Chapter 172 - Forboding
A week. An entire week has passed, and Re-Haan is getting worried. She’s spent the last seven days sitting on top of the decorated tower while overseeing the defensive efforts. Things have fallen into a routine as the influx of aggressive monsters and beasts has shifted from a constant stream to a slight trickle.
She squints her eyes to spot the latest approaching monster - a tier five - just in time to see the qi cannons fire in concert. They expertly carve away at the massive beast's armour, allowing a coordinated group of fullblade wielders and other fighters to engage.
Keeping an eye on the battle with the oversized sea snake, she continues worrying about Drew. His group came out a few days ago. They all reported that Teach had gone on ahead while they recovered a bit more. They supplied some more interesting tidbits, such as the level layouts up to floor one hundred and sixty along with the fact that the dungeon seems to refill with enemies after a full twenty-four hours.
Drew still hasn't returned. Bassik has fled inside Tree, telling her that the stream of invisible moonlight crashing against the barrier is blinding. And the enemies approaching the dungeon are seemingly drying up. Also, a good few of the mages that have joined the students are actively trying to limit people's freedom in all sorts of ways. Fights between new mage students and their elders who refuse to join have started breaking out more frequently.
Rhea is very busy, her time occupied by the need to constantly put out fires or break up fights. Even now she is trying out new techniques of managing the heard of cats that are Drew's students. She gave out missions to find solutions to deep-rooted racism, generation-old feuds, and philosophical and deep-seated ways of thinking that inherently clash with each other. A lot of theorising has been done, but very few proposed solutions have worked or are accepted by both sides.
What do you say to the beastkin who recognises a mage that killed half their village? How do you negotiate a ceasefire between two factions that have been at each other's throats for centuries? How do you handle thousands of people who automatically see a large portion of the student body as nothing but animals?
Re-Haan is tempted to go down the ‘for the greater good’ path thanks to some mathematical simulations that a group of braincores proposed. This set of policies would reduce everything to a vote based on a numeric score. People can gain value through cultivating, earning Database points, supplying information, and more. These contributions would be weighted and added to their votes on issues.
Instead, she goes over the list of issues once more. She then takes a step back. To her utter amazement, less than one percent of the population has been causing over ninety percent of the issues so far. Mentally rubbing her eyes, she starts to notice a pattern.
The vast majority of people are happily doing their own thing. Crafting, learning, cultivating, making and growing food, the list goes on. A small percentage seems to be causing nothing but trouble. Smirking to herself, she puts a new grading system together, just for her own personal use.
All new issues are given a priority based on a single factor. How much has the complainant contributed to the school? Immediately she sees that all the big problems that are giving her such a massive headache are submitted by people that have done very little to contribute to the school.
Looking further into it, she discovers that the majority of the complainants have had dealings with a single group of non-cultivating dissidents.
Drew had once told her that everything she gives attention grows. She smirks as she changes her internal to-do list to take the weighted system into account. The top issues are immediately practical concerns such as a lack of freely available niche crafting materials like qi-less sand and fine clay. Gone are the difficult-to-answer problems. Drew has also repeatedly told her to keep issues close to the practical, that waxing philosophical should only be done after all hands-on solutions have been exhausted.
Her mind put at ease, she starts working on the issues put forth by people actually contributing to the school. Instead of the previous slow and tedious slog, she flies through the new list of problems, assigning missions or requesting practical solutions for each point.
Not half an hour later, she is done with all the pressing issues. Looking around, she manages to catch the last futile effort of the latest aquatic behemoth as it gets dismantled by a team of cultivators. She sees the sea still filled with monster bits that leak mana. All this mana is now being absorbed by the shielding cloth formation, which is honestly total overkill in terms of protection.
She then decides that this issue is one of high enough concern to send Drew a high priority message. Carefully, she composes a packet of information, telling him about the current status of the defence and her proposed changes. She suggests a new formation to be put into place, one that will channel the mana into Tree instead of into its internal inefficient defensive structures. In short, she wants to shift the operation’s focus from defensive to exploitation, harvesting the mana and seafood instead of letting it go to waste.
She also includes a report on Bassik’s findings. She had put up a mission that asks for other cultivators to go down the eye-path moments after hearing the haggard man's story. Every single one of the few volunteers confirmed Bassik’s findings. The eye-based cultivation base seems capable of seeing the meaning. The concept of entropy is a subject that Re-Haan has yet to fully study, but the eyecore cultivators seem able to see the contrast between high and low entropy. Intelligent minds form order and meaning, and the difference between the universes' desired state of maximum entropy and said order is visible to these cultivators.
This planet’s moon is even now beaming down a whole shitload of contrast to the Mana Dungeon, so much even that Bassik and the other eyecore’s no longer dare to enter the Dungeon complex. They claimed it felt like looking into the sun, a few meters from its surface.
She includes a summary of these events and findings in her report to Drew and sends it off.
Not a minute later, she receives a message in return. It seems a bit mechanical and automatic but Drew basically tells her to go ahead. It also contains a footnote that he’ll be out in a bit and to take care.
Smiling at this hint of concern for her, she sends out the orders to swap the protective weave for the mana absorption one that was finished a few hours ago.
She immerses herself some more in her internal tree, checking on all the projects that have been happening. The rather large influx of new mages and the growing stream of new students recruited through trips to the beastkin or savage lands has been sapping the qi inside Tree dry. Database has been struggling with keeping up, the indexing of all the new people running around taking up a lot of processing power.
She checks on the large number of areas of study that people have been exploring, as well as all the practical products produced. Now that the difficult questions that took up a lot of consideration are no longer so pressing, she catches up on all the smaller issues people have been reporting.
Deep in a managerial haze, she barely notices as Ragni, Angeta, Ket, and a group of other students start rolling out another large swath of cloth. Nor does she notice that the defensive formation is switched off and the mana gathering one activated.
She does notice when a pale, dishevelled and panting Drew suddenly appears next to her. Sensing that something is wrong, a process immediately throws all her qi on a rotating path through her brain. Her tree core lights up as qi churns and flows while her perception crashes into overdrive.
Opening her eyes, she sees Drew. His hair is a mess, his eyes are dark, and his face is pale. He clutches Lola in a death grip, the small bunny not looking much better. Matted and damp fur clings to her shivering frame.
Rhea perceives the world a few hundred times slower now that all her qi is sloshing through her brain. Even now, she still sees that Drew’s perception is a few factors higher than hers. Watching his eyes, she sees him going through a wide variety of emotions in short succession.
Normal people can’t really notice when braincores do their time dilation thing. Re-Haan has seen it happen enough times to get a glimpse of the inner thoughts of someone passing hundreds of years inside their mind in the blink of an eye.
The eyes are the window to the soul, and this is truer than she ever suspected. She can’t see a lot, but she does see Drew’s eyes shake in their sockets as his mind goes through turmoil at mach one hundred. Some odd light that Rhea has only recently started to see in other people shines in his pupils. This light pulses with each thought, like a heartbeat of the brain. Drew’s eyes are flickering at an amazing frequency and amplitude.
Then she sees him slow down his perception and she follows suit. She sees the lights in his eyes synchronise with her own speed. The small smile on his face somehow hurts her heart as they both come back to real-time.
“Call me Teach.”
“Call me Re-Haan. What happened?”
Drew looks around, his eyes flickering when he sees the old defensive formation being rolled up. Frowning, he looks her in the eyes again. “Nothing much. I’m… going to sleep for a bit.”
Re-Haan is about to reach for him when she feels him shift into Tree as he disappears from the Mana Dungeon. She mentally follows the path he takes and senses him appear somewhere near Tree. Closing her eyes in order to sense inside Tree better, she feels his presence in the middle of Tree’s crown. Tree seems to be helping her by providing information as she sees Drew take a deep breath. He then puts his hands on the golden tree’s bark, which bends under his touch. He sinks inside Tree and disappears from her senses.
Biting her nails for a reason she doesn’t quite understand, Re-Haan sits back down. She is tempted to go after him, to ask him what's going on. A piece of information she read a while ago comes to the forefront of her mind. Maybe this realy is that Stockholm thing…
A process distracts her from her worries. A connection to Database tells her that another drone has finished, so she pulls the thing from the moon’s storage. Drew had asked her to keep launching these things the moment they're done until he returned. But now he has returned, and Database is still pinging her to do that task?
Running a hand across the smooth metal frame, Re-Haan ponders what she should do. She throws the thing into the air and purses her lips. Now that she thinks about it, something has been brewing for a while.
The first waves of drones have been travelling in relatively straight lines as they scanned the area at great heights. No matter how she chooses to look at things, the highest priority of the drones seems to be performing a scan of the entire planet. The resolution that the high altitude flyers are scanning the world with is sufficient to see large structures and buildings. She has also seen the second wave of drones fly past any locations marked as possible settlements.
Re-Haan has administrator-level access rights to Database, but the drone controls and map data storage processes are off limits to her. Other things have been bothering her. Why did Drew allow all those mages access? This large change in recruitment policy went by largely unnoticed, but the average mage just doesn’t seem like a good fit for the entire school thing Drew has been building up.
Re-Haan keeps mulling over more small inconsistencies that don’t add up. The original students got access to a single fighting style, and he forbade them from learning others until they had shown mastery. Now all students get access to the entire collection at once, only needing to show mastery in order to get access to the anything above the basics.
Flight Mountain is also bothering her. She sent her direct family members a care package days ago now and hasn't heard from them. The Flight should have at least sent an investigative party to the Mana Dungeon, but she has not seen a single scout.
Then there is Drew’s lack of interest in the weird cultivation method styles that have been happening. Re-Haan would have assumed him to be frothing at the mouth at the chance to learn new information. Then again, Tess’s and Ket’s theory about semi-sentient cultivation bases might shed some light on that blind spot.
Sighing in frustration, Re-Haan sits up and starts walking, completely unable to relax.
Angeta bites her lip. She finally can’t put it off anymore. Database has been throwing this mission at her daily since a while ago. Now that the mana gathering formation is finished and in use, Database started pinging her every hour. Finally unable to stand the annoying mental intrusions anymore and unable to beat up a moon - at least not yet - the beastkin finally accepted the mission.
“Angy, seriously. Do you really hate me that much? Certain doom for sure, I even asked Ket to do the calculations, and he just lit one of those new sticks of incense for me.” Leave it to that hussy to combine panic and sultriness in a way that even Angeta can’t help but find sounding sexy.
“Shut up fat girl. I want to taste dragon.” The smacking and licking sounds that follow are a clear indicator that this speaker has rather full cheeks.
“I… You are calling me fat? What...”
“Bord, no eating sapient species, okay? We will first need to ask if they have someone who is… developmentally challenged on the mental spectrum before we can eat one of those.” Selis’s cutesy voice is adorably innocent as always.
“Guys… Seriously… Shut the fuck up, we’re nearly there, and I think we need to prepare for a fight,” replies Angeta.
The small group of students falls into silence as they watch the massive mountain emerge from the horizon. The group is standing on a steady deck. The vessel they are on is cutting through the waves smoothly, elevated a few meters above the undulating waves. A long pole cuts through the water beneath them, an underwater pair of hydrofoils and a propulsion formation allowing for a rather smooth boating experience.
The fierce winds are dampened by one of the many formations built into the boat. Re-Haan’s forceful building of the wooden sailboat had made a new industry, one of luxurious vehicle production. It's been growing rather quickly. The boat they are currently standing on is one of the latest models produced by the multidisciplinary crafting organisation.
“So, please prepare for hostile contact, it doesn’t seem pretty at all.” Angeta sits down on the deck and starts pulling seeds from her ring. She occasionally makes a grasping motion at the sea, which causes different types of seaweeds to be pulled upwards as her hands grow green.
Bord starts bouncing up and down in anticipation, his many rolls jiggling in a hypnotic slow-motion that seems to defy gravity. Ragni averts her eyes and also sits down, wrapping more cloth around her well-dressed frame. Selis looks down at the water all around and smirks at the preparations happening around her.
Their sudden preparatory mood is because Flight Mountain has just come into full view. Not only can the group see the many battle scars littering the island, but they also get a look at the beings producing said scars. A massive battle between large lizard shapes is producing more as the group approached.
Angeta muses that this might be why Database suddenly prioritised the retrieval of her lost tail. And why Re-Haan is sitting behind them, still lounging in her folding chair as the air around the lithe woman sinters with power.
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