The morning after my second successful tempering, I wake up to find Kaitlynn propped up on one elbow looking at me.
She smiles and boops me on the nose when I open my eyes. “Good morning, sunshine. I didn’t even hear you come in last night.”
It’s so ridiculously domestic, the fact that I don’t necessarily want to gag at it is a little disconcerting.
I clear my throat. “Yeah, I was careful not to wake you.”
Because I was afraid of what might happen if you woke.
“However,” I add, “I managed to do so without staring at you in your sleep like a total creep.”
She laughs, completely ignoring my justified criticism. Rude!
“Did your tempering go well?” she asks.
I sit up and shrug. “See for yourself. Suri, could you show us my Status Window please?”
“46.7%!” Kaitlynn enthuses. “You’re ready to level up!”
I allow myself a small smile. “That I am. Didn’t get Increase Inertia, though.”
She hums, her eyes still flitting over the window. “You did improve your conversion rate for Inertial Energy though, so that’s good, right?”
I nod. “Yeah, I also managed to make Positive Inertial Energy, now I just need to practise applying it like Calyx demonstrated.”
It’s kind of the reverse to Decrease Inertia’s inward spiral, but making it is easier said than done. An inward spiral has a clear direction, a single point that everything heads for. An outward spiral only has a clear origin, but there’s no control from that point, just chaos. From that single point of origin, I need to somehow establish a smooth, spiralling flow, or the results will be entirely unpredictable.
We meet up with the others for our new and improved zirot fruit and seafood breakfast. Eventually, after a slightly heated discussion about Star Wars, Jacob speaks up.
“About today...” he starts. “I gotta be honest: I can’t take another day of doing nothing but breathing, and I believe Alec already gave up yesterday.”
“Hey!” Alec replies. “Did not!”
Jacob rolls his eyes. “Dude, you spent the whole day working on your flag.”
“And what, you think I wasn’t breathing while I did that?” Alec counters. “I’m still alive, aren’t I?”
Kaitlynn clasps a hand over her mouth to contain her giggles.
I poke her in the side and shoot her a look that says, ‘Don’t encourage him!’
She sticks out her tongue at me. So rude!
Shaking my head, I turn to Alec. “Very clever, but don’t pretend that breathing while you’re working on something is the same as working on your breathing. Have you reached the third level of Respiration yet?”
Alec’s bluish skin turns a little purple as he shakes his head.
I nod. “Thought so.”
Jacob sighs. “Alec’s lack of focus aside, I feel like I’ve hit a barrier when it comes to Breath Control, and I’m starting to fear it might be difficult for me to succeed in gaining it at all.”
I frown at him. “Why would you think that?”
He smiles self-deprecatingly. “I’ve been pretty bad at taking in Lavi from basically the minute I got here. I reckon whatever nasty stuff was still in my lungs from all the smoking I did probably became One with my lungs. Otherwise, all those Crystals of Restoration of Purification might have already done something about it, right?”
He looks to Dave for confirmation.
Dave hums thoughtfully. “If you what you fear is true, high-level Regeneration might offer a solution. However, in the meantime, you could probably still learn Breath Control. It’s not really about taking in Lavi, more about interacting with it.”
Jacob looks a little doubtful. “I guess. The thing is, I don’t want to just sit on the side-lines while you three go out hunting.”
“Not that the two of you wouldn’t be a welcome addition,” I say, folding my arms over my chest, “but how would you keep up?”
Jacob glances at me. “Well, you’re still much faster than Kaitlynn and Dave, right?”
“I was thinking you could push our kayak?”
I raise a brow at him. “Stepping over the question of my willingness to be treated like a beast of burden, I don’t think that would help much. Dave and Kaitlynn would be far faster. Moreover, the kayaks are big and heavy, so the manoeuvrability would still be shit.”
“We could all help,” Dave says, clearly warming up to the idea. “Pushing wouldn’t be very comfortable, but if we attach some ropes to the front of the kayak, then we can pull it together. That would improve the manoeuvrability too.”
I mull the idea over for a bit. “We’d still have to be wary of raids or getting boxed in by a large group of the creatures we’re hunting... but if it means that much to you guys, I guess it could serve as a temporary stopgap.”
Jacob smiles excitedly. Alec jumps up and starts whooping and dancing like an idiot.
“This doesn’t mean that the two of you should stop practising, however,” I tell them sternly.
Alec salutes me. Jacob just smiles and nods.
“So, how’s the flag coming along?” The words burst out of Kaitlynn like she’s been keeping them in.
Alec immediately launches into a schpiel. “Well, I’m happy with the overall look, but I want to add a little more detail on the dragons’ heads, you know? I mean, you did a great job with the dyes but it’s still—”
Just when I’m about to tune them out, Dave nudges me. “Emma, look.”
Something about his tone of voice raises my heart rate. He points out at the Hydrum.
My eyes widen. “Is that what I think it is?”
Oh boy. I get up. “Alec, go hang your flag from the watchtower.”
He stops mid-sentence. “What, now? Ehm, weren’t you listening—”
“No, not really, and yes, now. We’ve got company, and I want them to know exactly who they’re dealing with.”
I’m still looking out over the Hydrum, so I don’t see his expression, but I can hear his almost whispered reaction from behind me.
“Oh, frig yeah. You don’t mess with the Blue Dragons, baby!”
Okay, maybe having a team-name is a little cool.
We wait for them at the beach, lined up, in full gear. Thankfully, Alec’s flagrant disregard of his scheduled training left him with more than enough time to fix up all the damage our armours sustained during Operation Let’s Kill Some Friggin Froggos, so our blue-scales are gleaming in the light of the Twinstar.
Behind us, Alec’s ‘flag’—which is actually more of a long banner, when placed like this—hangs down the front of the watchtower. It depicts no fewer than five blue-scaled dragons breathing out various kinds of energy. The ones with the cloud of purple gas, the sea of flames, and the bolt of lightning are quite obvious. I’m assuming the one with beams of green light coming from its mouth is supposed to be Dave and the one with destructive waves of sound is Jacob, since he’s tempering Vibration Energy.
I guess now he’ll have to learn Wave Manipulation, at some point.
All in all, we probably look pretty intimidating to the four guys pulling up on the beach. Which is kind of the point.
“Ahoy there,” Samuel calls out with a wave of his hand. “Permission to, ehm, land?”
His hair is longer than I remember. He’s got the beginnings of two cute little antlers and his skin is a little green.
I hope it’s from levelling up. I hate seeing people barf.
Alec tuts loudly, shakes his head in an exaggerated fashion, and shouts back, “You’re not flying a plane, landlubber! It’s called docking!”
I snort. “What, did wearing an eyepatch and hoisting a flag suddenly turn you into a pirate, Alec?”
He grins at me. “It’s called cosplaying, Emma. Get with the programme!”
Samuel scratches his neck and shares a glance with the other occupant of his kayak, Security Steve, who just shrugs, a slight frown on his orange-tinted face. “There’s not really a dock though, it’s just a beach!” Samuel replies.
I roll my eyes and raise my voice. “You two have permission to come ashore. The other kayak can stay right there.”
“Oh yeah?” Bruce grunts from the other kayak. His skin has taken on a bronzed hue, and his bull’s horns are not unlike Dave’s except he has a third one sticking straight up from the top of his forehead. “Or what?”
The last of the quartet of guys—a gaunt looking dude with yellowy skin—pokes at him, and hisses something under his breath that I can’t quite make out. Bruce grunts and keeps looking at me defiantly.
I raise a brow at him. “Kaitlynn?”
Kaitlynn steps forward and touches her glowing Focus Crystal to her throat.
Samuel holds up his hands placatingly. “Hold on, we come in peace, I swe—”
Kaitlynn’s crystal turns bright orange, then starts to dim as she pulls the Heat she’s produced through her skin into the compressed Aether rushing through her windpipe. The Heat causes the already prodigious amount of compressed Aether to expand wildly as it leaves her mouth, resulting in a massive gout of Astreum that streaks over their heads, radiating oppressive Heat.
They all stare at her wide-eyed, except for Bruce, who frowns. Kaitlynn coughs lightly and rubs her throat, before stepping back in line.
I nod approvingly at her, and she bites her lip to suppress a smile. She’s gotten a lot better at that recently; her first tempering really helped.
I clear my throat and turn back to Bruce. “This island belongs to the Blue Dragons. Trespassers will be flame broiled. Understood?”
Bruce averts his gaze with a huff and crosses his arms over his chest. The action clearly reveals the part where his right wrist ends in a stump of flesh.
“He should attach a hook to that thing,” Jacob mutters. “Then he could cosplay with Alec.”
I cover my grin by coughing into my hand.
Samuel clears his throat. “We understand. Then, Steve and I will... come ashore.”
Alec sticks up a thumb. “Much better!”
As soon as the Hydrum is shallow enough, Steve jumps out and pulls the kayak onto the sand, his muscles no doubt rippling beneath the drab brown armour they’re all wearing. His ram’s horns are not unlike mine.
I catch a glimpse of something shiny in their kayak, and surreptitiously crane my neck a little to get a better look at it.
It seems to be a transparent crystal spear with veins of purple through it. Interesting... does that one also come from the Fourth Trial? I wonder how it differs from Alec’s trident, aside from shape.
It doesn’t seem like an appropriate time to ask about it, unfortunately. Instead, we exchange some awkward pleasantries, until Dave speaks up.
“What’s this really about, Samuel?” he asks, not unkindly.
Samuel glances at me and then Kaitlynn. “Truth be told, I came here to attempt to mediate in your ongoing conflict with Bruce, in the hopes that our teams might cooperate in the future. For example, by hunting together.”
Kaitlynn scoffs. “You expect me to work with him? After what he did in Hub Two?”
“I’m not saying you have to forgive him—” Samuel tries.
“Good, because I won’t!”
“—but maybe you can start over, so to speak,” he pleads. “A fresh Hub, a fresh slate. After all,” he continues, turning to me, “you want something from me as well.”
“Oh please,” I say, rolling my eyes. “If there comes a time your team loses a member, it’ll be in your best interest to come to us anyway. That’s not you doing me a favour.”
He falters. Steve takes over. “There’s strength in numbers. We should be working together, instead of fighting amongst ourselves, that’s what the council always stood for.”
“Yeah, until it arrived here,” Jacob mutters under his breath.
Steve smiles wryly. “Look, I’ll be frank. We didn’t just come here to make nice: we need your help. In order to level up and move on from this Hub, we’ll need to conquer a medium-sized island like you guys. Bruce and I can hold our own, but Samuel and Kevin aren’t the best fighters, so we’re lacking muscle. Hunting together is just an idea, but we could really use your help with this. So... would you help us, please? We’d owe you big time.”
I glance at Kaitlynn. I can tell she’s wavering. Such a big heart. She looks at me and shrugs in a way that says. ‘It’s up to you.’
Mmm. This is a tough one. On the one hand, screw Bruce. On the other hand, I actually like Steve and Samuel, and wouldn’t be opposed to helping them. We could work out a deal in which we take half the crystals they get as loot...
Before I can work anything out, Dave’s voice enters my head. <Perhaps we should let Jacob make the final decision. He’s got the longest past with Bruce, and he’s the one with an actual stake in this, considering he doesn’t have a partner.>
That’s a fair point. What Dave doesn’t say, is that it’s also a good way to show Jacob that he matters.
“Jacob, what do you reckon?” I therefore ask out loud.
Jacob blinks and shoots me a questioning glance. I nod encouragingly. He glances at Kaitlynn, then at Bruce. “I’m not against charity,” he starts, “but not if it’s for Bruce. If they’re willing to dump him and allow me to partner up with one of them for the next Trial, then we should help them.”
My eyes widen. Now that’s some cutthroat negotiating! It’s a good thing Bruce is out of hearing range.
Samuel blinks. “Ehm, that’s a rather drastic request, surely—”
“No,” I interject coolly, folding my arms across my chest. “Jacob’s right. If you want us to risk our lives to help safeguard yours, that will be the price. Anything less would, frankly, not be worth our while.”
Steve and Samuel share a glance. They seem to communicate silently, probably by means of Telepathy, since I can’t read anything off their faces. They turn back together.
“I’m sorry,” Samuel says, directing it to me. “That’s not something we’re willing to do.”
I pointedly look over at Jacob for his opinion.
There’s a cold expression on his face. “In that case,” he says. “I reckon they should piss off. And then when that asshole stabs them in the back sometime in the future, they can come back on their hands and knees and ask nicely if I’ll take one of them as my partner.”
Steve’s face drops. Samuel sighs.
“Well, there you have it,” I say lightly. “Sorry boys, but if you’re not willing to ‘lose the Bruce,’ I’ll have to ask you to leave. We have more to do today.”
They depart in silence. I watch them leave with mixed feelings but maintain an impassive façade for as long as they’re in hearing range.
Dave speaks up first. “We should probably unfriend Samuel. They’re able to track our movements on his map right now.”
I narrow my eyes. “Damn, you’re right; we never unfriended him back in Hub Two. However, at least one of us should keep him listed for the raid warnings. Shall I?”
Dave shakes his head. “No, it’d be better if it were me. I’m better at Telepathy. Plus, they probably fear you more. Not knowing where you are should be a good deterrent from any shenanigans.”
I snort, but nod in agreement. I ask Suri to unfriend Samuel, and the others—apart from Dave—follow suit. Jacob mutters the words rather angrily.
I turn to him with a sigh. “We’ll get you a partner, Jacob. I swear.”
He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Can we go hunting now? I really need to kill something.”
I nod. “We can. Alec?”
Alec salutes me. “Aye, cap’n?”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes. “Go grab some of those ropes you made in Hub Two, we need something to pull a kayak by.”
“Aye aye, cap’n!”
Actually, I could get used to this.
“I’ll go feed Loudmouth!” Kaitlynn shouts as she runs off.
I hesitate only for a fraction of a second, before I decide that this is a great time to blow off Charming Loudmouth and to conveniently ‘forget’ it later, so I can save my Espir for an attempt to enter the Realm of Imagination.
Having made my decision, I busy myself overseeing the preparations on the kayak. Soon enough, three sturdy ropes are attached to the front of the kayak, and the five of us are prepared to set off.
“All right guys,” I say. “Let’s go get some Vibration Crystals.”
I highly recommend looking up today's title reference. It's pure gold.
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P.S. The test came back negative, so I don't have COVID-19 😁