Souls? What did I know about souls? Apart from folk-tales and speculation… nothing really. If I were to take a gander, I would guess that they were some sort of spiritual entity that was central to our personality. A lot of theories about what happened to us after death also mentioned souls. So, maybe they were what was left of us when we were corpses rotting six feet underground. If souls existed, did the afterlife exist too? What about reincarnation? What about the Gods? Were they more than words on paper and figments of popular imagination?
Isabella’s query raised a tidal wave of speculation in my mind – my mind leaping from one idea to another like a rabbit chased by a fox.
Restraining my mind, I answered her honestly. “Nothing definitive.”
She nodded appreciatively. “It’s good that you have an open mind and haven’t let popular perception colour your outlook. Pre-conceived notions are really hard to get rid of.”
“Anyway,” she continued. “A soul is nothing but another state of mana. You know how mana changes its state and upgrades in density with each promotion of the mage’s Tier? Gaseous mana at Tier 1, liquid at Tier 2, semi-solid at Tier 3, solid at Tier 4, crystalline at Tier 5… and during the promotion from Tier 5 to 6, the mana undergoes another transformation. The mind crystal shatters and collapses to a tiny point out of which a translucent phantom figure emerges. The figure looks like our true self – that is, the image we have of ourselves in our own mind.
“The nomenclature of the Tier system is good for localizing the comparative power of a mage… and for logistics. A tier 2 mage is expected to be stronger than a Tier 1 and if I tell you that there are a hundred Tier 1s and ten Tier 2s in the opponent’s army, you can easily get an idea of their collective strength.”
I nodded in agreement. When I had served under Marshal Tauros at the walls of Firang, he had taught me some back of the envelope calculations to judge the relative strengths of two armies. As the mana capacity of a mage was directly proportional to their tier — Tier 2 mages having twice as much mana as Tier 1s and Tier 3s thrice as much — we could get a rough estimate of collective strength by summing the number of soldiers in each tier multiplied by the tier number. Then force multipliers like a defensive wall or advantageous terrain would be considered to further refine the estimate.
“But the naming system leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to describing what the Tiers involve.” Isabella continued. “In that respect, I feel that the Huaxian naming system is more comprehensive. Tier 1 is known as the Body Refining stage, Tier 2 is the Qi condensation stage, Tier 3 is the Foundation Building stage and Tier 4 and 5 are the Core Formation stages – Solid Core and Crystal Core respectively. A Tier 6 Demigod, in their system, would be a Nascent Soul practitioner.”
Suddenly, she shifted topics. “I heard that you had the –” holding a palm up horizontally, she tilted it to one side, “- fortune -” then to the other, “- misfortune of observing an Elemental in its natural habitat.”
“Yes,” I replied. “It was when we penetrated into the heart of the Dungeon of Gun. It was a relatively young elemental – practically a baby by their standards – and it had already been tampered with by Miyagi Vulpine, otherwise, neither Ceres nor I would be here to see you. Even then, we lost the Princess of the Wolves in there. It was an experience to be sure. An unforgettable one.”
“Hmm, and what did you notice about the Elemental’s mana usage? As far as I have inquired, you had that mana sense at that point in time. You must have used it to gauge the Elemental.”
“I did.” I acknowledged. “I noticed the Elemental absorbing all the mana around it in a vortex and then turning it into fire mana. It felt like I was seeing a whirlpool of fire… a flaming tornado.”
Isabella’s eyes widened in surprise. “Well! That sense of yours is much stronger than I thought. You can call it mana sense if you want but the more accurate term would be soul sense.”
I couldn’t help but interrupt. “What do you mean mana sense is soul sense. Aren’t Demigods the only ones with souls? How can I have soul sense?!”
“Haven’t you connected the dots yet? Can’t you see the similarities between a Demigod and the state you are currently in?”
Raising a palm, Isabella counted off fingers with the index finger of her other hand as she enumerated her points. “You don’t have a mindscape; I lost mine during my promotion. You can sense external mana of the elements you have an affinity with; I can sense water mana in my surroundings. You can manipulate the ambient mana in the range of your sensation, as can I.
“In fact, the only difference between you and me is the intensity of our soul senses and the lack of a fully manifested soul in your case. You know why I reacted so violently to your spying? It was because I thought that another Demigod was around and peeping on me. For a moment, I nearly had a heart attack thinking that I had led the entire crew of the Cloud Whale into a Shogunate ambush. Count yourself lucky that I didn’t end up accidentally erasing your soul. In that case, you’d turn into a dead man walking – an empty shell, a flesh golem.”
I was utterly shocked. The information contained in her words was too big. I was having trouble processing it all.
My situation was the same as a Demigod’s?! An attenuated version of a Demigod to be sure but still… A Demigod! The recorded peak of magic! Even Emperor Adam had been a Demigod until the day he died. I was at the same qualitative level as the man who singlehandedly reshaped the sociopolitical structure of the entire Continent?!
It was a lot to take in.
Isabella continued, “These nightmares that you are suffering from? They are a result of your soul getting damaged when I dragged you into my soul realm.”
I shook my head to clear my mind. Acceptance could wait, I just needed to pay close attention to every word coming out of her mouth. I had no clue as to how I would proceed in my cultivation, but if I truly was similar in nature to a Demigod, this conversation might just be what I needed to get started. Throwing all the extraneous thoughts to the back of my mind, I asked, “Soul realm? What’s that?”
“Well, you remember the illusion I cast upon you? That vortex of seawater with waves towering up into the sky all around it? That was my soul realm – an imaginary world I built as the first line of defense for my soul. At the level of Demigod, we fight both with magic and with our souls. Spiritual battles are extremely risky with nearly every encounter ending with at least one of the opposing parties suffering from a severe wound on their soul. The soul realm is like my home game. If I fight someone else’s soul there, my strength will be amplified while the strength of my opponent will be suppressed.”
She sighed. “With how weak your soul is, just entering my soul realm was too much for it. It was wounded and now with each subsequent ‘nightmare’ the wound is splitting wider. If we don’t do anything about it soon, you stand to lose your magic at best and at worst, you can fall into a coma from which you’ll never wake.”