Zirani led me to another room connected to what I was starting to recognize as some sort of warehouse. It was full of more boxes, except these held gray packets full of what I could only describe as meat porridge. If I wasn"t in such a bad situation then I might have turned it down, but I ended up eating two full packets of what was apparently meat and potato flavor, not that it tasted anything like that.
"Your not gonna eat?" I asked Zirani after I was done. She had been sitting, watching me the entire time, not moving to pick up a packet for herself.
"Oh, I don"t need to eat," She said. "Now that I"m attached to you, I don"t need sustenance, and even back when I was a seventh-level aether beast, I rarely actually ate, the pure aether of the world kept me going."
That made sense from what I knew. The higher your level of infusion the more benefits and changes that occurred. Not only did your lifespan increase along with your physical and mental capabilities, but you became less and less reliant on things like food, water, and even air. It was said that at the fabled tenth level, you became immortal and gained power beyond anything that existed.
I asked if she could find me some water but regretted it when a sad look crossed her face. Suddenly I remembered the image of her lying near death, her hand in that metal box.
"Remember when I said I barely needed food, well that"s true, but that means I still needed a bit"
She hesitated. "I don"t really remember much of how I got here, but when I woke I was in desperate need of water. I think it actually has to do with my affinity because I know some aether beasts at the sixth level who don"t need to eat or drink at all. The aether around your town and in what you call the northern plains is very thin and impure compared to the southern wilds or Verrin lands. I passed out while I was looking and that"s where you found me."
"Oh," I said, feeling guilty about the question.
"Don"t be," She said and I once again marveled at how she seemed to know what I was thinking.
"Can you read my mind?"
She laughed. "Sort of, we"re connected so I can hear surface thoughts, and if I want I can look at your memories, but not for long. That"s not a problem is it?"
I shook my head slowly. I didn"t really have anything to hide from her, and well we were attached, so wouldn"t it be better the sooner she got to know me?
She looked relieved and gave me another smile that threatened to send my cheeks ablaze. God, I was acting like I"d never seen a beautiful woman before, then again I never had seen someone like Zirani.
"So what was it you wanted to teach me?" I asked. She gave me a smile that told me she knew what I"d been thinking which reminded me that she could read my surface thoughts. I held back a sigh and waited.
"As I said before I"m over four hundred years old, and I didn"t start off as a Zigan," She began. "I was born a dryad."
"A dryad? They"re real?"
I knew aether beasts could evolve and change, but I"d never heard of a dryad becoming a Zigan, but it did make sense. They were both nature affinity and both humanoid.
"Yes, and for most of my time, around three hundred years, life was simple. I spent all my time in the southern jungles outside of Verrin lands. Over that time I learned a great deal of utility when it came to my affinity and stealth and other non-combat techniques, but as you can see, I didn"t stay a dryad. A situation caused me to revise what I needed, and I quickly begin learning how to use my affinity to fight. It"s actually a lot harder than you might think to get a dryad to fight. We are by nature, peaceful beasts, but if pushed then we can change and I did. It took over ninety years, but through constant battle, training, and the right essence, I managed to become a jungle queen as you call it."
"And you going to teach me these techniques?"
I was leaning forward, eager. To be taught by someone of Zirani skills made me very lucky. She was an aether beast who had been born with her affinity and probably understood it better than most arcanists could.
She smiled at my eagerness. "Yes, but we"re going to start with the basics. Three techniques, one of offense, one for defense, one for utility. Now, don"t think that they can"t all be used in all three ways, just that they all have primary focuses."
She looked around. "Not in here though. There"s an exit that leads out to the forest."
I flinched at the reminder. "There"s gale wolves out there, or I think they could still be out there."
The thought of running into them even with a core was not pleasant. I wasn"t anywhere near strong enough to take them.
"Not yet," She said in reply to my thoughts, "And don"t worry the area is blocked off on all sides by stone and rubble, and what I will teach will allow you to sense when these wolves are nearby."
She stood and I quickly followed, interested to see what she would teach me.
We traveled through another hallway and through another door, but instead of ending up in another room, we ended up in a small clearing, surrounded by walls on all slides. The roof had collapsed and the ground was dirt rather than stone or concrete. There was another door but it was blocked by rubble.
I stopped and just let out a breath, at the feeling of fresh air and the sun, and to my surprise, Zirani did the same.
"I don"t like being underground, especially when there"s no green nearby," She said. Then she turned to me and her smile was feral, full of excitement. "Time for training."
I gulped, feeling the change in her. She"d just gone from friend to teacher, something I experienced with my aunt a few times when she"d been teaching me basic first aid.
"First thing we need to clear up is your view on nature. Nature is not just about plants, and growth, and harvest as most believe. Nature has two sides. It can be calm and serene and peaceful."
A small blade of grass in front of her began to grow, becoming more vibrant and lively.
"But that is just one aspect of it. Nature can be violent, uncaring. Does a storm or earthquake care about the people it will hurt? Does a tidal wave apologize after it"s washed away a town or village? Do the mountains of flame weep for the people they burn when they erupt."
The blade of grass lengthened and straightened, thinning until it looked more like a long razor. Zirani snapped it from the ground and twirled it once, bringing it around in an arc that cut a nearby boulder in half.
I watched, amazed. She"d just turned a blade of grass into an… well a blade of grass.
"Nature is dual-sided and I will be teaching you both of those sides."
I nodded eagerly. "I understand."
"Good. I would prefer to teach you the freeform method, but honestly, I think that will have to wait until later and until your at a higher level of infusion so we"ll do the three techniques starting with the defense technique."
She raised her right arm, and bark began to cover it up to the elbow. It was darker than normal bark.
"Bark armor," I asked. I didn"t think bark was that strong.
She must have been reading my thoughts because she rolled her eyes. "This is not normal bark."
She raised the blade of grass and brought it down on the arm. I winced, expecting it to be cut, but instead, the blade of grass stopped halfway into the bark.
Ok, then, maybe bark was that strong.
"This will be the foundation for later stages of wood manipulation. For now, we"ll do just your arms up to your elbow and your shins. I know from your memories that your preferred weapon is a glaive, but you do also know how to fight with your hands and legs."
I nodded. The academy had taught everyone how to use at least two weapons and basic hand-to-hand combat.
"Ok, I want you to focus on our core, and slowly pull some aether from it, not essence, Be careful. Then move that aether up to your right arm and picture it pushing through your skin and forming a layer around it, then solidifying as bark, the skin of a tree. It might be hard at first, but keep going, and you"ll get it."
I focused and looked into my inner self, picturing my core and taking a deep breath, pulling aether from the core as I did. I felt the rush of power, and it was such an odd feeling that I lost control and the aether splashed around my chest before it faded. I sighed, and focused one more, pulling more aether but this time, moving it to my right arm. It was slow, but eventually, I got it there and pushed it out. Apparently, though, I wasn"t pushing hard enough as once again, I lost control and the aether dispersed.
"Focus and keep trying," Zirani"s voice sounded.
For the next hour, I continued trying, making mistakes, but improving with each attempt, and even when I managed to pull it off, I didn"t stop until could successfully use the technique ten times out of ten. The process was actually simple, but it"s hard to be careful when picturing everything and pushing. Push too hard and picture a stone wall and the aether would slam into it and disperse, but to slow and I"d lose control and get only a half-formed technique. It was a balance, an equilibrium that was needed. At the end of the hour, I could successfully form two bark braces and fists.
I looked up to Zirani who was smiling down at me. I"d collapsed and was panting softly.
"Good job," She said. "But no time for rest, time to move on to the next technique."
I groaned but thought about what I"d learned in just an hour and how weak I"d felt when being chased by the wolves.
I grit my teeth and pushed myself to my feet.. "Onto the next."
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