“I’m worried about Tess.” Everyone stops what they are doing in order to look at Bord. The group of students staring at him is pretty much unchanged for the past few months. It has grown as more people reached the foundation realm, but not by much. What’s left of the original students has stayed together, taking on larger tasks and visiting their villages one by one.
Travelling and teleporting around the planet has turned out to be prohibitively expensive, so everyone has a hoverboard or other vehicles in their ring for transport between villages. The cost of moving across vast distances using Tree’s weird portal abilities has been rising in accordance with the increasing levels of ambient qi. A few people have managed to cross from one continent to the other, but that still takes a long time and isn’t without danger.
The latest task the group has undertaken is the installation of Tree portals on the Chaos Continent. Finding a few large boulders, stacking them together, planting a carefully cultivated graft of Tree on top of it while engraving some basic symbols seemed like a very easy thing to do. None of the students had taken into account the fact that the Dungeon Cores would be sending a constant stream of powerful monsters at them. The constant need for fighting while hauling massive chunks of rock around has been more draining than they had anticipated.
This is why they all are pretty thankful for Tess, who has done nothing but fight since they arrived here two weeks ago.
“Why? She is growing stronger faster than anyone else.” Angeta pauses with her plant manipulation long enough to take another look at the blender of darkness, knives, and finely diced monster.
“It’s not good,” replies Bord helplessly.
“She is showing all the signs of being with egg,” grumbles Ka-Gaar while slowly commanding the earth to move the boulder a bit to the left.
Everyone stares at the dragon with a stricken expression on their face. “Be glad she didn’t hear that you scaled dumbass. No, she isn’t pregnant. She’s just frustrated.” Ares stares at the ancient Flight ancestor while scolding him harshly. “Never just say someone is pregnant, how can you even think of throwing that accusation around?”
The group goes silent as they all process the fact that Ares just scolded an ancient dragon. Some worldviews get turned around, and Keeneff sits down to make a small breakthrough, absorbing a lot of qi for half a minute. He gets up looking rather shaken, and gets back to work as the sounds of punching, slicing, roaring, and chunks of meat flopping to the floor continue behind them.
The area that they are operating in is one of the more normal looking zones in the Chaos Continent. Instead of impossible seas made from fire, softly raining liquid steel or jungles made from sand, the area they are working in is rather tame. They initially thought it was a massive salt flat, but upon entering the featureless white zone, they found themselves sinking up to their ankles in semi-solid clouds.
The monsters that’d started bum-rushing them turned out to be disappointingly normal; their only discerning feature is that they are covered in fine layers of white down. Then the same routine that they have been going through for weeks now started. The most difficult part of setting up these Tree gates turned out to be the sourcing of the boulders. Massive smooth chunks of rock are rather difficult to find in places that are influenced by the reality twisting abilities of external Dungeon Cores, after all.
They did find that the Core’s influence usually halts a couple of dozen metres down into the earth, with that reach becoming deeper the closer to the actual Core. The glorious task of erecting Tree Portals turned out to be just glorified mining operations most of the time. The Core’s didn’t seem to appreciate their efforts at all, and the moment they started digging, endless hordes of Dungeon mobs would descend. These hostilities always cease the moment the Tree Portal is done, the same moment it starts sucking up qi.
“And here we go!” exclaims Angeta while encouraging the small Tree sapling to spread its roots all over the three stacked boulders. Tiny golden roots drink up the green power given out by Angeta as they form a tight weave. The roots move towards the ground at speed, joining on the floor as they form a closed rectangle that covers the entire construct. The entire group heaves a sigh of relief as they feel the now familiar tug at their cultivation base as all the qi around them gets sucked towards the Tree portal.
Tess drops to the floor, blood dripping from her stoic face as she looks at the retreating hordes of fluffy monsters with a frown. The other defenders all take out food and start eating, a spread of delicacies being prepared on a quickly assembled table as the group rests.
Then a lanky figure appears and starts talking, “Hey, guys. I’m done for now. I’ll be going to the Cultivation World now.” You can hear a pin drop in the silence that follows after Teach steps through the Tree Portal. “Those super heavy items are actually Dao templates or something like that, and I need to do some testing before taking on more. This means I’ve got nothing to do here but launch more satellites, and that is all automated at this point.”
“Dao things?” asks Bord.
“Fighting techniques that are based on qi. Static things, though. And one thing is pissing me off.” Teach looks down, and everyone can see that the man looks rather dishevelled. His clothes are rumpled, his facial hair is a mess, and he has a concerning look in his eyes. “That’s all. I just wanted to let you all know that I’m about to head over.”
“I’m coming,” says Tess as she grabs hold of Teach’s clothes.
“Me too,” says Angeta while stalking towards Teach.
“Sure. I wonder how the pressure will be, though. That’ll be fun.” Teach keeps talking and mumbling to himself as he starts sauntering back to the Tree portal. “Nearly forgot, you can enter now. It leads to Tree, but you end up on the opposite side of it. Then you can make your way to Tree, see how far you can get. Right, see you!”
The entire group, minus Tess and Angeta, stares at the portal for a long time.
“I’m going too,” says Rodrick, looking at his axe like he just had the realization of a lifetime. He then strides into the Portal with sure steps, not even slowing down as he enters the thick wall of fog that wasn’t there a couple of minutes ago. The bulky lumberjack nearly falls on his face as his footing changes from soft cloud to hard rock. He notes that the colour stays the same, a pearly white that’s nearly blinding.
Looking up, he sees two suns hanging low over the horizon. In front of him, he sees endless rows of large stone arches, their large bulk repeating over the horizon. There isn’t a single speck of qi in the air, the sky is a dark blue, and he suddenly feels very, very alone. Resolutely gripping his axe, he starts walking towards the suns, one a pale blue, the other a warm orange.
He hears exclamations coming from behind him as more people enter. Now and then, he passes another active arch, the thick fog hanging in the opening a clear indication that it’s active. He comes across a few more people peeking through the archways, but other than the small group following him, none dare to explore yet. A seemingly endless stretch of white is in front of him now, and Rodrick keeps walking. He keeps moving through the slowly rising hills, and seeing toxic fumes emanating from one direction, he veers towards the smoking mountain instead of descending into the purple swamp.
He travels across the glowing volcano, jumping over fierce rivulets of lava, and dodging suddenly exploding geysers of superheated steam. All in all, Rodrick can appreciate the difficulty in traversing the terrain, but he gets the feeling that this trial isn’t meant for someone in the Foundation Realm. The entire volcano takes him a few hours to traverse, and he idly notices that he has left his entourage behind.
Except for Bord and his shadow, who are happily following the woodcutter. Bord is just wading through the lava, and Rodrick isn’t sure whether the smell of cooked meat comes from the constant stream of dishes he is shovelling into his mouth, or from the grilling fat boy himself. The beastkin following him, Fifteen, if he recalls correctly, doesn’t seem phased by the heat at all. Instead, she seems to relish in the molten ground and constant smog in the air.
Leaving the mountain behind, Rodrick comes across a temperate forest. He used to think that these types of woods were all there is, but he has since walked through a massive variety of mundane, mana powered, and qi-twisted variations. The feeling he gets from the innocent and comfy looking collection of trees is something else, though.
A couple of relatively weak heat-adapted insects and monsters had tried to attack the trio, but they all got expertly taken down by axe, fist, or black flame. The first monster that jumps them the moment they step into the woods requires Rodrick to put in a large amount of effort. With the volcano beasts, he could basically command them to split into two, and they would drop dead after a small application of qi. Now, the burly beastkin has to actually swing his axe.
The trio looks at each other with meaningful glances, and take up a triangular formation. Bord goes in front, none of them needing to talk, while Fifteen and Rodrick take up the two back spots. The trek through the forest is a true test of their skills, and only the fact that they are working together allows them to come out relatively unscathed.
Fifteen gingerly rubs the deep cut in her ear she received when she was a fraction of a second too late with dodging a hidden praying mantis. Bord gingerly touches the bruise on his chest, gotten from underestimating a charging beast with two horns on its forehead. Only Rodrick is relatively unscathed but looks the most pained as he caresses a deep scratch in his axe. The antlers of that rabbit-looking thing were super hard, and he had underestimated it in its death throes and overestimated the hardness of his axe.
“There they are, shall we?” sounds out a familiar voice as they emerge from the forest’s edge. Angeta waves at Fifteen, her pointy choppers widely on display as she grins at the smaller beastkin.
“Finally, what took you three so long?” comes Tess’ voice.
“We took the scenic route.” Rodrick carefully makes sure that his teeth are not visible as he answers.
“Fifteen, did you look at the top of the volcano?” asks Teach.
Everyone suddenly looks at the beastkin, who start sinking into the flaming shadows under the attention. She then snarls at herself, before straightening up. “Yes. It’s not for me, too flashy.”
“Forwards Through Fiery Footing isn’t for you, then.” Replies the still haggard-looking man.
“I thought it was more like the Smouldering Unstoppable Slither. I got some inspiration, though. Thank you.”
Teach grins then, and the previous crazy hermit look just falls off the man. He nods enthusiastically. “I found another one that’s similar, but you’ll have to find it yourself.”
Fifteen grins back while nodding low.
“What?” asks Bord.
“Nothing. I just wanted to know if the system I set up inside Tree will work. Database is sprinkling some of the Dao things across the more dangerous zones to reward exploration. I’m glad it works.” Teach then turns around and starts walking towards Tree. “You are all free to follow me, but I must insist that you only call me Teach. Never utter my other name, okay?”
“What’s happening?” Rodrick is still trying to process the fact the Fifteen had time to go and visit the top of the volcano.
Teach turns around and holds out his hand. The grass under his fingers bulges and splits, a fractured looking thing emerging from the earth. He thrusts it into Rodrick’s face, who can’t tear his eyes off it. It’s around a metre in diameter and looks like a collection of broken glass constantly splitting and fracturing. Somehow, the thing doesn’t move at all, only giving off the illusion of constantly breaking.
“No, you don’t cut stuff like that! That’s useless, just brutally and mechanically separating things. That’s wrong,” rambles Rodrick in a panic. “No, no, no. That is not the way to cut down a tree, that’s just wrong!”
Teach puts the large item behind his back, before dropping it back it on the grass, where it sinks into the floor quickly. “Right, sorry there. I was just wondering if this was similar to your way of doing things, but it seems to be too mechanical.”
Looking up into the apologetic face of Teach, Rodrick wonders what happened to the fellow’s beard. “What was that?”
“The Dao of Dividing Dissection.”
“No, that was Mechanical Marking of Models!” Rodrick retorts. The way to separate one from the other is through gently finding the best way to split something, after all - not that horrid and clinical method of coldly cutting one from the other.
Teach nods in return, and Rodrick sees that they are next to Tree now.
Teach has also changed clothes, swapping his ordinary pair of pants and shirt for a simple flowing robe and wooden slippers.
“Are we about ready?” asks a very impatient Tess.
“Yeah, that’s my bad. Let’s go,” replies Teach.
The next thing Rodrick knows, he is surrounded by debris and rubble. The scale takes a while to sink in, but it dawns on him that they are inside the moon. It has the same rough, broken eggshell look from the inside as from the outside.
“So all those items are Daos?” asks Angeta, who has been in deep thought up to this point.
“Yes. Well, here we are. The connection between my cultivation base, Tree, and this planet is rather good now. The various satellite networks I want are getting in position or are getting produced.”
Rodrick turns around, the lack of gravity not really impeding his ability to manoeuvre. Then his eyes start hurting something fierce as he sees something suspended between two massive half-spheres of deep black crystal. An impossibility stares him in the face, and he feels that this is something that should not exist. He sees glimpses of a wasteland, ruined mountains and dead rock.
“And they are Daos of everything?” replies Angeta. She sounds as if that thing that should not exist, that horrid crack in space isn’t a bother to her.
“Not really. The thing that’s infuriating is that there seems to be one missing. I scanned them all, and it’s not here. Anyway, I think this is a one-way trip. Stepping into the Cultivation World From Tree will probably cost an enormous amount of qi. So if you want in on the Cultivation World, you got to enter through here, for now. I don’t know when this thing might collapse or run out of energy, though. So be quick.”
Teach moves towards the mind-melting piece of broken space then, only to be stopped by Angeta. “Which one is missing? The one that rules over plants?”
“No, plenty of those,” Teach replies while holding out a hand towards the fold in space. “The one that’s missing is one that’s based purely on mental might and qi. All of them have a large physical part.”
Teach starts disappearing at this point as he is sucked through the mind-bending portal, a focused look of annoyance on his face. He says one more sentence before disappearing completely. “The one that is missing is the Dao of Magic.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Author note: First of all, Dragon Con was amazing! Chaotic and super busy, but amazing.
Also, this is the end of book 4! Please give me a few days to get the next book lined up and ready. Thanks for reading, you're all awesome!
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