Chapter 72 - Bare
I just want to sleep. My mind is a mess. I feel nothing and everything at once.
Forcing my eyes open, I notice that I'm inside Tree. It's golden branches and leaves shield me from the smattering of suns. I find myself stuck on a small patch of grass covered dirt. The small clearing is surrounded by tumbling debris. Massive chunks of stone and clumped dirt tumble alongside a myriad of small trees and loose blades of grass. I spot my castle, the student’s houses, the library, the garden and part of the lake untouched. Half of the neatly sorted loot is also busy spinning randomly through space.
This is quite a mess. Tree is glowing golden as it maintains a shield around itself and the nearby structures. Its lack of qi must have loosened its grip on the surrounding lands, causing them to disintegrate. I feel like I have to apologise to the poor thing, but the way I currently feel, I want the world to apologise to me.
With a start, I look down. I feel relief as I see her breathing still. I also feel anger, jealousy and am creeped out. The next moment I feel boiling rage and utter depression. Shit, I knew that fucking with my emotions was a bad idea. I decide to distract myself from the roiling mess inside my head by focusing on Rhea.
I breathe in the qi rich air while reaching for the naked lady. I freeze up as I realise that I succeeded. There is qi all around me, pretty dense too. More qi than this space ever had. Then I remember the black streaks splattered across the Tower. It looked like someone dumped a whole lot of pitch black candle wax on top of the white structure.
The memories of that time seem very faint and send chills across my spine. I also remember finding that the black stuff is made from molten and burned metal and stone. Fire, metal and earth. I want to beat the everliving fuck out of that trio. First things first though.
Rhea is stable. Her cells are all shot to shit, and she isn’t getting any better. The qi inside her body is keeping her alive, but not by much. I can fix it, her human form is basically a normal, extremely mana sensitive human, with the exception of a small, additional organ just under her heart. I recognise it as a miniature version of the transformation lock.
I turn around and walk away for a bit. My mind is still a mess of overactive emotions. My entire body switches from cold hate to incredible lust to exhausting worry. I just wander around for a minute or so, moving my body around in order to calm down.
It isn’t working at all. Tears stream down my face while I start trembling at random. I resign myself to my fate by walking back to the still woman. I kneel down beside her in the grass and place a hand on her back. I spread a fine mesh of augur across her body, filling half my mind with Rhea’s physical form. I use the other half to start piecing her cells back together.
At least, that's the plan. I scratch my head a bit, wondering where to start in this case. It is as if Rhea, lying in front of me, is a horrible victim of radiation. Her cells are partly mush, so I start scanning them to check what parts are damaged. Arbitrarily starting with her muscle cells - I don't want to make mistakes because of inexperience when working on her brain - I scan them one by one.
A chaotic mess of macromolecules and proteins appear in my mind's eye. It looks familiar, but I have basically no idea how they work and interact in a healthy cell. I never had to piece back cells like this before. I have studied a lot of plant- and animal cells, but the architecture of this one is alien to me. This task might be a bit much to ask of my fledgeling cultivation base. I will need to do this very smart or I’ll be here for quite a long time.
My roiling emotions are not helping either. To be honest, I'm feeling quite hopeless here. The complexity of this project is staggering. I'm stuck on a primitive planet. This entire planet does not even have a millionth of the power the cultivation world had in total. Reaching ascension level was quite difficult there, how am I ever going to do it in such an energy-poor location?
Back on Earth, I sometimes wondered what it would be like to live for centuries and millennia. Normal humans died when they were around 80 in developed countries. Mortals didn’t even tend to live that long in the cultivation world. That time is just the blink of an eye to any foundation realm expert or higher. What is the thinking process of a person thousands of years old?
Well, I found out in person that things tend to stay largely the same. Certain eccentric traits can become more pervasive as people usually stop hiding their true selves after a few centuries of life. I do what I truly want more, though that might have been a side effect of being able to do what I want more because of my growing power.
The negative is that growing truly old allows you to see how truly alone you are. People come and go, and each new face has less impact than the previous. The only one who you can trust - it turns out - is yourself.
Long story short, what I truly feel like doing is not letting the shapely dragon in front of me die. Also, not being alone all the time would be a nice change. I did that for a thousand years, and I got bored of wandering by myself quite a long time ago.
I locked away my emotions in order to start the mana sucking qi generator. This separated my emotional mind from bodily influence. My mind ignored the hormones running through my brain and ran on cold, dead logic when I walked to the tower. Restoring that connection causes some oversensitivity. So my brain feels things in a hyperintense manner, which causes my various hormonal glands to try to calm things down by squirting some other mind influencing juice. That causes another overreaction. Ad infinitum.
Seeking some form of escape, I lock away a large part of my mind, commanding it to do automated cellular scanning and repair on Rhea. Then, I just start talking. I focus on what to say next while sensing Rhea being put back together, cell by cell.
A shining white dragon glides through the sky. Her wings beat with a slow and strong pace as she follows a small figure, running down below. Re-Haan still feels kind of weird, following this guy around for no apparent reason. He told her himself that the three books in her possession are all he has on wind-related knowledge, so she has little reason to keep stalking this person.
Yet here she flies, obediently tracing the man’s hurried path with her draconic eyes. She should be disturbed about this but is somehow totally okay with it now. And that's because when she inevitably fucked up, it didn’t change anything. The giant storm she accidentally brought down on the entire group’s heads didn’t bring the accusing glances she is used to. If anything, they took it as something interesting, the small girl with short blue hair even looked at her with such sparkling eyes when the downpour started pelting everyone on board, that Re-Haan nearly grinned back at her.
The dragoness looks down, watching the man kilometres down below rush across the plain. A warm feeling washes through her body when she spots him looking up at her for a brief instant. ‘That’s a new one, I felt anger and confusion when I looked at him previously, why do I feel warm?’
Her inexperience with anything like relationships causes her to interpret some of her feelings in odd ways. Dragons only mate with the strongest partner around, and that’s the current head dragon most of the time. His children then have to wait until the top dragon gets replaced to start trying to make the next generation of dragons. There are some ancient rules and precepts that manage this area of dragon social life, but Rhea never got around to studying those.
The warm feeling is new though, and it's getting uncomfortably hot. Surely this is not normal? Why do her wings suddenly feel like they might catch fire at any moment?
It sounds like someone hit a big, thick-skinned animal with a big club. A dull boom crashes through Rhea’s chest, starting at her back. Shocked senseless by the blast, she barely registers the fact that she has started falling. The extremely bright flash is gone, but darkness surrounds her before she can regain her sight.
PAIN PAIN PAIN PAIN PAIN PAIN PAIN
Everything is pain. It is like her entire body is replaced with liquefied pain. Every fibre of her being now informs her that she is inside a sea of pure torment. At first, it just paralyses her into inaction. She just lets the pain wash through her as any thoughts are eaten away by the agony.
Just when she suspects that her mind may break in half to escape the pain, she registers sounds. Simultaneously, she finds an anomaly in the searing pain that is now her body. There is an area of less pain slowly travelling across her back. She escapes to that place, focusing all her attention on the single spot of her body that screams of pain a bit less.
The spot moves around, leaving slightly less anguish in its wake. It starts glowing with a soothing and warm light, and she follows it around as it travels through her entire body. Slowly but surely, the agony begins to lessen. What feels like half an eternity later, she finally manages to pay a bit more attention to her surroundings. Words have been drumming into her ears, but her focus was too preoccupied with pain to take notice.
“...quite boring to be honest. I did a lot of reading. Multiple rooms filled with books everywhere. My job paid well so I could afford a big house, I turned it into a large library by the time my memories from that life end. And then I was suddenly in an unknown forest, two extremely familiar but unknown corpses lying beside me.”
Having found a new avenue of distraction, Re-Haan listens to the soft voice with all her might. She distracts herself from her body by fleeing into the world the words paint for her.
“A kid, fourteen years old, tortured me for a few hours. He did it so mechanically, without any emotion. I am sure that he saw me as just a tool to use, not as a human being. He left me for dead while telling me I should be glad. My parents and I were of some use to him, a noble inner core disciple of the mightiest sect in the province. He believed that saying thanks to a pile of broken corpses made up for the things he did.”
Re-Haan is fully absorbed, greedily analysing every word for information. The soft voice sounds like it lacks any emotions, but the paralysed dragoness can still feel a changing undertone through the words. The lilting tones of common speech spoken by all dragons - and thus all mortals - soothe her aching mind.
“I don't know what happened. I think I died when I was around fifty back on Earth; my memories stop around that age. I was called Drew Lian back then, by the way, but I don’t really like that name anymore. Then my soul must have been transported to another universe, where it got stuck in the body of a mortal child. That, or I unlocked memories of an earlier life. I don’t think so though because I had none of the original bodies’ memories. The next few years were tough. Nobody except evil and dark practitioners wanted anything to do with an orphan. Just learning the basics of the local language took me years.”
She loses herself in the story. She flees her physical agony by listening to the words in a trance.
“People stopped talking to me as I never said anything in return. They last saw my parents and me being led off into the woods by a known cultivator from the Black Turtle sect, located a few mountains away from the little village. They all knew that I was lucky to be still alive. Living far away from a big sect was dangerous because of roaming beasts, live too close, and your life is at the whims of any cultivator that you meet.
“I was around twelve. I lived by helping on the fields, earning enough not to starve. I got a lucky break when I was sixteen. I found the corpse of a sect member far out in the woods. His skin was blue, so I think he got poisoned and died when running back. He had a small pouch, a scroll and a gem inside his pockets. I looted him and ran away as quickly as I could.”
The voice is slow and unfocused. There is little inflexion, but its way of speaking does change now and then in a subtle manner. To Re-Haan, it sounds like someone just randomly speaking their thoughts while being totally occupied by another task.
“The gem saved my life. It was a piece of jade containing a cultivation manual. I learned the language most cultivators used by studying it. The cultivation manual described a way of growing stronger by absorbing certain energies. I finally managed to feel the qi present everywhere in that world by following the uselessly complex instructions. Then I started cultivating.”
The dragoness gets entirely lost in the story that weaves itself out as she listens. The voice tells her about the many sights it has seen, stories of adventure and danger. Drew describes his endless tests with the energy called qi, like building his own power back up after discovering a more efficient way to do things.
Stories about running away from a hostile search party through unconventional means, or exploring trial grounds or ancient ruins. A weird thought pops up in Rhea’s mind, according to what little info she remembers, humans can become like, two hundred years? She suspected the weird man named Drew to be fifty years old. Or maybe ten years old, due to some of his behaviourisms. But now he has been describing an amount of a few hundred years at the least.
Was it humans that aged to two hundred or one of the other races? The injured dragon’s muddled mind is unable to recall the specific statistics that she once has been taught, but that doesn’t really seem important to her at the moment.
Time goes by as Drew describes his doubts and failures. Difficult subjects are described with brutal honesty. Faults are described in as much detail as the greatest success he accomplished. Rhea mentally chuckles to herself. ‘Nine of his ten best moments have to do with books. He seems just as book obsessed as uncle.’
The dragoness feels some pain as she thinks back to the time of her youth. She thought that her uncle, the only dragon to ever craft glasses for himself, was a strange being. Now, she can see that he just got tired of all the draconic politicking and backstabbing and shut himself inside the library most of the time.
“...so after that fiasco, I got lost in the Endless Fractured Portal Maze of a Thousand Deaths. I met a female cultivator there, and we got to know each other as I deciphered the teleportation runes. Fifty years we spent there, waiting for the runes to align. I thought I would stay with her for the rest of my life and I think I loved her.
“The moment we finally got out she broke a talisman, trapping us both and calling her sect. She knew that I had a massive bounty on my head from the start and played along for fifty years. She laughed in my face as I asked why she would betray me like that.”
The voice stops for a moment, and Re-Haan starts mentally begging for it to return. The pain has lessened over the longs hours of listening, but being submerged in boiling water still hurts. The fact that is was ten times worse at the start does little to ease her agony.
“So I crippled her, knowing that the loss of her cultivation base would free us both. Leaving her alive was a bad idea, as I spend the next seventy years running and hiding from a large sect alliance hunting me down.”
A strange feeling goes through Re-Haan as she listens to this part of the story. On top of the pain, she now feels like someone is grabbing her innards while twisting it slowly. She pushes that feeling away and pours all her attention into the story again.
More adventures follow, all told from first-hand experience. She hears how he broke into more libraries, deciphered secrets worth kingdoms, only to discard them because they were based on superstition. Every time another interaction with a female is described, the gut-twisting comes back.
He talks about Earth some more, a place so advanced and skilled in something called science that wars became obsolete. He laments the fact that people still fought, without any proper cause. He sounds so bewildered at times, like a lonely old man not understanding the world around him. Then he sounds like an enthusiastic kid as he describes some aspect of qi or cultivation that he discovered through arduous trial and error.
The story slows down as higher levels of power are described. The actors in the story all become powerful enough to crush mountains with a finger, and Drew is no different. Fights against cults who keep humans like livestock and daring stealth raids on highly protected information vaults get painted in Re-Haan’s mind's eye word by word.
Gaps of years where Drew does nothing but walk the lands in disguise, long periods of time spent refining some aspect of knowledge that sounds alien to the dragon’s ears. Then he starts preparing for something he calls ascension, and the story takes a sudden turn.
Re-Haan now catches the occasional glimpse of an image or feeling accompanying the story. Almost as if the veil in between herself and the mind who is speaking slips now and then.
Fighting off hordes of hostile cultivators, the ascension process goes fairly smoothly. Then, things don’t go his way once more as he is denied entrance to the higher planes. Re-Haan’s confusion grows as the valley with cute and murdering critters gets described. Then he describes the Tower, and it clicks.
He uses a large amount of time describing a random tree. Can you talk to trees? Then the voice describes squeezing the tree until it spills out into another place. Re-Haan’s mind is pretty muddled, but even she can understand that something about that story sounds off. She decides to ignore it for now. His voice drones on about the growing piece of space that gets developed.
This insignificant human, this being she looked down on is telling his own story, she has come to realise. He, who she didn’t even find worthy of talking to at first, has lived more than the most ancient dragons. It continues as he tries to do things differently for once. Finding an injured girl inside of a dungeon is his turning point.
“Things don't change if one's approach doesn’t change. So here I am, on a new world for the third time. How much time do I have here? The chance of me never leaving this mudball is zero, so what will I leave behind? More angry people who lash out at the one endangering their position of power? Maybe I should be the change that I want to see in the world. God that sounds so corny.”
The story then continues to describe kidnapping some likely disciples. Thorough background checks to ensure no lingering seeds of betrayal get glossed over as he continues to narrate the adventure he has had on this world. From a bunny to a sexy dragon with very familiar eyes. Until the story ends the moment he walked into his pocket dimension, emotions locked up because of necessity while carrying an unconscious woman on his back.
“So now here I am, full with qi once again, repairing a dragon I have unfortunately very little relations with, cell by cell. Let's see, did I miss anything important? I think that sums up my life so far pretty well. I guess I should do some more self-reflection and hope that the rest of my emotions calm down completely with that.”
A long, slow intake of breath fills the pause in talking. A slow exhale, and the voice starts again.
“I know it's pretty stupid to keep clinging to the ideals of my first life. I should adapt to the situation, but why would I want to leave such a big part of me behind? Looking at the way high-end cultivators used to behave, cutting parts away from yourself is a bad idea. Who thought that severing parts of your own psyche or personality to gain power and advance in cultivation was a good idea?
“Living for a long time should make people more altruistic, right? Unless they purposefully numb their own heart, they will see what kind of long-term impact their actions have on the world. Is giving multiple people years of grief really worth killing someone over an insult? We've got the ability to think, after all. Shouldn't that elevate us above revenge and anger? Then again, we got to evolve our intelligence in part thanks to those base emotions from the lizard brain, so that’s a bit hypocritical, I guess.”
Lofty words sound out crisp and clear. One sentence filled with conviction, the next spoken with a voice so unsteady it could break apart in a slight breeze.
“I could have cut away my emotions or attachments at any time through some kind of severing process. But is reaching the top worth it if your personality is nothing but a bloody skeleton, all feebleness cut away as the price for power? And I don’t think it’s possible to stop eliminating facets of yourself once you start, the nigh-immortal cultivators I met were just caricatures. They took a single aspect of their personality to cling to and removed the rest.
“I am not only my curiosity. I am also my anger and hate. I am my love and disgust. I will never cast these away just because my power doesn’t grow anymore. The only concession I make is to honour the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’.
“Ascending with just my mind by fully unlocking my braincore made me crazy. Crazily logical. What is there to live for if every equation ends in heat death? Why continue on if all ends in nothingness. Talking to people is not important if you can see the end of the universe ticking closer, second by second. So I want to be dumb and keep myself that way. I even run away from this world by not looking through the massive libraries that I gathered. Just because the interesting facts are surrounded by the darkness of the universe.”
Re-Haan is lost now. What was a fascinating story progressed into thoughts that seemed out of reach for the dragon. Dragon’s generally don't do philosophy. Why bother going through the trouble of thinking things through step by step if ‘more power’ is an easily applied answer?
“This is hypocrisy, and I'm fine with that. I will change if I find a better way. That is my resolve. I will find the why of all. I will not throw away my ideals and morals just because they are inconvenient. This is who I am, was and will be. My emotions come from this life that I have lived. I will control my feelings, and they will control me.”
Then, the deepest sigh Re-Haan has ever heard resounds. She feels power from those words. An unshakable but changing power. Power that is there for a reason, not just because it is or because of power itself. She feels like there is an answer nearby, but she lacks the ability to move around the corner to see for herself. All her troubles could be solved if she can just grab it.
Dragons sleep a lot. Re-Haan herself has only been awake for a total of one day out of twenty. And she was shunned partially because she was awake so much of the time. Now she feels like there is something more to life than napping the years away, like the questions she didn’t even know she had along with perfect answers are just out of reach.
So the transformed, humanoid dragon escapes the pain in her body further by reaching out. She concentrates fully on the spot moving through her body where the pain is less and reaches with all her might.
Her mind warps as she connects to something.
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