“Here we are,” Nyana said as we suddenly stopped moving.
I could tell that the cave was dark because not a lot of light entered my gemstone. She placed me on a hard surface, and I reached out to taste it. I only took a little of the stone, but it was rich and grainy, the taste lingering inside my core. As I swirled its deconstructed matter, it registered as basalt.
“I can’t wait to show you my treasures!” Nyana said. “Do you like them? This sling-stone was from a goblin who tried to kill me, and the arrow came from a human who thought he could skewer me with it.”
I couldn’t see what she was talking about, and the words “sling-stone”, “goblin”, “arrow”, and “human” sounded familiar but I couldn’t place them. Had I known of them once? I certainly didn’t have anything except a faint whisper of a memory, and a mental block prevented me from accessing them.
“You’ll need to put them a little closer,” I said. “I can’t see very far from my gemstone.”
Then, an object entered my field of vision. It was long and slender and made of a brown material with flowing lines. The tip was made of a different substance of a gray color and refined to a gleaming edge.
Nyana placed it beside me. “This is my best treasure. It’s a spear from a wood elf hunter who attacked me while I was flying. He almost struck me, much closer than the goblin and the human managed to get on their attempts. The spear was far too large for me to carry in one try, but over a few days, I managed to bring it all the way to my cave. I consider it a memento, a trophy for the one time I almost died but got away.”
As Nyana spoke, I enveloped the spear in my aura and started to feast. The tip was made of a metallic-tasting substance called iron. The length tasted similar to the pine leaves, as though there was once vibrant life within it. Before I could finish eating the item, Nyana gasped.
“My spear! You-you ate it!”
“Not all of it,” I said. “There’s still some of it left for you. It is rather delicious. I can’t believe you’ve had it all this time and haven’t taken a bite. Why don’t you try some?”
“I don’t eat spears!” she cried, exasperated. “I’m-I’m going to hunt. Don’t eat anything else.”
With that, she was gone.
I was unsure why eating her spear had made her so upset. The whole point of my existence, up until now, was to consume things. Did dragonlings have some other reason for living other than eating? There seemed to be no more important task than feeding oneself.
And, at the moment, I was really hungry.
I stared at the half-eaten spear, promising myself I wouldn’t take another bite. For a very long time, the spear stared at me back, almost as though it were teasing me. We stared off in a silent duel, until a voice entered my mind (which, if I was being honest, sounded a lot like my own voice).
“You can’t eat me,” I imagined the spear saying. “No, you can’t. Eat me, and the dragonling will be very mad. Very, very mad. But yes, I do look very tasty. Very tasty indeed.”
“How mad could she be?” I asked myself. “The spear is already half-eaten, and we shouldn’t let it go to waste.” A memory lingered in my mind, of a woman who scolded a small boy for failing to finish his dinner. She spoke of starving children and how the boy ought not leave his meal unfinished for their sake.
With that strange and almost foreign memory playing over in my gemstone, I gobbled up the rest of the spear. As before, the essence I absorbed was immensely satisfying, but it carried a faint taste of something dirty.
Was that. . . guilt?
The emotion was peculiar, one I hadn’t felt before.
I retreated into my gemstone and saw something had joined my little ball of light. It was a faint, transparent outline of the spear I had eaten.
If there was an item in my core, could I somehow transfer it to the outside world? It would certainly make Nyana happy if I could have another spear for her when she returned. And it would make me feel a little less guilty for eating her prized possession.
The energy I had taken from the pine needles, granite, basalt, iron, and wood was swirling around inside of me, and I gathered it together before focusing on the transparent image of the spear. The energy flooded the item’s outlines and filled in the blank areas until the spear looked much like the one I had eaten. I released it outward with a push, and it flowed out of my gemstone.
There was a clatter as the spear, now the size of the real thing rather than a tiny image inside my gemstone, hit the ground.
A sudden wave of tiredness came over me, and the light ball inside me grew dark. I felt myself start to grow smaller and smaller.
“Mike!” a faint voice called. “Mike, are you all right?”
It was Nyana. She had returned to the cave. Had she seen the new spear? I wondered if she liked my gift as she kept on calling out, her voice growing fainter and fainter. . .
I tried to reach out to her with my senses, but I couldn’t move them even a fraction. My sense of touch gripped something hard. Despite my tiredness, I was still hungry, so I decided to consume it. With each taste of this new object, a new kind of energy flooded my core. It was blissful and colorful, a refracted color that seemed to contain every kind of taste. Sweet, spicy, tart, salty, a dozen different combinations that coalesced into a feast that, quite frankly, made me feel guilty for altogether different reasons than eating a friend’s spear.
“Mike!” Nyana’s voice came again, but this time it was loud and clear.
When I had finished absorbing the new item, suddenly, my senses were amplified a thousandfold. The cave became clear to me, a small chamber with ragged rock walls. Shrubs grew at the entrance, clumps of silver balls scattered among their green leaves. They looked delicious, but the strange object I had consumed had left me feeling full.
What had I consumed? After I had eaten the other objects, I had acquired full knowledge of them, but this one was different.
My thoughts on the topic instantly vanished when I noticed the creature flying above me. It had purple and green scales, translucent, symmetrical wings, and a bright red beak. A red crest rose up from its angular head, and three horns jutted out from it. On second glance, there was a fourth horn, but it was much smaller and jagged, as though the rest of it had been broken off.
I had just used a bunch of words that, until this moment, had been foreign to me. Whatever I had eaten had infused my mind with knowledge. I wasn’t sure whether the knowledge was new, or had come from a latent reservoir inside my mind that was simply waiting to be accessed.
Either way, I was far stronger than I had been only moments ago.
“I gave you one of my horns,” the flying creature said in Nyana’s voice. I realized that this was what Nyana really looked like. “They are a faery dragon’s most powerful magic since they contain the most concentrated parts of fae essence. It is a kind of essence that cleanses corruption. Your little stone was overcome with corruption.”
“My light ball was fading out,” I said. “You saved me.”
“Your light ball?” She peered into my surface, and the fractal lights reflected in her golden eyes. “I think I know what it is. I have only ever seen one other Vigorous Zone Core, and that didn’t have a light inside it. Zone Core’s are well-known to be soulless, too. Maybe the light is your soul, and that’s what makes you different from other cores.”
“My soul,” I said, letting the word roll around my mind before I realized I knew nothing about the concept. “What are souls?”
“They are what allow you to cultivate,” Nyana explained.
“Cultivate? Is that a kind of food?”
She laughed. “No, silly. Cultivation is the process of taking essence into your body, refining it with your mind, and purifying it with your soul. You remove corruption from the essence when you purify it. Whenever you expend mana—which is what your personal essence is called—you leave corruption behind. Whatever you were doing while I was gone made you spend lots of mana, and filled your body with corruption. You have to purify yourself more often.”
Purify myself? That must have been what I was doing when I removed the shadows from my light ball and the impurities from my crystalline edges.
“So, I have a soul. It allows me to cultivate. Can it do anything else?” I asked.
“When your body and your mind dies, your soul lives on. If you have lived a good life, your soul will enter something honorable, but if you lived a bad life, then you become something detestable. It’s called reincarnation.”
“Do-do you think my soul might have lived somewhere else before this gemstone?”
“It’s possible,” Nyana answered. “But you have no memories of before, so I don’t see that it matters. What matters now is not doing anything silly that would mean you kill yourself! You haven’t lived long enough to prove you have been a good person, so your soul might leave this dungeon core and end up inside a goblin, of all things! And I only have three more horns. I don’t want to give them all to you.”
“I. . . I think your horn made my aura much stronger. I can see you now. I can even see the entrance to the cave.”
“That’s wonderful!” Nyana smiled. “And what’s this?” She landed on the ground and waddled over to the spear I had made. Her head suddenly shot up, and her mouth dropped. “This. . . this looks like my spear. But you. . . you ate half of it. How can this be here?”
“I used the energy I absorbed from eating other things to create that.”
“That’s incredible!” Nyana jumped up and down before taking off and flying in circles around the cave.
I thought she might be happy with the gift, but I never expected she would be this happy.
“You really are a special core. This also explains why you almost died. Creating this spear must have produced a lot of corruption in your body, and only the power of my horn could purify you.”
“Other cores can’t do this? It seemed simple enough.”
She smirked at me. “Other than almost triggering a reincarnation, of course. As to your question, other cores cannot simply bring something into existence. They have no souls, and very small minds. They are more forces of nature than actual thinking entities. Regular zone cores draw upon essence from outside themselves, but they aren’t capable of harnessing it with intention because they cannot cultivate since they have no souls. You intended to make this spear, and then you intentionally used your mana to create it.” She paused and stared at me, her eyes widening by the moment. “You might not be a Zone Core. I think you are something else entirely.”