Serena checked her orb again; it was well below freezing. Her body was numb and her breath was coming out in puffs. She felt as though the only thing keeping her moving was the rope at her waist constantly tugging her forward. Earlier, she had cast a spell that both regulated her and Kakane’s body temperatures and kept them warm from the inside. She was glad she had done so, as, without it, both she and Kakane would have been frozen stiff by now. Rean was stopping frequently to check on them. Since it didn’t feel the low temperature, it had to make sure its human companions were keeping up. Ice crystals had formed over Serena’s eyelids, making it difficult to see, but the group still continued onward.
Kakane was very sluggish and his breathing was ragged, but he was the most fervent out of the entire group. Every so often, he would glance at the sky while touching his scar, as if looking for something. He shook his head every time, eyes never lingering for too long. He seemed to be denying something but there was a glimmer of what appeared to be hope glistening in his eyes. Serena had a feeling that was what was helping him hold on for this long. Being a Draconid and presumably part reptilian, this cold weather had to be shutting down parts of Kakane’s bodily systems and forcing him into hibernation. But he was vigilant and steadfast, never giving in, which Serena admired.
She had no idea how long they’d been climbing for, but the winds were picking up and the snow was falling down harder. It was very hard to see, and Kakane in front of her was now nothing more than a dark blur. Rean wasn’t even visible. Something knocked into Serena’s face and she realized it was a small piece of hail. A huge chunk of ice plummeted down near her foot; if that had rammed into her head it would have surely killed her. Before she knew it, the snow turned into a raging blizzard that blinded her vision with nothing but flurry white.
Remembering the Bannaanka Weyn and the dust storm that nearly got them lost, Serena realized how foolish it would be to continue onward like this. She ran her hand along the mountain next to her, discovering a wide cavern that Kakane and Rean ahead of her must have ignored. Serena tugged on the rope, leading her companions into the cave. Inside, the rock was slick and completely covered with ice. Icicles hung down from the ceiling like eerie stalactites, reminding Serena of pointed monster’s teeth. Breath coming out in puffs, Serena turned to Rean and Kakane.
The puppet was balling up snow together, observing the clumped frozen water in innocent fascination. Kakane was busy angrily shaking the same snow out of his hair, scowling. Upon seeing Rean’s snowball, he immediately destroyed it, causing the puppet to become sad. It mourned the loss of its toy, poking the fluffy bits of snow on the ground. Kakane looked at Serena and his expression was a mixture of confusion, frustration, and anger.
“I don’t want another repeat of the Bannaanka Weyn,” Serena told him. “We don’t have someone like Takeru to lead us out of the storm. While I trust Rean’s sensory abilities, if we ran into that rumored monster now we wouldn’t stand a chance against it. The best option we have right now is to wait out the storm. I’m sorry,” she added, upon seeing Kakane’s crestfallen face.
“No, you’re right.” He shook his head. “We can’t keep blindly moving forward.” He sighed, sitting down.
Kakane stared out the entrance to the cave, frowning as it was nothing but a blurry mess of snow, dirt, pebbles, hail, and ice. He seemed to be listening for something, careening his ears and leaning towards the exit while touching his scar. Serena gently pulled him back when he got too close for her comfort, taking out a blanket and wrapping them both up in it. They couldn’t freeze now, so sticking together to conserve body heat was the best they could do. Serena had honestly never felt colder in her entire life.
Serena checked the temperature again and amplified the effect of the spell keeping herself and Kakane warm. She wouldn’t allow him to freeze to his death. Despite her precautions, she couldn’t keep her teeth from chattering. Noticing this, Kakane threw the entire blanket over Serena and held her close to him. She inched closer to him and they leaned into each other, relishing in each other’s body heat.
“I know you said you wanted to help me, wanted to return the favor but…” He looked at her, bright red eyes seeming as though they were in pain. “Is this really your answer?”
“What do you mean?”
“Suggesting hiring an assassin, even sending in Rean as an undercover agent, and now this… I almost feel like you’re trying too hard. You don’t have to overwork yourself for my sake. Please don’t. Just do what you do best and don’t exhaust yourself. That’s all I ask, as a king and as a friend.”
“That’s what I’m doing,” Serena said calmly, though she didn’t look at Kakane in the eye. “I’ve always given it my all, no matter what it was I was doing. This is no different.”
“Really? Are you sure? Hey, Serena, are you feeling alright?”
“Don’t worry about me; save your strength for climbing the mountain.”
Kakane said nothing, opting to pull Serena closer to him. She seemed tired, but then again, that was to be expected. Serena was a magician, not a warrior like Kakane was. This level of rigorous physical activity must be taking its toll on her. This was a good opportunity for her to rest and get some strength back. Kakane looked back at the entrance. The snow and icy winds were not dying down, and the mysterious roar seemed like it wouldn’t be coming back either. Even so, he careened his ears and listened closely for the sounds of the mountain, hoping for one in particular.
While Serena and Kakane tried keeping warm, Rean took out its notebook. It was kept well-dried by the clothing and gear given to it by Serena, but the wind and wetness from outside made it impossible for Rean to get any drawing or writing practice done.
Frowning, the puppet opted to explore the tiny cavern they were trapped in. It couldn’t think of anything else to do while waiting for the storm to subside. To Rean’s left was the raging blizzard but to its right was a deep, dark, abyss. Rean closed its eyes and conjured up the blue world, curious as to what could be down there. To its surprise, no wall or blockade prevented it from going further into the cave. There was just a black space that went down, down, down.
Guided by the blue world, Rean cautiously moved towards the back of the cave; only to slip on the ice and trip into the abyss. Serena screamed and Kakane reached out to grab Rean’s foot. But he, too, fell in as well, letting out a panicked, angry yell. Seeing no other option, Serena muttered a quick prayer to the gods and jumped in after them.
She didn’t know how long she was falling for, but when she used her magic to make some light, Serena saw that Rean and Kakane were not too far from her.
Magic swirling around her, Serena conjured up a basic wind spell, not unlike the one she used during the Atlantean Restoration Project. The magic softened their fall, allowing them to harmlessly land in a clump at the bottom of wherever the tunnel led. Crumpled together in a heap, they sat together for a moment before Kakane broke the silence.
“You stupid, gods-damned puppet.”
On top of her, Serena felt Rean flinch and try to curl into a little ball. That only incurred Kakane’s wrath, however, as he yelled that Rean was elbowing him in the ribs. This caused Rean to panic and try to get away from Kakane. But that only made them all even more tangled up, with Serena getting hit in the face by either Kakane or Rean. They took several minutes trying to straighten out themselves, which was full of yelling and groans of frustration.
When they finally separated, Serena felt as though climbing the Yukishi Mountain had been a cakewalk compared to this little mishap. She was tired, and offered a small snack to Kakane, who took it eagerly. Serena herself didn’t feel very hungry, but she was still very cold. But to her surprise, her breath was no longer coming out in wintry white puffs. She checked the temperature, and it was indeed several degrees warmer in this deep cavern than it was on the mountain. She didn’t feel any less cold, however.
To save mana, Serena decreased the effect of her thermal spell, instead opting to cover herself and Kakane in blankets in a cape-like fashion. Kakane lit a fire in his hands, holding it over his head and increasing the intensity to brighten up the cave.
The walls and floor were entirely made of ice, glittering like jewels and reminiscent of diamonds and sapphires. Spires of ice slithered up from the ground like crystalline pikes and water slowly dripped from the ceiling. It was hauntingly beautiful, if not deathly cold. Serena felt herself shivering. Towards the back of the cave was a tunnel. Serena and Kakane only had to spare a glance at each other before cautiously walking towards it. Rean followed behind them meekly, not wanting to cause trouble.
The tunnel was surprisingly dry, despite being entirely made of ice. When Serena closely scrutinized the walls, she could not see any stone underneath the ice. Was this entire path made of frozen water? Or was it just so thick Serena couldn’t see it? She didn’t know, but it was certainly a curious idea to ponder. It kept her mind off the cold that was eating away at her body.
As they walked, a roar suddenly shook the tunnel. Rean held onto Serena for dear life and even she stumbled, leaning onto the wall for support. Shards of ice fell from the ceiling and walls as the sound vibrated throughout the pathway, amplified by the shape of the tunnel. Serena couldn’t tell if she was shaking from the cold or from the force of the roar. Again with that noise! It sounded louder than before; perhaps they were close to the rumored monster?
Serena looked up at Kakane. The hopeful glint was back in his eyes and his face was one of longing as he touched his scar. He seemed to be trying to drink in the sound as if it were the elixir of life keeping him alive. It surprised Serena, and she wondered what could possibly be going on in Kakane’s mind. When the roar faded into a distant whisper, he took a few steps forward as if to reach out for it. He shook his head, however, and beckoned for Serena and Rean to follow after him.
They walked for several more minutes until a light was visible at the end of the tunnel. There was no more use for Kakane’s fire, so he put it out. The ice thinned out, quickly revealing rough stone. They arrived at a wide room illuminated from the ceiling, which was nothing more than a giant hole reaching for the sky.
It was here that Serena could once again feel some of the sun’s warm rays. She realized she had been missing the sun. But it was quickly blocked by a storm of swirling snow and another blizzard. Soft white flakes began to trickle in from the roof and Serena shivered. It felt as though the temperature had dropped another few degrees.
“We must be near the summit,” Serena noted. “Yukishi Mountain must have been a volcano some hundred thousand years ago.”
“Yeah…” Kakane muttered under his breath.
Around them, the walls of the cavern had slivers of ice forming within the cracks of the rock. Inside the frozen water, Serena was appalled to find bones and human skulls. Piles of white, untouched snow were building up in the corners of the room. When Rean stuck its hand in one, it emerged holding a bloodstained glove frozen stiff.
“We need to be careful,” Serena told Kakane. He wasn’t paying attention to her. Instead, he was staring at a corner of the cavern, where some sunlight trickled in through a small crack in the walls.
Blooming from the snow and drooping weakly was a flower as hauntingly beautiful as the blizzard raging outside of the cavern. Its crisp white stem was thin and looked as though it would snap in half at any second. Its petals were a pale, pale blue, as blue as ice held up to the sky on a clear day devoid of snowfall. There were three large petals and three smaller petals curving upwards from the center of the flower. These were a darker blue, reminiscent of bright sapphires.
There was no doubt about it: this was the frost breath iris.