Chapter 177 - Rundown
Re-Haan has had enough. Things stopped making sense a few weeks ago, and it’s getting worse by the minute. The only thing she’s thankful for these days is the fact that no one else seems to have caught on.
How much sense does it make that each and every single outgoing mission just happens to end today? Why is nobody alerted by the movements of the extremely suspicious individuals that are running about the moon and Tree? She has been warned by at least seven oversight processes she set up to be alerted in the case of suspicious Database access behaviour. A couple dozen people are continually searching for all kinds of dark, crazy, and bizarre stuff.
She tried to block access to the scraps of terrifying data she found but was denied access rights. She had to scour Database for a few hours herself to put a picture together. It seemed like Drew had left enough evil rituals, blood magic spells, and sacrificial cult instructions accessible to the general public to put together a wide range of horrible spells.
A few simulations had made Re-Haan sick to her stomach. She’s all for eliminating enemies with prejudice, but reversing someone's skin and locking them in states of permanent pain while draining their soul is a bit much. The forced childbirth spell she found was even worse. She locked any memories of the nightmare realm field she cobbled together behind a permanent process, so she’s quite sure it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
And the total amount of students hasn’t changed for a week now. Any recruitment missions she tried to put up just vanished. She wonders again why no one else seems to have realised this. Is she going crazy? All the students are just going about their business like nothing weird is happening, happily training, cultivating, crafting, growing, and cooking.
And secretly preparing for mass extinction blood spells…
On the one hand, she has the second highest access rights to Database and is the only one besides Drew that can easily connect the dots. On the other hand… Mass extinction rites…
So Re-Haan has had enough. She hasn’t seen Drew since he entered Tree. The request for her to launch drone as soon as they are ready also stopped. Realising that she’s making herself paranoid, mad and crazy, she makes a decision.
Re-Haan is currently sitting on top of the Flight Mountain. The jagged tooth of rock is high enough to pierce the clouds, and the view from up here is quite nice. She has had good talks with all of the dragons and is endlessly relieved that the Ancestor that woke up turned out to be pretty agreeable. All of her kin are now holed up in their caves again like before.
The big difference is that they did it voluntarily this time. The mass of mana crystals they have taken with them is also different, same with the cultivation knowledge and their - admittedly rather slow - access to Database.
She and the Ancestor had talked for hours, his perspective rather different from her own. She suspects that only Drew could manage to have the same kind of mind-bending timescale in his thoughts. She can manage to think and speculate in thousands and even tens of thousands of years. The Ancestor - being hundreds of thousands of years old - could easily juggle millions of years in his thoughts.
In the end, they'd come to a reluctant agreement. He saw which way the wind would be blowing and gracefully accepted a ring and a cultivation starter kit. He then said goodbye and went back to his own chambers, a massive cave tens of kilometres below the root of Flight Mountain.
Re-Haan was rather thankful for the qi containment effect Drew had added to all rings, the thought of all dragons below suddenly waking with qi poisoning being a truly terrifying possibility to contemplate.
Satisfied that things are once again calm on Flight Mountain, Re-Haan starts walking downwards. She once asked Drew why he always took it easy when travelling. He replied with some wise-sounding crap about journeys and destinations that she ignored, but walking down the many kilometres of rugged rock makes her understand it a bit.
A quarter-way down the hill, her sight is robbed by clouds, and she loses patience now that the view is gone. Gliding downwards has her at sea level minutes later, startling the small group of gawking students that have paid the point cost to visit the mythical Flight Mountain.
She steps through the shining thread of light that is the portal and immediately starts flying towards Tree, her mind set on getting answers.
“Hey, there’s Tess and Ket. You two look happy as always. Do remember to shower more, just washing with water does not get rid of the hormones, ya know.” Vox sends a saucy wink at the couple who just arrived. Seemingly by pure coincidence, all the original students have gathered inside Tree. They have congregated in the middle of their own houses, the circular setup giving them some privacy as they chat and eat.
“Hey Vox. Where’s Ares?” Tess casually replies, secretly happy that she no longer gets flustered each time the relationship between her and Ket is mentioned.
“Still teaching up on the moon.”
“And where’s Rodrick?” Ket asks.
“Still out and about, he’ll be back in a bi… Why would you want to know?”
“Nothing. Just curious,” replies Ket with a straight face. He then catches sight of a rather blinding person. “Why is that thing here?”
“No need to be rude Ket. I'm buying a place of my own soon. It'll costs me quite a lot, but I’ve finally gathered enough to buy out a piece of land next to these quaint shacks. I’ll be bringing some true class to the neighbourhood, no need to thank me.” Green studies her gem-encrusted nails as she casually lounges on the grass. Whatever style and grace she had is buried under literal kilograms of golden jewellery and piles of gem-encrusted regalia.
“Right… I hope you gathered ten times as much, cause I just bought all the land directly around our houses. And put it up again for a hundred times the prioce. Now only the truly rich can afford this place. No need to thank me.” Angeta opens her eyes as the green gem in her hairline stops glowing.
Green splutters but knows when she is beaten.
“Thanks Angy!” says Selis while secretly looking relieved. “Tess, did ya find whatcha were looking for? Those black-clad striped stabbers?”
Tess’s face lights up and crumples at the same time. “Yes! They are super cool. Really pretty fur and those patterns, such neat contrasts. But the super secret technique was drugs… Absence Island supplied them with a steady stream of dark mana potions, drinking those gave them the limited ability to fade and merge in shadows. So that’s not going to happen anymore.” She shrugs while sitting on a black chair.
Ket sits next to Vox and Bord in the boys corner. “Isn't it quite coincidental that we all just happen to be home at this time? The chance of that happening based on previous mission patterns is rather low.”
“No suitable missions were available. I dunno. I think something is happening but don't really know what.” replies Vox.
“Bloody shit’s gonna go down,” is Bord’s contribution to the conversation.
“Right. Thanks for the info Bord, useful as always.” Selis rolls her eyes while sipping on her drink.
Ket speaks up after a few seconds of silence. “I've got a proposal. Who wants to go explore the star dungeon with me later? It’s in the jungle north of the Narrow Desert. I read that it was scouted by two students, but they didn’t enter.”
“I’m in,” is Tess’s immediate answer. Ket just nods. He then does a double take as he looks at the chair Tess is sitting on. Dark tendrils waft from the piece of furniture and Ket rubs his eyes in order to stem the developing headache. The sight of Tess sitting on the very manifestation of her entire cultivation base is still a but much for him.
“Ooh, sounds like fun! Let me buy a second ring and fill it with water first though. I don’t wanna go through the Mana Dungeon debacle again. Oh, there’s Re. Hey Re-Haan!” Selis waves at the descending dragoness.
Re-Haan only casts a single glance at the lounging students and gives them a distracted wave before moving past them.
“She seems off. What’s up with her?” asks Tess.
The group collectively shrugs as they continue chatting.
“Okay. I think I get it now. Let me re-cap and interrupt me if I get something wrong, okay?”
“Good job, your speech is getting much better.” I give the rectangular piece of machinery a thumbs up and continue. “Level one is the basic alarm. Anything unusual and the system goes into preparation mode. Systems are brought online, weapon platforms are dusted off, and surveillance equipment is activated. This happened when I made qi, and you guys detected a foreign energy signature.”
Not noticing any reaction from the computer, I continue.
“Level two is for property damage. Maybe this happened when I reached the Tower’s core, but I doubt it. That thing nearly killed me. No offence, but you're weak-sauce in comparison. Anyway, level two happened when the Tower broke. This had you steering the low-level mana mutants through a system I have yet to discover. This also had you guys activating the space-based defences as shit could get real.
“Level three is for large scale destruction threats, not just broken furniture. Either the destruction of Absence Island or a proximity alert when I did some spacewalking triggered this one. This activated direct control of enforcer class mutants and redirection of outdoor dungeon mobs and bosses from the other continent.
“Now you will need to interrupt me when I’m talking nonsense because your explanation of these things honestly sucks. Level four is for high-value target destruction, I guess?”
“Okay, you being silent is taken as agreement. Level four will allow large scale destruction, something that could threaten you. Which is ironic because threatening you would trigger level four. Space-based weapons of mass destruction is what I’m guessing. Maybe even moon-based items that are true high-precision FUBAR stuff.
“Then level five… Moon damage, you said? So that’s higher than a high-value target. Critical infrastructure, then. Dungeon cores are non-critical, I’m assuming, so the moon must be the control centre for all this shit. And total destruction… So a reset button. Probably to prevent tech or resources from falling into enemy hands.
“I gotta say, Core. It’s a good thing you prevented me from opening you up. Then again, this all could be a scam to get me to go away. You don't seem the most trustworthy of information sou-”
“-rces… What now?”
“PROVIDED DATAAA IS COOORRECT”
“Okay then. Thanks for that, I guess…” I mull over the information again. I’ve been at this for ages now, having a painfully slow conversation with a supercomputer that I don’t trust at all. It’s also rather stupid for something with enough thinking power to will things in and out of existence while transforming the missed potential into mana.
“Where were you made?”
All of its answers are like that. Sort of useful, but also not. “What’s your name?”
Ah, no, why did I ask that? I sigh deeply as it starts recounting its serial number again. Ten minutes filled with his droning and loud-ass voice repeating random numbers and letters. At least I learned something new from it the first time I asked it. Its creators are working with a four bit or hexadecimal alphabet. And it seems to be mass produced. Lovingly handcrafted items are rarely given serial numbers this long.
But what's the letter that sounds like:’HHAAAAGGGKEEE’? And that’s one of the easier to pronounce letters. I sigh once again while thinking of other questions to ask it.
”Done? Finally. Why are you so weak compared to the Tower’s dungeon core?”
I perk up. This is new. “What contact?”
“UUUP AAABOOOV- connection restored. Control assumed. Organic detected. Alien power signature detected. Vocal override detected. Switching off vocal override.”
And I start vanishing. Before I can react, a massive will smashes into my being. I can barely even start sending the qi through my braincore to get my act together before I disappear. My entire self is willed out of existence, and I die.
I take a deep breath. That was the outer layer of my core. Fifteen layers to go, bring it on bitch! I shakily manage to send qi moving through my brain by the time my second self is erased. Fourteen left. I blink my eyes a bit as I notice that time has failed to stop. It’s slowed down a bit, sure, but only by a factor of ten instead of thousands. Is this because of my much changed brainco-
Thirteen. I stagger backwards as I feel the massive will pouring itself through the cube in front of me, and I die again. Twelve. This isn't working. The sequence of selves I made are only slowing it down. Eleven. Fuck…
I flounder in indecision for a moment. Ten, nine, eight. I try to pitch my own will against it. Seven. I try to fight the glowing cube with qi. Six. I swing my sword at it. Five. Yeah, that’s not working. Let's get the fuck out of here.
I start grasping at my necklace, both physically and mentally. Before I get my hand halfway, my conscious flickers again in fake death.
The air around me is rigid, the spacetime bound by a force I can't compete with. I manage to open a crack the size of a pinhole. My entire foundation base, all my power poured into my connection with Tree, and this is all I can manage. I fear it won't be enough.
I command Tree to give me power, to aid me,
Just a single layer left. The constant stream of miniature deaths is making my stomach churn. I feel a slight trickle of golden power flow through the pinprick in space, only for it to disappear like my own layered being.
I feel awfully naked now. I can't quite decide whether my braincore is just normal empty or completely empty. A massive mind slams against my own. An alien force of will that has nothing to do with a living being at all. A thing made out of yes or no, a collection of a trillion trillion possibilities denied existence pushes me away, denies me being real.
Then I hear a splutter, a crackle and Lola screaming her little head off.
I look down and see Lola’s fur singed and smoking. She is laying in a wet puddle at the base of the cube, the stink of piss, lightning, and burned fur wafting from her in waves. What a beautiful creature it is, injuring a being the size of a moon by pissing on it.
I grab her, the shame that I nearly forgot to bring her along creeping into my heart, and rip the space open now that the alien mind has abated. I wildly grasp for the most powerful thing I can sense, expecting it to be Tree, and push myself through the forming portal.
Rhea stares back at me.
“And that’s how it went,” I explain to Rhea. “I decided to think things through for a bit and to come up with a proper plan. I’m sorry I didn't inform you, but I didn't want to risk the Nexus finding out about my plans. I’ve got a good grasp on what will trigger the level four alarm, so we need to stay below that.”
Rhea is laying in my arms as we chill in my hidden production lair. She forcefully barged in, even threatening to splinter parts of Tree unless I let her inside. She was about to shatter the exact spot where Tree’s core of existence, the formation I made with my blood, was. I thus politely invited her in while shushing her.
“Okay… I guess I understand. Now what, though? How are we going to fix this?” she asks while frowning cutely. I smile at the difference in perspective. She immediately assumes a ‘we’ position while I tried to suffer through it myself...
“That’s not the worst though. Those pieces of my stomach that got launched into orbit? A few have landed in remote regions, but that’s not important. Most of them have been attacked by the defensive lasers in space and are now glowing clouds of qi. Somehow, the lasers have managed to change their orbits enough for them to start raining down over the next few days instead of months. I really want to have a polite conversation with whoever designed this fucking system…”
I feel a slender hand rub my leg and I calm down a bit. “Also, I’ve found other dungeons and had the students scout them. Those dungeons also started producing qi, I learned a few days ago. The qi containment fields inside the rings are apparently not enough to prevent overeager quantum computers from absorbing it...”
“Oh… All of them?”
“Yep. The one south of the beastkin capital smells like Ferah. The stupid kid must have snuck in while they were there. I’m not sure about the other ones, but the star-shaped jungle dungeon has a rather perverted qi signature. Of Bassik and Rityn both. So no need to speculate on what happened between those two while they were on that mission...”
Rhea giggles a bit. “Those two are so cute. She still hasn't said she loved him a single time, you know… He just puts up with her abuse.” This is then followed by a rather heavy and personal staring contest between Rhea and me. Which lasts two hours.
“Yeah, um. I need to go and act now. Any longer and the ideal window will close.”
Smirking at my obvious attempt at escape, Rhea sits up. “Sure. What can I do?”
“So, here’s the important question. Do you want to be the hero or the bad guy?” We both grin wide enough to scare children while discussing what lines we both should say.
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