Chapter 268 - Encounters (1)

Night has fallen, we are traveling through the hot and dry desert, and I’m studying the suspension of the cart I’m sitting on when everything goes to hell. Lola’s grip on my shoulder has been tightening the entire time the caravan is heading north, so I have been on edge. It’s just that the cart is put together in a rather neat way. It has no central formation core, just a lot of self-sustaining little tricks that run off qi and make the entire thing worth more than its parts. The way it manages to pump qi into its functioning circuits eludes me, however.

Anyway, that’s my excuse for being caught off-guard. The caravan entered the desert just after the mountains blocked the sun, and we are currently between a couple of jagged rock formations. I did not expect the rows of sharp protuberances on either side of the road to suddenly burst into flames and pepper the entire caravan in burning projectiles. Lola’s nails piercing through my clothes alerts me, and I manage to roll backwards just in time for the top of the cart to explode into splinters. I honestly expected some cliche bandit to come from between the rocks, telling everyone to give up their valuables. This isn’t a fantasy world, however. Cultivators just do things differently, I guess.

I send most of the qi I regenerated into my brain, and I manage to make the world slow down by a factor of ten. The first thing that I sense apart from the many flaming projectiles in the air is the hooded forms rushing in from the sides. Instead of landing on my feet, I make another roll just before hitting the ground in front of the cart behind me. The rearing animal pulling the thing allows me to slip between its legs.

I don’t really care for the merchants and mercenaries. They signed up for this. But the cart behind me contains the civilians, and those are precious potential kidna- innocent civilians. I grab two handfuls of stones and dust while rising into a crouch, stepping to the right side of the cart in order to let it rumble past me. I throw half of the dust in one hand into the face of the closest rushing figure. In a slow-motion display of pre-calculated finger dexterity, I flick a few of the smaller stones in the dust towards a series of large incoming projectiles. A quick study shows me that they are brightly burning splinters, and a farfetched theory plants a cold suspicion in my guts.

The pebbles hit the speedy projectiles just as I start jumping, the hooded man rushing me stumbling and grasping for his dust-covered face. Instead of being pelted by explosive attacks, I am showered by heavy rain of sparks that singe my clothes. A quick look up and down the caravan show me that the entire row is being attacked in a coordinated effort. The fat merchant has his hands up in the air, his face still set in a wide smile, and the suspicion that I got just now increases in likelihood. Then I feel a heavy impact against my shoulder and see a white flash speeding towards another hooded figure. Lola impacts the shape with a blue flash at the same moment I land on top of the second wagon before she bounces off towards another dark shape.

I make a quick spin while flicking the rest of the pebbles towards some of the bigger explosive attacks that are still raining down around us. The ambush has been going on for a while, four seconds at this time, and it seems that half of the guards are dead or dying, while the rest are getting overwhelmed quickly. This is no mere bandit gang. The resources going into such a destructive trap cost more than this caravan holds. That’s even while ignoring the fact that such an explosive ambush would destroy most of the valuables anyway.

Suddenly missing my bunny sword something fierce, I prepare to meet the hooded figures rushing me. I throw the remaining sand in one hand into one’s face, while distributing the contents of my other hand into the faces of three others. One rushing figure deflects a portion with a burning sword, the wielder coming in flying from my left.

The deflection is done with a garish flourish, more aimed to showcase the sword's burning properties than anything else. I see it as a sign that he just volunteered his sword, I bind my soles to the cart for a split-second using a bit of my qi and rush the guy. I bring my right elbow down on the tip of his sword as he aims to eviscerate me; his stance breaks the moment I use the unorthodox move. I fling my left hand forwards and poke him in the throat with the tips of my fingers, breaking the rest of his stance and momentum.

Not bothering with the gasping guy, I snatch his burning blade from his loose grip and turn around. I barely manage to get my new weapon in between me and my newest foe. This one wields some kind of burning gloves, so I put the sword in between me and his punches and hold fast. He recoils backward while I scan for new threats, both his hands nearly cut in half. I spot the caravan leader in his valiant struggle, none of the assailants even daring to go near the guy. Instead of closing in with the heartcore, they are raining down a sea of flaming attacks. He actually does an admirable job of defending himself, but his blistering skin and slowly flagging movements show me that he won’t hold out for long.

Sensing someone closing from behind, I duck just in time for a glowing spear to pierce the place my heart occupied a split second before. I grasp the smoldering haft, ignoring my sizzling skin for the moment, and pull it forwards. The wielder mustn’t have expected this, as they let go easily. I correct its course and send it flying towards one of the people standing on the rocks, shooting flaming arrows.

At least all the flame attacks allow me to see very well; I muse while kicking the disarmed spear wielder in the throat. Her throat, I amend while catching a glimpse of a bound chest. Database is spamming me with the spiritual equivalent of notifications at this point, and I ask it to show me a reduced summary. Almost feeling the response of the many, many braincores in Tree that are cooperating, it quickly shows me a simple overview.

I send a mental thanks to the people behind the scenes and step backwards. The choking and gasping woman has a large amount of throwing knives on her belt, her rank or financial backing probably too lacking to afford her a spatial item to store them in. I start snatching the small weapons. I quickly apply some of my qi into the designated formations while suppressing a shiver at their terrible quality. Instead of doing something smart, they just transform the power added to them into heat.

My fingers start sizzling as I start tossing red-hot knives everywhere. After the fifth, I manage to load a packet of qi into the thing with a delayed activation. This allows me to toss them while they are only warm, and they start glowing right after they lose contact with my hand.

There are only a dozen or so knives in the squirming cultivator’s belt, about half of the number of attackers. A dozen knives find their targets in short order, most of them aimed at the attackers on the left side of the caravan, and especially those raining death down from above. That done, I stand up and start sprinting to the right. Most attackers came in from the left, but with nearly all of them taken care of, I can now focus on the most powerful ones.

This is also the most likely place their boss might be. I would like to take them out before they start to realize that their ambush is less effective than they might have planned for. Noticing that I’ve still got the sword in my hand, I toss it towards one of the two new people rushing me, catching him right in the chest. The other hooded figure freezes upon seeing this, and before the crying about losing a dao-companion can start, I kick her in the head.

I roll to avoid a particular large flaming projectile send my way, and using the resulting light of the explosion, I snatch a large dagger from the guy’s waist. I don’t bother with the fire inscription this time, Database, and several braincores telling me that analysis reveals it will heat up the handle too. Then I start running up the slope while keeping my head down.

I see a few blue flashes happening here and there behind me, but the fact that Lola isn’t making any noise assures me that she has everything well in hand. I do catch a glimpse of a rather ostentatious ice horn on her forehead, the thing nearly half a meter long and leaving opaque white trails of supercooled air in its wake. I will have to have a word with her about that later.

That can come after taking care of this group of long-range technique cultivators, however. They've surrounded themselves with a large circle of fire. Half of them are drawing directly from the flames, packing it into small projectiles with ornate and swirling gestures. The others wield bows, their arrows transforming into torches the moment they leave the circle.

I have seen enough at this point. These guys are all from the same sect, and I think I know why they are here. Fighting the rabble is pointless and time consuming, so I might as well speed this up. I deflect an arrow or two while dodging the slower fireball techniques while pulling a few items from my ring.

Then, I toss a couple of molotov cocktail equivalents towards the group. The clay pots are extremely thin and fragile, filled to the brim with pure distilled alcohol and a few other nasty ingredients. One archer manages to shoot one of the pots mid-arc, despite the horrible lighting conditions. It’s just a shame that it turns the pot into a blanket of fire that covers them all at once.

The screaming is hard to tune out as I race towards the darkest spot that can oversee the entire battlefield. This is the only place where no assailants came from, and the dark gulch seems like the best place to launch the ambush from. This discrepancy made it stand out by itself, even ignoring the unnatural darkness. The number in Database tracking combat-capable ambushers quickly drops down to zero as the last two are taken care of by a rather cool rabbit. This does show that just crunching numbers does not equate to a well-honed combat sense. I ask Database what the percentage chance is of someone hiding in the crack I’m heading towards. The low number I get in return is enough for me to conclude that I can rely on the Tree braincores for a lot of stuff, but that combat decisions should remain in my hands.

“HALT,” thunders a voice from the supposedly empty spot. The hypnotic desire to just follow the voice’s command is decently difficult to shrug off, even while I’m swirling qi through my brain in combat mode. I decide to follow the order anyway, as I can guess what is going to happen next. It really pisses me off sometimes, that an ambush to kill the bystanders is accomplished with all due haste, lacking any hesitation or mercy. Confronting the single person who insulted them must be done while putting up a massive show, however. I keep my annoyance to myself and gladly make use of such stupid cultural habits.

A middle-aged man steps forward, emerging from what appears to be a fog made out of perfect darkness. I nearly get a heart attack when he flicks one hand backwards, but seeing the darkness evaporate and an item disappear up the man’s sleeve nearly makes me blush instead. He was just picking up his stealth item for dramatic effect instead of breaking tradition and just killing me without bragging first.

“Who are you?” commands the short man, only looking down at me because I’m standing on ground a full meter lower than him. Did he decide to break stealth just so that he doesn’t need to look up at me?

Instead of shaking my head, I stand there without answering.

“Do you know who I am?” he asks, while subtly making sure that a complex badge on his chest catches the light of the burning fires behind me. I once again don’t answer, and just use this time to try and get a better assessment of his power and strength. A cold sweat breaks out on my spine when I barely manage to sense his cultivation base.

“You at least have the courtesy to be silent like a dog when spoken to. Kneel,” he commands. Unwilling to use my dwindling supply of usable qi in resisting his words, I just let my body follow along. “What did you do to the body?”

I’ve been worming a thread of augur along the floor, trying to get it into his body. I’m starting to think that I might be in more shit than I initially thought, as this fellow feels like a high-level Earth Realm elder. Instead of trying stupid tricks, I just gather all the qi I have to spare towards my spatial ring, hoping that I won’t have to use one of my trump cards. “No matter. I just need to make sure that your corpse will be visible for all to see.” 

Then I realize that he’s actually a fairly high ranking elder, and probably in the lower Heaven Realm. That’s why Lola has been staying away from the fucker this entire time! She must have sensed the danger radiating from the guy from miles away. In slow motion, I see his hand shoot upwards, the flames for hundreds of meters around us collapsing above his palm.

I shove all my qi into my ring, take a single moment to align myself, and pull out the single artillery satellite I have stored. The cart-sized piece of hyper-advanced tech plops into reality beside me, the qi it displaces pressing upon my mind. It doesn’t even shake as one of the hyper-dense stone cores shoots from between the prongs sticking out of the ornate sphere. The projectile slams through the pinprick of fire the man has aimed at me, the guaranteed-lethal spell exploding just above his hand. In the same instant, the stone bullet travels towards his forehead. Multiple formations and protective fields flash into being, shattering as the thousand-time denser that normal stone core careens through them.

A nice round hole appears in the elder’s forehead, the rock behind him suddenly splashed red. Then the rock shatters into pieces, unable to withstand the massive amount of destructive forces that come along with the speedy projectile.

I barely manage to cover my face in my hands as I’m first pelted by the front of pure heat that comes from the exploded point of fire. Then, I am splattered by the remains of the elder’s popping head, before the deluge of stone shards and dust smashes into me.

I climb up with much effort and aching joints. The pass is half burning wreckage, half-covered in dust and stone shards, and half icy-covered corpses. I feel like taking a deep sigh, but the fine stone dust in the air makes me think better about it.

What a mess.

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