Hearing about the chance to receive elite’s treatment, the prospect of stretching the Martial path beyond the known horizon, despite not knowing fully what challenges one must go through for these opportunities, moved and excited Zax. Then again, thinking about the current situation has made him feeling perplexed.
“Senior Ariel, if there is such a good opportunity why you and the group of elders need to stand in my way?”
Ariel shook his head with a light smile. He suspected that Zax will ask this question. “’Standing in your way’ is not the correct way to put it, and the initiative to remove you from the competition is solely my decision, your elders and Supreme Rulers have nothing to do with it other than following my orders and debating the process”. He halted and met Zax’s eyes. “As for why I came up with this decision, it is because I do not wish for you to be examined for the elite’s group nor join any of the five powers”.
Ariel was vague with his reply, which startled Zax when he outright confessed, in what felt like a willful attitude, that he deliberately want him to miss the “golden ticket” for a new Martial world.
Ariel, of course, knew how he sounded and so, without letting Zax the time to assume anything and retort with another question, he proceeded.
“Junior Zax, everything I shared with you till now, apart from the decision to remove you from the competition, is knowledge that will be imparted to all the top ten contenders. However, to finally know the reason behind my actions, from this point on you should know that I will not allow you to disclose the following content of our conversion to any third company, as I also do not intended to involve even my fellow Supreme Rulers. Do you understand?“
“I do”. Zax nodded. The immensity of every one of Ariel’s words weighted on Zax in a sense that made him feel slightly wary. What is there that can make the most revered character in Kingdom Earth be so restrictive in his speech that he has to act so secretively when speaking?
“Good. Take this”. Ariel reached to an inner pocket in his robe. He took out a nail size Blue Stone and passed it to Zax. “Have a look inside after we will finish”. He instructed. “You may find several things, among them the most important is a small scroll. Its content pertain a superficial layout of the world above ground, gathered by expeditions of first realm experts. In the grand scheme of things it will not be much, but it will help you get acquainted and oriented in the approximate terrain to the pathway to New Earth from above the ground. Think of it as a local map, if you want, but be sure to destroy it after memorizing it!”
Zax palpated the Blue Stone in his hand, feeling glad that regardless of his reasons, Ariel sill intended to let him venture under the blue sky!
“The purpose of giving you this scroll and the other things inside the Blue Stone, along with the reason that I asked of you to forfeit the competition, is because I have a task that can only be assigned to someone of your credentials”.
“A task?” Zax asked, wondering what about him could Ariel found apt to his requirements.
“Aye!” Ariel responded in a resolute tone. “After everything I have said, you should have figured it out by yourself. With accordance to the five powers’ rules, second realm experts and above risk being subjugated by the five powers if leaving New Earth, and for first realm experts it is simply too dangerous to freely explore the outside world. You, however, are an anomaly, a loophole in the five powers’ rules. None of your three aspects has surpassed the boundaries of the first realm, yet your strength is superior to most second realm expert! So long as you will not attract their attention, you will be able to assimilate in the territories of the five powers better than any New Earth’s native”.
Being reminded of his virtues, it dawned on Zax that Ariel is right. Was he not saying this to himself also a moment ago? If he does not plan to join the five powers, then he will be limited by their rules. But with his strength he will be less confined then a regular first realm expert if he will leave New Earth and there is no major concern about breaking through the second realm of bodily cultivation. He just broke through to the last gate of the Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement, the hardest step. If he will go to the five powers’ territory, unless he would find and consume some sort of treasure, according to his estimation it should take him more than a decade, maybe two or three, to break through the second realm with just absorbing the world energy.
Nonetheless, as idealistic as his condition appeared to be, the entirety of Ariel’s goal as yet to be revealed, which obstructed Zax’s excitement from getting ahead of itself.
“Sir, senior Ariel, I don’t understand. What exactly are your intentions? Why avoid the five powers? And you said it yourself; you joined the Blessed Army and gained many advantages on the Martial path. You should have vast knowledge on the world under the blue sky, why then can’t you give me a clearer explanation?” Zax raised the Blue Stone between his fingers. “An extensive information about the outside world rather than a superficial one?”
“I can only give you this much because I am bound by an oath to keep in secret any and all of my gains from joining the Blessed Army. Although I can renounce that oath and not suffer temporarily, the Blessed Army, and any of the five powers for that matter, has tools to detect apostates”.
“Even in your rank in the Blessed Army this task is still complicated for you to manage… The world above ground should be a lot vaster than New Earth, senior Ariel, should I comply and take on the task, without knowing more I’ll just end up roaming aimlessly”.
“That is why you were given the Blue Stone. I can’t verbally instruct you, but to ask of you to follow up with what inside the Blue Stone, that is not a difficulty”.
“Now what is matter is whether you will agree to accept the task on yourself?”
‘An unknown task under the blue sky…’ Zax hesitated. “Senior Ariel, there is something that you did not mention that I would like to ask”.
“If I’ll New Earth, how often will I be able to return? If it was in New Earth I would not have problems complying to the task, because unlike the world above ground, here I’m free to go to wherever I want and return to my family and loved ones when I see fit”.
Contrasting his childhood days, today Zax was almost always surrounded by the people he cherished, some of whom he never thought to leave for no matter what reason. And to leave for an indeterminate span of time, he mentally was not prepared. If it was not an issue he would have already closed up and attempted to comprehend the fifth bottleneck of insight.
Ariel figured the intent behind Zax’s question and for that, too, he was prepared.
“You cannot let yourself be driven by sentimentality, junior Zax. I, my younger sister and younger brother, in our time, had also to make a sacrifice in order to temper our Martial path. It is inevitable for any cultivator, any person who aspires for the pinnacle in his field and path, to sometimes separate from the mundane for as long as one need for even just one step forward”.
“Junior Zax, as talented as you are, to reach your current level in merely two decades, it stands to reason that without exposing yourself to the harsh ultimatum of the Martial path, your accomplishment would have been much smaller”.
Ariel tone was calm, but to Zax it sounded like he was berated for his question. Still, Zax could not ignore the feeling that these words are exactly what needed to hear.
‘Senior Ariel is right. I’ve completely forgotten how to be resolute!’
Zax was aware of what he needed to do to advance his Martial path since his introspection, but at the time that he came out from his short seclusion, the readiness to concentrate exclusively on his cultivation was still absent.
While Zax was realizing his resolve, Ariel continued saying. “Nevertheless, I will be frank with you and admit that if you will join one of the five powers, you will be entitled to return to New Earth quite often. But if you will accept the task and explore the world above ground as a loose first realm New Earth native, you will most likely only be able to enter the pathway back to New Earth just once. In other words, until you will complete the task or sense the bottleneck to the second realm of bodily cultivation, I cannot permit you to return to New Earth”.
‘For how long can I be apart from them?’ Remaining in Zax’s heart were only two figures he was having troubles to letting go in favor of his cultivation and Ariel’s task.
Anet and little Liz.
‘To obtain a pure Core for Anet I must get stronger. Since I haven’t been to everywhere in New Earth, I can’t know for certain, but if senior Ariel was saying the truth, I probably need to head out for the world above ground to find a pure Core anyway. But also leaving little Liz…’
Zax closed his eyes, clenched his fist and after a long moment exhaled through his nostrils a strong current of air.
Opening his eyes he decided. ‘I’m sorry, my dear little Liz’. His heart ached, yet with these words reverberating in his sea of consciousness it felt like it was in the right place.
‘So much for being a good big brother…’ Zax sighed and glanced over at Ariel. “Sir, senior Ariel, when can I leave New Earth”.
Seeing that Zax made up his mind and accepted the task, Ariel refrained from commenting words of praise or gratitude.
“You do not need to be in a hurry. It actually will not be as simple as sending another expedition group or escorting the top ten of the Martial competition, despite you being among them. Your departure must be discreet. The Golden Desert Fort, the Blessed Army and the Luminous Church, although they will not interfere in what goes on in Kingdom Earth, they do have scouts in Kingdom Earth and these scouts were present in the Martial competition. Those scouts have seen you and should have acknowledged your strength and future potential. If you will leave New Earth now, accompanying the top ten or on your own, they will keep prying eyes on your movement. My idea to avoid problems is to inform everyone that your condition after the three way battle is too severe that you not just forfeit to rest of the competition, but also renounce your spot in the top ten”.
“Won’t the scout of the five powers will get suspicious unless they will see me with their own eyes”.
“They will not go that far. They have seen your battle and the injuries you sustained. Furthermore, you are a bodily cultivator. Even the five powers are not conversant enough in the field of bodily cultivation to guess your condition. True, they possess more bodily refinement techniques than New Earth, but their qualities are not necessarily better and each one has its own unique effects, which add to the difficulty of assuming the state you should be after the fight. As for treating you to accelerate your recovery, the scouts remain in Kingdom Earth for the duration of the Martial competition. As long as they will not see you, I can report to them that your bodily refinement technique does not assimilate well high quality consumable resources. That way they might even lose a bit interest in you, thinking that you cultivate an insufficient bodily refinement technique”.
“Then I should stay in this room?”
“For the time being, yes. The competition will last for one more day. Ten days later I will guide the top ten contenders with your replacement to leave New Earth. A day later the scouts should leave. Till then you can stay here. I will deal with your companions and send a trustworthy attendant to support your needs. Twelve days from now, you can return to your home or your Master’s cave and in a year I summon you back. That should be enough time for you to prepare and for the aftermath of the Mortal competition to settle down”.
Finishing explaining, Ariel got up from the chair as Zax remained seated meditating.
Seeing Ariel about to leave, Zax also got up. With knitted brows he asked. “Senior Ariel, there is one last thing I would like to ask”.
“What is it?”
“Why did you not choose Neyrar to fight me in the three way battle?”
Zax wanted to know why the elders and Supreme Rulers selected Zechariah and Linor to fight him, while giving Neyrar a pass.
“Because you are strong, junior Zax, but not that strong”. Ariel replied with a little smile.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Zax felt a tad uncomfortable by Ariel’s remark.
“Well… there are more to that than the answer I just gave you. Actually, two reasons. The first is that before you broke through, if Neyrar was to fight in the three way battle instead of Zechariah or Linor, to win, you and the other contestant would have needed to combine forces against him. Even then, the two of you would only have a fifty percent chance of winning and regardless of how the fight would have ended, its results from the fight you already had should not be too different”.
“Mmm… Senior Ariel, are you saying that in a one versus one I’m weaker than Neyrar?” Hearing the first reason, suddenly that was what bothering Zax.
“Hahaha! Junior Zax, do you remember your third fight?”
Zax nodded. It was the fight against Hamer.
“If back then you were instead to fight against Neyrar alone, you would have been the one plastered on a wall”. Ariel smiled almost mischievously.
“And now?” Zax did not miss the remainder of his breakthrough.
“Neyrar is both a mist cultivator and a bodily cultivator. His bodily cultivation is at the Peak of the first realm, where you just entered he last phase of your cultivation technique. Although you have the superiority in the type of technique, Neyrar’s mist cultivation is also not far from the third level of the second realm. Before you broke through there was no chance for you to win against him, now… maybe you two are even”.
Zax stayed quite after Ariel’s assessment. It was food for thought for him, so much that he barely paid attention to the second reason when Ariel proceeded to saying it.
“The second reason is more troublesome and not really concerning you, but I think you have to right to hear it anyway. Neyrar is Elijah’s Tal and Elijah is a honorary official of the Golden Desert Fort, moreover, his position in the Golden Desert Fort is a bit special. He did not join it based on his Martial achievements, but his attainment in the creation of the Scarlet Armor bodily refinement technique. Due to his position, he was granted a possibility from the sovereign of the Golden Desert Fort, which he passed on to his Tal, Neyrar. Simply put, if Neyrar will take first place in the Martial competition, he will instantly be accepted to the elite group of the Golden Desert Fort upon recruitment…”
Near the end Ariel’s voce dimmed. Seeing that Zax stopped caring about the issue of the three way battle, he did not say more, turned and left.
‘Unbound by the road! Unbound by anyone!’ The words echoed in Zax’s mind, yet the excited manner in which they resounded before was absent. ‘So long as I keep my head below the ground…’