Chapter 160 Ashen Afternoon
Edwin stopped on a big stone and moved the unconscious Maria onto his left shoulder, pushing some mana into her to wake her up. He had no other choice.
“What… Edwin…,” the woman said as he unsheathed one of his swords. Moving his right arm towards his mouth, he bit down hard and slashed his blade upwards. Wincing at the pain, at least his bite didn’t cause any more of it as he used his blood magic to close the wound on his partially removed shoulder.
Dropping the arm on the ground, he looked to Maria who was barely awake, stroking his cheek as tears streamed down her face. She looked to the ground and activated her magic, the arm vanishing with a chunk of the ground and all the blood that had dripped down.
“Now s… sleep.” Edwin said and sheathed his sword, holding her with one arm as he continued his dash.
Ilea felt the embers tearing at her skin, the heat merely a slight distraction as she held her eyes closed and concentrated on the feeling on her body. The ash was warm and comfortable, her Heat and Pain resistances making the torturous experience much simpler compared to the acquisition of her Fire Mage class.
Kyrian had looked for a cave with a metal vein inside to train his magic after they had cut down enough wood to burn ten or more bonfires for Ilea. She was lying naked and covered in the burning ash as she breathed in and out calmly, trying to feel the magic in the elements around her. It had taken her hours to even prepare the fire and now she was in the ash for at least as long. They had decided to build the bonfire in the forest half an hour away from her house to not arouse a monster’s or person’s suspicions. A big pile of wood was stacked ten meters away from the fire, neatly cut and placed by Kyrian whose metal magic really made the process as simple as one could wish for.
Ilea wasn’t exactly spiritual but in this world, magic truly existed. That fact made it easier to justify her current position and not think of herself as some crazy cult member sacrificing themselves to the gods of fire and pain. Her resistances made it easier for her to concentrate on the magic, on the feeling on her skin and the itching she felt that wanted her to use her Manipulation skill to connect to the ash. She didn’t allow it, wanting to understand the connection and the element beforehand.
It felt like the opposite and yet the same as her training with fire. More difficult as her body and mind wanted to simply touch the ash and move it around her, becoming the master of the element. And yet she wanted to understand it, just as she had forced herself to understand fire. Not its chemical or scientific composition, no, its magical nature. Something she was sure by now existed on earth as well, just to a much lower degree.
The way she had stared into the fire in a hearth, or the way the ocean made her feel, the waves moving up and down as they crashed into the earth and sand of the beach. The way they clashed against the boat in a fury and. She stopped her thoughts, concentrating again on the now as she tried to catch that feeling again, the feeling that made her mana and spirit connect to the very elements around her.
It felt stronger. The feeling of fear and overwhelming power she felt when she looked out into the ocean was real, graspable and true. The feeling of a roaring flame, consuming houses and living beings alike, the feeling of lightning, coursing through her.
The feeling of embers, the last sparks of life burning away, glowing in a sea of gray and black flakes. The last remaining life before it returns to nature itself. Flakes of black and gray as it floats upwards, carried by the wind.
Ilea opened her eyes, her hand moving upwards into the air, the ash on her body trembling at the sudden magic released by her. Not the usage of her skills but raw magic that exited from her body as she accepted the elements around her. Its magical nature and unlimited potential. She smiled as the particles of ash danced a little on her body.
‘ding’ ‘Ash and Ember Manipulation reaches 2nd lvl 20’
She stood up and lifted her arms, feeling the ash around her as it moved upwards, her connection to the element established as she allowed her magic to take over, to become one with the ash. She studied it with her Sphere, with the feeling in her magic as she held her eyes closed and the vortex of ash around her intensified, speeding up and cutting her body where it grazed her.
It had been a long journey to level her Manipulation skill and she truly felt like she had made a breakthrough now. She was at the highest point the skill would allow her to get, for now at least. Still she felt small, she felt that while her understanding had made a big jump, she was still just grasping at a sea of knowledge, a sea of power. Ilea understood then and there that in the long run, this would be her most powerful weapon and her most solid defense. The possibilities of her manipulation and creation skills combined meant the control of an element. Not the use of it, like her fire magic had been, it meant true control.
Time passed and Ilea felt her magic drain as she refused to activate her Meditation skill, allowing her body and mind to fully focus on the ash around her, as it cut into her body, the ground below and now even the trees further back. The stack of wood was covered in flakes, as were the trees and the snow still clinging to life in these high altitudes. An unknown time later, Ilea collapsed.
She coughed and started meditating, having lost the connection she had felt until but a moment ago. The ash that had been swirling around her fell, covering herself and the ground in a sea of gray and black. There was too much of it, way too much to come from the amount of wood she had burned. The answer lay in her mind as she checked the notification.
‘ding’ ‘Ash Creation reaches 2nd lvl 19’
‘Nearly there as well…,’ she thought and smiled before a shiver went through her. Not because of the cold. The connection to the raw magic and the element of ash was an experience incomparable to anything else Ilea had ever went through. Perhaps a spiritual awakening as she had seen portrayed in movies or books was the closest she could think of. She didn’t feel spiritual, nor did she feel enlightened, no Ilea felt powerful. She smiled as she held out her hands and made the ash rise once more, her control having increased a non proportional amount to the few levels she had gained.
There were things in this world not represented by numbers alone. Or perhaps numbers unseen? She asked herself but was happy non the less. Dale had taught her to trust in her skills more, to let them guide her. Perhaps this was similar. Still she had refused to use her skill while she was lying in the ash so her interpretation might be wrong. The ash still swirled and as Ilea lifted more and more of the element, she realized just how much there was around her.
The trees bent downwards by the sheer weight of it and the snow was gray instead of white for farther than her Sphere portrayed. In the midst of the gray vortex was Ilea, standing steadily as she ignored the small bleeding cuts on her body. In her hand was a sphere, a small black swirling sphere of ash. More and more of the surrounding element joined the small sphere as it got darker and darker, its form solidifying more and more.
She didn’t force it to become more dense, more solid, it felt to her as if she simply asked it to do so. The approach of her manipulation chanced from a forceful one, one that required her understanding, to a more passionate and trusting one. A weird feeling, especially now that she had come to accept the mathematical system in this world governed by skills, levels and stats. Again, she thought about the possibility of displaying emotions and feelings in numbers but ultimately gave up on it. She was neither an AI, nor was she a philosopher.
What she was, was a friend of ash. The thought was a little embarrassing, even to Ilea. Something near childlike but it was the closest she could describe the feeling as. The sphere in her hand was solid by now, easily mistaken for a black pearl or ammunition for a rifle. It was still around five centimeters in diameter, quite a big rifle that would be. She let the sphere become as small as possible before she opened a tunnel in the vortex around her, letting the little ball flash forwards.
She watched on with full attention and interest as the ball smashed into a tree with a thud. The vortex continued as the still naked Ilea walked through, moving the vortex to ignore her frame. The sphere was stuck in the tree, at least ten centimeters deep and to her surprise, still solid. This would easily be enough to kill a small animal or a human on Earth. And it was a ranged attack that used nothing but mana. Her bow, Ilea had learned, was a little inefficient to use in the midst of a fast paced battle. She needed time to summon it, to draw it and to shoot it. Of course with her necklace it wasn’t as big of an issue but something like the spheres of ash would be preferable against an enemy as quick as that demon or Trian.
Now it was simply a learning process to become able to use them in the midst of fighting a battle. She’d fight Kyrian whenever they had the time. For now Ilea felt like she could advance her control or rather cooperation with the element quite a bit more, even though the skill wouldn’t level again, at least until she could advance it to the third stage. Checking for third tier options left her with the expected result. None were ready to be advanced.
Maybe Dagon could help her with that. She decided to check out Ravenhall later and meet up with Claire as well. Maybe she already had some jobs prepared. For now she’d enjoy her little vacation but it wouldn’t hurt to snatch the good missions when they were available.
Looking at the sphere of ash in the tree, Ilea pushed at it a little harder, starting to spin the sphere where it had gotten stuck in the tree. A minute later she found her sphere actually getting further, the scent of burnt wood spreading into the vicinity. It was a slow process but Ilea did manage to break through the tree ten minutes later, the sphere of ash coming out on the other end and floating back towards her. The possibilities were certainly unexplored, she thought and slowly reformed the sphere into a small spike.
It was harder to reform the object as it was already rather solid. She felt that this would change as her understanding grew, regardless of her actual skill level. While the potential of her manipulation was capped for the moment, she knew for a fact that she hadn’t yet reached that cap in her practical appliance.
The range was another issue and Ilea decided to test it immediately, shooting the reformed spike forward with the highest speed she could muster right now. Her buffs at full power and her wings spread, she followed the projectile and found herself easily able to do so. A disappointment to the usage of her ashen magic yet a testament to her own power and speed. The spike slowed down after a while, Ilea having given up her control over it right after sending it out.
Still it moved for an impressive forty meters before noticeably dropping down and finally hitting the snow below. Ilea hovered it upwards again and spun it around with the power of her magic. One thing that was rather cool to her was the fact that she didn’t have to move her hands to use her control. Neither did she have to shout out any ridiculous sounding skill names to make it work. ‘It could be somewhat intimidating but Ash and Ember Manipulation doesn’t have the right ring to it…,’ she thought about possible new names for her attack as she created ash around her, forming new spikes and comparing the process to the original one formed from a mix of magically and normally created ash.
It was the same, at least as far as she could tell. The feeling both her five senses and the Sphere of perception gave her, indicated no differences between the now five spikes. She did have to create a substantial amount of ash to form the rather dense spikes but it took her less than ten seconds to form one. Plus she could form all of them at the same time. Ilea tested a little and found that she couldn’t form more than four of the same sized spikes in ten seconds, her Ash Creation skill limiting the process. Only forming one didn’t reduce the time either as it seemed her Manipulation skill was the bottle neck.
It was not possible for her to push more ash into the single spike in the same time frame. Again, Ilea felt like this wasn’t yet the limit and simple training and exercise could make her reach the actual cap of her skill.
Sitting down in the snow, Ilea sighed and lied down on her back. Arms moving to create a snow angel, she thought about all the growths she had managed to achieve in the past months. How many of her skills had yet to reach their actual cap. Putting her hands to her face, she put on some leather armor through her necklace. It wasn’t the newest anymore. Looking down on it, she decided to get a new set soon enough. Maybe there were traders in Ravenhall as well. Ilea was glad that at least Kyrian had stayed with her. He’d be great to train with and gain some experience with all her skills, especially the ash related ones.
“I’m back and still alive.” Aki commented, ignored as per the usual by the former healer.
Kyrian would be back again at her house when the sun would set. Flying upwards, Ilea looked back and found that she hadn’t caused a forest fire yet, deciding that she’d bath in ash again tomorrow. Maybe later if Kyrian didn’t show up, she after all had no idea how he could tell the sunset from the inside of a cave.
“Some breakthroughs with your ashen magic? Didn’t think you’d EVER focus on that one.” Aki said.
“Why the hell can’t you be useful before I discover something…,” Ilea mumbled but smiled, knowing the answer before it came.
“That would be terribly boring dear, wouldn’t it?” the dagger said as the two continued their way towards Ravenhall. The rest of the way in silence.
She did decide to keep the five spikes of condensed ash with her. They didn’t dissolve when she removed her control but after a while of travel Ilea found that they were crumbling a little. Storing them inside her necklace wasn’t possible either, likely because they were a magically touched element. Maybe if she put them into a box first, something to try in the city as well. If it was too much of a hassle, she’d simply create them on the go. Ten seconds wasn’t much, even in a dangerous fight. Summoning and opening a box was faster for sure but Ilea didn’t know for how long that would stay true.
She reached Ravenhall soon after, landing in the city directly. Repair works were in progress as mercenaries and soldiers of different specializations worked their literal magic to lift rubble, burn corpses and move stone. A squad of soldiers reached her just after landing, the leader with her hand on the sheath of her sword.
Ilea had her hood up and looked at the woman with a bit of a crooked head. ‘Ah yes. Where did I have it…,’
“You just landed right? State your name and business here.” the woman asked with a tense voice.
‘Didn’t we get a badge or something… all I have is this silver adventurer thing. I guess the armor is the usual tell of a Hand member…,’ Ilea thought as she looked through her necklace in her mind. She’d have to ask Claire about that as well. Being a member of a prestigious order and not able to identify as one is kind of useless. At least the soldiers were somewhat respectful at her high level. None of them could likely identify her, seeing their levels below one fifty.
“She’s with us.” a voice rang out from the top of a nearby building. A mage in black robes looked down on the group and continued his work right after.
“You’re… with the Hand then?” the woman asked, her hand still on the blade.
“Yea. Glad you didn’t attack.” Ilea answered, showing her smile below the hood. The woman gulped and let go of the blade, the others in the squad not looking much more relaxed than their leader.
“Cheers then.” Ilea said and walked off towards the center of the city, rather close from where she had landed.
“This job is killing me… one wrong word and we’re all dead…,” she heard the woman complain in a grumbled and quiet voice behind her.
“I heard a whole squad just vanished from the third company just yesterday…,” a man in the squad said. “… we’re bloody scouts for fuck’s sake…,” he finished and shook his head. Ilea wondered who they might’ve offended but having seen the power of the Shadow’s Hand and their warriors and mages when they faced the demon hordes, she could rather easily see some of them being offended enough to wipe out a squad of soldiers. Pricks were everywhere. At least not the whole order was full of them, she herself the shining example, the squad behind her alive and healthy.