Peering down from the edge of the cliff, I couldn’t help but grow anxious. The forest looked like one giant bush that spilled over the visible horizon, with the cluttered trees blocking any view of what laid below. Large birds and other fearsome winged species hovered over the dense collection of green, diving in and retrieving their meal every so often. What scared me more than them, however, were the occasional roars that echoed in the distance. I could only imagine how large they must be if they were able to shake or even bring down trees that blocked their paths as they traversed through the dense wilderness.
“This is where you will be training,” Windsom announced, his gaze still fixed on the forest.
“Of course it is,” I sighed, making sure that I had fastened the sack slung over my shoulder.
“Shall we?” After replying with a quick nod, the two of us jumped off the cliff, spreading mana through our body while trying to keep balance against the harsh winds that buffeted us.
Right as we were about to plunge into the scores of trees, I willed an updraft beneath my feet to decrease the speed of my fall.
As Windsom and I landed deftly into the massive realm of woodland, the atmosphere changed drastically. The ground beneath my feet was soggy, like walking on foam, and as I placed my weight down, the damp earth relented, hugging my boots and gently releasing them with each step I took.
My nose was bombarded with scents from the abundant foliage, mixed in with the underlying damp smell of moss, dirt, and decay from fallen lumber.
“You have given me everything except for the items in your bag, correct?” the asura confirmed, holding his palm out in case I’d missed something.
“Everything I own is in that dimension ring, which isn’t much. Anything else you wish to take from me? My clothes? A kidney or lung perhaps?” I quipped, looking around at my surroundings.
“Amusing,” the asura replied flatly, taking out a book from his cloak. “Now, since you were so adamant about the fact that you have complete mastery over your internal mana control—”
“I just said it wasn’t necessary to waste time training that explicitly,” I countered.
“Anyway, I will consider your level sufficient upon retrieving me these three things.” He pointed at the open book.
“Pelt of a raptor squirrel, the beast core of a silver panther, and the claws of a titan bear,” I read the list aloud, absorbing the black and white drawings of each of the mana beasts.
“... and these items will prove, somehow, that I am ready to learn more about the will that Sylvia left with me?” I handed the book back to him.
“In a way. Of course, on the condition that you do not use any external mana arts whatsoever. Ah, and you are to wear this at all times,” Windsom added, handing me a bell roughly the size of my fist.
“I really do have to question your idea of training,” I sighed again as I held up the silver bell, triggering a series of vibrant rings way too loud for a single bell to make.
“Let me know when you’ve collected all of the things on the list by breaking the bell.” He turned around, preparing to leave, but stopped. “Oh, and I recommend getting the items in that order.”
Just like that, he left, deserting me in this forest with nothing but a bell, some blankets, and a leather pouch filled with fresh water.
I had no idea what exactly Windsom was trying to accomplish by having me hunt for these items, but if that was what it took to speed up the training process, then that was reason enough.
“Let’s see. First up on the list is the pelt of a raptor squirrel,” I mumbled quietly to myself. It seemed simple enough, aside from the fact that I had to capture one in relatively good condition.
I pondered over the three items that Windsom had requested. If this was some form of a test to measure my internal mana manipulation, that meant that these mana beasts possessed skills, which required me to have a certain level of mastery over them. The fact that it had some vague resemblance of a squirrel most likely meant that it was near the bottom of the food chain. If that was the case, then to protect itself, it probably had some defense mechanism, like most prey, to avoid getting eaten.
According to the picture, the raptor squirrel looked like any other squirrel, except with more prominent hind limbs, three, thin tails, and beady eyes. Observing my surroundings, I had yet to see any wildlife.
Concentrating mana into my eyes, I enhanced and increased the range of my vision. Nothing.
I was constantly on the lookout for any indication of fauna while making my way towards the other end of the forest. Several hours had passed but still, no signs.
“This damn bell!” I yelled louder than I had meant. As if constantly mocking me, the bell rang at the slightest movement I made, deterring any creatures from coming near me.
As the sky darkened so did my mood; all that I had to show for the passing of time was my frustration at the lack of progress. Deciding to call it a night, I made camp out of the hollow trunk of a fallen tree.
To my irritation, sounds of small animals, hidden in the veil of darkness, came out around my campsite as soon as I laid down.
As I tried to get back up, the tinkle of the bell reverberated loudly through the otherwise silent night, causing the creatures to scurry away swiftly.
I’ll start fresh tomorrow, I decided with a sigh, burrowing back inside my blanket as a chill breeze flowed through the log I was nestled in and through my clothes, shriveling me up.
A ray of light somehow made it past the layer of leaves and branches and onto my face, rousing me from my slumber. I stayed hidden inside the log, though, keeping completely still so as to not agitate the bell. However, after a few hours, it was evident that the bell wasn’t the only reason the raptor squirrels were keeping clear of me.
The mana beasts that were at the bottom of the food chain had probably developed extremely acute senses that made up for their lack of vision to avoid predators, which was why, even when I was nearly asleep and completely frozen, they still kept their distance.
For now, hiding my presence was my best bet at hopefully luring the raptor squirrels out. How to catch them—I would have to figure that out after.
After a brief search, I found a decently situated shrub close to a clearing that was thick enough to hide inside. Making myself as comfortable as possible within the brittle branches and prickly leaves, I waited.
Rescinding all of the mana I had continuously circulating my body, I stayed motionless and observed. Because of the assimilation with Sylvia’s will, my body was a lot sturdier than most humans, but I still felt a bit vulnerable leaving my body unprotected in these unfamiliar grounds.
Minutes soon bled into hours as I waited. It wasn’t enough to retract your mana; I realized that it was absolutely necessary to clear your mind and intent when dealing with prey. I could feel my breathing soften, almost disappearing as I exhaled per the occasional breeze that flowed by.
Finally, the fruits of my labor showed as a tiny snout popped out from one of the other bushes, curiously sniffing around for signs of danger. Soon, a few raptor squirrels scuttled about with their three tails continuously twirling around like antennas, desperately trying to find some food before predators caught wind of their presence.
I knew it was impossible to acquire the first item on my list today, so I used this opportunity to test some things out. I started by emitting just a bit of mana; the raptor squirrels responded immediately by raising their hind legs to elevate their tails. They had obviously sensed the minute fluctuation of mana and were a lot tenser, some even scurrying away.
As I kept testing their limits, I learned three things: the first was that leaking even a bit of purified mana didn’t necessarily drive them away, but alarmed them to a degree where it would be impossible to try and catch one. Exerting too much purified mana would undoubtedly lead them to immediately flee. The second was that internalizing mana inside my body did not trigger their alarm signal, but too much concentration and focus did cause my intent to bleed out, causing them to scatter. The last thing I learned, and perhaps the most useful, was that external mana flow did not startle or even prompt them to take notice.
I learned this as I sat, hidden, meditating. When I was absorbing the surrounding mana, there were no signs of agitation from the raptor squirrels. It was only when I began actively purifying and condensing the mana that they started to notice something was wrong.
The testing took the whole day since I had to change locations every time I made them flee, but with these three observations, I finally had something to work with.
I wonder if Sylvie is doing okay with her training, I thought, wrapping my blanket around me back inside the hollow log I decided to use as a makeshift tent. The same worries that I always carried ran through my mind as soon as I had some time to think. How was my family? How was Tessia? How was Elijah? Was he even alive? If so, would I ever get the chance to save him?
It seemed like I had been lost in my thoughts through the whole night, but at one point, my eyes snapped open to the soft glow of the morning sun.
After packing my scarce belongings, I filled my pouch with a puddle of morning dew that had formed from nearby leaves and made my way to a clearing.
Today’s goal wouldn’t be observing or even catching a raptor squirrel. I wanted to test a little idea that I had based on the three observations yesterday.
As I stood in the center of a small clearing surrounded by plants, with mushrooms I had picked up along the way that raptor squirrels ate, I put my theory into action.
Because my physiology was that of an augmenter, the mana channels, responsible for effectively spreading purified mana from my core throughout the rest of my body, were much more prominent than my mana veins, which were used to absorb unpurified, atmospheric mana into the body.
However, for this technique, I had to balance the output of purified mana from my mana core through my mana channels and the input of atmospheric mana through my mana veins.
With a perfect balance, I should be able to utilize mana without anyone, or anything, being able to sense that I was. That was in theory, of course.
My mana veins were naturally much more under-developed compared to my mana channels, so I started by matching the output of mana to the amount that I was able to input. The feeling was somewhat similar to when I first learned Mana Rotation from Sylvia but much harder.
The longer I practiced, the more evident it became that it wasn’t as easy as I imagined. A certain finesse was needed to accurately come to the point of equilibrium between the two opposing actions, despite doing it while standing still; attempting this while moving would be a whole other mountain.
My perception of time had gotten lost somewhere in the middle of my practice, but to my surprise, when I opened my eyes for the umpteenth time, there were finally raptor squirrels eating from the pile of food that I had picked up.
However, my delight was brief, because as soon as my concentration slipped, they were immediately aware of the mana fluctuation that I had been trying to camouflage.
“Yes!” I pumped my fist. My pace wasn't as fast as I had wanted it to be but it was still progress. One of the downsides was that my mana supply ran out… fast. I would be able to practice this for only a few minutes at a time before I had to stop and resupply my mana core.
Even the fact that I was almost at silver-core stage didn’t help because of the excess mana being thrown away at the improper utilization of this impromptu technique.
The next morning, I kept to my routine and practiced in the middle of the same clearing. It wasn’t until the fourth day that I felt like I had enough control to try moving while keeping up this technique.
By the end of the week, I was able to move around slowly, but because of the bell tied to my waist, even when they couldn’t sense mana, they fled. But I’d already thought of this. If all it took were hiding my presence, I wouldn’t have needed to find a way to utilize this technique.
I needed to master this technique in order to use mana in bursts, pouncing on the raptor squirrels before they could react to the sound of my bell.
Drawing a line in the soft dirt and positioning myself in front of a designated tree as my target, I practiced.
I stopped right when my bell rang. My goal was to reach the tree by the time the bell chimed. To do this, I needed to utilize enough mana to instantaneously move at a speed fast enough to not shake the bell, all the while balancing the input and output flow of atmospheric mana and my purified mana to camouflage my presence from the raptor squirrel’s tail.
“Again.” I turned and walked back to the starting point after hearing the bell.
“Again,” I repeated to myself.
As I continued, I realized that I was essentially aiming for something similar to the technique Kordri had once used when he was sparring with me. Controlling mana flow and power while manipulating your presence to either hide or emit it, throwing off your opponent’s senses.
Erasing your presence by using the barely traceable atmospheric mana to mask the output of your mana, and instantly gaining speed to reach your opponent. Was this the skill that Windsom had been trying to test?
Again, I would try, and again I would fail to reach my goal. But with each attempt, the distance between the tree and I shortened before the bell jingled.
It was just one step, but so much concentration and precision went into getting it even partly right.
However, this single, instantaneous step, coupled with the form of combat that I had been taught by Kordri as well as the sword art that I had developed myself, could undoubtedly become a valuable trump card.
I remembered how disoriented and helpless I had been when Kordri had used this skill, erasing his presence as he attacked, while the next instant, he would emit his presence only to shift positions and throw me off. Although the asura hadn’t used his mana in the same way as what I was attempting to do, his innate power could be easily comparable to that of someone in the silver core stage.
“Almost,” I encouraged myself, positioning myself for another attempt.
I wasn’t sure how many hours had passed since the dense cluster of trees covered most of the sky, but soon, I sunk against the tree.
Days passed by as I continued practicing, until...
I laughed meekly in victory as I stared at the depressed, dirt trail that I had made from the days of mastering this skill. While the rest of the ground was littered with leaves and broken twigs, only the thin trail I had constantly been dashing back and forth on was paved clear.
I tried getting up, but my legs trembled in protest, too worn out to carry my weight. Still, I felt good for the first time in a while since coming to this godforsaken forest. “I’ll wipe out those stupid raptor squirrels to extinction,” I declared triumphantly.
What is the boy planning? I thought to myself, keeping a fair enough distance from him. I had left him unattended for two weeks, thinking it would be plenty of time for him to have caught a raptor squirrel.
From the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to find him in this forest without the help of the bell I had given him, it was clear that he had mastered erasing his presence. Despite this, Arthur had yet to catch a single squirrel.
The raptor squirrels were swift and highly perceptive. Since their eyes were bad, they relied on their sharp sense of smell to sniff for food and their tails to sense any mana fluctuation or even movement in the area. If their tails detected a high concentration of mana or even a minute change in mana levels in the area, it would be difficult for even an asura to catch one.
However, beyond that, the raptor squirrels were rather simple-minded. If the boy stayed motionless after erasing his presence with some bait in his hands, it would have been easy for him to catch one. Yet the boy had laid out food in front of him, instead.
Well, he was able to grasp the necessary skill that I wanted him to learn, I shrugged, but for some reason, my gaze was still glued to the boy, as if waiting for something astonishing to happen.
The boy stood unmoving as he continued to wait patiently for a raptor squirrel to draw near.
In the blink of an eye, the boy had suddenly disappeared and reappeared in front of the raptor squirrel with his hand stretched out.
“He…” my voice trailed off in awe.
Right when the boy was about to grab ahold of the raptor squirrel, however, the bell I had given him rang and the raptor squirrel darted away just outside of Arthur’s grasp.
“Gah!” the boy yelled, obviously frustrated as he kicked the pile of food he had gathered to lure in the raptor squirrel.
There was no way he could move at that speed without using mana, but...
I couldn’t sense it.
That meant he wasn’t simply just erasing his presence by withdrawing his mana and hiding his intent. He had been effectively using his mana while covering it with the pure mana surrounding him.
Mirage Walk. It was a rather crude shadow of it, but Arthur had definitely just succeeded in the first step of Mirage Walk. It was a movement technique, to put it simply, but it was also much more than that. Mirage Walk was the essence of what made the Thyestes Clan reign over all of the other clans within the Pantheon race.
For a mere human boy to be able to grasp the fundamentals for a mana art that even took me a year to grasp… and this was with Kordri secretly teaching me despite his Clan’s strict secrecy regarding their mana arts.
For him to be able to get this far just by watching Kordri...