• H.C. Mills

Chapter 53: Hot N Cold

The first Skilldream I purchase is the discounted version of Boost Physical’s level 2.

My eyes roll back and my body slumps down bonelessly, but I find myself not at the peaceful lily pond in the forest I visited last time.

Instead, I open my eyes at the top of a humongous mountain, high above a sea of clouds. My breath hitches and my jaw drops like an avalanche so I can gape at the roiling sea of pink fluff stretched out before me into infinity, bathed in the light of the setting sun.

Except it’s not the sun that lights the scene, nor is it setting really, rather dropping. The massive ball of fire sinks into the clouds, sending the peaceful blanket into a hissing, sputtering frenzy around it.

Shook up from the sudden intrusion of their territory, violet snakes of lightning slither outwards through the clouds from the point of impact, roaring deafeningly as they dispute each other’s territory.

The ball sinks away slowly, lighting the clouds up orange from below, as up here, day turns into night, revealing a host of stars that’s bigger and brighter than they have any right to be.

I have never felt smaller.

Suri clears her throat, and I turn to find the Goddess of horny anime fans, towering above me.

[Feeling small again, are we? There there, it’s all right,] she says soothingly, her angelic face, shrouded by her ink-black hair looking soft in the starlight. Her cyan eyes twinkle knowingly as I slowly regain my regular size.

[Well actually, it is a bit dangerous here,] she muses. [Normally I wouldn’t take you this far out, this soon, but since this is half a Skilldream, we’re lacking the time to do this safely. You’ll have to bear with it.]

I blink owlishly and tilt my head. “Hoo-hoot?”

[Try not to think metaphorically, Emma. Now, could you do me a favour and look up at the stars please?]

I bend over backwards to fulfil her request. Literally, because I’m not supposed to think metaphorically.

Suri lets out a long-suffering sigh. [That’ll do, I suppose. Now, pay close attention...]

Suri flourishes one of her hands, and up in the starry skies, the stars move, forming a constellation of me, energy paths and all...

I wake groggily, not rested at all. Flashes of the Dreamscape linger at the edge of my mind, slowly growing incoherent.

“I gotta be honest, Suri. That was the trippiest high I’ve ever experienced.”

[I’m glad you approve,] Suri chimes dryly. [Now please attempt to properly gain the skill, before the memories fade.]

Right. Gotta iron the hammer while it’s hot.

I stay in my room to prevent any distraction, and take up a lotus position on the bed.

I close my eyes and turn my senses inward, focusing on the beat of my heart.

A lot of time has passed since Trial 2 and my understanding of the first mode of Boost Physical has grown considerably in the meantime. For example, I’ve come to understand that there are actually four flows of Lavi passing through my heart; one for each chamber. These flows don’t follow the bloodstream, but they do pulse with the contractions of my heart.

When I activate the first mode of Boost Physical, I’m manipulating the flow of Lavi passing through my left ventricle; the biggest chamber of the four.

I’ve also come to grasp the timing much better. For the best effect I have to accelerate the flow and turn it back on itself in such a way, that the collision occurs right before a contraction. That way, the explosion of energy interferes least with the heart’s function, hurts the least, and shows the quickest and greatest result.

The second mode is easier in some ways, and harder in others. Unlike the first mode, it entails creating a semi-permanent change in the flows of Lavi through the heart. Specifically, I have to cause the Lavi flows through the left and right ventricle to cross over through the septum, the muscle separating the two.

The flow entering the left ventricle will then exit where the flow through the right ventricle would normally exit, and vice-versa. The important bit here, however, is the crossflow in the centre, where the streams intersect. Here, just like in the first mode, Lavi collides with Lavi, into an explosion of energy. Except, this Lavi isn’t accelerated, and the flows intersect under a 90-degree angle, so the amount burned away is less.

All in all, it’s a much more sophisticated method than the first mode, and far easier to maintain, as the crossflow stabilizes, once properly established, essentially turning Boost Physical into a passive Skill. The only difficulty is that establishing the crossflow requires the manipulating and balancing of two flows simultaneously.

Something that is currently making my head hurt. Redirecting a flow of Lavi requires a lot of focus, having to split that focus... it’s kinda like trying to look into two different directions simultaneously.

If I’d taken the full Skilldream I could’ve probably gotten more used to that sensation, but I can’t afford such luxury.

I mean, I can afford it in points, of course, but that’s not the p... issue. There’s too much at stake to consider taking things easy.

So, after feeling the second flow of Lavi waver, but ultimately fall back to its usual position, for the seventeenth time, I just take a deep breath, and try again.

Now that I know how it works and can vaguely recall what it’s supposed to feel like, there’s no way I’m not going to succeed in grasping this. All I need is time.

If trying to split my focus is like trying to look in both directions, then succeeding is kinda like going cross-eyed and then focusing both eyes at different points.

Immensely satisfying when it works, but also terribly head-ache inducing.

Soon the challenge becomes maintaining that double focus without faltering for long enough to cross the two Lavi flow paths and hold them in place until they stabilize.

I’ve completely lost track of time. Hell, I’ve lost count of the number of breaks I’ve taken to let my splitting headache subside to a manageable level. Suri keeps pulling me out of them like clockwork however, nagging at me until I continue.

Like now.

[Come on, Emma, time’s wasting. You’re getting really close!]

I groan. You’ve been saying that for a while now, Suri!

Still, I can’t give up now.

I go through the motions on auto-pilot. Turn my gaze inwards, split my focus like a child looking at the butterfly on its nose, and redirect the streams. I smoothly pull them both through the septum, crossing the flows as I try to ignore the proverbial ice-pick being shoved into my forehead.

Good thing I’m not in the Dreamscape at the moment; that’d be a dangerous thought there!

I hold them as long as I can, my concentration degrading as the pain comes in waves. Finally, I am once again forced to let go with a sigh.

The flows falter and... hold.

I blink, for the first time able feel the burn in my chest coming from the stable crossflow.

A long-awaited notification pops up.

“Oh, thank god,” I murmur, flopping back down on the bed.

The second mode is so much better... the burn in my chest actually isn’t even all that painful. In fact, my eyelids feel kinda heavy...

[Now now, none of that, young lady. You only succeeded once, and although this is an important milestone, you still need to consolidate the skill. Not to mention the lunacy of going to sleep whilst it’s still active...]

For the umpteenth time, I groan.

After another half-hour of practice, and a well-deserved 90-minute power nap, I’m positively starving.

Little wonder. Apparently, I spent—in total—four hours practicing, which, combined with the four hours I was either sleeping or dreaming, means I was stuck in this little room for a full eight hours.

Before I leave however, I make a few purchases.

When I finally come out, carrying an assortment of weapons, the rest of the gang is already present and accounted for. Alerted by the sound of my door grinding open, they all turn.

“Finally!” Alec calls teasingly, mischief in his eyes. “What took you so long?”

I roll my eyes. “Hardehar. Gaining a skill level with half a Skilldream isn’t a walk in the park, you know?”

Kaitlynn bounds up towards me, “What’s that you got there, Emma; is that for me? Aww, you shouldn’t have.” Kaitlynn chatters as I dryly hand over the black leather satchel containing 10 long, glittering Greysteel throwing knives. “Ooh, Emma, check this out!” she adds.

Kaitlynn scrunches up her face for a moment in concentration—cute!—then her eye lights up orange. Her actual eye, surprisingly, not the crystal occupying her right eye-socket.

“Sweet!” I say, and quickly toss Dave the leather quiver containing a sleek, solid greysteel bow, and thirty deadly looking, equally solid greysteel arrows, before striking an exaggerated pose with my awesome new spear. “Well, how hot am I?”

She leers at me, raking her gaze up and down. “Oh, you’re smokin’ babe,” she says, winking at me.

Damn straight it is.

Dave brings his free hand to his mouth and coughs gently.

A blush makes its way up Kaitlynn’s neck. “Actually,” she says almost apologetically, “your body is rather cool; about the same as Alec’s.”

Dave nods thoughtfully. “That pretty much confirms it. It seems like people with a Yin affinity like you and Alec are a little colder than those with a Yang affinity, in terms of body temperature.”

“Maybe it’s you guys that are just overly warm,” Alec counters. “Right, Emma? Back me up here.”

I walk forward to rest my forehead on Kaitlynn’s forehead. “You do feel a little feverish,” I tease. She blushes harder. So cute!

“Anyway,” I continue, moving to casually lean my spear against a wall, next to what must be Alec’s hammer, and take a seat on the uncomfortably Tough couch. “Can I take it the rest of you also succeeded with at least your first Skilldream?”

“Hell yes,” Alec says, grinning. “I’m out of Qi right now, or I’d show you...”

“Later,” I promise. “I definitely want to see. Dave?”

Dave smiles. “It took some time, but you were right; the Crystal of Restoration in the living room was a big help.”

“Nice man!” I say, holding out my hand for a high-five. “Ah, that’s a relief. What about you, Jacob?”

“I’m glad you asked,” Jacob says, smirking coolly at the other end of the room, where he’s eyeing up a practice dummy from 20 feet away.

He brandishes his grey, metallic sword and shield, and a familiar yellow flash of light comes from the Yang Focus Crystal gripped in his shield hand. Suddenly he’s flying forward, heavy-looking kiteshield readied for the inevitable impact.

Then his foot snags the floor or something, and he goes sprawling with a loud crash, his remaining momentum carrying him forward, rolling him into the practice dummy like a bowling ball hitting a pin.

It’s a good thing I’m on the couch when I fall over laughing. It’s still marginally softer than the floor.

After we’ve all calmed down, and Kaitlynn has managed to convince Jacob to stop pouting in the corner, we sit together and eat a simple meal of jicca nuts, birberries and some dried Trigot meat, out of leafy bowls. The mood is relaxed and conversation flows easily, despite the coming trial. Everyone’s probably still very relieved we made it out of Hub Two.

“All right,” I say, as the meal winds down. “It’s been a long day—so to speak—so I suggest we all have a good rest, and prepare for another day of intense preparation.”

The boys all nod complacently, though Alec sighs exaggeratedly at my promise of hard work in the morning. Kaitlynn kind of shuffles on the couch next to me.

“Are you guys planning to sleep, like, in the beds?” she asks softly. “I was thinking this couch is probably, well, equally uncomfortable...”

I stare at her for a second. “I guess it wouldn’t make much of a difference.”

“Yeah,” Alec pipes up. “We might as well sleep here, it’d just be kinda lonely otherwise.”

Dave just nods.

Kaitlynn shoots us all glances of relief.

Finally, we all kind of end up looking at Jacob.

He hesitates. “Well, I...” he sighs. “I guess bonding as a team has its merits. But if any of you snores, I’m outta here.”

“You heard him, Dave,” Alec warns, “no snoring tonight.”

Dave scoffs. “Oh come one, I don’t snore... do I?” He looks at me, but I avert my gaze. “Guys? Do I?”

I stifle my smirk, and, for once, just quietly enjoy the bickery banter of my friends.

Author's note:

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©2018 by H.C. Mills