Chapter 256 - Landing in Rubble (1)

I die a thousand deaths while trying to relax. That portal I stepped through might have been extremely unstable, and it might be a mystery where it leads, but that doesn’t mean…

It was a pretty great idea, I think...

Then I decide that my life might end at any moment, so there is no need to lie to myself. No matter how I twist this one, what I just did was pretty dumb. Stepping through a mysterious portal of almost certain death just because I want my dragon girlfriend back is a decent reason to die, though. There are many worse reasons to bite the bullet, and getting scattered across multiple planes is actually pretty cool.

Imagine my surprise when I smack face-first into rough rock the moment I try to relax. The air is slammed from my lungs, and that small eternity of knowing you will suffocate that comes with getting the wind knocked out of you comes and goes. Gathering myself, I try to sit up and gain my bearings.

I manage to haul my aching carcass into a sitting position with much effort and take in my surroundings. I immediately know I’m back in the Cultivation World, as the pressure pushing down on me is immense and impossible to ignore and withstand. The fact that the night sky is softly lit by an impossible network of lights, strands of brilliance, and all kinds of randomly moving phenomena is another hint. The amount of power in the air is as cloying as ever, and I don’t even dare to breathe lest I choke myself with acrid power and syrupy qi.

Then I realize that I’m in a warzone. The rocky ground beneath my ass is sharp and freshly crushed. Around me, I see the devastation. Collapsed mountains, pillars of wafting ice, small lakes of burning magma, charred chunks of forest, and all kinds of bizarre remnants are visible everywhere. Ritual circles have left smoking trenches, and from their fragmented curvatures, I can see that they were originally kilometers wide. The power in the air is thick and vicious, and I notice that I still haven’t been able to take in a single breath.

The reason why I’m even here flashes through my mind again. I want to get them back. I need to acquire building materials in such quantity, and of such supernatural quality, it boggles my mind. I need to do a lot of things, and none of them are going to be accomplished by being a little bitch.

I take a step towards the closest piece of unbroken land I see, a partially smoldering forest sprawled across a mountain just a few kilometers to the side, and start walking. I also take a deep breath while trying to gather myself and immediately realize that I should not have done that.

My face hits the ground again as the air in my lungs explodes. A hopeless little squeal coming from my shoulder alerts me to my pet, Lola the small white bunny. I manage to twist my neck enough to get a look at the tiny little thing, and I see her whimpering while hyperventilating.

Fluffy as hell, cute as all can be, a red and blue lock on her fluffy forehead giving her a hint of ‘punk’, seeing the little cutie suffer breaks my heart. I manage to roll over, curling up beside a jagged shard of obsidian that smolders with an internal fire, Lola clutched to my chest. I then notice that I’m lying in the charred remains of somebody. The smell of burned flesh is honestly just one of the many acrid sensations in the ruined hellscape I’ve found myself, but the shredded and charred meat sprinkled around and under me is something I can hardly ignore.

Deciding that I first need to get a grip on the situation before anything else, I slowly cover my pristine robe in the dirt, mud, and other unmentionables. Let’s just lay here for a bit while I figure out what is going on. I really shouldn’t be doing this right in the middle of a massive battlefield, but I don’t think I’ll even make it a dozen steps at this point.

First, I shut out my sense of smell. I know what I’m lying in now, no need to be reminded of that constantly. Then, I start ignoring my eyes, trying to shut out the little light penetrating my closed eyelids. Then, I close myself off from my sense of touch, only keeping myself cognizant of the small rabbit huddled into my chest. I don’t even dare to think about my sense of taste, and I keep my ears wide open for any possible threats. It’s pretty silent for now, only the occasional falling rocks and softly smoldering fires interrupting the constant hows of the wind. Tinkling snaps of cooling rock and dripping ice make for a rather serene soundtrack to the hellscape around me.

Then, I take a look inside myself, trying to get a feel for what’s going on. I am a cultivator of qi, using my own body, mind, and soul as a vessel for these higher energies, bringing them under my control. Instead of the standard gathering place, the dantian just behind the navel, my nexus of power is inside my brains. This allows me massively increased thinking capacity at the low cost of possibly going insane if I don’t manage my mind right.

I tend to use this increased thinking capacity in two ways. Firstly, I automate things. One of my standard processes that are always going cleans me using qi. This process is trying to use some of my precious power to scrub my face, and it isn’t accomplishing anything. I paused that process and go through the large list of mental systems I have running. I put every single one to the back of my mind, my head gaining a bit of clarity and perspective with each one I stop.

The second way I use my increased mental prowess is through the speeding-up of my thoughts, and thus the slowing of the world around me through increased perception speed. The moment I start feeling a bit unbalanced because of all the mental thinking power I have at my disposal, I use a large chunk of it to slow everything down.

To my surprise, the world around me doesn’t suddenly stop. It keeps going at half its usual pace, even though it should be crawling ahead a thousand times slower. The reason for this becomes clear immediately. The severe lack of breath I’ve been experiencing isn’t really from a lack of breath. I’m breathing just fine, I notice. The sheer amount of power in the air around me is choking me something fierce, though. With a hint of panic, I notice that Lola’s breathing is also labored, and is slowing.

I pull on the entire power of my cultivation base. What should be enough power to level a mountain - a small mountain - and shake the heavens - very small heaven - now is barely enough to wrap the little bunny in a protective layer of my qi. My situation immediately worsens, as the power I was keeping in reserve allowed me to fight against the outside pressure a bit.

It’s like my body is a balloon filled with air. My cultivation base is the air inside the balloon, allowing my body extra firmness and strength. And now I’m dropped into a deep sea trench. The sheer pressure around me is collapsing my cultivation base into nothingness, and I feel the highly pressurized ambient power invading my body slowly but surely. If I could measure the amount of qi in my body - something notoriously difficult to do with precision - then it would pale in comparison to the amount of power in a small bit of the air around me.

That’s when I realize that I might have very well screwed the pooch something fierce. Jumping into random spatial holes of fractured reality is a very bad idea indeed.

An hour later, I realize that I’m still screwed, but at least I’m not actively dying. Lola is still shivering and all kinds of uncomfortable, but I’m sensing that she is actively pulling in the heat and fire qi radiating from the cooling chunk of volcanic rock we are hiding under. She is managing this super high-pressure environment a lot better than I am. More power to her.

I focus on the minuscule thread of power I’ve connected to her and feel for her condition again. Each breath she takes in is clogged with all kinds of stagnant ambient qi, a true and terrible mess of ancient dead power and entrenched static filth. I reign my thoughts back in, unwilling to let my mood deteriorate further than it already is. Instead, I observe as Lola pulls all the fire-related power from the murky lungful of air, and breathes out the rest. She also seems to be taking in the cold aspected power, but there’s very little of that here. We are still lying under a massive glowing chunk of stone, after all.

This power then travels through the oxygenated veins in her lungs towards her heart, where it stays for a while. Only when the esoteric natures of these heat-related energies are stripped down to nothing does she pump it back into her body. Once inside her arteries, the new strands of power start a seemingly hopeless fight against the ambient qi in the air.

I have also been busy while watching over Lola’s slow recovery process. To my great relief, I have found that the small portion of Will I have at my disposal works unimpeded. This energy is of a fundamentally different quality than qi, being of a much finer nature. Where qi can be used as building blocks to influence the world, Will can be used to overwrite the natural of order of things in a limited manner.

The first thing I did was to prevent the massive pressure of the power in the air here from entering my brain. I really don’t want to know what will happen if such a cloying, polluted, and disgusting mix of energies were to enter the root of my spirit. The gross power has been creeping into my entire body, and it feels like pure sewage is seeping into every cell and fiber of my being.

At least I’ve managed to glimpse a truth from Lola, and just like she is using her ice and fire affinity to gather qi that she can work with, I’ve been doing the same. I really should get back to it.

I close my eyes again and feel for those lost to me. A blue-haired girl, a redheaded boy, a curvaceous tailor, a gloomy metal-head, a greedy goblin, and my lovely dragon. Instead of the raw gaping wound I felt initially when thinking of Rhea, there is just a numb void now. The missing limb that represents her absence has started scabbing over. It’s now only painful to the touch, no longer constantly bleeding and screaming at the loss.

At least, that was the feeling I had before stepping through that cursed crack in space. Now there is a small seed inside that void, a small kernel of something far off. The person I had the greatest connection with was undoubtedly Rhea, and through that strong bond, I feel her presence somewhere to the north. I am thankful for the feeling on multiple levels. First, there is the fact that she is still alive. From the tranquil feeling I’m getting, she is probably sleeping, as usual. And also, it’s thanks to this small kernel of a connection that I’m making progress. Also, thanks to inspiration gained from my pet rabbit. I make a mental note to find a big juicy carrot for her later.

From Rhea, my lovely dragon, I received a grasp of wind, air, and all things gaseous. From Lola, I received the idea to take the qi containing the intent of the wind and to make that mine. I have been doing that for a while now, and it’s been extremely slow going.

Just like Lola, I too have a core of power in my heart. My heartcore took half an hour of prodding and flushing with my qi reserves before it wanted to get going again, though. The constant pressure of foreign energies against my beating organ kept getting in the way until I had a sufficient amount of power pumped into my chest. That is now the case, and with each shallow breath I take, I take in small trickles of wind, air, smoke, and all things gaseous.

Slowly but surely, I’m bringing my body under my control again, driving the mixed and unwieldy qi from my blood and bones.

And none-too-soon either, as there are people approaching. I started hearing occasional voices half an hour ago, shreds of conversation carried on the wind. These kept getting louder and louder until I started hearing snippets of a language I recognize.

I really should have expected this, but my blood still runs cold. There is a single language that’s used between all cultivating sects in this world, as far as I know. The normal people all speak other languages, their dialects changing over the centuries like a meandering river. The sects, with their ancient ancestors and aged patriarchs, all speak the same language, the common tongue of the Jianghu. The layer of society involved in breaking their mortal shackles, from the lowest gang member to the noblest of alliance leader, all speak this tongue.

This means that the people coming here are cultivators, people well versed in martial arts and mystical fighting techniques. I should have seen this coming, as no mortal would even dare to approach a place where martial practitioners have fought, but the realization still comes as a shock. And the fact that they are probably scavengers coming to loot the dead means that they aren’t likely to be a religious or upright sect.

I think about fleeing, but the sheer amount of foreign energy in my body is preventing me from even breathing properly. Even a lame cripple can probably keep up with me sprinting full out in my current condition. I tuck Lola deeper into my chest and curl up around her while slowing my breathing. I start using every single part of my entire being in speeding up my cultivation, starting a small vortex in my heart. Centrifuging the ambient wind qi will make it mine faster, right?

The voices keep coming near, and it isn’t long before I can hear them without straining.

The first clearly legible voice I can make out is subservient and slimy. “Brother, there is an intact corpse over here!”

Then comes a giddy voice, full of the slightly manic and hollow type of joy that's caused by too much short term gratification. “Haha, well-done! I will have to commend your diligence to uncle when we return.”

“No need, young master. I’m just doing my duty to the sect.”

“Ah, well if you think there is no need… Then don’t blame for taking advantage!” The second, younger voice sounds truly delighted at having his offer of thanks turned down. “His robes are very basic, and he is covered in filth. You check if he has any good items!”

“Yes, young master,” comes an older voice. I hear footsteps coming closer, and I ready the small bit of Will I have at my disposal. I’m using up a large portion of the stuff in keeping the shield around my brain active, but I’m not willing to take that down. I am powerless, except for a few shreds of a power usually only wielded by revered sect elders and powerhouses. I will have to use it smartly.

“It’s an elder from the Dark Moon sect. Here are his rings, young master.” After some shuffling nearby, the voice grows quieter, and I hear footsteps retreating.

I feel relief flooding my body. I don’t dare look or scan with my cultivator senses, as that would surely alert them that there is someone alive.

“And what about that pill bottle?”

“I did not see a pill bottle, young master,” replies the older voice.

“You dare hide treasure from me? A mere core disciple should know their place.” The fury in the young voice is palpable. I hear a brief struggle, sharp metal sliding through flesh and fabric ending in a gurgling sound. Then follows the rustling of robes. “Ah, these are his own pills.”

The gurgling continues, and I can basically hear the gears grinding in the young master's brain. “He surely stole these from the sect vault. I found a traitor to the sect! We will report this to my uncle when we return.”

A flurry of affirmatives follows, and the soft gurgling turns into sickening wet heaving breaths, a sure sign that the older man is still slowly suffocating in his own blood. Sometimes, the higher life force and resilience that comes with being a cultivator is a downside. Instead of a clean death, I hear the group move closer while the bloody gasps of the dying man continue.

“That one, he looks clean."

“Yes, young master,” replies one.

"Has junior sister been sighted yet?” asks the young voice again.

“No, young master. Our tracking talisman doesn’t work. The aftershocks of the fight are still interfering,” sais another.

I am acting deader than dead at this point. I estimate my survival chances as a negative nudged percent if they find that I’m still alive. I can maybe take down a few if I use my Will smartly, but I won’t get away. Instead of leaving it up to fate, I decide to gamble. I slowly and carefully take a deep breath, strip all the air qi from the lungful, and shove it into my heart. Then I stop my heartbeat.

Lola freezes the moment my blood stops flowing. I gently pulse the thread of qi through which I’m touching the small rabbit, and she calms down. She follows my lead, closing her eyes and playing dead. I slowly dig out the earth using my right hand, slowly pushing her into the rubble. I manage to smooth a fine layer of grit over her tiny frame just in time for the footsteps going my way to stop.

The last thing I do before a boot breaks my arm is to put my entire body into rigor mortis

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Author note: New world, new adventures! I'll be posting 3 chapters a week for a while.

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