Chapter 3: Life in the Wilderness
After the cloaked man set down the eggs and left a first meal, he succeeded the mission his master gave him, and began his long trot home. He was to report back and get a reward for completing such a difficult assignment. Travelling with any official merchant caravan or guild expedition was not an option, since his mission wasn’t lawful, even in his homeland. His task involved to leave the hatchlings a first meal and clear out the area of any dangerous beast which still showed the consideration his master had for other members of his own race. He wouldn’t simply kill off any potential rivals, but he couldn’t let them stay in their own country either. He couldn’t quite understand the plight of his master, because they were not from the same race after all, however he understood the need of such actions and was prepared to do this for him.
His master taught him the most basic insight into the path of cultivation over and over again: “The gods are impartial to everyone” and left him to ponder upon it when he was accepted as a student. When he was called to bring the eggs away, the traveller was once again instructed to apply his insights on this truth onto the current mission and report back what he surmised.
Reflecting about it for the whole duration of his journey so far, and after witnessing the newborn life shedding its shell and taking a first breath, he had gained another insight.
His first impression of the saying was the notion: no one had a say in his fate, and talents and blessings granted by the god were not influenced by who you are, but simply by luck and willfulness on the part of the gods.
But another interpretation represented the action his master took with the eggs: everyone was granted equal chances, and the greatest mercy one could gift another being was to bestow them the chance to make their own choices and create their own path.
A sense of enlightenment bloomed within him, and he hastened his steps to rest in a wayside inn at the main road connecting the capital of this kingdom with other areas.
An inn like this wasn’t fancy or particularly high class, but a place where weary travelers rested in a solid wooden bed or drink away the road dust with a cold mug of ale while enjoying a warm meal.
Elated by the progress in his training and insights, the cloaked traveller opened the door to the inn and headed over to the wooden counter, glancing at the smiling owner, dressed in a woolen shirt and leather pants, who was polishing a mug behind the bar counter. One other traveler was already tearing through a portion of the grilled boar and drinking in the bar, a lady dressed in a deep blue robe, who unlike her refined appearance devoured the meal at a rapid pace. The conversation between the two stopped when the door had opened, and after the woman appraised him with a long gaze, the owner gave him a wide business smile and asked, “Hello sir traveler, do you want to stay for the night? A single room is 60 copper, the common room is 15 copper. A meal would be 10 copper, how about it?” The friendly demeanor and educated speech was uncommon for a simple inn owner, but many nobles lost their family title and had to start over from scratch, so it wasn’t especially uncommon either. Granting himself this bit of luxury, the traveller opted to stay the night here and placed a single silver coin on the counter. “One night stay, single room and a meal for me,” he said.
The smiling owner wasn’t particularly upset over the blunt reply and tried to make some small talk instead, as he handed over the change of 30 copper. “You’re not from around here, are you? The sharp S does sound like you’re from the same place as my other guest, although she refuses to tell me where exactly that is. Some sort of lizard tribe in the hills?” Taken aback by the questioning from someone who tended to a bar by himself, the wary traveller sharply rebuked him, “I’m not too sure why you would associate me with some sort of lizard tribe, but I’ve been on a mission for my master and we have nothing in common with lowly lizards! It’s not your place to ask me about it!”
“Don’t be like that, not everyone wants to gossip as much as you do.” The woman made her entrance into the conversation, an impish glint in her eyes when she addressed the owner. “Have you heard about the Smiling Devil recently? Apparently the remains of his work were sighted in this kingdom recently.”
“The Smiling Devil? Is this a named ranker per chance? I don’t think the humans had someone like him in their sphere of influence during the recent times.”, commented the hooded traveler, his interest was piqued by someone with a title. A status like that couldn’t be acquired through effort alone, fame was needed for it to be coined as such. Humans always had the fewest named rankers among them, even though they had numbers to make up for it.
The woman brushed back her blond hair behind her ears and said, “It’s true! No one knows what he looks like, although there is a rumour the last thing you ever see is a smile so wide you don’t even see his eyes anymore!”
Unease crept along the back of the traveller as he tried to recall where he spotted such a person. Suddenly all of his senses screamed danger and he tried to move away, but a dagger had already burrowed its way into his back and a strange sensation spread from the wound. Poison! He turned his head with great difficulty. The inn owner no longer held that friendly face, but instead a grotesque mockery of a human face. The smile stretched from ear to ear, and his eyes were only slits while the owner was directing the rage in his face at the woman in the robe.
“Why would you try to trick me into doing your work. Clearly you wanted me to put him down when you started talking about my ranked name. I hope you do know that employing me is a very pricey task, and I don’t take getting used too kindly myself.” The chill emanating from the man who posed as the owner of the bar wasn’t any weaker than the feeling of life seeping out of the dying traveller’s back, and while the clothing he had before dissipated into smoke and revealed a deep black suit beneath it. His whole demeanor changed from friendly and inviting to a deadly and insane chill.
“Of course I’m not trying to rip you off, you are repaying the favour to my master, who told me about you in advance. With this, you can consider the debt paid. The man you just killed has something in common with me. We share the same master, and my mission was to prevent him from disclosing any information regarding his mission …”, a luscious smile spread on her lips, her hips shifting in a more comfortable position, “and before you ask who our master is, I do have to tell you I’d be deeply offended if you put him on the same level as me if you regard him as my equal. This servant was meant to carry out a mission in secrecy, and would have been rewarded if he accomplished it, and yet he gave out information that could be tracked back to us.”
With his final breath the man bleeding on the floor realized another insight in the phrase he pondered earlier, “The gods are impartial to everyone.” His master was prepared to either reward or punish him, regardless of the outcome of the mission. The only thing that mattered were his choices, and in his hubris to not be grouped with a lizard tribe he disclosed information his master forbid him from exposing. His choice brought about his death, and the only one to blame for that was his arrogance, the gods had no hand in this. Whether someone committed a good deed or dealt an evil blow only depended on perspective and individual choices. He had made his choice and now paid the price for failing the test.
His dying breath left his lips, which warped into a smile for the last time.
A year passed since the four little reptiles moved from their nest to the cave they discovered in their first hunt. The cave had been the base of a strong panther beast before the hooded stranger had cleared out the area of any strong beast that may threaten the eggs he had in his care, and he took the corpse away after slaying all of the panther’s followers and the panther, leaving the hideout without an owner.
Not long after that the chased rabbit had tried to shake off the hunters by passing through the domain of the panther, but had been caught instead, revealing the location of the cave. When the pack finished eating their fill of rabbit meat, they curiously explored the unknown den, hunting for more tasty meat.
Although they had not found anymore things to devour, the cave itself was a place where the energy of the heavens and the earth congregated, which also was the reason why the panther beast dug its lair here in the first place. Satisfied with the feeling of power welling up in the different rooms the pack settled down in this cave, feasted upon the remaining meat and fell asleep in the deeper rooms of the cave.
The next morning came rather abrupt, as something else intruded into the main entrance and loosened a roar, challenging the new inhabitants of the cavern. A life in the Wilderness was a fight every day, and today was no exception.
Little Flame led the others to charge against the first challenger of their new territory, a descendant of the original panther beast with green fur that lived here before and returned after hunting in the forest. When it discovered the absence of any familiar aura from the other panthers, it lunged inside the cave without a second thought, confronting the murderer of its kin. Not shrinking back from a battle, the new dwellers of the cave surrounded the intruder, baring their fangs and claws towards the meal that had delivered itself to their doorstep.
Faced by the encirclement, the panther had no choice but to lash out at one of the assailants, and it chose to attack Little Breeze first, who in turn tried to evade the lash by jumping back, but the superior speed of the assaulter guaranteed that the hit connected. Little Flame took the opportunity, tensed the muscles in its legs, and jumped towards the back of the panther and clawed at it. The fur on the back of the panther was too thick and hard to get cut, but it’s attacks broke the scales of Little Breeze, drawing blood. Excitement flushed through the pack, as the fight heated up the instincts of everyone, igniting the desire to struggle, to claw, to tear apart the enemy and gouge themselves in the flesh of the fallen.
The scene repeated itself, the panther lashed out at one of the surrounding lizards and the lizards retaliated in turn, a delicate balance of attack and defense formed. Little wounds accumulated on the reptiles, while the beast only endured the shock of the impact, without it’s fur or skin broken. The reason why it endured in this sort of encirclement laid in the different ranks of the fighters, the panther beast was at the peak of the second rank. The pack had mostly hit the first rank after eating the meat that got left behind and the prey hunted yesterday, and resting in the den brimming with energy further helped breaking through into the first rank.
Reaching the first rank wasn’t very hard, but signified a great change. The body started accumulating the natural energy of the earth and opened up new paths for the aurai, enhancing the muscles, skin, bones and everything else. One could run longer and faster, attacks would hit harder, the reactions would get faster, and turned normal animals into magical beasts and humans into cultivators.
Little Flame and its siblings achieved this rank and the defense of their scales as well as the sharpness of their claws increased. With the natural advantage of a monster’s body they were able to split rocks with a claw strike and withstand another monsters attack of the same rank.
The second rank was harder to achieve than the first rank. All one needed to do to achieve the first rank was getting a feel for the natural energy of the heavens or the earth and take it into the body, reshaping body and mind to a degree and stepping onto the path towards immortality. The second rank required one to fill the whole body with aura and expel all of the impurities in the body, elevating the advantages gained by one whole level. This lead to the first and second rank being called the Initiation and Purification stage by adventurers.
The panther beast on the other hand was a monster of the second rank, faster and stronger than the siblings. Its strikes easily sliced through metal and had no problem with splitting the scales covering their bodies, albeit not with ease. The natural defense of the tiny lizards was higher than the attack of the panther beast to begin with, so a higher rank didn’t mean it could easily breach their defense, it couldn’t get a fatal blow with ease. Further adding upon that was the intelligence of the siblings, which allowed them to ward off blows instead of taking them full force.
How far and how fast a magical beast could go along the path of cultivation relied on the intelligence and luck heavily of the beast. A smart beast gathered energy faster through cultivation than a mindless monster that only ate others of the same rank, gaining a bit of their energy with each meal. Additionally there were beasts that developed their mana rank as well, granting them additional mental strength and capacities.
Humans and other races had cultivation techniques and relied on meditation and exercise primarily to gain more mana and aura, although they also hunted magical beasts for their meat and their core. A core would form after reaching the sixth rank in any magical beast or monster, granting them an innate ability if they are lucky. Magical beasts in turn lusted for any human with a strong mana rank, eating the flesh of magicians was especially tasty and enhanced their survival chances greatly, while monsters generally hunted anything.
Lethal combat served as a great opportunity for Little Flame to get a feel for the new powers granted by attaining the first rank. Together with the other siblings, the fight grew more coordinated and they got a feeling for group combat. Instead of just lashing out every now and then they took turns attacking, bruising up the back and sides of the panther. The downside to this stalemate laid in the exhaustion and little wounds that piled up as the fight went on. Honed by the mortal reminder Little Flame felt something close to awakening after dodging a hard jab, akin to taking a fresh breath after holding the breath for a very long time, fresh air rushing through the whole body. In addition to to gaining the first aura rank, Little Flame also established the first mana rank, gaining a strong sense of self awareness to distinguish itself from animals and the whole world lit up within its eyes, glowing in different kinds of colours. The panther beast suddenly had distinct glowing lines running through the limbs and the neck, connecting the different parts of the body with the head.
Acting on instinct it applied the new power that welled within its soul to its claws and swiped at the neck of the struggling panther. With a red trail the claw sliced right through the fur and skin of the beast, drawing blood and crippling its movement, severing the glowing lines, drawing the end of the fight nearer, when the parts that were formerly connected with the glowing lines stopped moving. While Little Terra and the others blocked the attacks and death throes, Little Flame striked again and again to kill the intruder and sink their teeth into delicious meat. Through the newly discovered [Flame Enhancement] it covered the sharp claws with fire elemental mana that could easily slice through the body of an opponent one rank above, who lacked a defensive art or body technique. The encirclement proved its worth after the defense of the panther was broken, as even after being wary of the red lizard who could hurt it, the other reptiles also could tear at the open wounds and cause it to suffer. In the end the panther succumbed to the constant rain of claws and wounds, and the pack continued to tear at the meat and stripped the whole carcass until there was nothing left but the bones.
Little Flame suddenly knew the words for the beast – “Forest Panther” – although the exact meaning behind the term wasn’t clear yet. Other words that surfaced were “meat” and “meal”, giving birth to a strong craving for more of the tasty feast, although it still couldn’t compare to the first delicacy they had in their life.
With their first group fight concluded Little Flame took out the others to hunt more strong beasts, looking for delicious meat and honing their abilities. With a rudimental understanding of most basic words, Little Flame instructed the others on archaic [Elemental Enhancement], leading by example and practicing while fighting.
After the year passed with constant struggle, changes began to happen in the cave, deviating from the monotone routine of hunting and resting every day. Under the nourishment of the mana in the air of the cave, Little Breeze, Little Stream and Little Terra all gradually achieved their first mana rank and a simple understanding through words was possible, albeit the others still had no instinctive knowledge regarding the new language, so Little Flame slowly and steadily had to teach them the meaning behind words. With the emergence of the stronger self awareness, each of the lizards occupied their own room, observing the changes that happened to them. One night a strange thing occurred. Little Flame awoke to an object lying near the pile of leaves used as bedding, a piece of delicate cloth laid near a chunk of ore. Puzzled by the new object that appeared out of thin air, Little Flame nudged the objects with the nose, trying to get a feel for them. The cloth and the ore didn’t react in any way, but the feeling of softness from the textile fibres felt very good to Little Flame. Content with the new treasure, the cloth was swiftly incorporated into the bedding. Afterwards the pack leader checked upon the members, who either found some herbs growing in their rooms or a chunk of ore. No one besides Little Flame found a piece of cloth, which puzzled them for a bit, but it didn’t deter them from going out to hunt today yet again.
The materialization of items signified a change in the status of the cave. By being occupied with strong cultivating magical beasts the natural mana and aura found a way to manifest in a physical form. Even before the pack achieved the first mana rank, veins of ore appeared in the walls of the cave, but without the mental capacity and awareness to recognize the potential treasure or the ability to mine the veins it went unnoticed.
The concentration of natural energy released by the cave increased after the inhabitants not only achieved a rank in aura, but also in mana, creating a field dungeon. Every strong monster had the chance to create one and adventurers often were tasked to clear these lairs, harvesting the precious items that most monsters horded. These dungeons could be qualified with the use of a status stone and the right incantation, revealing the rank of the natural energy contained in the air. The lowest ranked dungeon usually only contained common iron ores or low ranked herbs, while a higher ranking dungeon produced increasingly rare veins of ore or precious herbs. They were not bound to produces treasures of the same rank and could very well contain items well below or above the rank, but the common view held the dungeon rank proportional to the items found within, although some adventurers struck it rich when they found a piece of equipment well above the level of dungeon they conquered.
Throughout the year the cave was filled with various types of ores, either in the form of chunks or veins in the walls, and herbs growing in the chambers or already dried up and bundled, ready to be compounded by an alchemist. Little Breeze traded most of the ores and herbs for silky clothes, building a whole nest to sleep in, while Little Stream was very fond of gems and aromatic herbs. Little Terra’s room was different, hoarding precious metals and and ores, sleeping on a mountain of iron, silver and gold. Only in the furthest room in, the room Little Flame lived in, different items would seldom appear, sometimes a dagger, sometimes a piece of clothing, sometimes tanned leather in the form of armour. Once a complete set of armour appeared, and the new owner was highly interested in what these interesting shiny pieces of metal had to do with each other. Occasionally they would find an item dropped after killing a beast on their group hunts, and Little Flame was highly interested in exotic items, trading them with the ores and herbs that appeared in its own room.