• hcmills

Chapter 113: Yip yip

Not only is Alec’s work excellent, but so is his timing, because he unveils his masterpiece right around the time we get bored.

We’re bored, because we’re basically done hunting.

We got too good at it. Each hunt brought in a bunch of crystals, and since we can only use two of them per night, our stockpile of Minor Energy Crystals quickly grew to the point that there wasn’t much point in continuing to hunt. We even stumbled across a larger specimen of krah on one of our hunts and ended up taking it down, which netted us a Major Vibration Crystal for Jacob. All we still need is a Major Radiation Energy Crystal for Dave, but we decided to postpone that particular hunt so we can be optimally prepared.

Dave and I never delved too deep into the Radiation corner, so we’ve only seen the shadow of some enormous angler fish from a great distance, but it was enough to make my blood run cold. Those things are basically the only thing in this Hub I still fear. I mean, I wasn’t too keen on even the smaller version after getting eaten by one, but I got over that after we hunted plenty of those. The big ones though...

What if their Mesmerising light is too strong? How much more powerful would the Radiation be inside the stomach of one of those things? The exposure would probably kill me in less than a minute if I ended up in there. And if I brought in any Minor Toxic Energy Crystals, they would probably just blow up in my face the moment I went in.

I’m actually considering hunting another big plessie for a Major Toxic Energy Crystal, just so that I have something to blast my way out in case I get swallowed, but I’d really rather not rely on such suicidal strategies. Therefore, Dave and I are training as best we can, mainly by trying to improve each other’s Mental Fortitude. I use Dreamcloud Energy on him, and he uses his new Mesmerize Purpose on me.

I still haven’t figured out what colour his Focus Crystal emits when he uses it, but I guess that’s kind of the point of the Purpose. So far, I’ve only raised my Mental Fortitude by one point though, and too often I end up insensate from staring at it too long, and Dave has to snap me out of it and make me try again.

I get to return the favour when he falls asleep from my Dreamcloud Energy, thankfully.

Anyway, since our Qi is limited, that doesn’t fill too much of our long days either. I even took up a little project of my own, but even that was pretty much done by the time Alec revealed his work and opened up a new door for us.

Before, Dave and I had concluded that it would be difficult to transfer the feeling behind Skills without the recipient having mastered Meditation level 3. Our understanding was that Meditation could serve like a kind of filter that isolates the signal from the noise, and without it, the message just wouldn’t come across strongly enough.

However, the signal coming off Alec’s work is like a punch in the face, no filter necessary.

Of course, Jacob and Kaitlynn will still need to gain Meditation level 3 as a prerequisite for Regeneration, but we don’t have to wait with exchanging other Skills if we can accomplish even half of what Alec has.

He explains that he did it by adding meaning in layers, concentrating hard on his message with each stroke of the brush, and stepping back to judge the result before making adjustments. It’s time-consuming, mentally intense labour, but doable.

Since our hunting is done—and Dave and Jacob still have a couple of days of tempering left at least—we decide now is the time to get to work exchanging Skills.

Of course, making these kinds of artworks takes a lot of time, and learning a Skill from one isn’t done overnight either, so we have to prioritize.

Apart from Lavi-based Skills, the Yang and the Yin can really only exchange Skills amongst themselves.

There is some interest in having me paint Boost Physical initially, but we ultimately decide that at this point, Qi Skills are the superior choice for exchange. While the bonus stats from Boost Physical remain relevant—as it’s not a linear scale: every five points in Strength doubles the force our muscles can exert—we’re all already about twice as strong as an average adult male, which is plenty for most purposes.

Compared to learning a versatile Skill of a new energy type, it’s kinda underwhelming.

From among my Skills, Alec is most interested in learning Decrease Inertia. I warn him that it’ll be harder to gain than Increase Inertia, but he’s adamant. He’s planning to take Boost Reflexes next—an Electric Energy Skill—and create a high mobility fighting style, not unlike mine.

I gotta admit, his plans make him sound like he could be a challenging opponent someday.

In return, I ask him to make me a painting of Lightning Manipulation. It’s high time I learnt it, and, frankly, it’s not like he can offer me much else, since he already painted Regeneration.

Jacob desperately wants to learn some Skills to do with Vibration Energy, since that’s going to be his subtype, but he can’t decide if he’d rather have Amplify or Wave Manipulation. Ultimately, Dave and Kaitlynn offer to each make him one, since they both really want Increase Momentum most of all. With some luck, Kaitlynn could pick up Amplify and Dave could pick up Wave Manipulation as well.

All in all, things are going pretty well, with one big exception.

We still don’t have a sixth.

Dave has kept in touch with Samuel and Lily, but they both indicate that their teams still have even numbers. Meanwhile, Bob disappeared from Kaitlynn’s friend list, which probably doesn’t mean anything good, and Calyx isn’t responding to her friend requests.

It’s all rather worrying, but Dave and I have been working on a... contingency plan.

In the meantime, there’s one more unspoken issue that needs to be resolved.

The question of whether Kaitlynn—when the time comes—will be entering the next Trial with me or not.

And it’s high time I ask her. Frig.

I decide to lead with the results of my personal little project. The guys already know about it, but Kaitlynn doesn’t, as I had the vague notion of surprising her from the very beginning.

And perhaps I didn’t want her to worry.

I go out on my own one last time to check my preparations, before I finally decide to bring Kaitlynn out to meet her.

<Seriously, where are you taking me?> Kaitlynn’s disembodied voice complains in my head, somehow managing to make me hear the pout I know will be there if I turn my head.

I smile but continue to look straight ahead as we swim deeper into the corner, warm Hydrum rushing past me at high speed. <Almost there, Kait. Don’t tell me you’re scared?>

<No! I mean, obviously, I trust you, but Dave did tell us there was a raid warning earlier...>

I roll my eyes. <There’s a raid warning practically every day now, which kind of defeats the purpose of the warnings. Besides, we can swim circles around those froggos. Now, like I was saying, we’re almost...>

I trail off as I stop kicking my legs, coasting on my momentum for a while as I squint into the distance. Yeah, this should be close enough.

Kaitlynn stops next to me and eyes me curiously as I hold out my hand and close my eyes.

I connect with my Espir, and in the blink of an eye, a strange, triangular object appears in my hand.

<What’s that for? Come on, you’re killing me here, Emma!>

I wink at her and reply even as I bring the objects to my lips. <You’re about to find out.>

I blow a stream of Hydrum into a hole on the side, and a low, reverberating note sounds forth from the odd whistle.

The note carries a clear meaning. ‘Come.’

Kaitlynn’s eyes go wide, and she starts glancing around.

<Try not to make any sudden moves when she gets here,> I tell her, getting a bit nervous about this after all.

Kaitlynn reflexively opens her mouth at me before her voice enters my head once more. <She? Who’s she?!>

A 30-foot-wide manta ray appears from the depths below us, and bumps into me none too gently.

I break out into a smile and allow the whistle I just used to dissipate. I hook up a second tether to my large friend, making sure to continue broadcasting my messages to Kaitlynn as well so she can listen in.

<Hey pretty! Did you miss me? Who’s a good girl? You are!>

I glance over to find that Kaitlynn’s jaw has dropped. She looks surprised, but not frightened, and there’s an excited twinkle in her eye.

Some of the tension leaks out of my shoulders. Good.

<Elizabeth, meet Kaitlynn. She’s a friend, like me,> I add, throwing in a bit of Charm along the tether to my pet manta ray, just in case. <Kaitlynn, this is Elizabeth. She likes poetry and long walks on the beach. And she loves getting scritchies—yes, she does!>

Elizabeth rubs her large, flat forehead against the palms of my hands as I croon at her, indicating that she is indeed partial to the aforementioned scritchies. I oblige and start carefully scratching the surface between her eyes, which she closes in contentment.

I always wonder how much of what I say she really understands, but she seems to like me speaking in her mind at least, judging by how the edges of her wings flutter when I do.

<Emma, you’re insane!> Kaitlynn shouts in my mind. The accompanying sentiments are joy and approval, however. <How did this even happen?>

I turn and smile at her, continuing to rub the sensitive spots of the practically purring giant ray. <Well, I ran into her on a hunt, and we just hit it off right away.>

She folds her arms in front of her chest and shakes her head at me as she lightly treads Hydrum. <Have a lot in common, do you? A lot to talk about?>

I grin. <Well, to be honest, she didn’t give me much to work with—not much of a talker—but I can be pretty Charming when I want to, you know?>

She shows me a soft smile. <Believe me, I know.>

I turn back to Elizabeth, swallowing against the lump in my throat. <Anyway, would you like to pet her?>

<Oh, you know I do!>

Swimming like a mermaid is a lot of fun, but it can’t beat the thrill of clinging onto the back of a giant manta ray and being taken for a ride.

Kaitlynn is child-like with glee, and keeps urging Elizabeth to go faster. My lovely pet is more than happy to oblige.

The look on Kaitlynn's face when Elizabeth takes her first sextuple-jet-powered leap out of the Hydrum is priceless.

The other rays shy away from our large friend, so we hardly see them as we play around unimpeded across the corner. When it gets a bit too hot for me deep in the corner, Elizabeth goes up to float at the surface, leaving us sitting on her back in the significantly cooler Aether.

We bask quietly in the light of the Twinstar, still dripping with Hydrum, and the mood is just right.

This is it, Emma. Don’t blow it now.

I take in a deep breath to steady my nerves and turn to smile at her. “Hey.”

Her returning smile lights up her face. “Hey.”

I clear my throat. “So, ehm, I’ve been meaning to ask... when it’s time to leave this Hub, would you like to accompany me into the next Trial?”

She blinks and looks down. “I wasn’t sure if you still wanted me to,” she mumbles, before her eye flits back up to meet mine. “Are you sure? Won’t it just... make things harder?”

I consider this for a moment. “It definitely will. But I don’t care if it means I get to protect you.”

A flush of pink creeps up her pale neck and my heart skips a beat. Traitorous organ. We’re just friends!

She covers her face in her hands with a groan. “You’re not making this easier, you know.”

I scratch the back of my neck, smiling sheepishly. “Sorry.”

“You’re forgiven. Is it okay if I... take some time to think about it?”

“Of course,” I say, even though my heart sinks. I turn to face the direction we’re heading in, smoothing some hair out of my face to mask the motion.

This is fine. Time is good. I can totally wait.

“You know,” Kaitlynn says after a beat of silence, interrupting my internal lie-ologue, “despite the circumstances, this was probably the best date I’ve ever been on.”

I glance at her. She stares into the distance, a rueful smile on her face.

“Me too,” I admit softly.

The moment is ruined by Suri’s voice.

[You’ve got an incoming three-way call from Dave. Would you like to pick up?]

“Ehm, sure,” I mutter, hearing Kaitlynn say something similar next to me.

Dave’s voice, which suddenly echoes in my head. <Guys—ehm, I mean, girls. Ladies?>

I smirk at the flustered tone of his voice, but my amusement is tempered by the underlying sense of urgency. “Dude, just spit it out.”

<Right. I received word that the raid has been spotted heading into the corner you guys are in. Are you going to make it out all right? You’re pretty deep in there on my map.>

I hear Kaitlynn’s sharp intake of breath before I spot them: a large mass of froggos, churning up the Hydrum in the distance, closing in on our location from several sides.

I frown. Like Dave said, we’re pretty deep into the corner. This one doesn’t have a landmass, since the creatures here are strictly aquatic.


Either way, that means the raid is more or less converging towards us. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to get this deep; generally, these raids get bogged up fighting creatures along the way, but maybe there’s so many froggos this time that all the rays got scared off.

Elizabeth bristles beneath us as she also notices the threat invading her territory. I feel a pang of concern for her as I consider relying on speed and Distort Space to try and slip away unnoticed with Kaitlynn.

“Emma, what do we do?” Kaitlynn asks.

I lick my lips, going over our options while I rub Elizabeth’s back in a way I hope is soothing. She’s practically vibrating with what I imagine is a need to go and protect her territory, probably only holding back because of her precious cargo.

Because of... us. Shit. I can’t abandon her like this.

I clear my throat. “All right, I’ve got a plan. It’s a little dangerous, but it’s the only way I can think of right now to get all of us out of here in one piece.” I move to lie on my stomach, and pat the spot next to me. “I’m going to need you to hold on to both me and Elizabeth, as tightly as you can. You got that?”

Kaitlynn nods and lies down next to me, gripping Elizabeth with one hand and wrapping the other tightly around my waist.

I direct Elizabeth on what to do Telepathically, and after a brief hesitation, she follows my instructions and dives down.

<Emma, what are we doing> Kaitlynn’s voice asks in my head.

<Something I’ve been meaning to try for a while. Get ready for blast off!>

I cling on for dear life as Elizabeth jets out of the Hydrum. Then, as soon as her flight stabilizes, a pink spiral bursts forth from my Focus Crystal.

Author's note:

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