The basic level of cultivation Oskar had managed to achieve allowed him and others to resist the oppressive energy down in the mines. It also empowered their bodies to be stronger and more enduring. At first it wasn’t much, but along with coordinating the workers it soon allowed them to complete their work in a shorter timespan. If they were working a normal job, their efficiency might be praised.
“What’s this?” one of the taskmasters held up an energy stone. Every slave was inspected upon leaving for the day, to make sure they weren’t smuggling out anything. Not that they could go anywhere even if they stole something.
“An energy stone, sir,” Oskar kept his voice polite and his head down. “Was I mistaken?”
“No. But it’s so small.” It was on the smaller end of those Oskar had brought in, but by no means the smallest. “You look quite relaxed. Found it early in the day, did you, then decided you didn’t have to work?”
“No sir. I pace myself throughout the day-” but Oskar’s explanation didn’t matter. He knew that.
The sting of the whip was sharp. They wanted it to be painful, and it was. It didn’t matter that his skin was now more durable than it had been before, because they didn’t stop until he bled. “Let this be a message to you all,” the taskmaster said to the gathered slaves who had been forced to watch. “Just because you get a bit lucky does not mean you can be lazy. We expect hard work from all of you. From now on we will be monitoring your work more closely.”
The early times after the taskmasters began taking shifts inside the mine were difficult. It wasn’t that nobody could do the work- they were all purchased because they were strong and the simple cultivation had overcome their fatigue. It was coordinating things so they did just the right amount of work.
Under the watchful eye of a taskmaster, it was harder to slip small stones from person to person so that nobody came out empty handed. Oskar found it fortunate that he had been the one punished. His back didn’t agree with him, but it did quite well to unite the other slaves with him.
Everyone worked at a believable pace- slightly harder when the taskmaster came into view. Together, they increased the output of energy stones slightly. Very slightly. Oskar didn’t want to overtax anyone, and he also didn’t want to give the taskmasters too many ideas. They still had no involvement in the mining itself- the miners chose where to go and how to get there. Old branches in the mines had already been dug out, and sometimes offshoots of them were good- and sometimes not.
The only thing that Oskar was content with was the quality of the tools. The picks were strong and durable, able to break through stone as well as a man could swing it. At least whoever was running the mines understood that decent tools and sufficient quantities of food were required for the mines to be functional. The taskmasters also seemed happy that they weren’t having to replace any of the miners.
Most of the time Oskar worked alone. He was most capable of sensing where the energy stones would be within the rocks, and he could often gather some extra. He also didn’t mind squirreling some away in piles of rubble and mine tailings. Anything that wouldn’t be taken away up to the surface was usable- and the taskmasters didn’t like to go deeper into the mines. When he came out with whatever they deemed sufficient, they didn’t care.
If it wasn’t being forced upon him, he might have found it almost fulfilling. There was a nice rhythm to be had. Swing a pick, pry at the rock, pull back, swing again. Using his body while letting the energy flow into him made him stronger than he’d ever been before. The work was still quite unpleasant and Oskar found himself often working harder than the others- who he helped coordinate to not exhaust themselves while appearing as if they couldn’t work any harder.
He just couldn’t help but put the group first. When there were collapses and injuries, the same amount of output was still expected. It was unreasonable, and everyone knew that. Oskar was tempted to fill everyone’s pockets during such days, but he only brought just enough to keep the taskmaster’s wrath to a minimum. That led to whippings for himself and others, but if they produced just as much in times of trouble, their deception would be noticed.
Working with others had a nice sound to it. Clank. Clank. Clank. Alone, it was much lesser. Swing, clank, pry, pull, swing, clank. Swing, clank, pry, pull, swing, swoosh. Oskar went to pick up his lamp. Something was strange. As the rays of light pierced through the hole, he wondered if he had come across an unknown tunnel. But he knew them pretty well, and he had no idea of any in that direction. Plus, he felt something that had drawn him that way. An energy stone. So he kept swinging.
Eventually he opened up a hole big enough for him to move into. His lamp revealed he’d cut an angle into a cylindrical room. He was basically along one edge and had to turn almost ninety degrees to see the center. It was immediately clear he wasn’t looking at an energy stone. Atop a perfectly smooth pedestal was a rolled scroll.
As he stepped into the room, Oskar noticed the floor and walls- and even the ceiling- were also perfectly smooth. No dust except what he brought in with him, and no other visible entrances. Just the scroll in the center of a clearly constructed room. Oskar stepped forward cautiously. He knew cultivators could be protective of their secrets, hiding and defending them… but he didn’t feel any danger. He was unsure if that meant he was just unprepared for what he might face, or if it was safe. He tossed a rock further into the room. It clattered on the ground, touching the pillar. Nothing happened. Presumably if anything were going to kill him, it would have done so when he broke into the room.
He stepped closer. Closer. However, while he wanted to reach out and touch it, caution got the better of him. If this was something for cultivators, could he use or understand it? No matter how miraculous it might be, he knew it was dangerous. Oskar decided to be cautious. He could study it later. As soon as he resolved himself to that, he let out the breath he had held in and began to turn around.
The air from his lips brushed against the scroll, and his head snapped back to face the pedestal, almost against his will. The scroll rose up and unfurled, the writing upon it glowing. Oskar wasn’t even quite sure if he read the language it was written in, but the words were still clear to him.
“What makes a technique forbidden? It is danger. Danger to the cultivator, or to others. Forbidden techniques might merely be that which can threaten those in power. In such a case, it is not for the good of the practitioners that it is forbidden, but for the good of those who forbid it. If possible, such techniques are destroyed by those in power.
“Then there is another type. Techniques that are forbidden for the sake of the user. They bring danger to the practitioner either because they are flawed or incomplete, or by the mere nature of their completeness. Such techniques are declared forbidden by their creators or those who do not fully understand them. Sometimes proper skill can avoid the side effects. In such a case, forbidden techniques are reserved for the genius or the intellectual. Even dangerous techniques can be studied for insight into cultivation itself.
“The technique before you falls into both categories. If those in power found out I, Everheart, created such techniques they would kill me and destroy them. Perhaps they will. But I refuse to accept that my efforts will be lost.
“What you see before you is but a single copy out of many, containing half a technique. That is the only concession I am willing to make. I have not practiced this technique beyond what it took to develop, but I can guarantee its efficacy. But I propose that it is more useful as a scholarly study rather than something to be used. Forbidden, but merely to practice. The full technique has a certain dangerous appeal, so only those willing to take the risk after fully comprehending the first half should search for it.
“But please, study and comprehend. Safely. Cautiously. Learn what you can and apply what you should to your own techniques. But for the sake of actually using it, I shall dub this technique as ‘forbidden’, even by my own standards.
“P.S. Forgive my naming conventions. I do not pick the most flashy name… merely that I feel most appropriate.”
The warning burned itself into Oskar’s mind. In a way, it was more of an explanation. If the writer- Everheart?- were to be believed, there was no danger in studying the technique. But as the scroll floated open in front of him, Oskar merely read the name of the technique then tore his eyes away. He stepped away, and heard the scroll settle back into place. His eyes rested on it sitting on the pedestal. Candlewax. A curious name. But Oskar knew he wasn’t ready to think about forbidden techniques. There were other things to deal with first, like survival. He resolved to bury the passageway in rubble, so that others might not stumble onto it either. Best to leave what is forbidden alone.