Neave 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 hell realm where death meant going back in time.
This was reality.
In reality, as far as Neave could remember, if you died, you better hope you didn’t get back up again.
Neave had climbed a few meters off the ground and hid in a hole in a large tree. He had to outmuscle some birds for the rights to the lodging, and given that he found even that difficult, it was apparent that he had seen better days.
He had repurposed a leafed branch into a flimsy cover that barely hid him from the outside, but he was small, so it was unlikely anyone, or anything, would spot him from the outside.
He panted and sweated profusely as he did his best to keep his body and soul from falling apart. His left arm was missing, he was cut and bruised, and his spirit had suffered too much damage. And yet, even all 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, which wasn’t good when you had to live with the consequences. Kamella’s ring sat on the wood next to Neave as he desperately glanced at it.
The damn spiritual damage he had taken made it impossible to use the ring. He couldn’t spare any life force to fix his spirit because he was extremely low and needed every advantage he could get in his fight against the toxic qi.
Although he was hanging on for dear life, his situation seemed to be stabilizing. He had constructed a highly complex set of qi barriers to stop the spread of the poison, and at least some parts of his body were recovering, albeit sluggishly. This stability, however, wasn’t going to last forever.
He needed food. It had been so long since he’d eaten anything that he had forgotten that needing to do that was a thing. 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 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 discovered a small container of food pills. He had forgotten he had them on him. This, he could work with. He popped a few small pills into his mouth and soon felt the change. It was incredible.
Neave never knew the effects of just eating something could be this miraculous. His life force was restored slightly, his body had regained some energy, and he even felt his control over his qi strengthen, although minimally.
None of these things were what he was excited about, however.
Properly recovering from realizing potential was what he was waiting for. After training, it was rest, food, and sleep.
For the first time in countless years, Neave finally allowed himself to sleep. He didn’t sleep long as he couldn’t rest easy, but when he opened his eyes, he grinned and sank into his spiritual senses.
It was remarkable.
Like a cocoon, qi strands were wrapped all around his spirit. Strictly speaking, he had realized the potential of countless years of work in a single day. 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, a powerful qi shroud, and even managed to contain a lot of toxic qi. All of this was like a fluffy cloud of power surrounding his spirit.
All he had to do now was grab enough of that potential to break into the iron path. It wouldn’t grow his arm back, eject the toxic qi, or fully 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.
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. Panicked, 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. His control over his qi and life force had been restored. The toxic qi was already spreading all over his body, and Neave didn’t have enough qi to control it.
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 it for anything that could help him.
Tucked away in a deep corner of the pocket dimension was a small pill encased in a glass bubble. It was fully contained so that it wouldn’t lose any 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 shattered the glass and ate the drug.
The toxic qi didn’t leave his body. It wasn’t even affected directly. Neave could tell this was a potent healing pill as the impact further damaged his spirit. The medicine was too high rank for his spirit to handle it fully, but he didn’t care about that. Despite not affecting the poison, it competed directly with it to fix Neave’s body. It won that 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 into his spirit. He kept a tiny trickle of life force running 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 was gone.
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 it would already be leaking from his body.
What the hell just happened!?
Neave was utterly bewildered. He had never heard of cultivation being detrimental to someone’s spirit senses! That wasn’t a little detrimental, either. His spirit senses instantly 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. Neave hadn’t bothered cultivating after realizing he couldn’t make any progress back in the loop, so it had been a 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 how his core looked when he first broke into the foundation realm. It would ripple and shine in a morphing, mesmerizing pattern.
There was none of that now. His spirit core was like the sun in the sky—eternal, stable, and never-changing.
He struggled to accept it, but he knew what this meant.
Over the years, stuck in the loop, his soul had gained perfect control over his qi core through all the practice he'd done. The balance would be disturbed if he added more qi strands to that core.
This must be why his spirit senses and energy control were so acute. Or at least, this was the best guess he had.
Did this mean he couldn’t progress unless he sacrificed his spirit senses? If so, that sucked. His spirit senses and energy control were his most extraordinary 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.
He would look for a way to circumvent this limitation later. It wasn’t a huge deal to him at the moment. For as long he kept tight control over it, he could live for another ten years with life force like this.
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. 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 flat, and the grass smelled fresh. 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. As he kept running around, the excitement slowly subsided.
He felt a strange, ominous sensation. Neave looked around. The forest felt silent. Empty.
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, 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 have something incredible. His swordsmanship may be impressive, and his other tricks were undoubtedly worthy of a legendary figure.
But the ability to create spirit was something genuinely godlike. This was a power he could only imagine belonging to the gods. Who knew? Maybe not even the gods could generate it the way he could. He didn’t make any grand plans for now, however.
There were simpler things to deal with.
Neave climbed up the tallest tree he could find. 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 toward the mountain his sect was built under. Everywhere around him, he could see hills and mountains in the distance.
The Yixine Empire was a 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. People still lived in cities under the protection of more prominent sects, like the Zearthorn sect, but even that hung on thin threads. The Yixine Empire was a mountainous region, yes, but it was a 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 singular movement technique but a well-timed combination of three minor movement techniques. He rarely used it while stuck in the loop since, well, he wasn’t really in a rush to go anywhere.
He ran for over an hour, making it quite far from the sect. Now he was looking around the mountains, trying to find where it was so he could orient himself.
He struggled to locate it. He glanced past it 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 area was barren stone.
“What the fuck!?” He was genuinely shocked, “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 ran away?
Neave vaguely remembered seeing a flash of blue light while 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.
The more he thought about it, though, the dumber that idea seemed.
Neave didn’t want to be responsible for the sect’s destruction. He didn’t want to be another destroyer.
Plenty of cultivators were precisely 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 wasn’t quite as angry at him anymore.
He put the mystery of what happened to the sect aside. Neave thought back to all the maps of the empire he had memorized. The empire was a gigantic place, but Neave was a gigantic nerd. He thought of the map of the area surrounding the sect.
Neave straightened his finger and pointed toward the sect. Then he moved his arm leftward until he moved it a hundred and thirty degrees. Right in that direction, he could find the nearest settlement that wasn’t protected by the Zearthorn sect.
A medium-sized town by the name of Pavarrie.
Past that town, Neave would make 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 would 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 didn’t mean getting there would be easy. He would have to make it through a stretch of wild land that wasn’t protected by any sect.
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. Skin shriveled, eyes sank, and the body looked like some horrible illness struck it. 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 devise a plan to move around settlements without trouble. He shook his head and continued 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.
It was a tiny, green, gooey fella that ponderously rolled 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 were rated in categories similar to those of cultivation ranks. The power rating went from none to diamond. None meaning a mortal could kill it, and diamond meaning it could threaten a diamond path cultivator.
Slimes were at the absolute bottom of this hierarchy. However, even though they rated at none, they had something of an honorary rating, a title, one might say.
The 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 hint of favoritism toward any monster.
Taming monsters or raising them had been attempted many times before.
Hundreds of lives had been lost in relatively minor incidents. Millions in the worst cases.
Neave didn’t care. He wasn’t going to tame the slime, but he was still a kid at the end of the day. Slimes were very bouncy and fun, regardless of their apocalyptic nature.
He got bored of the slime and threw it at a tree. It blew apart in a puddle of goo and Neave grabbed the tiny, fingernail-sized crystal within. It's monster core.
Monster cores were made of crystalized spirit, the same spirit he could produce. Well, not the same spirit he could create. This one looked very misshapen and clumpy, kind of like an average pebble, and 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 tempted to experiment 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, with awfully misshapen limbs and nasty skin.
Predominantly, they looked like horrific piles of mismatched body parts.
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 encountering these nasty things for himself.
He scoured Kamella’s ring again. Sadly, he had lost the sword he’d picked from the ring in the fight against Kaphor, but there were also a few other slightly inferior swords in there.
Still relatively high quality, however. He picked a steel shortsword from the ring, sighing at his choice. He would 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 walked past it, not bothering to take the 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. There seemed to be many handy supplies, 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.
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 the cloak and 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.
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. 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 highly unusual, however. There were no monsters besides abominids and slimes. That could only mean a few things.
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 entirely 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 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 strangely nervous. So Harel shut up and waited.
Eventually, she saw Marven take a deep breath and exhale as he got up. 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, hand over fist, “Greetings, Emperor.”
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