When Kaitlynn and I enter the living room the next morning, Dave and Alec are already there.
“Oof, those are some serious bags under your eyes. Didn’t get a lot of sleep?” Alec asks me teasingly.
“No, not really,” I admit, “but it was worth it.” I direct a smile at Kaitlynn. She smiles back.
Dave’s eyebrows rise. “Oh? I see.”
I frown. Wait, what exactly—
A door slides open, interrupting my thoughts. Jacob strides out, packed and ready to go.
“So, who’s ready to go for a dive?” he asks, striking a dashing pose with his shortsword and shield.
“Actually,” I say after a short pause, “we’ve got about 30 minutes left, so I was thinking breakfast?”
Alec scratches his neck. “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking too.”
Dave nods. “Sounds about right.”
Kaitlynn clasps a hand in front of her mouth, trying not to giggle at Jacob’s expression.
“Right,” he says with a sigh. “We should probably eat.”
“Is everybody ready?” Jacob asks one more time.
“Yeah, did you go to the bathroom, Alec?” I add, tightening the straps of my backpack with my blowpipe stowed behind it and my spear in hand. “Because I swear, if you pee in the Hydrum I’m breathing... I will glorb you personally, so help me Dave.”
“So help you me?” Dave sputters. “I’m not helping you g... I can’t even say it; just thinking about it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
Alec rolls his eyes, apparently not deigning my threat worth an answer. Why that little—
“Actually, guys,” Kaitlynn starts hesitantly, “how are we supposed to leave anyway? There are only five doors in this room, and we know where all of them lead.”
That’s an excellent question.
“Ah, I already asked Rose about that earlier,” Dave says, “but she just said it’d be ‘revealed’ when we started the Trial. So, who would like to do the honours?”
Jacob glances around. “Anybody still need to do anything? No? In that case, Begin Trial!”
For a second nothing happens. Then, with an ominous rumble, a large deluge of Hydrum falls from the grating in the ceiling, quickly filling the room.
I’m quite used to transitioning to breathing Hydrum by now, though it remains counterintuitive.
When the room is full, another ominous grinding sound rings out as the grating in the floor shifts aside, and the suction force suddenly increases.
We all stare at it. The revealed hole has a diameter of like three feet.
They want us to enter that?
A window pops into view that confirms my suspicions.
I swim high over the hole to look into it; the tunnel is dark, but I can see a bright spot not too far down.
Jacob—weighed down enough by the heavy greysteel sword and shield strapped to his back to maintain light contact with the floor—salutes us and slowly hops forward until he’s sucked in.
Well, there’s nothing for it. With a single sweep of my tail, I dive in after him headfirst, my spear parallel to my body.
Good thing the narrow tunnel goes straight down; if my spear were to get stuck here, I would have a serious problem. As would all the people behind me.
In front of me, I see Jacob reach the end of the tunnel and disappear in a flash.
The tunnel exits into a large, slightly-better-lit pipe that runs perpendicular to the one we just came from. A powerful flow of Hydrum forcibly wrenches me aside the moment I enter.
I quickly stabilize myself and look around to find Jacob in front of me and Kaitlynn behind me.
I swim against the current towards her until I can grab her hand, before allowing the flow to carry me onwards. She shoots me a grateful look.
The tunnel continues for a while, twisting this way and that, until another bright spot looms up in my view, the backlight illuminating Jacob’s silhouette in the distance.
He reaches it and drops out of sight.
A faint roar builds up as we approach the exit; Kaitlynn grips my hand tightly.
We reach the light. After a split second, the tell-tale drop in my stomach tells me we are freefalling. However, unexpectedly, the cylindrical flow of Hydrum around us remains intact, even as it curves down and... to the left?
What the hell is going on?!
The flow continues curving towards the left, going round and round. In fact, as the flow accelerates down, the spiralling motion becomes faster and faster.
My heartbeat is in my throat; I’m positive we’re about to crash or something, but to my surprise, the spiral widens again.
Then the flow does crash into something, and Kaitlynn and I are yanked apart by the sudden turbulence.
I fight to right myself, thrashing wildly until I realize what happened. The flow crashed into a lake.
I reform my tail and swim up to the surface.
Upon breaching, I force the Hydrum from my lungs with Breath Control.
I start to take in a nice lungful of Aether, but my breath catches at the sight of the cavern above me.
At least a hundred feet up, a mighty flow of Hydrum emerges from an enormous, carved-stone head full of sharp, serrated teeth. The head of a plessie.
That flow then bends aside and spirals all the way down around an imposing stone pillar that rises up from the bottom of the lake all the way to the roof of the cavern.
Right, of course, the flow is sucked into the gravity field of the pillar. Still, it’s an incredible view.
Kaitlynn pops up near me, hacking and coughing. I wave at her, relieved. She spots me and comes swimming over.
Together we watch as the dark silhouettes of presumably Dave and Alec spiral down around the pillar one by one.
They enter the lake and I pop down below the surface to wave at them to come up. They do so quickly and join us in taking in the awe-inspiring view.
“Wow,” Alec says with a sigh, once he’s done coughing.
“Yeah,” Kaitlynn agrees.
“Wait... where’s Jacob?” Dave asks.
I frown, looking around. “Huh, that’s odd; he was in front of me. Oh, right! His gear is rather heavy, so he’s probably...” I trail off and my eyes widen.
“Sinking!” Dave exclaims, finishing my sentence.
‘To reach the exit dive down.’ Something tells me it’s a very bad idea to try and do that on your own.
I dive down, ridding myself of the Aether in my lungs in a single exhale, and filling them with Hydrum.
Down in the depths, I see a figure who’s struggling valiantly but failing to cling onto a steep rocky slope. The bottom of the lake is shaped like a funnel, and it seems like the flow of Hydrum is slowly sucking him towards the hole in the bottom.
On my next exhale, I form a tail around my feet with practised ease and kick.
I shoot down, but it’s still a long way. By the time I’m halfway there, Jacob loses his grip entirely.
He looks up at me helplessly, as he’s sucked down into the hole. At this point, with the suction down there, even abandoning his gear wouldn’t save him.
For a split second, I am wrought with indecision, and my tail falters.
If I dive down after him and we end up in a combat situation, I’m putting myself at risk, as the rest of the group is going to need time to catch up. If I don’t dive after him...
If only he’d abandoned his sword and shield earlier.
No, scratch that. Throwing away your equipment when you’re about to face combat would be stupid.
There’s nothing for it. Let’s face it; I was never not going to go after him. Jacob may be new to the party, but he’s earned his place. There’s no way I’m abandoning him now.
Determined, I activate Boost Physical’s second mode and glance at my status bar.
Nice. At my insistence, Trigot meat was on the menu this morning—breakfast of champions—and it’s already paying off; I can just barely maintain a net positive Lavi Flow this way.
I kick my tail at near full Strength. I still have to beware ripping it with Boost Physical active, but it’s gotten a lot sturdier.
I soar down, picking up more speed with every kick.
<Go get him Emma; we’re coming as fast as we can!> Dave’s voice rings in my head encouragingly.
Slightly comforted, I shoot into the tunnel at the bottom of the lake.
Like the last one, it twists and turns dizzyingly, but unlike last time, I’m not just passively floating along, but actively speeding through it, trying to anticipate the bends and steer into them.
After one last relatively sharp turn, I exit down into a cavern entirely filled with Hydrum.
Below me, Jacob faces off against three froggos.
A Croaker’s crude axe strikes against his shield. A Hoplite’s two-pronged spear is deftly brushed aside with a stroke of his shortsword, even as Jacob continues sinking. A blowdart from behind sinks into his neck, drawing a red mist of blood.
Of course, I’m don’t just sit still and watch as this happens.
I charge down at top speed, picking the Hoplite as my priority target. The Dartblower bellows in warning, but it’s too little too late.
I barrel into the Hoplite at full speed even as he looks up. My spear pierces deep into his chest.
I forcibly kick him off my spear, which causes my tail to fizzle out and a cloud of green to come swirling out of the gaping hole in his chest.
Jacob Charges towards the Dartblower. His sudden momentum catches her off-guard, and he delivers a vicious stab into her neck.
The Croaker backs off, and bellows. It has a vague meaning, something close to ‘alarm.’
Below, in the distance, there’s an underhydrum village of froggos, that are now piling out of their tiny houses.
A long, spindly, blindingly white froggo stands out amongst the crowd, not just because of her colour, but also because of what she’s wielding...
A bloody crystal trident!
It looks surprisingly similar to the last one. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is the same trident, which ended up flushing through the hole in the grating!
While I stare fixedly at the oversized fork, the albino froggo—who is wearing some kind of white ceremonial cape, oddly enough—bellows loudly:
“Kill the unbelievers!”
Her croak is high-pitched and clear, and her flock responds immediately by swimming towards us fervently. I count 9, 10—at least a dozen of the suckers.
Frig, now what? I could probably swim fast enough to avoid them, at least for a while, but not if I have to drag along Jacob.
Making up my mind, I swim over to Jacob, who’s still slowly sinking, and take up position next to him. His face is pale—more so than usual—and his eyes are bloodshot, but he shoots me a grateful look.
I extend a tether towards him
<Let’s kick some ass,> I send, before cutting the connection. Maintaining the tether still drains 1 Onkh of Lavi per minute, after all.
He nods determinedly at me. Good lad.
The froggos are closing in quickly now, trailed by their leader, who seems to prefer staying in the back.
I whip up another tail and kick in front of me to launch myself away from the approaching froggos. Jacob tenses up and his eyes follow my retreat for a split second. As the first wave approaches, however, he resolutely faces the front, taking cover behind his shield.
Meanwhile, I complete a loop behind him and pick up speed as I prepare to meet their charge head-on with my own.
I’m not gonna act like some sitting duck; my advantage is all in my mobility!
I head straight for a large froggo at the front who’s about to apply his club to Jacob’s defences. The froggo’s eyes go wide as he sees me coming, and he reflexively attempts to dodge.
I’m not going for the impale this time; I can’t come to a stop in the middle of a group of enemies. Instead, I use considerable force to swing my spear like a scythe as I pass by and my spear goes clean through one of his legs, cutting it off from the knee down.
He croaks in pain as I barrel past.
I barely dodge a spear jab aimed at me after that and am struck by a glancing blow from a club, but then I’m through and behind the group.
I pass the albino priestess froggo, who glares angrily at me, and loop around for another go. This time, I’m coming in from behind the froggos facing Jacob.
My heart sinks when I see how many there are around him already, however. If the three closing in from the front and the Dartblowers lining up their shots weren’t bad enough, then the Hoplite who snuck around to his back certainly is.
Damn it, I’ll never make it back in time!
But as the bastard cocks back his spear, a bolt of lightning strikes down from above, hitting him full in the head and stunning him. A greysteel arrow follows, accurately striking him in the shoulder, and a visible vibration streaks through the water and makes the froggos in front of Jacob freeze up.
Jacob grimaces at the sound but uses the opportunity to run a Croaker through with his shortsword.
My heart soars as I close the distance and practically behead a distracted Dartblower before slamming my spear in the back of a stunned croaker.
Our friends swim down from above, and the battle swiftly turns into a confusing melee, with visibility degrading from a mix of red and green blood.
I abandon my tail and use Breath Control for short burst of speed now, or to push away froggos threatening to hit one of my friends.
Despite the confusion, one thing is hard to miss.
“WEAKLINGS!” the Priestess bellows. “COME TO ME, MY CHILDREN!”
Wait, you’re not telling me—
I reform my tail and swim out of the melee, to gain some perspective.
Suddenly the bastards are crawling out of the woodwork, pouring forth from of huts and caves all around us.
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