Chapter 71 – Fiery Potential
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“So, what exactly are we going to do now, Master? Should I prepare a spot like the last time?” Miria asked after they properly examined the place.

“Not yet. I plan to experiment a little today. We are not that pressured by time, so it’s fine if I don’t succeed immediately.”

“And what kind of experiments do you have in mind, my Lord?”

“A few different ones. I’m hoping to confirm or debunk a thesis or two I’ve formulated after recounting all my previous attempts. Afterward, we’ll move to the usual summoning if no results come off as satisfactory.”

Asterios glanced around once more and moved to the center of the clearing. The girls were going to follow him, but he stopped them with his hand. 

“First, the thing that keeps bothering me the most.” He turned to look at Miria. “I’ve never initiated any ritual or anything when you came to save me. Neither did I try to send something akin to the Echoes of Consciousness. Yet, you have somehow heard my cry and jumped in to save me.”

Miria nodded. “That’s true. Will you then try to scream very loud again, Master?”

He chuckled a little. “I don’t think you’ve heard me like that. I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to boost sound so much that it travels through dimensions, hahaha.”

She giggled shyly while blushing a little. 

“Anyway, what I will be recreating is the powerful explosion of spiritual energy. It would be great if I could pair it with strong emotions, but… I don’t think I can force myself into a state any close to the one from that day… Not like I would want to do so in the first place.”

“Right… It was very, very sad and painful… I also don’t want you to feel like that again, Master…” Miria’s ears dropped when she recalled the desperate feelings she sensed from him on that day.

She flinched when a warm sensation similar to Ast’s fingers began running around her ears and Miria raised her gaze to see him smiling at her from a distance. She quickly cheered up and smiled back.

“Well then. Selene?”

“Leave it to me, my Lord.”

The fox lady stoically nodded her head and quickly traced a few lines in front of her and Miria with the tip of her finger, now glowing in blue. A circular seal with three levels appeared vertically in the air and she pressed her palm against it.

“Don’t hold back, my Lord. I’m curious how much energy this barrier can soak before breaking.”

Knowing well how powerful Ast’s spiritual pressure could be, Selene entered the second stage of her Awakening, just in case. Better safe than sorry and she certainly wouldn’t let Miria suffer any discomfort after receiving the task of protecting her. Her pride was at stake here.

Asterios nodded at them and sat down on his knees, trying to be as accurate to the past event as possible. He rolled his fingers into fists and dove deep into his body with his spiritual consciousness.

To reproduce the effect of a barrier getting broken, he decided to coat his spiritual circuits with enough of his usual mana to prevent any leakage. In the girl’s eyes, Ast’s presence suddenly faded. 

Both of them could still see him, but Selene could now barely sense any trace of his mana, which was her main method of tracking someone’s position. Miria felt something change, but she relied more on her instincts and physical capabilities as a tracker, thus she was better off than her friend.

Satisfied with the strength of the coating he had created, Asterios moved towards his sources. Not sure how to do it at first, he scanned through his circuits and the fiery spiritual core with his mind, trying to figure out the best way of creating an explosion of spiritual pressure.

He knew how to increase it gradually, but all the sudden outbursts had always happened subconsciously. While thinking, Asterios began filling his circuits with the scorching hot mana, condensing as much of it at every single point, starting from the very tips of his spiritual lines.

Outside, his appearance changed and the girls could tell that the density of mana was gradually increasing, even with the barrier around Ast’s body working properly. 

Selene gulped. Although she was sure Asterios wasn’t extremely proficient in hiding his spiritual presence, the coating should still be able to cover at least one-third of his total mana. Yet, the pressure in the air definitely started to increase the moment he had begun channeling his energy.

After three minutes, Asterios filled his circuits to the brim. He never felt so hot and heavy before. The coating, which had used up over half of his normal mana, was barely holding out. Perhaps releasing all of this accumulated energy all at once could have been enough, but he wanted to give his all in this attempt.

Just as Asterios was going to give up after what felt like an eternity of trying to figure out a way to make his energy explode in the truest sense of that word, he noticed his blazing red core giving off a different feeling than usual after being completely surrounded by the fiery mana.

He guided his spiritual consciousness as close to the source as he could. Floating in front of the gigantic, flaming orb, he tried to figure out the difference. But, before he could even think about it, the ball of flames pulsed, making his whole inner body shake like during an earthquake. 

Suddenly, a wisp of fire shot out of the source and entangled itself around his consciousness, which shouldn’t even be possible as it was just a projection of his mind. Normally, getting hit like that should break his concentration and push him out of his spiritual body, but he was actually getting pulled towards the blazing wall at an incredible speed, and in a flash, he was swallowed by it and his mind went black.

 

※ ※ ※

 

“Nghhnnnnn…” 

Asterios groaned as he began regaining consciousness. Considering that he could feel the hard ground under his back, he concluded that he had somehow gone overboard and something had gone wrong, resulting in his spiritual consciousness being pretty much obliterated. He began raising himself up.

“Ugh… My head… Are you girls all—”

He opened his eyes and froze. Instead of a green forest, he was met with the sight of a desolate wasteland. Countless volcanoes could be spotted all around him and in the distance. Nothing but dark obsidian bedrock covered the ground as far as he could see. Even the sky was deep grey, covered by all the ash coming out of the erupting mountains, shooting out fire and lava at irregular intervals.

“What the hell is this?”

Asterios was confused. He couldn’t make head or tail of this weird situation. His concentration hadn't been broken but he had been pulled inside… this? His mentality was strong enough to allow Asterios to create a Soulscape, a place inside one’s mind that could take any form the person wished for, but his Soulscape was modeled after a pleasant clearing by a stream where he had shared most of his memories with Mii.

Therefore, it couldn’t be the inside of his Soulscape. He also didn’t feel the same level of control. No matter how hard he focused, nothing here changed, although he could feel the connection to this place.

“Considering that the last thing I remember is being pulled by my second source, is this inside of it? But since when could you get inside your source? No, that’s not important. How do I leave? Don’t tell me I triggered some kind of a trap… I should have been more careful. That barrier from the past might not have been the only thing in my body that I am not aware of.”

Asterios sighed and shook his head. That was when he noticed that he was completely naked, for whatever reason.

“Well… Let’s just hope I don’t run into anyone here. After all of this, I wouldn’t be surprised anymore if I did.”

He started looking around with more attention. Not all volcanoes seemed to be active. Actually, these that were, had a river of lava connecting them, creating something akin to a net. The mountains were of various sizes and it influenced the width of the streams.

Turning around, Asterios almost tripped from shock. He was standing literally in front of another volcano. Thankfully, it looked to be inactive or he would have no chances of running away if it decided to have its turn at exploding right now.

He noticed that this volcano was clearly bigger than the other hills he could spot, besides a single one not that far to his right. That one was a truly mighty mountain, towering over this whole realm. It was active, but not exploding, which was very fortunate considering that with its size, Asterios had a feeling that many kilometers of the ground would end up covered in lava if it did.

Another peculiarity that caught his attention was the fact that pretty much all the volcanoes were somehow connected to the giant one by running streams, either directly or through the smaller ones. Even the inactive ones, although their rivers were not running but fossilized. Some of the volcanoes had connections in the form of a singular line, some branched out into multiple paths like towards other hills. If a dead volcano was located in the middle of a chain, a new river seemingly formed around it, allowing the further ones to still be connected to the main one. 

“Hmmm… There are many paths of volcanoes, but this one near me looks to be the only one without a continuation this close to the main one, not even a dead river, while directly connected to the main mountain with a very tame stream. Unless there’s another one like this on the other side of that massive peak. I can’t see around it, obviously.”

This peculiar volcano was weirdly attracting Ast’s attention and he decided to circle it. After around halfway, he spotted an entrance to a cave. It looked natural, but at the same time not. 

Asterios could definitely see some shape with how it extended out of the volcano but he couldn’t grasp what exactly. It was truly ominous though. Especially the semi-circle of sharp stalactites hanging from it. Perhaps a wolf’s skull or some other canine?

“It’s not like I have any other choice than to keep exploring, right? Just don’t explode on me, please.”

He began walking the dark path leading into the den. The ceiling and walls inside were quite smooth and the tunnel was high enough to fit two people standing on each other’s shoulders. He expected more stalactites, but there wasn’t even a single one.

After what felt like a few minutes of walking in a straight line—surprisingly, not in complete darkness, even though there were no light sources—Asterios noticed an orange hue from somewhere ahead and carefully continued forward.

Finally arriving close to the entrance of a natural chamber, he was hit with a wave of heat and peeked inside while covering his face with his arm. His eyes widened after seeing a round cavern filled with gurgling magma and a single path leading to a circular platform in the middle of it.

“Woah. The walls are not obsidian anymore. It looks like some scarlet mineral now. I guess this volcano isn’t strictly inactive.” Ast’s eyes scanned the chamber and he suddenly frowned. “What the hell? Is that… a throne?”

In the middle of the dark platform, a weird shape made of the crimson mineral that covered the walls could be seen. It definitely had the angles of a fancy chair or a throne. But, why would there be a throne in the center of a volcano? He had no idea.

“Might as well be my way out. Or another trap. Let’s just hope that I’ll wake up if something painful happens. I’d rather not die inside my own source… or soul… or wherever the hell this is."

Paying close attention to the lake of magma in the wide ring around the platform, Asterios made his way towards the structure in the center. Arriving in front of it, he confirmed that it was in fact a very vicious-looking throne in dark crimson shades. The armrests ended up in similar skull shapes as the entrance to the cave and the top of the backrest had many thick spikes coming out of it.

He noticed some kind of a runic script engraved into it, and while he completely didn't know the language, the meaning was somehow clear to him.

All will kneel before the true overlords.

No matter how much he thought about the words, nothing came to his mind. It was just too cryptic. Asterios tried to kneel in front of the throne to see what would happen, but there was no change.

“Well, here goes nothing, I guess.”

He touched the seating first to check its temperature. This might be a trap, but Asterios wasn’t stupid enough to plant his naked butt on a weird crimson stone in the very center of an active volcano.

After verifying that it was only warm, he turned around and lowered himself onto the throne.

“Quite comfortable for something solid. Nothing much happened tho—ghnnn!”

A slight pang of pain in his head made Asterios groan. He tried to instinctively grab it, but his arm did not move. His whole body felt as if it was glued to the scary-looking chair.

Suddenly, memories of his past started flashing in front of his eyes, starting from the most recent ones. 

He watched a very fast show of his experiences, going through his time with his new summons, then time at the academy, then his childhood, then he watched his early years in Kindra’s arms, then how she picked him up from burning rubble, and then—

“Arghh!”

Even stronger pain pierced through his mind when the memories suddenly came to a stop at the scene very shortly before Kindra was going to find him. Asterios felt like he ran headfirst into a wall at his best speed, boosted additionally by a full-power Haste spell. The pain remained there for a short while as if something was trying to drill further. It spiked by a level and then disappeared.

Asterios stopped clenching his teeth and started panting. Before he could catch his breath, the whole cavern began shaking and the ring of magma was gurgling much more than before. He still couldn’t move his body off the scarlet throne while the intensity of the trembling increased gradually.

He chuckled nervously. “Because of cour—”

*BOOM*

 

※ ※ ※

 

Meanwhile, on the outside, four minutes had passed since Selene noticed Asterios finishing gathering his mana, but he was still not taking any other action. Due to the powerful pressure that the covered mana was emanating, all the animals and even insects had run away from the vicinity of the clearing. 

Miria suddenly squinted her eyes by her side. “What’s happening?”

“I don’t know. He must be trying to figure something out.”

“No, not like that. Look at Master’s neck.” She started walking forward while intently staring at Asterios. 

“Hey. Come back into the barrier. We don’t know when all of that energy will explode.”

But Miria wasn’t listening and still kept moving forward. “Master's skin… Isn’t it—”

All fur on Selene’s ears and tail stood up in an instant and her pupils narrowed into thin needles. A complete silence fell onto the clearing. Not even the wind dared to blow. The air surrounding Ast’s body began shimmering so much that the bent reality could be seen with a naked eye from afar.

Without even thinking, she immediately entered the third stage of her Awakening, stepped forward, and grabbed Miria by her collar, throwing the panthergirl back behind her. Selene’s white hair shimmered like a moon when she pushed both hands against the seal she had previously created, pumping everything she had into it.

*BOOM*

The coating Asterios had created did not break like the last time, it shattered into nothingness faster than one could blink. An unimaginable wave of force exploded from his position, instantly flattening all the grass around him and crashing against Selene’s barrier. The first two rows of trees between which the girls had been standing were uprooted and sent flying away. But, that wasn’t all.

Without even a second passing, the shimmering air around Ast’s body burst into literal flames. A spinning dome of fire began expanding from him and heading in their direction. It soon reached Selene’s barrier and instantly broke through the first layer, cracking the second one. They were swallowed by a scarlet firestorm—who knows how large—continuously assaulting the spiritual wall with unbearable heat.

“Ghhhnnnnnn…” 

Selene groaned and cursed herself for not using a much stronger seal, which was now left with only the last layer after the second one broke under the pressure of this hellfire. Even with her constantly feeding it mana, the damage was overcoming the speed of regeneration.

Fortunately, before it began cracking, the flames started to fade along with the pressure. A few seconds later, their vision was no longer obstructed by the wall of fire. Miria's and Selene’s eyes widened when they saw the aftereffects of the intense firestorm.

Asterios was still sitting on his knees in the middle of the clearing, or rather, in the middle of a completely charred-to-the-black ground with just a patch of leftover grass in a circle under him. Everything in the radius of over thirty meters was burned into a crisp. Pieces of ash floated through the still-warm air.

“What did just… happen?” Miria spoke while slowly standing up.

“I assume… it wasn’t… like that… when he summoned… you…” Selene commented in between ragged breaths.

“The trees did look a little scraped, but there definitely wasn’t any fire involved…”

A groan coming from Asterios captured their attention. He was rubbing his forehead and trying to shakily stand up, still in his transformed state.

“Damn… I guess I can cross out bathing in magma from my to-do list…” He shook his head and opened his eyes while turning towards their voices. “Hey, is everyone alr—woah...”

Asterios staggered after seeing his surroundings. He looked around the charred field in complete shock and confusion, starting to wonder if all that magma hadn't magically come back with him, but there were no traces of any molten earth in the ruined clearing.

He moved his eyes onto Miria and Selene and sighed in relief. They were standing in a small spot of still-green grass, saved by the fox lady's barrier. He knew they were fine through their connection, but it was much better to see them with his own eyes.

“Are you okay, Miri—what are you doing?”

“Huh?”

In the middle of his sentence, Miria suddenly dropped onto one knee after their eyes met. Hearing his question, she noticed that she was suddenly close to the ground and was looking at him from below, but she had no recollection of when and how she had gotten into that position. 

“Are you dizzy? Sorry, did you perhaps hit your head when I threw you back?” Selene glanced down at Miria in confusion before looking back at Asterios and meeting his gaze.

“Uhhh… Aren’t you dizzy too, Selene?”

She suddenly heard Miria’s voice just by the side of her face and shuddered when she found herself at the same level as her.

“Um, girls? Is something wrong?” Asterios asked, completely puzzled by their strange behavior.

When the both of them linked their gazes with him again, that was when they realized that his eyes were different. They still were crimson red, but his pupils were vertical, just like when he borrowed Miria's sight. Also, there was something else they couldn’t explain with words.

~BOY! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!~

All of them flinched when someone suddenly screamed inside their minds. Asterios instantly recognized the owner of that voice.

~Grea? Did something happen?~

~Oh, you bet your ass it did! But, I asked you a question! What the fuck is happening on your side?!~

~Uhh… We are experimenting a bit before the next summoning. Why?~

~Ugh! Be so kind to warn me next time! Okay, so, I was just chillin’ over a book when suddenly the mark on my hand started glowing and burning like hell! It was literally lava-hot! I got super scared so I put it in the sink and blasted cold water onto it, but the moment it touched my hand, it fucking EXPLODED IN STEAM AND EVAPORATED. I fell back onto my ass, utterly flabbergasted, and began smelling something burning after a few seconds. When I looked to my side, there was smoke coming from under my hand so I quickly lifted it. THERE’S NOW A FUCKING ONE-CENTIMETER-DEEP CHARCOAL HANDPRINT ON MY WOODEN FLOOR! So. What the fuck did you just do because I certainly don’t know how to make my hands melting-hot?~

Asterios looked at the girls in utter confusion and they looked back at him with similar expressions, still kneeling on one knee.

~Ummm… Give me a second, okay? I might be standing in the middle of a thirty-meter-wide circle of death right now and there might be ash falling onto my head.~

He could feel Grea processing his words.

“Can you girls stand up?” 

Miria and Selene looked at each other and stood up without a problem. They were still staring into his eyes when Asterios approached the duo and he noticed that.

“Is there something on my face?”

“Your eyes… They feel different now… Stronger… and more… regal?” Miria answered him. 

Asterios realized that they had kneeled down just after meeting his gaze and he expelled the remainder of his fiery mana still coursing through his circuits, turning back to his normal appearance. The girls visibly relaxed.

“It might sound stupid, but… when looking into your crimson eyes now, my Lord, it just feels right for me to kneel in front of you. We might have subconsciously done that a moment ago when we were still in shock,” Selene commented.

He shook his head with a wry smile. “Trust me, you would never call it stupid if you heard my story first.”

Confirming that everyone was fine and uninjured, they moved to a different part of the forest before starting to talk. Miria led them to a small stream so they could wash their skin from the accumulated ash and dust and they sat down by it.

First, Asterios shared with them and Grea his part of the story, from start to finish. Then, the girls matched their own experience with the small changes around him that they could spot from their side. In the end, they were left as confused as at the beginning.

~Did someone tell you that you are weird as fuck already? A limiting barrier, humanoid summons, dual sources, entering one of them, finding a realm inside, and exploding in flames after sitting on a throne?~ Grea mused in their minds.

“I was focused on upholding the barrier so I could have missed it but have you also felt something like Grea did, Miria?” Selene turned to her friend.

“Hm? Erm, it was already quite hot around us, but I think I did feel a bit warmer inside. Ah! I forgot about one thing! Just before you exploded, I noticed your skin getting redder and… hardening? I’m not sure. Selene pulled me back before I could get closer and it was not there afterward.”

Asterios sighed. “The further we go the more questions come up with no answers to the previous ones.”

~I’m honestly starting to doubt if you are even human,~ Grea added.

“Then what else am I? I do look like a human.”

~Dunno. A hybrid?~

“Of what?”

~How could I know? Arch Fire Elemental and a human? Not like anyone ever saw something like that so who knows?~

He sighed again and rubbed his forehead. Miria scurried closer to him and leaned against Ast’s shoulder. When he glanced at her, she lightly pecked his lips and nuzzled her face to his neck, making him chuckle a little.

“My Lord,” Selene called to him from the front. “Don’t worry too much. You’ll unravel everything bit by bit, I’m sure of that. And the two of us will do everything in our power to help you.”

After finishing, she stood up and moved behind him. A moment later, Asterios was pulled to the back and his head lay on Selene’s lap. She started to comb through his hair with a soft smile while Miria laid down by him and hugged his side. They rested like that for half an hour, just enjoying the breeze.

“Are we still going to try the actual summoning, Master?” Miria asked as they were raising themselves up.

“We might as well. Even though nothing came from our previous attempt besides fire, I somehow regained pretty much all of the spent mana from that outburst. If we are going to burn more of the forest with more failed experiments, it’s better to do it on the same day or we might get caught.” Asterios chuckled.

“Let’s move to a different clearing then! We still have a few ones Truvi marked for us!” She transformed into a panther and started nuzzling her big head into Ast’s chest.

He jumped onto her back and held up a hand for Selene to join him. She took a spot behind Asterios and they rode away while still discussing the recent events amongst themselves. They found a good spot in another half an hour.

Before they started the preparations, Asterios decided to conduct a few more tests to see if there were any visible changes to him and his energy. The girls admitted that his eyes in the awakened state did give off a much prouder feeling than before, but they weren’t now compelled to kneel like earlier.

As for the thing with his skin that Miria had mentioned, Asterios couldn’t replicate it no matter how hard he tried. Even after gathering pretty much the same amount of spiritual energy as before, he couldn’t enter his source like the last time. Nothing happened when he waited in front of it with his spiritual consciousness, so they assumed that something might have changed after his previous visit.

For the summoning circle, this time, Miria worked together with Selene. The latter cut the grass with a spiritual blade and the former drew all the necessary lines from the schematic Asterios showed her. 

While they were choosing the material for the formation’s lines, Selene suggested using the charcoal dust left behind by the flames in the previous clearing. She explained that the area was still filled with spiritual energy and essence, albeit a little chaotic. Asterios agreed with her idea and sent both girls to collect as much of it as they could. 

When they returned, he confirmed that it truly wasn’t just your usual ash and it had a trace of spiritual energy in it. Selene really wanted to help so he left drawing the lines to her and Miria while only guiding them. 

“What kind of a catalyst are we using this time, Master?” Miria asked after they finished.

“I have a few of them in mind, but let’s first try with just my essence. If that won’t work, I’ll let you choose whichever you like. We are already shooting pretty randomly with that dust so we might as well go full out.”

She smiled cheerfully and nodded. Asterios started turning around but Miria quickly grabbed his hand.

“Haven’t you forgotten something, Master?”

He raised his brow at her warm smile adorned with slightly rosy cheeks.

Asterios quickly went through their last attempt at summoning in his mind and found out what was lacking. He opened his arms wide and Miria jumped into his embrace, diving straight for a deep kiss as his hands began caressing her ears and tail.

She stepped back with a shy giggle after a short while. “Good luck ritual complete. Your turn, Selene.”

Asterios looked at her curiously and then moved his eyes to the fox lady, not exactly sure what to expect. Selene walked closer to him with a mischievous smile, cupped Ast’s chin with her delicate fingers, and started heading for his lips while staring him straight into the eyes.

Just before they joined their mouths together, Selene’s bushy tail swatted Ast’s face and he heard her chuckle softly.

“They say that a Spiritual Fox’s tail is a symbol of luck so feel free to rub the lucky trinket a little, fufufu~”

He sighed as a smile appeared on his lips and did as Selene suggested, getting a good feel of her fluffy tail. For whatever reason, Miria was glaring at Selene as she made her way back to her spot. He shrugged it off internally and focused his mind on the summoning, drawing on the scorching hot mana.

"Here it goes then."

 

Alright. Next one is where the thing happens. I swear. Don't hit me.

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