“Haaaa! Haaa...haaa” Jolted, Aleran woke up to a quiet room. He looked around to see wooden walls and a desk with some herbs and other stuff. As for the rest of the room, it was unfurnished except for the bed he was on.
He looked out the window and he had to squint his eyes, it was a sunny day too shiny for someone who had been sleeping. After his sight got used to the light, he could see a collection of small cottages dispersed through the landscape. The house he was in was on a hill, allowing to see these other cottages from its position.
Looking around, the memories of how he ended up here started to come. After returning with Kindrav from the forest, they faced the captain of the units stationed there. Kindrav told the captain they had killed the white hunter between the two of them.
The boy seemed to have good people skills because, when the time came to tell what happened, he wisely hid the fact that Aleran had rendered the creature defenseless before his sword killed it. That not only helped Aleran to hide his odd abilities but also made them both seemed like total badasses. Kindrav made a whole embellished story, where Aleran, against all odds, bravely distracted the creature while he nimbly bypassed the tail and the limbs of the beast to stab the sword into a preexisting wound. He later explained to Aleran that he had to say the truth about the wound to make the story more believable. The added benefit of making them look smarter was also in his plans. Basically, the pathetic rolls on the ground were replaced by cunning movements and the opportunistic tactics were changed for bravery and teamwork.
The exaggerated story, with miraculous movements and improvised but perfect teamwork between two strangers, lasted almost 20 minutes. By the time he ended, the tale transformed into some kind of epic fight between gods and demons. And, while most of the villagers on the scene believed them, the soldiers, especially the captain, were skeptical. The corpse of the creature was not visible, but the blood drenching Kindrav was a piece of compelling evidence on his favor.
In the end, the unfriendly Captain decided they will check on the corpse after they finished with the remaining beasts. But when Kindrav asked to take Aleran to the village, the captain ordered him to come back quickly. So, while Aleran was now in the village, his new friend was still facing the creatures.
“How long have I been sleeping?” When Kindrav brought him to the village, he was taken to the house of the chief, who was also fighting the beasts. There, he was fed some kind of vegetable soup. It was probably an insipid food for normal standards. But, to someone who had only eaten the food on the asylum since he got here, it was a delicacy. In the end, he ate five bowls, before he was told there was no more by a kind looking woman. After that, Kindrav who had stayed for the meal said that he had to go back soon and took him to this very room. He said that Caidel, the chief's wife and also the healer of the village, will treat his injuries. The moment he was put on the bed, Aleran lost all consciousness. He was more exhausted than he thought.
Only now he woke up with bandages all over his body and a weird taste on his mouth. The strange numb sensation on his shoulder told him that the woman had used some kind of topical anesthetic. Besides that, there was obviously some painkilling medicine since the pain was more manageable now. “ Well, it's not a modern treatment, but it's still amazing what this woman can do. And this bed is rough but its a five-star suit compared to the asylum”.
“Creeck” The door of the room opened with a creaking by said woman. Caidel had brown hair, a small nose, and black eyes. Her face was quite plain but her smile and the dimples on her cheek gave her an especial air of sweetness. Dress with simple clothes and some kind of apron on top, she gave a maternal vibe that made one naturally lower their guard.
“I heard some noise, are you okay?” With a worried face, Caidel entered the room.
“Yes, I'm sorry for startling you, ma'am. Lately, I've been sleeping in dangerous places, so I'm still a little worked up.” What he said was true, he had been surrounded by dangers all day and night. And, at the minor sound, he would become alert.
“Oh yes, little Kin told me you came from the forest. That must have been a terrifying experience. Don't worry, you are safe here.” With that, she went back to the door. “ I'm glad you are fine then. You had slept for a day so you must be hungry. I will bring you food in a while.”
As if remembering something, Aleran spoke before she reached the door. “Thank you miss Caidel... for treating me.” The woman had not only patched him up, but she had also washed him clean. It had been almost a year since he last had a decent bath. And that was when they washed him up before they sent him to the asylum. After that, he only had a bucket of dirty water and a rag to wipe his body. The worst part was that, sometimes, he had to share the rag with the old man. He didn't want to imagine how dirty and smelly he must have been for someone who wasn't used to the smell. Now, he felt refreshed. ‘It is truly a basic necessity, I feel like a human again. It is almost worth the embarrassing sensation at having other people wash you.’
As if seeing through him she said. “It's what I do, you don't have to be so shy. I may don't have the strength to fight in these special circumstances, but I have the skill to keep safe those I care. And you help little kin, so you are more than worthy of my time. Now rest, I'm sure by this afternoon my husband and the rest will come back.”
Just as Caidel said, that same afternoon, those who were forced to fight, returned home. After spending some family time, the chief and Kindrav went to visit their new guest.
“ Hey Al, you Okay?” With his casual way and half-closed eyes, Kindrav entered the room followed by a middle-aged man. Aleran knew this man who had blond and white hair, square jaw and soft blue eyes. He was the chief of the village, and his name was Faud. Just like his wife he had a kind aura and a trustworthy face that made one comfortable. “ I hope you are feeling better, young man. You can stay here until you feel completely recovered.”
“I'm feeling much better, thank you. Frankly, I was at my limit before Kindrav showed up.” Aleran said with an embarrassed face. He already knew that Kindrav was forced to help him, but that didn't take away the fact that he had risked his life to take down the beast.
“Well, he helped you as much as you helped him by staying and fighting by his side. So, you are a friend of ours now. My wife says your recovery will take a cycle or two thanks to your level of cultivation. In the meantime, you can stay here. I don't know your personal situation, but if you want to stay in this village for longer, we can find you a place and something to do. With your cultivation, you could be really helpful.” The chief, as the straight forward person he was, made his offer. And after talking some more he left the room with a few words. “Well, you have time to decide what you want, see you at the diner.”
As soon as the chief was out, Kindrav that was leaning against the wall, asked. “Hey, may I ask you something? What the hell were you doing in that hellish place? you don't have to answer if you don't want, I'm just curious”
After thinking a little Aleran answered. “Someone told me the forest of eternal dreams was the most direct way to the Sidrin empire.” He was not going to say anything about the asylum or his escape. But he didn't want to lie too much either. He didn't have the necessary knowledge of this world to make up a believable story.
“Forest of eternal dreams?” Asked Kindrav with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes, isn't that the name?”
“Weeell...yes, I suppose nightmares are also dreams. But I think someone wanted you dead. Hehe. It's hard to find someone who doesn't know about the forest of eternal nightmares. Are you not from here? ”
Aleran's eye twitched at that comment. ‘That old fart, does he want me dead?´ The worst thing was that he could imagine the old bastard's answer. Something in the lines of -If you knew the real name you would have hesitated, and that was the only way out. What use is there in knowing the name?- Then he would have just waved his hand dismissively and changed the subject.
Aleran grabbed his head, pretending to be in pain and traumatized by something, and said. “ I didn't know... I...I don't want to talk about it. It's complicated... sorry.” Inwardly he was praying for the questions to finish. ‘C' mon man, give me a break.’
“I already told you, you don't have to answer if you don't want. I was just curious, it's my bad.” Said Kindrav, a little startled by Aleran's sudden reaction.
Their conversation changed subjects after that, and Aleran started to feel more at ease. Kindrav told him a bit about the Vast Sky village. He told him about the daughter of the chief. She was also a cultivator and had been sent away by her parents that didn't want her to fight with the beats. There was something in Kindrav's voice when he talked about Sarya, the chief's daughter. He obviously had feelings but there was also some conflict in his eyes. Like that, they talked until it was dinner time, knowing each other better.
Two cycles had passed since his arrival at Vast Sky village. After the first weeks of recovery, Aleran started helping with manual labor and some chores that required strength. This whole time he has familiarized with the whole village and was able to learn more about it. He learned that the ancestors of the Vast Sky village learned cultivation from a wandering master. He taught them the basic Heavenly opening stage. This man was known as the Vast Sky master, so they took his name to honor him. As it was forbidden for a cultivator to teach more advanced techniques to outsiders, the strongest villagers were only at the third face of the Heavenly opening stage.
He also learned about Kindrav and that he was a barbarian. When he was a child his family was chased out from his father's tribe. After escaping for a year, his parents sacrificed themselves to cover for his escape. It was when he was wandering alone in these plains, starving and afraid, that he was found by Caidel and a young Sarya. They took him into their house and raised the eight years old kid. By now, Aleran knew that despite Kindrav behavior of lazing around and scaping chores, when it really mattered the guy was always there helping the village.
Aleran felt somewhat guilty that he could not tell the truth about himself. But he tried to compensate with his hard work, always helping when he was needed.
Aleran, who had earned some free time, was now seated cross-legged on the floor of the guest room. It would be a normal sight of a cultivator meditating if it weren't for the metallic powder covering the ground like a shiny carpet. He was training his image of magnetism.
The idea came to him when he was helping at the house of the pseudo blacksmith of the village. The man could not make weapons nor any complex work, but he could make some simple metalwork. After helping him cutting some wood, Aleran caught sight of the metal chips and powder that were the leftovers of the man's work. Aleran immediately got the idea of using them to practice his image.
For some reason, he had been having a hard time trying to picture the magnetic field. He wanted to create a magnetic field inside his spirit-veins. And if it was strong enough, it could even affect things outside his body. He was basically aiming to transform his body into a giant magnet. The biggest problem was power. Aleran could create some magnetic fields inside him but they didn't have much effect outside his spirit-veins. But if he could see its effects he could refine the image and make it more powerful. That is where the metallic powder entered.
Creating a magnetic field that affected the powder will give him the image of the magnetic lines of force. They will create a pattern that, he hoped, would help to consolidate his image.
“Zzzzz” With his eyes glued to the dust, Aleran could hear it slowly moving as he increased the power of the magnetic field. The more the dust moved the more Aleran could imagine the pattern the magnetic lines of force had.
“ZZZZZZ” And finally, after weeks of training, all the dust settled into a beautiful magnetic pattern. The floor was now covered in long curved lines, many of them traveling from pole to pole with Aleran at the center. A smile crept to his face at that sight. He was doubtful at first, but as the days passed he started to feel this was the right way. He couldn't remember how many times he had created half patterns or simply failed. And after each failed attempt he had to redisperse the dust manually and try again until he managed to form a magnetic field powerful enough to create a perfect pattern. And now, it truly worked.
“Wow! That was impressive!” Suddenly he heard a voice coming from the window. Aleran knew it was Kindrav, the guy had the habit of escaping his chores. And his favorite hiding place was the guest room. Normally, it would be empty, but with Aleran here Kindrav usually hid somewhere else. With that say, to not be found, the guy sometimes sneaked into his room when Aleran was out.
It wasn't uncommon for Aleran to enter the room after a day out, to find Kindrav sleeping in his bed. It seems that today Kidnrav didn't hear the news that Aleran was given some free time.
Opening the window and entering as if it was the most common thing in the world, Kindrav said. “Is this what you do with your free time? Damn! Al, you need to learn how to relax. What is all this?” He touched the fine dust, noticing it was made of metal, and sat on the bed.
“It's my image training, I had just finished when you entered.” Blurted Aleran as he stretched his arms and back. He didn't see a reason to hide this.
“Oh...Wait! You can use images, and even project them?” His half-closed eyes became as big as plates. “ You are full of surprises, aren't you? This must be what you used to cripple that white hunter.” Kindrav knew how reserved Aleran was, so he didn't push it with his questions. Besides, asking about personal images too deeply was a big taboo.
But in his head, he was shocked and filled with questions. What Aleran was saying defied all logic. Kindrav felt a little touched that he was being trusted with such a secret. If word got out that a Heaven opening cultivator could use images, it would shock the world.
“I'm not projecting them, this image is special, that's all. It is quite dangerous. For now, I don't use it unless necessary.” Aleran was telling the truth with that, although it was more about the electricity part. Using it inside his spirit veins required a delicate control. Otherwise, he would end up with destroyed spirit veins or dead.
Still amazed by what he was hearing Kindrav stared at the pattern on the floor. He couldn't guess what image was. Before he could say anything Aleran said it himself. “To put it simply, its an image that interacts with metal. Though in reality is so much more than that.” During these time Aleran had gotten to know Kindrav and, despite his messy conduct, he was a trustworthy person. Aleran was not going to say anything too revealing, but he guesses it wouldn't harm to tell him this stuff.
Kindrav just nodded and stayed silent for a while, looking at the floor. Hi raised his head and look at him. When he spoke again, his eyes were serious and his tone solemn. “Hey Al, what do you plan to do? I mean... with your life. Do you want to stay here in the village? Do you have some previous plan? What do you want of your life?”
Aleran could sense there was some other meaning behind those words, some underlying question that Kindrav was holding back. He could see the expectation in his eyes. So, Aleran took his time to answer. He looked down following the lines on the floor as if they held some kind of answer or direction for his life.
He didn't have a home in this world, he barely knew anyone here. But for some reason, he felt free of shackles. As if anything was possible, and all roads were open for him. He took a deep breath and answered the question. “ You know, I've thought a lot about that recently. The first thing I'm sure of is that I want power. To take my fate into my own hands, never again depending on the whims of others.” Aleran didn't notice, but as he talked his look turned more and more obsessed. Maybe dying once had messed a little with his mind, or maybe it was his later experiences that gave birth to this obsession. Whatever the case, it was something fixed in his heart now. “I can't explain how good it feels to use the images and my enhanced strength. They make me feel like I'm in control again.”
“But it's not only that, I just enjoy using them, and I want more. The feeling of having the forces of nature at your command is like a drug. I want everything cultivation has to offer, it's like I was made for it.” He didn't know much, but if half the stories Zarasen told him where true. If there was really something like immortality in this universe, then he wanted that too.
“ I want to have an eternal life where I have the time to unravel the secrets of the universe. It may sound crazy when I can barely face a few beasts in the forest, but that is how I feel. And the more I cultivate the more this feeling grows. I want to learn until the universe holds no secrets from me.” Perhaps, encouraged by his recent experiences and his meeting with the Kaisha, Aleran was finally facing his fears. And in his head, he was talking to himself. ‘ I also want to know who took my soul back then, and what did it do to me. What was its purpose?’
He made a pause and raised his head, facing Kindrav.With a tinge of that same obsession lingering in his eyes. “ So, no. I won't stay here. I will do whatever I have to do and go wherever I have to go to become stronger.”
Aleran was expecting to see a disappointed look on Kindrav. He had thought that Kindrav wanted him to stay in the village. But instead, he saw Kindrav's eyes filled with a similar kind of obsession. And plastered on his face, there was a smile of relief. “Our motives may be different, but we both want to become stronger. Would you listen to my proposal?”
Aleran suddenly recalled something. This lazy guy, who ran away when it was the time to do chores, was also someone who woke up early in the morning to train and meditate. And for what he heard on the village, Kindrav had learned in one week how to use the sword from a retired city guard who used to live in the village. He was good at everything when it came to fighting and his archery skills where impressive.
Intrigued, Aleran asked. “ What kind of proposal?”
“Have you ever heard of the dragon claw academy?” Kindrav answered with another question. And seeing Aleran shake his head, as he expected, he continued. “I figured. The dragon claw academy is the official recruitment center of the Sidrin empire. They are the training academy for the army. Normally those who enter, end up becoming foot soldiers. But if your results are outstanding you can choose other training programs. What's important is that they will give you resources, tech you martial stances and cultivation techniques beyond the heaven opening stage. No matter the result you get in the entrance examination, as long as you pass it, you will get more resources and someone to teach you.”
Alerans interest was piked. He probably didn't need anyone to teach him images. But he was in urgent need of someone that could teach him how to fight. Aleran still remembered his fight in the asylum, and how much easier would have been if he knew how to defend himself. What's more, the scene where Zarasen defeated an armed guard with one movement was still fresh in his mind.
“So we just show up in the academy and take the test? That easy?” Although he was interested, it sounded too good to be true.
Kindrav just smiled and shook his head. “I wish it was that easy. There is a catch. You need to pay an entrance fee. Besides that, anyone can take the test as long as you were born in the empire, or you are the son of a citizen. You need to present the documentation necessary to prove it. And here, is where I think we both have the same predicament.”
“You also don't have the documents? So, our path is blocked right from the beginning, what's the plan then?” Aleran had guessed that his status as a foreigner would be revealed easily. After all, he knew next to nothing about the costumes of the Sidrin empire.
“Every two years a public officer will pass to make a census where the newborns are registered and the family is given a paper as a proof of being born in the empire. Noble cultivation families have a stricter method, but that is not our problem. We have no way to get one of those certifications. At least not legally.” Said Kindrav with his smile intensifying. “ Although it is a simple paper it is very hard to forge one. You need to have some connection to get your hands on a good quality fake.”
Aleran squinted his eyes.“What connections are you talking about? I don't mean to offend you, but you are a barbarian, I can't imagine you with those connections”
Kindrav raised his hands “You are right, I don't have them. But hear me out, the chiefs younger brother, Oldre, is a guard on the nearby city of Kilua. He and the chief don't get along well, but he is quite fond of me. The thing is, he also has connections with a big gang working on the city. And after some talking about how I could get into the academy, Oldre came with an idea. He could vouch for us to get into the gang. And, if we ask to work for them and receive as payment the forged documentation, we may have a chance to take the entrance examination five cycles from now.”
Aleran was surprised, this was not something Kindrav had thought at the moment. On the contrary, it was a well-thought plan made with lots of anticipation. He looked at Kindrav in a new light now. There must be some important reason behind his motivation, maybe his real parents. But he was not going to pry into it, he knew very well what it was to have a secret.
“Okay, but let me make something clear. The idea is good, and I know I said I would do whatever I had to do to become stronger. But I won't hurt innocent people, I want to become stronger not to become something I am not. If I start hurting everyone to get more power I may become stronger faster, but all that power will belong to a monster with my face and not to me. If you were expecting something else, then I'm sorry.”
To someone who didn't recognize his own face, what mattered the most was his essence, his soul. He wasn't a person that was too concerned about moral issues. But he would feel bad with himself if he started hurting people who didn't deserve it.
Finally, Kindrav's smile grew so big that he showed his teeth. “ I wouldn't have offered you this if I hadn't figured out what kind of person you are. I also don't want to hurt anyone, this is actually my last resort plan, But we may have to watch some innocent people suffer without being able to do anything. We need to be prepared for that.”
Aleran didn't like it, but he was no saint either. Still, he knew that being in the place and do nothing when people were getting hurt will bother him, so he said. “ Then we will remember everything these gangsters do, and when we are strong enough, we will pay them back for everything they did. How about that?”
“Hahahaha.Yeah! I like that. It's a deal then.” Kindrav extended his hand.
Aleran stood up and shook hands with him. “ Hey, I don't have much qi left, would you help me clean this mess?” He pointed at the floor filled with dust. The moment he let go of his hand, Kindrav jumped out of the window with the agility of a cat and disappeared of his sight. “sigh… I knew it.”