Chapter 67: Whispers in the dark

I walk through the small hallway to the living room, only to find the door at the end won’t open.

 

“Ehm, Suri?”

 

[Would you like to go in?]

 

“Well... yes?”

 

No sooner have the words left my lips, than a deluge of Hydrum comes down on top of me from a grating in the ceiling.

 

“You, ugh,” I sputter as the hallway fills up.

 

[I what?] Suri chimes innocently.

 

‘All right, well played,’ I subvocalize at her after releasing the last dregs of Aether from my lungs.

 

As soon as the hallway is full, the door separating me from the living room grinds open.

 

I swim through casually.

 

Alec glances at me, interrupting his underhydrum spar with Jacob to wave at me.

 

<Hey Emma!> his cheery voice suddenly erupts in my mind. <Guess what? I’m in a lucid trance right now!>

 

Damn, he tethered me quickly. I didn’t even notice either... those things are really thin.

 

<Really now?> I send back after concentrating for a second to form and cast my own tether towards him. <So you wouldn’t feel it if I slapped you?> I crack my knuckles, half-pretending to be really into this idea.

 

I watch him chuckle awkwardly, soundlessly. <Ehm, well, probably, but—hey, ehm, Jacob took his Skilldream for the second level of Increase Momentum, and now he’s got this cool new trick. I’m sure he’d love to demonstrate!>

 

He waves at Jacob, signing ‘Show her!’ somehow coming off a little sarcastic and gleeful.

 

Jacob looks back and forth between us wryly, signing something along the lines of ‘it’s impolite to whisper in public.’

 

I shrug, and wave as if to say, ‘Go on.’ That one doesn’t take any supernatural translation.

 

Jacob sighs inaudibly and uses a few consecutive signs to convey a longer message. ‘I took half a Skilldream. Haven’t figured it out yet. Hard to practise, lack Qi.’

 

I frown. Well... it’d be a bit hypocritical for me to judge him, I suppose. Actually, he stands a good chance of succeeding, now that I think about it.

 

I break off the tether linking me to Alec and throw a new one towards Jacob. <That’s okay, I’m sure you’ll get there. You were already pushing the boundary of the second level when you were Increasing the Momentum of the barge in the previous Trial, right?>

 

Jacob blinks, then nods, before turning to frown at Alec, who’s smirking at him, and signs, ‘No, actually, she’s not yelling at me telepathically.’

 

Alec’s face falls. I snort. Like I’d just start yelling at someone over something like that. Ridiculous.

 

Jacob shakes his head, and raises his shortsword, pointing the business end at a target with his arm stretched, signing, ‘This is how far I get now.’

 

A look of concentration comes over his face, followed by a flash of yellow from the crystal tied to his wrist.

 

The sword shoots forward, but not very fast, or... stably. It twists over end until the pommel finally hits the target left of the centre, before sinking to the floor. Jacob shakes his head.

 

I swim over to pat him on the shoulder. <Maybe try spinning it a little along the shortest axis next time, you know, like a drill,> I suggest telepathically.

 

Not sure if the flywheel effect still applies in this realm, actually... but we’ll see I guess. Also, the viscosity of the Hydrum may be an issue. Hmm.

 

Jacob thinks for a second before nodding at me and fetching his sword to continue sparring.

 

I spot Dave over on the couch and wave at him, but he’s still busy studying his crystal.

 

A door grinds open, and out swims Kaitlynn. The moment she spots me, she makes a beeline towards me, grinning happily.

 

‘Emma, check this!’ she signs, before lifting a hand and aiming right past me, at a floating straw target.

 

My eyes widen, but before I can communicate anything back, the Focus Crystal tied to her wrist lights up with an ominous red glow.

 

An ear-piercing, high-pitched whine follows. A visible distortion of the Hydrum stretches out from Kaitlynn’s hand towards the target, which shakes intensely for a few moments, before the Focus Crystal’s red glow runs out.

 

I massage the insides of my ears with a pained grimace. Kaitlynn smiles bashfully, signing, ‘Whoops.’

 

Alec signs, ‘Metaaaal!’ with a huge grin. Well, either that or, ‘I want to cosplay Spiderman next.’ It could go either way, knowing him.

 

I shake my head ruefully, as I extend a tether towards Kaitlynn. <That was... intense. Seems like it’ll come in handy. Not very stealthy though; we’ll have to watch that. You can’t fire willy-nilly.>

 

She nods seriously.

 

Dave comes swimming over. <Well, Vibration Energy definitely seems effective underhydrum. I’ll be taking my Skilldream now then, getting pretty sick of staring at that crystal.>

 

I nod at him, from the corner of my eye, I see Kaitlynn do the same. Hmm? Can Dave tether multiple people simultaneously now?

 

That does seem like the logical next step in Telepathy. I’ll have to try that later.

 

Dave swims past us and enters the hallway towards his room.

 

Kaitlynn signs at me, ‘Did everybody else get their Skilldream already?’

 

I nod, giving her a thumbs up.

 

‘I’m out of Qi,’ Kaitlynn signs next, smiling wryly. ‘That shot was 10 Onkh. Guess I better go practise Telepathy.’

 

<Let me show you something first,> I send.

 

For some reason, I can’t help but want to show off a little, now that Kaitlynn’s here.

 

I inhale as much Hydrum as I can and wrest control over the copious Lavi inside, even exchanging some of it with my own, before I exhale through my nose and shape a slightly glowing tail around my legs.

 

Kaitlynn watches with wide eyes as I kick with both legs and shoot forward.

 

With all the space here, I can finally try to really build some speed, going in circles around the room. Alec and Jacob are watching now too of course, with dropped jaws.

 

On a whim, in between two breaths, I activate the first mode of Boost Physical with a quick yank.

 

Unfortunately, my tail doesn’t hold against the added stress, and my tail rips and disintegrates.

 

Shit.

 

I play it off coolly, as if this was my intention, and use my remaining momentum to coast back to Kaitlynn.

 

She mouths ‘What?!’ at me, shaking her head in disbelief, before signing, ‘That was so cool! Ah man, I’m so jealous of your Breath Control.’

 

I take a moment to bask in her adulation, before narrowing my eyes at her, an idea beginning to form.

 

<Hey Kait, c’mere for a sec...>

 

If being underhydrum could help me practice my breathing, maybe it’s time to give teaching the third level of Respiration another shot.

 

 

While Kaitlynn practices according to my instructions, I turn my attention towards my only Qi-based Skill thus far, Infuse.

 

The first thing I try is to Infuse some outflowing Hydrum near one of the grates in the floor, to see if it’ll work at all. Something that has been puzzling me a little, is that I’ve never seen Toxic Energy in the different bodies of Hydrum I’ve encountered thus far, while I’m also pretty sure Moonshade Sap is mostly Hydrum.

 

Cold flakes of Yin Qi dance beneath my skin towards the Focus Crystal around my neck. It lights up with a dim blue glow, which quickly changes to a vibrant purple, as I transform the gathered Qi to tendrils of devouring Toxic Energy.

 

As I try to force the tendrils into the Hydrum, however, I’m met with resistance. As if the Hydrum doesn’t wish to be tainted... or perhaps, refuses to become One with Toxic Energy?

 

I try pushing harder, and harder still, focusing all of my intent on it, until eventually, a sliver of Toxic Energy snaps away from the crystal, shooting into and forming a perfectly round drop of Toxic Hydrum, which is quickly sucked away.

 

Interesting. But even doing this much left me a little lightheaded, so it doesn’t seem like a viable way to use Infuse underhydrum.

 

Luckily, I was prepared for that.

 

I swim over and grab my spear.

 

Last time, I figured out that it was actually very easy to Infuse my spear, but doing that alone would be rather pointless, as the Toxic Energy would just slowly drain out into the surrounding Aether. Instead, I need to maintain control over the Toxic Energy, so I can then later eject it from my spear, into a stabbed enemy.

 

And so I get to practising, using the smallest amount of Qi I can use at a time—about 1 Onkh—and trying to maintain control over the energy inside the spear as long as possible.

 

It is... difficult. Very different from controlling Lavi.

 

Lavi is—literally—alive. It likes to move randomly, almost joyfully, and all you need to do is give it direction.

 

Toxic Energy is a little more difficult to direct. It behaves erratically, at one time rushing towards something, at another dragging its heels, like a fussy toddler. It keeps worming out of my grip, like... a toddler, again? Maybe like a squirming, greased up toddler, that won’t learn until it slips out of your arms and bashes its head open on cold hard reality.

 

I think I just killed that metaphor. Also, I might be a bad mom. Great.

 

Anyway, I’m making some progress, but it’s slow going and tiring, and I’m quickly running out of Qi.

 

Hmm.

 

It doesn’t seem likely that I’ll be able to extend the duration of my control to something truly useful with the time I have left here. Is there another way I could use Infuse perhaps?

 

What about Infusing an enemy directly?

 

Probably not an option in most cases. I’d really rather keep my enemies at least a spear’s length away from me.

 

Wait... what if I used my spear not as storage, but as a conduit? Could I Infuse something through my spear in one go?

 

Intrigued by this idea, I make my way over to one of the floating straw targets, kept in place by chains running to the ceiling and floor.

 

I stick my spear in unceremoniously, like... yeah, I’m gonna lay off the metaphors for a while.

 

Like before, my Toxic Energy enters the spear easily, but this time, I attempt to push it immediately onwards into the target.

 

There’s some resistance, but nothing like with the Hydrum. In fact, it’s working surprisingly well. Some Toxic Energy lingers in my spear, but most of it ends up in the target. I remove my spear and find purple strands of straw around the cut it leaves behind.

 

Success!

 

I practise this until my Qi runs out before I take up swimming again, trying to strengthen my tail to the point where it can withstand my kicks with the second mode of Boost Physical active.

 

At some point, Jacob tires of sparring, and joins Kaitlynn in her breathing exercises, hoping to reach the second level of Respiration, and I take over as Alec’s sparring partner.

 

It takes a bit of practice, but soon enough I’m swimming circles around Alec using only my legs, keeping my arms free to take stabs at him from all sides.

 

He’s forced into a defensive position by this, and can’t do much other than turtle up and try to fend off my stabs with swipes with his own, lighter spear.

 

On a whim, I reach out to him with a tether. <Try taking a shot at me. You know, with your Lightning.>

 

He stares at me for a second but is quick to react. <For real?>

 

I nod, coming to a stop for a second. <Yeah. You need to practice hitting a moving target, and if you manage to hit me, well... at least it would probably increase my Lightning Tolerance. And it should be safe enough here...>

 

Alec smirks. <Masochist.>

 

<Get glorbed,> I fire back, causing his eye to widen comically. <You’re gonna miss anyway.>

 

But he doesn’t.

 

He hits me on the thigh, even though I’m going full speed, and like last time with the chief, my muscles cramp up and twitch while it hurts like a mother. It hurts worse than last time, actually. Guess there was more juice behind this one.

 

After a few seconds, when the tremors cease, I connect to Suri. ‘That better have been worth it. Status Window please.’

 

[Coming right up dear.]

 

 

All right! Straight from 0.7 to 1.3%, that’s what I like to see.

 

Can’t say I hate the look of that longer skill-list either... interesting stuff.

 

My inspection is interrupted at this point, as Alec hides behind me, and I have to calm down Kaitlynn, who’s chomping at the bit to tear him a new one.

 

Whoops. Perhaps a heads up about that lightning strike may have been in order.

 

Once I’m done soothing her, she returns to practising her breathing, with one last withering glare at Alec.

 

Well, Alec is out of Qi now anyway, so we couldn’t continue sparring normally. Although I may be a tad harder on Alec since he just electrocuted me.

 

Nobody’s perfect. Besides, he needs to practice his meditation anyway. After all, he needs the third level before he can even get started on Regenerate, and I haven’t even gained the third level yet.

 

The next interruption to my training doesn’t come until Kaitlynn succeeds, reaching Respiration level 3 by controlling her exhale for long enough to coil it away from her and free her breathing space of stale Hydrum.

 

I swim over to her little-mermaid-style in order to high-five her. <Nice one Kaitmonster! Now start trying to launch yourself a short distance by turning your exhale into a jet.>

 

She briefly clasps the hand I’m holding out and smiles blindingly at me before nodding.

 

I feel like I should blink a few times to get the afterimage of her smile off my retina. This girl is too cute for her own good, I’m tellin’ ya.

 

Anyway, eventually Dave returns, and we decide to drain the room so Alec can start on dinner. We’re running out of wood quite quickly, so there better be some in the next Hub. At least we still have plenty of Yang Fire-Blossoms to act as firestarters.

 

Over dinner, Dave shares that he not only learned Tremorsense but also levelled up his Radiate Skill to level 3 by learning how to make regular Radiation!

 

“Turns out I shouldn’t have been practising it underhydrum,” Dave explains happily, “Hydrum seems to suppress Radiation Energy.”

 

Interesting. Similar to its resistance to Toxic Energy then?

 

After dinner, we pack our bags and such to make sure we’re fully prepared to face the next Trial after a last good rest. only the couches in the living room aren’t as waterproof as the beds, so we decide to sleep in the single rooms.

 

Except...

 

Kaitlynn hovers near me as the boys bid us goodnight one by one.

 

She’s chewing her lip, shuffling her feet, looking a little frightened and altogether adorable.

 

“Emma,” she starts hesitantly, “can I sleep with you tonight?”

 

I swear, my heart skips a beat. I smirk at her.

 

She blushes and rolls her eyes at me. “I mean, like, in your bed.”

 

“Oh, trust me, I know,” I say, moving my eyebrows up and down suggestively.

 

She snorts and smacks my shoulder. “Pervert. You know what I mean.”

 

“Of course you can,” I say warmly, relenting from teasing her. “Come on, let’s catch some Z’s.”

 

 

And so I find myself doubled up on a single bed, lying awake as I stare at the ceiling.

 

“Emma?” Kaitlynn whispers.

 

“Yeah hon?”

 

“Have you... gotten your period yet?”

 

Huh. Come to think of it...

 

“No, I don’t think so,” I say finally. “Actually, make that a definite no; I definitely would’ve noticed. But I’m sure it’s something to do with this realm: I have a copper IUD—at least, I’m assuming it’s still in there—and I haven’t been sexually active in... a while, so there’s no way I’m pregnant. Why do you ask?”

 

“I haven’t gotten mine yet either,” Kaitlynn confesses. “I was on the pill before I got here, but I didn’t bring any with me, so... but if you haven’t gotten it either, then I’m sure it’s just this realm, and not...”

 

I turn over to face her, a bad feeling rising inside me. “Kaitlynn... Luke, he didn’t... touch you, did he?”

 

To my immeasurable relief, she shakes her head no. “Seems extremely unlikely... I just had this irrational worry about it because I was supposed to have my period by now, and I was out of it most of the time... I just remember flashes, some things they said...”

 

“Actually,” I say, “I remember him pretty much saying Bruce wouldn’t let him touch you. And if he had anyway, I’m sure he would’ve rubbed it in my face, to throw me—”

 

Kaitlynn scrunches up her nose like she just saw something gross.

 

“Not like that!” I protest, “Eww, now I’m imagining it!”

 

Kaitlynn giggles, her voice high and clear, like the ringing of a bell.

 

“If we can’t get periods, can we still even get pregnant here?” Kaitlynn wonders aloud after some time.

 

I shudder at the idea. “Let’s try not to find out.”

 

“Guess that means no boys,” Kaitlynn sighs mock-wistfully. “We’ll have to make do with each other.”  

 

I snort. “Right, lesbianism: the solution to all of a modern girl’s problems,” I joke.

 

“Haha, yeah...”

 

“Anyway,” I say, “I’m definitely not gonna miss periods if we’re truly rid of them. Especially since I left my menstrual cup at home.”

 

Kaitlynn frowns. “What’s a—oh. Huh, that sounds pretty useful; why have I never heard of those before?”

 

I blink. How did she... ah, of course! The auto-translation kicked in and explained it for me.

 

“Probably the almighty tampon lobby,” I half-joke. “Keeping everyone hooked on disposable products means more profits.”

 

She hums agreeably.

 

“Didn’t it hurt to get that IUD placed?” Kaitlynn asks suddenly.

 

“Like a bitch,” I admit. “But I’ve got... pretty good pain tolerance.”

 

“I’ll say, Em-ma,” she says, stressing the ‘Em’ and giving it the meaning of ‘M’. If you know what I mean.

 

“You little—” I start tickling her in revenge.

 

She ineffectually tries to fend me off, giggling and squealing, until I relent.

 

We lie quietly in the dark for a bit.

 

“I want to try something,” Kaitlynn whispers. 

 

“What?”

 

Kaitlynn turns to face me, and I follow her lead.

 

She stares at me intently.

 

My heart beats in my throat. My eyes dart towards her lips.

 

Suddenly, Kaitlynn takes a deep breath and says, “Michael.”

 

I stare at her, a confusing mix of feelings swirling through me, that I quickly suppress. “Huh?” 

 

“Damn,” Kaitlynn swears. “Let me try again, I think I can do it.”

 

She closes her eyes for a second, before re-opening them and staring at me even more intently, and repeats, “Michael.”

 

This time, after a second, something clicks. A flood of images and feelings. A portrait of... a big brother. One who starts out pestering his little sister, until they get older and the pestering turns to ribbing, and they actually get along pretty well. And he’s an ass but also sweet and protective, and...

 

The flood of information is too much; I can only process and retain the broad strokes. When it peters out, I’m left staring open-mouthed at Kaitlynn.

 

“It worked?”

 

I nod. “Yeah... your big brother sounds wonderful, Kait.”

 

She smiles tearfully, and jokes, “Eh, he’s pretty okay. Still not half as cool as he thinks he is.”

 

Not knowing what to say, I smile back ruefully and reach out to wipe a tear from her cheek. She closes her eyes and leans into my hand a little, so I keep it there, stroking away the tears with my thumb.

 

“Can I tell you about my parents too? I just... I think it’d make me feel less lonely.”

 

I swallow against the lump in my throat. “Of course. Tell me everything.”

 

 

Author's Note:

Hey everyone!

 

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©2018 by H.C. Mills