At breakfast, we practice conveying information through hand signals. At first it’s pretty hard; you need to really focus on what you intend a gesture to mean, for it to shine through.
To make sure the ones watching aren’t just guessing the meaning based on natural non-verbal communication, we are sending some pretty obscure things.
“Okay, hold on,” Jacob says squinting hard at Kaitlynn’s hand, which is drooping down and rhythmically undulating its fingers. “You’re saying... Emma’s skin tone reminds you of... a succubus?”
“Hey!” I cry mock-angrily, as Kaitlynn bursts into giggles. “Uncalled for!”
I narrow my eyes at her and whip a hastily formed tether at her forehead. Is it just me, or did this get way easier when I gained the Skill?
<Be careful what you accuse people of, little girl,> I send. <It may come back to... bite you!>
Her eyes go wide, and she squeals as I lunge towards her, snapping my jaws.
“Dave,” she cries out as I tickle her and attempt to bite her shoulder, “Emma’s harassing me with her telepathy!”
“And her mouth,” Alec quips while fiddling with the blue leather eyepatch he showed up wearing today. I have to admit, it looks badass on him.
Dave raises a brow. “So?”
“You taught her, so take responsibilityyy!” Kaitlynn squeals.
He shrugs. “You brought this on yourself. I wash my hands of this weirdness.”
“You gonna cry uncle?” I ask Kaitlynn, having found the sensitive spot in her side.
She tries to squirm away ineffectually, giggling, “Get glorbed!”
My hands freeze and Kaitlynn uses this chance to escape. I close my gaping mouth. “I can’t believe you said that...” I say slowly. “You are so getting it now!”
And I’m off chasing Kaitlynn, who’s squealing and laughing.
I catch her pretty quickly and pin her against the wall to resume her tickle punishment.
“Noooo!” Kaitlynn cries. “All right, uncle. I said uncle!”
I release her, grinning in satisfaction, and take a few seconds to stretch languorously. It’s good to be out of my armour for once. The buttons on my uniform are straining dangerously though; better not overdo it.
‘Time?’ I ask Suri mentally.
[You have 33 hours, 41 minutes and 13 seconds left.]
“All right,” I say, clapping my hands once, as I turn from a suddenly rather subdued Kaitlynn to move back towards the couch. “Now that we’ve got our communication problem solved, it’s time to talk Skilldreams. Anyone got their heart set on anything yet?”
Alec raises his hand, smiling wryly. “Yeah... I think I’d like to spend 30 TP on a Skilldream for Meditation level 2 because, to be honest, I doubt I’m ever going to get there on my own, and I’m itching to make a start towards Regeneration. It may not be the most helpful in combat though, so I’d understand if you guys would prefer me to take something else...”
I shake my head as I sit back down. “I would indeed advise against using it in combat, but outside of it, Meditation has saved my life several times over by now; it’s definitely a worthwhile Skill to practice. And Regeneration sounds like a very nice Skill to have, regardless of whether you’re missing part of your body or not. Dave might not always be around or be able to spare the time to Restore you, so if you can close your own wounds, that would definitely be useful.”
“Besides,” Jacob adds dryly, “you already have like the best Qi skill for underhydrum combat, so...” He shrugs. “Anyway, my plan is to first finish learning Respiration level 1, buy a Skilldream for the next level of Increase Momentum, and then,” he pauses to shoot me a dirty look, “buy a bloody Stardrop.”
I wink at him with a smirk.
Kaitlynn clears her throat, drawing my attention away from him. “Well, I was thinking, since I can’t use Astreum Manipulation—Astreum being Heated Aether and all—or Heat Vision, while underhydrum, I should probably branch out to another form of energy, right?”
Dave nods. “Hydrum appears to be spectacularly bad at transporting Heat Energy, so that makes sense.”
“Right,” Kaitlynn says, now with more conviction. “Vibration Energy seemed like the obvious choice, so I asked Kai—ehm, Kai, could you show them all my Skilldream Shopping Window please?”
A few seconds later, a window pops into view.
“As you can see, there are three Vibration Energy Type Skills available to me currently,” Kaitlynn says. “So I asked Kai if there were any good offensive Skills amongst them, and he said the first level of Wave Manipulation is this awesome stunning shockwave attack.”
I nod approvingly. Vibration Energy seems like it should work underhydrum, and it definitely fits her style as a ranged attacker. Radiation would work too, I guess, but Dave’s already working on that, and it makes sense to have a variety of Skills in the party.
Looking at the gleam of excitement in Kaitlynn’s eyes, Alec shivers. “Man, I’m glad you’re on our team.”
She snorts and punches him lightly on the upper arm. “Anyway, I’ve got 54 Trial Points right now, so that would leave me 4 TP to buy extra knives if I wanted to; but I think I’ll save them. It’s not like I can throw them underhydrum anyway...”
Dave shakes his head at their antics. “Well, I’m going to start by focusing on bringing Radiate to level 3, by adding ‘regular’ radiation to my arsenal. I’m pretty sure I made good progress towards that yesterday. I had 56 Trial points after the Trial, 53 now that I’ve bought new arrows, and I’m leaning towards taking Tremorsense—another medium-grade Vibration Energy-based Skill. As the name suggests, it’s a sensory type Skill, which I think we’ll need now that Kaitlynn’s Heat Vision has been neutralised.”
It’s quiet for a moment. Jacob wiggles his pinkie in a gesture that seems to mean ‘Tite!’
Yeah, that about sums it up.
“But I’m going to wait with making my decision until Kaitlynn’s tested her Skill underhydrum,” Dave adds. “Just to be sure. Which leaves Emma.”
“Riiight,” I drawl. “I know I brought up this topic, but I seem to be the least prepared. There’s just too many options... anyway, between what I had left and what I gained during the last Trial, I currently have 98 Trial Points to spend.”
Jacob flicks his own nose, meaning ‘Damn girl!’
Kaitlynn giggles, turns her palm upwards, and wiggles her fingers, signing back, ‘She’s hot.’
That raises some brows, I’m assuming because it was rather a non-sequitur. I mean, I’ve had access to mirrors, you know?
Kaitlynn blinks and frowns, seeing our expressions. “I meant to sign ‘she’s on fire,’ did it not come over right?”
“Must’ve been a Freudian slip of the finger,” Dave mutters dryly.
I stifle a smile at Kaitlynn’s confused look, “So anyway, maybe you guys can help me come to a decision. Suri, could you show us all my Skilldream Shopping Window please?”
[Coming right up,] Suri chimes. A few seconds later, a window pops into view.
“Huh,” Dave says, “Distort Space is still listed in red, even though you can no longer afford it; is that normal?”
“Oh yeah,” Alec confirms, “I have Decrease Inertia listed in red as well. Not Distort Space though, since, unlike miss moneybags here, I never went over a hundred Trial points.”
“Decrease Inertia is actually the Skill I want the most,” I say. “The applications just seem limitless; instant acceleration, jumping super high and landing lightly on your feet. However, I doubt it’ll be very useful underhydrum.”
Dave nods. “The density and viscosity of the Hydrum would prevent you from maintaining any kind of speed if you have no inertia.”
“Exactly. Now there are several routes I could go,” I say, before sticking up a finger. “I could swallow my pride and take a Skilldream for the next level of Breath Control, as it’s arguably my most useful Skill underhydrum currently, but I’d rather try and figure that one out for myself during the time we have left here.”
I stick up a second finger. “I could pull a Dave,” I continue, winking at the boy—or man, rather—in question, “and take Electroception for the good of the party, but I worry it won’t provide as much benefit as another choice, and may be overspecialized for underhydrum use.”
I add a third finger. “I could go for Increase Inertia, which could be useful offensively, but sounds like it would just decrease my mobility underhydrum. Especially if I can’t use Boost Physical level 2 properly, since breathing Hydrum doesn’t provide as much Lavi... actually, I think I know what I need most.”
“Yeah?” Jacob asks dryly, “and what’s that?”
“Guess,” I say, sticking my tongue out at him.
“Ooh! Ehm, Boost Reflexes!” Alec exclaims.
“Lightning Manipulation?” Jacob tries.
“Me!” Kaitlynn states cheekily.
“Lavi Font,” Dave says.
“Ding ding ding, we have a winner!” I say, indicating Dave, who smiles smugly.
“Although I have to admit Lightning Manipulation would also be nice, Alec can already provide that,” I clarify, “which makes it less of an addition to the party. What it comes down to is this: without an additional source of Lavi, I won’t be able to use Boost Physical Level 2 properly, as I take in too little Lavi underhydrum.”
The more I think about it, the more I’m warming up to this Skill.
“Moreover,” I add, “Lavi Font will probably continue being relevant, as our resting consumption is likely only going to go up as we continue levelling; heck, if I learn it now, I may be able to teach you guys later!”
Only when I notice Kaitlynn’s still pouting, do I realize my mistake.
“You were definitely the runner-up though, Kaitmonster,” I say quickly, attempting to pat her on the head affectionately.
She turns her head away haughtily, going, “Hmmph!”
Damn, she’s not appeased... now what?
Taking in the amused glances coming my way, I clear my throat awkwardly. “Anyway, eh, I think that concludes this meeting. Let’s go train.”
After about another hour of breathing Aether, Jacob finally gains Respiration level 1. He’s up to 4.5 Onkh per minute underhydrum now, which means he can sustain himself as long as he eats at least jicca nuts and birberries to make up the final 1.5 Onkh per minute to meet his resting Lavi consumption.
Dave’s working on his crystal, I’m practising Breath Control, trying to extend my control for longer and farther away from my body, and Alec’s fixing our armours. Meanwhile, Kaitlynn’s working on Telepathy, but when Jacob cheerily enters his room to go take his Skilldream for the second level of Increase Momentum, she gives up with a huff.
“I should probably go take my Skilldream as well, so we can test Vibration Energy underhydrum for Dave,” she says, shaking her head. “I’ll try this again later.”
We bid her good luck, but the minute she’s out of the door, I’m up on my feet, my mind working a mile a minute.
There’s something I’ve been meaning to try that Kaitlynn would probably never let me, so now’s the perfect time.
“Hey Alec, if you don’t mind me asking,” I say, as I saunter over, “what was it like to be without the eye-crystal?”
“Horrifying,” he deadpans.
“Yeah, I get that,” I say, rolling my eyes, “but I mean... what changed?”
Dave looks up, taking an interest. Just like I planned.
Alec frowns. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I understand your status bar was gone, and your contact with the Sarge was cut... but what about your Qi? Your Lavi? Could you still sense those? Could you still use your Skills?”
“I... look, I don’t know, okay?” Alec says, frowning. “I wasn’t really in the right mindset to experiment.”
I shake my head. “I figured you’d say that; it’s okay. I had to ask.” I take in a deep breath. “But in that case... I’d like to try something.”
Dave comes over. “What are you talking about, Emma?”
“What I really want, is to experience it for myself,” I say. “Having the eye-crystal removed, that is.”
[Excuse me?] Suri chimes.
“That way we can Investigate under controlled circumstances,” I continue, ignoring her. “Check if Skills still work, if auto-translation is a function of the crystal or of this realm, if my Toxic Tolerance is still functional without it; we know too little, you know? So I figure it’s simple; I just have to pull it out, try some stuff, then afterwards, we plug it back in and you cast Restore on me.”
[What? Emma, do me a favour and let that idea sail; too many things could go wrong!] Suri chimes alarmedly.
Part of me immediately wants to back down, hearing how upset she sounds, but I had prepared for some backlash, and mentally steeled myself against it.
“Alec made it through just fine,” I reply curtly.
[The Crystal of Restoration will close the wound; you won’t be able to get it back in,] she tries.
I scoff. “You can’t fool me, Suri. I’ll just go stand in one of the corners; I can tell it doesn’t have that kind of range.”
I look at Dave, raising a questioning brow.
“I... I’m not sure about this,” Dave says, frowning. “Rose sounds very concerned.”
[She’s right for once; Emma, this is a really bad idea.]
I shake my head stubbornly, and head for the corner. “You know I don’t actually need your help Dave; I can just walk back to beneath the Crystal. I would just appreciate your support.”
Dave follows me. In the corner, I nod at him determinedly. He nods back. Alec trails after, staring at us wide-single-eyed.
[Emma, I must insist you don’t do this.]
I’m Sorry Suri, but you’re ultimately a product of the assholes who built this place; I can never fully trust you, and so I need to know if I can function without you.
I activate Boost Physical Level 1 with a quick jerk and raise my hand for the plunge, my heart hammering in my throat.
[Oh, for Starmother’s sake; I can’t believe you’re making me do this,] Suri complains.
Prickling erupts behind my right eye. I frown. What is Suri trying to—
[YOU REALIZE THAT THIS IS FAR TOO DANGEROUS AN EXPERIMENT,] Suri’s voice echoes through my skull, drowning out my thoughts.
My hand freezes. Actually, this may be a little too dangerous, even for me. I mean, what if I damage my optic nerve, and it doesn’t heal right? My connection to Suri could be permanently damaged, and I need her for now.
[YOU WERE NEVER ACTUALLY GOING TO DO THIS. YOU WERE JUST MESSING WITH YOUR FRIENDS. WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? YOU’RE NOT A MASOCHIST.]
Heh. I drop my act and smirk gleefully at Dave and Alec. “Psych!” I crone. “You thought I was actually going to do it, didn’t you? What kind of masochist do you take me for?”
Alec blinks at me, before bursting into loud laughter. “Ahh, damnit, you got me again! Ugh, what’s the score, Dave?”
Dave is frowning at me confusedly. “Yeah... it’s ehm... it’s thirteen to one, I believe—Emma, are you... okay?”
I roll my eyes and smirk at him, “Come on, Dave, can’t take a joke?” Actually, I do feel little lightheaded, but I don’t tell him that; I’m sure it’ll pass.
“What about you, Suri? Did I have you going there for a sec?”
[Oh, you certainly did, Emma,] Suri chimes, sounding almost tired. [My, what a prankster you are.]
What was I planning to do after this prank, again? Hmm...
I shrug. “Well this has been fun, but since everyone’s doing it, I think I’m going to go take my Skilldream too.”
[Oh—Emma dear, why don’t you go practice your Breath Control some more first, hmm? I felt like you were really getting somewhere.]
I frown. “Really?”
[Yes. Though—and I really shouldn’t be saying this—you’ll probably get farther, faster if you trained underhydrum for a bit.]
Ooh, a free hint, lucky!
“Actually, on second thought, I’m gonna train a bit more,” I say, my mind whirling a mile a minute, “do you guys mind if I flood the place? Actually, never mind, I can just do that in my own room. See you guys later!”
As I saunter off, Dave shoots me once last, weird look.
Pssh. What a baby.
Oh man, writing the alt-text for those tables was hell... Still, it'll come in handy when I'm bringing out an audiobook in the future, so I shall persevere ^^
In other news, I received a first draft of the cover from the artist I hired; if you'd like to check it out, just swing by in the Discord ;)
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