Chapter 267 - Interplanar shipping (6)

Twenty-three stalls later, I’m sick of haggling. I tuned out the conversations and posturing hours ago at this point. I’ve amused myself by letting my merchant process do the talking and going over all the facts that people have been gathering. I’ve even been joining in with the analysis of random rumor and hearsay that I’m picking up by the boatload. And yet I’m still sick and tired of the theatrics that comes with buying stuff.

I long for the good old days, where you could just walk into a store and buy the things for the price on the label. Now, that all is a little less applicable when it comes to massive purchases, of course. A car or a house can be haggled over. A bag of candy, not so much. But the stuff I’m buying is the equivalent of normal grocery shopping for the average inner court sect disciple.

I take a moment to translate that last mental comment into normal people’s speech. The shopping I’m doing now is like multimillionaires shopping around for new furniture. And with a really nice couch, there can be some back-and-forth.

I decide that in order to prevent myself from going mad, I might as well stop. I've purchased samples of a little over one percent of all the rare materials my students have come up with, and it will have to do. Also, I will have to pull this stuff inside Tree. And also, I’m carrying a massive bag of shit around. Were I disguised as a normal cultivator, that would not be a problem. Stuffing things inside spatial rings in public is seen as bad form, but it’s not that bad. I’m a scholar, though. And there is no way that a scholar walking around by himself - and thus not important or of high standing - has access to a spatial item.

Opening the map of Outpost Long Reach that is slowly being patched together from my vision and hearing, I guide my steps to an abandoned alley. Once there, I first make sure that there are no eyes on me before wasting over half of the qi I’ve managed to gather in on pulling the stuff inside Database. Panting from the rather massive spiritual effort, I start walking towards the city’s north gates.

A couple of hours of strolling later, I find out that the city north gates aren’t shit. The bustling inner city has slowly made way for a while in different environments as I walked. The tall buildings, ornate gardens, and spaciously designed plazas have given way for patches of farmland, dwellings of noticeable lesser make, and fields of dirt in which children play. The massive mountains protecting this rather fertile and peacefull valley loom high and tall. They can be seen as either stern protectors or impenetrable prison walls, and I’m not sure which.

I might like the view of this new environment better, but that doesn’t mean that I have to be understanding about why the city wall is a wooden picket fence. There is a clear dividing line between the last of the houses and the stretches of farmland that stretch into the horizon. I just wonder why it’s made out of a few wooden poles woven into a dividing fence with twigs.

Hearing a rather loud cart coming from behind me, I step aside just in time for a familiar old man to hurdle past. The bodyguard and woman I scared are holding on fast, sending glares my way as they see me. The old man manages to give me a reverent bow while giving the large bull pulling the whip. I just stare at the weird fellow, not sure what to think. I’m not sure what I see in his eyes, but that’s probably because he’s using another of those freaky eye-techniques.

Taking inventory of my current situation, I start walking to the main gathering point of travelers. I see a couple of civilians in neat and worn clothing talking to a large man standing next to a large horse-drawn cart. I recognize the horse as a rather sturdy tame beast that will naturally reach the solid core realm in its lifetime. Recognising a wealthy trader when I see one, I walk over with the intent of getting some information.

The way the father of the family - young wife, a kid, and a baby - is talking to the trader reminds me that another bout of pomp and show will be needed to get anywhere. I just load up my trading process, tell it to get some information about the road, and maybe even pay for some news.

While it uses my face to speak and hand to elegantly gesture, I ponder the things that I should do start doing. With the way that my body seems to be adapting to the massively increased qi densities around me, I suspect that I will have to find a windy place to make some true gains. The ease with which I gain control over all kinds of wind-intent qi actually put my worries about my lost students at ease for a bit. It makes me a bit more worried about Rhea, but knowing where she is, that’s more a long term worry. Instead of pondering whether or not she’s currently safe, I just hope that the bit of wind affinity I got from her isn’t hampering her.

Instead of worrying about that dragon, who is half a continent away anyway, I should worry about people less able to take care of themselves. There is just one way to figure out whether or not their affinities basically help them cheat at resisting the qi pressure, and I won’t find out by standing around here all day.

That idiotic fragment of a high-level soul still stuck in my blade is also still out there. And although that oversized kitchen knife is all kinds of gaudy and horrible, I still want it back. I really want to think that it’s a coincidence that Ket most likely ended up at the same sect as my sword thief is from, but those things are usually not really coincidences.

I am shaken from my musings by the fat merchant happily shaking my hand, something that’s only done upon striking a deal. Startled, I go through my merchant haggling process and noticed to my horror that I agreed to escort the caravan to the first trading post. In return, I am allowed to eat the caravan’s food, and the caravan leader will answer all of my questions. I even let slip that I’m a cultivator myself, just to earn the favor of sitting in one of the carts.

I keep my face straight while trying very hard not to facepalm. With dawning horror, I realize that my haggling process did exactly as I told it to. I set a goal, gave it some information, and let it rip. I really don’t want to be escorting a slow-ass mortal caravan right about now. The next trading stop is at the end of this valley, in the pass heading into contested territory, and is usually extremely safe. Having an actual cultivator in the caravan is invaluable, however, and my haggling process didn’t work with that information.

Instead, it tried to remain correct in my dealings with the now madly grinning merchant. The merchant who apparently has no qualms about scamming an actual cultivation scholar. Either the man is insane, or he has a connection to someone higher up. I might be posturing as a low-level scholar cultivator, but he doesn't know which forces I'm backed by. And yet he greedily took advantage of my apparently lacking negotiating skills.

Let’s just hope that the dude is clinically crazy because that would be less of a pain than some powerful person being sweet on the merchant. I just send a faint smile at the family who are huddled around the fire and wait for this show to get moving. I did agree to escort them, after all - no need to make my path harder for me by breaking my own promises.

Instead of complaining about my own lack of prep and oversight, I begin modifying my process the moment I sit my ass down off to the side, back against a tree. The single wagon standing here so far is actually of a very decent make. From the way ambient qi seems to be guided around the entire thing, there are some pretty hefty mystical enchantments placed upon the vehicle. I make myself comfortable while Tree actually tries to initiate a conversation with my backrest. Unlike the Bloody Willow, this one turns out to be a normal tree. I smirk at the mental image of Tree, its golden trunk surrounded by a group of willowy birches, living the tree-harem life.

Shaking away that ridiculous image, I continue fine-tuning my negotiation process for more types of transactions. I had simply forgotten to change the input setting to a more suitable weighing system. This is which is why I exchanged something as valuable as a cultivator escort service for something easy to squire as a place to sleep, food, and trading information.

I wince as I realize the wording of the information clause. The bastard of a merchant promised me that I could ask questions of the caravan leader. Knowing that slimy bastard’s type, I’m sure that the caravan leader will not be himself. He’ll probably assign some musclehead fighter-type as the leader while encouraging me to ask all the questions I want of the fellow.

What I feared comes true a while later, and by mid-day, the fat merchant walks over, a large hammer-wielding man in tow. He begins talking in obsequious tones about how the qi-condensing heartcore cultivator is actually a veteran of this path, loading up several paragraphs of empty praises upon the hired hand. I handle this situation by keeping my eyes closed while continuing my meditation.

I do thread a minuscule wire of liquid Will into the large fellow, just to make sure he isn’t secretly some mightly expert. I already feel the faint aura of a second stage Human Realm heartcore from him, and scanning his actual heart confirms that suspicion. The qi actually coursing through his veins is filthy and barely does anything for him, however. All the qi the fellow makes his own is all used in repairing the damage that his own cultivation base causes him. He must have eaten some pills or drank some kind of concoction to get at that level of power. I just keep ignoring the fellow.

The large body cultivator seems very accustomed to being used as a pawn and just stands there while I ignore him.

Over the course of an hour or so, more carts show up and get in line. All in all, a nice little convoy is gathering. I do find it pretty odd that this group is only gathering now, but my constant spying proces pick up the reason pretty soon. One particular part of the road will cross through a small patch of supernatural desert, and crossing that part when the sun is out is apparently extremely dangerous. I hear some talk of insects, so there's probably some hard to root out nest of sun-wielding beasties there.

At what I estimate to be three in the afternoon, everyone starts packing up, and the caravan starts forming into single file. Half a dozen carts, all of them drawn by either one passively cultivating beast, or a couple of mundane ones, form a nice and tidy line. People have been coming and going all day, but the road seems extremely little-traveled for being such a large one.

The moment I think this, Database presents me with another extremely well-documented little fact. This road heads towards the north, only to bend towards the east after cutting through a couple of smaller villages and farming communities. It joins up with one of the main trading roads after going east. Getting to that main trading route is quickest done by going out of the east city gate.

I just sigh about the fact that going north is done quickest by going east. I stare at the massive mountain range to the east, not able to blame myself for thinking that going north would get me north the quickest.

Feeling like sighing as I stand up, I think about the pros and cons of having an entire dimension filled with know-it-all braincores looking over my shoulder constantly. The positive is that all the information that I’m gathering is being put into a useful data format. I no longer have to trawl through all of the depressing facts that surround the useful tidbits of information. One negative that I don’t really care about at the moment is that I have a massive amount of people scrutinizing my every move. I do that to everyone around me, so I can’t even get mad about that. Even now, a large portion of Database is dedicated to acting like a magical, super-powered big brother.

One positive thing is that I don’t need to spend a lot of time in my time dilated combat mode. Instead of constantly needing to spend weeks, even years thinking stuff through in meticulous detail, I can simply access the processed data that all my students in Tree are compiling.

One such bit of information tells me that there’s a lot of fishy stuff going on. This entire scenario has been marked as highly unusual for various reasons by a lot of people. That, and I keep feeling a prickling in the back of my neck. I didn’t really notice it before, but just sitting down and meditating for a while allowed me to calm down enough to get a bead on the kernel of disquiet I’ve been feeling. Someone is following me, and they seem to be pretty powerful.

I give Lola a little scratch under her chin while jumping on top of the main merchant’s wagon. The heartcore caravan leader looks up at my position, shrugs, and positions himself next to the cart. I feel like calling out the fat merchant’s bullshit for a bit but quickly forget about it. That man can probably spin a tale to make cold-hearted soldiers weep. He would just convince me that the large body cultivator is such an amazing caravan leader, or some nonsense like that.

I do get a few funny looks from the kid that was sitting near my meditation spot, but their parents quickly scale them off to one of the wagons that have free seating. The sun is starting to sink lower on the horizon by the time this entire shindig starts rolling. Sunset is a couple of hours away, the tall mountains surrounding the valley no doubt shortening the days here by hours.

Lola pushes her soft head against my chin a little while later. For some reason, I had completely forgotten about the rabbit. She has been oddly quiet ever since I picked up the father and son duo. She has finally learned the relatively simple trick of hiding herself from nearly all eyes. She no longer needs the pirate hat I gave her ages ago, as she seems to have picked up that trick herself amazingly. Even to such an extent that I keep forgetting she is there. I no longer use her as a danger sensing machine, as she has been gripping my shoulders in a medium grip this entire time. I think I know what she is alluding to, but only time will tell. I just sink back into working on my haggling process while the caravan rolls onwards.

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