Chapter 170 - Repudiation

Chapter 170 - Repudiation

I stare at the rabbit on my shoulder. “You first?”

She stares back, hops down to the floor and curls up. Seconds later, the little bundle of fluff is snoring softly. I nudge her with my foot but she only snuggles up tighter.

Shit… I look at the random mess of spatial tears again. The air is absolutely drenched with light and darkness mana, both of the dim and bright variety. I grab hold of the air, changing my braincore into a perfect replica of one of Rhea’s wings. I lift off the ground, the air now a lot easier to boss around, and start floating towards the black and white cacophony that keeps hurting my eyes.

This place has been great training, not just for my students but also for myself. I’d thought that having spent a thousand years in the cultivation world, I’d have little left to learn about using my resources efficiently. I spent a large portion of that millennium on the run and low on resources after all.

Changing my braincore blank state into the endless amount of possible forms has led me to reach new heights of power thriftiness. I’m such a power scrooge now. I refuse to spend any qi when I don't have to. And my core allows me to be extremely efficient in all that I do.

I’ve been down here for what I estimate to be four days. Back when I entered, I could change my braincore, no problem. It took me multiple seconds to change the blank template into a solid enough image to actually produce an effect on my cultivation base. Now, I can change it into ten extremely distinct images per second.

I was afraid that training a quick-switch feature would eat up power, but that’s when I remembered Bord’s little lesson. I just refused to let it cost any power. I wanted my core to change quickly and do it without an additional qi overhead. Any other option is simply not something I believed in.

I’ve not yet checked whether or not this is true. I’ll do that when I’m no longer in such a dangerous place. Those black and white rips seem rather dangerous after all. I float closer to the confusing mess and start studying the phenomenon.

The initial lines appear - for as far as I can discern - completely at random. They then form into a circle rather quickly, after which they turn into a line at a straight, ninety degrees angle from their initial position. The direction of this second line is always perpendicular, but its rotational orientation seems random.

I toy with a few ideas, letting some processes explore possibilities. Designating a sphere that encompasses the entire line will only leave small gaps that I won’t fit through. The scary things appear and vanish in a single second and leave an average of a single meter space between them and their neighbours.

Instead, I close my eyes and visualise myself going through them. I get chopped in half after passing a hundred of the moving razorblades.

Then I try to feel the natural laws at work here. Mana seems to be a rather convoluted way to perform magic, not suited for use by mortals at all. The rough and brute force way of magic in this world and the crystal skulls are proof enough of that. I end up studying the phenomenon for at least an hour and learn very little.

The spatial fractures act like portals going nowhere. Scanning what happens with augur lets me observe that any atoms in the fractures path are shoved aside instead of chopped in half. They do separate electrons from nucleus though, which might explain the constant crackle of electricity that surrounds the relatively slowly changing tears.

Still pondering how to solve this one, I feel something settle on my shoulder. Lola looks up at me, winks and starts hopping through the air, right between the lethal corridor of dimensional razorblades. She forms a thin sheet of ice beneath her feet just as I’m about to lose sight of her and starts pawing at her ear.

I’m still processing that the little hussy winked at me and fail to react to her obvious taunt. She just sits there, constructs of black and white cleaving the universe in half, not millimetres away from her mortal coil. The rabbit just doesn't give a shit.

Well, hell… If she’s brave enough to laugh decapitation in the face, so will I! I can’t be left behind by my pet rabbit, after all.

I take a deep breath, clear my mind and just jump. I feel my heartcore lurch as I somehow reach Lola with all my limbs attached. I’m not a hundred percent sure how I got here safely, having left everything to instinct, but I’ve joined Lola on her ice platform and am still alive to tell the tale.

“Now what?” I casually ask, refusing to let any fear enter my voice. Lola does not hop away, instead, she jumps softly. I feel a heavy impact on the top of my head and the world goes black and white. Next thing I know, I’m sitting in a stairwell.

I look upwards and see the same mass of twisting space. I also see two bunny ears. Lola is sitting on top of my head still and has this incredibly smug look on her face. I stare at her in suspicion, not really sure what just happened. I decide to comb through my memories later. I start petting her while walking down the stairs.

I refuse to jinx myself again, so I avoid thinking that things can’t get any worse than a dimensional meat grinder…

Fredon is depressed. All his years of influencing people, manipulating them just so, learning their tells, ins and outs… It’s all useless now. Everyone can now live for a long time without having to fear being turned into skull-shaped formation food. There’s free access to the greatest depository of information Fredon has ever seen. He morosely stares up at Tree, eyeing the qi-empowered place with a heavy heart.

The collective mages, a good ten thousand mana powered individuals, had all been gathered on the Mana Island by the time it all went wrong. It was a bit cramped, sure, and the food was running low at an alarming rate, but his fellow earth mages were building multi-storied structures that were rapidly relieving the overpopulation problem.

And Fredon is pretty sure he could have managed to endure another month of only eating bland fish and vegetables before he would have snapped. But now… Now food is available aplenty. There’s room enough and the mages even have access to a limited part of this Tree dimension every single interloper has been raving about.

This has all been preceded by a mass near-death experience. The sudden appearance of the dragon, the blue girl taming waves that could topple cities followed by a relatively small but incredibly powerful invasive force had caused quite a few heart attacks in the older mana wielders. The strange magics of these intruders had prevented any deaths, and the small healing core had even delighted in having wounded to heal.

The massive woven cloth that seemed harder than mana forged steel was another unexplained wonder. And the steel-manufacturing mages had all started drooling as soon as they saw the effect that the weirdly made mana cannons had on the encroaching monsters. As if a large portion of mages suddenly forgot what the United Mage Isles had done for them, most of the younger generation jumped ship. They applied to become students, immediately forswearing any and all other allegiances.

Plans had formed in Fredon’s mind, ways to weave himself into this new faction’s power structure. He had started looking for ways to climb up the social ladder in this so-called school. If only he had known better.

There is no power structure to climb. Something like the many layers of ancient tradition used to keep fresh mana wielders compliant is nowhere to be found. Instead, Fredon keeps finding chaos everywhere he looks. No structured hierarchy, no orderly formed command chains. Instead, every single student seems to be doing whatever the hell pleases them.

Fredon went through a small bout of madness that ended up with him being in such a down mood. There was a faction he felt an affinity to, though. Despite the fact that it was made from a majority of slave races, the way that old beastkin keeps her subordinates in line is exemplary even to the seasoned political warrior.

It’s just a shame all the actually powerful people consider her to be a mere ant. Personal power, that’s literally the only measuring stick used here to determine if someone is worth listening to. It’s a bit more nuanced, as the uniqueness and effectiveness of someones powerbase seemed to factor in greatly, but it’s the most consistent way to measure rank Fredon has found. A lot of the smartest minds have little power to themselves, only bothering to gather this qi energy because it allows them to stay awake longer. Others have skills that allow them to punch above the power rank in social circles.

It infuriates the man that so many people are happily doing their own thing without really caring about the greater picture. The Mana Dungeon is still under constant attack, but these students act like it’s a normal thing.

“Maybe you should leave. I really appreciate what you did for me before, but you are simply an incredibly bad person. I can feel your resentful and spiteful thoughts from over here. So, please stop influencing everyone else in a negative manner. I’m going back to my plants.”

Resentment and a powerless, helpless fury overpowers his dark mood briefly. He watches as his previous protege, the antisocial powerless cretin Valerius, floats upwards, carried by long tendrils of prehensile dirt, his droning voice still resounding through Fredon’s mind.

Looking around at the bustling activity that fills the white streets, he sees mages that were meek believers in the mage system only days before. New mages are forbidden from showing any emotion except the ones they practice mana control in. To see a promising fire seed - a guaranteed crystal skull in fifty years - now smiling happily while chatting breaks Fredon’s heart. That young girl was top of the fire class, her hate and anxiety so fierce it could call up a sizable stream of fire.

Fredon recognises the young man that’s now sparring with a yellow-skinned savage as another promising journeymage. He had reported beginning headaches and would have started forming a crystal core within weeks, his face now lacking any of the previously permanent loathing disgust it bore.

“Why are you jealous?”

Shaken from his resentful musings, Fredon looks down at a small boy that’s pulling on his brown robes. The kid’s cheeks sport a ruddy, healthy glow and he’s brimming with youthful vigour and vitality.

“No Corl, stop. Didn’t mean fo’ you to do that...” A little girl, skin black as coal with pointy ears, pulls on the boy’s clothing in turn.

“But you heard pain again! I don’t want other people to make you feel pain. So mister, why are you so jealous you hurt Willa?”

“She heard what?” asks Fredon dumbfounded.

“Ah, look, she got these awesome ears! She can find the best stuff, even helped me find beasties I could beat. They only chopped off my arm a few times, but the red-haired healing missy got really angry, so we aren't allowed to go there anymore. Now we’re earning points by helping people! She can hear so good that she hears stuff we can’t.” The boy emphatically shows off the blushing girl’s ears, smiles widely and nods for emphasis.

“Go away, kid.” The mage already has enough problems to cope with, the rambling delusions of some snot-nosed brat is the last thing he needs.

“Nuh, uh. You’re hurting her, so you go away, or you stop being mean. What’s it gonna be?” Crossing his arms, the kid stares Fredon straight in the eyes.

“Fuck off.” Who does this kid think he is? How dare he think he holds any sway over mage Fredon, member of the shadow council and manipulator of fates? Fredon prepares to physically strike the kid, already using the secret techniques of internal mana circulation to make his strike hit like a massive weight of earth.

“Aah, stop!” The girl stumbles back while clutching at her ears.

“That’s it! STOP HURTING WILLA!” The boy’s shout nearly blows Fredon off his feet, the thunderous volume wiping away his mana enhanced stance. He is then summarily lifted as the little boy throws him over his narrow shoulders. Belying his small frame, the boy easily manhandles the mage as he is carried towards the portal pagoda at high speed.

Not ten seconds later, the small white building with glowing lines in its doorways comes into sight, and Fredon is hurled towards one of them at high speed. With a sudden ‘pop’, Fredon finds himself back on the Mana Island, the plaza surrounding the deceptively simple portal nearly empty.

He feels something on his hand shift, and looking down he sees the thin stone ring that allowed him access to the other dimension crumble into dust.

It takes him a few moments to get himself back to a point where his churning emotions have calmed down. He was just thrown out of an alternate dimension because his mean thoughts hurt a little kid’s girlfriend? Did that just happen?

Fredon then realises that while he has been making use of the solidified and unchanging character traits inherent to older mages for a large part of his life, his ways might be equally set in stone. Looking around, he no longer sees the emotionless masks that all mages were forced to wear. No longer are the streets covered by empty-eyed slaves.

Instead, animatedly talking people are working on things, building new structures with concentrated and happy faces instead of the apathetic grimace needed for all earth mana manipulation. He sees beastkins, savage colour skins and normal, pure humans working together. The most complex formation he has ever seen, read about, or even speculated on - the floating kilometre wide doily above his head - is rumoured to be made by two beastkin women. That little savage skin girl could actually hear the mood of his inner thoughts.

Fredon realises that he is not the only one that’s unable to handle large changes smoothly. His mind might not be petrified, but his behaviour so far has been as if his entire skull is crystal. Walking through the rapidly changing city that’s being built upon the Mana Dungeon, the thing he can’t get out of his mind is Valerius’ face.

The two had talked for a while, but an immeasurable wide gap had formed between disciple and master. Previously, Fredon had held all the power while Valerius was unknowingly being groomed for a position in the shadows. Fredon had tried talking about mage politics like old times. Valerius had only been willing to talk about being a lowborn farmer, a position only suitable for the cheapest of slaves.

But his face, though. The way his eyes had come to life, his entire persona had transformed from meek, downtrodden mage to vibrant and enthusiastic horticulture expert is the image that just won’t leave Fredon alone.

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