Chapter 293 - Advancing (3)

“Why do we need to do this again?” asks Ket. “Why can’t we just hang back in the cave until this all blows over?”

“Two reasons, my little hermit. First and foremost, life is a series of growths and contractions. You did a lot of growing when you first arrived here. Not so much in power, I think, but more in the mind. A month sitting on those experiences and letting them settle is more than enough.”

Ket’s hands ball into fists as he walks beside me. Those two months of being in a super shit situation don't seem to have left any permanent scars. Instead, the downtrodden depression that always seemed to linger under the surface has now been replaced by a small core of steely determination.

“Secondly, this isn’t going to blow over,” I continue in a barely audible whisper. “And I’d rather spend my time here in a more comfortable environment than that damp cave. This is the first time I ever joined a sect, you know. I want to make the most of this. This tournament sounds interesting, and I suspect that they will use some bullshit excuse, such as only allowing actual inner disciples entrance to the tournament.”

I don’t say that I have spent quite a lot of resources - both my own time and points for missions - in unraveling some of the oddities that I’ve been observing. My trek through the Outer Court plaza traveling to the armory pavilion and the broken bridge allowed me to dump a massive amount of information to Database. All my senses had been going full blast, and going over those memories with a fine-toothed comb allowed me to make some discoveries.

The meager set of supplies I had received is the main example. The rulebook is only a few pages thick, and I have seen several information pillars and slabs in the Outer Court that contain parts of the sect rules. These are all in states of disrepair at best, some not-so-accidentally built over, covered, or broken.

Combining the few scraps of information legible from these sources made me draw some worrying conclusions. All the formalities are in the book, of course. Ranks in the sect and their robes are all described in detail. Manners of address, how deep to bow, when to clasp hands, honorary titles and their signets, all of that stuff is present. Everything about sect missions, rewards, sect contribution points, and sect rewards is missing, however. All information about trials, special places in the sect with rich resources or qi, and special items that can be studied for enlightenment is also nowhere to be found.

Ket is still looking at me with a contemplative look on his face, I see when I shake myself from my worried musings. I then thank my lucky stars that I looked up when I did because the entrance to the armory pavilion is a few steps ahead.

“Provisional Outer Court disciple Wolf Fiend Teach requests that honored elder grants access to the most elevated Armory Pavilion.” I follow every single regulation, code of conduct, unwritten rule, an unspoken form of flattery that I’ve managed to discern so far. The guy sitting in front of me might be a corrupt piece of shit, but that doesn’t mean that he will throw away the last shreds of dignity he posses.

I hope he won’t, but know that he most like will. In fact, I’m counting on it.

To my great relief, I feel the aged fossil scan me in the most invasive and insulting way possible. I’m currently pretending to be a mere Core Forming Human Realm practitioner, but even someone at that level of power should have been able to sense the invasion of privacy this asshat just committed.

Instead of using any of his higher senses, he just blasted a wave an ordinary qi at me. Anyone at my fake level should have been able to put up a token resistance. That would have given the Armory Pavilion elder reason to reject me, so I just grit my teeth and allow his sickening power to wash through my body. Resisting the urge to take a long, long shower at the invasion of privacy he just committed, I slowly look up at the man.

“A ‘special bodily constitution,’ is what you claimed? The speed of your cultivation base advancement is out of the norm. Your student - at the Qi Condensing stage, the fifth step is more believable than whatever trick you are pulling. He can pass, you will have to reapply.”

The words coming from his mouth are hard to believe. Peeking to the side, I see Ket’s mouth fall open. I feel a spike of guilt at the disbelieving look of confusion on his face. I once again wonder if I should have told him in advance. Ket would have needed to wast a bunch of qi on crawling in order to act as convincingly as he is now.

I swallow my initial instinct of pulling something clever and go with a disbelieving complaint. “Honored elder, surely there mu-”

“I HAVE SPOKEN!” he booms. I take a step back, unwilling to show how little effect that pathetic display of power has on me.

I bow, hiding the expression on my face by burying my head into the dirt. Ket steps forward, hesitation clear on his face.

The elder sitting in front of the Armory Pavilion suddenly all smiles. “Welcome, Dark Moon Outer Court disciple! It is truly rare to see such talent. Not one in a thousand manages to reach the Qi Gathering stage in their first month here, let alone the Qi Condensing stage. Your current step is of little consequence, so don’t let the fact that you merely managed to reach the fifth step dissuade you!”

I stifle any form of humor that threatens to bubble up in my treacherous heart as he guides Ket inside the Armory Pavilion. This entire thing went way better than I could have predicted. I expected the elder to be a fool, but the fact that he walked into my plan this much seems like wishful thinking on my part. I keep my face pressed into the dirt until he and Ket walk into the building. I wait there, prostrating myself for nobody in particular, while my student and the Dark Moon sect elder walk up the stairs of the Armory Pavilion.

It’s only when they have both reached the top of the stairs - and thus have walked through the many, many protective formations securing the next floor - that I dare stand up. I am not willing to waste any more time, so I quickly secure Lola on my shoulder and start hoofing it.

The guilt at leaving Ket behind to fend for himself is completely absent as I start to slow down once the pavilion is out of sight. Getting put up against Ket in the first round of the tournament is one thing I want to avoid at all costs. Dumping the boy now and letting the ancient fossil steal my promising student seemed the best way to go about this. Jiang Dan did warn me about that, after all.

I use a combination of my qi camouflage - copying natural qi patterns in my body - and think that I’m a nobody that doesn’t matter as I make my way over to a certain tunnel. I can’t quite help keep the evil smile from my face as I compose a message to Ket.

“Dear honored disciple.

Congratulations on gaining the patronage of such a powerful elder. This little old me can only hope you will not forget my humble teachings once you sup immortal wine, conquer all the immortal icy beauties, and fight with immortal dragons. Please don’t let this lowly Daoist keep you back from ascending the ranks, shedding your mortality, and slapping all the face now that you have such an amazing elder as a master.

Deep kowtow, Teach”

I send it to Database, setting it so that Ket will receive this message once he is alone. I wonder who is giggling in such a maniacal way when I realize that it’s me.

Thankful for the swirling mists that block me from sight, I school my features as I make my way through the dark tunnel. Putting some pep in my step, I clear the dark fog after a brusque walk. Strolling into the large cave, I see that things have calmed down, but not by much.

That’s when I recognize him. Frozen in one of the latest rings, I see that bastard. Lola is frozen on my shoulder. She had been snoozing the day away moments before but is now rigid, her ears up, nails digging into my robe.

Then that bastard - I can’t help but rub a certain finger over one of my ribs - goes through the last ring. Instead of splattering against the wall, he gently lands.

Why do I smell roast pork?

The group of cultivators all start rushing him, but a single wave of his hand stops them in their tracks. “What are you all doing here? This trail isn’t hard. Just keep your eyes closed, you pathetic cretins. Living off the ones that have the drive to advance. Have you parasites no face?”

He then leaves, a ring around his finger smoking and glowing a familiar warm orange. He storms off then, into the tunnel opposite me. Before the black fog can fully obscure his haggard features or tall yet hunched frame, I see his swipe the ring. A brief flash of a brightly glowing sword is all the proof I need. The connection with my sword flares, feeling as familiar and alien as ever.

Lola sneezes, and the orange turns pale blue for a single instance before the blackness envelops the man. The fragment of a soul inside the sword senses me a moment before the connection slams shut. Prodding the sensation, I feel the distance of another dimension between me and my weapon.

My head slowly yet surely swivels to the bunny sitting on my shoulder. Lola blinks her eyes. She even has the gall to start licking her paw. When she starts cleaning her ears, I’ve had enough. “We will talk about this later, little lady.”

Looking ahead, I see the crowd heading back to the beginning of the array of rings. I decide to get going before they can start pestering me, so I start jogging to the first ring. I use the time to get a proper look at the formations. As everwhere in this sad excuse for a sect, there’s barely any light here. I’m pretty sure that everyone here is pale as can be and under some form of vitamin D deficiency. There are still enough miscellaneous light sources to let me take a good look at the rings.

Set in a long stretch of empty space beside the road, I count twenty-seven smooth black rings. The things are around four meters in diameter, set a meter in the ground. The first ones are pretty slim, looking like elegant bracelets, slowly gaining in bulk going backward.

 

The second set of nine looks like a thick mountain bicycle wheel, while the last nine are beginning to encroach donut territory. The sound from the approaching horde of people grows louder as I close the distance. I ignore the bunch and jump forwards.

The last cries I hear before it all goes black are orders to halt and offers to catch me - for a considerable sum.

My eyes are fixed on the suddenly glowing ring one moment, staring into pitch blackness the next. The image of runes so small, I barely made them out is still burned into my retinas. I breathe a sigh of relief. If this thing had been made by something higher than an immortal, the runes would be nanoscopic instead of microscopic. This leads me to believe that the array is made by either a supreme Heaven Realm artisan or an ascended being.

My feet hit a solid surface, and I slide to a halt on a frictionless plane. Then a rock falls to the ground in front of me.

Instead of the stereotypical void of whiteness, I find myself standing on an endless plane of perfect darkness. I can only make out the horizon because the perfect black gets a little blacker in a ring around me. I rub my eyes a bit, not sure how I can see the difference between absolute darkness and perfect darkness.

Then the rock cracks and crumbles, turning into a loose pile of stone and gravel coming up to my knees. I take a tentative step forward, about to send threads of augur probing this illusion when the stones start to move. They hop and skip, turning the dead pile into a whirling mass of stone. Then things start snapping together, and a vaguely humanoid form stands up while it is still forming.

It then starts running at me with surprising speed. I pour some qi into my brain in reflex, and I immediately see that the illusion isn’t that great. As the world slows down, the little golem starts to visibly stutter. I slow my crawl, not willing to break this rather impressive form of mental trickery.

I feel no attempts at anything more sinister than sense simulation happening. As the thing closes, I expand my senses in order to find the mechanism of my entrapment. That’s when I feel something familiar. Something aking to qi radiation, but on the wavelength of a soul.

I kick out, and despite being rather quick for a moving piece of rock, I catch it on its shoulder. Gravel careens into the darkness, shattering the black void.

Then I am looking at a dark cave while mid-stride. The second ring starts shining with slightly brighter runes as I walk through it, and I’m in darkness again. To my amazement, I catch a glimpse of what’s happening. Somehow, someway, the ring presents a different option to my soul.

Instead of working on my fleshy body, the ring simply shows my soul a different body. Like a read-only set of limbs and senses, I feel my soul switching its attention to the fake set.

I try keeping my amazement contained as a stream of water starts dripping from the black ceiling. Each of these rings is a fully-featured body simulator. There is no need to trick any senses, as body and senses are one package. The only limit would be simulated frames per second, but this all feels pretty normal. Provided I don’t start crawling, this place is indistinguishable from real life.

Then why did that asshat of a sword thief tell everyone to close their eyes? In that case, the golems would smash the simulated body. Just like almost happened just now. I barely jump high enough to avoid the whip of water shooting out at me.

Seeing an opening, I advance and kick the squirming glob of water like a football. The thing splashes against the black backdrop, making it shatter, showing me the Dark Moon sect cave once again.

The third ring lights up, and I crouch low. If this simulated body were to die, my soul would stop seeing it as a valid vessel, and be snapped back to my actual body. That can’t be good for your health, right? I don’t know a lot about souls, but I do know they are pretty resilient. It’s the container and link that can get damaged easily.

Showing a tempting alternative only to have the soul crash back to the real body with violence doesn’t seem like the intended use case. There’s also the failure condition to think about. What’s the difference between passing, letting the golems kill you, and failing - and thus being shot backward through the rings at speed?

Keeping my senses trained, I peer into the darkness while thinking furiously. This next one is barely visible, only a cold breeze on my neck alerting me to danger. I duck and pivot, almost missing the glimmer of distorted pitch black and perfect black. I clap my hands with all the violence I can muster, and the darkness is blown away.

In the fifth ring is an unsubstantial cloud that doesn’t seem phased by violence at all. It’s only when I shoot a qi empowered fist at it that it breaks.

The sixth ring is empty and stays that way for what feels like a long time. There aren’t that many elements left, so I can hazard a guess at this point. Content with biding my time, I simply sit down and start studying the effects of the formation.

I have no idea if time actually flows in this place, but finding minute differences between my normal body and this one entertains me for a small eternity. I don’t know what tech these things use, but the creator either didn't bother with extremely fine details or couldn't replicate the more subtle clues of a living, breathing body.

My skin feels smooth, my hair present but too perfect. The feeling of my face is slightly off, the slight oiler skin on my nose the same as the rest. The moment I stick my hand in my pants is the moment the word - seemingly reluctantly - fades.

Ring number seven must be space, as I feel massive and microscopic at the same time. Determined to examine whether or not the ring got my penis right, I begin to undo my pants but am booted before I can start.

The eighth is a weird one, as I feel split and torn on a level I can't quite make out. Unwilling to fix what’s not broken, I reach for my crotch again.

Then I realize that I have memories of reaching for my junk a couple of dozen times the moment I’m back. Did it make multiple identical vessels, and thus splitting my soul. Before I can get worried, the ninth ring flares brightly, and I’m faced with myself. Looking to the side, I see another me.

One of me continues what worked the past few rings, but all of us kind of stare at him as he roots around in there. “Stop that. That’s disgusting!”

We all look at the single version of me that spoke up, and I’m surprised to see me blushing. “Is this a facet of my personality thing? Like you are all singular parts of my mind? Because I’m not into that.”

“I am, though!” one of me says.

“Yeah, well, I seem to be the whole one, so bye-bye!” I grin while starting to crawl. The movements of all the versions of myself around me start stuttering as a couple of them bumrush me. I’m sure that this is a great way of self-discovery for some people, but I’m pretty happy with the way my head is wired. A couple me’s run, a couple does nothing and a couple of attacks. One moans erotically as I kick his teeth in.

I don’t even have to beat all of me, as a couple kicks and punches later the blackness disappears.

I’ve prepared myself by now, and manage to straighten my stumbling gait as I approach the tenth ring.

A Chinese dragon of immense size is gliding between celestial mountains, a collection of golden buildings carried on its back. I try blinking at the weird sight, but my heart is in the process of caving in. The god beast is a combination between a snake, a lizard and a dragon, horns the size of mountain ranges dotting its head. Its golden scales burn with the power of a thousand suns and the universe resides in the glint coming off its claws.

Then one of its eyes shifts a fraction, causing turbulence in the clouds that could destroy nations, and it glances at me.

I cease.

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