• hcmills

Chapter 136: These are desperate times

I ineffectively clutch Kaitlynn to me as I ramble. “Warm, warm, how do I get you—a fire! We can make a fire!”

Kaitlynn glances around with jerky motions, teeth chattering. “W-where? How?”

I bite my lip. Making a fire on the glacier probably wouldn’t turn out great. The little wood we brought with us for cooking would just evaporate the Boreum beneath it and sink down.

There’s gotta be a way, come on, Emma, think! We just need something that can stand the Heat...

My eye falls on one of the rocks at the bottom of a pit, but no, getting that close to a source of that much Radiation is not something anyone should attempt. Well, except for a Radiation subtype like Dave, I guess.

I blink when a thought strikes me. “I’ve got it! Quick, strip!”

Kaitlynn shoots me an odd look.

“Ehm, not like that,” I add. “I don’t exactly have body heat to share. Just... trust me, okay?”

As she stiffly starts to undo her armour and pants, I busy myself with taking out the wood. Unfortunately, she’s not getting very far with her shaking, presumably numb fingers, so I step in help her undo her straps and pull down her clothes.

I direct Kaitlynn to lay her armour down and sit down on it, trying to keep my eyes from straying into uncharted territory. I mostly succeed.

Then I start piling the wood into her lap. Kaitlynn catches on to my plan and fixes up my sloppy structure with shaking fingers.

“I c-can’t light it,” she manages to bring out when she’s done. “Out of Qi. N-need a F-fire-Blossom.”

I crouch down next to her bag and rummage around in her herb pouch until I find one, carefully wrapped in a protective bed of moss to keep it from igniting. It seems to have wilted a little, but when she crushes it in her lap, a ball of Astreum still bursts out.

For a moment it flickers uncertainly, but then one of the sticks catches fire, and the Astreum flames immediately spread down the whole length, then quickly jump to the next stick, and the next.

Relieved, I sit down behind her. For a moment, I admire the smooth lines of musculature on her back, the hint of bulging flesh—

I avert my eyes and clear my throat. “All right. I trust you know better than me how to draw as much Heat into your body as possible.”

Kaitlynn nods and shakily sucks in a nice lungful of Astreum. She holds it in for a moment, then exhales it in a whirling cloak around her body, to stave off the freezing winds

“Very good. Now, once you’ve purged the Cold from your body, start using Reconversion on the Heat you take in, and try to store as much of that Heat as you can as Qi.”

Kaitlynn hesitates. “It takes me about 20 Onkh of Heat to make an Onkh of Qi, and when I turn that Onkh of Qi back into Heat, I produce only 12 Onkh... but you’re right, if I store it as Heat I’ll draw in more Cold through Yin-Yang attraction. Guess Reconversion is going to come in handy after all.”

Huh, those amounts are both much larger than for Toxic Energy. I guess it works differently for different types of energy.

For a moment, I allow myself to relax, listening to the crackling fire and Kaitlynn breathing steadily like a bellows.

However, the tension in my body quickly returns. The wood in this Realm burns very differently than the wood I’m used to. It burns hot and intense, but brief. A single stick will only last minutes. It’s fine for cooking, but not ideal for keeping warm.

And we didn’t bring that much, preferring to travel light. Even if Kaitlynn burns it sparingly, it will last for half an hour at most. And then the battle of attrition begins again.

Unfortunately, we’ve yet to come across any kind of vegetation. Actually, even if we did find some, I’m not sure if it would be very helpful. The Qi in Yin plants doesn’t convert into Heat, after all, and it’d be hard for any Yang vegetation to survive here.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so lifeless. It takes Yin and Yang to make life, so in areas with such an extreme disbalance, it won’t sprout.

Let alone survive.

The bottom line is, that mountain is just too far, and the landscape is becoming ever more hellish as we approach it. Even if we reach it, we still need to climb it. We need a way to keep Kaitlynn warm, or she’ll never make it.

I can’t lose her. Not like this.

Grim determination rises in my chest as it becomes clear to me what I need to do.

I get up and draw my crystal spear. “Kait... Keep the fire burning low, make it last as long as you can, okay?”

From the corner of my eye, I can see Kaitlynn snap her head around to look back at me, but I keep my gaze steadily focused on the distant horizon.

“Wait, where are you going?” she asks, her voice rising in pitch.

“I’m going to look for something to help keep you warm. If the fire burns out before I return... head for the mountain. I’ll find you.”

“B-but, Emma...” Kaitlynn sounds half-panicked now.

I turn around with a sigh and crouch down next to her. Keeping my eye steady on her face, I gently cup her cheek.

She leans into the touch, eye staring pleadingly into mine.

“This isn’t goodbye, Kaitlynn. I need you to trust me. I’m not letting you freeze to death.” My hand clenches around my spear.

After a moment she nods. A single tear spills down her left cheek.

I kiss her on the forehead, get up, and start walking in the direction of the mountain, not daring to look back lest I lose my resolve.

“All right, Suri,” I say out loud as soon as I’m out of earshot. “Here’s the thing. I know you know some way to save her.”

This is the conclusion I came to as we walked the glacier. The Trial Welcome Window even said that risk begets opportunity, so there must be a way. There must!

[Do I now?]

“I know you’re not supposed to tell me,” I continue, ignoring her response. “However, I don’t have time to waste looking for it in this hellscape, so I’m going to have to incentivise you to bend the rules and help me.”

[Oh? And how, exactly, will you do that?]

I stop moving, take a deep breath, and draw up my chin. “Well, the only thing you seem to care about is my survival, so... I’ve decided I’m not finishing this Trial without Kaitlynn.”

[Excuse me?]

“You heard me. You can either help me out, or watch me struggle until she kicks it before I jump into a pool of Boreum vapour and sink into sweet oblivion. What’s it gonna be?”

[Emma, do me a favour and stop kidding ar—]

“I’m not kidding, Suri,” I say, pouring iron into my voice. “Help me or not, it’s your decision, but don’t think I’ll give you the chance to change my mind.”

A silence falls in my head. I know I’m giving away that I know a bit more than I should, that I’ve realised she can manipulate me but at this point, I don’t care. Still, I have no idea how she’s going to respond, so I can’t help but be a little—

[Now you, listen to me, missy, and you listen well,] Suri chimes sternly. [You shan’t be getting any hints from me. I will not cave to your demands. You could stand here having a childish tantrum until a hole opens up in the glacier, but it will accomplish nothing, you got that?]

I open my mouth, then close it again. That... was not the response I expected.

“Yeah, I think I got it,” I say slowly, fighting off the small smile that threatens to make its way onto my face. “Guess I’ll have to do this on my own...”

I jog up to the top of a nearby ridge to look around, but other ridges block my view across the glacier. I look around for a better vantage point, but don’t see one, apart from the mountain. No way I’d have time to climb that just to get a view.

I blink. Hold on. If it’s just to take a look around...

I crouch down and charge my Focus Crystal. Then I produce a swirl of Negative Inertial Energy and push off as hard as I can.

With my excessive Agility, I have no trouble stabilising myself mid-jump. I even manage to give myself a very slight spin upon take-off, so I can look all around as I soar into the Aether.

The landscape this close to the mountain is absolutely littered with pits, yet there’s one that jumps out. The other rocks may just have been planted to add Radiation for the Trial, but this is clearly the scene of a massive meteor that impacted the glacier and formed a huge crater, even if it got smashed into pieces in the process. Though the lack of Boreum in the crater seems to suggest it is radio-active.

Hmm. I’m not sure. It fits with the whole ‘danger begets opportunity,’ and there’s definitely a ‘hole in the glacier,’ but it would be rather a stretch to call it—a cave!

On my other side, there’s a large crack running through the Boreum, which appears to end in a tunnel of some kind leading down into the glacier.

It’s a hole in the glacier and a cave, that has to be it!

I feed my Inertial Field a slow but steady stream of Negative Inertial Energy to keep the swirl intact, only allowing it to fade after I land gently on my feet and begin rushing in the direction of the cave.

For a moment I consider using more Negative Inertial Energy to cover the distance in huge leaps, but I control myself, despite my impatience. It would cost me all my Qi just to get there.

And I have a feeling I’m going to need it.

Hang in there, Kait... I’ll be back soon.

Author's note:

Thanks for reading!

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Rules as Fun, Dreidan Episode 1: The Lord Killed Twice

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