V4C31: The Shell of the Deep
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Her cosmic energy, the chains shining and shimmering from its depths, surged into the core, surrounding it, wrapping it, enforcing it, and enhancing it.

Slowly, everything within her dantian, even the energy being provided by the nascent rift within her Monolith, was drained out, flooding towards that crystalline entity around her, filling it to the brim with more and more power, as if it wanted to ascend into something entirely different through the sheer concentration of energy. Perhaps that was what she was seeing, for with each breath, the crystalline surface deepened.

After a moment, she also felt her physique energy and bloodline power rise out of her body and into the core, and, once she pondered it for a little while and considered what the best and worst possible result of allowing those two things to mix in such a way could be, she permitted it. There had been no poor reactions between her five forms of energy so far, with that only changing when she made use of the Dao of Law to force such a clash to occur, and thus all that she could reasonably expect were positive outcomes, of which she could imagine quite a few.

There might be some benefits to her energy, to her anchor, to her future advancement, but what she cared about the most in the moment was whether it would permit any kind of power multiplier like the Endless Monolith had done before it. Any kind of extreme multiplier like that was immensely helpful when her energy was already this effective since it would just bring it to a whole new level.

It had to be mentioned that Wei Yi had only been able to handle those in the Great Ping Family mansion due to her poisoning and tricking of her enemies, neither of which she expected to be able to do twice unless the Greats were fond of drinking from a particular well that she could poison in advance. As such, if she did suddenly become far stronger than before, gaining the benefit of the bloodline power and another doubling of her current strength, she might be able to display similar abilities on the battlefield even if she showed up out of nowhere, while the Greats were at their strongest. That would be ideal, and thus she didn’t think that it would happen that easily.

Rather, what was far more likely was something akin to the illusory core of the second realm, which had allowed her to prepare for this realm and thus reinforce her cultivation in advance, something that very few typically get to enjoy due to the difficulty of doing such a thing successfully.

Either way, she would see the result soon, as all that she needed was a drop more of her energy to fill the core, and then she knew that she would attain… it, whatever it would be. The effective half-way point of the fourth realm for the Ascendant, the reward for acquiring every single perfected realm that had been in her path so far. It could be enormous, or insignificant, or perhaps just something slight, but so long as she got it, she would hardly complain.

With that one drop, she felt two distinct changes occur almost immediately.

First, her illusory core, the one that still resided around her dantian, suddenly became solid, literally flashing into solidity and into crystal right before her eyes, as if it had been like that the entire time and only changed the state in which it appeared to her. It matched the state of the core around her Endless Monolith, which currently existed in an illusory state around her, but as the core around that solidified as well, it was the formerly illusory core that had actually begun to change, imposing itself over her momentarily as it entered the same breakthrough state as the rest of her cultivation attainments did in order to break through.

It thickened, becoming denser and denser, until the core could hardly be said to be crystalline. Instead, it resembled some kind of thick shell, a dense chitin with a number of clear layers akin to scales, layering over one another and giving the entire structure a certain shape with the many individual steps of chitin or whatever it was.

The illusory core that had previously seemed secondary was a little bit smaller than the core that always stayed around her monolith, and it remained that way, thus granting her two individual layers of defence around herself and, later, her dantian, or a layer for the defence of both it and the monolith. However, if that had been its only function, she would not have been as amazed by what it permitted her, for it instead almost forced her to observe the ability that it possessed as it forced what little energy she had managed to regenerate out of her body.

Within the dark, her cosmic energy was particularly prominent, glowing brightly and overwhelmingly, permitting her to see that it was not a dense solid as before, but a perfectly cut and shaped crystal.

‘Crystalline energy outside of my dantian and body? That is a reasonable step up, but… does that not mean that I will be able to create planar constructs and arrays that are simply superior to that of others due to the sheer variance in the stability of solid and crystalline energy? If so, then that is something incredibly worthy of a mid-realm breakthrough, and only requires a name to be given,’ she glanced at the Truth of the Universe, but the characters did not choose to shape themselves into new words.

They still displayed the technique that she might have been using to advance her realm if not for the fact that she had stepped onto a path separate from the one that Kong Shi Meng had conceived, and nothing she could do seemed to stir them.

Thus, with no better choice in this particular matter, she could do little more than attempt to figure out some proper term for the new core on her own. The last time, with her Endless Monolith, at the very least she had some basic inspiration from the other realms and the ideas of Yi Shi Ming, but now she had to turn to the stone around her, the darkness that she was currently in, and the thoughts of what creature might possess such a dense, dark chitin around its body. Perhaps inevitably, her mind was drawn to the images of the stygian entities summoned by the Abyssal Eye, and thus she knew that the name would somehow relate to the underground, and to the depths.

‘With nothing better to go with, I shall call it a Subterranean Shell. If someone else had ever achieved this same state, perhaps they will have had a better name for it, but for now, this shall be what I use,’ she thoughts as the shell and core alike retreated into her body, the breakthrough concluding without further fanfare.

She stood up, managing to control herself better than the first time she had benefitted from a great deal of development and thus not impacting into the ceiling of the cave as she rose.

With the renewed power of her physique energy, she cleansed her body, put her clothing back on, and then absorbed the energy from all of the arrays that she had scattered around in order to safeguard her position, energy and whatever else someone might be seeking. As her energy had become denser and stronger, it filled slightly less of her planar pool than the energy had originally taken up, but that deficit was quickly filled up with her nascent rift, which she suspected that she might be able to begin expanding if she was given a week or two of quiet to work on a way to push it directly into the thirty or forty percent state of openness. Once everything had been recovered and retrieved, she headed to the sealed opening into the cave and smashed the rocks in her path with ease.

On the outside, through the small opening within the stone cavern in which she had found her resting cave, she could see the rays of sunlight pouring through, confirming that it was a new day, and that she ought to hurry.

It had already been four days since she escaped, and nine since she had left, so while she did not believe that the Kong Prison Realm would be in any danger, nor would Paragon be under the immediate threat of assault or discovery, she did not wish to leave it alone any longer than she absolutely needed to. On one hand, she could offer her protection to it once again, but on the other, her strengthened physique abilities and general skills were bound to assist her forces significantly in their race towards realms in which they could affect the overall incoming war.

Thus, she leapt out of that cavern, collapsed it so that there would be no convenient trace of her to follow that she might have somehow missed, ensuring that she covered it up with the Dao of Law to make the fall of rocks seem natural, and rushed out. Wei Yi knew vaguely where she was in relation to the things of interest to her, and so all she needed was to run towards the Chao District, then north.

Something like that could be done within a day or two when without a handicap in the form of Shun Liu Min, who lacked the strength and speed to permit her to move at the optimal pace through the sands, and so she was intent on achieving it in no more time than was absolutely necessary.

Before getting right into it, however, she briefly confirmed the range at which she was able to control and stabilise her own energy, as it was something separate from spiritual will or spiritual perception range that she had plenty of at the moment. Even with her perfected stages and realms, that was still far smaller than she would have liked, but, in theory, the core was one of the best methods for stabilising energy.

As such, when she brought some of her crystalline energy out of her body and spread it in a gem-like thread into the distance, she was pleased to confirm that her guess did have some accuracy. Normally, her energy would only have twice the regular stable range of someone in the fourth realm, which was already decent at around fifty metres for the average person, but she was now able to stretch it far past a hundred metres while maintaining that crystalline state. Once it went up to two hundred metres, she found that while she was able to keep going, but it would lose the crystalline state if she was intent to continuing to control it as opposed to simply letting it float and dissipate on its own.

With that experiment yielding some incredibly fortunate results, she proceeded on, hoping for no interruptions or delays on her journey.

 

At times, when someone wished to do things one way, or when they had a particular focus on their mind, they would suddenly find something to distract them, and have that something be of significant enough significance that they have no choice but to be pulled away from their task and pursuit in order to examine whatever this distraction was. It happened to the scatter-brained, and to the most composed, and while there were certainly many things that could be said about her, Wei Yi was not immune.

Only a short time after her departure from the cave in which she had completed her breakthrough, she had come across a series of tall mountains that were right by one another, creating a rather picturesque set of peaks on which to gaze upon. However, it was not this that caught her eye, but a strange sense of familiarity.

It was that vague yet oddly accurate sense of the cultivator that she had previously followed to a minimum of an appropriate success, and sometimes even greater achievement.

Due to this, when she encountered it this time, and the stronger that sense got, the more she was tempted to depart from her original course through the lands and see just what it was that was calling her towards it. She did not remember seeing this particular set of mountains anywhere, nor did coming closer rouse any memories, and yet that only seemed to encourage that strange focus upon these peaks, or, more precisely, the places in which they connected to the flatter ground around them.

In her mind, at the very least, there was something of importance there, and she had to not miss it in order to attain success. This seemed doubtful, but she nonetheless sought out the very source of that odd sensation.

That feeling was strongest at the opening of yet another cave, narrow and small as it was, so while she had no clear reason to go inside of it, she chose to pursue the mental lead nonetheless. Her trust of the natural sense of a cultivator was one thing, but she had also spotted a very faint yet noticeable aura around this place, one of incredible age and stability.

In a world where some could live to the age of a million, this might not seem particularly unusual, but it had to be noted that the vast majority of current landscapes were not quite as they were only a few hundred years ago. Whenever cultivators of high realms fought, especially when a lone powerful figure was attempting to combat a larger group, they tended to get the terrain involved in order to benefit themselves as much as possible despite the disadvantage in numbers. One of the easiest ways to force people into travelling in a certain way was to raise impassable mountains – Wei Yi had done it too.

Thus, a number of modern landmarks were only created some hundred years ago, while others had been changed significantly over time as random people found some reason to fight near or atop them and deformed their shape until they were no longer recognisable, but interested people all over again, forcing maps to be redrawn. It was a tedious process for some, undoubtedly, but it became far less necessary as the individual districts lost more and more of their connections.

By this time, there were few enough traders and travellers that only the local surroundings of a district needed to be known, and few dared to attack them, leaving their landscapes mostly stagnant.

The mountains before her had to have changed as well, and yet there was this ancient aura to every single minor stone, pebble and weak stalk of grass that somehow survived as it grew out of a small crack in the stone. Something here was not as simple as it looked, that was certain.

As a result, she decided to descend into the cave and find out just what it was.

For the first few minutes of travel, ones that were cautious enough to avoid falling into any clear traps, of which she found none, but not so slow as to lead her to making too little progress, she did not come across much of interest, although that did begin to change as she got deeper and deeper into the cave. At first, the faint current of wind and air that still passed through the cave stalled, freezing entirely and disappearing to leave her with stale air that did not appear to have shifted for decades.

Then, any traces of light that somehow still made it in also faded, leaving her in absolute darkness, forcing her to use the Superior Bright Star ability to be able to see a single thing.

Even then, the light of the ability was somehow swallowed up by the darkness, as if it was a conscious entity that wished to feed upon the sustenance that she provided to it, preventing the rays of light from heading any further than they absolutely needed to go. The conquering of the area around her was also significantly more difficult, and she was barely able to maintain it with a large enough radius around herself to permit her to see the walls and floor of the cave. It was not necessarily dangerous, perhaps simply being connected to the ancient nature of the place, but it did not help the theory that there was another consciousness here.

After some time, even the sounds that she made seemed to get muted out, leaving her with naught.

‘This has to be the quietest, darkest, and least pleasant place that I’ve ever been in. Even the Realm of Potential is brightened by my presence – literally, since I am the only thing that stands out amidst the darkness until I summon something else – but this has none of that. Even my energy can barely illuminate a single thing,’ Wei Yi noted to herself, continuing to stride forward.

It had been a vague sensation at first, but she now thought that she recognised the place to some extent, although she still couldn’t find anything that matched it within the Ascendant’s Library.

To be entirely fair, there was hardly much that she could actually match without the walls, floor of ceiling of the cave being visible, nor without having any idea of what was contained within, so it was likely that it was closer to the sense of the area being familiar to her rather than the area itself. With that understanding, there were several things that she could think of, but nothing would be as effective a confirmation as finding whatever was at the end.

Whatever it was, it either would or wouldn’t be of use by the end, wherever that was.

The fact that there was so much more to these depths than one might expect in terms of oddities, meaning the light-consuming darkness, the strange sturdiness of the stone beneath her feet despite it being no different from anything else she had seen in her lifetime, the absolute absence of sound and the simple way in which this place seemed to call her, did make her intrigued to learn whether there was a kind of potential peak to these phenomena. Was there a cave out there in which the darkness lived and spoke, in which sound would be devoured, or was this the full extent of what she was currently experiencing?

One thing that she was able to confirm was the fact that her Subterranean Shell was named aptly when it comes to aesthetics, at the very least, as it looked to be something that she could find in a place such as this, where she was bound to be far deeper than any of those abyssal tunnels had taken her.

It had no special abilities relating to the depths or the dark, which was hardly surprising given the fact that she had used nothing but aesthetics and coincidence to name it, but the Abyssal Eye would be very likely to be empowered in such a place, although she did not currently require it either to call out monsters or to transport her somewhere, as she would first need a destination in mind. She did believe that there was a destination, but the gap between that and knowing where it was is rather large, forcing her to keep on walking.

 

Her natural clock, perhaps the best method of keeping time that she had at her possession without the Kong Prison Realm or Paragon being within reach for her to question someone there or to put a clock there to keep track of time for her, was struggling to understand anything by the time that she finally found something of interest. Even then, it was not so much of a discovery as a sound.

A faint, metallic sound, from somewhere far away, being carried through the cave passages reluctantly, much the same way in which all other sound was utterly devoured.

The sound was faint enough for many to have likely missed it in any area with even a bit more ambient noise than this, but it stood out amidst an absence of anything for her to listen to, and she had also been waiting for something, anything, to give her even the faintest clue of where she was supposed to be going. Most of the cave tunnel was entirely linear, but that didn’t help when she couldn’t guess when it ended or where it did so, meaning that she could only keep moving.

Now, however, that could change, as she could put her Endless Calculation to use. Whatever the metallic sound was, it had reached her successfully, meaning that it passed through the tunnels and to her ear. It arrived in a certain way, meaning that she could calculate exactly where it came from.

With only a single clue to go off of, the process was slow, but she then heard another, similar yet different noise from the same place in the void before her, and thus her mental skill was able to quickly confirm its guess and deliver her a very basic idea of where she was supposed to be going in order to reach that sound. Fortunately, basic or not, it still gave her far more of an idea than anything had up to this point, and it did mean that she didn’t have to walk around and question why she even thought that it was a good idea to go into this place. It might still turn out to be a terrible idea, but at the very least she would find out why that was or wasn’t the case.

Wei Yi sped up, rushing through the cave as quickly as she could, taking advantage of the fact that the strongest forces that she was able to inflict onto the floor and walls did nothing at all to leap through the passages as quickly as she wanted to, which was rather fast for any cultivator. It could be said that her heels would have broken a thousand times if not for their material, but that was also true in many other situations, and would thus not describe the situation as accurately as one may want it to when bringing up such an example.

After a while, her spiritual perception was finally able to glimpse some end to the cave, prompting her to slow down only to hear that strange sound again, close by.

Due to her current proximity, she was able to understand that it was not some simple collision of metal, but rather the rattling of chains when one attempted to pull themselves free without much success. From the sound, it was clear that they were large and thick, and that this sound was coming from a point very near to her, prompting her to activate the Superior Bright Star physique ability to give her a little bit of light which she had previously removed just in case.

It was what she saw then that made her instantly recall exactly why she knew this place.

The furthest wall of the cave was flat and large, with enough space for ten people to lay themselves head to foot without reaching both edges, and with a height of eight metres. On the high left and right corners, two great and thick chains were attached to the stone, leading down and to the middle of the wall.

There, a female figure was bound with them, the chains wrapping around her arms and forcing them to remain up in the air. Through the minimal light, horns that grew from the top of her forehead and then arced back and around could be seen on her head, the clear shapes of breasts and an obvious femininity to her figure could be seen, and the stone ground around her was covered in a number of faint stains of an uncertain origin, with all but their presence having disappeared over the years. At the moment that she arrived, the figure seemed to sleep, her head down, long and messy hair obscuring her face and trailing onto the ground. Something covered her body, although it was hard to know what.

She was positioned at to be kneeling on the ground, which hardly made for a comfortable position to be in when combined with the chains forcefully stretching her arms out as far as they could.

Despite the certain oddity of finding such a figure beneath the ground, so far into a cave, where no light or sound seemed to reach, Wei Yi did recognise the scene, all of it. Before this, she had seen it within the illusory array of the Kong District, where she had noted that such a scene being used to keep people out was certainly an odd choice by whoever had created it. Back then, she had theorised that the illusions may have been mirrors to the world, although whether they were merely inspired by it or if they showed the current state of things was uncertain at the time.

Now, however, she was almost certain that she had been seeing what truly was at the time.

“I…” she remembered what she had said all that time ago, licking her suddenly dry lips, “I appear to be able to rescue you now…”

Her words did not seem able to reach anyone, and there should have been no way for that woman to still be alive after all of the time that had passed since the time that she had seen this place within the Kong District. So far as she could tell, this woman had no opportunities at all to acquire food, drink, to absorb energy to sustain herself as planar energy down here was nearly non-existent.

And yet, despite that, Wei Yi could distinctly see the slight rise and fall of her breasts.

She was alive, breathing whatever passed for air in this place. Blood pumped through her veins, passing beneath the inhuman looking skin, and her arms occasionally quivered. That was what had caused the chains to shake every now and then, giving her some notion of where the sound that had brought her here in the first place had come from. Despite all of the time since she had last seen her, and all of the years since she must have first been imprisoned, this strange woman lived on.

Alerted by her voice, the horned figure raised her head slowly, perhaps not believing Wei Yi to be anything more than a figment of her own imagination.

However, what she saw was the glow of a single pair of eyes, and a humanoid figure around them.

“You’re… back? You’ve come back?” the woman’s voice was also unchanged from the last time that she had heard it, except it contained an unmistakable and extreme degree of joy that seemed entirely impossible to top. It was if she had been waiting for a thousand years for her, “I knew it! I knew that you would return, one day… Thank you…”

A tear fell from her eye, and then another and another, until they were streaming without anything to stop them. Not a single thing had even been done yet, and she was still overjoyed.

After quite some time, since Wei Yi did not want to interrupt her while she was getting her emotions out of her system, she spoke up, “Um… I should be able to break those, but could I ask you one thing first?”

“Ask me? Sure. I can tell you anything you like!”

“Right. Those horns on your head – were they always there?” she asked, since this figure acted, spoke and was in many ways akin to a human, but the horns and the oddity of the hue of her skin, which was an unnatural red that stood out rather significantly from the grey around her the moment that there was enough light present to see it, made her seem to be anything other than a human. She had no physique energy within her, so it couldn’t have been some particular physique transformation, and Wei Yi could not sense any bloodline power within her blood either.

Judging by the way that the horned woman cocked her head, her eyebrow rising in question, she was not the only one confused, “What horns? Where? On me?”

“Yes. If you don’t mind, I could come up to you and touch them, see if you can feel them.”

“Alright. Feel free to do anything. I don’t mind. I just want to see the sun and… maybe see my home again. It’s probably been a while since I got in here, though, so it likely wouldn’t be the same… Maybe someone tore it down, or rebuilt it…”

While paying attention to what the crimson-skinned woman was saying, Wei Yi got closer to her and lightly touched one of the curved, dark horns.

“Hm? I felt something… I didn’t have anything there when I got locked up here…”

“Also, about that. You were obviously chained up at some point, that much is clear, but could you tell me which year that was? It isn’t necessary, but I think that both of us would like to have some idea of how long you’ve spent here,” she said, noting the current odd eagerness with which she spoke before adding, “Again, you don’t need to, if you don’t want to.”

Despite that, she went to answer right away, “I think it was… the thirty-first year of the forty-seventh age.”

“… The what now? Age? Years in an age… How much is an age?”

“Each age is a hundred years.”

Wei Yi frowned and completed a quick calculation, but the outcome was hardly were believable. However, it did cause a potential answer to dawn upon her, prompting her to ask, “Do you know of a place called Yi City, or a man that is called the Master of Yi City… or maybe someone called Kong Shi Meng?”

The first two were well known all over the Western Continent and Eastern Continent alike, from what she knew, and had been for a million years, but the woman showed no recognition of them, or the earlier name of the Master of Yi City that he might have gone by at first.

“By the way, I am Wei Yi. What is your name?”

“I am Jia Rong,” the horned woman replied, although the enthusiasm had also faded from her words while she was deep in thought.

“Jia Rong… I may be wrong about this, but… you may have been alive for more than a million years.”

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