Chapter 156: 20/20
Kaitlynn watches with wide eyes as I drop over the edge. I keep my eye on her for a second longer, my smile apologetic, before I turn around.
My Spatial Boundary creaks as I re-enter the field of increased gravity and start my 400-foot freefall.
I spread out my limbs, trying to increase the Aether resistance as much as I can. Once again, I find that it doesn’t seem to increase as I speed up.
This could be a problem...
I quickly push out some controlled breaths and spread them between my limbs like sails.
To my relief, they start pulling upwards, and my speed stops increasing.
Below me, Dominique hovers in front of the middle, open Darksteel door.
Uh oh, what is she—
The answer reveals itself all too soon. Moving at the speed that I am, there’s no way for me to avoid the fine-meshed web of Boreum vapour that seems to span the entire room, about thirty feet off the ground.
Fearing Dominique’s about to try and turn me into finely-ground beef, I hurry and produce my swirl of Negative Inertial Energy ahead of time.
However, the web still hasn’t turned solid even as I hit it. Instead of slowing me down or breaking, it bends.
I hit the ground at high speed, landing on my foot, but thanks to the Negative Inertial Energy, I barely feel the impact.
The web of Boreum vapour springs towards me, seeming almost elastic. In a fraction of a second, I’m entangled in a mess of tendrils.
All I manage to do before the inevitable happens, is straighten up.
“I knew you’d be the one to jump,” Dominique sneers at me, gratuitously clenching her hand into a fist as the tangled Boreum flash-freezes, locking me into place.
I resist the urge to try and shrink down immediately. The holes are two inches in diameter at most, meaning there’s no way for me to slip right out, and if Dominique manages to fill the space I free up I’d really be screwed.
A shadow falls over me, and I glance to see a spreading platform of Boreum form overhead. Dominique waves her hand, and I suddenly float aside, right before a beam of pure Heat smashes through the growing platform from above.
Unfortunately, Kaitlynn misses, as Dominique just moved me out of the spot it hits.
Shit, I should’ve cancelled my Skills!
I quickly do so, and the tangled web of Boreum grinds into the floor as gravity takes hold of me once more.
It’s too late, however, as I’ve been dragged quite a bit to one side of the room, under the cover of the Boreum platform that quickly forms a thin ceiling across the entire shaft.
Kaitlynn’s beam of Heat scores hole after hole in the ceiling as she frantically searches for me, but her odds of hitting me in this huge room are very slim, and the holes in the Boreum refill as fast as they open up.
I dimly hear what might have been an enraged scream coming from above, the Aether greatly dampening the sound.
I turn my attention back to Dominique. “You don’t really think this is going to hold me for long, do you?” I manage to bring out even with my jaws clenched shut.
As much as I’d like to, I still don’t dare try and shrink myself down to smash my prison, not with Dominique still in the room.
“No,” Dominique admits with a slight smirk. “But it doesn’t have to.”
My eyes widen as I hear several sets of rapid footsteps approach from behind
“Nothing personal, Emma,” Dominique adds. “I admit, the two of you are worthy opponents, especially together. However, removing you from the competition should even the odds a little. Farewell!”
Cold erupts everywhere my skin is uncovered as the innermost mesh covering my form is filled in, encasing me entirely.
My heart beats in my throat and I quickly reform my Spatial Boundary.
Seconds tick by, as I fight the urge to breath, to act, as the footsteps grow ever closer.
Finally, there’s the booming slam of a door.
I immediately shrink down, grab my crystal spear, and smash it into the Boreum encasing me.
Thanks to a liberal application of Positive Inertial Energy, my spear immediately smashes a nice big hole in the Boreum.
Unfortunately, Dominique appears to have used her remaining seconds to add some more finely meshed nets of Boreum around my shell. I start frantically smashing my way through, but the lack of space and the need to continuously turn my field of Inertial Energy makes it more difficult.
As I work, a familiar figure runs into my limited field of view, quickly making his way to one of the two unused Darksteel doors, which grinds open at his approach.
I’m about to call out, but then as a tendril of Boreum catches him by the ankle and solidifies.
He lurches to a halt, but doesn’t waste a second in whipping his trident around and smashing it to bits.
Then Calyx appears, right behind him, enveloped by a swirl of pink energy. Before my eye, Calyx literally pole-vaults over Alec, and shoots through the open door.
The door slams closed in front of him. Alec swears and turns towards the final door. In doing so, however, he spots me.
We lock eyes.
His widen. I can see the wheels turning in his head.
He takes off for the final door.
I bring my spear back for a final swing, the one I know will grant me freedom, even as Steve comes running by at full speed, without so much as a glance in my direction.
Steve and Alec both approach the door—Alec pulling slightly ahead—and it starts to rumble open.
My swing connects and I burst out of my cage, popping back to full –size... right as Alec reaches the door.
In the distance, a beam of Heat cuts through the Boreum ceiling, as Kaitlynn still frantically looks for me.
I’m sorry, Kait... guess you’ll be going on without me.
But then, the last thing I expect happens.
Alec digs his foot into the ground, coming to a halt right in front of the door.
I watch, dumbstruck, as he turns towards Steve, drawing himself up.
“You...” he intones with a smirk, lightning crackling up and down his body before he slams the butt of his trident into the ground. “Shall not pass!”
Lightning erupts from his trident, blinding me for a second.
When my vision returns, Steve is twitching on the ground, and somehow, Alec has him in a headlock. They’re on the ground pretty much right in front of the door, which is somehow closed again, even though I never heard it slam.
Did somebody—no, it would’ve slammed shut then. Ah, it’s because they won’t allow two people to pass through at the same time.
“Emma, hurry up!” Alec yells.
The world spins around me, as I finally understand what Alec is planning.
He means to stay behind.
“But, Alec...” I stammer.
Alec grunts as Steve regains control over his limbs and begins to struggle in earnest. “Come on, Emma, this is a no-brainer. The Blue Dragons—unhf—depend on you! Dave needs to get back to his soon-to-be-fiancée and his little girl, so take the damn door!”
One-footed, I kick off the Boreum behind me and shoot through the Aether towards the remaining door.
I pass over them, and catch myself against it. The door slowly begins to grind open again under my shaking fingers.
I turn back, my vision starting to blur.
“Damn you!” Steve yells, increasing his struggles, “let me go!”
Alec electrocutes him for his troubles. As Steve spasms, Alec repositions his grip.
“Tell Dave and Jacob I said they’re buttheads,” Alec brings out through gritted teeth, “and tell Kaitlynn that I’m—umpf—super-jealous that she’s become a friggin’ death star.”
A sob turns my snort into a hiccup.
As if to punctuate his statement, a blast of compressed Astreum detonates above, blowing apart a section of the roof.
I look up and spot Kaitlynn high up above. I wave at her once, giving it the meaning of ‘I’m okay!’
I was going to sign, ‘All good here,’ but I changed my mind because it really, really isn’t.
Kaitlynn waves back, signing ‘see you soon,’ but stays on the edge. I guess she’s waiting for me to actually enter the door now open behind me.
Well, makes sense. I would’ve done the same.
“Oh, and grab—oof—that,” Alec adds, kicking his crystal trident over to me.
I crouch down to and tremulously reach out to pick it up. The implement tingles in my hand much like an Electric Crystal would.
I swallow. “Are you sure?”
Alec grins, but the corners of his mouth wobble, and his eye is red-rimmed. “Just take it, I was always borrowing it anyway, and it’s no use to me now.”
I nod silently.
Alec knows very well I wasn’t just talking about the trident. There’s little room for miscommunication in this Realm. But since he chose to deflect, I won’t ask again.
Steve regains his faculties, and begins to struggle in earnest once more. I can see Alec’s grip slipping as the far bigger and more muscular man seeks his freedom.
“It’s been—hng—an honour, Emma,” Alec manages to bring out. “Now please just step through already, and let me shed my manly tears in private!”
“We’re going to miss you,” I tell him quietly. He ducks his head and evades my gaze.
“Nooo, you bastards! I don’t want to die!” Steve howls.
Casting my eyes down, I turn around and hop through the opening, feeling very much like I’ve lost, instead of won.
The door slams down behind me.
Beyond the darksteel door is a simple hexagonal room with a vertical pod.
I slide down the door until my butt hits the ground, and let my head fall back against it.
How could I have let this happen? We should’ve just let Dominique have that bloody crystal door, and focused on helping the others. Steve and Calyx were asking for it, we could’ve just—
My stomach wrings at the thought of cold-bloodedly taking someone down that never wronged me, but if I’d known this was the alternative, I would’ve done it.
When I open my eyes again, there’s a notification in front of me.
Normally I would be pretty friggin’ pleased about that, but right now, I just feel numb.
I wave the window away, then let my head fall into my hands with a groan.
At least Dave and Jacob both made it through a greysteel door, I’m pretty sure.
[Come on, Emma, there’s no point in dawdling, so do me a favour and enter the pod.]
I let out a sigh, but get to my foot and start hopping to the pod pretty much on autopilot, supported by my spear and Alec’s trident.
As soon as I step into it, space distorts around me and I’m portalled away.
After what feels like several seconds, I’m dumped on my ass none too gently.
My landing would probably have gone a lot better if I hadn’t ended up in a weirdly confined space. I seem to be stuck in a transparent tube of some kind, with greysteel at the top and bottom.
I manage to get up.
My eyes widen as I spot Calyx patting the walls of a similar tube just a few feet away. They start as I catch their eye. They seem to say something, but I can’t hear anything.
I crane my neck to look at the figures behind them, making out Dominique, and beyond her, Dave, Lily, Onni, and Jacob.
Are we in the order we left the Trial in? Then where’s—
<Emma!> Kaitlynn’s voice rings in my head.
I instinctively turn around, and find Kaitlynn in a tube behind me, a smooth grey wall behind her. Right, she waited to see me enter.
I press up against the transparent material to smile reassuringly at her. <Hey Kait,> I send back. <Long time no see.>
She rolls her eye. <Very funny. I’m still mad at you for that last stunt. But where the hell are we? Kai won’t say...>
That statement, more than anything, gives me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I look around.
To my right there are rows of empty tubes, to my left, rows of tubes filled with some turbid substance. No wait, there’s something else inside, some dark shape, kind of humanoid—
With a sharp sound, small vents open in the greysteel above me, and out pours a cold, blue-glowing vapour.
I shrink back, but there’s nowhere to go. Seriously, am I about to be trapped in Boreum again?!
“Suri, what the hell is going on?”
[It’s all right, Emma, just relax.]
The Boreum vapour climbs steadily, in front of me, a flash of orange erupts as Kaitlynn fights a similar flood in her own tube with a stream of Astreum.
In response, the vapour comes pouring out faster, and glowing more fiercely.
I activate Boost Physical, and try to smash my spear into the tube, but I don’t have enough room to give it any kind of swing.
[Do me a favour and calm down, Emma, it’s nothing to worry about, just a necessary procedure.]
“Necessary for whom?” I demand as the vapour reaches my neck.
[For your entry into Hub Four.]
Before I can finish my sentence, or come up with any kind of feasible method of escape, the remainder of the tube fills up in a single push, and the Boreum flash-freezes.
Suddenly, I’m fully encased in Boreum, and thus unable to breathe, once more.
For a moment I think this is it, this is how I die, then I realise there’s a stream of Lavi entering my body from somewhere.
[It’s really okay, just calm down,] Suri soothes.
‘What’s happening?!’ I send back.
[Hub Four isn’t ready for you yet, so you’re just going to take a little nap. All you have to do is relax.]
She continues speaking meaningless platitudes as I fight the encroaching darkness that threatens to overtake me.
Somehow, despite being encased in solid Boreum, with Cold invading my body, I find myself feeling awfully comfortable.
Finally, after what feels like quite a while and yet the blink of an eye, I can no longer fight the heaviness in my head, and I drift off into slumber.
Thanks for reading! ^^