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Neave sat in the cultivation cave as he held a small mass of qi and life force in each hand. As he brought them together, they spun in an incredibly fast vortex that sucked life force out of Neave’s body at a rapid pace. He couldn’t find a way to stop it.

Restart.

“Fucking shit!”

It had been quite a while since Neave started exploring the different combinations of qi and life force.

Quite the long, long while.

At first, he just went through the combinations of a hundred parts. One part qi and ninety-nine parts life force to ninety-nine parts qi and one part life force. Then he realized that this wasn’t precise enough to be useful in any scenario.

He had first tested the fifty-fifty ratio and discovered that if you do a more exact combination, deliberately controlling the ratio, you can replicate a relatively similar effect. This was true, but fifty-fifty was something of an anomaly. It created smoke, yes, but the range of precise life force to qi combinations was significantly bigger than it was for the overwhelming majority of other effects. And it tended to matter quite a bit less. Smoke was harmless. Jets of liquid fire, ice spikes, lightning, cutting sharp air, and so on were slightly less harmless. The amount and direction might not matter much with just smoke, but it most certainly mattered how big the ice spike that may shoot through your head was.

So a hundred parts weren’t enough. Then he did a thousand parts. From 0.1% to 99.9%. Then even that didn’t seem to be precise enough so he did ten thousand parts. Then he did a hundred thousand parts. Then he did a million parts. And now he was doing ten million parts. 0.00001% to 99.99999%. Even this still felt like it wasn’t enough. He was getting similar enough effects now, but the direction and precise amount seemed to be impossible to control.

There were several combinations where that didn’t matter much. If you used something like the fifty-fifty combination as a smoke screen, it would just be a slightly worse or slightly better one. There was another combination that created something like an intense gust of air in virtually all directions. That could be useful. Contrary to that, there were things like this damn vortex that just killed him. Combinations that were dangerous or lethal regardless of the direction or intensity. And that was an extremely common result.

Neave wasn’t sure whether some high-ranking cultivators knew that life force and qi could be combined in intentional ratios. But he knew that even they probably didn’t dare experiment with it. Neave got killed roughly every five to six combinations on average. And he got injured way more often than that.

He didn’t even find all that many useful ones it seemed. But he kept doing it anyway. For one simple reason. It was fun.

Every time he tried a new ratio he got a new result. Even if most of them were functionally useless, they were still pretty cool more often than not. A massive shower of sparks wasn’t much use to Neave, but damn did it look pretty.

He had taken several pauses with his experimentation just to see how he could use some of the effects in combat. And most of the effects he was trying out were utterly pointless theatrics. Things like taking a stance and then having a mysterious vortex of steam start circling him, or punching and causing a tremendous shower of sparks as if a blacksmith had struck hot iron.

There was even an effect that seemed to cause a really deep and ominous sound that he loved combining with the vortex of steam. He was sure that the overwhelming majority of people who saw someone do that in combat would shit their pants. It gave off the impression of triggering some sort of incredibly dangerous spirit power or combat boost. He was also planning on incorporating a field of static electricity that caused small electric sparks to fly around him into the combo.

However, using three of these effects concurrently was a tremendous challenge. One that he gladly accepted. And eventually even managed to combine. He wasn’t just doing this for fun either, combining the energies down to ten million parts was exceptionally hard. Even his ridiculous control over life force and qi were far from sufficient to do this reliably at first. There was another effect that he desperately wanted to add to the trio.

It was an effect that glowed an ominous red light. Neave could just imagine the scene. He would take a stance, and dust and steam would rise in a vortex around him. Then a low, grumbling, ominous noise started echoing. Sparks of electricity shoot at the ground or random objects surrounding him and finally, he glows with an apocalyptic red light. Perfect. Sadly, however, while the ominous red glow had its pros it also had its cons.

Pros: Cool, awesome, scary, badass.

Cons: Blinding myself by shining brighter than the fucking sun.

Oh well. You win some, you lose some.

Neave eventually went back to his experiments and after a while, he noticed a strange effect. A shimmering of sorts. But not visible shimmering, spiritual shimmering. Neave had no idea what the effect was, but he felt he wasn’t being precise enough with the ratio yet. After hours upon hours of fine-tuning the effect was finally triggered.

Nothing.

Nothing visible at least.

But his spiritual senses were telling him something strange. At first, he thought perhaps his spirit had been injured and that was messing with his senses, but he healed his spirit and still felt the same thing.

Eventually, he brushed it off, thinking it was just an effect that caused a strong sense of spiritual resonance. But he would come back to this one later. He had a list of potentially useful effects he wanted to explore further and he firmly placed this one in the ‘interesting enough to warrant further inspection’ category.

As he kept experimenting eventually he came across something else. Again he felt the same shimmering and he fine-tuned it once more. This time, however, the effect was visible. He created liquid. It was a transparent, shimmering liquid that shone with the most beautiful glow Neave had ever seen. And it yet again gave him that sense of spiritual resonance.

He experimented with this liquid, concluding that it was relatively useless, at least the way it was. Drinking it, combining it with other liquids, and staring at it intensely were certainly not achieving anything. He had hoped it was some sort of holy liquid that could banish the demons but all it did was splash harmlessly on their skin. It sparked though. So that was nice. This one he added to the ‘Potentially useful’ category.

And then he kept going, once again finding another shimmer. And this time after fine-tuning it yet again he created a small, beautiful, transparent crystal.

Neave paused. Then shook as he stared at the ungodly thing he held in his hands.

“Oh… Oh man, oh gods, oh heaven. Thi-this is…”

Crystalized spirit.

The description was the same as the description of monster cores, the only thing it was lacking was the ghastly splashes of color inside of it.

He then thought back to the other two strange effects.

“Holy sweet emperor of the heavens, this is fucking spirit!”

He had created spirit!

Not only had he created crystallized spirit, but he also created ethereal spirit! He remembered the liquid too, mouth agape. Liquid spirit!? That was something that existed!?

This was the single greatest discovery Neave had made in his time within this realm. Spirit was what, well, the spirit was made from. If any cultivator ever discovered that he could do this, they’d trap him and force him to generate as much as he could. His mind whirled with the implications and possibilities and he immediately got to experimenting.

What he found out was exceptionally disappointing, however.

First of all, ethereal spirit was useless for now. It wasn’t like he could just glue it to his spirit with black ooze. He couldn’t even actually manipulate it. He could imagine its application in something like raising a spirit beast or growing a spirit plant. In that regard, it would be priceless.

One would be capable of creating the damn-near-perfect environment for raising something. But here there were no plants, sadly. And he wasn’t holding his breath for the possibility of raising the demons as pets.

A similar thing was also readily apparent with the liquid spirit. Theoretically speaking, liquid spirit would be a priceless substance for alchemy or golem creation. But there were exactly zero alchemy ingredients Neave had access to. He had tried using the noxious liquids but that was just a failure.

Then he reached crystallized spirit. He sighed despondently as he held a small spirit stone in his hand. In reality, this was the one he had the greatest hopes for. But those hopes were dashed almost instantly. Ironically it was the most useful of the three forms of spirit, at least currently.

Spirit stones, or in their more frequently found natural form, monster cores, dissolved when fully submerged in a liquid. That liquid would be granted the properties of a quasi-spirit. A spirit without a soul, that was.

If one chose to melt it within something like water, they’d get a base that could be used for a potion. If they chose to melt it within molten metal when the metal hardens it would gain a quasi-spirit and very likely a special power. And if one chose to melt it within their blood… Well, that was where things got complicated.

Ingesting a monster core in that form would initiate a spirit trial. One would be trapped within their soul realm until they passed the trial. And if one passed the trial, they would acquire a spirit power. Passing the spirit trial effectively meant that you have conquered the will of the original owner of the spirit, or rather the will of the monster the spirit was taken from.

If you failed a trial, you died. If you were lucky, that was.

Monsters do not have an ethereal spirit, but rather a crystalized one. This allowed them to absorb some of the dissipating ethereal spirit and life force of creatures they slayed, which after passing a certain threshold let them evolve. This crystallized in their cores, where all of that power was concentrated. When a monster got killed, a lot of that power was lost, but the core could still develop a spirit power.

Neave had assumed he could do something with crystalized spirit, given that it was the same substance. But…

The situation was sort of like this. If one had a homogenous mixture of every single type of soil in existence, they would theoretically hold all of the ingredients necessary to grow any plant. But did that mean they could turn that soil into every plant?

Nope.

Not without the seeds.

While a seed may seem like a simple thing, it was something of infinite complexity and nuance. It was far from the power of any cultivator to create life from scratch.

Modify it? Sure.

Control it? Absolutely.

Manipulate it? Certainly.

But create it?

No.

As far as the spirit power thing went, it was the way it was. It was the difference between eating plants and soil. The latter achieved nothing but give Neave a stomachache.

This material was still absolutely priceless, Neave knew this. Hell, even he could use it. If he could figure out a way to make a forge, he could create an unbelievably powerful weapon. The thing about monster cores was that they were limited in size. Their size mattered a lot because the bigger they were the better the qi conductivity of weapons created with them would be.

It had other implications for acquiring spirit powers as well, but Neave sadly didn’t come across any texts detailing exactly what it did. He did know that the bigger the monster core was, the greater the potential power it could hold. But that only seemed to be a possibility rather than an inevitability.

It was the weapon creation that Neave cared about currently.

Wielding any weapon made one’s qi circulate through it. A weapon was an extension of a cultivator's body and having extra conductivity meant one could further boost its properties like sharpness, hardness, and momentum. The bigger a monster core got the more powerful the monster was. This made larger monster cores more expensive.

Neave didn’t have to worry about that whatsoever. He could make a spirit stone as big as he wanted, for as long as he had the life force and qi needed, of course. Imbuing a simple iron sword with a spirit stone the size of a pumpkin would make the quality of the weapon out of this world, even if it didn't get any special abilities.

The reason Neave dropped the idea of doing this was simple. It wouldn’t help against the seventh-wave demon. Neave had tried initiating the fight against the demon without holding any weapons. And he had noticed that the demon was a little bit weaker. But the moment he picked up a weapon, the demon either also picked up a weapon itself, or it just got a bit more powerful to compensate for the extra power Neave acquired by holding a weapon.

It was like the demon was designed to always be a certain amount stronger than Neave, no matter what Neave did. And an insanely powerful weapon would probably give the demon a massive power boost.

Neave sat back on the ground and kept combining qi and life force. He wasn’t giving up. He was hoping that he would find some sort of key, some sort of miracle solution, the last piece of the puzzle.

Somewhere deep inside he had a feeling. The feeling that the seventh wave was the final one. The demon was the final obstacle Neave needed to surpass to get out. Whether leaving meant being reincarnated, just being freed from this place, or waking up thinking all of this was just a dream, he didn’t care. The things he’d discovered clawed at something deep inside him, they threw coals on the embers of a fire that burned within. What could he accomplish if he was finally out? What sorts of miracles would he be able to create?

What sort of person would he become?

Desperately, from the deepest part of his soul, he wanted to find out. As he experimented countless attempts passed by in what seemed like moments. And then he saw shimmering again. This time he fine-tuned it and…

Restart.

…?

He tried doing it again. This time he used a lot less qi and life force. Everything went white.

Restart.

“What the…?” Neave tried the combination again, this time putting his hands together behind a large stone and combining his energies again.

White.

A light that penetrated even solid stone. And the stone melted. Then it vaporized. And so did Neave.

Restart.

Neave didn’t think. He voided his mind completely of all thoughts and prevented himself from getting any ideas. He prevented himself from learning anything. Then he moved mechanically over to the suspension bridge. He cut off a length of rope and tied it around the first demon's neck. Then he dragged it to the underground cave with the massive lava pool.

And threw the demon into the lava.

The second-wave demons were dead as soon as they appeared as Neave decimated them using true strikes. The third-wave demons suffered a similar fate. Neave slaughtered the fourth-wave demons and kicked the large one into the pool of lava. Then he stole the swordsman demon's sword in the fifth wave.

The sixth wave started seconds later.

The moment it started, Neave flashed right past the titanic sledgehammer demon and severed its neck. Moments later, the head of the poison archer demon and the throwing dagger demon was on the ground as well. He dodged the spiky ball and then grabbed the chain as the obese demon pulled it back, avoiding the spiky demon in the process.

Then he killed the obese demon. He utterly annihilated the weapon master gang as he dodged and weaved past their strikes. Neave baited the horseman demon to the lava lake and kicked it in, cut the demon horse apart, and thrust the sword through the small dagger demon's heart. He dodged a javelin and grabbed it out of the air, throwing it right back into the demon's head.

The rest of the fight was just slaughter.

As the reaper demon appeared, Neave feigned a true strike, but then he just dropped his sword.

“Hey, Reaper, catch!” He then kicked the pommel of the sword and it went flying through the reaper demon’s neck.

As the reaper fell lifelessly to the ground, behind him, the final demon arrived.

“Hello there, my beautiful disciple!” Neave mocked the demon.

“Have you come for yet another lesson in martial arts?” Neave stood still and kept calling to the demon.

“Well sorry to say it, but today you aren’t getting one. As strong as you may be, you will never be more than the pale shadow of myself. And in the time it takes the shadow to fall on the ground beneath my feet, I’m going to end this. Once and for all.”

Neave had no idea how he was going to win this game. But he had vowed to figure it out on the spot.

It was so simple, all along. All he needed was to figure it out before the demon could copy him.

Neave started walking toward the demon. And the demon started sprinting toward Neave. Neave appeared behind the demon's back but the demon turned around immediately. Then Neave fused life force and qi just as the demon was about to reach him. A mighty gust of wind pushed both Neave and the demon away at incredible speeds. But while Neave was pushed into the hard wall, the demon was pushed far over the fire lake.

It slowed its descent, twisted mid-air, and used a movement technique to dash toward Neave. It wasn’t enough to cross the immense fire lake, but it didn’t need to be. It used the water walking movement technique to walk toward Neave. The only reason it even let itself be flung over the fire lake was that it knew it couldn’t be truly pushed into it, the same way Neave knew he couldn’t. However…

Neave jumped off the wall toward the shore of the lake and forged a massive spirit stone, right about the size of his head at a pretty great price of qi and life force. Then he just threw it in the lake. It plopped into the lava and disappeared.

Question: What happens when someone uses the water walk technique on a liquid that has a quasi-spirit?

He grinned maniacally.

Answer: I have no fucking idea.

The demon had almost reached the shore of the lake, but as the stone plopped into the lava, the demon instantly froze as if paralyzed and belly-flopped right into the lava. Neave could practically feel the spiritual backlash that interaction had caused.

The demon started moving again. The lava boiled its skin, but it was already crawling back to the shore. Neave picked up the executioner's sword and tried to behead the demon, but it dodged every attempt with all the force it could muster. As Neave’s swings grew more rapid it was forced to block the attacks. Neave used several true strikes to chop half of its arm off. And then the demon finally left the lake. It screamed.

Neave swung the executioner's blade at the demon, but it used a fluid movement to move underneath the horizontal strike and kick the blade out of Neave’s hands.

Neave cursed.

“Is this still not fucking enough!?” He forced himself to focus and just kept fighting the demon. It was already recovering from a lot of the damage it had received, but this cost it a lot of life force. A silver lining to fighting a demon that copied all of Neave’s techniques was that Neave perfectly understood everything the demon was doing.

Even the consequences.

But still, the demon kept up with Neave and he felt like it was a good deal stronger than he was even in its current state. This was still the absolute best attempt Neave had ever made against the demon and he knew it wasn’t going to work twice. He already instinctively knew how he would avoid falling for these traps, so the demon wouldn’t make the same mistakes twice. This was his chance and he had to use it.

But the demon was just too strong. Neave quickly started losing ground as his exhaustion caught up with him.

And despair crawled into his heart once again.

He felt deep inside that this was truly his final chance. The call of the void was echoing in his ears and he felt the pull of the catatonic state take him over again. He readied himself for a strike, but the demon took a slash with its one good arm and Neave had his chest torn open. Then he was just a little too slow to dodge a kick and it cracked something in his ribs. The demon used a true strike which Neave dodged with all the force he could muster, but the implosion of air still made the world go dark in Neave’s eyes…

Shackled by your skeleton.

Shackled by your mind.

Shackled by eternity and infinite time.

Freedom belongs not to the realm of the living.

The living shackled by potential’s shine.

Those shackled by power.

Dancing like fools to fate’s rhymes.

It desires not liberty from the pain.

It just wants to be shackled by shinier chains.

Neave didn’t collapse from the backlash. He instead lunged at the demon, bordering on unconsciousness. It swung at his back and its claws sank deep, severing Neave’s spine. But Neave just hugged the demon.

Behind the demon's back, blinding white light started to shine.

Restart.

Restart?

Neave felt tired and every muscle hurt. He was lying on the ground and he felt like he had smacked his head quite hard on the floor. Adrenaline was flushed through his body and he opened his eyes. Then he lifted his head.

And saw every member of the Zearthorn sect standing in the courtyard.

Staring at him.

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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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