Chapter 80 - Ruminations
‘...would have to word it bloody carefully. Or not carefully. And have some random asshat write it down. My handwriting on a proposal guarantees that it’s going to be burned to shit immediately.’
The king stands in silence, looking down a dark pit. The visual spectacle of the never-ending hole is quite fitting. His thoughts are doing the same thing. His only free time of the week is usually spent in this fashion. All the king's alone time he spends staring at the tool that keeps power in the hands of his so-called subordinates.
‘The economic angle would be the best, I think. Have some of my lesser known allies praise the possibility of squeezing out the last fucking bit of money still left to the general populace. Make it a festival that encourages spending money, maybe. One free day a year is not too fucking much, right?’
Rubbing his beard slowly, the First Defender mulls over this possibility. He has been trying to claw back some shreds of power and control after his grandfather squandered it all. Now the royal family has no more say in how the Food Dungeon gets exploited, causing food prices to rise even further. Quotas keep rising while less and less money is sunk back into the all giving miracle that is the dungeon hidden in the middle of the Capital.
‘It will take a few months or years, but I think that with some careful manoeuvring, I can guarantee a single free day per year for our labour force. Then those ass licking shitstains of nobility can never get rid of me. The recent chaos is starting to sway public opinion against me, that should fix it.’
There used to be professional armies raiding the food dungeon daily, guaranteeing that the massive city around the castle could get fed. The fact that easily-won dungeon food is being sold as an imported good, with the correspondingly higher price, is a small evil. To the king, it seems better than letting everyone starve. And better than shovelling more money into the hands of the noble faction with a transportation monopoly.
‘It’s a shame that the dungeon religion is taking root even deeper, it encourages the common man to be content with his fucking ass-monkey shitty way of life. This entire asswipe of a kingdom hasn’t changed in thousands of years, in part thanks to the mages’ stalemate. Those pompous arrogant idiot-’
A tinkling sound interrupts the king’s spiralling thoughts. He looks up from the dark abyss to the source of the noise.
‘A green coin?’
He lifts the small, semi-transparent item from the balcony railing. A simple visage with a circle on its forehead is engraved on one side. The other side is blank. Looking closer, the king sees a rather small picture of the coin itself on the face’s forehead. Squinting while peering a tthe small thing, he sees the same picture on the small engraved coin once again, seemingly going on forever.
He twirls the coin through his fingers for a bit, looking around for the source. Nothing seems out of sight. The soldiers and slaves are still delving with hurried steps. It seems rather organized, it’s just a shame that the resting areas in between decads and the lobby contain more fighting between the noble’s factions forces than what happens inside the dungeon itself.
He looks suspiciously at the weird object, and with a shrug of his shoulders, puts it to his forehead.
YOU ARE HERE → ·
Massive letters float next to an arrow pointing to a small dot. The king freezes as this image appears inside his mind like he is visualising this image by himself. He jerks the coin from his forehead, and the image disappears.
‘What in the fucking bloody hell hells of all hells...’
Slowly and gingerly, he lays the coin against his forehead once again.
YOU ARE HERE → ·
Narrowing his mental eyes on the dot, the mental image zooms in and expands into a field of text. The king stands there for an entire minute, engrossed in reading the clean text now visible in his mind’s eye. He then nods his head once.
‘All correct. That weird % symbol means one part of a hundred. So that means that a single person holds power over ten thousand. Around four hundred thousand people in the Capital, around four hundred people hold absolute power. Stagnation for thousands of years, immense discrepancies in monetary distribution, no progress of the mind, the common people are placated by force or religion, all correct.’
Having confirmed the factuality of the starting point, the king tries to zoom back out. The big arrow and the words come back into view. Making this picture smaller allows him glimpses of threads running away from the starting point.
He takes the coin away from his head and stares at it again. Something is going on here. He senses none of the ill intentions usually cloaking the members of his so-called advisory group from this weird phenomenon. Another shrug of the shoulders later the king is looking through the coin’s contents again.
The text, arrow and dot grow even smaller until he sees an entire web sprawling from the beginning. Zooming even further and the king sees even bigger words.
CENTRALIZED - DECENTRALIZED
Four words mark the four extremes of the web, like the arrows on a compass. The starting point the king just zoomed out from is far to the left, well into the ‘CENTRALIZED’ piece of the chart. It is a third of the way to stability. Concentrating on these half known words cause the meaning to appear with clarity.
‘Correct once again. Heavy centralisation… nice word… combined with forced stable peace. Why am I being shown this?’
The king zooms in on the starting point once again, this time keeping track of the thin lines radiating out from it. He decides to follow one at random, one going towards the stable and decentralized piece of the chart.
‘Educating the masses? Won’t work unless that dungeon religion gets thrown out of the Tower-damned window.’
He follows a line going straight up towards chaos.
‘Foreign invasion is unlikely to happen with the stranglehold the mages have on all the kingdoms surrounding the factional seas. May they all have a long sit on the Peak...’
Another one goes towards absolute chaos and centralization.
‘Yep, total chaos and a higher concentration of power would happen if I disappear, allowing the nobles to run free.’
A line of more chaos and heavy decentralization guides to king to another possibility.
‘Democracy? What is that… Elected rules? Laws applicable to all? How would that ever fucking work? Wait, there's more here… Parliament? Voting? This is… bloody interesting.’
More possible paths are laid out in front of the king's eyes as he follows the trails one by one. It’s like he's being shown all possible paths that his kingdom can take from its current point in history.
Then, when he has seen them all and has read all the information available on the chart, another line appears. It goes straight towards the middle of the chart, perfectly in between chaos and stability. Perfectly in between centralized and decentralized power.
Another possibility is played out in front of the world-weary statesman. It takes him a few minutes to read through this alternate path.
The king stands there, watching over the hidden dungeon for a few hours without moving. The only thing he does is stroke the green coin in his pocket occasionally. Then, he suddenly turns around and walks back into the castle, a gleam in his eyes.
“Is this all the food we have?”
A big-boned boy stares at a small stack of supplies with a sad frown. He licks his lips as he shuffles closer. A large metal bar smacks against his forehead. He rebounds from the floating metal ingot as it circles a set distance around the food.
“More at floor thirty.”
A glare as fierce as the sun is directed at Ket. He only shrugs as he orchestrates a small storm of floating metal. Ket suddenly freezes in his movements, metal clattering to the stone floor of the room in between decads.
With wide eyes he pulls three swords from his ring, making them float in a thin, grey mist. He moves his hands, and the swords begin to dance. Instead of the whizzing sound of the metal storm, the air now is being cut apart with force. Ket pulls another sword from his ring and the sound the four make is noticeably less than with three.
He catches two of the swords, putting both away. A hand gesture later, the two swords roar even louder still.
“Why didn’t we bring or make more chairs? Our rings are big enough.” Selis stands behind Angeta, who is splayed out in a seemingly naturally formed tree chair. The small girl looks at her ring with a grin, then at the relaxing beastkin with pleading eyes.
“Sit on your water.”
“That makes my butt wet.”
“Make the water harder?”
“Sit on this leaf.”
A large green plant burrows from a seed the beastwoman lazily drops. One leaf grows bigger and broader, hollowing a bit. The plant shudders and becomes rigid. Selis delicately puts her butt down on the leaf, and falls backwards with a little “Eeek!”. The soft green sheet stretches as the blue-haired girl lies backwards.
“Thanks a lot!”
Angeta waves a lazy paw at the chipper sound of appreciation as she adjusts the leaf covering her eyes. Seconds later, soft snoring can be heard. Lola hops around and starts gnawing on the newly made chair. A small hand snatches her up and moments later she is being used as a hug pillow by the small girl.
A sudden spear blocks one of the swords Ket is messing with. The spear twirls, leaving a dark trail in its wake as it deflects the second sword. Ket narrows his eyes at the interloper. “Alright, it’s on.”
None of the battle sounds wakes the sleeping girls thanks to the sound barrier dividing the room.
“So these are your friends?” Ares looks around with still, unshakable eyes as she takes it all in.
“...uhm. You could say that...”
The redheaded girl smiles briefly at the redheaded boy sitting next to her. She regains her tranquil expression immediately after. If our main cultivator had been present, he would have recognised this state as a weird form of PTSD.
When she woke up, she was told they were on level five. She had been out for half an hour, they told her. She had weakly replied that that was nonsense - clearing an entire decad in a day is possible, but most mage delvers have to walk back up the way they came at the end of the day.
Only a party of full mages would be able to have this clearing speed, and they would never lower themselves to delving levels far below their own powers. She explained all of this in a weak, sickly voice as her brother kept an arm around her.
Then they walked down the stairs to the next level, and Ares realized that this group had been taking it easy. The stairs led down to a pool the size of a lake. Ten meters deep, smooth stone walls, shining blue crystals on the ceiling and dark water everywhere.
Any part of the aquatic life that got above the water level got chopped in half by a storm of metal shards that left grey, sparkling mist in its wake. The many floating pieces of shredded sharks, octopi and other sea monsters were deftly avoided by the nimble cloud.
Now and then, a large mass of water separated from the sea and formed a wide variety of monsters. They looked menacing and impressive, but a single wave of the blue-haired girl's small hand caused them to explode or collapse. The fact that Selis paid more attention to the rabbit in her arms than the enemies around only increased her understated strength.
Large sea creatures daring to get close received an even more pitiable fate. They could choose between a fist heavier than a mountain, delivered by a spinning fatty, a sudden black streak slicing them in half or getting crushed by constricting plants.
Ares was helpless as Vox had to carry her. All of the students walked on water as if they were on land. Only Bord left any ripples behind. Vox was the least impressive of the group. He only shot out beams of light, both to make shadows for Tess to jump through and to buff and heal.
Even that was limited due to the need to keep his sister’s body from falling apart. It took Vox a large part of his concentration to keep his qi settled through his sister's body, suppressing the degradation.
The group walked across the sea, surrounded by all kinds of menacing monsters, sharks, magical water monsters and more while chatting and waving their hands around. Bord, one of the few physically active participants, seemed to be having just a bit too much fun spinning and bouncing around.
Ares didn’t say a word until they reached the twentieth level, just now. She was completely ignored in the social dynamic as she clung to Vox’s back. She had seen feats unheard of, even in legends, right in front of her eyes.
Magic can do a lot. But for as far as Ares knows, it can not explode through a thirty meter high, feather and scale covered tiger’s chest while shouting “WHHEEEeeeeee”.
Nor could it control thousands of litres of water to crush the massive scale-less, naked crocodile on floor nineteen. Nor could it uppercut a twenty meter thick, rock-covered snake so hard that its head just exploded into chunks.
So Ares is slightly traumatised. But in a positive way? It’s like she saw a reversed horrific event. She knows that she should be happy, but the scenes of carnage are hard to forget. She also has the suspicion that none of the fights so far taxed them very hard.
They seemed too relaxed while fighting, too calm. They even seemed to be trying out new things, messing around with stuff that was obviously not working. All the falling crystals were retrieved with top priority.
The most powerful move Ares saw was an extremely quick spear thrust from Tess that made the floor rumble. On closer inspection, that had been to save a crystal from being shattered beneath a beast hoof.
“You have pretty cool friends.”
Vox looks down at his sister for a long moment. “I think so too.”
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