Chapter 161 - Front
“Drew, wake up. I think we’re here.”
“I’m always here - where else should I be?” I blurt out. I appear to have slept. But I never sleep. The nightmares always come. But there were none? No sights of that long night of torture, those faces and the begging… I'm painfully reminded of the fact that I've still not found any suitable form of coffee plant.
The disorientation of sleep fades, and I remember crafting rings until my augur was exhausted. And then that draconic succubus sucked out any remaining energy I had left. “Okay, I’m up. What’s going on?”
“Your prediction was pretty accurate. It’s a good thing I set the foresail though, they look to be running out of juice. Casualties seem to be on the low end. Well, all the mages in the Gulf of Sentience have gathered over there, so they ought to pack a punch.”
I stumble from the large bed and make my way towards the front of the boat. I rub my eyes and am surprised to find grainy crust between my fingers. Sleep sand, now that’s a while since that's happened. I put it in my ring and look up. I ignore that a foresail isn't used on a modern-design boat. I think the correct term is staysail, but correcting her is not important right now.
Rhea is standing on the bow’s pulpit, stretching in order to see farther. I follow her gaze and see the black stone of the Mana Dungeon reflecting a steady stream of colourful lights. A thunderous column of dark clouds hangs high in the sky, casting the entire dungeon in dark shadows. The entire sight has me on edge, something about it feels wrong to me. The dome of reflective obsidian is just as massive as I remember it. The Tower’s base is half a kilometre wide and a dozen high, but the Mana Dungeon’s diameter of just over a kilometre makes it look a lot bigger and a lot more imposing.
The buildings stuck to the side of the glossy sphere are all gone, probably wiped away by the constant assault of sea creatures. Remnants of walls jut from the lower areas of the surface here and there. Yellow and brown glowing spots on top of the dungeon are a sign of new construction work being done. The previously barren top is now a bustling and overpopulated warren of activity ringed by crenellated walls, their roughness and imperfections telling of quick rather than pretty work.
The mage forces seem to be holding steady for now - they are holding off the attacking mutants with admirable efficiency - so there is no need to swoop in like some sort of hero just yet. I query Database for any information relevant to power rankings and start observing the slow siege happening in the distance.
My first observation is that the amount of aquatic mutants present is less than I had predicted. The most likely reason is that the stunt I pulled at the Parduuk islands diverted a portion of those forces. We left most of them behind in our trek northwards, but the slower and bigger mutants should arrive here in a day or so.
Next, I observe the ranking system of the mages. A bit of qi in my eyes allows me to make out individuals even from this great distance, letting me conclude that the mages with brightly coloured robes are the most powerful. A grey-brown clad mage is slowly working mud into a new section of wall. A mage clad in a more vibrant shade of yellow does the same amount of work in seconds instead of minutes.
Let’s see, an apprentice mage - capable of lighting a candle or similar small feats - would be classified similarly as a private or corporal - a soldier with a good weapon and some training. Next up, a sergeant is similar to a journeymage, a professionally trained soldier with full combat gear.
Comparing a dude with a metal stick and a wielder of magical arts is somewhat like comparing apples and oranges though. This ranking system seems to only look at effectiveness, basically comparing calories or kill capacity. A colonel - a highly skilled soldier - has theoretically the same combat effectiveness as a master mage. They are both capable of eliminating a large house filled with peasants before running out of energy.
The fact that the mage could do it again after a short meditation session but that the soldier would need a lot more rest is helpfully ignored here.
Then there are the majors and full mages. Both capable of wiping out a small town on their own. A commodore would be the best fighter of a large city and could, theoretically, destroy that city, just like a grand mage could.
Like that makes any fucking sense! I ignore my burgeoning headache and check the toprank. A general or high mage, either an invincible weapons master or the highest tier of mage. Right…
A chicken could blow up an entire kingdom if they have a nuke, for fuck's sake. How do I translate this ranking system into my students and cultivation, then? I can’t use punching power as a measuring stick, physical cultivators would come out on top.
A normal human body contains a dozen kilograms of combustible material, somewhere in between gasoline and TNT. But no, I can't use that metric as a measurement either, fat contains more calories than muscle, after all. Sensing the amount of qi inside a person is only good for measuring my students, mages command the mana in the air instead of taking it for themselves.
Okay, I give up. I don’t want to automate this problem without determining a clear measuring method first because this looks like one of those tricky issues that will just give out loads of useless data if I let a process handle it. Let’s just use subjective destructive power then, the dumbest way to measure strength.
I look over at the mages and see one blue-clad example stand on a raised platform, his hand in the air. One platform over, stands a purple mage, also his hands in the air. Wait, upon closer inspection, that purple one is a woman.
They are the brightest mages I currently see, and counting all the different shades of robes that are duller leads me to the conclusion that the two are high mages. They wave their hands some more, and I can actually feel the fear and loathing radiating from the duo all the way over here. Then lightning cracks down from the dark clouds, frying and cooking a fifty-meter long sea slug that was crawling up the side of the dungeon.
“Any theories on why this is happening?” asks Rhea as she looks away from the spectacle.
“Nope. The Tower, Peak, and the capital dungeons are normal. The Tower hasn’t changed its internals even though it snapped in half and is still spewing qi. This one seems different though, feels different too. Check the entrance.” I point at the small space where the dark stone of the dungeon opens up into a dark tunnel. I see elemental monsters make their way out of the dark shaft now and then. The mutants seem oddly indifferent to the creatures, only trampling over them when they get underfoot.
All the escaping dungeon creatures seem to be from around the sixtieth level. I also notice that some creatures have crystals jutting from their bodies. I already suspected that the mana crystals on the ceiling of the Dungeon acted like some sort of power supply, those creatures must have gotten their hands on their own crystals somehow.
It's interesting to see all of this with my own eyes. The spy drone hanging above this place got worse and worse reception, probably due to the rising mana levels and developing storm. I lost the visual feed a day ago, only receiving the much less interference-prone positioning and status data. The drone is hanging above me right now, its connection strong due to my proximity. The visuals are still a garbled mess though. Something I will need to address in a future redesign.
I assign Database two tasks. The research into mana disturbances will take a while, so I give the other task - measuring and ranking mages - priority. With a slight pain in my heart, I set it to measure raw combat effectiveness instead of any proper measuring metric. I keep looking at the fight happening on top of the mana dungeon while feeding the visuals into Database and checking on its progress.
“Why does it feel like you?” Rhea asks me. I turn and see her staring at me with a ponderous expression on her face. “Underground. Try sensing through the mass of mana, under the Dungeon.”
I follow her pointed finger and start staring at the sea. Then I sense myself. My own power, seeping into the ground. “Shiiiiiiiiit.” I mentally curse at my negligence. The Tower is venting its produced power upwards, right into my qi containment formation. I don’t really know why, because I didn’t sense it venting mana, the energy it must have been producing previously. But the Mana Dungeon has a different shape, and I thusly conclude it must be venting its mana differently.
I focus my senses away from the emotional chaos in front of me and towards the bottom of the Dungeon. Qi with my fingerprints, a precursor of my current base, is trickling into the seabed. The Mana Dungeon is located on a sloping rise, the seafloor forming a submerged mountain on which the large black sphere rests. Casting my senses further I notice large tracts of solid rock, mineral and subterranean lakes filling with qi.
Every single mana mutant freezes for a moment as I pour out my power, spreading my spiritual sense with wild abandon. This confirms my suspicions and a few other theories. The Dungeons produce mana, this must be another reason why the mages are using it as a neutral gathering point, away from the single element dominated mage islands. And the Mana Dungeon is projecting all this produced power everywhere instead of a single direction, like the Tower.
Or it used to. Now it’s spewing my qi everywhere. The circle I left on top of the sphere is working correctly. It’s just a shame it’s doing nothing to the qi that’s being released into the ground, into a downwards direction. Not only is this planet about to be pelted with qi-rich pieces of flesh, but it's also being tainted from within.
I could install another qi formation deep underground the ground, but I feel like I have to face this one head on. Am I going to fight the cause or the effect? Plastering this planet full of qi containment circles is an option but would be the perfect example of fighting the symptoms instead of the cause.
I have the sinking feeling I will need to approach this problem from the front instead of solving it in a sneaky manner. I turn to Rhea and address her solemnly. “We are going to need to do some ass-kicking.”
Her eyes light up. “I’m going to try it. Full power.”
I immediately shake my head. “Don’t, or it will cause a tsunami that will wipe away everything in this Gulf of Scientience. It’s a stupid name, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be washed clean.”
She slaps my shoulder in a joking manner. “You can contain it. Else it’s good training for Selis. Those kids are getting spoiled anyway.”
Rhea really needs to do some studying in terms of acceptable social behaviour. That buddy-buddy attitude is extremely unfitting for the potential mass genocide that her plan will cause.
Selis is secretly frustrated. Ket and Tess are hooking up, Angeta has that frenemy thing with Ragni, Vox is totally getting involved with the axe beastkin and that green woman, Bord is… Bord... And even Ares is reunited with her old master. And here Selis is, half a sea under her control and it just doesn’t feel as exciting anymore.
It’s honestly a bit baffling to the solid core stage braincore cultivator. Floating in the void a few kilometres away from Tree, she is surrounded by a metric shitload of water. Her old self from even a few weeks ago would probably have been all sparkly eyed, and probably would have been disappointed at how little excitement the current Selis feels. Controlling enough water to wipe away a town just seems so ordinary now.
A frown on her face, she continues her practice. A lake worth of water turns into ice, liquid and everything in between at a thought. Star-shaped sparkling constructs spin as they transform into white powder, flowing into crystal clear water before turning into a vicious array of spears.
She has been stuck like this for a while now. The difference between a forming solid core and a filled one is not too drastic, she has found. A small piece of crystal in her core allows for more stored qi, enabling brute force attacks. The qi inside her solid core seeps out slowly, but she can wield it with much more finesse and precision.
And she is supposed to start developing a concept now, right? The first step in her foundation. That entire task is frustrating her even further. Should she use water as a concept? But which aspect? The rainbows formed in mist are pretty, but so are the detailed sculptures of ice she has been practising fine control on. The massive power behind a crushing wave of water seems near opposite to the cutting precision of ice blades.
This, added to her own history - years of neglect followed by being a political pawn - is preventing her from making any headway in this path business Teach keeps on about. Having achieved full grumpy-hood, Selis waves her arms around as she sends the hundreds of cubic kilometres of water back to their original place, doubling the oceans around Tree.
Half an hour later she is still grumpy, but the small terrace on the moon allows her to be grumpy with a full stomach. She looks at the bustling activities going on around her, feeling oddly disconnected from it all. Licking the sauce from her fingers, she wonders what will happen in the future.
Teach had sent a message to every single student, ordering them to return and prepare for aquatic warfare. Large crates of goods, rations and weapons are being carried to and from storage areas and workshops. She soaks up the atmosphere for a bit, relaxing in the comfortable chair.
“Get out here now, maybe she’ll listen to another female...” Teach’s voice shakes her from her daydreaming. Probing the mental connection to Database, Selis finds a simple request for her presence. Shrugging internally, she jumps towards Tree, leaving a fog trail in her wake. She arrives near Tree within seconds and is pulled through the spatial distortion the moment she starts feeling for it.
“Hey, Selis. Please stop those waves. I could do it, but that’d take a lot of my power. Thanks.” Teach smiles at her with a suspiciously strained grin. Blinking rapidly, Selis tries to orient herself. A blue horizon clues her in on the fact that land is far away. The stones under her feet project an air of apathy. This in combination with the shoddiness and general crookedness present in the tower she finds herself standing on causes her to realise that she is surrounded by mages.
The sea directly around the large cluster of buildings she is on is frothing and white, a wide variety of limbs, flippers, and other warped animalistic traits poking out of the sea surface. “Maybe turn around when you’re done gaping at the scenery?”
Selis whirls around at Teach’s comment, just in time to be nearly knocked flat by a wave of wind and noise.
The weirdest sound Selis has ever heard hammers against her eardrums. She spots a white dragon surrounded by a purple glow flying in a lazy circle. The dragon has its mouth open, aimed downwards into the sea. A warping beam of faintly glowing purple carves a deep hole in the water, the very air shaking as the water is divided into two. The awe and admiration Selis feels is only partially caused by the sudden influx of positive air mana.
“YEAH, STOP THAT PLEASE!” shouts Teach as he points Selis’s gaze at the massive waves of water generated by the dragon’s mouth-beam. Blue hair whipping around, the demure girl stares at the spectacle for a few more seconds. All the animals in a large radius around the dragon’s - who Selis now recognises as Re-Haan - breath attacks are mushed into a spreading cloud of watery bits.
“THIS WAVE OR THAT WAVE?” Selis shouts.
The dragon has made a quarter circle around what Selis has recognised as a much-changed Mana Dungeon. One wave is rapidly gaining height as it rushes towards her location. It seems to grow in speed too quickly, increasing from ten meters to a full fifty in a short time. Selis is sloshing her qi through her brain at this point, allowing her to realise that this is caused by two reasons. The circular wave is concentrating due to it growing smaller and denser, combined with the steeply sloping seabed. Selis is standing a good kilometre high up, but she is pretty sure the waves’ splash will reach her.
The outgoing wave is rapidly growing smaller and will only become visible near the shore again. Selis ponders what would take more energy, having to shift a metric tonne of water a single centimetre or a litre a single kilometre. Grinning at the seeming impossibility of the task, Selis speeds off.
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