Chapter 118 - Dissimilitudes
Rhea has a sullen look on her face. Her slumped shoulders, pouting lips, and downcast eyes paint a picture of a demure beauty. The bunny lounging on top of her head gives it a slight comedic vibe. The ravaged and ruined landscape behind her give the scene an edge of intrigue and violence.
I take a mental snapshot and store it away, uploading it in high detail, safe in my soul.
“You made an impressive entrance, flapped your yap for a bit and then got the shit kicked out of you by a rabbit… The only thing you changed is that my school is now divided into four factions instead of three. Happy?”
And now she is glaring at me. The sullen look turned into true irritation and annoyance. Ah, why is true beauty such a short-lived and fleeting phenomenon? She shifts her glare towards the moon overhead. It’s half lit by the cluster of suns, one side bright white, the other dark blue with reflected light. I sense my qi clone communicating with her through a brief mental link.
“Let’s go beat those mana mutants.”
“Okay, let’s.” I smile at her while taking her hand. Looking around, I see a large audience peering at us. I glare at the onlookers, a colourful collection of humans and humanoids with animal traits. Each time one of them makes a move to bow down, my fierce scowl freezes them in place. Lola hops down to the ground and saunters back into the woods. A quarter of the spectators follow her.
Every single new student of my school is still in the qi gathering stage. Database is keeping a close eye on everyone so far, and the mix between braincores, heartcores and gutcores is pretty even. Heartcores are slightly overrepresented, but that is explained by the fact the both Bord and Lola, two main leading figures, are heartcore cultivators. I can’t help but smile as I see that the gutcores are the fewest in number.
Database also informs me that none of the new batches have tried a different system. Well, that’s an easy fix. I add a mission that automatically gives anyone who has reached the liquid qi stage in all three systems a large number of points. I word it so that Database will not give any hints about dual or triple core systems, I just want to encourage some people to try another cultivation system. Ket and Tess both perk up as they receive partial credit.
“Teach, I’ll go ahead. Rhea, get this one some gear, here...” Tess hands Ferah over to Rhea. The small girl is still munching on popcorn while squirming in Tess’s grasp. Rhea automatically takes the beastkin offered to her, only to put her down immediately. Tess then waves to Ket and disappears into the shadows.
I start pondering why a dragon has such a reflex. People usually automatically take whatever is handed them, why did she do the same, though? I barely notice as Rhea starts to fuss over Ferah and Ket sneaks after Tess as I start formulating theories.
Tess is floating through the shadows. No, not floating, she thinks. It’s like gliding across a smooth surface. A surface that’s not flat, but has three dimensions. And a fourth one where the shadows are thick. Like someone pasted paper across the world, allowing her to move across it like running ink. And the shadows are where the paper is thinnest, letting her squeeze through, back and forth between the real world and the shadow realm.
She pops her head out of a dim area, the light prevented from reaching the cobblestones by a large heap of rubble. Spotting and sensing nobody nearby, she jumps out entirely and crouches in the alley. She quickly writes the description she just came up with down on a piece of paper. Stuffing the charcoal pencil and paper back into her spatial ring, she walks out of the alley into the street.
Looking around at the large amount of damage still being repaired, she wanders through Tower City. Some buildings are missing, some are being repaired and some still bear the scars from hurricane-like wind and dragons’ breath. The streets are clean for the most part, fused metal and rock visible between the cracks here and there.
Having entered the city from Ket’s shack, she travels swiftly towards the more affluent part of town. The sixth dark alley she checks has the person she is looking for.
“Tess! ...Ahum, Tess, you're alive! That’s great!”
She’s pretty sure she’d have been fooled a couple of months ago. Tess suddenly feels pretty emotional and decides to try something. She pulls the liquid qi from behind her navel, up through her guts and heart, through the neck into her head. She gives it a spin.
The world slows down a bit as Tess calms her roiling emotions. The fact that she can physically feel the shadows around her at the moment, well… she just ignores that for now. First, she has to decide what to do with the boy in front of her.
All the signs are there, clear to see. Noll avoids eye contact, starts sweating a bit, is suddenly blinking longer and more frequent… She can go on. Even in the dim light of the alleyway, it’s all self-evident. This kid sent her to her death. He gave her a contact that was specifically hired to off her and let her carcass rot in the dungeon.
Honestly, Tess doesn’t even need those physical signs. The aura the kid is emitting makes his true nature obvious enough. The greasy feeling at the core of his being that Tess now senses spiked the moment he started lying.
“Where is this Nik?”
“Haha, Nik? I don’t know any Nik!”
“Blond guy, the last Lycan contact before I… went away for a bit.”
“Ah, haha, that one. He was just a random guy. Heard about your repu-” *WHAP* “Ooofffff.”
Enough is enough. Her old smile back on her face, she stares down into Noll’s now purple visage. The qi in her head is coating her lungs and vocal cords. “Who is Nik?”
Dark vapour wafts from her mouth and Noll’s eye’s go blank. “Fifth Delver Cohort. You sneaked on a team of theirs.”
“Did you at least get paid properly?”
“Half a gold. And my mum’s safety.”
Disgust, pity and fury fight for supremacy on Tess’s face. Pity wins for a bit, so she drops the kid. Disgust comes to the forefront, so she kicks him around a bit. Then fury reigns supreme as she speeds over to the headquarters of the Fifth Delver Cohort, a large building at the edge of the noble’s district.
The Fifth Delver Cohort is one of the many organisations sending people into the dungeon. Not really an adventurers guild, it is more akin to a mercenary employment agency. Each new hopeful recruit that decides to make it rich in the dungeon is but a simple sum of profit and loss, measured with the average chance of dying in the dungeon. Which, for new delvers, is quite high.
All the chaos in the city was not good for the organisation. It was operating on narrow margins before the city went to hell, so the many interruptions and the shattering of the Tower put it in financial ruin. The previous glorious headquarters got hit by a massive shard of Tower. The large, near-white spike disintegrated into pure mana seconds later, but the damage had been done.
Not willing to keep investing in a sinking ship, the leaders, owners and top delvers cut their losses, looted the place and went their merry way. Noll, as it turned out, was not one of those successful people. Despite all the things he did for them.
“Hey, Nik. How did that sneak run go? Did you get out safely after throwing monster bait on me?”
Nik has seen some shit, but the fake, rigid smile on the black haired girls face is enough to make him piss his pants. A black dagger twirls into existence as it spins through her fingers. Each step she takes makes Nik seriously consider shitting his pants too.
“Chill Tess. You haven’t reached solid stage yet.”
Tess freezes at that voice. Shifting her fury to the newcomer, she stands there, fuming.
“The Fifth got fucked. Everyone knows that you two went in, and only he came out. A newbie and an experienced sneak - they know what went down. Let’s just go. He will be lucky if he merely starves to death here.”
Tess clenches her fist and prepares a punch. She stops halfway through the motion. “Okay, let’s go.”
Spitting on the ground, she leaves. Ket follows her by jumping down from the third floor of the abandoned building.
As the duo leaves the ramshackle ruin behind them, Tess turns to Ket. “I nearly forgot, thanks.”
Ket makes an inquisitive noise.
“The no killing thing. I got a bit angry.” She stops and turns around. The Fifth’s headquarter used to be a large mansion, complete with training grounds and a pond. Now, half the manor is gone, the surrounding walls are crumbling, and the pond is dry.
Surrounded by wide roads and lavish gardens, it still doesn’t stand out that much, because all the other buildings are also in varying amounts of disrepair.
“That little shit should really get out of the building. You never know when a dump like that might collapse.”
Ket nods at this. “Agreed, the structural integrity of that place is compromised. Why is that guy taking shelter on the third floor?”
“I don’t know. He really should know better though. Where's Teach?”
“He and the rest are at the east gate. Let’s go.”
The duo strides off through the bustling city. Dark wisps come from some supporting beams inside the half broken structure, unseen by all.
“I could have killed him for you…” Ket’s voice is a combination between a mumble and a whisper.
“Oooh, look at me, mister big solid core forming stage.” Tess puts on a long face, imitating Ket’s usually placid attitude. They stare at each other and chuckle. “Thanks, but no need. Here is the latest description I came up with.” Tess pulls the piece of paper describing the feeling of shadow traversal from her ring and hands it to Ket.
Ket raises an eyebrow and reads the note. “This isn’t scientific at all. Feelings? I can’t calculate anything with this. The world covered in paper?”
They hear a loud rumbling sound not a minute later, followed by faint screams. The duo keeps walking as they continue to bicker.
Sitting on top of my big, blue bear, I let my gaze roam the flat landscape. Green grass, clusters of trees here and there and a mountainous horizon. Rhea is sitting behind me, arms around my waist.
“‘Teach’ in public, please.”
“...what is this hat made of? It survived the fight, the thing that came after and my transformation without a single scratch.”
I look at the fedora in Rhea’s hands. Her flawless and slender fingers spin the hat around as she studies it.
“Ah, that's spun from the mystical tri horned unicorn tail. A unicorn with three horns, truly rare. I showed it how to play poker, and we had a nice fifty-year game going on. Then I drugged it and cut off its tail. It hounded me for a hundred years after that.”
Good memories. That ancient beastie could have squished me with a single bat of its eyelids. Cheating at cards without it finding out is truly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Looking back, I see Ket, Tess and Ferah following. Ket sits on the back of his metallic horse, lounging as he plays with some metal objects. Tess has her hands full with keeping Ferah in check. I see her pull a length of rope out of her ring. I was wondering how long it would take her to lose patience with the hyperactive kid.
I touch the cap on my own head. “This one is made from the pubi… You know what? Let’s not talk about my hat, okay?”
Glancing at Rhea behind me, I can see the moment she deduces what I meant to say. A complicated look flashes across her face. “And you decided to put that stuff on top of your head?”
“A single strand has a tensile strength of several thousand megapascals! It’s amazing stuff. You don't want to know how much trouble it was to get my hands on that material.”
“I said I like hanging around you because it's interesting, but not that kind of interesting.”
Her words don’t really hurt, but the fact that she scuttles backwards and is now keeping a half meter gap between us kind of does. I touch the cap one more time, shrug and put it in my ring. There is no soul fuckery going on on this continent, so little need for the thing anyway.
Looking ahead, the mountains are getting closer. I can almost smell the magical corruption in the air.
“Teach, what causes mana muties?” Tess has pulled up beside me, a trussed up and flopping Ferah behind her.
“You lived on this world for a lot longer than me. Shouldn’t you have figured it out by now?”
“Our experiments produced a lot of data, but we never found out what causes it. Ket tried to explain some stuff about mana fields, but he sucks at explaining.” Ket does not react to this accusation in a very obvious manner, looking everywhere but here.
I ponder the question for a bit. I decide to get a feel for her understanding first. “What is the difference between order and chaos?”
“HMMHMHmhmhmmhhMH!” Ferah joins, mumbling through the cloth covering her mouth.
“Everybody does what they are told or everybody does whatever they want?” Tess removes the cloth from Ferah’s mouth while looking like a deep thinking scholar.
“It’s neat rows compared to willy-nilly placed crops!” Ferah chimes in with her own version.
I nod sagely. “Correct and very wrong at the same time. A farmer would agree that neat rows are ordered. An ecologist would decry that as an unnatural perversion of the perfect order created by nature. Anyway, what it comes down to is this. It all depends on perspective.”
They are not getting any of this, are they? Let’s go with naked facts then… “All living things, human, beastkin, plants and animals contain deoxyribonucleic acid, also known as DNA. DNA is a very, very long string of instructions. All living bodies follow these instructions, causing things to grow and multiply. An excess of dark mana will loosen the connection between these instructions. Too much light mana would prevent them from changing at all, preventing organisms from multiplying.
“Usually, dark and light mana keep each other in check. Too much dark mana will cause this long string of instruction to randomly break and reconnect, causing wild mutation. Nearly all mutations are unable to keep living, their bodies warped beyond their ability to sustain life. They're being sustained by the dark mana itself. A small percentage will be a viable specimen and thus birth a new species.
“But Tess, I deduced all of this from the test data you and Selis uploaded to the Database. How come you are asking me?”
“Selis did all the recording and stuff. I just messed around with mana and fishes. It was pretty fun. Selis did talk about cells that changed shape, but didn't really explain it to me.”
“I understood some of those words!” Ferah shouts while bending her neck to look at us.
I shrug. “Whether you understand or not is not important. You can see the mutations right over there.” We have travelled quite a way now, and are nearing the forest shrouding the eastern mountains foothills. Glowing eyes have been peering at us for quite a while, all of them blue. A wide variety of fucked up beasties walks out of the forest, all of them containing blue elements.
“Did the river run dry already?” Tess’s voice contains fear now.
Ket begins explaining his understanding of this phenomenon. “They all have a high affinity with w-”
“Blue muties can swim!” Only to be cut off by Ferah.
“One bite of food or ten points for each one you take down.” I know what is coming, but I’m still disappointed by the sudden enthusiasm that comes over Tess and Ket. A wind whips my clothes as the one sitting behind me also speeds towards the forest.
“Et tu, Rhea?”
“Mister beard? Can you cut me free? Blacky is nice and soft, but my arms are falling asleep.”
Left alone with a blue bear, a metal horse, a black feathered cat and a trussed up little girl, this scene suddenly looks all kinds of wrong...
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