The trident heads straight for the hexagonal hole in the centre of the grating.
Cursing internally, I use the lifeless chief as a springboard and dive the other way, after Alec’s eye-crystal.
Unfortunately, we drifted down during the fight, and the crystal is down by the grating in no time.
However, Kaitlynn was prepared. She runs over the grating—as much as that is possible underhydrum—and dives for it. Her fingers curl around it at the last second, right before I land on top of her.
Thankfully, I’m not moving all too fast in the Hydrum, and she manages to hold on to the crystal.
I get up first, swallowing the apology on my tongue. I spare a glance for the trident as I help Kaitlynn up. It’s gone.
I sigh internally before we quickly head over to Alec. The boy is lying limply on his back on the grating, and for a moment, I doubt if he’s even still alive. He can’t be out of Lavi already though, right?
Speaking off... I glance at my status bar.
Oof. I close my eyes for a second, focus inward, and undo the crossflow of Lavi through my heart. Still in this inward-looking state, I seek out the connection with Suri through my eye-crystal almost instinctively.
‘How many minutes of Lavi do I have left?’ I subvocalize at her. No time to do the math.
[Hmm, now that you’ve deactivated Boost Physical’s second mode, about 5 minutes. You’re still losing extra Lavi due to bleeding from several shallow cuts.]
Damn, that’s not much, but it’ll have to do.
‘Warn me if I drop below two minutes,’ I send, before cutting off the connection.
As Dave takes out his Focus Crystal, Kaitlynn holds out Alec’s eye-crystal, seemingly unsure what to do with it. She reaches for Alec’s hand as if thinking of giving it to him.
I hold out my hand for it instead. She hesitates, then hands it over.
The crystal is smooth and hard, slightly cool to the touch. It’s weight in my hand somehow reassuring.
I glance at its destination; Alec’s open, bleeding eye-socket. Sorry, buddy, but this is going to hurt. With a surge of Lavi through my heart, I activate the first mode of Boost Physical.
I put a comforting hand on Alec’s shoulder, before gripping it tightly as I use my other hand to start forcing his eye-crystal back into place.
His mouth opens, and a burst of Aether escapes, together with a warbled cry. He claws at my arm unseeingly, but I press on, increasing the pressure until, all of a sudden, it slips in with an audible ‘plop.’
I let go of him as the short boost of strength leaves me, and he cradles his face in his hands, curling up into a foetal position on his side.
Kaitlynn steps in and gently but insistently pushes his hands away, so Dave can hold his Focus Crystal up to Alec’s face. It starts emitting a familiar pink light. After a tense couple of seconds, change occurs.
The good news is, the fifth door audibly grinds open.
The bad news is, despite Dave persisting for as long as he can with his restoration, Alec’s other eye socket remains empty.
[Two minutes of Lavi left,] Suri warns me.
Shit. I tap on my wrist, signalling to Dave and Kaitlynn that time is running out, and pick up Alec. He’s still pretty out of it, not sure if he’s even conscious right now, so I drag him towards the door that just ground open for him, and push him in.
He flails as he is sucked in, and I think he actually looks at me before the door slams shut. Whoops. Guess he was conscious after all.
Anyway, there’s no time to waste. I turn around to see Dave and Kaitlynn heading for the various objects lying on or stuck in the grating. Dave’s got Jacob’s shield, and Kaitlynn just grabbed my spear. Lucky!
I spot Alec’s backpack stuck in the grating, and head towards it. The rest of us all still seem to have ours, thankfully.
I grab the backpack and wrench it loose.
[One and a half minute of Lavi left.]
Yikes. I can feel the effects of the Lavi drain now too. My fingers are getting kinda numb, and there are black spots appearing in my vision. I’m hit by a powerful urge to inhale, but I suppress it, as I head for the closest open door. Along the way, I bend down to grab an errant blowpipe, to replace the one I lost.
When I get there, I take one last look back. Dave and Kaitlynn have also reached their doors. I stick up a thumb. Kaitlynn returns the gesture. Dave nods.
I turn back around and dive into the door. It slams shut behind me, the sound reverberating in the small tunnel as I am sucked further in. A grating in the wall explains where the flow of Hydrum is coming from.
Light appears at the end of the tunnel, and I am sucked into a simple room with a single bed and a full-length mirror. There’s a hexagonal grating in the floor with very small holes, which I end up touching down on.
A grate grinds into place in the hole above me as well. I wait patiently for the flow of Hydrum to stop, but it keeps coming.
What’s taking so long? Worried, I glance at my status bar.
Ah, thanks to the Crystal of Lavi in this room, I should be able to hold out for... another 6 minutes. Actually, I could even go into a lucid trance and break even, without breathing at all.
Huh. That’s a weird thought.
I seek out the connection with Suri again, fumbling a few times before I feel it establish. Well... it’s the first time I’m doing it consciously, you know?
‘Yo Suri, where my Aether at?’ I send.
[Now now, is that a proper tone to use when speaking to someone who controls when and if Aether comes into this room?] Suri chimes.
‘Suri, might there be any Aether available for me to breathe anytime soon? I appear to be suffocating.’
[In a minute, but first, you’re going to do something for me.]
‘Okaaay... and what’s that?’
[You’re going to open your mouth and take a breath of Hydrum.]
[You heard me.]
I blink. What the hell is Suri playing at?
[Tik-tok Emma, Lavi is running out.]
‘Are you trying to kill me?’ I ask almost bemusedly.
[You’re doing a fine job of that yourself my dear, now do me a favour and breathe.]
Almost involuntarily, I open my mouth and let in a flow of thick Hydrum. My eyes widen as the liquid enters my windpipe, and I reflexively start coughing and choking on the weirdly viscous goop.
[Calm down, Emma, just slowly let it in. Easy does it.]
I try to do as she says and calm down my spasming breathing muscles. Bubbles of Aether come streaming out as the liquid fills my lungs. A strange calm washes over me as I watch them disappear into the ceiling grating.
I attempt to exhale, and to my surprise, Hydrum flows out of my mouth. In inhale, and Hydrum flows in.
[There we go. Honestly, you humans are so hung up on Aether. You don’t need it to survive, you know? You just need Lavi.]
I blink and take another glance at my Status bar.
Does that mean...
‘Suri, could you show me the Lavi Flows Window please?’
Three Onkh per minute from the Trigot meat, five from the Lavi crystal, and... for real? Five Onkh per minute from Hydrum... I can actually breathe Hydrum?!
Right... there’s no oxygen here, only Lavi, and there’s plenty of that in the Hydrum, I can see the little flecks of green swirling around. Does that mean... this was an option all along?
Also, I almost forgot, but my Resting Lavi Consumption has been 6 ever since I levelled up... if it had gone up to 7, would I be dead now?
...No, I guess I just couldn’t’ve used Boost Physical’s second mode as freely.
[Now, would you like me to fill this room with Aether? I can switch back and forth whenever you like.]
‘Ehm, yes please,’ I send. My mind is spinning, and I really need some time to process all of this.
At first, nothing seems to happen, but then Aether bursts from the grating in the ceiling, and the Hydrum starts dropping around me until my head is above its level.
I am back to coughing and hacking, as I expel the leftover Hydrum in my lungs and replace it with sweet sweet Aether. A sharp, tearing pain in my side reminds me of the spear I took between the ribs. A glance at the cut on my thigh reveals that my Lavi, agitated by the Crystal of Restoration, is slowly knitting the cut flesh together, so I should be fine in a couple of minutes.
A last glance at my Lavi Flows Window shows Lavi absorption from Hydrum has been replaced by a cool 12.5 Onkh per minute from Aether, and the Lavi disappearing through blood loss has already gone down to 3 Onkh per Minute, allaying my final worries.
First things first. I trudge over to the bed and flop down on its edge as I start taking off my wet gear.
“Aren’t you going to show me the Trial Finish thingy?” I ask while I peel off a wet sock. Yuck.
[Ah, yes of course. Give me a sec.]
About six seconds later, actually, a window pops up in front of me.
I freeze in the middle of untying the straps of my leg guard. The chief’s name was ‘Hoppy’, are you kidding me?! Also, why is he listed twice?
Well, whatever the reason, 64 Trial Points is sweet! Way more than I had expected.
“Status window please!” I sing-song happily.
A total of 98 Trial Points... part of me is annoyed that it’s not over a hundred.
Perhaps it’s for the best that I won’t be tempted by Distort Space.
Also, I have Electric Tolerance now, thanks to that bastard Hoppy. Hmm, maybe I could get Alec’s assistance in training that... though it’d be excruciatingly painful, of course.
The listing of Infuse is also pretty interesting, showing my conversion rate and the minimum activation cost of the skill. I wonder what I need to do to improve that conversion rate... but first things first.
“Can I start my five minutes of questions?” I ask, while leisurely continuing to take off and lay my wet gear out on the mysteriously dry floor.
“Well, first of all, do we again have a communal space? A Living room?”
“And 48 hours until we’re forced to start the next Trial?”
[47 hours, 53 minutes and 13 seconds remaining.]
“Perfect. Now, about that Bonus Objective... do I understand correctly that it applies to the whole party?”
Sweet. That’s 50 TP in total then, 60 if you count the 10 extra received for personally killing him. At least something good came from that whole debacle then. Poor Alec... which reminds me.
“Suri, is there a Skill that can regrow a lost eye?”
Oh, praise be to Suri!
[It’d be easiest for him to learn the Skill himself, as applying it to someone else is far more challenging.]
“Fair enough, so what Skill is it?”
“What? Oh Suri, come on!”
[I’m sorry Emma, but I can’t just reveal information about Skills that currently aren’t available to you.]
I frown but continue unlacing my vambraces. “Can you at least tell me why it isn’t available to me?”
[I suppose that’s all right,] Suri chimes reluctantly. [You’re currently lacking the prerequisite level in the prerequisite Skill. That’s all I’ll say about it.]
Mmm... it sounds suspiciously like she’s saying it’s a Skill I have but am lacking the required level in.
I narrow my eyes. “Can you tell me if this ‘prerequisite level of the prerequisite Skill’ is available to me in the Skilldream Shopping Menu?”
[...Is this really a line of questioning you wish to pursue, Emma? I’d rather answer questions that help you.]
Hmm, that’s not an answer, but it also isn’t a complete rejection of the question. “Please Suri?” I beg shamelessly, giving myself the puppy-dog pout in the full-length mirror. “Knowing would appease my guilt, which would help me focus better.”
I mean, it’s not even a lie.
[Hmm. Fine then. Yes, it’s available to you. The rest you’ll have to figure out for yourself.]
All right, I think I better stop pushing. This shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, right? Though I better try later, as I’m still on the clock.
All right, what else do I need to ask about... oh.
“Ehm, can you tell me if Jacob—or everybody, really—made it out all right?” I ask sheepishly.
Somehow, Suri sighs inside my head. [All but one of them are fine.]
I shoot up from my slumped pose. “What? Who—what’s wrong?”
[The blond kid’s missing an eye,] Suri chimes dryly.
... Damn you Suri.
I sigh exasperatedly and resume untying the straps at the side of my cuirass.
Let’s see, questions I need to ask.
“Can you tell me what the third level of Boost Physical entails?”
[The third level provides a very short, very large burst of Strength, at a cost of 10 Onkh Lavi. However, at your current Toughness, activating the Skill would rip you apart from the inside.]
Ah. “What’s the requirement then?”
[A Toughness of 15.]
Hmm. That’ll have to wait then. Maybe after I reach level 3.
Oh right, I wanted to ask about this. “Suri, what can I do to improve the conversion of my Qi to Toxic Energy?”
Wow. Thanks. “Could you be a little more specific?”
[Of course, dear,] Suri chimes smugly. [In order to improve your conversion rate, you’ll need to improve your understanding of Toxic Energy. You understand enough to form it at this point, but you can raise your conversion rate all the way to 1:10. Still, I’d say it’s less important right now compared to improving your control over the formed energy.]
That’s a lot to think about, but I need to keep asking questions. Now, what would be a good topic to... my eyes fall on the glow coming from a gap in Alec’s backpack.
Shoot. I should’ve appraised those first... I’ve been getting a bit lax with my five minutes, but that’s partly because Suri has also been loosening the reins.
Somehow, it feels a lot less like ‘five minutes’ and a lot more like ‘until Suri gets bored with my questions’ these days. Which, granted, is a little weird, but probably in my favour overall. For example, I can probably get away with something like this.
“Hey Suri, would you mind pausing the timer on my five minutes for a bit? I kinda want to do something first.”
“Pwetty pwease?” I ask cutely, directing another pout at myself in the full-length mirror.
[That’s not gonna work forever, you know? Fine. You’ve got three minutes left.]
See, that’s what I mean. ‘Three minutes.’ Suri used to be much more precise about that kind of thing...
Oh well, I’m not gonna rock the boat on this; that could only cost me this new flexibility.
Instead, I open up Alec’s bag and grab a crystal.
“One appraisal please!”
In my head, Suri groans.
I made alt-texts for this chapter for my text-to-speech readers! ^^
I'll try to keep doing that from now on, but I can't promise I always will remember to, or have the time; it's more work than you'd think.
In other news, I've heard back from my editor, and as soon as we've handled the financial aspects of our agreement, I'll be receiving my feedback!
Thanks for reading, and if you liked the chapter, please vote! ^^