Chapter 49: Start of Something New [Beginning of Book 2]
And there it is. I’m a little disappointed to receive only 20 Trial Points after all that effort, but it’s still double the standard reward of the first three Trials. As we expected, the social system is unavailable for now... I had hoped we might be able to contact the other teams in Trial 4, but no such luck, apparently. Darn.
The dark hallway we just entered slowly lights up, as crystals in the ceiling start to glow. In the distance, they reveal a wall featuring five stone doors, each with a terribly suffering humanoid carved into it.
“Looks like we’re getting split up after all,” Dave says.
I nod. We considered this scenario, yet my heart still clenches. “Suri, will the five of us be reunited beyond those doors?”
[Yes, 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; 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 at least. Still, kinda shitty that there’s a time limit, even though there isn’t another group coming in after us.
We gather into a huddle. Even though we’ve discussed it previously, we remind each other of what questions we’re each meant to ask.
Now there’s just one more thing that I’ve been meaning to do, which may reveal some critical information all on its own.
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 the, ‘Suri’s New and Improved Super-Amazing Ultra-Custom Level-Up Results and Skills Overview Window!’ 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 effort in raising our stats before levelling wasn’t wasted.
Furthermore, the efficacy of the Minor Lavi Crystal and Small Yin-Yang Pearl taken during the levelling process seems to have been doubled; they were supposed to increase Lavi by up to ten and Qi 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 rest in terms of maximum Lavi with all the breathing and meditating I was doing; I’ll make up for this 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 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 her to add a skill overview this time, to see what I’m working with. Dave, Alec and Kaitlynn all managed to reach the second level of Deep Breathing 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 or mouth-breathing.
The third level of the skill however, has proven to be somewhat of a watershed, 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 bit harder.
That difficulty is compounded by the fact that breathing too deeply will cause your level of Toxic Energy to increase. If it weren’t for Dave’s purifying skill, none of them might have even reached level 2 of Deep Breathing. Even now, most of them can’t breathe as deeply as they are able to, as their bodies can’t handle the extra Toxic Energy that would pull in.
Speaking of that skill of his... 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 has it. The second level of the meditation skill however, is probably even harder to gain than the third level of Deep Breathing. Dave’s the only one who managed so far; turns out his girlfriend is a yoga instructor, who knew! I only managed to learn it so quickly due to the extreme circumstances under which I practiced, 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?!”
I snort. “How? Simple. We trained our Toughness by... colliding with hard surfaces. Not very fun, but effective nonetheless. Your Strength is pretty impressive though, is that something you trained with Bruce and... the others?” May they rest in peace.
“Ehm, yeah,” he replies, still looking shocked. “Bruce made us lift and carry rocks. It got pretty competitive. 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... Emma, you managed to evolve it?”
I nod. “It’s a two-edged blade that skill; pulls in more Lavi, but also more Toxic Energy. We’ll teach you later; it’s not hard to learn, actually, but it can be a bit dangerous at the start, so don’t try it on your own.”
With that said, I’m pretty much done with the table. Unfortunately, one particular discrepancy stands out a little too much...
Dave frowns. “Hey, what’s this? Did you obtain an additional Yang Pearl somewhere, Kaitlynn?”
“Ehm...” she glances at me.
“I got lucky. Found it in the Glade, on a skeleton beneath a Dreamcloud,” I explain casually, even though my heartrate spikes. “I decided to give it to Kaitlynn before we faced the council, as it would allow her a third shot with her Astreum Blast skill, should we need it.”
An uncomfortable silence settles in. I can’t help but tense up a little.
“Ehm, why didn’t you tell us about that? Do you guys not trust us?” Alec asks, frowning at me and Kaitlynn.
Kaitlynn shrinks back a little. My gaze snaps onto Alec and I swear he flinches a little. “I found something, and gave it to my friend, is that a crime?”
Jacob looks on, frowning perturbed.
“All right, calm down you two,” Dave sighs, “Look, Emma, I’m not denying your right to distribute things you have found as you see fit—”
“Then what are you denying, Dave?” I ask testily.
“—or disagreeing with your decision strategically,” he continues calmly, “but I think we stand a much better chance of surviving these trials if we are able to trust each other and work together as a cohesive unit. As friends, even, as I like to think we are. And keeping secrets like this... doesn’t help with that. Actually, it hurts a little.”
Aaand I feel like an ass. “Ugh...” I say, deflating a little. “You’re right. Sorry. I should’ve just said.” Except I wanted to avoid a discussion about whether Jacob should receive it to even things out, which might end in hurt feelings on all sides, so I’m still not sure if that would’ve been better. Now at least, Jacob doesn’t seem to realize that might’ve happened, as the discussion is only about keeping secrets.
This would be a great time to come clean about the Charm stat. However, Suri still hasn’t told me what it does or why she bid me to it secret in the first place...
“It’s all right, Emma,” Dave says, patting me on the shoulder. “You’ve more than proven to be a loyal friend.”
I perk up a little. Damn straight! I even gave him my Agility power-up back at the Yin-Yang temple. I guess telling them about this a little later—when I actually know what it means—won’t hurt.
“Let’s take inventory of what we have in terms of supplies,” Dave prompts. “If anyone’s been holding anything back, this would be a good time to come forward, if they want to. No judgement.”
“Right then,” I say “I suppose I’ll start. I still have a Yin Pearl, a Minor Lavi Crystal and a Stardrop left from Meathead’s stash. I saved them because I wanted to know a little more about how to use them optimally. 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 efficacy 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. Damn, he’s onto me.
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 1,5 litre bottle of Moonshade Sap, and a pouch full of Dreamcloud, in case anyone has trouble sleeping. So, what do you have, Kaitmonster?”
Kaitlynn looks at me doubtfully for a second, before shrugging off her backpack and spreading out her collection of local flora. Among the plants I recognize there are no fewer than 6 Blue Angels—mostly courtesy of the council—11 Yang Fire-Blossoms, 1 restorative Heartbeet, and 1 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.
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 spare water and food supplies, in the form of bottles and waterskins full of Hydrum, and sacks full of jicca nuts and birberries.
Other than that, everyone thankfully still has their Yin or Yang focus crystal, and crude weapons.
No-one revealed anything out of the ordinary, so we pack our stuff up again, and 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.
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