“Teach, I heard that you need some help with sewing things and making clothes, and whatnot.” Angeta’s voice breaks the tense silence between Tess and me.
“No, he does not. Come, help me beat the shit out of him,” commands Tess. “I’ll give you points for each time you help me hit him.”
“What?” asks Angeta. “Don’t be stupid. You don’t need to give me points for that. I’ll do it for free!”
And then, suddenly, I am once again assaulted, this time by two foundation realm cultivators, with my only weapon a shield. I feel the qi behind me shift, so I swing my shield arm around to block the incoming assault. I haul it behind my back just in time to get it tangled up in the web of plant wires. Tess emerges from the shadows cast by the long grass in front of me, a dark smoking dagger in her hand. Her eyes are set in an ice-cold determination that sends chills down my spine.
Angeta’s woven webs starts pulling at my shield, and I use the momentum to barely dodge out of Tess’ knife range. I bring my free hand around, coating the edge of my palm in a thin layer of sharp qi. Twisting my body around, I manage to catch a glimpse of where Angeta is hiding in the bushes, and jump towards her. I manage to kick Tess’ dagger from her hand with my foot and watch it disappear into smoke just as she slips back into the shadows. Instead of the previous melding into darkness, now the black-haired girls’ dark outline is razor-sharp. She vanishes in a sudden flash of dizzying and contrasting brightness.
I block the coming storm of razor-sharp leaves with my shield, and I feel the large superdense item pull on my cultivation base lessen. Being used in the way they are designed for seems to satisfy these annoyingly heavy items on a very deep level. I then angle my shield, following a simple set of combat instructions. Four sources are telling me to move in this exact way, so I follow the steps like a good boy. Database provides me with advanced calculations, my braincore shows me simulated diagrams, my heartcore just says it how it is, and the shield shows me diagrams of proper deflection techniques.
As a result, the second wave of sharp leaves that Angeta sends my way is deflected and cuts through the grass Tess is hiding in. She pops out of the shredded grass with a rather stupid look on her face. To my relief, I notice that the shield is almost done, and decide to end this little playfight that has been going on for too long now.
As Angeta seems to be having a perverse sense of give-and-take as a basis to cultivate on, I just take all of her qi with the last bit of suction coming from the shield. I throw the shield her way in a superpowered move reminiscent of a certain spandex-clad hero with a magnificent ass. She yowls her head off the moment the spinning shield hits the tip of her tail. Her scream turns into a gurgling rumble as she keels over. Reaching the shield within a split second, I snatch it and slam it into the grass.
The shockwave resulting from the weighty impact throws up a fierce gust of wind, flattening every single leaf in a large circle. Tess once again pops out of the shadows, the lack of contrast and the lack of clear shadows shoving her into the outside world once again. An even better look is on her face, a combination of exasperation and disbelief, and I make a mental snapshot to show Rhea later.
A rather bittersweet feeling flows through me as I tap Tess with the shield, her cultivation base sucked up the last bit of power needed to make the shield mine. Grabbing both girls by their collars, I rest them against the closest tree and look around.
The small patch of forest we have been fighting is - predictably - ruined. Instead of vibrant trees, there is now a thin layer of wood chips covering a collection of deep craters and ragged trenches. Tree is already using golden threads of power to clean up the area, and I have no doubt it will be back to the peaceful, untouched forest within days.
I drop the shield on the upturned grass, happy to be rid of the stupid thing. I might appreciate the art of combat just as much as the next non-martial arts freak, but there is just something off about using a shield, in my opinion. Armouring up is great and all, but having an entire arm be occupied by something that is designed to be hit just doesn’t sit well with me. The shield is also the tool that has taken the most effort to make mine so far, and I even had to go as far as to recruit a few helpers.
The needle was, in contrast, easy to make my own. Instead of involving Angeta’s or Ragni’s villages - as neither of them would be able to supply even a fraction of the power it needed - I just went hunting myself. The needle is pretty thick, more suited to roughly stitch leather together using sinew. So I took the opportunity to go and vent a little in the Chaos Continent. All the outdoor Dungeon Core’s are still doing their thing. Except for the one that I stole, but that’s not important at the moment. Even without Nexus giving them orders, they are still performing their duties of mana generation through the manipulation of reality.
I learned a lot about the way the Dungeons work from the Core above Tree. Encouraging the outside Dungeons to send their most powerful beasties with nice thick leather hides my way was extremely easy. I then used the bow and spear artefacts to go on an absolute murdering spree.
I’d call it something like a ‘fierce hunt,’ or a ‘noble culling,’ but that would be lying to myself. I just vented for a couple of days as I worked on making the spear, bow, and needle mine, all at once. It was a great stress relief; I can tell you that.
I used the bow to pick at them from long range and the spear to strike killing blows. Then I used the needle to stitch the untreated leather I harvested from the animals into something useful. I now have an entire collection of leather suits, cuirasses, gambisons, pants, shoes, handbags, backpacks, and every other leather piece of clothing or accessory you can think of.
That done, I decided to work on the shield, but that took a lot more effort than I expected. “Thanks, girls. That shield is just not suited to my fighting style, so you really helped me out.” I smile down winningly at the two heavily panting and barely conscious girls.
“Fuw u,” mumbles Tess.
Angeta just lets out a long, drawn-out growl that - I suspect - contains a lot of profanities.
“Now please get out of Tree again. I’ve been doing a lot of housekeeping, and would like to keep some things a surprise before the grand opening. Anything happening outside that I need to know?”
“What’s up with all the stone Tree things?” asks Tess, who only barely manages to sound coherent.
“Better system than the crystal, right? Currently, they all connect to Tree. That will change, but I’m not ready yet.”
“Why all the animals?” asks Angeta.
Database is only having a single active quest running at the moment. It’s a capture request, asking for the capture and delivery of all kinds of monsters. Tree is filling up nicely at this point, but this part also needs some more preparations. “Yeah, just stay tuned for a bit. It’s been like five weeks since Nexus, and I think I’ll need a few more.”
“Can’t I go in now? I could sneak through towards the Cultivation World,” asks Tess. The way she stares at me with those intensely sad puppy eyes is honestly heartbreaking. It seems that she is not handling having her closest friend and partner suddenly taken away very well.
I can’t really blame her though. I spend a month doing nothing and sulking by myself after Rhea got stolen. “Time flows differently here, remember? That fake idiot said something about energy taking energy to exist. I think this means that time goes a lot slower in realms with denser power. I’m not sure of the power difference, but I suspect that a year here is just a few days in the Cultivation World.”
I lower myself to look her in the eyes, trying to smile reassuringly. “And do you really think that Ket won’t be able to keep himself safe for a few days while we prepare?”
“You know very well that I’m not worried about Ket’s safety! That dumbass is too boneheaded to die easy.”
I grin at her. A gutcore calling a braincore stupid is just funny on a lot of levels.
“I don’t want Ragni to get her claws in everyone,” mumbles Angeta.
“They will be fine,” I reply while shooing them towards Tree. “They are all probably just relaxing somewhere.”
“Yeah, Ket is likely just reading in a library somewhere, totally forgetting about the time.”
“And Ragni is probably wondering why the men keep staring at her while stumbling into one lucky situation after the other, that hussy bimbo.”
“There we are. Just curse at them some more to show me how much you miss them. Now, unless you want to help me fill up these three…” I pull out an ominous set of black items, a writing brush, jar, and rectangular ruler. “I can actually use the help. Right, bye-bye!”
Both of them flee before I can finish my question. Nodding at the confirmation that Tree is empty of intelligent life - I’m not calling Lola intelligent - I drop the shield and order Database to take it in. It sinks through the earth, and I start walking. More to give my legs something to do than anything else.
Looking over the three items, I ponder a bit which one I should do next. The brush seems to represent the written word or drawn images. The jar should represent something like improved cooking, food preservation, or something more advanced like alchemy or chemistry. The ruler should point towards advanced construction, something more global like a unified measurement system, or advanced math.
Then I realize that I can use this as an opportunity to stock up on precious resources and test a lot of stuff. Tree is currently a sprawling precious-resource generator. There is not much I can do against those stupid ingredients that require thousands of years of qi infusion to get to their optimal quality. The fact that all the resources that are growing and being produced are basically mundane with a little bit of qi infusion is not something I can do anything about at the moment. I can, however, once again decide to make the very best things using science, and then develop them further once physical limits are reached.
Making a subpar axe, and then tossing it into a qi pressure cooker for a million years will give you a heavenly artefact. Creating the strongest, most efficient, and best axe scientifically possible, and then using it in its intended purpose for a few hundred years should give you the same overpowered artefact. The difference between millions and a few hundred years just goes to show how large the effect of base materials and human intent is.
I run back to Tree, ordering Database to start indexing and cataloguing all the precious resources I currently have at my disposal. I start pulling out all the tools I will need from my ring, tossing them towards the large clearing around Tree.
The sky darkens briefly as a true rain of high-quality wood, harvested produce, and metal stock descends upon my working space. Unwilling to destroy my castle once again, I make sure to lay out a large working space. I give the original houses of my students a wide birth, allowing for plenty of space all around.
Deciding I might as well, I also order Database to bring up all six tools I’ve made mine so far. I grab the hammer the moment it arrives, soaking it with my qi and tossing it towards a pile of fast-growing wood. Setting up a process to start pounding the trimmed logs into paper pulp, I start ordering parts of Database to begin producing base ingredients.
I send batches of bits, fruits, bundles of freshly stripped bark, and other ingredients down to Database’s surface, forming a tunnel down towards the middle of the planet. Instead of relying on qi to shore up mistakes, I want to make sure that the base performance of my materials is as good as it can be. I thus set up multiple production lines that make all kinds of preparations from the products, testing for mundane properties like conductivity, pigment resilience under copious amount of UV light, stuff like that. Other materials I centrifuge to test their separate parts.
“LOLA!” I shout towards the far away rabbit. “Come heat up things for me! I’ll give you scratches!” She comes flying, a stream of lava following in her wake. I catch the little fluffball and start petting her furiously. I smile as the thunderous sound of a broken sound barrier buffets my clothes. One hand guiding the preparations, I keep Lola happy with the other while ordering her to freeze or boil certain things.
My smile becomes a bit painful as I recognize my behaviour in a sudden streak of clear thinking. If running away from your problems or pains is impossible, you can always try to become too busy to notice them, right?
Nodding to myself at the wisdom of that realization, I map the atomic makeup of the brush and start drawing talismans on the first sheets of paper that roll off the production lines as it starts sucking up qi.