Chapter 07 - Core
‘BE A BALL, A BIT MORE ROUND, good, HOLE IN THE MIDDLE, INVERSE SPIKE, GLOSSY FINISH‘
I fit the branch that is now a ball of wood in my hands on my spear. It doesn't fit.
‘HOLE DEEPER, MORE NARROW, TAPER, WIDER OPENING’
The ball subtly changes in my hands and I fit it on the spear again. Perfect fit. I now have a walking stick. Speak softly and carry a big stick with a nasty stinger hidden in it. I always liked that saying. My roiling qi settles down as I stop the mental shouting. It is still night and I have the bunny in my pocket, asleep.
I decided not to do any destructive experiments on the bunny, so it needs a name. Fluffy seems oddly fitting but it just doesn't click. Bugs? No, Lola would be better. Lola seems nice. I rub the little gal’s head and she wakes.
She just looks around.
I’m completely ignored.
She thinks the grass is more interesting than me, her head poking out of my pocket just looking around.
Thankfully she ignores that one too.
Alright, this isn't going anywhere. I’ll just name her Lola I guess. Filling my finger with a bit of my qi I rub her head.
She looks up now, staring me straight in the eyes while keeping one ear trained on me and swivelling the other around. Her,. little twitching nose is just too cute.
She looks at me for a little while longer and moves around a bit. The name will have to do. I rub her head a little more and she closes her eyes in delight. The cultivation world didn't have any cute critters. Any feature that does not aid in survival got culled quickly there. Any cultivating beast acts and looks as imposing and intimidating as possible. There are no immortal herbivores, only predators tend to live long enough to get anywhere with cultivation.
The forest stopped getting darker and denser a couple of hours ago, I should be walking towards the spire I saw in the distance when I left the mountains, that should be some sort of tower. Probably a mage’s tower or a cultivator’s abode. Maybe with a city surrounding it. It didn't seem sturdy enough to keep itself upright so I guess some sort of mystical art was used in its construction or maintenance. A quick mental calculation tells me that I’m only a tenth of the way there. With the pace that I'm currently walking it will take a week at the least.
That suits my plans just fine, I want to have a solid core when I reach proper civilisation. The woods should give way to grassy plains by morning though, maybe there will be something interesting to look at.
I didn't see any more wasps that had beef with me. Maybe the stinger in my spear keeps them away? Wasp type creatures tend to be solitary bugs, the stinger is a clear indication that it was more of a predator. Bees in both worlds I saw them in had hooks in their stingers, making them poisoning kamikaze bugs, giving up their lives for the greater cause when they stung someone. Hostile insects don't require such a sacrifice, but beasts like bears get their noses stung at the price of a bee’s life. Only sticker mammal skin has the sturdiness required to get a stinger stuck. A shiver runs up my spine as I remember the ten-meter big bee that sacrificed itself to kill the third realm cultivator that was trying to steal their Heavenly Honey. The pulsating and pumping poison sack that was stuck to the murder weapon gave me nightmare fuel enough for all three worlds I've been in so far.
I keep walking, occasionally scanning with my narrow beam qi radar to keep track of anything around me. Just trees and small forest animals. I really hope that the lack of any bigger predators is caused by a wasp nest nearby. Anything else would probably be worse.
Yep, I jinxed myself again. A bear is trouncing through the woods. I don't need my qi to sense it, I could hear it walking through the forest from a kilometre away. I look around for a proper climbing tree. A low hanging branch on a tree to my right gives me enough leverage to climb into its crown. Qi pumps through my legs as I jump from tree to tree. A dense fog of power around my feet dampens any energy in it, muffling the sounds I should be making. I can't do anything about my smell at the moment so I will have to be fast.
Why the fuck is this bear blue? Is it a water bear? I didn't see any seas or lakes nearby, does its colouration have anything to do with mana affinity? I scare myself shitless by imagining myself powerless while locked in a room with said bear. Also, I’m a girl in this setting, for some reason. And the bear has a randy look on its face. Dark blue tinged mana swirls visible around me but the bear doesn't react. This emotional mana sensing stuff has a limit of a few metres, so I can’t sense if the bear emits anything. I get excited at all the stuff I still have to learn here. So many opportunities to try out new cool shit. A lighter blue now swirls in front of my eyes.
I jump from tree to tree on my original path, pushing the matter of the blue bear to the back of my mind. I wonder if the beast has a house nearby? No, that house was blue, not the bear. Then I realise that the light blue mana is present in the same quantities as the dark blue mana. So far the dark side of mana was way more prevalent, did the bear absorb it, causing both sides to equalise there? Why did it leave the lighter water mana alone? So many questions and all the time in the world to figure them out. With a grin on my face, I return to walking on the ground.
A shaking in my pocket alerts me to Lola, who is acting all scared.
“Not a fan of heights, huh?”
She looks at me with an angry glint in her eyes. That intelligence should not be present in an animal not even a week old, did qi do this? Maybe the lack of qi on the world amplifies its effects? That gives me an idea and I want to try it out immediately.
I jog for an hour through the forest when I reach a clearing. The circular hole in the forest is filled with long grasses and various shrubs and plants. I sit down in the middle and slowly do a long range scan.
Pouring the majority of my qi through my mouth I shape it into a vertical sheet a few meters high. I slowly drag it around me, looking for any dangerous wildlife. I begin my plan after finding nothing unusual. I move the qi around me in a sphere, slowly spinning it. I breathe in deeply, using my qi to drag in all the mana it can hold. Breathing out the mana deprived air I reuse the qi to drag in more colours with the next breath. I hold my idea firmly in place and use big portions of my mind to automate the process. I make a process that takes up a quarter of my mind and assign it to spinning the qi around me. A knob set in its lowest setting appears in my mind's eye, going from one to eleven. Another quarter goes to breathing in mana and qi, while only breathing qi out. Another quarter goes to guiding the energy to my head. The moment I snap the partitions in place I feel the world dull.
Spinny thing too slow, faster. Broken qi come to me! I want all. Swirly whirly around me, come to me! Breathe the colours, send it to head. Knob to three now, colours getting more and more now. Puff out white stuff, more swirls are fun. Knob to five and the blue sticks with green hair disappear. See only white and colours now, wooo, so fast. Dizzy, don't look at swirly whirly. Colours go to top, into glowy ball. Glowy ball now even more glowy! Glowy good. More white stuff through mouth, more colours in. Knobby nobby at sevensies now. Whirly twirly pretty. Coloursies more, wooohoo.
The rest I don't remember. I gain back my full mind an unknown amount of time later, a tornado of colour going around me. A blur of fun and joyous colours getting sucked up by the glowing ball is all I remember after the knob was on seven. A splitting headache is piercing through my head, my sight blurry with tears. After my plan was accomplished the sectioned portions of my mind automatically delete themselves. The condition for release was the knob at eleven, which should be enough to gather enough mana to form a solid qi core. This headache is quite something though. My mind feels like its’s splitting open. The only time I remember having such a headache was when I advanced my cultivation base without sufficient free qi available… Just like now…
In hindsight, locking away three-quarters of my mind at my low level was a bad idea. A really bad idea. Normal cultivators go through major realms and smaller steps, and I just skipped a whole lot of them. Every single practitioner starts at qi gathering. Here they learn to control qi, desperate their own qi from the neutral power that suffuses everything while gathering the gas in their core. Then, when enough power has been gathered to fill their core, they can enter the qi condensing stage.
This works like how its sounds. Squeeze it until it becomes a single drop hanging in an empty core. Evaporating water into steam increases its volume nearly two thousand times, and qi works in a similar way. More qi is gathered until the core is filled with liquid, which is then squeezed into a solid crystal when entering the core forming stage. This once again condenses qi by several factors, increasing the cultivators strength by large amounts. It’s a direct parallel to how the worlds works on a physical level.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. This planet does not have any loose qi hanging around and my core seems insistent on advancing despite this fact. The mana tornado around me did a good job of supplying me with power, but it’s not enough by a long shot. I feel through the migraine and sense that my core is still filled with liquid and it’s absorbing qi like a madman. Qi that isn't directly available here, so it sucked every last drop from my body.
I crack open an eye and peer at Lola, who seems fine. Qi under control of a living being is rather hard to influence on a subconscious level. Even consciously I would need to be many factors stronger than her to influence her internal qi. A spike of pain shooting through my head brings my thoughts back to the present. I breathe in some mana while gritting my teeth but it just swirls around in my bloodstream, not going anywhere near my core. Can't my core absorb more mana?
Thinking this over anymore won't do me any good, I need to do something. I focus on my swirling core. A white liquid is spinning rapidly, desperately searching for more qi. I impose my will and command it to stop so it can condense into a solid core. It slows a bit so I start mentally shouting at it. A couple of minutes later it slows enough to start crystallizing. My headache lifts as the tiny amount of liquid gets solidified rapidly.
I shudder from the sudden lack of pain in my head. Sighing deeply, I study my core. It is minuscule. I don't think that this has ever happened before. Qi was everywhere on the cultivation world. Any that was used was quickly replenished and qi free areas were impossible unless you expended massive amounts of effort to absorb it fast. Just to give a picture of how difficult this would be, around a hundred sect elders would need to work together to keep one single square meter free of all qi. This was used in one place that I know of, a prison for demonic cultivators at ascension level. About five hundred top-tier experts used to man that place in order to keep any qi from going near the individuals.
The solid core inside my head is about a thousand times smaller than anything I’ve ever seen. Not even the scrubbiest of scrubs without an ounce of talent would have a core this tiny. More unknowns and I'm bumbling about in the dark. The bigger the unknown the bigger the payoff when I make that problem my bitch, I ruefully think.
I’m not really worried though; solid cores grow slowly but steadily. I do wonder what caused it to go into overdrive mode. Advancing through the realms usually takes a lot of time. My core felt like it couldn’t wait to get to the next stage, the exact opposite of what happened the first time I reached this level.
One can see a cultivation’s core as a control center while the liquid or gaseous qi around it is the stuff being controlled. I sense a single shred of gaseous qi present in my core. I drag it outside and perform a slow radar sweep. I don't seem to have attracted any attention yet, despite the flattened ground fifteen meters around me. I close my eyes and reactivate the same three processes I had running before. They take up just ten percent of my mental faculties now, a sure sign I’ve stepped into the solid core stage. Still, the minuscule fragment of crystal in my head is an embarrassment, three simple processes like these should only take a single percent at best at the core forming stage. I set the knob to eleven and a fierce tornado springs up around me.
I breathe like that for a couple of hours untill I feel full. Active qi absorption like this is suicide in any qi rich environment, it’s like pumping unfiltered crude oil in your car, but I’m making this qi on the fly so it’s my bitch immediately upon creation. It’s not about purity or impurities but control. Just absorbing some random energy doesn't instill confidence that one can control it, and thus causes problems. I made this qi from its components, so a stronger sense of ownership can't really be achieved. A look inside shows me liquid qi swirling around the minuscule crystal. It will have to do.
I assign a few automated mental processes. A qi radar for starters, one short range sweep a second, and a longer range sweep every ten seconds on its lowest density setting. The audio files get a few percent of my brain, continuing the similar word tally. Passive cultivation is the last one I form, with a standby mode for when I’m full up.
That done I look around. The whirlwind is just dissipating now, and the first qi radar result comes in.
DANGER DANGER, multiple animals around me. Mister blue bear brought friends. I send qi surging through my body and sprint away, taking a massive leap into the crown of the nearest tree. The animals startle as they wake from some form of trance. They scatter immediately and I see an entire zoo of animals with various shades and colours sprinting into the foliage. Something feels off about these beasts though, they feel like badly remembered renditions of animals I’m familiar with. A deer-like being with feline paws and a yellow stripe along its back is just one example. The big blue bear seems to have no ears, too many eyes and teeth sticking out of its mouth. A big black raven with fluffy feathers flaps its wings as it gains altitude, allowing me a view of its red belly along with its… flippers?
That was potentially very dangerous. I scold myself to keep better watch as I continue tree hopping. Lola is shaking again and I absentmindedly rub her head with my finger and some qi. She calms down and nuzzles my hand.
A few hours later the sun comes up and I slow down from my half sprint. I let Lola down and she hops around but doesn't stray more than a meter away from me. Seems like I’m not the only one that got a scare back there. I absentmindedly throw my spear. It pierces through a peeping squirrel, whom I proceed to skin and cook with my qi. Cooking is a joy with my new forming solid core, no more fires needed. I simply shape sharp edges and flames with my mind. There is no living consciousness to get in my way, so my qi has free reign inside the critters corpse. Organs plop out of its rear end, blood gushes from its mouth as I use its heart to pump it dry while the skin unfolds itself. A pleasant smell spreads around as the meat browns, and I dig in the succulent and perfectly cooked meat. I leave a trail of bones as I enjoy this unnecessary meal.
The sun is halfway in the sky when the underbrush thickens, a sure sign of a clearing or of the end of the forest. It turns out to be the latter as a wide-open plain comes into view while I claw my way through the bushes. The spire I saw before is a lot closer now, it's size and scale still indescribable without anything nearby to compare it to. A single greyish tower pierces the sky just over the horizon. New walking goal found.
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