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Neave stood atop a smooth, black, and reflective surface. He faced a similar surface in front of him. Both the floor and the wall adjacent to it were like dark mirrors. A part of a large obsidian boulder seemed to have broken off in two and created an incredibly smooth sheet of reflective glass. The part that broke off fell to the ground next to the large boulder and created a smooth reflective floor, while the rest of the stone that remained created a mirror wall.

Neave was standing on that mirror surface and…

He was dancing.

It had been a long while since he had decided to try and learn how to manipulate life force. After a hundred and forty deaths by dehydration… He stopped counting. Then he went on for probably just as long or even longer. To say that he had made zero progress would be generous. It was more accurate to say he had made negative progress.

In the beginning, he at least believed it was possible. Then he started doubting the historical records and thought the scholars' assumptions about life force manipulation had been wrong. And finally, after countless failed attempts, the doubt had piled up so high Neave was starting to believe he might have developed a mental barrier that was stopping him from making progress.

He, however, wasn’t going to give up. Life force manipulation was an incredibly powerful ability. It was possible to expend life force to boost your strength, infuse it into objects or living creatures, use it to help recover from injuries, and do many other miraculous feats. The use that he was interested in was its ability to help heal virtually every type of ailment or affliction.

Well, heal might be a strong word, but partially recover would be more accurate. No matter how good one got at manipulating life force, regrowing a limb was still believed to be impossible. This could be due to a lack of skill with life force manipulation, but it was hard to say. Those who could manipulate life force were either extremely rare or extremely powerful. The two worst types of subjects if one wanted to get research data.

 

Neave wanted to use his life force to partially recover his spiritual senses. This would be incredibly hard and the effect would be minuscule, but that was enough. Neave assumed that he would be able to recover one percent at worst and five at best of his spiritual senses. He didn’t need it to be more than point five or even point one percent, he just had to recover any amount at all. Then, he could take all the time he wanted and practice gathering qi strands to break into the foundation realm.

The added benefit of boosting his physical performance was nothing to scoff at either. Usually, those who could manipulate life force never, under any circumstances barring severe threat to life, went under ninety-five percent life force. The reason why was that dropping below that much meant that one would be unable to fully replenish their reserves naturally.

Extremely expensive treasures could accomplish that, like the heart of a crimson horror, but extremely expensive treasures were, well, extremely expensive. If one dropped below twenty percent, the chances of survival plummeted drastically. And anything below ten percent was near guaranteed death unless you could recover your life force with the aforementioned expensive treasures.

That was another bonus for Neave. He just didn’t give a shit. Whether he dropped to twenty, ten, or even one percent life force, the moment he died he would be topped right back up to full. Even if he failed to recover his spiritual senses, it would finally be possible to make progress against the demons.

After finally reaching a breaking point, Neave decided to take a break from trying to learn life force manipulation. Perhaps a few deaths off and a breather might help him make a breakthrough. So he left the cave and went on a stroll.

When he first arrived in this realm, he had explored every bit of the surrounding area that he could reach within the time it took him to die from thirst. However, not only had he forgotten the overwhelming majority of what he’d discovered, but he also really wasn’t paying much attention to anything that didn’t look like a clue on how to escape this place. So now he went about it with a bit more of a…

Touristic mindset.

He found a lot of incredible stuff on his way around the hellscape. At some point, he encountered a small waterfall that dropped into a lake of acid. It stank so bad it put even the general stinkiness of the entire realm to shame. For some inexplicable reason, Neave found this hilarious. Every time he saw the gooey, yellow pus fall into the lake of acid he couldn’t stop himself from laughing to tears.

This wasn’t the only unusual bit of behavior he was showing recently. He had encountered a rock falling down a hill completely at random. The thing was that this rock had fallen from a spot on a hill where two large and several smaller rocks were placed. Neave saw this and cried.

“Nooo, not the baby rock! It fell away from mommy and daddy and now it's all alone! Nooooo!”

He attempted to push the rock back up the hill, but when he realized he was way too weak for that, he killed himself and sprinted towards the location of the rock at full speed. All to prevent the rock from falling over in the first place.

This was just the start of it. Everything from being angry at ‘offensively shaped’ obsidian bushes, to being envious of large stones to flirting with demon number one, whom he had now named Jillean. After attempting to kiss the demon, with varying degrees of success, he was beginning to realize that he may perhaps be a little…

Emotionally compromised. From all the years he had spent here, that was.

This wasn’t enough to make him stop, however. He had decided that henceforth the defensive demon of wave three shall be his mortal enemy. Neave named him Harven and then after killing the other two demons, he faced the defensive one.

He declared the defensive demon, or rather Harven, his enemy in no small part because the demon was, well, defensive. This meant that once he killed the other two demons, he had all the time in the world to spew dramatic nonsense at Harven as it waited for him to attack.

“... Admit it, you treacherous swine! Jillean refuses to accept me due to your salacious ploys! If you refuse to release her from the blackmail and threats, then I shall have to take it upon myself to free her from your grasp!” Neave proclaimed at Harven while pointing the ‘sword’ he had shaped out of an obsidian branch at his opponent. Harven was somewhat less enthusiastic about the theatrics.

Neave had done quite a bit of messing around in the hellish realm. He had gone for ‘lovely swims’ in lakes of blood, spelunking in caves, which were dark and filled with sharp, pointy edges, and even attempted to go hiking up a mountain.

It wasn’t his most successful endeavor. He wanted to climb to the top of one of the mountains, at the very least to see what the inside of the ominous clouds looked like. Maybe even see what was above them, who knew? The problem was that the mountains were simply way too tall and inhospitable for eager climbers. He'd have to return to that idea later.

After running around a bit more in the vicinity of the starting area, he eventually encountered the mirror wall and floor. His reflection jump scared the shit out of him at first. After all, there weren’t all that many reflective surfaces around, except the obsidian bushes, but those were way too blurry to see one’s reflection in them properly.

After inspecting himself in the mirror, he realized that he barely remembered what his face looked like.

At first, he used the mirrors very practically. He used them to observe certain martial arts moves he had developed and to see if there were any faults with his form. At some point, he ran out of moves to perfect so he started making new ones up. As they slowly lost their combat application, eventually all he was doing was dancing.

And he was getting abnormally good at it. At some point, he had gotten bored of dancing and decided to try himself against the demons again. He was shocked to find out just how much more efficient he was. The mirrors had revealed a world of movements Neave had never considered in combat.

He still lost to the fourth wave anyway.

Neave didn’t see much merit in cheesing the fight anymore, since he wanted to make actual progress. The problem was, that no matter how he tried, the fourth wave was just too much. The main problem was the cowardly and bulky demons. Neave just couldn’t do any real damage to the bulky one, try as he may and he couldn’t catch the cowardly one. The aggressive one was very easy to deal with, especially with Neave’s improved movements, the skilled one was just plain weak and the tricky one was only tricky if it was close to something it could use.

After thoroughly running out of ways to distract himself, Neave finally returned to trying to manipulate life force. Then he proceeded to violently smack himself in the forehead as he realized what he should have been doing this entire time. Taking the vacation had done wonders for clearing up his mind a bit and now that he was thinking properly he finally had a good idea.

Neave ignored the demon, ran to a pool of blood, and jumped in. Then he opened his mouth and drank a bit. After clearing his mind he let himself slowly die in the pond. Then he did the same thing again. And again.

After repeating this process countless times, he tried feeling it. What changed? What felt different? Beyond the pain, beyond the fear, beyond the panic of encroaching death. In the moments where one’s life left their body, could he feel anything else slipping away?

Then he felt it. In the moments before death, it was like a dam breaking and a flood of… Something gushing out. He observed that feeling and internalized it. Then he sat down in the cave.

Neave lifted his right hand and imagined the substance flowing out of his body.

Soon enough, the darkness of the cave was dispelled by the soft glow of a red cloud of mist sitting atop Neave’s palm.

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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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