Death’s Favorite Warlock: Prologue

“Ugh, what do I do now?” Lars grumbled as he leaned back against the tree and shut the book that he had just burnt two years of savings on, Tao’s Beginning Guide to Cultivation. He had hoped that the answer he was looking for would be somewhere in its pages, but all he had found were vague references that he couldn’t make heads or tails of. It talked about centering one’s cheese before entering the lesser clay brick phase, but there was nothing related to why he couldn’t cultivate. Nothing in the book honestly made much sense, but there was truly no way for him to be certain. His town didn’t have the best literary programs since everyone was so focused on cultivating.

Kill people. Kill people, animals, monsters, any living being with any amount of power. The answer to all of your problems is that easy. Just kill people.

The blue message box appeared in front of him, accompanied by the ever-present, funnily-accented woman who filled his ears with the same words that were written on the screen. He would always be grateful to whomever she was, as the combination of her voice and the written text was how he had learned to read. What he hated, however, was the fact that she had always insisted on him killing people from the very moment the blue boxes first appeared. She had informed him that killing people even counted as ‘Quests.’

Just yesterday, one of the blue boxes had instructed him to kill his friend Dawn. The so-called quest had been labeled ‘Childhood Friends Deserve the Best Ending,’ but its contents were little more than instructions for him to sneak into her room at night and kill her while she slept.

“I don’t care how many times you ask, I’m not killing anyone just so I can cultivate,” Lars muttered back at it. Despite feeling let down and a bit hopeless, he was actually glad that he had chosen to go to the forest to read alone. While he hated the fact that he’d occasionally end up with a patch of mosquito bites, it was still nice to be able to talk to the random voice in his head without anyone bothering him for being crazy; and, truthfully, he enjoyed conversing with her. After all, as much as it pained him to admit it sometimes, she was the one he talked to the most.

Fine. Then at least eat something besides rice later. That rice is disgusting. No bacon, teriyaki, chicken, eggs, or even sesame oil with carrots and peas. It’s just plain white rice. Who eats plain white rice? This is why you’re still level 0. You should have used your savings to buy bacon and meat from Apollos’s instead of that useless book.

“I still wish you would explain what you mean by level 0,” Lars said before standing up, dusting himself off, and heading back. The village wasn’t very large, and while he knew everyone, almost everyone was incredibly mean to him for being a no-stage, Qi-less human. Their bullying thankfully never went past harsh words and excluding him from social gatherings. They didn’t hit him, and he even had a few friends among them. 

The town’s relatively small size and their general indifference was why his mother had picked this particular town. He had no doubt that someone at the lesser clay brick phase might just kill him for being annoying, or because he could, if they lived in a larger town or an actual city. After all, anyone who couldn’t cultivate was considered trash by the entire world, and he didn’t have the strength or power to disagree with anyone about it.

Until you kill something, someone, I can’t explain it. That’s why I am telling you this for your own good: Just slit someone’s throat at night. Make it nice, quick, and painless. I promise your life will improve. Just kill. Kill. Kill. It’ll all be better.

If you calm down with all this “kill” talk–because you know I’m not going to do it–then I promise to see if Anneliese has any milkshakes leftover. I’ll even add in your favorite flavor, krowenberry.

She remained silent for a while, as if contemplating his offer, before finally relenting.

Fine. Two krowenberry milkshakes, and I’ll suspend potential quest notifications for a prolonged period of time.

“There you go,” Lars said, chuckling a little. Even if the voice was a bit of a murderous psychopath bent on world destruction, at least she was easily managed. Although, he had a feeling that she wouldn’t be so readily agreeable if she knew that he had been planning on getting one of those milkshakes anyway. He needed one, as far as he was concerned, and Anneliese was the only proper adult who would give him a treat without charging him, not that it cost her very much to make. She was an ice-attributed, fifth-Qi-stage chef with bovine blood, and even though she was only a demi-human and not a full minotaur, she had an uncanny familiarity with cows and an unnatural control over dairy products. Her ice attribute paired perfectly with her love for delicious frozen desserts, and she could practically make as many of them as she needed in an instant at almost no cost.

We should try to find some purple zednauts to mix in with the milkshake too.

Lars shrugged noncommittally. Zednauts were a type of giant husk fruit filled with white beans which turned purple when heated. They had a beautifully rich, bitter flavor with faint but unmistakable hints of sweetness. The only problem was that he hated actually putting in the effort needed to make them edible. Harvesting the beans was the easy part since they grew at the top of the taller trees that skirted the town’s borders, but he wasn’t keen on humoring her request. Without fire-attributed Qi, he actually had to gather wood and tinder to start a fire, put the beans in a pot, fill the pot with water so the beans wouldn’t scorch against the metal when the fire started to heat the pot, wait for the beans to cool down after draining the water out, and then clean up everything. His mother had repeatedly drilled it into him that “no self-respecting servant should ever let a mess sit for more than a minute,” and cleaning up after himself was a habit at this point as much as a chore. 

No zednaut, no deal.

As if reading his hesitation to put in the extra effort, the system began sealing off his roads toward apathetic laziness. You can’t back out now. You already agreed to two milkshakes and suspending the murder-happy notifications

But I didn’t say for how long. If I don’t see zednauts, that length of time might suddenly become only a few minutes. Maybe even a few seconds. It’ll be easier to get more milkshakes from Anneliese if you prep the zednauts, and you could even make one for Dawn or your mother.

How is it that you go from telling me to kill Dawn in her sleep one minute to making her a krowenberry zednaut milkshake in literally the very next? Lars didn’t understand how anyone could flip-flop between two seemingly opposed ideas so quickly. One minute she wanted him to kill Dawn, and she wanted him to treat her in the next. It was a conversation he had with the system often, although he never received a satisfactory answer. The system believed that Dawn and everyone else in the world was going to be farmed for EXP one day, so by her logic, Lars should be the one to do it. Just because Dawn was destined to die, however, didn’t mean that she should be treated poorly before that time came. 

Lars already knew that he’d be put to work the moment someone saw him, and he really wasn’t in a rush, since it was his day off, so he took his time heading into town. As one of the Qi-less adults, just like his mother, he had been forced to pick up the only job available to his kind: a servant to one of the town’s higher Qi-staged warriors. In his case, that high-Qi-staged warrior was Katie. It was a thankless job that involved endless cooking, cleaning, doing small repairs around the house, and fetching stuff all the time.

Once Katie found out that he was back in town, it was only a matter of time before she had him tending her garden without a shirt, serving as the target of her inappropriate remarks, and then reading books about sleeping people to her while she cultivated. Whatever. Being a servant isn’t a bad job. Lars had to remind himself that things could be worse. Even if he was a servant, at least he wasn’t stuck working for one of the nobles in the larger towns. Stories ran rampant about how they often took things too far and abuse those underneath them.

“RUN!” 

“What?” Lars asked, snapping out of his self-absorbed state. “What’s going on?” He spun around and spotted the owner of the voice barreling toward him.

“RUN, YOU FREAKING Qi-LESS HUMAN BASTARD! THEY’RE GOING TO KILL US ALL! GET RUNNING BEFORE THEY GET YOU TOO!” Ramon, the water-attributed, second-Qi-stage, porcupine-blooded scout shouted as he rushed toward Lars.

“Huh? Who? What’s going on?” Lars dumbly looked around for any sign of a threat, but the woods were empty. 

If I can smell the smoke and blood, that means you can too.

Lars’s senses prickled at that remark. “Wait. What’s happening at the town?” he asked Ramon. “Why are you running? Where is everyone else?”

“Everyone else? They’re either running, or they’re dead, or they’re slaves, man. We gotta get rolling, man. We GOTTA RUN, MAN!” 

“They’re dead? Slaves? What the hell?” Lars felt his muscles tighten up and his throat constrict as he imagined the worst. “What about my mother? What about Dawn? What about Anneliese and that bull-headed husband of hers?” 

“Them? They’re probably dead, man,” Ramon gasped between ragged breaths as he braced his hands against his knees to hold himself in place. The young man, like nearly all demi-humans, looked mostly human but for the ears and tail that indicated his species. Since his tail had quills, he always had to wear funny pants with a massive butt flap that kept the tail from stabbing him in the back, the sort of accident that had once cost him a week of being able to sit down. 

Even though was close enough now that he didn’t have to yell, he was also clearly worn out from having sprinted out of town at full speed. Ramon could use Qi, he was still only stage two. As a result, he didn’t have the seemingly endless supply of stamina that higher-level cultivators did. He couldn’t run forever like a lesser clay-brick-staged cultivator could, so he struggled to speak after sprinting for so long. “I don’t know. I mean, they’re girls, and Dawn’s a looker, so maybe she’s a slave? Who knows? We gotta . . . We gotta get out of here.” 

“What? Crap!” Lars’s eyes popped open in horror as it truly sank in that Ramon was serious. Something about the desperation in his voice and the fear written across his face made Lars believe him. Without further thought, Lars took off running at full speed toward the town. Ramon was right, and fleeing wasn’t the wrong decision. But Lars couldn’t do that. As long as his mother was in danger, there was no way that he could ever run away like Ramon.

“Dude! What’s wrong with you?! I told you the town is being attacked! There are bandits everywhere. They’re taking everything, looting everyone, and burning what they can’t carry! We need to leave!” Ramon called out after Lars.

“You can run. I’m not stopping you,” Lars shouted back without so much as slowing down. He realized that Ramon was actually following after him now rather than continuing to run away. “Like hell I can leave! You’re going to die too fast, you Qi-less bastard!” It didn’t take long for him to catch up to Lars, and the two ran side by side. The difference in the abilities of a Qi cultivator and the Qi-less were too obvious. “You need to turn around and scram before it’s too late.”

Glancing over at Ramon, who had been blessed with the ability to use Qi to strengthen his body, Lars only felt even more convinced that his decision was the right one. Ramon might have a future outside of the village, but Lars didn’t. He was a nobody. A nothing. Garbage. He didn’t have a bright career or some peerless future to look forward to. He only had his family and friends, and if he let them die now, he’d have nothing.

“Don’t just ignore me! Turn around, man. We can still escape!” Ramon begged. Yet, all the while, Lars noticed that the porcupine-blooded cultivator stayed with him.

Since when were we friends enough for you to do this for me? Lars wanted to ask, but he didn’t want to check the gift ruepin’s eggs. If he had a stage two Qi cultivator helping him, his chances of rescuing his mother were that much higher.

“What the hell?” Lars gasped as they reached the town. As far as he could see, every single one of the oak houses was on fire. There were screams coming from different parts of the village, and the sounds of metal clashing against metal and waves of Qi striking reverberated from every direction. The smell of blood was thick in the air, and Lars could see at least two bodies that had been butchered in the street. The signs of people, weapons, and Qi smashing against wooden house frames were everywhere, and the roofs of many buildings were burning, likely a product of fights with fire-attributed Qi. The flames were clearly spreading outward from long, distinct lines drawn across the buildings.

I may have agreed to suspend quest notifications, but I feel the need to let you know there are a lot of pending quests appearing. I just can’t tell you about them unless you let me. Please let me tell you to kill people. I’ll walk you through it. Please can we kill people? They’re bad people. We should murder them all. You’ll enjoy it as much as I will, I promise.

Lars read the message, listening to her voice as he stared at the burning town in front of him. “If I accept your stupid quests, can you help me kill some of these bastards?” Lars asked, staring at the flames blazing across the rooftops of his home.

“Who are you talking to?” Ramon asked as he came up behind Lars. “Man, don’t tell me you’ve already snapped and gone crazy. Come on! It’s not too late. We need to run. Let’s get out of here already!”

To be honest, you’re so pathetically weak that I can’t even guarantee you’ll even live long enough to complete a quest, and there’s no way that I can promise to help you kill any of the “bastards,” as you label them. But I can tell you that you’ll be better off if you follow my quest and kill them than if you don’t. Just give in to the temptation. Just kill them. Do it for me. Do it for me, and I’ll help you out. I’ll give you something good. A special first time present.

“Fine,” Lars said out loud, not even bothering to hide his apparent dialogue with himself from Ramon. “Give them to me. Undo the quest notifications suspension, and tell me what I need to do.”

Quest: First Blood.
Objective: Kill anyone. The porcupine behind you, a barely breathing citizen dying in the street–anything. Just take a life.

“Easy enough,” Lars declared, but he didn’t even believe it as he said it. There’s no way that taking a life would ever be easy, and the fact that he was one of the Qi-less meant it wouldn’t be fast. Each consecutively higher stage of cultivation signified an exponential increase in combat capabilities. A Stage 2 Qi cultivator could easily defeat a stage 1 Qi cultivator, who could easily defeat someone who was Qi-less. No matter how good Lars was at fighting and using an opponent’s force against him–a fighting style that Katie had insisted he practice so that he might survive long enough for her to show up and save her “already trained servant” if he ever got into a fight–wouldn’t matter. If someone was twice as strong, twice as fast, and could create magical laser beams out of their hands, defeat was certain. That was likely why the system had always encouraged Lars to kill people in their sleep, to burn them alive in their well-made houses, or pushed him to resort to other nefarious methods.

“Running? Yeah. It is. And that’s why I keep suggesting it,” Ramon replied impatiently. 

“No, killing someone.” Lars took a deep breath as he corrected him, closed his eyes, mustered all the courage he could find, and then took a step toward the town.

“Seriously?” Ramon asked and then reluctantly started slow-jogging after Lars.

The unpaved roads on the outskirts were only wide enough for a cart and a person to walk along at their widest, and they were formed by taking rock that had been shattered into fine sand-like granules with Qi and then hardened with a special fire Qi to make a sort of cracked-brick-like surface.

The first houses Lars passed were small one-roomed houses where the poorer members of the village lived, and Lars ignored all of them as he made his way into the town. The residents here had already fled or been killed, and the thatching that made up the roofs was barely burning as the winds emanating from the battle between cultivators near the middle of the town blew the flames farther toward the woods. Making his way through the charred buildings, bodies, and rubble, Lars headed directly for Dawn’s house, which was on the way to his mother’s.

He knew her house was just a stone’s throw away, and it was a guaranteed pit stop if he was to make it to his mom, but he found it hard to press farther into the town with how eerily void of life the place seemed to be, so much so that the unsettling feeling slowed his pace considerably.

Lars and Ramon made their way onto the third block, and Lars peeped into the window of one of the houses on his right. Two people were lying dead on the floor, and a young woman, somewhere in her mid-teens, was huddled in the corner, crying. Her face was an unrecognizable mess, she was covered in wounds, and one of her legs was completely missing. 

“I think everyone who isn’t a bandit has already tried to flee. Just like we should,” Ramon said.

“So, most are either dead, fighting, or looting,” Lars observed. 

“Or . . . that . . .” Ramon added after seeing what Lars was looking at. They both knew what had happened to the woman from the state of her clothes, but neither of them voiced it, and Lars refused to even let his mind think it.

Kill her. She’s easy. It’ll be a great first go.

Lars was tempted to listen. All he had to do was walk in there and find out if he could save her life and move her to safety. If he couldn’t, he’d have to put her out of her misery. But he had to find Dawn and his mother first. Dawn was in the patch of small one-room houses smashed together a block just ahead.

I’ll help her when I’m finished with this. He moved away without saying a word and then remained silent until they reached the first person he had to save.

“I don’t get it,” Ramon whispered from behind him in a barely audible voice.

“What?” Lars asked, looking around. 

“Why they left her alive.” Ramon lowered his body to imitate Lars’s practically crawling posture. “She must be worth some money, so why would they leave her alive? Aren’t they bandits? Don’t they always take women and young men as slaves to sell?”

“Don’t think too hard on it,” Lars said, checking both ways before sneaking over to Dawn’s stone house. Due to the ongoing fires in this part of the town, most of the roofs here looked like they were dangerously close to collapsing inward, and if Lars was going to rescue anyone, it had to be soon before that happened. Anyone caught inside would suffocate and burn to death otherwise.

Please don’t make me beg. I will, but don’t make me. Just kill someone. Kill someone before someone kills you.

“This your friend Dawn, right?” Ramon asked, heading over to the door.

“Yeah, it’s her,” Lars responded. How does he know her house though?

“Don’t hope for much,” Ramon said as he stepped into the doorway ahead of Lars. “She probably ran away.” The doorway was small, barely big enough for a broad-shouldered man to go through alone, and as such, Lars couldn’t see around Ramon as he stood there by the door.

“Empty?” Lars asked as Ramon looked into the room.

“Of precious belongings,” Ramon answered with a gulp, instantly turning around. “Lars . . . just . . . she’s not here. Let’s go. And if she’s not here, your mother, who is further in, won’t be here either. Let’s just leave. There’s nothing in this town for us.”

“You could have left without me,” Lars said, pushing past Ramon to check for himself. Something about the porcupine-blooded man’s face told him that not everything was as he made it out to be, and Lars was right.

There, in the middle of the room, just like the woman they had passed a moment ago, was Dawn. Both of her legs appeared to have been broken, and her shattered hand was crumpled up and lying on top of a knife, not that she could ever hold it again in her condition. She was a fourth-stage Qi cultivator with dual elements, wind and ice, and yet there she was, crumpled on the floor with her Qi serving as nothing more than a preserving force that was keeping her body alive through the nightmare. Even her proud plumage that served as her tail had been ripped out, and the feathers had been scattered about her body to show that she had been thoroughly broken.

She turned toward the door, and Lars saw that her face was covered in tears and blood, and her eyes were void of life and filled with fear. She must have thought that he and Ramon were the bandits coming back for a second round and was terrified of that outcome. When she saw it was Lars, however, her eyes widened, and new pools of tears formed in them as she gasped out one word: “Run.”

It was the same word that Ramon had shouted at Lars when they first met, but unlike earlier, it felt like a thousand bricks had crushed Lars’s chest and slammed him into the ground.

“They’ll be back. They’re . . . Y-you must run,” she said, struggling to get the words out.

“No . . . No, I can’t. I’ll . . .” Lars looked at her body.

She’s already dead, and you know it. It’s only a matter of time before fate catches up to her. Do her a favor. Do her a kindness. Kill her so that she doesn’t have to keep suffering. Can you imagine how painful life must be for her right now? Look at her. Her Qi is barely holding her heart intact, and her body is struggling to even function. Kill her.

The proud, demanding, arrogant woman’s voice in his head was different than usual. Its tone didn’t feel demanding; it felt pleading. “I’m sorry,” Lars said as he walked forward and crouched next to Dawn, picking up the knife underneath her hand.

“Please, run after you finish it,” Dawn said, looking at the weapon.

“I will,” he promised. That was the first time he had ever lied to her. He still had to find his mother, and the rage in his heart was only growing greater by the moment. If he just had the power to do it, he would murder every single bandit in the village with his own bare hands.

“Thank you,” Dawn sighed, her muscles relaxing as her body laid there like a bag of sand, her eyes staring up at Lars.

Lars found it hard to swallow as he raised his knife and pressed it against her throat. Even in her condition, he knew he didn’t have the strength needed to kill a fourth-stage Qi cultivator. “I’m sorry,” he said one more time. He wanted to say more. There were a thousand feelings he wanted to express, but his throat seized up and his heart stopped as he sunk his dagger into one of the only parts of her body that would let him kill her off easily: the soft flesh of her neck.

A moment later, with the knife still deep inside her throat, the silent and awkward moment was broken by one of the blue notifications. Yet, even without the prompt, he could tell something was different. Green, blue and purple lines drew themselves in the air between Dawn and him, starting from her heart and ending in his. He could feel a warm sensation like sunshine and a cold sensation like ice and a refreshing sensation like wind on the hottest summer day all overlapping and competing with each other as one after the other washed over him.

Congratulations! You have completed the quest First Blood.

Reward: My, the amazing and wonderful and beautiful system’s, undying gratitude at letting me finally experience this feeling.

You have accessed the level-management system. All of your stats, levels, skills and abilities can be accessed from the system menu. This can be done at any time by saying or thinking the words “System Menu Access.”

The level management system tutorial is about to begin. Would you like to wait for a more convenient time or begin now? Say “Yes” to begin now or “No” to reject the idea of waiting for a more convenient time.

Answer not required. Tutorial beginning anyway. 

The level management system information tab displays three key parts. First are your physical combat stats. There are four separate combat stats: Power, Speed, Fortitude, and Resistance. A score of 10 is considered the average ability score for an unleveled and untrained adult. This means that an individual with a Power score of 21 is 110% more deadly with his physical attacks than the average person. Likewise, a Speed score of 6 means that an individual has only 60% of the agility that an average adult is expected to have.

The two remaining stats determine one’s toughness and ability to withstand attacks. An individual who has high Fortitude but no Resistance will take nearly full damage from most attacks but have a large health pool to assist the individual in staying alive. A person with exceptionally high Resistance, however, will find that most attacks do not hurt him or do drastically reduced damage.

The second series of information presented represents your ability to use, control, and manipulate different types of elemental Qi. The higher the number, the stronger your talents with that Qi are and the more abilities you’ll be able to learn. Specific abilities require a specific proficiency in different types of Qi.

The third and final information tab is a collection of your learned abilities and skills, both for combat and otherwise. These abilities will allow you to infuse your power into skills or techniques to improve their effectiveness. The number in front of each ability is how many stat points are required to advance the ability to its next level. Each advancement may exponentially increase the efficacy of the ability.

Name: Lars

Level: 1

Power 10 Speed 10

Fortitude (HP) 10 Resistance 10

Unspent 16

Elemental Abilities

Wind Qi: 4

Ice Qi: 4

Abilities

[5] Advanced Reading Lv. 1: When you focus, you can read two times faster than an average reader. As such, time will seemingly move twice as slow while you are focused on reading.

As this is a tutorial, you must now spend all 16 points that were gained from completing the quest and absorbing the Qi of your recent kill. You must mentally allocate the points into either stats or abilities before you can exit this screen. 

Lars, who couldn’t see anything else because of screen’s enormity, was a little annoyed that he didn’t have time to decide what to do with the points and that he was being forced to allocate them before he could move or do anything. However, he also knew that the longer he took thinking about it, the more likely it was that his mother was going to befall the same fate as Dawn. He quickly allocated 8 of the points to Power, hoping he’d be able to hurt someone if he had to, and the remaining 8 points into Resistance. He was tempted to split them between Fortitude and Resistance, but with his currently low level, he was worried that he’d be so heavily impacted from a blow due to the difference in Qi levels that he wouldn’t be able to get up and run, even if he had the hit points to survive it. He was praying that his hunch, that Resistance would lessen the impact and stunning effect of attacks, was correct, but he also didn’t want to find out if he was right anytime soon, given how much pain and danger that would entail.

Congratulations on completing the mandatory tutorial!


New system quest generated: Kill five more people with a knife to receive a bonus ability.

“Dude?! What are you spacing out for?! We need to get out of here!” Ramon insisted, pulling on Lars’s shoulder. “Get your act together. She’s dead, but you aren’t. You will be, though, if you don’t get out of here soon. Let’s go, man!”

“Huh? Oh, yeah . . .” Lars had to collect himself as he remembered what he was doing, why he was here, and what had given him that level up. He was experiencing a strange sort of high from the “level up” as newfound strength and power coursed through his veins.

“We need to go to the house we passed earlier,” he said.

“She’s dead too, man. Let’s just get going,” Ramon said. “We don’t want to end up like them.”

“Just–” Lars looked over at Ramon. The spiky-tailed guy was, for some reason, doing his best to save him and drag him out of the town, but Lars just shook his head. “Look, I don’t know why you’re with me, but I need to do something before we leave. I need to find people who are like her, and I need to make sure they don’t die suffering.” He didn’t want to spell out that he was going to kill five more of them for a quest so that he could gain a new ability and hopefully save his mother. That would probably cost him his only ally–an ally whose motives he still didn’t understand yet.

“Fine. I’ll help you, but . . . you’re going to have to do the stabbing. I can’t do that. That’s . . . too much. I understand what you’re doing, but I’m no killer. But I’ll tell you which houses have survivors that . . . need your help.”

“That’d be great,” Lars answered. He immediately made his way back to the girl he had seen through the window earlier, the one who was waiting at death’s door. He tried not to think about what he was doing. He told himself over and over again, This is necessary. I need the experience, and she’s going to die anyway. If don’t level, I can’t save anyone. Her eyes seemed to express gratitude as he slid the knife into her throat, and he watched as they closed for good.

Lars didn’t know how to feel as he watched the life fade from her and then slip away. He knew he should have felt bad, but at the same time, he felt wonderful as the streams of purple Qi and blue Qi streamed from her body into his. Warmth and strength and a sensation like water flooded his heart as the Qi entered him.

Congratulations. You have successfully killed Little Johnny. You have gained 8 stat points. Your elemental affinity with water Qi has increased by 2.

That’s it, huh? Lars stared at the dead woman in his arms to whom he had shown “mercy.” Only 8 stat points and 2 elemental Qi points. That’s all this woman’s life is worth? Lars shook his head. He didn’t have time to wait around questioning it or puzzling things out, and when he walked back outside, Ramon was already pointing at another house.

“There’s one in here,” Ramon said. “They’re going to die anyway, though, so you don’t need to speed it along.”

“No, I do,” Lars answered, hurrying into the next house before it was too late.

Two houses later, he was killing his fifth, a boy that was likely only a few years younger than he was. Both of the kid’s legs had been cut off, and he was still desperately clinging to his already-dead mother. Lars didn’t want to take pleasure in the act, but the feeling of the Qi leaving the boy’s body and entering his own was almost euphoric. As much as he hated to admit it, it felt good. Really good. Mentally, he was in shock. His world had been absolutely turned upside down, and he was now trying to commit acts that had repulsed him earlier. The only reason his psyche was even able to hold things together was that he had one objective in mind: get stronger. He had to–he needed to–get stronger, and then he needed to find his mother, rescue her, and get out of here alive. That singular chain of events was the only line of thought stopping him from breaking down and falling apart where he stood because of what he was being forced to do. Physically, however, he had never felt better. Every single kill was its own perfect slice of beautiful and warm bliss, and he was slowly starting to understand why the voice in his head been so insistent in demanding that he attack people. It made sense now.

Did she know this would feel good? Did she know it would be this wonderful? He allowed his mind to wander before instantly crushing those thoughts. No, this is a one off. I’m only doing this because I don’t have any other choice. There is no way I will ever do this again, he told himself as he withdrew his blade from the young boy.

Congratulations! You have successfully completed the quest to kill five people with a knife. You have been awarded a new skill: Knife Hand.

Skill Details:

Knife Hand allows the user to perform an unarmed strike, which will temporarily extend attack range by one foot in order to hit targets that are just outside of one’s reach. Damage dealt is increased by twofold if the target is struck at a vulnerable spot, and the target is either unaware of his assailant, stunned, disabled, or already critically injured. 

Skill Note: Some people use their fingers to make a point in discussions, but the truly motivated and enlightened use their fingers to make a knife.

Skill Specific Quest: Kill five unaware combatants with Knife Hand to increase your proficiency in the skill by 1. Leveling this skill through stat points will double the required number of kills to increase its proficiency.

Lars stared at the skill on his stat sheet. Though the five kills had already netted him 41 points that he had spent–15 into Power, 15 into Resistance, 11 into Speed–he now had 7 more to spend, and the Knife Hand skill required 10 points to upgrade to the next level. He wasn’t sure what would be a better decision at this point: leveling a skill he had just gotten so he would have a move to fight people with or putting more points into Resistance or Fortitude.

Wait, how do I use the skill? Lars asked the voice in his head.

That’s easy. You just want to use it. Once you want to use it, you will. Since you know the skill, you can use it whenever you like by merely wanting to do so.

Lars looked at his hand and then at the boy, who was still clinging to his mother even in death. The kid was already dead, and Lars figured this was the best chance he was going to get to test out his new skill. Just thinking about it made the boy’s sides, neck, and head all begin glowing red. Lars focused on the boy’s head, and before he realized what he was doing, his hand shot out. His palm was flattened, and all four of his fingers as well as his thumb pointed forward. His hand glowed with the same purple Qi that he had seen enter his body with every kill as it struck out and pierced through the dead kid’s skull. It was brutal and fast, and as Lars withdrew his hand, he saw that the blow had gone not only through the boy’s skull, but also into the mother’s chest, farther than his hand had actually reached.

Was that my new strength thanks to the levels, or was that the Knife Hand? Lars wondered, staring at the damage he had done.

The target was dead and thus definitely not capable of being aware of your presence. The skill showed you the boy’s known weak points, which were visible because you were already aware of the humanoid anatomy, by highlighting them in red. Since you struck one of the indicated targets, your attack did two times more damage than if you had struck without using the skill. If you weren’t as strong as you are now, with 25 Power, then it wouldn’t have done 50 Power worth of damage to the target. It’s a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B, as they say.

As who says? Lars asked instinctively. He had never heard that expression before. Then again, it wasn’t the first time she had said something that he had never heard about as if it were common knowledge. 

If I were in your position, I’d go with Power. You’re not stealthy. You’re clumsy and idiotic at best. The chances of you pulling off a Knife Hand attack on a living and breathing target are low, so unless you want to save your points and level up your corpse-crushing skills just for giggles, I would recommend putting them into stats instead.

Lars spared one last look for the two deceased as he stood up and walked toward the door. Wait . . . the prompt said that the skill came with a quest to level it without points. Does my current skill, uhh . . . the reading one . . . does it also come with a skill quest to rank it up in levels? 

Yes. Almost all skills can be leveled up by either putting points into them or by completing quests. You can check what the requirements are by looking at the stats menu and then requesting the information. Since you’re curious, this is the current quest for that skill: 

Skill Specific Quest: Read 1,000,000 words to increase the level of advanced reading by 1. Leveling this skill up with stat points will double the total required words to increase this skill.

Hmm . . . what about stat points? he asked after looking things over. Are there quests that I can do to gain stat points for Power, Resistance or whatnot without actually killing people? 

Yes, but you’re spending too much time on stats and skills. Don’t you need to go kill some people and rescue your mother?

Right. Even though he was determined to save her, he was still nervous about the encounter. The last five people hadn’t been much help in alleviating that nervousness. Witnessing the carnage that first- through fourth-Qi stage cultivators had suffered had left him incredibly concerned. He needed to rescue his mother, but that didn’t mean he could. So, now, he was doing what was only natural for every nervous person: trying this best to over-prepare and distract himself.

As he was about to leave the house, though, he heard the sound of voices.

“Lookie lookie! Seems like we found ourselves a straggler,” a gruff voice said. “Kinda pathetic, though. Don’t think the boss will be interested in this one.”

Rather than immediately leaving the building he was in, Lars pressed his back to the wall next to the door and did his best to not even breathe as he tried to stealth himself.

“Fine, then I’m pathetic,” Lars heard Ramon say. “Just let me go.”

“I don’t know, boys, should we?” the voice continued. 

 

Lars took a chance and peeked around the doorframe in the direction of what was going on and discovered that Ramon had been surrounded by two men and a woman.

“I mean, we came all this way, but we haven’t had our fun yet.”

“You call what you did to those people not having your fun?” Ramon spat back at the man. “If it wasn’t, then why the hell would you do that to people?”

Watching the scene from afar, Lars couldn’t help but notice that the men didn’t look like bandits. Every story he had ever read depicted bandits dressed in a motley assortment of loose, mismatched outfits, yet these three wore matching white cloth robes with blue stripes around the hem of every piece of fabric. The garments looked very much like uniforms.

Wait, those robes, aren’t those only worn by . . . 

Sects. Those are the robes of a sect member. The fact that they have nothing but plain white robes with no visible medallions, markings, or fancy colors implies that they aren’t high up in the sect. They might be weak. You should kill them.

What? I’m not that strong! I can’t kill them! Lars protested. Even though he vehemently disagreed with her, his feet were already moving. He didn’t think he could pull it off, but he knew that he had to try. If he didn’t, he’d never have a chance of rescuing his mother.

“Those weaklings? We didn’t do that,” the man laughed. “That was our senior brothers. They always get first pickings when dealing with pathetic mortal cultivators such as yourself.”

“Yeah, that’s why they stuck us with looting detail,” the woman grumbled. “They get to have fun while we are forced to go around collecting baubles and trinkets for the sect.” 

“Well, we’ll have some fun today, sis, so don’t worry about it,” the man responded. “After all, how much do you think a porcupine’s tail is worth?”

“Qilian,” Ramon quickly corrected.

“What was that, boy?” the man punctuated his question by stepping forward and punching Ramon in the stomach. Lars wanted to act right then, to help the guy who had gone out of his way to stick with him despite the obvious reality of eventually running into this exact scenario, but he was still too far to act. 

“I’m a Qilian.” Ramon paused in the middle of the sentence to spit out a mouthful of blood. “My lineage is the proud Qilian line, not some stupid porcupine, so get it right!”

“Qilian? You? Ha ha!” the man who had just hit Ramon laughed in his face. “If you’re a Qilian, then I’m not chameleon blooded. I’m dragon blooded! She’s not parrot blooded; she’s actually imbued with the vermillion bird’s legendary blood–or, heck, maybe it’s a phoenix. Kid, you’re a freaking porcupine. How about you learn it?!” The man ended his final sentence by striking Ramon so hard in his face that the young man practically collapsed on the spot.

Ramon began picking himself up, and his eyes met Lars’s. 

Lars was slowly moving closer and closer, doing his best to stay in the shadows and hug the walls of the buildings as he approached the trio.

“Well, kid, you gonna call yourself a Qilian again? Have you learned your lesson?” the man asked as he held up a fist threateningly.

“Not much of a lesson to learn. We’re still going to beat him up and sell him with the rest of the people,” the other man, a canine-eared cultivator, added while sneering at Ramon.

“No, he’ll learn this lesson before we hand him over to one of the inner sect disciples to sell,” the first argued. “Can’t have slaves acting egotistical. They must learn their place!”

“I. Am. A. Qilian!” Ramon shouted defiantly, slamming his needle-covered tail on the ground.

For some reason, no one had noticed Lars. All the years of trying to avoid attention when passing through the village so that he didn’t have to put up with bullying had finally paid off, and he was a few feet away from the man who kept running his mouth like he was boss of the world.

Do it. Kill him. Kill him for me. Kill him. Kill him beautifully and quickly!

The voice urged him forward, and for the first time in his entire life, Lars didn’t hesitate as he followed her command. He dumped every one of the remaining 7 points he had into Power and pictured the skill Knife Hand. Zeroing in on the back of the closest figure’s head, his hand shot out of its own accord. Covered in the weird red tincture that stained his vision around the vital points of the enemy, the enemy’s weak spot looked so sweet and inviting as the fingers of his flattened hand raced toward their target. His attack fell short a good half a foot away from the guy’s head, but he felt the purple Qi as it exploded outward, and a burst of energy flew out of his hand and struck the cultivator in the back of the skull. 

The damage must have been severe, and the reaction was instant. The man screamed out for a split second and then fell forward toward Ramon. Ramon reacted quickly by swinging his tail around like a weapon and striking the dog-eared man across the jaw.

Lars, still in full combat mode, jumped on top of the man that he had knocked down and used Knife Hand a second and then a third time, striking him again in the back of the head. He wanted to kill the man before he could recover, but the last blow didn’t come in time. The bird-blooded woman swept forward, kicking Lars so hard in his ribs that he flew into the air as the wind was knocked out of him.

That stupid, stupid, stupid woman! She needs to mind her own business! SO CLOSE TO ANOTHER KILL! FINISH him off!! Kill him first! We can dump the stat points we earn into Fortitude! And you need to. Each point of Fortitude is essentially one more to your maximum hit points, if we’re going by the old one’s terms. That kick dropped you from 10 to 4. You can’t take another hit unless you put some points into Fortitude!

Since he had already committed to following the voice, and the voice wanted the same thing as he did for once, he did exactly as she said. The moment he stopped rolling across the ground, Lars popped up and started scrambling straight back for the nearly dead man. Thankfully, he was still on the ground with blood pouring out of his mouth.

“You think I’m going to let you take his life?” the woman asked firmly, jumping in front of Lars. Her feet touched down for one brief instant before she lifted off again, throwing a roundhouse kick.

Dodge that attack! She’s going to try and kick us again. It must be all that bird DNA in her! She’s favoring her feet as a primary weapon!

Lars was internally cursing at the voice, grumbling about how things were easier said than done as he did his best to stop his momentum and jump backward before the foot struck him. The strike came close–it passed less than an inch away–but in place of a deadly blow that would have surely crushed his rib cage and killed him, only a light breeze from the foot moving too fast struck him instead.

As she finished her spin, both feet once more on the ground, Lars had already begun to make his own move, brushing past her. She threw out a jab to try and catch him as he ran by her, but he was able to shift to his right just enough so that her left hand barely missed the left side of his face.

After finally getting around her, he didn’t have much time to spare, nor did he want to risk leaving himself vulnerable again by jumping on the guy’s back to Knife Hand him once more, so instead, he did the one attack that he knew wouldn’t compromise his mobility: a running kick. Visualizing the enemy’s head like it was one of the balls he used to play with as a kid, kicking it back and forth with his mother since no one else would join him, he struck the downed man’s face with the top of his foot as hard as he could.

It nearly tripped him to do so while running, but it worked. He could feel and hear a cracking from what was likely the man’s skull, and the notification he had been hoping for appeared.

Congratulations. You have successfully killed Rickett. You have gained 27 stat points. Your elemental affinity with fire Qi has increased by 16.

“NO!!!” the woman screamed when she saw what Lars had done.

Quickly! Raise your Fortitude. It won’t replenish lost hit points, but it will increase your total health pool by an equal amount to the total number of points you put into Fortitude.

Thankful for the small distance that was currently between him and the woman, Lars instantly brought up his stat sheet and dumped the points into Fortitude. Every time he increased the stat by one, it felt like the spot in his ribs where her foot had struck him before was hurting a little less.

You have 4 health left, and she does 6 damage a kick, so you shouldn’t just dump all 27 points in. If you put three points in, you’ll be able to survive one more kick from her with one health left. If you put nine points in, you can survive two kicks from her with one health left. That’s how many you should put in. You need the rest for Power and Speed, or else you’re just going to become a punching bag for her. Focus on offense, not defense.

Lars did what she said without much thought. He threw 9 points into Fortitude and split the remaining up between Speed and Power, putting 10 points in the former and 8 in the latter. 

“Come on! You’re next,” Lars taunted, extending his hand. He didn’t know why, but for some reason, his right hand extended in the position for the Knife Hand skill, pointing at her with all four fingers and his thumb. 

The bird-blooded woman shrieking loudly and sprinted straight at him. She lifted her body into the air and actually managed to do a flying kick aimed at his chest.

Flying kick? Is she a moron? Kill her! 

Lars didn’t have to be told what to do as he moved his body as quickly as he could to his right and struck out with his hand, activating the Knife Hand skill and hitting her in the side. He knew that, since she wasn’t incapacitated and was fully aware of him, it wouldn’t do any bonus damage, but he felt like his attack was more accurate when he was using the skill than when he was striking on his own.

When he hit her, he could see her wince. Landing hard on the ground after the failed flying kick, she immediately went into a lower leg sweep. Lars tried to dodge it, jumping in the air since he couldn’t back up fast enough, but his jump wasn’t quick enough. As her sweep struck his leg, the blow carried the bottom half of his body in the direction of her attack, spinning his upper half toward the ground until he smashed into it face first.

Before he could even spit out the grass and clumps of dirt that were now in his mouth, she was already attacking again. He rolled away from her just in time and barely avoided another kick that would have likely sent him flying like her first attack had done.

As he popped back up, she came with yet another leg attack, this time a straight kick toward his left knee. Lars shifted his body and dodged it, retaliating with an attack toward her knee, but her leg was too fast, and she had already withdrawn it, readying up another strike of her own before he could hit anything.

Not wanting to let her get the advantage, he tried to move to the right of her again, throwing out another strike, but she turned faster than he did, leaving him at a loss as he did his best to dodge yet another kick by backing up.

“WHO IS THE PORCUPINE NOW?!!” Lars heard Ramon shout as he watched the guy’s large quill-covered tail strike the back of the woman. Her own brightly colored green, blue, and red tail feathers did little to stop his attack, and the impact alone knocked her forward.

She turned to face Ramon, and as she did, Lars saw parts of her left side, the side now directly facing him, light up red in his vision. He hadn’t even realized it, but he had already activated the skill Knife Hand, and before she could even get a good look at the assailant that had turned a good chunk of her body into a pincushion, dozens of quills still stuck in it and blood already leaking out, Lars was there, landing a strike in her kidney.

“Stop!” the woman yelled as the one-two combination between Lars and Ramon, who had managed to pincer her on each side, left her hunched over on the ground, bleeding. “I give up. I give up. Don’t kill me.”

“Say it!” Ramon demanded. “Say what I am, or I’ll kill you right here!”

“You’re a Qilian, a Qilian, okay? Please, just don’t kill me,” she begged.

“Fine,” Ramon harrumphed.

Lars, still in shock because he didn’t expect Ramon to fair well against his own attacker, looked over to see that the tail had done its job. He had bled the guy out with a tail swipe to his face. The struggle had likely lodged the quills deeper and deeper into him. The crimson pool from the dozens of spines bleeding him out now covered the rest of his body.

“Who are you people?” Lars asked, looking down at the woman, who was staying perfectly still, likely not wanting to let the needles dig any further into her flesh.

“We’re the Sect of Falling Flowers,” she said. “We didn’t choose to attack this town. One of the elders said we had to,” she continued.

“An elder said you had to?” Lars asked, bending over her and pushing one of Ramon’s quills farther into her lower back. He was frustrated. He wanted to kill her. She was the bad guy, and killing her would feel good. He’d get more stat points too. There were so many reasons he could think of to kill her, a hundred justifications, but instead he was stuck listening to her dumb excuses.

You could just do it anyway. Just kill her. Ramon won’t mind.

The voice fed into his desire, but he did his best to silence it. Ramon was, at the moment, his only remaining companion, and he did still need information from her.

“Yeah, we’re outer sect disciples, the lowest of the low. We can’t disobey. The elder said we had to kill everyone so there would be no witnesses and then take everything to sell,” she said. “He made up some stupid excuse like”–she took a break from speaking to catch a ragged breath–“he said he had divined that a serious clan-destroying threat would originate from this town. It was hogwash, and we knew it, but outer sect disciples have to do what they’re told.”

“You might have to do what you’re told, but you didn’t have to torture or bully. You went above and beyond,” Ramon said. “Your cruelty speaks volumes. Is there anyone in the town left?”

“No,” the woman said. We were on our second sweep of this area. We didn’t expect to find you. Please, you have to believe me. We didn’t want it to be this way,” she begged. “Please let me live!”

“Fine,” Ramon said. Then turning to Lars, he added, “Let’s leave. We need to get out of here before other disciples show up looking for these three.”

Don’t let her off that easy. She was going to torture and kill Ramon, if not you both, just moments ago. You know you want to kill her.

“Wait.” Lars looked at the woman. He could feel rage building up inside him. “Your second sweep? That means you knew about every person in those buildings who was barely clinging to life. You left them to die slowly, didn’t you?” Lars asked.

She just gritted her teeth. “It was Rickett, not me,” she said, playing innocent.

“That means they should still be alive. There should be survivors,” Lars said, only to draw out a painful sigh from the woman.

“No, this was the final sweep of one of the final areas. We were supposed to collect and tend to the women and children who had been left, so that . . .” She didn’t finish what she was going to say. The meaning was clear. They had come back to heal the tortured women so they could sell them as slaves. The Qi techniques needed to heal were very rare in villages, but every large sect likely had their own healers. It was even easier to imagine that the person Ramon had just killed hadn’t put up much of a fight even though Ramon was only a second-stage Qi Cultivator because the man wasn’t combat specialized. He had been the trio’s healer.

“Ramon,” Lars said, looking over at him, “I don’t want to let her live.”

“But she told us what she knows. We have to keep our word. Let’s just get out of here though, okay? Come on, man. The Falling Flowers sect is not a joke. They’re going to kill us!”

“Right, right, they’ll murder you once they find out who you are! But if you leave me alive, I’ll say that this was someone else’s work, that a villager died fighting us, that–”

The woman kept talking, but Lars wasn’t really listening to it anymore. The only thing he was thinking about was what she had said: that everyone was either enslaved or dead. That meant right now, his mother was probably this sect’s slave. The woman who had spent her entire life worrying about him, caring for him, taking care of him and making sure he could survive in this twisted world had either been brutally murdered by these sociopaths or was wearing the collar and chains of a slave.

“If you were going to enslave them, then you must have the shackles on you somewhere,” Lars said, looking at her.

“No . . . I . . .” even as she protested, her eyes went to Rickett, the man Lars had killed first. Lars followed her glance and noticed the cursed bindings hanging from the right side of the man’s waist. He went over and grabbed them, bringing them back to the injured woman.

“You don’t have to die,” Lars said. “I don’t want to make a liar out of Ramon, but if you want to live, you’re going to complete the contract,” he demanded, putting one of the finger-thick silk bands around her neck and tightening it. “I can’t have you staying alive and reporting back to the sect who we are and what we look like. If you’re not with us, we have to kill you, or else we’ll be hunted down in every town within the empire, and I’m not going to be your jail keeper either.”

Lars knew very well how the collar worked. It required willing submission on the party being enslaved, whether that was coerced or otherwise, as the person would have to channel their Qi into the collar. After they channeled their Qi into it, the soon-to-be master would then have to channel his own Qi into the end of the silk chain, the part that hung off the side after tightening it. The proof of the contract would appear in the form of the end being burned off by the joining Qi, signifying that the slave contract was complete. The only problem with the little ceremony was that Lars may have been much stronger and faster, but he still couldn’t channel Qi. His gambit was that when the piece failed to burn off, he could tell Ramon he gave her a chance and then kill her. Killing is better than enslaving anyway, Lars thought.

Just use your energy as if you’re channeling a Knife Hand.

He would normally ignore these messages, brushing them off, but at the moment the distance between a thought entering his head and his completing the action was nonexistent. He was running entirely on instinct, and before he could remind himself that this wasn’t what he wanted to do, he had already started trying it out. A moment later, he felt the tiny excess leash part of the collar burn away inside his hand.

Congratulations! You have used an item to complete the skill: Enslavement. Repeat this process 5 more times for a chance at learning to use the skill without the assistance of an item.

“There,” she said, her voice cracking as she sniffled. “You’ve won. You’ve broken me. Can I please, please live?” she begged. “You’ve gotten what you want. Just don’t kill me.”

This isn’t what I want though, he thought, looking at the enslaved woman, doing her best to hold herself up as she tried not to let any of the quills push farther into her back, a collar around her neck and barely covered by an outfit that had been torn to pieces from the fight. This isn’t what I wanted at all, he thought, an image of his mother appearing in his head as he remembered she was probably going through roughly the same treatment if she was still alive. I just wanted to save my mom, he told himself.

“Yeah, she’s not going to rat us out to anyone now. Let’s get her out of here,” Ramon said, bending and beginning to carefully, yet somehow incredibly quickly, remove each one of the sharp objects lodged into her back.

“You’re fast at that,” Lars said after a moment, regaining his thoughts.

“I had to learn how to be,” Ramon said. “I’ve accidentally put these into friends, family members, and even myself more times than I would like. It’s why no one likes me,” he added, chuckling softly at himself as Lars got down and began to help the woman.

After they had finished taking out all the needles, which took a few minutes, Lars grabbed the robe from Rickett and used it to wrap her up, making sure there wouldn’t be any more bleeding as well as covering her up in the process. He then took all the items he could find on the two dead disciples, which amounted to little more than 38 silver pieces and two lesser spirit stones, items that were supposed to help people cultivate but were more often than not just used as a base type of currency.

Lars still wanted to stay, to try and “mercy” kill a few more people for stat points, to try and get stronger and rescue his mother, but reason won out as he carried the nearly dead woman with Ramon’s help out of the home he had lived in his entire life. He knew that if it had been tough to fight just three of the errand boys, luck being one of the only reasons he was still alive, it would be nearly impossible to fight the others. If he wanted to find his mother, to confirm if she was alive and save her, he needed a lot more strength than a few dead bodies would provide, and staying around longer to mercy kill would almost certainly result in his being another dead body too.

“Thanks,” Lars said when they were over two miles away from the town. “Thanks for staying with me,” he said.

“Don’t thank me,” Ramon replied, shaking his head. “I just . . . After my family . . . I just didn’t want to die alone,” he said. “I’m not a high-level cultivator. We’ll probably get eaten by monsters on our way to the next town, or jumped by bandits, but I just didn’t want to die alone.”

Is that really the only reason? Lars wondered as he continued to piggyback the crippled woman. “Well, either way, thanks.”

If I had just kept my mouth shut, we could have killed her.