Chapter 70 - Unanticipated
I kick the water again as I glide back down to sea level. I leave rising column of water in my wake, those must be visible for miles around. I just dropped stealth way down on my priority list. The strain my circle formation is under becomes cleared the closer I get to the Tower.
The waves in front of my path bulge upwards and I jump again. A massive tentacle rises out of the sea as I soar above it. I frown at the unexpected obstacle in my path. Water is too dense to scan with any ease, pushing qi through it costs a lot more effort. My radar only penetrates a few meters of the sea. I divert some more power to my scanning process and I immediately sense a lot of sea creatures moving in my opposite direction, all of them rushing towards the last fragments of the fading storm.
I cycle through all the emotions that are linked to mana, but the elemental mana seems calm to my eyes. Then I remember learning the feelings linked to air mana, so I simulate some admiration and loathing. The world lights up around me. Grand streamers of deep indigo move towards the dissipating storm.
I make note of this, setting up a reminder to check why animals without any air affinity are attracted by the disturbed air mana. I dodge another tentacle bursting through the sea surface. I bend backwards and feel water droplets smashing into my body as I narrowly dodge the squirming limb.
Landing with a lazy backflip, I tread the waves while hugging the water surface. Sudden course corrections are less qi expensive when I can kick against the relatively heavy water instead of having to cause small sonic booms to manoeuvre around. I use the tops of the waves to make large zigzagging motions, avoiding the large variety of marine animals below the surface.
I hope my students are smart enough to evacuate the area near the storm quickly, constant pressure against the ship’s shield will drain it quickly. I shove the image of a vessel hugging octopus to the back of my mind and decide to spend my time wisely while letting my heartcore move on autopilot.
I have done very little actual cultivation so far. This is because the time needed between levels also scales with time. A beginner cultivator can break through the initial levels and realms rather quickly, but things slow down when the foundation realm has been reached.
My subconscious habits are still the ones of a pre-ascension stage old monster, not those of a core forming newbie. The fact that I missed the Tower circle link for such a long time is more than enough proof for me to want to fix this.
While my body propels itself over the wave tops, kicking against water with such force that it explodes into steam, I focus inwards. I concentrate my attention on my heartcore, which is still a large unknown to me. I have read a lot of theoretical information about cultivating the body and heart. I've found the amount of actual information in these texts to be even less than traditional cultivation techniques. I move a strand of augur from my braincore through my chest, feeling every cell and fibre it glides through.
I narrow the strand into a needlepoint as I move it closer to my beating heart. I check the outputs of my running processes and sense no danger to me for kilometres around. With increased focus, I slowly caress the core inside my heart.
Water sprays everywhere as I fall flat on my face. I grind across the choppy surface, bouncing across the salty wetness with massive force. High-pressure water smacks into my face and body as I send a plume of misted seawater up into the sky. My mind is exploding with information. My strand of augur slides through my heartcore, overloading my brain. In a daze, I skid across the water as I flip head over heels, smashing into wave after wave as the world spins around me.
With a final flip, I plunge to a halt. I lie there for a few seconds, calming my body and mind. Staring upwards into the blue sky, I wait as my mind comes back to me. I try it again the moment I find my equilibrium, determined to figure out why I just lost all motor control. With a bit more care I caress the needle point of augur over and just into my heartcore. The amount of information is still straining, but manageable this time.
My curiosity peaked, I study the scanned image. A holographic representation of a large cluster of heart cells shines brightly in my mind's eye. The contact point of augur and core is lit up with dense information. I take a closer look and see a near infinite fine mesh of separated core structures. Besides the normal-sized cells I'm expecting, I see a second level of dense information. The place where my heartcore begins, the amount of data per cubic millimetre skyrockets.
I narrow my focus, even more, trying to decipher what exactly I am sensing. I zoom in further, ignoring large amounts of the data as I study a miniscule part of the whole. My heartcore seems to be made from nanoscopic compartments, their small and varying shapes reminding me of ordinary cells. I look at one of the heartcore compartments with close scrutiny and come to the conclusion that it really is a miniature cell. What the heck? Why are there cellular models inside my heartcore?
Focusing on one, I start to feel a link. I follow the link and arrive at my crotch. The heartcore compartment is linked to a single cell in my left testicle? I frown rather deeply as I look at another heartcore section. That one has a link to a pancreas cell. Another is connected to a single skin cell and the fourth one I check is a fat cell in my nose.
I measure how big each compartment is and use that to divide with the total volume of my heartcore. My sum tells me that around a hundred trillion compartments can be fit inside the core. An adult human body has around forty trillion cells, give or take a few. I thus conclude that half of my heartcore is filled with sections, one for every living cell in my body.
This answer a couple of my questions about body cultivation. It’s just a shame that I can formulate so many more things to be tested with this new information that I have even more experimenting to do now. I smile wryly, the more you know, the more you realize how little you really know. I add any new experiments I come up with to my ever-growing to-do list.
Spreading some qi through the water I'm floating in, I stand up and start moving again. I try to bore down into my heartcore, making the needle of augur as thin as possible, but I get overwhelmed before I get through a quarter of the core’s radius. My braincore isn’t powerful enough to handle all the different sections and I get a headache. I manually heal my bleeding nose and try once more. My mind fills up with the scanned data before I can see what the inner half is made up of.
I’ll try that again later. I just hope that my heartcore won't grow even denser and harder to scan by then. I set a small notification process running, it will remind me to check my cores and general cultivation once per day. I can no longer afford to go years without doing in-depth cultivation reviews.
I feel both anger and joy at the fact that I got stripped of my thousand years strong cultivation base. On the one hand, I'm weak as shit right now. On the other hand, I get to do it all over again with a millennium of cultivation experience under my belt. My dual core setup is another win, but the general powerlessness in my current situation sort of cancels it out.
I do take note of the fact that I can do stuff way above my power level. Making Tree into a dimensional and semi-aware artefact is not something I should have been able to accomplish. Nor should I have been able to make spatial rings. My braincore can only account partially for these feats of strength.
My mood sours as I recall why I'm in this situation in the first place. Usually, I don't really bother with revenge and stuff like that, but I think I’ll have to make an exception this time. I make another note and decide to forget about it until I am near ascension again. Until then, all I can do is prepare and regain my power. For now, though, I decide to stop lazing about as the waves carry me back and forth.
I continue moving across the sea, the waves becoming higher as the seabed rises. The sea creatures are acting normally in this area, no swarms of them racing just under the surface. I pull up a scan of the mage boat we met. The mana cannon is the first man-made magical device I have seen so far.
It is made from some sort of iron, but I'm not sure what type. I was kind of distracted at the time, so I didn't do a detailed augur scan. From what I can tell, it works on a very simple principle.
A complex web of inlaid channels guide the injected mana into the cannon's pressure chamber. There, a mana powered force field stops it from exiting the barrel prematurely. The pressure keeps building until it overpowers the force field, causing the raw power to explode from the barrel. A crude and unpredictable system, it does pack quite a punch. From what I have seen so far, the cannon is a lot more effective than all the mana users casting spells separately. It's penetrating power - courtesy of the high speeds the energetic beam is travelling at - is nothing to sneeze at.
I spot land peeking over the horizon, distracting me from further analysis. I should be coming ashore between Peak City and the Capital. A quick map check confirms that I have been running in the correct direction. The vague shapes resolve themselves into large dunes and slow down my steps. I'm leaving quite a trail of spray behind me. Running over land with these speeds is guaranteed to leave a large furrow behind me as I will need to literally plough through the soil.
I realize I forgot to let Tree absorb seawater the moment my feet touch land. I cast a quick glance backwards, but decide to move on, the circle contract now screaming in my mind. I have slowed down a lot and need to reinforce the ground with each step I make.
I can fly, but that qi-inefficient mode of transportation will drain me empty before I’ll get halfway. I'll think about it when I’m closer and time is running out. The dunes blitz by under my feet and I see a short range of hills before running across flowing grass-covered hills. Copses of trees dot the landscape and I spot some villages in the distance.
‘A BIRD? A PLANE? SUPERMAN? NOPE, JUST A BIRD.’
There, that should keep the casual observers at bay. I scan one of the villages as I pass by near it. It has some fields behind a range of trees. I also spot small, dirty huts near the fields. This contrasts with the nice stone houses of the village proper and only showcases the differences in quality of living.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ also seems to apply to this world. Seeing ragged slaves toiling for the food you eat must be an appetite spoiler. I suppress the white knight inside myself at the deplorable conditions the farmers live in and move on. I have to put some extra effort into suppressing that aspect of myself at the sight of thin, fur-covered children working the land.
That does bring up the question though, how did I manage to not see any of these slave farms so far? The first village I came across must have been supplied with Tower loot. Kind of telling that buying supplies from a magical dungeon is preferred over farming by the general human populace.
My previous conclusion on human farming must thus be wrong. Angeta scoffed at the idea, but I suspect that has more to do with the strict caste system the beastkin seem to operate on. Only places where dungeon food can’t easily be transported to seem to be equipped with farms.
Looking ahead, a relatively small mountain range blocks my direct path. I do a quick cost/benefit calculation and decide to cross straight over it instead of running around. Rock is harder than soil, and the extra stepping force I can use there compensates for the climbing.
Ignoring the villages in my path, I make good time. I run around any sentient life with big, smooth turns. My speed causes quite a bit of wind, the field of 'IGNORE ME' qi covering doing nothing to hide the trail of rustling trees and grass in my wake. I also ignore the temptation of running directly through the human villages. The locals’ frustration at having their houses suddenly destroyed would just get taken out on the involuntary labour force.
The hills have been gradually rising, the mountains ahead are high enough to have small white peaks. I look up and see a familiar white dot trailing behind me. She is catching up to me again, I gained quite a lead with my sudden departure and while running full tilt across the sea.
I don't like the fact that my scanning process doesn’t reach her. Again some frustration at my neutered powers bubbles up. Not being able to scan for multiple kilometres is frustrating after being able to scan entire empires at once. I sigh while jumping over a patch of forest and then jump high enough to reach the rocky foothills.
I hop from ridge to ridge, using calculated amounts of force just shy of shattering the entire face with each step. My scanning process notifies me that a place of interest is ahead. I decide to spoil myself and jump extra high, using the airtime to take a careful look around.
Inside of a bare stone valley I expected, ruins stick up from in between obviously artificial caves. Stone blocks, a meter wide on average contract an ancient, dilapidated building. Marking the spot on my map for later investigation, I move on. More stone and some snow pass beneath me until I am running on grasslands again, the Tower now visible as my altitude allows me to see over the mountains.
I narrow my eyes as something seems off about it, but I am too far to really tell what, the jagged end is still menacingly sticking up into the sky. I zoom my vision and I see a small pinprick of bright light in the middle of the crooked top. The feeling that something is wrong increases but I can’t tell what. The entire structure does seem oddly dirty though. This, combined with the fact that I spot quite a few more smoke trails emerging from the city, raises my hackles.
The few villages and small cities around me have less and less farmland surrounding them. Halfway across the grassland between Tower and mountain, the farms stop entirely. Well used roads are a clear hint that the Tower must be feeding a lot more people than just Tower City itself.
I now clearly feel the strain the containment circle is under. This is all rather suspicious though, the flow of qi I measured before leaving for the north should not have put such stress on it. It should have held for at least a week more, and I suspect that it would just have compressed the loose qi into liquid form for even more energy storage.
I spent quite a bit of qi to get here so quickly, and Tree is starting to run low. Qi in motion makes more qi, but not a lot. I have a solid core, but that only creates a trickle. The mana I breathe in and turn into qi is so little it is of no consequence at my current level. This all means that I can really use the power boost before… acquiring a volcano.
I slow down a bit more as more people appear on the roads. Small caravans are interspersed with single beast drawn carts and loose groups of armed figures. I keep low, using some aspects of Tess’ way of moving to keep close to the ground. That in combination with the thin film of stealth qi around me should keep me from sight.
The tower grows ever bigger and longer as the city walls become visible over the horizon. Then my danger scanner screams at me before another sun blooms high above me. I get shoved into combat mode as all my remaining qi pours into my brain.
Second sun, source? Check shadow is quickest, up and to the left. Move eyes. Wait for eyes to move. Program running movement, bleed off momentum in two steps. Eyes see second sun now. Fireball? No, not just fire. Spectrum indicative of temperature over fifteen hundred degrees. Fire and wind combined? Excess of oxygen or other materials needed for this brightness. Hints of other colours, dirty flames?
Rescan spectrum. More than just white, peaks of red? Block ninety per cent of light. Still too bright, ninety-nine. Second sun is five kilometres up. Last kno…
Rhea. Re-Haan. Rhea. Last known location of hot dragon chick is in location of fireball. First step gets executed. Sense dirt exploding from sudden attempt at stopping, not relevant. Focus back on fireball. Expansion rate of explosion? Contracting again. Took half a second for combat mode to engage, enough time for explosion to reach maximum diameter.
Scan spectrum again. Polarise. View through standard visual filter package. Multiple energy sources detected, hotspots mean… molten metal or stone? Confirmed, molten shrapnel is now moving past initial flame front. Override previously planned step. Check qi reserves. New plan will take half. Acceptable, easy qi recharge is near.
Force movement. Muscle tissue in leg bruises from overexertion. Bend knees, use shock of crashing into ground to course correct. Force qi into ground. More. Need to cover at least twenty meters, else dirt will not give enough leverage to kick off from. Sink through knees, lowest point reached. Ignore pain of popping knee joint, contract gluteus and quadriceps groups at maximum.
Override heartcore protest. Acknowledge potential damage to legs, ignore. Execute. Observe rain of stars moving past flame front as leg muscles tear. Repair projection? Half minute for full, effective after ten seconds. Acceptable.
The qi swirling through my brain gets diverted to my legs, crashing me out of combat mode as the world speeds up around me. The abstract silence of experiences the world at a fraction of normal speed retreats, letting the sound of rushing wind into my mind again. I pull on the qi inside the ground and pull it with me. Who attacked from where? The sun, probably. Rhea used that tactic when I first met her, must be a dragon thing. I see small forms blocking sunlight. They grow bigger as I see wings expand.
Dragon silhouettes. Three of them. Did they attack Rhea? Did they notice the many mana disturbances I caused without receiving any reports from her? There were no reports because of the contract between us. I really hate the law of cause and effect sometimes.
I only see black, winged forms against the sun as I speed towards the fading fireball. A broken form starts falling from the sky. A large lizard-like body with just a single wing. Shit. Shitshitshitshit.
I move some of my remaining qi into my brain, causing my anxiety to fade. Red streaks of mana become invisible to my senses again as I control my emotions. What to do? She is too big for me to easily move. My legs are still busted from the sudden change in direction. It will be like carrying a large piece of styrofoam while my legs are jelly. The weight will not be the issue, the size will be.
Ask her to change into humanoid form? I ponder possible scenarios as I cut through the air. I gain altitude quickly now. I feel some relief as I come to the conclusion that I will reach her before the dragons. How did she change between dragon and human form previously? Can I force it somehow? I don't think she will be very lucid in that torn up state.
She is missing a wing, the attack hit her back, so probably a broken or crushed spine too. What is the effect of shape-shifting in such a state? Only one way to find out. I firm my resolve while the wind screeches around me.
My ears are still ringing from the sonic boom I just made. The sound of the explosion would have taken around fifteen seconds to reach me, getting to her quicker forced me to break the sound barrier. I feel my heartcore growing smaller, using the very qi it is made of to start the repair process of my legs. My energy loaded blood is only now reaching my femoral artery and is slowly seeping through my torn leg muscles.
I manually shift a loose flap of my rectus femoris into the correct position, allowing the qi rich blood to start repairing it. The pain gets ignored, but it actually hurts. I decide to focus on the falling figure that is getting closer.
I see pristine white scales surrounding torn flesh. Blackened bones are sticking up from the ruin of her back. The wind’s grip on my figure finally starts winning as I slow down. I hold up my hands and hang still in the air for a single moment, the bloody ruin of a falling dragon smacking into me the next.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter