Chapter 180 - Acidulous
“Not fair.” Rhea is near tears as she shivers.
“Right. Protest noted and rejected because of hypocrisy.” I rub my slime covered hair against her bosom some more. Her entire body is filled with my small and self-replicating electric charge absorbing formations. They suck the power out of anything, preventing both the transmission of signals through dendrites and the transmission of said signals between neurons.
“I only… No. I let you be swallowed while paralysed… Okay, rub away. No funny stuff before getting clean though.”
I stop. “Doing it with permission isn’t fun. And I’d rather use oil than slime for that. Maybe later, look at this.” I pull the object I found inside the worm’s stomach from my ring and show it to her. I also resume my cleaning process, which starts disintegrating the filth from my skin. I finally send the self-destruct signal to the microscopic qi formations, allowing Rhea freedom of movement again.
We’re inside Tree. Once I caught Rhea, I kept hugging her while Tree sucked up a massive quantity of sand. It used my necklace as a vacuum machine, hoovering up all the places the worm had passed through. Inside Tree, near the volcano and to the east is now a new desert. It’s a bit on the small side, but it should be large enough to house the worm for now. At least it’s thick enough for the entire beast to bury itself.
“A piece of rock?” murmurs Rhea as she studies the small object,
“Yeah, look at these.” I point out a few of the item’s odd features. “These small spheres of silicate-based rock are called chondrules. Those are flakes of metal, and this here is a piece of clear olivine.” I point at a few places before presenting the thing as a whole again. ”This is an asteroid. A piece of rock that formed in the void of space as particles of solid matter and solidified droplets of molten material clustered together.”
Rhea stares at me as I pause, waiting for her to interject.
I decide to continue. “Rock that formed on planets is distinct from asteroids. This means that those space-based defences up there are harvesting asteroids or meteoroids for their ammunition. This means that there is some form of a supply line. These bullets must come from somewhere, and it does indeed make sense to locally source the only consumable parts of your weapons. That way, you only run out after the entire solar system has been shot through your guns, pretty smart.”
“What the every delving fuck does any of that mean? Those words are not in Database. You are pointing at a rock with some vague balls inside, and that’s amazing somehow, but I fail to see it. Except for the locally sourced parts, that I understand. So, at what level or realm can we punch the moon?”
I am at a sudden loss for what to say. I had this explanation in my head, but she cut right through the bullshit and got to the clue of things. “We could go now, but I’d only give us a ten per cent chance of success in the most ideal circumstances. Those are not odds I’m willing to take.”
“One in ten is a bit risky, yes. Let’s wait a bit and do it later, then. This is important to you, no?”
“It should be important to you too. There's a rather large chance we will get to learn about the person or party putting this entire shindig together.”
“I don’t really care, though.” Rhea shrugs her shoulder and sits down on the grass, flicking the last bit of disintegrating dust from her bosom. Streams of data start flowing through her brain, the flows of data branching off and slowly forming a tree.
“It… It's about your origin? The very reason this planet exists, and you’re not interested?”
“I exist, therefore I am. The tree has no loyalty to the bird who shat out its seed, no?”
I close my mouth. “I have no reply to that… Anyway, please don’t get too rooted in pl-”
“The tree has no loyalty to its surroundings, except for the water and earth directly touching it’s roots, no?”
Damn. Since when did she get so sassy? Slightly at a loss for what to do now, I sit down opposite her and lay down. The past week and a half has been one enormous fire to put out after another. I even had to design and produce a high-speed drone in order to reach the worst places in time. I could have flown there myself, but that would have put a significant drain on my qi reserves and probably would've done some bad things to weather patterns. Even now, the highspeed drone platform carrying my necklace is using a column of thermic air to circle back up into the higher levels of the atmosphere.
The desert was the latest in a long string of potential life-ending cataclysms. The oversized earthworm - which Tree tells me is happily exploring its new living conditions - is hopefully the latest in a series of shitty incidents. The larger, house-sized enforcer mutants that scrambled towards any and all qi emissions went crazy when qi started appearing all across the planet. I spent the first few days after the mass teleportation with monitoring and battling these beasties non-stop.
I decided to intervene every time one of them came close to a city or town that couldn't handle them yet. I swooped in, permanently branded a control rune on the beings, shoved them inside Tree and moved on. The few places where the local populace - plus one of my students - could handle the threat, they profited immensely.
Tess’s village is one such example. Randomly assigned to a village in the bumfuck of nowhere, she took it rather well. Or so Rhea’s meddlesome reports tell me, anyway.
I mentally pull up the world map and check her position. Her assigned spot is in between the Torus Dungeon far to the east and the swamplands to the south-east of the Shit-Eit Kingdom. A small sleeper cell of enforcer mutants had been woken - either by the controlling force originating from the moon or by the general disturbances across the planet. This group had then run towards the closest source of qi.
Tess had rallied the relatively small village by then, introducing them to the basics of qi and cultivation. She had sensed the approaching hordes, told the waiting mass of people to hold and then killed the entire horde from the shadows.
Now she's living like some form of huntress queen, ordering the villagers about as they cook the mana-dense meat for her. Everyone not cooking high-grade mutant meat is out hunting more meat, cultivating, or too young.
Bord landed inside the Beastkin Capital and was ambushed by the assassins Tess and Ket had been looking for. Bord apparently didn’t feel like fighting them and pretended to be subdued after a sham fight. He was then dragged towards the most central island. I’m not clear on what happened next - and Rhea isn’t telling - but the Guardian dragon came, got the snot beaten out of himself, and Beastkin Capital has been oddly quiet since.
Ket landed somewhere to the far north, even further out than Ares. I checked in on him, and he has been transforming the entire town into a massive formation for some reason.
Ares has become the town's mascot slash goddess after she single handedly punched a massive sea monster to death. That octopus thing had swallowed a piece of my stomach rather early on and felt peckish for more man flesh. The poor girl slapped it in reflex as a massive tentacle slammed across the town shield. Her light affinity messed with the beast’s innate darkness, causing it to burn up in the sunlight. She has been weirdly efficient in shoring up defences, assigning roles and is even preparing for an expedition to the nearest dungeon.
Selis keeps sending me furious messages through the metered Database connections. I think it’s hilarious. I wish her lots of luck in the place where she ended up.
And Angeta, let’s see how she is doing.
“Drew, got a new one.”
“What?” I blurt out.
“Qi powered problems. I got reports that massive tracts of jungle and swamp are being corroded by a grey-green fog. Seems like some form of viral plague or poison.”
“Location?” I make a direct connection between Database and my conscious mind. I usually offload these kinds of tasks to processes, but getting my own thoughts dirty is also good sometimes. Getting lost in high-level functions while forgetting how the hardware layers function is not conducive for efficiency, after all.
“Drone is already halfway there. We’ll arrive in a few minutes.”
I grumble a bit as I let the mental connection timeout. Instead of complaining further, I stand up and walk to Tree. Its golden glow seems a lot more solid these days. It used to look like a normal tree that shone in a golden light. Now it looks like the bark itself contains a sizable percentage of glow in the dark metal.
I pluck Lola from a recess in the massive trunk and check how the rabbit is doing. She was a bit grumpy when she discovered that all her playmates had suddenly disappeared. She seems to have learned to appreciate the peace and quiet over the last few days. Her power has been getting denser instead of larger too. The explosion of fire and ice that basically forced her into the foundation realm left a rather unstable mess of colliding energies in its wake. All the relaxing she did lately - as opposed to relaxing and getting cuddled she did before - solidified that shambled heap into something more coherent.
She wakes as I rub her little head. She had grown a bit over these past few months but is still obviously a rather small rabbit. The plump largeness and the angular head typical of adult rabbits are not present. She’s all-around fluff and cuteness. The fact that she’s a foundational cultivator at the human equivalent age of a small child is a rather amazing feat though.
She pivots her ears around a few times before hopping on my shoulders. I turn and see Rhea’s tree vanishing once more as she stands up. She walks over and nods at me. The fact that she’s not talking combined with the odd cast of her expressionless face makes me instantly suspicious. I then feel her pulling us both through, so I seal my orifices while covering Lola’s mouth and nose with a finger.
We land amidst grey fog and green muck. My eyes water, my eyebrows start sizzling, and Lola flips. She screeches once, hops over to Rhea, lands on her face and hangs there for a second. None of my mental alarms are triggered yet, but they are less accurate when it comes to sudden unexpected actions by people close to me or individuals I trust. Sensing what’s about to happen, I quickly form a high capacity process and lay my hand on Rhea’s shoulder as fast as I can.
Lola kicks off, soaring up and away into the air. Rhea looks like she was kicked by an elephant as her head is thrown back into the green muck. I feel my process pour a small amount of qi into Rhea before I lose contact, so I jump upwards too. Looking down, I see the crumbling form of a certain treacherous dragoness get covered by the splatter of my jump, two large paw prints visible on her forehead. I manage to attach a line to the necklace, pulling that along after me.
I fly upwards, the speed splattering much of the dense mist into liquid onto my face. I feel my eyebrows disintegrate and my hair fall apart. Then I soar through the fog and am greeted by a clear blue sky. I immediately give my cleaning process priority and start analysing the substance. It manages to disintegrate my hair entirely, a commendable feat.
A pink streak and a squishy yet soft thump later, I have an extremely angry bunny on my shoulder as I catch my necklace. The previously cute animal is now looking like a naked rat, small rivulets of dark liquid carrying away the last few strands of white fur. I grin a the animal, and she rubs her entire body on my face while growling. I can’t help but start laughing as I feel the last few hairs of my beard dissolve. I pull a washing cloth from my ring as a token of peace, and she rubs herself against it grumpily.
“Okay. I learn something new every day, I guess… Rhea does not know how to lose and eventually overdoes it. Good to know. Where is my drone? Ah, that’s why she looked guilty. It’s disintegrated. Right…” I pour more qi into the air around me, covering more ground with my spiritual sense. For kilometres around, I sense nothing but flat mud. Then I find the slowly creeping edge of te fog. Remnants of decaying trees disintegrate at a visible rate as the fog slowly covers more ground. A few kilometre beyond the acidic front are some abandoned huts and anxiously running people.
One individual stands out, a wiry beastkin that I recognise. What was the guy’s name again? Niff? Fenn? Something like that. The skinny one that hung out with Rodrick. He seems to be in charge, as he’s in the middle of shouting stuff while everyone around him is hauling ass.
My spiritual sense covers the entire cloud as I watch the small group evacuate. The obvious curvature of the entire outbreak allows me to deduce the middle of the expanding cloud rather easily. Focussing my attention on the spot, I sense a group of insect-like beings. Their backs sections are filled with gaping holes that would drive a trypophobe up the wall. I see a small number of physical differences between them. There must be a common ancestor then.
I find the common ancestor below the ground. A rather fat female is stuck inside a hole. She’s basically a massive hind section that keeps spurting out objects combined with a mouth. The mouth is aimed upwards towards the hole she is hiding in, swallowing all the melted goop floating her way, and the occasional bug.
I want to study it closer, but the entire process freaks me out. She is obviously some form of hyperspecialized birthing insect queen producing some form of worker caste.
I could kill them, but that would not remove the poison acid fog. I could pull them into Tree, but that would decimate all I have been building so far. I could burn everything, but this isn’t the first oddly well qi-adapted mutant I've come across.
I simplify all my findings and present them to Tree. Maybe the wooden-headed perennial can come up with an idea. I ponder some more options while cleaning the last parts of Lola. I pull another washing cloth from my ring - the first three have all dissolved into goop by now - and clean the last parts of the small animal.
“You’re clean now. Regrow your hair, like this.” I stare at her in her big black eyes and recall when I last used this technique. It was back in the Mana Dungeon when I was about to accept Ares as a disciple, no? Man, that was a while ago. Then I start mentally shouting.
'GROW YOU FUCKING HAIR, MAKE DAT STRATIFIED SQUAMOUS KERATINIZED EPITHELIUM'
I once again use a qi-covered edge to trim my wild mane into a semblance of order. This time, I decide to trim the hair on the side of my head, leaving it longer on top, My beard stays in its full glory, I only shave my throat area, the moustache and below the corners of my mouth. I leave my cheeks untouched, foregoing any straightening of that messy hairline.
Lola, of course, blinks a few times and explodes into a ball of white fur. Like usual, she learns the tricks with the wild abandon of a bull with dishpobia rampaging through a dirty dishes shop. I grab her by her meter-long fur - preventing her from falling into the caustic mist once again - and start trimming the length of fluff.
Two minutes later, I’m looking at a cute rabbit once again, and I realise that I forgot what I was doing completely. Another side-effect of the no-enhanced-time-sense rule I’ve got going with Rhea is that I tend to forget important stuff unless I put it in my calendar process. I get lost in tasks and forget the rest of the world. This is entirely acceptable when each second literally takes years of thinking to get through, Not so much now that I'm living strictly in real-time.
Tree has been signalling me though, telling me it has come up with an idea. I accept the mental package of information and grin. This might just work.
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