Chapter 16 - Tree
I love running. Pumping my legs to an internal rhythm while playing some music in my mind from memory. I can simply focus on moving my body to the beat and stop thinking for once. Squinting my eyes against the wind I take stock of my surroundings. I’m running over flat grasslands, going back south. I have left the road and made a detour around the inn. The sun has started peeking over the horizon, lighting up shards of fog still clinging to the grass.
I will need an artefact for the next step in my plan. I’m not talking about my priority list, that is just a global living guideline. The plan I’m working on right now is something that I never needed to do before. I don't have enough qi to enact it though, so I will have to fix that. I send more qi into my body and speed up, Lola is keeping up with ease.
Body cultivators - I call them heartcores - integrate their qi into their fleshy body. Mind cultivators or braincores like me have the biggest qi pools but their bodies are barely any stronger. I need to manually apply reinforcement to muscle groups in order to produce impressive feats of strength. Normal cultivators have their core in their dantian, I call them gutcores, and are a bit of both, able to produce magic combined with average strengthened physique. Qi users going the body cultivation route have the majority of their total qi locked inside their flesh, bones, skin and organs. This qi is not available for conscious usage by the cultivator, something I call structural- or deactivated qi. Heartcore cultivators can use a little bit of power to aid certain fighting skills, but they won't be performing any grand spell works anytime soon.
This all means that Lola in her normal state can beat the crap out of me. I need to rely on other tricks in order to beat someone like her. She might be stronger than me but if I suspend her in a network of qi wires she wouldn't have any leverage to reach me. This means any team of practitioners would ideally have at least one of each, that way they can compensate for each other’s weaknesses.
I break away from this train of thought when the forest comes into view again. Slowing down, I start a casual jog. A white flash passes just in front of me. A certain rabbit seems to be having fun jumping off of tree trunks like a ping-pong ball. I reach a recognizable clearing by the time I've started working up a slight sweat. Lola isn't even breathing harder. Stupid cheating horn-toting piece of adorable fluff…
I slow down even further as I detect various living beings in the clearing. I jump into a tree and traverse the last few meters to the edge of the woods jumping from branch to branch. I spot a colourful hodgepodge of wildlife chilling on the grass when I hear a snap and a squeak. Looking behind me, I see Lola tumbling down, taking a branch filled with square and purple leaves to the ground with her. Just as I want to scold the stupid thing for giving our position away, I feel a myriad of gazes peering at me.
The entire group of funky wildlife is staring at me. They don't do anything else, they don't even stand up. I blink my eyes a couple of times and drop to the ground. Their gazes follow me as I walk around the edge of the clearing, their necks and head the only thing moving. This is really weird, what is going on here.
On a whim, I simulate some fear. My eyes grow wide and my eyebrows reach for the sky as I observe a slow movingly blue vortex centred in the open space. Did I create a permanent mana phenomenon? How much am I fucking up this region? Are these animals going to become much stronger thanks to this mana hotspot?
I shake my head and decide to make the most of the situation. My core is running on fumes now, there is no liquid qi left in the tank, I used it all during my sprint. Looking over the animals, I find a path to the centre that is fairly unobstructed. I walk slowly through the horde of animals.
“Lola, come here for a bit.”
The white bunny slowly hops my way. I reach the clearing centre and sit down. I pat my leg and Lola nuzzles up to me. I grab her and place her in my lap. Looking her in the eyes, I take a deep breath, filtering out any mana before breathing it out. She seems to get the hint after a minute of demonstrative breathing and her nose starts twitching slower as she takes deeper breaths.
I breathe out the last of my qi, forming a circle around me.
‘DON'T TOUCH. JUST CHILL. BE COOL. DON'T COME OVER’
The thin circle of qi shimmers and changes slightly, settling on top of the grass. Closing my eyes, I re-enact the scene that happened here the day before yesterday. A swirl of mana starts gathering around me. I simulate all the emotions I have categorised so far, keeping an eye on the amount of elemental mana that is circling me. I could automate the emotions with mental processes, but that would leave me an emotionless husk. That would probably be the beginning of my second insanity episode.
I exert more mental force, forcing the mana to gather faster. I do some fine tuning, pulling on the wood element less, we are in a forest after all, and pulling harder on the rest. Taking deep breaths of the mana laden air I feel my core slowly filling up again. Sending some of the new qi into the vortex speeds up the process some more. A small part of my mind is keeping tabs on Lola, she seems to be getting the hang of it. Her breathing is getting deeper and slowing down even further. Can animals meditate? Is there an instinct that promotes peace of animal mind?
I shake my head and focus on my own breathing. The animals closest to me all stood up and moved back, creating a clear space around me. I can feel more animals from across the forest moving this way. Feeling the mana rush to my brain with every breath, I grasp all the qi in my core and squeeze. I form a minuscule drop that immediately gravitates towards my core, hugging it closely. The tornado raging around me grows even bigger, channelling more mana my way.
Just ten minutes later my core is full again. Packed to the brim with liquid qi. I keep on breathing mana, increasing the qi pressure. The moment I feel my core slowly growing I lose my grip on the mana swirling around me, causing it to fly away from my centrifugal grip. The bunny on my lap looks at me. I wash some qi over her body and see that her qi density has improved. My qi filled petting will be a lot less effective now. A few hours in the mana dense part of the clearing will allow her to form a solid core, but it's a bit early for that. Taking a last deep breath, I stand up and look around. An entire zoo worth of animals is staring at me. The blue bear I saw a few days ago is there too. Even weirder beasts have gathered now, I spot a green striped tiger with ant legs standing next to a monkey faced sheep.
Shaking my head for a third time, I walk towards the south. The animals slowly make a path, getting out of my way peacefully. Was I a beast tamer in a previous life? Maybe I got a cheat skill from a loli goddess when I entered the planet. Looking back and flaring some emotions I see that the faint mana tornado is still there. I look at it for a couple of seconds, measuring the mana density as precisely as I can. I sense the mana concentration vanishing extremely slowly. Extrapolating the data point lets me calculate that it will disappear in a few weeks. I will have to measure it again when I return to the city to improve this prediction.
A grey striped cat with shiny antlers steps out of my way and I'm free from the weird silent encirclement. Lola is timidly following me, shooting furtive glances everywhere. The moment I reach the trees I wave goodbye to the gathered mute group of beasts and start jogging again. Next destination, the mountains.
Another half hour of jogging later I reach the village. I skirt around it with a wide margin. Just as I am catching my stride again my qi radar finds an anomaly. A ridiculous mana hotspot has intruded on my senses. This couldn't be the tree, right? I increase my pace and reach my previous camping spot. At least, I reach what is left of my camping spot. The tree I used for shelter and simple conversation has grown twice its original width. It is also chock full of elemental mana.
An idea forms in my mind, maybe I don't need to go to the mountains after all. The tree was a mighty specimen when I found it first, now it seems to radiate a feeling of power, further enhancing its imposing size. It isn't leaking any power, but the circle I drew must have filled the tree to capacity, shifting its growth process into high gear. A smile forms on my face as I realise what I have to do.
I walk closer and place a hand on the trunk. The tree is indeed filled with mana. I sense some qi around the tree's base and find my mana gathering circle perfectly preserved inside the wood. My blood has dried up by now, but the tree has formed cavities around my drawing. The function of the circle seems to have transferred to these cavities, taking over the job as catalyst. I sink my consciousness into the tree and prepare.
Forcing the mana together one by one is not going to work, I can only keep one emotion in my mind at a time, else my mana sense becomes very blurry. I will have to do something slightly dangerous here.
Double checking all my understanding of this worlds elemental mana system, I make a nice little mental table.
There, isn't it nice to have things neatly organised? It’s probably not fully correct but it represents my own understanding of this system to the best of my abilities. Now for the dangerous part. I take a small chunk of my mind and divide it into ten pieces. Each piece gets a singular emotion assigned to it. I do it as quickly as I can, creating a new process that contains a timed self-destruct command as a safety measure. I feel my mind growing flatter with each emotion I lock up. This is not good for my mental health, so I should hurry.
The tree in front of me starts blazing in colours the moment I do this. First shades of green, then red, yellow, grey and blue. The proud rainbow tree is a truly magnificent sight. At least, it would be if I wasn't an emotionless calculator now. I feel wrong in the head, layers are stripped away and a cold frost starts coating my mind. I immediately command all the mana in the tree to merge, using my locked up emotions as a focus. I feel resistance and the mana slips my grasp.
With an unintelligible shout, I rip the emotional cluster apart, warmth and a bigger perspective filling my head once again. That was very uncomfortable. I feel something poking my leg and a glance down shows me a freaking out Lola. I pet her a bit, calming down from that ordeal.
“Haaah, that was not pleasant. Maybe I should ask first?”
Scratching the fur ball between the ears I place my hand on the tree again and inject some qi.
“Yo, tree, let me do my thing for a bit. You’ll love it, I promise.”
I feel something like grateful anger?
“Yeah, I should have asked first. But have I ever done anything bad to you?”
I send some indignant vibes the trees’ way. In response, I get a deep sense of loneliness. Must be hard being the only slightly sentient tree in the entire forest.
“I know it's hard to imagine, but would you like to see some other places?”
I get a feeling of confusion back. Never talk to trees about places other than its own spot in the forest. I have a fix for that though. I focus and send images to the tree. Images of wonders such as the glowing tower being lit up by the rising sun. Images of mountains, rivers, man-made wonders from another planet. I simply flood the poor perennial plant with a mind-boggling array of sights, from this world and the previous.
The tree goes completely silent. It seems to be thinking on a very deep level.
“Did I break you? Don't think too hard about it, kay? Let me do this one thing and you will understand”
More silence. I sense movement below me and see Lola nuzzling the tree. Her head is glowing faintly, sending some qi into the air and the tree. I sense some form of communication of a much more primal level going on. It seems like a week old rabbit and a smart tree are at the same level of consciousness, neat!
This conversation goes on for a few minutes. I can only vaguely sense intent being sent both ways. Then the tree opens up to me. I don't know what Lola said but it was very effective, the tree reveals its all, laying itself bare under my hands.
“Thanks to both of you. This might feel uncomfortable, but bear with it for a bit.”
I immediately get to work. The moment I have my emotions locked away I roar at the mana inside the tree.
‘MERGE YOU FUCKING INGRATES. GET TOGETHER. LIGHT AND DARK, THEN ALL TOGETHER YOU SHITTY EXCUSE FOR A MAGICAL SOURCE.’
Then the tree explodes in a haze of light. A massive wave of newly formed qi careens away from the glowing bark. My spiritual sense expands upwards, riding the cresting qi wave. I let it expand for a bit before exerting my control. I pull all of it back into the tree, letting it settle inside each branch and leaf. With relief, I free my emotions again while gritting my teeth.
“Hold onto your horses, this is going to be difficult!”
I take every speck of qi under my control. I freeze it in place, keeping it stationary on a molecular level. Then I squeeze. The tree shudders and I get showered in leaves. A pressure starts building in my mind, and I pump a quarter of my liquid qi into my brain, spinning it around. With improved mental faculties I squeeze again. I force each bit of qi closer together, instead of pushing from the outside I force every particle to the middle of the tree at once while keeping their relative positions the same, only decreasing the distance between every particle.
The tree continues to shudder but I start to feel the molecules giving way. Pain starts blooming in my mind but I keep on squeezing. I’m basically trying to make the tree smaller from the inside out. Locking the internal qi into a grid causes it to latch on to the nearest atomic particle. Bringing my qi closer together all at once then drags these molecules along. I just formed this qi, so it's mine to control. I believe this, and thus it is so. Firming my conviction, I push it all together at once while I funnel some more qi into my brain. The tree starts shuddering for real now, its molecules want to escape this suffocating grip but I don't let them. I feel something wet flow over my lips but ignore my bleeding nose the best I can.
Slowly but surely the tree starts giving way to my will and belief. The tree seems to dance in place, jumping around under the internal stresses. I have half of my qi swirling through my head by the time the tree has halved in size. It slowly shrinks under my iron-willed command. I trickle more qi into my head only when the pain starts distracting me from my work. I got it to a quarter of its original size now and have three-quarters of my qi pounding through my mind. All my other senses fade away as I focus solely on the tree. Something snaps and the trees physical form pushes back a little less.
The tree is a hand span big half an hour later. It feels like I’ve been at this for years though. The physical density of the compressed tree is starting to reach a limit. Molecules are made up of loads of empty space, but compressing them like this is not natural and thus not easy. I will have to squeeze this tree enough to start nearing its Schwarzschild radius. I need to get this thing to black hole levels of compactness.
Physical laws are funny things. On earth, these things are like absolutes. No matter how hard you try, things will fall down just short of ten meters per second per second until terminal velocity is reached near sea level. No amounts of wishful thinking, yelling or technology is going to change that. It does all change when you bring magic into the mix. Physical laws become suggestions when you have the power to flatten mountain ranges and change a planetoid’s orbit using qi. The thing I’m currently suggesting to the laws of this universe is that this tree doesn't fit. There is too much tree in too small a space.
With a pop, the tree shrinks down to a few centimetres. Its roots have long since been pulled from the ground and a complete miniature tree is floating in front of my face. I can't sense any power emanating from it, it seems like a delicately made model. Sending my spiritual sense into the wood tells me a different story. The entire tree is still there, but also not there. The universe gave way to my idea and transported the majority of said tree to its own little space. Peeking inside shows me a white glowing tree hanging in a dark void. I take the small thing in my hands.
“I’ll send you some earth”
I scoop up a hand of loose dirt, letting it fall inside the tree. Similar to my spatial ring and taming necklace, inside the small model exists a little spatial pocket that I can send stuff into. The dirt splatters all over its glowing branches. The clods of earth fall down hesitatingly, clinging to the tree’s roots. With a tired smile on my face, I start scooping up big loads of earth, sending it inside the pocket dimension. Looking inside I see the tree starting to acclimatize to its new surroundings. The mana gathering circle is now being used as a qi making factory. I tiredly feel some emotions and see colourful swirls of mana rushing into the necklace. This will slow down once the entire space inside is saturated.
I look around and see Lola staring wide-eyed at me from a couple of meters back. I grin and continue scooping dirt on the miniature. I feel exhausted by the time the tree has enough dirt to cover up its roots. I look at the hole the tree left behind, now getting deeper by my hands. Five meters down I send qi into the surrounding earth. I manipulate it to form a little cave, leaving a little entrance for Lola and compressing the walls to prevent it from collapsing. I put the tree on the ground and form a slab on the opposite side of the little room. With a satisfied smile, I lay myself down and sleep.
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