Chapter 36: Get by with a little help from my friends
I did it! I beat the temple record! My strength ebbs away as I stop activating Boost Physical. At the end there, I was afraid I’d suffered for nothing, but... a low-grade Agi power-up and 50 Trial Points? Frig yes!
[Quite an accomplishment, Emma; well done.]
Aww shucks, you’re gonna make me blush.
“Thanks Suri. Just trying to grab any advantage I can to help me survive. And it looks like I wasn’t the first to come up with this particular plan; I wasn’t even that much faster.”
[Indeed, but what you need to understand is that the woman who set the previous record actually did so after reaching level 2, with all the advantages that brings.]
“Really? But how did she... did she steal someone else’s pearl?”
[Something like that.]
I quickly find the aforementioned receptacle; it’s a small alcove below a large, grotesque statue of a suffering human. I have to wonder about the sanity of this sculptor...
The Yin Pearl is about the size and shape of a large marble—a shooter, if you will—and solid black. Despite its size it lies heavily in my hand.
The power-up on the other hand, I don’t immediately dare to pick up. It’s a transparent mushroom, that almost looks carved from ice, and has active tendrils of purple lightning shooting through it. It’s rather mesmerizing, but... am I supposed to eat this? Well, there’s only one way to find out...
[Well go on Emma, eat it.]
“Eat it yourself!”
[That doesn’t make any sense; I don’t even have a mouth.]
“Ugh, why’d it have to be worms,” I gripe.
Still, an increase in Agi of 2, that’s...
I blink. “You know what, I’m not in any rush... I’ll think about it.”
[Why? It’s perfectly safe; I promise.]
Ignoring Suri, I gingerly pick up the cap and stick it in my pocket. I hold the Yin Pearl up in front of me.
That’s about what I expected, though it appears to be lower in potency than a Minor Lavi Crystal. Well, I guess you can’t just compare Lavi and Qi one on one like that.
All right, time to go back.
A door in the side of the room opens as I approach, revealing a thin hallway which brings me back to the entrance.
I squint as the giant stone doors grind open to let me back out, my eyes adjusting from the low-light conditions I was in for so long.
Because of that, a squeal is my only warning before I am torpedoed.
I find myself holding an armful of Kaitlynn, hugging me fiercely.
It’s a good thing I raised my Toughness. Then again, she also raised her Strength...
The grinning faces of Dave and Alec approach us.
Kaitlynn takes a step back and frowns at me. “God, could you have taken any longer? We were dying of worry out here!”
Any... longer? My eyelid twitches.
“How was it?” Dave asks. “Is it kinda... doable?”
I nod. “It’s just like Lily described; dangerous, but you should be fine, as long as you’re careful and take it slow.”
He seems a little relieved, but still nervous.
Lily, who is leaning on a wall to the side, snorts. “Take it slow? I don’t think I’ve seen many people come out again faster than you did. Were you in the circus or something?”
I smile wryly. “I used to be a gymnast.”
Lily nods and shifts her gaze over the others. “So, who’s next?”
There’s a nervous beat of silence, before Alec says, “Guess it’s my turn.”
And just like that, the joyous atmosphere is gone again.
Dave goes in for one of those guy handshakes; they clasp hands as if they’re about to armwrestle, but then pull each other in for a kind of half-hug. Kaitlynn just straight-up hugs him, of course.
I walk up to him, still kind of unsure of what I’m going to do... Hugging isn’t really my thing. Thankfully, Alec seems to know me well enough. He clacks his heels together with an exaggerated flourish, stands up ramrod straight, and salutes me with a big grin on his face.
I gratefully return the salute, though my answering smile feels a little strained.
Damn. This is actually pretty nerve-wracking... When I went in myself, I had a lot of nervous energy, but that was in a large part excitement. Now I just feel... dread. If he slips up in there, this could be the last time I see him.
He’s already turning away, but I grab onto him and surprise him by pulling him into a hug, my reputation be damned.
He seems surprised for a second, but quickly hugs back.
Soon, we run out of excuses to extend the goodbye. “Be back in ten,” Alec says, winking at us over his shoulder with a red-rimmed eye, as he walks into the temple.
Despite myself I snort.
We all stay put, watching as he walks up to the heavy stone doors. They close after him with rather final sounding, dull boom.
For lack of something better to do, we settle down to chat while we wait.
Thirty minutes pass; if it weren’t for the social system— and the doors to the temple refusing to open–telling us he were still alive, I would have assumed the worst by now.
I also understand what Kaitlynn was saying just now... waiting is agony.
When the doors finally grind open and Alec comes out, it feels like a huge weight is lifted off my chest, even if he does look worse for the wear. His normally well-coifed hair is a mess, and his arms and face are covered in bruises.
We all cheer, and happily welcome him back. Kaitlynn hugs him first, and it turns into a group-hug when Dave pulls me along to join in.
The first thing Alec does after we let him go, is look at me like I’m some kind of demon. “Emma, how the hell did you...? And that last room, why aren’t you covered in bruises?!”
I smirk at him. “I dodged. The bigger projectiles, anyway.”
“You... dodged.” He shakes his head. “You actually walked the rope, didn’t you?”
“Well duh. I take it you hung from it like a slow-moving target?”
He sighs and slumps down against the outer wall of the temple. I laugh.
Lily clears her throat. “All right, who’s next.”
Kaitlynn bites her lip. “I guess it’s my turn.”
Any remnant of my laughter dies in my throat.
Kaitlynn silently demands a hug from each of us.
Ours lasts for a while.
I almost tear up when I have to let go. God, when did I become such a girl? Kaitlynn must be a bad influence on me.
Instead, I give her my most confident smile, and boop her on the nose. “See you in a bit, Kaitmonster.”
Her answering smile is blinding. “You betcha.”
And she walks into the temple without looking back.
I was wrong. That wasn’t dread I felt when Alec ran the temple. That was just ‘mild concern’, at least compared to this—this gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. I feel like a dad whose impressionable 16-year-old daughter is going out on her first date with an OLDER BOY, that wears leather jackets, gels his hair back, and smokes. With EXPERIENCE, you know?
I’m pacing back and forth like a bear in a cage, as Dave questions Alec some more about the temple. Dave’s very nervous too, I can tell, but he seems more worried about himself than Kaitlynn right now. I don’t blame him; he may be strong, but his gross motor skills always seemed a little lacking... which I guess translated itself into an Agility of eight, in this realm.
God, I hate this; I feel so powerless! The social system shows us she’s alive, but not how she’s doing, and we definitely can’t distract her by asking. Should I have given it to her? If she doesn’t make it, I’ll never f—
The heavy doors grind open. She walks out, and it’s like the millstone around my neck shatters and drops.
The next thing I know I’m swinging her around as she squeals with laughter.
“Put me down, you crazy woman!” she yells finally, still giggling.
I acquiesce to her request, allowing Dave and Alec equal opportunity to welcome her back. Kaitlynn is sporting some bruises as well, but nowhere near as bad as Alec it seems. I wonder how long she took to clear the temple? It felt like an eternity, but I may be biased.
Once again, Lily clears her throat to break up our party. “Sorry to interrupt, but I’ve got places to be today. You’re up, big guy.”
Dave nods, looking rather green around the gills. “Well I guess this is it... Like Emma said, we’ve trained a lot, and we’re able-bodied, and... yeah.”
He spreads his arms awkwardly so Kaitlynn can return the hug she’d only just received, and somewhere in the back of my mind I marvel at how different the meaning of two otherwise so similar hugs can be. Man, but today is an emotional rollercoaster.
Time to throw in another loop-the-loop.
I sigh. “Actually, hold that thought, Dave.”
They all stop and look at me. One good thing to come from all this waiting is that it gave me plenty of time to think and make up my mind.
“Your Agi right now... correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s 8, right?”
Kaitlynn’s eyes widen so much it would be funny if it weren’t so serious. Alec turns pale.
Dave shrugs, kinda embarrassed. “Yeah... there were some problems around my birth, that affected my gross motor skills. I got picked last during gym a lot.”
I can imagine.
With pain in my heart, I pull a small transparent mushroom, with lines running through it like lightning, out of my pocket.
“Here,” I say, handing it to him. “You need this more than me.”
He stares at me in confusion, before saying, “Appraise.”
He frowns at an invisible screen, before his eyebrows rise almost to his hairline.
“Well don’t keep us in suspense!” Kaitlynn demands. “What is it?!”
“It’s... a mushroom containing lightning-like worms, that can live inside the body symbiotically,” Dave sums up.
“Symbiotic worms?!” Alec yells, shivering all over. “What kind of a gift is that?!”
“A great one,” Dave says sincerely, “they serve as a low-grade Agility power-up.”
That shuts Alec up. Kaitlynn looks back and forth between us wide-eyed.
Dave looks at me, deeply moved. “Emma, are you sure? I mean it’s worth 50 Trial Points, and it actually suits you pretty well...”
I shrug and put my hands in my pockets, settling my gaze on a nearby rock, as blood rises to my cheeks. “Don’t go getting all mushy on me now, D. Just eat it before I change my mind, okay?”
Ignoring me, he goes in for a hug, closely followed by Kaitlynn. I think I’ve hit my yearly quota of hugs in like a day.
But I guess these are special circumstances, so I’ll allow it.
Alec salutes me again, with a look in his eyes I haven’t seen before. Lily, on the other hand, is looking at me like I’ve grown another head.
Whatever. I’ve grown fond of the big lug, you know? What’s a little power-up among friends?
More importantly, a voice in the back of my head asks, what would surviving out here be worth, without friends?
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