I watch apprehensively as the shell closes around me.
The dark engulfs me, leaving me with nothing but the sound of my heartbeat thumping in my ears, and the feeling of slick, writhing flesh beneath me.
As I fight a rising tide of panic, a bluish light wells up from an area behind my head. I turn slightly to find that the source is a massive black Yin Pearl.
It gives off more than just a glow, actually. Flecks of Yin Qi diffuse into the Hydrum around it. It’s not the only type of energy that’s building up, either. The Lavi content in this cave was already high thanks to the veins of tiny Lavi Crystals in the walls, but the concentration inside the shell is increasing by the second.
Good thing too, because the next type of energy to be released is, of course, Toxic Energy. Somehow, the oyster manages to diffuse it into the Hydrum, something I know for a fact is very difficult.
I calm down a little now that I’ve got a pretty good idea of how this tempering works. The oyster acts kind of like a pressure cooker, keeping all of the energy locked in. The high concentration of Lavi will allow me to build up more Toxic Energy than I would normally be able to survive, and as soon as I leave the oyster, the Crystals of Purification will kick in and help bring the excess Toxic Energy back under control.
All I have to do is keep an eye on my net Lavi flow and endure for as long as possible.
I’m not sure what the Qi is for, but I suppose it’s a nice bonus.
I blink. Actually, if there’s a lot of Qi in here, wouldn’t this be a great opportunity to practise some Qi-based Skills? I mean, practising Infuse would probably be a bad idea, but Decrease Inertia and Distort Space could definitely use some work.
Excited, I quickly pull out my Focus Crystal and get to work, deciding to start with Distort Space. I haven’t used this Skill in a while, and I’m itching to try and make some progress with it.
As I hoped, the high concentration of Qi in the Hydrum around me allows me to quickly replenish what I use. I transform Qi into Spatial Energy over and over to form boundary after boundary. I produce more of them in the span of five minutes than I made before I climbed into this shell. As I continue, turning my Qi into Spatial Energy becomes easier and easier.
After a while, I start trying to use my boundaries not to shrink things, but to increase the space in the oyster. Of course, I can still only do that in one dimension, so the oyster alternatingly becomes wider, higher, or longer.
However, this level of Qi wastage is something even the Qi inside the oyster can’t sustain. Soon, the amount of Qi drops to the point where I have to wait a bit before I can use the Skill again.
More importantly, the level of Toxic Energy inside the oyster is still building. At first it only burned my lungs, but now my skin begins to prick all over and my eyes start to itch.
The situation inside gets less and less comfortable, and I begin to understand the true nature of tempering. Soon, I have to fight to open my eyes to check my Status Bar, and all of my skin feels simultaneously cold and yet on fire. Still a net positive flow... I can keep going!
Unwilling to let this opportunity slip by, I go into a lucid trance to dim the sensations—specifically those coming from my body—and keep using Distort Space as often as I can like a woman possessed. As the pain increases, I turn my sense lower and lower.
[That’s enough, Emma,] Suri chimes eventually. [If you stay in here any longer, you’ll die!]
The warning snaps me out of my trance, and the burning that now suffuses my entire body immediately turns unbearable. I let out a muffled groan between gritted teeth and attempt to lift up my arms to open the shell.
They won’t move. Neither will my legs.
A wave of fear washes over me like a bucket of cold water. ‘Suri, I can’t move!’ I subvocalize.
[Of course you can’t move, Emma. Your Strength is at zero.]
Fear turns to panic. ‘Then how the hell am I supposed to get out?!’
[Use Breath Control.]
Right! Of course.
I immediately take control over the Hydrum in my lungs and force out a powerful jet. Light floods the interior as the shell opens. The oyster roils beneath me and spits me out.
“Emma!” Kaitlynn calls out when I breach the surface, coughing up mouthfuls of purple-tinted Hydrum. I sink back down powerlessly.
Seconds later, a pair of arms grabs me under my armpits, and Kaitlynn begins to drag me out. She pulls me onto land, and I lie there like a dead fish, practically unmoving, except for the rhythmic rise and fall of my chest. It’s a good thing I breathe by controlling the Lavi in the Aether...
Kaitlynn looks at me in horror. “Emma! Are you okay? Say something!”
‘Flows... Window,” I croak weakly.
Looks like the high Lavi content in the Aether here doubles my intake. Did Suri calculate that this would be about my limit?
‘Cutting it pretty darn close there, Suri,’ I subvocalize.
[‘Thanks for saving my silly human life, Suri.’ That’s all right, dear, you’re welcome.]
I grin and whip a tether over at Kaitlynn. <I’ll be fine, Kait. Thanks for helping me out of the Hydrum.>
Seriously, I would’ve been in trouble if she hadn’t, as my Lavi intake from Hydrum is quite a bit lower still than my intake from Aether.
Did Suri account for that as well?
‘Status Window, please,’ I send.
Wow, I’m down to 17 Onkh of Lavi. Definitely cutting it close. And not just my Strength, but also my Agility is down to 0.
No wonder I can’t move. Well anyway, let’s see what this tempering brought me.
First, I check out my Toxic Energy Tolerance.
44.3%! Sweet, I’m almost there! Looks like with just one more tempering, I’ll be ready to level. I still have a Minor Toxic Energy crystal, so all I need is to get a Major one.
Something tells me that’s not going to be easy.
Man, but these temperings are effective, even more so than my previous tactic of ingesting a Stardrop with a bunch of Moonshade Sap.
Let’s see, what else did I gain. My Lavi and Qi pools both increased a little, and, ooh, my Charm went up again! Actually, I’m not that surprised, since it happened both times I raised my Toxic Energy Tolerance by taking a Stardrop.
The real kicker isn’t the increase in Charm however, it’s down in my Skill list. My conversion rate from Qi to Spatial Energy improved!
Guess I didn’t suffer through that practice for nothing. Next time I’ll work on Decrease Inertia.
Kaitlynn sits down next to me and gently lifts my head into her lap. “You really scared me there, Emma...”
I look up at her and forcibly lift the corners of my mouth into the barest hint of a smile. <Sorry, Kait. I just need to stay underneath these Purifying Crystals for a while, and I’ll be fine, I promise. How’d you do in there?>
Kaitlynn smiles and strokes my hair. “Not too shabby, I raised my Heat Tolerance from 14.3 to 27.4% in one go!”
She nods happily, but then her smile turns wry. “Still, I was forced to come out after only 34 minutes; you stayed in a full 12 minutes longer.”
<You probably can’t compare it one on one though; I went in with a much higher Tolerance, and it’s a very different kind of energy.>
“True. I was rid of all my excess Heat very quickly after I came out. But how’d you do?”
<I went up from 40.5 to 44.3%, so I’m nearly there.>
Her mouth falls open for a second and her hand stills. “You were already at 40%? That’s... that’s just unfair!”
She pouts at me. A warm feeling rises up in my chest. Too cute.
I lay there in her lap, idly chatting with her, and the hour it takes for me to fully Purify flies by. I’m almost reluctant to get up, but find myself unable to resist when she grabs my hand and drags me to a proper bed to snuggle up in.
The next morning, I guiltily remove my hand from the inappropriate spot it seems to have wandered over to during the night.
Despite my efforts at stealth, Kaitlynn stirs immediately and turns over to sleepily say good morning.
Oh god, I hope she didn’t wake before me!
I pretend nothing’s wrong and start putting on my armour. Outside, we find the boys already waiting for us, bursting with questions.
I go into detail about my idea of training Skills during the tempering. From our conversation last night, I did learn that Kaitlynn’s Qi Pool grew more than mine, probably due to how much Qi I drained from my oyster. However, we came to the conclusion that with the abundance of Qi Pearls around here to increase our Qi Pools, taking the opportunity to train Skills during the tempering is probably worth it.
Of course, I downplay the discomfort involved a little, so Alec won’t chicken out and immediately attempt to enter a trance or something like that.
Once everyone’s caught up, I decide to go check on our prisoner while the rest busy themselves over breakfast preparations.
When I enter the hut, I hear something like a soft gasp, but when I look at the tied-up froggo, he appears to still be unconscious.
I smile wryly. “Pretending to sleep, are we?”
“Am not!” he croaks, opening his eyes to glare at me angrily. Then he startles, quickly drops his head back on the floor, and resumes pretending to be asleep.
Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I give him a gentle kick.
As soon as I touch him, he begins to croak bloody murder. “Aack! Bad, evil monkey! No kick Loudmouth!”
I wince at the excessive volume. “Sheesh, keep it down will you—Loudmouth? Is that really your name?”
His eyes go wide. “Is not! You’ll get nothing out of Loudmouth! Loudmouth’s mouth like a fortress!”
It is only with immense effort that I keep my face straight. “I see. Well, maybe this will loosen those fortified lips of yours.”
I take out my Focus Crystal and apply another dose of Dreamcloud Energy to the helplessly struggling froggo.
Of course, this time I use a much smaller dose, as I don’t want him to genuinely fall back asleep.
Soon enough, his eyes glaze over a little, and he frowns in confusion.
“Now,” I start, “how about you tell me your name.”
“N-No,” Loudmouth croaks. “Loudmouth will never... tell you.”
Hmm. Looks like it’ll take a little more than this to really get him to cooperate. Luckily, I have another trick up my sleeve. One that I’ve been looking for a proper test-subject for...
Drawing upon the memory of Suri’s instructions during my last Skilldream, for the first time ever, I actively attempt to use Charm.
I seek out the connection with my Espir like I practised, and this time, draw it forth. Going by a vague memory of what Suri taught me, I try to lace it into my presence, focussing on what I want to achieve. Charm.
“Come on, Loudmouth,” I say softly. “There’s no need to be so hostile, is there?”
He blinks at me but still looks vaguely wary. From the corner of my eye, I can see that my Espir dropped from 14 to 11, so I did something, though I don’t think it was a lot.
Well, I caught him to practise, after all.
I wheedle him some more, drawing on my Espir to try and Charm him, but despite my efforts and the Dreamcloud Energy, he still refuses to cooperate.
Soon enough, I’m nearly out of Espir. Also, I’m beginning to get a headache from Loudmouth’s volume of speech.
As I’m about to call it quits for the day, Kaitlynn comes by to bring some breakfast for the prisoner; a bowl of Hydrum and one filled with some kind of plant that grows under-Hydrum, that the froggos appear to have been farming off the coast.
Loudmouth begins to drool when it’s put in front of him. He literally can’t keep his eyes off it, yet loudly maintains that he won’t be tricked into eating poison.
Kaitlynn’s still snickering when we step outside. I groan and rub my temples in the hopes of alleviating some of the throbbing.
“That froggo’s a hoot!” Kaitlynn exclaims. “Was he like that the whole time?”
“Yes. Yes, he was,” I grumble. “Let me tell you, it gets old fast. Stop laughing!”
There’s a challenging glint in her eyes, and I immediately feel the urge to chase after her to tickle her into submission—which is actually a rather counter-productive thing to do if you want to get someone to stop laughing—but I restrain myself.
Keep your distance, Emma, it’s the right thing to do.
Instead, I just smile at her and shake my head. She grins back, but I spot a hint of disappointment.
Steeling my heart, I continue, and we join the others for breakfast in the late chief’s residence.
For us, breakfast consists mainly of zirot fruit and boiled cockles.
We’ve opened far too many of those little suckers after all.
Unconventional as our breakfasts in this Hub may be, they’re a real upgrade over our previous fare of jicca nuts and birberries. Not just in terms of flavour, but also as a Lavi supplement, since we now get an average of 3 Onkh of Lavi per minute from our stomach contents, as opposed to the previous 1.5.
Over the meal, we work out our plans in a little more detail.
Now that our first major goal in this Hub—getting a hold of the Giant Yin-Yang Oysters—has been achieved, the next thing we need to level up is enough Minor and Major Energy Crystals. For that, we could either try to raid more islands or hunt the creatures in the six corners of the Hub.
I’m definitely more in favour of that last option.
Like Dave suggested yesterday, getting everybody to learn my mermaid’s tail swimming technique would be an enormous aid in allowing us to successfully and safely hunt, as we would then no longer have to rely solely on the kayaks for transport.
For now, the idea is that Kaitlynn and I are going out to check out the scene in the nearest corner, and perhaps even try our hand at hunting if we see an opportunity, while the boys practise breathing.
Dave has been at Respiration level 3 and working on gaining Breath Control for a while now, so he should be pretty close. Jacob’s also at Respiration level 3, while Alec’s still at level 2.
Another goal—no less important—is to find a partner for Jacob. Therefore, we’re also going to try to establish contact with any other participants we come across.
Finally, since there’s one Yin and one Yang Oyster, Alec and I can temper every other night, while the other three will have to cycle. Dave graciously allowed Jacob ahead of him in the order, so tonight, Alec and Jacob will undergo a tempering.
Jacob says he’ll try to train his Decrease Momentum Skill for as long as he can take it. Alec doesn’t really have a suitable Qi Skill to practise inside, as we can’t risk him harming the oyster with his Lightning Manipulation, so we tell him to make use of the high Lavi environment instead and practise his Regeneration.
I can tell from his face that he’s not looking forward to mutilating himself just to practise the Skill, but I feel like he’ll go through with it. He’s no longer the weak-willed boy I met in Hub One, and though his eye-patch still looks sweet, getting his stereoscopic vision back should be plenty of motivation to get him to work.
I glance around at my oddly coloured friends, with their budding horns. I guess none of us are who we were back then, really.
After breakfast, I give the boys instructions about Breath Control conforming to my latest insights, while Kaitlynn prepares for the hunt.
I finish by telling them to start by practising under-Hydrum, and then Kaitlynn and I set off.
Time to face some more danger.
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