Harel was quite confident that platinum-rank cultivators didn’t need even an hour of sleep a day.
She was only on the silver path and she didn’t even need four hours.
But Marven slept for over twelve hours a day.
It had been nearly a week since they set off on their ‘journey’. In reality, the very moment they reached the first settlement the journey had practically ended. They were staying at an inn. The innkeeper was charging them utterly insane prices for staying here, mostly because their, or rather, Marven's presence had chased all the other patrons away.
Harel didn’t understand prices since she never really dealt with money. But according to Marven, he was being charged three times over what it would cost to fill the entire inn. But he was so obscenely rich that that was still chump change for him.
People were frightened of Marven. If not for the fact that he had annihilated his own sect, then for his utterly horrid physical appearance.
Even though he slept for over twelve hours a day, he constantly looked like he hadn’t slept a wink. Marven had eyebags practically reaching his lips, his hair was greasy and matted, while both his breath and just he in general stank from several rooms away.
For the first few days of their stay here, Harel had to listen to him cry practically all day. On one such occasion, he ran out of the room panicked, and knelt in front of her.
“Why did… Why did I do it!? What…” He grabbed his heart in anguish, “What would have Kashimir..? What went through their heads in those moments? I killed them. In cold blood, I killed them, my own children. I am… What am I? Some sort of monster? Why would I do that?” He then smacked his head on the floor so hard the floorboards cracked. “I… I am unredeemable. They were the way they were because of me, it was my fault. Who the hell did I think I was to judge them like that!?” Then he got up off the floor. “I have to find them. I have to find the rest of them and beg for their forgiveness. If they want they can take my head, but I am determined to make things right.” Then he dramatically marched out of the inn.
Harel hadn’t even moved the entire time, nor had she chased after him.
Marven returned half an hour later, carrying several bottles of hard liquor. Then he crashed on his bed and fell asleep. Again.
Something like this happened several times throughout the first few days. And honestly, Harel wished that hadn’t changed. Now she was woken up in the middle of the night by moaning. And soon after that, five scantily dressed women rushed out of Marven’s room and he chased them out in anger.
“Get out of my room you whores! You will never replace what I had!” Then he cried. Again.
Harel did want to help him, or be there for him, or do anything, but what was she supposed to do? She was a thirteen-year-old kid. And what little life experience she had was almost entirely spent holding a sword. What could she do for a several hundred-year-old man that was struggling with such grief and guilt?
Nothing. She couldn’t do anything at all.
Harel still felt indebted to Marven for everything he’d done for her, so she didn’t want to leave him. But her training had to continue, one way or another. At first, she just practiced her swordsmanship in her room, trying to visualize the movements she saw Neave execute.
She could remember the movements, sure, but recreate them?
Everything from how he adjusted his posture, to the edge alignment, to the sword's trajectory, to the unreasonable amount of force and speed the strikes were capable of demonstrating. All of it felt like it was a lifetime of practice away for her.
Let alone doing all that while standing on the points of glass shards.
But just visualizing those movements was enough. Just remembering the feeling they gave off was enough to help with her progress. She quickly exhausted this source of inspiration, however. And the room was pretty damn cramped anyway.
Harel then decided that perhaps taking a stroll around this town could help her find at least a solid location for training. There was a sort of open-arena training ground, but she was sadly overqualified for that. Challenging iron path cultivators and utterly kicking their asses wasn’t a great source of improvement.
Eventually, she decided that leaving the town was the better option. And this proved to indeed be a good source of improvement.
It also proved to be a pretty big source of life-threatening danger.
The woods within any sect's area of influence were kept meticulously clean and empty of monsters. The Zearthorn sect’s area of influence wouldn’t become dangerous for another few months at least. But there were plenty of caves loaded with monsters to go around. And a whole lot of danger within.
Harel had faced gigantic bats, massive centipedes, giant slimes, nasty abominds and these were the things that weren’t a threat. Then she encountered a giant rock golem.
They were technically a silver-rank threat, so it should have been appropriate for her level of advancement. Who could have known that a low-quality sword was a poor weapon of choice for a giant creature made of stone?
She was doing great at first. Until her sword snapped like a twig. Then she was unarmed and surrounded by so many monsters she couldn’t even count them. Those were minor issues.
The bigger issue was the blade golem that had just appeared. A high gold rank threat. A steel golem with countless sharp limbs and protrusions.
She moved as fast as she possibly could. Usually, a golem’s greatest weakness was its lack of speed. This was yet another such case. But a high gold rank threat could still run her down with little issue.
Even if it was too slow to reach her, a blade golem wasn’t dangerous due to its speed. It kept firing sharp shards of steel at her as she desperately dodged and weaved around them. She was quite sensitive to sword qi so she could feel the blades coming, but even then she was just barely fast enough to avoid getting shredded to pieces. Very quickly, cuts of all sizes started appearing all over her body. She was bleeding out and there was no way she could reach the entrance of the cave on time.
Then a gust of wind blew by her. And the blade golem was shredded to pieces.
Marven stood behind her, holding a large sword in his hands. Then he sighed.
“Was I so pathetic you’d rather kill yourself in a monster-infested cave than tolerate my behavior?”
“No, I just–”
“It’s alright. I do not blame you. You are a child, Harel. Yet another person who was my responsibility…”
“... And yet another person I’ve failed.”
Harel grit her teeth. She wasn’t going to listen to this crap anymore.
“Please just shut up already.”
Marven frowned and turned around, shock clear on his face. Harel continued talking as she walked towards him, robes bloody. Her eyes were sharp and so was her tongue.
“Yes, I agree. You were a terrible sect master. And I agree that the sect was your responsibility. So!? What!?” Harel threw her hands out. “SO!? WHAT!? Is your plan now to just mope around endlessly!? What will it be next, thirty women? Or will you start doing drugs as well, when the alcohol stops being enough?”
Marven looked like he was about to get angry, but Harel interrupted him.
“No, no, no… NO! I’m not done yet! My life experience may not measure up to a twentieth of your own, but I’ve had plenty of time to learn one important thing. Whenever I say ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I suck at swordsmanship’ I feel a small little pang of satisfaction, relief even. Good! I suck at the sword, so I don’t even need to try! Trying is hard, being more is HARD! I’d rather be told that I have no potential whatsoever because when I’m told that I do, that means I HAVE TO FREAKING LIVE UP TO IT!” She reached Marven and pointed her finger at his face. She was a little taller than he was. “You want to know why your sect never improved, but only kept getting worse? Do you want to know why you haven’t made a single step of progress in your cultivation for hundreds of years? Because you’ve told yourself it's impossible. I get that you’re sad and I understand that you had to grieve.” Harel turned around and started walking away. “But I don’t want to be tied to a sinking stone.” Then she paused. “So choose, Marv. What are you going to do?”
Neave stood at the place he usually restarted the loop. But there was no demon. The sky no longer had a red glow to it. Everything was dark. He took a stroll around the place he called home for so many years. All the liquid had either dried up or turned fully black. No more creeks or rivers flowed down the valleys. And almost everything was covered in thick obsidian growth.
Ģē ƜƜƜ Ƨҿҿҿҿҿҿҿҿҿ….
Neave didn’t think much.
He just followed the noise. The obsidian growth slowed down his progress, but he took his time.
“I am coming. Please be patient.”
Neave painstakingly made his way through the endless obsidian shrubbery. Then he reached the entrance of a cave. Obsidian growth was so thick within the cave that Neave had to use true strikes to break through and keep moving. He walked through the dark, empty, cold cave.
And reached the hidden wall. It had already collapsed.
He punched through it, after all.
And now he walked inside. There were no more statues.
They had already moved on.
So Neave walked around the room. It was almost the same as he remembered it. A little dustier, perhaps. Then he turned towards the void in the corner. And he walked towards it. He stretched his arm out and it sank into nothingness.
Then he touched something cold. And where there had been nothing, it appeared. His own rotting corpse was lying and he was touching its neck. Then the corpse opened its eyes. It lifted its head with crackles and pops and looked over to Neave. Then it spoke.
“Oh hey man.”
The corpse got up with more crackles and pops until it got into a seated position. And then it spoke again.
“Man, what is up with you?”
“What do you mean?” Neave responded.
“You know what I fucking mean! You’ve turned into a complete coward ever since you finished the seventh wave!”
“Uhm, excuse me? By exactly what parameters?”
“You’ve gone catatonic again.”
“... I obviously fucking haven’t.”
“Pfff, yeah right. You can call it whatever you want, but it's the same thing.”
“Okay, you’ve confused the shit out of me. Can you like, explain yourself?”
“I thought we have scraped off the liar already.”
Neave paused at that.
“I am not lying, but I seriously do not get what you’re–”
“You are afraid of death. You cower like a worm. But you do not understand. It is exactly your catatonia that will lead you to your end. You are not free. Freedom belongs only to the dead. The eighth wave has begun Neave. And there are a lot of demons to slay.”
“But I am free. I have left. I HAVE ESCAPED! AND WHO ARE YOU TO TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME!?”
The corpse grabbed Neave’s neck and started strangling him. It yelled at him in a desperate, pleading tone.
“THEY ARE COMING FOR YOU NEAVE! YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND, THIS IS THE GIMMICK OF THE EIGHTH WAVE, YOU ONLY GET ONE ATTEMPT!”
“SHUT UP. JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
“HURRY NEAVE! YOU MUST BECOME MORE POWERFUL OR YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!”
Neave woke up.
Neave was covered in sweat and he stank like crap. It had been days since he had acquired his spirit power. And oh boy had they been eventful. He had read about 'absorb' and powers like it in the book. They were usually avoided like the plague. And that avoidance was completely justified. People usually pooped for a reason. Not everything from the food eaten was meant to enter the bloodstream.
After Neave had regained his life force, he learned this lesson the hard way. He had to spend half of his life force again just to keep his heart, kidneys, and liver from exploding. Whatever was in those bugs probably wasn’t all supposed to enter the human body.
Certainly not in the amount he consumed. He’d been sweating green mucus and pissing thick brown piss that smelled worse than anything he had ever smelt in his life. Not even the pus lakes from the loop could compare. To add insult to injury, he later realized he could have just eaten living plants instead of living bugs. On a side note, grass was surprisingly nutritious when one was capable of digesting it.
He was actively avoiding thinking about the dream he just had. It made him feel uneasy. He got out of bed and looked at his body in the mirror again.
“Now we’re talking.” Well, it was true that his situation had improved, but his physique was still rather unimpressive. His arm was still gone, too. He had a few ideas for how he wanted to fix that, but all of them involved making decisions that would permanently impact his future. So he would remain patient for now.
He felt alright now, relatively speaking. And he had tentatively fixed his life force problems. So what was he going to do next?
He frowned as he remembered the words of the corpse from the dream. And then he frowned harder as he sensed a silver path spirit approaching the mansion with his spiritual perception. Immediately, his mind whirled with paranoia.
Is someone coming to kill me?
He thought twice about that. Why was that his first thought? He had been here for nearly a week and the only person that had even approached him had come to thank him. Perhaps he was somewhat wrong about the nature of other people. Being wrong was a normal thing in life. After all, the greatest scholars would much rather be wrong and learn something new than always be right and never learn anything.
And then he sensed the second silver path spirit on the other side of the mansion. And the third one. And the fourth, fifth, sixth, and…
“Yeah. I’m sure they’ve got the wrong address.”
Then the wall in front of him exploded. Neave jumped back and ran further into the mansion, sensing the intruders move along the mansion, a few of them climbing up onto the roof. He didn’t panic, however. There was no need to panic. Because he no longer had life force issues.
And he could finally demonstrate the true power of the immortal arts.
For as long as he kept the intruders separated he could take them on one by one.
Neave stopped dead. So did all the people chasing him.
Did they know where he was? His spirit was hidden by life force, there should be no way for them to sense his location. Something was strange. That was contemplation for another time.
Neave grinned and grabbed a sword out of the dimension ring. And this wasn’t a shortsword. He pulled out a two-handed greatsword and cackled as he prepared a true strike. Somebody just broke through the roof and was trying to get to where he was in the room.
Neave took a stance. Golden runes enveloped his entire body. The sword screamed furiously as it slowly traveled through the air in a stabbing motion.
The walls around Neave collapsed and the flying strike coming from his sword utterly obliterated the ceiling above him. Wood exploded in a shower of debris and the man that was standing above Neave clutched his leg as it bled profusely. He was wearing a white cloak and his face was hidden behind a plain mask.
Neave quickly repaired his spirit and took another stance. He swung the greatsword with all his might, trying to bisect the man as he was falling towards him. However, even though he had struck the man directly, he couldn’t bisect him. Neave clicked his tongue and repaired his spirit again. This man must possess some sort of defensive spirit power. He was thrown away by Neave’s blow but was already getting back up. His leg was mangled by Neave’s surprise attack and his stomach had a deep gash in it.
The man got up, screamed something unintelligible, and rushed at Neave. Neave couldn’t take this fight haphazardly. This man was a cultivator on the second step of the silver path and he was far from the only opponent Neave was facing. It was true that he didn’t need to be that careful with his life force anymore, but if he got too low he would still be in trouble. And these people seemed to have a way to perceive his location.
So Neave just turned around and ran. He sprinted and used a movement technique to get through the wall and escape outside. Not even seconds later they were hot on his trail.
How the hell are they tracking me like this?
Neave ran into the town, using movement technique after movement technique. He was rapidly exhausting his qi as he dodged between the different buildings. He had already put some distance between himself and his pursuers. But even just looking back he could see them already clambering over the buildings and chasing after him.
He was nearly completely out of qi when he reached the wall. He pulled out a qi restoration pill from Kamella’s ring, one of the last few he had, and used a movement technique to get to the other side of the wall. Then he used the long-range high-speed technique and bolted into the forest.
“What in the world is he?” Gabrias stood on the wall of Pavarrie, looking down over the town. His spirit power kept track of Neave as he dodged and weaved between buildings. He couldn’t believe it when he felt him magically appear on the other side of the town wall. He looked down at the hooded figure next to him and spoke.
“Tell your men to gather and regroup, he’s made it out of the town. We are going to have to go after him.”
The hooded figure nodded and lowered its head a bit. Then all the cultivators in the town stopped chasing after Neave and ran toward their position. The hooded figure then spoke up.
“Are you sure he is not even on the iron path?”
“Yes.” Gabrias responded and frowned.
“Then we absolutely must catch him before he advances his cultivation.”
The eighth wave has begun.
Neave had nearly finished running through the entire clearing, but then he paused. Those words kept echoing through his mind, again and again, and again...
If he ever had the opportunity to strategically retreat when fighting the demons, he would have taken it immediately.
So why was he hesitating now?
Why didn't he just run away?
But he couldn't move his feet.
His heart was pounding out of his chest. Every bit of his mind and body were screaming at him to run the hell away and not look back. After all, why take the risk? There were over half a dozen silver path cultivators on his tail.
But what if they hunted him down?
Well, he could get more powerful in the meantime.
What if they bring backup? What if they come with someone on the golden path?
The eighth wave has begun.
Why are you being a coward? You can not escape. There is nowhere you can hide. There is nowhere you should hide. After all...
The eighth wave has begun.
Neave turned around.
And then he ran back towards the town.