The moment I begin sprinting, I notice all kinds of differences. My entire body still tingles like mad. The static pins and needles of sleeping limbs is as impossible to ignore and unbearable as ever. With gritted teeth, I set one foot in front of the other. I can’t help but do a quick calculation while speeding up.
Let’s say the Inner Court is twice as big as the Outer court. Walking from the center of the Outer Court plaza to the testing rings took Ket and me at least four hours. And our walking speed was at a pace a mortal would have to sprint to keep up with. That means the Inner Court plaza is eight hours at a walk, four at a jog, and an hour while keeping up a sustainable sprint.
I have fifteen minutes until I’m deemed a traitor to the sect. A place as old as this has resources that will be nearly impossible to fight against at best. I have zero doubt that there are all kinds of formations, treasures, tracking measures, and containment protocols that the elders of the sect can rely upon.
Also, the time to be sparing with my spiritual senses is temporary over, I think. No need to trip over a rock just because I’m being stingy with power. Pushing away those thoughts, I increase my pace and send out a weave of qi in a fine weave.
I immediately panic and start crawling. The effortless manner in which the qi blasts ahead of me feels wrong on a lot of levels. All my external qi manipulation actions before felt like forcing a string through thick syrup by pushing it. Basically impossible unless the string is somehow made rigid.
Now my qi weaves effortlessly through the air, expanding my senses in a kilometer wide radius in an instant.
I sense cracks in the floor behind me, and to my amazement, I feel my foot slowly crunching through solid stone as I run. Looking around me, I see the ground shine golden. My arms look like they are aflame with holy fire, bursting with an internal illumination that is pushing back the swirling darkness. Around me, a large stretch of the tunnel is now visible, the fog pushed back over a hundred meters.
Mentally frowning at the inefficiency of it all, I follow Tree’s stream of power. What previously took a good amount of focus and meditation to observe now is immediately visible to me. I appear above Tree at once, looking down on the growing planet. Things have been slowly changing here, but the same layout is still present. Tree grows from the north pole, its roots sucking the south pole - where all the city portals are located - clear of qi. I look at the new buildings that have sprung up, taking in the rather serene atmosphere for a relative while.
I pop back to myself after a couple of subjective minutes, trying to find the true reason for this massive change in my cultivation base.
My body feels largely unchanged, the process representing my heartcore is still busily filtering out the most neutral qi and feeding it to my bloodstream. My braincore feels the same too, the only difference being the thick stream of qi connecting me to Tree and Database.
Then I try to focus on my soul, suspecting the root cause lies there. I try to get a picture of the ethereal root of my being for a while, but as rattled as I am, and with the massive quantities of qi churning through my head, I can’t focus. Back in the Magic World, when exploring my soul with Rhea while sailing to the other continent, it looked like a network cable. I wonder what shape it has taken now. Deepsea data line? Maybe glass fiber? I'll have to meditate on it later.
I busy myself with slowly easing myself off my crawl, trying to clamp down on the high-pressure stream of qi I’m sapping from Tree. It feels like I’m trying to learn to walk all over again, except that my muscles have been transformed from rubber bands into supercharged high-tech nanofibre synthetic super muscles.
Each step allows me to make great strides in training my nervous system. Instead of growing my actual power during this time, I finetune my control.
I try not to think about the obvious chain of footstep shaped craters that I’m leaving behind. If the sect is in as deep shit as I suspect it is, it won’t matter much soon anyway.
Then the black fog suddenly disappears, and I crash into a waist-high railing. My chest slams into my shins, my upper and lower half snapping together like a folding knife. The forces at play should have at least rattled my skull, I’m pretty sure. Instead, I feel more clearheaded than I’ve felt in weeks. Avoiding any sudden moves in order to prevent the railing from shattering under my grip by accident, I slowly maneuvered myself into a standing position.
Before me is the biggest manmade hole in the ground I’ve ever seen. I’m currently located on a balcony type structure, the railing having saved me from a kilometer-long drop. In front of me, I see the rooftops of tall buildings. Far down below, there are shrouded streets. Each barely-lit stretch of road is empty and abandoned, a chill silence hanging over the odd cityscape.
The rooftops are covered in random cultivation mats, workstations, small gardens, and other features and things. The buildings are as many as they are varied. Some have sloped roofs, one contains something like a swimming pool, a few contain greenhouses, but most are just flat. I even see a particular large rooftop with a stone zen garden, the entire thing somehow feeling sinister and foreboding instead of peaceful and zen. The wide array of structures spreads out in front of me, fading down and out into the distance. The buildings become shorter the further out they are, varying shapes and sizes becoming smaller and more intricate.
Ahead, partially hidden by a deep fog of darkness, I see the massive hollow in the earth end abruptly. An impossibly dense wall of black just cuts off the entire cave. A single point of light located in the middle of it all is the only thing out of place.
Guesstimating the distance I just ran - and how far I still have to go - I check how well I’m doing. There are at least five minutes left, even with the most pessimistic interpretation of an incense stick's worth of time. Let’s just assume that the people in charge are feeling impatient.
Hopping onto the railing, I feel a small thread of pride as I notice the lack of cracks in the floor. I push off the railing as gently as I can. A loud snapping sound followed by the clattering of rock fragments brings my mood back down, leaving the barrier behind me in ruins.
Speeding over the rooftops, I scan my environment while working on my control. My current level of strength feels higher than it was back in the Magic World.
It takes me half a minute of running across buildings, performing flips while running and jumping between the tall structures before I gain some confidence in my control again. Lola is once again chewing on my collar bone, but I barely even feel her biting down. The joy of being able to move freely through the dense ancient qi everywhere is rather overwhelming.
There had been this intangible pressure weighing me down. Like a massive rock squeezing the air out of my lungs and the life out of my soul. For the first time since I came back to this massive shitheap of a planet, I feel some sense of freedom and control.
I’m still not sure about the reason for this sudden increase in strength. The trials I went through in the testing rings are surely involved, but until I have thoroughly analyzed the entire thing, I’m stopping myself from making premature conclusions.
All I know is that a simulation of me got killed a lot, and now I feel like a real second stage Foundation Earth Realm cultivator. I’m not out of trouble just yet, though. Fighting this entire sect is not something I should take lightly, so let’s stay undercover for now. Making that decision, I put action to thought, and focus on the present.
I turn the majority of my attention to the single source of light ahead while speeding onwards.
Jumping high a couple of times while slowly spinning, I get a few good looks of my environment. The Inner Court is also a massive cave - something I kind of saw coming. The flat, rectangular cave is hewn from the rock, at least twice as big as the Outer Court plaza. I suspect it’s even bigger, but I can’t get an accurate feeling for the sense of the scale of this place. Darkness hangs thick in the air, giving everything in the distance an odd form of atmospheric perspective.
The Inner Court is a long hollow box, bordered by black fog on one of it’s long sides. Squinting at the upper and lower edges of the black wall, I see the same jagged and sword-like stone formations that are present in the sword slash canyons. So they either began this cave by carving into one of the canyons, or they tunneled into it and expanded the tunnel into this massive cave. I feel like that ceiling shouldn't be able to bear all that weight, but a part of my mind refuses to think more about this. Let's not ponder the fact that this entire thing might collapse on me.
The tunnel I came from emerges from solid rock opposite the shadowed face. That side also contains the largest buildings, their varying architectural forms reaching halfway to the ceiling. The closer to the dark canyon, the smaller and wider-spaced the buildings become.
I quickly see that the Inner Court works just like the Outer Court, except unfurled. Instead of the buildings becoming smaller and more exquisite towards the middle, here the structures look more expensive and refined the closer to the black wall of shadows.
A part of my mind tries to analyze what that means. A circle has a much bigger outer circumference compared to it's middle area. Comparing that to this long, two-dimensional linear transition should let me learn some valuable sect secrets, no doubt.
Putting that question on the to-do list, I concentrate on traversing the Inner Court. Everything here is bigger and better compared to the previous two large caves I have seen. The dark qi is thicker and of a purer grade of shadow. The space itself is much larger, with streets triple the size of the widest one in the Outer Court.
And they are all abandoned. Far in the distance, still a long way out, I start to see the people that likely filled the properties and avenues I’m flying over moments before the patriarch’s announcement. The last stretch of the floor next to the shadowy canyon is clear and without buildings, a couple of dozen meters of flat dark rock acting like a no man’s land.
Keeping low over the rooftops, I start seeing details as I get closer. A sea of murky shapes stands around a small podium, lights shining down on the central platform. Not a single figure moves, and checking my internal clock, I see that I only have a couple of minutes left.
I stop looking at the impressive scenery and start thinking up ways to sneak into the tournament unnoticed. Spooling a little qi into my eyeballs lets me see a dark circle hovering behind the elders. All three robed shapes are standing in front of the circular plate of black, and I see steps leading up to the podium.
Not a single person in the crowd moves, every single person paying their full attention to the three people on the podium. I increase my speed again, this time making sure the people below won’t be able to spot my silhouette over the buildings.
I stop paying attention to the crowd and start planning a route down. I’m about two-thirds of the way to the gathering, and the buildings are reduced in scope from skyscrapers to four-story houses. Right behind the closest portion of the crowd is an ornamental garden, only hedged in by a low fence. The route there will allow me to sneak up to the gathering with more than enough cover to stay hidden.
Once the roofs become too far apart to jump off of without cracking stone, I drop down to the wide thoroughfares. Zigzagging between fences and buildings is slower than soaring over them, but I can’t help but enjoy the chance to do more complex acrobatic maneuvers.
I feel a wide smile splitting my face as my heartcore once again turns out to be extremely valuable to my mental health. Instead of spending weeks calculating the exact and minimal force needed to round the corner by grabbing onto a lamppost, I just move my body and trust myself. Like a free runner on steroids and crack, I clamber through the streets with moves and a level of precision that leaves me shocked.
Then I stop, straighten my robes, and immediately realize that I’m still wearing Provisionary Outer Court robes. Turning the next corner will allow me to join the large crowd, hopefully slipping in with the large crowd unnoticed. That scenario will be very much less likely when I show up wearing robes telling everyone I’m more than a full rank lower than where I should be.
I don’t have any gold thread with me, and I don’t think I can sew up something believable in under half a minute. And getting caught in a forgery of a robe will likely have more severe punishment than just showing up in the wrong one.
Then I realize that I’ve been hearing voices for a while now, two voices alternating and cutting each other off.
“…glory of our sect! Surely Inner Court Head Elder Jiang Chang can see that the patriarch is wise and that we do not know all the information that he might have at his disposal.”
“Elder Gao, I agree with what you say, but speaking this aloud is a bit…” The second voice sounds subdued, like speaking is only something the woman does out of necessity.
I round the corner, making sure that my step is steady and hurried while still being slow enough to not catch any undue attention. A few of the sect disciples look at me as I silently join the silent mass of people. A few of the stares linger on my robe, and I see reactions varying from confused to disgusted to angry.
Ignoring the soft murmurs around me, I try to blend in. This turns out to be pretty much impossible as everyone keeps stepping away from me. Putting on my best poker face, I pretend like the two-meter wide area of clear space around me is supposed to be there, and start peering at the podium ahead.
Three people are standing on the podium, the one standing half a step in front decked out in robes that are more gold thread than black cloth. A certain amount of serenity backed by power emanates from the bearded man. I wistfully stroke my own smooth chin as I stare at the man’s glorious facial hair.
The other male elder resumes his hushed talk with the female elder. “Nonsense. Our little disciples have the right to know what is happening in our sect.”
“Still, we shouldn’t-”
“No, they have a right to know! You know what happened with Core Elder Gao during the Demon Hunt. There was no reason for him to-”
The front elder softly clears his throat, causing absolute silence to descend wherever the sound reaches. I taste a rather intricate Dao for a second, something smelling like silence through sheer stubborn effort. Then the bearded man moves for the first time, and I swear he is looking at me.
“I am Inner Court Head Elder Jiang Chang, as all of you should know. The portal behind us will transport everyone to the main sect arena. Everyone without an Inner Court identity token should leave now. Being a traitor is survivable. Attempting to access restricted sect grounds without permission is not.”
The circle around me widens a bit. I swallow nervously while fingering the small piece of black jade in my pocket.