Chapter 137: Into the unknown
The crack in the glacier, as well as the cave leading further in, seem to have formed around a small stream of Hydrum that once came down the mountain, leaving behind only a streambed of loose gravelly rock.
I hesitate only a brief moment before I turn around, and let myself fall backwards off the jagged Boreum cliff.
I close my eyes, fighting the urge to deploy a field of Negative Inertial Energy as my back approaches the ground. My cape of breaths hits the ground in airbag form, rapidly decelerating me as it deflates.
I let out a breath in relief as soon as my back gently touches down. A safe landing, and no Qi wasted. Frig that was scary though.
I get up, take a glance at the maw-like entrance, then stride in, the loose gravel crunching beneath my boots.
The cave forms a wide, roughly hemispherical arc above the relatively flat bed of the dried-up stream. The ceiling is at least 20 feet above me in the middle. It’s darker inside than outside, but enough bluish-tinted light filters through the clear Boreum that I can see just fine.
Something feels off when I walk in, however, and it takes me a moment to realise what exactly.
It’s the gravity. I’ve gotten used to feeling lighter the moment I walk into a structure with rock above me, but it seems like the Boreum—being made of Aether—is so lightweight that it has no gravity itself. This also explains why I didn’t feel too heavy while walking on top of the glacier. Wait, I shouldn’t assume that gravity is related to mass like in the Entropic Realm... It could also be that Boreum has no gravity because it’s is Yin, while Gravity is Yang. Would that mean Astreum does produce gravity? Note to self, ask Suri about this later.
The layer of Boreum above me gets thicker as I venture farther down. The light gets dimmer, and the Cold intensifies, but I can still handle it. At least there’s no Radiation here, as it seems the rocks are confined to the top layer of the glacier. From down here they look like shadows in larger bright spots, kind of like the pupils of enormous eyes. If I squint, I even get the sense that I can make out a hint of sickly-green light coming from them, the tell-tale colour of Radiation Energy Crystals.
The cave leads on, meandering slightly as it follows the path of the stream until it opens up into a large cavern.
The cavern is about 60 feet wide and 40 feet high in the centre. Even with the three big pillars of Boreum standing in a triangular formation, it seems like it should come crashing down any second. However, Boreum being as light as it is, I guess that isn’t too big of a worry.
Perhaps the only reason the pillars are even necessary at all is the rocks that pockmark the surface of the glacier above, at some points looking very close to melting their way through.
The streambed ends in a shallow pool of Hydrum in the centre of the cavern, between the three pillars. I approach it warily, but all I see beneath the clear Hydrum is more gravel. There are tracks in the gravel however, leading to and from the Hydrum. The tracks are all jumbled together, and I can’t really make out a clear pawprint of any kind, so I have no idea what kind of creature might’ve made them.
I follow one of the main trails for a few steps, then realise it heads into a small tunnel into the Boreum, maybe four feet high. I look around. There’s similar tunnels starting everywhere. Whatever creature lives down here—at least I’m hoping it’s singular—it’s made a friggin’ maze.
I search for some kind of indication of what I might gain here to keep Kaitlynn warm, but there’s nothing but loose gravel and solid Boreum around me. Whatever I’m supposed to find, must have to do with the creature that lives here. Maybe it has a warm pelt or something like that?
My eye turns back to the maze of tunnels leaving this cavern.
Damnit, I don’t have time to go looking for you!
I hesitate for a moment, then walk over to one of the cavern’s outer walls, and smack my spear into it with a loud clang.
The sound reverberates through the cavern and the maze of tunnels for a while before it dies out. I keep my ears perked, and after a moment, I hear a soft chittering echo through one of the tunnels, that slowly grows louder.
I take a few steps back from the wall and activate the second mode of Boost Physical. Since there’s no Radiation down here, I can easily afford the cost.
I try to track where the sound is coming from, but the echoes and all the different tunnel exits make it difficult. Suddenly, I see a deep violet light bloom up somewhere in the Boreum, which quickly mounts in intensity.
I stare at it in wonderment. What is that?
I reflexively throw myself aside, and not a moment too soon. The violet light bursts through the wall at the exact point where I hit it with my spear, evaporating the Boreum and creating an opening the same size as the other tunnels in the maze.
Well, that’s one mystery solved, I suppose.
A thing that I can only describe as a giant scorpion comes crawling out, waving its claws menacingly. Its exoskeleton is black with a reddish tint, except for its tail, which is glowing with a hint of...
I flip myself up to my feet. A beam of violet light impacts the ground I was just lying on, then swings my way.
I run as fast as I can. It’s almost enough.
The creature’s beam burns painfully as it passes over my calf right before I dive behind one of the pillars.
I hiss and quickly inspect the damage.
The blue leather armour covering my calf is partially turned to slag. My skin is blackened where it was exposed but doesn’t hurt. In fact, it doesn’t feel anything, even when I touch it.
My hackles rise, and I quickly activate Regenerate. Thankfully, it only takes a moment for the blackened flesh to slough off and reveal new purple skin beneath.
‘Suri, what the hell is this thing?!’ I practically hiss over my optical nerve as I circle the pillar, trying to stay out of sight of the giant scorpion with the friggin’ laser cannon mounted on its back.
Thankfully, the pillar is entirely see-through and doesn’t distort the light in any way, so I can easily keep track of it as it tries to skitter around. It could probably melt through in seconds if it wanted to, but it doesn’t, likely warned by some instinctive understanding that the roof might collapse on top of it if it did.
[That would be a Marama. Nasty little creatures, aren’t they?]
‘Little?! Little my ass; that thing is six foot long, not counting its tail! You know, the one that shoots friggin’ laserbeams!’
[That’s actually just Radiation with the Necrotising Purpose. Instead of burning away Lavi, it attacks the tissue it hits directly. Don’t let it hit you with too much of that; Regenerate won’t be of much help you if you lose something vital, like a hand.]
Before I can sarcastically thank her for the tip, my new friend Laser-nope suddenly whirls around and attempts to hook its tail around the pillar. In the brief moment it charges up I make a break for it to the next pillar.
Its beam once more chases me, scoring a line in the Boreum of the distant cavern wall.
I take a deep breath behind my new temporary shelter and plan my counteroffensive.
First, I use some of my Espir to conjure up a faux Toxic Energy Crystal and toss it around the pillar. Let’s see if it’s smart enough to be scared of—nope.
A beam of violet Radiation blasts right through my creation. I decide to let it fizzle out, so as not to give away that it’s fake. Too bad I had to hand in all of my real ones... Anyway, Laser-nope seems pretty trigger happy; I can probably exploit that.
By the time Laser-nope comes skittering around my pillar, I’m ready. First, I’ve pushed most of the Toxic Energy circulating through my body to my skin, to help stave off his attacks. Now I just need to prepare targets for it. Lots of targets.
As I circle the pillar, I conjure up and leave behind a swarm of nightmares. Specifically, bats, that swarm around Laser-nope, causing him to shoot erratically while I sneak up on him from behind.
Using Negative Inertial Energy to toss my spear at high velocity seems like a bad idea. Its armour looks pretty tough, and I’d have to go fetch my spear afterwards, leaving me open to shots of that damn laser. I’ll have to get in close and use Positive Inertial Energy to do some real damage.
I creep closer quickly, my heart pounding in my throat, hoping to catch it while it’s still distracted.
I manage to get in range and start swinging my spear down. However, just when I deploy my swirl of Positive Inertial Energy, Laser-nope suddenly skitters away, still firing erratically, and my spear slams a crater in the loose gravel.
Shit, I was so close!
My eyes go wide as his tail, by coincidence or design, swings in my direction, and fires off a beam that hits me square in the shoulder.
I hiss in pain as it burns holes in my pauldron and hits the skin underneath. The shock breaks my concentration, and the bats vanish.
I quickly jump behind one of the pillars. The Toxic Energy seems to have helped mitigate the damage, and Regeneration is making quick work of the few black spots. Still, my armour is looking worse for the wear...
Okay, sending it into a panic may not have been my brightest idea.
Laser-nope seems to have overcome his fright and once again advances aggressively on my position.
Let’s see if I have more luck dazing it.
First, I toss out another faux Toxic Energy Crystal. Laser-nope dutifully shoots it, but this time I set it off like a flashbang. While he’s disoriented, I breathe out a cloud of Dreamcloud Energy and direct my breath around the pillar towards him.
Next, I hook a tether into him.
<Hey there, buddy,> I send, pushing as much Charm into it as I can, right as the Dreamcloud hits him. <All this violence... I think we just got off the wrong foot here. Wouldn’t you much rather be my friend?>
Laser-nope stands perfectly still, which makes it very hard to read him. He probably doesn’t really understand what I’m sending, but that shouldn’t matter too much as long as the general idea of friendliness is coming across.
I cautiously step out of cover, holding my spear behind my back, and smile Charmingly.
<That’s it, no need to fight. We can be friends. Just let me pet you for a moment.> And Infuse you with so much Toxic Energy you won’t be able to move as I smash you to bits.
Unfortunately, in my complete focus on convincing Laser-nope I’m not a threat as I creep closer, I don’t pay close enough attention to my footing.
My foot hits a small rock. It clatters over the gravel. Laser-nope goes rigid as the spell breaks. I try to quickly exhale another dose of Dreamcloud, but it’s too late.
Laser-nope charges up his laser. I quickly deploy a field of Negative Inertial Energy and leap away towards another pillar. Laser-nope fires, his beam erasing the Dreamcloud Energy and even cutting through my tether.
Worse, he gets a good hit in on my back, right before I reach my cover. That doesn’t fully stop him this time either. He evaporates part of the pillar, and I can only barely duck a fourth hit. The Boreum groans but holds.
Damnit, this stupid thing is going to bring this whole place down on us!
Worriedly, I glance at my Status Bar.
I’m still doing okay on Lavi, but I’m down a third of my Qi and half my Espir. I can tell my Toxic Energy reserves are also down about half, after getting hit with Radiation several times and expending a bunch to make Dreamcloud Energy. My armour’s also getting more and more tattered, which sucks, but can’t be helped.
In fact, I fear it’s about to get worse, ’cause it’s time to go all-out. I just need to catch him in a field of Positive Inertial Energy and get one good hit in, even if that means taking some shots in return.
Kaitlynn is counting on me.
Thankfully, Laser-nope doesn’t seem inclined to give up this pillar entirely just yet, which gives me a couple of crucial seconds to focus.
I expend about half my remaining Espir to conjure up a trio of life-like trigots.
Conjuring ‘living’ beings requires a bunch more Espir than simple objects, but it’s more than worth it, because these Imaginations come with a limited amount of cognition.
I’ve even conjured up a lifelike copy of myself during my morning practice once, but that takes up far more Espir than most other conjurations. This much Espir would have only allowed me to make one copy of myself at most.
I’m not sure what the difference is. It didn’t seem much smarter than other ‘living’ Imaginations, only capable of following up simple instructions autonomously. It might be because I can Imagine myself in lots of detail, whereas I only have a vague yet serviceable impression of what trigots look like exactly. Something with blue scales and three horns.
My rendition of a trigot appears to be good enough, because Laser-nope is definitely taken aback by the trio of new attackers that circle him, seeming to dodge his beams and claws with uncanny movements.
I ordered them to ‘harass’ Laser-nope. My creations appear to understand the concept well enough, no doubt with a little help from objective meaning.
I may have exaggerated the trigots’ teeth a little, but Laser-nope seems appropriately intimidated by their attempts to nip him, so I’ll call that a win. Swinging his claws and firing his laser, he’s slowly herded into a corner of the cavern.
I break out of cover and start running. Despite the harassment, Laser-nope still takes note, and turns slightly my way.
I duck the first beam of violet light by inferring what it's aiming at, but the second one is a hit and a bad one.
One unfortunate feature of levelling up is that we seem to grow a bit. That’s not an issue in itself, but our armours don’t grow with us. Alec makes adjustments of course, but it’s hard to make the sleeves and trouser legs longer, which means my ankles are currently quite bare and unprotected.
And Laser-nope just nailed my right ankle, the one I’m standing on.
I stumble on, unsure how bad the damage is, but unwilling to break off my attack. My trigots still managed to keep Laser-nope cornered, so this is my chance.
As soon as I’m close enough, I release a swirl of Negative Inertial Energy and push off with both legs.
I hear and feel a familiar snap, and my blood runs cold as I fly through the Aether. Gritting my teeth, I bite through the pain, allowing my trigots to fade, as I focus on delivering my final blow.
However, Laser-nope has different plans. As soon as I leap, he turns and blasts a hole into the Boreum. I try to push my swirl of Positive Inertial Energy forward in a desperate attempt to catch him but it’s hard to do on the fly, and once again he barely clears its range, skittering away into his brand-new tunnel.
My spear smashes a hole in the gravel he just occupied.
Aagh! This friggin’ thing!
Something unexpectedly goes wrong in my landing and I end up with a mouthful of gravel for my trouble.
Lying in the loose gravel, I grind my teeth in frustration as I watch Laser-nope skitter off into his tunnel system.
I try to get up, but pain lances through me as I attempt and fail to plant my right foot.
I blink and glance down. Then back to where I jumped from.
My blood freezes in my veins. Lying on the spot I kicked off for my leap, is my right foot.
Thanks for reading! ^^