Chapter 168 - Assessment
Bassik sees things. His wife is still sleeping, the pressure of the constant defence draining her usually bottomless mental powers. This is happening to more and more braincores as the Mana Dungeon fight drags on, the mental pressure not doing the thinkers any favours.
But Bassik sees things because he recultivated on a whim. He found his own combat effectiveness rather lacking, his generic heartcore limiting him to the role of carrying his wife and kicking the occasional sea beast that came too close. Bassik was not happy with that role.
So he decided to go down a path he knew for sure that no one had taken yet, as Database gave him a point reward for suggesting the cultivation idea in the first place. Bassik went to Tree’s much quieter moon, and after tucking his wife in, he forced all the power out of his body and heart. Five heart wrenching and tortuous hours later he was a mortal without a scrap of qi in his lanky frame.
Database boosted him to Tree’s qi-rich atmosphere after his third attempt at jumping without his heartcore, where he collapsed into a tired heap while he recultivated, shoving all the power he could get his hands on into his eyeballs. He had decided the core location mainly on a whim, but Bassik does enjoy observing people, so there’s that.
That was hours ago, and Bassik - previously a fresh core-forming heartcore - is now a fresh qi-condensing eye core, and he sees things. Walking across the Mana Dungeon’s much-changed structures, he has trouble believing his eyes.
The largest building used to be a shoddy brown tower that was just crooked enough to be worrying. Since Re-Haan had taken it as the seat of her power two days ago, things had changed. The students who were carpenters and masons had formed a builder division. They saw the state of the Mana Dungeon’s hastily built structures when they arrived here for the first time, cursed up a storm and collectively rolled up their sleeves.
Now Re-Haan’s tower is a marvel, a temple dedicated to the possibilities of qi-empowered construction. Graceful arches are inset with dazzling scenes made from glowing stained glass. Breathtaking and mind-bending mosaics make the tower shine in a way that’s much more than just the sum of its parts.
But Bassik no longer thinks it's one of the most beautiful things he has ever seen. He has avoided looking at the tower since his first glance. He truly thought he’d been blinded the moment he stepped through the Mana Dungeon portal. When Bassik looks at where Re-Haan is sitting, he sees a shining flow of meaning and power, a coagulation of cooperation. Tendrils of such majesty bring meaning to and from the shining draconic goddess.
Looking around, he sees a yellow energy sitting inside the few unchanged mage-wrought structures. The qi-built constructions look rigid and unyielding in comparison. The energy matrixes inside the freshly-built structures look like neat lines and tightly placed bricks to Bassik’s supernatural sight.
The sea is churning with dense mana signatures, and the pale man sees the horizon speckled with glowing concentrations of mana. The water around the Mana Dungeon itself is a riotous patchwork of intermingling powers, the mana seeping out of the beaten foes painting the waters.
Looking downwards, the Dungeon itself is a blessed swath of darkness, not a single shred of power visible to his overworked eyes. But Bassik barely dares to look upwards. Shielding his eyes from Re-Haan’s overwhelming glow, he risks another look at the sky.
The moon, faintly visible behind the tumultuous clouds, is similar in nature to Re-Haan. But where the dragoness has lines flowing from her form, like guiding and helpful tethers, the moon is stuck in a rigid web. Stark lines connect to seemingly random places in the sky, ending at points that move slowly. The entire sky is an ever-changing kaleidoscope to his eyes, and it's freaking him out.
He keeps seeing beams of light coming from the moon, the celestial body pulsing with an eye-piercing glow once every minute or so. The waveform of fibrous light grows bigger once more, turning the sky a pure white only for it to split into a fuzzy explosion as the beam hits the rapidly spinning woven formation shielding the dungeon. The intricately knitted span of gauze seems to be blocking the beam, but Bassik has noticed the blinding attacks seems stronger each repetition,
Bassik looks around while shielding his eyes from the bright blaze happening above him. He receives some odd looks from the students and still cowering mages, but none seem to see what he sees. Bassik again fears that he is going crazy.
The weird circumstances he has found himself in since Rityn and he were rescued from a life of slavery have been impactful, to put it mildly. The only reason very few of the students have snapped is because of the atmosphere inside Tree. A bubbling intensity is in the air, making everyone see possibilities instead of the impossibly large changes in lifestyle. Bassik is also pretty sure he would be raving mad were it not for his wife.
Just goes to show, he separated from her for the longest since they arrived inside Tree’s dimension and Bassik starts seeing things…
He stops in front of the ornate tower, the makeshift streets around him suspiciously empty. Then again, Re-Haan is the last person here to need guards or protection. Swallowing nervously, the pale man enters the finely detailed interior, too nervous to notice the subtly intricate tree motifs adorning the insides. A few minutes of hesitatingly shuffling ahead, he reaches the top.
Even with closed eyes, he can feel her presence. The thick streams of meaning and information flowing from the lounging figure betray her seemingly relaxed posture. Bassik wished he had a hat to nervously hold in front of himself. Swallowing once again, he approaches the gorgeous woman.
“M-miss Re-Haan? I might have something important to report...” He suddenly forgets what to do with his hands. The way they awkwardly hang at his sides seems so stupid all of a sudden.
Her pale eyes open and Bassik sees her slitted pupils turn into round ones as soon as her gaze lands on him. The white hair frames her delicate face, sharp angles forming an interplay of hard and soft lines that briefly takes his breath away. He never had these problems as a heartcore, sea take him! He should never have stuffed everything in his eyes after all.
“Bassik, what’s wrong? You’re free right now...” Her small smile and slightly raised eyebrow snap Bassik out of his daze, and he immediately stands straighter.
“Do you see that, miss?” He points upwards, using his lifted hand to shield his eyes.
Bassik glances upwards quickly and immediately regrets it. The moon is shining with blinding light again. Hunching down and rubbing his eyes, he starts talking, telling her of his recultivation, his eyecore, and the weird things he is seeing.
Bassik finishes his story by comparing Re-Haan’s aura and the moons intensifying glow. Like a candle and a burning village, he tells her. He looks up only after his eyes stop burning, if only to do something about the lengthening silence. He sees a grimly frowning face when he looks up.
“Fuck,” is all the mighty dragoness replies.
“Come on ya lame-ass ninnies! No student of mine quits unless they’re dead. Hey, big guy, I see you’re still breathing, so how bad can it be?” I kick Rodrick, more to check whether or not he has succumbed to his wounds than to irritate him. He really is one lucky guy, the only reason he is still alive is his incredible bone strength.
“Leave him be, Teach. I’ve just managed to gather enough qi to stop his bleeding, don't damage the goods any further.” Vox is sucking on his teeth while kneeling down next to Rodrick. The redhead is still shivering. The thick layer of ice in his hair and shoulders is slowly melting.
The last few levels have been rather tough, but all my students have persevered so far. We are in the small room between every ten levels, the stairway down and swirling darkness door places opposite the entrance.
I walk over to Selis and see her rocking back and forth, her arms wrapped around her knees as she whispers to herself. “...fire ever and then I will get all the blankets ever and never leave the warmth again. Then I will order everyone to set the entire world on fire, making it warm everywhere, always. Never cold anymore...”
The previous level - level one hundred and fifty - was a rather difficult-to-traverse room made up of vertical ice caves. Selis tried to mould the walls into inset walkways but ran out of qi halfway. Her half-conscious form was then tossed back and forth by Vox and Tess as they traversed the vertical walls, holding on to handholds made by an industrious chopping Rodrick. While under attack by a constant stream of ice monsters. And while needing to keep warm in temperatures many tens of degrees below zero.
Rodrick actually managed to keep up with the rest, to my mild surprise. I'm not sure whether I should be impressed with the large beastkin or disappointed with my five original students. Bord was too busy with keeping the large variety of ice monsters at bay for him to give his teammates a gravity boost and Vox was busy with keeping everyone in minimum functioning condition.
The level before that was a never-ending maze of interwoven tree branches. They were still regaining their breath from all the scaled monkeys that had been chasing them when they had to fight off both monsters and extremely cold temperatures.
The main problem my students are facing is their lacking reserves. There is just a single element of mana in these levels, and fusing one type of mana into qi is not efficient at all. This also explains why Bord and Rodrick - both less dependant on burning qi to attack - are doing so great.
I really shouldn’t be too hard on them. A comparable cultivator team from the cultivation world would have burned through their qi in the first fifty floors. They then would have pulled out their emergency teleportation slips when they discovered their precious breathing techniques were useless in a qi-less environment.
I gingerly pat the shivering blue haired girl’s wet head, wipe my hand and walk on. Tess has snatched up Lola and is trying to wrap herself around the small rabbit. She actually growls at Ket when he comes near her. I stand next to the bedraggled boy and join him in staring down at the bundle of wet cloth and black hair.
“H-how far did you get last time? How did you make it look so easy back then?”
“Heartcore. Bord and Rodrick are doing great...” I look at the unconscious heap of wounds and blood-covered rags. “Relatively great.” I look a bit further and see Bord lying in a large heap. He keeps rubbing his stomach and is softly whining. He demanded everyone’s food after each level, expounding on the way he had saved everyone until he had eaten every single scrap they were carrying,
“Still does not make sense. You were a dual solid core cultivator back then but the way you… No, all movements I observed were within parameters… How...”
“Basically, experience. These dungeons are amazing training grounds. The cultivation world had all of these aspects but less so. For example, there was an area where an immortal ice dragon died. Its influence formed enormous swathes of magical ice. The previous level is the perfect training ground to prepare for something like that, or vice versa, in my case.”
Ket frowns, the sluggish metal contraption around his head speeding as his body warms up slowly.
“The nature level before that one was perfect training for adventuring inside a sentient jungle or forest. The level before that dealt with sensory deprivation, ideal for training against nearly all forms of illusion magic and formations. This place is a massive survival pressure cooker.”
“Why are the first levels so normal then? They are just corridors or rooms with spawning monsters...” Ket still has a difficult expression on his face.
“Because these kinds of specialised training courses build upon the basics. There is no need to teach advanced combat and survival techniques to someone who doesn’t even know how to throw a punch.” I wonder why it took me so long to realise this fact. Maybe it’s because I’m seeing the effects on my students instead of experiencing the thing myself?
“But Teach, we came in like totally unprepared and undersupplied. We are totally screwed if we need to go on without resupplying.” I look down at Tess, who seems to be partially recovered.
“Sure, if you keep going through these levels the dumb brute force way that you've been going. Why do you guys keep choosing these dumbass ways of crossing levels anyway?”
“Hey, you try it… Wait, you already did...” Selis’ furious indignation melts as she recalls my and Lola’s delve that they spied on.
“Selis, why did you carve away such a large volume of ice when a simple walkway would have sufficed? Rodrick, why did you insist on chopping down that large section of trees in the level before? It didn’t really do anything, and it wasted fifteen minutes. Ket, why didn’t you use metal sand to make a sensor net in the level before? Bord, why did you exhaust yourself by making everyone weightless when a simple gravity reversal would have sufficed? Tess, why did you keep pulling those massive monsters inside the shadow, knowingly wasting all that qi for little gain? Vox, why do you insist on healing at a distance when touch healing is much more efficient? None of the remote heals were for fatal injuries. And all of you, what are you hurrying so much for?”
I had lost myself a bit there, recounting a few of the glaringly obvious faults. To be totally honest, the shortsighted way in which they were solving the problems right in front of them without any long-term planning was getting on my nerves. I look at the small group and see them all looking away from my gaze while also avoiding each other's eyes.
“Uhm… I did it because that seemed the best? I don’t really know how strong ice is...” Selis speaks up first.
“Ket, what would the minimum thickness for a material-efficient walkway made from that ice need to be?” I turn to Ket.
“Ten centimetres with triangular supporting beams every meter or so,” Ket replies as the calculator around his head slows back down after a brief burst of activity. Bord’s eyes light up for a second, but he continues scratching his ass when no more triangles are mentioned.
“Rodrick, did you need that heal in the jungle level or could you wait a minute?”
“I was closing that gash myself. I appreciated the heal, believe me, but I could have kept going for half an hour at least.”
“But I could see your bone through the cut!” is Vox’s indignant reply.
The group starts chatting amongst themselves, going over a large series of events and what they could have done better. I see a lot of ‘ah, of course!’ moments as a different perspective leads them to a much more efficient solution.
“Okay, take your time. You guys should be able to get to level one hundred and sixty without any issues if you all work together. I'm going on ahead.” We’ve been down here for at least four days now. I’ve got this weird feeling that I need to hurry. I can’t find anything wrong, not even when querying Database, so I suspect that my heartcore is picking up on some danger that I’m not seeing.
Before they can protest, I hurry down the stairwell, a chorus of complaining shouts following me down.
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