Chapter 115: Endangered
Sitting next to me on Elizabeth’s back, Dave stares out pensively into the Radiation corner while I check all of the little straps holding together my armour.
Satisfied that I’m not going to have any wardrobe malfunctions, I call out, “Status Window!”
The results of my last four temperings—two for Cold, and two for Electric—make me feel a little more secure, even though they’re going to be useless in this hunt.
It’s been twenty-four days since we’ve started tempering, which means I’ve had a total of 12 temperings. With any luck, tomorrow will be the last.
Anyway, I’m as prepared as I’m going to get; I even spent most of yesterday with my last Minor Toxic Energy Crystals pressed against my skin to store up extra Toxic Energy specifically for this hunt. I brought those with me now as well, of course. Though I decided not to hunt for a Major Toxic Energy Crystal. Risking my life against another elephant-sized plessie just to obtain an emergency measure didn’t seem worth the risk.
Elizabeth shudders a little beneath, as she slowly circles through the Hydrum, and I put a calming hand on her back, enjoying the exquisite texture. I’m a little worried she won’t be able to handle the Radiation, but she is Yang at least. I’ll keep a close eye on the amount of Lavi thrumming beneath her skin, just in case.
I really hope she makes it into the depths of this corner with us, ‘cause one good sweep of that barbed tail of hers could make this hunt go a lot faster and smoother. I don’t dare rely on it however, as I have no idea how she’ll react to the presence of a huge, Mesmerizing anglerfish.
When I can’t think of anything else to check, any other reason to stall, I send Dave a questioning gaze.
He sighs, squares his shoulders, and nods.
<Dive and swim that way, please,> I send Elizabeth. She complies.
The corner is creepy as always. I carefully watch the Radiation tick up in my Status Window. Elizabeth seems to be handling it well at least.
However, there’s a different problem, that’s becoming more and more apparent as we head deeper. A big problem.
The corner is empty.
We haven’t seen a single anglerfish, big or small, and we’re getting awfully close to the very corner, where the Radiation is heaviest. Despite my protective Toxic Energy, I won’t be able to stay there long.
Dave’s frown deepens more and more as we search around without finding a trace of our prey, until we’re finally forced to give up as both Elizabeth and I are starting to get low on Lavi.
Numb, I ask Elizabeth to surface on the way back, as Suri suggests that it’ll allow me to take in Aether and replenish my Lavi faster.
Dave has gone entirely pale.
I sigh in frustration. “Look, don’t worry, Dave, we’ll find them yet. Maybe they’re like a migratory species, we’ll just keep trying, search the other corners until—”
“It’s pointless, Emma,” Dave says softly. “They’ve all been hunted by the Hoig.”
My eyes widen. “Shit. Shit, the raids!”
“Smart money says the other corners are empty too.”
I gape at him for a moment. “Then...”
Dave nods minutely. “I’m screwed.”
I take a deep breath and try to wrap my brain around our new situation. “This was meant to force us to hurry up,” I mumble.
I groan. “We shouldn’t have postponed this last friggin’ hunt!”
Dave sighs. “I shouldn’t have picked Radiation. I should’ve just switched to another energy type when we realised how dangerous this area was, and how much easier Heat and Vibration Crystals were to acquire.”
I shake my head. “The decision made sense at the time.”
“Did it? Hunting would have been easier if we could have done it for several people in a single corner. And that near-disastrous hunt for your Major Toxic Energy Crystal—that should have been a hint as well. The difficulty level is clearly not the same for each of the different types of energy. Cold and Heat are doable, then there’s Electric and Vibration, which are challenging, and finally Toxic and Radiation, which are basically suicidal.”
I lick my lips and switch to Telepathy. <Maybe you can still switch to Heat? Perhaps we could scrounge up some Minor Heat Crystals, and then—well, Kaitlynn won’t like it, but you’re more important than Elizabeth.>
Dave smiles wanly. “Even if we could somehow get our hands on those crystals—and I doubt it—that would take me at least another week of tempering. There’s no saying if we’ll have that kind of time.” He sighs. “At least if I’m stuck here Jacob will be able to leave with one of you.”
I stare at him for a moment, then slap him on the back of his head.
“Ow!” He blinks at me. “What was that for?”
“That was from your future wife and kid, for talking like giving up is an option.”
His brow furrows, and his jaw clenches. “That’s a low blow, Emma. I’m just trying to be realistic.”
I purse my lips. “You’re right, I’m sorry for bringing it up,” I say contritely. “However, if ‘being realistic’ about the odds of making it out of here equates to you giving up on trying, I’m not on board.”
He’s silent for a moment. “What would you suggest we do then?”
My mind races, only calming down when the answer comes to me. “The Hoig worship the crystals, which means they’d never destroy them or throw them out. They’ll have them all stored in a shrine of some kind. Since we can’t find one out here, we’ll have to storm the central island and take a Major Radiation Crystal by force.”
Dave’s eyes widen. “That’s... let’s consider that a last resort. For now, let’s see if we can come up with anything else.”
We meet up with the rest shortly before dinner, having spent most of the day on a fruitless search for a Major Radiation Crystal.
The news of our failed hunt and Dave’s hypothesis on the reason for the absence of our prey bring the mood down hard.
Kaitlynn sends worried looks at Dave. Jacob clenches his hands into fists, his face unreadable. Loudmouth glances around, looking kind of constipated. He clearly doesn’t fully understand what’s going on, but can sense the mood.
Alec shifts in his seat with an uncomfortable expression on his face. “Shit, man. What are we going to do?”
It gets real quiet when I propose my plan of storming the central island.
Loudmouth’s bowl slips from his fingers, spilling half of its content of stewed Hydrumweed onto the sand. “A-attack castle? Kill Hoig? Why would Friends do that?!”
Oops. Well, the cat’s out of the bag.
I turn to him with a sigh. “We have nothing against your people, Loudmouth, but they’re hogging all of the crystals, and without them, Dave can’t level up, which means he’s stuck here.”
“What wrong with here? Loudmouth been here whole life! Why don’t Friends just all stay here, with Loudmouth?”
“That’s very kind of you, Loudmouth,” Dave says with a small smile. “But there are people waiting for us, friends and loved ones, who miss us very much. And we’re not sure what will happen if we try to stay, it probably won’t be allowed either way.”
Loudmouth deflates a little.
“I swear, if there’s any way to avoid violence against your people, we will,” I say gently.
It’s not a lie. I’d much rather not pick a fight with them.
“Any chance they would give you one if you asked nicely?” Jacob asks Loudmouth.
I perk up. I hadn’t even considered diplomacy yet; could Charm perhaps offer a solution here?
Loudmouth hesitates for a moment, then shakes his head sadly. “No. Grand Chief would sooner give up leg than crystal.”
Oof. “Is he Yin or Yang?” I ask regardless.
“Yin,” Loudmouth answers after a moment. “Grand Chief’s lightning really scary.”
Rats. I deflate again. That must’ve been who took that pot shot at us, then, when Kaitlynn and I flew by on Elizabeth. I can still use Charm to throw off some Yang froggos during combat, but if I can’t influence their leader, diplomacy is probably out.
Dave lets out a deep sigh, and looks down at his feet. “Look, I’ll be frank, Emma. I appreciate your fervour, your willingness to put yourself at risk for me, but... I can’t ask you guys to do this. Taking on a village of Hoig is one thing, but a castle? We’ve seen the kind of numbers they send out on raids. What’s the point in getting that crystal if one or more of us die in the attack? It just doesn’t make sense, strategic or otherwise.”
I swallow hard. “What are you saying, Dave?”
He looks up at me, his eye gentle. “I’m saying perseverance is admirable, but so is knowing when to give up.”
“She’d understand,” he continues, calmly cutting me off. “I—yes, Rose, I’m sure. Sorry, but I won’t have them risking their lives for me on the off chance that I make it home, despite the ones waiting for me there.”
I want to protest, I want to scream or do something. However, part of me agrees. Risking five lives on the slim chance to save one... those are bad odds. If it were just me, I wouldn’t hesitate, but even if I went in alone, getting myself killed would end up leaving someone else without a partner.
It's dead silent around the campfire. Tears stream down Kaitlynn’s left cheek, as she sobs quietly. Alec looks like someone shot his puppy. Loudmouth is a little harder to read with his broad, froggy face, but he seems confused and stricken.
Dave clears his throat. “You know, technically, we don’t even know what happens to people who stay behind in a Hub.”
“Nothing good and you know it,” Jacob mutters, glaring at his bowl like he suspects it murdered his parents.
“Perhaps,” Dave muses. “I guess I get to find out. Anyway, either you or Kaitlynn should take my spot and temper tonight.”
Jacob shoots him a sharp glare. “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. You need to be ready to level up, just in case. Even if we don’t storm the central island, we could still luck out and find a Major Radiation Crystal. Like in one of the villages on a medium-sized island.”
“Exactly!” Kaitlynn pipes up. “Or maybe one of the other groups has one that they’re not using. Either way, I’m not tempering tonight, and you can’t make me!” She blows him the saddest raspberry I’ve ever seen.
Dave sighs and shares a glance with me. “Emma and I already went over those options. Neither Dominique nor Samuel was willing or able to provide such a crystal.”
“Calyx still isn’t picking up,” I add sombrely.
Dave nods. “We even swung by a medium island that was supposed to be unconquered to judge the viability of taking it, but it was deserted. At first, we thought we’d intruded upon the territory of some unknown group, except there were no signs of battle. Considering that the houses turned out to be empty, I was forced to conclude that the Hoig have evacuated the remaining villages.”
“Well, that was just one island,” Jacob protests. “It’s too early to draw that conclusion! Either way, Kaitlynn and I aren’t tempering tonight.”
After being quiet for a moment, Dave seems to accept that they aren’t willing to give up yet and nods. “Fair enough. I suppose I better get going then. You coming, Alec?”
“You can’t make me temper either!” Alec says, shaking his fist with a glare.
I roll my eyes. “But I can and I will, so go get your ass in that shell.”
Alec deflates comically and pouts at me, but I can tell he’s just playing the clown to lighten the mood. It works too, judging by Dave’s small smile.
Wait, has Alec been doing that all along? I dismiss the thought as fast as it comes. No one would fake being an idiot that well for that long.
I’m the first to break the silence after Dave and Alec leave. “So, would you guys be willing to join the assault, when it comes down to that?”
Jacob glances at me. “When? Don’t you mean if?”
I smile wryly. “I’m not too hopeful for the alternatives.”
He holds my gaze for a moment. “Of course,” he says, his voice rough. “If it comes to that, I’ll be leading the charge.”
Kaitlynn glances back and forth between us. “I’m joining as well.”
I nod and turn my gaze back to the campfire. The waterskin full of zirot wine I had prepared to celebrate lies untouched in the pristine sand.
Loudmouth sighs. “Loudmouth... can’t. Sorry, Friends.”
I glance at him. “Oh, no—I didn’t mea... I wouldn’t ask you to turn on your own people like that, Loudmouth.”
Not like having a Dartblower with us would be very useful as anything other than a distraction anyway.
Once again, I have trouble telling from his expression how he feels about this. Relieved, for sure, but there seems to be more behind it.
I call it a night pretty quickly after that, but end up lying on my bed, staring up at the ceiling, going over plans to get my hands on a Major Radiation Crystal.
Maybe I could cause a distraction by flying over with Elizabeth or something... Taunt them and lead them on a merry chase off the island after possibly the last crystal they’re lacking.
I’m surprised when Kaitlynn shows up in the doorway. She hesitates for a moment, then asks if she could sleep with me tonight.
“I won’t, like, try anything,” she adds. “I just don’t want to be alone.”
“Of course,” I agree immediately, powerless to resist as ever.
One night can’t hurt.
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