Chapter 287 - Factions (8)

“I was about to tell that old asshole the speed of light, you know…” I send to Ket.

“What?” he replies via Database.

“That old guy has been trying to comprehend the speed of the natural universe. I now think that most people get stuck in their cultivation path when they lack some piece of information or understanding. I sense that man needs the speed at which electromagnetic particle waveforms move to progress. I was about to tell him that it’s two hundred twenty-five thousand thousand foot lengths per breath. Now I won’t because he scammed you.” I fume a little more, silently venting my frustration at the crooked way of doing things here.

We soon reach the area where the road becomes too steep to traverse comfortably, the slope of the spherical floor reaching fifty degrees. I stand still in front of the part where steeply sloped walkways change into steps, and turn to Ket, speaking aloud this time. “Where is a place where we will not be disturbed? I wish to recover my strength after my arduous journey. Being bothered by 'brothers in this life' and people that follow 'this and that person' will not be beneficial to my progress.”

Ket flashes me a grin, showing me he knows what I’m aiming for. “Yes, Teacher. First, I will show you the testing area. Only from there will we be able to progress on our path.”

I nod slowly while following Ket. “Let us first explore the lay of the land, that seems wise indeed.”

We make a left and start walking towards one of the large openings in the steeply angled sides. We pass by more buildings, the lavish decorations and tasteful gardens of the center area long replaced by utilitarian structures of mysterious purpose.

Checking Ket’s map of the sect, I see that some of the buildings house workshops. Metal benches and racks of tools are housed in a few of the taller ones, but most of the constructions seem to be empty. The architecture varies wildly, but there is very little marking the purpose of the buildings.

Sharpening my senses one by one, it’s only after enhancing my ears that I get a clue as to why there are so many buildings here. I hear soft breathing coming from some of them, and then usually only a single and slow pattern. Other buildings are suspicious silent, leading me to trace threads of Will through their walls. I find relatively normal living quarters in a lot of them, the walls either painted or engraved with passive privacy wards. Each of these buildings is a private domicile, and most of the inner court disciples are meditating in their homes.

Meditating in a very edgy and lurky way, I muse. Why else would they go sit underground, in large buildings that seem to contain little items of import?

I’m guessing that the poorest of the poor live in the walls, the rows upon rows of windows and balconies stretching out along the sides of the massive space indicating small rooms. People that are more affluent get private buildings, and the richest or best connected get a nice little house and a courtyard.

I try to figure out some more of how this city works, but a lot of the buildings are black holes to my eyes and ears. Here and there, I sense ripples in the ambient qi. I don't even need to poke into the buildings with my Will, letting me know that there are all kinds of formations in effect around me. I wonder which ones are influencing me, apart from the privacy formations that are embedded into many of the buildings.

The roads are pretty deserted, barely anyone walking through the dark streets. The gangs of people standing on street corners lessened to barely any at all. That happened a while ago, and the only people out and about now are the occasional strolling inner court disciple.

There are no mortals anywhere in sight, but there are endless stretches of tunnels going through the rock under my feet. Big buildings usually have servant's halls and tunnels, so seeing the same principle applied on such a massive scale keeps me occupied for a while as I try to catch glimpses of the system in action. Now and then, I hear the harried breaths of mortals scurrying beneath me. Other times, I sense something like train tracks, the soft rolling of wheels on smooth tracks swooping by at speed.

I'm shaken from that activity when we reach one of the tunnel entrances. I first saw these features as swirling openings into the black abyss, and these illusions of gaping openings into the abyss turn out to be real. The sloping road flattens out just before the swirling darkness hides it from my sight.

Ket doesn’t mind the darker than black shadows and keeps on walking. I follow, but keep a wary eye on the surroundings.

Like an old-school videogame, the fog disappears the moment we get near, staying at a steady distance. The moment we come within a few dozen meters of the dark swirls, they part, allowing me to see a little more of the dark road. Peering into the darkness, I see nothing special that would explain this odd feature.

My eyes hurt by the time we exit the tunnel, the strange black fog eluding my every attempt at close-up observation. I'm starting to think it's just a feature resulting from copious shadows emerging from the ground. The bubble around us could be explained by the shadow intent qi being pushed away, neither Ket nor me having any affinity with it, and thus pushing it away.

I did notice weird qi-intent related stuff like this before, my fundamental knowledge of how qi operates has undergone a major shift since I got stranded on the Magic World. I now know a lot about the way neutral intent-less qi operates, and it’s making me see this entire planet with new eyes.

As for the tunnel itself, it’s really big for how deserted it is. There are cultivator footholds high on the walls and ceiling, but all the people I’ve seen so far just walk. I've just seen two people moving here, that is...

The feeling of eerie emptiness is not present in the location we emerge into, though. Ket has led me to a large open area. To my right, there is a black abyss. There’s the occasional minuscule beam of light that shines down through the void, and I recognize the typical sharp rock structure from one of the sword slash canyons. To my left, there’s a wide area housing a series of large stone rings and a lot of people.

“That’s a lot of people,” I comment astutely.

“This is the Inner Court testing area. There are always people here,” he mumbles.

The large area of flat stone housing the long array of rings is separated from the straight walkway with a low stone barrier. In the middle of this area are stone circles, sunk a third of the way into the ground. A large crowd of people is standing at one end of the modern art project, small groups huddling together.

A single person breaks off from the group, and something rather interesting happens. The cultivator walks through the first stone ring. The moment he is halfway through the rather odd feature, the ring lights up with intricate formations and the man freezes. The entire crowd hushes, all of them staring at the odd scene.

Then the circle dims, and the cultivators continue walking as if nothing happened. The same thing happens with the second stone circle a couple of meters further ahead, the crowd hushing when the temporary freezing effect happens again.

This time, when the man continues walking, there’s a slight hint of fatigue to his steps.

“Illusion formations?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“These don’t seem like they’d give you trouble, so I’m guessing there’s more to it than to pass through some dao-heart tests?”

Ket remains silent, his face stretched taut in an expression I can’t quite make out. 

Looking back at the scene, I see the cultivator - who is wearing the dragon outline robe of an Inner Sect disciple - step through the ninth gate. Knowing these guy' fondness of the number nine, I keep my eyes peeled on the tenth gate.

The half-buried circle that stands as the tenth in the long row shines at least four times as bright. The man freezes again, halting for a moment before being released. His gait is wobbly now like he’s tired or drunk.

He falls into the eleventh gate, freezes for a split second, and is blasted back in a garish explosion of light. The cultivator shoots back through the rings, each circle lighting up briefly as he tumbles through. It all happens before I can really take in the scene, the man suddenly accelerating in the opposite way he had been moving only microseconds before.

My eyebrows must be reaching for the sky right about now with the amount of confusion I'm feeling. Why is the concept of a railgun used here in such a stupid manner? Each ring accelerates the sect disciple only a bit, but multiplying that acceleration by eleven times means that he slams out of the final ring at an impressive velocity.

The next scene plays out different than I expected. Instead of slamming into the wall and splattering the crowd, the man is caught by a portion of the spectators. His momentum is slowed by a dark web, held by over a dozen disciples. What should have been a very dangerous tumble turns into a rough yet safe landing. The cultivator crawls back to his feet, suffering from the jeering of his fellow disciples as he does so. The mental damage is the only damage he suffers, however.

What should have been a sight of him popping like a grape against the solid rock wall is turned into a vision of him being teased by his friends. His friends here were the ones that caught him, preventing him from slamming into the wall at lethal speeds. The cultivator takes the good-natured ribbing with good graces as the crowd calms down.

“The fuck…” slips out of my mouth.

“Anything from the fifth ring on will be lethal for me. I’ve seen a couple of people try it on their own. None survived. They were tossed into the canyon at extreme speeds. Those net-wielding disciples will catch you, for a large sum of spirit stones or highly costly treasures, that is. They won’t even accept spirit coins.”

I stare at Ket. “What the fuck is this bullshit? Are those illusion arrays? In the shape of a railgun?”

Ket nods grimly. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry at this point. “Let’s give it a try, then. I should be able to survive getting through the twentieth ring without dying.”

“We won’t get past the elder. We need to be Outer Court disciples first.”

“And how do we do that?”

“Qi Condensing, is my best guess.”

“And I’m assuming that terrible facsimile of a cultivation base in your dantian is your attempt at reaching that goal?” I prevent myself from looking at the rather terrible attempt at dantian cultivation that is hovering around in Ket's stomach.

Ket nods. I’ve seen enough for now. “Where is a place we won’t be disturbed. I need to make some preparations and you have a lot of work to do.”

“We could hire an apartment?” suggests Ket.

“Somewhere with access to plenty of shadow intent. Is there a place with high levels of wind qi?”

Ket nods. “There’s this path nobody uses. They say it’s haunted.”

I grin. “Let’s check it out, then.”

Ket is silent as we return to the central Outer Court cave. My mind is abuzz with ways to solve the problems we are facing. There are two issues that I keep running into here. The first one is my lack of power. ‘Might makes right’ is extremely true here on the Cultivation World.

Then there’s my perceived lack of power. I might be in the Earth Realm at this point, but other people aren’t going to recognize this fact. No, instead they are going to think I’m a non-cultivator with a weird constitution. I seem like someone that might have some measure of power, but isn’t going to be a problem in the long term.

The best way to fix both of these problems is by powering up, by gaining more strength. Either that, or I spend the rest of my time here with playing Face games. And there is only so much super-strong toxic booze I can give away before running out. Or I come across someone that specializes in the Dao of the Drunkard, and it backfires, or something like that. Either I get strong enough to run roughshod over everyone, or I play by their rules. And I hate their fucking rules...

I solidify my gameplan as I follow Ket’s directions. He takes us both back to the main hub of the Outer Court, leading me to another road heading out. We first travel along the edge of the massive hollow, the neighborhood getting worse and worse the further along we go.

All the main sect buildings - such as the armory and mission pavilion - are located in one quarter. The area opposite those main buildings is less well taken care of. The groups of people hanging out on street corners change from thugs surrounding some young master to genuine gangs.

By the time Ket and I reach halfway to the tunnel leading out, I feel the need to take out my walking stick. I have to beat up the first group of idiots by the time graffiti and gang signs start appearing everywhere around us. We reach the entrance to the tunnel - this one also swirling with darkness - after I got all warmed up through the act of beating up cultivators. Ket keeps glancing at me and my stick, so I just smile at him some more while trying to wipe the blood from my robe.

“Your heartcore is cheating. Are you sure that there’s no way I can copy either that or your base itself?”

“Soul strength. Also, I’m starting to suspect that tumbling through the fabric of reality itself, seeing the raw stuff of the multiverse through one's own eyes does odd stuff to a person.” I reply. I did see some truly fucked up stuff between my ascension and waking up on the Magic World, after all.

Just when I’m about to elaborate on this topic, Ket halts. The tunnel he has guided me to is abandoned. I suspect that the only reason that this tunnel doesn't smell extremely dead is thanks to the constant breeze here. The entrance is similar to the other ones I’ve seen, but for the fact that there’s nobody around. Turning to Ket, I ask “Why this one?”

“It’s haunted.”

Ket manages to keep a straight face, so I nod. “Good enough.”

Walking inside, we leave the rather dilapidated neighborhood behind ourselves as we walk into the plunging mists. The tunnel is the same shape and feeling as the one leading to the test ring formations, except that it’s in disuse.

The reason why nobody would ever come here soon rears it rather loud and violent head. Less than a couple of hundred meters down the road, the constant background noises start turning into a rather violent type of roaring. This sound slowly but surely becomes louder, the wind picking up slowly while the path beneath my feet starts warping in all kinds of odd ways.

Just like the wind-worn rocks on the surface high above, the tunnel is starting to show more signs of erosion by wind the longer we walk. The darkness around us starts fluctuating in odd ways, and I suddenly realize that Ket is walking very close to me. “Are you scared because it’s haunted? This is just wind, you know…”

“I know that. I just can’t see.”

“Wait, what?”

“I can’t see. It’s too dark. Nobody walks the tunnels alone, people tend to disappear.”

“So you are telling me that on the way to the testing pillars…”

Ket stops. “You can see? Is that your heartcore again? Dungeons take me up the ass, you are such a cheat.”

I pat the despondent boy on the back while steering him away from the wall. “And you didn’t enhance your eyes with qi because…” The moment I ask this question, I know the answer. Ket has a metal affinity, and from what I’ve sensed so far, there’s extremely little metal intent qi here.

“Because staying alive takes nearly everything I have! The little I can spare, I have to hoard. I’m not getting caught unprepared again…”

I just pat the boy on his back some more while we walk on, the shattered remains of a bridge crossing a massive sword-slash canyon coming into view.

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