The world could be roughly divided into two sorts of people. Those who wouldn’t dive into a volcano to save someone they had no connection to, and those who would. Steve was the sort firmly in the latter camp.
If he were asked about his reasons, he would say he thought about it and determined he could survive. And if anybody managed to ask, then at least half of that would be true. For the moment, though, nobody was saying much of anything. Even the woman falling in front of him wasn’t screaming or anything.
Falling quickly wasn’t something Steve had ever tried to do before, but he knew the basics. Tuck in the arms and create a small profile. Unfortunately the distance that he was dropping wasn’t very far, so he had little time to catch up to the falling woman. She struck the surface of the lava before he did by a single instant.
Having already established the fact that liquid rock wasn’t as easy to sink into as it looked, it was still a problem to be partly submerged in extremely hot material. A cultivator could resist the heat with their energy, but if the woman had abundant energy she likely wouldn’t have fallen into the caldera to begin with. She looked exhausted.
Steve slammed into the ground next to her, intentionally striking the lava with enough momentum to push himself in. His energy pushed the liquid rock beneath his feet down while popping up what was under her, tossing her into his arms. Unfortunately a small gout of lava came up with her, some of it landing on his forehead. He shook his head to fling it off and began to run towards the edge of the caldera.
He ignored the fact that both of them were basically on fire, since such a trivial detail could be dealt with later. It was one thing to run about on lava flowing down the mountain, but the lava in the caldera was much hotter as the heat was like an oven all around him. He wrapped the pair of them in his own energy. He put all of his effort into deflecting the heat around them as he ran towards the edge of the caldera, trying to carry someone who wasn’t helping much.
Steve managed to throw her over a shoulder and grab onto the wall with one hand, starting to climb even as the not-quite-melted rock he was holding scorched his hand. The one good thing about the caldera was that the walls were very uneven, making the climbing possible. There was just the slight problem that he was carrying someone with him.
Beneath him, Zolvolj grumbled angrily. He really hoped the volcano wouldn’t just spew more gouts of lava right now. If it would only wait for just a short while… he might be able to get out of the danger zone.
With each breath Steve turned to the side, releasing as much heat as possible in a gout of flames. It wasn’t just his skin that was overheating but his internals as overabundant fire elemental spiritual energy flowed around and through him. If he only had to deal with the heat and muscle strain, he might be fine… but it was difficult to breathe. Hot, acrid fumes were not the best thing to be breathing while performing high intensity exercise.
Moving one foot at a time and then his arm placed more weight on the other two parts, and he was severely limited in how he could move without a second arm. All parts of him were tiring, and he wasn’t moving so quickly.
Steve didn’t look down. He kept his eyes focused on the important things, what he could do. He thought he was maybe halfway up, with the heat slightly diminishing as he moved away from the belly of the caldera. And every time he took a swig of water from a new canteen it was ready to boil a few seconds later. If he didn’t cool himself down with it, he would probably explode.
He drank half of a skin and dumped the rest on the woman, hoping it would at least cool down her head. He was doing his best to protect her, but he could only do so much. The climb was getting harder… or rather he was still getting more tired. He wondered if he’d made one too many impulsive decisions.
But after thinking about it, he would do it again. He couldn’t just let someone die. He just wished he’d been better prepared to handle the situation so he wouldn’t go with them as well. Chances he would get a third life were unclear, but at least he could be happy with what he had.
Then he felt a comforting coldness on his head. When he looked up he saw a length of ice hanging down. It took a moment to realize it was a rope coated in ice. Well, half coated. A quarter coated. He grabbed onto it quickly before it all melted. As it melted and almost began to boil away it created hot steam, but it was almost cooling compared to the rest of the area.
As his grip tightened he was yanked upward. He barely kept his grip, but he wasn’t going to let go. He was pulled up faster and faster before he flew over the lip of the caldera, where he was promptly yanked to the side and away from the edge, along with the woman over his shoulder.
Then an entire swimming pool was dumped over him. He was coughing and sputtering in the best way possible as he suddenly felt cool. He looked up to see Matayal standing over him with a storage bag upended. “Hey, thanks,” he said. He turned to John as well as a few green-haired members of the Milanovic clan, who had been holding the rope. “Appreciate the help.” Finally he looked at the old man, who was currently coiling the very rope in question. “Appreciate you pulling me up.”
The old man snorted. “I couldn’t very well let this year’s winner die in the caldera.”
He felt something wriggling next to him. “Umm… excuse me… could you let go?”
“Oh! Sorry.” He released his death grip on the woman who’d fallen in and she rolled away.
He felt her try to stand up, but she only got to a sitting position. “For some reason… I feel exceptionally weak.”
“Did you push yourself too hard?” John asked.
“I didn’t hold back,” she said. “I had to reach the top. But then I fell over.”
“…” Steve took a close look at her. “When was the last time you drank water?”
“This morning?” the green haired woman tilted her head. “I think.”
He reached for another water skin, finding one last one in the bottom corner of his bag. He basically shoved it into the woman’s mouth, and she drank without thinking about it.
“… Thank you,” she said. “But I am a fire type cultivator. I can handle a little heat.”
“Can you?” he said, raising an eyebrow. “That’s great. Listen… you.” Steve frowned. “What’s your name?”
It took her a moment to respond. “Yustina Milanovic,” she finally said.
“I’m Lucanus. Listen Yustina,” Steve said. “You’re so dehydrated you can barely remember your name. You can’t just… not drink water.”
“It was only a couple of hours,” she protested. Yet she continued to drink out of the waterskin anyway.
“How could a cultivator forget to drink water?” John shook his head. He and Matayal were far enough away that his complaint wouldn’t be overheard by others, but he just had to say it.
Matayal shrugged, “Sometimes, you just aren’t thirsty. Though it does seem a bit odd.” Her ears perked up as she listened to the other members of the clan looking after her. “It seems it was her first trip up Zolvolj. Normally members of the Milanovic clan are resistant enough to the heat that it’s not a serious problem even when exerting themselves but…”
“But even they brought water,” John shrugged. “Let’s hope she learns her lesson from this.”
“I’m sure she will. She seems sufficiently embarrassed. Especially now that she’s beginning to recover. The others will be helping her down, though.”
“We ought to help Steve as well. He’s looking pretty bad.”
Matayal nodded, “He does look bad. I’m not entirely sure if he’s noticed, though.”
At some point, Steve had lost consciousness. In normal circumstances, doing so halfway down a mountain with spraying lava and potential boulders rolling around, plus the natural heat, would be a death sentence. But he hadn’t been alone, unlike most of his life. He’d been supported by many people. His friend John… Fortkran, if he were to speak of him to others. John’s wife. Even members of the Milanovic clan.
That would explain his surroundings. Having only seen the outside of their compound, he couldn’t guarantee that the room he woke up in was part of the Milanovic clan, but it certainly fit their style. Though his doubts were erased when someone with green hair walked into the room.
“Lucanus,” the man inclined his head. “Good to see you conscious.”
“I wasn’t that bad,” he said as he looked down at himself. “Thanks for bringing me here though.”
He sat up and began to step up out of the bed when the doctor held up a hand to stop him. “You should rest. You have quite a few burns. We tended them, of course, but it will take time to recover.”
“What, these?” Steve shrugged, “I’ve had worse. Or at least, similar calibur burns less well treated.” He didn’t mention that he’d been the cause of some of those. Sometimes when you were learning, accidents happened.
The doctor held up his hands and shrugged, “As you wish. Yustina indicated her desire to speak to you again, though she is currently indisposed.”
Even with his barely recovering stores of energy- the Milanovic clan had abundant but gentle fire energy everywhere- he could sense the room next to him, and a woman snoring inside. “I wouldn’t want to bother her. I should probably get going.”
The man stepped half in front of him as he headed towards the door. Not enough to physically stop him, but making his point clear. “The Milanovic clan would like to thank you for saving one of our members from what could have been a fatal accident had you not acted immediately. Please take advantage of our hospitality until you are fully recovered.”
Usually Steve found himself chased away from fancy clans. The Tenebachs hadn’t chased him away, but he’d had no reason to hang around after the wedding either. Other than that, he often ended up in squabbles with various young masters and thus tended to stay away from them. But this time he’d be offending them if he left… so it wouldn’t hurt to hang around for a bit. “Okay, I’ll do that.” Probably better to recover from the injuries anyway. Some of his enemies would know where he was, and might be hoping for him to leave.
He returned to his bed and began circulating his energy slowly. On Earth, if someone said that burn scars happened from too much fire energy in the wounds he would look at them like they were crazy. Here, it was more or less true. It still required some special ointments to completely negate the formation of burn scars but he could do quite a bit of the work with careful control of energy as well. He carefully cleansed the area of built up remnants of energy and began to breathe deeply, filling himself up.
Though the entire Milanovic clan was full of fire energy, he actually found that heat flowed very well and he was able to cool himself down without burning anything around him. Thus, he was able to load up on a bit more energy without concerns about causing trouble. He wasn’t sure how long he spent cultivating, but he was eventually stirred from his concentration when Yustina woke up and almost directly fell out of bed. Yet despite being clumsy, the way she caught herself on one arm was almost graceful. But he would probably keep that detail to himself. She was already walking over towards him after flicking a bit of her weak energy in his direction and sensing him.
Steve wasn’t sure what he should say, but as she walked into the room he revised his opinion of her. Before she had been dehydrated and loopy, and while there was still something about her he couldn’t quite place she was much more composed now. She knocked before entering and gracefully bowed. “I would like to properly express my thanks for saving my life. I made a foolish mistake that almost led to my demise.”
Steve tried not to frown. She was way too formal. He kind of liked her better when she was confused, not that there was anything wrong with her now. “You’re welcome,” he said. “I was glad to help someone in need.” He really didn’t know what else to say.
“If you are free, I could guide you around the clan,” Yustina said.
“You could,” Steve said, “But if I have to rest, you need to do so as well.” He’d been protecting her with his energy as well as he could, but he didn’t have the same feedback as he had for himself and some injury had been unavoidable.
“I suppose that makes sense,” she inclined her head. “I will return later, when we are both in somewhat better shape.”