The quadriceps located at the front of the thighs; they were responsible for pushing the thigh and leg forward. The hamstrings were the quadriceps’ opposing muscles, responsible for bending the leg and moving it backward. The glutes were crucial to complete the backward movement of the step. The abdominal muscles would contract during each forward step. The calf muscles, albeit smaller, were actually among the most heavily used muscles that propelled the body forward as the foot pushed off the ground. These were just the primary muscles.
The secondary muscles that also needed to be taken into account were the stabilizing muscles located around the pelvis. These series of muscles formed a crown around the pelvis, which included the internal and external abductors, I think they were called, the lower abdominal muscles and the spinal muscles located in the back. The tibialis… something, the thin strip of muscle that helped you flex the ankle in order to move the foot towards the knee, was also used to make sure the foot wouldn’t flatten, creating a greater chance of scraping against the ground or an object.
The body had an intricate muscular system that worked in pairs, each responsible for half of a complete movement. The biceps flexed when the arm curled towards the shoulder, while the triceps triggered when the arm straightened out. The mechanisms inside the body were even more complex when putting the body into motion, such as walking, running, or jumping.
This knowledge hadn’t been all that useful until now because of my rather exceptional physique in mana. However, in the case where I needed to further evolve the first sequence of Mirage Walk, I would need to utilize all of this knowledge and a step above that, eventually putting it into application.
“Damn!” I lifted my arms to catch myself as I toppled forward onto the pile of leaves I had fashioned into a bed.
Noticing that the sun had already set, I went back to my camp and retrieved a few strips of squirrel meat that I had smoked prior so that I didn’t have to keep hunting.
“I really wish I could use the aether orb for this,” I muttered, looking down at the charred, tasteless meat in my hand.
I had made significant progress since I first put on hiatus my hunt for Clawed and devoted all of my time and energy into training this past week, splitting the days into practicing Burst Step and refining my mana core. The remaining two or three hours were used for sleep.
However, the more I practiced, the more I hungered to master this movement technique. With the tweak I had made using my previous knowledge of human anatomy, Mirage Walk would become even more refined, theoretically. Not only would it be instant and versatile, but it would also be as deadly as it was elegant.
The basics of Burst Step that I had first succeeded in executing looked almost like a wide leap, granted that it was still incredibly fast. This was because, although mana couldn’t be sensed under the effects of Mirage Walk, there was still a stance and a series of motions that needed to be made in order for the human body to be able to take that step.
Kordri, even as an asura, using Burst Step in his human form, also couldn’t ignore the mechanisms of his body despite his superior physique.
What I was working my way towards was consciously and deliberately manipulating mana, channeling it into specific muscles at a certain progression with precise timing to artificially trigger a sequence in my body that mimicked the use of muscles without actually having the need to maneuver.
If I could get the timing and output of mana controlled perfectly, I would be capable of something even Kordri couldn’t do—execute Mirage Walk in, but not limited to, an orthostatic or standing position.
“Gah, even thinking about it was confusing,” I relented. Finishing my dinner, I headed back to the clearing I had crudely optimized in the last week.
Standing about five meters away from the bed of leaves that was made to soften my fall, I concentrated. Willing mana to manipulate my muscles was a lot like using your thoughts to make a dummy move. Most of the movements that people do were automatically done; I didn’t have to think of what muscles I needed to use to breathe. However, since I would be using a mediating factor, mana, in order to generate an action from my body, it was like learning to move all over again.
“Ugh.” I spat out the mouthful of leaves and wiped my tongue with my sleeve. Getting back up, I returned to my initial position and concentrated again, disregarding the increasing aches in my legs.
I had somewhat succeeded in propelling myself using the bare minimum amount of movement, but coming to a proper stop was another, huge obstacle that I was having trouble overcoming.
Just like how a toddler couldn’t control how far or high he jumped, using mana to manipulate the inner workings of my body had made it hopelessly difficult for me to control.
However, at least the initial step and the very foundation of Mirage Walk where I manipulated atmospheric mana to conceal the fluctuations of mana in my body had become much easier for me. I still needed to balance the capacity of my mana veins to my mana channels for me to better control this, but I didn’t have time for that now.
After I had properly hidden my presence, I imagined the muscular system in my body. Recalling all the muscles responsible for using Burst Step, I tried once again.
Interrelated parts of the body required for movement lit up on the imaginary figure of myself in my head to better conceptualize the specific order that I had willed the mana to trigger. I could feel the corresponding muscles pulse as mana coursed through in the sequence I had commanded. With just the slight shift of my left leg and the aid of mana, the landscape around me blurred as I executed Burst Step from a standing upright position.
Despite the mana I had willed to reinforce my legs from the stress, a sharp pain coursed through my lower body.
“Woah!” I yelped as I tumbled forward onto the pile of leaves once again.
I had failed again in coming to a full stop. Even if mana could help me with the initial burst of speed, it was much harder to stop in the exact position and location that I had wanted to.
Letting out a defeated sigh, I continued practicing.
As the sun sank and a crescent moon shifted into view, I laid there in the bed of leaves staring vacantly at the night sky. Raising my hand, I pinched at where the moon appeared to be with my fingers. The moon looked so small from here… how small did I appear to be to the moon?
I focused on the left arm that I had lifted, staring at the feather Sylvia had given me to cover the orb with and the dragon will she had imparted to me.
This, and Sylvie, were all I had left of the asura that had saved me, taken care of me, and protected me as a child. Would training like this really allow me to hear from her again, eventually?
Reminiscing my time with her had made long for everyone else. Despite how poorly we had parted, I missed my family.
“Enough, Arthur.” I slapped my cheeks and sat up from the pile of leaves. There were only so many hours in a day, and I couldn’t afford to waste more out here in this godforsaken forest.
Taking a deep breath, I began cultivating my mana core. It had been a slow process once I got to the light-yellow stage. I was chipping away at a mountain with only a spoon in my hand, but there was definite progress.
I got lost in the ever-cumbersome process of absorbing, purifying, and refining when the familiar chirps of morning birds snapped me out of my meditation.
I was covered in sweat and grime as my body expelled the impurities in my mana core, making me not only filthy but hungry as well.
Looking at the remains of smoked meat I had left, I would have to hunt today. After gnawing through the remainder of my charred squirrel, I packed my water pouch and departed.
Keeping my mind placid and my presence hidden with Mirage Walk, I slowly trekked deeper into the dense forest. It had been harder for me to find wildlife near camp, so every time I hunted, I needed to go a bit deeper.
By the time I noticed, however, I realized that the forest had gotten much quieter. Birds chirped in the nearby distance, but there were no signs of raptor squirrels or other mana beasts in the vicinity
“Hmm,” I muttered, surveying the area. Releasing the use of Mirage Walk, I concentrated mana into my ears. I wasn’t able to hear anything at first, but after a few minutes I caught on to a faint noise. It sounded like a growl. I couldn’t tell how far away it was, but the sound was familiar; there was a silver panther nearby.
I got a little closer, making sure to hide my presence again. I enhanced my hearing once again, but this time, I was able to make out more noise. I could hear the faint gurgling sound of running water, and a bit past that to the northeast. What I also noticed was that it wasn’t just one silver panther. There were two panthers in the same vicinity.
“That’s odd,” I noted. My understanding of the silver panthers, from what I’d seen so far, was that they were territorial amongst each other and hunted by themselves.
Perhaps they were fighting over territory? That would certainly explain the lack of prey in the vicinity…
Implementing Mirage Walk again, I hastily made my way towards the ensuing battle. I couldn’t help but grin at my luck.
My speculation had been correct; as I stealthily approached the sound of the silver panthers, I spotted their distinct silver coat near a small clearing of trees alongside a cliff. It was impossible to tell how deep down the fall was from here, but just from the fact that there was a good two hundred yards from here to the other end of the chasm, and I couldn’t see the ground meant that if those silver panthers fell off, it wouldn’t be easy for me to retrieve their bodies.
Hiding behind a nearby tree, I observed. It was easy to figure out that they were clearly hostile to one another, but what caught me by surprise was that one of the silver panther was Clawed; the distinct scars on his back made him easily distinguishable. His opponent, on the other hand, was unfamiliar to me. He was clearly larger, but by the fresh wounds on its face and side, it seemed like Clawed had the upper hand.
As the two mana beasts slowly circled each other, they let out a low gnarl, baring their sharp teeth.
The opponent was the first to make a move. The larger cat pounced with its claws held high as it let out a fierce snarl.
Clawed reacted instantly, dodging the swipe and countering with his teeth. I became captivated by their fight. Since silver panthers had innately accelerated reflexes and intuition, their exchanges were a relentless flurry of continuous dodging and countering, neither of them incurring any deep wounds. However, for every gash that the larger panther had made, Clawed had given him three in return.
As their battle continued, I didn’t know why, but my heart began pounding restlessly. I was anxious about something, afraid. I had been so caught up in their duel that I didn’t realize how deadly quiet the forest had become, almost mute. There were no sound of birds chirping or mana beasts moving; there wasn’t much as a rustling sound coming from the trees as if even the wind was afraid of something.
Clawed seemed to have noticed as well because he began behaving very cautiously. His fur was standing on end, his tail sticking straight up as he constantly sniffed for something. The larger cat, unaware of the disturbance, took advantage of the opening and pounced at Clawed. Dodging his opponent, Clawed instead turned and started running away.
I didn’t get it. There was something going on, but I couldn’t sense any other presence from here. Why did Clawed run away like that when he was winning?
Putting aside my wariness, I took action against the larger silver panther that remained. He was injured, and his escape routes were limited because of the cliff.
Spotting me, the larger cat began growling, lowering itself into a posture to flee. It knew instinctively that, in its state, it had no chance against me.
The air around us grew heavier as it became harder to breathe, but I maintained my stance.
The moment I lifted my foot up, the silver panther leaped to the side.
“Got you,” I smirked. Ignoring my protesting legs, I executed Burst Step from my standing position, using the fake step as a feint to get him to move. My surroundings blurred, my eyes focused only on the movement of the wounded mana beast. I had succeeded in cutting him off, but the distance I had cleared was insufficient by just over a meter.
As I lost my balance, I desperately grabbed onto the panther’s neck with my arms and held on tightly.
“Gah!” My body jerked unnaturally from the abrupt change in direction and I left was hanging onto the silver panther with all of my strength.
“You’re mine!” I hissed between my teeth as I used mana to strengthen my hold on him. My only hope was to choke him.
The panther I was riding on let out a vicious snarl as it whipped its head, trying to throw me off but I endured. Its sharp claws tore at my clothes, ripping fresh wounds on my sides and legs before it buckled feebly from lack of air.
Just when I thought the panther was about to relent, it suddenly jerked. As if possessed, it used the last of its strength to throw itself backward. By the time I realized what it had done, the ground underneath us was gone as we plummeted down the steep gorge.
Hurtling down, I was reminded of a very similar scene from when I was just a toddler, thrown off the edge of the mountain in order to save my mother.
A thousand scenarios ran through my head as I struggled to decide on the best option to take. The silver panther that had dragged me down to hell was out cold from my choke and was helplessly falling beneath me.
Uttering a string of curses, I slowly balanced myself on top of the unconscious mana beast and exerted mana into my legs. The scene around me was a constant blur from the speed that we were dropping.
“Windsom would understand!” I convinced myself aloud as I propelled myself off the panther.
With the push, I had slowed down but not nearly enough, and there was no place to grab onto on the edge of the cliff.
Another scene flashed into my head; it was the time when I had fallen down the hole in the dungeon, Widow’s Crypt.
‘Was falling down deep chasms going to be some sort of reoccurring theme in my life?’
A surge of wind gathered into my palms as I stared straight down at the approaching ground, concentrating on coalescing my mana into the spell.
Releasing the spell gathered my palms, the blast of wind surged toward the ground, a deafening screech echoing throughout the steep ravine.
Gritting through the pain in my arms as they held the brunt of the strain from the recoil, I continued exerting mana into the spell.
I could feel the force of the spell negating my fall as I came to a slow hover. Suspending Typhon’s Howl, I dropped down the remaining few meters onto the ground in the center of the blast radius.
A thick cloud of dust had arisen from where my spell had collided with the dirt floor, impeding my vision. Masking my mouth and nose from the debris in the air, I began making my way out of the dust cloud when an earth-shattering roar resounded.
After the thunderous howl had subsided, the ground shook once again at the sound of heavy footsteps approaching me.
The force of each resonating stomp threw me off balance. Immediately, I dashed toward the edge of the gorge, praying to whatever divine being that ruled this realm that the cause of such devastating sounds were from an earthquake.