Chapter 61 - Tests
I take a deep breath of fresh ocean air. Salt invades my senses, the smell of brine overwhelming my nose. I rub it in irritation. The fact that my body and senses are automatically growing stronger has its downsides too.
“Here is the button. Twist and push it with quite a bit of force. See?”
A small section of the steering wheel pole sinks in under my finger. Mechanical noises are heard as the rowing oars retract into the hull, wooden hatches falling back into place. I press it again, and the entire process reverses, the many oars splashing back into the sea. I move my finger to the opposite side of the wooden pole.
“Here is the basic protection formation control. Twist it in the opposite direction like so.” A refractive field shimmers into existence around the boat, flattening the waves in a circle around us. The entire thing becomes invisible a second later when the startup of the formation finishes. “An entire mountain can fall down on this ship, and we would only feel a slight rocking.”
I admit I am bragging at this point. Only Ket seems impressed though; he is also the only one that slightly understands how powerful these enchantments are, the rest are just staring at my gloating face with dead fish eyes.
“Those are all the controls so far, take care of the ship, I am going to do some experiments. “
Tess speaks up in a slight panic. “Where are we going again?”
I reply with a single raised eyebrow. “Do I look like a man with a plan to you? Just float wherever you want to.”
I see that she wants to retort several times but fails to find the correct words to say. With a skip in my step, I leave the clump of disciples standing on the upper deck above the captain's quarters. I walk to the blue bear chilling on the foredeck. The rest of the animals are scattered around the ship. Vox’s snake is coiled around the mast while Selis’ rooster is sitting on top of the mast. The rest are either on deck or inside the ship itself. I scratch him across the spine, and he lazily opens a single, big eye. All the animals are very calm, the qi forming in their hearts must have some sort of influence on them. Pretty fascinating, how these qi-less beings react to the higher power.
I open a hatch on the deck and make my way down the stairs. I rub Lola under her chin while humming a tune. She didn't even whine at me while I gave my mount some attention, so she deserves a good scratching too. I have a rabbit on my shoulder instead of a parrot, and I’m totally fine with that.
The below-decks is entirely empty except for some supporting beams and pillars. I pull some planks from Tree’s processed material storage and make an improvised room in the ship's bow. The improvised wall is rather slipshod work, but it isn't load bearing, so it's fine if I just haphazardly nail the stuff together, right? A rough door hanging on crude wooden hinges gives me a private laboratory.
I pull out a small wooden table. I made several of these knee high things in preparation for the following tests. I manually burst a blood vessel in my finger and let a small droplet of blood fall out. I then make a very simple circle similar to the very first circle I designed. This one only attracts two sets of mana, positive and negative fire and nature mana. A small compression symbol in the middle completes my first test setup.
I repeat this process five times in total, each one attracting one set of positive and negative mana. I figured out five of these by myself, namely nature, fire, earth, metal and water. I learned about air mana and its connected emotions from Rhea. I look at the five tables that are now bearing increasingly complex circles and snap my finger. The circles all activate at the same time. I made sure not to overdraw a single type of mana, only water is used relatively often. But we are in the middle of a shitload of water so that mana is abundant here.
I freeze it all a single second later. I approach the first table and flash joy, anxiety, compassion and anger in quick succession. I do it again while looking at the other tables. The amount of gathered mana is similar enough for my tests. I grab the gathered mana in a qi sphere and breathe it in. Instead of letting it flow through my lungs, I manually guide it to my braincore. A small shiver runs across my spinal column as the clump of mana and qi crosses through the back of my mouth, through my spine into my brainstem. Here I let it combine into qi.
I do some quick measurements and calculations, making an arbitrary quantification scheme. The small formation gathered half a unit of mana from each element. Four types of mana times a half unit gives me two points of mana in total. I keep the qi generated from this mana separate, that amount will be two units of qi for now.
Walking over to the second table, I grab hold of the three units of mana that have gathered. I look at the six different shades. Encapsulating the emotional energies in repelling qi allows me to move them around with ease. I stuff all six spheres of mana into one and breathing it in. I then measure the amount of qi my braincore makes from the mana. I raise a single eyebrow. Instead of the three units of qi I expected, I'm left with three point five units worth of qi.
I do the same with four types of mana, eight shades in total. That produces five units of qi. Five units of paired mana produce six and a half units of qi, six units of paired mana give me eight units of qi. This is very weird. I expected that merging more types of mana would provide me exponentially more qi; this is not the case. The formula I have found for generating qi from mana is one point five times the amount of mana sets, minus one. That formula is strictly linear, not an exponent in sight.
I start a process, letting it brainstorm ideas. It then eliminates these ideas through simple elimination, leaving only the most reasonable explanations. I ponder my find some more, unable to come to any conclusions.
I walk back up the stairs, emerging into the sunlight of the deck. My disciples are having a small fight, similar to children that don't want to share a toy. They freeze when they see me emerge from below-decks. They are all grabbing the steering wheel with one hand, using the other to try and dislodge the others.
Bord is the only one not in full combat mode, Selis is covered in water and Angeta is dressed in a leafy exoskeleton. Vox’s eyes flash with white light while Tess is holding a pitch black club made from her qi. Even Ket is surrounded in floating lumps of metal. Bord’s nose is being stretched upwards like a pig's, roots digging into a single nostril, tendrils of water pulling another. I see some singed hair here and there, Angeta is missing some fur again.
I stare at the frozen tableau for a couple of seconds, blinking my eyes rapidly. I shrug my shoulders and walk over to the side of the boat, leaning over the railing. I pull a dozen wooden bowls from my ring and drop them in the sea. I spread my qi senses through the deep blue water, searching for fish. We are still rather close to the coast, so the seabed is a mere fifty meters below the waves.
I sink my qi further down to the bottom, searching for fish. I sense a large school of sardine-like fish and am slightly relieved at the fact that they are covered in fish scales. I almost expected weird skin and coverings of the land animals to be representative of the sea too.
The adult fish are all the same size, so I can't tell how old they are, but the entire school is divided into three roughly similar sizes. Those must be the one-year-old and the two-year-old fish; they appear to be fully grown after three years. I tie qi threads around thirty of the one-year-olds and haul them upwards. I then deposit two in each bowl, that leaves me with six for the control group. I dump those in a bigger bowl I pull from my ring. I fill the containers with seawater and haul them upwards. The fishes are a pale grey with light streaks. I see none of the telltale bright colours that indicate that they can control types of mana; perfect for my planned experiments. They are a few centimetres long, and from the size of the adults, I can tell that they won't grow bigger than a handspan.
I craft some quick qi constructs on top of the bowl, keeping the water and fishes inside even if I hold them upside down. I walk back down to the belowdecks, a congo line of floating bowls following me. I hear the fight break out again just before I close the hatch. I am not worried, they will have to go all out to seriously damage my boat. Whistling a tune, I walk back to my lab.
I place the bowls evenly spaced around the roughly triangular room. I then extract some more blood. I really have to do some proper research on potential cheap qi conductive inks one of these days, using blood for all my non-permanent formations is kind of barbaric. It’s just that I haven't found a good alternative that isn't extremely expensive so far…
I look at the dozen bowls of fish cluttering the room around me. One big bowl is housing six fish, slowly swimming in circles. The bowls are all pretty big, more like big pots. The big bowl is nearly a bathtub, to be honest.
Semantics are less interesting than mana experiments though, so I return my focus to my work. I split the globule of blood into a dozen smaller droplets. I then use these to draw mana attraction formations again. Each small container with two fish gets a circle, each only attracting a single element of mana. I want to know what long exposure to a single negative or positive element of mana does.
The massive beast horde in the mana tornado clearing gathered there because of a higher mana density. I did some thinking and observing our mounts on the way here, and I don't think that they were there just because of higher energy levels. I heavily suspect that animals need equal measures of positive and negative mana to properly integrate the power. Humans don't seem to have this requirement, and I suspect that our sentience is the cause of that. Animals don't really feel anger, fear or joy; they have instincts.
Animals don't start throwing tantrums when they are in pain, they become quiet and rest until the pain goes away. It never crosses their minds to be angry at the pain. Scared animals have their survival instinct kicking in with full force; happy animals are just high because their brain rewarded them with dopamine for a job well done. These are all just my observations though, so sue me if you disagree. Come up with definite proof, and I will change my mind, as usual.
Don't even get me started on the behavioural changes between wild animals and domesticated. A couple of tens of thousands of years of selective breeding by sentient species tends to majorly fuck with animal behaviour routines.
Before my blue bear started forming its heartcore, it was still absorbing mana, and it did so in equal measure of positive and negative. I had to pull extra hard on the positive mana in the air to form qi when I was rebuilding my cultivation to the solid core stage. This made the mana levels a lot more equal. Instead of the usual imbalance of overflowing negative mana, the higher positive mana density caused the energies to be more in balance. This experiment will allow me to come to a conclusion on this point, so I might be wrong about this all.
That gave me ideas for experiments. What happens if I drench a fish in plenty of balanced fire mana? Maybe I should snatch some fertilised fish eggs and expose them to weird mana combinations? What if I concentrate, for example, positive fire and negative nature mana?
My thoughts start spinning wildly again. Once I find an interesting research subject, I can get lost in it for years. I am not even doing something on the cellular level yet. Honestly, I am kind of proud of the fact that I have not even started messing with the DNA of local creatures, the stripping of my cultivation base must have taught me some restraint.
“TEACH, SHIP ON THE HORIZON!!!”
Wow, since when can Selis shout so loudly? I wiggle my pinky in my ear, no need for such volume. Although maybe she has a point to be slightly panicky, I have heard nothing but horror stories about ships that don't pay the pirates and mages a lot of gold. From the conversations I've constantly been recording and analysing I can tell that even large bribes don't guarantee safety, the only way to prevent a ship from being blown up or raided with any certainty is to hire a mage escort. The absurd price and high need for luxury prevent a lot of merchants from going that route though. Anyway, let's go see what’s up.
I spot Selis high up in the mast. We created a wooden platform that can function as a crow's nest on top of the mainmast. Selis is sitting on top of the platform, magnifying water lenses hovering in front of her single eye while occasionally petting her large black mount. Ket is behind the steering wheel, surrounded by the rest.
“I told you we should have gone the other way,” Angeta bristles with irritation.
“That would not have guaranteed anything; other ships could be that way.” Ket retorts.
“I think we can take them though...” Bord doesn't add anything useful to the conversation.
“BLACK FLAG, THEY… Oh, hey Teach, I see a black flag with a bigger red flag, they have at least one fire mage!” Selis shouts from up high while enthusiastically waving at me.
I jump up to the platform and twist the air in front of my face. The ship’s sails are peeking over the horizon, the rest of the vessel not in view yet. I call down to Ket. “Take a hard turn to port, pretend to be fleeing for now.”
He looks confused for a second but turns the wheel anyway. I look at our lookout while giving her a thumbs up. “Good job Sel, I’ll be right back.”
I jump into the Tree dimension while handing the necklace over to Lola. I hear her irritated squawking as she drops down to the deck, but I am in a hurry. I gather the leftover planks and rip the passive qi from the wood, turning it back into mundane boards. I jam plugs of wood through the planks at high speed, crafting a shoddily made little rowboat. Just big enough for seven people to float around in. I finish the thing in half a minute and spend ten more seconds making it look shabby and old. I finish stuffing dirt and dust in the cracks and jump back out on the deck, ignoring the irritated little furball.
“KET, retract the oars and disable the shield, everyone gather.”
Selis begins clambering down the mast as the rest walks down the stairs to the middle of the deck. I pull the small boat from the Tree and seat myself in the middle. I didn't include any oars, not even a rudder, so we will be able to play the perfect ‘abandoned at sea’ card. My disciples all find places as I pull off my fancy silk vest, exposing the drab shirt beneath. I also rub some dirt in my face and on my clothes. I drop another handful of dirt on the boat's floor and pass some to my disciples.
I explain once everyone is seated. “Here, make yourselves dirty. Selis, can you lower the ship?”
They all look bewildered and completely lost at my actions. Selis looks around a bit as she pours out her qi, sinking it in the water around the Ascent.
“Lower us slowly, make it look like we disappear over the horizon.”
She frowns in concentration, and I feel the water around us deform into a bowl shape. A minute later, Selis is covered in sweat while holding the massive amount of water down. I give her a nod.
“Thanks, make sure to catch this little boat.” I pat the crude railing of the rowboat we are all sitting in. I touch the Ascent’s deck while hanging over the edge and focus. I first cast a barrier around my experimentation room. That way, no qi will enter that space and my mana experiments are just halted instead of ruined. I then pull the ship inside the necklace and drop it back into the clearing. Tree deforms the ground in preparation, creating a hull shaped indent in the grass. The animals shift around a bit, but seeing the familiar clearing once again, they don't panic. They start breathing in qi immediately.
I focus back on the outside world once that is done, and see that Selis has created a water pillar on which we now float. She slowly lets gravity equalise the sea surface, relief visible on her face as the waves start rocking the small rowboat. She slumps down and leans against Angeta as she catches her breath.
Everyone is staring at me, so I think I better explain. “We just had a mutiny; we were overpowered and dropped overboard to distract the pirates from this ship.” I pull a rough crate from my ring and fill it with some materials and food. “This is our bribe to the pirates; our previous fellow sailors weren’t cruel enough to dump us overboard without anything to our names. It won't be enough to let us go free, but it should buy us enough time to gather sufficient information from those guys. I think they will just lock us up to sell as slaves later. I also want to observe a proper mage before we start fighting one. Those mages you guys fought in Tower City are just scrubs sent to the army, and I don't know enough about proper powerful ones to be safe.”
Ket’s face shows understanding immediately. Angeta is grumbling and muttering to herself. “I will punch them off the boat if they dare to put a collar around my neck.”
“We’ll just play prisoner for a bit, okay? Maybe that pirate boat has some good stuff we can steal later.” Their eyes all start to sparkle as they think of that possibility. Time to deliver the finishing strike. “I’ll cook some good food once this is over, okay?”
Their half convinced faces now turn greedy. I grin back at them.
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