Chapter 160: The final countdown
As the end of the twenty-fourth day nears, I restlessly pace the floor of my bedroom, staring at the vertical teleportation pod like a hungry, caged lioness might stare at a particularly plump tourist.
I’ve only entered it once before, when I paid for an Electric Energy tempering, but I didn’t get to see any other contestants at the shallow pool it sent me. Other than that, I haven’t set foot outside of this place in the near month I’ve been here.
I needlessly check the straps holding my weapons a fourth time. My crystal spear and Alec’s trident cross each other on my back. They also both cross over the Darksteel spear I purchased, which sticks straight up.
Having three weapons strapped to my back is a bit clunky—especially considering the weight of the Darksteel—but I have my reasons.
At least I’m not carrying my backpack. It wasn’t until I was almost done packing it yesterday, that Suri thought to inform me that I would have the option of returning and even inviting people back here if I made it through the first round.
That inspired a manic fit of cleaning, though truth be told, there wasn’t much to clean.
I did stash away my collection of home-brewn zirot wine I produced.
I was in dire need of a hobby, and the zirots were free, okay?
Anyway, I didn’t drink any of it, just bought and emptied some waterskins and made the stuff, adding my very own Addling Toxic Energy. Not like it would have affected me much anyway.
“Time?” I ask, finally unable to hold the question any longer.
[739 seconds remaining, only 83 less than last you asked,] Suri chimes with a bit of snark.
I roll my eye. “Sorry. I’m just so ready to leave this place.”
[That’s nice, dear, but do me a favour and calm down. You need to be in an optimal mental state when you enter the first arena.]
“Oh, I’m ready to fight all right,” I mumble, but I cease pacing. “Fine, show me the Status Window, please.”
Maybe a distraction will help.
Man, but I’ve made some gains. I abused the conversion cycle technique like crazy, using it to both increase my Qi Pool and my Toxic Tolerance to their current levels.
It’s not a complicated trick I used, just painful. First, I fill up my Qi Pool and Toxic Energy to their respective limits. Then I convert all of my Qi to Toxic Energy, pushing myself way over my limit. I wait for my Lavi Pool to almost run out, then reconvert all of my Toxic Energy into Qi, going over max capacity there.
Both the Lavi Crystals in the ceiling and Lavi Font level 3 were of big help with this method. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the Skill scaled up. Altogether, my average net Lavi Flow right now—without the Lavi Crystals—is at a whopping positive 15.5!
I also trained up my stats a lot—particularly Strength—and of course, gained the cherry on the pie. Warp.
That’s going to be my trump card. Well, one of them. I’ve had a lot of time on my hands.
I only wish I’d managed to gain more Mental Fortitude.
Despite trying a variety of methods, I have yet to manage to maintain my sense of identity and reality through the flood of memories Goddess placed in my mind. At least, not for long enough to actually succeed in entering the Realm of Imagination.
First of all, all of my attempts to somehow harness my Espir against the mental barrage have been fruitless, feeling not unlike trying to stop speeding car with a house of cards. My Espir Pool is either far too small, or I’m doing something horribly wrong.
I’ve also tried counting in my head and Meditating, to no avail. I even tried getting angry, blaming the being whose life I accidentally took for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but no matter what, I always end up losing myself in the memories, forgetting about trying to enter the Realm of Imagination, and coming back to myself with tear tracks on my left cheek.
Still, it seems like I get further with every attempt. It might just be me, but it feels like the intensity of the experience is weakening through some other effect than just me growing more resilient. Perhaps the compulsion Goddess put on me is running out of juice, without a source of Espir to feed it…
[It’s time,] Suri eventually chimes. [You have 300 seconds to enter the pod, or you forfeit by default.]
I blink, startled. Guess a distraction really was what I needed.
I take a deep breath, square my shoulders, and stride over to the pod.
It grinds open in front of me, and closes behind me as soon as I step inside.
Spatial Energy surrounds me the second it clicks shut. I study the way it sucks me away with great interest.
I appear a few inches above a field of knifegrass, and draw my crystal spear even as I land in a crouch.
I’m in a simple, walled off, hexagonal garden, with a variety of plants near the edges, a large pond on one side, and knifegrass in the middle that bends easily under my blue trigot-leather boots. It probably wouldn’t even really scratch up my feet all that bad, even if I was barefoot, as it only has a Toughness of 19 or so. It’s actually pretty good footing like this; at least it provides a ton of grip.
I’ve landed all the way near one of the walls, at least sixty feet away from the other end.
My opponent doesn’t appear to be here yet, but I don’t lower my guard one bit, listening and watching intently.
They might be using some clever trick to hide, or perhaps I’ve misunderstood something and—
On the other side of the field, a figure is portalled in, stumbles on his dismount, and almost faceplants.
It’s a young looking Asian dude, practically a kid, wearing standard leather armour and wielding a Darksteel staff. Surprisingly, he doesn’t have any horns. He does, however, appear to have silvery scales covering most of his exposed skin.
I frown, loosening up my stance a bit as I take him in.
He sees me and does the opposite, going rigid and pale-faced as he brandishes his metal rod in what I suppose is meant as a threatening manner. He lifts it with ease, so seems like at least his Strength is up to par; most Darksteel weapons come with a minimum Strength recommendation of 16, after all.
I lift up a hand to signal wait. After a moment, he hesitantly lowers his staff, a questioning look on his face.
“I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen a friendly face in ages,” I start. “Let’s have a chat before we get to it, huh? My name’s Emma. Who are you, and, ehm, how old are you exactly?”
He hesitates for a moment, then straightens and gives a short bow. “My name is Ken Yuichi, it’s a pleasure to meet you!” His lips don’t quite match the words as I hear them. Judging by his name, he’s probably speaking Japanese. “I was sixteen when I left Earth, though I think my birthday may have already passed since then...”
Shit, he really is a kid. A Japanese kid...
“Hey Ken, this may seem like an odd question, but were you participating in a high school sports festival when you got portalled?”
He gapes at me for a moment. “Yeah! How did you know?”
I smile wryly. “It was pretty big news. The media went wild about youths getting targeted and all that. I got portalled only three months later though, so I don’t know much more about what’s going on back there.”
He deflates a little at that, but nods in understanding. Then, he startles as he seems to remember the reason we’re here, and lifts his Darksteel staff again. “Ehm, it’s nothing personal, miss Emma, but I’m not going to hold back against you. We need to determine our relative placement in this society, so let us have an honourable battle.”
I scratch my head with a sigh. “Yeah, about that… I wouldn’t really feel good beating up a kid, so I was actually hoping to convince you to just forfeit.”
He blinks, then his face hardens. “I’m sorry, miss Emma, but I made a—”
“Yeah, no, I don’t think you quite understand, Ken,” I cut him off, while preparing some Qi in my Focus Crystal. “You see, you really have no hope of winning, so the outcome would be the same either way. Let me guess, you took a Greysteel door?”
He blanches as I start to approach in purposeful, measured steps. After a moment, he nods.
“Thought so. I figured they would seed us like that,” I say shaking my head. “Well, I hate to say it, but you drew the short straw.”
With a soft tap, I lift off, weightless within my Spatial Boundary.
He stumbles back, eyes wide, as I float inexorably closer.
His reaction to my attempt at intimidation is pretty strong, which lets me know that the Dreamcloud Energy that I’ve been sneakily exhaling at him is already taking effect, making him more open to being influenced.
I’d feel bad about it, but honestly, it’s for his own good. Plus, it’s harmless.
I need a bit more to finish him off, however, so I steal a page from Goddess’ book.
I conjure an illusion of building darkness in the room and slowly turn my voice grand and terrible, like an army choir. “I will give you to the count of three to surrender. If you do not, be prepared to suffer the consequences. One…”
One of my exhales swirls down and tangles up his legs.
He trips, and lands on his ass as I hover closer and slowly raise my spear.
“I forfeit!” he cries out.
Well. He almost made it.
With a rumble, two hidden doors are revealed in opposite walls, each of them featuring a hideously deformed figure, one in a sort-of victorious pose, the other in a crumbled heap.
I slowly dissipate the threatening atmosphere, then touch down gently and hold out a hand.
He blinks, then sighs and grasps my forearm.
I pull him to his feet. “For what it’s worth, you made the right choice.”
I try to let go, but he holds on, staring at me forlornly. “Please, if you see her, tell Miss Nakamura ‘thanks for everything.’ And—and tell Miyuki, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
After a moment, I nod, for once making an effort to remember the names. “I will. Good luck out there.”
He finally, reluctantly lets go. We each move towards our clearly designated door, share one last glance, and step through.
The door closes behind me with a slam.
Thanks for reading ^^