Chapter 272 - Encounters (5)

So my personal weapon is now a wooden stick. I’m not sure what to call it officially. It’s an arrow, but I like using it as an oversized bat. It’s generally shaped like a short spear but has the penetrating stabbing power of a blunt rock. It’s not really a staff either, as it’s around a meter long without its point. It’s longer than a baseball bat, but around the correct shape of a cricket bat. It’s way too thin for either of them, though.

Either way, I’ve been having way too much fun just clobbering my way through these mountains. Lola gives off a small squeak while moving one paw to the left. My arm automatically swings that way, bashing the skull of yet another ferocious insect that's lying in ambush into smithereens.

I’m all cleaned up at this point, so I make it a point to avoid the splash of insect ichor that results from yet another successful beast slain. I stopped picking up the corpses of non-tasty animals a while ago, so I just poke my staff into its stomach, bind it’s beastcore to the wood, and pull it out.

Well, that is to say, Tree actually does the binding. The golden perennial has finally come out and demanded something of me. Instead of a proper name or a humanoid body, it just wanted to hitch a ride in the dark wood of my new favorite weapon. I still don’t know what material it’s made from, but I’m working on it by analyzing its grain pattern with a strand of augur.

Swinging my bat free from ichor, I pocket the low Earth Realm core in my ring and move on. The terrain that I’ve been traversing has been suspiciously homogenous, truth be told. Instead of heading to the east in order to catch the main roads, I’ve been having fun with my heartcore. And honestly, having a heartcore is way too much fun!

On a surface level, I already knew this. I’ve been walking around with a core in my heart for a little under two years now, and I’m very familiar with the physical performance boost it gives me. Using my physical prowess for such an extended period of time is not something I’ve done before, however.

While jogging through the forest, I keep batting at all the wildlife that keeps trying to snack on me. Tree is helpful in providing my bat with energy and doing little things such as grabbing hold of beast cores mid-swing and keeping it clean. Lola is helpful in pointing out the monsters that escape my own scans and observations. All in all, if it weren’t for the growing sense of unease I have in the pit of my stomach, I’d be having a great time instead of merely an enjoyable time.

Skipping through the last trees, I start hopping up the rough mountainside enclosing this small piece of green hell. The pattern of geographic features hasn’t changed, as I’m still making my way through valleys surrounded by impossibly high mountains. What has changed is the scale of things. The valleys are much smaller, and the mountains a lot steeper and hostile. Luckily for me, the wildlife caps out at around the lower Earth realm. Lola has helped me avoid a few more powerful beasties here and there, but overall, I haven’t stumbled across anything I couldn’t handle.

And this will soon change, I fear, as the general qi makeup in the air is shifting. Instead of all the wild and fairly passive qi that comes from naturally cultivating plants and animals, I keep getting whiffs of imitation intents. I fear that I will enter sect territory soon. I know that this will be an inevitable part of this journey, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to it.

As if I just jinxed myself by thinking about it, I see the telltale signs of human habitation the moment I reach the top of the current mountain range. This row of jagged peaks isn’t high enough to become truly cold, only a slight dusting of snow creating some white areas, and the reason why is immediately clear. The rest of this mountain range is just gone, and from what I see, it must have been manually hewn into flowing hills.

I stop walking as I look down, the mountain suddenly dropping away in front of me. Peering over the edge, I see a quarry of enormous size stretching side to side for kilometers. A large mass of people  are doing a weird dance, using what seems to be steel-toed boots to kick at the rocks below me.

With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I start getting an inkling of who these guys might be. Taking a closer look at the robes the people are wearing only confirms my suspicion.

“Greetings, fellow Daoist. What brings you to the lands of the Elevated Children of the Earthshaker God Beast Alliance?”

My horror-filled gazing is interrupted by what seems to be a Core Forming underling on a lookout post. I turn to the fellow and see a big black guy standing there, all respectful. He is wrapped in the telltale squirrel pattern robes of the sect, his bald head shining in the afternoon light.

“What?”

He bows low upon hearing my deadpan exclamation. Instead of continuing his talk, he lowers his head. A slight tinge of petty irritation wants to rise up in my heart. Even while he’s bowing all proper, he’s still taller than me. As a person of slightly above average height, having to look up at someone is always annoying. I school my expression until I catch a glimpse of myself. My once pristine scholar robe is now looking like a barbarian’s rag, truth be told. I lost my neat scholar’s hat back when the plant boar shouted at me, and the rest of my outfit hasn’t recovered from the bath of liquified plant matter, truth be told.

“Right. I was training in those mountains, and would like to pass through.”

“Yes, fellow Daoist. Please follow this lowly one,” he replies, taking a few steps back before turning around and walking off. I just fall in line. The stupid sect of squirrel worshippers might be one of the more eccentric sects, fairly low on the sect totem pole, but they still have a couple of Heaven Realm powerhouses, if I recall correctly.

I can’t keep my eyes off the many, many images of squirrels embroidered on the large guy’s robes while trying to remember what kind of rank signifiers this place used. I think I remember something about a reverse squirrel count ranking system, with the honor of having just a single squirrel illustration on your robes being reserved for the current resigning patriarch.

While following the large dark-skinned fellow down the winding road, I take a good look at the view stretching out below me. Directly downwards, I see many, many cultivators practicing the sect’s techniques. I’m sure that I would have been killed already just for looking upon them practicing their stupid stomping techniques if I were any less powerful. Right now, I look like some savage icon of war and slaughter, a black beating stick in my hand, dressed in ripped and stained clothes while emerging from the wilderness.

Beyond the line of cultivators slowly but surely reducing the entire mountain range to rubble, are processing lines. Every time one of the practicing students manages to kick a nice round stone free from the rockface down below, or when one of the inevitable collapses happens, the lower ranks hurry forwards to carry off the rubble. All the cultivators pounding away at the mountain seem to be in the Foundation Realm, or the Earth Realm, at least.

I keep staring at the weirdly dancing and hopping people for a bit longer. I can vaguely remember something about their sect ancestor observing a squirrel jumping. It’s landing shook the earth and made fruit fall from a tree, or something like that. That must have been the Earthshaker God Beast, the namesake of the sect. Taking a closer look, the way all those disciples are dancing around does remind me of a squirrel when looked at from a certain angle.

I keep surreptitiously glancing at the ludicrous show of acrobatics while walking down the mountain, the precarious path a nice and welcome reprieve from the wilderness that I’ve been walking through for the past couple of days. The large man in front of me speeds up slowly, no doubt testing my abilities and getting a measure of my physical prowess. We arrive at the base of the odd quarry in no time, the path taking us to a large tent a couple of hundred meters away from the main quarry.

“Swear a Dao-Oath never to use the Holy Hopping Secrets and pay the fine of five thousand spirit stones for trespassing our holy grounds.”

Looking at the speaker, I see an even taller skinny woman looking down her nose at me. My negotiating process immediately kicks in, and before I know it, I have a bottle of my own distilled poison wine in hand. I quickly review the process’s plan, stop myself from laughing out loud, and let the process do its thing.

“When the fervor of training overtakes my spirit, my eyes go blind, and my feet recognize no border. My mind does remember courtesy, however. And my mind knows that to be invited into someone’s home means to bring a gift. Let us drink on this auspicious meeting before talking of mortal and worldly things that distract from the Path.”

The woman doesn’t react for a full five seconds, which I count as a small victory in my book. She then smiles at me, and with a small bow, she takes the clay flask. I follow her into the tent, making sure not to acknowledge the look she casts at my ruined clothes. The tent’s interior is rather sparse, four sitting mats surrounding a small table. A cluttered writing desk off to the side completes the provisional headquarter look.

The noise coming from all the stomping metal boots and breaking rocks is dampened, more so than mere cloth should be able to do, so I look at the weave for any hint to its secrets. Before I can start analyzing the intricately woven formations, the woman slams two cups on the table. Looking back at her, I sense that she is a high-level Earth Realm cultivator, probably the elder in charge of this part of the sect.

I slowly look her up and down. The negotiating process still has my face in a blank expression, me ogling her skinny frame with an unchanging face supposed to unsettle her. She begins to fidget but manages to catch it before her movement becomes anything more than a microexpression. I have to commend her on being capable in the game that is Face, but the problem is that she believes herself to be better than she is. A true master of the social niceties wouldn’t have let my near-insulting inspection phase them at all.

Looking back into her eyes, I start smiling a shit-eating grin, showing her all my teeth. She visibly swallows, and I slowly pick up the clay jar. I break the seal with a practiced flick and slowly pour the deep purple liquid in the two cups.

She eyes the thick vapor wafting from the drink as I properly and primly hand her one of the cups. She takes it, her posture obviously cracking, while I quickly snatch mine and pound it back like a shot. Then, I slam the cup on the table, give a deep sigh of appreciation, and start pouring myself another one.

The woman takes a single sip, hiccups, and flushes red. I just grin at her some more.

“How many spirit stones was that again?”

She puts her cup down with shaking hands, the liquid nearly splashing her delicate skin. She then stands up on shaking legs, nearly falling on her face as she kowtows. “Forgive me, oh, honored master. It was I who could not see the difference between the heavens and the earth. Your imposing visage should have been enough, but it was me who didn’t see…”

“That’s fine. I look like a savage. How do we prevent this from happening again?” I ask of the wobbling woman.

She swallows again while mumbling into the dirt floor a bit. She then produces a piece of white stone from her robe, using both hands to offer it up to me unsteadily. “No, this is an unforgivable act. Please, take this honored guest token… I didn’t see the… Heaven and Earth…”

I stop grinning like a madman while getting out of my chair, the soft snoring of the woman indicating that my negotiating process did its thing successfully. I burp softly, wafting the acrid purple cloud away from my face before it can eat away my hair. I pluck the token from the snoring woman’s hands, plug the cork back into the jar, and take both cups with me — no need to let fine china like this go to waste, after all. And, I really don’t want to waste more of the good stuff.

I steady myself, my own body barely able to handle the super potent booze of my own making, and start walking towards the tent opening. I stumble once, the toxic effects of the drink making their presence known. Instead of heading out immediately, I take a seat for a while, studying the sound dampening formation woven into the cloth, and circulate a large portion of my qi over my liver.

A few minutes later, the woman is still snoring deeply, her face pressed into the ground, her butt up into the air. I softly open the tent flaps, wooden bat in hand, my face once again serene. I show the large dark man the white stone token, and he immediately bows ninety degrees.

“I need to go north,” I say.

“This servant would like to inform the master that the road north is beyond the closest line of trees.”

“Good. I would let her sleep. When she wakes, bring her a pitcher of water.” The large man stays bowed down, so I just leave. I toy with the white badge for a while, finding the high-quality material a decent trade for a single sip of my best toxic wine. All in all, I’m honestly impressed with the woman. She managed an entire sip, and then somehow stayed conscious for at least a minute before falling asleep. Also, she just blamed herself, not shifting the blame to her subordinates. The near-lethal amount of medicinal toxins in that single sip should shake up her cultivation base a good bit, which will clear out some impurities and speed up her cultivation for a good few weeks at minimum. I think this is quite a nice trade.

My good mood lasts the entirety of the walk through the Elevated Children of the Earthshaker God Beast Alliance territory. Thousands of years of work have reduced a towering mountain range to flowing hills filled with large patches of trees and small rivers. Here and there, I see the remains of the mountains as rocks in streambeds or large hewn building blocks. The rest of the mountain range is all ground to dust and turned into soil, no doubt while millions of sect disciples practiced the sacred movements and holy techniques of their sect.

My good mood changes the moment I realize what territory comes next. Instead of peaceful hills and flowing grasslands, the mountains come back slowly, this time transformed into a whole different way, shape, and form. Atonal and rather ear-wrenching humming starts growing louder and louder as rice paddies start popping up everywhere. I remember this sect, and even though I never really believed all that I read about this place, the coordinated group singing of the Majestic Chanters of Divine Rice sect disciples really is as bad as they say it is.

I take off the threadbare remains of my sandals and prepare to wade through ankle-deep water for a long while.

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