Chapter 19 - Leaving the Unleaving Forest
"Look at these marks," Aaron said as he touched the scratches on a tree. "This is a Seven Elements Tree. It's known for its resilience, enough to resist even Seventh level spells, and yet, a beast scratched it multiple times. Why would a beast waste its time doing so if not as a show of power and dominance? And why would it show power and dominance in such a way unless it had some reason to do so? Finding such marks is one of the most obvious ways to determine a beast's territory."
He pointed ahead. "Look how the vegetation ahead is greener than in here? Just looking at the different shades of the same plant in different areas might be enough to estimate the density and quality of the mana in an area. Of course, the difference in shade might also be from other factors, like soil quality and sun exposure." He turned to Sara, who had just raised her hand slightly. "Yes?"
"Master, if this method is so ambiguous, isn't it better to use our mana sensitivity to determine the attributes of the ambient mana?" She asked.
Mark was used to military hierarchy and silently absorbed everything Aaron said, while Sara had been trained as an intelligence agent and asked some questions now and then.
"There are many situations where you might find yourself unable to use your mana sensitivity," Aaron replied. "You might be unable to feel ambient mana due to being poisoned; something might be hiding the true properties of ambient mana for whatever reason; you might be fleeing too quickly from a great danger, unable to analyze the mana in all places around you fast enough to choose the better path.
"But even if you find yourself in a situation where your mana sensitivity gives you the right data about the properties of mana in an area, and you can analyze it without hurry, visual cues are still important. If the vegetation in a place is greener or browner than your mana sensitivity tells you it should be, you will know there is something else to be wary of in the area. Always double-check everything if you can."
Sara nodded slowly, thinking of the ramifications of his explanation.
"Anyway," he continued, "Places with more or better mana will naturally be fought for by stronger beasts. If you're trying to go from point A to point B in a timely manner like us, you should avoid such places." True to his words, he turned to the left to avoid the greener area.
For the past two days, Aaron had been teaching Mark and Sara how to identify plants, animals, beasts, and points of interest in a forest. He was surprised to see that not even Mark knew much about it.
When he asked if this was something common or if the warriors from the Valdian Family were especially ill-trained for operations in the forest, Mark said he had never heard of warriors learning the ways of nature. Some mages did it, but warriors were only used to fight directly!
The more Aaron learned about the way things were done, the more he realized this was a stagnated society governed by people who lacked in everything. They did what was needed to keep their status quo and that was it, there was no one pushing to innovate. Mages might do their best in their researches, but how could they advance if they didn't travel to get inspired by the wonders of nature?
Earth's science could advance in a confined space, but when energetic manipulation was involved, power could only be achieved by understanding the mysteries of the nature, the Laws of the universe. One couldn't simply develop valid magic theories in a closed space, without living new experiences to give them insights on the secrets of the world and the universe.
He was the sole exception, someone who had risen to the top of a universe and knew all there was to know about it, except how to perfectly use mana. Even so, the moment he became a Champion, it took him less than four years to create every level 7 spell he required and if he ever found himself missing a spell to do something, he could create new Seventh spells in a few minutes.
Still, four years was too much time. To speed things up, he had been theorizing on how to use mana at higher levels. He estimated that if he became an Eminence right now, he would only take two months to upgrade his Myriad Arts to level 8.
He didn't require insights on the universe to grow stronger, he required insights on mana usage. Those could be equally found in books and by witnessing new spells. Learning a new magic theory was just as helpful as seeing the wraith use mana in a new way had been.
But that was him, everyone else required learning the Laws of the universe as much as how to use mana.
However, in the Fire Continent, mages avoided danger, focusing on social status instead; warriors were limited by the mages so they wouldn't get too powerful; mages from weaker countries were kept even more in the dark about certain magic theories; and klutzes were treated like sheep.
Once, when exposing his ideas on how society should be and how mages should behave, he had heard Mark whisper, "Herald of Change."
And he supposed he was that.
He planned to change the hell out of the Fire Continent, and then, the world.
Hundreds of ships flying the black cross of the Immortal Crusade suddenly blinked into existed on the skies above the Capital of the West Dukedom of the Valdian Kingdom. Each one was filled to the brink with mages and warriors.
Duke Eminence Ninefingers had been found guilty of being in cahoots with demons due to a pool of blood filled with Demonic Energy being found in his basement. Punishment was to be delivered today.
The people of the dukedom at large had lucked out this time. Since it was one of them who had informed the Immortal Crusade of the strangeness involving the disappearances of people, they were merely judged guilty of negligence for taking more than a week to report it, and not of complete treason by completely failing to notice demonic activities among them.
Thanks to their partial innocence in the matter, only the Ducal Capital would be stricken by cleansing fire, and no torture would take place. The Valdian Kingdom would temporarily get under the Crusade's direct authority, and a thorough demon hunt would begin, starting from their leader, Quasi-Overlord Firestar, up to the last klutz. Or so it was proclaimed.
A humanoid shadow stood atop the foremost ship, looking down with deep thoughts. Things were moving faster than they had in a long time. The shadow could smell change, and it worried it. In the secret history of the Fire Continent, there was only one thing change was good for: attracting the ire of the Fire Immortal.
The shadow could only do its best and hope that the Crusade could save the people in time.
It sighed. If only it had been sent to investigate the boy, it could make sure that he would be found guilty. But the one who was sent, Shadow One... It was too soft.
In its heart, the shadow prayed to the heavens that the boy was a demon, thus making Shadow One kill him, or things could get very messy very soon. Either that or that the boy showed enough of a potential that even the talent-lover Shadow One would understand how dangerous he was.
For now, it put the boy out of its mind and looked at the Ducal Capital below.
"Fire at will," it ordered. Fire and death descended upon the city.
On the night of the third day after the ambush, and the tenth day since they left the Valdian Kingdom, Aaron, Sara, and Mark left the Unleaving Forest.
"Not that unleaving, it seems," Aaron said with a smile.
"I'm not sure there's anything you can't do, Master," Mark said. Sara nodded in agreement.
"I can't win against Ascenders," the boy said. "As long as they put a Ninth level shield around them, I simply won't have enough power to hurt them. And no matter how good my spells are, I couldn't defend against Ninth level spells, either."
"But you can win against Eminences, while only being a Champion yourself, " Sara said. "That's impressive enough."
Aaron shook his head. He believed he could win against the Eminences he had seen so far, but if he found someone with good enough equipment or above-average capabilities, things could get tricky.
Instead of replying, he focused on the city ahead. It had stone walls twenty meters tall that looked sturdy enough, with drawings of arcane symbols that glowed silver in the dark.
"That is Lamia," Sara said. "A medium city of two hundred thousand people, all of them stuck into tiny cubicles they call homes. It's the last city of the Inner Circle of the West Dukedom, which is under the care of Duke Eminence Ninefingers."
Aaron knew that, but he didn't mind her trying to help, and went as far as asking a question as to make her feel more useful. It was a good way to impart her the habit of helping him however and whenever she could, and it also served to take her mind out of her troubles. "Can we enter it without being seen?"
"No," she said. "The city is protected by walls with Ninth True Sight Formations that can pierce through any invisibility and illusions spells of the Seventh level. Trying to make a hole on the walls is also impossible, for they are enchanted with Ninth Shield Formations that also make our Seventh level drilling spells useless. The walls are heavily manned at all times, too, so we can't fly over them. The best we can do is try to mix with the klutzes in the morning and hope no guard is paying attention when the True Sight pierces through any veiling spell we might be using."
Stealth spells were about hiding completely while veiling spells were about hiding partially. Hiding one's level was considered veiling, thus the name Veiling Talisman on the treasure given to Aaron to hide his level while he was in the family.
The item was valuable and had been taken back by Firestar though, so he didn't have it with him. Not that he needed it to enter Lamia.
Sara was thinking too much like a mage and was ignoring the fact that sometimes, fighting spells with spells wasn't the only way to act. He only needed to gain some time before being found anyway, not to pass through the city completely undetected.
"If I remember correctly, there's an event once a week that might assist us to get inside, and it just happens that it's scheduled to happen tomorrow," Aaron said as if he hadn't timed his days in the forest to leave at the right time. "I need to buy a few things in the city, so we'll have to get inside. Tonight, let's enjoy the Lonely Maids."
It was popularly said the two smaller moons were maids, called Lil and May, and the bigger one, a male called Lugh. Lonely Maids was the name given for when Lil and May were full, and Lugh was in the new moon phase.
"I'll prepare dinner," Sara said, taking her pan out.
Aaron lay on his back and watched the moons and stars, his mind thinking about the mysteries of magic.
That night, he decided to light a fire and order Mark and Sara to sit around it with him as they ate, to build some sort of companionship with them.
Mark, used to a rigid hierarchical structure, felt extremely uncomfortable about sitting casually close to his Master like that and excused himself as soon as he finished gulping his food.
Sara was also uneasy due to her own relationships with her former masters, the Ancestors, but she forced herself to look silently at the fire for a long time after finishing the food instead of leaving.
After all, if her master wanted her company, she knew better than to disobey as the puny warrior had just done.
"Master," she said after gathering enough courage.
"Yes?" Aaron said, coming back from his musings.
"Don't you... Feel bad?" She asked shyly.
Aaron frowned and considered what she might be meaning. It took a few moments, but he finally got it. "Are you talking about the ambush on the Duke?"
She nodded silently.
He shook his head. "Why should I? He tried to get me killed, I counter-attacked."
"But his men had nothing to do with it," she insisted.
Aaron understood where she was coming from. Even though she hadn't gone crazy because of the influence of his soul, she was now realizing she had never created a unique personality or thought about morals by herself before.
She wanted to know more about Aaron's morals and way of thinking because despite living in a relatively cruel world, she wasn't sure how she felt about her own unjustified killings.
"Didn't his men keep silent when the Duke was hunting for us, despite knowing nothing about us or if we were guilty of something?" He asked. "Didn't they obey him when he told them to track me? Wouldn't they have done his bidding if he had ordered them to kill me?" He asked.
She thought for a moment. "Yes, but they were only doing that because of the Duke. He was the only one who made himself your enemy."
"No one forced those men to obey the Duke and hunt me, they did it on their own will, for whatever the reason — probably money."
"What if they were forced to obey?" She asked.
Aaron smiled. "There's no such thing as being forced to do something. Even if a man does something to avoid the pain of torture, or to prevent a loved one from being hurt, aren't they just hurting others for their own physical or emotional comfort? Why should I also prioritize their wellbeing when they are trying to harm me for their own good?"
"What about those whose true names made them obey the Duke?"
Aaron shook his head. "Why should I feel bad for killing people who might as well be dead puppets controlled by their owner and were trying to kill me?"
Sara's voice became almost a whisper. "What about me?"
He smiled. "Every situation should be assessed separately. I had already decided to help you beforehand and I was expecting you to attack me. Not to mention that you were alone when you attacked and I could safely subdue you. But if I start thinking about my enemies' wellbeing in the field of battle, especially if I'm not strong enough to safely make them submit, I would just end up dead. Should I die just because other people have their circumstances for trying to kill me?"
This time, Sara took longer to come up with an argument. "What about the greater good? What if their circumstance is that killing you could save billions?"
"I would call bullshit on that," he replied with an amused expression. "Let's say it's a prophecy or any kind of future prediction that says taking my life can save billions... Well, prophecies are bullshit. Nothing is set in the universe, and anyone who claims to be able to determine all the possibilities in the future is lying.
"Another possibility is an evil man asking for my life to stop him from killing billions. Who's to say he won't kill them anyway, or that I couldn't save even more than those billions in the future if I'm not killed, or even that those billions might actually deserve to die?"
He winked at her. "But let me humor you for a moment. Let's say it's absolutely certain my death would save billions in a way that there's no lying evil guy, no catch, nothing spicy about it. I would still call bullshit, because billions of people would die anyway, one day, of old age or other reasons. The 'here and now' is nothing in the grand scheme of things. Billions dying in one planet doesn't even begin to touch a tragedy when you're considering the galaxy, much less the universe. Likewise, losing all the people in a universe holds no meaning in the multiverse.
"Moreover, even if everyone in existence in the multiverse simply dropped dead right now, life would still happen again, just like it happened in the beginning, when nothing was alive and still life came to be. Who's to say such tragedy hasn't already happened in the past, due to some evil ploy or even natural reasons, and we are just nature trying again? When you 'zoom out' enough on space and time, you see that there's no 'greater' good, only you trying to kill someone for an idea that feels right to you in your limited existence.
"In the end, everything is just a matter of principles. You might feel justified for killing a person to save billions, while I would call you a glorified murderer. Likewise, I feel justified for hurting anyone who intends me harm, and you might feel my morals are lacking."
He lay on the ground with his hands behind his head, closing his eyes. "My way of living is simple: do the innocent no harm but take no shit either. And if someone tries to harm me, it's an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. As for forgiving someone as I did to you, it all depends on what my heart tells me at the moment. As hypocritical as it might sound, it's just who I am, and I'm comfortable with being like this."
The silence stretched after his words, he simulated a yawn. "You're on night watch today."
She would surely not be able to sleep that night, anyway. She might as well do something productive while he focused harder on his Myriad Arts.
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I'm Ed, a writer of GameLit. So far I have released only two books, but I'm working on increasing this number by tens! No, by hundreds! Maybe thousands! xP
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