Chapter 167 - Encounters
Very gingerly, a red-skinned man taps on her green shoulder. “M-miss, shouldn't we hurry and escape?”
She shoots the annoyance a glance filled with so much scorn that he would burn on the spot were her cultivation base made of fire-intent. “Sod off man, can’t you see I’m facing a massive dilemma here?”
Green is deep inside the bowels of the human capital’s castle. Underneath the large doughnut-shaped building are dark and sprawling catacombs. Filled with small cells and storage rooms, this massive section of the building is used by the nobles to house their delving teams. Soldiers that have fallen out of favour or made a political faux pas are locked up here. Swathes of slaves are being kept in small, dark cells, waiting for the next delve.
And Green is in the middle of it all.
The woman commonly named Green might appear as just a kleptomaniac and opportunistic leech on the outside, but on the inside she has very good reasons for being a kleptomaniac and opportunistic leech. She grew up in a medium-sized village, a good way inland and with little access to the ocean. Most tribal humans have access to the sea thanks to the extensive network of cliffs and fjords bringing saltwater many kilometres inland.
Her village was a mixed human and beastkin affair. Although it happens now and then, this race mixing was pretty unusual. Especially because of the unfair nature of mana usage as done by both races.
Their leader was a mana wielding beastkin, his internal usage of the emotionally unstable energy turning him into quite the despotic ruler. The leader of their commune being mentally unstable on a fundamental level, Green learned from a very young age that she should snatch every single scrap of food, currency, and power for herself whenever possible.
Although beastkin are more powerful because of their potential semi-instinctive mana usage, only a few are talented enough - or members of the correct bloodline - to do so. When a human learns to wield mana, they do so through their mind instead of their body, allowing for far more destructive effects and usually easily beating a beastkin with similar levels of mana control, provided they keep their distance.
When she was but a teenage girl, a mage-led raiding party had made landfall at the nearest fjord and struck out towards their village. Their leader, his head filled with the lie that he was the most powerful being in a large radius, died very quickly when he went out to confront the magus.
The entire village was either enslaved or slaughtered. Green didn't really care much though. Her parents had died long ago, and the other villagers just saw a thieving street rat instead of a precious child. Green doesn’t like to think about the years that followed. Whenever she was sold, or her previous owner died - something that happened suspiciously often to high-level mages - she was shipped from mage island to mage island. This at least spared her from Capillary Island’s pleasure whirlpool.
So when she woke up in a totally alien environment after her latest round of being sold and shipped, she made the firm resolution to grab any valuables with both hands and never let go. Well, she can totally let go, but only to put them in storage or if she receives other good stuff in return.
This is why she is having such a hard time right now. She had taken on a mission to infiltrate and sabotage the holding cells under the large castle and had done so swiftly. She joined a small team of other students, barely paying attention to their names or skills, and had quickly done the minimum described in the mission briefing. Now she is looting every single thing she can get her grubby hands on.
She is followed by a couple dozen slaves that seemed nice and a few soldiers that wanted to defect. But who has the time to bother with those nobodies when there is stuff to steal!
Weighing both objects in her hands - an intricately detailed sailboat miniature in a bottle and a silver candlestick - she continues pondering which one to take with her.
Because Green has found herself in a vicious cycle. The first spatial ring she received had a rather small storage capacity. Filling it with loot from those fancy Brighntin nobles gave her enough points to trade it for a larger ring. She had filled that one with crystals during the Mana Dungeon delve she was forced on, enough to trade in her storage device for a slightly bigger ring once again.
Now she has filled her third ring up once more with loot, and it is full. Suddenly, she slaps her own forehead. Turning around, the red man that was tapping her on the shoulder jumps back in surprise. ”Carry these. Good, now follow.”
She leads her group of rescuees up more stairs, peering into hallways that grow ever more ornate the higher she climbs. She is utterly and totally lost, but that doesn’t matter when a single punch can break walls and make new exits or entryways.
Judging that this new hallway is fancy enough, she kicks open the first door she sees. Empty rooms stare back at her. She motions a few followers inside along with her, handing them all the valuables she sees.
“What in the fucking cursed dungeon shitting blazes is going on here!?”
Her hand frozen halfway to a rather large gold-rimmed painting, she looks towards the entrance. “Hey, king! Never mind me, I’m just on a mission!”
“A mission to rob my castle blind?”
“Nope! But a good friend of mine said that valuables not stolen are valuables wasted. I’m just making sure you are not wasting any of your resources!” Beaming at the king, she pulls the painting from the wall and hands it to a very pale ex-soldier.
The king rubs the bridge of his nose. “And she doesn't feel evil. That must mean she really believes that, gods. Why does Teach attract so many idiotic people.” The king watches Green with a complicated look, his eye twitching as he sees her ripping gilded candelabras from the ceiling.
The king takes a deep breath and motions her closer. Skipping towards him, she looks up at the man with curious eyes. “Okay, follow this hallway until you reach the area with green walls. That’s where the good stuff is. Then please leave.”
Beaming a blinding smile at the weary-eyed man, Green nods happily and darts off. A few of the standard-skinned humans nod shamefully at their own king before scuttling after their supposed rescuer. The king ponders the morality of sending her to the nobles' section of his castle, but faint sounds of fighting and yelling coming from deep below pull his attention away. Sighing deeply at the absolute clusterfuck this day has turned out to be, he mutters curses under his breath while hurrying downwards.
“Okay, I will admit that these dungeons are one of the best training environments I have ever seen. I would give the guys in charge credit for this, but I suspect that it’s a template,” I muse out loud while studying the way my students overcome this new floor.
I have already sped through this one, of course, but that was thanks to overwhelming power. Also, I stopped at floor hundred and sixty because it was getting annoying, not because I felt it was dangerous. Seeing my students with more fitting levels of power figure out how to fight and traverse these levels is interesting.
The hundred and fifteenth level of the Mana Dungeon is made out of a complex hollow space in the form of vertical columns, connected through randomly placed horizontal walkways. The walls are made from this weird, translucent and solid fire. Glowing with a deep orange, the walls, floors, and ceilings undulate slowly as if burning in slow motion. Each column has a sprinkling of fire crystals that transform into smooth flightless birds. They can swim through the walls of solid fire and are rather fast.
Ket looks in my direction as I mutter my comment, but has his eyes scanning the environment a split second later. Still, his distraction was noted by one of the bird fishes, and Tess barely manages to jump from the shadow between his legs to save his bacon. It is hot enough in here to burn mortals, but everyone seems to be managing the heat. Ket’s metal did melt, so except for the crown thing on his head he has no weapons.
Selis is also not oding too great, her water evaporated to the last drop. Rodrick is guarding her small form while she uses any moisture in the air to cool the overheating bonecore wielder. His axe is starting to glow at the edges, but the rubber grip is too qi-infused to melt anytime soon. Rodrick does have the highest kill count on this level, his viciously chopping axe-intent cutting through the floor with ease, hitting the birds as they swim. The floor is repaired soon after, telling me he is only focussing on raw cutting power. Sword-intent tends to leave hard-to-heal wounds, but he seems to have foregone that effect for more brute slicing force.
Bord is running up the walls, letting the bird things strike him before trapping them in a localised gravity field. They are splatters of molten fire soon after as he pummels them with his fists.
And just when Ket and Tess seem to be cornered, Bord comes crashing back down, sending a shockwave through the solid fire floor that is brutal enough to pulverise everything. The last few enemies were circling around the couple and are crushed into red fragments of fading flame.
Bord looks rather cool as he rights himself, the centre of a cindering whirlwind. Then he delivers the final blow by casually catching a thin rope that fell from above, handing it to the kneeling Ket and Tess. “You guys owe me fourteen meals now,” he tells them before jumping away.
Selis usually flies using water, Rodrick can't fly yet, Ket uses metal to fly, which is now molten slag, and Tess seems to have trouble with performing her rapid-jump type floating technique in this hot and mana-dense environment. This leaves Bord as the only one with reliable flying and floating skills. I find it hilarious, the smartest, prettiest, and most destructive of my students are all forced to wait for Bord to do his thing.
They climb up the rope in a hurry, entering the stairs to the next level. They all look rather singed and parched, each one of them pulls out a drink and starts gulping it down the moment they arrive in the cooler stairwell.
“That went well,” I smirk at them.
“Yeh,” replies Bord with a massive shit-eating grin.
Selis pouts with a sullen look on her face, looking at me with big eyes. I pull the small fish from Tree’s oceans where I temporarily put it and hand it over. She smiles as the transparent critter starts swimming through the water she holds out. “Thanks... That was tough.”
“We got through it, that’s all that matters,” reassures Rodrick. He is still juggling his axe, faint trails of smoke trailing from the piping hot tool.
“Kettyyyyy, my hair! Please make it good again.” Tess holds up a singed lock of raven strands.
“Okay, hold still dear.” Ket pulls a knife from his ring and moves it faster then the naked eye can follow. He looks at Tess’s happily preening form with an odd look. “We are still recultivating after this, right?“
“Hmmh? Sure, whatever.”
“So what have we learned so far? Any flame based foundation level cultivator can turn many kilometres of battlefield these temperatures with just his spiritual sense. How would you fight them?”
“Bring more water...” Selis grumbles as she stares daggers at her ring.
“Chop him down before he can perform that technique,” replies Rodrick.
“Long distance sniping,” is Ket’s answer.
“I’d go like distract him, I guess. Or hide in a cave,” is Tess’ surprisingly sensible answer.
“I’d be in the back, healing, I guess,” replies Vox.
“Punch him… No, make the air heavy. It will go away then.” replies Bord.
“You have been fighting for ages, no water is left. He is too far to reach with a chop, he is protected by a physical nullification barrier, and he’s gay. Also, he can melt through the ground and reach any cave given enough time. Healers are priority targets with huge war bounties on their heads. He won’t let you get near, and that’s actually the correct answer, Bord. Fighting large-scale effects can be done in two ways. Personal and battlefield control. Either you are somehow immune to the effect, or you fight it with a large scale effects of your own.”
Everyone glares at Bord, who ignores them and walks on. He then stops and turns, facing me. “No… I want that effect. So I will take it all. That’s what I will do.”
He nods to himself and moves on.
“So my axe will be useless then,” mumbles Rodrick while staring at the shining tool.
“In that scenario, maybe,” I reply.
He opens his mouth again, about to ask another question but he stops when he sees the next floor. This is another of the weird reversed levels where we will have to climb up instead of going horizontal or down. The stairs open up on a small platform that is hovering above a snowy slope, white stretching as far as the eye can see. A low thundering reaches our ears from the fact that a constant avalanche is crashing downwards.
Bord, still overconfident from the fact that he was instrumental in getting through the past few levels, jumps off and disappears into the roiling stream of snow and ice. He does not reappear. We stare down the edge for a while, uncertain how to react to his sudden jump and disappearance.
Selis snickers and also jumps down. The snow parts beneath her, splitting the ten-meter thick river of rumbling ice to either side of Bord, who is looking a bit blue even though he is glowing a deep red. Large swathes of ice separate and surround the small girl, forming wings as she tauntingly swoops through the air.
“Or luck. You can prepare all you want, but sometimes it comes down to pure chance.” Rodrick, Tess and Vox all jump down, landing next to the half-frozen Bord. They slip and slide for a bit, but the hard surface beneath the avalanche seems to be worn down rock instead of solid ice.
“Or you become a braincore and figure it out on the spot, using small eternities to calculate the optimal answer.”
I turn to Ket and nod slowly. “Yeah, or you could rely on your team a bit. Something I struggle with a lot.”
Ket looks at me before nodding and also jumping down. Pretty soon, the troupe of students is charging ahead, Selis splitting the thundering volumes of snow just enough for them to run upwards single file.
Should I warn them about those long-legged harvester spiders made from ice that will ambush them? Nah, this will be a learning experience for them, they were getting spoiled after all.
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