“Dammit,” John cursed as he knelt down, flaring up the pain in his back and leg. As he continuously improved his fighting power, Dene hit ever more viciously during their spars. “Too often you will get injured during combat, and so you must be able to power through it,” was her reasoning.
Down in the dimly lit cellar turned pantry, he struggled to find more cinnamon to season their lunch. He should've brought a candle. And casting a night-vision spell wasn't an option unless he wanted to be stuck down there waiting for it to run out while the food burned.
John's only option was to feel around the various shelves, searching for the pot where he believed the seasoning was stored. Both, his aching body, and the smell of cooking meat wafting from above urged him to hurry.
He grabbed one pot, removed the lid and sniffed. It had a mildly sweet smell that was also a bit peppery. Probably ginger. The next pot's contents had a pungent smell that assaulted his nose and left him nauseous. Garlic. On an impulse, he almost hurled it at the opposite wall, but breaking the pot would only serve to spread the horrible smell.
Only on the fifth try did John find what he looked for. With the pot under one arm, he stood up and climbed the ladder. This proved to be slightly troublesome with only one arm, and he almost slipped once. The sudden shift flared his pain once again, causing him to curse once again. "Fuck!"
“Are you sure you don’t want me to help?” Dene asked as soon as he was back in the kitchen. She sat behind the table, legs crossed and a half-smirk on her face.
"I'm fine, just some difficulties."
John tried not to limp while rushing to the stove. Sizzling on a cast iron pan over the blackened stove were the pork chops he decided to cook.
He grabbed some of the cinnamon, sprinkled it over the chops along with some pepper and finally flipped them over. Not a moment too soon, as it was already turning from brown to black.
A couple more minutes stirring and they were done. John grabbed the pan's handle, burned his hand because it was all made from cast iron, and finally remembered to wear the gloves.
On the wooden plate, he set them up in one single neat row, one over the next one with caramelized apple slices on the sides.
“See? I told you I could do it.” John sat down, finally allowing his muscles to rest.
“I would like to say that I never doubted you, but that would be a lie.” She laughed before grabbing one of the pork chops.
“That was a compliment son," she spoke in between bites. "It means that you've exceeded my expectations."
John was too tired to argue how it meant that she expected him to fail. He took a bite and savored his work. The juicy pork almost melted in his mouth, while the way that spiciness and sweetness mixed was simply divine.
He had forgotten how much he enjoyed cooking. Last time he did it was back on Earth; a passion fruit pie for Lucas' anniversary. It was his brother’s favorite.
To complement his meal, he also had a salad along with a simple cup of water. His mother had the same, with one exception; her water had a bluish tone to it. She had diluted a few drops of a mana potion in it.
Body cultivation worked by accumulating mana inside the body, especially the muscles. As one accumulates mana, it is possible to advance through the levels to become stronger.
And just like the body needs nutrients to sustain itself, cultivators needed mana to retain their advancements. Unfortunately, it was impossible to draw mana from the environment for anything other than casting spells. Food and drinks were the only source of it for body cultivation.
John was just a Fighter, so this food was enough for him, but being a Crusader, his mother required food either in much greater quantities or of better quality. The former was unpractical, while the latter wasn’t affordable, so mana potions were a less effective alternative.
When finally done, he started gathering the dishes, but she stopped him. “I’ll take care of it. You go rest for later.”
John didn’t try to argue and simply nodded as he was also excited about what would happen later. He would try to advance to a fourth level mage.
This one advancement, by itself, wouldn’t be all that helpful. Sure, it would decrease the time to cast spells, make him capable of casting more times in quick succession and even make him react faster. But the reactions' improvement would be far too little, while it didn’t matter how much faster he was able to cast his spells in combat; unless it was immediate, doing so would leave him completely vulnerable.
No, what was truly exciting was that first: these little improvements to his reactions would accumulate until they finally started to make a difference; and second: this would bring him one step closer to becoming an Archmage, and that’s when his spells would truly start to make a difference.
As his mother told him, she once defeated five Crusaders by herself, all by clever use of her spells. Sure, the spells didn’t cause much damage, but her swords did, and all they needed was an opening on their enemies' guard.
Even more recently, a week ago, when they attacked the scouts’ camp. Her swords did most of the work, while the defenders were in too much disarray because of her spells.
That was the power awaiting him when he finally could use his spells in combat.
The sun was halfway down the sky when Dene woke him from his nap. He sat up and stretched to get a sense of his injuries. The sharp pain when he moved had transitioned to a dull and constant ache, the same for the burn on his palm.
Dene handed him a cup of water. “Drink.” It was the same as the previous two times he had advanced as a Mage. A cup of water mixed with one drop from a mana potion. It was even more diluted than the one she drank at lunch, looking no different from ordinary water.
It wouldn’t help his advancing, but it should make him recover faster afterward. He drank it in one go and started drawing mana from the environment. It was similar to casting a spell, without the release afterward.
Instead of drawing mana from inside, spellcasting worked by channelizing the mana from around oneself. So, while body cultivation worked by accumulating mana inside the body, mind cultivation required one to draw it from the environment and hold it in for as long as they could.
John slowly drew the mana around himself. It was too easy to lose control of it by going too fast, so he had to be patient.
The beginning was relatively easy. The mana pooled inside him like air filling his lungs, becoming harder and harder the more there was until it reached a limit. From there, John had to force himself to pull even more.
As he did so, his body began to fight in protest. His limbs twitched at random while the ache in his muscles spiked in intensity, died out, only to explode again. One moment he could hear his mother’s breathing while the next one he was deaf.
The seconds seemed to drag out forever while John tried to keep his focus on the arduous task. “Keep going,” he ordered himself. “Don’t you dare to surrender now.”
Finally, John felt… something… inside of him quickly expanding, alleviating the pressure he felt and returning his body to his control. Holding the mana became easier, and John persevered just long enough for the expanding to stop. Once done, he let go.
As soon as he did, the mana dissipated, leaving behind a splitting headache. Just like when a spell wasn’t properly cast, trying to hold in mana from the environment was a great way to get injured.
Body cultivation was much easier and straightforward. No wonder Spellcasters were so rarer in comparison.
But John could hardly care for that at the moment because he did it. He advanced.
John let himself fall back on his bed. After such an exhausting task, the rough mattress felt as soft as clouds. Cultivating was certainly draining, but these little moments when he finally advanced made it all so much worth it.
“Here,” Dene spoke after he had recovered enough. John sat up to find her holding another cup of water. “Drink.”
There was also another incentive for John to not slack off in his cultivation. His mother blood magic had worked by drawing from her own life essence.
But what if that wasn't it?
She said it herself that it was a form of magic unique to her, so the details of its workings were barely known. What if, in reality, it drew from the mana inside her body.
Sure, this was supposed to be impossible, but so it was using life essence to cast spells.
Maybe, just maybe, he could find a way to reverse what happened to her.
But for that, he would need to better understand how it worked. And the first course of action was to go to where she learned blood magic in the first place: the Secret Realm.
And not just the outer and inner areas, as Dene called them, but also the core area to which only his mother had the key. And to do that, he had to be both a Paladin and a Warlock before reaching thirty years old.
It was a race against the time, and every second he wasn't training, or recovering from it, was a second gone to waste.
John handed back the cup and was ready to start resting when suddenly came a loud knock on the door.