I don’t sleep well. My dreams are plagued by a certain black conch shell that keeps popping up.
I awake restlessly and my fingers quickly seek out the dangerous secret on my body.
Except, it’s gone.
That innocuous little shell, the proof of a lie, that is supposed to be burning a figurative hole in my pocket right now, is gone.
Was it really there last night? Did I just dream the whole thing?
As soon as the doubts rear up, I push them back down. The memory of last night is too vivid, too real; there’s no way I dreamed that.
Which means there must be another explanation for why it’s gone.
Did someone take it? Seems unlikely.
Perhaps, since it came from a dreamscape, it behaves like one of those objects conjured within there and just disappears after a while.
Or... the black conch shell that plagued my dreams last night was literally the same conch shell, which I brought into my dreams and lost somewhere in there.
This is what I hate about science; you run a successful experiment, and all you end up with is more questions.
I also hate that I can’t tell anyone about it.
But there’s no time to seek further answers or to lament my solitude in this matter. In fact, there’s hardly time for a proper breakfast before the showdown.
Jacob and I face each other in the living room.
There are dark circles beneath his eyes. They contrast more than usual with his skin, which has taken on a pinkish hue from the medium-grade Toughness Power-Up he ingested as part of his breakfast.
He looks agitated, but his grip on his weapons is steady and his pose relaxed.
I twirl my spear lightly as I stare him down, the corners of my mouth curling up.
I can’t help it; I’m excited. My heart is pounding and adrenaline surges through my veins. If that even exists in this Realm.
Part of me hopes this’ll be a friendly competition, that we’ll come out smiling, better friends than when we went in.
Another part of me feels challenged in my capacity as alpha, so to speak, and holds a kind of primal urge to put this little upstart in his place.
It’s very confusing. Human nature is weird.
Anyway, I’ll play it by ear. One thing is for sure: I’m winning this little competition.
We agreed on Dave as our arbiter, and of course, he’s taking the job very seriously.
“If the two of you are to duel, we’re going so need some rules,” he intones from where he stands by the side-lines. Kaitlynn and Alec watch from the couch behind him. “Since we’re all friends here, we’re obviously going to try to avoid injury. Therefore, to win a duel, all you need to do is assume a clearly advantageous position, from which you could strike the other down at a moment’s notice. Having the tip of your blade at the other’s throat or chest will suffice.”
Jacob and I share a glance and nod.
“For Emma,” Dave goes on, “placing her Focus Crystal on a patch of uncovered skin of Jacob would also count, as she could easily incapacitate him by Infusing him with Toxic Energy.”
Dave pauses for a moment, raising a brow at Jacob, to see if he’ll protest.
Jacob grimaces but nods his agreement.
“Finally,” Dave continues, “since this is a competition to determine superior skill, not luck, we’re going to make it a best of five. That means whoever is the first to win three duels is the winner. Do you both agree to these rules?”
I blink. Huh. Well, that suits me just fine really. It’d be boring if it were over too quickly.
We both nod one last time. At the same time, I activate the second mode of Boost Physical. With this, my Strength should be 1 point higher than his. A small edge, but a useful one. After all, Strength doesn’t scale linearly. Of course, the difference in our Agility is far greater, and Jacob’s about to find out what that means.
Dave nods back, raises his hand, and solemnly proclaims, “Then, may the best fighter win.” His hand moves down in a cutting motion. “First duel, begin!”
Jacob doesn’t waste a second. Yellow light flashes from his sword-hand and he Charges forward shield-first, probably hoping to catch me off-guard and bash me to the ground for an early win.
Unfortunately for him, I was expecting as much. The Focus Crystal tied to my right hand is already filled with about five Onkh worth of Qi, which I immediately convert to Inertial Energy.
In the split second that he flies towards me, a pink vortex forms around my Focus Crystal that drains everything around it from its inertial mass. Most notably, me.
I jump up and forward, leaving behind the hardly visible mass of breaths I was hiding behind my back, and perform a Barani—a somersault with a 180-degree twist—over Jacob’s head as he charges into my trap.
He crashes into the balloon of Lavi that contains my six combined breaths, and I will it to twist around his limbs, immobilizing them as he takes a few more staggering steps forward.
My spear flashes and appears next to his throat.
Silence reigns for a second or two, before Dave softly declares, “Emma wins.”
I pull back my spear, then move my breath-balloon back behind me, quickly fusing my next exhale with it to maintain control.
Kaitlynn and Alec burst out in loud cheers.
Jacob drops to his knees when my breath-balloon stops supporting him. He sits there for a moment, before getting up and turning to me with a complicated expression.
“What...” he shakes his head. “Nevermind. That was amazing. But it won’t work on me twice.”
I smile. “We’ll see.”
We take up our positions again.
Alec and Kaitlynn are getting into it now, loudly cheering us on. Actually, only Kaitlynn seems to be cheering both of us on, Alec appears to be exclusively cheering for Jacob.
Little bastard. Maybe I can goad him into duelling me some time as well. I mean he is pretty stupid.
I clear my head of thoughts as Dave raises his arm once more.
“The score is one-nill to Emma. Second duel, begin!”
This time, Jacob is a lot warier about approaching me, so we start out slowly circling each other.
I could take the lead to attack, but my Breath Control techniques are actually more suited for defensive measures and counterattacks, so I stay my hand and wait for Jacob to make a move.
When it becomes apparent that I’m not going to do anything, Jacob jumps toward one of the soft but heavy straw training dummies and lightly touches it with his sword-hand.
A bright flash of yellow erupts, and the dummy suddenly comes flying towards me.
My first instinct is to jump over it, but that’s probably what he’s expecting me to do.
Instead, I move my breath-balloon in front of me and brace myself against it.
The dummy smashes into my breath-balloon, deforming it. I can feel its momentum try to push me back and attempt to hold my ground. In the end, I’m forced to take a few steps backwards, but the dummy also bounces back towards Jacob as he comes rushing over.
It doesn’t have the same kind of speed as it had coming towards me, however, so Jacob manages to nimbly step around it and lash out with his sword while I’m still on my back foot.
His sword cuts into my breath-balloon, full of pressurized Aether, and it bursts.
That’s six of my maximally compressed exhales. Now, if I had seen this coming, I probably could have used my remaining control to direct most of the resulting rush of Aether towards him. However, I didn’t, so the Aether bursts out in all directions and sends us both flying backwards.
However, this is exactly the kind of situation where the difference in our Agility becomes obvious. I nimbly land into a backwards roll and end up on my feet, ready to sprint forward, while Jacob lands on his back with a pained grunt.
Unfortunately, the distance between us is just large enough that he manages to get up in time to block my first jab with his shield.
I have the initiative now, however, so I stay on the offensive. I push him back with jabs and sweeps, keeping him on his back foot and off-balance. Meanwhile, I’m rebuilding my breath-balloon behind me. Three breaths... four breaths...
Jacob finds himself backed up against the wall, and launches himself off of it, attempting to bash me with his shield.
However, I was waiting for something like that.
Instead of dodging, I reach out with one of my hands and grasp onto his shield, then let myself fall backwards, pulling him with me.
His eyes widen as he stumbles and tips over on top of me.
The breath-balloon below me bulges as our combined weights land on top of it, but I manage to hold it together.
Meanwhile, my feet find his hips, and as the breath-balloon bounces back up, I push.
Jacob sails high through the Aether, nearly touching the ceiling as I finish my backwards roll over the breath-balloon onto my feet.
Just before Jacob lands on his ass, a flash of yellow erupts from his Focus Crystal, and he stops and hovers above the ground for a split second.
Then he resumes falling and gently lands on his butt, with his back towards me.
He scrambles to get up and turn around, but I’m already there, gently but firmly pressing my glowing Focus Crystal against the exposed skin on the side of his neck.
“Emma wins,” Dave intones again.
We get back into position. A heavy frown mars Jacob’s face.
Now Kaitlynn begins exclusively cheering on Jacob as well. I glare at the blue-haired traitor, but she just sticks her tongue out at me.
“The score is two-nill to Emma,” Dave intones. “Third duel, begin!”
Jacob immediately storms towards me. I raise my spear to keep him at bay, but he half-jumps past it before bashing it aside with his shield.
His sword hand stretches out towards me, the Focus Crystal tied to the back of his hand glowing bright yellow.
My eyes widen. Is he planning to Charge me from up close so I can’t dodge?!
I react by immediately forming a pink vortex around my own Focus Crystal, hoping to counter his move.
It could work too, to an extent. With both our inertial masses decreased, a collision between us would be like a collision between two dustbunnies. We might end up flying in somewhat unexpected directions, but it wouldn’t exactly be painful.
Unfortunately, I misunderstood his plan. And more importantly, the danger of mixing Increase Momentum and Decrease Inertia.
Jacob’s Focus Crystal flashes yellow as he uses Increase Momentum on me, right after I significantly lower my inertial mass.
For those unfamiliar with physics, momentum can be described as inertial mass multiplied by velocity.
As a result, I shoot back like a rocket.
Even more unfortunate, is the fact that the Inertial Energy spiral still emanating from my Focus Crystal quickly dissipates as I fly, thus my inertial mass is making a rapid recovery. Now, if conservation of momentum would apply as it does in the Entropic Realm, that would cause my speed would decrease. Unfortunately, this is the Realm of Crystals, so instead I’m only becoming much harder to decelerate.
I traverse half the living room in the blink of an eye. The only thing that saves me from splattering like a tomato on the wall, is a reflex.
One that I thankfully practised for hours yesterday: I turn my breath-balloon into an airbag.
I smash into it, and the weakened sections of the balloon burst, allowing it to rapidly deflate, and absorb most of the impact.
My head still cracks on the wall, which makes my vision go dark for a bit.
When it comes back, albeit blurrily, Jacob is kneeling in front of me, frantically shouting my name.
I wince as the tinnitus decreases and my hearing returns. “Oof, you don’t need to yell man.”
“Oh, thank god,” he breathes out.
“Emma, are you... okay?” Dave asks half-worried half-confused as he hurries over.
I blink owlishly at him, before nodding my head and slowly getting up. I touch the back of my head. No bump yet, but it’ll be there soon.
“Guess that’s a win for Jacob,” I say dryly.
Kaitlynn, sobbing, begins checking the back of my head and body with shaking fingers.
“Geeze, Emma, how are you standing?” Alec asks, baffled. “You were going, like, 80 miles an hour!”
Ah. Well, he’s probably exaggerating.
I smile at him. “I carry around an airbag nowadays, in case of an emergency.”
“You-you're really okay?” Kaitlynn sniffs questioningly.
I crack my neck and test my limbs before answering. My vision has returned to its normal clarity, and the tinnitus I was experiencing seems to be gone as well. “Yeah, I’m fine. Probably in part thanks to that,” I say, pointing at the Crystal of Restoration in the centre of the room. “Actually, that was very interesting,” I continue, “who knew the combination of our Skills could be so explosive. We should experiment with that sometime. But for now, let’s just finish up our match.”
“Aren’t you guys done fighting after this?” Kaitlynn pleads. “You almost died! Even if you just got seriously hurt it could mean the end; the next Trial starts in a little over an hour!”
I blink. “Well... technically neither of us has won yet.” I glance at Dave.
He shrugs. “If you guys decide to stop now it’s 2-1 to Emma, which means it’s Emma’s win.”
Jacob frowns, conflicted.
“How about this,” I suggest. “We continue, but without using Decrease Inertia and Increase Momentum. Actually, let’s make that without any Skills. Just plain combat. How about it?”
Jacob thinks for a second, then nods.
I glance at Kaitlynn.
She sighs. “Fine. Just be careful.”
We get in position.
To be honest, this deal is in Jacob’s favour, considering the number of Skills I have at my disposal.
Of course, I’ve still got Boost Physical active, but who’s gonna know?
We square off.
It quickly becomes apparent to me that his sword isn’t much of a threat considering my spear’s greater reach and my superior Agility.
His shield bash was actually his best chance of taking me out earlier, but without Increase Momentum, it’s just an obstacle for me to work around. I keep darting in and out of reach, taking swipes at him, while he can do little but defend. Eventually, I manage to trick him with a feint and sweep his legs out from under him.
With my spear aimed at his chest, I am announced the winner, at a score of 3-1.
Now that my superiority is re-established, it’s time for the next Trial.
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