I woke up on an empty plain. My legs felt like lead and my head was a jumbled mess. My lungs groaned as I sucked in a breath of frighteningly cold air. I coughed out the frigid air but my next breath was just as cold.
It took a while to get used to the air. As the Goddess of Fire, I wasn’t accustomed to feeling cold but something was different this time.
Where was I? What happened?
My sore muscles complained, sending jolts of pain through my body as I pulled myself upright. A particularly sharp pain arose when I put pressure on my right shoulder. Dislocated, most probably. I grit my teeth and popped it back in.
Blinding pain seared through my mind and I nearly blanked out. Hanging on to consciousness by a thread, I panicked and gasped for air, flooding my lungs with mouthfuls of frigid air.
However, the cold distracted me from the pain. The pain subsided, leaving me alone with the cold. Somehow, I’d ended up on my back again. I lay there for a while, watching my frosty breath dissolve into the darkness.
The moon had travelled far across the sky since I last saw it. It was nearing the end of its path through the stars and the first, golden rays of sunlight would break through the darkness any minute now.
But I didn’t want the moon to go. Not yet.
I wanted to sail through the stars for a little longer.
Just a little longer.
We still had to jump from the Big Dipper onto Orion’s belt. Then we’d swing across to Ursa Minor and go to another galaxy.
And then we’d dance around the North Star.
Or laugh at the bickering Gemini.
But most importantly, we’d share another night under the stars.
In retrospect, it was inevitable that our group would collapse. All we needed was a spark, and everything would go up in flames.
And I could still smell the smoke.
You knew it couldn’t last, I told myself. And you know what to do know. You’ve planned for this.
I closed my eyes.
Yeah, I need to get my act together. Solaron told me to guide the Hero, that should be my priority for now. Besides, Lily and Zoe are the weakest of the bunch. I need to find them!
I forced myself up. Sunrise broke over the horizon, splashing the sky with hues of red. I checked my Status and my heart skipped a beat.
My health was in the red. I’d never been this injured in my life! For the first time, I tried to recall what had happened. Why was I in the middle of nowhere? All I remembered was Lunaris’ laugh and… the smoke.
I shuddered. Why was that thing listening to Lunaris? It didn’t seem like it could be tamed.
But what came after the smoke surrounded us? Someone must have done something or we’d be dead by now. But who…
Of course, I knew the answer to that. There was only one person who could’ve turned a situation like that around. However, now there was another question that demanded my attention.
Why is he here?
A cold breeze cut through the air and sent Kai’s cloak fluttering behind him. His face was pale and the bags under his eyes were deeper than I’d ever seen them but it was unmistakably him. No one could fake that smile.
“Morning,” he said.
“Morning,” I replied.
We stood there awkwardly, neither knowing quite what to say.
“You alright?” I asked, breaking the silence.
“Been better,” he said. “Nothing a little breakfast won’t fix.”
He whipped out a frying pan and magic-powered stove, and began frying some eggs.
“So, where are we?” I asked, sitting down next to him.
“Don’t know,” he replied as he put the fried eggs on plates and passed one to me.
I accepted it but didn’t start eating.
“Where are the others?”
“Probably you. You found me, didn’t you?”
He finished his mouthful and motioned for me to start eating too. I complied.
“I found you because you still had the ring,” he said.
I raised my hand and inspected the rings adorning my fingers. I hadn’t noticed it before, but one of them was glowing with a gentle purple light. I gazed at Kai’s hand and sure enough, his ring was glowing with a soft, red glow.
“It’s color coordinated,” he said. “Neat, right?”
“Kai,” I said.
“Hmm?” he replied with a stuffed mouth.
“No more games please.” I met his eyes and held onto them. “Where is Lily.”
He stopped chewing and swallowed. He snapped and all the cooking utensils and plates vanished.
“Is she the only one you care about?”
“No, but –”
“It’s all right. I’ll take you to her anyways, so just admit it. The others never mattered to you, right?”
I met his gaze. Taking a deep breath, I said:
He nodded and turned immediately. He walked down across the sun-kissed plains. The air was warm and fresh. Birds were chirping. Little animals scurried around.
It was a beautiful day outside.
But I was cold inside.
I soon realized where we were. Rocks piled up on either side and the ground grew loose and gravely. Mountains appeared around us, confirming that we were in the Earth Kingdom. Dark caves decorated the heights, with the occasional abandoned mine visible in the distance.
Kai and I hadn’t spoken a word all day. I followed him quietly, with only the sound of the gravel under my feet to fill the silence. Giant rocks jutted out of the ground sometimes while boulders lay by the roadside, gathering moss.
The ring on my finger was glowing brighter by the minute. It was a pale, white glow but it was getting stronger. At least we were going in the right direction.
Then the silence was broken by a scream, an angry voice, and a loud rumble. As we turned the corner, we saw a tall, robed man whipping a shirtless boy pulling a minecart. Scores of scars snaked around the shirtless boy’s back, while drops of blood oozed out of angry red gashes and cuts. The cart he was pulling was piled high with dull rocks that could be low quality ore, at best.
My first instinct was to help him but I hesitated. Did I want to get involved again? Whenever I’d helped someone in the past, I’d ended up getting hurt in the end. And it wasn’t like I’d helped them much in the end. In fact, they may have been better off without me.
The boy grunted as he was whipped again. Kai walked past them as if he hadn’t noticed them at all. I followed him without glancing back.
We continued traveling wordlessly and the sound of the whip grew further and further away. Yet, even when we were miles away, I could still hear the cold leather lashing against skin. Or maybe it was the sound of my guilt punishing me, inside.
It was louder this time. I looked up, shaken from my self-chastisement. There they were again; the man with the whip and the boy with the cart. How’d they get in front of us? I looked at Kai’s back but he didn’t stop as we approached them again.
He walked past them without hesitation but… I couldn’t. The man raised his whip again and brought it down but there was no crack. Confused, he stared at the boy before looking at his empty hands. He turned just in time to meet my fist.
I gave the wide-eyed boy a healing potion and followed Kai, stepping over the unconscious slave-master without a word.
This time we didn’t go in a circle and reached a ruined village. Empty houses made of baked clay and broken fences greeted us as we walked down the road. Not a word nor a whisper, only silence met us. But the stoves inside were warm, the food still fresh and wisps of smoke still floated out of the chimneys.
“That boy was probably taken from this village,” said Kai. “The primary export from the Earth Kingdom are ores and slaves. Zoe’s parents were probably abducted from a village like this one.”
The sky was getting darker as the day grew older. The abandoned buildings cast shadows everywhere, but we weren’t staying here for the night. In fact, we kept walking through the night; never stopping for a moment. We came across some more empty villages – some freshly sacked and others crumbling into ruins – but we passed them by without hesitation.
Eventually we reached the mountains; dark silhouettes set against the starry sky. I could hear the fierce winds at the summit from where we stood but I didn’t pay it any heed. I was a Goddess, what could a little wind do to me?
We went up as far as the trail allowed and then we began to climb.
I reached up, grabbed a rock and pulled myself up.
Reach up, grab, pull up.
Reach, grab, pull.
Reach, grab, pull.
We climbed slowly under the bright moonlight. It was strange, climbing when we could have flown over mountains twice this size. Stranger still were the winds crashing against my sides. My Health dropped under the constant barrage of snow and ice but I barely felt any pain.
Wait, why is my Health dropping?
A Goddess getting hurt by wind? I’d faced stronger winds while flying but I’d never lost a single health point before.
Reach, grab, pull.
Reach, grab, pull.
Kai was getting buffeted by the wind too but I didn’t know if he was getting hurt. I’d never been able to see his Status after all.
That was strange too. A level 999 Goddess couldn’t see his Status. He’d said he was hiding it with his Ability, and judging by how his rings hid Lily and Runir’s Status from me as well, I could believe he was capable of it.
But… I could tell he was strong. Incredibly strong. His Stats had to be mind-numbingly high too; perhaps they were higher than mine. No, they had to be higher than mine. But level 999 was the highest you could get.
Just how high had he gone? Just how high was he going to…
My fingers were numb. The cold seethed into my bones. I don’t know how I managed to keep climbing. I don’t even remember the last few feet because it was all a blur.
“Grab on,” shouted Kai from far away.
No, not far away. He was right in front of me; his hand dangling over the precipice. We’d reached the summit.
I reached shakily for his hand with mine and he grasped it, firmly. He pulled me up and I fell on top of him. Warm, he was warm. His breath was warm too. I could tell because it brushed past my neck, driving away the biting cold.
“Hey, you all right?” he asked.
“Fine,” I whispered through chattering teeth. “I’m fine, just a little cold.”
“Well, better bundle up for now then.” He draped a large blanket over me.
We were on a rocky outcrop at the summit of the mountain. The wind howled around us and the sleet hid the moon from our sight.
“Still cold?” he asked.
I shook my head but my teeth were still chattering and my Health was dangerously low. The wind was too strong for us to light a fire and I couldn’t muster the energy to cast any fire magic.
“It’s all right,” said Kai, as he hugged me. “Just need to get through the night.”
He was close. Incredibly close. I could feel his chest rise and fall, his muscles twitch, and his jaw move as he spoke.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Don’t mention it,” he said. “In fact, I should be thanking you.”
“For giving me hope.”
“And how did I do that?”
“You went back for that kid.”
“What kid?” I asked.
“The slave. The one being whipped.”
“But I ignored him the first time. I was too afraid. Too afraid that I’d be hurt again.”
“And yet you helped him,” he said, putting his hand under my chin.
I lifted my head and found his eyes staring at me.
“And you’ve done that before too. You chose to help Lily when you obviously didn’t want to, and you helped Zoe even though it would complicate our already delicate party even further. I’ve seen a lot of things in this world but Amy, you’re the only one who’s filled me with hope.”
He was close. Our frosty breath met, swirling around between us.
Do I deserve all that praise? I haven’t done anything, really. I’m a failure. I failed Jeffi and Yunni. I failed Lily and Zoe. And I didn’t even choose to help them! I saved Jeffi and Yunni because they summoned me by mistake. I helped Lily because Solaron told me to, and Lily was the one who wanted to help Zoe the most.
And worst of all… I…
“Amy,” he whispered. “You don’t know how much you mean to me. If I hadn’t seen you doing your best all the time; if I hadn’t seen the love and compassion you felt for everyone and everything, I don’t think I could have done what was necessary. Please…”
He brought his face even closer.
“I love you. Please, tell me you love me too,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say. A part of me wanted to cry out about how I wasn’t the kind of person he thought me to be. How I wasn’t a kind, loving person who cared for the weak and powerless. I wasn’t worth loving. I didn’t even know what love was.
I’d been emotionless for centuries and all my experiences with emotions had been depressing so far. I couldn’t love him. I couldn’t love anyone.
But it was the other part of me that won out in the end. The part that stared into his eyes, drowned in his scent, and melted into his arms.
On top of a mountain somewhere in the Earth Kingdom; among howling winds and swirling snow, I forgot all my worries.
I threw all my anxieties away.
I ignored the guilt that had been building up inside me.
For one night, I wasn’t a Goddess with a mission. I wasn’t a guide, a teacher, a warrior or a wanderer.
Under the stars and the blankets, I was free.