Dave is the one who accompanies me down into the caves this fine evening. It’s the ninth night since we’ve taken this island, which makes this his third tempering and my fifth.
I’m tense, and it’s not about Kaitlynn right now. It’s not.
The first time I levelled up I nearly died because of the Toxic Energy still in my system. Now I’m supposed to level up with the help of Toxic Energy, ironically enough.
This is going to hurt like hell. I’m positive.
Dave glances over once in a while but doesn’t comment on the way I’m grinding my jaws or how I’m clutching the Major Toxic Energy Crystal in my bare hands.
Soon enough, we’re looking out over the pool.
I scratch my neck. “Sooo... Suri told me I’m going to have to undress for this one unless I want to lose my clothes.”
Dave looks over at me, startled. A rare flush works its way up his already red-tinted cheeks. “Right. I’ll go on in then, and make sure to keep my eyes on my oyster.” He stiffly steps up to the edge, then hesitates and turns. “You’ve got this, Emma,” he says with a smile. “See you afterwards.”
He gives my shoulder a squeeze and then hops in.
I take a deep breath and start untying my armour.
I use Meditate pre-emptively to stave off unwanted sensations as I climb in, but still...
For a moment, I hold onto the hope that, apart from my lack of clothing, this is just going to be like a regular tempering. However, the second my Major Toxic Energy Crystal drops into the oyster, it stirs into a frenzy.
The shell slams shut with unprecedented force, and massive amounts of Lavi, Qi, and Toxic Energy spill into its interior.
My unprotected skin prickles all over as the unchecked energies pour into me from all sides, but especially through the Hydrum I inhale. I snap my mouth closed in an effort to keep it out.
[Just keep breathing, Emma, you’re doing great,] Suri chimes.
I shake my head. ‘Nuh-uh, don’t think so,’ I send back.
Already I can feel the tell-tale burn of invasive Toxic Energy making its way through my body.
The energy continues to grow more concentrated until the Hydrum inside the oyster glows so brightly that it hurts my eyes and I have to squeeze them shut.
[It’s okay, Emma, do me a favour and Meditate,] Suri chimes. [Leave it all to me.]
My skin is freezing, my muscles are cramping, my head is spinning, and my meridians are on fire, so I clamp onto this particular idea like a lifeline and attempt to shut out the sensations bombarding me from all sides.
Only they grow more intense even as I try to dim them. The light becomes brighter, the pain sharper, and it’s not—it’s not enough.
‘I can’t take it,’ I send back. ‘I’m sorry—it’s too much!’
I push against the oyster’s shell, but it doesn’t budge. My fist slams into it next, but it’s like punching a wall.
[Don’t worry, Emma, you’ll pass out soon, and I’ll take care of the rest.]
I scream and sob silently while I continue pounding the lid of my soon-to-be coffin, as my vocal cords still don’t work on Hydrum.
After what feels like an eternity of complete overstimulation—but is probably only like a minute or so—everything goes white.
I wake abruptly as the oyster unceremoniously regurgitates me into the Hydrum around it. I glance around and find my uniform in the sand next to the oyster, right where I left it. I quickly pull it on and make my way up.
When I breach the surface, Dave looks up in relief from where he’s sitting against the cave wall, next to my discarded armour. “Emma! Thank goodness. I was getting worried; it’d almost been an hour.”
I climb out of the little cave-pool and do some stretches on its shore. “Nothing to worry about, I feel fine. Great, even.”
He looks me up and down as I test my various limbs. “Looks like you’ve experienced some physical changes again, as well. But I guess that was to be expected.”
I stop stretching and study my hands with a grimace. My nails have once again gotten longer and sharper, and my skin is even more purple. I reach up to feel my horns, and they’re no longer the cute two-inch things they used to be, but closer to a young ram’s horns now.
“Great,” I reply with a sigh. “Let’s hope my armour still fits.”
Anyway, I really do feel good. Strong. Like I could deadlift a horse.
A window pops up in front of me. Suri is really getting better at timing these.
Damn. Maybe I could deadlift a horse. With Boost Physical’s first mode, I’d get up to a Strength of 19. Suri once said every 5 points of Strength would double the force I can exert, so with 19, I’d be almost four times as strong as an average man.
Mmm. Maybe a small horse.
Kind of a pity that my Espir didn’t increase. Not that I really expected it, since levelling up seems to be a physical thing, as it doesn’t affect any mental stats.
Except, that’s not entirely true... I gained Charm from levelling. In fact, I unlocked Charm the first time I levelled.
That’s pretty weird. It seems to have something to do with my Toxic Energy Tolerance, but does that mean my body has an effect on the people I use my Charm on, or does it mean the Toxic Energy is affecting my mind to make me more Charming?
Shit. Let’s hope it’s the former.
Dave slides up next to me, startling me out of my reverie. “Can I see?”
I nod and ask Suri to show him.
Dave looks it over and hums. “Should probably check out your Status Window too.”
He glances at me surreptitiously.
I smirk. “Subtle, Dave. But sure, you can take a look. I’m not in the business of keeping secrets anymore.” Well, nothing important anyway; not the kind you can spot on a status Window. “Suri?”
Dave lets out a low whistle. “A limit of 156 Onkh Toxic Energy? That’s crazy.”
I frown at the window. “Yeah... But where’s my Radiation Tolerance?”
Dave blinks. “Emma, have you always had the Toxic subtype?”
I purse my lips. “No. No, I haven’t. Suri, what’s going on?”
[It’s just as it says, Emma. Your body has gained an affinity for Toxic Energy when you broke through 50%. With practice, you will be able to control the Toxic Energy inside your body as your own.]
“That’s great, but what about my Radiation Tolerance?”
[A small price to pay. You’ll have to rely on the Toxic Energy in your own body to protect you from Radiation from now on; not that you weren’t doing that already.]
I nod slowly. Still, the loss smarts, as it was the first Yang-type Tolerance where I was actually making some headway.
I frown. “What happens if I push another Tolerance to 50%?”
[I’m afraid that won’t be possible.]
I blink. “Excuse me?”
[You can only have one affinity. Your other Yin Tolerances can get infinitely close, but will never reach 50%.]
“What about my Yang Tolerances?” I hear myself ask reflexively, even as I reel from the news.
Suri laughs. [Good one.]
I gape like a fish for a moment.
[Oh, you were serious? Well, let’s just say no known being has ever gotten past a 17% Tolerance for an energy type of the opposing affinity, and leave it at that.]
I shake my head. Dave looks at me questioningly, and I explain Suri’s half of the conversation to him.
He sucks in a breath. “So, it would seem our choice of energy type to temper ourselves in is rather... permanent.” He looks at me apologetically. “This is certainly not the most pleasant way to find out.”
I nod numbly. Then I shake my head. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Even if I’d known, I wouldn’t have chosen differently. Besides, we don’t plan on staying in this Realm anyway.”
Dave stares at me for a moment longer, then seems to accept what I say at face value, and turns back to the window.
His eyes flit over the window for a moment longer before his brows shoot up. “You raised your Willpower to 16? How did that happen?”
I try my best not to flinch. “Oh, ehm, epic staring contest with Jacob. I won.” He bought that, right? “Anyway, are you done gawking?”
He nods. I wave the window away and start pulling on my armour to see if it still fits.
It does, though it’s again gotten a little tighter around the chest. This better not be, like, the physical manifestation of Charm, ‘cause that would be some bullshit.
There’s some leeway in the straps still, thankfully. I may have to ask Alec to adjust it again though, so there aren’t any gaps at my sides.
Dave scratches his neck as I fiddle with my armour. “Anyway, I didn’t want to distract you earlier, so I figured I’d bring this up after you’d levelled...”
I frown. “Bring what up?”
He clears his throat. “The, ehm, the thing between you and Kaitlynn.”
I freeze. My heart starts to pound. “What thing?”
Damnit, I answered too fast!
Dave shakes his head with a small smile. “I’m not blind, Emma.”
Damnit, I knew he’d seen something after the hunt!
I swallow. “Look, I don’t know what you think you saw, but I can assure you there’s no thing.”
Dave’s face falls, a muscle in his cheek twitches. “I thought we were done with this, Emma. Why do you keep lying? Do you really think—”
“I’m not lying!” I interrupt. Not well, at least. Get it together, Emma! “And if I were, it’s because you’re prying into something that doesn’t concern you!”
Dave folds his arms in front of his chest. “Well, that’s not how Kaitlynn tells it.”
My blood surges to my head, colouring my cheeks and making me dizzy. “She told you?” I ask softly.
Too softly, perhaps. Dave doesn’t hear the danger in my voice.
“Yes,” he bites out. “She did.”
Bile rises up in my throat, and I swallow it back down, back into the pit of filth brewing in my stomach.
“And it does concern me,” he continues. “In fact, I’m very concerned about your habit of keeping secrets and lying; this shit could seriously affect our teamwork, Emma! We all know Jacob’s gay, and no-one bats an—”
“I’M NOT GAY!” I scream at him. The unintentional blast of breath that accompanies my outburst knocks him off his feet. I flinch when he lands on his ass, but he looks more shocked than hurt, so he’s probably fine.
He stares up at me, wide-eyed and speechless. My heart pounds in my ears and my breath comes rapidly. I ball my hands into fists to hide the shaking.
“Sorry about that, but I-I can’t deal with this right now,” I stammer before turning around and breaking into a run. He calls after me, but I’m in no state of mind to listen.
At first, my feet just carry me away, out through the tunnel into the night, hoping that some fresh Aether will help me breathe.
Turns out you can’t outrun guilt or shame. So, instead, I focus on what’s still bubbling beneath it.
It seems there’s a conversation I have postponed for too long.
Thoughts go round and round in my head as I pace towards my and Kaitlynn’s hut. By the time I storm in, one thought, in particular, stands out.
How could she?
Kaitlynn lights up when she sees me. “Emma!”
“You told Dave,” I blurt out.
She blinks. “What? What are you... Oh. Yeah, I-I did. I’m sorry, I just—”
“How could you?” I practically hiss. “I asked you not to tell anyone!”
She blanches and takes a step back. “I was drunk, okay? And that was like, two weeks ago!”
“What, does that somehow negate my request for some friggin’ privacy? Non-disclosure agreements usually don’t come with a two-week invalidation clause, you know!”
It hurts to see her like this, but I’m so angry. It’s like all of the ugliness, the bile in my stomach just has to come out, and it deserves to hurt. I deserve to hurt.
Kaitlynn throws her hands up. “What do you want from me, Emma?!” she yells. “I can’t exactly take it back!”
I don’t really have an answer for that. “No shit, Kait. Tell me something I don’t know.”
She stares at me. “Fine, I will. Did you know that I had already resigned myself that you didn’t like girls—that you didn’t like me—back in Hub Two?”
I blink, caught off-guard by the sudden confession.
“Oh yeah, I was already crushing on you hard, even back then,” she continues, building up momentum. “You had me all up in knots because it seemed like you were flirting back, but at the same time, you would laugh off any remark about the two of us being together like that. But then, after the Sixth Trial, you go and kiss me like you’re in goddamn love with me, and it’s like friggin’ perfect and all I ever dreamed it could be, and I was fine with giving you some time to sort through it, because I know how hard it can be to figure out your sexuality; I mean, I know I—”
“That’s not what I’m doing,” I retort, clamping on to the part of what she’s saying that has a simple response, that doesn’t turn my stomach with complicated feelings that I’m trying to ignore. “I know my sexuality very well: I’m straight. It’s just a weird Yin-Yang attraction thing between us, it doesn’t say anything about me.”
Kaitlynn falls silent and just stares at me for a moment. “So that’s it? You think you’re only attracted to me because I’m Yang and you’re Yin?”
I look down, unable to bear the look in her eye, and clench my hands into fists. “I just don’t see what else it could be, because I know I’m straight!”
A painful, strained silence falls over us. “No,” Kaitlynn says quietly. “No, I don’t see what else it could be, either. Excuse me.”
She runs out of the hut.
I remain rooted to the spot, staring at the floor, for a long while. Having just spewed it all out, my stomach seems to be empty of bile at last. When the roaring in my ears finally clears up, I find the bile has been replaced by a sick feeling.
What the hell did I just do?
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