A few hours later, the sun was at its apex in the sky, signaling the beginning of the youth competition. Many of the children who’d been at the announcement that morning had chosen not to appear for the entrance time, likely dropping out of the competition due to fear of dying to beasts. It was one thing to test one’s mettle against the other kids of their generation and another thing entirely to expect to win by taking down a beast many times stronger than oneself.
Feng Jiao, however, stood patiently at the forest edge awaiting the official announcement of entry. Not only was he not going to back down from such a challenge, Feng Jiao was more than enthusiastic about attempting to win. He’d spent his entire previous life as a tree and the last two months of this one in a forest. Never before had he seen one such as the expanse of trees that occupied central banded plateau.
A hallowed technique was loosed into the air causing massive amounts of fire to be visible for miles, the signal for the start of the competition. Feng Jiao, wasting no time, sprinted into the tree line and started his beeline toward the center. Although he would not be able to kill the beasts who ruled the entire plateau, as they were likely core-formation beasts, he was confident in his ability to escape any battle he wouldn’t be able to handle.
His surroundings blurred slightly as he pumped Qi through his locus meridian, propelling himself faster at a speed far beyond what non-cultivators would be able to run even with a lifetime of a training. Although he was topping out his speed, Feng Jiao kept a large amount of his Qi in reserve just in case he needed to cycle it through his talen meridian during battle. During his run into the forest, Jiao frequently adjusted his spear to avoid snagging it on branches and trees during his mad sprint. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on that copper-level inventory ring.
The trees surrounding Feng Jiao not only looked foreign, but also felt sluggish when he tried to mentally reach out and connect with them using his nature sense. It wasn’t like the forest back home before he’d endowed them with beastly supplements. Then, he could feel the trees denying his connection like a hard barrier raised directly in front of him. The trees here felt like he was pushing his way through thick honey, more of a hindrance than a barrier.
Jiao squinted suspiciously at the trees surrounding him, pondering upon the interference he felt when trying to commune with them. He decided that the trees were not entirely alive or, at the very least, were not capable of reaching out and attacking him. Either way, something was preventing him from attempting to harvest the wood Qi that the sylvan giants around him had already refined, a pity.
Surrounding the young hallowed artist were trees that were more than six times taller than himself and appeared to be rocks. The tree trunks appeared to have been hewn from the plateau itself, with coarse textures and muted brown coloring, stone pillars that appeared to support the sky. Leaves on the trees looked like smooth river stones, a dull grey with almost no texture at all, and drooped downwards like a wilting sunflower.
Accompanying the desolate landscape was a sweltering heat that slithered its way under the cotton robes Jiao was wearing. Although he hadn’t noticed it at first, the heat slowly built up the deeper he went into the dark, petrified forest, causing sweat to pour out of his pores and limiting his movement. Annoyed, Jiao lamented the fact that he’d definitely have at least one rash from running too frequently in his sweat dampened clothing.
As the sun peaked over the horizon, out of sight over the trees, Feng Jiao slowed his breakneck pace and started to progress deeper slowly. Using his nature sense, he spread his mind wide and ‘listened’ for movement. Although it wasn’t perfect, often times Jiao was capable of feeling the grass scream out as it was crushed under foot, or the pangs of pain as a bush or tree had a branch snapped off. Dedicating only a small amount of his mental processing power, Jiao could use these signals to sense approaching enemies.
Obviously, this technique was flawed and nowhere near as accurate as the spiritual sense. Both humans and beasts who were experienced stalkers would know to minimize their damage or would have access to abilities to prevent the crunching of plants beneath their feet. He’d gain access to an actual spiritual sense, which used Qi to sense changes and movement in the air around one's self, after breaking into the Earthen Realm, but against dumb beasts it would do the trick.
Several times, Jiao would sense something potentially waiting in ambush only to end up slaying a rabbit or a snake who’d been hiding from him. Regardless of the potential danger, Jiao would always lash out with his spear and impale whatever lie in wait for him. In his mind, an animal would have a hard time surviving so deep in a forest without some sort of ability to defend itself. Be it a very lethal venom or sharp fangs and stealth, Feng Jiao did not trust a single living being in this foreign forest.
Twice, Feng Jiao was able to sense another human nearby or, at least, something with two legs. Being on his own, Jiao wisely decided to avoid straying too close to them and choose to slink out of sight until they parted from his path before continuing forward. Although he may be an inexperienced child now, Jiao had heard plenty of stories of men who’d been betrayed over treasures and women. As young as the competitors were, the reward for this competition could certainly be considered a treasure.
Jiao was not going to risk it. As dickish as his cousin may be, he was right in pointing out that not having any retainers put Jiao at a severe disadvantage. Without a bunch of little toadies, he’d be outnumbered in any encounter with other competitors. If he was being honest, Feng Jiao felt like the entire event had been rigged from the start, which it had most likely been anyhow. If he was going to win, he’d have to do so wisely.
Off to his left, Feng Jiao’s nature sense was alerting him to a potent collection of wood Qi. From what he’d been able to gleam using this ability in the last few months, the dense Qi was usually indicative of a spiritual medicine or an ancient tree of some sort. Either way, if he could feel its presence with his unrefined and scarcely practiced ability, a beast would have felt it long ago. Like the ape who’d been guarding the berry bush, Feng Jiao assumed that the plant would have a guardian awaiting its ripening for consumption. He turned in that direction and re-doubled his speed.
Within the immediate location that was lit up like a bonfire in his nature sense, Feng Jiao found a gnarled tree that was seemingly made of granite. Unlike the petrified woodlands surrounding it, the tree stood only a couple times taller than the average human and was a light grey color as opposed to the earthen brown of the forest. If his senses hadn’t told him any better, Jiao would assume that he was looking at two trees who’d wrapped around each other and strangled the themselves to death. It almost seemed to have been fossilized before given a chance to reach maturity.
Its branches did not stray far from its trunk and it had a serious lack of foliage, with only a handful of leaves adorning its skinny arms. In its twisted hands, the granite tree held three rotten looking fruits, colored and shaped like apples that had adorned the floor of an orchard for weeks. In his mindscape, Jiao saw these noxious morsels as three suns, shining down blindingly at Jiao.
Unable to feel anything else while so close to a dense source of wood Qi, Jiao stopped channeling his nature sense and relied on his own senses. Without having connected his ninth major meridian, the conceptium: meridian of the head and mind, Jiao had only his mortal senses to rely on. He hadn’t exactly tuned his motion senses or hearing as a tree but neither had he relied entirely on his nature sense while adventuring.
Still, he felt as if he’d lost an eye when relying only upon his mortal senses. Until that moment, Jiao hadn’t really come to notice just how much he relied on his druidic abilities inherited from his previous lifetime. He scoured the vicinity of the tree to the best of his ability but was unable to locate any threats. For an entire hour, Jiao stayed crouched within the brush and watched the tree. Only when his legs cramped and started screaming into his ears did he finally accept that he was likely alone.
Jiao needed to continue his hunt if he had any hope of defeating the other young Fenglings but couldn’t just leave those fruits there. Unlike the mildly potent berries he’d found on the Crouching Grass mountain, these toxic looking fruits were true natural riches. Although they appeared to have rotted inside out, Feng Jiao’s sense had never directed him wrong and he knew that the fruits were still living. Unable to pull out the Qi forcefully, Jiao’s best bet was to pluck the fruits and attempt to have them refined at another time.
As Jiao drew nearer and nearer to the calcified apple tree, he clenched his spear close to himself, with the curved point facing the tree. He’d read about plants who developed a spiritual consciousness and had the ability to defend themselves from predators and Jiao wasn’t entirely convinced this wouldn’t be one of them. It would, after all, explain the lack of bestial guardians around the tree.
Jiao finished creeping toward the tree without anything leaping out to murder him, much to his pleasure and surprise. Although he was seeking a strong beast to slay, he’d much rather find them before they found them. Setting his spear to the side, Jiao grasped onto the twisted trunk and began to haul himself upwards.
It was only when the tree began shifting beneath his hands that Jiao realized something was wrong. He leapt backwards and stumbled while regaining positive control of his weapon while the tree unraveled itself, revealing a trunk several times smaller than it had been before.
In front and around the tree, however, was a snake that was dozens of feet long and as wide as Feng Jiao. After having unwrapped itself from its perch, Jiao was capable of recognizing faint dark stripes within its grey, bark-textured scales.
In front of Jiao was a massive grey-banded mamba, a very venomous beast and one of the primary preys when it came to the production of Three-Tailed Tempering pills.