“Come on! These beasties are barely at the solid core level. You can eat these for breakfast!”
Lola refuses to even look at the beasts chasing after us. I try to pull her free from my neck again, but she has a nice grip on my clothes. Also, she has a nail wrapped around my jugular, so ripping her free could do some damage that would be annoying to fix.
“We defeated bigger monsters than these, you know. Yeah, they were rather sub-optimal random mana mutations, and these predators are probably a combination of all animals that eat rabbits like you for breakfast, but you can only grow through struggle!”
She is not even listening at this point; her ears wrapped around herself. It looks like I’ve got a ball of white fluff on my shoulder. She is tucked in so tightly, that I can’t even see a single red or blue hair. How did she even manage to hide her forehead like that?
My musing is cut short the moment I see the web in front of me. The shaggy-haired six-legged freaky wolf variants were acting rather strange, and now I see that they were herding me towards this place. Pretty good, but they should have made their real trap a little less obvious.
The trees are clustering more and more tightly the deeper into the forest I go. On one side, a cliff is blocking my path. On the other side are a lot of wolf spiders. In front is a highly complex and pristine weave that will surely trap me.
I put a finger on Lola’s forehead and rub a small trickle of qi into her body. Her tense body melts under my sudden and unexpected ministration, causing the high strung white ball to flop loosely into goo. I snatch the spoiled little shit from her perch and fling her forwards at speed.
The look in her eyes is one of such betrayal, one of such grief and disappointment. I nearly fall for her acting. I just grin at the little princess. “FIRE!”
Halfway to the web, I see her expression go from pleading to irritated, and a red horn flickers into existence on her forehead. She briefly turns into a red comet, burning through the highly complex web with ease. I jump through the hole she created, avoiding the massive camouflaged pitfall just in front of the useless web.
Gao Nuofu can see it already. Like a carp being tossed through the dragon gate, he will rise in the sect. He will become the envy of all the young heroes, and ethereal beauties will fight over the right to be his maid.
He has accomplished two large feats for the sect, and surely he will be rewarded greatly. He got rid of a rivaling patriarch candidate and secured a priceless treasure in one fell swoop.
A tinkling sound shakes him from his daydreams. Looking around, he halts running long enough to look back at the source of the sound. To his great surprise, he sees a blue finger laying on the ground, frozen fog wafting from the small object. Approaching the digit, he wonders why his own hand suddenly hurts, and why that ring on the finger is so familiar.
The realization hits, and he screams.
I snatch the smoking bunny from the mossy ground and leg it. The wolf spiders all scatter to a halt, looking very confused. I run backward for a few seconds, yelling at the pack. “Don’t make the decoy so pretty and pristine next time!”
Turning forward again, I feel Lola biting my shoulder. I slap at the bunny, as it actually hurts this time, and concentrate on resuming my invisible walking technique.
I’ve been doing this for a couple of days now, and exhaustion is starting to set in. The forest is larger than I expected, but at least I know where I am and where I’m going. I’ll need to find a cave soon, as I’ve got to start fixing my cultivation base and give my body some time to rest up and repair.
Lola seems to be doing much better, and the test earlier is proof that she is adapting just fine. Her cultivation base is complex for a heartcore, but still massively simpler than my own weird and impossible system of having an entire pocket dimension as a braincore.
There is fire and ice qi in the air. She just needs to breathe it in. Air qi is also widely available, but its very nature is ill-suited for my heartcore. I need to start fixing some of this stuff before entering any town.
I’m not sure yet if I want to roam around like a peasant, a mortal noble, or a cultivator yet. That will depend on what I need to do, but each role requires some preparation if I don’t want to stand out and attract attention. I should reach a frontier outpost village in a couple of weeks of running at my current pace, and will have to get my shit together by then.
The mountains around the battlefield where I popped into this world seemed strange and familiar to me because I’d seen them before. There used to be a lot more mountains there, and the biggest one is the very one I ascended on. The sect patriarchs and coalition leaders must not have appreciated the fact that I slipped their grasp. And if they had started fighting amongst themselves, the large number of missing mountains and the new wasteland are easily explained.
And mere rumors of sect elders dying will attract people from leagues around. Stories of multiple patriarch fighting to the death would pull in half the Jianghu to come to have a look. Everyone not in the Jianghu - mortal peasants, farmers, kings, nobles, traders and such - would probably come too, if they learned of the news.
I hurry my pace, not totally sure that this mountain will be crawling with people shortly, if they aren’t already. Luckily for me, most of these groups know better than to enter dark forests. The ones that don’t know this never live long, as they tend to get eaten by the creepy crawlies in these dark forests.
“So, how are you holding out?” I whisper to the bunny on my shoulder. She gives a peeved huff, acting like a proper little hussy. “You’re not having fun? Meeting with all these apex predators is exciting!”
I flick her forehead as she starts gnawing on my collar bone again. “We can relax a bit. Just be on the lookout for a spot to relax, okay? Covering you in the camouflage field is taking a bit of mental effort. We don’t want to end up in the middle of another pack of wolf spiders again.”
She flicks her ears back and forth as if internally debating whether or not to continue chewing on me. She then settles down into a small ball, if not as high strung as before.
After a couple of hours of walking through the dark forest, I find what I’ve been looking for. There is a clearing in the dark forest, an even darker circle of flat moss around a towering tree. I get some bad vibes from the place, but employing my camouflage technique to the max should let me slip under all energetic detection methods.
In the clearing, a thick stem is barely visible from between the many long vines hanging down, the drooping bows of the willow hanging still as the grave. Many a skeleton is draped beneath the softly swaying hanging branches, small red spikes more than telling of the tree’s nature. I suddenly start to think that this might be a bad idea. One side of my mind is telling me that it’s a great place just to relax. The other side keeps pointing out the skeletons.
In my head, I feel a golden glow trying to escape. I let it through, and the smallest tendril of power snakes its way from my forehead to the closest branch. A red glow shoots out at the thread of power, wrapping it up in a tight coil. The two energies then seem to communicate something before departing.
Tree retracts its power, settling back into my core again. The green bows of the willow part for me, showing me a clear path deeper into the red-tinted forest of deadly branches.
“What?” I just say. A single red pendulous branch swings my way, and I hesitantly touch it with a finger. I’m usually pretty friendly with animals, as I have no desire to eat sapient meat and have even less use for their precious bodily parts. Trees are fine by me, but their frame of reference is usually too alien for me to get any form of connection with them.
I touch the branch with a smidgen of qi and try to convey some meaning through the tenuous connection. Before I can get a single thought in, a sliver of meaning comes my way. The image of silent stillness, a serene field of grass, a peaceful place to lay your weary head. Then the drooping limb retracts, and the stream of consciousness that’s barely even understandable fades.
The tunnel of red and green branches shakes a bit as if motioning at me to hurry up. I don’t keep the weeping willow waiting, and walk beneath its tall bows. The curtain of red closes behind me. Lola is absolutely silent again, not moving a muscle and not twitching a whisker. She must feel that this tree is bad news, probably better than I can. I nearly went looking for another place to rest, but Tree seems to have things well in hand.
It’s actually pretty fortunate, all things considered. The best place to rest is a place that nobody ever comes, and carnivorous plants are great hiding spots. You just have to do some research and find out what kind of trap and attack mechanism the plant employs. I was planning on staying in stealth mode the entire time I worked on my cultivation base here, but now there seems to be no need.
Then a lightning-fast branch whips around my chest, and I nearly freak out. Instead of the bloodsucking spikes I’m expecting, I only feel a gentle but insistent tugging. Like a child taken by the hand and guided somewhere, the willow pulls me towards one of the many skeletons there. The branch wrapping around me gives a last impatient shake and uncoils.
“Now it wants us to clean up. I’m not a garbage man, you know.” I tear my eyes away from the bony beast. If something like this tree can’t digest it, it’s sure to be a powerful being, and my suspicion is confirmed to moment I grab its skull. The power still residing in these bones is substantial, and these bones look ancient. I can’t even measure the power radiating from the skeleton, which is a sure sign that it belongs to an animal a realm above me.
Which means that this stupid-ass tree wants me to clean up after it, and it wants me to get rid of Heaven Realm skeletons. I look up and see a scene from a Cthulhu-ethos horror movie. Instead of more branches, there’s a collection of teeth, tongues, and fleshy appendages that I don’t want to know the purpose of.
This is a fucking Weeping Blood Willow, and I am just chilling beneath its bows. The small sliver of dread I had been feeling at this tree and place blooms in a larger thread of terror. This plant itself is a top-level Heaven Realm predator, and its presence here explains a lot. There’s a bunch of myths about these things, each one worse than the other, and they are supposed to be super rare.
I take a deep calming breath and unlock my joints. My entire body had frozen up in realization, which made me do an admirable Lola imitation. She is still a cute and unmoving statue, her claws firmly holding on to me.
I grab one of the loose teeth from beneath the large skull and put it in my ring. The amount of qi it takes leaves me reeling. Not only do I have to fight the super dense smog of qi when putting something inside, but now I have to fight with the qi inside the bones.
I look around and see dozens of skeletons lying here. And it wants me to get rid of it all? I look up again, the many teeth slowly undulating in a rather eldritch fashion.
I shut up and get to it.
Lola unfreezes two hours later. Something seems to have happened in that tiny head of hers, as she suddenly jumps off my shoulder and starts hopping around. The drooping branches avoid her entirely, actively moving out of the path of the happily hopping rabbit.
She sniffs around a bit, before taking a particular interest in a small skeleton of a herbivore. She nuzzles up to a thighbone and breathes in. Small threads of blue waft from the bone and enter her nose.
I just stare at her while putting bones in my ring as fast as I can. The connection to Tree seems to be growing, and I’ve managed to set up a two-way street with some effort. There is a constant stream of power coming into my braincore that is perfectly mine. It has my fingerprints all over it, even though it smells of Tree. The golden glow is washed clean without effort, and it’s thanks to this stream of qi that I’ve managed to make any progress whatsoever.
In return, I’ve managed to get a counter-stream going. At first, I pumped as much of the thick ambient qi into Tree as possible. Then I noticed that Tree was slowly getting poisoned and that even though qi levels rose inside Tree, it was turning wild and chaotic.
Tree manages to put its golden fingerprints on all the power taken from the Tree Portals without much effort, managing to do so in a continuous stream. The power I gave it from the cultivation world is a different story, however. This energy is so ancient, thick, and filled with stagnant history that Tree can’t even begin to turn it into something usable before it has to eject it.
I immediately limit the stream of ancient qi to a mere trickle, the maximum that Tree can handle. I’m still thinking up new ways to handle this problem, but Lola just casually taking the internal power of a Heaven Realm beast for itself is distracting me.
Lola goes from bone to bone, taking a small strand of power from each osseous object. The blue lock on her forehead slowly grows, and by the time she is done with the entire thing, there are only a couple red hairs left.Previous Chapter Next Chapter