Chapter 22 - Crack
Flying works up quite the appetite. I know it was a horrendous and inefficient waste of qi, but being grounded after a few hundred years of flying wherever I wanted had me going a little stir crazy. Wait, no, I needed an overview map of the surroundings. Yeah, let's go with that…
The dragon steak is as delicious as the first time I ate it. Here is a life-saving tip: the toughest scales in the universe don't do shit if the inside of your mouth is as soft as pudding.
I am currently sitting on a comfy chair made from ancient red-oak, covered with hydra leather and stuffed with harpy down. One of the few things I couldn’t just sell for more lightning iron, it's too damn comfortable. My view is also pretty good, a massive rock-filled valley with steep cliffs and the occasional spot of snow. When that view gets boring I have other entertainment to keep myself busy, namely the six idiots messing around with each other on the rock face.
The fatty has been kicked, punched and body slammed off a cliff more times than I can count. He continually bounces back up, keeping himself in the race with wild abandon. He must be hungry to be in such a hurry. The black haired girl is doing her own thing, climbing slowly but suddenly disappearing and reappearing tens of meters higher up. She must be getting a concrete grasp on her shadow affinity, good for her.
The rest is too busy sabotaging each other to get much work done. Mister redhead seems to have the uncanny ability to make people pissed off with his presence alone. Blue fuzz girl is ignoring everything and slowly climbing up, trying and failing to dodge the only other body cultivator besides Lola. She never seems to slip on the ice though, and thus doesn’t need to avoid the white patches littering the mountainside. The dark-eyed sack of depression is glaring at everyone while not straying too far from the main group. His hands keep slipping, he must be suffering from clammy hand syndrome. I make a note to myself to never shake his hand. Or to have a towel nearby when I need to do so.
Angeta, my lovely beast girl disciple is the loudest, every perceived provocation launches her into another cursing and yelling match. Lola went to play with them earlier but is now sitting on my lap, enjoying the pampering I’m giving her.
And all this time I’m searching for minerals. I never got the hang of spreading my qi quickly through solid materials. I can cover the entire valley and then some if I use air as a medium to transfer qi through but this rock slows my scanning down to a crawl. A relative crawl that is, I have half the mountain under my butt covered in qi by now. I have found a few common ore veins such as iron and other trace elements, but nothing to get enthusiastic about.
I have also been doing useful stuff, however. I stand up and walk over to the other side of the mountain. Putting my hand over the edge I touch a slab of rock that I have been working on. In order to pull something into my Tree necklace, the object needs to be separate from the ground. I have been pulling qi wires through the rocks under my feet, yelling abrasive things at them and using the energy constructs like rope saws. I then absorb the large slabs of rock into the necklace when they are separated. With a mental heave and some help from my Tree, I pull another massive chunk of rock into the small dimension.
Sinking my sight into the artefact, I see the rock appear in front of Tree. It blooms with a golden light and the slab that should weigh at least a few tonnes gets flung into the horizon. I follow the soaring piece of rock and watch it hit the ground, shattering into a million pieces and sinking into the soil in seconds. It’s a bit late to start building a proper foundation for my little world but better late than never. The rock replaces the soil and I see the circle of earth’s diameter growing with a few millimetres. With a mental nod to the Tree, I let myself plop back into the comfy chair.
A few slabs of rock later, I stop to prevent the entire mountain from crumbling. I’m doing this now because doing this with people inside seems like a bad idea, safety first, you know. Also, I don't want these brats to get concrete ideas of how Tree works. Both because that could influence their path choices and because I want to remain mysterious for a little while longer. I don't even feel shame as I say that to myself.
I also stopped because the black haired girl is reaching the top. There are only a few places where climbing up is easy, so these are natural choke points for the rest of the troupe. Shadow missy just shadow jumped over these points, staying out of sight of the rest.
“Well done, uuhm, Ness?”
Her smile is pretty wide. I don't like it.
“Starving! After all the junk I sh…”
“Yes, yes. It’s not pleasant, let's not talk about it okay?”
I hand her a plate with some dragon meat and steamed vegetables.
“Don't eat too quickly, there’s qi in this food.”
Tess looks up from a half-empty plate. I shake my head. Learning by experience is the best teacher after all.
“D-Do you know where I can get some clothes?”
“Don't worry, with everything you ate you won't need it.”
She looks at me with a crooked glance, seemingly wanting to ask another question but stopping herself. I pull a bottle from my spatial ring and take a sip. Using qi infused wine to refill one's qi reserves is cheating because you can't learn anything from the process and you will get absolutely smashed if you don't make the alcohol qi your own quickly.
Awkward silences are not awkward if one ignores them completely. I decide to break the silence after fifteen minutes have passed.
“You think they will reach the top before the end of the week? Ow, there goes the fatty again. That bounce must hurt.”
Another roar comes from below, a clear indication that Angeta has had her fur rubbed the wrong way again.
“His name is Bord”
I look at Tess and stare at her. “Thanks for the info.”
She starts fidgeting at my intense gaze.
“The guy with red hair is Voxander, Vox for short. The sleepy looking guy is Ket, Selis has blue hair and the *warbling sounds* is Angeta.”
“Hmmh, thanks? What is the meaning of *warbling sound*?”
“Your pronunciation is still pretty bad but getting better, they are a race that lives far to the east. She must be brought here through a slave raid.”
I cross reference the sound with my self-constructed dictionary of the local language but don't find any plausible matches. It must be a different tongue. I will keep calling her race beastkin for now. I saw a few others in Tower City and they all looked slightly different. Also, I ignore the part about the slave raid in order to keep my temper in check.
“The inn to the east of the dungeon town has a nice slave shed. I sort of kidnapped her.”
“Like you did with all of us? I knew Vox from before and he was in jail for insulting a noble. I recognise Ket too, he hung around the Tower a lot.”
Her smile is truly too wide. She seems to have a need to be perceived as happy? I’m not going to dig into her past, we all have skeletons in our closets. I still wonder why everyone would need gay skeletons, but it is not my place to ask these kinds of grand life questions.
“This power you gave us is really great though, the shadows seem to love me even more since I formed that core thing.”
“Was it worth all the shit...”
“We weren't going to talk about that, riiiight?”
I break my single person staring contest and look down the cliff again. The rest of the group is about three-quarters of the way up the mountain now. “Lola, go make sure they don't kill themselves please.”
She whines a bit but hops on down the mountain, jumping from rock to rock like a mountain goat. Even fatty… um… Bord wouldn't survive falling from that kind of height. Once the rowdy group sees the ball of fluff staring at them they quiet down and start climbing meekly.
“Why did you bother picking me up from the dungeon?” She squeezed that out from between gritted teeth, it must have cost her something to ask that question.
“I didn't, Lola did.” A flash of relief crosses across her smiling face. I try to analyse her behaviour but end up with too many possible reasons. I won't be able to narrow it down with just this sort time knowing her.
“Stop smiling like that, it’s really irritating.”
Her smile grows wider. Yep, it’s totally a mask for something.
“Did you know that the light of the sun takes a while to reach this planet? It then bounces of everything until a very small amount of it reaches your eyes.”
Her eyes go wide and her mouth flops open.
“You look like a fish, gaping like that. Go sit down.”
She snaps her mouth shut and sits down. Another look flashes across her face, discomfort? That should be the dragon meat kicking in. I chuckle inwardly at the thought of core-forming disciples eating food that foundation level cultivators would kill for. Steam starts wafting from her grimacing figure as she sinks into meditation. Overloading someone with qi forces them to get control of it lest they explode. The entire plate of food I gave her has a qi density that is just shy of this critical amount so she should be fine.
As I keep enjoying my wine, the five scrubs clinging to the rocks make their way up the mountain. Surprisingly Bord reaches the cliff first, spurred on by the delicious aromas I keep sending their way. His face is completely red and he is soaked in sweat. Quite the achievement when it's freezing up here.
“Don't eat it all at once.”
I hand him a plate of food and he collapses on the floor with bulging cheeks. The rest of the group reaches the little plateau shortly after and they all sit down while scarfing down the food I gave them. I let them eat and rest for a little while. Tess is still contemplating the single tidbit of scientific knowledge I told her, shadows dancing over her body as she starts to understand a slight fraction of the underlying principles of this world. I pull Lola on my lap and spend time petting her while slowly absorbing some of Tree’s qi to top myself off.
Half an hour later the group seems to have dealt with the flood of qi and are just meditating.
“So, what have we learnt today?” They all open their eyes and look at me. The redhead is the first to speak up.
“Bord bounces magnificently! The way he jiggles is majestic.” Silence reigns supreme for a long moment. Blue fuzz is slowly going red in the face. Did she glimpse some sort of insight from the undulating rolls? Technically they are an expression of liquid so it lies within her affinity.
“Sen… Selis, what have you learned?” Her face becomes slightly paler when all the gazes land on her. How did a shy little thing like her end up in prison? It must have been some powerplay.
“B-bouncing is flowing?”
The rest looks confused while I smile at her.
“That’s a pretty good observation! You, mister gloomy eyes, what did you learn from this endeavour?”
“Beast woman are as violent as the rumours say.”
“That is technically an observation yes...” Feeling slightly exasperated by that non-comment I focus on Bord.
“How is that heart core treating you?”
“I should have died a hundred times over!” He stands up and I see his leg muscles tensing. He is about to jump off the fucking edge to show off his gains, he doesn't seem the sharpest tool in the shed. I pull him back with a strand of qi before he can commit suicide.
“You won't survive that fall without more power. I don't like looking at your face but I would like to see it smeared over a large area even less. What did you actually learn?”
“Ah, yes, um, pushing this stuff around inside of me makes it easier to do stuff”
Articulation isn't his strong point either. It seems that his only strong point is being strong. That is honestly pretty common for body cultivators, so I don't really blame him or his lacking brain.
As I turn to ask the same question to Angeta a shiver runs through me. I immediately recognise is as a danger sense, something big is about to happen. Keeping my face straight I focus on the simmering beast woman.
“And what about you?”
She basically explodes while standing up.
“WHY DID YOU KIDNAP ME IN THE...”
I stop listening. I look towards the lower mountains, the dungeon tower is piercing the sky, visible over the mountain tops. My students are facing me with their backs to the tower. I struggle to act like I’m listening as I see the tower explode. A massive crack formed halfway up the pillar, followed by a silent explosion. A large chunk of the tower explodes outwards, spraying a shower of smaller fragments and dust in its wake. It’s like the middle just exploded into a single direction.
With rising horror, I watch from the corner of my eye as the top part of the tower keeps still at first, but then the break shifts. The entire top half slides down the slanted break and gets stuck again, now standing at a slight angle. This angle slowly and majestically becomes bigger, the top half of the tower keening over slowly.
“...ESE BASTARDS SHOULD ALL BE DRIVEN THROUGH WITH...”
“Yes, yes, that is all very interesting. If you are not going to answer my question just don't talk the next time, okay?” My nonchalance in the face of the temper tantrum seems to throw her off. “I will bring you all back to the clearing, keep training and figuring out how to use qi.”
“Wait, I di..”
Their voices get cut off as I pull them and Lola back into the necklace. I don't precisely know why I don't want them to see the tower’s demise but I don't want to complicate this situation any further.
White plumes are now shooting from the crumbling structure and I know that that is my qi. Even from this distance, I feel that the power has my fingerprints all over it. All the doomsday scenario’s come back to me and I barely prevent myself from trembling. I need to get back there pronto.
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