On the way back, Kaitlynn tells me the skill she used is a medium-grade skill called ‘Astreum Manipulation,’ and this attack was its first level: ‘Astreum Blast.’ It’s a Yang type attack that costs 10 Qi to activate; the reason she couldn’t use it on Bruce and co yesterday, is because she ran out of juice after taking out the Blue-Scaled Trigot in a single shot.
And to think I considered myself safe because I was on a different branch... I shiver to think what might’ve happened if one of Meathead’s minions had a skill like this.
Thankfully, not everybody manages to earn 50 Trial Points in the first three Trials, or otherwise isn’t wise enough to save for a medium-grade skill.
Kaitlynn earned extra points for appraising a buttload of plants in the First Trial, for gaining an Agility in the second, and for beating the 10-hour speed goal in the third like me. That barely got her enough points.
As we round another tree-trunk, the hut comes into view. It appears to be mostly made of large sheaths of bark, tied and glued together to form an elongated cube. I always forget what that’s called... a cuboid? It doesn’t appear very rain-proof, but I have a feeling that might not be an issue in this realm. Either way, it’s quite large and looks well-constructed.
Which, frankly, is rather odd. “Say, I know I was slow, but... did you guys really have time to build all this?” I say, waving my arm exaggeratedly as I indicate the hut as a whole.
Kaitlynn laughs. “We didn’t, actually. Dave and Alec found it. They adopted me about two days ago, after they came across me plucking birberries in the stream. You really did take long in there... they were starting to give up hope, you know? We even discussed holding a little wake for you, if you still hadn’t emerged after the seventh day.”
Seventh day? Right, cause that would be the real upper time limit to traverse four preparation rooms and three trials...
She beams at me. “Thankfully, it didn’t come to that,” she says, amicably grabbing onto and squeezing my upper arm.
Dave appears in the hut’s doorway, looking a little panicked. It quickly fades as he spots us.
Whoops. Maybe I ought to leave a note, next time I flee my presumed deathbed.
He hesitates as I come near, looking a little awkward. Ugh, you big nerd.
“Thank you,” I say earnestly and give him a hug.
I’m not a big fan of the touchy-feely stuff, to be honest, but the boy’s earned it.
In for a penny, in for a pound. We go inside and I hug and thank Alec too.
He grins happily yet uncomfortably. “Honestly, I feel like I barely helped... I’m just glad you’re still around.”
Kaitlynn seems to notice my growing discomfort with the mushy atmosphere. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving! What’s for breakfast?”
“What do you think?” Dave responds dryly.
Kailtlynn’s shoulders droop. Alec sighs, “Jicca nuts and birberries; again.”
We eat from hard, bowl-shaped leaves and sit on what appear to be chunks of bark. As I look around the hut from the inside, I get the impression that none of the materials used have actually been cut in any way; they’ve just been stuck together somehow. Perhaps it really was glued? There isn’t much in the way of furniture either; a couple of blocks of wood to sit on, and a kind of rock washbasin precariously perched on a pile of rocks about waist-high.
As we dig in, Kaitlynn, being very careful not to speak with her mouth full, enthusiastically starts explaining what happened in Hub One after I left.
“It was all thanks to you, really!” she gushes.
Apparently, a big, chaotic discussion broke out about how to go forward and who should be in charge, which was starting to grow tense. People were shouting at each other, puffing themselves up threateningly, until a woman named Rebecca stepped forward and managed to re-establish order.
Rebecca explained she had experience in municipal government and came with a proposal: they would democratically elect a ‘Survivors Council.’
Since no-one was against it, an election was set up and performed.
Rebecca was naturally elected, and later on even named Chair of the Council. Steve wasn’t, but he and some of his former crew took up the mantle of the Council’s enforcers.
Dave takes over at this point and explains with only marginally more food in his mouth, that although he had been interested in the council business, he had also keeping an eye on Legolas. And when he saw the douchecanoe slink off to join the queue for the doors, he and Alec quickly followed.
“And about three days ago, we ended up here,” he finishes. “Alec was actually slightly faster than I, even though I’d entered the trials earlier. Only you were nowhere to be found, so we feared the worst.”
The worst huh... that I hadn’t made it through Trial 2, most likely. “How’d you get that purifying Skill?”
Dave shrugs. “I bought a Skilldream after the Third Trial. It seemed pertinent to get a healing skill; at first I hoped for something to mimic the effects of a Lavi crystal, but that seems impossible. There’s a Lavi based Skill to produce Lavi and one that transfers Lavi, but I only had enough to get one, and I preferred something that used Qi, so I landed on the Radiate Skills. I was very tempted to get Restore, so I could heal wounds, but Purification ultimately seemed more useful, as it works on all types of foreign energies, not just Toxic.”
“Well, I feel like you made the right decision,” I say drolly. “And how’d you get enough Trial Points?”
“Let’s see... I got extra points for speeding through the First and Third Trial, and for gaining a point in Toughness during the second—I only barely made it through that one, to be honest; it’s a good thing I’ve been going to the gym. That got me up to 45 Trial Points after the Second Trial, so I made sure not to spend more than 5 before the third.”
“I didn’t have enough to get one,” Alec says sullenly. “I was fast enough to get bonus points in the First Trial, but not in the second. Didn’t raise any stats either, just went through it cautious and slow. How about you, Emma; did you get a medium-grade skill after Trial Three? Was it that breath attack you did?”
“Yeah, that wasn’t much of an attack,” I say. “It does kind of belong to a skill though, a low-grade one called Deep Breathing. It enhances Lavi absorption from the Aether; though it’s not without its dangers because it also increases the absorption of Toxic Energy.”
Dave nods. “I considered taking a Skilldream for that one before the Third Trial, but Rose ultimately advised against it. Said it wouldn’t help much in low Lavi conditions, and that I’d be better off buying some food and drinks and saving my points for a medium-grade Skilldream after.”
“Good call,” I nod. “you don’t need a Skilldream for that one; I managed to learn it all by myself in the very first preparation room. Granted, I did screw up my lungs and almost died at first, and then poisoned myself with Toxic Energy by breathing too much too soon and almost died again...”
“Really?” Dave ask, interestedly. “You’ll have to teach us later, then. I’ve already been helping Kaitlynn and Alec to meditate so they could pick up the skill like I did. Did you also learn the Meditation skill yourself during the Third Trial?”
Ah, that explains why he knew about it and thought it would help save me only one Onkh per minute. “Well, not exactly...”
They’re all staring at me expectantly, so I take a regular deep breath and start up telling them about my experiences. I downplay the crazier, more horrid times, a bit. I don’t want to throw a pity party, I just... want to share the pain a little.
When I’m finally finished, a stunned silence follows.
“Ehm... Did I say something wrong?”
“You...” Alec licks his lips, “you reached 20% Toxic Energy tolerance, and could afford the Skilldream for a medium grade skill after the First Trial?”
Dave looks like he’s not sure whether I’m a genius or a madman. “You raised Meditation to level 2—in the Second Trial, no less—while setting your own bone?”
Kaitlynn stares at me with eyes full of worship. “You actually have a third level skill...”
“Yeah, well,” I say, scratching my head. “I worked hard on my breathing skill and my Toxic Energy tolerance, but most of the time I was just fighting to survive my own stupid mistakes.”
Dave shakes his head. “What you accomplished is still amazing, Emma. And that Boost Physical skill sounds like it has real potential as both a life-saving tool and as a means of growth. Are you sure you can’t teach it?”
I shake my head. “I wouldn’t even know where to start. I had a five-hour Skilldream about the inner workings of my Lavi circulation system, and even then it took me the better part of a day to truly grasp it. But I can definitely teach you guys Deep Breathing.”
Dave nods thoughtfully. “That should come in handy too, but Boost Physical would be really nice for the next Trial, it’s a shame...”
“Oh?” I perk up. “You already know about the next Trial?”
Dave folds his arms over his chest and frowns. In fact, he’s not the only one frowning; the atmosphere turns unexpectedly solemn. “Six doors lead out of Hub Two. At first, I thought the difference was because of how few participants make it here, but... The first time you come near them, you get a notification about the requirements to enter them.”
“You need to reach Level Two, right?” I ask.
Dave smiles wryly. “Yes, but that’s not everything. The instructions are to form an at most five-man squad of Level 2 participants and... prepare for combat.”