• H.C. Mills

Chapter 78: PoP! Goes my heart

After the battle, it’s time for our final preparations.

First, we all buy a Small Qi Pearl matching our affinity, to serve as an emergency Qi supply. Honestly, it’d be stupid not to keep one of those around, considering how limited our Qi Pools are. I’m really feeling that now that I’ve got two Qi-based Skills.

Jacob also buys a spear, even though it brings him down to his last four Trial Points. Apparently, our fight helped him realize it would improve the utility of his Increase Momentum Skill; he can Charge forward with it to impale his foe, or launch it with Momentum Energy, and switch to his sword.

I’m glad he didn’t think of this before our match, because it definitely sounds a lot more effective. Also dangerous, for use in a spar.

We decide Kaitlynn should take the medium Yang Focus Crystal into her Trial, so she can use it to cast the mega Astreum Blast she’s been practising. A full 25 Onkh of Qi converted to a ridiculous amount of Heat makes for an impressive sight. Anyway, Dave insists she take it, saying he’ll be facing a lesser threat, and plans to focus on using his bow and arrows more than his Radiation.

I can see why, too. Though Radiation has the advantage of being near-instantaneous, and therefore very hard to block or dodge, it doesn’t have the kind of long-lasting, Lavi-consuming and weakening effect Toxic Energy has.

Which is why I give him a small bottle of Moonshade sap, to dip his arrows in. I also give one to Jacob, for his spear, and to Kaitlynn, for her throwing knives. She has a full pouch again, after spending six Trial Points to refill her stock back up to ten.

I even give one to Alec, just in case. He’s can’t put it on the trident of course, as that would interfere with its function as a conduit for his Electric Energy. I guess he could pour it on his enemy if it came to that.

I still have about a third of the content of my 1.5-litre bottle left, after pouring a liberal coating on the blade of my own spear as well. I hope I’ll be able to replenish it at some point...

The final preparation Dave makes is giving me his Radiation Crystal. In case I need it.

Well. I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that.

I offer the Toxic Crystal in return, but for some reason he backs away quickly, saying he doesn’t want it.

All right, suit yourself.

Finally, I face my designated door—the one with the triangle—thrumming with nervous energy.

I keep wondering if there’s anything else we could do right now, but honestly, we’re probably as well-prepared as we can be.

I glance at the rest, lined up next to me, each facing a door. Kaitlynn’s facing one with a square next to mine, and Dave’s circle-marked door is all the way on the other end.

Kaitlynn’s chattermouth-of-an-AI Kai let slip that there will be another communal living room after the Sixth Trial, so the plan is to meet up there as quickly as possible.

Of course, that’s only possible for those who make it through. We’ve already said our goodbyes, just in case.

[300 seconds remaining,] Suri chimes.

Dave breaks the oppressive silence by clearing his throat. He lifts his heavy greysteel bow and draws and nocks an arrow dipped in Moonshade sap. “Well, guess I’ll head in first. See you guys in a bit. Begin Trial!”

The door in front of him grinds open, revealing a hallway that curves off to the right. He steps through, brow set in grim determination, and it slams shut behind him.

Jacob is the next one to step forward, brandishing his spear and shield. “Right... I give it ten minutes before I’m in the next living room. Don’t keep me waiting. Begin Trial!”

Alec twirls his trident and shoots me a big grin. “Last one there’s a rotten egg! Begin Trial!”

They both step through.

Kaitlynn turns to look at me with a watery smile. “Whatever’s in there... I know you can do it, Emma.”

I smile at her with more confidence than I feel. “Don’t you worry about me, Kaitmonster. Just focus on blasting your opponent straight to hell.”

She grins, hefting the medium Focus Crystal tied to her wrist. “That shouldn’t be an issue. Begin Trial!”

I face my own door. The danger triangle on top of it stares back at me intimidatingly. “Begin Trial!”

I glance at Kaitlynn one more time. She’s staring at me intently, hands clenched into fists as if she’s memorizing what I look like.

I shake my head, trying to ignore the lump in my throat, and smile at her, giving it the meaning off, ‘See you soon.’

She smiles back. ‘Not soon enough.’

I turn towards my own door, and step through, watching from the corner of my eye as she does the same.

Our doors slam shut.

A pop-up appears in front of me.

Sounds straightforward enough. I was worried there might be a maze or something.

The hallway I’m in curves to the left. I follow it cautiously, spear at the ready.

A short distance ahead, the hallway ends in another door. It rumbles open as I approach.

Beyond it lies a well-lit cave, filled with strangely curved stalactites, which at some points converge into tree-like structures that reach the floor. At other places, they curve into the wall.

Right. Must be due to the wonky gravity of this Realm.

As I watch, a droplet of Hydrum falls off the end of a curved stalactite and is drawn further sideways during its descent, onto a stump on one of the tree-like structures of merged stalactites.

I cautiously approach the door, to take in more of the cavern.

There’s a door on the other side, which is nice. To the right, there are mostly more stalactite trees, and to the left, there’s a pool of water.

My heart skips a beat when I notice that, in the pool of water lies a conch shell the size of a minivan.

My first thought is: They know.

Then my rational mind kicks in. I mean, we have been in aquatic-themed Trials for a while now, and while they certainly share some similarities, this conch shell isn’t black, but a broken white. Or maybe it’s more eggshell, it’s hard to say with this lighting.

Anyway, unless I’m sorely mistaken, this probably isn’t an oblique reference to my dream shenanigans; it’s just the ‘guardian,’ a giant sea monster I have to face in single combat.

Thank god.

Steeling my nerves, I activate Boost Physical’s second mode and step through the door. It slams shut behind me.

I flinch at the sound, which echoes in the mostly empty cavern.

Stupid doors; couldn’t they have given me a quiet one for once?!

The conch shell stirs. It rises, revealing a mass of blue limbs beneath it, followed by two black eyes on stalks.

It’s a hermit crab.

For a moment, I idly wonder what kind of silly name this one has. Hermie? Crabbypants Junior?

Junior draws himself up to his full height and starts hissing and waving his massive claws menacingly, clearly incensed at the intrusion of his territory.

Sorry, buddy, I haven’t much of a choice, I’m afraid.

He bears down on me, so I spring into action and move towards the centre of the arena, where the stalactite trees grow most densely.

I don’t immediately spot any places those long spindly arms wouldn’t be able to reach, but at the very least, Junior’s too large to comfortably move around in here.

I take up position beside the thickest trunk in the copse, ready to jump behind it at a moment’s notice, and study my opponent, looking for weaknesses.

Clearly, Junior’s greatest strength lies in defence. That huge, thick shell will not be easy to pierce, and that blue exoskeleton covering his limbs and face looks pretty hardy too. His eyes are one obvious weakness, but I’d first have to get to them, somehow.

Directly Infusing Junior with Toxic Energy seems difficult, but indirectly may still be an option.

Apparently realizing that it’ll be hard to quickly get his claws on me, Junior starts literally foaming at the mouth.

Yuck. Well, at least this sucker’s giving me a moment to think. Now how do I—

[Emma, look down!] Suri chimes.

I look down, and my heart skips a beat when I notice the tendril of ‘foam’ approaching my foot.

I attempt to jump back right as it twists around my ankle. The moment I’m about to leave its grasp, a kind of pulse travels through the foam. A flash of Cold around my ankle is the only warning I get before it instantaneously turns solid, stopping my movement and causing me to land on my ass.

Oh god oh god oh god, I’m about to be crab food!

However, the solidification of the foam has also stopped its creeping motion. I bring down my spear, hard, and the solid foam shatters into jagged shards.

I roll out of the way and a giant claw slams onto the spot I just occupied.

I run for another trunk to hide behind, yelling, “Suri, what the hell was that!”

[That was Boreum, my dear—super-cooled Aether—and you’re welcome.]

“Yes, well, thanks a—what’s he doing now?!”

[He appears to be blowing a bubble.]

A bubble of the strange foam—or Boreum, I guess—is indeed forming on Junior’s lips. A flash of blue light pulses through it, and it solidifies. To my utter surprise, Junior handily scoops it up and launches it above him with one of his claws. Then, his other claw rises up behind him, slams into the Boreum bubble on the highest point of its arc, and spikes it towards me like a professional volleyball player.

Why the hell is this crab so skilled?!

Caught off-guard by this ridiculous turn of events, I can only duck away as the bubble sails towards me and ultimately smashes into the branches of the stalactite tree I’m cowering beneath.

Upon contact, the Boreum bubble explodes, releasing a small shockwave, followed by a wave of razor-sharp Boreum shrapnel.

A large piece of shrapnel penetrates my armour and embeds itself into my shoulder. The Cold energy numbs the pain a little, but it still hurts like hell.

That thing was full of pressurized Aether! This cruddy crustacean is using my own best trick against me!

The Boreum in my shoulder quickly evaporates, leaving behind a nasty cut.

Anger flares inside me.

So, Junior wants to play? Well, two can play at this game.

I step out into the open, right as Junior finishes his next bubble. He throws it up, and spikes.

Thankfully, my breath balloon was safely behind my back when the previous one burst into shrapnel, so it’s still in one piece. I direct it upwards, into the trajectory of the Boreum bubble. The bubble hits my balloon and bounces back.

As expected, Junior doesn’t have the control necessary to detonate it remotely.

Instead, the bubble hits his shell and blows up right above his stupid face.

Junior shrieks angrily, but I’m not done. I form a bubble of my own; a green glowing Lavi bubble, filled with pressurized Aether, and 25 Onkh of purple glowing Toxic Energy, formed from a full 5 Onkh of Qi.

I launch it towards him directly from my mouth.

In response, Junior throws up a wall of foam. It solidifies right before my bubble arrives, and at this distance, I no longer have the control necessary to direct the bubble, so it bursts when it hits the wall and the Toxic Aether disperses harmlessly in front of it.

Son of a crab!

Junior begins forming multiple smaller bubbles, which he launches rapidly at a wider range around me. This way I can’t easily bounce them back, and certainly not all of them, but the shrapnel also has a much smaller chance of hitting me.

Some of it does pass through my breath balloon, leaving behind small tears and holes. Thankfully it takes something larger to really threaten the integrity of the balloon as a whole. Though my balloon does lose some pressure to this assault, I am able to quickly close up any of the holes that form in the membrane.

Ignoring the barrage, I decide to try something else. An idea that started to brew in the back of my mind ever since that third spar, when Jacob threw me into the wall.

From the start, I thought of Decrease Inertia as a Skill to improve my mobility with, but after that near-death experience, I realized it has untapped potential.

Clenching my spear tightly, I run away from Junior into a slightly more open space, at the edge of the copse of stalactite trees.

I turn around to face him. As he starts to scurry towards me, I form the pink vortex of energy around my Focus Crystal that drains the inertial mass of everything in the vicinity, including my spear and my spear-throwing arm. After all, the whole point of this Skill is to make things easier to accelerate.

Ignoring the barrage of bursting Boreum bubbles, I wait for a split-second before throwing my spear as fast as I can.

My spear shoots forward like one of Dave’s arrows. If I understand my Skill correctly, then the spear’s inertial mass should return the moment it leaves the spiral of energy emanating from my Focus Crystal. With the kind of speed it now has, combined with the Toughness of Greysteel—70—it should be able to pierce that stupid shell.

Unfortunately, I’ve only just come up with this tactic, and the last time I’ve thrown a spear was in high-school. Combine that with the fact that I’m now trying to throw a spear that handles as light as a feather, with an arm that feels as light as a feather, at a ridiculous speed, and it becomes a testament to my high Agility that my spear’s flight path is semi-stable at all.

The blade of my spear strikes Junior’s shell obliquely on the right side and glances off, before continuing to fly the length of the cavern and penetrating into the rock wall on the other side of the cave.

Whoops. Well, at the very least it seems effective. In fact, there’s a nice crack left behind on Junior’s shell. Sweet!

I make a split-second decision to run and grab my spear, but Junior immediately scurries to the side, clearly intent on cutting off my path.

Stupid crab! Stop being so smart!

Of course, this is exactly the kind of situation I have been training for.

I quickly pour another 5 Onkh of Qi into my Focus Crystal and drain myself and my surroundings of inertial mass. I kick off hard, leaping over Junior with room to spare. I perform another Barani, except this time I purposely spin along a little farther, so I end up landing on my back.

This way, I can use my breath-balloon-turned-airbag to break my fall. As planned, it deflates underneath me and gently deposits me on the floor.

Junior has already begun to turn, so I quickly scramble to my feet and run the remaining distance to my spear.

I brace my feet against the wall on both sides and manage to yank my spear loose from the rock it’s embedded in.

However, Junior is advancing on me while blowing a large bubble, so I waste no time in lining up another shot.

I use another 5 Onkh of Qi, dangerously draining my reserves, to activate Decrease Inertia.

This time, my throw doesn’t go wide. It goes up. My spear hits near the top of the conch shell and actually breaks it off.

From Junior’s frantic hissing and the fact that his Boreum bubble bursts in his face, I surmise that it hurt quite a bit. But this doesn’t exactly look fatal, damnit.

I brave a glance at my status bar.

Alright, I’ve got enough Qi for one more use of Decrease Inertia. If my next throw doesn’t hit, I’ll have to resort to swallowing my—what the hell?

Junior turns around.

For a moment, I consider the thought that I scared it off. Then he grabs my spear, that clattered down behind him, in one of his claws.

Illegitimate offspring of a motherflippin’ crab and a lobster!

As Junior gives my spear a few test-swings, I run for the relative safety of the stalactite trees.

Damnit damnit damnit! Now what? Am I going to have to wrestle a crab for my spear?! Thieving little bastard...

Junior renews his assault, seemingly furious that I’ve managed to find shelter once more. Boreum bubbles land all around me and explode like grenades, the Boreum shrapnel cutting through my armour and into my skin while I reform my breath balloon.

I duck behind another stalactite tree to avoid a large blue claw. Junior is wisely keeping my spear out of the small copse of trees, clearly intent on keeping me from throwing it again.

How am I going to kill this little shit without it?

My eyes fall upon the hole in the top of his shell, and a crazy plan begins to stir in the back of my mind.

My last attack may not have fatally wounded Junior, but it definitely left a hole in his defences. I can exploit that.

As soon as I’ve finished my preparations, I use nearly all of my remaining Qi to drain myself of inertial mass one more time, and leap.

Once again, I sail into the Aether, but this time, I don’t pass over Junior’s head. Instead, I purposefully hit the stalactite above him. That is, my airbag hits it. From there, I attempt to drop down on top of his shell.

This is the crazy part, obviously. Thankfully, the stalactite hangs pretty low, and Junior’s shell is pretty high, so it’s only like a 15-foot drop.

I right myself in the Aether, and with my left hand, grab onto the edge of Junior’s shell where the top broke off. Pain flares up as the jagged edge of his shell cuts into my hand, drawing blood, but I maintain my grip.

With my other hand, I toss my already-opened bottle of Moonshade sap into the hole in Junior’s shell. It quickly rolls down the spiralling inside, already spilling some of its deadly payload. That’s alright; there’s plenty in that bottle. Now it’s just a matter of time.

Junior angrily scrambles around and attempts to reach up and grab me with a claw. Unfortunately for him, I’m currently on the back of his shell, and he can’t quite reach.

He whips back his other claw and attempts to knock me off with my spear, but I jump in the nick of time. I land in a forward roll and take off in a sprint.

Junior immediately begins to turn, trying to face me, but I just change course to stay behind him until I safely reach the copse of stalactite trees.

Furious, he renews his bubble assault. I take shelter as best I can, bouncing back any Boreum bubbles that get too close.

Soon enough, he loses steam and starts to stumble and falter. Looks like the Moonshade sap has reached its target.

I watch Junior struggle for a couple of minutes until he finally blows his last bubble and collapses.

Emma 1, Crustaceans 0.

Author's Note:

Thanks for reading! ^^

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©2018 by H.C. Mills