Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter Five

“It can not be an actual avalanche,” Kennet decided. “I would have heard such an event.”

“We were in a cave, remember?” Zuri argued. “Sleeping.”

She always argued.

“I suppose the only way we’ll find out is for me to start digging,” Kennet said.

He tamped down his displeasure.

Cold he didn’t mind. Well, he did, but it was an ignorable discomfort.

Cold and certain to soon become wet was another matter.

He reached for the sheet of white that blocked the cave entrance when Zuri grabbed his arm, pulling him back.

Her touch sent a spark running through him.

Ridiculous. 

Simply static in the air caused by the cold.

But she didn’t let go, clinging to his forearm as if she had the strength to actually stop him.

He cocked his head to the side.

Considering that he had in fact altered his plans, perhaps she did.

Interesting.

“Don’t do that, please. Not until we know how deep it is.”

Her eyes were wide in the half-light, and in their depths Kennet saw the trace of something else, some other incident that had scared her. 

Still had power over her.

Very well.

While he believed he had packed everything they would need for a trip across the countryside, he had not brought a tool for this situation.

But perhaps something could be fashioned.

“Just a moment please.”

When he returned to the snowed in cave entrance Zuri was still there, arms wrapped tightly around her chest.

Her palpable unhappiness bothered him. But he didn’t have enough data to do anything about the actual cause, therefore he could only focus on what lay before them.

“This should do nicely,” he said, and then forced the heated metal frame that the teakettle had been suspended from into the mass of snow.

It slid in easily, then slowed as the metal cooled.

“A little further I think,” he said as he tested the makeshift probe against the unseen barrier.

Just as Kennet began to wonder if he would need to raid the storage chest for something longer, the resistance against the end of the frame suddenly stopped.

“I believe we’ve reached the end of the snowpack,” he said, withdrawing the probe, marking how thick the imprisoning wall was.

“Let’s try another spot.”

He repeated the procedure three more times until he was satisfied.

“I do not believe it is much thicker than the length of my arm anywhere except near the very bottom of the opening, and that is only a matter of gravity. We could wait until light,” Kennet offered, “But that would simply give the snow a chance to pack harder.”

Whatever had been bothering Zuri was gone now. “You’re right, should come down now.” She nodded, as if to convenience herself. “I can start over here and if you work there it shouldn’t take us more than an hour.”

“I can clear it considerably faster than that. You would be safer, and drier if you went back to the larger cavern,” Kennet said. “If nothing else to ensure that the horses stay calm.”

Zuri snorted. “They have grain, and a thick bed of new hay. I don’t think there’s going to be much that disturbs them.”

Still, Kennet paused.

It was hard to predict how humans would react to… well, anything really.

And while in general he didn’t care about their opinions, he was finding himself reluctant to startle Zuri.

“It will be faster if I utilize a skill that may seem strange to you.” 

That was a reasonable warning, wasn’t it?

“If you can get us out of here in less than an hour, I can put up with a whole lot of strange,” Zuri smiled slightly.

She was competent and brave.

He would have to take her at her word.

Turning away from her, Kennet let the change wash over him, not in its entirety, there was no need.

But now when he glanced down, his arms were covered with white fur, the charcoal stripes even clearer.

And more importantly broad paws, tipped with rending claws, perfect for quickly digging through the snow.

He didn’t turn around when Zuri gasped.

“You’re right, the horses might be startled by this.” 

Her voice was shaky.

Of course it was. 

“I’ll be finished shortly,” he growled and got to work, not paying any intention to how quickly her footsteps receded. No attention at all.

The first step was to make a tunnel. Paws flying he burrowed through the snow until he was outside the cave.

It would’ve been easier to clear the entire opening from inside, but then they would have the problem of snow melting inside.

No, this was better.

He got to work, letting the smooth easy movements distract him.

Before long, a soft sound behind him caught his attention.

“I’ve made more tea,” Zuri said quietly. “Your hands must be freezing.”

He had paws. Not hands.

“They are chilled, yes,” Kennet answered, shifting back to take the thick pottery mug from her. Her fingers brushed his, and there it was again, the jolt.

“You should go back inside.” He looked up, the heavy clouds lit from the moons, promising more snow. “I’ll be finished here soon.”

She shook her head. “It’ll take me awhile to wind back down.” The haunted look had returned to her eyes.

Finishing the drink he handed her the mug. “If you’d move just a bit, you won’t get as wet.”

This time when he shifted to start digging, she didn’t flinch. “Can everyone out there do that?” she asked. 

“If by out there, you mean in the Alliance, no.” Kennet finished clearing the upper section of the snow wall he’d been working on, moved on to the next. 

Zuri moved, keeping out of the way of the flying snow.

“My brothers and I can, and some of the other Garrison soldiers were designed with the capacity to change forms.  There is suspicion that some of the warriors of the Kuseon may also have the ability, either by natural processes or engineered, but there’s not enough data to do anything more than speculate in that direction.”

Her laughter cut the cold air. “That’s what I get for asking questions when I don’t even understand the answers.”

He stopped digging, examined her expression. “If you don’t ask questions, how are you expected to understand anything?”

While he finished excavating the cave entrance, he gave a quick history of the endless war between the Rakian Alliance and the Kuseon Empire. “Their soldiers have never been captured, and even in negotiations, they are always masked. The Alliance has no reliable information. It is most irritating.”

“At least it explains why FarRunner was nervous,” she said as they headed back inside. “I did try to explain, but I’m not sure how much of it got through to him.”

Kennet glanced at the horses. “As long as he can bear with me, I can bear with him. I suppose.”

The snow had kept the warmth of the fire inside. Now that it had been removed, it was noticeably chillier in the cavern.

“I’ll build up the fire again. You should get more rest before we head out again.”

Zuri folded the blanket she’d wrapped around her shoulders. “I doubt if I’d be able to sleep,” she said, then pulled a heavy coat out of one of the chests. “There’s enough moonlight. We should keep going.”

Really? She had to argue about this as well?

Her hands flew to her mouth. “Oh Lady, I wasn’t thinking. You’ve just dug us out and you’re probably tired and you’re right we should rest and-”

“I do not require additional rest at this time,” Kennet cut her off. “However, if you are tired while we travel, that could pose an additional danger.”

She snorted. “I’d bet I could be sound asleep, and Goliath could find his way home from here.” But still she examined him carefully. Her gaze was… uncomfortable. “Are you sure you’re ready to go? It’ll take me awhile to neaten everything up. You should at least take a break.”

It was somewhere between ridiculous and offensive. 

But the sooner they arrived in her village, the sooner he could discover what was creating the problem, solve it, and be done with this assignment.

Which you wanted to take, an amused voice in the back of his head reminded him.

“Tell me what needs to be done,” he ordered. “I will assist you.”

Despite his best intentions, the horses weren’t comfortable with him mucking out their straw and replacing it with clean until Zuri moved them to the other side of the cavern, holding their heads and whispering to them soothingly.

“I don’t know why they’re so spooked,” she apologized. “They’ve promised to be good when we’re back outside.”

But apparently the promises of horses were not to be trusted.

Once she’d led them outside, the big roan that had carried him without complaint on his visits to the human villages throughout the past several months shied, rolling its eyes back, every time Kennet came close.

“We should return to Ship,” he offered after the horse danced away from him the third time. “Get the airsled and be done with this nonsense.”

“You can,” she snapped, breath clouding in the crisp air. “But I’m not leaving Goliath behind, I’ve told you that.”

“And I’m not letting you travel alone,” he growled, patience at an end. “Fine. There’s a solution, but I doubt the horses are going to like it any better.”

Zuri threw her hands up in the air, then pulled FarRunner’s lead until he fell into place beside Goliath.

“Anything has got to be better than this.”

This was a mistake. 

He was sure of it.

But honestly, he no longer cared. At least this way, he wouldn’t have to argue with her.

“I’ll hold you to that.” 

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