45 – Cultivating
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45 – Cultivating

Melina watched with interest as Ishrin prepared himself for yet another ritual. He was holding a small booklet in his hands, and sat cross legged at the center of a perfect circle drawn with quartz and enriched with diamonds and pearls. How he had come into possession of such things was beyond her, but his inventory basically encouraged kleptomaniac tendencies, and while she couldn’t really be sure that she witnessed all the times he used it, the time that she did see him were already enough to make for a rather substantial stash of materials.

Especially if, like her gut told her, said inventory was more versatile than he let on. What was the maximum range at which he could open the portal to his storage space? Did he need line of sight? Could he bypass physical materials? Certainly, he could not use it to destroy things, or nuisances such as a door would not matter much to him, which they did, but other limits were hazier.

Ishrin had no clue what she was thinking, of course, but he would not have confirmed or denied anything if confronted about it. Not that he did not trust Melina, although there were still tensions that needed to be resolved with her, but because he himself still had no clear idea of the limits of such an ability. It was not a spell, it did not require mana like normal spells did but still needed some to be primed and overall, it worked in strange ways. To be expected since a god had been involved in creating it.

While he made his preparations for his ritual, Lisette had gone to the guild back in Noctis to deliver their report about what they found inside the realm they visited, to turn the quest in and receive the rewards. Her secondary objective was to find any information regarding the strange commissioner who issued the quest in the first place, and there were concerns that the robotic man whose hand she had seen reach out to the quest board was involved. Especially after what they had seen in the realm, and the signal sent to hack the mountain and make it wake earlier and meaner than it would have otherwise.

The air at the guild was nothing short of toxic for Ishrin, but even Melina had elected to stay as far away from Syrma as she could. Of the three, it had been Lisette who had been chosen as the one with the least amount of danger to her personal safety should she show up in town, and they needed a set of eyes to see what was going on there, since all they had going for them so far were their speculations.

When Melina had given Lisette the envelope with the written report, for a moment it felt like the old balance of power had tried to reassert itself over the team. She was, to the Guild at least, still the leader of the team and the report had been penned by her hand. But the illusion was shattered in mere moments at the hand of Lisette’s glacial reaction upon receiving the envelope, to which she had barely nodded. The report also had a second scroll within it, addressed to the new Guild master and signed by Melina herself. She had refused to share its contents with the rest of the team, and while Ishrin had not really shown much of a reaction to the fact, Lisette had been the closest she could be to actually being vocal about it without uttering a single word. Melina didn’t know if she would have preferred the black-clad woman to actually speak.

It had been Ishrin who surprised them both, speaking like he was casually chatting with them over a cup of tea.

“It’s just a normal report, nothing strange.” He said, seeing that Lisette was waiting for his approval. “It doesn’t say much, actually. It’s just a recounting of the events that happened in the realm, minus the… you know, professional secrets. We did withhold any sort of information about rituals and multiversal travel from it.”

Only he knew how he knew about the actual contents of the report. Melina felt her cheeks redden, and felt like her trust had been broken—or rather, that she had been given confirmation that the team had no more trust in her.

Had she asked Ishrin about it, she would have gotten a different reply. After obtaining Tier 3, not only had his body undergone the reforging required to overcome the bottleneck—with vastly increased results compared to normal, for reasons still not entirely clear—but his detection powers coming from his Touch from Afar ritual had increased as well. He had literally seen the words on the scroll as he handed it to Lisette, the ink still drying from when Melina had penned them mere minutes earlier. Once it was dry, he wouldn’t be able to read it anymore, but as long as it was wet and the scroll in his hands, all he had to do was to mentally unfurl the paper and read it. His experience with rituals meant that manipulating the script in his mind until it was readable was only a matter of a moment of concentration, something that his new Tier plus an application of the spell Brief Stop Time made completely invisible to the rest of the team.

Lisette was not convinced, however. “I do not understand the reason behind this report.”

“We need to warn the guild.” Melina said.

Lisette’s stare was penetrating. “The realm is destroyed, Melina.” She said.

“But old dangers are coming back to haunt this place.” Ishrin added, butting in between the two women. “Dangers once thought to have been put to rest forever. That’s usually not a good sign.”

“Will the new guild master act good on that information?” Melina said dramatically. “Probably not. But it wouldn’t sit well with me to just do nothing.”

“See?” Ishrin said. “She’s a good person. And this time it costs us nothing to do the right thing, so why not do it? Syrma knows we went in there, after all. And he also probably knows that the realm has collapsed. I can’t imagine such an event going undetected by a Tier 8 Master.”

It went unsaid, hidden in the subtext but in plain view to everyone, that should Syrma decide to take them by force, they could do nothing to stop him. Avoiding going into town was cute, or so Ishrin thought it must have looked like in the eyes of someone five full Tiers above his station. Even Melina and Lisette attacking together could do nothing but annoy him if he decided to attack them. Tier 8 was no joke.

Lisette nodded. “Okay. I will go and return with the quest bounty.”

After she left, Ishrin returned to his ritual circle. He looked at the book in his hands for a long time, sighing and muttering something about having become the very thing he hated, before shaking his head. He inhaled, then suddenly his eyes shot open and he turned his head, closing the book.

“There are other reasons you didn’t want me to go to town, weren’t there Melina?” He asked.

Melina hummed in surprise, uttering the first word that came to mind. “Syrma.”

Ishrin shook his head. “I will have to go, sooner or later. I have stuff to do there.”

“You know that if he sees you, he will drag you in for an extensive evaluation, right? He might revoke your token entirely. He can do that. Without your token, you have no more protection than a random farmer on a border farm does, and you saw what happens to them.”

There was a long pause. “He can revoke it at any time. You are worried I might anger him. You think that upon seeing me, he might lash out or do something irrational. Why is that?”

Another pause. This time, it was Melina who dragged the silence for as long as she needed it to last. She paced, trying to find the right words, feeling as if she was walking on a thin sheet of ice. The water below was dark and fathomless, like the Dirac Sea. She visualized it, on a whim, the infinite sea of power resting one layer below the actual physical world, and the action felt easier and clearer than it had any right to be after the foundation had been shaken by the recent trauma.

For some reason, the fathomless well of power did not seem as infinite as she had always believed it to be.

“You…” she began, paused, then began anew. “You are not exactly normal. You don’t really fit in around here. Knowing that there is a world traveler from another universe in town, you stick out like a sore thumb.”

“Okay,” he said, “I can accept this. But it’s all but guaranteed that he knows it’s me.”

“Do you want to confirm it to him? We have plausible deniability, and I still have some sway at the guild. Some connections I can use. That’s the only reason you are still here, really.”

Saying it out loud had an effect on her. Melina realized that she was not useless to them, after all, and that she could still somehow pull her weight. Not it was just a matter of shoring up the rest of her weaknesses, ranging from her stuck cultivation to her character flaws. She could do it, and the burst of optimism showed through in her gaze to the point Ishrin seemed to catch on it, and he turned the conversation to more pleasant topics. He tried to reassure her about what she did, about her abilities, and to give her some hope for the future. While Melina suspected that this good spell was going to be temporary, she allowed herself to enjoy it while it lasted.

Eventually, the conversation died down, but she was left with a smile on her face. An expression which had been missing from her features ever since they left the astral realm.

Beside her, Ishrin was sitting on the ground. He had his eyes closed while his book was open on a specific page that depicted something like a breathing pattern. The ink was fresh enough that she suspected he might have drawn the pattern that very day, if not for the fact that Melina had not seen him do it.

After he seemed satisfied with whatever he was thinking about, he nodded.

“This won’t take long.” He said.

“What is it that you’re doing, exactly?” Melina asked. She couldn’t resist doing it.

“…cultivating.” Ishrin said. “Watch.”