Chapter 57: Back to the Roots

That was all. I had no more words for him, excuses or lies, which I was never good at. So I just stood there awaiting my death, trembling with every breath Esu, king of the woods, took. The suspense was nerve-wracking, almost making me scream at him to get on with it.

Of course, I didn’t.

I wasn’t stupid, nor was I suicidal, and that’s why I just waited for the judgment of the King with my mouth shut, sweating from head to toe under his watchful eyes.

“Weak, caught, chained,” he stated in a measured tone of his growls after what seemed like an eternity and paused. “Mixed-breed, but still my spawn.”

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I paused briefly, then blinked as my brain processed what my ears had just heard. Nani? What? What did he say? Wait, wait, I think there was a translation error.

Weak, hmm…I guess from his point of view. Caught, unfortunately. Handcuffed, apparently. Mixed-breed, didn’t sound flattering, but yes, I was.

So why the error, because it must have been a mistake. I must have heard wrong. After all, my father was on a completely different planet, in a different realm. He was a man, not a huge ancient beast.

I wasn’t Esu’s spawn. I couldn’t be. Right?

Blinking again, I refocused on the King of the Woods, my self-proclaimed father, and realized I was staring open-mouthed at him for who knows how long. Licking my dry lips, I gulped, just to open my mouth again. “I’m your spawn?”

My respect for him faded from my voice, from my growl, lost in my confusion. Luckily, it didn’t seem to bother him.

“Stupid too, of course you are, cub,” his deep growl resonated in my bones, yet his answer bothered me more. I was baffled by it.

So yeah, I must have been dumb. Because I still didn’t understand how it was possible for him to think I was his spawn. He should have seen me as his rival, a beast that came to his realm, his woods to challenge his right to rule, not to see me as his incompetent offspring.

“How?” I asked, knowing my growl meant more than just one word. How? How was that possible? How could I be his spawn? When he snorted hard at my question, I had to close my eyes and brace myself as his warm breath washed over me.

“Twisted magic,” he growled, the disgust in his voice unmistakable. “You’re full of it, cub.”

That’s when it hit me. I almost laughed at my stupidity and cursed myself for not putting two and two together right away. I really was dumb. But in my defense, since Esu showed up, I was scared shitless. I dare say everyone in the clearing felt the same way. 

It was now obvious to me what Esu was referring to, that the mossbears were the beasts whose essence, as Dungreen called the liquid in the shots, had been injected into my veins. The blood of these beasts coursed through them. More than that, one of the mutations on my body had originated with them.

But which one?

Eight injections, eight mutations.

I looked at Esu, then the young mossbears and wings were out of the question immediately. None of them had them, and the idea that the hill in front of me could fly was ridiculous. I could proudly state, the short tails of the mossbears were no match to Sage. Esu’s, I wasn’t sure about that. But to find out, I’d have to move from my spot. Which, despite my excitement at discovering the origin of the mutation, I didn’t dare.

“Is she crazy, or is she that brave?” I heard some Shadow whisper when I grinned. An action that might have looked to him like I was baring my fangs at Esu. Explaining would be pointless, though. So I ignored the mumbling and continued to ponder my mutations.

The sails that were my ears were nothing like a mossbear’s, and not one of them had a mane as long and thick as mine. My eyes? Well, they were emerald green, like the ones that were just watching me. But Esu’s lacked the purple tinge at the edge, nor were they crisscrossed with violet streaks like the eyes I had.

Was it my heart, then? The heart that gave me access to countless schools of magic. Magic I never learned and never used. No, somehow, I knew this wasn’t the mutation I was looking for. It was hard to grasp, let alone describe. It was just a feeling I had in my heart, but I knew its origins did not lie here among the dwellers of these woods.

“That meant it was either…” I mused out loud, touching my antlers.

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A pair of annoying extensions of my skull that were pathetic compared to Esu’s. Mine were like a pair of sprouting seedlings, he boasted branching trees. His were white, deeply grooved to dark green almost black, resembling old bark of an exotic tree, not to mention they were covered with moss, ivy, and even flowers in bloom. Mine were dark green, with rough ridges at the roots on my head, no deep grooves, only a lighter emerald green at their tips.

At that moment, a whole new feeling came over me. It surprised me, as it was a feeling I didn’t think I would ever have. I envied the King of the Woods his antlers.

Narrowed by this feeling, I looked around the clearing, my eyes falling on the young mossbears and their antlers. Theirs were considerably smaller than their fathers, still much larger than mine. The grooves on their antlers were deeper, with a white colouring appearing here and there on the edges of the grooves, but when I looked past those differences, they were almost identical in color and shape to the ones on my head.

Still touching my antlers, I turned back to Esu, only to stagger when he snorted again.

“A sign of how weak you are.”

I understood he wasn’t referring to my staggering but to the size of my antlers, basically confirming what I thought. This was the mutation I was looking for, the first one I knew the origin for sure. Antlers! Mossbears! My heart leaped with joy, and I had to fight the urge to hug Esu, something I don’t even know how I would do given his size.

“Is it just me, or are they talking?” asked a woman. Whether she belonged to the Shadowbreakers or the mercenaries, I had no idea, as my attention and thoughts were elsewhere but on them. All I knew was that both groups were in defensive positions, anticipating a clash with Esu.

“If so, why is she wagging her tail like a happy little puppy?” argued another.

Not a very flattering analogy, but yeah, the man was right. Sage was beside himself with joy like me. But so what? They didn’t understand what this discovery meant to me. I could finally learn more about my body, what the mutation had done to it, what it could do.

Will I grow further? To the size of the beast standing before me. What about my antlers? If their size depended on strength, as Esu suggested, did that mean that as I gain more levels, my antlers would grow too? If so, how much? 

These little ones I had already taken me a long time to get used to.

Seriously, how can he sleep with something that big on his head?

Then there were the ivy and flowers. Was that part of the antlers too, or just poor care? Will my back grow moss too? “Eww…” I grimaced at the thought, as that would be gross.

Oh, and the changes to my body weren’t the only thing.

There were skills like [Unnatural Regeneration] that I got with this mutation back then. It was a skill that saved my life several times. But the question was, did all the mossbears have it?

Three dead bodies in a clearing told a different story. Sure, there was still a chance they’d come back to life in a few minutes or hours, just like me. But Esu wouldn’t be here now if that was the case, and Tate wouldn’t have been cheering so hard a few minutes ago if the system hadn’t told him he killed the beast.

So no, these three didn’t have the same skill I had. Who then? Mother mossbears, Esu? Was there another variety of these beasts that I hadn’t met yet? Also, there was a chance that I could have gotten the skill just like [Spatial Domain], by a combination of the skills I had access to, and the mossbears didn’t have to have it at all.

What about the other skills their species was known for? So many questions and no one to ask. Humans and terrans in the clearing wouldn’t understand my growls, and Esu didn’t seem like teacher material to me. Too impatient and slow-talking.

“Free yourself, cub,” Esu ordered with a growl that resonated in my bones. I gasped as I was abruptly awakened from my rapture, realizing that my excitement and pondering the origins of my mutations made me forget where I actually was. I was standing in the middle of the woods, surrounded by beasts whose strength and levels I could only dream of.

What’s more, my life was in the paws of said beasts.

Free yourself, he said. Was he f****** kidding me? I’ve been trying to do that ever since they put the shackles on me and the fact that I still had them said it all. 

But did I have a choice? No.

So under the watchful eyes of King of the Woods, I tried again anyway. My struggle to break the shackles by brute force ending in failure yet again, despite all the bonuses [Beast], gave me now that I was fully changed. It didn’t matter how hard I tried, how much effort I put into it, or the force of the screaming. The chain didn’t break.

I attempted to pull my hand through the shackles, yanking so hard that my skin bled. But the shackles stayed on my wrists. In my desperation, my brain even remembered movie criminals and how they dislocated their thumbs to get out of handcuffs. I tried, I really did. But hurting myself on purpose was much harder than I could have imagined. My instincts, which were now in full force, were screaming at me, fighting me, resisting me, and winning this losing battle of mine. 

So instead of dislocating my thumbs, I resorted to something I had tried before and bit the chain connecting the shackles on my wrists. 

“Pathetic!” Esu grumbled, dissatisfied with what he saw. I could do nothing but whimper in apology for my lack of strength. What did he expect, though? 

“Bloody hell, I’m only level 93!” I almost shouted at him.

Then, his sudden movement startled me, making me think that my swearing had actually left my throat. As he took a deep breath, I cursed my body and my lack of control over it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t flinch when Esu’s huge maw closed in on me and opened. I was trembling, thinking about my life, what I’ve been through and what I still wanted to experience.

My death didn’t come, though.

What came was much worse. It was a sharp pain that pierced my ears. The feeling like I’m being skinned alive. I was convinced that all my organs were liquefied, and said fluid was boiling inside me. My bones were vibrating so hard I was sure they were going to pop out of my body.

None of that actually happened, though. I was fine. At least that’s what [Inner Perception] told me, and according to my [Spatial Domain], I was still standing in front of roaring Esu.

His roar didn’t peel off my skin as I believed it did, but it disintegrated the shackles on my hands and legs. It didn’t liquefy my organs, as I feared, but it destroyed the seal on my mana. Even my bones were still where they were supposed to be, which couldn’t be said about the collar around my neck that had turned to dust.

The same fate befell my shirt, shorts, shoes, even undies. Whatever it was that Esu used, skill, ability, or just the raw power of his call, destroyed everything that didn’t belong on my body but the rings on my hand.

Yeah, the union ring and that shoddy brass ring survived. Hard to believe, huh?

Well, I had more trouble believing that I was free and didn’t care that I was standing there in the middle of a clearing basically naked, covered only in fur and Esu’s saliva.

The following system notification I didn’t ignore this time and immediately looked at it.

(ding) You are now masterless

I’ve read the message several times to make sure I’m reading it right, that it’s not just a mirage. My hands searched for the collar on my neck, finding only fur where it had been seconds ago. Was I free again?

Was that really true? I quickly glanced at the line with my class on the status screen.

Name: Korra Grey

Race: Human

Gender: Female

Age: 29

Class: Slave (Master – none)

Level: 94

[Unspent Stat Points: 1]

“Master – none,” I gasped breathlessly, only to burst out in joy. “Yeah!”

“You’re free now, cub,” Esu grumbled in response to my cheerful squeal.

Restraining my excitement was an impossible task at the moment, and though I managed to stand still, Sage was doing the opposite. He swayed from side to side, expressing my joy at my freedom.

Trying to keep the emotion out of my voice, which I didn’t quite manage, I tried to express my gratitude as best I could. So I clasped my hands in front of my chest, lowered my head, and bowed. “Thank you, Esu. Thank you so much.”

He responded with an approving nod of his head and an amused hum. Something that threw me off and made me blush. It prompted me to be more aware of my emotions, behavior, and appearance. Only now did it fully sink in, and I realized I was stark naked. Clenching my fists and biting my lip, I concentrated hard not to do what my prude instincts were screaming at me. It would just show those around how embarrassed I was. However, it was bloody hard not to cover my crotch with my tail or my boobs with wings. 

So I tried to stand there proudly, hoping to maintain at least a modicum of dignity.

When the hill in front of me began to shake, I knew my behavior amused Esu even more. It wasn’t something that helped my self-esteem.

Though, his focus quickly shifted to Shadowbreakers and mercenaries. “Don’t you dare!”

I turned to look at what was going on, only to see half of them trying to escape while the King of the Woods was distracted by my awkward behavior.

At his deep growl, they all paused, prepared as best they could for what was to come. Then, this massive beast that Esu was, stomped. The ground shook so hard I had trouble staying on my feet. Even so, it did not elude me that at the far edge of the clearing, some kind of shoots had sprouted from the ground, entwining a figure hidden in the shadows. The same was happening just a few meters away, where a woman appeared in the light of the setting sun, trapped just like Ward’s shadow thief.

Together with the others, I watched in speechless silence and with horror in my eyes as people with levels around two hundred and fifty were helpless while the moss slowly covered them. They fought back, giving it everything they had, but it wasn’t enough. 

Shadow magic, whatever magic the woman used, daggers, sword, skills, nothing worked on the moss that was relentlessly covering more and more of their bodies. The first to cry out was the woman whose defenses gave way first, and she began to sink into the moss as if she were standing in quicksand. The screaming was bloody nerve-wracking, made worse by the fact that she was being eaten alive by the moss for which she served as mere fertilizer. 

I gulped and looked down at my feet as I imagined it would happen to me. Though relieved to be standing on grass instead of moss, I knew it would hardly save me from a similar fate if Esu willed it.

The woman, one of the mercenaries, had not yet stopped screaming, and the shadow thief joined her in her yells as he too lost his battle with the man-eating moss.

At that moment, a thought flashed through my mind. “Remarkable plant, especially the black flowers on it.” No, I had no hidden sadistic tendencies. I didn’t enjoy watching them die. Quite the opposite. So then why the admiration of flowers? I guess it was my brain’s way of trying to cope with the situation.

Deep down, I was still a florist, after all.

I stole a glance behind me at Esu’s antlers and the flowers on them. Unlike the black ones on the man-eating moss, these were white, vibrant with life. What about the moss on the beast’s back? Was it the same man-eating kind? Or did these beasts simply have a knack for mosses? Their name would suggest that.

Man-eating moss, a skill like that, would be very useful. However, I wasn’t sure if there was a similar one among my general skills. But even if I had, I was under no illusions that it would take years before it reached the same horrific gluttony as Esu’s moss had just demonstrated. I bet my moss would be at most capable of devouring a ladybug.

With the last cry of the shadow thief, silence descended on the clearing as everyone looked nervously at their feet, expecting the moss to start eating them. No one dared to make a sound, let alone speak, no one except the King of the Woods. “Now they belong to the forest.”

I found myself nodding thoughtlessly at his growl, his words, however frightening, undeniably true. So why did I have the nagging feeling I couldn’t get rid of that I had overlooked something important?

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