“Hey Ket, thanks for joining me,” I say to my disciple as he finally syncs his crawl speed to mine.
“Hey Teach. I can only keep this up for a little while longer. I can’t spend much qi without getting into serious trouble,” he replies.
“No problem. I think I’ve got something for that, but let’s play it safe. I first wanted to beat you up for dragging me to this side of the gate, but then I discovered that the mortal testing crystal is exactly the same, so it doesn’t matter.”
“Nevermind. Here, this is a fraction of a fraction of the schematics that I’ve managed to pull from this thing.” I send all the data I have gathered to far to Ket. I get a flashback to a similar situation I’ve been in not too long ago.
I push the memory of poking at the Dungeon Core with Rhea by my side to the back of my mind and resume mapping out the testing pillar. I do not want to get Ket and Rhea mixed up. I’m not that desperate.
“What in the Dungeon. This is insane?” comes Ket’s question through a thread of qi he sends my way.
I pull back and take another look at the current map of the testing pillar. The amount of formations, channels, runes, data structures, fallback circuitries, and processors is literally out of this world. The entire pillar is a processor on the nano-scale. “Yeah, this is insane. Not Dungeon Core levels insane, but still not something from this plane.”
“So is this an immortal level item? Pretty neat. Check the middle, there’s a formation there, something like a transmitter line going down.”
Taking another mental step back, I sense that Ket is using an infinitesimal thread of augur to look at the pillar. I follow his directions to the middle of the pillar and find databanks for days. The type and form of data saved there are unknown to me, but the shape is enough for me to recognize what’s going on here. Some kind of alternate dimension multiplexer is plastered to one side, while the other side of the databanks are stuck to what looks to be a threedimensional fractal
“You figured all of that out in that short a time frame? Wow, I didn’t know you have such an interest in three-dimensional data structures and formations,” I ask while letting a bit of admiration seep into the communication.
“Uhm, no,” he replies with a shade of chagrin. “I just saw a mathematically interesting arrow shaped thing in the middle pointing down.”
“Right. Nevermind then.” Trying to keep my wounded heart from bleeding, I think about what to do again. The outer layer of the testing pillar has some large and brute force type formations, which are infinitely easier to read and understand. The base principle of the thing seems to work on qi intent conductivity. Were I to place my hand on the crystal, the pillar will start sending a trickle of ambient qi through me. If I conduct all qi equally, I have no affinity. A special constitution would cause less resistance for certain qi intents. Pulling these flows into the sphere then allows for the pillar to measure them and display color.
That’s the basics of it. Going deeper into the pillar, I manage to recognize a miniature formation that looks like a super-advanced version of a blood type tester. Elsewhere, I see a visual scanning formation, an energy level measuring method, and at least three size measuring systems. I decided to spare my mental health the burden of knowing what features are measured in those and start checking the pillar on the other side of the road.
Ket is still working his way thought the large formations in the outer layer of the pillar when I discover that the mortal side testing pillar is the same. The databanks of the pillar near me feel empty, but the mortal testing side looks to be half full. A qi gathering formation in its base is slowly filling what looks to be a reservoir. I then spend an inordinate amount of time counting databanks. It takes me a good hour of max-speed crawling before I get an estimate that I’m satisfied with.
“Ket, what pillar did you use?”
“The mortal one, why?”
“Shit,” I reply. “That thing is going to send a lot of data about you to somewhere only god knows in around three months.”
“Here, check this section of Database. It’s everything about these pillars that I managed to analyze so far. I knew that they transmitted a lot of data to somewhere, probably the higher realms, but this is way more than I ever feared. I wouldn’t be surprised if the biggest sects have testing pillars that send an atom-perfect scan of your entire body to their beneficiaries.”
“Wow. I thought you were pretty about violating privacy. This is just…”
“Efficient,” replies Ket with a bit too much admiration in his mental voice.
“Okay then,” I slowly send, accompanied by the mental image of stepping away from him. “I’m not putting my hand on there. Is the sect divided into parts based on affinity?”
“No. There are different caves and dark valleys based on specialization, but only the people that work there live there. The sect slaves and servants all live just under the surface. The Outer Court is on the layer below that, with the rest of the sect deeper still.”
I send a nod in return for that information. “It might be a smart idea to stick together for now. I’m not at full power yet, not by a long shot.”
“Wait, Teach, what sizes are those measuring formations measuring?” comes Ket’s distracted thought.
“Exactly. I ain’t touching that thing. There are areas here that I don’t understand at all. If it does any form of dimensional scanning, Tree and the Magic World would be in danger.”
It’s silent on the mental line for a while. I scan a few more of the larger formations before I sense that Ket is actually speaking in the real world. I slow down my crawl and sense that I’ve been standing in front of the pillar, my hand hovering over the sphere for at least a dozen seconds at this point.
“…I said, he does that sometimes. Please just let him be. He might not look it, but he’s pretty old, you know.” Ket manages to get sympathetic nods from the two Jin disciples before they catch themselves. They both glare at Ket for his insolence of even talking to them, and I decide it’s time to get a move on with this show.
And a show is just what I give them. I’ve got a very decent idea of what the large outer formations do, and sending some qi to run through the formations that make parts of the outside light up is rather easy. There are some anti-tamper formations scattered through the inner workings here and there, but none in the outer layer. I pull some earth mana into the sphere, thinking ponderous and heavy thoughts in order to coax the sluggishly intended qi into the crystal sphere.
“Solid Core, ninth stage, full circle of the Human Realm. High-grade earth affinity with a physical constitution” reads Yu out loud. “Welcome to the Dark Moon sect, fellow Daoist.”
Both disciples make a low bow with clasped hands, neutral smiles on their faces. I make a same-depth bow in return. “Thank you very much, fellow Daoists. Now, where do I go?”
“Please enter through the Celestial Eclipse Illusionary Formation gate. You can follow the road into the depths of the Shredding Gorges to the servant layer.” Lashi slaps me on my back, his demeanor much more relaxed and affable now that he thinks I’m at the same level of cultivation as him. Ket saying that I’m much older probably helped, as youth is seen as potential. When two people of the same power level meet, the younger is seen as greater.
I start walking to the gate, Ket on my heels, when Jiang speaks up again. “Provisionary Outer Court disciple Ket has not yet fulfilled his daily quota of tasks.”
Smiling widely, I turn around. I keep the affable expression of my face while imagining how best to kick the guy in his gonads. I image them exploding under the force of my kick, the liquified fragments shooting up through his bladder and into his guts. I carefully quarantine that thought, place it inside a packet of qi, and send it at Jiang.
My smile not faltering a single moment, I kindly ask “please excuse him for now. We have just reunited after a great incident.”
Jiang goes pale the moment my packet of qi wafts in his face. Yu’s eyes go wide at seeing Jiang meekly nod at my request. Leaving the two behind, I resume walking to the large gate.
“Teach, what’s the plan here? I don’t believe that you joined up just for shits and giggles.” Ket sends me a communication thread, simulating a harsh whisper. I just enjoy looking around while we step through the towering gate. I keep walking down the inclined road, occasionally looking behind me and waving at Yu, who keeps staring at me. The slow trickle of mortals once again starts picking up steam when a few of the lowest disciples take over the task that Ket was handling before.
“No plan. This sect is about to go tits up,” I reply while injecting a serious note in the mental conversation. “But beggars can’t be choosers, and as the majority of people I lost are located, I need to do some consolidation. A Lost Light Forger ambush led by some Foundation Condensing Heaven Realm asshole nearly killed me. I need to get back to a higher level of power before I’ll even have a chance of getting to Rhea.”
We walk in silence for a while and quickly catch up to the trickle people that got accepted as sect servants.
“Where are we going, oh student of mine?” I ask aloud, speaking for the first time since we entered the sect.
“We are heading to the secondary testing area. This isn’t the main sect entrance. Or at least, this is pretty far from the central sect area. These people will be tested for physical strength and dexterity. There’s a massive amount of chores to be done each day, from chopping shadow-wood trees to tending to shadow rice to sweeping the floors and doing other household things. Immortals caves lack any form of self-cleaning, it turns out.”
“Alright. Let’s just see where this leads, then,” I reply while keeping up my act of a rogue cultivator. I’m honestly all kinds of suspicious about why this sect is just accepting random people from the street, and how the mortals are even getting to this place, but I’m guessing that I’ll find out what’s going on soon enough.
Ket is still following behind me like some kicked puppy, but if I’m honest, he is probably suffering from all kinds of undiagnosed trauma at the moment. From the near manic way that he’s hanging onto my every word combined with the fact that he hasn’t moved further than a meter away from me, I can tell that he is not having a good time. “How are you doing, Ket?”
“Great!” is his immediate response. “I’m super grateful for the Dark Moon sect. They took me in, and despite my low talent, they still cared for me.”
At the same time as he is spouting that stuff, he sends me a packet. “Teach, I’m not handling this at all. The worst you did to us is the baseline here. These people are savage animals. Life is cheap here, and I'm barely managing to stay alive.”
“Haha, good to know! I hope that despite our separation, you haven’t slacked off on your training. I traveled far, you know. And now we finally managed to join a sect! Haha, Ket. Now, our dreams will come true,” I say out loud.
Ket remains silent the rest of the walk, and I get the feeling that he is super relieved to be able to walk in silence for a while.
The road has been steadily declining for the last kilometer or so. Instead of the knife-edges rocks I saw in all the canyons, this gouge in the earth is completely smooth. Looking up, I see the bright slash of sky growing smaller with each step I take.
My mood turns from levity to grim realization. Reading that a sect has a million or so mortal servants is one thing, the clinical reports unable to share the reality of that number. Coming face to face with the sheer nightmare of a system that would need to be in place in order to manage such a horde of people is something else. This sect has been here for thousands of years at least. Looking up to the small strip of the sky again, I wonder how many people have looked up just like me, not knowing that this piece of the sky would be the last of the endless blue they’d ever see.
The mood, in general, takes a turn for the worse, people going quiet as the wide road sinks deeper into the earth. Another kilometer later, faint wisps of black mist start throwing shadows on the road. Another stretch of silent walking later, the road suddenly stops in a small square plaza.
I see a large opening to the right and follow the crowd as they walk into the cave beyond.
The noise is the first thing I take note of.
The smell is the second.
The sheer presence of hundreds of thousand of people is third.
“That’s a big cave,” I comment when coming face to face with the central sect servant headquarters of the Dark Moon sect.
“Nah, this is nothing. You should see the central Inner Court plaza,” chimes in Ket, his voice sounding rather unstable.
“Alright. Let’s go see that, then,” I reply while laying a hand on the shaking boy’s shoulder.Previous Chapter Next Chapter