Chapter 150 - Fragmentation
“Drew, come look at this!”
Rhea’s voice wakes me from my half slumber. The lull of splashing water caused by the ship’s bow cutting through the waves nearly caused me to fall asleep. Thankful for her wake up call, I walk towards the front of the ship.
“Look.” Rhea is watching the television, having tuned the channel to the drone circling over the mana dungeon. The video feed is wavering as if a haze of heat is distorting the picture, but I can make out what’s going on.
I see fins the size of houses poking out of the water. They are located on top of large silhouettes that circle around the black stone sphere. Small specks run around the buildings and docks at the water's edge. Bright flashes of concentrated illumination shoot from multiple mana cannon emplacements, targeting tentacles and other sea monster bits poking out of the water.
“Is the mana dungeon making qi?” Rhea asks.
“I don't think so, the Tower is still producing qi, and that hasn't attracted any retaliatory mutant attacks. Those sea beasts are pretty big though.” I look at Rhea, and she nods imperceptibly. I stop my mouth from curling into a stupid grin. The amount of communication necessary between two braincores is extremely minimal, as we both have the thinking capacity to skip multiple steps that standard social conventions would demand.
“I didn't know there were aquatic enforcer mutants.”
“Makes sense, I guess. Look at the dungeon entrance, something is happening there. Let me zoom in a bit.” I send some commands to the drone, and the picture zooms in on the dungeon entrance. Mages are clustered around the tunnel, continuously sending spells and mana canon shots into the darkness.
“Can dungeons do like… a dungeon break? Maybe the dungeon core is trying to take over the world?”
Rhea taps her lips with a finger as she thinks. “Not that I know of. It sure seems like the mages are trying to keep something inside.”
“Or maybe it’s an internal struggle. They could be trying to prevent mages from leaving. How do dungeons ventilate?”
“I have no idea.” Rhea shrugs.
“Hmm, me neither...” I reply. We look at the spectacle for a few silent minutes. I zoom the feed back out, and watch as a stumpy shark tries to bite at the mages by jumping out of the water. A few mana canon shots and a few spells punch it full of holes.
“You went into the Tower dungeon, does it have an end?”
“The last level is just empty space. It threw a massive horde of dungeon mobs at me. Then I found the core, a large black brick. It tried to stop me from existing.”
“It tried… Now I’m curious…”
“Don’t try it. I nearly died, and I was at the solid core stage with both cores. Tree saved my ass in the end.” We fall silent once again while staring at the screen. A fifty-meter long tentacle is frozen by a concert of ice mages before being shattered by a large clump of rock thrown by a depressed looking man.
“The attacks are getting stronger,” Rhea observes.
“Yep. More and more sea creatures are circling the Dungeon. Are you sure that nothing like this has happened before?” I catch Lola who was about to pounce on Rhea, and start petting her. “Let’s keep an eye on the situation. We might need to intervene.”
“Why? You robbed them blind without any guilt. The dirt island collapsed, the fire island exploded, the water island is nearly completely submerged, the wind is-”
I sputter a bit, but put a finger to her lips. “Robbing them is different from letting them be annihilated. I needed those skulls. The previous owners didn’t need them anymore. And I might be responsible for this entire debacle… Maybe. Do you see any black robed mages?”
Rhea looks at me weirdly before turning back to the screen. “No...”
“Alright. Rhea, wanna do another management mission?”
“Why? The first one went terribly. Controlling every aspect of a task is like playing with puppets. Making this boat myself might have been more efficient...“
“Delegate. Find people who can handle a task - or part of a task - and trust them to accomplish it.”
“I tried that but-”
“You tried it one way. And you changed management strategies halfway through the preparations.” I look at the screen again and double check my own assumptions against any information Database has available. “I think the mages will hold out for a week without catastrophic losses. In two weeks they’ll need to output so much firepower that they can't sleep. Let’s aim for somewhere in between?”
“You want to go help them?”
“We could swoop in like heroes and have a negotiation position that’s way above theirs after saving their asses. Can I entrust preparing the students for aquatic warfare to you?” I immediately see that I’ve got her. Instead of something vague like ‘go steal that information’, this mission is clear and concise. Rhea starts grinning, and I sense that she starts communicating with Database.
I stand up and walk towards the wheel. I pull a pipe from my ring and stuff it with some fake tobacco. Lola kindly lights it for me, and I pat her some more.
Rhea and I are standing in the ship’s cockpit, looking at the cluster of islands off to the starboard bow. “They are not completing the recruitment missions at all. This week’s quota of students is still unfulfilled. The development of weapons and techniques is going alright, but the missions outside of Tree are just not being done.”
I turn to the white-furred woman at my side. “So you want to go kidnapping people now? I really do infect everyone around me with my bad habits...”
“And I want to do some exercise. These leg muscles are made for kicking.”
“Okay, but promise you’ll change back after we're done.”
Rhea raises a sultry eyebrow. “You didn’t seem to mind this form earlier?”
I point at the seat cushions inside the cabin. White fur is left behind everywhere, easily visible on the darker seat coverings. “I can deduce where you have sat with a single glance. Can’t you imitate a beastkin without imitating their follicle structures? I’m still picking hairs from between my teeth. Or at least brush your coat!”
I can see her face turning red beneath her fuzz. Her usual aloof and majestic dragon aura is cracking again. She reacts to my comments by stirring the air around her in a frenzy, ordering it to carry her away. I make my way over to the front of the sailboat and throw the anchor overboard. Then I hop over the wrought iron railing, running across the water as I follow her floating form.
I pull another clump of fur from between my teeth while looking towards the islands we have sailed near. These so-called slave islands are the major trading hub for sapient livestock for many leagues around. A steady flow of captives from the beastkin and wild human areas is processed here, the largest portion going north towards the mages.
The areas ahead are made up of two large stretches of land surrounded by a smattering of smaller islands. A four-meter-high wall surrounds the largest one. Its uniform yellow structure is a dead giveaway that a lot of mages must have cast many apathetic spells in order to manipulate enough earth mana to make that wall. The seabed around the fort lowers a few hundred metres in front of the defensive structure, a clear indication that the walls are made from the missing sand. Not even the human Capital has this much mana-wrought stonework.
All of this has led me to conclude that this slave trading hub is under the mages' protection, if not entirely run by the mana users.
I was watching my television earlier and noticed a very large amount of mage and pirate boats docked at the mana dungeon, with more on the way. The rumours of some form of mage gathering must be true. This means that those fancy walls are not guarded by mages, which should make this a cake walk.
This thought is proven wrong the moment I finish it. None of my alarm processes start battle mode, so the hazard levels must be too low. Instead, I observe with interest as my heartcore takes up part of the auto-combat duty by dodging a high powered blast of multicoloured mana.
I resume running after landing from my automatic dodging manoeuvre, and watch as Rhea cuts another beam in two. She uses a guided pressure front that is produced by a single wave of her arm. I look forward, and see a row of beastkin and coloured humans connected by chains. The first few fall over as the entire row is forced forward with whips.
So that’s how they are firing these things. I query Database for all the information it has on the place, and receive a tidy packet of information.
“Rhea, you can use qi all you want. Feel free to go wild, attracting large mana mutants to this place will relieve this world of a huge amount of negative karma.” I convey this message though speaking super-fast. I'm thankful for Database’s strict guidelines of information cleansing. Every single observable fact about these islands is horrible, and I am going to try to forget I ever read that information. The amount of rape, torture and murder going on here could account for this planet’s negative mana imbalance alone.
I change the blank core in my head into a formula. Velocity is distance over time. Assign the constants and variables to concepts that concern my body… Make sure to not account for planetary, solar, galactic and supercluster rotations… Done.
I divide the qi in my braincore in half, swirling one part through my brain, and feeding the remainder into the formula carved into my braincore. Then I use that power to force the variables up and down, modifying distance and time respectively.
I feel the world groan around me as I enforce my will in a manner that the universe just doesn’t really like. The qi in my braincore drains at an alarming rate as the power is transformed into a real-world effect. Using the imaginary to accomplish the real is a stupidly inefficient way of doing things, but I’m feeling agitated. Also, combat mode engaged.
Send qi sense surging forward. Identify potential students through aura reading. Observe large amount of horrible people, also among slaves. Identify and mark. Plan optimal route for extraction of assets… Done.
Lola is still on shoulder… Is a change of plans in order? Adjust plans to allow for additional combatant. Realise opportunity to test fire-and-ice bond further. Adjust… Done.
Rhea is just wondering what Drew meant with this karma he spoke of when she is overtaken by a pressure front coming from below. Her air sensitivity allows her to counteract the sudden increase in pressure while keeping her balance and course steady. The wave of warm wind following the shockwave is nice and gentle in comparison.
It’s enough for Re-Haan to start her own version of combat mode. The liquid qi surrounding her solid braincore evaporates into a thick mist while sending the gusts of power whirling through her skull. The world slows down, and she relaxes, feeling an indescribable peace now that she doesn't really need to do anything anymore.
The feeling of having accomplished a task, knowing that a long and restful sleep awaits. That’s Rhea at the moment. Sitting inside her skull as the world around her freezes is one of the most cathartic feelings the millennial dragon has ever experienced. Her dragon side is exceptionally content with sleeping, and the time stretching, warping, and expanding is similar to sleep while being conscious, satisfying that instinct. She rarely indulges in this core emotion, afraid that she will be lost for aeons were she to lose herself.
But when the situation allows it, she happily obliges. Except, things are different this time. The world should have frozen solid, the fastest objects overtaken as her mind speeds up a couple of compounded factors.
Instead of that still wonderland that will expect nothing for many years to come, she sees a man moving around. Not fast, mind you, but still moving. At such speeds that she can see the air being compressed in front of him as his every move generates a visible refracting shockwave.
She watches with interest as Drew reaches the solid stone wall and grabs his sword. Flames shoot from one side of the blade, propelling it from Drew’s back while the cloth wrapping burns to ash. His other hand throws Lola over the wall, a spike of ice forming on her forehead. The sword hits the wall and cleaves through it without slowing down. The yellow stone splinters as a shockwave of heat and force turns it into sand, sending molten splatters everywhere.
Re-Haan does a double take as she observes the clash. Each globule of lava hits a guard in a vital spot, while most of the enslaved forms remain unscathed. Teach bursts through the wall as Lola blocks another mana cannon shot with a thick slab of freshly formed ice.
She tries to calculate what just happened just now, but gives up rather quickly. The number of complex vectors, interactive forces, and compound energetic reactions that she would have to account for to accomplish what she just saw boggle her mind. Every single grain of superheated sand resulting from his casual wall-assault killed someone while avoiding others. Let alone his filter for lethal take-down, the fresh braincore cultivator that is Re-Haan can't even calculate a simplified model of what Drew must have went through.
Re-Haan slows the qi churning through her brain, speeding up the world around her. She tries expelling some power and finds that the formation on her ring responsible for keeping the stuff contained doesn’t activate. Spreading the power around her in a large dome, she senses figures disappearing at a rapid pace. The wall used to contain a large number of shackled beastkin - who are now suspiciously absent.
She keeps track of Drew’s rapidly moving form, and realises what he is doing. His trajectory takes him near all large slave clusters, leaving many cages empty as he passes. The few slaves left behind exude auras so foul that she can sense them even from hundreds of meters away. Refusing to be left behind, the dragoness in beastkin form starts forming a large number of air blades, small packets of qi that generate a cutting wind at their tip.
Ten minutes later, half the fort is burning, and the other half is covered in chopped up corpses and dripping blood. Drew stands on the tallest watchtower, a solid structure emerging from the central fort. Re-Haan gently lands beside him, the wind supporting her every move.
To be totally honest, she was pretty disturbed by the callous way that the man massacred hundreds of people without changing his expression. Every single person killed by his hand or his rabbit’s paws felt dirty and broken, she admits to herself, but it still shook her way more than she expected.
Re-Haan has seen her fair share of death, but to be confronted with it in such an open and numerous way… She doesn’t really understand. She was just starting to appreciate and value the lives of mortals. Going back to distantly and coolly looking at their lives and deaths is turning out to be difficult.
She reaffirms her own decision of fighting at a distance. Looking at a small figure being split into two by a remote-controlled qi-air construct is a whole different ball game than having to dodge the exploding innards of the poor sap you just chopped in two.
“What was that about?”
“Huff, huff, hey Rhea. They were killing beastkin and those colourful humans to shoot at us, didn't you see? They need mana in order to shoot those cannons. Those slaves on the walls all contained a bit of mana, and they were forcing them to empty their entire reserves, killing them in the process.”
Re-Haan keeps looking at the panting man while holding a single eyebrow raised.
“I searched the entirety of Tower City and only found a couple of dozen humans with mana affinities. Their skills when they got access to qi are astounding. I didn't want to waste such interesting specimens. I mean, Tess can travel through shadows for fuck's sake! That’s not supposed to be possible until she builds her foundation. Bord’s gravity manipulation is equally baffling. He doesn’t understand the slightest bit of what he’s doing, but does it anyway. Each of those mana batteries has a similar affinity. Letting them die would be such a waste...” Drew seems truly agitated as he paces around.
Understanding why he suddenly exerted all that effort, Re-Haan nods. She isn't sure she agrees, but she understands. “I was wondering why you suddenly exerted so much effort. The foundation realm is seriously impressive... ” Re-Haan licks her lips as she looks at the panting man. Dragons are engineered to follow the strongest being, and Rhea’s instincts are running at full tilt, making her emotions a rather odd mess of horniness, respect, dread, and doubt.
“Why are you looking at me like that? That’s a whole different kind of scary…” Teach sidles away from the panting woman and looks at the other islands.
Re-Haan takes a deep breath, trying to regain control of herself. “Okay, so what’s the plan? Cutting loose like this is fine, and all, but isn’t this indiscriminate slaughter a bit much?”
Teach shrugs in response. “I kidnapped everyone who isn't a murderer or rapist. This fort only contains soldiers and slaves. All the edge cases like non-slave kids and servants are on the other islands.”
“Oh, Drew, do you mind if I take that?” Re-Haan points downwards, grinning at Teach’s conflicted expression. Deep thoughts can be thought later; opportunity does not wait.
“Fine, it should be enough. Is it still growing?”
Re-Haan shakes her head. “My solid core hasn't grown at all over the last few days. I tried doing that crunch thing you talked about, but I couldn't even get it to crack. It just gave me a headache. Your soul is cheat-level strong.”
He smirks at her glaring face. “You regret throwing away half of my cultivation base yet?”
“Hah, I knew that you minded. You acted so aloof and uncaring when I talked to you about re-cultivating a single core.”
Drew only smirks some more. ”Yes, I totally mind that you decided to earn it yourself instead of being a gold-digger. Off you go. I’ll go and kidnap some more students. Do you mind if I imitate your kin, by the way?”
Rolling her eyes, Re-Haan jumps from the tower.
“Go wild!” Re-Haan does not reply to his shout. “Okay Lola, wanna try becoming an ice dragon?”
Re-Haan ignores the discussion between Drew and his rabbit as she falls. All the air in a ten-meter sphere around her contracts as it clads her right fist in a violet sheen. She swings her clenched hand downwards moments before hitting the street, striking the cobblestone with a thundering explosion of air.
The guided blast punches through a meter of solid mana-enforced rock. She falls through the hole into a large cavern and lands amidst a billowing plume of dust and debris. The dust halts and reverts direction, shooting upwards as Re-Haan lifts her left hand.
“Damn, that hurts.” She grits her teeth and pulls on a bent finger of her right hand. The scales covering her digits retract as she puts the broken bone back into place. “Stupid Drew and his heartcore. I want two cores again...”
Mumbling to herself, she starts walking through the large space. She ignores the piles of glittering gold and rare metals, walking past barrels of priceless wines and bolts of exquisite cloth without giving them a single glance. The dark surroundings start becoming lighter as she nears a different section of the storage area. Piled up in large barrels, and laid out on rows of shelves she finds an enormous collection of mana crystals.
Re-Haan starts glowing white, her furry ears and anthropomorphic legs turn liquid as her form expands. The light dies down, and a majestic white dragon is lit up by the multicoloured gleam emitted from the crystals. Many shelves and barrels are crushed as Re-Haan lies down on top of the hoard.
She had sensed a large hollow space while rampaging through the small city, and started making plans the moment she sensed the ungodly amount of mana in solid form stored there.
Drew and Re-Haan had been sailing for a day or two now. She has been loving every single second of the journey, much to her surprise. The plan to intervene with the mana dungeon fight in a week kept her mind busy.
The amount of missions and quests she had been giving out had lessened. That was not something she had seen coming. Instead of giving out a clear mission, she now crafts imaginary scenarios that need a solution. Many minds can see more than a single one. Even if those many minds don’t have the raw thinking capacity that she or Drew has.
The first one she tested this system with was a replica of her library mission. The solutions that the students have been coming up with kept her slapping her forehead in realisation. She has given the best and most supported potential solutions the green light, allowing them to perform the missions on their own initiative with resounding success.
The scenarios she has the students propose solutions, for now, all have to do with incapacitating large amounts of mana wielders or repelling large-scale sea creatures. The most dangerous ones are still vetoed immediately.
This type of loose and free management is already paying dividends as products and tests are being made and performed that Re-Haan never really thought about. A general skill that nearly everyone is now learning is one of these products, a water walking technique that has an excellent qi to result efficiency.
The fact that qi can now be reliably measured - thanks to a certain braincore and heartcore couple - helped tremendously in this regard. All solutions are now evaluated on two main criteria; replicability and energy efficiency.
A complex but perfect solution is useless if the materials needed to craft it are impossible to acquire in large quantities. On the other hand, a perfect solution is also useless if the energy requirements is near impossible to reach.
So Rhea has been developing a rather odd hands-off management approach while lounging on the ship.
Her physical needs are being met by Drew, who keeps feeding her delicious food and keeps doing delicious things to her body. Although it needs to be said that she has started to gain small victories here and there in terms of the sensual arts. She has a chart tucked away in a private section of her mind that compares her different shapeshifted forms to the effort Drew has been putting in.
A clearly sectioned type of management with discrete borders, but a lot of freedom, that’s what she has grown confident in over the past few days. So confident that she feels like she sees the true beginning of that path.
So Re-Haan breathes out, expelling all of her qi into her surroundings. It flows oddly slowly, but the shining crystals around her take up all of her attention. The wind stops caressing her draconic form as it stills. The mana crystals start rattling against their containers and each other, as a higher energy invades their structure, ripping loose the bonds keeping them in solid form.
She previously would have assigned a process to disintegrate the crystals when needed. Now she just pulls on them in the correct spot, trusting that they will disintegrate on their own. Taking a deep breath of the mana and qi laden air, she opens her connection to Database. Even though the odd construct made from qi and jade is in another dimension, she can see it as if it was in front of her.
The mental construct has a single starting point, a nexus through which all data flows. A point very similar to Drew… From that point, the web of information spreads. Each person working for her is there at the end of the web, connected to flows of data and feedback. Almost like a tree.
And just like that, the image of a tree is stuck in her mind. Unwillingly she finds other links. Like how a tree is sustained by its leaves, all identical and doing a small part of the whole. How the tree itself is still, but allows for a large amount of dynamic movement. The trunk is merely a vehicle through which the water and nutrients flow to the hard working leaves.
The fruits are also made by the leaves. Leaves come and go. The tree makes the whole while the leaves are transient, much like someone overseeing an operation with changing personnel. Even devoid of underlings - like a bare tree in winter - the supporting structure is there, recuperating until the next time it’s needed.
Amidst a swirling vortex of qi, mana and wind, crying inside at the injustice of it all, Rhea’s foundation is laid in the form of a majestic tree.
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