Chapter 212 - Reciprocation (2)

Tess smiles at the dwarves. Every single one of them has tears in their eyes, most of them noisily blowing their noses in grimy rags. “I will miss you guys. Now scram!”

“Mistress… Don’t leave us!”

“Come now. Even good things must end.”

“But, you haven’t tasted my latest dish yet, that will make you stay, surely!”

“Why must the legs leave us!”

“One must cool the forge once a month in order to clean it, at the minimum.”

“Shut up, you old bint. Go fondle books!”

Tess keeps the strained smile on her face long enough for the large gaggle of short people to exit. The moment the guards leave her quarters by shutting the doors, she sits back on her large chair. She could call it a throne, it is that large, but she doesn’t like calling it that at all. Resting her feet on the slowly snoring cat at the foot of her seat, she kicks the black being in the ribs. Her tired, yet still softly smiling expression cools into a severe one as she peers into the big cat’s eyes.

“You are not going to slack off. I might be gone for a while, but that just means you have more chances to earn beatings, am I understood?”

The big and fluffy being immediately tries to hide it’s poofed up tail while nodding furiously. Tess keeps staring at the large beast before smiling and scratching it between the ears. It first seems to fall into a trance, before the rumble coming from its own chests seems to shake it from the daze. The beast then hisses at Tess, before immediately fleeing by sinking into the shadows.

Tess smiles to herself as she sees the fruits of her labours in action. The contrast between the strict and indulgent actions she just performed cause another strand of her qi to settle in her body. The ball of blackness that is her pliant cultivation base rests behind her navel for now. Tess puts a hand on her stomach while looking at it with a contemplative expression on her face. Then, she takes a deep breath, and sits back down, now totally alone.

She is about to start when she hears a single knock coming from the door. Her first reaction is to scold the one intruding on her private time but immediately relents on that plan after sensing the aura of her visitor. “Come in.”

An aged dwarf steps in, his wrinkles belying the spring in his step, the fire in his eyes making him look a hundred years younger. “Are you about ready, lass?”

“Yes, sir. I’m sure I’ll be back at some point, though. It’s just…”

“Aye. If not your heart, I hope that we have earned a bit of your love.”

“That you have, you old coot. Please take care of that annoying feathered coward for me.”

“I’ll just send the bookkeeper at her if she refuses to go out hunting again.”

“That would be animal cruelty, no need to go that far.” Both girl and aged dwarf chuckle at that for a bit.

“Here, I wanted to give you this.” Pulling a small object from the inside of his coat, he walks closer and hands it over.

“This… Is this what you've been working on for the past week?”

“So I have. May it serve you well.”

Tess unwraps the clothbound object, uncovering a simple dagger in an elegantly stitched, embossed, and burned leather sheath. She pulls the blade free partially, an odd shimmer at the edge showing that the simply wrought knife is anything but simple. “I will keep it well.”

“That’s all I can ask. See you later.”

“No need to get all emotional. And stop denying your own cultivation base, you crazy coot.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Take care now.” The man flees before Tess can devolve into yet another lecture about how he should take qi and cultivation a bit more serious. Tess throws a half-hearted qi-dagger at the man, hitting the door the moment it closes behind the town’s leader.

“Alright. No need to get sentimental yourself now.” Tess inhales fiercely through her nose, making a rather unladylike sound. The next thing she does after exhaling is slapping her cheeks with both hands before sinking into the shadows.

She has felt herself hanging over a precipice for a few days now. All the meat she has been scarfing down has not only put a bit of unwanted flab on her stomach, but it also caused her cultivation base to skyrocket. This progress has stopped a day or two ago. The solid ball of her cultivation base feels like a rock now, its previous liquid malleability transformed into a hard to manipulate solid. She can still pour power in and out of the thing, but the contrast between the previous fluid way she could change its shape and its slowly hardening rigidity has Tess worried.

Worried enough that she has decided to do that closing up thing Teach sometimes talked about. The only closing up anyone she knows has ever done concerned Danarius and Ares, or any other mad scientist in an inventing frenzy, forbidding anyone from entering their labs. Not a single person that she knows has been spending large amounts of time locked inside a room just to focus on their cultivation. But Tess feels like she needs to.

Just to unwind from the constant social happenings that have been going on in and around the village. Even though she still would like to have a talk with Teach, one that will involve a lot of knives, she has started to enjoy her stay here. There have been negative aspects to the entire situation, of course, but those are largely overshadowed by the spirit of the people here. The small folk have managed to worm themselves into her heart, their hard-working spirit and largely honest temperament endearing them to Tess greatly.

The mayor is the best crafter she has ever seen, period. The old man has a way with metal that she finds truly impossible to describe. The cooks are even now busily looking for new ways to improve their craft. The miners are all enthusiastically searching for new ore as they employ qi in order to do so more effectively.

The only faction of workers that have needed to reinvent themselves are the smelters. The fact that even the most unskilled worker can use their personal qi to filter metal from ore has forced them to reinvent a lot of things. This unskilled worker won’t be fast, and won’t produce metal of high quality, sure. But even a low tier qi condensing cultivator can replace an entire team of people manning a smelting oven. But, Tess told them of certain data in Database, and those people have been inventing all sorts of new and interesting ways to lay structural qi into metal, saving the smiths a lot of their power.

The other aspects of life have both changed and stayed the same. All crafts not related to metal have stayed secondary in everyone’s eyes. There has been an uptick in the general quality of chow, fueled by Tess’ large demand for good tasting food, but that’s about it. Neither spinning, weaving, sewing, woodworking, nor any other craft skill whose main focus isn’t metal has become any more popular with the general populace.

She did try to orchestrate a trek to the supposedly nearby dungeon, but the large amount of powerful beast roaming the wilderness had forced the entire expedition to return after only a day of travelling. Tess could have made it, she is pretty sure, but the group of dwarves would have sustained a large number of casualties. Her plan to bring back more books to foster enthusiasm for professions other than the metallurgic crafts failed with that retreat.

As Tess floats through the shadows, phasing through the cave-like town, she looks back at the two months spent in the place. It has been oddly peaceful, she reflects. The preceding months spent with Teach all had this underlying tension, a surety that shit is about to go tits up, but only Teach knows when, how, why, and where. This tension had been great for forcing growth, as even the most relaxed of scenario’s all had this edge to them, but it wasn't great to work on yourself.

Even the meals all had this competitive edge. The best dishes were always snatched up first, and Tess is sure that the infuriating man always placed any person’s favourite dish on the opposite end of the table. Just chilling with the energetic short folk had been kind of stressful but on a level much less existential. There had been a comforting sameness to the entire village after a week or two of learning how things are run.

Her weird form of a gut core might not be as mentally enhancing as anything Ket or Teach have cooking inside their heads, but it still enhances her mind enough. She had only needed to hear someone’s name, profession or familial situation once. This allowed her to get to know everyone within two weeks.

“I’m indulging them!” Tess accidentally blurts out her sudden epiphany. Halfway to the forge, the wrinkled face of the major twists in a complicated expression. The rest of the people that heard the exclamation dismiss it as another of the weird things that have been happening since they got introduced to qi. An aged woman looks at the book she is clutching with an equally complex set of emotions on her face.

Ignoring the fact that she just shouted that sentence throughout the entire city, Tess goes through some proper mental developments. She has been acting just like Teach. She has not taken a single issue here truly serious. Knowing what is possible, that the universe is a really weird place and that literally, anything is within her power given time, has prevented her from genuinely caring and integrating.

“A year ago, I’d never have wanted to leave. Now, though… Two weeks in, and I was getting bored. I’ve been wanting to leave for a month now. This is all just so… mundane.” She immediately feels guilty. She is still floating through the shadows but has made sure to drift away from the town dug into the mountain at this point. Her whispers reach only her own ears, not that she is currently paying any attention to that. “Super bored. Those little lives. This little town in the little mountain. I haven't taken them seriously for a single second.”

Tess feels immensely guilty then. A wave of soul-wrenching disgust at the way she has been handling and looking down on the hardworking folk washes through her. Those are lives, she realises. Those are genuine people, with hopes and dreams. And she has been looking at them like amusing oddities, resources she can use to entertain and empower herself.

She flops onto the sunny mountainside into a boneless heap. She has been seeing the dwarves as an amusement. All the qualities she has been despising in Drew, she finds in herself. It’s like those people, those amazing sapient fellow humans, are worth much less, just because they have not experienced the rigours of Teach, the Flight, and the complications that come with living inside Tree as it’s master and owner sets up a half-hearted schooling system.

Feeling a warmth coming from her waist, she manages to pull herself away from pitying and hating herself at the same time long enough to fumble at her belt. She feels the warm metal haft of the dagger that the mayor gave her. She experiences another wince of pain as she realises that she knows all their names, but has been referring them as ‘crazy book lady’, ‘mayor’, or ‘cook twenty-five’ in her head. Like they aren’t full human beings, like herself.

She pulls the knife from its sheath in an idle gesture, twirling it through her fingers with practised and qi enhanced ease. As she finds more ways in which she has been seeing these people as less than human, she looks at the blade. She has been looking down on the smallfolk for using only metal and stone, to the detriment of all other materials, but they can smith. The simple dagger whizzes through her digits, the blade actually leaving a slight trail of cut air in its wake.

Staring at the thing for a little bit longer, she muses that she would like another epiphany now, please. Looking at the dagger like it should hold the keys to the universe, she puts it back into her sheath. Slapping her face with both hands once again, Tess stands up. “Alright. I hate to say this, but what would Teach say?”

Looking over the valley stretching down below her, Tess tries not to think for a bit. She watches the small figures scurry back and forth below. She observes the carts laden with large metal traps being carted back and forth, other carts carrying back the results of the many hunting expeditions that are being sent out. She even catches sight of her pet mount skulking around, pretending to nap, but keeping an eye out for qi beasts too powerful for the citizens to handle.

“So what. He’d probably say ‘so what’, and start ranting about something stupid.” Finding it oddly fitting that the last look she will have of the people she spent two months with is from so far high up, Tess sits back down. Instead of mulling over the rather dramatic realisation she has just gone through, she chooses to just cultivate. Leaving questions of personal growth and changes of perspective behind, for now, she just sits and breathes.

A few hours later, when the last rays of sun coming between the mountains slip across her meditating form, she blinks out of existence. Instead of the previous sinking into the lengthening shadows, she just disappears with a soft whooshing sound, her point total largely depleted and her foundation formed.

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