• hcmills

Chapter 162: Lifestyles of the rich & famous

From up close, it’s easy to tell the scaled threesome are of Asian descent—presumably Japanese—which pretty much confirms my hunch. The dark-haired trio consists of a slim girl covered in pink scales, a lanky boy covered in black ones, and a middle-aged woman covered in red scales with the physique of a fully grown bull.

Seriously, her biceps are insane, and she looks like she could crush my head between her thighs as if—

Kaitlynn elbows me in the side. “Quit staring,” she hisses. “You’re being rude!”

I cough to hide my reaction and just nod at her, properly chastised.

We approach the morose-looking group standing on one of the floating islands with some apprehension and touch down carefully in front of them. “Ehm, excuse me. We’re looking for a miss Nakamura, and a, ehm, Miyuki?”

I think I got those right. I really tried, for once.

The woman and the girl turn to me. The boy was already facing our way, and just frowns.

The girl’s eyes go wide when she spots me, then narrow. “You!”

Suddenly, several things happen in rapid succession.

The girl draws herself up and starts to take a step towards me, reaching for the halberd on her back. The boy moves his left hand to the hilt of the sheathed blade on his hip. Next to me, Kaitlynn tenses and exhales a puff of Astreum that swirls around her. A warning of what might come.

Then the older woman raises an arm that may as well have been a steel bar to block the girl’s path forward, and everyone freezes.

I slowly raise my hands. “Just here to talk, I promise.”

The woman and the girl appear to have a silent conversation. Squinting, I can make out the presence of a Lavi tether.

Eventually, with a huff, the girl relents and steps back, moisture shining in the corner of her left eye as she glares at me. The boy loosens his grip, but doesn’t take his hand off the hilt of his blade.

“Ah, I’m miss Nakamura,” the woman says, “and these hot-headed yokels are my students, Miyuki and Ichigo. Nice to meet you.”

She gives a short bow.

I blink, because I somehow received overlapping meanings just now. Beautiful Snow and Strawberry? That boy is seriously named Strawberry? Wait, she said they’re her students, so maybe those are like her mental nicknames for them… I could definitely imagine her as a P.E. teacher, with that build. Anyway.

I quickly shake off my confusion, and bow back. “I’m Emma, and this is Kaitlynn. Nice to meet you, too. I, ehm, I can tell you saw my, well, fight.”

“What did you do to him?” Miyuki suddenly demands. “My Yuichi would never have just—”

“Miyuki!” Miss Nakamura interrupts. “Show some manners!”

I bite my lower lip. “I... convinced your friend, Ken, not to fight me.”

I mean, that’s essentially true. I did dose him with Dreamcloud Energy to help the process along, but still.

“He appeared a bit young, for a tournament like this,” I continue. “It seemed better than fighting him.”

Miyuki scoffs but doesn’t say anything.

“He, ehm, asked me to pass on a few words,” I say, then awkwardly pass on Ken’s messages. Miyuki bursts into tears and runs off at hers. The boy glances after her, but ultimately remains and scowls at me, seeming of the opinion he needs to stay in case miss Nakamura needs protection.

Somehow, I feel like miss Nakamura is not the type to require protection, usually.

“Thank you for showing mercy to my pupil,” Miss Nakamura says, bowing again, before we leave.

I just nod awkwardly. “No problem.”

I gotta hand it to them, the bastards really outdid themselves with the Final Hub. Each of the island discs has its own alien beauty.

On the Twinstar’s side, there’s an island covered in pristine white sand featuring a luscious oasis, a jungle island with the most gorgeous flower garden, and an island seemingly formed from a single, huge crystal.

On Big Bortha’s side there’s a rocky island with heated pools lit by Big Bortha’s cooling rays, a winter garden island full of Yin plants in various shades of blue and purple, and finally an island of pure Boreum, covered in deformed sculptures.

Yeah, still not a fan of this art style. I wonder if it’s all by the same artist…

Interestingly, that last island lacks any kind of gravitational pull, confirming my earlier hypothesis about Boreum. Now if I could just find an island of Astreum to check if that has gravity.

As we explore, we also take the time to greet some people and exchange information. All right, Kaitlynn does most of that, to be honest.

By comparing timelines, we figure out that we’re the fifth of these eight batches—which makes the Japanese sports festival the second one.

The people we come across seem cautious but friendly.

Well, most of them. There are some weirdos around, like the people from the sixth batch, who got portalled in from a huge church congregation. Something about that serene smile of their preacher, ‘Father Johnson,’ genuinely creeps me out. not to mention the zealous expressions of the foursome following him...

I’ll admit, the patches of chitin creeping up their necks and hands from beneath their white-and-yellow robes and the twitching antennae on their heads don’t help either.

We also spot Dominique at some point, but decide to avoid her.

We meet back up with Dave and Jacob near a portal, and I give them all permission via a grumbling Suri to enter my personal preparation suite.

I go through first. Though I’m quite used to zero-g by now, it’s still a kind of relief to be able to walk again. Those floating islands barely had their own field of gravity.

When Jacob stumbles through next, he lets out a low whistle.

Turns out, my suite is quite a bit bigger and better-equipped than Dave or Jacob’s.

When Kaitlynn, steps through, however, she pulls her nose up. “What kind of a dump is this? Where’s the aquarium windows? The sauna? Where’s the slide to your infinity pool?”

We all stare at her. “All right, new plan,” I intone dryly. “We’re grabbing my zirot wine, and heading to Kaitlynn’s.”

Kaitlynn’s pad is as ridiculous as her short description implied.

There’s a Heated friggin’ bubble bath.

Even Jacob looks happy upon seeing it, and I catch him fingering the straps on the side of his cuirass.

“None of that now,” I reprimand him, slapping his hand away.

His face immediately returns to its normal gloomy state. “I know what you’re going to say, but can’t we maybe—”

“Nope!” I tell him cheerily as I carefully put down my collection of skins full of zirot wine.

He sighs. “I was afraid of that.”

I turn back to the rest, rubbing my hands together. “Now, as I’m sure you all know, anyone who makes it through the next round, has made it to the Flawed tier at minimum. Dave, Jacob, I paid some extra attention to your fights, and I couldn’t help but notice a couple of things about your fighting style that could use some work...”

Kaitlynn clasps a hand in front of her mouth, and Dave chuckles at Jacob’s groan.

A couple of sweaty but fruitful hours later, we’re all finally, deservedly bubbling away in Kaitlynn friggin’ bubble bath—with a gorgeous view of her massive aquarium, of course—wearing little more than our underwear.

“Here’s to limited resources,” I say sarcastically, getting a round of laughter as I clink my crystal chalice to those of the others.

Experiencing the perks of a higher station, I suddenly feel even more motivated to win this tournament.

The conversation quickly shifts towards our days spent apart, however, starting with how Jacob lost his arm.

Apparently, Mark and Jacob got through the Seventh Trial well enough. They were also taken to a Boreum glacier beneath Big Bortha, but theirs was filled with rolling balls of Lightning.

More importantly, their Trial was ready immediately after the compulsory twenty-four-hour wait had finished, so by the time the impact on Big Bortha occurred, they had already reached their exit portal, and were just taking some time to train a bit.

They didn’t stick around to witness the fallout.

Their tag-team battle, however, did not go as well.

They faced a giant, lightning-powered bird-thing, with nasty claws and a nastier beak.

Mark freaked out. Every time he was switched in, he immediately switched out, forcing Jacob to basically fight solo.

Even after Jacob’s arm got torn off. The only thing that saved him from bleeding out was Regeneration level 1, which he had thankfully gained by then.

Jacob finally managed to lure the massive bird into a tight space, and trapped it by toppling a pillar of stone, allowing him to stab it till it bled out.

Jacob was understandably angry at Mark after that, but he didn’t know what the next Trial would hold, so he sat on his anger and gave Mark the silent treatment, despite the boy’s continuous apologies and promises to ‘make it up’ to him.

Once he realised the race had a limited number of places, he could finally vent himself on Mark.

After that grim tale, Kaitlynn and I tell our own, which is rather the exact opposite, of course.

“Though if I’d known about these digs,” I grumble, eyeing the enormous aquarium built into one of the walls full of colourful bioluminescent jellyfish, “I would’ve shoved Kaitlynn over the edge and taken that Crystal door myself.”

Kaitlynn’s mouth drops open. “What?! Take that back!”

“Hey—watch the wine!” I yell as she launches herself into my lap to roughhouse.

“You guys are sickening,” Jacob remarks, shaking his head, before turning to Dave. “So… how’d you and Alec do?”

Dave sighs, and the atmosphere turns grim, though Kaitlynn remains in the seat she claimed on my lap.

As I’d predicted, their Seventh Trial featured the opposites of their subtypes as well, Toxic and Vibration Energies.

Meaning they ended up in a kind of Toxic jungle underneath the Twinstar, with a kind of aggressive variant of the jicca nut tree, that launched weaponised, vibrating jicca nut cones that let out massive shockwaves whenever they exploded.

Alec hadn’t gotten his eye back yet, so depth perception was an issue there, but they managed to pull through and find their exit, despite the Lavi-draining circumstances.

In the Eighth Trial, they fought a chimera which I recognise from Dave’s description as having at least the tail of a marama, which fired beams of Necrotising Radiation. Thankfully, Alec had Regeneration level 3 by then, and Dave had excellent Radiation Tolerance and Regeneration level 1, so they could both handle the flesh-killing beams quite well.

Dave ultimately came up with a plan that relied on Alec using Decrease Inertia to throw the beast off-balance and drop it into some kind of hole in their arena, then Dave shot arrows at it till it stopped trying to crawl back out.

So Alec managed to pick up the Skill I drew for him after all. Good lad.

A silence falls over our little gang at the end of Dave’s tale.

“To Alec,” Jacob intones, lifting his chalice.

We all echo him, and then fall silent once more.

“All right,” Dave starts. “There’s something else I’ve been meaning to discuss with you guys in private... what do you guys think about the Peilor?”

I open my mouth to give him a piece of my mind... then close it again, biting my lip. “Well, they appear to be quite capable of being gracious hosts when they want to be,” I answer diplomatically, gesturing at the splendour around us.

“Quite,” Dave replies dryly. “And do you think the statuses we’re being offered are... legit?”

I shift uncomfortably in my seat.

Next to me, Kaitlynn frowns. “Why wouldn’t they be? I mean, they wouldn’t have gone through all this trouble to whittle us down to an elite few for nothing, right?”

“They better be,” Jacob grumbles.

Dave meets my eye. “What do you think, Emma?”

I click my tongue. “I think... I think what I said back in Hub Two still holds true. There’s not much point in worrying about it, because we’re not in control. We can only try our hardest and hope for the best.”

After a moment, Dave nods. “Well, here’s to our gracious hosts, then,” he says, lifting his chalice.

This sets off another round of toasts, and my zirot wine flows liberally.

As it does, however, Kaitlynn gets more handsy. By the time her mouth’s practically glued to my neck I decide enough is enough.

“All right, boys, I think we’ve all had plenty. You should probably get back to your own rooms and sleep it off.”

Jacob frowns. “Really? It’s not that late though—ow!”

He rubs his shin where I kicked him. He frowns, then seems to catch on. “Right. Right! We should get some sleep, right Dave?”

Dave looks up, blinking slowly. “Hmm? Yeah, sure.”

He enters the pod first. Jacob salutes mockingly, and follows. The second he’s whisked away, I stand up from the bath, lifting Kaitlynn in a princess carry.

She shrieks with laughter as I exaggeratedly start running to her bedroom.

Well, what can I say? It’s been a long time.

Author's note:

Thanks for reading! ^^

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