Chapter 284 - Factions (5)

 “It’s a jar?” I’m staring at a jar. Standing on a suspiciously clean pedestal is a simple clay jar. There are no mystical runes shining on its surface, no formations glimmering with archaic light, and there is not a single trace of blood on the pot and its stand. Yet my nose is runny because of the overwhelming and cloying smell.

“It’s just a jar. Let’s not stick my finger in, then.” Walking over to the podium, I notice that the floor is sticky. That’s when I see that the floor isn’t really black. It’s just covered in a thick layer of coagulated blood. Trying not to shiver from how unsanitary this is, I peer into the jar.

A shining emblem, a rounded rectangular piece of black jade with an engraved moon, looks up at me. The ceiling is lit with a glowing rock - what seems to be a simple formation - but I can see the bottom of the pot clearly even though I’m throwing it into deep shadows with my head. There are no visible formations anywhere, yet I keep having the sensation that the simple clay pot is anything but what it seems to be.

I float a finger above the opening, but my instincts start screaming at me that I need to pull the digit back or lose it. I frown at the entire setup. Finally, I give in and thread a wire of augur into the pot. To my relief, it’s merely a Heaven Realm artifact. The formations are internal, a rather impressive feat of making the complex look simple, but they are easy to read. At least, easy to read compared to the testing pillar.

The moment anything enters the pot halfway, a formation that liquifies anything in its reach activates.

I swear at the thing a couple of times before pulling the emblem out of there with a thread of qi. At least this explains the missing limbs I kept seeing everywhere, along with the heavy stench of blood here.

The moment I grab the jade emblem, a new door opens and a new emblem falls from a hidden hole in the ceiling, straight into the pot. I send a message for Ket to Database, informing him that I’ve got the emblem. Before I even step out the previously hidden door, he replies with an affirmative, and that he will meet me at the center of the Outer Court.

The door slides close after I walk through it, and I follow the simply carved tunnel deeper into the rock. A dozen or so seconds later, I hear a horrifying scream coming from behind me, alongside a splashing sound. They must have soundproofed the entire room, but forgotten this side. I doubt it was an accidental oversight, making sure that the new disciple can hear all the people failing behind them.

At least that confirms my earlier suspicions of this sect being made up out of edgy lurkers. Limb liquefaction, as well as making people walk over the dried up bodyparts of the people ahead of them, is the very edge. Automating something like this test is something a lurker would do. It’s punishing, but not lethal or too punishing. Losing a limb is pretty light punishment in the Cultivation World.

I’m not sure what qualities it really tests for, but the only way that people will be able to get an emblem out of that pot without losing a hand is if they are already cultivators. Lifting that small item while in the qi gathering stage would be immensely difficult at best. On the one hand, it’s a great way to find the extremely talented disciples. Only people with freakish instincts will be able to sense the danger of the jar. It will take incredible talent to muster the control needed to lift the medallion.

Or, I suddenly realize, people who are in the know can take a hook and wire with them. The small hope I had for the selection process of this sect dissolves as I realize that it will most likely be rendered moot through nepotism.

I have a lot of time to think about this while walking down the tunnel. There is barely any air intent present, and the cycle of qi that’s being processed in my heart only needs refilling once an hour or so. That gives me a lot of time to go through the new data that Ket has been putting up on Database.

The first bit of information I sink my mental teeth into is a highly detailed data structure, a large piece of information depicting the relative position of every single person Ket has met. Ket has been busy, as there are thousands of people here. Small clusters forming larger families decorating the core skeleton of the sect. From elders to trusted disciples to goons, it’s all here. The Outer Court is very well mapped out, but the sect servant section and the higher Courts are woefully bare.

Then there is a myriad of maps. Every single hidden trapdoor, piece of furniture, or secret path that contains even a scrap of metal is present. The rough interiors of a lot of houses are available for viewing, the metal structures of larger buildings mapped out, their interiors missing.

I lose myself in figuring out the greater plan here. Here and there, I see brilliant flashes of architecture, walkways excellently guiding people into certain directions. But in other places, the planning is just downright barbaric. Large traffic channels suddenly stopping or splitting up into very small roads are everywhere. Massive buildings with only one way to enter or leave is another example of the many, many architectural sins I see.

The tunnel I’m walking through starts descending steeply after a while, the haunting sounds of people screaming out in pain following me for far too long. I must have walked for a couple of kilometers at this point, and I can still easily hear the periodic cries of people finding their limbs liquified. I really wonder how they manage to keep this up, as surely people will talk and spread the news of what’s happening inside the testing room.

I put it to the back of my mind, adding the question to the large list of Dark Moon sect mysteries, as I see light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve been walking in darkness for a while now, barely any light reaching me. The bright star at the end of the tunnel becomes brighter the closer I walk, and I start closing down my connection to Tree while approaching the end.

The last bit of the tunnel flattens out, becoming horizontal through a gradual curve. Then I see a set of stairs going up, light cascading down the steps as I walk towards the brightness. I emerge into a massive bowl, a half-sphere of stone and glowing plants that leave me blinking my eyes for a bit.

“Name?” I hear a croaky voice command me. I look up and see a skeletal frame clad in fanciful black and golden robes sitting on a pedestal. He's located right in front of the tunnel's opening.

“Wolf Fiend Teach, honored elder,” I reply while clasping hands. This dude is ancient, and there’s no need in needlessly giving the coot a heart attack by breaking social conventions.

“Good,” he nods while stroking the long whisp of a beard, allowing me to get a good look around. I ignore the man as he tries to intimidate me with his piercing, wise and unfathomable stare and take in the environment.

The bowl around me is rather large. Not as sizable as the metropolis-sized cave that housed all the sect servants, but close. The ceiling is lost in dark shadowy swirls, the walls rising up and disappearing into the blackness. I've emerged smack dab in the middle of the bowl, circular roads interconnecting with radial pathways acting like the spokes of a semi-spherical wheel.

The parts enclosed by the paths are filled in with a variety of things. The closest sections are beautifully made garden filled with glowing plants, mushrooms, and trees. Gorgeous decorative beds create inspired masterpieces, glowing strings of ferns alternating with broad strokes of light made from bright shelves of shrooms.

A few of these sections are filled with something that looks like short black grass. People are sitting on these fields, discussing, meditating, moving through forms, drawing, painting, or doing other activities. Beyond that are courtyards, the sections of the partitioned wheel growing big enough to house walled gardens. The roofs of simple domiciles stick above the ornate walls. The buildings grow larger and chunkier the further away they are. The steep wall going upwards from a ring made out of small windows, reminding me of those depressing concrete apartment blocks. Large archways scattered on the upper reaches demarcate tall walkways, the roads they guard hidden in deep shadows.

I hear a dry cough, and I see that the elder is looking at me with a rather piercing gaze. Something about the man’s eyes gives me the creeps, a certain dark shine making me much more uncomfortable than his sad attempt at intimidating me ever could.

I smile at the man while waiting for the geezer to start talking. From the pressure that he’s leveling on me and from the fact that his eyes are emitting a stream of qi, I’m sure that he is trying to intimidate me. I wait for him to start doing something useful instead of just wasting his cultivation reserves in an attempt to crush me.

Then I hear panting and hurried footsteps. I don’t feel like turning around, various processes telling me that the breathing and rather uncoordinated running patterns fit Ket. The elder and me keep our little staring contest going while a hush falls over the area. Silence spreads through the lower reaches of the bowl as I feel a lot of eyes falling on me.

“My most humble apologies, honored elder,” pants Ket while he bows low. “This is the man that showed me the beginning of the Path, elder Jiang Dan.”

“So,” croaks the fossil. “This is your first teacher?”

I initially thought this old guy is someone special, but now I’m starting to see why he is just an Outer Court elder. From his aura and the shine in his eyes, I see that he has been doing something stubborn and stupid. His eyes feel wrong, as if they are now being used for something they were never meant to do. From the size of his orbital bones and the depth to which his eyes have sunken into his face, he must be rather old, maybe older than me. Yet I sense only peak-level Earth Realm power from the man, leading me to believe that he is well and truly stuck in his cultivation path.

“Yes, elder. He found me, saw something, and taught me the basics, elder.” Ket continues talking into the ground while I keep looking at the man.

“And what method are you using to travel on the path?” Before I can decline to answer, the old man continues talking, stroking his beard all the while. “Know this first. Someone that stepped onto the path without the wisdom and guidance of their forefathers is but a fool. And this glorious sect does not suffer fools.”

I keep my face straight while the guy casually threatens my life. Another effect of having all the qi in the world be this ancient is that it’s basically impossible to get anywhere with a cultivation technique that’s new. The thought that all commonly used methods to grow stronger use the same qi, recycling it over and over, generation upon generation, is just kind of dirty. All this means is that improvisational rogue cultivators are destined to fail. There is simply not enough neutral qi available for them to succeed. Making ancient qi their own through circulation techniques is simply too slow. They will never be able to get their fingerprints on enough ancient qi before it’s too late.

Admitting that I do indeed have a unique cultivation base will get me tossed out right here and now. It’ll be too easy to fact-check any made-up cultivation method I can come up with. I’ve got plenty of cultivation techniques in Database, but that will also complicate things. I’ll have to go down the middle road, then. Time to make up some fresh bullshit. I clasp hands and stare at the pillar the old guy is sitting on.

“I have a mysterious bodily constitution that I have not been able to identify, honored elder. It seems to be related to my soul-bonded spirit companion, this Frost-Fire Teriyaki Fluff-Ball Beast.” I pluck Lola from my shoulder and show the little cutie to the old man. I see his eyes open a fraction, indicating that I just seriously surprised him.

He reaches out a gnarled hand, and I keep Lola still in front of me, just outside his reach. “A Frost-Fire Teriyaki Fluff-Ball Beast?”

“Yes, honored elder. I found it while it was just born. I took care of it after its mother died, and we have since developed a soul-bond.” I very carefully only tell the truth. This guy does not need to know that I killed Lola’s mother myself because she was snacking on all of Lola’s siblings. Nor that I cooked her carcass over a fire and ate her. Nor that I taught Lola to cultivate. She is soul-bound to me, I think. Her intrinsic link with Tree, my sword, my cultivation base, and my qi in general, should be at that level, right? And soul-bonds are nearly impossible to break. That should prevent people from wanting to snatch her up for profit.

The old guy keeps staring at me for a long while, and I can almost see the gears in his aged brain turning. He is surely going through all kinds of cost-benefit analysis right about now, calculating the return on investment of scenarios varying from killing me right here to helping me along. "I look forward to seeing your merits and contributions to this sect, junior.”

I let the genuine happiness that I don’t need to use the tread of augur I have wormed into his spine shine through on my face. I really would have hated paralyzing or killing the guy. Running would have been annoying. “Thank you, senior. I will strive to my utmost.”

Looking him in the eyes, I let him know that I know the state of the sect. The look he sends me in return manages to pierce through the facade of politeness and pretense that we’ve been holding up so far. I immediately understand that not all is how it seems and that some people are very much aware that this entire place is doomed.

“Good. It’s reassuring to see the younger generations understand. Head over to the armory pavilion to receive your provisional Outer Court disciple robes and gear,” he tells me while pointing at an ornate tower with too many-tiered curly roofs. “Then head over to the mission pavilion.”

“Yes, senior.” I clasp hands one more time before turning and walking off. Ket picks himself up from the floor, patting his robes down while scurrying after me.

“Teach, what was that about? What does teriyaki mean?”

“Teriyaki is something amazing, I’ll tell you about it later,” I reply while narrowing my eyes at him. Ket nods imperceptibly, and we walk in silence.

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