Neave was back at the start. He was furious. He stomped to the suspension bridge, hacked the ropes off, walked to the cave, and sat down with irritation.
Twelve times! Twelve fucking times!
It had been twelve times that Neave had sat down in the cave and meditated until he died from thirst. The hellscape he found himself in was arid and it was easy to get dehydrated, but given that he wasn’t doing anything strenuous, he wasn’t sweating either. Which meant that he had anywhere between three at least and five at most days' worth of time until he died from dehydration.
If he assumed he had four days each time he sat down, that meant he had already been attempting to cultivate for almost fifty days straight! This wasn’t just fifty days either, it was fifty entire days. No rest, no sleep, no pauses except the time it took him to return after death. He did get extremely exhausted as he reached death from dehydration, not to mention the lack of sleep, but through sheer virtue of willpower, he could still sort of power through it until he literally died. And death in this realm made for a more thorough recovery than any night of rest Neave had ever had.
That meant that he had cultivated for well over a thousand hours straight yet he made absolutely zero progress. At first, he blamed the mental barrier he had against the idea of cultivation, but even after swallowing all of his remaining pride and taking that barrier down for good, he still had no success.
This was strange. Neave was beginning to panic. He had thought initially, that perhaps this realm prevented him from cultivating somehow. However, just toward the end of the fifth attempt, he noticed something. It was like looking at fireflies with absolutely horrible eyesight.
This was a great sign. These ethereal lights were wisps of qi, strands of potential. This meant that it must be possible. When one first attempted to cultivate, one had to visualize, and comprehend the essence of potential. They had to grasp the idea behind being more.
It was both very simple and very complicated. It could be done by anyone, but even despite this, very few common peasants and people born into mortal families ever do it on their own.
Well, for starters, how easy was it to really imagine oneself wielding a hundred-kilo sword like a feather? Maybe one could imagine it, sure, but what made that possible?
This was why sects trained their young from a very early age. When one trained, one made improvements. They grew, improved, and realized part of the potential their bodies, minds, and souls already possessed.
And then they’re given a sword too heavy to lift and told to swing it. The difference between someone trained in martial arts and someone who never did any training at all was perspective. To a mortal, a sword far too heavy to be lifted, no matter how much one trains, was just that.
A sword that was impossible to wield.
But to children taught by sects, it was more than that. It was a barrier, just another obstacle they needed to overcome.
Wielding a sword heavier than your own body should be impossible. When you swung the sword, you’d be dragged along and thrown off balance. Only when one grasped the essence of potential, the ability to grow in skill, strength, speed, endurance, toughness, and so on, that was when one began to see it.
The substance, the essence of it, needed to surpass mortal limitations and become immortal. The higher power that allowed cultivators to swing a heavy blade too heavy to swing.
Talent still did play a role, of course. Natural spiritual perception differed in strength between individuals. Neave was tested for his and he knew he was below average, but not that below average. Certainly not this below average.
He had a ton of time in the last thousand hours to blame just about anything for his inability to cultivate. Everything from the realm he was in, to the strange time loop’s interference, to his stupidity and lack of understanding, he even blamed the way he thought about cultivation.
After all, he hated it.
This was one thing he couldn’t quite move past. They can put all the pretty language like ‘potential’ or ‘sacred’ and their moralizing crap up their ass.
Cultivation wasn’t about potential. It was about power.
Martial arts wasn’t a pretty dance, it was a tool for injuring and killing.
And worst of all, was when he heard someone claim that cultivation was about being more than yourself. No, it wasn’t, it was about being more than others. And then treating those below you however you wished.
Despite all of this, Neave understood the need for cultivators. The supply had created its own demand. After all, if the righteous chose to abstain from cultivation for moral reasons, they would all be slaughtered by those who have fewer reservations.
Then the world would become an even worse place than it was. If everyone chose to stop cultivating, monsters would just slaughter all other sentient life. And they were as horrible to one another as they were to everything else. So humans and sacred beasts must cultivate.
But the scholar in him rebelled. Even if he saw reason in it, he felt like there was more to life than violence. The world may move on without him, but he would stay. He would remain behind and look for an alternative. Perhaps it was just ignorance, stubbornness, or immaturity but he had vowed to devote his life to finding that peace, no matter where it may lie.
What did I just think…?
He looked at himself. The same old, scholarly, weak, and pathetic self. But even as a mortal… He knew that if he fought with any of the foundation realm disciples of his sect, he would dominate them. Probably even those on the first step of the iron path. Maybe even those on the second and third.
If it came down to a fight they’d lie dead beneath his feet before they even knew what happened. He wanted to believe in peace, in a brighter world, but what was he doing as he thought that? He was sitting in a cave, in a hellish realm of suffering and trying to cultivate. If that was what he truly believed, then who had he become?
He had kept himself busy. Either forcing himself not to even think, or fighting, but it was all a distraction. Now that he was finally, truly alone with his thoughts it hit him.
Oh heavens... What do I do?
He cried, feeling what water remained in his body reduced bit by bit with every tear that dropped.
Will I ever even be free again? Why does it even matter to me anymore?
What will it mean to be free?
He thought about the demons. What if he was right? What if killing them freed him from this realm? And what if it wasn’t oblivion that was waiting for him on the other side?
Then he imagined being freed and being reborn. He ran around with his siblings, his cute little sister, and his mean older brother. Then he got into a fight with his older brother and some part deep within his soul knew what to do. His brother lay dead beneath his feet. Then his sister ran to get his father. Then his father, too, lay dead beneath his feet. He didn’t want to do it, he didn’t mean to, they attacked him so he just…
Then he imagined being freed and released. He’d killed the last demon and learned the true nature of this book, of the trial. It granted him horrible powers as a reward. Then he arrived at some other time, perhaps in another world. Those who learned of his power feared him and hunted him down. And they all lay dead beneath his feet in a mountain of corpses…
Then he imagined being freed and returning. He returned to the sect, having been unconscious for months. Then he walked the halls and saw Hunter screaming at him and chasing him down. He imagined the unjustified hatred he saw in his face. Then Hunter lay beneath his feet. Blood dripped down his mouth as Hunter’s throat bled, severed by Neave’s teeth. He could hear the other disciples screaming as he…
Then he imagined…
Neave was walking somewhere, in some random direction. He pulled his hair out with every step he took. The only thing left on his head was a bald, bloody hole, but he scraped it nonetheless.
He asked himself the same question for the billionth time. Why? What was the reason he ended up in this realm? Did the heavens truly hate him? But why, if he had never defied them? Why? What was the point of the life he’d lived, the beliefs that he held if all of it would be denied to him like this? Why?
Neave fell over to the ground and died from dehydration, exhaustion, and blood loss.
Then he appeared back at the start, chose another direction, and started walking again.
He simply couldn’t wrap his mind around it. It just didn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense to move on and grow. If he did that, he faced oblivion. For he could not continue being who he was anymore. A fundamental aspect of his existence had changed. This creature walking around, wearing his skin, can not be allowed to leave this place. So it must stay here forever.
But he didn’t want to.
Or it didn’t want to.
He didn’t know if he was it.
He didn’t want to believe he was.
Somewhere deep down Neave was hoping that the true, original him still existed. That this murderous monster was just that. A monster. Something that had possessed his body and was wearing his skin. He had tried desperately to tear it off of him, but no matter what, he still failed.
No matter what he did, he couldn’t forget where he had to stab. And he knew he wouldn’t forget that even if he was released.
He couldn’t let himself go back into the catatonic state again. Even if he felt that was the fate he deserved, he knew the next time he sunk to that he would never be free again. And he desperately wanted to be free, wanted to be himself again.
But he knew he was just stalling. He saw no other solution than to keep going with what he was doing. But what then? Could he truly settle for remaining what he had become?
Neave frowned and stopped. Then he asked the question again and got the same answer in return.
Yes. He could settle for being what he was now.
But he didn’t know why. Or how. Some part of him beneath his unconscious mind had made a connection. However, he simply could not comprehend what this connection was.
That was a lie.
Neave frowned harder this time. He knew he was lying to himself, that he was making something up. There was something that he was hiding from himself. But he didn’t know what it was.
Yes, he did.
He knew what he was hiding. He was just a liar. No, he used to be a liar.
Neave laughed maniacally and ran around. Now he was finally, truly free. No. That wasn’t correct. It wasn’t freedom he sought, after all. He had peeled the monster off. But it wasn’t the killer he had scraped off.
It was the liar.
And the lie was huge. Everything he believed, everything he fought for, was all a lie. The truth was simple. He just found it unpleasant.
To Neave, his mother was like a devil. She participated in honor duels on behalf of their sect. And he had to watch them. He had thought when he was a kid that his father's hair was also silver. The same way mother’s crimson hair was silver beneath all the blood.
I made all this bullshit up just to justify what I feel.
And what he felt was fear. But he had no such obstacle anymore. So he didn’t have to lie.
He'd scorned cultivators for their desire for superiority, but how did he wake up every single day?
Did I not believe I was more than they were?
Does that not make me a massive hypocrite?
And then he thought of the cruelty.
Who fucking gives a shit about cruelty?
He knew he didn’t. Countless of his brothers and sisters had died during his life alone and he never even shed a tear. So why was he pretending that he cared about peace? Why was he pretending that anyone deserved peace?
Did innocent children deserve peace, perhaps?
What innocent children?
Neave was a child, too.
But he was also a liar.
The other children from the sect had beaten and tortured him. If adults did to each other what other disciples did to Neave, it would be obvious to anyone how fucked up such behavior was.
There was no such thing as a group of individuals that was innocent by default. Should it all be burned down then? No, Neave didn’t believe that. What did he believe in then? By what creed should he live his life? Or should he accept oblivion and let his mind be torn apart by the tides of time? So he asked.
What did he want?
Then he imagined it.
And knew that was what he wanted the most.
The rest could come after he was no longer trapped here.
The rest could come when he was finally trapped back outside.
He was back at the cave, trying to cultivate. For a few moments, he believed it would now magically work. Neave had spent countless years fighting in this realm, so he understood potential pretty damn well. He had gone from not being able to kill the first demon to beating four waves of such demons in a row. And he already knew how strong his spiritual senses were, after all, he was tested for that when he was five.
According to these two factors, he absolutely should have been able to at least sense qi properly by now. But he couldn’t. Neave had already thought of every single possible reason why he would be unable to do it. There was only one that made sense.
He had been poisoned.
At first, he didn’t believe this was possible. His father would have noticed, right? Well, that depends. If Neave had been trying to cultivate, his father would have noticed something was off. It should have been obvious if he was being poisoned, after all, poisons that compromise one’s spiritual senses were rarely subtle.
What if, whoever poisoned him, used something like wither slime extract? Or powdered bone from an evolved shadow? Such poisons could theoretically be distilled into mostly their oblivion elements. And if they had used that in tiny doses, there would be no way to tell unless Neave started cultivating. And Neave hadn’t started cultivating.
There was another thing that was off with this theory. Such poisons would be prohibitively expensive. Would anybody even have the motivation to use such an expensive poison on Neave?
Neave thought back to his life in the sect. His father had paid a lot of attention to him, weirdly so. And hadn’t the council tried to sell him off to a man? Who had they tried to marry him to? He wanted to groan as he felt more and more evidence to justify his suspicions.
Neave had almost certainly gotten caught up with some political crap behind the scenes without even knowing about it. He didn’t care about that now, but he most certainly did care about being poisoned.
This was a massive problem. Without a readily available cure, he knew that starting to cultivate would be unbelievably difficult. No, actually, it was impossible.
Well, it wasn’t impossible. Theoretically speaking there was a solution he could potentially resort to. Usually, cultivators that reached the platinum path, like his father, could manipulate more than just qi. They became capable of also manipulating life force. But this could be achieved with enough talent and time by anyone, even those at just the silver or gold paths. And there was historical evidence that some individuals had achieved this even as mortals. They, however, had an unprecedented talent for manipulating life force. But Neave didn’t need talent.
He had all the time in the world.