• H.C. Mills

Chapter 109: Stay in school

Kaitlynn doesn’t return and I barely sleep. In fact, upon Twinrise, my Espir is not even fully restored.

I get rid of some excess Espir anyway, before I trudge up to the campfire where the rest have already started breakfast. My heart skips a beat when I spot her, then sinks when I realise she’s not sitting where she usually sits.

Specifically, she’s not sitting next to where I usually sit.

She’s drawing patterns in the sand with a stick and looks just as bleary-eyed as I feel.

Loudmouth says something to her as I approach. I can’t quite make it out, but there’s a hesitance to his demeanour that suggests he’s more attuned to our feelings than I’d expect. She offers a dull nod in response.

When her eye meets mine for a split-second, she stiffens. Then she looks back down, jaws clenched.

I slink down into my usual seat with a sigh and attempt to work up an appetite despite the gnawing guilt in my stomach.

Should I apologize? Is it too soon? What would I even say?

Dave glances back and forth between Kaitlynn and me, and his brow furrows more and more.

Jacob, oblivious, looks me over. “Damn, so that’s what Level 3 looks like, huh? Dave’s description didn’t really do it justice.”

I shrug, not in the mood to talk, and dig in on the bowl of food Alec hands me.

Jacob gives me a funny look, but lets it go and turns to join a discussion between Alec and Loudmouth about fisheyes.

After finishing my food, I get up and stretch out my limbs, stiff from sitting hunched over in the same position for too long. “Everybody ready for today’s hunt?”

Dave nods and Jacob sticks up a thumb meaning, ‘Hell yeah.’

We’re hunting for Minor Heat Crystals today since Kaitlynn used up all the ones we collected during the Trials, and it’s her turn to temper tonight.

“Can I come too, please?” Alec asks with that slight whine to his voice that always grates on my nerves. “I’m gonna go nuts if I have to spend another full day cooped up on this island. I promise I’ll throw myself into my project and breath practice tomorrow, but I could really use a break right now.”

I pretend to think about it. “Hmm, depends... Loudmouth, did he work well yesterday?”

Loudmouth perks up proudly. “Friend worked hard yesterday! Loudmouth did not let him slack off!”

Alec glares at him. <He really didn’t. That damn frog is worse than Sarge!>

I can tell from the amused reactions of the rest that Alec sent that to everyone. I’d almost forgotten he’s got Telepathy level 2 as well. I really need to take up practising that again.

I suppress a smirk. “Fine, you can come.”

Jacob frowns. “Really? Won’t that slow us down too much? What if there’s a raid?”

Alec glares at him. “You too, son?”

There’s that weird phrase again. Must be a reference or something.

I shake my head. “It’s fine. We’re not heading deep into the corner like yesterday. Also, whatever we’re facing, it’ll be Yang. Alec’s lightning is one of the few reliable ranged weapons we have against them.” I turn to Kaitlynn and shoot an attempt at a smile her way. “I’m afraid your Astreum Breath won’t work very well, for example, especially against these—”

Kaitlynn looks away. “Actually, I was thinking I might sit this one out anyway; I don’t feel too good.”

Alec frowns. “What? But you’re the one who needs these crystals...”

“It’s fine,” I bring out softly around the lump in my throat. “She can stay here, watch over camp. But not alone. Loudmouth, would you keep her company?”

“Of course!” Loudmouth croaks happily.

I shoot him a serious look and whip a tether his way. <Guard her with your life.>

His eyes widen. He goes ramrod straight and salutes me.

I clear my throat. “Good. Now that that’s settled, everyone, ehm, go prepare.”

I turn on the spot and march off to my hut before my tears can start to fall.

As we drag Alec’s kayak, I can feel Dave and Jacob’s stares burn holes in the back of my head.

Jacob is the first to break the silence. <What the hell was that all about?>

I whip back a tether without looking. <I don’t want to talk about it.>

Dave’s voice erupts in my mind before I even finish. <We need to talk.>

Ugh, he sounds mad. I can’t deal with this right now.

I unhook my tether from Jacob and whip it back to Dave. <Now’s not a great time, Dave.>

<Seriously, Emma,> Jacob insists. <What did you do? You know you can talk to me ab—>

Unhook. Whip. <I said I don’t want to talk about it, Jacob!>

Dave’s voice is level. <You have something better to do? If you haven’t noticed by now, problems don’t go away just because you ignore them, Emma.>

My knuckles go white around the rope. <I get that, just—not now, Dave, please!>

Somehow, they manage to answer in sync. <But, Emma—>

I see red. <Both of you, SHUT UP!>

Finally, there’s blessed silence in my head.

I blink, and glance back to see the faint outline of two tethers stretching out behind me, one to Dave and one to Jacob. They’re sharing a funny look.

Oh great, I tipped them off that they’re both talking to me. Now they’re going to team up on me.

I close my eyes and let out a sigh made of Hydrum, that I integrate into my tail almost as an afterthought. <Look guys, I know I need to talk about this stuff, but I’m just not in the right headspace for it right now. So, can it at least wait until after the hunt?>

They share a glance. Some unspoken and invisible communication passes between them, either through some innate understanding between bros or—more likely—just Telepathy. Then they turn back to me and nod as one.

Ugh. This is going to suck.

We’ve hardly ventured into the corner when we come across a huge school of manta rays.

‘Woah,’ Jacob signs, gaping at the sight.

I have to admit, it looks pretty darn cool. They’re not the largest of rays, with a wingspan of only about the length of one of my arms, but the way they all move together is quite a sight.

We take a moment to appreciate it.

Then Alec sends a message. <Uh, guys? You might wanna come—oh shit!>

I quickly breach the surface, looking for the source of his distress. My jaw drops when I see one of the manta rays, gliding through the Aether.

Well, I say gliding, but I’m not sure if that’s the right term if it’s using friggin’ jet propulsion. It shoots overhead with its mouth open, probably sucking in Aether, which it then pushes out of the bottom of its wings—or fins, or whatever—in the form of twin jets of Astreum.

Then the rest of the school follows.

I hear Dave curse, right before I duck down. Alec’s shriek as he is bathed in Astreum is garbled by the Hydrum covering my ears. When I come back up, I don’t see Alec, and the kayak is on fire.

“Help me flip it over!” I call out to Jacob, who reacts immediately, doing just so. Only after do I realise Alec already jumped overboard, but at least we put out the flames.

We dive down, but the school follows us and continues its assault. Apparently, they’re capable of storing Aether, which they use to produce smaller jets of Astreum for short bursts of speed under-Hydrum.

However, when we overcome the initial scare, we find that they’re not as dangerous as they seemed. They have no teeth, no fangs, their only real weapons are the Astreum and a barbed tail. They swing those at us as they shoot past, trying to leave a cut, but it doesn’t do much against our armour.

Once Alec opens the counter-offensive with some well-aimed bolts of lightning, they quickly disperse and flee.

<Well, at least we know what we’re up against,> Dave sends dryly after we’ve driven them off.

A cursory inspection of the kayak shows that it’s not too damaged, just a little scorched in places. We moor it at a nearby small island and push deeper into the corner.

We scare off some more schools of rays, until we find a larger—thankfully solo—specimen that features a Minor Heat Crystal. It has quadruple jet propulsion, and a wingspan about my entire length, but the combination of Alec’s lightning and a spear through its wing take it down quite easily.

Bolstered by our success, we continue deeper, looking for more large manta rays.

We find one, except it’s far larger than we bargained for.

Normally, the really large creatures don’t show up this far out, but we came across the smallest version of this creature sooner than we expected as well, so maybe it’s just in their nature to roam more.

Anyway, it has a wingspan of at least 30 feet, and the spikes on its tail are like daggers, so I would very much prefer not to tangle with it.

Unfortunately, it spots us around the same time as we spot it, and six jets of Astreum briefly flare up in the dark and boost it towards us.

<Shit,> Dave sends, <we don’t even need another Major Heat Crystal. Do we engage or flee?>

<You guys can’t leave me here!> Alec sends in a panic. <I’m not fast enough to escape and too pretty to die!>

Jacob winds up his shoulder for a throw. <You think we should just take it down, Emma?>

I frown as I go over our options. Ultimately, I whip tethers out to all three of them, surprised at how easy that is now that I’ve reached the second level of Telepathy. <Hold on, I want to try something. If it doesn’t work, attack at full force.>

I take a deep breath of Hydrum, and swim forward.

The creature whips its tail back and forth menacingly as it approaches. I lift up a hand to signal ‘stop’ and smile. Time to test out that new and improved Charm!

I don’t have much Espir left, but I shouldn’t need much if it’s just to calm this thing down. I hope.

It keeps coming, though the sweep of its tail seems a little less aggressive.

<Emma, you’re crazy!> Jacob sends. <This is far too dangerous; we should just attack it!>

<I can do this,> I insist to all of them. <Don’t attack unless I say so, you got that?>

With that, I cut off my tethers towards the boys and send one towards the ray instead.

<Hey pretty,> I send, trying to hitch my Charm along the connection in a flash of inspiration. <We mean you no harm, I promise. We’re just passing through.>

This time it shows more of a reaction, and it’s tail actually stops sweeping. However, it continues gliding towards me, still and menacing.

<Would you like to be friends?> I try. <We could, ehm, play and stuff?>

Right as I’m about to chicken out and signal for an attack, it swerves. It circles me a couple of times, with the tips of its fins pointing up and down, seemingly studying me. I turn with it and continue to give it all the Charm I can squeeze out.

The overuse of Espir is giving me a headache, but it pays off. The ray rights itself, and lazily swims off.

My heart beats a mile a minute as I watch its shape fade into the distance.

That, was awesome.

Author's note:

My grandmother passed away on the 17th of August, at the respectable age of 96. We said goodbye to her last Tuesday, before she was cremated.

She remained as healthy and lucid as one can be at such an age to the very end, and we were already very lucky to have been able to enjoy her presence for such a long time.

The ceremony was for direct family only due to corona measures--though it was broadcast for those not allowed to attend--and it was as beautiful as it was heart-rending.

I'm not a religious person, and I expect death to be simple non-existence. Still, I take solace in the fact that she lived a full, rich life, and enjoyed it to the very end.

I'm going to miss you, grandma.

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