A convoy of floating carriages sped through a thunderstorm in the untamed wilderness of the Yixine Empire, pulled by horse-shaped golems.
Neave lay on the ground inside one of the vehicles, tied head to toe.
He could escape from this situation, and it probably wouldn’t be that difficult, but it wasn't the brightest idea, given that Marven would catch him instantly.
A short time after setting off on a journey together, Neave started showing unusual symptoms.
Extreme ones too.
He froze up, cramped, paled, coughed, and shivered constantly. The symptoms worsened by the hour.
Simply put, he was dying. It was a miracle he wasn’t already dead. All the abuse his body had suffered during the last few weeks left Neave’s every cell effectively falling apart. Marven had to physically and spiritually restrain him so he wouldn’t move and make things worse.
Marven wrapped Neave in ropes, bandages, seals, chains, and costly qi-insulating thread, creating a colorful cocoon of restraints.
It would be a miracle if he lived for another two weeks.
His current situation, at least outwardly, appeared to be completely fine. Yet, his body and spirit were in such a drastic state of imbalance that if Neave had been beaten for ten hours straight, stabbed a thousand times, and set on fire—he would still be in better shape.
The carriage they traveled in was relatively spacious.
Gabrias sat in one corner, tied up, but that wasn't strictly necessary. He was frozen in fear anyway. Even the little girl, huddled up in the corner, was powerful enough to kill him before he could fight back.
Right next to Neave sat Marven. It was rather hard to recognize him with his bald, fully polished head. Without his distinctive crimson hair, Marven looked like an entirely different person.
Everybody was silent.
Neave felt horrible, but he hated the treatment more than the ailment. Rationally speaking, he knew this was for his good. Yet, he couldn’t help but feel belittled by the coddling.
Neave couldn’t manipulate his life force, which left him feeling uneasy. The restraints fully sealed off his energy manipulation while a whole other layer of seals balanced the energies.
Neave felt he could do that job perfectly fine but conceded to this treatment for one simple reason. He could sleep this way.
If he was in charge of keeping himself together manually, there was no way he could allow himself to go unconscious. He didn’t want to drop his guard, but he felt he was in such a terrible and vulnerable situation that being awake wouldn’t change anything.
Neave closed his eyes and allowed himself to fall asleep.
Neave woke up.
“Oh, this is another dream like the one I had before…” Neave looked around the space surrounding him—pitch black and overgrown with obsidian brush. What was once the hellish realm had become an even more desolate wasteland.
A bitterly freezing one.
Neave didn’t feel like visiting the underground chamber. He chose to mess around instead. Lucid dreams were fun.
Why would he let it turn into a nightmare?
Neave focused and tried making himself fly. It didn’t work. He waved his arms around in the air like a magician hyping the audience up for a trick, but no matter what he did, nothing happened. He couldn’t consciously change anything at all.
Neave realized that he still felt horrible. His body was in agony and…
Neave felt like an ice cube had slid right down his back. He felt pain. He felt the cold.
Why did he feel the cold?
The last time he was here, it was a dream. The coldness of the realm was an idea, not a physical characteristic. Neave grabbed a nearby obsidian branch and broke it off. He thrust the makeshift dagger into his skin. Once he felt the pain sinking into his flesh, he laughed maniacally.
“I’m back… I’m fucking back.” He clawed at his face, cracking the skin around his eyes.
He was back inside the loop.
Neave looked around and sought to see if there were any demons.
Neave lifted his hand. It shook like a leaf in the wind.
He wanted to kill himself.
To see whether he would go back, whether he would live through another restart.
But he was scared, petrified. The thought alone felt like it could drive him further into insanity.
Neave couldn’t bear the thought of it being a reality. He intensely stared at his hand like a lunatic, and eventually, a red mist seeped out of his pores.
Then his body dropped to the ground.
Neave woke up. It was nighttime, and he was back inside the carriage.
Sweat pooled beneath him, and his heart raged in his chest.
Am I back?
“What the fuck is going on?” Neave whispered.
Marven turned and looked at him. He frowned at Neave’s state. They had to hurry to the capital and find a treasure to help Neave recover. It would be brutally expensive, but he wouldn’t let that stop him from saving his son.
“How are you doing, Neave?” Marven leaned over, trying to look as fatherly as he could manage.
Neave would usually laugh at Marven’s attempt, but he was genuinely distressed this time. He stayed quiet about what he had seen, though.
“Nothing. I am fine.“
It was apparent he wasn’t okay, but Marven nodded and sat back down—no need to further injure Neave’s pride.
Neave tried going back to sleep. It seemed insane that he would try doing that after what he had gone through, but his reasoning was quite solid. He just wanted to know what was going on.
Was the curse persisting in some way? Exactly why and how was he back?
Why did it look so different now…?
Neave wasn’t sure what he was hoping for. A big part of him wanted that to be a hallucination, but a small piece wished to return. The curiosity was killing him.
The silver lining of his injuries was that the fatigue allowed him to fall back asleep.
Once again, he stood in the desolate realm.
“Okay, what the fuck is going on?”
Neave had no idea why something like this would be happening. He looked around and spotted something quite alarming.
A broken shard of obsidian glass was on the floor beside his feet.
It appeared a little bloody as well. Neave looked at his arm, but it seemed fine. He wasn’t injured outside, either.
Neave looked around again and peered into the darkness. This place was dark and frigid, and his body was wrung out from all the torture he had endured. Neave materialized a bit of his qi on the top of his palm and used its soft glow to light up his surroundings.
As far as he could see, this place seemed to be empty.
Neave paused for a second. He took a deep breath and blew fire out of his mouth.
As the wisps of smoke vanished, Neave’s face slowly morphed into a grin. He looked at his arm, and it morphed.
Neave was ecstatic. Could this realm be constructed by his subconscious? Some sort of imaginary world he could enter while he was asleep?
“This… This is fucking awesome!”
He had died the last time he was here but returned to reality without any consequences. If he ended up inside this place every time he went to sleep, Neave would have a playground where he could experiment with his powers to his heart's desire!
Neave turned around.
“What was that?”
Neave moved the qi to light up the path in the direction he heard the sound coming from. He nodded to himself and turned around.
“Oh, hell fucking no, I won’t check that out.”
Neave had read plenty of books, and some among them were horror stories. It was always the idiot that walked toward the spooky sound that got killed. Neave nodded sagely once more, turned around…
And he ran.
Some part of him felt weirdly nostalgic. He found himself in a bizarre world, probably being chased by some creepy creature.
Just like the good old days.
This place had cranked up its ambiance this time around. Some small part of him felt like it was pretty cool in a different way. And just like in the good old days, he was crapping his robes.
Neave ran and dodged through the forest of obsidian brush. It was painful to navigate until he realized he could climb on top of the dense jungle of volcanic glass.
Neave ran at blazing speed and didn’t hear spooky sounds for a while. Looking around, he was slowly beginning to recognize parts of the environment. At first, it was difficult to see due to all the growth, but he had spent his fair share of years within that loop, so he knew it like the back of his hand.
This was still the same place. It just looked like a mind-numbing amount of time had passed.
After a while, Neave tripped and dropped right into the dense forest of sharp branches. He was cut up and injured quite severely, although not lethally. He didn’t understand what was happening at first, but as he cooled off, he noticed it.
It appears that this place perfectly reflected his situation outside. His body was in a horrible state.
Judging by his performance in this realm, he could keep it up for twenty minutes if forced to fight or run away. And then he would die.
He was slowly losing function as he felt spirit and body unraveling like a chaffed rope. Neave felt dizzy, and he couldn’t keep his gaze straight.
Ne heard glass shattering and spun around in the direction of the sound.
Moments later, something crept up behind him and skewered his body, chewing his limbs off and crushing his organs.
Neave woke up again. It was daytime once again, and the carriage was empty. He was sweating again.
What was that place…?
He had no idea. Neave didn’t even have a guess. He didn’t see what had killed him, but it was swift. The way it attacked him was incredibly… Well, he felt like he was being bitten, cut, crushed, and stabbed all at once. Neave wanted to go back to sleep again, but he couldn’t. He didn’t feel tired enough.
Neave put this strange phenomenon out of his mind for the moment as there seemed to be a slightly bigger crisis.
Why the hell was he entirely alone?
He was still wrapped in the corner of the carriage.
Nobody was here. The door was closed, and a bit of light poured in through a small window. He calmed himself down and just waited patiently. After a while, the doors opened.
Marven walked in, followed by a frightened Gabrias and a tired Harel.
“You’re awake.” Marven walked over to Neave and placed a hand on his forehead. He frowned at the insane heat of Neave’s body.
Neave was going to make a sassy comment about being left behind unattended, but Marven interrupted him.
“We have arrived at the capital. We have some shopping to do now.” Marven picked Neave up, threw him over his shoulder, and carried him outside.
Once they were outside, Neave could barely believe his eyes.
Buildings stretched far into the sky everywhere around them. They came in all shapes and colors, and Neave couldn’t decide which looked the coolest. The people around them were decked out in colorful, predominantly ostentatious robes. The individuals themselves were pretty diverse too.
People of different races walked around the busy capital streets. This also included many spirit beasts. Plenty of large animals were walking around, but those were only low-ranked spirit beasts. Spirit beasts at the silver path could partially transform into a humanoid form with prominent animalistic features. Only at the golden path did they look like slightly altered humans.
Marven walked into a sickeningly gaudy building, dragging Neave inside like a sack of potatoes. Harel followed, sticking quite closely to Marven. Gabrias looked like he wanted to take the chance and run away, but a stern glare from Marven shattered that plan in an instant.
The building they walked into was plated in precious metals from top to bottom. A host of guards stood outside. They usually stopped individuals trying to enter and asked for identification. Only those with special permits could be granted access to the headquarters of the Golden Thread merchant group.
Marven’s status as a platinum path cultivator was worth much more than a low-class permit. They walked right past the guards, no questions asked, and soon enough, a man wearing flashy robes walked up to them and offered to escort them. Marven nodded, and after a few turns, they found themselves in front of yet another extravagantly dressed man.
He was a dark-skinned man with jewelry covering every inch of his body. He was decked out in necklaces, earrings, piercings, rings, and even a tiara.
He greeted Marven with a nod and asked.
“How may I help you?”
“Essence of a crimson horror. Highest quality you can provide. Also, give me every potent healing treasure you have, preferably slow-acting ones that can stabilize qi and life force. I’d also like something that can help recover one’s spirit.”
The man raised an eyebrow.
“That will be a rather costly order, dear sir.”
Marven didn’t show it outwardly, but inwardly he winced. His request would be several hundred thousand platinum coins. That was a bit much, even for someone as rich as him.
After getting the healing treasures, they walked to another merchant group looking to buy land.
Keyishin was segmented into three circles. The outer circle, the one that was for anyone too poor to enter into either the inner or the middle, was where Marven ended up buying land.
It was a small plot in the furthest corner of the capital, right next to a border to a wild zone.
Because any other plot of land was so absurdly expensive, he wouldn’t have any money left over for all the other things that had to be purchased. They made their way to the piece of land Marven had bought.
It was tiny.
It was only around a tenth of a square kilometer. It was enough space for a relatively small building and a tiny courtyard. There was a reason all the buildings within the capital were so tall. Every sect had to fully use whatever tiny plot of land they could get their grubby little hands on.
This plot of land had an old, dilapidated, and half-collapsed building right in the middle. They would use it as a temporary base of operations, but within the next week, it would have to be removed, and the plot prepared for more legitimate construction,
Marven was about to head into the building, but Gabrias cried out.
“Wha–What are you doing?”
“Hmm?” Marven turned around. “We are just going to get settled here for the time being while we construct our premises.”
“No, I…. I–Uh, I understand that much, bu–but…”
“This b–building. It is going to collapse.”
Marven lifted an eyebrow at that.
“And exactly how can you tell?”
“Okay, take an, uh, take a rock or something and throw it over at that beam.” Gabrias pointed toward a corner of the building.
Marven was skeptical but decided to listen anyway. The moment the stone hit the support beam, the beam effectively exploded, and the entire building collapsed. Marven was shocked. He had no idea that would happen. Gabrias winced under Marven’s glare and quickly defended himself.
“I used to be a con–construction worker, so I’m, uh, quite familiar with structural integrity!”
Marven stared at him for a bit, and then he grinned.
“Construction worker, you say…?”
Gabrias felt sweat dripping down his back.
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