Chapter 82 - Heat
I hastily move through the red hell. Ash is everywhere and I see a large front of lava moving towards the buildings. I hum to myself as I freeze a group of cowering people.
“Fell in-nto a burning ring of fire...”
I snap the iron manacles from the sorry group and pull them inside Tree. Evacuating slaves and servants is apparently not high on the priority list of panicked mages.
“And it burns, burns, burns.”
I gave Tree orders to place these people inside the storage complex I made. There is still plenty of room left inside the Stalinist apartment building. I focus on Tree's dimension briefly and sense the frozen humans and beastkin being carried on golden threads as they are placed inside.
“The ring of fire, ring of fire.”
I kick a door into smithereens. Startled shouts come from below as I sprint through the rain of fragments into the cellar.
“The taste of love is sweet.”
I quickly connect a thread of qi to each and every living signature I see. I don't have time to thoroughly scan through their auras, but none of the people here smells as broken or as filthy like that captain.
“When hearts like ours meet.”
I frown a bit and my happy song falters as I find some sort of torture dungeon. Instead of the usual implements like knives and tongs, each implement of pain has something to do with fire. I see some candles and I snatch a box or two of the things. Wax play could be fun with R… Anyway, lots of brands and hot pokers.
The iron bands keeping the sorry figures locked down snap as I freeze and kidnap them. I do a quick scan and sense no more people in this building. I run back outside just in time to avoid a large piece of molten rock smashing into the structure I just exited.
The pressurized magma chamber beneath the island is emptying out now that one of its exit chutes has been cut in half. The explosions are calming down, so I only have the large wave of slowly moving lava to contend with. I speed off through the widely spaced streets and dart inside one of the largest towers.
More slaves and servants get kidnapped as I make my rounds with haste. One of my scanning processes finds a large library higher up, but time is running out. I make sure that building is clear of any living humanoids and stand still.
I punch upwards with all the power inside of my body, smashing the ceiling. I jump through the cloud of stone debris as the shock wave causes half the tower to collapse. My jump is executed perfectly, and I only have to punch a large piece of flooring to the side to reach the collection of books.
Ten seconds later they are all safely stored inside my ring, and I jump away from the toppling mess. Let’s see, any more life signatures? The last mages jump in the boats behind me as the lava reaches the first buildings. I already cleared those, so I spare a few seconds to watch the structures succumbing to the glowing front of molten rock.
I spread my senses while observing the toppling buildings, washing half the island in a thin sheet of qi. Only one place still has moving shapes, a large warehouse near the harbour. I look in that direction and see the last boat cutting its lines as the final mages climb aboard.
I kick the cobblestone, causing it to shatter under my feet. This is all going to be covered in meters of solidified rock anyway, no need to worry about leaving evidence behind. The large warehouse is a shabby building, and the shockwaves of exploding volcanoes didn’t do it any favours.
Inside is the sorriest collection of people I have seen so far. Dirty, emaciated and dirty. Did I mention dirty? This must be a new haul, just loaded from the boats. Humans with odd skin colours and a wide variety of beastkin. I freeze them all and pull them inside Tree, ignoring the weak cries coming from them.
I don’t feel that guilty about destroying this place anymore.
I look out over the small city that is slowly being swallowed by the glowing tide of rock. I’m sure there is more stuff to loot here, but I got to get a move on. With a slight twinge of pain in my heart at the loss of potential valuables, I move towards the shoreline.
I grin to myself as start looking out over the sea. This island felt slightly bad, some of the suffering happening on its grounds leaving behind an imprint in its aura. There seems to be worst stuff out there, though. I get chills down my spine every time I look west by northwest. Something bad is there. It’s not the tower sticking up from the sea. I suspect that that’s the earth mages island. No, there is something else there.
Ares has another day left by my worst-case predictions. I can spare a few hours investigating. I roll my spatial ring around my finger. I haven’t tried to open the secret shadow dimension since last time. The amount of dread I feel coming from that place might require me to open it though. There are still three left…
The massive tower is interesting. It looks like people build whatever wherever. I think it was made that way. I would guess that a higher level of earth control is needed the higher one builds. The lower parts are all simple huts, ornamental mansions decorate the middle and the top is filled with eccentric and unusual pieces of architecture.
Are earth mages allowed to build higher once they advance in rank or does the advancement allow them to build higher? Maybe Ares knows? Another reason not to let her slowly dissolve in a pile of goo.
I run past the Escher-like construct with speed, kicking the wave tops to build up momentum. I sense the occasional sea beast lurking below, but my stealth field seems to work on those too as they leave me alone.
I wonder what shape the other islands will take? Nature’s island will probably be a lot of big plants. How does air look? A lot of kites keeping buildings in the air? Maybe water does not have an island but something underwater? Haah, can’t wait to find out.
I look forward, and a shiver runs down my spine again as a single finger of dread caresses my soul. What is going on over there?
I'm moving back east, keeping the towering pile of earthen constructs to my right. I think that the nature mana island is on my left. The towering trees and large green buildings are a pretty good clue in that regard.
Why would an island full of life be so close to that… Nope, stop thinking about that. I'm still too shaken from what happened back there. Let's just calm down and think about that shitstain of a place at a later point.
I let my heartcore do the autopilot thing for a bit as I sink my focus inside my braincore. Clearing my mind, I feel for the contracts I have running. Rhea’s agreement not to talk about me feels weird but I didn’t expect that thing to survive a shared cultivation base unscathed. I can barely feel the upgraded Tower circle from here, and the circle inside Tree is shining brightly.
The student-master relations between my disciples and me are very, very faint. It takes me half an hour of meditation on the go before I get a proper sense of their direction. I sense them straight ahead, so straight ahead I go.
Looking around, I only see water around me. I try to find my flying drone with some long-range scanning but have no success. Its made from hollow metal, it should float, but I don’t sense a single trace of it.
Looking around slightly bored, I decide to make some more plans as I speed over the water. Let’s see. My little pocket dimension is finally taking off. I already found some nice sand banks I can let Tree absorb once the qi generating process equalises. It is still finding its equilibrium, dumping in massive amounts of qi-less material would only slow it down now.
I glance through the dimensional portal hanging around my neck and inspect the place some more. The slowly turning ring of clouds is growing darker as more water is evaporated, it should start to rain pretty soon. The ice caps surrounding the cold mountain have stopped growing, the volcano is now slowly pouring out steady streams of lava, while cold- and heat-loving plants are starting to sprout thanks to Tree’s ministrations. It will probably become a full world in a few thousand years.
The number of people I have kidnapped has reached new heights though. I started out pretty tame, abducting six young misfits is not the worst crime in the world. The few hundred people I have on ice in the shoddily made warehouse are proof enough that this might become an addiction. I used to only steal knowledge, now it seems I am expanding my tastes. I am not sure how I should feel about this.
Let’s think about what to do with them then. How about a pure knowledge or strength meritocracy? I could set up an internet like thing, allow people to self-study. Tests to determine if the users have mastered the knowledge in tiers. Teach them the basics and allow them to develop their own cultivation techniques from that?
It seems to be working with my small group of disciples. The only thing I have forced down their throats are their fighting styles. That’s a compromise I was willing to make because it’s just efficient body movement, I have been very careful not to prescribe them core ways of handling qi.
Maybe a point based system? Earn points by learning new stuff or by advancing in power. I could encourage creativity by giving out more points for original thoughts. What about rewards then? Maybe only put base materials up for sale?
I can see the irony here. I am thinking about starting my own sect when I used to avoid them like the plague. I focus my thoughts on how to prevent elitism as I thread the waves. Maybe some sort of system based on cyan boxes? Maybe blue rectangles?
I decide to focus on speed a bit more, the chance of Ares dying is increasing steadily.
“Selis, please let me drink some more.”
“Go away Bord, don’t look at me with those big eyes. It’s creepy.”
“Stop begging, go punch some more of those creepy skeletons.”
A group of four people is trudging through endless white dunes. Theres no sun overhead, instead, there are multiple bright fireballs stuck to a white ceiling. One of those fireballs falls down into the sand, splattering molten rock in a small circle.
A skeletal, burning hand reaches out from the melting particles. A fat, pasty fist lands on the area and the skull emerging from the surface is smashed into pieces.
“Ow, ow, these are way too hot. Selis, I earned some water now, right? I love you soooo much!”
Bord juggles the shining shard of mana as he walks back to the group.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU FATTY I HATE YOU SO MUCH!”
“Calm down Angeta. You’ll only get even hotter if you start shouting.” Ket has dark circles under his eyes as he puts one foot in front of the other. “I think we're nearly there. Let’s hope for another water level next.”
“Why couldn’t Tess take me with her to the exit.” Selis kicks up a spray of sand as she pouts.
“You would just have slowed her down, you know that.”
The small girl throws her hands up in the air, water sloshing over the rim of the cup she is holding. “Of course I know that. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.” She pouts even harder as she controls the spilt water. It hangs in front of her face as she watches it evaporate in the scorching heat.
“The exit is over here!” Bord’s face is shining with joy as he points to a black stairway standing in the middle of the undulating dunes. The massive black arrow hanging above it - guiding the group from kilometrs away - vanishes as Tess sees them approach.
“Praise the dungeon!”
Menacing glares and hate-filled expressions turn into exuberant smiles faster than one can blink. More fireballs fall down, but the emerging burning, bony figures get smashed with wild abandon before they can extricate themselves from the sand.
“Did they get weaker all of a sudden? And it got even hotter just now?” Angeta asks as she gingerly holds a shining crystal. She juggles it around for a bit, putting it inside her ring when she can safely grab it.
“Yeah, it got dimmer halfway through level three when night fell, now it is day again. You didn’t notice?”
Vacant stares all around, Ket just shrugs and walks into the shade of the stairwell. “You guys alright?”
Vox is still holding his sister, who seems to be half lucid. “I'm commanding my qi to freeze her. It seems to slow it down. I think she will hold on for another day at least.”
Ket puts his hand on her head and closes his eyes. He gives Vox a single nod. “One more day. We will try some things in the next resting floor, okay? Does the piece of jade Teach gave you have anything useful?”
Vox scrunches his eyebrows. “Shiiiiii… I forgot.” He rubs his ring and an egg-sized green stone appears in his hands. He puts it to his forehead while guiding his drooling sister down the stairs.
Tess is peering down the dark corridor with a gleam in her eyes. “Taking two people who don’t move is easier than taking a single asshole who can’t hold still.”
Ket decides to completely ignore the veiled insult. “Scouted ahead yet?”
“Yes, the next level is very weird. I like it.”
“What are the emotions?”
“I am not sure whether or not to be bored,” Tess replies with a crooked grin. The bunny on top of her head opens her eyes as Tess looks around but goes back to sleep when nothing interesting happens.
Ket frowns at the cryptic answer.
“Aaaah, it’s so nice and cool here.” The smile on Tess is very wide as she walks down, Lola bouncing on her head.
“What's going on in this level?” Vox's question is ignored as the reunited group all make their way down the stairs, only to be greeted by a world of black and white. A cave made up of square shapes becomes visible as the group exits the tunnel going down. Like some sort of weird abstractionist painting, the ceiling is black and the shadows give off light.
“This is black light?” Ket waves a hand over a glowing crevice. The area under his hand lights up slightly.
“Yep, I think this material gives off light, and the… shadow lights on the ceiling absorb it where they can reach.”
“This level is going to be a headache.” Vox rubs his temple with his free hand as he looks at his own glowing shadow amidst the darkness. A tinkling sound causes everyone to look at the middle of the jagged room. A dark shape which seems to be lit from the underside is emerging from a dark patch.
“That is pretty lame.”
“What is that, I don’t know. I really don’t know!”
“Sel, it’s boring. Shadow mana reacts to boredom and lack of confidence, choose one of the two.”
“But Ket, how do I know which one to choose, I am really not sure. Uuuuh.”
“Doesn't matter. It’s day again, so they are half as powerful as they were previously. Not interesting at all.”
Selis seems to be lacking a single shred of confidence while the rest of the group seem bored out of their mind as they murder everything with ease.
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