Chapter 166 - Prolusion
Seeing metal everywhere, Rodrick briefly fears for his axe. Knowing that being too cautious often does more harm than good, he swings with all his might, glowing bones surging with qi as they transport the power into his trusty weapon. The large metal construct - a rippling collection of metal shards in the shape of a large dog - falls apart the moment the wave of cutting force cleaves it in two.
His worries relieved, he starts chopping like a madman. Memories of the years he spent cutting down trees flash through his mind. The repetitive, bone-shaking power that is needed to fell one of those enormous giants floods through his body. He ducks under a snake that moves faster than his eyes can see, only some instinct telling him to dodge, and takes a swing at a butterfly-shaped construct.
Letting the shards of metal clatter across his body, he gracefully moves towards his next victim. His bones glow so fiercely he looks like a red skeleton moving around. The cathartic feeling of being able to cut loose when Green was left behind on level fifty is now turning into a slow exhaustion. Ragni called it quits at level seventy when all of her clothes got burned. The amount of mana in the air started interfering with her qi control, preventing her from fighting effectively. She decided to walk back up the stairs instead of risking the qi draining effect that the dark dungeon portals supposedly have.
Now on level ninety-five, the only remaining members are Vox, Ket, Tess, Bord, Selis and himself. There is also Teach, but he hasn't done a single thing so far apart from talking and annoying that bunny of his. Distracted briefly by looking at the other students, he turns and sees a metal golem in the shape of a massive mouth. Shards with edges so sharp they cut the air rotate in alternating rows, turning the entire beast into a whirling blender of deadly steel. Metal crashes down on the thing, tearing it apart while forcefully absorbing parts into itself. Much to Rodrick’s surprise, the large and fast moving cloud barely makes a noise. Each piece hangs unmoving next to its neighbours, the only internally moving parts are the newly added pieces.
He then sees the entire thing is rectangular in shape and that the individual parts are all aligned in neat rows. He glances towards Ket, whose crown of fine metal wires are glowing with grey power. Vox runs past, touching him briefly. About to reprimand the boy for touching his ass again, the healing flow of energy makes him close his mouth.
Wounds he didn't even notice before heal slowly, the only evidence he was injured the blood on his ripped clothes. Although not a math expert like Ket, Rodrick realizes that he won’t survive for long another ten levels down.
The muted shine of grey light far above dims as the sea of mana crystals embedded in the ceiling first dims before they start raining down. Sighing in relief, the big beastkin starts running around while stuffing the valuable items into his ring.
He has learned a few valuable lessons so far. Certain specialisations are extremely powerful in certain situations. Ket just single-handedly demolished more than half of the monsters on this level, thanks to his excellent control of metal. Selis didn’t do so well here, mainly using the little water she has to keep the iron golems away. She tried freezing them and that was sort of effective, but by the time she had one golem cold enough to induce the brittleness needed for her to crush them, Ket had killed dozens.
Tess has been useful against soft targets and strong single monsters. All she did on this level was hide in shadows and distract mobs when things got dangerous. Bord has had the most consistent performance so far, crushing everything with extremely heavy strikes while spinning, bouncing, and flipping all over the place.
Rodrick likes to think he did pretty well but has the presence of mind to realize his own power level. Capable of acts he thought impossible only months before, the fact that he is having to take ever more uncertain risks to take down these foes is enough for him to decide that he will stop at level one hundred.
He had never understood why raids of humans kept happening, he ponders. The beastkin community was seemingly unable to retaliate or protect their own citizens. If the humans have access to dungeons though, the fighting in here would make any normal soldier into a honed fighting machine. Even the most brutal internal mana training wouldn’t be able to prepare a person for combat the way that this dungeon does.
Shifting his focus away from those depressing thoughts, Rodrick looks at his axe. Despite knowing that the metal shards now scattered all around are harder than any steel he has ever come across, his axe is still flawless. The amount of abuse he's been putting the lovely tool through is enough to turn even the best dungeon-won weapons to slag.
He knows this because they went inside the dungeon during the day. Each tenth floor - or decad - awards the slayer of the boss monster with a pile of loot. Mainly mana crystals, there is still the occasional weapon, armour, foodstuff, or table included in the rewards. The gorgeously ornate axe he took didn’t last more than a few swings.
“Teach? Why does this do nothing?” Awoken from staring at the axe in a trance, Rodrick looks around as he hears Ket speak. The next level is another one with a water theme, misty fog limiting vision to a scant fifty meters. Iron shrapnel is savagely tearing through the mist, having absolutely no effect on the white monsters that are approaching them.
Selis steps forward, tearing a spider made from the dense fog into wispy tatters. It reforms seconds later. Bord punches it, but it only stays down as long as the boy keeps pressuring it with his red glow. Tess also attacks, her dark weapons doing little to the approaching ethereal horde.
“Just need to chop, right?” Rodrick steps forward. Still half distracted by the quality of his own weapon, he swings. Instead of focussing on his actions, his mind explores what chopping really means. Swinging an axe is not a goal in and of itself. The goal is the felling of the tree.
Rodrick might really enjoy the process, but the way that the trunk is cut is not important. So if a single strong strike does not work, he will swing a thousand times. If many weaker strikes do not do the job, he will swing with all his might once. The axe is not important. Nor is the arm. Nor is the tree, really. All the matters is the separation of one from the other. All that matters is the forming divide.
His bones glowing with a blinding radiance, Rodrick’s axe vanishes. His arm disappears into nothingness. All that is left is a gash in space itself. The horizontal swing cuts through the shapes of mist that were about to pounce, collapsing back into nothing but opaque swirls.
The glow in his bones fades, shrinking from his entire skeleton to a frame made from bright wire. Rodrick falls to his hands and knees, his axe clattering to the ground. A stream of pure black flows from his mouth as he vomits stinking goop.
“Wow. So this is what core forming looks like for bonecore’s… Neat. Your bones are now totally free from impurities, I see. Your flesh is starting to be cleansed too, from the inside out. Ah, I get it. I think your entire body will be cleaned by the time your bones are entirely filled with solid qi. Good job.”
Feeling a hand on his shoulder, Rodrick suppresses the shivers and goosebumps he feels from that icy thread working through his body. The big beastkin wipes his mouth on his sleeve, stands up and starts staring down at Teach.
“Ah, sorry about that. I was sure that all those weird cultivation methods didn't actually have a future, so seeing one of you core-less guys stepping into some form of core forming stage made me too curious. I should have asked if I could do that first. Sorry.”
Teach actually looks slightly embarrassed as Rodrick keeps staring him in the eyes.
“Okay, I did just take a peek inside your body. That’s a pretty bad violation of privacy. Here, please take this as an apology. You’re pretty low on qi.” Rodrick is then handed a small stack of warm wooden boxes. Teach walks off, collecting the rain of blue crystals in the meantime.
Rodrick opens the top box with one hand and is overwhelmed by a heavenly smell. Realising that he is furiously hungry, he tries to eat while keeping Bord away from his food. Rolling his eyes, he peeks inside the second box. Seeing an identical collection of vegetables and sliced meat on white grains, he hands it to the fat boy.
Receiving an amazing smile in return, the two start eating happily.
“Did you know he had a tail?” whispers a female voice.
“What are you ta… Wow. It’s wagging... I did not know he had a tail.” replies an equally loudly whispering voice.
Rodrick wonders why Teach suddenly gave him food and what this violation of privacy he talked about means. The beastkin was just hoping that Teach could tell him what was going on. The thing happened too fast for the beastkin to realise what happened just now, but hearing he is now in the solid core stage makes him quite happy actually.
Putting the other boxes in his ring, Rodrick walks on with one hand holding the food and the other pressed against the low of his back.
Re-Haan is pretty stoked. The Flight Mountain and even her job as a Guardian never got her this excited. The large ceremonial inspection of the human’s capital she did every ten years got old fast and Flight Mountain is basically the biggest collection of beds in the world. All her preparations, all the ideas and experiments, they’re all bearing fruit.
Sitting on the highest point of the Mana Dungeon, she has a pretty good view of the entire situation. Visual feedback is not that important when the entire area is drenched in her qi, but it still feels nice to keep an eye on things regardless.
It’s been around a day since Drew took his small team into the dungeon below and things have been largely the same. The levels of mana in the air have risen dramatically, and the level of their opponents is growing slowly, but apart from that things are unchanged.
All the students were pretty pumped to fight the first couple hours, but things are becoming more routine now that the first day has passed. People are cycling in and out of Tree, following a shift system.
Re-Haan sniggers to herself when she checks the average braincore productivity again. It has dropped dramatically. Actually fighting and working under pressure is exhausting. Those smart-asses had been lording their ability to stay awake for long periods of time over all other cultivators. She smiles some more to herself as she remembers the sight of a bright-eyed Ferah asking the two scientists if they need sleep because of how haggard they look.
Done with checking that amusing statistic, she checks the other non-Mana Dungeon related missions still running. The amount of teams entering the dungeons has lessened now that everyone is encouraged to get their fighting needs done on the large black sphere. The food delivery system feeding the human capital was taken care of by stockpiling enough food for a few days, but that flow is being picked up by the portion of students who have found combat less to their liking.
There are quite a few missions going on in the capital besides the food, the human king requested for forces to take out the troops stationed in the deep bowels of the castle. That is the staging and resting area for all the Food Dungeon delvers and slaves. Eliminating them will deal the nobles powerbase another large amount of damage.
She herself has made a few missions, ordering fast and strong students on scouting missions. Their goal is to gather information from local sources. The detailed map of the world is growing at an astonishing pace as Drew’s drones map many acres of land a day, but high altitude pictures tell little social news.
The end goal of these missions is the installation of a portal stone. This is the main reason for the core forming requirement, something a relatively small portion of students has achieved. A qi condensing student could maybe, possibly barely activate the portal stone, but they would need to use up all their qi, leaving them vulnerable.
Drew is still gone, but the weaker ones of the team that joined him in the delve have been reappearing. First was Green. She had very little to say except for things that Re-Haan already knew.
Then Ragni popped out of the entrance. Re-Haan could hear where she was by the silence, whistling, and slapping that followed her exit. Barely clothed, the buxom woman attracted a lot of stares, followed by retaliatory slaps from nearby women. The fact that the beastkin and a few other young girls are technically still children according to Database’s rules have a lot of the students - mainly females - in a protective mindset.
Ferah is another example, always cared for and watched over by passing students.
Ragni had told her that they had made good progress, reaching the seventieth level without much effort from the original students. Drew hadn’t lifted a single finger according to her story, but that was probably not because he was saving his powers, as Ragni speculated. No, that stubborn fool was probably enjoying seeing how his students had grown too much to want to interfere.
Teach had made it to floor one hundred and fifty previously. She supposed that his students working together could match that level of power. His double core system takes around ten times as much power as her own single core base, but it doesn't make him ten times as strong. Only about two or three times, she estimates.
Re-Haan had no idea how deep the Mana Dungeon should be - exploitation by powerful adversaries seems to cause dungeons to grow - so the mages exploiting this one should have bred a larger dungeon than the adventurer exploited human dungeons. But it shouldn’t be more than two hundred, maybe two hundred and fifty levels?
Re-Haan hasn’t had sex in two days now and Drew really did unlock something in her, after all. Deciding to go into her dragon mode soon in order to wipe these irritating hormones from her system, she checks in on how the actual Mana Dungeon defence is going.
The beam cannons have been performing admirably. They are currently being fired at a little under half of their capacity. A single shot takes down a single behemoth, provided they hit a weak spot. Re-Haan has decided to term the stronger variants of massive sea monsters that have been showing up as level two. She saw a few level threes appear here and there, and even a single level four. She suspects a few cannons shooting at full power simultaneously can fell one of those.
She noticed differing mana levels and started measuring them. Each stronger monster seemed to at least double in mana capacity, thus each new level is twice as strong as the previous. It's only been a day or two. She's pretty curious how strong the monsters will get. When will the doubling of power stop?
Briefly, she wonders why the Flight haven’t been sent this way yet…
Instead of pondering what to do about her kin, she checks the other defenses in place. Angeta has finished a massive belt of green going around the dungeon and is still growing and modifying it. That enormous plant took down the level four beast - a black and white whale with scattered patches of carapace - when the half power cannons proved ineffective. A large part of the ring exploded into vines and massive thorns, stabbing and strangling the kilometre-long beast with deceptive ease.
The fullblade corps - she greatly enjoyed seeing Drew’s irritated expression when he learned of the massive sword wielders - has left half their people guarding the mana cannons. The other half have begun roaming the edge of the dungeon. They have been using their massive blades to form elemental attacks but are more often just bludgeoning anything that comes close.
Smaller teams have started showing good results too, a group of hair cultivators proving that length is not everything. Long haired females turned out to be good with restraint techniques while shorter haired ones - mostly males - turned their hair into vicious murder machines by simulating short range blenders. Blood red hair has become quite trendy as an indirect result.
Deciding not to bother with the dozens of other groups that have been fighting in odd ways, she instead looks at her own power growth. Her tree has been growing, previously thin roots now bulging with strength. Her sapling is starting to become an adult tree with a thick trunk and a dizzying web of branches.
Her fruits are displayed inside the scale model of reality. Her experiment that let her leaves determine the best way to bring these fruits to bear has also worked great. The only problem she has is that she hasn’t found a good visual analogy for this. Letting her leaves decide what to do with the fruits by moving longer branches around just doesn’t seem to fit.
Maybe she should turn her tree into a true web? Database has that massive chaotic interconnected maze made from knowledge. Re-Haan has also read in dungeon books about these spider creatures, inhabiting the swamps far to the south-east. They supposedly weave white webs and wait for prey to come to them. Re-Haan likes that idea. She is currently sitting in a chair, relaxing while her web does the work.
Her nose wrinkling, she decides that it has too much similarity to a sleeping dragon. That is the exact thing she does not want, why else would she have run off with Drew again if not to escape the endless cycle of passive sleep?
Maybe she needs to include workers? She also read dungeon books about orchards, tree farms where menial labourers pluck fruit and take care of the trees. Deciding to have a chat with Valerius and his flock of farmers soon, she continues musing tree thoughts.
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