Situated somewhere at the Northern end of the Hundred Emirates, the Likimi forest is thought to lie within the ruins of the desolated kingdoms Kokara and Sauthun. Home to clades of hooved mammals and miraculous healing herbs, the forest was the sacred land of the Northlander human tribes for centuries. The Northlanders worshipped the land, ascribing their inhuman strength and abundant health to the core of the forest. In the battle taking place in the forest in the year 5152, King Mauca of Sauthun, discrediting the influence of the forest, had empoisoned the water source of the forest.
Likimi forest died off, and the Northlanders having their souls connected to the source also died off. The forest was wiped off the map.
After hundreds of years, it is said that the forest had regenerated itself. However, the exact location of this enigmatic woodland has remained a mystery to hopeful explorers. Scholars believed that before his death, the grand wizard Kazam of Kokara had cast a barrier spell on the entire forest. This barrier is said to conceal the woodland from the naked eye and was even powerful enough to elude the most powerful Spiritual Flair users trying to locate it.
Excerpt from "Mapping the Impossible: Sacred Sites Obscured to Men"
With my back against an oak tree, I watch as the sun goes up, imprinting Eugene's shadow on the ground as he swings his sword into the air. The grass, still damp from the morning dew, plasters the cold on Lek's body as he glides through them. It's a shame he can feel temperature, but not material.
"Eugene told me the grass on this side of the forest is soft, but I will never be able to know what softness really feels like." He glides his way back to my spot. "You feeling any better?"
I give him a sluggish nod.
He smiles. "You should be okay by tomorrow. Might catch a slight fever from the herb, but all good things have a side effect. You should take the metal armor off, though. It's uncomfortable to have on when you're not fighting."
When he and Eugene are together, they form the ultimate dumbass duo, but Lek is about a hundred times nicer around other people. I guess he just knows how to act.
I've regained consciousness for fifteen minutes, but I'm sure I'm paler than an Illucian Wisp and sicker than a nauseated passenger under the tankard of the Fujimato submarine in those training tests. My mouth feels dry and a tangy taste lingers at the tip of my tongue. My hair tumbles over my skin, fanning out in front of my chest plate. I must've been out in the sun for too long, since the chestnut color my hair should've had has instead turned into a darker brown.
Eugene had ransacked his inventory and found a single vial of health potion, made from the bark of the Karine tree and Chrynsen leaf. If I were a Soulbound Companion, the potion would've revitalized me immediately. Alleria had told me that since Soul creatures are made up of Soul Energy, they gain back the total amount of health provided by the potion as soon as we consume it. We humans have to rely on our metabolism, and that's a much slower process. But hey, you win some, you lose some. We know how things feel to the touch and know of concepts like fatherhood or love. I'd much rather be a human if the other choice means I won't ever have the General as my father.
Eugene is out in the open field, working on his new sword move. He grins at us as he kicks off a trunk and bounces to the highest branch near the tip of a tree. "I get the best view of all the dumb ogres from here!" He yells. "None of them are getting close anytime soon!"
He calls that move of his the "parkour", but it's only just him double jumping a little higher than he normally can. It doesn't even show up in the stats menu, though I think it will come up when he can make it different enough from a normal jump. Whenever he bounces and jounces around, his footwork is sloppy and his body focus is all over the place. But it doesn't matter because he's fast, really fast. When he actually pays attention and doesn't mess around, there are moments I can't even see his blade in the air.
"I don't get it. How is he so fast?" I let out a small cough. "You said his speed is at Level 113, right?"
"It's 114 now," Lek answers.
"And he unlocked the Rare move Speeding Bullet without training."
"Well, technically he fell into a pit, then he tried to jump up from the bottom. That was a whole morning of hopping up and down, plenty of training for someone like him."
"I—" I sigh. "—just don't get it. I've never seen anyone getting their skill ten levels above their overall level. Not even Captain Azra or father can manage that. And Eugene. . . is barely above Level 50."
"I guess he's a natural. But hey, he doesn't have any Flair. Gotta compensate somehow."
"Maybe his Flair is giving him super speed, and your stat menu just bugs out every time you show his stats."
"That'd mean all of our stat radars are bugged." Alleria showed the same stats for Eugene, and the SCs' data have never conflicted. They have never been wrong.
I make a respectable attempt at smiling. "I don't think I'll be able to match his speed even with five more years of training."
The more I think of how he excels, the more I hate myself. I hate that I can't catch up with him, no matter how hard I train. The more I hate myself, the more I hate him. It doesn't help that Eugene jokes around all the time. Especially the boob jokes. He makes me feel as though I'm a criminal for having plump breasts. I told him to go easy on the joke more than a few times, but he just played them down. It's just fun and games to him, after all.
But the feeling comes and goes. All things considered, we've been sparring partners ever since we were able to walk. He's one of the few friends I have.
"The second worst thing you can do is comparing your weaknesses to other people's strength. The worst thing is fighting three ogres one after another, but we've already gone through that." Lek speaks with a weirdly slow pacing and melodramatic intonation, like he's contracted some kind of syndrome.
I snort. "Sure, Arostitle the Philosopher."
A jolly yell from afar interrupts our conversation. "Honey! You're okay!"
I turn to the direction of the voice and see Alleria swooping in, fake-snuggling on my chest plate before bouncing around. "I'm so sorry, sugar. I'm so used to you leading the way that I got lost in the woods. But you took care of the monster, yeah? Good on ya!"
I bite my lip. "Eugene did it."
"Aww. . ." Alleria rubs herself against my cheek. "You'll get him back next time, sugar. You took out two burly boys. I'm sure he can't do that."
"Hey, I'm right here, you know," Lek says. Alleria glares and opens her mouth wide like she's baring her teeth, except she doesn't have any.
From the deep of the woods appears a lofty man with mossy green hair and the look of a person you won't ever want to cross. His honed arms are more green veins than skin, and his gray eyes can be penetrating even when he doesn't look at you.
He's Captain Azra.
I'd never seen anyone with skills outlevelling their overalls. Whenever I look at Azra, I wonder how many more ways can the individuals here mess up the stat menus. Because I've never seen anyone with stats that look anywhere close to his.
I can see Lek shuddering as he blobs around in a circular motion. SCs do that when they scour their database for archived stats. Soon, he flashes the stats before our eyes:
|Human Speed||LV 320|
|Human Strength||LV 288|
|Whip Expertise||LV 393|
|Weapon||King Igor's Whiplash|
|Tropical Summoning||LV 318|
|Temperate Summoning||LV 367|
|Coniferous Summoning||LV 356|
|Vinestrap Hawser||LV 300|
|Root Force||LV 296|
|Whisper of the Forest||LV 272|
|Hail of the Sapling||LV 188|
|Curse of Aokigahara||LV 112|
|Woodland Matrix||LV 240|
|Maneating Hulk||LV 197|
|Tree of Life (Passive)||LV 205|
It's not just that Azra has a Legendary weapon. It's not that he masters ten different Rare and Epic flair abilities on his side menu. It's that I can't even comprehend the bulk of information below his skill Tree of Life. Alleria told me that whenever she tried to decipher them, the data got even more convoluted, to the point they become nothing but noise. The SCs have never encountered any of this before, even with General Rizeni. I've thought about it long and hard, but right now, there's only one plausible explanation.
This man must have more than one Flair.
As Azra walks closer to us, he eyes at Eugene and gestures for the dude to hop down from the tree he's dangling on. I notice a flail with metal studs and a sword behind the Captain's back. I've never seen him carry any weapon before, besides wooden swords for training purposes. The man wasn't keen on close combat.
He approaches me, grabs on the flail and hand it to me. "Take this. I know you prefer weapons you can swing, so I had Leviathan made this instead of a mace. It's engineered to maximize sonic infusion."
I glimpse at the Captain then to the weapon on my lap. "Thank you, Captain, but I'm fond of the nunchaku."
"Your physical prowess is accelerating at a far higher rate than your speed, honey," says Alleria. "Using a nunchaku is in fact a handicap since it doesn't fit your skillset. Just have a look at the stats before you decide."
Alleria flashes the weapon's stats. It reads:
|Attack Range Boost||1%|
Eugene runs up to our spot just in time. He's never been this eager to walk up to Azra before, because the Captain's presence means training. I'm pretty sure it's because of the shiny new toy.
"Woah! What's this shiny new toy?" Asks Eugene. "Can I have it?"
"Yes, along with a beautiful coffin and a tombstone with your name on it," I grunt.
"We can have this discussion later." Azra's expression darkens. "Melodi Baggardo, you have violated the Safety Code, Rule 49, Section 3. One must never engage in combat without authorization. Rule 49, Section 6. One must never engage in combat without a backup partner within aiding distance."
I groan internally. I've trained harder than any other person here, and now he wants to punish me? Also, Azra should know better than anyone that we've been traveling together for years now. We're no longer an army, even if Father desperately tries to cling on to his obsolete General title and maintains any kind of military structure. Other officers like Tamara and Carlo treat us as equals. Only the Captain is this uptight.
I protest, "I would have had a partner if he hadn't been an hour late!"
Eugene shrugs. "I had no idea you were out here fighting Soulbound creatures! If you had told me we were going to work our butts off to whoop some ogre's asses, I would've made excuses to not show up altogether."
"Do you want to die?" I swing the flail at Eugene, but he leaps away.
"No weapon swinging!" Eugene yells. "Domestic violence can lead to ten-year imprisonment!"
"Domestic my ass!"
"Enough!" Azra commands, and we shut up at once. "It seems that because we are a small, tight-knit group, and the other officers have been too lax on you, you've forgotten how to act in front of superiors. Tamara and the Generel let you two overstep your boundaries far too often. You do not talk over me. Do you understand?"
"Yes," both Eugene and I answer with our heads dropping low.
"Melodi, you are overlooking the severity of this incident. You could have been badly injured."
"Soulbounds can't kill humans! The Universe won't let them!" I throw my hands in the air.
"But they can cripple you enough so you never wield a blade ever again."
That's true. I've been reckless, and I can't argue against that.
Azra squeezes his forehead. "Alleria, please escort Miss Baggardo home, and make sure she stays away from Soul Rift borders. I will have a talk with her father later. Eugene, Lek, come with me. I have business to discuss."
Captain Azra turns around and walks further into the Eastern darkwood, the place with the most Soul Rifts in Likimi forest. Eugene and Melodi stare at each other, confused.
"What did you get yourself into this time?" I ask.
"I didn't do anything! I just woke up and dragged my ass here. Don't assume it's my fault."
"The last time you said you did nothing, my kitchen exploded. My taco exploded."
"In my defense, there was no line in the cookbook saying I cannot sprinkle dynamite powder on top of the tortilla."
I want to jolt up from her spot and strangle the asshole, but Alleria intervenes. "Okay, enough chit-chat. You two sound like a married couple."
"We do not!" I yell at the same time as Eugene does. Why does she have to make things worse?
"Sure, sure. Now let's get you out of here, hun."
I stagger up to my feet and fake trying to walk away. They're doing something and excluding me from it, and I can't let it happen.
Eugene turns around, sheaths his sword and speaks to his SC, "We better catch up with Azra. Maybe the big man's going to give me a new flail too."
"I don't know, man," Lek replies. "I don't wanna be alone with him. He kinda gives me the chills."
"I guess you wouldn't have felt that way if you actually had body heat." Eugene chuckles.
"That's a terrible joke."
"Says the master of lame pun."
We amble in the general direction of the darkwood until we arrive near a pond where Azra is standing. From deep within the woods, a horrifying howl resounds, echoing through the groves several times before petering out.
"Wow, sounds like someone stepped on a nasty piece of toy brick," says Eugene.
"That's the sound of an Ethereal Bolthound. It might spark a fire if we let it roam free for another day."
"What's an Ethereal Bolthound?"
"It's an Epic Soulbound around Level 300. Or in your slang, a boss," Lek explains.
They're fighting an Epic creature? Why does Eugene get to fight an Epic creature?
"Its properties counter me, so I'm gonna need a partner," Azra says. "I was about to summon Melodi too, but she was foolish enough to injure herself."
"Uh. . ." Eugene scratches his head and takes a step back. "I don't like the direction this convo is heading."
Azra draws the sword from behind him and hands it over to Eugene. "Use this."
I scan the weapon for properties and show it to Eugene.
"Wow. What's lifesteal? I've never seen this keyword before," Eugene asks.
"It's basically vampirish stuff," I chime in. "It means you suck your opponent's health and gain back that amount. If you hit your opponent for 300, a 20% lifesteal would gain you 60 back."
All of them turn back at once.
"Why are you still here?" Azra frowns. "You are to get back to your place and rest."
"I want to join."
"You cannot. I would've asked for your aid, but now you're in no shape."
"I will get back. I just need to rest first."
"If I see you following us, I will escort you back by force."
"I get it. I'm not a kid." I frown.
Eugene inspects the weapon given to him, touching the snake-like ornate crossguard that slithers around it, a pink-colored jewel embedded in the center. He runs his fingers across the runes etched on the blade’s fuller, tracing the lines. He looks so much like a two-year-old playing with his new toy. I imagine he'll try stuffing the sword in his mouth soon.
"It's tingling in my hand," he murmurs. "What is this made of?"
"The blood of your ancestors," says Azra. Not a single hint of emotion surfaces on his face, and I almost believe his word for a second.
"Really?" Eugene asks, wide-eyed.
"No. Soulbounded steel."
"You scared the hell out of me. I thought I was swinging my grandfather's arteries." He gives it a few swings, adjusting his stance. Good footwork this time.
The shrill howls pierce through the forest again. Azra turns his back to us. From the ground behind him sprout thin vines, twirling around his wrists and creeping up his arms.
"Time to feast," he declares.