Fortitude (HP): 14500
Earth Qi: 8975
Metal Qi: 3399
Toxin Qi: 2217
Lunar Light Qi: 2015
Fire Qi: 1077
Wind Qi: 997
Ice Qi: 376
Lightning Qi: 218
Water Qi: 115
Unassigned Qi: 645
 Advanced Reading Level 2 [27,790/2,000,000 Words Read]
 Knife Hand Level 9 [1/10 Unaware Combatants Killed]
 Toxin Immunity Level 7 [3/10 Toxins Consumed]
[N/A] Unyielding Ice Veins [No Level]
[N/A] Falling Water Dancing over the Moon [No Level]
[N/A] Rising Flames Waltzing with the Sun [No Level]
[N/A] Flame of the Pill God Level 6
 Slave Lord Level 1 [0/100 Slaves Impacted by Skill]
Item Skill Progressions
Enslavement [3/5 People Enslaved]
Leaning over her desk, Ophelia massaged her temples as she had seen other people do when frustrated. It did little more for her than give her something to do with her hands, much less relieve any stress.
“I take it Eva was just here?” Vidkun asked as he came up the stairs. His face looked older than Ophelia remembered despite the acne scars still riddling the surface, and his expression had a seriousness to it that gave his words more gravity than his normally breezy tone commanded.
Ophelia sighed. “When is she not these days?”
Vidkun chuckled like an old man who didn’t have much strength left in his lungs. “It’s better than it was a few years ago.”
“I don’t know . . . I might take the passive-aggressive avoidance over the constant interruptions and angry demands.”
“What was it for this time? Natural disaster relief? Food for some country that no one can point to on a map? Houses for homeless people in the big city? Or did she just ask for something impossible like ending world hunger?”
“Yeah, I definitely liked her better when she was just a rich brat,” Ophelia decided out loud.
“Ha ha! Don’t say that. It’s your sermons that got her so interested in helping others. What is it that you always say? If we want the world to change, we must take the first step in the direction we want it to go . . .” He trailed off before shrugging indifferently. “Or something like that?”
“Something like that. But she doesn’t come to my sermons. She hasn’t since she first hit her teen years.”
“She’s never missed one,” Vidkun corrected her. “She just doesn’t go in person. Her mother still records them, and Eva forces her whole family to watch them with her at the dinner table.”
“That’s . . . That’s so weird to think about. Her? Really? Even when she—”
“Even when she was awful to you.” Vidkun laughed.
Ophelia frowned in response. “Well, she seems madder at me these days than she did back then. She keeps demanding miracles from me, but I can’t do what she wants.”
Vidkun nodded. “We all know how your dad and mom are. They gave you every bit of power a kid could ever ask for. All of it. The ability to snap your fingers and make every wish you’ve ever had come true. And then they forbade you from ever using it.”
“You make them sound mean,” Ophelia replied.
“I don’t mean to. Your parents are the reason we’re here. They’re the great watchers of this world. So, I’m just pointing out what they did, not passing judgment.”
“Fine. You’re just pointing it out then. Well, Mister Judgement-Free, what would you do if you could do anything? If you had my powers for a day, what would you do?” Ophelia asked.
“I’d fix my face first.”
“Not cure world hunger? Not restock the oceans with fish so people can eat sushi again? Not get rid of Mt. Plastic floating in the Pacific?”
“I’m not Eva. I’m me. I know well the reason your dad told you not to use your powers for anyone besides yourself: because if you do it once, they’ll demand it again and again. That’s how people are. They’re like electricity. They avoid the paths of difficulty and resistance wherever possible.”
“And if I performed a single miracle for them, they’d think of me as the route with least resistance?”
Vidkun smiled. “Some would. Many would. Enough that you’d never hear the end of it. Which is why I never asked you to fix this hideous face of mine.”
“It’s not like you need me to, though,” Ophelia commented. “Even without the fix, you’re doing just fine.”
“My money is doing just fine,” Vidkun replied with a chuckle. “Me? I’m struggling. I can’t talk to a girl without thinking, ‘If my ancestor weren’t the great Olga, friend of God himself, would this girl even be talking to me?’ You and Eva are my two closest friends, but if she wasn’t my cousin, and if our families weren’t close, I don’t think even we would be talking.”
“That’s a huge chip on your shoulder you live with.”
“Keeps me from flying off at the mouth.”
Vidkun’s response felt oddly cold to Ophelia, much colder than any part of it—looks, tone, or content—justified.
“What’s with this talk?” Ophelia sighed. “It’s heavier than all Eva’s guilt-tripping.”
“Ah. Yes, you must have had your share of serious topics for the day.” Vidkun flashed a smile for a moment that unnerved Ophelia, but before she could place her finger on what exactly bothered her, everything was back to normal. He was once again chuckling with his weird old-man laugh, and his eyes had the same sparkle that they usually did. “So, instead, why don’t we talk about movies?”
“Movies?” Ophelia asked curiously.
“Yes, movies. It’s been a year since you’ve left this office. I’m sure you could do with the break.”
“But . . .”
Vidkun pulled out a scarf from behind his back as if he were as magical as Ophelia was. “I’m sure we can find a disguise so no one notices who you are. Or just simply cover up the recognizable parts.”
“I could have made it . . .” Ophelia gave a half-hearted smile as she took the scarf from him. Handmade, she thought as she noticed an error in the knitting.
“Unnecessary? I know. But, sometimes, it’s nice to just do something for those you care about. It might have been unprompted, unasked for, and unnecessary, yet I still thought it might be nice,” he responded.
“It was . . . I mean, it is. Like inviting me out to a movie. Thank you,” she replied, doing her best to show gratitude for a gift she had no idea what to do with.
“Well, to be fair, that was Eva’s idea. She wanted to take you to one last month, but you must understand: She doesn’t know how to be nice to you. She doesn’t know how to be around you,” Vidkun explained.
Ophelia frowned, remembering the sight of an angry Eva slamming a paper full of “suggestions” on her desk. “She seemed to manage just fine earlier.”
“Well, she has spent the last two months failing to ask you to go watch a movie with her, so consider it a favor and take her to one.”
“You’re not coming?”
“Oh, of course I’m coming. Especially if you’re paying.”
“Paying? Ha. Like you don’t have enough money.”
“No one is rich enough to afford movie theater prices and still have cash left over for popcorn and candies.”
“Fine, but you better get me a large buttered popcorn,” Ophelia said.
Vidkun looked genuinely surprised. “Your dad lets you eat that?”
“No,” she admitted, “but that’s why it’ll be a treat.”
The sensation of sound slowly faded even as Ophelia continued talking, joking, and enjoying the witty banter. It was as if she had plunged into a deep pool, going deeper and deeper into the abyss until all sound was completely gone and all that remained were Vidkun’s odd expressions.
Her senses of sight and touch faded next, much more quickly than her hearing had gone. Finally, complete darkness wrapped around her like a blanket.
“What? Where? Who? . . . Huh . . .” The words escaped Lars’s mouth as his eyes shot open.
He felt as if he had completely lost his sense of self. He had been so lost in the dream that it left him feeling dizzy and muddled after his body jolted awake, his starved brain grasping at any signals he could find.
Everything had seemed so normal while he was dreaming, but the second he woke up, he began to understand how strange what he had seen was. Nothing that he had seen, felt, or experienced within that dream made sense to him now that he was awake, but it all somehow still felt too real to be just the illusion of a sleeping mind. He felt as if he had been living through a memory. The room, the walls, the floor, the doors that opened on their own—they were all believable and familiar yet completely unreal.
Then, after a moment, it dawned on him. He had seen those types of structures before in the visions that Ophelia had shown him. He had lived through the deaths of countless people, watching again and again as humanity, the race he seemed to be the last of, was butchered and massacred wholesale by cultivators. They had been killed in buildings just like the one he had seen in that dream. They had been ripped to pieces, used, brutalized, and savaged by their heartless assailants in a civilization like the one he had seen in his sleep.
Was that . . . Was that what life was like back then? Lars asked, wondering whose eyes he had been peering through. They couldn’t have been . . .
Yeah, they were mine. Those were my eyes you were looking out of in the world before the fall of man.
Lars blinked a few times and then began rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, hoping it would remove the haze in his mind. And what . . . What the heck was a movie?
About a two-hour journey through a fictional world that you can see and hear but never touch or move about in. Basically, it’s like a game if you were stuck in cutscenes the entire time.
A game? Cutscenes? Wait . . . who . . . was that guy? Who was Eva? What were you guys talking about?
“You’re awake? That’s good,” Apep said, his large scaly wings casting shadows around the room as he moved to face Lars. “I don’t know which is more impressive: that a man can be such a sound sleeper when coming from the hostile outer worlds or that I cannot spot a single injury on you.”
Lars wondered what exactly Apep meant by “the hostile outer worlds,” but he decided to bite his tongue instead. His time in the city, however brief it had been, had taught him that information was a precious commodity others used to their advantage and that everyone had a purpose that might, at any moment, turn that information against him. His questions were answers to such people. His focus was a weakness that could entrap him when noticed. Silence was his only defense, but it also left him clueless.
“Don’t look so shocked. Surely even someone raised in the barbaric outer settlements has ridden in one of these before?” Apep asked as he scratched at one of his curled horns, likely taking Lars’s hesitancy for befuddlement rather than distrust or uncertainty.
Lars looked around again. He had gleaned where he was the moment he woke up. He was in the sky. The clouds directly out the window from him were proof of that. There was no other way Lars could fathom their passing right outside.
“It’s beautiful,” Lars said, gazing out the window. The room was larger than the one he grew up in, the bed was higher quality than even the one he had slept in at the Neukdaegalbi clan’s guest courtyard, and while the furniture was sparse, it all looked handcrafted and was covered with golden symbols Lars didn’t recognize.
“Originally, it was called the Cloud Killer,” Apep said.
“Cloud Killer?” Lars mulled the name over for a minute.
“Home to a thousand little deaths in the sky,” Apep added with a laugh. “That was, at least, until the previous owner, the current sect master, realized what it was being used for and traded it off for a few pills.”
“A thousand little deaths?”
“Little deaths . . . you know, when a guy or a girl . . . uhh . . .” The large horned-and-winged dragon demon looked somewhat bashful, and his face even turned a bit red as he danced around the explanation.
Climax. When two people are having physical relations and they reach the end, it’s called a “little death.”
Oh . . . Lars thought and then loudly voiced his thought. “Oh . . . Oh!”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Apep laughed. “But don’t worry. You’re a disciple of mine. Those are all new sheets, and the bed is fresh.”
“You could have led with that.” Lars frowned uncomfortably at the idea he was in a bed that so many people had used for such an activity. The very thought of it made his skin crawl a little.
“It is amazing, though, isn’t it?” Apep said as he walked to the window. “The Cloud Killer, that is. It fascinated me when I was your age. I remember before my tail or wings had formed—before my scales had come in, and I was but a pup of a cultivator—I gazed at it as if it symbolized everything great in the world. You see, it was the first time I had seen an artifact move independent of its wielder. It broke my sense of reason. How could something act without direction, without Qi? How could it fly? What made it move through the air? How come the people in it weren’t thrown to the back by the speed? I didn’t understand any of it. To me, it was an anomaly. To me, it was an immortal wind blowing me forward, an afflatus, an inspiration that drove me. A question unanswered is not a problem, but a solution to the question, ‘Why am I here? What should I do with my life?’”
“Well, that’s dandy and all, but . . .” Lars wanted to know what this had to do with him.
“But how do you grow? How can we make you grow? What is your bloodline? I thought I understood everything there was in the world until I was told of a tailless man, no beast ears nor eyes, who danced like falling rain and caused an epiphany in the onlooking crowd.
“So . . . you’re interested in me now?”
“Yes. I’m very interested in you. I absolutely must have you, and I must explore every part of you there is to know. I shall reveal all of your parts and explore your mysteries the same way I—”
“I’m into women,” Lars quickly interrupted. “Only women.” He felt the need to clarify when the gigantic dragon cultivator’s eyes ravaged him in a way that left him physically uncomfortable.
And I’m strictly into men, but when you’re in Rome . . . or, in my case, a woman trapped in a man’s body . . . you do what the Romans do.
“Good. That’s for the best. If you have children in the future, we’ll have more test subjects. Perhaps your growth rate and brilliance are a product of your environment and not genetic.”
Ah, I’m being dense. Lars shook his head. He wanted to believe his gaffe was due to an easy-to-make mistake, but given the context, he should have known better. He’s just interested in how I came to grow in power, and there is no way I’m telling him about Ophelia. “Well, don’t think anything of it, but I can’t share what I’ve been taught.”
“Yes, your master, Princess Hsein Ku, informed me of the situation when she rode out to pass her pupil a message,” Apep said. “I’m very well aware that you’re not allowed to share a single detail of her training with anyone. Though, I must say, her alchemy has grown quite impressive if she was able to infuse you with such power despite not even an ounce of your blood manifesting.”
“Infuse me with power?” Lars mumbled. “Yes, a secret indeed.” Lars suddenly remembered the deal he had made with Hsein Ku. “Wait . . . what did she say? And how many days have I been out?”
“You’ve been out for five days. After you blew up the carriage you were going to travel in, we were initially afraid to move you, given your condition, but—”
“Blew up the carriage? Could you—”
“Oh my, that’s right. I may have studied the incident, but you were unconscious, weren’t you, little pup?” Apep laughed, and his hearty guffaw filled the entire room despite the fact that Lars didn’t remember anyone telling a joke. “Well, where to begin . . . You had just woken up, and we were still a few days’ ride from the sect’s territory. You started to say something, yet before you could get out more than a single sentence, your entire chest began glowing an odd purple color. The earth and soil around us began to shake, and then purple strands of Qi rose up from every direction and assaulted our carriage, coming up from the floor to attack you. A moment or two later, your body shook, and then the purple Qi that was within you exploded outward in every direction. The violent Qi burned and scorched everything around it like a harsh flame. It might have killed your companions had I not protected them. That was quite odd. Su Ryeon is a league stronger than you, but that move would have incinerated her the same as if she were an ordinary log tossed in the fire. Once the explosive Qi finished ravaging the area, we rushed in to find you lying there, unmoving. Your breathing had stopped, your heart had stopped, and we thought you were dead for a moment until we realized that your eyes were shining with the same purple Qi that had attacked you, leaking it out in a horrifying way before closing.”
“Well, that sounds peachy.” Lars could only imagine that it had been Ophelia’s doing, and her silence at the tale of the event felt like confirmation.
“Yes. It was indeed an unpleasant surprise. But what was even more surprising was that your heart began beating again, and your breath returned as if nothing had gone wrong after some time passed. Quite perplexing. I was in the middle of examining your body for wounds or contusions—a difficult thing to do with the panicked women holding their necks and wondering why they hadn’t been snuffed out like normal slaves—when bam! You were alive again. I have to say, I’ve lived a very, very long time, and it was the first time I’d seen such a thing.”
“And . . .” Lars was not sure what had happened to him, but he knew it would be the topic of a conversation with Ophelia in the future. “What happened after that?”
“Well, after that, you slept. I didn’t let anyone attempt to wake you, and I had to knock the panicked women out for fear they’d accidentally make a noise that might disturb you. The problem was, of course, that we didn’t have a carriage for you, so I returned to the sect and grabbed this floating house instead. It’s quite nice and the way I would normally transport guests if not for the fact I didn’t know I’d be meeting you during our last visit. I must admit, I also chose the flying vehicle because I wondered if you would be able to do the same trick in the sky as you did on the ground, given that the horrendously violent Qi seemed to originate from the ground.”
“If we were in the sky, then how did the princess ride out to meet us?” Lars asked. He didn’t remember her being powerful enough to use her Qi to fly.
“Oh, well, it’s not like we took off right away. I still had to study your body a bit more, and—”
“Could you . . . uhh . . . skip to the part about what she said?” Lars asked.
“She said that your debt to her is delayed, not paid,” he replied. “She said that you must fulfill your obligation as a disciple.”
Lars sighed. So I’m not off the hook. “But did she at least say how long I have to fulfill the obligation?”
“No. She just said that she knows you won’t show up in the city again empty-handed.”
Lars scratched at his head, wondering what he had gotten himself into. “Well, thanks for passing on the message.”
“You shouldn’t worry too much. It’s just a mundane little kingdom filled with mundane fools and cultivators who chase nothing but worldly pleasures like sex and booze and other terrible, earthly desires. They’re clearly not a match for a glorious, high-minded sect like ours. Within the walls of the Sect of the Spring Rain, there is no lesser kingdom that can disturb us,” Apep assured him. “And while it is important to honor your master’s wishes, if she is a good master, she will seek what is best for you first and foremost, so just focus on that.”
“Speaking of the . . . uhh . . . slaves . . . where are they?” Lars asked.
“They were trying to waste valuable time waiting for you to wake up, so I secluded them in training rooms. I think it is best they are not let free until you arrive . . . Though, there is one thing I wanted to talk to you about.”
“The woman, the other tailless one, Su Ryeon. I would like to take her as my disciple. She adamantly refused, but her potential is great. I think it is a waste to leave her as a slave.”
“Ah, well . . . it’s not like—”
“Her slave contract should be ending soon, no? After all, it is a lesser slave contract, so when she ascends and breaks the shackles of her servitude, I’d like to absorb her into my fold and take her as my disciple.”
“I see, but . . . I think . . .” Lars didn’t know how to reject him, but he was also in a tough spot. Su Ryeon’s previous master might have used a weak contract, but Ophelia was the one who handled the new one. There was no way Ophelia would “let a pawn escape her clutches,” as she phrased it. Even if Su Ryeon ascended over and over again, lifelong servitude was the only thing that awaited the poor woman. “I think it’s best if—”
“Is that why you seduced her? You were aware of the circumstances and chose to make your moves early so that the moment she tastes freedom, you will have already enslaved her by another method? Clever. But it isn’t in her best interest, nor yours. I think it would be best if you just agreed with me, and we made the decision for her. A woman trapped by love cannot think clearly enough to be responsible for her own thoughts and decisions, much less plan out her future.”
Even though Ophelia didn’t say it herself, Lars could almost hear her voice replying with something along the lines of “I’ll plan out his freaking face if I get the chance. Lars, go farm his soul for some EXP” like she used to every time one of the bastards back at the village said something similarly sexist.
Lars studied Apep’s expression, not sure what to make of the old man’s never-changing face. It was as if someone had carved his mien out of stone, and all the friendliness from earlier had completely vanished only to be replaced with an emotionless mask. “While she is a slave, she is still mine, and it is my duty to take care of her,” Lars pushed back. “And when she is not a slave, what she does is not mine to determine, so I should not be the one making decisions for her. I think it’s best not to bring this subject up with me. It’ll make things awkward.”
“I see. You must still be muddled and recovering your senses from what I can only assume was a very odd Qi deviation due to whatever enigmatic form of cultivation you practice. We can discuss the finer details of your slaves later.”
I’m not going to change my mind later, Lars thought, but he knew he shouldn’t say it. He had a feeling that the old man wouldn’t be so patient and accommodating if he weren’t so fascinating or needed for whatever plans Apep might be concocting.
He even brought a special flying house so I could travel safely . . . Lars mulled over what that meant. Things were definitely not as they seemed. There was no reason for someone so strong to be so concerned with someone so weak. Even if Lars displayed potential, it was just that: potential. He was at most an agate ready for polishing, a pretty rock in a world full of precious gems, people that were Qi Condensation Stage or higher.
“You know my favorite part of the Cloud Killer?” Apep asked, changing the subject.
“The view?” Lars asked.
“The free meals,” Apep answered with a grin. “It’s fun to watch the birds in the sky splatter across the house’s Qi field. Their dead bodies are pushed down into the house’s storage facility for processing. I never knew there were so many ways to cook mangled bird bodies until my chefs were given the assignment of making sure we didn’t waste the meat.”
“You’d think, with the bones . . .” Lars began to consider the subject, allowing himself to get distracted from the tense nature of the conversation by the idea of mangled birds. “It’d be nearly untenable to work into a good meal . . .”
“Not at all. There is a quick and easy way to remove the feathers, and after that, they just get mashed into . . . well . . . nuggets? I’m not sure what to call them. They mash up all the flesh and bones into a weirdly textured substance, shape them into very small balls, and then bread and deep fry them. They’re just okay on their own, but with the addition of some ground mustard seeds and pepper stirred into just enough honey to create a thick paste . . . Well, they are absolutely delicious. Quite a treat indeed. And thanks to the inclusion of the bones, the flavor is much better.”
Lars was curious about the flavor and decided he’d try it. “Ah. I see. Well, then—”
“I’ll have someone bring you some when we land. I can’t imagine you want to eat right now. After all, you must still be feeling out of it. I’ll be off.” Apep then hurried out of the room so quickly that Lars couldn’t have replied even if he had wanted to.
“Did he just . . . Did he run away?” Lars asked aloud, the shock from the rapid departure still lingering as he tried to put one and one together and understand what just happened.
Less that and more like he had gotten what he wanted out of you but didn’t feel the need to return the favor.
What he wanted? Lars scrunched up his face as he lay back down and stared at the ceiling. What was with that story about birds hitting the front then? And where were you?
I was hiding. His eyes were staring right through you, looking for my existence. I didn’t want to give him anything that he could see. Even that ramble about food was his way to gauge you. Your every minute facial reaction will go toward his analysis of you.
So, you weren’t just avoiding the question about . . . what happened to me in the carriage? Lars thought back to what Apep had said, to the explosion that had knocked him out for a week, and to the fact that he had lived, or experienced, parts of Ophelia’s past.
No. That question is easy to answer: You and I have made a contract now. Previously, your father and I had made a contract. His devotion to the cause, his belief in me, was enough to make him willingly give his—
Ophelia stopped talking, leaving Lars hanging as he waited to find out what his father had done, but no answer came.
Ophelia, what did my father give? he demanded. What was his devotion?
Must you make me say it out loud? He died for me. It was not the outcome I wanted. To be honest, I was furious. But there was nothing I could do about it. He would still be alive if it weren’t for Jung and his goons chasing him like a dog across the world, even to the doors of my temple.
You were furious about him dying? That didn’t make sense at all. Ophelia’s whole thing was that she wanted people to die, but she was mad about him dying? On top of that, the details were too vague. This was all unexpected information, and he wasn’t sure exactly what had been left out. Something wasn’t right with what she said, like there was something missing.
Absolutely angry. Furious. That bastard! How could he go off and die on his own? I didn’t want that at all! Your father was the best man I could find in an entire world full of candidates. He was perfection incarnate.
Lars sighed. First she was upset over his death, and now he was “perfection,” but the man had been a cultivator, one of the people Ophelia deemed most evil. That logical inconsistency didn’t bother him that much though. Instead, it was the fact she praised him at all. He knew that he should have been happy to find out his dad was such a great guy despite the fact that Ophelia had previously slandered him, but in place of that happy feeling, he felt something else: a knot in his stomach that neither logic nor emotion could untie. His lips pulled apart slightly at the edges, and his teeth flashed as he breathed out the bile in his gut that arose with Ophelia’s words. The feeling was strong enough that it caused him to forget momentarily about the fact she mentioned she had a temple or that her father had been a “candidate.”
Either way, cheer up. That explosion meant that you and I have reached such a point of synchronization that you’re now no longer just an unwilling host but an active participant. That moment—which you don’t seem to remember even though . . . It was my first, you heartless bastard! MY FIRST TIME WAS WASTED ON YOU! TAKE MORE RESPONSIBILITY!
Your first? Take responsibility? What? We didn’t . . . I don’t think we could . . . Wait . . . Lars tried to recall what she was talking about. He remembered waking up in the carriage. He had seen Ophelia’s face, and her eyes had pierced into him like two sharp spears, transfixing his entire being. Everything had gone hazy, and then he had panicked, his heart had started racing, and he had been scared.
My . . . My mother! Lars’s mother had been his biggest concern when he had woken up, but that worry had been alleviated. Ophelia’s calming voice had been there for him. He hadn’t known what to do, but she had said that she would help him do what he wanted. It had only been for an instant, but he could still clearly recall that feeling: he had wanted to kill them all. He had wanted to kill every single one of those worthless cultivators that had forced him into a corner and treated him like garbage and tried to dispose of him like freshly stripped innards being tossed to the dogs.
That was the feeling he had. That was the rage, however fleeting, that had consumed him as he thought about how powerless he was to do anything, how he couldn’t even stop the world from taking the only person that he loved. That she had to sacrifice herself like some sort of lamb on the altar of his safety just to stop him from being murdered had filled him with rage. He had wanted to kill them all. He had wanted to murder the cultivators that built the horrible society he was in.
Yes. That’s right. That’s the moment it happened. For one brief moment, our desires and thoughts were perfectly in coordination, and you and I made our contract. You’re now officially my little warlock.
“Warlock,” Lars said aloud. The word sounded odd in his head and even odder when he said it out loud.
Yes. Warlock. It’s an old gaming term that I grew rather fond of back when I was . . . when I was still corporeal. It’s a word for a regular mortal like yourself, a good old human, who receives power and blessings from a powerful deity-adjacent being—like me.
A deity? Like Seokga? Mireuk? Or something like that ultimate god, the Clockmaker, you mention often?
No, Seokga and Mireuk are folk stories. I’m real. And so is the Clockmaker. But, no, not like him either.
You know, even after being able to do the things I can do thanks to you, it’s kind of hard to view you like that . . . Lars thought honestly. Deity-adjacent, deity . . . powerful being . . . If she is those things . . . Lars paused, thinking back to the moments he had begged anyone to stop the pain. The first time had been such a jarring experience for him.
He remembered how it began: “Are you talking to yourself again? Mumbling away like we can’t hear you, Big Bars Lars?”
At that time, he had just been confused. No one had really approached him, ever, when he was with his mother. They had kept their distance. It was like she had been an invisible barrier, a giant bubble that no one dared to pop and enter. However, without her, the barrier was gone. The kids came up to him, and rather than a hello, a “How are you?” or a “Nice to meet you,” it was just that awkward greeting, leaving Lars fumbling around in his head trying to figure out what they were talking about. “Big Bars Lars?” he had thought, confused by what they meant.
“What? Got no reply, Big Bars Lars?” The question had come again but from a different kid as five or six of them began to circle him the way wild dogs circle their prey.
While the words coming out of their mouths hadn’t been categorically insulting, Lars had known they were meant to be. He remembered that tone. That had been his first time hearing it then, but afterward, he heard it dozens and dozens of times. It was an insidious sound tainting the words that came out of his peers’ mouths when his mother wasn’t around.
“Big Bars Lars?” he had asked them. That was a mistake. He didn’t realize it until it was too late, but they had picked that name as bait. They wanted his confusion. They were lining up a joke he wasn’t privy to and wasn’t meant to understand until the giant metal bar came crashing across his back, sending him sprawling to the ground.
He had tried to stop himself from falling face-first by extending his hands, but that didn’t help him much. It just left him open for more hits as two and then three metal bars, likely ones used to reinforce the town’s barely adequate wall, smashed into him again and again.
“See? Big bars! Big bars, Lars!” they had taunted as he coughed up blood.
Lars remembered begging that voice in his head, begging the nameless woman to help. Not just her. He had begged anyone. “Please stop hitting me. Please someone stop them,” he had said, he had pleaded, he had repeated until a bar clocked him right across the face and broke his nose. But his own sobs were the only reply.
A god . . . Lars thought as he remembered how desperately he had wanted Ophelia to help him back then. If you . . . If you were a god . . . then how come . . . How come, back then . . .?
Lars. I may be like a god, but I am also chained to restrictions. Didn’t I tell you to kill them? Didn’t I try to teach you how to murder them softly in their sleep? You’re the one who was against it. You’re the one who said that you hated pain—that it was the worst thing in the world to you—so you couldn’t imagine causing someone else to hurt.
You’ve given me quests that don’t involve killing though . . . You’ve . . . You’ve already—
I’ve done what I can, to the limits of what I can, for you. You remember how much it hurt, but did you forget how fast you healed? Did you forget that, by the next day, you were walking around town as if nothing happened? That the teeth they knocked out of your mouth magically grew again with time? I’ve done what I can for you, Lars. I’m not my mother or father; I can’t do anything just because I want to.
Fine. Lars relented, but things still didn’t sit right with him. Something was off; he just couldn’t tell what. There was a piece he was missing, something unsaid, and he knew that if he thought about it hard enough and that if he was willing enough to listen to the answer, it’d reveal itself.
Anyway, don’t fret the little stuff. Instead, let’s open up your stat sheet and see some of the newest and freshest goodies available to you! Check it out!
Ophelia’s excitement felt forced, but Lars’s excitement manifested quite naturally when the stat sheet appeared in front of him. He couldn’t help but feel a little giddy as he saw the beautiful new purple box in front of him, completely unlike the blue text boxes he was used to. The outside trim was still white, but the text was a glowing green, brighter and sharper than any green he had seen before on leaves or grass.
Warlock: Level 1.
Patron: Ophelia, Aspect of Death, Enjoyer of Extra-Salted and Heavily Buttered Popcorn.
Lv. 1: Master of One [20% Conversion, 5-minute cooldown]
Lv. 1: Master of None [0% Bonus]
Lv. 1: Rest in Servitude Eternal [20% Conversion, 1 Minion, 2-hour cooldown]
Temporary Invocation: Movie Mind, Bring the Popcorn.
What . . . Wait . . . What are manifested invocations? Lars asked as he read through the ability list, skipping past the ridiculous title mentioning popcorn or the more direct claim that she was the aspect of death itself. What do these abilities even do?
Each of these is a gift you gained due to our increased . . . affinity. The first ability, Master of One, lets you take all of the loose and scattered elemental Qi types and convert them into a single type of elemental Qi. However, because your affinity level isn’t super high yet, the conversion ratio isn’t one to one. Instead, it’s more like . . . five to one, where every five points of elemental Qi you have in another element becomes one point of Qi in the element you have chosen to be the master of. The ability is more like a mode or a form. The cooldown is the minimum length of time you have to remain in the mode once activated.
So . . . if I use this ability to, say, focus on becoming a master of Fire Qi, then I would basically be foregoing the ability to use Ice Qi or any of the other elemental abilities?
Right. Your ability to control wind, to conjure water, or to shake the earth would be taken from you the moment you entered Master of One mode. However, your ability to burn would be heightened greatly, and you’d be able to win any showdown of flames.
Then I take it Master of None is . . . choosing not to specialize in any ability? What is that? Does it spread my points out evenly?
It does indeed. It adds all your points together and then splits them evenly between all available types of elemental Qi you have acquired. It might seem like a nonsensical ability, as a sharp point is often preferable to a blunted edge in most fights, but it would give you a chance to use rare Qi types without giving up your ability to control the elements you usually rely on.
I see. Lars nodded. This all made sense. These two “modes,” as she called them, were indeed amazing. He could already imagine how he might leverage them to overcome a tough opponent. But . . . what’s the last one? he asked after a moment of thinking about how strong his Fire Qi might become if he were in the Master of One mode.
Rest in Servitude Eternal is a summoning ability. That Qi flowing into you isn’t just random stat points—it’s the essence of the people you’ve killed. Absorbing their Qi creates a sort of tether between you and them, linking you eternally. This ability lets you use that connection to pull them back into the world. The skill is very weak at the moment, however, so it will only let you drag one of them from the abyss and back into this world.
Linking us . . . eternally? But . . . you mean . . . I’m stuck with my soul linked to those filthy scum I killed? Lars gulped. He felt dirty just thinking about it. The people he had murdered were the worst of the worst. They were the types that had made it impossible for ordinary people to just enjoy their day-to-day lives. They were the disgusting underbelly of society. He didn’t know a ton about ethics or moral philosophy, but he still knew everything about those people was wrong. They were the type of people that he’d rather never see or speak to ever again in his entire life, and now he was finding out that he was stuck with them. Forever.
He couldn’t help but also wonder if they’d be waiting for him when he died, if it’d be like his childhood all over again. He dreaded to think of what the truly evil, truly vile people he had killed would do to him in the afterlife if the average kid could conjure up the “Big Bars Lars” type of torture before they had even grown hair on their chest.
Lars, you’re thinking about it the wrong way. It’s not that you’re stuck to awful people; it’s that you have a ton of free servants you don’t have to feel bad about bossing around whenever you want, however you want, for all of eternity. Just think: no matter how wicked they were in life, in death they may be nothing more than your mean, daiquiri-mixing, shade-making cabana boy as you sit on the beach, looking out into the oceans of time.
Ugh. Could you please not send me those images? Lars closed his eyes in disgust for a moment as he envisioned a man with bigger muscles and more shine than even some of the best warriors he had met, glowing like he had been rubbed from head to toe in oil and covered in sunlight on a beach while making his pectoral muscles dance back and forth one at a time.
Sorry. That’s your temporary bonus ability: Movie Mind. If I imagine something vividly, you’ll be stuck with the image.
Like the dream I had before I woke? Was that a product of that ability?
No. That was an unwanted intrusion into my past. An unfortunate product of overlap. Not something to discuss further. I’ve humored enough questions on the contents already, and I want to hear nothing of Eva again.
Her voice hadn’t changed to the loud yelling he was used to when she was mad, but Lars could feel her anger. He didn’t know if he could sense it because of their connection or just in the terse way she punctuated her syllables.
Lars leaned back and let the issue go, his thoughts returning to the initial description of Rest in Servitude Eternal. He pondered what to do next as he studied the ability. While he had mostly killed people he didn’t have any desire to talk to again, there was one person he wouldn’t mind seeing once more: Dawn. I was the one to end her life, so the skill should work on her. Should I give Rest in Servitude Eternal a try? Lars was unsure how to work the skill but still wanted to use it.
No. Apep may still be watching or be nearby. Do you remember how he said that he could see Qi? Most cultivators can’t even begin to fathom its presence. This means that, while he may not be among the strongest cultivators in existence, he has an especially strong sense of Qi control. His innate bloodline must give him an ability to understand its mechanics.
Is that why you were so quiet when he was around? Because you’re worried he could see you? Lars asked.
Yes. Because he must never know that I exist outside my temple.
Fair enough, Lars replied. He was debating what to do next when he felt the vessel begin to slow down. Wait . . . No, the timing isn’t that convenient, is it? Lars stood up, grabbed a white robe he found next to the bed he was in, and stretched his legs.
It’s not convenient. I had to mentally poke you awake. You were staying in the past too long.
In the past . . . Lars couldn’t help but scratch at his chin.
Dear Dad above, I put up with the sighs, but you better not start scratching your chin too. You’re not that old. And also . . .
You want me to go find the kitchen in this place before we get kicked out so we can steal some chicken nuggets, don’t you?
You know me so well.
No threats if I don’t do it?
We’re more in sync, remember? There is no need to threaten you. I know you want them as much as I do.
I . . . I do? Lars asked. The idea that his thoughts were “in sync” with Ophelia, even a little bit, hadn’t fully gotten under his skin until now. When they were back at the village, eating, drinking, and laughing, she’d go from demanding he murder people one minute to asking about food the next. He had thought that she was insane. He had, to no small extent, considered her the most volatile, illogical, nonsensical, crazy-talking person he had ever known. He had tolerated her because he had to. But now he wasn’t tolerating her. The words appearing in his head weren’t to silence her. He wasn’t bribing her with treats; he just wanted some food. He wanted to find out what those chicken nuggets would taste like.
Lars! Quit the bellyaching and get moving. We have chicken nuggets to steal before we’re forced to go outside and do dumb sect stuff.
Right. Lars finished tying the robe shut and rushed out of the room. When he opened the door, he was greeted with the oddest thing: a giant circular room with numerous doors at intervals along the wall. What the hell? Lars thought as he looked at the doors in a panic.
The room was barren except for a tiny circular marble fountain in the middle that had little lilies floating across the surface of the water and small golden-scaled fish swimming around. Above the pond hung the only source of light for the room: a large chandelier with each of its candle flames held within an obfuscating crystal prison. The dimmed light made it hard to see anything clearly except the doors and the fountain.
Lars wondered which way led to food. Every door had a different number on the front of it, but Lars had no idea which number was “kitchen.” The doors didn’t even have helpful symbols.
It was at this moment that Lars realized he had forgotten something important. He had been asleep for days—days of lying in bed. While his brain had initially just thought, “I need to get chicken nuggets and see what they taste like,” out of curiosity, he was now stuck with only a single thought running through his head: Where is the freaking bathroom? The fact there was a fountain—and it was the centerpiece of the room—wasn’t helping him at all.
Yeah. Feel this desperate need to find a restroom? Wait until you’re older. It only gets worse. You’ll be minding your own business, having a nice, snuggly moment in bed, and then BAM. Nature’s call will summon you out of your cocoon across the frigid floors of frozen dreams as you’re forced to relieve yourself. If you reach a certain age, you won’t even be able to make it through a single night’s sleep without the cruel mistress that is biology raising you from your slumber like you’re some mindless zombie just to find a bathroom.
Will you just be quiet? I need to . . . Lars paused, turning his head back to the door that led to his room. Can I just go out the window? No, wait. We’ve landed. Maybe I can jump out the window and go find a place to go before they lift off again . . . or . . . maybe I could—
Stop thinking like an idiot and just ask that girl, the one right over there. Those eyes . . . kinda hot if you ask me. Who knows? Maybe after she helps you figure out where to point your member, she’ll help you figure out where to point your member.
Lars didn’t know how he knew which direction Ophelia was suggesting, but he did. He knew without being told, almost as if he could see her in front of him, pointing to one of the few places in the giant cylindrical lobby that wasn’t illuminated properly. The girl was nearly invisible except for two golden eyes that glowed out of the shadows a head above his own.
“Umm . . . Hey!” Lars called out to her, holding up a hand and waving as he tried to get her attention quickly. He could already feel his body’s internal doom ticker getting closer and closer to the moment of disaster.
“What?” The woman’s tone was so terse her mouth could have doubled as an ice cellar or a winter wind machine.
Ooo . . . that stings. I’ve seen people give rotten food at a restaurant a better response than you just got.
“Sorry . . . umm . . . bathroom?” Lars asked, not sure exactly what he had done to offend this woman.
I think it’s the “umm.” You really need to stop saying it. You’re not weak anymore. You’re not someone who can be killed by a fly landing on the wrong spot. If you keep saying “umm,” you might draw less anger generally and make yourself appear meek, but it will also make you unlikable. I get why you say it though. You grew up with the confidence beaten out of you, but let’s unlearn that. I don’t want you cutting our potential selection of women in half with every opening line.
Ophelia, will you . . . Will you please be quiet? Lars thought, doing his best to keep his temper as the urgency rose.
“Did you not learn how to speak in sentences, backwater boy?” The woman’s eyes stared straight down at him.
“Sorry. Could you please point me in the direction of a bathroom?” Lars asked, wanting to smack her for stalling valuable seconds he wasn’t sure if he actually had.
“Number one or number two.”
“Oh . . . number one . . .”
“No, you imbecile, door number one or door number two,” she clarified. “Those are the two bathrooms.”
“Ah, okay . . . Thanks,” Lars replied, trying to sound polite despite hating the short encounter enough to never want to run into her ever again, much less talk to her.
I don’t know. A tall, domineering chick could be your next kink. Won’t know until you try.
Even if I generate a quest? Seduce the yellow-eyed beauty or something?
It’ll have to be added to one of many quests you’ve given me in life that I’ve ignored, Lars replied as he opened door number one to find a large bathroom with marble flooring matching the same texture and cut as the fountain outside. There was a clear row of structures designed for a standing man, but even so, Lars almost hesitated. He’d heard of fancy bathrooms like this before, but never actually seen one. It felt almost like he was ruining art as he went to one of the stall-like cutouts to handle his business.
“Master!” a voice called from the doorway right as he started.
Huh? He looked over to only see Matthew, the wolf boy of House Neukdaegalbi and his only male disciple, wagging his tail and waving his hand as he tried to get Lars’s attention from the entrance, not even letting the door shut.
To make matters worse, Lars not only saw his disciple, but also the woman who had told him which door to use. She was still standing against the wall, but her eyes were locked on him and his open robe.
“Tch,” he heard her say acutely, more clearly than he would have expected at that distance.
Great start to the day, Lars. Wonderful luck you have. He couldn’t help but sigh as he thought about this series of events.
“Can you . . . umm . . . shut that and wait? I’m kind of busy right now,” Lars said, trying to do his best to signal to the door with his eyes.
“Oh! Oh right! Right! I just heard you woke up, and I was like, ‘MASTER IS AWAKE!!’ I thought you were dead! You have no idea how scared I was. What if my first master died before I could even accomplish my dreams!”
Ah, right. Lars wanted to laugh. Matthew wasn’t excited because Lars survived; he was excited because his opportunity to progress within his family’s twisted hierarchy survived.
“Wait, why are you even here?” Lars asked, thinking back to his departure. “Shouldn’t you be working with your family?”
“I should, but—” Matthew stopped, flashed a toothy grin, and then shouted, “Ahh!!!” as waves of Qi poured off of him.
What the heck is he doing? Lars blinked in confusion as he looked over at the man, standing in the middle of the bathroom doorway, letting loose a very long “Ahh . . .”
It’s a Qi technique that his kind specializes in. By nature, canines aren’t actually as deadly in the wild as most people think. They rely on intimidation to begin their attack. Once their prey is intimidated and flees, then the wolf uses the startled victim’s attempted flight to attack without fear. Since most large prey could potentially one-shot them, this is the only time they’ll attack: when the enemy is trying to escape and not trying to fight back.
Okay, that’s nice and all . . . but what the heck is the point of that? Lars asked, not entirely sure where Ophelia was going with this.
I just explained. He’s using an intimidation move. It’s his cultivation bloodline’s specialty: pack tactics and intimidation. He’s not actually a . . . Stage 7 Qi-Gathering Cultivator. Rather, he’s more like Stage 4, almost Stage 5. This move, though, allows him to fool those around him into thinking he is stronger—a very good tactic if he wants to either avoid a fight or get an enemy to slip up so he can attack.
And I’m guessing he learned that from the pages we wrote him . . . but . . . I don’t remember putting that down on paper . . . Lars had been the one to transcribe everything. If there was a random part of the manual that had to do with shouting like an idiot while trying to pretend to have a higher cultivation stage, he should have known. He wrote the book on it.
It’s innate. Look at the larger ears, the more intensely amber eyes, the thicker fur on his tail—he’s transformed his bloodline. If he took off his robe, you’d probably find a very hairy chest.
No, no, no, don’t think about it. Lars quickly blocked the image that manifested the moment she mentioned how the bloodline would create a hairy chest: Matthew’s sister, Jill, with a hairy chest. After all, if the two of them had the same bloodline, and if the bloodline caused hairy chests, then she’d have hair on her chest too.
Ack! Why did you have to think about that so loudly?! Now I’m imagining it too! Giant hairy chest on such a sweet angel. This is a sin against nature and, more importantly, me!
I’ll repent as soon as I can get the image out of my own head. Lars closed his eyes and failed for several seconds to imagine anything else only to have the image of the “cabana boy by the beach” from earlier reappear in his head. He’d normally hate to see that, but it felt better, or at least more neutral, to his imagination than a hairy wolf girl did.
“Am I not awesome, master?” Matthew bragged. “Did you see that? No peasant could imitate me. Thanks to your tutelage, I’m already on my way to being the best!”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say. Can you just shut the door at least? I could use some privacy.”
“Ah! Right! Of course! Either way, glad to see you finally woke up, master. We all thought you might never return. I’ll let you finish, master,” Matthew said as he backed up to leave.
“Door. Please,” Lars insisted again, unable to avoid looking at the glaring yellow slits piercing out of the darkness in the distance as the door shut.
That one is dumb. You know that, right?
He’s a good kid, Lars disagreed, but not because he actually thought so. He just felt bad making fun of someone for being dumb when he was quite sure that, to most people, he was the idiot. He had no “common sense” in either the mundane world or that of the sects.
Well, good kid or not, he has definitely helped you pack on those negative affiliation points with the tall, angry, yellow-eyed lady. Did you see her checking us out? I thought she was looking at animals at the butcher.
Ophelia, what have I told you about mornings?
Yeah. Best part of the day. Don’t interrupt with complaints.
Shh . . . Lars leaned his head back and savored the moment. If there was one key moment of pleasantness that he had been able to enjoy every day of his life, it was this moment. First go of the morning. The rest of the day would be harsh, and life was rarely kind, but this moment was golden. He didn’t know what horrors awaited him in the sect, a kind of place that he could only associate with the worst tragedy of his life, so he wanted to try to relax while he could.
I know this isn’t the best time . . . but, really, don’t forget those chicken nuggets. I’ll teach you how to make a good sauce if we can find the ingredients later. I’m so excited. Disgusting fried chicken nuggets with honey mustard. This Apep is truly a man of culture. I did not expect this.
Quiet, woman. I get five minutes in the morning. Let me enjoy it already.
Fine. I’ll be quiet then. You happy?
For the moment? Yeah. Yeah, I am. Now, stay quiet, Lars said, listening to the sound of the manmade waterfall as he closed his eyes and enjoyed the moment.