Nyana had said I wasn’t a Zone Core as she had previously concluded. Exactly what manner of being I was didn’t matter. Currently, what mattered was whether my friend liked the gift I’d almost died to make for her.
“Do you like the spear?” I asked.
“It is a very heartfelt gesture,” Nyana replied. “While it’s not the exact spear that the wood elf tried to use to kill me, it’s close enough.” She bent over the weapon to inspect it more closely. “Actually, it seems to be much more refined.” She sounded surprised. “You didn’t create a copy. You made something even sharper, and the wood has fewer imperfections. How. . . how is that possible?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just thought about creating it, pushed a little energy—”
“Essence,” Nyana corrected me. “It’s called essence.”
“I pushed a little essence into it,” I continued, “and then visualized it outside my gemstone. Pop! It was there. Then, I felt like I had drained of energy. . . er, essence. I feel stronger now, so I don’t think I’ll die if I try it again with something else. It was lots of fun. I want to create more things.”
Nyana jumped in front of her other belongings—a smooth, almost perfectly round stone and a much smaller version of her spear—and lifted her wings as if to protect them from me. “No! No more eating my things.” She picked me up in her beak and placed me at the back of the cave. There was glittering stone behind me with a bunch of green bits on it that looked like tiny leaves.
“This can be your home, at the back of my cave,” Nyana said. “You seem to like rocks. And this one glitters. You’ll probably like it. If I was a lost Zone Core who ate stone, I imagine it would taste very nice. Maybe not as nice as my things, but you can’t eat my things. We’re friends, and friends don’t eat each other's things. You can eat as much rock as you like.”
“As much rock as I like?” My gemstone flickered with excitement.
“Yes,” Nyana replied. “I have to leave now, but you should be safe.”
“You’re going?” I asked.
“I need to hunt. I’m not like you. I can’t eat just anything.”
Her shadow grew larger over my gem, and her big, golden eyes appeared. Then, I felt a pressure against my gemstone, and saw her lips touch my upper surface. Then, she made a wet noise, and I felt a cool shiver as a tiny amount of liquid was left on my gemstone, along with the impression of her lips.
“See you soon, Mike,” she said, and then she was gone.
Nyana had permitted me to eat the rock at the back of her cave, so I started feasting with no reason to hold back. When I came upon the flecks of green, I found something entirely different. It tasted vibrant and squishy while carrying an essence very similar to the pine needles I’d eaten.
The word came to me unbidden: moss.
Moss was yum!
It wasn’t long until I had eaten all the moss. I noticed that the bright light which had shone outside the cave was no longer there, but another light had taken its place. This one was less bright than the previous had been. While it was curious, I was more interested in filling my gemstone with delicious materials.
Now that the moss was gone, I had to satisfy myself with the basalt. I discovered that I could eat while also looking inside my gemstone at the same time, and I realized that there were actually different kinds of essences inside me. One was a green color that had come from the moss and the pine needles, and the other was a rich brown color, from the granite and basalt. The first was always flowing while the latter was much more rigid and not quite as transparent.
I consumed and consumed until I was aching from the effort. The little light ball inside of me had dimmed until it was flickering. I wouldn’t have seen it if I were eating without also looking within myself simultaneously. The last time I had pushed myself, I had almost died.
Was I not meant to eat more rock? Why couldn’t I just continue to eat and eat? I wanted to eat, and I always seemed hungry.
Did I have to clean the muck from my light ball before I could eat some more? Would that prevent my ‘soul’ from going to some other place via reincarnation? I didn’t have Nyana around to provide me with another horn if I got into trouble, so I would have to be careful.
I concentrated on the tiny globs of darkness inside my gemstone until I had cleared them away. I noticed that the two different kinds of essence I had acquired from the rocks and moss/leaves also contained tiny bits of muck inside them, and I cleaned those too.
While I had been doing this, the cave’s entrance was once again visited by the bigger light outside before it vanished again, the smaller light taking its place. I decided I would use them as measures of time since they seemed to replace each other in relatively predictable patterns.
From my feast on the cave’s back wall, I had carved about the length of the arrow deep, and about three arrows wide and five arrows deep. Feeling satisfied and full, I found I couldn’t eat anymore.
Nyana hadn’t returned yet, and I waited a while for her before I tried to eat again. Even though another little light had passed in that time, I was still completely full, unable to consume a single inch of stone.
Was I meant to use the essence inside of me before I could take in more?
I was considering creating more spears to use my essence when my attention was captured by the bushes with the silver balls on them at the cave’s entrance. What would they taste like?
I created a single spear and felt a little space open up inside my gemstone.
“Now, I can taste those silver balls!”
I tried to reach for them, but I found I couldn’t extend myself all the way to the cave’s entrance. Although I could see that far, my sense of touch couldn’t reach it. And if I couldn’t touch the place, then I would be forever unable to taste those silver balls.
“I could always wait for Nyana. Maybe she will pluck some from the bushes and let me taste them when she returns? But she’s been gone a long time. What if she never comes back?”
I would not only lose a friend, but, more important to me at the present moment, I would never get to taste the silver balls.
I pressed against the barrier that prevented me from getting more than a little distance from my gemstone. I heaved and pushed with every ounce of energy but couldn’t get past it. Frustration caused my gemstone to cloud over, and I finally gave up.
The thought of simply using all my essence to create more spears seemed pointless, so I decided to busy myself with cleaning the corruption from the floor inside the cave. Nyana would appreciate it, I was sure.
As I drew in the corruption from the ground and cleansed it, I noticed another feeling. It was the wind. I could feel it blowing through the cave’s entrance and along the cleaned parts of the floor.
That was strange. Had cleansing the corruption from the floor somehow made it a part of me?
The ball of light inside my gemstone burst with a luminescent brilliance as I realized the implications. I fervently purified the rest of the cave floor until the area all the way to the entrance was a part of me.
I was about to begin eating the bushes and the balls but found myself unable to concentrate with the wind blowing all over the cave floor. It tickled my surfaces, a thoroughly distracting sensation.
I knew the wind could be stopped with a simple obstruction from the memory of being inside Nyana’s pouch. The area of my gemstone that had been covered by the pouch wasn’t touched by the wind. But how could I create an obstruction? Could I create a hundred spears and stack them at the cave entrance? That seemed a little. . . excessive, and sounded like a lot of work to resolve such a simple problem.
The cave had obstructions on either side of them, thick sections of rock that formed the boundaries. Nyana had referred to them as walls when she first brought me here. Could I create a wall to close off the entrance? I would need to make it a little further away from the bushes so I could eat them.
Yes, this seemed like a great idea! Now, I just had to create a wall.
The process was much more difficult than I had imagined. I spat out a little of the brown essence, and it merely floated in the air before fluttering to the ground. It didn’t look at all like the basalt or granite from which I’d refined it. It took a few more tries before I could combine multiple units of brown essence into a thick clump, and even more attempts until those clumps became something resembling rock. With each new clump, the entrance became more closed off, and less wind blew over my surface. My gemstone was almost completely empty of essence.
When I’d almost completed the wall, only a slight gap at the very top, the wind began to whistle.
Was it begging me to stop?
I laughed to myself, knowing the wind would not win this little battle.
Then something else made a sound. A tiny squeaking noise. It didn’t sound like the wind, but then I had never heard the wind whistle before so maybe it was capable of making many noises?
I felt something skitter along my wall as it scurried along the stone. It was a little larger than Nyana, had brown fur and two buck-teeth. It went to my silverberry bush and started eating on the fruits.
“Those are mine!” I yelled as the creature continued feasting upon my precious bush.
I continued screaming at it, but it paid me no heed. I tried to reach out to the critter and eat it before it finished consuming my silverberries, but I encountered a kind of barrier. It was a weak obstruction and completely invisible.
My anger faded before intrigue. What was it about this creature that prevented me from touching it?
Was this a dreaded wood elf? The creature who had almost killed Nyana? No, it seemed much too small to use something the size of a spear. A goblin, perhaps? A human, perhaps? No, it was also too small to use the arrow.
I knew it, then. This little terror was a goblin!
“You will die today, goblin,” I said. “Your soul will enter something terrible. Something much worse than a goblin. Like a. . . “ I realized I didn’t know what was worse than a goblin, then I knew. “You will reincarnate into a ‘wind’!” I let out a maniacal laugh, and the goblin seemed to hear me. It lifted its head before its eyes widened, and it suddenly scurried back up the wall. Before it could escape through the slight gap, the wind blew, and it crashed to the floor.
The goblin was still breathing, but its eyes were closed. Was it tired?
All I knew was that I wanted to feast upon this scrumptious-looking creature. And I had made a promise, and the wind had helped me fulfil it.
Maybe the wind wasn’t so bad, after all.
I sent my aura over the goblin, expecting to come against the barrier, but it wasn’t present this time. I suspected it had something to do with the fall from a great height. Regardless, I consumed the little creature, starting at its head. Its little skull popped in an explosion of red. It was messy business finishing off the meal, what with the red juice everywhere.
When I had finished, it became clear that my assumption was wrong. This was no goblin, but a squirrel. Its essence was a green color, mixed with a bland, pink color. This was a new essence, something I hadn’t experienced before. It might have looked bland, but it tasted wonderful.
Without anything else to eat, I completed the rest of the wall. The lights I had used to track time were now gone, and I had to admit I missed them a little. But the feeling vanished when I tasted the most delectable treat yet: the silver balls. As I consumed them, I discovered that they were called silverberries. They provided me with more of the green essence.
I had already learned that I could do multiple tasks at once, so I cleaned the corruption from the silverberry essence while I ate more of the delicious items.
When I had finished eating, I heard a faint noise coming from the other side of the wall.
“Is that you, Wind?” I called out. “I built this wall to keep you out! You’re not coming back in here to tickle me as you please.”
“It’s not the wind, you idiot!” the voice cried again, still muffled. “It’s Nyana! What have you done to my cave?”
I suddenly realized that I had blocked the dragonling from entering by creating the wall.
It took a long time to remove enough of the wall for Nyana to squeeze through, but much less time than it had taken to build it in the first place.
The wind whistled again, but I didn’t mind anymore. Even when it blew against me, I was content because I recalled how it had helped me slay my first predator: the terrifying squirrel.
“What-what have you done?” she asked as she glared at the wall covering the cvae’s entrance. “It was you who did this, wasn’t it?”
She sounded angry at first, but then she spotted the floor. It glistened and reflected the low light coming through the now-narrow entrance.
“This looks beautiful,” she said. “You did all this in a week?”
“A week?” I asked, the word foreign to me.
“Seven days,” she explained. “You do know what days are, don’t you?”
She was obviously referring to some method of timekeeping,. Was it similar to the one I had come up with myself?
“When the big light and the little light appear and reappear a single time?” I guessed.
“That’s right. The big light is the sun, and it comes out during the day. The moon is the little light, and it comes out at night. Together, they are a single day.”
“Shouldn’t they be a day-night? Or a night and a day?”
“No. Together, a day and a night are equal to a single day.”
“That makes no sense,” I said.
Nyana shrugged. “It is the way of things. I don’t question them.” She flew toward my gemstone and fluttered above it. “What’s this?” she asked.
I didn’t know to what she referred until I returned my attention to the back of the cave. Floating above my gemstone, next to the dragonling, was a ball of light. This one was much smaller and much less brilliant than the one inside my gemstone.
“Is it another soul?” I asked. “Did I grow a second soul?”
“That’s impossible,” Nyana said. “Well, maybe not impossible. It certainly looks like your soul, but no one can have two souls.”
“It looks tasty.”
“No!” Nyana cried, and I stopped. “I think. . . no, it couldn’t be one of those,” she said, almost to herself.
“One of what?” I asked, my interest piqued enough not to eat it right away.
“That would be impossible,” she continued muttering to herself. “It takes a Zone Core many years to form one. And a cultivator would need to kill dozens of monsters to refine even the simplest--”
“What is it?!” I demanded.
She turned her head toward me, her golden eyes sparkling. “I think it’s a spell. I have only ever seen a few of them. They are pure souls, without bodies or minds. And you most certainly cannot eat it.”
A spell? If I couldn’t eat it, then what was I meant to do with it?