After I run out my five minutes with questions about the crystals, I lay on the bed for a bit and wait for my clothes to dry. The bed thankfully appears to be Hydrumproof and is surprisingly, entirely dry.
Things actually dry surprisingly quickly in this Realm, especially since I’ve never actually seen Hydrum evaporate from heat. It just kinda disperses, somehow.
My armour and clothing are getting more and more tattered though, with holes pricked by toxic darts, and large gashes from axes and spears.
Hopefully, Alec will be able to patch them up a little. At least they got a good wash, so most of the blood is gone; both the green froggo goop and my own red stuff.
I sigh lethargically as my mind drifts off.
What would my family be up to? It’s been what, a month?
Actually, does time even flow at the same rate here? Suri does measure stuff in ‘hours,’ I guess. A question for next time then.
Anyway, a month would mean summer break is over, and high-school has started again for my little brother and sister.
My baby sister, already a freshman... I had promised I’d help her with math.
Before I know it, tears are flowing down my cheeks.
I catch a look at myself in the mirror. Ugh, self-pity is not a good look on me. I rub away the tears and take a few Deep Breaths, sending the Aether in the room swirling even more than usual.
I take another look at my slightly purple-tinted reflection and the small ram’s horns that sprout from my forehead and curl back towards my ears. Right now, they still look kinda small and cute, but... if I ever make it back, would my family still recognize me?
Would I still be human?
Perhaps because of my emotional outburst, I am the last to walk through a short hallway to the living room. It looks much the same as the previous one, with the addition of gratings in the floor and ceiling. As I step through my door, Alec turns and looks at me.
At least, I think he does. It’s hard to tell since he no longer has any pupils.
He smiles wryly. “Hey Ems.” His voice is raspy. Not in a natural-sounding way like Jacob’s, but the way someone sounds the morning after they screamed their lungs out at a metal concert.
Guilt wells up in me and I smile back shakily, before coming in for a hug.
I release him, discreetly wiping the corner of my eye with a fingertip. Because it’s itchy. “Hey man. I, ehm,” I clear my throat, “I wanted to say sorry.”
Alec nods awkwardly. “It’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay, you know; my eye’s gone, and I only had the one left. If we ever manage to get back to Earth, I’ll probably end up permanently blind.”
I cringe at the bitterness in his voice, and look down at my feet, scuffing my worn-down sneaker against the floor.
“But...” he says with a sigh, “I can’t just blame you. It was my own choice to go in there, you know? And from what I hear, you really came through for me in the end, never gave up on saving me and all that, so... thanks.”
I glance up at him, surprised and relieved at his reaction, but also feeling even guiltier somehow. “Still, I feel responsible,” I say. “I shouldn’t’ve ignored the alarm bells ringing in my head, but that trident...”
Alec smiles wistfully. “I hear ya. I wish I could’ve at least held on to my haul, you know?”
I open my mouth only to close it again. Guess he doesn’t know I grabbed his bag. I could tell him now, but it might be more fun to spring it on him as a surprise a little later, when the mood’s less tense. “Anyway,” I say, looking for a quick change of subject. “How’s the, ehm, eye socket, does it hurt?”
I cringe internally.
‘How’s the eye socket?’ Really Emma?
But Alec takes it in stride and shrugs. “Nah, it only itches a little. It’s mostly just weird to not have depth perception.”
I nod understandingly. At this point, Kaitlynn either decides that our conversation has run its course, or becomes unable to contain herself any longer, and pounces on me from the side. “Oof! Hey Kait...” I say fondly. “Glad to see you, too.”
Her reply is muffled by my shoulder to the point where I can’t make heads or tails of it, so I just pet her head affectionately until she lets go to smile widely at me.
My eyes seek out Dave, who just nods and smiles at me as well.
Jacob comes up to me stiffly. “Hey, ehm, Pseudo told me—will you shut up? It’s not your real name anyway!—ahem, sorry about that. Anyway, she told me I had you to thank for making it out alive, so, thanks.”
He sticks out his hand for a shake. I grab it and, shaking my head with a wry smile, pull him in for a brief hug.
When did I become so huggy? Must be that I’m still kinda emotional. Either that or Kaitlynn’s rubbing off on me.
We catch up, snacking on some nuts and berries. Kaitlynn happily hands me back my spear, earning another hug. It seems Jacob has already received his shield from Dave as well.
Eventually, we all make our way to the corner couch and flop down in our usual positions. Meaning Kaitlynn plants her head in my lap and gives me puppy-dog eyes until I start scratching her head.
“All right,” I say sharply when a lull occurs in the conversation. “We’ve all had our five minutes of questions, and even though we couldn’t exactly divide our topics beforehand this time, we should still share what we’ve learned. So, who wants to go first?”
“Questions?” Alec grumbles. “What questions? Sarge just spent ‘our’ 5 minutes berating me for losing the eye-crystal and telling me never to do that again.”
Kaitlynn winces emphatically and scrunches her nose up cutely.
“Ooh, that reminds me,” I say about a second later, distracted for some reason. “I asked Suri if there was a Skill to regrow your eye, and she said yes!”
Alec perks up and turns his head towards me. Pretty sure he’s looking at me now...
“Though, you’ll have to learn it yourself, as performing it on someone else is really hard,” I say, quickly trying to manage his expectations. “And it’ll probably take some time for you to learn because you have to master the prerequisite level of the prerequisite Skill. Which is probably one level higher of one of the Skills I have, ehm, but I don’t know which one, cause, well, Suri wouldn’t tell me...” I trail off awkwardly, as I see his smile waver. Damn, I should’ve remembered to take a look at that Skilldream Window first.
“Ah, the Skill is called Regeneration,” Kaitlynn pipes up from my lap. “It’s a high-grade Lavi manipulation Skill, and you need Meditation level 3 to begin learning it.” Blinking I look down, while my scratching hand stills.
Kaitlynn pouts but continues. “Kai just flat out told me when I brought it up. He kept rambling on about it afterwards,” she says, rolling her eyes, “from what I managed to understand, Restoration can’t fix it because that works by stimulating someone’s Lavi to perform its natural healing function, but it can’t direct it into performing more complex tasks. The Heartbeet Emma found works similarly, so that won’t cut it either.”
Huh. Regeneration, that sounds about right. And I probably could have figured out that it should be Meditation level 3, but still.
“Must be nice to have such a helpful AI,” I grumble half-jokingly.
[Please, that chatterbox is about as useful as a well on a ship,] Suri chimes dismissively. [I’m just trying to keep you focused on what’s important.]
“Well,” Kaitlynn sighs, “he does try to be helpful, but he also seems to see the five-minute session as an opportunity to stop holding back and talk non-stop. He’s pretty hard to keep on topic; I know more about the life-cycle of the Hoig now than I ever thought I wouldn’t want to.”
[I rest my case,] Suri chimes haughtily.
“A part of me wants to ask about that now, another part of me is afraid to,” I confess to Kaitlynn.
Kaitlynn purses her lips mock-thoughtfully, “Mmm, airing it all out might help a little, even if it’s just so I’m not the only one suffering.”
My right eyelid twitches. “You know what? I’ve made up my mind; I don’t want to know.”
Kaitlynn sits up energetically, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Tough luck, I’m telling you now. You see, when a Hoig—”
“Lalala, not listening!” I cry, putting my hands over my ears.
Dave clears his throat. “Let’s stay on topic please, girls,” he says, smiling. “I’ll go next: I tried asking questions about the eye-crystal.”
That shuts us up. Kaitlynn removes her hands from my wrists, where she was ineffectually trying to wrench my arms loose, and sticks her tongue out at me. I graciously return the gesture, before turning to listen to Dave.
“Predictably, most of the answers I got were, ‘that’s classified,’ but I did manage to glean some information. First of all, without an eye-crystal you cannot perform the Trials and doors won’t open for you. We had kind of figured that out already but still.”
I nod. It’s good to have official confirmation. Knowledge is power.
“Now, if your eye-crystal is truly lost, you could—theoretically—take someone else’s. Though they would have to be of the same affinity as you.”
My eyes widen. That sounds intense. Alec and I lock gazes for a second. I think.
“I think you might end up connected with that person’s AI then,” Dave speculates, “Rose was a little vague about that.”
To be honest, despite my grumbling earlier, I’m pretty attached to Suri. I sneak another glance at Alec. Definitely better than ‘The Sarge.’
“I also asked if they would be for sale at any point, to see if it was possible to get a second one for Alec, to regain his stereoscopic vision, and to carry around spares since they’re so crucial, but that was a definite no. They’re not for sale and using two at the same time isn’t possible. In fact, tampering with eye-crystals is strictly forbidden as they are too valuable, and even taking a deceased person’s eye-crystal would only be permitted if it was to replace another person’s lost eye-crystal, as they are normally recycled, meaning—”
Alec jumps in with a face full of horror. “—these crystals have been in the eye-sockets of previous participants until they died?! Gross!”
“Exactly,” Dave concludes dryly. “I’m afraid that’s about all I managed to get out of her on the topic.”
We all fall quiet for a bit, mulling over the implications until Jacob takes the floor.
“I couldn’t really think of anything specific,” he intones dryly, “so I asked about the next Trial.”
Ah, good. I’d kind of assumed someone else would. Glad not everyone’s like me.
“Pseudo—shut up—wasn’t able to tell me much, except that we would be spending significant amounts of time underhydrum, and that we should prepare for combat.”
I take another look at the gratings in the roof and floor. “Suri, could you flood the living room with Hydrum?”
[Of course, all you had to do was ask.]
“Perfect—no, wait!” I cry, jumping up. But it’s too late. A veritable deluge of Hydrum comes crashing down from the grating above us, and from several other gratings across the room.
“Suri!” I sputter after washing off the couch, “That was a hypothetical question!”
[Oh my,] Suri chimes bemused. [You mean you don’t wish for me to fill the living room with Hydrum?]
[No as in no you don’t mean that, or no you don’t want me to?]
“No as in ‘No I don’t want you to fill up the room with Hydrum right now!’”
[Well, why didn’t you just say so?] Suri chimes smugly, before cutting off the flow.
“Why you little—”
The Hydrumlevel—it’s up to our hips at this point—swiftly starts to drop, which is our cue to frantically try and save any loose objects from flushing away through the gratings in the floor. Thankfully, it has rather small holes, so anything larger than a jicca nuts turns up stuck on top of it once the last of the Hydrum has drained away.
Becoming aware of everyone’s baleful gazes, I clear my throat awkwardly. “Suri says she can.”
“Right,” Dave deadpans. “Well, that’ll come in handy. We’ll need to practice.”
“Agreed,” Jacob says, shaking some Hydrum from his ear. He sat directly below one of the grates. “We’ll have to find a good way to communicate underhydrum too, and I really need to learn that breathing Skill you guys all have. Apparently, it works with Hydrum too.”
“Yeah,” I say dryly. “I don’t know about you guys, but Suri really drove that point home for me.”
Kaitlynn snickers, so I glare at her.
“Anyway,” Jacob continues. “That got me to thinking; we totally got screwed over! I mean, if you think about it, we didn’t actually need the barge at all. We could’ve just swum underhydrum the whole way. We never needed to fight!”
A beat of silence falls.
Damn. He’s got a point.
Dave frowns. “Well, maybe... but if the Frog—the Hoig had encountered us underhydrum, we probably would’ve been done for. At least on the barge, we were able to fight them off and earn quite a bit of TP as a result.”
Something clicks in my mind and my jaw drops. I jump up and shout, “Frig! Of course! That’s how they did it!”
Naturally, everyone looks at me as if I’ve grown another head.
“The—aargh, you know—the safe method to get to the Stardrops in Hub Two the friggin’ council said they found!” I explain calmly and rationally. “They must’ve dived into the stream and breathed Hydrum to avoid taking in Toxic Energy! It flows all the way to the bloody pond! We’re so stupid!”
“Ah,” Dave finally replies. “In our defence, it’s very counterintuitive to try and breathe water...”
I slump back into my seat. “Pfff, yeah, that’s true. I wonder who figured it out and how.”
“Guess we’ll have to ask around in Hub Three,” Alec says, shrugging carelessly.
“If we actually make it there,” Jacob mumbles.
“Anyway, you’re the only one who hasn’t shared with the class yet, Emma,” Kaitlynn pipes up, poking me in the side. “What did you ask about?”
The question snaps me out of my daze, and I answer with a cocksure grin. “Why me? Oh, you know, I just figured I’d ask some questions...” I say, trailing off as I pick up Alec’s backpack, skilfully hidden from his monocular—or perhaps I should say ‘none-ocular’—vision behind my own, and spill it’s shiny, glowing contents out on the floor. “...about these.”
The expression on Alec’s face is totally worth the pain in my ear as he literally squeals in joy.
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