In either of my lives, I’d never seen a beast like this before. The beast that had grabbed me seemed to be made entirely out of polished stone. Instead of eyes, two hollowed-out cavities radiating a pale glow that studied me with intelligence. With protruding mandibles that reminded me of an ape’s, the beast let out a deep rumble, trembling the very organs inside my body.
By how far my feet were dangling off the ground, it was easily over five meters tall. However, despite the situation I was in, under this terrifying presence emitted by my captor, I couldn’t help but stare in awe at what I beheld.
There was no flaw in the beast’s stone hide. It was as if the very earth had painstakingly polished this monster for millions of years, etching away any of the flaws it once could’ve had. The glossy stone that made up the gigantic ape’s body and face glittered like the ocean against the afternoon sun, enveloping it in an almost holy aura despite its grotesque form.
Suddenly, cracks began surfacing on the beast’s body, splintering off into endless branches as the same pale light of its eyes surfaced from the thin fissures.
The giant hand that wrapped around me loosened before crumbling into fine sand, just like the rest of the beast’s body. I fell to my feet as I watched the mound of sand, formerly the stone beast, slowly begin spreading onto the ground.
From the remains of the articulately conjured golem stood a thin, frail-looking man dressed in a shabby white coat. “From your expression, I’m guessing that didn’t scare you—only surprised you at best,” he muttered, clicking his tongue in annoyance.
“Arthur, I’d like you to meet Wren. He’s going to be your instructor for quite a while, so get acquainted.” Windsom had an amused sparkle in his eyes as he said this.
Out of all the asuras I had crossed paths with, Wren was by far the most unremarkable. With the body frame of a malnourished shut-in underneath his oversized coat, he stared at me intently, heavily hunched. The deep bags drooping beneath his half-closed, tired eyes were almost as dark as the greasy black hair that fell over his face like wet seaweed, obviously left unwashed for days. That, coupled with the uneven stubble that spread across his chin and cheeks made for a man who would be looked down on by even the dirtiest of vagrants.
Still, I knew better than to judge a man, much less an asura, by his outward appearance. Hell, without a decent shower or haircut in months, I had no right to say anything.
Dipping my head, I formally introduced myself to my new instructor. “Nice to meet you, my name is Arthur Leywin. I’ll be in your care.”
“Windsom,” the asura shifted his gaze, ignoring me. “What are the ramifications that the human society places on one who is tardy?”
“Excuse me? Ramifications?” I asked.
“A severed finger or toe, perhaps? No, that seems a bit severe. Imprisonment or social isolation seems more appropriate,” the hunched asura muttered to himself as he rubbed his stubbled chin.
“What are you talking about? There aren’t any ramifications or consequences for being a bit late!” I sputtered incredulously.
“What?” The asura looked genuinely surprised. “None at all? No punitive actions are taken whatsoever for such behavior?”
“It is looked down upon, but no, there are no formal charges one faces for being late,” Windsom intervened.
“How odd. For races that have such a minuscule lifespan, I would’ve imagined you guys placed more importance on time more than anything else. Such a backward race, you humans,” he murmured.
Despite his rude words, there was a truth to them. I couldn’t help but stifle a laugh at the apparent irony of us “lesser races.”
As the thin, shabby-looking asura continued to take mental notes, I couldn’t help but shoot a questioning glance at Windsom.
“Regardless of my ignorance on the social intricacies of human conduct, we should move on to why you’re here. As well as why I’ve come to this god-forsaken crater at the tip of a mountain.” Waving his hand as if to discard his needless thoughts, the asura approached me.
“Arthur, was it?” my new instructor asked.
“I want you to strip.” The asura’s gaze was unrelenting as he tapped his foot with impatience.
“Of course you do,” I muttered quietly under my breath.
“What was that?” He snapped.
“Not a single thing.” Letting out a sigh, I stripped down to my underwear. “Is this good enough, or would you like to study my family jewels as well?”
“The supposed savior of the lesser beings has quite the mouth,” Wren replied sardonically. He began circling me, poking me with his finger now and then. When the asura saw the white feather that Sylvia had left me wrapped around my arm, he removed it.
“Hey!” I exclaimed.
“Dragon’s feather. Truly a crafting material too rare to be wasting as an arm warmer, don’t you think?” the frail asura marveled.
“Crafting material?” I echoed, curious.
“The feathers on our wings are a particular type of scale that have many unique properties. From the day we are born, we never shed the feathers that make up our wings, so for a dragon to deliberately give someone his or her feathers signifies trust and affection,” Windsom answered.
Wren handed the long feather back to me. “I never knew,” I replied, looking at the long, white feather that felt silky between my fingers.
“How come Myre didn’t tell me about this?” I turned to Windsom.
“She must’ve had her reasons,” the asura answered in a dismissive tone.
Wren resumed his inspection, occasionally placing a finger or two over the major arteries and counting to himself.
“Spread your arms out,” Wren suddenly ordered. I did as told, hoping that abiding his commands would hasten the process.
I entertained myself with the amusing and slightly embarrassing fact that I was in the middle of a barren crater with two asuras watching me, almost completely naked.
The hunched asura continued to study me, muttering random numbers to himself. The afternoon sun cooked my skin as I continued to be examined like some laboratory mouse until Wren finally spoke again.
“We’ll start by firing a basic spell from all of the elements you can conjure. Use only your right hand to release the spell.” The asura placed his palm on my solar plexus and grabbed my right wrist. “Begin!”
I fired off a series of simple spells in no particular order: fire, water, ice, lightning, wind, then earth.
After I had finished, Wren began muttering to himself once again.
We continued testing with increasingly complex spells. Wren instructed the very form he wanted me to conjure the spell into, down to the very diameter of the stone pillar I was to erect from the ground.
Windsom quietly watched throughout the whole process, never uttering a single word unless asked. Whatever uncomfortableness or embarrassment I had during the beginning of this in-depth analysis was gone by the time the sun fell.
“Basic measurements and calculations are accounted for,” Wren announced, letting out a groan as he stretched his back and neck. “Moving on to effective use of mana arts in battle.”
Suddenly, he whipped around and pointed a long, pale finger at me. “Boy! Fire a spell over there. Quick!” The asura’s crackled voice rang as his finger shifted, pointing to a small, earthen golem that he had just conjured up.
On instinct, I turned to face the golem on command and gathered mana into my palm, manifesting it into a bolt of electricity that I fired at the target. The dummy golem shattered upon impact, crumbling into a small pile of rocks just about twenty meters away from where we were.
Without a change in expression, the pale-faced asura whipped his body in a different direction and pointed about thirty meters away, erecting another golem. “Again!”
I conjured another spell in my palm, but as I prepared to fire it, a heavy blow struck the back of my left leg, jerking me to my knee. The spell I had manifested in my palm shot out into the sky, missing the golem by a long shot.
Behind me was another golem that Wren had erected, standing with its arms crossed. Annoyingly enough, the golem had an arrogant grin etched into its faceless head.
Meanwhile, my instructor was staring at the bolt of fire that sailed across the sky, waving it goodbye.
“You missed!” he gasped in feigned surprise, his eyes remaining half-closed.
“So you’re one of those guys,” I cursed under my breath. I placed my palm on the golem, and with a few thoughts, it glowed bright red before crumbling into ashen remains. “Again,” I echoed through gritted teeth, standing back up on my feet.
“A tough one,” he whistled, taking out a small notebook and pen from his coat and scribbling something down.
From the very beginning, Wren had come off as an eccentric—reminding me a lot of Gideon—except I now knew that he was on a different level of weird than the old scientist back in Dicathen.
“Look, you’ve been making me do menial tasks all day. I’m fine with that, but I’d be more patient and willing if I actually knew what you were trying to figure out with your measurements and notes,” I pointed out.
“I doubt you’d be able to comprehend what I tell you.” Wren shook his head, waving dismissively at me.
“Try me,” I challenged, still virtually naked.
He explained that he’d been making calculations and speculations based on the milliseconds it took for mana to move accordingly within my body before it manifested. Besides the condescending tone he had used throughout his explanation, his insights were brilliant.
“There’s still a lot to account for that you didn’t measure, though,” I interjected. “We still need to account for the environment that we’re in right now. I find myself most comfortable using fire and water elemental spells, but water-affinity mana is lacking in this area.”
“Of course I put all of that into account. How long do you think I’ve been doing this for?” Wren’s condescending gaze shifted, however, as he stared at me curiously. “How old did you say you were?”
“Nearly fifteen now,” I answered, calculating in my head how long it had been since I came here.
“Huh. Not entirely brainless, I guess,” Wren shrugged.
I’d known the asura for less than a day, and I already knew that this was as much of a compliment that I would ever get from him. “So what’s next?”
“More tests. We’ll continue with a long range mana manipulation analysis,” Wren answered, looking around. The crater had turned dim, with only the moonlight shining above our heads.
Suddenly, the ground trembled underneath us. Out on the edge of the crater to our right were more golems. Even from here, I could make out hundreds of the human-sized stone golems approaching us.
The golems, much like the giant one that had first appeared, glittered in the dim moonlight as they marched in our direction.
I couldn’t help but ask in awe, “How many golems can you conjure at a time?”
“Depends on the complexity of the golem but those guys, a few thousand or so. Now, go all out.” Wren pointed his fingers at the golems, indicating for me to blow them up.
As the army of golems continued to draw closer, I activated Realmheart. I could feel my lips curl into a smile as the almost addictive feeling of my senses integrating with the world’s mana filled my body.
I unleashed everything I had in my arsenal, raining down an array of spells as Wren observed me scrutinizingly.
These golems were much sturdier than an average golem, but I managed to destroy the few hundred that Wren had conjured in less than an hour. I controlled my breathing as my chest continued to heave. I was tired, but destroying a few hundred golems did just the trick to relieve some of the stress I had.
“It’s as you said, Windsom. What a peculiar child he is. To have Realmheart, as well as a decent control over the elements at his age…He makes an excellent test subject.” For the first time, Wren’s face contorted into something akin to a smile.
“What’s next?” I asked, letting out a deep, content breath.
“Having fun, are we? It’ll start being less fun once they start hitting back,” Wren snickered. “Anyway, I still have to take into account the physical capabilities you possess. Windsom told me you’re quite adept with a sword and you’ve recently learned combat under Kordri’s instructions. So I’ll be taking those facts into account as we begin our next phase.”
“I understand, but for how long am I going to be naked?” I asked, looking at the pile of clothes that was now partially buried in debris.
“I’m analyzing every movement you make so it’d be better if you stay unclothed,” he answered. “Don’t worry. I’m not exactly filled with pleasure looking at your bare skin, either.”
Letting out a faint smile, I responded, “Very comforting.”
“Anyway. Let me take a look at the primary weapon you would use in a battle.”
Windsom had passed on the dimension ring I always kept my sword in to Myre when she was taking care of me; she had given it back to me after I was healed. Taking out Dawn’s Ballad from my ring—still inside its scabbard—I handed it to Wren.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from the thin asura when handing the blade to him. But I wasn’t expecting him to burst out laughing upon seeing my weapon.
The mysterious blade that I had stumbled upon looked like an ordinary black stick when it was still inside its sheath. Because of this, Wren might’ve mistaken it for a toy. “Here, let me show—”
“I know what it is, boy! Windsom, did you know of this when you asked me to train him?” Wren turned to the white-haired asura behind me.
“I had an inkling,” he confessed.
Wren gripped Dawn’s Ballad in both hands and began to tug on it.
“It’s not going to unsheathe. Only I’m able to…” my voice trailed off as I watched, wide-eyed, at the sword being drawn effortlessly by the thin asura.
The sword that I had paired with was only supposed to open at my command. However, even I was only able to unsheathe it in the first place because of Sylvia’s Dragon Will. “H-How?” I stuttered before coming to a realization. “Is it because you’re an asura that you can draw the sword I’ve bonded with?”
“No,” the asura answered, holding my sword up as he inspected its translucent teal blade. “It’s because I made this sword.”