Gaius looked at the two of them with anticipation. Wondering to himself what they had plan to do with these Golden Bark saplings planted into the ground. He could feel the saplings pulse through the soil with their earthly might. “Oh, how odd,” Gaius thought to himself, “the saplings seem to be arranged into a pattern?” Without giving it anymore thought, Gaius made his way to the edge of the village and prepared to enter the forest. At the borderline he saw a few people surrounding a pyre. 

Village Chief Hemuk and his two sons controlled the huge bonfire. Above the roaring flame a twisting column of wind was seen dumping all kinds of leaves, twigs, and other trash into the fire. Gaius was overwhelmed by the ferocity of the flame and how Chief Hemuk expertly directed its fierceness inwards and upwards rapidly consuming everything in it—hungrily eating the trash.

Gaius finally made his way into the familiar forest. Four years Gaius had been in this forest, every nook and cranny explored and well documented within his mind. He kept track of where all the herbs, plants, fruits, stems, and flowers within his mind’s eye. He was constantly checking which section of the forest he was at, as to not overharvest a particular region. In a remote section of the forest, Gaius put down his basket and took off his shoes. He dug his toes into the soft fertile soil and closed his eyes. He immediately felt the thrum of the earth. Gaius double checked its location like a blind man groping the darkness, and he walked a few dozen meters until he felt what he was looking for. Upon an open field, there was an eyeball that seemed to be growing from the ground. The stem was made up of the optic nerve while thorny protrusions were growing on its side. Next to this eyeball was a seemingly benign amber stone pulsing a soft warm earthen aura. “Ah, looks like you bloomed today. Right on schedule if I do say so myself.” Although his father did warn him to bring his gloves to harvest prickly herbs and plants, Gaius had never needed them. With his bare hands, Gaius tenderly wrapped his hands around the stem and thorns. Unbeknownst to him, a soft layer of amber spewed from the grotesque flower and cushioned his hands, preventing him from bleeding. Gaius quickly bent over and expertly extracted the Barbed Eye with its root system intact. Again, unknown to him, a soft layer of amber encased the Barbed Eye—root and all, as he pulled the plant from the ground. For as long as he could remember, Gaius had never needed to wear gloves to harvest any plant, and was always able to easily extract them with their roots intact.

Gaius looked at the familiar piece of amber and smiled. He sat by it and allowed the earthen aura wash over him and fill him with a warm safe embrace. The air was so thick that Gaius could probably reach his hands out and touch the aura as if it was a real blanket. Unknown to him, as he sat with his eyes closed, the earthen aura started to circulate around him. Long ago he noticed the peculiarity of the amber stone and decided to take it home with him so that he may bask in its aura, only to find that after a few days the earthen warmth would disappear. To his dismay and curious mind he took the stone back into the forest and sure enough it began to pulse that same warm aura. As he sat within the earthen embrace, small bits of it started to disappear until eventually he was left with a depleted amber stone next to him. Feeling refreshed, Gaius continued on. 

Gaius had always been alone when he harvested, trying to distance himself from others as much as possible, since their usage of the Aspects put him into a somber mood. 

Gaius continued merrily as he searched for other ripe herbs and plants. He suddenly stopped as a new scent wafted through the air. He curiously thought to himself, “I don’t remember this smell from last time.”

An acrid scent drifted within the air, making Gaius scrunch his nose and face at the new smell. As he followed the scent until a sharp aura bombarded him—hard and cold. Gaius saw several dozen meters in front of him a rocky outcropping, and upon its side hung many thin shiny vines which made the wall of rock look like it’s been covered by a large spider’s web. Sprouting from one of the vines was a daisy. Except this daisy had metallic petals and stem all the while hanging upside-down. Gaius slowly approached with excitement, “Whoa! I’ve never seen this before. I wonder why it smells so bad.” 

He looked at the vines intently, trying to figure out their secrets but to no avail. He gave up and focused his attention on the upside-down flower. He could feel the hard cold aura emanating from this daisy. The aura was palpable, as it thickly surrounded Gaius. Feeling this profound heaviness in the air, he knew that the flower was ripe for harvesting. Gaius reached out to pluck the daisy and to his surprise he dropped it as it probably weighed 20 kilograms. Staring at the small crater, Gaius pulled the flower off the ground.

“Whoa, so heavy!” Gaius cradled the metallic daisy in both hands as he made his way back to his basket and shoes. Gaius laid the metal herb down onto the ground and observed it a bit more. Without sensing anything else he went off to find more herbs. With Ken and Kim’s wedding today he was told to finish up his chores early so that the whole village can celebrate together. As the sun climbed to its zenith, Gaius finished up his harvest. Nodding to himself in approval he made his way back to the village with the basket in one hand and the cuff to his shirt in another. The metallic flower was too heavy for him to reliably carry back, so he decided to place it atop his shirt and dragged the flower back to the village. 

Gaius attracted several chuckles and glares as he made his way home shirtless. He went through the backyard and entered his father’s workshop to find him mumbling to himself as he mills several herbs together in his mortar. 

“Hey dad.”

“Oh, back so soon. What happened to your shirt?”

“I have it here. This thing is really heavy.”

At the mention of “heavy” Gaius’s father’s ears perked up and immediately rushed over to help his son and also to observe this “heavy object”.

A wide smile and with a look of delight in his eyes, Gaius’s father bent over to make sure the herb was in good condition. “You found this at the rocky outcropping towards the center of the forest, yes?” his father inquired. 

With a nod, Gaius asked, “Do you know what it is? I’ve never seen it before.”

“Yeah, it’s called Iron Mother. It’s one of the key components into making our shields. It was not supposed to bloom for another 2 years though.” His father rambled as he examined the flower in front of him with great scrutiny. 

Waiting for his father to elaborate only to be left in silence, Gaius finally asked, “Well, what does it do?”

“Huh? Oh, yes. Um, if you plant the Iron Mother in iron-rich soil or plant the flower directly over iron ingots or ores, it will soak up the iron and condense it into small high-density balls of steel.”

Gaius stared in awe as he watched his father’s fingers move gently over the Iron Mother, caressing it as if afraid of breaking it. Gaius wondered whether or not to tell his father, who is currently obsessed with the physical condition of the flower, that he dropped the thing when he first harvested it — he decided against it. 

After several minutes, his father straightened himself with a satisfied grunt while nodding his head vigorously, “Seems like there are no deficiencies for blooming earlier than expected. I have to reevaluate my calculations for the next bloom,” he muttered to himself before looking at his son. “Ah, right. Besides the Iron Mother, did you find anything else worthy of note?” his father asked while rummaging through the basket.

Before Gaius could tell him about the Barbed Eye, his father found it first at the top of the basket and excitedly says, “This has to be the 30th Barbed Eye that you’ve brought me. Are you tending to a secret Barbed Eye garden somewhere?” his father joked. 

Gaius knew that tending to a garden of Barbed Eyes was way above his abilities as it required the slaying of a magical beast and then encasing their eyes with the Aspect of the Earth, before finally it was transformed. His father stared at his son intently. Two years ago, when his son brought him the 4th Barbed Eye, he decided to accompany his son on his harvesting trips to see if his son had some magical abilities in finding rare herbs. He and his son would just meander through the forest talking about mundane things, trying to avoid the topic of his lack of an Aspect, and they would just stumble upon these rare herbs. When he asked his son about it directly, the boy told him that he was able to see and feel their aura. At the mention of this, he grew excited for his son, perhaps he can finally condense an Aspect after all. Though his wife had mentioned that he was able to discern her aura, the boy was still unable to condense her Aspect, so perhaps he has an affinity for another Aspect. The first step is to figure out which affinity someone is bound to, the next is to have them condense that Aspect. To his chagrin and confusion, the boy further claimed to be able to see all different sorts of Aspects: from Wood, Earth, Metal, to even Water, and Fire. This spurred him to recruit as many experts, doctors, priests, and shamans as possible to look at his son’s condition but to no avail.

“Go wash up for the wedding while I pack all of these things away,” his father suddenly shooed him.

Meanwhile 500 kilometers northeast of the village at Fort Winter:

“Sir, reporting!”

“Go on soldier,” a middle-aged man hoarsely replied while barely looking up from his desk.

“The kwach’a outbreak is being successfully culled by the city of Bav. With the enlistment of the city guards and mages along with mercenaries and adventurers, the kwach’a have dwindled down to acceptable levels. However, the city governor and our scouts report that a small remnant herd of 300 had broken off from the plains and are headed westward. They are expected to reach Fort Winter and the surrounding villages within the next few days,” the messenger relayed.

“Send missives to warn the local villages, and if there are any villagers that need aid, have them make an official request to their messengers. On your way out, tell Markus that I want to speak with him, and then go get yourself a hot meal and a soft bed. Dismissed.”

After a few minutes, a large stout man donned with full battle equipment and a full clean black beard walked in. “Sir,” was all Markus said, but that single word exuded confidence and strength. 

“300 kwach’a are heading westwards. Take 2,000 men with you and stop them before they reach the surrounding villages,” the middle-aged man said with his raspy tired voice. 

“Sir, many of our soldiers are new recruits. I request to bring them along to temper their training,” Markus replied sternly.

“Granted. Bring 5,000 troops, of which 2,000 are new recruits. Bring them home safe. Dying in this cold north is no way to go,” the middle-aged man replied.