• hcmills

Chapter 166: Prohibidado


I exit from the same portal I entered. Alone, this time.


[Congratulations, Emma,] Suri chimes, sounding very pleased as another congratulatory screen pops up. [You’ve earned yourself a place in the Flawed Tier. Well done.]


“Yeah, cool, thanks,” I mumble, quickly waving away the screen, as I can tell at a glance that it’s a near-exact copy of the last one.


[Oh? Aren’t you happy about your accomplishment?]


“Not now, Suri,” I reply curtly, as I swim over to the stands to find Kaitlynn.


The look in her eye when I do tells me all I need to know.


I sit down next to her and put my arm around her. She burrows her face into the crook of my neck as I turn my gaze forward.


The final screen goes black about when I do. Then sixteen screens appear simultaneously, replaying the matches of round two.


From the leopard’s tail, I can tell Dave’s opponent got portalled in with the Black Friday Sale batch. He appears quite resistant to Dave’s Radiation attacks and pulls off some impressive dodges against our friend’s vibrating arrows. Once he manages to close the distance, brandishing a double-sided axe, Dave forfeits without much fanfare.


“I guess it’s just us now,” I mumble into Kaitlynn’s fragrant hair.


She nods into my neck.


Well, just us and fourteen others, I suppose. Any of which we might meet in combat tomorrow.


Actually, that’s not entirely true… the Crystals still won’t be facing each other, so I only have eight possible opponents. Seven if we discount the possibility of me facing Kaitlynn which Suri claimed would be unlikely.


I regard the screens with renewed interest, studying my potential opponents.


Of course, I already know the First Crystal—Rowan—and the Second Crystal, miss Nakamura, but I don’t know her affinity.


A quick inspection of her last battle shows she is very much Yang and most likely of the Vibration Subtype.


Well, I have my safeguard against that. Though it won’t protect me against those biceps or thighs of hers...


Now the question becomes, how do I find out who the Third Crystal is? I know the relevant physical signs of their batch, of course, and there aren’t that many people left, so narrowing it down shouldn’t be too hard. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee they haven’t been eliminated yet, and—


“What are you frowning about?” Kaitlynn asks suddenly. I glance at her to find she still seems sad, but ready for a distraction.


“Trying to figure out who the Third Crystal is,” I mumble, my attention back at the screens.


“Ah, she’s over there.”


Kaitlynn points out a nearby woman with a face and complexion that suggest an Asian heritage, and arms covered in bony ridges. I recognise her from one of the recorded fights, which shows she’s Yin, likely of the Electric subtype, and focused on speed.


“Wait what, how’d you know?”


“Kai told me.”


“When?!”


“Just now, when you brought it up,” she replies with a cheeky grin.


[Typical,] Suri chimes. [And now, of course, you’re going to ask—]


“Hey! How come you didn’t say anything, Suri?!”


[—that. Because, Emma, silence is generally more helpful than randomly volunteered, distracting information.]


I huff out a breath and cross my arms over my chest. “Well gee, thanks. I think I could do with some more randomly volunteered information sometimes, though.”


[Could you now?] Suri chimes, in a suspiciously sarcastic tone of voice. [So, you’d like it if I told you that the Third Crystal was the previous record-holder of the Yin-Yang temple?]


“Yeah! That’s actually pretty—”


[And perhaps you’d also wish me to inform you that the Fourth Crystal—the big bald guy with the tattoos floating by on your right—is a devoted Potterhead, and the former ‘deep square leg’ of Australia’s national cricket team?]


“Well, maybe not the part—”


[Did you know that the Seventh Crystal—the blond man who’s pummelling his opponent to death in the top left corner screen—was working a shift as a DJ at a rave when the void-shift hit, but made more money with his side-gig as a drug dealer, and was saving up to purchase a ‘rad’ muscle car?]


“Okay, I guess that’s not the most relevant—”


[And I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to learn that the Eighth Crystal— the voluptuous, feather-haired woman who forced your friend Lily to forfeit, remember her?—is a vegan Sagittarius, who, ironically enough, was void-shifted from a protest rally against a temporary worldwide ban on large gatherings, instituted in an attempt to learn more about the strange phenomenon. Furthermore—]


“All right! You’ve made your point!” I shout, flustered by the constant stream of information projected straight into my mind.


[Good,] Suri chimes succinctly. [Then you won’t mind if I stick to telling you what I deem relevant, when you ask.]


Meanwhile, Kaitlynn’s laughing at me, seeming to have gotten the full picture, despite having followed only one side of the debacle.


I shoot her a sour look, but it just sets her off further.


I clear my throat, my cheeks feeling flushed. “How come you’re allowed to tell me all of that stuff anyway?” I grumble. “I thought information about other participants was, like, prohibidado.”


[Well, this is all harmless, largely irrelevant information. I’m not allowed to discuss their combat tactics and fighting styles, of course.]


“Sure.”


She seems to know an awful lot about them, though...


Still, at least I’ve learned the identity of the remaining Crystals. In hindsight, it makes a kind of sense that that’s not classified information since they’re basically honorary titles.


My eye finds the recording of the Fourth Crystal’s last fight. I am once again left to wonder if he was already bald and covered in tattoos, or if those are additions to his appearance made by this stupid Realm. Either way, from his abundant use of Boreum he is clearly Yin, possibly Cold type.


That don’t impress me much.


The Fifth Crystal is Kaitlynn of course, and the Sixth just got eliminated by Calyx, so they’re not relevant to my current research.


Though that actually does make Calyx a potential opponent for me in the next round. Well, I wouldn’t mind doling out a little payback.


I pause at the footage from the Seventh Crystal’s fight.


It’s the guy with limbs sprouting from his back, and a crystal sword. In the recording, he once again remains rooted to his spot, not moving an inch as he takes care of his opponent, this time by using what I presume is a Gravity Skill to lift her into the Aether and repeatedly smack her back down hard into the sand.


It kinda looks like he would’ve smashed her into a paste if she hadn’t barely managed to work up the breath to forfeit at some point.


Finally, there’s the Eighth Crystal. In her latest fight, her Toxic Boreum arrows turned out to be homing. It’s a neat trick, but nothing that worries me.


If I had to say who I’m least looking forward to meeting in battle, it would probably be the Seventh Crystal or Miss Nakamura.


I mean, the guy is clearly trouble, but those muscles of hers are just—


The sound of muffled, raised voices draws my attention.


Kaitlynn perks up as well. “Where’s it coming from?” she asks, looking around in puzzlement.


“The other side of the stands!” I exclaim as soon as I figure it out.


The conical shape must be causing the sound to travel around on both sides.


The voices escalate to shouting. I share a glance with Kaitlynn. We both leap off the stands and start making our way around.


Flying isn’t faster per se, but I’d rather take a look from a distance.


As we circle the conical stands, the voices grow clearer.


“I didn’t set out to kill him,” a familiar voice snaps.


Coming around the bend, I spot Calyx facing off against a large man and woman with insectoid antennae, clad in white robes.


Oh boy.


“But if you think I’m going to kneel down and atone or whatever, you’ve got another thing coming,” Calyx continues with a sneer. “It’s not like your prophet didn’t have blood on his hands!”


The man’s face turns purple, his fists shaking with anger, but the woman is the one who takes a step forward.


“Father Johnson was a holy man, free of sin!” she spits. “We were delivered upon these sacred lands by the grace of God with him as our shepherd, and the least you could do after brutally murdering him, is pay your respects!”


“I’ll make amends with the departed on my terms, not yours,” Calyx replies coolly, arms folded over their chest. Their eye glances up at us. “Now, are we done here? My friends are waiting.”


A muscle next to my eye twitches. Are they trying to drag us into this mess? Well, whatever. I wouldn’t have idly stood by if they ganged up on Calyx anyway, I suppose.


The woman follows Calyx’s eye. Catching her gaze I crack my neck and knuckles with a smile. Her eyes go wide.


[Don’t do anything rash now, Emma,] Suri warns. [Unprovoked violence is strictly prohibited in this Hub.]


“That’s a first,” I mumble.


[Yes, well, the stakes of this tournament are too high, and such altercations could easily be abused to rig the competition,] she replies. [Don’t worry, though; I’m sure this conflict will fizzle out soon enough.]


The man, however, keeps staring down at Calyx, towering over them.


“You—vile demon!” he bursts out, even though the antlers on Calyx’s head are probably the least demon-like out of all of ours. “I will not stand here and listen to you insult our prophet! I shall smi—”


His words are cut off abruptly with an odd choking sound. His face twitches violently, as if he’s fighting to control himself. Finally, he takes a deep breath and seems to calm down.


My heart, however, is beating almost out of control, because I felt it. A familiar wave of Espir, that I’ve experienced at least twice before, at the hands of Goddess.


That was mind control! And it came from his eye-crystal! Shit, this proves it; Dave was right!


“I shall look forward to our inevitable encounter in the arena,” the man intones, “where you will pay for your sins.”


I stare after them as they leave, a storm brewing in my mind that I fight to keep hidden.


From the corner of my eye, I spot a figure making its way over. It’s Calyx, swimming up through the Aether with a familiar green outline around their legs.


Kaitlynn glances over as well and tenses a little.


Calyx slows to hover in front of us, looking uncharacteristically unsure.


“So... your friends, huh?” I ask lightly.


“I saw an opportunity to deescalate the situation, and I took it,” they say with a shrug. “We were kind of friends once, anyway.”


An awkward silence falls, as we stare at one another.


Calyx is the first to break eye contact, pursing their lips, and glancing around uncomfortably. Finally, they sigh. “I suck at small talk. That was always more Bob’s department.”


The mention of the big guy brings out a sad smile on Kaitlynn’s face before she quickly forces it down again.


“Anyway, I looked for you guys yesterday,” Calyx continues, “but I couldn’t find you.”


Kaitlynn huffs out a breath, kinda glaring at Calyx. “Yeah, well, we didn’t feel much like socialising beyond our team.”


Calyx turns to her. “I suppose you’re still angry about what happened during the Ninth Trial. It was nothing personal, I assure you.”


I loosen up my stance with a sigh. “Yeah... we get that. No apology necessary.”


Calyx frowns. “I didn’t apologise though, did I?”


I manage to suppress my smile. “No, I guess you didn’t. So, what did prompt you to seek us out, then?”


“I wanted to ask what happened to Steve,” they say slowly. “I mean it’s clear you ended up taking the last door, but...”


I nod, understanding. “Alec... decided I should have the last door. So he basically turned himself into a human taser and jumped the big guy. They went down in a tangle, but otherwise seemed unharmed when I left.”


Calyx remains still for a moment, then lets out a soft sigh. “Good. Well, as good as I could hope for, under the circumstances. Thank you for telling me.”


“No problem. I’m sure you’d have done the—”


“Well, isn’t this just a cosy little reunion,” a voice interrupts from above. “Where was my invitation?”


I sigh and look up.


“Calyx, Miss Toxic Dragon, Miss Fifth Crystal,” Dominique greets with a mocking little bow.


“Lightning Bitch,” I intone as I reorient myself to face her, with a tip of my imaginary hat. I almost conjure one. Almost.


She shoots me a glance that drips with patient indulgence. “Very mature, Emma. Might I remind you that we are about to become part of a society we still know rather little about? Let’s at least attempt to be civil and save the bickering for the ring.”


I wisely refrain from making a disparaging comment about this notion of some grand society that’s waiting to welcome us. After all, we are days away from leaving this place, and beggars can’t be choosers.


Instead, I raise my brows. “Oh, so now that it suits you to play nice with the other participants, you suddenly want to be friends? Is that it?”


She narrows her eye at me. “Rich, coming from the woman who literally stole my intended partner for the Seventh Trial.”


Kaitlynn scoffs. “Abducted. Mark isn’t a thing, but I’m sure you were very sad over him,” she mocks, “and whoever you decided to leave behind in Hub Three.”


Dominique glances at each of us in turn, letting out a long-suffering sigh as she stops at Kaitlynn. “So much for making nice. Well, suit yourselves. Don’t come crawling to me after I’ve taken the top spot, oh mighty Miss Fifth Crystal.”


Man, she really can’t handle that Kaitlynn got that door, huh?


However, despite all the animosity between us, something about the set of her jaw, the rigidity of her posture as she makes to turn around elicits an unwelcome feeling in me.


Sympathy.


The harsh reminder I just received of how we’re all victims of circumstance, manipulated by the mysterious Peilor through various means, probably plays a role when it suddenly hits me that none of Dominique’s team made it to the Final Hub, and that we’re the only ones she actually knows here.


Before I know it, I’ve raised an apologetic hand. “All right, all right, hold on...”


She pauses, half-turned. Kaitlynn glances over at me with a frown.


“Look, we’ve all done screwed up shit in our struggle to survive,” I say as much to Kaitlynn as to Dominique. “As far as I’m concerned, what happened in the Trials, stays in the Trials. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about Mark. And Steve, for that matter,” I add, glancing at Calyx.


Dominique studies me coolly for a moment, but some of the tension leaves her shoulders. “Perhaps you’re not completely hopeless after all,” she allows. “I guess we’ll find out in the ring.”


This time, I recognise the tease for what it is.


I smirk at her. “Only if you make it far enough to face me.”


She laughs but doesn’t fire back. Instead, she takes a look at Kaitlynn.


After a moment, my blue angel nods at her. Dominique appears satisfied with this and leaves with a flap of her Boreum wings.


Calyx bids us farewell soon after, looking more bemused than anything.


Finally I’m alone with Kaitlynn again.


“Emma, are we bitches?” Kait asks after a moment.


I bark out a laugh. “I dunno. Maybe. I think there’s some extenuating circumstances in this case, considering all the shit that went down before.”


Kait hums. “I think part of me was waiting for another confrontation with her... I guess it’s not hard to find a fight if you’re looking for one.”


I nod sagely. “So, ehm... wanna head back to your place?”


Judging from the smirk my suggestion elicits, she has the same thing in mind.


Well, maybe not entirely.


“I wanted to ask you a favour,” I say as we swim over to the nearest portal.


“Shoot.”


“The thing is, I’ve kinda taken Suri’s advice to hold some of my abilities back to heart...”


She snorts. “Kind of an understatement. I’ve hardly seen you do anything yet!”


“Like I said, luck of the draw. However, there’s a bit of a downside to the hiding of my abilities as well, unfortunately.”


“Oh?”


“Basically, there’s a bunch of techniques I’ve been practising that I haven’t gotten to test in actual combat yet…”


Kaitlynn’s face grows a little pinched. “I’m not sure I like where this is going.”


“Well I’m gonna ask regardless: Would you help me test my defences please?”


She blinks. “Your defences? Well, in that case… sure!”


I really don’t like the look of the wicked grin she shoots me.


Oh, who am I kidding, yes I do. Man, I’m a sucker for this girl.



Author's note:

Patrons now can read up to the end of Book Four! ^^


I won't spoil anything, but it's a part of the story I've been writing towards for a very long time. Moreover, since it's coincidentally also the first of the month, there was probably never a better time to:



Thanks for reading! ^^

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