Neave woke up and felt… Good, if a little sore.
He felt like he’d had a nice night's rest. His mind was still hazy from last night and he had absolutely no idea where he was. As he opened his eyes, he was met with… The ground. Dirt. Pale and well-trodden with a few stones here and there. His sight was blurry and he looked around. He didn’t see anything except for a seemingly endless stretch of dirt. His vision was too blurred to see what lay beyond the sea of soil.
As his eyes slowly regained focus he noticed that the sun was setting. And when his eyes fully regained focus he realized exactly where he was. He was precisely in the middle of his sect's courtyard. And judging by the position of the mountain their sect was built around, the sun wasn’t setting, it was rising.
Clap, clap, clap…
He turned around and saw Marven standing behind him with a bright smile on his face.
“How impressive, honestly, I’m shocked. To think you wouldn’t even wait for the night to fall before you made your escape, bravo. Such decisiveness is worthy of praise.”
“What did you do to me?”
“Oh, well, the healing pill I gave you may or may not have also been a sleeping pill that was supposed to prevent you from getting any funny ideas. As well as put you to sleep on time. If you stayed up as late as you usually do there’s no way you’d be rested enough to train properly.”
Neave’s stomach sank.
He had felt that his father catching up to him was a distinct possibility, but he hadn't expected something like this. His father, the well-respected and wise sect master of the Zearthorn sect, looked like a devil to him.
“Well then, I think it is time to begin your training.”
Neave was a master at not allowing himself to be forced into anything he didn’t want to do. He had demonstrated this skill by braving hundreds of beatings until he was finally exempt from the daily training. Unluckily for him, his father was a master at getting people to do exactly what he wanted them to do.
He first wanted Neave to start running, but Neave simply refused. Then Marven pulled out a small stone golem from one of his dimension rings. Golems were quite frightening monsters, usually. But wild golems, which were monsters, were very different from artificial ones.
Neave was shocked to see his father use something as precious as an artificial golem just to get him running, but he frowned as he inspected it. It was relatively small and had frog-like legs and long, thin arms.
After putting his hand on the gem exposed on its forehead, Marven grabbed the little golem by the neck. It suddenly jolted and looked like it was trying to free itself from his grasp.
“Alright, Neave, here is how it will go. This little toy here is an artificial golem. I’ve commanded it to chase you and if it catches you it will mercilessly smash your crotch into bits.”
That was certainly a bluff. And if by some miracle it wasn't a bluff, well, he was sure his father would regret doing something like that to him. The moment Marven released the golem it bolted straight at Neave. Neave panicked a bit, but restrained himself from running, certain it was a bluff.
It wasn’t a bluff.
The golem caught up with him and as his father had said, mercilessly smashed his crotch into bits. Neave puked several times and almost passed out. His father let him simmer in pain for a bit and then handed him a potent healing pill.
It fixed him up in seconds, a testament to the power of the pill he was just handed. Neave could swear on the heavens that he felt his little friend was leaning a bit more to the right than it had been before.
“Alright then, you have about five seconds and then we are beginning with round two.”
Neave wasn't calling his bluff a second time.
Neave had tried to defy his father, the same way he had defied him all the times before. But no matter how he resisted, Marven seemed to have the exact tools he needed to force Neave’s hand.
After he forced him to run to near-death levels of exhaustion, Marven just handed Neave yet another surely very expensive healing pill and a small food pill to keep him going. The food pill was much less bitter than the ones handed out to disciples.
“Now that you’ve finished the running, it is time to do some pull-ups!”
Neave whimpered a bit. Marven pulled an object out of his dimension ring. Some sort of metal bar that he kept in the air with qi manipulation. Then he told Neave to grab it. Neave refused, but when grabbing the bar and holding onto it for dear life became the only escape from the crotch-smasher, Neave obeyed. Once Neave was holding onto the bar, Marven lifted the bar further up into the air.
“Alright, now, we’re starting with the second exercise. The metal bar will keep getting hotter and hotter and the only way to cool it down is if you do a pull-up.”
There was absolutely no way this bar was anything but a regular metal bar that Marven kept afloat with his admittedly impressive qi manipulation. However, there was no bluff to call this time.
The metal was already burning his palms.
After he had to do push-ups and squats under similar threats, Neave was just about ready to die. Breathing raggedly and sitting on the floor, Neave swallowed his fifth healing pill and looked up at his father.
“Can we please just stop for today?”
Marven pretended to be considering his question. In reality, they were done for today either way because Neave would probably actually die if he swallowed another healing pill, even with their superior quality.
“I suppose we could.”
Neave heaved a sigh of relief.
He looked around and noticed that several disciples were watching them train, keeping a very respectful distance from the spectacle. Bullying Neave was one thing, interrupting the sect master was another. Their obvious jealousy at Neave’s special treatment was a sure sign that Neave’s beatings were going to get worse.
Neave tried to adopt as serious an expression as he could manage. He threw one arm over his knee, folded his other leg under it, and looked up at his father. His father's amusement, however, just made him feel like a pathetic child.
“I want to discuss something with you, father.”
“Indeed? And what may that be?”
“Make me the head librarian. At least for the first floor.”
Marven's eyebrows shot up and he asked Neave in genuine surprise.
“Exactly why would you want me to do that?”
“How much do you know about the books on the first floor?”
“I know their general contents. The books placed into the library first go through my hands.”
“Well, have you read all the books?”
Marven replied as if it were obvious.
“No. Why would I read through all of the books? I may make it look easy, but being a sect master is rather time-consuming.”
“Too consuming to properly check the books?”
“I already told you, I do inspect them.”
“No, you don’t.”
Marven’s eyebrow twitched.
“And exactly why do you think that?”
“Well, for starters, I’ve read every single book in the library.”
Marven looked at Neave with blatant disbelief.
“I know you do a lot of reading, but there are eleven thousand unique books in the library, there is quite literally no way you could have read through all of them.”
“There are fourteen thousand seven hundred and five unique books in the library. I have indeed read all of them. Some several times. And what I’ve found makes me believe you are lying about checking the books.” Neave grinned ear to ear at the incredulous look on his father's face.
“Do you have any evidence for that claim?”
Neave just frowned and replied sarcastically.
“Of course, let me just list the name of every single book and a synopsis, you want the names in alphabetical order?”
“Alright, I suppose that would be sufficient.”
Neave’s mood instantly fell.
“Are you serious?”
Marven nodded with a grin.
Neave proceeded to list the name of every book and a quick description of the contents. After around an hour of talking, he hadn’t even left the books that started with the letter ‘A’. So his father just quizzed him about some of the books he had personally read. At some points, Marven challenged Neave’s answers, saying they were wrong, but Neave confidently doubled down and even offered to pay a visit to the library to confirm the accuracy of his statements. Marven already knew Neave was correct and was just testing him, but the sheer accuracy of Neave’s knowledge was unbelievable.
“I think that is proof enough. I believe you, but I wasn’t lying about every book passing through my hands first. Now I’m starting to believe a few of the elders may have skipped that step. Now tell me. Why do you wish to become the head librarian?”
“Oh, that is simple, the library is horrendous.”
Marven would usually scoff at such a claim, but if there was anyone qualified to make such a statement, it was someone who had read through the entire library.
“What’s there to elaborate? It just sucks. There are far too many books that aren’t worth the paper they’re written on and that’s a minor issue. Books that are just incorrect are littering the shelves. Either due to the author being a quack or due to bona fide propaganda. Not just that but I’ve located over twenty cultivation manuals!”
Marven frowned hard at hearing that.
It wasn't the end of the world if someone found a cultivation manual on the first floor, but it was a big problem if cultivation manuals got lost there. Very few people visited the first floor of the library in the first place and the second floor was designed to make finding cultivation manuals easier.
“Alright. I will consider making you the head librarian of the first floor of the library.”
Marven was about to speak but he stopped himself. Neave got up to his feet, and looked his father in the eyes, ready to play the final card he had up his sleeve.
“Knowledge is power. Even cultivators know that much. But you are all far too obsessed with the sacred and you do not pay enough attention to the mundane. There is enough knowledge, even in our pathetic little library to make us a truly powerful sect if we made full use of it. And I can be useful. What I’m offering to you, father, is a deal. I…”
“Listen to me..”
“Neave, I said no, I already know where you’re going with this.”
“When will you stop being so stubborn?”
“No, Neave, this time I need you to properly listen to me.”
“Silence!” Marven seldom shouted. Every disciple that had been sparring or training on the grounds froze upon hearing his voice.
“You do not know what the life of a mortal is like, child.”
Neave was about to speak up, but the threat behind his father's glare made him shut up.
“A hundred years at most if you’re lucky and it’s hard to say you’re really ‘lucky’ if you live that long. Your body deteriorates. You slowly rot in your skin until eventually, you’re nothing but a miserable bag of withered flesh and thin bones, waiting for the right rock to trip you over and finish you off. Or even better, for a random organ to just suddenly stop working. And it’s often the brain that you are so fond of that fails you. Is this truly the life you desire?”
“There are countless miraculous things one can achieve even with mundane methods.”
“So what, you will chase some miraculous ‘mundane’ potion of immortality to the ends of this realm? You will squander your life looking for a cure when one is dangling above your head!? Why not simply become a cultivator?”
“Then tell me, father, what is the life of a cultivator like?”
Marven straightened his back and projected every bit of dignity a cultivator of his rank had.
“It is anything you have the power to make it be.”
“No, it’s anything you are willing to be violent enough to obtain!”
“Martial arts are not violence.”
“My fucking ass! Chopping someone’s head off with a sword is violence no matter how pretty you make it look!”
“We, Neave, do not swing our swords to take lives away. The Zearthorn sect is a righteous one. We swing our swords to protect others.”
“The same way my mother did, right?”
“...Tell me, father. Which form and strike of the Zearthorn sect’s mighty swordsmanship did this move originate from?” Neave stared his father down as blood trickled from his lip down his jawline.
He got up and walked past his father, intentionally bumping into him, stumbling, and almost falling to the ground. Marven furiously looked at Neave walking away.
For about twenty or so seconds. Then he dropped the fake outrage. It was hard not to cackle maniacally.
He looked down to his sash, where his bundle of keys was before Neave snatched it away.
Marven was honestly impressed at how smoothly Neave pulled that off, but he must be really tired from the training if he thought Marven wasn't going to notice. Oh well. It was time for Neave to angrily stomp over to the library, probably to the fourth floor, and then attempt to enter. Maybe he would burn it down in his anger? Or just steal one of the precious books? Marven chuckled.
Sadly for Neave, the bundle of keys was practically useless if it was in the hands of anyone other than himself. No locks would turn without his qi signature. There were a few mundane keys on that bundle too, but the locations of the locks themselves were closely guarded secrets.
As he watched Neave tiredly stomp away, he saw her shadow in his. Neave was every bit as stubborn and strong-willed as Brivia was. He put the shadows of the past behind him as he turned to the sun.
He would let his kid play with the key bundle for an hour and then track him down, beat his ass, and double his training tomorrow. Well then, he might as well get some work done in the meantime…
Neave marched furiously into the library building and walked into the first floor of the library. His father was an idiot.
Not just an idiot, but an arrogant idiot at that. Neave felt it was a long shot, but he was hoping his father would just let him take the keys.
After all, what could Neave possibly do with his keys?
There was no way a sect master would be using just any old keys to protect their secrets. However, his father wasn’t just an arrogant idiot, he was also a forgetful idiot. Neave had both told him and proven that he had read every book in the library.
His father had pushed him too far this time and Neave wasn’t planning to let this go. He strolled down some of the more forgotten isles of the library until he reached a peculiar shelf. This shelf was filled with tax reports for the empire. These tax reports, however, were fake. He read through them and the numbers most certainly didn’t add up.
Neave pulled one of the books off the shelf and heard a click. Then he opened the secret door hiding behind the shelf. And then he entered…
The room that held the actual tax reports.
And a whole lot of incriminating evidence for tax evasion.
Neave would gladly blackmail his father, but even he knew that nobody would believe an eleven-year-old that they’ve uncovered evidence of tax evasion. So he strolled towards one of the shelves, pulled a book off, and uncovered a small hatch with a keyhole behind it.
This was the real secret of this room. And he thought that one of the keys looked like it fit perfectly. He was right.
Neave had absolutely no idea what was hiding behind this door. Maybe this would help him deal with his father, maybe it wouldn’t. Regardless, Neave knew one thing.
This was quite possibly his last hope of defying his father's wishes.
He grabbed hold of the key, slid it into the lock, and turned it.
The large shelf-door groaned as Neave pulled it open and he walked into the secret chamber. And there he found… Darkness. A very dark corridor that stretched deep into the mountain.
Neave swallowed and took a few steps forward.
Nothing. So it wasn’t warded. Neave felt confident he wouldn't find any wards in the hallway. If you wanted to protect something, you used qi locks to lock it away and qi formations to ward it. If you wanted to hide something, however, it was best not to use qi at all. Qi could be sensed even behind obstacles, but few among even the greatest of experts could see through mundane walls.
He gathered whatever bravery, bravado, and anger at his father he could and marched forward. A couple of minutes later he encountered a turn in the hallway. A turn that led into a room. Neave froze. The room wasn’t very large. It was almost entirely dark, save for a single source of light in the middle. A book. A dark crimson book hung in the middle of the room, restrained by chains of platinum and gold. The chains were inscribed with runes that gave Neave a headache just looking at them and the book itself…
It was so beautiful. Neave had never seen anything as beautiful as this book in his life. He’d give his life to read this book, he would sell his very soul. If only he could…
…And then it was too late.
Neave had failed to notice that he was walking closer to the book and now he was holding it.
This was no normal book. It had some sort of supernatural allure that drove Neave to get close to it. However, by the time he regained his composure, he had already touched the book. And now, after he let it go, he noticed the thin stream of red smoke that was flowing from the book into his hand.
“Fuck, shit, fuck, get it off!” He shook his hand madly, but it was useless. The book slowly evaporated and the red smoke fully flowed into his body. The chains holding the book clattered to the ground and he was left sitting in the darkness. His heart pounded in his chest and his body dripped with sweat. The rest of what happened was a blur. He ran out of the dark corridor, sprinted past the door, and left the bundle of keys behind.
Neave hadn’t even closed the secret chamber behind him as he bolted out of the library. The flow of blood was like a raging river rushing through his ears. The sect disciples were just in the middle of making their way toward the courtyard for the daily training.
Neave bumped into several of them. Most just ignored him and swore to hunt him down later for a beating. Very few among the disciples were willing to be late for the daily training. But some were.
Several of the disciples Neave had bumped into turned back and chased him through the crowds. The adrenaline rushing through his body, coupled with his small frame allowed him to quickly make his way through while the disciples chasing after him had to dodge around and slowly make their way forward. After all, if they bumped into a senior cultivator, they’d likely receive a sound thrashing themselves.
Neave just barely made it to his room before the gang of angry disciples caught up with him.
He wrapped himself in his blankets and shivered. His doors were being pounded on. Angry disciples of the sect that he had bumped into were hammering at the door and yelling at Neave to open them. Neave couldn’t hear anything except the roaring of his heartbeat and his hyperventilating breath. Eventually, the disciples left. It took Neave hours to calm down.
Nothing happened… That means it’s okay... Right?
He desperately wished, but he cursed the rational part of him that knew. The library was rich in stories about artifacts like these and there was no way he had made anything short of a terrible mistake. But he suppressed these thoughts. He let himself be lost in delusions and excuses.
It will be okay…
This will be fine…
Nobody will find out.
Neave cursed himself for that thought as moments later he heard it. The gongs were beating loudly. The sect had sounded the alarm for the emergency gathering of all sect disciples. Neave wanted to stay here. He was desperately pleading with himself not to leave his room. But he couldn’t stay. Unless you had a damn good reason for it, refusing to answer the emergency gathering alarm was treated the same as treason.
So he got up, left his room, and walked over to the sect courtyard. With every step, Neave felt like his legs would stop working. Eventually, however, he had reached the meeting, being one of the last few to arrive. Many of the disciples glared at him, but he didn’t even notice them.
The elders were impatiently waiting for everyone to gather. Neave stepped up into line and made eye contact with his father. His father looked at him, eyes wide open as he mouthed the words.
Son, what have you done?
“Attention, disciples, seniors, and elders of the Zearthorn sect! A great crisis had befallen us!” One of the elders stepped in front and started yelling in a desperate, pleading tone.
“An important treasure had been stolen, or perhaps even worse, released. This treasure was one of our sect's greatest secrets, but it is an artifact of such danger and significance that I absolutely need to disclose its contents! If you see anyone carrying or hiding a dark crimson tome, report this to any elder you find at once! If you have stolen this book, do not be a fool and return it immediately! It is no great cultivation manual, it is a cursed tome that brings nothing but death! Anyone who as much as touches the tome directly…”
“... Has mere hours left to live!” Neave wanted to scream. Neave tried to scream. But his voice was gone.
And the world too was starting to fade away as his body fell to the ground.