Volume 2 - Cold as Hell
"When I said I wanted to travel, I never quite meant it to be aimlessly wandering in hope of finding something. But I guess the only thing you really can do is hold tight to your faith and keep two simple things in mind. Those being the words of my father; 'Keep a level head, a sharp sword and don't expend energy panicking that you could use surviving.' And I. . . forgot the other thing."
-Diary of Kathrine Stoneriver
She was falling fast. Forward at terminal velocity and though the entire experience was lasting only long enough for her mind to realize what was going on, Kathrine still pushed everything she could into her focus running through a multitude of scenarios in the flash of an instant. The first thing she needed was elemental protection and then a spell of iron lungs. She couldn't go back, it was too late for that, but she could at least prepare for what was to come.
Then there was the sextant.
Without it she'd be completely at the mercy of the portal systems and the fluctuation inherent in it. But that couldn't be helped. She didn't have time to worry about that as she tumbled through relatively null space. Instead she closed her eyes and ran through the permutations for her normal protections; Greater Insulation to protect her from the elements, Deep Breath to keep her lungs full of air and-
Something struck the side of her head going at an amazing speed. A pristine oak box about the size her spell book. She spun around as her hands moved swiftly trying to make the motions of the Deep Breath spell. In her moment of realization relief washed over her. The sextant. Tammia must've thrown it in after her. So very close but she couldn't stop the casting now, though.
The sextant bounced off the side of her skull pushing her hair back and continued its path down and forward, zooming right by her. Kathrine pivoted her hips finishing the incantation. Air forced itself down her throat and into her lungs inflating them with the sharp breeze of life giving oxygen. She dived forward trying to reach the box but it was just too fast for her. With no sense of place and only the speed of thought to contain her, she tried to reach forward again but then she was suddenly falling faster ahead of the box. She passed at such speed she almost missed the sight of the golden latch closed, the little bead held it firm in its place.
Thank the gods-
An abrupt pull on her body told her she was coming to her destination, like a wind blowing against her she buffeted just before the veil of blackness opened to reveal an endless expanse of white not five feet in front of her. Snow. Her eyes widened as the portal spit her into the new place. She tumbled into the thick snow bank, rolling foot over head a couple times and landing face down in the fluffy power with her coat almost completely over her head. Her back was sore and her knees were wet from the snow but nothing burned or hurt. Either the protections were holding or it wasn't acidic in any way. She filed the knowledge away and raised her head to survey her surroundings.
Then the box struck her squarely in the back of the head.
She grunted as her face was buried back in the snow bank. "Owww~~"
Kathrine laid there for just a moment before she reached for the back of her head and rubbed the new sore spot. It was definitely going to leave a lump. "Ow ow ow." She pulled her hand away and planted her hands on either side of her body, forcing herself up.
Twin suns burned high in the crisp blue sky, one a faint blue color and the other yellow. All around her virgin snow had been laid across countless acres of territory with gentle furrows and mounds leading off out of sight. In front of her a steady mound was only a few hundred paces away and beyond it a mountain stood out against the sky as the single landscape feature in an otherwise barren winter scape. Kat shadowed her eyes with her hand, squinting to look into the distance only to be partly blinded by the brilliant reflected light from the twin suns.
All in one piece? She wiggled her hands, toes and then slowly forced herself up adjusting her full length coat before she patted the snow off of it. Mentally checking the half dozen wands on her belt she relaxed only when she was sure they were all in place.. She looked around again quickly and only when she was sure there was nothing else around she bent to retrieve her sextant. Carefully, she thumbed the latch open, holding her breath for just a moment even though she really didn't need to. The spell saw to it her lungs were full no matter what. The little hinges creaked, opening to reveal the silver dias glowing blue and the golden sextant spinning lazily on its axis. Kathrine's breath formed a ghostly plume when she sighed out her relief.
And then all hell broke loose.
A semi-circle of snow six banks the size of a small carriage rose in front of her only a few paces away. A flash of light broke the sheen from the snow and suddenly six blurs were rushing forward. Teeth. Black bodies. White carapace on top. Somewhat serpentine with powerful legs. Insect?
Kat dropped the sextant by reflex and tumbled back at an awkward run. They had already halved the distance between them by the time she got her wits about her and quickly fumbled through her list of prepared spells, reaching for something useful to the situation. Slow! She glanced down at the sextant and then the approaching beasts. They spread wide at first but now quickly closed in for the kill.
She was just a hair quicker, uttering the broken Draconic as the creatures closed in nearer. The crunch of snow under claw echoed thousands of times through her mind as she finally managed the final motion and selected the target of the area of effect. There was no dazzling display of magic fireworks usually associated with the release of high potency spells. Instead, the group of creatures progress halted to a brisk walking pace allowing Kat a better look at them.
They were definitely insectoid; thick powerful legs like a grass hopper, large teeth in a pointed skull with protruding antenae and no visible eyes. A thick chitinous shell protected the upper parts of their backs and gave them camouflage at a distance but sat high enough to allow them complete freedom of movement. She stood observing them for just a moment, taking a few steps back as the pack of them continued their slow advance towards her. She heard the crunch of wood and metal just before the thought occurred to her that she'd left the sextant behind again.
That they were stalking her meant they were carnivores. Vermin? Perhaps but doubtful- over thinking it. She was overthinking it again. Kat ran through her spells quickly, holding her hands out and murmuring the incantation for lesser missile storm. The powerful evocation did exactly as one might think. A flash of bright blue light erupted from both her hands as she finished the required motions and seven bright pulses lashed out through the air like flying blue leaches, unerringly slamming into the insect creatures head on. Two of them dropped instantly, much to Kat's relief, leaving only burned husks as the magic cauterized their wounds instantly.
The other four began moving faster towards her as the slow spell began to wear off. She was quicker on the draw this time however and as the crunching of their feet came closer she unleashed another lesser missile storm. This time the results were universal and spectacular. The missiles punched into the carapaces leaving smoldering holes and black marks. One exploded in a shower of brown blood and the other two's bodies were burned through like a hot rod had been run through them. Kat approached the nearest of the creatures slowly and stopped just a foot away. "Psst. . . Hey."
It didn't move.
She relaxed a little, resting her hand atop her brother's sword as she stepped around the twitching corpses to find the box that held her sextant. Instead she found splinters and an amalgamation of bent gold and faintly glowing silver pressed into a three toed foot print buried partially by snow. Oh man. That's not good. . .
Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. How could she have forgotten the only thing that'd have gotten her home? How would she get back now? What would she do? What-. . . No. She needed to relax. She looked at the remains of the box trying to survey the damage and make sense of what'd gone wrong. She hadn't finished the coordinates. No, she had but she hand't finished the verbal component. Which meant only the third end of the coordinates were off. She looked around, shading her eyes. That, at least, narrowed the list of possible bad situations she was facing. One or two degrees in multi-dimensional space left plenty of room for her getting back to the World Serpent but any more than that and she may as well have been throwing darts in the dark. She looked at the sextant with a frown. The golden A frame had been bent to an awkward angle making the sensitive device completely useless to her but the soft blue glow suggested she was at least somewhere near a portal anchor point. The stronger it got the closer she was and if she was really lucky, it wasn't the one she'd fallen out of.
Kathrine held the small dias in her hands turning left and right, taking a step forward, back, north and south. . . East and West. She was just about to turn back when the faint glow brightened just a little in a roughly westerly direction. Toward the mountain. She swallowed and looked up.
The mountain dominated the skyline as the solitary feature beyond the snow bank, snaking down from a point to a wide sprawling root around a snow capped plateau. She squinted trying to make out the details. The snow had an odd tint to it, almost green in the mixed light but something from the shadow caught just right and then she saw it for what it really was. It really was green underneath the snow. The wind picked up and buffeted Kat's hair sending a lonesome sigh across her ears which echoed off into the distance. A flutter of movement atop the plateau a few seconds later exposed the green patch again. A bright vibrant patch of live plants that shone like a beacon in the desolate white. As she watched it, the realization struck her that she was probably watching something move over it. Which could easily be many things but the hopeful part of her told her it was a thinking mind trying to hide its garden.
She glanced back down at the insects at her feet. If that was true, it would mean someone was either afraid or they were protecting themselves from something that was even more of a threat than the bugs. But she was over thinking again. . . She licked her dry lips and stuffed the remains of the sextant into her coat pocket before reaching under the collar of her coat, murmuring part of her command word to cause the fabric to mold into a cloak. It gave smoothly producing several feet of extra material that she could use as a hood which she draped down to cover her eyes for the most part, giving them welcome relief from the stinging reflected light.
Kat knelt down and brushed some snow aside, then began digging, trying to find some solid dirt. But there was none. No connection on this plane to Chauntea except for what lay ahead. She sighed. There'd be no comfort for a weary mind but she knew better than to give in to false doubts. As one of the greater deities of the realms, no matter where she went, Kathrine could always find some connection to the Earthmother and all Her bounties. It was just places like this that made that a little harder. She turned her gaze upward a little, smiling to the skies above as she whispered. "With each new path, a new growth, my Lady." She tugged her hood down to shade her eyes again and started forward towards the mountain.
The crisp powder crunched softly under her boots and though the thin leather pads that served as the soles threatened to soak through she trudged on keeping a weary eye on her surroundings for any more of the insect creatures. For miles around the only feature to kiss the land was the subtle waves of frozen snow that furrowed the pristine blanket of white but in that desolate stillness an unearthly beauty lay stretched out untouched by the hand of mankind. No bustling cities, no quaint villages. No thick dense forests teeming with animals. Just serene silence.
For a moment, Kat considered the possibility she'd somehow ended up on the Fugue plane but if what she'd read about it was true, she would be dead in some kind of city and not up to her knee in snow. Supposedly, however, the plane was void of any features and simply sat as an endless expanse of nothingness around some sort of central area where dead souls went to face their final judgment. The thought made her cringe, just once. But that wasn't right, was it? She couldn't be dead. . . Could she?
Her hood brushed against the lump on the back of her head sending a sharp jolt of pain through her head and she winced. For better or worse she was definitely alive.
Something tickled the back of her mind as she glanced around for the millionth time. The thought that she might have actually been on the Fugue plane, that she might have seen Jezebel. A sharp pang in her heart surged just for one fleeting moment; the thought that she'd catch a glimpse of the woman she'd fallen so deeply in love with, the one she'd made her wife. The one, despite all reasons not to, she held to for comfort even on the loneliest of nights. She blinked and the feeling was gone. She truly was alone and no amount of wishing otherwise would change that.
She stopped half way between the dune and the mountain, looking around slowly for any other tell tale signs of the creatures. Her hair bristled a warning as her senses became increasingly more acute. The sent of the air, the sound of stillness. The increasing chill across her body; her elemental ward was beginning to thin which meant either time passed much faster here or the cold was eating through it. She swallowed, stole a glance toward the mountain and then around herself as her hand came to the hilt of her brother's sword. She was no soldier, she knew she'd never last in a fight without her magic but the reassuring chill of the ivory handle bolstered her confidence the slightest bit. The chill became downright cold the longer she stood there and soon she was shivering. Whether from her instincts or the continually failing elemental ward she couldn't tell but it was that instant she had to choose; the garden either represented a place where both fertile dirt and heat were at least somewhat abundant or there was some kind of thinking mind making it possible for plants of that type to grow. She could trust in their hospitality and hope for the best or she could stand there and freeze to death.
Not much of a choice, is it. She slowly turned back and began a steady jog toward the mountain, increasingly aware of the cold that threatened to freeze her solid. Despite her coat's very regal appearance, it was thin and only really could protect her from a light rain. Yeah, let's get the one with the filigree. She mused as she picked up a quicker pace. Great idea.
She pumped her arms for extra speed as the ward continued to degrade and the first real blast of cold punched its way down her throat, filling her lungs with icy daggers of pain. She gasped in the breath of local air and coughed it out harshly; it ripped the moisture from her lungs and she nearly doubled over, dropping to a knee to keep from falling on the spot.
The simple act probably saved her life.
A lithe black body sailed over her head at a frightening pace and landed a few feet away, crunching down on two powerful padded feet easily the size of Kat's skull. The insect turned to her as she tried to force air in her lungs. She doubled back a little, coughing still but her mind was working a mile a minute; she was several hundred paces from the plateau still but she could probably get there in short order if she needed to. Years of running had kept her fit and light on her feet but she'd never outrun the creature, not even at her best pace. She coughed and hacked again.
The creature faced her full on and emitted a soft click, taking a single step forward. The snow crunched under foot and Kat backed up more. Her coat caught under her foot as she lowered her body in a defensive crouch just like her brother had tried to teach her. She grabbed the pommel of her blade and gave it a solid yank. Nothing happened. The blade remained firmly in its scabbard.
Aww come on! She coughed again as the insect advanced on her. Though the stinging sensation in her throat was beginning to subside, she could barely breathe. Her face hurt from cold and coughing but still she tried to shout, motioning vaguely towards the insect trying to scare it away. She gave the blade another tug but it didn't budge. Dammit!
The insect lept at her and she dived to the left, bounced off of a rock or something with her shoulder and tumbled on to her feet. She looked back to see the insect land a couple of feet away from where she'd been. They were slow to adapt, this was good. As another coughing fit wracked her body, the rock she'd hit began to rise casting errant snow off its back. She herself got to her feet and started forward at a full run, pumping her arms faster while the insect creature drew itself up to its full height. The other one jumped at her and began a run of its own but Kat was just a split second too quick; she rolled to the side again and grabbed for her blade pulling with all her feeble strength but the steel remained firmly locked in the scabbard.
Sometimes the cold makes the blade stick in the throat, that's why you want to keep it close to your body at all times. At the furthest edges of her mind her father's words chided her while she tried to get her footing and change pitch, running the opposite direction. The two insects spread out wide to come at her from different angles. She wouldn't be able to repeat the move but she tried again anyway, zig-zagging erratically as she tried to force more air into her lungs. Her coughing hadn't subsided but every other part of her screaming of the danger she was in kept her moving. She tried hard to recall the verbal component of Deep Breath but for some reason couldn't quite remember what it was. It was meant to be used when-. . . underwater. The only requirement was that she needed to be able to breathe the air, which she could.
She was overthinking again~
Quickly, Kat motioned with her hands to form the complex runes but she coughed and sputtered, loosing her concentration. She glanced back just in time to see one of the insects jump for her. She moved to duck, tripped over something hard buried under the snow and faceplanted right into a knee high snow bank. In her mind's eye she could see the creatures circling her even as the thing she'd tripped over began to rise up. She rolled over, confirming her suspicions. Three of the insects now formed a semi-circle around her.
She grabbed a familiar bone wand from her belt, turning it over in her hand and activating the magic contained in it by memory. A shimmering bubble instantly formed around her just as one of the creatures launched at her. It bounced back with a spectacular crack of energy and recoiled. Instead of following suit in the attack, the other insects paced around to her back side and at once they both launched toward her flanks. Crack crack. The Shield held firm against them and Kathrine drew in a deep breath, quickly going through the motions for the Deep Breath spell she'd been trying to cast earlier. This time she was rewarded with a heavy inhalation of fresh oxygen. She couldn't help but sigh her relief. Was the air toxic? Maybe but doubtful. How much of it had she already swallowed, enough to kill her?
Overthinking. Focus. Kathrine quickly replaced her elemental ward with a less powerful one she usually reserved for daily use in uncomfortable climates. It wouldn't hold up for long if the biting chill had sapped her powerful one but it'd buy her a few precious minutes. If, however, time was moving faster, it'd buy her an hour at least. No matter why it was deteriorating, she needed to get to higher ground.
The insects made another circle, widening out as Kathrine tucked her wand into her belt. She pushed herself up just as one of the creatures made another lunge at her. It crashed into the shield with a loud crack that echoed in the protective confines of the bubble, causing Kat's skin to bristle. No wonder she'd felt threatened, she was being stalked. She hadn't been paying attention and now she was paying for it. She sighed softly and stole a glance toward the mountain. Another second passed and two more insects rose from the snow in front of her joining the others in pacing around her.
She licked her lips. The shield would follow her wherever she went but how far she could get would depend entirely on how long it would actually last. Assuming her time theory held any kind of water, she wouldn't get far before it failed. Crack. Something crashed against the spell. She whipped her head back to find another half dozen insects closing in on her from behind. They had her surrounded.
Kat grabbed her wand and re triggered it before turning on her heel and starting toward the mountain at a dead run. As she slipped past two of the creatures tried to launch at her, smashing into the shield only to drop into a heap on either side of her. Her adrenaline surged and she forced herself to a full sprint such as she could with the snow up to her knees. She sloshed forward with the chittering creatures only a step behind. She plowed forward, re activating her wand every few dozen steps to keep it from failing and despite the warming that was telling her the wand was nearly out of charges she kept peeling them off like candy, anything to stay a few steps ahead of the insects which had somehow doubled in number in the space of a few hundred feet.
The snow tinned out the closer she got to the mountain and by the time she realized what she was looking at she was nearly in the garden. The steady slope of the snow bank ringed the plateau like a hill reaching into the canopy of the garden. From her position mid way up the hill she could see a buffeting blanket of thick muslin reflecting a faint green color along with stone pillars which seemed to have had the canopy fixed to it in some way. Her heart surged with relief and fear. Someone was here, some thinking creature had put this together and she was leading these things right to them.
Kat stole a glance back. Two dozen by quick count. Ten feet away. She cringed mentally. An image flashed through her mind's eye of the creatures descending on her when her shield eventually gave out and tearing her apart. Then whatever had set up the garden would be in danger and she'd be responsible and the crops would be totaled and- she slipped her foot back, took a deep breath and faced the mob of insects who were already closing the distance.
Her hands flexed an instant before she brought them up, forcing herself through the permutations for one of her more powerful evocations. Her mind formed the words quickly and her hands followed suit, disinterested in the world around herself she focused her control into a ball of energy that swirled around her arms to form in her hands, crackling loudly with an electric buzz. She stretched the radius out a bit as the final component came together, spilling from her lips in broken Draconic with the release of the pent up energy. The ball flew forward to a spot just behind the insects crackling loudly as it cut through the air.
The explosion was blinding. In an instant the electric ball expanded to its full size with a deafening woosh, sending electricity in every direction; insects were vaporized in an instant and a massive crater erupted from the point of impact splattering Kat with hot water vapor and bug parts. More than a dozen of the bugs disappeared in the initial blast and several more were dropped where they stood, some sheered in half at the edge of the circumference and some cooked by errant sparks of power that arced from the ten foot ball of compressed energy.
Kathrine stood just barely out of the radius of the explosion at the lip of the newly formed crater looking left and right for her next target. Her mind fell away to the protective instincts of the garden above and the people that it fed; whether human or not, it didn't matter to her. Of all the times in her life she'd been called upon to defend life and limb it had become an instinctive reaction. She'd lead the creatures here but she could stop them. Or she could damn well try.
One of the insects jumped at her from the right. Her shield spell cracked and she ducked away smoothly, turning to unleash a magic missile spell. In the space of a heart beat four missiles bored into the creature flinging it back with four black holes through its body to fall in a lump several feet away. She could hear clamoring from above but it was too late to look before three more of the creatures crawled at her right side. At once all four of them- herself included- ducked back away from one another. The insects chittered. Kat began working the somatic components for the lesser missile storm spell. She knew she didn't have enough reagents prepared for any more but at least she'd stop them all. Here and now.
The spell went off flawlessly blasting through the shield and sending crackling blue spears of light through the bugs. They dropped on the spot and Kat whirled to face the ones she thought she saw behind her. Already her hands were motioning for another magic missile spell.
She stopped the moment she saw a young human girl looking down at her from the top of the ridge. The dirty pale face was soon joined by others. Adults. They were all looking down at her like she was one of the insects.
Oh boy. . .