Chapter 71 - Unfeeling
Her large eyes stay closed as she fails to react to my shouting. I climb across blood splattered scales, attempting to stop us both from spinning. Her single leftover wing is turning this fall into a death spiral. I look towards the tower as it flashes by, but it is too far away to draw any qi from there. I’m sorry Tree, but this will not be pleasant.
I touch my necklace and pull. All the qi inside the pocket dimension that still bears my fingerprints is pulled free. Half of all the qi inside Tree has degraded into other forms, changed into free-floating ambient power. I inhale but choke as a stream of blood splashes my face. I pull some more, and all the neutral qi around Tree gets pulled out.
I feel a passive sort of worry coming from the dimensional nexus point. Golden threads start pouring from the piece of jewellery around my neck, dissolving into colourless smoke. I send a quick mental thanks to the perennial as I clear my airway of the sticky red liquid.
A powerful cough later, the blood is back out and I breathe in what power Tree gave me. I sink it into my braincore and breathe it out again, the qi this time fully under my control. I force it into the massive frame I'm clinging to.
Shit. Shitshit… Stop. I'm not easily gripped by panic, but the fact that I'm clinging to a dying dragon, half-starved of qi while the formation on top of the Tower is still screaming at me is getting to me.
Another deep breath later I'm calm again. I forcefully push through the natural energy resistance that any living being has and invade her body. Alien structures map themselves out in my mind. I scan totally unknown muscle configurations while pouring more qi into Rhea. Her bones are largely similar to other lizard-like animals, but her internal organs are a mystery to me. No animals or sentient beings I have come across so far are similar to anything I am sensing right now.
Shit, this isn’t working. I ignore the rapidly approaching ground and think through my options. I ignore the world around me even harder as I sense three large shapes diving down towards us.
Dig out the ground? I suspect that Rhea will splatter with the massive damage done to her back if she lands at terminal velocity. We will both reach the ground in twenty seconds, and with the speeds we are going, even I might be hard-pressed to walk away without permanent injuries. A dragon’s terminal velocity is a bit higher than a human's, an aspect of my threat analysis process tells me.
The blood covering the scales I am gripping on to cause my grip to slip, a small application of qi fixes my hands to Rhea. I cast a glance upwards and an idea sprouts in my mind. I pull a small globe of qi to my palm and stare at it with my full attention, ignoring the splattering blood and screaming wind around me.
‘BEING HUMANOID IS BEST, LARGE IS BAD, LARGE IS LETHAL, HUMAN FORM NOW’
I throw the sphere upwards and follow it up with a thin strand of augur. It hits the closest dragon head on, and I force the strand of augur inside the massive beast. The dragon closest to us is entirely red, scales glistening in the sun as I observe its rugged form. I’m not sure, but the angular and rugged cast of its draconic features causes me to think of it as a male.
Making a thin grid with my augur gives me a very rough grid-shaped cross-section of the beast. I see its eyes blink rapidly while it dives towards us, the blood splatters it is flying through not visible on its red scales. Seconds tick by, and just as I fear that my trick didn't work, the dragon starts to glow. A weirdly shaped organ in its chest seems to twist like a lock. An unfamiliar energy rapidly spreads through the beast, and with my augur I sense its insides liquefy as the diving dragon shrinks.
Retracting my various senses from the now confused trio following us, I focus back on Rhea. Fifteen seconds left until impact. I locate the organ inside her large frame and feel relief that it seems intact. The attack removed a big part of her back, but the human transformation switch is located deep inside her chest. I gently try to twist it, but it seems stuck. Another second wasted. I force it and feel something snap. The same unknown energy explodes from the small organ, and the scales under my fingers start shrinking.
The two dragons furthest away break off their dive as they attempt to intercept their shining leader. The red dragon is flopping around as the two dragons behind him veer away.
One crisis solved and twelve seconds left. A simple extrapolation tells me that Rhea will be done shrinking in ten seconds. That leaves me with two seconds to slow down and hide from the pursuing trio. I have a fifth of my total qi reserves left. Do I run to the Tower to gather the new energy? I feel for my connection with Tree and sense that its running on fumes, so no refuelling there.
I lose my grip as I feel the scales liquefy. Both lenses of my eyes still have the sunglasses effect dimming the light entering my eyes, allowing me to see the peculiar sight of a shrinking and melting dragon. The bright light seemed unnecessary to me, but this is sort of disturbing. It’s kind of difficult to fear and respect a majestic dragon that melts into a puddle of goo before turning into a human.
Shaking away the unnecessary thoughts, I focus back on the problem at hand. I quickly construct some of the more plausible scenarios. I can’t do anything too fancy with the qi I have left. I glance at my ring. The hidden compartment holds enough qi cores to make this entire situation trivial, but I don’t have the time to feel for it now. Maybe cut the ground into a spike shape and use the narrowing earthen walls to slow down? I could slice it in the shape of a long spike and bleed off the excess momentum that way. Construct a qi cushion?
Why can’t I use Tree? I take a quick peek and see chaos in the pocket of space. Only Tree itself and the surrounding structures still have coherent form. The surrounding earth is breaking apart in large chunks that disintegrate further. The only reason the land keeps its shape around the centre is thanks to the roots of trees and plants. The newly planted greenery in the further outlying areas didn’t have sufficient time to develop roots yet. Tree also feels very weak; reckless portal abuse would do a lot of damage.
Suddenly it hits me. I want to slap my forehead, but holding on to the fluid form of Rhea is difficult enough as it is with two hands. Instead, I push off to avoid her turbulent wake and dive towards the ground. I start falling faster quickly and manoeuvre myself underneath her with only seconds to spare. Rhea has shrunk down to the size of a human by now, and I see her humanoid shape forming.
I contemplate whether or not I should keep looking in a moment of madness. Patches of skin start covering the forming limbs. She is obviously not in a proper state of mind to form the leather looking armour. Does she store that somewhere? Does the carpet match the drapes?
Slightly horrified at my own thought process in such a situation, I turn my back to her and spread my arms and legs. The wind whirls around my limbs as I bleed off speed. Extending a few threads of qi out of the back of my skull, I latch onto the freshly formed arms and legs of the shapely woman falling just behind me. I pull her closer and onto my back as we speed towards the ground.
‘ZERO G, NO GRAVITY, NO MOMENTUM, FUCK YOU NEWTON’
Stress is not good for my rhyming skills. I feel my mental strength dwindle as the qi surrounding us strains at the fabric of reality. My stomach does a few flips as gravity fights with the concept of air resistance on whether or not we should speed up or slow down. Rhea’s arms hang over my shoulders, and I bend my knees slightly to prepare for impact.
My feet touch the ground, and I explode what little qi I have left downwards to forcefully absorb the impact. Four meters. I am standing in a crater four meters deep. Dust, clumps of grass and dirt clods are flying everywhere. Attaching her arms to my chest with a few bands of qi takes up a lot of my dwindling reserves. I grab her legs and feel relief as my fingers sink into firmly muscled flesh covered by smooth skin. A scene of a writhing blob of dripping dragon running over my body to the ground plays out in my mind, and I forcefully repress the image.
I check on the dragons above me and see the red glowing form of the first dragon expanding. The trio has slowed down, and they are working to gain height. The other two dragons are brown and grey. Fire, earth and metal? That explains why the explosion seemed so dense.
Focusing back on the problem at hand, I hold on tight to the unconscious female form piggybacking me. I breathe in mana and feel a trickle of power flowing into my cores. I use this small smidgen of power to cloak us both in a stealth field and begin testing my legs. My first steps are unsteady as I feel some more muscle fibres tear. Then, I properly distribute the weight over my legs and walk out of the crater.
I duck my head in a subconscious gesture as three dragons fly overhead. The wind on my back helps me to start running, and I take off while breathing in big lungfuls of air. I keep my hyper-vigilant state going as I move towards a group of trees a few kilometres away. The dragons overhead start circling the area while tilting their heads as they scan the ground. I feel their gazes sliding over me a couple of times, but none stick. My hiding skills honed over decades of sneaking around are still as useful as ever.
Entering the forest calms me down a great deal. Having overhead cover to hide from the flying overgrown lizards allows me to drop the stealth field and I do so the moment I enter the green cover. I don't stop moving yet. I keep walking as my legs start to tremble from the pain and damage. The weight on my back would normally not be a burden, but I have very little energy left to spare.
A minute of walking later, I lay myself down on the grass at the base of a random tree. I roll from under the weight and sit up. I take a look at Rhea, something I avoided doing so far. The backside of a naked and flawless example of female perfection greets my eyes, no wounds visible. Unfortunately, I feel too exhausted to become excited about it. Her breaths are very shallow, and they are not getting any deeper.
Placing a hand on her back, I seep my augur into her. My eyes grow wide at the state of her being. She seems perfectly healthy at first glance if a little pale. That changes when I take a look at the state of her cells though. Every strand and fibre of her being looks like it has been partially put through a blender. Each cell wall and cluster of DNA is damaged, every single part of her body dying in some way.
Let's see. She lost around a tenth of her body mass in dragon form? No, that is correct when I only take her body into account, she lost an entire wing. So around a sixth? That seems about right, every single cell of hers has around a sixth of its contents violently mixed up. She will be dead in five minutes. I can feel her organs slowly failing as her general metabolism grinds to a halt.
Stop that, focus on solutions. Damage done to her dragon form must have been evenly distributed to her human form when I forced her to change. I might be able to keep her alive if I had all my qi right now. That’s a problem because I am near empty. I find my face in a deep frown. I know what I must do, but it will suck a lot. Let’s hope I won't end up killing myself. I make a plan for the next few hours and scrawl that across my mind in massive, impossible to ignore letters.
With a resigned sigh, I start. Nature, fire, earth, metal, water, air, light and dark. Those are all the mana elements I can link to emotional states. I hesitate once more but firm my resolve as I make sixteen small compartments in my mind. I fill each one with one of the linked emotions. I feel my face slacken into a dead mask as my emotional core freezes up. All the emotions I had swirling through my mind are now stuck and locked up inside those small processes.
I let out some of my remaining qi and spread it thin through the surroundings. Then I use the sections to start attracting mana from around me. The layer of qi guides the colourful strands into my mouth. They pass through my body and into my braincore. It is a good thing I already have a plan in motion, without those predetermined steps, my cold and dead mind would just have walked away from this mess.
I use the qi to reinforce Rhea’s body, releasing control of the qi once it forms an even layer through her form and guiding the power into a passive supporting role. I see her degradation slow as the cells grow stronger while they keep falling apart. I sit there, not thinking, not feeling for at least half an hour, my eyes dead and my heart even more so.
The moment her cells stop degrading, I mechanically stand up and slowly put her on my back again. I mentally mumble a stealth field around myself. The mana keeps flowing into my mouth as my locked up emotions keep attracting even portions of the simple energies. Woodenly, I begin walking towards the tower.
Step after step, I keep on going. Half of the qi I generate now is used by me while the other half goes towards keeping Rhea stable. The walls of Tower city slowly come closer. I don't feel any excitement at this. I don't even feel bored. I don't even feel nothing. Instead of an emotional vacuum, it is as if I never felt a single thing in my life. Any emotional memories are now alien and unknown to me.
I look up to the broken top of the dungeon. My apathetic eyes see black lines running down from the top. The entire top part of the Tower seems odd, but I can't care. I keep walking, following the plan that is constantly visible in my mind's eye. Mechanically, I jump over the wall when I reach it and plop down in the city proper.
Everything inside the city gets ignored. I don't see the lack of people on the streets. The occasional burned down house gets none of my attention. I only know that I have a plan to complete and nothing else.
Mechanically, I step across molten patches of cobblestone until I reach the dungeon’s base. Some of the qi I gained gets applied to my feet. A suction force pulling air from between my feet and the tower gets generated, as that is what the plan tells me to do. None of the qi actually touches the Tower, so none of it gets lost. Only the physical effect it generates is used to walk up the white side.
Once again, I perform step after step. I deactivate the qi formation around my shoes, and I place one foot half a metre higher and I re-activate the formation. With a sucking *plop* my foot sticks to the smooth surface, and I do the same with my other foot. Step after step after step.
I avoid the black streaks of molten… something, that appears high up. Black splatters of material are stuck to the structure like molten wax. Long, thin rivulets of the stuff appear with higher frequency as I reach the top, looking like a massive melting candle. I notice that this material caused the Tower to look dirty from far away, but I don't give a damn. Slowly, I move across the smooth, molten surface of the Tower until I reach its top.
I see a white circle surrounded by black material. Dazedly, I notice that there is a rule about investigating unknown stuff, so I probe the black, hard substance with a bit of augur. Molten, oxidised metal and rock. Fire, earth and metal. That combination sounds familiar, but my ability to care is keeping Rhea alive right now.
I move towards the pristine white circle with measured steps. The next step is to place my necklace inside the formation. I get recognised, and I’m let through. The black material has heaped up around the spinning circle, so I step down to the bare white floor. I let a single female leg go and pull the black necklace over my head. I throw it towards the centre where it hangs, the chain circling around it in a rhythmic motion.
Two more steps to go. My eyes are devoid of life and set on the pendant. I move through the portal. Tree strains a bit, but the enormous quantities of qi now at its disposal prevent any damage from being done. Not that I would have cared. The last remaining step is to remove those processes? Can it all be over then? I just want to stop.
I don't want to die, but this blankness in my mind just needs to stop. I don't even bother keeping myself upright as I delete the processes. My form crumples to the ground as I once again feel something, relief at it all being over.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter