As I push aside the cloth hanging in the doorway, I rack my brain trying to remember the name of the Council’s Chair, but come up blank.
The room I enter is smaller than the one in front, homelier. The woman behind the desk has skin the colour of mocha and half-long hair that’s a shade darker than mine. She’s writing something down—again, by carving into a piece of bark—and doesn’t look up until she’s finished.
Her remaining eye is deep brown, her eye-crystal magenta. She gets up and reaches out to shake my hand brusquely. “Hello Emma, my name is Rebecca. Please, take a seat.” She indicates the log behind me. Right, Rebecca... I knew that.
As I sit down, she walks around to casually perch on her desk, and stares me down.
Man, this is giving me flashbacks of the principal’s office... Am I in trouble here?
“So, Emma, I heard a story you were claiming to be a council enforcer?”
Oh boy. “Ehm, I never actually claimed that... I just didn’t correct someone’s mistaken assumption.”
[Hmm. That’s not quite how I remember it.]
What are you, my conscience? At least Suri can’t narc on me.
Rebecca smirks at me, a twinkle in her eyes. “Hmm... we’ll chalk that rumour up to mistaken communication then.”
She’s letting it go, just like that? Weird.
“I’m actually more interested in the second part of the rumour,” she continues. “It goes like this: your Toxic Energy Tolerance is extremely high, to the point where you are able to use Moonshade Sap as a weapon, by taking it in your mouth and spraying it out.”
So that’s going around? Actually, that’s not bad; people will know not to mess with us. “Oh, that part’s all true,” I say, shooting for casual, even though my hearts beating in my throat. “It’s quite tasty, would you like to try some?” I take out my trusty bottle of death and hold it up for her.
To her credit, she doesn’t even flinch, just studies it intently for a second before saying: “Appraise.”
Damn, I’ve been played. If I were bluffing, she’d have me now...
She reads the appraisal window, invisible to me—or pretends too with great skill—and curtly nods.
“Thanks for the offer, but I’ll have to decline; I’m on duty.”
Despite myself, I snort.
She cracks a smile, before turning more serious as I return the bottle to its rightful place. “I’m going to be frank with you, Emma. Currently, the biggest threat to our survival is the unease among the people. Everybody’s afraid and traumatized, and people are doing stupid things.”
She pushes off the desk and returns to her seat, looking rather drained. For the first time, I notice how sunken her eyes are.
“The Stardrop Flower has yet to be found, and people are getting restless. You know of the Moonshade Glade?”
I shake my head no.
She sighs. “The Moonshade Glade is a huge valley covered in Moonshade Flowers; not even trees grow there. It’s the deadliest and least explored area in Hub Two. It’s also the most likely—or perhaps at this point only location where the Stardrop Flowers might finally be found. We’ve had several reports over the past week of people entering the Moonshade Glade and... not all of them came back.”
...I don’t like where this is going.
“If you have the kind of Toxic Energy Tolerance as rumoured, the council would like to beseech you to search for Stardrop Flowers for us in an official capacity. We hope to be able to acquire enough of for everyone, so that further pointless deaths can be avoided.”
Whoop, there it is.
...Well, it sounds like I’ll have to go there sooner or later, anyway. Though I don’t know about finding enough for everyone, I’ll have to find at least four. If they’re there... but it does seem rather likely. After all, the people who built this place are clearly a bunch of sadistic motherf—
“Of course,” Rebecca adds, interrupting my thought process, “the council will provide all the support we can, in terms of supplies you may require... and even then, the survivors will all owe you a great favour.”
I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. A rather deep one apparently; Rebecca’s clothes and hairs flutter in the artificial breeze I just made. Again, she doesn’t even blink. Damn unflappable woman.
“Very well,” I say, getting up. “I can probably help out with that... but I have two caveats. First of all, my team is keeping the first four Stardrop Flowers we find. Actually, make that five. We still need to recruit a fifth member at some point.”
Preferably after we’ve levelled, so there’s no chance of them betraying us and running of with our stuff, or anything like that. Once we’re through those doors, any former alliances they might’ve had will probably be irrelevant.
Rebecca nods. “Of course, and your second caveat?”
“I’m running the temple before I go out into the Moonshade Glade.”
Rebecca frowns and opens her mouth, but I raise a hand to cut her off.
“My Toxic Energy Tolerance truly is pretty good, but if I get exposed to too much I’ll still suffer for it, and I’m not waiting to get my Yin Pearl before I’m all better again. Don’t worry; I used to be a gymnast.”
“I see. Very well; I’ll trust in your athletic ability. Just hand your permit to the enforcer by the temple, and she will provide you with instructions. I hope to see you come out alive soon.” She stands up and holds out her hand again. I shake it.
Why do I feel like I just made a deal with the devil? She actually seems pretty genuine...
I break the news to the gang outside as I lead them to the temple.
Dave and Alec take it in stride, but Kaitlynn isn’t too happy about it.
“Emma, despite your high Toxic Energy Tolerance, you still almost died after taking that sap in your mouth! What are you thinking, promising to collect Stardrop Flowers for everybody in here?”
I sigh. “You’re right, it may be a little hasty... but honestly, if I can’t do it, I can always back out. At the very least, I’ll need to collect enough for us four. Anyway, let’s talk about that later; right now, we need to focus on running the temple?”
Dave looks up in fright. “We? As in... all of us?”
I nod. “We don’t know what’ll happen in the future... right now the temple is open to us, we’re able-bodied and we’ve spent a long time training. I say we go for it.”
“I agree,” Alec says. “Let’s get this over with.”
Kaitlynn glances at me in worry, “Are you sure you’re ready, Emma? Shouldn’t you train some more? I mean, you nearly died in Trial 2 right?”
I snort. “Kait, I’m a former gymnast. I ran Trial 2 while literally intoxicated. I had a Strength of 6 and an Agility of like 10. Right now, I have a Strength of 10 and an Agility of 12. If I activate Boost Physical, that becomes 13 and 13; none of you even come close. In fact, I bet hardly anyone who’s run this thing and succeeded came close to my stats. Heck, I might set a new record.”
That’s... an interesting thought actually.
Kaitlynn is still pouting, but at least she’s stopped protesting.
“It’s decided then,” I say, “We’re running the temple. We’ll discuss the rest later.”
This time, when we reach the temple doors, the bottle-blonde leaning against the wall perks up and smiles at us.
“Welcome back guys!” she says in a mock-chipper tone. “My name’s Lily and it’s my job to welcome visitors—provided they have permits—to Hub Two’s most famous attraction: The Deadly Yin-Yang Temple!”
She sarcastically stretches out her heavily tattooed arms towards the giant doors, predictably adorned with the carved images of hideously deformed, suffering humans.
I like her already. My eyes are drawn to her hairline; again no roots, despite the obvious dye-job. I idly check the length of my own hair. It does seem a bit longer then when I arrived here... weird.
Lily relaxes and leans back against the wall. “Anyway, I’m supposed to inform you that entering this temple is ‘dangerous’,” she says, rolling her eyes and using air quotes, causing me to grin and Alec to snicker, “in case you’re complete morons, and that so far, four people have died inside.”
That’s not funny.
“How many people have succeeded?” Dave asks, frowning concernedly.
“Twenty-three, as far as the Council knows,” she answers succinctly. “Now, as soon as you’ve handed me your permits—Ah, thank you—you can enter, one after the other. The next one can go in when the doors open again; which is hopefully when the previous contestant walks out. Otherwise, well... in our experience, you either come out that door with a Yin or Yang Pearl when it opens again, or you don’t come out at all. Any other questions so far?”
Kaitlynn licks her lips. “Wha—what’s inside?”
Looking at her nervous face, Lily’s expression softens a little.
“Look, it’s basically like Trial 2, just with some new obstacles and no second chances; there’s spikes at the bottom of the pits in there. There’s also a few traps, which I will explain to you thoroughly. It’s actually quite doable, so don’t worry too much, okay?”
After the explanation, we decide to enter in a descending order of agility, in order to make the most out of the experiences of the successful ones. Also, though no-one says it out loud, to potentially maximize our time together...
Either way, it means I’m going first, obviously.
I find myself kind of anxious to just go in and do it. I mean, obviously I wouldn’t do this is if I had a choice, but since I have to anyway... it’s kind of thrilling, in a way. Risking your life on your athletic ability, traversing a temple full of deadly pits and traps, to get to the treasure at the end... I mean, Indiana Jones does this shit for a living, you know?
But I force myself to wait, and claim to need a few minutes alone, to mentally prepare myself, before walking off to a secluded spot.
I look around one last time. The coast seems clear.
I clear my throat. “Suri, I was wondering... is there a reward for being the fastest to clear the temple?”
For a few seconds it remains quiet. Why, have I perchance stunned the lady?
[I’m afraid that’s classified,] Suri chimes, sounding oddly conflicted.
Damn, I was afraid of that. Perhaps this is for the best; perhaps this crazy notion should be buried deep—
[But I suppose I can tell you, that the current record is 12 minutes and 41.2 seconds.]
Oh, hell yes.
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