I stare at the notification in a daze.
My Charm went up? How—
My eyes widen. Jacob! That feeling when I pleaded him, was that it? Did I activate my ‘Charm’ on him?
Dave starts inspecting my body, Restoring any wounds he finds. I flash a grateful smile at him.
When Dave is done, Alec waves at me to get my attention, cause I’m still kind of staring ahead of me in a daze.
‘Emma, are you coming or what?’ he signs. ‘We’re going to look through the pile this thing was guarding!’
I shake my head and follow my friends. I can deal with it later. Jacob isn’t here right now anyhow, and it doesn’t seem like anyone noticed anything.
The pile in the centre of the cave is, to be honest, mostly junk. Lots of broken shells, froggo bones, and other unidentifiable remains of water-dwelling critters. But, thoroughly sifting through it does unearth some pretty nice stuff.
First of all, there’s food. There’s quite a lot of different kinds of shellfish in the pile, though there unfortunately aren’t any like the ones we found pearls in earlier. Too bad. I would’ve very much liked to replace the Yin Pearl I consumed earlier. Maybe I’ll buy one after this.
The pile also contains a variety of crystals. I guess this thing either shared the froggos’ hobby of collecting them, or our froggy friends had a habit of losing them.
I suspect the former, because the collection consists mostly of Yang Energy Crystals. Among them we find two small Vibration Energy Crystal, which are constantly humming, and a medium-sized Heat Crystal. There aren’t any Lavi Crystals—except for the one on top of the beast’s head, of course. I’ll pry that one out later.
There is however, a single Yin Energy Crystal, namely another small Lightning Crystal. Alec graciously insists I take it, and seeing as how he’s currently holding the trident, I don’t object. The discharge that goes through me as I pick it up stings a little, but I don’t mind too much.
The trident really is a thing of beauty. Since he’s the only one who can use it properly right now, there’s no sense in discussing ownership, even if my heart is bleeding a little.
Eventually, we stumble upon what I suspect is the main prize. A Power-Up.
Kaitlynn is the one who finds it, attracted by the spherical crystal’s pulsing red glow, and appraise gives away its secrets.
‘Well,’ Alec signs hesitantly when she shows it to us, ‘having to get it surgically installed is still better than eating symbiotic worms.’
Dave rolls his eyes. <Har de har.>
‘It’s so pretty!’ Kaitlynn signs enthusiastically with one hand, as she rolls the deep red crystal filled with white squiggly lines around in her other. ‘I wonder if it’ll be visible at all after installation, like a big red button sticking out of your stomach.’
I blink at that disturbing image.
‘You guys go see if there’s anything more,’ I sign. ‘I’ll go remove that big sucker’s Lavi-Crystal.’
I approach said big sucker a little hesitantly, irrationally worried that it might still be alive. Thankfully, it doesn’t react at all when I carefully prod it, and I don’t see any Lavi flowing beneath its skin either. I start by removing all of the darts and arrows I can reach, before getting to my spear. It’s stuck in there good, but I’m pretty strong, so I manage to wiggle it free with a bit of elbow grease. I then use my spear to pry out the crystal.
‘Appraise,’ I subvocalize when I have the nearly fist-sized lump of crystal in my hand.
Jackpot! I think I know what my share of the loot is going to be. I should probably discuss that with the rest after the Trial, though, before I do anything with it.
After digging around for a little longer but finding nothing else of interest, we reconvene near the doors.
‘We should hurry up and go,’ Alec signs, ‘We’re probably still in time for the quick finish bonus. It might be 10 TP like before, but it may also have been doubled to 20 like the clear reward!’
‘To be honest, I’m a bit conflicted,’ I sign. ‘We still have a lot of time on the clock, and I think I’d prefer to stay here and train.’
Swimming with my tail in Hydrum this thick is great practice and a great full-body workout! In fact, I have a feeling I’m pretty close to raising my Strength already.
<Hold on, let me just...> Dave sends before trailing off with a frown. <Ah, I see. Rose says the speed bonus is awarded individually, so anyone who finishes in time to receive one will receive one.>
‘Awesome,’ I sign by sticking out my thumb and little finger and wiggling my hand. Man, it’d be nice to learn how to connect multiple telepathic tethers simultaneously like Dave though.
‘Actually, when does the preparation time go in?’ Kaitlynn asks. ‘I’d ask Kai, but by the time he’d finished explaining, I would’ve lost out on that bonus.’ She smirks cheekily.
Dave nods. <Rose says... yes, it starts when ‘everyone’s Trial run has ended.’>
Right. So either when everyone has finished or is finished.
‘Perfect,’ I sign. ‘Then I suggest you crazy kids go ahead, while I stay here and pretend I’m The Little Mermaid a little longer, to give us all some extra time to train.’
Dave purses his lips. <We’d fall further behind the groups ahead of us on the way to Hub Three though.>
In typical Dave style, it’s more of a statement of fact than anything. A challenge to my reasoning that serves only to start a debate.
‘We’ll improve our chances of emerging into Hub Three at all,’ I counter, ‘and we’ll emerge stronger.
No, actually, it’s a moot point, because we can always choose to enter the Trial earlier if we feel ready.’
<Touché,> Dave sends. <You’ll lose out on the extra Trial Points though. Could be up to twenty.>
Another statement, no judgement attached, just to provoke thought.
I glance over at the giant by-now-cycloquatropus we’ve slain and shrug. ‘I have a feeling I’m about to have plenty. And like I said, I prefer the extra training time under these circumstances, which I otherwise wouldn’t have. The fact that you will all get to benefit from the extra time as well is a very nice bonus.’
Dave nods, <All right then. See you in a bit.> He turns and swims away.
Alec waves with a big grin, and hurries for a door as well. Kaitlynn comes in for a hug a little shyly. ‘Be careful!’ she bids me seriously. ‘No more crazy stuff, remember?’
I nod. The idea of trying to swim back up to go hunting briefly crosses my mind, but like I’ve said before, I’m not actually suicidal.
She hugs me again, and heads towards a door, throwing back a lingering, worried glance before she leaves.
It slams shut. The sound of its echoes are warped strangely by the thick Hydrum around me.
‘Suri, time?’ I subvocalize.
[You have 22 hours, 16 minutes, and 33 seconds left to complete the Trial.]
I nod. That’s plenty. The reason I’m so keen on this is that there’s a familiar niggling sensation in the back of my mind. It’s a kind of tension, a tautness, like something—some kind of energy, almost—has built up, and is about to burst free.
It feels like I’m about to break through on a stat. And I have a powerful suspicion that it’s Strength.
Still, I hesitate. I am giving up on a bunch of TP, probably. ‘Do you agree with my decision?’
[I’d say you generally have good instincts,] Suri chimes promptly. [I don’t see why you should begin doubting them now.]
I nod, determined. Time to start training. With my wounds healed and my stomach still full of Trigot meat, my net Lavi is now in the plus again and should remain barely so even when I use Boost Physical.
[Except when it comes to danger,] Suri amends. [You should really develop a better instinct for danger.]
I ignore the twitch in my eye-lid and activate Boost Physical’s Second Mode.
Two hours. I’ve spent two hours swimming in circles—minus breaks, as my body simply can’t handle swimming continuously—and I’m not an inch closer to breaking through!
In fact, it almost feels like the tension has ebbed away a little.
‘Suri, why isn’t this working?!’ I finally burst out in frustration.
[Probably because you’re not pushing yourself hard enough, now that you lack the motivation provided by the giant octopus chasing you,] Suri answers. [To raise your stats you need to go beyond your limits, remember? Not pussyfoot around.]
Not pushing myself hard enough?!
I unconsciously open my mouth to scream at her but end up swallowing a mouthful of thick Hydrum. For a second, I irrationally panic about choking or drowning, before simply closing my mouth again.
Damnit, she’s probably right anyway, isn’t she?
Frustrated, I give an extra hard kick with my tail, but of course it can’t handle the extra power and rips before falling apart.
I blink. Wait a minute.
‘No, you’re wrong,’ I subvocalize eventually. ‘It’s not my lack of motivation.’
[Oh?] Suri chimes surprised. [Do tell.]
‘It’s my tail,’ I explain. ‘I’ve been subconsciously limiting my power-output this whole time because the limiting factor on my speed isn’t my Strength, but the Toughness of my tail.’
[Interesting,] Suri chimes. [But why were you then progressing so much faster when you were up against the octopus?]
I think about that for a moment, while I sink down to land in a lotus position on the white sand at the bottom of his cave.
‘Probably because I was way more focused,’ I admit, ‘I was trying to push my speed to the limit and to do that, I had to really pay attention to squeezing the maximum out of my tail.’
[So now what?]
I purse my lips. ‘I’m not sure... I think I need to meditate for a bit, regain my focus.’
[Well well. Sounds like someone’s learning,] Suri chimes, sounding just a tad proud.
On second thought, that may just have been wishful thinking.
When I open my eyes again, about an hour later, I’m full of energy and it feels like I can finally think straight again. The tension in the back of my mind that seemed to signify the verge of a breakthrough has dropped further, but I resist the urge to jump up and start swimming frantic circles again.
I know what I need to do now: I need to first improve my Breath Control. Preferably, finally bring it to level 2.
[18 hours, 53 minutes and 56 seconds left to complete the Trial.]
Sweet. I take a deep breath of Hydrum, absorb some of the bountiful Lavi inside, and take control of the rest of it. I exhale and push the Hydrum away from me, whilst trying to maintain control over the Lavi inside for as long as possible.
Unfortunately, my control still rapidly fades with distance, but I do feel like it’s improved since the start of this Trial.
Then I have a crazy thought.
The next time I exhale, I make the Hydrum I sent out form a ball that hovers about 3 feet in front of me. I can do this much quite easily now, but I can feel my control rapidly slipping. Before I lose it entirely however, I cast out a tether towards it.
Disappointingly, it passes through with little resistance. However, unless I’m mistaken, the decline in my control did slow down a little while it passed through.
[Oh? Interesting,] Suri comments.
What I really need is something for the tether to latch onto.
On my next try, I attempt to concentrate the Lavi inside of the ball of Hydrum I form into a kind of nucleus in the centre. It ends up being more of a slightly denser patch of Lavi spread out around the centre, but when my tether passes through, it does feel like I’m getting a little more resistance and control.
Emboldened, I continue experimenting.
About another two and a half hours later, I’m finally capable of forming the kind of dense nucleus of Lavi I had envisioned, out of about half the Lavi in my exhale. I’ve mostly given up on the tether idea, as it doesn’t seem to want to latch on, no matter what. It no longer matters anyway, because I found that with increasing density of the nucleus, my control reaches farther and lasts longer.
It was actually my experience with compressing Lavi from the Lavi Font Skill that helped me get this far this quickly. I guess trying for that second level bore a little fruit, after all.
I form another nucleus inside my mouth and push it out with my exhale. It functions as a kind of control centre, receiving my commands and redistributing it among the rest of the Lavi in the exhaled Hydrum.
The nucleus joins its brothers and sisters in swirling around me. Now that my control lasts so much longer, I can add new exhales before my control over the previous ones has extinguished. Of course, I’ve been building this up slowly, starting with two simultaneous exhales, before progressing to three, four, and now five.
The five combined exhales, controlled by five dense nuclei, form a small protective bubble around me now like Suri had told me to try and make out of Aether in order to reach the second level of Breath Control.
I’m still very pleasantly surprised when the long-awaited notification pops up.
I take a moment to celebrate with an impromptu underhydrum dance.
[Well done, Emma,] Suri chimes in a tone of voice that’s almost warm. [You took a bit of a roundabout way to get there, but by no means a bad one.]
‘Thanks, Suri!’ I send back. I always get a kind of thrill receiving her praise, and this time no less so.
Now for the next part: to form a new and improved version of my tail.
The tension in the back of my mind is nearly entirely gone now, to the point where I’m not sure if I’m actually feeling anything at all, but that’s okay. It’ll be back soon enough.
It takes another 20 minutes of fine-tuning and practice, but my new tail is a thing of beauty.
It’s quite a bit larger, and its green glow quite a bit brighter. On average, there are about three nuclei in it, which slowly travel down between my legs to end up dangling below my feet. There’s always at least one nucleus there, as the fins require the most support of all.
Most importantly, it can easily take my full Strength even with Boost Physical’s second mode on, and even support the movement to help increase my speed!
Unfortunately, since I’ve been here for more than eight hours, the supplementary effect of the Trigot meat has worn off. Thanks to my breath training, my Lavi absorption from Hydrum has increased by 0.5 Onkh per minute, but that means If I use Boost Physical’s second mode now, my net Lavi intake still drops to -1.5 Onkh per minute.
Therefore, before beginning my Strength training in earnest, I work some jicca nuts inside. It’s very weird, eating underhydrum, but not impossible. I just pretend I’m eating Alec’s jicca porridge again.
A glance at my Status Bar afterwards confirms that my net Lavi intake is now 0. Perfect.
Time to work my muscles to the limit.
No, beyond the limit.
My swim speed has probably increased by at least 10%. That may not sound like much, but it’s a big difference considering the drag and viscosity of this incredibly thick Hydrum. That’s what I stayed here for after all: the ultimate resistance training.
And it works like a charm. Since I had to start nearly from scratch, it takes a while, but I can slowly feel the tension rebuild, and another three hours later or so, the following notification pops up.
Exhausted, I let myself drift down into the soft sand to bask in victory.
Thanks for reading! ^^
If you liked the chapter, please hit that big green button or click here to vote!