Chapter 179 - Worm
“Rheaaaaa...” I let my voice drag on like a whiny child. I shift my body to a more comfortable position, rubbing my face against her soft thighs. “I don’t wanna do anything anymore. Let’s just curl up in front of the fireplace and pretend it’s snowing outside, okay?”
She sighs and looks down at me. I peek at her through cracked eyelids, stealthily trying to measure her reaction. Her face remains blank, but I can see that familiar questioning slant to her eyebrows. I also see a slight hint of defeated acceptance on her beautiful, sharply angular face. I smile to myself while trying to dig my head deeper into her lap. I wonder how she smells this good while consciously not thinking about the workload in front of me. I ignore the process telling me that Rhea’s skin does, in fact, produce certain substances that activate my olfactory senses.
“Drew, Bord just killed Fredon. What’s going on with that?”
I look up at her again. I can see a faint white channel of information flowing from the top of her head. The outline of a tree has been growing more and more solid over the past ten days. She has been exploring her cultivation base in new and interesting ways, and the ephemeral structure of channels is yet another way she is playing around with manifesting her power. “Bord used the city crystal to ask me what to do about that persistent old cretin. I told him to use the three strike rule when in doubt.”
I see a single branch - the one connecting her head to the moon high above - light up as she makes use of her connection to Database. “There’s not much info on the three strikes rule in Database. What is it?”
I take a closer look at the ethereal construct forming above her head. I make a firm decision. I will drag her along with me during my duties. She has done nothing but gather dust while sitting on her ass for the past ten days. The foundation realm is usually where a cultivator develops higher concepts, turning their purely physical mastery of qi into something more. The transformed dragon I’m using as a pillow seems to be heading towards some form of unmoving nexus point, and I don’t like the look of that at all. I did ask her to keep track of the entire world as it went through a supernatural and potentially cataclysmic change, but that’s no excuse to give up personal freedom for a small bit of deeply rooted power.
I stand up and stretch. Ignoring the various popping sounds coming from my spine, I take a look around me. Tree’s golden glory is as resplendent as ever, the massive perennial towering above me around two hundred meters. The few buildings inside the clearing are still in an excellent state. This can not be said for the fence surrounding the clearing, nor for the buildings outside it. The lack of maintenance combined with the many untested fabrication methods employed during their construction has led them into a swift ruin. The same goes for the buildings on the moon. The lack of any qi bearing beings occupying the structures up above combined with the qi absorbing nature of the moon has caused them to start crumbling fast.
“Three strikes. I’m generally a ‘live and let live’ kind of guy, you know. But sometimes, some people just don’t work out. I’d be totally content to let these people do their thing, far away from myself. This is what I told Bord, and he acted according to his own judgement after that.”
The piercing glare I’m receiving from the seated woman is telling me she wants a better explanation. I pause my little speech in order to take in all the changes that have happened over the past few days. The sudden disappearance of amy students from this little dimension has done it a load of good and some harm on an energy-ecosystem level. The physical side - other than some collapsed buildings - is largely unchanged. I still see a volcano and an ice-covered mountain towering above the trees on either side of Tree, and there is still a smattering of small suns high in the sky.
“Fredon’s first strike happened a while ago, according to Bord’s report.” I pause speaking the moment I sense a slight bit of killing intent. Rhea’s glare is as cold as it is piercing. “Don’t glare at me like that! I keep some stuff private, like personal communication. Giving you access to nearly all of Database was a large enough sacrifice in terms of privacy as far as I’m concerned.”
Our small staring contest is only broken when Rhea gives a derisive snort and closes her eyes again. She broke eye contact first, so why do I still feel like I lost somehow? “Right… Fredon’s first strike was seeing the difference between the old rigid mage society and the new way of doing things inside Tree and rejecting the empirically better option. Growth, quality of life, productivity, The new way of doing things is better than their old way by any measurable metric you can think off. Maybe not by something perspective bound as ‘respect’ or ‘tradition’, but I have no qualms about ignoring inbred and retarded stuff like that any day of the week!”
I even observed the little maggot as he sauntered through Tree after gaining provisional access to the sub-dimension. He saw that more progress was being made in days than all the innovation of the old mages islands combined in a year. He saw that the old cycle of fattening up fellow humans like pigs for the slaughter was not needed without island bound mana users. And yet he rejected all of it, working hard to drag everyone back down to his level instead of progressing himself.
“The second strike was the reason this place is empty. I might have enabled that group by putting some less than wholesome stuff in hard to find places in Database, but I made it pretty hard to find in the end. And he was basically the linchpin of that entire operation. I also told Bord that the third strike is a special one. Third time’s the charm, and maybe someone will change their way after having their evil ways fail for the third time. A fourth time? Kill ‘m! Third time‘s the edge case where redemption is still in reach, however. Well, Bord saw that Fredon was actively murdering innocents in order to speed up his own cultivation by lower double-digit percentages. He judged that as Fredon's third strike. So he punched the shit out of the decrepit little maggot. Good for him.”
“Okay… Thanks for the explanation? I knew all that. I just wanted to know why Bord didn’t do anything with the fact that there is another dragon inside the Beastkin Capital? Keeneff is a lazy philanderer - most Guardians are mentally defective in some way - but I think that a potential powerhouse like him would require some attention?”
I stare at the sitting dragon for a bit. She said the part about ‘mentally defective’ without even flinching. She has either completely accepted that part of herself or is completely unaware of it… “Mentally defective, hmm…”
“Would a mentally sane dragon become a humans’ mate?”
I try looking at that question from her perspective. It’d be similar to a human taking a mayfly as a partner. “That’s a good point. No sane cultivator would do this much couple cultivating…”
“I was wondering why I felt more… chaotic lately.” A true frown creases her brows as she looks at me.
I grin at her. “I was wondering why I felt more… lazy lately.” I broaden my grin as I let my eyes roam across her body. I smirk even wider as I see a slight flush creep across her face. ”Did you know that normal cultivators perform elaborate techniques, employ complex formations, and use what amounts to qi condoms before they have sex?”
The white tree above Rhea’s head flickers and disappears as she looks at me, her face a deadpan visage. “What?”
“Yeah. Just shoving qi into your partner's body was seen like some massive taboo back on the cultivation world. It was basically heresy. Casual sex for pleasure between sexes was not a thing there, at all. Except for the mortals, of course. But nobody cared what the mortals did back there.”
Rhea’s face switches between horror and fascination as she seems unsure what to feel. “So I’m becoming more like you? Are we losing ourselves? Are our souls melding each time we… By the All-Dragon, what have we been doing? Drew, what have we been doing?” She stands up and starts pacing around, ignoring me as I fall to the ground.
“Nothing that you won’t agree to with your entire being. Transferring qi like we’ve been doing allows for trait bleeding only when the other partner completely accepts these traits.” I take hold of her hands, squeezing them gently while looking her in the eyes. “Those preparations in the Cultivation world were all because they thought women were lesser beings.”
She looks at me astonished for a bit, unable to process this twist. “I’m serious, that place was awful for women. The histories of the first immortal told a tale of a man betrayed by a woman. The heavens saw the treachery, forever cursing the lesser sex with lesser cultivation potential. Anyway, enough talk about ancient history, let’s go take care of this stupid worm before it causes more problems.”
I keep holding on to Rhea as I pull myself through Tree’s portal. The air around us shifts from a pleasant spring feeling atmosphere to an oppressive swelter. We pop into existence hanging in the air, hundreds of meters above endless stretches of yellow dunes. The distant mountains are faint silhouettes dancing in the heat, small patches of green marking oasis here and there.
“Come on, a bit of sun will do you good. The world won’t end without you managing all of their lives for a couple hours. No need to start laying down roots already, you know.” I smile at her. Rhea seems to be beating herself up again. Her expression seems to ask herself why she keeps falling for my little shows.
“Just... Tell me next time, okay? I understand now, but just tell me in the future.” She manages to keep hold of her serious expression for an entire five seconds before she rolls her eyes at me.
“I’ll think about it. Anyway, one of my stomach bits landed here recently, and now it's moving around. Which is not a good thing, I reckon.”
Rhea looks down, her back glowing softly as white dragon wings with purple highlights form. I surreptitiously let go of her, getting some distance between her and me without making it obvious.
Then the sand below us explodes and the area Rhea is hovering in is swallowed by a yellow segmented worm, segmented and toothed mouth flaps slapping closed around her.
A piece of my guts - I assume, a drone spotted a high qi concentration falling from space - landed in an oasis a few days back. I’ve been too busy to get to it, but that oasis is now inside this big boy’s stomach, and it has been making the best of this energetic windfall. Instead of producing psychotic drugs - like any proper sandworm should do - this one has been gorging itself. Every single living beast for kilometres around is now inside its stomach.
I feel a single hand on my shoulder and freeze. “You thought that was funny?”
I try to nod, but both the force keeping me in place and the absolute menace dripping from the voice prevent me from doing so.
“I want to see how funny this is too. Off you go!”
Just as the worm is falling to the sandy floor again, gravity reasserting its control over the gargantuan being, I am falling alongside it. I see one of its many eyes lock onto me. It’s pupil restrict in recognition. Then the beast snaps its head towards me, and I’m surrounded by rows of teeth and oddly dry flesh. I idly muse on the dryness of the worm’s interior. For some reason, I expected slimy folds, not this leathery stuff that’s trying to crush me to paste.
Why did I agree to this entire thing again? I could have seen all of this coming - her reaction to my attempted prank and her reaction - if only I was allowed to enter combat mode. Looking at explosive situations from a perspective sped up a couple thousand times is really good for rational decision making.
Rhea and I had a discussion a few days back. Braincore cultivators tend to be a bit mentally unhinged, and not just because of what unchecked thinking power can do to a person. The long stretches of solitude a braincore goes through as they swirl qi through their brain tend sto have a rather disconnecting effect. I suspect that my - often fatally necessary - constant use of time dilation in the Cultivation World was another reason I barely interacted with anyone back then. People also tend to grow apart when they both spend much more time inside their own head instead of with each other. So Rhea and I agreed to limit combat mode to a minimum as an experiment.
I still have all my danger sensing processes running, and none of them are signalling danger on any significant level. My normal way of handling being swallowed by a massive worm would be to go into combat mode by swirling qi through my head. Then I’d spend a few days or weeks of relative time analysing the situation and planning my way out of this.
And somehow Rhea managed to infiltrate my own body with a significant amount of qi, allowing her to paralyse a few very crucial nerve clusters. How long has she been at this? Damn the woman! I spent hours lazing around in her lap, not suspecting that she was infiltrating my nervous system for a single second.
And instead of actively getting myself out of this situation, I’m just reminiscing about this all while peristaltic movements the size of a house moves me further down. I pull qi from my braincore - leaving the centre in its default blank state for now - and stuff it into my heart. It flows through my bloodstream, allowing me to move my own body like a puppeteer.
The constricting walls around me gained a distinct slimy quality a few seconds ago, so my first attempts at halting my downwards momentum are hindered by a lack of grip. I try again, but I’m shot out of the oesophagus during the attempt. Unwilling to fall into the sloshing pool of mystery liquid I sense below, I exert my will and solidify the air around me.
I sigh deeply, immediately regretting breathing in while inside the stomach of a gluttonous omnivore. Suppressing my coughing fit, I reevaluate whether or not I really need this fellow alive. I realise I don’t, but I’d be throwing away efficiency. Getting my sword out of my ring and cutting my way out or blowing the beast apart might be extremely cathartic at this point, but it would be inefficient. I mentally heave a sigh and start flooding qi through my spine. The small packet of foreign qi takes me an entire minute of studious searching to find. Impressed at the innovative way Rhea managed to plant the little bit of power, I tear it apart and implement a defensive strategy.
I’m about to go back up the oesophagus when I sense something in the digestive juices below me. The worm seems to be laying still for now - thank goodness - thus the liquid is relatively calm. Hidden among all the sand, bones, rocks and plants is a small object. It stands out to my spiritual sense, its straight geometric cylindrical form separating it from the organic items.
Fishing it out with a thread of qi, I shake it free of acid goop. A pencil-shaped object lands in my hand. I sense a trace of my own power on the thing, along with a hint of blood and pain. The final trace of energy I sense - besides the energy systems of the desert and the worm - is that of space. I put it in my spatial ring while frowning.
I start moving upwards, distracting myself from the disgusting feeling of being wrapped in living worm by pondering my find. There are a few odd things about the small object. It’s undoubtedly one of the bullets that was shot at me when I strode into space moments after entering the foundation realm. The fact that the traces of blood and pain are faint indicate that it went through the cloud of blood and guts instead of directly through my body.
Deciding to leave the mystery of why the worm hasn’t yet passed it through its digestive system alone for now, I burst into the dry section of oesophagus again, no longer willing to be gentle. My clothes and my arms heat up as I shove myself upwards. I’m careful to merely grab the worm’s inner walls instead of plunging my fingers through the flesh in my irritation. I pause my cleaning process, preventing it from removing all the muck and filth covering my body. I will have my revenge.
I arrive in a small open space, surrounded by teeth. My patience with the entire situation has worn thin, so I start punching with ever increasing strength. A tooth breaks, and I dodge the spurt of blood. I pocket the half meter long white fang and start punching another one. My ring contains ten teeth by the time the worm starts opening its mouth. I breathe out a large portion of qi, form a small self-replicating formation and fly out of the mouth.
Blinking into the bright sun, I spot Rhea hovering high above. Her face is a rather nice mix between concern and impish glee. “You got me, nice work!”
I turn around and face the worm. The air around it shimmers with something more than heat, a tint of magenta telling me Rhea is keeping it up here. Fifty meters wide, the brown segmented beast has multiple teeth covered jaws that open like some gruesome flower. It seems to be trembling, probably instinctively sensing Rhea’s draconic presence.
I breathe out more power, drawing a small trickle of qi from Tree to resupply myself. I spread it around with a large mental push, covering a couple dozen kilometres in my spiritual sense. I find hotspots and oasis’ that are brimming with qi, along with some underground deposits that contain biological matter. Long, slimy biological matter that contains bones an fur, along with qi.
I feel like complaining. In order to give the sapient species on this planet a chance, I’ve been culling the most powerful beasts before they can snowball out of control. And now I’m cleaning up some overgrown earthworm’s shit. Woe is me.
I pull my necklace over my head. “Okay Tree, you know the drill by now.” And I drop the thing. It lands in the sand, many meters below me. A whirlpool of sand forms immediately as the qi enriched material is sucked into another dimension. The sandworm starts wriggling frantically, before a gush of golden energy encompasses the beast. I brand a control rune in the being’s nervous systems, imprinting it on a cellular level. That way, the worm can grow as strong as it wants without being able to shrug off my control. Studying it from the inside gave me a really good view of its internals, so there’s that…
Then the beast is gone, and the suction of sand increases manyfold. My necklace moves to the last place the worm shat, and I look upwards. Rhea is panting slightly, having to keep a powerful beast like that frozen in place is obviously straining to the woman. I open my arms and speed over. The panic in her eyes is delicious, the dawning realisation on her face a balm to my soul.
“Thank’s for the hard work, honey. You deserve a hug!”
“Haha, happy to help, no need for that, thanks.” Her panic increases as she finds herself unable to move. My self-replicating formation has well and truly infiltrated her nervous system, paralysing her like she paralysed me minutes before.
“Thank you so much,” I croon as I wrap my mucous covered body around her, her face a mask of helpless revulsion. Revenge might taste best served cold, but immediate retaliation has a flavour all of its own.
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