Chapter 152 - Scoring
“Vox, I still don’t get what the purpose of this mission is,” Rodrick grumbles as he rubs the tablecloth between his fingers. The big beastman had travelled in upper beastkin societies now and then, but never had he come across cloth so fine and smooth. Even his glowing, qi enhanced eyes fail to make out the threadcount.
“That’s dungeon won cloth from the Peak Dungeon, very expensive. That piece could feed a normal family for years,” Vox replies as he looks around. He seriously considers stopping Green from stuffing her ring full with expensive objects for a moment, but he decides that he doesn't really care.
The redhead is lounging on a chair so ornate it might as well be a throne. His parents are standing nearby, his mother fidgeting nervously while his father is trying very hard not to explode with anger. Servants are running back and forth, placing chests and bags in a large pile.
This entire scene is happening in the mansion’s main dining room. It is not the biggest dining room - and the mansion has quite a few of those - but it is the most ornate one. Vox stands up and lazily walks over to the growing pile of valuables. He picks up a sword and inspects it closely before tossing it aside.
“Bring any mana crystals and all the weapons and armour, leave the gold and jewels.” The servants bow and hurry away again as they scurry to the storage cellars. “Also bring the finest furniture for my inspection!” He shouts after the retreating humans.
“Voxander, please, what’s gotten into you. I’m so happy that you’re back but why...” His mother is still rather pale, her usually shrewd facade replaced by genuine confusion and worry about these unusual circumstances.
“No need to worry mother. You and father could have sent assassins after me. I’m sure that you knew I was living in Tower City, but you failed to act upon that knowledge. For that, I am thankful and will leave you unharmed, as I was taught. Always repay kindness with kindness and insult with worse. You did take that life from me, so I’m merely demanding a small compensation.”
Green sidles up to Rodrick, who is inspecting an ornate battleaxe. “Why is he talking funny? Do you get what’s going on? Do you need that, because it looks expensive.” Green feverishly looks at the growing pile of valuables.
Rodrick drops the fancy but unwieldy axe while snorting as he runs a finger along the axe on his belt. Green grabs the sparkly tool and holds it for a second. She drops it with a heartbroken expression on her face. “Driiickyyyy. My ring is fuuuullll. Please carry this stuff for me?”
Vox ignores the two bickering bone cultivators and inspects the chests the servants are bringing in. “Where are the heirlooms, father? I know supplying healer stock to the white mages of Wave Island pays well. Where are those weapons you are so proud of.”
Vox studies his father as he taunts him with slow and clearly pronounced words. The man has a meticulously trimmed beard, perfectly quaffed and oiled, combined with tightly combed hair, half of it still retaining its original red colouration. His face is an oddly fitting combination of red and white as he keeps glaring at his son in silence.
Vox shrugs and closes his eyes. White sparkling mist flows out of his mouth, spreading into near-invisible thinness as he covers the entire building in activated qi. Every single person inside the mansion, from lowest slave to head of the household, freezes in place as they suddenly feel oddly healthy.
“Rodrick, could you smash that wall over there?” Vox asks.
Rodrick turns to the wall, only seeing white stone and ornate gold covered decorations. He pulls the axe from his belt, looks between wall and axe a few times before grabbing a gem-encrusted hammer from the pile. His bones glow as he swings, preparing to absorb the shock of hitting solid stone. The hammer sinks into the wall without much resistance, however, throwing plaster, paint, and wooden splinters everywhere. The thin metal sheet reinforcing the facade crumbles with a loud racket.
“More treasure? Let’s go in!” Green says gleefully as she drops an armload of gold to the ground. She yelps in surprise as Vox grabs her by her dress, stopping her from entering the hole. Instead of reacting to her indignant questions, Vox picks up a chair and throws it into the dark tunnel that was revealed. His father visibly deflates as the chair is pierced by a combination of steel arrows and falling blades.
Vox takes another chair and gingerly manoeuvres through the trap-filled secret tunnel. The limitation that Teach imposed on raw qi prevents him from scanning the place with much precision, but he manages to sense a lot of hollow sections in the stonework tunnel. “Take some more furniture. It’s pretty long.”
Rodrick follows Vox’s example, also putting chairs, tables, and benches in his ring before following after the redhead. They make their way through the tunnel, tossing random furniture ahead to spring every trap they come across. They end up in front of a large steel door, its meticulous appearance clashing with the spiderweb encrusted stone.
“Try chopping it with your axe?”
“Steel against steel won't do much good,” Rodrick clutches the implement protectively.
“That’s no longer normal steel. Don’t you sense the structural qi inside it?” Vox puts a hand to the door. “And this is just cast iron with a polish.”
Rodrick blinks and takes a closer look at his axe. His eyes grow wide as he consciously senses the embedded qi inside the object for the first time. Still hesitating slightly, he chops at the metal door. His axe cuts through the solid metal door like butter.
Vox realises that the feeling of Rodrick’s axe is similar to the sensation he got when Teach showed them progressively heavier qi intents. The redhead remembers that lesson very well, the feeling of mutable power sticking clear in his mind. His teacher started at the simplest of sword intents, evolving it step by step into a mind-bending form of cutting power before Vox lost track of the energetic evolution. Rodrick’s axe has a feeling of sharpness to it similar to the pure cutting intent Teach put on display. The big beastkin does not seem to be aware of this, leading Vox to believe that a bone cultivation is similar to a heartcore in terms of instinct.
A few chops later Rodrick has made a hole big enough to fit through, and they both peer through. A perfectly white room filled with obnoxiously white and shimmering weaponry and several chests are visible. Vox sighs and rubs his eyes.
“Ooh, shiny! Those weapons must be worth a lot,” says Green.
“No. It’s normal steel with embedded light mana crystals. Pretty but useless, I think. Why would the mages give away good quality weapons?” Vox goes through the room, putting everything inside his ring. “Let’s return. I want to go home.”
Rodrick and Green look at each other with a slight worry in their eyes as they follow the dejected Vox back into the room. Vox freezes the moment he steps back into the dining area. He sees his parents and all the servants on their knees, bowing towards another intruder.
A wave of power smashes into Vox, activated qi filled with bloodlust and a majestic aura fighting with his will.
‘Kneel. You should kneel. Kneel now. Why are you not kneeling? It is only natural and right to knee-’
A shout breaks the spell. Vox blinks and sees Rodrick standing to the side, his axe held low. A line runs from his axe, crossing half the room between Vox and the black-clad intruder.
“Hey, it’s the king! Hey King! How are you?” Green waves at the person clad entirely in black. The figure startles before pulling off his hood.
“Dungeon fucked dragons. What in all hells is going on here?”
Vox swirls all his qi through his brain, trying to figure out what was going on. The world slows down a bit as he takes in the situation. He had changed his cultivation base to a gutcore only fairly recently. Recultivating goes faster each time, Vox has found, but he still only managed to reach the top of the qi condensing stage. The king feels equally powerful as him, explaining why he was holding on when the man tried to get him to bend through his qi powered aura.
Then Rodrick must have cut the tension somehow? Even Rodrick seems slightly confused at what happened judging from the way he is curiously studying his axe. The qi swirling through Vox's brain enhances his thinking capacity some, but it's also giving him a headache. Something about the structural qi in his brain does not play right with the qi under his control.
“Hey, king. I just told my mom and dad about you. You know, the mom and dad that abandoned me in a forest when I was a child because I grew some scales. We will be out of your hair soon, don’t worry.” Vox shrugs as he pulls up his shirt. Rodrick and Green stare at the speckling of white scales on his stomach with eyes the size of dinner plates.
The king takes in everything, from the kneeling servants to the two nobles and the large pile of valuables. He then nods. “That fucker did tell me to expect shit. Ah well. By the right given to me as Defender of the Kingdom and Chosen of the Flight, I hereby forbid everyone present from speaking of these events. You three, please follow.”
And the ninja wannabe strolls out of the room. Vox casts a final glance towards his parents, sighing as he sees that his father pissed himself and his mother fainted again. He then walks up to one of the still kneeling servants and taps him on the shoulder. “Mattik, want to go do something else?”
The startled young man stops trembling on the floor as he looks up. He then nods tearfully as he sees Vox’s gently smiling face. “My sister?”
“Later.” The two nod and Vox helps him up before strolling out of the room. Vox stops when he reaches the king, who is showing obvious signs of irritation.
“Why do you mutant shitbrained asswipes think it’s a good idea to sow chaos in my city like this? First dozens of darkly garbed infiltrators led by the airheaded dragon, and now I hear reports of a beastkin and a savage strolling through the noble district like they own the place...”
The king tries and fails to maintain his anger. He then smacks his hands to his face. “Why is that Teach guy such an asshole? I can't even stay angry. It’s all so insignificant in the face of...” Unable to finish the sentence, the King of an entire Empire stares at nothing with empty eyes.
Vox nods. “Yeah, I get it. Database, Teach, cultivation, it's just such an immense… thing. It’s like we don’t matter at all and are just specks of dust, you know. It helps if you focus on gathering power and knowledge, saying to yourself that even if it’s just a grain of sand a day, eventually, I too will become a mountain. Did you check the section about lifespans yet?”
The king looks confused, so Vox hands him a small green stone. The king starts smiling radiantly after he puts it to his forehead. “Oh... Oh… Hahaha, this changes things. I think I will strive to become a mountain too. Maybe even a range of mountains. Maybe even an entire world!“ Vox and the king both start chuckling. “Thank you boy. I needed that,” replies the monarch of the human realm.
The king then schools his face back into the visage of a ruler. “Vox, is it? The nobles, including your parents, have grasped these turbulent times as opportunities to hoard more power. My grandfather started this slope downwards by giving in to their demands for short-term benefits. I intend to revert this change. But I can’t do this alone.”
“You royals never should have given up the sole rights to the food dungeon.”
“I know that full well, but I'm powerless to stop it. The only thing preventing those leeches from sucking this kingdom dry is their infighting. What currency is needed inside Tree?”
Vox, understanding where the king is going with this, also puts on his game-face. “Mana crystals, mostly. Raw materials in bulk would be useful, but dirt and gravel do not make for good currencies. Gold and jewels are useless.”
The king nods while thinking deeply. “Crystals I can do, aye. Tell me, how does Teach recruit? I only saw a single dissenting element in all the beings in Tree. How does he do this?”
“Selective kidnapping, I think. Reading a person's aura is easy if you focus hard enough. My parents feel… like slimy naked steel. Not malignant per se...” Vox is visibly uncomfortable as he accuses his own parents of being pieces of shit. His eyes ask for understanding, which the Defender of the Human Kingdoms seems to grant.
“I understand. That’s why my court has been smelling so foul lately. Their aura, hmm. I can work with that.” The king looks distracted for a moment, glancing at Rodrick and Green standing behind Vox. His gaze skims across the rings on each of their fingers until he sees the cowering servant besides Vox. The king raises a single eyebrow.
“An old friend. And my ticket to more points.” Vox winks. “Where's Merin?”
Mattik cowers but manages to mumble a reply. “She was sent to the castle a month ago.”
The king snaps his fingers. “That is unfortunate, but might be good. I want to stage a coup.”
“But… Aren’t you the king? And what do you mean, unfortunate? Why is that unfortunate?” Vox replies.
“Only the upper nobles - and those forced to serve inside it - know about the food dungeon. The fact that the delvers can choose between mana crystals and food is something even the mages don’t know. You will not let him out of your sight until he has a ring.”
Vox is taken slightly back at the commanding tone but nods anyway. “Then it’s a good thing I’ve got a sound barrier going. My parents would have loved to hear that bit of news, I reckon,” Vox replies with a smirk.
The king turns and sees a mane of grey and red hair peeking around the corner. “You win this one, young man. Here...” He hands Vox a green coin, a simple face with a circle on its forehead is engraved in the translucent stone. “I’ve put a proposal inside this. Please hand it over to Teach.”
Vox puts it to his forehead and smiles. “I accept. This is going to be fun. Come Rodrick, Green, and Mattik. We will take a detour through the royal castle before heading home.”
The king sputters a bit but is unable to stop Vox as he marches back into the dining room, pulls all the containers containing mana crystals into his ring, and marches away from the mansion.
“Shouldn't you say goodbye to your parents?” Rodrick asks. “They're still family.”
Vox takes in a deep breath as he looks over the garden. He should be feeling some form of relief, but any positive feelings are spoiled by the sight of an entire army of sleeping guards. More than a few are in varying states of undress. None of the higher ranked officers still have their gold-rimmed breastplates on, and a single guard is entirely naked. Vox glances at Green, who is pointedly looking everywhere but at her own handiwork.
The relief Vox expected at finally closing the gaping wound that his abandonment caused is not there. Did he handle the situation correctly, he ponders? What could he have done differently?
For a brief moment, Vox laments that he has a gutcore. Heartcore him wouldn't care about complicated questions like that and braincore him would have been able to calculate the optimal outcome.
Vox takes a deep breath and decides to start thinking about more important stuff. He looks between Rodrick and the King. Rodrick has muscles but the king is… you know… a king. Vox licks his lips as his thoughts go down an entirely different path.
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