• H.C. Mills

Chapter 93: Thanks, but no thanks

My brow furrows at the wall of froggos closing in on us from the side. Perhaps I can still ram my way through with Kaitlynn if we catch the froggos off guard with our speed. I’ll have to drag her a bit, and we’ll take a few hits, but we may be able to pull it off.

Except that I can’t see how far back the mass of froggos spreads. As soon as they bring us to a halt, we’ll be done for.

Still, I don’t see any better options.

As I’m about to let go of Bob, Suri chimes, [Emma, look right!]

Hope flutters inside me as I do. At first, I don’t understand what she’s referring to, but then I spot it.

A thin crevice, maybe 8 inches wide.

My eyes widen. I can’t see where it leads, but since Suri pointed me this way, I’ll just have to trust her.

All of these thoughts rush through me in mere seconds, before I drag Bob into the right fork with renewed vigour.

<This way!> I send to Kaitlynn.

She follows me unquestioningly, however, another voice erupts in my head, gruff yet feminine. <Where are you going? It’s a dead-end! We should turn around and try to smash our way through!>

I glance at the woman, who I assume is the source, and point at the crevice.

<What are you nuts? We’ll never fit through there!>

I smile faintly and put one arm further around Bob as I use the other to take out the medium-sized Yin Focus Crystal. <We will in a second; just tuck in your belly and leave the rest to me!>

Inwardly, however, I’m quite nervous as I fill up the Focus Crystal to the brim. This better lead somewhere, Suri!

Bob begins to struggle again a little as I head straight for the crevice, but I clamp down with my hand and he obediently stills.

Right before we reach it, I convert the 25 Onkh of Qi inside my Focus Crystal to a full 150 Onkh of Spatial Energy and form a boundary that pushes deep into the crevice. Then, like I practised inside the Giant Yin Oyster, I widen it as far as I can.

Bob and I are sucked along with the resulting flow of Hydrum, as the crevice opens up into a nearly circular hole. On the other side, a large body of Hydrum free of froggos becomes visible. Suri, you magnificent bitch, It’s actually an exit of the cave-system!

I rush through as fast as I can, with Kaitlynn and the woman hot on our heels. Seconds later, we all come spilling out. As soon as Kaitlynn is entirely outside, I pop the boundary, and the crevice collapses back in on itself.

<I stand corrected,> the woman sends me.

I have no time to respond, as a couple of froggos close to the exit spill out with a rush of Hydrum. A few who were closer to the middle are less lucky. They come out as a final rush of green goop.

I release Bob to grab my spear, and the four of us make quick work of the half-dozen or so froggos that came tumbling out with us.

As the last one sinks to the sands below, there’s a sudden calmness around us, though my heart still beats a mile a minute.

I take a moment to glance around at the faces around me that are filled with relief and wonderment, then shiver as I notice the intense Cold in the Hydrum around us.

As if reading my mind, the woman gestures, ‘Let’s get out of here before we freeze our balls off.’

We climb onto a rocky outcrop that juts out of the icy-cold Hydrum a fair distance from the landmass in the corner of the Hub. Of course, we pick a rock that doesn’t lie on the path from said landmass back to the centre of the Hub, since the last thing we want is to tangle with that froggo raid again.

We all pretty much flop down on the relatively flat surface at the top.

After a bit, I sit up to take a good look at the twosome Kaitlynn and I saved.

Thanks to the physical modifications we all got when we first levelled, it’s a little hard to tell people’s age, but if I had to guess I’d put Bob in his early thirties. He’s got the beginnings of bull-horns kinda like Dave’s sticking out of his sand-coloured forehead. His eye is a deep brown and his eye-crystal almost matches that colour. The nervous look in them seems to be nearly perpetually there.

The woman—who I’ve by now learned is called Calyx—has straight, black, very short-cut hair with purple highlights. The slight wrinkles on her forehead between her pair of beginning antlers seem to suggest she’s in her late thirties, maybe early forties. She has an upturned nose and a bit of a square jaw, but most striking is the unnatural, grass-green colour of her eye, which contrasts beautifully with her almost golden skin-tone and deep purple eye-crystal.

They’re both wearing brown leather armour, similar in shape to the armour the council people wear, though Calyx seems to have foregone the accompanying boots for her own black, worn pair. The handle of a dagger sticks out from each of them.

Bob is the one who breaks the silence. He sighs heavily, then sits up to look me in the eye and says, “Hi. I’m Bob. Thank you, so much. I think that’s the closest I’ve come to death since I’ve arrived in this god-forsaken Realm.”

I snort. “I’m Emma, and you shouldn’t thank me, but her,” I say, indicating Kaitlynn. “I don’t usually stick my neck out for complete strangers.”

Kaitlynn sticks her tongue out at me, then smiles at Bob. “You’re welcome.”

Bob smiles and shakes his head. “All the more reason to thank you for saving us anyway, Emma. And you as well, of course, miss...?”

Some blood rushes to Kaitlynn’s cheeks. “Kaitlynn. Just Kaitlynn. And it was no trouble really.”

Calyx sits up as well and cracks her knuckles. “No need to be modest about it. You really saved our asses out there. Thank you, Kaitlynn.”

Bob’s eye twitches. “Ehm, Calyx, aren’t you going to thank Emma too?”

Calyx raises a brow at him. “Why? She just said not to thank her.”

He sighs and sends me an apologetic smile. “Sorry about my friend here, they’re not very sociable.”

“What?” Calyx frowns at him. “Don’t apologize for me. She said we should direct our thanks at Kaitlynn, what’s the big deal?”

I cover my smile with a hand, before clearing my throat. “It’s fine, really. She doesn’t need to thank me. I—”

“They,” Bob interjects.

I frown at him. “Excuse me?”

“Ah, it’s just—Calyx’s preferred pronouns are they, them, and their,” he clarifies.

I blink and glance over at her—them. “Ehm, sorry about that...”

Calyx shrugs. “It’s fine. I don’t expect people to guess it. I’d appreciate if you could try to use those henceforth, but I won’t be terribly bothered or offended if you slip up.”

“Right,” Bob says. “Anyway, if there’s anything we can do—Oh! Actually, are the two of you currently operating alone? Cause we’re with four right now, so if you’re in need of a team, we’d be happy to have you.”

“Oh, no,” I say. “We’re actually with five, currently—”

“We’re the Blue Dragons!” Kaitlynn pipes up.

I grimace. “Right, that’s us—and we’re doing just fine. Ehm, if you guys ever hit an uneven number however...”

Bob nods, though he looks a bit disappointed. “Sure, sure. We’ll let you know if anything changes. It’s the least we could do.”

Calyx stands up with a sigh and stares out in the direction of the raid. “We’ll have to wait for the Hoig to leave and see if our kayak is still there when they’re done.” The statement seems mostly aimed at Bob.

I stand up as well and clasp my hands together. “Well, seeing as how you have time to kill, how about we exchange some info?”

Calyx turns around with a glint in their eyes. “Sounds good. Teach me how to swim like you, and I’ll answer any question you may have.”

“Calyx!” Bob hisses.

I blink. “Well, that may be a little difficult. It requires a Skill called Breath Control.”

Calyx nods and releases a breath that ruffles my hair. “I have it. Does the first level suffice?”

My brows rise, and I feel a pang of irrational annoyance. Well, I guess I couldn’t expect to really be the only one to have figured this Skill out. They may have bought a Skilldream for it, anyway.

“Calyx, don’t be ungrateful,” Bob hisses. “They literally just saved our lives!”

Calyx rolls their eye. “This isn’t personal, Bob, it’s business. They have something I want, and it seems like we have something they want, since Emma here suggested an exchange in the first place.”

<Calyx is really straightforward, isn’t... aren’t they?> Kaitlynn’s voice rings in my head with a hint of amusement.

I send her a lop-sided smile. <They’re certainly refreshing. I kinda like them.>

She narrows her eyes at me. <You would.>

I raise a brow at her. Is that jealousy I detect? Oh, Kaitlynn... To be honest, Calyx is objectively kind of stunning, with their upturned nose and striking eye, but I know the truth.

I could never be attracted to another Yin.

I turn back to Calyx and push down on the slight, irrational annoyance the very sight of them calls up in me. It’s a sense of challenge, of rivalry that I’ve come to recognize comes from dealing with another high-status Yin. Despite it, I really do like them.

I suspect it affects Calyx as well, considering their attitude towards me. Telling them about the likely source of it might help... but I’m definitely not ready to open the can of worms that is my newly discovered Yang-sexuality in front of Kaitlynn.

Instead, I put on my friendliest smile, and say, “We can definitely make a deal. The first level of Breath Control may not be enough to swim quite like me, but it’s enough to swim like her,” I say, using a thumb to indicate Kaitlynn over my shoulder. “In return, I’d like you to teach me all you can about Increase Inertia.”

Calyx looks me in the eye for a long moment, then shows their first, albeit slight, smile. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

A little later, Calyx and I are under-Hydrum, using Telepathy to communicate as I explain the principles behind my mermaid’s tail, and why I think it is that this concept appears to work best out of all the ones I tried.

They listen with rapt attention, and it isn’t long before they’re able to form a rudimentary tail, though it falls apart at the first kick. Soon enough, Calyx declares they can figure the rest out themselves.

We climb back onto the rock so Calyx can hold up their part of the deal. Bob and Kaitlynn appear to have hit it off in the meantime and are chatting about anything and everything.

I quickly tune them out and focus on the questions I’m asking Calyx. “What does the Inertial Energy you use feel like?”

They stare at me for a moment, then look up. “The closest thing I can describe it as is probably molasses.”

Huh. I frown. “Really?”

They shoot me a cool look. “I wouldn’t renege on our deal by selling you a bunch of nonsense, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

I shake my head. “It’s not, it was just unexpected. Could you elaborate on how it feels like molasses?”

They sigh. “Well, it’s not the stickiness, more the way it refuses to flow, to be brought into motion. Yet, there’s also this feeling that it can’t be stopped once it moves.”

I nod. That’s starting to sound more like what I expected. “What else?”

Calyx scratches their head. “I don’t... Look, I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a feeling; it’s hard to put into words. Like I said, I’ll do my best to uphold my side of the bargain, but I can’t explain something in words that I don’t understand on anything but a visceral level.”

I frown again and lapse into silence. To be honest, I’d feared as much. In fact, no matter how well they can describe the feeling, I may not be able to replicate it without experiencing it in a Skilldream.

Still, I don’t want to give up just yet, and something they said nags at me. They can’t explain it in words...

My eyes widen when the idea hits me. “You can show me!”

Calyx raises a single, sculpted brow. “You mean the Skill? Sure, I can—”

I shake my head. “No—at least, not yet. I want you to show me the feeling.”

Calyx blinks. “How the hell am I supposed to do that?”

I smile. “Through a little something called objective meaning.”

Author's Note:

The e-book is getting closer and closer to being ready! ^^

Over the last two weeks I redid all of the tables to display better on an e-reader, and wrote text-to-speech descriptions for all of them. (There's 98 of them in the first book, if I recall correctly ^^')

Not the most fun work, but it's done now, at least.

Anyway, thanks for reading! ^^

If you liked this chapter and please hit that big green button or click here to vote!

And if you have any questions or would just like to chat, come visit my Discord server! (For those who haven't been yet, use this invite link instead) ^^

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