Chapter 256: The Core
“This is crazy. It’s not going to work.”
“It might if you stop your relentless badgering,” I quipped, flexing the fingers of my newly regenerated arm.
Regis zipped up to my face. “Oh, I’m sorry. Is my genuine concern that you might blow yourself up bothering you?”
I swatted him away. “Yes.”
My floating companion’s smoky black head sizzled in anger. “Why are you even attempting this anyway? You just demolished the hidden boss of this level with a punch! I think you’re strong enough.”
“I can’t just rely on sustaining my body temporarily by eating aetheric essence off of monsters.”
“So your plan is just to form your own power source? Geez, I wonder why the wise and powerful dragons of the Indrath Clan haven’t thought of something like that…oh wait, they have!”
“Yes, I remember the story of the elders of the Indrath Clan attempting to form a core out of pure aether within the body of an infant clan member that was born without a core. You literally just told me.”
“And what did we learn from that story?” Regis asked as if he were speaking to an infant himself.
I sighed. “That the baby was met with a bloody death.”
“So why are you still trying to do this?” Regis seethed.
“Because I have no other choice if I want to get stronger. I don’t want to rely on temporary power boosts that I can’t even control from consuming another lifeform’s aetheric essence. You saw how fast it depletes from my body even when I’m not fighting.”
“‘That’s no reason to kill yourself over this!”
“Regis.” I stared coldly into the eyes of the black will-o-wisp. “I’m sure you know this from being fed my memories, but I’ve barely been able to fight against retainers while scythes are in a whole other league. I’m not just looking at surviving this hellish dungeon or ruin—whatever this place is. I’m looking at obtaining strength that can put me above them and up on the same level as asuras. Otherwise, getting out of here just means giving the enemy another chance at beating me back down.”
Regis remained silent as he studied me, his expression laced in a mixture of frustration and concern.
Finally, he let out a sigh. “Fine. Aside from the fact that you can physically eat aether, why do you think that your attempt won’t be any different from what the asuras attempted?”
“You’re forgetting that I was responsible for prematurely forming my own mana core when I was three. I’ll figure something out.”
The first step of my plan was to spend some time closely studying the chimera.
I studied how the aetheric essence had become bound to the chimera corpse. Despite the fact that the chimera couldn’t control or manipulate aether, unlike my own body, there was no leakage of the essence.
Utilizing my unique perception of the aether around me, I conducted experiments on the corpse.
Because it had been killed, the aether didn’t actively try to regenerate the broken parts of the chimera corpse. Instead, it seemed like it was in an almost suspended state.
Injuries that I had inflicted on the corpse postmortem weren’t being regenerated, and while there was some loss of aetheric essence from the wound, there was no leakage beyond that.
“Regis, try going inside the chimera and absorbing the aether directly,” I said, not taking my eyes off the corpse.
“Well, I wasn’t able to when it was alive, but I never tried it on a dead chimera,” Regis replied, floating toward the giant body.
Rather than sink inside the surface of the chimera corpse, however, he bounced off.
Regis let out a pained grunt from the impact before turning to me. “Happy?”
“Not particularly,” I replied, not even bothering to look at him as I continued studying the flow of aether around the chimera corpse.
Not able to find anything particularly insightful, I moved on to the next step—hoping I’d learn more.
Closing my eyes, I sensed the aether flowing in my body just like I had when I was first trying to form my mana core.
The entirety of my mental faculties was focused on observing how aether moved within me—how they interacted with my muscles, bones, organs, and how it dissipated from the surface of my skin constantly.
Next, I focused on the shattered pieces of my mana core. I couldn’t gather or produce mana and Sylvia’s dragon will was no longer there. That meant that I had no way of using Static Void or Realmheart Physique, but the fragmented shell of my mana core was still here inside me.
Worse yet, the aether was slowly dissolving the broken pieces of my mana core—seeing them as imperfections in my body that needed to be discarded since it served no purpose.
Thinking that all of the painstaking years of work refining and strengthening my mana core would soon disappear, sent a sharp pain through my chest, and it took all I could to pry myself out of that pithole.
That’s when it struck me. The aether saw the broken shards of my mana core as an injury… however, because it didn’t serve a function anymore, it was trying to remove it from my body.
But what if it thought that it did?
My eyes shot open, surprising Regis who had been observing me.
Scrambling up to my feet, I looked at the various sections of its body where multiple corpses had conjoined together to form the fused chimera, studying the creature once more from a different angle.
The act of fusing the chimera bodies together was neither regenerating or healing—but the fact that the aether determined that this course of action was the best choice told me something.
With my plan slowly solidifying, I went back to meditating with a slight grin on my face. Unsurprisingly, just like how the chimeras couldn’t actively control the aether that powered their bodies, I was unable to actively manipulate it as well.
I tested a few theories. I would purposely injure myself to study how the aether would behave and interact within my body depending on the injury while paying close attention to my thoughts. My actions would be considered insane to any passing set of eyes but I didn’t care.
I had learned something pivotal through my battles against the chimeras, namely, when I launched the final attack against the fused chimera despite the stub of my arm bleeding profusely.
It took a few dozen times of injuring myself to actually confirm my hypothesis, but what I realized was that intent influenced the movement of the aetheric essence within me.
This was nowhere near the point of manipulation like I had done with mana, but if I thought that regenerating a certain part of my body took precedence over another part, the aether took heed of that advice.
I wasn’t able to forcefully manipulate aether like I had been able to with mana. But the very fact that aether could be influenced to do something as crazy as fusing multiple bodies together meant that the chimera’s intent had tricked it.
What if I can somehow trick the aetheric essence to fuse together my shattered remains of mana core instead of getting rid of it and have it build a new core over my broken one?
But the aetheric essence were too dispersed within my body. At this rate it would just slowly eat away at the broken remains of my mana core rather than try fusing them together.
But still, it could work…no, it had to work.
Almost as soon as my thoughts solidified into an actual idea, I already knew what I had to do…
I just didn’t like the answer.
The only reason this plan had even a chance of working was because I could do something that not even dragons of the Indrath Clan could do.
Letting out a deep breath, I reached in my vest and pulled out the small iridescent stone.
I’ll definitely live and bring you back out here, Sylv. Just hold on.
Resolving myself, I got to work immediately, consuming the aetheric essence from the fused chimera corpse at a rapid pace.
Even after my body had become overloaded with aetheric essence and a purple aura began exuding from my skin, I absorbed more of the aetheric essence, making sure I was consuming at a pace much faster than the aether would deplete from my body.
“I don’t think stress eating is the way to handle this, Milady,” Regis snickered.
Ignoring Regis, I continued despite a jarring pain growing within my body. It felt like every muscle, bone, organ in my body were being pumped with fluid to the point of bursting.
But this wasn’t enough. I needed as much aetheric essence as possible if this was going to work.
“S-Seriously, Arthur. You’re…sort of bleeding from your body.”
Just a bit more.
Unable to withstand the growing pain any longer, I pried myself away from the chimera corpse and sat down.
Regis was right; it looked like I was sweating blood, beads of red trailing down my body. My vision spun and pulsated while I could feel my heart beating madly against my chest.
Controlling my breathing in order to keep myself from passing out, I grabbed a bone arrow on the ground in front of me and held it directly below my ribcage. “Regis. Position yourself right where my mana core used to be on my mark and leave as soon as I tell you, okay?”
Regis stared down at the sharp arrow in my hands. “What are you planning on doing with that?”
“Okay?” I repeated through gritted teeth, barely able to breathe.
Regis let out a groan. “Okay.”
With that, I plunged the arrow deep into my sternum in the small space just between my liver and stomach where the mana core was held. And just for good measure, I twisted the arrow.
“What the f—”
“Now!” I snapped, keeping my eyes closed in concentration.
Pulling the arrow out of my body, I clasped my hands over my wound as Regis flew inside me.
Immediately, like millions of tiny insects crawling inside every inch of my body, I felt all of the aether held inside me coalescing to where Regis and my fatal wound were.
Just as the aether was about to reach the area where Regis stayed, attracted two-fold by the black will-o-wisp and my fatal injury, I barked at him to leave.
A black shadow zipped out of me almost instantaneously and the aether that had gathered within the vicinity all condensed together to heal my injury.
Every ounce of my brain focused on maintaining this meditative state, forming a core around the coalescing aether where my old mana core used to be.
Some of the aether had leaked to close the hole below my chest, but with the worst of the injury right where my old mana core used to be, I was able to attract most of it.
So under the premises that: unlike even dragons, I was able to absorb aether directly into my body; I had Regis, who interacted in a way where he naturally attracted the aether within me; the remains of my mana core still existed inside me; and I could influence the aether a bit to a certain extent, I proceeded to the most important step.
The concept of time eluded me as the battle between my wits and the aether gathered around the fragmented parts of my mana core ensued.
I needed to not only trick the aether raging in the center of my body to restore the mana core rather than to break it down, but I also needed it to rebuild my broken mana core around the compressed orb of aether that had been tricked into gathering at this focal point.
If forming my mana core for the first time when I was a toddler had been difficult, this was next to impossible. Every slight twitch of internal movement or leak of intent could cause the condensed orb of aetheric essence to break down my mana core until it was completely wiped away from my body. I didn’t have a second chance.
It felt like every experience, every tribulation that I had gone through was for this moment. I was being tested to my utmost limit, concentrating through the sheer agony of the injury I had self-inflicted and the raging ball of godly power that I was trying to trick to bend to my will.
Finally, as the last bits of my old mana core had become restored, encasing the condensed gathering of aether within, my world erupted into a sea of purple.
By the time I came to, my head felt like it had been split in two, and my breathing was ragged. Prying my eyelids open, I was greeted with the sight of a smirking Regis in front of the familiar backdrop of the battle-scarred walls of the chimera hallway.
“Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty,” Regis chuckled.
I pushed myself off my back, sitting up. “What happened?”
“Well, after you committed seppuku and sat completely still for about a full day, your body suddenly combusted into purple flames and then you passed out for another two days,” the black ball of flame explained before shooting me another grin. “But you did it, you sick sadistic bastard!”
That’s right, my core!
Taking a moment, I concentrated internally, getting a feel for the state of my body.
Regis was right, I had done it…I had successfully forged a new core. The color struck me as odd—it was closer to a red color, like magenta—but it still held the ethereal purple sheen of aether.
I had done what even the asuras of the Indrath Clan couldn’t do.
I had forged an aether core.