Chapter 97 - Staring

Chapter 97 - Staring

“What's with this rabbit?” Danarius’ wrinkled face frowns as he looks at the fluffy critter, who is being spoiled by Selis and Tess.

“Lola is the best! Don’t talk bad about Lola.”

“She saved my life.”

The old man has lived for many years, but the combined glares of the two girls causes cold sweat to break out across his back.

Ket is also glaring at him, but for a different reason. The boy was busily grilling the old man for every scrap of information he has, each question Danarius answered only bringing forth more questions. Ket closes his eyes for a second and starts asking questions again. “Dan, don’t change the subject. Why is fire different from the element of light? Light is only good for plants, not humans.”

“Who gave you permission to call me Dan? I’d have everyone but a fellow high mage flogg-”

“Could you answer the question… please?”

Ares is looking at this scene with a very complicated look in her eyes. Her venerable master, so aloof and out of reach, far removed from matters of normal men, is being bullied by a couple of kids her own age. The fact that her master is reacting rather poorly is doing little to ease her bleeding heart.

“The sun gives life. Fire takes it away. Two opposites coming from the sa-”

The slowly spoken wise words get halted as Ket starts talking over them. “Then what about the sun in a desert? Or a warm fire in winter? I think it’s narrow-minded to look at differing aspects of similar phenomena from such small perspectives.”

“The sun is the source of all life, there would be no life without the su-”

“There would also be no life without water, air, dirt or oxygen. That's a stupid argument.”

The old man closes his mouth. He thinks for a bit before talking again. “What’s oxygen?”

“This is going nowhere. I think I understand how Teach felt when he started teaching us now. He always had this exasperated look on his face, remember?” Ket turns away from Danarius as he talks to the other students.

“Hihi, he looked at us like we were dumber than someone pissing on a dungeon.” Selis giggles while hugging Lola to her chest. “It makes sense though, why would people start to look for answers in the physical world when the dungeon provides all and magic exists?”

Ket nods a bit. He lazily snaps his finger, a small flame appearing above his hand. “It’s so useful though, ripping the oxygen and hydrogen apart while letting them recombine is so much easier than forcefully heating up the air and burning trace elements.”

Selis frowns as she snaps her fingers a bit, small puffs of smoke and sparks flying here and there. “Hmmh, I guess I’ll stick to water, I can start a fire, and I think that’s enough for me.” She pouts a bit as her snapping only forms small flashes of fire.

“Can you do lightning? It’s made up of free electrons.” A blue arc now sputters between two of Ket’s fingers.

Selis makes a green stone appear from nowhere, putting it to her forehead. Some motes of water start flying around her head, forming a short-lived sparkling liquid halo. A fish made from clear glass circles around her head a single time. The water falls to the ground when she opens her eyes. “Those are the things around the molecular cores, right? Not spinning but still spinning? And yeah, pretty easy.” Selis turns her hand around as small arcs scatter playfully around her fingers.

“I wish I could understand plants. I can understand how they work, I just can't do anything with them.” Ket is now holding a leaf, looking at it like it murdered his family and dog.

“They’re alive, so you’ve got to ask them.” Selis is holding a small stick, staring at it intensely. A blue glow surrounds it, and small green buds start to appear slowly.

“Ask them? That’s stupid. I can’t ask a plant to do something. I can only manipulate the input and output numbers.”

“Output numbers? What?” Selis tilts her head as a leaf in her palm turns into a small model of Lola.

The two continue to squabble about the proper way of instructing their qi to do things, totally unaware of the two mages watching them. The old light mage and not so old earth mage stare with mouths agape at the casual display of multidisciplinary magic.

Ares is silently observing her gaping master. She brings a hand to her face, looking at the small sparkles of lightning running across the inside of her palm. She looks at her master again, who is enthralled by the ice crystals Ket and Selis are now growing. Ares’s hand becomes briefly covered in an intricate latticework of ice crystals, drawn directly from the air. She shakes the chilly flakes from her hand while looking at the old man, a complicated look on her face.

“No, enough doing nothing. Let’s go.”

“Buuuut, but you are a dragon! You should be a master of napping and doing nothing!”

“Not when we have things to do!” Rhea is dragging me by the collar towards Tree. I sulkily let myself be dragged across the grassy floor, my heels making shallow furrows. I jump up before she can toss me through the singularity portal, jumping through with my own power.

I land on the deck to dead silence. I look down. I'm still in boxer shorts. Well, structural qi reinforced boxer shorts with an equivalent armour rating of thick titanium. Got to protect the important bits, after all. A small predictive process warns me of a potentially dangerous situation.

I put my arm behind me and shove Rhea back inside Tree the moment she appears. I jump back after her.

“I appreciate your enthusiasm, but we should dress first.” I look at her barely covered form, waiting for it to sink in. Instead of blushing or something cute, she just rolls her eyes. “Humans and their prudishness.” A glow ripples across her body and moments later she is covered by snug fitting clothes with leather pieces here and there.

I stare at the skintight coverings, fully aware that she has only shifted some of her own body into imitation clothes. I shrug my shoulders and pull my clothes from my ring, dark pants, a shirt and basic shoes.

We jump back out, this time fully clothed. “Are we there yet?”

“Hi Teach, where should we be?” Ket is the first to reply.

I should have known better, that rhetorical question was such a staple on earth.

“See, Ket? He is making that face again. It must be something obvious we don't know yet!”

Ignoring the comment by Selis, I send out a thread of qi, connecting it to the drone flying overhead. I weave a smaller thread of augur through the qi and read the camera’s memory. An image forms as I analyse the qi density levels inside the crude image storage.

“Five degrees to starboard!” My shout reaches the person behind the steering wheel. Vox turns out to be the one turning the wheel this time.

“Aye aye, captain!” He grins widely while turning the wheel. I check the image coming from high overhead once again and see our new course corrected to the proper heading. The portside now points directly to Ferro Island, home of the metal mages. We sailed past by here on the way to Light Island, but didn’t visit. I didn’t have a reason back then.

I look around the ship and see a bunch of students and mages lazing around. This won't do at all. Let’s annoy them with information for a bit.

“Gather round!” My call rounds up my students rather quickly. They are sitting on their own chairs and couches only moments later, looking up at me with big eyes. Even Rhea has sat herself down on one of the couches.

I cough a bit. “Alright. Now I only have to say this once. I’ll be gone for a bit. Don’t start anything troublesome. Lola, stay here please?” I look her in the eyes. She blinks and hops away. “That will have to do.”

There, my duty as teacher is done, I have informed everyone.

“But Teach, where are yooouuu goooii...”

One of my students yells after me, but I’m already running across the waves. Ferro Island here I come!

Rhea has followed me for some reason. So now we are strolling arm in arm across Ferro Island.

I feel ripped off. I would demand a refund, had I paid money for this. There is metal here, sure, but instead of towering metal spires, everything is similar to concrete. Ferro and Strata must get along pretty well, the only abundant metal here is the reinforcement inside the earthen structures.

So instead of a futuristic, shiny metal everywhere tropical island, it is just a brown, slightly tall buildings tropical island. There is an above average amount of metal though, from iron fences to sheet metal signs and even a single fountain of what looks to be mercury. That merely takes it up to a modern civilization level, nothing special as far as I'm concerned.

I am more worried about that mercury fountain. Don’t they know the term biomagnification here? It seems dangerous to let a highly toxic, weakly diamagnetic substance out in the open like that.

“Why are you staring at that fountain?”

“Health risks.”

“What?”

“Nevermind, let’s go find the central control point of the mana formations.”

“Over there.” Rhea points to the centre of the island. I look her in the eyes, and we start a miniature staring war.

“I know that it's located in the centre, but where exactly?”

She keeps looking me in the eyes while I sense her projecting a thin sheet of qi towards the island’s middle point. Her eyes go glassy for a split second while keeping them trained at me. She then lowers her pointing finger by a few centimetres. I keep my eyeballs trained at hers as I continue strolling.

“Is this a dominance thing in dragon society?”

“No? I thought it was a human thing. Why else would you keep staring me in the eyes when it doesn't serve a greater purpose?”

I think about that for a second. Maybe I can saysome wise-sounding words to throw her off? “The eyes are a window to the soul.”

“But we can directly observe the soul using qi, why bother with reading a bit of it through an inaccurate method such as eye observation?”

We are now happily strolling along the street, arm in arm, heads bend at an angle while staring at each other's eyeballs.

“Then why don’t you look away? Are you too proud a dragon to lose this staring contest?”

Her eyes sparkle while a grin creeps on her face. “So you see it as a contest. What does that say about you? Why do you see something simple like looking at each other as a contest with a winner and a loser?”

I want to reply but am at a slight loss for words. Come on, platitudes of earth, don’t let me down! Let's start spouting psychobabble. “Prolonged eye contact is an indication of one of three things. Aggression, interest or affection. Which ones do you think apply here?”

I check my environmental awareness process to see how far we have strolled. There is an absolutely massive building right in the centre of the island. It looks like one of those old communist concrete buildings, all grey hard lines with evenly spaced windows and parallel lines. I whistle internally as I notice its true size, this thing is an entire skyscraper laid down on its side.

“Stop changing the subject Drew, why don’t you look away first?”

“Don't call me Drew, Rhea. Your question implies that you want me to look away, do you see this as a contest also?”

“Call me Re-Haan. And no. Dragons don’t pay any attention to the amount of time a human stares at them.”

There is a single spiralling staircase going down into the island. It is easily accessible through many well-hidden passageways. My qi easily seeps through all the invisible cracks of the secret entranceways. The precision work on display here is pretty neat, some high-level earth and metal mages must have worked together to create such complex hidden doors.

“Where I come from, looking away implies submission or shame. I have no desire to express either of them to you. Normal humans have physical trouble with keeping their eyes open for a long amount of time, so it used to be a physical challenge too.”

“What is different now then?”

“I can use qi to keep my eyes moist.”

I stop myself from bursting out in laughter as I see Rhea flood her tear ducts with qi. She barely prevents herself from blinking, keeping the staring contest going as her eyes become moist again. I use qi to pull a lever inside the wall we have approached and walk inside the narrow passageway, still not breaking eye contact.

“Where are we going anyway?”

I shake my head in mock disapproval at her. “Now who is changing the subject? You know where we are going.”

We both duck a bit as the ceiling of the secret passageways lowers suddenly. This is the most efficient route towards the stairs going down I have found in my scan of the massive complex. A large part of Ferro Island seems to be a factory of some kind. The mana tools and cannons I have come across so far all must come from this place.

The hall directly above our heads is filled with workbenches where I sense those mana cannons being put together. A weirdly large amount of buildings I sensed on the way here seem to be focused on producing simple metal items such as nails and cutlery.

“Has anyone ever told you your eyes are weird?”

“My eyes are weird? That's something you can accuse me of? I don’t have the ability to liquify my eyes and reconstruct them in any shape or form I could wish.”

“No, I mean… I can see what you are thinking.”

We step down into the spiral stairwell in perfect tandem, taking the steps down in sync while keeping our heads bent towards each other.

“You just did another scan.”

“What? Yeah, I did. Hmmm, what am I doing now? Really focus on what I am thinking about.” I start grinning widely as I understand what is going on.

Her face reddens as she stumbles for a bit, breaking eye contact. I throw my hands up into the air in a victory stance. “YESSSS, I WON!”

“What was that? Is that physically possible? Why haven’t we tried that yet?” She seems a bit flustered.

“So you saw what I was thinking about through my eyes?”

I receive a few slaps that could tear steel. “Yes you fucking pervert, I sort of saw what you were thinking about.”

“Awesome, this is so interesting. We should do more tests. I never had another braincore cultivator around to test these kinds of things with.” A million new experiments get added to the to-do list. So much to figure out and explore, oh boy!

“I always thought that a braincore was just a spell and magic based cultivation method. I messed around with this core setup for a small millennia, why did I never realize that it has psychic properties? Maybe even psionic or other extrasensory perceptions?”

“Uhm, Drew, I think we're here?”

I snap out of the new possibility space that just opened up before me to take stock of my surroundings. We are standing inside a hall that seems ripped out of a dark cult. An ornamental metal altar is well lit by a myriad of torches. Runic carvings cover everything, including the robes of the old men covered in chains.

I cough a bit. “Excuse me, but I will be taking this for now.” I snatch the skull from the pedestal and put it inside my ring. Second skull get!

I'm halfway out of the room again when I stop and turn around as I address the wide-eyed old fogies sitting around. “You all must be the new stock of crystal skulls waiting to be used up. You all happy here or do you guys wanna go do something else?”


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