Traveling along official roads between nearly any two countries wasn’t particularly dangerous. For those who were not cultivators there might be some dangers, but unless they offended stronger cultivators somehow, roads were quite safe. It was the case that cultivators might take some shortcuts through danger zones, either to save time or for training… but Barrett and Nilima were following the route she had taken previously, to the best of Nilima’s remembrance. She had been able to walk the entire route as only an early cultivator, with little support from Mistress Joshi. As they passed through various countries, Nilima commented on each of them.
“I meditated on top of that mountain.”
“We were attacked by bandits here.”
“… I don’t remember this place at all.”
“I… used to want revenge on the people here. I dreamed of growing strong enough to do whatever I wanted.” Nilima shook her head, “Now I don’t even remember what for. Something trivial.”
They travelled at a leisurely pace… which for them still meant some of the smaller countries didn’t even see a sunrise or sunset. A trip of years turned into just months, and finally they arrived in Cangui. “This is it. Though there’s still a long way to go.”
They passed through many villages- and very few cities of any size. In the villages, most of the houses were constructed from mud or clay. Sturdy enough, but hardly luxurious. Either woven sticks and branches or clay shingles decorated the roofs of the buildings, with the latter being less common. The only real roads were dirt tracks hardened by the continual passage of people.
The villages also possessed only a single well at most- usually quite old and in poor repair. Animals roamed the streets with only occasional fences to reign them in or to protect crops. The two travelers were given wary looks as they passed, Barrett being in full armor and cutting an intimidating figure. Nilima might have seemed to fit in, but her clothing style no longer matched that of Cangui.
The few large cities, however, were a very different story. While some of the buildings may have indeed used clay as a building material, their internal structure was supported by more complex architecture, stacking on top of itself to great heights. Instead of dull earth tones, the walls were coated in various vibrant and occasionally metallic colors. Very few buildings were without ornamentation, and even the most plain was carefully constructed.
Then there were the cultivators. Inside the villages, there was no trace of any other cultivators. However, they were quite easy to sense in the larger cities. That was normal enough- very few cultivators chose to live in poor villages where there were no resources… but the disparity was somewhat shocking. The difference between Stredo and Sashor to the east was also significant, but even the streets of Sashor had always been well paved even when they were independent.
When they reached a certain area, Nilima led Barrett around in circles as if searching for something. Then they stopped. “Here it is.”
Barrett looked around, seeing only empty fields and trees. “What?”
“My village. Apparently.” Nilima gestured all around and towards the ground, and Barrett sensed more closely around him. What he thought were rocks were instead the remains of walls and the like. Other than that, nothing else was left.
At first Barrett thought it was another unfortunate case of conflict, people killing others to seize what belonged to someone else. Except Barrett didn’t expect this particular village to have anything of value to seize. In addition, his senses didn’t indicate any violent damage to the former houses, signs of bodies or anything else. The village was just gone… swept away on the winds of time.
With nothing to say, Barrett said nothing. He merely waited for Nilima to speak instead. After a short eternity, she finally spoke. “Sorry Barrett, I didn’t think… I thought I’d just see it again and be done. But now I have to stay for a while.”
“Going to rebuild the village?” Barrett asked.
“No,” Nilima shook her head, “The village never mattered. I don’t even remember if it had a name. Maybe nobody does, anymore. I don’t know if the country even matters, but I need to stay here for a while.” Nilima’s eyes scanned the surroundings, “You can go back first.” She walked over to a certain point of the ground and stomped her foot, sending energy down into the ground. A spray of water rose up in front of her, shooting into the sky. Then it splashed back down, draining into the now-open well. Nilima sat on the ground nearby facing away from the well and towards the sun, her eyes closed as she sat in meditation.
If he chose to, Barrett could return to Stredo in a fraction of the time it took to arrive where he currently was. And then what? He would find himself back in the same old routines, doing the same training. Barrett looked into the well. It was already muddy from the recent activity, but he didn’t want to dirty it further. What else could he do? Nearby were some local trees that somehow manage to both seem wilty and yet widespread. But, in fact, they were more solid than they first appeared at a distance. Their extremely long limbs that stretched to the side were occasionally supported by another growth shooting down from them, propping them up. Like extra trunks, or legs. That made them more sturdy further out, but towards the edges they had no ‘legs’ to prop themselves up. That was fine, because the trees could support their own weight, but Barrett wanted them to support his.
It was easy enough to reach the far end of the branches as he stood upon them. If he could make a rickety bridge support his weight, a living tree wasn’t any harder. It was a bit more difficult to control for being alive, but it had no magic or will of its own to resist him. Barrett took it a step further, looking for smaller twigs to test himself against. Twigs snapped, sending him back to the ground to try again, but it was only a momentary loss. The question would be why the twig snapped. Had he not made it strong enough? No, perhaps it was even too strong. Too stiff, anyway, unable to flex. And there was a limit to what he could do, either inherent in the twigs or limited by his own abilities.
If he allowed them to bend just slightly, they could reduce the strain. He spent some days on that- resting when he needed to, but otherwise enraptured by the process. Then he tried standing on leaves. Unfortunately, they bent too easily, with not enough integrity to hold him up in the majority of cases. Only when they were perfectly angled to retain some support… then he had some success even though they ended up strangely offset. He continued his other training as well, strength and durability and flexibility for his whole body.
At some point, he came to realize other people had shown up. They watched him and Nilima, commenting in the language of Cangui. Barrett had heard some of it spoken in the cities and villages they passed, and even picked up a few words. Though he didn’t understand the exact words, they were clearly commenting on the strangeness of these two people in the wilderness.
It was a few more days before any signs of others were seen again, besides a tiger that thought Barrett looked like food and found out things would be quite the opposite. A handful of people cautiously approached Nilima. Then, though he again didn’t understand the words, he could tell they asked her to teach them. Nilima took some time to respond, and Barrett was surprised at her answer.
Her words were slow, likely because it had been such a long time since she’d needed to use them. It likely took quite a bit of effort to dredge up the language she hadn’t used in so long. From the responses of those around her, she had answered in the affirmative, and she began teaching right away.
Nilima took two separate leaves, one in each hand. One folded over on itself, losing all internal structure as it was destroyed by gentle energy. The other turned to dust, berserk energy tearing apart every bit of it. Then she began to demonstrate how to actually cultivate the forms of energy. Barrett listened to her words not to learn the technique but the language, while the handful of villagers listened for much the opposite. Four out of the five clearly began attempting to train berserk energy, while the only woman in the group chose to train in gentle energy. Barrett wondered if she thought it would be easier… or if she understood that she was more suited to the gentle energy.
Barrett smiled to himself. The men would do better with gentle energy as well. At least, with the current state of their bodies. Without strong physical bodies, it would be hard to call upon berserk energy, and to contain it. They probably wouldn’t be able to generate enough of it to seriously hurt themselves, however. Not for a while. Barrett’s training in the area went quite a different way. He’d trained his body… and then the first destruction by Master Hykel had shoved him down the path of the Immortal Berserker. That had been his choice, and the Immortal Berserker Style allowed one to quickly travel down the path… at the cost of danger. Other styles of berserk energy were at least slightly less dangerous to begin with. Even though Nilima’s berserk energy had originally been that of the Immortal Berserker Style, her insights were much different. Whatever the villagers learned, it would be much different. In fact, it wouldn’t even be Nilima’s style… unless someone actually had the audacity to try to learn both. It wasn’t impossible, but with no prior cultivation experience… extremely, extremely difficult.