Chapter Two: Restoration
The young man clutched his left breast, feeling the bite of the steel all over again. He was finally cognisant of his surroundings. Even better, he had regained his self-awareness. His name was Dunstan Akaguri. He came to this place, a stretch of wilderness overrun with daemons to source the material for an ascension pill. What was the name of this place again…?
‘Suanni Desolate Fields’, some part of himself reminded.
He remembered foolishly agreeing with everything the Elder in charge of the excursion, his Seventh Uncle, said. Even when the strangers came to accompany them on the hunt, he played along, his uncle informing him that they were hired to help with the hunt. At least he hadn’t lied on that front. They were hired to improve the success of the hunt, only they were here to hunt him.
As soon as they got deep enough into the wilderness, all pretence was cast aside. The man Dunstan had trusted with his life would later track him down, overpower him and thrust his sword into his chest. The pain of this deception and betrayal made Dunstan clutch his chest again. He winced. The wound had stitched itself together but the area was still very thin and sore. It reminded him of a crucial fact. He should be dead. He would have if someone had not woken him. Dunstan looked about him searching for something, anything to help explain but all he found was damp grass, soil and corpses. Thoughts about his passing soon reminded him of something more important.
‘THE SECT!’ he cried out mentally.
Dunstan had no idea how much time had passed since his Seventh Uncle attacked but the man’s words rang in his head. If the primary disciple, and now head, of the Vast Heaven Palace, was pronounced dead after a hunting expedition…? Dunstan could only imagine the trouble that would ensue. Bearing in mind his Seventh Uncle’s motivations, he knew that had to return and stop whatever plan was afoot.
Slowly, he forced himself to his feet. His body was still weak and his dantian was empty but Dunstan refused to be denied. Groggy and sore, he pushed himself, first to his knees and then onto his feet before taking a step towards the only landscape he recognised, a mountain in the distance. It was the site of the excursion. The place they held the trial. If he reached it, maybe, just maybe, they would not have left yet. Even if they had, he was confident he could retrace their steps from there. Sadly, it was easier said than done. His body was weak and his head was swimming. The ground threatened to reclaim him but Dunstan grit his teeth and compelled himself to take a couple more unsteady steps. The world swayed around him but he continued to hold firm.
‘I am an Exultant!’ he reminded himself. He should have more than enough strength to walk a couple of metres without feeling like the ground was slipping out from under him.
More than that, he was the pride of the Boundless Dao Palace; having attained the second tier of cultivation three years ago at the young age of twenty-one. By the reckoning of cultivators, he was considered transcendent. A higher-order being who had left mortality behind, gaining roughly three times the longevity of a mortal man as well as the power to summon and use the essence of the world. He was transformed from within and without into a true cultivator. Someone who walked the path to immortality.
Dunstan dared not claim that he had the power to flip mountains and burn seas but he damned well had power enough for this. Cultivation or no cultivation, he could at least walk. Taking some time to steady himself, he pushed on, ignoring the warning signs his body gave him.
[Warning: Host’s condition is suboptimal. Strenuous use will only result in further damage. Please stand by until restoration is complete!]
The words were not spoken but rather projected into his head with such clarity they were akin to his own thoughts. The shock they gave Dunstan was so great that he was sent sprawling on the floor, breathing heavily from his previous exertion.
[Please stand by until system integration and user restoration are complete. All would be made known at that time.]
[Current progress: 87%]
‘This…!’ Dunstan exclaimed having no other words.
His mind instantly recognised the numbers as well as the format, recalling the ones he dismissed earlier. What on earth was happening to him? Was he possessed? Was that how he came back to life? Had his body been hijacked by some daemonic spirit? Stories of devils, revenants and body-snatching parasites run through his head, filling him with dread.
The moment the progress marker crossed 90% he felt his cultivation base being restored. The essence of the world, the rarified energy on which it and all mystical forces run, poured into his body and collected in his dantian. Temporarily putting away all thoughts of devils and spirits, Dunstan quickly forced himself into a cultivation posture and circulated his method to help the process along. If he really had been possessed, recovering his strength would be the first step to dealing with the issue. As he worked, he could feel his body drinking greedily of the offered essence. Like dry river beds during rainy seasons, his body was reinvigorated and power began to course through him again.
He was instantly reminded of his breakthrough to the Heaven Reaching tier. Where after several years of hard work, he was able to refine enough qi to initiate the ascension, a baptism of essence and qi that elevated him from the status of mortal to transcendent. His weak flesh was transformed by the essence that flowed through it. His longevity increased. His dantian expanded and he became an exultant. He was finally granted the ability to call on the true essence of the world, to employ it in greater mystical arts and garner a pool of it in his dantian to further his advancement to higher tiers of transcendence.
As his cultivation was restored and his flesh was re-energised, he could not help but think back to that ritual. It was so eerily similar that were he not in dire straits, he would have lost himself not only to his nostalgia but also to the rapture of regaining his mystical powers. Time and space were already beginning to lose meaning as he sat there cultivating. There was only him, and the essence of the world. He had to constantly remind himself of where he was, his mission as well as what was at stake.
Something about the floating panels niggled at him. They were familiar in some sense like he had seen them before but in his currently addled state, he couldn’t recall where. However, before he could begin to question the strange phenomenon, his spiritual senses, newly restored, caught onto something. He was not alone.
Instantly, he was up and in a defensive posture. Cursing, his eyes darted about for a clue as to the newcomer. He did not have to look far. A large leopard, easily the size of a mundane bear, lurked in the tall grass not too far away. She stared at him curiously, temporarily abandoning her cover to reorient itself.
Lured over by his earlier cries, she was surprised to find a blood-smeared human cultivating out in the open. Not even the native daemons of the Desolate Fields would do something so stupid. The man’s presence was strong, stronger than hers but his essence reserves were poor. That and the blood- his, informed her that he was probably injured. Probably why he took the risk of cultivating in the open.
A confident smile snaked over her face, revealing her long fangs. She could take him.
Dunstan cursed again when he saw the foetooth leopard begin circling him. This was probably the worst possible timing. He summoned his sword only for nothing to appear. A quick glance revealed that his spatial ring was gone.
“Fuck!” he said out loud.
Centring himself, he called on his powers, surrounding his hands with glowing orbs of light that stood out even in the brightness of the late afternoon. With this, Dunstan hoped to scare the daemon away, however, she was undeterred. The beasts of the Desolate Fields were used to all manner of threat displays. It appeared there was no getting out of this fight.
[System Integration complete]
[Soul matrix stabilized.]
[User’s body restored]
[All checks passed]
[Welcome Dunstan Akaguri!]
[Welcome Dungeon Lord!]
[Are you ready to design your first dungeon?]
The notifications caught him off guard and the momentary distraction was more than enough of an opening. The leopard lunged, its body a blur. All Dunstan could make out were the bared fangs that sought to clamp onto his throat.