The area Ket led us to is actually perfect, and I start looking for a place to hole up in. Some feature of the terrain causes a hard and steady wind to flow through the canyon, the sword intent present slowly eroding everything into sharp patterns. There used to be a bridge here, but it’s now slowly being chipped away into nothingness by the roaring current.,
The bridge used to be a covered affair, one reminiscent of those wooden bridges looking like stretched barns. I see remnants of a road - around twenty meters wide - alongside pieces of crumbling structural roof support. There is very little light here, the darkness occasionally letting a sliver of sunlight in from up above.
The tunnel opens up in a larger flat area, the bridge remains jutting from the center of the cave entrance. “Stay here, I want to explore for a bit.”
“Sure,” Ket replies, holding his Tree amulet to his forehead as he sits down in the middle of the road.
I leave the kid be and move to the edge of the tunnel. The wind is rather fierce, and it feels like sharp blades are poking me in the face. My robes stay intact, telling me that the sharp intent is only giving me the sensation of being cut.
Trying my best to ignore the mildly annoying feeling of having my exposed skin flayed off, I take a deep sniff while walking closer to the broken bridge. The air down here has the highest percentage of usable intent that I have come across down here so far.
The air qi feels a bit sword-like and cutting for my taste, but it’s airy enough for me to use. I’m still hesitant to incorporate ancient qi like this into my system, but I can use it well enough. I breathe in deeply, forming a small vortex in front of my face as a qi filter. Instead of letting the power linger in my core, I section it off for direct use. I channel all the power that I've managed to make truly mine into my heart, letting it sink into my flesh.
The bridge turns out to be useful to some extent. There’s a couple of dozen meters of road left, the wind howling around the slowly eroding structure. The road surface isn't being covered from the wind anymore, the roof and side walls having eroded a long time ago. I keep wandering around until I see that the structural arch of the bridge is incredibly thick. Worming a thread of Will into the stone, I find that it's hollow.
I trace some more probes throught the thing, and find a way to access the hollow space without too much trouble. The inside of the bridge - accessible through something that looks suspiciously like a maintenance hatch - is large and well sheltered. The thick load-bearing section of the building turns out to be relatively large and intact.
Off to the side, in lee of a thick wall pillar is a stairwell going down, the black rock seamlessly shaped into a mundane-looking maintenance space. The actual use of the space eludes me, but I am simply thankful for the fact that the bridge is largely hollow. I'm also thankful for the fact that whoever designed this bridge decided to make smaller horizontal spaces, instead of letting the entire inside section of the bridge be one massive cave.
I jog back to Ket, pick the meditating boy up by the scruff of his neck, and sprint back to the bridge ruin. I nearly stumble on the stairs going down, the sudden absence of deafening wind letting me hear Ket’s panicked screaming.
“Calm your tits, son,” I admonish him while poking my painful ear with my pinky.
“What the Flight-shit, Teach?” He shouts back at me with wild eyes. “That hurt so incredibly much, ow, ow, ow.”
I pat myself on the back for my decision not to use him as a shield against the wind. Looking closer at the lad, I see a few bruises forming on his face and hands. If the lee of the wind did that to his skin, holding him directly into the breeze would have likely stripped him to the bone.
“You really don’t have a lick of power in you, do you?” I say in realization
“No, none," he shalily replies as he sits back down. "The little energy I generate all goes to keeping my brain secured against the pressure. The first few weeks here were hell. I never felt so sick in my life. It was akin to…” Ket falters here, his eyes going blank, his expression empty. “It was akin to having the shit and piss and vomit of a thousand thousand ancient fossils in my most private of places. Like the refuse of an entire planet dumped right into my brain.”
I stare at Ket with wide eyes. “That’s a novel way of putting it. We’ve been calling this stuff ancient qi. It’s energy that’s so old, that has been through so much, that a normal person will never be able to make their own mark on it. I also think it’s caused by resentment. The cultivation base of someone that’s killed isn’t likely to feel too happy about its wielder being offed.”
Ket continues rubbing his skin as he ponders my words for a few moments. “That’s also a novel way of looking at it. I think your first explanation is more suitable, however. Qi that’s been at the center of somebody’s core for a couple of thousand years is going to require a similar amount of time, effort, or work to undo all that influence. And are you sure we can just talk about this stuff? Didn’t you impress upon us that there is no such thing as privacy here?”
I continue studying the walls, feeling for the nearly faded energies that are remnants of its construction. I take my walking stick in hand again and start scribbling on the walls. The first thing I draw is a simple representation of Tree. “Normally, yes. I would never even try something like this in a sect that’s doing fine.”
“So not all sects are self-cannibalizing bureaucracies filled with nepotistic fossils and arrogant third generations filled with unearned power?”
I scoff while grinning at Ket. “No, that’s present in every single sect, I think. Even my school - Ligna Relaxantur - is guilty of this to a growing extent. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to minimize stagnation and rot amongst my students, but it’s still creeping in. What I mean is that the due date of this sect is very up and coming.”
I feel Tree hum in appreciation as I draw more branches and leaves on the wall. Then some threshold that I’m still trying to determine is met, and I no longer have to supply the image with my own power. A connection is made, and there's the tiniest trickle of power flowing out of Tree and into the golden drawing.
I order Tree and Database to start engraving formations on the inside of the relatively small bridge cave. Just because I am not detecting any sect elders or patriarch currently monitoring the Outer Court, doesn't mean it will stay this way.
“Wait, is that Tree?”
“Yep. First things first, let’s get you fixed up.” I focus my attention on the glowing sigil on the wall, concentrating on the connection between me, my cultivation base, and Tree’s dimension. Instead of pulling a stream of power through the link, I Will a large amount of neutral qi inside Tree into a single point. Pulling the small orb into my hand is surprisingly easy, as the high qi density of the small thing negates a lot of the pressure.
I toss the small white sphere to Ket, who catches it with a rather impressive look of reverence on his face. A single tear makes its way across his cheek, followed a rather heartbreaking sight as Ket starts silently sobbing.
Deciding to let the kid be, for now, I turn back to the Tree symbol on the wall. I immerse myself in trying to come up with the most mundane and simple way to hide this place from prying eyes. A lot of the smaller houses in the center of the Outer Court plaza had all kinds of privacy wards embedded into the very stone. Copying parts of those formations I saw, I combine them with other more general-purpose scribbles of concealment and disguise.
Instead of trying to make this area a void to all the scrying and detection abilities out here, I focus on simulating an air of mundanity. I’m not planning on doing anything special in terms of equipment here, so just hiding special energy signatures will suffice for now. People are less likely to come to bother me if they see two sad provisionary Outer Court disciples that have locked themselves away from the rest of the sect.
“Teach…” comes Ket’s voice as I’m halfway through setting up a noise barrier meant to block the roaring wind sounds coming in from the stairs. “Teach, what are we going to do? I’d love nothing more than to get back into Tree, but then I suspect that I wouldn’t be able to get out again.”
Finishing up the simple noise-canceling formation takes me a couple of seconds. That done, the constant roar of the wind immediately reduces to a barely audible whisper, and quiet descends over the dark artificial cave we’re in. I ask Tree to increase its golden glow, and I get a good look at the area I’m in for the first time.
“And although this entire place is evil and ancient and life if cheaper than dirt, there’s such power and knowledge here. I do miss…” Ket shakes himself free from the goofy smile that comes over his expression. It looks rather creepy, him smiling while obviously thinking about Tess - with his cheeks tearstained.
“But I just don’t see how I can get more powerful in this place. There’s no suitable qi here for me to cultivate.” Ket looks down on the shrinking pebble of neutral power I handed him. “This little thing is more power than I wielded in Tree, ever.”
He holds it up to his face, studying the glowing speck with furrowed brows. “More power than I needed to form my Foundation and step into the Earth Realm, and here… Here, it’s barely enough for me to get a breather.”
“Yeah, so let’s solve that problem,” I tell him while pulling two chairs from my ring. I pop down a little table and some food, making myself comfortable.
Ket hesitantly sits himself down in the comfy chair I point to. “How are we going to fight millions of years of history, though? Undoing qi intent is like… Actually, I have no mortal analogy for that type of work. It’s like having to undo all the works of hundreds of thousands of people, all on your own. And the prize for such tedium is a smidgen of power that’s inconsequential.”
I grin at Ket. “The wonders of automation, my boy. You know Rityn, right? She started a very interesting project a while ago and has been working on it ever since. She started mapping out all the different qi intents that people made, beginning with neutral qi and moving off into multiple axes.”
Ket’s eyes go wide. “What?”
“So here I was thinking. The first thing that needs to be done in any mass processing operation is sorting, right? The small from the big, the chaff from the wheat, and all that. Let’s say we have this big chart on which we can place all of the intents on this planet, nay, all the different flavors of power in the universe…”
“And then, when we can differentiate the intent of a plant-based poisoned dagger with hints of electric speed from the strand of qi that represents an anti-clotting poison coated blade with an electric charge meant to stun…”
Ket looks at me oddly. “I have no idea. What can we do then?”
“Opposites attract is the wrong word. I think it’s more like, opposites annihilate each-other’s differences. It's going to be so much work. Probably the greatest feat of mental labor that braincores have ever done. But we need that map if we want to start-”
Then Ket stands up. “Dungeon Core!” he shouts.
“What, Dungeon Core?” I ask.
Even before he continues talking, I understand where he goes with his idea. “A Dungeon core is parallel processing units, that’s how you explained them to me. They override reality by simulating a piece of it so many times, that the universe gets confused and simply accepts the simulated version of how things should be.”
“That’s not wrong, but…”
“Shifting their breadth of calculating power to indexing and sorting qi strands should be possible,” Ket continues. “What are all the Dungeon Cores doing now anyway? I know that having them make qi instead of mana was very useful in the beginning, but I don't think that's needed anymore.”
I stare at Ket as he sucks up the last bit of power I gave him. His complexion is much better now, the deathly paleness and waxy skin having made way for a more natural complexion. He has been snacking on the food on the table, and he is slowly but surely losing his skeletal look.
“You didn’t do anything with them, am I right?”
He is really looking much better now. I really should check in on how Selis is doing with her mission. Getting a feel for the master-student contract I have with Ket allows me to feel Vox’s, and he feels like he is doing okay.
“Are they still performing their previous tasks? Are the dungeons still useful? Hello? Teach?”
I snap myself out of my sullen mood. “Yes, I totally forgot about them, okay? There’s one hanging above Tree, and it hasn’t really done anything so far, okay? It’s part of my core now, but the interface is just so stupid, and working with it gives me a headache. Having it back me up in the fight against Nexus was honestly more trouble than it was worth, and that took a massive amount of effort on my part.”
“So… You have access to a large number of items that are from a realm above the immortal one. Computers that are capable of bullying reality into new configurations, and have the ability to create mana from nothing. And you have them doing nothing because the interface is difficult to work with.”
I say nothing.
“Flight abandon me. We need to get Rhea back.”
The sudden spike of pain must have shown on my face, as Ket immediately looks down. “Sorry. That was out of line. I only had to spend two months by myself in this world. I can’t imagine what a thousand years of running around with a braincore must be like.”
“Nah, it’s fine. It’s inefficient, and that is the thing us thinking folk should be trying to avoid at all cost. But yes, I need to get Rhea back.”
“We need to get Rhea back,” Ket bites back before he closes his eyes and sinks back into the chair.
That pulls me up short once again. Didn’t I create my entire school just so I would have people that could do stuff for me? Grinning widely, I give everyone on Tree access to the Dungeon Core hanging above Tree, unlock the portion of Database that contains all the data I have gathered on the things so far, and stand up.
“Right once again. Don’t get cocky about it, and I’ll try to do the same,” I tell Ket while standing up.
“This lowly junior would never even think of entertaining such unfilial thoughts, oh revered elder,” he replies.
Suppressing my smile, I just nod wisely as Ket, who is peering at me from between closed eyelids. I then walk up the stairs and go sit on top of the bridge, letting my legs dangle above the pitch-black abyss of the canyon. Lola stirs as I do this, hopping down onto my lap and settling down. Taking deep breaths of the fierce wind, I start to make plans while taking in all the air-intent qi I can gather.Previous Chapter