• H.C. Mills

Chapter 55: Welcome to the jungle

After another full day of training—mostly in handling our new weapons and skills—and another good rest, it is finally time.

Well, technically there’s about 30 minutes left, because Dave insisted we should leave plenty of time after waking up, but none of us can stand the nervous anticipation much longer, so we’re heading out.

Stupid Dave; I could have slept for like 25 more minutes.

Time for a final check. I glance around our party, fully decked out in scaly, blue leather armour, backpacks and an assortment of greysteel weaponry. They look ready, but their expressions are tense.

Except for Alec, who looks kinda excited. Well, that just won’t do.

I narrow my eyes at him. “Alec, did you remember to go—don’t roll your eyes at me, young man!”

Alec scoffs. “Yes, Emma, I went to the bathroom. It was one time, okay? Let it go!”

I see a couple of smirks appear, even Jacob is smiling wryly. Much better.

I forcibly keep the corners of my own mouth from curling up. “All right then, let’s go.”

Nervous but excited, I step up to the large stone door depicting five humanoid figures who are clearly either dead or in agony. The warm, only slightly painful burning of Boost Physical’s second mode floods my body with comforting power after every beat of my heart.

Since I can quite comfortably afford the added drain on my Lavi, I’ve kept the skill active for most of yesterday’s training, both to get used to the extra strength and in hopes of it helping me raise my Strength and maybe Agility. No such luck, yet.

With a sense of finality, and possibly impending doom, I call out, “Begin trial!”

The door grinds open, and we quickly walk out into a really lush jungle, before a notification pops up.

After carefully reading it over, I wave it away, wary of a sudden attack, but nothing jumps out of the dense foliage. Yet.

It really is dense though, Hub Two seems a lot less jungle-y now in comparison. The trees here are also very different; for starters, they’re not ridiculously massive, but closer to what trees were like on Earth. They also appear to be a different type, with trunks that simply go straight up, not spiralling like a twister, and they’re more densely packed, with a larger number of vines hanging down, adding to the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere.

Looking back, up, and to the sides, reveals that we’re once again boxed in by enormous grey walls, except they are arranged in a different shape. I can distantly make out what appear to be 90-degree corners to my left and right, suggesting this trial’s area may be square, or, more likely, as it apparently features a rather long river, rectangular.

The view to the front is blocked, obviously. But, I do think I hear flowing water in the distance...

Dave walks up to me, sees me squint, and tilts his head to listen. After a second, he nods. “Sounds like the river won’t be too hard to find. I’m assuming we have to go downstream, on some kind of flotation device. Are we supposed to build a raft?”

I frown. “Maybe. The trees here are smaller, but they’re still not small though; cutting these suckers down would take forever. I think we’d better just check out the situation down by the river first.”

He hesitates, then nods. “Building one anywhere but next to the river would be a dumb thing to do anyway,” he concedes dryly. He turns to face the rest. “All right, everybody get into position; we’re moving out.”

We creep through the underbrush in the formation we’d come up with. Kaitlynn’s at the front, using heat vision to check for danger, with Alec and I right behind her as back up. Trailing us are Dave with his bow and arrows and Jacob with his shield and sword as the rear guard. That way, Jacob can protect Dave if we get jumped, or use the first mode of his Increase Momentum skill, ‘Charge’, to quickly join us on the front lines.

We’re taking it slow, as we still have no idea what we’re facing. The river’s roar is getting closer at least, so that’s good. Meanwhile, I’m still looking for a suitable tree to climb; it has to be one that towers far enough over the others that I can safely climb to a suitable vantage point. Climbing shouldn’t be too hard with all these damn vines—

Kaitlynn flinches, and we all stop. She points at a spot up ahead, staring at it intensely, and whispers, “There’s something there... something slightly warmer than its surroundings.”

Thoughts race through my head. Now what? The Trial told us that we should be prepared for combat, but does that mean everything we come across is necessarily an enemy? What if this is some kind of scenario with like, warring tribes, and we have to pick a side?

On the other hand, our goal is just to reach the end of the river...

“What is it doing?” I whisper back.

Kaitlynn shakes her head. “Nothing. It’s sitting still... very still.”

I glance back at Dave, who has an arrow nocked but not yet drawn. He raises a brow at me, and I hear his voice in my head.

<Want me to take a shot?>

I turn to frown at the bushes, conflicted. To be honest, I don’t expect the makers of this place to put anything friendly on our path, so shooting first seems the rational approach, but... morally, attacking an unknown being because you fear it may be aggressive is just all kinds of wrong. I blow out a breath. At the very least, there’s no way there’s another human here, right? And if it’s an innocent animal, well... we could use some fresh meat.

Having made up my mind, I glance back again and nod decisively. Ultimately, I have to do what’s right by my team.

Dave stalks forward, Jacob in tow. He crouches down next to Kaitlynn, who points out the bush in question.

He draws, and a moment later, releases.

The arrow flies true, and hits something with the tell-tale thud of metal striking flesh, which is immediately followed by a loud, pained... croak? For a moment there is silence, then a huge frog—about the size and bulk of Dave, really—hops out of the bushes, looking very angry, most likely about the greysteel arrow sticking out of its shoulder.

Well, it’s not exactly like a frog. I mean, it does have green skin covered in dark stripes, a wide mouth, large eyes with horizontal pupils, and long spindly limbs ending in webbed hands and feet, but it’s not the right proportions. Its legs are too thick, and it’s standing up on them too high, like it’s about to get up and walk.

It doesn’t; it starts hopping towards us instead, while three more huge Froggo’s hop out of the bush behind him, one of whom is clutching a two-pronged spear in its mouth.

Dave is the first to react, having immediately readied another arrow after the first, he gets up, draws, and releases.

The arrow reaches the giant Froggo at the front mid-hop, but it quickly twists its body in mid-air, and comes off with only a scratch on one of its legs. It lands and pulls a previously hidden wooden stick out of its huge mouth with surprisingly nimble front limbs.

He places it against his lips, and his cheeks billow out almost comically. Almost, because Dave barely ducks the blowdart heading straight for his eye, fumbling and dropping his next arrow in the process.

Of course, I catch most of this from the corner of my eye as I leap out protectively in front of Kaitlynn, facing the Froggo with the two-pronged spear. He seems to be the largest of the bunch, and I instinctively peg him as the leader.

The two remaining Froggo’s land on either side of him, facing Alec and Jacob respectively. The one in front of Alec pulls out a wooden buckler and club from his mouth, and the one facing Jacob produces a surprisingly large stone axe from his oversized gullet.

Their leader calmly pulls his spear out of his mouth, and nimbly spins it in his hands. He glances warily at the purple goop on the tip of my own spear, before he loudly croaks, “Kill the unworthy!”

For a split second I freeze, surprised by the thing’s—I actually have no idea of its gender, I’m just labelling it a ‘he’ for convenience—ability to speak, and what’s more, the fact that I can understand his words. Why the hell would the people who built this place teach English to giant Frogs?!

Before his command is followed however, a flare of heat streaks past me, hitting the surprised blowpipe wielding Froggo square in the chest, just as he was lining up another shot. The skin on its chest bursts open explosively, crackling with heat as it’s flung backwards.

Inwardly I cheer; designating taking out ranged support as the first priority of our own long-range fighters was definitely a good call on Dave’s part.

The Froggo leader facing me goes wide-eyed, before he and his companions hop forward aggressively, giving me no more time to think.

He thrusts forwards, but I slam his spear aside easily with my own. With Boost Physical permanently active, I have a Str of 14 and an Agi of 16; this first engagement alone tells me he likely can’t match that.

Still, even if the Froggo leader can’t match up to me physically, he has something I don’t possess with his weapon. Skill.

After I slam away the pointy end(s) of his spear, he just rolls with it, turning the motion into a twirl of his wooden spear which brings the blunt end careening towards my temple. The Aether stirred up in its wake brushes my nose as I barely pull back out of its reach.

He immediately follows up with a series of jabs which, despite my superior speed, I have to fully focus on fending off due to my relatively clumsy movements.

Before I’m even used to this new assault, he changes tacks again, catching and locking my spear between the barbed tines of his own, and twisting in an attempt to disarm me.

However, this was a mistake on his part, because as our weapons still for a moment, locked in a contest of strength he has little hope of winning, I draw upon my Qi, sending it surging into the Focus Crystal hanging on my neck like a pendant from a specially made necklace.

His gaze is drawn to the flash of purple from the hollow of my throat, as I infuse the Aether around the crystal with copious amounts of Toxic Energy, and direct it up towards my nostrils.

Unlocking our weapons with a swift motion, he jumps away, but it’s too late. The Toxic Energy stings my nostrils as I draw it in, but down in my lungs, I firmly grasp control over it, disallowing the tendrils from burrowing into my flesh. This isn’t like the Toxic Energy that just floats around after all, it is MY Toxic Energy, formed from my own Qi.

And now that I’m breathing it in, mixing it with the compressed Aether already there, it actually reinforces my Breath Control—which normally only depends on the Lavi inside my breath—with a second form of energy to control.

Before the leader has the chance to gain more distance, I unleash a powerful jet of purple glowing Aether at him from my mouth.

The jet comes at him dead centre. He skilfully twirls his spear in an attempt to defuse the attack. Unfortunately for him, he underestimates the force behind it, and is knocked clean off his large, floppy feet. Down he goes, chased by an angry cloud of purple Toxin.

I take the opportunity to quickly glance at the other fights. To my right, Alec seems to be struggling with the weight of his hammer, and I watch as his opponent calmly deflects an electrified blow with his wooden shield. His chance to counter is thankfully disrupted by a knife from Kaitlynn. It ends up spinning harmlessly past the Froggo and disappearing into the bushes, but not before it served its purpose, in giving Alec the chance to recover and raise his hammer once more.

I glance to my left, just in time to see Jacob Charge, hitting his opponent hard, shield first. My heart jumps as I watch him go down in a tumble together with the axe-wielding Froggo. However, Jacob immediately rolls off, providing Dave with the perfect—possibly telepathically coordinated—opportunity to jump forward and let loose an arrow. The Froggo hisses loudly as it strikes true, but manages to get up despite the metal arrow now sticking out of his thigh and the green goop trailing down his leg.

Relieved that everyone seems to still be alive and relatively unhurt, I level my spear at my own foe, as he stumbles back onto his feet.

He looks a little green behind the gills—hah!—with tendrils of purple covering his skin like a web; seems like my Toxic Energy is doing its job.

He moves forward unsteadily, but I’m not fully buying it; he seems like a crafty bastard, so he’s probably exaggerating his weakness. Still, the Toxic Energy should be playing him parts, lowering his Str and Agi.

Let’s see how he fares against me now.

I move towards him, and he feints a stab towards my face, which sees me flinching backwards, before he twirls his spear around and sweeps it low, aiming to hit my knee from the side with the blunt end.

I knew that bastard was up to something. It’s a neat trick too; he has me on the backfoot, so I’m unable to block his attack properly. However, even though I may not be great at wielding my spear, I’m still easily in the best shape I’ve ever been, so I kick off the ground, and neatly turn my back-step into a back-flip.

I land in a crouch and immediately spring forward, making use of the fact that he overextended to jab my spear into his torso.

For a split second we are both frozen, as green goop wells out off the relatively shallow wound, before I quickly pull back.

There’s no need to risk pressing the assault, or to force my spear deeper; the Moonshade Sap made it into the wound, so between that and the Toxic Energy he previously received, he should be down for the count soon enough. Keeping him alive for a little longer may in fact be more useful...

To my left, I catch Jacob finishing off his own weakened Froggo with a downward slash that catches it in the neck. To my right, Kaitlynn has circled around the Froggo far enough to finally get a clean shot at him. The Froggo quickly raises its shield, which promptly burst apart and catches fire upon being hit by her Astreum Blast.

Alec is quick to follow up with a swing, finally hitting his opponent heavily on the shoulder, arcs of lightning jumping from his hammer to send the Froggo down heavily onto its long, gangly knees, twitching all the way. Sweating profusely, Alec finishes him off with a blow to the head that makes a sickening crunch.

The Froggo leader in front of me drops his two-tined spear, and flops down bonelessly on his behind, signalling the end of the battle.

We won.

Author's note:

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©2018 by H.C. Mills