• H.C. Mills

Chapter 90: Cave Explorer

I grunt as the unidentified flying object hits me between the shoulder blades, penetrating my armour and plunging into the flesh right next to my spine.

I let go of Kaitlynn’s hands and spin around to face our aggressor. Kaitlynn gasps as the Dartblower rises up among the bushes with a maniacal glint in his eyes.

Internally, I relax a little when I realize it was just a Toxic dart.

He reloads his blowpipe.

With a single, practised yank, I cause a flow of Lavi to collide with itself in my heart. My heart beats and my limbs flood with Strength from Boost Physical’s first mode. It will only last for six seconds, but that should be plenty.

I jump forward, pulling out my spear and swinging it mid-jump.

The froggo’s eyes go wide and he fumbles his reload, dropping the dart as he as barely ducks under my blade.

A swift knee to the face sends him sprawling.

My spear flashes forward.

However, as the initial spike of anger and pain fades a little, a thought strikes me. My blade comes to a stop an inch from his throat. The froggo looks up in fear, remaining completely motionless.

Perhaps it’s something to do with the weight of the conversation I just had with Kaitlynn, that put me out of a killing mood. Now that I’m at this point however, I’m reminded of some plans I had earlier.

I narrow my eyes at the frightened froggo. “Kaitlynn, could you do me a favour and use your Heat Vision to check if he’s Yang?”

“Ehm, sure?” she says. A moment of silence follows. “He’s pretty warm, so I would say yes.”

“Perfect,” I reply. The Focus Crystal hanging from my neck lights up as I fill it to the brim with Qi.

The eyes of the froggo go even wider. He suddenly launches himself to the side, and grabs a dart in his bare, webbed hand.

“Die, smelly monkey!” he croaks. The excessive volume of his voice causes me to wince, but I continue inhaling the energy I produced.

I step back and turn my spear to the side as he valiantly leaps forward. Before his impromptu dagger can reach my throat however, I send him flying with a jet of Aether, full of Dreamcloud Energy.

He smacks into a tree trunk, and I will the Aether to settle in front of him. Unaware, he takes in a nice lungful. His eyes quickly go glassy and he slumps over.

I reach back, pull out the dart still stuck in my flesh, and toss it aside. It feels like a pretty shallow wound, so I’ll have Dave fix me up later. The Toxic Energy inside barely even tingles.

I proceed to poke the froggo with my spear, and am pleased to find him wholly unresponsive.

“Emma, look,” Kaitlynn calls out excitedly.

I glance up and follow the direction of her finger. Turns out, behind the bushes the froggo came from, lies a narrow cave-entrance...

At the cusp of entering the cave, I glance back one last time at my handiwork.

The froggo is tied up with a mess of vines and hung upside down from a tree branch. Even though his skin is a little slippery to the touch, this should be enough to keep him in place.

Not that he’ll be waking up anytime soon anyway. That was 50 Onkh of Dreamcloud Energy, after all. Note to self: try and improve my conversion rate from Qi to Toxic Energy sometime.

Satisfied, I follow Kaitlynn into the cave. The Aether inside smells like moist rock, and I think I hear flowing Hydrum in the distance.

We proceed cautiously. At first, the light dims as we get deeper, but at some point, the glow from veins of green crystals in the walls becomes dominant over the light filtering in from outside. I soon realize that the Lavi content in the Aether here is much higher than outside.

Veins made of tiny Lavi Crystals then? Cool!

I follow Kaitlynn through numerous twists and turns as the tunnel gradually leads us down, until she rounds a corner and stops with a gasp.

The tunnel exits into a large stone room, filled almost entirely by a basin of Hydrum, fed by a small Hydrumfall on one side. Large white crystals decorate the ceiling, and I quickly recognize them as Crystals of Purification. These are a lot bigger than the ones in the Oasis of the First Trial...

Down at the bottom of the basin lie two enormous oysters, one with a bluish-purple tint, one with a reddish-purple tint.

A window pops up.

They open at Twinset… as in, only once a day? That would explain why the Lightning Witch was reluctant to share.

“Enter it?” Kaitlynn mutters with a shiver. “For how long?”

I shrug. “I guess there’s only one way to find out.”

Kaitlynn thinks for a moment, nods, and points at one. “Appraise!”

[Hah, she got you there,] Suri chimes.

My eye twitches. ‘If this is the only kind of thing you’re going to comment on, I’d rather you not comment at all,’ I subvocalize back.

Kaitlynn turns to me with her nose scrunched up in disgust. “Looks like the reddish one is Yang and the bluish one is Yin. And a tempering lasts for an hour, unless you open it prematurely.”

So we have to spend a whole hour in one of those things for each tempering? I quickly match her expression.

“Well, at least we found them,” I say, shrugging helplessly. “Let’s go tell the others.”

I carry our captive back to the village over my shoulder with little effort thanks to Boost Physical.

He’s still out like a light, so I toss him into a bed in an intact hut, and loop some of the vines binding him around a support beam to keep him in place.

A couple of huge fish are planted on sticks outside of the chief’s hut. We find the boys inside, examining a collection of crystals laid out on a kind of altar.

We relay our findings, and I explain about my captive and his purpose. Jacob suggests sweeping the island later to check for any more survivors. After making some plans regarding that, Dave reports on our loot.

The most notable crystals we’ve gained are one medium-sized Yin Focus Crystal and one Medium Cold Energy Crystal.

There’s also a couple of Minor Energy Crystals: three Cold ones, one Electric, one Toxic, and one Radiation Crystal. We’ve got quite a collection by now; at least two of each of the six types of energy that we can build up a Tolerance for.

I let out a low whistle. “Looks like we’ve got enough for quite a few temperings. Though I doubt it’ll be enough for all of us to reach 45% Tolerance in one type.”

Alec beams happily at the collection. “We even have a second Major Energy Crystal, so we already have enough of those to level two people!”

I roll my eyes at him. “And who’s going to level up with Cold? Don’t you want to focus on Electric Energy? ‘Cause I’m obviously going for Toxic Energy and the rest of us is Yang.”

He blinks. “Huh, I hadn’t considered that.”

Dave clears his throat. “There’s actually one more thing we found, but it’s a little... different.”

He gingerly holds up a slippery green sack of some kind.

I raise a brow. “Appraise.”

“A permanent layer of slimy froggo-skin?” I mutter. “Who in their right mind would put this on?”

Jacob shrugs. “We don’t all have the luxury of being able to form a mermaid’s tail at will.”

Dave hums. “Our team already has two very good swimmers, so it’s value seems diminished to us. Another team might actually fight tooth and nail over something like this.”

Kaitlynn glances around with mischief in her eye. “You know, this thing would actually be kind of perfect for Jacob, since he still has trouble with his Lavi intake under-Hydrum.”

He snorts. “Yeah, no thanks.”

I shake my head. “Let’s just keep it for now. If it turns out we need it, we can still change our mind. Alternatively, we may be able to trade it with one of the other teams. We should return to discussing tempering.”

Dave clears his throat. “Right, we should probably decide how we’re going to divide the three types of Yang Energy Crystals as well. Radiation seems like the obvious choice for me, as I’m the only one with Skills pertaining to that. That leaves Heat and Vibration for you two.” He indicates Jacob and Kaitlynn, who glance at each other.

Jacob scratches the back of his head. “I don’t really have a preference, all of my Qi Skills are Momentum based, and there’s no Tolerance for that, so you can choose.”

Kaitlynn hesitates, but only for a moment. “Well, I’ve got more Heat than Vibration Skills, and I’ve also been working on combining Astreum Manipulation with Breath Control, so I would definitely prefer Heat.”

Jacob nods. “Makes sense. Then I’ll take Vibration. Now, you guys said we can only do one Yin and one Yang tempering every night, right? Well, it’s nearly twinset, so... which two of us should go first?”

I raise a brow at Dave.

He hums and looks up at the ceiling for a moment. “I think Emma and Kaitlynn should go first.”

“Because they found it?” Alec asks.

Dave shakes his head. “Because they’re the best swimmers. They’re most suited to going hunting for more Energy Crystals in the corners of the Hub. I think gaining Breath Control should be a main focus for the rest of us by the way; we can’t just keep relying on them and as Emma has demonstrated multiple times over, it’s a Skill with great all-round utility.”

I smile. “I couldn’t agree more. I’ll give you guys some tips first thing tomorrow, but right now, I think Kait and I need to hurry back.”

I stare in apprehension at the pulsing mass of flesh inside the open giant bluish-purple oyster in the Hydrum below.

“Come on, Emma,” Kaitlynn urges, as she throws down her bag and retrieves a Minor Heat Crystal. “We don’t know how long they will remain open!”

I sigh, but take out my Minor Toxic Energy Crystal. “This better not feel as disgusting as it looks. Status Window please!”

I give it a quick once-over, then wave it away. Having a benchmark from before the tempering seems like a good idea.

I glance nervously at Kaitlynn. ‘Ehm, Suri, can I at least keep my clothes on in there?’ I subvocalize.

[That shouldn’t be an issue for a minor tempering like this. I wouldn’t recommend wearing any clothing you’re attached to when you go in to level up, however.]

I sigh in relief, then set aside my spear and jump into the pool of Hydrum.

Under-Hydrum, I smile at Kaitlynn one last time, and enter the Giant Yin Oyster. As soon as I drop my Small Toxic Crystal into what looks like its mouth, it begins to close around me.

Yuck. This better be worth it.

Author's Note:

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