• H.C. Mills

Chapter 28: Life's a grind

Author's note:

Just a quick heads up: The 'Plasma Manipulation' skill in chapter 27 has been renamed 'Astreum Manipulation', and the 'Plasma Beam' is now called 'Astreum Blast'.

Well, shit.

I was afraid it’d come to combat, but at least we’ll be going in together. It seems almost uncharacteristically nice of the bastards who made this place, but maybe it’s more meant to balance out matters for different roles in combat. Like Dave, who chose a healing skill after the Third Trial, making him potentially crucial to our survival, while if we had to go at it solo, Kaitlynn’s offensive ability would have been far more useful.

Actually, speaking of the assholes who made this place, “What do you guys think of the... these trials?”

“They suck,” Alec declares curtly.

“Oh my god yes,” Kaitlynn agrees, “they’re totally unfair!”

“Well, obviously,” I say dryly. “Let me be a little more specific: do you guys think we’re being lied to?”

Kaitlynn and Alec stare at me with wide eyes. Oh, the naivety of youth.

Dave looks around uncomfortably. “Emma... are you sure it’s okay to talk about this?”

“Humor me. Frankly, I don’t see how much worse they can screw us over, so...”

Dave chuckles. He hesitates for a bit. “I would say, yes... definitely. I mean, they claim they want to ‘help train us to survive’, yet they hold back crucial information.”

I nod. “Exactly. They also say they are ‘lacking in resources,’ yet they built all of these duplicates of the Trials, and make everyone go through them individually; that’s like the farthest thing from resource-efficient!”

“Woah,” Alec says, “you’re right! Instead of training, it’s more like... they’re testing us.” And only letting the fittest survive, I add silently.

“I also don’t buy the transfers being accidental,” I say instead. “The locations are clearly targeted at large masses of people. I just can’t figure out what they want from us.”

Dave sighs. “Problem is, we lack information. And our Personal Guide Systems aren’t much help in that department; anything interesting is either classified or they don’t know.”

I fold my arms across my chest. “Well, whoever built this place, they need us for something, that much is obvious. That means we hold some value to them, but only if we make it through.”

I look over at Kaitlynn, who’s been rather quiet. Oh dear, she looks like she might cry...

I sigh. “All right, let’s change the subject; this is depressing. Also, quite pointless for now. All we can really do is keep our eyes open, and try to survive. So, we know where to find the Minor Lavi Crystal, is anything known about the other two objects we need to level up?”

Dave clears his throat. “Yes, or at least, we know where to find the Yin and Yang pearls. That information spread through the social network quite early on. There’s a temple in the middle of the woods, the Yin-Yang Temple. Inside is an obstacle course kinda like the second trial, but more dangerous. Only one person can enter it at a time and you may only enter it once. If you make it through alive, you can grab either a Yin or Yang pearl at the end. We’ve been holding off on trying.”

Lovely. Sounds like the asshats who build this place are fans of Indiana Jones.

“As for the Stardrop Flower,” Kaitlynn says, “nobody’s found it yet. Or if they have, they’re not sharing. Frankly, we don’t even know what it looks like... Kai won’t give me any hints either; all I know is that it didn’t grow in Trial One.”

“Hints?” Alec asks, baffled. “You ask your Personal Guide System for hints? Mine won’t even give me his name!”

“What?” I ask. “Why not?”

Alec grunts sourly. “He says I haven’t earned it. Makes me call him ‘Sarge.’ And he keeps trying to make me do push-ups, says I need to work on my ‘spaghetti arms.’”

“Well, he’s got a point,” Kaitlynn teases.

“Hey!” Alec shouts indignantly.

I forcibly suppress a smirk and say: “I’m sure it’s not that bad. What’s your Strength, Alec?”

“It’s... it’s nine.”

I give him a pitying look. “Ah... I see.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?!”

Kaitlynn laughs out loud. It’s a pleasant, clear sound; contagious.

Dave shakes his head. “Mine is called Rose.”

Trying to cut the poor boy some slack, eh? Fine, I’ll play along.

[Ugh,] Suri’s voice chimes in my head.

I blink. “Oh, you know her?”

[We’re acquainted, unfortunately.]

Huh. Weird. Note to self, revisit this subject later.

“Emma?” Dave asks.

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

“I asked what your Personal Guide is called.”

“Ah, her name’s Suri.”

Dave makes a bit of a glazed expression, frowns and shakes as if to clear his head. I get a feeling the dislike is mutual.

Anyway, enough chitchat. Time to get down to brass tacks.

“So... what’s the plan?” I ask the group.

“Well,” Alec says, scratching his head, “I suppose it can’t hurt to stock up on some more food. There’s plenty for now, but more people are entering Hub Two every day, and we might be here for a while, so it can’t hurt to stock up.”

“That sounds good,” I say, “but I meant more in the long term. What’s our game plan, our strategy; how are we going to live through this ordeal?”

It’s quiet for a bit.

Dave is the first to respond. “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but... I’d do anything to get back home.”

Resolve, I like it.

“So I think we should focus on getting to Level 2,” he continues. “That means looking for the Stardrop Flower, hunting the Blue-Scaled Trigot, even though we may need to tangle with Bruce and Co again... We’ll have to face the temple at some point, but I think we should save it for last, see if we can gather some more info about it first or something.”

Kaitlynn and Alec are nodding along demurely.

“Yeah, I have to disagree,” I say. “I think we should forget about reaching Level 2 for now.”

They all turn to stare at me.

“Well you said it yourself, Bruce and Co are like Greenpeace levels of protective of those Blue-Scaled Trigots right now, the temple is a death-trap and nobody has a clue about where to find the Stardrop flower.”

Dave frowns. “Then what do you think we should be doing?”

I smile. “Push-ups.”

“Is this... really necessary?” Alec asks doubtfully as he lifts his body from the floor once more.

I roll my eyes. “Look Alec, in many ways, it’s like we’re playing a game, with our life on the line. Inside the Trials our growth is limited by time constraints, but out here, it is not. Just think about it man, we have stats! Stats that determine how strong and tough and fast we are, and we can permanently increase them! Are you saying that’s not worth a little sweat blood and tears?”

He huffs out a breath. “Well yeah, but I’ve been doing this off and on for like an hour... unfh... are you sure it’ll even work?”

“I’m sure,” I lie. “And it’s been more like twenty minutes. But don’t worry, you don’t have to do just push-ups; you can alternate with sit-ups, squats, burpees, whatever strikes your fancy.”

Alec groans.

“Keep breathing,” Kaitlynn says, lounging on her side. “You need to get enough oxy—no wait, I guess it might not matter as much here...”

Dave scratches his chin. “Interesting thought. Try holding your breath for a while, Alec, see how it affects you while you do that.”

“Why am I... the only one doing this?” Alec complains.

“Because you have spaghetti arms,” I say. “And it’s an experiment; it doesn’t make sense for all of us to be trying the same thing at the same time when we don’t know for sure if it works.”

“What?” Alec gasps. “But you just said—”

“Anyway,” I interrupt him, “I’d do it myself, but I’m still weak from the Toxic Energy, so... keep it up! And try holding your breath like Dave says, I wanna see what happens.”

Not much, it turns out. At some point, his Lavi started dropping of course, so he had to resume breathing, but he didn’t noticeably get tired faster or start gasping for air or something like that. Pretty interesting.

“All right,” I say after a while, clapping my hands together as I get up. “Alec, you’re going to keep doing this. Dave, you’ll watch him, and try to learn the Deep Breathing Skill like I explained. Remember to slowly build up the depth of your breaths! Kaitlynn, you’re with me; we’re going to try out phase two.”

“What’s phase two?” Dave asks in surprise.

“One of the least fun things we’ll ever do, probably,” I sigh. “But we’re doin’ it nonetheless. If it works.”

“You want to do what now?” Kaitlynn asks unbelievingly.

“Just, you know, roll down the tree trunk,” I repeat sheepishly.

Don’t worry, we’re only about twenty feet up from the ground, and the trunk flares out widely from here.

“If you have a better idea of how to raise Toughness, I’d love to hear it. I figured this would be the easiest way to get smacked and bruised all over, without breaking anything or doing any serious damage.”

She blinks at me and then shrugs helplessly. “I guess... if you really think this’ll work, I’m willing to give it a try.” She turns to look down the trunk, nervously biting her lip.

I put my hand on her arm. “That’s very sweet, but I was actually going to do this myself. My strength and agility may be lowered, but my toughness is fine.”

Kaitlynn whirls on me. “Don’t even think about it,” she says, jabbing me in the chest with a finger. “You were on your deathbed a few hours ago, and you are far from recovered. I’m doing this, and that’s final.”

I’m genuinely stunned. She raises her brows at me, demanding acquiescence.

I nod mutely and she hands me her fanny pack.

I sit down and watch as she takes her first of many painful tumbles down the trunk.

Oof... She gives a little wave, letting me know that’s she’s okay.

“Maybe you should start a little lower next time!” I call down, shaking my head.

Sheesh, what a masochist.

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©2018 by H.C. Mills