Neave stepped out of his little hut and took a deep breath.
“Ah, fresh morning air! It’s quite lovely outside, don’t you agree, Jillean?” Neave looked back to the makeshift hut of stone and obsidian branches that he had constructed.
Demon one, or rather, Jillean, was sitting in an improvised chair of stone. Neave used a large quantity of black ooze to get the demon stuck to the chair. There was even a large stone table and several smaller stone chairs. He took a look around and admired the view.
Neave had constructed this little hut next to a large lake of acid. In his head, this was an idyllic cottage next to a beautiful lake. A beautiful sizzling lake. A geyser lake. That made sense, yes. He took a step forward and gave his face a lovely wash in the pure water of the wilderness.
He recovered the damage to his hands by burning life force when they started falling apart in the acid, but the acid burned his face off and he didn’t bother fixing it. He looked like a bloody skeleton with eyes wide open, as the acid seared his eyelids off.
“Shall we have some morning tea, my darling?” The demon just growled a bit as it awkwardly shuffled in the chair, still trying to escape. Neave rushed to it and caressed its head to get it to calm down.
“Now, now, darling, you need not get up, I know you’re feeling under the weather today, so I shall grab the tea for you!” Neave picked up a small obsidian ‘teacup’ off the table and went out to the lake, grabbing a bit of acid. Then he walked back to the demon.
“Here you go darling, you need not rouse yourself, I shall put the cup of tea to your lips.” He poured the acid into the demon’s mouth and it coughed it out violently all over the table. Neave dropped the cup in distress.
“... What? Are you trying to say something about the tea I’ve made, huh?” The demon just shuffled and tried escaping.
“You ungrateful fucking bitch!” He slapped the demon's head with a true strike slap and its head went flying off its torso and into a wall.
“Oh. Oh no. I’m so sorry darling, I didn’t mean to do this to you. Here.” He picked the head up off the ground and put it back on the torso.
“I am… I am sorry. I’ve been so stressed out lately ever since I lost my job. I can not bear to see you look down at the things I bring to the table. I hope you can forgive me, my dear.” He kissed the demon’s forehead. Or rather clattered his bare, lipless teeth to its skull. Then he heard the banging.
“Oh, what’s this? It seems that we have some guests, darling! Oh, bother, what poor timing they have...” He ran off to open the ‘door’ to the newly arriving guests. The wave-two demons stood outside and looked at Neave.
“Gasp! Jungin and Zeeber! What are you two rascals doing here!?” He dodged around their attempts to cut him apart with their claws and gave each of them a hug.
“Come, come, Jillean and I were just about to have supper. Whoa there, rowdy guests I see, haha, whoah, watch it Jungin!” He then proceeded to spend almost an hour strong-arming the demons to sit in the chairs. He settled for breaking all their limbs and gluing them to the chairs with the black ooze.
“Now, I’ve kept you all waiting long enough!” He glanced around the room, finding literally nothing edible around. Then he yoinked Jilleans head off her shoulders and placed it on the table.
“Here you go, it is my specialty! Head a la slap! Now excuse me, gentlemen, I need to visit the loo!” Neave then stepped out of the hut and started monologuing.
“Unbelievable! Those crude ungrateful rubes! I can not believe I used to work with such lower-class trash! They not only intrude upon Jillean and I’s romantic supper, but they also dare wreck havoc on my house!” He kicked a rock in exasperation and sat at the shore of the lake, playfully bathing his feet in the acid. His feet sizzled and fell apart as he looked at the horizon.
Neave racked his mind to come up with anything to take his mind off the despair.
The scythe demon lay dead on the ground and Neave observed the strange demon that had appeared. It stood firmly and just stared at him. Neave didn’t move. He wasn’t sure he could move, honestly. His life force was nearly tapped out and he looked like a geriatric zombie. But the demon wasn’t moving either.
“What are you staring at?” Neave yelled at the demon.
Is it waiting for me to die on my own?
So Neave summoned the absolute last of his energy and took a single step forward. Immediately, the demon started running toward Neave.
Neave grinned in excitement about what was about to happen. He could tell that this demon was strong. And to Neave’s utter astonishment, it used a movement technique Neave had learned on his own. Then it swung at him with a true strike.
At first, Neave was ecstatic. This demon was proving to be an incredible challenge. Neave was at this point addicted to such challenges.
His excitement did not last very long.
There was one thing he hadn’t noticed about the demon at first. It wasn’t just very skilled. It was exactly as skilled as Neave was.
It fought the exact same way as Neave did.
The same true strikes, the same movement techniques, the same tricks, the same everything.
But it was much, much stronger than Neave.
He still fought it constantly, attempt after attempt. It was proving to be the single greatest martial arts teacher anyone could desire. Whenever Neave noticed an opening or a weakness, he tried exploiting it. But after he learned this exploit the demon just did the same thing to him. After all, it was his weakness. Then Neave learned how to defend when the weakness was exploited.
And so did the demon.
This was a loop that repeated countless times. After a while, the sixth wave practically became a joke to Neave. He was constantly getting pushed to the limit, so his martial arts improved at an incredible rate. However, doubt slowly began seeping into his mind. He was capable of defeating the sixth wave so quickly it didn’t even take him a minute.
But he no longer felt himself improving.
He was sure that he was, it was kind of impossible not to improve when fighting this demon. But he didn’t feel any progress. Especially because no matter what he did, the demon was always keeping up with him.
Neave was starting to think that defeating this demon might be utterly impossible.
An idea he had was to try and reach the iron path, but he already knew that was off the table. When one stepped into the foundation realm, they created a whole layer of potential that they could achieve on top of their mortal potential. And at the beginning of the foundation realm, they’ve fulfilled about as much of that potential as an infant had in mortal potential.
One had to train like mad to build their body and spirit so one could move onto the iron path. Neave couldn't reach the iron path unless he could train and get stronger. And even then, he could only consolidate that potential if he properly recovered from the training he did. There was no food or water in this realm. So doing that simply wasn't possible.
Even if he tried cultivating now, he just didn’t see any qi strands. Because the potential his spirit held was too great. One had to realize enough of the potential they’ve gathered so they could add more potential to it. And Neave couldn’t do that.
Sure he had realized a lot of potential, but the potential that he had realized was tied to his soul rather than his spirit. And his spirit got reset every time he died.
He wasn’t going to give up that easily, however. Neave had tried to find a food source but to no avail. Purifying the rotten blood and drinking it was impossible. Even if he could purify it, it wouldn’t be worth anything since all of its nutrients and energy have withered away. The pus also seemed to have suffered the same fate.
He’d even tried eating the flesh of the demons, but that too was poisoned and withered.
So he felt trapped and out of options. Utter despair slowly crept into his mind.
At a certain point, he faced off against the seventh-wave demon and he got killed almost instantly.
Then Jillean killed him as well.
And yet again.
A certain amount of time later he realized what was happening. And he screamed. He screamed and cursed at the demon until his voice went hoarse.
“Stay away! Stay the fuck away from me!” He screamed, sniveled, sobbed, and ran away. He explored the valleys and caves. Neave tried to do anything to keep his mind occupied so he wouldn’t go back to that awful state.
And that’s how he’d ended up with a hut next to an acid lake, his feet melting away.
Neave had decided it was perhaps time to properly take a break. He still hadn’t made peace with the seventh-wave demon, but he felt that he yet again didn’t know that he didn’t know something. And knowing that he didn’t know that he didn’t know something didn’t make the situation any better.
So he brainstormed all the things that he wanted to do.
The first thing that immediately crossed his mind was the mountains. He wanted to climb one. And he was pretty confident that this time he could.
So he did. And got hit by lightning almost every time he went up there. However, he didn’t relent on this one. The mountains were impossibly tall. The tops of the mountains seemed to just peter out into thinner and thinner, almost spiky points that went high above the clouds. And above the clouds was… Nothing. The sky just didn’t exist. It was such all-encompassing, all-consuming darkness that the horizons seemed to come together into a point at the edges.
Neave took a long time to wrap his mind around what he was seeing, or rather not seeing up above the clouds. And he just couldn’t. But the view of the clouds from above was spectacular.
He got the crazy idea to try jumping off the mountain. There was a somewhat expensive movement technique he could use to slow down the speed at which he fell. So he jumped off the tallest peak he could find and, well, he flew above the clouds. It wasn’t quite flying, he looked ridiculous flapping his legs rapidly and he was still falling, just slower, so it was more accurate to say he was gliding.
It made no difference to Neave. He drifted high, high above the clouds and he felt hope for the first time in a while. At least he could witness sights like this if he couldn't beat the demon. He rather quickly ran out of qi and dropped down into the clouds.
Where he got hit by lightning again.
He didn’t appear at the start wallowing in despair this time. But rather he hoped, so fiercely hoped that he would find something else to admire the way he admired the clouds.
His journey took him far, far out into the hellscape. Once he reached the foundation realm, the space that he could explore multiplied exponentially. He didn’t explore all of it, because he did get bored rather quickly. After all, it just seemed to be more of the same.
Neave went into the caves next. He’d done this before already, but all he did back then was run as far as visibility permitted it and then kept running. Eventually, he either got impaled by a spike, dropped into a pit, fell into toxic liquids, or ran into noxious gasses. Now, however, he realized that perhaps he should've taken care of the visibility problem first.
He got the brilliant idea to use a true strike. The glowing runes that were created in the air around him would provide excellent lighting for a few moments until they disappeared. This only gave him a few seconds of visibility at a time, but that was enough for him to memorize where he could and couldn't go. After exploring the caves like this for a while he realized just how dumb this was.
If an expert cultivator heard of what Neave was doing they would probably die from shock. Using true strikes to light up a cave for a few seconds was like using a priceless cultivation manual to swat mosquitoes.
It was also impossibly inefficient because he could have just materialized some life force in his palm and used the light from that.
Which he did with a small bit of shame at his foolishness.
After exploring countless caves in the vicinity of the starting area, Neave had started moving out into the further reaches. The reason why was simple. It was quite fascinating. There were some breathtakingly beautiful sights Neave had witnessed in the harsh underground environment.
Stalactites and stalagmites of colorful glass reflected the soft glow of the life force on his palm in wonderful ways. He witnessed beautiful underground waterfalls (or rather, blood, acid, pus, and oozefalls) and lakes. Whirlwinds of colorful gasses and even lava! Beautiful, shiny, molten hot lava! It was hot! Warmth! Something he hadn't properly felt in forever.
There was a room where the ceiling was constantly dripping acid and it created this mesmerizing cloud of soft mist and sparkling rain. Poisonous and lethal, but regardless, awe-inspiring.
There was a positively massive room where several waterfalls of different liquids were pouring into a massive lake of lava.
And then Neave found a wall. Not a natural wall, but a stone wall with strange writing on it.
At first, he thought it was just another cool detail he had spotted. Then he paused.
Wait a fucking minute.
He slowly turned around and stared at the wall, mouth agape. Then he pointed at the wall.
That’s a wall. That’s a fucking wall, someone made that wall!
Then he paused again.
The suspension bridge! Wait, there’s a suspension bridge nearby! Why is there a suspension bridge?
He had never noticed. He, of course, noticed the suspension bridge being there, but what’s wrong with that? It was just an old decrepit bridge that was already rotting and falling apart. But it was a bridge! It was something made by somebody. A thing of wood and rope! And a thing of being fucking created by someone!
Neave had explored as far out as two weeks of running at immense speed away from the starting area. But he had never seen even a single man-made object besides that bridge. Or was it man-made? Demon-made? This entire hellscape was just a wild area belonging to nothing and nobody. Except for a suspension bridge. And now a wall.
And also very likely, something behind the wall as well.
Neave hesitated and wondered how he would find the entrance to whatever was behind the wall. For a few seconds, the confusion and excitement made him worry that damaging the wall would mean losing the writing. But then he realized that if he died the entire thing would just be fixed anyway. So Neave used a true strike and punched through the wall.
The wall collapsed and a room opened before Neave. He couldn’t see into the room since the light from the life force was too weak.
Neave was going to just materialize more life force so he can see better but he facepalmed as he once again realized how stupid he was.
Why didn’t I just materialize qi!?
The golden glow of qi sitting on his palm was a lot brighter than the pale red glow of the life force. And Neave stepped into the room. At first, the large open space just seemed like an old empty stone cathedral of sorts. But then he saw the statues lining the walls.
Twisted things with tiny holes instead of features for faces.
Their limbs were horrible writhing masses of twisting shapes reaching out to grab Neave.
They wiggled and scraped at their bodies.
Then all their heads instantly snapped in Neave’s direction
Neave stared at Jillean.
“Oh, hell fucking no you don’t.”
And then he just ran back to the wall and smashed it again. He sprinted into the room and stared at the statues again. They still looked the same, but they were not moving. Neave felt a similar sense of unease when looking at them, but nothing like what he’d felt before.
… Did I just imagine all of that?
Yeah, there is literally no way.
He wasn’t buying the act. These things must be pretending to be just statues now.
“Was it because I walked in confidently this time, hmmm? Can’t intimidate me now, hmmmmmm!?” But they were still motionless.
“How did you kill me? Did you kill me? Are you all some sort of guardians of this realm? Answer my questions!” Neave angrily ran at the statues and pushed them around, attempted to tickle their deformed-looking toes, slapped the statues, and so on, but they remained motionless.
Then he climbed up onto one of them and tried pushing at its head while bracing his legs against the wall behind it.
“Oh, I’m gonna push you over.” Neave groaned with effort. “I’m so gonna fucking push you over. I’m gonna do it!” But try as he may, the statue wasn’t going anywhere.
“Fine then, you asked for this!” He then delivered the slowest, most powerful true strike he could execute. It looked quite ridiculous as his fist traveled ponderously through the air, but the brightness of the runes surrounding Neave indicated that this strike was certainly no joke. As his fist connected with the statue, the shockwave cracked the floor beneath Neave’s feet and the force that traveled through the statue collapsed the wall behind it, revealing more dirt and stone. The backlash made Neave's spirit falter.
But there wasn’t even a scratch on the statue itself.
Neave blew at his arm as it smoked after that punch.
“What the hell are you made of!?”
Neave looked around at the other statues too. He spent a while longer messing around and attempting to get them to move or do anything at all, but they truly seemed to be little more than just very tough statues. He sighed and sat down. There was something that he noticed in one corner of the room. There seemed to be more emptiness there. The same emptiness as the sky above the clouds. He approached it and even tried touching it but no matter what he did, his hands always ended up touching the ground next to the empty spot.
He tried shining more of the qi light at it to see what was hiding there, but it just didn’t work. In his desperation, he tried adding life force to the qi to get it to shine brighter.
Then his arms and half his torso blew up. He clicked his tongue as he tried to repair the damage but he collapsed seconds later.
“Shit!” He ran back to the room again.
However, this time the wall was gone.
“Oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” He smashed at the place where the wall used to be but found nothing but stone and dirt behind it.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!” He kept smashing and cursing and despaired again.
He’d thought he finally found something that would give him a clue on how to get out. And then it was whisked away. By what, though? What could have done this? Or rather who could have done this?
What the hell is this place?
He cried himself to unconsciousness as his blood flew out of his shattered arms.
Neave felt a deep loneliness crawl into his heart. For a second, the excitement made him feel like he had finally discovered it.
The secret of this place.
Maybe some sort of backdoor that would allow him to escape. Now it was lost.
And he was still stuck here.
It was becoming harder and harder to move on. Humans were social animals. Even if Neave thought people sucked, they still drove his life.
His asshole of a father motivated him to struggle. The terrible nature of others forced him to seek peace. The countless books he had read were all written by someone.
The sect premises were constructed by someone. His clothes had been made by someone. The horrid, bitter food pills had been prepared by someone. They had also probably been poisoned by someone.
Every worthwhile aspect of his life, for better or worse, was driven by others.
He felt that same drive when he saw the wall. Neave wasn’t even aware until now just how much he had missed that simple thing. The existence of those who created.
These demons only destroyed. The seventh wave demon only copied.
This was a place absent of life in the worst way imaginable.
A place absent of creation. A realm so stagnant and rotten that not even time moved forward.
Neave cursed at himself as he remembered the stupid mistake he’d made. He knew that combining life force and qi was dangerous and that was why he’d never done it before. The books were very explicit in saying that combining qi and life force could have unpredictable and dangerous effects.
Do I scour the entire world in hopes of finding more clues?
Or do I just finally give up?
But then he had an idea. One last desperate thought.
He materialized qi in one hand and life force in another. Then he brought them together. The combination exploded in sharp ice shards that cut into Neave’s arms. Then he did it again. This time it spewed fire in random directions.
If I only fight by combining life force and qi and using the random effects, would the demon try it too and kill itself?
He found the idea somewhat humorous, if not rather desperate. But he entertained it a bit. Perhaps if he got into the habit of using the random effects in combat, the demon would mirror him. The more he thought about it the more he thought the idea had merit. The despair was dispelled in an instant as he latched onto that faint hope. Neave began experimenting.
He combined the energies in a ratio of fifty percent each. That blew a cloud of smoke in his face. Then he did it again. That blew a cloud of smoke all around him.
He was about to do it again but then he froze.
Then he did it again. And this time smoke blew up into the air. Not at his face or around him, but up. It was random, yes, but it was smoke. It wasn’t fire or ice shards, it was smoke! He did it thrice and smoke came out every time.
Then he did it again. A bit of smoke in front of him.
And again. A lot of smoke sank to the ground.
What is happening?
Did that mean that combining qi and life force wasn’t entirely random? Neave used a fifty-fifty ratio for no particular reason, just because it made the most sense. Did this mean that the precise effects of the life force and qi combination depended on the ratio? This was a massive discovery! It was time to move back to the cultivation cave.
Neave combined qi and life force in a one to ninety-nine ratio. Then a two to ninety-eight ratio.
And he sought to discover what every possible combination did.