Chapter 129 - Strata

Chapter 129 - Strata

Ket is absolutely fascinated. He has been staring at the large metal object under his ass for half an hour at this point, and his attention hasn’t wavered a single time. Ket first just ran his hands across the immaculate smoothly curved surface, trying to feel for imperfections. Feeling up the perfect surface got old relatively fast, and that’s when the real fun began. Ket thought it was fun, anyway.

Fighting the wind that was pulling at his hair and clothes, he breathed out some qi. Preventing the unactivated potential from floating off, he forced it into a stream downwards. There he sank it into the metal, distributing it over the entire flying machine.

Ket felt each curve, from the sharply rounded front edge to the sloping cylinders that grow from both wings, his qi of a metallic intent allowed him to feel the material changes and composition. Normal neutral qi user would only be able to feel the shape of the object, but Ket has spent a large amount of his time in the study of metal.

Slowly, a blueprint appeared in his mind. The metal hull, hollow spaces, insulated silver and copper wires and the intricate formations inlaid on the engine’s insides were scanned and mapped by Ket with utmost patience.

Done with the visual part of things, he has his eyes closed now. The model in his mind is zooming in on parts that he does not understand yet or finds interesting. The engravings and qi wires is a good example. Ket understands what they should do, but the text is oddly deformed and the mathematical formulas used are nearly illegible.

Starting at the solid qi crystal core in the centre of the drone, silver and copper wires guide trickles of power towards the various parts and mechanisms in the mechanical vehicle.

“Hey, we're here, wake up!”

Slowly, he realizes that the metal is formed to guide qi in a specific pattern. Qi forms a stream when glides through materials. Most flows of power take the path of least resistance. But unlike electricity, qi has a certain momentum and thickness that needs to be accounted for.

“We are leaving, you dumbass. Teach already jumped.”

A river does not follow its banks exactly. The main flow carves at the outer edge of each meandering curve. The inner turn of each bend has slower moving water. Qi works similarly, so Teach designed the metal formations in such a manner that the qi stream is guided along the needed path, regardless of the metal shape.

“Hmmh, he is really out of it. No problem, I will catch up!”

That mystery solved, Ket follows a bundle of thin wires that go from the core to the front. These wires end up at a complex structure of glass, hollow spaces filled with pure gasses and minuscule metallic structures. Ket pumps more qi in that area, trying to get a clear image of what’s going on.

Only when half of the liquid qi surrounding his forming solid core is evaporated and breathed out does he get a glimpse of the structure’s purpose. Ket senses an incredibly dense metal grid facing the glass covered opening. Incredibly thin wires trail from this rectangle to an ever denser piece of structure. That one seems to be filled with… sand? Rock?

Ket has a lot of trouble trying to understand that piece of the drone. Even denser and smaller, the materials are also more difficult for him to understand. What is a piece of transparent stone doing in the middle of all those metal wires?

Deciding to ask Teach about that later, Ket shifts his focus on a diff…

A wet sensation? Warmth on his face? Ket is suddenly feeling very confused as a pleasant smell enters his nostrils. A very, very warm feeling is now on his face.

Opening his eyes, his vision is filled with black hair, pale skin and closed eyes. Frozen in absolute stupefaction, the boy just sits there as the face in front of his own does funny things to his mouth.

Tess’ eyes flutter open, and she jerks backwards. Touching her lips, she grins. Then she hides her face, shuffles and turns around while rubbing a shaking leg followed by a deep breath. Ket is still dumbstruck, all thoughts of the wondrous metal object he was exploring blasted out of his head by the smell and taste still lingering on his lips.

“We are going northeast. The rest is already on their way down. Teach said to throw the drone in the air. You can’t keep it.” Her face now furiously red, Tess escapes by jumping off the Tower. Ket just sits there, the fierce wind that blows at this height cooling his boiling mind and jumbled thoughts.

We arrived at the Tower’s top after a rather chill and relaxing flight to the top. I had to manhandle Rhea, Tess and Ferah to get them off the drones when we landed. Their begging eyes and fake tears nearly had me give in, but then I remembered why I made the things in the first place.

So I took my drones back from them, programmed a scouting pattern in each one and threw them into the sky. I took the ones stored inside Tree’s moon out and threw them out also. Database is keeping an eye on them while processing the data they send back. My map of this planet is getting more accurate and detailed by the minute.

A grand total of eleven drones are now slowly climbing into the upper atmosphere, where they will act as my personal spy satellite network. Their black tops will absorb enough sunlight to keep them flying forever. Their blue bottoms will camouflage them against all visual scouting or scanning.

That’s when I realized that Ket was still sitting on his drone, eyes closed and dead to the world. Seeing Tess shoot him furtive glances, I took Ferah and Rhea by the hand and jumped down from the Tower.

Now I am enjoying a nice and relaxing bit of free falling, Rhea looking at me weirdly and Ferah screaming the mother of all deaths screams into my ear. I grab the shrieking girl by her armpits and hold the wind around me with my mind.

Stepping into the foundation realm allowed me some insight into this air affinity I managed to snatch from Rhea. I’m still pretty unclear about what it really is or represents, but it has something to do with gas in general. All types of gas are more susceptible to my commands. This includes water in steam form; it slips from my grasp the moment it condenses or freezes.

It also allowed me to produce some perfect purity gases by merely splitting the air around me into its constituent parts. The small space between my drone’s photosensitive plate and the camera's lens is filled with xenon, for example. It’s a rather crude way of preventing oxidation of the sensitive photoreceptive plate, but its a neat application of this affinity.

I reign my wandering thoughts back in and focus on the current moment. Rhea is flapping beside me with large white draconic wings, the glow that her transformations cause fading rapidly. I breathe some qi out through my nose and shape it into two wings of my own.

Then I change the mutable area inside my braincore into a tetrahedron made from I-beams. This symbol construction nd symbol strength makes my qi construct near unbreakable and rigid. Ferah is silently staring down now, embarrassment and awestruck wonder on her face. I sigh a bit as I notice the water evaporating from near her crotch. She no longer pisses impurities, but she really should stop peeing her pants every time she gets a bit scared.

I hand the squirming girl over to Rhea, who dips a bit as she catches the additional weight. “Let’s land over there.” I dive down, ignoring the complaining noises of a certain dragon who was just handed a rather damp and stinky problem.

Another relaxing flight later, I land inside a copse of trees to the east of Tower City. I stretch a bit while waiting for the rest to arrive. I hear rustling in the bushes and soft female murmurs. That should be Ferah and Rhea. Another crashing sound is followed by soft giggles. That must be Tess, then.

I look upwards and see Ket falling down. He throws something towards the ground and I barely dodge a small piece of metal as it shoots into the soft earth besides my feet. I feel the metal fragment dig itself deeper into the soil as Ket uses it to arrest his fall.

“Something got you distracted? You normally pay attention to what you’re doing.” My comment shakes him from his contemplation, and he faceplants into the mossy forest ground in front of me.

“Ow, ow. Sorry, Teach. Got something on my mind.”

I smirk at him. Ah, to be young… “Let’s get going. You can wrestle with your hormones while we travel.”

He sputters a bit in protest but falls silent. Looking into Tree, I see the mounts I need. Big blue bear is casually munching on a mutated deer, Ket’s metal horse is prancing about as some of the female disciples fuss over it and Tess’ black cat is sleeping. I pull them through Tree’s portal. The next minute I spend patting them to calm them down.

Angeta pops into existence just when the beasties are calmed, her capybara mount following shortly after. “Y'all going somewhere? I missed your previous adventure because I was busy, I want some fresh air.”

I adjust my blue bear’s saddle straps and jump on. “Sure. We are going to Goodsummer to see if anything is left of the place.”

Her eyes open wider. “Could we continue to my village afterwards?”

“Sure. I’ve seen what this kingdom has to offer, I think. Let’s tour the beastkin country for a bit.”

I pretend not to see the very concerned, complicated, and conflicted look that Angeta and Ket share at my comment. I motion them to mount up and call for the trio of females. Minutes later our small group rides out of the forest and onto an empty road.

We travel silently for a good half hour while I enjoy the peace and quiet. The grasslands around Tower City are pretty flat with few patches of forest here and there. That prompts me to ask a question that has been bothering me. “Where are the grazers?”

Everyone is now looking at me weirdly. “Grazers?” Rhea asks from behind me.

“Who keeps the grass short? Aren’t there large packs of herbivores eating all the sprouting trees and grass?”

Angeta answers me. “Grass stops growing at this length, though? What kind of freaky grass are you used to?”

I want to answer but don’t really know how to reply to that. I send a strand of augur towards a blade of grass and try to make sense of what I’m seeing. The narrow leaf is twenty centimetres long and looks like perfectly normal grass. I check inside Tree and see that the same grass covers its grounds. Every single blade is around twenty centimetres long.

Why is this fucking world not making any sense? Did someone program a natural limiter inside the flipping grass because they couldn’t be arsed with mowing the fucking lawn? I feel slender hands rub my shoulders and I let go of this irritating train of thought. I assign Database a task, making it figure out how the grass does that with any processing power it has to spare.

“Right, let’s ignore the genetically engineered grass. How can we visit the beastkin lands without drawing attention or kicking up a fuss?”

“Just do the thing where everyone ignores you.” Angeta waves a careless hand in my direction while lounging on her mount. Ferah is sitting way back, on the flaming capybaras’ butt. She seems uncomfortable, but unwilling to ask Angeta to scoot over.

“Eat meat,” is the helpful comment of Ferah.

“What I meant to say is, could you please give me a primer on beastkin society. Pretend like I know nothing about your ways. Why would I need to eat meat, for example?”

I see Ket, Tess, and Rhea perk up at my question. Do they also now know this stuff?

Angeta speaks up. “Ferah told you to eat meat because carnivores are in charge. You teeth determine you caste, basically.” At this, she shows me a mouth full of sharp, pointy teeth obviously meant to rip meat into chunks.

Ferah proudly displays her own chompers. Smaller canines combine with pointy front teeth and slightly flattened but still pointy molars. She looks to be an omnivore tending to the carnivore side of things. “I got to listen to what Angeta says, she gots more pointy teeth then I do.”

I display my own omnivorous teeth to the duo of beastkin with a very friendly smile. “So I would need to listen to you both, based on that hierarchy.”

I see a glow coming from behind me, and I turn to face Rhea. “You all neeth to lithen to me, muhahaha!” I freeze at the sight. Rhea looks like one of those freaky deep-sea fishes with more teeth than mouth. Her normally pretty lips are split by a menacing forest of protruding fangs, making her look like a combination between sabertooth tiger and piranha.

“Nope, I did not see that. My Rhea does not have such sharp teeth.” I slap my face a bit. Looking at my travelling companions, I see pale faces. “That did not happen. Anyway, teeth determine rank, do I understand that correctly?”

Ferah is bowing towards Rhea while trembling. Angeta looks unsettled as she strokes her poofed up tail. “Uhm, dragons have very, very pointy teeth. The Flight rules over all... ” She takes a few deep breaths. “Beastkin society has three levels of caste. Carnivores, who are the fighters, rulers and generally have the highest positions. Omnivores, who are the crafters and artists. And the herbivores who work the land and do all dumb labour.”

I keep looking at Angeta expectantly. She continues talking after only a few seconds of staring. “Pretend he knows nothing, okay… Three major castes, right? Rulers, crafters and workers. Pointy teeth are better than flat teeth.” Angeta counts on her fingers as she talks to herself.

Ferah pulls on her sleeve. “Teeth, skin and ears.”

“Ah, thanks Ferah. Next is skin. As you can see, fur is very common.” She strokes Ferah’s fur covered head. “Scales are seen as a bad omen or bad breeding. It basically lowers you an entire major caste. Plant-eating lizards are seen as scum, for example. Feathers are a sign of beauty. You will see a lot of feather jewellery and decorations. Naked skin is a sign or royalty and nobility. It basically puts you in a higher major caste.”

I interrupt her. “You talk about this in a distant manner. Aren’t you a beastkin?”

This causes her to shut up for a few minutes. I enjoy the silence as our mounts plod along through open fields and empty roads.

“Travel is the death of the small mind. I never understood that until I travelled to a different dimension. I guess… You kidnapping and teaching me forced me to re-evaluate some stuff.”

I try not to smile at her comment.

“Skin, right? Skin… Fur, feathers, skin… Don’t talk about exoskeletons. I don't know why, but all insect type beastkin are taboo. They are what parents use to scare bad children into behaving. The insectkin will take you in the night if you don't eat your food, that sort of stuff.”

“The arthropods will not take me away?” Ferah looks to be having an existential crisis.

“They will definitely take you away, so you should behave yourself, okay? And finally, ear type. The shape of the ears defines the minor caste. Marrying inside your minor caste is good. Marrying inside your major caste is okay. Marrying outside your major caste is grounds for banishment. There are also fish scales, but they live in the ocean and have barely any contact with the rest of the world.”

“That was very informative, thanks! What type should we disguise ourselves as to not be bothered too much?”

“Well, flat teeth if you don't want to be bothered. You might get conscripted into fieldwork, though. Maybe something like Ferah? That’s not high enough to be worth bothering but too high to risk offending.” Angeta looks contemplative as she answers this one. “Relations between beastkin and humans are pretty bad politically, but normal common beastkin don’t really care. You can walk around most anywhere like a human without much trouble. Not in the border villages though, they will probably murder you in your sleep.”

“Why’s that?”

“They get raided. But that’s the risk that you take when living in the west.” A flash of bitterness and anger crosses Angeta’s face. She then looks forwards, and fury starts radiating from her. “Like those motherfucking assholes. Look at that banner, that’s probably a raiding party looking to make some money from raping, killing, and enslaving innocent village folk.”

I also look forward and see a small convoy in the distance. A few carriages pulled by odd animals and a contingency of mounted troops surrounded by folk on foot. We have been gaining on them slowly, our fully mounted party moving faster. “Where are they going, isn’t it dangerous to move about while it’s beast season?”

“Beast season is the best time to raid, all the powerful fighters are off towards the beast fronts.” More fury radiates from Angeta. Even Ferah is looking at the far away group with murder in her eyes.

“They seem to be heading towards Luzden first. How about a bit of infiltration and espionage, everyone?” I get a mixed reaction. Rhea doesn’t seem to care, the beastkin girls are smiling savagely while Ket and Tess are too busy not looking at each other to notice anything.

“Let’s have some fun, then!”

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