Letting herself become embroiled in combat was not on Velvet’s list of good ideas. Immediately after she took out the leader hanging back, she concealed herself with illusions. Nothing complex, as she didn’t need to slip up when attempting to turn allies upon each other. Instead, she simply erased her presence… though she also created a false trail for people to leap on. Otherwise, they might attack randomly and hit her by pure chance.
With the death of an Integration cultivator, the momentum of the Flowing Fog Den suddenly dropped. More of their number had to focus on their greater concealments, and the Chaotic Conglomeration still held the mouth of the mines. After a few moments of confusion, the attackers began to route, but that didn’t stop Velvet from taking out a few more along the way.
Velvet made her way closer towards the mine as the fog began to fade, the thinning enemy numbers making her confident in revealing herself. If she didn’t need to ingratiate herself to the locals it would be a different story, but the risk of being turned up on was calculated due to the necessity.
With the enemy having retreated from the mouth of the cave, the false fog was fading. Though the Flowing Fog Den was trying to cover their retreat with it, around one particular individual it was dissipating particularly quickly. Velvet focused on the woman causing the situation, watching as her knife cut the connections of upper energy that allowed the effects to be possible.
As the fog faded further, Velvet stood at a cautious distance, ready to explain her presence. “Hello. I am-”
“You’re from up north, yeah? About time they sent someone.” The woman had short cropped light hair and a thin build. Her knife was surprisingly unbloodied as she twirled it into its sheath. “I’m Runa. And you?”
“Velvet.” She hadn’t meant to use her real name, but she supposed it was simpler to be honest about that. Less chance of slipping up. And nobody should know her name here anyway. It wasn’t as if it was particularly unique. She swirled energy around her daggers to clean them off- their quality was such that they wouldn’t rust or lose their edge, but it was still annoying to have blood caked on them.
Before Velvet could begin to say more, Runa continued. “You’re alone, aren’t you. Figures that they wouldn’t send anyone else. I don’t suppose there’s going to be another batch?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Velvet began.
“That’s fine,” Runa shrugged. She stepped forward and offered her hand. “Glad to have you join us here. You’re responsible for her?” Runa gestured towards the fallen Integration cultivator.
Velvet nodded. She was getting the feeling she might not have to say anything here.
“A sneaky type, good with daggers. Can you scout?”
“Yes,” Velvet confirmed.
“Great. I’m not gonna lie, you don’t look like you would do much good with the actual mining.”
Velvet shrugged. “Same with you. But I imagine we’d manage with our energy.”
“You’d think that,” Runa shrugged. “But I guess they didn’t tell you. This is a void ore mine. Which means down there you mostly have to work with muscle and grit. But we have people for that.”
“… void ore?” Velvet asked. “I get the general idea from the name but…”
“I can get why you don’t know, it’s rare as bloodwood. Except it doesn’t grow so… limited quantities.”
“So what is it?” Velvet asked.
Instead of responding verbally, Runa detached her sheath from her belt and tossed it knife and all to Velvet. “That. It’s brittle as hell, but it loses its properties if improperly smelted or alloyed, which is to say pretty much any combination. But it cuts through most kinds of defensive energy like butter.”
“Most kinds?” Velvet asked as she looked at the knife. The blade was formed of some purplish metal, with clear signs of other metal being folded in. The spine was thick, making the blade rather unwieldy. And it had no enchantments… which seemed rather obvious, given the way it suppressed her energy just by being near it.
“Anything that solidifies a material doesn’t instantly revert to a softened state, which means it’s still effective. And without your own energy to augment that, it means you’re not getting through any defenses. It makes armor effective against energy attacks… but if someone throws a rock at you it can shatter a breastplate. But there are still uses for it, especially for cracking barriers.”
Velvet re-sheathed the knife and tossed it back. “Sounds useful. I should get a dagger made of it.”
“Sure,” Runa shrugged. “Just mine out a couple tons of ore and convince a smith to put in your request, and you can have a twig that will snap in half if you nick a rib.”
“That bad?” Velvet raised an eyebrow.
“Depends on how precise you are, but if someone knows what you’re using it’s easy to break. Even thick cloth can be trouble. My knife works because I never cut anything with it. Nothing physical, at least.”
“That also seems useful,” Velvet said. “Though I imagine it’s more complicated than simply swinging it around.”
“You’re darn right it is. My style is meant for these things, but nobody even gets to touch one until they’re in Life Transformation. And you have to be in Integration to actually earn one.”
Velvet wanted to ask what her sect was, but what if she should already know? But what if it was more suspicious to not ask?
“The Spirit Slicing Sect,” Runa answered helpfully before Velvet even made a decision. “We’re not that big.”
“Probably bigger than the Light Veil Palace,” Velvet offered, inserting the name of her cover sect. “It was basically just my master and myself. We only recently joined the war effort.”
“Good for us then,” Runa shrugged. “Come on, let’s get you to work.”
When Runa dragged her into the mines, Velvet thought Runa might have reconsidered making her swing a pick, but instead she just grabbed a pack along with a cage with a glowing bird inside it from next to a pile of tools. “Always bring a purity bird. I know you think you can filter anything going into your lungs but… you won’t be able to. Not in the actual mines. So just watch this fellow. If they dim or start bloating, better get out of the area fast. Worst is when they start singing.”
“… Singing is bad?”
“They consume toxins. Everyone gets happy after a good meal. The bloating is also fine for them, but bad for you. The dimming is just a side effect that you can notice as they’re processing things.”
Runa handed Velvet a cage, while getting another for herself. Then they began to climb down a ladder, with a shaft much wider than necessary for the pair of ladders side by side. Velvet lost count of the rungs less than halfway down, but it was at least a hundred. Which meant something like that half again as many meters by the time she got to the end.
Next to them, Velvet saw a lift, presumably for the ore given how mine cart tracks went directly onto it. Her guess was confirmed a short time later when they passed by some people pushing a covered minecart, sweating. Velvet felt a moment of weakness as it passed.
“Get used to it,” Runa said. “It’s mostly like that down in the mines.”
“Are we not…?”
“Not even close,” Runa said as they came to another shaft, once again accommodating a long ladder and a pair of lifts that alternated between up and down. “This stuff is deep underground, and getting there in one go is both impractical and… problematic. The ore is sensitive to sudden changes in temperature and humidity, and a direct shaft might compromise that. So we spiral down one step at a time. The first few kilometers aren’t so bad. The last few hundred meters, however…”
“I don’t think I’ll get tired with just that much climbing.” Sure, it would be boring but… that was all. Velvet was more worried that this woman was planning to murder her at the bottom of a pit. She hadn’t sensed deception from Runa, but that might just mean the woman was very good at it. And bringing her down into a mine where one of them was used to the energy manipulating effects and the other wasn’t… well, Velvet intended to stay on her toes.
They continued downward for quite a long time, when Velvet finally noticed the effects that had been warned about. Her energy began to dim, which meant she was gradually reduced to moving with just her body. And while she had undergone the Body Tempering stage and the continuation in Spirit Building, climbing several hundred meters in thinning air was not as simple as it seemed.
Runa seemed fine when they finally stopped, and Velvet thought she’d at least managed to not make a complete fool of herself. Rather than a single tunnel, Velvet spotted a few going in different directions… and if her eyes were not deceiving her, opening into larger chambers further on. It was difficult to tell without her energy senses, however.
“How is it like this?” Velvet asked. “I thought you said the ore was sparse.”
“In this form… it suppresses energy from all around. But people are rarely kind enough to walk into a suspicious room, which means the diffuse ore has to be condensed into usable items without suppressing its effects.”
“Doesn’t it work through… however much stone, though?” Velvet asked.
Runa shrugged. “I’m not a smith. So I can’t say all the details, but it’s not that easy. Anyway, your job is to check the caves for beasties. Don’t worry, the tunnels will frequently open into areas where you can use your energy. But based on how I barely heard your footfalls on the ladder, I think you’re quite capable of a bit of mundane stealth, aren’t you?”
“I am. However, there’s only so much I can do without preparation against anything that can smell. What even lives down here?”
“A lot of weird junk,” Runa shrugged. “Well, I don’t intend to send you off on your own straight away. I’ll show you around, and you can tell me if you’re suited for work down here. Alternatively, you can stay on the surface and keep a lookout for more fools trying to take our mine.”
Was it their mine? Velvet only knew it was contested. On the other hand, she didn’t mind anyone taking a claim from the Exalted Quadrant regardless of who had rights to it first. She supposed she would have to learn about what sort of things could survive down here with presumably very little food- before human cultivators, obviously. But she would patrol in the mines, because Runa clearly preferred that.
Velvet had no idea how long she would have to work with this group, but to be honest she preferred this compared to going out on the battlefield. She just needed to know how far she could push things. If people began asking around about her master or if Runa actually contacted the others and figured out nobody sent her there could be some problems… but Velvet was obviously going to be spying on people here as well, so she should at least be able to get some forewarning.
Though she was concerned her days might involve multiple hours spent on ladders. She could probably climb the upper levels more quickly, but she really wished that they just had proper elevators. Obviously they couldn’t function with formations, but some nice technological ones could keep things in the right state and be more efficient. Not that Velvet could help construct such things even if she wanted to admit to knowing how they worked.
The simple machines they had here for the lifts- ropes and pulleys, for the most part- were a logical thing for cultivators to resort to if they couldn’t use upper energy. Since such situations were rare, it made sense that nobody developed terribly far down another track. Even those who couldn’t cultivate or were low in talent would tend to go along with things, because they wouldn’t have much influence or resources even if they thought there could be another way.
Velvet hardly remembered what it was like having her full weight resting on her feet outside of high gravity planets simulating that effect. She was much more sympathetic to Rutera and its people at exactly this moment. Everyone needed a chance for convenience and efficiency.