Chapter 169 - Lambasting

Chapter 169 - Lambasting

I remember the previous levels clearly, having run through them up to the hundred and sixtieth level. I had two solid cores back then, both filled with liquified potential that I had crystallised into an even higher and more potent concentration. I stopped because I wasn't having any fun anymore, the dense mana basically blinding me.

I can’t help but frown as I look over this level. I feel anger and compassion in the air, cementing this one as one of the nature-themed levels. The are crystals here, but they're in odd places. The mana levels are also lower. This has lead me to suspect that some levels have their mana in the air while others store it in crystals.

I then realise that those levels are meant for pressure resistance training. Spiritual pressure is a very real thing. People can faint or die from being exposed to a large amount of loose power. That mystery solved, I look around again.

It’s basically shrooms everywher The floor looks like deceptively normal soil. Large pale green trunks of matte material sprout from the dark ground at random intervals. Green gems of a near white lustre are embedded inside the rather large forms at regular intervals. The nearly white glow coming from them lights up the large hoods stretching above me. I’m inside a massive mushroom forest.

I’m very tempted to go and pull the crystals from the stems - their energy density is rather high - but doing so will set a transformation process in motion that I’m not a fan of.

“Really Lola? Again? Didn't the last fifteen teach you any lessons?” Lola is once again sniffing one of the silent giants. And there she goes again, taking a big bite out of the thick trunk. The entire mushroom trembles, bending and twisting as it contorts. It then pulls its thin roots free from the soil as its stem splits into arms and legs. Lola hops away, chewing happily as a pissed off mushroom man starts running after her.

She swallows and jumps at her pursuer, taking another sizable bite and exposing one of its shining gems. Large, rough arms made from translucent fungus smash into her previous location, Lola having disappeared a fraction of a second earlier.

“Stop taunting the poor sod and finish it...” She is now sitting on its crown, taking big bites out of its shiny cap. Blue fog starts swirling around the critter, and I stop myself from grinning. A rather large nail made from ice forms next to her as she condenses the water in the air. The mushroom’s hand smashes down on her, driving the four-meter long spike into its own control centre. It falls with a slow crash, mana crystals falling out of its disintegrating limbs.

Lola then hops my way and stands on her hind legs, tilting her head as if asking for praise. “Yeah, okay, that one was pretty cool.”

I happily oblige her as I pick her up. She has been making great progress in her fine control. She was a bundle of unstable fire and ice when she somehow formed her foundation. I’ve been helping her gain control over the large sources of hot and cold inside her and my sword as we delve deeper.

“Wanna race again?” I ask her.

Her ears shoot upwards and wiggle back and forth.

“3…” I lower myself in a sprinter pose while grabbing the handle of my sword.

“2...” and I shoot towards the closest mushroom, slicing it in half with a casual swing. I ignore Lola’s indignant screech at my false start and form a new mental process. I let it take up a large portion of my braincore, telling it to figure out the most efficient way to chop these mushrooms down with just my physical strength. I then tell it to time-dilate as needed while letting it send a stream of instruction towards my heartcore.

It feels pretty surreal to have an unconscious part of my brain suddenly work a hundred times faster than my conscious mind, like a piece of music just out of audible range changing rhythm. My hand swings automatically, efficiently chopping two more mushrooms in half. The slumbering giants around us have started noticing that they’re under attack and start moving preemptively.

Great, I love it when my prey comes to me! The process speeds up a bit more as it handles these new developments, but calms down after it has run through all the most likely scenarios. My heartcore acts on instinct, moving my body through pure reflexes.

It feels like I was driving with a shift stick moments before but I'm suddenly in an automatic. I can steer in the general direction and tell my cooperating heart- and braincore what to do, but the fine details and precise movements are all being handled without any conscious input.

The two-meter slab of metal turns into a blue and red blur around me, and I speed through the waking forest of mushrooms. Pale stems are split in two as mushroom caps in a myriad of colours fall behind me, chopped into bits. Some of the fungi leave behind a thick cloud of spores as soon as they move, so I make another process in order to form a flame filter in front of my mouth. I’m not a fan of potential parasitic spores, after all.

Then the fire slips from my grasp, and I’m nearly knocked over by a wall of superheated wind. I look back and see Lola flopping to the ground. She starts licking her fur like she isn't sitting in the middle of a massive crater, secretly glancing in my direction.

“Did you keep count?” I ask. She sits a bit straighter, and we have a small staring contest. This tense moment ends when she flicks her ears at me and starts licking her butthole.

Gods, rabbits are such uncivilised creature

I see that the majority of the remaining mush-men were wiped out just now, the only remaining ones are running around with their caps on fire. Deciding to release them from their suffering, I pick up a few mana crystals from the ground and toss them through the flaming figures with mach one speeds.

I start gathering the rich bounty of power while walking towards the exit, the mushrooms themselves crumbling into dust and soil as they leave the embedded crystals laying on the earth. The stream of tinkling power flowing into my ring shines prettily as I walk down the stairs.

The blinding light coming from further down clues me in on the theme of the next level. I have found no recognisable pattern in the way these elemental floors are ordered. The only rule seems to be that no two floors of the same element may be within three levels of each other. It’s total random chaos other than that.

Sighing, I step into another one of these annoyingly mana dense floors. The floors that have these choking levels of power hanging around don't contain any enemies or difficult obstacles. The light levels are especially annoying as the inherently radioactive emissions tear away at my qi senses. The only useful sense is touch, but this floor could be many square kilometres in size for all I know. Finding the exit through sheer stumbling luck is going to take ages. And that is assuming the exit is located somewhere I can walk to.

I try spreading some qi around myself, but it’s eaten away at an astonishing pace. “Isn’t light supposed to heal? Since when is this element all about destructive radiation...”

Lola nudges my foot in a certain direction, and I start following her. Her instincts are developed to the point of it becoming scary, all the mental power she would normally get seems to get turned into a near prescient sixth sense.

No, spiritual sense would be a sixth sense, so a seventh sense?

I walk some more when I suddenly stop. I’m using Lola as a crutch here. Have I grown so conceited I can't even see such a glaringly obvious fault? I keep spouting about not using tools, to rely on your own skills instead. And here I am, being lead around by a fucking bunny…

I sit down. Lola starts biting me and trying to pull me along, so I grab her and start petting her between the ears. She fidgets at first, but calms down quickly.

So, let’s start with the basics here. My qi is being eaten away by a mana powered form of radiation. A quick check with augur in a random sampling of my cells tell me that my DNA is not being damaged more than usual, so it’s not made up out of ionizing particles.

I concentrate my attention on a strand of augur outside my body and sense for any oddities. Other than an overload of electromagnetic radiation around one-micrometre in wavelength - also known as the visible spectrum - there is very little other radiation. I fill the pinprick of augur floating in front of my head with qi. My power is worn away, broken down into its constituent parts until nothing remains.

Right, so how do I fix this? Shielding myself would require me to sacrifice a steady stream of power. Forming a gravity lens could work but would be immensely wasteful in terms of energy. Maybe a physical barrier? My clothes seem to be doing fine. Can't I just let the radiation pass through?

I’m about to start automating a solution search when it hits me. I slap my face, how did I not try this before?

Concentrating upon my blank braincore, I start willing a glass marble into existence. Instead of a natural marble, I think of it like a visual special effect, singling out the refraction. The reflective surface fades, leaving only a sphere that warps whatever is behind itself, a perfect lens.

I pour out some qi, and the result is immediate. I feel that some qi is being used up in the refraction process, but that is just a fraction of the total annihilation that happened before. The qi used to vanish all at once, fading like a ghost. Now a small portion is being consumed at the edges of my qi cloud, where the light is bent.

I try to lower the refractive index of my braincore and it helps a bit. Leaving it with no refraction does not work, as the light starts eating at all my external qi at once again. I do some more tests and find the optimal spot at halfway in between water and air, an index of around one point fifteen.

The image of a faint globe of water fixed in my braincore, I scan the entire floor. Turns out, even with Lola’s help it would have taken several hours to walk to the exit. My slowly fading net of spiritual sense tells me that I’m inside a maze, the shortest route towards the stairs downward is a couple kilometres away. I think the walls go upwards forever but that might be an illusion or a bit of bent space. The paths themselves are ten meters wide, the walls ten thick.

I punch the closest wall with my full physical force, but only manage to hurt my hand. Pumping my braincore qi through my blood vessels, I punch again, a small sonic boom blowing Lola away. A single flake of white wall falls to the ground. I think that broke a finger…

I rub the aching digit and start running towards the exit, my braincore still a transparent sphere. Lola speeds by, pushing off against my shoulder as she jumps forwards. “Okay, lets race!”

The next level is a flat floor, solid despite the heat wafting from its molten appearance. Lola surrounds herself in swathes of fire, so I try to do the same. Instead of protecting me, the fire merely overheats me instantly. Sensing the air with augur once again, I feel a ridiculously large amount of infrared light around me.

I jump back into the doorway when this steady stream of radiating heat in combination with my improvised fire cloak starts burning my clothes. I look at my reddened skin, frowning at the forming first-degree burns.

Lola just wiggles her nose at me as she hops around in the supercharged oven. I think for a bit before changing my braincore into a perfectly reflective surface. I step outside while clad in a layer of qi and barely feel a thing, all the heat bouncing off of me.

Another dozen kilometre sprint later, and I find myself looking at a confusing mass of shiny trees. The jungle in front of me would be normal were it not for the fact that each and every plant is made from metal.

Then a branch falls off one tree and my head jerks back. I pluck the metal ball from my forehead and study it, rubbing the slightly sore spot in the meantime. Lola then comes running back, screeching her little head off. I can see a hole in her ear, a perfectly round gap where fluff covered skin used to be. Looking ahead, I see many smoking holes in the shining foliage that weren’t there before.

Ambush forest with tree guns?

Lethal metal jungle with bullet barrages?

I grin. I like this. These levels are getting interesting.

I regret what I said about liking these levels and how interesting they were getting. I’m about to enter level two hundred twenty-seven, and I’m getting tired. The metal jungle was interesting, forcing me to build a rather complex sensor net and hardwired reflex reactions. That level helped me find new ways to facilitate heart- and braincore cooperation.

Previously, I was using them apart from each other, causing a small delay in communication between my two energetic control centres. The metal projectiles were shot with such force that the small delay was too costly, so I shaped my braincore into a signalling cable that integrated directly with my heartcore.

Lola also learned from the level, leaving many trees destroyed - either frozen and shattered, heated and molten, or with massive cracks from a combo attack - in her wake of revenge for her damaged ear.

The floors that followed were made up of a series of ever more convoluted challenges. The separation of physical enemies and crushing mana pressure disappeared at level hundred seventy-five, each level after that one filled with ridiculous amounts of power and fierce monsters.

And as if that isn’t enough, levels with more than one element started appearing at level two hundred. I thought that dodging a barrage of hundreds of hypervelocity projectiles in a metal jungle was tough. Level two hundred and five taught me that dodging four times that amount of superheated molten metal bullets made that look like a cakewalk. And the combination of metal and fire has been one of the more straightforward ones.

Metal and air sounds like a fairly innocent combination, but I experienced that nothing could be further from the truth on level two hundred and twelve. Not being able to touch anything without receiving a massive electrical shock in combination with wind speeds that can rip mortals apart had me stumped for quite some time.

I tried changing my braincore into rubber, but the electricity just powered through. I ended up bearing the jarring shocks that still reached me while my qi acted like a faraday cage, my braincore in the most vivid model of a superconductor I could imagine.

Then environmental traps, monsters, mana pressure and multiple elements were combined from level two hundred and twenty-five onwards. It’s a fucking nightmare. Lola keeps biting me and pulling me back up the stairs. She looks pretty battered, now missing half an ear and some patches of fur. I don't look much better, pieces of my hair and beard are gone while every single scrap of cloth on my body is charred, bloodstained or shredded.

Surely this dungeon can't be much deeper, right? “Come on Lola, level two twenty-seven. It can’t be that bad right?”

I pick her up and walk down the last part of the stairs. Peering through the opening, I see a large stretch of space filled with spatial cracks. White and black edges randomly appear in the void, opening like a mouth before folding into a line again. I can see the fabric of reality being torn to shreds each time a crack opens. One of those things opening up inside of my body will split me in half.

“Right, can’t be that bad...”

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