• hcmills

Chapter 165: Hit me with your best shot

Kaitlynn’s opponent is a black man with arms covered in the tell-tale bony ridges of the third batch.

What was the event the third batch got snatched away from again? Oh right, that protest against Big Oil’s lagging response to climate change. So much for karma.

Imagine if karma had been a thing here. I imagine we would’ve been treated a lot better.

Anyway, the guy’s wearing a Darksteel mesh armour and wields a Darksteel sword and shield combo. He also has a sweeping, eel-like tail—a Power-Up that actually bites into your ass and attaches to the wishbone, if I remember correctly—that appears to be clutching a small Darksteel mace.

My heartbeat accelerates as they both leap.

Thankfully, Kaitlynn is true to her word and plays it safe.

While her opponent launches himself forward, Kaitlynn leaps up, choosing to hover above the beach as the centre of a swirling conflagration.

To his credit, her opponent barely hesitates before he leaps up with a flash of yellow. Of course, he simply gets blasted back down to the beach for his trouble.

That’s my girl.

Rowan may have power, with his extra-compressed Astreum bombs, Kaitlynn has control, thanks to her fusion of Breath Control and Astreum Manipulation.

“So,” Dave says out of the blue. “I must confess I’m a little worried.”

I glance at him in surprise, but he keeps his eye on the fight.

“Really now? And why is that?”

He’s quiet for a moment, seeming to mull over his words. I wait patiently.

“Many things could be said about the ones who built this place,” he starts diplomatically. “One thing is clear: they have mastered the art of the carrot and the stick.”

I frown, unsure where he’s going with this. I keep half an eye on the screen—Kaitlynn doesn’t appear to be in any danger—and listen intently.

“They know exactly what buttons to push, and Emma—I say this with nothing but love—you have some pretty big buttons.”

I burst into surprised laughter. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He finally turns to me, dead serious. “You are very driven. Proud. Competitive. Fiercely protective. None of these are bad qualities, but they are easy to exploit.”

My brows rise nearly to my hairline, and I turn to meet his eye fully.

“This tournament, for example,” Dave continues, “is clearly designed to push buttons, and does so with great efficacy. We’re essentially competing over status, and people are literally dying over it.”

I study his expression intently. It’s almost... melancholy. “What exactly is it you’re worried about?”

Dave sighs. “Look, Emma, I don’t expect to make it through this round without forfeiting, so let me say this now. You know how badly I want to go back.”

I nod. “And I will move heaven and earth to make that happen.”

“Yeah, see? That attitude. That’s what worries me.”

I frown at him. He meets my gaze steadily.

“Emma, no matter how badly I want to return and be there for my family, I would never wish to do so at the cost of your life. You, too, have become very important to me. No matter how much the idea pains me, I would rather have my daughter grow up without a father than to see you fall. So if you’re ever truly in mortal danger, please forfeit.”

I cast my eyes down, and stay silent for a moment. “That’s... I can’t promise that, Dave.”

He opens his mouth but I raise a hand. “Alec... though he didn’t say it in so many words, I know he mainly stayed behind for you,” I tell him. “Because you needed me more than him. When I took that door, I accepted a responsibility. And I don’t take that lightly.”

Dave stares at me for a moment, flabbergasted. “Emma,” he finally protests, “we don’t even know if what the Peilor are offering is legit! Even if you do get a spot on the Council of Stars, there’s no guarantee—”

“Doesn’t matter,” I say, shaking my head. “It’s a chance, so I’m going to win this tournament.”

“Or die trying?” he asks softly after a beat.

The corner of my mouth curls up. “You think I’d let a little thing like death stop me?”

His eye bores into mine like he’s trying to see the inner machinations behind it. “What about Kaitlynn?”

I sigh and turn back to the screen to find my Blue Angel still easily dominating her opponent. “I’m doing this as much for her as for you, Alec, or Jacob. No matter what happens next... I want her to be free to decide where she goes, and with whom.”

“What about you, then?”

I shrug. “I’m done fighting my feelings. With her, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, despite everything. So I’ll follow her wherever.”

With a sigh, Dave grabs and squeezes my hand. We sit in silence for a moment. I half-expect his rough, calloused fingers to pass a hidden message, but he just holds it for a little while. It’s kinda nice.

“Well... it sounds like I was right to worry, at least.”

I can’t help but burst into laughter. After a moment he joins me, shaking his head.

Right around this time, Kaitlynn delivers the finishing blow, smashing her opponent down into the sand with a massive gout of Astreum from her mouth.

Both his armour and the sand around him glow orange with Heat by the time she lets up, and he immediately forfeits after.

She returns smug with triumph, finished only second with her bout.

She squeals as I spin her around and laughs as I lavish her with praise.

With her in my arms, all is right.

Soon, when the other fights have run their course, the final set of matches is announced.

Kaitlynn’s smugness evaporates as she hugs Dave.

I hug him too at the portal, for as long as I dare with the matches pending our arrival.

He lets go and smiles at me. <Be good to your girl,> his voice rings in my head. <She’s special.>

I nod, a lump forming in my throat. Having copied my mode of zero-g transportation, he swims through the portal ring with a swish of his tail. A flash of dark blue energy pulls him away.

I take a deep breath and follow him through, headed for my own match.

I touch down gently on the sand of the ‘arena.’

Standing on one of the beaches myself, I finally get a view of what surrounds it.

It’s just more of the same, really. The beach stretches out in both directions as far as I can see, the Hydrum stretches into the distance as well, though I do notice some islands far off the coast. Opposite the Hydrum is a row of dunes, blocking the view further inland.

The only other interesting things around are some kind of floating Spatial distortions. If I hadn’t been so well versed in the manipulation of Spatial Energy, I would never have noticed the minute fluctuations they give off.

I’m guessing those provide the different camera angles somehow.

My inspection is cut short by the arrival of my opponent.

A large figure covered head to toe in Darksteel plate lands on the sand with a noticeable thump some sixty feet away.

He—I’m assuming, but based on his size, it feels like a safe bet—takes a stumbling step forward to stabilise, then brandishes his Darksteel greatsword.

I look him over, scratching my head as I activate Charm. “You’re going to fight me wearing that? Look man, I’m gonna be honest with you… you might as well just forfeit now.”

The figure stiffens for a moment, then draws himself up. “Wary of my armour, are you?” he exclaims, his deep voice rumbling powerfully over the sand. “Good! You should be!”

Red light starts to shine from an oversized Focus Crystal embedded in his breastplate, and the Aether fills with an uncomfortable high-pitched noise as the whole thing starts to vibrate.

Hmm. All right, that’s kind of cool. The point stands, however. There’s no way he’s going to be fast enough to even land a hit on me like this.

I doubt I’ll manage to convince him without a demonstration, however. He fended off my Charm a little too easily.

I shrug and lift my crystal spear from my back, leaving the other two weapons in place. One will do. “All right, have it your way.”

He stills for a moment, seeming to flinch minutely before he kicks off and starts to run.

I recognise that flinch. He just activated Boost Physical, though I can’t tell what mode, as I can’t see the pulses of Lavi travelling along his skin.

Oh well. I activate the second level of Boost Physical without the faintest outward sign of discomfort, and start lightly jogging forward as well.

His charge gains speed. Right before we meet, a Focus Crystal in one of his pauldrons flashes yellow, launching him forward to close the distance.

His timing is pretty decent, but even with the assist, he’s just so slow.

A brief swirl of Inertial Energy makes it child’s play to jump over the swing of his angrily humming greatsword, step lightly on his head, and land on the other side as if I barely broke my stride.

The Vibration Energy moving through his helmet buzzes annoyingly up through my leg, but is swiftly absorbed and turned into Electric Energy by the Anti-Vibration Piezo Crystal I had installed for a hundred Trial Points.

The Energy Power-Up is the exact opposite of the one Jacob has and was the last thing I purchased at the end of the twenty-four-day training period. Electric Energy being the one Yin energy type that I didn’t get around to properly learning how to control, it only made sense to shore up this obvious gap in my defences.

To his credit, my opponent turns around very smoothly.

I step around his overhead swing, duck underneath the follow-up, then trip him up by sticking my spear between his legs.

“Are you done yet, or would you like to keep trying?” I ask him lazily after he lands in the sand with an audible thump.

A flash of yellow sends him flying up to his feet; a move he combines with a wild swing that might have caught a lesser opponent off-guard.

I leap backwards, allowing it to pass inches before my nose. “Fine, have it your way.”

I lift my spear to meet his next attack, bracing it over my head against his overhead swing.

At an average toughness of 80, Darksteel is quite a bit Tougher than Greysteel. However, it’s still no match for crystal.

And no matter how much weight he puts behind his swing, he’s not going to budge me under the effect of Positive Inertial Energy. Not with my Strength, anyway.

His blade smashes into my spear, making it ring loud and clear, and leaving a big dent in his blade’s previously pristine edge.

He stumbles back from the recoil, and I lift my field so I can step forward and breathe out a thick plume of Dreamcloud Energy, directing it to flow in between the tines of his helmet.

I’d rather not risk accidentally killing him with the regular kind, and Toxic Energy with a Purpose is actually even harder to counter.

He sways dazedly for a moment, then with another wince, appears to snap out of the haze.

Did he just use the pain of Boost Physical’s first mode to help him snap out of it? Not bad.

I duck underneath a diagonal slash and try to trip him up again, but this time a flash of yellow helps him still his body and regain his footing.

Tch. I kinda don’t want to show off too many of my abilities yet. So how do I… Got it.

On my next pass over his head, I sneakily envelop him in a thick bubble of Spatial Energy.

Then, before he even catches on to his sudden weightlessness, I sweep his legs. Without gravity pushing his feet down into the sand, it’s all too easy. Even better, apart from a slight distortion in the Aether, the trick should hardly be visible from the peanut gallery.

He goes down in a sprawl, landing half on his back.

This time, I pounce, jumping to straddle him. I push him down with my spear against his neck, and replace my Spatial Boundary with a field of Positive Inertial Energy, to prevent him from throwing me off.

He immediately ramps up the Vibrations flowing through his armour and begins to struggle, but my Power-Up does its job admirably, the Electrical Energy it produces helping to counter the incoming Vibrations as well.

Before he gets in position to try and buck me off, I release another energy-filled breath at his helmet.

Except this time, it’s Boreum vapour.

I have to pour in a lot of Qi, as his Vibrating armour naturally runs quite hot, but I manage to keep him under me until I fill it up.

Then I send in a pulse of Cold.

As all the empty space in his armour is suddenly filled with solid Boreum, he naturally ceases struggling.

I get to my feet, then, reaching down, pry open his helmet. Boreum still covers his face, so I point my spear at his remaining eye, and will it to disperse into thin Aether.

He opens his eye to the sight of my spear, inches from his face, and lets out a sigh.

For a moment nothing happens. I frown, glancing around. “I have no intention of killing him,” I state out loud, looking directly at a nearby camera distortion. “So you might as well call it.”

“No need,” he says after a beat. “I forfeit.”

I nod and lift my spear. Only now am I engulfed by Spatial Energy and whisked away.

Two matches down, four to go.

Is it wrong to hope the next one will be a bit more of a challenge?

Author's note:

Sorry about the late post; I just got back from a minor vacation, didn't have time to do it till now ^^

Hope you liked it, and thanks for reading! ^^

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