I can’t help but wonder if she did them in herself when she saw the word ‘race.’

Jacob lifts his chin. “If you think we’re scared of you, think again.”

Dominique floats out over a nearby platform and turns to me, ignoring Jacob’s statement. “Ah, Emma. Did you think we’d never meet again? Karma is a bitch, you know. Though I guess you found that out already, judging by your state.”

I exchange a quick glance with Kaitlynn, then stretch lazily as I turn the Qi in my medium Focus Crystal into Spatial Energy. “What, this?” I drawl. Lifting my stump a little. “Eh, I figured I’d even the odds a little, give you a fighting chance.”

I pay little attention to the bemused reactions around me, only Kaitlynn’s smirk and the fond little shake of her head.

A little muscle twitches next to Dominique’s eye. “You really don’t know when to quit, do you? Fine, I’m going to give you to the count of—”

“Yeah, blah blah blah,” Kaitlynn interrupts her, rolling her eye. “You know, you talk a pretty big game for someone who’s all alone.”

Oof, straight for the jugular. That’s my girl.

Dominique’s eye widens as she turns to Kaitlynn.

“Exactly,” I add. “You think being able to float a little makes you so special?”

I deploy my thick Spatial Boundary, and a gentle push sends me drifting up.

Kaitlynn exhales two controlled streams of Astreum which wrap around her body, before expanding downward in a steady stream which causes her to rise and hover next to me under her own power while wrapped in a swirling coat of Astreum.

A variety of surprised and amused noises come from the peanut gallery as the total number of people in the airspace increases to three.

“Either one of us would already be more than a match for you,” I finish.

Dominique’s face darkens as her eye flicks between us. “You sound pretty smug, for a copycat,” she bites out. “You really think you can outfly me?”

I smirk. “You’re right, I should really thank you. Couldn’t have done it without ya!”

Meanwhile, I whip out tethers to all of my friends. <We’ll draw her away. See you guys on the other side!>

There’s no way we’re letting Dominique hang around here and play arbiter of who gets to cross and who doesn’t.

Kaitlynn rolls her neck with a crack and takes over. “Much as we’d love to hang around and chat, there’s a crystal door out there calling our names. See ya!”

Author's note:

Thanks for reading and engaging! ^^

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