My true meaning was unclear. However, I refused to surrender to Cain, and give him the gratification of my despair. Equally, I would not risk exposing Abble to his torment if I were to die. After what had happened with Jordan, my sense of responsibility to protect Abble was strong—I would ensure that Cain would inflict no further harm.
This commitment was a vow I was determined to uphold, no matter what.
I would stop Cain, be it his demise or simply his incapacitation. The people I care about would be kept safe. There wasn't really a plan, but I was convinced there was a path towards that goal. If not, I would find one.
Sure, I acknowledged the intensity of my reaction, particularly given the relatively short time I had known Abble. But these past two months, despite the trials they had thrown my way, were the most memorable of my brief existence. They had provided me with a palpable sense of purpose, even if it was fleeting.
If Abble genuinely harboured affection for me, even after Jordan’s compulsion had been lifted, I longed for our reunion. Conversely, if she was merely acting out of a sense of duty to shield me from Cain's wrath, I was indebted to her, committed to ensuring that Cain could never lay a finger on her.
In a frantic flurry, my hands sifted through the frosty blanket, finally closing around the chilled silver ring. I threaded it onto my middle finger, rolling onto my back as the flames consuming me gradually faded into a lingering smoulder. My nostrils filled with the acrid scent of charred flesh and singed hair—I undoubtedly resembled an overcooked piece of meat. My attire hadn't been spared by the inferno, either.
The severed finger had, by a stroke of fate, been detached from the ring, and as it ignited, it illuminated the jewellery's location roughly. Without this fortunate outcome, locating the band amidst the snow Cain had hurled it into would've been impossible.
The mysterious woman who had appeared before me vanished as abruptly as she had arrived, leaving me with an array of unanswered questions. Her identity eluded me; she was clearly not a Fallen, and though I was uncertain of a Valkyrie's appearance, I couldn't discount the possibility.
My hand gingerly examined my right leg, which had been severed just above the knee—it was a miracle that I had managed to drag myself even this far. If Cain hadn't intended to kill me, he'd certainly left me few avenues of escape. Stranded in this unforgiving tundra, it seemed survival was bleak. Well, I wouldn’t die, but I would no doubt desiccate and remain a frozen corpse for centuries.
My gaze latched onto a towering, snow-white bear, beckoning it closer. Its imposing stature was thrice that of Jordan's, and its fearsome appearance was amplified by the curved tusks extending from its maw. With each impactful thud of its enormous paws against the snow, it left an imprint trail in its wake. As it charged towards me in a headlong gallop, its intentions were undeniably predatory.
Are you kidding me? I was about to become its next meal.
Left with no alternative but to confront the imminent attack, I reached for my father's dagger. The leather sheath was now fused into my seared flesh. After a gruelling struggle, I wrested the dagger free, raising it in a futile attempt to ward off the creature. Unperturbed, it continued, its eyes burning with hunger.
As the panting behemoth loomed closer, its giant paw hurled towards my chest. In my bid to evade, I rolled sideways, only to have my shoulder caught and pinned under it. The unsettling crunch that echoed in the aftermath was concerning.
Though the shoulder was rendered useless, my dagger-wielding arm remained unrestrained. As the beast's jaws swooped towards my throat, I plunged the silver blade into its head in a swift motion. Regrettably, my aim skewed, piercing just beneath its eye and narrowly missing the brain. The bear recoiled in agony, its roar resonating deeply, and its head flailing in a desperate attempt to dislodge the embedded weapon.
I didn’t know where I was going, but I couldn’t just lay here, even if it was pointless. My feeble crawl was abruptly halted as the bear gathered itself. Despite the blade lodged in its skull, the beast's jaws were still functional, and it lunged at me with renewed vigour.
Why did I have such bad luck?
With a swift response, I rolled clear of the bear's lethal bite. The melted remnants of my boot collided with its snout, providing a sufficient angle to seize the dagger's leather hilt and wrench it free. Even in its brief disorientation, the bear continued its assault. Its jaws found their mark around my abdomen, but I was prepared.
The hilt of the dagger spun in my grip, the blade now pointed downwards. Summoning all the strength I could muster, I drove the blade into the bear's skull. Its teeth broke through my skin, but its bite abruptly ceased as the animal thumped to the side, thankfully not crushing me. However, the damage had been done: its fangs had ripped through my flesh, causing my blood to seep out in a thick, crimson stream.
That was close. I was lucky my regeneration kicked in before the bite.
Somehow, I was still alive, even though my body was mangled and burned. At this point, my sense of pain had been almost completely numbed. Apparently, my body saw no reason to inform me of the many problems it was facing.
Devoid of alternatives, I painstakingly edged towards the fallen beast, hoping its blood would prove sufficient to start my recovery. After a gruelling effort, I retrieved the embedded dagger. Drawing upon memories of my father draining deer, I slit the creature's throat, releasing a surge of crimson. My canines instinctively lengthened as I burst into a primal frenzy, tearing into the flesh and devouring the warm blood and sizeable chunks of meat. The taste was far from pleasant, but my hunger was so extreme that each bite offered a momentary sense of gratification.
Throughout the day and deep into the night, I feasted on the bear until the grotesque protrusion of ingested meat from my abdominal wounds caused me to halt. The sight of my meal squeezing from me was repugnant and attempts to reinsert it were met with significant discomfort, prompting my surrender.
Hopefully, this wouldn't impede my recovery.
As I leaned against the bear, every muscle throbbed with exhaustion. The freezing air permeated my body, and the harsh, biting wind challenged my ability to keep my eyes open. The bear's residual warmth had faded, and all I could do was endure the icy chill.
My fatigue deepened as the hours passed, my consciousness gradually succumbing to a somnolent fog. In spite of my efforts to remain vigilant, my eyelids grew progressively heavier until they succumbed, plunging me into dreamless oblivion.
The morning sun's bright beams coaxed me back to consciousness the next day. Momentarily disoriented, I surveyed the snow-laden expanse—So, it hadn't been a nightmare. Perhaps I was dead, condemned to my personal hell: an eternity in this frozen desert, perpetually shivering but never succumbing to death.
My attention was drawn to my hand, which had regenerated a new finger. Its semi-translucent skin hinted at the underlying muscle with its red hue. However, the nail remained absent. A faint whiff of steam traced its path as I flexed my new finger. The recently formed skin was soft and warm, the radiating heat seemingly a component of the regenerative process.
Regrettably, my leg was not progressing as well. What remained was a mere stump, discharging plumes of steam in the freezing air. Despite some growth, a complete recovery would require considerable time. Yet, it was encouraging to see it still healing.
As I touched my burnt forearm, the charred skin peeled off like an oversized scab, revealing an identical translucent surface to that of my finger. If my skin did not regain its normal colour soon, my strange appearance might present issues in populated areas.
Seated amid the desolate snowscape, I weighed my options. The thought of my recovery stretching for eternity was depressing, and the prospect of remaining immobilised for days, potentially weeks, made me want to cry. But, no matter how hopeless the situation was, I had to remain strong. My focus needed to be on the controllable, tackling each day as it came, and expediting my recovery as much as possible.
My gaze settled on the bear's carcass that I used as a backrest. At the very least, sustenance was assured.
In the days that followed, I sat next to the bear, forcing myself to consume its meat, even though it sometimes nauseated me. My goal was never to let a moment pass when I didn’t feel food coming back up my throat. It was unpleasant, but I needed to recover as fast as possible.
I had consciously refrained from checking Abble's status in our group. Her continued presence, as indicated by the absence of any notification, should have been reassuring. Yet, it stirred unease. What if Cain had captured her, tormenting her relentlessly? The idea was horrifying. If I checked and saw him inflicting torment, I feared my response.
Upon reaching level 30, I would distance myself from Abble, allowing her the freedom to live her life free of my problems. Although she had stood by me during the Endeavor altercation, I couldn't presume her continued trust after Jordan's actions. It was best for both of us if I maintained my distance.
Regardless of the circumstances, I still clung to the hope that Abble was safe. The alternative was giving in to despair and removing my ring. I was emotional, yes, but the guilt of potentially causing her suffering or death was unbearable. Additionally, I was determined not to expose my mother and sister to my misfortunes. Cain's pursuit of them was a fear I would not allow to become a reality, either.
The thought of Jordan manipulating Abble’s feelings towards me left me with a whirlwind of conflicted feelings. The potential that Abble's affection might have been induced rather than genuine created a deep sense of shame. Despite being able to forgive Jordan's other actions, this one was particularly hard to ignore.
At the same time, the burden of being responsible for Jordan's death hung over me. A tiny glimmer of hope lingered that she might still be alive. After all, her departure from the group didn't necessarily equate to her demise. I wasn’t sure if leaving automatically meant death, but it seemed unlikely. She had a reason for her departure, and I doubted it was to spare me from receiving a death notification.
The emotional chaos was overwhelming; too many feelings vied for my attention, and I was unsure which ones to confront first. Yet, time was on my side. Stranded here, I had an eternity to experience and process them all.
Too much time.
With nothing better to occupy myself, I turned my attention to the 'Corruption' talent the system had gifted me.
While I was unsure where I would source data points from, it seemed like they unlocked new abilities. The column labelled 'Corruption' appeared to function as its own EXP bar, and then there was 'Corruption LVL'. This all appeared like it was going to be complicated—great more things to worry about. The first talent within the tree seemed to augment EXP, which was certainly promising. I needed to delve into this tree further; it appeared to hold a solution to faster levelling.
That distraction provided an entire minute of entertainment, leaving me once again to confront the bone-chilling boredom.
Almost two weeks passed before my leg healed sufficiently to consider travel. Even after consuming more than half of the bear, its contribution to my recovery felt minimal. Compounding the issue, my healing seemed to fuel an insatiable hunger that gnawed at me, even as my stomach remained full of meat.
Finally, rising to my feet for the first time in what felt like an eternity, I gazed out across the desolate expanse stretching before me. The newly formed leg felt foreign, as if it belonged to someone else. It was weak, having borne no weight during the healing process, restricting me to crawl on my knees. I needed to ensure it was fully functional before subjecting it to significant stress. Still, the thought of remaining in this desolate location for another day was too much to bear.
My skin felt taut, and my movements had become sluggish. Although I no longer felt the cold, I was certain my skin was nearing the freezing point. I needed to move before I became completely immobilized. Any warmth my body once generated had been thoroughly eclipsed. It was well past time to leave.
What could this solitary pin drop on the map symbolise? It seemed arbitrarily placed amidst nothingness, yet it surely held significance with the presentation displayed. Why else would it feature on the map if it bore no importance?
Merely… four hundred miles. A minor challenge.
A groan escaped my lips.
The monotonous journey stretching ahead would not provide any joy. The distance, while daunting, was not impossible, and the elements would not prove fatal during the trek. Nevertheless, the prospect of traversing such harsh landscapes was intimidating.
At least it was something, Kade. Stop complaining.
However, a pressing issue loomed large over my impending journey: I was stark naked. Entering a town or any inhabited area in this state would undoubtedly draw unwarranted attention. Surely, no one would believe that a person could survive in such conditions without any protective clothing.
I should have skinned the bear, but with a missing leg and my dwindling energy, it would have been a challenge. Keeping my eyes open was a task in itself most of the time. Regardless, it's moot now. The skin has hardened so much from the cold that attempting it now would require immense effort, and even then, it might still tear.
This would pose a substantial problem upon arrival. But, for now, I needed to concentrate on the task at hand, maintaining forward momentum.
With my dagger clenched tightly, I embarked on my journey across this desolate wasteland. The weather was surprisingly forgiving for such an environment, with only sporadic snow flurries to contend with. Yet the growing stiffness in my body was a looming concern. I knew that if I halted my pace, I would freeze in place.
After nearly a week of wading through the snow, it seemed like I had finally made some headway. The satisfaction of progress was short-lived as I found myself standing at the summit of a mountain—So, the shading on the map denoted elevation.
My eyes were drawn to a lone dwelling as I neared the mountain's edge, surveying the valley below. Secluded amidst the snowy wilderness at the mountain's base, the sight of the cabin gave me some optimism.
Hopefully, it was deserted. Perhaps I would find some old clothing or blankets to shield me from the cold. At the very least, it would offer a temporary haven from the biting wind and a chance to gather my thoughts.
The descent proved a taxing and time-consuming ordeal, lasting several days. The deep snow persistently hindered my progress, forcing me to fight with each step as I sunk and struggled to extract myself. Although I felt the mounting fatigue, I took solace in having made it this far, in the face of such bleak odds.
I had to celebrate victories, no matter how minor they were.
Upon nearing the weathered structure, my gaze observed the peculiar surroundings. The barren landscape surrounding the house bore no indication of trees ever existing, casting doubt over the origin of the wooden house. Nevertheless, the home seemed to have withstood the elements for years, possibly decades, its snow-laden rooftop and frost-encrusted windows adding to the eerie presence.
As I reached the door, a mere brush of my knuckles flung it wide open. I hesitated, my gaze locked onto the enveloping darkness within. A gust of wind swept the snow into the void, increasing my reluctance to cross the entrance.
It seemed unlikely that anyone was here. After all, who could possibly live in such a remote place? This was fortunate for me, given that I needed an invitation to enter. Had the owner passed away or abandoned this place, would entry be permitted? The boundaries of this rule remained unclear to me.
Stepping over the threshold, evidence of habitation immediately met my vision. A neat stack of firewood resided by an iron stove in the room's corner, and a book lay invitingly open on a table at the centre of the dwelling.
Well, at least I could step inside.
"Hello?" My voice echoed through the vacant expanse as I ventured deeper into the room.
A sudden, violent slam echoed behind me as the door shut of its own accord, startling me. Whirling around, I found no one.
It was probably… just the wind.
My footsteps slowed as I neared the open book resting on the wooden table. The air held a thick, disquieting silence that sent a shiver prickling down my spine. The book's yellowed pages were devoid of words, and an unease clawed at my stomach.
Hesitating briefly, my fingers skimmed the surface of the paper, leafing through the pages, each as blank as the one before. As I snapped the book shut, my gaze fell upon the cover, bearing the name 'Kade Sterling.'
In an instant, my name vanished from the cover, sending a cold shudder coursing through me, prompting the hairs on my arm to bristle.
What the fuck was that about? I was losing my mind.
It's nothing, Kade. Just exhaustion playing tricks on you. Calm down.
"Is anyone here?" I asked, casting my words into the void.
Once again, silence was my only answer.
Shaking off my unease, I moved towards the stove where a pair of flint stones lay atop an aged stack of wood. After a few attempts, I succeeded in striking a spark, igniting the wood within the stove's belly. I left the firebox door slightly ajar, allowing a warm glow to cast long shadows in the dim room. As the wood popped and crackled, I studied the antiquated surroundings, the creeping darkness still keeping me on edge.
Exploring further, I found additional rooms, sparse and unadorned, save for a bed and a few storage barrels. A cursory rummage through the containers yielded nothing but oversized, simple linen clothing. Still, it was better than my current state of undress.
From the bed, I lifted a worn blanket riddled with holes. Draping it over my shoulders, I nestled in front of the stove, the dancing flames behind the iron grate casting a mesmerising glow. I leaned forward, forearms resting on my knees, and let out a heavy sigh, mulling over my situation—it felt like I had been doing just that for nearly a month.
How was I planning to get myself out of this place?
"What is a lust demon doing so far out here?" A deep voice murmured into my ear.