I clap my hands, sending a small dust cloud of red floating away, a cleaning process having turned the layer of blood and guts on my digits to a loose powder. Selis is a small dot on the horizon, and I think about waving to her again.
“Was I too harsh, Lola?” I ask of my rabbit. She is contentedly chewing on a nice and juicy carrot that I gave her. I’m not sure if she even still needs to eat, but there’s no food around here. I’m just glad I stocked up on tubers, roots, and leafy greens in the jungle next to the squirrel stomping sect.
Looking back at the small dot that is - a no doubt still very confused - Selis, I wonder again if that was the right call. On the one hand, she should learn to fend for herself. While I gave her the sword, I stuffed a packet of qi into her ring that Database should be able to use to pull her into Tree in an emergency. She really needs to do some learning, and the best teacher in the universe is called life.
On the other hand, I'm not going anywhere near that spider farm, and I want to know if Ragni is doing well. I think that water sect will have some problems to take care of before they start looking for the girl that used a massive chunk of their power reserves. Or at the very least, they will have to wait until the situation settles before sending an elder to take care of Selis.
In the meantime, I can get working on the Dark Moon sect and the various problems I have with it. Among these problems is the fact that one of their disciples both knows my name, and has my sword. Another problem is that Ket is somewhere around here. I just know it. He is such an edgy lurker himself; it’s not even funny. I really don’t understand Tess sometimes.
The biggest problem is that I don’t know where the entrance is. I also have little knowledge of their recruiting process and the likes. Just waltzing onto sect grounds isn’t going to go over well, I reckon.
So let’s stop dawdling here, and let’s get going. There’s also the fact that the air is still filled with an insane amount of water intent qi, and that a massive event has just happened here. I stuff the few edible-looking birds that I haven’t butchered yet into my ring, grab Lola from my shoulder, and start legging it. Stuffing my rabbit into the pocket of my coat… turns out to be impossible.
I’m wearing rags again. I’ve been doing nothing but changing clothes. This is not something I can get used to. I never needed to change clothes, because I damn well made sure that I always got out of my fights unscathed. Slowing down your sensation of time also elongates any sensation of pain. And below a certain cultivation level, large wounds are extremely distracting. I, therefore, made sure never to get injured, but with my new heartcore, I’ve been fighting in literally the opposite way.
Stripping down, I pull another set of simple robes from my ring and don them while hopping around on one foot. I leave the clothes Selis brought where they lay in the mud, not willing to get mixed up in her business any more than I already am.
The following run turns out to be just what I needed. Instead of pensively watching the world speed on by under me, I now have to move with it. The earth speaks to me through every footfall instead of being merely an interesting view to look at.
And what I sense in the rocks around me is that they are normal rocks that have been here for so long that the dust in the wind has had time to sculpt them. The area I’m running through is made from a reddish rock, lighter orange and darker ochre alternating in strata lines. No special disaster has struck this area. There’s no overbearing imbalance preventing life from flourishing here. This looks to be a normal rocky area that was host to an epic battle.
I come across the first intersecting slash by the time my heartcore is pumping full throttle. Following the yawning chasm on foot also allowed me to get a good feel for it. I’m a hundred percent convinced that some weird stuff went down here. The land feels extremely ordinary, but the deep and dark slash in the planet feels ancient and fresh at the same time. Either a battle happened while a group of people was ascending, and they didn’t want to wait with duking it out, or some immortal-level beef was settled here.
I don’t know any sect master or ancient monster that is powerful enough to cause even a single of these slashes. And these two definitely are done with the same sword. Jumping over the nearly perpendicular slash, it’s not long before I come across another type of canyon. This one is circular and somehow feels infinitely deeper than the canyons that are brimming with sword intent. Instead of the flat, sharp rocks that decorate the long trenches, this dark cave is filled with sharp spikes.
I adjust my earlier estimate. There were at least three combatants involved, one wielding a sword and one wielding a spear. Skirting around the edge of the wide pit, I keep moving to where I saw the biggest concentration of slashes from up in the air. It’s not much longer after I come across a curving canyon, equally filled with darkness. This one is filled with intersecting ridges of sharp curving stone. A saber user was involved in the battle, then. There’s the possibility of all of these weapons being wielded by a single person, but the sheer difference in remnant weapon intent makes me dismiss this option out of hand.
While I keep running, I come across more and much thicker shadow-filled chasms. Then I stop running. I just crested a hill, and the sight I see is kind of stupid. Rubbing my eyes, I take another look, and still see the same image.
Built across the gaping chasms is a road. This road stretches on into the horizon, heading off towards the east. The construction seems sturdy enough, with arcing support structures made from molded and melded stone supporting a well-maintained road. It goes straight east, ignoring chasms and canyons, just brute-forcing its way across without acknowledging the terrain.
The bit going to the west abruptly ends, stopping at a large dark ornamental gate. Massive golden characters proudly displays the words’ Dark Moon Sect’ without any shame. Made from an expensive-looking black stone, the tall gate towers above all the rocks and other features. I wonder how I didn’t see this thing until now, but then I sense a formation at work. Squinting my eyes at the way light seems to flow around me, I come to the conclusion that the entire gate is an illusion generator.
I sit down for a second, barely managing to keep myself from banging my head against the nearest rock. Some people had a massive and pompous gate built, only to equip it with a very nice illusionary stealth field formation. The reason I didn’t see this thing before is that it’s being hidden.
I just sigh deeply and decide to check out what the road is all about. A small trickle of people are walking up to the gate, where a few robes figures direct them to stand in neat rows. Skirting to the east in order to get on the road without much fuss, I feel myself stepping out of the illusion field. The gate is gone now, with the road made out of many bridges ending in an abrupt manner.
The few people walking down the road vanish the moment they step inside the field’s effect. This is suspicious as heck, especially with the group of people gathering just in front of the illusion field. There’s even a couple of vendors hawking food or wares, I notice when I come near.
It takes me a bit to figure out a good way to get on the road, as the chasms are getting to be pretty wide here. I could just jump and float over, but as every single person on the road looks to be a mortal, and I would like to do some recognizance first, I limit my displays of physical prowess.
Clambering over the ledge five minutes later, the people shuffling past give me weird looks, but nothing more. Patting myself down, I grin and start walking down the road.
Now that I get a good look at the people here, I suddenly start getting worried. When a sect is in trouble, two things usually happen. The disciples that aren’t too attached leave through all kinds of ways, like rats abandoning a sinking ship. The resources that these people used to consume become available, which in turn attracts hordes of mortals looking for opportunities. These people know that while ordinary sects would never let them in, they have a minuscule chance of becoming a cultivator by joining up now. Their most likely fate will be death as cannon fodder, but that doesn’t stack up to the chance of becoming an all-powerful immortal.
I had already heard rumors of the Dark Moon sect going through hardships, but the combination of ruffians and bereaved families trudging on the road here confirms that fact beyond all reasonable doubt. From beard and cudgel carrying gangs of scar-faced men to gangly boys shielding their mom or siblings, the road is filled with a lot of human tragedies.
Replacing my grin with a more austere expression, I start heading over to where the road ends. Getting closer to the stalls and the small gathering, I see that a single person is orating to the crowd. A few stalls and hawkers are selling food, buns, and meat sticks, making for the standard street fare. One stall sells shiny weapons that look fake even from a distance. The man is shouting the word ‘mystical’ a lot. He must be hoping that someone is dumb enough to fall for that. Even a child can see that those polished pieces of junk are trash. Then a group of tough guys walks up to the stall and start haggling. A child goes near but is held back by its mom.
Another stall sells vaguely medicinal pills. Promises of quickly advancing realms and increasing the bodily constitution are being thrown around like candy. I check on a pill with a thread of augur and conclude that they are made from barely beneficial plant matter and chalk. They will give a person a colon cleaning at worst, and a stomach ache at best.
The person speaking to the crowd looks to be a sect disciple from a different sect, clad in bright robes, and carrying a silver sword. The occasional dark wisp of shadow blowing from the canyon only makes her look more divine and righteous. I listen for a bit and find that she is trying to dissuade people from entering the wicked sect, to turn away while their karma is still unblemished. I commend her for trying. She doesn’t give a single viable alternative for what else to do, however. She just condemns the people going in without advising an alternative.
I make sure to remember her face, as she is prime zealot material. Her faith need only be thoroughly tested once before she either snaps or decides to take these people’s fate into her own hands. Probably by killing them, so their karma stays unblemished, or something evil like that.
I just nod my head at the lass while marching on. Her pleading voice is muted the moment I step through the illusionary wall. The gate comes into view once again, and I hurry down the calmer road. Including a sound dampening effect is nice, but it’s probably just a side effect of a physical protection barrier.
Lola is still on my shoulder, her large black eyes silently observing everything, her ears laid back. This usually indicated that rabbits are scared, but in her case, it’s most likely something like it’s easier to hide that way.
I look up from Lola and stop. Under the towering gate, standing in the middle of the road, between the two pillars that are dozens of meters apart, is a very familiar-looking person. Ket looks as depressed as ever, and the moment I spot him, he freezes, his eyes locked on mine.
“What the fuck, Teach?” I see him speak, not even needing to hear his words to know what he's saying. I send a small wave and a wide grin while resuming my walk forwards with newfound energy. Ket is wearing dark robes, the simplest among all the other disciples I see here. Quickly comparing insignia and decoration, I see a single disciple in a gold-trimmed robe, one outlined dragon wrapping around her chest. She is sitting off to the side, her eyes closed in meditation, obviously the person in charge, and thus not doing any of the work.
Gold-trimmed and silver-trimmed black robes are standing off to the side, doing as little as possible. Ket is a sweaty mess that’s the center of attention of a hundred people, and he looks terrible. Then his eyes light up, sends me a wink so minuscule that anyone without a braincore won’t catch it, and throws his hands up in the air. “MASTER!”
I just slow to a halt and try to look aloof. Ket scurries towards me, bowing as low as possible while still running at speed. He nearly falls a couple of times before stumbling to a halt in front of me. Already sensing where this is going, I take hold of all the qi in my brain. Ket starts crawling the moment he comes to a halt. Grabbing my hand, he sends out of a trickle of qi, a fawning expression on his face.
Meeting his qi with a thread of my own, sending the rest spinning through my head, I mentally greet him by sending a happy waving thought at the poor guy.
“Do you have metal with you?” is the first question he sends me.
“Yes. Why do you ask? Also, nice to see you,” I reply, the world around us frozen.
“Please hand me metal. Please hand over some metal, please!”
I stare at the boy for half a second. Because we are both crawling at around fifty times the normal speed, this is enough time for him to crack under the pressure of my piercing stare. "Could you give me some background information? What happened?"
“Alright, I’ll tell you what happened. But if this story reaches Tess, I will…”
“I’ll… I’ll tell Rhea about some stuff.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” I retort.
“No, I wouldn’t. Still, don’t spread this around.”
“I won’t tell a soul,” I promise him while making sure that my connection to Tree and Database is wide open.Previous Chapter Next Chapter