“Three weeks. I’m not sure how much longer I can hold out, you know. Three subjective weeks, and I’m cracking. What has become of me…” I stop my pacing. I look around for Lola but notice that she is not here anymore. I’ve given up on forcing her to balance out her cultivation, and have just let her do her own thing. If she no longer wants to do both fire and ice, so be it.
Stepping out of the trench I have worn into the ice, I give the next installation of miniature rockets a good kick. The delicate equipment explodes, singeing my shoes and sending the biggest wave of suborbital rockets launching to the heavens so far.
Taking out my irritations on the innocent ice surrounding me, I swing my sword towards the ground. I hit the intricate geometric shape besides me with the flat of my blade, sending a shock-wave of ice splinters shooting upwards in a ring around me. I barely manage to lift the super-heavy item, but only just. Gritting my teeth, I slam it down on another piece of debris just as my feet start sinking through the solid ice underfoot. A few dozen kilograms of ice slides off the object, and I pull it into my ring.
Heaving a deep breath, I replenish the respectable amount of qi that that manoeuvre just cost. I pull another battery of rockets fresh from the production lines from Tree and put it at the end of the line. I connect the relevant wires and move over to the next piece of alien junk.
I repeat the process for a few hours, slowly excavating the ice from all the random stuff and stealing them. I don’t even scan them anymore, as that takes too long.
No, it doesn’t take too long, I admit to myself as I pause for a moment, panting heavily. It just forces me to stand still for too long. Channelling my frustration at the general situation I have found myself in into the physical labour; I continue the backbreaking work.
I've been doing everything I can to hold myself back from storming the north pole the last week. Through long-distance spying drones, I could keep tabs on Rhea until six days ago. That’s around the time the dragons flying in rigid grids started attacking the flying machines, taking them down one by one. The flying lizards had been patrolling the north pole in predictable yet effective patterns as usual, when they all attacked at once. I've thought up a lot of theories about why they did this, and none of them are good.
But I need to keep true to my own path. I need to stay neutral. I need to facilitate, to allow people to find their own way. I can only show the options. Forcing people down paths that I judge correct will quickly turn me into the same despotic psychotic maniacs I avoided for a thousand years. I will not even set a single foot towards that way of thinking.
So I start pulling another of the super heavy items, barely managing to lift it free from where it lies captive in the ice after using all my strength. I judge it to be at least a couple dozen tonnes before putting it inside my ring, the fractal patterns on the triangular sphere nearly cutting through my skin.
I notice that another batch of rockets is done, and run over to the cleared stretch of ice that is my new launch site. The big rockets I send spacewards from the Shi-Eit kingdom gave me a lot of useful data, sabotage by bunny notwithstanding. The next batch I made was half their size, around four meters long, half a meter wide. These faster and more nimble rockets are getting annihilated with the same ease, the satellites firing at the missiles with extreme precision.
I’ve also developed a lot of theories about the shape of these defence and offensive platforms. It doesn't do me a lot of good, though. None of the critical questions are answered yet. How do they handle the velocity that they impact on their projectiles? How are they resupplied? How much ammo do they have?
I glare at the air surrounding me, cursing the thick layer of atmosphere. I can only catch glimpses of the satellite network around this planet with extremely high altitude drones, the lensing effect of the randomly moving atmosphere makes any form of observation from down here close to useless. Trying to decide any meaning from the warped and refracted images I can squeeze from telescopes is taking way too much processing power to get any usable results within a usable timeframe.
All the observation drones I sent up in the sky got shot down before they got properly beneficial images. I’ve only barely begun to map the satellites, and this is only due to the fact that they block starlight and background radiation, allowing me the occasional glimpse. But every time I think I’ve got one of the floating pencil shooters in my sights, it disappears from that orbit. All in all, I’ve been doing a lot, but I’ve been accomplishing very little.
There are just two positive things I have accomplished myself over the past week. I managed to make the double density slab of gold my personal matter by exposing it to immense qi pressure. And I think I will have what I need in terms of the density gradient in about a week. The bullets that are being shot at my swarms of missiles are slowly but surely lowering in mass. Instead of the couple hundred times the normal density that the initial bullets were, the latest batch I scanned was a mere fifty times heavier than ordinary stone. At the end of the week, according to my projections, they will start shooting normal matter.
I put down another freshly finished batch of rockets, placing the square metal framework at the end of the other launchers. I start pulling on another of the oddly shaped items in the ice but stop when I realise that my ring is full.
I sit down and do nothing for a few moments. The rockets are launching on schedule, and each half meter vehicle will get hit by ten or so projectiles. Doubling the number of missiles will merely cause every rocket to be hit by five projectiles on average. I would need to multiply the number of production lines by over ten times in order to speed up this process. That move would put me well and good into the realm of diminishing returns, and I have thus deemed it inefficient.
The blastwave coming from the rocket blasts rustles my beard and my hair, and I feel a cool tongue slobbering all over my hand. I ignore the large blue rabbit and just lie in my own misery for a little longer.
How did I do it, again? How did I manage to be happy on my own? I used to be perfectly content being by myself. Now it just feels so empty, like life is hollow or something. Nothing I do feels like it will have meaning. No matter what my predictive data tells me, I fail to see how getting up and moving around will benefit me in any shape, way or form. Better to just keep lying here, right? Better to just become a frozen vegetable, let the cold claim me and let life go on by without me.
Yes, that would be so much better.
A high-level process running in my braincore slowly pulls me inside Tree. The cold and hard ice is replaced by soft grass and warm dirt. The colours around me bleed life back into my perspective as if the warm suns shining down on me warms both my body and soul.
“Did you get anything?” I look up at the big golden Tree towering above me. I feel worries and an irritated negative answer. “Yeah, me neither. It seems to be learning, though. Those felt like my own thoughts.”
I sigh deeply, trying to overcome the shaking in my limbs. All of that hit a little too close to home, but I think I managed to catch a glimpse of how the moon works. I should have seen it coming, though. The dungeon cores are all about reality manipulation. They seem to nudge possibilities into a specific direction of their choosing. Nexus seems to make certain thoughts more likely, allowing the slight bit of depression that has been haunting me for forever to take front and centre of my mind.
Instead of looking at a mind manipulator, it’s a probability manipulator. When taken to the extreme, there is little difference between having two possible thoughts and landing a coin flip. You either think something, or you don’t. And the same feeling of having parts of my future cut off, like what happened when I first reached level one hundred of the Tower Dungeon, was vaguely present in my thoughts.
The way it is doing this is still out there, though. I don’t have a single clue on how even the dungeon cores are messing with probability and change to the extent that they seem capable. The moon’s much more insidious and powerful meddling is not something I even feel qualified to speculate on.
I try to banish the last remnants of those dark thoughts while walking to my castle. It’s a good thing I set up such a high-level process. Else I’d probably still be lying on the ice right now.
I pull the lightest bullet I have found so far from my ring as I saunter towards my evil lair and my chair. Forty-eight times the density of ordinary matter, this little projectile is the lightest one I have seen so far. I try forcing my qi into the item, but fail to penetrate the dense grid of atoms even a single picometre. Sending a surge of qi to surround the thing does little to nothing. I keep trying to pack more and more qi into the item, but the mental strain becomes a bit much when I’ve got half of my powerbase surrounding the slender projectile.
Wiping away the blood from my nose, I let the power dissipate back into my core. I shield my eyes from the dust storm that the sudden whirlwind of chaotic power caused, I feel Tree grumbling at the disturbance. It starts patching up all the damage my sudden qi distribution has caused as I jump to the top of my tower, putting the stone items back into my ring.
I throw myself into my chair, picking up the golden slab sitting next to it. I only barely managed to turn this item into my personal matter, and it’s merely double the mass or normal gold. It will be a while before I’ll be able to manage fifty times, no doubt. Checking once more that the small rocket production and launching process is going well, I resume my previous task of taking stock of all my students.
Focussing my mental sight to the north, the glaring lack of surveillance at the pole threatens to send my thoughts into another negative spiral. Without Nexus’ meddling, however, it’s rather easy to set my mind to something else.
Ket is doing rather well, I find. The way the boy has been manipulating the social scene of the rather well-developed town is admirable on many levels. He has been issuing quests and tasks of his own to the lower classes constantly, bypassing the entrenched authorities splendidly. He has been transforming the entire place into a massive qi gathering formation right under the noses of the nobles. The extremely well equipped policing forces don’t know it yet, but their elite training and premium equipment are preventing them from adapting to qi efficiently.
The common people and the middle class are drinking up all the teaching Ket can bestow them, however. Ket is also getting close to his foundation, I’m guessing from the power readings. I’m not sure what path he will take without closer examination, but I’m sure it’ll be interesting.
Ares’s fishing village is rather close to Ket's town. Not a single village so far has managed to make contact with another settlement, so neither of the students knows that they are this closeby. The wilds keep filling up with ambient qi, which is absorbed by the animals and mana mutants in those areas. It’s a good thing that Rhea and I set this entire thing up, as the growth of these monsters is beyond even my most pessimistic estimates. Something in the very nature of mana seems to have primed these beings for higher energies like qi, allowing them to speed along their elemental paths using all the qi they can get their flippers, claws, and paws on.
Other than the large sea creatures that keep harassing the small town, Ares has a relatively quiet post. There is seafood and qi aplenty, and all the minor injuries the town folks keep having allows her to practice her healing near constantly. I chuckle at the fact that the injury rate for the male population is several factors above that of the female population. Ares still has a large head start on the general populace, and her newfound talent for injuring people and beast through her medical talents is sure to keep the spineless girl safe. Medicine and poison are merely different ways to use similar concepts, and she seems to be understanding this fact more and more.
Agneta is also doing fine. She ended up in the northern jungle, and even I wouldn’t want to fight her in those densely packed forests. She has this large tribe of beastkin eating out of her hand, and instead of developing a martial tradition, they seem to be competing for best weave and finest cloth. My current clothes are woven by her, I think seeing Ragni be better at weaving and spinning than herself got her super motivated.
Speaking of that bombshell, she ended up in the jungle to the south of Angeta’s, separated by a sizable stretch of desert. That curvaceous girl has been having a heck of a time, and is now leading a muscular tribe of humans around. The massive amount of protein consumed by that muscled group of people was impressive before. Now they are actually causing minor genocides in the edible animal population.
Selis is still sending angry death threats daily. I actually gave in to her vicious demands a while back and sent some material help her way. The death threats and torture promises have since increased to twice a day.
Vox is still living the life in the swamplands, making good use of the large biodiversity in the rich bog. He is basically a drug dealer now, helping multiple tribes and towns as he travels back and forth through the swamp.
Rytin and Bassik are still doing fine near the south pole. Bassik actually managed to largely disband the village he was assigned to. The majority of the buildings there are empty now, and the few remaining inhabitants have no more need for walls. It turns out when people start looking through mere physical barriers like skin, walls, and other material things because they are all developing eyescores, privacy goes out the window. Other people not going down the eyecore path do not feel comfortable with the fact that they can be spied on all the time, and thus they tend to leave.
Rytin is continuing her studies. She just has a few processes running that act like the town’s mayor. She conscripted every single person in that village, all so that she could get a proper research lab up to speed.
To my surprise, the majority of the mages that have joined me as students have adapted extremely well. Nearly all of them are proficient cultivators, and I’ve only had to reassign a few because of spectacular incompetence or willful sabotage, way less than Rhea and I predicted. We’ve left the unwilling mages on their respective islands and the mana dungeon, and I’m barely monitoring those places.
Freedom also means the ability to make your own dumb decisions, right? And the fact that all those islands are completely stripped of people that didn’t want to be there in the first place? And that all the involuntary inhabitants somehow miraculously found their way back to their hometown? The fact that all the slaves they acquired after I stole all of their skulls are thus gone, and the fact that those that rejected my offer needed those slaves to even survive?
The world is a weird place sometimes, that’s all I’ll say about that.