God, have I been naïve... thinking this mess with Bruce had blown over, that we’d settled it peacefully...
That asshat was just biding his time.
Alec looks at me in confusion. Dave… in despair. I guess my half of the conversation was enough for him to piece together what’s going on.
I take a deep breath, and explain Kaitlynn’s circumstances to them, staring at the floor in front of my feet the whole time... A silence falls after I’m done.
Alec is the one who breaks it. “I guess that’s that then. I don’t know about you guys, but I say either we all get out of here or we go down together. So we’d better get that final Stardrop, and go make the deal.”
Dave sighs, and nods. “There’s nothing for it, I suppose. You’ll have to explain to us how to get them, Emma, cause you’re in no shape to make another trip.”
I sigh, shaking my head. “I hate to break it to you, but you’d never make it. Even if I forewarn you about all the dangers and you walked there in a straight line... when I came back I was at 11.6 Onkh of Toxic Energy. You guys simply don’t have the Toxic Energy Tolerance.”
Dave frowns. “Well, but I can purify myself—”
“Yeah,” I cut him off, “once an hour, for ten minutes; that’s not gonna cut it.” I get up and start pacing the floor. “God, how did other people even get there? Are there more freaks like me walking around?”
“Maybe they found another place with Stardrop Flower?” Alec offers.
“Maybe...” I mutter, “but we have no time to find out.”
Dave folds his arms in front of chest. “So what are you saying, you want to go back in yourself?”
I shake my head no. “That’s even more impossible. Even if I wasn’t currently so intoxicated, I got attacked for taking too many, remember? I was lucky to get away the first time.”
“Maybe we could bargain,” Alec says. “See if we could get them to release Kaitlynn for the four Stardrops we do have.”
I frown. “That might actually work... but what do we do after that? Even if we get them their Stardrops, WE still need them too. Two of you would somehow need to survive a trip into the Glade, just to get enough for us to level up. And we’d need to figure out a way to do that, before the rest of the doors are used.”
“Right,” Dave sighs. “If Bruce uses the third, that’s only three doors remaining...”
Alec groans in annoyance. “What other options are there? Other than paying them or abandoning Kaitlynn—”
I stop pacing to turn to him, my eyes spitting fire. “Never.” My stomach clenches at the mere thought.
Alec raises a brow at me. “Like I was saying, other than that, the only option I see would be to stage a rescue. But that would probably get...”
“Rather violent,” Dave finishes, looking rather uncomfortable with that idea. “Also, dangerous, I might add.” He hesitates. “In all honesty, I’d rather try the bargaining option, see what we can figure out in the time we have left.”
I groan, and rub my eyes with my palms, one soft and squishy, the other hard and smooth, a stark reminder of our harsh reality.
I take a deep breath and open my eyes, my mind made up. “Look, all of our options suck. Trading may seem like the best bet short-term, but long-term, we have much more to gain from confronting them, and kicking their asses. Bullies don’t stop until you stand up to them. Also, if we go that route, we have one major advantage: we can level up first.”
Alec’s eyes sparkle; perhaps he’s a little too into this plan. Probably imagining himself a dashing hero, coming to a maiden’s rescue.
Dave is less enthusiastic, more worried. “If we do that, we’ll be putting Kaitlynn’s life on the line...”
“I know, Dave,” I sigh, “and I hate that.” I really do. “But in this place, all our lives are on the line, all the time. We have to think long-term.”
After a pause, he nods. He still looks rather squeamish though. That won’t do.
“If we’re going to do this,” I say slowly, “we’ll have to get to her quickly and efficiently. That means no holding back, we attack with force. Lethal force, where necessary. I need to know if you guys can handle that.”
Alec nods determinedly, zero hesitation. I’m starting to fear this boy’s sense of reality is seriously warped, but right now, it’s working for me. Dave closes his eyes and turns away from us. A tense silence falls in our little hut.
A part of me hesitates, wondering if I can. A larger part of me tells it to shut up, and promises rivers of blood, as long as it’s for Kaitlynn.
Dave looks up with a sigh, staring unseeingly at the ceiling for a few seconds. He turns to face us, face like a storm cloud.
That’s it boy, get angry.
“I can,” he says gruffly.
I nod. “Then we agree. Let’s start by levelling up, see what it brings us, and go from there.”
We take out three Stardrops, each of our Pearls and all three Minor Lavi Crystals.
Our respective personal guide systems are quick to explain the process to us.
The first step to levelling up is heating the Stardrop until it liquefies enough to becomes drinkable. Immediately after drinking it, the Lavi Crystal and the Pearl must be swallowed. Those provide the energies necessary to change the body, and also serve to use up most of the Stardrop’s effect of igniting energies, so it doesn’t burn up all the Lavi in the body.
Just most of it.
The process takes about 15 minutes and is apparently ‘quite painful’, but the participant must remain awake to control the raging flows of energies. Specifically, they have to integrate that energy into the existing flows in their meridians, and prevent them from colliding the way they do in Boost Physical. This way, the energies can slowly refine the body, instead of, say, ripping parts of it asunder in violent explosions.
Basically, if we lose consciousness due to the pain, it’s game over. I’m suddenly very glad of all the effort I put into training Alec’s Willpower.
After those 15 minutes, the body enters a state of resting and healing that should last for about 8 hours, which puts some serious pressure on our timetable.
According to Dave, there’s only about 13 hour’s left before the deadline, which means we need to get levelling up now. Even if it leaves us all incapacitated and undefended for several hours, it’s a risk we have to take.
There’s just one little snag in our plan.
[You shouldn’t level up right now, Emma.]
“What do you mean?”
[There is currently still a lot of Toxic Energy in your system; the Stardrop will ignite that, too, making it far more volatile and destructive. The pain alone would be unbearable.]
“… Status window.”
Shit. Though Dave did a good job purifying me while I was out, 9.8 Onkh is indeed still quite a lot. But if I don’t level up now, I will lose the chance to do so before the attack. And if I don’t level, and still have this much Toxic Energy in my system…
Damnit! Even with Boost Physical I’d be mediocre, and mediocre isn’t good enough. I need to catch them off guard and be able to utterly crush them, because if they get the chance to use Kaitlynn as a hostage, well… even just thinking about that makes me—
Makes me want to do something stupid.
“You said ‘shouldn’t’.”
“You didn’t say ‘can’t’, you said ‘shouldn’t’. Tell me, how would you rate my odds of survival if I tried to level up right now?”
[Emma… Look, even though a freak like you may manage to stay conscious with that level of pain, the ignited Toxic Energy would eat away too much of your Lavi.]
“What if I eat a butt-load of Trigot meat first? The Stardrop is entering through my stomach, right?”
It’s silent for a while. Perhaps she’s calculating something?
[Theoretically, that might be enough to keep you alive,] she chimes grudgingly, [but Emma, nobody’s ever—]
“Good,” I say, clapping my hands together decisively. “Then I get to be the first.”
Alec looks up from the stove where he’s heating the Stardrops. Dave’s meditating, but also cracks open an eye. “Something wrong, Emma?”
I smile beatifically at them. “Nope. All good.”
But I’m totally crossing my fingers behind my back.
… Maybe I should stop doing that before someone catches on.
Despite my conviction, I am shaking in my stylish-yet-metaphorical boots by the time Alec declares his ‘dish’ as done. He warmed the glittering Stardrops by putting them in separate leafy bowls, and setting those afloat in the basin of heated Hydrum above the stove.
He looked so proud of his ‘invention’, I didn’t have the heart to tell him it’s basically just a bain-marie.
Anyway, I suggested we eat a hearty meal of Trigot meat, ‘just to be safe’, as we waited for it to warm, and the boys agreed. Thankfully, Dave hasn’t caught on to the risk I’m planning to take yet. Probably far too stressed out and worried to consider the issue of levelling up with Toxic Energy, poor sap.
At least I don’t have to worry about Alec; he’d never catch on in a thousand years.
The moron in question carefully scoops the floating bowls out of the Hydrum. He hands one each to me and Dave where we sit cross-legged on the floor, before placing the last one in his own hands and sitting down.
For a moment, I study the shimmering, glittering liquid. It truly does look like a tiny galaxy of stars caught in a puddle of liquid…
I look up to find two expectant gazes. I swallow heavily and raise my bowl. “For Kaitlynn.”
They mimic me solemnly. “For Kaitlynn!”
I set the bowl to my lips and take a long pull of the warm liquid.
It pops and crackles on my tongue and down my throat and is unexpectedly sweet. The whole experience reminds me of carbonated sugar. And… is that a hint of vanilla?
Pleasantly surprised with the taste, I quickly finish the liquid. Not like I have a lot of choice by the way; despite becoming less viscous due to the heating, the Stardrop still seems loathe to split apart, so it practically goes down in one long string.
As soon as I swallow the last bit down, a painful burning sensation spreads from my stomach. I quickly grab my Yin Pearl and Minor Lavi Crystal and swallow them one by one.
They go down way easier than I expected. I’ve never been great at swallowing pills, but just now, it felt like swallowing was hardly necessary, like it was just a perfunctory formality, and these masses of energy would have gone down regardless.
And go down they do. They drop into my stomach like a roll of Mentos in a bottle of Pepsi. In fact, my stomach visibly swells from the raging energies inside.
“Eh, Suri…” I stammer.
[You’re crazy, you know that?]
“I am aware, now what?”
[I will initiate the mind meld; try not to resist.]
A familiar prickling erupts behind my right ‘eye’, before a cold pressure inches up my optical nerve, like an ice-cube slowly being shoved up into my brain, but then not as cold or horrifyingly painful.
So that’s what Suri did back in the First Trial… a mind meld. Like last time, I suppress the urge to block her entry.
It is the oddest feeling when she succeeds, like there’s a ball of foreign emotions occupying a space in the back of my mind. It seems to contain mostly amusement. Huh.
[Now, do me a favour and enter a lucid trance; it will improve our cooperation and help you deal with the pain,] Suri chimes, her voice louder, clearer and somehow warmer than before.
Naturally, I do as she asks.
And in my trance, she helps me to look in, and we study the raging—and still swelling—ball of energy in my stomach directly.
It’s like a miniature star, white hot, and positively thrumming with power.
[Looks like it’s about ready.]
‘I’ll say,’ I send back, placing a hand on my alarmingly huge belly, ‘I look ready to give birth to triplets!’
[Don’t worry; in this realm, the stomach is made to handle the intake of large amounts of energy. It’s actually the safest place for that mass of energy to be in your body. Of course, it will start randomly leaking in eventually, so we’d better handle this proactively, like this.]
Under Suri’s directions, I take hold of a sliver of energy at the bottom of my swollen stomach and guide it into a large meridian leading down.
More energy eagerly follows it, turning the sliver into a glowing silver snake, that burns my flesh like molten metal as it treks through. Or no, it’s actually freezing, leaving trails of frost burn wherever it goes.
I grit my teeth against the pain, and follow Suri’s instructions to carefully split the flow evenly at every intersection, causing the raging energy to slowly fill my system, as my stomach deflates a little.
The pain is nauseating, but I can still take it. However, as the glowing silver snakes traverse my body, they pick up deposits of purple energy, slowly turn lavender…
And transform into small, purple, fire-breathing dragons.
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