Arran stifled a yawn. He had not slept at all the previous night, instead practicing his use of Fire Essence until the break of dawn.
By now he could form a flame in his hand almost instantly, and each time he did, a big grin appeared on his face.
To Arran’s surprise, Master Zhao did not chastise him for his overeagerness. Instead, he merely looked on in approval.
“The more you practice your magic, the stronger you will get,” Master Zhao had said, and Arran was only too happy to follow the man’s advice.
Halfway through the morning, Arran was once more waiting for his Fire Essence to replenish. As he walked beside the cart, he looked at their surroundings.
It had been several days since he had last seen any sign of other people, and not a single farm or cottage could be seen amid the low hills that surrounded them.
Arran did not know which part of the Empire they were in — nor, truth be told, did he know what parts the Empire even had — but it was clear that this region was more sparsely populated than the ones they had traveled through before.
“Where are we headed?” he idly asked Master Zhao, not expecting an answer. He had already asked the question many times, and each time, the answer had been the same: “I will tell you when I decide.”
To his surprise, this time Master Zhao answered his question. “We are going to visit an old friend of mine.”
“An old friend?” Arran was taken aback by the idea of Master Zhao having friends, like a normal person. “Is he also a mage?”
“He is,” Master Zhao said. “A powerful one, at that.”
“When do we get there?” Arran asked, excited at the thought of meeting another mage.
“We should arrive in a month or two,” Master Zhao replied.
“That long?” Arran had looked forward to spending time off the road, but now it looked like he had to wait quite a while longer.
Master Zhao stopped the cart at the side of the road, then walked onto the adjacent grassland.
“There are two techniques you should learn first,” Master Zhao said. “A month or two should be just long enough for you to grasp them.”
Arran raised an eyebrow. “Two techniques?”
Master Zhao didn’t answer. Instead, he abruptly stretched out his arm. From his hand emerged a furiously raging ball of fire that soared toward a large tree in the distance. When it struck, the entire tree was set ablaze.
“Please teach me!” Arran said, eyes wide.
“I thought you might be interested,” Master Zhao said with a grin. “It’s a clumsy and wasteful technique, but it has some uses.”
He proceeded to explain the technique to Arran, demonstrating it several times and leaving several burn scars on the local scenery.
As Master Zhao explained it, Arran would have to concentrate his Fire Essence, then forcefully expel it all at once, guiding it away from him.
Arran’s first few attempts were unsuccessful. While he did manage to produce a large flame, the flame did not move at all, instead petering out in his hand after several moments.
He finally succeeded a good hour later, but was disappointed to find that unlike Master Zhao’s fireballs, his own were much smaller and barely flew a single pace before dissipating in mid-air.
Yet even that bit of success was enough to bolster his confidence, and he made several more attempts, only stopping when he ran out of Fire Essence.
Arran now understood what Master Zhao had meant when he said the technique was wasteful. Every successful attempt consumed a large chunk of the Fire Essence in Arran’s body, and just half a dozen successful fireballs had left him drained.
“Excellent,” Master Zhao said. “You are more talented than I expected.”
Arran felt a surge of pride. Master Zhao rarely gave compliments, which made the ones he did give even more precious.
“Next, I will show you a technique to recover your Essence faster.”
Arran’s interest was instantly sparked. Right now, whenever his Fire Essence ran out it would take him nearly half an hour to recover.
“To start, you will need to…”
Master Zhao spent the next hour explaining a technique to Arran that had him circulate the Essence in his body while drawing it away from his Realms.
It sounded simple, but Arran soon found that it required him to control every aspect of his mind and body.
The technique reminded him of the sword techniques Master Zhao had taught him, and relying on the control he had learned from those he made some slow progress.
After some hours of work, Arran had cut the time it took to replenish his Fire Essence in half. This was not as fast as he had hoped, but he wasn’t disappointed — just with this, he could practice creating fireballs twice as fast.
The weeks that followed saw Arran use most of his time practicing the two techniques Master Zhao had taught him.
As he walked beside the cart, he would occasionally send small fireballs flying into the distance, then recover his Essence using Master Zhao’s recovery technique.
He rapidly improved in both skills, and he soon found himself able to send the fireballs flying farther and his Essence recovering quicker.
It wasn’t long before every mile or so, a series of scorch marks appeared in the vegetation beside the road.
Once, Arran set fire to the underbrush of a patch of forest, and only a quick intervention by Master Zhao saved the forest from burning down.
After that, Master Zhao made Arran aim his fireballs into the air.
Although Arran had thought that magic training would replace his sword training, he found that he still had to practice with the sword twice a day. Only now, Arran had to wield his sword using just his right hand, while at the same time using his left hand to wield magic.
At first, trying to control both magic and the sword just saw Arran fail at both. It was only after several weeks of practice that he became slightly proficient at combining the two, albeit nowhere near enough to earn any compliments from Master Zhao.
As they traveled, the landscape changed with each passing day. The hills grew taller and rockier, and the trees sparser. There still was little sign of any human activity, but steadily, dense trees made way for wide grasslands.
Almost two months after Arran first learned magic, vague outlines appeared in the distance. Initially, he believed these to be taller hills, but as they moved closer they grew in height, and on cloudless days he could see that snow covered their peaks.
Filled with awe, Arran realized these were mountains.
Arran had never seen mountains before, and in his imagination, mountains had simply been particularly tall hills. Now that he saw them with his own eyes, he finally understood just how vast they were — even from dozens of miles away, Arran could see them stretch into the sky, piercing the clouds.
The thought of seeing the mountains up close filled him with joy.
One morning, Arran found that Master Zhao had cast off the appearance of Arran’s blond ‘uncle’ Derrin. His hair and eyes were black once more, and his face looked as if he was in his fifties, if not older.
“Once we enter the city, you are to call me ‘Master Fireheart’,” Master Zhao said.
“Master Fireheart?” Arran thought the name sounded silly, but he wisely kept his mouth shut.
“Now, as for you…” Master Zhao waved his hand at Arran, and Arran could sense that Essence flowed from Master Zhao’s hand toward himself.
As Arran stood there, wondering whether something had happened, Master Zhao took out a small mirror which he handed to Arran.
When he looked in the mirror, he was shocked to find that his blond hair had turned jet-black. And not just that, his eyes and skin had changed, too.
No longer did he look like a pale, blond Easterner. Instead, he now resembled someone from the West.
“From now on,” Master Zhao said, “your name is Li Wei An. You are the son of a small merchant from Fulai City, and you became my apprentice a year ago.”
“Li Wei An.” Arran repeated the name until it felt natural on his lips.