(Patreon) Elder Cultivator 514

-–Chapter Index–-

Several weeks prior.

Sensation was nearly impossible to quantify when the only light came from spontaneous combustion of compressed gasses which turned into liquids, and a monumental pressure squeezed every part of the body to the point that touch and hearing were overrun.

The first thing Nthanda had lost were her eardrums. They had sufficient strength to withstand a deep ocean, but not this. It was a difference of… Nthanda wasn’t fully sure. A hundred times? A thousand? She was still falling, as far as she could tell. How far would it grow? Ten thousand times? Perhaps more. So far, the building pressure had given her just enough time to keep her head from turning to mush, plugging her ears, nostrils, and eyes with natural energy while squeezing her lips tight. 

Her body still broke, but it maintained a humanlike shape. Western Steel Body and her personal touches went far beyond the actual strength of steel at the peak of Life Transformation, but it wasn’t sufficient. How could it be? She had chosen this location for its extremity. As she fell, the pressure only continued to increase. Soon, her energy would give out and her body would be crushed, probably starting with her brain.

She could feel it, the barrier of ascension. If she just pushed through that somehow, she would be free of this unrelenting pressure. Her body was adapting as quickly as it could, the traces of chitin she developed from the void ants keeping her skin vaguely intact. But soon, she would fail.

It was strange, at such a time, to feel hunger. As a cultivator who focused on body tempering, she ate more than any other- many times more, depending on how far she pushed herself. Yet that generally came in the form of training or battle and then a large feast. On the battlefield, her body suppressed such feelings. Yet now, in such a crisis situation, she couldn’t help but want to go for a snack.

If she had brought a storage bag with her, she would have eaten it. Not just the food inside, or all of the contents, but the whole bag itself. Her hunger was so great that only eating a spatial distortion seemed like enough.

That was how Nthanda knew that her brain was broken and she was going to die. She felt her body passing through the twisting gasses that had not yet compressed into a liquid mixed with those forced into a liquid state. She was also thirsty, so she did the only sensible thing.

As she was going to die in a few moments anyway, she might as well drink it. What rushed into her mouth, forcing its way to the back of her throat and into her stomach was not water. Yet somehow, her body greedily tried to absorb it. Her stomach was overly full in an instant, then her body began to digest whatever was in it. 

Since that would kill her anyway, she gave in and took a breath, realizing her lungs were starved for air just as much as anything else. Somewhere in the mixture of gasses was the oxygen her body craved, but it could have easily been one of the liquids. 

Nthanda accepting her fate didn’t mean she was giving in. It was just that in her brain addled state it felt like the right thing to do, the inspiration cultivators sought. She would die in a moment or two, but before that happened she had to follow her instincts.

Nothing of what she consumed was anything like food, but somehow it flowed from her stomach through her body, being absorbed and transformed. To the very best of her ability, she pushed that transformation.

At some point she found herself not falling any deeper. Nthanda couldn’t be sure if she’d reached the deepest point, but she felt that wasn’t quite right. She simply wasn’t dense enough to sink further. Her body was much heavier than a ‘normal’ cultivator, compressed muscle and bone requiring more weight no matter how efficiently they were otherwise constructed. 

Time no longer made much sense as she floated there, ‘breathing’ and ‘eating’. She wasn’t quite sure what it was, but she found herself consuming the matter around her. It was barely enough to survive. She needed something more, and somehow she still had some conscious thought. Her natural energy reserves were gone, but her ears and eyes were somehow holding together enough to not let anything through to her brain. That allowed her to think, and the only thing she could think of was the void ants- their Great Queen had come with her, though Nthanda had been distanced from her almost immediately.

Her ability to absorb natural energy wasn’t significant. That was part of the reason she’d focused on body tempering as a way to grow strong. Yet the void ants didn’t absorb energy like a cultivator at all. They ate it.

Nthanda was well aware she didn’t have the special mandibles meant to chew up energy, nor a digestive system that could handle it. But what would trying hurt? It might kill her, but that was a fate of many who pushed themselves to the limit of Ascension. Ascension… she somehow felt she could just reach out and tear apart the world, and then she would be done- whisked off to a place with exceedingly dense energy that was so different as to have its own name. But she no longer wanted that. She wanted something else.

So she ate. She ate gas and liquid and occasional shards of solid matter that formed of things that simply couldn’t be solid normally. But she also ate energy- that which was mixed within it, and that beyond it.

It hurt. It hurt her teeth, and the nerves behind them. Her jaw, her throat, her stomach. All of them protested her efforts. But she continued… and she didn’t die.

What she later determined must have been days or more passed, and she found herself… whole. More or less. Her eardrums were reforming somehow, an internal pressure fighting against the outside. She’d sunk even deeper, her density increasing somehow.

Then she managed to have whole thoughts. More than just eating and surviving but… how was she going to get out of this? Everything was just pulling her down. 

She stretched out her arm and reached, grasping, pulling. It was almost like swimming, though a heavy gravity pulled her down. No, the gravity itself was hardly relevant. It was the pressure, the masses of everything above her. She reached and pulled and swam, fighting against everything- and imagining herself to be light. She wasn’t quite sure if it worked, but she had nothing better to do. Even now that she could open her eyes without them driving through her brain, there was nothing of note to see.

She climbed towards what she thought was upwards, squirming her way through the density of liquid gasses, ever onward. Sometimes, she would eat. It was quite refreshing. Then, she felt a presence- a small one, but notable for how the energy around it ceased existing. Her hand wrapped around a tiny body, carefully avoiding wings that somehow helped pull her further upward.

—–

“So basically, that’s what happened,” Nthanda finished explaining to Anton.

“Is that… so…” Anton nodded slowly. It wasn’t the fact that she survived inside a gas giant that was odd. If she truly broke through to the next stage, that was something that could be accomplished. It was just… odd. “And you feel no connection to the location?”

She shook her head, “Nothing real. Except like… as a memory of my advancement. I’m not connected with a string of energy, or drawing from it. In fact I kinda…”

“Have less energy than before,” Anton nodded. “It almost felt like you became weaker, but your stop on Ceretos let you compare your power to others.”

“And I let you shoot me,” she nodded.

“Along with that,” Anton agreed. He had taken the cautious route, gradually ramping up his power with each shot just to be sure. She let everything hit her, until his ascension energy. That she batted aside with the back of her hand, where some of her energy resistant chitin was prominent. 

“Yeah so,” she frowned. “I guess I eat energy now. Also everything else. I still prefer food though. The energy dense stuff Ceretos has is the best.” She frowned, “Rutera feels so… empty, by comparison.”

“This planet was always low on natural energy, which is why they developed as they did,” Anton explained. “It’s actually improved significantly lately. You’ll have to give them another couple centuries to really catch up though.”

“I don’t… plan to hang around her for all of that, I guess. I suppose I probably will live that long, though.”

“As long as you don’t get killed,” Anton agreed. “Now then… we should probably get you a new bow. And maybe arrows?” 

“I… can use Spirit Arrows well enough. But I’d still prefer to have something physical. I’m not sure if there are any bows that can stand up to my current strength, though.”

Anton grinned. “Not that I’m going to give you. I need this one.” The Worldheart and Soulstring bow from Everheart was too good to give up- even if Anton was going to convince Lev to let him have some more of the Grandfather Willow at some point, a replacement for that bow wouldn’t be as strong. “Rutera has excellent metallurgy, and combined with other forging techniques we can certainly get you something.”

“I… never exactly hoarded many resources,” Nthanda said. “I feel like something worthwhile would be outside of my budget.”

“You’re one of the ten strongest individuals in our alliance,” Anton said. “If you will fight, you can earn back what I spend on you rather easily.”

“You’ll pay for it?”

“Myself and the Order, of course. Or you can convince any faction in Ambati. Either way, it’s an easily justifiable expense. Especially since you can go… anywhere.”

“I’m not quite sure about that…” Nthanda said. “I get really hungry. I feel like I could starve to death if I end up outside a system, and I’m barely able to direct myself. I’m definitely stronger, so I know I can make a difference but… how would I compare to a Worldbinding cultivator?”

“I won’t lie to you. You’re on the bottom end. But,” Anton emphasized. “You literally just advanced. And your freedom to move as you please as well as your unique methods makes you a danger. If we get you a proper weapon, they might never see what’s coming.”

“It’s not that hard to dodge an arrow going in a straight line. I can’t really bend them much…”

“If it’s going fast enough… and has no traces of natural energy attached to it…” Anton grinned, “Most people won’t notice it coming in time. Rutera has some very interesting weapons based around high velocity projectiles.” Anton shrugged, “Or you could give up the bow and just chuck hunks of metal from the sky.” The Sylanis Cluster’s barriers would likely adapt to the massive kinetic force she would be outputting… but if they did that, they were giving up quite a bit.

“I’d still like a bow, I think,” Nthanda said. “Though I’m not certain if I can get enough arrows.”

“You shouldn’t need more than, what, a few thousand per battle?” Anton asked. “I’m sure I can convince someone on Rutera to make a factory that produces some stuff for you. If you don’t need things like enchantments there are some metals that they have that would be quite functional, I think.” Anton nodded, “But while we prepare all that, I have another assault to get to. You can join once properly equipped.”

The Great Queen happened to be in on their conversation, and simply hadn’t been saying anything. She gestured with some enthusiasm as the assault was mentioned. “We will make sure they don’t think they can get away with whatever they want.”

“Will you be alright?” Nthanda asked. “I understand you’re very strong but…”

“I would be most afraid of fighting you,” the Great Queen said. “Against energy cultivators? As long as I am not alone, my confidence is sufficient. And not putting forth my skills, simply relying on others to die in my stead… that will not do.”

Nthanda raised an eyebrow, “Aren’t queens supposed to stay alive for… other purposes?”

“I have no intention to breed more at the moment. Perhaps if Rutera is amenable I will provide the basis for a few colonies at a later time.” The Great Queen performed her version of a shrug, meant for human audiences. “I am not needed for that, and my direct offspring aren’t necessarily superior to the later generations. That is more a matter of learning.”

Thus it was that three individuals that followed development paths that ranged from near Worldbinding in method to literally inhuman finished their discussion and moved on to consider practical applications of their strength.

-–Chapter Index–-