“You ready for this?” I ask Jacob one last time.
He looks a little pale—well, he looks a lot pale really, ‘cause he’s not exactly tan in the first place—but nods determinedly. “Ehm, are you?” he asks belatedly.
Heh. “Don’t worry about me,” I say. “My Toxic Energy Tolerance grew quite a bit when I levelled up; the Aether here won’t kill me.”
Other things still might, of course.
I rappel down the vine, spear pressed against my side beneath my elbow, and upon landing head into the Moonshade Glade with big strides, Jacob in tow.
Earlier I found the stream entering the Moonshade Glade—it wasn’t on the map, or I may have done this earlier—and decided to follow it on this excursion, since it should lead me straight to Stardrop Pond. Well, it meanders a little, so not ‘straight’, but you get the point.
Jacob’s holding his breath as we walk, while I keep breathing, slowly. Just enough that my Lavi doesn’t drop.
When his Lavi gets low, he signals me as planned. Time to try out my idea.
I stand still, take an extra deep breath, and turn my view inwards.
Breath Control is all about controlling the energy within the Aether. Specifically the Lavi; if I were able to control the Toxic Energy in the Aether, things would be very different...
This time, when the Aether enters my lungs, I try not to absorb the present Lavi. I’ve practiced a little on the way over, but it’s still pretty hard. I keep the breath in my lungs, waiting for the Toxic Energy to slowly be absorbed, while I maintain its Lavi content.
After a couple of seconds, I turn to Jacob and nod. He exhales as far as he can before nodding back.
I lean in close enough that it’s awkward, despite the tense situation. He flinches back a little, but controls himself.
...Did he just glance at my lips? Yeah, I’m not doing this mouth-to-mouth buddy.
I exhale slowly, directing my breath towards his face, before gently pushing it into his nostrils.
His eyes go wide and he backs up, waving his hand in front of his face, wildly hacking and coughing.
When he’s finished, he glares at me. Whoops. Guess I don’t quite have the control yet to pull off ‘gently’. I smile apologetically at him and lean in to try again. This time I let the Aether kinda linger in front of him. He inhales, looks thoughtful for a second, and nods in relief.
Seems like it might be working. Though he does look a little grossed out, re-breathing my stale Aether. I hear ya, buddy.
We continue like this, walking a bit, stopping so I can filter some Aether and have Jacob breathe it.
I slowly get a little handier at it, to the point where I no longer have to lean in quite so close, and manage to pull off the filtering part as I walk. I even start experimenting with trying to add some of my own Lavi into the mix, when we reach a Dreamcloud Flower.
Man, it’s pretty... but I’m not falling for one of these suckers again. Jacob walks past me, eyes wide, a look of vacant rapture on his face.
I roll my eyes and grab onto him. I even warned him about these things.
“Jacob. Stop looking at it. Jacob!” I move in front of him and slap him in the face.
He looks at it in shock. “Jesus...” Then he looks at what’s beneath and around the flower and takes a step back.
“Relax; it can’t do much if you’re not under its thrall.”
“Hmm. Did you really need to slap me?” he grumbles, rubbing his cheek.
“No,” I say cheekily. “It’s just more fun that way. Now stay here while I harvest.”
I pull out a rock-knife and walk up to it. Its vines sway as I move closer, but they let me pass unhindered. I cautiously reach out for the flower and cut off the cloud-like stamen in its centre, carefully wrapping them in the remnants of a torn shirt. I walk back and put the completed package in my backpack.
It turns out the powder Lego-Ass had in his pouch was actually Dreamcloud pollen. In low doses, it makes people more open to suggestion, in high doses, it apparently straight-up knocks people out. Which is how they kidnapped Kaitlynn in the first place.
I wonder if this is also what put me under in the first preparation room, before my eye got replaced...
I nod at Jacob, and we keep moving. Best keep our speech to a minimum. Along the way, I harvest another Dreamcloud flower, even bigger than the last one. There’s no interesting loot to be found around this one nor the previous, unfortunately; I checked. Most of the skeletons are animal anyway.
I couldn’t remember the exact route I took previously, for obvious reasons, but since I know the general location of the pond, we eventually make it there.
At a respectable distance from the shore, I hold up a hand to signal stop.
Please just stay asleep, Momma Plessie!
I provide Jacob with one final, deep breath, point out a nearby lily pad, and gesture at him to go ahead. Following the instructions I gave him on our way over to the glade, he plucks a long rod of bamboo at the shore, and hops onto the pad.
Speaking of the way over, it took some prodding on my part, but he reluctantly confided in me that he has a Str of 12 and an Agi of 9. I was a little worried about that second bit, but he seems to hop from pad to pad quite nimbly.
I involuntarily hold my breath when he reaches for an unplucked Stardrop, but nothing happens, even as it snaps free and he stores it away.
I was worried my presence might screw things up, considering my last visit, but it looks like we’re in the clear.
Now for the second one. We don’t technically need it, but hey, it’s free real estate.
I’m sure I’ll find a use for it.
As instructed, Jacob picks another flower close to the shore, with a large amount of lily pads around it.
This time however, when he grasps the Stardrop, for whatever reason, the Plessies wake up.
“Shit! JACOB, BOOK IT!” I yell, as at least three heads surface practically right next to him.
Thankfully, Jacob reacts quickly, hopping from pad to pad as the ones behind him get destroyed in a deluge of purple acid.
I run forward as well, inhaling mightily. Jacob is close to the shore now, to my right, but there’s no clear path for him to get there.
Seeing his conundrum, I launch a jet of Aether at the frontrunner of the Plessies chasing him. It’s the longest distance shot I ever attempted, but I still manage to hit it in the side of the head, and it turns to me angrily. In fact, they all turn to me.
“Guess what? I’m back, bitches!” I yell at them. An ominous ripple moves through the Hydrum. Hoh boy.
Jacob dives into the Hydrum and starts swimming for his life, a mere 20 feet from shore.
Despite my wild waving and yelling, one of the Plessies takes note, and dives down to chase after him. The others start moving towards me threateningly.
Frig, he’s not swimming fast enough; the Plessie is going to get him!
Unfortunately, all this yelling has me out of Aether. Good thing I brought a spear.
Though its shaft isn’t all that straight, seeing as how Dave made it from a scavenged branch, it’s at least balanced nicely, thanks to the spearhead slightly weighing down the front. It’ll have to do.
I bring my right arm—holding the spear—back and my left arm forward, and position the spear parallel to the ground. Man, I’m getting P.E. flashbacks.
Athletics were never quite as much my thing as gymnastics; good thing I’ve been known to perform well under pressure.
As the Plessie resurfaces and rears back its long neck to strike, I activate Boost Physical and swing my arm forward.
The spear sails through the Aether, crests it apex right at the halfway point, and beautifully sinks into the base of the beast’s neck, with a very satisfying ‘schlunk’.
The beast wails, and I hear a rumble coming from deep beneath the surface. The Plessies coming toward me halt, and dive down.
Knowing what’s coming, I run towards Jacob and pull him into the underbrush by the scruff of his neck, before quickly changing directions.
A stroke of land behind us is wasted by a purple deluge.
Nice try, Momma, but I know what to do this time. I know your fatal weakness.
“What do we do?” Jacob whispers at me agitatedly.
“Shut up and run like hell!” I whisper back.
Momma Plessie is actually... pretty slow on land.
“Why’d they attack me?” Jacob asks indignantly, as we reach the edge of the glad. “I thought you said I could safely pick the second one?”
I smile wryly. “I’m quite sure there was a ‘probably’ in there somewhere. I honestly don’t know why. Maybe they’ve gotten more sensitive because more Stardrops have been plucked. Maybe it’s because I was there. Maybe it’s because we didn’t actually need it, who knows?” I shrug.
He seems unsatisfied, but still hands over the second Stardrop when I hold out my hand.
“All right,” I say. “You go ahead and climb onto a high branch, out of the Toxic Energy; I’ve got a bit more harvesting to do before we head back.
Jacob nods wordlessly and walks towards a nearby tree trunk. Meanwhile, I head back into the Glade, removing a 1.5 litre empty coke bottle from my backpack, and a pair of clawed, black leather gloves that look like they used to be a part of a Shego costume. Spoils of war.
I grab the first Moonshade I find and make swift work of its stem with a stone blade. I hold it over the upright coke bottle on the ground, and activate Boost Physical to twist the stem. It takes some straining, but soon enough the thick, viscous sap starts leaking out, dripping into the bottle.
Who knows when we’ll see Moonshade again? I’m not leaving until this sucker is full.
When we get back, I am surprised to find myself being jumped by a relieved Kaitlynn.
Surprised because she was supposed to be levelling, that is.
While I gracefully receive her hug, I raise a brow at Dave over Kaitlynn shoulder. He shakes his head fondly. “She was too wound up to concentrate, I thought it best she wait for your return and attempt the level up together with Jacob.”
I nod. That’s fine; shouldn’t negatively impact our schedule.
Kaitlynn releases me and starts checking over my body, to see if I’m all right.
“Did you guys have a safe trip?” Alec asks, leaning in the hut’s opening.
“Yup, nothing happened,” I say. “Right, Jacob?”
“Emma told me to say that nothing happened,” Jacob says dryly, “but we actually poked the hornets’ nest when I grabbed a second Stardrop and got attacked and chased by the... ‘Plessies’, including the really big one after Emma nailed one with her spear.”
“Yes, well,” I say, glaring at him. “We got away fine, so no worries.” I’ll get you for that one, emo-boy. Payback’s a bitch.
Kaitlynn shakes her head exasperatedly. “I knew you’d get in trouble... but you do seem fine.”
Her gaze seems mostly fixated on my bust. “Say, Emma...” she asks absently, “is it just me, or did you get a little ‘bigger’?”
...That might explain why my armour fits a little tighter than before, but this is clearly not the time or place to examine such things.
I clear my throat. “Anyway! Let’s get you crazy kids levelled up. Oh, if you could purify them one last time first, Dave, that’d be great.”
Actually, I should probably sit in on that session. Taking in Toxic Energy for two the whole way put even me over my limit a little.
It seems my method worked well; under the combined effects of the still functioning Blue Angel and Dave’s purifying skill, Jacob’s Toxic Energy is quickly back under his tolerance limit.
After some final preparation and instruction, the time has come for Jacob and Kaitlynn to level up. After some prodding, again, Jacob reluctantly confides that his Willpower is 11, so he should be fine withstanding the pain. They both should be. They will be.
Watching Kaitlynn receive and drink her heated, liquified Stardrop and swallowing down her Yang Pearl and one of Meatheads Minor Lavi Crystals, my nails dig into my palms. Man, these suckers really are sharp now...
I force myself to sit down and be quiet, despite the nervous energy jittering through my body. We can only watch now.
Soon, they are both sweating profusely, their bodies glowing with heat; I can feel it here! So this is what the Yang level-up procedure looks like... concentrating on the vision coming through my eye-crystal, I can actually vaguely see orange-tinted energy snakes crawling beneath Kaitlynn’s skin.
After what feels like an hour, the dangerous part—which I know to last only 15 minutes—is finally over. One after the other, Jacob and Kaitlynn lie down with stiff, puppet-like movements and sink into a deep sleep.
They made it. Relieved, I let out a deep breath, causing various objects in the room to ruffle or rattle. Now it’s just a matter of letting them sleep it off.
Their bodies haven’t changed colour, nor have they grown any form of beginning horns, so I guess that’s going to happen while they sleep. Some form of adaptation to being a higher level?
[You’ve received another pre-recorded audio-message from ‘The council secretary,’ sent to all his contacts. Would you like to hear it?]
“...Sure,” I mutter distractedly.
<Hello everyone, this is the council secretary speaking.>
Oof. Compared to the last message, this one’s opening had a very different energy. He sounds... exhausted.
<Let me begin with the bad: the drastic decrease in survivors has led the council to the painful conclusion that people have been going around killing others. If you are doing this, just... please stop.>
...Well, I don’t know about the others, but we didn’t have a lot of choice, you know?
<Now for the good news,> he continues, a little more chipperly. <The second group to leave Hub Two has provided the council the means by which Stardrops can be safely obtained.>
What? And those assholes didn’t even bother to tell me! Though I guess I haven’t really kept them up to date either...
<The third party to leave Hub Two therefore, was a contingent of the council, sent ahead to establish order in Hub Three.>
Are they trying to monopolize the remaining doors? Actually, that doesn’t make a lot of sense; making an announcement like this would be the worst way to do that.
<Now, the limited number of spots in the next Trial, has thrown the council for a pretty big loop. After all, the Council was founded to promote the well-being and survival of everyone, which is rather hard to do in this case.>
<After long deliberation, we have therefore decided on a way to offer the remaining survivors a fair chance to survive, in part to end the violence and deaths at the hands of each other. To this end, the council is organizing a lottery for the remaining survivors, including ourselves. Anyone who can provide their own Pearl and Lavi Crystal, can join for a chance at a Stardrop. To be clear: we’re not asking you to hand them over, only to show us that you have them, and would therefore be able to level up when provided with a Stardrop. If you wish to join the lottery, come to the door before the next Twinrise. I wish you all... the best of luck. This is your council secretary, signing off.>
Oh man. Now what?
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