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Hiding Hole was nowhere near as comfortable as Wizard’s Sanctum, but the spell got the job done.

After just about an hour of rest, Sylar’s soul was now reinfused with a versatile spread of the four Primal Essences, alongside a healthy amount of Form and Fate Essence, with a small trickle of Shadow and Space Essences for situational use. It was his preferred set-up for the limited store of Essence he could carry within his soul – unlike some mages that focused exclusive on one particular element, he valued being able to cast a wider variety of spells in his repertoire, even if he couldn’t repeatedly cast the same spells because of the lack of any one Essence in great quantities.

Much of the time had been spent waiting for the Transcendental Essences to funnel in – while they were commonplace here, they were still spread much more thinly than the Primal Essences were.

Inside the stationary extradimensional space of his Hiding Hole, Sylar had taken stock of what had been brought with him to this yet-unknown world. The situation wasn’t pretty – he had practically no coin on him, and he wasn’t certain if the few gold pieces he had were worth any currency here. Hells below, he didn’t know whether there were even other people with which he could trade.

Right now, his goals were twofold: find civilisation, and survey the local environment for anything of value and for threats. Food wasn’t too much of an issue, since he could simply conjure a bunch of Goodberries with the Form, Space, and Life Essences permeating the Aether. No one would use such a precious resource for so frivolous a purpose back on Resham, but circumstances had changed.

And so, while casting a weak Detect Creature every few dozen seconds, at a rate he could maintain indefinitely given his current Essence Flux and rate of Soulburn depletion, he continued travelling onward from the forest clearing that the artifact had sent him.

If the exit vector had been pre-determined by its previous user from the time of the Rostaran Civilisation, it was possible that civilisation was nearby, even if the thousands of years since had shifted the exit point of the teleportation spell. If it wasn’t predetermined, and his arrival location was completely random, it spat in the face of all established rules of Teleportation magics, which made for excellent study material once he found his way to a more secure location.

Then, after just slightly more than ten minutes of travelling at a cautioned pace –

AHHHH!”

Suddenly alert, he spun toward the direction of the faint yell. With a minute expenditure of Fate and Wind Essences, Trace Sound let him pinpoint the location where the sound originated, a task impossible for the mere human mind as soundwaves bounced, diffracted, and were dampened by the plant-life of the forest. In the next instant, Projection allowed for a short-range scrying, granting him a glimpse of a wagon being drawn by two frenzied horses, wheels clattering along a road, before disappearing beyond the bounds of his projected sight with the rate that it was travelling.

Hot on its heels, visible for only a few scant seconds, he saw a pair of lupine creatures, each almost the size of an adult human. One was almost ethereal in form, a near-transparent silver, while the other had a thick mane of dark fur. From where his physical body was, he could hear their snarling grow louder, alongside the sounds of wheels clumsily impacting against gravel.

Spirit Wolves. He’d never seen one in person before, but every mage worth their Essence knew of them from bestiaries. They were creatures most commonly found at nexuses where Space Essence bled into the Material Realm, proposed to originate from the Endless Expanse. Although relatively uncommon in most parts of Resham, most scholars agreed that they only posed a threat to junior adventurers.

They were said to be docile creatures, though. Why were they so enraged?

Sylar had no idea why Spirit Wolves were chasing down whatever poor soul was desperately trying to escape from their clutches, but he wasn’t about to stand around doing nothing. Common decency aside, it seemed that he had finally found some semblance of civilisation, and he wasn’t about to let something as simple as those creatures stand between him and the answers he sought.

He tapped on Fire and Form Essence, quickening his movements with a Haste spell, taking quick stock of his current state of resources. Thus far, he had cast two First Level spells and a single Third Level spell, leaving him down 42 Ferins of Essence. Haste had taken the vast majority of what Form and Fire Essences he’d stockpiled, leaving further Transmutation out of the question for the upcoming combat.

As he ran, he went over his options. Combat as mages revolved almost exclusively around resource management, and that went doubly so for Divination specialists, who had the uncanny ability to discern the constituent Essences within the souls of their opponents. Analysis and reaction, the point had been drilled into him since the early days of his training. Abusing the practicalities of Essence capacities and Soulburn that were universal to all life was the crux of battle.

Jiu ming ah! Jiu ming ah!”

The words were meaningless to Sylar, but the meaning was obvious from the sheer panic carried by the voice. With each passing second, the yelling grew louder still, the world passing by him rapidly under the influence of Haste. Finally, as light finally pierced through the thick canopy of trees, Sylar emerged from within the forest thicket, finding himself within the road that cut through the forest that he’d seen with his earlier spells.

“Eeek!”

The driver of the wagon shrieked loudly, jerking on the horse’s reins. That, unfortunately, only served to cause the horses to flinch, abruptly shifting their course, and in the process sent the wagon crashing over on its side. Sylar reacted instinctively, casting a quick Softening spell on the ground, cushioning what would otherwise have been a heavy impact. Rather than immediately splintering into pieces, the wagon instead sunk into the marshy terrain. The reins that kept the horses secured to the wagons snapped from the strain, the beasts of burden neighing loudly as they fled into the distance, driven by pure animalistic terror.

“Calm down!” Sylar urged, sparing only a brief glance for the fallen driver, who was flailing around in the morphed terrain. “You – damn it, you don’t understand Reshamin at all, do you?”

Sh-shen me?!”

There would be a time and place to cast a spell of Tongues to allow him to communicate with the panicked local, but it was assuredly not while he had to deal with the Spirit Wolves that were quickly drawing close to their cornered prey. He cursed, readying himself, Essences already placed into their respective shells for his first spell. With a new threat interposing between them and the downed man, the wolves halted for a brief instant, growling as they surveyed Sylar.

The bestiaries were rich with descriptions of Spirit Wolves, as one of the few creatures from their Plane of origin that ventured into Resham. They always came as a pair, one existing within the Material Plane, while the other drifted in a place between Planes. With a flare of Space Essence just like any spell cast by a mage, the two could reverse their spatial relation, the physical turning incorporeal, while the ethereal would enter fully into the material world. The scholars were divided on whether they were truly separate creatures, or two halves of a single whole, but it really didn’t matter to Sylar.

He concentrated, slotting Essences into their desired positions. A glyph flared brightly from his extended palm, a metaphysical representation of the spell matrix appearing. With a rushing whoosh, a jet of flame materialised into being, shaping themselves into several projectiles as they travelled toward the incoming assailants.

Just as described, his initial salvo of Searing Daggers passed straight through the spectral wolf, digging deeply into the flesh of its darker-coloured kin. It howled with pain and rage, crimson eyes filled with malice. The other wolf continued on, undeterred, leaping into the air, its sharp maw gaping open, its teeth glowing from the light of its silvery eyes as though illuminated by moonlight.

Just as planned.

From the time that he’d released his first spell, Sylar had already been preparing the matrix of the follow-up spell, fully anticipating the ineffectiveness of Searing Daggers to the ethereal wolf. With a grunt, a golden-yellow sigil manifested in the air between him and the wolf, before bursting into radiant light a moment later. The accompanying Thunderclap of sound and electricity that marked the eponymous spell sent the wolf hurtling backward, the silvery substance that composed its form shifting and morphing, disturbed by the spell as it was.

The texts were completely accurate, it seemed. While the more mundane half of the pair could be injured as any other opponent would be, only spells altered by an individual’s unique Core Essences could bring harm to the spectral wolf. Sylar’s specific Core Essence was based on Chaos, which altered the forms of the spells based on Wind Essence – such as Thunderclap – to manifest as lightning.

From one side, the local of this world was shouting words that were unintelligible to Sylar, but he thought he could get the gist of it. Shock, encouragement, cries of warning – unnecessary, but the sentiment was appreciated all the same.

Smoke billowed out from the burned coat of the physical wolf. Beside it, the other wolf had recovered from the effects of the Thunderclap, its form coalescing together, although it was now shrunken in size. In unison, they gave a guttural roar, repeating their attack.

To his Diviner’s sight, Sylar could see the Essence flaring within the pair as they charged and flanked him from both sides, and he reacted accordingly. With hastened limbs, he leapt backward deftly, unnatural dexterity preventing him from tripping, as he timed the release of his next spell. Essence was being fed into his opponent’s spell matrix, energy flaring, and –

Now!

In the precise moment that the pair’s bodies switched properties, the Third Level Lightning Lash tethered the two wolves together, forcefully altering the momentum of their charge as directed by his magical vector. The spectral wolf crashed bodily into its twin, tugged by arcs of lightning that wrapped around the pair. There was the sound of sizzling flesh, obscuring a fainter buzz that came with the dissipating ethereal substance of the ghostly wolf. Faint sparks danced along his outstretched fingertips, dancing electric lights playfully flashing momentarily in the space between Sylar and the wolves in the aftermath of the spell.

The end was near, now. Both wolves were struggling to rise to their feet, the spectral one only in slightly better shape than the burned and charred one. One final spell should do the trick.

They gave a final enraged howl, completely at odds with the regal nature that they were often described as, Essence flaring within their souls. The pattern was different, now. This was not the variant of Nether Swap that they previously employed. Narrowing his Diviner’s eyes, he skimmed over the Essence pairs quickly falling into place.

Four Space-Wind pairs, two Space-Space pairs, one Wind-Wind pair, and that formation –

On pure reflex, he reacted the way he would have against any mage opponent, readying a counter for what was their version of the Warp Strike spell. The space between them grew cloudy as their spell took hold, their forms blurring for just the briefest of instants, visible only to the eyes of a Diviner.

Instead of striking into the fleshy form of an unprotected mage, however, their attacks found resistance against the Earthen Shell that had been erected around his skin.

Used appropriately, a First Level spell could halt even a spell of the Second Level. Magical efficiency at its finest.

Where the spells met, the protective spell built of Earth Essence shielded against the cutting force of Wind Essence, being deposited into an Essence Field within the Aether. Sylar briefly considered his options – quickly draw upon the Essence before it dissipated completely, or press the attack?

There wasn’t yet a need to draw upon more Essence, since he had a healthy stock remaining, and so he decided to finish the job. Sylar grinned, tracking the bodies of his opponents that had glanced off his spell of warding, ready to deliver the final blow.

He’d already used up most of his gathered Fire and Wind Essences. Water Essence had been completely untouched, and now, they were being organised into one last spell to end the battle. Chaos Essence within the matrix imparted an element of disorder to the spell’s form, required to have any lasting effect on the spectral wolf. A layered glyph manifested in the air, in the vicinity of where he estimated the wolves would land based on their current trajectory.

A cloud of thick, condensed steam appeared in that space. With a hiss of vapour and an intense burst of radiance, the Fourth Level Cloudburst spell reduced what was left of the physical and ethereal forms of the wolves to nothingness through the combination of heat and pressure. Through the residual steam, he could see Space Essence drifting into their realm of origin, the final remnants of the Spirit Wolves diffusing away quickly.

No sense wasting good Essence. With how concentrated the Essence was, he could draw them into his soul at a respectable rate of about 1 Ferin per second. It was far, far faster than it had been back in his Hiding Hole, where he’d had to draw in the significantly more diffuse ambient Transcendental Essences.

By the time the steam cloud finally drifted away, his soul was 26 Ferins of Space Essence richer than he’d been previously. The expended Primal Essences were slowly being infused once more at a slower rate. Over the nine spells he’d casted since he heard the beginning of the commotion, he had accumulated 163 Pyrans of Soulburn – about a tenth of his maximum – that was now beginning to dissipate.

It had been a pretty decent showing, if he did say so himself. He didn’t tend to fight that much these days, but it was nice to see that habits from his adventuring days were more deeply ingrained than he’d thought. Now, it was time for him to take a breather, let all that excess Soulburn dissipate while he worked on getting back his expended Essence –

A cry of words he didn’t recognise that spewed from the still-trapped man’s lips made him reconsider that notion. Caught up in the adrenaline of the moment, he’d almost forgot what brought him to battle against the Spirit Wolves in the first place. Thankfully, Tongues was a low-level Divination spell, and didn’t tax his remaining reserves of Spirit and Fate Essence all that much.

“ – thank the Heavens that you’re here, oh I can’t believe that –“

The man’s exuberant wailing transformed into blissful clarity, the spell doing the necessary work of translating the technicalities of the local language. Sylar was no stranger to such treatment, having taken up various requests and pleas for assistance during his time as an adventurer with his companions.

Now that the battle was over, Sylar had the time to study the man more carefully. Details leapt out at him – plump features, ruffled but embroidered robes that tread dangerously close to being ostentatious, an overturned wagon bearing an assortment of goods. Even without Divination magic, he’d place a heavy bet on the man being a local trader.

“I can’t thank you enough, honoured hero,” the man continued speaking, having somehow extricated himself from the quicksand-like ground Sylar had created in the aftermath of Softening. Truthfully, though, Sylar wondered if perhaps he needed to get in better shape, if even a simple Zeroth Level spell could hamper his movements that much. “Truly! Never before have I seen the Guardians of the Silver Forest in such a craze! I, Suo Wenchai, will forever remember the assistance you have shown me this day!”

Guardians of the Silver Forest? Sylar raised an eyebrow. Kind of a mouthful, compared to the Spirit Wolves he knew them to be. The man’s manner of speech was also rather bizarre, and Sylar couldn’t tell whether it was a quirk of the local language or a rough spot in translation mediated by the spell of Tongues. The name was also unlike what was common in Nimbria, although he did know of several travellers coming from far off lands in Resham who had similar naming conventions. Family and personal names were spoken in the reverse order, if he remembered his cultures correctly.

“You are unhurt?” Sylar asked, giving another cursory inspection of the man. Though he voiced the words in his usual Reshamin, his lips and vocal cords moved of their own accord, being reshaped by the magics of the spell. Tongues really was useful.

Wenchai bobbed his head up and down quickly, tidying up his clothing as best he could. It was a rather difficult task, considering the flakes of loose earth that stuck to them. “Thanks to you, brave hero! One can always count on great cultivators like yourself to save the needy in Penshan!”

Cultivators? Again, it was another strange term. If there was any doubt before, he now knew that he was most definitely not in Resham.

A polite cough interrupted his musings. Wenchai shifted with mild unease, smiling sheepishly. “Ah… sir cultivator, if it is not too much trouble, about my cart…?”

He trailed off, eyes flicking between Sylar and his partially-ruined wagon. Sylar snorted in amusement, before gesturing with casual ease, sparing the 6 Ferins of Earth Essence for casting of the Level One Earthen Grasp spell. The trader gasped, as beneath the softened ground, a limb of stone grew upward, taking hold of the cart and righting it outside the confines of his initial spell.

It wasn’t quite the intended purpose of Earthern Grasp, but it got the job done. All things considered, the wagon wasn’t in too bad shape – some of the goods were strewn about, likely unsalvageable, but the carriage itself was fully functional, albeit slightly damaged.

“Oh, thank you!” he gushed, before quickly taking stock of his inventory of trade goods. Sylar shook his head, amused. Traders really were the same, no matter which Plane they were in. Wenchai continued muttering, turning to look back at Sylar every now and then as he surveyed his remaining goods. “I swear, I don’t know why the Silver Guardians were so angry… chased me and the horses for over two hours, they did...”

Hmm… two hours?

Come to think of it, that time frame did coincide with just about when he’d been teleported to this world… and considering the facts that Spirit Wolves were hypothesised to come from the Endless Expanse, and that such a grand teleportation was theorised to require more Space Essence than any mage could reasonably hold…

… one thing for sure, was that he’d be better off not telling Wenchai of just why the Spirit Wolves were in such a frenzy. Plausible deniability and all that.

“Well, at least the supplies to the Lu Manor are still in order,” Wenchai continued chattering on, audibly relieved, posture relaxing from his previous tense state. “Master Lu’s letter sounded so urgent… if this shipment were delayed, I –“

He paused, before turning to face Sylar, grinning widely. “Ah! But where are my manners! Great Hero, will you spare this undeserving one of your name?”

His mannerisms were starting to irk Sylar, to be honest. Hopefully, the rest of the locals weren’t quite so… well, he didn’t even know quite how to put it into words.

“Sylar Spellsight, or Sylar Wershin. Take your pick.”

Sy-lar… Spellsight?” He frowned, the name unfamiliar upon his lips, before recovering his previous jovialness. “Well! Brave Sylar, I owe you a debt I cannot possibly repay! Speak, and I shall see if it is within this one’s capability of –“

“Any chance of gold?” Sylar interrupted quickly, a faint smile on his lips. He’d dealt with traders before, and he knew this one’s type.

“Ah…” He glanced away, slightly embarrassed, coughing politely. “Perhaps something a little, ah, less material…?”

Yeah, he didn’t expect it to succeed. Considering that it was sort of his fault that the Spirit Wolves attacked Wenchai’s wagon, Sylar didn’t have much moral ground to press his case.

Instead, what he desired was information. And from his experiences, he knew that there was plenty he could squeeze out of this man.

“Where exactly is this place?”

He blinked, visibly confused, before shrugging. “Ah, lost in meditation, Sir Cultivator? Happens to the best of us! We are just an hour away from Penshan in the Jinxiang Province!”

Those names meant nothing to him, but the chosen term of address was starting to bother him. How best to phrase the question, though?

He thought for several seconds, Wenchai’s nervous smile growing all the while. Eventually, though, Sylar shrugged. Direct was probably the best approach. In the event that it failed, it wasn’t anything a Modify Memory couldn’t fix, even if the spell was close to the upper range of what he was able to cast at present. Considering how little Essence the man’s soul possessed, he wasn’t likely to be able to resist the effects of the spell.

“What are these cultivators you keep referring to?”

If he was confused before, Wenchai was outright befuddled now. “Cultivators…? But… were those not Spiritual Arts that you used to vanquish those foul beasts?” Then, his smile shifted into a knowing expression, sending Sylar a conspiratorial wink. “Ah! But of course! Sir Sylar is definitely not a cultivator, yes? Do not worry; Suo Wenchai can be very discrete!”

He tapped at his nose mischievously, as though taking part in some grand conspiracy, but Sylar couldn’t fathom as to what wild thoughts were running within the oddball’s mind. More importantly, though: Spiritual Arts? Was that what the locals termed their spells here?

If so, were cultivators the equivalent of mages? Bit of an odd naming convention, seeing as the word was more closely associated with those tending to farmland, but Sylar supposed that an outsider such as himself had no right to complain. Once he got himself oriented in this world, he was curious to see how the mages here might differ from those in Resham.

“If I may, though…” Wenchai spoke hesitantly, peering curiously at him. “I’m afraid I don’t recognise what sect Sylar-definitely-not-a-cultivator hails from?”

He gestured pointedly at the emblem on Sylar’s robes, the crest of the Kingdom of Nimbria that had been bestowed upon him and his party. Though he left his adventuring days behind after dealing with the Demilich, that had been a memento reminding him of those hectic five years he’d spent wandering the lands.

The question was odd, though. Most people tended to associate sects with the Monk organisations, such as the Order of the Closed Fist or the Way of the Winter’s Path. Most mages took up apprenticeships early on, before either continuing on with adventuring careers or setting up mage towers either individually or in collaboration with like-minded peers in magical academies.

Considering the question, though, Sylar gave the closest approximation he had to an answer, even if technically speaking he was the only member of his own so-called ‘sect’ that he set up.

“The Nimbrian Academy of Essence Studies. You wouldn’t have heard of it; it’s kind of far away.”

“The… what now?” Wenchai spoke, nonplussed, before shrugging. “Ah, well! Great Hero, if this merchant may ask you for a favour… if it is not too much trouble… you see, the horses ran off, and, well…”

Sylar waited patiently, as the man grew increasingly flustered while he made his request. “Could I trouble you to pull the wagon to Penshan? Do not worry, do not worry! There will be due compensation for your assistance!”

Huh, smart man. His adventuring party had charged by the hour when they were tasked with odd jobs.

Still, though, what did he mean by pull? Was there something lost in translation?

“You… want me to lug your wagon? To a city an hour away?”

“Well… I mean, you are not-a-cultivator –“ He gave a cheeky wink once more, emphasising his words, although Sylar still had no idea why Wenchai was thinking that he intended to mask his identity as a mage. “– and, well, everyone in all the six states knows of the heroic deeds and otherworldly strength of the legendary cultivators… I mean, the Righteous Heart Sect wouldn’t hesitate to help someone in need, and surely a Great Hero such as yourself won’t let yourself lose face to your fellow cultivators…”

He trailed off, looking deliberately at Sylar. Meanwhile, the mage was starting to think that perhaps some cultural differences in mages here might be larger than he initially thought.

What kind of self-respecting mage pulled a carriage with his bare hands? Sure, theoretically, a spell of Earthen Bulk or Titanic Transformation could dramatically increase one’s physical abilities to a level appropriate or significantly higher than required for the task, but there were so many other ways that were far simpler to accomplish it.

And Righteous Heart Sect? That sounded closer to the Orders of Monks or Paladins, not the terms chosen by mages.

Yeah, he was most definitely not a cultivator, whatever these people were supposed to be.

Truthfully, though, it wasn’t too much trouble. Besides, considering the present state of affairs, he was likely to be stuck here for quite some time, and having someone with knowledge of local happenings and with connections he could rely on might be worth it. It barely cost him anything, since he would eventually need to make his way to civilisation.

Of course, he’d still milk the trader for all the gold he could spare.

“I charge by the hour,” he said sternly, already stepping over to the front of the wagon.

“But of course!” Wenchai sounded affronted, as though insulted that that had even been a question. “No merchant worth his salt will ever dare short-change one of great talent such as yourself!”

“Laying on the praise a little thick there,” he commented dryly, readying his intended spell. Contrary to Wenchai’s words, he had no intention of performing manual labour when he could be relaxing instead. “Get on board.”

“Certainly!” He plopped himself atop the seat. Sylar joined him a moment later, much to his confusion. “Uhh –“

Mid-word, Sylar let the spell take hold, Shadow Essence forming the main constituent of the underlying matrix. Dark, wispy vapours coalesced together, before being knitted together as though strings on a loom, expanding outward and joining together. Beside him, Wenchai gasped loudly, mouth agape.

Odd. Was such magic uncommon? Sure, the commonfolk back in Resham didn’t deal with these branches of magic every day, considering how difficult it was to procure Shadow Essence at reasonable cost, but even they knew about the existence of these spells. Wenchai looked as though he was seeing the Deities themselves.

Shadow Essence was derived from the Hollow Reality, one of the Realms Beyond. Though reliable accounts of its nature were sparse, the generally accepted theory was that it mimicked the material world, stitched purely of Shadow Essence. At the pinnacle of Illusion magics, the goal was not to present a false reality, but to rewrite reality in a way that became real, blurring the division between it and the field of Transmutation.

This was no high-level Illusion spell, but Phantom Steed was well on its way to muddying the barrier between what was imaginary and what was real. It was yet again another Fourth Level spell, but he could always regenerate his lost Essence during the ride back.

“What… what is this?” Wenchai turned to look at Sylar, stunned. He reached out, touching the substance of the mighty chargers, what was once murky darkness now turning into a close approximation to actual horses. “This… I’ve never heard of such a Spiritual Art! They – they’re real!

Really? That was odd. Considering how much free access there was to the Transcendental Essences, except for Life and Death Essences, he’d been expecting to find that the local mages had advanced knowledge of esoteric magics. It was a bit of a disappointment, but perhaps Wenchai was simply uninformed.

“We’ll ride to Penshan, then ditch the horses once we’re there. You lead the way,” Sylar said, handing over the reins that had been crafted alongside the phantom horses from the Hollow Reality. In truth, he could mentally direct the horses himself, but he wanted to spare what concentration he had for gathering lost Essence and prying information out of the trader.

“Of course!” The trader accepted the offered reins, hesitantly at first, before growing into open curiosity as he found that it was just as tangible as the horses were. “Wow…”

With a mental order, Sylar stirred the constructs into motion. They began at a slow trod, letting Wenchai have some time to get used to the novelty of the Illusory magic, before breaking into a steady pace once he looked to be more comfortable with the task.

The wagon continued along on its way to Penshan. Now that the danger had passed, and he was once more back on track to make his delivery, it was clear that Wenchai had many questions regarding Sylar, if the furtive glances were any indication. Finally, Wenchai cleared his throat, and began to speak.

“This… forgive me for asking, great cultivator, but how have I never heard of you before?”

“I told you, I come from far away,” Sylar replied easily.

“Well! This humble one thanks you very much for your timely arrival,” Wenchai said. “What, ah, manner of business draws you to Penshan?”

Sylar considered the question. Without a sense of just what types of magic were available here, it didn’t seem like a good idea to talk about Teleportation magics stemming from an artifact that was so far out of the realm of what was practical from any living mage. Without an immediate solution that would let him return to Resham, his best course of action would be to further his understanding of the Transcendental Essences, and to check out the local mages.

“I’d like to meet other ma – I mean, cultivators in the area, if possible.” He tilted his head quizzically to one side. “Don’t suppose you’d know about the local situation?”

“Who do you think you’re speaking to?” The trader puffed his chest out, speaking with mock indignation. “Is there a soul in Penshan who hasn’t heard of the name of the great merchant Suo Wenchai?”

Probably, Sylar wanted to say. Considering that all he had was a single trade wagon, without any guards assigned to protection of his precious goods, he couldn’t be too far up the business ladder. Sylar, of course, didn’t openly comment on that, instead nodding politely.

“Penshan lies in the State of Wu,” Wenchai began speaking with an air of self-importance. “Of the cultivation sects closest to Penshan, the three most well-known are the Righteous Heart Sect, the Radiant Star Sect, and the Crystal Path Sect. Together, they form the Penshan Alliance, that protects the townsfolk from Demonic Beasts and other horrors.”

He paused momentarily, before voicing an afterthought. “Speaking of which, I really need to make sure that the Elders of the Righteous Heart Sect hear about the aggressive behaviour by the Silver Guardians today. Maybe they’ll finally send someone down to cull their numbers a little.”

He clicked his tongue in annoyance, unaware that the culprit for said behaviour was, in fact, seated right next to him. Then, Wenchai glanced at Sylar, expression brightening. “Master Lu is well acquainted with Elder Ma of the Righteous Heart Sect, actually. If you’d like, I could try asking him if he could introduce you to them, mister not-a-cultivator.”

Yet another wink; the words carefully intoned. Sylar supposed that there were mages who liked to hide their identities for the sole purpose of messing around with others, but he had no clue as to why Wenchai had inferred that of him.

“That would be much appreciated,” he said diplomatically. “For now, though, is there anything else you can tell me about the neighbouring areas?”

He asked the question, but couldn’t fathom why Wenchai looked utterly dumbfounded. He was about to repeat it once more, but then Wenchai began to speak, and he quickly saw the problem.

Tongues had expired. Getting used to this method of communication was going to be an annoying process. Sooner or later, he’d have to become independent of the spell, considering that it seemed like he would be stuck here for the foreseeable future. A quick reapplication of Tongues, and he caught the tail-end of Wenchai’s words.

“– what you said?”

“Is there anything else you can tell me about the region?” he asked once more.

Thankfully, his words were fully understood this time. Wenchai nodded obligingly, and began to tell him more about Penshan and its surroundings. There was a lot that he had to personally infer, since some trivial information that Wenchai took for granted was in fact unfamiliar to Sylar, but he got a close enough picture of the state of affairs here.

Mages – well, cultivators, he supposed – formed Sects. In most cases, they lived cooperatively with the commonfolk, helping them put down threats of all sorts. He had no idea what these ‘Demonic Beasts’ were that Wenchai kept referring to, but as far as he could tell it was pretty similar to how it worked in the Kingdom of Nimbria, where most mages were contracted adventurers or running independent research organisations. Here in the State of Wu, cultivators were independent parties for the most part, acting separately of the local government.

Other states, though, operated differently. There, cultivators had either a larger say in the matters of running their lands, or were in fact members of the government structure themselves. It wasn’t too different from, say, the Magiocracy in Velen or the Sacred Order of the Five Dragons that guided the Zirconian Empire.

Of course, not all mages acted in the interest of the commonfolk. Some, that Wenchai termed ‘Demonic Cultivators’, or followers of the ‘Evil Sects’, actively disrupted the peace. Again, it was not unfamiliar territory – Necromancer cults, Liches, rogue wizards disenchanted with their schools of origin, and many other such examples littered the history of Resham. He’d put down a couple of those threats himself together with his party in the past.

Despite all that, there was one fact that bothered him. No, scratch that – Labyrinth of Eyes below, it didn’t just bother him, it outright vexed him.

“These cultivators of yours spend their lifetimes training their bodies?”

“Of course!” Wenchai nodded rapidly, not at all bothered by Sylar’s aghast tone. “They say that the junior cultivators practice everyday from the time they are seven, and by the age of thirteen can split boulders with their bare hands! Was that not something you experienced yourself?”

… Sylar really hoped that Wenchai was misinformed, and that the source of power of these cultivators weren’t the same as that of mages, despite being able to use what he had termed ‘Spiritual Arts’. Sure, Sylar had been able to do the same with Boulderfist from the time he could hold enough Essence to cast First Level spells, and that same spell barely cost any Essence or Soulburn to him now that he was a full-fledged Arcanist… but why in all of Resham would he want to do that? Worse, why do that at the expense of ignoring the many other brilliant aspects of magic?

For that matter, did they simply cast the same low-level spell over and over again? It was still training that could grow Essence Capacity and maximum Soulburn, but it sounded like dreadfully boring work.

Wenchai continued speaking, oblivious to his thoughts. “I mean, I’ve heard of those from the Radiant Star Sect being able to punch out jets of flame with their qi techniques, but seeing those Spiritual Arts of yours first-hand really was something else.” He chuckled, steering the horses lightly, following the bend of the road. “Cultivators really can manipulate the Elements themselves, huh? Don’t suppose you could share a couple tricks with your good friend here?”

He elbowed Sylar in the ribs, holding on the reins with one hand. Sylar ignored him, thinking of other questions to ask. Truthfully speaking, much of his current interest lay in what the implications of having freely-available Transcendental Essences were to magical advancement of this world, but a merchant such as Wenchai wasn’t the right person to ask.

At present, spells requiring the Transcendentals other than Fate and Form higher than Fourth Level were difficult for him to cast, because he didn’t have much practice with infusing them into his soul, limited by their availability as he had been in Resham. Once he got settled down, he was keen to start working his way up the list of established spells whose matrices he’d memorised, but never got the chance to cast.

Perhaps he could even invent a spell or two from scratch, if he came across an issue that couldn’t be resolved through pre-existing spells. Substantiology and the related field of Spell Theory were crafts he’d dived into after retiring from adventuring life, and it wouldn’t do good for him to grow rusty.

And so it was, that Wenchai continued chattering on, guiding the Phantom Steeds toward the Lu Estate in Penshan City. Sylar picked up little bits of information every here and there, answering questions of his own where he could, and before he knew it, they arrived at their destination.

-o-o-o-

[An excerpt from Mage Logbook #1, Sylar Wershin, aged 10.]

Essence Dynamics

- Soulburn is shed at a rate proportional to current Soulburn (S). -d[S]/dt = a[S] + b, for some values a and b, that vary from individual to individual and can change during a person’s lifetime.

- The rate at which Essence is gathered from the mage’s surroundings follows first order kinetics with ambient Essence concentration, and is dependent on the amount of Essence already present within a soul. The lower the currently-infused Essence as a proportion of maximum Essence Capacity, and the greater the concentration of ambient Essence, the greater the rate that Essence can be drawn in.

- Occasionally, when spells meet, they can potentially react with one another, resulting in mutual annihilation. When this happens, constituent Essences of spells are deposited into the surrounding Aether, forming a localised Field of Essence. The high Essence concentration there allows for quick recovery of lost Essence, but the field quickly dissipates if left untapped. Master Rynwald says that considering how these fields can be used for strategic purposes is critical in battle, but he will only allow me to try it out in practical combat once I can consistently cast Second Level spells.

Homework

  1. Using several example values of initial Soulburn, calculate the time it would take for all current Soulburn to be depleted. Repeat with different values of a and b.
  2. Consider the phenomenon of Essence reactivity that gives rise to Essence Fields. Present five different ways in which such knowledge can be useful in combat situations.

[Transcriber’s notes: Be aware that while technically true, some of Spellsight’s notes and observations during his early days of training present an incomplete picture of today’s understanding of Essence Dynamics. Completed homework assignments, wherever recovered, can be found in annex 1.]

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Agranulocytosis

Bio: A scientist, casually writing about fantasy in my free time.

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