“No,” I say to the force trying to interject itself into this universe. “No,” I repeat, making sure that this force of rigidity, this thing that only knows digitized truths is not welcome here. Still, it continues onwards, and I feel it trying to mess with my brain.
It’s not actually interfering, but merely trying to inject a task here and there. I don’t think it’s trying to modify or control, and I get a feeling of catching a ride, trying to get my grey matter to perform a few minor tasks while leaving me be.
Like a virus, it wants to latch on to my being. Like a parasitic tick, it wants to suck my mental prowess. Even if it just wants a fraction of a fraction, I still want nothing to do with this.
“No,” I repeat for the third time, this time putting every single bit of my cultivation base, Tree, my mind, and my Will behind it. I command it to halt, using every single speck of qi for light-seconds around as my backing.
It stops for a second as if shocked. Then it continues.
I shoot forwards. I spew thick clouds of qi from my mouth, sensing out as much power as Tree can give me. I tear at the tendril of power trying to show me more text. It wants to tell me of my strength, even though it has not a clue how strong I am. It wants to find what skills in its repertoire I have, and then impose its own laws upon my being. I no longer deny it vocally, as it has shown clear disdain for my three attempts to keep this civil.
I grab hold of the two slowly spinning Core halves, and pull them back together. Ordering qi into thick bands, I impress upon them strenth and contraction. If this thing acts like a cork, as I suspect it does, then I will just have to shove it back in.
Moving closer, I think about stopping and going over my options for a bit. There is an incessant pounding in the back of my head that probably indicates that a lot of people want to have a chat with me. I can imagine a thousand reasons at this point, the main one being Tess, for example. Or maybe Rodrick? If I’ve read the guy correctly, he’s not one to show his feelings, but one to cherish the ones close to him in his heart. Maybe it’s even Rhe-
I stop thinking.
I resume my task with all my mental bandwidth, ignoring the overlay of blue that keeps wanting to tell me stuff. I grab hold of all the remaining qi that’s still around. Attaching a solid strand of qi to my sword, which is still tumbling between the two halves, I pull. Then I squeeze on both circular halves. My eyes kind of hurt when trying to look at the thing that’s between the two parts of the spherical Core, so I focus on creating a set of qi bands,
Touching them with my qi, I get a feel for their size. They are a little over a hundred meters wide. Tightening the bands of qi I’m stretching taut between the two parts is a simple task, and I idly wonder what the significance of that number might be. The Dungeon Core inside Tree is a little over one by four by nine, so the solution is pretty easy. Just take the first three sets of three positive integers, and you end up at ten. Square ten, and you’re at a hundred.
That mystery solved, I look at what was inside the split round Core again. The round Core was apparently keeping something plugged up. With the amount of dimensional fuckery going on, I can imagine that this thing is probably the shadow of a twelve-dimensional tesseract on this dimension - or some incomprehensible bullshit like that. It does look rather interesting, like fractals within fractals within an MC Escher painting from hell. A few veins burst in my eyes, painting the vision in one eye red before I look away.
I did see some glimpses, though. Wizards in towers, medieval empires, skeletons, and a modern-day combat tank. That last one was confusing, but before I can look again, my sword reaches me, and I snatch it. Lola jumps around a bit on my shoulder, and I start grabbing her too. Then the hard work of manoeuvring both Core halves pay off, and both semicircles smash into each other. Each ragged fracture line perfectly fits into the other for a single moment.
The blue fields of information stop, the thing trying to show me stuff ceases, and its hold on my soul dies.
Then the Core halves bounce apart again, their torn edges glowing with pure white. I try to take a breath, but I remember I’m still in the vacuum of space before I actually open my mouth. My mind clears a bit, and I notice that my Will is somehow refilling. I take another deep breath, not opening my mouth this time either, and my small pool of Will refills further.
Was that blue screen thing made from Will? Can I breathe it in and make it mine, just like qi? Is the way to the top of the Heavens just made up of learning higher levels of power?
The shitty thing is that the answer to all of those questions is probably yes. Looking at the spatial anomaly, I now see some dude in standard cultivator robes looking at a golden spear. The thing looks ornate, but none of the decoration means anything. I also spot a silver spear, but the two halves slam into each other once again before I can get a proper look.
Then I see rather nice grassy hills, round wooden doors placed at the end of a beautiful garden path, small windows peeking out of the grassy roof.
My qi bands slam both halves together once more, and that vision fades.
I see a bunny with a weird bump on its forehead getting mercilessly slaughtered by an ordinary-looking adventuring party inside a cave.
Then I see a man and a woman, devil horns and tail adorning their features ride in crystal ships as they slaughter gods.
Then I see a ring around a sun, in a state of sad and hopeless disrepair.
Then I see a massive face in a storm, small gems in glass trapping its power.
Then I see…
I come to a while later. I can’t see a thing, and sending an exploratory surge of qi through my face tells me that my eyes are shot - rough patches of flesh and pus. The moment I realize my eye sockets are filled with raw meat, I feel the pain. The majority of my braincore gets the task of repairing my peepers as fast a possible. I can’t have Rhea see me like this, right? Wasn’t there something about her that I mustn’t forge-
I stop thinking.
I continue scanning myself and my direct environment. A soft sensation against my cheek tells me that Lola is bumping her head against mine. Her mouth is flapping open and closing, and I sense that she is slowing down. I pull some air from Tree and surround us both, after which she immediately perks up.
“So, want to tell me what happened?” An unknown voice speaks out loud, using the bit of air around me to let itself be heard.
I freeze as I hear the voice. Masculine, tired, but perfect. A pattern of speech that is too neat that lacks any form of personality. I decide to be careful. “Can’t you see what happened here?”
“I could, but that would be suicide,” the voice replies. I start taking control of the qi in the area at a rapid pace, trying to find the source of the sound.
“Ah, then I guess I can provide information. This moon tried to kill a couple of people close to me. It was pissing me off, so we banded together, and tried to kill it. Not before it got its licks in, though.”
“No price? Sweet! But you know, giving information away for free is dumb.”
I scoff at his incredulous tone. I can’t see or sense this being, but I can make some guesses. Reacting with violence when faced with the unknown is actually the dumb thing to do here. “Are you a zero-sum game idiot?”
Silence for a while. This gives me time to focus on my eyes, but I find my every optical nerve burned to a crisp or shattered beyond repair. I start sloughing off the cells that are too far gone, and focus on the ones that are still intact. Then I notice that Lola is not moving, her head pointing in one direction. It’s an empty space to my spiritual sense, but I immediately realize that it’s too perfect of an empty space. I turn my head and hear an audible tsk coming from that direction.
“Well, I’m not happy to be here. You don’t look happy at all. In conclusion, neither of us is happy. How about we help each other.”
“Already on it. I was providing free information and all that.”
“Right. I appreciate the information you provided, but telling you that there are a few people locked in stasis here is worth more. Just tell me what’s going on, man.”
I keep silent this time, not willing to make a single move that could put me in an even worse position. “So…”
“Give me a few moments,” I tell him. I then give Lola a rub across her head to show her I’m fine. She nuzzles into my hand, and I feel her horn fading as I scratch her between her ears. “Be right back; keep our guest company for a sec, okay?”
I step inside of Tree the moment I feel her reluctantly nod. “Hey, someone come help me fix my eyes!”
A chorus of exclamations greets me. Tess slams into my chest, and I wrap my arms around the sobbing girl. I sense Angeta standing off to the side, silently fuming as the grass around her dances. Even Rodrick is here, his ax in a very tight grip.
“My eyes, now,” I command, and people come running. Danarius does his work in silence, the tears dripping from Ares’ face making a clear rhythm that I can hear over the chaos around me. They quickly continue the work that I’ve already set in motion - two wet globules of muck run down my face before they are wiped away. Then the few remaining intact cells get shoved full of nutrients, wholesome healing power, and a lot of good vibes.
It takes an arduous half-hour, and recreating my two delicate sight organs goes a lot faster after Database finally cools down enough to help. The water Selis poured down there is still doing its job. I also sense Tree growing new hollow roots. It takes in meltwater from the ice mountain, dumping the nearly boiling water near the volcano on the opposite side of the planetoid.
I use the time to think a few things through. There is a lot at stake here. The moment my vision is back at a measly mortal twenty-twenty, I nod at the silent crowd and step back to Lola. I appear deep into space, still surrounded by the slowly crumbling shell that used to be a moon.
“Hey,” I reply.
“You’re a clone,” I interject. Letting the other party get the upper hand is never a good idea in these situations. I don’t even wait for his answer before I continue. “Some alarm went off, and you got the short stick. So now you’re here to investigate. But you can’t go back without information, but more likely not at all,” I change my story on the fly, trying to read his micro reactions as best I can.
” So no going back for you, as you are the sole representative here.” He winces at the ‘sole’ part, so one of my guesses must be correct. “A soul fragment like you will just merge with the whole, basically killing you. What happened, man?”
We stare at each other for a long while then. I take this time of tense silence to study the fellow. His face looks literally divine, a perfect picture of male beauty, if a bit on the feminine side for my tastes. He is clad in white robes of an impossibly smooth make. The minimal amount of decorations and extremely simple cut give it an austere feeling of functionality.
I also see that the fucker is petting Lola, who is showing him her belly while getting her chin scratched. I will have words with the traitorous piece of fluff later. I also double-check the round Core that we are hovering beside. My qi constructs keeping the thing together are still there, holding the cork in the dimensional hole.
“This is exactly why I asked for my previous assignment, man. Keeping an eye out on a few fringe system-seeds allowed me to chill, and not get involved in any of this bullshit, man. How could I know that skeleton was fucking things up. I really want to wring his bony neck. That entire plane is going to take aeons to earn back. No dividends for centuries, you know. I get why the big one is pissed, but yeah. But still, it’s just mana, dude. Just sending me here to die is too harsh, man.”
“Yeah,” I reply nodding while wondering what the everloving shit he is going on about.
“You get it, right? Anyway, you seem like a cool dude, so this entire thing just sucks for both of us,” he continues whining. “Tell you what. I can’t get them out, as I don’t know the access codes. They are all locked up and not getting out without a much higher authority than me authorizing it. I can put them in the reintroduction program, though. It’s what we usually do with strays that somehow ended up in places they shouldn’t be.”
I am fuming at this point. The biggest task running in my braincore and in Database is a double, triple and quadruple check. All to make sure my emotions are under control, and that nothing of my rage is showing on my face or in my mannerisms. This piece of shit is talking about us like we are stray puppies running into a dangerous construction area, like clueless idiots that can’t help themselves but to trip and fall into danger. “And you want power?”
“And I just… Yeah, man! I knew you’d get me,” he beams at me. He floats closer to me, one hand scratching Lola, the other patting me on my shoulder. “So my task is to make sure that this little leak is sealed, which it seems to be. I can only make its implode or set it to a permanent link to its closest analogous link.”
His perfect face sinks into serenity for a moment. I take another good look at him. Now that he’s closer, and my eyes are a bit more healed up, I can see that he is most definitely fake. His skin is too smooth, his long, tied up hair is too perfectly straight, and his clothes lack any discerning features.
“Nearest link is some old junkheap of a qi planet. Anyway, you get what happened here, right? The big guy got himself a kid, who is a chip of the old block, of course. She runs off with his credit jade and manages to spend a fuckton before she is caught. Anyway, that’s this place. Just a lot of expensive junk thrown together by some idiotic teenager.”
The perfect man turns around as I try to process this information. I’m assuming that this fellow is a soul fragment clone of some much higher being. I’m busily thinking over all these implications when the guy starts waving his hands around a bit. Each movement he makes seems to sap a fraction of life out of him, his perfect skin shining just a little bit less.
The Core sphere separates, my qi-bands snapping with contemptuous ease. I gather the qi from the constructs while looking at the swirling and impossible cortex of impossible geometries at its centre. An all-too-familiar aura washes over me. Millions of years of age and rot and tradition stifling all else. Sects that keep their power so close to their chests, it chokes them. Mortals sowed and harvested like crops, and ancient secrets are forgotten just to keep them a secret.
“That’s the closest place?” I ask. I’m not even going to start in on his other comment now. This entire planet and place are made by a kid with a credit card? What the fuuuu…
“Yeah. Stupid name, you know they call it the Cultivation World? Seriously idiotic,” the perfect man says. “Anyway, I’ll toss those frozen guys there now, okay?”
I take a deep breath before I lose it.Previous Chapter Next Chapter