Chapter 40: Audrey three
A roaring fills my ears as my heart goes into overdrive. Five doors remaining... this means what I think it means, doesn’t it?
The doors don’t reset; they only open once.
There were six doors, for five people each. If one has been used, there’s only room for 25 more people.
And there’s 48 ‘participants’ remaining.
Shit shit shit!
[You have an incoming call from ‘The council’s secretary’, would you like to pick up?]
“Yeah, sure,” I mutter distractedly.
<Emma, did you... did you find the Stardrop Flowers? Did you give them to anyone?>
I roll my eye, rather pointlessly. “Check your map. If I’d found them, would I be smack dab in the middle of the bloody Moonshade Glade, looking for them right now?”
<Right...> he says, the fire in his voice gone. <I see. Well, keep looking, and keep us updated. I need to go do damage control.>
And he just hangs up on me. Rude much?
Well anyway, I have more important things to worry about.
“Suri, status window!”
I’m over the limit, but only a little. If it’s this much... I turn around and start marching deeper into the glade, cursing my previous reticence as I go.
I just had to take my time and go slow with this, learning about plants. It’s not like the fact that I was ‘being cautious’ helped even a little bit, when I was faced with that friggin’ Dreamcloud! I should’ve just trusted my gut and stormed into the depths the first time; now people have beat me to the Stardrop Flowers!
What if there aren’t any left?
No, I can’t think like that. But I can’t pussyfoot around anymore either; I’m finding these damn flowers right now, even if I have to intoxicate myself again to get them.
At least my Lavi has largely restored again, so I can go back to holding my breath to stave off further intoxication. Just to be on the safe side, I take out the emergency Blue Angel in my backpack, and chow down. Bringing more than one would be pointless, as the effect lasts for about 8 hours, and won’t overlap with a second one.
I just hope I’ll be able to recognize the damn flower when I see it...
As the average height of the plants keeps increasing, visibility rapidly declines. I can now see maybe 15 feet up ahead on average before my sight is obstructed.
There are more Dreamcloud flowers here, but I know to avoid them now.
Mere minutes after the council secretary’s call, Suri alerts me I’ve received a pre-recorded message from him, which was sent to everyone. I accept the transmission, and a familiar voice fills my head.
<Hello everyone; this is the council secretary speaking. As you’ve all learned, a group of survivors has managed to clear Hub Two. While this is overall good news, the accompanying announcement seems to imply that the number of spots in the next Trial are... limited. Please remain calm while we investigate.>
Yeah, I’m sure people are going to be very calm now. Then again, most people should have connected the dots anyway.
<In the meantime, the council has tried to contact the group—a party of five—that has left Hub Two, but to no avail. It seems the social system doesn’t extend beyond the Hub. Currently we therefore still don’t know where they acquired their Stardrop Flowers. We want to urge you all not to take rash actions, which may endanger yourself or others.>
...I’m sure he meant everyone but me, as I’m their designated person to find them.
<If you have any knowledge about how the Stardrop Flowers may be safely acquired, please let us know, so we can prevent meaningless deaths. Remember: it is currently unknown whether the doors really won’t reset in time, and if not, what is to become of those who remain in Hub Two; there is no reason to assume the worst and lose your life over it.>
<As soon as we know more, you will receive an update. Keep faith, friends. This is your council secretary, signing off.>
Well... he has a point about us not knowing, but so far these trials haven’t been that nice to us. Case in point, when, distracted by my thoughts, I walk around a particularly large Moonshade, and vines suddenly burst out of the ground and lunge for me.
Luckily, my Agi hasn’t deteriorated too far under the effects of the Toxic Energy yet, and I am able to dodge most of them and jump back. One of the vines has grasped my wrist however.
Large leaves in front of me move aside, revealing a car-sized, bulbous red flower, that reminds me of a mutated, overgrown tulip, with its opening aimed right at me. It sways hypnotically, and a delicious smelling liquid drops from its petals. I’d almost be tempted to move closer, it weren’t for the sizzling and the smoke coming of the ground where its drool lands. Also, are those teeth?! Honestly, I expect it to start singing about how hungry it is in a deep bass voice any second now.
I quickly pull a sharp rock from my pocket and start cutting at the vine that’s grasping me. It tries slinging its other vines towards me, but as I am very near the edge of its reach, they are quite easy to dodge.
Finally, I manage to cut myself loose and fully step out of its range. That... was a close call.
I hurry around the creepy plant in a wide arc and continue my way while keeping an eye out for this additional threat.
My Lavi is dropping dangerously low again, so I resume breathing.
Oof, that burns. The Toxicity here is the highest I’ve ever encountered; I better move quickly.
I continue rapidly but cautiously making my way through the dense, dangerous foliage. I occasionally point at an unfamiliar flower for Suri to appraise, but nothing so far.
... Shit. Perhaps going deeper right now wasn’t the wisest spur of the moment decision.
Just when I’m seriously contemplating turning around for the relative safety of the towering trees in the distance, I spot a glimmer to my right.
On a hunch, I turn towards it, and pick up my pace, quickly but carefully making my way through the dense underbrush.
When I clear the final hurdles, I find myself staring out over an oddly familiar pond, covered in huge lily pads, that are lazily drifting around. The circulation seems to be caused by a stream that’s feeding into the pond on one side. Huh. Where does the Hydrum leave again?
Well, it’s not important right now, because also growing on—or out of—the pond, are child-sized yellow flowers, drooping under the weight of a fist-sized, sparkling drop, suspended from a tube-shaped growth in the middle.
This... is it!
A notification pops up in my vision.
YESSS! I FOUND THEM!
However, beware the dangers of greed? Do they expect me to grab only one?! I didn’t come all this way to go home with ONE Stardrop. No, surely getting enough for my team is allowed...
And even if it isn’t, I’d like to see anyone try and stop me now.
There’s a kind of bamboo growing around the edges of the pond, just in the Hydrum, that looks sturdy enough. I make quick work out of unearthing a particularly long specimen and heft it over my shoulder.
I nimbly hop onto a door-sized lily pad as it comes floating by. As expected it wobbles, but easily holds my weight, hardly even denting the Hydrums high surface-tension.
I stick my makeshift bamboo oar into the muddy depths of the pond, and push off, causing the free-floating lily pad to head for the nearest Stardrop Flower.
I come to a halt in front of it, and carefully liberate the surprisingly sticky Stardrop from its, ehm, mother, I guess? It’s not really alive though... is it?
“Appraise,” I say outloud, as my hands are occupied.
Wow, that’s... intense.
I consider wrapping the Stardrop in a leaf or something, but despite its stickiness, it doesn’t actually seem to leave anything behind when I roll it around in my hand.
I shrug and put it in my backpack, watching carefully if it interacts with anything else in there, but it doesn’t seem that way. I’ll keep it away from the Yang Pearl at least, just in case.
Ugh, the toxicity over here is crazy though; I can already feel my muscles weakening and my movements becoming ever so slightly less coordinated, so I quickly start paddling towards the next Stardrop Flower.
When I grab the Stardrop this time, a strange ripple goes through the pond, causing my lily to slosh ever so slightly.
I freeze in place, but nothing happens, even as I put in my backpack.
That was... disconcerting, to say the least. But I’m not about to stop now.
I paddle my pad over to another Stardrop Flower, weaving left and right between other lazily drifting lily pads.
I swallow nervously when I reach the flower, but steel my nerves and rip the Stardrop loose in a single motion.
For a second, everything is quiet. Then the pond bursts into wild motion, the Hydrum churning and rocking as motorcycle-sized snake heads rise above the surface.
The serpents are a vibrant blue, have large green crystals in their forehead, and look angry. Very angry.
The one closest to me opens it jaws wide and lunges, hissing wildly.
I do what any sane girl would do in such a situation: I activate Boost Physical and use my bamboo stick to pole-vault onto another lily pad.
Just in time too, as the serpent behind me snaps up the entire lily pad I just stood on, lifts it head, and chokes it down.
It looks around in confusion, seemingly wondering why it only got salad when it ordered steak, but by the time it turns around to find me, I’ve already moved on.
Not that I have much choice in the matter; a second serpent launches a purple spray at me, that I mostly dodge by vaulting towards another lily pad.
Some of the spray hits my armour and glides off as if it were harmless Hydrum. However, a droplet of the stuff that hits my cheek causes me to hiss in pain, assuring me that its far from harmless.
The hissing, smoking and rapidly dissolving lily pad behind me is also a pretty strong hint.
A third serpent swims up to me, rising up higher out of the Hydrum, and... it’s actually not a snake at all! It looks more like a Plesiosaurus, with a thick torso and long paddles as limbs.
What? Dinosaurs are awesome, all right?
Though I’m not a fan of this one, as it rears back to snap its long neck at me.
I take a less reactive stance to my survival, and begin vaulting from lily pad to lily pad, using my boosted Str and Agi to compensate for the weakening effect of the Toxic Energy in my system.
Enraged by my rebellious attitude, the plesiosaurus...es? Plesiosauri? The Plessies chase after me, spitting acid and snapping their jaws.
However, their immense size makes them relatively slow, allowing me to stay one step ahead.
Despite the rather random route I’m forced to take due to the random floating of the lily pads, I’m getting very close to the edge of the pond on the opposite side I came from.
Sticking out of the water in the middle of a nearby cluster of lily pads, however... is a Stardrop Flower.
... Ah shit. In for a penny, in for a pound.
I quickly change course, vaulting to a lily pad in the general direction of the cluster. However, my action is not appreciated by the Plessies, one of which swerves to cut me off, pushing away the next lily pad on my route as it surfaces.
And since my way back is also compromised... I instead vault onto its back.
A shudder passes through it as I land on its rough scales. It quickly swings its long neck around to whack me off its torso.
But all it takes is another Boost for me to somersault over its neck and triumphantly land on one of the lily pads in the cluster on its other side. There, I jump from pad to pad, chased by a spray of acid.
At the last moment, I change directions and grasp the Stardrop without ever breaking my stride.
As soon as the Stardrop comes loose however, the Plessies go quiet. One by one, they dive down. I look back in confusion, before shrugging, sticking the Stardrop in my backpack and quickly vaulting to a lily pad that’s drifting away from the cluster, headed for the shore.
And that’s when I feel the pond... tremble.
Behind me, the giant head of what I can only assume is Momma Plessie, shatters the surface.
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