Last chapter of the first book; extra long! Don't worry, there will be no hiatus, posting of chapters will continue as normal.
“So...” Dave says, “either the council is legit, and might get in our way as they intend to distribute spots ‘fairly’, or they’ve gone rogue and are trying to get everyone to the doors, so they can kill them for their Yin-Yang Pearls, Minor Lavi Crystals, and Trial Points.”
“That about sums it up,” I say wearily. “Not much we can do about it now... we’ll have to wait for Jacob and Kaitlynn to wake up before we make a move.”
Dave nods, then hesitates. “Should we unfriend the council secretary, just in case?”
I purse my lips, then finally shake my head. “Nah, not much point to it. That might just make them suspicious; we’ll just have to keep guard.” I glance outside to see if Alec is taking his turn seriously. He seems pretty focused. “Also, Kaitlynn and Jacob won’t be able to unfriend him till in about 8 hours.”
“By which point we’ll be moving out anyway,” Dave finishes. “Fine. Then I suggest we plan for what happens if... when we succeed in walking through one of those doors.”
I nod approvingly. “I like your confidence. What were you thinking?”
“Well, assuming we get five minutes to ask questions again, it would be best to take them one by one, if that’s allowed. I suspect it won’t be so convenient.”
Generally a safe bet in this place.
“We should make a list of questions,” he continues, “or at least subjects, that each of us should ask about, whether it’s together or separately. And perhaps also what type of Skilldream purchases we should make, in order to function as a team.”
I shake my head. Man, but this guy is organized. “I feel like I may have said this before, but I’m glad you’re on our team, Dave.”
He smiles. “The feeling is mutual.” Dave takes out a piece of bark and a sharp rock, saying, “Let’s begin.”
After our planning session, Dave and I each take our turn guarding and resting, while Alec starts work on Jacob’s armour. Though to be honest, I spend most of my resting time staring at Kaitlynn.
I mean, it’s not often you get to watch someone physically transform before your very eyes.
Over the course of the ‘night’, Kaitlynn’s skin slowly turns paler, with faint veins of silver forming a spiderweb-like pattern beneath, barely visible.
Jacob’s skin on the other hand, turns darker. Not in the way skin normally does however; it turns more of a sickly grey than a nice tan.
And of course, the beginnings of horns push through their skin. Kaitlynn’s are ribbed like mine, but whereas mine curve back towards my ears, hers initially curve upwards towards the crown of her head.
Jacob is actually growing three horns, centred on his forehead in a triangle; two horns at the top, and one at the bottom. Is he becoming a trigot? That would be something.
Silently I keep my vigil, half-meditating, half-pondering all the while.
Jacob and Kaitlynn are up, our bags are packed, our plans discussed, the Twinstar has just ‘set’ and we’re ready to go.
I clap my hands together. “All right gang, huddle up.”
After we all gather in a circle, I continue, “First of all, I have some spoils to divide.”
I take the pouch off my belt, and divide the contents: Alec, Dave and I each get a Minor Lavi Crystal and a pearl of our affinity, and Kaitlynn only a pearl. Jacob already used his share—and Kaitlynn her Minor Lavi Crystal—to level up, after all.
“I suggest you use them now,” I say, putting my own away, “as we may be about to face the council, and can use every bit of advantage they may afford us.”
Alec hesitates, glancing at his Yin Pearl. “You and I don’t really have any skills that use Qi yet though, right Emma? What if the council demands some kind of toll?”
“Then they can receive it,” I say succinctly, “in the form of my foot, up their ass. The second reason I suggest you use them up now, is so they can’t be lost or stolen.”
Dave glances at my empty hands and raises a brow at me, “Where are yours?”
I shake my head, “I have plans for mine, but I need to ask questions about them first.”
He shrugs, and gulps down his Minor Lavi Crystal. It remains a weird thing to see, as the crystal is clearly too large to swallow when it enters the mouth, yet it goes down like it’s suddenly made of Jell-O. He follows it up with his Pearl. Alec follows suit, and Kaitlynn swallows her pearl as well.
“All right,” I say. “It’s about time we leave this place behind. Make sure you haven’t forgotten anything, and go take care of your business if you need to, because there will be no potty breaks along the way. Yes, I’m looking at you, Alec.”
While Alec slinks outside guiltily, Dave goes to check the packs one more time. Jacob does some stretching exercises, looking determined and ready for combat.
Kaitlynn glances around the hut, sorrowfully. Shit, I guess I’m actually going to miss this place a little too.
“We had some pretty good times here, huh?” I say, smiling morosely while I grab her hand.
She seems startled by the gesture at first, but then notices I’m palming her something. It’s the extra Yang Pearl I found in the Glade. She looks up, frowning. Seeing how she’s about to protest, I lean closer and whisper in her ear. “I found this myself; it’s mine to do with as I see fit. I know you’re about to suggest I give it to Jacob, as you feel sorry for him, but I won’t. He’s too new to our group, and your ability is too powerful. With this, you should be able to fire off three shots in a row, right?”
She nods mutely, her ear a lovely shade of pink.
“Good,” I say. “Let’s keep this a secret for now, yeah? I’d rather not have Jacob know about this... it’d be awkward.”
She nods again, and I lean back, relieved. She avoids my eyes as she says, “Excuse me,” and walks off, presumably to consume the Pearl out of sight.
...Wait, is she mad at me again? I got her a gift! I’ll never understand other girls...
Thirty minutes later or so, five hours before Twinrise, we draw close to our destination.
Door number six.
The six doors are all spread out over the same wall—opposite where we entered Hub Two—at least a thousand feet apart. And apparently, they are numbered. Door six is the one furthest to the right. According to Dave, the dot representing the Council’s secretary on our map is hanging around roughly near where door number three should be, so we’re starting at number six, and working our way down until we find an unused door.
I’d rather prevent a confrontation with the council or any other survivors, but if they are guarding the doors, at the very least they should be spread over three locations, which gives us an important edge.
We move through the canopy, silently and swiftly. We’re all armoured in scaly blue leather—Alec managed to finish Jacob’s in time—and bristling with horns, toxic tipped spears and heavy club, so we should look pretty intimidating. Another edge.
Let’s hope it’s enough.
Door number six is huge, and appears hewn from a single slab of rock. The ‘6’ on its front is very crude, the circle that forms the bottom of the number more a kind of crooked hexagon.
There’s doesn’t seem to be anyone guarding it, which could be either good news or bad.
Carefully scanning of hidden scouts or an ambush, we make our way down the trunk, communicating only in hushed tones, relayed to our gang over the social system.
<Seems deserted; let’s pick up the pace,> Dave whispers.
I glance back and nod, before making my way down more swiftly. If there’s a lone scout hidden away here somewhere, it’d actually be better to make haste than wait for their reinforcements to show up.
My heart beats in my throat when I start crossing the last 100 feet wide clearing surrounding the door.
As I come within 20 feet, my stomach sinks. It should’ve opened by now, right? I keep going, just in case, until I finally lay my hand on its surface.
I knew an unguarded door was too good to be true. After all, the universe likes to pick on me. This one’s been used.
As if to prove my point, door number five is guarded. Council enforcers, three of ‘em, decked out in black like usual, though their clothing is too bulky to be just clothing. They’re definitely packing some kind of defensive material underneath.
One of them, I recognize. It’s my old pal Steve.
We study them from high up in a tree, hidden behind a bunch of leaves.
<So...> Kaitlynn whispers in a conflicted voice, <are we just, like, going to attack them?>
I hesitate. If we can convince or intimidate them into letting us pass, that would be the best outcome in my book. But if we can’t convince them, trying would throw our chance at a surprise attack.
I ignore the small voice in the back of my head that suggests killing them for the sake of their Trial Points.
However, the choice is soon taken out of my hands.
Steve’s head jerks up as if stung. He frowns, before calling out, “Emma? I know you and your group can hear me... would you come out please?”
What? How...? Damn. The council secretary must have checked his map and informed him. Perhaps we should’ve unfriended him after all.
Tcch. I glance at Dave. The look he gives me says as much as, ‘we might as well’.
<No time to waste; game faces, everyone> I whisper before barrelling down the trunk.
Steve and his two pals straighten when we emerge from the underbrush at a light jog. We line up 20 feet in front of them, holding our weapons, but not brandishing them. Not yet.
I take a small step forward. “You’re in our way,” I say threateningly.
Steve’s gaze travels over all of us. “I can see that,” he says dryly.
“Come on, Steve,” I plead, levelling my spear. “Give me a reason not to attack you outright. Cause if you think I’m waiting for your reinforcements to arrive...”
He shakes his head, smiling wryly. “Trust me, we’re not going to fight you,” he says, gently putting his crude club down on the ground. His pals look weary, but follow his lead.
I blink. Well... this is unexpected. If it’s a ploy to stall for time, then it’s pretty ballsy. Is this an effect of my new Charm stat or something?
“Look,” Steve explains, “the council isn’t in the business of stopping people from using the doors; you have every right to use it. If there were less than five of you, we’d ask to fill out your numbers, but since you’re with a full, levelled party, that doesn’t apply to you. I only ask that you wait for Rebecca to come over; once you leave, communication will be cut off, and there’s something we try to pass along to all leaving groups”
It’s silent for a beat.
Jacob hisses, “This could still be a trap, are we really going to risk waiting for others to show up?”
My immediate reaction is ‘No’. We’ve come too far to stumble and fall now. My body tenses, my grip on my spear tightens, as I ready myself for action.
But then I’m struck by the sadness on Steve’s face, “Please. Consider it a last request from her part,” he says.
...Shit. My grip weakens.
I sigh. “Alright... I’ll hear what she has to say. But you’re going to move right now; we’ll wait with our backs to an open door. Unless you have a problem with that?”
He hesitates, before shaking his head. He and his two fellow enforcers cautiously circle around us. One of them hesitates, looking at his weapon, but I set him straight with a firm glare.
We walk up to the door, carefully watching them as we pass by. My heart beats in my throat as we approach. If that asshole tricked us...
The door grinds open; thank god. Beyond it lies a dark corridor, stretching farther than the light inside allows us to see.
I resist the urge to sprint through immediately. Instead, true to my word, I turn around and wait for Rebecca with my back to the open door.
Now we wait.
“Hey, Emma,” Dave whispers after a few seconds. “I don’t believe we’ve informed the council about Bruce yet, right?”
Startled, I blink. “Shit, no we haven’t.”
He nods. “If communications are really impossible after we enter this door, this is definitely the time to do it. Should we try telling Steve?”
I drag my teeth over my lower lip, before sighing. “No, I know who I need to tell. Ugh, I’ve been putting this conversation off for so long... it’s going to be superawkward now. Suri, could you call the council’s secretary for me please?”
A tense few seconds later, a tired, reserved voice sounds in my head.
<Hello Emma. How nice to hear from you, at last.>
I cringe. “Ehm, yeah... that’s my bad. How eh, how’ve you been?”
It’s silent for a moment.
<Tired,> he deadpans. <Now, what can I do for you?>
Oof, he sounds cold... guess I brought this on myself, though.
“I’m calling to, ehm... inform you, about an altercation we had with another group. Bruce’s gang kidnapped Kaitlynn. We rescued her, but Bruce got away. I was hoping you guys might be able to apprehend him, or at the very least exclude him from your lottery.”
<Ah. I see. Well, your version of events is a little different from Bruce’s, but that’s to be expected.>
The world spins around me for a moment, before grinding to a sudden halt.
<Bruce came to us requesting protective custody. He tells the story a little differently. Now, to be honest—>
“He’s lying!” I blurt out. “Or at the very least, leaving things out.”
<That... may very well be, but you haven’t exactly been very forthcoming, have you Emma?> he asks sharply.
<Judging by your current location and the report I just received, your group is level 2, as Bruce informed me. That means you found the Stardrops too, but didn’t bother to tell us.”
“Now look here!” I say heatedly. My suddenly raised voice startles the twitchy council enforcers, but I’m getting too fed up with this guy’s tone and attitude to care. “I only found them after the first door opened, which was rather a game changer. And when I got back, Kaitlynn had already been kidnapped!”
<Well, as I was trying to say earlier, Emma, > he says tersely, <before you interrupted me... to be honest, I’m inclined to believe you, over him.>
“I... you are?” And there he goes, taking all of the wind from my sails.
<We’ve had complaints about Bruce’s group before, of course,> he explains, voice sapped from its earlier energy. <And where there’s smoke... well, you get it. However, the fact remains that you didn’t inform us about the Stardrops, nor about the alleged kidnapping. Excluding Bruce from the lottery is essentially, quite possibly a death penalty. We can’t in good conscience condemn him like that based only on your word, without a shred of evidence.>
“But, if he takes up a spot, someone else dies!” I argue.
<True... but again, it’s your word against his. Also, there are claims made against you too. Four people are dead, and from what he tells us, your group killed all of them. Now, if you were willing to come in and testify during a trial...” he trails off.
“Yeah that’s not gonna happen,” I say resolutely.
<I figured. Honestly, we should really be making you, instead of letting you walk through that door,> he says, a hint of teasing in his voice.
“Yeah well... you couldn’t have stopped us if you’d tried,” I half-joke back.
<No, I suppose not,> he says with a wry chuckle. <Well, in that case, I’m afraid the council’s decision—or rather, lack thereof—on this matter is final. Unless there’s anything else, I wish you all the luck you need in the coming Trials.>
“Thanks. You too,” I reply softly. “Suri, end the call.”
I relay the contents of the conversation to the rest in soft tones. They’re understandably unhappy about it, but there’s isn’t much to be done about it now.
In hindsight, I should’ve contacted the council sooner... but we couldn’t have known if they were trustworthy before. Still don’t, really. Not completely.
It doesn’t take much long after that, for Rebecca to show up with two more enforcers in tow, carrying a small package. She takes in the situation with raised brows, nods at her guards to stay behind, and slowly makes her way over to us.
When she’s 10 feet in front of me, I raise my spear at her, signalling that she’s close enough. She smiles wryly and puts the package, which seems to be wrapped in a giant leaf, tied up with vines, down on the ground.
“What is it?” Kaitlynn asks curiously.
“Letters,” Rebecca says simply. “Carved in bark. Some are messages from people who never even made it this far, some from people who have no faith they’ll make it out of Hub 2. If you ever make it back to Earth, please see to it that these find their recipients.”
Well, frig. Now I feel even more like a jackass.
“Did you write one?” I ask quietly.
Rebecca nods, smiling serenely.
Too serenely. Suddenly I’m sure of it. “You’re... going down with the ship, aren’t you?”
Her smile turns wry. “While I’m not entirely convinced yet of the fate of the people who stay behind, I indeed have no intention of leaving Hub Two, as long as there are fewer open spots than survivors.”
Kaitlynn clasps a hand over her mouth. Moisture wells up in my eyes, but I blink it away.
Rebecca turns to Kaitlynn and shakes her head warmly. “No need to cry, dear; this is my own choice. Frankly, I’m just done dancing to the tune of this death-trap, watching people be forced to struggle and kill to survive. Compared to most survivors, I’ve already lived a long, fulfilling live, so I’m making my stand here, and if this place wants me dead, it’ll have to come get me.”
Her words sound feisty, but they can’t mask the underlying torrent of sadness. Deep down, I think we all know there’s no road to survival for the ones left behind in Hub Two. After all, we’re not the first group passing through here, and where are the ones who got left behind before?
I hand my spear to Alec, who is standing next to me silently, and walk forward.
I pick up the package in front of Rebecca, before shaking her hand, one last time. It’s warm.
“If you get out of here alive, find the bastards who built this place and give ‘em hell,” she says.
I don’t trust my voice right now, so I just nod, before turning around and walking back.
Before passing through the door, I stop to wave at Steve.
I better see you in Hub Three, you big lug.
Finally, the last member of our team crosses the threshold, and the door slams shut with a deafening boom.
And there you have it, the end of the first book.
I am looking into turning it into an e-book, and perhaps even a printed version, but it's going to have to wait a bit, as I'm going on a holiday to Japan pretty soon ;)
(I will still be posting chapters, of course! I can't stop this bus or it'll explode! :O)
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