Chapter 257: Forbidden Fruit
The purplish-red core thrummed with life inside me, wishing to be unleashed.
I could feel the grin plastered on my face, impatient to test out my new powers…whatever they were.
Despite the urge to let loose, I had one thing to test out first—perhaps the most important thing.
Taking a deep breath, I meditated. Focusing on my newly forged core and the ambient aether surrounding us, I slowed my breath.
Force of habit made me assume that the breathing technique that I had utilized to gather ambient mana could be applied to absorbing aether. That wasn’t the case, however, concentrating on my aether core in a way that almost felt like I was flexing it caused a change to stir outside my body.
Almost immediately, the effects were made clear.
“What? What is it?” Regis asked impatiently.
I opened my eyes, looking at the horned will-o-wisp with a smirk. “I can gather ambient aether into my body and core now.”
Regis’ nonexistent jaw dropped, his white eyes widening. “Seriously?”
“Consuming the aether from these chimeras directly is definitely faster and more potent, but at least now I’m not dependent on running into beasts fueled by aether. Even if the monsters here are filled with them, who knows if I’d be able to find one outside of this dungeon,” I explained.
Regis nodded. “That’s good. Now I don’t need to worry about you dropping dead because you couldn’t get a meal.”
“Aww, are you worrying about your master?” I teased.
“Master shmaster, my life is tethered to your pasty ass,” the black orb of fire scoffed.
I rolled my eyes. “If I knew that my weapon would turn out like this, I would’ve taken my chances in getting to white core by myself.”
“I love you too, my effeminate little wonderboy. Now, keep testing! We need to know exactly what your limits are before we go on to that next stage.”
Concentrating on my core once more, I released a bit of aether and focused it on my hand. However, as soon as the aether left my core, it spread throughout my body.
Furrowing my brows, I tried again, visualizing the aether flowing through my…mana channels.
“Crap,” I muttered, realizing the problem. Out of desperation, I tried once more, only to be met with the same result. The short concentrated burst of aether that I had expelled from my newly forged core, was once again distributed evenly throughout my body. “Damn it!”
“What happened? Is something wrong?”
“I can’t control the distribution of the aether from my core,” I said, trying once more to no avail. I could definitely feel the aether strengthening my body but the amount left by the time it reached the hand that I actually wanted was just a small fraction.
Regis frowned in confusion. “Huh? But what about your mana chan—ohh…I see the problem.”
I let out a sigh. “Even when I finally think things are working our way, there’s an even bigger mountain to climb.”
Regis shrugged, flying toward the unlocked exit. “Nothing we can do but move forward.”
“Wait. Let’s go back to the sanctuary.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“If I’m not able to control the aether inside me, then I need to at least strengthen my core and even if it gets harder here, we at least know what to expect on this floor,” I explained.
“Ugh…” Regis groaned as he wobbled his way toward me. “There better be some sexy vixen demons or something on the next floor. Looking at these skinless monsters is taking its toll on my little black heart.”
Chuckling, we opened the door back into the sanctuary. I made some minor preparations while we were here. Ripping my pants from my knees down, I fixed up a sash to safely store Sylvie’s stone and wore it across my shoulder. Then, I made a crude waterskin out of what was left of my leather vest. After making sure water didn’t leak from it, we went back into the hallway.
“Why aren’t they waking up?” Regis said as we reached the center once more.
The long hallway had been put back into its pristine state when we had left the sanctuary, but no matter how many times I walked back and forth in the hallway, the statues wouldn’t budge.
Regis flew up to the statue of the warrior wielding a sword. “Are they broken?”
“Maybe?” I walked up to one of them and pulled back my fist.
Not daring to use more than a tenth of the aether in my core, I struck the statue of the shotgun wielding statue, sending splintering cracks throughout its leg.
Not bad, I thought. Ounce for ounce—or whatever unit of measurement was used—aether was much more potent and efficient than mana. Still, I wasn’t satisfied.
“Hey, Regis. Occupy my hand again,” I ordered, holding out my right palm. “I want to test something.”
“Okay, but we should really make a name for this.”
“Well it’s better than having you shout out, ‘Regis, enter my hand!’,” Regis stated. “It can come off as a little sexual to others, don’t you think?”
Infusing my body with aether once again, I slapped the black will-o-wisp. This time, rather than go through him, my hand struck his dopey face, sending him flat on the ground.
“Ouch! What the hell? You can hit me now?” Regis fumed.
“Seems like it, and boy did that feel good,” I smirked. “Now, hand.”
Muttering a string of curses, Regis flew into my palm, coating my entire hand in a layer of smokey black tinge.
Immediately, I felt the aether that I had released beforehand gravitate toward Regis. After the rest of the aether in my body had coalesced in my right fist, I punched a different statue.
However, there was no expulsion of aether like before when I had used this same move against the fused chimera.
‘I don’t have enough aether to release it as an attack,’ Regis explained.
I gritted my teeth. “Fine. Tell me when.”
I released more aether from my core and it was immediately pulled toward my right fist. After about half of the aether stored inside my core had been consumed, the smokey black glove surrounding my hand began glowing with the same reddish purple color as my core.
‘Now!’ Regis barked, his voice suppressed in concentration.
I thrust my fist into the statue in front of me, releasing a torrent of black and magenta from my hand.
The very air seemed to distort as the concussive force decimated the large statue and the wall behind it.
Regis fell out of my hand, dazed. “I can probably use that move like one more time.”
“Same here,” I replied. “That used a bit less than half of the aether in my core.”
“Well, it definitely seems to do the trick,” my companion noted, studying the aftermath of our attack.
“Mhmm,” I agreed. Without the chimeras coming, it made little sense to remain here for much longer, so after spending the next half hour replenishing my aether core, we walked toward the door that’d lead us to the next floor.
“Let’s go.” I pushed open the tall metal door and stepped through.
Immediately, I was welcomed by a hot gust of humid air that clung to my skin. However, my mild dissatisfaction toward the warm sticky air was overcome by the scene ahead of me.
“Holy mother of mothers…” Regis mumbled as he surveyed our surroundings.
We had stepped into what could only be described as a jungle except for a few notable differences. The first difference was in the plethora of white trees around us with leaves glowing in various shades of purple. The second was that there weren’t just trees growing out from the ground but also on the ceiling of this enormous cavern.
My attention was pulled away by the sight of the door we had come from fading out of existence. Shocked, I hurriedly reached for the metal handle but it was too late—my hand slipped through and I was left grasping at the air.
I let out a sigh. “Well, it doesn’t seem like we can go back the way we came from. Come on, it’s a bit too open out here for my comfort.”
The two of us ventured deeper into the ethereal jungle, noticing more and more differences in this strange environment. We found thick pale vines that connected the trees on the ground to the trees growing on the ceiling. In the air were hundreds of blue globules, some floating up, others floating down.
My senses were on full alert as we continued walking carefully through the dense array of otherworldly trees. From time to time, I’d see shadows flit from tree to tree at a speed that exceeded some S-class mana beasts in Dicathen.
Despite how calm and quiet things were in this forest, though, I couldn’t help but feel restless.
Regis, on the other hand, was enjoying the scenery as he flew up over the canopy of trees that blocked much of my view.
“I can’t see much except for these two-tailed monkey creatures climbing up and down the vines,” Regis noted before his eyes lit up. “Oh! And you know those floating blue orbs? I think it’s water. I saw a few of them hanging from the vines and drinking from those.”
I nodded, my eyes constantly on the lookout for anything potentially dangerous.
“Will you ease up? No sexy vixen demons yet but compared to the last floor, this place practically seems like paradise,” Regis insisted.
“The only reason why you can relax is because you’re incorporeal,” I retorted, continuing to walk carefully with aether coursing within my body just in case.
Unlike the straightforward hallway we had come from, this jungle didn’t seem like it had any sort of predatory monsters of any kind that we had to beat in order to move on.
“Over there! It was a different color and a little smaller but I saw some of those monkeys eating that,” Regis pointed out, gesturing toward a pear-shaped fruit hanging from a branch above us.
I shot my companion a skeptical look.
“Hey, I’m not the one that has to eat,” Regis groused, offended by my lack of trust.
My initial reaction was to avoid the risk. After all, who knows how different the anatomy of the creatures in this floor was compared to me. However, the more I stared at it, the more my stomach reminded me that I hadn’t eaten since waking up in this god-forsaken dungeon. What’s more was that this orange fruit was covered in a sheen of purple indicating that it contained aether within it.
With my newly-forged aether core revitalizing this body, I knew that I didn’t need to eat nearly as much as before. But eventually, I would have to, and the temptation staring right in my face got the best of me.
I easily jumped up to the first branch, and continued to ascend. To my surprise, the branches didn’t even bend under my weight, making it easy to reach the glistening orange fruit.
Just as I was about to reach for the fruit, something caught my eye. There was a subtle distortion in the surrounding area that made me immediately pull my hand back.
And that’s when I saw it—a giant mouth rimmed with rows of serrated teeth clamping shut around the fruit…and where my hand would’ve been had I not pulled back. The strange thing, however, was that I could still see the fruit inside the monster’s mouth.
I leaped back to a farther branch, bracing myself for its next attack. However, the monster merely parted its giant lips once more and everything but the giant fruit it used as a lure turned transparent.
“Oops. My bad,” Regis let out an uncomfortable chuckle.
“From now on, you’re checking everything first,” I quipped.
My annoyance, however, was clouded by my greed for that fruit. After being near it and feeling my aether core quiver in excitement, I knew that the orange fruit wasn’t just some lure the monster used.
“Wait, why are you going back?” Regis asked, seeing me hop back toward the branch that the fruit hung from.
I slowly reached back for the fruit once more. “I’m going to try and get that fruit.”
Right as the monster’s mouth shut, I whipped my hand away just barely enough to avoid it.
It shut faster this time, I noted.
With its mouth now clamped shut, I struck at its transparent body, hoping to at least knock it unconscious. However, rather than hit it, my hand slipped right through. Losing my balance, I fell off. I managed to grab a branch beneath the fruit monster, but by the time I reached up, it had opened its mouth once more.
“Nice one,” Regis remarked. “You’re making the same face you did when you first tried to hit me.”
My eyes widened in realization. “You’re right.”
Climbing back up to where the beast was, I tried once more. The serrated teeth left several gashes on my arm because I hadn’t been able to pull back fast enough, but this time as I struck at the transparent beast, I released more aether from my core, enough for a purplish-red sheen to envelop my body.
I felt a slight give, as if my hand was passing through a layer of some viscous liquid, but beneath that was its actual body.
The beast’s transparent body shuddered like rippling water. It suddenly let out a shrill scream that made me lose balance for a second.
Luckily I managed to hold on to the tree, but Regis had been knocked unconscious.
I struck it once more, and its rather soft body went limp.
Prying open its mouth, I reached inside and pulled out the fruit that was suspended in the air.
“What a weird creature,” I mused, staring once more at the deadly fly trap beast.
Landing back down, I checked up on Regis, who was stirring back awake.
“What happened?” the black orb asked, his voice shaky.
I held the orange pear the size of a hand out at Regis with a smile. “I got it.”
Regis studied the fruit. “I wonder if it’s edible.”
“There’s only one way to find out.” I sniffed the fruit before barely nibbling on the outer edge of it just in case it was poisonous. This body was much more resilient, which was why I even dared to do something like this, but even then I was still cautious.
As I chewed, a sour flavor filled my mouth. It wasn’t bad—it just tasted like a more flavorful lemon peel. However, as soon as I swallowed, I felt the change in my body.
I buckled in pain as my insides twisted.
Unable to keep my body from quivering, I lay huddled on the ground as my aether core slowly absorbed the piece of fruit.
“Arthur!” Regis called out, his voice distant and muffled, but my attention was focused behind him past the treeline.
Deep, rapid thuds of what could only be footsteps grew louder as the ethereal trees—whose branches remained unfaltered beneath my weight—swayed fiercely in a path leading straight toward us.