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17 A fistful of earth

King Qinguang stroked his chin. After pondering for a moment, he said: "Dragon, it will not be easy. It will be painf-"

"Human, I have come until here and I lowered my head in front of you, my jaws towards the earth and not at your neck. Do not treat me like a man cub. No one would be so foolish as to believe such a transformation will not come at a price. My body is strong enough to withstand anything."

Qinguang nodded. He was standing in front of an Ancestral Dragon, directly generated from the energy of the universe. Men had to climb to the top step after step, preserving the humility they had been born with, but that Dragon had been born on the highest of peaks, so his haughtiness was all the more natural.

"Do you want to proceed immediately?" asked King Qinguang.

"I do."

The Judge of the Dead cleared his throat. As soon as that sound rippled through the air, everything fell silent. No other sound could be heard in the screaming Hell of Sanjiva. Silence.

Qinguang closed his eyes. No one spoke. The souls were quiet. The guardians hushed.

Fiuu

A gust of icy air hit Kirin. 'Sanjiva is the Hell of smoldering iron, why…' at that moment he noticed that even the floor was not red-hot anymore. The souls and the guardians seemed to have noticed too. Everyone was silent. Some souls still had a guardian's sword jammed in their ethereal flesh; despite this, they did not dare utter a sound, for fear of disturbing their Judge.

Qinguang slowly stretched his hands, then he opened his eyes and looked at Kirin.

Suddenly, between Kirin and Qinguang appeared a small flaming globe.

Puryang, the White Hell. The flame of the strongest King of the 18 Hells. Qinguang determined the cycle of reincarnation of men according to that flame. Fire had always been an element of the forces of Destruction. That small flaming sphere was infinitely more powerful than the Ancestral Dragons, and that was why Qinguang was one of the most feared humans in the entire universe.

"Dragon, now I will engulf you in flames. You know very well what is going to happen. Every single particle of Destruction in your being will be purified. A new substance will be generated, a new fire, maybe even more powerful than mine. If you will survive, you will become the undiscussed ruler of the Heavenly Flames.

"In order to pass this test you just have to resist and dominate the flame. You will need to tame it and let it erase all your sins, but you will have to stop it from consuming all the good that is left in you too. You will be master of your own destiny. Were you to lose focus, even just for a second, you will die, burned to ashes."

As he talked, Qinguang had already widened the scope of the flaming globe that now was as big as Kirin.

The Dragon shook his already withered wings, ready for anything.

Without giving Qinguang the time to warn it a second time, Kirin stepped in the flames.

As soon as he touched Puryang, Kirin almost lost consciousness. Dragons were the masters of Fire and an Ancestral Dragon like Kirin must have been all the more resistant to flames. But that was the most powerful of the Heavenly Flames. Probably, only the Dragon King would have survived a direct conflict with that flaming globe.

Despite him being in agonizing pain, Kirin noticed that the paw that was already inside the fire was changing consistency. His scales were destroyed and regenerated at unbelievable speed.

Unlike the Demonic Flames, the Heavenly Flames reached the highest possible degree of Flames. Not so much for their incredible destructive properties, but for their affinity with the Forces of Life. The master of those Flames could use them to create, more than destroy. On the other hand, Demonic Flames only possessed destructive properties. One must not be fooled by the name, though: Demonic Flames were just low-level Heavenly Flames. While Heavenly Flames were so powerful as to comprise both the Forces of Life and of Destruction, Demonic Flames were only a weak manifestation of the forces of Destruction.

The strongest in the ranks of the forces of Destruction could too control the Heavenly Flames.

Kirin has now completely entered the globe. Every fiber of his being was taken over by crushing pain. Fire was consuming him. Yet, it noticed another thing: as it had happen with the first paw, the fire was now regenerating his entire body.

His claws, jaws, paws, everything was being destroyed and recreated,

ROAAAR!

Kirin let out a growl. It was not a roar of pain, but a challenge. Even though he was not as strong as the Dragon King, he did not fear those flames. They were his only chance.

The guards of Sanjiva broke in a cold sweat, witnessing that scene. They could not feel the devastating heat only thanks to the protection that King Qinguang had cast upon them. They knew very well the suffering of souls in that Hell and they understood how greater was the pain experienced by someone that stepped inside Puryang, a pain so great it was impossible to imagine. Even them, who every day inflicted atrocious punishments on the damned, pitied the Dragon.

Kirin writhed spasmodically. He was trying as hard as he could to not lose control, pushing his concentration to the limit. He let the flam enter his body, travel through his withered Meridians, destroying them one after the other. In their place, an odd formation started appearing. The Dragon had never seen anything like that. All was left of his body was flesh, fire and his Soul.

The fire kept disintegrating his body for three days and three nights, molding and destroying it over and over again.

At the end, Kirin lost his wings forever. In return, two sharp horns grew on top of his head. Dragons, usually, did not have horns, or if they had, they mostly did not have a function. The horns that grew on Kirin's head, however, were indestructible, not even the Dragon King could have broken them. It would have been easier to kill Kirin himself than to snap one of his horns.

Thanks to the transformation, Kirin had grown back to its original size, his body occupying miles and miles of the Hell. Qinguang had cleared out that area. Now only him and Kirin were left.

"He is almost through with the process. He has made it…" murmured Qinguang. He knew his Heavenly Flame had the power to accomplish something like that, but it was the first time a creature was able to survive the entire evolving process, so the outcome would have been unexpected even for him.

BOOM!

The flames that engulfed Kirin dispersed and returned in the hands of the man.

BOOM!

BOOM!

BOOM!

BOOM!

Golden tongues of flames enveloped Kirin's body. It was a new kind of Heavenly Flame.

Qinguang sighed. That Ancestral Dragon now possessed one of the greatest powers in the universe. Luckily he had sworn to serve the Forces of Life.

"Dragon", called King Qinguang.

Kirin looked at his own body in disbelief. He had not noticed he had grown back to his natural size. He shrank back so he could be able to talk to the tiny human.

"I am very grateful. Eternally grateful", Kirin did not leave time for Qinguang to say anything and began to express his gratitude. "Human, today you have given me my freedom. I swear I will never harm a living being ever again. From now on, I will be the protector of Life. Over these three days, my Soul has been purified from every single particle of the forces of Destruction, I am reborn. I am no longer a Dragon. Starting from today, my descendants and I will be called Qilins…"

Kirin had spoken carried away by emotions. He soon realized how dramatic his speech might have sounded, so he fell silent and walked away on clouds of golden fire that allowed him to rise high in the sky, as though he was climbing the heavens. His scales were now made out of the hardest material ever existed. If anyone could put their hands on it, they could have forged the most resistant weapon in the entire universe.

"Come back to see me some time, we still have a lot to talk about!" called after him Qinguang.

All formalities had been forgotten, despite the fact that both were two of the most powerful beings of all times.

Kirin had not left Qinguang the time to ask questions, since he had realized he had become much stronger than the King who had restored its gift of flight. Its shame and gratitude towards the human made it feel like a thief. And this was why Kirin and Qinguang always shared mutual respect and a strong friendship.

"It is said that nothing and no one could ever rival the Physical Strength of the First Qilin."

***

In the cave

Helial was still inside the cave.

He was thinking about how to make the Perception Skill stronger.

What can I do? I was an idiot to think that it would have been as easy as train the body. The ways of Mana are indeed mysterious. I'll need to work harder.

Helial had naively tried to train one of the first Skills created as if it were a muscle, but with little success. He clenched his fists. He had to keep calm, but he couldn't do it.

That crazy idea of his was putting his sister at risk. He needed more strength. He absolutely needed to find a way.

Mana Reflowing had helped him to calm down.

He put his hands on the ground. He grabbed a fistful of sandy soil and let it run through his fingers. He was trying to think.

The sand was tickling his fingers, while the solid earth was resisting his pressure.

He looked at Lumia. Her little body looked so frail… Her small chest rose and fell rhythmically.

He kept fiddling with the earth. At first glance, it had looked hard and solid, but it was actually brittle.

Once in the hand, it gives a totally different feeling…

!

Helial had an Epiphany.

Nervously, he activated the Skills necessary for training.

Skill Activated:

Perception

Skill Activated:

Communion with Mana

He steadied his breathing to focus as much as possible. This time, he did not extend his senses beyond two yards. He could perceive Lumia's weak Aura. It was very delicate, but there was something more to it.

As he observed the girl's Aura with his mind, Helial noticed that it was like looking at a picture through a fogged glass. He sensed there was much more to be seen. Just like when he had grabbed that fistful of earth, he noticed right away that what his eyes perceived did not match what he touched.

He thought of using that same idea to train Perception. Perception took advantage of the Mana resonance to detect everything in the surroundings. It was some kind of tuning in with Mana.

Helial focused all his energies to examine the Mana coming from Lumia's body. It was weak, but there was something more.

He employed all his mental power. Since young, Helial had always possessed an extraordinary control over Mana. But he had not been much educated on how to develop Skills. Actually, he had not received any education at all, creating his own Skills, like Perception and Mana Pistol.

He began using his Mana as if caressing Lumia's. He slowly ran over that feeble Aura, just like a whisper. He breathed in and hugged all of Lumia's Aura.

In her sleep, Lumia felt enveloped by a warm, soothing hug.

Helial could now see so much more. Everything was becoming clear before his eyes. Before he was blind, but now he could see. Lumia's Aura was not only steady, it contained an amazing power. It was Earth Affinity. Helial could see that the Aura condensed in some points, then it flowed away and condensed again. It was wondrous to behold. It was as though flames were condensing and then dissipating, in an infinite cycle.

In that moment, everything else disappeared, there were only him and Lumia. He could sense her Aura with exceptional clarity. This was well beyond the normal control even for someone in the First Phase.

While Helial was deep in that meditative state, notification windows started to pop up.

Mana Control allows you to perceive the outside world with incredible clarity.

You will be now able to distinguish other people's unique Auras.

From now on, any physical disguise people might use will not be able to fool you.

Perception reached Level 10!

Helial was so deeply focused that he did not notice the notifications.

Only few people in the continent are able to reach this state before the Third Phase.

You reached the level 'Mind's Eye'.

Your Stats receive a positive influence!

Intelligence +20

Wisdom + 40

Helial was almost in a coma state. It was as if he had always been blind and now he had received the gift of sight. After perceiving Lumia's Aura in that way, he started examining his surroundings.

The ground inside the cave looked alive. Its Mana had a resemblance with that of Lumia, but much more vivid. Every element was naturally imbued with Mana Energy.

He used the Skill to examine the entire cave. He observed the walls. Their Mana was of the same type as the ground, but with a much higher density. That Mana radiated a warm, reassuring feeling, but stable and firm at the same time.

Helial was not aware of the fact that he was having an Epiphany. It was a special state in which people found the key to unlock the secret for a Skill or get a glimpse of the path they must follow to get what they coveted.

Helial kept expanding the range of Perception. Now he had gotten outside the cave. The trees. The shrubs. The flowers and animals. He could sense everything clearly. He traveled even farther, as if no limits were constraining him anymore. Suddenly, Helial changed his focus and directed it towards the sky.

1000, 1500, 2000…

He could sense the birds flying. Their wings. Their feet flailing midair. Everything.

He shifted again. This time towards the depths of the earth.

There, Mana was richer and more difficult to examine.

Below the cave, there were iron lodes that extended for miles…

There was a huge block of iron right below the cave. It was not a lode, it was a mass of extremely dense Mana… How could that be destroyed to penetrate it or to extract the iron? It would have been very difficult.

Nevertheless, thanks to its meditative state, Helial was able to go further down into the gigantic iron lode. He felt an odd, warm energy pulsing in its depths. It was… fire?! Could it be magma? No, the heat was more gentle. Helial began to feel the vibrations of that Energy. It was incredible. It felt boundless and indestructible. Just when he was about to examine it closely, in his mind…

ROAAAAAAAAAAAAAR
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