The roar increases in intensity as we near the exit of the cave.
Bright light shines in from outside, forcing me to squint as we float closer. Looks like we’re approaching Hub Three at last.
Too bad the exit has to be a Hydrumfall.
The hull of the kayak begins to vibrate, resonating with the increasingly intense roar as we draw closer and closer to the inevitable plunge.
“What’s the plan, guys?” Jacob calls over the noise.
I raise a brow at Dave, asking a silent question through objective meaning. He blinks, then nods.
“Abandon the kayaks and get some distance from them,” I shout back. “They’re too tough to safely ride down something like this.”
Kaitlynn turns around with a frown. “What if there’s rocks at the bottom?”
I shrug. “Then the kayaks wouldn’t save us.”
“What about our stuff?” Jacob calls.
“Anything we lose we can hopefully dive up,” I reply. “Actually, we should all dive right away, to make our entry smoother. It’ll be just like when we entered the Fifth Trial.”
Alec stands up with a big grin and adds, “Sounds good to me; it’s not like we can drown anyway!” Then he jumps overboard.
The rest of us follow suit and dive down.
<This way, guys,> Dave sends when we’re all in. We swim after him to the side, away from the kayaks a little, and spread out.
There’s not much more we can do to prepare for the inevitable plunge. Soon enough we drift over the edge.
My stomach drops as the Hydrum pulls me down with it, but the fall lasts surprisingly short.
The flow beneath the Hydrumfall is chaotic. I tumble around a little, but soon form a tail and sweep out to check for danger and sinking gear.
I catch sight of a bag that’s drifting down and a sword that’s rapidly sinking. Jacob’s.
The Hydrum is surprisingly deep, 200 feet or so, with what looks like sand and rocks on the bottom. It also stretches out around us as far as I can see on all sides, except for where we came from. That way is a grey wall.
I quickly swoop down for the sword, and grab the bag on my way back up to where the kayaks are floating.
Because I had to go down first, I’m the last one to surface. The moment I do, a window pops up in front of me.
I ignore it for a moment, in favour of putting the stuff I grabbed into a kayak and climbing back in with Kaitlynn’s help.
Only once I’m safely seated do I take a good look at it.
I let out a low whistle. “45%? They’re not making this easy.” Though truth be told, my Toxic Energy Tolerance is already pretty close.
Dave shrugs. “I’m sure they’ll provide us with some way to achieve it. Looks like we’re not the last ones here at least.”
“Speaking of other people, someone’s coming,” Jacob warns us.
Up ahead, a kayak is indeed making its way over to us.
“Ahoy there!” a familiar voice greets me from the front.
I squint at the kayak. Damn. Who is that again?
A few minutes later, I find myself being grinned at by a bottle-blond enforcer in black leather armour that covers up the tattoos on her arms.
“Hey guys!” she exclaims. “My name is Lily—in case you forgot—and I’ll be your Hub Three greeter today!”
Right! Lily. I knew that.
I smile at her. “So, they gave you a sucky job again?”
She shrugs. “We take shifts. This job is mostly fishing anyway. You guys are the first ones I’ve actually greeted.”
I nod. “Who’s your friend?”
Sitting behind Lily in the kayak is a guy with long brown hair and an angular, forgettable face. Even his eye-crystal—a slightly paler shade of blue than his eye—looks unremarkable.
The only reason he stands out in this situation really is that he’s not wearing the black I’ve come to expect from council enforcers. Instead, he’s clad in what appears to be the remnants of a green and yellow costume, reinforced in strategic places with pieces of brown leather armour.
He casually casts out his fishing line again, but I can tell he’s watching us carefully from the corner of his eye.
“That’s just Onni,” Lily says. “We work together. Now, let me give you the rundown of this place. First of all, don’t go near the big island in the centre of the Hub. It’s a Hoig stronghold, and there’s a shit-ton of the suckers. Don’t get too close to the six corners of the Hub without ample preparation either, cause they’re each filled with a different kind of deadly creature. There’s a ring of medium-sized islands around the big central island which each have a Hoig village on it, and a ring of smaller islands around that which are mostly uninhabited.”
A froggo stronghold? That’s new.
“Aren’t you going to tell us to stay away from the villages either?” Jacob asks.
“Well, the villages aren’t that big,” Lily explains. “We—as in the advanced force of the council—actually took over one of the medium-sized islands recently, and part of my job is to urge you to come visit and register.”
“We’ll consider it,” I say. “Is that all you’re here to tell us?”
She shakes her head. “That’s the basics, but I can give you a little more. To your right, the Hydrum gets warmer, and the three types of creatures that live in the three corners to the right each use a different type of Yang energy. To the left, it gets colder, and there’s creatures using three types of Yin energy. The creatures generally come in three sizes: regular, large, and huge. The large ones have seem to have grown small Energy Crystals, and the huge ones medium Energy Crystals. Furthermore, the Hoig stronghold sometimes sends out raiding parties to hunt the bigger ones for their meat and crystals.”
“They really like their crystals, huh?” Alec mutters.
“These are big raiding parties,” Lily adds. “Don’t get in their way. I heard some guy from the first team—as in the team that took the first door—got caught up in one and died. Actually, that’s one of the reasons to register with the council here; we keep an eye on the stronghold from our island and give out an early warning when a raid is gathering.”
“Like I said. We’ll think about it,” I reply, before turning my attention back to Onni. “Why aren’t you in black? Not an enforcer?”
He glances at me. “No. I’m not.”
“Then why come greet us?” I ask.
He snorts. “Trust me, I’m asking myself the same thing.”
Lily rolls her eyes. “It’s fine, Onni. There’s lots of friendly people among the participants, we’re not going to be attacked.”
“That remains to be seen,” he says, his words clipped. “Regardless, we’re wasting time. We should be out hunting near one of the corners, or diving up cockles or something.”
Well well, this is getting interesting. So there are cockles here, meaning there are Qi Pearls?
Dave clears his throat. “Now, this may be a dumb question, but if you’re so keen on not being here, why are you here?”
Onni raises a brow at Lily that says, ‘Go on then. This is your job, not mine.’
I mean, it literally says that. Thanks to objective meaning.
She sighs and glances around at us. “Yeah, about that... you guys are not going to like this. When you get to the exits in the wall on the opposite side of the Hub for the first time, you receive a notification.”
My stomach tightens, an eerie premonition of what she’s about to say rising in the back of my mind.
“In order to enter one of the doors to the Seventh Trial,” she continues. “You need to reach level 3 and, well, form a team of two participants.”
Those friggin’ bastards. I knew something was up when we got those friggin’ kayaks.
“Not up to two?” Dave asks, his expression dark.
Lily shakes her head. “Nope. Exactly two.”
An uncomfortable silence settles over us. I fight the urge to glance at Jacob, but I don’t have to, because I can hear him grinding his teeth from here.
I sigh. We’ll have to deal with that later, we still need to win information right now. “How many doors leading to the Seventh Trial are there in total?”
“Twelve,” Lily replies. “So at least we probably don’t have to worry about there being a surplus of participants in this hub.”
Twelve doors equal twenty-four people at most, while thirty left Hub Two. Of course, I doubt everybody makes it here... If at least six don’t make it, there will be enough doors for everyone.
“So,” Dave says, turning back to Onni. “I take it you were the fifth wheel?”
“Third wheel, actually,” Onni corrects Dave, before casting out his line again. “I was in the second team. We had a guy with a bit of hero complex who sacrificed himself at the end of the Fifth Trial, gave us time to pass the guardian. A jackass then went on to negate the precious gift of life he’d received by insisting he take the most dangerous door to the Sixth Trial. Therefore, only three of us came out, and the other two promptly saw me off when they found out we needed to form teams of two.”
I nod. That’s already two people out of the six that have to not make it. “Sucks. Do you guys know of any other people looking for a partner currently?”
Lily smiles wanly. “Not at the moment, no. The first team had three survivors as well, but like I said, one of them died in a Hoig raid. The third team—that I was a part of—managed to make it through in its entirety, and we took in Onni.”
Five people dead already then.
Onni rolls his eyes. “As far as I’m concerned, we are a team, Lily. I trust the rest of the council’s team about as far as I can throw them, except for the Lightning Witch.”
Lily looks at him oddly. “You trust the Lightning Witch more than the rest?”
He shakes his head. “I trust her less. Plus, she doesn’t look that heavy, so I could probably throw her a fair distance.”
Lily snorts and shakes her head at him.
“Who’s this Lightning Witch?” Alec asks.
“Ah, that’s the council’s treasurer, Dominique,” Lily explains. “As the only elected councilmember present, she’s in charge here. I’m not sure who came up with the nickname, but it stuck. It fits her too, she’s... a force of nature.”
“That’s one way to put it,” Onni mumbles.
“Anyway,” Lily continues, ignoring him, “you guys are the fourth team to arrive. There’s two more teams on the way, so hopefully once one of those arrives you’ll be able to find a sixth member. Of course, if you register with the council, we can help you play matchmaker.”
I glance at Dave and cast a tether towards him. <What do you think?>
<They proved trustworthy in Hub Two,> comes the immediate reply.
<That was with Rebecca in charge though, we don’t know Dominique,> I counter. <And this Onni guy seems to think she can’t be trusted.>
He shrugs. <We really need to find a sixth member, though. Sounds like the benefits still outweigh the risks.>
“Fine,” I say finally. “Show us which island you guys grabbed on the map please. We’ll stop by as soon as we’re settled in.”
Probably. I decide not to cross my fingers behind my back, in case they notice. Objective meaning is a bitch.
“Oh, and while you’re at it,” Dave adds, “please indicate what creatures live in what corners...”
After saying goodbye, we head for one of the small islands in the distance. Beyond it, I can vaguely make out the shape of the main island containing the Froggo stronghold.
Hub Three seems to be several times the size of Hub Two, which, come to think of it, was already several times the size of Hub One. If there’s a Hub Four and the trend continues, we’re going to need a bigger boat. Or a car, depending on the terrain.
I lose myself in the rhythm of the paddle for a while and allow my mind to wander.
After several minutes, Kaitlynn glances back. <Emma, we need to slow down a little,> she sends.
I follow her gaze to find Jacob a fair distance behind us.
I sigh and rest my paddle for a bit. Alec and Dave draw up beside us and follow suit.
Jacob eventually catches up with clenched jaws and a red face. He jams his paddle into the water and shoves it back, pushing past us.
“Hey, Jacob,” I call out. “Switch with me. I’m afraid Kaitlynn may have cooties.”
“Do not!” she exclaims, before sticking out her tongue to blow a raspberry at me.
He ignores me and keeps paddling.
I frown at his back. I really want to set off after him, but the truth is, I don’t know what to say.
‘Hey Jacob, sorry you’re the odd one out, dude.’
‘Hey man, just because we’ve kind of already formed two pairs for the next Trial by unspoken agreement, doesn’t mean we don’t like you or anything.’
Still, I feel I need to say something, so I square my shoulder and plunge my paddle in the Hydrum.
<Maybe we should let him cool off a bit first,> Dave suggests telepathically.
I glance over at him. He smiles wryly. I glance back at Jacob’s tense back and sigh.
Perhaps that would be best. At the very least, it’ll give me some time to figure out what to say.
We set off after him, towards a small island, but keep a little distance.
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