Chapter 163 - Prelude

Chapter 163 - Prelude

Re-Haan is preparing herself on mental and physical levels. The mental aspect is because she is about to test her foundation actively for the first time. And physically because that breath-attack she shot at the sea took a lot more qi than expected. Taking another deep breath, she motions to Selis, who immediately gives the loudly snivelling mage another punch.

“Shut it, you whining poop-robe,” whispers the girl. “Just be silent and watch, I think this is going to be a sight worth remembering.

Re-Haan retracts her senses, focusing on her internal mindscape. Her tree has kept growing over the past few days. Unwilling to simply copy Tree’s appearance, she has guided it to grow into an ephemeral direction, willing the bark to become a translucent white instead of the natural brown it was becoming.

This has resulted in a fine web of white lines running through her mind, a visual representation of connections and meanings. The steady influx of recruited students has given the top half of her tree a lot more volume. She has even found small budding leaves that represent outside subordinates, namely the common people working in Capital’s food distribution system.

Taking in the entire tree, Re-Haan is immediately faced with a problem. The representation of her organisation is a great way to check how her projects are doing, but she fails to see how she can transform this overview into a combat effective force.

She has her qi spread out around herself in a web of spiritual sense a couple kilometre wide. She has kept an eye on her surroundings since turning back into a human and thus has a perfect image of the outside world in her mind. She observed Drew being swallowed by the enormous worm and the monster’s subsequent fiery demise. She is keeping tabs on the many, many new threats that are approaching her current location. She just has to figure out how to overlay her management system with the real world.

She sits there, meditating for minutes on end while Selis and the whining mage observe how Teach and Lola hold off the new wave of truly large threats. The large enforcer type mutants on land were big but they didn’t exceed ten meters, the tallest one just reaching fifteen when standing upright. Gravity imposes less limitations on sea-based creatures, it seems.

Peeking through half-shut eyelids, she sees Drew chop a thirty-meter long seal in two, flames producing billowing clouds of steam when doused by the sea. She sees him throw the bunny towards something with too many legs, which is swiftly turned into a fragmenting icicle.

Chiding herself for losing focus, Re-Haan closes her eyes again. She then thinks back on her own thought process and suddenly feels the need to slap herself. She solved the problem just now without realizing it. Why not overlay reality with her tree? Or to be more precise, project reality above her tree and then extend the branches and fruits upwards where they are needed?

So that’s what she does. Above the white web of branch, trunk, and root she constructs all she senses with her spiritual sense. A miniature Mana Dungeon, sea, and monster horde appears in her mind. She is already extending her branches towards certain locations when she stops. Manually choosing where her forces are best used will take up a lot of her mental prowess, why not let her subordinates do that work for her?

Linking Database between Tree and the map miniature is easily done, letting all the students know of the current situation is also done quickly. Re-Haan stands up and pulls the folding chair from her ring. Drew and Lola are still holding off the incoming wave of large beasts and will probably hold out for a while. Selis takes a chair from her own ring and sits next to her.

“Aren’t you on wave duty?” asks Re-Haan as she observes another massive animal falling into the ocean, half charred and half frozen.

“Those little splashes won’t do much,” replies Selis while sipping on a fancy drink.

The mage looks at the relaxing duo and the hulking monsters approaching their location. He puts a hand to his face, takes a few deep breaths and walks to the roof’s edge.

“No need to jump, you know. Even someone as sad as you could become that powerful one day. Although maybe not. Your aura feels pretty fucked up.” Selis’s comment causes him to pause and turn around.

“I’m not jumping. I have a duty,” he replies while climbing down to the balcony.

“Yeah, that’s how that guy feels. He’d do anything if you could convince him that it’s for the greater good or some form of responsibility,” mumbles Selis to herself. Shrugging off the uncomfortable feeling running up her spine from that line of thought, Selis leans back into her chair and resumes watching Teach decimate town-sized monsters.

Re-Haan spares a moment from her preparations to frown at the mage who is climbing down, her experiment in short-term recruitment through dangling enticing mysteries in front of the subject a failure.

“No, haven’t you seen the projections? Changing the power couplers to our models won’t give us more firepower for at least twenty hours. Having one cannon out of commision won’t be compensated by the more efficient models.” A beastkin with shiny, smooth skin and slit nostrils is looking over a large hall filled with many students. Long lines of artisans work on large and tubular metal objects.

“You know what? I’m not even going to argue that point. I will argue your short-sighted and near-imbecilic placement proposal, though. We will need to build our own support, have you seen the structural integrity ratings of that mana-made stone? Our fastening bolts will rip out of that weak stuff the moment you fire the guns at half power!” An equally bedraggled and tired-looking beastkin stands next to him as they argue.

“The target specs don’t require more than quarter power. The list of targets is all highly susceptible to frost damage.”

“When is the last time you checked it? More importantly, when is the last time you slept?”

The smooth skin snorts. “Braincores don’t need sleep. I’m fine.”

“So you failed to notice the spec-change alert. Right, you need to go and sleep now.”

“Spec change? What? Oh… Well, this changes nothing anyway.”

Incensed, the furry beastkin turns to his colleague. “The threats just changed from ‘large animals’ to ‘city destroying abominations’, and it doesn’t change anything? Our cannons won’t even punch halfway through such massive creatures.”

“Look, we have this rivalry thing going on, right? I hate you. You hate me, and all that. But you have some ideas sometimes, and I’m wrong an extremely small percentage of the time. I might have taken that beam-focussing formation that you came up with and made it work.”

“You stole my idea? What? And you’re creepy when you’re tired. Stop pretending that we don't despise each other you degenerate cousin-fucker.”

“One time! One flight-cursed time! And I must really be tired to try opening up to the single beastkin who managed to fall out of grace with the previous Tooth and the current one both. And the focusing ring didn't work until I changed literally everything you designed, so it’s entirely my own handiwork.”

They both stare at each other, any trace of the previous levity and peace gone.

“And I might have shagged a distant cousin while drunk, but I never killed a family mem-” The bags under the beastkin’s eyes wobble as a fur-covered fist rams into his face. Spitting blood and mucus to the floor, he jumps back to his feet. “I told you it was a dumb idea to switch to a full-braincore. I barely felt that punch, kin-slayer.”

Taken aback at the vitriol in the vicious insult, the hairy student hesitates for a few moments. “Go and fuck a frog.”

Stumbling back like he was struck in the heart, the admittedly frog-like beastkin gapes at his colleague. “Cow-killer.”

Silence has fallen on the factory floor. All the beastkin look actually sick as the two exchange insults worse than cursing someone’s mother. Snarling and squawking, the two start fighting like mad dogs.

“Go outside! I’ve had enough of spoiled children. Come back when you’ve both caught up on sleep.” A girl with flawless pale skin and raven black hair separates the two, throwing them both through open windows on opposite sides of the hall. Dusting her hands, she addresses the gaping audience, “and continue working! We’ll be needing those soon.”

“Tess, why did you leave? The cultivation matrix still has empty spots.” Ket walks in, his head surrounded by thin metal wires, the web of shiny cables whirring and clacking constantly.

“And you’re changing your system again when this is over. That external calculator core is just not working. You’re worse than before, Ket. Stop making every decision based on math. And it looks totally ridiculous.”

The web of metal filaments around Ket’s head warps into impossible figures and endless fractals for a moment, making Tess’ eyes hurt. “Does not compute. Filling the cultivation matrix has the most impact at the moment.”

The two walk away as the cultivators in the hall return to feverishly making the large beam cannons. Tess sighs as they walk outside, missing the amused smirk that Ket shoots her. “And the way it looks. You have shiny metal wires moving around your head. I feel like my face will get scratched everytime we kiss. Can you image me with a scar on my face, that would be totally terrible.”

“Okay, but only if you re-cultivate with me.”

“You like totally got a deal.” Tess’ genuine shining smile makes Ket feel kind of awkward for half tricking her into recultivating too. Ket is moderately happy with the performance and sensation his new base has. He had decided to try something wild after studying a lot of the non-core ways to cultivate, letting him draw some interesting conclusions.

The major rule of this new way of free-form cultivation seems to be 'balance'. The spoon-core kid’s spoon is the strongest object for the amount of qi inside it ever measured. The rest of the kid's physical abilities are lacklustre in contrast, somewhere in between a brain- and a gutcore.

The bloodcore kid has extreme regeneration and could probably keep going after being chopped into bits, but his explosive power is lacking. Ferah’s ring-shaped web of channels Teach called meridians are great for going after even a heartcore has dropped in exhaustion, but all her other aspects, both physical and magical, are lacking.

Some outliers also exist, Ket muses as he glances at Tess ass she fusses with her hair. Her skincore is near impossible to penetrate but seems to encourage the cultivator's more vain side. Ket is not sure how that one works, but he has some processes thinking up new angles.

Then there is the soul cultivator. He nearly died for reasons unknown. He started bleeding from everywhere on his body until he was evacuated to the moon. Another person - a rather dumb human from the savage tribes - thought to cheat the system by creating a qi making core. He turned bone-thin in mere hours, his flesh and fat disappearing at a visible pace as his qi levels rose alarmingly fast. An entire building on the moon is now dedicated to helping people get rid of their screwy cultivation bases without killing them.

More esoteric concepts just didn't do anything special. One person recruited by Rityn and Bassik wanted to escape no matter what. She tried to cultivate with the sole purpose of going through portals. She got qi poisoning and nearly died.

All this testing has let Ket conclude that qi is an overeager energy. A person who doesn’t know what cultivation is will suffer from a form of mystical cancer. The hypercharged processes in their body start running amok, the uncoordinated boosting of biological processes tearing the person apart from inside out. The knowledge that the energy can be controlled and a vague idea of what to do with it seems to be enough to prevent the worst-case scenarios from happening.

Talking to and studying all the new ways to cultivate that students have been performing has led Ket to a theory. Ket has measured the performance of a wide range of people and averaging the physical, mental, and any other performance has been enlightening.

It goes a little like this: a top-level qi gathering cultivator has a couple of times the energy available to a normal mortal. The way in which this energy is used is of lesser importance. A heartcore will use it to become two times as strong but once as smart. A braincore will use it to become twice as smart but once as strong. Stuffing that power into a spoon will make the spoon twenty times as strong and the person itself one point one time as smart and strong. Or a person could become three times as fast. Or five times as nimble. Or ten times as ambidextrous. Or twenty times as good at sewing clothes.

Teach seems to have this as a motto. Neutral mediocrity or specialised and narrow power. The location of the core seems to be but a way to see, store, and interact with the power. Merely a manner of communication, not the message itself.

So Ket decided to try it out. He gave up his fully formed solid braincore cultivation base days ago, vomiting his organs and life force out in the most miserable manner possible, and reformed his core in the most technical and calculating way he could think up.

Now his head is adorned by the physical representation of an abacus. Not a normal one, sliding beads on iron rods would be too open to interpretation after all. No, Ket went and bothered Teach until he divulged the basics of calculators and processors.

Instead of thinking about numbers, Ket is developing an actual central processing unit around his head. Iron wire sliding across a narrow metal ruler represents a stored number, rows of strips representing registers. Complex equations are done through an improvised and custom built metal contraption, ticking away in all kinds of obscure and impractical numbering systems.

Ket has formed his power base into a literal number cruncher, and it shows. Calculations that used to take seconds can now be done in a flash. He can represent more complex equations and problems like weighted chances and decision tree's through actual numbers or through having the scenario play out in a wireframe simulation. Precision or speed.

A negatively inclined person would describe this phenomenon as something coming at a price. You can have that thing, but only at this cost. Ket has decided to look at it from a positive viewpoint. Each cultivator gathers a certain amount of capital worth of energy, but what aspects they spend their money on usually is decided largely unconsciously, through the three-core system. Taking manual control of this process through custom core placement and intent-based cultivation can skew the areas in which this capital is spent.

One more interesting thing to note is that the actual core size seems nearly irrelevant. A few students went down the blood-core path, arguably giving them a core the size of their entire body. They bottlenecked at the same energy threshold - the top of qi gathering - as their previous cultivation base. The same steps from gas to liquid and solid seems to remain, as well as the energy quantities needed for advancing.

Making one’s core bigger in an energy-quantity sense turned out to be extremely taxing and impossible for anyone that tried. Teach's double core location is only feasible due to his previous experiences in combination with his probable soul strength due to his previous cultivation base attainment, was the general conclusion from those experiments.

And then there is the newly formed hypothesis that saturation by ambient qi kills talent. Multiple people reported a slowing down of their cultivation speed after spending significant amounts of time in Tree’s qi-rich environment. An examination found that neutral qi got stuck in their systems, hindering their own qi. Spending time on the moon and allowing it to strip their bodies of all but their own structural qi has been tested and verified to fix this problem.

Ket worries about Tess for this exact same reason. Her skin is literally glowing with power and is probably trapping the polluting qi inside her body. Her assurance that she will re-cultivate alongside him eases this worry significantly.

But Ket decides to stop thinking about complicated things, Tess is looking at his crown of whirring contraptions in annoyance. The wiggling wires that crown his head calm down a bit as he stops thinking about qi and its many mysteries. The couple has reached the central gathering place, a cordoned off area near Tree’s trunk.

“Can we go yet? Those tentacles look tasty.” Bord slurps and swallows his excess drool while looking at a small projection of Teach’s fight. The other people, all the original students, don't even spare the fat kid a glance.

“Why are we helping those mage dickwads anyway. Their dress sense should be a crime.” Tess mumbles the last sentence to herself.

“Who knows. I’m sure Teach has his reasons, no matter how idiotic they might be. Let’s go already. I want to go all out for once. We’re allowed full qi usage, right?” Angeta is bouncing on the balls of her feet while impatiently looking around.

“Chance that Teach is setting up a show for the mages is a near certainty. He is fighting below capacity and performing useless manoeuvres for the sake of positioning enforcer class mutants.” Ket chimes in.

Tess rolls her eyes at his way-too-complicated speech, but has to admit that he has a point. Looking through the image projected by Database, she can see Teach and Lola working together, fending off the large monsters and letting some through at the same time. Tess realises that Teach is planning something dramatic again.

Smiling at the chance to strut her stuff and put on a show, she awaits Teach’s signal.

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