Once again, Barrett and Nilima arrived next to the Southern Metal Sea. However, their journey this time would be much easier than travelling to the depths of its chill metal- they would merely be walking next to it… for reasons of safety.
In terms of environmental danger, going through Sashor and Ashia would be much less- there were likely not any creatures around that could hurt Barrett, even if he did nothing. However, the natural dangers weren’t their current concern. The Ostain Empire had already been in control of Ashia when Barrett lived there, but they hadn’t exactly been sending their armies through the area at the time. Now, they might actually have some glimmer of an idea that Barrett himself existed, in which case he wouldn’t want to be noticed. They certainly wouldn’t mind killing Nilima either, since taking out a future master or two would help their overall plans.
Fortunately, they’d stayed away from the Southern Metal Sea for the moment… and unless they changed that and a few grandmasters showed up together, Barrett and Nilima could at least come out alive by escaping into the sea. They couldn’t necessarily count on the guardians to help them, but the sea itself was a good enough damper on the abilities of those who weren’t ready for it.
But, nothing slowed them down as they moved through the glinting sands. A few unlucky creatures thought they looked small enough to eat, but shells hard as steel weren’t nearly sufficient to protect them.
Further to the east were mountains. It was possible to go over them- but there was a convenient valley.
“This is where you found all that taspum, right?” Nilima commented. The wind blew around her, not slowing her movements.
“That’s right. That stuff was a pain.” Before, Barrett would have lowered the friction around himself, allowing the wind to pass by more easily… but now, it took little effort to also direct it around himself. He could have easily pushed against it, but that wouldn’t have had any benefit to him. Instead, controlling a flow of air was something different… though not particularly more difficult than still air. At least, not if he didn’t think about it too hard. If he really focused on grasping each little bit of air? It suddenly became quite difficult. However, when just going with the overall feeling of everything around him, he could just have it move around him. It was like moving a limb. Easy, unless you were paying too much attention, trying to figure out exactly which muscles needed to move… “This is the furthest east I’ve been,” Barrett commented.
“It’s not even really that much further east than where you were born. Or Etron.” Nilima tilted her head, “Maybe Temperpine forest was about the same.”
“Hmm, that’s right. It’s been so long now.”
Nilima tilted her head, “Fifty years? That used to seem like so long. So old. I never expected to live that long.”
“My parents weren’t even fifty. Now we’re… almost seventy.” Barrett sighed, “Being a cultivator sure distorts your perception of time.”
“Well, yeah.” Nilima shrugged, “Especially for people like us. We’re still young, after all, since we moved through the tiers at optimal speed.” She thought for a few moments, “Then there’s Alnherr. While he doesn’t seem the type to care about looks, at some point the body isn’t able to keep us as well.”
“I never dreamed of reaching this level… in fact, I barely knew about cultivators at all except as legends. If I’d been asked the difference between a master and a grandmaster I would have said one was older.” Barrett shook his head, “It’s strange how many of us with the potential all gathered at once.”
Barrett couldn’t help but assess the military power of places he was going through. Murkuida was actually quite competent in that area. It wasn’t the sort of place that would easily be conquered by the Ostain Empire, with its unforgiving forested terrain. There were many tall and spindly teak trees, vine, and the like. While the area itself wasn’t as deadly as Driasal, the inhabitants had better control over it. There were sizable roads patrolled by guards and while there weren’t any cities the size of Stredo, Barrett didn’t really expect to find anything like that anywhere else. Unlike many other countries, the cultivators of Murkuida didn’t often leave the country, instead joining their military. There wasn’t much for foreign cultivators to do, so they quickly passed through- unless they chose to spend their hard-earned income in some of the larger cities on some of the exceptional textiles. Of course, they weren’t just well made but also expertly enchanted.
Past Murkuida the terrain turned rocky. Barrett felt like he had climbed a mountain and was looking down into craggy valleys, but in fact the terrain just fell away all around. Ninria, to the east and just a bit south of Murkuida, was poor and without many resources. Thus, there was little travel between them… and the infrastructure for doing so was quite old.
“I remember these,” Nilima looked at the rickety bamboo bridges stretched between the crags. “I remember them being old when I passed through before… and now, I think some of them were rebuilt and became old again. There was a lesson here, in walking carefully.” Nilima stepped across the bridge. The bamboo slats were broken in places, and liable to snap in others with the slightest provocation. However, her movements were quick and without hesitation. The bridge didn’t even shake slightly. Nilima turned back to watch Barrett.
He hadn’t followed after her. While it would be quite easy to step exactly where she had, there was one slight issue. He was quite a bit heavier than her. That was without counting armor or anything in his magic bag. Even when it was new, Barrett was unsure of the bridge being able to withstand him stepping on it. Just as he was about to give up and leap the twenty or thirty meters that the bridge spanned, he considered an idea. If he failed… well, he would just fall. Since it wasn’t a high tier danger zone, he could only expect to fall a great distance, perhaps tumbling into rocks on the way. Nothing that could hurt him.
Still, there were some stakes to failing… like looking silly, and destroying a bridge other people might wish to use. Barrett readied himself, then stepped forward. The bridge could not hold him. He could move his weight around inside his person, but it would still be somewhere and ultimately press down on the bridge below. The air beneath the bridge, no matter how he willed it to support him, could not hold him. Barrett took another step, and another, continuing at a measured pace. The bridge could not hold him, but… he was unbreakable. If he was unbreakable, then the bridge could be unbreakable. Barrett smiled as he reached the other side.
“Why do you look like crossing the bridge was an accomplishment?” Nilima frowned. “I did it at first tier, you know.”
“I don’t know if you had much actual potential to break the bridge at the time.” Barrett chose not to bring up unpleasant details, but he hadn’t called her twig-girl for nothing. She was small and extremely skinny, probably weighing a third of what he had back then- which was much less than the current time. “Not without energy, anyway.”
Walking across bridges still wasn’t technically much of an accomplishment, no matter how rickety they were. However, Barrett found the experience quite useful. He could apply a similar technique to anything. If he could make the ground beneath his feet more solid, he could more efficiently make use of his muscle power to move around. Of course, he could compact dirt with his feet to the same end result, but any extra expenditure of time and energy added up in a close battle. Eventually the cliffs became further apart, too much for bridges to gap… and ladders descended the cliffs to the valleys below.
Ninria was a small country, with not enough farmland for all of its people tight packed in narrow valleys. Not only could they not produce enough food… there wasn’t enough work for everyone. Yet, few people wished to leave their home country- nor was it easy to travel without resources. Barrett wanted to hunt something to feed the emaciated citizens, but he knew there weren’t any places with any game. Just decent farmland but not enough of it, the country having grown to overcrowd its cramped domain.
Nilima commented on seeing the people, “When I passed through with Mistress Joshi, this place reminded me of home. I hated it.” As they passed through the first larger city on their path through Ninria, Nilima found a building and stopped. “Wait here.”
So Barrett waited, looking at the buildings around him. He was impressed with the architecture he saw… which was unfortunate, because the population wouldn’t have as easily exceeded the country’s capacity if they were less skilled in that area. They were able to build into the sides of the cliffs, stretching up and down and out of them in tiered structures.
Nilima didn’t say anything as she left, and Barrett had politely chosen not to hear any conversation inside. As they moved along through the valleys, Barrett watched as Nilima pulled out small objects, using her energy to push them into the ground as they walked along. He could tell they were seeds, but hadn’t seen them before. Presumably, she had said something about those in the building, though he didn’t think she obtained them there. They didn’t feel like anything currently in the area.