• H.C. Mills

Chapter 37: The house always wins

We all watch with rapt attention as Dave takes his first tentative bite of the transparent, lightning laced mushroom, and our vigilance is rewarded.

His eyes widen comically as his face distorts and his whole body starts trembling uncontrollably. He falls down, and the very moment his butt hits the ground, his long ponytail explodes into ball of frizz.

As we laugh and make fun of him, I can almost feel glad I’m not the one eating it.

Dave valiantly ploughs on, chewing with trembling jaws despite our mocking. Even after finishing his meal, he remains seated until, eventually, his hands stop shaking.

Dave blinks and stares at his hands in amazement, repeatedly clenching and unclenching them. He grabs a handful of pebbles from the ground next to his sturdy hiking boots and gets up.

I do my best impression of a fish when Dave starts juggling five of them.

No-one makes a peep until he finishes, catching them all again and nodding in satisfaction.

Alec turns to me, smacking his lips. “Emma... you got any more of those?”

I raise a brow at him. “I thought you didn’t like worms?”

Dave laughs heartily. “I learnt how to do that a long time ago, Alec... I just wanted to feel the difference between an Agility of eight and an Agility of ten.”

“Ten?!” Kaitlynn squeaks, “Dave, that’s great!” She turns to me, eyes full of wonder.

I awkwardly turn back to Dave and pretend to study him for changes.

Now that I’m looking at him however, I think I can actually see the worms! Small flickers of light race up and down particular paths along his arm. I guess those are nerve bundles? I wonder what his spine looks like right now...

“Oh man, you really are infested,” I say, half-fascinated, half-horrified. “So, what’s it like living with worms, Dave? Itchy?”

Dave shakes his head in wonder. “Amazing. My hand-eye coordination just reached a new level... It’s like my arms react quicker and more precisely to what I want them to do. Five balls used to be a real challenge, now I feel like I could do seven.”

Mmm, perhaps I should try adding juggling to our training schedule for Agi... but let’s save that for later.

I nod resolutely. “Good. Take some time to get ready, make sure there’s no aftereffects.”

Dave shakes his head. “Rose says there won’t be. I’m ready.”

[Tch.]

Ignoring Suri, I walk up to give him a hug, which quickly turns into another group affair.

Solemnly, we watch as the final member of our little clique enters the temple.

Dave takes his time, but eventually exits decked out in a sheepish smile and a bunch of bruises.

We all cheer once more. Guess we all get to suffer a little a little longer.

But at least now we suffer together.

Anyway, we’ve all got pearls now, now we ‘just’ need to procure enough Minor Lavi Crystals and Stardrop Flowers.

We thank Lily for her help and bid her goodbye as we head back to camp. She looks after me kinda oddly but doesn’t say anything.

Kaitlynn is less restrained. As soon as we’re out of hearing range of the little village around the temple, she asks, “Emma... where did you get that power-up item for Dave?”

Dave and Alec look up in interest.

Of course, I was prepared for this question.

I shake my head. “It was the craziest thing. When I reached the end of the temple, I got a notification that I was the 1000th contestant to survive!”

I sneak a glance at my rapt audience; they seem to be buying it. Hehe, suckers.

Of course, what kind of saleswoman would I be if I stopped selling now? “Next thing I know, confetti bursts from the ceiling, and this weird, happy-yet-kinda-creepy song starts playing over what I assume are hidden speakers. And this announcer like voice is booming over it, going: COOOOOOOOONGRATULATIOOOOONS!”

Kaitlynn smacks my shoulder, laughing, “Shut up!”

I frown at her, trying very hard to maintain my poker face. “Damn, what gave me away?”

“You—ugh—what part of that was supposed to be believable?!”

“Hmmm... all right, would you believe it was one of the objects that got shot at me in the final room, and I just snatched it out of the air as it passed by?”

“Well now I wouldn’t!” she yells at me, mock-angry. “Though I can totally see the people who made this place do that... how evil would that be? If they just had all kinds of valuable items shooting by behind us while we’re in there...”

Damn. That would be evil. They wouldn’t though... right?

Impatient, Kaitlynn switches to whining and pulling on my right vambrace, “Come ooon, what did you do, Emma?”

Ugh, pouting at me with your eye all big and soulful, that’s just not fair. Fine.

“All right, I’ll tell you. I kinda made a dash for it and broke the speed record.”

Alec snorts.

Kaitlynn rolls her eyes. “No, seriously, how’d you get it.”

A beat of silence follows.

Kaitlynn stops in her tracks, and looks at me with wide eyes. “You didn’t.”

I come to a halt as well, scratching my neck. “Yeah... I did.”

Alec’s jaw drops. “Holy crap. Emma, that’s crazy!”

Dave looks at me like he’s seeing me for the first time. “That’s incredible. Also incredibly risky.”

I shrug. “Well, it paid off.”

Suddenly, Kaitlynn punches me on the shoulder.

“Ow!” I exclaim. “What gives?”

She glares at me, eye blazing. “You could’ve died, you jerk!”

I shake my head with a small smirk. “No, no, it’s pronounced, ‘Wow, that’s amazing, Emma!’ ”

I can tell she’s fighting a smile by the way her lips quirk upwards. “Honestly. You’re unbelievable.”

“I get that a lot,” I tell her with a wink. She rolls her eyes, and a light flush creeps up her neck.

Cute...

When I go to link my arm through hers, however, she turns up her nose and brushes past me, leaving me to stare at her backside.

Dave comes up beside me and claps me on the shoulder. “Just let her cool off a bit before you apologise. I’m sure she’ll come around.”

And he walks on.

I frown after him, feeling like I’m missing something. Alec starts moving as well, so I fall into step beside him. After a second’s hesitation, I turn to look at him. “Why would I apologize?”

He shrugs. “Beats me.”

Back at the hut, Alec enthusiastically gets to work on his leatherworking project. Dave, meanwhile, decides to fashion us some spears for the hunt. Kaitlynn’s still acting standoffish, loudly announcing that she’s going to prepare some kind of glue for them to use from her collection of plants, all the while pointedly ignoring me.

The next order of business for me would be to go check out ‘Moonshade Glade,’ but I have this gnawing suspicion that just walking off to do something dangerous isn’t going to help me get back in Kaitlynn’s good graces.

So I decide to bite the bull in the horns, or something like that, and take a seat next to her.

She glances at me, then resumes studying the plant in front of her.

“Look,” I start quietly, “I get it. I get that you worried. I straight-up hated it when you were in that temple.”

I glance over to see if she’s listening. She glances away again.

I soldier on, not entirely sure yet where I’m going with this. “This place we’re in, these Trials we’re facing... it’s all super dangerous. It’s all deadly, one way or another. I just feel like playing it safe isn’t necessarily the safest thing to do. You know what I mean?”

She purses her lips. “There’s a pretty wide gap between playing it safe and attempting a speedrun, Emma. Or gargling Moonshade Sap, for that matter.”

I hesitate, then nod. “Granted, I may have gone a little overboard at times, but the risks I’ve taken so far have paid off. The Toxic Energy Tolerance I recklessly fostered might very well be our ticket to getting Stardrops. And breaking the temple’s record got me a Power-Up for Dave.”

Kaitlynn turns to face me, her eye red-rimmed. “But Emma, gamblers always lose in the end. If you keep gambling your own life like this, you’ll wind up dead! All it takes is one instance of bad luck, one slip-up, and you’ll be gone.”

I frown, hold her gaze for a long instance, then put my hand on hers. “I’m not going to slip up, Kait. I’m going to get stronger. The speedrun was dangerous, yes, but it helped me raise my Agility to 13. Every risk I’ve taken has helped me grow, and that’s the whole point. The only way to be safe is to grow faster than the difficulty of these Trials, so we’re never faced with something we can’t handle.”

Kaitlynn holds my gaze for a moment longer, before she finally deflates with a sigh and leans into my shoulder. “Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. I just don’t like the idea of you taking such crazy risks.”

I hum happily, putting my arms around her and leaning my chin on the top her head. My breath comes a little tighter now that we’re touching again, like a tightness has left my chest.

Hah, take that Dave, didn’t even need to apologise!

Of course, I don’t express this sentiment out loud.

“Let me make it up to you,” I say instead.

She pulls back and gives me a questioning look.

“I feel like a celebration is in order—since we’ve all overcome the temple—and I still have some food in my backpack that I bet you’ll love...”

I bring out my cup noodles to great cheer all around. It turns out I wasn’t the only one holding on to some food from back on Earth. Dave brings out a small bag of dried fruits, and Kaitlynn a box of mixed candy. I consider bringing out my bag of Doritos as well, but decide to save it for our next celebration. Optimists live longer, after all.

Alec had already eaten everything he brought, of course, but he turns dinner into a celebratory three-course meal, with my noodles serving as the starter.

They taste similar enough to how they did on Earth, though eating cup noodles here comes with a strange sense of hollowness, due to the lack of Lavi in the food. It’s kinda like eating empty calories, except not even that, since this food literally doesn’t contain energy.

All in all, it’s a happy night, with a right feast.

Kaitlynn clutches my hand as we go to sleep.

As I’m about to doze off, I hear her whisper to me. “Emma... will you please promise me you won’t take any too crazy risks anymore? I don’t think my heart can take it.”

“All right, Kait. I promise,” I whisper back.

I do cross my fingers behind my back though, just in case. I like to keep my options open.

Author's note:

Kind of a short chapter, sorry about that... not to worry however; I've actually taken the requests for longer chapters to heart, and they'll be getting longer and longer from here on out!

In fact, as some of you may have noticed, the chapters have already been increasing in length. Some of the latest chapters I've written however, have actually broken 3k words, making them more than twice the length of this chapter. ^^'

Anyway, thanks for reading; if you liked it, don't forget to vote!

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©2018 by H.C. Mills