Chapter 45: Don't stop me now

Kaitlynn’s on a chair about 30 feet into the room, and Lego-ass is standing beside her, holding a blade of knivegrass to her throat.


It’s a small comfort, but at least Kaitlynn hasn’t been stripped of her hard-to-put-on armour.


Lego-ass seem to still be wearing his costume beneath the rudimentary bark armour, though he ditched his long blonde wig, his real hair short, brown and curly. His remaining eye glances at my spear warily.


“Toss me the spear,” he demands, drawing his grassblade up against Kaitlynn’s throat. “Slowly.”


I lower my spear, slowly like he demanded, and toss it forward with careful, deliberate motions. It clatters to the ground in front of him, the sound grating to my ears in the tense silence.


He glances at the glowing purple tip one last time, before staring at me intently, checking me out all over. He bares his teeth in a smile that makes me queasy.


“You levelled up, didn’t you?” he asks. “I gotta say, I don’t hate the new look.”




“You know, I actually waited to take the same door you did,” he continues conversationally. “Thought I might... catch up. What a mistake that was. Do you have any idea how nerve-wracking it is to sit in the preparation room for up to 48 hours, not knowing when you will get a sudden notification that you have to begin your trial within 600 seconds? What the hell was taking you so long?!”


Heh. Serves you right, douchecanoe. I maintain my silence.


“That’s fine, be that way,” he sneers. “You know, I was kinda hoping you’d do something stupid like this. You see, Bruce wouldn’t let me touch your friend here, for some reason. But I bet he’ll make an exception for you, after all this.”


Anger roils and churns in the pit of my stomach. He’s trying to distract me, but it’s not gonna work; if anything, the hate is keeping me laser-focused. I have to take him out somehow, and soon. If Bruce shows up behind me, we’re truly done for.


“I gotta say, this place has been a disappointing experience so far,” he grumbles, his free hand surreptitiously moves to a pouch on his belt, rummaging inside it as he talks. “If I’d had more than what I thought was idle hope the comic con would actually be targeted, I would have prepared better, brought rope and maybe some duct tape. Though to be honest, I’m not sure it would have mattered much; the roofies I brought might as well be sugar pills here, for all they seem to do. Oh well, doesn’t matter now.”


This asshole... for the first time I recognize the madness burning behind the lust in his gaze. It sends a shiver down my spine; I fight not to show it.


He leers at me, smiling maniacally. “Come closer if you want your friend to live,” he orders, his free hand still hidden in his pouch.


I slowly step forward.


“My, how obedient you are,” he says with a smirk. “Somehow I imagined a lot more swearing in this moment.”


Keep talking, idiot; the only one you’re distracting is yourself. All I need now is—


Alec dashes through the opening.


“Emma, what’s taking so long?” he yells, looking over his shoulder. “I managed to get rid of Sherlock, but Bruce and Boris are climbing—shit, Kaitlynn!”


—a distraction.


By this time, I had already crossed half of the 30-feet the distance between us, the moment Lego-ass glances away in consternation, I dash forward to close the remaining distance.


He reacts immediately, eyes widening as his free hand bursts from the pouch he was holding with a handful of some kind of glittery powder. He throws it at my rapidly approaching face.


Which is about the stupidest thing he could have done.


I release the breath I’d slowly been building up all in one go. A powerful jet of Aether immediately blows all the powder back into his face. Then it proceeds to pick him up and carry him 10 feet back, to slam into a wall with a bone-numbing smack.


Even though I’d prepared for it, I still stumble back from the recoil, but luckily end up right next to my spear.


I grab it, jump forward, and furiously stab forward before he can recover from the smack and the powder, into an area his armour doesn’t cover.


Lego-ass makes a disbelieving choking sound around the blade in his throat. His hands come up tremulously, as his glazed eyes clear up to stare at me in horror. For a second, I remain frozen, my hatred doused by the reality of my actions.


“That’s... that’s for even thinking of touching Kaitlynn!” I manage to say.


I pull back my spear. Bright red blood with traces of purple gushes from the gaping hole in his throat. He drops to his knees. The look on his face... the blood... the image burns itself into my retina.


[You did what you had to do, Emma,] Suri chimes, unexpectedly breaking her silence. [Try not to think of it as murder, this is more like... putting down a rabid animal.]


Murder? The thought makes me want to dry heave, but... Suri is right. He had it coming.


Lego-ass keels over forward, forcing me to jump back, which helps me break out of my reverie. I turn around to find Alec staring at me open-mouthed.


“Don’t just stand there, you idiot!” I snap hypocritically.


But it’s too late. A hulking figure darkens the entrance. Bruce has arrived.


Alec jumps back into a defensive position and raises his spear. I move protectively in front of Kaitlynn, and raise mine as well.


Boris shows up behind Bruce, dashing my hopes on a two on one.




“It’s over Bruce. You might as well give up,” I say, affecting a calm I don’t feel. “We’ve already levelled; we have nothing left to give you. And you no longer have a hostage.”


Bruce glances at the sorry, bleeding heap behind me, his face darkens, but then he relaxes again. He sighs, slowly shaking his head.


“I don’t like what we’ve become; what this place is turning us into,” he says.


Damn, what’s with this sudden depth charge? Does that mean he’s letting us go?


His gaze hardens, “But there’s no turning back now.”


Well, frig.


He glances at Boris. “Let’s take them out quickly, before the guy up top gets here.”


He raises his crude club and advances towards me, while Boris heads for Alec, seemingly unarmed.


Not wanting to involve Kaitlynn in this slugfest, I also step forward.


There is a brief moment of inaction, of quiet, when we all get in range.


Then we burst loose.


Bruce is a big target, and my weapon has a longer reach and a Toxic payload, so I go for an aggressive stab at the centre of his chest.


The sharp stone head of my spear should have a much higher Toughness than his bark armour, so I’m hoping to stab right through it and at least scratch him.


However, Bruce doesn’t even attempt to dodge; when my spear reaches inches in front of his chest, the focus crystal tied to the palm of his left hand flashes bright yellow, and I am suddenly standing still. Meanwhile his right arm is swinging his club straight for my skull.


Frig’. So this is his medium-rank Yang-Qi skill, ‘Stop’. Yang Qi apparently has a ‘kinetic’ branch of energy, that can do physics-defying stuff like this.


Fortunately, it’s only an instantaneous effect that robs me of my momentum, and not one that holds me still. And I had plenty of time to come up with countermeasures on my way over.


As soon as I’m stopped, I release a burst of breath I’d been surreptitiously building up from the moment I’d last stopped talking.


It’s not a devastating jet like the last one, but enough to force both him and me back a step, causing his club to pass inches in front of my nose with an angry swoosh.


I jump back.


Man, what a cheat-like ability! Thankfully his Qi should be pretty limited; let’s see how many more of those he’s got.


He looks at me in surprise for a moment, before dashing forward.


Damn. Trying to prevent me from ‘catching my breath,’ huh?


However, Jacob also told me about another suspected flaw of his ability; it can only affect things in a very short range around his focus crystal. So as he advances, I back up, inhaling all the while.


But Bruce suddenly changes directions and heads for Kaitlynn. Shit! I move to intercept him, but he turns again, heading straight toward me.


It was a feint!


He lunges, overreaching as he tries to make up for the shorter reach of his club. He must be wary of my spear; this is a chance! I duck down, and prepare to counter with a stab.


The crystal tied to his left hand flashes yellow again, and instead of uselessly passing by overhead, the club freezes in mid-air.




I swear I see Bruce pull himself forward on his club. A knee rapidly heads for my face. I twist my shoulder in the way at the last moment, causing it to take the brunt of the hit, but at least sparing my poor nose.


The hit still sends me toppling over backwards and I land heavily on my back. The shock paralyses my diaphragm, effectively knocking the stored-up Aether out of me.


That bastard deliberately made his swing too wide! He used Stop to stabilize himself and catch me off-guard! What strikes me as odd though, is that the knee to my shoulder didn’t hurt that bad... the landing was actually much worse.


Bruce comes in with his club positioned for a two-handed overhead blow, but I activate Boost Physical and sweep my spear in from the right towards his knee at high speed.


He bends his knees defensively, depriving himself of the chance to strike, but causing me to hit his thigh with my spear’s shaft instead, with a solid thwack that elicits a grunt of pain.


I push off the floor with my left hand, and off against Bruce’s thigh with my spear, and manage sweep my legs over the spear and land on my feet. I quickly back up, positioning myself between Kaitlynn and Bruce once more.


That’s two uses of Stop. But I can no longer back down; not with Kaitlynn this close behind me.


Bruce circles me warily, testing out his sore leg. It seems to be working still. Damn.


I spare a glace for Alec, who seems to be wrestling with Boris on the ground now. What are you doing, you dumbass; you can’t win a wrestling match against someone with Boost Physical!


Dave, where are you?!


Bruce lunges at me again, but this time I’m not waiting to see what he intends. Before he can even reach me, I launch a jet of Aether at him.


Before, I wouldn’t have attempted a shot at this range, but I have a feeling I can pull it off now...


As I’d hoped, the blast hits him full on. He tries to power through, probably underestimating the force behind the gale based on my previous use of it. His eyes widen in surprise when he can’t, and is forced to take several steps back.


The second the recoil of my exhale disappears, I leap forward. Since he can only Stop things in range of the focus crystal tied to his left hand, I make a sweeping attack towards his feet with my spear.


Still on his back feet, he nonetheless jumps.


My spear sweeps below his feet harmlessly. I extend the twisting motion into a pirouette and follow up with another stab straight for his chest.


He reaches out with his left hand. His focus crystal flashes yellow, and I am once again treated to the sensation of my entire body lurching to a sudden stop.


But while it gains him the opportunity to regain his footing, he’s in no position for a counter.


I jump back. That makes three.


“How many more of those have you got in you, Brucey? Still think you can defeat us quickly?” I taunt him, trying to sow doubt and stall for time.


Bruce glances at the other fight, and I can’t help but take the opportunity to do the same.


Boris is sporting a nasty cut on his cheek, but he also got Alec in some kind of chokehold.


Bruce turns back to me, with a sneer, “Looks like your friend isn’t doing so well.”


Please. I used to torture—I mean, train—Alec, and he may be flailing wildly, but I can tell when he’s faking.


Squeezing someone’s neck may halt the flow of blood, but I doubt it would affect the flow of Lavi. With his current Lavi pool, Alec can hold his breath for 15 minutes, meaning he’s playing for time, either waiting until that purple glowing scratch does its job, or Dave shows up.


These thoughts flash through me in an instant, but I hold my tongue, and just smile.


Bruce’s eyes flicker towards the entrance, and in the split second that mine follow suit, he jumps forward.


Damnit, he got me!


He uses his club to brush aside the dangerous head of my spear, and tackles me, using his full weight to crush me.


He sits up, straddling me, and starts wailing at my head, which I quickly cover with my arms. But again, the blows raining down, don’t hurt nearly as bad as I’d expected, leaving me more confused than battered.


Wait... of course! Since I levelled, I have a Toughness of 13! If Bruce never trained his Toughness... the average starting point for humans would be about 8. If he wore knuckle bracers of some kind I might’ve been in trouble, but right now it’s like he’s hitting me with two potatoes.


Emboldened by my insight, I activate Boost Physical. I stop covering my head in favour of grasping his legs, and buck up with my hips, launching him up with surprise in his eyes.


“Nice try,” I say, bringing my feet up under his chest. “But I’m—level two, bitch!”


Honestly, jumping me wasn’t even a bad tactic on his part, he just failed to realize that—with Boost Physical—I outperform him in every physical stat.


I push up with both feet, launching him high into the air. He flails and twists, trying to turn it into a kind of backflip, but ends up smacking his forehead into the ground. He gets up dazedly, and unarmed.


I roll back over my shoulder, ending in a crouch. I grasp my spear and rise to my feet.


Dave bursts in through the entrance.


“Help Alec!” I shout at him.


But I needn’t, because Alec slams an elbow into Boris’s gut, freeing himself from his clearly weakened grasp, scrambles for the guy’s club, and turns around to mercilessly brings it down on Boris’s head.


Twice. Thrice.


A silence follows, the sickening crunch of bone somehow seemingly still hanging in the Aether.


Bruce pales at the sound, and he can’t help it. He looks.


I jump forward and jab at his throat, as fast as I can.


At the last moment, his crystal flashes yellow, and my spear comes to a halt, the tip a hairs width from his throat. I hold it there, lightly pressed against his jugular.


That makes four uses of Stop.


Alec turns to face him, Dave closes in from behind.


Bruce slowly, wearily, turns his head to look at me. “Fine, you got me. I surrender. So, now what? Are you going to kill me, too?”


[Not a bad suggestion, if you ask me,] Suri chimes. [Your group has already killed three today, what’s one more?]


What’s one more? Jeeze, that’s easy for you to say... I shift uncomfortably as thoughts tumble through my mind.


Before, we were in a battle, in the heat of the moment. Fighting to save Kaitlynn. Now she’s safe; we’ve won. Bruce is disarmed, and Lego-ass had said that when he wanted to... lay hands on Kaitlynn, Bruce had actually stopped him.


Jacob comes in, looking pale and clutching his side. He takes stock of the situation, brusquely walks over and snatches a bag from Bruce’s belt.


Bruce stiffens, and his face darkens.


“Don’t bother coming back for these,” Jacob jeers, having retreated to a safe distance, behind Alec. “We’ll have already eaten them.”


Sounds like he’s throwing something Bruce said back in his face?


Well, no matter.


“Well, what’s it gonna be?” Bruce asks me, tightlipped.


Intellectually, I know the answer. Morally, I know the answer. Unfortunately, those answers don’t match. Even if I want to, could I really... execute someone in cold blood?


Dave picks up on my hesitation. “Perhaps it’s best if we...tie him up and let the council handle him.”


I nod, relieved. However, as the tension inside my body drops, so does the tip of my spear.


Bruce uses this moment to take the decision out of our hands. He suddenly turns and makes a run for the exit behind Dave.


Dave, to his credit, reacts quickly, lashing out with his club, but Bruce twists his body the other way around Dave like a professional American football player, and bumps him out of the way with his shoulder.


He sprints towards the exit, but I’m right behind him. I’m still not ready to kill him, but also not to let him run off, so I swing the blunt end of my spear towards his heels, and skilfully whip it between his legs.


His back foot catches onto the spear and locks it in place between his legs right as he crosses the exit. He smacks down face-first onto the branch.


Before I can jump forward to drag him back inside and tie him up, however, he does the last thing I expect.


He deliberately rolls towards and over the edge of the branch.


I stare, wide-eyed, as he begins sailing down towards the forest floor, picking up speed along the way. The treetrunk’s gravity pulls him in as he falls, but he’s stabilized himself in the air, and to my surprise actually kicks off from it instead of desperately attempting to grasp on and slow down.


I can’t tear my eyes away as he speeds towards his inevitable death. However, right as he is about to hit the ground and end up as flat as a pancake, a final yellow flash comes from his left hand.


After hovering inches off the ground for a split second, Bruce lands gently on his feet and runs off without even glancing back.


And that’s five. Man, what a cheater.



Author's note:

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