“Don’t press too hard or you’ll damage the hide.”
“Yes Mother.” A permanent frown remained on his face while he spread the mashed wildberry juices evenly over the drenched pelt; it had been soaked in animal brains earlier as part of the tanning process.
“This is so gross.” He whispered under his breath and finished coating the fur. Brandon’s handled much more disgusting shit (literally) in his past life but at least he had gloves back then.
She finished arranging the furs on the drying rack and now headed towards him to pick up the one he was working on.
“Oh good, it’s the last one too. Now why are you frowning? Be thankful you're not shoveling manure like you would if we were a farming family.”
“I know, I know, Mother. It’s just...I’d rather go hunting with father instead of doing these chores.” He handed the fur to her.
She countered, “Now Rhun, how are you, a little six-year-old, going to help your father hunt if you can’t even wield a bow?”
“I can lay traps! I know father checks the traps early in the morning — I’ll just wake up early and go with him.”
The woman stretched the fur out, hung it on the rack, and shook her head. “You? Wake up early?”
Rhun pouted. He’s never been a morning person, this life or his previous one.
She sighed in return, “Alright if you insist, I’ll help talk to your father for you tonight.”
“Thank you Mother!” Playing the child card worked.
“You’re welcome, little Rhun. You can run along and play now.”
He shouted while bolting off, “Bye Mother!”
Being a kid pretty much sucked for the most part except for one big advantage; the ability to hide in nooks and crannies.
Rhun crouched in the corner of the storehouse behind a few wooden barrels. Luckily, a sliver of light from a wall crack illuminated the text he was reading.
He stole the book from the chapel, one of the few places in the village with any form of writing. It was actually very easy to pull off, since the tiny chapel of Tobias only had two acolytes serving it. Honestly, more people visited the shrine dedicated to Jarilo, the god of harvest, than the site honoring the god of hope.
The boy flipped to the dog ear, which marked where he left off last time:
‘The soul is a concept varying greatly between individuals. There are weak souls, strong souls; rich souls, poor souls. This is why many souls pass easily to the afterlife while others harboring strong emotions manifest themselves into creatures of shadow, forever destined to wander the material lands until banished.’
‘Some rich souls produce copious amounts of soulforce, yet cannot make use of this fact to become a strong warrior or mage due to either a weak anima core or mana nucleus or their soulforce conversion rate to other types of forces is extremely inefficient. (Note: Practitioners of Soul Magic, Taoists from the distant lands, and others that directly manipulate soulforce are an exception.)’
Rhun was glad he was not actually mentally six because of how dry and boring this book was. Then again, most children in this world are illiterate. He shook his head and continued.
‘A good physique strengthens the heart, and subsequently, the anima core within. It is widely accepted by warriors and other anima users that physical training improves anima generation and the body’s compatibility with anima. This explains why young children have a difficult time using anima due to having an underdeveloped body.’
‘However, this is untrue for mana as there are numerous records throughout history of child prodigies who have gone on to become powerful mages. A strong mind coupled with rigorous study allows for the mana nucleus to be used to its full potential and easier mana manipulation by the user.’
Discouraged he couldn’t use one of the major forces in this world until he was older, Rhun quickly moved on and decided to see if he could at least figure out this mana thing.
He finished the chapter, stowed the book in one of the empty barrels, and looked around the village for a quiet place to practice what he just learned.
Upriver, where the occasional boat merchants passed by, near the red clay banks, Rhun found an isolated area, perfect for his needs.
He laid down several twigs closer to the tree line as a crude detection method, but creatures know better than to be this close to the village. However, it never hurts to be extra careful, especially in a world such as this one.
Rhun sat on a large boulder, palms face-up resting on his knees, and closed his eyes. The book asserted that in order to sense one’s soulforce, beginners should solely focus on their breath. He remembered doing mindfulness exercises, a similar concept, back when he tried going to therapy.
Trying to concentrate on his breath, Rhun perceived the burbling stream and rustling leaves in the background. In through the nose, and out through the mouth. Strange, the birds were quiet today. In, and out. It's springtime, so their obnoxious chirps were usually present.
Rhun frowned and opened his eyes. Nothing had happened.
His young mind wandered so much more now; he found it challenging to remain focused for any extended period of time. This will definitely take some practice.
He tried once more and had a tiny bit of success until he thought he heard some faint whispers. He must be imagining it, right? Suddenly, he opened his eyes and stared at the thick reeds on the bank behind him.
“He caught us. He caught us.”
“Shhh, no he can’t see us. Just be quiet and stay still.”
“Ughhh, how much longer? It’s so boring waiting here, and he’s not doing anything.”
“Yeah, he’s just sitting there. Let’s go back and play.”
“No, he’s gotta be doing something. I always see him sneak off on his own.”
“So? He’s just a weirdo anyway. Who cares?”
Rhun hopped off the boulder and headed towards the dense foliage. The voices fell into silence. He raised a brow and coughed.
“The weirdo knows you guys are hiding in there so just come out already.”
Stillness. And then —
“I told you! I told you!”
A bunch of children shuffled out of the brush. They ranged from a couple years younger than him to the oldest one, Lyle, who was 10 years old and the de facto leader of these kids.
Lyle confronted him. "What were you doing all the way out here by yourself?"
He crossed his arms. "Why does it matter? Why'd y'all even follow me?"
"You were being sneaky again, so Lyle said we needed to follow you to find out what you were up to," a girl cut in; Kyra was her name.
Lyle demanded, "So? Are you gonna tell us or what? Why were you sitting on that rock for so long? In such a weird position too!"
Rhun smiled and wagged his finger. "It's a secret."
Lyle stomped his foot and trudged up to him, "Listen here weirdo, you better —". But before he could take more than a couple of steps, a scream rang throughout the area.
"AHHHHHHH! IT HURTS! IT HURTS!"
Everyone turned to the little boy in the back who was crying out in pain. Desperately shaking his left leg, the boy tried to dislodge the foreign mass attached to it.
Rhun stepped closer to get a better look at the strange object even as the rest of the children backed away in fear.
Blue-tinged and amorphous, the lump firmly adhered to the boy’s leg, enveloping the entire appendage due to his small size. A slime. It even contained a glossy gem in its translucent center.
In normal circumstances, these simple creatures hardly posed a threat. But only if you had an adult man’s strength to easily shake off the monster or if you had easy access to fire, neither of which applied in their current circumstances.
Thinking fast, Rhun recalled the powers the gods gave him. That’s right. Plural. He chose to accept blessings from both Grenth and Melandru. Some would accuse him of greed and foolishness as his plan could’ve backfired, but he would argue it was clever of him to bargain for as much power as he could obtain. At first they would not agree to his terms, but he used their own sibling rivalry against them to get them to acquiesce.
He reached a hand out and willed the powers within to do something to the slime. Rhun felt the two forces swirling around but could not escape his body no matter what he tried. Part of him suspected this would happen, and his intuition also told him he needed to be able to control soulforce before he would be successful in this endeavor.
‘Plan B,’ Rhun mentally noted.
By this point, the boy flopped on the ground, crying at the top of his lungs, his pant leg eaten through. The others were either standing a ways off or frozen in shock at the sight.
In the next moment, Rhun did something, which caused a number of the kids to cry out. He rushed to the slime and stuck his arm through the ooze, aiming to grab the shiny orb.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” A childish voice spat out a string of curses.
The slime manipulated its orb out of Rhun’s grasp every time his small hand came close, all the while his arm went from a slight tingle to the pain of a thousand ant bites. He continued to swear.
‘This isn’t going to work.’
He looked around for something to help him but only found a baseball-sized stone in the mud. Realization dawned on him as he thought of a crazy idea.
He shouted at the others, “Rocks, sticks, whatever you find, bring them here!” And shoved the nearby rock into the slime.
The first to move, Lyle grabbed two large rocks and crammed them in. The leader of the kids then mimicked Rhun, trying to grab the evading orb as well. “C’mon you lazy pigs, do as he says!”
Kyra threw a bundle of sticks into the ooze, and the rest of the children grabbed rocks, twigs, plants, even clay from the ground to throw into the slime.
With more and more objects deposited into the slime, the core moved ever slower until it ricocheted against a large rock and Rhun finally caught the orb on the rebound. Using all of his strength, he pulled hard and fast, enough to separate the core from the engorged blob.
Instantaneously, the ooze liquefied into a wet mess, splashing and soaking everyone nearby in sticky fluids.
Fortunately, the slime’s digestive properties ended when the core separated from its body, so the liquid was harmless. Rhun still held the orb tightly for fear that the creature might somehow restore itself if he let go.
The hurt boy moaned in pain, and Rhun quickly assessed his injuries. Second-degree burns all over his leg. Probably felt worse than it actually looked.
“Lyle, can you pick him up and take him to Herbalist Hilda’s? Tell her these are slime burns.”
Lyle gave him a strange look but nodded and followed the orders given to him. The larger boy easily lifted the injured child up and took off running in the direction of the village.
“Rhun, what about your arm?” Kyra asked with concern.
“This? I’ve been through worse.” He added in his head, ‘Just not in this world.’
Rhun warned, “Anyway, we should be careful. Slimes are hardly ever alone.”
He carefully made his way through the tall reeds with everyone else tailing close. They walked a decent distance until one kid noticed something.
“Look! There’s a ton of slimes over there!”
Almost reflexively, everyone picked up nearby rocks, reeds, and whatever they could grab due to their previous encounter.
“Wait.” Rhun halted the group, stepped closer to the riverbank and shifted the stalks out of the way. Once he saw the whole picture, he gagged.
Confirming his suspicions, he turned around.
“We’re heading back. Now.” His tone left no room for argument.
“What? Why?” Kyra questioned, “What did you see?”
“Don’t ask. Something children shouldn’t have to see…”
“But you’re a child too,” another girl pouted.
“That’s why we’re getting the adults.” His response only increased their curiosity, but they obediently followed him back nonetheless.
Rhun closed his eyes momentarily, recalling the sight he just witnessed.
A half-degraded corpse. Face-down. Covered in slimes from head to toe.
The image made his stomach churn once more, but he held it down and picked up the pace.
Up until now, the village walls sheltered him from most dangers. However, complacency will be the end of him.
Rhun resolved to get stronger, faster. He had to if he wanted to survive.