Chapter 114 - Interests
“Every single simulation I run tells me that this is an incredibly stupid thing to ask, but why are you sticking around?” I need to ask this anyway as it has been bugging me for quite a while now. I see Rhea freeze mid-step as she thinks about the question.
“Why do you want to know this?” Her face is blank. Not a single muscle is moving as she looks at me.
I shrug helplessly. “I can’t read you. I don’t have enough data about dragons to make an accurate prediction model. Everyone else, I can handle. And...” Am I really going to say this? My gut clenches very slightly in anxiety. That hasn’t happened for a couple of centuries. “I want to get to know you better.”
God, putting myself in a vulnerable position is hard. Ah well, alea iacta est. Wait, why is she smiling? That is not a response I saw coming. Is she smirking? There is definitely some smugness in her gaze now. Why do I feel like I lost somehow? Maybe this battle between man and woman is always there, regardless of species?
Can’t do anything about it now. The ball is in her court. And she apparently decides to do nothing with said ball. We just look at each other for a minute or so. The back of my neck is tingling hard, so I decide to break eye contact.
Looking forward, I see a jungle. A green, purple, blue and yellow jungle. A very odd jungle. Most plants on the human and beastkin continent have angularly shaped leaves. This thick jungle has that and more. I spot all kinds of weird plants.
A very small dark beach separates the sea from the land. The lack of a significant tide must not be good for the formation of sand. The minuscule waves crashing into the shoreline are not helping this either. This is pretty underwhelming. I was expecting some magnificent coastline, but this is just a small strip of dark stones immediately followed by thick jungle.
“We are here, I guess. Come, let’s explore. The nearest source of soul radiation is coming from that direction.” The insulation around my soul connection is still doing a wonderful job of blocking the signals' influence and exposing myself to it allows me to pinpoint the source.
I focus inwards on my Tree necklace and immediately decide to ignore what is happening there. I am tempted to request a status update on what the fuck is going on, but focus on finding a clear place instead. That marching band has nothing to do with me. Nope, not going to react to that massive effigy statue. Just ignore that massive pile of food. Ah, there is an empty spot.
The Ascent disappears as I pull it inside Tree. I guide it to the empty spot and deposit it on the ground. More precisely, I tell Tree where I want it to land. Tree gained a lot of power recently, so I let it do the heavy lifting. Luckily, its intelligence is not developing just yet.
I feel a poke in my side and return my focus to the real world. Rhea is wiping seawater from her clothes with a slightly angry expression. Wind billows around her, drying the clinging fabric. It’s a nice view, but why didn’t she react on time? She’s a braincore, after all.
“Try to form a qi construct, you asshole.”
I do as she requests and notice nothing special except a minuscule bit of instability. The pretty but useless formation hangs in front of us both, unwavering.
“Try to form a qi construct at a normal level of power and control, you asshole.” She is even angrier now, for some reason.
I limit the willpower and volume of qi dedicated to keeping the pretty formation active to a qi condensing level. It immediately vanishes.
Ooh, this is interesting. I start a battery of tests, dedicating half of my brain to measuring what is going on. I wipe the grin off my face as I turn to Rhea. “Alright, so your water walking and protection constructs got destabilised by the radiation?”
She nods angrily.
“Don’t know how to tell you this, but maybe it would be good to return to Tree? Maybe impose some sort of order on that rowdy bunch?” Oh, she is getting really angry now. Well, time to look cool, I guess.
Engage combat mode.
Pour additional qi into feet and sea for stability. Underbrush explodes. Distance to shore around fifty meters. Spot threat. Large bug covered in leaves speeding this way. Correction, leaves are attached to bug. Extend hand to grab Rhea.
Simulate scenarios. Jumping up is most efficient, limited mobility is lethal if bug can manoeuvre in air. Skate across sea then. Throw Rhea first? Pull inside Tree? Not fast enough. Piggyback.
Simulate aggressive solution. Attacker is unknown. Need more data to reduce risk to below a hundreth percentage. Execute safest option. Turn back to Rhea. Force her arms over my shoulders. Secure with qi threads. Start sideways manoeuvre.
Overview process is throwing an exception? Look at the bug’s back? Ah, those are wings. Shit…
Form blade from qi. Reinforce immaterial lattice with ice crystals. Aim for crack between plates on neck. Confirm hit. Confirm lack of new stimuli in bug. Sense danger from behind. Drop cargo. Observe irately angry Rhea. Incoming signal source? Accept transmission. Incoming data is extremely low frequency. Match timeframes.
‘WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? I HAD THAT BASTARD BUG UNTIL YOU DECIDED TO BARGE IN!’
So this is new. Rhea and I are communicating with a speed of a thousand words per minute. The average person talks at a rate of a hundred to one hundred fifty words per minute. The immense loneliness that usually accompanies a heightened sense of time is completely absent.
‘DON’T DO THAT AGAIN YOU DICKHEAD! IT SCARED ME HALF TO DEATH!’
So much for looking cool… I was wondering what those odd air pressure anomalies were. That must have been Rhea preparing to fight.
‘Okay, I apologise. Can you stop screaming? It’s giving me a headache. I won’t help you with the next batch, okay?’
I observe as her face transforms into a baffled expression in slow motion. This is pretty fun, talking at this speed while our bodies are unable to catch up.
‘Incoming! Have fun!’
I feel my own face transform into a gleeful smile as the shoreline explodes into activity. The dead bug is still skipping across the sea surface behind us, its brethren are bursting from the jungle and coming straight towards our position.
‘Those are all for me?’
Why does she sound so happy now? Qi explodes from her form in slow motion. Ah, there is a smiling dragon standing next to me. Chills run down my spine as I feel my smugness drain. Her hand raises slowly towards the pack of huge insects barreling our way. I start forming a shield around me.
The exploding bug guts and bits of the carapace that splatter all around me are deflected just in time. I nearly feel sorry for those poor buggers. I say a silent prayer in my heart, thanking them for their noble sacrifice in being an angry dragons' punching bag.
Rhea is exhausted. The core in her head is bone dry. Not even an hour ago, it was filled to the brim with liquid power, slowly growing the small crystal in its centre. Now she is running on fumes. Cursing the fact that she gave up her heartcore for integrity’s sake, she dodges a smouldering tiger.
The continuously melting and reforming beast smashes into a tree, splintering half and burning the rest in seconds. Rhea crouches low as she rubs her ring with a thumb. The tiger pounces at her and Rhea jumps high as she holds her hand out. Seawater pours from her rings' storage space, dousing the crazed animal. The water flash boils into steam the moment it seeps into the scorching cracks of mana altered flesh.
Dodging bits of tiger and clouds of steam, Rhea decides to spend the last of her energy reserves in a partial transformation. The back of her hands, arms and shins glow purple-white as her skin liquifies and turns into scales. She whips her arm out, backhanding a small, bark-covered rodent.
A mighty roar rattles her teeth as she keeps a wary eye on her surroundings. The fight with the burning tiger cleared a large tract of jungle, allowing her to catch her breath.
“Die obediently! I am trying to look cool for my woman, you stupid sack of sand shit!”
Ignoring the boisterous yapping, Rhea takes deep breaths. She twitches as a thumping footstep shakes the ground. A cloud of dust appears on the edge of the clearing. It billows outwards as another small earthquake shakes Rhea.
A dark shape shoots out of the brown fog, pulling a trail of dust behind it. It slows down and lands gently.
“That’s it, no more mister nice guy.” The shape resolves into a bearded man. He then pulls something from his ring and aims it at the dust cloud.
“Hasta la vista, baby.”
“Drew, what are you doing?”
“Hey, just killing dungeon bosses.”
“This is not a dungeon.”
“This is an open-air dungeon. They work differently on this continent.”
A dark shape appears in the brown cloud of dust. An enormous ant slowly moves towards the bickering duo. Mandibles as thick as tree trunks clang against each other as a ten-meter large ant head pokes out of the jungle. A large hole between its compound eyes leaks large amounts of fine sand. Rhea sighs, shakes her head and closes her eyes.
“No, don’t look away! I’m doing this to look cool for you.”
“Getting beaten up until you pull out a piece of metal that can one shot the monster is not looking cool.”
“You take that back! That is totally not true! It’s not dead yet.” *KER-BLAM* “Now it’s dead.”
“What is that thing?”
“A desert eagle! Pretty neat, huh?”
“It’s not an eagle. And it’s not dead yet.”
“It’s a qi powered slug thrower.” Drew slides a single finger lovingly across the glossy, crenellated metal. The entire thing then glows brightly as he pulls the trigger again.
“It’s a shame that it can only handle a couple of shots. Infusing qi into materials to make heavenly crafting ingredients takes a long time. A hack-job like this cheap steel thing needs a lot of qi or will degrade quickly.”
Rhea decides not to retort at all. She observes as the enormous ant that Drew was shooting at disintegrates entirely. The meter-thick legs towering over the jungle’s crown start falling apart along with the hole-riddled head. The disintegrating ant leaves the jungle absolutely silent. She brushes pieces of metal from her hair.
Drew holds out a hand. “Wanna come find out why the dungeons are open-air structures with me?”
“When did you make that thing?”
“My qi clone did a trial production run. It’s a failure though, normal steel is too weak to contain the forces, and I can't figure out how to mass produce qi infused items. Tree's got a mass manufacturing complex under its roots. Let me know if you ever want a couple thousand simple items.”
Rhea grabs his hand and stands up. She walks over to the large pile of sand and starts digging around. Pulling a large brown crystal from the small mountain, she twirls it through her fingers. “Because it's interesting.”
“I’m sticking around because it’s interesting. Flight mountain is...”
She laughs. “Very sleepy.”
“Then I shall endeavour to keep things interesting for you.”
“Then I shall stick around for a bit longer.”
The two smile at each other. The absolute silence breaks as a far away beast roars. The jungle explodes into activity once again as the couple walk on, hand in hand.
“EEP, Drew, what are you doing?”
Dodging the slaps thrown his way, Teach covers his face while groaning as he crawls into a ball. “It’s armchair, how the fuck did I forget?”
Rhea looks down at the whimpering man with disgust on her face. “Maybe not this interesting, though. Normal is also good once in a while.”
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