Chapter 151 - Conversation
In a place made up out of nothing but blue sky and obscuring clouds, a girl is falling. Black hair is whipping in the wind. She has her eyes closed and a serene expression is expressed on her pale face. Her arms are outstretched, and her fingers wiggle as if she is trying to feel for a way to grasp the wind slipping through her digits. She takes a deep breath in - only slightly hampered by the fact that she is falling at terminal velocity - and breathes out.
Fog blacker than midnight blooms from her back as it travels along her face and neck. The swirling blackness shapes into two long forms as they coalesce into wings. Her arms and legs are drawn downwards as her torso suddenly gains a large amount of wind resistance. For a few moments, it seems like she will remain stable, only for her to tumble sideways while shrieking seconds later.
She tumbles through the air, rapidly approaching a thick cloud bank. Instead of soaring through the fog-like obstacle, she smashes into it face first, sinking a few meters into the softly textured floor. She stands up on wobbly legs and starts looking upwards. She gently puts an elegant hand to her mouth before shouting in a thunderous volume.
“KETTY! TELL ME HOW TO DUNGEON-FUCKING FLY ALREADY!”
A boy embraced by a chaotic swirl of flat pieces of metal soars through the clouds and into view. He looks down on her like an immortal being, a cold sneer on his lips as he casts cold eyes downwards.
“No... Tessy... figure it out for yourself.” And he flies off, large sheets of metal flapping the air.
Tess takes a deep breath while looking down. Her clenched fists tremble as veins pop out on her forehead. “Ow... wait a minute. Why should I bother with wings?”
Her previous anger forgotten, she now frowns while she looks at her hands. “Bored and unsure…” One hand becomes black and smokey. “Happiness? Being at peace, was it?. OI KET!" She shouts at thunderous volumes once again, shaking the very clouds she is standing upon. "WHAT ARE THE GOOD LIGHT MANA EMOTIONS?!”
Ket pops out of a cloud. “Contentment and overconfidence! I think that’s why Danarius is such a happy go lucky guy, but still manages to be a condescending asshole.” The clouds around him swirl as he moves the metal around, while the fog swallows him up again.
“Content and conceit. Hmmh.” Her other hand flickers with some flashes of light, pinpricks of brightness that shine red through her skin. She looks between both hands with a thoughtful expression on her face. She then shakes her head again as if freeing herself from a trance. “Not mana, qi. And there is something here. It is both or in-between?”
“STOP TALKING TO YOURSELF, WEIRDO!” she hears a shout from above.
Hiding her smile, Tess starts jumping up and down. Her legs and arms shake and dissolve in uncoordinated ways each time she launches herself upwards. Ket pops his head out of the clouds again, confusion plastered on his face. He shrugs and starts flying around the dungeon floor.
The twenty-fifth level of the Tower Dungeon is an odd one. Dark blue sky and clouds as far as the eye can see, the floor seems endless at first glance. But, as Tess so aptly demonstrated, there are definite limits to its seeming endlessness.
Ket looks upwards, spinning half of the plates around him in the opposite direction of the other half. A good quarter of his solid braincore is dedicated to calculating the needed movements for flight. The irregularly shaped flat pieces of metal at his disposal only help complicate the required calculations. His first attempts at free flight took up all his thinking capacity and then some, before he designed a few efficient formulas and simulation models.
He has the plates arranged in two clusters, each spinning around him. Changing the angle of deflection in allows him to move as free as a bird. The order for regularly shaped metal wing segments is already being produced by Database. He only needs to wait for them to be finished and go pick them up. Ket considers the the option of making the delivery a mission, but decides that it isn't worth the point cost.
He halts at the upper cloud limit that bars his way, an irregular barrier of soft but unyielding fluff.
“Hey Ket, I finally figured it out.” He turns to see a beaming Tess hovering in the air. Her entire form flickers black multiple times a second, causing Ket’s eyes to hurt and water slightly.
“Are you making small shadow jumps?”
Tess nods enthusiastically. “Yeah.”
“Let’s get going then.” And the two fly off towards the dark stairwell suspended in a solid looking cloud. They silently land, and walk down the narrow stairs. They step out onto slowly moving water.
“This floor is still super weird,” Tess says as she looks around. Dark blue water forms walls, floor and ceiling, slow ripples moving across the surface.
“Agreed. The swimming birds don’t help...” Ket stares at a duck-like creature with a complicated look on his face. The happily quacking fowl is swimming on the ceiling, leaving ripples in its wake while seemingly ignoring gravity. Ket sighs and flicks his finger at the beast, exploding it in a red feathery mist.
“That’s a bit overkill, no?” Tess asks while avoiding the expanding red stain. She suddenly stops. “I got all distracted! Damn. Ket, what the hell? Who were those kids? What the fuck dude...”
Ket sighs again. “Uuhm, no time to talk about that. Enemies.” He points deeper into the tunnel, where a large gathering of swimming birds approaches them from an ample open space. Tess rolls her eyes and disappears in a dark flash. A black streak travels across the crowd of beasts, and Tess is standing in front of Ket again, her figure framed by the slow toppling of many bird heads.
“Alright… I was helped by a baggage carrier when I was younger, okay? It only seemed right to pay it forward.” The duo keeps walking through the dark watery hallways, fighting the enemies with contemptuous ease.
“What happened to him?” Tess asks after a long period of violent silence. They reach the stairs to the next floor before Ket answers.
“He… You know. What always happens to baggage carriers.” They fall silent again as they step onto the next floor. The stairs end in caves made from wood, bark adorning the walls instead of stone, with smooth wooden floors.
“Okay. Let’s fix it. We’ve got the power now. No need for any more of those type of stories.” Tess wipes plant sap from her fist as she kicks the wilting leaf construct aside. Each large room has plants and leaves littered everywhere that transform into plant monsters when they detect movement.
“That was my plan, yes. Thanks...” Ket manages to cut through half of the vegetation in the next room before they start wrapping themselves into monster form. The remaining plants immediately charge at them instead of cautiously feeling them out, as if enraged by Ket’s pruning.
“So what’s the plan anyway? We’ve got a location and some recruits. What do we do when they wake up?”
“We will check what their forms of cultivation are first of all. Who knows what form their bases will take, thanks to a certain girl interrupting my speech.”
Tess grins at him. “Telling them to form cores would have been so boring! I want to know what new minds can do with qi. Ferah and Rodrick did other stuff, Teach always tells us to find our own path, but I think that even the cores are part of someone else's path. I think I’ll cultivate something new when I reach foundation. Teach keeps telling us to innovate, but even he seems trapped in this core-centric framework.”
The two cultivators speed through the dark floors while chatting, only pausing at the sight of a large two-headed dog.
“Wow, floor thirty already. This is a lot easier now., Tess says while stretching.
“We are many, many times stronger than the first time Teach forced us to fight here. You might have a good point, about the core locations. Teach has a lot of books about his previous world on Database, and everything I read about that place indicates that it is millions of years old. I think that world also took a path, making core cultivation the only viable options after many millennia of people thinking like that.”
Tess takes a sprinter’s position, disappears into fog and reappears a second later. She drops the large still beating heart to the floor, shaking her hand free of the warm blood. The large dog tilts both heads before crumpling into a sad pile without any external wounds.
“I too did some research, and reaching the foundation levels should take ten years at the minimum. Our cultivation speed is not normal. Also, I think we shouldn’t start the process of locking Tree into thinking that cores are the only possible way to cultivate.”
Ket kicks at the dog a bit while closing his eyes. Tess blinks, and the dog immediately disappears when unobserved, causing Ket to stumble as his foot does not find the resistance it expected. “Okay, I can agree with that. Let’s hurry up, we need to speed up if we want to return by the time the kids wake up.”
“Why hurry? They can’t leave the building. We reinforced and locked it pretty tightly.”
Ket shakes his head. “They would have found a way to escape without qi. Now that they are fledgling cultivators, who knows what they will do if they wake up with us gone.”
Tess pales and starts running. “They are new cultivators. They will expel impurities. Oh, gods. And they will be stuck in an enclosed space, oh dungeons, the smell.”
“No worries, I also modified the toilet. They can dump their impurities there.” Ket reassures her while keeping pace.
“Heartcores sweat it out, did you prepare an impurity cleaning bath? I thought not. What are impurities anyway?”
Ket slaps his forehead. “And Ferah pissed out her impurities. Okay, let’s get a move on. I analysed a sample, and it’s made up of the same stuff our bodies are made from; water, carbon, proteins, some other stuff. I couldn't explain why it looks and smells so terrible though.”
“Hmm, so what Teach said about turning our bodies into energy is actually correct? That’s pretty neat,” Tess muses as she casually punches and kicks some of the dungeon mobs. “Ket, do you know what they mean with those heavenly laws I read about? There should be lightning when stepping into the foundation realm, but Teach didn’t get any.”
Ket also punches and kicks the beasts approaching him, the cloud of metal fragments hanging unused and motionless above him as the braincore cultivator expands his physical energy. “Not sure. The most likely scenario is that the first cultivator that ascended back then put them in place to prevent a large amount of potential competition. That seems like something those guys would do. Anyway, wanna race?”
Tess and Ket lock gazes, barely able to see the other in the darkness of the nocturnal dungeon. “Deal,” Tess replies with fire in her eyes.
Any other conversational topics are forgotten as they focus on clearing the floors as fast as possible. Tess gains a lead in both speed and body count at first, her enhanced physique winning from Ket’s weaker frame. This changes when Tess uses a bit of dark qi to reach a mob before Ket. Having seen her use of power, Ket starts directing his mental and metal arsenal to great effect.
They tear through the floors, Tess a streak of blackness, leaving decapitated heads in her wake. Ket is a metal storm, loud clanging noises warning the monsters of their impending change into minced meat as he flings the metal around.
Their previous record - floor forty - is reached and passed without much note. The two slow down by floor sixty, more in order to conserve qi than because of the dungeon’s difficulty. Floor seventy is reached while their speed drops further. Tess has started using her rapier in order to deliver pinpoint precision lethal strikes while Ket is employing his steel needles to the same effect.
Their mad dungeon rush stops on the eighty-second floor. Ket and Tess stand on a small stone platform, overlooking a bubbling sea of green sludge. Ket drops a piece of metal inside, only for it to dissolve in seconds. Tess flickers black, only to emerge with panic on her face, and a finger that’s rapidly growing green and black.
“Shit-fuck-ow-this-hurts.” Tess spouts in a panic. Ket’s eyes grow grey before a shining plate cleaves the corrupted digit from her hand.
“Ow, wow...” Tess mumbles softly as she looks at her missing pointy finger with a pale face. Her separated finger falls to the stone platform, sizzling into a small green puddle and eating a hole through the stone.
“We need Selis,” Ket mumbles to himself while frantically pulling bandages from his ring.
A few minutes later, Tess is scratching at her bandaged limb while Ket keeps slapping her undamaged hand away. “Stop scratching it.”
“But it’s itching! Regrowing bone really sucks,” Tess pouts.
“Better that than to have your entire hand melted.” Ket retorts.
“We need Selis,” Tess sulks.
The two look out over the endless sea of poisonous acid and sigh.
“Let’s get going. It will be dawn in an hour or so.” Ket says while standing up. He holds out a hand to Tess who reluctantly grabs it. “Come on, losing a finger isn't so bad. Bord lost more than that, and he grew it back without any problems.”
“No… It’s just... ” Tess stops talking while they walk back up the stairs.
“What?” Ket asks.
“It just dawned on me that we went to Tower City in order to have some alone time.” Both grow red while avoiding eye contact.
“Well… I know a place...” Ket haltingly suggests.
“You know a place? How much time we got?”
“At least two hours.”
And the two speed off, this time hurrying for a whole different reason.
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