I awake in silence and under the assault of a soft and wet enemy. At first, I’m very confused about the fact that I’m not too worried about the attack, and that it feels rather nice, if a bit slimy. Then I realize it’s silent around me, and I start getting worried.
Silence means that bad stuff can happen. If you hear screaming and explosions, you at least know that shit is already going down. From then on, stuff can get either worse or better. With silence as the starting point, it can only get worse.
The majestic foe that’s assaulting me with warm slobbers immediately proves my theory wrong. Being woken by sloppy bunny kisses is a good thing, after all.
Opening my eyes, I see three things. The pink clouds are the most attention-grabbing of the three, and I look at the many mystical symbols and strange movements for a while. The laws of thermodynamics have only the faintest grip on the water cycle in this place at the best of times. The impossible ways the clouds form formations and shapes seemingly by pure happenstance once again confirm that finding. Then there is the frame of branch and leaf through which I’m looking up at the sky. It seems that I managed to reach the forest and that I’m still alive. Good news all around. I put a hand on Lola, slowly stroking the soft rabbit - the third thing - as I endure her licks. “Right, I’m up, I’m awake already!”
And to my surprise, I notice that I’m actually wide awake. The heavy fog through which I’ve been thinking from the moment this filthy qi entered my body is lifted. I did form an energy barrier around my brain, but some of the ambient power must have slipped inside my head through my bloodstream. Now it seems that my braincore has had time to turn that qi into my own power. I check my body and feel that my left arm is still broken and my ring finger is still gone. That’s not that great, but I can manage.
I also check Lola, and sense that she is doing fine. I scratch her between her ears as I try seeing what’s going on. The trees here are rather new and fresh, the bark still pristine, moss not having had time to settle on the minor giants. They tower above me, but for Cultivation World trees, they are but saplings. Standing up, I wince as I try to use my left arm, getting up and gaining my bearings.
I immediately go light-headed and experience a brief spell of darkening vision. Taking a deep breath, I start walking while carefully choosing my steps. I pull a container of water from my ring, wincing at the high qi cost of taking the item out. I’ve got to stay hydrated though, so it’s worth it.
I avoid stepping on small plants, making sure to only stand on bare rock and thick tree roots. To my back, the forest is all kinds of dark and gloomy, while the other side is bright and vibrant. Normally, I would leg it towards the darkness to get away as fast as possible, but I want to see what’s happening first.
As I slowly trek through the woods, I take inventory of myself and my equipment. My left ring finger is still missing, but at least the wound has scabbed over. My body is slowly adapting to the dense qi in the air, but it’s doing so in a manner I’m not happy with. I feel the ambient qi settling into my flesh and bones, filling the near power-vacuum that used to be there. That’s going to cost time and effort to fix later, but for now, at least it’s allowed me to regain a portion of my previous physical prowess.
The plain ring on my right hand is a different story altogether. I might not have been thinking too clearly, as there are barely any explosives left. I’m sure I stockpiled a lot of the things, I made them while I was getting ownership of those superheavy Dao path tools, but they’re almost all gone.
The moment I can see between the trees, I can see the fruits of that action. What used to be a rather diverse battlefield is now a crater ridden wasteland. The previous battle damage had been proof of relatively few, yet incredibly powerful techniques — massive chunks of rock and deep trenches clear evidence of this. Now, the entire field looks like someone shelled it with hand grenades for a few days. Come to think of it, by the massive amount of explosives missing from my ring, that’s basically what happened.
Then the animal in the middle of the field turns its head towards me. I really hoped it would ignore me if I did the same to it, but alas, so I freeze.
Eyes that hold the universe, a nature that is alien and antithesis to my own, a talon at my neck, and a fang touching my heart.
A voice punches straight into my head. “So the rumors are false, then.”
My consciousness is reeling and tumbling from this overbearing form of communication, and I’m not handling its predatory presence well. My subconscious knows that not answering will be my death, and replies smoothly. “The rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
The feathered snake grins at me. “Good. Brother Tri-Horn is still looking for you. I will tell him that you are still alive, but I will not point him here. You are not well.”
I finally manage to get my brain working again, and with the clearness of thought comes clearness of memory. I nod my head once while strolling out of the treeline. “Did you just come here to scavenge, or do you have business?”
The snake stares at me for a long moment.
I grin back at the beast. “Oh, mighty feather face? Is that the correct term? Did I forget to grovel and scrape again? I really am honored to be in your elevated presence, you know.”
Once more, the snake tastes the air, and what might pass for an amused chuff comes from between its long fangs. “You are changed, but not. You are weak, but hold more power than even I can sense.”
The fluffy serpent looks around at the carnage. I wince when I see the number of dead people. Few are intact, and I don’t see a single ring or piece of jewelry anywhere. I do see a few corpses that stand out from the rest, as they are laden with jewelry and their fingers are covered in rings. I also see small puncture marks on all of them, oozing with dark blood. The snake notices my glance and continues speaking. “Which way does this debt flow, I wonder? Who holds karma here.”
I wave a nonchalant hand at the being. “Forget about stupid stuff like that, I already told you. If we both agree that there’s nothing between us, then there is nothing between us. And I’m not planning on taking that stuff,” I reply while waving towards the fresh treasure-laden corpses. “I really don’t want any debt between us. I will claim a single cheap ring as my reward, as my share of the loot. But my earlier question, are you looking for something or just here to see what’s up?”
There is no reply. I look at the massive wasteland again, trying to get a feel for what went down. My eyes are captured by the mountains, as they seem familiar. The ice-capped range encircling the large field of destruction is truly massive in size and weight. I look back and see that the snake is gone, a single pale white feather slowly twirling towards the floor. A cold sweat breaks out on my back, and I know that the stupid snake is playing games again. I start sprinting. Having a casual conversation with an immortal beast like that is one thing, spitting in its face by letting its gift hit the ground is another.
“I already told you, there is nothing between us!” My loud yell receives no answer, only a slight sound of wind through feathers reaching me in reply. “Fuck me. That was close, don’t you agree, Lola?”
I turn to the rabbit on my shoulder and see that she is frozen stiff. “Hey, fuzzybutt. Are you alright? That was just a lesser Quetzalcoatl, nothing to get upset about. They are just big softies. I helped one of them a long time ago with something minor. I really hope that was the one I helped, as I can never tell them apart. It must have popped in to see what the ruckus was. I guess that their breeding grounds are closeby or it has a lair somewhere close.”
Lola is remaining unresponsive as I put the feather in my ring. Then I start running. I glance at the place where the treasure-laden corpses used to be and see that their hands are gone, their necks sliced through with savage force. Not a single ring or necklace remains, all gone except for a nondescript ring lying in front of the heap. I run over, pick up the single piece of loot, and put it on my left middle finger. My missing ring finger is going to raise questions, but the spatial ring looks cheap enough that even a peasant might have lucked into it.
That stupid snake promised to tell that stupid three-horned unicorn that I’m still alive. That dumb horse isn’t likely to have forgiven me yet, and I am no match for it in my current state. It should have expected me to cheat, though. That game I taught it was specifically designed to fleece people and in a very obvious manner at that. I need to get the frick out of here fast.
I start running towards the forest again, desperate for some overhead cover. Looking around, I see that my grenade ballet has caused a lot of damage. It’s pretty easy to see what happened once I got knocked out, the signs telling a story all of their own.
Dark stains and scraps of cloth splattered around the deeper crater are all that remains of a good chunk of the opportunistic looters. A lot of the intact bodies have wounds in their backs, telling of opportunistic betrayals just to get a bigger share of the loot. The few that got struck down from the front have a true overkill of lethal injuries, and I can spot shattered protective talismans on corpses like those.
I can almost see the chain of events that happened here. A few high-level cultivators either teamed up against one another or went to subjugate a beast. The fight turned out harder than they expected, and a lot of shockwaves and ripples were made. A couple probably got killed, maybe some high-level beasts got involved, and the survivors fled. Sometime later, when all the powerful beasts attracted to this ruckus were done with their nosing around, a lot of scavengers, sect patrol teams, and rogue cultivators bent on looting some high-level stuff arrived on the scene.
They initially calmly searched for valuables, no group willing to instigate violence for fear of being ganged upon. Then some asshat of a young master yelled that he found a sentient sword, and everyone became mad with greed. I might not be a fan of those talking weapons, but one of those artifacts could guarantee any random person an elder position in a prominent sect. Any peasant would be uplifted to a king were they to contribute a precious artifact like that to a sect or organization.
Then the fighting started, and I made some more chaos by instigating some people and indiscriminately blowing up a couple more. Then people started fleeing, as they must have feared the attention of high-level beasts coming to see what’s up once again. The stupid snake is a perfect example.
In conclusion, this area will be safe for a week at most. Then, more scavengers and adventurers will come looking. I need to get out of here and get to work on my plans. I won’t find my people by doing nothing. I need to adapt my cultivation base to the sheer amount of ambient power in the air, and I need to acquire a shitload of powerful building materials.
And I need to calm Lola down, as the little cutie wasn’t prepared to meet with one of the region’s apex predators, it seems. She might be adapting to this new environment surprisingly well, but her life has been relatively peaceful up to this point. I think that’s about to change, as the forest I’m once again entering is sure to hold a couple of beasties.
Also, I need to get my sword back. I honestly couldn’t care less for the thing, but it’s of decent make, it’s connected to Lola, and it holds a soul fragment I don’t want roaming free. That stupid clone knows too much about me and my stuff, and I really don’t want to leave a dangerous connection to much higher realms lying around like that.
That’s why I need to figure out where I am, find the nearest civilization, and go and bother the Dark Moon sect to get the sword back.
I breathe in the air as I run, breathing out as much of the ancient and solidified random intent qi as I can while trying to retain all the air affinity power.
Rushing between the trees, I slow my pace and spread my senses. Lola is still frozen, her little nails digging into my shoulder with a death grip. I idly pat her between the ears as I weave through the forest.
It surprises me how little effort it takes me to slip back into my previous way of doing things. I've spent hundreds of years doing just this, sneaking around while looking out for knowledge and information to acquire. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that a couple of years lounging around on the magical world isn’t going to erase that deeply ingrained way of life.
On the one hand, I know what to do, I know how to do it, and I know I’m good at it. On the other hand, the silence and loneliness will start to grate on me now that I know a different way of life. I suppress a sigh and look at Lola again. She’s not that great of a conversationalist, but she has been with me for a while now.
Before I know it, I’m fully immersed in slipping through the world, trying to leave zero traces as I glide through reality. My braincore is the only thing that stays unchanged as I employ a well-practiced camouflage technique — lacking any form of bodily cultivation allowed me to copy the world’s qi patterns inside myself. Cultivators sense with their qi and removing the edge between my body and the ambient qi is a great way to avoid notice. Even the most novice of cultivators instinctively battle against spiritual sense qi that wants to enter their body. Allowing these feelers free rein will allow me to pass for a mortal easily.
I sink into a faint meditative trance as I let the outside power flow through me, all too grateful for the fact that it won’t stick in my flesh and bones like this.
Lola unfreezes a couple of hours later, only to curl up into a ball as she tries to bury herself into my shoulder. I snap out of my flow of camouflage and try to see why.
The forest around me is dark and foreboding, not a single speck of sunlight making it through the dense canopy. I slowly raise my awareness and immediately regret it. I feel for my arm, and the fact that the bone is partially healed is a great relief. Getting away from this pack of slavering wolf spiders is going to be hard enough without having a useless left arm.Previous Chapter Next Chapter