• H.C. Mills

Chapter 63: Greased lightning

“Let’s go over what we lost in terms of equipment and supplies,” Dave suggests after dinner.

I sigh but don’t complain. It may not be fun, but it’s very necessary.

First of all, we go over our food supplies. Thankfully, most of the Trigot meat in Alec’s backpack is still accounted for. We’ve lost some water bottles, jicca nuts and birberries, but with the fish and shellfish we gained in return, it’s not all that bad. There’s free Hydrum here anyway, from the taps, and we’ve all at least still got our waterskins.

My bottle of Moonshade Sap is still very much intact, but I’m afraid there’s little left of my stash of Dreamcloud powder; most of it was washed out of the pouch I kept it in. I think I’ll save the remainder to help me practice Infusing its Purpose in the future.

Now the part I’m not looking forward too: our gear.

To start with, Dave used up and/or lost all of his arrows, and Kaitlynn is down to 4 knives after I hand her back the one I used to kill the chief.

Thankfully, that Dave found out we’re allowed some freedoms with the purchase of replacements for lost equipment. He can get himself 10 shiny new arrows for only 1 TP, meaning he can refill his entire quiver for only 3 TP. Kaitlynn is allowed to purchase replacement throwing knives for 1 TP a piece.

Mmm, that’s actually exactly how much they cost in the first place, 1 TP a piece... I ask Dave to check what a new bow would cost him, and Rose confirms my suspicion that it’s 7 TP.

I’m so glad my spear landed the right way on the grating for Kaitlynn to pick up; there clearly wouldn’t have been any discount on a new one. Which also goes for Alec’s hammer, unfortunately. Pretty sure it’s still in the chief’s temple. Though I guess that might’ve already been cleaned out after we cleared the Trial... Would they just put it back in the shop’s inventory? Always so many questions left...

Dave looks over at Alec, his expression inscrutable. “How many Trial points do you have right now?”

Alec smiles wryly. “Well, I had 14 Trial Points left when we entered, managed to kill two froggo Croakers before I was, ehm, blinded, and with 20 points for completion and the 10 for the bonus objective, that brings me to exactly 50. A Skilldream for Meditation level 2 will set me back 30, leaving me with 20, which I’d prefer to save up for the next step towards Regeneration, but... well, I can’t really enter the next Trial without a weapon, so I guess I’ll be down to 10.”

Dave nods, and grabs something from behind him; it’s one of those two-pronged spears from a Hoplite. He holds it up to Alec. “I’m asking cause I was thinking you should use this; at least for the coming trial. I picked this up on the grating; it’s a good weapon for underhydrum combat, definitely much better than a hammer.”

Alec grasps it happily and gets up to give Dave a hug. “Thanks man, I appreciate it.”

That brings us to the final member of our party.

“Well, since you guys salvaged my shield, I only need a new weapon,” Jacob says, nodding thankfully at Dave, “a new shortsword would cost me 5 Trial Points, so I guess I’ll just get one of those. It should work well enough, even underhydrum, I think.”

I look at him thoughtfully. “How many Trial Points do you have?”

He looks at me for a second before replying. “68. I was thinking of getting a medium-grade Skilldream and saving the rest. Why?”

“Well, I was thinking, since your share of the loot includes a Yang Pearl and a Minor Lavi Crystal, if you have the Trial Points to spare, you might want to buy a Stardrop, and do what I did in the previous preparation rooms.”

His eyes widen at the suggestion. “Ugh... I don’t know, Emma. I’m not a glutton for punishment like you.”

Hardehar. I raise my brow and cross my arms over my chest. “Don’t be a pussy. You have a Willpower of 12, yes?”

He nods reluctantly.

“A Stardrop only costs 10 Trial Points,” I continue mercilessly, “And it doubles the effectiveness of those two lovely items of yours when used in tandem. Sure, it hurts a little, but if you could raise you Qi pool by 10 Onkh instead of only 5, isn’t that worth a little pain?”

Jacob grits his teeth before closing his eyes and slumping a little with a sigh. “Ugh. I really hate you right now.”

Alec gives him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, with only a hint of a smirk.

My eyes narrow and zoom in on him. “Actually, Alec,” I say in a sugar-sweet voice, “I think we should perhaps save these lovely pearls as well, and see if we can’t wrangle up some more Minor Lavi Crystals ourselves. It’s kind of a waste to use them like this, right?”

Alec pales.

Dave frowns. “Is that wise? From our experience with the chief, I have a feeling Alec’s Lightning Manipulation could come in pretty handy underhydrum; waiting to use the pearl optimally might not be worth the risk of having a smaller Qi pool during the next Trial.”

Alec stares at Dave as if he’s witnessing the rebirth of the Messiah.

But I’m not so easily defeated. I smirk and prepare to deliver the final blow. “Actually... as you may recall from my explanation before, the pearls are also used to restore Qi. So if Alec keeps it, he can swallow it in the midst of battle as an emergency supply. Therefore, swallowing it now is the riskier thing to do.”

Dave blinks a few times and then nods in agreement.

Alec wails dramatically. “You too, son?”

Dave turns to look at him amusedly.

What’s up with calling him son? Probably an inside joke. Weirdos.

As the two of them bicker nonsensically—Alec’s accusing Dave of betraying him and thereby violating ‘The Bro Code’—Jacob sits down next to me.

“Hey, ehm, I was wondering,” he starts hesitantly, “If you could teach me that breathing skill now, maybe. I woke up breathing Hydrum and it freaked me out pretty badly. It also netted me only about 3 Onkh of Lavi per minute—which is like half of what Aether gets me—so if it hadn’t been for the Lavi Crystal, I would’ve been toast.

I smile. “Of course, I’ll—wait, that’s half of the amount of Lavi you absorb from Aether?”

He blinks at me. “Ehm, yeah, nearly. 6.5 Onkh is what I’m getting right now.”

I stare at him in disbelief. Is that normal? I turn to look at Kaitlynn on my other side.

“I believe I absorbed 7.5 when I just arrived,” she says, shrugging. “Since gaining the first level of Deep Breathing, I’ve reached 9 Onkh per minute.”

Jacob looks impressed. “That Skill’s better than I thought. As for why base levels are so low...” He scratches his neck, and confesses in his raspy voice, “I used to smoke.”

Ah. That explains a lot. But not everything.

“How the hell did you get through the Third Trial?” I ask in disbelief. “With the low level of atmospheric Lavi in the desert?”

“Barely,” he grunts, looking down and smiling self-deprecatingly. “I could only absorb like 3.5 Onkh per minute by breathing out there. Combined with the Lavi supplement of the jicca nuts I had eaten, that was enough only until the Heat started eating away at my Lavi. Thankfully I also bought two of these weird hexagonal yams, and my Heat resistance climbed quickly. I managed to reach the exit shortly before the second yam’s effect ran out. In hindsight, I should’ve just spent some more time in the preparation room, so I could’ve walked a large part of the Trial at night.”

“You couldn’t have known,” Kaitlynn comforts him.

“Should’ve known smoking might kill me someday,” he grumbles, trying and failing to rub a stain of blue blood off his combat boots.

“Well,” I say, “I’d be happy to instruct you if it’ll help postpone that day. Let’s see, where to begin...”

I finish instructing Jacob in the basics of proper breathing, and the results are pretty immediate.

“Oh, 7! It says 7!” he calls excitedly.

“Well done, Jacob,” I tell him amiably. “Just keep practising till you get the skill; it becomes a little easier when you do, more automatic.” Positive feedback is important in teaching, I’ve heard.

Meanwhile, Dave and Alec are sparring. Dave’s using my spear to help Alec get used to his when Alec tries to quickly step back only to trip over his own feet. He goes down in a heap next to me, his spear landing on my lap in the process.

“Damnit Alec,” I snap. “Watch where you’re going! You need to be more aware of your surroundings, or you’ll end up on the sharp end of one of these,” I say, throwing the thing back at him after he gets up.

“Ehehe, sorry Emma,” he laughs awkwardly.

I shake my head. I swear, I’m too easy on that kid.

Jacob takes in another Deep Breath but ends up erupting in a coughing fit.

I scratch my neck. “Ah yeah, that’s probably the Toxic Energy... You’ll be taking in a bit more then you’re used to, so you’ll have to adjust. Though, maybe... maybe we can postpone that particular issue for a little while.”

He frowns at me. “What do you mean?”

“I’m pretty sure Hydrum doesn’t hold Toxic Energy as well as Aether does,” I explain, eyeing the other people in the room mischievously. “Oh Suuriiii... could you do me a favour and fill this room with Hydrum?”

[Sure thing, Emma.]

Dave’s eyes go wide and he turns from where he’s sparring with Alec. “Wuh? No no no NO WAIT!”

“Ah? Hold on please, Suri,” I say, mock-surprised, right as a deluge of Hydrum falls from the grate directly above Dave, drowning out his protests.

[Tch. Fine,] Suri chimes and the flow cuts off as abruptly as it started, the Hydrum quickly draining away through the grating in the floor.

Dave, dripping wet, looks at me with a deadpan expression. Alec is hitting the floor, cheeks puffed up, trying his hardest not to lose our competition.

“Ehm,” I say, thinking quickly, fluttering my eyes at Dave innocuously. “I was thinking we should all practice breathing Hydrum? And, ehm, moving underhydrum?”

“That’s actually not a bad idea,” Dave responds wetly. “But maybe we should store our stuff in our rooms first then, so nothing else gets flushed away or ruined somehow by prolonged contact with Hydrum.”

That’s... a good point.

And so we do.

A little later, we are swimming in the living room. Dave and Alec have resumed their spar, Jacob is floating cross-legged over the couch, working on his breathing the way I taught him, and I... I’m upside down next to Kaitlynn, making faces at her. Currently, I’m imitating a fish.

She laughs soundlessly, and waves at me to stop, so she can go back to trying to throw knives. She’s actually succeeding... kind of. It’s harder to make the kind of fast motion necessary in the Hydrum, but we are all quite a bit stronger than your average human. Still, the starting speed of her knives is less, and the drag slows them down to the point where they grow harmless quite quickly.

Dave’s arrows fared a little better from what I remember, probably because they’re more aerodynamic.

Alec fires off an arc of lightning and hits his target—a stereotypical archery target mounted on the wall—dead-on from 20 feet, blasting off some of the straw. Watching another knife bounce off her own straw target, Kaitlynn shakes her head dejectedly, before looking wistfully at the crystal tied around her wrist.

My heart sinks a little as the realization sinks in. Kaitlynn is probably least equipped to fight underhydrum out of all of us. Well, there’s time to fix that still... for now I just want to cheer her up.

I blow out a jet of Hydrum to the side, using the thrust I generate to flip myself the right way up—took me some practice, but the principle is quite the same; I’m controlling the Hydrum by controlling the Lavi it contains—and touch her shoulder, smiling comfortingly.

She heaves out some Hydrum in frustration, before smiling back at me.

Unable to communicate anything meaningful, I instead blow out a jet of Hydrum into her face, catching her off guard before I take off. She immediately grasps the challenge and sets off to chase me.

We kick off the floor, ceilings, walls, and even the boys at one point. I teasingly stay just out of her reach, by using jets of Hydrum to speed up in crucial moments. I can’t build up quite the volume and pressure as I can with Aether, but the Hydrum is quite a bit heavier, so I can at least use it to supplement my swimming like this.

Eventually, I let her catch me, however. She clutches onto me, hugging me from behind, and playfully bites me in the shoulder.

‘Suri, how long have we been swimming?’ I subvocalize.

[1 hour, 2 minutes and 13 seconds.]

‘I see. Could you drain the room please?’

Aether fills the room, and we sink down onto the thankfully Hydrumproof couch as the Hydrum drains away around us, leaving us in a pile of limbs, coughing and hacking to get the remaining Hydrum out of our lungs.

Kaitlynn sprays a final Jet of Hydrum onto my face and dissolves into giggles at my perturbed expression.

Jacob snorts from his spot nearby on the couch.

I turn to him and ask, “And?”

He shakes his head. “Haven’t got the Skill yet. But I did get up to 4 Onkh Lavi per minute breathing Hydrum, and right now in Aether...” he trails off to take a deep breath, glancing at a window I can’t see, “7.5 Onkh per minute.”

“You’ll get there,” I promise. I managed to get up to 6.5 Onkh per minute breathing Hydrum myself; there actually seems to be more Lavi in Hydrum than in Aether, but it’s much harder to compress, making it harder to absorb a lot. Or maybe it’s just that we’re not designed to be breathing Hydrum... I imagine having gills or being able to take it in through your skin would make the process much easier.

Alec flops down on the couch next to us. “Oh man, Lightning Manipulation works so much better in Hydrum! It’s, like, smoother, easier to control...if a bit slower.”

Kaitlynn stops giggling and untangles herself from me, to start wringing Hydrum from her hair.

Stupid Alec. I frown at him. He looks bemused.

“Underwater archery seems viable as well,” Dave adds, sitting down on the ground in front of the couch. “You should really check your Increase Momentum too, Jacob, but I imagine it will still have some functionality.”

“Yeah, I’ll get around to that,” Jacob replies dryly. “As soon as I can breathe well enough to actually survive at all underhydrum.”

Dave just nods, unperturbed. “We’ll have to think carefully about what Skills to add to our arsenal this time to improve our underhydrum combat potential.”

“Agreed,” I say, “but before we get to that, we need to fix another problem.”

I pause for dramatic effect, even though what I’m about to say isn’t all that dramatic. For some reason, this feels like the right timing for that kind of thing.

“We need a way to communicate underhydrum,” I finally say. “Because I don’t think relying on Dave being able to connect and speak to us one at a time, while we can’t even say anything back, is going to cut it.”

Author's Note:

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©2018 by H.C. Mills