"What it means to be a forest spirit?" said Iona thoughtfully. She ran her gloved hand through her goggles, wiping off some built-up moisture. "Quite odd, that question, yes. A little difficult to answer, too. It is a little bit like asking a human what it means to be human. I am sure every human would give a different answer."
Iona opened her palm. Atop her leather glove, a little shoot sprouted, green and white. "Some spirits will say a forest spirit must nurture and nourish. They believe to be a forest spirit is to ensure the soil is healthy and bountiful so that life may bathe in its blessings and grow aplenty. The more life there is, no matter the kind, the better."
Her hair grew brighter, turning from a dull amber red to a fiery orange. The shoot began to wilt and burn away. "Other forest spirits believe that life must be controlled. When it grows too much, it must be burned away so that the new may flourish. That is how I was taught."
"Taught? This isn't instinct? Pure gut feeling?" said Li.
Iona shook her head. "No, no, not at all. It does irk me to say this, but in thought, we are a little similar to the mortals. We are individuals comprising communities with different trains of thought. But what is ingrained instinct is our ability to feel life. All of us can feel how it beats, how it flows, how it waxes and wanes.
Thus, we know how precious life is. If I were to use mortal terms, it would be like being able to hear the beating heart of a lover through their chest. It is a deeply personal, deeply moving feeling that conjures upon a fundamental emotion of guardianship that links every single one of us, all our roots and our leaves in harmony to protect that which is so sacred."
"Guardianship is the one common thread that joins all of you," nodded Li.
"All of us," Iona corrected.
"I can't say that I feel a strong sense of guardianship, though I have been able to feel life beating around me."
"Hm, but you have, yes."
Li raised a brow.
"This stall." Iona motioned around her. "This land. This farm. You said it yourself, yes? It is real. That was when I began to realize that your sense of guardianship is tied here. This is your domain, your forest."
"Great, so there's nothing I'm missing out on, right? If the farm's my domain and I can feel life already, it looks like I know everything there is to be about being a forest spirit."
"It is curious." Iona cocked her head. "That you speak as if you are wholly unfamiliar with your being. I can understand if you were a forest guardian that awoke from a deep slumber, or perhaps awoke from demonic corruption with your memories scattered, but to completely lose your sense of self is…odd."
"That's because I used to be a human," said Li flatly. He looked at Iona, but she didn't react much. "You don't seem surprised."
"I suspected you used to be mortal or, at the least, not what you are now." Iona shrugged. "But I do not care for who you were. Who you are now is important, for you are still the last hope that this world has to guard its bounty from mortal greed."
"I'm not exactly out here to save the world."
"I understand very well, yes. Low profile." Iona brought her hands together and laid them on her lap. She was calmer now, more thoughtful. "You wish to nurture this farm. You must have some mortal influence here that has caused your spiritual guardianship to embed upon this farm instead of a forest domain. I now understand how deeply you must care for this farm as it is your devoted territory. I merely warn that should you further develop your instincts as a forest spirit, to truly feel the life around you, you will find it harder to stand by while knowing that the forests burn in your absence."
"I already understand what you mean. I know how precious and valuable the nature around me is and I can feel it too. I know what a world without it looks like, and it's not one I would ever want to live in."
"Ah, my sincerest apologies, O guardian, but I should say that you do not truly understand, no." Iona looked downwards, afraid that she was disrespecting Li but still wishing to say what she felt she had to nonetheless. "You may be able to feel the beating of life, but you do not feel it as strongly as you should. I surmise that you still have a mortal's appreciation of the wilds. You know they are precious; you even know they are alive, their life beating strongly, but you cannot feel their pain as if it were your own. You do not know how it is to be in the center of a dying forest, to feel yourself die a million times over as the lives around you collapse without anything you can do about it."
"You're right, I don't." Li sighed. "And I wish I did, and that's why you're here. To get me to understand. But you have to know I still have a duty to uphold to this farm and to the old man. I want to spend the humanity I have left upholding those duties. Make no mistake, I know what I'm going to become, and I do accept it, I just need to finish my duties first."
"And I will stand with you through them all." Iona put a hand to her heart, her voice firm and solemn. "That is the duty I have sworn to you. I know that your mortal duties are, as they are, mortal: it is merely a matter of time before you complete them. I will wait, no, support you through them so that when your earthly bonds are met, you may embrace guardianship of this world without any lingering restraints."
When thirty minutes passed, Li and Iona started on the purification process for the [Blood Boil] elixir.
Iona started with the equipment, preparing it while Li looked at the herbal solution bubbling in the cauldron. All the flameweed particles had burst apart, staining the water a blackened, dirty crimson. A faint heat emanated from the water's surface.
Li took a smell. Strong hints of iron and smoke. He had to get rid of the smokiness. That was a sign of impurity. He took the root he had washed and put it in the liquid, stirring it around. The root shuddered, and black lines shot up its base, eventually coloring the whole root a sooty grey.
At the same time, the liquid in the cauldron turned a brilliant red, its color exactly the same as fresh blood. It smelled just like blood too, reeking strongly of iron. Li took a pot and placed it under the cauldron's neck. He tilted the cauldron, spilling the bloody liquid into the pot. With that done, he transferred the pot to the working table. He could feel the heat of the warm liquid through the cast iron, and strangely, it stayed stable, neither cooling nor heating up.
A property of Flameweed extract. It retained its surrounding temperature. This was also how the [Blood Boil] elixir boosted stats, by imparting the essence of fiery heat all throughout one's blood to improve blood flow. It was also how with a few alterations, the extract could be turned into a [Firebomb], a thrown explosive that dealt incendiary damage, although that required metal and ore based powders as well.
"Good," said Li as he saw that Iona had already lined up a burner, a circular tablet that laid flat on the table. Depending on how many times one tapped it, it would eject a magical fire of varying intensities. This world's equivalent of a Bunsen burner.
Beside the burner were several beakers, their lengths marked with volume measurements.
Li saw that Iona had already set the burner to a light blue flame – the correct setting – and he placed the pot on the burner. As the liquid within came to a rolling boil, they each took pipettes and drained out precisely 100 milliliters of the bubbling bloody extract, squeezing them out into individual beakers.
The beakers had a maximum volume of 500 milliliters, and so the bloody liquid only pooled at the bottom, continuing to boil as if it were still heated.
They repeated this process until the pot was empty and a dozen beakers were filled.
"Just need water now," commented Li as he filled a cup from the purified water pot and emptied out the clean liquid into the extract-filled beakers, making sure they were exactly at a 5:1 ratio of water to Flameweed extract. The water cooled down the boiling extract just enough that it no longer bubbled but remained warm.
Not only did this dilute the extract so that it didn't massively boost blood flow to the point of a heart attack, but it also lowered the temperature of the final elixir so that nobody burned themselves touching it.
Iona followed Li, and as she filled her half of the beakers with water, she said, "A few drops of peppermint extract or milk poppy would make these taste quite sweet. In my experience, taste is quite important for customer satisfaction."
"You were selling to cozy and safe people in the capitol. Guys there probably wanted [Blood Boil] to make them just a little bit faster for their next silly barfight. This is a peaceful city, but it's an adventurer's city. They'll want something strong and undiluted."
Li leaned against the table as he watched Iona finish up.
After purification was the unofficial step of bottling which was more busywork than anything, and Iona had insisted on covering Li for that. He saw as Iona poured the red and warm liquid into faceted elixir bottles before twisting corks into them.
"You know, you're extremely familiar with all of this," said Li. "I know that regular pharmacies don't teach this way."
"Oh yes, they have huge vats filled to the brim with toxin-absorbing roots. No prowess involved in it at all. Simply dump the right herbs and roots and mix with a big spoon like some glorified soup cook." Iona scoffed. "Takes all the risk out, yes, but all it does produce is half-rate. And perhaps most disgustingly, all that toxic waste they dump back to the forests. If only they knew how to tend to the nature at their fingertips, then they would never have to resort to such measures."
"I see." Li narrowed his eyes. He had a slinking suspicion. "Then where did you learn this?"
"It is an art of the forest spirits. Forest spirits and mortals have coexisted for more than a millennia. All throughout, we have tried to teach the mortals how to use the land to heal and nurture them, but of course, they either spurn our teachings or abuse them."
"Then do you know where I learned this method?"
"Oh, by Aine's notes, I'm sure, considering that you live here," said Iona casually. "I've lived here long enough to know of her. I respect her works, yes, they are truly forestborn in quality and care. I approve wholeheartedly of them."
Li voiced his suspicions. "Then was Aine like you? Forest spirit?"
Iona shook her head. "Not at all, no. I would have known, you see. But I did not sense anything from her. She was fully mortal. But there are some mortals out there that know the old ways, those from remote tribes far from the bustling towns and cities where they learned directly from spirits such as ourselves. The beastmen of the north know these ways as well. It is merely the humans and elves that have turned their backs upon it."
Sorry for not being able to post yesterday, there were a few complications in my life, but all is good now!
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