Chapter 167: Release the kraken
The eight matches that make up the third round are once again divided into sets of four. Which is nice as it means I get to watch Kaitlynn, whose match is part of the first set.
Our training together yesterday has given me a new appreciation for the effortless way she floats around the new ‘arena.’
It once again appears to be an outdoor area, except this time consisting of a collection of rocky pillars that rise out of the Hydrum next to a steep cliff.
Kaitlynn hovers above all of that, wrapped in her customary cloak of swirling Astreum. What I hadn’t realised before yesterday, is that that swirling cloak isn’t what grants her flight; she’s taken up Direct Gravity—the same Skill Bruce used on me in our final battle.
Apparently, its second level allows for the creation of a homogenous gravity field, which makes achieving flight relatively easy. The downside to using that Skill for flight is the need to constantly adjust the field as you move to take the changing ambient gravity into consideration, but the upside is that—unlike Distort Space—it can be used to provide motion as well.
Of course, Kaitlynn has better means to provide thrust, therefore she mainly uses her Gravity field so she can save her Astreum for offensive and defensive applications.
Speaking of her offence, she definitely helped me find some weak spots in my new defences. It’s a good thing I’ve got Regeneration level 3, or I would be having a terrible hair day right about now.
Unfortunately, the arena is working against Kaitlynn in this case.
Her opponent turned out to be the guy with the leopard’s tail who took out Dave yesterday and I can’t help but notice some resentment flickering in Kaitlynn’s eye.
Perhaps the guy notices it too, because he takes one look at her, then jumps into the Hydrum.
No matter how impressive Kaitlynn’s swirling lances of Astreum are, they can’t push very deep into the Hydrum before losing steam.
So she switches tactics and starts launching super-heated throwing knives into the Hydrum with Increase Momentum.
The guy, meanwhile, appears to be moving closer to the cliff, perhaps to lock down her movement a bit. He’s not too fast under-Hydrum however, seeming to be mostly relying on short bursts of movement, likely provided by Increase Momentum.
One of Kaitlynn’s knives sinks through his leather armour into his shoulder. He jerks and pulls it out as the glow quickly fades.
Whatcha gonna do, buddy? Can’t fight from down there.
He seems to reach the same conclusion after another knife scores a cut across his thigh. He quickly swims around one of the pillars and kicks up, reaching back for his axe as he breaks the surface.
I’m not sure what his plan is—some kind of ambush I guess—but he doesn’t get a chance to execute it.
Kaitlynn comes drifting around the pillar, carried by wings of fire like a fury from the ancient Greek myths. When she notices his position, instead of throwing another knife, she makes a grasping motion that I recognise from our practice.
His eyes go wide as Direct Gravity activates, and starts to lift him up along with a large ball of Hydrum. He tries to reach back and grab hold of the pillar, but his fingers find no purchase as the sphere encapsulating him separates from the wavy surface beneath and carries him along into the Aether.
Streams of Astreum burst forth from Kaitlynn and start blowing Hydrum off the edges, Heating the liquid in the process.
The guy struggles for all he’s worth, trying to break free of the Hydrum, but to little avail. At one point he manages to launch out his axe, but, disoriented as he is, and with the Astreum blocking his view, it doesn’t even come close to hitting Kaitlynn.
Half a minute or so later, she suddenly stops and allows the much smaller ball of Hydrum to drop back into the surf.
It’s clear what happened even before the screen goes black and Kaitlynn’s form—still wreathed in Astreum—appears in the portal ring behind me.
Victory by forfeit. Well, that, or she actually managed to cook him, but I doubt it. He was Yang, after all.
I sweep her into a kiss when she returns sporting a big grin, but there isn’t much time for celebration.
My name is up on the board, and the opponent is not who I expected after Suri’s remark earlier. But perhaps I should’ve seen it coming regardless.
It’s the guy who took out Jacob: Rowan. The First Crystal.
I touch down gently on a pillar of rock above the surf and glance around. I think this is a different arena from the one Kaitlynn fought in, but I’m not quite sure. All four of them look roughly the same.
Standing here, I can tell the Hydrum between the pillars is actually not that deep, and some fish flit around in it. To one side there’s a massive cliff, and to the other side an endless expanse of Hydrum. On closer inspection, what I took for pillars might actually be a kind of coral that seems to be revealed by a low tide.
Wait, are there tides here? That actually doesn’t make much—
Rowan appears on another pillar of coral, a short distance away.
His eye catches mine, and he straightens, clasping his arms behind his back.
“Hi there,” he calls out in an accent I can’t quite place. Australian maybe? “Anything you want to say before we start?”
I blink, a little bemused at the polite question. “No, I’m cool. You?”
He shakes his head.
With a grin, I sink into a lower stance. “Let’s get to it, then.”
He smiles, and reveals two already-compressed balls of Astreum from behind his back.
Hah! The little shit.
He launches them with a barely noticeable flash of yellow. With a laugh, I let myself fall backwards into the Hydrum.
The impact of the exploding projectiles on the coral pillar’s surface fades from a sharp bang to muffled thunder as I hit the Hydrum. The force of the shockwave that passes through me makes my heartbeat pick up a little.
Actually seeing Rowan live in action is very different from witnessing him on a screen. For example, only now did I notice that he actually uses Kinetic Energy to launch his compressed Astreum projectiles.
The combination of speed and power this provides has clearly worked well for him so far. Unfortunately for him, this same stage which made things a little more difficult for Kaitlynn, is very much to my advantage. In another arena, he might’ve given me some trouble, forced me to show some trump cards that I’d rather keep hidden, but here?
Here, he’s screwed.
Quickly forming a tail, I start swimming towards him.
Rowan jumps from pillar to pillar with flashes of yellow, keeping his distance, but not bothering to launch any more projectiles.
I start circling him, and he turns with me, keeping a wary eye out.
I bet he’d be a little more proactive if he knew what I was up to.
At the start of my twenty-four days of training, I sat down to consider my strengths and weaknesses. I quickly came to the conclusion that from start to finish during these Trials, my greatest tool and advantage has always been my breath techniques. The Toxic Energy Tolerance I gained from training those has been rather useful as well, but not nearly as useful as Breath Control itself.
So improving the power and utility of my Breath Control in various ways was my main focus these past twenty-four days, with my secondary focus lying on Spatial Energy.
The results speak for themselves.
Part of what I did, was go back to one of my earlier experiments to hook a tether to the Lavi nuclei floating around in my breaths. This time, I succeeded.
What made it possible, was that I started to add small amounts of Espir to a nucleus, to give it the most rudimentary of minds. Then I had to form the thinnest tether of Lavi possible before I could finally hook it up.
I’ve come a long way from there. I only connect to a few of the nuclei directly now, but that connection branches between different nuclei, to organise them into a kind of hive mind clusters.
As a result, I’ve massively extended the time limit on how long I can control my breath-constructs—they’re really only limited by my Espir running out, and that takes a long time when I maintain direct control like this. So as I swim lazy circles around Rowan, collecting and binding more and more Hydrum and Lavi into my mermaid’s tail, it soon grows into something much greater.
By the time my creation’s ready, Rowan looks quite annoyed with me.
I take a sharp turn and accelerate towards him hard, no longer relying on just the strength of my muscles to propel myself through the Hydrum.
He crouches down and forms two more Astreum bombs that look even hotter and denser than the last ones.
I leap. Or perhaps I should say, I’m catapulted along with the orca-shaped and sized mass of Hydrum as it bursts through the surface.
Rowan’s eyes go wide, but he manages to launch himself out of the way just in time, leaving behind the two balls of Astreum that go off harmlessly in the face of the several tons worth of Hydrum I control now.
Now that the surprise factor is gone, I give up the pretence and flood my creation with Acidic Energy. This gives it a little more bite and further strengthens my control, but it also tints the entire thing a light pink, revealing its shape under-Hydrum as I wheel around for another approach.
When I get close again, however, I morph said shape into a new one with a thought.
My orca shifts, one side splitting apart before several pink tentacles reach up to make a grab for Rowan.
He leaps once more. One of my tentacles stretches out for his ankle and almost reaches him, but then he blasts it backwards in mid-Aether with a plume of Astreum.
Next, he launches the Astreum bomb in his other hand, except this time he doesn’t aim for me, but for the pillar of coral he just vacated.
The pillar bursts apart in a violent explosion, sharp shards shooting everywhere. One of them actually nicks my cheek, but other than that, the projectiles pass through my breath construct without causing harm.
With a grin, I move to the next step. My remaining tentacles grab the surrounding pillars. Flexing the Lavi inside, I use them to heave the bulk of my creation up, fully revealing the shape of my dodecapus.
Twelve tentacles is my limit, for now. Trying to split it further just gives me a headache.
Then I begin to move forward, willing my tentacles to carry me.
Rowan wastes no time in rapid-firing a stream of Astreum bombs at me and the pillars holding me up even as he backs away, hopping from pillar to pillar.
I swat projectiles aside left and right with a bunch of my tentacles, but with half of them occupied providing locomotion over the rock pillars, I can’t hit all of them.
It doesn’t matter much though. Despite their speed, the Astreum bombs lack the force to penetrate my strengthened Hydrum shell, and while the explosions on the surface rock through the Hydrum, they’re muted enough that I shake them off with little issue.
That he blows up my footing—tentacling?—is more annoying, but still futile. I have more than enough limbs to compensate.
Rowan seems to realise it, as he suddenly takes three big jumps in a row, then turns around and forms a massive ball of Astreum over his head, which rapidly begins to shrink and glow more and more intensely between his hands.
I waver for a split-second, seeing him take a stand, then make a decision.
More pink Energy bursts out of me, clouding the interior of my dodecapus.
The light coming from Rowan’s projectile—now the size of a basketball, and still shrinking—continues growing in intensity, which thankfully makes it rather easy to keep track of his position.
By the time my dodecapus rears up in front of him, reaching forward with several tentacles, the small sun in Rowan’s hands seems to start showing signs of crystallization. I don’t have time to study it, however, as he then launches it at great speed.
Whether it’s due to the increased density or weight, the nearly blindingly bright ball manages to penetrate the outer shell of Hydrum.
It detonates, and the resulting blast of pressure practically rips my dodecapus in half, revealing that...
The very moment he launches what I presume to be his ultimate attack, I leap up from the Hydrum behind him, where I’ve been hiding for about thirty seconds now, ever since shortly after I slipped out through one of my glorious creation’s pink tentacles.
I step nimbly onto the coral pillar, and without any fanfare, jab my crystal spear through his armour into his back, between the ribs.
Not the nicest way to force someone to surrender, but I’m not gonna risk doing this half-heartedly for the sake of politeness. Besides, he’ll heal. It’s not like I’m stabbing him in the heart or anything.
Judging from his pained cry as I leverage my spear to force him to his knees, he still resents the experience, but hopefully the copious amount of Dreamcloud Energy I’m pumping into his body will help with that.
Suri has informed me that Dreamcloud Energy can’t actually kill, and any comas caused by it can easily be ended with some Radiation therapy, so I’m no longer worried about overdosing people with this stuff.
It seems to do the trick anyway, as his pained cry quickly turns into more of a sleepy groan and he fully slumps down onto the pillar, barely even conscious.
His head slowly turns back, and he catches my eye. “Well... played,” he slurs.
Finally, his eyelids flutter and close.
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