The wind blowing through the forest seemed to be laughing at me. I had been trying for over an hour to break the rock with no success.
Lau sat himself on a low, flat slab and was drinking tea, paying me no mind as I struggled to even put a dent on the blasted boulder. He had only left me with a small bit of advice.
“Can’t do it? If you don’t try, how will you know? I’ve seen you do far more difficult things than this, so you have no excuses. This rock is the embodiment of your lack of self-confidence, your hesitation and doubts, your mindset that grounds you as a normal person. Forget all of that. Our old world’s rules don’t apply here.”
How many times had I been asked whether I truly tried? The more someone had asked me that question, the less I had been willing to give it my all. How funny the human mind worked sometimes.
I hadn’t been blind to my mana control capabilities though. I could extend the mana from my body a bit, so perhaps, Lau thought that was enough to split the boulders. Was I holding myself back like he had suggested?
From what I learned from him and the rest of the Kinkou family, mana was the essence that held things together. By disrupting its balance or severing its connection, an object devoid of mana would be brittle.
However, physical forces did very little when it came to disrupting mana flow. Just like how one could splash around forcefully across a river, mana would eventually settle down once the force was gone. However, if one were able to control the current and flow of the mana, rather than fording the river, one could part it like some divine power.
Try as I might, I couldn’t grasp the concept of sending mana through the rock to split it. Despite knowing where to aim for the weak spots, all that resulted were hands that were swollen from them pounding on the surface. Without my hammer, I couldn’t make a single dent in it.
No matter how I tried to focus mana to my hands, I could only feel the unforgiving impact of my fist against the hard surface. At this point, I could barely clench my hand anymore, the pain of bruising and swelling had rendered them useless. Defeated, I sat down and laid my back on the grass.
My eyes scanned the clouds above me, trying to take my mind off the lingering dull ache from my hands.
“What the hell am I doing? This isn’t going to help me fight against magicians that could create pillars of fire and cut stone with wind.”
My mind flashed back to Eryn. If she had used her magic, I would have been instantly defeated. Only by giving herself a handicap had I triumphed over her. What good would a little bit of mana control do for opponents like that? It would’ve been better to cultivate someone else like Ludmila and Katsys, who could both deal considerable damage, regardless of the situation.
The face of a blue-hair girl popped into my vision, breaking me away from my moment of meditation. A slight look of worry traced her features as our eyes met.
“Eh? What are you doing here, Katsys?” Normally, she’d be training with Kanade until lunch.
“You and Mister Lau didn’t come back for lunch, so I was asked to come find the two of you. I brought leftovers, but it looks like you’re not in any condition to eat.”
Katsys looked at my battered hands. She set aside the boxed lunch in her possession and brushed her fingertips along the wounds. Focusing some mana on her fingers, I could feel the warm glow of her healing spell being directed there.
Sitting up after the light had died down, I clenched my hands a few times. It seems like they were back to normal. Katsys opened the box, revealing a simple arrangement of rice and side dishes of tofu and steamed veggies. This was hardly the type of food that I normally ate, but the Kinkou family was used to healthy eating. After a while, I got used to it. The pangs of hunger in my stomach welcomed pretty much anything at this point.
Heartily digging in, Katsys poured me some tea before taking a box to Lau.
After polishing off the food, my sight lingered back to the menacing boulder in front of me. My thoughts scanned through my previous attempts to figure out what I could be doing wrong. I had coated my hand with a layer of mana, but it did nothing but blunt the impact of my blows. I tried to simulate the shape of a knife out of mana, jabbing that into a weak point, but once my fingers touched the rock, the mana exploded and caused my hand to recoil. The resulting mana rebound numbed my hands.
I couldn’t wrap my head around why I could break things so easily with a hammer, but my hand wasn’t giving the same result. Had controlling mana not been the secret to this?
“If you stare at it for that long, you’ll bore holes in it.” The voice of Katsys floated in my ears.
“Ha ha, if only that were the case. Then, I’d be done with this stupid test Lau gave me.”
“You have to break that boulder?” Katsys hadn’t been aware of my assignment, which I nodded in confirmation.
“That tea-sipping old man has me doing something strange all the time. What seemed like basic physical training and sparring has somehow improved my mana control. Now, he wants me to break rocks like some kung fu master in a fantasy story. I have a hard time figuring out what he’s trying to get me to achieve.”
“But you have improved, haven’t you?” Katsys asked, already knowing the answer.
She had watched the sparring between Lau and me over the course of two months. She thought back to how she felt during one of these sessions.
Katsys primarily trained to get up to speed with her newly increased stats from rigorously leveling up. Being a sheltered princess, she was never taught any self-defense skills. Her time was spent developing the skills she needed for her inventions. Her healing magic was a natural gift from birth, one she had not extensively developed beyond the basics.
As a result, her way of attacking before she arrived in Sanshiro had been to simply point her magic gun and shoot her targets. Though her kinetic vision and accuracy were inherently keen, Kanade demonstrated to her how little she could actually do if no one was around providing cover for her.
Against Kanade, her shots all missed their mark as the elderly lady dashed right up to her. Afterward, Katsys was easily knocked over like an unmanned, stationary turret.
She had quite a bit to learn about maneuvering and repositioning in order to effectively attack as a long-distance fighter. Yet, under Kanade’s guidance, she learned how to make the most of her increased abilities. Despite her slight disadvantage in physical stats, her current level put her above that of average combatants.
Katsys was also a fast learner, being able to pick up on Kanade’s lessons quite easily. Very soon, her footwork and body movements had drastically improved. She began to incorporate the movements that she recalled from the Royal Knights’ practice sessions that she would observe occasionally. Her kinetic vision and good memory allowed her to dig up and implement those movements as her own. Of course, Kanade, equipped with her own Syphon Rod, was there to help correct the subtle mistakes that she had misinterpreted.
Having gained a basic understanding of how fighters moved, Katsys started noticing how Claude had changed over time. The first time she saw Claude fight, the chef had direct movements that aimed straight for its target. Though his blows had a heavy pressure behind them, it was akin to staring into the face of a raging bull that was charging into someone. Those inexperienced against this feeling would no doubt fear the destructive ability that he held. However, someone used to facing danger would simply guide him around like an animal trainer.
That had completely changed in the span of two months. The chef knife in Claude’s hands twirled in circular motions, constantly conserving the momentum of each swing and using it to guide his next blow. His movements became irregular and harder to predict as he thrust his knife and parried with the rhythm of a dancer. The menacing pressure was gone, except in brief bursts when he suddenly tried to strike at an opening.
Katsys felt like she was watching the dance of an expert fencer, swiftly prodding his opponent for gaps in his defense. She had been so mesmerized in Claude and Lau’s fighting that she had left her jaw slack and completely ignored Kanade approaching her.
“That boy has some skills to keep up with my hubby, don’t you think? The style of fencing appears to oddly suit him, especially since he only has to focus on speed and accuracy, rather than power.”
As long as Claude hit a weak spot, he could turn the tables in an instant. What a fearsome opponent he must be to anyone encountering him. With his polished technique, even the best fighters in Sistina would have to take him seriously.
As Katsys recalled her memories, she, too, questioned why I would be having trouble with the boulder.
“You’ve always been able to break a boulder before with a hammer. What’s different now?” She asked.
“Heck if I know. I wouldn’t have gotten in such bad shape if I knew.”
“What if we approached this scientifically? There must be something that you’re doing differently bare-handed, some nuance that you don’t notice. I could analyze your attack and check for differences,” Katsys eagerly suggested.
I looked over to Lau. “Is that okay, boss? As long as it’s not that rock, can I use my hammer elsewhere?”
“Be my guest.”
Katsys and I walked up to several smaller boulders off to the side. Placing her hand on one, Katsys cast an ‘Analysis’ spell. Firing up my Eyes of Providence, I formed a layer of mana around my fingers and tried to poke the rock at one of the weak points. Once again, the mana around my finger exploded, launching my arm back from the rebound. A few tiny shards of rock had crumbled to the ground, hardly enough to make a dent.
Katsys came over to heal my hand once again.
“Hmm…I didn’t feel any real change in the state of the rock. Maybe try your hammer now?”
I nodded and pulled it out of my Item Box. Katsys placed her hand back on the boulder before I swung it.
As expected, a large crack formed around the weak point. The crack propagated through the rest of the boulder. After a few moments, chunks of rock fell to the ground, unable to fight against gravity. The front half of the boulder had completely crumbled.
At some point, Katsys had jumped back. She clutched the hand that she had placed to check for disturbances in the boulder’s structure. Her demeanor was akin to someone that had just been shocked by a live wire.
“Did you feel something?”
“Yes…Umm…How do I describe it? It felt like mana just spread and dispersed through the boulder. I drew my hand away because I felt a jolt travel through me.”
“You…felt my mana?” I looked at her strangely.
“Yes, after being around you, I can make out your mana signature. That was definitely what I felt shoot through my hand.”
It had dawned on me. I had been controlling my mana in the wrong way. The entire time, I had been covering my hands with thick mana and using it to forcefully ‘cut’ my way through the rock. Somehow, using a hammer had caused me to project the mana instead. Like a novice that had trouble directing a hammer’s momentum fully into the head of a nail, my strikes were crashing against the surface and diverting from an unfocused impact. What mattered was not the tool, but the method my mana was projected outwards.
I dropped the hammer and placed a finger on top of a weak spot on the rock face. Nodding to Katsys, she placed her hand into position once again.
This time, I tried to gently push my mana through the point of contact, mentally forcing it to propagate inwards. Though I felt a bit of resistance at first, the flow suddenly shifted, like a pipe had been unclogged.
“I feel it, Claude. I feel your mana.” Katsys called out to me from the other side of the boulder.
Now that I could transmit mana through an object, what would I need to do to ‘cut’ through it? After pondering for a few minutes, my thoughts came to the same conclusion.
“Katsys, stand back.”
Drawing back into my normal stance, like I had my chef knife in hand, I lunged forward. My middle finger gently traced the surface of the rock until I felt the slight dip in resistance that I was used to.
That brief sensation was my normal signal to flick the knife and cut. However, my finger did the same motion but did not enter the rock face. I realized that my finger was much larger than the gap in which mana leaked out. There would be no point trying to force it into the tiny opening.
Yet, this flicking motion had done something else. It created a sharp pulse of mana that was injected into the weak point and traveled through rock. Even though I didn’t physically attack it, cracks now formed around the contact point, quickly spreading along the boulder’s surface. With another quick tap of my fist, the splintered rock crumbled to the ground, just like it had done for the hammer.
Katsys gawked at the shattered remains in awe. I had figured it out. Though it wasn’t at the same level as my hammer, I finally understood how my skill worked. After trying it out a few more times to refine the feeling, I walked straight to the boulder I first started with. A smirk was plastered on my face as it no longer looked daunting anymore.
After that, it only took a few strikes before the boulder for Lau’s test had been reduced to nothing.