Chapter 297 - Bouts (1)

Looking at the three elders standing on the podium, here in the Inner Court, I sense that there are various factions at play here. The Inner Court Head Elder, the fellow with the resplendent beard and robes, goes by the name Jiang Chang, and he seems like a decent fellow. Sure, there is this palpable aura of death around the man. But taking note of that feature in the Cultivation World is like noting the fact that people have skin anywhere else. Every single disciple in this sect would be considered a psychopathic mass murderer back on Earth. When in Rome...

The two elders standing half a step behind him are a different story. First, there is a woman. Inner Court Elder Jin Shun is a willowy creature. Of course, her skin is flawless, possessing an intriguing inner glow and jade-like perfection that is so common with higher-level people. But aside from that and her rather too perfect face, she somehow manages to be unremarkable.

She seems to spend most of her time cozying up to the sly one of the trio, Inner Court Elder Gao Haoran. His hair is held in a rather neat and tight ponytail and manages to give off that slicked-back feeling that I associate with greasy salesmen.

I’m making a conscious attempt to not let this initial impression of the slimy fellow paint him in a negative light, but I’m not having much luck.

“A wise disciple would learn a lesson here. Our most revered Patriarch summoned every single person here at the same time. Yet the lot of you deemed your own business more important than honoring our patriarch’s words.” Gao Haoran stops talking for a bit, basking in our undivided attention.

A group of a couple of dozen sect disciples has walked through the portal at this point, disappearing into the black circle.

“They have shown wisdom in obeying quickly and promptly, and thus are given the most honored places available to the Inner Court. Where the common rabble now must fight like savages to gain the same honor, these wise few have gained face in the tournament before stepping foot in the dueling ring.”

I’m assuming that he means all of us, the remaining disciples. As if any of the people standing around me, the obvious scrubs of this Court, had any chance of getting a front-row seat. My current position among them can be explained by mitigating circumstances, okay? I take a minuscule step forwards as the crowd moves forwards.

The woman speaks up this time. “Learn Elder Gao’s lesson well. Continue stepping through the portal, everyone.”

The three elders are standing to the left of the portal as the stream of students resumes stepping into the pitch-black portal. I do wonder where they got the small platform that's now under their feet. It wasn’t there before, I’m sure. The efforts some people go through just so they can look down on people…

The seemingly never ending line of disciples stepping through the portal takes ages. With nothing to do but shuffling ahead slowly, I feel tempted to inspect my soul. I steel my will and refrain from indulging that shortsighted desire. Who knows what type of detection techniques those elders have trained. For all I know, there might even be some form of formation active here that would interfere with my attempt. I haven’t been in the Inner Court long enough to feel confident about anything here.

I do perform a light form of meditation as the massive crowd slowly disappears. I focus on clamping down my control on the power inside myself, focussing a lot of attention to preventing Tree’s golden glow from showing. I’m not sure what the reaction would be were I to start glowing with radiant sunlight all of sudden. I doubt I could explain how - being in a dark sect and all - I managed to get my hands on an assload of sunlight-based qi.

I steadily work on regaining control over my faculties, focussing on fine qi control instead of my finer  motor functions. I focus on reforming systems I had in my cultivation base before.

The one thing I do gain some insight into is that Database has been growing all this time. I nearly lost the connection with my qi clone when I entered the Cultivation World, but my training with reconnecting Tree has boosted it significantly. Half of all the power Tree took - from the Magic World and the Cultivation World - is now locked up inside its neutral qi intent form that's a cell-perfect copy of my body. The copy of my cultivation base is still sitting in the center of Tree’s planet, inside its jade core, storing and managing massive amounts of data like some archive administrator.

The balance between us hadn’t been getting any better while I was trouncing through the deadlands. Only through Tree’s conscious efforts did that link stay intact. And now, with that connection being strengthened a thousand, nay, a million-fold thanks to those rings, Database is also thoroughly linked up once again.

And while I have been gaining strength fighting off ancient qi and learning how to cultivate under pressure, Database has just been gorging itself. For a single instance, I suddenly realize, Database could have taken over. The clone is a cell-perfect copy of me, after all. Had the incorporeal being chosen to do so, it might very well have rushed into my body and taken it over.

I feel a smug grin coming from a certain mass of qi hovering inside a massive piece of jade. Cold sweat drips down my back. Had I made a single mistake during Database’s creation, or had I acted with a malicious will towards the entity, I might be locked up inside my own flesh right about now.

Then another surge of qi bearing my fingerprints floods through Tree into my braincore, and I regret thinking that thought. Database is me, after all. It’s more an extension of my own mind than a separate entity. And I just suspected myself of killing me.

And now I feel guilty about the fact that I (me) used a part of me (Database) in order to power up myself (me) and limit my (Database) threat to myself (me).

I decide to ignore that mindfuck of an existential crisis and focus back on my cultivation base. I have two streams of power entering my braincore, both of them flowing from Tree. Database’s supply of qi is already completely mine. I use that to keep the pool of power in my head filled up and send the rest to my heart.

There, it’s transformed into structural qi, which is then transported through the bloodstream. From there, it fights against the ever-present pressure of ancient qi while reinforcing my physical body.

Tree also supplies me with a trickle of power, and I send a part of that energy to my heart. I have it spin through the muscled organ until it becomes mine. The other part, I send through my hand into my ring. For some reason, I felt like Tree was asking for access to my arrow beating stick. I’m still not sure how Tree managed to convey this request non-verbally, but it is what it is.

There’s also the small bits of ancient qi that I’m working on, but that process takes so long that I might as well not bother. The rest of the ancient qi that I breathe in goes straight to Tree, where it’s locked up in the massive qi tornado around the massive plant until it loses its ancient edge.

All in all, I feel amazing. No longer do I feel like I’m made from cotton candy, being crushed into a single point at the bottom of the Mariana trench. I actually feel how an Earth Realm cultivator should feel, capable of changing the face of the earth with a thought, turning over mountains with a flick of the wrist.

I’m not even going to guess at what stage or step I’m at though. I had enough trouble with following the “nine steps per realm and nine levels per step” thing the first time I cultivated. And back then, I was at least using methods based on that system. Now, I don’t even know how to label the way of cultivation that I and all my students practice.

Free-form Dao seeking? Personality amplification? I’m hesitant to label it, as names have power. And once I start thinking that the system should work a certain way, it’s bound to start working like that inside Tree.

I suspect that I’m currently way above a second step Earth Realm cultivator, though. I might not be able to beat a Heaven Realm expert just yet, but top-level Earth Realm cultivators should be manageable.

Then the person in front of me stops walking, and I nearly bump into them. Once again thanking my heartcore for its semi-autonomy, I look around. Jostling someone is similar to slapping someone in the face, so that would have caused a lot of useless animosities.

I see that only a third of the original crowd is left standing, and the elders are rustling their feathers in preparation of yet another speech. I can see the slick one getting ready to talk when the Head Elder speaks up. “You of the last third must earn your seats. The portal will transport you to the preparation areas. Prepare to fight.”

Angry mutters sound out around me, all kinds of indignant noises coming from the crowd. I’m just happy that this is a rather tame sect by all accounts. Some of the darker and harsher ones would have just killed us off as punishment, from some of the stories I heard.

We all keep shuffling along, but instead of the controlled excitement of before, there’s now simmering resentment hovering in the air. There is a communal and unspoken promise of violence that causes chills down my spine.

That’s when I realize that I have no idea how strong all these darkly-clad sect disciples around me are. Are they in the qi condensing stage or are they Earth Realm? Are they secretly Heaven Realm, but just really good at hiding it?

I stumble as the realization that I have no actual frame of reference for power levels here makes me ignore the steps leading up to the platform. There are no comments this time, as I’m the last one. There are only a couple dozen people left, and they are all about to step into the portal.

Picking up my pace, I close the distance and try to blend in. One by one, the disciples walk through the black circle. Only now do I see that the portal is ringed by a faintly shining circle of stone. Runes similar yet wholly different from the ones on the testing rings flare with each person stepping in.

“Halt,” the greasy elder shouts a fraction of a second before I reach the portal. I look to the side while pretending to stumble again, trying to fall into the portal. My face smacks into a solid sheet of wind, and I see the woman holding out a hand. “How did you ignore the mercy of Head Elder Jiang Chang? Do you truly give us elders no face, or are you this simple?”

“I’m that simple, honored elder,” I reply with a big smile on my face.

“You dare speak to Elder Gao Haoran that way?” shrieks the woman. Although her face is all kinds of lively, I feel like she isn’t really putting her heart into screaming at me.

“You dare not answer my question?” says Haoran in a flat tone.

“Honored elder,” I begin while clasping hands. “I did answer your question. My simpleness - as you pointed out so astutely - prevented me from understanding anything that’s going on here. What’s this black round thing for? I was held up at the lavatory when the revered patriarch’s imposing message made me shit myself all over again. And why do I need to fight just because I was taking a shit, honored elder?”

“YOU DARE?” screams the woman, who is going red in the face.

“Should I have come before your elevated presences with shit-smeared cheeks, honored elders?” It takes me no effort at all to act like I honestly mean the question. I truly would like to know the answer to this one, after all. “That would have been a much greater insult than coming a bit late, I think? I should have held it in, maybe. But then I would have dishonored the sect by not fighting with all my might for fear of dishonoring the sect by shitting myself.”

I start rubbing my head while looking down, now seriously pondering what would have been the optimal way to solve being on the shitter during the patriarch’s announcement.

There’s this odd sensation of eating popcorn in the back of my mind. I feel like a large number of people are enjoying this situation way too much. I do feel like I’m standing in front of a cliff though. Not a single thing I’ve said to the elders has been planned. I'm just getting kind of pissed. There’s just me and the three elders here. Just us. I don’t feel any other senses trained on this space. Must be the upcoming tournament.

The elder named Jiang Chang hasn’t reacted at all, the two standing behind him more than making up for his lacking expression.

Danger explodes in front of me. I crash into combat mode, the world instantly freezing around me. My eyes start turning upwards, but it’ll take a bit to get them pointed forwards as they're still pointing at my feet. The process shoving me into combat mode also started a net of sensory qi. That process has not been updated yet, I immediately sense. It still thinks my qi moves through ancient qi like treacle. Instead of pushing rope through mud, it’s exploding from my head at a speed that’s impressive even while crawling.

The front of spiritual sense is washing over the closest elder, but I can already sense what’s going on. Gao Haoran has his sword out, a thin sheet of force pulsing from its tip. He’s also jumping backward, his free hand twisting into some kind of signal.

My senses reach the woman, and all I feel from her is wry acceptance. I get the feeling she’s in a rock-and-a-hard-place type of situation.

I spend a second or two absorbing the information, pondering what my best action might be.

Then I realize why I had this initial dislike of the elder with the greased-back hair. Sure, the used-car-salesman aura he’s emanating isn’t doing him any favors but doesn’t explain the enmity I instinctively felt for the fellow. His sword-hand, though, sports a ring I know all too well.

I pulse qi into my legs, the decision to just say ‘fuck it’ and go wild not one I take consciously. My hand twitches towards my ring in slow motion, but I stop myself from taking out my beating stick. Instead, I slap at the black crescent of sword energy shooting towards me in slow motion. The dark arc is poised to cut me in two lengthwise when I strike it with an open palm. It shatters, and the smoking fragments shatter against my skin, cutting numerous tears into my robe.

I can see Gao Haoran’s eyes open wide while I close in as a cloud of stone dust and fragments billows outwards from my jumping point. I slapped at the sword attack with my right hand, so I bring up my left at head-height. My right one snakes to the elder’s right hand, a blade of cutting intent qi forming on my finger.

Using a bit of mental effort to guide and manage the actions of my body through my heartcore, I make sure both my attacks land simultaneously. With my left, I slap the asshole in the face. With my right, I cut his middle finger off, swiftly pulling Ket’s ring free and tucking it away. He goes flying, his face turning from surprise into something too bloody to read any expression from.

The woman is also jumping backwards, her hand moving towards her sword, but she isn’t keeping up with my movements.

Deciding that I need to keep this situation under control, I move back to my initial position post-haste. Once there, I bow to the Head Elder. “My apologies honored elder. I reacted harshly in self-defense. Many thanks for the warning.”

Pulling the brand new Inner Court jade tablet from my tattered robe, I breathe a sigh of relief to see it undamaged. I keep my front towards Jiang Chang, who is still not reacting at all. The woman is standing in a rather silly-looking defensive stance while pulling out talismans and activating barriers. I then sprint for the portal and jump in. 

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