The next morning, I find myself staring at the ceiling, mulling over the announcement from last night. Something about it is making my stomach twist... I just can’t figure out why they made a point of announcing it.
Alec appears less concerned, as he studies the scaly blue skin he spent the better part of an hour removing yesterday. There is a lot of meat left as well, of course. Alec cut it all into small strips before using up most of Dave’s salt to cure it. Now it’s all hung to dry on this framework of sticks Dave built to serve as a rudimentary drying rack.
“You know,” Alec says thoughtfully. “I’ve worked with leather before, for cosplay.”
Of course you have.
He shoots me a hopeful glance. “Maybe I could try whipping us up some armour?”
I narrow my eyes at him. “You’re not just trying to get out of training, are you?”
His face falls so abruptly that I have to force myself not to laugh.
“No but seriously,” he argues, “we’re going into combat, aren’t we?”
“The boy has a point,” Kaitlynn pipes up, eyeing the blue skin covetously.
I narrow my eyes at her. “You’re not just agreeing because you’d look amazing in blue leather armour, are you?”
She pouts at me. Darn, can’t say no to those puppy eyes...
I sit upright. “Fine,” I sigh melodramatically, “Alec can make you armour.”
Alec’s eye twitches as he watches Kaitlynn pounce on me for a hug. “I got what I wanted, yet why do I feel like a second-rate citizen?” he mumbles.
I ignore him, idly studying the back of her head from up-close. Huh, the blue colour of her hair extends all the way to her scalp... You’d expect to see some kind of roots showing by now with how long we’ve been in this realm. Odd.
Just as suddenly as she’d pounced, Kaitlynn releases me to jump up and give Alec a hug as well, bringing out a smile on him.
For some reason, the look on his face annoys me a little. “Just make sure it’s actually functional armour, and not pointlessly sexy cosplay armour,” I say dryly once Kaitlynn releases him.
“You could probably use my rock to carve some wooden tools,” Dave suggests. Right, ‘cause the toughness of the wood is still higher than that of the leather... smart.
But these are all distractions, something is still gnawing at me. I need to focus...
I take a deep breath, assume a lotus position, and let their idle chatter fade away in my lucid trance. A little while later, I open my eyes, frowning, clear on what I have to do. This is going to be... bothersome.
“Suri, could you, eh, show me that training results window again?”
[Who in the what now?]
“Suri...” I sigh.
[I’m sorry Emma, you’ll have to be a tad more specific.]
Ugh. A little while ago. I asked Suri about designing me a custom window, in which I could track the progress of our stats since arriving in Hub Two. She agreed, on the conditions that I get everyone’s permission to view and monitor their stats, and... that she would get to name the window.
From the corner of my eye I catch Kaitlynn looking at me in anticipatory glee. I sigh. “Suri, could you please open ‘Suri’s Super-Amazing Ultra-Custom Training Results Window!’?”
[Of course, Emma. All you had to do was ask,] Suri chimes smugly.
Ugh, you little—
Mmm, we really have made some excellent progress...
[How much longer are you planning to train, Emma?]
I roll my eyes and open my mouth, but then freeze. Was that... is Suri hinting at me to get a move on?
I was gunning for all of us to reach a strength and toughness of at least 11 but... I close my mouth and clench my jaw.
“All right, gang; listen closely. We’re done training. Time for the next phase; we’re going to collect one each of the Yin or Yang pearls, the Minor Lavi Crystals and the Stardrop Flowers, and level up.”
Unsurprisingly, the news is well-received. Seems like ears can ring in this dimension as well.
The Yin-Yang Temple is in the exact centre of Hub Two, and despite standing on a bluff, is still easily towered over by the enormous trees all around.
It has a weird style; it’s basically a large circular dome, covered in complicated geometrical shapes and twisted humanoid bodies who appear to be suffering from the after effects of terrible tortures...
Despite the lovely, familiar architecture, there’s actually a bunch of shacks built around it, and twenty or so people mulling about.
“It wasn’t this busy the last time we were here,” Alec mutters. Dave nods.
I shrug, even though the size of the crowd makes me slightly nervous. This place is making me paranoid... “All the better; we need information. But let’s check out the temple first.”
We get some wary glances as we weave our way past the shacks towards the centre of the impromptu slums, but nobody tries to stop us or anything. Still, we move cautiously, in a group.
Well, most of us. Alec is soon distracted by a stall selling different kinds of plants and simple items, like improvised cutlery made from carved sticks and cracked stones, with prices listed in jicca nuts.
“Ooh, maybe I can find some leatherworking tools,” he says excitedly as he veers off, “you guys go ahead; I’ll catch up!”
I facepalm. Dave shoots me a questioning look, but I wave my hand as if to say: let him go. The mood may be a bit sombre around here, but it doesn’t seem tense, so it should be safe enough. It’s not like Alec is carrying anything of value either.
And so we make our way towards the temple unhindered. Until we reach the actual doors, that is.
Leaning against the wall next to the entrance is a bored looking woman, with bottle-blond hair, a pierced nose, one blue eye and a grey crystal, decked out in all black. She holds up her hand, showing off the sleeve of tattoos on her arm as we walk up to the door. “Hold it. Entry permits, please.”
I blink at her. “Excuse me?”
She rolls her eyes. “I said: ‘Entry permits, puhlease.’”
“Yeah, I heard you the first time,” I respond irritably, folding my arms across my chest. “Who’s denying us entry, and why?” Dave subtly flanks me. Kaitlynn is mimicking my pose, and silently stares the woman down. Or well, glares up at her, really. It’d be cute if it weren’t such a tense moment.
...Who am I kidding, it’s cute regardless!
The woman blinks and pushes herself off the wall, “Ehm, look, it’s regulations, all right? I don’t make the rules, just enforce ‘em.”
“Is there a problem here?” a familiar voice questions behind us.
I turn to find my old pal Steve, arms carefully folded over his impressive chest, similarly dressed in all black. I can see a flash of recognition in his baby blue eye, which contrasts badly with his orange crystal. Well... this is awkward.
He walks over, arms dropping down his sides. Kaitlynn suddenly stands half in front of me, focus crystal at the ready. He blinks, slowing down.
I quickly reach for her shoulder. “Woah there, down girl!” I look back at Steve. “Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite.” Kaitlynn takes a step back, but keeps eyeing him warily.
Steve comes to a halt in front of me and coughs awkwardly. “Right... Well, Emma, I’m glad to see you made it.”
That... actually sounded pretty genuine. Even if he did emphasize my name a bit.
“Just to be clear, I’m not holding any grudges over Hub One... even though you initially caused a dangerous panic, what came from it was ultimately an improvement over the survival team I had—admittedly painstakingly—formed.”
...Sounds like you do still kind of hold a grudge, actually.
“Anyway, I came over because I’m currently head of the council’s enforcers; we’re trying to register all the survivors and establish rules and order among them.”
I raise a brow. “Rules like what, we need to buy a permit to enter the temple?”
“Ehm, no, actually. Only unregistered survivors are barred from entering. You guys are actually some of only a few unregistered survivors left.”
I exchange a glance with Dave, he frowns and shrugs minutely.
Agreed. I’d also rather not, but it doesn’t sound like we have a choice.
I sigh exaggeratedly. “All right then, Stevie-boy, show us where we can get registered.”
Stevie-boy leads us to a large hut, while Kaitlynn pokes and nags at him. And I mean the poking thing literally.
“Hey Stevie, those rules you were talking about, what do they say about people who try to take things from their rightful owners, like Mea—like Bruce?”
Steve, to his credit, endures the onslaught of annoyance like a pro. “Yes, we’ve had some complaints about him, though we seem to have managed to settle most of the disputes. Just FYI, he used up his last hunting permit yesterday; his group should have enough Minor Lavi Crystals to level up now, so if you see them hunting the Blue-Scaled Trigot, let us know.”
Well... that’s more than I’d expected.
“If you would enter the Council’s Hut please?” Steve asks, indicating the large shack we’ve arrived at. “Inside you can get registered with the Council’s secretary, and receive your hunting...” He trails off, frowning.
He nods unnecessarily and responds to someone we can’t see or hear. “All right, I’m on my way.”
He turns back to us, “Duty calls; see you around.” And he hurries off.
Alec comes walking over. “Hey guys, was that Steve? ... What? What did I miss?”
“Actually, he goes by Stevie now,” I deadpan. “It’s rude to assume gender, Alec.”
Unfortunately, even my poker face fails as Alec sputters, flails, and protests his innocence.
The Council’s Hut turns out to be partitioned. In the front part there’s a guy sitting behind a kind of makeshift desk—presumably the Council’s secretary—consisting of a large piece of bark on a pile of rocks. Before him stands a guy in tattered uniform, who looks vaguely familiar. Is that... Bruce’s flunky Emo-kid?
“Please,” Emo-kid says, his voice low, gravelly and tinged with desperation. “I don’t know where else to go.”
Sounds like he’s a former flunky. Yikes.
The secretary sighs. “Look, Jacob, we currently have 12 enforcers and 3 councilmembers. That means we have exactly enough people for three crews in the next trial. I don’t mind reviewing your application as an enforcer, but... it’s not going to solve your main problem.”
Emo-kid—whose name is ‘Jacob’, apparently—droops his shoulders and turns around. He flinches upon seeing Kaitlynn, then spots me and backs roughly into the desk behind him.
Oi oi, you can’t do that to a girl. You’re going to hurt my feelings, you know? At least I know for sure it’s him now.
Emo-kid squares his shoulders, raises his chin and makes his way out of the hut, glancing at us coolly but still giving us a wide berth as he passes by, leaving the secretary to stare after him in bemusement before turning to me.
“I have that effect on guys,” I deadpan.
Kaitlynn doubles over in laughter, hanging onto a bemused Dave.
I walk to the desk and grill the guy behind it about what this ‘registration’ entails, exactly. The first step is pretty innocuous: having your name carved into a large sheath of bark with a sharp shard of rock.
Apparently, the pens and pencils some people had on them when they got here, no longer work. Ink doesn’t dry, just runs off any paper people brought. Pencil tips just crumble, the toughness of the graphite too low to make any kind of lasting impression in this realm.
The second step is to accept the secretary as a friend in the social system. His name is Samuel, apparently. This way, they can monitor everyone’s locations... pretty smart. Also kinda creepy.
Though I suppose I could always unfriend Samuel the Secretary, if I really needed to hide from the council for some reason... All in all, it doesn’t sound too bad; everything at least seems to be on the up and up, so we get registered.
“How many Minor Lavi Crystal’s do you currently have?” he asks at the end.
“We don’t have any yet,” I lie glibly.
“Actually, we have one,” Alec answers, eyeing me confusedly.
Gee thanks, Narc-o Polo. The secretary raises a brow at me.
I roll my eyes and huff. “Fine, we have one.”
“Yes, that’s what we heard as well,” he says, glancing at Kaitlynn.
Damn, I guess Meathead is also a little Narc-y Drew.
“Since there are four of you, you can hunt three more Trigots,” he says, while handing us our hunting and temple permits. Which are also, you know, pieces of bark with carvings on them... is that a penguin? “Pick any spawn-location you deem fit to hunt, but let us know when you obtain the Minor Lavi Crystal. If you don’t tell us, we will ask around until we find out.”
Ooh, scary. “All right, thank you very much,” I say with a saccharine smile, before turning to leave.
“Oh, and one more thing, Emma... The Chair would like to see you.”
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My name is H.C. Mills and I am a Dutch author, actor, playwright and singer. I also teach physics, but please don't hold that against me.
I like to write about odd characters in extreme situations, and to try and walk that fine line between absurdity and realism. Other things I enjoy to write as well as read are hard magic systems, comedy, and romance.
I hope to become a full-time author one day, supported by a combination of royalties and lovely fans willing to be Patrons.
Therefore, aside from 'I Am Going To Die', I'm also working on a fantasy novel. My current main project is tentatively titled 'The Forbidden Element', and if you're a regular reader, you are bound to notice when and if it nears release.