• hcmills

Chapter 170: They paved paradise

[Well done, Emma!] Suri chimes with unusual cheer the second I exit the portal in the Final Hub.

“Thanks,” I mumble, looking around. Unable to spot Kaitlynn, I immediately head for the big screens.

[I know another victory may not seem too big a deal to you at this point, but it is,] Suri continues, unperturbed by my lack of enthusiasm. [When I was first assigned to you, I never—not even in my wildest dreams—expected you to reach the Pellucid tier. I’m truly proud of you.]

I can’t entirely fight off the smile tugging on my lips. “Oh ye of little faith. Thanks, Suri.”

Miss Nakamura hovers in the distance, and the only person on the conical stands is the gravity-specialised Seventh Crystal. I still don’t know his name, but frankly I don’t much care right now.

They’re both watching the only screen that has yet to turn black, the only fight still ongoing.

Tension settles low in my gut as I watch a swirling orange vortex of destruction chase a mass of blue and white.

It’s Kaitlynn. Versus Dominique.

Kaitlynn ceases her chase, retracting her swirling lances to reform her Astreum and starting to compress them into several points that hover in front of her.

Dominique’s battered mass of Boreum reforms itself, growing wings and a tail, and an overall bird-like shape that encases her nigh-completely.

A hole forms in the Boreum. The tip of Dominique’s spear pokes out and a thick bolt of lightning erupts from it.

Kaitlynn deflects it almost casually with a well-timed wave of vibrations, before rapid-firing the array of Astreum Bombs she formed.

Dominique folds her wings in front of her. The impacts violently rip them apart, but a new set is already forming behind them.

I’m starting to see why their battle is taking longest.

Dominique has clearly learned how to cycle between Electric Energy and Qi as well, or she would never have lasted as long against Kaitlynn.

Still, her mass of Boreum doesn’t look as impressive as Kaitlynn’s conflagration, and as the battle rages on, it continues to shrink.

I’m watching with rapt attention, my heart beating in my throat, when I sense a presence.

“That was quite a fight,” the Seventh Crystal says, hovering next to me with his arms folded behind his head, in a pose that somehow makes it look more like he’s lying down than standing upright. “Though I only caught the tail end of it.”

Behind him, four chitinous limbs move around in a way I find... disconcerting. Like they have a mind of their own.

“Thanks,” I mutter, turning back to the screen, refusing to let him intimidate me.

I know like no other that he can’t touch me in this Hub anyway.

“The name’s Avalan.”

I snort. “Sure it is.”

After a moment of silence he lets out a short bark of laughter and comes floating over until he hovers in my vision, at least considerate enough to not block my line of sight on the screen.

“You got me,” he admits. “Avalan’s actually my stage name.”

What did Suri call him again? Right, a DJ moonlighting as a drug dealer.

On the screen, Kaitlynn blasts through a wall of Boreum, but Dominique slips away.

“Emma. Though I suspect you knew that already,” I reply, pulling my gaze from the action on the screen long enough only for a brief glance.

His blonde hair is short and messy, but in a way that feels meticulously arranged to give off that impression. The way the gills on his neck open when he breathes in is freaky, but it’s nowhere near the weirdest thing I’ve seen in this Realm.

Part of me wants to write the guy off as a homicidal, amphibian maniac and be done with it, but something about his smile and the warmth in his eye sets me at ease. It’s almost like seeing an old friend, like the thin scar on his chin and the piercing in his left brow are familiar, even though I’ve literally never—

Yeah, that ain’t right. This feeling...

I narrow my eye at him. “Are you trying to use Radiance on me?”

He stiffens for a moment, his smile turning forced, then the odd feeling wanes as he relaxes and eyes me appraisingly. “You noticed huh? You’re pretty good.”

“Thanks,” I drawl, once more focused on the screen, where Kaitlynn uses her eye-laser to score a solid hit. Yes! “However, I wasn’t looking for your approval, and I don’t appreciate people trying to mess with my mind.”

He shrugs, seeming unperturbed. “Just scoping out the competish, can’t blame me for trying.”

“You realise I’ve seen you kill people for fun, right? You might as well drop the nice guy act. Nobody’s buying it.”

He stares at me, his face a careful mask, before he breaks out into a manic grin. “You’re actually unafraid, aren’t you?” He sounds almost delighted.

My mouth curves into a slight sneer. “A rabid dog on a short leash isn’t much of a threat, as long as you keep your hands out of its mouth. Now shut up, I’m trying to watch.”

He blinks. “There’s no sound tho—”


Avalan laughs, but finally acquiesces, turning around to watch as well, his hands still behind his head.

The fight on the screen appears to enter its climax, as Kaitlynn dogs Dominique relentlessly, her Astreum coming dangerously close to Dominique’s skin.

Dominique tries to evade, but another beam of Heat cuts her off, and she slams into the trunk of a tree.

Kaitlynn hovers in front of her like a wrathful goddess, Astreum swirling all around her. She appears to say something, and I think I read the word surrender from her lips.

Dominique shakes her head, Boreum already growing back around her, forming spikes that protrude from the bark, seemingly in an effort to keep Kaitlynn from closing the distance.

Not that Kaitlynn needs to. Her eye lights up orange, brighter than before. ‘Are you sure?’ I read from her lips.

Then Dominique lifts her head, and she smiles. Her eye glows blue.

Surprise flashes over Kaitlynn’s face before a beam of Heat erupts from her eye.

A matching beam of Cold surges forth from Dominique, and the two attacks clash violently between them.

My stomach clenches at the sudden development.

For a moment, the two beams stay in a stalemate, then Dominique’s beam begins to waver.

She really must be running on empty! Hold on... then why are her spikes still growing?!

It happens in a split second. All of a sudden, the spikes—which had been growing steadily—stretch forward, seeming to double their length in an instant.

Several of them pierce through Kaitlynn’s wavering cloak of Astreum, and into her flesh. One enters her left shoulder, another her stomach, and a third her right thigh.

“Yikes,” Avalan remarks, but it barely registers. It’s static, background noise to the horrible show playing in front of me.

Kaitlynn struggles against the spikes impaling her, but Dominique leaps forward onto a platform of Boreum. Her spear flashes forward and—

It stops, an inch from Kaitlynn’s throat.

Kaitlynn grimaces, then seems to sag in on herself. Her mouth moves, the words inaudible, but the meaning clear. The screen turns black.

A moment later, all four screens light up again, no doubt showing reruns of our various battles.

I stare, unseeing. My stomach roils

She’ll be fine, she’s got Regeneration level 2, so that stomach wound—she’ll be fine. She has to be.

I forcibly push my panic down, and will myself to believe it, my clenched fists trembling.

It’s not like there’s anything I could do about it if she’s not all right. Please, please, please let her be all right!

“Talk about a surprise comeback, eh?” Avalan chatters beside me. “That was a neat tactic though; hey, d‘you think that was the same trick you pulled on An? Man, I’ll have to watch out for that.”

It takes a moment for his words to filter through my emotional state, but the puzzle they offer is just intriguing enough, and I’m dire need of a distraction.

Actually, yeah, that makes sense. Well, it wasn’t entirely the same trick. Dominique must’ve grown those spikes inside a shrunken boundary, before she allowed it to pop. It must’ve been a boundary that excluded her, as well, or the effect would’ve been far too noticeable.

I’d be impressed, if I weren’t still so scared. And angry.

I turn around abruptly, ignoring whatever Avalan is prattling on about now, and with a kick of my tail, head for the portal rings.

One of them activates as I approach, and Dominique comes out.

She catches sight of me, and freezes. I come to a halt a few feet in front of her, unsure of what it is exactly that I’ve come to do, or say.

[Easy now, Emma,] Suri chimes. [No fighting outside the arena.]

I become aware that my hands are still clenched into fists.

“I didn’t hit anything vital,” Dominique says after a moment. “She’ll be fine.”

I take a deep breath, and deliberately relax my tense muscles. “She’d better be.”

Dominique smiles wryly. “I had no intention of killing her, trust me. I’m not suicidal.”

The corner of my mouth curls up a bit.

Dominique seems to lose some of her stiffness at the sight. “Your girlfriend is stronger than I expected, though. She gave me quite a headache.”

“You mean she was kicking your ass,” Avalan interjects dryly, apparently having followed me.

Dominique coolly raises an eyebrow at him. “Thanks for the concern, but I had her right where I wanted her, Avalan.”

I guess they’ve met.

Dominique turns back to me, and hesitates for a moment. “Your...” she pauses. “Kaitlynn asked me to tell you she loves you very much, and will be missing you dearly, but not to throw any fights just to get back to her sooner.”

I snort.

Dominique allows a small smile. “I assumed that was a joke, yes. You don’t seem like the type who’d be satisfied with second place.”

“She might be disappointed then,” Avalan remarks casually.

I turn back to sneer at him. “I wouldn’t count on it.”

“Thank you for telling me,” I tell Dominique. “I’ll leave you be now. Let you recover from that ass-whooping you took.”

I smirk at her to take the bite out of my words as I drift past her to the portal ring.

“Oh, and watch out for this one,” I add, pointing a thumb over my shoulder at Avalan. “He has the Radiance stat. He’s probably planning to try and use it on you—if he hasn’t already—to get you to lower your guard so he can cajole you into giving up the secret behind that final move you just used, or something like that.”

Avalan bursts into laughter again.

Dominique shoots him a dry glance. “Thanks for the heads up.”

“No problem.”

I float into the ring, and have Suri teleport me away before I do something embarrassing, like cry in public.

Suri takes me to my own, Darksteel-grade apartment. It’s the place where I’ve spent the longest continuous stretch of time since my arrival in the Realm of Crystals, and it’s never felt so cold, barren and foreign to me.

My stuff’s already here, but that just serves as a painful reminder of where I left it.

Without Kaitlynn, I don’t even have access to her suite, to the place we last spent time together, the bed we last slept in...

Perhaps it’s for the best.

With nothing better to do, I train. For hours, like a woman possessed, I run drills, practising using my Skills in tandem to pull off crazy manoeuvres.

It helps keep me distracted.

Before going to sleep, I do something I haven’t for a few days now, but which seems all the more important now that I’ve experienced Avalan’s Charm.

I attempt to enter the Realm of Imagination, in an effort to train my Mental Fortitude.

When the stream of mournful memories once more washes over me, grinding away at my focus until it breaks, Kaitlynn’s absence is a perfect excuse for the resulting flood of tears.

Author's note:

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