Chapter 286 - Factions (7)

It takes me a few seconds before I manage to convince myself to see this as an elaborate play or game. I bow before the wrinkled guy and start monologuing. "My wanderings through the wilderness have caused my constitution to be turned inwards, ignoring the east and the west, while not seeing the north and the south. It shames my ancestors that this failure must fall upon your noble bearing to suffer from. I shall spend a long time in silent contemplation and meditation, reflecting on the selfishness that comes with making others feel one's suffering."

It takes the old man an entire ten seconds before he snorts dismissively. I manage to keep control over my twitching eyelid, not letting the irritation I feel at the gesture show on my face.

"Contemplate well, then," I hear the old man say, and I hurry inside. Ket scrambles in after me, still bowing and scraping towards the elder.

"Fuck me, I've got to get my shit together," I murmur while dragging a hand across my face.

"Yes, please. I would love to not get heart attacks like that," whispers Ket.

Through my fingers, I see a rather odd sight. My eyes adjust to the light quickly, allowing me to see the rather dark interior of the armory pavilion. There's a wide hallway just behind the ornamental door, with stairs going up to the left, a doorway to the ground floor visible to the right. The tower's interior is designed in an octagonal fashion, with the lower floor being surrounded by a walkway and set of stairs.

The way up raises the hairs on my neck, and I immediately sense all kinds of protective formations locking on to me. Then I sense them flow over me and aiming towards the black jade identifier in my pocket. Lola - who hasn't made a peep for a while now, and is just looking around all stealthily - digs her nails into my shoulder when I take a step towards the stairs. Turning around, I make my way to the doorway that leads into the ground floor level.

I stop in the entranceway for a bit, the dark and dusky interior not being what I expected. A few huddled people are standing behind counters in the stuffy room, the circular desks and counters bare and empty.

The soft shuffling of feet and silent buzz of voices dies down as Ket and I step inside, and the half dozen pairs of mortal eyes in the room all fall on us. Walking over to the closest desk, I take a deep sniff of the dead air in the room.

I smell all kinds of things the moment I shift qi into my nose, but the sense that surprises me the most is the lack of a lot of items. There are traces in the air of decent quality treasures, pills, and artifacts. I catch a hint of Human Realm swords and pieces of armor, even the faintest traces of qi intent that must have belonged to an Earth Realm medicinal pill.

It's all rather hard to detect, honestly, as the smell of super cheap cultivation resources and mundane items is rather overpowering. Halting in front of the closest manned desk, I look down at the small woman standing behind the counter and I smile. "Hello there. I'm a new provisional Inner Court sect member, and the elder sitting at the center of the plaza sent me here."

"Yes, honored immortal," she replies with her eyes downcast. "Here is the immortal welcome packet, please do me the honor of taking this."

She carefully takes a small black pouch from under the counter, puts it on the countertop and reverently starts sliding it towards me. I look at her slowly pushing the thing towards me for a bit, before I slowly take the bag from her grasp.

"Please allow my colleagues to hand you the rest of the items, honored immortal," she says. Her eyes haven't left her own feet a single time, and she gestures to the rest of the counters without making eye contact.

The room is filled with all kinds of crystal cases, display shelves, weapons racks, and armor stands. Every single one is empty. There are lights in the black wooden ceiling, but they seem to be turned to the lowest possible setting, some flickering on and off slowly.

Ket and I share a deep look for a few seconds. We then mechanically move past the rest of the counters, me receiving the small bundles or items I am handed in silence. We make a full circle, and in the end, I'm left with an arm full of items. The last person in line points to a doorway covered by a curtain. I step through and enter a small little space with a couple of hooks on the wall. Knowing a changing room when I see one, I quickly unfold the dusty robe I just received.

Halting my breathing, not willing to breathe in the cloud of dust that just filled the small space, I try to clean off the simple garment. The entire thing isn't much more than a couple of tubes of finely woven black cloth sewn together with silver thread. There's not a single mystical thing about it, no formations are woven through the cloth, every single thread made from some mundane dyed fiber.

I give it a once-over, patting it down as best as I can. I quickly modify my cleaning routine, giving it more juice and setting it to clean the inside of the robe. It’s pretty old and saturated with dust, but there’s no suspicious stains or smells. Pretty soon, the small room is grey with dust, choking me and staining everything as quickly as I can clean it, and I give up.

Despite being more grey than black, the robe fits decently. There’s no sash, as it’s a closed front design, and the sleeves are wide, but not ridiculously so.

I’m still adjusting the way it hangs over my shoulder when I receive a message from Ket via Database. It managed to slip through all the filters I’ve got in place because Ket somehow assigned an ‘end-of-the-world’ priority to the message. Digging a little deeper, I see an impressive array of messages that didn’t manage to make it thought my rather stringent do-not-disturb mode.

Opening the message, I start to see why Ket had such a bad time here. He claims that the elder sitting in front of the pavilion stopped him for inspection when he received his sect robes. He was still covered in dust at that point and got severely reprimanded, his pills were taken away, and got put under a sect contribution penalty.

I start sighing deeply, but the dust in the air puts a quick stop to that. Once again, I see traces of a rather dangerous amount of nepotism. Anyone with a decent backer would be given robes from the beginning if they are sent to the armory pavilion at all. Breathing out some qi, I command the dust to coalesce into a single point while I scrub the outside of my robe.

It takes me a minute of concerted mental effort, and I nearly rip the mundane cloth of few times, but I manage to return my robe to a pristine black successfully. I then change a setting in the filter between Database and me, giving Ket's messages free rein. I also send him a notification that I received his warning, as he was up to 'irreversible multiverse annihilation' levels of urgency by the time I walk out of the changing room.

The mortal servants are once again hiding behind their counters, their grubby heads poking above the smooth black wood. Making another note to myself that I have to keep seeing these people as actual people, I smile and wave at them while walking towards the door. I keep the small bag clutched under my arm as I walk past the empty shelves. I also try to ignore the wave of reflexive flinching my smile causes. Yeah, in an environment like this, it would be too easy to start seeing these people as subhuman, as mere animals that are somehow lesser.

Before I head out, I open up the bag and peered inside. I see a small clay pill jar,  which I take out, open up, and sniff. The rank stink of half-burned pills scorches my nose. The few notes of actually helpful medicinal ingredients are buried under a thick layer of filler material and trash ingredients. Putting the stopper back on, I glare at the person that handed me the bag.

I fear the worst as I pull the small booklet from the bag. It’s made out of dry and nearly crumbled paper, and the faded writing on it is barely legible. It takes me a bit, as reading the common standard of the cultivation was never a task I learned normally. I manage to piece together a couple of rules, but there is very little of substance, and most of it seems to be about basic stuff like respecting the sect’s hierarchy and honoring one's elders.

Thinking over all that I’ve read while putting it back in my bag, I get the distinct feeling that pages are missing. The next item is a series of long, flat wooden pieces tied together with string. There are small images carved in the primitive scroll, all of them of a figure breathing in and out.

Intricate lines around the figure seem to indicate meridians, but I recognize a rather complex method interwoven through the seemingly simple exercise. This entire Dark Moon sect immediately becomes a bit more sinister in my eyes. If my suspicions aren’t wrong, this is the beginning of a general cultivation furnace technique. Practicing this thing would prime my entire cultivation base for extraction through my meridians.

I once again wonder how this sect ever got this big. There’s no way that all this got built while the foundation of the sect - new blood in the form of servants and Outer Court disciples - is being destroyed like this.

Putting the breathing pattern back into the bag, I ignore all the soft chatter of the servants that keep staring at me and take out the cultivation method they supplied me with.

This one is a black square, made from paper-thin slices of black wood pressed and preserved somehow. The dozen or so sheets are connected via a wooden plug in the upper left corner. I flip through the entire thing quickly, storing the data to Database, but none of it makes sense. There are a couple of diagrams and some text, but it makes a very fragmented story.

Ket tentatively picks the closed book from my hands, flipped the thing over, and placed it back into my hands. I look at the other side of the pages, and immediately the entire thing starts making sense. Hidden in a sea of archaic and difficult to understand text, obtuse drawings, and confusing diagrams is a simple message.

Take a strand of shadow qi, mold it until it becomes malleable, and place it in your dantian.

So it’s a simple qi gathering technique. Once again, there’s something suspicious about the method in which the cultivator is to take the qi into their body. The shape that is displayed here almost looks like a symbol, but I immediately recognize a lot of close matches. I just add the new question to Database’s task list and put the cultivation book back in the bag.

Other than those items, I received some black cloth slippers, a large wooden sect emblem with an embedded black jade moon, a small cloth cap, a frail-looking belt, and a thin stone tablet that looks like some sad attempt at a map. I turn to the cowering people and bow slightly. “Thank you for these items. I will return to receive the ones that I was supposed to receive at a later date, but for now, I lack the Face. For that, I can only blame myself.”

The grubby mortals are standing stock still as I inspect my haul. None of them are even drawing breath as they stand there, frozen in terror. I try to shake the deep sadness at seeing them act like that and don’t really succeed. Ket hurries ahead of me, apparently even more unwilling to stay in the creepy place any longer. I double-check the map Ket made of this place and find a tunnel running under my feet. He hasn’t mapped out the actual area, but the metal hinges of the hidden trap door and the rows of metal sconces below me speak for themselves. The way to enter the area is off in a room I don’t know how to get to, so I leave it be for now and walk out the front door.

“Welcome to the Dark Moon sect, young one,” croaks the fossil sitting next to the armory pavilion door. I stop and turn, keeping my face blank as the elder opens his eyes slowly. “Realize that you represent the sect with every action. Walking around in an unkempt state is an affront to the sect. Therefore, let me inspect how you would seek to show the face of our sect to the outside world. Come here and let me…”

I grin widely as the old man stops talking. He was in the process of opening his eyes slowly, and I can just see his plans crumbling as he takes in my perfectly neat and clean robes. I spun a little qi through my brain in preparation for this moment, and his reactions don’t disappoint. The shock at seeing my robe neat and clean is barely there, but I catch the slight hitch in his breathing pattern thanks to my amplified perception.

“I strive to become a prime example, honored elder. Please hand down your wisdom pertaining to this topic to this foolish younger generation.” I bow low. I briefly wonder why I ever feared to join up with a sect. Making this entire face thing into a game is kind of fun. Peeking at the old idiot’s face, I can see his mind churning through a long list of things to berate me on. I can almost pinpoint the exact moment when he runs out of easy topics to blackmail me on.

“Rightly so,” he slowly tells me. “Strive hard to represent our sect then, young one. Educate yourself on the topic of etiquette, as  there are elders that are less forgiving than me when they are addressed wrongly.”

Letting my confusion play across my face, I pose a question laced with some genuine confusion. “If I may request your guidance on this topic, I followed all the rules on all twelve pages of sect rules. How should I address your honored self, elder?”

I manage to keep an eye on the bearded man while I ask this question, and his reactions plant a seed of worry in my heart. The moment I told him that the booklet contained twelve pages startled him slightly, which confirms my suspicion that there used to be more to the booklet of wooden slivers.

Instead of an answer, I get a dismissive harrumph and a handwave, motioning me away. I take the opportunity, bow, and leave with haste. I walk away from the armory pavilion at speed, Ket running after me. Instead of stumbling into Ket and sending him a message that way, I send a thought packet through Tree, addressed to the amulet he is still clutching in a tight fist. “That elder doesn’t know that this pavilion is ransacked. He’s an ass, but not in on the current scheme that is being run. Do you know anything about him?”

I keep walking to the edge of the Outer Court central plaza while waiting for Ket to reply.

Ket’s reply comes fast, indicating that he is also keeping a slow crawl going. “I asked if there were more rules before I got kicked out of the armory pavilion. They told me that the stock of extended rulebooks had run low and that they didn’t know when more would come in.”

“Anything else?” I reply.

“They blamed the Scheming Fox Demon for the scarce supplies.”

I prevent myself from glaring at Ket as I keep walking, not even sure where I’m going.

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