Chapter 38: A rose by any other name

My heart sinks when I get my first proper look over the Moonshade Glade, perched high up on a tree-branch, out of the Toxic air. Mostly, anyway. I take in a deep exploratory breath. Mmm, there’s that sweet burn I’ve been missing.

 

Anyway, I can see how the glade got its name; the Moonshade is very prominent with its large flower and high-reaching stem. But it’s not the only type of flower out there, not by a long shot.

 

Which brings me to my current conundrum: I have no idea what the Stardrop Flower looks like.

 

Part of me felt this was going to be easy, like I had it in the bag... I really should’ve known better.

 

“Suri... any chance you can tell me what a Stardrop Flower looks like?”

 

[That’s classified.]

 

“Can you at least tell me I’ll know it when I see it?”

 

[Also classified.]

 

Ugh, this sucks.

 

[You have received a pre-recorded audio message, sent to all contacts of ‘Samuel’, would you like to listen to it now, or later?]

 

“Who?”

 

[You don’t remember him? He is on your friend list.]

 

Really? Oh, duh!

 

“Suri, could you refer to him as ‘the council’s secretary’ from now on? I feel like we’re probably going to have to repeat this conversation if you don’t.”

 

[Very well.]

 

“Cool. Play the message, please.”

 

<Hello everyone; this is the council secretary, speaking on behalf of the council. I am sending you this message to address some recent concerns. Namely, the people venturing out into the Moonshade Glade in search of the Stardrop, some of whom... never return.>

 

Oh boy, I’m not sure I like where this is going.

 

<As the council’s main goal is to ensure the wellbeing of the survivors as a group, we are most concerned with this matter, and would strongly advise you all not to venture into the Glade, as it assuredly is the deadliest place in Hub Two.>

 

Yeah, thanks for reminding me.

 

<Of course, the council will not just be sitting idly by while the time passes, with the Stardrop Flowers nowhere to be found. In fact, we have recruited a survivor of some repute, who is an expert on all matters Toxic Energy, to conduct a careful investigation into the heart of the glade. You may know her as Emma, or better yet, as the Toxic Dragon.>

 

I groan. At least they removed the ‘Girl’ at the end.

 

<We have complete confidence in her eventual success, and we bid you all to remain patient while she conducts her expeditions, to prevent further needless loss of life. This is your council secretary, signing off.>

 

Well, shit. I’m definitely feeling the pressure now. Since I’m currently lacking a better method, guess I better go down there and start appraising flowers...

 

I take a deep breath. I mean a really deep one; one that I intend to hold. Although my Lavi will start to drop after a little while, I will also pick up less Toxic Energy, which is currently a more pressing issue. In the long run, this will allow me to spend more time in the glade.

 

I firmly grab the handy vine I found, and rappel down.

 

 

I’m an idiot.

 

Obviously, it’s rather difficult to hold your breath when you have to say ‘appraise’ every three seconds.

 

I think I appraised about 10 flowers before I ran out of Aether and was forced to cut my run short, and climb back on my branch, and I already hardly remember their names or what they looked like.

 

“God, this is going to take forever... Suri, you wouldn’t happen to know an easier way of doing this?” I ask hopefully.

 

[If by ‘this’, you mean finding the Stardrop Flower, then no.]

 

I groan.

 

[If by ‘this’, you mean appraising a bunch of flowers while holding your breath, well, you could just ask me to appraise anything you point at.]

 

“I...” My eye twitches. Grateful as I am to this suggestion, did you have to use that condescending tone?!

 

“... Yes, please,” I sigh.

 

Five minutes later, with my Lavi fully restored, I head back out with renewed vigour.

 

 

By the time I trudge back to the hut, I’ve lost track of how many different plants I’ve appraised. Partly because I’ve mistakenly appraised quite a few of them several times, because many of the flowers look alike and I kept doubting if I’d seen them before.

 

None of them were Stardrop Flowers, at least.

 

Honestly, Kaitlynn would be much more suited for this task—she probably already knows some if not most of these plants—if it weren’t for her terrible Toxic Energy Tolerance.

 

The most frustrating thing is that I feel in my gut that the people who built this place probably put that damn flower deep in the glade, which makes my search on the outskirts seem pretty pointless, but, well...

 

Going that deep is probably quite dangerous; who knows what else is in there? And even if I head in deep, would I be able to pick out the Stardrop from hundreds of flowers? Maybe... But knowing my luck it’s some small, unassuming flower, hidden in the cracks between rocks or some bullshit. Which means I first need to learn to recognize at least most of these stupid flowers, before I risk entering the deeper, more toxic areas, so I can see which flower stands out as new.

 

Basically, I’m stuck searching for it in an area where I’m very unlikely to find it, to practice searching for it in the more dangerous area where I am likely to find it.

 

This whole thing sucks, and it’s giving me a headache. Though that might also be the Toxic Energy.

 

Speaking of which, time to check the damage. “Status window.”

 

 

Oof, looks like I took in about 7 Onkh of toxic energy during my search. I’ll need to do some serious detoxing before I go back out there again. Hmm... Rebecca did say the council would offer me assistance, perhaps I should swing by and see what they can do for me.

 

 

I return to the hut after my detour, to find Alec and Kaitlynn... ‘sparring’, I guess?

 

At least, that’s what it looks like, but it doesn’t explain the lightsabre noises. Those are definitely not coming from their spears.

 

I clear my throat. They freeze up, and kind of guiltily look my way. Huh, do they expect me to berate them for wasting time? Well, maybe I should. Awww, Kaitlynn’s blushing though... I can never stay mad at her.

 

“Why Alec,” I say sweetly, “you seem to have a lot of time left over...”

 

“Hurk! Ehm, we were just taking a break, hehe. Actually, I should really get started on dinner!” And he runs off into the hut.

 

The mock-frown I send after him is purely for Kaitlynn’s sake. “Was it something I said?”

 

Her face blooms into a grin at my remark, probably correctly guessing that she is not going to be scolded. Honestly, why do they treat me at times like a kind of scary drillmaster? I haven’t been that bad, have I?

 

...

 

Anyway, Kaitlynn happily smiles as I saunter over, leaning into my hand when I reflexively give her head a rub.

 

“So, how did it go?” she asks.

 

I groan.

 

“That bad, huh?”

 

I nod, “I’ll explain over dinner.”

 

“Oh my, are you asking me out?” Kaitlynn jokes, her eye twinkling.

 

I snort. “Would if I could, milady, but there don’t seem to be any fine dining establishments in the vicinity.”

 

She pouts.

 

“But I did get you something,” I say, taking off my backpack to rummage around in it. Kaitlynn looks on curiously as I pull out and present her a familiar blue mushroom with a flourish.

 

“A Blue Angel for a blue angel,” I quip.

 

Kaitlynn accepts it with a giggle, “Did you find this in the glade?”

 

“Nope, courtesy of the council; they promised me two a day to fight off the Toxic Energy” I say, pulling out a second one. “Now, I believe that makes us even, in the respect of mushrooms.”

 

Kaitlynn shakes her head in amusement, “Shouldn’t you just eat it? Or... do you need some help chewing?” Her shit-eating grin is infectious.

 

“Shut up,” I laugh. “I’m not that intoxicated. And what the council doesn’t know, is that I have Dave.”

 

“So... you’re going to make him work his purifying skill, hard, so you can secretly save up Blue Angels?”

 

It would seem my grin is also rather infectious.

 

“You are just... evil.”

 

“You are too kind, milady,” I say magnanimously, before offering my arm and escorting her back to the hut.

 

 

Alec prepares a lovely meal of braised Trigot and crushed, spiced jicca nut, supplemented for me with a surprisingly tasty, baked Blue Angel.

 

Dave reminded me that his purifying skill would stop working once the Toxic Energy in my body dropped below my tolerance limit, and that I would have to rely on the Blue Angels and my Deep Breathing skill to drop the concentration further.

 

Suggesting to Alec that he cook it up to improve the flavour was mainly a joke really, but he ran with it enthusiastically and I can’t say I mind the result. The bitterness is nearly entirely gone, replaced with a surprising sweetness. Thankfully, the detoxifying energy inside won’t be affected by adding such a ‘weaksauce amount of heat’, according to Alec’s AI, ‘Sarge’.

 

“So, what do you think our plans going forward should be?” Dave asks me, when we’re about done eating.

 

“Well,” I say, “levelling up is our main priority now. That means the three of you need to try and hunt down three more Blue-Scaled Trigots for their Minor Lavi Crystals as fast as possible, while I’m out... picking flowers, god that sounds lame in comparison.”

 

Dave nods. “I came to the same conclusion. Ehm, regarding the plans, not the lame flower picking part. I’m still on the fence about whether the three of us split up to hunt more efficiently, or stick together for safety. What do you reckon?”

 

I hesitate. “Before, I would have said hell no, but with the council running things now... perhaps that is our best bet. We’re probably behind in collecting Minor Lavi Crystals compared to most teams. I’m not sure if that matters, with the way the council is running things, but I don’t like it.”

 

“Well, let’s see,” Dave says, pulling a piece of bark with notches in it from his back pocket. “Twenty-one days have passed in Hub 2 since I’ve arrived. I believe the first ones got here maybe three days earlier, so that’s potentially twenty-four Minor Lavi Crystals that have been collected, of which we currently own one.”

 

“Twenty-one days?” Kaitlynn asks incredulously. “It can’t have been that long, right?”

 

“I mean twenty-one active phases of the Twin-Star,” Dave clarifies, “not periods of 24 hours in which we sleep roughly once. The Blue-Scaled Trigot shows up shortly after Twinrise, so that’s roughly once every 17 hours. In Earth-days, it’s actually been about two weeks.”

 

I see. Kaitlynn just explained it to me as ‘once a day’ but it makes sense that that wouldn’t be an ‘Earth day’. More importantly, Dave really is a convenient type to have around; I’d totally given up on keeping track of time in this place...

 

Alec frowns. “Look, that’s fine and all, but to be honest, I don’t think I stand much chance taking one of those things down on my own, even with our new spears; they’re bloody nimble.”

 

“Also a valid point,” I muse. “I guess Kaitlynn’s the only one really capable of killing one on her own. And I doubt anyone would be willing to dispute the kill once she’s done.”

 

Dave nods thoughtfully. “Perhaps Alec and I can take one of the five exit points, see what we can figure out, while Kaitlynn takes another.”

 

I glance over at Kaitlynn, who nods in agreement. “Sounds like a plan.”

 

I stand up, and raise my leafy cup of birberry juice, “To level two, and beyond!”

 

“To level two, and beyond!” the rest echoes, raising their cups, their shadows shimmering in the glow of the fire still blazing beneath the stove.

 

To be honest, I’m not sure if I would choose to go on if we had the option of giving up and staying here forever... but I’d be very surprised if that turns out to be an option.

 

I just can’t shake the feeling our time here is running short.

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©2018 by H.C. Mills