<strong>ARTHUR LEYWIN’S POV:</strong>
“Finally,” I whispered, too quiet for the silver panther to hear.
There it was, cautiously sniffing around as it approached the raptor squirrels I had killed and placed carefully to lure it out. My ever-so-elusive target.
My eyes locked onto the large, gray cat that I had named Clawed because it had four, long gashes across its back. Clawed and I had gotten close during the time spent trying to hunt for silver panthers. This particular oversized cat was by far the most cunning of the silver panthers that I had come across and the most arrogant; which was why I had decided that Clawed would be my target.
I focused back on the cat just a few meters away from me as Clawed stopped and looked around, ready to escape at a moment’s notice.
I patiently waited for him to draw near, making sure to keep any traces of my presence hidden. Coalescing the raw mana around me with the purified mana inside my body, I prepared my attack. As I gathered mana in my legs and right arm, I lowered myself carefully into an ideal position since he couldn’t see me anyway, making sure I didn’t set off the bell.
The muscles in my calves and thighs twitched in anticipation at the thought of finally being able to catch that elusive cat. Right when Clawed bent down to continue its lunch, I propelled myself forward and struck at a speed that would’ve shocked my old self.
The distance I near-instantly cleared from my initial position to where I now was – in front of Clawed – measured out to be roughly six meters, but somehow Clawed had already disappeared before my attack could connect.
My augmented fist sunk deep into the soft dirt floor, the silver panther nowhere in sight.
“Damn it! Again?” I cursed, impatiently prying my buried hand from underneath the ground.
‘Where did I go wrong? How could it react so fast?’ I thought as I looked back at where I was initially positioned. The location was close enough for me to cover instantaneously. I was well-hidden inside the bushes, and I had even gone through lengths to mask any smell from my body that might set it off. It was all supposed to be perfect. My execution of the technique I had been training in was near perfect.
I kneeled down, inspecting the pawprints of Clawed and my own footprints. I was missing something, but what?
I could see where I landed after using Burst relative to where Clawed had been positioned, but something about the markings on the ground didn’t add up.
Settling down against a nearby tree, I closed my eyes, replaying the scene in my mind to see if I could figure out where I went wrong.
“Windsom wouldn’t have made me acquire a silver panther beast core unless it proved to teach me something different than hunting raptor squirrels,” I said aloud. “In terms of speed, the raptor squirrel was definitely faster than a silver panther. So why couldn’t I kill one?”
Arriving at no satisfying conclusion, I decided to make my way back.
Looking at the remains of the raptor squirrels Clawed had been feasting on, I clicked my tongue in annoyance. Not only was I unable to capture Clawed, but there were also barely any scraps left of the raptor squirrels for me to eat.
After packing what was left of the mangled squirrel, I wiped the dirt and blood off me at a nearby stream. Seeing as I only had one set of clothes, I tried to make sure it stayed clean, but through the weeks of hiking and training in these woods, my wardrobe had become tattered.
“Arthur, you are not easy to look at,” I said derisively to my reflection in the stream. My hair was disheveled and much longer now, my bangs reaching all the way to my chin. The bags underneath my eyes had turned purplish from lack of sleep. All in all, little remained of my former, hygienic self; replacing it was some unintelligent-looking brute.
It was hard for me to believe that more than a month had passed since the last time I had any actual interaction with someone other than the animals I had caught.
Windsom had visited me the night I had finally been able to capture a raptor squirrel. He hadn’t said much with his permanently disinterested expression except that the technique, or rather, the preface of it that I had self-taught, was called Mirage Walk. He had disappeared soon after, leaving me by my lonesome to eat the lean meat of a raptor squirrel’s hind leg.
The next morning, I had set out in search of the next prey on my list, a silver panther. However, it had become fairly obvious during the weeks that I had spent inside the forest, training to catch more raptor squirrels, that there were no signs of larger mana beasts at all.
Thus, leading me to venture out further into the woods despite the dangers that might’ve followed. It wasn’t until about three weeks of trekking deeper into the forest that I had begun seeing different species of mana beasts; larger ones as well.
I would’ve cleared more ground in those three weeks had I not been using the journey itself as a form of training.
Burst or Burst Step.
That was what I had decided to name the first sequence of Mirage Walk. Windsom had only mentioned that what I had done to catch the raptor squirrel was only a mere introductory step of the actual essence of Mirage Walk, but he had refused to divulge any more information than that. However, seeing that the technique I used had certain steps or levels to reach full mastery, I had decided to name this first tier Burst Step.
I had traversed through the forest, using the abundance of trees as a natural obstacle course to practice, hoping to gain some insight to improve the skill.
Going through with this training had made me realize how much concentration, coordination, reflexes, control, and agility one needed to utilize the full potential of Mirage Walk properly. I had succeeded in capturing a raptor squirrel with Burst Step only because I had made the necessary preparations to be able to. It had been a flat clearing with no obstructions to get in my way. The distance was short, and within view, it had no time even to react.
However, trying to travel through the lush greenery, congested with trees and uneven ground, to get a foothold using only Mirage Walk had made me feel as though I was an infant again, except this time with my feet tied together. It was terribly frustrating, tripping over the slightest misstep, even the faintest miscalculation in trajectory resulted in a not-so-elegant tumble and a face full of mud; slowly and painstakingly, I made my way deeper into the woods.
It had been over a week since I first arrived at this particular domain. The mana in this area was much denser than where I had been before, which was probably one of the reasons why it was so appealing to higher level mana beasts.
And here I was, still with nothing to show for besides the number of tears in my shirt and holes in the soles of my boots.
As I finished washing myself, I inspected the leftover meat I had brought back. “This isn’t enough,” I sighed looking up at the sky.
Dusk had spread a thin veil of darkness over the forest, but it was still light enough to hunt. I laid out some mushrooms I had picked along the way and waited, crouching underneath a large root eight meters away. With my level of mastery, I could clear almost ten meters in an instant using Burst Step without triggering the bell.
As I waited, keeping my presence hidden, I observed carefully for any signs of movement. There was faint sound of rustling, but it came from above me, somewhere up in the trees. Glancing up, the last glint of sunlight reflected off the eyes of the predator. It was some sort of large, black bird.
As the forest completely darkened, the bird and I waited, hoping for any signs of our next meal.
Finally, I locked onto the figure of a lone raptor squirrel. Before the squirrel drew close enough to be in range for me to kill, the black bird had already decided to take action.
I barely glimpsed the faint shadow of the bird diving down; no noise made whatsoever. It wasn’t unnaturally fast like the raptor squirrel or silver panther, but at night, it was near impossible to see this predatory bird.
As the black blur drew closer to the unsuspecting prey, something unexpected happened. The bird, nearly invisible to the naked eye, spread its wings and let out a loud crow.
The squirrel immediately jumped, but the crow seemed to have been expecting that because, instead of swooping down where the squirrel had been, it stretched out its talons to where it leaped away.
That whole scene looked as if the squirrel simply leaped into the claws of the bird, wanting to be its next meal.
I had lost my meal to the bird, but I gained something much more valuable instead.
“Hehe.” Hoping to be able to put my plan into action, I waited again. As I predicted, the bird had finished its meal and was waiting patiently in a different tree. The bird’s wingspan alone was about larger than mine so I knew that one squirrel wouldn’t be enough.
About half an hour passed when another raptor squirrel finally emerged. As its three antenna-like tails surveyed for danger, it cautiously approached the small pile of mushrooms.
On cue, I saw the swift blur of black out of the corner of my eyes.
It happened again. Right when the black bird swooped down and stretched out its talons, the raptor squirrel appeared as if it jumped right into the bird’s grasp.
Using Burst Step, I cleared the eight meters between us, and before the black bird had even the chance to react, I reached for its neck.
The bird let out a surprised crow as it flapped desperately to escape my hand. To my surprise, however, the greedy bird never let go of its meal even as I snapped its neck.
“Yes!” I couldn’t seem to wipe the smile off my face as I made my way back to my camp with my two trophies. I was happy that I would have something tastier to eat than the tough and lean squirrel meat, but I was even more satisfied with the fact that I had figured out how Clawed and the rest of his brethren had been escaping from me every single time.
It didn’t take long for me to get back to my camp, which was just a hollow log I had covered with branches and leaves to protect me from the rain.
Eagerly plucking the feathers off of the bird so that its fat-coated skin would still be intact, I grilled it over the fire I had made alongside with the skinned raptor squirrel. Chewing on the tender meat of the bird’s thigh, I started thinking.
I had uncovered two things as I saw the black bird capturing the raptor squirrel: First, the bird was stealthy and swift, but its speed couldn’t compare to that of a raptor squirrel. It was able to because it knew that when it made itself known, the squirrel would try to flee in a particular direction. The second thing I had deduced was the significance of my involvement in this. As a third party spectator, I was able to see the bird beforehand, and I immediately knew what its motives were even before it had attacked, something the squirrel had no way of knowing.
“But this still doesn’t explain how I can catch Clawed,” I muttered to myself, ripping out another bite of grilled fowl.
Based on all of my failed attempts, I knew by now that Clawed and the rest of his kind had some hyperacute intuition that allowed him to react near instantly at the sight of my movement. I also knew that, unlike the bird and squirrel that I was feasting on, Clawed was smart. There had been several occasions where he would get close enough to me that I knew he was mocking me, but as soon as I got in a stance, he fled even before I could execute Burst Step. He was smart to a level where he knew he could evade me, but not fight me face-to-face.
Finishing the last of my meal, I walked over to the side of my camp where I had cleared some space for me to train.
I stood at the edge of the open space and imagined Clawed to be lurking at the other end. “How am I supposed to catch a cat that reacts as soon as I try to approach it?”
Approach… approach? That was it! It was just like the black bird! The bird had tricked the squirrel by intentionally exposing itself, using it as a feint to get the squirrel into the air where it couldn’t change direction.
Even when Kordri, an asura, had used Burst Step, it was still essentially still a single step. Corresponding muscles were still used to propel himself towards me. Even though the essence of Mirage Walk was to conceal fluctuation of mana to throw off the opponent completely, I still had to move the muscles that were responsible for making that one, incredibly fast, step.
But what if I could get rid of that?
What if I could almost entirely void the motion needed for me to make that step? Appearing as if I had truly teleported from even a standstill position.
If I could do that, I could, in theory, feint Clawed.
But how do I come up with a way to make Burst Step into something that would bypass the need to control the muscles mechanically?
I’d imagine if I were any other mage or mana manipulator in this world, I would’ve thought of it as impossible, but I had one crucial advantage: Knowledge from my past life.
Due to my mediocre ki center, I had studied in-depth about the human body, namely the working mechanics of what went into essentially putting the human body into movement. It was through this knowledge that I had been able to fully utilize the little ki I had inside me to become a king.
Shutting my eyes, I used the entirety of my concentration as I spread mana throughout every crevice, no matter how micro, of the inside of my body.
When I opened my eyes, the sun was already high up in the sky. Sweat and grime covered my body as I slowly stretched my stiff body that had been standing still for hours. But I was happy. Ecstatic.
Not only had I reached a breakthrough to get me at the very peak of the light yellow stage, but I had also figured it out.
“I got it,” I grinned.