We were on the road to Nuoding, and were approaching Suotuo city in the Balak Kingdom. It had already been eight days since we first started, and I was already to the half-way point to the sixteenth rank. Satisfied with my progress, and because my spirit power seemed to have been… unstable lately, grandpa Shan said to let my spirit return to a state of equilibrium first.
I was walking alongside our cart, together with uncles Feng Zhi and Wang Hu—they were the two bodyguards we hired to accompany us on our little trip.
"Do you see those clouds over there," said uncle Zhi, he was wearing a deep brown robe and had his hair in a braid reaching to his shoulder.
I tried to see where he was pointing at, but couldn't tell. "Those nearer the horizon of the ones almost above us?"
"The ones nearer the horizon," he said. "You can tell they're moving away from us because they haven't change position even if we've been walking for a few hours already."
I nodded. That much was obvious from a simple understanding of weather phenomena. "Understood," I said.
He nodded as well. "And if you've noticed how thin those clouds are, we can also rest assured the rest of the way shouldn't be wet." Then he pointed to a bunch of clouds over to the west, these ones were a fluffy white. "Those clouds are the ones you should be wary of," he said. "Since they still aren't grey, we can tell in case they reach there shouldn't be any rain, but those are also the ficklest and can turn within the hour into something fierce."
I made sure to remember everything he could tell about the road. Back in my previous life, travelling was as easy as booking a taxi or train or plane, but here, good old fashion journeying was all they had. "And would the breeze we feel while walking on the road be the same as where the wind blows?"
He smiled and said, "Only when you find yourself walking along a wide open plain, anywhere else and there could be other factors interfering, especially with a forest road like here." He gestured to the left, pointing at the rustling leaves. "Those are rustling towards the right, indicating a breeze going towards that direction." Then he held onto my shoulder and gently nudged me to stop. "Focus on that patch of leaves there further away."
I did so, focusing on where he pointed and pooled spirit power into my eyes to improve them—and as expected, those were blowing the other way. "I see."
"The trees sometimes make the wind twist and turn as they pass, and their being cooler than the earth makes them untrustworthy with judging the wind even if you climb to the tops." He stood back up and led us to catch up to the cart.
I sighed. Spirit power was fun, but all these petty things in life sure cut down on the enjoyment. "Travelling isn't very easy, now is it?"
Uncle Zhi chuckled. "You're too young to speak of hardships, little Jin." He ruffled my hair.
We continued our way like that until we reached a brook.
"We should let the horses rest for a while," said uncle Hu from the carriage's front. "We can also set camp here."
"I'm alright with it," I said.
"Then I agree," said grandpa Shan.
Grandpa went down and stretched his legs while I stood to the side and watched uncles Hu and Zhi make quick work of decoupling the horses as they explained each step, then inspected the cart for any repairs needed. After that, they led the horses to a nearby pasture to let them graze.
"Aren't you worried your horses will run?" I asked.
Uncle Hu shook his head. "There's no need to worry, little Jin," he said. "This pair of Dama and Xiaoma are both trained well, they wouldn't leave us unless something truly frightening appeared."
"Yeah, I'd be scared too," I said under my breath, then shrugged. "And I guess we could try the next lesson?"
"We'll start after setting up camp, alright little Jin?" he replied.
I contracted uncles Zhi and Hu outside their already good deal with grandpa, and promised them five gold coins each for whatever they can teach me about the road. Uncle Zhi preferred the big why's and how's, like how to know if rain is coming, or if there is fire somewhere. He also taught me about some known star positions and the general directions of the kingdoms within Heaven Dou over the last few days.
On the other hand, uncle Hu who loved going into the finer details of whatever he had, like the kinds of ropes and knots I should use for what purpose, or like how to tell edible plants from poisonous ones or to care for horses and how to ride.
When we finished, the four of us agreed to split roles: Grandpa Shan to start the fire, uncle Zhi to get some firewood and water, then me and uncle Hu were to catch us some lunch and dinner.
The two of us went into the forest with uncle Hu holding a large knife and me with his bow and arrow. My first step into the overgrown grotto was a bit different compared to Star Dou. There, it was as if there was a constant presence watching, but there was nothing like that here. Instead, it felt… asleep somehow.
I walked over the gnarled roots and some taller than normal Blue Silver grass brushed against my legs. I looked closer and noticed their leaves were thicker than what I remembered from our mountain. And as someone who used to feed on their life force so much, of course I'd be excited to also eat some from these ancient looking grasses. I'll get grandpa to take me back here later to do my business.
"Little Jin," uncle Hu whispered, "come." He crouched down and pointed at a bush.
I followed his lead and leaned closer, feeling the grasses under my feet shift and sway. "What are we looking at?" I asked, trying to see anything strange with the bush.
"Here," he said, gesturing at a broken twig near the ground. "If you're looking for people, you normally look at bushes and patches of grass where there were paths cut through them."
Uncle Hu gestured with his hand and brushed it through the bush, creating a depression like impression on the mess of branches and leaves. "People don't bother moving around plants since the shortest path is always a straight line. But animals aren't always large or strong enough to ignore such natural barriers, so they go around."
"And what about scared animals?" I said.
He smiled at that and pressed his body closer to the ground, finger tips touching the area around the bush. "That's when you start looking for footprints." He felt around for another few moments and said, "Here."
I reached with my hand, and he pressed it to the indentations he found. It was a long and slender mark. "A rabbit?"
"Yes," he said.
I tried to look for more footprints, feeling with my fingertips the undergrowth but found none. "Where did it go?"
"Let's see," he said, and dipped his head sideways, putting one eye parallel and as close to the ground. "Dust eventually settles when in a forest like this, and normally I'd be tracking for any bent grasses or broken twigs, but the light here isn't very good."
We went around and continued looking at the ground as I spread my domain as thin as possible over those areas we'd already checked. He found a faint trail, and let me feel what he read. The indentations on the ground weren't as distinct, but I could just faintly make out the front and back toes.
Uncle Hu gave me a stick to bend grasses with every now and then, and a branch with leaves to obscure my footprints with. Like that, we followed the rest of the tracks, taking care not to leave any of our own. He would also sometimes tell me to walk in some direction then to walk backwards and continue the path at an angle while making sure I kept my balance as close as possible to when walking forward.
I had my spirit power permeating the ground and monitoring whatever I could, as limited as I was without my Crown.
We eventually found our prey and returned to camp with two rabbits and three pheasants plus some wild plants we could use for food. I took out some cooking pans and a knife and board, and in an hour, all four of us were already waiting for the food to cook.
I then excused myself together with grandpa to return to that patch of unusual Blue Silver Grass and stayed there by myself. Grandpa didn't mind, and it was close enough for him to hear if anything went wrong. I ate my pheasant and rabbit there, and the tough meat was manageable thanks to some spirit power. Afterwards, I ate as many Snow Lotus fruits as I could before spreading Devour around me to cultivate, and opening Pranus Core to its widest.
Compared to the bright and cool mountains, the air here was heavier, as if there was a uniform something blanketing everything. Devour touched the plants around me and started feeding off their life force, transferring everything back to me through Core and filling my chakras one by one with a cool and refreshing energy before entering my Crown.
Pulse after pulse of life force filtered in, together with the energy released by those fruits and the cultivation bar steadily rose a percent a minute. I stayed like that in the stillness of the forest, and slowly attacked the sixteenth rank.
Following my choice to start feeding off the life force of other creatures on top of my own cultivation, I'd noticed my increase in ranks were rather seamless especially compared to that stupid experience of trying to reach eleven without a spirit ring.
After a while, when my spirit power was already nearing three quarters of the way, something touched Devour, and a different sensation entered—this one more lively and warm compared to the plants. I opened my eyes and saw a rabbit twitching with its feet up at the edge of my golden light. It seemed to be a regular rabbit that accidentally entered my Domain and had its life force sucked out of it.
Curious, I had my light finish what it started and directed all my spirit power to take everything I could from it. The dispersed light concentrated into a beam and settled on the creature as life poured into me, vibrant and warm. It was like a flash of red versus the cool and calm blue as the rabbit stopped all movement and the flow stopped. It was a strange sensation through and through. And in a stroke of cruelty, I found myself daring to strip the old grasses around me until they died.
So, I did, focusing that intense beam of devouring energy to sweep across. My cultivation bar kept rising, nearing eighty percent and it grew even faster still. Meanwhile the grasses kept bending lower and lower as if getting crushed by a pressure. But what surprised me most was that when those grasses disintegrated… they left behind white spirit rings.
After the shock faded, unimaginable fear settled into the deepest pits of my stomach. Whoever said Blue Silver Grass was trash was real fucking stupid. Like really fucking stupid. Here they were, ten-year spirit rings all floating in one direction, there weren't a lot, but there were enough to concern. And where there were ten-year spirit rings, then there'd be bound to be thousands, ten-thousands, and maybe even hundred-thousands.
Seeing those spirit rings floating and the waste that would happen, I shrouded them in Devour's light, both spirit rings and the husks they left behind, and all of it flowed into me as energy—but the fresh and cool blue became with a still and solemn green.
I bathed in that heavy atmosphere, each fading pulse like the last throes of a dying aria, and the air seemed to scream as that overbearing gold smothered those fading white lights.
When it all finished, only my light remained as the earth where it shone on became barren, neither rings nor withered leaves left, and from a quiet corner of Interface was the number sixteen. It was a tranquil passing into the next rank, unlike the usual outbursts of energy that ripped whatever I wore apart.
The cultivation bar also displayed around thirteen percent progress already there. But to have tackled the last steps towards the next rank in the span of a few hours was already beyond belief, and to think I still had more around me…
The following morning, I lied in the middle of a barren patch of land, all the trees withered, some animal carcasses scattered, and none of those ten-year Blue Silver Grass spirit plants remaining.
But then, I was already on the precipice of the eighteenth rank.
"Little Jin?!" came grandpa Shan's frantic shout.
I expanded my Domain to as far as it would go, bathing everything in gold as my insides twisted and turned with the effort. "I'm here," I said. "I'm alright."
A few moments later, he arrived in front of me, his hair in tangle and blown listless by a stale and cold breeze. The wind carried a rotten stench, and my insides burned with a white-hot pain.
"Are you alright?" he said, eyes darting left and right, spirit power thrumming, then crouched to help me stand up.
I closed my Domain and evened my breathing. "I am, grandpa."
He looked around, mouth opening and closing before he shook it off. "What happened here?"
Guilt, perhaps, reared its ugly head. I sighed but my breath caught in my chest. "It was all me, grandpa. I… took everything from here, even the rings of those Blue Silver Grasses."
Grandpa Shan stared at me with his mouth agape. "You?" He gestured at the barren clearing, a good twenty-five meters in diameter devoid of life. "Grass?"
"Yes," I said.
He blinked hard and said, "Alright."
After a few breaths and a dizzy spell, I stayed upright long enough to try walking, but each step threw my insides for a loop as my spirit power burned in my chest, the mess of energy raging and toiling. I spat out a mouthful of blood and fell to my knees.
"Little Jin?!" he said, and was by my side in a heartbeat. He put a hand to my back and that heavy feeling was pushed back somehow, alleviating the growing and buckling energy. "Your spirit power is running amok," he said. "You need to force it out!"
"No," I said. The lives I took were my burden to bear, and my pride wouldn't allow me to just let it go. "I refuse."
"Don't be a fool, little Jin," he said, livid. "You can take more later, but to damage yourself now is just as foolish as you taking more than what you could in the first place."
"I'm already at the peak before the eighteenth rank, why don't you just help me get over this?!" I spat out.
He growled something fierce and further injected his spirit power to suppress that energy, but the influx drew out a series of hacking coughs that scratched my throat with each heave. "Then do something quick you fool!"
I wrapped myself in my Domain and directed the spirit power into my Crown, the trail it took lighting up in my head like a searing brand, but none of it would enter. I then summoned my Hammer, remembering the black hole-like hunger it had, and pushed the energy into it instead, but my insides roiled more and more as my heart pounded out an erratic rhythm.
I opened Pranus Core and activated Devour on myself, not entirely sure what I wanted to accomplish, but my nose started bleeding and nothing seemed to be working. My ring then floated into view, its yellow with a purple twinge pushing my desperation to someplace new. I willed it to connect to Pranus Core and opened Devour to as much as I could and soldiered through my body getting torn apart.
The wild energy was roused to cycle within me, filtering through Pranus Core and through my spirit ring and back into my body in a loop. When it passed the first time, more blood escaped my lips as my ears started bleeding as well, but I kept it going, relying on grandpa keeping everything else at bay with his massive power. More passes were completed, and the cycle went faster and faster taking a few fractions of a degree away from the white-hot pain.
My cultivation bar refused to rise, and I got the feeling something was blocking me somewhere. I directed part of the energy to enter my chakras, filling each pool and cycling the excess through my two spirits as well as my ring. Crown, Hammer, ring, chakras, Core, that was the path the energy took, and still my cultivation wouldn't go up, and neither would my spirits accept any of the power.
"Little Jin," grandpa said, "what's happening now?"
"I can't push it into my spirits," I said. "The power refuses."
Grandpa growled again, "What did you expect from taking that energy from Blue Silver Grass?! There's nothing majestic or overbearing about some lowly grass!"
I growled back in return. "Less talking, more suggestions! And didn't you hear me say those grasses had ten-year rings?! Get that through your head grandpa! How many people would even dare hunt for Blue Silver Grass to take as a ring?!"
He pushed more of his energy into me. "You, you stupid idiot!"
"Well this idiot's probably gonna die unless we do something fast!"
"I'm not the one refusing to expel the energy!"
I tried doing as he said, swallowing my stupid pride as panic stabbed its grubby claws into each of my ribs and lungs and heart and throat, and tried to spit out that excess energy. But to no avail.
"I can't!" Holy shit what the fuck did I do?! "I can't grandpa!" All pretense of calm and the bearing of a king dissolved from the person who came to call himself Tang Jin and fucking cried as the energy started chipping away his heart. Tears of blood running down his face. "What the fuck did I do wrong?!"
The old man's eyes widened, "Where'd you pick up that kind of language young man?!"
"Just do something you old hack!"
All that energy being used to suppress the wild fire then started moving, tracing a path from the belly and radiating into the limbs as a pressure bore down on them and pressed it into bones, flesh, and innards. The person who came to call himself Tang Jin was thrust into a world that only knew of suffering, and the regret of hubris and greed. Wave after wave of fire would wash into and brand themselves into the smallest pieces of him, each one writhing and screaming in their own little voice and in their own little version of hell.
Time passed somehow, but the gravitas of what was transpiring made everything seem like a blur.
Both Tang Jin and Thomas Reave floated in a sea of blue, black, and gold, neither one any more real than the other. The life he left behind was like a dream, and the dream he lived now seemed too surreal to be true, and yet for the last four years he'd been there, living as he thought he should, only in this last year did he see some purpose other than to live by a fate he was borne with.
Thomas had almost forgotten what it was like to be him, and Tang Jin never got to be the kid he could've been, but in that space-less timeless span, they were there, maybe as one, maybe as each other. Then in a moment most bizarre, Tang Jin opened his eyes, hammer in hand and so did Thomas, wearing his crown. One boy with a head of gold and a young man with black met eye to eye.
"Hi, Thomas," said Jin.
"Hi, me," said Thomas.
The two stared at each other for the longest time. There was no need for words as their thoughts were not shared, but as one. But for argument's sake, they still chose to speak, if only for the novelty.
"So, does that mean we're dead now?" asked Jin.
"I'm not really sure," said Thomas.
"You wrote the Crown, you should know."
"That's 'we,' Jin. We wrote the crown. Well, I as in we."
"Seriously though, are we dead?"
"Trippy, eh? But again, I don't really know."
"Well if you don't, then neither would I." Jin hesitated for a moment. "But I guess this means we were originally separate people?"
"If the spirit is the manifestation of the soul and we have two merged as one, then I'd say yes."
"What about twin spirits?"
"Those guys probably didn't know about any soul hijinks like we do."
"That doesn't really explain anything."
"What's separating the soul from its knowledge?"
"I'm speaking theoretically here."
"That's avoiding the question."
"But it's as good an answer as we'll get."
A moment of silence passed, but a moment was only as relative as its perception, and in a space where time was uncertain, any length of time was just as valid to qualify as a 'moment.'
"If this is the afterlife then it's a little underwhelming," said Jin.
"Heh, dying gets overrated," said Thomas. "See it once and you've seen it all."
More time passed, then a throbbing began. Thomas and Jin both put on baffled looks, unsure of what was happening. Maybe grandpa found a way to save me? Maybe I really am dead now? I waited as the pulses happened faster and faster and settled to a steady beat: one-two, one-two.
The beating became louder, and there came a jolt that brought everything together.
I opened my eyes and met the gaze of a boy with dark blue eyes and hair.
"Hello, cousin Jin," he said.
He kept moving his hands around my body, a gentle and familiar energy coursing through the major blood vessels and lymph nodes then trailing down the spine and spreading through the major organs before settling into by the belly.
"Hgkk," my mouth was too dry to form words. Everyone besides me and auntie Yuehua had black hair, and ours were due to our spirits—so to call himself my cousin would either mean he had a variant or was a part of the outer sect.
"You've been sleeping for three days," the boy said. "You shouldn't try to speak for now."
I operated my Inventory and willed the pouch of Dragon Zoysia leaves to on top of my chest and opened my mouth.
The boy picked up the pouch and opened it, eyes widening. "You wish me to feed you some?"
He obliged and put a leaf to my tongue, and I willed my Domain to feed on the leaf, its calming energy coloring my numb spirit power in a gentle green.
His eyes widened again, "Dragon Zoysia does not take effect that fast. But when you get better, I hope little brother will be kind enough to teach me."
My cousin kept circulating my spirit power, and the path it took was unlike what grandpa Shan did for me before. In a minute or so, some of the numbness faded enough for me to ask for water. Just then, the door opened and in came a girl with a braid reaching her hips, she, like this boy looked easy on the eyes as well as had flawless skin to a degree only spirit masters could have.
"Ge, it's good that your cousin has already gained consciousness," she said with a smile. Guess I had two cousins then.
The red areas displayed in Interface were within acceptable levels by now. "My grandpa," I said with a rasp. "Is he alright?"
"Yes," my cousin said, his smile turned wry. "Though he's reluctant to come see you."
I wanted to sigh but couldn't. "Is he mad?"
He shook his head and said, "It would be easier to ask him yourself."
I tried sitting up, and found it easier than earlier. "Where is he?"
My cousin raised an eyebrow, but kept circulating my energy anyway. "He's just outside."
"Should I call for him?" my other cousin said.
I nodded. "Please, cousin."
She stepped out for a bit then in came grandpa with bloodshot eyes.
"Little Jin!" he was crying his eyes out. "Grandpa was very foolish," he said, his pained expression breaking in sporadic spasms. "Oh, little Jin, please don't scare me like that ever again." He grabbed onto me and held me tight, and I hugged him back.
Memories from that strange dream-state came back, and whether I was Tang Jin or Thomas Reave or some mix of the two, none of that mattered now. Here was my family—my new family, crying in front of me. "I'm sorry too grandpa," I said. "This foolish grandson of yours will no longer take any shortcuts with his future, so please, you were not at fault here at all."
He eventually settled down enough to let go of me, after which he straightened up his robes. "Not my fault my farts," he said. "You little rascal, you almost gave me a heart attack!" He hugged me in a tight but gentle embrace, almost desperate. "I had to rush us over to Yu Xiaogang in a panic and left those two uncles alone in the woods."
"Huh. We're here?" Well color me surprised.
"It was only a stroke of luck your cousin Tang San here had some way to dispel that energy." Grandpa's brash nature rekindled with each word, bringing back the grandpa I'd come to know and love.
"What do you mean what?" grandpa said. "There's nothing unclear about that, here is your cousin Tang San." He gestured at my blue-haired cousin, who waved at me with a reserved manner.
"Ah," I said. Fine. Sure, Tang San was my cousin. Let's just roll with it. "And sister is?" I looked at the girl who called my cousin as her brother.
She puffed out her chest. "Big sister here is called Xiao Wu, as in Wu of dancing."
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