• hcmills

Chapter 157: The cold never bothered me anyway

I sleep the sleep of the dead, long and dreamless. At some point, I become somewhat aware of this, but there’s nothing I can do about it and the awareness fades. This happens what feels like once in a while, a repeating cycle.


The routine is broken by a tinkling sound, like the clear ringing of a crystal. The chimes become louder and more insistent, dragging me from my slumber until I’m at last aware enough to recognise that these sounds carry meaning.


[—more than long enough, so do me a favour and wake up.]


My eyes creak open like rusted barn doors. A grey mass appears in my vision, which slowly resolves into a stone surface. It takes me a few moments to determine that it’s above me. A ceiling, then.


[That’s it, rise and shine, dear.]


It takes a genuine effort to part my dry, sticky lips. Aether rushes into my mouth and scrapes uncomfortably over the dry tissue inside.


I cough weakly, half-expecting clouds of dust to come out, but none emerge.


[Ah, yes. There’s some Hydrum right next to you,] Suri chimes.


My neck cracks as my head lolls to the left.


[Other side.]


On my other side, I find a waterskin. With shaking fingers, I manage to pull the stopper and splash some Hydrum into my mouth-desert.


I nearly spew it all out again when I notice the state of the skin on my hands. It looks fallow enough to belong to a corpse.


Holy shit!


Once my mouth somewhat resembles a functional organ again, I muster up the courage to ask the question playing on repeat through my head.


“Suri... am I dead?”


[Hah. No, you’re just fine.]


“Really?” I mutter. “If this is what you call ‘fine,’ I think you and I are operating under different definitions of the term.”


[See?] Suri chimes. [Even your sarcasm is intact. Trust me, you’ll feel like yourself in no time.]


My muscles protest as I stretch and yawn. Oof, my back is in knots! It feels like I’ve spent the night in a friggin’ freezer.


I blink at that thought, blurry memories resurfacing. My spine erupts in a cacophony of pops as I manage to work myself into an upright position.


I find myself on a bed in a large hexagonal room made of smooth grey stone. It’s about the size of the living rooms I’ve become accustomed to, except the furniture suggests this is very much a room meant for one person.


There’s the customary bed and mirror, an alcove for purchases to drop in, a small couch, and a vertical stone pod.


There are several hallways that seem to lead to other rooms, but no doors.


Anywhere.


As I take it in, a window pops up in front of me.

Well, that’s a lot more information than I’m used to getting from these windows, and yet somehow still frustratingly little.


Moreover, it doesn’t answer the question burning on my lips right now.


“Suri, what the hell happened? Have I been cryogenically preserved?!”


[Do you wish to start your ten minutes?]


My eyebrows creak upwards like a rusty drawbridge. “Ten? Gee, how generous.”


[Well, you’ve certainly earned it,] Suri chimes, sounding quite pleased.


Right, she’s probably happy at the prospect of finally getting to leave this facility.


[So? Do you?]


“Ehm, sure,” I drawl.


[All right, then. As for your question: something like that. You were kept in a suspended state, in which your bodily functions were all slowed to an extreme degree, as your mind slept.]


Shit, they really kept us stored in Boreum... those bastards.


I swallow some saliva, glad that I’m producing any. “How... how long?”


[A while.]


A muscle twitches in my cheek. “Will you at least tell me why I was brought under?!”


[Of course, dear. It was in preparation of the tournament.]


“What kind of tour—no, you know what? I’m not biting. What about my friends, where are they?”


[The ones who made it to a door are also waking up right now. Everyone gets the same amount of time to prepare, only the allotted Trial Points depend on your door. Dave will receive 10 Trial Points a day over the next twenty-four days, and Kaitlynn will receive 30. It’s rather a shame you missed out on the extra points, but I still have high hopes for you.]


“And what about Alec?” I ask, stubbornly ignoring her allusions to the tournament.


[You know I can’t tell you, Emma.]


I sigh. I had figured as much.


“Fine,” I say, giving in. “So the ‘preparatory period’ is twenty-four days. I’m gonna take a wild guess and assume the tournament involves combat. Do we at least get to see each other beforehand?”


[I’m afraid not. But, after the first round, the ones still in the competition get to meet up.]


I grind my teeth. “Suri... please tell me we’re not being made to fight to the death, because I will tell you right now, if you put me across Kaitlynn, I will—”


[As the window said, you’ve already earned your place outside. The tournament is only meant to determine your station. Matches are until incapacitation or forfeit. Killing is allowed, but by no means required.]


I close my eyes and let out a breath. “So, after this tournament, it will finally be over?”


[Yes. This is the last test. The last chance to hone your Skills, and show your predecessors what you’ve got to offer, before you join their society. Needless to say, there’s a lot riding on this.]


“Sure, sure,” I mutter. “And then we’ll be heading for Peilinor? Where—or what­—is that, exactly?”


[Peilinor is a sector; it’s comprised of a collection of landmasses—mostly discs—and a few stars. Technically, you’re already in Peilinor Aetherspace. The borders have been expanded a few times, new landmasses added, but it is still a relatively compact area.]


“Hmm.”


Colour me a sceptic, but I have little faith in Peilinor being a fun place to be, considering the entry requirements of its community.


Perhaps sensing my lack of enthusiasm, Suri continues. [It’s a harsh world out there, Emma. Strength is respected, however. If you can show your prowess as a warrior, your word will have weight in Peilinor. You will be able to get things done you otherwise never could.]


I perk up at this. “Like what? Any chance for a way back home?”


[Progress has been made on that front,] Suri chimes carefully, sounding a little put-off. [It may be possible to reunite with your home world in the future, if that’s truly what you want.]


Ah. I guess even if we find a way to get back, Suri might not want or be able to come with.


Well, it’s still nice to have options, especially for people like Dave, who desperately wish to return. “I guess I might as well win then. Is it a round-robin style tournament or, no, you said the competitors who lose the first round don’t get to come out and play, so I’m guessing it’s single-elimination?”


[Indeed. Matches are one on one, the winner goes on to the next round. The farther you make it, the greater your standing.]


“All right. Well, if there’s eight of us, I guess that’s three fights, then.”


Dominique might be a challenge, but I think we’ll manage.


[Six fights, actually.]


I blink. “Excuse me?”


[This competition is for the combined participants of a total of eight batches. After all, a competition for only the eight contestants of your batch wouldn’t hold much meaning.]


My eyes widen. “So... there’s sixty-four competitors?!”


[Indeed. That’s why you were preserved: so that you would all have the same amount of time to prepare.]


Wait, eight batches? Does that mean what I think it means?!


Eight portal events, which occur once a month. Sixty-four survivors out of eight disasters.


I remember seeing some filled tubes on one side, and some empty ones on the other side, but I never got to count the number of rows.


One thing is clear though. “Hold on, we were frozen for months?!


Actually, that could’ve been worse, but it’s still jarring.


[All in the interest of fairness. Would you rather have faced humans who had several times as long to train and grow as you?]


“I would rather not have faced anyone, thank you very much!”


[Well, you can always forfeit, if that’s how you really feel,] Suri chimes snippily. [Personally, I’d rather not spend my days watching you perform custodial services.]


I clench my hands into fists. The sheer callousness of the people running this place boggles my mind. I mean, who the hell would base job division on combat prowess! Seriously, who in his right mind...


My train of thoughts derails as it meets another head-on. This society feels really off, I wonder...


However, before I ask a question on something like that, I should probably grovel a bit.


I groan, putting my head in my hands and laying it on thick. “I’m sorry, Suri, I shouldn’t take my frustrations out on you. This isn’t your fault, after all.”


[It’s quite all right, dear. I understand it’s distressing news. But don’t worry, you haven’t aged. Those wrinkles in your skin will come right out once you’re properly re-hydrated.]


“They better,” I grumble, then sigh. “Thanks for being so forgiving.”


I pretend to ponder something for a moment, then go for broke.


“Say, Suri... don’t you think it’s about time you tell me a little about our predecessors in this Realm? I mean, I’ve basically been okayed to join their society, right? Surely by now, I should be allowed to know something more than just, ‘they came here before you did.’ ”


[Of course, Emma. A lot of data about the predecessors was actually added to your information privileges after Hub Three. All you had to do was ask.]


Motherf—



Author's note:

Next week: Finally some answers! ^^


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