• H.C. Mills

Chapter 70: In too deep

The shockwave slams into me like a truck, and kinda sounds like one too. It’s a loud metallic clang that momentarily freezes up my diaphragm like a sudden punch in the stomach. Dizzily, I turn in the Hydrum. Below me, I find a monstrosity.

It’s a giant, translucent red shrimp that has one particularly oversized claw with a strange hammer-like protrusion on one side. As I watch, the claw snaps shut and the hammer slips into a corresponding hole in the claw.

A bubble forms, which collapses with a red flash and a loud metallic clang.

Seeing the shockwave coming this time, I instinctively tense up my muscles.

It helps a little.

The monstrosity swims closer to me and snaps its smaller, sharper claw threateningly.

I decide on a tactical retreat. To be precise, I reform my tail and duck aside so the overgrown axolotl approaching me from above can slam full-speed into the giant shrimp. They immediately devolve into clawing, electrocuting, and blasting with shockwaves.

A shiver runs down my back. I was almost stuck between that.

As more shrimp approach from below, and more axolotls and froggos from above, we do the only thing we can. Dive deeper and try not to engage as they fight amongst one another.

And fight each other they do. Flashes of lightning and loud clangs stir up the Hydrum; the axolotls and shrimp really seem to have it out for each other. The good news is that they’re mostly leaving us alone now.

The bad news is, they mostly ignore the eight or so froggos that were waiting for an opportunity to chase us down.

Though I could outswim them, my friends cannot, so it’s only a matter of time before they reach us.

My fingers twitch around my spear; I want to charge off like I did last time, but the cave we’re descending in is slowly narrowing, and swimming large circles would take me dangerously close to the fights around us.

Unfortunately, my tail is kinda useless in close combat, as it lacks manoeuvrability. Like, I can’t even swim backwards.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Breath Control is useless.

Next to me, Kaitlynn uses her third level in Respiration to expel a jet of Hydrum through her nose. The short burst of speed this generates allows her to dart in close to a froggo about to assault Dave and stab it in the neck.

(Author’s Note: Respiration is the new name for Deep Breathing, which was, quite frankly, kind of a shitty and confusing name for a Skill. ^^)

Atta girl.

Of course, the jets she produces currently aren’t half as strong as mine. I expel my own jet of Hydrum which sends me lurching forward to catch an unfortunate froggo on the business end of my weapon.

A female Hoplite rushes me from the side with her two-pronged spear.

Her first stab nearly catches me full in the neck, but I jerk my head back just in time. Her spear scrapes the skin of my throat, leaving a small nick that stings like a bitch.

I barely deflect her follow up stab towards my abdomen, and the next one towards my thigh leaves a scratch on my armour.

Damn, she’s not leaving me any room to counter!

While I frantically defend, another froggo approaches me from above.

Kaitlynn intercepts it with a short burst of speed.

Nice! But I can’t let this fight drag on.

Normally I would use my Toxic Breath right about now, but I can’t underhydrum, and Infusing the bitch froggo through my spear would require me to be able to actually hit her.

I could push her or myself away, but that wouldn’t hinder her very much.

Wait, that’s it!

After I fend off another dangerous stab towards my heart, I expel the Hydrum I’ve built up towards her with a new purpose.

Using a technique much like when I form my tail, I make it cling around her upper body like a straitjacket, hoping to hinder the movement of her arms for a moment.

Of course, as the Hydrum isn’t in touch with my skin anymore, the binding force is a lot weaker than when I form my tail.

Still, the move is unexpected, and the moment she goes for another attack and realizes her plight is the moment I strike.

I aim for her heart, but she kicks upwards at the last moment, in a desperate attempt to evade, and I end up plunging my spear deep into her stomach.

Good enough.

The Hydrum binding her arms disperses, but the damage is done.

Against all my expectations, she actually clenches her abs to keep my spear in place and attempts to stab me. However, her heroic efforts are for nought because—perhaps because of the pain—her stab is slow and clearly telegraphed, and I brush it aside one-handed with little difficulty.

I yank back my spear and finish the job with a stab to the heart.

Glancing around, I find Jacob in trouble.

He’s dealing with two froggos simultaneously, one of whom is slamming his club repeatedly into Jacob’s shield, while the other tries to get behind him.

I form a tail, but as I’m about to rush the froggo behind Jacob, it suddenly flinches and flees.

I’m not that scary, am I?

Turns out I’m not. A shrimp approaches Jacob’s backside and fires off a shockwave. Jacob freezes up when it hits him, a painful grimace on his face, but luckily with his shield still raised towards the froggo in front of him.

With a single kick of my tail, I rush the overgrown shrimp and attempt to stab it in the eye. It’s surprisingly fast for its size however and fends off my blow with the smaller of its two claws. Which, by the way, still big enough to snap my head off, given the opportunity.

<Lightning assist incoming!> Alec’s cheery voice rings in my head.

My brows rise in surprise before I quickly charge my own Focus Crystal with 4 Onkh worth of Qi. Should be enough for a Yang creature like this. At least, I’m assuming it’s Yang since it uses Vibration Energy.

The creature aims its larger, shockwave-producing pincer at me, but Alec is true to his word. A bolt of lightning from the trident in his hand slams into the creature and briefly paralyses it.

I immediately capitalise on this opportunity by turning the 4 Onkh of Yin Qi in my crystal into 20 Onkh of Toxic Energy, jamming my spear into its eye-socket, and pouring it in.

It shrieks horrifically, before dashing away.

<Emma!> Dave’s voice enters my head before I get a chance to even look around. <We’re nearing the bottom of this cave system, and there’s another tunnel with a strong flow coming up on your right! We need to get in there ASAP; can you drag Jacob over?>

I swivel my head to the right and spot the dark, gaping, totally-not-scary-looking hole. Reflexively swallowing some Hydrum, I stick up a thumb.

I reform my tail, sweep over to Jacob, and unceremoniously plunge my spear into the back of the froggo with the club.

<You’re coming with me,> I send, before grabbing the back of the collar of his armour as I swim past him.

Above me, Kaitlyn, Alec and Dave are headed the same way, chased by some plucky froggos and an annoyed axolotl with an arrow sticking out of its shoulder.

Shit, it’s too far; do I continue dragging Jacob or do I run interference?

I anxiously watch a rather large froggo near Kaitlynn. However, when I’m about to let go of Jacob, an ominous low rumble reverberates all around us.

I did not like the sound of that. The froggos and the axolotl appear to like it even less. They all freeze up, giving us the opportunity to widen the distance until I feel myself start to get dragged into the tunnel by a flow. The Hydrum is as thick as marmalade by now, so escaping from the pull wouldn’t be easy.

Our pursuers seem to realise so as well; one of the froggos lets loose a final dart towards Alec—and misses—before they all give up and swim away.

I breathe a thick sigh of relief, releasing Jacob as we swirl into the tunnel. He scowls at me a little, adjusting his armour’s collar at his throat. I stick out my tongue.

Then Dave has to ruin it, <Guys, that rumble just now came from the other end of this tunnel. I couldn’t get an accurate view, because it was distorted by the tunnel, but whatever it was, it was big.>

Of course. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. No wonder the froggos were scared off, even after chasing us into the territory of the electric axolotls and the heavy-metal shrimp.

I turn to face the rest and whip a tether towards Dave. <Dave, please relay what I’m about to say.>

He nods at me.

<Everybody, prepare to fight; this reeks of a final boss battle type of thing, so hold nothing back.>

I glance at my Status Bar.

Though my wounds haven’t healed, I’ve recovered quite a bit of Lavi, so I turn the second mode of Boost Physical back on, the burn in my chest barely eliciting a twitch. I might actually need it, with how dense the Hydrum is getting down here.

Mmm, I’m running low on Qi though. I finger the Qi Pearl in my left front pocket. They cost only 10 TP, but still... let’s hope I won’t need it.

<We’re nearing the end of the tunnel!> Dave warns.

I restlessly tighten the grip on my spear. Actually, why should I wait?

<I’m going to scout ahead, check if there are any nasty surprises by the exit,> I send Dave, before kicking my tail vigorously and shooting ahead.

Well, it’s a little less ‘shooting,’ and more ‘moving swiftly.’ Although the denser Hydrum actually strengthens my tail, I also have to use even more force to swim, and the drag is a lot stronger as well, so I’m noticeably slower down here.

<Alright, just be careful,> Dave sends back as I pull ahead.

After two more turns, I emerge from the tunnel into a small chamber, with an opening that leads to a large cavern. Said cavern is the first one that doesn’t lead further down; it actually has a floor. A floor littered with all kinds of items: shells, rocks, crystals, bones... actually, most of it is piled up in the centre.

Behind the pile, there’s an artificially flat wall, featuring five stone doors.

My heart skips a beat when I spot them.

A pop-up appears.

A guardian? What—

A large shadow moves in my periphery. I turn and watch a bright orange octopus the size of a bus crawl out of a side-tunnel.

Holy shit.

The creature moves almost protectively over his pile of junk. There’s a sizable Lavi Crystal on the very top of its orange head. It’s also covered in scars and seems to be missing an eye and several limbs. Not voluntarily, judging by the stumps.

The others have drifted down beside me by this point.

A tense peace settles. We stare at the creature and it stares back at us, one-eyed and angry, coiling and undulating its remaining limbs around its ‘treasure.’ I count three stumps and five limbs.

One for each of us.

<So,> Dave sends, <If I read this notice correctly, we’re limited to two options: fighting our way past or killing it. The doors are individual again. So, what do we do?>

I glance at the doors, some still visible past it.

[You know you could probably slip by this thing with little trouble, right?] Suri chimes, catching me off-guard. [If you decide to go solo, that is.]

My brows rise slightly. I won’t claim the thought hadn’t occurred, but that’s never going to happen.

‘And you know I won’t, so why even bring it up?’ I subvocalize back. ‘Do you really care so little for my friends?’

[My job is to keep you alive, Emma,] Suri chimes. [Oh well, I suppose they have their uses to that end, even if it’s only to keep you sane. I sometimes forget how fragile the human psyche can be. Fine, see if you can keep them alive a little longer, but don’t foolishly risk your life if the odds are too stacked against them, you hear me?]

Wordlessly, I shake my head. Keep them alive ‘a little longer’? I can do better than that. I need to do better than that.

But how? Can I perhaps drag them to the doors? Would I still be fast enough to dodge that thing while I do?

No, not in Hydrum this thick. Damnit.

Also, getting past this thing isn’t ‘doing better.’ I bet there’s a reward for killing it, and perhaps even some actual treasure in that pile of junk beneath it. We need every advantage we can get.

Jacob—who no longer really sinks down, as the Hydrum is much denser down here—turns towards us and starts signing. ‘I say we kill it. There’s no way we’re all getting past that thing if we rush it, even if we try to use lightning and vibrations; the Hydrum here is like jelly, even abandoning my gear I wouldn’t be fast enough.’

‘How would we kill it though?’ Alec signs doubtfully.

<Toxic Energy,> Dave sends. <Radiation is unfortunately too suppressed by the Hydrum to really help. The only thing we’ve got that’s powerful enough to weaken and kill it is Toxic Energy.>

I nod thoughtfully. ‘Toxic Energy would be the way to do it,’ I sign, ‘but since Hydrum is also Toxic Energy resistant, that'll only work if I can get close enough to Infuse it without being grabbed somehow.’

Dave looks at me apologetically. <Sounds like we’ll be asking you to risk yourself for us... we can use lightning and vibration to help keep it in check, and I can try to distract it with arrows.>

‘I’m low on Qi though,’ Kaitlynn signs worriedly. ‘Got one more shot in me at most, and not my most powerful one.’

‘For me about the same,’ Alec signs. ‘I’ve been saving up my last shot for an emergency.’

So we’ve got two shots at a stun. It’ll have to be enough. It needs to be enough.

They all stare at me tensely, Jacob perhaps most of all. He has the least to offer and the most to lose in this case. He’d have to abandon his gear just for a chance to make it past this thing. His Increase Momentum Skill might still help him evade capture, but it’ll be pretty useless in this fight.

But the only one I really have eye for is Kaitlynn. There’s no way I’m leaving her survival to chance.

‘Frig, let’s do it,’ I sign. ‘Let’s bring this sucker down.’

<All in favour?> Dave asks with a note of relief in the mental projection of his voice.

Unfortunately, at this moment, we are all forgetting one very important fact: it’s actually very easy to eavesdrop on a conversation performed mostly in hand-signs, in a realm where meaning is conveyed objectively.

Even for a giant octopus with only one eye.

Author's Note:

Thanks for reading! ^^

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©2018 by H.C. Mills