• H.C. Mills

Chapter 83: Up the creek

I bluster my way through a lie about the bruising being the result of a training mishap with Distort Space and quickly change the topic to what the rest has been up to.

First of all, Alec took his seven-and-a-half-hour Skilldream for Regeneration and gained the Skill.

His excitement about it is tempered a little when I ask for a demonstration.

“Come on, dude,” Dave encourages him. “You’re going to practise it anyway; that’s not going to be very different.”

Alec groans, but takes out a sharp blade of rock and holds it against his lower arm. “I really hate you guys, you know?”

“Yeah, yeah, we love you too,” Jacob grumbles. “Get on with it.”

Was that a confession? I shake my head to clear the mental images that just popped up. Focus, Emma!

Alec closes his eyes with a grimace and lets out a muffled grunt as he drags the edge of the rock across his skin, leaving behind a shallow cut, several inches in length.

“Glorb, that smarts,” Alec swears.

I ignore his foul mouth as the flakes of Lavi underneath his skin burst into action. I can’t detect any pattern in the chaotic dance they perform around the cut. A lot of movement is all that seems to happen, as Lavi streams in from the surrounding tissue, and causes the underlying tissue to visibly start to Regenerate. In mere seconds, the cut closes up and scabs over. A few seconds more, and the scab flakes away, leaving behind what appears to be unmarred skin, in the same light-bluish tint of the rest of Alec’s skin.

Alec puts the blade of rock away. “There, happy?”

“Not really,” Dave admits with a frown. “I can tell the way the first level works is pretty simple; it just speeds up your natural regeneration, much like Restore, but I have no clue how you do it.”

“It’s a kind of signal,” Alec starts. “A feeling I send over the Lavi Flows. I’m afraid I wouldn’t know how to describe it.”

Tch. Looks like we won’t just be able to learn it by studying it like this.

The topic soon shifts to the exploits of the rest. Jacob practised Respiration and his Qi Skills, while Dave took his Skilldream for the second level of Amplify today and managed to level the Skill up. Kaitlynn took her Skilldream for the second level of Heat Vision, bought a Yang pearl to replace the one she used during the Sixth Trial, and continued to practise inhaling Astreum.

Man, I’m losing track of who has what Skills. Ugh, I guess it’s time for that again. Let’s save it for tomorrow, I need to prepare myself mentally.

Alec is the first one to yawn, but it quickly sets off the rest.

<Hey, Emma,> Kaitlynn sends, startling me. She fidgets next to me on the couch a little while a blush creeps up the silvery pale skin of her neck, before she continues. <You wanna, ehm, find an excuse to sneak off into a single room for the night?>

My heart skips a beat because I do. I really do. I also really shouldn’t. This girl will be the death of me.

I feel like a deer caught in the headlights and can only hope she can’t read it off my face. Stupid objective meaning in this stupid realm.

<I don’t think that’s a good idea,> I eventually manage to send back. <We need to be well-rested for tomorrow.>

The way her soft lower lip juts out in disappointment almost makes me reconsider. No, stop that, bad Emma!

<I guess you’re right,> she sends with a sigh. <Why’d you have to pick now of all times to act responsible?>

Despite myself, I snort.

<I don’t take risks with your life, Kait,> I send back.

The smile that blooms up on her face melts away all my troubles, for a brief moment.

Oh, man. I’m in trouble.

We all go to sleep on the couch. I have never been this conscious of the pressure of Kaitlynn’s head on my stomach.

When I finally remember to check my pocket again for the little Rubik’s cube, I find it missing.

Despite what I said about needing a good night’s sleep, I lay awake for a long time.

The next morning, as I wash up in the little bathroom attached to my room, a thought occurs.

I frown. “Suri, why didn’t the Crystal of Restoration clear up that bruise?”

[Well, I thought you might want to keep it, with it being a love-mark and all.]

“It’s not—” I cut myself off with a sigh and walk out of the bathroom to stand under the crystal in question. “Can I have it healed now, please?”

[Very well.]

Streams of pink light burst out of the Crystal to land on my neck. A tingling sensation tells me it’s doing its job. Curious, I walk over to the mirror and observe how the Lavi beneath my skin is agitated and starts zooming around, causing the bruising to quickly fade away.

Kind of scary how much control Suri has over the Crystal of Restoration. Even if I can’t trust her, I better not piss her off.

Once the bruising is all gone, I join the rest in the living room.

“All right, gang,” I say with a sigh. “I think I’m ready. Did you guys give permission?”

They all nod.

“Here goes,” I solemnly intone, before taking a deep breath. “Suri, could you show us all ‘Suri’s Mega-Amazing Ridiculously-Custom, Still Colour-Coded, Natural Growth and Gains from Consumables Results Window and Skill Overview,’ please?”

[Of course, dear.]

Oof, this thing is getting big. Well, I suppose that’s really a good thing. Man, we have a lot of Skills.

Dave frowns. “Mmm, looks like I’ve gained the least amount of stats out of all of us.”

Jacob smiles wryly. “Well, that may be so, but in total Skill levels you’re still far ahead of most of us.”

Dave squints at the table. “Am I? Let’s see, you’ve got 8 levels in total, Kaitlynn’s got 11, Alec’s got 10, I’ve got 14, and Emma has... 16. Wow.”

Alec blinks at the table. “Wait what? How are you counting? She doesn’t have that many...”

Kaitlynn shakes her head. “He added the levels of Respiration that come before Breath Control.”

Alec’s eye-crystal widens. “Oh shit, you’re right.”

Dave shrugs. “Well, I may have more Skill levels, but Alec and Jacob each have a high-grade Skill.”

“Emma does though,” Kaitlynn mutters with a glint in her eye. “She even has a top-grade Skill.”

“All right, guys, let’s stay focused. It’s not a competition,” I say, shaking my head. Though if it were, I’d be winning. “The overview is meant to help us cooperate better. For example, when you need a tutor to help you learn a Skill, you’ll know who to ask, but also in combat, when we need to improvise.”

We study it for a while, silently memorizing the relevant details. Eventually, we move on to the next part of our preparations: taking inventory.

In terms of food, we’re running low on trigot meat and are pretty much out of seafood. We still have about half our jicca nuts and birberries left, because we packed a lot of those back in Hub Two.

We’re currently all still wearing the blue leather armour Alec made for us, and except for him, we’re also still wielding the original greysteel weapons we bought. Alec is, of course, wielding the trident instead. Since it was rather easy to retrieve ammo after the last Trial, Dave still has a full quiver and Kaitlynn a full pouch of throwing knives.

In terms of crystals and pearls, first of all, we have a bunch that we’re keeping around as emergency refills for our Lavi and Qi pools. To be precise, we’ve got four Minor Lavi Crystals that we won during the Sixth Trial, and since Kaitlynn replaced the one she used, we also still each have a Small Qi Pearl of our affinity.

Other than that, we have some spare Focus Crystals, one medium-sized Yang Focus Crystal, and a bunch of small energy crystals, namely: two Heat Crystals, two Vibration Crystals, two Lightning Crystals, a Toxic Energy Crystal, and a Radiation Crystal. Finally, we have a single medium-sized Heat Crystal.

From my personal collection, all of the ground Dreamcloud pollen has unfortunately either been used up or washed away, and what was returned of the Moonshade sap that I doled out, is only about half a pint. However, I do still have a blowpipe and about 20 darts that I pried out of Bubbles after the Fifth Trial.

Finally, there’s Kaitlynn’s collection of interesting plants. Our Yang Fire-Blossoms have dwindled to five, but we still have all six Blue Angels. There’s also the restorative Heartbeet that was made mostly redundant when Dave added the Restore Purpose to his Radiate Skill, and last but not least, the mysterious Carriage of Dreams.

I eye the hot-pink, yellow-dotted mushroom wistfully. I could really use a good high right now. Suri’s such a party-pooper. ‘You could get lost in the Dreamscape it forms, Emma.’ Like there’s anything here that isn’t dangerous.

Once we’re done going over all of our stuff, we pack it all back up and face the exit together.

The large, single door grinds up into the ceiling, revealing a small stone chamber.

Three two-person kayaks carved from wood are lined up next to each other on the floor.

Huh. Not what I was expecting.

There doesn’t seem to be another exit, but there’s a greysteel lever on one side of the room, next to one of the kayaks.

Oh boy.

“I’m with Emma!” Kaitlynn quickly says before dragging me by the arm to the kayak next to the lever. Like the weakling I am, I can’t bring myself to deny her.

Jacob closes his opened mouth.

Alec glances at Dave, “You wanna grab the middle one?”

“Sure, dude,” Dave says, and they begin loading their stuff inside.

Jacob sighs, and walks to the remaining kayak.

I glance over and catch the look on his face. Ouch.

“Don’t worry Jacob,” I say. “We’ll switch around if there’s a lot of paddling to come.”

He shoots me a hard to read look, then nods. Some of the tension leaves his shoulders.

After stowing my bag, I climb into the low seat in the back with unexpected grace. Yay for high Agility!

I replace one of the two double-ended paddles lining the side of the kayak, with my spear, and place the paddle over my lap.

I’ll swear to anyone who asks that it’s a complete coincidence when it smacks Alec in the knee.

Although I may just cross my fingers behind my back while I do so.

Once Alec is done hopping and cursing and everyone’s seated and waiting, I nervously pull the lever.

The floor swings down. All of a sudden, we’re free-falling and at least two of us scream like a girl.

Alec and Kaitlynn, to be precise.

The kayaks drop at least 10 feet before it lands in a roaring stream of Hydrum.

We lurch forward, dragged along by the stream. It swerves through a low tunnel, that twists left and right a couple of times before it feeds into a much larger stream in a far bigger tunnel.

Our kayaks spill out one by one and are dragged along further. At first, I do little more than try to keep us stable in the water, but a little farther up ahead there are some large rocks in the stream.

“Kaitlynn, paddle left!” I yell. “The other left!”

“Oh, sorry!” she calls back, before switching sides.

I paddle left as well, and once we’re turned far enough to the right, we begin alternating strokes and shoot forward.

Our cooperation is a bit clumsy at first, with paddles occasionally clashing against each other, but we soon get the hang of it.

Frankly, it’s probably not as dangerous as I thought at first glance; these kayaks seem pretty solid. Not surprising, with the Toughness of trees in this realm.

Also, I could quite simply turn the mantle of controlled breaths I keep behind me into an airbag to soften the blow if we do threaten to smack into one of the rocks.

However, Jacob appears to be struggling. The kayaks are quite heavy, and though he’s a strong kid, he doesn’t seem too well-versed in paddling.

The second time I glance back, my eyes widen as Jacob’s kayak is about to hit a rock. Then I spot a flash of yellow, and his vessel abruptly lurches to the side.

I heave a sigh of relief and turn back to the front.

He can handle himself.

By this time, Alec and Dave have pulled back up to Kaitlynn and me. The next stretch of tunnel appears quite safe, so Alec, like the little kid he is, purposely splashes some Hydrum my way.

Kaitlynn becomes collateral damage, shrieking when some of it unexpectedly hits her from the side.

“Oh no you didn’t!” she yells, before quickly retaliating.

I take another glance at the tunnel ahead of us. It’s gotten a little wider, so the Hydrum flows a little slower now, and there are hardly any rocks breaching the surface.

Judging it safe, I lean overboard and put my lips to the Hydrum.

I inhale, then come back up with lungs full of Hydrum, and send Alec a predatory smile.

His eyes widen, and he begins to paddle like his life depends on it. “We gotta go faster, Dave, that crazy woman turned herself into a living super-soaker!”

“Hey, don’t drag me into this,” Dave says, holding up his hands innocently. “You started this fight.”

I exhale, using Breath Control to send the Hydrum flying in a nice long arc, and douse both of them.

Kaitlynn goes into a fit of laughter. “Oh my god, Emma’s a Squirtle!”

Alec looks at her, grossed out. “Eeew, TMI, you guys!”

I freeze up. Kaitlynn just starts laughing even harder.

“She said Squirtle, ya dingus!” I finally manage to bring out.

Does he know? Did he notice how close we were dancing before we left for Kaitlynn’s room together or something like that? How close were we dancing?! Ugh, keep it together, Emma...

Jacob finally catches up to us and plants his kayak between ours. “All right, children,” he grunts. “Let’s focus on getting out of here in one piece again plea—”

Naturally, we hose him from both sides.

Pretty soon after that, however, a familiar roar builds up in the distance. The roar of a Hydrumfall.

Looks like playtime is over.

Author's Note:

Thanks for reading! ^^

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