Once my five minutes are over, I decide it’s high time to check on my friends.
I enter a living room with a familiar layout, and a less familiar, grim atmosphere.
Upon spotting me, Kaitlynn immediately brightens up. “Yay, you’re finally here!”
I smile at her. “Hey Kai—Oof!” She tackles me into a hug.
Some of the tension leaves Dave’s shoulders as he meets my eyes over Kaitlynn’s shoulder and smiles.
Jacob’s eyes quickly dart away when I meet them.
What’s that all about?
Anyway, Jacob and Alec were sparring when I came in, it seems. Alec grins widely at me as he lowers the trident. “Yo, Emma! Welcome back on land. Please direct your fish-breath away from us for the next hour at least.”
The moment Kaitlynn releases me I unleash a jet of Aether straight at him.
Alec shrieks and tries to jump aside, but I redirect it using the slightly glowing nucleus in the front of the jet. It hits him full in the chest and bowls him over.
I can feel a smile pulling at my lips. Looks like Breath Control level 2 works pretty well in Aether too. Nice.
The rest seems unaware of the slightly more advanced technique I used and just laughs at our antics.
We all settle on the couch, and the grim expressions, briefly interrupted by levity, quickly return.
“Okay, what’s with the gloominess?” I ask.
Dave sighs and points at the other end of the living room, which features five doors.
I frown. Five doors? But that’s not where I just came from, is it? I look back.
Five more doors. Oh. Oh.
I suck in a breath and blindly grasp Kaitlynn’s hand.
“Okay, so we’re being split up,” I say slowly, hoping against hope someone will correct me. No-one does. “What else do we know? Alec, you were going to ask about the Trial, right?”
Alec jumps up and runs over to the left-most door. The others all stiffen or twitch a little when he does, before relaxing when he stops at a distance from the door to point at the marking on it.
What’s going on here?
“See these markings?” Alec asks, unaware.
For the first time, I notice that the doors are adorned with different markings. Three types, to be precise: the left-most door has a circle on it, the three middle doors feature a square, and the right-most has a triangle balanced on one point. Somehow, the meaning of the symbols is immediately obvious when I look at it.
The circle is ‘easy,’ the squares are ‘challenging,’ and the triangle is ‘dangerous.’
I blink. “Does that mean what I think it does?”
Dave nods. “The Sixth Trial is a trial of single combat, against a foe that comes in three difficulty levels. My theory is that our predecessors took into account some differentiation in combat roles.”
“That, or they want to provide people with the opportunity to prove themselves against a harder foe,” Jacob pipes up, speaking for the first time since I’ve entered the room.
He still won’t meet my eyes though. Damn, could he be aware of what I did to him? The thought sends a cold chill down my back.
Also, nothing is preventing anyone from just picking a door and running through, is there? That must be why everyone got so tense when Alec suddenly ran towards the door with the circle.
“Both of these reasons may play a role,” Dave admits. “Either way, we thought we’d hold off on deciding who takes what door until you came out.”
“Well, that’s easy, isn’t it?” I say with a shrug. “You, as our non-combat focused healer, should take the door with the circle, and I’ll take the door with the triangle.” An irrational part of me wants to push Kaitlynn through the door with the circle, teamwork be damned, but... no, she can handle herself. I have to trust that.
Alec hops back onto the couch. “Told you she’d say that.”
Jacob looks me in the eyes for the first time since I’ve entered the room. “Emma, you don’t have to, you know? I could take that door as well. I’m strong, and from what we’ve heard the combat is on land, so I’ll be able to use my Skills for real. I managed to reach level 2 in Increase Momentum at the end of the Trial when I threw your spear, and in here I bought a full Skilldream for Decrease Momentum and gained the first level in that as well.”
I raise my brows. “Not bad, how many Trial Points do you have left?”
So he had 99 Trial Points after the last trial, pretty sweet.
“How much was the bonus for the speed clear?” I ask.
“20 Trial points, like we’d hoped,” Kaitlynn pipes up happily.
I see. So they’ve all received at least 65 Trial Points. Very nice.
“Well, it’s good to hear you made such progress,” I say airily. “But, do you really think you can take me, Jacob?”
The room goes silent after my soft-spoken question.
Jacob flushes. “I think I’d stand a fighting chance, at least.”
I nod thoughtfully. “Hmm. To be honest, right now you probably would.” I haven’t practised using Breath Control level 2 in Aether at all yet, after all. “However, I just got here, and I still have all my Trial Points, while you’ve already spent them.”
Tension hangs in the Aether. Jacob blinks.
“So how about this,” I say, with a slight smile. “We’ll have a match, shortly before the Trial has to start. Winner takes the door with the triangle. Deal?”
Jacob holds out his hand. “Deal.”
I grasp it and shake. As he tries to pull back, I hold on for a second longer. “Oh, but just so you know; I’ve got a 151 Trial Points.”
I release his hand, trying to suppress my smile as his eyes go wide.
Alec burst out in laughter. “151 Trial Points? Christ Emma, that’s ridiculous.”
“You laughed, that’s fifteen to one,” Dave intones dryly.
“Hey, that one didn’t count!” Alec protests, wildly flailing his arms, “She wasn’t even joking!”
Dave shrugs. “That just makes it worse, dude.”
And just like that, the mood is jolly again.
I take some time to enjoy bantering with my friends and to question the rest about their Trial Points and purchases.
Kaitlynn finally took half a Skilldream for the second level of Astreum Manipulation—setting her back 30 TP from a total of 76—and managed to gain it. The second level is called Astreum Beam, and it’s an attack with a little more flexibility and precision. Essentially, she’s learned how to maintain control of the Astreum for a little longer, so she can make curved shots with a narrower, longer stream of Astreum.
Dave first spent 3 TP from a total of coincidentally also 76, to replace his arrows. Then he took a full 25 TP Skilldream for Amplify, a low-grade Vibration Skill he took an interest in. Finally, he opted to take half a Skilldream for Astreum Manipulation for another 25 TP, leaving him with a total of 23, and had Kaitlynn teach him until he gained it.
I definitely approve of that last bit; getting Astreum Blast was surely the fastest, cheapest way to improve his attack power in the short term, and trusting Kaitlynn to teach him so he could get the discounted version is just plain clever.
Alec meanwhile took a full Skilldream for Meditation level 3, setting him back 40 TP from a whopping 91, and after some struggling managed to learn it. Apparently, it’s a little difficult to practice dimming your sight by manipulating Lavi flows towards an eye you don’t have. The eye-crystal seems to work independent from our Lavi flows, but Sarge was able to configure it to work like a regular eye for a little while, or something.
I’ll definitely drill him for info about the Skill soon.
Also, Alec apparently gained the second level of Lightning Manipulation without any Skilldream! Turns out the second level covers the ability to transfer Electric Energy from the Focus Crystal to another container while maintaining control. This serves both as a means to electrify weapons and as a first step in learning to maintain control over the hard to tame energy outside of your body.
I’m starting to sense a pattern with many of these Skills.
Anyway, it turns out the trident passively attracts and stores Electric Energy, which made training this level in the Skill way easier. He still had to practise a little and demonstrate his ability with Jacob’s shortsword afterwards to actually gain the level though.
Then the greedy idiot immediately took half a Skilldream for the third level of Lightning Manipulation for 35 TP, bringing him down to 16. He didn’t manage to gain that one, obviously, but he claims he can now somewhat aim his Lightning through Aether as well, so it might not be a total loss. It’ll come in handy during the next Trial, probably.
Man, that trident is sweet. But since Alec is the one who traded in an eye for it, I guess he should keep it. I’m sure he’ll lend it to me if I ever get around to learning Lightning Manipulation someday.
The rest has already had breakfast, but I’m starving, so I take some time to eat.
Of course, that doesn’t stop them from asking me questions in return, so I regale them a bit with my own tale, of how I raised my Strength by swimming, and the very useful, subtle pressure I noticed that indicated I was about to breakthrough on a stat.
I keep the fact that I gained level 2 in Breath Control a secret for now; it’s a surprise for Jacob later, when we have our showdown.
Once I’m done eating, I take out the Medium Lavi Crystal I picked up earlier.
“Would anyone object if I claimed this?” I ask. Kaitlynn shakes her head. Alec shrugs.
“I think you more than earned it,” Dave says. “However, what do we do with the Power-Up? I already have one of course, but one of you should take it before the next Trial.”
Right, we found one of those too!
“Well,” Kaitlynn starts, “It increases Toughness right? I’m pretty sure Jacob has the lowest Toughness out of all of us, and since he and Emma killed Bubbles together, and she’s getting the Lavi Crystal, I’d say he should have it.”
I nod in agreement. Jacob shifts uncomfortably, but doesn’t object, and the decision is soon made final with everyone’s agreement.
I look at the Medium Lavi Crystal thoughtfully. ‘Suri, what would happen if I took a Stardrop and swallowed it down together with this puppy?’ I subvocalize.
[Don’t even think about it,] she chimes in response. [Your Toughness isn’t high enough to handle that kind of pressure, so you’d probably end up blowing a hole in your stomach.]
My eyes widen at the thought.
[Now, if you had a way to instantly raise your Toughness by, say, about 3 points, that’d be a different story.]
I frown. ‘Very funny. You know we decided the Power-Up would go to Jacob.’
[You could make a wager on your battle. I’m confident in your victory.]
I grit my teeth. ‘As am I, but I’m not taking away his Power-Up!’
[Suit yourself. Might as well just absorb the crystal like this then.]
‘Fine, I will!’ I snap at her, and immediately attempt to fit the nearly fist-sized crystal in my mouth.
Alec gapes at me when he notices my struggle. I just try even harder, and soon manage to get it past my teeth.
All of a sudden, this seems like a pretty bad idea. I’m pretty sure this thing is pretty much stuck in there now, if for some reason I can’t absorb it.
However, as soon as I reflexively attempt to swallow some spit, the crystal turns into a stream of Lavi, which shoots down into my stomach, and from there, floods into my meridians like a tidal wave.
A glance at my Status Bar shows my Lavi Pool growing from 75 all the way to 94.
I quickly clear my throat and pretend like everything just went exactly according to plan. Glancing around, I notice Alec shake his head at me with a smirk, so I glare at him. He clears his throat and gets up off the couch to go back to training or something. Now, the only one who’s still looking at me funny is Jacob, who quickly looks away when our eyes meet.
That’s right, nothing to see here.
However, a little later, while we all gradually drift away from the couch to resume training, he approaches me.
“Hey, ehm, Emma, could we talk?”
What’s this now? Trying to back out?
Wait, or does he want to talk about what happened at the end of the Trial? Oh boy.
I shoot him my most disarming smile, hoping it doesn’t look as forced as it feels. “Sure! What do you want to talk about?”
He fidgets nervously. “Ehm, I meant like, alone.”
I blink. “Eh, yeah, sure. My room okay?”
I lead the way, thoughts racing through my head. If anyone looks at us weirdly for leaving together, I don’t notice it.
I take a seat on the bed in my room, feign nonchalance, and look at him expectantly.
He hovers. His eyes dart around the room, and he doesn’t say anything.
“So, what’s on your mind?” I ask finally, when my impatience overcomes my nerves.
“Right, I guess I should just, come out and say it then.” Jacob sighs deeply, and some of the tension seems to drain from him. He shakes his head. “This feels so stupid.”
He slides down against the wall opposite my bed and looks at me. Briefly.
“Look, Emma, when I offered to take the door, I wasn’t, like, challenging you. It’s actually, kind of the opposite.”
I blink and cock my head sideways. Where is he going with this?
“You see,” he says, drawing the last word out. “I’ve been having these feelings lately, that I don’t quite understand. Somehow, I find myself, ehm, attracted to you.”
My mouth quirks to the side. Really? That’s what’s going on? “‘Somehow?’ Well geez, way to make a girl feel pretty,” I say.
He snorts and rolls his eyes at me. “Emma, I’m gay.”
Oh. Oh! I guess the guyliner should’ve been a hint, in hindsight. But wait, if he’s gay then why—
“Or at least, I thought I was,” Jacob continues. “My mother would have a field day if she’d heard what I just said.”
I’m not paying a lot of attention however, something’s nagging at me.
“I mean,” he continues, “it’s weird, because I’ve literally never been attracted to a girl before, and okay, I guess I’m still pretty young, but you’d expect that to happen at some point if it’s a part of you and—”
My eyes widen when it hits me. Suri said Charm makes your friends like you more, but she didn’t specify which kind of like.
It’s even called ‘Charm,’ for Pete’s sake! Oh man, this is bad, I’ve given him a sexual identity crisis with this stunt! I have to tell him now, right? Ugh, this is giving me a headache. I rub at my temples, trying to abate the pressure inside my head.
Well, the fact that it might be tactically more advantageous not to tell him, like Suri insists, hasn’t chang—
No! What am I thinking? I have to tell him now. It’s not right to keep this from him any longer!
I glance up; Jacob’s still prattling on, “And of course I’ve seen how you and—”
“It’s not you, it’s me!” I burst out. It’s like I need to physically drive the words out of my mouth. Something in my head seems to snap as I do, and the pressure drains away.
Ah, sweet relief.
He stares at me in confusion.
“Right, that came out wrong,” I admit. “Let me explain...”
The words come easily now, and I give him the basic version of what happened at the end of the Trial, making sure to stress the facts that this was something I’d never done before and that I didn’t do it on purpose.
When I’m done, he’s frowning at the floor. I give him a minute to process what I’ve said.
“Well, say something!”
All right, maybe a little less than a minute.
“That’s... huh,” he says intelligently. “I’m not sure how to feel about this. I mean, part of me is glad you did what you did; you gave me the courage to come back out and help you kill that thing. If I hadn’t, and someone had died, that would’ve been incredibly sad. Another part of me feels deeply violated—are you saying this Charm effect is still active, and that’s why I’m feeling like this?!”
I blink at him. “Ehm, Suri?”
[No,] she chimes curtly. [The effect lasts only for as long as you activate your Charm, which quickly drains your Espir.]
She sounds a little mad. I guess she doesn’t like the fact that I ended up telling him, despite her protestations.
Oh well, what’s done is done.
“Ehm, no,” I tell him, “it’s a very short effect. But I’m thinking maybe it triggered something in you, changed the way you look at me, so to speak.”
He nods slowly, looking relieved. “Yes, it may have. It fits the timing.”
I let out a breath I wasn’t aware I was holding. It ruffles Jacob’s hair. “There you go then; you’re still gay—probably—I just inadvertently messed with your sexual preferences a little. I’m sure it’ll fade over time.”
He nods again. “Right, right.”
“So, friends?” I venture.
He looks me in the eye, for the first time in a while, and smiles, though it looks a little forced. “Of course.”
“Cool, cool,” I say, nodding in relief. “And are we still on for our match? ‘Cause I was kinda looking forward it.”
I smirk at him in playful challenge.
He smirks back, this time more genuinely. “You betcha. And don’t think I’ll go easy on you either.”
“Oh you better bring it, boy, or it’ll be a very short match,” I promise.
He chuckles, shaking his head, and a weight drops off my heart ‘cause it feels like we’re on pretty good terms again.
Now, unfortunately, there’s something long overdue, that I need to do.
“Well,” I say, getting up with a deep sigh. “I guess I better go tell the rest about this now.”
It’s silent for a bit after my confession. Alec looks like he’s trying to solve a hard math problem. Kaitlynn glances back and forth between me, Jacob and Dave worriedly.
Dave frowns thoughtfully at the ceiling. “So, let me see if I got this straight: by activating your Charm stat with Espir, you can kind of make someone do your bidding if they don’t manage to resist it with their Mental Fortitude, and resisting becomes easier if they expect it, correct?”
“And the reason you didn’t tell us about it, is because you felt it might be able to give us a mental boost in a moment of need—like you ended up doing for Jacob at the end of the previous trial.”
“More or less,” I say. “Jacob needed a little extra... courage?” I glance at him for confirmation.
He leans forward, smiling self-deprecatingly at the floor. “Yeah. I’m not proud that I almost walked out on you guys. I mean, I don’t feel super-guilty or anything, because that octopus thing was friggin’ scary, but still. Though, I feel a little weird about having been manipulated, I’m very glad things turned out the way they did, because I do care about you guys.”
Dave nods. “And then there’s the passive effect of Charm, which may make us like you more. That’s a little hard to swallow.”
“Well, that effect should be largely blocked by your Mental Fortitude,” I reiterate. “My Charm stat is only six.” For now.
It’s silent for a bit.
Dave sighs. “I have to admit, I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, we all promised not to keep secrets anymore, on the other hand, I understand that, given sufficient reason, any rule may or even should be broken. Also I’m pretty confident I liked you well enough before you got the Charm stat, and I could definitely see someone like Alec needing a little mental support in the future—”
“Hey!” Alec cries indignantly.
“—and if you had told us about it,” Dave continues, ignoring him, “and had therefore failed to influence Jacob in the previous trial, I might’ve been dead right now.”
He really does seem conflicted, with how he stares at me in deliberation.
Kaitlynn raises her hand. “I have a question.”
“Shoot,” I say, glad for the distraction of Dave’s intense scrutiny.
She fidgets uncomfortably in her seat for a moment. “I was wondering: why tell us now? Alec might’ve still needed a little boost in the future, but now that you’ve told us, it is much less likely to work.”
“Seriously?” Alec gripes.
“Ehm,” I say, glancing at Jacob. We haven’t told them this bit yet. “Apparently, using Charm on people has the potential side-effect of making them feel, well, sexually attracted to me.”
Jacob turns red. Oof, sorry kid.
“So, yeah, I just couldn’t justify the idea of using it on you guys anymore.”
Kaitlynn nods, also turning red, probably sympathetically with Jacob.
Alec frowns. “Sexually attracted to you? Eww, how does that work?”
My wild chase after Alec through the living room breaks the tension at last.
Though I feel like I’m going to be working to repair damaged trust here for a little longer, all in all, it’s a huge relief to have this secret off my chest.
I hope you've all had a merry Christmas! And If you haven't, then I hope this chapter at least brought you some cheer. ;)
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