Up on the branch outside his former hidey-hole, I watch Bruce get away with mixed emotions.
Jacob walks up behind me and clears his throat.
In one hand, he holds a Yang Pearl and Minor Lavi Crystal, in the other Bruce’s bag.
“Here,” he says, holding it up to me, looking kind of anxious. “The rest of Bruce’s stash. I only took out what I need for myself.”
I accept the bag with a nod and attach it to my belt.
“Don’t worry,” I say, clapping him on the shoulder. “None of this would’ve been possible without you, so we’ll definitely hold up our end of the bargain; soon we’ll be busting this joint, and you’re coming with us.”
He looks relieved at my reassurance. Poor guy; probably been through a lot. Then again, we all have.
With Bruce out of the picture, I head back inside for the reason we came in the first place.
Kneeling in front Kaitlynn, I gently brush some hairs out of her face. Her brows furrow lightly at the touch, and she murmurs something in her sleep. Is she calling her ma? Oh, poor baby...
Dave kneels behind her chair, pulls out a rock-knife, and starts cutting up the tough vines holding her in place.
“Alec, Jacob,” I call out, “search this place, take anything of value. Be careful with that bag hanging on Lego-ass’s belt; I think it contains whatever knocked Kaitlynn out.”
I feel pretty shitty for delegating the ransacking of my own... kill, but tell myself Kaitlynn needs me more right now. It assuages most of my guilt.
I stare at the blue angel, her lithe frame shaking slightly as Dave works the vines. About when he finishes, she starts to wake up, blinking confusedly.
I give her my most comforting smile. “Hey Kaitmonster, how are you feeling?”
She perks up at my voice, her eyes now wide-open. She stares at me for a split second. Her head swivels left, right, and back to me.
Her face scrunches up, and she starts full on ugly-crying, though somehow, she manages to make even that look cute.
“Emma I was so sca-ha-hared!” she blubbers as she launches herself around my neck. “They woke me up sometimes to feed me some jicca nuts and water, and let me pee, but they wouldn’t let me call you, and then they’d put me up on the chair again and hit me with that powder and I’d black out, but—”
She pauses to take a deep, shuddering breath while I rub circles on her back and whisper soothing things into her ear.
“But I knew you’d come for me,” she finishes, a little more calmly, squeezing me extra tight.
“Of course,” I say softly in her ear, my nose buried in her bright blue hair, inhaling her scent. “You’re safe now. Well, relatively speaking, of course,” I joke.
Damnit, way to be sensitive, Emma! Stupid, stupid, stupid!
But Kaitlynn doesn’t seem to mind. She snorts.
“I’m crying here; stop making me laugh, you weirdo.”
“Sure thing,” I say. But I am, of course, crossing my fingers behind her back.
On the way back to our hut, with my immediate concerns about Kaitlynn lifted, I check out the contents of the bag Jacob gave me, only slightly distracted by said girl, who’s fascinatedly poking my new horns. It kind of tickles.
Wow. Looks like Bruce really did keep all of his subordinates’ level-up items on him. Even though Jacob took out his own, the bag still contains two Yang Pearls, two Yin Pearls, and four Minor Lavi Crystals. That’s one for each of us! There’s also the extra Yang Pearl I found, which I’m still thinking of giving to Kaitlynn, as she currently holds the Yang-Qi skill with the highest offensive potential.
As I go over our spoils, Alec, still very hyped up, is telling Kaitlynn—who’s finally lost interest in my horns—all about our rescue mission.
“—so I manage to kick Sherlock off the branch and he smacks down hard. Bruce and Boris immediately stop kicking Jacob, and they head back up the tree, right? Now, we’ve got Dave up top, who starts slinging rocks at them, but guess what; he sucks at throwing!”
“No, look,” Dave cuts in, “it’s not that easy, okay? I thought I could just drop the rocks down along the trunk, but the trees have their own field of gravity. So if you just drop it, the rock gets pulled in and then bounces off one of the up-spiralling twines.”
Oh, damn. He’s right; we totally failed to consider that.
“So I had to throw them out a little,” Dave continues, “but not too hard either, just enough that they’d be pulled back in around the time they neared Bruce; it was really difficult!”
“Right, well anyway,” Alec continues, “Bruce and Boris, are getting close, so I’m shitting bricks, and run inside to see what’s taking Emma so long—”
Kaitlynn’s hanging on his lips, wide-eyed, as he rambles on. God, I’m still shaky with adrenaline. I still can’t believe she’s back, alive and well.
If she’d been hurt... Bruce wouldn’t be breathing anymore right now, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t have hesitated, in the least. It was the fact that he’d protected her—even though he’d kidnapped her—that tripped me up.
Something Alec says pulls me back into the conversation.
“So he starts choking me, right? Man, that was scary! I really thought I was a goner.”
“Hold up,” I interject, eyes narrowed. “You do realize you don’t really need to breathe other than to replenish Lavi, right?”
“Well... yeah,” he says sheepishly, “but the 10 seconds before I remembered that were the scariest of my life. Once I realized I wasn’t actually choking, I just started pretending to be, until the Toxic Energy I cut into his cheek kicked in.”
See? I can tell when he’s faking.
As Alec continues his tale, Dave taps me on the shoulder. “Emma, have you checked your notifications yet.”
I blink. “Ah, no, not yet.”
That’s right, we all asked our Personal Guiding Systems to hold off on showing us notifications until later notice.
“Well, maybe you should,” Dave say grimly.
Oh boy. “Suri?”
Before her name is even fully out my mouth, notifications start popping up, one by one.
Luke, right that’s what Jacob said Lego-ass’ real name was.
“We get to keep half the Trial Points if we kill someone?” I mutter. “These sick bastards...” Dave casts his eyes down as he nods. Right, he took the first life in this fight with that blow to the head on Weasel—Wesley, I suppose I should call him now.
Still, even though this is a supremely questionable mechanic, I do love the fact that I’m cashing in on Douchecanoe’s hard earned points. He must’ve been saving up for a medium-grade skill; thank goodness he couldn’t afford it in the end.
Now that’s what I’m talking about. I had a feeling something like this happened during the battle; it was like the Aether in my lungs suddenly got more pliable, more submissive.
Oof, only three more. Well, no matter. We’ll be going through soon.
Wait... 28? “Dave, how many participants were left according to the previous announcement?”
So that’s 13 people less. If five of them left, and we took out another four, that means at least four more people died in the meantime.
What’s worse, is that there may now be other people who know you can collect Trial Points by killing. Good thing no-one outside our little gang knows I received 50 Trial Points for breaking that record.
My eyes meet Dave’s, with a look no doubt mirroring his own. Grim determination.
We’ve gone too far to let anything stop us now.
Dave and I spend the rest of the way planning in hushed tones, while Alec brings Kaitlynn up to speed, with Jacob joining in and listening to the parts he’d missed out on.
Ultimately, we can’t make a move until Kaitlynn has levelled up. Compared to the time levelling takes, the time needed to bring Jacob out to Stardrop Pond and back isn’t much, so we decide to go ahead with helping him level up as well. Getting a fifth member shortly before the Fourth Trial was always the plan anyway, and he’s clearly burned all bridges with Bruce and... well.
I guess it’s just Bruce now, without the ‘co’, but let’s not think about that too hard.
By the time we reach the hut, we’re agreed.
I gesture for the rest to join us in a huddle. “All right, Dave and I have come up with a plan of action. Kaitlynn.”
“Yes ma’am!” Kaitlynn calls out, playfully saluting me.
I suppress a smile. “As soon as you feel ready, I want you to level up. Make sure there isn’t too much Toxic Energy in your system. Dave will tell you what you can expect. He and Alec will guard the hut while you’re sleeping it off, and prepare our gear and packs for travel in the meantime. We collected plenty of extra food and waterbottles from Brucey’s stash, so between that and the dried meat, we should have enough to last us a week at minimum. No need to risk going out foraging or anything like that. Especially now.”
Dave nods. Alec also mock salutes me.
“Wait, where will you be?” Kaitlynn asks worriedly.
“Yes, well, I’m taking Jacob here on a little trip to Moonshade Glade.”
“So, that’s really where the Stardrops are?” Jacob asks, growing pale. “Ehm, I gotta tell you, my Toxic Energy Tolerance is pretty crap.”
“We expected as much,” Dave says, “don’t worry; Emma came up with a method to get you through the Glade safe and sound.”
Alec scratches his head, and questions Dave, “Wouldn’t it make more sense if she took you instead of Jacob, though? Since you can purify yourself along the way?”
I shake my head. “We considered it, but his ability won’t make much of a difference in there, as his Qi pool is too small. Plus, it’s Jacob that needs the Stardrop; he should be taking the risk. Toxic Energy isn’t the only danger in there.”
More importantly, we don’t trust Jacob enough to leave him alone with an unconscious Kaitlynn and only Alec to protect her. Fine. I don’t trust him enough.
Kaitlynn glances back and forth between us. “Hold up, I’m confused. If you’re already going, and you know where the Stardrops are and everything, why does Jacob need to come?”
“Well,” I say. “If you pick more than two Stardrops, you get attacked by these weird snake-headed monsters that spit acid. And I doubt they’ve already forgotten me.”
“More than two?” Jacob repeats, confused, as we hadn’t gone into that much detail about it with him earlier. “But didn’t you pick four of them?”
I smirk at him. “Yes. Yes I did.”
And then, for some reason, Kaitlynn gets mad at me, making me waste precious time in placating her. Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Now, I don't want to spoil anything, but did you know some Patrons already have access to the first Skilldream Shopping Window which includes Qi-based Skills? ;)