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Neave felt no despair. No, he just felt…

Disappointed.

And tired.

He had tried countless methods to kill the next two demons. He even managed to prepare an elaborate trap for the first demon. He threw several rocks, one after another at its head until it finally stumbled far enough to drop into the ravine. Then he wanted to cut the rope to kill the two demons that appeared afterward.

No matter how he tried, they just refused to step onto the bridge together. Perhaps it would be possible to prepare an elaborate trap for one if the other was killed by the drop into the ravine. But no matter how he tried, he was either stuck with one demon across the ravine that could no longer be crossed or both demons right next to him.

These two were also clearly both a little faster and tougher than the first demon. They also seemed a lot more cautious. It was much harder trying to trick them into doing anything. He couldn’t even bait them into getting thrown into one of the pools.

During one of his attempts, he had managed to completely accidentally kill both of the demons. The suspension bridge dropped and one of the ropes caught the demon's foot on the other side. Neave almost shouted out in joy, but then three demons appeared behind him. One of them sprinted at him and killed him almost instantly.

If killing the two demons was possible, then killing those three definitely wasn’t.

A small voice in his head had asked why he was doing this and another, even smaller voice had responded.

Because of boredom, of course!

But this was a lie.

The reality of it was that Neave, somewhere down in his soul, had hoped that killing the demons was the point of being here. That this was all an illusion and that killing the demon would make him finally wake up. He would see his father's dumb grin, get beat up by Hunter and the other disciples, and look for a way to avoid getting married to a man.

His story would unfold. There would be ups and downs, some things would work out, and others would not.

But he would live his life nonetheless.

And this wasn't life. This was death.

Even if Neave considered himself to be extremely cynical, there was no way he believed this was actually the afterlife. It was a world created by the book.

Neave found himself back at the start once again. He went over to the suspension bridge and cut the ropes before the demon could reach him. Then he walked just beyond a hill so he wouldn’t have to look at that wretched thing. He stared out into the horizon. Neave had explored even beyond what he could see from where he was sitting.

But there was nothing to be found.

This was a lonely world where the demon was his only company. Neave didn’t have any friends in the sect, but there were a few among the older disciples that treated him with a semblance of kindness. He would give anything to see one of them again.

He had contemplated the nature of this realm. Neave had concluded there was sufficient evidence to support one of his theories. This place was some form of trial. A trial for cultivators. He remembered the elder saying that those who touched this book died. It made perfect sense. That meant that those who failed whatever this trial was would lose their life.

Neave considered himself to be a scholar. And true scholars, on top of the vast knowledge that they had gathered, also had their own theories and opinions. Neave believed that nothing could last forever. Infinity wasn’t a viable concept.

Eventually, this place would release its grip on him and he would be free. So he would wait.

He didn’t know what would happen, but he steeled his resolve. At least that’s what he wanted to believe. It was more like his resolve had been thoroughly eliminated. The resolve to try. The resolve to move.

The resolve to think.

So he didn’t. He tried not, he moved not, he thought not, and soon his soul drifted back into that same trance he had found himself in once before…

***

This time around, stray thoughts came even more rarely. His mind felt like a fire that had thoroughly run out of fuel. However, chance had thrown a piece of coal onto the dying embers. The demon tripped over a rock. It hadn't fallen, but it just stumbled a bit awkwardly before it regained its balance.

Even if the movements of the demon were random, something like this had never happened before. The demon had stumbled awkwardly a bit too far to the side this time and encountered a small rock that it had tripped over. It had been near that rock many times before, but this was the first time Neave had ever seen it trip. For a few moments, he felt the pull, the temptation to move and think, but alas, the embers died out once again.

***

The demon tripped over the same rock many times. Neave had a stray thought or two about this phenomenon. One of the things he felt was apparent was that this happening was extremely rare. The demon could stumble in so many different ways towards him that walking over to that exact rock was exceptionally unlikely. Not to mention that the vast, overwhelming majority of times it walked in a more or less straight line.

However, despite its rarity, it happened… Dozens? Hundreds of times? He hadn’t counted but he knew it was many. This must mean that a frightening amount of time had passed. Or might have passed. It wasn’t easy, or even really possible to determine the passage of time from this place. After all, it’s not like days were passing. And there certainly was no hourglass keeping track of time.

After the demon had stumbled on the rock many, many times, something unusual happened once again. The demon trudged over to the rock, tripped on it, then stepped on another rock, one even further from its usual range of movement, and tripped again. It didn’t fall to the ground even after that but it shook Neave up a bit nonetheless. After all, something new had happened. But Neave ignored it once again and settled back into the trance…

***

The embers of thought were nearly thoroughly gone. They had been waning for a long, long time. The demon had tripped on the rock and even on the other rock again many, many times. Nothing was moving Neave. Nothing was rousing him anymore. The demon walked up to Neave, swung its claws, and crushed his head.

Restart.

Then it went back to the start. And it walked. It walked toward Neave, stumbling along. But it leaned a bit to the side. And then again. And then again. It stepped on a solitary rock sitting on the outer edges of the path it usually took when approaching Neave. And it tripped. It stumbled, outside of its usual range of movement. There it stepped on another jagged rock and tripped once more, stumbling further. It had stumbled far, a lot further than it usually stumbled when it tripped on the second rock and it stepped on a third rock. This time it tripped and fell face-first into a small puddle of black ooze.

Neave didn’t notice anything at first. But then, an unusual sensation washed over him. It was taking too long. Why was it taking so long? He would usually have ideas, he would think, and he would contemplate, but his mind felt heavy. Like a muscle that hadn’t moved once in a hundred years, his mind just felt weak. Let alone thinking, just perceiving what was happening felt like a chore. But the strange sensation kept piling up. The gaping hole of the demon's absence burned bigger and bigger as Neave’s mind spun. Then he perceived what he was seeing.

The demon was… Gone?

Perhaps, he would have thought he had finally failed the trial, but such a thought was far too complex for his weak mind. His thoughts instead went something like this:

No demon. Demon gone. Where demon? Dunno. How possible?

Hours passed, but Neave still stared catatonically ahead. Eventually, his legs got tired and he fell to the ground. It shook him a little and reflexively he got up. Then finally, he noticed something in the corner of his vision.

The demon was stuck.

It had fallen over head first into a puddle of black ooze. The ooze had long solidified and it was stuck awkwardly fumbling and trying to get out. Half of its head and both of its arms were stuck inside the solidified ooze. The problem was that its awkward position had simply made it impossible to put any real force into anything but push itself further into the puddle.

And Neave stared at it. His head was vacant of any complex thought but as if by instinct…

“Pfft!”

He snorted. Then he chuckled. Then he laughed. He tried walking over to the demon, but he had completely forgotten how to do that. He instead laughed and laughed as he flopped around like a fish on dry land, trying to figure out how to move closer to the demon. Eventually, he developed something of an inept crawl and then dragged his way over.

“You stupid poopy head. Poopy head poopy head, HA-HA! What a dummy!” He got up to his feet and smacked the demon's bald head a few times. The meaty thud felt satisfying, so he kept doing it, eventually drumming a rhythm of sorts and singing along.

“La-la la-la la-la-la, dummy demon dummy butt! Got his face stuck in the mud!”

At this point, the demon was desperately trying to extract itself from its predicament, but to no avail. The claws on its feet had thoroughly plowed the soft soil behind it and it was failing to get any grip. After he laughed his ass off, Neave’s mind had finally caught up with the intelligence of at least a four-year-old.

“What the hell am I doing?” He wondered and then sat on the demon's head, much to its displeasure. This wasn’t a rhetorical question either, he truly was genuinely trying to puzzle out what he was doing. His mind was still half asleep from the absolute lack of use. Just perceiving things felt hard. He struggled to form associations. Everything around him was just shapes and colors.

“... Dirt?”

Yes, he thought to himself, this indeed was dirt, but weird dirt. Too red. Wait, was that not how dirt was supposed to look? He then tried remembering what dirt was supposed to look like. And then it finally hit him. Like a dam shattering his mind was flooded with thoughts. He remembered his name, who he was, and where he was and then asked again.

“Okay, what the fuck am I doing?” This time the question was indeed rhetorical. He got up off the demon’s head and looked around. He didn’t perceive the demon falling over so he had no idea how this whole thing happened.

“How long has it been?” He tried to piece together anything at all about how long he’d been here but to no avail.

His scholarly mind, however, really wanted to find out.

Neave tried estimating the time he had been here but he simply lacked information. He thought back to the demon's behavior and frowned. He knew for a fact that the demon walked straight at him almost every single time. Deviating from a straight line was rare, very much so. And deviating far enough to trip on the rock was very, very rare.

He left the demon to its struggling and ran over to where he started the loop. He marked the position with a large stone and then walked over to where the demon started. Neave then took a step forward. And then another. He frowned. How did the demon walk, again? He thought he remembered it but he never really paid that much attention to its walking pattern. After a quick bath in a nearby pool of acid, he went back to the start.

Restart.

Rather than waiting for the demon to reach him, he instead sprinted toward the demon as quickly as he could, then he walked backward. He kept the same tempo as the demon, observing its feet the entire time.

The demon's gait was clumsy and its steps were imprecise. Every time it took a step, there was a small deviation from where it would land if it walked perfectly. Neave rated these deviations like this; minuscule, minor, moderate, major, and massive. It took him two loops of just observing the demon walk to get a good estimate of their respective probabilities.

He messed up on the first loop by letting it walk far longer than the usual walk from its starting position to Neave’s starting position. The problem was that the ground at the start was far smoother and flatter than further out. This meant that the pattern in which its step deviated changed due to the rougher surface and the probabilities of its respective deviations changed as well.

So he instead just observed the demon walk in circles within the range of the demon’s start to Neave’s start. He felt rather satisfied with the numbers he got so he moved on to phase two. He led the demon over to a pit of black ooze, pushed it into it, and then piled up rocks onto it to prevent it from leaving. Then he walked over to the demon's start. Then he took a step. The step was of average length for the demon and just a little above moderate deviation to the side. That's how he walked over to the rock the demon had tripped on. It took roughly thirteen such steps. Then he took the probability of slightly below moderate deviation. He halved it because it was only towards one side, and calculated the probability of the demon walking over to the rock.

His mind froze.

No… it can’t be.

That had to be impossible.

For the first time in a long, long time, he truly started panicking. After all, the odds of that happening were less than one in ten trillion. Okay, that was the odds of that specific sequence of steps happening, but the added odds of other combinations of deviations had to be more probable, right?

Yes, but not by much.

Even if he went as far as to assume that the odds of the demon reaching this rock were only one in a million, what about tripping on it? He had seen the demon walk over to this rock several times in a row without tripping once. Then he had seen it trip over the rock countless times, possibly hundreds, maybe even thousands. No, he even saw the demon tripping over the second rock hundreds of times, only the heavens knew how many times it had tripped on the first stone.

He looked ahead of him and saw the third stone, just between the second stone and the pond. He wanted to laugh. That was what the demon had tripped on? Even by the most conservative estimates Neave calculated that he must have been here for twenty thousand years. The craziest estimates?

Quadrillions of years.

So he laughed. He cackled like a lunatic and pulled his hair out of his scalp. There was no hope. If the artifact could keep him contained that long then it could potentially keep him here forever. After all, there were no signs that anything was changing. If this artifact had created this reality then it was still going strong enough that Neave couldn't see any damage to the structure of space. Did this mean that he would be kept here for all eternity?

A chilling thought crossed his mind. What if this was the afterlife? Or the afterlife for Neave? Had he been so evil, so vile and so despicable as an individual that this is what he deserved? Or did everyone end up here? Was the book not a trial, but some sort of one-way ticket to this hellish place? Or did he… He paused and looked over at the writhing mass of black ooze. The demon was escaping again. Neave had another thought.

What if I do have to defeat the demon?

And not just the first demon, but the next two, and the next three demons as well, and heavens knew what else. What if this was some sort of cultivator purgatory or cultivator hell, where he had to fight and become a true warrior to get to cultivator heaven? He wanted to laugh at that thought, but he couldn’t completely discount the possibility. He no longer felt any confidence that he would ever be free of this realm. So he grasped onto that one, final straw.

He got up off the ground, blood dripping down his face from the hair he tore out. Then he walked over to the demon. He broke off one of the obsidian branches and stabbed the demon. He stabbed it again and again. When he cut his hand on the branch, he just tore his robes and wrapped them around his hand to stop the bleeding. When the branch broke, he got another. After hundreds of stabs, the demon finally stopped moving. And then two demons appeared behind Neave. He leaped at them, attacking them with the branch, but while attacking the first, the second shattered his neck.

Restart.

Neave stared down the demon. He felt his control over his own body was still poor. So he decided. If he already had an eternity on his hands, he wouldn’t rush. He would take things one step at a time and he would learn from the ground up.

He remembered his father. And he smiled.

“You win in the end, you old asshole…” He mumbled as he took a step forward, preparing to fight the demon with his bare hands.

Restart.

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A note from Robert Blaise

[SHOUT-OUT] 

The Slayer and The Vixen. The world's greatest monster hunter and bounty hunter, respectively. Through their combined efforts, the world has been able to enjoy an era of peace for nearly a decade since the end of The Drazah War. But when their identities and the source of their power is revealed, all of their admiration turns to terror and they're deplored as the worst Fiends alive. Wanting nothing more than to service the world they feel responsible for, the pair must find new ways to help those who fear them. These Fiends are For Hire.

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Go check out Fiends for Hire! 


About the author

Robert Blaise

Bio: Man do I love recursion. Man do I love recursion. Man do I love recursion. Man do I love...

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