“You’re almost there,” echoed a voice inside of John’s head, pulling him ever westward as he flew at breakneck speed across the ocean. “Just a little bit farther, and you’ll be there.”
“Please, please, flee, my love,” the woman he was holding in his arms begged. “I’m holding you back! If you didn’t have to make the barriers to protect me, you could fly so much faster! You could live! Please . . . Please run away without me!”
“I’m right ahead. You’ve almost made it to me. You’re almost there. You can feel me, right?” the voice of the woman in John’s mind, talking over that of the one in his arms, whispered to him again–and he could feel her. Qi caused a tingling on the brain. It was an unavoidable sensation as the Qi radiated off of people and struck the person sensing it. The stronger a cultivator was, the more powerful the tingling they produced in others, and for most people, they could easily differentiate the power levels of the cultivators around them from this odd feeling scratching at their brains. They went about their lives within a sphere of sensations that constantly reminded them how far away, how strong, and sometimes even what type of strong the people around them were.
Sensing Qi was something they did naturally and without help. It was as natural and thoughtless of a process for cultivators as taking in the view while walking outside. The unsettling thing, even for John, was that this pulling sensation in his mind now didn’t give him the precise location of someone that were as strong as he was like tingling in the back of his brain did to let him know the locations of those that were chasing after him. Rather it felt like something different altogether. This sensation from the voice didn’t feel like a single person, but a volcano of Qi erupting out in all directions ahead of him only to be pulled back toward the center and repeat the process all over again.
“DON’T DO IT! THAT AREA IS FORBIDDEN!” a voice yelled over the distance that separated John and his pursuers, the words amplified using Wind Qi by the cultivator who shouted them.
“STOP!” another one yelled as John got closer to the source, closer to the small island that was just a blip in the distance.
“MASTER! ON BEHALF OF THE LOVE YOU SHOWED ME AS YOUR DISCIPLE, I’LL GENEROUSLY GIVE YOU A DAY’S HEAD START! JUST DON’T GO IN THERE!” boomed yet another voice, one John recognized all too well as that of the orphan kid he had taken under his wing for a hundred years. “DON’T DO–”
The betrayer’s voice was cut off as a wall of Qi so dense it might as well have been a solid sheet of metal erected itself behind John. It sprang up the moment he got close enough to physically see the individual leaves on the large trees whose branches reached out to the sky in all directions on the island.
“Are we safe?” the woman in his arms asked as the yelling stopped. She opened her eyes wider, taking in the wall of Qi behind them as they landed. “Is it okay now? Where are we? What is that? Dear . . . is that the forbidden temple?!”
“It’s hope.” John was unphased by her quivering, panicked voice as he walked toward the center of the island. Normally, he was always in a rush, always trying to run wherever he could as he did his best to get away from the enemies chasing him, but here he couldn’t. This place demanded respect, ceremony, awe–and caution. That radar that had been with him since he first stepped into the Qi-Gathering Stage of cultivation as a child, learning to circulate the energy his core generated throughout his body and grow with it, was a useless dud here as he stood in the center of the swirling dark Qi. The typhoon of chilling energy was so dense there was no tingle. Rather, it felt like his brain had been tossed into the depths of the ocean as some underwater maelstrom crushed it and pulled it toward the center.
“I can’t . . . I can barely breath,” the woman in his arms said.
“You’ll live,” he assured her. “She said you’ll live, so you’ll live.”
“Who said? John?! Why are we here?!”
The woman’s voice continued to grow in pitch and volume as she forced each word out of her mouth, but John didn’t listen. He was possessed, his feet moving ever forward.
“Yes . . . Yes, you’re almost there,” the voice of the one who had led him said, growing louder than before.
As John walked, he could feel the island begin to shake, and he could sense the vibrations from behind as the cultivators that had chased him banged on the closed door that barred their entrance to the forbidden land.
“We’re here to keep you safe. To protect our child,” John said, looking down at his beloved, hoping it would comfort her as he pressed ever onward toward the center of the island.
“What?! I’m pregnant?! It worked?! We’re finally going to have a baby! Oh my gods above and below!” she shouted ecstatically, the success of a shared dream somehow making her forget the dire situation they were in, the forbidden area they had entered.
It had only been a few days since the conception, but John knew the child was there. For that reason, when he ran this time–like he usually did after one of his many enemies found his location–he took her with him. He couldn’t risk her being caught by those who hated him and then killed with their child still inside her.
“Yes, and up ahead lies the way by which we’re going to keep our baby safe,” John answered as he pressed onward through the woods, reaching the polished temple in the center.
As he walked closer, the pressure stabbing into his head from the whirling storm of Qi began to physically manifest in bright rainbow colors, purple being the strongest of them as it spun around the temple.
“What is it?” his beloved asked him.
“It’s Qi, the essence of our being,” he answered back, but he understood her confusion. Qi never felt like this. Qi was never visible to them. They could feel it, they could sense it, and they knew it like they knew air, always being aware of its presence. However, much like air, Qi was never seen. It could push against them, and it could capsize their boats, but the only way they could physically see it manifest in the world was by how it affected other things.
This was the first time even John had been able to witness the colors of Qi.
“But . . . it stings. It feels like poison on the skin,” the woman replied.
“That’s because it’s not been tainted by filthy cultivators,” the voice that had led John to the island replied, and from the shocked expression of John’s wife, he could tell that she could hear it too now, and he let out a breath of relief.
He had been worried, somewhat, from the time he first heard it beckoning, tugging him toward this location, that it had been a hallucination born of desperation and madness. When he had crippled his cultivation, weakening his bloodline enough to bear a child, it had left him vulnerable, and the moment that his one weakness was shown, the dogs that had professed their love and loyalty for him had come baring their teeth against their former master. This had forced him to run, and he had been all but certain he would die until he stumbled across the crystal that let him meet the owner of this temple.
Given how desperate he was to protect his beloved’s life, to ensure that their child wouldn’t die, he couldn’t help but entertain the idea that he might be crazy–that the voice in his head was a figment of his imagination, the last insane idea of a man on the executioner’s block.
“Who . . . Who are you?” his wife called out. “Show yourself!”
“But I have . . . as far as I can,” the voice responded. “That Qi, or EXP as I like to call it in this state, is me.” The voice laughed. “When you die, your EXP shall be me too. I am the shadow waiting for you at the edge of life as you look out into nothingness.”
John had made up his mind a long time ago that if it was for her, if it was for his heir, he would do anything to see them safe, but the way the whispering voice bounced off the back of his head and filled his body with a chilling sensation that no ice cultivator could create almost gave him pause. Not wanting to turn back now, though, having already passed the halfway point in crossing the river of madness, he took a deep breath, steeled himself, and walked forward, shutting out the distracting voice of reason that told him something wasn’t right–the voice that reminded him this forbidden zone hadn’t become forbidden without cause.
“What . . . What are those?” his wife asked as they stood a few feet away from the entrance. The temple itself didn’t seem to have any particular order or symmetry to it. It looked like ten-to-thirty-foot gray stone cubes and rectangular prisms had been thrown on the ground and then, as if in an afterthought, put together in such a way that their sides all made right angles with the earth and all touched at least one other part of the temple. The entrance itself seemed nothing more than a door slapped on the side of a cube haphazardly so people could get inside.
As he stepped through the door, it was like he stepped into a separate dimension. There were no walls on either side of him, just infinite space in all directions as thousands of stars like the ones that hung in the night sky illuminated the area. Looking behind him, he could still see the outside world, but in front of him, it was as if he had burst out of the world and was stuck in the middle of a galaxy with only a reflective glass floor to stand on.
“It’s . . . It’s so beautiful,” John’s wife remarked.
He wanted to reply that it really was, but his words were silenced by a beeping sound, and a dozen boxes, blue ones that had white edges and looked like floating boards, appeared in front of him with words upon them.
“Warning! You are entering a restricted area of the map. Please turn around,” they all said, every single one of them. They didn’t just say it with a perfectly shaped, blocklike text alone, but rather every time his eyes passed over a word on one of the boxes he could hear it in a strange monotone voice too.
“How . . . How are they hanging in the air? What supports them? What is making them bounce?” his wife asked, posing a question that John didn’t want answered. He felt the more he knew, the more he would hesitate. Every fiber of his being was telling him that he should listen to his gut and turn around, that death for all three of them was better than what was waiting ahead.
“Warning! Do not continue forward. Warning! Do not continue forward. You have exited the map. Please return the way you came,” the boxes continued to say the farther John walked down the reflective road.
“Should we . . . Should we listen to them, John?” his wife asked. “I think . . . I think we should listen to the warnings.”
“No,” John said, surprised his voice was more breathy than usual. As he thought about it, he realized that it wasn’t just his voice that had changed. His whole body had. He was feeling tired. Holding his beloved was becoming difficult.
“You can set me down,” she said as if she understood his thoughts or could tell he no longer had his usual strength.
“Okay,” he gulped, gently helping her stand up as the muscles in his arms began to fail.
“What? What’s wrong with you?” she asked. “Your eyes, they’re blue. They should be red, and your wings . . . and your ears . . . Why are you–”
“Human?” the voice in the tempest of Qi interjected, echoing around them as two large purple glowing eyes appeared in the darkness ahead. “Because I cannot abide a monster in my temple. My father might not let me play with the world anymore, enlarging it so trillions could live where billions once did, changing the gravity, creating an EXP system, or . . . just helping mankind in general anymore, but here . . . Here, I can still do what I want.”
“Here you can still protect us?” John asked the voice as he heard the door slam shut behind them.
“If I choose to, I can save whomever I want here, but . . . why would I do that?” the voice asked as willowy purple strands of Qi circled around John and his wife, creeping every closer to their bodies as the eyes stared down at them.
John frowned, closed his eyes, and summoned up his courage in the face of this deity that had stripped him of all his remaining power. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the stone that had first let him hear her voice.
“The door can be reopened if you so choose. You have exited the map and entered a forbidden zone. It is recommended you turn around and leave.” The floating blue text boxes appeared again, but the swirling purple Qi around them started striking them down, tearing them apart.
As one after the other was ripped apart, new messages started to appear, new warnings, but each was destroyed too quickly to be read. After only a few seconds, John couldn’t even see through them. The purple Qi was no longer in willowy strands but was spinning around him like a thousand blades of wind, chopping up every board and blocking John’s eyes from even seeing so much as a single letter.
“Sorry for the interruption,” the voice said.
“John, let’s go.”
John could tell his wife was panicked.
“John, we need to–”
“To what? Die? To walk outside as I take down the shield and get ripped to pieces by dozens of people? Feel free. I won’t stop you. To be frank, I can’t stop you,” the voice said. “But . . .” she quickly added before John could reply, “I suggest you at least listen to my offer.”
“Your offer?” John asked. “Of course.” He squeezed the stone that had brought him this far. “You didn’t drag me across eleven continents for nothing. What is it you want?”
“Her life,” she responded. “Give me her life, and I will keep you and your baby safe.”
“No,” he said without a moment’s hesitation.
“You don’t understand. I can save you. I can save your child. The two of you can live happily ever after. All you have to do is let me take her life.”
“Why? You’re a god here, aren’t you? What good could her life do? I won’t allow it.”
“I want what you want,” the voice said. “You hate those cultivators out there to the bottom of your heart, don’t you? You want to see them all dead, don’t you? I want to help you achieve that goal. I want to be free of this prison so I can help you murder them all . . . but to do that, I need a host. Her death would allow me to take one.”
“A . . . A host?” John looked over at the woman he had been doing his best to keep safe, and as he did, the Qi around them stabbed into him, flooding his mind with visions, with thoughts, with insight. For a brief moment, he felt as if he could see, feel, and know everything. More importantly, he knew exactly what the sacrifice would entail and what it would allow.
“A host,” the voice repeated.
“John, just let me die. I’ll–”
“You don’t need her, though,” John said, gulping down his fear. “I saw what you need. It isn’t her. You just need a life. Any life.”
“Hers is most suitable. It’s weak. If you give me her life, then you can recover here, gain your strength back, and rampage after. She can’t. She’ll just be a worthless woman that will get in the way.”
As the voice spoke to the two of them, John looked at the woman he loved. He could see the tears in her eyes as she slowly began to resign herself to sacrifice. The promise of their child living was more than enough for her, and he knew it. He knew that if the voice kept talking, the voice would win, and protecting their unborn child’s life would be enough to drive his beloved to take the deal. She was always like that though. She gave up everything for others. It was one of the things he loved about her.
“Lars,” John said to his wife as he studied her expression one last time, his vision of her flickering as tears began to roll down his cheeks as well. She was so beautiful and gentle, and she, unlike him, was pure. She would raise their child well. He had no doubt of it. She would raise him to be a better man than he ever could. “Name our boy Lars and never let him know the sinful act I did for him to live.” John then pulled a dagger off his waist and slit his own throat from ear to ear. The contract is done, he thought as he listened to the shrill shrieks of the woman in front of him. You can have my life instead.
“NOO!!!!!!! JOHN!!! NO!!! DON’T LEAVE ME!!” his beloved screamed.
“Interesting. Interesting indeed,” the voice said, the purple eyes narrowing. “Fine. This isn’t ideal, but it will do. I’ll look after your boy for you. I’ll help him get vengeance for you, for us, and kill every cultivator there is.”
No. John shook his head. The motion was too much for his failing body, and he fell to the floor, his eyes rolling back in his head. No, don’t. Don’t do that. Even if you must tell him of me, tell him something awful . . . just . . . just don’t let him be consumed by hate and revenge in my name. Don’t let revenge be the only reason he lives. That will not be the terms of our contract. Rather . . . let him be happy. Just let my son feel joy in life.
“Feel joy? Oh . . . I’ll let him feel joy!” the voice exclaimed with a cackle. “I’ll let him be filled with ecstasy! There is no greater feeling in this world, after all, than leveling up.”
John tried to reply, to make his condition more precise, but he couldn’t. His brain felt too clouded, his mind a haze, as he took one last look at the woman he had given it all for. The darkness set in and stole the last bit of that image, which had been the light of his life.