“So, how are you feeling, Ket?” I open my eyes for the first time in a week.
Ket startles awake, ending his soft snoring with a confusing series of random babbling noises. “Wha… what?”
“How are you feeling, Ket?”
Light returns to his eyes as he focuses on me, his frame no longer gaunt and deathly. The warm yellow light of the engraving covering the artificial cave we are in makes it look like we are surrounded by a cozy hearth fire.
“Why aren’t you more worried about your sword? That thing can do a lot of damage in the wrong hands” Ket asks.
“Lola has finished stealing all the useful qi from the bones. Now, she is staring at somewhere below us. I think she is messing with a certain person. My sword is fine.”
Ket squints at me but seems to accept my lackadaisical explanation. “Why aren’t you using those dao seed object things? I’ve noticed you are putting them in hard to reach places on Tree, but why aren’t you using them for yourself?”
“I totally am,” I reply while thinking how much to tell him. We have been going back and forth in this pattern for a few weeks now. We both have been cultivating hard, increasing our true power while carefully crafting a fake gutcore base. To prevent both of us from going insane or antisocial, we talk at least once a week. This is usually a question and answer session, and it seems Ket is asking this time. “They are all part of my cultivation base at the moment, part of my core. But I don’t use them because I prefer to calculate the most optimal move at any time. Restricting myself to a single style will not benefit me.”
“So instead of following a set path, you are intent on reinventing the wheel each time?”
“Bad analogy,” I frown at him. “But in essence, yes. Why would I invent the wheel when a hoverplate, propeller, or combustion rocket would be a much more suitable solution?”
“Touché,” Ket nods. “How is this?”
Standing up, Ket carefully pulls a strand of shadow into his lungs. Spooling qi through my eyes, I follow the path of the fragment as it carves a complex rune into Ket’s body. It ends up in his stomach, settling in a pool of darkness.
“That looks good. You should waver a bit more, though. From what little I saw of the average cultivator, I managed to learn that their control is far below what you are displaying.”
“This sucks. Doing it shittily is harder than doing it properly.” Ket stares at his stomach, poking at his navel as he repositions the facsimile of a cultivation base.
“Yeah. You should just become some elder’s emergency energy reserve like a good little provisional Outer Court disciple.” I grin at Ket, who turns a bit green at my comment.
“This is so sick. People are actually prepping themselves to have their core ripped out. I bet a thousand points that it won’t be a pleasant process.”
“I’m not taking you up on that bet.” I scratch Lola between the ears as she hops over. The little bunny has been staring at the floor constantly, and I sense the connection between Lola and my sword growing as she does so. I’m not sure what is going on, but from the glint in her eyes, I suspect that it’s nothing nice.
While I wait for more questions from Ket, I sink back into a light meditative trance. I have not forgotten about the Dao seeds at all, but the task I’m working on is monumental and will take a long time.
There is no dao of magic among the seeds I have, no base set of magical principles - and I think I know why. I suspect that there used to be just such a set and that every single dao that has magic in it uses parts of it. The base physical actions, movements, and techniques are there, as well as the magically enhanced ones.
I suspect that the dao of magic is either forgotten or seen as too powerful to just hand out. I see traces of it everywhere, though. The only truly mundane dao objects are the nine smallest ones that I made mine first. Every single one other than that set has principles of magic interwoven in them.
I’m working on reverse-engineering the dao of magic from the fragments I see here and there. It’s going to take a stupid amount of mental time and effort, however.
Turning away from the rather exotic dao I’m working on - a water-based fighting style using an urumi, which is a collection of whip blades - I look at Ket. “Any luck with earth intent yet?”
Frustration plays across his face. “No. None at all. There is nothing here that I can use. There is not a trace of any precious minerals in this dead rock. Not a single speck of metal-containing ore, or anything.”
Ket stands up, waving his arms around. “Not a single speck of metal. It’s all gone. All that’s left is earth now. And not even a specialized earth intent. No, this is as mundane as it gets. And shadows and swords, of course.”
“Swords are made from metal, usually. Nothing you can do there?”
Ket looks at me with disbelief on his face. “Haha, no. That qi was used in pure fury. There is no way that I’ll be able to use that. I tried, but as soon as I started aggregating the stuff, it started cutting me.”
I feed Lola another leaf, having run out of carrots and tubers a couple of days ago. I stare at the horn on her head, now constantly there, and swear I can see a wisp of shadow between the ice and fire. Blinking my eyes, Lola looks up at me with big black eyes, almost ordering me to ignore what I just saw. “And any new thoughts on the sect?”
Ket sits back down, his face now grim. “It’s built upon a foundation of corpses. Still is being built upon death. And while it’s initially just a pit of rotting guts and broken bones, it will solidify into a steady foundation once the rot is done.”
“Dark metaphor,” I comment. “Seems like shitty building material.”
“Well, it seems to be cheaper than concrete.”
“Won’t it be easier to make a proper foundation then? Stronger too, in the long run.”
“All that those corpses need is a long period of rest. That mass of guts, meat, skin, and bones will rot and compact into something much like concrete in the end. Just build something fancy on top, and nobody will notice how much money was saved by using cheap building materials. And if the knowledge of how to make concrete is missing, it will seem like the best way to continue.”
“Anything we can do, then?”
“Burn it down,” snaps Ket.
“And make a foundation of charred corpses instead of rotting ones?” Ket doesn’t reply after my quietly murmured question. We have holed up in this place for a month now, and this isn’t the first time we have had this discussion.
I stand up, my back popping as I stretch the aches and pains away. “Nothing to be done about it. I just got my fake cultivation base into the core-forming stage. That should be enough to get into the Inner Sect, right?”
Ket stands up, picking up the little metal gadget I made for him while putting the rest of this stuff away. “You’re that far already? Just keeping it going without it poisoning me is taking a lot of effort. I won’t be able to get much further than the top of qi condensing, I fear.”
“That’s fine. I suspect that we won’t be needing these fake cultivation bases for long,” I reply while tidying up the artificial cave. The only things here are pieces of comfortable furniture and a lot of knickknacks that I’ve been working on. The metal item that Ket is still clutching tightly is one of these.
“Thanks, Teach,” Ket says while staring at the spinning gadget in his hands. It’s something I made on the way over here. Made out of spinning rings, connected to each other via pairs of bearings, the item took me a surprisingly long amount of time to craft. If there is one thing I have been learning from all those dao seeds, it’s how to represent an extremely complex concept in a physical form.
Ket has an innate control over metal, but the way in which he chooses to use this control is extremely methodical and straightforward. He once described his way of controlling his affinity to me as a collection of vectors. This led me to the conclusion that his rather obvious case of being-on-the-spectrum has manifested as some kind of obsession with numbers, math, and logic. It never was my intent to steer him this way, but now that he has turned out this way, I might as well help him on his current path.
The collection of ever-smaller rings all connect to each other in axes based on the golden mean. That means, instead of connecting to the smaller or larger ring via perpendicular angles - as would be the case in an ordinary gyroscope - the rings are connected at a hundred thirty-seven point five degrees. And it seems my assumption has worked, as Ket has been able to create a steady stream of qi acutely suited to him via the spinning collection of rings. He only has to spin the rings at maximum speed while concentrating neutral qi in the middle. His effort - with a bit of help from the item - then feeds him a stream of qi close to his own.
Ket keeps clutching the artifact to his chest as he watches me put everything away. All my stuff safely back in my ring, I walk to the wall and hold my hand out to the golden drawing of Tree. The complex formation sprawling across the floor, walls, and ceiling all retract into the glowing perennial, which then shrinks into my hand as the cave plunges into darkness.
I hold out a sphere of glowing qi, lighting the way up as I start walking. “You coming?”
“Yeah,” Ket replies with doubt written all over that statement.
“What?” I ask, knowing full well what his doubts are.
“So we are just going to walk to the armory pavilion?”
“Yeah,” I reply while circulating another strand of shadow qi through the requisite motions, adding it to the gutcore I’ve stapled to my guts. I shiver a bit as the sick feeling of the cultivation method makes me feel ill, but I ignore it.
Ket doesn’t continue to comment as we walk out of the little cave we both spent around a month in. We both meditated and cultivated a lot, and I’ve managed to reach a level where I’ll be able to progress in the sect. I’ve also managed to put some things together from the rather lacking amount of sect regulations we’ve been given.
My cultivation base has largely filled out, putting me where I should be in these qi pressures. I feel like taking on someone in the Earth Realm will be more than possible for me now. I’m only techincally a Foundation cultivator at the moment, my effective strength at the top of the solid core stage, in the Human Realm.
Skipping cultivator levels - fighting people one or more stages higher than yourself - has always been pretty easy for me. There’s no need to compete with people that are expert martial artists if you can just shoot them in the head. But now, I feel like I have a good chance of taking on someone an entire realm above me. There’s no chance in hell I’ll voluntarily test that hypothesis, but there’s a lot of things I could try were that scenario to come to pass.
Ket is silent as we walk out of the hollow bridge section that was our house for the past month. Ket didn’t come out of the artificial cave a single time. His character does fit the ‘secluded-meditation-for-a-millennia’ archetype pretty well, though.
“Just walk up to it?” Ket asks again.
Living with the kid in such close proximity for a period of time has been quite the revelation to me, on a personal level. Ket would likely spend way longer preparing in that cave. While I’m all about making proper preparation, making sure that success is guaranteed, and hiding in the shadows until the perfect moment to strike, I also like a certain level of uncertainty.
I can totally see Ket walking out of that hole in the ground and subduing the entire sect in a single day. The price he would have paid would be a couple of hundred years of loneliness, though. I don’t see myself as quite that autistic.
I cut off that line of thought. Never compare yourself to other people, I tell myself. Just compare yourself to an earlier version of yourself. The image of me on that lonely mountain - fighting off half the Cultivation World as the golden radiance of ascension enveloped me - flashes before my eyes.
“Yes!” I exclaim, more out of a need to distract myself from my own thoughts than anything else. “We’ll walk up to that prick, and blow him away with our progress. Then, we’ll trounce through those gates, carving our way into the Inner Court. Then, we’ll take it easy for a while, consolidating more of our strength.”
Ket is silent again as we walk back to the Outer Court plaza. The tunnel is just as dark and shadow-filled as previously, the ominous swirls vanishing just in front of me.
As we walk, I turn inwards, focusing my attention on my connection with Tree. Although the link to the majority of my cultivation base is still weakened, it’s no longer the feeble thread it was at first. I had feared that Tree might detach and become a world in its own right in time, but I seem to have prevented that. I can channel very decent amounts of power into and out of Tree now. Ket has been the main beneficiary of this so far, as he has been cultivating the fairly neutral qi of Tree in exchange for points.
My power base is no longer benefitting much from a simple increase in power. The Earth Realm is about building some kind of structure, after all. I suspect that I will have to make qualitative changes to Tree to advance.
Tree itself has been doing well. The people of the Magic World treat it as a mystic realm now. The Tree Portals in the middle of all the towns and villages of the Magic World have made quite an impact on how society works.
Small villages have changed into small semicircular clusters, located around the Tree Portals. Cultivating animals and beasts have no desire to go near these zones of lacking qi. The Tree Portals are still sucking up large amounts of power from the planet, preventing people from dying from qi poisoning, and powering up Tree.
People gain the right to access Tree when they manage to walk through the qi-siphoning effect without fainting or losing their cultivation bases. This cultivates a very strong will and heart, as well as an extremely powerful foundation of qi control. People usually manage to enter Tree by the time they have made their foundations, but there have been a couple of exceptions that managed to do it earlier.
“Why did you act so surprised when seeing the inside of the sect?” Ket interrupts me with another question.
“I tried to stay away from places like these as much as I could. I was the ultimate rogue cultivator for a thousand years. When a core disciple of a sect tortures you for hours, leaving you and your parents for dead… Well, let’s just say I initially had my reasons to stay away, and with time came only more conflict and reasons to stay away.”
Ket opens his mouth again, but I sense that we are nearing the end of the tunnel. We emerge from the black fog, and the previously serene Outer Court plaza is busy with activity and noise.Previous Chapter Next Chapter