“Sir… Supreme Ruler…” Zax was stumped and the words to phrase simple sentences got stuck in his throat.
If not in the beginning, then after the Martial competition started, it turned out to mean quite a great deal for Zax. After being enticed to test his prowess against the other remarkable experts, discovering the grandeur of the top three prizes and the identity of the man responsible for Carl’s death, Zax had enough motivation to pull himself together.
“You ask me to forfeit the Martial competition?” He asked in a wavering tone, hinting a bit of reluctance, a bit of willingness and a bit of pleading to not force him.
Supreme Ruler Ariel was placidly seating beside Zax’s bed. He did not oppress him with his area or the demeanor of his unparalleled status; it was partly why Zax was able to talk back instead on instantly agreeing. Supreme Ruler Ariel did not have the mindset of a tyrant. And regardless of the reasons to his request, for him Zax was a promising young generation; a seed of his, his little brother’s and little sister’s nurturing that yielded a one of a kind fruit for their Kingdom Earth. He could take the time to discuss calmly with the child and even test his composure and disposition when in front of his superiors.
“That is exactly what I’m asking, and hoping that you will comply readily”. With every word coming out of Supreme Ruler Ariel’s mouth, the magnificence of his majestic attire shined less and less, gradually resuming the facade of an ordinary scholar.
Unknowingly to Zax, Supreme Ruler Ariel’s Sublime Soul Sense permeated into his sea of consciousness and conveyed the false impression of an unassuming man. Supreme Ruler Ariel has done a similar thing back in the hall, when he and the other Supreme Rulers made an appearance. Only, back then, and for the remainder of his stay in the hall, he did retain and produce a small portion of his true aura.
Zax felt his body growing stiff. His mind portrayed the man before him as a regular person the more they conversed, contrasting and reconstructing his rudimentary notion of Supreme Ruler Ariel. Soon, his reluctance turned in to indignation and dissatisfaction.
First, he was being colluded by his seniors that were supposed to manage the Martial competition impartially, and now the higher ups personally arrived to straightforwardly ask of him to forfeit?!
“Sir”, an inner feeling, possibly his intuition, prevented Zax from outright losing all courtesies. “I don’t know why you ask me to forfeit, but if it’s up for me to decide, than I refuse”.
“Really?“ Supreme Ruler Ariel did not show real concern, but to Zax he seemed to take his reply in discontent and scorn, like a pretentious high class personal who does not know how to take no. “In your condition, do you think that you are capable of continuing to the fifth round?”
Zax frowned and refrained from replying immediately since the answer was obvious. Those who have reached to the fifth round, whether by luck or ability, should all be experts deserving at least him being in good condition. However, per the consequence of the fifth step of Kinetic Force, his physical performances are at about twenty percent efficiency. Even at his best, if the elders and Supreme Rulers really want him to lose, they might pair him with Neyrar as his next opponent, and Zax was certain that he will not be weaker than Zechariah and Linor.
Then again, Zax wanted to win the pure Core for Anet and could not bring himself to give it up. The competition had only two more rounds, for an arm he might be able to advance one of them and with a last outburst he can risk a second Soar With The Storm for the chance to beat Neyrar. Of course, this means that he must face Neyrar only in the last round, since after executing a second Soar With The Storm so early he will probably hung between life and death.
“So you understand”. Supreme Ruler Ariel taunted, to see for how long his title alone can make Zax submit.
He purposely continued to diminish his image in Zax’s mind. By now he was a feeble looking young noble that emanates a haughty behavior which derived from misguidance… worlds apart from the prestige of a Supreme Ruler.
“Although you are free to refuse my request, in reality it is me Telling you to forfeit. I will not force you to obey, but whether you will listen or not will distinguish a smart decision from a stupid decision”.
A threat! ‘Was I threatened by Supreme Ruler Ariel?!’ Zax’s complexion turned ashen and his heart was pounding with mixed feelings.
The illusion in his mind was real as the bed he sat on, the huge wall size window and the decoration in the room. And yet, by now he reached the point that in Supreme Ruler Ariel he saw the shadows of Razil, Binjo and others of their kind. It became hard to listen to his intuition, he could not find inside himself anymore the respect for the, up until moments ago, most esteemed figure any inhabitant of El-Eden worships from birth.
But even if Supreme Ruler Ariel’s true self was so despicable, he still was a third realm expert and Zax was not an impulsive child. He could preserve when being treated unfairly, badly by someone stronger, just as much as he could remember the grievances, in all of its forms, and repay the debt ten, hundred folds in the future.
“Sir, Supreme Ruler Ariel”, Zax said as he contained his anger. “I don’t know why I have to be treated this way, but since I am sure I have done nothing wrong, I won’t ask. As for my answer to your request, once more, if senior Supreme Ruler won’t forcefully stop me, I can’t give up on the first prize, pure Core”. Zax tone was steady and direct.
He was assertive, but in truth he was not as lucid as he thought.
‘Good’. Supreme Ruler Ariel assessed. He could tell that Zax’s soul was special, but only after testing him to this point he was able to evaluate its strength.
To Zax’s response, Supreme Ruler Ariel was satisfied.
When he requested of him to forfeit with a regal bearing, Zax neither agreed nor declined, but showed well manners and discipline to listen for a reason.
When he made Zax see him as a regular man, it did not make the talented young generation belittle him, only, some might say, justly affirm his choice.
As he changed his approach, changed the visage Zax perceived of him and aroused the bitter memories of degenerate individuals that rely on status to do as they pleased, Zax managed his temper, his language may have been emphatic, but he still acknowledged his inferiority, if not to the person and title of Supreme Ruler, then to the strength of a third realm expert.
‘Such being the case…’ Supreme Ruler Ariel mused. His Sublime Soul Sense heightened and pressed Zax’s soul like the tip of a needle against the softness of a pillow.
“Will you not give your ruling sovereign face?!”
The question bombarded Zax’s sea of consciousness, manifested a tyrannical sense of oppression.
The internal injuries from the three way battle ached, under the extreme mental pressure, Zax’s neck involuntarily bent down and his body shuddered while issuing crackling sounds.
Supreme Ruler Ariel’s overbearing presence stirred two sets of memories for Zax to relive, two moments in his life he was truly at the mercy of others.
The first memory was of Zax encounter with the Martinez family’s founder, Gerardo, back in the Young Mist Users Conference. At the time, if it was not for the intervention of Habul Majid, founder of the high class Majid family, Zax would have died without the slightest chance for meaningful retaliation.
The second memory was of his and Carl’s meeting with Neyrar’s father. Back then, as Carl was physically crippled, Zax realized with utmost clarity how the fragileness of his life against the simplicity in which Neyrar’s father could kill him and Carl.
Now, as he once more looked at Supreme Ruler Ariel, despite his inertia, the image Zax perceived of him was not of a person, but a reflection of absolute power and callous intent.
With such entity there was only one conclusion when being uncooperative, and Zax was perfectly familiar with what it is.
‘Give in’. Zax gritted his teeth. Being aware of the full picture, he did not have the luxury to act like a stubborn child and rail, but his heart was still in turmoil over the response he must give.
Though, initially, the choice was handed for him to decide whether to forfeit the Martial competition or not, the manipulations of Supreme Ruler Ariel were so invasive and profound that they eroded all previous notions of their conversation in Zax’s mind, instilling the belief of a pristine first impression along with a demand to give up the competition.
Supreme Ruler Ariel wanted to test Zax’s composure when a life threatening predicament is imminent. As for what he saw, it was a common reaction, fear, which he could not condemn Zax for, but not entirely what he anticipated. Therefore he waited.
Among the lavish decoration in the room, one was a charming Bracket clock. As time passed, following Supreme Ruler Ariel’s last words, between each of the Bracket clock’s ticks, eons seemed to elapse for Zax when it only has been seconds.
‘I am weak’. Conclusively Zax submitted to the situation. Surprisingly, though, after confessing this to himself he stopped shaking, feeling anger or fear, instead he felt a sort of liberation.
“I will forfeit the competition”. His eyes stared at the bed sheet rather than the mighty Supreme Ruler Ariel.
Yes, he will forfeit and he would be fine with it. To preserve it is his only choice, and to refrain from ever letting anyone force him again… ‘I will strive to excel!’
Zax’s soul fluctuated. His strong resolution momentarily intercepted the influence of Supreme Ruler Ariel’s Sublime Soul Sense.
Green light flickered in Supreme Ruler Ariel’s eyes. He withdrew his Sublime Soul Sense and got up with a gratified smile.
Zax was still submerged within his decision and only noticed that he was no longer feeling oppressed by Supreme Ruler Ariel when a gentle palm touched his bandaged shoulder.
Nonchalantly looking up, his eyes opened wide as if experiencing a revelation, becoming aware of the varying outlooks he had of Supreme Ruler Ariel without fully knowing why, only that the man now standing beside him is the genuine Supreme Ruler he first saw sitting by the bed.
“Are you wondering why you are feeling confused?”
Zax nodded, he felt like he awakened from a dream more than being confused, but overall it was all the same.
Light shone underneath Supreme Ruler Ariel’s palm. A formation embedded to the bandages wrapping Zax glowed in green light.
In a speed noticeable to the naked eye of even a regular person, the ointment and bandages were absorbed by Zax’s body, at the same time he felt that every inch of him is burning, yet not to the verge of it being painful.
“I’m… healing!” Zax was flabbergasted. It was not that he never healed fast from a wound, but from such severe injuries he always need at least couple of days.
Zax got up from the bed, in the span of one minute his skin reddened, then dried, becoming wrinkled and grey, till eventually it burst into dust and vanished in the air.
“How can it be?!” Zax examined his arms and bare upper body, clenching his fists and feeling the smoothness of his shimmering skin.
As for his internal organs and bones… they all gave him an exuberant sensation.
This was far from recovering and being in perfect shape, this was eliminating hidden impurities from his body, this was overflowing the sixth gate of the Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement with energy, this was a breakthrough!
At that moment, in Zax’s consciousness, beneath his soul, the sixth gate swelled and faded. Next, the seventh gate appeared at the center of Zax’s chest and in but a few breaths black spikes emerged from all over his body, changing the seventh gate’s azure radiance to black.
As there was finally, only one gate remaining for him to break through the second realm as a bodily cultivator, as his body exploded with new level of strength… Zax, like a giddy child that stopped caring about everything in the world except from his new toy, looked at his hands and marveled outloud.
“Is this the strength of a third realm…?”
A general cultivator who train in the Seven Stage Of Bodily Refinement, upon reaching the seventh gate should have the fitness level of a third level Core Master, but Zax, due to the modification of the Black Core, should be even stronger.
“’Third realm expert’…” Supreme Ruler Ariel suddenly said and drew Zax’s attention. Shaking his head in resignation, he solemnly said. “This term is inappropriate”. He raised his eyes to meet Zax’s, but his expression glanced far and beyond. “You are not yet there, but if you would like, you may refer to us as ‘Martial Mortals’, for above us are ‘Immortals’”.
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