“Wow,” I can’t help but exclaim. “This is some shit.”
The area I find myself in is rather large. Not Inner Court large, but the sheer size of the architecture is still impressive. It’s also entirely made from metal, for some reason.
This latest cave is disk-shaped, floor and ceiling made from black shining metal. Thin pillars offer structural support, placed in a grid at twenty-meter intervals, a mere ten meters high. For the first time since coming to this sect, I start to feel claustrophobic. Ten meters is pretty high for a ceiling, but the sheer contrast between the previous caves makes it feel rather cramped.
Also, the absolute fuckton of people that are stuffed in here isn’t helping either. The ground is shaking from the sheer amount of disciples present. The circular walls hemming us all in contain several black portals, the one I just jumped through winking out as I look around. Only one of the circles is still operational, the robes indicating that only the Outer Court is still being transferred.
I absentmindedly wipe the last traces of blood from my fingers as I start looking around for Ket. The crowd settles down pretty quickly, everyone sitting down in meditative positions as they start waiting. For better or worse, I can’t find a single trace of Ket. After walking around for a few minutes, I settle down too.
As I calm down a bit, the adrenaline fading from my veins, I start feeling restless. I just provoked a sect elder, baiting him into attacking me. I then fought back and actually cut off the bastard’s finger. I play with Ket’s old ring for a bit, rolling it in my hand while getting my cultivation base back under control. I get the feeling that I’m going to need my power soon enough.
Before the implications of attacking an elder while deep into sect territory starts truly sinking in, but before the braincores in Tree can send me a summary of how fucked I am, stairs drop down from the ceiling.
All at once, at several dozen places in the large disk-shaped space, slabs in the floor and ceiling fold away. Students are sent flying as stairs slam down, shining bright light into the dark metal cave.
An ancient voice that’s impossible to ignore slides through my ears. “Walk up the stairs and fight once.”
I hear whispers exclaiming that it’s Core elder Xin Jin, a mix of emotions resounding out around me. Just as I start to question the organizational talents of this sect, the crowd pulls me along and up the stairs, and I emerge into the arena.
I feel a gaze lock on to me, and the manic sensation prickling my neck nearly sends me into combat mode. I twist my head around and catch a glimpse of Ket sitting in the stands, surrounded by a sea of black-clad disciples, his face a mask of neutrality spun across manic glee.
The arena is massive. Kilometers wide, capable of housing at least a million, and made from black metal. I immediately understand why Ket is so giddy. The amount of shadow intent qi here is rather high, but it’s just a pittance compared to the levels in the rest of the sect. This entire thing smells of nothing but stale steel, the energies in the air old and silent.
The arena is a massive black bowl, the arena floor made from dark grey stone. The fighting pit is bordered by a ten-meter high wall, with row upon row of seats looking down. A shimmering cylinder of barely visible force separates the area floor from the seats and stands. The hazy darkness of the shield explains where all the shadow energy that should be present here is being channeled to.
The arena also feels ancient, old on another level than anything I have felt and sensed so far. I wonder how come I never sensed a single trace of this structure before.
Then the sound of fighting makes me look around again. The majority of the people emerging from the preparation cave below are dressed in Outer Court robes. I can see a couple of hundred disciples in similar robes sitting up in the stands, forming a ring sitting at the highest seats. Ket is among them, sitting behind a rather familiar elder. More than half of the seats are filled with people wearing robes that have a single filled in dragon embroidered. Closest to the arena, in the lowest seats, are what must be Core disciples, followed by a lot of elders.
My robes still sport the single dragon outline. Spotting the difference between a low level and top tier Outer Court disciple is easy. You just look at how much of the single dragon is filled in. Disciples in the Inner Court sport a second one, all the way up to the elders, who sport more gold than black on their robes.
All those shiny and pompously dressed fobs are watching as the lower ranks slaughter each other. A stair came down rather close to me, which has led to me emerging into the arena as one of the first. A couple of dozen disciples went before me, and they are all channeled towards a growing group of people walking up a staircase close to us.
Taking another look around, I spot that the stairs are all placed in a pattern. It's staircase versus staircase, moving inwards as the losers get eliminated.
“Vengeful Shadow God Strike!” shouts the person in front of me as he confronts his opponent. We are being channeled into each other through black lines in the dark grey stone floor, circles indicating a myriad of small fighting arenas.
“Great Diving Saint Turtle Art!” screams the skinny opponent. The large man’s shadowed fist smacks into the single six-sided shield conjured by the skinny disciple. They are both Inner Court disciples, and both of them seem to be forming their solid cores. I can only guess at their levels, but from their skills in qi control and their physical capabilities, I can make some assumptions.
The darkly glowing fist crushes the shield, which immediately shows that the skinny disciple has more than one of the dark hexagons around him, like a turtle’s shield. A swift hand motion later, and the shield rotates, cutting off the big guys' hand.
“Hateful Beast Claw!” the big one screams with a shrill voice as his remaining hand is clad in dark talons. His arm shoots forwards, aiming for one of the five gaps in the turtle shell.
“No, wai-” the skinny guys' wide-eyed protests are cut off as he is eviscerated, his guts spilling from the three deep cuts in his stomach. He screams and falls to the ground, collapsing into a heap.
The large man tries to clasp both hands, but only bleeds all over his freshly mangled left hand with his right stump. The skinny guy plummets through the floor as one half of the fighting circle falls away like a trapdoor. He falls into the darkness, and his scream is cut off a few seconds later with a wet smack.
A quick calculation later tells me that he landed on the floor of the waiting area below. The large man walks ahead, his previously steady gait faltering as he continues to bleed prodigiously.
I blink with wide eyes as I am forced into the same ring, the stone floor now clean of blood. My opponent wastes no time and starts screaming with frantic eyes. “Thousand armed mantis strike!”
The old woman in an Inner Court robe flings her arms backward as they explode with darkness. A web of blades forms as she steps forwards, about to slam everything forwards.
Not really looking to be impaled by a forest of thin blades, I make a quick step forwards and punch her in the uterus without aplomb. Her arms are still stretched out behind her, taught neck muscles indicating she is about to swing her arms forwards when I punch her.
I can’t help but wince as she shoots backward, her arms getting crushed between her torso and the cylindrical shield that appears out of nowhere. I hear at least five distinct snaps of breaking bone, and I suddenly feel super guilty as the wrinkled woman looks at me with teary eyes. She falls forwards on her face, her arms flopping uselessly next to her, as she rebounds off the shield.
She gives one weak cough before she is dropped down below.
“Shit,” I mutter as I’m pushed to the next ring.
I catch a glimpse of the big guy in front of me getting cut in two by a bald man shouting “Soundless Black Void Hand-Sword”. The dead muscled guy is then dropped, and I catch a whisp of black qi shooting upwards from his dantian.
Looking upwards, I see a black ball of fog forming just under the apex of the rounded ceiling.
“Grass Mud Horse Splitting Mountains!” A ridiculous scream makes me pay attention to what’s happening in front of me, and I see a fat guy standing in a horse stance in front of me. The barest whiff of a Path emanates from his technique, so I lower my center of mass by bending my knees.
We then proceed to stare at each other for around fifteen seconds. Him looking like he’s about to take the biggest shit in his life, and me looking like I have a massive hernia.
Flexing my leg, I feint a straight kick. My opponent flips, trying to grasp my leg by releasing all of his stored momenta into a grab and slam. I hop forwards as he flops to the ground, tapping him in the back of his head with an open palm. He gives off a startled shriek, waking from his daze just in time to fall through the floor.
I walk to the next circle, slowly getting closer to the center of the arena. Taking another look around, I try to get a grasp of the numbers involved. There are at least a hundred thousand people in the stands. Casually looking around, I already see that number on the arena floor around me, but that’s without taking into account all the people still waiting down below and all the people already defeated. Also, I can barely get a good view of a quarter of the fighting floor.
And seeing how this entire system works, not sitting in the seats will basically guarantee a low position in this tournament. There’s also a disturbing lack of fanfare and pomp. Maybe the fireworks and speeches happened while I was waiting underground?
And then there are the tremors in the ground. I’ve been feeling them since I arrived here and initially thought them to be the result of everyone walking. The numerous trap doors opening and closing happens without a single tremor, however. And none of the fighting impacts around me are being transmitted through the ground. So what are these small shocks I’m feeling?
My next opponent is another woman, this one looking middle-aged. Her face is placid, and I’m silently disturbed by how she manages to ignore the blood dripping from her hair. I bow after stepping into the ring, but she immediately draws a thin sword and rushes me.
She aims for my shoulder, the place where Lola is still sitting silently. I flick the sword away with all due haste. Her hand suddenly turns red as her sword snaps in half. Blinking at the scene, I replay what just happened. The shockwave transmitted back to her hand did a lot of damage.
She looks at her hand, now a pulpy mess of bones and punctured skin, while the broken sword falls from between mushed fingers. “Ah, my apologies, miss. I might have overreac-”
Bloodshot eyes staring at her hand, she starts wailing like a banshee. The piercing cry is only cut off after the trapdoor closes after she falls through.
Looking around, I conclude that I am not having a good time.
Walking on to the next ring, I ignore the shout of “Impenetrable Black Jade Everlasting Iron Palm,” duck under the sloppy qi construct flying my way, and knock out my next opponent with a careful punch.
My next opponent has blue plates covering parts of his robe, and I recognize an obscure ethereal armor technique. Slicing through the fake leather bands with a qi-covered finger causes the breastplate to fall free and dissolve. The unexpected unsummoning of the armor causes some form of backlash and knocks the short disciple out cold.
The next disciple is already bloody as he sits on a dark panther summon. Lola stares at the large cat and sniffs once. The cat just sits down, tosses his rider, and rolls on his back. Ignoring the cries of the disciple he just crushed, the panther doesn’t react as he and his rider fall through the trapdoor.
“Deceptive Claw of Conscious Cultivation!” Two attacks come my way. One is dark, foreboding, threatening, and obviously fake. The other is invisible, barely perceptible, extremely dangerous and highly lethal. I let the dangerous attack splash off my chest while stepping to the side, the clearly fake attack missing me by a hair’s breadth.
I should have avoided the dangerous feeling one, of course. Out of respect for the double fake, I tap the girl in her temple with the utmost care, barely jostling her brain. She collapses, giving off a comedic yelp as she falls down to the lower level.
“Defensive Body Art, Inviolatible Heavenly Decree of the Steel Emperor!” The next disciple starts shining with a grey luster. I pick up a fragment of stone somebody knocked loose and throw it between the fellow’s eyes. A fraction of a second before the shining shield snaps into place over his forehead, he is struck down.
The next disciple is already half-dead before stepping into the ring. The look of sheer determination and desperation on the boy's face makes me feel guilty for not taking this thing seriously. I’m sure the kid has been training his heart out, just so he can defeat his sister’s kidnapper or something.
He starts murmuring about getting revenge, but before he manages to inadvertently give me the details of his sordid affair, I punch him in the face. He goes down without any fanfare.
Next is an old man with swords floating over his left shoulder. I snatch one of the swords and feel the connection between the weapon and the old geezer snap. He sends another at me, and I just grab hold and break this sword free too. The moment I grab hold of the last sword, the old guy grabs his chest and falls over.
Did I just give him a heart attack? I sigh as the swords in my hands start to dissolve into motes of dark light.
A darkness monk is next, and after kicking the bald man in his balls, I try to guess my current position. To my horror, I see that I’m not even a quarter of the way to the center of the arena.
There's also the barely visible cloud of darkness that’s congregating at the top of the arena. The fact that it’s not important, the fact that I should just ignore the growing mass of power above my head is kind of weird. The fights are more important though. Nobody else is looking up, so why should I? I should just keep fighting.
There’s stuff to win, after all. People to beat. Elders to impress.
For a moment, the desire to blow this joint is overwhelming. As I knock yet another hopeless and beaten disciple unconscious, the urge to shut the entire thing down is nearly impossible to ignore.
It takes just a single glance at Ket before I shut that urge down and continue with this sham of a tournament.
That’s the reason I got involved with disciples, after all. I don’t need to do everything on my own anymore.
Once again forcing myself to trust Ket and everyone in Tree, I continue fighting.Previous Chapter Next Chapter