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As she understood it, this barren piece of land circulated all around the mountain range and probably served as a barrier between the outer ring and the second one.
As to what seemed to keep the two rings separated, the blur she had come to call to herself the Ring Keeper, no further appearance served to clarify what the thing was.
The unimaginably powerful thing was still a complete and utter mystery to her.
As a peek into the Grand Hall of the sect would tell, not many people knew the truth behind that. In fact even the Patriarch didn't seem to know for sure. He would have to consult the reserve powers of the sect for clarification, he said to himself.
Reaching the foot of the mountain range, s.h.i.+n Sumi discovered that unlike what she expected, the obstacle wasn't whole. She felt a bit of relief upon seeing many entries into valleys that would allow her to cross safely.
Craning her neck to look at the distant mountain tops shrouded by the storm, she didn't want to even start wondering how the weather was up there.
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For someone from a mortal background like her, storms were a terrifying ent.i.ty that were rumored to happen whenever two Immortals clashed in the sky, the aftermath of their battle resulting into a rain of death fire.
After entering the Dark Sky Starry Sect, s.h.i.+n Sumi had learned that storms were nothing of the sort, but it was still something to be feared.
Xiao Yue even told her that sometimes lighting bolts were believed to be an expression of the Heavens themselves.
The constant rumble and flas.h.i.+ng purple white clouds overlooked every entrance to the second ring.
In the distance, s.h.i.+n Sumi saw tendrils of smoke rise up through the air to be dissipated long before they could join the clouds.
There, next to the glowing fire, three disciples sat in a circle. They didn't seem to sense s.h.i.+n Sumi from the distance and they looked completely entranced by the fire, long shadows dancing on their heavy robes.
All three of them were clad in garments that looked unusual from what she knew of the Dark Sky Starry Sect. Mismatched clothes that were not telling of their talent level. What was strange too was that all of them appeared to be trembling, their hands hovering in the flames.
"They are seeking heat? But it's not even that cold out here... Are they okay?" she asked herself.
Curious, she stepped a bit closer, covering herself from their sight behind jagged rocks.
"c.r.a.p, they've seen me" she cursed when the three of them turned their heads simultaneously towards where she was hiding.
s.h.i.+n Sumi still wasn't used to the divine sense of others and the possibility of being sensed. Now the three disciples were on guard.
Two of them jumped to their feet, rather comically with the amount of clothing they were wearing. The third one, the only one with no expression of concern on his face simply took out a small circular s.h.i.+eld from inside a fold of his robes.
His lips moved quickly, uttering two words that s.h.i.+n Sumi couldn't discern. The s.h.i.+eld started rotating and glowing with green light.
Rising up above the three young men, the s.h.i.+eld extended in a flash, forming a bulb of transparent green protection around them.
Only when the s.h.i.+eld had been put in place did the two others put down their weapon and sit back down next to the fire. They didn't even bother looking at s.h.i.+n Sumi anymore.
If the latter knew one thing about the magic available to Honorary Disciples, it was that everything seemed to be arranged by color. Just like her own talent had granted her a green medallion, even though she knew it was all the little nut's doing, Xiao Yue had been deemed orange talented.
The same way, many were red talented and only a few yellow talented. This impacted the way the disciples dressed in the sect, s.h.i.+n Sumi herself being one of the few if not the only exception.
But this rule of color grading also applied to many other things magic or cultivation related. For example the cores found inside spirit creatures were a good example.
And just by looking, s.h.i.+n Sumi knew that the s.h.i.+eld put in place by the group of three above the fire was telling its level with its color.
"This explains why they are not concerned with me. Other than the fact that I'm wearing red, if they have a s.h.i.+eld comparable in power to a green talented disciple's, they should have nothing to fear from me."
"I should just leave them be. I have to find the other four Veins of h.e.l.l Fire in the different rings."
Half turned around, she still wondered a bit about the reason behind the three men's apparent coldness. The only thing she could imagine was maybe a curse of some kind, or an aftermath of them getting the green s.h.i.+eld.
The s.h.i.+eld was obviously one of the good treasures scattered around the dimension. Since she herself had partic.i.p.ated in one of the sub-trials for acquiring a treasure, she knew of the pain it could be.
Before departing, s.h.i.+n Sumi dropped on the ground one of the fruits she had gathered a while back. It was a way of telling them she had no evil intentions as well as helping them a little. When ingested, she remembered feeling a remnant heat from the fruits.
"That's all I'll do for them. Now is time to cross to the next ring."
The closest valley was a few hundred meters away and in a flash s.h.i.+n Sumi already was progressing. Above, the thunder raged, obscuring the sky except for the flashes of lighting.
The scary clouds were full of water that formed rivulets against the mountain slopes, joining into a turbulent torrent snaking at the very bottom.
Drops of icy cold rain would sometimes fall between the rocky walls, and s.h.i.+n Sumi was soon forced to wrap a piece of cloth around her, her figure now a grey cloak with only a band of red robes visible under it.
She was a bit embarra.s.sed to use what had been a curtain in her cozy courtyard in the lower valley in such a way, but at least she got some cover from the cold rain. She was suddenly very reminiscent of the three disciples she had seen briefly just outside the valley.
The Copper Bell rang once, reducing the cold, but not completely.
"For someone without the Copper Bell, every single drop would be bone chilling. That explains the three disciples outside with the fire. But even that would probably manageable even for a red robed disciple. Is the next ring formed of an ice environment?!"
The valley was large and long, and the steep slopes on the sides were too smooth to allow for an ambush or a good hiding spot. Without having to care much for an attack, s.h.i.+n Sumi advanced quickly.
The end of the valley was in sight when s.h.i.+n Sumi's eyes opened drastically.
The second ring was indeed an icy environment. But much like the outer ring was occupied by a jungle and all sorts of appropriate reliefs and obstacles, the tundra in front of her was by no means flat.
In front of her laid an area comprised of blue, red and white colors that seemed to have been splashed around by a crazy painter.
Arcs of ice reflecting the blood red sky extended from the ground, like fish frozen mid-leap, or the tusks of an unimaginably large animal.
Crevices big enough to swallow whole cities snaked between the arcs, their mirror like insides a deep blue under the layers of snow.
A bone chilling wind carried thousands upon thousands of snowflakes, each like the petals of a flower in bloom.
The sight truly was magical and s.h.i.+n Sumi couldn't help but marvel at the beauty and the sense of indomitable nature of the landscape.
From where she stood, it seemed like the second ring formed a plateau lower in alt.i.tude than the outer ring. Judging by what she had seen back then from a high tree, she had the feeling that this ring was smaller than the other one.
"It might have been just an impression though. The logical rules don't seen to apply in this place. For all I know the laws of s.p.a.ce differ greatly from one ring to the next."
s.h.i.+n Sumi descended through the rocks, progressively turning from a dead grey to a pure white as the snow claimed sovereignty over everything.
The snow whistled through the air and formed big circles in the sky, turning the wind currents visible for everyone to see.
Down near the mountain range, although cold, the snow didn't seem too violent, unlike in the distance where blizzards obscured even the thousand meters long tusks of ice.
Under her grey cloak, s.h.i.+n Sumi realized that the piece of cloth did almost nothing to hinder the snowflakes and she could almost sense every single one of them on her skin where they disappeared soundlessly.
The Copper Bell was active continuously, doing its best to reduce the sensation of cold. After only a few hundred meters, s.h.i.+n Sumi felt herself drained and had to stop.
"Every snowflake drains my energy" she exclaimed! "This is not something I can sustain! The three disciples with the s.h.i.+elds outside the mountains must have felt the same and decided to go back until they found a way to pierce through the tundra."
An inkling of an idea flitted through her mind. She made sure to hide herself well under the coat, even though she was alone.
"The people from the sect are always watching" she reminded herself before retracting her divine sense and her s.h.i.+nsoo from the bell.
It was something she could have done a long time ago, as she already knew that the effects of the Copper Bell on her appearance only took place in the first instants of consuming a Confusion Pill.
This meant that as long as she ate a pill while under the Yang type s.h.i.+nsoo provided by the bell, she would turn into a boy. Stopping the powers of the bell after she had morphed didn't change much, except revert her own attributes and attacks to a Yin type power.
For example now that the Bell wasn't active, even though she looked like a boy, she would never have had the power to unleash a cleaving attack at a Stone Leaf Tortoise if her sword didn't recognize her s.h.i.+nsoo attribute.
The reason s.h.i.+n Sumi kept the bell's powers on at almost all time was for two reasons.
First, it seemed to extend greatly the lifetime of the Confusion Pill. The pills as she acquired them functioned for six hours at most. They had been made by an Elder apothecary called Cloud Cauldron but were only common grade. With the refining process of the little nut, this time was extended to half a day.
The use of the Copper Bell, though, made them last almost two days entirely!
The second reason was simply because when s.h.i.+n Sumi cultivated, she wasn't always certain as to how fast was the arrow of time. Sometimes comprehending deep magic could immerse oneself for a long time. Just in the case she reverted back to her female self while lost in meditation, she didn't want her aura and divine sense to change abruptly and be discovered.
s.h.i.+n Sumi pulled her cloak lower over her boy features.
"It wouldn't look strange in this kind of environment. And this way even if I revert back to myself, the people watching won't be able to tell."
Allowing the Copper Bell to rest in the bag of holding instead of sustaining her change in s.h.i.+nsoo attribute made s.h.i.+n Sumi's energy levels stabilize at a better rate.
She didn't stop to wonder about how the normal disciples normally fared in such places and she continued moving on, soon arriving at the first crevice blocking her path.
"Seeing how they raided the market at the announcement of the Rising Star Trial by the Patriarch, many of them must have plenty of resources or artifacts to protect themselves" she thought.
A few meters ahead, the scar in the layers of ice extended in the shape of a lighting bolt. It looked really deep but s.h.i.+n Sumi couldn't ascertain the extent of the depth. To do that she would have to take at least a step closer to falling off the slippery ice and she absolutely wanted to avoid that.
Following the crevice with a safety distance, she walked in the direction of an ice arc, under which the crevice stopped and the ground seemed whole.
She was still far from the towering half arch when the ground trembled. Not by much, just a slight tremor, but vibrating enough to cause the suspended ice to detach.
Spikes of pure blue ice the size of a building fell from the peak of the arc, planting themselves deep into the ground.
Had she been under, s.h.i.+n Sumi would have been stabbed by the gigantic icicles, her dead body soon frozen and covered by a layer of fresh snow.
She s.h.i.+vered but not entirely because of the cold.
"What made the ground tremble?" she asked herself without needing a response. The area was desolate. She had been alone for the entirety of the trial so far, except for her brief interaction with Bai Xuengen.
Given the size of the floating continent, she would probably not encounter many people.
"Unless?" she felt the ground tremble a second time.
Her head under the cloak turned towards the right. This time the corner of her eye had caught a very brief light, coming from a few thousand meters away.
"Are these sounds of battle that make the ground tremble?"
Just for the sake of not getting lost, s.h.i.+n Sumi noted in her head a few landmarks in the forme of the lightning bolt crevice and the arc where the spikes had fallen.
She had advanced in a somewhat straight line since her arrival in the jungle the other side of the mountains. If she came from platforms that were south, with the north being the yellow pillar of light marking the exit, then now she was turning westwards.
In the labyrinth formed by the crevices too big to jump over, orientation was crucial if she wanted to find her way later.
She was fine with meeting disciples on her way, but she would rather stay alone for safety, even if it meant facing creatures alone, like the big crocodile from before. And so she went opposite to the possible battle.
As she discovered on her path, the new ice environment wasn't as desolate and dead as she thought. Ice flowers with delicate and frail petals bloomed in groups of tens in some places.
Seemingly carved into ice and transparent like gla.s.s, crooked trees sometimes found their way out the frozen ground. Tiny arrowhead leaves bristled with the wind, like chimes bringing a pleasant melody to her ears.
Snow Lizards were sometimes startled by her footsteps breaking the uppermost layer of snow, fleeing into crevices, the suction cups on their appendages sticking easily to ice.
s.h.i.+n Sumi thought about hunting a few of them for food but the thought of eating a slimy animal wrought her stomach with disgust.
"I still have a few spirit fruits to eat, and if I can make fire, I could even roast some Stone Leaf Tortoise meat!"
Food wasn't a concern at all for s.h.i.+n Sumi. Her stock was big and she could go for days without a meal. Counting briefly, she deemed her resources enough to make her last another six months at least!
"By then I'll be long gone from this icy tundra, and I'll probably be able to find something better than a Snow Lizard to eat."
Night time never came in this trial dimension, so s.h.i.+n Sumi decided randomly to stop when she found a suitable place.
It was a cave made of snow and fallen icicles, with the entrance hidden behind an ice tree. The cave was only big enough to accomodate one person on their knees but had the particularity of turning on itself kind of like a sh.e.l.l.
This would give s.h.i.+n Sumi protection from the cold wind and would also hide the fire she planned on making from the view of others.
Using a simple paper talisman, s.h.i.+n Sumi insufled s.h.i.+nsoo in the form of a simple flame. Because she didn't have wood or burnable resources, the fire wouldn't sustain itself for hours but at least it would help regulate her temperature for a bit.
The vivid yellow and orange flames danced on her face but s.h.i.+n Sumi still kept her cloak on her. She had felt her appearance change a couple hours before.
In the warmth of the fire, s.h.i.+n Sumi allowed herself a few minutes to collect her thoughts and to daydream. Nestled between her b.r.e.a.s.t.s, the little nut was comfortable too.
It had been months since the little nut had been there. After all, s.h.i.+n Sumi had spent the whole time as a boy ever since the beginning of the trial. The nut which apparently prefered b.r.e.a.s.t.s must have been greatly disappointed and had stayed most of the time hidden under the leaf pattern on her skin.
After a while, s.h.i.+n Sumi put a hand between the folds of her cloak then her robes. Her hand was cold and she s.h.i.+vered at the touch of her own skin. Dislodging the comfy grey nut, she gently asked it to turn into a book.
Catching up on what she had missed, s.h.i.+n Sumi read extensively about the few creatures she had killed in the jungle, the stone golems, the Moss Vampire, and even the fruits she had picked up.
Just like how she had been busy fighting, cultivating the Vein of h.e.l.l Fire, or running away from a crocodile, the nut had collected a lot of information on her newly acquired resources.
Suddenly looking a lot like the s.h.i.+n Sumi from ages ago, the little girl that loved to read her books at the light of a candle, s.h.i.+n Sumi lost herself in the characters on the leaf pages.
Knowledge is power, she remembered. Even now as she was seeking a different kind of power, she didn't forget that motto.
Her reading lasted for a good while until a movement followed by a 'cling' distracted her.
There, on the ice next to the floating fire talisman, a piece of metal had fallen.
It was an Affairs Pavilion insignia.