Harel was currently training. She had been training for the last twenty hours straight. Marven and Harel continued their journey and reached a bigger settlement. Here, they had rented a large building and dedicated it to Harel’s training.
And the training was dedicated indeed.
Harel was thoroughly exhausted, but she didn’t want to say anything. Marven was watching her intently.
Was he angry?
She couldn’t tell. Ever since she blew up on him, he had been strangely quiet. A stern expression was permanently stuck on his face, and he made her train every waking hour of the day. Harel felt that he was angry at her and that this was some sort of petty punishment, but she couldn’t deny the results of the last few days.
While her progress in cultivation wasn’t as fast as it was in front of the lotus, she was improving much quicker in her skills. She had already mastered nearly all the forms of Marven’s swordsmanship. She was currently practicing the eighth form. Harel hadn’t started the eighth form all that long ago, which regretfully signified she would be training for at least another few hours.
Although Harel didn’t want to speak up against this treatment, primarily due to her pride, she couldn’t hold back anymore. The eighth form of Marven’s swordsmanship was terrible. It was a form designed to prepare a fighter to react to counterattacks. She couldn’t keep this to herself anymore, so she stopped her practice. Marven raised an eyebrow.
“I do not remember telling you to stop.”
“Wait, I’m not stopping the training, but there is something I have to point out.”
“And what exactly may that be?”
“This form is bad.”
Marven raised the other eyebrow as well.
“Oh really? Mind if you enlighten me as to why?”
Harel then took a few swings and showed off a few of the moves.
“This attack, this attack, and especially this attack, this stance, and this footing are useless in practice.”
“Why do you believe that?”
“Well, first, I have to ask you a question, did you add the eighth form because you were one form short of ten? Was nine not a good number?”
“I did not ask for sarcasm, young lady. Either speak or continue swinging.”
“The entire eighth form is pointless. It is a form designed to allow one to react to counterattacks, right? But the form itself essentially opens you up for counterattacks.”
“Indeed, that is how it’s designed. I made it to face someone willing to take risky openings. The form is strong at defending a few critical areas while also putting you in the position to defend against strikes directed at areas that are not protected. Had Elder Kaphor not been arrogant in the fight against Neave, he would have used this form and likely won.”
“Had he used this form, he would have lost immediately.”
“What makes you believe that?”
“Because the eighth form has a hard skill ceiling. It only really works against opponents up to a certain level. Past that, the defenses become more openings, and the openings become useless.”
“Which is when you would use another form.” Marven sighed, “Look, I understand what you’re saying, but no swordsmanship style is perfect. Which is why it's best to have a set of tools to face specific circumstances.”
Harel remembered the way Neave fought. The way he held the sword. She hesitated for a bit, but then she asked.
“What about…? What about the way Neave fought?”
Marven sighed again at that one.
“What about it? Look, Harel, it is almost certain that the book was some sort of inheritance. If Neave had acquired the skills of some long-deceased swordsman, it is pointless to fantasize about replicating such a style.”
“But… It was so… Fluid. All he did was dodge the strikes he could, parry those he couldn’t, and strike when he found an opening. There was no form, no set rules he followed. He just created and broke the rules as he went along.”
Marven raised an eyebrow at that. He hadn’t witnessed Neave’s swordsmanship personally, so he was having trouble believing Harel’s words.
How much work would one have to do to accomplish such a style?
“So what are you suggesting now? You want to learn a style like that?”
“I… I want to believe. I’ve seen something like that, and I can not help but feel like my style is far too inferior.”
“You mean my style?”
“Yes.” Harel nodded. She did think Marven’s swordsmanship was inferior to Neave’s.
“Were you not the one begging me to teach you?” Marven frowned. “And now you’re diminishing my work? Calling it inferior?”
“Your swordsmanship is superior to most other styles. Iit is a style you have created entirely on your own. Mas–No, Marven, I wanted you to teach me, but not because I believed your current style is the best. I wanted you to teach me because I believed in your swordsmanship. Is this style not merely just a step on the path to reaching true greatness?”
“Those are childish dreams, Harel. I don’t see us coming across any inheritances like that soon.”
“Whoever made that inheritance must have been a childish dreamer, then? And it is a dream that your child has already realized. Perhaps it is time for you to be more childish again.”
Marven smiled a bit at that.
“Alright then. I can be childish. If you wish to accomplish what you’ve set out to do, we will have to change our approach to your training.”
Harel did not like where this was going.
“And how will we do that?”
“By fighting monsters, of course!”
Harel wanted to scream.
"However, we are not going to be doing it here."
"Do you have any specific place in mind?"
"We will do it on our way to the empire's capital."
It was nighttime. Gabrias sat around a fire with the three gold path cultivators. At first, he felt a little left out. These people were friends and chatting amicably, with Gabrias awkwardly sitting to the side, looking for chances to get into the conversation. Gradually, he succeeded.
The brunette woman was laughing hysterically at a joke Gabrias shared. He worked as a construction worker most of the time and was good at telling jokes. Carrying stone and lumber around was boring at times, so the crew entertained each other. He shared a raunchy joke about a man’s mother sleeping with his friend. The woman laughed so hard that the other two cultivators eyed her oddly. The bold man spoke up.
“I didn’t think it was that funny.”
Then the blonde man spoke up.
“Ah, shut up, Kayix. You don’t always have to be a buzzkill.” Then he chuckled and turned to Gabrias. “Thank you, my friend, for sharing your anecdote with us.”
All of the cultivators paused.
Then they broke into laughter—even Kayix.
Gabrias clicked his tongue when it sank in.
“Ha, ha, very funny. You wouldn’t happen to have a wife yourself?”
They all went silent and stared at him, slight hostility apparent on their faces.
They took a hard, long look at his face.
Then they broke out into laughter again. The bald man was slapping his knee so hard the sound hurt Gabrias ears.
Gabrias knew best what being made fun of by a group felt like. You would always get laughed at when the jokers were their own crowd, even when the joke wasn’t that funny.
Such was how his construction crew did things. Even funnier, at least to Gabrias, was that the people they made fun of tended to be quite important, like high-ranking elders of sects. If they weren’t the best around, there was no way anyone would have tolerated them.
Gabiras felt he should have done better faced with a group like this, but he was nervous. Even his superiors’ direct superiors weren’t on the golden path. So to him, this was like hanging out with the colleagues of the boss of his bosses’ bosses.
The sect master of the Bentheta sect was only at the third step of the golden path. Well, you couldn’t say only in such a case. The Bentheta sect’s power was overall greater than that of the Zearthorn sect of the past. Marven just wasn’t good at growing a sect. When everybody kept each other down, nobody would ever really succeed.
The blonde man calmed the others.
“I apologize, but you seem so tense, I couldn’t help but jest a little. Relax, you’re going to be safe with us.”
That wasn’t really why Gabrias was currently tense. Even if it did play a role. He had a question he had wanted to ask ever since he’d seen the blonde man standing above the graves.
“In the group that had… Who were they to you?”
They all adopted serious expressions, and the woman even looked slightly offended. The blonde man waved at her to calm her down.
“It’s okay, Mirna. I’m sure he is just curious.” Then the man turned to Gabrias. “I tutored that group ever since they were kids. Two of them were my direct disciples. I’ve always wanted to pull them out of that line of work. Doing the dirty work of a sect was dangerous and frequently dishonorable, but somebody had to do it. It has never been easy for me to come to terms with it. And now…” His hands shook, and Gabrias could feel his anger radiating through the spiritual pressure he passively gave off. “You said that monster was traveling?”
Gabrias nodded. Nobody among them was referring to Neave as a human anymore. Nobody believed he was.
“We were within fifty miles of it at closest, but it seems to have picked up speed recently.”
“Alright. While running into dangerous monsters or other groups is still a risk, we should pick up the pace.” The man got up and walked over to a tent. “Get your rest tonight. Next time we sleep will be after we’ve caught that thing.”
A band of roughly thirty cultivators was on the other side of the forest. They also rested around fires. But this ragtag collection of cultivators was a lot rowdier.
They were cheering and drinking. They usually didn’t do it on important jobs, but managing morale was crucial. Lank was a professional mercenary, and he was excellent at his job. His greasy hair flopped around as he danced with the others, hand in hand, and finished his fifteenth beer mug.
“Cheers, you motherfuckers!” Then he downed the sixteenth one.
After the party had died down and the cultivators were finally resting, he sat on a boulder outside the camp they’d set up and stared at the ground.
The night was cold, and the weight of his shadow, cast by the campfire remnants behind him, crushed the grass beneath it.
A chubby man with a waxy mustache walked over, sat on the boulder beside him, and hugged him with one arm.
“How are you doing, brother?”
“Honestly? I feel like boiled crap. I’m tired, Bev, and I’m scared. No, scratch that. I’m shitting my fucking pants.” He flicked a rock he had been playing with into the grass.
“We can still quit this job. You’ve heard the report from Pavarrie. Chasing this thing might not be worth it.”
Lank looked at him, smiling with his mouth but not with his eyes.
“But we are running out of time. We are never going to get the money needed through our regular work. The Yixine empire is just too damn fucking big. We will never make it without a teleportation circle to get us over the biggest danger zones. And teleporting nearly thirty people will be expensive. Really fucking expensive, shit man, I wish we hired someone to do our finance.”
The other man laughed lethargically.
“What if we… What if we stayed? Is it worth risking our lives over this?”
“There is no risk-free option, Bev. If we stay on the Yixine continent, we will die within five years. You remember what that woman had said?”
The other man nodded and sighed.
“I wish there were a better way.”
“Don’t you now, you fat asshole?” Both of the men laughed. “Who the hell doesn’t want that?”
Suddenly they spotted two men walking in the darkness. Immediately both Lank and Bev grabbed for their swords.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, boss, relax! It's just us!”
“You dumb cunts.” Lank blew air out as the tension left him. “What the fuck are you doing in the wild in the middle of the night anyway?”
“Yeah, my fucking ass.”
Bev then took a jab at them.
“Pone, Nehval, you two have something to tell us? I’ve seen you two sneaking out in the woods a few times already, don’t worry. We ain’t gonna judge you.”
“Ah, shut the hell up, you fatass!”
The men walked past them, and as Bev was about to slap Pone on the back of his head, Pone jolted as if he was about to stab him.
“Hey, man, what’s with the tension? You know I feel about people calling me fat.”
Pone stepped back nervously.
“Lank does that all the time, man. Give me a break.”
“Lank is my brother, man, and I beat his ass just the same, hahaha!”
Pone tried running, but Bev was a step higher than he was. He was caught with little effort. Bev slapped the back of his head. The slap resounded with a metallic thud.
All of the men paused. Lank ran over, distress plain on his face.
“Come here, Pone. Let me touch your skin.”
“No, boss, please.”
It was too late.
Lark pinched Pone and reeled at the sensation. His skin felt metallic. Lark’s face contorted, first in shock, then in disbelief, and then in anger…
And finally, in despair. He started crying.
“Pone…? Don’t tell me, Nehval, you as well?”
Both the men lowered their heads in shame.
“Are you fucking…?” He turned and put his fist up to his mouth, eyes reddening as he did his best not to weep. “Are you braindead? Did you think you would get away with this?”
“Don’t… Don’t call me that, please. Just get out. Please just leave.”
“I SAID GET THE FUCK OUT! You're a disgrace, both of you. You could never have gotten away with it! The gods’ agents would have noticed immediately!” He screamed at them. Then he pointed his finger into the forest. “Just get the hell out. And don’t come back.”
Lank and Pone walked away, Lank in tears and Pone with a disapproving expression on his face. The two men stood for minutes, wanting to return, but they knew the jig was up.
They turned around and dejectedly walked into the forest.
Neave ran through the forest at incredible speed. He had learned how to utilize the body morphing power to accelerate his running drastically. After coupling that with his long-distance movement technique and his general increase in speed and physical performance, he could run several times faster.
As he ran through the forest, he eviscerated any monsters he encountered. As soon as he killed them, and sometimes even before, he would eat their meat and absorb whatever he could. The speed at which he increased his physical abilities was already drastically slower than at the beginning. Even though he was consuming several times more flesh, several times faster, he was only slowly making progress.
It was then that he noticed something unusual in the distance. A patch of the forest where the trees were thinner. After he came closer, he saw them.
There was a massive tribe of goblins ahead.
He didn’t hesitate even a second before running at them and slaughtering them.
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