I changed Jake's name to Jacob, because I felt it was too similar to Dave at a glance.
The pain was already close to unbearable, but now that the Toxic Energy has joined the fray, it immediately threatens to consume me. The now lavender energy blazes through my body, radiating pain and destruction as it freezes my flesh.
My muscles quiver and clench uncontrollably, as cold sweat erupts all over my body. Real cold; the drops roll over my skin, leaving behind trails of frostburn. I swear I can hear my joints rattle and my bones creak.
The Yang fire still lightly burning beneath the stove has never looked so inviting. The way the flames swirl around the wood is almost hypnotic. That deep red colour in the heart of the fire, seems to promise endless warmth and giggles.
Giggles because it reminds me of Kaitlynn, obviously, of the ruby red crystal that’s replaced her eye and—
[Emma!] Suri’s voice breaks through my pain-induced haze.
[Finally! Do me a favour and stay focused, Emma; we’re about to enter a critical stage of the process!]
Shaken by my near loss of consciousness, I grit my teeth against the pain and turn my gaze inward again.
The lavender energy snakes have traversed most of my lower body by now, and are coming up on my chest, and more specifically, my heart!
Some of them indeed appear to be straying, so I actively take control and strongarm them back into my meridians.
This only speeds up their progress towards my heart, unfortunately.
There are also some energy snakes currently touring my arms, and as one of them hits upon one of the acid burns on my lower arm, it flares up, turning slightly more purple.
More cold sweat bursts out of me, tracking freezing trails down my back.
And then... Oh boy. Here it comes!
Four snakes of energy hit my heart simultaneously from different sides.
After a fraction of eternity, my heart falters. The moment it does, all of the energy snakes—in fact, all of the energy flows—freeze in place.
I double over in pain. Someone screams in the distance; it takes me a bit to realize it was me. My vision swims as I threaten to truly lose consciousness, and all I have to anchor me are Suri’s nagging and... Kaitlynn.
Kaitlynn’s waiting for me. Kaitlynn needs me.
With a jolt, my heart starts up again
I feel more than see the pop-up appear.
Great, now I can force even more pain on myself next time...
Still, it helps. The snakes resume their path of destruction, but I feel like I can handle it now.
At least until the snakes crawl up my neck, heading for the last part of my body they need to visit to completely connect and integrate into my meridians. My head.
‘Say, Suri,’ I send. ‘What exactly is going to happen when these things hit my brain?’
[Eh, don’t worry about it,] Suri chimes back.
‘What the hell does that mean?!’
[Oh well, it was nice knowing you.]
I’m currently guiding the energy snakes through the pathways in the sensitive flesh of my skin, and have to deal with flaring pain whenever one hits one of my acid burns, so I don’t have the wherewithal for a more complex response than:
[Heh, just kidding Emma. You’ll go unconscious, and I’ll take care of the rest. You’re not entirely out of the woods yet, but you’ve got a decent chance of making it. Sleep tight now!]
And as the snakes burrow into my skull, the Mother Of All Brainfreezes turns everything white.
I groan. Every inch of my body feels weary. Did I take E again last night or something? I promised to steer clear of that crap. Must have been some party...
My confusion lasts about until I crack open my eyes and see the notification window that awaits me.
Right, I’m in the Realm of Many Ways to Die.
Try to avoid—you’ve got to be friggin’ kidding me. Whatever; I survived this long, not going to let some little adjustment issues kill me. Also, what is up with that increase in my Resting Lavi Consumption? I guess levelling up isn’t all benefits either...
[Ah, you’re up,] Suri chimes. [Congratulations Emma; you’ve once again exceeded my every expectation regarding how foolhardy humans can be, and how tenacious.]
“Glad to have you still around, too,” I say dryly, before frowning and touching my throat. My voice sounds kinda strange, smooth... “Say, Suri, it appears I now have ‘Charm’, could you tell me what that does?”
[Yes, Charm; a rare thing for a human to possess.]
[I’m afraid I can’t tell you what it does; it’s classified.]
Well, that was to be expected.
[However, I would like to urge you not to reveal the existence—or your possession—of this stat to anyone just yet.]
I frown. “Why?”
[I’ll explain later. Just... do me a favour, and keep this to yourself for now, okay?]
That’s odd. Well, I suppose it can wait.
I stretch out my limbs and get up, just as Alec walks in, saying, “Hold on, I think I heard... Emma!”
His face lights up when he sees me, and then quickly shifts into a frown as he rushes over. “Are you okay? You slept a lot longer than we did... Say something!”
But all I can do is stare. Alec was always pretty fair-skinned, but his skin has now gone past pale and towards ‘hypothermic’, with its new, bluish tint, which actually contrasts less with his sky-blue left eye and amethyst right eye-crystal. Also, his blonde locks are suddenly much longer, falling just short of his shoulders, and oh yeah, there’s the beginnings of A FRIGGIN’ HORN growing out of the middle of his forehead.
Dave barges in, looking mightily relieved, and just as alien. His skin has gained more of a reddish tinge, warm, like his deep brown eye and amber eye-crystal. His brown hair hasn’t lengthened so much as it has become less frizzy, more voluminous and curly. Finally, he’s got the beginnings of two horns, reminding me of those of a bull, coming out of the sides of his forehead.
“Emma, thank god,” he says. “We weren’t sure what to do... are you okay?”
“Am I okay?” I finally manage to exclaim. “Have you guys even seen your—ugh, don’t tell me; I have horns too, don’t I?”
Alec smiles wryly. Dave nods in bemusement.
I turn to Kaitlynn’s bed, a painful reminder of her absence, and rummage in her bag for her pocket mirror.
Great. I gingerly touch the beginning of two ribbed, curly horns at the corners of my forehead. I also only now notice that my skin is a tinge more purple than would be considered healthy, contrasting more than it used to with my hazel left eye and cyan right eye-crystal. At least my acid burns seem to be gone, which is nice. Though to be honest, I was never too worried about them, in this Realm of Weird-Ass Crystals.
My hair also grew longer, and feels softer somehow, it even seems a shade darker than before, less auburn, and more chocolatey. Weird.
“You know what? I don’t even care,” I say. “This may actually work in our favour; give us an air of intimidation. Dave, how much time do we have left?”
“You slept an hour longer than we did, so about four hours,” he rattles off succinctly. “But more importantly: what happened with the Toxic Energy in your body? I never even considered about what that might do to your—”
He stops mid-sentence, before narrowing his eyes at me. I guiltily avoid his gaze, choosing to inspect my nails. Damn, but these things actually seem quite a bit sharper and pointier than they used to be...
“But you did consider it,” Dave says softly, “and you did it anyway.” He shakes his head in disbelief. “That was reckless of you, Emma.” he sounds disappointed.
“Maybe, but I succeeded,” I retort curtly. “What it to ya, anyway? It was my risk to take.” Plus, I did it for Kaitlynn.
“Emma, we are supposed to be a team,” he argues. I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen him get worked up over something. “Your decisions affect all of us!”
“You weren’t complaining when I risked my life to win you that Agi power-up,” I shoot back.
“Well maybe I should have, damnit!”
Alec’s head whips back and forth between us, as if he’s following a tennis match. It would’ve been funny if not for the tension.
I take a deep breath, and continue more calmly, “I had to, okay? I had to try stack the odds in our favour, even a little; they’re bad enough as it is.”
“Wouldn’t have exactly helped our odds of saving Kaitlynn if you’d died, though, would it have?” Dave says, though his tone is less biting, more tired now.
I shake my head, and push on. “It’s three versus five; even if we catch them off-guard somehow, it’ll be tough to beat them. Tougher still to get to Kaitlynn in time so they can’t threaten us with harming her.”
Dave twists his mouth and folds his arms in front of his chest. He doesn’t contradict me, but he doesn’t exactly look happy either.
I sigh. “Look, I’m sorry for not telling you, but what’s done is done, and I survived. Now give me a sec while I check what happened to the Toxic Energy in my body. Status window please.”
A Toxic Energy Tolerance of 36.1%?! Holy shit!
I frown. “Suri, shouldn’t I have gotten a milestone notification when I reached 30%?”
[Ah, yes. In my defence, I was rather preoccupied with keeping you alive at the time.]
“You managed to push out that Willpower notification though,” I ask suspiciously.
[That one had priority. I felt it would boost your morale to know, thus increasing your chances of survival.]
Hmm. It did, I suppose, but damnit, I’m getting side-tracked again!
The Cold Tolerance that I seem to have gained is also pretty interesting, but that, too, can wait.
I lick my lips and say, “Well, anyway, I am currently 15 Onkh under my tolerance limit, so I think I’m good to go.”
“Wow!” Alec exclaims.
Dave purses his lips, probably not wanting to give me credit for the positive effects of my brash actions.
“All right,” I say, clapping my hands together more forcibly than I intended. “What have you been up to while I was napping?”
“Right...” Dave says, calmer now. “Well, we weren’t sure how long it would take for you to wake up, so first I checked and sharpened our spears, while Alec fixed up the bad parts of your armour. Then I started coming up with plans, and I realized... it doesn’t have to be three versus five.”
I frown. “You want to involve the council?”
He shakes his head no. “Well, actually, that was my first thought, but even though I think Bruce is bluffing about having friends inside the council, it’d be pretty risky to involve them, and I’m not sure how much use just adding numbers would be in a hostage situation. But it did remind me of someone... that goth-looking kid who got kicked out of Bruce’s group, I just can’t remember his name; do you remember?”
I squint at the wall. Come on noggin’, don’t fail me now; you can do this! Emo-kid’s name, Emo-kid, AKA...
“Jacob!” I call out triumphantly.
Dave lights up. “That’s it!”
“But wait,” Alec says with a frown, as he busies himself helping me don my restored armour. It fits kind of... tightly now. Did I grow a little taller? “What if that’s who Bruce meant, with his ‘friend on the inside’?”
“Well,” Dave says, “to be honest, he might’ve... On the other hand. we clearly saw Jacob get rejected by the council, and I have a hard time believing that us witnessing that was a part of some elaborately cooked up scheme. The timing of the kidnapping alone makes it really feel like an act of desperation brought on by the announcement about the first door being used.”
Oof, yeah, I know all about that.
“More importantly,” Dave continues, “I think we need him if we’re to have any hope of getting close undetected. He’d know their hideout, the lay of the land, maybe even the location of the lookouts and where they are keeping Kaitlynn.”
A silence falls as we all ponder the dilemma.
“Well, let’s say he really broke ties with Bruce, why would he help us?” Alec asks. “We can’t offer him the last Stardrop; that one’s for Kaitlynn.”
I shrug. “We can offer him a spot on our team; we’ll have to figure out a way to get him a Stardrop later. Anyway, it’s a risk, but trying to bring in Jacob seems like our best option right now.”
Alec finishes tying of the last straps of my freshly repaired armour and takes a step back. “All right then; if you both think it’s best, let’s do it.”
Dave let’s a breath, relieved. “Would you like to do the honours, Emma? I hate calling people.”
I shrug. “Sure. Hey Suri, could you send ‘Jacob’ a friend request please?”
[Of course. One ‘Jacob’ has been found, friend request sent.]
Good; that means he’s at least still alive. Provided it’s the same Jacob.
[Jacob has accepted your friend request.]
“Let’s check that’s he’s not at Kaitlynn’s location right now,” Dave suggests. “If he were somehow accepted back in Bruce’s group, we’re pretty much screwed.”
I nod. “Could you show me his location on the map please Suri?”
“He’s near the temple,” I say, to Dave’s visible relief
I let out a deep sigh. “All right then; here goes nothing. Suri: Call Jacob, please.”
Book 1 is heading for its tense conclusion!
Of course, if you're tired of waiting, you can always become a Patron, and read as far ahead as the first chapter of Book 2... ;)