“Alright, Teach. So, this is a very hard thing for me to say… but do you even know what in the ever-loving Dungeon-abandoned reality you are doing?”
I double-check the mental map and confirm that we're walking towards the area marked 'Inner Court test'. I glance at Ket, who is looking at me with a rather concerned expression on his face. I send him a thought packet, accidentally bumping into him just like he did to me earlier. "Yes, I know what I'm doing. This is the way to the testing area, right?"
"Yes, but why are you going over there? Are you okay?"
Ket's question pulls me up short. I take a brief moment to reflect on what I'm doing. I'm walking through a sect that's on the brink of collapse, and the only reason I joined up with this place is that I'm not yet powerful enough to just fight everyone here. I joined up to get Ket out of here, which will most likely be a commitment of multiple years. I never even asked him if he just wanted to run away. Meanwhile, my cultivation base is still doing terrible, this place lacks the main source of power I can use - wind affinity qi - and I just sent Selis to do a task that I really should do myself just because there's spiders. And Rhea is still somewhere unknown. And then there's Vox, the single student about whom I know nothing.
Then again, that kid managed to keep a sizable territory safe while pretending to be cooked alive during the day, so I'm not that worried about him. And although the connection might be extremely faint, I am sure that he is still alive, somehow. I never made an official student pact with Green, so that's how I explain away her being near death when I found her.
Speaking of which, I turn around and march back to the elder. Despite Ket and me having had a rather sizable conversation, we haven't moved more than a couple of dozen meters away from the old guy sitting on his pillar. Ket frantically turns around and starts clawing at my clothes, but I ignore the kid's feeble strength. Ket restarted his cultivation base with a rather fluid form of a braincore, I recall, allowing him to reinforce his body similar to a heartcore. The fact that he is as weak as a kitten right now is kind of worrying.
"My humble apologies, revered elder. I noticed that you were trying to see darkness, but when looking at the natural world, darkness is just the absence of light. Thus, attempting to see something that, on a fundamental level, is not there seems... backward, if you can forgive me from uttering these impudent words." I keep my head down while speaking to the meditating guy from a respectable distance. Without waiting for a reaction, I turn around and start making my way to the armory pavilion.
I first wanted to head over to the testing area directly, charging right into the inner sect, but I think exploring this place and finding out how it works is a smarter idea. The burning gaze I feel on the nape of my neck quickly stops, the constant stream of killing intent the old fart started sending my way halting abruptly. Then I sense the tell-tale qi fluctuations and the vibration of energy that accompanies most sudden breakthroughs caused by epiphanies. I ignore the many gasps sounding out around me, all the silent sect disciples that were watching me talk with the elder now loudly clamoring about this or that.
Further ignoring the sudden whirlwind of qi starting up behind me, I walk onwards in the direction the elder pointed me at. I turn to Ket and ask him; "where's the armory thing at?"
Looking back at me with wide eyes, Ket points to one of the many, many tall tiered towers on the rising portion of the semispherical cave we are in. I click my tongue at this. Most sane people would make this space the other way around. A flat floor with a rising domed ceiling just makes more sense. But no, I'm sure there is some symbolic nonsense involved about being closer to the center of the sect, or that the elders are the center points of the younger generations, or some stuff like that. At least, I hope that there's at least some understandable reason that explains the odd way this entire space is constructed.
Ket remains silent as we walk, the road slowly rising as we near the pavilion. I take a moment to breathe in the atmosphere some more. They managed to hide the fact that we are deep inside a cave very well, the constant breeze indicating some form of air conditioning. The soft murmur of people sitting on the curved swathes of grass slowly fades as the dark fields and glowing parks are replaced by low buildings and fenced off courtyards. The buildings and walls grow taller as we walk on.
I'm pretty sure that the average light levels here would give an industrial safety inspector a heart attack. The only places I see where the light levels are acceptable is right next to a lamp. The permanent twilight here shouldn't be a problem for any of the cultivators, but once again confirms the edgy lurker label I put on this place.
I turn to Ket, speaking for once. "Armory pavilion then?"
"Yes. I would tell you not to act stupid, but so far, you are doing surprisingly well." He keeps his head down as we walk, but I'm starting to hear traces of the old Ket.
"Well, I'm going to take that as a compliment. It's my first time in a sect, so I'm trying my best."
"I didn't know that. Those other times must have just been visits under interesting circumstances, then?"
"Yes. It's as you said. I was usually invited to come over. And with my abilities doubted like that, how could I refuse?"
"No doubt parents, yellow bellies, and up to nine generations were involved?"
I can't help but smile as some of his understated and dry wit seems to be coming back. "More than nine, in my case. With five mortal generations in a century and people able to live for many centuries, all kinds of variations of the number nine were used."
Instead of another witty reply, Ket remains silent. I look at him and see that he's trying to crawl into his collar. He wears the simple black sect robes again and is unsuccessful in hiding his skinny frame in them. Looking at the direction he is hiding his face from, I see a small group of robed people standing on the corner of a walled compound. A short guy is surrounded by three large guys, all of them fawning over the central dude. One of the large men sees us walking past, a grin coming across his scarred face. He then puts his hands in his sleeves and steps out onto the road in front of us. He then bows in a rather mocking manner.
“Stop right there. I am Xu Long Hai, follower of Gao Fen, heir to the Gao Xian Fo estate. This is Xu Long Hia, my brother in this life." Here he motions to the short, rotund cultivator standing off to the side. The two big guys smile at us while the short man preens at the flattering words. "We have bestowed upon you the honor of joining our group of brothers!”
Then there is silence for a while. Ket is nearly trembling, and not from laughter as I initially suspect. I look between the two and take a step back.
"What say you of this honor. Your parents would weep, were they to know of the favor that has fallen onto your path today. I, Xu Long Hai, follower of Gao Fen, the heir to the Gao Xian Fo estate, have invited you to become brother with Xu Long Hia, who is my brother in this life."
Silence once again descends. From the confused glances that the big guys are sending between them, it's apparent that Ket's silence is not something they were expecting. As nobody seems to be doing anything about the situation, and I want to get a move on, I decide to intervene.
Ket regressing to the beaten dog mentality that I now see from his every microexpression pisses me off. "Ket, is this how you obtained all that data? I thought you had gone and buddied up to everyone, the list of relationships and affiliations was so intricate and detailed. Somehow, this just makes the entire data structure look kind of sad."
"You dare speak in the presence of Xu Long Hia, my brother in this life, without being spoken to?" My comment has an invigorating effect on the looming thug, his slow confusion changing into a rather unconvincing outrage. "How will you make reparation for this grave insult? By showing you have no respect for Xu Long Hia, you spat into the face of the one we follow, Gao Fen, heir to the Gia Xian Fo estate, and thus you have besmirched one of the pillars of the Dark Moon sect, which shelters us all. How am I not supposed to go and report this infraction to the sect elders?"
"And then you get beat up after it's become clear your pills are already stolen? Damn, Ket. I'm sorry, man. Had I known that it's a normal thing to extort people like this out in the open, I'd have come sooner. This is bad. Even bright examples of cultivation such as this illustrious Xu Long Hai are not taught the concept of being unable to pluck a naked chicken. This is really bad." I drag Ket behind me while shaking my head. "This is really bad, the omens of portents are true then. Even small splinter factions such as the Gia Xian Fo estate think that they can start a ruckus by extorting sect disciples. I will have to report this to the Jin elder at a later time."
I make sure to only mutter those last words. To my surprise, the fact man goes pale the moment I mutter the words 'Jin elder', and he comes scurrying after me. I'm sure it's a misunderstanding, as I was only alluding to the fact that I met the young male and female Jin disciples at the gate, and that they might spread some rumors I might share with them. Ket is silent this entire time, not making a single move or noise of his own. I click my tongue again, wondering if a couple of months of abuse is enough to cripple the boy.
"Please wait, honored fellow Daoist. My foolish servant here, this failure of a Xu Long Hia didn't mean anything by it. Surely, there is no need to go and repo-"
I use my killing intent trick again, imagining killing the short man in a thousand ways before wafting those thoughts into his face. A dark spot appears on his robes as he falls backward. The three thugs start making noises at me, all of them shouting at the same time while rushing over to the fainted ringleaders. I ignore the many shouts of "Brother of this lifetime!" and keep on walking, not willing to be delayed by them more.
"So that's what's been happening, huh? You couldn't find a powerful enough backer, so instead of just being a bottom-of-the-totem-pole provisionary outer court disciple, everyone figured you were a true piece of trash only fit to be toyed with for their amusement."
"Y-yes. I also made a few mistakes and I'm basically banned from many of the facilities."
"Alright then. That sucks. Please upload how much you screwed up to a private section of Database. Let's avoid stupid stuff in the future." We walk in silence once again, a tense mood now overlapping the previous companionable silence. We make our way over to the armory pavilion without much hassle. I manage to avoid all the other groups of thugs hanging around on the street corners by keeping my senses peeled and by focusing my attention on the minuscule percentage of wind intent ancient qi that's present here.
I muse a bit on the fact that this slight trace of the intent group means that there must be some massive source nearby, as this power is usually not present underground at all. Qi with such heavy intents seems to have some kind of agency. Or they are simply pulled to areas that produce them naturally. The last place where one would expect heavy winds to be would be underground. All kinds of earth, shadow, and dark types of intent are present in ungodly quantities, so maybe they are just pushing away all the air.
My keen senses and the wind affinity I got from Rhea allow me to grasp the vaguest inkling of what's happening around me without wasting all my precious qi. Spiritual sense is a great thing, but it also uses up the qi at a rate proportional to foreign energies present in the environment. Having a permanent net of qi powered senses around me was a cost I could easily afford in Tree and the Magic World. Here, on the Cultivation World, it would drain my energy reserves rapidly.
I once again pondered how much time Tree has. All the energy there is still easily modified. Only the power in the very root of my students' cultivation bases has started to go ancient and stale, but then not anywhere near even the most malleable strands of qi I've come across here. And they will most likely take that power with them when they ascend anyway. The only way that power would ever get free would be if they were to be killed.
Yes, I suddenly realize. Releasing one's power to reset a cultivation base does something with the power, letting it turn into ambient qi more easily. This is one of the many, many discoveries that those scientists in Tree have been coming up with. I didn't realize the importance of this little factoid until just now. The only way that qi would refuse to bend, the sole reason why it would turn into something as obstinate and decrepit as ancient qi would be if it were filled with resentment. The resentment of being killed, for example.
I quickly make a new quest in Database. I set it to ask for the difference between the energies that come from beasts and monsters that died in varying situations. I'm not about tot condone the torture of living things just because I'm curious about something, but I wouldn't mind learning if there is a difference between the qi from a beast that got killed quickly or one that was slain after a hard battle.
"Yes, elder. Please forgive my master, he does this sometimes."
"Young Ket, your presence here surprises me. And has this master been beaten over the head too many times, like you?"
I snap out of my mental contemplations and check my surroundings. Another old fogy sitting on another pillar is looking down on me. Behind him is the tall tower of the armory pavilion, and from the way he is staring at me, I've been lost in my thoughts again. Well, realizing that all the ancient qi in the air here comes from murdered people is kind of a big deal. And that's without even mentioning the fact that because I now basically know the source of all this power, the path to fixing the problems opens itself.
"Sup, old guy over there told me to come here, pick up stuff, and then head over to the mission pavilion." The silence surrounding us lets me know that I really need to get my head out of my ass and get in the moment. The thunderous expression on the old guy's face is another strong indicator that I need to start thinking before opening my mouth some more.Previous Chapter Next Chapter