Since I have a week off right now, I decided to do a little extra. When I polled my Patrons for what they'd like, they indicated they'd prefer more of the main story over any kind of interlude, and here we are: an extra chapter. (Meaning there will still be a regular friday chapter tomorrow.)
tl;dr Extra chapter, thank my patrons, still a regular chapter tomorrow.
Since Kaitlynn is entertaining herself, I find myself with time on my hands.
“Hey Suri, this Rose you mentioned earlier... what’s so bad about her?” I ask innocently.
[Ugh, don’t get me started. She’s a stuck-up wench, always bragging about how far her candidates make it. It’s not like she’s had anyone finish the course, otherwise she wouldn’t be here, now would she?]
Wait what? I frown. “She wouldn’t be here? What do you mean by that?”
[Hmm. I suppose I can tell you. Well, if a participant manages to finish the program, their Personal Guide System gets to decide whether they stay to guide others, or if they accompany the human they’ve guided in exploring the realm. Most opt for the latter.]
“So... the guides who remain are the ones who have yet to succeed, or newbies?”
[Essentially, yes. Mind you, we don’t get to choose the material we work with either; it’s all randomly selected, apart from a pre-selection based on affinity, of course, so it’s in large part luck.]
“Suri... how many participants have you guided so far?”
Shit. Shit shit SHIT!
My training methods better work, ‘cause it sounds like even though we’ve made it this far, we’re still totally screwed.
In fact, I better train too. Training my strength isn’t really an option right now, as the Toxic Energy weakens my stamina, and deprives me of the Lavi I need to activate my greatest training tool: Boost Physical.
I was originally planning to train my toughness, but since Kaitlynn insists on trying out my method first... I guess I’ll keep an eye on her and work on my breathing, for now. Though I may be lacking the required toughness to learn the actual Breath Control skill, I bet I can still get a little closer to it.
Who knows when it’ll come in handy again.
Nearly three hours.
That’s how long Kaitlynn keeps going. Her perseverance, her blind faith in my idea... I’m honestly touched, seeing her climb back up that tree trunk over and over again, without a single complaint. Like a young, pretty, blue-haired Sisyphus. I actually have to force her to take a break sometimes.
And she actually succeeds: she raises her Toughness from 8 to 9!
I know because she runs up and tackles me in a hug, squealing loudly.
After my left ear has recovered, we head on back to the hut. Slowly. Because I’m still weakened from the Toxic Energy, and she’s covered in scrapes and bruises, which cause her to wince with every step.
When we arrive at the hut, we find Dave, breathing deeply. And, well...
“Huh, where’s Alec?” Kaitlynn asks.
“He... went to take a break from his workout,” Dave says sheepishly. “About two hours ago.”
“Excuse me?” I ask.
Dave sighs. “Map says he’s by the stream, probably picking some birberries.”
Tch. I can already feel a headache coming on.
“Fine,” I say. “We’ll wait for him to return. Show me your breathing.”
It doesn’t take long for Alec to come slinking back in, like a puppy who knows he’s been bad, but still clings to the futile hope that it will go unnoticed.
He’s explicitly carrying a bunch of birberries, as if to distract from the issue at hand.
Nice try, buddy.
“Hey Alec,” I say, not looking up from my work on Kaitlynn’s cuticles. Dave’s putting away his Yang Focus Crystal, as he just finished treating me. “Training didn’t go so well, I take it?”
“What makes you say that?” he asks, nervously and badly feigning surprise as he takes a seat. “Look, if I do this like an hour a day, I’ll still get stronger eventually, right? I mean, I don’t think we should overdo it...”
I purse my lips and shake my head.
Dave clears his throat. “Maybe he’s right Emma, we don’t know what’ll happen if we train too much..."
Alec perks up a little. “Yeah, exactly! And like you said, we’re not on time constraints anymore, so we can waste some time training ourselves.”
A silence settles as I let go of Kaitlynn’s hand with a sigh and turn to stare at him.
“Look, Alec,” I say curtly. “We are not ‘wasting’ time training, we are spending our time training. We may not have a 24-hour limit hanging over our head, but we’re still living on borrowed time. From what I heard earlier, the food supplies in this Hub aren’t going to last forever. What if the same is true for the next one and we get there late? What if the ones we’re fighting against are other participants, and they trained harder?”
I get up. “The next Trial is group combat. If you don’t pull your weight, that affects all of our survival chances. And, I mean, why are we even still discussing this? You get to upgrade yourself; permanently! As much as it sucks to be here, if there’s one good thing about this place it’s that we get to grow stronger, and learn friggin’ magic in this place, how can you still even be thinking of slacking off?!”
“I just—I can’t Emma!” Alec erupts. “I can’t do what you do, I’m not strong enough!”
I fold my arms over my chest. “You seem to think you have a choice Alec, I—”
I pause, narrowing my eyes. “Alec, what is your Willpower?”
“Your Willpower, Alec, the value of your Willpower stat; what is it.”
He skittishly looks around the room. “I... I don’t really see how that’s relevant, seems a bit of a personal—"
Oh for cryin’ out loud. “Dave, what is your Willpower?”
“... It’s ten.”
“Ten, okay, that was the average, right?”
“Kaitlynn?” I ask.
That’s my girl. I nod in satisfaction.
I sigh. “Look, I’m not trying to embarrass you, Alec... I just need to know what I’m working with.”
“It’s... It’s seven.”
Oh boy. That’s worse than I thought, which might be why I fail to suppress a groan.
Alec deflates like a traumatized soufflé. “My mom’s a neat freak, so I never had to help around the house. School was too easy, so I never did homework... and then Uni turned out to be so much harder that I dropped out after the first year. So, there you have it, I’m a fuck-up with no discipline. Happy?”
“Hey, come on man, don’t be so hard on yourself,” Dave says with a frown. “What about that Iron Man suit you made? That thing was amazing dude, one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
Alec rolls his eyes. “That’s different; a hobby. That’s not discipline, it’s...” He shrugs.
“Listen up Alec,” I say softly. “I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is, the Willpower stat can also be raised.”
They all look at me in surprise. “Really?” Alec asks.
I nod. “I raised it myself. Twice. The bad news is: you train it by choosing to suffer when you don’t have to. The other bad news, Alec,” I say, slowly walking over to him, “is that for the next few days while I’m recovering, I’m going to be your personal trainer. And ‘giving up’, is not in my dictionary.”
Alec gulps, looking up at me like a mouse looks at a tiger. Or maybe something sexier, like a lynx.
“Emma...” he starts timidly, “how high is your Willpower, exactly?”
I smile. “Fourteen.”
“I... Hate... You!”
“Eighteen. That’s the spirit Alec, just four more.”
Alec scoffs as he pulls himself up on the thin branch once more. We had to climb the tree a bit to find one safe to hang from. During the Twin Star’s active phase, it can get quite hot up here, but thankfully it’s night right now. At least we don’t have to worry about these branches breaking; this tree has a toughness of 38. I bet you could run a chainsaw ragged on its surface and hardly leave a scratch.
“Come on, you did 21 last time, and if you can do 21, you can do 22,” I encourage him.
“What’s... unfh... with that broken logic!”
He sounds quite pathetic, but I know better than to mistake his panting for a lack of breath; there is no oxygen in this Realm, only Lavi, which means you can’t run ‘out of breath’. His panting is probably 50% due to not being able to breathe properly while clenching his abdominal muscles, and 50% acting.
He pulls up two more times, arms trembling, but on the twenty-second, he drops down.
“I can’t do it, Emma; I think 21 pull-ups is just my physical limit. Besides, isn’t it enough? It’s way more than I’ve ever done before!”
Well duh. Gravity up here in the tree is far lower than it was back on Earth. I know better than to start reasoning with him though; he just wants to distract me.
“You’re talking an awful lot for someone who was just pretending be out of breath, Iron Boy. Also, you said the same thing about 20 pull-ups,” I remind him. “And 19, and 18, and 17. In three minutes you’re doing another rep, and this time, you’re doing 22.”
Groaning, he flops down on his back on the thick branch I’m sitting on and just lies there for a while.
I’m getting pretty exhausted too. He keeps trying to weasel his way out; if I hadn’t been here to keep him going, he would have already quit a hundred times. But as long as I keep at it, he actually does pretty well.
“How much longer are we doing this for, Emma?”
“What, is it becoming hard? That’s good. The harder it is, the better it’ll work. And we’re going to keep doing this until your Willpower hits 8. I don’t care if it takes another hour... or three.”
“What?! But... what about dinner?”
“Okay, time’s up, on your feet cowboy. If you want to be done sooner, then why not go for 23?”
Alec groans... but gets up.
[My my. It appears I was mistaken about you, Emma. Turns out you are a sadist after all.]
“Yeah, well, I learned from the best, Suri,” I whisper back and start counting out loud with Alec’s pull-ups.
It doesn’t take another three hours, thankfully.
It actually happens about 20 minutes later, while Alec does his third attempt at a 24th pull-up. I can tell he’s about to give up again at the last moment, so I yell: “Just do it, Alec, come on! Stop quitting!”
And after he pulls himself up one last time, with a mighty, pained groan, his eyes widen with shock, followed by joy.
He drops down.
“Emma... I did it!”
“That’s great! Show me.”
This was something I had discussed with Dave earlier, to prevent Alec from lying to us.
“Wuh... fine. Sarge, could you grant her viewing permission for this pop-up window please?”
No sooner has he said it, or I can see a floating, transparent window in front of Alec. I walk a little closer to check it out.
“Well done, soldier,” I say, clapping Alec on the shoulder. “A very good start.”
I take a moment to savour Alec’s crestfallen expression at the word ‘start’ before leading him back to the hut for dinner.
Damn. Maybe I really am a sadist.