The sun was high in the sky when Aleran woke up amidst confusion and a splitting headache. The next few moments, he spent them trying to reorganize his thoughts and after remembering the plan traced by Zarasen as he sat up.
‘ I have no other choice, at least the old man's advice gives me a clear goal. Going back and looking for the boy previous home is not an option with the kingdom looking for me. And if they catch me and realize what happened to my spirit-veins…’
Remembering the rumors he heard, not only from Zarasen but also from the guards, about the fourth pavilion, he could only swallow his fears. Not wanting to think any more of what would happen if he was caught, he sat down crossed legged as Zarasen taught him.
The few hours of forced sleep he had, were plagued with nightmares of the previous night. But somehow, these dreams allowed him to regain enough composure to try sitting crossed legged and meditate. Nonetheless, it costed Aleran what he felt like three hours to get into the right state of mind to feel the source qi. No matter how much he tried to connect to his surroundings, the faces of the three guards sometimes flashed randomly in his closed eyes.
After that and with his monstrous ability, it took him a few minutes to refine and refill his inner qi. “woooh.” Expelling a long breath he slowly sat up and looked at his destination. The forest of eternal dreams looked immense, but according to Zarasen, it would take him a few days after he reached the river to cross it.
His eyes rested especially on the wide river. Then, he looked around and a feeling of loneliness started to creep around his heart. During all his life he always had someone he could rely on If something bad were to happen. This was something almost everyone has. It could be in the form of parents, brothers, friends, a wife, a son or any other bond, be it personal or professional.
Even when he was going on the expedition he didn't feel lonely. After all, there were several countries backing up the expedition trying to keep its members safe from all harm. But now he was completely alone in this huge and dangerous world, and he didn't even have a tool to defend himself.
He looked at his hands, they were painted with patches of brown dirt. ‘I should have picked up a sword when I had the chance.’ But he knew that would only make him feel slightly safer.
Even with a blade, he didn't know a thing about surviving in the wilderness. He had gone camping with his dad when young a few times, but that was only with advanced technology aiding them. Even the tent made itself thanks to the miracle of technology and the things that required some dexterity were always done by his dad.
He started walking to his destination while thinking about this. That was when the sudden realization that he missed Zarasen's company hit him. The old man could be a pain in the ass and could be eccentric if not completely insane. But he had been living with him for the past year and had gotten used to his presence.
Before Aleran met the old man, he was planning on how to escape the asylum. But he knew deep inside that those were just delusions he was telling himself to not lose his mind. He was afraid of spending the rest of this new life in a cell. But because of his traumatizing experience as a soul, he was also afraid of taking his life in case his imprisonment turned unbearable.
It was then that a broken Matthew, shattered in pieces and barely holding together thanks to those fantasies, met Zarasen. He was alone in a strange world in a situation that he didn't really understand. This strange old man with his constant nagging and erratic personality made his situation look less serious, no matter how ugly or dangerous it was. This was something that Aleran needed badly at the time.
Before that, his mind was still clinging too much on the past. It was Zarasen that gave him confidence and helped him take his first real steps into this world. Teaching him how to speak and how to cultivate in the process.
After spending more than a year with him, Aleran knew he was still wounded, just as the old man accurately pointed. But now he could stand on his own. And yes, maybe he was just as lost as before if not more. But now he had the tools to try and find his own path in this world wherever it may lead him to.
‘Maybe, I should have trusted him more about who I really am.' Aleran had made logical excuses in his mind to not tell Zarasen anything. But he knew that one of his biggest flaws was his lack of trust in others, and logic was the disguise he chose this time to use for this flaw. It was something that came from his childhood days.
He closed his eyes for a second and the image of the dead was replaced by one of his father with an unknown woman. A secret he had never told to anyone in order to keep his happy family united. He was barely eleven that year, and though he didn't understand much about relationships or love he understood how wrong that scene was. His father was a good and extremely intelligent man, his personal hero. But that day, without knowing, he had marked his son for life.
He shook his head and went back to reality. ‘Still, I have more pressing issues now. ’ With some complex emotions and lingering regret about Zarasen in his heart, he started to regard the forest that was getting closer. It took him minutes with his now recovered strength to reach it.
As he got near the edge of the forest, he couldn't stop himself from making comparisons to Earth. The first thing he noticed was how big the trees were. They were not as tall as a Sequoia but they were taller than most of the trees back on Earth. There were also some strange trees that had their branches extending in spirals around the main trunk and then going upwards. Besides that, there were many other strange plant life.
Another thing he noticed was that the forest was not silent at all, it was filled with the noises of birds and other creatures he didn't recognize. The constant noise was almost deafening. Besides some minor unfamiliar points, in general, it was much like a forest of the Earth. This similarity was one of the things that left him without words ever since he came to this world.
‘Had I luckily reached a world similar to eath? Or am I in an alternate version of Earth placed in a parallel universe?’ His mind started to wander with crazy thoughts and baseless theories.
“slap.” ‘Concentrate!’ With both hands, he slapped his face and started to look at the ground. ‘I have to look for the mushrooms.’
After a few minutes of walk, he finally found a bunch of them lying at the base of a tree. There were eight of them, three pointing to one side and four to the other, the more advanced the more he found. And although there were some pointing to other directions, there was a clear pattern with most of them pointing towards a general one. Like that he maintained a fixed direction. The mushrooms were easy to find since their purple patterns had a slight glow.
The forest canopy started to become thicker, making the surroundings darker and very damp. This made the glowing mushrooms more conspicuous, they were almost tracing a pathway.
The deeper he went into the forest, the quieter it got. It was strange since he assumed it would only get louder as the animals increased in numbers. It gave him a bad feeling.
‘Huh? what the hell is that thing?!’ A few meters in front, in between the roots of the trees was a head size rock. The strange thing about it was that it had two big, yellow eyes. Aleran had already seen a few animals, but they were not that strange to him. He had seen a small rodent, similar to a rat gnawing at the bark of a tree. Other than that, he had seen a snake that besides being a little bigger than normal snakes and having a few spikes on its back it was not that strange.
So as the first strange thing he saw, it piqued his interest, driving him to approach the little thing. The eyed rock was beside other real rocks that were totally inert. And as soon as Aleran got closer two long thick antenna-like things appeared unwrapping themselves from around the body of the animal.
As he got closer again, he realized that it was not made of rock. Instead, it was hard skin that looked like rock what covered the animal. He also discovered that the thing didn't have any other extremity. And it was using its antennae-like things to turn its body and face the approaching human. Then it just laid there, starting with its round big eyes. It had a big mouth that looked like a grimace of sadness.
‘ Its kinda cute once you get used to-” “Baam!”
With a loud explosion sound and speed that alarmed Aleran, the head-sized rock shot itself like a cannonball. Without thinking, Aleran jumped to his right and barely avoided the thing. Though Aleran didn't notice, even after dodging, the thing extended one of its antennae to try and grab him while in the air. Fortunately, it missed too.
Still on the ground, Aleran turned his head and looked at the thing that was now embedded into a tree. He was completely shocked at what had just happened.
“craak craak.” It had extended some kind of beak filled with sharp teeth from within its mouth and was grinding the tree with it like in a reflex act. Its antennae were wrapped around the tree. And like that, it kept chewing at the trunk with an almost manic insistence.
‘If I had gotten closer it would have struck me right in the stomach. It seems like it attaches to its prey once it hits and I can already guess how hard those appendages are .’ He stood up and quickly tried to put some distance between them.
After getting to what Aleran thought to be a safe distance he turned around and regarded the thing that almost injured him. ‘ I am not really sure if that impact and then the thing itself would have killed me or only injured me. But I'm sure it was too dangerous and too close.’
He didn't know how the thing propelled itself like that, it was obviously with qi , but he didn't know the exact mechanism. These creatures that could manipulate qi like humans were called source beasts. And although they could absorb source qi they could only use it in rough, unpolished ways. Most of them could only use it for a single propose like this rock, simply propelling themselves.
“sigh.” “Even though it is a beast, it can already externalize its qi, it's infuriating.” Most beasts had an inborn affinity with source qi, though in exchange they would find it extremely hard to improve that affinity. Talking his frustration away he turned and continue on the path of mushrooms.
The undergrowth soon transformed his walk into an odyssey, the longer he walked the more plants started to appear in his way. He assumed it was because he was getting closer to the river.
Sometimes the undergrowth was so thick that he was forced to change his course slightly. Especially every time he encountered a plant with blue flowers which had a smell that made his eyes burn and his nose sting. For a few minutes, it left him almost blind and barely breathing.
And as he pushed into the plants some flying insects started to bite him. At first, he thought they were some kind of mosquito. But soon he found out that was some kind of oval-shaped insect, smaller than a grain of rice, that was eating small bits of his skin and flesh. His qi may be able to enhance his strength but the toughness of his skin and flesh was not on the list of improvements. At least not to a level that would make the difference with these bugs. The bites may be small but there were enough insects to cause some damage and discomfort.
“Its a blessing there are no more of these little shits otherwise I would be eaten to the bone by them.” Aleran said out loud while slapping one of the bastards that was biting his neck. While inwardly, he was praying not to come across a swarm of these things. ‘That would truly spell trouble.’
From time to time and when the annoying bugs stopped their feast, he sat down to meditate and recover the qi he used to pull plants or to speed up. As long as he had inner qi he could keep going on longer than a normal human. The more he went on the trees did not get taller but thicker. Leaving for him and the plants below narrower paths, and that translated in more obstacles for Aleran.
Soon, the air started to get more damped, and Aleran found himself out of the undergrowth and next to the river. With his body filled with small wounds, Aleran came out of the bushes.
His first instinct was to run and jump into the river in an attempt to shake off these little bugs that were still biting him, but he instantly put a stop to that idea. First, he didn't have a change of clothes, so once he got out of the water, he would have to spend the rest of the day wet.
Second and more important he didn't know what kind of creatures lived in the water. Even on Earth, one would know how stupid it was to jump into a river without knowing anything about the creatures living in it. That was even more valid here. His encounter with that rock thing was enough to make him realize the impact the source qi had on the ecosystem. Everything here had that unknown factor that made all the creatures more dangerous.
But with all that said, he still had to drink something. It has been a full night and several hours since he last drank some water making him very thirsty. Inner qi could help him endure hunger and last longer without eating but he was still far from the point of not needing any food, much less water. In that regard, he was still like any other human.
With that primal need in mind, he got to the shore and after cleaning his hands and washing his face he started to drink. “Haaa. I never thought that water would be so tasty.” Aleran had thought about starting a fire and boiling some of it just in case, he had an idea on how to start a fire with his image and wanted to try it. But his thirst won and he drank it anyway.
“tick” Aleran heard the sound of a branch being stepped on. And from his squatting position next to the water, he stood up in an instant facing the origin of the sound.
Near the tree line, with its head hanging low, was a huge wolf almost five feet tall that. Noticing the noise it accidentally made, it was frozen in position. Realizing it was spotted by its prey, it discarded the stealth tactic and started to walk closer to Aleran.
Both human and wolf locked their eyes on each other. Aleran was slowly backing down, looking for any sign of sudden movement on the brown wolf. If it weren't for that broken branch, he would be wolf food by now. The damn beast was so well adapted that its fur made him look like it was part of a tree trunk.
“grrr” It made a low growl and showed its long fangs. From its open maw saliva started to drop and when it touched the soil a hissing noise was produced.
Looking at the slightly wet and small crater made by the saliva, Aleran cursed in his mind. ‘Great. It wasn't enough to be a giant wolf it also has corrosive saliva. Fuck my luck!’