Chapter 283 - Factions (4)

“Medallion?” asks an old woman who seems to be missing a hand. Something in the way that she sais those words freezes my blood. The inflections of sheer defeat and acceptance in that single world rakes nails across the chalkboard of my soul.

“Provisional Outer Court Disciple Ket, here to bring a threader-of-the-Path applicant to the testing area.” Ket steps forward while sounding chipper, but there is a warbling edge to his voice. He sounds like he is teetering over an edge. I’m not sure what edge, but it isn't like the lurking edge kind. No, he seems to be teetering on the brink of insanity.

Where the old woman's voice sounded like she has repeated that single question a trillion, a gazillion times, Ket sounds like he is maniacally happy about being able to form that sentence. The effect of his words is immediate. The old woman's eyes go wide, and I fear that she is suffering from a heart attack for a second. She steps out of the stone booth and hurls herself on the floor in a kowtow position. “Honored immortal, forgive this insolent one.”

“See, Teach? This is what I have to deal with all the time," Ket sais in the same tightly controlled voice.

“Yes,” I reply while stepping over the woman. Letting Ket loiter around here won’t help anyone, and helping her up will just worry her more at this point. “Maybe change robes. You seem to be giving everyone a heart attack here.”

“No. Taking this robe off is punishable by nine strikes of the Twelve Headed Demon Devouring Flail,” Ket replies without blinking an eye.

I turn my head, taking a good look at Ket. He really isn’t holding it together at all, I see. Every single muscle movement has a rigid and mechanical feel that indicates he is walking and reacting through a mental process. I lower my voice while letting Ket guide me through the throng of workers. “Ket, how old are you?”

“Yes, Teach. I can remember fifteen beast hordes before you took me in. So around twenty.”

“And mentally?”

“Five hundred twen-”

“How much of that time happened over the last two months?”

“I will need to crunch the numbers, but around ninety percent.”

I take another good look at him. The bags under his eyes were a good hint that he isn’t doing so well. There’s also his pale and waxy skin, the clear loss of body fat giving his already thin face the cast reminiscent of a skeleton. I will need to reevaluate the dangers that come with having a braincore. I knew that social isolation was bad for a person, but it seems that this effect is amplified by being a braincore cultivator.

I did go properly insane at least once in the past and have most likely skirted the ‘deranged’ side of the mental health spectrum many, many times.

Database sends me a notification. Instead of Rodrick making a ruckus, it's Tess again. She’s trying everything in her considerable might to break through into the Cultivation World. I don’t bother restraining her, as she isn’t threatening Tree. She’s just using the qi pressure cooker she’s inside to attempt a brute force dimensional shift. I wish her the best and mute the other signals coming from Database.

I pull a simple robe from my ring and toss it to Ket. “Here, put this on. That way we can move without being bothered, and you won’t need to take off your robe.”

Ket looks at the roughspun item with big eyes for a second before nodding and putting it on. The amount of stares and murmur of voices dies down slowly now that Ket is no longer displaying the fact that he is an Outer Court Disciple to all.

As we walk, I look around some more. The cave we are traveling through isn’t the biggest I’ve ever seen, but it might as well be. I’ve been flying over some pretty massive natural structures over the past few weeks, but seeing something this massive and manmade is always a little disconcerting.

Ket and I are in a cave, a manmade hole in the earth so big it has its own clouds and weather. We got here after following the path beyond the sect gate. It descended down into the earth before turning into a tunnel after a hard corner. Following the path downwards after the large sect gate, it kept descending until it turned into a tunnel after a hard corner. That tunnel turned out to be the entrance to this place, and it follows all the rules of good impressive architecture. The ceiling is low and the tunnel is dark and cramped, creating contrast and anticipation for the space beyond. Then it opens up into a massive vaulted ceiling, roughly hewn rock carved out with large sweeps from either a powerful tool or a divine technique.

That's the entrance hall we just exited. Beyond and below this kilometer high cave is the real shocker. A monstrous cavern housing an impossible crowd of people. I see kilometer wide blocks of space dedicated to eating areas. An enormous section filled with nothing but square and oppressive apartment blocks. A constant stream of black wooden carts, filled with barrels, crates, bundles of cloth, and other mundane items. An entire metropolis stretches out below us, the people running around uncountable.

And now we are descending into this madness. Ket has not been looking around at all, his vision aimed at my back or the floor this entire time. “Ket, are you okay?”

“Yes, Teach. I am fine,” he replies with a pitch-perfect voice, not a single trace of emotion showing through.

“No, you’re not.”

“No, I’m not,” he replies in the same fake and dead tone. “It’s taking everything I have just to keep moving.”

“Okay then. Where are we going again?” So far, we have been following the general crowd of people. The queue to get out of the entrance hallway, filled with new mortal applicants, took us a good bit of waiting to get through. It still took at least ten minutes, even with everyone stepping out of our way as soon as they saw Ket’s robes.

“Yes, Teach. We are heading to the testing center.”

“Are all prospects taken in like this?” The current road is a massive hairpin path that winds down a steep slope. We are descending into the city, the rudimentary building looking like the world’s laziest architect was tasked with building an entire capital city out of blocks.

“No, Teach. When recruiters go out and test mortals, the talented recruits are taken directly to the Outer Court.”

“So this view of the sect is reserved for everyone that joins up by walking to the front gate?”

“Yes, Teach. This way, they are shown the glory of the Dark Moon sect so they may understand what an honor it is to be taken in. I am very thankful to be taken in like this.”

I take another look at Ket, and to my relief, he winks at me. I subtly roll my eyes and decide to play along. “What glorious honor indeed. So how would such an elevated life of a sect servant look like?”

“They would most likely be given the honor of caring for the other sect servants. This entire complex has been generously gifted to the lesser people, just so they may live in peace and servitude. Roughly speaking and from a too-small sample size, I have made some preliminary observations and conclusions. Half the servants work here, providing care, sustenance, and services to the other servants. A quarter is tasked with the honor of heading into the Outer Court area, far below here. Smaller fractions are tasked with even more valuable and honorable responsibilities.”

Starting to get an idea for how this entire thing works, I descend in silence a little bit while I let my eyes roam the city. I see streams of differently clad people going back and forth, and an endless stream of people heading out or returning to the massive residential complexes. I don’t see a single sect disciple. “And the sect disciples?”

“It is a punishment to be sent up here. Once a month, there is an inspection. I have been sent once, and the task consists of gathering tallies.”

“Got it. Can these people here advance into the sect?”

“Yes, Teach. Everyone is graced with the holy knowledge of the Ancestral Dark Moon breathing technique. To my uneducated eyes, it looks like a sect praising mantra, a breathing pattern guide, and a few lines of instruction on how to meditate. Everyone can take the dangerous advancement test that will elevate them to the position of Provisional Outer Sect Disciple.”

“Most enlightening, thank you, Ket.”

“Most welcome, Teach.”

That idle conversation puts a lot of my worries to rest. This Dark Moon sect might be getting pressured from all sides, other sects might be mobilizing all kinds of tactics and reasons to attack this place, but it’s still a thousand of years old sect. There are still going to be tens of thousands of high-level cultivators here. The sheer history of this place, the uncountable amount of people that have lived and died here isn’t something that should be underestimated.

Neither should the sheer potential of this mass of humanity streaming down below me be ignored. Already, plans are spinning thought my head. A lot of plans, actually, and every single one of them relies on a single thing.

Easily accessible, neutral intent, fresh qi, and preferably in copious amounts.

Every single person I see here has the potential to become an immortal, even if I see a rather disconcerting amount of people that are missing limbs. From the kids playing in the streets down below to the tough guys walking in groups while eyeing up everything, to the old people shuffling along. And every single one of them has so much potential, that it’s a sin for them to waste their lives away here, doing things that will be forgotten the moment they move out of living memory.

“Teach.” Ket interrupts my train of thought. I release the white-knuckle grip on my walking stick and relax my shoulders. The large empty circle around me slowly fills in again, people no longer looking at me with fear and confusion. I must have been releasing some of my feelings without knowing.

“Sorry.”

“Yeah. It’s insane.”

“Agreed.”

“Teach, what did you say again? You can’t help all the suffering and hopeless people in the world, but you can help the ones you can actually see?” Ket’s speech sounds a lot more human now. I can hear that he isn’t trying to control every single aspect of his speaking pattern anymore. “I’m not sure how we can help this, though. People that break their limbs in complex and hard-to-heal ways are just thrown over the edge. People die all the time. Disease runs rampant, and not a single person that has power here cares.”

“Let’s first get settled in with the sect. This is helping others versus helping ourselves, right?”

“I tried,” whispers Ket. “I really tried in the beginning. I thought I could repeat what I did after you teleported all of us out of Tree. I thought I could do what you did. Work with the downtrodden to overthrow the tyrants. I tried really hard. But then they all died, and I think the higher-ups know that it was me, because then the pressuring, beatings, bullying, and especially the beatings started.”

I slow down for a bit, letting Ket fall in line with me. I lay a hand on his shoulder, and I feel his entire body tense in response. I keep him in a soft grip until his shoulders relax. “Yep. Let’s get settled in before we start stirring the shit, okay, Ket?”

“Yes. And thanks for the medallion. I never knew that I could miss a mental connection to a tree this much,” he finishes while clutching the Tree medallion in a tight grip.

I just nod. “Where are the tests? Or do we need to do something else first?”

“We can go directly there. Also, I’m loving all the chatter on Database. A lot of things are making sense now. Tests are over there, that tunnel to the left, with the long queue.”

We walk in silence for a long while as we make our way down to the city floor. The buildings rise higher and look bigger with each step, what looked to be a miniature block model now turning into a dystopian metropolis. The sheer mass of people keeps impressing me more and more. A normal city wouldn’t have this effect on me, as Outpost Long Reach is much larger. Just the fact that this is all fake, a city made by just a few with brute-force architecture that has no eye for utility or comfort, makes it all look much bigger.

The sight has grown old by the time we reach the cave floor. The ceiling looks impossibly far away now, the massive vaulted arches hidden by clouds and fog. Ket and I stay silent, both of us messing around on Database while we walk to the testing area.

from the first time the road split, I start seeing signs all over the place, all of them showing what is where in simple iconography. Servants don’t need to be literate, I muse while trying to guess what some of the more abstract signages represent.

We leave the towering and faceless apartment blocks behind us as we walk to the left side of the cavern. The entire cave is lit up by bright spots of light on the ceiling, leaving the roads between the tall buildings in dark shadows. There is light here and there, most of them small fires made by burning thin strips of dark wood. The occasional formation-driven lamp is rare, and only decorates the most ornate of buildings.

Ket guides me off the main road when we come closer to the left side of the cave. I take a moment to figure out where north is, and find that we are heading west. We are still following the stream of newcomers, even though many have stopped at one of the many, many people shouting their need for workers.

I've since found out that the entire economy of this place runs on spirit coins, small circles made from some white material. Scanning a couple with a thread of augur lets me know that they are made from wood, different denominations being expressed through different sizes and densities.

Then we arrive at the testing place, and I do a double-take yet again. This entire place has all kinds of locations, shops, events, and people, my heartcore empowered nose letting me enjoy the entire scale of smells produced by the human body and more. Blood has been a constant presence, but the moment I step through the large doorway in the rockface, the distinct smell of iron slaps me in the face.

“So this is the basic test?” I ask of Ket while standing off to the side.

“Yep. This one was pretty easy,” replies Ket.

“Okay then… Why do I smell so much blood, then?”

“You smell blood?” Ket sniffs the air, rubbing his nose. “Well, maybe, yeah. Not really, though.”

“What’s the test about?” I ask.

Ket sidles closer, rubbing one arm anxiously before touching my shoulder. “I can’t tell you. It’s against sect rules to divulge sect secrets.”

As he preaches sanctimoniously at me, he sends me a packet. Opening it up, I am greeted with a single sentence. ‘Don’t put your fingers in. I’ll head to the Outer Court central plaza after this.’

I stare at Ket for a long while. He looks at me with a rather unstable smile. Ket gestures to the area where hundreds of people are queueing up. “The line is over there.”

Looking back at Ket, I start doubting his mental stability again while I shuffle towards the waiting line.

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