The island is, frankly, idyllic. The majority of its surface is covered by a copse of small trees, around which lies a more or less oval beach, gently besieged by cresting waves.
Jacob doesn’t seem very appreciative, however, considering the brusque way he drags his kayak onto the pristine white sand.
We moor ours as well, while Jacob grabs his stuff from his kayak
Walking up to him, I clear my throat. “Hey—”
“We should explore,” he says, before stalking off into the green with sword and shield raised.
I glance back at Dave. He shrugs.
Sighing internally, I walk back to grab my spear, before Jacob is out of sight.
Thankfully, it appears Lily was speaking the truth and the island is indeed uninhabited.
The hollowed-out bottom of a particularly thick tree offers a rudimentary shelter, so we store our gear underneath it.
There’s also a bit of firewood around, and even some Fire-Blossoms, so we should be good to cook.
There aren’t any jicca trees though. No birbushes either, even though the Hydrum surrounding our island appears perfectly drinkable. Perhaps they only grow in streams.
“We need a new source of food,” Jacob concludes. He seems a little less agitated, but he still studiously avoids making eye-contact.
“Ooh, Dave, you wanna help me try to whip up a fishing pole?” Alec says.
Jacob’s jaw clenches. “I’ll look around the island some more, see what I can find.” And he stomps off.
I roll my eyes. “Nice going, Alec.”
He blinks. “Ehm, whoops?”
I shake my head. What’s done is done.
“I was thinking of going diving for cockles,” I say. “I heard that Onni guy mention it, and I bet there’s pearls to be found.”
Dave nods. “Sounds like a good plan. We can all use additional Qi reserves.”
I turn to Kaitlynn. “You coming with me?”
My heart skips a beat when her face lights up. Damnit, Emma, get it together.
We grab our weapons and head to the beach.
Soon enough we reach the kayaks, but we ignore them and keep walking. As we wade into the Hydrum, however, Kaitlynn comes to a halt. “Ehm, you know I’m never going to be able to keep up with your swim speed, right?”
“Actually, that’s the reason I asked you along,” I say with a wink. “You’ve got Breath Control now, and we’re in a Hub full of Hydrum. I think it’s high time you learned how to swim like a mermaid.”
A smile lights up her face, then her expression shifts to mischievous, and she sidles up to me, a slight blush creeping up her cheeks. “I hope that’s not the only reason you asked me along...”
Butterflies erupt in my stomach when she shyly laces her fingers through mine. I swallow thickly. “Well, don’t tell the others, but...” I lower my voice conspiratorially. “You’re actually my favourite.”
She giggles, and it’s like a siren call that draws my eyes down to her lips.
Damnit, bad Emma! You cannot go there. It’s just this place messing with your head, it’ll end in tears!
It’s only with great effort that I manage to pull myself out of the moment that’s sparking to life between us.
“Last one in is a rotten egg,” I quickly call out before diving into the surf.
My heart is still pounding as we swim out to slightly deeper Hydrum. The Hub floor is covered in the same kind of white sand, interspersed with rocks, plants, shells, and bones.
Right, this place is dangerous. We better be on our guards.
Still, this should be a relatively safe area, so as soon as we have some space to manoeuvre, I turn to Kaitlynn, and whip a tether at her. <So, the first thing you’ll want to do to form a tail, is...>
Under my expert guidance, it doesn’t take long for Kaitlynn to form a rudimentary tail. It will take her some more practice to learn how to use it to swim continuously, however, because switching out the previous breath for the next while swimming is by far the hardest part of mastering the tail. Also, the duration of her control is still lacking, so she has to switch often.
I decide to let her practise on her own for a while, while I go look for some cockles and explore a bit. We’re both armed, and visibility under-Hydrum is good, so I don’t foresee any trouble.
Oh man, swimming like this is amazing. This is the first time I have such a vast expanse of Hydrum around me, such freedom to move around in.
Moving like this, I realize the next limiting factor on my speed is drag force.
I’m up to six simultaneously controlled exhales by now, which is more than enough to cover my entire lower body in a smooth, slick tail of Hydrum, but everything from my waist up is armour and skin, and it’s slowing me down.
Something to work on. For now, I’m more than fast enough. I scour the area around our island in increasingly large circles until I eventually find a bank of cockles. Dozens of them.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t considered the need for a means to transport large quantities of them—I didn’t even bring my backpack—so I end up making my way back with only about a dozen clutched against my chest.
Kaitlynn and I make our way back to the hollowed-out tree, chatting happily. Although my harvest is meagre, I know where to find a lot more, so all in all, I’m quite satisfied. And Kaitlynn is learning fast; soon enough she’ll be zipping alongside me.
We find the boys waiting for us.
“Hey guys,” I say as I carefully lay down my cockles near the hollow tree. “How’s it hanging?”
Alec beams happily at us. “Pretty good! I’m working on a fishing net, Dave on a fishing pole, and Jacob found some cool fruit.”
I glance over at Jacob. He shrugs and tosses me something.
I catch it. It’s a red piece of fruit, shaped like a six-pointed star.
“Appraise,” I say.
It has a Toughness of 10, but it’s still considered a soft fruit? I shake my head in disbelief.
With some effort, I tear the zirot in two. I present Kaitlynn with half, and she eagerly accepts.
I take a bite, and immediately recognize the flavour as that of the juice that helped save my life in Hub Two. “Mmm, good stuff,” I mumble with my mouth still half-full. “Nice find, Jacob.”
“Thanks,” he drawls out.
Oof. The room just got colder.
“Should we check those for pearls?” Dave asks, indicating the cockles.
“Depends, will they spoil if we open them now?” I ask, directing the question at Alec.
He scratches his head. “You know, I haven’t actually seen any food spoil, thus far, so I think we’re good.”
Say no more.
I eagerly kneel down and start whipping them open one by one with a blade of rock, but unfortunately...
“No pearls,” Dave states.
I sigh and lean back. “Could just be bad luck. It was only a dozen.”
“Look, this is nice and all,” Jacob says, “but I think it’s about time we visited the council’s island. There should be two teams still on the way, and considering how much time we took in the preparation rooms, they can’t be far behind us.”
Dave and I share a glance. He nods.
“You’re right,” I say. “Though we went through the Trials themselves quite quickly, we shouldn’t dally.”
Jacob nods and walks towards kayaks without another word. We awkwardly trail after him.
Not counting the landmasses in the corners, Hub three has a total of 19 islands. There’s a circle of 12 smaller islands surrounding a circle of six medium ones, which lies around the big one in the middle. Logically, the easiest way to communicate direction on it is to liken it to the face of a clock. Taking the wall with the exits as twelve O’clock, our little island would be around the five, and the council’s at seven.
That may sound pretty close to each other, but it’s actually still quite a distance away. Especially because we decide to take the long way around, travelling along the ring of smaller islands, to avoid entering froggo territory.
About three-quarters along the way there, I manage to convince Jacob to switch with me. He does so silently, but still, it’s progress.
We eventually make it to the island.
It’s supposed to be one size-category bigger, but it is much larger than our island, easily ten times the surface area.
We find the froggo village the council took over in a secluded bay and moor our kayaks at the pier.
As we do, a white-haired woman comes out of the biggest hut, followed by a young man with bright yellow hair that sticks way up in large spikes. Storm and Goku? Kind of an unlikely pair. They are both wearing black leather armour. The woman wields a greysteel spear like me, while the guy has a sword shield combo like Jacob.
His hair doesn’t seem like a wig. What kind of wax did this kid use? Unless...
The new hair Kaitlynn grows seems to be blue. Is it possible that this guy’s hair became One with the product he used to style it? That would be epic.
The woman comes stalking towards us like a predator. The guy with the Super Saiyan Goku hairdo follows her almost deferentially.
Something about her slight smirk makes the hairs in my neck stand on end, and I instinctively draw myself up to meet her head-on. The rest wordlessly falls into formation, flanking me on both sides. Even Jacob, though he responds a little more slowly than the rest.
None of us are brandishing our weapons, yet there is a tension in the Aether, like an unspoken threat of violence.
The white-haired woman draws to a halt in front of me. Her eye-crystal is pitch-black.
“Lily told me I should be expecting you, Miss Toxic Dragon,” she says. Her voice is raspy and her tone almost seductive, yet I find it nothing but grating. Ah. She must be Yin. “I take it this means you found Stardrop Pond after all.”
It’s a question and yet not a question.
“Lightning Witch,” I return her greeting, without answering her non-question. If the Storm-hair hadn’t been enough to peg her as such, there’s by now no doubt in my mind this woman is in charge around here.
She raises a brow. “Please, call me Dominique.” She falls silent as she confidently takes her time to rake her gaze over us one by one.
I especially don’t like the way her gaze hangs on Kaitlynn for a moment. Part of me wants to punch her in the face for the way she smirks at her.
“Well, well, don’t you guys look impressive,” she finally says, folding her arms over her chest. “Where’d you get the matching outfits?”
Alec puffs his chest up. “I made these! We’re the Blue Dragons.”
She glances over at him again. Her eyes linger on his trident for a moment. “I see. Too bad there’s an odd number of dragons. Tell me, who amongst you doesn’t have a partner for the next Trial?”
I stiffen at the question. Straight for the jugular, damn this woman.
Her smirk widens for a moment when no answer is immediately forthcoming. She turns to Jacob. “It’s you, isn’t it? I could tell right away.”
Jacob clenches his jaws together. Kaitlynn fidgets uncomfortably.
I open my mouth to say something, but Dominique beats me to it. She walks over to Jacob, saying, “It’s okay; this place is unfair like that. How about you stay with us for a while? We’ll be the first to know when someone becomes available, one way or another.”
My eyes widen. What? And leave us?
Jacob meets her gaze with some hesitance. He glances at me.
I close my eyes and sigh, hating what I’m about to say. What I have to say at this point.
“We only want what’s best for you, Jacob,” I say, in a way admitting for the first time what we’ve all left unspoken: that he’s the one with no one to enter the next Trial with. I steel myself to meet his gaze. “You’re more than welcome to stay with us, with or without a partner; you’re still part of the team.”
Though I mean what I say, I can tell by his expression that the words ring hollow. Too little too late. Damnit!
Jacob turns back to Dominique. “I think I will take you up on that offer, thank you.”
She beams at him. “Wonderful. How about I get you settled in, while Mark takes care of the formalities with the rest, hmm?”
And just like that, without another glance, she leads him away.
Jacob glances back, once, but Mark’s stupid hair moves into my view.
“So, I’m Mark,” Mark says unnecessarily.
“Oh, hi Mark!” Alec says, even less necessarily.
“Yeah, hi,” he replies with a frown. “Anyway, I just need to ask a couple of questions, starting with what door you took in Hub Two...”
We leave in two kayaks, and a terrible mood.
Mark asked us a bunch of boring questions, and then had us all register him as a friend in the social system, so he could warn us if another Hoig raid was forming or something like that.
I paddle with a frown etched permanently on my face. I keep going over what happened, trying to figure out where it went wrong. <You shouldn’t have stopped me from going after him back when we were paddling towards the island,> I eventually send to Dave.
<What would you have said?> the reply comes.
Stupid Dave with his stupid calmness and rationality!
<I don’t know; something! At least I would have said something. It would’ve broken that horrible silence.>
<Well, perhaps it’s not entirely too late to speak to him,> he sends back. <You still have him as a friend in the social system, right?>
I blink. <Well doing it now would be awkward.>
Dave snorts. I smile despite myself.
Kaitlynn glances at him, then at me, and narrows her eyes. “What are you two whispering about?”
I shake my head. “Just... what we should’ve done instead.”
Kaitlynn nods. “Right. Poor Jacob.”
Alec sighs. “I know, it was all so awkward, I could hardly stand it. I can hardly imagine what it must’ve been like for him.”
“It’s a sucky situation,” Dave says. “We probably could’ve handled it with a little more tact, but—”
I snort. “Let’s not sugar coat it: we screwed up. Jacob deserved better.”
Dave sighs. “You’re not wrong, but what’s done is done. I think we should call him tomorrow, make sure he understands he’ll always be welcome, with or without a partner.”
Right as I’m about to respond, a pop-up appears in front of me.
Heads up: I've performed a minor retcon regarding Power-Ups to open up some possibilities for more interesting Power-Ups. (More minor retcons will probably follow this, when I actually add some of these Power-Ups to the story.)
[A Power-Up is a symbiont that’s capable of becoming One with you. You can have up to three: one that becomes One with your tissue, and increases one or more of your stats, one that grows on top of your body, altering your shape and providing some kind of new functionality, and finally, one that takes root at the centre of your meridians, and does something with a type of energy.]
Thanks for reading!
If you liked this chapter, please hit that green button, or click here to vote! ^^