A light breeze streamed through Betsy's hair, fluttering like tendrils of fog. She opened her eyes to blackness. She was falling. The stench of stale sweat and dried blood assaulted her nostrils. I can still smell things in the deva heavens? No, I must be in one of the narakas. Which one? What crimes did I commit? It must be the eternally-falling naraka. I forgot what sin one had to commit to be incarcerated in it, but isn't that what the Great Abyss is? After Calvin dismembered my legs from my body, he and his henchmen threw me into the Great Abyss. Oh God, I hope Ken was able to get away with the others. Regret. One of the attachments. If I can't let go, I'll never be able to move on. Oh, Kumar—is Kumar okay? I've got to save him!
"Betsy! How do you feel? Can you talk?"
The voice sounded familiar, a man's comforting voice. She turned her head to the side, towards the voice. Ken smiled at her and wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand.
"You can't be here!" She swallowed and a lump formed in her throat. "You have to take care of the others, you have to find—"
"We're all here, it's okay," Ken said and patted her shoulder.
"No, no, it can't be." Her heart beat faster. "He was in the red."
"That's right! Thanks to you, we defeated Calvin and now we're crossing the Great Abyss." He squeezed her shoulder.
"But why are we falling in the Great Abyss?" She lifted her head up, her neck and jaw tightening up like a vice. "Why are we dead?"
"We're not falling. We're crossing the Great Abyss on the kure-kiri-uma." He massaged her shoulders. "And we're not dead." He slid his hands under her head and held it as though she were a newborn. "Lay your head back down."
Her hands clutched at something silky. No, something softer than silk. She turned her head. like wild grass, long tufts of horse's hair sprung out from in between her fingers. The hair spread out all across the back of the kure-kiri-uma and it felt like a plush carpet with a pile inches thick supporting her.
She started to heave herself up on her elbows.
"No, you still need to rest." Ken held her down with his strong hands on her shoulders. "The balm can't completely heal critical hits, but it did bring you back up to almost half strength. Now you need to rest to get back up to full strength.
"Qian's," he said.
"Qian has a healing balm?" she said. It was a rule that upon acquisition all items were to become team property. "I have to see," Betsy said and propped herself up on her elbows. No legs. To be accurate, they'd been cut off mid-thigh. She should be dead. "Why didn't you run?"
"Didn't have to. We'd already dispatched Calvin and I carried you off the battlefield. Now lie back down."
While she lowered herself, he supported her with his hands under her back and neck.
"You make it sound so easy," Betsy said and held his hand.
He laughed that childish laugh of his. "Wading through the crowd of NPC soldiers wasn't exactly a walk in the park, but we made it."
"Did my dead weight slow you down that much?" Betsy said.
Ken's face drooped.
"Next time, I'll be sure to get cut off at the neck." She smiled and tried to punch him in the arm, but only tapped him instead.
They both laughed.
She lifted her head to look around. Two uma flanked them on either side and one behind. They alternated their altitude like clockwork to cover the approaches from above and below. Greg was in command and floated here and there. They were well-trained. She was so proud of them.
Behind her, Rox lay on the back of Mits who was hitched by a long rope to Betsy and Ken's. A tear slid from the corner of Betsy's eye and down her temple. Ken told her that Rox was going to be fine, having had received the same treatment. He also told her that according the map of the Great Abyss, they were on schedule with an ETA of ten hours to the first waypoint, a floating island.
❄ ❄ ❄
Standing in a rock-walled foyer, Qian turned on the steel faucet and fresh water poured into the silk-like bladder. Qian handed the full bladder to Prasuna who screwed the plug in and tied the bladder to a wooden pole with the seven others for a total of eight, four on each end.
"This cistern cave's like an amazing oasis," Prasuna said, gazing around as she grasped the pole with both hands, got under it in a squat position, and then hefted it up with her broad shoulders. Illuminated by the glow sticks belted to Prasuna and Qian's waists, the rock walls glistened with rivulets of water. In patches here and there on the walls, fluorescent green and red lichen pulsated like lungs inhaling and exhaling. Cool and humid air circulated in the cave like in a redwood forest. Prasuna inhaled the aroma of pine and bark with a hint of dried leaves.
"I bet the uma would love it here," Prasuna said. "Especially Mits."
"We don't have time for your childish games," Qian said, resting her hand on Prasuna's shoulder and then letting is slide off, her fingertips brushing Prasuna's upper sleeve. Currents of air circulated around Qian, making her close-cropped black hair wave like fresh-cut grass in a summer breeze. "They're waiting back at the dock. We gotta get moving."
As they hoofed it back through the dark passageways, it wasn't long before they were winded. Only after having breathed the fresh air in the cistern cave, did Qian realize that the air in the passageways stunk, literally. Black mold and black mushrooms dotted the cracks and crevices in the walls, ceiling, and floor. She sure was stupid not to have thought of it before, but they were probably releasing thousands of spores and they were inhaling them deep into their lungs. Her spine tingled. She picked up the pace.
"Can't we take a break?" Prasuna said from far behind Qian. "I got a stitch in my side." As a shinobi class, Qian wasn't as strong as the warrior-class Prasuna and so Qian had to play point. That's why Qian was carrying only two bladders on her pole. That was their team tactic: tank and stealth.
Qian slowed down until they were side by side. "We'll keep this pace until your cramp is gone, but it's not safe here."
"It's abandoned, this island, and its dungeon cleared. Even if they're some boss minions still here, we'll take care of them." Prasuna slapped Qian in the back with a bladder.
Qian stumbled. "Stop it."
Qian glared at Prasuna and then laughed. "It's not that, it's the—"
"What is it, then? Just because everyone's been busted down to level zero, doesn't mean we can't do our jobs. We weren't the best in the Three Kingdoms, but if we hadn't cleared the path to the Drunken Oni boss, Sarge would've never gotten in position."
Qian slapped at Prasuna with one of her bladders but missed.
Prasuna stuck her tongue out. "Right? Am I right?"
"Yeah, yeah, but remember, we only do it 'cuz the loot's good," Qian said.
"You can't fool me, Qian Trang. You actually care about other people‐besides me, your BFF."
Qian frowned and snorted. "Sarge gives out the best of the loot to her team. Remember the Jacks?"
"Don't remind me," Prasuna said and smacked a fist into her hand. "The leaders got all the high-level items, but we were like bragging to everyone when we got a shitload of cryptocurrency. Then it crashed the next day. My sister never let me live it down."
"It was like we'd already worked our asses off." Qian spat. "Then they said bend over and pull your pants down a little further. They should've called it Buttcoin."
"Oh my virgin ears," Prasuna said. "I just know that somewhere underneath that crude, rough exterior lurks a gentle and caring person. I mean, how else could the noob get a hold of the last of your secret stash of instant healing balm?"
"It was for Sarge."
"A little bird told me that he'd magically pulled it out of his trench coat pocket."
Qian shrugged her shoulders and sprinted ahead.
Huffing and puffing, Prasuna finally caught up to her. "I—I also heard he stayed at the Snow Rabbit Inn."
Qian stared straight ahead.
"Did you see him?"
"I was off on a hunt."
Prasuna's eyes glittered. "Did you do your divination on him?"
"Are you stupid? Exactly like everyone else, I lost all of my skills when we got trapped and reset back to level zero."
"That was days before the reset." Prasuna gulped. "Wha—what was the hexagram number?"
Qian was silent for more than a minute. The slapping of their boots on the stone blocks echoed from one end of the passageway to the other. They turned the corner into the last passageway that connected to the dock. The light from the dock shone a hundred feet in front of them.
Prasuna latched a hand on Qian's biceps, but Qian shook her off. Prasuna fell behind.
"Twenty-nine, The Abysmal (Water), but with two changing lines," Qian said.
Prasuna was almost out of earshot. "Twenty what?"
"Twenty-nine!" Then, Qian's boot squelched on a mat of red-veined black mushrooms. A velvet black liquid squirted out. An odor like rotting meat mixed with feces assaulted her nostrils. Covering her mouth with one hand, Qian gagged. Then, her eyes began to burn. While bolting ahead, Qian waved Prasuna away with one arm. "Stay back!"
Qian's lungs burned and she coughed and vomited. She tripped and flew through the air, slamming down on her hands and knees. She skidded to a halt. The pole with the bladders banged against the wall. "Poison gas!"
Poison gas attack
Damage: 4 * 3
HP (remaining): 63
Continuous damage: 1/min.
Prasuna cupped her hands around her mouth. "Help! It's me, Prasuna! Qian's hurt!"
With each gasp for air, Qian's lungs burned. Water. With her eyes clenched shut, she reached to her right. Nothing. She scrambled to her left. Nothing.
She scuttled around. Her arm banged into a soft bag. After picking it up, she unscrewed the top, and guzzled water down. It soothed her throat but it started to burn again after only a few seconds and she guzzled more, again and again.
Neighing. Pounding of footsteps. Hands picking her up and carrying her.
"Qian! We have it, your balm," Prasuna said.
Qian's stomach heaved and she vomited for a full minute.
She opened her mouth, pointed down her throat, and then made swirling motions with her hand. "Mix‐" She started coughing again.
"She's in the yellow," Prasuna said. "Hand me the cup."
Someone's hands grabbed Qian's cheeks and put a cup to her mouth.
"Sip but don't gulp it down," Prasuna said.
Qian couldn't swallow past the huge lump in her throat. She let the liquid pool in the back of her mouth. It seeped down into her throat. It felt so cool. Hands massaged balm into her eyes and all over her face. It stung but then her eyes cooled as well.
"Her health bar isn't dropping anymore. She's stabilized. Let's get her back," Sarge said.
Qian reached out, her hand floundering around. Another hand, calloused on the palm at the base of the fingers, squeezed Qian's.
❄ ❄ ❄
"Solid land," Ken said, leaping off his uma. After lying down prone on the beach, he kissed the brown sand. He spat and then hefted himself up and wiped his mouth.
Greg clapped Ken on the shoulder. "Man, would you just look at those beautiful mountains off in the distance?" The daytime moonlight glinted off the hulking glaciers omnipresent in The White Imperium. Ken never would've thought he'd be happy to see those frozen monstrosities you could see off in the distance from anywhere except in the Great Abyss. It meant they were finally across, on the other side. It had been six days.
Everyone else except for Betsy and Qian had dismounted as well and were milling about in a daze.
"All right, let's start heading to the town unless everyone wants to rough it another night," Betsy said.
One after another, the twelve moons descended below the horizon. By the time the group reached the small town, the last moon had gone to sleep. It was the darkest and the coldest time of the twenty-four hour day in The White Imperium.
"How did we get graveyard shift again?" Stef said as he swayed back and forth on his uma.
"Sarge said we were used to it," Gideon said. "And we put all our points from the island battles into shinobi skills." He stuck his finger up one nostril and picked at the dry snot. "Hey, turn right. We just passed through the gate, you knucklehead."
"Oh right," Stef said and groaned. "Geez man, I don't sleep well at all during daylight—well day moonlight."
"Stop you're whining, we got to chow down first," Stef said. "Tasty, lamb stew over rice." He rubbed his belly. "Man, if I see one more chapati before the day I die, it'll be too soon."
"And red lentils, ugh," Gideon said. "I mean I really love them both, but day after day, and you'd think Ken was a fire hydrant. My mouth turns into a forest fire every time he's the cook."
Stef whipped his head around to look at the gate behind them. "Hey, did you hear that?"
"What?" Gideon whispered.
"The wind," Stef said.
Yanking their mounts around, they charged towards the gate.
A black blur flew down the road, hugging the sides of the buildings.
Stef leaned over close to the headless neck. "Go, Mits!" he whispered. "You see it, don't you boy?"
Mits neighed and sped up.
The blur sped into an alley that was too narrow for either Mits or Gideon's mount. Mits slammed to a halt and Stef leaped off onto the roof of the building. He ran, his feet clanging on the metal roof. Less than a second later, Gideon was running on the roof of the building on the other side of the alley. Stef unclipped two shuriken from his belt and threw them at the blur running in the alley below.
At the same exact moment, Gideon rocketed forward like rock from a catapult.
One shuriken whipped by the blur, mere millimeters in front, and the other one to its right. Slowing, the blur swerved to the left. Gideon caught one shuriken between his thumb and forefinger and skidded to a halt. The blur slid low and twisted, found purchase on the wall and flipped up to the roof.
"Well, what have we here," Stef said, with his arms crossed and tapping his boot on the roof.
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Quantum Katana
Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night
Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.
Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)