• hcmills

Chapter 168: Gotta go fast

Again, there is a noticeable delay before I’m teleported out of the arena, like they were hoping I would ‘finish the job,’ or something, even after I used a non-lethal form of Toxic Energy, immediately pulled out my spear, and just clearly made every reasonable effort to not kill Rowan.

First they pitted Kaitlynn against the guy who took out Dave, and then they squared me off against Rowan, who forced Jacob out of the competition. I sincerely doubt these were mere coincidences, and I don’t like the implications.

Kaitlynn disrupts my brooding by practically crashing into me, as she flings her arms around my neck, laughing. “Holy shit, Emma, what was that?!”

The tension still in my body drains away as I look up at her goofy, incredulous expression, my arms automatically finding their place around her waist. “What, the Hydrum?” I ask with a smile. “Just Breath Control.”

“You’re ridiculous,” she says earnestly. “I thought you’d shown me all you could do; I mean, you didn’t even use your special defensive clo—”

My eyes widen and I quickly shush her, glancing around to see if anyone was close enough to overhear, but it doesn’t seem like it.

She cringes with a sheepish smile, then continues in a whisper. “Sorry! I mean, the you-know-what technique I helped you practice.”

I brush some weightless hair from Kaitlynn’s face, my hand lingering on her jaw. She blushes prettily under the attention. “I’m saving that one for an opponent that requires its use. No reason to show my cards too soon.”

Kaitlynn shakes her head fondly, her nose almost brushing mine. “Honestly. Every time I think I’m catching up...”

She sighs, her expression turning sombre as she leans back and twists in my arms to glance behind her.

I track her gaze to the eight screens displaying the battles of the previous round.

The number of participants left is dwindling rapidly now; we’re down to eight. As a Crystal, Kaitlynn was seeded well, but starting next round, she’ll be meeting opponents ‘on her level,’ so to speak.

My eye roves over the various screens, taking stock of our competition.

I just took out Rowan, the First Crystal, so he’s out. Miss Nakamura, the Second Crystal, seems to have handily beaten her opponent though. As has the Third Crystal, with her lightning-quick battle style. The Fourth Crystal seems to have been defeated by a portly man with a furry tail. Kaitlynn’s the Fifth Crystal, so she’s obviously still in.

As for Calyx—who took out the Sixth in the previous round—they had to face off against the man’s biggest fan.

The big guy who had to be mind-controlled out of attacking them yesterday.

That’s definitely not a coincidence.

I watch their battle with rapt attention. The first thing I conclude, is that he’s a scary son of a bitch.

Mostly because he rushes in with no apparent concern over his own wellbeing whatsoever. Calyx holds their own well, fending off his attempts at grappling them with quick dodges, sudden walls of Boreum, and strikes of their Darksteel staff.

However, the guy bulldozes through the Boreum like it isn’t there, and I’m not sure how, until he finally manages to close the distance.

The moment he does, his robes fly open, and two additional, clearly prosthetic arms burst forth.

A hidden Power-Up!

Naturally, having four arms gives the guy an overwhelming advantage in the melee, and he quickly wrenches Calyx’s staff out of their grip and tosses it away.

Then he pulls Calyx against his massive chest with his prosthetics, while his original arms twist them around and wrangle them into a chokehold.

It takes me a second to realise what he’s up to.

He means to kill them without giving them a chance to forfeit!

Of course, choking isn’t of much use here, apart from it depriving someone of a major source of Lavi, so he’s probably mainly doing that to prevent them from speaking.

No, it’s the sharp-nailed fingers of the prosthetic, piercing their way through the armour and sinking into flesh beneath, that are meant to do the killing. Slowly.

Calyx struggles in his grip, and for a moment, I fear he’s going to succeed.

Then Calyx manages to sweep their leg up in a feat of flexibility, kick him right in the nose, and slip out of the hold.

They jump away, turn back to take a look at him, touching their throat, and forfeit.

I sigh in relief as the screen turns dark. That was... probably wise.

The Seventh Crystal’s fight also ended in a forfeit, and far less spectacularly so.

In fact, his opponent took a single look at him, blanched, and threw in the towel.

Probably also for the best.

Finally, the Eighth Crystal was taken out quite easily by Dominique, after her Toxic, homing Boreum arrows proved useless against the Lightning Witch’s Boreum defences. Pity.

“You’ll be fine,” I tell Kaitlynn, turning back to her. “One more round and you’ll be in the Pellucid tier. And if your opponent’s too tough, you just forfeit, and you’ll still at least be Flawed. Either way, we’d see each other soon enough.”

She bites her lip, her eye flicking over my face. “Yeah. I’m sure you’re right.”

The words ring hollow in my ears, and the pit of unrest in my stomach swells. “Let’s not dwell on it,” I say, as much to her as to myself. “I, for one, could use a dip in that hot tub of yours.”

She scrunches up her nose. “I’ll say. You smell like fish.”

Her squeals as I tickle her allow me to shake off the feeling of impending doom, for a bit.

After a soak, Kaitlynn practically drags me into her arena, and insists I show her my new and improved Breath Control. I roll my eyes but jump in the large pool of Hydrum. After building up sufficient volume, I set out to amuse her by trying—and often failing—to mould my breath-golem into shapes that range from a huge horse to a massive tortoise complete with an outer shell made of solid Boreum.

After Kaitlynn’s done laughing at my miserable, droopy attempt at a massive Golden Retriever, we spar for a bit.

Most of our time, however, we spend just... being together.

Round four comes all too soon. There’s only four battles in this round, and it appears they’re all simultaneous.

Since this time everyone is required to enter the portals anyway, the Peilor don’t bother announcing the matchups. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Kaitlynn and I share a final hug in front of the portal ring. I have a hard time letting go.

“See you soon, babe,” Kait murmurs in my ear.

I nod against her shoulder.

She pulls away. I hold on as long as I can, until inevitably, her fingers slip out of mine.

She glances back once, shooting me a tight smile. Then the portal flashes, and she’s gone.

I take a deep, shuddering breath, square my shoulders, and fly in as well.

I appear mere inches above a large branch in the middle of a forest of trees with familiar, winding trunks. Nostalgia for Hub Two hits me hard as I take in my surroundings.

The only difference is that here, the forest floor appears to be entirely covered in a variety of nasty plants, including Moonshade, Dreamcloud, and the huge red kind I know will try to eat me if I get too close.

Up ahead, on another branch, a swirling dark blue portal opens up and the Third Crystal pops out, the bony ridges on her arms hidden beneath protective leather, a staff made of Darksteel already in her hand.

Ah. Perhaps Suri was hinting at me to prepare for this fight after all.

The woman’s almond-shaped eye falls on me, but she maintains a casual pose, holding her staff loosely. “You are... Emma, correct?”

Judging from her mouth’s movements, she appears to actually be speaking English. Not that it matters much here, I suppose.

I raise a brow. “You’ve heard of me?”

She nods. “Dominique called you the Toxic Dragon, warned me not to underestimate you.”

I smile wryly. Huh. Guess she’s been socialising. And I’m still being chased by that nickname, huh? Well, I suppose I’ve earned it by now.

“Don’t worry,” the woman continues, still maintaining her casual stance. “She refused to tell me what exactly you’re capable of. I believe she wishes to defeat you herself.”

“I’m sure she does,” I drawl. “What’s your name?”

“An Na.”

Back in the Entropic Realm I might’ve mistaken her words for a single name, but here the additional meanings of the words—peaceful and graceful—resound clearly.

I nod. “I’ll try and remember that. No promises though, I’m kinda terrible with names.”

She cocks her head sideways and smirks a little. “Oh? I suppose I better try and leave an impression then. I have to warn you though, once I start moving, things might end very quickly if you’re not prepared.”

My heart starts pounding a little faster and I can’t help but grin as I slowly pull my crystal spear from my back and activate Boost Physical’s second mode. “Oh, I think I can handle your speed. I did break your Yin-Yang Temple record, after all.”

Her eye sparkles with interest. “Did you now? Good. I’ve been waiting for an opponent on my level.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to keep looking then,” I tell her, unable to resist the dig. “I broke the record you set at Level 2 while I was still Level 1!”

Her smirk just grows wider. “Well, I’ve gotten a lot faster since then. Let’s see if you’re still able to... keep up!”

Lightning crackles along her body as she turns into a blur of motion. She takes a running leap off her branch and bounces off another before soaring straight for my position.

My eye widens and I leap back to dodge her downward swing.

A field of Positive Inertial Energy extends from a Focus Crystal around her wrist, trying to trap me, but it meets my own Negative Inertial Energy and the two fizzle out where they touch.

Her electrified staff smashes into the wood where I just stood. Under the effects of her Inertial Energy, the force of the blow is enough to send flying a spray of splinters and shake the whole branch.

She grins like a maniac, and leaps again, closing the distance.

We trade blows back and forth. From her effortless use of dual Inertial fields, I can tell she has at minimum Inertia Manipulation level 2, and matches my skill at using it.

And it shows.

I swallow after a near blow to the head. I’m not used to being outmanoeuvred like this. Usually, I’m the one who tries to close the distance and finish things in melee, but while An doesn’t appear as strong, she’s clearly my superior in terms of Agility.

That no doubt has something to do with the Boost Reflexes Skill she appears to be using, but I’m guessing she also has a pretty good Agility Power-Up.

Or maybe just still the one she got for beating the temple record... Damn.

Either way, I’m stuck on the defensive, and she forces me back step by step, until she finally catches me off guard with an impressive feint, and swings for my leg.

My Negative Inertial Energy fizzles out against her Positive variant, and her heavy staff connects to the side of my knee, shattering bone.

I grunt in pain, and leap off the branch.

Oh man, she’s good!

An takes a step back, holding her staff up defensively, then blinks as I don’t go down, but rather float off under the effects of my spatial boundary.

“You should forfeit,” she calls out, honestly sounding a little disappointed. “You can’t fight like that.”

Ignoring her, I breathe through the pain in my leg and tap into the stream of information travelling along the Lavi flows through my spine.

There’s a lot of damage in my knee, from torn ligaments to shattered bones. But compared to regrowing a foot, it’s child’s play.

It takes only a split second to order my Lavi to restore my knee to the mirror image of its healthy twin, and the pain immediately begins to lessen.

I let out a sigh and crack my neck as my leg rapidly, and visibly recovers.

Her eyes widen as my knee’s unnatural bend rights itself and I wiggle my foot to test it.

“Don’t worry, I’m just getting started,” I tell her, before I launch a ball of compressed Aether at her from my mouth.

I’m having far too much fun for this to be over already.

She takes a swing at it, and it burst apart upon hit. She yelps as she’s pushed backwards by the sudden blast of Aether, but manages to leap off the branch and land nimbly on another.

The move has a dual purpose, however; it also pushes me back to above a nearby branch, where I allow my boundary to thin and let through enough gravity that I can drop down.

The landing elicits but a small twinge of pain from my knee, which is already nearly as good as new.

I crack my neck, raise my hand, and make the universal gesture for ‘come at me, bro.’

Narrowing her eyes at me, she decisively plants her staff into the solid wood of her branch.

Arcs of lightning crackle down her limbs as she leaps.

Author's note:

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