• H.C. Mills

Chapter 51: Charmed

“Could I see the Skilldream Shopping Window, please?”

[Sure thing, give me a moment.]

A few seconds later, a window pops into my view.

That’s a lot to take in. Let’s break it down.

In the Lavi-based Skills section, Meditation level 3 costs 40 Trial Points, while I’m pretty sure the second level was priced at 30 Trial Points. However, the second level of Boost Physical is still 50 Trial Points, no more expensive than the first level was. Are the prices based purely on how much time it would take to learn then? Interestingly, Breath Control level 2 has replaced Respiration, even though the Skill previously wasn’t on the menu.

As for the Yin-Qi-based Skills, they seem to be divided into five energy types: Cold, Electric, Toxic, Inertia and Space. I’m particularly interested in how those last two fit in, but inquiring about the different energy types was on Jacob’s list.

The Skill that immediately catches my eye is ‘Infuse.’ It seems to work much like Dave’s ‘Radiate,’ in that there are different listings for different ‘Purposes’ that can be achieved with the Skill. Definitely keeping that one in mind.

I had 20 Trial Points when I entered Hub Two, and received 50 for beating the temple record. With the 24 Trial Points I received from, ehm, Luke, and the 20 I got for clearing Hub Two, I now have 114 Trial Points. Sweet.

Only downside is that the sheer amount of possible combinations will just make it harder to decide what I should buy. First Realm problems, amirite?

“What would you recommend I buy, Suri?” I’m not making any decisions yet, of course, but it can’t hurt to ask while I still have question time.

[I think you should get a Qi-based combat Skill, and the second level of Boost Physical.]

“Is the second level good, yeah? Can you tell me a little more about it?”

[Unlike the first level of Boost Physical, the second level is designed for continuous use. It is much less taxing to use in action as it doesn’t require you to divide your attention every six seconds to reactivate the Skill.]

“Mmm, I see.” The need to constantly reactivate it is indeed a pain in the butt.

[As it is meant to be used continuously, the Lavi cost required and the boost are naturally both a little lower. Boost Physical level 2 provides 2 Strength and 1 Agility at the cost of 5 Lavi per minute.]

I raise my brows. That’s actually a lot more cost-efficient! “That certainly sounds convenient, but is that truly worth 50 Trial Points right now?”

[Well, considering your ample experience with the first level, and your previously demonstrated talent for figuring things out yourself, I would actually suggest you purchase half a Skilldream—something I normally don’t recommend this early—and try to figure out the rest from there yourself.]

I shoot upright. “Wait, that’s an option?”

[Indeed. You can always choose either a full or a half Skilldream. However, I recommend using the latter sparingly. If you fail to grasp the Skill within a short period of time after a Skilldream, your experience in the Dreamscape will fade from your memory, and your points will have been practically wasted. The listed full price is what we recommend, but even then you can fail to grasp a Skill, especially if you lack general experience.]

Damn. Risky, but potentially very worth it.

Did Suri purposely not tell me about this option before, out of fear that I might use it and waste points? That sneaky little b—

[Now, as for what Yin Qi Skill to pick, that is more difficult. You could add ‘Boost Reflexes’ to your repertoire—it’s like a more Agility-oriented version of Boost Physical—which would allow you to grow into a truly frightening figure, physically, but that might leave you a little lacking in options during a fight.]

I nod. Specializing can be powerful, but carries the risk of ending up a one-trick pony, with glaring weaknesses. Not great for a survival game, perhaps.

[Boreum Manipulation would expand your options in defence and, eventually, attacking from range, but it may not be very compatible with your other options in that sense, of dodging or physically attacking. Personally, I would recommend going with either Lightning Manipulation, or Increase Inertia. The former is quite powerful in short and medium range, and the latter can be very versatile when applied to melee combat.]

“How do those inertia-manipulating Skills work, exactly?”

[Exactly as advertised. Increase Inertia makes it harder for something’s—or someone’s—momentum to be changed. Decrease Inertia makes it easier.]

I narrow my eyes. “Is that related to the Skill Meathead used on me?”

[These Skills are considered the counter to the Yang Qi Skills that manipulate kinetic energy, yes.]

Very interesting. Increase Inertia sounds neat. Using it on myself would basically turn me into the Juggernaut, right? Decrease Inertia sounds perhaps even more interesting. If I understand it correctly, it would allow me a freedom of movement that defies logic.

Shame it’s so expen—wait. I shoot upright. “Hold up, if Decrease Inertia is a high-grade Skill, then what about that stopping Skill Meathead used?”

[Decrease Momentum is also a high-grade Skill.]

That means Bruce had at least 75 Trial Points after Trial 3! “Damn... how did he even get that many points?”

[Matters concerning—]

“Yeah, I know, you can’t tell me. Well, no matter,” I grumble, sinking back down. “Say, what about that ‘Infuse’ Skill, wouldn’t it be good to invest a little in my ability to handle Toxic Energy, considering the Tolerance I’ve built up for it?”

[Certainly. However, ‘Infuse’ is a Skill that infuses an object or medium with Toxic Energy, with or without a Purpose. It is relatively difficult to apply in direct combat, so it may not be the best choice for this Trial.]

Mmm. I’m not so sure about that.

“What about Distort Space? That sounds like it has amazing potential.”

[It does, but it is also very difficult to learn. I would never recommend picking that as your first Yin Qi manipulation Skill. Frankly, I wouldn’t recommend a high-grade Skill, either. Furthermore, it takes some time for that Skill to grow to the point where it is useful in combat. If you still want it, I would suggest holding off on acquiring it until after Hub Three, at least.]

So there will be a third Hub. That’s good to know. And I definitely want it, but Suri’s right, I have to consider what purchases are going to be useful right now and later on, not just later on.

“About that Equipment Shopping Window...”

The living room is, of course, hexagonal. It is also much larger than any preparation room I’ve been in, as evidenced by the fact that all five hallways leading to our individual rooms come out in doors on the same wall. The wall directly opposite it contains a single, wide door, that no doubt leads to the Trial.

The centre of the room is empty except for a bunch of thick mats woven of dried vines or something, and the right side of the room features several disks of the same material with a target painted on and wooden practice dummies. Anticipating our need to practise some combat moves, I suppose.

To the left is a wide couch that follows the 120-degree angle of the corner it’s in. Of course, its coarse fur-covered surface can hardly be called soft, but much like the bed in the single, it still gives a little when I flop down between Kaitlynn and Jacob, who are the only others out so far.

Only now do I notice that one of the targets has a scorch mark to the right of the centre. Looks like Kaitlynn still needs to work on her aim.

We fill the time with some idle chatter until Dave and Alec join us. Now it’s time to fill each other in.

I start with explaining what Suri told me about the nature of the levelling up process and how your relationship with an energy type changes once you reach 50% Tolerance.

Next up is Dave. “As you all know, Emma was able to evolve the low-grade Respiration Skill into the previously unlisted medium-grade Breath Control Skill. The first thing I did was check if it was listed among my purchases in the Skilldream Shopping Window now that I knew about it, but it wasn’t. Rose told me, however, that it will be listed as soon as I reach Respiration level 3—and more importantly, would have been regardless of if I’d learned about the Skill or not.”

Alec’s eyes light up. “So, there’s a bunch of unlisted Skills that won’t become available until we max out the required Skills for it first?”

“Or meet some other requirement,” I add, “like 50% Tolerance of the right type of energy.”

Dave nods. “Indeed. Rose confirmed that Breath Control won’t be listed until you have a Toughness of at least 12 as well. I then asked if she could tell me which Skills would be able to transform into higher-grade ones, and she said, ‘basically all of them, though the requirements vary.’ When I probed a little more, she said the information about such evolved Skills would be classified until we’ve mastered the prerequisite Skill.”

Damn, I was afraid of that. Still, this is pretty interesting.

“I did manage to confirm that Skills may have more than one evolution, so there may even be a step beyond Breath Control.”

Ooh, that’d be sweet!

“Finally,” Dave says, “I asked about the... physical changes we’ve all been going through.”

That definitely grabs everyone’s attention. You could hear a pin drop right about now. Kaitlynn fingers the tip of her left horn. I resist the impulse to copy her.

Dave’s heavy eyebrows knit together, like two fluffy brown caterpillars kissing. Were they always that thick, or does the reddish tinge of his forehead just make them stand out more?

“However, Rose was less than forthcoming about it,” he continues. “She called it, ‘a minor side-effect from levelling up.’ ”

“Wow,” I grumble. “I’d hate to experience what she’d consider a major side-effect.”

Dave shrugs, spreading his hands as if to say, ‘that’s all I have.’

Next up is Alec, who starts with clearing his throat dramatically. “So, since you all figured ‘The Sarge’ would be the best guide to ask about how to best improve our stats, I... obliged. Still under protest, I might add.”

I stifle a snicker. Not well enough perhaps, because Kaitlynn lightly bumps my shoulder with hers and narrows her eyes at me. I just blink back innocently.

Well, it’s not my fault it’s so deliciously ironic, right?

“Anyway,” Alec drawls out, glaring at me, “once he was done belittling my ‘scrawny physique,’ and telling me to ‘eat more meat,’ he managed to roll out a half-decent explanation.”

He closes his eyes with a frown. “Shut up! No, you didn’t—you half-assed it! Well, I was under time constraints, or I would have. Yeah, whatever.”

Alec sighs deeply, opens his eyes, and continues like nothing happened. I try to keep a straight face. “Training your stats is all about surpassing your limits, apparently. If you want to train your Strength, you need to ‘lift things that are too heavy for your puny muscles,’ to train Agility you need to ‘outrun yourself,’ and to train your Toughness you need to ‘stop being a sissy and learn to take a beating from something Tougher than you.’ ”

Alec frowns, rubbing his temple. “I’m not paraphrasing, that’s exactly what you said!”

I double over onto Kaitlynn’s lap, desperately trying to contain my laughter, and barely succeeding.

She pinches my earlobe in punishment until I swat her hand away. Evil girl. It actually hurts a little, despite my earlobes’ insensitivity. Her nails must have grown sharper during her transformation as well.

“As for the mental stats, the Sarge actually did a pretty good job in explaining,” Alec continues half-heartedly. “Mental Fortitude can be trained by being exposed to and fighting off mental influences like the Dreamcloud flower, a Dreamscape, or ‘Charm,’ whatever that is.”

I stiffen a little, then surreptitiously sit back up. Kaitlynn looks at me funnily, so I flash her a quick smile.

It still feels wrong not to tell my friends about the Charm stat, but... well, my life is on the line in here, and throwing away any kind of advantage seems dumb. And I don’t mean an advantage against them either. I’ve been thinking about it, and I might be able to learn to use Charm as a positive influence on them! For example, to help Alec keep going when his Willpower is about to fail him. If I tell them about it, however, it wouldn’t work half as well. I’ll keep my mouth shut about it, for now.

“And Willpower,” Alec starts, before sighing deeply, “he suggested training with things like staring contests.”

We all stare at him blankly. “Staring contests?” Dave reiterates.

Alec just nods. “Training together and adding a competitive element to our stat training will help us push ourselves beyond our limits. That was his final tip.”

I share a thoughtful glance with Dave. Despite Alec’s grumbling, I think the Sarge highlighted some pretty important stuff. Like the need to surpass your previous limits to grow, the idea of needing to be hit with something with a higher Toughness to train your Toughness, and the idea of adding a competitive element to training. His explanation about Mental Fortitude training was also pretty illuminating. I have a feeling this stat is getting less of our attention than it deserves.

Jacob takes the floor, his face stoically blank, like usual. I can’t really read him, but I’m guessing the unemotional mask is just a defence mechanism. He’s pretty fresh out of high school, after all, and the amount of black he wears, the eyeliner, and his—obviously dyed—black hair are pretty strong hints about what social circles he ran with. Not the popular kids, at least. His newly grey-tinted skin and the beginnings of three horns sticking out of his forehead don’t exactly clash with that image either.

Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him reapply the eyeliner... Shit, it’s probably One with him, isn’t it? My eye lands on the little skull piercing through his brow. I wonder if he can still even—

“My Personal Guide System,” he says, interrupting my thought process with his dry, raspy voice, “who claims her name is ‘Pseudonym,’ for some rea—what do you mean, ‘Who gave you that name?’ You did! It’s not even your real name!”

Jacob groans, rubbing his forehead in frustration as we stare at him bemusedly. “Anyway, ‘Pseudo’ told me there are ten types of energy, which can be divided into five opposing Yin-Yang pairs. They are, respectively, Cold and Heat, Electric and Vibration, Toxic and Radiation, Inertia and Kinetic, and finally, Space and Gravity.”

Huh. I was kind of expecting Time there in the end. Honestly, I’m kind of glad the Yang don’t have access to that kind of power. Also, what is up with that crazy AI of his?

“However,” Jacob continues, “you can only gain a Tolerance for six of these, namely the energies making up the first three pairs.”

Hmm, that may be for the best. What would having a high Tolerance against something like Gravity even be like? Wouldn’t you just float off?

“It’s generally easiest to build up a Tolerance to energy types of your affinity—obviously—and beyond that, it is generally easiest for Cold and Heat, then Electric and Vibration, and hardest for Toxic and Radiation.” He glances at me. “But I’m told exceptions exist.”


“Your AI sounds like a hoot,” I tell him with a smirk as he goes to sit back down.

He shoots me a dry look as if to say, ‘Really?’

Finally, it’s Kaitlynn’s turn. “Speaking of Toxic and Radiation,” she begins chipperly, “it turns out those are actually the only types of energy that can be given a ‘Purpose.’ ”

I sit up straighter when Kaitlynn starts, as this is a topic I’m particularly interested in.

“In their regular form, these energies are both pretty harmful to living beings, but by repurposing the energy, they can be made harmless, or even beneficial, like with Dave’s Skill, Radiate Purity.”

I snicker. It’s still funny. Dave shoots me a glance and lets out a long-suffering sigh.

“As you all might’ve noticed, there are a number of ‘Radiate’ Skills for those with a Yang affinity, and ‘Infuse’ Skills for the Yin available in the Skilldream Shopping Window. However, there is really only one Radiate Skill and only one Infuse Skill. It’s a modular Skill, and adding a new Purpose to it is how you level it.”

Ah, so that’s how it works. Still, I feel like learning the basic form of the Skill to begin with is probably the best way to go about it.

“New Purposes for the Skills are only unlocked when you’ve at least experienced the Purpose once. For me, that’s three of them: Purity, which came from the crystals in the oasis back in the First Trial; Restore, which comes from the pink crystals in the preparation rooms and the Second Trial; and Detoxify, which apparently is a natural Purpose originating from the Blue Angels.”

Dave looks up interestedly. “Really? I don’t have that last one listed... perhaps I should try one of those myself some time.”

Kaitlynn nods happily. “That should get it listed! Though I don’t think getting it would be worthwhile right now.” She glances from me to Alec, and back to me. “Could you guys tell us what Purposes you have unlocked for Infuse? Kai wasn’t very forthcoming about Purposes that I couldn’t specify by name.”

I smile wryly. “Well, I unlocked the Dreamcloud Purpose, from a run-in with that plant, which nearly managed to put me under, and I unlocked the ‘Acid’ Purpose, probably by getting sprayed with a ton of acidic spit by Momma Plessie.”

“Aww man,” Alec moans, “I only have the regular Infuse Skill listed. You’re so lucky.”

In a feat of immense self-restraint and patience, I close my eyes and... give him a three-second head-start.

Unfortunately for Alec, there’s nowhere to run from the impromptu ‘Toughness training’ coming his way.

Author's note:

This is the end of the Book 2 sample chapters, there will be a link to Book 2 coming here tomorrow! (14-5-2021) I'm currently in the process of publishing it! ^^

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