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 sizeable obsidian boulder had broken in two, creating 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 remaining stone made 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 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 that Neave was starting to believe he might have developed a mental barrier that was stopping him from progressing.
He, however, wasn’t going to give up. Life force manipulation was a compelling 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. He was interested in its ability to help heal virtually every type of ailment or affliction.
Well, ‘heal’ might be a strong word; ‘partially recover’ would be a more accurate phrase. 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 recover his spiritual senses partially. This would be incredibly hard, and the effect would be minuscule, but that was enough. Neave assumed that he could recover one percent at worst and five at best of his spiritual senses.
He didn’t need more than point five or even point one percent. He 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 explored every bit of the surrounding area 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, he wasn’t paying much attention to anything that didn’t look like a clue on how to escape. So now he went about it with a bit more of a…
He found a lot of incredible stuff on his way around the hellscape. At some point, he encountered a small waterfall of pus 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 showed recently. He had encountered a rock falling down a hill entirely at random. The thing was that this rock had fallen from a spot on a hill where two large and several smaller stones 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 boulder from rolling 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, I shall 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 ominous clouds looked like from the inside. 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 near 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 properly see one’s reflection in them.
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 his form had any faults. 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 got bored of dancing and decided to try 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 the fourth wave was too much, no matter how he went about it. The main problem were the cowardly and bulky demons. Neave 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 straightforward to deal with, especially with Neave’s improved movements, the skilled one was just plain weak, and the tricky one was only problematic 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 violently smacked 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. When one’s life left their body, could he sense anything else slipping away?
Then he felt it. In the moments before death, it was like a dam broke and a flood of something gushed 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 cave's darkness was dispelled by the soft glow of a red cloud of mist sitting atop Neave’s palm.
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