Chapter 234 - Convalescence (4)

“Database, one teleportation to Stonewon for both of us,” says Ket as he approaches the massive Tree.  

“What? No! We need to go to The Twelve Pillars first! I’ve got so many incentives that are still in their starting phases.”

Ket stares at Tess for a long time while Tess wonders what is up with him all of a sudden.

“What is this ‘Twelve Pillars’?”

Tess’ mouth falls open in disbelief. “The fricking town you were put in charge of? The chaotic frozen hellhole I’ve been working my ass off to fix?”

“That place is called The Twelve Pillars? Where does that name come from, It’s just flat and cold tundra over there,” replies Ket, who is staring at the ground in thought.

“The families! There are twelve highly specialised families. It’s actually a rather nice system, I’ve got to say. Their social habits are kind of out there, but those are easy to ignore once you’ve got a handle on what’s important to each faction.”

Ket is staring at Tess at this point, beginning to hyperventilate as the words that she just spewed from her sexy, sexy mouth fail to percolate through his brain. “What’s important to them? Every single little gesture is important to them! I went mad! Totally bonkers, just trying to figure out what was going on with their ass-backwards social cue system! I spent months inside my head going over every single bullshit gesture and you… you just…”

“Alright, sorry. I should have known that you wouldn’t see it that way. Let’s visit the dwarves first, then?”

Ket calms down as he stops winding himself up. “Sure. I’m actually curious how you feel about the optimisations I implemented in that town.”

Tess immediately gets a bad feeling in her stomach. The way the word ‘optimisations’ came out of his mouth is not sitting well with her, at all. “No, maybe we should go to the Twelve first.”

“Alright! The Twelve it is… No, stop bewitching me with your wiles! Stonewon first!”

The two bicker for a little bit, standing in front of Tree’s golden trunk while shouting at each other in a whispering tone. The alternating scorching and freezing gusts of wind buffet both of them, remnants of Teach’s smithing fervour. Both are at a level where such supernaturally cold or hot waves fail to phase them, so neither is pulled from their little argument by these forces. Then Ket starts giggling, and Tess follows after staring at the laughing boy for a long moment.

“Was that our first fight?” Ket manages to say as he regains a bit of control over his diaphragm. Then his demeanour changes at once. Ket grabs Tess’ hand, shouts “Stonewon,” and touches Tree’s trunk.

Tess blinks a couple of times, her eyes slowly adjusting to the suddenly dark surroundings. She then realises what Ket just did, and is about to get angry when she sees where they currently are. “What the fffuuuuuu…” trails out of her mouth.

Tess is overlooking a small metropolis. There are no words in her vocabulary that can describe what she is seeing, but it’s a rather impressive vision. “What happened to Stonewon?”

“What do you mean, what happened? I calculated an efficient growth strategy. They used to make metal art. Can you believe that? Using such a massive amount of working hours to create some useless statues. A total waste of productivity. And then the roof tiles! A hundred hours per tile, and nothing of use was produced! The rock ceiling is more than sufficient when it comes to weathering rain. No need for such a redundant and labour-intensive layer of protection.”

Tess keeps flapping her mouth open and closed. What used to be a somewhat dumpy, yet extremely cozy mountain village hewn from the rock is now much expanded. Instead of small buildings connected through cramped streets, there are massive interwoven structures of steel and stone. Instead of individually tiled houses, each one with their own front door, now massive apartment complexes connect the cave floor to the ceiling high above.

“LEGS! Lads, legs is back!”

“The leggy slave driver? Why would you alert that madman of our position? Wait, did you say ‘legs’?”

“Legs? Has the long-limbed one come to our salvation?”

“Oh, mistress legs! I know you would return to us one day!”

“Her mercy is as large as her legs are long, surely she will see the suffering that the Leggy one is putting us through?”

“I have hidden the cookpots, hidden them from his evil leggy gaze! I will retrieve them at once! No longer will we have to eat mushroom mash!”

Tess rushes away from Ket’s side, hurrying over to the suddenly lively dwarves. “Wow, what has that stupid guy done to you all! Elbok, your beard is gone! Birak, you lost so much weight. And is that you, Rotaan? Where have your muscles gone?” Tess fusses with the dishevelled looking bunch of sad short people, tutting like some mother hen.

“Elbogar! How is it that you are the only one looking twenty years younger? All your citizens look like shit, what have you been letting Ket do?”

The aged dwarf that just now hurried over indeed looks a whole lot younger, but instead of agreeing with her, the town’s mayor shakes his head while grinning. “Miss, Ket might have very well been the second best thing that ever happened to this town.”

Before Tess can ask what the first best thing might be, she is taken by her hand, and then nearly carried by the clamouring crowd of weary and filthy dwarves.

“You are the very best thing, of course, but Ket also sure did a number on us!” says Elbogar as he leads the troupe of dwarves, a confused girl, and a worried boy through the wide streets. Tess tries to ask questions and make comments, but she can’t make herself be heard over the clamouring crowd without using force or qi.

They soon reach the central plaza, the place where previously the crystal gazing building was constructed. Instead of the tall building, there is now a single metal pole with a half-sphere of black metal. A complex interweaving set of gears and a ticking pendulum make for a rather odd sight. Tess sees one particular feature of this square and immediately focuses on the fact that her mount is taking it easy above all else.

“YOU STUPID CAT! What did I tell you about hunting and culling the big beasts?” Seeing her fluffy cat being pampered with a large pile of pillows and a smorgasbord of prepared meat is the tipping point for Tess. She disappears in a dark flash, grabbing the large feline while it’s already trying to escape. Tess ignores all the worshipful eyes on her legs while dragging her mount by the scruff of its neck,  hauling it towards the edge of the town. Once there, she sees that little has changed when it comes to the valley just outside the small city. There seem to be crop fields here and there, but nothing else has changed. She pulls her arm back, preparing to fling the cat into the wilds, when alarms go off.

“Class four three group, heading eight seven.”

Tess looks around bewildered. Instead of the previous hectic shouting chaos and hectic ringing of bells, now an almost bored voice announces some kind of danger. Looking back and forth between the two ends of the valley, she indeed sees a rather large group of animals stampeding towards them from the south. The lack of any panicked reactions, such as the ones she used to be constantly woken up by, only serves to confuse her further.

A rhythmic ticking makes her look behind herself, and she suddenly sees the city transform. What used to be a massive wall of steel unfolds into separate segments. Complex structures fold outwards, and a very neat row of smartly dressed dwarfs march along a walkway behind the structure. They all stop at certain points, and with military precision, turn around and climb into the items. Hard clanging sounds suddenly assault her ears, and she hears shrieking whistles coming from the side. Turning around, she sees the large group of animals suddenly fall over, large spines sticking from their frames. The massive ballistae let out many creaks and scraping groans as they retract into the wall again, everything folding back into a smooth metal surface.

Her mouth still hanging open, she slowly turns to Ket. “Haha, you see… There were some inefficiencies. And the fact that I helped Elbogar here with his cultivation problem, well… He let me run the town for a bit. And one thing led to another, you know… I first standardised some measurements. And when I got one mass production line going, and all these lovely people saw how much more productive they were… Well, there was no stopping progress after that, you see. Now, let’s visit the Twelve thingies, alright, Tess?”

Tess is still too stupefied to even take note of the mass of dwarves that are holding out a wide array of steaming dishes. When she left this place, the general populace had only barely managed to start to cultivate. She knew that massive changes would be happening, of course. She had even fantasised about the way this village would develop in the future. Beautiful images of steel wrought houses, ornately carved metal buildings, and gorgeous iron facades still run through her mind occasionally. This is something else, though. Something totally else...

 She remains mute as Ket leads her back to the place they first appeared from. She doesn’t react as Ket asks Database to transport them to the city up north.

“Sage Ket! How’s life!”

“Hey, look who’s back! No offence, but your chick is gnarly, man.”

Ket bewilderedly accepts a fistbump from a rather friendly looking guy clad in pompous ornamentation.

“Sage Tess, good to have you back. The fourth farm plot is done and ready for your inspection.”

Tess shakes free from her dazed state and turns to the worker. The burly man is clad in simple clothing, something only the working caste would wear. “Sure, I’ll come by in a while. No rush.”

“Ha! No rush, the lass says. Good one.” And the man walks off, smiling while chuckling to himself.

“Tessy-Wessy! My main madam. Be sure to come to visit our next exhibition, aight?” The new person talking to the duo that is still orienting themselves is looking far too happy.

“Yeah, sure, dude.” Tess then fistbumps the sauntering man, his jewellery jingling as their loosely clenched limbs touch.

“Tess?” comes Ket’s silent voice. He has had some time to take everything in at this point and is feeling very conflicted. “Tess, can we have a word?”

“Oh, sure. Let’s walk that way, as I want to see if they’ve managed to get their mushroom quotas up to the next incentive level.”

“Tess?”

“Yes, Ket?”

“Did you turn my resistance army into drug farmers?”

“Did you turn my homely dwarven craftsmen into soul-less production workers?”

Ket’s eyes blaze with indignation for a few seconds. “Did you placate the ruling castes and fossilised power structures with loads of intoxicating substances?”

Tess also starts walking a little more upright, glaring at Ket. “Did you cause my hunting mount to descend into opulence while automating defences? The very defences which otherwise would have greatly increased the citizens’ personal fighting capabilities?”

“Did you basically turn this entire place into a drug den?”

“Did you turn all those heartcores into industrial slaves?”

The duo glares at each other, neither willing to take their eyes of the other. Unknowingly, they perfectly recreate the scenario that Teach and Re-Haan went through when they went to visit the metal mage island. They keep on walking as they stare into each other’s eyes, neither willing to look away first.

““Yes,”” they suddenly both say in a defeated tone. They then both break the staring contest at the same time as they start snickering.

“I admit,” Tess begins after they both calm down. “The entire power structure was just too messed up. I couldn’t salvage it. I thought about trying to learn those stupid noble games. All those subtle gestures and whatnot. Then I figured out that even the way a single finger is bent means something important, and I figured that focussing on that would just emphasise the divide between commoner and nobleman.

“Now, I’m slowly letting the ordinary folk figure out how to run large operations, while keeping the nobles busy with all kinds of other distractions. Angeta’s self-enchanted clothing delivery method is rather ingenious, but Vox managed to make remote-control plant-planes that deliver all kinds of interesting seeds and samples”

“Wow, I never really looked at learning the noble’s secret language like that. But did you really have to drug all of them?”

“Oh, that wasn’t my initial idea. Shadi just came up with it after she told me of a few habits that the nobles have.”

“Got it.” Ket is silent for a while then. After just a few seconds of walking, he sighs deeply and starts talking. “And as for me? Stonewon was nice and all, but it was also extremely inefficient. All kinds of work was wasted in all kinds of ways. Just eliminating that basically started it all. It gave a lot of people a lot of free time. And once the general populace saw how much more they could get done when a proper statistical feedback loop based on mathematical analysis was used, well… Things just snowballed”

“And that led you to form all of those defensive platforms,” deadpans Tess.

Ket nods enthusiastically. “Those are just the tip! You haven’t seen the big guns. And even more interesting stuff was in the planning phases. It might be a good idea to schedule in some more relaxation time, though. They did look really tired.”

“How is the book-core lady?” Tess asks. She might have gotten seriously sick of the old woman repeating herself endlessly, she still remembers all the forge-related lessons that wrinkled woman taught her.

“Oh, she’s a doll. I just gave her a lot of empty ledgers and books, along with a couple of those mass-produced pens and pencils. She’s really grown since then”

By this time, Ket and Tess have toured three mushroom-filled caves and one field placed inside the city walls. The last one holds a lot of tall plants with leaves that have seven separate blades. They are heading towards the city gates, all the while discussing the merits and demerits of high-level statistical analysis.

The city still looks largely the same, if a bit battle damaged, but the people have changed. Instead, the previous sight of common folk hurriedly scurrying out of the way of the ornately clad nobles is no longer present. Now, the common folk just avoid the slow and pompous upper crust of society. Every single person with more than one piece of jewelry seems rather chill, possibly too much so.

“How in all the Dungeons did you get them all to become stoned?” asks Ket, more to himself than anyone else.

“You’ve just got to find what makes someone tick, right?” Tess answers. “The only reason they ever even started developing this stupid level of social subtlety is that they were bored. Nothing really happens here, after all.”

Ket stares at her some more, unable to really grasp what she is talking about. Ket is assigning the majority of his substantial brainpower to analysing her words at this point. “Please explain,” he utters, more out of a need for efficiency than anything else.

“They were bored!” utters Tess, like it’s the most obvious thing ever. “It’s just frozen tundra and snow planes around here. Nothing happened. There used to be no ice constructs back when there was just mana, and the yearly beast hordes never really made it this far en masse. Living up here just requires one to acquire enough calories to sustain oneself and one’s dependencies.”

To his horror, Ket actually sees where this is going. Such an obvious conclusion… So obvious, he never even thought about thinking about it. “They are just BORED!” Ket shouts.

“Yeah, that’s like, super obvious. Anyway, this excess in manpower obviously allowed the ruling castle to have too much time on their hands. This, in turn, caused them to develop a too-complex scheme of social interaction. This elaborate ruse can be ignored once one can get to the true reason of what is behind this…”

Ket had a minor crisis of faith in his cultivation base as Tess easily explains the problem he has been pondering about for many, many months.

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