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“Oh, this can’t be good,” Damien grimly whispered to Michelle as he stared at the twenty-plus caskets arranged inline on the ground. The lids were open, allowing all the observers to peer inside.
Inside, cold bodies of men and women were seen. Even more worryingly, in five of the caskets there were young children lying in there, all no longer with the living, their faces pale and twisted in pain.
Surrounding the caskets were men and women of various races, shouting at the top of their lungs. They held various tools of farming, as well as one or two crudely maintained weapons. Their eyes bloodshot, the level of anger flowing from each of them was unsettling to say the least. A slight push would be all that’s needed for the violent madness to break out and sweep over all those present here.
Standing in front of them, in between the bloodthirsty crowd and the Academy Checkpoint were the two dozen grim-faced guardsmen, nervously holding their lances and spears tightly. Wearing the same uniform as the ones outside Lafayette branch of SOIR, their usual arrogant and aloof demeanor was nowhere to be seen at this moment.
“Bring out an Elder, now!!” One of the crowd shouted at the guards. “I don’t care who, someone better come out now, this instance!! Or there will be murder!!”
The crowd around this man churned and seethed in unison. Their blood-thirst rose to a new level, seemingly closing in on that point of no return.
Michelle’s eyes flickered worriedly as she scanned the crowd. As she and Damien went in deeper within the mob, they also noticed not only the overwhelming presence of anger and murderous hatred, but of unprecedented grief as well.
“Can you tell me what happened here?”
Damien asked a man who looked like an Adventurer. More than that, this person seemed to be a bystander and not involved with whatever was going on at the moment.
The Adventurer shook his head. “Not really sure. All I know is that, these folks came from the newly developed area just South of here. Apparently, there was an accident of some kind, and Invokers were responsible. Beyond that…. I haven’t a clue.”
Thanking the man, Damien moved on. Because he wore a light leather armoring, and was equipped with the saber, Frostbane, hanging on his hips, he certainly looked the part of an Adventurer himself and drew very little gazes his way. As for Michelle, she also didn’t wear the usual garb that Invokers wore, making her more or less a neighborhood aunty in appearance.
As Damien got nearer the front of the angry crowd, one of the guardsmen stepped forward, his hands resting on the hilt of a longsword by his hip. From the way other guards stole nervous glances at him, Damien figured he could be the captain of this particular post, tasked with wresting back the control of the situation.
He looked unsettled, sweaty and ready to draw his weapon if things devolved in the wrong way. He addressed the crowd, with what seemed to be his best effort at sounding stern.
“Listen, every one of you. This is not a proper way to lodge a complaint against the members of SOIR. Fall back, and do not block the way!! Your presence here is illegal, and we WILL use force if necessary. Fall back, I say!!”
“Fall back? Are you serious? You stupid fool, get out of our way now!! Or else, in the name of Eternal Flame Goddess Aaromaeir, we will burn this place down!!”
“Yeah!! Burn it down!!”
“Burn ’em all!! They deserve the divine punishment!! To hell with ’em!!”
Damien grimly looked at those shouting out the harsh words and inciting the already incensed crowd. One or two were genuinely with the mob, but there were some who didn’t seem like they belonged here. They were dressed to blend in, but to his eyes, spotting them wasn’t too difficult.
However, spotting them and doing something about them were two different matters altogether. Infuriatingly, the provocateurs hid among the angry mob, darting in and out and constantly changing their position, making it difficult to pin them down.
Damien estimated that there were at least a couple hundred of people here, maybe more, and that made tracking the suspicious ones through the crowd harder than necessary.
Meanwhile, Michelle asked another man who stood next to one of the caskets that held a boy no more than ten years old.
“What has happened to this boy? What happened to the others?”
The man, half buried in grief and the other half in murderous fury, didn’t even look at her, but still answered, his voice roaring out like a lion.
“A damn group of Invokers, in the name of their research, fed my son poison!! They fed all these people, saying their medicine would make them feel better!! And now, they are all dead. Dead!!”
A cold glint of suspicion flickered past in Michelle’s eyes, before something resembling calm was restored in them. Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward and knelt closer to the boy’s casket.
“Hey?! What do you think you’re doing?”
The man roared, which drew the attention of the mob almost immediately.
Damien knew this could become real messy if not handled right. He quickly stood beside Michelle, his left hand closely hovering around the hilt of Frostbane. He was ready to unleash the powerful weapon if it needed be.
He judged that excluding a handful of Adventurers and those men who went around inciting the crowd, the rest of the mob consisted of nothing more than regular common folks with no combat training. It’d be bad if he were to cut any of them down even under the current circumstances.
So, he decided to exert some of his Gold-ranked Adventurer’s aura on the mob, push them back and let Michelle do whatever she was trying to do.
“Let the lady take a look. No harm in that, right?”
Damien’s tone was icy and dry. Normal people felt cold sweat breaking out involuntarily as if they were being pressurized by a horde of finely-honed swordsmen. Even the boy’s father was astonished by the pressure, and stumbled backward, his mouth hanging loose.
Trained Adventurers, as well as the inciters’ faces, showed a glint of surprise at the display of hidden strength from him.
Ignoring the commotion around her, Michelle went to work. She was one of the most preeminent Invokers of this generation when it came to the matters of medicine and healing Invocation spells.
Her Affinities with Water and Wood Elements allowed Michelle to practice a certain type of spells where she could analyze the type of chemical compounds in pretty much anything, provided they were of biological in nature.
Right now, she was trying to ascertain just what kind of so-called medicine was administered to this boy, if any. She placed her left hand on the cold forehead and softly murmured a shortened Requisite Words chant, inaudible to anyone except to herself.
“Willows of whisper, disperse and surrender.”
A wane azure colored light emitted from her palm and sunk into the body. Michelle opened her right palm and gazed into it.
Soon, a window of information began appearing on her open palm. Information regarding the composition of the so-called medicine, broken down to its fundamental composition and chemical make-up.
Seeing this, one of the inciters exclaimed from among the crowd. “Hey, look at that!! She’s one of ’em bloody Invokers!! I bet she knows who did it, and now is protecting the guilty!!”
Damien grimaced. The bastard was too far for him to cut down without involving the innocents. The crowd’s bloodthirst was rapidly redirecting this way, and so he had to think of a way to defuse the situation quickly.
If Michelle hadn’t stepped out to examine the body, then his headache would have lessened considerably. Not that he blamed her on the matter – after all, for some reason SOIR and its members were being maligned here. She wouldn’t take that lying down.
She was a proud Invoker, even if she sometimes acted like a slacker. The tumultuous road she tread to become what she was, made her very proud of all that she had achieved. That road wasn’t hers alone to tread either, and she knew that every Invoker had to walk a painful and difficult road, just to have a chance at grasping his or her dreams.
To her, only Invokers, or at least people who tasted the bitterness of the similar level, were qualified to lay insults at other Invokers. That’s it. If there was an injustice committed by a group of Invokers, then she’d make sure those involved would pay.
But if not, and the accusation was proved to be false, then she’d unleash her fury at those who pointed the finger. She was a firm believer of if you want to accuse someone, better be ready to face the equal amount of pain you wanted to dish out.
It was easy to see where a part of Lizbeth’s temperament originated from.
“Congeal, and reveal.”
Michelle finished her chant.
The floating window of information rose up in the air, then suddenly, with a gentle swirl, changed into an azure-colored illusory and indistinct figure of a person, lying on its back. Many gasps echoed out at the same time when it happened.
“That Invocation…. could she be….?”
The guard captain gaped in astonishment as he remembered this particular spell being performed. To his knowledge, only one person could use it, and that was Michelle Matis Banovsky, a former Grand Elder, currently an absentee, and totally, utterly, highly revered member of SOIR.
He wasn’t the only one who recognized the spell, though.
One of the faces belonging to an inciter turned ugly, after encountering an unexpected factor to their plan. He quickly shouted at the top of his lungs.
“Everyone, quick!! That woman is trying to destroy the evidence of their wrongdoing!! We must stop her at all cost!!”
Damien frowned. He gripped the hilt tightly as the mob surged forward. At the same time, the guard captain raised his voice at his subordinates.
“Men!! Protect Master Banovsky at all cost!! Forward!!”
Damien’s expression grew worse. Sandwiched between the two mobs, he was now firmly wedged in the worst possible position.
On one hand, he had to protect Michelle. It’s not that she needed his ability to look after herself, but regardless, it was his duty to do so. On the other hand, he could not injure the mob of regular citizens. Well, not too badly, in any case. One or two broken bones would be fine.
The complication, however, was the guardsmen. If they jumped in on the fray, then it was possible deaths might occur. The level of training was far too different here, even with the mob of angry citizens outnumbering them. The backlash from this clash would be rather substantial, in other words. SOIR would lose a lot of face here, and that could lead to further complications down the line.
He had to make sure no one died here. That was a tall order.
But he was going to try, anyway. Too many people he knew and cherished have died around him. He’d be damned if he let the strangers start dying around him too, if he could help it.
He glanced at Michelle, right next to him. She was too absorbed in examining the illusory body floating in the air to pay attention. Asking her to evacuate wasn’t going to work when she was that deep into solving the mysteries of human body.
Damien decided. He’d do whatever he could, and if it became little too hectic, then he’d evacuate with Michelle in tow.
He had to maintain a certain area of influence, where he’d be in absolute control. Damien imagined drawing a wide circle around himself, longer than an outstretched arm’s length, but a handspan shorter than what would be like with his saber, Frostbane, drawn.
This circle was his area of influence. This sphere demarcated his effective range of movement as well as which attacks he needed to defend against. If an attack entered this area of influence, he’d have to parry, block or dodge it. If not in the area, then he didn’t have to bother. And when an enemy entered this area, then he’d have to take him or her out. Simple as that.
In a fight involving a mob, no matter how many there were, he only had to pay attention to four different directions at once. Front, both his sides and the back. These four directions were the only place potential attacks could come from.
If there were more than four, all that could accomplish was interfering with each other and reducing the overall attack power and speed greatly.
Damien didn’t draw his saber, as that would mean he might end up cutting a wrong person in the heat of the battle. For now, he’d keep it sheathed until the right moment.
The first unlucky person to invade his area of influence was a guardsman holding a spear. It’d be more correct to say his spear invaded the area instead. He was making a beeline toward the dead boy’s father, who happened to be the closest to Michelle as well.
Although the boy’s father wasn’t a threatening figure, nevertheless this guard figured it’d be better to eliminate a potential disaster early on. Damien disagreed.
He lightly kicked the spear’s tip as it invaded his area of influence and altered its trajectory. As a result, the guard stumbled and missed his target. He looked astonished and looked at Damien confusedly, but he didn’t hesitate and swung his weapon over in the father’s direction again.
So, Damien pushed forward, keeping low, and elbowed the guard in his stomach. That took the man out of commission.
Next, this time a citizen wielding a pitchfork. Damien pushed forward again, deliberately making the man enter his area and thus keeping him in check. Less than a blink of an eye later, the pitchfork flung to the side and its owner toppled over on the ground.
Meanwhile, the world around him became a madhouse. Guards engaged the incensed mob, and blood began flowing.
Frowning further, Damien looked at Michelle again. She was still knee-deep in her thoughts while gazing at the illusory body. But, she was explaining things to the boy’s father. Encouragingly, the man was listening attentively, occasionally nodding, even.
Damien’s focus had to move to somewhere else when he heard a scream nearby – and noticed that one of the guardsmen was cut down by an inciter he had marked earlier on.
The bastard had a cold, ruthless grin as he brandished his well-maintained shortsword.
However, when their eyes met, the inciter narrowed his eyes, then shifted his gaze over at Michelle. A cold, calculating glint flickered, something Damien noticed quite easily.
The inciter was quickly joined by another one of his colleagues, both of them sharing a whisper before heading towards Damien and Michelle’s direction.
Seeing this, Damien couldn’t help but smirk a little.
Oh, good. They are coming over here. That saves me the trouble of searching for them in the crowd.
One of the inciters was a tall, gaunt man wearing a brown shirt. He was the one who slew the guard, so Damien kept a closer eye on him. As for the other one that held a blackened iron rod, he was nondescript and unremarkable in appearance. Surely, a plus point in this type of work, Damien mused silently.
Ignoring the fighting breaking out all around, the two inciters approached rapidly, then split before arriving at Damien’s location. Partially obscured by the pandemonium going on around them, they closed in menacingly, cold smiles eerily etched on their faces.
However, Damien wasn’t alarmed nor did he really care. His eyes were like that of a hawk’s, keeping tabs on the positions of both his opponents.
The nondescript one came at him first. Damien correctly read the trajectory of this man’s iron rod and slightly adjusted his torso, dodging it effortlessly.
He followed that up with a low kick on the man’s shin, destroying his balance. By this time, the gaunt man was on his six, his shortsword flashing towards Damien’s back.
Damien stepped past the nondescript man, letting the strike that was meant for him land on the poor sucker instead. Of course, the unwitting victim screamed out in painful agony.
Before the gaunt man could recover from the shock, Damien moved. Pivoting on his front leg, he shifted his weight lower in one go, and by utilizing the momentum, let out a powerful kick aimed at the man’s kneecap. A loud cracking noise was the end result, the gaunt man collapsing in a heap, also screaming.
This scene drew in the other inciters. Out of the remaining, only one of them decided to try his luck in fending off Damien while the others took flight, slipping out of the melee and disappearing beyond the proverbial horizon.
Meanwhile, Damien used the gaunt man’s own blade to stab him on the shoulder, immobilizing him on the ground. His new opponent was slightly better skilled, as he swung his sword in a practiced manner.
Dodging to his side, Damien unsheathed Frostbane and took a quick slash in a rising arc. His Aeterna-reinforced saber easily sliced through the man’s steel sword as if it was made of paper.
Not stopping there, Damien switched the grip and held the sword in reverse. Thrusting forward, the pommel of Frostbane made a splendid connection with the man’s tummy, sending him tumbling backward and crashing into other, crazed combatants with a loud bang.
That interrupted all the fighting going on around.
Holding his enchanted weapon high, Damien shouted in his loudest voice. “That is enough!! Cease all your fighting, NOW!!”
An icy cold blizzard rose from the pale white blade, whipping the air like a mad hurricane, instantly sending chills down the backs of everyone around him. Excluding Michelle, of course.
Suddenly, a deathly still silence descended on the impromptu battleground. Even the pained whimpers of the injured were suppressed by the overwhelming aura of the unsheathed Frostbane.
While Damien was showing off his skills as a Gold-ranked Adventurer, Kain was showing off something else at the same time. His ability to moan.
“Just how long are you planning on beating me up, mister???”
Kain whimpered in agony. He was strung in the air, spread-eagled. Each of his limbs were suspended by the thick vines, pulled tight with no wiggle room at all. What’s more, there were four more vines that were in the midst of…. pounding him silly all over his body.
This had been going on ever since the Old Man took over the…. education of the boy rather forcibly.
“I told you, you imbecile. Stop, calling, me, mister!! Address me as your Shifu!! How hard can it be, eh?”
“….What was that? You want me to call you tofu?”
“You’re asking for it!!”
The ferocity of the vines increased and now, one of them even struck Kain in his man sack. Or his boy sack. Whatever, it was still very, very painful.
That took all the wind out of his sails, nearly doubling over in agony that was simply indescribable in all of the known human languages.
Day in and day out, all he did was to get beat by the vines while hanging in the air. The Old Man never gave out any explanations at all. He just ordered the infernal vines to just go to town with Kain’s small and frail body.
“How is this kung fu training?!”
Kain cried out more than once. His pained words fell on deaf ears. At least he was getting beaten under the sunshine, which was nice.
After the introductions were made, the Old Man brought Kain out of the underground chamber of the World Tree, and out into the open courtyard of the fort. This was where the beating was taking place. Not too long ago, Kain even caught the sight of Emma, silently watching from the shadows of nearby buildings, her facial expression alternating from that of a pity to sympathy and horror and other, complicated ones.
She was definitely thinking something along the lines of, better you than me, brother. Or, at least that was the impression Kain got.
Today was no different. After force feeding Kain some disgustingly vile concoction that was supposedly breakfast, the Old Man then commenced the daily beating like it was a par for the course. That was a double the amount of torture – the stinging pain besides, the food was the worst. But that was something to complain about later on.
He got beaten black and blue until noon, which was the time for lunch. Kain was lowered from his position, and immediately, he fell head first on the ground, exhausted from the undeserved ordeal.
“You like licking the ground that much, brat?”
The Old Man mocked him as he brushed past the prone boy.
Gritting his teeth, Kain pushed himself up and couldn’t help but realize something was a bit different with his body, besides all the constant aching, of course. It was hard to pinpoint just exactly what it was, but most certainly there was a change.
There seemed to be a bit more strength in him.
I must be hallucinating things….
Kain sighed bitterly and sat on the ground, trying to recuperate. Right on time, his stomach grumbled loudly, signaling to the world how empty it was.
“You not coming yet?” The Old Man grumbled from the entrance of the fort. “I can hear your tummy from here. Come, come. We haven’t got all day.”
Sighing once more, Kain forced himself to stand back up, again surprising himself with a surplus of energy in his footsteps.
His destination was the grand dining hall of the fort, where his meals were served till now.
It might have been grand once upon a time, but now, with the absence of any and all furniture it looked barren and forlorn. The signs of decay and time were visible everywhere, the tumbling vines failing to disguise the slow decline of the fort itself.
In the middle of the dining hall, a round table made up of vines stood, with a pair of stools, also made up of vines, waited for the arrival of the guests.
As soon as Kain and the Old Man sat, more vines sprout out of who knows where and brought plates of…. food out.
Kain had to wonder whether these vines were sentient enough to know how to cook. Judging by the evidence in front of him, the answer was a resounding no.
On top of the wooden plates, there was a rather suspicious looking lump of a thing that might have resembled a steamed bun that one could find in a Chinese takeaway. Except, it didn’t look anywhere as appetizing, nor did it smell as good.
It more or less looked like what a dung beetle might have rolled on the dry Kalahari desert. And it smelled just as bad.
“What are you waiting for? Eat up, kid.”
Nonchalantly, the Old Man picked his share up, and began chewing it, as if it was a matter of course.
Grimacing at the image, Kain replied testily. “Look, I have a name, you know. Please, stop calling me a kid, or a brat, or any of the other rude stuff you’ve been calling me with.”
The Old Man raised his eyebrow, a gesture that reminded Kain of Orion the Roc hatchling’s behavior whenever it was bemused of something. It was a case of “Like father, like son,” except with a bright red fiery bird instead.
With a voice full of ridicule, the Old Man asked him.
“Oh? So what should I call you, boy?”
“My name is Kai….”
“It doesn’t matter what your name is!!” The Old Man roared. When he did, the thingy he was chewing on came out like a shotgun blast. “That name is what you’re given in this world. Remember this, you were taken without consent. You were forcibly ripped off from all you knew and cared about. That name…. it signifies the grave crime committed against you!! While you train under me, you will NOT use that name, got that?”
Needless to say, Kain was stunned silent. He sensed real, naked anger in the Old Man’s hoarse voice, in his words. Instinctively, Kain knew not to argue with him about this.
Seeing the shocked look on the boy, the Old Man regained some of his lost composure. “Ahem. So, yes. In regards to your training, you must not depend on Invocation as well. I have seen you rely on that body enhancement spell quite often, but in truth, that’s only going to hinder your progress from now on.”
Frowning, Kain slowly picked up the food. “You say you’re going to teach me kung fu, although you look like a wizard. But why? You haven’t answered why you want me to learn.”
He stuck his tongue out and licked the surface of the disgusting ball of something. He was hoping that the flavor had improved since from the morning when he constantly complained about it. But no cigar, it still tasted like a sweaty foot.
“I said kung fu, but that’s because I guessed, correctly I should add, that you’re a no good foreign devil who knows nothing more than some Hollywood CGI, chop socky Hong Kong movie scenes. That’s not real martial arts. What I’ll be drilling in you, will be proper wushu.”
“You mean, like Wing Chun, Shaolin and stuff like that?”
Kain took a deep breath and bit off a chunk. His face paled but, since this wasn’t his first time eating it, he somehow could keep it down. Besides, this was the only form of food around here. He could go out and hunt for meat, but the Old Man wouldn’t allow it, saying given half a chance, he might make a run for it.
The pungent taste rushed over his tongue like a sandpaper from hell. His throat burned and his esophagus went into an involuntary gagging reaction. Keeping it down was a real torture, much more so than the actual beatings.
The Old Man looked at the boy’s reaction with a displeased face. “What’s the matter, boy? Still can’t get used to the meat bun?”
“This, this ain’t no dang meat bun!!” Kain spat out flabbergasted. “This, whatever this is, it’s absolutely horrid, you know!! What is inside this thing, anyway? And who the heck cooked this?”
“I didn’t cook it. But they did.” The Old Man disinterestedly pointed towards a wall behind Kain. And the boy nearly fell off his vine stool the moment he checked out what was there.
His reaction was understandable. Right behind him, obscured by the shadows, a dark, slumped-shoulder figure was hovering about a meter away from his back. And the closer he looked, with a bone-chilling sensation he noticed other dark figures. Dozens of them, in fact. He was absolutely creeped out at this juncture, ready to scream like a girl in a horror movie. Again.
What was worse, was that they were not humans, Caniduskins, dwarves or any of the recognizable races. Heck, they weren’t even the much-dreaded undeads.
Rather, they were formed by the vines that came from the World Tree itself. The vines twisted and turned and combined together to form vaguely humanoid shapes, complete with heads and arms and what have yous. However, as they were in essence vines, their movement was naturally very awkward, uneven, as if they floated over things like ghosts. Of course they did. How else would they creep Kain out even more than he was already?
To up the creepy factor to eleven, they even had…. faces. Eyeless, expressionless wooden faces. When Kain’s eyes met with one of the vine…. uh, man’s empty eye sockets, the wooden face contorted into what could only be described as an ill-advised attempt at smiling.
Kain swallowed a cold spit, and slowly sank back on top of his stool, frozen stiff. Seeing that the Old Man was totally fine around these creepy vine-like creatures, Kain couldn’t help but feel a begrudging respect.
“Uhm… yeah. So, uh, what…. what are these, uh, people?”
Somehow, Kain recovered some of his faculty, enough of it anyway, to ask the Old Man.
“Spirits. Spirits of the dead that have become a part of the One Tree’s Soul. Don’t wet your pants yet, brat. They are harmless as long as you play nice.”
“One tree? You mean, that big tree underground?”
“Yep. That’s the One Tree. Oh right, you kids are taught about a World Tree and whatnots. I s’ppose that’s not incorrect either. Anyways, be nice to it, as that thing feeds the entire area with Aeterna or whatever. As for the dead people, that’s a long winded story that’s got jack-all to do with you. I’ll tell you later. Now finish your meal.”
Kain pursed his lips, and slowly picked up the…. alleged meat bun off the plate. Taking another deep breath, he was about to take a bite when he noticed the vine man gazing at him with an expectant face.
Oh, c’mon man. Stop staring at me, dude!! I’m creeped out as is. You wanna give me indigestion or something?!
Half smiling, and half frowning, Kain waved at the vine man stiffly and took a tiny bite, trying his very best to not to show his disgust. The vine man looked elated, and happily nodded its head, before fading away into the shadows.
Grimacing even more, Kain sighed and took another bite. As he chewed, he did wonder how come he didn’t fall violently sick after consuming this thing before. If anything, he felt livelier and more energetic than before.
“Hmm. Wonder what’s in this so-called meat bun.” Kain muttered to no one in particular.
The Old Man must have felt like answering, because that’s exactly what he did. “Meat of some Fiends mixed with a cocktail of potent herbs and vegetables, all of them quite rare.”
Hearing this, Kain tilted his head. “That sounds more like a recipe for a medicine, not a meat bun.”
“Because this is exactly that, a medicine to fortify your flesh quickly.”
Kain was taken aback. “Eh? Really?”
“Yep, really. The herbs and meat of the Fiend will strengthen your body’s internal structure, the muscles, the bones – the whole lot. As for the beatings, they are not just me having fun here. No – they are reshaping your dan tian and the ch’i channels inside you. The thing about learning martial arts in this Fourth Realm isn’t a simple matter.”
Kain took a deep, meaningful look at the ugly, alleged meat bun in his hands. It didn’t seem like he was being lied to. There wasn’t a reason, at least he couldn’t think of one, as to why the Old Man might lie to him in this fashion.
Not noticing Kain’s glittering eyes, the Old Man leaned forward and put on a serious expression. “Let me tell you a little secret. You came from the Sixth Realm, while I came from the Seventh. Even though there isn’t much of a numerical difference, in actuality, the gulf between the realms is incredibly vast.”
Kain took another bite, this time a bit faster. He decided to ignore the terrible taste for now, if it meant acquiring a strong body quickly. After all, becoming stronger in order to escape from this hellhole was currently his number one priority, something he hasn’t even realized consciously yet.
“The realms above fifth receives very little Aeterna from the Mother Tree at the center of the Ether. Human bodies, therefore, went through some sort of genetic mutation where it’s just impossible to perform magical feats.”
Ether? Mother Tree? Kain raised an eyebrow at the terms he hadn’t heard before. But he didn’t want to interrupt the Old Man’s flow, so he kept quiet.
“But throughout history, there are records of men and women performing miracles. Those are humans not originally from the respective realms they were active in. Lower the realm, the thicker and purer the flow of Aeterna becomes. As a matter of fact, there is such an abundant amount of Aeterna that pretty much every creature born below The Second Realm can be classified as a god.”
“Wow. That’s super interesting.” Kain muttered as he swallowed the last chunk of the bun. Then he lifted the empty plate and waved it in the air. “Seconds!!”
Ignoring the boy, the Old Man continued. “Those creatures born in the lower realm, have found ways to traverse the Ether dividing the realms, and entered the higher realms to play gods and monsters of our legends. So, humanity of the higher realms found various ways of fighting back – one of them is martial arts while the other, science.”
The vine man suddenly reappeared from the shadows, looking rather happy. It carried another plate of the alleged meat bun, and left it in front of Kain, before scurrying away.
Kain dived in for another bite, as the Old Man carried on.
“The buns you eat, the vines I use to pound you – all of those will remold your body so it can be more conducive to ch’i absorption and integration. Your Fourth Realm body isn’t nearly as suitable, but with the method I have devised, soon you will be.”
“So that’s why you’ve been trying to kill me the last few days,” Kain mumbled as he chewed. Now that he knew this was good for his body, the taste wasn’t so bad. “You know, I figured you were into S&M or something.”
That last remark earned him a fat smack in the back of his head.
“I’m not finished talking yet. Ahem. Where was I? Oh right. The higher the Realm, the less amount of Aeterna there is, to a point where it’s hardly there at all. Like your Sixth Realm, for example. Out of seven billion people, only less than a handful would be able to wield Aeterna there. In Seventh Realm, there isn’t a single soul. But conversely, science and martial arts have made a great progress.”
“You said you’re from the Seventh Realm, right?” Kain asked, as he busily rubbed the back of his head trying to cool the stinging pain down. “How different is it, compared to the Sixth, where I’m from?”
“How should I know? I’ve never been to the Sixth, you dunce. But I’ll tell you this, in my world, the Seventh, we have already colonized a vast chunk of the solar system well before I was dragged in here. How about your world? You haven’t even gotten to the nearest planet yet, have you? Tsk, tsk tsk. So unmotivated.”
“Yeah, well, whatever. Following your logic, then in Eighth Realm and above, they would possess some seriously sick tech, right? And how many Realms are out there anyway?”
“Nine Realms. That’s it. And yep, you’re correct about higher Realms and the advanced technology.”
“Well, color me confused. How do you know all this?” Kain asked, his voice not hiding his skepticism. The Old Man was telling him stuff that could not be found on books. And unless he had personally experienced it all, how could he possibly know all of this information?
Suddenly, the Old Man’s expression reddened. He lightly coughed, clearing his throat, before urging Kain to finish his lunch so he could get back to the vine-induced beatings.
Seeing this, Kain’s skepticism grew a bit more, but for now, there was nothing he could do.
“Okay fine. You won’t tell me. That’s cool. But you know, you still haven’t told me why I need to learn martial arts in this world. What’s wrong with learning Invocation?”
The Old Man snorted lightly. “You honestly think the abilities wielded by the false gods would be effective in taking them down? Fat chance. You need ch’i and martial arts for that.”
“Wait a second. I think I just heard some, uh, strange things in what you just said, uh, shifu.”
“What strange things?” The Old Man shot back, irritated.
“You said something about taking down… false gods?” Kain asked nervously, his voice trembling in apprehension.
“What of it? Haven’t I told you already? That’s why I’m training you. Why do you think I was wasting my precious time buffing you up like this? So you can participate in Dancing with the Stars? This kid….”
Kain lost all his appetite suddenly. The alleged meat bun fell off his hands, and rolled on the table before splashing on the ground. Automatically, vines shot out from nowhere and began mopping up the dirtied floor.
“You…. are crazy!! I knew it!! Are you out of your mind?! Why should I fight these so-called false gods? They haven’t done anything to me!! If you got a beef with ’em, then YOU do something about that, instead of trying to use me!!”
Kain shouted until his voice cracked from the strain.That was the first time he raised his voice like that, to anyone, ever since he became the member of this fantasy world.
The Old Man’s face fell. It flickered grimly, before he sighed. “It’s your fate to be here. Think about it for a second, you fool. You were unceremoniously ripped out of your existence by a creature for whatever twisted reason. Then you were dumped here. And somehow, by riding the coattails of the river of fate, you are facing this old man, me, in this god-forsaken ruin, while your families and the loved ones are going through the shock and pain of losing you. Now, imagine that same pain and suffering, spread throughout all the Realms, repeated every once in a while whenever these false gods feel like it.”
Kain’s eyes narrowed. Angrily, he spat out. “Still, it’s got nothing to do with me. Are you asking me to become some sort of a hero, for a cause I don’t care about? Not interested. Leave me the hell out of it.”
The Old Man frowned deeply, his sighing becoming longer.
Shaking his head, the Old Man squeezed his fist tightly and spoke in a chilly voice. “You don’t have a choice, kid. I’ll hammer in all that I know in you. And when I’m done….”
He raised his head and stared directly at Kain, causing the boy to jump and then cower at the awesome pressure generated from that simple eye contact.
“….The false gods will be coming after you, on their own accord. To eliminate you.”
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.