Chapter 04 – Ascension
“What is a soul,” I say to the small naked rabbit sheltered in my cupped hands. “That’s the first thought I had when I ended up here.”
I sit down and rest my back against the tree’s interior. I poke the fire while putting the rabbit on my lap. The little animal looks like an oversized pink raisin, it’s ugliness somewhat countered by the cute way the little critter is wiggling its nose and nuzzling my hand. I stare into the fire for a bit, wondering how I should tell this tale of mine. I have found that reasserting oneself is a rather crucial habit to have when you get to my age.
“I’m like over a thousand years old, ya know. You’re not even an hour old. That makes me…” here I pause to let my slow brain crunch the numbers “…ten million times your senior. So follow proper etiquette and obey me, your granddaddy, okay?”
I stare down at the little pink thing some more. I stop poking the fire and scratch it between its ears, infusing a bit of energy into the critter as I do so. “Right, but I should start at the beginning, no?”
Nodding to myself, I start telling my – literally – captive audience a story.
“My name is Drew Lian and I’m a cultivator. Not one of crops and soil but one of my own body, or rather my mind. It all started when I died on Earth. My last memory is of sitting in my pride and joy, the massive library I built throughout my life.
“Then I guess I died, because next thing I know I’m some young kid whose parents just got killed. A little shit of a young master had been torturing us three for looking at him a bit too long. That’s just something that happens when a simple mortal annoys a cultivator, stuff like that was pretty common. Life was pretty shit for common folk in that world.”
I shrug in a helpless manner as I relive the constant atmosphere of dread that kept the entire village docile and empty-eyed. Life for mortals under the heel of non-benevolent and all-powerful cultivators is just not great.
“The little asswipe eventually got bored and left, telling me how honoured I should be my lowly life had been of some use to the mighty him. Anyway, it took me a while to bury those two unfamiliar humans, my body felt the familial relation and I couldn’t just leave them there to rot. I then made my way back to the village my body hailed from and laid low for a few years.”
I shift in a more comfortable position, patting the tree I’m leaning on while feeding the little rabbit a blade of grass. I look up and see that the big rabbit carcass hanging above the fire is nearly done. The few roots I found also smell tasty. I wipe the drool from my mouth and start eating, continuing to talk to myself and the rabbit in between bites.
“So I found out my parents had been simple farmers. I lived in the shadow of the Black Turtle sect, a low ranked group of bandits that lucked into finding a cultivation technique. That place was filled with zealots, maniacs and idiots. Their hobby was sitting in a room all by themselves while absorbing this energy called qi whenever they weren’t too busy with killing themselves or us.
“Life in that village was pretty bad. Think of a ruthless slavery dictatorship but only with less happiness and smiles. I’d have loved for something as convenient as receiving the memories of this body’s previous owner, but that didn’t happen. Instead, it took me years before I learnt the language while playing the traumatised child. Some of the elder folk in the village took pity on me and taught me to speak, read and write the local language. I’m still thankful for that old geezer…
“My period of laying low came to an end when I came across the corpse of one of these cultivators. I was sixteen at the time, too old to get into any sect. Without a special body constitution or other mystical affinities, I would’ve been stuck with the scrubs in the outer court anyway.
“I looted the dead sucker and found an introduction to cultivation manual, a few pills and a talisman or two. The corpse must have gotten poisoned, escaped and succumbed to his wounds a few kilometres into the forest bordering my birth village.”
I pause to throw some more wood on the fire. The flames lick at the wood as I reminisce about times long past. I briefly question my own sanity. I’m sitting in the middle of a forest, resting inside a partially hollow tree while enjoying the flames that come from burning said tree’s very body. And I’m talking to a day old rabbit kit while leaning against a tree I’ve had an actual conversation with.
“Right… The initial cultivation method I found was the Black Bone first stage manual. It instructed me to infuse my body with qi of certain elements. Starting from the bones, tendons, muscles, inner organs and finally skin, my body would change into the colour of my chosen element.
“I didn’t like the idea of having to restrict myself to a single element even back then. Instead of blindly following the complicated diagrams and chants, I read the manual and tried to understand it. I got the gist of what it wanted me to do and then made up my own method.
“From then on, I tested every manual I came across and tried to learn the fundamentals behind what makes the method special. I then followed this up by experimenting with the basics learnt from it. I used the fundamental tenants of science from Earth to create my own understanding of the concept of cultivation. Observation and experimentation. Look at something happening and wonder why.”
I stare the little rabbit in its eyes as I say this last part. I then wonder why it has its eyes closed. Bunnies are born blind, but I’m pretty certain this one was peeking through a crack between its pink eyelids not minutes ago.
I sigh deeply while licking the fingers of my free hand clean. This isn’t really about telling it the story, honestly. Pretty massive changes just happened and I tend to get a bit unhinged whenever I lose grip of my roots and past. So I’ve made it a habit to occasionally go through my entire life when I feel unlike myself.
I look around the dark forest. Each tree and leaf I see is unfamiliar, their shapes weirdly angular and their colours slightly wrong. I put both hands around the little sleeping critter and sink into meditation myself, going over the rest of the story I had planned to say out loud.
Thinking back to the true start of my journey, I suddenly realise that my interest in the soul stems from that period of my life. Research into the soul is supposed to be god’s domain. That’s what all the sects, organizations and churches have been spouting at me anyway. Me suddenly appearing in someone else’s body – even if it looks rather like my old one – kick started my intense interest in the soul, I wanted to know how I got here and if I could go back.
That was my true goal as I travelled the world on my own. I gained some scarce resources and manuals and started to contemplate the path and Dao of Freedom. Being unbound and untethered, that was my personal goal. A rogue cultivator unbound by any sect or organisation, just the way I like it.
I travelled far into wild beast forests and explored expansive cave systems that crossed continents. I managed to avoid being in debt to anyone. I avoided sects like the plague. They all have these ways of cultivating qi that are unique, so I always ran away the moment I sensed those types of energy.
I even once came across the legacy of a demi-god realm cultivator, a legendary and mythical figure that ascended thousands of years ago. I deconstructed his methods into basic elements and used these lessons to improve my own cultivation method. I learnt and used his knowledge instead of blindly following in the geezers’ footsteps.
Turns out, everybody’s best path of going forwards in life – also known as you Dao – is different. Most of the people I met restricted themselves to one single method or technique. They usually polished it till perfection and then complained that they had limited potential. Instead, I learnt from what all I came across and chose my own path.
It took me centuries before I gained enough power to keep myself safe from the major forces, having pissed off enough of them in the process. What didn’t help that I had also become known as a heretical soul cultivator. I didn’t truly cultivate my soul though, that’s fake news. Actually messing with your soul tends to go wrong very quickly. I mean, that’s how devil or demonic cultivators are born. One small mistake with the construct that’s at the core of every being and things tend to go very, very wrong. Most of the time in a spectacular fashion.
Spectacular as in wiping half a continent of the map. Spectacular as in spawning endless hordes of evil beast that spread in every direction, killing all in their way and leaving an endless corrupted wasteland in their wake.
By then I fully understood why researching the soul was and still is such taboo in the lower realms. Messing around or even examining the soul tends to throw Fate out of whack. The Fate I’m talking about here is what I have learnt to be a massive calculating machine in the higher realms. They use it to keep track of the mortals below, guiding – forcing – them into a path best suited for the machinations of these gods. This is all well-informed speculation, of course. It’s hard to know things for sure when actual, real-life mystical forces are involved.
Another reason to mistrust sects. Any info they’ve got, the higher planes got. You put your hand on a big ass talent testing pillar? Congratulations, the higher realms received a nice and tidy file with all the info that there is to know about you. Just because someone ascended to a higher level doesn’t mean they lose all interest in the place they came from. Especially when that place is relatively easy to understand from up there.
Meddling bastards, thinking they know better. All I ever did was causing the souls of critters to go berserk on purpose to learn what not to do. I then applied that knowledge to protect and only protect my own soul.
I had seen the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel by then and had started preparing for my inevitable ascension from that world. But that’s something I’ll think about later. The energies in my head and body have settled now, calming down from the rebellious state they had been in.
I decide to postpone any further reminiscing and do something about the black hole that is my stomach. A filled stomach is a happy stomach and I start settling my tumultuous emotions with food. Grabbing another bunny leg from above the fire I sprinkle it with a small salt bottle I retrieve from my spatial ring and take a big bite. As soon as I started cooking my hunger surged up, almost knocking me flat.
I need to make some adjustments to my priorities and place food a lot higher up on the list. I used to be able to sustain my body with energy alone, but this is no longer the case. Cultivation is done with a limited amount of energy and I need to ration the few threads of power I’ve got. I don’t want to waste my meagre fighting power on suppressing hunger.
Drool drips from my mouth as I bite into the succulent flesh. One of the tasty smelling root I dug up from the forest starts to get blackened from the fire. Unwilling to wait I decide it is done and dig in. I don’t worry about incompatible proteins and micro-nutrients. Alien vegetables are usually useless for any non-native beings when it comes to nutrition value, but using qi to break matter down into its individual components allows the body to use the sustenance anyway.
Having fed myself I look to the little bunny in my lap. I just ate its mother and I can’t bring myself to do it any harm. I decide to think about it later and just feed it some qi for now. It should sustain the little thing until morning. I tear off a strip of cloth and wrap the critter up warmly, after which I lay it inside the hollow tree where it soon falls asleep. With the experimental subject stowed away, I focus on other things.
Other things like what am I supposed to do now? Seriously, I just got stripped of all my power, had my rightful place of power in a higher dimension stripped away from me without warning and am now stuck here on this unknown world for an unknown amount of time.
I thank all that Is holy and good that there is at least some form of energy in the air, each new breath I take is letting me regain my power slowly. It’s just a shame it’s such a negative source. The smell is still rather unbearable each time I breathe in.
I try hard to not let the fear of the unknown set in again. I finish up the few scraps of meat on the rabbit carcass, eat the other root vegetables and bury the remains. I sigh deeply and nearly choke on the foul smell permeating the air. I sit down next to the tucked in snoozing critter and recall how I ended up here, away from everything I ever have known – again – and bereft of a thousand years of cultivation.
“So here I am, a cultivator at the top of the world and about to ascend!” I make grand sweeping gestures towards the little bunny. Her previous pink skin has started showing signs of white hairs here and there. I raise my eyebrow as the little critter looks at me while swivelling her ears around.
Oh yeah, I found out it’s a female. I did a checkup and figured it out after some searching. That’s all that needs to be said about that. I was slightly worried because normal rabbits remain naked for an entire week and need two weeks before their ears and eyes open. I continue my dramatic story as she follows my gestures with her lidded eyes.
“Looking around, I see a majestic sight. A range of mountains many dozen kilometres high stretching out in a fading tableau of stark ice and black rock. By this time I’m honestly getting pretty sentimental at the end of things, you know. Who knew I was that type of person, not me!
“Massive churning clouds swirl around my figure as I sit on top of the highest mountain for leagues around. The thunder crackling through the clouds is a clear sign of imminent heavenly tribulation. Said mountain is far away from any form of civilization. I picked the spot to allow me to ascend without any bothersome interference. I really shouldn’t have bothered though, the gods above are pretty unhappy with me.
“Anyway, that’s the only way I can explain why there are suddenly several ancient monsters and a hundred other mighty figures hanging in the air around me. Thinking back, the powers that be must have sent down prophecies to all the major sects. The message must have spouted something like a massive evil being outbreak that’s about to occur or some bullshit like that. They all look pretty annoyed and not all of that annoyance is directed at me.
“The thunder started building up power only half an hour ago. That’s not enough time for even the most powerful cultivators to get here from the civilized lands. I’m further guessing that those guys were getting sick of me stealing all the good stuff from under their young disciples’ noses without leaving a trace.”
I actually chuckle as I think about the amount of extra work I caused those arrogant bastards. I shake my head and refocus on the story.
“Many voices shout at me, yelling and cursing at the top of their lungs!”
I shift the pitch of my voice as I recall the deluge of comments, imitating the crowd of arrogant assholes as best as I can.
“You rogue bastard, don’t think that I, your father will allow you to cause further havoc.”
I mimic an ancient voice, brimming with malice. What did I do to him again? I remember I actually recognised him. Just because I was a bit better than his personal disciple he wanted to kill me? I didn’t even cripple that dumbass too badly, rude.
“You have sown enmity with our Great Heavenly Fields sect a thousand years ago; don’t think that I will let you off lightly”
This time I talk in a smooth voice, one that will worm itself into your ears. Their name sounds nice and all, but their direct lineage cultivation method required them to deflower as many young girls as possible. The mighty Heavenly Fields sect, an illustrious and worshipped sect, was just a bunch of perverted paedophiles. I smile as I remember the many times I underhandedly delivered some justice on their greasy asses.
“You spit on the name of my Dark Moon sect, refusing my invitations time and time again. If you won’t give me face, I’ll simply take it from you!”
This one is pompous and filled with empty pride. Why couldn’t those assholes simply talk normally? Causing havoc? Sowing enmity? Refusing invitations? I didn’t want to sit in the same place for the rest of my life. All I did was taking some good fortune for myself and protect my own privacy and they thought I stole from them… At that point, I was extremely sick and tired of hearing about face! That entire concept – or at least their interpretation of it – is bad. I my opinions it’s like honour but twisted and without the integrity and other good bits.
The little rabbit is staring at me with awe on her little face. Yeah, that’s totally awe. I let my arms drop from where I was waving them around pompously and dramatically look around.
“Phah, I thought, those tombs and crypts didn’t have their names on them. This might sound a bit arrogant, but the massive amount of raw power and influence these cultivators represent would petrify anyone else. Also because I am the youngest here but have the highest cultivation base of them all.”
I lean forward a bit, making sure to keep her attention trained on me as I continue my story.
“Closed door cultivation does help one grow, but the true polishing of one’s skills comes from living life! Going out and adventuring, meeting new people, doing new things is what my Dao is all about. My speedy advance to the top must have scared the crap out of these millennia-old fogies. A young upstart not even a thousand years old dares to have a higher cultivation base then these tens of thousands of years old monsters? How dare I!
“Energy fluctuations from around and above alert me to incoming danger. The surrounding cultivators all have their most powerful techniques prepared and on a hair trigger, mystical light and archaic shapes surrounding their floating figures. The lightning up above starts gathering at the eye of the storm. I close my eyes and use a modified iron moulding technique to bring up massive quantities of metal from underground.”
I use the little qi I have to float sticks around me, using small wires of power to recreate the entire scene. The bunny has her eyes glued to the spectacle.
“Preparation is key to everything. I have spent the last couple of hundred years gather massive amounts of lightning infused metals just for this moment. A Faraday cage made from the most conductive materials I could find springs up around me as the lightning strikes.
“The massive deluge of arcing lightning washes away the elemental dragons, sword qi slashes and other various colourful attacks thrown at me. The gathered cultivators stare in dumb disbelief. One even twitches his eyebrow. These old geezers all have immense power and absolute control over their bodies, so this physical slip up makes me proud. To shake the heart of someone tens of thousands years old is quite the achievement.”
I push my chest out a bit and smirk down at my single audience member. I can be smug if I deserve it, after all.
“In a flash they have new attacks prepared and the air is cloyingly thick with residual qi, remnants of the multitude of techniques. I reach out to this ownerless energy and use it to shore up my mental defences.
“The cage around me shines with a dim light, just in time to receive the second lightning bolt. The electric surge gets transferred to the ground harmlessly, but I feel my control of the now molten metal slipping. I change a few aspects of the controlling spell, borrowing from a water manipulation method to keep the glowing molten metal in place. I do a calculation and relief washes over me.
“You see little bunny, ascending provokes the heavens into sending down seven lightning strikes, each more powerful than the last. I crunched the numbers and the metal should not reach plasma state temperatures before the final lightning bolt hits. Unless all the cultivators around me start blasting me with fire techniques, that is.
“There are lots of stories about three, nine or other multiples of three. The amount is supposed to hold great meaning, but I suspect that the first ascender of that world just randomly chose a number.
“The hovering crowd around me use the gaps in-between lightning strikes to bombard me with attacks. I let anything made up from the water or ice elements hit me without interference, thankful for their cooling effects on the boiling metal. Any other technique is handled with a release of lightning qi that’s still captured in my glowing cage. Not a single hair on my head has moved so far while the mountain I’m sitting on is slowly being destroyed.
“After the sixth bolt strikes down an unspoken signal causes a few sect masters to get into a formation. Four men and three women stand at equal distance from each other, forming a six-sided hexagon with the most powerful person in the middle. They all feed energy to the middle guy, causing him to flash with a green radiance. The massive bird made out of pure energy flashes towards my perch on top of the mountain, causing the very space itself to quake and crack. Black lines of fractured space-time follow the technique, but I’m not really paying attention. All I do is throw most of the qi in the surrounding air into the path of the bird, slowing it down just enough for the last stroke of heavenly lightning to strike.
“The lightning is now the width of an average sized car. A quick glance at the metal surrounding tells me that the white-hot glowing lattice is just shy of 5000 degrees Celsius. I’m reassured that the critical temperature is not reached yet, allowing the metal to remain in liquid form.”
My experience with plasma is limited because of the sheer energy required to get anything to that kind of temperature. I did some testing on a rather small scale but a couple grams of plasma will surely react differently than the couple of tonnes of potential metal plasma around me. I don’t think I’d die, but letting myself become surrounded with hyper-charged plasma is not a risk I’m willing to take.
“Then, the clouds suddenly vanish and an eerie silence spreads out for a few seconds. An enormous amount of golden light shoots down from the heavens, surrounding me in a surreal glow. I feel the bounds of this planet loosening its hold on me while I start to float up into the air gently. Then everything goes white.”
I’m waving my arms around like mad, jumping up and down in order to convey the proper mood.
“A fraction of a second later I feel like I’m reaching warp speed. That’s the only way to describe the feeling of distance I’m travelling. Surrounded by white blurs that speed by faster than I can think, I wonder how the higher realms look and what type of food they’ll have.”
I cough once and lower my chin. This part will be tricky to tell properly.
“A snorting sound larger than a planet crashes into me and I screech to a halt. I still see white all around me, but now a faint barrier light-years in front of me is visible.”
I shout this word at the top of my lungs.
“Another galaxy sized word rams into my senses. I don’t hear with my ears now; I hear this word with my very soul.”
“OBSCURING FATE, MEDDLING WITH THE STREAM, FREEDOM IS A CAGE.”
I cough a bit, my throat is starting to hurt from all this booming screaming I’m doing. The little rabbit is blinking at me while tilting her little head.
“These words leave me reeling, my entire being shuddering with the words that are uttered. I feel a hand being waved without seeing anything at all. Then I’m moving at a speed many factors above the previous hyper warp, booming through the universe.”
“I catch glimpses of galaxies swirling in a complex dance. I see a universe being born and I close my eyes. Ignorance is bliss, I think and try to forget that I saw things that no human mind could ever contain. I especially ignore all those tentacle monstrosities.”
“Then I slam into a darker sector of this metaphorical space and I lose consciousness.”
I stand there, silently looking around me as I return from the spirited retelling and performance. The rabbit seem very unimpressed. I try to catch my breath and sit down again.