Chapter 125: Operation: Yoink
It’s quiet on the way back to our island. I occasionally produce Toxic Energy in my Focus Crystal and pull it into my body.
By the time I reach my hut, I’ve got plenty stored away. I lie down on my bed and, Onkh by Onkh, start giving it the Dreamcloud Purpose.
I’m up to 50 Onkh before I start feeling drowsy. At around 70, my eyes start to droop, and somewhere around 90, I finally slip under.
I wake to Jacob shaking me rather roughly.
“What the hell, man?” I groan.
“Sorry,” he says with a shrug. “You were under pretty deep.”
I sit up and stretch. It’s already dark outside.
“Where’s the rest?”
“Kaitlynn and Alec are tempering,” Jacob says. “Should be back any minute. Dave is studying the map of the village I drew in the sand, and Loudmouth, I believe, is playing with Elizabeth. How’s your Espir?”
I glance at my Status Bar.
I frown. “It’s full, but my net Lavi flow is lower than...”
I trail off when my stomach rumbles. Ah.
Jacob chuckles. “Come on, we saved you some dinner.”
The makeshift ropes of seaweed Alec used to tie our backpacks to Elizabeth lay slimy in my hands as I test them. These should hold. I glance at Loudmouth’s hungry gaze. As long as he can contain himself.
Just in case, I gently pull our friendly neighbourhood froggo along as I make my way back to the beach, where the rest are gathering.
Alec sighs, staring at our flag. “I hope at least some of what we leave behind will stay intact.”
“No worry, Friend Jacob, Loudmouth will protect Relics of Friendship with his life!” Loudmouth proclaims.
Kaitlynn turns to him sharply. “Loudmouth, we talked about this. You need to look out for yourself first! Besides, as our friend, you’re far more valuable to us then some ratty old cloth and some dumb old paintings.”
“Hey!” Alec protests.
“I second that hey,” Jacob says. “I poured my heart and soul into the Art I made for you and Dave!”
Somehow I can hear he meant it capitalised.
Loudmouth deflates his puffed-up chest a little. “Ah, Friend Kaitlynn is too kind, too kind. Loudmouth will take care. Promise.”
I shake my head at their antics.
Dave looks up from the map drawn in the sand and clears his throat. “Is everyone ready?” We all signal we are, one way or another, and Dave turns to Jacob. “All right. The honour is yours.”
Jacob draws up his chest like a brave little honorary froggo, and exclaims, “Blue Dragons, move out!”
We travel above Hydrum for the first leg of the journey, but Jacob gets antsy as we get close to the central island, so we submerge, hanging onto our backpacks and getting dragged along by Elizabeth.
Well, almost all of us, ’cause someone grabs onto my leg.
I’m about to glance back, when a message filters through to my brain.
‘Don’t look,’ Dave squeezes.
I swallow some Hydrum and suppress the urge to glance back regardless.
‘I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I felt I needed to share it with you,’ he continues. ‘Now, you should’ve had a better view, but from where I was standing, it seemed like Bruce’s face went blank for a second before he stabbed Samuel.’
I frown minutely. Right, I think it did.
‘It looked... familiar,’ he squeezes. ‘I’m pretty sure Bruce was mind-controlled into killing Samuel, the same way Suri stopped you from taking out your eye-crystal.’
I fight to keep my poker face. Can’t alert Suri, or anyone else’s guide...
‘I’m just trying to fit it into the narrative. Best case would be Bruce’s guide being a sore loser. Considering my conjecture about the nature of our guides, that doesn’t seem entirely implausible. Still, he’d have to risk the ire of Samuel’s guide, so I’m not sure about this theory.’
Suri does seem to have an ongoing feud with Rose. It’s not impossible that their guides just didn’t like each other.
‘Worst case I guess, would be that his guide was following instructions from someone actively working against us behind the scenes. I can’t really come up with a motive for such a thing, however. I feel like I’m missing the big picture, the point of all of this. They expended so much effort building this place, just to have us... do what? Grow stronger? It doesn’t seem efficient.’
He remains silent for a moment. I consider trying to respond with my toes or something, but I can’t tell if they’d be in anyone’s line of sight if I did.
‘Anyway, I don’t know if this speculation will have any use for you, but I figured this might be my only chance to tell you, so I—’
His message cuts off abruptly when a dull boom hits our ears, followed by another, and another, in a slow rhythm.
I glance around in confusion, but don’t see anything unusual.
“Aack! The wardrums!” Loudmouth croaks.
I startle at the sound, having forgotten for a moment that froggos actually can speak under-Hydrum.
<Wardrums?> Dave’s voice echoes in my head. <What do they mean, Loudmouth?>
Well, fair enough.
‘Let’s speed up,’ Jacob signs. ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’ We let go of Elizabeth and start swimming under our own power.
I glance in the direction of the central island, already slightly behind us, but don’t see anything. Let’s just hope it’s nothing to do with us.
Jacob and I approach the village from the forest, spears in hand, while the rest lie in wait under-Hydrum by the village’s shore.
Thankfully, the sound of the wardrums seemingly only carries well under-Hydrum, so there’s little chance they wake anyone up.
I’m carrying only my pretty new Toxic Spear, choosing stealth-convenience over having a back-up weapon at this time.
Unfortunately, Jacob isn’t entirely clear on their sleeping arrangements, especially after several huts went up in Astreum following the clash between Dominique and Samuel’s parties.
So we’re once again sneaking into a froggo village on a starlit night.
We don’t spot any guards, so hopefully that means everyone’s asleep.
The soft sand makes little noise beneath our bare feet as we sneak from hut to hut and listen for breathing at the openings.
The first three huts appear empty, but the fourth betrays its occupancy with the sound of light snoring.
My heartbeat accelerates as Jacob sneaks up the creaky wooden steps to look inside. He looks inside briefly, before backing off, shaking his head.
<Looks like Melissa is level 2,> he sends. <Also, wearing a Hoig skinsuit, apparently. That’s new.>
<You were right about her being nuts, then,> I reply mirthfully.
<Har-de-har,> Jacob sends back. <Let’s keep going, funny girl.>
We continue. Three huts later, we have another hit.
This time, I creep up the steps, wincing at every creak.
By the sound of the light breathing, I’m pretty sure it’s a woman, and a flash of bottle-blonde hair tells me it’s Lily.
However, her face is angled away from me, and I can’t tell if she’s level 3.
I hesitate for a moment. I really do want to avoid grabbing her unless necessary, but we’re already one prospect down, and we need someone who’s level 3.
I glance back at Jacob and send, <It’s Lily, but I can’t see her horns. Should I go in for a closer look?>
He frowns and comes up the steps and glances inside from the other side of the doorway. He purses his lips and nods. <Just be careful.>
I listen for a moment, to make sure she’s still asleep. When I’m satisfied that she is, I make my way inside. I approach step by step, craning my neck to see her forehead, but I still can’t see any horns. At this point I’m 90% sure she’s still Level 2, but I—
A slight creak from the roof is our only warning. My mind whirls, and I react by instantly moving my spear to point at Lily as I turn to face the doorway.
A figure lands behind Jacob with a soft thump, and a blade flashes. A long, curved dagger is pressed up against Jacob’s slimy green throat.
Onni and I lock gazes as Lily wakes up with a gasp, sitting up only to find the tip of a spear pressed against her sternum.
Everyone freezes, as we all take in the situation. As expected, Lily’s horns are still short. Onni’s on the other hand...
I suppress a groan and softly say, “Onni, Lily. We can explain. This isn’t what it looks like.”
Onni’s eyebrows rise, and he presses his blade a little more tightly to Jacob’s throat. “Start talking, then. ’Cause I’ve been following your movements for a while, and you’re clearly after something.”
I share a glance with Jacob. His fingers are trembling, and his eye wanders all over the place, looking for who knows what.
<Calm down, Jacob,> I send. <Just trust me.>
He takes a slow breath. His gaze falls on me, and steadies.
This better work, ’cause I don’t see any better options. Trying to Charm or poison someone who’s Yin and has a knife at my friends throat seems like a recipe for disaster.
“We’re finished levelling, and now we’re looking to kidnap a sixth member for our party, so we can get out of here,” I confess.
Lily gasps. Jacob raises his brows.
Onni frowns minutely. “So, what, Melissa wasn’t good enough, and you decided to screw me over by taking Lily?”
Damn, he really was watching us.
I shake my head. “We need someone who’s Level 3. I couldn’t tell from the doorway, just wanted to check. You’d do nicely,” I continue, indicating his horns with a small gesture, “but we were actually hoping to grab someone from a less happy twosome. Say, you wouldn’t happen to know where everyone sleeps, would you?”
Lily’s eyes flick back and forth between us. Jacob has his eyes closed and seems ready to burst into action should the conversation go south.
Onni stares at me, his face like a steel mask. “You expect us to help you with this now? What’s in it for us?”
I lick my dry lips, shifting my stance slightly to prevent my body from getting too used to inaction. That wasn’t a no.
“Come on. You’re not telling me you and Dominique are all buddy buddy now, right?” I scoff. You’re still both Yin after all. “Look, if you tell us who else is Level 3 and where they’re sleeping, we’ll give you some time to grab your crystals and other things, and quietly get out of here before the shit hits the fan. How ’bout it?”
His eyes narrow. “Doesn’t really seem like there’s a gain for us there.”
I coolly raise a brow. “You see any better ways out of this? If you alert the rest of your team right now, we’ll be forced to try and take you, as the only Level 3 we’ve come across so far. This way, we can resolve this little stalemate we’ve got going without any casualties, and you get to avoid the potential deadly conflict that follows.”
“We’d lose the support of our team though,” Lily says sharply. “Where are we supposed to temper?”
“You don’t know?” I ask turning slightly her way. “The froggos have evacuated all of their remaining villages, so you can take your pick. Six islands, twelve oysters in total, go nuts. And if you feel uncomfortable hanging out with just the two of you, you can always hit up Steve and Calyx. They’re running solo right now.”
Onni stares at me. “How do we know you’re telling the truth about that?”
I roll my eyes. “You think I’d make that up on the spot? Look, at the very least you know our island will be free, ’cause we’re leaving tonight.”
Onni and Lily share a glance, silently communicating. Lily frowns, Onni maintains his poker face, until he finally returns his gaze to me. “I don’t like it. But I don’t see how I have much choice, so... I accept your deal.”
Lily lets out a huff, but doesn’t argue.
“Dominique and Mark are the only other Level 3’s,” Onni continues, still carefully watching me. “She sleeps in the old chieftain’s hut and he sleeps in the one to the right of that. You can’t miss ’em.”
I start slowly drawing back my spear, my muscles protesting now that they’re finally freed from the rigid posture they were forced to hold. Onni simultaneously starts to remove his blade, until we’re both fully withdrawn.
A silence falls.
“I’ve held up our end of the bargain,” Onni says, “so give us a few minutes to grab our stuff and go.”
I nod and move to stand aside. Jacob moves over to me as well, rubbing his neck.
Lily glares at Onni, but gets up with a sigh and moves towards her backpack.
I clear my throat. “Oh, and Lilly, I like you, I do, but—”
The word Goddess freezes on my tongue. Damn, still can’t say it in front of others.
“—god help me, if you try to warn anyone, I will hunt you down. You hear me?”
Her jaw clenches, before she closes her eyes and sighs again. “Loud and clear. Just... don’t be too rough with Mark, okay? He’s a sensitive kid.”
I nod. “Don’t worry, I guarantee he’ll be coming willingly.”
She stares at me, appearing to wait for an explanation.
I just stare back until she gives up and continues packing.
Bits of her skin and tattoos show while she puts on her armour, but I find that—despite the fact that she’s Yang and that I dig her style—it doesn’t really do anything for me. Still not gay.
My mind can’t help but wander to the glimpses I’ve caught of Kaitlynn in a similar state of undress, and I feel my body flush. Damnit.
Two minutes pass in peace.
As they stand in the doorway, packed and ready to leave, Lily purses her lips and turns to me once more. “One more thing. That spear... is Samuel okay?”
The pang of guilt I feel must show, because her face falls.
“He’s dead,” Jacob says softly. “But we didn’t kill him, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
She opens her mouth but I’m faster. “It’s a long, ugly story,” I say brusquely. “Go ask Steve if you must hear it. Now git, you two. And be quiet about it.”
We follow them out of the hut and watch them slip away into the forest.
Jacob turns to me. “Was this wise?”
I shrug. “You’re not bleeding to death, at least.”
“Can’t argue with that.”
The attentive reader may have noticed that the Status Bar in this chapter was bigger than normal. Well, that's because I've begun upgrading my images ^^
All of the images in the first 48 chapters of the webnovel on all platforms have already been replaced with the ones from the e-book; they mostly have bigger letters and thicker lines, which make them far more legible on small screens!
They also now have alt text for my text-to-speech readers. ^^
I'll be going through all of the chapters that make up the second book next, and eventually the third book as well, until I've hit this chapter, from which point on they'll finally all be up to date with the new style ^^
Just because I've started selling my work, doesn't mean I've forgotten about you guys ;)