Chapter 160 – Digest
“Honey, shouldn’t we maybe slow down a bit? Our guests are looking a bit uncomfortable.” Looking over his shoulder with worry clear on his face, Bassik clenches his reins with pale, slender hands, and deceptive strength. His voice is rather loud, having to overcome the loud background noise.
“For the last time, Bas… NO! I’ve run the numbers two times now. That’s one more time than I’d usually run them, and they will be fine.” Sternly looking forward, Rityn’s pale purple face is unflinching, not even glancing back once. “There are better things to discuss than people that are perfectly fine.”
“Okay, I’m calling it. We slow down now. This is outside the house, you know…” Bassik shows an unusual amount of forcefulness as he grabs his wife’s reins. The mounts they are on – a pair of herbivore mutants that were tamed by a student initiative – slow down, which causes the entire caravan to slow down too.
Rityn fumes and sulks for a bit, but is forced to give in. “I…” The woman starts speaking haltingly. “I’m just afraid we’ll sink. That’s all.”
Bassik smiles. “So my fearless wife is afraid of something after all. Who knew that the sea would get you in the end.” A single glare is enough for Bassik to hold his tongue.
The couple is riding on two near identical beasts, fat torsos supported by four long legs that end in wide paws. The upper part of the creatures are covered in feathers so fine it might as well be fur. Their long necks are covered in downy feathers and support stumpy heads, flat beaks, beady little eyes, and small horns. Teach would liken them to dumb, fat and smooth ostriches with too many legs.
The beasts’ legs are a blur as they desperately try to keep from falling in the water. A fine spray shoots up behind the running duo as they move across the wide open seas. The riding couple is followed by a small procession, spreading out to either side in a flat V-shape. Larger animals of different proportions but with largely the same fat-bodied and thin-legged structure are carrying a colourful collection of humans tied to their backs while running across the seas.
To the east of the Shi-eit kingdom are mountains. Further east are the beastkin plains, stretching grasslands with the occasional hill or patch of forest. Still further east is a small ridge of mountains bordering a large inlet, dividing the beastkin plains and the savage cliffs where the tribal humans live by a stretch of sea. Following the inlet further south is the beastkin capital, located over a large river delta.
Bassik and Rityn are returning from a sanctioned mission to the savage human tribes in order to retrieve some new students. They knew that taking a boat would take too long, so they went looking for amphibious animals.
Selecting a few candidates from the dozens or so flocks being tended to, they tested them out, leading them to conclude that only the specimens they are currently riding have the leg speed necessary to travel across water. Rityn refuses to admit this, but she had severely underestimated the difference between a practice run on a lake and traversing a major piece of ocean.
The fact that this is the second time travelling across the water is doing little to soothe her worries. The lower speed has her nearly biting her fingernails!
“Honey, look at my parents…” until Bass asked her that.
Glancing over at the, in her opinion, horrible people, she smiles softly. Seeing the most irritating entities in her life green and puking does something to her heart that she can’t quite explain rationally. Deciding to distract herself from the fact that the waves seem to be growing higher, she looks over their baggage.
A little less than two dozen people are looking at her with terrified eyes. Their mouths seem to be moving, but none of the desperately voiced complaints reach her ears. Nostalgic memories of growing up in a village based on the tall coastal cliff emerge as she observes their catch.
One not present is their village leader. The old bastard had pawned Bassik and Rityn – the two elements most vocal against him – off to the pirates when they came looking for slaves. The village usually retracted all ladders and ropes, but that ship was accompanied by a mage. That wielder of mana could have wiped out the entire town and everyone inside it with ease.
The fact that her braincore is telling her that it was the right choice wipes away her temporary good mood. Then she thinks of their village leader, his face when he opened his door and saw the couple he had tossed aside. Rityn will never admit it, but those few minutes of physical violence felt better than finding the solution to a complex problem.
After exacting their revenge, they had gone through the entire village, scanning everyone’s auras. There were a few surprises. One man she’d thought a saint smelled of rape while a woman Rityn detested felt pure and clean, like an innocent flower. They had visited everyone, one by one. Bassik took charge there, feeling in his element while chatting with old friends and acquaintances.
Rityn fails to understand the techniques and strategies that Bass employed, but everyone they had asked if they wanted to cultivate answered yes. Then it was just a matter of bringing the people out, securing them to their pack mounts and leaving. They had left a much emptier village behind, the village chief left alone with the dregs of the small society. She’d wished them all the best, and they had left, guiding the small collection of mounts they had brought down the steep cliffs. Now they are returning to the capital’s portal, through which they will deliver the new recruits.
“Honey, do you mind if I restart my cultivation?” Bassik’s question wakes her from her introspective mood.
Smiling, she turns to her husband. “Yes, please do so. The way you do stuff without being able to explain them is infuriating.”
“Ah, no. I’m not going back to a braincore. I was thinking of doing the blood path.”
“One of the new bases? I really don’t get why Teach hasn’t standardised or indexed all those odd ways of storing power. It’s nearly a shame that he’s so insistent on freedom, else I’d bring in a couple slaves and direct them.”
“That’s another reason I left the brain path. It felt too calculating. It makes you act on numbers, not on human morals.” Shooting his wife a very pointed look, Bassik continues. “And my… dumbness is relieved somewhat, I think. I’ve been focussing all the structural qi to my brain for the last few days, and I feel much more aware. I mean, I know why I do things instead of just knowing…”
Rityn clicks her tongue in annoyance but lets Bass continue. “The blood path seems interesting for a lot of reasons, but it just sounds really cool. It’s life and warmth and fire and… Have other core locations appeared?”
Rityn puts a piece of jade between her forehead and ring, closing her eyes. The small caravan travels across the sea in relative silence for a bit. The panicked mumbling of bound passengers fails to overpower the steady noise of high-speed legs pounding water. A few boats can be seen in the distance, but none are nearby. Bass worries about being seen for a moment but decides that it doesn’t really matter, and that they’ll see a moving spray of fog at worst.
“Yes…” replies Rityn in a clipped tone. “More and more people are diverting from the three core locations. The first attempts reported a general feeling of resistance, but now anything is able to become a core, it seems. Did Tree’s meta energy field change? Nail cores… There is even an ex-braincore claiming to have developed a soulcore. It says here that they did some tests. His body is empty of qi, but he keeps absorbing it into somewhere unknown…
“The blood thing is pretty popular. It seems to perform like a weaker gutcore with much-improved recovery powers. Ah, that would make sense… So the cultivation system only decides in what way the power is used? The guiding framework for the potential. That might make for a nice subject to study… Sea take me, but I want to be back on the moon, researching things…
“One cultivation system is… just inside his lungs? So he’d have an ever-changing material base for his core? Breath attacks, it seems. Not his lungs, but the hollow spaces in his lungs… Stupid… Skincore is popular with the ladies. Maybe I should…” Rityn takes a small break from monologuing to look at her own skin. Years of rough living on coastal cliffs, filled with sharp rocks, plants, and sharp fish bones have left her skin a web of silver lines. Some people have skin complexions that scar easily, but Rityn hasn’t seen anyone that scars as easy as she does.
“The brain-path! Now that is interesting. Using the entire brain instead of the stem. A less automated version of the actual braincore, it seems. Nervecore has a faster reaction speed, that’s logical. That little beastkin’s system of rings in the body is also useful. It seems to center on the spine, and they’ve discovered it’s good for perpetual motions. If those two bickering idiots wreck my lab, I’ll skin the both of them…
“That beastcore little guy reported that he was focusing on the horn when pushing qi. His highest qi density is inside the horn growing out of his forehead. That started a wave of ‘look at me being special with my extra body part’ idiots trouncing around. One little black savage girl reported an earcore, so her ears grew pointy. That one seems in between a heartcore and a gutcore, but smart. She also grew ten centimetres taller.
“Preliminary conclusion is that the mental image is more important than the physical location. Even the ear girl reported a single place for qi storage, despite that fact that both her ears are localized qi hotspots of equal power level. The haircore girl has reported an initial wish for beautiful and long hair she once saw a noblewoman with. She can now extend a single hair nine times its original length. Fine control, strength, and longer extension seem to come with practice and gathering power.
“Failures too. One woman was found unconscious with internal bleeding. Vocal cords core. Her screaming technique rattled her brain and ruptured tissue. Dumb girl… Peniscore seems largely useless. Wait… he pissed with how much pressure? That’s enough to cut through single pass qi reinforced steel… Bassik, you will not go down the penis path. That poor boy needs to find a uterus cultivator when he goes through puberty, or he’ll cut the poor girl in half!
“One of the wilder beastkin actually managed to co-cultivate with an animal… Bass be a dear and remind me to not get involved with that pervert. And some more intent-based cores. A heartcore with a speed intent broke the sprinting records for the first two stages… One guy went with a liquid core, filling his entire body with liquid qi. He couldn’t get to the core forming stage. Nearly died of blood loss when he tried, his nose bled so fiercely.
“External core. That little dumbass with a spoon is an inferior gutcore with the strongest spoon ever. I hope he gets into an accident… People tried all kinds of things, it seems; triangle core, excrement core, theoretical core, geometry core, time core… None of those really did anything or even worked. It seems like core locations need to be physical. Teach even commented here. Hmmh, he says that more abstract concepts need a foundational level of power. That makes sense, I guess…”
Rityn takes a deep breath while scanning through the rest of the new developments reported on Database. “Lots of things have been going on, let’s hurry back Bass!”
“Yes dear, we’re above land again, so you can look down now.”
Opening her eyes, she sees grass flashing by at high speed, the few scrubs mere dark green streaks as they run past. She looks at her husband, who is smiling vacantly. “Stop smiling.”
“I’m just so happy to see you be happy for once,” replies Bass. “That really never happens, you know. Always too busy to smile.”
Rityn is suddenly uncertain what to do. Instead of lashing out, like she usually does when she feels uncomfortable or is on unknown ground, she blushes and looks forward.
“We’ll be back in a few hours. We’ve got our family and friends with us and left that cunt of a chief behind, surrounded by bad people. Life’s not so bad, you know.”
“S-shut up Bass. Or you won’t get your weekly night with me. And it is more than a few hours.”
Bass’s mouth snaps shut faster than a mortal’s eye can see. The following minutes pass in relative peace and quiet, the only noise the low thunder of running feet. They are halfway through the beastkin plains when Bass suddenly pales, a shocked and horrified expression on his face.
“Honey…” asks Bass tentatively.
“Yes?” Rit replies with a dangerous tone to her voice.
“Why didn’t we take the mission to install a portal stone near the savage tribes?” Bass asks slowly.
The people tied up behind them were pretty angry. These two had suddenly returned to the village after a completely fair and above-the-table lottery has designated them as the sacrifice for the mage led pirate raid. Them returning would only mean harsh and probably lethal retaliations from the pirate and mage factions. Bass had talked to them though and explained a few things. Then he had suddenly asked them if they wanted to become strong, to start their own path. All of them had said yes automatically, without really thinking about it.
To then be tied up and placed atop some weird mutant was pretty scary. The fact that these beasts could run fast enough to walk across the sea was also pretty terrifying. But their tempers had started flaring once the shock and newness of the situation had faded, to be replaced by simmering anger at the not-too-popular couple.
The sight of Rityn savaging an entire forest in a blind rage was fairly hair-raising. Seeing Bassik try to calm her down, only for him to be smashed into the ground with an entire tree was terror-inducing. Seeing the thin man pull himself from the dirt like some undead monster was pants-pissingly scary.
Silent and not daring to think bad thoughts, none of the forcefully recruited people makes a single noise during the rest of the journey