• H.C. Mills

Chapter 49: Start of Something New [Beginning of Book 2]

This is the first of three sample chapters of Book 2. Links to purchase will be added soon ^^

The sound of the large stone slab slamming down behind us reverberates in the ominous dark hallway.

I let out a conflicted sigh, even as some tension drains from my shoulders; tension that’s been there ever since we got the announcement that the first door out of Hub Two had been used, and that there were only five left.

Being securely on the other side of door number four is definitely a relief, and yet... Of all my experiences since the Comic-Con I was slinging hotdogs at got portalled to the Realm of Crystals, Hub Two was hands-down the best.

Moreover, as much as this door protects us from the remaining participants, it also leads to the start of the next set of deadly Trials, supposedly meant to teach us how to survive in this crazy Realm with its physics-defying Laws of Being.

Anyway, after several weeks in a jungle, it’s weird to be standing on hard stone again. The gravity in here is weaker as well due to the pull of the ceiling, but that’s more familiar, as it was similarly weakened on the higher branches of the massive spiralling trees we just left behind.

Crystals melded in the smooth stone ceiling start to give off a soft glow, illuminating the path ahead, but before I can get a good look, a window pops up in front of me.

Nothing too unexpected, I suppose.

Too bad about the Social System, though. We knew the communication to Hub Two would be cut off, but I’d hoped we might be able to contact the other teams challenging the Fourth Trial, or at least each other. No such luck.

I’m a little disappointed to receive only 20 Trial Points after everything I went through to acquire those bloody Stardrops from the pond deep in the Moonshade Glade, but it’s still double the standard reward of the first three Trials.

Honestly, with the Trial Points I received for breaking the Yin-Yang Temple’s speed record and for killing Lego-ass after Kaitlynn’s kidnapping, I have nothing to complain about.

I glance at the blue-haired girl we only barely managed to rescue. She’s still clutching the packet of letters we received from Rebecca, the council’s chairman, that we’re meant to hopefully deliver back to Earth someday.

The silvery skin tone and beginning horns she gained during the level-up process combine with her red eye-crystal to give her a positively demonic appearance. Despite that, she still manages to look kinda ado—

Dave clears his throat, his brown eye turning away from the screen in front of him to take in the rest. “Did anyone get bonus points for anything?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jacob responds after a second. “It says here I got some for sarcasm and dry wit.”

I snort at his deadpan delivery.

“Wait, really?” Alec asks, his blonde brows shooting up on his babyface.

“Oh yeah, me too,” I claim quickly. “Though it says ‘stunning wit’ on mine.”

“You too, Emma?! Aww man! I cooked and made gorgeous blue leather armour for all of you, and you guys got bonus points for sarcasm and wit? That’s so unfair!”

Jacob looks at me, his expression seeming to ask, ‘Is this guy for real?’

Truth be told, it’s a little hard to take seriously considering the clearly dyed-black hair and copious amounts of guyliner around his eyes.

Kaitlynn clasps a hand in front of her mouth and seems to barely manage to hold back her laughter.

Dave shakes his head, his long frizzy ponytail trailing the movement. “If no one has any actual bonus Trial Points to report, I think it’s safe to say we all received the same amount. Anyway, it looks like we’re getting split up after all.”

I wave away my window with a frown and find that in the distance, the light has revealed a wall featuring five stone doors, each with a terribly suffering humanoid carved into it.

Shit. We’d considered this scenario, yet my stomach still drops. “Suri, will the five of us be reunited beyond those doors?”

[Yes,] a voice chimes in my head, in what would normally be a clear sign of madness. Of course, in this case it’s just my Personal Guide System sending her voice from the cyan eye-crystal in my right eye socket, through my optic nerve, straight into my brain. [The preparation room extends into a large living room beyond the five single rooms.]

Oh, thank goodness! “So, we can move back and forth freely?”

[Between the single rooms and the living room, yes, but only after you’ve finished your five minutes of questions. And if you wish to make Skilldream purchases and the like, you will have to seclude yourself. Out of safety concerns, no one else will be allowed in your room while you are under.]

So we get separated to ask our questions after all. “Final question: How long can we stay in this preparation area?”

[47 hours and 50 minutes, of which 1 minute and 13 seconds have passed.]

That’s an improvement over the previous standard of twenty-four hours, at least. Still, kinda shitty that there’s a time limit, even though there won’t be another group coming in after us.

We huddle up and go over the question topics we divided amongst us earlier one last time.

Once I’m sure Alec remembers the topics his questions should cover, there’s only one thing left that I’ve been meaning, yet dreading, to do.

After getting everyone’s permission, I prepare myself mentally for the gruelling task I’m about to undertake.

[Well?] Suri chimes. [I’m waiting.]

I sigh. “Suri, would you show us all ‘Suri’s New and Improved, Super-Amazing Ultra-Custom Colour Coded Level-Up and Other Gains Results Window and Skill Overview,’ please?”

There we go. A number of things I was wondering about are immediately made clear. First of all, it seems like everyone received a flat increase of 2 on each physical stat during the level-up process. Which, thankfully, means our efforts in raising our stats before levelling weren’t wasted.

Furthermore, the efficacy of the Minor Lavi Crystal and Qi Pearl taken during the levelling process seems to have been doubled; they were supposed to increase our Lavi Pools by up to 10 Onkh and our Qi Pools by up to 5, after all.

The contrast is clear when compared to the ‘other gains’ in the table, which mostly came from the Pearls and Lavi Crystals we stole—I mean, ehm, ‘liberated’—from Meathead.

It seems the Lavi increasing effect of the level-up didn’t take very well in my case... probably has something to do with the Toxic Energy running rampant during my levelling process. If that’s the price I paid, it was more than worth it for the extra Toxic Energy Tolerance I gained. I was already catching up to the others in terms of maximum Lavi with all the breathing and Meditating I was doing, and I’ll make up for the deficit soon enough.

Looks like Suri is still adamant about not revealing the Charm stat for now. I suppose it’s not a bad idea to at least find out what it does before I tell the others. Also, I don’t much feel like explaining to Kaitlynn why I have it, as she still doesn’t know how badly I risked my life to level up.

I also asked Suri to add a Skill overview this time so we could all see what we’re working with. Dave, Alec and Kaitlynn all managed to reach the second level of Respiration by now, which I’ve since come to understand is mainly about manipulating the Aether in your lungs to compress as far as your body can handle—as limited by your Toughness—and not so much about nasal versus mouth-breathing.

The third level of the Skill, however, has proven to be somewhat of a hurdle, as it requires taking control of the remaining Lavi in your exhale to direct your breath while it’s outside your body, which is quite a big step.

That difficulty is compounded by the fact that breathing too deeply causes your level of Toxic Energy to increase. If it weren’t for Dave’s Purifying Skill, probably none of them would have even reached the second level of Respiration. Even now, most of them don’t breathe as deeply as they actually can, because their bodies wouldn’t be able to handle the extra Toxic Energy it would pull in.

Speaking of Dave’s Skill, what’s up with that name?! Radiate Purity? That’s so lame! Note to self: Definitely rib Dave about this later.

Concerning the Meditation Skill, looks like everyone has reached at least the first level. Even Jacob. The second level of Meditation, however, is probably even harder to gain than the third level of Respiration. Dave’s the only one—aside from me, obviously—who’s managed so far. Apparently, he’s into yoga and shit, who knew! I only managed to learn it so quickly due to the extreme circumstances I practised in, and the enormous pressure I was under to succeed.

Of course, I’m not the only one studying the window. The one with the most extreme reaction to it is Jacob.

His eye practically bulges out of his skull by the time I catch on to his sputtering. “Why... how do you guys have such ridiculously high stats?! A Toughness of 12 or 13? I even have the lowest Agility! And Emma, what kind of freak are you, a Willpower of 15?!”

“Well, that’s a nice way to put it,” I mutter, rolling my own actual eye. “As for how, that’s simple. We trained. Toughness, for example, is pretty easy to raise. All you need to do is repeatedly collide with hard surfaces. Not fun, but it’s effective. Seems like you figured out how to train Strength, at the very least. Is that something you did with Bruce and... the others?” May they rest in peace.

“Ehm, yeah,” he replies, still looking shocked. “We had rock-lifting competitions. Bruce’s idea. You all have that breathing Skill too. I saw it in the Skilldream menu, but I didn’t think it’d be worth my while.”

Dave hums. “Respiration is a bit of a two-edged sword. It increases your intake of Lavi, but also of Toxic Energy. I’m sure Emma will be willing to teach you later, she’s kind of the expert. Speaking of, Emma, you never mentioned you managed to evolve it to Breath Control. Congratulations!”

Alec lets out a low whistle.

I shrug. “Yeah, well, it happened when we rescued Kaitlynn. Kinda paled in comparison.”

The blue-haired girl shoots me a fond smile, to which I respond with a wink.

“An evolved Skill?” Jacob mutters. “Shit, no wonder you bested Bruce. You’re not a freak, you’re a monster.”

I narrow my eye at him. “I’ll take that as the compliment I’m sure it was meant to be. Boy, you really know how to treat a lady, huh?”

He shrugs, but the corner of his mouth twitches up.

“As for your Agility being the lowest,” Kaitlynn adds with a smirk, “that’s only because Emma offered up her Low-grade Internal Agility Power-Up to Dave, which she won by breaking the all-time speed record in the Yin-Yang T—”

“Yeah, okay, he gets it,” I interrupt, blood rising to my cheeks as I wave the window away. “I’m a freak of nature who does dangerous stuff. We should stay focused. We can swap stories later.”

“Let’s take inventory of what we have in terms of supplies,” Dave mercifully suggests. “If anyone’s been holding anything back, this would be a good time to come forward if they want to. No judgement.”

This would be an excellent time to mention Charm, actually. But Suri was pretty adamant about not telling them just yet.

“I still have a Yin Pearl, a Minor Lavi Crystal and a Stardrop left from Meathead’s stash,” I say instead. “I saved them because I want to know a little more about the best way to use them. I doubt I can reach Level 3 or anything, as the appraisals all mentioned them being suited for ‘reaching Level 2,’ but I think I should at least be able to improve the potency of the pearl and crystal by redoing the level-up process.”

Alec stares at me as if I’ve grown another head. “You want to eat another Stardrop... voluntarily?”

Dave chuckles wryly. “I figured you were planning something like that. Don’t overdo it, okay? We need you alive.”

I flinch. Does he suspect what I’m planning? Surely not...

Kaitlynn frowns. “I don’t get it. How could she ‘overdo’ it?”

“It’s just an expression,” I say quickly, waving it away. “Anyway, I also have a bag of Doritos that I’ve been saving for a special occasion, a 1,5-litre bottle of Moonshade Sap, and a pouch full of ground Dreamcloud pollen, in case anyone has trouble sleeping. So, what do you have, Kaitmonster?”

Kaitlynn looks at me doubtfully for a second. Then she shrugs off her backpack and spreads out her collection of local flora. Among the plants I recognise there are no fewer than six Blue Angels—mostly courtesy of the council—eleven Yang Fire-Blossoms, and one big hallucinogenic mushroom that’s known as the Carriage of Dreams.

I swear that last one is calling out to me, daring me to eat it. I shudder and turn my gaze away.

The final thing she pulls out is the package of letters Rebecca just handed us back in Hub Two. I avert my gaze from it, still feeling like a jackass about the whole thing.

Alec is carrying mostly a ton of dried meat, some spare Trigot leather, and his leatherworking tools.

Dave and Jacob are lugging most of our rations, in the form of bottles and waterskins full of Hydrum, and sacks full of jicca nuts and birberries.

Other than that, everyone still has their Yin or Yang Focus Crystal—we even have a bunch of spares from Bruce’s party—and some crude weapons.

No one revealed anything out of the ordinary, so we pack our stuff up again.

Then, we each face one of the five doors. When we’re all in place, the doors grind open simultaneously. We step through, and they slam shut in perfect sync.

Author's note:

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