Once we’ve handled the Trial Point donations for Alec’s Regeneration Skilldream, he gracefully agrees to help me and Dave with Meditation level 3, while Jacob and Kaitlynn go off to do their own thing. Neither of them has reached Meditation level 2 yet, after all.
Dave listens on with glistening eyes, while I impatiently sit through Alec’s explanation of some things I’ve already figured out, like the existence of a high-frequency signal over the flow of Lavi which needs to be manipulated in order to dim the various senses.
“The trickiest part of the Skill,” Alec explains, “is to dim the sense of ‘touch.’”
I sit up straight. Now we’re getting somewhere.
“The problem is, it’s not really just a sense of ‘touch,’ but more a sense of your whole body,” he continues. “There’s the sensation of your skin touching things, sure, but there’s also pressure deeper in your flesh from where you’re pressed into the ground by gravity, and a sense of the position of your joints, the stretching of your muscles and tendons, temperature, etcetera.
I frown. “Hold on, that sounds like they’re all separate; are we supposed to learn to dim these all individually as well?”
Alec shakes his head. “No. Thankfully, all of that information is jumbled together in one big stream, which passes through a large flow of Lavi up your spine, and that’s where you need to focus your attention. Because that’s the thing, our attention is always focused. Trying to spread that focus to encompass your whole body manually, well, good luck with that. Tapping into that flow is the only way to get a good sense of your whole body, without essentially tearing your mind apart.”
Huh. No wonder I wasn’t getting anywhere with touch. Or the sense of my body, I guess.
I thank Alec for the explanation, and quickly go isolate myself in my room.
Now that I know the path ahead, I quickly begin to progress again.
An hour or so later, I am able to get a sense of my whole body from the large flow of Lavi through my spine.
Now, it may sound like a normal thing, to have a sense of your whole body, but it’s not. It is weird.
In everyday life, what I feel of my body is constantly shifting. I may have a sudden itch somewhere, that seems impossible to ignore, but if I then stub my toe, it will completely drown out that itch. Or I may have a mosquito bite that’s driving me insane, and I can’t stop scratching it, while I actually have four others I don’t even notice.
When I tap into the sense of my whole body, I feel everything simultaneously. Every itch, every slight cramp, every hair brushing against the inside of my clothing, everything. Basically, all of the signals my brain usually filters out to focus on the important ones.
I have a sneaking suspicion it’s this sense of the whole body that’s the reason that Meditation level 3 is a prerequisite for Regeneration.
Anyway, a couple of hours after that, I finally manage to thoroughly dim the sense of my body. I finish off by cycling through my senses and dimming them one by one, to demonstrate the Skill.
A pop-up appears in front of me.
Now that I have the relevant level in the Skill, it instantly becomes a lot easier to dim my senses. Curious, I start to experiment a little, to see how far I can dim a sense, or how many I can dim at once.
When I try that last bit, something very interesting happens. The fewer senses I have ‘turned on,’ so to speak, the sharper they become.
And I don’t mean a little. I think I can hear Dave breathing in the next room over right now...
Definitely interesting. I’m sure this will come in handy.
I spend what little time remains before dinnertime playing around with Meditation level 3.
When Kaitlynn comes to fetch me for dinner, the living room already smells like seafood and meat. Looks like Alec really pulled out all the stops for this meal.
Once again, there’s a real celebratory, upbeat mood, and I’m quickly swept along in the laughter and conversation around the table.
Apparently, Alec decided there wasn’t enough time left for him to take a seven and a half hour Skilldream and attempt to gain a high-grade Skill, so he spent his time today fixing up armour and preparing for this awesome feast.
Meanwhile, Jacob spent 20 TP on a Skilldream for Respiration level 3 and finally managed to gain it. Dave made some good progress towards Meditation level 3 but didn’t succeed with it yet. However, when Kaitlynn tells us what she did today, I almost choke on a bite of yellow Trigot meat.
She worked on combining Astreum Manipulation and Breath Control.
Basically, she’s been inhaling Astreum, often burning her lungs to a crisp in the process, and relying on the Crystals of Lavi and Regeneration to keep her alive and patch her up.
“Told I was copying your playbook,” she says cheekily while meeting my wide-eyed gaze.
Alec nods, grinning widely. “Yeah, that sounds like something Emma would do.”
“It sounds like the exact thing she would do,” Jacob agrees dryly. “The only difference would be that she’d have done it way sooner.”
“B-but...” I stammer, trying and failing to come up with a rebuttal that wouldn’t be hypocritical.
“I even raised my Willpower,” Kaitlynn announces proudly, sticking her cute nose up in the air a little. “And by now, it doesn’t even hurt that much anymore, because I’m getting much better control over the Heat.”
I give up on finding something non-hypocritical to say and simply shake my head at her. “You masochist.”
They all jeer at me, and my innocent façade quickly cracks when the corners of my mouth curve up uncontrollably.
Dave clears his throat. “I think we should do something fun tonight, to celebrate making it this far. Maybe some party games?”
“Oh, frig yeah, we should totally have a party!” Alec exclaims. “It’s been ages since I’ve gotten drunk!”
I blink at him. “Ehm, I hate to burst your bubble Alec, but unless you’ve been carrying a bottle of vodka around with you all this time, I doubt we’ll be getting drunk anytime soon. Actually, even if you have, it might just have turned into Hydrum or something.”
“Hah! Shows what you know,” he says with a grin. “There’s booze in the Consumables Shopping Window now: it’s called Honey-Yam Mead.”
I look to Dave for confirmation.
“Oh yeah, after Hub Two, there were some additions to the consumables window,” he explains. “I believe Honey-Yam Mead is 2 TP a bottle. I’m not sure if we should be investing in that, however.”
“Oh, screw that,” Alec exclaims. “Look, I know this is easy for me to say, since I’m literally borrowing points from you guys right now and definitely can’t chip in, but life is short. Especially here. We’ve got like 36 hours left in here before we have to enter Hub Three. 36 hours in which we’re perfectly safe, and we’ve got no Trial to prepare for. If this isn’t the time to get drunk and celebrate, then when will it ever be?”
I purse my lips. “I do still need to take a very expensive Skilldream tomorrow... what if we get hangovers?”
Alec waves his hand dismissively. “You’ll be fine; from the description, I’m pretty sure the active ingredient in this stuff is Toxic Energy with some kind of Purpose, so you’ll probably be the least affected out of all of us.”
“That depends on how much I drink,” I retort, before sighing and relenting a little. “You have a point though; I guess I saved my bag of Doritos for long enough.”
“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” Alec cheers.
We continue our meal even more merrily than before.
In fact, I hardly notice when Jacob slips out after finishing his second bowl.
However, we all notice when he returns, carrying five bottles of Honey-Yam Mead.
He’s met with loud cheers and some protest.
“It’s fine,” he replies to the protestations. “I’ve still got plenty of Trial Points. I just wanted to chip in.” He furtively glances at Alec and offers a small smile.
Ah. He must’ve been feeling guilty for being the only one who didn’t jump up and offer points to Alec when he had the chance. What a softie.
Naturally, a round of hugs follows.
And that’s when the bottles open up. They’re large—I’d say at least a quarter gallon each—and made of a kind of crystal, with oddly styled labels featuring a Honeycomb Yam seemingly crushing a misshapen human to death, or something.
Right. That’s not ominous at all.
Oh well. Willingly and knowingly ingesting poison is what partying is all about, right?
I pop the cork off my bottle and take a careful whiff. It smells sweet and heady, definitely reminds me of the Honeycomb Yam.
The specks of energy that drift out into my view are almost entirely lacking in purple. They’re almost blue, perhaps closest to periwinkle, yet I still instinctively recognize it as Toxic Energy with some kind of Purpose.
I bring the bottle to my lips and take a sip.
My eyes widen. It’s good!
The mead tastes as sweet as it smells, and has a well-rounded, fruity flavour with a soft aftertaste. The energy inside doesn’t burn the way alcohol does, it’s more a cool, smooth feeling as it enters my meridians.
The way it rises to my head is definitely like alcohol, however.
Soon enough, the party is in full swing. We’re all talking and laughing extra loud, and even Jacob seems to relax for once.
When I finally break open my bag of Doritos, to find most of them in crumbs, I laugh until I cry. Still, we eat the contents almost reverently, shouting in joy when we find a whole one, and licking off our fingers afterwards.
I’m definitely less affected by the energy than the rest, so in order to rectify this, I end up spending two points on a second bottle of mead for myself. I’ll have to make do with this, because I now have exactly 100 points left for my Skilldream tomorrow.
At some point, the wild exuberance dies down, and a more mellow, melancholic atmosphere descends into the living room.
Jacob gets up and raises his bottle.
“I wanna make a toast,” he says thickly. “To the dead.”
The atmosphere turns straight to solemn, almost sombre.
We lift our bottles.
“May the ones who died in this Realm, rest in peace,” Jacob intones, articulating surprisingly well.
“May they rest in peace,” we echo.
I can’t help but think of Fat Misty. Poor girl. She deserved better. We all did.
Although I have to say, in a strange way I also feel blessed. I look around at my friends and am overwhelmed by a rush of emotion.
Suddenly I’m on my feet, albeit somewhat unsteadily.
“I would like to... apologize,” I end up saying. I frown. Where am I going with this? “For keeping secrets.”
Ah, that’s where I’m going with this.
They all look at me, silently. Dave’s frowning. Still a bit of a sore subject, this, I guess.
“To tell you the truth, I already got the Charm stat back in Hub 2, when I levelled,” I confess. “I wanted to tell you guys about it, back then, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. Also, we had bigger things on our mind, with Kaitlynn being kidnapped and all... and Suri advised me not to tell you, but that’s no excuse.”
I take a deep breath and attempt to organize my thoughts.
“Then we left Hub 2, and I found out what it meant, and I had a new reason to keep it from you all, as it would lose its effectiveness if you knew about it. And also... I was afraid of telling you.”
“Did you not trust us?” Dave asks quietly.
Tears well up in my eyes. “That’s not it! Trust wasn’t the issue, I do trust you all. It’s just...”
I flop back down on the couch and swallow thickly. “I... never had a lot of friends. Most of the friends I had were guys too, for various reasons. Don’t get me wrong; guys make good friends. They wear their emotions on their sleeve, they tell you exactly what they mean, and they’re always willing to help. But there’s always this niggling doubt in the back of my mind, you know. Are they my friend because they think I’m cool, or because they think I’m hot?”
I wipe away some tears, avoiding eye-contact with the rest.
“Anyway, the thing is, I was about to go nuts before I reached Hub Two. I’d never realized how much I needed, craved human contact, and I was so happy to find it in you guys. And then came this stat, and part of me worried that if you knew about it, you would start to doubt if you actually liked me for me, or if it were just my ‘Charm.’ And honestly, maybe I’ve just grown numb to the danger, but at this point, I’m more afraid of losing you guys than I am of dying.”
Silence follows my surprisingly heartfelt speech and I reflect on the things I just said.
Huh. This mead is good stuff. It’s like, I didn’t even know I felt half that stuff.
I give my second bottle an appreciative glance and take another sip.
“Idiot,” Jacob says quietly, fondly.
“It sounds kind of silly now that you’re saying it out loud, doesn’t it?” Kaitlynn says, smiling through her tears.
“You know we all owe you our lives at least once, right?” Alec says, surprisingly with tears coming from his eye-less sockets as well. “Dave would be dead if it weren’t for the Power-Up you gave him. Jacob would be dead if we hadn’t gotten his pearl back. Kaitlynn would be worse than dead... let’s not talk about that. And I... I wouldn’t have survived levelling up if you hadn’t forced me to train my Willpower. I would’ve died in Trial 4 if you hadn’t persisted like a maniac in getting my eye-crystal back—don’t give me that look, I would’ve entered that hut with or without you.”
He sighs. “Hell, the only reason we all made it out of Trial 5 alive is that you attacked Bubbles like an raging lioness, and then you took the hardest enemy in Trial 6. Honestly, you’re like a sister to me. A super-annoying, constantly-nagging, but over-protective sister that I love to death.”
This is more than I can handle. Thankfully, Dave stands up with tears glistening in his eyes, and breaks the uncomfortably sentimental moment by saying, “I have something to confess as well.”
We all turn to him.
“I, ehm, lied about something. Way in the beginning, when we just got here. My girlfriend and I weren’t going to get a puppy.”
I can’t help but smile confusedly at the absurdity of the statement. “Were you... going to get a kitten?”
He smiles sadly. “No. We were going to have a baby. My girlfriend’s pregnant.”
You could hear a pin drop in the silence that follows that statement.
Dave takes a deep, shuddering breath. “I bent the truth a little, because I wasn’t ready to talk about it, and yet, wanted to share a bit of my grief, I guess.”
“Had you been trying long?” Kaitlynn asks quietly.
Dave shakes his head. “No. It was an accident, but we were keeping it. That’s why we moved in together so quickly; we were preparing for the arrival of our... our daughter. I shouldn’t have gone to the Con, I knew I shouldn’t, but I wanted to surprise her.”
“Surprise her?’ Kaitlynn frowns. “With what?”
“With this,” he says with a sigh, before pulling out a small square box.
“That’s right,” Dave says emotionlessly, opening the box to reveal a ring. “This is what I came to the Con for; it’s a replica of Nenya, the White Ring. I was going to propose.”
A silence falls, before we pretty much pile onto him, hugging him from all sides.
After half a minute in the pile, I glance at Alec and hook a tether onto him. <What’s Nenya?>
<It’s Galadriel’s ring,> the answer comes almost immediately.
I frown minutely. <That’s an elf, right?>
<Oh my god, Emma, yes, that’s an elf. It’s from Lord of the Rings.>
Right. I knew that.
“I have to get back, you guys,” Dave whispers. “There has to be a way. God, if I hadn’t gone, we’d be picking out flowers right about now.”
Seeing the wreck that is Dave right now breaks my heart. Suddenly, a sense of calm determination washes over me.
I extract myself from the pile to look at him. “Ifs and onlys are futile, Dave. We’re here, and we have to deal, one way or another. Take every day as it comes.”
“I know, but...” he takes another deep, shuddering breath. “She’s going to be a single mom now. I’m not even sure if she’ll be able to make rent. I have to get back, Emma, I have to!”
“You will, Dave,” I say, somehow convinced of the truth of it. “We’ll find a way. Any way.”
I then tell them about my long-forgotten theory that the concepts of Yin and Yang originated from the Realm of Crystals and found their way into ours. Which implies there is a way to get there, from here.
I’m not sure if it makes him feel better, but at the very least, it relights some of the fire in his eyes.
Next week, the end of Book 2! (No need to worry though: the story will continue into Book 3 the week after. ;) )
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