When I glance at my Status Bar the next morning, I’m pleasantly surprised.
My Espir pool increased by one! Sweet.
Perhaps Visiting is a better way to grow it than just emptying my Espir Pool and allowing it to fill up again as I sleep. Or the timing is just a coincidence. We’ll see.
[Ah, you’re up,] Suri chimes. [Good. Now, do me a favour and get rid of some of that excess Espir.]
‘Excuse me?’ I send back.
[Well, we wouldn’t want to risk you conjuring up another Dreamscape by accident, now would we? It seems prudent for you to maintain a low level of Espir whenever possible.]
Damn. Not that I was planning on visiting the Realm of Imagination again so soon, but this could put a serious dampener on my plans to do so in the future.
‘Don’t you think you’re overreacting a little?’ I try. ‘I mean I’m fine, aren’t I? And it’s not like I’m about to take another nap.’
[Your wellbeing is frankly a lesser concern compared to your rule breaking—intentional or not—being discovered. Even if we fail to prevent another episode, taking active measures to prevent any further rule breaking might go a long way to convince your predecessors that your transgressions were truly involuntary and harmless.]
Damn. Guess I’m not talking my way out of this one.
‘So you’re saying I shouldn’t be walking around with a loaded gun if I’m going to claim the previous time I shot someone was an accident?’
[Once again, your analogy is as subtle as a brick through a window, but—put crudely—yes. Now hop to it.]
‘All right, hold your horses, I’m going.’
With a sigh, I head for Loudmouth’s hut. Truth be told, I was about to head there anyway.
A dose of Dreamcloud Energy makes the froggo’s eyes glaze over, and when I turn on the Charm the corners of his mouth curve up in a dopey grin. I’m getting good at this!
I release him from his bindings to allow him to stretch out. He’s not a threat to me physically anyway, and moreover, seems to honestly believe we’re friends by now.
“So, how are we doing this morning, Loudmouth?” I ask, batting my eyelashes.
Loudmouth’s grin slowly fades. “Loudmouth feels a little down,” he admits, speaking much softer than usual. Kind of like a normal conversational level. “Loudmouth misses mister Twinstar.”
I blink. “Is that so?”
Loudmouth nods with a frown. “You said Loudmouth could have friend.” He rubs his newly released wrists and gives me a look that’s mostly confused. “Why Loudmouth still need to stay in room?”
I suck in a breath and sit back to study him for a bit.
From what I’ve seen so far, Loudmouth is either utterly incapable of subterfuge, or extremely good at it. No, honestly, I refuse to believe he’s faking his personality. Time to take a chance.
“You know what? You’re right, Loudmouth. It’s high time I allowed you outside.”
He perks up at my words, and beams at me like I’m the nicest person in the world. My heart aches a little at the sight.
I clear my throat. “However, first I need to tell you why we were keeping you in here... you see, something happened to your village.”
Loudmouths eyes go wide. “Really? What happen?”
I sigh, hitting Loudmouth with another dose of Dreamcloud Energy with my exhale. “It was attacked,” I tell him sombrely. “By these giant hermit crabs.”
Loudmouth puffs out his cheeks in confusion. “Crabs? Oh, halid! The halid came here and attacked?!”
Right, that’s what they’re called. Thank you, objective meaning!
I nod. “Yup. Sure did, those bastards. When we came in to make friends with your people, we found them slaughtering the whole village!”
Loudmouth gasps. “No!”
“Yes, I’m afraid so, Loudmouth.”
“All dead?” he asks, relatively softly.
I nod. “Sorry friend. We killed the hermit cra—the halid, of course, but it was already too late. Anyway, we, ehm, we wanted to spare you the sight of what they did of your people, so we kept you inside while we cleaned up.”
Loudmouth stares at me for a moment, looking utterly moved. Then he clasps his hands, squats down, and bows his head towards me. “Doing this for Loudmouth... friends are too kind. Too kind!”
I fight hard to keep the guilt off my face. “That’s all right, Loudmouth. Don’t mention it. Anyway, the village is clean now, so if you want, you can come outside with me, and meet the rest of your friends.”
“Loudmouth has more friends?!”
“You will soon, buddy. You will soon.”
The sight of his empty, partially destroyed village turns Loudmouth uncharacteristically silent. Though we’ve removed all of the dead froggos, there are still splatters of green goop on some walls. I walk around for a bit with him, and explain to him that there are still some hungry looking halid lurking around the island with a taste for froggo meat, so he should under no circumstances attempt to leave by himself.
I lay off when he looks suitably frightened and bring him along to our hang spot on the beach for breakfast.
Kaitlynn greets Loudmouth enthusiastically, even going so far as to hug his slimy skin. The boys seem a little bemused, but I quickly hook a tether into Dave and explain the story I’ve fed Loudmouth.
Dave looks a little squeamish. <I can’t say I’m a fan of all this lying.>
I shrug. <Yeah, well, we need every advantage we can get, so I’d say we’re not in a position to take the high road. Also, is this really any worse than what we’ve done to the rest of his village?>
He sighs. <I suppose I can see the necessity of a few half-truths. I’ll pass on the story to the rest.>
Loudmouth’s usual breakfast is enriched with some boiled cockles, which he loudly enjoys.
Though the sounds are pretty obnoxious, watching him eat with his whip-like tongue is kind of a marvel.
Even if it gives me flashbacks to that asshole chief who stole Alec’s eye-crystal.
Kaitlynn is especially intrigued, so she takes to throwing up morsels for Loudmouth to snatch out of the Aether. The game quickly escalates, and as soon as breakfast is finished, they’re off to play on the beach, with Kaitlynn lobbing things for Loudmouth to snatch.
It’s kind of like she’s entertaining a pet.
Anyway, while they play, the rest of us discuss our plans for the day. After yesterday’s success, Alec and Jacob are raring to go on another hunt. I drag my feet a little, but Alec promises to work very seriously on his breathing in the kayak on the way over, and I give in. Dragging the kayak worked pretty well last time, so as long as we keep a look out for raids, we should be fine.
The crystal we’re currently most in need of is actually the Major Toxic Energy Crystal I need to level up.
“However,” I say, “I think that’s a bit risky for our second hunt as a team. I don’t mind waiting a bit; I can temper Cold for a while.”
I considered continuing my tempering for Toxic Energy, but the rewards are getting incrementally smaller, and I’m pretty sure the level up process is designed to push me past 50% anyway. It might even be the only way to get past it.
Dave hesitates, then nods. “A little more practice probably can’t hurt.”
Jacob frowns. “We shouldn’t postpone it for too long though, having the first person in the Hub that reaches level 3 would be a great boon.”
“Not too long,” I promise. “Now, I believe the crystals we’re most in need of after that are Electric Crystals for Alec and Radiation Crystals for Dave.”
“Let’s go with Dave’s crystals,” Alec says quickly. “I mean, I can temper more often than he, so it wouldn’t be so bad if I’m forced to skip a few sessions.”
I narrow my eyes at him.
“Conversely,” Dave says with a hint of a smile, “since you can temper more often, you would miss more sessions if you ran out of crystals, so maybe we should prioritize Electric Crystals after all.”
I roll my eyes. “Honestly, we only use up a total of two crystals a day. There’s little chance of anyone running out if we hunt regularly. That said, I don’t doubt our ability to hunt some urudo for Electric Crystals, so I would prefer to go check out the Area with the Radiation Crystals.”
Alec is the first to agree, Dave and Jacob are fine with it, so the decision is made. I only run into trouble when I inform Kaitlynn that we’re heading out.
Loudmouth hops over, looking worried. “Heading out? Where are friends going? Can Loudmouth come?”
I shake my head. “Sorry buddy, it’s too dangerous where we’re going.”
Loudmouth’s face falls. “But... what if the halid come for Loudmouth! Loudmouth scared!”
I quickly avert my gaze from his woeful expression, but make the mistake of turning to Kaitlynn’s pout in the process.
Loudmouth seems very happy to be in the Hydrum again for once, and he takes his job of helping to pull the kayak very seriously. He’s a good swimmer, though not as fast as Kaitlynn and Dave, let alone me, so I’m not too worried about him escaping. Not that that seems to be on his mind, or even anywhere near it.
At least, not until we approach our destination.
Loudmouth slows down, his eyes darting back and forth, and then moves up to breach the surface. Kaitlynn immediately follows him. Dave and I share a glance then swim up as well.
“What’s the matter, Loudmouth?” Kaitlynn asks.
“Bad!” Loudmouth croaks loudly. “Bad place! Friends shouldn’t go there!”
“We have to, Loudmouth,” I explain. “We need Radiation Crystals.”
“No,” he croaks, emphatically shaking his head. “Friends don’t need crystals. Crystals nice and shiny, but life more important. Friends shouldn’t go there!”
Dave clears his throat. “Loudmouth, what exactly is so bad? Can you explain?”
“Danger, invisible!” Loudmouth croaks, eyes glancing all around in paranoia. “Death, invisible!”
I catch his wrist to grab his attention and throw in a bit of Charm. “Please, Loudmouth... calm down.”
It works. Loudmouth relaxes and smiles dopily.
I don’t realise my mistake until I register Kaitlynn’s gasp.
I freeze in my current position.
Kaitlynn blushes and evades my gaze. Jacob is suddenly very intrigued by Alec’s back, seated in front of him in the kayak. Dave gives me an inscrutable look before shrugging.
I scratch the back of my neck with a wry smile. Whoops. Sorry guys.
Alec looks around in confusion. “Guys? What’s going on? Ow! Jacob, why’d you kick me?!”
I apply my palm to my face. It’s a good thing we have telepathy, cause this guy is clueless.
Anyway, now that Loudmouth is a bit calmer, we manage to get out of him that he doesn’t really know why it’s ‘bad’ just that there’s ‘invisible danger,’ and that he knows ‘very not many’ Hoig come back from hunting raids there.
We convince him to push on a bit farther with us, but soon run into a problem.
The Hydrum has been steadily getting hotter around us, which is pretty uncomfortable, but it turns out not to be the only type of energy around here. The whole area is irradiated.
Invisible danger indeed.
Judging from my Status Window, it’s pretty dangerous stuff too.
The amount of Lavi Radiation Energy consumes is high, like Toxic Energy. However, the amount I’m exactly over the limit fluctuates a lot while I watch, which gives me a good idea of how fleeting the effect is. The Radiation seems to instantly pass through my body, the only reason it appears on the window at all must be that there’s a constant supply. More like a constant barrage.
What’s weird, however, is that some of the others appear to be receiving a higher dose. Almost twice as high, which borders on dangerous for some. The only other one who is doing relatively well is Dave, as he has already received his first Radiation tempering, but he’s still receiving the same high dose as the others. It just affects him less.
Frowning at my Status Window, I only get an inkling about why I seem exempt when I happen to catch the remaining Toxic Energy in my system tick down.
“Ah!” Dave exclaims when I state my suspicion. “It must be some kind of annihilation process! The Toxic Energy in your body is shielding you from the Radiation, but being destroyed in the process.”
“Like a kind of toxic iodine pills?” Jacob offers.
Dave shakes his head. “Not really, to be honest. Iodine pills have a very specific purpose, and that’s to help keep radioactive Iodine from accumulating in the thyroid. They don’t exactly shield—”
“Save the lecture for later, Dave,” I interject, “this isn’t the time or the place.” He closes his mouth and nods. “Anyway, it seems like this place is truly as bad as Loudmouth claims. Still, I’d like to continue on with Dave for a bit, see if we can at least find out what kind of creature lurks here, and if hunting them is feasible. Worst case scenario, Dave will have to settle for tempering a different kind of energy.”
The rest is reluctant to let us go—Jacob and Alec since they were looking forward to the hunt, Kaitlynn for... other reasons—but they ultimately agree to take Loudmouth and head back to the nearest small island and wait for us there.
Dave and I head in slowly, with our weapons at the ready, and constantly monitor the amount of Radiation we receive. My heart thumps rapidly inside my rib cage, but I tell myself I’m being silly. Dave and I can retreat very quickly when we don’t need to drag a kayak.
It feels like my heartbeat has gotten stronger at some point. I wonder if that’s due to my Strength picking up. If my Toughness were too low, would it break my ribs?
Anyway, the Radiation slowly picks up to the point where I feel a kind of creepy burning sensation in my bones, but the damage it does remains within bearable parameters. The source soon becomes readily apparent, as I catch glimpses of a sickly yellowish-green glow coming from various rocky outcrops sticking out of the sandy under-Hydrum floor.
Deposits of tiny crystals, like in the cave with the Giant Oysters, but then the sucky kind.
We steer well clear of those. It’s a good thing there’s so much Hydrum to weaken the Radiation, or this would be a no-go zone.
The Hydrum is getting hotter as well as we continue, which makes a slight chill against my hip stand out. I frown and struggle a bit to reach into my pants pocket beneath my armour, and pull out a tied-shut cockle that contains the Minor Toxic Crystal that I’ve been carrying around in case we ever get desperate enough to attempt to use it as a grenade.
Curious, I unwrap it, and pull it out.
That’s odd. I’m used to these being cool to the touch, but this one seems to be actively giving off pulses of Cold.
I blanch. Oh crap, I brought this into an area full of Radiation! ‘Shit! Suri, is this thing about to blow?’
[Hmm? Oh, no, don’t worry. It takes a much larger dose of Yin-Yang opposite energy to destabilize an Energy Crystal, even one this small. It’s just reacting a little, that’s all.]
I frown. Bigger Energy Crystals are more stable? Somehow that seems counterintuitive.
Dave raises a brow at me, so I Telepathically explain what happened.
<Interesting,> he sends back. <That thing produces Toxic Energy, right? Perhaps you should stick it close to your skin so you can absorb some, replenish what’s being burned away.>
I blink. That’s actually a really good idea. It only produces like 0.1 Onkh per minute, if I recall correctly, but every little bit counts out here.
I put the empty cockle back in my pocket and tuck the crystal down the front of my cuirass. The pulses of Cold it gives off against my bare flesh are a little creepy, but at least this way I would notice if they change in some way. Does the frequency of the pulses correlate with the level of Radiation? If so, I could use this like a kind of Geiger counter.
Guess I’ll just have to keep a close eye on it. Not that there’s much else going on anyway.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any living creatures around in a while. Could it be that the Radiation kills everything around here?
I frown. ‘Suri, could you show me my Lavi Flows Window please?’
Damn, I knew it. Lowered Lavi conditions, only about 80% of the normal amount. If it gets much worse than this, we’ll have to turn ar—
A light down below catches my attention. Is that... a Radiation Crystal? I swim a little closer to try and make out the colour, but it’s difficult to determine. It kinda seems like every time I’ve figured out what the colour is, the hue shifts a little, making me have to start all over again. It’s getting a little frustrating, but I can tell I’m on the edge of figuring it—
<Emma!> Dave’s voice suddenly echoes in my head. I frown, annoyed at the interruption, but decide to let it slide. I’m so close to—
<EMMA, WATCH OUT!>
I blink, my concentration broken, and as my focus shifts from the mesmerising light in front of me, I catch sight of the gaping maw full of freakishly large teeth behind it.
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