The cave had been eerily quiet except for the sound of their footsteps, so Bao Bi’s sudden sneeze had freaked Qi Liqiu out. She had nearly jumped out of her skin before allowing herself to relax. She had shushed him on impulse and immediately started to feel bad about it.
“A-any treasure we find, we’ll split 50-50, okay?”
She let out a breath of relief, thinking he might start to fight her on that. She had encountered all kinds of cultivators, and many of them were exceptionally obstinate and difficult to work with. Everyone liked to maximize their profits. That was why she decided to do this mission alone, inviting no one else. Of course, there was a certain degree of greed involved too. If she was the only one, she’d get all the rewards for completing her mission as well.
The shadow path was a dangerous path, and many cultivators died by putting their lives on the line. Ever wanted to steal from everyone else, and if you didn’t have a powerful backup, you could find yourself losing everything. Qi Liqiu knew this better than anyone. As a follower of the shadow path, she had to remain vigilant of everyone, especially men. Most men wanted to use her for dual cultivation, and that was the ones who didn’t want to suck her soul out and use it for their dark arts. She knew if she couldn’t find an appropriate master soon, her fate would be awful. That’s why she took this mission. If she succeeded, then Lady Wuzhi would take her as a disciple, and she’d finally be safe.
Of course, had she chosen the light path, her life wouldn’t have been any better. The light path was twice as treacherous. They would lie to your face about their identity, and stab you in the back the first chance they got. She couldn’t help but look back at Bao bi, but he responded with a smile. He didn’t seem like a light path follower. They were far too scheming. He was probably a simpleton. Partially because of his young age, and partially because dumb people typically spend all their time on strength. Dumb, with a lot of physical strength. That was her impression of him. That was for the best since once she was done getting what she wanted from him, she planned to ditch him. Dumb guys like him were easy to shake.
“There is a monster!” She cursed as she allowed herself to be distracted.
As she jumped up, the warthound leaped at her. As it came, she could see herself about to be killed. Yet, a spear flashed and the warthound died just before it reached her. Bao bi had moved far faster than she had thought he could. Perhaps he focused on both strength and speed? That was fortunate for her. Yet, he immediately started chopping away at the beast again, and she found herself looking away before she threw up.
“Nothing in this one.” He sighed, getting up.
He really was a brute. She found herself smirking, but quickly wiped her smile off.
“Let’s go.” She spoke in a cold voice.
For a second, she was afraid she was acting too cold, but he merely nodded and continued, this time taking the lead. The pair of them continued on this corridor for a couple of hours. Every beast that appeared seemed to be resolved with a single stab of his spear.
At first, she had thought he was just strong, but not all of them were warthounds. One of the animals that attacked was a wretched blood bat. They were extremely fast creatures. She had thought she’d have to help out, but his spear seemed to hit the bat just as easily as it struck the warthounds. With every animal, he’d cut them open and search for a core. Most of the time, there was none.
Qi Liqiu didn’t know if he was simply thorough or foolish. At the spiritual level of these creatures, the chance of finding a core was exceptionally low. It was pure luck that he had even been able to find a core on the first one. She sought to tell him that, but she didn’t want to insult him. He had already offered to share the spoils with her, and as long as she didn’t have to cut them up, then she could look away while he did that work.
In some ways, she felt strangely pleased. A man was fighting all the battles and doing all the work for her. Any cultivator would be excited to find someone dumb enough to work for them for free. Yet, considering she was a girl and he was a boy, looking at his steady back and shoulders, instead of feeling smug, she felt a bit embarrassed.
“Where do we go?”
As she had been thinking such strange thoughts, his question caught her off guard and she jumped a little. “What?”
It was only then that she noticed they had seemingly come to a split in the path. The long cave path had broken into two new paths, one going up and one heading down. Qi Liqiu had known this path wouldn’t be simple, but she still hadn’t expected this. She had only been told that such a route existed. It had been left up to her to map it out. Finding it, marking it, and traveling the distance to make sure there were no unforeseen threats were all part of the job.
“We haven’t gone too deep yet.” He spoke up while Qi Liqiu was still trying to figure out what to say. “I’d say going down makes sense.”
“Y-yes!” she nodded. “We can go there first. If we’re wrong, we can head back.”
Bao bi didn’t hesitate any longer, immediately heading in that direction. He stopped suddenly after only a few feet, and then Qi Liqiu ran into his back. She jumped back a step, blushing slightly.
“I can’t see.” He declared.
Qi Liqiu blinked a moment before she realized they were heading into pitch-black darkness. Cultivators’ eyes were already far superior to a normal mortal’s eyes, and they had been close enough to the surface that roots occasionally punched holes above allowing just enough light for them to manage. Yet, from this point onward, there was no longer any available light.
“You didn’t bring any light?” Qi Liqiu asked as she looked through her spatial storage.
Like Bao bi, she also had a badge, although if he saw hers, he might have second thoughts about the nature of her sect, especially because the icon was a bloody skull.
“Uh, they didn’t give us a whole lot of warning.” Bao bi admitted. “I can see alright at night, so I didn’t think about it until now.”
“It’s fine.” She pulled out a stone which released a faint glow. “I have a spirit stone.”
“Spirit stones can be used like this too.” Bao bi asked in surprise.
He didn’t notice the strange look on Qi Liqiu’s face. She was wondering what kind of person didn’t know that spiritual stones glowed them. They emitted power which was good for cultivation and powering formations. They were the currency of the cultivation world. Meanwhile, this guy was acting like he had almost no knowledge of them.
Of course, that was because it was true. He had only acquired a few spirit stones up until now, and other than the one he accidentally absorbed, he had given them all to his father, who seemed to have needed them. To him, they had just been a currency and one that he didn’t even know how to use, since no one traded in them in a city. He only knew their potential as cultivation tools in theory, his own experience using one to awaken being mostly an accident.
The pair began moving forward once again, but it wasn’t long before they reached another split. In this case, other than one being on the left and the other on the right, there was no elevation difference. Nothing appeared to indicate the direction. It was only then that Qi Liqiu recalled that most catacombs were described as mazes. Perhaps, this had been a trick from the beginning. If she got lost, she might never return.
She touched the badge and shook her head. No, as long as she had that, she should be able to be teleported home. That was the lifeline that all of the cultivators were given before being allowed to enter this space. Of course, if she was dead, the badge would return her body, along with anything she had gathered. Whether someone considered themselves a light cultivator or a dark cultivator, it was a win-win for the sect.
“If you don’t have any opinion, I say left.” Bao bi declared.
“Ah!” She cried out, causing him to look back at her embarrassed face. “H-how do you know?”
“It’s a feeling.” He responded, not quite sure how else to describe it.
What Bao bi didn’t know was that the feeling he was following came from his spiritual sense. The death qi emanating from the catacombs gave off a slightly different feeling. It was that feeling that Bao bi was unknowingly following. That’s why, even after passing multiple intersections, he continued to select them with confidence. As the death qi grew stronger, this also had a natural effect of scaring away spiritual beasts, so they didn’t encounter any more threats.
Qi Liqiu became increasingly uneasy as they got farther and farther into the darkness. She couldn’t feel the death qi like he could, so for her, it merely felt like she was being stifled with a blanket. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. It wasn’t until the ground began to change that she realized something was different.
“The catacombs.” She breathed as the walls changed into a deliberate stone.
She also noticed there was light ahead so she put away her spiritual stone. The pair exchanged a look and then continued. The cave gave way to a grey brick hallway. They didn’t manage to move far before finding a doorway. On either side of the doorway was a glowing orb floating in the air. Before she could stop him, Bao Bi reached out and touched one of the orbs.
“Wait!” She cried out, but it was already too late.
The orb’s light died out, and then it fell to the ground. Bao bi’s hand moved fast and he only just managed to catch it before it hit the ground. He lifted it, frowning. Taking his pointer finger, he poked the orb two more times, but it remained dark.
“These light orbs are very ancient. They’re barely even emitting any energy now. They’re probably only just managing to absorb enough energy from the air. When you touch it, you dispel the last amount of energy and it dies.”
“Basically like discharging static electricity.” Bao bi looked closely at the orb. “Can we recharge it, or is it a dead battery?”
“Electricity?” Qi Liqiu asked before shaking her head. “It’s only a one-time use item. To have lasted this long, it must have come from a truly powerful source. Even if someone could regenerate it, it’s outside the scope of our ability.”
“Dead battery then.” Bao bi tossed it behind him, and then it smashed the ground into a million pieces.
Qi Liqiu’s mouth opened and then closed. She didn’t know what to say in response to his actions. He seemed intelligent, but also surprisingly brutish. She didn’t know what to make of him.
“We need to get past the door.” She responded instead. “There should be some mechanism.”
The pair searched for a bit before Bao bi pulled a latch which caused the tomb to click. As the door swung open, a wave of death qi came flooding out. It was cold and gave off a feeling of loss and sorrow. Qi Liqiu turned pale, her body shivering as she seemingly peered into the veil of death. Bao bi noticed her shivering. He suddenly wrapped his arms around her.
His body in her current state took a moment to notice. He seemed to have instinctively released his spiritual energy, creating a shield that expelled the death energy. All of this was instinctual but came from his countless practices using his limited spiritual energy. After reaching the mortal origin realm, he was able to protect that energy with ease. He had mostly kept it inside though, preventing most people from realizing just how pure and powerful his energy was.
“Wh-what are you doing?” She cried out as she suddenly felt the warmth of a man holding her.
In her entire life, she had never been held by a man. Her family had been cold and ruthless, the exact kind of people who would send their daughter on the dark path. Yet, his muscles were strong and his chest was secure. She hadn’t realized how well-toned his body was until her back was pressed against it. She started to struggle, only to realize he wasn’t using any force to hold her. She quickly freed herself from his grip. He was looking at her with pure eyes that didn’t hold a single ounce of perversion.
“I-I can’t handle it now. Thank you.” She quickly responded, her face hot.
Bao bi nodded. “If you get cold again, don’t hesitate.”
Her face grew even hotter. Was this boy flirting with her? It was not something she was used to experiencing, so she didn’t even know how to react.
“We should go.” She once again avoided dealing with it by encouraging their progression.
To make her point, she started trudging forward. She was only a few steps from the platform she was depressed. There was a clicking sound.
“Watch out!” She felt her body being pulled back just as a line of wooden stakes erupted from the ground.
Where she had been standing, menacing dark stakes had emerged. She would have been skewered if Bao bi hadn’t pulled her back. This time, he had only grabbed the back of her shirt and pulled. He could have taken advantage and grabbed her more, but he hadn’t. Why did she feel someone unhappy that she didn’t end up back in his arms?
“We need to be careful.” Bao bi declared.
She nodded, and the two began to move forward past the entrance and the stake trap. Bao bi walked alongside her now, and the pair moved shoulder to shoulder. She kept feeling her heartbeat speeding up every time his shoulder bumped into her own. What was wrong with her? It must be from the death qi. She was using her spiritual energy to push it away the same as Bao bi did, but where he could do it as naturally as breathing, she was spending a fair amount of effort to create that shield. Seeing Bao bi advance without even a shudder gave her more confidence, but she still felt a bit pale.
“I guess those would be the bodies.” Bao bi made a face.
She realized she had been looking at him rather than what was in front of her. When she looked at what he was frowning at, she realized that the walls of brick had changed into walls of bones. She couldn’t help but feel a chill. To build such a structure would have required millions of people. She had heard of such structures in the dark path, but she never expected to find one here.
“The death energy from these corpses is being used as a kind of spatial formation. This is what will allow us to reach the tower quickly. “Qi Liqui stated, mostly because she didn’t like the silence of this place.
“No…” Bao bi shook his head. “This energy, death energy? It’s being drawn somewhere. I didn’t sense it being released, I sensed it being drawn in. It’s being used for something. I bet the spatial distortion is only a consequence of this process.”
Qi Liqui couldn’t help but stop and look at Bao bi stunned. She had only been repeating what she had been told, but despite having no clue what this place was, he still created a compelling theory. More importantly, she specifically opened her spiritual senses to the death qi and realized he was correct. It was moving inward. It was something she would never have noticed if he didn’t specifically point it out. She found herself wondering not for the first time just who was this guy. He was only at the bottom of the Mortal Origin realm, but he seemed to possess the knowledge and spiritual ability of someone at the top of the Mortal Origin realm.
“Really?” She asked.
Bao bi looked at her, and then laughed, putting his hand through his hair. “Maybe. I’m just guessing.”
In this dark and deadly location, his laughter felt out of place, but it somehow made her feel a bit more secure.
“We’ll follow the death qi then.”
He nodded, and the pair continued. There were various other traps, but they moved cautiously and between the two of them were able to avoid them. Several hallways were full of bones. Sometimes, it was appendages, while sometimes it was skulls. After traveling for most of the day, they finally came out into a massive cavern.
The cavern was dozens of stories high, and at least a kilometer in diameter. On the edges were various stalactites and stalagmites, but the center was what immediately drew anyone’s interest. There was a massive white tower that emerged from the ceiling and then came to the ground. The death qi seemed to be flowing into that tower.
“I thought the tower was above ground.” Bao bi frowned.
“It is…” Qi Liqui agreed, “Part of it must have sunk underground.”
“We’ve found it!” A voice shouted.
Before Bao bi could react, Qi Liqui grabbed him and yanked him behind a grouping of rocks.
“This is the tower, just as Master said.” A second voice added.
“The Shadow Destruction Clan will arrive at the tower first.” A third added. “This will give us plenty of time to set up traps for those stupid light disciples. We’ll be able to extort their stuff, and then when they think we’ll let them live, we’ll take their lives too. No doubt, we’ll have the most rewards.”
“A light disciple’s head is worth ten points, after all.”
As Qi Liqui saw them, her expression became pale. After everything, she had still arrived too late. Other Shadow Destruction disciples reached the tower before her. When she reported the passage, Lady Wuzhi would know if she held back anything. Knowing that other disciples had a faster route might just cause her potential mentor to not accept her as a disciple.
As for Bao bi, his expression went dark for other reasons. He recognized those disciples.