- Part 17

Cosmic Girl, Starry Sky
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From outside the edge of the city, the border of Mara Artemis extended ever onwards to both sides, like a wall of light that stood firm facing the deep unknown.

The wilderness that laid beyond the distance sprawled dark and gloomy in comparison, its bioluminescent flora barely keeping up with the wistful lights from the murmuring metropolis.

At once, the feeling of leaving the comfort zone of civilization to challenge the forces of nature sprang fear up within my heart. To take the step forward was to bear the responsibility for our own actions, with no immediate help in reach to turn to.

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

To my left, the girl in her bubblegum-violet spacesuit looked at me with a concerned expression.

She brought out a window and typed something into it, and a notification rang in my system soon after.

Luda: Are you okay?

Ah.

The nervousness must have showed up on my face.

Even disregarding her position as a member of my favourite girl group, it wasn’t a good idea to bring down the morale of the team by showing weakness, especially while we were still at the beginning of the quest.

You: Yeah, I’m fine.

I pulled out the harpoon from my inventory and gripped the handle tightly in both hands. Having already armed herself with it, she pointed the sharp end forwards, signaling for us to advance.

We held our weapons close and moved onward, keeping our guard up as we allowed the darkness to envelop our surroundings.

As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, the luminous coral and vegetation gradually illuminated the environment around us, their sparse distribution giving it the appearance of an open expanse of grassland underwater.

At this time, I realized that we were swimming through the scenery, rather than walking on the seabed that made up the ‘ground’ of this landscape. It wasn’t obvious at first, but the three-dimensional movement this afforded would affect how we fight our battles, especially in tandem with our reduced movement speed in the water.

You: Shall we go a little faster?

Luda: Sure 👌

I hooked up a rechargeable battery from my inventory to the spacesuit, and directed its power to the jet module on my feet.

Switching to its sustained propulsion mode, I felt my body accelerate forward through the water, propelled by the jet streams generated by the device in my shoes.

Activating her underwater movement assistance system, Luda glided effortlessly along her generated current of water, keeping up with my speed. It seemed to work by exerting a force on the water surrounding her whole body, from what I read in the description; different from my jet module, which was like a pair of boosters strapped onto my legs.

Facilitated by this additional speed, we cruised through the underwater grassland, a mostly empty region of the seabed apart from the occasional coral bush or rock.

After a while, a field of numerous, tall kelp-like plants came into view in front of us. The dimly glowing shoots grew close to one another, making the area look like a grove of dense, tall-growing bamboo.

Touching a single plant, I could bend it without much force. The description pertaining to the plant appeared soon after, detailing its name as well as a summary of its characteristics.

Artema Longweed.

Reading the description, I found out that this common ocean vegetation quickly grows and recovers from harvesting, and that simple biological substrates and media could be made from all parts of the plant.

I turned to Luda and made a motion of sliding my hand through the field of longweeds.

She looked upwards at the open ocean which hung above the forest, and my eyes followed hers. The length of shoots that made up the grove ended at a certain height, but above them nothing else was in sight.

Luda: Good idea.

Luda: We don’t want to stand out to whatever may be up there.

Nodding to her, I turned back to the field of longweeds and slowly swam into the area. Moving among the shoots wasn’t that difficult, only having to push aside the occasional plant that blocked our way. Following behind with her smaller stature, Luda certainly fared better than I did.

Swimming through this quiet grove of swaying longweeds, I took the initiative to cut down a few nearby shoots with the PBS.

The blade sizzled in the water as it sliced through the soft tissue, and I coiled the lengths of shoots I cut and stored them in the inventory.

Luda used her blaster to shoot through a section of the plants, the intense heat burning through and severing the stems before long.

I opened the inventory window and used the crafting system to process my harvest. The yield I got from them was mostly biological material, but I also got some bioluminescent essence from it.

Hmm.

I examined the possible options that came up from further working with the materials we got. As expected, the recipe for a simple culture and cultivation kit appeared, as did one for a makeshift vine-like rope. Scrolling through the other products, however,

There it is!

My guess hit the mark.

I saw Luda in the distance, still shooting off a few longweeds with her blaster.

Bringing up the chat window:

You: Do you want to hang around for a while and make lanterns from these trees?

Luda: Lantern?

You: Yeah. We can make a simple one by making the bioluminescent microbes feed on the nutrients extracted from the plants.

With enough ‘fuel’ to supply them with energy, the light producers should be able to keep glowing bright and long enough to be useful.

Luda: That’s a good idea.

Luda: Wait, why don’t you just make a normal electric lamp? You’ve got glass, metal, even a power supply.

She’s got a point, to be honest. However,

You: Nah, I want to save as much of my power sources as possible to keep my jet module running.

You: I don’t know how far we have to go, and I don’t want to run out of energy in the middle of the trip.

She gathered up her own harvest and put them away. Then, typing into the holographic screen,

Luda: Sounds rough. Maybe I should teach you how to make the energy transport system as well.

Luda: Can you pass over some of your glass, KC? I already have the lighting filament, but I need it for the bulb itself.

Yeah, I nodded to her in response. The excess of materials I bought back on Daptel was precisely for scenarios like this one.

You: I’ll send them over to you.

Setting aside a good amount of the galss, I selected the option to transfer them to her inventory.

Luda: Got it. Give me a minute.

As she worked on her lamp, I dove deeper down the grove and looked for more of the luminous vegetation on the seabed, mining the few rock formations I could find with the all-purpose tool.

Manganese, cobalt, vanadium…

I checked off the materials from Carthena’s list. She needed a lot of cobalt, but I happened to have bought that particular metal as part of my shopping in Daptel. From the deposits lodged within the rock, I was able to mine enough manganese and vanadium to fulfill the list’s required quantities.

The components for the lantern were also quickly gathered: Bioluminescent essence, reduced biological material for the fuel, and some resin from my supplies for the structure. I crafted the lantern from my inventory, bringing it out and holding it up to light my surroundings.

It wasn’t as bright as a conventional lamp, but it was still better than having to rely on the lights from the environment.

At that time, a bright light shone down from above, lighting up my figure and the seabed around me.

Luda: Thanks, KC 👍

It was from the flashlight she finished making. It was much brighter than my lantern, but the light beamed forward in a cone, while mine illuminated all around.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shadow of red further into the grove, obscured by the thicker bases of the longweeds.

I waved at Luda and pointed in the direction of the shadow, before swimming closer to it.

Moving tens of metres across the field, past the swaying kelp-like shoots, I came upon a small clearing, where no other plant grew around the leafless, underwater red tree that appeared before me.

At once, a signal went off in my spacesuit. Examining the system, it seems to have come from the danger and hostility sensor I installed before leaving the city.

Is that it?

Looking back, I saw Luda follow after my trail from higher up in the grove. She also saw the large oak-like coral, the highest of its glowing red branches close to her eye level.

I quickly brought up my chat window and typed.

You: This is the one, right, Luda?

She made some more distance from the tree and replied.

Luda: Wait, KC. I’ll use the reticulator to make sure.

Fiddling with the system from another window, a ring of light suddenly appeared around her head, resolving into several holographic screens that covered her eyes.

That must be the Resource Reticulator. This was the first time I saw her use it.

After a few seconds,

Luda: Yep, that’s the one, KC. I’m glad we haven’t bumped into it by accident.

Luda: There are a few more around the area, but this one should be enough for our needs.

You: Got it.

From her words, it was confirmed that the leafless red tree-like coral in front of us was an Umbrella Millepore. While not really an active threat to us, the toxins contained in its branches can cause severe burns to anyone careless enough to lay a hand on it.

The substance contained in this organism was a target of ours in this expedition.

I held the lantern in one hand and brought out the all-purpose tool with the other. Piercing the needle of the tool into a low-hanging branch, I ran the suction function on it and drew out a clear red fluid from the Millepore.

Crafting a few small containers from the polymer material in my inventory, I emptied the substance into one of them, closed the lid and waited for the description to appear.

‘Red Accelerant x1’

Yep, that’s the one.

The container was filled to the brim with that translucent liquid, more than enough to fulfill our requirements.

Finished with the extraction process, I moved away from the tree coral and switched to the chat window.

You: See anything else around here?

Higher up in the grove, Luda turned her body around, scanning the area using the holograms around her eyes.

After a few seconds, she deactivated the reticulator and shook her head at me.

Luda: Nothing apart from the Millepore and the minerals on the seabed.

Luda: You’ve mined everything you need from them, right?

You: Yeah.

You: Let’s move on, then.

Ascertaining the direction of the nearest geyser in my navigation, we continued to swim through the longweed grove, avoiding any other Umbrella Millepore we saw.

---

A small ship that looked like a submarine passed over our heads above the Artema Longweed grove, its ers gently whirring as it zoomed into the distance.

Seeing it swim away from us,

Luda: I wonder why we didn’t think to rent one of those for this mission, KC.

Luda: It’ll make the trip shorter, won’t it?

You: I guess it slipped our mind, with Carthena saying how near the geysers were, just ‘outside the city boundaries’.

You: Then again…

Seeing a crevice in the seabed in front of me, I turned to Luda and waved to her.

She was still higher up in the field of kelp-like plants, using her lamp as a searchlight from her vantage point while I held mine up to light the way on the ground.

‘Over here’

Luda saw the signal I made and dove down to join back up with me.

A few metres away, the crevice on the seabed opened up to reveal the top of a submerged cave, illuminated by the colourful flowery coral hanging from the ceiling.

You: From my navigation system, there should be a geyser in this cave.

Luda and I made eye contact, and she nodded at me.

‘Let’s go’

I returned her gesture, and the two of us dove into the underwater cave.

As we sank deeper into the cavern, the luminescent flora swayed in the water, surrounding us and bathing our figures in their light.

Among the various species of coral blooming throughout the cave, I managed to pick out a few clusters of a petite, brain-shaped organism, slowly expanding and contracting as if they breathed in the seawater.

Dwarf Brain Corals!

I pumped my fist in quiet celebration.

This was another one of our targets; the Nioterine salt they produced was one of the materials on the list.

Luda: Should I take care of the limestone, KC?

Beside me, Luda pointed to a colony of purple corals that looked like giant roses blooming on a boulder by the cave floor.

Similar to the ones in real life, limestone could be found in almost all coral species within Nadeum’s oceans. Of them, the fleshy Argon Foliose colonies yield an impressive amount of the carbonate mineral.

Strong, pure limestone like the ones they made was another material we needed.

You: Yes, please. Thanks, Luda.

She gave me an OK sign and approached the nearest colony, taking out her all-purpose tool and digging out the hardened rock right below where it was.

Returning to my own task, I carefully moved over to the brain corals and set the lantern down nearby. I took out another container in my left hand and kept the right one free.

Cautiously wrapping my fingers around the shot-ball sized coral,

Frrrrr…

I squeezed its entire body gently, causing it to release a sandy white substance into the mouth of the container I held close to it.

The Nioterine salt was fortunately not that soluble in Nadeum’s seawater, but it was still difficult to contain them while we were underwater. The amount of salt I got from one colony wasn’t enough.

I closed the lid on the container and moved on to another Dwarf Brain Coral, repeating the process.

I made sure to squeeze enough of the salt out of the coral while not harming the structure of the soft organism. Its texture made my skin crawl a little, like a ball of yarn with the consistency of a sea cucumber.

After a few more colonies, I was able to collect the required amount of the Nioterine salts and swam back to where Luda was.

She looked like she was finished with her part as well. The girl opened her inventory window and transferred the coral limestone over to mine.

Luda: So far, so good.

Nodding to each other, we began to move deeper down the underwater cave, where the local ecosystem became denser and lusher away from the open ocean.

We came across an area full of coral and marine flora deeper intothe cave. The entire thing looked like a luminous flower garden to us, a festival of lights celebrated by the wildlife of the deep ocean.

Luda: Beautiful.

You: Yeah.

However, before we decided to continue moving forward through the underwater gare, I saw a group of white-red barnacle shaped shoots in the distance, hidden well among the flowery petals of the other corals.

Uh oh.

Before I could finish that thought, the hostility sensor once again rang its alarm, warning me that something dangerous was around the area.

That’s them, all right.

I nudged Luda’s side and pointed to the bulbs.

Luda: I see them, KC.

Luda: They’re everywhere.

Reading her message, I jerked back and observed our surroundings in panic.

She was right: There were clusters of Ormand Garrote Bulbs around the entire garden. On the walls, the ceilings, on the cave floor interspersed with the other corals; they were all over the place.

This isn’t very good.

These predatory sessile creatures grow among other luminous organisms, snagging whatever leaned too close to them with their long, barbed appendages and digesting their prey inside their mouths.

It was in our interest to find out where these Garrote Bulbs were, as they were also a target of this mission: The Garrote Shards that make up their thorns are one of the materials Carthena wanted us to get.

Still, I wasn’t confident that we could fight an entire group of these predators and win; facing any direction in this cave would leave my blind spot open to at least a few of them on the opposite side.

You: Let’s move to the edge of the area, Luda.

You: They can’t move, so the ones further inside won’t be able to reach us.

Luda agreed to my suggestion, and we retreated back outside the underwater garden and prepared ourselves.

I brought out the Everest Accolade, whose weight sank me to the cave floor close to one of the bulbs by the entrance.

Luda remained suspended in the water, readying her scattergun and creating some distance away from the one nearest to her hanging from the roof.

I fired a shot from my blaster into the bulb, signifying the beginning of the fight.

Almost simultaneously, the Ormand Garrote Bulbs all let out a grisly hiss, launching their sharp long tongues at us in unison. Even the ones further into the garden were alerted to our presence, readying their extensions to attack us as soon as we were in their range.

However, this collective behaviour allowed us to find out the maximum length of their barbed appendages.

You: About five metres!

Blocking an assault of sharp tentacles with the Accolade in shield form, I quickly sent the message in chat and retreated backwards as fast as I could.

As the barbed extensions collided against the shield, the metal plates made a strange sound, like what a gong would make if it had the tonal signature of a bell. Hearing it for the first time made me shudder a little, but I could see every single tendril in front of me coil in anguish, allowing me the opportunity to escape their grasp.

That saved me…!

The disorienting chord was able to confuse the Garrote Bulbs long enough for me to create a good distance between them. Even the other coral species seemed to tremble at the sound of it.

Luda: Got it!

We managed to retreat outside of the effective range of the barbed extensions.

The Ormand Bulbs could not move, and both of us had projectile weapons in our arsenal; now that we were out of their attack distance, we can shoot the bulbs down without having to put ourselves in harm’s way.

Then, using the harpoon, we can pull out the barbed extensions from their bodies and harvest the Garotte Shards out of them.

Taking out our blasters, the two of us started firing down our opponents, giving them no chance to fight back. The bulbs were hardy, but they eventually gave in to the volley of laser rounds and were blasted to pieces.

You: It’s much better if we have control of the battlefield.

As the ones at the edge of the garden fell, we slowly closed back into the area and continued to shoot at the targets inside it.

Luda: Without the initiative of stealth on their side, it’s no surprise that they would lose the fight.

At this rate, we could easily decimate the entire colony of Ormand Bulbs in the garden if we wished to. However, five or six of them were enough to net us the Garrote Shards we needed.

Suddenly, a strong current of water pushed on our backs, toppling us out of our firing stance.

What!?

Coming from behind us in the cave, the high-pressure current of seawater blasted us forward, straight into the centre of the garden.

Crap.

Without something like my heavy shield to hold on to, Luda was thrown further away from my position. We were split up, and right in the middle of the cluster of Ormand Bulbs, well within their reach.

Seizing the moment, the dozen or so bulbs around us flailed and whipped their barbed tongues at us, sparing no quarter in their vicious assault.

“Gah!”

My screams came out as garbled noise as the sharp extensions chipped away at my arms and legs. The Hazard Shield and my internal armour cooperated to nullify the damage I received, but the pain was still there.

Trying my best to endure the attacks, I looked around to see how Luda was faring on her end of the siege.

However, just as my eyes were able to seek her out, a purple flash dashed past all of us in the garden.

At once, the atmosphere in the entire battlefield changed.

Don’t tell me…!?

“Luda!!”

I wanted to yell this out, but muffled by the breather on my face, her name only came out as incoherent noise.

Hearing the sounds I made, the girl in the distance turned back to look in my direction.

I could see the horrified expression in her eyes.

No sooner after we found out what was happening, a swarm of countless red-purple fish, each no larger than my palm, came upon everyone in the battlefield.

On either side of their bodies, a single yellow spot could be found. This was the final sign we needed to know what these fishes were.

Orchid Locustfish…!!

This is bad: I really didn’t want to meet them in this mission!

On one explorer’s guide for Nadeum, I read up on the major dangers we could expect to come across while in the abyss.

…High up on the list was this species of fish.

True to their name, the Orchid Locustfish are infamously known for moving in swarms that will ravage every single lifeform in their path when they are hungry or threatened.

The dim yellow spots behind their side fins will turn red when this happens.

Alerted to this danger, all of us froze still in our positions. Even the Garrote Bulbs that were attacking us held their whipping tongues suspended in the water, afraid to move a single muscle.

I held my breath as we watched the school of fish swim on by, letting them go about their business.

Then, the two of us could barely hold our lips shut as we saw several of them turn red, apparently seeing a particularly fleshy coral wave about in the water.

Go on, fishies, it’s not that tasty anyway. Come on, don’t spoil your dinner…!

I mentally urged them to go away, despite possessing no telepathic ability.

After a few seconds,

Phew!

I felt the entire battlefield let out a sigh of relief, as the fish fortunately went back to yellow.

With nothing here of interest to them, the swarm of locustfish didn’t stay around long, moving out of the submerged cave through a wide breach on the roof.

I caught my breath again and turned to Luda, making sure that she was alright,

Seeing her put her hand on her chest, I couldn’t help but chuckle at what just happened to us.

We were genuinely afraid of an in-game enemy, which was also scary enough to petrify the other enemy we were fighting!

However,

You: Luda, your leg!!

Seeing a tendril from an Ormand Garotte Bulb slowly coil around her leg while she was distracted, I snapped back to the situation at hand and messaged her.

As I fumbled for my blaster, Luda realized what was happening. Even then, before I could shoot the appendage around her leg, the bulb jerked back its extension and yanked Luda down into the cave floor, breaking several fragile corals to pieces in the process.

At the same time, several other tendrils looped themselves around my limbs and neck, probably planning to tear my body into shreds and unceremoniously end my life.

A few of them began to curl around the Accolade, trying to pull it out of my grasp.

They were quick with their work, pulling me in several directions and tightly strangling my neck.

However,

Big mistake, guys.

I gripped the charged shield in my hand, activated the red lifeforce channels, and,

“VVVOOOOORRRRMMM”

The Accolade’s metal plates glowed red-hot as it rose to incredibly high temperatures, causing the tendrils taut around it to burn to ashes.

Even the seawater around the shield began to boil, scalding my hand which was holding the insulated handle.

Hot, hot, hot!

As the other barbed tongues recoiled from the surplus heat, they loosened their grip enough for me to move around a little.

Checkmate.

I operated the Everest Accolade, switching it to its axe form, and swung it wildly all around the place.

Operating such a heavy weapon underwater, the speed at which I spun the blade of the Accolade all over was pathetically slow. Still, thanks to the glowing hot metal, I was able to scare the Ormand Bulbs into retracting their tendrils, letting me go.

I have to be quick with this!

Picking up a nearby piece of rock, I struck it against the red-hot metal blade, ringing the strange chord once again and interfering with the bulbs’ coordination.

Then, switching out the Accolade for my Pulsar Beam Saber, I launched myself off of the cave floor with the and propelled myself in Luda’s direction with the boost from my jet module.

I reached her just in time for her to break free of the single tendril pulling her by the leg. Brandishing the saber, I cut the length of sharp tongue short, rendering it unable to fight back. Luda aimed her blaster and fired a few holes through the bulb’s main body, finishing it off.

As we hurled ourselves through the water, Luda and I made eye contact.

What now? Her gaze asked.

I showed her a gesture of slicing my own neck with the saber.

Kill them.

We flashed each other a vicious grin, then lunged into the onslaught of barbed tendrils all intent to orchestrate our deaths.

As the cluster of Ormand bulbs resumed their attack against us, I grabbed an appendage that barely missed my neck and used it to pull myself towards its main body, piercing it with my saber.

Similarly, the girl suspended above the garden activated her underwater movement assistance system, weaving through her opponents’ attacks with the elegance of a dancer. Exploiting a gap in their defenses, Luda reached the exposed main bodies in no time, then,

“SMASH”

She crushed the Ormand Bulbs under the forceful blows of her aluminum pipe.

Remind me not to get on her bad side.

Making that mental note for myself, the two of us continued to massacre our way through the battlefield, cutting down any Ormand Garrote Bulb that dared to bare its fangs against us.

---

The battle ended before long, leaving us with a much larger yield than we really needed.

Leaving only a few of them alive, we were finally out of harm’s way and free to go deeper into the cave.

There were interesting materials and resources in the garden of coral we were in, but we didn’t want to damage the place more than we already did from the fight.

Leaving the area, we quietly traversed the network of corridors that made up the rest of the underwater cave.

We had the general direction of the geyser marked in our navigation systems. However, they weren’t able to tell us which route to take to get there, which meant that we had to deal with going through this maze-like network ourselves.

Maybe I should get a terrain mapping function sometime.

If we’re going to go exploring a lot, minimizing the chances of getting lost sounds like a worthwhile investment.

Luda: Take a look at this, KC.

Luda, who was checking her inventory, approached my side and showed the contents of her window.

==

Craft: Barnacle Whip

Required Materials:

Garrote Shards x5

Garrote Tongue x3

Bulb Lipid x5

==

Luda: This looks like it’ll be useful.

Our harvest from the battle was more than enough to afford crafting the weapon she showed. Certainly, the Ormand Bulbs’ barbs can make for a deadly set of spikes for the whip.

You: Sure, let’s do it.

You: I Don’t think it’ll be that useful underwater, though, and do save some of the raw materials so that we can sell them later.

Luda: Got it 👌

At this time, our navigation systems notified us that we were finally close to our destination.

You: Looks like it’s somewhere on this level.

We nodded to each other and swam forward. This section of the underwater cave was dimly lit, but the light from my lantern and Luda’s lamp was more than enough to illuminate our surroundings in its stead.

After a few moments of trial and error, we came upon the entrance to a well-hidden enclosure, quite deep into the cave and well away from the open ocean. In our silent exploration, the rumble of the geyser was impossible to miss.

Going through the relatively large entrance, we finally saw the cluster of thermal vents that made up the geyser, in the centre of a giant room.

Situated by the hydrothermal vents were various kinds of shiny curiosities and oddities, including what looked like black pearls the size of bowling balls.

There were indeed many things in this room… but no living creature was in sight.

Luda: Looks like a dud, KC.

Luda: This .

The girl beside me met my eyes, shrugging her shoulders.

Like she said, no Borejawn Crowncelps could be seen around the room.

Those collagen-centric creatures weren’t small by any means, and they don’t have the habit of hiding or covering themselves up; they really weren’t there.

Letting out an inward sigh,

You: Yeah, what a shame.

You: Guess that’s just how it is sometimes.

However,

From the lustre of the collectibles piled up in the centre of the enclosure, it wasn’t difficult to make an educated guess on what this enclosed space may be.

You: …You know what kind of place this is, don’t you, Luda?

Luda: …Yes, I do, actually.

A closed-off place devoid of life in an otherwise bustling underwater environment, filled instead to the brim with trinkets and baubles.

Luda: Whatever that’s living in this room won’t be happy to see us here.

Before we could even make the choice to leave the enclosure quietly, the mountain of treasures began to shudder, the glistening curiosities and pearls pouring away to reveal a giant silhouette underneath.

You: Welp.

Here comes the boss battle.

---

You: Lud-|

“SLGUGFBLBRLGB!!”

I couldn’t even send out my next message before a dark red shadow obscured my vision. In the of complete darkness, a brutal force crushed my body between itself, and the world spun around me as I smashed onto the cave’s rocky wall face first.

Shaken from the shock of the impact, I barely managed turn around and see the form of the shadow that attacked me: A giant red pincer which grabbed my torso and pinned me against the wall of the enclosure, all in the span of three seconds.

Joined to the crab-like claw as a giant monster that emerged from the cloud of detritus it whipped up: A mound-sized clamshell that made up a main body, from which I could count seven huge carapace-covered limbs extending out, menacingly sharp grippers each twice the size of my body.

Four of them held the clam-crab monster against the floor of the enclosure, while another pushed against my diaphragm, restraining me on the wall and ready to turn me into mincemeat at any given moment.

“!!”

The other two claws aimed at Luda, launching themselves at her with incredible force. She had already moved far away from the beast, so none of its two claws managed to catch her petite, agile figure. However, she was unable to completely avoid the second blow, and the force of the collision blasted her away, further back into the enclosure.

I drew a gasp of filtered air through my breather, trying to keep myself calm.

A Claret Regal Cortispire!!

Treasure hoarders who hide away from the open ocean, preferring to rob unwitting explorers or other animals of their valuable possessions in narrow caves like these.

While I was researching the Borejawn Crowncelps, the interesting shape of this animal piqued my interest, so I read up a little on it.

I must have missed the part that explained how large these things could get.

There were no eyes or visual organs I could see on the body of the Cortispire. However, the next few seconds went by in a deafening silence as I felt the monster stare me down, as if contemplating how much of its energy it should use to kill me.

Then, lowering the clamshell body on the floor, it made its decision.

I saw its four legs crouch on the enclosure ground, pulling its body in a direction opposite mine.

Crap, this dude’s mad!

The giant clam-crab hybrid monster was going to throw the entire weight of its body on mine and squash me flat!

Panicked, I wildly shot my blaster at the pincers and body of the Cortispire. However, both the clamshell and the carapace armour of the monster proved tough, standing up a few laser rounds without apparent damage.

The claw that kept me pinned against the wall didn’t budge at all, leaving me little chance to escape.

Will my internal armour and shield survive this one hit?

I racked my brain to think about anyway to escape this situation. Crossbow? Accolade? Assaudine Solution? All these options ran through my mind like streaks of thought, but none of them felt like a viable solution.

Just as I was about to give up,

“BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!”

A series of shockwaves resounded on the other side of the Cortispire.

Turning to the source of the sound, I saw Luda firing her hydropump grenade launcher as much as she could.

The bombs which glowed blue with rampaging energy exploded on impact with the monster’s clamshell body, causing it to shudder from the force.

She must have thought to save me by using her strongest weapon against the giant beast. I saw the determined look in her eyes as she kept firing the grenade launcher held in both her hands, bracing the recoil from each shot.

However, the grip it had on my body didn’t loosen at all. Instead, the two claws that attacked Luda before picked up large rocks scattered around the enclosure floor, throwing them at her in rapid succession.

Not only was it intelligent enough to see through Luda’s plan to free me, it could also divide its focus equally among the two of us, not allowing either me or Luda any leeway to make our further moves.

Still struggling to release myself, I helplessly watched as Luda did the most she could to evade the torrent of marine rocks, propelling herself in unpredictable directions using the assisted underwater movement system.

After several throws, the Cortispire began to pick out patterns she subconsciously leaned towards in her movement, estimating her path of travel and timing its throws to match it.

Some of the smaller boulders, slung at a much greater velocity than the others, grazed her thin body. The accumulating pain and fatigue, together with the strong currents the throws generated, eventually let a mistake slip, throwing her off the path she meticulously planned.

“!!!”

That was enough to give the beast the opportunity it needed.

Landing it square on her body, the monster knocked Luda out of the water mid-flight with a rock larger than her.

Damn it.

Anger welled up within me, furious at the monster for hurting Luda more than anything else.

It was the same maddening emotion I felt back on Udepra, when the Flagrant Roar burnt Dawon’s arms with its fire.

God damn it!!

The figure of the girl crashed against the floor of the enclosure with a heavy crunch, knocking up no small cloud of debris around her.

However, it didn’t change the fact that I was unable to do anything; my body still pinned against the wall, my own life at the mercy of this gargantuan hoarding beast.

Urgh.

Accepting the reality of the situation, I tried to regain control of my emotions, stabilizing my breathing which was straining the Aquifer air filter to its limits.

Think, KC, think…!

I was unable to move, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t help her in any other way!

I brazenly looked all around the place, searching for any clue that could help Luda in her fight against the Cortispire.

The enclosure was a large space, and even the entrance was big enough for the giant beast to use.

The treasures? Most of them were shiny, decorative parts, and the one or two weapons I saw among them looked clearly out of order.

The Cortispire! …Its armour was flawless, the carapace covering its claws flowing right below the extremely hard clamshell of the main body.

None of our weapons could penetrate through such a thick exoskeleton, as Luda found out the hard way.

Narrowing my eyes, I continued to observe the monster’s behaviour as it scrambled for rocks large enough to use for its finishing blow on Luda, who was struggling to get up from the attack she received just before.

Wait.

‘Scrambling’ for rocks?

The Cortispire was running out of boulders to throw onto its target, the girl who laid unmoving on the other side of the enclosure.

…It was rummaging through the pile of treasures, looking for a boulder it can use to finish her off.

That’s it!

I quietly spread open my palm and moved my fingers.

!!

The monster realized that I was attempting to communicate with her, sparing no moment to tighten its grip around my torso.

“AAARRRRGGGHHHH!!!”

I wailed in pain, my screams echoing throughout the room in garbled, bubbling noise.

The beast knew better to prevent anyone from interfering with its plans, no matter how much of a situational advantage it had.

However, it miscalculated just one thing in its otherwise tactically competent thought process; What it was that I attempted to do.

I wasn’t trying to signal something to her with my hands.

The chat window flashed, acknowledging the short message that I sent to Luda.

You: Destroy its loot.

In the distance, I saw the window appear in front of her.

Almost instantaneously, the girl launched herself higher up in the air, breaking away from the vulnerability she faked in front of the monster.

She swung her grenade launcher beneath the feet of the Cortispire and fired.

All three of us watched the glowing blue charge arc towards the mound of treasure in a clear trajectory.

As soon as it made contact with the pile, the grenade exploded, blasting no small amount of precious collectibles to smithereens.

The giant clam-crab hybrid froze for a few seconds, in disbelief of what it just witnessed.

Then,

“RRROOOOOOAAAAARRRRRR”

With no regard for anything else, it forcefully pushed its entire body off the ground in Luda’s direction, flailing all three of its heavy claws at her in a berserk state.

In its madness, it threw my body violently onto the ground as it went after my teammate. Fortunately, I landed on a smaller pile of treasure, so I was mostly unharmed.

Free from its clutches, I couldn’t help pausing to catch my breath, steadying my stance and preparing to join in the battle.

Opening the inventory once again, I looked through my arsenal and planned for my next attack. At this point in time, I realized how much I needed heavy-duty firepower of my own as well.

Can’t believe I made the exact same mistake Luda did, really.

After some consideration, I finally switched out the Spined Rake and held the length of crooked branch in my hands.

It was worth trying out a suppressive weapon against the Cortispire, and the Rake was light enough to swing around.

I checked my defenses and saw them to be at 90% capacity.

And that was from one hold!

Maybe I wouldn’t have survived the body slam after all.

Wasting no more time, I fired up the jet module in my shoes and launched myself in Luda and the beast’s direction. The prompt to switch out the Rake for something else was right at my fingertips, just in case.

On the other side of the battle, Luda was also pushing her underwater movement assistance system as hard as she could, the water around her almost glowing a dim blue as it pulled her through the monster’s crazed attacks.

Missing its target, the Cortispire’s three arms pummeled the floor in front of it, generating water currents that almost toppled her position as she backed away from the danger zone.

Swimming around to the monster’s back, she shot me a glance as soon as I joined back up with her.

As this was our first battle together, Luda didn’t really know what the weapon in my hands was. Seeing that there was no time to communicate, I decided to run a small dose of the Rake’s charge and release a small gust of wind on ourselves.

“!!”

What came out of the branched end was not wind, but a wave of water current that carried the Rake’s effects.

The petrifying sensation assailed both our senses at the same time.

Even as someone who felt it before, the discomforting effect it caused wasn’t something I could get used to. Being hit with it the first time around, however, Luda’s face grimaced as she tried to bear the hit on her mental state.

Before the effect ended, however, a giant red claw shot itself between the two of us, barely missing either one of its targets by a hair.

As the water currents threw us off to either side, Luda showed me a displeased look, having our window of opportunity carelessly wasted by friendly fire.

You: sry

As soon as I sent the message, a second claw swung itself at my face, its impact blasting me further away from the Cortispire, towards the centre of the room.

Completing a reverse somersault, I regained my posture and avoided slamming into another wall. I trained my gaze once again on the monster in front of me, who was now using two of its limbs to attempt to corner Luda against a wall.

As she leapt out of the way, I activated the charge of the Spined Rake, causing it to glow a gradually intensifying purple.

I burst forward and approached the clam-crab hybrid, indicating to the girl soaring across the breadth of the monster that I was going to use the Rake against it.

She nodded and brought out her blaster, firing a couple of shots at its body and drawing its attention.

Almost there… done!

The Rake finally completed its highest charge, and I unleashed the chilling attack at the giant crustacean monster. The strong water current that carried its power launched itself towards the silhouette of the beast.

The Cortispire was already well aware of my attack from when the Rake started to glow. However, I could almost see it snort derisively as it held up its third pincer to block the current, assured that it would pose no threat to itself.

Nevertheless,

“…!!!”

It shrunk back as the chilling effect of the Rake’s spirit finally took hold of its body, sinking it into a freezing sensation of fear.

From the extent of its reactions, I figured that the crustacean would recover quickly from the effect. It wasn’t an apex predator by any means, but the monster still preyed on others.

Regardless, the shock from receiving the psychological attack made the beast reveal a brief window of weakness, a moment where the entire body of the clam-crab hybrid froze still.

That was all we needed.

Jetting my way towards the Cortispire, I brought myself close to its body, between the space of two of its pincers.

Anchoring myself secure around a joint on its ‘leg’, I switched out the Rake for a medium sized gun, and,

“BRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMM”

The Bitter Howl let out a deafening hum as the its sonic effects were amplified by the medium of water through which the waves travelled. Using it underwater severely reduced the weapon’s range, but at point-blank fire the monster received its full brunt, shuddering from the shockwaves it made.

One suppressive attack after another. How’d you like that, little crab?

Under the unrelenting attacks I harassed the creature with, the clamshell that made up its body’s exterior buckled, loosening the seal between its two halves and opening the smallest gap into the inside space.

Simultaneously, the hoarder began to stamp all four of its legs on the enclosure of the floor, flailing its pincers trying to shake off the pest that was bothering it to no end.

Letting go of the leg I held on to, I pulled away from the rampaging monster. Bringing out the chat window as quickly as I could,

You: Now, Luda!

Seeming to already see the opportunity before us, I saw the girl on the other side of the Cortispire bring out the harpoon, aiming the tip of the weapon towards the crevice.

I followed suit, and the two of us waited for the right moment to fire our spears.

As soon as the gap widened,

“BOOM.”

We fired the harpoons through the opening, right between the two halves of the monster’s clamshell body.

*SSSKKKTTT*

A sound of metal piercing flesh could be heard from the centre of the clam-crab hybrid.

The monster reacted by trying to close its body shut, but the steel wires connecting our harpoon spears to their launch mechanisms kept the smallest gap open.

The Cortispire had lost most of its reasoning at this point.

Most explorers the monster fought were as interested in its treasures as it itself was; an intruder which would so heartlessly destroy its hoard without regard was someone it had never seen before.

The beast now invested all its efforts to incapacitate the pair of Human explorers threatening to take away everything it worked so hard for.

Luda inferred the hoarder’s state of mind from its movements, and relayed her guesses to me.

Luda: Any tactical intelligence it displayed before is gone now.

Dodging the increasingly vicious blows from the monster’s claws, the two of us let go of our harpoons as I barely managed to reply to her in chat.

You: Then it’s time to end this.

Maintaining a safe distance from the Cortispire wildly flailing its seven claws, we continued to strike on its armour with the laser rounds from our blasters. I had almost expended the current power cell loaded into mine, so I switched to a new one before continuing my attacks.

Eventually,

Now…!

The clam-crab hybrid tired itself out and its movements began to slow. Waiting for the next opportune moment, I equipped my crossbow, loaded fully with steel bolts, then,

--Weaving between the now weakening strikes of the monster, ducking under its legs and moving in circles around its body--

--Luda readying her scattergun, the path of the next attack barely missing the side of her face--

--Blasting away at another pincer with a shot, diverting its travel wide open and using the recoil to near the struggling beast--

--Joining back up with each other, right in front of the gap through which our harpoon spears breached, we pointed the ends of our weapons into the inside of the monster, and;

“BLAM. BLAM. BLAM. BLAM. BLAM.”

We unloaded a full clip of our respective rounds into the inside of the opening, messing up its innards as hard as we could.

Dark green blood spilled out of the opening in the monster’s shell, mixing itself with the seawater.

The Cortispire violently spun its body, trying to throw us off. However, I coiled the steel wire around one of my arms, braced through its raging tumbles, then,

*STAB*

The metal plates of the Accolade lodged into the Cortispire as I swung its axe form through the opening,

Farewell.

“VVVRRRRRRRMMMMMMM”

I fired up the superheating function, and a grotesque boiling could be heard within the clamshell body of the monster as the metal blade was raised to infernal temperatures.

As the gargantuan beast fell onto the ground of the enclosure, I wedged out the weapon from inside it, along with the two harpoon spears we shot before.

Phew.

The stakes in this battle were real: Had we passively endured the attacks of the threat before us, our shields would have quickly run out, and we would lose our lives before long.

Taking a few steps back, I took a few deep breaths as the fatigue caught up with my body.

Luda and I picked our harpoons back up, stowing it away in our inventories along with the rest of our weapons.

Before we could fully make sense of the situation,

Rumble…

With a jolt, the body of the giant clam-crab hybrid began to move once again.

You: It’s not dead yet!?

Luda: Looks like it.

The seven red claws dug into the ground as the Cortispire rose up from the floor.

The two of us made sufficient distance from it, Luda equipping herself with the hydropump grenade launcher while I held the Accolade in shield form in front of us.

However,

“OOOOUUUU…”

Letting out a low moan, the Cortispire was barely able to straighten itself, limping towards the centre of the room where its hoard of treasures it were.

Steadying itself in front of the geysers, it brought up its huge red claws in a fighting stance, unmoving from its new position.

I felt a sort of indignation in the weakness from its injured figure, as if it was ready to lay down its life to protect its wealth from anyone who intended to take it away.

Luda and I looked at each other.

Bringing out our chat windows,

Luda: We don’t really need anything from its collection, do we?

I shook my head at her, before sending my reply.

You: No, we don’t.

We only fought back to protect ourselves from getting killed by the Cortispire. Even Luda’s act of destroying its treasure hoard was a measure to let us preserve our lives.

Looking at the hoarder standing firm between ourselves and its riches,

You: …Let’s leave it alone, why don’t we?

Luda: Sure.

We decided not to drag the fight any longer.

Indulging myself in the loot it collected was tempting, but not to the point that I’d take its life to get it.

You: We’ll look for another geyser somewhere else. There’s nothing in here that we don’t already have.

Our bodies still facing the crustacean, we slowly backed away from it, inching our way towards the entrance of the enclosure.

As soon as we reached the hidden opening, Luda and I activated our respective movement technology modules and ejected ourselves out of the room, moving away from the enclosure as quickly as possible.

---

Luda: I remember you telling me that you were a fan of hunting monsters, KC?

As we travelled through the network of tunnels in the underwater cave, Luda asked me through the chat window.

Oh, she remembered?

During a fansign from a previous era, I told her about the games I played, including one that was releasing at the same time as WJSN’s promotions.

Like she said, it was an intense action game where you had to fight your way through incredibly tough monsters to survive in a land of wilderness.

Compared to that game, the fight we just had with the Cortispire definitely felt more real; we weren’t super strong or powerful in Hyperspace Frontier, unlike other games. Our flawed reflexes and judgement from real life carried over into this world.

On the other hand, the enemies were much more intelligent and calculating, making for battles we could easily lose if we weren’t at the top of our game.

Still, for the developers to make the wildlife feel as realistic as the sentient lifeforms…

You: Not in this game, Luda.

You: After the whole Schor Tabem thing from the previous day, I can’t really lay a hand on these innocent creatures, who are fighting only to protect what they love.

The girl next to me was unconvinced.

Luda: I wouldn’t call its decision to kill us innocent, you know. 🤔

These are just entities of a video game, after all, she argued.

Blood for blood, huh. That way of thinking reminded me of the Li Shaen.

You: Still…

Seeing me purse my lips, Luda only shrugged her shoulders.

Luda: Either way, it would only distract us from our main task.

Luda: Leaving it was a good move, everything considered.

I only let out a sigh in response.

You: I guess.

My experience with Hyperspace Frontier was still too little to know if it would support a pacifist playstyle through the progression.

Even with the several Ormand Bulbs dead by my hands, I still felt a little guilt towards the idea of hunting in this game.

The entire dilemma will have to wait, though: We still had a few more materials left to gather in this expedition, not least the nasty Borejawn Crowncelp that we’ll eventually have to face.

As the entrance of the underwater cave came into view, I examined my inventory one last time, then swam back out into the open expanse of Nadeum’s oceans.

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zichromasis
Decision point right before the trial ^^ a little obvious this time, but let's see what happens.
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