“Hi, Teach,” croaks the green skeleton. I see rags covering a horrendous mess of bony protrusions, barely covered pale skin stretched loosely over an emaciated frame.
Database alerts me to a situation. Keeping an eye on the green scarecrow that’s slowly making angels in the sea of precious gems, I query Database while rifling through my ring.
Rodrick is making a scene, shouting things about having to enter the Cultivation World right now, and threatening Tree with his ax. Good on him. I order Database to put Tree's restraining formations to good use.
Before Database can get started on starting the mystical restraints, Tree takes initiative. A couple of thin roots snake around Rodrick’s body. The large beastkin looks at them in confusion for a moment before he finds that he can’t move anymore. The small crowd surrounding him backs off after seeing a small cage of roots restrain him. Seeing the situation handled, for now, I pull my focus away from my cultivation base.
Green is in terrible shape. Her cheekbones nearly poke through the thin skin stretched taught over her skull, her ribs are on clear display, and she looks like a career fashion model that skipped lunch. Yet there is something in her demeanor that prevents me from feeling sorry for her.
I can’t decide whether it's her shining eyes or her skeletal smile filled with happiness. The constant rubbing of her body against the bed of uncut gems and her constantly running her hands through the rocks pisses me off even more. Here she is, no doubt on the brink of starvation, in terrible shape, and literally dying, and she looks the happiest I’ve ever seen her. “Fuck you, Green.”
“You can’t talk to me like that,” she manages to whisper. “I’m richer than you.”
“Fuck you, Green,” I repeat while finally finding what I was looking for in my ring. Shifting shadows of black and orange tell me that Lola is hopping along the wall, providing me with a dim source of light I don’t need. I kneel next to the skeleton and notice the ragged and torn state of her clothes along with the numerous small scuffs and scratches she has over her emaciated body. I pull the warm bowl of broth from my ring and slowly dribble a spoon of the watery bouillon into her grinning mouth.
“You doing okay over here?” I ask, while slowly feeding the idiot.
“Great,” she huffs out mid swallow.
“So, you didn’t think to call for help or anything?”
“No,” she croaks. "They'll want my stuff in payment."
“Right,” I reply to that answer. Deciding just to shut up and feed the woman, I slowly feed her three more bowls of watery gruel. The sparkle of life in her eyes never changes; the only thing that becomes different is that she starts fondling the gems with even more energy.
Fifteen minutes later, her pallor is a little less corpse-like, and her waist has become thicker than my wrist. I monitor her state with a thread of augur, and sense that she is no longer at risk of re-feeding syndrome. Her body managed to get enough energy from the soup to risk giving her more substantial food.
I place a variety of light and easily digestible fare in front of her, and she slowly manages to sit up. I have to look away as she starts eating. I really don’t mind the mess she is making, but the fact that she eats with one hand only, the other constantly touching the gems, just sickens me.
“So, spill. What did you do, and are you actually mentally impaired?” I ask her half an hour later, seconds after she has flopped back down, her eyes heavy from the onset food coma.
“No,” is her only reply. She then closes her eyes and starts snoring loudly.
Muttering all the curses I know under my breath, I put away the empty dishes and start gathering qi. I don’t bother with cleaning the woman, nor do I waste any of my clothes on her barely clad frame. I just pull her upwards and start stuffing my qi into the annoying creature.
“See, Rodrick. The thing with transferring stuff into Tree is that I have to supply the costs of transporting this trash into that dimension. Aside from that amount of power, I need to make sure to supply enough qi to compensate for the amount of qi inside Tree that I’m displacing with her body. This is why getting you out here would require over double of all qi that’s currently available for my use inside Tree. I would need to permeate your body with enough of my power to make your qi density the same as it is here in the Cultivation World. Putting stuff inside Tree is like dropping something from a great height. Pulling stuff out of Tree is like lifting it out of the atmosphere.”
I finish up my explanation to the still struggling beastkin inside Tree around the same time as I finish my preparations here. As if knowing what is about to happen on an instinctual level, the green anorexic frame in my arms wakes up. Another lock of her hair falls out as she looks up at me.
Some kind of understanding sparks in her eyes, and I feel a bony arm draped over my shoulder. “Hey there, big man. You wouldn’t send a woman away without her gems, now would you.”
I stare her dead in the eyes. “I totally would, and will.”
“No, no,” she starts babbling in a panic. “It took me a lot of time to gather all these pretties. I even had to fight ghosts and whatnot, but they all wanted my pretties too, so now they are my pretties. I will not go away without all nine hundred forty-two thousand two hundred and sixteen of my gems.”
She starts getting rowdy, wriggling with all of her pathetic strength in my arms. I stare between the woman and the sparkling mass of raw gems for a bit. I just find it annoying that I keep sinking into the loose gravel slowly, her movement not helping me stay on top.
“I had to scour these tunnels, fight skeletons, lick condensation from the walls, and eat fungus in order to get all of this, so I am not leaving it all be-”
Her tirade - which is slowly picking up steam - is cut off the moment everything aligns, and I pull her into Tree. I take a deep breath and start patting myself down. Dang, that woman stank something fierce. Ammonia, for one, but that one I can forgive. It’s a natural effect of her body shutting down, but she could have cleaned herself a bit better.
I pick at the new stains on my simple shirt and wonder why I ever bothered putting it on. Against my better judgment, I take a peek inside Tree. There, I see a now free Rodrick embrace a rather irate Green. Once again, against my better judgment, I decide to listen in.
“-fourteen ghosts! And they all babbled this nonsense, and I couldn’t understand anything, and they broke my ring! And I beat them all up because they wanted to steal my valuables. Twenty-three skeletons. Twenty-three bony boys also came for my stuff, but I beat them up for even thinking about stealing from me. And then Teach, the horrid brute, just stole it all! Everything I worked so hard for, and it’s all gone. Dricky, do something about it, go and beat up Te-”
“-see, it’s fine, Green. We boners indeed have to stick together. That’s what I understood when I noticed you had vanished during the fight with Nexus. Instead of just severing, this ax can also bring together. We boners have to stick toge-”
I only listen in for a few seconds before it becomes too much, and I can no longer bear the stupidity of those two. I double down on the information-block between my consciousness and Tree before I continue to look around.
Now that there is no smelly starving gold digger I have to worry about nearby, I take in the environment. I am still bathed in the orange glow of Lola’s fiery horn, and looking up, I see her nibbling at some mushrooms. “Lola, come. Just stuff qi in your eyes to see. I think you’re scaring the locals.”
She wiggles her nose at me before jumping at me. Mid-flight, her horn disappears in sparkling motes of orange, plunging us both in darkness before she plunges into my chest. I put her on my shoulder and slowly pat her while waiting for the qi flows around us to calm down. Slowly seating myself, I try to avoid making a lot of noise.
Lola tries to stay alert for a while, but as she hasn’t slept much while I flew, her eyes close and her breathing evens out within minutes. My eyes take a little longer to adjust, but it doesn’t take long before the mineshaft around me comes alive.
The mushrooms are the first thing I see. Glowing the slightest hint of pale green, the small groups of shelf fungi decorating the circular walls make the entire tunnel look like a cylindrical night sky. Then, I see some of the stones I’m sitting on glowing with an even dimmer internal light. Looking up, I still see the single spot of light of the shaft’s opening, impossibly high and far away, bouncing a trace of sunlight down at me.
Then I see the ghosts, or what’s left of them - pale specters of people that must have died ages ago. The single brighter figment of a humanoid figure has big dents in its facade as if someone actually went and beat up a ghost. The mental image of Green going apeshit on these suckers causes me to exhale a breath of air through my nose in a facsimile of a laugh.
Looking down, I see stones that have a similar glow, allowing me to put together a better idea of what might have happened here. I look around some more and spot some dark traces of blood that were hard to see in the orange light that Lola made earlier. Now, though, the slight glow coming from the mushrooms, stones, and spirits acts like a blacklight. I see dark splotches of blood on some of the gems, as well as some bloody handprints on the walls.
Green must have been dumped somewhere in the mining complex wandered through the tunnels. Knowing her, I'm sure that she wasted a lot of time with prying gems from the walls before ending up in the central shaft. Reading the blood and disturbance of rocks both, she fell into his hole, and her body must have used up most of its reserves in healing whatever injuries she sustained.
And Green, being the greedy hoarder she is, mustn't have been willing to leave without bringing all the stones she possible could. Her ring is missing, but as that would have been a very attractive item to the few specters inhabiting this mine, all kinds of shenanigans could have happened to cause that.
Also, even though I have - to myself at least - proven the existence of a soul, these ghosts aren’t it. My current hypothesis is that these boys form after death has occurred, when an ambient qi interacts with a dead and decaying brain. Like a chicken running around without its head, this then forms a faded copy of the dead body that tries to do what it did in life. I’m sure that actual sentient and soul-bound ghosts exist, but these ain’t it. Unless there’s some form of dark ritual sacrificial chamber down here, these shades come from unfortunate mortals dying and decaying deep in the bowels of the earth.
I, therefore, don’t feel guilty about picking up a gem and tossing it right through the head of the brightest ghost. I watch with fascination as its entire head is just sucked into the gem the moment it passes through. It's main body then crumbles into sparkling dust, most of it being sucked into the gem.
Blinking at what I just saw, I conclude that this neatly explains why there are so few ghosts here. I know that normal gems can turn into spirit stones when exposed to certain types of pure qi intents, but the entire ghost absorption thing is kind of new. I have come across a lot of texts and techniques where trapping spirits in stones is a thing, but they all require a lot of prep work.
Then I remember a dragon corpse and a collection of souls bound to a stone in my ring. I don’t suspect that the Dark Moon sect will have any supreme resurrection techniques in their vaults, but it’s worth a try. I never went looking for that kind of stuff, but all the resurrection methods I’ve come across so far have too many downsides to make it work. I then shake these dark thoughts from my head. Rhea is undoubtedly doing fine, so there’s plenty of time to figure out that stuff.
Before this entire mine lost its efficacy through the damage to the ley line, there must have been way too much-moving qi here for these specters to form. Taking another look at all the gems below me, I see several of them sparkling with a pale inner light.
“Well, Green, it seems I will be taking part of your collection with me for now.”
Wading through all the gems also lets me figure out how this mass of precious rocks managed to form here. Recalling the oddly perfect geometric shape of the mountain above me, I wonder how I didn’t see this before. This particular hunk of rock is much larger than it’s other brothers in the same mountain range. Someone must have thought it to be a great idea to pile all the earth excavated from this mine on top of it. And then dumping all the stones that are not yet spirits stones in this massive pit of a central mineshaft would create the perfect spirit stone incubation chamber.
I try digging down for a bit, but a few meters deep, the pressure becomes dangerous, and I sense no end in sight. When taking the height of the mountain above into account, this mine must have been in operation for many, many years.
But then, this layer of gems must be very thick indeed. Then, if the ley line indeed came from underground, the lowest level of all these gems must have been exposed to the richest source of qi, right?
I file away that tidbit of suspicion now. I have no use for metric tonnes of spirit stones currently, and its a longshot, but who knows…
Searching through the pit of gems for a bit longer, I come across a few more jewels containing at least parts of a spirit. Stuffing all of these in my ring takes me a couple of minutes before I sense no more of the flat and faded life signs so characteristic of stronger spirits.
“Come, Lola, we did our thing. One idiot found and left behind, one idiot rescued, a couple more to go.” Lola stops eating the mushrooms and hops on my shoulder while I pull out the flying sword. I’ve got a long way to go yet.Previous Chapter Next Chapter