"A ring," I said, "I need a spirit ring." I pointed at the chamber the big ant left open, and Rongrong and Hongjun helped me walk over. My injuries were kept in check by my mostly recovered spirit power, but knitting the damage would take a lot more energy than just Oscar's sausages could provide. Right now, I needed to look after myself, Tang San and Xiao Wu could wait.
Mubai and Zhuqing walked behind us together, while Yiran and Oscar took the front. That was something I only joked about, but who knew?
Hongjun leaned over. "If by any chance, you can get me a lady, I won't mind either," he said with a naughty smile.
Rongrong cuffed him. "Yi, you just got a spirit bone and yet you ask for more?" She had one cheek puffed up but the light step in her brows said she wasn't pissed for real.
"Calm down, Hongjun," I said, "we're still kids. Thinking of marriage is way too forward at this age."
Hongjun shook his head. "And yet you and Rongrong are already together, and so does boss Dai and Zhuqing seem to be getting on. And did that mean Yiran from a few days ago just turned around?"
The suspension bridge effect sure worked its magic this time.
"And of course, Tang San has Xiao Wu," he said.
"Rongrong and I aren't like that," I said, and looked at her, "yet."
She raised an eyebrow at me and smirked, saying nothing more.
"Bah," Hongjun said, "this poor handsome phoenix!"
We entered a passage of smooth stone, and the smell of fresh water and greenery wafted from further in.
Inside, we saw an oasis-like room enshrining a gigantic ant with a swollen abdomen—the queen. She took up most of the room, with her lower-end submerged in a stream fed pool filled with white sacs, eggs, and a thick carpet of moss covered everywhere, keeping the air fresh. She didn't move to attack, only trailing her head as we moved. Smaller ants kept moving in and out from behind her, the same ten-year variety I kept scaring away earlier, and some still moved up to feed her.
She looked like she sat on a throne of stone and green, her legs splayed on the ground and the remnants of her wings behind her. Its body was a good six or seven meters long, versus the three of the ant earlier, and coming from what Hongjun said, it was possible she was at six or seven thousand years of cultivation.
Seeing things were clear, we all stood around the edge of the pool, just outside of the queen's immediate range.
"Looks like we found your ring," said Mubai. "And it's a fitting one for a prince."
Zhuqing rolled her eyes, and said, "You should go and absorb it fast, you've been limping all this time and the bleeding still hasn't stopped.
Thanks for pointing out the obvious, as if the blood red warnings in Interface didn't say enough. But what I said was, "Of course, here we go again."
Grandpas Shan and Lin weren't here, and neither was Tang San, which meant I only had me to rely on. Maybe Oscar's sausages, and Rongrong's light? Still, finding Tang San and Xiao Wu was our priority right now, and with Hongjun's new bone, getting out should be a cinch. Getting a ring though was quite a risk for me to take at this moment, but it meant long-time damage for me, or a risk that might spell life or death for the two still missing.
Tang San and Xiao Wu were both strong, and even without cultivating with full intent, Xiao Wu had no problems keeping up with me who pretty much tried everything I could to keep getting stronger, and Tang San was simply a monster among monsters.
Everything considered, the best thing to do would be to cover as much ground as we can while I tried to recover.
"Everyone," I said, "Maybe we should split up?"
They all looked at me.
"I'd rather not leave you," Rongrong said, and everyone nodded in agreement.
"This ant queen here might possibly be a ten-thousand-year beast since I can't tell its age. And if it is, and I don't have my family's help, then it would take a me a long while to at least get healed enough to move properly. Instead, I think it best you leave me here for now and just come back later. Our highest priority should be to regroup with everyone else first."
Oscar came forward. "How could I be your big brother if I let you fend for yourself?" he said. "Thanks to you, I too am able to fight now, and you also saved Hongjun from his predicament. How could we save face if we let the youngest among us give so much and get nothing back?"
Hongjun nodded. "If even now you still think of us, then consider us thinking of you as well, take your ring, and we'll be sure to find the others as well."
Zhuqing nodded, and Mubai spoke up, "I'll be sure to protect everyone as the eldest, though the position of strongest seems to quickly slip through my fingers."
Yiran shrugged. "A little monster like you actually has time to worry about us as you fight a spirit beast by yourself," she said. "I'm not so sure I can measure up to that, Clear Sky heir."
I couldn't help a wry smile. It was nice to see people cared. But still, I couldn't stop worrying myself. Truth be told, this nest was most likely the safest place in the forest right now besides being far away from it, and if we can create some manner to signal we were here…
"Okay," I said.
Considering our line-up, Mubai would be needed for blocking, and Hongjun for both digging and ranged attack. Yiran would also be necessary in case the group encountered the two oldies, and Zhuqing would be best for scouting. Oscar is the least ideal for their party, but they'll never know when they'll need healing. Rongrong shared the same status, and if we wanted to keep the two safe, keeping them here was best. However, I would surely be incapacitated until I finish absorption, and though Oscar just gained something he can fight with—because those legs were so damned sharp and pointy—I doubt he can be much use in a fight right now.
And in case anything horrible showed up, then whoever was left here with me was screwed. Not having Tang San was this fucking hard, dammit.
"I believe boss Dai, Zhuqing, Hongjun, and Yiran should all go, and Oscar and Rongrong should stay," I said. "Frankly, this place is the safest right now, and I'm more worried about the ones who'll go up top."
"No," Mubai said. "I think I should stay and Oscar and Rongrong should instead go with the rest. I am both able to defend and attack, and am best suited to keep you safe, while adding Rongrong and Oscar's strengths to the party should allow them to fill the gaps I leave behind." He turned to Oscar and Hongjun. "Quick, tell us what your new abilities are?"
A light shone in Oscar's eyes and he said, "Hongjun, would you like to go first?"
Hongjun raised his eyebrows at him and shrugged. "That's alright," he said. "My third ability is called Phoenix Burst Breath, and it allows me to spray a ten-meter distance with a thirty-degree arc in front of me with a concussive blast of fire for fifteen percent spirit power, and it also keeps the adhesive and corrosive properties of my first two rings while adding another explosive property. While my left arm bone can perform a cleaving attack with a range of one meter for five percent spirit power."
"Damn this fatty," Mubai said while punching Hongjun in the arm. "You'll really make big bro lose face like this!" The two laughed out loud with Oscar joining in, and Zhuqing stayed at the sidelines, only staring at me.
Yiran shook her head. "I'm starting to regret taking that serpent," she said.
"And yet if you hadn't," I said, "how could we have defeated those two sprit beasts earlier? That gentle stimulating ability of yours sure pulled the gap for us in that last fight."
All this while, the queen only kept laying more eggs.
Then Oscar stepped up and bowed to all of us with majestic flair. He put both hands behind his neck and stood with feet wide apart. "I, your father, can keep going all night!" he said, and thrust his hips out eight times, with each knock creating a ball of light in front of him as his purple ring shone from behind.
When he finished, no one said a word, and Mubai and Hongjun's mouths hung open. Yiran was pink somewhat, and both Zhuqing and Rongrong had straight faces on.
In Oscar's hands was a string of eight sausages. He was blushing when he passed them all to me. "These are my Eight-Linked Sausages, eating one will increase the spirit power of your next ability by two-point five percent, and eating all at once will allow you a full twenty-percent boost with no ill effects, but you'll need to wait for twenty seconds before you can eat another set or else you'll only get half the effect."
"I'm not sure you can really live up to that," Mubai said.
"I didn't know big brother Ao was so untoward," Hongjun said.
"Unbelievable," Rongrong said.
"Idiots," Zhuqing said.
We all agreed to Mubai's suggestion, and Oscar produced set of eight for each of us, with his current spirit power, producing six batches wasn't a problem, but eight was just right to empty him out. The sausages could last a day, and him eating it on his own would allow him to make his other sausages faster, but we didn't need that right now.
Rongrong hugged me before going with everyone else, and I gave Oscar the rest of the bolts Tang San gave me for the crossbow. That fight earlier just showed me how useful it was to keep a bunch of random crap in my storage ring, and that nitroglycerin was a big game changer in a fight. Mubai and Zhuqing knowing about weapons of war when Rongrong wasn't so sure was something, but what was more important was how expensive gunpowder was here.
I could make a lot of money with that, and keep my advantage with the chemicals I could make.
"Avoid fighting as much as possible," I told them all. "The goal is to find our comrades."
Mubai nodded. "Little Jin is right, our surviving the incident with that great ape was just our luck, and it could run out any minute.
"I'll also send out my flare to try and get my clansmen," Rongrong said.
Oscar stepped up. "Worry not brothers, as the second eldest, I won't let our brothers and sisters come to harm."
Rongrong hugged me before the five of them left in the tunnel Hongjun started making.
When they disappeared from view, Mubai and I then looked at each other.
"Well?" he said.
I shrugged. "Let's get this over with."
Mubai stayed back at the pool's edge and I started walking up to her. The queen let out a high-pitched chirp, and all the other ants scrambled forward into the pool, pulling out all the eggs they could while avoiding me. With their nest destroyed, most of her workers gone, and that great soldier of hers dead, this place was doomed.
I summoned my Crown and I swear I could feel her staring back. Killing her now would be stupid, since I couldn't guarantee me being able to absorb that ring of hers. Instead, I sat in front of her, and connected the two of us with my Domain. She shuddered as the gold light touched her, and her antennae flicked about.
There was only me, Mubai, and her left in the room, slowly, I extended Devour over her entire body.
This was going to take a long while.
Hours pass, and Mubai kept mum the entire time as I filtered chunk after chunk of life force through Core and into my chakras and spirits, making sure to be as familiar with the queen's energy as much as possible. The silent room then was filled with a constant screech, like the light grating of just cut nails against a blackboard.
I kept it up longer, taking note of the yellowish note in the energy that entered me.
More time passes, and there comes a sort of swelling in the chakras as I slowed down the inflow of energy into them and I retraced the pathways Tang San showed me before. Passing energy directly into my spirit allowed me a higher capacity than using my body first, but after feeling it filled to the brim, I switched and focused the energy to the dantian instead.
From the lungs, they would radiate outward to my limbs, taking the paths through the blood vessels, some riding along the muscles, some along the bones. Together, another flow would begin from the base of the spine and rise up along the vertebra and another would flow into the internal organs. I talk of flows of energy, but all I could really feel was a vague movement of warmth, versus the clarity of using my own energy in others.
It was frustrating, to see so much yet be so blind.
The screeching became louder, and me being in front placed me at the forefront of her wailing.
But on I kept Devouring, I had all the time in the world.
When my body would get hot enough, a sign of the energy already too much, I would switch to filling my spirits and chakras, and when those started to itch and swell, I would switch back. The times between the switching were getting shorter, and when they broke into the span of only ten minutes each, I stopped absorbing for now.
A queen ant was essentially the reproductive organ of the colony instead of its brain, and their polymorphism boasts a more robust physiology than the common workers, living upwards of twenty years versus the usual five to ten of the workers'. In terms of strength, queens were naturally better equipped, being the first to dig the beginnings of the later colony. This room was her legacy, throne, and grave, just like the queens in my less fantastic world.
I then took out my Hammer and placed it at my side. My body and chakra capacities were already full, but this on its own could still take it. I then took the filtered energy and fed it all to the all-black tool. The Clear Sky Hammer took its power from the terrifying weights it could reach, together with the gravity it is capable of emitting. The other spirit hailed as the greatest was the Blue Lightning Tyrant Dragon, and in terms of combat potential, where the dragon spirit boasted defense and all-around effectivity, so did our Hammer take pride in its overwhelming attack.
My Hammer had grown from the little toy mallet I first awakened to, and now it looked more like a sledgehammer with its handle cut short. It was still small compared to the barrel-sized heads of my grandfathers' and the bigger than twice that of uncle Hao's. I never got to ask how exactly our hammers grew in size, whether from spirit rank or with the number of rings.
More and more weight poured into my Hammer, as the energy I took from the queen, whose pristine and bright yellow shell was now marred and cracked at places, all flowed into my spirit.
The wailing then turned to a high-pitched scream, and my head felt like it would split from the volume. I could try smashing her vocal chords, but doing any more than what I was doing now was just horrible. More so with the knowledge that advanced spirit beasts have the possibility of developing sentience—yet at the same time, I was going to kill her anyway. I just chose to do so slowly to remove as much danger from me.
I just hope no one would ever have to find out what I did here besides Mubai.
I picked up my Hammer from where it was beginning to crack the stones where it sat, and climbed up the queen's body. Her cracking shell seemed to bend where I stepped, and I had no idea how heavy my spirit was right now—except for the fact it felt like it still weighed the same as the first time I once lifted it.
Her legs scrambled to reach me, but her bloated abdomen and thorax were too wide for her limbs to even so much as glance me. The queen's screaming became louder the closer I approached her head, and the trembling of her body intensified. When I reached her head, hot blood started dripping down my ears. I could repair that damage later on with the energy her ring would provide me, but for now, let her have that victory.
My purple ring shone, and I smashed her large jaws apart, sending arcs of electricity through her head.
The screaming stopped for a moment but she struggled with barely attached mandible, and I created a Nail and drove it up where her throat should be. How she made that infernal sound, I didn't know.
Keeping her in pain like this was… horrible, at least the moth I could give an honorable fight, and that pupa, with hope, didn't even know what happened to it. Her though, it made me sick to think she could be thinking through all I did to her.
But no, I still wasn't confident enough to start.
On I kept Devouring, urging spirit power to repair the damage she caused, urging even more to keep pouring into my Hammer. I sat down on her thorax, and set my Hammer there, the armor around it cracking just like the ground.
Kindness to one's enemies was cruelty to one's self—but she wasn't my enemy.
And neither was she my prey.
A tear made its way down my cheek. This ant wanted nothing more than to live, and yet here comes some young upstart spider making trouble, and it even brings company. The colony she built up, all in shreds, and now comes the smallest of the bunch, taunting her with the sweet release of death but never dealing the final blow.
I couldn't understand—or even fathom what must be going through her mind, except for the fact it could only be hatred.
How much longer did I need to keep this up?
How much longer could I keep this up?
Half a day passed, and I glanced back to see Mubai silently cultivating in a corner, and the answer to the questions earlier I found in my right hand.
When my Hammer had swelled to about as large as me.
"I'm sorry," I told her, standing up.
My purple ring shone again, and needless to say, the flow of gastric juices and innards was phenomenal.
After that, everything went black.
I remembered taking that dark purple ring into my Crown and falling into a deep sleep after in a sea of gold. The searing light held back by the black island that appeared in that endless dawn, heavy and comfortable. I was alone in that space, and for sure Mubai woke up to a face full of bug goo.
I wasn't alone in the experience at least.
Unparalleled rage colored every inch of that mindscape, understandable by all respects. It was a silent and consuming resentment that throbbed and ached for me, safe on that deep black patch.
Every now and then I'd hear voices calling and feel tremors.
As time went on, my place of solace would crumble inch by inch under the endless thrashing and less and less of my foothold would remain. Heat started radiating from the light, and I could only sit and cook in the middle of my unlikely pot.
Then there came something warm and sweet, and sometimes, an unbearable softness would hold me.
That scene of ruin would continue for a long time, and only after I've bathed in those scorching golden fires did the shock of something sharp take me out of it.
When I came to, the first thing I saw was grandpa Shan about to slap me—and the stinging in my cheeks said this wasn't the first.
"What the hell grandpa?!" I said, and instead saw uncle Hao under the light of my Crown. I looked around and saw everyone else passed out around me, all sleeping on the grass. "Well, this isn't the weirdest dream I've had."
Uncle Hao had no reaction, and I was about to slap myself when he stopped my hand with a firm grasp.
"Fine," I said. "Not a dream then."
He nodded, and said, "Yes. Tang San and little Wu are safe as well." He pointed over to a tree, and there was Xiao Wu next to San. Awake.
"Brother San knows now then?" Seeing how Xiao Wu was up and about.
He shook his head. "No. But, little Wu, has something to tell you."
Uncle Hao walked back to the campfire and stoked the spit, sending embers up into the air. Yeah, sure, waking up to uncle Hao slapping me and in cahoots with Xiao Wu was definitely one of the weirder things I'd dreamed of, and definitely the weirdest I'd woken up to.
The night wind was cool and the soft grass was familiar and comfortable. It reminded me of that night a few years ago. Xiao Wu then left Tang San with one last caress before she went to me. Her expression was grave under the fire light.
"We need to talk," she said.
I looked around, and saw everyone else's wounds were already dressed including Yiran's. However, those geezers and teacher Zhao were still nowhere to be found. "Now's as good a time as any, I guess."
"May I?" she said, indicating the spot next to me and Rongrong fast asleep.
"Go ahead," I said.
She sat, and brought her knees up to her chest.
The camp fire crackled, and Rongrong shifted in her sleep.
"I'm a spirit beast," Xiao Wu said. She was staring straight into the flames.
"That explains you not coming with us to get spirit rings then," I said. "Sorry, then, for… the things I did."
She just stared back at me. "It's not like I'm friends with all spirit beasts," she said, shaking her head. "But thank you."
"And I guess that also explains how you can cultivate so damned fast," I said. All those times then when I'd breakthrough only to find her two or three steps firmly ahead then came back, as well as the times should throw me into the ground way back then.
She smiled. "Yes," she said.
Wind blew behind us, and a log broke out of the campfire with a crunch.
I nodded, not really sure what to say.
Xiao Wu looked at me. "Is that all?" she said.
Why was she asking me? She was the one with the revelation here.
"Nothing?" she said, tilting her head.
"I'm not really sure what you mean," I said.
She frowned and knit her brows. "No comments on how I'd put everyone in danger? Or about lying to you and Ge? What about the Er Ming?" She kept listing things out but none really made sense.
"You were travelling with two of the Clear Sky sect's direct descent heirs," I said, "we were in just as much danger with you as we are without you, at least with you there, us three are that bit much stronger. And who the hell was Er Ming anyway?"
She pursed her lips. "He's my brother," she said.
I raised an eyebrow. "Like genetic brother?" A male Xiao Wu… wrapping his legs around people? Not really all that fun a thought.
"What's even going on in that head of yours," she said. "He was that Titan Giant Ape earlier."
I started laughing then, looks like I wasn't alone with having family troubles when it came to women.
"Is it because my brother is an ape?" she said, one eye twitching.
"It's apt," I said, she punched me on the arm and damn did that hurt. "Whoa there, sis, are you sure your spirit is rabbit? That felt like an ap—"
She punched me harder this time.
"Stopping," I said. "So, I take it you were a rabbit before the evolution?"
Xiao Wu nodded.
"Yeah, I'm starting to get freaked out now with the idea of a hundred-thousand-year demon rabbit," I said.
She punched my arm again and I was pushed to the ground. "I'm not a demon rabbit."
"You sure hit like one," I said, rubbing the smarting arm.
She moved to hit me again and stopped. "How are you even taking this so… well?"
I shrugged. "I'd seen weirder shit." Remembering how you rubbed through your mother's lady parts at birth counted towards that. Same with hearing your parents bone every night nearly every day after that until I was old enough to get my own room. Spirit masters recover fast. Too fast.
That, and because I'm here in a world where I can fucking materialize a Hammer and kill stuff with it. It would take a lot to top that.
"Let's just say, I'm a really cool guy," I said.
"Great," she said, "now I feel weird for telling you."
Was this a talk of some kind?! Like a coming out thing? "Was I supposed to react somehow?"
"I was hoping you'd scream," she said, raising her hands up into claws and making an ominous face.
"Rongrong's grandpa Sword pissed would do that," I said, and a sly light played in her eyes. "Please don't."
We just looked at each other.
"Okay, so uncle Hao," I said, gesturing at him roasting the comically oversized leg from the nearby dead pig thing with the purple spirit floating above it. "How?"
"He knocked out my brother," she said, looking away and blushing a bit.
"Yeah, that sounds like him alright. Is he alright then?"
"He lost a few teeth but he'll grow them back soon enough."
"No hard feelings?"
"Tang San's mother was a spirit beast too," she said. "So, no. Uncle Hao only retrieved Ge and left without a word after that."
"Then you followed him?"
She nodded. "Then uncle Hao happened upon your group, with you being carried on Oscar's back and those weird spider legs. You had this really dark purple ring over you and he knocked you all out after that, then he did this thing with his hammer, and now here you are, not covered in blood."
I looked down and saw the caked brown, the smell drowned out by the damp earth and cinders in the air. "That was… convenient."
Uncle Hao grunted, and said, "You were lucky I was nearby. Don't try something that stupid again."
"Duly noted, uncle," I said.
"You were all lucky the danger you faced wasn't truly out to get you," he said, voice clear and firm despite the distance. And from the looks of it, he cleaned out quite well, now wearing some simple brown robes, though his tattered black cloak remained. Just then, I noticed the tell-tale emblem of the Moon Pavilion.
"I see you've met auntie already?"
He grunted, and went back to his cooking. I then extended Devour over that ring—and found I had no troubles disassembling it and intaking its remaining spirit power. On the corner of Interface, my cultivation bar displayed a whopping thirty-fourth rank of spirit power, but the effect of what I took in barely registered any movement. Damn.
"A complete freak," Xiao Wu said.
"Your injuries were because you overextended your hammer," uncle Hao said, "don't do that again until you reach the fiftieth rank."
I don't even know what I did. "Yes, uncle."
He turned to us. "Are you done then, little Wu?"
"Yes uncle," Xiao Wu said.
As she moved to stand, I said, "Wait, I forgot something."
She turned back.
"Why tell me?"
She smiled, and said, "Because you never told Tang San about his mother."
Uncle Hao threw me a slab of meat, and passed Xiao Wu a piece as well which she declined. Perhaps cannibalism wasn't something she condoned, even if they were different species of spirit beasts.
"Sorry," he said.
I summoned some flat breads and beef jerky for Xiao Wu. I'll need to restock on a lot when we got back.
The following morning, we awoke alone in the forest, with all eight of us already together. With only me and Xiao Wu knowing of the truth. She fabricated a story of how the Titan Giant Ape knocked all of us out after hearing something roar—her other brother, Da Ming. Though she left the guy's name out to be sure.
After that, Rongrong sent out her flare and no less than thirty minutes later, her clansmen then found us and we were all reunited with Yiran's grandparents and teacher Zhao. Turns out when we disappeared, her people already reached out to them to look for us together.
Yiran said her good bye, and Oscar was reluctant to part.
We then wasted no time with rushing back to the academy.
"You kids gave me a scare," said teacher Zhao. "But to think four of you broke through the thirtieth rank with this, then we can only thank our lucky stars.
We ran on well into the night under the light of my Crown—with three purple rings floating behind me.
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