- Part 18

Cosmic Girl, Starry Sky
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Luda: Stay focused, KC.

The notification for the message snapped me out of my drowsiness, which was beginning to set in after such a long day.

As the two of us continued to travel to where the second geyser was, the Artema Longweed forest thinned, its shoots no longer so packed as to get in the way of our travel.

Using our respective movement upgrades, we swam onwards under the cover of the grove for some time. We did encounter a few more of the wildlife on the seabed of the forest, but they were all timid, small creatures which crawled away at the smallest movement we made.

Without the threat of hostile monsters looming over our heads, the journey became relaxed, albeit rather boring, like being in a car trip going through the same scenery that went on forever.

After a while, even the longweeds gave way, revealing the open grassland-like area we were already familiar with.

I switched the lantern over to my left hand, as it was becoming painful to keep holding it with my right.

Bringing out the chat window,

You: Should we rest a bit somewhere?

You: It’s not like anything’s around to eat us up.

Luda raised an eyebrow as she looked at me.

Luda: We can do that once we’re there.

As much as that reply pained my low morale, it made sense to press onwards. The Astronaut physique will let us recover from our fatigue quite quickly, and it was already the Evening phase of Day 2; the sooner we’re done with this, the sooner we can get to the other, more exciting parts of the game.

Accepting her advice, we remained on the path towards our next destination, staying close to the seabed which remained a level, bumpy terrain.

Opening the inventory, I looked through our harvest so far to see if I can process anything to pass the time.

My eyes landing on the Garrote Shards, I turned back to the girl next to me, gliding on by with her assisted movement system.

You: How’s that Barnacle Whip going for you, by the way?

Shooting me a poised look, she typed into her own screen, then,

Luda: I made one.

Luda: There’s an option for me to use it to craft something like the harpoon we have, but idk 🤷‍♀️

You: Something like a lasso, probably.

Examining her inventory, she nodded her head.

Luda: I’ll think about looking into it once we’re back in Mara Artemis.

Alright, I made the ‘OK’ sign to her.

Returning back to my own storage space, I decided to set aside a few more bioluminescent essence and reduced fuel. It felt reassuring to be able to make lamps whenever I want to, especially this deep in the ocean.

Luda’s flashlight helped, but our field of view was still too small for us to see anything in the distance that isn’t already glowing on their own.

Looking back behind us, I could easily see the lights of the city scattered on the expanse of water high up above us, despite being too far to catch a glimpse of the city itself.

The impact of light pollution underwater…

It would come with its own consequences, though I can’t even begin to imagine what they were.

At this moment, I felt a finger tapping on my shoulder.

I turned back around to see Luda pointing at something in front of us, far into the distance.

This is…

A shape manifested itself with the haziest outline well beyond our path. However, as I continued to pay attention to it, the underwater fog of view cleared away just enough to reveal an incline upwards on the seabed, the soil giving way to harder, rockier ground.

The silhouette of a huge mountain range showed itself to us, a land formation not inferior to the ones I saw back on Kremur Falls.

At that moment,

System: Tavummen Highlands recorded west of Mara Artemis.

System: Academium Prestige increased by 2.

Two, huh. I’ll take it.

Luda rested her hands on her hip as she sized up the gigantic mountain range, keeping herself suspended still within the water.

Luda: I’m glad we’re underwater, KC.

Luda: There’s no way I’d bother climbing this thing otherwise.

I chuckled.

You: Took the words right out of my mouth.

I brought out the Pulsar Beam Saber in my hand and approached the new area, Luda running her Resource Reticulator in standby mode following behind.

I held up my weapon to her, telling her to arm herself as well.

Having understood my signal, Luda tested switching to her harpoon and blaster, practicing the technique to do so. I even saw the Barnacle Whip appear and disappear out of her hand; a coil of collagen material reinforced throughout its length with hard, nastily curved spikes.

With both ourselves ready, we followed the curve of the inclination and began swimming up the height of the Tavummen Highlands.

---

The way up was not difficult by any means, especially with my jet module taking on most of the heavy lifting. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help being wary about what was up here, seeing the softer earth of the seabed receding to uncover the tougher layers of the highlands.

There were also fewer plants growing on these mountains, meaning there was less cover for us to hide in in case things go wrong.

I switched out the saber for my blaster as the incline steepened, seeing as the melee weapon was becoming impractical to use in this terrain. Further on, even that was becoming unwieldly to handle, so we ended up freeing both our hands.

Fortunately, we reached the first plateau of the Tavummen Highlands without encountering anything in the way.

As soon as we reached the area, however, my hazard and hostility sensor rang. Unlike before, however, the source of this warning was not from a hostile monster or entity.

It was instead from the highlands themselves; the sensor indicated to me that the strong ocean currents that swept through the higher regions of Tavummen were dangerous, just like the winds that assailed high mountains in real life.

Relaying that information to Luda,

Luda: I don’t know about you, but making something to anchor us to the mountain sounds like a good idea.

I agreed with her; as heavy as my Accolade was, it was not the best idea to rely on it when we’re dealing with such strong water currents.

Opening the crafting window in my inventory, I thought about what I should make, and with what material. Looking at the options as well as the stuff I had, I decided to go for a design resembling a pick, made mainly out of steel; the iron and carbon needed to make it was already on me.

The otherwise complex smelting process was automatically done by the crafting system, and I stopped it after a few of the picks were made.

You: Done with yours, Luda?

I looked to see her holding two coils of rope, each on one arm.

Seeing my confused expression, she brought out her window and typed.

Luda: I don’t have the metal to make the anchors, you know.

Luda: The Garrote Shards won’t last out here against such a strong current.

You: Right, got it.

Making some more of the picks, I divided the pile among ourselves while she gave me one of the coiled ropes. We ended up with about five steel anchors each; not a very reassuring number, but I could always make more on the way.

As I tied one end of the rope to a pick, I felt the fibres of string to be rather smooth, like a vine shoot or stem.

You: This is from the Longweeds, right?

Luda: Both from them and the Garrote Bulbs, KC.

Luda: Not bad, right?

Like she said, I also saw some parts at the centre of the rope to be made of cartilage-like material.

Ew.

Well… if it works, it works.

We finished securing our climbing tethers on the ground and wound them around our bodies. Hoping for the best, we stayed close to the surface as we ascended up into the mountain heights.

As the ocean currents picked up, we wedged the pick on our tethers amongst a small crevice we found, then brought out two more to hold in each hand.

Our way to the top of the Highlands slowed down to a literal crawl, as the seawater spared no effort in their onslaught on my body. A single slip up would throw me off the face of the mountain, if not let the currents carry me away to God knows where. The wedge connected to the rope on my body was my literal lifeline to the seabed.

Guess we ended up mountain climbing after all.

We continued to scale the mountain range for a while, hopping over large protrusions of rock in between lulls in the ocean current. With less bioluminescent flora to light our surroundings, vision remained limited this deep in Nadeum’s oceans.

Then,

…?

There was a pool of warm light over on our right, located in a depression between the lower peaks, forming what looked like a miniature valley in the middle of the range.

My eyes went back to the upwards path before us.

The water currents don’t look like they’ll be letting up soon, and my throat was becoming parched from not having drunk any water since we left Mara Artemis. Thus,

You: How about we go there for a bit, Luda?

You: I could really use some rest from all this climbing.

It was difficult to turn my head to look below my position in these conditions, but I managed to see how Luda was doing lower on the incline. Typing into her chat window,

Luda: You’re right. Let’s put down another pick here and we’ll move.

Whew. I didn’t know how much longer I could go on like this.

Tying down a second steel pick to my rope, I found out that we were really close to using up our length of tether. I’m not sure if there was even enough rope left for us to make it to the valley.

You: What should we do?

Whether or not we rest, the journey can’t go on safely without the rope anchoring us to the mountain.

Luda: Secure your lantern to the pick, KC. That way we’ll know where we left it.

I did as she said and then bent my neck to look at her. As soon as I signaled to her I was done, the girl carefully detached herself from the tether and moved towards the small valley. Her flashlight was set on her shoulder, keeping both of her hands free to hold her picks.

You: I’ll follow your lead.

Following after her, I released the rope around my body and swung around, making my way across the face of the seabed towards our resting stop.

Reading my message, Luda nodded at me before continuing onwards. The combination of her petite figure and the underwater movement assistance system made her movements much quicker and nimbler than mine, but she made sure to slow down here and there to give me time to catch up. She even warned me about loose rocks that I shouldn’t step or grab on to, on the way there.

We managed to reach the edge of the depression without much problem, immediately feeling relief at having escaped the strong currents back out there. The flow of seawater was much calmer here, allowing the two of us to catch our breaths.

As I leaned my back on the slope of the depression, numerous red-orange lights filled my field of view.

As my eyes adjusted themselves to the brightness, a field of lightbulbs revealed itself, extending from the base of the small valley all the way to the heights of the mountains around it.

The warm glow of the glasslike bulbs pulsated ever so gently and without a flicker, like a calm breathing movement. Unlike other luminescent organisms, I could feel the heat of radiation coming from them, a sensation similar to what tungsten lights would make in real life.

What is this place…?

As I stared at the garden of lights, Luda stored her picks away and slowly swam to the centre of the valley.

Luda: I think it’s safer over here, KC, away from the outside.

Her message snapping me back to reality, I softly pushed myself off the seabed and went over to where she was.

The small valley itself didn’t have much in it, other than the hundreds of these dark shrubby growths, the bulbs at the end the source of all this light and heat. The entire landscape looked like an art installation, the orange glow of these branchy plants bouncing off each other and off of ourselves.

As I reached Luda’s side, she looked back to me from among several of the flask-like bulbs, the features of her face basked in their light.

Oh, I’ve seen this before.

Keeping track of my priorities, I held back from humming a certain title track.

You: Do we know how to eat and drink with our breather on?

You: Or are we going to have to take it off?

Looking for a good clearing to sit on, Luda took her time before replying.

Luda: I think you can push the food or water on the membrane and it’ll eventually pass through without bursting.

You: Huh.

Anyways, let’s try it out.

I took out the bottle of water I still had on me; the one I bought back on Udepra.

!!

I barely managed to hold it down before it slipped out of my grasp, trying to float above us because of the air inside it.

Keeping a secure grip, I pushed both the bottle and my other hand through the membrane that made up the breather around my head.

After a few seconds, the film-like barrier absorbed both of them and let them through into the space where my face was. In there, I unscrewed the lid with my other hand and then drank a few gulps of the distilled water inside. Done with the admittedly tedious process, I pulled both hands back out of the membrane and stored the bottle away.

Thinking back on it, I must have looked quite silly trying to push both hands onto my face just now.

It’s one of the problems we wouldn’t have to deal with if we brought a ship with us, in hindsight.

Just have to bear with it, I guess.

Luda: Take a look at this, KC.

Seeing the message in chat, I turned my attention back on Luda, to see her hold out a branch of those lightbulb-bearing growths up with her hand. The single transparent flask on it was still glowing, but I could see it gradually dim. In the end, all that’s left of it is a colourless, glass-like sturcture on the tip of the branch.

You: It certainly doesn’t look artificial.

The curves inside the bulb were intricate, stunningly reminiscent of the network of veins on a leaf.

Luda: ‘Raneum Candlebrush’.

Luda: Not really useful for our task, KC, but they’re apparently rare according to the information I got?

You: Which means they’re worth a lot, hopefully.

Still,

You: Let’s just take 2, 3 shrubs between us, Luda. I don’t really want to clean up the entire place.

Storing the branch in her inventory, the explorer in front of me wore a skeptical expression.

Luda: Plants, too? They don’t even have feelings, KC.

I thought about it for a while and it wasn’t quite like that.

You: No, it’s a little different, Luda.

You: Remember the garden in the cave where we fought the Ormand Garrote Bulbs?

You: I don’t want to ruin the beauty of this place like we did the other one.

She looked at me for a while, then sighed.

Luda: Alright, then.

Luda: I’ll take two, alright?

I nodded, relieved.

As Luda returned to harvesting the candlebrush, I also picked out one of the shrubs on the side and used the all-purpose tool to pick them apart. The branches weren’t too strong, so I didn’t have to use the PBS for the job.

While I finished up with the process,

Luda: The clearing I found is over there, by the way.

Luda pointed to a space slightly across the centre of the small valley, at an area that wasn’t too rocky or near any of the Raneum Candlebrush shrubs. Luda’s flashlight was there, marking the spot.

You: Got it.

I went over to the clearing and lied down on the seabed, trying to get some rest while preparing for the next part of the trip. Before I forget, I also opened the inventory window to make a few more steel picks. And then,

Artema Longweed and Ormand Garrote Bulb, right? …There it is.

Finding the option to craft the same rope Luda did, I specified the system to produce them as well.

What else…

I brought out the rest of my arsenal one by one, examining them for anything that needed attention. Being underwater made it easy to wash any dirtied parts, though without any cloth I had to settle with using the all-purpose tool to do the cleaning instead.

At that time,

Luda: KC, looks like there are some Brine Pillars nearby.

Moving my focus away from the maintenance, I saw Luda with the ring of holographic screens around her head, pointing to a direction away from where we entered the field of candlebrush.

Luda: It’s outside the area, so we’ll have to set up a new tether.

You: Got it. Have you made your new ropes?

Checking her inventory window,

Luda: Yup, you need them?

You: Nah, I’ve got some as well.

You: I’ll go out and get them, Luda. Look after the anchor for me 🙏

Sure thing, she nodded.

The natural mineral columns are a little different from other rock formations you’d find here under the sea, in that the metal from them seem to be imbued with something from the columns themselves. The ‘teemed’ copper and iron from those pillars are part of Carthena’s list.

While Luda helped set down my tether on the floor near the edge of the depression, I also handed her a few more of the steel picks I crafted.

Don’t want to run out of them at a critical moment, after all.

I stood on the perimeter of the valley, looking at the side of an incline in front of me.

Luda: It’s over on the left side of the hill.

Luda: Wait, give me a moment.

Hmm?

Taking care not to get caught up in the ocean currents, the person beside me brought out a small window and positioned it close to her face, which was still surrounded by the screens of her reticulator. After a moment,

Luda: [1 picture posted]

Ooh!

Inside the rather bright photo, I could see the holograms of her tech displaying a web of threads coming from behind the hill, along with a description of the brine pillars annotated in them. There was even data estimating the mineral composition of the pillars, corresponding to a couple of teemed metals including the ones we needed.

You: So that’s how it works, pretty useful.

Luda: The high power use isn’t a problem now that I have the energy transport system with me.

Luda: Overheating is still an issue though, so I can’t keep it on for long.

Now that I had a reference, I should be able to find the brine pillars before long.

Holding steel picks in both hands, I turned around and began to descend from the depression. The path to the hill went down for a bit from where we were, before rising back up the base of the hill itself. I could make the swim straight for the hill with my jet module, but we didn’t want to risk being thrown off elsewhere by the water currents.

Choosing the best rock crevices to scale, I reached the base of the hill without a problem. The climb itself didn’t pose much difficulty either, having gotten used to the activity from before.

After several dozen metres, I scaled the face of the hill and began to move away from the view of the candlebrush valley.

Wait.

Looking back, I saw the rope of my tether swaying against the ocean currents, linked straight towards the valley where Luda was.

That’s not good.

I forgot to set down a pick on the lowest point of the path, as well as on the hill itself.

Even now, I could still feel the strong pull of the rope on my body, coming from the forces of the current on the tether. I didn’t know whether the anchor or the rope itself can last under this load.

You: See if you can strengthen the anchor, Luda.

You: I should make this quick before the rope breaks or something.

Her reply came after a few seconds.

Luda: It should hold up for a while, KC, don’t know about the rope though.

Minding the situation, I hurried in my climbing while doing my best to avoid any loose gaps in the face of the hill.

Soon after, I finally found the spot where the brine pillars were. From here, I could already see the columns of rock jutting out from the seabed in ordered formations, each of them half my height and as thick as a street light pole.

At that moment,

Ah.

A stray current of water pushed onto me out of nowhere, causing me to ram into the hill face-first.

“!!”

The Hazard Shield ensured a minimal amount of damage from the impact, but the shock almost made me lose my grip on the steel picks that held me to the ground.

As I tried to lift myself back up, the current reverted, sweeping me off my feet and trying to pull me off the face of the hill.

Come on!

Desperately looking for the picks, I hung on to them as strong as I could, running the jet modules from the feet of my slipped legs. I couldn’t even spare any attention for the notification coming up on the system as I scrambled to keep myself pressed on the rocky surface, going against the flow of the seawater.

After struggling for a few seconds, I finally secured my position on the hill as the current subsided.

That was dangerous.

Just as I managed to catch a breath, my communications plugin rang, catching me by surprise.

Accepting the call request,

“Are you okay, KC? I saw the tether shake like crazy from here and you weren’t replying to my message!”

Luda’s voice could be heard in my ear.

I belatedly checked the chat window and saw her text, asking me if I was alright. That was the one making the notification pop up from earlier.

“…Yeah, I’m fine.”

From her words, I pieced together the reason the pulling force was stronger than before; the loose rope from earlier was being dragged by the reversing current as well.

What an idiot.

Having recognized the problem, I had decided to push onwards instead of making at least a stopgap measure to solve it.

“Should I come over to help?” Luda asked.

“No, I think it should be fine now,” I reassured her. “I was careless.”

“If you say so,” She responded, “See you soon.”

The voice call ended, leaving me to focus on the situation in front of me.

Taking out another pick, I tied the tether rope around it and nailed it down on a solid crevice nearby. Hopefully that will lighten the burden a little.

Taking advantage of the weakening currents flowing through Tavummen, I slowly crawled on the hill towards where the brine pillars were. I thought about smashing the columns to pieces from a distance, but the heavy pieces of rock will probably just roll down the hill out of my reach.

Therefore, as soon as I reached the nearest one, I began mining the teemed metals out of them using the all-purpose tool.

Extracting all the materials out of the column, it suddenly crumbled to pieces like it was made out of sand. I guess the metal was important to the structural strength of the pillars.

Oh well, I think I’ll find a use for these other materials anyway.

I worked through two more columns, then reached the quota we needed halfway through the third. Since I was already in the middle of mining, I decided to finish off the third as well.

Opening the chat window,

You: I’m done, Luda. Coming back now.

Luda: 👌

On my way back, I pulled out the steel pick and coiled the rope around my shoulder, making sure the tether wasn’t too loose to work against me like before. With the currents still calm, the return trip completed without a hitch.

As I reached the edge of the depression, Luda was there, holding out her hand to pull me up. I accepted her help and got myself straight back onto the valley.

---

“By the way, I used the Resource Reticulator a bit more while you were out, KC.”

As I put the tethers back in order, Luda made another voice call and told me her findings.

“It seems like there’s another depression in the direction of the geyser, and it’s full of life; I’m talking an entire ecosystem packed into a pit right in the middle of the mountains.”

Hmm.

“I’m guessing the thermal vents are what supports the life there?” I speculated.

“Maybe,” She shrugged. “We’ll have to see it for ourselves.”

We’re going there anyways, right?

That was what her eyes told me.

“By the way,” I suggested,

“Should we keep this voice line on all the time? It’s easier to communicate this way than to have to type in the window.”

Hearing my words, Luda opened a system window and skimmed over her status, before replying.

“There’s an option here for in-game voice chat, I think it’ll be easier to set up a session there than to use the call function.”

…Ah, right.

In-game voice chat, of course.

All the online games have them these days, why would an advanced VRMMO like Hyperspace Frontier not?

Knowing this earlier would have made the trip much easier for us.

“Good idea, Luda.” I nodded, “Set it up and I’ll join once it’s ready.”

We terminated the call, and I arranged the teemed metal in my inventory while waiting for her to create the voice chat session.

Soon after,

Luda: It’s up.

Seeing the message, I went to the friends list window and saw the channel she made in a separate section.

Wait, two people?

I pressed on the channel and entered the voice chat session.

“Hello, Luda?” I asked.

“Oh, KC, I can really hear your voice in here!” A voice different from hers answered me.

The two of us looked at each other in surprise.

“Bona unnie? What are you doing here?” As the host, Luda asked the unexpected third participant.

“What’s this, what’s this? Voice chat?” A fourth person joined before we could make sense of what was happening.

“Xuanyi, not you too!” I groaned.

“What’s up?”

“Is there something happening?”

“No, it’s getting, wait…”

As we tried to get the chatter under control, thankfully none of the other members entered the session.

After calming down and explaining the situation,

“Ah, that makes sense. It’s really difficult to communicate when you’re underwater.” Bona commented.

“Good luck with your trip, you two.” Xuanyi added.

“Thanks,” I answered her.

Speaking of which…

“We didn’t hear from you in the group chat last time, Bona.”

I brought up the topic to them,

“Did something happen on your side?”

“Hmm, I’m not quite sure either.” The girl from another solar system couldn’t find an explanation. “The academic team said that we might have triggered something in the forest ruins, and they’re all trying to catch the next spaceship off of Bonzurn.”

“Bonzurn, huh.” I pursed my lips.

“As much as I agree with them, I think the ruins are hiding something and I want to find out what it is.” Xuanyi interjected.

“Me too, Xuanyi, but I can’t get anyone hurt out here.” Bona replied to her.

“Then we’ll send off the team and explore the ruins on our own. Win-win!”

“Still…”

“Um, we’re still here, you know.” I voiced my presence in the session.

“Oh.” The two of them snapped out of it.

“Tell us about everything that went down once you’re done, okay, unnies?” Luda wrapped the conversation up.

“Sure thing, Luda. It’ll be an adventure of a story to tell.” Bona answered.

“See you two soon!”

With Xuanyi’s last words, both of them left the voice session.

As the silence returned, I saw Luda set the session to private, with entry only by invitation from the host.

“That was hectic.” I spoke.

“It sure was,” Luda agreed. “At least now we know they’re fine.”

---

After we finished getting ready,

“It’s getting pretty toasty in here, isn’t it, Luda?”

The persistent heat from the Raneum Candlebrush shrubs really warmed up the valley.

Hearing my words,

“It’s definitely good not to stay here for too long.” Luda answered, mentioning that there were no sea currents flowing to cool us down.

“Alright then, let’s go.”

We walked to the edge of the valley where we came from and sought out the lantern that I used to mark where our first tethers were.

At this time, the ‘winds’ that blew through the Tavummen Highlands seemed to have calmed down quite a bit.

We reached our previous stop, tied our new ropes to the old ones, then continued towards our destination. We descended from the candlebrush depression and made our way well into the depths of the mountain range, though in a direction different from where the brine pillars were.

With so little around to light our way, even the bioluminescent lantern hanging from my arm wasn’t enough to allow our safe travel on this uneven path. Luda had to shine her flashlight onto the distance here and there, trying to find the nearest firm ground for us to make our next foothold.

Dipping down and ascending, following the ebb and flow of the highlands in meandering routes, the trip was tiring and slow, even with the fairer ‘weather’ that lasted throughout the evening.

At times, I even considered just giving up on the climb, opting to turn back and look for a geyser on calmer grounds instead. There was still time before the [Night] phase would begin, but I didn’t want to waste the hours we were given.

However,

“Just a bit more, KC.”

Flashing the screens of her reticulator from time to time, Luda encouraged and pushed ourselves onwards.

Somewhere along the line, the girl had already taken the lead in our journey, picking suitable spots to set down our interval steel picks consistently. Fortunately, I have only had to resupply our equipment twice so far, and there was plenty of material left in our inventories.

Still,

“We should have cut down more of the longweeds if I knew they were going to be useful here.”

I couldn’t help let out a sigh. Preparation was everything, really.

“I have enough for both of us, I hope.” Luda reassured me without looking back. “As long as you have the steel to keep making the picks, we’ll be fine.”

“Heh,” I chuckled. Looking at the small shimmering rocks by my foothold, “That won’t be a problem.”

Having worked out their mineral composition before, making metal picks from those rocks should be easy enough. They won’t be as strong as steel, but they’ll suffice.

“Here we… go!” Luda made another jump into the darkness, having found our next step in the trail.

“We’ll set down the picks here too.” Pointing at a narrow gap beside her landing spot, she suggested our next anchor point.

Waiting for the ocean currents to still, I boosted myself towards her position and landed hands-first onto the foothold. Flipping myself back upright was easy in this underwater environment.

We set down or picks, mine after hers, then caught our breaths as Luda ran her Resource Reticulator again.

“Over there,” I pointed in the direction of the geyser, according to my navigation systems. It took a while, but we were finally in reach of the pit Luda discovered, where the thermal vents should be. I could even see the faintest lights in the distance, probably coming from the rich life she said inhabited the bigger valley.

She nodded, then focused the holograms around her head in that direction. After a while, she quietly deactivated the reticulator, then looked back at me.

Not breaking eye contact, she brought out her scattergun and slowly nodded.

“Are the vents there?” I asked.

“They are.” Luda replied. “And so is what we’re looking for.”

Get ready, her eyes told me.

Preparing the blaster so that I could easily switch it out, I returned a nod of my own.

---

From the dip in the edge that formed one of its few entrances, the vale looked like a paradise of nature, a piece of heaven that fell off the skies to the bottom of the sea.

A myriad of animals swam in between the branches of the multitudes of plants and coral decorating the landscape of the area, the smaller fauna hiding away from those that looked like they were predators.

“It’s like a little botanical garden.”

I drew in a breath.

“I couldn’t even see the geyser from here with all these trees around.”

“We’ll have to go in, then.”

Luda’s voice sounded in my ear, as the girl beside me unfastened the tether from her body.

Following after her, I switched out the steel picks in my hand. As cautious as I was, the blaster remained in my inventory, along with all the other weapons I had; the Borejawn Crowncelps were known to be hostile, but that didn’t mean everything else in here was.

Luda took the same approach, carrying her scattergun on her back instead.

We swam through the entrance closest to us and approached the collection of tall-standing coral forest making up the bulk of the place’s life.

I could feel the slightest change in the atmosphere as we neared the area, the fish and other lifeforms observing our intrusion to their community.

Deep breaths.

Luda: Should we go over this forest, KC?

Luda: Or through?

Luda’s message appeared in my chat window. Wary of being heard by these creatures, she resorted to communicating by text instead.

However, before I could answer,

*SWISH*

The over twenty cautious animals watching us suddenly swam away, disappearing into the gaps of the trees.

What—

At the same time, my hostility sensor rang louder than ever before.

“Let’s hide!” I spoke into the voice chat session.

Without a moment to spare, we rushed over to the nearest ‘tree’ and dove into the bunch of the weeds that grew near the pink-purple coral base.

No sooner than my shoulders hit the ground, I felt a shadow loom over the edge of the garden, as if descending down upon it.

Crawling over to hide myself behind the trunk, I peeked from a gap in the branches and finally saw what that shadow was.

A huge shark-like creature hovered above the valley, its cold eyes scanning over the area for anything to feed on. Countless uniform fringes lined the mouth of the shark that extended down its lower body, like teeth of a giant white comb.

Wait…

“The Flat-mouthed Shark.” I gasped.

Those are teeth!

Halfway between whale baleen and shark teeth, they could slide up and down when it closed its mouth, grinding the prey inside into minced meat.

A ruthless carnivore native to this region of Nadeum’s oceans, the shark was much more dangerous than even the Regal Cortispire that tore us a new one before.

The valley fell into a deafening silence as we held our breaths, pleading for it to move away. Whatever we had couldn’t even hope to match the terrifying speed of this monster.

I saw Luda laying low on the ground next to me, frozen perfectly still with her eyes on the threat.

The predator unexpectedly began to swim in reverse, retreating away from the pit while facing it.

Did it give up?

The eyes of the shark stared straight at the coral trees around us, still and intent in their gaze.

No, hold on—

Without warning, the beast burst forward, aiming for its target!

“Damn it, it’s going to run everything over!” I panicked, trying to move out of the way.

“Get down!” In the spur of the moment, Luda decided to brace her body against a nearby tree.

In that very moment, something emerged from the depths of the vale and charged towards the shark.

I saw the long, scaly body of the black serpent rush past us, the crackling sound coming from the countless legs of the new intruder smashing against the ground and trees it brushed past.

“What is—”

Luda turned in the direction of the shark.

*BOOOOM*

We saw a gigantic centipede crash head-first into the front of the attacking shark, causing both of them to divert from their paths.

“Where the hell did that thing come from!?” I yelled.

The arthropod monster I couldn’t identify was as large, if not larger than the shark itself; there was no way it could hide within the valley without us noticing its size.

*CRASH* *CRUNCH*

Without even a flinch, the two giant monsters aggressively bit and slashed into each other, neither of them intending to be defeated by their opponent. Bits of flesh and scales started falling around them as the struggle continued.

“Come on, KC!” Luda shook me off my shock.

They were far enough from the valley for us not to be affected by their battle, and it didn’t look like they could focus on anything other than fighting each other.

“There’s no way I’m waiting until those two are done!” The girl pushed my shoulder.

“Right.”

Getting my act together, I pulled out my blaster and followed her deeper into the coral forest, pushing myself off the trees I could hold on to.

We could still hear the sound of the fight go on as we made our way through the woods, showing how violent the clash of the two beasts were.

The two of us quickly reached the core of the valley, where the highland mountains met each other.

Appearing before us at the end of the coral forest was an area of rocks and flora arranged in an orderly manner, almost resembling a circular courtyard at the end of the vale.

More than a dozen animals and other organisms swam around their predetermined stations, as if they were sat at their conferred positions.

Making up the centre of the garden was a cluster of thermal vents, around four or five outlets constantly pouring out streams of boiling seawater.

And then,

…!

Behind the geysers, arching around them like a guardian protector,

“There it is!” Luda readied her scattergun.

The countless arms of the Borejawn Crowncelp spread themselves out.

---

Without as much a head start, five arms from the seaweed-anemone hybrid flew forward, aiming for our heads and bodies, even Luda’s arm that was holding her scattergun.

As expected, the first strike came from the enemy.

“Move!” She ordered, and the two of us split up to either side of the Crowncelp’s attack.

However, what happened next was entirely out of our plans.

A group of serrated, long-bodied fish darted past us, attacking with the side of their jagged bodies.

Luda pointed her gun at one and fired, but it was too quick to remain in her target.

On the other hand, I reflexively held up an arm in front of me to block, letting out a scream as the sharp edges of one fish’s body dug into my skin.

“Gah!” I let out a scream.

The internal armour did its best to mitigate the damage I received, but the pain made me lose my coordination for an instant.

In that single moment, another cluster of sea slug monsters shot out streams of dark-green liquid in our direction.

The recoil from her scattergun made it difficult for Luda to avoid all of their projectiles, and a few of them stuck onto her spacesuit.

Similarly, I tried to bring out the Accolade in panic, but several of them got past the shield and hit me on the arm and body.

*SIZZLE*

The rancid fluid began to seep past our outfits and burn our skin on the inside.

“Ergh!” I held in the pain as I retreated to the edge of the courtyard.

Even as the slugs fired their attacks, the strikes from the fish didn’t let up. I didn’t have time to wipe off the fluid that was still on me.

All the other creatures in the courtyard continued to attack us in unison, following up from the strikes of their apparent boss.

In the few seconds I had free, I looked around to see where Luda was. However, what I saw instead were the tendon-like arms from the Crowncelp arching over me.

“Crap!”

I jumped out of the way just in time to avoid being struck down by another three of its crowns.

Suspended in the water, I quickly gazed over the courtyard, to see which of the fish and sea slugs were still focused on me.

I saw the tough, boulder-like enamel that formed the end of the Crowncelp’s arms, as well as the fluid which was coming out of my body. It seems like the spacesuit is purging the rotten liquid from its systems, slowly as it was.

Finally, I saw my fellow explorer, who was caught up in her own struggle, firing her blaster wildly at some advancing tentacles.

…tentacles?

The wriggling tendrils that attacked her were green, with tips of purple that looked like budding flowers.

I saw more of the creatures from which the appendages came from: Starfish-like anemones creeping out of the elevations in the valley’s courtyard, crawling in my direction.

This is bad.

I had no idea what any of these lifeforms were, as the ocean guide didn’t say anything about Crowncelps ruling over mobs of other creatures.

Even the coordination of their attacks was organized: The serrated fish would close in to slice us with their bodies, while the slugs and Crowncelp limbs supported them with their ranged strikes. The anemones would immobilize us if we got too close to them, leaving us vulnerable to the rest of the group’s attacks.

Glaring at the fish that was circling around us in an attempt to intimidate them,

“Get to the entrance!” I spoke into the voice chat session.

The slugs fired another volley of acrid streams, my focus on evading them giving the fish more opportunities to strike.

Most of them missed as I twisted my body to avoid them, but one fish rammed straight onto me instead, sending me flying away from the middle of the courtyard.

…Good!

It happened to be in the direction of the entrance, which I appreciated under all that pain.

As I reached the edge of the area, Luda’s figure abruptly appeared, crashing into the ground below me. I pulled her out before a limb from the Crowncelp pummeled the ground where she was in.

“You okay?” I held her up as we jumped above the seabed.

“I’m holding up.” She replied, a trace of exhaustion in her eyes. “Those tentacles have force behind them.”

At this point, we were far enough from the centre of the courtyard to see where everyone’s attacks were coming from.

I thought about using the Everest Accolade’s shield form to provide some cover, but it would weigh me down and turn the battle much in the fish’s favour.

“Here they come!” Luda’s call alerted me to the jagged fish’s next offensive, their sharp bodies shooting towards us like living missiles.

I fell back onto the Pulsar Beam Saber after a second of thought, and swung it around wildly in unsuccessful attempts to wound the attackers. Luda also fired her scattergun in all directions, missing almost all of her rounds.

“I need to charge this.” She gasped, bringing out her inventory window to route her energy transport system to the scattergun.

Seeing a streak of dark green from the corner of my eye,

“Woah!”

I ducked out of the way, pulling down Luda with me away from the trajectories of the slug’s fire.

“You almost made me break the wires, KC!” She retorted, glaring at me.

“Sorry,” I apologized, before pointing to the group of sea slugs by the elevations on the courtyard.

“Think you can throw a few grenades at them?” I suggested.

“Good idea,” She nodded. “Cover me.”

As Luda finished the business with her energy transport system and equipped her grenade launcher, I took on the continued assault of the fish and avoided a few more tendon limbs from the Crowncelp. The crowned arms were slow compared to the fish’s bursts, but with that mass behind them I can tell that they’ll hurt much more.

The anemones were also getting dangerously close, almost right below us on the ground.

“Got it!”

Luda’s affirmation finally came.

“Give them hell!” I exclaimed, moving out of the way to show our enemies the big guns she brought out.

*BOOM, BOOM*

She fired several grenades in sequence, aimed at the pedestals where the sea slugs were as well as the Crowncelp itself.

A series of explosions resounded throughout the courtyard, sending the slugs scattered away in random directions.

“Yes!”

One of the slugs was straight in the centre of the explosion, blasting into pieces in a cloud of red and green.

“We got one!” Luda exclaimed. Reading the notification that came up in her system,

“…Blind Fritten! That’s its name!”

“Nice.” I pumped my fist, quietly celebrating our first successful counterattack.

With how quick and dangerous these creatures were, it was too difficult to approach them close enough for our systems to identify what they were. It looks like scoring a kill on them was the next best thing.

Hm?

A tendon-like arm showed itself on my side.

---

*CRUNCH*

Before I knew it, a gargantuan force hammered me down, slamming my body onto the ground. I saw the imposing form of the Crowncelp’s heavy crown bear its weight on top of me, crushing its target against the seabed.

“AARRGGHH—!!” I screamed.

“KC!” Luda’s voice rang in my ear.

Before I could recover, the Crowncelp raised the crown pinning me on the ground, just a few milliseconds before another of its arms swung from the side, smashing me helpless onto the sloped walls of the courtyard.

Through hazy vision, I could see my system window, displaying the status of my shields.

“…What the hell.”

Shields down 50%, Internal armour down 45%!

As if those two blows on my body weren’t enough,

“KC!!” Her voice sounded once again, and I saw a serrated fish push her down onto another clearing a distance away from my position.

As the fish moved away,

*BOOM*

A third Crowncelp arm smashed its crown onto her, and I heard her Hazard Shield sizzle from receiving the brunt of the force.

*slither*

I felt a moist texture coil around my leg, tightening its grip instantly. I turned my attention to find one of the anemones wrapped around my left leg, while another two reached for my arms.

Both the Crowncelp and the fish it commanded held their attention on us, ready to unleash their next attack. Even the scattered frittens have recovered, aiming at us prepared to fire.

Through ragged breathing, I looked around for any way to get out of our situation.

The Tavummen Highlands resumed behind the courtyard, barren and uncovered.

The courtyard itself had little in the way of rocks or monuments to hide behind, and it was the enemy’s home turf.

That leaves…

Pulling the anemone creature stuck onto my leg as hard as I could, I yanked it off the ground and activated the jet module.

“Get back to the trees, Luda!” I yelled out.

Retreating backwards into the coral forest, I saw the trees shudder and break from the force of the crowns.

As the woods began to hide me from the courtyard, the serrated fish also tried to pursue me, but with the forest obstructing their speed, they quickly gave up.

As soon as the immediate threats went away, I recovered my stance and looked around the coral forest.

Did she make it?

Straining my eyes and peering through the darkness, I finally saw the bright light of her flashlight shine through in the distance.

Phew.

Retreating until I was a good distance away from the enemy territory, I turned my attention on the tentacled monster still hanging onto my leg.

Belatedly, I examined the description annotated onto it by the system.

“Lesser Pocka-Jonn” I read it out.

“…Oh, you just happened to have the Bourt Sacs we needed.”

They must be why they were so strong; I’ve read in the guide before that the sacs gave great gripping power to their owners.

Either way, the purified nitrate in them was a material in Carthena’s list.

I swung my leg and smashed the main body of the anemone creature onto a nearby tree, incapacitating it. Then, with the all-purpose tool, I burned through the tentacles covering my leg and set myself free, before moving on to harvest the scas from it.

“KC…?” Luda’s voice quietly sounded in my ear.

“I see you, Luda.” Speaking into the voice chat, I told her that I’m going over to where she is.

“Quick…”

Her voice was strained, as if she was suffocating.

Wait,

“I’m coming!” I responded, hurrying towards the source of light as fast as possible.

As soon I reached the place, I saw her body dropped onto the ground, the tendrils from two other Jonns tightening around her neck and torso respectively.

With no time to waste, I worked on the anemone bound below her chin and quickly set her free. The other one was also burned away before long, not forgetting to harvest the materials from the jonns themselves.

“Haah…” Luda gasped for air.

While she gathered herself, I stood close to her and looked in the direction of the courtyard.

“Thanks, KC.” She sighed.

“Tough fight, huh.” I commented.

“Tough is an understatement,” She responded, “But not impossible.”

“You think so too?” I raised my eyebrows, impressed that we were sharing the same thought.

“With the right strategy, I think we can do it.” She said.

At that very moment, the ground below us rumbled, gradually growing into a quake.

“What’s going on?”

We braced ourselves while trying to figure out the situation.

As if answering our question, a curtain of soil and rock emerged from the direction of the courtyard, becoming a veil of dust that enveloped the forest before settling. As soon as it appeared, the shaking of the ground subsided.

Then,

*CRASH, BOOM*

I heard the breaking of the coral trees in front of us resume, stronger and more violent than before.

“Is that…?”

We carefully stepped forward, trying to catch a view of whatever was causing that destruction.

The moment the place came into view,

“Oh my God.” I exclaimed.

In front of my eyes, gigantic spiral shells crashed their entire weight against the coral powerless to stand up it, mowing down the forest a few trees at a time. I counted four nautilus-like monsters sporadically moving back and forth, each of them five times our size, bashing their shells against the woods and clearing it out.

Then,

“Ah.”

One of their eyes locked onto our position.

“Run, KC!” Luda shouted.

We rolled away as the nautilus threw itself at us, shattering the tree we hid behind before in its rampage.

Fragments from the coral chipped against our bodies, but we ignored the pain as we split up and went deeper into the forest.

*KRRAAKK*

The sound of limestone breaking from raw, blunt force resounded behind me. Looking back, I saw that the group of shelled monsters had also separated, two of them going after each of us.

Their destructive force was a combination of the Borejawn Crowncelp’s strength and the serrated fish’s speed; a horribly effective, merciless pairing.

*BOOM*

Fortunately, the many coral trees in the forest took on its collisions, and the ones still standing served as footholds to help me escape.

Nonetheless, every second that passed as we struggled to avoid the giant nautiluses seemed like an eternity.

As I jumped in between two particularly strong-looking trees,

*CCRREEAKKK…*

One of the monsters charged forward, thinking that I was in its line of fire. However, the wooden trunks it tried to shove through only bent and twisted, flexibly receiving the weight of its powerful lunge.

Held in place by the pair of trees, the mighty shell of the beast was barely a few metres short of hitting me. The short distance between us, however, was enough for the system to complete its identification process.

“Nautilus Mammoth”

Reading the description that appeared,

“As I thought: An abyssal seashell.” I muttered, swimming out of the way before it could get itself out of that rut. The other shelled beast had also stopped its chase, helping its friend out of the deadlock.

Because of that incident, I was able to get further away from the nautiluses that pursued me. Within the dim environment of this coral forest, the monsters’ vision seemed to be limited.

Still,

I’ll have to find some way to break open that shell.

I could find the Nautilus Paste Carthena needed from a less threatening species, but taking that shelled beast down would kill two birds with one stone.

Traveling through the coral forest, I peeled my eyes and ears searching for any sign of Luda.

It didn’t take me long to find her, however, simply following the other path of destruction that rampaged throughout the area. Swimming in twisted directions was her, trying to outmaneuver the two Nautilus Mammoths’ pursuit.

Switching out the Sver-Mod crossbow, I loaded several steel bolts into it and took aim.

“Crossbow coming your way, Luda.” I spoke into the voice chat.

At the same time, a volley of bolts fired into the giant shells of her opponents, from a position well hidden behind a tree.

*TWANG*

The rounds I shot struck loudly against the shells and bounced off, doing virtually no damage to them. However,

“…!”

Luda’s two pursuers became wary of the attacks, slowing down their advance in caution towards their unseen enemy.

That’s right.

Following after them and gradually closing in, I intended to continue harassing the two shelled beasts, distracting their attention so that Luda could get away. I prepared both of my suppressive armaments to switch out whenever needed: The Spined Rake’s effective distance was still unknown, but I knew that the Bitter Howl will only work in short ranges underwater.

Just as I shuffled out the blaster in my hand,

What the…

A humongous shadow dashed across the ocean above us, on top of the coral forest.

In the flash of a second the silhouette passed my eyes, I saw the crooked figure of a giant shark at the receiving end of a charging centipede’s head.

Those two…!

---

Before I could bring my focus back to Luda’s situation,

*CRACKLE* *CRUNCH* *BOOM*

The loudest, most deafening crashing sounds I have ever heard tore through the silence of the woods.

Even suspended above the ground, the wild water currents resulting from the sound threw me off my balance.

Still,

“Was that from the courtyard, KC!?” Luda’s voice reached me through the voice chat.

“I think so,” I responded, regaining my posture and immediately swimming forwards.

“Let’s go!” She stated, taking the same action I did.

I saw her dash through the space between her pursuers, which were still recovering from the shock of the collision. I held up my lantern in her direction, showing her where I was.

We joined back up with each other at the edge of the forest, near the border with the courtyard area. As soon as we reached the place,

*RUMBLE* *CRASH*

Dust and stone fell like rain on the home territory of the Crowncelp, the arms of the seaweed-like monster flailing around smashing any boulders that threatened it. To the agile serrated fish, evading the debris was not difficult, but the Blind Frittens had to move under their master’s shelter to save themselves. The Lesser Pocka-Jonns could only curl up their bodies into balls, hoping for the best.

Looking up from the courtyard,

!!!

A hole was blasted into the one of the mountains behind the valley.

Amidst the settling dust… the ruined body of the Flat-Mouthed Shark lay limp within the crater, showing the weakest sign of struggle against the gargantuan centipede that pressed down on it. However, even that only lasted for a moment, before the shark ceased its movements.

I’m surprised the mountain didn’t crumble from that impact.

The highlands must have hardened from the constant battle as well.

The victor of the conflict decided, it wrapped its body around its victim and dragged it down the other side of mountain, not once interested in what was happening in the courtyard.

…Right!

Returning attention to the task at hand, I tapped Luda’s shoulder with the barrel of my crossbow.

“Let’s go, Luda, while we still have the chance.”

“Ah, right!” She nodded.

The gradually loudening sound of coral trees breaking behind us was not something we wanted to wait for, either.

*SWISH* *SWIPE*

The serrated fish have already realized that we were back, rapidly approaching us and throwing their bodies again.

Launching ourselves into the courtyard, she diverted the attack with the barrel of her scattergun, while I had to use my arm again to block, not wanting the crossbow to take damage.

“Haah…!” I bore through the cut.

Recovering as quickly as I could, I aimed the crossbow at the Blind Frittens and fired.

The fluttered whirring of the steel bolts accompanied the snaps of the crossbow, before ending in the abrupt piercing sound of soft, rubbery flesh.

Quiet, yet high-pitched shrieks came from the sea slug-like monsters as my shots hit all three of them. Still,

No effect, huh.

With the bolts still poking out from their bodies, the frittens quickly responded in kind, firing at us from the Crowncelp’s shelter.

Looks like I’ll have to change it up.

*BLAM* *BLAM*

Down on the ground, Luda fired her scattergun the moment she reached the remaining jonns, giving them no time to unfurl themselves. It didn’t take many shots before two of them went down, leaving only one left at the centre of the courtyard, near the thermal vents.

*SWOOSH*

From behind, one of the jagged-bodied fish ran its head against me, tumbling my body back from the force. At once, the streams from the frittens reached the exterior of my spacesuit and dug into my skin once again.

“Urrgh”

I desperately tried to regain control of myself, enduring the sustained attacks of the creatures.

On the seabed, Luda used the firm ground to maintain her stance as she received the fish’s attacks.

At this moment, the last few rocks fell down from the mountains down onto the vicinity of the courtyard, and the dust began to settle around where the Crowncelp was. Even without the Nautilus Mammoths, it was only a matter of time before the seaweed-like monster would return to battle with us.

Seeing the shelled shapes come out from the coral forest,

It looks like they’re here as well.

Under the increasingly dire conditions, my thoughts instinctively pulled their attention to Luda, wanting to go to her side so that we could fight off the enemies together. However, the reality of the entire enemy team focusing its fire on both of us made me resist going along with that plan.

Examining the burning pain on my skin from the fritters’ dark green fluid, an idea came to my mind. Forming a plan and relaying it to Luda through the voice chat,

“Let’s try it out.” She quietly responded through ragged breathing.

Let’s go!

Activating the jet module while still tumbling in the water, I boosted towards and jumped off of the ground in front of me, just in time to avoid running into the serrated fish—

*BOOM*

—And, coincidentally, the giant shell of a Nautilus Mammoth.

Taking advantage of the short window of time, I switched my crossbow out with the PBS, holding the saber in my hand. Facing the Blind Frittens,

!!

I strafed to the side with the jet module, barely avoiding the blunt force of the Crowncelp’s arm.

Come on.

There was no way I could get to the frittens’ position without coming face-to-face with their master’s ridiculously powerful arms.

Any moment now.

From the safety of its protection,

There it is!

The sea slugs once again launched a volley of acrid fluid at me. Despite their name, the Blind Frittens’ aims were precise, squarely targeting the centre of mass on my body.

However, that was precisely the outcome I wanted.

*SLASH* *POOF*

Swinging the saber towards the incoming projectiles, I dispersed the streams before they could reach me, making them explode into clouds of dark green mist.

As the nasty liquid diffused around me, my exposed skin came into contact with it and began to sting. However, I ignored the crawling burning feeling and switched my weapon again.

From outside the cloud, the serrated fish circled around, waiting for me to come out. They knew better to pace their charging attacks with the frittens’ acidic streams, closing in only when they knew the liquid was no longer on their prey.

This was also why they gave me all the time I needed.

*SNAP*

From within the acrid cloud, several steel bolts flew out in succession, aimed towards the surrounding fish.

With no time to dodge, the bolts reached the bodies of the fish. And then… they exploded, releasing on themselves the very poison they learned so meticulously to avoid.

As soon as I saw the bolts hit their target, I burst out of the cloud towards the nearest serrated fish.

“!!”

Still twisting its body from the pain of the fritten’s acrid secretion, the fish was not prepared for my surprise attack, and several well-positioned slashes of the saber departed it from this world.

That’s what I’m talking about!

Storing my fresh kill in the inventory, the description from my system came up at long last.

‘Madstain Sturgeon (x1)’

Checking the crossbow, I could still see a few vial bolts still loaded into it, containing the fluid I collected from the dispersing cloud. Aiming it towards the other two struggling fish, I fired at their heads and released the poison into their eyes.

!!!

The sturgeons wildly flailed around from the burning pain, moving in random directions. However, the lack of vision made one of them crashed into the elevation on the courtyard. Approaching the incapacitated fish, I pinned its body under my leg and finished the job with a saber through its head.

Phew.

I watched the last one swim upwards and away from the valley, having seemed to desert the battle to save its own life.

*WOOSH*

“Woah there.”

Taking large steps back just in time to narrowly avoid the crashing of several enamel boulders, I retreated from the strikes of a few more Crowncelp arms as I looked for Luda.

On the other side of the courtyard, I saw her take down a Madstain Sturgeon with a point-blank shot to the face.

“Nice one!” I cheered in the voice chat.

Seeing the clouds of dark green fluid extended around her, she must have pushed it in the fish’s direction through some sort of way. Regardless, she succeeded in using the idea I suggested, putting her own spin onto its execution.

Even with two of the sturgeons unaffected, they were the only ones remaining on the battlefield. Fighting would be much more manageable with much less of their numbers around.

“That’s as far as it goes, though.” Luda pointed her finger behind me.

Looking back, I could see a Nautilus Mammoth advance towards us. A few Crowncelp arms also spread out through the area, ready to swing their weights at us.

Seeing them breeze through the cloud of acid, I understood what she meant: The tougher monsters weren’t affected by the poison at all.

“Let’s try these, then.” I whispered to myself.

Releasing the container on the crossbow, I carefully slotted in the three vial bolts I prepared back in Mara Artemis.

At that moment, a second nautilus shell hurled its whole weight on the left side of my body, throwing me off to the side of the courtyard.

“Guh”

Its approach from my blind spot was clever, and I was only spared from serious injury due to its rough aim, and that it didn’t gore me onto the cold hard ground.

Grunting through clenched teeth, my defense systems took another hit and I saw the gauges drop by a few more chunks.

“Grab on!”

I heard Luda’s voice while still rolled around in the water, and then a green-brown whip came into my view.

The tether rope!

Reaching for it, I caught onto the rope just before the Sturgeons could get to me. At once, my body was pulled down onto the seabed towards her.

“Thanks.”

As soon as my feet reached the ground, I quickly assumed my firing stance and aimed the crossbow at the fish. However, in their place, three Crowncelp arms and Luda’s two Nautilus Mammoths all directed their heavy blows in our direction.

“I need those shells broken, Luda!” I shouted out, strangely calm despite the critical situation. “You know what to do, right?”

Making a motion of firing down the weapon in my arm while lifting up a heel, I showed her what I meant.

“…Got it!” Fortunately, my message went through, and she switched out the rope and scattergun in her hand for another weapon.

“On three!” I began the countdown.

The nautilus monsters put all they could into their charge, in concert with the Crowncelp arms coming in from the opposite side.

“Two!” Luda joined in the count.

Both of us linked our arms together, activating our movement modules and charging up their output. Debris from the mountains kicked up around us, fogging up the view.

The large monsters faltered little in their onslaught, not giving us any more time to react.

“One!!”

As we jumped, Luda pointed the gun down and fired.

*WWHOOOOOSSHH*

The combined force of the recoil and our movement modules rocketed us off the ground and well above the courtyard, leaving a single blue charge to greet the approaching enemies.

Its glow flickered once—

*BOOM*

—Then exploded.

---

Just like Meiqi’s bombs last time, I cheered internally.

As our ascent slowed, Luda continued to fire more grenades from her hydropump launcher towards the carnage below us.

Even then…

Looking at the several shelled figures and arms trembling from the blasts, it was easy to see that none of them were taken out.

“Low-grade weapons.” Luda shrugged as she put away her grenade launcher.

We unlinked our arms and observed the battlefield below us.

The debris settled and we saw the Nautilus Mammoths caught up in the explosion emerge, slowly swimming off the ground with fractures in their shells. Even the crowned tips of the Borejawn Crowncelp’s arms chipped, but the tendon limbs themselves were unaffected.

Then, from elsewhere on the courtyard,

“Here they come!” I shouted.

The two giant nautiluses not involved in the explosion rushed towards us, but not without the quick Madstain Sturgeons reaching our positions first.

Not yet.

I put away the crossbow and brought out the beam saber in its place.

Both of us swung our weapons around to repel the serrated fish, me with the saber and Luda with her length of rope.

Wait,

“Is that the Barnacle Whip?” I asked.

“Yup!” She nodded, snapping her wrist and cracking her weapon at one of them.

Ooh, so close!

Luda’s attack barely missed the fish’s body, a margin so narrow that the water currents it made pushed the fish slightly off its path.

As our attacks and the sturgeons’ missed one another,

“Let’s go, KC!” Luda burst downwards, heading in the direction of the wounded nautiluses.

No remorse, no surrender, huh?

I knew that the earlier explosion didn’t give us enough Nautilus Paste for our needs. One of the mammoths will have to perish on this battlefield to fulfill our mission.

Strengthening my resolve, I followed Luda’s lead as she brought out the harpoon from her inventory, aiming it square on the soft head of her target.

Following suit, I took out my crossbow again. However, my target wasn’t the same as Luda’s.

The moment the courtyard came into our firing range,

*SNAP*

Both of us shot out our weapons.

Luda’s harpoon came down on the shelled beast, piercing the bony top of its head before it could dodge out of the way.

My three vial bolts reached the ground one after the other, striking against the rock formations arranged around the circular area. The sound of the impact startled the three Blind Frittens, confused as to what was happening.

Just a few seconds after, we reached the battlefield and immediately split up from each other, dividing the enemy’s attention once again.

“Was that another distraction?” Bursting towards her target, Luda asked what I did.

“They will be!” I replied.

Watching the blue fluid in the vials absorb into the bolts and surrounding ground, I swam towards the other wounded Nautilus Mammoth.

Seeing it turn around to face me head-on, I could see that it had no intention of giving up.

I’ll end this quick for you.

I fired my blaster into the cracks on its shell, and it shivered from the pain. Then, exploiting the slight lapse in focus it showed, I launched myself at its face and jammed a switched-out saber between its eyes, stabbing it repeatedly in the head as hard as I could.

With one last jerk, its struggles finally subsided as the light left its eyes.

Immediately after, I pushed myself off of the shell to avoid the combined attack from the Crowncelp and the frittens.

*SMASH*

The crowned arm struck the lifeless body of the nautilus, blasting it away into the coral forest.

As much as I despised needless slaughter, the mammoth would have kept making things difficult for us alive. Its death meant one less thing we’ll have to worry about.

“Done!” Luda reported her dispatch as well.

“We’ll gather the Nautilus Paste from your kill, Luda.” I responded.

Gazing upwards above the courtyard, I saw the sturgeons and the other two nautiluses arrive to the battlefield.

Before they could close down on us, however,

*WHIZZ*

Several sharp sounds resonated around us, similar to the ones the sturgeons made when they attacked.

“What is that!?” Luda raised her voice, seeing the black arrowhead-shaped things swimming around the courtyard. Our eyes could barely catch up to their speed.

“They’re here!” I exclaimed, relieved.

“Wait, you mean…”

“Above you, Luda!” I cut her off and warned.

She rolled forward and avoided the three Crowncelp arms pummeling the ground behind her. The shell of the dead Nautilus Mammoth shattered under the massive force of the crowns.

Rushing towards the main body of the Crowncelp, I gave my freshly-created minions their first order:

“Distract those fish!”

Spinning their bodies around, the three arrowhead constructs burst upwards above the battlefield and intercepted the sturgeons before they could reach us.

“Was that the golem Dawon and Tim told me about?” Recovering from her roll, she recalled what she heard about Mavacena.

“Kinda, it runs on the same thing.”

I nodded.

“Yeoreum should have some too, if she hasn’t told you before.”

I reached the base of the huge stalk that made up the base of the Borejawn Crowncelp, interrupted only by the Blind Frittens firing from under its cover.

Slashing the streams of liquid away,

“You’re done now.” I smirked, charging towards them.

While the Crowncelp had more than a dozen arms and a ridiculous reach over the entire battlefield, it didn’t have as strong a span of attention as the Regal Cortispire did. I saw that it could only attack one of us at a time, so I chose to approach it while it was focused on Luda.

On the other hand, the two Nautilus Mammoths, despite their dangerously fast speed, had difficulty steering their trajectory to keep up with our sudden movements.

Still, both of them are tough to kill while perfectly healthy, so I aimed my weapon at the three remaining sea slugs instead.

The frittens shrieked and released several clouds of acid as a last resort, but their final struggle did little to stop me from hacking into their soft, defenseless bodies. Their complete slaughter took me no more than ten seconds, and I pulled my steel crossbow bolts off of their remains.

Returning my attention back to the battlefield, I saw Luda jump off the seabed avoiding the advancing nautilus monsters, trying to close in on the one surviving Lesser Pocka-Jonn.

It must be useful for something if she’s so focused on it.

At least both of the nautiluses were focusing on her. It was strange that they would ignore me, but—

“Crap!”

The churning seawater reached my ears, and I ducked just in time to avoid a boulder of enamel crashing into the raised wall of the courtyard.

…Of course.

Master or not, it made sense for the nautiluses to stay away from the Crowncelp; they didn’t want to risk harming it by mistake and angering it. Their teaming up on Luda thus left the seaweed monster free to strike me down.

Backing away from the main stalk, I looked around for my constructs, trying to see how they were faring in the battle.

Scattered around the courtyard, the arrowheads and sturgeons circled and maneuvered around one another, both sides cautious in performing their next attack. The living darts may be made out of stone and metal, but the fish’s serrated bodies were sharp enough to break them.

Either way, I didn’t use a lot of Assaudine Solution in their creation; the Madstain Sturgeons would overwhelm the smaller arrowheads before long.

But first, reloading a few more steel bolts into the crossbow, I pulled on the string, and,

*SNAP*

*THUMP*

Recoiling from the impact of my shots on their shells, the Nautilus Mammoths tilted their eyes to see my figure rush over to Luda’s side.

Before they could respond,

*BLAM BLAM BLAM*

Luda emptied another clip of her scattergun on the monsters’ faces.

Amidst their engagement, I arrived to her side a few seconds before a series of Crowncelp arms did.

“The more the merrier!” I rolled upside down and used the spin to jet myself out of the way.

Facing the bombardment of crowns, Luda had to stop pursuing the Pocka-Jonn to evade them. The nautiluses scrambled away from the strike zone as well, having seen the seaweed-like monster disregard their dead friends.

“So what’s the plan, KC?”

Launching herself in my direction, Luda asked.

“Surely you didn’t come here without one?”

Meeting her halfway, I quickly skimmed my inventory window and selected the Bitter Howl, holding it by the barrel and extending the handle out towards her.

“The sound gun from last time,” I said. “You’ve seen me use it, right?”

“The loud one, yeah.” She took the weapon off my hands after putting her Positron Scattergun away. “For the nautiluses?”

Keeping an eye on the Crowncelp’s arms,

“Yeah, you take one and I’ll get the other.” Bringing out the Spined Rake, I activated the lifeform inside and swam towards the Nautilus Mammoth moving away.

“And then?” Gripping the Howl, she rushed at the other, which was preparing to ram its shell at her.

“We annoy the big boss,”

Chasing after our targets,

“And make it take them out.”

---

*BBRRRRRRMMMMMMM*

A deafening low growl rumbled throughout the courtyard. Familiar with the Bitter Howl, I could tell that Luda had begun her attack.

“Woah!”

Her reaching her opponent first was expected, but the sound still caught me off guard. Shaking off the shock, I accelerated towards the Nautilus Mammoth, pointing the Spined Rake at it while I charged it up.

The backwards swimming style of the monster meant that we were staring each other down the whole time. Its determined eyes locked onto me and the branch I held, as it began to slow down and turn.

Heh.

I could tell that it had something up its sleeve.

Before any of us could break the standoff, I heard the rush of seawater reach my ears, then—

*CRUNCH*

A boulder of enamel ran into my whole body, the terrible force smashing me away from the battlefield.

“AARRGGHH!!”

My muscles in shock from the trauma, I was barely able to catch the warnings that came up in my system.

‘Warning: Hazard Shield in critical condition’

‘Warning: Internal Armour integrity compromised’

Damn it!

The Crowncelp’s attacks came at me too quickly; at this rate, it’ll take both of us down before we could even finish our plan.

I had to come up with something quick.

Racking my mind,

“Keep that thing busy, arrowheads!”

I shouted, ordering the constructs to ignore the sturgeons and attack the giant seaweed-like monster together.

*WHIRRRR*

Responding to my voice, the living darts converged on it, pricking the tendon-like arms with their sharp, small bodies.

As soon as the Crowncelp pulled its arm away,

!!

The rapidly advancing shell of the Nautilus Mammoth greeted my view.

Still recovering from the last attack, there was no time for me to get away, even with the jet module.

“Come on—

*CRASH*

The heavy body of the shelled monster met mine in a spectacular collision, throwing me off towards the ground. As my body crashed against the seabed, dust and stone flew all around.

Heh.

From down here, I could almost hear the thoughts passing through the nautilus’s mind as its eyes looked down on me.

“The ground? I was supposed to gore him into the coral trees!”

Its eyes widened as it finally understood what was going on.

Now!

Pulling away the large, black metal shield, I replaced the Everest Accolade back into the inventory and launched myself off the ground towards it. Not only did the shield protect me from most of the impact, its weight also pulled me quickly onto the ground, my feet secure against it.

Its disrupted concentration left it wide open for a perfect counter. Showing no hesitation, I got close to it and fired the chilling current from the Rake. The glowing purple stream surged forwards, hitting its face square on.

The Nautilus Mammoth trembled in fear as the current invaded its mental state.

Using the momentum from the first attack, I lodged the Rake’s branched end in between its tentacles and fired the weapon again, this time pouring the aura directly into its body.

As its movements froze from the terror, I flipped the blaster out of the inventory and aimed it at the back of the courtyard, where the Borejawn Crowncelp’s main stalk was.

Hm?

The three arrowheads were still circling around the Crowncelp, stalling it as much as they could.

“Luda?” I called out. “Where are you?”

*SHATTER*

Still following my command, one arrowhead allowed a Madstain Sturgeon to strike it from behind, breaking it instantly.

I thought she was supposed to draw its attention first! She reached her enemy before I did!

There was no time to waste.

I need to finish this quickly.

Firing off a few shots, the laser rounds struck the arms and main stalk of the Crowncelp, leaving burn marks on them.

I saw most of its arms turn in my direction, indicating that the harassment was working.

Ignoring the living darts,

*WHOOSH*

About five crowned arms launched themselves at me with terrifying speeds.

Taking one deep breath,

Whoops.

I kicked myself off the shell of the Nautilus Mammoth at the last minute, leaving it to meet its untimely demise at the violent forces of the Borejawn Crowncelp.

“Luda!”

Jetting away from the bloodbath, I called out her name once again, frantically searching the battlefield for any sign of her.

After a few seconds,

“Luda!!”

I saw her struggling beside an elevation on the courtyard, trying to fend off a sturgeon clamping its jaws down on her arm, while the one surviving Pocka-Jonn tightened its tendrils around her face. Above their position, the remaining Nautilus Mammoth prepared to launch its tackle, having regained its senses.

How did that even happen?

“Hey!!” I reflexively yelled to draw their attention.

As soon as all three creatures turned their attention to me, I fired the blaster at the sturgeon, which was busy with Luda’s hand in its mouth. Two laser rounds grazed its fins and another directly struck its body, causing it to let go of its target and swim away.

Storing the blaster away, I hurried to her side before the nautilus monster could launch its attack. As soon as I reached her, I pulled her body off the ground by the shoulders, tapping her legs.

“!!”

Receiving my signal, she activated her underwater movement assistance system, and we retreated to the edge of the courtyard, landing on a clearing filled with the fallen trunks of several coral trees.

---

Squeezing the main body as hard as I could, I yanked the starfish anemone-like creature off Luda’s face and threw it away.

“Hah!”

Free from the Pocka-Jonn’s clutches, she took deep breaths from and tried to get up. She looked fine otherwise, so I helped her to her feet.

“Your water breather okay?” I asked.

“Somehow.” She replied, “Most of the force was on my head.”

“Those things really like you, huh.” I continued. “What happened?”

“The sturgeon picked that thing up and threw it at my face!” She flared. “I knew I should have killed it when I had the chance!”

“You will.” I reassured her, eyeing the writhing lifeform on our side. “Right now, though,”

Looking back into the courtyard, I saw the two arrowhead shapes try to fend off the Crowncelp and others the best they could. A sturgeon eventually chased one down and destroyed it, leaving only one alive.

“Yeah, sorry that you had to come and help me out.” She sighed, pulling out the Bitter Howl from her inventory.

“Wait,”

I paused, recalling our journey.

“You remember the candlebrush valley from before?”

“Yeah, the one we rested in, right?” She looked at me. At once, making the connection in her head, “Wait, you mean, we take the bulb and—”

She brought her hands together and imitated an explosion.

“Yeah.” I nodded, “Your energy transport system can do that, right?”

Luda took out one of the bulbs, then pulled out a few wires connected to the sleeve of her spacesuit. Fiddling with the connections, she managed to light it up before long.

“It’ll take some time for me to overload the circuit, KC.” She explained. “If your arrowhead thing dies, cover me before then.”

I nodded my head, and we hurried back to the courtyard.

Aside from the Crowncelp, there were only three enemies remaining on the battlefield: One Nautilus Mammoth and two Madstain Sturgeons. The shelled monster kept watch for any sign of us while the rest of them drove the last arrowhead construct to a corner.

I had plenty of Assaudine Solution left to use; it was the vial crossbow bolts that were running out, limiting the number of times I could make new ones.

Therefore,

“Stay close to us, arrowhead!” I called out to it as soon as we re-entered the fray.

“What are you doing, KC?” Behind me, Luda spoke up. If my voice didn’t already give draw the enemies’ attention, the living dart going to us definitely did.

“I can keep it alive longer if the two of us look out for each other.” I replied.

“You’re on your own,” She reminded me, “I’ll be too busy rerouting the system to focus on the fight!”

“I know, just stay behind me.”

It’ll be only a few minutes at most; I hope I can keep the monsters away until then.

Taking out the Rake, I quickly charged it up and fired a chilling current in the Nautilus Mammoth’s direction. The crooked branch still activated, I swung it everywhere, sending out trails of glowing purple aura around us.

From a distance, the shelled monster easily dodged my attack, and the sturgeons followed suit by keeping their distance. Relying on their apprehension towards the dissipating aura, I began stalling for time.

Holding out a hand, I signaled the arrowhead to come to my palm. With a swipe, I grabbed the living dart off the water and looked for any damage on it. Across the width of the construct, which looked like a boomerang half the length of my forearm, only minor chips and dents could be seen.

With the other hand, I continued to swing the Rake around, releasing more of the purple currents at the retreating monsters.

This won’t last.

Seeing Luda still busy working with her window, I ran through my mind looking for another plan. It won’t be long before our enemies realize that I was delaying their action, not jumping around the battlefield as usual.

The Crowncelp had already figured out how to push the aura away from itself using water currents.

With so little to work with, I resorted to a desperate measure.

The sturgeons circling around me swam away by reflex seeing me snap my wrist. I threw out a bright light at them, which then mysteriously started moving around on its own chasing them down.

Distracting the serrated fish with the bioluminescent lantern hung from my arrowhead construct, I switched out my crossbow and started firing at the Nautilus Mammoth.

*THUMP* *THUMP*

*WHOOSH*

Alternating between the Rake and the crossbow was clunky and awkward, and I emptied the clip on it before long. The lifeform in my Spined Rake also started to show signs of fatigue.

“Done, Luda?” I asked her without taking my eyes off the shelled monster.

“Almost there!” She responded.

At that very moment, the arrowhead construct barely avoided the Crowncelp’s attack, and the lantern slid off its body and sank onto the ground.

Oh boy.

The sturgeons immediately realized that it was a trick, turning around to chase after it.

The Nautilus Mammoth also began suspecting my actions, approaching our position carefully. I switched out the crossbow for my blaster and fired at it again, but the second it realized that I was no longer using the Rake, the cat was out of the bag.

With the Crowncelp extending its arms around us, I knew I had to prepare for the worst.

I went for Luda to pull ourselves away—

“…Ready!”

Her words came at long last, a few milliseconds before I could get to her.

“Throw it upwards!” I responded, using my initial momentum to make it to her side.

As I reached her, she swung her hand as hard as she could, and a cluster of glass bulbs left her grasp.

“Get down!” I shouted, hoping the arrowhead responded in time.

Holding an arm over my eyes, I braced for detonation.

*SHHRRINGG!!*

The slightest rays of blinding light shone through my eyelids, accompanied by a high-pitched explosion and the sound of broken glass.

As soon as the light went away, both of us jumped to action.

“Take out the big one, Luda! I’ll handle the sturgeons!”

“Got it!”

We split up from each other and hunted the monsters down.

*SWISH*

A dark-coloured shape emerged from behind the Crowncelp’s main stalk, which seemed like it was also affected by the explosion.

“Nice.” I cheered, seeing the arrowhead construct survive the blast; we could use the extra help.

“Take them down.” I pointed at the blinded Madstain Sturgeons.

The living dart received my orders and burst forward, running itself down the body of the closest one and tearing it open.

As soon as I caught up with the wounded fish, I pulled out the Pulsar Beam Saber and shoved it through the opening, piercing deep into its struggling body. A across its length later, the sturgeon perished in battle.

By the time I could get to the second one, it was already on its last legs, numerous cuts from the arrowhead construct all over its body. A clean swing decapacitated the fish’s head, ending its misery.

Done with our parts, the arrowhead returned to my grasp, and I stored it into my inventory. Keeping my eyes on the recovering Crowncelp,

“You need help, Luda?” I spoke into the voice chat.

A second later,

*BOOOM*

The familiar explosion of her grenade shook the courtyard. Glancing in the direction of the blast, I saw the Nautilus Mammoth sink before her, its tentacles torn from an irreversibly destroyed head.

“I’m fine, as you can see.” She chuckled.

I joined back up with her, just in time for the Crowncelp to regain its senses.

“Let’s finish this.”

Luda held up her grenade launcher.

“Yep.” I answered her.

---

Since the very beginning of the battle until now, the Borejawn Crowncelp had taken practically no damage, suffering only minor burns from my blaster and a few chipped crowns from Luda’s grenades.

On its own, the seaweed-like monster didn’t hesitate to launch its heavy strikes at us, using all of its arms now that no one else was in the way. Every single tendon-like limb fired a giant boulder of enamel in our direction, and a hit from any of them was as deadly as they come.

Still,

“Well.”

“Guess that’s that.”

I twisted my body around, while Luda jumped out of the way, avoiding its continuous onslaught of attacks.

Without anyone else around to distract us, we avoided all of its punches with ease. Whatever boundless strength it held meant nothing if none of its blows landed.

“This is dragging on longer than it should.”

Making the softest movement in her limbs, Luda dodged several arms as if performing a dance routine, weaving grenade fire through the gaps at the main stalk whenever she got within range.

“We’ll be done, eventually.”

I shrugged, swinging the saber in my hand at any Crowncelp arm I could reach.

“Looks like it was a pushover after all.”

Checking that my shields were doing fine, I spared just enough attention to turn away from the seaweed-like monster’s attacks. Despite the severe threat the crowned limbs posed, the monster’s attacks posed less danger to me than crossing a two-lane road in the city.

Its stalk and arms were as tough as we expected a boss monster to be, but under sustained attack, they accumulated more wounds and injuries, each more severe than the last.

As this helplessly one-sided fight continued, even the mighty seaweed-like monster began to weaken, its arms slowing down exhausted from the prolonged battle.

Finally,

Finally.” Luda sighed.

“The Cortispire fight was more fun.” I gave my honest opinion.

All of the Crowncelp’s limbs fell to the ground, struggling even to bring themselves up.

The ‘last boss fight’ of this mission turned out to be a battle of attrition overwhelmingly in our favour, as the monster’s slow reaction speed and inability to focus on both of us at the same time inevitably led to its downfall.

The Borejawn Crowncelp fell to its own weaknesses, and the curtains fell on our final battle.

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zichromasis
Day 2 has safely ended! There's a sneaky minor choice early in the chapter, which may or may not mean something ;)
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