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Neave made a tremendous mistake. He had greatly overestimated himself. Spending countless years trapped, fighting against demonic entities did wonders for one's confidence in their fighting skills. However, this was no demon hell realm where death meant going back in time.

This was reality.

And in reality, if you died, you better hoped that you didn’t get back up again.

Neave had climbed up a few meters off the ground and hid in a hole in a large tree. He had to fight some birds for the right to enter and given that he found even that difficult, it was obvious that he had seen better days.

He had repurposed a leafed branch into a flimsy cover that barely even hid him from the outside, but he was rather small and the hole in the tree still made it impossible to spot him from the ground.

He was panting and sweating heavily as he did his best to keep both his body and soul from falling apart on him. His left arm was missing, he was cut and bruised all over his body, and his spirit had suffered way too much damage. All of that was secondary to stopping the toxic qi from rotting his body apart.

Neave was scarily low on life force. He only had about half of it left and that was not a good thing when you had to live with the consequences. Kamella’s ring sat on the wood next to Neave as he glanced at it in desperation.

The damn spiritual damage he had taken made it impossible to use the ring. And he couldn’t spare any life force to fix his spirit because not only was he extremely low, but he also needed every advantage he could get in his fight against the toxic qi.

However, although he was hanging onto dear life, his situation at least seemed to be stabilizing. He had constructed an extremely complex set of qi barriers to stop the spread of the poison and at least some parts of his body were recovering, albeit very slowly. This stability, however, wasn’t going to last forever.

He needed food. It had been such a long time since he’d eaten anything that he had forgotten that needing to do that was a thing. So he brainstormed his options. He’d need at least another ten percent of his life force to fix his spirit so he could use the ring, but he was afraid that might potentially make him unable to fight off the poison and recover from his wounds.

Then he finally remembered. He put his arm into his robes and he discovered a small container of food pills. He had forgotten he had them on him. This he could work with. He popped a few of the small pills into his body and soon he felt the change. It was incredible. Neave never knew the effects of just eating something could be this miraculous. His life force was restored just a tiny little bit, his body had regained some energy and he even felt his control over his qi strengthen, although by a very small amount.

None of these things were what he was excited about, however.

Properly recovering from realizing potential was what he was truly waiting for. Once you’ve trained, it was rest, eat, and sleep. Then you finally got to reap the benefits of what you’ve accomplished.

Neave finally, for the first time in countless years allowed himself to sleep. He didn’t sleep long as he couldn’t rest easy, but the moment he opened his eyes, he grinned and sank into his spiritual senses.

And it was truly remarkable.

It was like a cocoon of qi strands was wrapped all around his spirit. Strictly speaking, in a single day, he had technically realized the potential of countless years of work. For his outer spirit and body, the time loop never even happened.

So all in a single day, he had mastered swordsmanship, dueling, movement techniques, true strikes, life force, qi manipulation, an immensely powerful qi shroud, and even managed to contain a great amount of toxic qi. All of this was like a fluffy cloud of power surrounding his spirit.

And all he had to do now was just grab enough of that potential to break into the iron path. It wouldn’t grow his arm back, eject the toxic qi, or recover his life force, but it would almost completely restore the damage to his body and spirit.

So he grabbed a single thread of qi.

And then he died. Or so he believed he did. He wasn’t quite dead yet, but his situation immediately started deteriorating. He desperately grabbed for his life force, but he felt like his control of it was compromised. In his panic, he poured the life force into his spirit, restricting it to one thing.

Annihilating the potential he had just reaped.

The qi strand was severed and his soul recoiled from suffering additional damage. However, his control over his qi and life force was restored. The toxic qi was already spreading all over his body and Neave simply didn’t have enough qi to control it entirely.

He didn’t hesitate. He further poured life force into his spirit to recover it. When his spirit recovered he grabbed Kamella's ring. He could feel his body rotting and falling apart as he desperately scoured the ring for anything that could help him.

And he found it.

Tucked away in a deep corner of the pocket dimension was a small pill that was completely enclosed within a bubble of glass. It was utterly contained so it wouldn’t lose any of its value.

Neave couldn’t tell exactly what the pill was at a glance, but he knew that certain healing pills were contained like that. He grabbed the object and shattered it on the wood. Then he grabbed the pill and popped it into his mouth.

The toxic qi didn’t leave his body. It wasn’t even affected directly. Neave could tell that this was a potent healing pill as the impact yet again dealt further damage to his spirit. The pill was too high rank for his spirit to fully handle it, but he didn’t care about that. Despite it not affecting the poison, it was directly competing with it to fix Neave’s body. And it was winning this competition handily

There was yet another effect, however, and Neave was not too pleased to discover it. It was also restoring his qi. This would usually be a good thing, but it was pouring far, far too much of it into his spirit. He kept a very tiny trickle of life force pouring into his spirit to keep it intact as he rapidly ejected the qi out of his body. He used every bit of his energy manipulation skills to utilize the qi flood to wash the toxic qi out of his body with it. Eventually, his situation finally stabilized.

His spirit was fully intact and his body had recovered from all of the minor injuries, although he was still missing his arm, and the toxic qi had been fully ejected from his body.

But his life force was extremely low. He only had about twenty percent of his life force remaining. If he didn’t have such impeccable control of his life force, Neave knew that it would already be leaking from his body on its own.

What the hell just happened!?

Neave was utterly bewildered. He had never heard of cultivation being detrimental to someone’s spiritual senses! And that wasn’t a little detrimental either, in an instant, his spirit senses dropped to less than a fifth of their usual power.

He sank back into his spirit senses and warily observed the qi shroud surrounding his spirit.

Could he have grasped the wrong kind of potential? That was a stupid thought. Something else had happened to his spirit. Neave hadn’t bothered cultivating after he realized he couldn’t make any progress back in the loop, so it had been a long, long time since he had looked at his qi core. And what he saw was… Incredible.

It was a soft, perfectly stable ball of soft light. He remembered the way his core looked when he first broke into the foundation realm. It would ripple and shine in a morphing, mesmerizing pattern. There was absolutely none of that now. His spirit core was like the sun in the sky.

Eternal, stable, and never-changing.

He struggled to come to terms with it, but he knew what this meant.

Over the years stuck in the loop, through all the practice he’d done, his soul had gained perfect control over his qi core. However, if he added more qi strands to that core, the balance would be disturbed.

This must be the reason why his spirit senses and energy control were so acute.

Did this mean that he couldn’t make progress unless he sacrificed his spirit senses? If so, that sucked. His spirit senses and energy control were his greatest power. Without them, he could no longer use the movement techniques, true strikes, and manipulate life force with such ease.

He sighed despondently and smacked the back of his head into the wood behind him.

“Fuck this…”

He would look for a way to circumvent this limitation later. It wasn’t a particularly big deal to him at the moment. He’d live for at least another ten years even with a life force like this. There was plenty of time to figure it out. Besides, even though he lacked life force and an arm, he was fully confident in being the match of most first-step silver path cultivators. And in most places, that was a lot of power to have. He felt excitement bubble deep within him and he couldn’t hold himself back anymore.

Neave jumped out of the tree. It was a serene morning in the forest. The trees were tall, the ground was rather flat and the grass smelled great. He took a deep breath and screamed out.

“I’m finally fucking freeeee!”

He was finally, indeed, fucking free!

No more hellish loop, no more awful sect!

He ran and frolicked around the forest, kissing the wondrous trees and smelling the spring flowers. Neave had so much he wanted to discover and experiment with. But as he kept running around, the excitement slowly subsided. He felt a strange, ominous sensation. Neave looked around him. The forest felt silent. There was nothing there.

Nothing was chasing after him.

But that couldn’t be the case, could it?

There had to be something, lurking somewhere within the shadows. Neave sighed. He was just being paranoid. It had been so long since he could just exist in peace.

For now, he wasn’t willing to sacrifice his spirit senses and that was in no small part because he could create spirit.

Neave could create spirit.

While that power hadn’t helped him much in the hellish loop, outside in the real world, having that power was a different story altogether. The moment he solved the problem of his limited life force supply he would be in the possession of something incredible. His swordsmanship may be impressive and his other tricks were certainly worthy of a legendary figure.

But the ability to create spirit was something truly godlike. This was a power he could only imagine belonging to the gods. Who knew? Maybe not even the gods could create spirit the way he could. He didn’t create any great plans for now, however.

Neave climbed up the tallest tree he could find nearby. He still had the strength to do it, but his lacking life force made him significantly slower and weaker. Once he climbed up the tree he looked over in the direction of the mountain his sect was built under. Everywhere around him, he could see hills and mountains in the distance.

The Yixine Empire was a very mountainous region. Deep valleys, massive rivers, deadly forests, and mighty mountains were scattered all over the northern side of the Xinkummar continent.

It was an inhospitable place for mortals. Mortals still lived in cities under the protection of larger sects, like the Zearthorn sect, but even that hung on thin threads. The Yixine Empire was a mountainous region, yes, but it was also a very cavernous one as well. And monsters thrived in the underground.

Neave made it quite far from the Zearthorn sect’s premises. He used more of Kamella’s qi restoration potion last night, ignoring the damage to his spirit, and then he used a rather qi-intensive sustained movement technique that allowed him to move a lot faster in a straight line. It wasn’t a movement technique on its own, but rather a well-timed combination of three minor movement techniques. He’d rarely used it while stuck in the loop since, well, he wasn’t really in a rush to go anywhere.

He ran for well over an hour and made it quite a few miles away from the sect. Now he was looking around the mountains, trying to find where it was so he could orient himself.

But he couldn’t find it. He glanced past the mountain his sect was built under several times until he finally recognized it.

The sect was gone.

Neave knew where the sect should be, it was a relatively flat valley next to the mountain. But looking at the place where the sect was, it just looked… Gray. All he could see in the place of the sect was barren stone.

“What the fuck!?” He was truly shocked. The sect was just… Gone?

“What the hell happened after I left last night?” He couldn’t help but laugh. Did some great calamity seriously befall the sect the moment he’d run away?

Neave vaguely remembered seeing a flash of blue light while he was hiding in the tree last night. He had thought he was just delirious and had thus imagined it, but now he was no longer so sure.

Deep anxiety flooded him. His heart beat faster. His mind raced and he remembered the book.

“Did that hardcover fucking explode?” Neave had to wonder. He pushed these thoughts aside for now. He couldn’t shake it off his mind, however. Neave didn’t want to be responsible for the sect’s destruction. He didn’t want to be just another destroyer.

There were plenty of cultivators exactly like the ones he had killed still in the sect. But there were plenty of creators there as well. He hoped his father wasn’t dead at least. And Harel.

Neave was grateful to Harel for saving him. And Marven… Well, he did spare Neave’s life yesterday. And he also killed those elders that tried running after him. Neave still hated his father, but he wasn’t quite as angry at him anymore.

He put the mystery of what happened to the sect aside and focused on what he was trying to do. Neave thought back to all the maps of the empire that he had memorized. The empire was truly a gigantic place. But Neave was also a gigantic nerd. He thought of the map of the area surrounding the sect.

Neave straightened his finger in front of his body and pointed towards the sect. Then he moved his arm leftward until he moved it a hundred and thirty degrees from the sect. Right in that direction, he could find the nearest settlement that wasn’t under the protection of the Zearthorn sect.

A medium-sized town by the name of Pavarrie. And then past that town, Neave would be slowly making his way to a certain place. It wouldn’t be easy making it there, given the distance and danger involved, but if he wanted a place of opportunity, that was where he was going to find it.

His direction was Keyishin. The capital of the Yixine Empire.

Neave descended from the tree and started walking towards Pavarrie. Just because he knew where to go, it didn’t mean that getting there would be easy. He would have to make it through a stretch of wild land that wasn’t under the protection of any sect. And that was a dangerous proposition.

He walked next to a pond and looked into it.

“Oh fuck!” His appearance genuinely jump scared him. Being this low on life force was quite detrimental to one’s looks. Your skin shriveled up, your eyes sank and you generally just looked like you were dying from some sort of horrible disease. Neave looked back at the reflection of his face in the pond.

“Dear heavens.” He looked… Evil. Like some sort of maniac forest cultist. His pink hair had lost a lot of its luster and his face just looked like it belonged to someone who ate children for breakfast. Couple that with his missing arm and he might have to come up with a plan if he wanted to move around settlements without trouble. He shook his head and continued making his way through the forest.

Not even five minutes of slowly making his way through the woods, he encountered it. The most horrible creature in the entire world.

A slime.

It was a small, green, gooey fella that was ponderously rolling across the grass. Neave’s face lit up. It was a slime! He had never seen a slime before! Or any monster for that matter.

Monsters are usually rated in three categories. They have their calamity rating, their value rating, and their power rating. Calamity ratings ranged from E to S+, or rather from ‘harmless’ to ‘threatening the existence of one or more continents’. The value rating used the same system and ranged from worthless to priceless.

And finally, the power rating went from none to diamond. None meaning a mortal could kill it and diamond meaning that a cultivator on the diamond path was needed for its extermination. The calamity rating and the power rating were separate for a simple reason. Just because a monster was strong, it doesn’t mean its powers or predisposition were suited for mass destruction. And just because a monster was weak, it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be extremely dangerous to large amounts of mortals or weak cultivators.

Slimes were at the absolute bottom of this hierarchy. However, even though their calamity rating was E, they had something of an honorary rating. Calamity rating of U. As in ‘Ultimate threat to the existence of this realm’. Slimes were the primordial monster. They absorbed substance and organic matter, growing in power and evolving depending on what they consumed. Every single other monster originated from slimes.

But yeah, on their own they were pretty harmless.

“Who is a little cutie? You are! Yes, you are!” Neave baby talked to the slime, then he picked it up and carried it in his one arm. What he was currently doing was immensely taboo. Not even a demonic sect could get away with showing a single hint of favoritism toward any monsters. Tame monsters or raising them had been attempted many times before.

Every single time, hundreds of lives were lost at the absolute least. And millions in the worst cases.

Neave just didn’t care. He wasn’t going to tame the slime, but at the end of the day, he was still a kid. And slimes were very bouncy and fun. Regardless of their apocalyptic nature. He got bored of the slime very quickly and then proceeded to throw it at a tree. It blew apart in a puddle of goo and Neave grabbed the tiny, fingernail-sized crystal within. Its monster core.

Monster cores were made up of crystalized spirit, the same spirit he could produce. Well, not the same spirit he could produce. This one looked very misshapen and clumpy, kind of like an average pebble. But it had little splotches of color inside the crystal structure that slowly shifted and morphed. The spirit Neave could produce was entirely transparent. Neave was so tempted to try experimenting with his spirit, but he held himself back.

He couldn’t afford to waste any life force until he fixed his problem.

Neave threw the small monster crystal away. It was practically worthless anyway. Then he strolled into the woods, keeping both eyes wide open in case he spotted any real threats. He knew damn well plenty were waiting for him.

Not even an hour of walking later, he ran into another critter that was usually at the bottom of the food chain. An abominid. These were not cute at all. Abominids were occasionally vaguely humanoid in shape, with awfully misshapen limbs and nasty skin. They had quite a variety of colors and shapes to them. The one Neave was looking at was blue. Its left arm was a little longer than its right. And it had three legs. Something akin to wings was growing out of its back, but it was far from a functional limb.

He sighed. The appearance of an Abominid meant he was getting into or close to the wild zone. Abomininds could evolve into goblins among many other nasty things. Neave couldn’t help but be excited at the prospect of encountering some of these nasty things for himself.

He scoured Kamella’s ring again. Sadly, he’d lost the sword he’d picked from the ring in the fight against Kaphor, but there were a few other slightly inferior swords in there as well. Still quite high quality, however. He picked a steel shortsword from the ring, sighing at his choice. He would very much prefer a longsword or even a greatsword since he was more used to larger weapons. And shortswords were lame.

He needed to adjust to his lacking arm and life force. however. He killed the abominid and just walked past it, not even bothering to take the monster's core. He casually browsed the inside of Kamella’s ring for a bit, keeping inventory of everything he could use. There were a lot of simple resources, but it most certainly wasn’t all of Kamella’s property. It just seemed to be a lot of things that would be handy to have on one’s person, which suited Neave just fine. It was around seventy percent full. The space inside wasn’t that large either, so Neave soon had a good picture of everything that was inside it.

And he frowned upon spotting one object. A cloak. It was a pitch-black cloak made of mundane material.

“What a bloody ominous thing to be carrying around.” Neave however, liked it quite a bit. He shortened both the cloak itself as well as its sleeves with the short sword and put it on. One sleeve hung empty. He had to use the strings and an improvised rope sash to fit it properly to his small body. But the extra size didn’t bother him. It looked incredibly suspicious and Neave couldn’t help but giggle at his looks. He’d stick out like a sore, ominous thumb in any settlement he walked into. Neave could however think of several ways to turn that into an advantage.

For now, he kept walking through the woods, killing several abominids and just ignoring the slimes. This part of the forest was extremely unusual, however. There were no monsters besides abominids and slimes. And there were no spirit beasts. That could only mean a few things.

And soon enough, he found a band of orcs wandering through the woods.

***

Marven rejected Harel hundreds of times as she practically begged him to become her master. If he just didn’t want to become her master, she could live with that. But his self-deprecation was just driving her insane. She didn’t fully give up, even though she did take a break.

She’d make him crack eventually.

They hadn’t gone that far from the sect at all. At first, Harel thought Marven was just too depressed to get going, but eventually, she grew suspicious.

She asked him several times why they were just sitting and waiting. He simply ignored her questions every time. Not just that, but he seemed… Nervous. So Harel just shut up and waited together with him.

Eventually, she saw Marven take a deep breath and exhale as he got up to his feet. At first, she thought he was getting ready to leave.

Until she spotted the man standing in front of them. He hadn’t made a single sound when he appeared and Harel jolted upon seeing him. He was a tall, muscular man with a stern face and a few gray hairs in his beard and hair. Marven bowed, first overhand, and greeted him.

“Greetings, Emperor.”

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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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