(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you spot them, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!!)
Kain woke from a dreamless sleep with a heavy, groggy head.
The darkened room he found himself in was not his. There was very little light entering through the closed windows, leading him to believe that perhaps, it was nighttime currently. Couldn’t tell for sure, though – his vision swam dangerously as he moved his head a bit on the pillow. Felt like he was under some type of sedation, a heavy one at that.
Seriously, his head felt really, really heavy, as if he was drunk on absinthe or something. Unsure of what brought him out of the peaceful slumber, Kain managed to slowly turn his head to see around him.
On the corner of the room, he saw Emma. She sat on a chair, resting her head on the top of a table with a small, lit oil lamp. There was a pool of drool on the table top directly below her mouth, but otherwise, she seemed fine.
Funny, that. After the run-in with the giant red wyrm, she was a nervous wreck who hardly came out of her room in one of the abandoned – or should that be uninhabited? – buildings, shunning all contact with the outside. Admittedly, there weren’t too many people to interact in this empty city to begin with, so there was that.
Anyways, she emerged a few days later, sounding as if the past couple of days hadn’t happened at all. According to the Old Man, “Let it be.”
So Kain let it be and never asked her what the hell had happened to her.
Currently, that wasn’t the most pressing issue, though.
He couldn’t really remember how he got here, in this foreign room, sleeping.
Groggily, he sat up and tried to rub his face. That’s when he noticed a dull but hard-hitting pain from his right hand. Grimacing in pain, he looked down to see it wrapped tightly in improvised bandages, with bits of plant matter sticking out of the gaps. A thick aroma of medicinal herbs wafted in the air. Even the individual fingers were bandaged and he couldn’t even bend one. But never mind that, there were hints of blood stains here and there. Some of it looked old, some looked recent, fresh.
At first, he was genuinely confused. In his groggy mind, this bandaged hand didn’t seem like it should be there as if someone played a practical joke on him while he was asleep.
Then the memories flooded in.
He remembered his mangled hand, copious amount of blood oozing out of all the broken skin and muscles. He remembered the indescribable pain and the panic he felt. He even believed that his hand was lost forever.
His grossly destroyed hand reminded him ever so briefly of the bandit raid from all those months ago. He was able to bury those ugly scenes deep in his subconscious, not recalling them until now, but the sight of his injury brought some of it back to the fore.
All in all, he’d rather forcefully suppress those traumatic things out of his mind. He’d successfully gone and done that before, so why the hell not.
He shuddered softly. He took in several deep breaths, trying to settle his mind. However, a sense of heavy, drowsy grogginess assaulted him almost immediately. Funnily enough, that was able to distract him away from the unpleasant memories trying to resurface, forcing his scattered focus to gather on trying to analyze his current status.
The grogginess must be…. from these plants, Kain thought inwardly, as he dazedly sniffed the bandages. Even moving this much took a lot out of him. The pungent and strong smell certainly made things worse with the level of stupor he was trapped in.
He fell back on the bed and stared at his bandaged hand, trying to think back to the moment when it all went to hell. Although his thought process was impaired initially, he found it increasingly easier to recall as he focused harder.
Hmm, what went wrong back then? I thought…. I thought I got everything under control. Oh, right. My body, my flesh, isn’t strong enough to contain the explosive power of ch’i. That is the only explanation I can come up with. The ch’i flows inside my body, and when I tried to make the air explode, my fist blew up from inside out.
……..Geez, it’s a good thing that I didn’t have a lot of ch’i to begin with – who knows what would have happened if there was just a bit more? Instead of this mangled piece of hand, I’d probably end up looking like Damien!!
Kain mused bitterly as he raised his right hand high in the air. It looked so small and frail. Seeing this weak limb, he had to admit, he was a moron, getting all conceited and cavalier towards the dangers of his training regime. He could blame no one but himself for his current predicament.
No, wait a sec. It’s also that Old Man’s fault too – who the hell in the right mind subject a six year old kid to a danger situation like that?!
Kain groaned softly, his anger rising up a little. But soon after, he slung back in the confines of the bed sheets and sighed weakly.
Oh, well. Who am I kidding? He did say I shouldn’t try it out just yet. My control of ch’i and body is simply too underdeveloped to allow something as audacious as firing off a Soul Crusher or whatever it’s called.
He rolled on his side, trying to get comfy. At the same time, he wondered whether he could get his hand back to how it was, with no loss of mobility. And the sense of touch, too. These thoughts made him realize how important a person’s limbs were. No, more accurately, he realized how important, or frail, a human’s body was in relation to what it had to go through every day.
Hmm, is there a way to strengthen my body and take less amount of damage somehow?
Kain bit his lower lip, mulling his current options. Growing up fast and building up muscles sounded like the normal thing to do. On top of that, he could ingest lots of medicinal plants just like how it was in those Chinese web novels. In that way, he could become the proverbial Superman, able to withstand the exertion of ch’i manipulation.
Emma could help with ’em plants gathering. Playing to the archetype of an Elf, her extensive knowledge in all things plant-related even surpassed even that of the Old Man, to an extent that he had to rely on her at all times. That said a lot.
Okay, that’s what I’ll do in the future. But, uh, what about now?!
As he rolled on the bed this way and that, his thoughts got muddled. He was getting drowsy again – the medicines doing its trick.
As his eyelids got heavier, a small lightbulb went off in his head.
Oh, wait a sec. Can’t I use Body Enhancement Spell to strengthen my body when trying to use a Soul Crusher?
His mind was fading into a nothingness real fast. The sleep beckoned so sweetly that it was getting nigh on impossible to think at all.
I…. I think it’s doable. I should…. I should, uh, try it sometime….
And with that thought, he fell back into another dreamless slumber.
Remarkably, it took only a couple of weeks to completely heal Kain’s hand. The potent cocktail of hard-to-pronounce medicinal plants and ch’i related rehabilitation by the Old Man greatly accelerated the treatment process, to a degree that the modern medical science would go green with envy.
Kain had almost 100% of his mobility back in the right hand, and only the occasional phantom pain bothered him a little now and then. But otherwise, it was business as usual.
During the healing process, the Old Man emphasized the ch’i circulation practice. In order to do that, Kain was told to meditate like there was no tomorrow. Which was fine by him, since this activity served a dual purpose.
One of them was the obvious thing of ch’i practice and all that, but the other was to retrain his senses on controlling Aeterna. Ever since he started training under the Old Man, he had to neglect this important part of his arsenal due to either being too fatigued to do it, or not having enough free time on his hands for it.
All of that was just simply an excuse, of course. If he was serious about it, Kain could’ve found himself time to do it. Now that he was serious, nothing would stop him, not even the Old Man and his insistence on not using Aeterna.
So, Kain didn’t tell him of his decision to secretly work on expanding his control over Aeterna as well – all for the goal of perfecting the Body Enhancement spell and casting it over his body.
Now with his hand largely cured, he was ready to give it another go, this time slightly more confident of his chances. The sun was shining, the breeze was chillier than before but still quite pleasant on the skin, and there was a flock of birds flying overhead, chirping and singing. A nice day out, no doubt.
Even better, the Old Man was not around. He said something about a business that could not be delayed any longer and went off to somewhere. Again, Kain tried his luck and asked if he could go together but was refused outright. So, in the end he had to be satisfied with asking the Old Man for a favor of stopping by at Riverfield and talking to his family, or at least confirming that they are doing okay.
The Old Man said, “No promises, but we shall see.”
And he left.
With that, Kain too was left to his own devices. He’d not waste this opportunity, grabbing it with both his hands and make the most out of it.
Kain and Emma were not in the usual place of the fort’s open ground where he’d train. Because her reluctance to enter the fort’s boundaries, that was always going to be impossible. No, they were instead in another large structure that had seen better days.
In its prime, the building must have been some sort of Colosseum, judging by the architectural style and the layout of the walls that were still remaining. Now though, it was just a fallen husk of its former glory, with only a fraction of it still standing.
Whatever the case may be, it was also the second-most open area in the city next to the fort, so it was a good place to train here. He wasn’t being conceited when he figured earlier on that he could accidentally destroy a part of the city, its heritage if he wasn’t paying attention. So, better to be safe and muck around in a place with no obstacles, like here.
He sat down on the ground first and tried to meditate. Emma was off to doing whatever that she liked to do normally, and was out of his earshot. Never mind the fact that she was supposed to babysit him, nor the fact that she made a promise to teach him how to forage successfully in a forest like Tetamus.
Kain crossed his legs and closed his eyes. Next, he took in a deep breath, and mentally slowed his heart rate down as that would make it easy for him to feel the flow of blood in his vessels, his ch’i in the meridians, and of Aeterna around him as well as within his Pool.
It took a great deal of concentration to achieve all these, but after a while, he could faintly feel them all. It was kinda like rubbing a super-thin strand of single hair between his fingertips – it was there, but irritatingly indiscernible and too faint to get a firm grasp on.
But the fact was, they were there, and he could feel them. That was the result of all the hard work he had put in during the last few weeks. A good starting point, he told himself rather smugly.
First thing first, he manipulated Aeterna so it would slowly form the spell. Then he carefully laid it over his left hand, greatly fortifying it. Not trusting his handiwork, Kain then laid five more layers of this new Body Enhancement spell he cooked up on his flesh.
With this spell, not only his muscles, skins and bones would be tougher, but they also should be regenerate a heck of a lot faster. The activation of this nameless spell chewed up quite a bit of his Aeterna reserves and required a huge amount of concentration in order to maintain it, but he thought that it was better to be safe than sorry.
He remained like this, trying to get used to controlling the spell. After all, he needed to control the flow of ch’i as well while doing this tough spell at the same time. Currently, his mental capacity was not advanced enough to handle both activities.
After about five minutes, his Aeterna reserve became perilously close to running out completely so he released the spell. It would not be funny if he blacked out from what he coined as an Aeterna exhaustion. There probably was a proper term for it in the outside world, but since he could not confirm it, he’d stick with this title for now.
He rested while recovering the Pool. While doing so, he began on controlling the circulation of ch’i inside his body. Doing this was a lot harder than controlling Aeterna. For one, he could easily see Aeterna with his naked eyes. But the same couldn’t be said about ch’i, as he had to totally concentrate and try to see it with his senses rather than relying on his sights. Not easy.
As it was, ch’i circulated along his meridians automatically like blood pumping through his veins. Having this image in his head certainly didn’t help him at all, though – blood couldn’t consciously be controlled by a person’s will, so how could he hope to control something like ch’i? Without his three dan tians, it’d be impossible. Even with them, it was still a tough ask.
He closed his eyes, filtering out all the unnecessary noises and focused on his dan tians. He imagined there were three small pools filled with clear liquid and interconnected to his body via numerous tiny rivers. Then he imagined gently guiding more of the liquid into his meridians connected to his left hand.
Unlike before, Kain was extra careful as he had no plans to lose his left hand this time around. He definitely learned his lesson. He sent only the most minute amount of ch’i possible from Xia, and let it stew there for a while, trying his best to control it. He did this until he recovered his Aeterna reserve.
Then, he recirculated the ch’i back to his dan tian and worked on the wielding of Aeterna instead. Alternatively repeating the two exercises, Kain spent a good few hours doing nothing but these two things until he was totally wiped out from the mental exhaustion.
By the time he was lying on his back with no energy left, Emma returned from wherever she was, her hands full of vegetables freshly dug out from the ground. Kain could tell that by all the dirt still clinging to them.
“Are they suppose to be our lunch?” Kain inquired dryly.
Emma nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah. Aren’t these just wonderful? Look how healthy they are, so full of vitality and energy! Hmm? What’s wrong with you, little Master Kain?”
Emma peered at him curiously at his tired and slightly pale face as if she was studying a new specimen of an insect.
“I’m fine. Just a little tired, is all.” Kain waved her gazes off and sat up. He felt sore all over. Not 100% sure of why but having a few guesses, he managed to stand on two feet on his own strength.
“Well, alright. Don’t overexert yourself now. The Old Master will get angry, remember. Oh, that’s right, if you need help, you can ask me, you know. I can cast cool spells to refill your energy!! I’ve done it a few time before in my life, so you can trust me on this.”
Kain waved his hands again in haste. “It’s fine, Emma. Thanks for the offer but I’m fine.”
Emma shrugged her shoulders lightly. “If you say so, Little Master. Let’s just have a meal together, then.”
Not stopping there, she then proceeded to roughly brush his hair, turning it into a messy mothball. Seeing this, she giggled a little. “Maybe it’s time you get a hair trim, Little Master. Otherwise, you’d turn into a furball. Or, you want a style like that of an Elven male instead? Long and straight, all dignified and handsome?”
“Yeah, well, I like it short and uncomplicated, thanks. I definitely need to cut it soon,” Kain rearranged his unruly hair, shoving away Emma’s disruptive hand.
Emma just smiled and went about her business. Even though Kain had a hankering for something more meaty, he didn’t say anything. For one, he had no energy to complain, and more so, he knew how potent they were in restoring his depleted strength. She certainly knew what she was talking about when it came to plants.
Whistling like a songbird, she then proceeded to produce a steady stream of water to wash the vegetables right there and then. Kain saw a vast amount of Water Elemental Aeterna swirl freely around her and coalescing into actual liquid form, which was impressive to say the least.
“Oh, wow. Emma, you have an Affinity with Water Elemental, eh? That sure is convenient, you know.” Kain commented as he watched her from the side.
But Emma looked confused, as she tilted her head to the side. “Affinity? What’s that? Never heard of that before. Is that a name for a new type of food?”
Kain was taken aback slightly, but recovered his composure soon after and retorted. “Not sure how you ended up associating Affinity with food, but no, it’s not something edible. It’s actually…. hmm, you are not joking with me, right? You really don’t know what an Affinity to an Element is?”
She shook her head, not forgetting to continuously wash the veggies in her hands. The ground beneath her feet became wet and somewhat muddy, but she didn’t seem to mind it.
Kain was confused greatly now. “Wait, what? Don’t you Elves use Invocation, too?”
“Invocation? I don’t know what’s that, either. Sounds cool, though. What is it?” With her glittering eyes, she asked. If she wasn’t holding those wet vegetables, she would have leaned over toward Kain, maybe even jumping all over him and demanding to know.
Kain sensed genuine interest from her. She was not kidding at all. This made him confused even more.
“You… But…. Then, how did you make the water out of thin air? That’s by wielding Aeterna, right? Isn’t that Invocation?”
Emma shook her head. “Nope. That’s called the Nature Divine Arts. We Elves receive the blessings of the Nature Spirit so we can wield Aeterna freely with no objections. Although, now that you mention it, there’s something about Preference of the Spirits – where an Elf can receive blessings by various spirits related to different Elements. No blessing, can’t use that Element. Perhaps you were talking about that?”
At this unexpected revelation, Kain was shocked to the core. He really didn’t see this coming. Up until this moment, he believed that Invocation was just a fancy word for magic. However, with what Emma had said, this was obviously not the case.
No, wait a minute. Maybe I’m thinking it all wrong. It’s true that no one ever said that Invocation is magic and vice versa. It’s more likely that Invocation is nothing more than a school of wielding Aeterna, just like the different schools of martial arts teaches how to punch a person in the face.
When Kain thought about it this way, it became a little more clearer and his confusion slowly lifted away.
Invocation was the way for the humanoids under the Empire’s rule to bend Aeterna to their will, while this Nature Divine Arts was for the Elves, which was different with how the rest of the races handled Aeterna.
Why the differences, though? Why complicate things like this, I wonder? Back when I first met Emma, she emitted a strange fluctuation in her Aeterna Pool. I figured it was because her race-specific trait, but could it be because of this Nature Spirits or whatever?
Kain puzzled over it but he had no ready answers. He thought that maybe it could have had something to do with the lack of Elven presence in the Empire’s territories, or at least in the places he’d been to. Even in literature, Elves were not mentioned at all. Now that he thought about it deeply, it was a rather weird thing.
“Hey, Emma, are you aware of the fact that us Imperials use Invocation to wield Aeterna? We don’t know anything about this Nature Divine Arts or whatever.”
“Oh, really? That’s soooo weird. Isn’t everybody the same? No? Oh, yeah, I thought it was really curious seeing you wield Aeterna even though you had not received the blessings from the Nature Spirits.” Emma nodded as if she understood something important. “Wow, now this is a revelation!! The village elders back home always said that you Imperials were a barbaric and cruel bunch who needed to be killed on sight, but I never knew why. Is it because you guys use this Invocation thingy? Without any blessings? I mean, that would be impossible. Only the Fiends could do that.”
When she finished her monologue, she narrowed her eyes and began studying Kain top to bottom. There was a trace of hostility in the way she gazed at him, but after awhile, she sighed and shook her head, her expression that of a confusion.
“That’s funny, you sure don’t look like a Fiend. So, how can you wield Aeterna without a blessing? It’s so vexing, you know!! Us Elven children have to work so hard to gain the approval of the Nature Spirits and the blessings from them, yet you don’t have to? It’s not very fair, now is it?”
Kain could only smile wryly at her tantrum. It was better to let her say whatever until she grew tired of it. In his experience, most women he dated in the past were like that.
Although he got curious regarding one of the most popular cliches of Elves.
“Wait, how old are you this year, Emma?”
“Hmm? Me? Uhm, let’s see…. Uhm,” She began counting with her fingers, folding one by one after thinking deeply each time she did. After a minute or two of this, she said, “I’m pretty sure I’ll be 183 this year!!”
Kain nearly choked on his own spit. 183?! Holy cow. So the long lives of Elves are real!! And this means she’s older than me, Damien, Lizbeth, Kaleena, Katrina and Derrick put together!! Gee whiz, and she looks so young….
He sighed weakly after recovering from the shock. He did expect it, but still, to sit next to an 183-year old girl was something a bit hard to swallow.
“How long does an Elf live for?” Kain continued his questioning. Emma handed him the washed veggie and pondered slightly before answering him.
“Hmm, it depends. Us Boscage Elves live around five hundred years or so. But Terran Elves don’t live that long, maybe around three, four hundred? Maybe less? And High Elves, whew, I’ve heard that they can live well past a thousand years. One thousand!! Can you even imagine the kinds of stories you could tell if you’ve lived that long?!”
Her voice was contemplative at first, then it increasingly became excited towards the end of her explanations.
“Wait a sec, who the heck are the Terrans and High Elves?!” Kain asked urgently before Emma somehow found a way to drift off topic.
“Hmm? Oh, that’s simple, silly. Us Boscages live in woodlands, Terrans prefer to live underground or in plains, while the High Elves like high places. You know, like mountain tops or tall towers.”
Oh, Kain nodded inwardly, having formed a mental image of sorts after listening to this brief description. So, Boscage Elves are the hippies living in the forest, dancing around bonfires and busy being one with The Nature, while the Terrans are the Dark Elves who live underground and mine for stuff, while the High Elves are the prototypical Elves from the popular media. Got it.
Kain bit the vegetable and began chewing it. Surprisingly, it was juicy and rather succulent, which was not what he expected. From the outside appearance, he half expected it to taste like a bulb of onion, but no, it’d be more correct to call it cassava-like.
Absent-mindedly chewing it, Kain failed to notice Emma still talking about various unrelated stuff about the different Elven tribes, thereby missing quite a few important tidbits in the process. If he knew, he’d smack himself in the face for that….
Suddenly, Kain felt a need to ask one more question. “What’s the relationship between Imperials and that of Elves? As far as I know, there aren’t any Elves in the Empire, nor does its people know of you guys. Is there a reason for that?”
Emma threw him a weird glance, before frowning deeply. “Hmm. Maybe you don’t know because Little Master Kain is too young? Hmm. Could it be, that no one has told you? Hmm. Maybe the memories of the past have faded away in other tribes? Hmm. That could be because only the Elves live longer than everyone else. Hmm. Probably…”
“Oh!! Right, where was I? Oh, yes. See, the thing is, Elves and humanoids went to a big war five hundred years ago. Back then, apparently there was no problem between the species but for some reason after the Fall of the Crystal, everyone started fighting each other. I don’t know all the details, but you could ask a High Elves or an Elven Elder of a village as they might know more.”
Emma gave him oh, well, that’s all I know kind of shake of her head, and began chomping down on her veggie.
“Is that it? You don’t know anything else?” Kain asked exasperatedly.
“Yep. That’s it. Sorry.” She shrugged her shoulders in a very French way.
“Oh, alright, then. What about that Fall of the Crystal, though? What’s that all about?” Kain asked since he thought he heard about it somewhere before, although not sure from where.
This time, Emma was stumped for sure. “I don’t know. I always meant to ask the village elders or even the Old Master but I forgot.”
“Old Master? What, are you trying to say the Old Man lived for five hundred years?! You know he’s a human, right? Humans can’t live for that long. It’s physically impossible!”
“Hey, why are you shouting at me for? All I’m saying is that the Old Master is really knowledgeable about the history of this world. You can ask him yourself, you know!! Plus, I’ve been with him for many, many decades, and he looks exactly the same as he was back then when I met him for the first time, as he is now!! Isn’t that a proof enough that he has lived a long life? Oh wait, you wouldn’t know that…”
Kain was left speechless at this revelation, another of such occurrence in as many minutes. She basically confirmed that he exceeded the norm for a human being’s lifespan. Of course, she could have embellished how the Old Man looked like all those years ago, but since he detected no dishonesty in her voice, he had to believe she wasn’t lying about it.
Jeez, then just how old is the Old Man supposed to be?!
Kain scratched the side of his cheek, wondering if all those impossibly overblown age descriptions in Chinese web novels were in fact, based on some sort of truth.
As soon as this thought arose, he dismissed it. Because it was not possible.
But wait, there are Elves with long lives. So, it’s not completely impossible, isn’t it? With Aeterna, I’m sure extending one’s longevity should not be a fantasy.
“Yeah, now you mention it, it’s kinda funny how the Old Master hasn’t aged at all since then, seeing that he’s not an Elf, nor can he wield Aeterna,” said Emma, rather nonchalantly.
“Wait, what? The Old Man can’t wield Aeterna at all?!”
“Hmm? Didn’t he tell you? No, he can’t wield it. He said he tried to learn how to a long time ago but just couldn’t do it. So, all these years, he never, ever used it.”
There was a sliver of smugness in her voice as she spoke. She seemed to be feeling superior in the fact that the Old Man told her something intimate but Kain had been left out of the loop.
Ignoring her, Kain fell into another deep thought. So, is that the reason why the Old Man didn’t want me to use Invocations during the training? I mean, it’s just my own conjecture, but having both would tremendously benefit me. Could it be that he’s jealous?
Suppressing a snigger, Kain returned his attention on finishing the vegetable. After the meal, he still had his quota of physical exercises to do.
Suddenly, Emma leapt to her feet and exclaimed. “Oh, my!! I completely forgot there was that!!”
Kain looked at her excited figure with a frown, as her sudden outburst nearly made him choke on the bits of the vegetable he was chewing on.
“Hey, hey, hey, little Kain, you wanna know more about the Fall of the Crystal and the war of five hundred years ago? Then you might as well follow me!! I’ve got something really cool to show you.”
“Over there,” said Emma, as she pointed out a large, flat building partially hidden from the view by other crumbling structures and overgrown vegetation. The building was on the other side of the city, behind the Tetamus mountain itself.
Since he had never come here before, the surprise was great once he realized how overgrown with weeds the whole area was. As matter of fact, almost the half of all he could see was covered in greenery, a stark contrast to the other side of the city he was well acquainted with until now which was quite barren and lifeless.
Outwardly, it didn’t look too remarkable, save for its enormous width. It was as if someone took a modern football stadium and then flattened it by pressing it from the top. Certainly, it dwarfed the collapsed Colosseum he’d been using as the training center until now.
“What is that place?” asked Kain, unable to figure out just what a structure like that could be used for.
“I don’t know. But it’s got lots of stuff inside. Come on, this way. The entrance is all caved in but I know a way in.”
Emma led him around the South-facing corner where the vegetation growth was less severe than other places. Here, the walls were bare and exposed. And sure enough, there was a doorway with a door missing. What’s surprising to Kain, was that the doorway itself looked somewhat…. modern, for a lack of better description.
For instance, it wasn’t made of stone, but of metal, just like the modern door frames. He peered over at the rusting hinges and saw the similar arrangements of bolts there as well.
Suddenly feeling rather incongruous, he hurried inside the darkened corridor.
Obviously, there was no light source and was pretty dark inside. Kain cast a Firelight to illuminate the way forward, with Emma taking the lead.
“Watch where you step, little master Kain,” so said Emma.
At first he didn’t understand, but it soon became apparent why the warning was needed.
The corridor itself was narrow. Just enough to let a couple of men to walk abreast. There were vines and moss of some kind crawling up the walls and the ceiling, but he could still make out the smooth, almost metallic like surface beneath the vegetation. Obviously, it was nothing like the fort with its exposed stone passageways.
Also, there were rooms along the corridor. Small rooms, big rooms, rooms the size of a modern office, all sorts of them.
And these rooms still possessed some of the furniture within, still standing after the god-knows-how-long. There were desks, chairs, cabinet-like things – either rotted beyond recognition or covered in vegetation and dirt.
As he and Emma continued to go forward, they arrived at a spiral staircase that allowed them to either go up or down. Unfortunately, Kain could see that the way down below was blocked off with a tangled mess of vines and whatnots. As far as he could tell, though, the staircase itself seemed fine.
“Going up,” said Emma as she lightly tread on the staircase, climbing up to the second floor.
The corridor greeting them up here was much wider. He got a feeling that the previous passageway was something akin to a maintenance access in buildings, allowing workers to enter hard-to-reach parts of the structure to do their respective jobs, whatever that may be.
This kind of feelings rose wherever he looked and observed. This building, the way it was laid out, its atmosphere after ignoring the millennia of decay all gave off the feelings of him walking inside a modern skyscraper.
He was beginning to feel regret for coming here now. Because, his almost-preternatural ability to sense troublesome events coming his way was going through a massive, full-on panic attack at the moment.
That could only mean one thing – that, yet another flag he’d like to avoid was being raised and he was walking into it.
As he mulled this silently, his foot inadvertently knocked on a debris rolling on the floor. When he looked down on it, Kain’s face paled.
It wasn’t a debris, but a cracked human skull.
He nearly jumped at that. He did scream out like a little girl, though.
Emma groaned after seeing his reaction. “Oh, no. I forgot to warn you about those. Yeah, so, um, there are a few of those bones lying around here. So, be careful, alright? It’s best not to disturb the dead.”
“Emma, what else have you forgotten to tell me in the meantime?! Please, I’d like to know right now!! If there was something you should have told me, now’s a great time, don’t you think?!”
Emma pondered for a bit, her gaze slowly floating up. She didn’t slow down her walking speed, however, prompting Kain to hastily follow her.
They walked for a bit before she turned to him and smiled brightly. “I think there was something, but right now. I can’t remember. Sorry!!!”
If she said “Tee hee!!” and lightly knocked the side of her head while winking, Kain would’ve hit her. No, really.
Grumbling, he carefully stepped over whatever was on the floor. Sure enough, more and more bones were littered all over the place. Some of them were in such a fragile state, a small prod turned them into dust. Some others, though, were in a much better shape than the others, like that skull Kain had stepped on earlier.
Logically speaking, this made no sense. Assuming that these bones were laid out here exposed to the elements for hundreds of years, maybe thousands, then how come some were weathered terribly while others were not?
He had no answers again. Having no answers had fast become the norm for him nowadays so he didn’t feel too frustrated.
Bending down, he slowly picked up what he imagined was a calf bone of a human being. Inwardly he wanted to congratulate himself for being brave enough to do something so audacious. The previous him would’ve never done it.
As he studied the bone, Emma called for him impatiently. “Come on, Little Master. It’s not too far now.”
“Hold on, Emma,” Kain replied as he used his Aeterna sense to probe the bone. He felt…. nothing. No reaction.
Not too discouraged by this discovery, he then tried to sense it with his Shang. Only then, did he get another shock.
From the bone itself, he felt a minute amount of ch’i, hidden deep within the marrow.
“Eh?” Kain let out an involuntary gasp, which drew Emma’s attention as well.
“What is it? Did you see something strange?”
She approached him, tilting her head slightly.
“No, it’s just that this bone, it has ch’i in it….”
Kain murmured as he lifted it closer to the small ball of flame acting as the light source. His words trailed off at the end, as he remembered what the Old Man said before.
That he was fortifying not only his flesh and muscles, but his internal structures as well – organs, blood vessels, bones, and bone marrows.
In other words, his whole body would become a suitable container for ch’i circulation via meridians in his body. These meridians were not physical but metaphorical. Thus, they were not subjected to physical and biological limitations of a human body structure. They could go past his heart, for example, without hindering its ability to pump blood to the rest of his body.
Looking at it like that, then those meridians would also exist within his bones as well, not too mention the bone marrows.
Could it be, that these dead people were… martial artists? Qi gong practitioners? How the hell….
Kain grimaced in confusion. He felt like there was some kind of conspiracy afoot and that he was thrust into the middle of it.
“Hoh, ch’i is in those bones? Wow. Who knew?”
Emma looked at the bone in his head, studying it interestedly.
“Yeah, just a tiny bit. But that bit is making this bone really tough. Look how sturdy it still is.” Kain handed the calf bone over.
Emma received it and began waving it around. “Yeah, it’s like a high-quality Fiend bone items we used to have back in the village. Not bad. Never knew they were like that, though. Oh well. If I knew, then I’d have fashioned all sorts of useful items out of them already…”
She sounded a bit regretful for a missed opportunity, but Kain wasn’t sure whether that sentiment of hers didn’t clash with the earlier one about not disturbing the dead.
“What, you can’t sense ch’i?” asked Kain.
Shaking her head, Emma sighed. “Nope. The Old Master tried to teach me but just like him unable to wield Aeterna, I couldn’t.”
Hearing this, Kain nodded slightly. As the Old Man had said before, the physiology of this Realm’s inhabitants did not suit the requirements of practicing the ch’i-based martial arts. Emma was only one example, but seeing that the Old Man himself couldn’t wield Aeterna, this assertion seemed about right as it would be the case of higher Realm beings unable to wield Aeterna in compensation to utilizing ch’i instead.
Emma dropped the bone and sighed. “Oh, well. It’s not like I’m going to fashion a bow or arrows out of humanoid bones. That’s not cool, right? Only a devil or a Fiend would do something so morbid like that. Speaking of which…. hey, Little Master Kain, would you like to learn Archery from me? I already taught you how to swing a sword properly, so I want to teach the next thing.”
Kain couldn’t help but smile bemusedly. Her ability to change topics was still world-class. How did talking about human remains lead to learning how to shoot an arrow was beyond him, but she did it, and she was asking him whether he’d like to have a go.
“Sure, why not. After we get out of here.” Kain chuckled.
The two of them began to move forward once more, deeper into the widening corridor, until they arrived at a huge, open hallway reminiscent of a fancy office building’s foyer.
There were lots of vines and vegetation obscuring the view, but that was the vibe Kain got as he swept his gaze around the open space.
“Over there,” said Emma as she pointed to the lower floor.
They were on the proverbial catwalk if this was a modern building and if this hall was indeed a foyer. The place she pointed to would have been an information kiosk or a security checkpoint. Maybe even a reception. The ground had risen to the level of a tall desk, but dirt and vegetation covered it so he couldn’t tell what was underneath.
Enhancing his legs with Aeterna, Kain jumped down after Emma from the catwalk and approached the small…. hill. That’s what he decided to call it for now.
She smiled in anticipation and spoke. “Hey, now let me show you something amazing, alright?”
Then she plunged her hand in between the gaps of the vines covering the hill. Kain, being a shorty, couldn’t see exactly what she did.
She searched with the tip of her fingers until they brushed on the flat, smooth surface buried under all that vegetation. Smiling, she began haphazardly touching it.
What happened next took Kain by a huge surprise.
Because, out of nowhere, a life-like hologram of a sharply-dressed Oriental woman in her early twenties was projected right before him.
She smiled brightly and bowed, although as if the batteries were running out her image flickered intermittently.
Her badly synched words then echoed out from somewhere within the hill, surprising him one more time.
“Welcome to The Mirae Complex, where the bright future of all mankind awaits those who….”
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