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Chapter 260: Purge
“Ugh, what is this? What happened?” Regis groaned, covered in translucent ooze, as he slithered out from the backside of the millipede corpse.
I stifled a laugh. “I didn’t know millipede feces could talk.”
Regis’ expression darkened as he looked at where he came from. “Oh c.r.a.p…”
“Yup, exactly!” I laughed, unable to hold it in any longer.
After the giant millipede had died and its organs began to fail, I was able to see Regis slowly being pushed out toward the beast’s backside. Rather than trying to break its outer sh.e.l.l and pry Regis out from within, I let nature run its course.
“Anyway, welcome back,” I greeted with a smile, patting some of the ooze off of my companion. “How do you feel?”
Regis lowered his gaze. For a split second, I was worried he might pa.s.s out but he looked back at me with his mouth curled up into a grin. “…Like c.r.a.p.”
Despite how exhausted and miserable we both were, everything seemed a little better as we laughed at our own childish jokes.
And with the giant millipede dead, it felt like I had reached another new milestone in growth.
After a short break, the two of us began reaping the rewards of our latest victory. Rather than the hills of aether crystals inside the cavern, I focused my attention on the millipede.
It took less than a glance to realize that the aether beast corpse was the highest and most potent source of aether in this entire cavern. Climbing on top of the giant millipede, I got to work consuming the aether from its body.
As my aether core developed, so did the rate of absorption. Still, with how ma.s.sive the size of the beast was, it took several sittings.
While the process of absorbing aether was fairly straightforward with my newly-forged core, the next steps had taken more than a third of the aetheric essence from the millipede in order to test out.
But with how much material I had to work with, I was able to experiment and tweak the process—enhancing its efficiency and building my body towards eventually being able to do something even asuras of the Indrath Clan can’t do: manipulate aether.
Since there wasn’t exactly a manual for what I was doing, I broke down the process into three stages and named them absorption, tempering, and lastly, the purging stage.
After absorbing aether, I found that filling my core to the point where it was nearly overflowing—and very painful—forced the aether inside me to more quickly condense and refine itself.
The purging stage, however, was the most important and required my utmost concentration. All at once, I needed to expel nearly all of the aether I had crammed into my core. While the surge of aether was spreading throughout my body, I needed to trace the paths that that aether used to move and slowly guide the rest of the aether to use those same paths.
Every time I purged the aether from my core, I was slowly training the aether to travel through more efficient “pa.s.sages” within my body rather than just spread aimlessly.
I focused on training the pa.s.sages within my arms. I realized that, while my technique and experience was able to make up for the loss of speed, they couldn’t make up for my loss of power.
With how widely the aether was distributed within my body every time I utilized its power, I wasn’t able to create enough force to do major damage without nearly exhausting most of my aether. Not without using Gauntlet form, that is.
Hours, if not days, later, after I had gone through nearly eighty percent of the millipede’s aetheric essence, I checked up on my progress.
Holding my hands out in front of me, I released aether from my core. On my first time, I let it simply distribute evenly throughout my body while trying to still feel the aether pa.s.sages strengthen inside my arm.
On the second try, I focused more aether on my arms. This time, however, I could feel around a ten percent increase in aether around my arms compared to the rest of my body.
A smile crept up on my face as I looked down at my hands, clenching and unclenching them. “H-Haha…”
“You look like you’ve just discovered fire. What are you all excited about?” Regis asked as he floated toward me.
“Can you sense something different?” I answered back, spreading my arms. I let the aether distribute evenly around my body at first.
“The aether around you became a bit less pink,” he noted, not impressed.
“Not that.” I smiled as I coalesced more aether into my arms. “This.”
Regis’ white eyes bulged. “You can control aether now?”
The faint shroud of aether around me dissipated as I relaxed. “Not completely, but it’s a big step forward.”
“Looks like eating all of that millipede dung paid off,” Regis said with a snicker.
“I was consuming the aether from the millipede’s body, not its c.r.a.p,” I started. “…not yet, at least.”
“Well, I have some good news on that front,” Regis said mysteriously.
I raised a brow. “Oh? What is it?”
“Nuh uh uhh,” Regis chimed. “I’ll tell you after I’ve had my twenty percent share of aether from the giant millipede.”
“Fine. I saved about a quarter of the aetheric essence for you anyway,” I replied before I grinned. “For being eaten and expelled from the giant beast’s r.e.c.t.u.m, your master bestows upon you a five percent raise.”
“This one is unworthy!” Regis exclaimed exaggeratedly.
After finis.h.i.+ng off the last of the millipede’s aetheric essence, reducing its corpse into a hazy gray color, Regis was able to easily withstand Gauntlet form three times without hurting himself.
I had expected more, but Regis was content with his growth—especially the growth of his horns.
“Why do you care so much about how big your horns are?” I asked.
“Why do human males care so much about how big their genitals are?” he quipped back.
I stared down then looked back up toward Regis. “Sorry I asked.”
Following Regis inside the ma.s.sive cavern that was about the length of a city block, he led me past a particularly large hill of aether crystals. After we had reached the peak, the hill dipped to form a crater where a particularly vibrant pile of aether crystals were gathered around four large spheres all ranging in different shades of milky purple.
“Don’t tell me those are…”
“Yup,” Regis finished. “I don’t know how, but that giant millipede had her some babies.”
“But that’s not what’s important,” he continued, floating down into the crater. “Look at those crystals surrounding the eggs.”
Sliding down the side of the bowl of aether crystals that functioned as the millipede’s birthing bed, I focused my gaze on the vibrant set of crystals glowing much more brightly than all the other aether crystals in this cavern.
Squinting as I got closer, I saw what was held inside the crystals. My initial theory had been correct when I saw what was happening to the rock that the millipede had swallowed alongside those two-tailed monkeys.
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Trapped within those aether crystals, which were much larger and brighter than the other crystals in this cavern, were various equipment, weapons and other items.
From the way the suits of armor and clothing were positioned within the man-sized crystals, it was evident to me that there was once living people inside each of them. Just like how I had seen the monkey being consumed and its very life sucked out of its body, these people probably had met the same fate after being swallowed whole by the millipede, leaving behind only their possessions.
It was a cruel way for anyone to die, but at this moment, I couldn’t help myself from being overcome by greed. I looked down, examining the torn strips of cloth and leather that I had been pa.s.sing off as clothes, and then back up at the various armors and equipments gleaming within the crystals.
“Look at your eyes, all sparkling,” Regis teased before scanning the aether crystals himself. “Lucky for us, It seems like mama bug feasted on quite a few mages.”
“Have some respect for the dead,” I scolded.
“All of my respect disappeared since I popped out of that bug’s a.n.u.s,” Regis chortled.
I was itching to get my hands on some of the equipment trapped within the aether crystals but there was something more important I needed to take care of first.
Using Gauntlet Form, Regis and I destroyed all but the last millipede egg before absorbing the aetheric essence from them.
“Why are you leaving one alive?” Regis asked.
“There’s a pretty delicate ecosystem within this floor. I don’t want to completely destroy that,” I replied, moving on to the first large crystal.
It took several hours to absorb enough aether from the crystals in order to break through them, but the thought of having something more to wear than what I had ripped and tied together kept me going.
Unfortunately, while the man-sized crystals that contained equipment numbered over a dozen, most of them weren’t usable by the time I had broken through the crystalline sh.e.l.l they had been stored in.
What was left, however, were masterfully crafted equipment that no doubt belonged to either powerful mages and warriors or—at the very least—rich ones.
I looked at the weapons first. Out of the ones that didn’t completely fall apart, there was a golden spear with red runes running down its shaft, an unstrung longbow, a longsword with a gem imbedded on its pommel and a crack running down the length of the blade, and a staff with a shattered gem.
Regis frowned as he hovered over the weapons strewn on the ground in front of me. “Well that’s anticlimactic.”
Remaining hopeful, I picked up the longsword first. It was perfectly balanced and felt good in my hands but when I imbued aether into the sword, the crack that ran down its blade grew bigger and began splintering.
Letting out a sigh, I struck the ground. Smaller aether crystals splashed from the impact as the sword shattered into pieces.
Next, I picked up the spear. Imbuing aether into this one had a particular effect; the runes began glowing purple.
Regis’ eyes widened. “Ooh! Do we have a winn—”
The spear exploded into pieces in my hands, hurling me several feet back and charring my leather vest.
“I guess I spoke too soon,” Regis replied.
“d.a.m.n it,” I cursed, gathering myself and walking back to the weapons that were left.
The remaining weapons didn’t fare much better: the runes on the bow indicated that it used mana to create a string and fire arrows, making it hopeless for me to use, while the staff with the shattered gem proved to be even less useful than the exploding spear—at least the spear would’ve taken someone by surprise had I used it on an enemy.
I moved on to the pile of equipment that I had taken out of the aether crystals. Unfortunately, I faced the same problem wearing the plated armor that I had with using the weapons. Because all of the higher-tiered pieces of armor were forge to better conduct mana, even using aether with those equipped quickly led to them breaking down or exploding.
What I was left with was clothing made from fine cloth or leather.
“Looking good, princess,” Regis teased as he circled around me.
My new outfit consisted of a loose white long-sleeved s.h.i.+rt that I tucked into a pair of bracers made from a thick blackened leather. Over it, I put on a gorget that was made from the same material as the bracers. Despite my rather lean frame, it fit well, resting snug over my shoulders and coming up to my chin.
After some testing, I realized that the s.h.i.+rt and the leather pieces of armor were surprisingly durable. They didn’t have any runes or indications that they were artifacts, so I didn’t need to worry about my clothes bursting from a bad reaction with aether. That’s always a good thing.
Along with a pair of pants, some soft leather shoes and a st.u.r.dy bag that was able to securely hold Sylvie’s stone and my water pouch, the last item held a bit of sentimental value to me. It was a rather elegant cloak lined with a soft white fur around its hood.
It was slash-resistant and incredibly warm, but I liked it simply because of its color. While it was white with fur on the inside, the outer cloth was a toned-down teal color. It reminded me of Dawn’s Ballad, but more than that, it reminded me of the simpler times when I first found Dawn’s Ballad in the back corner of the Helstea Auction House.
Putting on the cloak that came down just above my knees, I was greeted by a nice heft, but what surprised me was that there was something hidden inside the inner lining of the cloak.
“I thought you had gone through all of the weapons,” Regis chimed, studying the dagger in my hand.
“I thought so too,” I muttered, entranced by the small weapon for some reason.
The sleek handle of brushed silver was just long enough for me to hold it in one hand with slight grooves for each of my fingers. Attached to the end of the handle was a ring—most likely for my index finger if I chose to wield it blade down.
Gripping the handle tightly, I pulled it out of its sheath to reveal a flawless white blade with an insignia of a hexagon with three parallel streaks inside it carved near the base.
“Woah. What is that made of?” Regis asked, studying the glistening white blade.
I held it close in front of me, inspecting it as well. “It looks like some kind of… bone?”
“Are bones usually that s.h.i.+ny and white though? It looks almost crystalline.”
“This is my first time seeing something like this too,” I confessed, unable to take my eyes off of it.”
“Try it out. Imbue some aether into it,” Regis said impatiently.
I was afraid to—I didn’t want to damage it. But when I did, to my surprise, it was able to withstand and even conduct a small portion of the aether.
“Do you think that the person who had this knife knew how to wield aether too?” Regis asked, astonished at the sight of the faint purple aura leaking from its white blade.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Most likely, this dagger is just made from something that was able to wield aether—maybe from some beast found in this dungeon.”
Regis’s mouth curved up into a sinister smile. “Wicked.”
I looked back at the remaining millipede egg, searching for an ounce of guilt over killing its three siblings. I had definitely lost something while down here. A part of me was scared and wanted me to latch onto whatever remaining shred of humanity I had left, but a larger part of me knew that in order to survive here and in order to reach my goal, I couldn’t falter.
“Ready to go?” Regis asked.
“Just a minute.” Gathering my hair that had grown far past my shoulders, I tied it loosely near the base of my neck. Gripping the ponytail, I cut off my hair just past the knot, letting the locks of pale wheat hair fall to the ground.
Regis nodded in approval. “I’ll admit, that was pretty manly.”
I took a pa.s.sing glance at the giant millipede that we had killed before walking forward. “Let’s go.”