Chapter 175 - Range
“Dungeons, the sheer impracticality of that will never cease to make my thoughts grind to a halt.”
“Shush. You’re one to talk,” replies Tess in a whisper. She and Ket are both crouching on top of a rickety structure. The beastkin capital stretches around them, a colourful city spread over an extensive collection of islands in the delta of a river.
“I merely shift qi around in different parts of my brain. I don’t twirl my entire cultivation base around my fingers like a lunatic.” Ket stares at the dagger Tess twirls through the air. He feels the power radiating from the pitch black item, and it makes him queasy.
“Shut up, one of those large-eared guys is looking over here.” Tess peers over the edge, her dagger shifting into a dark cloak that hides her from sight. She continues talking in a tone that’s nearly too soft for Ket to hear. “Have you found any yet?”
“Nope. I’m pretty sure they don’t have their base in the trash district though.”
“Hey, that’s a mean thing to say. These guys just use the available materials creatively.” Tess throws an amused smirk at Ket, who keeps shifting on his feet uncomfortably.
They are skulking on top of a structure that honestly has no business staying upright. Salvaged wood is nailed to chipping marble with improvised metal sheeting. The building they’re on is one of the highest on this island and sways in the wind precariously. The faint smell of trash seems a permanent fixture in this part of the city where each building is made from thrown away materials.
“They do look kind of cute though. It’s a shame we got none of them in Tree.” Tess looks down again, peering at the black-eyed members of the trash mafia caste. The majority of the pedestrians are clad in a mishmash of clothes, the ill-fitting and uncoordinated colours a clear indicator that none of the items they wear are designed to go together.
“Wearing second-hand clothes… No thank you. Let’s move to the next part already. They obviously aren’t here.” Ket shivers slightly while peering down at the unwashed masses. Even when he was but a poor baggage carrier he refused to do things like that.
“Okay… Let's move to that one!” Tess points to the next island over, a collection of rising towers with interconnected bridges making a three-dimensional maze. The entire thing is made from packed earth and looks rather organic.
“Shhh. And okay. Move ahead, I’ll follow. I want to study those pointy-nosed beastkin. They don’t really have a presence outside of the capital.”
Tess nods, her white teeth shining brightly in the darkness. The black hood she wears shimmers and wraps her up as she disappears. Ket’s brain hurts at the entire concept of the cultivation system that Tess has developed. He smirks at the feeling, acknowledging the rebellious nature of his own base, and drops metal shavings from his ring.
He soars through the sky as the tower behind him creaks and groans as he pushes off of it. Ket and Tess have both re-cultivated after returning from the Mana Dungeon delve, around a month ago now. Ket decided to custom build something more basic that doesn’t rely on a gimmick like an external calculator. Instead, he went with a custom braincore.
Extensive testing and mapping have led him to develop an adaptive mental cuklltivation base. Instead of storing all his qi in a single spot, he can now move his core around his entire brain. Instead of his previous clean and calculative way of thinking, he has found a full-braincore to be a more natural way of reasoning. He has less control over his subconsciousness, but he has gained more overall thinking power in return. The madness and disconnect that comes with too much thinking might now only become an issue at much later levels, but his ability to assign automated processes is limited in return.
Instead, he now can enhance certain parts of his brain by shifting his braincore around. A grin on his face, he does so by moving the majority of his qi to the middle part of his brain. He is still figuring out what each part of the brain does, but he has found out that stimulating certain parts of his brain enhances certain aspect. The middle part of his brain improves motor coordination and auditory processing.
The world blooms with sound as his vision dims to mortal levels. He starts seeing though his ears as each distinct soundwave entering his auditory organs gives him a wealth of data. Instead of smashing into the building he is flying towards, Ket gracefully lands. He slinks through the open window at speed, skittering along the floor with an elegant roll, slides through the furnished room and the door like an acrobatic spider.
His flowing and coordinated movements are aided by the small clouds of metal sand he uses to push against the floor, walls and ceiling. Without making a single sound, he runs through multiple cluttered rooms with superhuman grace, jumping out of a window on the other side of the ramshackle apartment.
Soaring through the air again, he shifts his power to the back part of his brain. His eyes start burning slightly as the amount of visual information he receives and processes increases a hundredfold. He looks ahead, glad that he no longer needs to look at the heaps of trash that are the buildings of the island based city sector still below him.
Ket had come with Tess at her request. She had badgered the beastkin in Tree until they reluctantly told her of the assassins caste loyal to the position of Tooth, whoever might be filling that rank currently. The mysterious caste is rumoured to consist of fur covered beastkin with white and orange colouration covered in black stripes. Their mysterious stealth and assassination skills had piqued Tess’s interest, and she insisted on searching them out.
They had travelled through one of the many new portals, this one being placed in a dense copse of trees near the beastkin capital. Large walls and dense guards surrounding all the ingress points had led them to infiltrate through the large city’s least guarded part, the trash caste.
Glad to no longer be surrounded by the faint smell of rot, Ket lands on the earthen curves that form the island. Placed in the delta of a large river, each caste seems to be based on a different island connected through a multitude of bridges. The entire city looks like a painter’s palette, each island a different colour and style of architecture.
Tess pops out of the shadows next to him as he surveys the densely built warren. Its inhabitants are oddly shaped beastkin, all of them sporting pointed noses, small beady eyes, and small rounded ears. Half of them seem to scurry around on four limbs while the rest walk upright using their naked tails as support.
“These are cute too,” says Tess with shining eyes.
“Stop getting distracted. How about this, I’ll go check the central islands, and you go explore the other places. I want to test some stuff, and you can look at all the cute critters.”
Distracted by the swarming groups of small beastkin, Tess nods and waves Ket away. He just sighs and flies off. Tess keeps looking around for a bit before also moving on. Instead of soaring through the sky like Ket, she slinks along the ground.
Tess also re-cultivated, deciding to go with a changing base like Ket after some intense discussions. Instead of moving her core around her body, she decided to go with a more changeable concept. Experimentation and training at higher levels of power have led her to catch a glimpse of what her foundation might become. It took her a lot of thinking, but she realised that her elemental affinity for darkness isn’t really what it seems.
The common belief is that all darkness mages are disconnected and reclusive people, hiding from the world and only emerging to acquire more slaves. This is largely correct as far as the mages are concerned, but Tess has found that the brightest lights cast the darkest shadows. Although fighting alongside Vox or Ares boosts her prowess greatly if there are shadowed places around, she personally hates absolute dark places and is totally unable to sleep or feel comfortable in a pitch black room.
Instead, she thrives on the edge between light and dark. The place where contrast is highest. Having caught a glimpse of this, she decided to reform her cultivation base around this concept. Grinning at the black dagger that’s once again twirling through her fingers, she wills it into a large cloak. What better contrast than the ability to change the very root of her power into a grain of sand or a piece of fabric many square meters? She embodies the contrast in her body too, allowing her to adjust the amount of qi locked up in structural reinforcement over time.
The soft feeling cloth that wraps around her is actually her core. Letting the mass of qi merge into her skin, she sinks into the ground while speeding through the edge between the place with only shadows and the real world. She explores the entire island as a dark wraith, moving through the hidden places where light fails to reach.
All she finds is deeply dug tunnels, hoards of food and a rather primitive kind of civilisation. Not a trace of the elusive assassins and the techniques she is curious about. Draping her core around her like a cloak once again, she emerges and just walks through the beastkin capital for a bit, wandering from island to island.
The outer islands all share a single quality, they all contain construction that seems more animal-like than something planned. The more she wanders towards the centre, the more the buildings are constructed according to sound architectural principles. Halfway to the central island, the buildings resemble normal villages in a multitude of styles. The most central islands are shining examples of construction prowess only rivalled by the mightiest human buildings.
She wanders across bridges and through streets for a few hours, trying to catch a glimpse of the mysterious assassins without success. A sudden sound next to her startles her. Her dark cloak snaps into a sword within a fraction of a second, the only thing stopping her from striking with it being the smirking face of Ket.
“Hey. I’ve got an idea. Maybe we should spread the rumour that there are humans wandering through the streets. That might attract those assassins.”
“Stop scaring me like that! I nearly skewered you. And how do we do that?”
“Haha, skewering. Want to get skewered while we wait?”
Tess immediately blushes. She swats at Ket who dodges with supernatural grace. “Shut it. Why is it so silent all of a...” Looking around, she sees every single beastkin present on the streets staring at them. Screams of panic follow as the crowd flees for their lives, screams of “humans!” and “slavers!” present everywhere.
“Like that. Come on, I’ve found a rather nice bedroom over there.” Ket leers at her while dragging her along. “Not so tough now that I’m able to enhance my body, hmm? It feels great that I can toss you around now.”
Tess splutters for a bit until the last words register. “Wait… You said you didn't mind that I was a bit rough our first time. I already apologised for underestimating how strong I was in comparison to a weak braincore like you!”
“Shhh. It’s fine.”
“Ah, of course! Now I understand. I was wondering why your physical qi reinforcement is always a tiny bit above mine when we have sex.” Looking as if she just gained enlightenment, Tess grins at Ket, who now splutters in response. “I’m really sorry though. I would never have been so rough had I known. I mean, you even changed you cultivation base to prevent it from happening again!”
Having lost on several levels, Ket allows Tess to drag him along, their original goal temporarily forgotten.
It took him weeks of manipulating and scheming, but mage Fredon has access to the Tree dimension again. The long days filled with nothing but planning, talking, coercing and planting seeds are now behind him. He glances at the new stone ring around his finger and steps through the portal once more.
Arriving on the moon, he immediately starts moving. Several components of his plan should be ready for pickup. He even went so far as to humiliate himself by taking the test that Database presented him. It took him long days of mental conditioning to get himself in the correct mindset while keeping his true self unchanged to pass those tricky moral questions.
He takes long strides across the white stone of the moon, his exterior facade and thoughts all happy and loving. First, he goes to the small enclave of non-cultivators. The old female beastkin is nowhere to be found, only her dimwitted underlings are present. “Where's Menrah?”
“Ferah came and took her away. I dunno.” The dull-face scaled beastkin shrugs its shoulders and continues drawing circles in the dirt. The crappy tents that litter this part of the moon only serve to irritate the mage.
“Do you have a package for me, then?” Fredon asks impatiently.
“A package for Fredon...”
“Yeh, we have that one.” The beastkin smiles at him vacantly but continues drawing circles.
“So go get it already!” the mage nearly shouts.
Keeping his temper in check, Fredon walks away from the idiotic bunch. He now slightly understands why the aged beastkin seemed in such a foul mood all the time. Schooling his face into niceness and happiness - like all the other idiots happily trouncing around this abominable place - he walks to the single city on the Moon. It doesn’t have a name but since it’s the only place with actual buildings on the oversized rock, nobody deemed it a necessity to give it one.
Fredon stops his feelings from showing on his face or in his aura as he walks between the white buildings. All the wasted potential and thrown away emotional training he sees everywhere is truly painful to the mage. He had thought about changing and trying to find a place in this new way of doing things but had decided not to. This had taken him days of consideration while wandering the much-changed exterior of the Mana Dungeon.
Now things are coming together though. Plans had formed slowly at first, small possibilities appearing here and there. His schemes started taking off a few weeks ago though, around the same time the qi levels in Tree started rising again. The rumours told of the mana near the Mana Dungeon being funnelled into Tree, but the mage somehow doubted that.
Fredon thinks himself relatively lucky all things considered. His large amount of social contacts and a large body of knowledge gathered over the years have allowed him to convince a sizable number of mages. Even the traitors who are even now drinking at the teat of that Teach figure and that fake dragon at least heard him out.
Fredon walks to a normal building at the edge of the moon town and knocks on the wall in a specific pattern. A hidden door slides open, and he slips inside. A small collection of beastkin, savages, and normal people greet him. They all nod in acknowledgement. Soon they will bow, but these small signs of respect will do for now.
Only now allowing his thoughts to slip into his true opinions again, his happily smiling face transforms from its previous carefree rictus. “Welcome brothers. I have it. Make sure to place them in the correct positions and act only when the signal comes. I will go and talk to the rest now.”
More nods follow him as he places the packet on a table and walks out the door again. Mage Fredon plasters a smile on his face once more as he walks out, rubbing his hands.
He is used to having to work hard on long-term plans that might not work, but he has a feeling this one might just work out great for him. The power vacuum at the top is beckoning the scheming mage, and no one else seems aware of the massive possibilities that are clear to him. He looks around at all the students, traitors and slaves while smiling happily.
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