• H.C. Mills

Chapter 32: It takes a lot, to make a stew

I have to say, the Trigot looked a lot more appetizing down at the stream than it does now, while it’s slowly oozing a yellow liquid onto the floor of our little hut.

Kaitlynn and Dave hurry about, stuffing leaves underneath it so we’ll have less cleaning to do later, while Alec and I study it. Apparently, cooking was one of his hobbies. I gather he had a lot of those... no wonder he never got anything done for school.

I scratch my head. “So... do you think it’s edible?”

Alec shrugs. “Guess there’s only one way to find out.”

I nod. “Appraise.”

“...Or two ways, I suppose,” Alec mutters, as a window pops up in front of me.

“Mmm, appraise classifies it as an animal, not a consumable, but it does have a Lavi supplement value...”

Alec perks up. “Then it should be edible, right?”

I smile wryly. “It also has toughness similar to a tree...”

“Oh...” Alec deflates again. “Maybe we should just try—”

Finished with the leaves, Dave stands up. “Rose, could you tell me if and how we can cook and eat this creature?”

“...Three ways,” Alec mutters.

I smirk at him. “Six, if you count all of our guides separately.”

Alec glares at me. Oh well, at least Kaitlynn is laughing.

Dave is silent for a while. He nods. “She says we can, it just needs to be well-heated for like 6 to 8 hours, until it’s soft enough for our ‘widdle teeth’.”

I mouth ‘What?’ at Kaitlynn with a disbelieving face, which sets her off again. “Your Rose sounds like quite a character, Dave.”

[Oh, believe me, she is,] Suri interjects in my head. Dave just smiles sheepishly.

“All right,” Alec says. “I’m thinking stew. Kaitlynn, got any spices in that herb collection of yours?”

“Well, yes, but they’re different from the ones on earth, so, I wouldn’t know what goes well with this...”

Alec gestures at her to hand over the goods.

“Oh, I have a bag of salt,” Dave says, moving to rummage through his backpack.

“Really?” I ask in surprise.

“Yeah,” he says, pulling out and presenting his prize. “I bought it from the consumables window for Trial 3, figuring that if it was going to be dry and hot, bringing only water might be a bad idea; you need to replenish your electrolytes if you’re sweating a lot.”

“Huh... I hadn’t thought of that... on the other hand, there’s no guarantee electrolytes are even a thing in this dimension.”

“True,” Dave says. “I did try tasting my sweat during Trial 3, and it was salty, so I think it might be. In hindsight, Trial 3 wasn’t really long enough to warrant purchasing a bag of salt, but it was only one trial point anyway. Here you go Alec.”

Alec accepts the bag without even looking, as he’s too busy sniffing Kaitlynn’s herbs, muttering to himself. “This one. Oof, not this. This is a maybe.”

Sounds good, I’ll leave him to it.

I turn back to the carcass and consider the next challenge. “How are we going to skin it? I do have a blade of knifegrass, but...”

Kaitlynn raises a brow at me. “You mean Bluesteel Grass? I’m afraid a plant with a toughness of 19 isn’t going to cut it. Heh, get it? Isn’t going to ‘cut’ it.”

I stifle a smirk. “Yes, I got it sweetie, very clever, well done.”

Alec and Dave laugh. Kaitlynn pouts at me. Awww, sho cute.

Dave clears his throat. “She’s right though; it wouldn’t work. But we have something better.” He rummages through his backpack again, this time producing a sharp shard of rock.

“A while ago, I experimented with dropping rocks from high up in the tree, to see if I could make something useful,” he explains. “It took some doing to get it right; seems like you can only break rocks by dropping them on rocks with an even higher toughness; otherwise you only damage whatever you dropped it on.”

Interesting. Is the Toughness stat really that absolute? Or is that only the case because the rocks lack flexibility?

“Anyway, this shard has a toughness of 56,” he concludes.

I let out a low whistle. “That ought to do it.”

Finished with selecting his herbs, Alec jumps up and starts bossing us around. For some reason I feel uncomfortable with him telling me what to do, but I shake it off. As they say, too many cooks will spoil the broth...

Alec is going to carve up the meat, Dave is sent to fetch water with some empty waterskins and bottles, and Kaitlynn and I are on fire detail.

I follow her as she skips down the tree trunk, off to search for twigs and branches down on the forest floor.

In fact, I’ve already collected quite a pile before it hits me.

“Wait, fire? Does that even exist here?”

Kaitlynn looks up at me in surprise. “Oh that’s right, you weren’t here yet... it’s so weird, it feels like I’ve known you forever...”

She looks at me, all smiles. I can’t help but grin back. I never really had female friends before, never felt the need to make any either... Lately, I feel like I’ve been missing out.

“But, ehm, actually, we’ve tried cooking before. Alec made this jicca nut porridge.” Kaitlynn’s nose scrunches up cutely. “It was... edible. He was kinda down after that, and hasn’t tried cooking again till now.”

I snort, before another question pops up. “What did he make it in? Did you guys make it down by the stream or something?”

Kaitlynn shakes her head. “We made it in the hut. Haven’t you noticed that open stack of rocks with the large stone basin on top? That’s a stove.”

Really? I thought it was a wash basin... Though I suppose it could be both.

I frown. “But there’s no chimney in the hut.”

Kaitlynn smirks at me. “Hmm? I’d expected you to have figured it out by now.”

I raise a brow at her, and she just laughs.

“Although there is fire in this dimension, it’s different from the fire on earth,” she explains. “It’s more like the Astreum I create with my skill; super-heated Aether. It doesn’t seem to produce any smoke, just gives off heat.”

“How was I supposed to figure that out,” I grumble mock-surly.

She laughs again, bunching up her collection of firewood under one arm before she links the other with one of mine. “Come on, I think we’ve got enough to get a fire going; we’ll have to make several trips to keep it burning for eight hours anyway.”

I grumble some more as I fall into step and stride up the spiralling tree trunk with her.

If life in this dimension could be like this all the time... perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad.

Back in the hut, Kaitlynn and I build a pyramid of twigs and branches inside the hollow pile of rocks she calls a ‘stove’. I poke it a few times, and it stands surprisingly steady. I still don’t entirely trust it not to collapse in on itself and spread burning wood throughout the hut though.

I suppose the water Dave already put in the basin would put it out if that happened, but still. I’m not even sure if that’s how it works in this dimension. What if ‘Hydrum’, as I believe Suri called it, is actually flammable?

With the pyramid ready, Kaitlynn carefully pulls a lunchbox out of her backpack. She opens it, gingerly takes out three orangey-red flowers, and places them beneath the pyramid of sticks.

“Kindle?” I ask.

“Oh, it’s more than that...these are Yang Fire-Blossoms. Just watch.”

She gets up and moves back a bit, gesturing for me to do the same.

Wait... how exactly does she intend to light this fire? She’s not going to... oh god, she wouldn’t, right?

I look at her in alarm and hurry another few paces back.

To my surprise and relief, Kaitlynn grabs a stick, and whacks one of the flowers. With a fwoosh, it bursts into a ball of flamelike, reddish glowing Astreum. That sets off the other two as well, one after the other.

Soon, one of the sticks touching the ball of Astreum catches fire. And by that, I mean that it spontaneously ignites along its entire length. As in every part of it catches fire, simultaneously. Or I guess the ‘whole’ catches fire. Either way, other sticks follow its example, and soon we have an actually pretty silent fire, spreading a hot glow throughout the hut.

Kaitlynn turns to me proudly and raises an eyebrow when she finds me standing practically in the doorway. I smile sheepishly at her.

Alec looks up from his dirty work, and nods in satisfaction. “Well done! I’ll add some meat to it soon; for now the Hydrum can just soak up some heat.”

I look at the weird, yellow cuts of meat he’s carving, and nothing has ever looked more appetising. This is going to be a long eight hours. Perhaps I better meditate, practice on numbing my sense of smell...

Out of all of my senses, my sense of smell seems to be the hardest to influence thus far. Though it might also be that my subconscious is rebelling against it, as closing off my sense of smell would mean losing the mouth-watering scent wafting off the stew.

Ultimately, my trance is broken when Dave calls out that dinner is ready. I stretch out my legs, stiff from hours in the lotus position, look at the brown goop presented to me and frown. “Are you sure it’s ready? It doesn’t look very warm.”

“As far as we can tell, Hydrum doesn’t boil or evaporate,” Dave responds, as he hands me a full, bowl shaped leaf and accompanying, equally leafy spoon. “Though perhaps we just can’t reach the requisite temperature with our woodfire... Anyway, be very careful eating it; it gets very, very hot.”

The brown goop in my bowl is filled richly with pieces of yellow meat, and a variety of strangely coloured, undefinable herbs.

His warning falls on deaf ears, as I burn my tongue on the first bite, and couldn’t care less.

Alec is a god. Or at the very least, his cooking is divine. The broth is thick, heavy and salted to perfection. The meat falls apart in threads on my tongue, providing a rough yet not unpleasant texture. It’s the softest thing I’ve eaten in this Realm, and it sooths the ache in my teeth like a space heater drives out the cold. Many of the herbs and flavours are unfamiliar, for obvious reasons, but they blend together to form a hearty, exotic taste-experience.

To my credit, I only burn my tongue twice more after the first bite, and barely overheat during dinner. So worth it... I just wanna lie here in satisfaction forever.

Kaitlynn seems to have the same idea and attempts to use my stomach as pillow. I groan, and gently redirect her head to my thighs.

As I’m about to fall asleep, a notification pops up.

Kaitlynn gasps, her hand clenching down on my thigh.

Alec mutters, “Fifty-four? That’s less than half the people that survived Hub One...”

Dave sighs. “Most of them probably fell in Trial Two... I was nearly one of them.”

“Hey, look at it this way; that’s still a much better survival rate than in Hub One itself,” I joke to lighten the mood.

Judging from the silence that follows, it doesn’t work. The image of Josh smiling his dimply smile comes unbidden. Damn it, I even managed to depress myself!

I catch Kaitlynn’s eye in the semi-dark. It glistens with unshed tears.

I sigh and stroke her hair. “I know sweetie, I’m sad too,” I whisper. “But we should focus on our own survival. Let’s try and get some sleep.”

I feel her nod against my leg. Soon I drift off to a restless slumber, filled with confusing dreams about sailing a roiling sea of stew with a blue-haired cat, purring on my lap.

Author's note:

Welcome, new readers from topwebfiction.com! There are a lot more of you than I'd expected, to be honest ^^' A most pleasant surprise.

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©2018 by H.C. Mills