Seth clenched his fists as a searing pain travelled all along his body, making the whole experience closer to a nightmare rather than the heaven he’d envisioned.
But it wasn't the moment to bother with that.
His core thrummed, and pulses of mana fill his pathways with every breath. It was exhilarating, though he would have definitely loved to enjoy it while not having to bear the constant stretching movements of his muscles and tendons.
It wasn't painful, but the sensation of having your muscles and tendons trembling like jelly and your core shrinking like a nut unwilling to crack wasn't the most pleasant thing one could experience. Though, in comparison to the stench steaming out from his skin… he would definitely choose the former.
Because, honestly, who would pick a bit of pain over the most horrible, hair-raising and vile smell that existed in this beautiful world?
Seth wouldn’t. Definitely.
But that was not for him to decide. And, unfortunately, he was experiencing what both worlds had to offer.
Lost in thoughts, Seth didn't notice the burning sensation rising on his skin. It started as a subtle irritation, but soon, it began to climb in intensity until it felt as though millions of ants were tapping their legs against his skin. And then, it came.
It emerged from his pores in the form of a sticky pitch-black substance that smelled like a dead, rotting corpse. Or at least those were the words that came to Seth’s mind as the indescribable stench made its way through his nostrils, leaving a burning sensation behind.
Despite that, what caught Seth’s attention the most wasn’t the nauseating fume but the perturbing feeling that came while watching an alien substance vacate his body.
It was a bit perturbing.
If that was not enough, Seth found his arms, feet, legs, face, back and every single inch of his naked self covered in a thin layer of black hardened impurities. The stench grew with every passing second.
Seth immediately stepped inside the bathroom and began the exhausting task of cleaning himself. It took him nearly an hour to remove everything from his skin, stench included.
A wall of steam rose as he took a step out of the bathroom, his black, short hair glistening under the few rays of light that came through the miniature window on a corner. There was still a lingering odour in the environment, but there was nothing he could do about it.
As Seth examined his room, an involuntary sigh couldn't help but escape his mouth as his gaze swept across the room. A knot of melancholy formed in his stomach. There wasn't really a reason for feeling disheartened after achieving one of his oldest dreams. Instead, he should be beaming with glee after achieving such a feat.
And he was… probably.
Seth shook his head and made himself comfortable on the bed.
The apartment wasn't anything grand; with just enough space to fit a bed, a compact desk with two chairs and a small, nearly useless gathering script on the floor. There wasn't much to do inside aside from sleeping, eating and cultivating. But, for Seth, it was the closest he’d ever got to his dreamed paradise.
“But no matter how small, it’s mine and only mine to enjoy,” he muttered, trying to raise his spirits for the second attuning session of the morning.
As a nearly thirteen-cycled old boy, he didn't have much to do aside from spending his days refining his core or getting into the training woods to hunt whatever he could find… that wasn't going to eat him as a morning snack.
Taking a deep breath, Seth visualized the red-coloured sphere in his heart. Bearly a few hours ago it had been as black as the blackest ink, but now, it glowed with a vibrant fiery red coloured hue. He was eager to find out the benefits that came with it.
In order to purify his core and get it to the next stages, Seth—and all known living beings—needed to focus on gathering mana, from both his body and the surrounding atmosphere, and then use that to get rid of the impurities held in both his core and body, little by little.
As he absorbed mana from the atmosphere, he began to guide those fable wisps of mana towards his core. Pushing them inside and then releasing them through the pores of his body.
The task was long and arduous, but Seth found himself in delight as he felt how smoothly the mana flowed through his pathways. Stronger and thicker.
It didn't increase the pace at which his impurities were filtered. It was half a notch lower, actually. But Seth didn't give it much thought. He wasn’t obvious to the fact of the increasing difficulty that comes with every breakthrough, so there wasn’t a point in feeling disheartened in the slightest.
Another notable thing Seth rapidly noticed, was the significant increase in the amount of mana he could store. While the size of his core hadn’t increased physically, the higher purity did allow more mana, and of greater quality, to be stored. Which was just as great.
Attuning was one of the hardest things a practitioner had to go through on its path to power, a road that started with the awakening and continued with the advancement of the following six core stages. A long and challenging marathon to the top.
Seth had always known that it wasn’t going to be easy, but he'd never expected to waste half a cycle to advance his core in a single stage…
With those thoughts in mind, the next half an hour passed in little more than a flash as his whole attention was preoccupied with gathering mana and filtrating as many impurities as he could.
“This should be enough for today,” Seth said after a while, his voice barely more than a whisper as he let himself drop onto the bed. His gaze lingered on the white ceiling, exhausted.
Every session would always leave him mentally drained and with his muscles crying in discontent, as though he had run a marathon. But there was something magical in the feeling of wearing himself out, and he would have continued enjoying it if the brutal, hammering sounds weren't on the verge of shattering his door.
Irritably, Seth walked over to the door. But before he managed to grab the handle, the door swung open abruptly as the plump figure of his good friend Lucas nearly hit him like a cannonball.
He barely managed to dodge him as the rounded boy struck the floor headlong.
Despite that, Lucas didn’t even waste a second in raising himself and staring at him with his widened—slightly too big—pair of forest green eyes and locks of blond hair hanging on his temples; both hands gripping Seth’s shoulders as though his life depended on it.
“We need to go NOW!” he said, not even bothering to wait for a response as he dragged Seth out of his room.
“So, you will tell what all of this is about or do you expect me to divine out whatever it's rumbling in your head,” Seth said, glaring at Lucas.
Lucas looked at him, the enthusiasm in his face drooping slightly. "Are you even aware of what time of the cycle it’s today?”
Seth raised him an eyebrow, “Late Quarter,” he said, deadpan. “But I don't see what that had to do with all your passion… or why the hell is the hall crowded as though today it's a Deacon’s advancement ceremony,”
The Ceremony Hall of the Eastern Temple was so big that you could fit a thousand people and you would still have enough space to take your dog for a stroll, which made it quite challenging to overcrowd without a good reason. Seth, at least, had only experienced it two times since he’d moved there, two cycles ago. On both occasions due to some big-shot advancement ceremony that people love to see through the gigantic projecting artefacts of the temple.
Well, this one should be the third time, Seth said to himself.
“I'm not sure if you’re just too much of a dick, or simply don’t give a fuck of whatever happens around you,” Lucas said, this time not even sparing him a glance as both his overly-too-large eyes focused on the enormous screen at the end of the hall. “Today is the draw for the next Ranking Competition, so yeah this is a bit important.”
“Oh, I thought there were still a few weeks to go before that,” Seth said, a bit excited, his gaze drawn to the gigantic letters projected on the screen. “I've been quite busy… lately.”
“Yeah,” Lucas threw him a glance that so happened to linger longer on the place his core rested. “At least it wasn't for naught,”
Having said that, the duo grew silent as letters began to appear on the white screen in the distance. There was an immediate, massive intake of air as several rows of fiery red words appeared, followed by a tsunami of cheers and roars of excitement that made more than one raise their hands to their ears.
Lucas and Seth looked at each other, the former one with a smile that declared ‘I told you’ plastered on his face—though not less shocked than Seth.
“Did you alre-
“No,” Lucas shook his head, “We knew there was something important cooking since some weeks ago… But nothing this crazy.”
Seth nodded, absentminded. Neither of them exchanged more words as they sprinted back to their places, preoccupied with their thoughts.
Seth looked back.
—Darkhold City— has been selected as the 338th and final participant for the upcoming ‘Regional Ranking Competition’ that will take place in 999 days at the city of Ithoss in the Impess Empire.
-108 places will be given for the preliminaries of every city selected.
-Orange Core Stage and sixteen cycles will be the limit for the preliminary rounds to be held in 199 days.
-The preliminaries will be devised by the dominant force/s of every city and supervised by two elders of the —Stygian Clan— that…
Seth's mind didn't bother with the rest, he would have time to go over the rules later. For now, he needed to stock himself up with provisions…
A lot of them.