Chapter 213 - Reciprocation (3)

Ket’s good mood is quickly soured as a glowing crystal hits him in the balls. He should have known better, to be honest, but none of his processes judged the threat of a painful groin dangerous enough to take action. He had started falling immediately after teleporting above the glowing crystal, and the rest happened naturally.

“You okay, lad?”

“Shiiiii… Yes, I’m fine. Nothing is broken.” Standing on shaky legs, Ket gathers himself. Metal is everywhere, he realises. Like invisible stars blazing all around him, he feels the stuff in massive quantities, the abnormal amount of refined ferromagnetic materials nearly overloading his senses. He thinks that with just a simple mental twitch, he could send this entire place flying - just a single mental push. No spreading of qi needed, just a mental pu-

“You don’t look okay, lad.”

“I’m fine. Where is Tess.”

“Tess? The lass just left.”

“What?” For the first time, Ket looks at his conversation partner. A rather stocky and stumpy bearded face filled with wrinkles peers at him. Clad in rather simple rough-spun, he holds his hammer above a glowing piece of metal. “Tess just left?”

“Aye. She seemed to be missing something, if you ask me. Or, maybe someone.”

Ket feels pretty off at the moment. The feeling he used to have solely with metal - the connection of pushing and pulling - is everywhere now. The air in his own lungs, the cold sweat on his skin, and the flakes of scale falling from the glowing masterpiece in the coals. Every single one of these items have handles that Ket now can grasp, channels that he can push or pull through. “So…”

Ket takes a deep breath and steps forward. He stumbles and falls to his knees, scuffing his palms on the metal fragment covered stone. He is somewhere else again. He expected this, but the foreign nature of the situation is making him angry, for some reason. He had this image in his head. Tess should have been here, surprised but delighted. He had imagined himself standing in a field at the edge of a sunny town. There wouldn’t have been a single flake of snow for many, many kilometres around, and she would have smiled at him. The simple villagers would then have come to greet him, and all would have been well. He could have handled the education of the masses, or something like that, while Tess would have handled all the social business.

The only thing that he can confirm is that the people around him dress simple. Sack-cloth weave and a stitch that a toddler could do better can be classified as simple, right? His fantasy, the imaginary scenario that had let him coast through many an arduous meeting, is non-existent. Taking another deep breath, Ket smells stone, fire, coal, metal, and sweat.

“There ya go, then. Are you one of them Teacher kids, also then?”

“She told you about that?” Ket feels strong and stubby hands help him upwards. The fresh foundation realm cultivator takes in the room for the first time. Smoothly hewn stone surrounds him, and he is even more confused for a few moments. He has seen a rather large variety of stone buildings, but nothing that resembles his current surroundings. Instead of the sad stonework made by earth mages, this stone feels neutral. The clumsy enforced rigidity that is present in many of the qi-wrought buildings is also not present. Instead, this feels like ordinary stone, like the entire building is made from a single rock. That’s impractical at best, of course, so Ket decides to figure out what is up with that later.

The rest of the room is made up of a sizeable forge, a large rack of tools, and a deceptively simple looking anvil. There is also the crystal hanging off to one side, a metal plate lying under the floating qi sucker. The old dwarf keeps a single eye on Ket while shuffling over to the metal plate, kicking it away with a leather-clad and iron-shod foot. Ket hears shreds of murmured conversation from down below, and peering through the circular hole lets him see a mass of short people gazing upwards.

A loud clanging wakes Ket from his daze. Turning around, he sees that the old man is working on his forge again. Ket’s eyes hurt as he takes in the sight. Qi swirls around the man with each and every swing, the power in the air seemingly eager to join the smith in his work. Something seems off, though. The qi is rather thick here, even though the crystal hanging next to Ket is supposed to suck up all power inside enclosed areas. “What are you doing?”

Shaken from his smithing haze, the man turns to Ket. “Smithing.”

“Right, but why are you refusing to listen to the metal?”

“Listening to the metal?”

“Yes. That part doesn’t want to be in that shape. I can see you are trying to make a hammerhead, but this weakness will run right across its width like that. It might hold on for a few years, but it will split, probably mid-swing.”

“I don’t see-”

“Here.” Exasperated, Ket sends a trickle of his qi inside the small man. What he finds there leaves him speechless for a few moments. The amount of earth and metal mana inside the man are actually thick enough to interfere with the neutral qi in the air. The smith does have a core, of sorts, but the small and shrivelled thing inside his dantian is too small and pathetic to be called a cultivation base. Quickly flowing some qi through his brain, Ket thinks of what to do in this case.

In the stillness that comes with sped up perception, Ket first spreads qi throughout the entire village. Doing what he really should have done the moment he arrived here, he spreads his qi through the environment, scanning the area he has found himself in. Ket finds an entire town hewn from solid stone. Thick metal beams reinforce the ceiling. Houses, parks, playgrounds, storage barns, all the buildings one would expect to find inside a normal city are made from solid rock. The ceiling above still shows tool marks, clearly showing the artificial nature of the wide cavern mined into the mountainside.

And metal. Ket finds an enormous amount of metal. Metal cutlery, metal hinges, even metal brickwork and metal streets and floors. The delight that has come with the discovering of the massive amount of ferrous material present is immediately doused by the realization that nearly every single person he comes across has a heartcore. 

Processing the scanning data takes him but a few subjective minutes. He makes a few mental processes, ordering them to categorise and analyse the entire town and the people living in it in the background. Focussing back on the problem at hand, Ket inspects the old guy who is still looking at him with a funny expression on his face. Quickly going over the small guys’ body with a fine-toothed comb of qi, Ket finds multiple problems.

The amount of integrated earth and metal mana inside the small man is truly something Ket has not seen before. Just pulling all that power out of the guy would probably kill him. The core in his gut has been fighting against the entrenched mana all this time, causing it to exhaust all of the qi he breathes in on merely holding back the dense mana.

Looking at the hammer in the smith’s hand, Ket sees that it is an old tool, not of the man’s own making. Looking at the glowing piece on the anvil, Ket gets an idea. Checking and double checking the viability of his approach, he plans the entire thing out. “So, what’s your name, by the way?”

“I’m named Elbogar. I’m the mayor of this town here, Stonewon.”

“Nice to meet you, Elbogar. My name is Ket. What I meant with what are you doing is, why aren’t you using all the tools at your disposal to smith? From the partially completed items I can see around here, it’s obvious you’re a master smith. Not using all the tools handed to you is just foolishness?”

Elbogar looks around, stubby fingers scratching his balding head. “What are ya talking about?”

Ket walks over, grasping the old man’s hand, encapsulating it whole. He then guides the hand, which is still grasping the hammer, to the glowing hammerhead in the making on the anvil. “Like so.” And Ket pulls the decrepit core from the old man, pulling on it something fierce. He pushes it right into the glowing lump of metal with all the gentleness of a sledgehammer.

“Keep going old man. Just focus on the smithing.” Ket continues using the dwarf as a meat puppet, forcing the man to hammer on what has now become his own core. Ket ignores the shocked and pained gasps sounding out below him, weaving more threads of qi into Elbogar, keeping track of his vitals. Forcing the old man to accept another cultivation base might be seen as an extremely severe violation, but Ket has come to the conclusion that he isn't about to let the best smith he has ever seen die. Ripping the mana free from his stocky frame would likely kill him. Forcing qi inside the man would likely kill him. The only way forward Ket sees was to make the guy accept an external core, allowing him to slowly strengthen his body without the need to clear a large internal space of mana.

The old guys’ wrinkled face goes through a wide variety of emotions and colours. Each smash of his hammer causes a wince of deep pain to shoot through his aged expression. The red flush or rage is alternated with the green pallor of someone who wants to puke his guts out.

“There we go. Just guide the power, alright? Picture the ideal hammer, what would your perfect tool look like? You’ll be using this thing for a long time, so maybe make it look nice, also?” The sounds of smithing continue echoing through the small chamber as Ket guides his first student to the qi gathering realm. Hours fly by as both boy and old man lose themselves into forging an entirely new way forward.

“Right… I’ve got to apologise to that lass when I see her next time. This is something else.” Where previously, Elbogar had looked rather aged, moving slowly and measured, now a hint of vitality is in his stance. Instead of the pale and parchment-like skin of the truly old, his wrinkles are somehow lessened, his cheeks containing a healthy redness. Cradling the item like a baby, he holds a simple looking hammerhead. One side rounded, one side flat, the tool is somehow simple and extremely complex. Faint trails of glowing heat meander across the shining item, barely visible to the naked eye.

Ket inspects the man one more time. Instead of the barely functioning organs and early signs of failure, a faint sheen of health and power has returned to the man's insides. The amount of entrenched earth and metal mana blocking and polluting his body is still rather large, but now a small trickle of power flows from the hammer into Elobogar’s body. Satisfied at a teaching job well done, Ket stops focussing all his mental powers upon the process of guiding a new cultivation base. He pulls a softly glowing branch from Tree from his ring, handing the powerful ingredient to the dwarf. Instead of using it as firewood, as Teach probably would have done, Ket can see a better use for the golden piece he gathered. Then Ket’s face freezes.

“This is something else, boy. Ket, what is wrong?” Stroking both branch and hammer, Elbogar stops staring at the items as he sees Ket’s expression twist.

“Wait, lass? What the fuck am I doing? Database, where the fuck is Tess?” The screams and curses that burst forth from Ket’s mouth upon learning that Tess is stuck in the cold north instead of him, surrounded by the pompous assholes he was all too glad to leave behind, are legendary. Many nights do the dwarves whisper of the metal rage, the one time when all wrought goods became restless, moving about on their own as cursing was heard everywhere.

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