Chapter 292 - Advancing (2)

“What’s this, then?” I ask.

“Probably the day that pills are given out?” replies Ket.

I keep an ear out as we walk through the semi-circular cave that is the Outer Court plaza. The streets that were empty previously now bustle with people. Everyone seems to be going somewhere, but I see a distinct lack of a unified direction.

I hear people talking about pills, but the majority of the rumors seem to concern a tournament. I also hear some lines about large righteous sects moving, but the thick crowds make listening to a single thread of conversation in real time difficult. Ket and I are still clad in provisionary Outer Court disciple robes, so I don’t dare pull someone over to ask them what’s going on. Being the lowest of the low on the sect totem pole - barely above a mortal servant - we will have to gain our knowledge through hearsay.

And hearsay there is. I pipe everything my ears hear directly to Database, setting up a few missions to transcribe all the good information. I could do all that myself, but that would require me to crawl at decent speeds. That would transform the coming walk from a couple of hours into days.

 I suppress the worry in my heart about Rhea once again like I have done time and time again since I came to the Cultivation World.

Shaking the empty feeling away, I start paying attention to the few conversations I do manage to overhear and understand. A new tournament has been announced, and this one will be sect-wide. Rewards will be plentiful, as, for the first time in many generations, the sect’s armory vaults will be opened.

Aside from the massive amount of precious treasures, medicinal pills, cultivation aids, mystical and secret techniques, armor, and weapons that will be doled out, there seems to be one more prize. None seems to know what this ultimate prize will be, however.

As Ket and I bustle through the streets, making our way to the other side of the plaza, I see a high-level Outer Court disciple receive a piece of jade. The fact that he goes pale upon reading its contents makes me curious, so I extend a thread of Will.

The message I read is simple. The Dao Child position is open and the top prize.

I ponder a few possibilities. I want to think it’s not the case, but I suspect that the fight where my sword was stolen is involved. I also suspect that a certain sword thief is a reason why the Dao Child position is now open.

Ket follows after me as I try to plot a course. The streets that were previously largely abandoned are now bustling with folk of all shapes and sizes. The qi in the air shimmers and quakes with the number of cultivators that are running to and fro.

My plan to avoid the busy streets falls apart quickly. I first thought that it would be a good idea to walk along the outskirts. One long and straight street allows me to catch a glimpse of the lower area, and I see a lot fewer people over there. Deciding we might as well cut right through the plaza, I make a hard right turn.

I only have to elbow a couple more dozen people before the crowd lessens. The qi seems even more oppressing here, and I realize that the average cultivator is a few stages and steps higher here. The crowd thins as the average cultivation base rises. Instead of the absolute chaos of the outskirts, there is now a hint of regal hurry in the air.

I slow down and Ket bumps into me, sending me a message. “It was busy during the one pill handout I saw but nothing like this. Is a tournament truly something worth all this excitement?”

Turning to Ket, I put on my wise teacher's face. “So, young one. You will get to experience a tournament for yourself for the first time. There will be much to learn in the coming days.”

I stop monologuing for two reasons. The first reason is that Ket isn’t listening anyway. The second reason is that a certain pattern has caught my attention. The crowd largely moves in two directions. Cultivators hurry to certain points, their stoic faces eager. The ones that return are all pissed off to a varying degree.

I hear many people complain about lacking resources to their companions and themselves. Scanning a few individuals, I see that the people coming back all have small bottles of pills in their pockets. 

Then there is a small minority that doesn’t look and feel angry at all. And all of these people have a second, larger bottle of pills. And even from a distance, I know that these things are not your standard cultivation resource.

Making a quick simulated model, triangulating the source of these pills is easily done. I make another turn, Ket hurrying after me, as I try to imitate the rest of the crowd in my mannerisms. The smell of these pills is way too similar to that scam shadow cultivation method we were given.

A sect disciple in odd robes stands on a small platform, overlooking the bustling crowd as he talks softly. I strain my ears, and barely hear what he is saying.

“…sees higher than Elder Jiang Dan. In these times, the sect should not be hoarding reserves. The vultures are encroaching, no longer satisfied by circling above, hoping we are slaughtered by other enemies. Please, we should band together in trying times like these. Elder Gao Xiao has opened his reserves, as he is unwilling to see this glorious sect decay!”

I see what I find so odd about the robe quickly. Instead of the single dragon, there are two. One is completely filled in with golden embroidery, from the scales to the wispy whiskers trailing from its snout. The other one only has outlines where it’s features should be. What is an Inner Court Disciple doing here, handing out these pills?

Joining the crowd, I smile and bow respectfully by the time he drops a pill bottle in my hands. He looks at my robe. Upon seeing the lack of dragon embroidery, his face briefly twists into a snarl of contempt before a neutral smile plasters itself over his face again.

I scurry off, barely even waiting for Ket to receive another bottle. I then follow the stream of empty handed people to one of the many pill pavilions. I begin to stand in line, but every single cultivator with a higher rank than me cuts in line in front of me after glancing at my robes.

I feel for the quality of the pills with a thread of augur, and decide it’s not worth the effort. Ket nods as I motion to leave, and we scurry off.

Instead of jumping back into the thick of things, I decide to walk through the middle of the sect. We’ve been gone for a month. That’s usually merely a blip on the timescale of a sect, but I get the feeling that things are in a state of rapid development.

Using an old trick from another world, I pull an armful of random scrolls, jade slips, and wooden booklets out of my ring as we walk through a dark alley. I shove some into Ket’s hand, who looks at me with a rather dubious expression. The doubt on his face fades as soon as we walk back into the relatively busy street again.

Where earlier, all the higher level Dark Moon disciples gave us frowning glances and disapproving looks, now they just ignore us. Looking down on people loitering in a place too good for their station is one thing. Showing contempt for hard-working juniors in the middle of an undoubtedly important errand is another thing entirely.

We are undisturbed as we make our way through the Outer Court plaza. I think about avoiding the elder sitting in the middle of the bowl-shaped cave, but decide to gamble.

As soon as Ket and I emerge from the sprawl of fenced courtyards and ornate houses, the old man’s gaze locks on to us. Not allowing myself to doubt my earlier decision, I keep walking towards the Armory Pavilion.

As soon as we come within a couple of dozen meters of the old meditating geezer, he opens his mouth. “Wolf Fiend.”

I halt in front of the fossil and clasp my hands, Ket following in my footsteps. “Yes, elder?”

He strokes his beard for a long few moments. A process in my mind starts analyzing the fact that I just minor mistake by subtly insulting him - by omitting his name and the ‘honored’ title - but I ignore the small stream of information.

“Your musings about seeing darkness was not something simple,” he slowly says. Lifting an eyebrow, he continues. “Neither is advancing to the third stage of the Human Realm within a month. Another side-effect of your mysterious construction?”

Smiling widely at the man, I nod. I knew that I liked the old git for a reason. “I hope my insignificant comment was of some use to your elevated honored self,” I orate while clasping my hands and bowing. I feel Ket looking at me with a rather confused feel to his aura, but I simply send him a section of Database that covers the basics of cultivation realms.

From qi gathering to solid core forming, each new stage takes like nine steps or whatever. That’s the Human Realm. Stepping into the Earth Realm requires one to make their foundation, after which an entire structure should be built upon that foundation. Stepping into the next realm, the Heaven Realm, requires one to make the complex simple again. Usually, this is done by severing parts, but I’m not a fan of stripping yourself bare for power.

I shrug off the introspective moment and focus on my current situation again. The elder looks around before scoffing at my display of obviously sarcastic adherence to protocol. “I could have your cultivation base crippled for that slight, you know?”

“I know,” I reply while nodding enthusiastically.

The wrinkled man gives me another complicated look before sighing. “Things are going on. I will sow some karma here. There is no Dao Child at the moment. There will be a sect wide tournament.” Here the man looks between Ket and me. “The rankings will not be random.”

Realization strikes and my eyes grow wide. My initial meeting with the old man is surely overheard, as well as my comment about seeing darkness and the geezer’s sudden increase in power afterwards. His enemies are now my enemies, his inner sect feuds now my own through association. I nod grimly to Jiang Dan, showing him that I appreciate the warning. “Is publicly severing our relation enough?”

“No. There will be seeds,” he replies.

“Thanks,” I say to him before bowing and walking off.

I don’t see elder Jiang Dan looking at me as I walk away, but I feel his gaze piercing the back of my head. Then I get a great idea. I turn around again, ignoring Ket’s softly murmured complaints as I repeat a scene that happened a month ago. “My humble apologies, revered elder. I noticed that you were trying to see light where there is very little.”

Ket sighs audibly, and the sitting elder’s aura fluctuates. I barely detect a trace he manages to get himself under control again.

Speaking softly, I ignore the crowd that has gathered, making sure to barely whisper my words to make sure that only Jiang Dan can hear what I’m saying. Although I used the same technique last time, it'll likely won't do me any good.  “Light enters the eyes, is concentrated by the lens housed in the pupil, after which it hits the retina. Units of the body, so-called individual cells, housed at the back of the eyeball observe light and signal the brain. Two types of cell, cone- and rod-shaped units, are responsible for this. Rods are more sensitive, while cones show us colors.”

I turn around and get out of there. With a bit of luck, I just bought a decently powerful backer with just a bit of basic information. There’s no way that a relatively small sect like this will have comprehensive information on eye-related sciences and whatnot. And his enemies already seem to think we are thick as thieves, so I might as well increase that bond. Although I generally dislike this type of political manoeuvring, the chance to brag about science and spout some mind blowing information more than makes up for it.

Putting the elder out of my mind as a nice possibility, I occupy my time with planning our path ahead. Ket bumps into me as soon as we leave the central area made out of flat parks and fields, sending a rather expressive information package my way.

“What the fuck was that about?” he asks.

I can’t help but smile for a bit. He could have sent that query through Database, no doubt. The amount of incredulity and exasperation that would have accompanied that message would have been several magnitudes less than the message I receive upon physical contact, however. I allow myself a single second of amazement. I reminisce about how different this form of mental communication is from the purely text-based methods that I knew in my first life. There are so many ways in which Ket’s message could have been misinterpreted without the added emotional and mental baggage that accompanied his mental communication.

Instead of deciding to misinterpret his query - as would have been possible in the age of non-mind-to-mind-communique - I answer his question in full spirit and letter. “I just indebted a low ranking elder of this sect. It might not mean much, but I suspect that there’s more to Elder Jiang Dan than meets the eye. I just secured any help he can provide us by showing him we know what’s going on in the sect while providing him with yet another breakthrough.”

Ket is silent once again as we walk towards the Armory Pavilion. It’s only when we are halfway that he sends me another message. “I really hate following you around. You somehow manage to confirm both my worst and my best predictions when it comes to this political game.”

The lingering feeling of that message is one of both satisfaction of a well-played scheme, and frustration at the sheer unpredictability that comes with any plan that involves humans. I barely manage to hide my grin as the lesson I’ve tried to teach him finally seems to land.

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