Chapter 58: Just around the riverbend

Cursing, I leap forward. The closest of the three Froggo’s that just hopped on board goes down with a throwing knife in his throat, courtesy of Kaitlynn. Damn, girl was ready.

 

I take on the second, who just spat out and caught a slimy buckler and club.

 

Those aren’t going to save him. I lash out with my spear, fed by anger and adrenaline. He—or she actually, I think—manages to block the thrust with her buckler, but it cracks in the process, and she is shoved back into a stumble.

 

I press my assault, taking several stabs at her, most of which hit, drawing green blood. As I’m about to finish her off, however, another Froggo launches itself towards me from the river.

 

I duck, and it sails over me. Kaitlynn is on my other side and slashes at it with her retrieved knife.

 

Right, gotta prioritize; we have more incoming, so fights have to be quick. I sweep my spear at the female Froggo I was facing, and knock her off the boat with a solid hit. Let her bleed out in the river.

 

From the corner of my eye, I see a dart approach. I barely dodge it. Some Froggo’s have hopped onto rocks in the river to shoot from. As I watch, an arrow flies from the back of our barge, hitting one of them in the chest. Nice one, Dave!

 

Two more Froggo’s leap out on my side of the boat, one in front and one behind me, and the chaotic fight continues.

 

Kaitlynn ducks in close to carve up one of the two, who hadn’t had the chance to ready himself, before throwing one of her knives at the back of another new arrival approaching Dave.

 

So unfair! I love it.

 

Jacob Charges another Froggo, catching the overgrown critter off-guard with his instantaneous acceleration.

 

It’s an effective tactic, which affords him a clean stroke across the Froggo’s chest, but rather reckless on our relatively small barge. If the Froggo had dodged, he’d be overboard...

 

Meanwhile, the next Froggo to hop onboard near me is a little more prepared; he has his buckler and club ready when he lands.

 

I take a stab at him—literally—but he hastily raises his buckler. The tip of my spear slams into it. A deep crack forms, with a purple glow where I hit it, but the shield holds.

 

A second Froggo hops onboard behind me; she produces a crude stone axe from her gullet and wields it two-handed.

 

Darn. Thankfully, my spear is quite long. I take a sideways stance between them—facing the water, obviously—and start sweeping and twirling like there’s no tomorrow, in an attempt to keep them from doing anything smart while I prepare.

 

It works, mostly. The female Froggo manages a glancing blow on my shoulder with her axe; it hurts like shit, and my left arm goes a little numb, but it’s still working.

 

Before they are able to do any more damage however, my preparations are finished. I turn the blue Yin Qi in the Focus Crystal around my neck into hungry tendrils of Toxic Energy, Infuse the Aether, and inhale.

 

The female Froggo to my left jumps back. The club and buckler wielding Froggo to my right is less smart. He freezes up.

 

Hehe, sucker.

 

I blow my deadly payload onto him. With something between a squeal and a croak, he raises his buckler, already tainted with Toxic Energy.

 

Damn. Perhaps not the best target after all.

 

However, the wooden buckler turns a little purple, and kind of... shrivels.

 

Seeing my chance, I slam my spear straight through it, stabbing him in the chest.

 

Wary of the female behind me, I sweep my spear aside, tossing him and the buckler in the water.

 

I face off against the female Froggo, but she’s wily, wielding her heavy stone axe with uncanny grace. The reach of my spear helps keep her at bay at least, especially with how wary she is of its purple glowing tip.

 

As I step back for a second to breathe and consider my next move, Kaitlynn darts in close to the wary axe-wielding female, and stabs her in the back.

 

Well, that works too.

 

A large, two-pronged-spear-wielding Hoplite lands behind me, and the battle continues.

 

The bastard is good. He manages to stab me between my lower ribs before an arrow from Dave helps me finish him off.

 

But the Froggo’s don’t stop coming.

 

I stab and sweep until my arms feel like lead, my spear leaving less and less glowing purple residue in every subsequent cut. Often, they leave after receiving a single wound, to make room for a fresh warrior. Sometimes I give them a helping hand in going overboard, by blowing them off to keep them from crowding us.

 

Unlike them, we don’t have anywhere to retreat, unfortunately. I quickly lose count of the blows I’ve taken, luckily most of them glancing, or at least softened by my armour. There are also darts flying everywhere, despite Dave’s efforts in culling their numbers. Kaitlynn just took one full in the neck, and Jacob’s bleeding from a nasty gash on his forehead, just underneath his protective coif.

 

However, as the battle drags on, their numbers are dwindling. The chief seems to realize it too, unfortunately. A bright blue arc jumps onto our boat from the front, striking Jacob in the back as he’s about to deal a finishing blow. He crumples bonelessly, twitching as he goes down.

 

Thankfully, the Froggo he was facing already sports several nasty cuts and takes the opportunity to flee rather than avenge him or herself.

 

“Coward,” the chief croaks angrily. A flash of heat erupts from Kaitlynn, as she launches a blast of Astreum at the chief. He quickly dives, the blast harmlessly hits the Hydrum, which just glows a bit before the heat diffuses.

 

“Damn,” I curse, before slamming a heavily wounded Froggo off-board with the butt of my spear.

 

I look around. The deck is covered in sticky, green goop, and the Froggo’s are hanging back in the river, seemingly hesitant about pursuing us further. Perhaps we’ve left their territory?

 

Kaitlynn looks a little unsteady, Toxic energy playing beneath her skin. She’s pulling out a Blue Angel. Smart girl. Jacob is grinning happily at something. A pop-up maybe?

 

I head over to Dave, whose Focus Crystal glows pink as he Restores a nasty cut along his thigh; probably from the second Hoplite to climb on deck. Pretty sure he went overboard with one of Kaitlynn’s knives still in his back.

 

“We have to get that eye-crystal back,” he says as I get closer. “Rose says Alec’ll be disqualified without it!”

 

My burgeoning sense of calm is promptly shattered. “Meaning?”

 

“Classified,” he grunts back.

 

“Looking for this?” the Chief croaks, from a ways in front of the barge, waving a glimpse of amethyst at us. “Come and get it!” He cackles gleefully, before starting to swim further downstream.

 

Dave curses.

 

“After him!” I yell. While everyone seems to agree to my proposal on principle, for a moment we all stand around, unclear on what to do, because, well, how?

 

Dave starts issuing commands and we scramble into motion.

 

Dave and Kaitlynn take the front of the barge, prepared to fire at him when we get into range. Jacob takes the wheel in front of the little hut, and I crouch down next to the rudder, thinking over what I’m about to try.

 

I mean, Dave’s idea works in theory... but that’s Earth theory.

 

I inhale as much Aether as I can, making sure to face the front of the barge, turn around, hang onto the rear, and unleash a jet of aether straight back.

 

It doesn’t do much, though I clearly feel myself pull on the edge as I’m pushed back by my exhale. The Aether doesn’t have enough weight, or density rather...

 

I make a few more attempts, and soon discover that the effect becomes a lot stronger if I crouch down and angle the jet 45 degrees down towards the Hydrum. I pull the boat up a bit at the back, but in general, way more pressure builds up, and I’m actually noticeably accelerating the barge a little when I do this.

 

Jacob shouts back at me. “It’s working, Emma! But we’re going to need a bit more!”

 

“I’m already practically hyperventilating!” I yell back in between breaths.

 

“All right; just keep going, I’ll try something!”

 

Maybe 30 seconds later or so, I almost fall off the boat, as it suddenly lurches forward with newfound... momentum!

 

I keep firing large jets of Aether a little while longer, now prepared for the occasional push from Jacob, until the river gets disconcertingly rough.

 

I hadn’t really registered it before now, but the riverbanks have been rising for a while now; at this point, we are basically boxed in by large cliffs on both sides.

 

Concerned, I come back to the front of the little cabin, just in time to see Dave loose another arrow, and hear the chief cackle as he dodges it and enters the white rapids in front of us.

 

“Oh shit,” I whisper.

 

Alec, still huddled in the cabin, trails of blood running down his cheeks like tear tracks, looks up at my words. “What? What’s going on?” he asks in alarm. “Is it the chief? Wait, what is that roaring sound?”

 

“No, it’s...” I swallow. “Hang on buddy; the ride’s about to get bumpy.”

 

White rapid rafting always seemed like such a fun thing. It had long been my goals to visit a country with such wild rivers and go down one. You know, with like a skilled guide.

 

Definitely not like this. This is terrifying.

 

My back breaks out in cold sweat at the first big lurch, and at the first scrape against an invisible rock, my voice joins that of Kaitlynn in an involuntary scream. 

 

Jacob is giving the steering his all, now assisted by Dave, who is calling out directions from where he is clinging on at the front, scouting ahead.

 

Kaitlynn is still next to him, scowling at the waves. A bolt of lightning suddenly streaks towards them, but misses completely, thanks to a sudden lurch of our vessel that almost makes me stumble over the edge.

 

I glance at Jacob, but he makes a face as if to say: ‘Wasn’t me!’

 

Hmmph. Must’ve been the rapids then. I move over and grab onto the small cabin for safety.

 

Meanwhile, the chief still stands on a rock up ahead, glaring menacingly after his missed shot.

 

Kaitlynn charges up, but Dave jumps in front of her, waving at her to stop. The chief quickly takes the opportunity to jump into the water and disappear.

 

“What gives, Dave?” she exclaims in frustration, “let me fry that jerk!”

 

“No!” Dave yells over the roar of the river. “If he drops Alec’s crystal here it’s basically lost forever! We have to wait for calmer water!”

 

Damn, he’s right... we can’t even fight back.

 

“Emma, please, what’s going on?” Alec begs. Powerless to do anything else, I sit down in the cabin and huddle up with him, whispering soothing lies like ‘it’ll be all right.’

 

As the rapids grow fiercer, Alec holds on to me for dear life and I can’t stand to look at him. This is my fault, isn’t it? I screwed up, heading into that temple, and he paid the price. I hate this.

 

The rapids go on for a long time. The chief hounds us constantly, taking shots at us from unexpected places every five minutes or so. We’re ready for those now, however. Kaitlynn is huddled up against me in the cabin and Dave has joined Jacob at the wheel. Even if one of them gets hit, the other can steer until the stunning effect wears off.

 

There are a couple of hairy moments, where it seems like the barge is going to flip over one way or another, but its size works in our favour.

 

After a while, the arcs of lightning start coming less and less; perhaps the chief is running out of juice? The shaking and bobbing get less as well, so Kaitlynn and I join Dave and Jacob on the deck.

 

The river slows down further as we head into a long bend, with noticeably more space between the cliffs.

 

“Is the chief still trailing us?” I ask.

 

To my relief, Dave nods tensely. “I’ve caught glimpses of him; he’s moving around quite deep in the river, no idea what he’s up to.”

 

Hmm. Well, as long as he doesn’t leave. I join Kaitlynn in scanning the water at the front of the barge, spear at the ready. Maybe I should’ve kept one of those fishing spears after all. Rats.

 

“D’you guys think we’re nearing the end of the river?” Jacob asks.

 

“Maybe,” Dave says, scanning the walls of rock around us. “We better keep an eye out for doors. At least it’s clear why we’d ‘never make it there on foot’. These cliffs must be like, what, 200 feet high?”

 

I look up with a frown. Is that really the reason? I mean, materials in this realm are pretty darn sturdy, so it shouldn’t be too hard to fashion a rope with some vines... the river was probably a lot faster, but still, how long have we really been on the water, maybe an hour?

 

Kaitlynn frowns and tilts her head cutely, “You guys... what is that roaring sound? Aren’t we moving away from the rapids?”

 

I blink. Now that she mentions it...

 

As our barge gently drifts along the long bend, the answer becomes apparent in the distance, where the river... disappears.

 

Or more accurately, drops down.

 

It’s a friggin’ Hydrumfall.

 

Dave curses. “Is there an anchor or something on board?”

 

I shake my head. “We’d have run into that by now; this barge is pretty bare.”

 

“Can we moor this thing?” Jacob asks, alarmed.

 

Dave peers over the edge into the clear hydrum, as we slowly drift forward, the roar growing more substantial. How long before we get there, two minutes? Three?

 

“The Hydrum’s too deep,” Dave eventually calls out, “even near the edges; there’s no running this thing aground. We may be able to—”

 

“No! Nonono—that bastard!” Jacob suddenly exclaims from behind the wheel. “The rudder is stuck!”

 

It takes a second before it clicks in my head, and I sprint towards the back with the others. There’s a thick bundle of weeds tied around the rudder, and the chief is long gone.

 

Actually, no, he’s behind the barge, merrily waving Alec’s eye-crystal at us. “So long, smelly apes! Thanks for this!” And he cackles again, before turning around and starting to swim upstream.

 

My heart sinks as he moves away. This is it. Alec’s done for. Actually, we all are, aren’t—

 

Are we? I glance around the cliffs, checking the rock walls for doors. There are none. Could they be underwater?

 

“Guys, look for the exit, see if it’s underwater somewhere,” I call as I head for the cabin. “I have an idea!”

 

Inside, I open up Alec’s backpack to take something out.

 

Alec grasps my wrist. “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” he asks soberly. Emptily.

 

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” I say brusquely, around the lump in my throat, “and I haven’t given up yet, so save your goodbyes for later!” 

 

I pull away, and run around to the back with my prize, lifting it up high above me. “OOOY, YOU FAT, SLIMY TOAD!” I yell over the water. The chief stops mid-stroke, turning around to glare at me.

 

“THANKS FOR THIS!” I continue waving the crystal around. “IT’LL MAKE A LOVELY NEW EYE FOR MY FRIEND! OR MAYBE A NICE DOORSTOPPER OR SOMETHING. I HOPE YOU CHOKE ON A FISH!”

 

That ought to do it. The chief is glaring at me, so I nonchalantly turn around, casually lowering the crystal and holding it by my side. Near the water’s edge.

 

“Any doors?” I ask conversationally.

 

Dave is frowning at me. “No; what are you—”

 

“Did he dive down yet?”

 

Dave’s eyes widen. “Yes.”

 

“And he looked pissed!” Kaitlynn adds excitedly, catching on.

 

I motion at Jacob and Kaitlynn to come closer, setting down my spear to run my free hand through my hair. “Good. Act natural,” I say softly. “And be ready.”

 

My fingers clench around the crystal nervously. Should I hold it closer to the edge? Maybe he just needs another little push.

 

“Ugh,” I complain at decent, hopefully not suspicious volume, “can you believe that blue freak? Why the hell do the other Hoig even listen to him? I mean, he sent all of them after us just for them to end up dying at our hands, then he even chased us all the way here, and he didn’t even get one crystal back from the bagful we took! And that stupid blue frog still acts like he’s won somehow!”

 

And as the end of the river draws near, perfectly on cue, the chief lashes out with his tongue, aiming for the crystal.

 

But with a Strength of 14, my grip on it is like a vice. My free hand strikes like a viper, the extra sharp nails I grew during level up finally coming in handy when I grasp onto his tongue.

 

I release the bait-crystal to grasp onto him with both hands and ready myself to pull as I turn to face him. Looking into his shocked, angry eyes, I hiss, “Got you now, sucker!”

 

 

Author's note:

So, I ended up doing another retcon, ^^’ though it’s smaller than the last one.

 

Retconning a web-novel is a sub-optimal method of editing, as I need to make a lot of changes over three platforms, but I hate this less than having continuity errors in my story, and it’s impossible for me to keep working with what I’ve written before, once I’ve decided I’m dissatisfied with it.

 

As for what I’m dissatisfied with this time: it’s the way I handled Emma’s secrecy around the Charm stat. Obviously, I have good narrative reasons to keep it a secret for a little while longer, but I felt the execution was lacking. Basically, I forced Emma to do it, and it made her feel OOC and annoying.

 

There’s always a balance going on in writing in what the plot demands happen to make the story interesting, and what the characters would do realistically. It’s a fine line to walk. This time, I strayed on the side of plot, so I’m making a correction, which I believe improves the reading experience.

 

Here are the most important bits that I’ve changed; enjoy.

 

Chapter 43, after Emma has levelled
[Ah, you’re up,] Suri chimes. [Congratulations Emma; you’ve once again exceeded my every expectation regarding how foolhardy humans can be, and how tenacious.]

“Glad to have you still around, too,” I say dryly, before frowning and touching my throat. My voice sounds kinda strange, smooth... “Say, Suri, it appears I now have ‘Charm,’ could you tell me what that does?”

 [Yes, Charm; a rare thing for a human to possess.]

 

Hey now!

 

[I’m afraid I can’t tell you what it does; it’s classified.]

 

Well, that was to be expected.

 

[However, I would like to urge you not to reveal the existence—or your possession—of this stat to anyone just yet.]

 

Huh?

 

I frown. “Why?”

 

[I’ll explain later. Just... do me a favour, and keep this to yourself for now, okay?]

 

That’s odd. Well, I suppose it can wait.

 

Chapter 50, during Emma’s 5 minutes of questions after Hub 2

“Right, are you finally going to tell me what the Charm stat does and what all the secrecy was about?”

 

[Charm is a very interesting stat. Just having it will attract living beings towards you and make them more open to suggestion. It makes your friends like you more and perhaps even your enemies go soft on you.]

 

It makes my friends... like me more? There’s a twisting in my stomach as I try to wrap my mind around that thought. Is that why Suri warned me not to tell them about it?

 

“Oh man,” I groan. “How strong of an effect would you say this has on my friends?”

 

[Right now? Pretty much none.]

 

I blink. Oh. Well that’s good then.

 

[First of all, Charm is counteracted by Mental Fortitude,] Suri explains, [so a Charm of three doesn’t amount to much. Second of all, the passive effect of Charm isn’t that pronounced. Charm is more of an active stat than a passive one—like Strength, and unlike Toughness. If you develop your Charm further in the future, I should be able to provide you with some instruction on how to ‘activate’ it, so to speak.]

 

“I see.” I breathe a sigh of relief. “Well, if that’s the case, what was all the secrecy about? I mean, it sounds like I can safely tell them about it without them feeling too weird about me.”

 

[Tell them about it? Whyever would you do that?] Suri chimes flabbergasted.

 

...

 

“What do you mean why?” I ask bemusedly. “Did you miss that whole discussion earlier? Keeping secrets hurts trust and feelings. I only haven’t told them about it yet because you asked me not to, and because I didn’t know what I’d be telling them about.”

 

[Oh geeze, you humans and your feelings,] Suri gripes. [Honestly, you gain a power you can develop into an ability to manipulate people, and you want to go tell them about it!]

 

“I don’t need to manipulate them, Suri, they’re my friends!” I shoot back.

 

[Really? You trust them with your life? All of them?]

 

An image of Jacob, an unknown factor, flashes into my mind unbidden. I swallow.

 

[You trust them to make the right decisions, all the time?]

 

Alec’s grinning face appears before my mind’s eye. I shake my head, as if to clear the images, but Suri isn’t done yet.

 

[Telling your friends about it would alert them to your potential use of it on them,] she says sternly. [Charm works much better on unwitting subjects. If you tell them, and wind up needing to use it on them in the future, it’ll be too late to regret it.]

 

“I... I don’t know, Suri; don’t you think it’d be more useful to share this with them, so we can cooperate better?” I plead. “You know, figure out a way to use it on people we don’t like?”

 

[I suppose you could try to use it like that...] Suri chimes reluctantly. [But why don’t you do me a favour, and hold off on telling them for a little longer, hmm? I mean, it’s not like your Charm is strong enough to really accomplish anything yet, or like you’re able to use it. You can decide about telling them or not when you are. Who knows what the future will bring after all? You might change your mind about wanting to tell them.]

 

Well, what she’s saying about it not being functional yet does make sense... “Fine, I’ll keep it to myself for now.”

 

And that’s it!

Hope you like the new direction I’m taking with this. Now, I think I’ve done a good job of changing other short passages to match these changes, but if you find anything that no longer seems congruent with the rest, please let me know.

 

And if you care to spare a few seconds, I dare... you to vote! ^^

 

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