Ethan waited for the couple to finish their business. It didn’t take that long; they were done half an hour after he discovered them. As they were getting dressed, he started to walk toward them while thinking about his fabricated backstory.
His hood was down, his hair tied in the back, his t-shirt and jeans had cuts and holes everywhere, and he walked barefoot, as his shoes got trashed a week prior to this. Meanwhile, his cloak looked good as new, like he had just found it yesterday. No kind of backstory justified this appearance, so any kind of story was okay.
The couple got startled when they noticed Ethan. The girl took out a mace from her spatial storage, and the boy took his bow. They both got in a defensive position, alerted.
‘’Hi there, I don’t mean any harm,’’ he said with his best smile, his hands in the air. ‘’I kind of got lost and would appreciate it if you guys help me out.’’
The couple started to frown and look at each other, causing Ethan to suspect that his pronunciation wasn’t as good as he thought. ‘’Sorry, friend? Can you understand?’’
‘’Why are you speaking like an idiot?’’ the girl asked.
Ethan was relieved a little because while the words were hard to understand, he still got the gist of it. After just a few days with them, he was confident in understanding most of the speeches. At worst, Ani would have taught him.
‘’I came from far away and only saw some recorded literature of this language. This is actually my first time speaking.’’
‘’You came from Pacor? How is this even possible? The gates were destroyed centuries ago. No kind of artifact could carry you from that far, in the sea or air!’’ the boy exclaimed in shock.
Pacor? Nah, let's not flip the script. ‘’No, no. I came from the east. An ancient temple teleported me to the middle of the forest. My family lives in a secluded area inside the forest. We don’t have any connections to the outside,’’ Ethan explained as he randomly made up pronouns for the words and hoped for the best.
They seemed to understand most of it as they relaxed their guards. But they still looked hesitant and suspicious. ‘’You live in the Ivory Woodland? How did your family even survive till now? And how come you saw some literature but never spoke azoran?’’ the girl inquired, raising an eyebrow.
‘’Relax, we can talk about those later. He was clearly in a pickle until recently,’’ the boy told the girl before turning to ask Ethan. ‘’My name is Nuvian, and this is Alice. What's your name?’’
‘’Ethan, and thanks for your understanding. I can surely answer any questions you have. All I ask is that you guys bring me to the nearest town, and if that's too much trouble, you can just point the directions to me,’’ he added in an easy-going manner.
‘’Well, we have another party member to ask, but I don’t mind. What do you say, Alice?’’ Nuvian asked with an animated grin.
Alice crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes, ‘’Fine. You may come with us, but you better shut your mouth and behave yourself.’’
Ethan only understood what she meant when they returned to their camp and saw Alice giving a long kiss to the other boy who was skinning a crocodile before turning Ethan with a glare.
Great, apparently, dramas are universal, he grimaced internally while giving everyone a dry smile.
‘’Oliver, this is Ethan. He got lost in the woods and asked us for the nearest town. I’m already closing to tier-3, so it won’t be long before we return. What do you say for a new party member?’’ Nuvian proposed, seemingly enjoying Ethan’s discomfort.
Oliver walked toward Ethan, sizing him up and down, ‘’Early tier-2,’’ he commented before shrugging and extending his hand for a shake. ‘’Sure, as long as you don’t hold us back, you are welcome. I’m Oliver, team leader.’’
Ethan realized they were so trusted because he had the lowest cultivation. Oliver was in early tier-3. Nuvian was at the peak, and Alice was in the mid of tier-2. ‘’Ethan,’’ he grasped the others’ hand. ‘’Thanks, so you guys are hunting for Nuvian to reach tier-3?’’
Alice piped in, noticing Oliver’s confused expression, ‘’Yeah, he speaks weird and dresses weird. Many weird things are going on, but he promised to explain it.’’
As they sat by the fire to prepare food, Ethan got to know more about his new friend. They were from a free-forest city called Ehrendil. When Nuvian got his first rank 2 skill, they decided to travel to the borders of Ivory Woodland and help him reach tier-3.
Nuvian had an athletic body, similar to Ethan’s, and also a very charming face in contrast to his, which Ethan guessed was the work of magical elf genes. He was pretty sure that the flamboyant blonde elf was also a bard and poet, but he didn’t have a chance to ask. Alice and Oliver were childhood sweethearts. They were both good-looking brunettes and about a head shorter than Ethan. Even with his short stature, the broad-shouldered Oliver had a heroic aura. He kind of felt sad for the clueless guy, but it wasn’t his business, and he intended to keep it that way.
‘’So, the elders of your family only taught martial arts to the children and never taught anything about cultivation or even common knowledge?’’ Oliver repeated curiously.
‘’They said,’’ Ethan changed his tone as he was repeating his figurative elder's wisdom. ‘’Cultivation is about self-growth; anything they tell us would taint our own understanding. And that, we could find new perspectives if we figure it out by ourselves.’’
‘’I guess it makes sense,’’ Nuvian said, looking at his now sharpened knife with a pleased expression. He jumped down from the tree and walked toward the fire where the meal was cooking. ‘’Powerful families of free cities also don’t teach their children anything about skills and comprehension. They only teach how to fight until they are 16, ready to cultivate. But what I don’t understand is that yours didn’t even teach you about artifacts or elixirs.’’
Ethan sighed, ‘’Because the ruling family holds that kind of information, and they only share with those who work for them. I was so close to being chosen, but the damn temple sent me to the edge of the Ivory Woodland.’’
‘’How long ago was that?’’ Alice asked, watching him without a blink.
Ethan cursed himself silently, this lie was just bringing more lies. ‘’I’m not sure. A few months? I was mostly hiding, but I also had many close calls. This forest really doesn’t lack monsters.’’ He took the chance as Alice’s curiosity waned a little and changed the subject, ‘’So how did you guys make breakthroughs in your skills? Are there any supplements or something else helpful?’’
‘’A few months is impressive nonetheless. You’re fortunate to survive for so long,’’ Oliver commented, seemingly buying anything Ethan said. ‘’There are some herbs and legendary items that would help you comprehend faster, but they are too expensive. You may as well go buy a few rare skills with that kind of wealth. The best way is to go to a mana-rich area with the element of your skill. Like a volcano for the [fireball] or a maelstrom for the [lightning bolt] in Alice’s case,’’ he explained, looking at Alice fondly.
‘’What about void-based skills?’’ he challenged.
‘’Void? Like [Blink]? I never heard anybody cultivate with a set of void skills. Many nobles have [Blink], but they focus on other elements,’’ Alice replied, her brows furrowed.
Nuvian joined them with the roasted alligator meat and shared it with everyone. ‘’I have no idea either but I bet you can find out in Ehrendil. At worst, you could just buy other skills.’’
A soft breeze had already carried the smell of the meat, and Ethan’s mouth started to water. As he took a bite, he couldn’t help but moan, ‘’Mhmm God, what is this? If that crocodile was that delicious, it would go extinct already!’’
Nuvian chuckled, ‘’That's the spices, the canin leaf specifically, both expensive and rather rare.’’
I’m ready to exchange half of my cores for that canin leaf. If it's not enough, then I guess my [Fabric Shift] will see some dirty action, he thought, raising his head between bites, ‘’Right, you said Pacor something, what was that?’’
‘’You really know nothing. The continent we are in is called Azora.’’ Oliver started to explain, ‘’Almost 500 years ago, there was a big war that rocked the whole continent. The most powerful race at that time, the vampires, made the entire continent their enemies. Only the dwarfs sided with them for some reason. In the end, they lost and had to escape to another continent called Pacor.’’
Alice took over while taking small bites from her fare, ‘’At that time, Pacor was used for branch families of the powerful houses. After the terrible losses, the rest of the vampires and most of the dwarfs escaped there, right before destroying the ancient teleportation gates.’’
‘’So when you said that you only saw our language in the old books, I thought the vampires were coming back for revenge,’’ Nuvian shrugged.
‘’Vampires, huh. What other races ar– You know what, don’t tell me, I wanna see myself in Ehrendil,’’ he said with a smirk.
‘’A secret valley at the deepest part of Ivory Woodland where only humans live. Too bad you don’t know how to go back there. I would’ve loved to visit,’’ Oliver mused aloud.
‘’Like you visited everywhere, and that's the only place left,’’ Alice countered.
‘’I visited the Mirasatra kingdom when I was little, but none of you had,’’ he noted, looking smug.
Ethan was burning with questions but didn’t want to bother them too much; they would be together for at least a few months anyway. He also confirmed that the city they were going to is likely where the three biochip users were. And according to what he heard about the city, they should be safe and sound.
After the meal, Oliver asked Alice to get some wine from her pouch. She was the only one with spatial storage, and most of the supplies were in her possession.
It was approaching late evening as they were chilling in the shade of a large tree. Ethan left all his worries behind, like if the wine was poisoned or if they were gonna attack him after getting him drunk. Finding company after so long, he allowed himself to do some foolishness.
He played with his cup and smelled his wine before drinking, ‘’Oh, there is something bugging my mind, I used poison to kill a beast, but I got barely any essence from it. Do you guys know why?’’
Alice snuggled to Oliver as she replied, ‘’That's easy. When a living being dies, part of its essence goes to its killers. If not all the killers are near to it, the essence returns to our realm, Elisium. Since poison wasn’t your creation, your contribution was low.’’
Ethan cocked an eyebrow, a little surprised by the answer, ‘’But, the treasures I use are also not my creations?’’
‘’The same principle,’’ Oliver explained. ‘’If you use a legendary item to kill something, most of the essence is the blacksmith's share. If he or she is not around, it returns to the core of the realm. That's why, if you're gonna hunt and use expensive gear, you better go for higher tiers. Or just use minimal extra help and hunt the same tiers as you.’’
‘’But who decides this distribution?’’ Ethan was baffled. What the hell? Is there some kind of system I don't know?
Nuvian paused before bursting out in laughter, ‘’It's like teaching the children. Listen up, kids, this subject will be in the next exam,’’ he teased, straightening his back before continuing, ‘’Our realm, Elisium, has a consciousness. A consciousness that far surpasses us. All this mana belongs to the realm, so everything is in its domain. You won’t get cheated, don’t worry,’’ he assured with a wink.
Ignoring the wordplay at the end, Ethan just snickered. The information was too much for him to care about the playful elf. The world has a consciousness. Does it also have a soul? If not, Ani may also wield mana but of course, not in this condition. And perhaps what happened to Ani is related to the realm itself.
‘’Can we talk with this cons–’’
Alice’s loud scream interrupted him, and everybody jumped up.
‘’What the heck is that!’’ she cried out hysterically and pointed behind Ethan.
Turning back, Ethan saw that Beet was sitting on a tree branch casually. The light of the fire was illuminating half of its face, looking terrifying as ever. It was playing with a leaf, bored, as it would rather be killing babies than wasting its time here.
He waved his hand to calm the others, ‘’Relax, that's a friend of mine, Beet. Don’t be fooled by how it looks; it is very polite and kind.’’
‘’Those wouldn’t be my choice of words,’’ Nuvian murmured.
Shifting uncomfortably, Alice pointed, ‘’I feel like there is an evil aura around it.’’
‘’Nah, you are overreacting. He is very sweet once you know him.’’ Ethan managed to convince the others after a while. They sat down and continued to drink again.
‘’I didn’t even know those mantises could cultivate. It’s closing to tier 2,’’ Oliver said.
Switching to a comfy place, Nuvian shrugged. ‘’They don’t have bloodline skills, so it's almost impossible to advance to tier 3.’’
‘’Almost?’’ Ethan asked.
‘’Well, technically, you could teach him a skill, but he needs to understand the fundamentals of it to advance,’’ Nuvian said, peeking at Beet cautiously. ‘’I heard that is very rare for creatures like that, and even if he managed that, he needs to keep killing the same or higher tiers to keep advancing since it can’t cultivate with a manual. Why would he do that? After all, it’s just a mantis.’’
I wouldn’t be so sure, Ethan thought, looking at Beet sympathetically. Skills might be a problem, but I think killing is in its nature. Yeah, I know a guy like that...
‘’That Tommy’s mother had a tier-5 rabbit, right?’’ Alice asked, turning her head to Oliver.
‘’Yep, but I think that one ate a natural treasure. Even then, it's at least a few centuries old.’’
They kept talking about small things until it was time to sleep. Alice and Oliver had a tent-like structure, while Nuvian had a sleeping bag. Ethan volunteered for the night duty even though it was Nuvian’s turn. He had to stay alert, though. Cultivating the void manual with 30 yards [Mana Sense] was good as useless in guard duty.
As the others were sleeping, Ethan started to think about carrying a tent in his spatial ring. Maybe a man-made cabin that is as big as a quarter of the space in my ring. Just a good bed would suffice, but if the weather goes bad, I'm gonna need shelter, he mused idly, staring at the eerily quiet and dark forest.