• hcmills

Chapter 163: Fortune favours the brave

Regeneration makes quick work of a hangover, so neither of us even need Dave’s help this morning.

However, we still decide to set out to the Hub early to meet up with Dave and Jacob while we can.


As there is still quite a bit of time left before the start of the second round, the four of us end up touching down on the sandy disc and lying down next to the oasis to soak up the Twinstar’s warm rays. The pristine white sand here is pretty much the only stuff around which could remotely be considered ‘soft.’


Most of the front wall is visible from here, which is good, as I’m quite interested in the thirty-two screens still repeating footage from the fights.


Mostly, I’m looking for people who could be trouble to go up against, like the woman tossing what appear to be razor-sharp rings of Boreum that seem to hone in somewhat on her targets.


Or the guy shooting what I suspect are extremely compressed balls of Astreum which explode and toss his opponent all across their arena.


I watch in silence, trying to focus on what I’m seeing while the others discuss our competitors and speculate about their Skillsets out loud.


One particular phrase that stands out despite my efforts to ignore them, is ‘the Fifth Crystal.’ With my eyes glued to the screens, it takes me a while to parse what they are talking about.


“Hold up,” I sputter, sitting up and turning to stare at Kaitlynn. “You even got a cool title for taking the Crystal Door?”


She laughs. “It’s not so much a title as, like, a nickname, I guess. But yeah, people are calling me the Fifth Crystal. We actually met another one yesterday; Miss Nakamura’s the Second Crystal.”


Ah. That tracks, I guess. If her general buffness wasn’t enough to make me take her serious, the footage of her folding her opponent up into something resembling a pretzel would be. And since most of her competition was a bunch of high-schoolers, it’d be weird if she didn’t claim the Crystal Door.


Though I feel like she probably took it to, like, spare her students the perilous climb, or something noble like that. Maybe she was simply the only one capable of reaching it.


I subvocally ask Suri if there are any additional advantages to being a Crystal, but it seems to mostly be relevant for the way we’ve been seeded.


Apparently, every first match was someone who took a Greysteel door, against someone who took one of the higher tier doors. Naturally, most of the Greysteel participants got eliminated.


I guess we were pretty lucky Dave and Jacob managed to overcome those odds, and merely faced Darksteel Door tier participants. If they’d been seeded against Crystals, things probably would have ended differently.


Furthermore, while the matchups for the next round are mostly random, the Crystals won’t meet each other until the fourth round—when there’s only eight participants left—due to them being favoured to win. That also means that tomorrow in the third round—barring any Crystals being taken out before then—the remaining participants will each be facing a Crystal.


Well, whatever. I’m not afraid of taking out a few Crystals if they come my way.


As long as they don’t pit me against Kaitlynn, that is…


‘Suri,’ I subvocalise. ‘What are the odds of me meeting one of my friends in the next round?’


[Very slim,] Suri chimes. [Seeding was done in a way to prevent such occurrences, as they lead to boring matches where people forfeit prematurely. Of course, in the hypothetical situation where there’s no one else left to fight, it could happen. But I wouldn’t worry too hard about it, the odds of that occurring are very slim indeed.]


I roll my eye. ‘Thanks for the vote of confidence.’


[Oh, I have every confidence in you, Emma; I’ve no doubt you’ll work hard to make me proud. It’s your friends I lack confidence in.]


I shake my head, but don’t respond. Meanwhile, the others have moved on to trying to identify the other Crystals. It seems they already know the identity of a few—I really should’ve paid better attention to Kaitlynn’s conversations yesterday, but I guess I was too on edge.


The guy I noticed earlier, who was shooting extremely compressed balls of Astreum, is identified as Rowan, the First Crystal. Supposedly, he was the manager of a big electronics store that got hit during a Black Friday sale.


I guess the Realm of Crystals must have seemed like a nice vacation after surviving that onslaught.


We’re not sure who the Third or Fourth Crystals are yet, but the Sixth Crystal, at least, is immediately obvious.


It’s the creepy preacher from yesterday.


“Oh shit,” Jacob mutters. “Guys, you should see this... third row, second from the left.”


My eye seeks out the corresponding screen—one I haven’t gotten around to studying yet—which seems to have just restarted.


The robes and antennae immediately identify the main subject as the Sixth Crystal. At first, he seems to be doing something quite similar to what I did; talking his opponent—an older woman—down.


Then balls of shimmering, colourful lights spring up around him, giving off what I immediately recognise as Mesmerising Radiation.


I shudder at the memory of the giant anglerfish in Hub Three who managed to lure me in with that stuff and ended up almost digesting me.


The woman kneels down in front of one of the lights, tears streaming down her face as she reaches for it with a tremulous smile. The preacher calmly walks around to her back and then, still with that creepy smile on his face, slits her throat with his crystal dagger.


The screen stays on the sight for a whole while longer, showing him serenely stare down at her bleeding out, until it finally goes black and starts over.


I stare in disbelief. “Did he actually kill her?”


“It does seem that way,” Dave rumbles in concern. “She might have lived if the Peilor called the match in time... but take a look at that one.” Dave somehow uses objective meaning to express the exact screen he means, and we all turn to watch it.


On one side, there’s a guy with black feathers for hair in a Darksteel mesh-armour wielding a big Darksteel hammer. Standing across from him is a blond guy in leather armour with gills on his neck and four chitinous limbs sprouting from his back.


I recognise it as the 250 Trial Point Power-Up.


The blond guy smiles and lifts his hand. The dark-feathered guy’s hammer falls to the floor, as if pulled by an unimaginable force. He pulls at it in disbelief. The hand makes a small waving motion, and suddenly, the dark-feathered guy is sent flying forward.


His flight is as brief as it is sudden, ended as his chest is impaled on a crystal sword wielded by a chitinous limb.


The blond guy raises a disdainful brow, and shakes him off. He never even took a step during the whole fight.


“Oof,” I say. “Looks like we’ve got two killers here, at least.”


“Bastards,” Kaitlynn grumbles, her fists shaking. I reach out to gently scratch her head, and she relaxes a little.


A warm, rough hand lands comfortingly on my shoulder. I glance over at Dave, but he just smiles and looks back to the screens. I frown, then do the same.


‘So,’ Dave sends, using the objective meaning embedded in a squeeze in my shoulder. ‘Have you made any more progress in the Realm of Imagination? Learned anything good?’


The hope and faith that shine through in his question almost make me cringe in upon myself.


‘I hit upon an interesting avenue toward resisting mind control,’ I send back with a roll of my shoulder, ‘But I’m afraid I ran into some trouble and lost access to the Realm itself. I’m still working on a way back in.’


I try once more to tell him about Goddess, and for a moment it feels like I might manage, but the compulsion to not mention her is too strong, and I relent.


He waits for a moment longer, seemingly hoping that I’ll add anything, then continues himself. ‘I’ve been wondering about that opaque wall with the portal rings. I don’t believe its lack of transparency is random. What do you reckon is behind it?’


Huh. That’s an excellent question. ‘Peilinor,’ I ultimately wiggle back. ‘There may be more they’re hiding, but... definitely Peilinor.’


‘I think so too. I just hope they’re only hiding it for dramatic effect,’ he rubs, before withdrawing his hand.


I once more resolve myself to get back into the Realm of Imagination. Unfortunately, my hands are kind of tied right now, as I may need my Espir in a fight. I suppose I could attempt it after a fight, if I end up not expending it that day.


Then again, I still haven’t figured out how to actively use my Espir to defend against mind control, shouldn’t I prioritise that, just in case? Ugh, if only I had more Espir...


For once, our possibly imminent goodbyes aren’t mentioned as we while away the last minutes. Perhaps because, for once, losing isn’t necessarily quite so fatal.


Though it still might be.


A flash from the display on the front wall draws my attention.


We get up, and observe the announcement of the first four match-ups.


Unlike the First Round, when all thirty-two matches were simultaneous, the Second Round is divided into four sessions of four matches.


Something about there not being enough arenas, supposedly. Guess this round’s taking place somewhere else.


Out of the four of us, only Jacob is in the first round. My heart sinks when I recognise the name of his opponent from their earlier discussion.


Rowan. The First Crystal.


Jacob doesn’t say anything, but his grey complexion pales a little, and he balls his hands into fists. It’s still weird, watching his symbiotic arm-prosthesis move as smoothly as a regular limb.


“Oof,” Dave says with a sigh, patting Jacob on the shoulder. “That’s some shitty luck.”


“Don’t be like that! You got this, Jacob,” Kaitlynn tells him, stepping in for a hug. “And just think: if you can win this fight, you’ll be in the Flawed tier!”


I make my way over for a hug as well. “Totally, give him hell!”


He smiles crookedly as I pull back. “Thanks, guys.”


“However, don’t be stupid, either,” I tell him sternly, holding on to his arms a moment longer. “That guy’s attacks look like they pack a mean punch. If you feel like you can’t win, just forfeit.”


“Oh, yeah that’s a good point,” Kaitlynn says. “If it gets too dangerous, definitely throw in the towel.”


Dave hums. “There’s no shame in surrender, and no glory in death without a cause.”


Jacob stares at each of us for a moment. “So which is it, should I give it my all, or just forfeit right out of the gate.”


I shrug. “Eh, just play it by ear.”


“Yeah, we believe in your ability to make the right decision!” Kaitlynn adds with a grin.


He shakes his head at us in exasperation, and turns to the distant back wall with its portals. <You know,> his voice suddenly rings in my head, <I really hope you’re smart enough to take your own advice; practice what you preach, and all that.>


I try to hide my wince. I have no plans of forfeiting anytime soon. This sneaky little shit, I didn’t even notice the tether!


<Don’t worry about me,> I send back. <I’ll be fine.>


From the corner of his eye, I catch his smile. <Don’t you dare leave Kaitlynn a widow, after everything, you big ol’ hypocrite.>


I flush at his use of the term ‘widow,’ but he just waves at us one last time and leaps off the sand.


My eye tracks him as he easily leaves the island’s weak gravitational pull. Floating above in Alec’s resplendent blue leather armour, brandishing his spear, he looks every bit the dashing hero—the Blue Dragon—he is.


Then, with a flash of yellow, he shoots off towards the teleport rings at the opaque back wall of the Hub. In the distance, seven other tiny figures do the same.


Kaitlynn grabs my hand and pulls my attention to the four big screens that cover the front wall now. “Let’s find a place with a better view!”



The purpose of the ribbed, conical structure in the middle of the Hub finally becomes apparent to us now. With the tip of the cone pointed straight at the centre of the big screen, the ribs are clearly meant as a place for a captivated audience to sit.


So we do, taking our place on the side which most easily allows us to watch Jacob’s match versus Rowan.


My heart beats in my throat as they square off in the new arena, which just seems to be a beach out in the middle of nowhere. The point of view doesn’t allow much context, but as far as I can tell there’s nothing but sand and Hydrum.


As a Greysteel door participant facing a Crystal, Jacob is definitely the underdog in this fight. Still, despite my warning, I remain hopeful Jacob pulls off the unlikely.


Jacob has a strong Skillset, he’s good with his Vibration Energy, and I bet that new arm of his is pretty darn strong.


We can only hope it’ll be enough.


Rowan—like Jacob—is clearly Yang. Unlike Jacob, his black hair is trimmed short, and he sports a five o’clock shade beneath his piercing dark eye. Also, he has a tail that reminds me of a wolf’s, and appears to be the Astreum subtype.


You wouldn’t know it from the way he shrugs off Jacob’s initial barrage of Vibration shockwaves like they aren’t even there, however.


Rowan answers with a volley of his signature attack that forces Jacob to dodge several times with multiple uses of Momentum Manipulation—the fusion of his Increase and Decrease Momentum Skills.


Rowan’s style of manipulating Astreum is very different from Kaitlynn’s. Where she mainly focuses on controlling swirling streams of it, Rowan clearly specialised in a single aspect.


Power.


Specifically, the explosive kind gained from thorough compression followed by rapid decompression.


It looks like he’s taken the Astreum bombs from Astreum Manipulation level 3 to a new level, compressing them to the size of pebbles—white-hot, intensely vibrating pebbles—which go off like grenades, blasting craters in the sand wherever he launches them at high speed.


Jacob tries to throw him off and close the distance using sudden starts and stops and unexpected manoeuvres, but he gets forced back time and again.


I know Jacob does use a Qi-conversion cycle, but it’s relatively low in efficiency, and Momentum Manipulation is not a cheap ability to use. He can’t afford a battle of attrition like this.


Especially since Rowan’s stream of attacks is unending, and he still looks rather relaxed.


Switching tactics, Jacob tries to make it into the Hydrum.


Suddenly, Rowan moves, a flash of yellow sending him towards the Hydrum, parallel to Jacob, and allowing him to cut off Jacob’s way there with more explosions.


Jacob reacts by instantly veering towards Rowan.


His new arm rears back, readying his spear for a no-doubt devastating sweep.


Then one of Rowan’s projectiles hits him dead-on, in the centre of his chest.

Jacob is flung back, and lands heavily in the sand. There’s a large hole seared in Alec’s handiwork, exposing blackened skin beneath.


Jacob blinks, and his flesh visibly starts to recover. However, before he can even get up, Rowan appears above him, an arm stretched out towards Jacob’s head, a particularly large, white-hot ball of compressed Astreum suspended beneath his palm.



Author's note:

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