Only when I’m sure Junior’s not getting back up again, do I limp over to his corpse.
My armour is badly battered by the Boreum bombardment, and I’m covered in nasty, bleeding cuts, so I’d rather not stay here much longer. It’s only thanks to the large amount of Lavi I absorb through my breathing that my net Lavi flow is positive again after I deactivate Boost Physical.
Not that I was in any real danger of running out; all in all, this fight didn’t take that long. I imagine they usually don’t though, whichever side wins, so I doubt there’ll be a reward for finishing this Trial quickly.
Firsts things first; after double-checking that Junior’s dead, I wrench my spear from its claw. The thieving bastard was still holding on, even in death.
Then I crawl under the edge of Junior’s shell, where his eyes popped out, and look for the prize I’m expecting.
Jackpot, another Medium Lavi Crystal!
I pry it loose with some effort, crawl out, and hold the crystal up in front of me.
Should I just eat this one too? I already have the largest Lavi Pool... then again, more health is never a bad thing, and I gained this entirely by myself.
[Well go on, Emma, what are you waiting for?]
I shrug and work it into my mouth. It flows down as a stream of Lavi as soon as I swallow, and explodes out into my meridians.
A glance at my Status Bar tells me my Lavi Pool grew to 112. Sweet!
Now I’d like to retrieve my bottle, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to get to it that easily.
On the other hand, I am kinda curious how hard this shell really is, and I can spare a little time.
I ram my spear into the shell and manage to chip a bit off. Encouraged, I reactivate Boost Physical and go at it at full power. Pretty soon, I’ve opened up a decent hole in the outer rim and am able to poke inside with my spear and retrieve my bottle.
There’s still a nice layer of Moonshade sap inside of it, but also a lot on the outside, so I gingerly screw the cap on and carefully rinse it off in the pool.
Some sap gets on my skin, but I calmly wash it off. It’s nothing my Toxic Energy Tolerance can’t handle.
After a last look around the arena, to see if I’ve missed anything, I head for the door.
Even if I wasn’t worried about bleeding out, and getting an ‘anaemic’ status effect, I would still choose to forego any extra training time and leave right now; I’m far too anxious about the rest to sit here and train.
The door rumbles open, and I limp through.
The Crystal of Restoration in my new single room is like a balm to my soul. I’d hardly even realized how much pain I was in before it started healing me.
The pop-up that comes next might actually feel even better though.
Aw yeah, that’s the stuff.
That brings my total to... 111 Trial Points! That’s enough to get Distort Space!
But first things first.
I carefully flop down on my bed, and, with some trepidation, ask, “Suri, how did the others fare?”
We all gave permission to have this information shared, so Suri is actually allowed to tell me this time.
[I take it that means you wish to start your five minutes?]
“Yeah yeah, just tell me.”
[Fine. No need to get agitated.]
Woman, I swear I will hurt you!
[The others in your little ‘group’ all passed their respective Trial before you did.]
Oh, thank god.
I sag down in relief, then frown.
Was that supposed to be a dig, ‘before you did’? Pssh, there was only one highest difficulty Trial, you know?
[Now, what else would you like to know?]
There are actually lots of questions I’m dying to ask, none of which will pass my lips anytime soon. After all, I’m not about to point out a lie of an entity that has a sort of access to my mind.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t ask some other difficult questions and see how she responds.
“Say, why do you never use objective meaning to explain things to me? Wouldn’t that be much easier? All you’d have to say is ‘Lavi, Qi, Charm,’ load it with meaning, and I’d understand it perfectly.”
[Doing that drains too many resources,] Suri chimes smoothly.
Right, the old resources line; that one’s definitely bull. I guess they don’t want to hand over a complete understanding of terms like that, in an effort to keep us in the dark?
I wonder what it is they’re trying to hide from us... figuring that out should perhaps really be a top priority, but how do we do that when we’re under constant surveillance?
Anyway, asking her directly like this obviously isn’t providing any useful answers, so let’s focus on more practical questions for now. Survival has to remain our first priority, after all.
“What can you tell me about Boreum?”
[Boreum is super-cooled Aether, which has some pretty interesting properties,] Suri chimes. [As you’ve no doubt noticed, it’s rather slow-moving in gas-form—quite the opposite of Astreum in that sense—but given the right impulse, it can instantaneously crystallize to form a short-lasting, but quite tough solid. It’s a lot more versatile than Astreum in that sense and can be utilised in a wide variety of manners. It can be used to form an impromptu weapon or barrier, to capture or slow down an opponent, or even practically, to create a utensil you’re lacking.]
It definitely sounds versatile! Kind of a shame that Boreum is so slow-moving in its gas form though, that would make it a lot less useful to my high-mobility fighting style.
Still, especially after witnessing Junior’s technique of combining pressurized breath with bubbles of crystallized Boreum, I can see how creative it’s possible to get with that stuff.
Manipulate Boreum just moved quite a bit higher on my list of Skills to gain.
One problem I really did encounter this last Trial, however, was my lacking Qi Pool. And that’s with only two Qi-based Skills.
“Suri, aren’t there any good methods to drastically increase the size of my Qi Pool, or replenish Qi mid-battle, without swallowing expensive Qi Pearls?”
[Ah, now there’s a good question,] Suri chimes. [Well, for the former, I’m afraid you’re not going to easily find a more effective method to grow your Qi Pool than the kind of tempering method you applied with the Stardrop. As for the latter... that’s classified.]
I practically jump up. “What?! You’re giving me all that build-up, and then nothing? Come on, don’t leave me hanging here, Suri!”
Suri’s laugh is clear and high, like the chiming of a bell. [All right, no need to get worked up. I’ll give you a hint: you’ll need to reach 50% Toxic Energy Tolerance first.]
I blink and sit back down. “Does it have to be Toxic Energy?”
[No. It just seems like the obvious choice for you. I really can’t tell you more than this.]
Mmm, Suri mentioned there being support type Skills that would come available when I reached 50% Tolerance in an energy type, maybe it’s one of those that she’s talking about.
I definitely need to get my Toxic Energy Tolerance to 50% sometime soon. In order to do that though, I’ll need time and resources.
“Suri, what’s next after this? Another Trial, or...” I trail off hopefully.
[Next up is Hub Three,] Suri chimes, confirming my suspicion.
Now I just have one more all-important question.
“Suri, what was that crab’s name?”
[Hmm? Oh, it was called Snibby.]
Of course it was.
The mood in our living room is festive, to say the least, and my entrance is met with loud cheers.
Though it can’t have been more than 30 minutes since we’ve last seen one another, I still get hugged like it’s been weeks or months.
We quickly settle down on the couches and start to share our experiences.
Dave faced a version of the axolotl-like urudo. This one was less transparent than the ones we encountered during the Fifth Trial, more white, with blue accents. It was also a lot bigger, and its lightning far more potent.
Luckily, like my own, his battle was on land, which significantly reduced the urudo’s mobility and the lethality of its lightning attacks. Dave simply kept his distance, started off by hitting it with an Astreum Blast, and then fired Moonshade arrows at it until it collapsed. He did get zapped a couple of times, which burned a bunch of his Lavi, but all in all, it was quite doable, he claims.
Kaitlynn, Alec, and Jacob each faced a larger, crimson-armour-plated version of the krah, which sent out powerful shockwaves of Vibration Energy with its pistol-like claw.
The armour plating definitely increased the difficulty quite a bit, but again, their battle was on land.
Alec used his new and improved aim through Aether to zap-and-stab his krah several times, until it succumbed to its wounds. Jacob impaired his krah by launching his shiny new spear with Increase Momentum and a Toxic payload, and went in to finish the thing in close combat.
Kaitlynn started the fight by straight-up blasting her krah’s larger claw off its torso with her Mega Astreum Blast. She then started chucking knives at it, but its armour proved too thick, so she opted to swallow her pearl and destroy part of its armour with a second blast. After that, her knives made quick work of it.
All four of them got a Minor Lavi Crystal off their prey. Before I get a chance to tell my own story, an argument erupts about what to do with them.
Jacob holds up his. “I think the ones who still have their pearl should buy Stardrops and swallow the whole lot down.”
Alec winces. “Is that really necessary?”
I hesitate. “Before, I would’ve agreed wholeheartedly with Jacob, but having a Qi Pearl as emergency Qi supply is too powerful a strategy.”
Jacob frowns. “But eating the Minor Lavi Crystals like this is kind of a waste, isn’t it? Actually, so is using Qi Pearls like that, in the long run.”
Dave hums. “You both make valid points. Why don’t we keep both the pearls and the Lavi Crystals as emergency supplies for now? If we need them, we use them, if we don’t, maybe we can buy or find Stardrops in the future.”
That does seem to be the best strategy, so we’re soon agreed. Then it’s time for me to tell my tale, which takes a little longer. When I’m finished, it’s quiet for a moment.
Kaitlynn scrunches up her nose cutely. “Snibby?”
“Their naming sense is really off,” Jacob agrees, shaking his head. “Shut up, Pseudo.”
“Really?” I ask dryly. “This is your main takeaway?”
They both laugh.
Dave chuckles. “Well, I for one am just glad you made it through. And that I didn’t have to face that thing, because I don’t see how I might’ve killed it.”
“Ugh, yeah,” Alec adds, shaking his head. “A giant crab that’s hiding in a thick shell, and is capable of throwing up barriers of solid, frozen Aether? That’s just not fair.”
“I think it’s amazing, the things you pull off,” Kaitlynn says, smiling at me. “Sometimes, I feel like you could do anything you set your mind to.”
A strange heat blossoms in my cheeks as I find myself staring at her for a moment, caught off-guard by the seeming sincerity of her words.
Dave breaks the moment by clearing his throat. “You’re not wrong Kaitlynn, but I daresay we’ve all done things to be proud off over the last couple of days, and grown because of it. As individuals, and as a team.”
“Hell yeah!” Alec exclaims. “We make an awesome team. Heck, we should name ourselves something cool!”
I groan. “Do we have to?”
Dave shrugs. “A shared sense of identity can be a powerful thing. A little team-spirit might go a long way.”
“How about Voice of the Machine?” Alec says quickly.
I raise a brow at him. “How does that make any sense?”
“It’s a reference to—” Alec frowns. “Oh right, it probably sounds like English to you, since I know what it means. It sounds cooler in Latin though... you know what, nevermind, it won’t work like this.”
“Emma already has a title,” Kaitlynn reminds them wholly unnecessarily with a shit-eating grin. “Should we do something with that?”
“Ehm, if we’re really picking a name, it should be a teamname,” I quickly interject. “Not just, like, Toxic and the Dragonettes.”
“I’d listen to that band,” Jacob jokes. “But only ironically, of course.”
“It should be something that connects us,” Dave says. “And something that sets us apart, ideally.”
“Well, I think the thing that sets us apart is quite obvious,” Jacob remarks, tapping the admittedly gorgeous cuirass of scaled blue leather he’s still wearing.
“Ooh, that’s right!” Alec exclaims. “We should call ourselves the Trigots!”
I scrunch my nose up at Kaitlynn. She giggles.
Even Dave shakes his head. “Kinda lame, dude.”
Alec crosses his arms over his chest with a huff. “Well I’m not hearing a lot of suggestions!”
“Well, I wasn’t done yet,” Jacob continues. “I was thinking we could combine that with a bit of Emma’s title,” Jacob suggests with a wink at me, “and call ourselves The Blue Dragons.”
Kaitlynn perks up. “Ooh, I like that.”
Dave nods. “Dude, nice.”
Alec shoots Jacob a thumbs up with a huge grin. “Aw man, you come up with the best names!”
They turn to me.
I roll my eyes. “Fine, if we must have a name... The Blue Dragons wouldn’t be the worst.”
Thankfully, the conversation soon turns to a more productive topic, namely the questions we asked during our 5 minutes, and particularly, about the next Hub. Problem is, there’s not much to say if you don’t know anything.
“Even Kai was pretty tight-lipped about it, I’m afraid,” Kaitlynn says helplessly, shooting down our last hope.
A short silence follows, which is ultimately broken by Dave’s sonorous baritone. “I have a theory. I think the Trials that lead up to a Hub are meant to prepare us for it.”
“Really?” Alec asks. “I always felt they were pretty random...”
“No, he’s got a point,” Jacob says and gets up to pace. “The First Trial was about differentiating different kinds of plants and dealing with Toxic Energy in the Aether, and then we had to get the Stardrop from the centre of the Moonshade Glade. The Second Trial was about the different gravity and prepared us for climbing the trees and overcoming the Yin-Yang temple!”
“The Third Trial doesn’t really seem that relevant though,” I muse. “I guess you could consider it preparation for Qi-based Skills.”
“That, and dealing with the jungle heat, perhaps,” Dave adds. “If the pattern holds, Hub Three will likely be some kind of Hydrum stage. Maybe there’ll be a big lake in the centre or something...”
“Or the whole Hub will be underhydrum,” I suggest dryly. “Also, there will probably be froggos or some other kind of unfriendlies in or around the Hydrum.”
“Well, sounds like we’ll have to get our clothes wet a couple more times,” Jacob says with a sigh. “Nothing new, I suppose. Considering we’ve got little miss mermaid here, I think we’ll be fine.”
He winks at me, and I snort.
Kaitlynn clears her throat. “Anyway, ehm, those Boreum bubbles sounded pretty dangerous too. Are you thinking of taking Boreum Manipulation to try and replicate those, Emma?”
I purse my lips. “Not right now; I want to take Distort Space. I’ll blow through nearly all of my points buying the Skilldream, but I feel like if we’re ever going to find a way home, it’s likely going to require a good deal of understanding of how space works in this realm, so I’m itching to get started.”
Also, in the short-to-medium term, it seems like the likeliest Skill to offer a potential escape from this deathtrap of a ‘survival training camp.’ But I obviously can’t say that out loud.
Dave blinks. “That’s some long-term thinking right there. Well, I suppose we can afford to think ahead a little. I doubt there’s going to be many who performed as well in these Trials as we did.”
Alec scratches his head. “Since we’re talking Skilldreams... do you guys think I should get Boreum Manipulation?”
Dave glances at him in bafflement and says what we’re probably all thinking. “What? No dude; you need to get Regeneration.”
“Exactly,” I drawl. “And actually, if Dave’s theory is right and Hub Three is a Hydrum stage, that would make Boreum Manipulation a lot less useful.”
Alec shrugs helplessly. “It still sounds pretty awesome. More importantly, though, I only have 61 points, and the full Skilldream of Regeneration costs 75. I really doubt half a Skilldream is going to cut it in this case, and we’re about to enter a Hub. It’s going to take ages before we can spend our points again, and if people find out I’m walking around with 61 Trial Points...”
Kaitlynn's eyes widen. “You think people would hunt you down for your points?! But, I mean, even if they might—”
“They would,” Jacob interjects grimly.
“—there’s no way for people to know how many points you have, right?” Kaitlynn finishes stubbornly.
Dave shakes his head. “No, he’s right. First of all, we’d know, and the more people who know a secret, the less secure it is. Second of all, the rules might be different in this Hub. For all we know, the totals will be displayed above our heads or something.”
Damn. He’s not wrong, but if Alec doesn’t get the Skill soon it’ll take ages before he gets his eye back, and thus his depth perception. If only...
My eyes light up. “We can donate points!”
Jacob glances at me in surprise. “Really? That’s allowed?”
I nod. “Yeah, it just comes with a fee: an additional 50% of the points you wish to donate. But this seems like a worthwhile occasion. I’ll have 11 points left after I take my Skilldream, so I could spend 9 to donate 6.”
Alec looks at me—I think—with a surprised and moved expression.
Dave hums. “That would bring his total to 67. He’d need 8 more points, which would cost 12 to donate. I have 33 Trial Points, and I was thinking of taking the Skilldream for the second level of Amplify, which will cost me 30 Trial Points, so I could only spare 3 points to donate 2.”
“What does the second level of Amplify do?” I can’t help but ask.
“The first level allows me to amplify my voice, so it’s not that useful,” Dave explains. “The second level, however, will allow me to amplify vibrations in objects I’m holding. Essentially, I can use it to impart Vibration Energy into a weapon or projectile, like my arrows.”
Ooh, sounds pretty cool. Would perhaps be more useful in close combat, but still...
“I’d also very much like to attempt to gain Breath Control,” he adds, glancing at me, “so I plan to hit you up for tips later.”
I nod. Sounds like a solid plan. Though it’ll never be as fun as helping Kaitlynn was.
“I’ve got 55 points,” Kaitlynn pipes up, “I actually want to take a page from Emma’s playbook and mainly focus on practising the Skills I have to improve their utility. Therefore, I plan to just take something simple—maybe just a 30 TP Skilldream for the next level of Heat Vision—and buy a new Yang Qi Pearl to replace the one I ate, so I can definitely chip in 9 points to get him the last 6 he needs.”
“You guys...” Alec starts. His head swivels around in a way that suggests to me that he’s looking at us one at a time. “Thank you.”
Jacob shuffles awkwardly with his feet, a complicated expression on his face.
Guilt? Feeling left out? Well, no matter. This is a time for levity, not this mushy crap.
“It’s all right,” I warmly tell Alec. “I consider this an investment in gaining Regeneration in the future, anyway. You can start paying us back right away by teaching us about Meditation level 3, right Dave?”
Dave nods eagerly. “Yes please!”
I can’t help but crack up over the face Alec makes in response. That Dave subsequently decides that this tips the score to fifteen to two, is a small price to pay.
It’s good to be alive.
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