Chapter 54: Oh no, not again

After breakfast, Dave and I go back into our rooms, for our second round of Skilldreams.

 

Except, I have one more thing to do first.

 

I carefully put down the leafy bowl holding my freshly heated Stardrop, and pull a Minor Lavi Crystal and Small Yin Pearl out of my bag to place next to it. Finally, I pull out and put down a large bottle, filled to the brim with purple glowing goop, and a packet of dried Trigot meat.

 

“Well Suri, how much of this do you think I can safely add to the ingredients?” I ask, shaking the bottle, as I start chewing on some of the meat.

 

[Safely?] Suri chimes dryly. [Well, if you insist on making this harder for yourself...]

 

I nod happily. No way am I letting an opportunity to raise my Toxic Energy Tolerance like this go to waste. Even if I can’t reach it in one go, that 50% milestone is calling me...

 

[Well then, just take a few drops at a time, and monitor your Toxic Energy in the Status Window. Apart from intensifying the pain to unbearable levels, the Stardrop will roughly double the effectiveness of the Toxic Energy in terms of killing you, so don’t take in too much.]

 

“Gotcha, Status Window.”

 

 

Well, looks like the listing of Breath Control has replaced Deep Breathing, and Boost Physical has both modes listed now. Other than that, not much has changed.

 

Last time I did this, I had about 10 Onkh of Toxic Energy in my system. Of course, my Tolerance is far greater now, so I should be okay to take in a little more than that, but I’d better not overdo it.

 

Carefully, I pour some Moonshade Sap into the bottle’s cap, and start taking small sips, watching my Toxic Energy slowly go up. The effect of drinking it is pretty fast; it seems like all of the Toxic Energy is absorbed in about two minutes. When my Toxic Energy is up to about 12 Onkh, and I’m hesitating about another sip, Suri calls out.

 

[That’s enough, Emma; you’re going to get yourself killed, and for what?]

 

Right. Let’s not overdo this.

 

I pour the remainder back, screw the cap back on, and nervously turn to my prepared ingredients. The Stardrop still looks pretty liquid... it should be fine.

 

My memories of the levelling up process are pretty vague, but... this is going to hurt like shit, isn’t it? God, when did I become such a masochist?

 

I better just do it; rip off the band-aid. Like last time, I slurp the hot Stardrop down in one go and rapidly follow it up with the crystal and pearl.

 

“Hnnng, damnit that hurts,” I bring out through clenched jaws, as the ignited energy bursts out of my stomach into my meridians.

 

Then they start picking up Toxic Energy.

 

“GAAAAH! WHOSE IDEA WAS THIS?!”

 

[Yours, dear.]

 

“I know,” I spit out. “I was being sarGAAAAH!”

 

[What’s that dear? Did you want me to help you not kill yourself?] Suri chimes amusedly.

 

“...Yes please,” I whimper

 

[Then relax and start meditating.]

 

A prickling erupts behind the eye-crystal as Suri initiates a mindmeld, and together, we start directing the powerful snakes of burning pink energy through my system...

 

 

This time, Suri doesn’t finish up by letting me sleep it off for eight hours, as the changes in my body are much less profound. The downside to that is that the pain lingers. How the hell did I forget how much this hurt last time?

 

I groan, massaging my poor head. The last part, where the energy hit my brain, was the worst. This must be what a migraine feels like.

 

It better have been worth it.

 

“Status Window,” I croak.

 

 

40.5%! More than 4% in one go; not quite like the 10 percentage points I gained last time, but definitely not bad. Moreover, it looks like my Charm has increased further.

 

I suppose that’s a good thing... 5 should still be low enough to not cause any problems, right? I mean, the average starting Mental Fortitude is 10.

 

I check out my appearance in the full-length mirror, but I don’t see much of a difference. I’m not wearing my armour right now, so it’s just my stupid black hotdog selling uniform that’s too tight around the bust. Perhaps more so than usual... did it shrink?

 

Well anyway, the crystal replacing my right eye is still a bright cyan, my chocolatey hair still falls down to below my shoulder blades with only a slight curl, and the beginnings of what look like sheep’s horns at the side of my forehead seem similarly unchanged. The purplish tint of my skin may have become a tad deeper, but it’s hard to say.

 

I should be happy, as any increase in my stats should help improve my odds of survival, but... if the effect gets stronger it might also become more noticeable for the others. Ugh. Still, it doesn’t change anything; if I tell them, doubt could slowly alienate them from me, if I don’t, and they find out, I lose their trust even more. Stuck between a rock and a suckfest.

 

Maybe it’s selfish, but... I don’t want to tell them.

 

I shake my head as if to clear it like a three-dimensional etch-a-sketch. “Suri, I need another nap. Could you wake me—actually, just let me sleep for a bit and then give me the Skilldream for Infuse, all right?”

 

[Can do. Sleep tight.]

 

“You friggin’ know it,” I mutter through a yawn, before laying down and promptly slipping into a deep trance.

 

 

At some point, I must’ve transitioned into actual sleep, because I’m having the weirdest dream. I’m in a spooky dark cave, surrounded by towering pillars of some kind. The floor of the cave is kinda grainy and seems curved somehow, and I feel more than hear things moving around above me.

 

It would be much scarier if not for the comforting presence hovering next to me.

 

[—you to focus, Emma; our time in the Dreamscape is limited,] Goddess Suri chides me.

 

I blink. Ah. Right. “Sorry Suri—heh—where are we though?”

 

[Can’t you tell?] Suri asks cockily, [I suppose it can’t be helped. I’ll show you.]

 

She flourishes her hand, and the pillars around me start glowing from the inside in blues and pinks. The light crawls up and into the caps of the giant mushrooms whose stalks I mistook for pillars. As the caps light up, our surroundings explode into colour, revealing that the ground beneath my feet isn’t ground at all, but wood.

 

The towering mushroom closest to us shivers, and then, with a wave of its enormous cap, pulls free from the wooden pulp beneath it, and floats off, undulating like a jellyfish.

 

I can do nothing but gape as the rest of the nearby mushrooms shiver and take off in a chain reaction. The luminescent canopy of caps spreads out above us, revealing and illuminating the roof of the cave, and it’s actually in the hollowed-out log of what must’ve been the largest tree anyone has ever dreamed off.

 

[Rats,] Suri chimes. [Well, no matter; the big ones aren’t the most suited anyway, I’ll round up some smaller ones later. First, I need you to try and conjure up a focus crystal.]

 

I have so many questions, so I open my mouth and eloquently ask, “Whu...?”

 

[Focus, Emma. Look, I could do it for you, but this’ll be more effective if you do it. Just close your eyes and imagine holding it, the sharp edges, the weight, the coolness...]

 

I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and attempt to follow her instructions. Let’s see, the focus crystal was octahedral, black yet transparent, and about the size and weight of a golf ball...

 

When I open my eyes, it’s in my hand. “Hey, I did it!”

 

[Hoh? It seems you may have some talent for this.]

 

I nod, beaming happily, the glow from my now luminescent face lighting up the golf ball I conjured in my hand.

 

Wait...

 

Suri sighs heavily. [I take it back.]

 

“Huh? When did... can I change it back?”

 

[Just drop it and conjure another; that’ll be easier.]

 

A little while later, I am triumphantly holding a focus crystal that isn’t changing into something else. No sir.

 

With a flourish of her hand, Suri banishes the golf balls, Rubik’s Cubes, large fluffy dice, the broken bowl of petunias, various rubber duckies, and the full-sized speedboat littering the floor around me.

 

[Well done,] she chimes with only a modicum of sarcasm that I find easy enough to ignore. [Let’s see if I can attract a few caplings.]

 

Just as I glance over at her, Suri smiles. A real smile, that I find I haven’t seen before. Her face lights up and my breath hitches. The Dreamscape fades away, as I am blasted by its pink radiance.

 

Just as sudden as it came, her smile disappears, and her face returns to its regular cool, confident expression. In front of us three small, glowing mushroom-jellies bob up and down. She flourishes a hand, and they slowly sink down.

 

“Suri, what the hell was that?” I ask, feeling lightheaded yet more lucid than I perhaps ever have in a Dreamscape.

 

[That, my dear, was active Charm. Consider this little sneak peek of its workings on the house.]

 

I see. That’s scary. If she’d asked me to do something just now... I would’ve done anything to please her, no questions asked.

 

...

 

What else is Suri capable of, exactly?

 

[Pay attention, Emma; they’re about to start.]

 

I turn my gaze towards the caplings and watch them touch down. The moment they do, tendrils of purple energy snake into the wood, and start branching out, splitting over and over and over and ov—

 

I shake myself out of the trance I could feel myself slipping in. “Suri, is that... Toxic Energy?”

 

[Yes and no,] Suri chimes. [The Dreamscape doesn’t contain such energies, it’s more of a reflection, an imitation of how Toxic Energy functions in the Realm of Crystals. It’s a good imitation, however. Combined with the manipulability of this place, it makes for an excellent teaching resource.]

 

Suri flourishes her hand, and one of the caplings and the wood beneath it turns completely transparent, showing in excellent detail what the purple energy is doing: it consumes.

 

[Now watch carefully,] Suri chimes, as with another flourish, time reverses and the purple energy pulls back into the capling. Before it can fly away again however, Suri reinstates time, at a different speed, and I watch fascinatedly as the purple tendrils invade the wood in slow motion...

 

 

I wake from my Skilldream groggily, to the following notification.

 

 

Huh. I mean, sweet! But: huh.

 

I feel like something significant happened in the Skilldream that may be the cause of this, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. There were mushrooms, and a tree, and... a speedboat? That can’t be right. There was something else, something bright, and beautiful—

 

[What are you waiting for, Emma? Try gaining the skill!]

 

Right, I’ve got to focus. I rummage in my backpack and pull out my focus crystal. Though my memories from inside the Dreamscape are vague, and I haven’t done this for real since the third Trial, it takes me very little effort to find the familiar sensation of snowflakes darting through my flesh, and to draw them towards the crystal.

 

[Not too much at once,] Suri warns me. [You’ll get more practice out it if you conserve your Qi; your reserves are still quite pitiful.]

 

Pitiful? I have more than three times what I started out with! Some people are just never satisfied.

 

Still, I reluctantly follow her advice, and gradually diminish the flow of Qi to the crystal, bringing it to a full stop once a dim blue light starts emanating from its centre.

 

The next step comes to me as if by instinct, but somewhere in the back of my mind I know it’s actually because Suri has been making me do it over and over in the Dreamscape.

 

Repetition is the mother of learning, after all.

 

I close my eyes and focus my senses on the lightly charged crystal. The Qi that’s in there is still ‘mine’, so through it, I am connected to the crystal. The crystal, in turn, increases the feedback I get from my Qi by resonating with its movements and changes.

 

Now comes the hard part; to force my will upon the Qi and transform it.

 

In order to form Toxic Energy, the Qi, which now flutters around freely like dancing snowflakes, needs to stick together and form... tendrils. Yes, that’s it. Toxic Energy, in its basest form, seeks to infiltrate and consume from within.

 

I open my eyes, as the dim bluish glow in the centre of my focus crystal rapidly brightens and turns purple.

 

[Hoh? That was even faster than I had anticipated.]

 

“Ehm,” I say, staring wide-eyed at the crystal that’s turning brighter and resonating more intensely by the second. “What do I do now? I mean: what am I supposed to infuse?”

 

[Try your spear.]

 

Tendrils of purple energy are leaking out of the crystal by now, into the Aether, and I can feel the reaction in the crystal try to pull more Qi from my body, and possibly Lavi too, but I resist. I hope.

 

I grab my spear with my free hand and touch the crystal against it. The Toxic Energy burrows in without prompting at first, but I have to push the last bit out of the crystal and into the spear forcibly.

 

A notification pops up in front of me.

 

 

I grin happily, before frowning and studying the spear I’m still holding. It doesn’t seem all that different, or is there a slight purple gleam to it?

 

“So, is this a useful thing to do? Infusing weapons with Toxic Energy?”

 

[Yes and no.]

 

“Care to explain?”

 

[I suppose this could count as practical information... very well.]

 

...Is it just me, or does Suri take the rules kind of lightly nowadays? She seemed more of a stickler when we just started out.

 

[As you did it just now, it isn’t very useful. You unleashed your Toxic Energy into the weapon, and relinquished your control over it.]

 

I blink. “I did?”

 

[Controlling the energy outside of the crystal is harder.]

 

Ah. “So it’s kinda like the difference between Deep Breathing and Breath Control?”

 

[Precisely. If you can maintain control of the Toxic Energy in your weapon, you can push all of it into your enemy as you stab them. Some of it still will now, but a much smaller amount. Also, the Toxic Energy will slowly leak out into the surroundings, and into you if you’re wielding it.]

 

I drop the spear. “Right. For now, I’m better off smearing the tip with Moonshade Sap then, I suppose.”

 

[Probably,] Suri chimes amusedly.

 

That’s fine. I have other ways of using this skill in mind.

 

I look up at the ventilation grate in the ceiling. “Say Suri, is that vent connected to the other rooms?”

 

[Not directly, why?]

 

I grin. “Because I have practising to do. Duh.”

 

Time to see if I can earn my title for real.

 

 

Author's note:

I'm back! Japan was... awesome. I could describe the experience at length, but that's not what you guys come here to read. 😉

 

Though it was truly an amazing holiday, if I'm honest, it's kinda nice to be out of the sweltering summer heat. Though I didn't exactly hope to replace it with this (common) cold... It does not combine well with my jet lag. 😒

 

Still, I persevered, and brought you all this chapter . If you want to wish me well, you can click here to vote. 😉

 

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©2018 by H.C. Mills