Chapter 269 - Encounters (2)

Gao Nuofu smiles as the wind plays with the loose strands of hair that have slipped from his topknot. Things are finally looking up. Explaining why he was carrying a superheated necklace that was burning a hole in his chest had taken him hours. This was after he had used up the last of his precious resources, eating all the recovery and healing medicine he had left. 

Luckily for him, the spatial ring he had been carrying the precious sword inside hadn’t failed him. He would not have been able to explain why he was carrying a burning sword around. Explaining that a mysterious ring artifact had been acting up lately was an unlikely story. The people interrogating him had only bought it after he’d given them the last of his spirit wine and spirit stones. The guards had already been suspicious of him because his sect had been under scrutiny lately, so those stupid goons had used every trick in the book to annoy and delay him.

Things were different the moment he stepped into the city, though. He had forgone the cultivator paths up high, unwilling to irritate his massive burn wounds, and still healing hand. He had gone to one of the tea houses run by a dark sect and used some connections and favor to acquire a flying mount. He also got a new storage item in which to store the Heaven-cursed sword, using up the rest of his savings and promising a lot of favors.

He once again considers himself pretty lucky that the ring managed to stay together until he could get past the guards. Having them see the luster of the sentient weapon would no doubt heap much more misfortune upon him, the least of which would be his death. Any sect would go to war over a prize such as this. And his Dark Moon sect’s standing has been slipping quickly over these past few months. Not a single large group would blink an eye over an invasion, especially when a juicy price such as a sentient sword would be up for grabs.

But now things are looking up, his fortunes rising alongside his current position. Sitting on the back of one of the most common cultivator mounts, this one a Venombound breed of the Twilight Pouncing Dragonfly species, he cranes his neck to look at the chest behind him. Wrapped in many layers of cloth, secured by the single treasure he still has - a mystical family heirloom binding rope - is the way to his glorious future. He took it out a couple of times, but the sword hasn’t said a single thing to him so far. Nuofu pushes away the niggling thought that it might just be a normal artifact. He has no desire to grow that heart devil, so he quickly suppresses the creeping suspicion.

The sun has started rising during his long flight north, the large and lush valleys making way for rougher rocky terrain. The wind pulls another strand of his hair free, and for once, Nuofu doesn’t bother tucking it back into place. The ride is actually far more comfortable than he had expected, the horror stories of these cheap flying mounts turning out to be massive exaggerations. Sure, its six wings make a massive noise that alerts anything nearby, and using these slow and sluggish beasts anywhere in the wildlands would be suicide, but that’s why he has earplugs. Also, he carefully planned his route across the public flight paths, never straying from the publicly accessible highways and transportation routes.

He’s crossed many leagues already, at a slow yet steady pace. He has just finished moving through the outer lands of the Majestic Chanters of Divine Rice, leaving the humming rice-paddies behind him. Nuofu could say a lot of things about those singing farmers, none of them polite or flattering, but he would rather save his breath for the bunch of mouth-breathers whose territory he’ll have to cross next. The mountainous rice fields behind him are at least pleasant to the eyes, if not the ears.

This new territory is nothing but an ever-growing lake, a body of water of mind-boggling proportions. That’s literally all there is to the territory of the Holy Water Inference sect. Just a massive puddle, too shallow to be of use for fishing, too deep to plant rice. The mountains behind him disappear slowly, and Nuofu starts flying over an endless swamp that has a little too much water. Ships of all shapes and sizes float by, nearly all of them filled with cultivators that just stare at the water.

Nuofu feels chills running up his back at seeing the many powerhouses just stare into nothing. Their mystical techniques and holy cultivation methods might be effective, Nuofu is sure that he would die of boredom within the week. No young maidens to sample. No mortals to use in rituals. No lavish feasts to celebrate successful rituals. A cold chill runs across his back before a hot flush of discomfort shoots through his body.

He once again smells a faint hint of roasting meat, totally lost in staring at the cultivators down below. A terrifying deja-vu breaks his light meditation. He suddenly remembers that he smelled this scent before. His head once again craning backward, a bit slower this time, he sees that the crate he is leaning against is burning.

Nuofu screams once again, but he has the presence of mind to pull out the very item he has prepared for just such an event. He pulls the bucket of water out of his ring, immediately splashing the smoldering chest.

A mad grin comes across his face as he sees the flames die down immediately. The pain that starts to trickle in his senses does tell him his back is burned, his clothes unable to withstand the supernatural fire. The large chest is reduced to a smoking, damping mess of smoldering charcoal. Nuofu sees that he has been leaving a massive trail of smoke behind, and for once, he is glad that all the cultivators down below stare at the water.

Then a real cold shiver runs down his back. The chest, his mount, a large portion of himself, and everything else that’s wet freezes at once. It takes the Dark Moon sect cultivator a few moments to register what is happening.

Then he realizes that the red shards that are falling all around him are actually remains of his mount. The single blue point of light must be the ring storing the sword, somehow emitting an impossible amount of bone-chilling cold.

The shock of smashing into the water steals the breath from his lungs. His cultivation base saves him from being turned into a meat patty, the few bodily reinforcement rituals he has suffered through giving him enough physical toughness to withstand the impact.

The combination of the jarring impact, the constant state of stress he has been in, and the series of burn and frost inflicted wounds he has been suffering from put him out for a couple of seconds.

When he regains clarity of mind, he is staring into the face of a goddess. Blue eyes, flowing blue hair, a crown of water, and a face that even the Jade Emperor would die for is only centimeters from his own. For some reason, the visage of perfection seems displeased with him. His guts sinking into his stomach at the thought of his presence offending this deity, he tries to kowtow.

“No, you’re not Teach. He isn’t that good at disguising himself,” she murmurs to herself.

Nuofu finds himself suspended in a tower of water, the cool liquid soothing his burned back. One of the biggest boats he has seen so far is steaming towards them, its sheer size looking impossible in the shallow waters. The goddess turns to watch the oncoming boat, sighing while holding out her hand. A transparent fish shoots through the air towards her, a ring in it’s near-invisible mouth. Nuofu’s heart stops as he recognizes the blackened ring. The horror dawns true when she pulls the sword free.

His broken heart is then soothed as the girl dances. The elegant sword in hand, a stream of blue and orange mystical symbols trailing every arc, she performs the most glorious movements he has ever seen. Flowing yet brutal, gracefull yet ferociously strong, she dances on the waves for a while.

“Yeah, no. I still don’t like it. Here you go! Please get out of here and make the idiot work to get it back. It’s good to know he’s out there, on this plane, but yeah... The dumb-ass shouldn’t have lost it in the first place.” Her cute and immaculate face gains a whole new dimension as she smirks viciously. The fact that the angel also contains a mean streak side only makes his heart beat faster. “Here you go. Lola must be having fun, with Drew’s sword reacting like that. Your insect mount died, by the way. It froze and then just broke. Here’s another. They keep giving me this stupid stuff. This is a Glacial Spirit Blue Void Fan, or something like that. Stupid names...”

Not a minute later, well before the massive boat floating towards them has reached the spot where he crashlanded, he is flying again. Now, there is a mystical blue fan beneath his feet instead of a large insect between his legs. Nuofu hasn’t said a single word this entire time, overwhelmed by recent events.

Things keep spinning out of control. First, there was the sentient sword that forced him to act for the good of the sect, making him kill his brothers just because his young master couldn’t control his tongue. Then the flareups happened, both fire and ice at random, wounding him and getting in his way. Then the goddess…

The goddess who is apparently a disciple of the Scheming Fox Demon, the thousand-year scourge of the Cultivation World. Also, the sentient sword he is carrying belongs to that demonic fiend. How else would she know his True Terrible Name? How else would she know that one word which should not be spoken?

Nuofu looks at the fan beneath his feet, admiring the expensive artifact for a bit. He then makes the firm decision to pretend that he never heard Selis, the Holy and Sacred Dao Child of the Holy Water Interference sect, mention the thrice-cursed name that is ‘Drew’.

I stretch my back in a futile gesture. Getting rid of all the aches in my body is going to take more than a couple of stretches, but it’s a start. I look back one last time and catch Lola burning up the last of the broken carts. She did admirably in the fight, incapacitating the attacking sect disciples with precise applications of frost at first. Then, once she seemed to be running low on that particular element, she switched to fire, which she used with much success.

I think she managed to replenish some of her cold cultivation base by just being in the desert at night. Temperatures are all but warm right now, and there seems to be this ice-cold scent in the air that speaks of even colder areas nearby. She is replenishing the fire qi she spent by cleaning up the wreckage, cremating the broken carriages and ruined cargo.

The butcher’s bill is surprisingly small, I’ve got to say. I did manage to take care of the attacking party in a rather expedient manner, and there are fewer casualties than I could have hoped for. Normally, every single person, except for the ambushing party, would be slaughtered down to the last man, woman, and child. The caravan should have been crushed into dust, but now nearly all the Lost Light Forger sect disciples died from me or Lola’s retaliatory attacks.

I do feel like that’s a massive waste, however. I personally detest having to kill, to be reduced to the base and idiotically simple tactic of lethal retaliation. The thing about taking down people non-lethally is that you can only reliably do this when you have a certain element on your side. This element can be surprised - which everyone on the caravan lacked wholly - or just the element of being able to overpower your opponent. And overwhelming power, I do not have. I barely managed to get out of this one alive, the sect elder being much stronger than I’m currently, and I only got through this one by shamelessly cheating. I don’t know much about how to play fair in the Cultivation World, but I do know that pulling a higher-dimensional orbital artillery satellite from a spatial ring blasting a motherfucker with it isn’t considered fair play.

Putting that thing back in my ring took up a large portion of my qi. But then the real fun had begun in the form of getting all the panicking, crying, protesting, and fighting civilians, caravan guards, and other personnel into Tree. I saved their sorry asses, so I’m feeling fully in my right to kidnap them. I didn’t bring the caravan leader, though. No, him I interrogated while using some fancy interrogation techniques.

I left him curled in a ball, weeping to himself while rocking back and forth in a cave a couple of hundred meters into the desert. I confirmed my earlier suspicion about the slimy bastard, so I can’t find it in myself to feel sorry for the traitor. He agreed to let his caravan get raided by the Lost Light Forger sect. He’d be rewarded richly, and the only thing he had to do was to make sure that I was in the caravan, and that he spread his forces in such a way that a good defense would be hard to mount.

The less said or even thought about the soon to be wild animal poop, the better.

I had some fun with observing how the people in Tree handled the new influx of people. I expected to see some frantic flailing and other shenanigans, but as soon as the people actively observing the Cultivation World noticed what I was doing, a smooth machine was set in motion.

Like they practiced it a hundred times, I sensed a lare group of people taking quick action inside Tree. The place where the Cultivation World inhabitants that I was about to kidnap would emerge - the same place the father and son duo ended up - quickly became a qi containment area. A combination of large scale formations, physical containment walls, and a ring of seated people was set up.

I first wondered what they were doing, but the moment I managed to pull the first struggling caravan guard into Tree, I understood. The thick and cloying qi bursting from the Cultivation World inhabitant was contained by the various layers of formations, preventing the ancient power from contaminating Tree’s atmosphere. This also slowed down the damage the sudden relative qi vacuum did on the person, who was quickly escorted to a specially set up area on the south side of Tree.

The guard - the large body cultivator caravan leader that somehow managed to survive - had to be restrained at first, his fighting bloodlust not allowing him to understand reason. By the time I pulled the last person inside, the father of the small family, the entire process was going as smooth as butter.

I also checked up on the father-and-son duo, both of whom are doing relatively fine. They are having some trouble adapting to life without qi, but they are recovering quickly, and are scheduled to start their own cultivation process as soon as the rest of the ambient qi is stripped from their flesh and bones.

All in all, Tree now contains a massive amount of stagnant and ambient qi from the Cultivation World - around a dozen’s people’s worth. It’s slowly being turned into the more mellow and neutral qi that is so characteristic of Tree. But until that’s complete, there’ll be an enormous volume of wild, chaotic, decrepit, and ancient power just hanging around Tree. It makes me feel sick.

I take a deep breath, stamping down on the roiling nausea that radiates from my head. It’s actually a super interesting feeling. Nausea is usually a feeling associated with the stomach region. To have that queasiness, that vomit-inducing sickness radiating from my head is quite the experience. This is only compounded by the fact that there are now people in Tree that have this same sickening qi inside of them.

All of the people I… acquired for my school feel wholesome at some level, but that doen’t diminish the fact that their flesh and cultivation bases are made from and pervaded by a qi that doesn’t originate from me. Tree is actually kind of getting upset at the people that I keep pulling in, which also adds to my discomfort.

I take a deep breath. On the flip side, I finally feel like my cultivation base is growing again. My body is getting used to the insane levels of power that’s present in the Cultivation world. My head and braincore no longer feel like this massive powerhouse of an engine stuck inside the super frail and weak framework of my body.

Now that the two are starting to get aligned again, my cultivation base can start growing while my body can keep playing catch-up. If this fight proved anything, it’s that I can still control a battlefield situation to a lesser extent. I merely need to make a lot of preparations first if I want to prevent these types of situations from ending up as close as this one was.

So that’s what I’m planning on doing next. I’m still inside the desert, and if I know anything, it’s that I don’t want to be here when the sun rises. I cast one last look at the road-turned-battlefield, and only see ashes, scorch marks, and corpses. I turn around and start walking the moment Lola hops back onto my shoulders.

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