“Wait…!” Zax screamed when he awaked. For a few second his heart was pounding in an accelerating rate and his mind was disoriented. Without knowing what it was, a deep anxiety enveloped Zax’s soul. A disgusting sensation which made him vomit as he repeated again, in the midst of forgetting toward who, what or where. “Wait-”
A voice entered through his ears and rang in his head. Zax did not recognize who it was. His body bent by a reflex when he felt the surge of fluids coming up from his stomach, and though his eyes were wide open, his vision was too blurry to even count the shadows surrounding him.
“Not again-” Zax cried in his mind. The taste of the digested candy bar that he ate earlier was way too abusive to his taste buds as it came out, enough to never want to eat another sour chocolate candy bar again in his life. What Zax did not know was that most of what he tasted, and was reluctant to taste again, was a side effect of the nutrition tablets that was meant to leave his body in the conventional way…
“Are you fine now?”
This time the voice was clearer and recognizable, yet Zax was not confident that it was the same one from before. It was Merly, and according to his voice he stood two meters to his left, with his back turned to him and a sickly expression on his face. Zax did not hold Merly’s distant attitude against him since he came to learn, during their last school year, that he has a weak stomach. Zax appreciated Merly’s effort to ask how he was.
“Yes”. Zax answered and straightened up. In the first place, apart from the candy bar, Zax did not eat anything since the evening before the search.
Seeing his friends surrounding him and Merly coming over with eyes up, it took Zax a moment to examine their facial expressions and where they were. Their faces had a contrasting mixture of worry, satisfaction, nausea – the only one which Zax could understand – and excitement. Zax eventually could not figure what his friends were and he did not want to make any assumption since he did remember that they currently participate in the Great Earth’s Core Pursuit. However, they now were near tunnel three hundred and twelve, which led back to cave one hundred and thirty nine, and on the ground around them was a big pile of small rocks. There were also many other participants also appeared in the vicinity, talking to each other, waiting or returning from the search.
A silent groan left Zax’s mouth when he stood up and dizziness struck his head.
“Drink water”. Weysey, who was the tallest of the all group and sturdiest among the eight, apart from Zax, supported Zax as he drank from the bottle while the group walked away from the smelly puddle.
“Why are we back?” Zax asked.
The other seven members of the group behaved discreetly and withdrawn. They picked a remote place to talk, a hundred meter from the tunnel, where others could still see them, but not hear, and it seemed that this was what they wanted.
“Before we tell you, you should also eat something”. Zushi said.
“I’m not hungry”. Zax frowned. Not because it could be seen that he still was not feeling well, but because of the thought of putting food in his mouth.
“You should eat anyway”. Zushi insisted and the others tried to push they left over snacks to Zax.
Forced by his friends and without the strength to resist, given that all the muscles in his body were sore, Zax picked the fruity jelly beetles that Mi offered him.
“Now can you tell me why we are back? How much time we have till the end of the event?” Since he could answer the latter question, Zax looked at his time bracelet and was astonished to discover that there were less than fifteen minutes for them to spend before having to go back through the tunnel.
“How can it be?! We just were searching in the river!” Zax called in disbelief.
“You don’t remember?” Dane asked. “That’s because you’ve done it again, did you, Zax?”
“Done what?” Zax asked baffled.
“You used big sister Zetsa’s trick to find Earth’s Core and it made you go crazy, again”. Serah answered.
“Big sis’s trick…?” Zax asked himself and finally recalled. I dawned on him what possibly happened, though, once more, he was not sure why. “I picked up the Earth’s Core in the river, my Soul Sense did not detected anything odd about it or the environmental essence. Then why? Why I don’t remember anything that happened afterwards and why…” The one question which boggled him the most, the one that was related to the distress that was in his voice when he woke up and called the word “Wait”, Zax could not make up the words to express. At most, he found a way to rephrased it. “Why I want… No! Need to go back?!”
“Let him see, Zushi, let him see”. The voice of Merly pressing Zushi to show him something brought Zax back from his pondering state.
“Don’t shove me, Merly. Fine, I’ll show him. Don’t be impatient!” Zushi shoved Merly back and turned his head to the others. “Let’s make it look like we are eating snacks. I’ll show Zax and all of you act normal”.
As if it was decided in advance, Serah, Dane, Anet, Mi, Merly and Weysey, each opened up one of his or her snacks and tried to hide Zushi and Zax without looking suspicious.
Zushi handed Zax his backpack that he carried for him when the move from where they previously were. “Open it up”. He grinned and told Zax.
Doing as Zushi said, Zax took back his backpack and saw what was inside it that everyone wanted him to see.
“An Earth’s Core?” Zax said quietly and raised an eyebrow.
“Bet Miss Zetsa did not teach you that…” The grin on Zushi’s face spread to a wide smile. “You can’t assess the quality of an Earth’s Core, hehehe…”
“Of course I can’t. Only Mist Masters or stronger can assess the quality of an Earth’s Core”. Zax responded defensively. What his friends thought him to be? As a Mist Master, his big sister could definitely tell the quality of an Earth’s Core, but he barely was qualified to be called an F level Mist User and even that, only from the neck up.
“They think big sis taught a method to find out the quality of an Earth’s Core because I lied about my Soul Sense…” Zax understood.
As if to reaffirm his conjecture, Zushi continued. “No. If you were able to do that, then the rest of us should really be ashamed of our uselessness”. Though he said it as a joke, if Zax was old enough and wiser he could tell that the ten years old Zushi was content with such words.
“Is this the Earth’s Core that I picked in the river?”
“One of them”.
Zushi’s hand moved quickly and covered Zax’s mouth. His smile appeared more genuine than a moment ago. “Unfortunately, among the seventeen that you found – including the three in the forest – this one was the only medium quality E level Earth’s Core”.
Feeling his body shaking and his eyes bulging out from their sockets, Zax did not believe that Zushi could lie over such a sensitive subject in such a sensitive time. Not even for an incy wincy joke!
“An E level Earth’s Core”. Zax gulped. “H… Ho…”
‘How?” Zushi helped him and in return Zax only nodded.
Zushi closed Zax’s backpack for him and the others relaxed their “Normal” postures.
“Fourteen from the seventeen Earth’s Cores that you found were of high quality. How you managed to find so many great Earth’s Cores… ask the Supreme Rulers”. Zushi leaned on the cave’s well, started eating his own snack and delved deeper in the explanation. “I’m assuming you don’t remember running like a crazy person in the river, picking up small rocks and Earth’s Core and piling them in your backpack?”
In response, Zax shook his head.
“Thought so… I also didn’t see how it started, since I joined Anet to see if she really found an Earth’s Core right after you found one. Dane told us that when you reached down for the Earth’s Core you suddenly began to panic, ran and jump around. By then, not only me, Anet, Serah and Mi noticed. All the other participated watched you and said that you went crazy because of the event’s pressure. We, on the other hand, saw you act weird before and could connect your behavior to the technique that Miss Zetsa taught you”.
Zushi went on, telling Zax how they chased after him, met the event’s Guardian who at first Zax tried to hit, but then he knocked him out and rebuked the rest of them and in the end and unpredictably – after showing them the features of the time bracelets with a three dimensional device – allowed them to search near the unsafe zone for an hour. He then continued telling how the event’s Guardian came back with none other than Miss Zetsa to carry them back with the help of a mysterious technique, which they performed together, that made them float behind the event’s Guardian and Miss Zetsa as they rushed through the cave to the entrance.
“When we got here Miss Zetsa was the one who noticed your packed backpack, though Weysey was the one who carried it”. Zushi finally reached the part about the Earth’s Cores and there was not a lot of time till they had to go back to cave one hundred and thirty nine. “Can you imagine her face – our faces – when she emptied your backpack from the rocks that you picked up and then revealed to us a batch of fourteen Earth’s Cores? No to mention us seven, even Miss Zetsa was dumbstruck. Luckily, the event’s Guardian left before Miss Zetsa found the Earth’s Cores, or that at least was what Miss Zetsa said without explaining why. She just told us not to tell anyone about the amount of Earth’s Cores that you found or how you found them”.
“Maybe it’s forbidden to pick up more than one Earth’s Core”. Weysey on the side speculated.
“I thought so too, at first, but the disciplinary supervisor didn’t mention any rule about it”. Zushi said. “Doesn’t matter now, we all have great Earth’s Cores and the rest aren’t here anymore”.
“Not here?” Zax asked.
“After finding the Earth’s Cores in your backpack, Miss Zetsa assessed the quality. The best one among them you got. The second best Earth’s Core was a low quality E level Earth’s Core, then four high quality F level Earth’s Cores and eight medium quality F level Earth’s Cores. We played rock paper scissors for the Earth’s Cores. Anet won the low quality E level Earth’s Core. I, Weysey, Serah and Dane won the four high quality F level Earth’s Cores and Mi and Merly got two medium quality F level Earth’s Cores. The rest Miss Zetsa took when she left”.
“A medium quality E level Earth’s Core…” Zax sighed after a while of silence.
“Thanks to you we all got lucky”. Zushi said and got up.
There was less than two minutes to the end of the event for their group and a new batch of participants began to emerge from the tunnel while those of Zax’s batch were ordered to head back by the meticulous timer of their time bracelets.
As they took off the time bracelets and throw them in a crate with wheels that stood on a rail beside the entrance to the tunnel, the old lady, the attendant at the entrance to cave zero thirty nine, typed on a twenty five centimeters screen the names of the returning participants and their results, though, she done so without paying particular attention to anyone but the screen in her right hand and whenever a participant stepped forward to sign himself she simply nudge him away.
“Zax”, Zushi had one last thing to add. “Miss Zetsa also told us to inform you that you’re in big trouble for breaking your finger”.
On the other side of tunnel three hundred and twelve, in cave one hundred and thirty nine.
“Participants of cave eighty seven, join here in rows of forty…”
“Participants of cave three, join here in rows of seventy four…”
“Participants of cave one hundred and forty one, gather up here in rows of fifty…”
“Participants of cave twenty five, assemble here in rows of forty…”
The seven representative Guardians were already waiting to the participants under their care. When the last participant of each group arrived from the tunnel, the representative Guardian led his or her group to one of the two square buildings on the premises.
Inside the square building that Zetsa led the group of cave twenty five were thousands of square floor seats. Each upholstered seat was fifteen centimeters deep into the floor and had a seating space large enough for only a child to sit in. The margin between square seats was wide enough for adults to walk on one at a time, and so, alongside the thousands of seats were a hundred or so brown uniforms staff members of the event, spread around holding large sealed cases.
“Please hurry them, the future Mist Users, to any of the seats”. A female staff member in brown uniform with a yellow ribbon that stretched diagonally across her left shoulder to her waist and read: “GECP CORE INSTURCTER”, approached the representative Guardians and asked of them.
Immediately after, of the four of the seven groups that finished the search and came by the same square building as Zetsa’s group, the representative Guardians guided the young participants to their arranged seats.
“Everyone sit, sit in your places. Those who did not fare well in the hunt raise your hands. Staff members will now distribute compensatory Earth’s Core. Take them and hold them with two hands beneath the navel – no need to raise your shirts – that is where your lower dantian is located. Sit in a cross legged position and wait for farther instruction”. The fairly young staff member, core instructor, amplified her voice with her mist energy and a white disciplinary aura that signified the cultivation of a C level Mist User, Core Breaker, emitted from her.
Following the directions of the core instructor more than fifteen hundreds hands went into the air, some just standing like columns, others impatiently waving.
After a short ten minutes every young participant held beneath his or her navel the brownish sphere that was an Earth’s Core, in anticipation to finally become a Mist User.
“Greetings everyone, my name is Jergaria Lus. I am one of the two core instructors in this year’s event, and that means that my job in the last phase of the Great Earth’s Core Pursuit is to guide you through the process of becoming Mist Users”. Jergaria, the core instructor, spoke confidently in a soothing tone. “Now, you all should know that once a mental link is subconsciously formed between you and the Earth’s Cores in your hands, the Earth’s Core will merge with your body and enter your lower dantian. Since this can happen anytime, I ask of you to not get nervous. You should have learned about the phases of the process at school, but in practice it’s quite different, therefore, you have me, the staff members around you and your representative Guardians as support”.
Jergaria halted to read the complexion and atmosphere of the young participants. “Before we begin”, the results were the same every time, so the right words were already at the tip of her tongue. “Let me say that I know that all of you are tired. It has been twenty four hours since you took the nutrition tablets and the energized effect currently wearing off”.
Some of the participant looked at Jergaria as she talked, some stared at their Earth’s Cores and some sat with closed eyes.
“Do not let the fatigue wear your spirit. When you’ll start the first phase, Link Forming, it will fill your body with vigor. Your untapped Qi will, for some, become noticeable and for a short time, which should be until you’ll start the second phase, a surge of new found strength will renew your wakefulness”.
Jergaria waited for the spread staff members and representative Guardians to insure the readiness of the young participant. To not distract anyone from her, the only voice in the square building was Jergaria’s, therefore they answered her by nodding slightly.
“Beginning the first phase, Link Forming”, Jergaria announced. “Hold the Earth’s Cores in your hands near the lower dantian. Allow it to touch the body below the navel, through the shirt should also be fine. With eyes open don’t concentrate on anything particular in your line of sight, but try to imagine the shape, texture, color and even the inside mist of the Earth’s Cores that you found or received. See it in your mind’s eye as if it’s right in front you, I repeat, imagine the Earth’s Core, do not look at the one that you hold and do so with eyes open”.
Zax listened to Jergaria’s voice. “Link Forming” He repeated how she named the first phase and thought about how obscure its process sounded. Nevertheless, unlike the many others which sat around him, it was not the first phase that caused the frown to his face.
“The Link Forming”, Zax figured it out from the start. “It’s soul energy”.
How many like him were in the short history of Kingdom Earth? Coreless ten years olds with soul at level F… One who cared would not even bother counting with two hands.
Zax felt it, how threads of soul energy moved around from his consciousness to various body parts and retreated, like a living being looking for food in odd place, using only the sense of smell. Zax could also now feel the attraction that radiated from the Earth’s Core, the vile attraction that the threads of soul energy were drawn to.
When the first thread made contact with the Earth’s Core, Zax could so easily and disgustedly feel and hear it, a high pitch “Ding” sound that echoed in his consciousness and shook the foundations of his soul.
“It’s not it” Zax somewhat determined without even knowing what was that he found wrong. “No! No! No!” More threads reached for the Earth’s Core, the prestigious medium quality E level Earth’s Core, and the grievance grew with each Ding. But Zax, who with a simple thought could take control on the living threads, without understanding what was it that unnerved him so much, could not bring himself to stop the process he, since his earliest memories, wished for.
The Earth’s Core was finally there, in Zax’s dantian, like in many others participants and the first phase was complete.
“That’s what’s amiss, this Earth’s Core, I can’t… I can’t…” With the Earth’s Core in his dantian it became well defined to Zax. “I can’t keep it”.