Gasping, I manage to stop my forwards momentum as I flop out of the tenth gate. In one of those rare moments where my heartcore takes near independent action, my open hand slams into the earth. My fingers dig deep furrows, stopping me in my tracks while my soul and mind are reeling.
“WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?” I shout with all my might. The fact that I’m facing down into the rock, my face squished into the smooth stone makes it come out as “WADDEFUWATA.”
That was not a pleasant experience at all. My qi is already furiously spinning through my mind. I instinctively shy away from the memory of that bizarre illusion I was shown.
The first nine rings must represent basic elements or concepts, or something. And then, boom, a fucking dragon? Earth, fire, wind, whatever. But then a fucking god-beast dragon? From the sense of scale, I doubt that the illusion is from the Cultivation World. Sure, this planet is massive, but that thing looked like it could swallow planets for breakfast.
I’ve seen some next-level shit, but that entire scene was on several other levels. The fucking lizard just looked at me and the projection broke, for fuck’s sake.
It takes me a subjective half hour to calm down. I’m feeling kind of better by the time my paralyzed lungs are empty. I definitively feel different from just before, but on what level, I can’t tell. Calming the qi in my brain, I get up and stumble to the next ring.
Then I realize that my body is screaming in pain, the sensation somehow not getting through while I was crawling. The next ring starts blazing with runes, and I find myself standing on a grassy hill. The sky is blue and the sun is high above, hanging in a rather watery yet cloudless sky. Then a shadow covers me, and I reflexively turn my head.
A green snake, four small legs poking out of its extreme length hangs just under the sun behind me. My eyes kind of hurt from the complex weave and loops that the beast is in. “Listen,” I begin feebly. “If some dashing lad by the name of Alexander comes by, don’t just let him cut you in half, okay?”
Compared to the first dragon, this one has a piss-weak aura. It’s still extremely stifling, though. It feels like the sky can burst into a thunderstorm at any time. If the lightning won’t get me, I’ll drown in the downpour.
“Alright, sorry about that joke. I was knot funny. I wish I could have come up with a Gordius pun, but I’m drawing a blank here.”
The thing just keeps undulating and squirming in a deceptively slow manner. I think I should just shut up now.
It then snorts, the shockwave coming from that slight gesture knocking howling clouds and thick wet droplets from the sky. The fact that there is no lightning is of little solace as the wave of condensing water shatters my vessel.
This time, I manage to stay on my feet as I land on the ground. My entire body tingles for a second as if every single neuron and pain receptor wants to have a word with me.
Falling into the twelfth ring, the black on black darkness I see is somehow soothing. “No more dragons then?” I mutter while expecting some form of elemental to attack me.
Then I hear a tinkling sound, like a single falling piece of glass. Each chime of oddly melodic sound is accompanied by a minuscule flash of light. I’ve never experienced synesthesia, but I can imagine that this would be it. Each chime of glass is followed up an instantaneous spark, their varied colors somehow matching with the sound.
I stare at the fascinating sight as the soft chimes come faster and faster. Then I realize the lights are very, very far away. But the sounds and the colors happen at the same time, ignoring the concept of speed of sound without a care.
I’m about to take a step forward to get a better look when the ethereal windchime music turns into a thunderous cacophony. The world around me explodes into light, the few sparks of illumination multiplying a trillionfold.
A mountain of gems lights up a cave. A dark shape stirs ever so slightly, setting off an avalanche of precious jewels. A iridescent eye opens at the end of the dark shape, and I stare into it’s swirling depts.
Stalagmites and stalactites kilometers long speckle the ground and ceiling, respectively. They look like insignificant toothpicks. A dazzling array of sharp lights blinds me, and I realize that the dragon has a smile to kill for.
I slam face-first into the ground again, the illusion shattered by an evanescent smile.
Taking a deep breath, I notice that while I still feel like shit, it’s less kill-me-now suffering, and more week-long-bender-hangover. Shaking my aching limbs, I take a few seconds to orient myself.
I’m between the twelfth and the thirteenth ring, not even halfway. Glancing behind me, I see a worrying sight. The entire crowd of people that I've seen hang around the ascension rings are staring at me as they stand in front of the first ring. Their mouths are agape, obviously shocked as their mouths hang open and their eyes to bulging open wide.
It would be a comical sight were it not for the forest of bristling weapons they have pointed my way. A dense array of swords, spears, greatswords, knives, and all kinds of sharp-looking things are pointed at me. My opinion of this gang of hooligans drops even lower, and I didn’t know that was possible.
I ignore the extortionist pricks and jump through the next medium-thick portal.
The ice-cold water I plunge into isn’t even the most uncomfortable sensation that I experience. The weightlessness is also not that bad. The relentless swirl of droplets that keep getting in my face is the worst, though.
I never knew that falling off a waterfall would make for such a great waterboarding experience…
Then I catch a glimpse of a massive dragon, random glowing pinpricks of light barely visible through the dense shower of water. Then the frothing bottom of the waterfall reaches me, and I smash into splinters.
The rest of the rings turn into a blur at this point. The scenes flash by as I stumble through ring after ring.
I see a yellow mass of scales and feathers, robes bigger than mountains covering large parts of the enormous beast.
A lizard made from pure ferocity dwelling in a dark ocean trench doesn’t even acknowledge me. Somehow, I feel like I mean nothing to this being, and never will.
A small eternity in the clouds and an ever twisting serpentine form.
A man in the shape of a dragon, decked in the same hue of yellow I saw before, radiating absolute authority.
Four unknown and unseen shapes in the deep ocean, shrouded by the clouds above more than the darkness of the depths.
And then I find myself in a universe made from black upon blacker black once again. My mind still reels from the kaleidoscope of images that just happened to me. I was not in control of that situation at all, I realize. Not a single iota of that entire ordeal was managed by me.
The overwhelming amounts of pain I'm feeling honestly comes like a relief. This is just physical pain, after all. Something deep inside my mind wants to flee from the illusion of this ring, but my higher-level consciousness wants to take a breather.
Hanging in the darkness, I idly note that this simulation of my body seems to have a flaw. Every single pain receptor in this simulation is firing full blast. The physical pain feels somehow soothing, though. The practicality of this bodily pain makes it feel wholesome and nostalgic.
Compared to the existential crisis that came with every dragon vision, overwhelming amounts of pain is a trivial thing to suffer through.
Nine dragons, none more overwhelming and mystical than the first. First nine elements, both physical and incorporeal. Then nine dragons, each one killing me either by inaction or by just glancing at me. This is some fucked up test.
Deciding that I’ve had enough pain, for now, I reach for the strings holding my pants up. Whipping it out worked great for the first rings. Let's see if that still works. I land on solid rock without much preamble and decide that I feel like utter shit once again. My soul burns like it’s on fire, my muscles are shredded, and my head is being pulped. It’s nothing compared to the pure pain or dragon-induced spiritual pressure though.
I ignore the absolute silence that reigns supreme in the cave, not willing to waste time by looking behind me.
The next thing I know is that I need to run. Fight or flight-fight or fight-flight or flight. It feels distant, though. Like I’m not really here. Like my soul doesn’t believe any of this bullshit anymore. Teeth gnash in the darkness, eyes peering at me just out of vision. I find it hard to care, and exit the illusion.
The next ring, the simulated body is overflowing with lust. The perfect image of a woman is standing in front of me. Shapes, innocence, confidence, curves, and vulnerability are all present in incredible ratios. My body wants her with every fiber of its simulated being, but I just appreciate the beauty on an academic level for a bit. I move on.
Another exit, a step, and a flash later, I realize that everyone is dead and it’s all my fault.
The next ring tries to make me feel a gut-churning combination of anxiety, panic, and insecurity. I can’t bring myself to care.
Next, I know that I mean nothing, and never will.
Then I see the perfect world, me watching on with friends and family as the universe spins out into heat death. The moment the last photon dissolves everything goes white.
I am a benevolent emperor, watching the multiverse, ruling above all in a just and righteous manner.
Then I am me, and I am awake.
The first thing I realize is that this is the final ring. The second thing I realize is that this is the final ring.
It takes me half an hour to get over that thought.
Every single groove my thoughts have carved into my neurons is here, present in a clear way, mapped out, and known to me.
Every single decision is here, reflected in my mind, brain, body, and consciousness. I see myself and despair. All the points of conscious decision brought me here.
I wouldn’t do it all again, but every single moment of my life brought me here, so how bad can they truly be? I exit the last ring.
The rock under my feet is hard and unyielding. The air is dry in a dusty way, and I smell the black stone all around me upon the air. There’s also a voice that keeps nagging at me, but it means nothing, really. A small black object hangs in front of me, a rounded rectangular token of black stone. A golden moon is outlined, perfect geometric lines shining in the low light.
Taking it is more reflex than anything else. Putting some qi inside the thing, I sense nothing. I put a thread of augur into it, and immediately flood the entire structure.
Isolating the tracking formations is easy at that point. I leave the identity part intact. Taking out the first Dark Moon sect token I got from the clay pot, I switch them over.
Becoming an Inner Court disciple of the Dark Moon sect feels a little underwhelming. Putting both items into my pocket, I realize that I have nothing to do for now, and something is biting my ankles.
A white creature is furiously mauling my shoes, shredding the simple items with its front teeth. It looks familiar, and it takes me an embarrassingly long time before I recognize Lola.
Touching my shoulder, I slowly feel myself coming back to earth. The realization that I should be coming back to the Cultivation World finally wakes me up. The bliss similarly to the moment of perfect ignorance that you get immediately after waking up vanishes.
“Hey, cutie. What’s going on?” Looking around, I see that I’m standing at the end of the testing array. The last ring’s internal diameter is still four meters wide. The actual size of the thing is a skinny donut, though, the ring having a diameter of around two meters.
Looking at the beginning circle, I see something glistening in the ever-present gloom. I saunter over, still ignoring the droning of voices in the background. A large puddle of blood and all kinds of bits are fanned out in a perfect splash pattern.
As I near, I sense that the blood is relatively fresh. A few of the gory bits used to be weapon parts, I see upon closer inspection. Shards of metal and splintered wood are intermingled with fragments of bone, brain, and guts.
Following the direction of the fan-shaped splash of gore, I see four perfect indents in the wall. I pick up Lola from my shoulder and hold her upside down. The indents are a perfect match for her little paws, each pad of her feet embossed in the black stone.
“Nice work, Lola! No need to go and look for people to kill, but if you’re involuntarily railgunned into a bunch of low-lives pointing weapons at you… Well, anyway. Good job!”
I then stand there like an idiot for a couple of minutes, just staring at the wall. I feel the parts of myself that were scoured clean in the rings come back to me slowly, my previously completely empty mind sectioning itself off into partitions again.
Then Tree slaps me awake. Not a physical slap. Instead, the surge of golden power exploding into my head actually spills over, casting the entire cave in sparkling light.
Blinking furiously, I look around, and see that I’m still standing at the beginning of the testing array, just in front of the remains of a lot of people.
Frowning at the sickening splash of blood, I see red footsteps leading away. A streaky red smear leads to the Inner Court tunnel. Looking closer, I see a confusing collection of patterns. Long strides indicative of frantic and chaotic running are interlaced with geometric patterns that originate from blood-covered crawling.
“The fuck happened here?” I mutter. Tree, seemingly fed up with me not doing anything, sends another golden stream of power to me. The sheer volume and purity shock me for a second. A flow of at least a thousand times of my previous maximum rampages through my body. The only reason it’s not damaging me is due to Tree’s nature.
I guide it to my heart, where it slowly starts churning and disseminating into my bloodstream.
Ket then sends me an omega-end-of-literally-everything-Teach-seriously-read-this-right-fucking-now class message. Setting one foot in front of the other, heading to the Inner Court, I open it and blink at the contents.
“Dear Wolf Fiend Teach,
Please respond immediately. See this section of Database.
The black fog in the tunnel swirls around me as I follow the mental link to a sound recording stored on Database. It’s a dry voice, sounding feeble, yet booming with immense power, even in this recorded format.
“This is patriarch Jin.” This is followed by a pause that takes a fraction of a second too long to be comfortable to listen to. “A sect wide tournament will now be held. All missions and tasks are canceled. Report to the central plaza of your respective Courts. You will show up within three incense sticks or you will be declared a traitor to the sect and taken care of.”
I halt in my tracks. Noting the time stamp on the file, I see that it was recorded half an hour ago. And an incense stick is like fifteen minutes, right? I pull the two sect tokens from my robe. The pure black one is now a dull matte. The Inner Court one is shiny and vibrant.
Cursing up a storm, I turn around and start sprinting back the way I came, heading to the Inner Court. Let's hope I can get there in a quarter-hour.