Chapter 183 - Legs (2)
“Yes, my lovely le-” The stocky man stops speaking the moment he feels an object fly past his face. The small trickle of blood running down his cheek combined with the loud crash he hears behind him is enough for the man to shut up.
“No more of that now, scram!” The short man stands up and scrambles, running away at top speed. His rapidly disappearing back is followed by a deep and mournful sigh. Like a queen of darkness, cold and unapproachable by mortal men, Tess sits upon a throne. She stares down at the world with weary eyes, trickles of darkness wafting across cheeks like ephemeral tears.
“Why?” A single syllable escapes from her lips. “Why did all of these short fuckers become heartcores? Dungeons below and Flight above, why have you abandoned me?”
“I’m not a heartcore,” replies the only other living being near.
“You don’t count,” is Tess’ cold reply.
“I think I count,” the small dwarf mumbles softly, caressing the book in her stubby hands with fervour.
Tess throws a disgusted glance at the woman and nearly spits on the ground. Her constant attendant is one of the few small people that didn’t cultivate a heartcore. All the normal dwarves saw her fight with the mass of qi contaminated enforcer mutants a couple days ago. They saw her struggle at first until she put all of her cultivation base into her heart. The gruesome display of violence while she constantly ate must have unlocked some form of racial instincts in the peanut gallery. The entire crowd was chomping at the bit when she sauntered back to the stone village, a large chunk of meat in her hand.
They had asked her how she had become so strong. “Just stuff the power in your heart, you know,” was what she had answered. Exhausted from the intense fight and the needed changes in cultivation form, she had fallen into the first bed she had found. Nearly every single inhabitant had been a heartcore when she woke up.
This means that Tess, who dislikes the near moronic, instinctual dumb brutes at the best of times, is now surrounded by two thousand heartcore cultivators. The few outlying cases had been weird, to begin with, and the fact that they now had even less in common with the average citizen had only driven them further into their peculiarities. The old woman that was constantly at Tess’ side is a great example of this phenomenon.
“Nice weather, no?” asks Tess once again.
The old woman clutches the pristine tome tighter to her chest. “Weather is of no consequence. Except that rain can be a great source of quenching water for the hardest of alloys. And moisture is a factor when determining the exact temperature of a forge, but that’s influenced by humidity, not the weather, per se. If times are truly dire, one can forge in the rain, but make sure keep the increased cooling rates in mind. Otherwise, the…”
Tess lets the rambling old bint talk, ignoring the babbling madwoman. The wrinkled dwarf is the current keeper of the books. Her mental state was already quite warped due to her hermit-like lifestyle. The recent upheavals did little to improve her tenuous sanity. It is her duty to keep the books safe. Every single child in the village can recite the things backwards and forwards from the moment they can talk, so Tess does not see why the source of information should be so revered. A lifelong obsession with the bloody objects was not to be interrupted by a qi-apocalypse, it seemed. So now Tess is stuck with a semi-official advisor who literally can’t talk about anything else than forging, crafting, grinding, polishing, and quenching metal.
She was already quite tired, to begin with - having to continually kill cultivating mana mutants to keep everyone around from turning into paste will do that to anyone, but the insistent metallurgic nattering is only making her headache worse.
“I’m going out on patrol. Bye.”
“But you may never leave the forge unattended when the coals are-”
Sick of the same routine, Tess stands up and jumps into the shadow behind her throne. She hangs there for a second, feeling the reassuring cool tingle of power, her cultivation covering her in the shape of a large cloak. She hangs in the shadow for a few seconds before the sameness gets to her, and she starts hankering for change.
Jumping from beneath a bench outside the throne chamber, she makes her way through the bustling village. Tess finds it odd that merely recognising that she desires contrast is enough for her to see it everywhere. In retrospect, she can apply that philosophy of change to her entire life, finding clear indicators of her path everywhere. Her job before Lola and Teach kidnapped her was made out of extremes, she silently snuck through a place that was designed around loud and wild combat. She let the world see a version of her that was unlike her true self, always smiling in order to appease.
She is still thinking about the edge between differences when she walks into the place where she has been spending a lot of time, the central kitchen. Boisterous greetings are shouted at her as she enters the heavenly smelling place, the aroma of sizzling meat combining with frying mushrooms and wild herbs. “I think I might have a bit of room left. Does anyone have any new dishes for me to try?”
“Mistress! Here, it’s the finest cut of the hard-shelled lizard from yesterday.”
“Mistress, I tried concentrating the mutant’s blood essence. It’s not very tasty, but this contains the most power so far.”
“Please try this! Not much power, but very tasty.”
Plates and dishes are shoved in her face. Dancing through the bustling kitchen, she reaches a stone table and sits down, deftly carrying the plates she is handed. She immediately begins eating, smiling and thanking the dwarves around her, commenting and complementing where praise is due.
The qi in the air is rising, but the power levels are still nanoscopic when compared to the levels she had access to inside Tree. Tess has a single desire at the moment, and that is to grow stronger. The scarce trickle of information coming from the central crystal hanging above the village informed her that only foundation realm students can purchase general information about the other students. Teleportation services are also blocked until she breached into the next realm. And Tess is still kind of angry at herself for thinking like this, but she misses Ket. Just cultivation by breathing in the qi around her has had extremely limited effect. She would need years before she would have gathered the minimum amount of energy to attempt taking the first step on her path. The non-standard way she is cultivating at the moment isn’t helping her either.
Tess is loathed to admit it, but she is following in Bord’s footsteps. She is eating her way to power, consuming large amounts of qi enriched meat each day. The forges in the town are working overtime, producing new metal hunting weapons, implements, and traps in order to keep her sated. Tess has seen Teach’s way of doing things - an uncontrolled chaos purely driven by incentives - and she firmly decided that it wasn’t her thing. Instead, she had had a friendly chat with the dwarves in charge. Somehow, they had been extremely amicable and willing to listen to any suggestion she had.
Tess is also sure that the fact that she had been covered in blood while she was casually consuming the flesh of an enforcer mutant had a lot to do with the sudden obedience she inspired in the aged and bearded leaders. Tess had been friendly as she informed the entire village of what was happening. She had offered them her protection, promising to take care of the beasts too powerful for the town’s inhabitants. All she had wanted in return was food - this was her heartcore talking - and progress.
“Thish ish nishe!” Tess mumbles through greasy lips. She licks her fingers clean one by one, nodding at the beaming cook who prepared the succulent meat dish. She takes a sip of the near black concoction another villager put in front of her. Her face twists into a grimace before she takes another sip. “This one is gross, but the qi is pretty good. Maybe add some sugar.”
The man she addresses nods a single time before returning back to his stove. Tess then looks over the large table of steaming food, smiles at the expectant faces of the sweaty dwarven and slips all the dishes into her ring. “Thanks, bye now!”
“Yes! My dish was chosen! The legs have uplifted me from the munda-”
“She took all of our dishes, you dunce.”
“She drank mine, even though it didn’t taste very good because I can help her grow in power, so all the universe can observe the glory that is those two majestic limb-”
Tess runs away faster, feeling immensely uncomfortable as she hears the cooks begin to bicker. “Teach, I will fucking kill you, you son of a mutant.”
Just when she was starting to explore her own path, when she was beginning to see the way that she should advance, she was dumped here. Instead of an environment where she can fully experiment with the glimpses of contrast she has seen so far, she was abandoned in this monument to monotony. All the small people - Tess had started calling them dwarves - look the same. All the men wear beards. All the women wear the same roughspun, simple dresses. All the buildings in the town are hewn from stone. All the tools, items, pots and pans are made from the same black metal. All the men are miners and smiths, all the women tend to farms or gather plants outside.
“Mayor, if you call me legs, I will beat you,” Tess says the moment she appears in the most central building of the village.
The official leader of the village, a rather wrinkled dwarf, looks up from his desk at the sudden intrusion. He smiles widely, genuine laugh lines appearing on his entire face as he shows a mouth filled with missing teeth. “As you wish, mistress.”
Tess’ hand twitches. She barely stops herself from flinging a qi-formed dagger at the old geezer. The way he pronounces ‘mistress’ was filled with enough meaning to fill a small book. “Stop that. Any news?”
“No. Moving to that fern still takes a million of these points you keep talking about. The option-”
“It’s not a fern. It’s Tree.”
Ignoring her interruption like it’s smoke, the old man continues. “-to bring a mount or pet has gotten a large discount, though. It’s currently the highest priority message we have gotten so far.”
“A mount? How much?” Tess’ tired eyes regain a bit of their fire.
“A thousand of these points.”
“Done. Get that stupid feathered cat in here now! Teach, I haven’t properly slept for a week! Every time I manage to close my eyes, some new horribly mutant has eaten a piece of your guts, and I need to go kill it, nearly losing my own life in the process.” Her rant grows more and more heated as she remembers all that has happened over the past ten days.
“Teach, you better be getting stronger too, because I will murder the shit out of you when I manage to get back to Tr-” She’s screaming at the floating crystal in a blind rage, veins popping up on her forehead when she is interrupted by a yowling cat to the face. The dark-feathered beast had been sleeping peacefully inside Tree when it was suddenly deposited on top of its owner. It leaps away from Tess before her dagger can find purchase.
Cat, girl, and old dwarf all look at each other for a few moments. The old man clears his throat. “So this is you-”
“ALARM, ALARM!” Loud bells ring through the village as the scouts sound the alarm. “FOUR LEGS AND WINGS, ALARM!”
Tess drags a hand across her dark-rimmed eyes. She’s nearly resigned herself to having to fight another of the freaks when she spots her mount. A manic smile on her face, she appears next to the weary beast instantaneously, grabbing it by the scruff of its neck. “I nearly forgot! You want to get stronger, no? Getting dragged around is no fun, right? So listen here, my feathered friend. I need some time to rest. You are limited to my power level, so the fact that I recultivated must not have been fun, right?”
The old dwarf watches on in a mix of confusion and fascination, seeing the girl and beast converse though whispered threats and anxious head nods or shakes respectively.
“Now I want to beat the shit out of Teach, and I’m pretty sure I’ve found my path, so it’s a straight shot to the foundation realm for me. This means for you too! But first, before we both can leisurely enjoy being free of earthly bonds and responsibilities and involuntary teleports, we need to grow stronger. You are limited by me, so it’s in your best interest to help me. And I need to sleep and eat.” Here Tess starts walking to the large door. She waves at the stocky guards standing next to room’s entrance, who hurriedly follow her orders and start pulling the heavy door open.
“So we can help each other here. I will become stronger, and you will facilitate that. So kill all the strong beasts around and bring their bodies to the kitchens. And off you go!” And Tess hurls the half tonne animal through the opened doors, waving happily at it as the cat soars through the enormous opening, into the coming horde of mutants. Her mount has such a wronged look on its face, everyone except Tess herself feels immensely sorry for the beast.
“I’m going to sleep,” says Tess while dusting off her hands. “Cover the crystal. It’s been an hour.” She waves towards the old dwarf and disappears in a black flash.
The old man stands there for a long while, pondering and questioning when the world has become such a weird place. Shaking himself from his musings, he turns to the crystal hanging in the air next to him. Below the crystal is a circular opening, allowing the large group of citizens below a direct line of sight to the slowly spinning rock. The old man slides the metal slab across the floor, hiding the crystal from below by covering the hole.
For some reason, access to an information construct does weird things to his villagers. He had seen it during the initial rampage that mistress Tess had gone on. While one half of the village had seen her blood covered form return from the battlefield, casually snacking on a mutant strong enough to kill his entire village a hundred times over, the other half had been entranced. They had started looking at the suddenly appeared gem hovering in the cave above all the buildings and hadn’t stopped looking until someone broke their line of sight with the shining gem.
They had all stumbled around in a daze for a bit before starting to rant about something they had learned, somehow. So a new building had been build, one designed to accommodate ‘gem learning’, as it is known. Once every hour, he or another official on duty covered the gem, allowing the people below to process what they have learned. A new batch of people will enter before the gem is uncovered again.
A clear mind and a desire to not learn anything specific - harder than it seems at first - is needed to perform this task. Demanding the gem only to provide news, and not any of its myriad of immensely fascinating sources of information is near impossible for the younger generations, but the mayor himself managed quite easily. He had lost himself once in the gem’s web of data, and only once. Metal is all, after all, and being the most proficient and gifted smith for years has left him with all there is to know about metal, heat, the hammer, and the forge.
There is no way to precisely measure temperature in the village, so the complex charts of quenching and tempering data are useless. The ideal steel composition made from a carbon and iron mixture is something every novice blacksmith learns, theoretical drivel. The only information new to the old man was the existence of other metals. The lack of means to refine them through complex processes means these discoveries are equally useless to the old man.
Sighing at how much the world changes yet stays the same, the most proficient smith on the entire planet, halfway into the eon old Dao of the forge turns back to his small smithy. The only thing that has changed for him is that forging has become a tiny bit easier. Using qi to clear away scale is a mighty innovation indeed, he thinks while picking up his hammer. He doesn’t even notice as the qi swirls around his hammer with every strike.
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