A hundred and thirty five centimeters. By unsheathing his resolve and going all out, Zax actually extended the reach of his Soul Sense’s radius by an additional five centimeters.
This achievement was far from expected, almost unprecedented. Not only his Soul Sense surpassed the reach of the common C level Mist User, Core Breaker, at the moment of his advancement, even at its current level, which in soul energy was equivalent to F level Mist User, it still was in its growing period.
The reason for that, although unknown or maybe was just of little importance to Zax, was the shock that he suffered merely six hours ago or so.
“Hmm… I can feel it, the environmental essence of this cave”. The microscopic particles, which were invisible to the naked eye, floated in the air, embedded the soil, stones and vegetation. To interpret the past of each particle was beyond Zax’s abilities, at most he could perceive an obscure hunch, an idea – like the one he had of cave zero eight’s lethal environment essence – of what roamed cave zero thirty nine in the other nine months of the year.
Nevertheless, Zax rejoiced. The environment essence of cave zero thirty nine was not in any way tyrannical, on the contrary, it was quite placid. “If beasts live in this cave they must be very peaceful. In cave zero eight…” Zax shivered. If he will associate the beasts with the environmental essence, then cave zero thirty nine was the burrow of rabbits and cave zero eight was the den of tigers.
A sudden realization dawned on Zax. “If it’s not the environment essence that made me… act rashly. Then, could it be the Earth’s Cores?” Zax gazed upon the backpacks of Merly, Anet. Inside each of them was one brownish Earth’s Core. “At first I thought that it was the environmental essence that fooled my Soul Sense to think that inside and beneath the rock there was a cluster of Earth’s Cores. But it doesn’t explain why I didn’t locate the third Earth’s Core Weysey found. If it’s not the environment essence…” Zax rehearsed his hypothesis. “Then it must be the Earth’s Cores!”
“Zax”, Serah called him. “Zax!” She raised her voice.
“Serah?” Zax’s gaze traveled impassively from the three backpacks to Serah’s flushed face.
“Well, are you coming or just keep standing there?”
“Ah… Yes!” Zax answered hastily. He was so focused on the three backpacks that he did not notice the growing distance between him and the rest of the group.
“What were you daydreaming about?” Serah asked. Amusingly she, too, was a few steps behind everyone. Closest to her were Mi, Merly and Anet who seemed to talk about school. And at the front were Dane, Weysey and Zushi who also talked about something.
“Nothing”, Zax replied. “Just thinking about Earth’s Cores, you know…”
“Hmm… are you sorry for not choosing one when you had the chance?”
“No”. Zax answered simply.
Though Serah already knew that he was not the type who has a temperamental personality, with the subject of Earth’s Cores on the line even a leopard might change his spots. Be that as it may, Zax was confident in his friendship with Serah. Did he not give her a premium account card of the “greatest game in the whole wide world”, Mocca Kart, less than half a year ago? In this particular case, even if he met Serah for the first time in his life five minutes ago and gave her the premium account card she would have been so awestruck, she would have let him open a second in game character and choose his own kart!
“Then, is it about the thing that big sister Zetsa taught you in order to find Earth’s Cores?”
Zax hesitated to answer. Lying to the whole group and lying to his best friend in the face was entirely different.
“I’m right”. Serah proclaimed. “Why do you still want to use what big sister Zetsa taught you? You tried before and yeah, you found three Earth’s Cores, but you also wasted us five hours, not to mention that when you went wild and broke your fingers!” As his best friend, Serah, clearly, was without restraint when she reprimanded Zax. And she would have done so even if she received one of the three Earth’s Cores.
“Sorry…” Angry Serah reminded Zax of angry Zetsa. Avoiding her stern eyes, Zax, at least, was grateful that she did not ask about what his big sister “taught” him to find Earth’s Cores. “Could big sis have not told me because she thought that using Soul Sense to search for Earth’s Cores will be straining? Or is it because she has known that Earth’s Cores can distort the mind and perception of a Soul Sense?”
Seeing how Zax lost himself in thoughts right after apologizing, ticked Serah off. “Whatever”, she sneered and grabbed his left hand. “Daydream what you want, just keep up the pace!”
“No Earth’s Cores here either”. Zax was disappointed. When he just started to search with his Soul Sense he managed to find two Earth’s Cores and a bonus one in just ten minutes. Apart from his original goal, Zax wanted to find an Earth’s Core to see how his Soul Sense will react to it, but he had two difficulties. The first one was that Earth’s Cores were not as abundant and easy to find as he initially hoped. The second difficulty was his Soul Sense, ten to fifteen minutes was the longest that he could sustain it before having to rest for about the same length of time.
Sweeping his eyes for maybe the fiftieth time at the two backpacks ahead of him, which belonged to Anet and Merly, and then shaking his head in disapproval. “It’s not the same as back then. Is it because they were moved or touched?”
The two Earth’s Cores, hidden inside the inner pockets of the two’s backpacks, had a lingering sensation that repressed the natural essence, which previously reigned around the Earth’s Cores, and little by little resembled the presence of Anet and Merly when they were within the domain of his Soul Sense.
Zax waited for two more minutes and resumed using his Soul Sense to search.
“Water?” Zax sensed. Through the trees roots that entered and exited the domain of his Soul Sense, as he and Serah followed hand in hand the rest of the group, Zax grasped the obscure origin of the water in the trees roots and could tell that in the direction that they were heading was a large water reservoir. “West of us… a lake? Hard to tell. But up ahead I’m sure, less than a hundred meters, behind those trees there is a flowing river”. Of the latter part he was certain.
As his Soul Sense indicated, roughly a hundred meter behind a small grove was a narrow river. Alongside the river and in it were hundreds of participants. The many participants numbered, more or less, a sixth of the event’s participants. So many that nobody batted an eyelid at the group of eight that Zushi led.
“They are searching here…” Merly pointed to the obvious. “There is the group from before!”
The hundreds of young participants search for Earth’s Cores within the calm water of the river or at its banks
“Excuse me”, Zushi turned to a boy not far from it.
“Yeah, what?” The boy walked barefooted along the river’s banks. His eyes were fixated on the muddy earth.
“Our group heard the flowing water and came here to fill our empty bottles. We didn’t expect to see so many participants searching here… Can you tell us why you are search here and not spread around the cave?” Zushi told a little lie to not arouse the suspicions of the boy. By the way it looked, anyone who got here done it knowingly with the purpose of searching here for Earth’s Cores in mind. Saying that they came to fill up their water bottles was a safe excuse rather than saying that they followed some other group, since even after taking the nutrition tablets one can still exhaust himself or herself and get thirsty.
“You came to fill up your water?” The boy stopped walking and raised an eyebrow as he surveyed Zushi’s group of eight. “From which cave are you?”
“Cave twenty five”. Zushi answered.
“Cave twenty five… the cave whose one of its participants the little bro of their representative Guardian!” The boy exclaimed. “Nah… probably none of you guys. Otherwise you would have known about the river. Or maybe not all of the representative Guardians know about it…?” The boy speculated aloud.
“Know what about the river?” Zushi pushed for an answer.
“Well… it won’t hurt telling you guys, you can probably figure it out for yourself and then it won’t matter how much you know”. The boy reasoned with himself. “This river is flowing from the inner beasts’ territory, which is past the unsafe zone, to a lake a few kilometers from where we are”. The boy leaned down and drew on the muddy ground with his finger. “Most of the guys and gals here that I met are from the same cave as I, cave three. Searching in and around the lake, I heard that groups of cave eight and ninety nine are there. Anyway, our representative Guardian told us that the river carries Earth’s Cores from the inner beasts’ territory”.
“So that’s why!” Zushi eyes flew open and the others in his group also were thrilled.
“You realized”. The boy said in an indifferent tone. “Some Earth’s Cores sink to the bottom of the river, others around the banks of the river and others reach the lake and sink to its depths… Eh?” The boy abruptly ceased talking with the group and called. “Odil! I cut my foot!”
“Do you need help?” Anet stepped aside and asked.
“No!” The boy nearly shouted. “No”. He repeated more calmly. “My friends will help me. Okay, I said enough. You guys should go do what you want”. Somehow the boy attitude seemed anxious.
“Are you sure that you are fine?” Zushi pressed. He, Weysey, Dane, Serah and Zax, after hearing him out, imagined how severe the cut to his foot was…
“Brabra”, a group of ten boys and girls arrived to the boy’s, Brabra’s, side in a hurry.
“Yes, yes, yes. My friends are here now. You can go search”. Even with his friends around him Brabra wished for Zushi and the others to leave already. “Oh”, he actually had one more piece of advice, maybe out of the goodness that Anet conveyed to him. “If you search, don’t go to the lake. Even if its bottom is full of Earth’s Core it’s way too deep to dive. Some even say that there are beasts in it and that is why the representative Guardians of caves eight and ninety nine patrolling there…”
“Thank you for telling us”. Zushi said and led his group back to the forest.
With one eye on the populated river and another eye on his friends, Zushi leaned on tree and said. “Before I’ll present our options, does anyone wishes we go to the lake?” Since no one answered Zushi continued. “The first option is heading to the unsafe zone through the dense flora, like before. You already know how it is…”
“The second option is going along the river’s banks, seeing as it will definitely lead us to the unsafe zone. By choosing the second option we will proceed faster and our chances of finding Earth’s Core might increase. The only problem is the many participants around the river. If we do get lucky and someone who belongs to a big group will notice us… You saw how that boy, Brabra, suddenly called “I cut my foot”. I’m sure that was a sign to his friends that he found an Earth’s Core. If we can guess other groups’ signs, they, most likely, can guess ours”.
“The second option isn’t that bad. We just need to be cautious”. Serah said.
“I also think that it will better than wasting time and reducing our chances in the forest. It’s not like we know which of the unpaved roads that passed through it can lead us to the unsafe zone…” Zax also agreed.
Finding Earth’s Cores in the river with his Soul Sense was an attractive prospect. Not only could he test his Soul Sense with Earth’s Core that were not touched by participants, supposedly, there were more Earth’s Cores accumulated in the river and lake than anywhere else in cave zero thirty nine. And then there was that last thing… All the Earth’s Cores in the river and lake were said to come from beyond the unsafe zone, the acclaimed destination they planned to get close to as much as they were allowed, that is, stay couple kilometers away from it.
“Let’s hear the third option before deciding”. Dane suggested.
“Yes, maybe it’s better than the other two, is it, Zushi?” Merly asked.
“Well… the third option has its pros and cons. Basically, it’s the same as the second options, but instead of going along the river’s banks we will proceed by walking in the river. Look at these guys, the river is not that deep. At its center the water is waist-high. If the stream remains steady, going in the river, not necessarily at its center, should be fine”.
“It will slow us down significantly”. Weysey pointed.
“That’s the drawback”, Zushi began to explain the pros and cons. “If we walk in the river we might spend all of our time before getting close to the unsafe zone. On the other hand, if there really is in the river a large amount of Earth’s Cores we might not need going to the unsafe zone after all”.
“The water in the river isn’t deep, but watch how they struggle to walk in it”. Serah gestured at the participants in the river. “To reach the unsafe zone we will have to go against the stream. Let alone getting wet, do any of you feels like tiring yourself without knowing for sure that you will find an Earth’s Core?”
“I only have my pajama… No one said that we’ll need a second pair of clothes…” Mi sulked.
“You brought a pajama?” Weysey was taken aback. In his defense he grew in a farm. In weekends, when school was closed, he used to camp with his big brothers, wearing the same outfit for days.
“Only one pair…” Mi seemed even more depressed since there still was one more night for them to spend in the event before going back home.
“Let’s vote and be done with it”. Zushi frowned. As intelligent as he was, how could a ten years old boy understand the mindset of a delicate little girl?
“By show of hands, who wants to search through the forest?” No one raised a hand and Zushi continued. “Who wants to follow and search on the river’s banks?”
Surprisingly, everyone but Weysey raised their hands.