Since it’s close to Twinset and we’re all pretty tired, we decide to return to the council’s island in the morning. That night, we sleep beneath the stars on a beach of pristine white sand, which has always been sort of a dream of mine.
Under the circumstances, I find it hard to fully enjoy it.
Though having Kaitlynn cuddled up against me, with her arm across my waist and her head on my shoulder, does make it a lot better.
When we get to the council’s village the next morning, we find it a little worse for the wear.
In fact, one hut is still on fire, smokeless red flames billow aimlessly as we walk up to it.
Lily is standing in front of it, with her arms folded over her chest. Next to her, Onni holds up a black Yin Focus Crystal. It lights up and familiar blue tendrils form around it, which then slither towards the fire.
That’s Boreum! He must be using Boreum Manipulation.
The Boreum dissolves back into Aether where it touches the flames, but Onni persists, and the red flames slowly die down.
I glance around the rest of the village, and the traces of battle are obvious. Splintered wood, charring in jagged lines, more half-burned huts.
“What happened here?” Dave asks.
Lily turns around, startled. “Oh, it’s you guys! Jeez, don’t scare me like that!”
Onni snaps his head back as well and frowns. He shakes his head. “You’re supposed to be on watch, Lily. This is on you, not them.”
Lilly sheepishly scratches the back of her neck. “Right, sorry.”
Onni stops producing Boreum—even though the building is still smouldering—and walks a bit closer to stand behind and slightly to the right of Lily. Instead of putting it away, he starts playing with his Focus Crystal.
Dave raises a brow at Lily.
“Oh right,” she says. “Well, Samuel happened.”
Samuel? I frown. That name sounds familiar...
Alec rolls his eyes at me. “That’s the council’s secretary. You really suck at remembering names, don’t you?”
I glare at him. Wait, could he really read that much off me? I quickly school my features into an impassive mask.
“Anyway,” Lily continues, “it started out as a happy reunion, more or less, but Samuel wanted the tempering beings on this island to be shared with everyone. Dominique disagreed. Things got a little... out of hand.”
“You can say that again,” Alec mumbles.
The hut behind Lily collapses into a smouldering pile of lumber.
Onni sighs. “Most of the damage to the village is actually Mark’s doing. That guy’s a loose cannon.”
“Hey now,” Lily says, frowning at him. “He just got a bit... scared.”
Onni shakes his head. “People get injured when that guy gets scared.”
“Is Jacob all right?” Kaitlynn asks quickly.
Lily nods. “He’s fine, don’t worry.”
“Does Jacob have a partner now?” I follow up.
“Oh, ehm,” Lily scratches her head again. “No, sorry. The final team came in with four people.”
Dave frowns. “Hold on, but we took the fourth door out of six, so there should be one more team coming.”
Lily shakes her head. “The team that came in yesterday is the one that took the sixth door. Considering the announcement that came at that time, it looks like the fifth team got wiped out entirely.”
A beat of silence falls. Well, there’s definitely enough doors for all of us then.
I put on my most charming smile and direct it at Lily. “Say, what can you tell us about the beings that can help us temper?”
Onni clears his throat. “We haven’t found them yet, to be honest.”
I glance at him. Impressive poker face. Fine, keep your secrets.
“That’s all right,” I reply. “We’ll conquer our own island soon enough. Where’s Jacob now? I’d like to talk to him.”
“Hold on,” Lily says, frowning. “You guys want to take over a medium island? Look, I don’t mean to underestimate you, but when we assaulted this village we had already recruited Onni—so we were with six—and it still got pretty hairy.”
“The Hoig here are different,” Onni adds. “They’re better equipped, a little bigger. Mean buggers.”
“All the more reason for me to talk to Jacob,” I say. “So, where is he?”
“Ehm, right,” Lily says, before pointing out a hut on poles farther in the back of the village.
I take a deep breath and set off towards it.
Ganging up on Jacob didn’t seem like a great idea, so we discussed who should talk to him on the way over and landed on me. My vote was on Dave, but he insisted that I was closer to Jacob, and that he tended to clam up when it came to intense emotions. So, now I’m sitting opposite Jacob alone. In silence.
“Well, this is awkward,” I say. Great start, Emma.
He scoffs. “Is that what you came here to say?”
I sigh and shake my head. “No. But I do want to talk about the awkwardness that started yesterday.” Nice save!
He continues looking at me impassively, apparently content to let me say my piece first.
“I wanted to talk to you then,” I start, “but I also wanted to give you some space, some time to cool off, cause you were tense as a racehorse.” He rolls his eye. “Then we visited the council,” I continue, “and suddenly there was no more time, and you weren’t around to talk anymore.”
“So, you want me to talk?” he says, drumming his fingers on the floor in an erratic pattern. “You want me to say out loud what we were all thinking yesterday? You sure about that?”
“Yes,” I reply, narrowing my eyes at him. “I would love to hear what you believe we were all thinking.”
“Fine,” he says, looking down at the floor. “I’m the fifth wheel. I’m not really one of you guys, and I never will be. You invited me to join only because you needed my help, and now that I’m dead weight, you’re better off without me. That’s what we were all thinking.”
It’s silent for a moment.
“Ah,” I say. “I get it now. You’re an idiot.”
He whips his head up to glare at me. “You’re gonna add insult—”
“Shut up,” I tell him. His mouth actually snaps shut, so I barrel on. “Now you listen to me, and you listen close. I’m only going to say this once because mushy stuff makes me uncomfortable. You. Are. One of us. A—” I stop for a moment to take a deep breath and suppress the urge to gag at the words about to leave my mouth. “—A friggin’ Blue Dragon.”
That at least draws a small smile. Though it might also be the expression on my face that triggers it.
Still, encouraged, I continue. “Yes, we were with an odd number and yes you were the last one to join, but did you really believe we hoped you would leave? Or that we were just going to let you rot? That hurts, Jacob. I, for one, will stop at nothing to find you a partner for the next Trial. You hear me? Nothing.”
Conflicting emotions war on Jacob’s face, until he breaks eye-contact again to stare at the ceiling. “What do you want from me?”
“I want you to come back with us. Since all the teams are here and there’s still an odd number, the council currently isn’t much use to you. We’re going to conquer our own medium island. Once we’ve done that, we’ll prepare to level up and get in touch with the other teams. Sooner or later, someone will die, and we’ll rope in their former partner.”
He snorts. “So, you want me to abandon a group that controls a medium-sized island, to go risk my life to conquer another one?”
“I’m asking you to leave this group of people you hardly know, and go back to working together with your friends,” I bite back. “The people that give a shit if you live or die.”
He sighs and turns his gaze back to me. “You’re asking for a lot, Emma. Despite that, part of me wants to jump into a kayak and paddle off into the Twinset with you guys. But... how do I know that part isn’t the effect of you trying to Charm me?”
I rear back as if slapped in the face. That’s kind of what it feels like, to be honest. “You really think I would do that?” I ask softly. He doesn’t meet my eye. “Whatever man, suit yourself.”
I turn around and march out of the door. Asshole.
As I stomp through the sand, he calls out from the doorway. “Emma!”
I stop but don’t turn around. “What?”
“There’s something you should know...”
“And? How did it go?” Kaitlynn asks when I get back to the rest.
I shake my head. “We should’ve sent someone else,” I grumble. “He said part of him wanted to come back, but he worried that was me trying to Charm him.”
Alec winces. “Ouch.”
Dave sighs. “Perhaps he’ll come around. After all, you can’t influence him remotely, so he’ll know whether his feelings are real or not soon enough.”
“That’s not the worst news, however,” I say. “Jacob warned me that Meathead is here. Apparently, he came in with the last group, and he seemed pretty pissed about the whole missing-hand thing.”
If only I’d cut off his head instead. I shake my head at the thought. Though killing things has gotten eerily comfortable, I still don’t like the idea of taking another human’s life. It feels like a line I shouldn’t cross.
Alec looks at me wide-eyed. “Bruce is here? Oh shit, what do we do?”
I shrug. “Nothing. If he comes looking for trouble, he’ll get it. Otherwise, I’m not picking a fight. Except with the froggos, that is. Let’s go back and prepare to conquer a medium island. I need to vent some anger.”
Alec swallows. “Ehm, with just the four of us? Wouldn’t that be, like, pretty dangerous?”
I sigh and glance at Dave. “I may not be thinking too clearly right now. What do you think?”
He purses his lips and considers it for a moment. “I’ve taken a look around this village while you were in there. We may have to get a little creative, but I think we can pull it off.”
The island we decide on is literally on the other side of the map. If the council’s island is at seven, and our current one at five, then this one is at eleven O’clock. That means it’s about thrice as far from here as the council’s island, which is a hassle right now, but it seems like a decent position for our base.
I like the idea of being close to the exits. It’s also not too far from either the Yin or Yang side of the Hub, and still a reasonable distance away from the council’s base. More importantly, since we’re moving far from the entrance, it’s hopefully quite a distance from wherever Meathead’s team sets up camp as well.
Before we leave our little island for good, however, I take Kaitlynn and a bag out to the bank of cockles I found, and we clean it out.
Momma needs some pearls.
Kaitlynn is getting better and better at keeping her tail stable, so our trip doesn’t take very long.
After packing everything up, we set off. We take the other way around this time, avoiding the council’s island entirely as we first head for a small island close to the medium island we’ve targeted.
We settle down on the beach of the small island to wait the remaining few hours till Twinset and make our final plans and preparations.
“We should come up with a name for this operation,” Alec intones seriously.
I look up from the cockles I’m cutting open. “Really, this again?”
“What?” Alec protests. “Makes it easier to talk about it. Also, it’s something to do.”
Dave shrugs. “He’s got a point.”
I sigh. “Fine. What did you have in mind, Alec?”
He smirks. “I was thinking something along the lines of Midnight Murder.”
Dave’s nose crinkles up in distaste. “Can we please not call it that? That does not make me feel better about our plan.”
Alec scratches his head. “Right. Sorry, dude.”
I clear my throat. “How about Island Invasion?”
I actually get booed for my efforts.
“Oh, come on!” I protest. “It’s not that bad. It’s accurate and it alliterates!”
Alec scoffs. “It’s also the most boring name ever!”
I flip him the bird, giving it the meaning ‘Glorb you!’
He just laughs.
Kaitlynn perks up. “Ooh, ooh, I got one! How about Operation: Tip-Tap-Toe? You know, cause we’re going in all sneaky?”
Alec groans. I clap a hand in front of my mouth and manage to reduce my laughter to an unbecoming snort.
“What? It’s cute!” Kaitlynn defends, a blush creeping up her neck.
“That’s exactly the problem!” Alec practically shouts in reply. “Ugh, where’s Jacob when you need him? He always came up with the best names.”
My mood instantly sours. “We don’t need him, and this Operation doesn’t need a stupid name. Let’s just go kill some friggin’ froggos.”
The first step in our plan is reaching the medium island undetected.
Like the council’s island, it has a pretty large surface area, which means it’s unlikely to be guarded on all sides. The map indicates that the village on this island is on a long, crescent-moon-shaped beach, so we approach the island under-Hydrum from the other side.
I watch tensely as Kaitlynn pops her head above the Hydrum and her eye light up orange.
<Kaitlynn says there are no Heat signatures,> Dave sends. <My Tremorsense isn’t picking up any suspicious vibrations either.>
I nod and breach the surface. After quietly expelling all of the Hydrum in my lungs and filling them with Aether, I begin making my way onto the beach, the rest trailing in my wake.
My heart beats in my throat. The sand silently shifts beneath my feet as I creep towards the treeline. Still no froggo in sight, good.
Since we’re likely going to be massively outnumbered, getting in undetected to cull the numbers is vital to our success.
Under the cover of the dark, we sneak into the forest that covers most of the island.
I lead us into the shelter of a large bush, and we all come to a halt.
After a tense couple of seconds, Dave sends, <All clear.>
I take a deep breath and lead us deeper into the forest.
The village consists of about 20 huts, which are huddled together quite closely. There’s a single watchtower roughly in the middle. It’s close to the largest hut, which should contain the chief. There are several guards around the perimeter, and one on the watchtower.
Like we had been warned, they’re a little different from what we’re used to. Mainly, they’re bigger. Usually, grunts like Croakers and Dartblowers only come up about my armpits in height, but these easily come up to my shoulders. And the single spear-wielding Hoplite among the guards is as big as me!
Their equipment is also larger and more complete. The croakers wear some kind of shells on their front and back, tied together on the sides with seaweed. Some are also equipped with shells as shields, and they wield a variety of mean-looking weapons like large stone clubs and axes. The Dartblowers have slightly longer blowpipes for far larger darts, and the Hoplite wields a long, barbed spear made of fishbone.
Dave dips an arrow in the Moonshade Sap I gave him, and sends, <It’s up to you now, Emma. Good luck!>
I nod and stalk off through the bushes.
Last time we infiltrated a froggo village, we relied on ground Dreamcloud pollen to silently take out guards. This time, I have a slightly more sophisticated method in mind.
I sneak as close as I dare to one of the guards. He’s leaning against a hut some 30 feet away, looking bored.
I peek at him from behind a tree and grab my Focus Crystal. I fill it with 5 Onkh of Qi, and turn it first into a mass of hungry purple tentacles, and then into calmer, barbed, lilac tentacles. Dreamcloud Energy. I fuse it into the Aether I inhale, careful not to absorb it.
I manage to catch nearly the entire 25 Onkh of Dreamcloud Energy I produced into a large bubble of Aether, and send it on its way. The Lavi nucleus in my exhale glows a soft green in the dark, so I send it up overhead, to hide its glow amongst that of the many stars, as my exhale approaches the guard.
Maintaining my control over the bubble at such a distance is quite a struggle, but I didn’t pressurize the Aether inside, and I only have to get it there. As it descends towards his head, I finally relinquish my control, allowing the nucleus and bubble of Aether to disintegrate, while the Dreamcloud Energy Infused Aether spills out.
The guard inhales. He blinks.
His mouth opens, and for a split second, I’m convinced he’s about to call out in alarm. Then his eyes roll back, and he slumps against the hut, fast asleep.
<One down,> I send to Dave.
The publishing of my first e-book is getting closer and closer. It's now being proofread by my editor. That means some small changes are on the horizon, like the address of this website, the name of the story on RoyalRoad, and the name of the community on Discord. I'm just telling you in advance, so you won't be caught off-guard ;)
The website's new domain will be hcmillsofficial.com, which currently already redirects to this site, and the story will become called The Whispering Crystals.
Meanwhile, I hope you're all staying healthy and indoors. (That sounds counterintuitive, but these are weird times ^^)
The virus has quite a grip on The Netherlands. My girlfriend may or may not have had it already; testing capacity here is quite limited and her symptoms were pretty mild so we aren't sure. Either way, I'm feeling just fine.
I did have to cancel my trip to Nepal where I was going to volunteer at a school and teach astrophysics, which is a bummer for me, but since it means I have more time to write, you guys are in luck ;) (I was seriously considering skipping my weekly update for the first time ever while I was there :o )
Anyway, thanks for reading, and if you liked the chapter, please hit that big green button or click here to vote! ^^