• hcmills

Chapter 155: Always gonna be an uphill battle

I had good hopes Dominique might stick around to gloat for a bit, but she barely spares us a glance before flying on.


Three quarters up the slope, Kaitlynn is beginning to have issues producing enough Astreum bombs to counter all of the projectiles produced by the six cannons gunning for her, and I see her quickly dodge one with a burst of yellow.


Gritting my teeth, I kick my tail and accelerate, overtaking her.


The pressure on my ability to dodge immediately seems to double as more cannons swivel my way, but it allows Kaitlynn the breathing room she needs to push forward.


We steadily fly further and further up the slope, but as we do, the distance between us and the cannons decreases.


Dodging becomes harder and harder, even with the two of us sharing the burden, but we can’t stop now, not with Dominique racing ahead.


If only there were more people to draw fire... Wait, that’s it!


The next time I dodge left, a flawless miniature copy of me—as I’m still shrunken down—goes right. The conjuration of this semi-sentient illusion sets me back a hefty 12 Espir, but it’s worth it.


The cannons immediately reconfigure, dividing their loving attention equally among the three of us.


I direct my clone to dart forward straight up the middle, and it draws even more fire.


Kaitlynn rockets up the right side and I up the left.


She blasts another projectile to the side. It grazes her shoulder, but she flies on, reaching the top first.


The cannons immediately shift again. I dodge the first three point-blank shots but fail to see the fourth one coming.


Thanks to my swirl of Negative Inertial Energy, the cannonball to the face feels more like a basketball, but it still makes for a decidedly less than pleasant experience when my head snaps back and I’m sent spinning away.


Ooh, my head...


“Emma!” Kaitlynn yells.


I quickly stabilise and stick up a thumb to indicate I’m fine. Thankfully, my illusion held and—as it’s much farther up the hill than I—currently draws fire from about ten out of the twelve cannons.


I dodge an errant cannonball, wracking my mind for a solution, when Kaitlynn makes her move.


She lifts one of the greysteel cannonballs that must’ve bounced back up off Dominique’s Boreum shielding, and with a burst of Astreum and a flash of yellow, hurls it at one of the ceiling-mounted cannons still pointed at me.


It misses the cannon, but hits the swivelling stone platform it’s mounted on.


A crack appears. I frown and move to the left. The cannon rotates to follow, but noticeably slower and accompanied by a new grinding noise.


Sweet!


“It’s working, keep going!” I yell as I start flying up again.


Kaitlynn manages to completely disable two cannons by the time I make it up, slipping through the reduced pressure with relative ease.


As soon as I reach the top, I allow my boundary to expand to its normal size and call out for Kaitlynn. “Flight mode B!”


My clone fizzles even as she hops onto my back. The room turns eerily quiet as the cannons stop, and we fly into the cave leading on.


Two turns and a bit of a climb later, the tunnel exits into another huge hexagonal room, easily a hundred feet wide. Three of the walls opposite our entrance feature a large door made of gleaming black metal.


Glancing around, I don’t immediately see a path leading onwards. For a moment, I consider the possibility that Dominique entered one of these three doors.


Then Kaitlynn gasps.


I look up. As huge as the room is in circumference, its height is greater. It looks to go at least four hundred feet up.


This isn’t a room, it’s the bottom of a bloody shaft!


And there’s no doubt in my mind for what awaits us at the top: a door made of crystal.


Dominique seems to have drawn the same conclusion. However, for some reason, she isn’t flying, but instead running up a staircase of Boreum that she forms along the walls. Her speed appears to be limited by her need to recycle previously used steps as well.


She must’ve lost control over her boundary and lacked the Qi to make a new one!


I grin and share a glance with Kaitlynn. “First Mate?”


“Aye aye, cap’n?”


“Engage the thrusters!”


We rocket straight up the shaft. I keep a close eye on Dominique as we do, assured she’ll try something when we reach her height.


However, before we even get close to her, I start to feel something I haven’t in a while.


The pull of gravity.


My eyes widen as my boundary groans and shrinks under the pressure.


“Uh oh,” Kaitlynn mutters as our upwards progress quickly crawls to a slow. “I don’t think there’s enough fuel in my tank to blast us up there.”


“Maybe you should go without—” I cut myself off with a grimace. “Nevermind, without my boundary the Gravity would be even stronger, so you probably still wouldn’t make it.”


“Got any ideas? Otherwise I’m turning off the jets.”


I glance up at Dominique. Her method makes a lot more sense now, slow but steady.


“Screw it,” I mumble, “take us to the wall!”


I have no idea if I can do what I’m planning, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to try.


As Kaitlynn steers us closer to the sheer surface, I activate Boost Physical’s second mode and reach back to grab something off her belt.


The second we arrive, I slam the pointy ends of two of Kaitlynn’s throwing knives into the smooth grey stone. They enter with a crunch, spitting out some gravel. I hang from them with our combined weight—though still reduced thanks to my Spatial Boundary—and thank Goddess when they hold.


“What are you—woah!”


My sudden, pull-up rocks Kaitlynn in the saddle, so to speak, but she hangs on. I shift my weight to one of the knives, and with a sharp motion, pull out the other, and plunge it higher.


“Rock-climbing,” I answer.


With a grunt, I pull myself up to the next knife.


I hear Kaitlynn gulp audibly, and feel a feather-light touch on one of my straining biceps. “God, that’s hot...”


My mouth curls up on one side. “Later,” I promise. “Right now, I’m going to need your help if we’re to catch up.”


With a groan, Kaitlynn kisses me on the neck, then activates her jets again.


Pulling up immediately becomes much easier, and I start climbing up as fast as I can.


Suri once told me Strength doubles the force you can output every 5 points. That means at a Strength of 19, I am currently almost four times as strong as your average human male.


That’s a lot. Combined with the reduced weight due to my Spatial Boundary and Kaitlynn’s jets, I practically fly up.


As I get higher, however, the gravity continues to increase, pushing through my boundary’s ability to decrease our weight more and more.


Kaitlynn murmurs encouragements at me, letting me know we’re catching up, but I have trouble focusing on it. My world narrows to the painful strain in my arms, the scrambling of my legs for a hold, and the last one hundred feet stretched out above me.


A flash of red from Kaitlynn’s wrist is all the warning I get before she fires a shockwave of Vibration Energy that leaves my ears ringing unpleasantly.


The bolt of lightning she deflected strikes right next to me.


I glance at the side it came from, and notice that we’ve drawn level with a furious-looking Dominique.


The jets firing from Kaitlynn’s feet peter out as she returns fire with powerful Astreum bombs, leaving our full weight hanging from my arms.


I grit my teeth, wait for the next pulse of energy from the Lavi crossflow through my heart, and pull up.


If it weren’t for the stamina-replenishing effect of Boost Physical, I would’ve long dropped. I’m still struggling immensely as it is, but I’m not willing to give in.


If I let go now, I’m not sure if I have it in me to start climbing again.


A roaring fills my ears, and my vision tunnels at the edge I can make out above us.


I barely notice the war Kaitlynn’s waging from my back.


A wall of Boreum sprouts up to hinder our progress once, but a gout of Astreum melts it away. Lightning hits us, causing Kaitlynn to convulse and my hands to shake a bit, but she’s long prepared herself by hooking her knees into the bands of my backpack, and manages to stay put.


I do catch her response. It’s hard to miss.


A searing beam erupts from Kaitlynn's eye. Heat radiates off it, washing over me as it lances down to strike at Dominique from above. I hadn’t even realised we’d passed her. However, it’s not aimed at her directly. Instead, it cuts a perfect semicircle out of Dominique’s Boreum staircase.


Dominique’s eyes widen as she begins to drop.


She manages to catch herself on the edge, but Kaitlynn mercilessly fires a second beam right at her hand.


Dominique screams in fury as the powerful gravity pulls her away.


The edge is only thirty feet up when Kaitlynn’s jets turn back on. I can practically taste it.


It still takes every last scrap of energy I have left to make it there.


When I finally sink a knife inches below the edge, Kaitlynn climbs up first, stumbling on the dismount for some reason.


She quickly turns around and helps me up.


I flop onto the edge with a grunt, feeling boneless with weariness.


Once the roof stops spinning, the reason Kaitlynn stumbled becomes clear to me. The gravity here is a lot weaker than inside the pit, though still not so weak as to allow me to float under the effect of my Spatial Boundary.


I carefully get to my foot and find myself in an even bigger hexagonal room—with a huge hexagonal hole in the centre of the floor, obviously—and a single, massive crystal door.


Kaitlynn looks down over the edge of the hole. “Shit, Dominique’s heading for a darksteel door. How did she even break her fall?” She squints. “All right, you did the real work here, so you should get the crystal door. I think I should be able to decelerate fast enough—”


I grab Kaitlynn by the shoulders, spin her around, and kiss her with all I have.


She stumbles a little when I finally let up, looking lovely with her face flushed and her eye twinkling. “Ehm, I’m gonna miss you too,” she whispers, “but I don’t think I can afford to waste any more time...”


Shaking my head, I brush an unruly lock of hair from her face. “Babe, you know I love you... but if you think I carried you all the way up here just to make you jump off, you’re delusional. I’ll see you on the other side.”


Her eye widens as I gently but firmly pull her from the edge and take her place there in a single hop.


Then, before she can stop me, I blow her a kiss and let myself fall backwards.



Author's note:

I wrote the final chapter of Book 4 last week, which is both a milestone and a part of the story I've really been looking forward to. ^^ My writer's group is reading it now; next week I'll be getting started on the Fifth and final book in this series!


Anyway, thanks for reading! ^^

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