With a breathless gasp, my eyes snap open. Panic and terror filling my heart, I sit up and frantically look around myself.
The sight of a darkened room greets me. For a second, my fear only grows. Where is this? What am I doing in this unfamiliar place? The darkness feels cloying and threatening, as if it’s about to swallow me. But then, reason reasserts itself, and my uncontrolled heartbeat slowly returns to normal. I wipe cold sweat from my brow with the sleeve of my shirt.
My sleep was not particularly peaceful, today.
I let out a light sigh and let my upper body fall back down onto the bed. It’s very early in the morning. The sun isn’t up, yet. For a few minutes, I close my eyes and try to force myself back to sleep, but it doesn’t work. My mind is still filled with images of my last nightmare.
…And I just don’t feel tired.
I haven’t felt tired for a few months, now.
Ever since Uncle Finram and Akasha rescued me from the devils, I have been bursting with energy. Always, every hour of every day, a steady, inexhaustible stream of energy continually flows through every nook and cranny of my body. I don’t need to eat, drink, sleep… This flow of energy provides for all my needs. And whenever I suffer so much as a single scratch, a single injury, I heal instantly, the wound closing at speeds visible to the naked eye.
I’m not sure what kind of medicine Akasha fed me. I only know that it’s amazing.
It even allowed me to regrow the limbs that the devil… sawed off.
I suppress a shudder and rub away the illusory pains that suddenly lance up my arms and legs. No scars are left on my skin of what happened to me, but even though it sounds ridiculous to say so, I sometimes have to check to make sure that my limbs are all still there. And when I see that they are, I start to wonder if I didn’t imagine it all.
But no, I didn’t.
My presence here is proof enough that the course of my life has irrevocably changed.
Letting out a sigh, I get off the bed and head out of my room. The hard wooden floor feels cold beneath my feet. This isn’t the Springfield manor, obviously. This is merely a small shack that my family has rented for the duration of the Inter-Species Competition. Even then, it’s barely big enough to house Uncle Finram and me.
The two of us are the only ones to have come.
I wanted Silica to come with me, but Uncle Finram put his foot down and refused. And Mira didn’t seem to approve, either – she’s very protective of her daughter. I would have insisted, but Uncle Finram said it might become dangerous, and that the Island is no place for a child.
I’d ask why, then, I have to go, but I understand even without it being spelled out for me.
Since it’s become essentially impossible for me to live as a common mortal – thanks to Akasha’s medicine, even if I don’t actively cultivate, qi will still accumulate in my dantian – Uncle Finram wants me to get used to the world of cultivators.
I’m… not sure I like the idea.
If nothing else, cultivation is incredibly dull.
To just sit in a specific posture, breathe following a specific pattern, and cycle qi following a specific rhythm, all in order to absorb more qi from the air and refine it for use.
It is dreary, a test of patience.
I exit my bedroom and enter the only other room of our little shack. Here, Uncle Finram is sitting cross-legged on the floor, taking deep, regular breaths. When I approach him, his eyes open and turn to regard me.
“Lilly? What’s wrong?” he asks in a voice filled with concern.
I shake my head. “Nothing.”
I hesitate for a moment, then nod. I shrug. “It’s fine. I don’t need to sleep, anyway. Sleeping is almost a chore, really.”
Uncle Finram looks at me silently for a while, then pats the floor next to him. “Come. Sit.”
I do, gingerly. “You’re not going to tell me to practice with you, are you?”
That gets a chuckle out of him. “Do you dislike it that much? I admit it can get a little dry, but it’s necessary. You’ve been given a great opportunity. Would you rather grasp it, or waste it because you were lazy?”
I give an overblown sigh. “Fiiiiiine…”
I sit cross-legged, too, taking the same posture as Uncle Finram and start to follow the steps he taught me when he imparted his breathing technique to me.
Apparently, it’s supposed to be an amazing technique from a different plane or something, but I can’t really tell since I don’t have anything to compare it to. I’ve never studied any other technique.
At first, I expected his breathing technique to be incredibly profound and difficult to learn, but the truth was the opposite. I could get started with it and get visible results in a week or two. According to Uncle Finram, this is only to be expected, as the quality of a breathing technique is not only determined by its efficiency, but also by its ease of use, since children of cultivator clans are supposed to use them, too. Though, he did warn me that, despite only taking a few days to understand it, it would still take me years to reach full proficiency with it. It’s one of those ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ things.
I close my eyes and take a steadying breath.
Then, I cultivate.
When I open my eyes again, the sun is starting to come up, but my training has yet to end.
For now, Uncle Finram didn’t teach me any spells, so my dantian is still empty of runes. There is only a faint mist of refined qi, which slowly grows thicker as my cultivation grows stronger. With the help of Akasha’s medicine, I already have more than enough power to cast spells. But Uncle Finram said I shouldn’t try that for a while yet, until I’m entirely comfortable with releasing my qi and judging how much I have left and how much I can still consume without risk, in order to avoid qi exhaustion. It’s apparently dangerously easy for a novice to overdraw their qi reserves and die after casting too powerful a spell.
So, I practice that, next. I slowly release what qi I’ve refined out of my body, by tiny increments. I try to acquire an instinctive feel for how much I’ve left.
Saying that cultivation is a dry affair is something of an understatement. Soon, I grow too bored to continue. I open my eyes again to find Uncle Finram sitting in front of me staring at me. Examining my progress, I assume.
“You mean, ‘finally,’ right?” I pout and give him a sour look. “The sun is up. The Competition will start soon, won’t it? It’s time for us to get ready.”
“We still have a little more time. And don’t try to pretend that you’re impatient to go. I know you just want to stop practicing.”
“Yes!” I reply frankly and flop backward onto the floor, before remembering that this isn’t the manor; there are no servants to wash the floors here. I quickly spring back up and rub the back of my head to make sure nothing strange stuck to my hair. At the same time, I gaze at Uncle Finram. “I can’t believe you did this for so many years. I feel like I’m going to go crazy if I sit cross-legged even one more time.”
Uncle Finram chuckles. “Cultivation is a long and lonely road. But you don’t need to be impatient. You can take your time and progress gradually.”
“Do I even need to practice at all?” I shrug. “With all the energy flowing through my body, even if I don’t do anything at all, I’m getting stronger all the time, anyway.”
Uncle Finram frowns and shakes his head. “You mustn’t rely on that. One day, you’ll finally exhaust the medicine’s power, and if you haven’t developed a good training ethic by then, you’ll find yourself slipping and procrastinating. Or you’ll despair at your suddenly slower practice speed. You have to understand that cultivation is heavily linked to and dependent on self-confidence and willpower, so at this point, if you aren’t ready, you likely will never see a single whit of progress again.”
Uncle Finram stares at me for a few seconds more, presumably to see whether my agreement is genuine or merely lip service. Then, he cracks a smile and gets to his feet. He beckons to me to do the same.
“Good. Then let’s stop for now and go watch the competition.”
# # #
“So… So violent…”
Uncle Finram nods grimly. “Yes. This is the world of practitioners.”
I feel sick. I struggle to swallow my saliva past the lump in my throat. How many people did I just watch as they were brutally murdered? This isn’t a competition at all. There is no sporting spirit, no fair play. This is… a battlefield.
Kill or be killed.
For a while, there is only silence between Uncle Finram and me.
I watch the battles rage on the stages below. Majin and humans are clashing, their faces twisted and deformed into ugly snarls. They claw and bite at each other like wild animals. Limbs are severed, and lives are extinguished. They bathe in their own blood and the blood of their opponents, but none of them hesitate to step onto this dreadful stage. They don’t seem to care that they might die, that they might be staking their life, staking their many years of painstaking cultivation on a single moment. They risk losing everything, and for what? The glory of proving they are stronger than their opponent?
The world of practitioners?
What kind of world is this?
Why would anyone want to be part of it?
Is this senseless killing the whole point of it all?
Why even cultivate, then?
That’s what it is. Plain and simple.
There are tens of thousands around me, but watching these people – these famous cultivators, the subjects of worship of all youths as they hear tales of their exploits – murder each other in the arena while the rest watch and cheer, I feel very alone.
“Is this… Akasha’s world?” I ask quietly.
I expected my voice to be lost amidst the cries of the audience, but Uncle Finram unexpectedly answers. “No. It isn’t.” His reply surprises me, and I turn to look up at him. He looks back at me. “Most of the people you see here today are greedy mass-murderers who would gladly slaughter a thousand innocents just to protect their reputation, a million if it earned them some piece of treasure. But to your friend Akasha, this is nothing. Kiddie play. Little puppies play-biting and swatting each other on the tip of the nose. Her world is much more brutal and merciless than this.”
My mouth opens, but no sound comes out.
“Can you not tell just by looking at her? Why would someone who carries around such a powerful medicine like the one she fed you still be covered in scars? How did she lose an arm and an eye?” Uncle Finram shakes his head, and his eyes return to the arena. “Our worlds are too different. It’s not even about strength. It’s about… savagery. Even if your little friend had a tenth the cultivation she has, I still wouldn’t dare to fight her.”
“B–But, you‘re a 9th-rank warrior! One of the only ones on Caldera! You’re one of the strongest men in the world!”
Uncle Finram nods. “Precisely. I’m one of the strongest men in the world. More accurately, I’m one of the strongest men in this world,” he says, pointing down at the arena and its bloody fights. “I’m one of the strongest in this peaceful, gentle world of little puppies playfully swatting at each other’s nose. Akasha is one of the strongest in a brutal, cruel world of blood and steel and death.”
“…Is that why you cultivate, Uncle? Do you want to become part of that world, too?”
“No. Do you?”
For a long while, I don’t know what to say.
I started cultivating merely to take advantage of my current circumstances. Because, as Uncle Finram said, it would be kind of a waste to not make the best of the situation.
And I want to see Akasha again. We’re friends.
I shake my head.
…It just doesn’t make sense.
That weird little girl with a fluffy tail and ears, who looks even younger than me, who doesn’t know anything about the world? Sure, her face is scarred, and her eye looks a little scary, and she doesn’t talk much, but that doesn’t mean anything. Father has always said that you shouldn’t judge people by their appearance.
I try to imagine Akasha as one of the crazed fighters in the arena below.
I try to imagine her as something even worse.
This… is impossible.
# # #
I watch, aghast, as the first Majin friend I ever made, the person who saved my life, rips the head off a werewolf who tried to help her. His spine dangles from the base of his skull, blood dripping, strands of flesh still hanging from it.
That, after she disintegrated a human’s head, destroyed the Emperor’s private compartment, and crushed several hundred innocent human practitioners on the side.
I swallow back the bile that rises up my throat. I’m suddenly thankful I didn’t eat anything, this morning.
“See? A wild fenrir standing in the midst of a pack of unsuspecting puppies,” Uncle Finram says blandly while shaking his head. “Though, those five might be different.”
“They’re… the new Emperor and his bodyguards?”
“So it would seem.” Uncle Finram takes a deep breath, then stands up and sweeps me up in his arms.
“W–Wait, Uncle, what are you doing?!”
“We’re leaving. Right now.”
“Because the rest of the audience might not realize it, yet, but I’d be very surprised if this island still exists in half an hour. We need to escape before then.”
And without letting me get another word out, Uncle Finram runs out of the arena while carrying me. As soon as he’s outside, he takes to the sky, and we soar toward the harbor.
I silently gaze over his shoulder at the figure of my friend disappearing in the distance.