Chapter 276 - Voyaging (1)

I think about checking up on the events within Tree again but decide against it. Using Tree as a basis for my cultivation was an inspired idea, and I really appreciated its sheer utility, but depending on it just isn’t my style.

Or rather, I don’t want it to be my style. I’d rather accomplish things on my own without using external tools. I’d much rather face the Cultivation World on my own. I don’t feel bad about accessing the data in Database that’s processed by my students, as that’s fair compensation for the invasion of my privacy. The moment I finish that thought, a hypocrisy checking mental process rings a little alarm in my mind, but I shush that part of myself without paying it much attention.

I stop looking inwards, and refocus my attention on the here and now. The here is rather interesting, as the mountain ranges that surround the Holy Water Inference sect’s lake have died down. Now, I’m flying over what could be described as a massive plane of flatness.

Alternating dry shrublands, cold permafrost tundra, and the occasional sprinkling of grassland or swamp, I am traveling throught a large area of deadland. The qi content - while still choking and of disgustingly high pressure when compared to Tree - can’t really compare. The intents here are even older - if that’s even possible. The combination of lacking geographical features, qi that’s especially unworkable, and a lack of life in general, have caused this to be prime peasant lands.

The entire region a free-flight zone. I zoom over small farms, smaller herds of cattle, and mud roads. This kind of area is actually very familiar to me, as I used to spend the majority of my time in just such zones. Sects are not interested in these barren expanses, and patrols are a once in a century affair. Entire mortal kingdoms can rise and fall here without the rest of the world ever finding out.

I look at the rather incomplete map of the cultivation World I have in me, and find little to remark upon for the umpteenth time. This entire area doesn’t even have a name and is just empty on all sect-level maps I could find. Using the maps from the people living here themselves is also useless, as borders and roads tend to change drastically over the span of mere centuries.

And then there is the fact that a massive mortal empire might span a couple of hundred thousand square kilometers. This might sound impressive, but it’s really just a speck in the face of this endless empty plateau. Mortals can be traveling their entire life, and not even traverse across a small part of this wasteland.

My mind slowly turns more and more somber as I soar through the air. Normally, it would be suicide to fly this high. Aside from the thinning air up here, the upper reaches of the Cultivation World’s atmosphere is ruled over by all sorts of massive flying beasts and behemoths. But those ancient flying monsters usually avoid places like this deadzone, giving me free rein to fly up high. I gladly make use of the rarified air up here, as there is less wind resistance to fight through.

Then, just when the qi around me starts smelling alive again, and I start seeing distant silhouettes on the impossibly far horizon. Then I receive a high priority message from Database. I’d instructed my qi clone to only inform me of supercritical data or new information pertaining to my current task. Opening up the mechanical feeling thought, I see that Tree isn’t blowing up, nor is the Magic World in any immediate danger. Instead, I learn that Selis made good use of her freshly strengthened connection to Tree by sending a lot of information to Database.

One particular temperamental beastkin had recognized a scarf worn by one of the Holy Water Inference sect disciples, and a small investigation had followed. There’s some information here about a shifting political climate and a rather sticky situation that the blue-haired girl now finds herself in, but I ignore it. She can find her own way out of the mess she is undoubtedly in.

Letting out a deep sigh, I push the slight bit of worry for the girl out of my mind. I could have told her that she was being used as some kind of tool for some kind of ploy. I could have shown her data about other miraculous female cultivators that suddenly and briefly became famous. None of it would have been pretty, and would probably just have set her up against me to an even greater degree. She is learning that lesson well and good now, though. I also stamp out the small bit of schadenfreude I feel at her predicament, as I have no desire to feed that petty side of myself at the moment.

Getting back to the relevant data, which pertains to Angeta recognizing the weaving pattern of a scarf. The sect disciple turned out to have gotten it as a courting gift from a junior brother. This junior brother acquired the item through a family connection, which is where that trail goes cold.

Another Tree-dweller spotted a piece of clothing made from a similar material, and following that lead, people learned that there is a small farm adjacent to the very deadlands I’m currently flying over.

In short, Ragni is likely located at that farm; a silk farm run by a group or organization known as the Crying Sun Dancing Moon Weavers.

Angeta - who has been wearing that scarf Ragni made ever since she vanished - did more digging, and found a lot of references to spiders.

I wipe the clammy sweat from my forehead. There is no way in fucking hell that I’m going there. Let’s go and look for some chump who I can talk to about the noble mission of checking up on Ragni.

The other part of the newly processed data submitted by Selis pertains to Green and seems to confirm a suspicion of mine. I might not have visited this particular dead zone, ever, but I've had some adventures directly to the north-west of here, near a rather remarkable triangular mountain.

I turn my ass and the sword I’m sitting on in that direction. I can already see the rather characteristic mountain silhouette on the horizon. It’s still many, many tens of thousands of kilometers away, but my flying altitude in combination with the nearly non-existent curvature of this massive planet allows me to see it's faded silhouette from all the way over here.

Thinking back on my time in the Cultivation World, my thoughts drift back to when I was here last. A sect alliance of local powers had set up a series of contests and didn’t appreciate me setting new records for all of the mental ones. I didn’t even bother with the physical tests, so I only took like a third of all the prizes on display.

Anyway, they didn’t appreciate the fact that I helped myself to my rightful prizes after things got complicated. So they started chasing me while shouting something about priceless artifacts, and some proper powerful people got involved. Among them was an earthquake specialist, and after I had made some jokes about vibrations and the satisfaction of his Dao companion, he exploded.

The subsequent chaos that his attack caused actually did a lot of damage to the environment. The furious sect elder hit what I assume to be a fault line, and caused an impressive earthquake. This changed one of the ley lines, blocking off an airway or underwater river through which qi flowed. This drastically changed the fortune of a nearby mine, causing the previous rather prosperous spirit stone mine to dry up.

So now, all that’s left there is a massive hole in the ground, filled with precious gems. It’s just that gems, in general, are useless in the Cultivation World. It’s only when they are saturated by a specific qi intent that they transform into the highly precious and sought after spirit stones.

I keep the rest of my thoughts to myself and resume meditating. Flying this high takes a lot of effort. There might be little danger in this dead zone, but the amount of air qi is also lesser here. This means that even small slips of concentration when it comes to my breathing pattern can cause a net loss of qi.

I take one last look at the data Selis supplied concerning the gem mine. Haunted wails are said to be emanating from the place, followed by the rhythmic tinkling of crystal. Locals know better than to go investigate themselves - the ones that do never live long - and put out the word via the occasional trader. Haunted ancient mines are usually great places for dark affinity resource gathering, so it’ll be a matter of time before some ghost cultivator looking for more materials will come knocking.

Once again, closing my eyes, I sink into mediation for real this time.

It really is a ghost town. It’s very easy to see what buildings are made by cultivators or mortals, which is kind of interesting. Every single building higher than a couple of floors looks brand new still, cleaning formations keeping the dust off. Also, all mortal-made buildings are made from mud, so that’s another clue.

I’m staring at the mining town from high in the sky, the single triangular mountain under which the mineshaft is dug out piercing the sky above. Below me is a dusty and almost entirely abandoned sprawling town, complete with a dusty central plaza, slowly decaying roads, and a single-story Flowing Spring Overlook Inn. There are a few fields on the outskirts of the town, with many more traces of farmlands that have fallen fallow.

A single attack by a single high tier cultivator essentially murdered this town. I tell myself that there’s no use in blaming myself for the thousandth time, and swoop towards the ornamentally decorated mining entrance. One could see the garishly inscribed and painted gateway into the bowels of the earth as a proud exclamation of wealth. I see it as a warning, a clear statement that the only value this town and it’s inhabitants had was the mine and its contents. And now the mine is useless, and the town is dead.

I slow down enough for me to sense for any traps or ambush predators before floating in. I hop from the sword, stretching my aching limbs after sitting in the same position for so long. A hair-raising yet satisfying series of stretch-induced pops and crackles later, I put the blue sword away and take my beating stick from my ring.

The initial mineshaft is a broad road into the heart of the mountain. The ceiling and walls are reinforced with some form of organic-looking wood, no doubt made by some specialized ancient technique. The tunnel is dimly lit by barely glowing formation plates. The lack of usable or pure qi in the air must have affected more than just the spirit stones, as other mines of this type that I’ve seen were very well lit.

A faint rustling in the back of my mind alerts me to a new surge of requests for data coming from Tree. Angeta is requesting a higher level of access to my senses, a couple of braincores are putting in requests for highly detailed scans of the lighting formations, and a certain ax-carrying lumberjack is requesting for an immediate transfer to the Cultivation World.

I do a double-take on that last request. Rodrick is putting all his points on the line for this one. I shift my evaluation of the stern fellow upwards a bit before shutting down the small gap in my mental defenses. Database and Tree will tell me if it’s truly bad, but I want to focus on my travels for now. Living in the moment, and whatnot.

The next feature of the mine I come across tells me that I’ve severely underestimated the sheer scope of this place. The central road falls away, turning into a mineshaft that’s a couple of hundred meters across. Multiple walkways corkscrew their way into the depths below, small platform and inset rooms and facilities providing amenities for the long-gone mortal workers.

Thick metal poles jut from the otherwise smooth mineshaft, providing handholds and footrests for cultivator traffic. Nearly every single cultivator above the solid core stage can run on walls through some method, but that would wear out the mineshaft in no time.

If there is one thing to say for the Cultivation World, it’s that having to cater to superhumans doesn’t always need to be done with pomp and fanfare. Sect disciples would have been the only people trusted with carrying the valuable mined resources around, and I can see how doing the daily pickup on some ornamental formation powered lift would get old fast. So that's why those metal poles are there, to get in and out as fast as possible.

The moment I think that I spot a golden pillar off to the side, runes and mystical decorations shining with a mysterious light. Well, there’s the transportation method that can be used with pomp and fanfare, I guess. Peering down the massive hole, I see a large platform made from garish gold, inlaid with gems and filigree hanging from the golden pole halfway down the shaft.

Looking further down, the pit descends into darkness and gloom. Something sparkles in the deep dark, calling out to me to explore the pitch-black abyss.

Then a hairraising moan travels through the air, a wail of unprecedented sorrow and loss makes me shiver. And to my great lack of surprise, it seems to be coming from down below. I heave a sigh, take another look at the metal poles sticking from the wall, and jump down.

Skydiving just isn’t as fun when I know that I can just take hold of the air with my Will and arrest my momentum like that. That just downgrades it from ridiculously fun to amazingly fun, though. Grin on my face; I do a few flips and twists while plummeting down. Smelling the air in the mineshaft, I sense less death and decay than I would have thought.

From what I understand of Cultivation World mining operation principles, it’s cheaper to send down a new batch of mortals than it is to set up a rescue mission. This usually makes abandoned mine shafts like this prime resource spots for dark, ghost, death, and similar type cultivators.

Other than a distinct lack of death essence, I sense the usual mix of stagnant energies. The amount of earth-type intents is a little higher, but not more so than can be expected from a place underground.

I do another flip, and to see the small bit of light coming from above, shrink even further when a sudden orange glow scares the shit out of me. Lola, her forehead now sporting an orange glowstick of molten power, looks me in the eyes. I swear I can see a smile on her stupid face. She then does a triple backflip before spreading her paws out.

How do I keep forgetting that the little shit is with me constantly? I know that being able to forget someone or something that's nearby is supposed to mean a feeling of safety, but I keep getting startled by her. I look up at the bunny, who seems content with being my personal lamp for now. She keeps a steady distance between us, her small poofy frame somehow having the same terminal velocity as me.

I want to call shenanigans on that. I’m about to maneuver towards her when I sense the ground below me approaching. Looking down, I see the bottom of the shaft illuminated in Lola’s dim orange glow. A smiling and seemingly extremely satisfied green skeleton lying on top of a sea of gems waves at me.

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