Alistair had unlocked the Map a few days ago, but he hadn’t had the time to go through it yet. It wasn’t exactly an item, though it wasn’t exactly a part of his status screen either. Instead, it felt like a part of him that was always there but that he didn’t notice before.
Opening the Map drew him into an inner world unlike anything he had ever seen. He existed in a void of darkness, illuminated by spheres of light. The spheres were of every color of the rainbow and more, colors that Alistair couldn’t comprehend the existence of. They varied in size and shape as well, some as small as his fist, while the biggest were several times the size of a house. Some were perfectly defined and spherical, while others were wispy balls of gas. They were all connected in an impossibly complex network, each sphere connected to at least one other in a beautiful web of existence.
Alistair was in awe of it all, passing through the intangible spheres as he walked around. He could feel the emanation of the Dao from each and every one of them. A powerful resonance that spoke to eternal truths of the world. If he focused on one for too long, it would try to infect his mind with its truth. In one instance, he gazed upon a fiery green sphere, getting lost in its promise of bountiful growth and nurturing. He eventually caught himself and gathered a small amount of his own Dao energy to counter it.
That one must be something like the Dao of Nature, Alistair thought. It was one of the larger spheres, with a radius of perhaps ten meters. He couldn’t believe how tempting it was, but he had his own path to follow.
The more he kept exploring the web of nodes, the more he grew astonished. There were just so many spheres, each representing a different aspect of the entire Dao. As he continued walking, he found himself drawn to the center of the void.
With spheres floating in the air in every direction, Alistair wasn’t sure how he knew where the center was. However, once he laid eyes on it, he was certain beyond a doubt.
Alistair gazed at the three largest spheres in the entire void. It felt like all the other ones were orbiting them, whereas they themselves orbited around an invisible center point.
One of the spheres looked like a yin-yang symbol, except instead of white and black it was royal purple and golden yellow, both parts swirling together in harmony. Its surface was smooth and unblemished, perfectly defined and radiating a balanced duality.
The second sphere was a star of crimson brilliance. And by star, Alistair really meant star. The sphere looked like a miniature version of a red giant.
The final central sphere was the brightest, a mass of pure white light that had a gigantic halo. It was the least defined of them all, the barrier between its own mass and its light having no clear divider.
Just standing in their presence awed Alistair, and these apparitions were only a fraction of a fraction of an iota of their true power. As he let their presence soak in, he tried identifying them. To his surprise, when he focused on figuring out their names, a small window popped up.
The swirling sphere was the Samsara Node, the window read. That made sense. The Dharmic concept of the cycle of rebirth that only ended when one reached enlightenment.
The crimson star was the Karma Node. That explained why Alistair found it so familiar. The color and timbre of Karmic energy was identical to that of the star, albeit at a much smaller scale. It intrigued Alistair that Karma had its own place on the Dao Organizational Map, considering the marked difference he noted in Dao energy and Karmic energy. The two clearly were different things, yet for some reason, this sphere was amongst the others.
Finally, Alistair analyzed the white light. The window said it represented the Dao of Virtue. The idea of virtue was not that far off that of justice, and Alistair felt similar ideas coming off of the sphere. Yet there were also clear differences. His Dao of Justice was about action, righting wrongs, and effecting change, whereas the Dao of Virtue was more inward, focusing on having a pure heart and mind and setting an unimpeachable example.
He didn’t want to stay near them for too long, as he already felt the Dao of Virtue seeping into his heart. He didn’t think he had perfected his Dao Path by any means, but it was a bad idea to let in the influence of outside ideas, especially those as strong as the ones espoused by the three largest spheres. If he stayed for too long, he might even get a new Dao Inspiration, and the Lazerene Minister had already told him that three was tough. A fourth would be nearly impossible to progress with.
As such, Alistair turned around, fleeing the powerful presence of Samsara, Karma, and Virtue. His information screen informed him the reason they held a central position on the Map—they were the Supreme Daos. He read the description the system gave.
Three Daos become one will—the will of Heaven itself. The Supreme Daos of Samsara, Karma, and Virtue stand at the center of the Organizational Map. These Dao Nodes are an inexact representation of the true Supreme Dao, which cannot be truly replicated outside of Heaven’s domain. That they are called the Supreme Daos does not necessarily mean that following their path will make you stronger than your peers, but the Supreme Daos do have certain advantages. All three of Samsara, Karma, and Virtue have made their indelible mark on the multiverse. There is now the cycle of reincarnation, decided by Karma, which is earned through virtuosity. Heaven’s righteous path welcomes comers.
There was something deep in him that recoiled at the message, but he couldn’t figure out why. He was a Karmic cultivator himself, and honestly, it was an important part of his kit. Whatever the stirring was, his Dao of Justice might have caused it, because he felt a connection to a sphere, or Dao Node, as the description said, around a hundred meters away from the Dao of Virtue. There was a line connecting the two Nodes, an interesting battle between the white of Virtue and the gold of what Alistair had to assume was Justice.
While he jogged toward the Justice Node, he realized that there was another triplet rotating above the Supreme Daos. However, unlike every single other Node, they were grayed out. The Dao energy they gave off was so faint that Alistair couldn’t even recognize them. They were chained as well, bound to the impossibly high ceiling of the void. Alistair made a mental note to investigate what they were later, but he had his own Dao to worry about.
As Alistair drew closer to the Justice Node, he realized that the battle between the white and gold lines was less clear that he initially had thought. It was less of a battle, and more of an choreographed performance, with elements of hostility. They pulled and pushed and tugged on each other, but in the end, they had a strong connection.
The Justice Node was not as large as the Supreme Daos, but it was similar in size to the Nature Node he had seen before, and slightly smaller than Nodes he presumed were that of Life, Death, Space, and Time, based on their energies. It shone a beautiful golden light, but it was more spherical than the Virtue Node, possessing only a small halo. Alistair almost felt like it was a subtle insult, as if the Justice Node was calling the Virtue Node overly vain for its unparalleled brilliance.
Now this is the Node I need, Alistair thought as he put his hand up to the light. It was stern but soothing, firm but merciful. Justice was unending vigilance. It was the executioner’s sword but also alms for the downtrodden. It called everyone equally under its banner without discrimination and was permanent in its quest, yet it was also a Dao of change and dynamism. If there was injustice anywhere, it needed to be corrected at once.
Something deep inside him stirred, urging him to go even further. Now that he was close to the surface of the Justice Node, he could feel the righteous heat burning against his skin. It felt like the fully fury of an avenging god, testing his mettle. Did he have the mental fortitude to carry on a quest for justice, no matter the consequences?
Alistair knew he did. He gritted his teeth and took a step inside of the glowing sphere. His vision was swamped with golden light that seared his eyeballs from the inside out, yet he kept pushing forward. Every cell in his body screamed with more pain than he experienced taking the Tier 2 Health pill.
Doubt spread through Alistair’s mind. He had imagined talent, resources, and luck were quintessential factors in one’s advancement through the realms. But willpower was another missing piece. Only one in a thousand cultivators in the Final Frontier Empire made it to Adept, and then perhaps one in ten thousand of those Adepts made it to Profound. If combining simple ingredients was enough, there would be more Adepts and Profounds. The eternal conflict of the multiverse constantly tested one’s mental fortitude through both physical and psychological pain. He would have to overcome trial after trial for thousands or even millions of years, if he understood a cultivator’s lifespan properly.
Can I do that? The golden light slowed his movement to a near stop. He was almost at the center of the Justice Node, needing just one more step, but it would be the hardest one by far. Alistair no longer felt a physical pain to overcome, but he still couldn’t do it.
Alistair imagined all the people he cared about. The ones that stuck out most in his mind were the ones he couldn’t save, at least not yet, like his mother and girlfriend and his friends. What was all of his power good for? The demon Kyraxadon tried to tell him that his desire for power was really what was motivating him, that his quest for justice was a facade. But that didn’t feel right to Alistair. Sure, he enjoyed being able to shatter trees with his bare hands or freeze lakes with a touch. But he would trade that all away in an instant if he could stop the endless violence.
The old world wasn’t much better. There was poverty, greed, and warfare aplenty. Nothing ever felt truly world-shattering, like the system could ever truly change. Perhaps technological advancement, but that wasn’t a sure thing, though the existence of the Pathfinder AI and the Sublimed Machine suggested it was a potential path. He wasn’t really sure how strong the Sublimed Machine was, but they sounded pretty powerful if they could make the Pathfinder AI, which despite its immense power was considered a “hunk of junk.”
In any case, once the initiation happened, things changed. For the most part, they got worse. Billions died, over 85% by most people’s guesses. The quality of life for those not at the top went down a significant amount. Yet it also offered people a sliver of hope, however unlikely. The message was simple, and the results were clear: rise to the top and become a god. If an acolyte like Atavius Meloi can destroy your world with ease, what can you do if you achieve even greater power?
Yes, Alistair thought. There is a path. His Dao Path was like a tiny golden thread amidst a sea of misshapen yarn. Even if he didn’t know it he had been waiting for this his whole life. A greater destiny beyond this Earth. In one last Herculean effort, he heaved his body into the center of the Justice Node and saw all.
Not truly all, since the Justice Node around him was merely the limit that a Foundation realm could handle, but to Alistair, it was everything. Everything encompassing a Foundation Dao of Justice coursed through his system, but even that was far too much for his level 36 brain. He only got small snippets of wisdom, but they still gave insight. Alistair saw his eternal paradise for all, Heaven on Earth. That phrase resonated within him to such a degree he felt he might explode, causing him to come running out of the Justice Node before he hurt his cultivation by trying to absorb too many truths.
After Alistair spent a few moments calming down, he realized he had a new notification.
Achievement Unlocked: Dao Node (I) (Dao of Justice) — Heaven on Earth added to Dao Elements. Reward: +20 Strength, +20 Constitution, +20 Endurance, +20 Wisdom, +15 max Karma (45 cap), +10% to Strength, Endurance, and Wisdom.
He couldn’t be happier, with results, his added stats shoring up all of his weakest stats. His Constitution was now his weakest stat, and even that was 111. His Endurance was all the way up to 113, letting him almost feel the life force flowing through his veins, which would make his weakened left arm recover even faster. Instead of the two weeks he predicted with the [Carmela's Happy Pies], it would only be a week and a few days.
Alistair only had one more Node to complete, the Dao of the Fist. Just like his Dao of Justice, he felt it was very close to forming the Dao Node. For a cultivator who was even moderately far away from their insight to form a Dao Node, the presence of the spheres wouldn’t help that much, but for Alistair, whose Dao of the Ghost was just a little bit ahead of his other Daos, it made all the difference.
Of course, he still tried going to the Dao of the Ghost. The Ghost Node was similar in size to the Justice Node, looking like a giant wispy ball of auric mist. It was by far the least spherical and least defined Node Alistair had seen, glowing a blue so faint it was almost white. He tried the same procedure that he used on the Justice Node, walking inside of it. However, with the Ghost Node, it was almost trivial to enter. Perhaps it was just a characteristic of the Node itself because it was ghostly, but Alistair thought it was more likely that he had just grasped all the insights the limited sphere could provide at his level. If it was so easy to progress in the Dao just by looking at spheres, everyone would be Truthseekers.
The Dao of the Fist was a different story. Alistair noted that it was around equidistant from both the Dao of Justice and Dao of the Ghost, who were both around equidistant from each other as well, forming a nice equilateral triangle. It wasn’t perfect, the Dao of the Fist being smaller than Justice or Ghost, but the center of his triangle roughly corresponded to the center of the Organizational Map, the orbiting Supreme Daos and the locked spheres above them. He wasn’t trying to create such a perfect trinity, but it was nice to see they didn’t have that much overlap.
The Dao of the Fist was a raging star, looking most similar to the Dao of Karma. However, it was far more angry than the relatively calm red giant, bubbling with solar flares and ugly spots. Its color was a reddish-salmon, not the color Alistair would most associate with violence or fisticuffs, but he remembered these were only visual representations for human eyes.
Alistair breathed in the fires of the Fist Node. It didn’t draw him in like the Justice Node, being a more intimidating presence. The Fist could never be tamed. It was conflict in its purest form, the physical representation of true combat. It was called the Dao of the Fist but that was just the surface level understanding. Beings without arms or legs could access the combat Dao. Just like the Dao of Justice, it was a greedy monster that wanted to consume everything in its own glory.
He embraced the mercurial Node, entering it just like the last.
There were innumerable similar truths to fists. The Dao of the Sword, with its silvery sharpness and the Dao of the Spear, with its piercing aura, were close by. But Alistair admired the Dao of the Fist the most. He was an extremely biased source, no doubt, but he felt like he could justify it.
The Fist walked the middle of the Daos of War. It wasn’t the largest sphere or the smallest sphere, sitting near the 50th percentile in size. Alistair still wasn’t sure if the mass or volume of a sphere correlated to its strength, but based on the text describing the Supreme Daos, it was less likely it had to do with strength, and more likely to do with conceptual importance and simplicity.
The Dao of the Fist was more warm than that of the Sword. The Sword looked down at its brutality and lack of sophistication. The Sword was elegant and clean. Yet the Fist was also more civilized and artful than the barbaric Daos like Warfury or Conquest.
Most of all, the Dao of the Fist loved all comers. It always wanted to test its cultivators, to help them grow stronger. It was the Dao that resonated the most with Alistair’s own competitive spirit; when he saw a strong cultivator, he wanted to see how he stacked up. He didn’t want to let anyone beat him. Alistair could lose once, or twice, or even a million times, but he would have the last laugh one day. And it would probably take more than a million times against someone like Red, who might not even hold a candle to the true multiversal elites.
Instead of Justice Node’s fiery pain, the Fist Node toyed with him like an old sparring partner. He felt the stellar energy contort and fight against him, his own attacks coming at him left and right. Alistair let the trance overcome him, the same trance he had relied on many times to win in the past. If the Justice Node was trying to test his tenacity and willpower, the Fist Node was trying to see how deep he could go, how much could he subsume his ego into his pugilism.
And at last, when Alistair found himself past planes of consciousness, he landed at the same point in the duel against Anthony. Before him stood the kiss of death, floating between an infinite army of knives and a calm sea below. Though he had no true thoughts, a deep urging in the recesses of his mind promised he was almost there. He just needed to go a little deeper.
When Alistair broke through to that new deepest point, a wave of understanding rushed over him, similar to his Heaven on Earth insight. He had a name for the place he visited, and names had power. The three-pronged vision was called “Kai’tazake Mutra,” which translated as “poetic home of the reaper of lost souls.” Alistair had no clue what that meant beyond a vague understanding that he was supposed to be channeling the concept of a psychopomp from mythology.
Just the name and vague insight were enough for him to form the Dao Node. Alistair was expecting just one notification to appear, but two did instead.
Achievement Unlocked: Dao Node (I) (Dao of the Fist) — Kai’tazake Mutra added to Dao Elements. Reward: +35 Strength, +50 Agility, +20% to Agility.
Skill Upgraded: [Fighter's Instinct] (Tier 4 Common Passive Skill): Become preternaturally aware of bodily threats. Scales with Agility. Upgradeable (1/150).
Badge Acquired: “World Leader” (Untiered Temporary Legendary Badge): Achieve the highest overall Attribute points on your homeworld. +30 to Attribute of your choice, All Attributes +20%.
A wide grin spread across Alistair’s face as he looked at the “World Leader” Badge. His Fist Node’s extra stats must have put him over the edge to give him the highest overall Attribute points in the world.
He couldn’t help his smile. Seeing the “World Leader” Badge was one amongst many confirmations of his strength, but it combined with his #2 ranking on the leaderboards felt the most real.
Alistair chose Agility for the +30 of his choice, reasoning that mathematically speaking, amplifying his strengths would do him better than shoring up his weaknesses. Because he was out of Badge slots, he removed “Precocious Killer.” It had served him well, but “World Leader” gave more stats to every category except Endurance, and even that would change after he got the base number higher.
A thought passed through Alistair’s head. How did he even get the Badge? Wandering Hobo was thought to be a few levels ahead of the pack. Alistair assumed he must have had some Dao Nodes of his own to keep up, since he knew Anthony had at least one. Perhaps he didn’t have a stat-focused build, but it was still a little hard to believe.
At least his “Deliverance of Justice” Badge was putting in work. Checking the Badge, he saw that he had gotten 48/52 procs, missing another 2 more with his new level. Alistair predicted he would get those points in short order after venturing out into the wild.
Seeing as he had upgraded all three of his Daos into Dao Nodes, Alistair didn’t have much more reason to stay in the Dao Organizational Map. He had gleaned all the insights he could from the limited representations, and other Nodes could potentially sway his path, though he doubted that. After a quick jog just to see how many spheres there were (there were more than he could feasibly count), he imagined leaving the inner world of the Map. In an instant, he returned to the real world.
“Oh my, you’ve gotten much stronger,” Dev’rox pointed out. “I fear you’re going to let it get to your head.”
“You’re right, I’m stronger,” Alistair said. His Strength was the biggest comparative difference, going from 78 at level 35 to now 171 at level 36 with the two new Dao Nodes and “World Leader” Badge. The table below him was supposed to be magically anchored to the ground, but Alistair found it trivial to break it from its tethering with his newfound strength. “I’m much stronger.”
Alistair hadn’t noticed much muscle growth since the start, but evidently it was still there, just at a slower pace, since with his discrete jump, he gained at least fifteen pounds of muscle. Before, he had a lithe, lightweight boxer or swimmer’s body, but now he was approaching fitness model territory.
Despite the added bulk, he didn’t feel any slower or less agile. Quite the opposite, in fact. His Agility almost doubled, and Alistair could feel in it in every muscle and nerve in his body. His control over his movements was near perfect, accompanying a feeling of nigh infinite speed.
With the giant jump he took, Alistair knew that he would progress slower for the upcoming levels, but it didn’t matter. Since the world leaderboards didn’t only account for pure combat strength in the rankings, Alistair was confident that he was the most powerful human on Earth in a one-on-one fight, especially if he stole the “World Leader” Badge from Wandering Hobo.
He was ready to take a break from thinking cultivation, but Dev’rox had another plan in mind.
The imp whipped his tail up, shooting himself off Alistair’s shoulder onto the table he had just picked up. “Looks like you’re finally ready, brat. Do you want to know about Mana affinities?”