Chapter 15: Strange Change of the Landscape

It was early morning several days later, and birdsong echoed through the woods. The sky was clear. Sunbeams filtered through the crevices in the canopy and the faint, hanging mist and dappled on the ground.

A boy and girl stood side by side and looked at a cave with mixed emotions on their faces. The boy was blond-haired, fair-skinned, of a robust build, wearing mail, alert-looking, and appeared hale and hearty. The girl was dressed in a purple hooded robe, with curly black hair that spilled out of the hood. She had a wheaten color skin, a delicate, beautiful face, and purple eyes that flashed like gemstones, attractive to the gaze of onlookers. They were Zhen Jin and Zi Di.

While this peaceful haven-cave was warm, it was not home.

“Let’s go,” Zhen Jin said as he looked at the cave one final time before stepping toward the woods. Zi Di followed close behind. Their circumstances were different from when they had fled here and both now carried large bags on their backs. They contained a large number of beast bones, meat floss, and ore. 

In addition, there were several spears and javelins. Zhen Jin had lost his longsword at the campfire. His only other weapon, the dagger, had been broken when he stabbed it through the thick skull of the monkey bear. So, over the past few days, the two had crafted them.

The spears were roughly 1.8 meters long while the javelins were about 1.5 meters long. They were carved from the trees near the cave which were similar to ironwood trees and were as hard as iron. It would be difficult for Zhen Jin to pare the wood to make these polearms. This was where Zi Di’s corrosive potions played a significant role.

Compared to genuine steel swords, the value of these polearms was very low and neither the durability nor sharpness was anywhere near as good as a sword but there was no other way. Right now, he severely lacked weapons and the only intact dagger was given to Zi Di. 

Before leaving, she had wanted to hand it to him for his use but he had refused. Her dagger was special as it was used to process materials and could be used when she was concocting potions. Moreover, in a crisis, she could use it to protect herself.

In this wilderness, even if he wanted to, he could not fully protect her, so it was imperative she had the capacity to do it herself. Additionally, the dagger was of little assistance to him. Although the monkey bear’s sharp claws could have been used as weapons, they strangely crumbled into an ash-like thing when the bear died.

Furthermore, they also lacked defensive gear. Zi Di wore an apprentice robe with weak defensive enchantments. In the face of a beast’s tearing and charging, they were worrisomely fragile. Zhen Jin had discarded his gauntlets. They had played a crucial defensive role in the battle with the monkey bear. Without them, his forearms might have been smashed into a pulp. However, the gauntlets were so severely deformed, with one almost split open. They could only be melted down to be reforged. His helmet had also been severely damaged in the battle and could not be used anymore. His only solace was the upper body mail.

Zhen Jin took the lead and scouted ahead while Zi Di brought up the rear and they entered the forest. Their first goal was to retrieve the campfire site where the fire-venom bees had attacked them. This decision was made after careful deliberations. 

His longsword was there and even more importantly, only by returning to the campfire could Zi Di use it to find the path she had led her bodyguards along to explore and search for him. This path had temporary campsites with a small amount of supplies hidden in each of them.

Presently, they had plenty of food but little water and this was after rationing. During the journey after Zhen Jin had awoken, besides finding a few water canteens, they had no opportunities to obtain drinkable water. Although they had crossed a river, the waters concealed dreadful python vines and it was too great a risk to fetch water and water was even more scarce near the cave. This paucity of water was one of the primary reasons that expedited their departure from the cave.

The trees stood erect around them, and Zi Di found that the deeper they ventured into the forest, the taller and thicker they grew with some even reaching fifty to sixty meters high, shooting into the sky. Luminous sunbeams could not shine through like pillars of golden light here. In the viscous, pallid mist of the forest, sunlight was impotent, scattered in all directions. 

This mist was suffused with the crisp, redolence of florae. Flocks of birds flitted through the canopy and occasionally, a woodpecker could be seen perched on a tree trunk at least three meters above the ground. The noise of the bird’s pecking, however, only made the forest seem quieter.

Before long, the two were deep in the forest. They stopped walking and Zi Di approached a tree and used the dagger to cut a mark while Zhen Jin took out a sheet of hide—in the center of which were a few words written roughly—and started sketching a map using charcoal as a pencil. This was to prevent them from getting lost and this was easy to happen because all the trees looked alike. 

Elves were exceptionally talented in this respect and it was said no young elf who wandered into a forest would get lost. A forest was like a second home to them. The consequences of getting lost were severe. The wilderness was not friendly to humans, so, often, it was the harbinger of death.

Zhen Jin carefully put away the hide and charcoal in his bosom. This was the fourteenth time he had made a mark. As he set off once more, his countenance was slightly hesitant. After such a long walk, logically, he should have already found traces of when he had fled through here carrying Zi Di, but there was nothing. The surroundings were full of undisturbed nature.

Zhen Jin grimly kept thinking back. Although the situation was dire and he did pay much attention to his surroundings, according to his intuition, it did not take long for them to find the cave. Based on the time it took and his speed, he could not have run far and the campfire should be nearby.

“Let's go this way,” Zhen Jin said. He chose to go left, he was using a strategy that was relatively conservative and cautious: centering the cave and searching for traces around it. This had the obvious benefit of not negligently overlooking anything.

By noon, the weather was noticeably warmer and the mist had dissipated. Although the forest was much clearer, the yourh’s complexion grew grimmer and grimmer. He looked at the map in his hand. Every so often, he had made a record of the forest and the marks on the map now formed a circle around the cave. Such an intensive search yet unexpectedly not a single trace!

“Something is very suspicious about this place!” Zi Di said, bewildered. “This forest is too big.” 

The place where they were before was clearly a rainforest landscape. The air was sultry, shrubs carpeted the floor, and innumerable vines entangled with each other in dense clusters. However, this place was a forest landscape. Although there were all still trees, these were very straight, with scarce vines and far fewer shrubs and ferns than in the rainforest.

Zhen Jin had also certainly noticed this. He had thought the range of this forest was small and was part of the environment around the cave that differed from its surroundings because of its strange, scorching veins of ore. But the forest was extremely vast, greatly exceeding the two’s estimations. According to the sea lane, it was only normal for the landscape of the island to be a rainforest. 

Moreover, Zhen Jin distinctly remembered that the rainforest surrounded them during the initial part as they fled into the night. The beast, which was likely a black leopard, had clearly swooped down from the branch of a tree in the rainforest but afterward, Zi Di had found the cave and called attention to it.

As soon as I saw the cave, I adjusted the direction I was running. It should be at that time I entered the forest from the rainforest. Zhen Jin was sure his memory was not wrong because he had cross-checked with Zi Di and she also remembered the same. Speculating off their memory, the forest should only be a small region surrounded by the larger rainforest but after a morning of exploration, the bizarre reality before them left them baffled.

“This island is so strange! The beasts seem to breed like flies and are very anomalous as if works of patchwork and the plants are also extremely sinister and the landscape itself can also likely change in abnormal ways.” As Zi Di spoke, suddenly, a shadow descended from the towering canopy. The shadow was slender and fast, piercing through the air with a whoosh but Zhen Jin was even faster. In a flash, he thrust forward a spear.

The shadow’s charge was abruptly stopped and its short, thin neck was pierced and hung from the tip of the spear. It was a strange bird, about the size of an adult person’s fist and had black plumage. Its feathers were very hard as if they were made of iron and their heaviness made it incapable of flight but this had made the bird’s muscles strong. 

This species of bird usually hid in the treetops and upon finding animals strolling through the forest, it would pounce downward, accelerating using its legs, wings, and gravity to penetrate through the animal’s skull. After the animal died, it would eat the brains, blood, eyes, and so on and finally the flesh.

After encountering these birds several times, Zi Di named them iron feather birds. They had almost no weak points except for their neck. Here, the feathers were very fine and the defense was at its weakest. Presently, the sharp tip of Zhen Jin’s spear had accurately pierced that very spot, wounding a fatal wound.

The struggling iron feather bird soon turned motionless. Zhen Jin pointed the spear at the ground and thrust hard, immobilizing the iron feather bird’s corpse. Zi Di then went forward and took out her dagger to dissect it. She gathered its iron feathers, which were an outstanding material, and some of its blood. As for the flesh, there was not much of it and it was of low value and so was discarded without hesitation.

While the girl gathered the materials, Zhen Jin was at her side guarding, armed with a javelin in case any other beast attacked. The first time they had run across an iron feather bird, the youth was somewhat flustered. He had first used his spear like a broom and swept the bird down to the ground but although the bird could not fly, it was very fast on the ground and it took three javelin throws to slow it. Finally, he used his spear to skewer the iron feather bird’s belly—which also destroyed the spear tip. 

But now, Zhen Jin’s technique was more sophisticated, he had discovered an iron feather bird was the most dangerous when it was leaping down from the trees but simultaneously, when in the air, its neck was exposed, making it also its most vulnerable time. With this discovery, an iron feather bird was no longer a threat and became a gift instead.

Besides iron feather birds, the forest had plenty of other dangers. Venomous snakes were often hiding in fallen trees and decaying foliage. One could not let their guard down even near motionless plants. Once, Zhen Jin had been poisoned when he accidentally brushed his skin on some unassuming moss. Small, round, insensate green spots began to unknowingly grow on Zhen Jin’s face. 

When Zi Di noticed this, she immediately gave him an antidote but it only alleviated it and could not treat it. The two were forced to search for the culprit and upon finding the moss, Zi Di made a simple concoction with it and added it to the antidote which eradicated the poison from Zhen Jin’s body. All kinds of hidden dangers had greatly slowed the pace of their exploration.

Zhen Jin looked up at the dusking sky and reluctantly decided, “Let’s return to the cave and rest.”