“This is it,” I reach out and try to touch the invisible barrier that separated the Endless Forest from its magic-dense region counterpart. There wasn't a physical barrier there, so my hand effortlessly passed through it, but I could immediately feel the difference in mana density on the other side.
Standing right outside the magic-dense region, I’d say the ambient mana was already 2.4-2.6 times higher than usual, while on the other side, I'd estimate it to be around 3.3 if what I was feeling on my hand was accurate. That was a considerable jump in ambient mana when you consider that my hand was only a few feet in front of me.
But if the change in mana wasn’t enough of a clue that things were different on the other side, you could just look at the plants around us. There were the standard trees and bushes I’ve grown up working around with my dad on this side of the barrier, and on the other side stood their bigger mana-infused cousins. The average tree size ballooned by almost 40% in a matter of feet. Not to mention, their colors looked more vibrant and healthier than anything I’ve ever seen before. The only other trees that came close to the ones in front of me were the few magic trees I’ve encountered.
“Are you ready?” Tabitha asks beside me.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I smile at her.
Tabitha looks me up and down and pauses on my face. I'm sure my eyes were a bit baggy from my lack of sleep last night, but I was ready. My adrenaline was pumping, and I didn't need to feign excitement. "I am,” I reassure her.
“So be it. Be on your guard. And remember, anything could happen from here on out. If I give you an order, I expect you to follow it.”
“I already said I would,” I roll my eyes.
Tabitha places her armored hand on my shoulder and makes sure I look her in the eyes. “I mean it. If I tell you to run, you run, even if it means leaving me behind.”
“Even if you’re about to die?” I nervously ask.
“Especially if I’m about to die,” Tabitha stresses. “Can you do that?”
I silently nod my head.
"I need to hear you say it. Without any sarcasm."
“I promise to follow your orders,” I pause, not wanting to agree to the second part.
“Even,” she pushes me to finish.
"Even if you're about to die," I reluctantly promise. But what Tabitha doesn’t know is that I have my fingers crossed behind my back, the gesture might not mean anything in this world, but it did to me. The two of us were going to survive together, no exceptions.
“Good," Tabitha's shoulders relaxed like a weight was lifted from her shoulders. "With me then.”
Side by side, the two of us step into the magic-dense region. But we don’t even take two steps inside before my right hand reflexing finds its way up to my hammer’s handle as I scan our surroundings. I can’t help but feel a little bit jumpy after what Tabitha just made me promise. I’m not sure which of us is better at detecting hidden enemies, but we were a team, and I wouldn't let her down.
“You see anything?” Tabitha asks me, seeing my hand resting on my weapon.
"Nothing, but that's to be expected. If there were anything dangerous nearby, it wouldn't have waited for us to enter in the first place,” she tells me matter-of-factly. “Besides, the strongest magic beasts prefer environments with the highest mana. So unless they have a good reason to leave, we won’t see any of them until we move much deeper into the forest.”
“You could’ve told me that sooner!” I growl. “With the way you were just talking, I figured we would be attacked as soon as we entered!”
“We could’ve been,” Tabitha points out to me.
“Yeah, but we weren’t!”
Tabitha shrugs at me as steam threatens to burst out of my ears. “But you were ready in case we were, weren't you?"
“Yeah… but!” I stubble for something to say but come up blank. Throwing my hands up, I suddenly had the desire to turn around and go home. My emotions were already stressed from last night, I know Tabitha was only doing it to mess with me, and I probably deserved it, but I wasn't in the mood for it.
Last night I felt like someone going through detox; only my substance of choice was lazily floating a few feet from me. I almost wish we were attacked as soon as we entered; at least that way, I would've had an excuse to work off some of this pent-up frustration.
Shaking my head, I cast away those thoughts. It was better not to tempt fate, even if I had it on a goddess’s authority that they didn’t interfere with the world.
“So, we're here; what do we do know?" I ask after taking a deep calming breath.
I was expecting Tabitha to make another dry remark, but she surprised me by giving me a serious answer. “We have two options. One, we wander aimlessly.”
“That’s an actual option?” I raise a questioning eyebrow.
"It is," Tabitha tells me. "Neither of us has been here before. We don’t know where anything is, and we’re just as likely to run into rare materials as we are at finding nothing. Option one all depends on our luck but is safer than option two."
“And what is option two?”
"Option two is to head for the center of the magic-dense region, where the strongest monsters live and the mana density is highest. It will be more dangerous than option one, but we're pretty much guaranteed to find rare materials on our way there. Of course, that is what you're looking for, isn't it?” Tabitha smirks at me, hinting at which option she prefers.
“I guess we’re going to the center of the magic-dense region then,” I chuckle. I didn’t come here for safe and easy. Master told me how rare minerals could be found anywhere here and that they could be relatively close to the surface. I'm sure with Sense Mana, I would be able to find a few such deposits if we stick to the outer areas of the magic-dense region, but they would be at most tier 3 at best. I wanted to get my hands on something better, so in we go.
“Alright then, can you point us in the right way?” Tabitha asks me for our heading, leaving me confused.
“Didn’t you say you were leading? And what makes you think I know the way to the center of this place?”
"You can sense mana, can't you?" Tabitha gives me a look that says the answer is obvious. "We need to head to where the mana is thickest, so which way is that?”
“Ohhhhh,” I finally get what she’s implying. Blushing, I focus on the mana around us. If all the mana originates from one point or multiple points close together, I should be able to see which direction it's originating from.
As soon as I activate my skills, it becomes obvious which way we have to go. “There,” I point towards the northeast. We were standing in a sea of mana currents, and they were all coming from that direction.
“Good, let me know if we need to change direction. Other than that, stay a few steps behind me at all times. And don’t hesitate to point out anything you find fishy around us; I'm no scout," she reminds me.
“I can do that,” I agree with Tabitha’s strategy and take up a position behind her, off to the side a bit; that way, I could still see in front of us.
Tabitha nods approvingly and starts moving in the direction I indicated. It might have started a bit rocky, but we were finally starting the real adventure.
I couldn’t wait to see what we encountered first!
For two hours, we walked through an endless expanse of towering trees. They stretched into the heavens as if reaching for the gods themselves. There was magic in them, so much so that they practically oozed it.
Surprisingly, no beasts attacked us. They were there, of course, scurrying just out of sight. But nevertheless, I could see their mana signatures plain as day.
There were giant squirrels the size of cats shimming up and down the trees, looking for fruit and nuts that contained more mana than a small magic gem. They were cautiously keeping their distance from us, watching our every move from the safety of their trees.
The squirrels weren't the only thing silently moving around us either; there were bugs, bugs larger than any bug had any right to be. Flies the size of Ping-Pong balls buzzed around us, dripping acid out of their horrific-looking mouths. After the first one landed on my shielded shoulder, I refused to let a single one touch me again.
Tabitha wasn’t exaggerating when she said anything was possible. The flies were drawn to me, not because I smelled bad or any of the usual reasons flies were drawn to people. No, these flies were drawn towards my Mana Skin. I had watched, horrified, as that first fly landed on my shoulder and expelled a clump of acid onto my barrier of mana that protected me from the outside world.
The fly’s acid was designed to eat through magic. The small wad of green goop it expelled tore through Mana Skin quickly. It absorbed my mana and thickened it into a paste that the fly then greedily consumed.
I crushed the inset before it could escape, only to have it pop like an overfilled water balloon when my hand connected with it. Its guts, much like its acid, ate through my mana. From that point on, I had to use a nearby stick as a makeshift weapon to defend myself because I sure as hell wasn’t going to test how my hammer would hold out against the disgusting creatures.
Tabitha was lucky; we were taking our time moving through the forest, so she didn’t need to activate her armor’s enchantments. Hence none of the flies were attracted to her.
There were other bugs two, but they weren’t as annoying as the flies. I picked out various spiders hidden in the underbrush; they ranged in size, with the smallest of them being coin-sized, while the largest one was the size of a medium-sized dog. The dog one was some sort of magic trap door-spider, we avoided its burrow, but we still saw it pop out for a moment when a two-foot-long centipede moved past its hidden opening.
I was on the lookout for its larger siblings, the chameleon spiders, but we’d yet to run into anything bigger than your average pet. So for my first big adventure, it was a little lackluster, all things considered. But I didn't care; I was still enamored with my surroundings.
I was picking up various sticks, not only for defense against the annoying flies but also to examine them for their magical properties. Unfortunately, most were similar to their non-magical counterparts and had only grown used to holding more mana. The stick currently in my hands was one such variant, and it was from a tree I was familiar with, a blacksmithing tree.
The stick was only a few feet long and wasn’t that thick, and yet it held the same amount of mana as the logs I usually used to power the forge. I had mentally memorized where the tree this stick originated from was located. So even if we didn't find anything else, which was highly unlikely, I could bring back some quality firewood. And who knew, depending on how this trip went, I might come back again later just for that tree.
If the supercharged blacksmithing logs worked like their standard counterpart, they would be hard to light, but the heat they would give off would be tremendous once it was. Since I started working with magic materials, I've required stronger and stronger flames; these better blacksmithing logs could be a big help for me.
If I could find trees this helpful only two hours into our journey, what would the trees in the deeper parts be like?
Everything around me was new, and that's what was exciting.
The trees weren’t the only things changed by the mana, each animal and insect we’ve passed by has had its own unique mana signature. For example, the annoying flies were a bright blue, showcasing their water affinity. The trap-door spider had a deep brown mana signature and manipulated the earth around it to the point its burrow was indistinguishable from its surroundings. Hell, even the giant ass squirrels radiated wind mana, even though I’ve yet to see what they can do with it.
The point was, if the squirrels started to shoot laser beams out of their eyes, I wouldn't be surprised at this point. Everything around us was magical, from the plants to the smallest of insects.
Though one thing I had trouble understanding was why was it so bright?
Mana explained why the trees and animals were bigger than usual and had unique properties, but how was it possible that we could see the forest around us?
The trees around us were massive, towering hundreds of feet. It was the middle of the day, but almost none of the sun's rays could pierce the dense forest canopy above us. So, by logic, the forest should be dark and hard to see, but that simply wasn't true.
There was a small amount of light seeping through the branches, but the forest still glowed, almost like it was caught in an eternal sunset. My first thought was that the trees were giving off small amounts of light in some form of bioluminescence. But if that were the case, the forest would be brighter than it was, so it had to be something else.
It had to have something to do with mana, the cause of anything weird in this world almost always traced back to mana somehow.
Using Sense Mana, I tried to see if I could spot a difference in the surrounding mana. A daunting task, considering our environment.
I was still getting used to the higher ambient mana that was constantly flowing past me. The veil of mana slightly reduced the range of my skill, and other than stationary targets and animals, it was almost impossible to sense the specifics of the mana flowing past me. Even if the mana was doing something to the light, I had no hope of seeing it.
While I was trying to unravel the mana around me, I saw it. "A break in the trees," I point out a hole in the canopy to Tabitha. And luckily, it didn’t look to be that far of a detour.
“I see it,” Tabitha nods in understanding and changes direction.
The forest became brighter the closer we got to the break in the tree line, but what I thought was a slight detour turned out to be a longer trek than I expected. We walked for over thirty minutes, and the hole in the sky leaking sunshine only got bigger and bigger. What I thought was a small hole in the canopy turned out to be a massive opening. And it didn’t take long for us to see why.
Laying on its side was one of the massive trees. It was covered in moss, vines, and other plants, all of which were slowly devouring it, turning the slowly rotting skyscraper into nourishment.
Tabitha and I followed the downed tree to a clearing in the forest, where we could find the rotting remains of the tree’s stump, and it was massive. Measurement put it at a massive forty-two feet and seven inches in diameter.
The downed tree had left a gaping hole overhead, but one look around the clearing and it was apparent it wouldn't stay open for long. Dozens of smaller trees had already sprung up around the stump and were racing each other to reach the top. Even with all this mana around them, the trees weren’t immortal.
How long would it take these new trees to reach the same height as the one that previously stood here?
100 years? 200? Who knew? Would I live long enough to see it?
Time would only tell, but it was better to focus on the present. "I'm going to look for any interesting plants nearby; care to join me?" I ask Tabitha.
"No, I'll rest a moment." Tabitha sat down on the massive stump. "Be mindful of your surroundings.”
“Will do,” I tell her as I start exploring the wide-open area. With the tree gone, plants that usually had to fight for the sunlight were growing rapidly. I wasn’t a herbologist by any means, and I was just looking for anything that had a higher than usual mana signature.
The most eye-catching plants in the clearing were some nearby ferns, the tips of which were purple. Rubbing the leaves left my fingers covered in tiny spores. Luckily, Mana Skin kept any of it from touching my actual skin. Judging by how tightly they clung to my mana, I’d say the spores were covered in microscopic hooks. Whether the spores were poisons or not didn't matter to me, I was interested in the plant for another reason.
I grab a small trowel out of my bag and use it to dig at the base of the fern, where I uncover its red roots, the part of the plant that contained the most mana. I didn’t care what properties they had; all I knew was that I could probably sell them to Kervin for some extra money.
Smiling to myself, I cycle Mana skin to remove any spores attached to me and pocket the cluster of roots in my bag.
That was when I heard it, rustling in the distance. I move to draw my hammer and turn to warn Tabitha. But it turns out I didn’t need to because she was already moving next to me with her sword drawn. “Don’t take your eyes off your target,” she quietly berates me.
By this point, the rustling had turned into rumbling. Whatever was approaching was a lot bigger than a dog or cat.
And here I thought we would go the whole day without fighting anything. Luckily, I was wrong.