The ground was a lot more snowy than I thought it would be. I had assumed that it'd mostly be ice, with a few inches of snow at most. This was not the case, not by a long shot. The snow was a good twelve inches high, which would hamper my movement slightly. Nothing major, but full on sprinting would be a riskier maneuver.
It wasn't a very powdery snow though. In fact, there was a firmness to it that made it easier to walk, despite my suit's incredible weight. Probably just some ice, or whatever the technical term for it is. Can't quite remember it.
I brushed off some snow that got on my armor, and frowned as the snowstorm began to grow worse. At this rate, it's gonna become a full on blizzard soon. Already, the intense snowfall made seeing more than four dozen feet in front of me a challenge. Thankfully, the wind hasn't picked up yet. Though I had a feeling that was about to change.
Unholstering my shotgun, I began to walk forward through the storm. The cyan trees hung low, the weight of the pale blue snow making them droop downwards. Strange. The snow here is a pale blue, and yet the ice is completely clear. Trying to piece the logic of this place together was going to give me a headache.
Thankfully, I still had some time to get through here before the storm really picks up. If I'm lucky, it'll be a straight shot from here to… well anywhere that isn't here. To be honest, I'm not too sure how things are around these parts. I don't exactly have a map, or a good spot for judgement. The only clues I had to go on were the fact that this phylactery was probably in a place of death. You know, since it holds the soul of an Aspect of Death or something.
There's also the fact that this thing is going to be guarded by some form of regret. Probably a person, though I don't know Ainzool well enough to guess who. The only thing I do know is that I should prepare for a fight.
The wind seemed to pick up exponentially as I made my way through the forest. What started off as a decently strong wind, slowly became fast enough to whip the snow on the ground into the air, swirling it around like a mini tornado. Visibility shrank drastically, limiting me to seeing only a few feet in any direction.
There was a theory floating around my head as to where it would be. In the Nether, there's a specific biome that is basically a dead ringer for this kind of thing. The Soul Sand Valley. That's the most logical place for this phylactery to be. I mean, come on. Soul sand? That's a necromantic sounding name if I ever heard of one. Plus there were Skeletons there, which were undead. Then again, most of the "people" here are basically undead.
I kept moving forward, pushing past the blizzard as I did my best to keep going straight. The storm had gotten real bad, real quick. Almost cartoonishly so. I had only been waking for at most ten minutes before the blizzard truly hit. And it's still getting worse, albeit at a far more sedate pace. It probably won't get too much worse, but at this rate I wasn't sure if I would be able to properly navigate through the forest. So how will I-
My thoughts were interrupted by a tree branch swinging forward, hitting me on the back of my helmet. It wasn't a very hard hit, since the only reason I knew it actually happened was because of the light slapping sound the impact had. I reached up to my helmet, brushing off the snow that fell on my armor. It was a fairly useless task though, since the blizzard was already covering me in the pale blue snow.
Right, back on topic. The main issue I had with getting to The Soul Sand Valley, is finding it. Right now, I was walking blind. Both literally, and very figuratively. My best bet was to find a sort of town in this place, and snoop for info there. Though there were a few issues with that. For one, I don't know how friendly these people are, if at all. These people are literally The Damned after all.
Second, was the issue of currency. Considering there's a hierarchy, there's likely a system of currency that I need to figure out. Unlike back home, I'm not rich here. Disappointing, but I'm used to it. If I really, absolutely need to, I could easily make a few neat trinkets and sell them for whatever money is used here.
Though my third and final challenge was a difficult one. I was still alive. Or more accurately, I was human. I do not belong here in the slightest, and should my existence be well known, it could get me in a lot of trouble. After all, if a human can get in, then one of them could possibly get out. Last thing I need is to accidentally be the cause of a Nether invasion of… home. I still don't know if my planet had a name or not.
The whistling of the wind sharpened slightly. It wasn't much of a concern at first, but then more whistling began to follow suit. Ice and snow bounced off of my armor, though some began to stick to it as the whistling grew louder. These new whistle sounds, they were different. It wasn't the wind causing them. This felt like something else. I could here the whistling circle me, just out of my sight behind the storm. My eyes scanned all around me, trying to-
A shard of pure, an icicle, ice slammed into my shoulder, sending me stumbling slightly. Out from the blizzard came some sort of crystalline sphere, large jagged icicles circling around it violently. Several more whistles echoed out around me, barely heard over the roaring wind of the blizzard. One by one, those strange blaze-like creatures came out from the storm and began to circle me. "Observe."
Nether Energy: 20/20
Well then, that's a new one.
My trigger finger was quick on the draw, firing my shotgun into one of the Frosts. Unfortunately, the damned thing somehow used its icicles to form a shield. The ice spread and grew slightly, protecting the Frost as the blast crashed against it. It was a strong blast, and the ice shield shattered immediately after.
Just as I was about to fire again, another Frost came to the first one's aid. It moved in front of the other one, and sent forward a blast of ice straight at me just as I was about to fire. I just about managed to move out of the way of the attack, but the ice hit my shotgun just as I pulled the trigger.
The gun exploded, sending shards of broken alloy flying. Most of it him my helmet and upper body, and bounced off as it met with my armored form. Regardless, my shotgun was still fucked.
I vanished it to my inventory, sidestepping another ice blast. No way I could use Master here, since it was an ice based weapon. Looks like it's time to let Pupil shine.
Twisting around one of the Frost's icicles, I summoned Pupil to my right hand. Four more shots of ice came rushing towards me, and I cut them all down with my blade. The ice clung to the blade, spreading slowly throughout it. Not for long of course. I rushed forward, using my superior speed to catch one of them by surprise. Rearing my left arm back, I punched through the ice shield it had quickly made itself, shattering it on impact. With its defenses down, I swung my falchion into the crystal and activated the blade's fire.
Only for it to do nothing.
Instead of a mighty flame, a few sparks left the blade. Though this was only to then be put out by the extreme cold. Steam floated off front the reaction, only to freeze once in the air. What the hell? Was this place too cold for my sword to properly go fire mode?
My confusion cost me, and several bolts of ice struck my back and began to spread. The Frost being stabbed by my blade regrew its icicles while I was distracted, and used them to push me away and gain same distance. I rolled to my feet, vanishing Pupil and readjusting my current strategy as I dodged more blasts. Most, if not all, of my fire weapons were going to be completely useless here. Maybe the Fuck You Flame Laser might work, but I hadn't been able to finish upgrading that bit of tech, so it was still unfinished and unstable. I didn't think I'd need too many fire weapons in the fucking Nether, so sue me!
I leapt into the air to dodge another few blasts, partially spinning so my head was facing the ground. Blunt force would probably work, and I did have a few really good blunt weapons. But then again, I did have a new and untested mythic rank weapon in my inventory. May as well use it.
Finis Atrium materialized in my hand, the blade still in the scabbard. Right as I was about to start descending, I gripped the blade's handle and took a deep breath in. Now, I'll admit, I've fucked around with a lot of weapons in my free time. War hammers, axes, a scythe once for fun, and a whole host of blades. I'm not gonna say I've mastered them, since spending a few hours every now and again swinging a weapon around and going woosh isn't really the best way to train.
The point is, I've built and held a katana before. It's why I know so much about them. And while I may not be predisposed to melee combat, I do have a lot of practice with a blade. Now that doesn't mean much, since my practice with swords doesn't mean that I'm a master at all types. But I can understand the philosophy of the individual types of blade far better than I once had. Despite what some people may tell you, swordplay isn't hard to learn, kind off. It sorta was, and it sort of wasn't. Efficiency wise, a novice swinging a sword around like a sharpened stick can be just as deadly as a master and all that. But then there are forms, and specific techniques and stuff that you can learn. Things that could in theory be really hard to learn, and harder to master. But at the end of the day, a wild enough foe could potentially win the day. So, it was iffy.
Shit, I was starting to descend already. Better abridge this next part and stop adding fun facts then. Combining minor practice with my highly in depth understanding of sword combat and my absolutely bar shit insane learning speed brings us to this.
I unsheathed the blade, slashing outward and cutting apart two Frosts over a dozen feet away from me. They fell apart easily, landing in the snow without a sound. Twisting my body once more, I pushed my magic through the blade and into the diamonds. Two hard light blades appeared behind me, launching into another Frost. Pulsing my magic again, I winced as I teleported to the Frost and bisected it with my sword.
Right, that's an uncomfortable feeling. Better get used to it.
Three more Frosts stood in my way, each of them huddling together and preparing their icicles. I ignored the way my body was beginning to burn internally, and sent forward two more hard light blades. They stuck a one of the Frost's shield, and I teleported to that one and raised my sword.
My blade cut through the damned thing like a hot knife through butter. I turned to slash at the other two, only for them to do something real fucking dickish.
They self combusted.
Ice shot everywhere, sticking to my armor and spreading even faster. I groaned, body shaking as I jerkily tried to remove the ice. But to no avail. It had already begun to do its damage.
Luckily, I was able to grab a sample of on of the Frosts and sheath Finis Atrium back in its scabbard. Sending them both to my inventory, I quickly tried to pump up the internal heating my suit. It was a dangerous idea, since water getting into the internal systems could fuck the entire suit. But it was either that or be unable to move. If it melted at all.
The internal heat in my suit began to rise rapidly, to the point where even I was starting to feel it. Unfortunately enough, my fears proved to be true. The ice refused to melt, the heat generated from my suit being unable to melt this Nether ice. This was bad. Sure, the ice made moving a pain, but that wasn't what made it dangerous. It was the fact that metal contracts in the cold, and that the internal servos and stuff within my suit could malfunction. If that happens, I'd be unable to actually move at all. The suit would begin to lock up as the servos began to fail.
If I'm lucky, the suits power and life support functions would still work, but I'd still be trapped. Removing the suit through my inventory would allow the harsh outside environment to affect me. So I'd have to stay inside it.
I pushed forward, hoping that my continued movement would allow me to keep the suit in working order. Sweat poured down my face as I walked, taking one step at a time and hoping that the internal heat of the armor would stop the metal from contracting. It didn't matter if I couldn't melt the ice. So long as I can keep the suit itself from malfunctioning, I was in the clear.
One foot in front of the other, come on!
The ice kept spreading, crawling up from the ground and onto my boots. Its cold grip snaked up my leg, reaching my knee as it began to thicken. Right, just one step at a time. I pushed harder, forcing the piling snow to part. Left, right. Left, right. Left-
I stumbled forward, landing in the snow. My right leg, it was stiff. I tried to bend the limb, but it refused to move all that much. My other leg showed similar results, leaving me stuck on my stomach as I began to crawl forward. My clawed gauntlets dug into the icy snow, gripping it tightly. I pulled myself forward, inching forward slowly.
Fuck. It was like this ice was alive or something. It climbed onto my arms and began to try and immobilize me, just like it did with my legs. I raised my hand upwards, my arm stiff and shaky. Activating my grapple, I tried to launch it with the gauntlet's internal launcher. Unsurprisingly, the grapple remained where it was.
There wasn't much else I could do, so I activated my jetpack and hoped that it would at least propel me slightly. It sputtered weakly, unable to properly spark as the cold suffocated any heat that could be found, before the jetpack just stopped altogether.
Thankfully, my life support systems seemed to be going strong. But I couldn't say how long that would last, and even then I'm still stuck in my suit for fuck knows how long. The snow might bury me too deeply as well.
"Ah, another wanderer caught within the storm. How… unfortunate."
I couldn't see who was talking, only hear their soft whisper of a voice that somehow drowned out the howling of the storm. Old leather boots entered my vision, as well as a pale blue dress. The stranger wore a shawl over her shoulders, covering her sleeved arms. A light blue bonnet covered her head, and a pink ribbon tied her it together. her hands were wrapped in cloth, and folded into each other, almost as if she were hiding them.
"You seem most determined, Lost One. To crawl forward even as your body slowed, it is quite precious."
She didn't move, simply watching as the snow piled onto me even more. Somehow, she seemed completely unaffected by the blizzard, with not a strand of hair out of place. I whispered quietly, hoping that she wouldn't hear me. "Observe."
Title: Tender Mercy
Race: Frost Maiden
Nether Energy: 79/79
Fuck, she was strong. Though considering how in depth the Observe was, I can at least say that she's friendly right now. If she weren't, I would have only gotten the base stats. Taking a deep breath in, and ignoring the sweltering heat in my suit, I confidently spoke. "Who are you, and may you help me?"
She smiled gently, silently walking forward with an unnatural grace. "I am Evetta, and I'd be happy to help one such as yourself. After all, you're not quite like the others, are you?"
God damn it, she totally knew. I tried to struggle, succeeding in only cracking part of the ice on my arms. Though that damage was soon gone. Evetta giggled softly, looking amused as she tilted her head to the side. "Do not fret. Unlike most others, I mean you no harm. The Lively World interests me not. I have found myself a place here, in this eternal nightmare."
Her left hand separated from her right, revealing her puppet-like limbs. She raised the hand, snapping her fingers loud enough to somehow pierce the storm. Childish moaning rang out around me, and I could see messengers beginning to crawl around me. Fucking hell, they are ugly.
"Do not be alarmed by the Little Ones. They are those who were too young to have a sense of self. They cling to us Frost Maidens for protection and care. Speak words they do not, but still, aren't they sweet?"
I didn't get an opportunity to answer, as they soon covered me completely. A sudden sense of drowsiness hit my mind, and I couldn't help but close my eyes as the whistling of the blizzard wind began to fade.
The feeling of cold air hitting my face was a new one. Normally I just feel air, never cold or hot. Sure, I can feel cool breezes, but it's not a very strong feeling. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've only ever felt cool breezes before. Maybe a warm breeze once or twice. Now that I think about it, I've never felt any temperatures that have made me feel anything other than fine. This cold breeze thing is kind of nice. Slightly chilly, but not enough to really make me uncomfortable.
Wait, why can I feel the breeze?
My eyes snapped open, and I quickly looked around the area. I was in some kind of clearing, barely any snow on the ground and with trees surrounding the perimeter. There was a crappy shack nearby the edge, with several chairs that looked to be barely staying together. Almost as if someone tried to make them by memory, but had no idea how.
I noted that I was still in my suit, the only missing part being my helmet, and decided to start testing my limbs. Giving an experimental twitch to my fingers, I grinned as my hand felt no resistance. I rolled over, getting to my feet and dusting off the snow that got stuck on me. Now then, where the hell was I?
"Ah, Good Traveler, you are awake."
Fucking hell, this woman was quiet. Scared the ever loving shit out of me. Calming my heart, I turned around to face the Frost Maiden. "Yeah, thanks for all this. By the way, where are we?"
She hummed, clasping her hands together and closing her eyes. Huh, she's tall as fuck. I've gotten used to standing above most people I meet, so to suddenly be shorter than someone was a bit surprising.
"This is my home, a resting place for the weak and wary. A dream compared to the horrors of the outside, but one those staying here always seem to wake up from."
Ah, well that was morbid. Still, it was a beautiful spot. And one that I could actually properly breath in somehow. "I see. So, I'm assuming that you made those… structures. They look very… homemade. Quaint as well of course."
A laugh escaped her lips, and she put a hand to her mouth. A few messengers began to surround us, watching curiously as we interacted. Evetta eventually stopped laughing, and instead just smiled at me. "Indeed. I must confess, my skill in carpentry is not quite the best. Though I do what I can these days."
Her smile faded slightly, and her eyes widened as something hit her. "Ah, excuse my manners. I have neglected to ask your name, Good Traveler. If you would be so kind, may you tell it to me?"
Damn, can't believe I forgot that one. How rude of me. Bowing slightly, I gave the woman my name. "Darius. Darius Artifice. Pleased to make your acquaintance Miss Evette."
She blinked for a moment, an odd look crossing her expression, before she bowed in return. "Darius. A strange name, but a good one. Now then, let us head inside for tea. I believe you have many questions, yes?"
"That I do."
I followed Evetta to the shack, biting the inside of my mouth as I saw its shoddy workmanship. The wood wasn't cut evenly, the roof was tilted, there were splinters all over it, the walls weren't connected properly, and a whole host of other problems. As a craftsman, this entire structure triggered some sort of visceral disgust within me, and it took all my willpower not to just quickly fix it up myself.
The inside of the shack was easier to tolerate, though not by much. It was decorated a bit, with odd bits of clothing and blankets nearly folded and hung up on a crappy closet. The floor was uneven, and was probably rather rough. There were a few countertops and shelves, each one looking as if it were just barely holding together.
"Would you like some tea? I've made it from the herbs out in the forest, though I'm afraid it will be cold. I am… intolerant of the heat, much to my disappointment."
I almost immediately accepted, before I paused. No telling how my body would react with herbs taken from the Nether. It could very well be harmful to me. "I'm afraid not Miss. As you can apparently see, I'm not exactly native here, so to speak. No clue how my body will react to it."
A sigh, before she pulled out only a single glass cup and what looked to be a crystal tea pot. Now that I look closer, I noticed that they're actually both made of ice. She probably made them herself, and surprisingly enough they actually looked amazing. Probably the whole Frost Maiden thing. Ice manipulation sounds like a power that she'd have.
"A shame. Though that does bring up a worrying point, why are you here Darius? What made you so desperate as to come to this place? What could possibly have tempted you so?"
One of the messengers crawled up onto the counter, watching as Evetta filled up a glass of iced tea. The Frost Maiden smiled gently at the creature and gave the glass to it. The messenger moaned delightfully, and held the cup with two hands before beginning to drink from it.
Taking my eyes off the sight, I focused on her question. "My fiancé is pregnant, but she got sick, and I made a deal with the Death God to help cure her. I bring him something he lost, and I get a cure to her illness. Simple as that."
The woman looked enraptured by my story, despite it only being a few sentences long. She lifted a teacup made of ice, taking a sip of her iced tea before responding. "How surprising. To think, the Gods haven't all abandoned those back in the Living World. And you, someone so willing to save their loved one, made a deal with one such God. A God of Death as well. Truly, we live in a fantastic reality."
Huh. She was really accepting of the whole reverse Orpheus thing. Then again, she is living in what may as well amount to hell. "Indeed. Speaking of which, I should get going. Can't waste time and all that. If you would tell me where my helmet is, I'd be thankful."
I probably should have put the helmet lock into lockdown, rather than just a normal lock. With the normal lock, it can still be pulled off with some effort. The lockdown would keep it stuck there the same way my suit is held together, really powerful magnets and mechanism.
Evetta shook her head, placing her teacup down and frowning slightly as she looked down at me. "The storm is still raging, Darius. Unless you desire to have a repeat of what happened last time, it'd be best if you remained here for now."
Damn it, I couldn't sit around here and twiddle my dick all day! I've already wasted too much time here, and I haven't even gotten anywhere closer to finding out where the phylactery is. "I'm afraid I must insist Evetta. I'm on a bit of a time crunch, and I need to find what I'm looking for as quickly as possible. I can't afford to wait out the storm. I just have to make sure to avoid those Frosts from earlier. I was doing fine until they fit me with their ice."
She raised an eyebrow, crossing her arms as she tilted her head. "So that you can wander aimlessly through territory that you do not know? Darius, your plan does no favors for you or your fiancé and you will just end up dead. This place is no haven for anyone, especially not one such as yourself."
…Fuck. She had a point. Originally going in here, I didn't expect sapient life and as such thought I would have to wander. Once I did meet the siblings, I kind of resigned myself to being wary of the residents here. But now? With evidence of actually nice people here? Evetta actually had a point. "Fine, but only if you help me find The Soul Sand Valley. Or at the very least, a place that reeks of death. More so than usual."
It was a push, coming from me, since I already kind of owed her. But at the same time, I was still rather desperate. Thankfully, she seemed okay with the idea. "Of course. I would love to help save lives from the cruel pull of death. Not a task I have been able to perform within this nightmare, but one that I long to do. Now please, why don't we sit down and chat for a bit?"
Right, that went way better than I thought it would. She seemed more than willing, if anything, she seemed to enjoy the idea. Made me wonder why she was here. "Sure thing. Now, if I may be so bold, how does one as kind as you wind up here? Is this not a place for The Damned?"
Evetta looked away, and for a moment, I was worried that my blunt nature had cost me an ally. Though she quickly looked back up and gave me a sad smile. "There are many ways for this place to ensnare your soul. Perhaps it simply got you before you got to the good place? Not a very likely occurrence, from what I have seen from my visitors. But for many of us, it is two things that drag us down. Our sins in life makes us great targets for this place, and the greater the sins the easier it is to get here. But then there is guilt, the sour leftover of life that weighs on our souls just as heavily as sin."
Oh… shit. So basically it was kind of random, but your actions in life can give you better odds to escape this place. And the whole guilt thing. I know, and have known, more than a few people who have their fair share of guilt. Not exactly a fair system, but it's better than nothing I suppose. "That is… unfortunate. For what it's worth Evetta, you are a wonderful host."
Her eyes brightened, and she started up a bit straighter, smiling. "Oh! You are too kind Darius. Now, I have a question for you. That blade of yours, the netherite one, may I see it?"
Eh? I mean, it's not out of the question. No way I was going to give it to her or let her hold it, but it's still a weird thing to ask. Regardless, I summoned Finis Atrium to my hand and pulled the blade out of the scabbard. I could feel a dull pain work its way up my arm, but I ignore it.
Evette leaned forward, staring at the sword in wonder. "Amazing. This lad wholes the same pressure as you do, and yet it's different. There's a more familiar mana about it, the wicked pressure tainting your own. And the souls, oh I can feel the souls used to forge said blade. Yes, it's traveling through you now, tainting you as well. And yet, you're resisting. How curious."
Oh wow, she got a lot of stuff out of that one look. Was it some kind of magic, err, mana sensing? What even was the difference between magic and mana? Was mana stronger or something? "I made it myself. Used quite a bit of materials, but I think I've got something special here. Probably one of my best works. Though I've noticed some… drawbacks."
Like the fact that my arm was starting to burn with a sort of ethereal light blue fire. These must be the soul flames the description was talking about. It was starting to hurt like a bitch right now, so I sheathed the blade back jerk it's scabbard. The flames evaporated, and I let out a sigh of relief. That felt nice.
"Of course, you would. To have not only Nether Mana, but also souls flowing through your body? For us Damned, it's no issue. Our bodies were made for such tasks. But a mere human? No, the fact you hadn't immediately been corrupted by its powers is a miracle in of itself. Though I doubt continued exposure will do you any good."
I blinked, furrowing my eyebrows in confusion. She could just leave that kind of statement hanging. Thankfully, she must've caught on to my confusion, and began to explain further. "The blade's power, it lingers within you. Perhaps if you hold off on using the blade for a while, it may fade. But if you don't let it leave your body, it will continue to grow and fester. I know of what it could do, but I do know that it would not be good."
Well fuck me sideways, I kind of need this sword. It's the strongest weapon I have in my arsenal, and the only one with any special abilities. Outside of my legendary weapons, but those are harder to maintain. You know, on account of the magic drain and the strain of maintaining a weapon that embodies a portion of what the wielder is. If I don't keep those two things up, the weapon will kind of just deteriorate. "I'll burn that bridge when I come to it Evetta."
And something tells me that won't be the only bridge I'll have to burn.
This one was a stressful chapter, since I basically had to do it all in one day in order to make my Friday release deadline. Either way, it is here and I am proud of it. Very much a more interesting chapter, and actually provides direction to the arc other than the general McGuffin.
Not much else to say, so let's head on over to our favorite segment (you know it's true) Review of the Chapter:
"Great Chapter and I'm glad you're feeling better!
It's it if that's my mental image of Rana is noelle from genshin? I feel like it shouldn't be but u can't get the image or of my head :/
Thank u and i hope your day goes great :]"
No, Rana does not look like Noelle from Genshin. Don't even know who that is. I totally based her appearance on Artoria, but in a traditional maid outfit.
This has been A Decent Hoonter, and boy was that AN short, huh?