Chapter 01 - Valley
“What is a soul?”
I float upwards, my mind slowly becoming aware of the outside world. My eyes feel stuck together with glue and my body feels made from lead. Every single neuron in my brain is looking at me accusingly while generating the mother of all headaches. I blearily blink away the foggy film that is turning my direct environment into an opaque blur and wonder what all the racket is about. An infernal noise is blasting through my aching head, making it impossible to think. I also feel weak, sick and tired. Why does my body feel like I just went on a hundred year bender?
I manage to sit upright, feeling soft grass beneath my hands. I then recognise the noise around me as the chirping of birds. I blink some more and look around to see where I am.
The sight before my eyes completely contradicts all my expectations. I’m in a valley with the occasional cluster of trees, located between towering mountains. Actually, these mountains are tiny lumps of rock sticking up from the ground. Compared to towering behemoths dozens of kilometres high that I’m used to, these things are tiny. These mountains look like the Alps, a couple of kilometres high at most. Birds sing from their perches in the branches and I see some bunnies and squirrels scurrying around.
I scratch my head as I wonder why those animals are advertising their own whereabouts by making all that noise. Even common birds should know better, right? Be still, stupid animals! That behaviour is just begging to be eaten.
I look around for a bit more, taking in the environment as my brain starts back up. Then memories come crashing back into me. A life filled with fighting, sneaking, hiding and running resurfaces into my mind's eye. I flop backwards, staring into the sky while splayed out onto the grass as I process my sudden shift in personal power and circumstance.
It takes me a while to process the fact that I am thinking at a snail's pace. I feel like I have been downgraded from a modern computer to a punch card machine. Yeah, that would be an accurate description for the feeling I’m having now.
My brain recalls past events with pondering slowness. Around a thousand years of adventuring culminating in an epic standoff versus half the cultivation world. This all happened on top of a mountain in the wilderness. The ending seems very off to me. I should be in a higher realm right now. Dense qi and rich power should be all around me. The lowest huts should be made from precious and rare materials costing millions.
And does it smell bad? A rank odour is in the air. I sniff and notice I don't detect it via my nose, but from my energy sense. I haul myself in a comfortable sitting position and close my eyes. I focus my sight inwards, only to find nothing there. Instead of a self-built foundation made of surging qi and raw information I see nothing. Training my senses outwards I retch at the energies in the air.
I’m used to an energy called qi. Qi is pure potential, a collection of possibilities that can be influenced by the mind. This energy has all kinds of themed variations. The middle of a volcano contains fire qi everywhere. Deep in the ocean is abundant water qi is mixed with the regular stuff.
Instead of this single energy with a lot of different flavours, I sense loose layers of power intermingling. This world has all sorts of energies swirling around each other. The majority of the energies have a dark feeling to them. It's as if the entire planet is filled with beings a good deal more ominous than the despotic, mass murdering cultivating psychopaths I’m used to.
I rub my eyes as my headache worsens. Sensing this power in the air seems to be taking up my small stock of mental energies. I stop trying to grasp at my environment with my mind and focus on the material world around me.
I see some bunnies stalking a squirrel. One of the birds I spot has fierce talons that look bloodstained. An oversize, furry bug is munching on what seems to be a carapace covered mouse. I ignore the discrepancy in fur, scales and feathers for now. Squirrels can have feathers and bunnies are free to be as naked as they like.
I keep blinking my eyes, hoping something is wrong. Do I need glasses? All my senses are dull, and I can't smell anything except for some earthy tones and that filthy energy. My body feels heavy and my mind slow.
A different world again, huh. At least this planet isn't wholly mundane. It might not be qi, but there are some energies in the air at the very least. I ponder the changes and what they mean while I watch a group of brown squirrels surround an unaware rabbit. They pounce and tear the little thing to shreds. I’m certainly not in Kansas anymore.
I keep trying to form theories about what might have happened. The mental slowness I’m experiencing is worse than a downgrade from a modern workstation to an analogue calculator. This is like working with a physical file cabinet. Each thought is like opening new drawers instead of using an advanced search algorithm. I want to cry.
Trying to detract my mind from its slowness, I inspect my body. I'm still wearing fine underwear, rough spun dark brown pants, a dark grey tunic and leather shoes. Humble and unassuming attire wholly unfit for a cultivator at the top of the food chain. I run a hand across my arms and legs, finding that I still have the same lean build filled with tough muscles. A body made for swimming or running long distances more than a bodybuilder’s physique.
Lacking a mirror, I can't inspect my face. I run my hands over it instead. I’m certain I still have the same moderately handsome - if a bit long - visage I’ve always had.
My right hand is still adorned with a simple black ring, much to my relief, one of the few treasures I kept. I'm not a fan of building my fighting style around a physical object, but that doesn’t mean I will ignore the usefulness of a storage tool. I mean, dependency on a material item like a sword or spear means I would be crippled if shit truly hits the fan when I don’t have it.
As I toy with the spatial storage ring on my finger, I ponder what to do now. I can’t access anything inside; I’ll need qi to open it, which I lack at the moment. Finding some form of civilisation and stalking unaware peasants seems like a good idea.
There must be sapients roughly similar to me nearby because the animals all avoid me. Behaviour like that isn't common in wild animals untainted by human contact. Looking at the reddish spot where the rabbit used to be, I can only count that as a blessing.
I stand up and almost fall on my face. Firming my wobbling knees, I take a careful step. The grass under my feet gives way under my leather-shod feet, and I start walking.
I find myself in a long valley nestled between white-capped mountains. I don't see any visible roads, so I choose a random direction and do what I’ve done for the past thousand years; adventuring and exploring.
Five minutes later I stop to catch my breath. I've found myself back in a mortal's body. The footwork that an hour ago propelled me hundreds of meters with the smallest step is now a weird form of jogging. The energies I used to match with my walking or running rhythm are entirely gone.
“This truly won't do. I’ll die of overexertion at this rate, fucking hell.”
As I mumble some more curses under my breath, I decide to walk towards the mountains. There's ought to be a cave to do some experiments in. Sitting out in the open is a one-way ticket into some fluffy animal’s stomach, I reckon. The closest mountainside has its foot obscured by dense patches of trees. Wary of the murder squirrels I choose the other wall of mountain to inspect.
Ten minutes later I stop once again, my slower pace has kept me from falling over, but I’m starting to feel hungry and thirsty. Frustration is building inside me; yesterday I could go years without food or water. Now a small stroll leaves me famished.
Taking a closer look at the trees, I conclude that I don't recognise any of them. They all have these weirdly asymmetrical leaves with bark that seems brown but shimmers blue under direct sunlight. No fruits are in sight and with my current body I don't think I’d be able to catch any of the animals around. I look wistfully at my ring once again.
“This is an opportunity, a challenge!” That’s better. No point in moping about things I can't do anything about. It’s better to see this as a challenge to overcome. Saying it out loud doesn't make it any more real, but it feels like it a little bit anyway. I’m halfway to the mountain face now, and I start to see some smaller rocks adorning the steeply rising slope. I think I spot a cave in the distance, but with my current sight, it might as well be a bear or something.
Half an hour later I have inspected every plant, tree, shrub and animal I have come across. I’ve concluded that they are all distinctly unknown and alien to me. This is the second time this happened, so I just accept it numbly instead of freaking out about it like the first time. Luckily I was around ten years old back then, so I played the traumatised child card to the fullest. My current physical appearance should be around my mid-twenties, so that’s less of an option now.
The black thing at the foot of the mountain has also come into sight, and I can confirm it’s indeed a cave. I don't spot any large tracks around the entrance and am pleasantly surprised by a small stream making it's way down from the mountain and into the cave. I drink my fill, once again noting the total lack of recognisable energies in the water. At least I’m not thirsty any more. My thirst quenched, I make my way a few metres into the cave and sit down.
Closing my eyes once again, I start to focus on the energies in the air. It all feels rather alien to me. Instead of a film of qi that permeates everything, there is a swirling mix of different colours intertwined. A lot of dark and sinister feeling power seems to hang in the air, making the lighter shades hard to pick out.
I know that the average population of a planet has a significant influence on the energy state of said planet. I suspect that there are a lot of fellows here with less than clean souls. A person who murders a lot has a chilling murderous aura; a healer has a comforting feeling aura, etcetera. If a couple of billion people emit auras of total bastards, it's going to influence the global energy ecosystem of a planet or plane.
Focusing on the swirling mass of colours at the edge of my vision, I start to recognise different types of currents. Then an idea hits me. These flows of energy feel fainter and hard to grasp than the qi I'm used to. What if this power is of a lesser rank, somehow? Maybe I could cobble them together and form a type of energy more suited for my use?
A sneaking suspicion in the back of my mind keeps nagging me that it is not qi, but some other form of energy. Could it be psy power? Maybe mana? Do I want to become a wizard instead of an immortal? I reject that idea for now. I don't know shit about this world’s magical system if it exists at all. Using qi techniques is all initiated internally. Magic is cast externally if the various fantasy stories from Earth are to be believed.
I focus on separating the various types of flow from each other. My influence on them is non-existent. No matter how much effort I put in, they just ignore me and continue flowing by. The amount of energy in the air seems to be slightly higher than what I'm used to if you combine all the different types. I could be wrong about that though, with my senses being as stumped and muddled as they are right now.
A weird combination of trepidation and excitement starts to fill me as I realise that I will have to learn a lot of skills from scratch. As I feel these two emotions, I notice two types of energy that move in a slightly different manner.
“Haaaah, don't tell me it’s based on emotions and feelings?” I know a few cultivation techniques that are emotion based. It tends to unhinge a person in the long run, even if the earlier stages are a bit faster. I never met a sane top tier cultivator that cultivates based on excess or limited emotion.
I suppress my inner turmoil, calming myself. The influence disappears like it was never there. I think of a few faces that I would like to punch, anger boiling from my gut and filling me. A stream of green glowing power diverts its path and swirls around me. Although I claim it’s a green glow, it can't really be classified as such.
My previous experiences with these types of energies have given me great insight and sensitivity in such matter. These skills seem to be untouched by the abrupt transfer to wherever here is. The green glow is barely there, more like a minuscule pinch of green powder spread over an entirely white page. I recognise the wood element energy for what it is anyway.
Excitement fills me as I start to realise on what fundamental laws this world operates. The fact that the green energy dances away and a red energy starts to hover over me confirms my theory. Once one gets powerful enough, these type of laws don't mean much. Firm belief overrides any faint influence from the universe, but it is a major help in the beginning.
I calm myself once again and start to feel any emotion I can think of. Hate gives me fire, but so does joy. I take a closer look while trying to feel two things at once, a happy hate. Then I realise the difference, one is darker and menacing while the other is filled with warmth.
Anger gives me a rotting wood energy while any form of empathy gives me a small trace of life-giving green. I continue to cycle through all the emotions I can think of. Wanting to become stronger gives me more wood, worrying over my future makes a yellow energy respond to me, found earth! Thinking it's all too much and wanting to give up makes a grey energy rush over. Feeling scared by this new and unknown world causes a blue flow to come looking for me.
Half an hour later I have a grip on what emotion influences what type of energy. One thing I notice is that the negative type of energies seems to be a lot more abundant. Happiness gave me a minuscule trickle of warmth while apathy and despairing worry flooded me with a darker grey and brown energy.
Now comes the hard part, trying to combine them in equal measure. My current hypothesis is that smashing them together will give me a higher level energy that is easier to work with. Emotional cultivation is a minefield I mean to stay away from, I really don’t want to use these powers in their current form.
Imagine being an angry fire mage, fuelled with endless rage. Once you meet something that scares the crap out of you, all you’ll be left with is useless water energy. Rather unpractical. I don't think I’ll be joining a magic sect or school anytime soon if emotions are used to cast magic. Crazy people everywhere. My worry and apprehension about hair-trigger explosion mages causes earth and water energy to surround me in my pondering.
The first step will be training the control of the elements without feeling emotions. There must be more to magic than just feeling feelings really hard but I can't really think of what. My brain systematically ponders the problem and I miss the days in which I could just automate a piece of my mind to slowly and systematically work through the problem like a computer. Running thousands of scenarios on autopilot while you are enjoying a walk is a luxury that I sorely miss right about now.
I walk in a circle as I try to categorise what emotion influences what energy and why. Always think of the why.