“Haah, haah, haah…”
In a room deep below Alsomn’s royal palace, I gulp down labored breaths of air as if they’re the single most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted in my life.
Right now, they might as well be.
Large drops of sweat are flowing down my face, and my whole body is covered in it. The simple training uniform I’m wearing is sticking to my skin. I must look like I’ve just escaped a particularly rainy day and haven’t yet dried off. What wouldn’t be so easily explained by simple rain, however, are the tremors running through all my muscles. They are the reason I’m sitting; they’re so strong I would topple to the ground in a few seconds if I ever tried to stand.
I’ve never felt as exhausted as right now.
My mind is foggy. My thoughts are sluggish. I feel as if I’m going to lose consciousness in just a few moments.
But I don’t.
I hang on. Even through the thick, exhausting fog hanging over my mind, a single thought persists.
I must continue. I must go on. I must not give up.
I grit my teeth in determination – but that only serves to break the rhythm of my breaths, which I’d finally managed to catch. I start coughing, and something in my throat tears. Blood fills my mouth, and a few drops of it seep from the corners of my lips and drip down my chin.
“Haaaaah, haaaah, haaaah…”
The stone walls, ceiling, and floor of the room are pockmarked by concave indentations, almost like a honeycomb. Each cell of that honeycomb holds a single magic core, pulsating with energy. The lines of a magic formation too large and complex for me to grasp its intricacies link each cell with its neighbors, forming an array of connections filled to the brim with qi. The focus of this magic formation is the single raised column rising from the center of the room, its flat top just wide enough for a single man to sit on. The thousands of magic cores surrounding the column all pool their energy together in a maelstrom of power to which the formation gives purpose.
This purpose is to pressure whoever sits on that single column.
Which is me.
“Haaaah, haaah, ngh…”
…I’m slowly losing this struggle.
I didn’t expect body strengthening to be so taxing. I suppose, usually, it shouldn’t be, but the room in which I train and the magic formation carved into its walls are specially designed to compound the difficulty of the exercise. The more stress my body is under, the greater an effect the strengthening will have on me, after all.
But still… This is quite a challenge…
I decided to try my hand at body strengthening after my humiliating defeat at AK-A-13’s hands. I realized then that I just wasn’t strong enough. I managed to somehow hold my ground by continuously casting reinforcement magic on myself, but this significantly taxed my reserves of qi and kept most of them tied up and unusable in more offensive spells that could have brought the fight to an end.
There is no way I could have won the fight, like this.
Which is why I’m trying something new, to remedy that situation.
What kind of idiot would I be if I didn’t learn from my mistakes, after all?
Thus, I’ve spent the past few days training like mad. Every hour of every day is used to the full to increase my strength.
As a result, I’ve somewhat neglected my responsibilities in leading humanity as its emperor. But that can’t be helped. And with my competent subordinates, the empire won’t collapse so quickly.
I have my own priorities.
The fight against AK-A-13 was a wake-up call that opened my eyes to the same truth I’d tried to teach Milla: in this world, only strength matters.
I don’t care about running the empire. I don’t care about the politics of humanity. I don’t even care about becoming head of the Adkins family. I am not gifted as an administrator. Others are better suited for these tasks than I.
Ruling and commanding are Father’s dreams. Not mine.
I know that everything he’s done on Caldera since he arrived, centuries ago, has been for the sole purpose of inheriting the family’s leadership. And I know that he wants me to follow in his footsteps as well. I suppose I am fine with this. If no better candidate than I presents itself, then I will do my best to take up that mantle when the time comes – though it will likely only come in millennia, so thinking about it now seems excessively premature.
But in the end, the thing which truly matters to me is my own power.
Not political power.
My rank. My strength.
I’m 17 years old, and already, I’m about to become a 2nd-rank god. I know for a fact that this is an incredible achievement. Few in history have ever done the same. I am a genius in cultivation, plain and simple.
But genius isn’t enough. The strength I have now isn’t sufficient.
I’m still too weak.
I need to become strong to the point that no monster like AK-A-13 will be free to spread death and chaos before me ever again.
AK-A-13 is the monster I face today, but she’s definitely not the only monster out there, and she’s definitely not the most dangerous one. I may have lost a battle yesterday. But tomorrow, I will defeat her. And soon, another, more terrible monster will undoubtedly appear before my eyes again. Perhaps not on Caldera, where humanity is already the dominant force. But on the Godrealm, where our position is more precarious, threats and dangers abound.
This time, my defeat led to the deaths of two provincial gods, Orsino and Carla. But when the time comes and the stakes are higher, losing will have much more dire consequences. The future of humanity may be at stake.
At that time, will I still lose?
Will I still flee with my tail between my legs when a monster I cannot defeat appears? Will I be unable to even carry back the bodies of my comrades to their waiting families?
Becoming the head of the Adkins family is all fine; it’s a laudable and ambitious goal, and I respect Father for his desire to do so. But in my opinion, even better would be to become so strong, so powerful, that nothing can ever threaten our family – that nothing can ever threaten humanity as a whole.
Now, this is a goal.
And this goal starts with small steps.
I need to grind down all my weaknesses.
If my enemy’s advantage is her limitless physical strength, then I need to become stronger than her. If her weapons are her sharp claws, then I need to wield an even sharper sword.
Father won’t be happy, once he learns that I’m neglecting the task he’s given me of running the empire in his stead, but like his focus is now centered on the laboratories, my focus is centered on my own growth.
Not to mention that he’s not the only one unhappy with the other.
I cannot for the life of me understand why Father doubted my report on the gigantic monster that protected Akasha and attacked me. The only reason he could have remained ignorant of that world-shaking magic, which altered the very weather and turned day to night over an area several thousand kilometers in radius, is because he had sequestered himself in that underground lab of his. Its walls shield the lab against qi emission, so of course, Father couldn’t have felt it for himself. But I would have thought I still had enough credibility in his eyes for my words on the matter to be taken seriously.
‘A godbeast of the 8th or 9th rank? And how would you even determine that? I do not mean to underestimate you, Gareth, but you’ve never even seen anyone of the 7th rank and up. The highest you’ve met is me, a 6th-rank god. And you’ve never even seen me use all of my power in the first place. So tell me, how could your inexperienced eyes differentiate between a 6th-rank and a 9th-rank god? They couldn’t. Because you have no point of reference by which to judge. I can believe you met a mighty godbeast, certainly. But a 9th-rank one? No. That kind of creature would be considered a disastrous calamity even on the Godrealm. How could one have appeared on Caldera? Surely, you’re not unaware that we have ways of keeping track of beings such as this.’
Father did allow me a thorough investigation on the matter, but that’s merely because Orsino’s reports of Fushia City’s incident seem to corroborate my own. My opinion on its own has no value anymore in Father’s eyes.
Worse, he’s not taking this threat seriously at all; all his attention is taken up by the laboratory, as if nothing is more important to him than the research conducted inside. But in the meantime, AK-A-13 kills more and more innocent people…
And that monstrous godbeast is…
I grit my teeth as a shudder runs up my spine and my concentration shatters. Abruptly, the pressure of the magic formation surrounding me increases. My bones creak, and my muscles twist and spasm painfully.
“Ngh, guh… Agh! E–Enough! Stop!”
Eventually, I can bear it no longer and deactivate the formation. All of a sudden, the pressure disappears without a trace. The pulsating power that filled the room while the formation was working also fades, though more gradually, as the concentration of qi in the room lowers to match that of the rest of the world.
Without my all-out efforts keeping me upright, I collapse, falling off the column and dropping to the floor at its foot, gasping like a fish. I close my eyes and wish sleep could take me, but the pain precludes this fantasy from becoming a reality.
Most of my muscles are still spasming, as I desperately continue cycling the qi through my meridians and channeling it into my body, but in the end, I’m just too tired to hold the body strengthening any longer. My qi cycles one last time, then streams back into my dantian.
I can finally rest.
I stay on the floor, enjoying the cold of the stone on my cheek, and slowly catch my breath.
It’s only after a good ten minutes that I muster up enough strength within me to even stand up. I do so laboriously. I prop myself onto the column where I sat earlier, but my tired arms and legs have trouble bearing my weight; I almost fall back down to the ground several times before finally managing to stand upright.
An image of the gigantic, terrifying monster that appeared in Dorn flashes through my mind, and another shudder wracks my body. My breathing becomes even more ragged than before, as I forcefully drag my thoughts away from my own memories.
Don’t think about it, don’t think about it…
Shaking my head, I stumble unsteadily toward the door. When I open it, the face that greets me is that of Jarod, the empire’s spymaster.
“Your majesty,” he says, bowing. I see him take note of my disarrayed state, but he disregards it and directly cuts to the chase. “Some matters require your attention. If you could spare some time?”
“Unless it’s a critical threat to the future of humanity on Caldera, no, I’m afraid I can’t spare any time,” I reply, my voice weary and thin, still affected by the rather violent end of my training session.
Jarod appears to notice that not only my appearance is in disarray. He raises his head, gazing at me. He hesitates a moment before speaking. “Sir? Do you not perhaps think that you’re overdoing it? It might be wise to avoid training excessively. You could take some time to tend to the affairs of the empire and take the opportunity to rest your body?”
I sigh. “No. I must continue training. This last incident has set my priorities straight. Dealing with the empire is little more than a waste of my time.”
Jarod blinks a few times, like he can’t fathom what I’m telling him. “But, Sir… Your father was…”
I shake my head and cut him off. “I’ll talk to my Father when he returns. But even he will not dissuade me from this. I’ll nominally remain emperor at least until after the inter-species competition and Milla’s funeral, but I have too much to do to play emperor.”
“P–Play? But, your majesty…” Jarod continues, almost pleading.
I scowl and walk past him and into the hallway outside, interrupting him. “I’ve informed you of my decision, Jarod. This is how it’s going to be. As for the responsibilities and duties of the emperor, why don’t you divide them up between the relevant ministers?”
“But there are countless instances where the emperor is needed in person. Official functions and events where your presence will be required. If you do not show your face to any of them, what will people think? An empire cannot exist without its emperor!”
“Jarod,” I growl, turning back to him and taking a step closer. I release a part of the qi within me to pressure him. “Did I not make myself abundantly clear, already? You want an emperor? Find someone else. I am an Adkins. My future lies on the Godrealm, fighting for humanity’s future, not at the reins of a little empire on some no-name plane that no one knows or cares about. Understood?”
Jarod’s lips twitch for a second, as if looking for a retort, but eventually, he only takes a step back and bows respectfully. “Yes, my lord. I wish you a fruitful training, then.”
Without answering, I retract the qi pressure I was using and turn my back on him, quickly walking down the hallway toward one of the meditation rooms deeper in the compound.
That was a bit harsh, perhaps, but I needed to speak frankly.
Mortal empires should be ruled by mortals.
As for me, I have more important things to do.
As a god, climbing the ranks of cultivation should be the proper way.
To defeat AK-A-13.
And then, to defeat the monster standing in the shadows behind her!
The horrible screech of the godbeast abruptly seems to tear through my eardrums again, like a life-like echo from my memories. My heartbeat uncontrollably spikes up, and I almost trip over my own feet. I have to lean against the wall to avoid falling.
“…Shit. Shit, shit, shit.”
How long is the image of this monster going to keep invading my thoughts?
Until I become strong enough to defeat it?
I knock my clenched fist into the wall next to me. I didn’t hold back my strength, but the training rooms are built solidly, and I didn’t use any reinforcement magic on myself. The one to break is the skin of my knuckles, not the stone of the wall.
Sighing deeply, I shake my head and push off the wall, then continue on my way.
As soon as possible, I need to reach the 2nd rank of godhood. Then, train the speed at which I can cast spells. Then, the power and variety of my magic, my tactical insight…
I need strength.
I need more strength…