Chapter 261 - Landing in Rubble (6)

The unknown I just stepped into, leaving the creepy-as-shit blood tree behind me, turns out to be a whole lot of mountain range. I knew this, of course, as that was the very reason I chose this place at my ascension spot. But back then, traversing these mountains while flying was as easy as walking across grasslands. Now that I have to do actual walking, things are a little more complicated.

I had decided on this place because of two reasons. One, it’s literally nowhere. There are no great sects nearby, there are no remarkable landmarks here, and little to no precious resources sourced from this region. The second reason is that the beasts and other factions are wholly uninterested in this region. There might be some animals living here and there, but the big and important ones are nowhere near this place.

Well, that’s what I thought at first until I learned that there are Quetzalcoatl and a fucking Weeping Blood Willow around these parts.

Maybe the reason why all my sources thought that there was nothing of import here is that everyone that could have reported these facts is dead?

I continue walking after working through that latest epiphany. I remember Tess saying something about dumb-ass braincores, and I guess that’s very true. Tunnel vision is a side effect of having a one-track mind. My heartcore is great for battle instincts, but I seem to be lacking the innate leaps of logic and intuitive conclusions that Bord seems to pull out of his ass every time he opens his mouth for something other than eating.

I really wish I had his affinity for whatever the hell that dark power is. Local gravity manipulation? Velocity changing? Manipulation of time through the stubborn-headed bullying of space? Who knows, but I know that I’d love me some of them floating powers right about now. I can influence the air, sure, but even making myself slightly lighter uses up my scarce pool of Will at a rapid pace. Using that resource when I could relax a day after, in the safety of Tree’s shade, was very reasonable. Now, I don’t want to risk it, as being low of that resource without ready access to a safe resting space is putting me in a bind.

The number of close calls I’ve had over the past week is almost beyond count. If the growth and general wellbeing of my hair weren’t under my firm control, I’m sure I would have gone gray ten times over.

First, there are the animals. I happen to have a decent relations with those feather snakes. Pulling out the feather it gifted me is a great repellant for the small fry, sure. It does nothing against beast at a similar power level, though. Those, I just have to sense in time and hope that they lack the ability to pierce through my pattern matching camouflage veil.

Lola has been most helpful in this entire debacle, more so than I ever could have imagined. She’s more powerful than me at the moment. Every time I know I can’t get out of it without wasting large amounts of items, resources, or Will, I just toss Lola at the threat. A flash of fire or frost later, I can snatch the damping and smoking bunny and leg it.

But since I realized that she is basically a danger-sensing hot-or-cold measurement instrument, my travels have been going a lot smoother. Each time I feel her little nails digging into my shoulders or scalp - depends on where she’s sitting - I know I’m getting closer to danger. A little bit of triangulation through walking around later, and I have a pretty accurate idea of where this threat the scares her is located.

Walking around the danger hotspot is easy as cake, and a small detour later, we are on our merry way again.

This slow going has forced me to appreciate the rugged and raw nature of the Cultivation World, though. The Magical World was fine and all, but because it is a mundane world, it’s physical features are extremely limited when compared to the impossible splendor of this place.

Just the view I’m staring at now would make the best postcard ever. I was following a river towards the east for the past day when I reached a dropoff. Something must have happened a long time ago, as there is still a faint hint of tyrannical qi intent in the air. I can vaguely see that a massive area of this mountain range is sunken in as if a descended deity struck a land-sinking hammer blow.

I spent the last few hours descending the jagged rockface, that borders the massive valley. Now I’m looking at the same small river as it plummets down into the valley, and the view from one of the higher treetops is majestic indeed. I take a mental picture and store it in a special place in my mind.

Taking one last look around, I head off. The cliffs are kilometers high, and mountains tower above the steep walls that put Mount Everest to shame. This world is truly unreal. Just a shame that its people are just as insane.

The trek through the sunken valley goes as smoothly as can be expected for such things. Lola, for some reason, didn’t bother freezing up when I came near a nest of smoldering hornets, so I thought that they weren’t a threat. I realize too late that with her fire affinity, she doesn’t mind being stung by their literally glowing stingers. I, on the other hand, am covered in welts that produce tiny streams of smoke, spreading the smell of cooked pork throughout the jungle.

This, in turn, attracts some of the other exotic critters, none of whom I really enjoy meeting. I have my camouflage running constantly, and am forced to stop draining wind aspect bones out of fear that the small fluctuations in my heart will break the illusion.

I think of going back and scaling the rockface a few times. A quick climb into the highest tree I can find shows me that that’s a bad idea. The waterfall is the only place that’s not absolutely covered in some form of nesting bird, each type or species fiercer and stronger than the previous. The waterfall must be a drinking spot for the big boys, preventing the swarm-tactic type of birds from settling there.

I do spot the exit I am aiming for, though. On the opposite side of the waterfall is a narrow crevasse leading out of this damp hellish bowl of the jungle. I shake my head a bit at the effort this is all taking. I recall heading over here with a massive amount of precious metals in my ring, preparing for my ascension, flying high above it all.

Okay, not high. More like skimming the trees. Flying high is similar to begging one of the Sky-Lord’s to guzzle you up. Imagine a vicious seagull, with a wingspan of a hundred meters, and then make it much meaner. Those are the true airborne apex predators of this region. I didn’t enjoy meeting them when I was at the peak of my power, and I really won’t enjoy meeting them now.

I drop down to the ground, and continue walking, letting the energies between the heaven and the earth pass through me as I blend In with the environment.

For an hour or so, there are no big baddies on my path. I’ve got the majority of my brain space locked up in detection processes. These process everything from the wind flows on my skin to what I see. From the smells in the forest to the vibration I feel through my feet. Together with Lola’s uncanny heartcore instincts, I managed to cross these otherwise super-dangerous lands with relative ease.

This gives me some time to let stuff percolate through my mind, and to my surprise, I come to the conclusion that I really don’t want to be here. Not just the forest, not just my location this close to that massive battlefield, no.

I just really don’t want to be in the Cultivation World. I hate the fact that each strand of power in the air is so ancient, a human won’t be able to make it completely their own in ten lifetimes. I hate the fact that I can’t afford to risk talking to anyone I know here, besides the wild beasts and plants. I hate the fact that I enjoy being here in all the wrong ways. I hate…

Lola bites my lip, hard. I stifle a yelp of pain before it can attract any predators, and feel for my mouth. My lips start swelling slightly, but luckily she didn’t break the skin. I look at the mutely staring bunny and whisper as low as I can. “The fuck you want, you spoiled little shit?”

Instead of answering in any form I expect, she just licks a tear from my cheek. A frown creases my brows, and I take a deep, shuddering breath. “This is just my grow zone, right? It's not the comfort zone that’s important. It’s the part of life outside of comfort that’s worth living.”

I decide to stop thinking for a bit and focus my entire attention on moving through the overgrown jungle with stealth and speed. I slip over fallen rotting trees a dozen meters high, land on moss that’s older than many sect patriarchs, and kick off mushrooms that leave clouds of parasitic spores in my wake. All the while, I copy the outside world inside my flesh, eroding the edge between me and my direct environment in order to blend in.

I try to do the same thing for my thoughts, getting into the mindset of a plant living in the jungle. This fails the moment I realize that I honestly don’t want to move anymore and that I’d much rather stay rooted in one place for a bit.

That experiment a failure, I continue moving and decide to limit my camouflage to physical nature. With that, I lose track of time as I flow through the jungle, much like I’ve been doing for days now. My goal is the Long Reach outpost, one of the most south-western trade outposts before the true untamed and savage wilds begin.

I do decide to pull out a wind affinity bone after a while, breathing its essence in along with deep breaths. I keep the item inside my tattered sleeve, right in front of my face. Then Lola freezes, slams her claws into my shoulders, and poofs up her fur.

Coming to, I realize that there are a lot of people staring at me. Looking up, I see a massive wall of jagged rock, kilometers high, a thin crack running through it to the top. On both sides of this crack are buildings hewn into the cliff, doorways, balconies, and displays telling me where I am.

“What is your business in Long Reach…” My eyes snap to the robed man that just addressed me. He speaks the tongue of the Jianghu and has his hand on his sword. I spot servants clad in fine livery, rough men and women in functional armor strapped over well-worn robes and even a few animals. “State your business, peasant.”

I blink a couple of times at the fellow. Did he call me a peasant? I’m sure that my robes are of decent make, and should at least put me in the ‘fellow Daoist’ category of greeting.

Then I remember that I’ve been having a rather rough time of it all, that my sword is stolen, and that I don’t have a single mark of identification or allegiance anywhere. I take a look at the jungle behind me, glance at the general crowd, and conclude that they are coming to the wrong conclusion.

That forest is lethal for anyone below the core-forming stage, and merely highly dangerous for anyone in the Earth Realm. I do spot a few people here that have barely begun to step on the path of cultivation. They all seem rather desperate to some extent.

“Right, my apologies, most elevated immortal,” I say while bowing. “I was out… I got lost, and this critter here didn’t leave me alone, sir.”

The guard puffs up a bit a being called immortal, looks at Lola once, and loses interest. I feel a pathetic trickle of qi trying to inspect me, so I carefully let it have access to my body. The guard is visibly straining as he tries to prod my cultivation base. He immediately goes for the spot behind my navel, and when he finds nothing, not even partially digested food, he immediately loses the last bit of interest he had.

He waves me off, and I decide to get the heck out of there. I scurry off to the grimiest looking bunch of people, imitating their hunched posture, and defeated expressions. All the mental capability that I was assigning to camouflage myself in the jungle is free now, and I switch it to information gathering.

Instead of doing anything fancy with runes and threads of qi, I use my ears. The large process splits off into as many separate conversations as I can hear. Data starts flooding in as I stumble around a bit. Luckily for me, this outpost isn’t old or isolated enough to have started developing a separate dialect or even language. Transcribing all the data is easy as can be, and I quickly learn some good stuff.

Deciding that I might as well start going inside the outpost itself, I make my way inside the narrow canyon. Obviously manmade, the smooth walls are slick with condensation and perfectly straight. I’m guessing that the hammer Deity that made the hollow fought someone with a sword.

Then Database chimes in with a message. It seems that along with the constant stream of qi I’ve been sending to Tree, the data gathering process has sent all my transcripts. Just sending the audio would have worked, but Database lacks the information about the local language. It would have needed to decode the entire thing from scratch, which would have taken a long time.

The message is sent a neat overview of all the incoming data, correlated with each other and put into a nicely understandable form factor. I quickly learn what I want to know, and that is where to get a room that I can relax in. I’ve got no spirits stones and no mortal currency. I do have a lot of resources, a couple of super-powerful bones, and a lot of raw materials.

I’ve never really been to this particular outpost before, but I do know that the main town is through the canyon, in a natural valley. The canyon itself is sparsely lit, occasional glowing stones inside a formation preventing the corridor from being perfectly dark. It’s sufficiently deep and long that any natural light quickly vanishes as I walk across the wide path, ignoring the occasional food hawker or market stall.

The amount of people surprises me a bit. I never really used to spend time in large towns, only traveling through smaller pioneer villagers in moderately dangerous zones. The crowd here is pretty substantial though, more than I would have thought of an outpost.

There are two types of people that I see here. The cultivators all take the high road, literally. There are footsteps hewn out of the vertical walls, and nearly everyone on the martial path uses some kind of foot technique to speed over my head. 

The working mortals are also easily recognized, simple clothes combined with some proof of their trade. Butchers wear thick leather aprons and are covered in varying levels of old and new blood. Farmers carry farming implements, their levels of mud cover aligning with the direction they are walking. There must be extensive farms back the way I came. That or the loss of personnel is high enough that there is massive overstaffing.

That sobering thought makes me pay attention to my direct environment again. I walk past the third group - the local toughs, enforcers, and gang rabble while trying to avoid notice. The light coming from the widening gap at the end is telling that I’m nearing the end of the canyon. The flow of people pulls me along, and I quickly step out into a whole new world.

That’s when I remember that the Human Capital back on the Magical World houses around a hundred thousand people. That’s one of the biggest cities over there, and I remember taking note of the severe lack of population. The sheer amount of houses sprawling out below me holds at least twice that by quick estimate.

Tall buildings many levels high are spread across a valley dozens of kilometers wide, farmlands stretching out even further. I quickly re-evaluate my way of looking at the world when I remember that this is just a small outpost. I take a deep breath and step into the thick mass of mortal people.

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