Chapter 296 - Frustrations

‘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’

Ket checks the sound isolation barrier interwoven in the walls for the twentieth time before letting loose an ungodly howl of rage. He follows the delirious scream up with a fierce assault on every single piece of furniture within range.

He gained a relatively massive amount of qi over the past month of quiet meditation. The incredible increase in his physical prowess that he cultivated means that his feet and knuckles merely bruise instead of shatter. The furniture is unimpressed by the one-sided battle, not even scratching.

Ket stands panting in the middle of his messy room, trying to get his breath back after a full ten minutes of physically impotent rage. The previously tidy room is now slightly messier.

The meditation mat, a handful of cushions, hard bench, and small washbasin are strewn around the floor. ‘Sparse’ would be one way to describe Ket’s new dwellings, the look and feel of the room something that - to Ket’s bloodshot eyes - screams something along the lines of ‘prison cell.’

The month of silent meditation has done the boy a lot of good, he admits as he slowly puts everything back into place. Life had truly been harsh before Teach showed up. Not only was his cultivation base useless and powerless, but he'd also seen no hope for the future.

He’d have died from one of the beatings or robbings eventually. Death is fairly common in the Dark Moon sect, and as long there isn’t too much of a mess, it’s usually ignored. Ket should count his lucky stars that nobody thought him worth killing during his time alone in the sect.

None of his schemes turned up anything but death, all his clever manipulations useless in the face of overwhelming power. He even tried to set up his own little school, but that just ended in death and failure.

The only efficient way to cultivate here is dependent upon pre-existing Daos, it turns out. Unlike Teacher’s and Tree’s qi - which seems eager and happy to be used and changed - the power here fights everything. No matter what he tried, shadow qi remained shadow qi. And it didn’t even feel like pure shadow intent. Each minuscule thread of black power he managed to control felt like a massive category. Like the small strand was made up out of a trillion grains of sand, each of them similar yet infinitely different.

What worked for one of the grains didn’t work for the trillion others, rendering everything but the most basic of tricks and strategies useless.

The number of times he had stared into one of the many dark chasms cutting through the Sect, tempted to jump, is not something he likes to think back on.

Then Teach ambled down the road while he was working his ass off at the public sect entrance. He was doing the job of ten cultivators just because he was at the lowest rung of the social ladder. At least he wasn’t hiding in a dusty closet while a group of lackeys was searching for him. At least he wasn’t being beaten up for the tenth time that day because his pills had already been robbed.

Then Teach beat the shit out of him with a rather ominous feeling beating stick, and his mind had truly broken. The relief at seeing a familiar face had been smashed down ruthlessly as Teach screamed at him.

Then the entire walk into the sect happened, followed by the tensest and most unnerving trip he’d ever undertook. Slinking through the shadows, moving from the mortal quarters to the center of the Outer Court central plaza had taken decades off his lifespan, he is sure.

That thought halts Ket’s thoughts in his tracks. Not decades, he suddenly realizes. Centuries, more like. His age might be reaching the two-decade mark, but his body doesn’t look a day over sixteen or seventeen.

This sends him into another spiral of worrying thoughts. Will he look like a kid for the rest of his life? How long is it going to take him to grow a decent beard? What about the other… parts of his body?

Ket then decides that he has enough problems to worry about and that he isn’t about to waste more energy on needless brooding. Instead, he resumes his previous train of thought in a rather methodical manner.

The couple of heart attacks he suffered after reuniting with Teach in the Outer Court plaza seem pretty mundane, truth be told. Just walking up to an elder and speaking to them is more than enough to be executed on the spot. Ket saw an Inner Court disciple kill an Outer Court disciple once because he’d stumbled into him. The Inner Court disciple stumbled into the Outer Court disciple, that is.

Bothering an elder like that is like putting your very fate in their hands.

Then again, isn’t that the case anyway? Ket feels very vulnerable all of a sudden. Someone could snap their fingers and he’d be nothing but a bloody mist. Teach could snap his finger and everyone back in Tower City could turn into dust and bones.

Ket reins his thoughts back in. The downside of gaining a more sociable cultivation base is that his control over his thoughts slacked a bit.

One again reining in his wandering mind, he goes back to thinking over the previous month. The long period of isolation inside the ruined bridge had been bliss. It allowed him to recenter himself, to reacquire the feeling that he actually has a grip on his fate, life, and situation. The premonition that this fragile feeling would shatter the moment they returned to the sect had been a strong one, though.

And of course, it had come true. Pill day was chaos, as usual, but there was something off about it. Rations were reduced out of nowhere, yet there was another faction present that gave out more pills than usual. He’d already been suspicious of those pills, finding their oddly high quality out of character.

And then Ket had gotten himself kidnapped. By an old man.

Kidnapped by AN OLD MAN!

He has been stolen away from his master and guardian. Ket felt powerless all over again.

This changed when the elder introduced himself as Gao Xiao and told him not to use those higher-quality pills. He told him this while they were still on the armory pavilion stairs going upward. The floor they entered - above the provisionary Outer Court one - was in much the same state. Dull-eyed servants straightened to attention, but Gao Xiao gave then no heed and marched over to an ordinary-looking wall.

Pressing a few buttons, he led Ket into a cornucopia of cultivation resources. Racks of glimmering swords shone with mysterious light, pills emanated powerful medicinal aroma’s and shining armor placed on racks filled a large portion of the room.

Everything a sect should have available to their disciples and more were present on this floor. Then Ket started to understand what was going on as Gao Xiao flattered him in a rather odd manner.

Ket was first ordered to go change into Inner Court disciple robes. The thick outline of a golden dragon proudly emblazoned upon the smooth black fabric is already partially filled in.

And that old fossil of a Gao Xiao framed everything in a hair-raising way. He should be honored for this, should display eternal gratitude for that, and really should cultivate hard. To honor the sect, and in order to pay off the grace he is being showered in.

Each pill was another reason to be thankful for the sect. Every piece of clothing was another mark of pride. Nine generations, no, eighty-one generations of his ancestors must have gathered karma for Ket to gain this much favor from a sect elder.

Ket nodded, clasped hands, and bowed as much as he could. He really hopes that the smiles on his face had been sufficiently overjoyed and subservient. This went on for a long time. A very, very long time.

By the time Ket was about ready to off himself in order to get away from the ancient fop, a contemplative expression had come over the elder’s face. The man hemmed and hawed for a long time. It took a while before Ket got the hint, and lowered himself in asking what troubled the revered elder.

Then followed another dance of stupidity, a conversation so laden with veiled suggestions, innuendos, hidden threats and even deeper hidden promises, that Ket felt like screaming. In the end, the elder pulled some strings, played up the fact that he was calling in all kinds of favors, and magnanimously gave Ket an abode all for himself.

Ket had never done so much acting in his entire life, he has never had to fake emotions and reactions as much as the couple of hours he had to spend with the elder.

The elder had left him to his own devices after much bowing, kowtowing, thanking, and giving face. Frazzled from the intense social contact - according to rules still brand new to him - Ket had collapsed onto the floor in a boneless heap. The moment he finally managed to calm his unstable state, Database had sent him an information packet via the medallion under his clothes. That was the message he just read, and the message that made him flip. And still flipping out over even now.

On the outside he might look like he is casually putting the scarce furniture back where they belong. On the inside, he is in full panic mode, a hundred theoretical situations and simulations churning through his methodical mind.

What if Teach really abandoned him here?

Ket shoots that train of thought down at once. The bonds between the two aren’t so weak as to be broken by something as small as a sect.

He comes to a few preliminary conclusions pretty fast. The talk Teach had with the elder sitting at the center of the Outer Court plaza - Elder Jiang Dan - had been filled with multiple layers of meaning.

Ket managed to gather quite a bit of information about the more public figures just by keeping his ears open. Jiang Dan basically told him that their previous interaction caused them to be thought of as in collusion. And while the moniker of Outer Court head elder might sound impressive, Ket heard that the elder was disliked by several large factions.

The reasons vary from being obstinate to refusing bribes and bending the rules too much. Ket had tried to stop Teach from talking with the elder in public places, but he hadn’t been able to stop him.

Ket sees that Teach abandoning him to elder Gao Xiao is his attempt to right that wrong. And with the tournament coming up, the best way to eliminate an acquaintance of a hated elder would be to match them up against a seeded contender.

Then Ket realizes that the only person able to handle that heat would be Teach himself. Talking to Elder Jiang Dan once again while talking back to Elder Gao Xiao would only make Teach more hated. And Ket would be the promising seedling saved from a corrupting and weak teacher. So Teach would end up on everyone’s shitlist, and Ket would be able to conserve his strength in the tournament.

In conclusion, it’s a prime example of reaping what another has sown.

Ket sits down on the meditation mat, ignoring the weak formation that attempts to put a haze over his mind. He is calm once again, and looking at his skinny arm and fist, Ket begrudgingly admits that the current scenario isn’t a bad one.

He is still not sure what Teach’s goal is here, why he would bother entering the tournament. Maybe Teach wants to get his sword back, but Ket is unwilling to believe that he can’t do this via other means. Maybe Teach just really wants to have a genuine sect experience.

More likely, it’s a chaotic whim. A stupid idea like having Lola fight for him in the tournament for training. Pushing the moronic image of a sword wielding bunny from his mind, Ket decides he might as well try to get some cultivation done. The sickening ball of black qi in his gut takes a lot of mental power to maintain, but it’s also good training. Gaining power by itself is already hard work. Doing that work while maintaining a fake cultivation system in your guts is harder still.

Double checking that the privacy formations are online and that the spying formations are blocked, he takes out the metal gadget Teach gave him. A dazzling and bewildering collection of rings inside rings inside rings, Ket starts staring at the paperweight. Putting some qi into the item, it starts slowly turning.

The rings are connected to each other at odd angles, some secret there that Ket has not fully understood yet. Restarting a large mental compartment Ket has been putting a lot of work in, he starts analyzing the thing’s internal movements.

The outer ring is static, and the second-largest ring is rather easy to predict and calculate. Things become a lot more chaotic with the smaller rings. The odd angle makes the random rotations hard to predict.

Also, the thing is somehow able to change a small flow of qi into an intent that smells of hard angles and straight steel. It’s close enough to his own power to be usable, and making it his own is very easy.

Time passes as Ket refines his simulation process, slowly yet surely gaining understanding of the mechanics by which the intricate toy operates.

Then a voice smashes his privacy wards into smithereens, frail words knocking him over by sheer presence and volume.

“This is patriarch Jin.” Ket is about to stop listening, the silence following that sentence making him think the announcement is over. “A sect-wide tournament will now be held. All missions and tasks are canceled. Report to the central plazas of your respective Courts. You will show up within three incense sticks or you will be declared a traitor to the sect.”

The silence that follows is heavy and ominous. What isn’t said is that traitors will likely wish they were dead long before they are put out of their misery. The dark sects are generally known for being ruthless and harsh with traitors, and the Dark Moon sect is no different.

Ket has a single fraction of his mind in a process that he has kept going ever since he regained access to Tree. This process monitors Database for news, danger, interesting developments, and innovations. This process starts giving a rather urgent alarm halfway through the thundering voice’s announcement.

Bewildered and dazed by the aura that accompanied the voice, he struggles to sit upright as he queries what that process is up to. Immediately, a clear and tidy summation of facts, rumors, and speculations is presented to him.

The neatly designed sheet is in constant flux. Ket realizes that an entire contingency of braincores in Tree is busily crunching numbers. Ket goes down the condensed sheet, the data pausing as his eyes take in the information.

He sees that the braincore thinktank also considered that Teach dumped him to break his connection with Elder Jiang Dan. The last part of the summary is news to Ket, and his eyes stare at the diagrams and annotated drawings for a long time.

The tournament's ladder and format will not be decided through a random draw. The information collated from the massive amount of data that Teach piped into Database indicated that the tournament will be a sham. The likelihood that the tournament is a way to arm chosen disciples with high-tier armor and weapons is reaching a hundred percent. ‘Limiting information’ and ‘minimizing panic’ are pegged as the main reasons for the subterfuge.

That’s where the speculations stop. Ket stares at the summary for a little longer, watching as dozens of braincores correct minute details as new information is received.

Ket all of a sudden understands something. The eureka moment concerns Tess, something she said. She claimed that braincores are too smart to see the obvious.

Not a single braincore has wondered why this is all being done. Gathering all of Elder Gao Xiao’s gifts, Ket asks himself why the sect needs to be armed in secrecy all of a sudden.

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