Chapter 182 - Legs (1)
“Those legs! Lads, anyone that dares to flirt with her will be beaten by Lefty and Righty!”
“Shut up, ya old coot. You couldn't even get it up if her legs were twice as long!”
“It’s time for the younger generation to take power. Out with the old, in with the new!”
“You shut up, ya green little shit.”
“Yeah, tell ‘m pops. Respect your elders, ya snotty ape!”
Tess is pissed. Moments before, she was enjoying a nice walk. Ket was talking about some training he was doing - the speed at which he could shift his cultivation base from fluid power to structural reinforcement was getting truly impressive - when some weird stuff happened. Red glowing lines appeared in the sky, Teach started ranting, and Rhea did some acting.
And now Tess is surrounded by weird mountains while short people keep staring at her legs. One side of her view is taken up by a towering mountain, dark recesses hewn in its side. The slope stretches down on her left, a stream running through the valley down below, meandering through dense patches of forest. The cold wind whips her clothes against her skin, sending shivers down her spine.
“Wait, guys. Look up; there's something above the legs!”
“Whoa, you’re right! It’s a lass, thank goodness.”
“With those legs, who cares if its a man or woman.”
“Honestly… I agree.”
Tess turns, her eyes adapting to the fading light and spotting rows of houses recessed in the side of the mountain. The thickness of her skin when it comes to inane comments is pretty impressive, having had much practice through constant exposure to figures like Teach and Bord. Instead of commenting on the weird commentary spewing from the stocky group, she addresses them in a cold tone. “Who in all the hells are you?”
The small group of short-statured men freeze. Darkness wafts from Tess’s frame, tendrils of pure black snaking from her eyes and to the ground. A small scuffle breaks out, none of the small group willing to face the picture of wrath in front of them. Then a glint catches Tess’ eye. High above the mountain, a small shard of flickering light appears. Tess sinks into the shadows with a dark flash, appearing high up the slope.
Peering at the floating crystal, she reads the message. Rhea's mental letter fails to soothe her irritation, instead, stoking it further.
“TEACH YOU FUCK! I’M GOING TO STAB YOU! Also, relocate this shitty crystal. Two hundred thirty meters down. If you’re gonna fuck us over, at least do it properly, you FUCKING FUCK!” Tess rages some more, obviously taking the forced separation hard. Five minutes later, every single rock in a large radius around her position is booted off the mountain and she’s breathing roughly. The slowly rotating crystal has disappeared when she wasn't looking, so Tess moves back to her previous position.
Not waiting for the small group of people to start talking about her legs again, she fixes them with a stare and starts interrogating them.
“Mistress! Big ones! Big ones are trampling our traps, it’s horrible. All that good steel, they're just waltzing right over it. Mistress, what do we do?”
Tess is tired. Not physically or mentally. She’s just extremely tired of all things short and stocky. The questions and comments never stop. The annoying yammering never stops. The stares never stop. Even the ones she recognises as female don't stop looking at her legs, an odd sort of frown on their faces instead of the star-struck admiration displayed by the men. And even the revelation of qi and all of its wondrous potential and contrast does little to distract the crowd.
And it’s honestly a shame, she thinks. The environment is quite pretty. The architecture is a bit on the short side, but rather stylish. Carved into a sheer cliff face, each house, walkway, and stair is won from the rock by pure physical labour. The village she has appeared at - and now is partially responsible for - contains two thousand people. A mix of young and old, every single one of them barely comes to her navel.
The clothes these villagers wear are crude roughspun and leather. The mugs, cutlery and furniture they use is either rough wood or carved rock. The single skill that is well developed by the local populous all concern the metal items. Metal is everywhere. Half of the tools, items, and weapons are made from some advanced alloy or tempered steel. The centre of the village is made up of massive blast furnaces, the back of the village entering into a grand minework combined with a fungus farm. Some streets are partially made from metal. Places where she would expect wood, stone, or baked clay - like roof tiles, door frames, and furniture - contain an amount of metal that seems too high to be normal.
She has spent her time wandering the place, evading the growing gaggle of admirers that follows her wherever she goes. She has explored the entire town by now and has been putting some clues together. The single stack of books enshrined in the central monument of the central plaza is a rather good hint. The books are obviously dungeon-won, and from what Tess has seen of them, cover a wide variety of metallurgic topics. All the non-metal related crafts are relegated to small huts on the village’s edge, either near the gaping cave-like opening or at the areas where new houses are carved from solid rock.
And now these people have started calling her mistress, and won't stop going on about some horde of large beasts. Tess is having trouble believing that. She saw some of the steel traps that are being worked on in the many, many smithies and foundries. Those things can chop a mortal in half, no problem. Even a top-tier upper qi condenser heartcore might suffer serious injuries were they to land inside one of the teethed traps.
Sighing in her heart, Tess realises that she might as well make herself comfortable here. Looking at the crystal now hovering over the village’s central plaza, just under the rough rock ceiling, she receives a message from Database. The sheer fact that Database is still accessible is enough of a hint for Tess to understand that Teach going crazy is some stupid ruse. At least she now knows that she must reach the foundation realm before she can use Database’s teleportation function. Even then, the point cost is astronomical, but she has enough for a single trip.
Shaking off her wishful thoughts, she lands in front of one of the panicking messengers running around. "What is it?"
"Beasts, mistress! Bigger than any we've seen in ages. They came in from the south pass and are running straight here, mistress."
“Just that way then?” she asks. The village is shaped like half a circle, the spherical ceiling allowing light to enter at the village’s most recessed streets.
“South’s over there, mistress! But please don’t go. The horror of having your beautiful legs smashed underfoot by the stampeding hord-”
Unwilling to hear the end of that sentence, Tess speeds off. Even though the village is facing the sun, and despite the rather high ceiling, the town’s streets are still covered in shadows even at midday. Tess uses the shadows liberally, avoiding the panicking inhabitants and searching groups of admirers. She shifts her fluid cultivation core over her entire body, using her power base as a black cloak while speeding through the narrow streets.
Gathering speed, Tess launches out of the village, shooting away from the mountain with speed. Looking around, she sees the valley stretch beneath her. The oval cave behind her seems dark and ominous all of a sudden. Far below her, she sees a river snaking its way through the valley. To her right, she sees the mountain-rimmed valley widening into grasslands and forests. To her left, she sees a dustcloud descending from the narrow pass.
Tess pools some of her power into her eyes and peers at the far away shapes. She immediately recognises the seemingly random forms of mana mutants. It takes her some more studying before she classifies the threat correctly. She first thought that the small green plants were shrubs. It took her some more looking around before recognising them as trees. “Enforcer class mutants, why…”
Then Tess feels it. The shift from Tree’s qi-rich environment to her current one felt off, something she first attributed to her forced teleportation. Only now does she feel the slight film of qi that’s present here and there. Contracting her fluid core into her head allows her to sharpen her senses. Still falling through the air, black streaks of power trailing behind her, Tess realises why Teach did what he did.
Tess takes a deep breath, the immature anger and irritation in her gut hardening to something she can work with. Sharpening her focus, she keeps her sight trained on the horde of ten-meter big beasts storming to the brightest qi signature around, namely the qi crystal hanging above the village. The ground rushes up to her, but she has long since aimed for a shadowy crack between two rocks. She plunges into the impossible space between light and dark. She travels a hundred meters in a fraction of a second, shooting into the air from beneath a fallen tree.
Tess also knows what to do now. The amount of qi in the air is extremely faint, but she senses a lot more power making its way down from up high. The slight hint of pain and blood she senses from the diffuse power raining down is also enough for her to understand where the qi comes from. The entire episode with Teach getting his guts blown out moments after he stepped into the foundation realm seemed like an unimportant footnote. The dragon attack, short-lived exploration of the other continent, the mana dungeon, and other happenings seemed much more important back then.
Jumping through the air with large bounds, Tess pulls a dagger from her ring. She flicks the blade forwards, replacing it with a shining rapier moments later. The small dagger - gifted by Teach ages ago - flies for kilometres before it lands in front of the stampeding horde. Tess inhales deeply and falls into another shadow.
She snatches the small dagger immediately after emerging from its proportionally massive shadow, throwing it with one hand while expertly stabbing a mutant in the heart with her rapier. She disappears again in a dark flash, her still meagre qi supply dwindling rather fast as she expertly culls the massive beasts.
She restarted her cultivation base - along with Ket - not too long ago. She might be displaying an extreme amount of control and utility for her level, but this does not diminish the fact that she is still merely a qi condenser. The experience she gained with her previous cultivation bases allows her to fight many times above her weight class by applying the little bit of power she has in the most optimal way possible. The fact that she incorporated the very nature of the odd power flickering through her veins multiplies her power once more.
Still, only a third of the stampeding monsters are killed when she drops to the ground panting while running on qi fumes. She has a rather ugly scowl on her face when she realises that she will need to test one of Ket’s more irritating theories. Shoving her entire power base inside her head not only allows her to move with precision, but it also allows her a limited form of braincore processing functionality. One of these temporary processes is now telling her that the horde will, in fact, manage to reach the village before she can take them all out. It also informs her that the damage will be substantial and that even a single unchecked enforcer mutant - thanks to the tightly packed nature of the village - will be able to kill hundreds in seconds.
Refusing the think of Bord, she guides the sluggish blob of energetic tar that is her core towards her heart. The world around her loses its glimmer, the extra shine and details granted by her fading mental enhancements disappearing. Instead, the fallen beasts around her start looking extremely tasty. A single thought yells in protest at the time she will waste by eating right now, but Tess ignores it. Somehow, she knows that she will make it.
Wiping the drool from her face, Tess carves herself a nice fat steak of short fur covered spider-legged fish. She makes a neat little pile from the many pieces of crushed tree surrounding her. She then lights it with the last smidgen of qi she has left, turning the wood into coal with a bright flash. She then sears the steak in the glowing heat before devouring the thing in seconds. The taste of raw meat surrounded by bloody char is nearly orgasmic. She hurries over to a long-necked bug, breaking off a single leg. Throwing the thing on the coals, she starts carving a true smorgasbord of meat for herself.
Sometime later, she seems to wake from a daze. Her stomach is full while her heart pumps the little qi it gathers right back into her bloodstream. Surrounded by partially dismantled carcasses, Tess licks her fingers while feeling like she forgot something. She nearly panics while spotting the horde of mutants. They are halfway between her and the village, mere minutes away from grinding all in the cave to powder. The man-made cave starts a couple dozen meters up in the air, a distance that the large mutants can easily jump.
Burping loudly, she seems of two minds. On the one hand, she feels like she should start working hard right now. Reaching the foundation realm will require a lot of work, and having an entire village at her beck and call will allow her to advance much quicker. Saving those people - and the qi generating potential they represent - should be her number one priority. On the other hand, that large chunk of meat sizzling on the diminished coals does smell pretty nice.
Sighing through grease stained lips, Tess grabs the large steak, takes a bite, and throws her black dagger. Before, she would have spent a few seconds to calculate the optimum angle. Even in her skin-core days, Tess preferred double checking important stuff with hard reasoning and science. Things are different now that her core is inside her heart, though. The black knife - the shadow of a dagger that Teach pumped a rather ungodly amount of energy in as an experiment - screams through the air. It flies straight, not tumbling once as it catches up with the beast horde.
The small black thing comes down in the middle of the mutants, hitting a fifteen-meter long squid cow between the eyes. It bounces forward, its vertical momentum transferred into horizontal speed by the way it hit the beast’s bone forehead. Now spinning wildly, it cuts through a tendon here, stabbing a nerve there, before landing in front of the stampeding horde. Tess appears in front of the mutants, still munching on a slab of meat, watching through lidded eyes as three-quarters of the horde stumbles and falls to the ground.
What follows is a rather confusing display. Tess is now in full view of the village, and many stocky figures are peering over the fenced-off cliff at the spectacle below. People had been running around in a blind panic when their usually impenetrable defensive net of metal traps got trampled into the dirt. The unusual excitement of seeing a stranger had them all pumped up, the messages of doom the scouts brought shortly after only whipping the population into a further frenzy. The fact that a sizable portion of people started staring at the crystal hanging in the middle of the ceiling, an absent and slack-jawed expression on their face, made the few remaining calm villagers panic.
And now the population is watching with rapt attention as a pair of shapely legs attached to a girl systematically beats up and eats the threat that would have surely destroyed their entire community.
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