Chapter 23: Like yo momma

“Suri, how much question time left?”

 

[1 minute and 23 seconds.]

 

“Check. Then, tell me how to reach Deep Breathing level 4.”

 

[The Deep Breathing skill actually only comes in three levels. However, you may eventually be able to evolve it into the medium-grade Breath Control skill.]

 

Hoh? That sounds awesome.

 

“What’s the difference and how do I do that?”

 

[Deep Breathing is a support skill purely meant to increase your intake of Lavi from Aether. Breath Control takes it a step further; it allows you to take control over the Lavi in the Aether you’ve inhaled, and use it for offensive purposes.]

 

“So, in order to learn this, I need to... blow really hard?”

 

[Put crudely, yes. However, as you’ve no doubt noticed, doing so currently damages your fragile little body. In order to successfully master this technique, you will first need to raise your Toughness to at least 12.]

 

Oof... that could take a while.

 

“Ooh, Suri, could you tell me the best way to raise my—”

 

[I’m afraid your time is up.]

 

“—Toughness.”

 

[That’s classified,] Suri chimes almost smugly.

 

Damn. Is it really, or are you just doing enjoying messing with me?! Well, no matter; I’ll figure something out. Anyway, considering where I’m headed next, I’m raring to go.

 

Fortunately, my clothing has dried, so I can quickly get dressed and collect my things into my backpack.

 

“Suri, would you advise me to spend my Trial Points right now, or to save them?”

 

[You don’t have enough for a Skilldream, and anything you require can be found in Hub Two.]

 

That’s clear enough.

 

I still hesitate for a moment. I could stay here and practice my skills... raise my Max Lavi a little. Though it seems like I could only really work on Meditation level 3 right now, as the second level of Boost Physical requires another Skilldream for instruction and Breath Control requires a Toughness of 12.

 

Moreover, I haven’t seen another person in ages. And what if Dave and/or Iron Man is already there, but moves on before I enter?

 

“Suri... is there a time limit on staying in Hub Two?”

 

[There is not. It would be difficult to enforce with participants all entering at different moments.]

 

That does it. Though it pains me to say it, right now grinding isn’t a priority.

 

I take one last sweeping glance through the room, and stride excitedly towards the stone door. It rumbles open, revealing a stone hallway.

 

I pass through and cover my ears as the door slams shut behind me.

 

Ceiling-embedded crystals light up, revealing another door at the end of the hallway.

 

It opens as I near it, revealing a lush green jungle, buzzing with life and colour.

 

As I step into the hot, humid environment, under the canopy of enormous, towering trees, this door also slams shut behind me.

 

Tch, these people and their slamming doors... do they really think I want to go back to that desert? Maybe I’ll try to jam the next door I pass through, just to see what will happen...
 

 

‘To gain access to Trial Four’? What’s next, want me to dig my own grave?

 

I check my new and improved status bar.

 

 

Neat! Though I don’t have any use for my Qi yet...

 

“Wait, Suri, what is this social system I’ve unlocked?”

 

[It’s a system that allows you to stay in touch with your friends. You currently have: ‘zero’ friends, would you like to add any?]

 

“Yes! Ooh, try Dave, first.”

 

I wonder if she’d know who I meant if I said Iron Man...

 

[‘Dave’ has been found. Friend request sent. Please await response.]

 

He’s really here? There’s shouldn’t be more than one Dave, right?

 

...

 

What’s taking so long? Come on man, don’t leave me hanging...

 

[Friend request accepted. Incoming call from ‘Dave’, would you like to pick up?]

 

“Yes!”

 

No sooner have I finished speaking or I can hear Dave’s voice in my head.

 

<Emma? You’re really alive? We’d given up hope!>

 

It’s really him!

 

“Yeah, I somehow made it through,” I say out loud. “Sorry it took me so long.”

 

<That’s great, but I can’t really talk ri—shoot; Kaitlynn, watch your step!>

 

Kaitlynn?

 

“Dave, what’s going on over there?”

 

<Trouble. Oh boy. Just, ehm, just stay put, we’ll come find you—later.>

 

“Dave? Dave?!”

 

[Your call has ended.]

 

“Damnit! Suri, is there a way to find them?”

 

[You can view the location of your friends on the Hub Map. Just say—]

 

“Open Hub Map!”

 

A transparent map shows up in my right ‘eye’s view. I see a glowing circle which says ‘you are here’ and a glowing dot with ‘Dave’ next to it. Thankfully, he’s not too far.

 

The map turns with me as I spin, keeping the top of the map aligned with the direction I’m facing, so it’s child’s play to determine the right direction.

 

Stay put my ass.

 

I set off, weaving my way through the tall underbrush.

 

 

All right, so it’s a little farther than it seemed on the map. Hub Two is pretty big.

 

And so is this patch of Moonshade Flowers. No wonder I felt a slight tickle in my throat.

 

I hesitate, but still decide to take a detour. I won’t be much help if I’m all ‘intoxicated’ when I get there.

 

After about three frantic minutes, I’m finally where I’m supposed to be, according to the map. Yet, I see no-one...

 

“Suri, they’re not like in another Hub Two or something, right?” I whisper, just in case.

 

[No. Your map isn’t wrong.]

 

“But, where...”

 

A soft thud alerts me that a shoe just dropped next to me.

 

I stare at it blankly, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

 

It doesn’t.

 

I look up and spot human figures, way up in the canopy.

 

Really? How am I supposed to get up there?

 

I take a doubtful look at the nearest tree trunk. It actually has a pretty odd shape, like a rope, made up of separate—but still huge—twines that spiral upwards. It’s also incredibly thick, a good 50 feet in diameter.

 

This... may not be as impossible as I initially thought.

 

I jog to the tree, occasionally sneaking glances up, and set foot on an upward spiral.

 

The tree’s surface is covered in a smooth-looking bark, that still manages to provide me with plenty of grip. I start walking, sticking close to the massive trunk as I slowly circle it. Soon enough, my suspicion is proven correct and I increase my pace.

 

This tree is so fat, it has its own field of gravity.

 

Another minute or so later, panting and out of breath, I reach the lowest, thickest branches of the tree. You could drive a bus over these, seriously.

 

In the distance I see Dave with his frizzy brown ponytail and... nope, can’t remember his name.

 

Looks like they’ve dumped their costumes before entering the trials; good call. The grey, knit sweater and bleached jeans Dave is wearing seem more like the clothes of an old man... which, come to think of it, they probably were. Yikes.

 

Despite the trashy blue sweatpants and black band shirt he’s wearing, I also still manage to recognize the blonde baby-face as Iron Man.

 

Can I still get away with calling him that instead of his name now?

 

Either way, they’re standing protectively in front of a blue-haired girl, who’s wearing a matching blue tartan skirt under a white blouse. That must be Kaitlynn, rocking some kind of schoolgirl anime cosplay.

 

What, I’ve been replaced already?

 

Nah, just kidding, I’m not that possessive.

 

A little farther away, stands a group of five menacing looking guys, wielding improvised clubs. Well actually, only the guy in front looks menacing; a real meathead, all muscly, wearing a black tank-top and military-green cargo shorts of all things, the rest just looks unkempt if anything, wearing tattered remains of barely recognizable costumes.

 

One of them, a guy with beady little eyes that make him slightly resemble a weasel, is missing a shoe and holding the other in his hand. That’s one mystery solved, I suppose.

 

Looks like I haven’t been spotted yet, and despite the tense atmosphere, they’re still talking. Guess neither side really wants to risk fighting on top of these branches. At least not yet.

 

I climb a bit higher on the back of the tree, jumping from twine to twine. The higher I get, the more gravity tilts on the tree trunk; it’s already like a 45-degree angle by now, so I can manage this feat quite safely.

 

I sneak over one of the higher branches towards the argument, using the door-sized leaves to hide my figure, until I can make out their expressions. The first thing I notice is... they’re all sporting a new ‘right eye’, like me, although they have them in a variety of colours. Iron Man’s looks like an amethyst, Dave’s like amber, and Kaitlynn’s like a deep red ruby.

 

I still can’t hear what they’re saying though, so I creep a little closer. Is it just me, or does sound carry less far in this dimension?

 

Meathead’s crystal is an odd shade of orange. And he’s griping about something...

 

“All this moaning about a council! You know, I never got to vote! So why should I listen to them, huh?” he asks rhetorically, as he paces back and forth on his branch. “By the time they were elected I was already blazing a trail ahead.”

 

“Even if you didn’t vote, they still represent the collective will of the survivors,” Dave says, hardly moving a muscle, “and so do their enforcers.”

 

“Enforcers huh?”

 

Meathead takes an exaggerated look around. Not too far up, luckily. His minions all chuckle. Especially Weasel, that guy is genuinely cracking up. Kiss-ass. Actually, one of them isn’t laughing. An emo-kid in the back, who looks very uncomfortable with the whole situation. Though by the looks of him, it may just be social anxiety.

 

“Well, I don’t see any,” Meathead says, shrugging like a third-rate actor.

 

Kaitlynn, held back by Iron Man, takes half a step forward. “This is such bullshit! I killed that Blue-Scaled Trigot fair and square, so this crystal is mine. You just can’t handle having been beaten by a girl; if it had been a guy, you wouldn’t be here making a big fuss, you’d have already slunk back to your little lair. And if you think the council is going let this sort of thing stand, then you’re as dumb as you look!”

 

Meathead’s facial muscles are twitching now.

 

“Look little girl, your precious council may hold sway in Hub One, but this!” he says, taking a menacing step forward. Dave and Iron Man draw themselves up in response. “This! Is Hub Two; this is the jungle. And according to the law of the jungle, things are only yours if you have the strength to take them AND keep them.”

 

Iron Man snorts. “You talk an awful lot for someone so keen on taking things by force. Why don’t you just back off and hunt the next one tomorrow? We promise not to tell anyone,” he finishes teasingly.

 

Oh Iron Man... did you have to use that tone? From Dave’s flinch I can tell he shares my opinion on the matter, but it’s too late.

 

Meathead goes red with anger. “Enough chitchat; if you’re not letting go of that crystal willingly, I’ll just have to start breaking some fingers.”

 

He beckons his minions and they start carefully moving forward.

 

I hop onto a little twig—relatively speaking; it still has a two-foot diameter—and quickly sit down in a nonchalant pose. Perched over the middle ground between the two parties—though unfortunately about 20 feet away from their branch, with nothing but air between me and the forest floor—I clear my throat and say:

 

“Yeah, I don’t think so.”

 

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