After eating the roasted fish and drinking their juices, the young Krikitories and little Liz played in the lake’s water for a hour or so. Afterwards, Zax informed little Liz that she needs to go to sleep since tomorrow him and Anet are taking her back home.
The next day, Kingdom Earth.
“Did you have fun sweetheart?” Laylen asked little Liz in her hands.
“Yes, mommy. Big sis Shulip made yummy fishies, here”. She blew a warm breath on her mother’s nose so she could smell the sweetness of the fish’s skin that Shulip dipped in a fruit sauce before roasting, but instead, Laylen only smelled the chocolate bar she packed for her daughter before Zax took her to Valgarel.
When they returned to Kingdom Earth Anet headed to her home and before going back to Eden formation.
Zax spent the last day of the weekend with his parents and sister. As it so happened, all the members of the Zel family were present.
The next day he accompanied his mother and little Liz to her kindergarten and from there left to Valgarel.
There were forty four days before the Martial competition. It would not be enough time for him to adapt to the fifth bottleneck, at least he was not conceited and risk it at the expanse of missing the competition.
Actually, Zax did not plan to train or do anything related to training or cultivating. What he wanted to do was go to one of his favorite places where he could be by himself and submerge over the things that bothered him until he will find a solution for them.
The issues Zax wanted to figure out were perceived as mundane on the Martial path, but in truth, there was not one cultivator who sooner or later did not sink into deep contemplation over the very same uncertainties, unless from birth and throughout his or her lives they were engulfed by an unyielding, pure Martial mentality.
Sitting crossed legs in a dark cavern, vacant from the tiniest speck of light; Zax steadied his breath and entered his sea of consciousness.
His body materialized naked, as usual, atop the vast land of his Inner Panorama.
‘Can the two really not go together?’ Sitting in the exact same position as his real body’s, Zax asked himself quietly.
The blackness of the sea of consciousness above and all around the Inner Panorama, as if having a reaction to this one wondering sentence, started to fill with still and moving pictures, arrays of tableaus and echoing familiar sounds.
Zax raised his head up, what in other people’s eyes appear as a mess, for him was distinct and coherent.
Everything that emerged, anything that sounded, was in one way or another related to the true meaning of his short question.
What Zax actually asked was if a life on the Martial path can also include or integrate with the conventionality of a normal way of life and still not be impeded. What he asked was if a longevity that centered on self Martial desire can be attentive toward social and relational commitments. What he asked was if it is acceptable for him to stay in closed doors for months or more and miss the short time of his loved ones. What he asked was if he could find a way to invest if Anet will want more. What he asked was if Anet will say “enough” then could he still be together with her, till she lived up her life, and then resume his journey on the Martial path. What he asked was if there was not a way to preserve who and what is important to him.
And there were more questions that words could not describe, only feelings.
All of these dawned on Zax couple of months ago, when he felt close to finding the fifth spark of light and realized how long it might take him to adapt to the to the fifth bottleneck.
All of these reflected at him whenever he saw his friends and family that had different paths than his, much, much shorter ones, yet congested with lifetime of numerous deeds, events and accomplishments.
All of these tore Zax inwardly as adolescence traced two lines for him to pick. One was exemplary normal, like that his friends and family crossed. Another was atypical and a tad menacing, like the one every Martial practitioner endeavored.
Whenever he beheld the normal line, Zax saw his parents, pregnant Serah, even little Liz, and behind them all a rather early death for his taste.
Whenever he beheld the atypical line, Zax saw his big sister, his Master, a phantasmagorical figure who looked a bit similar to him and a loneliness of life if Anet will not follow by.
This was a crossroad not just cultivators, but every person encounters. Regular people, not cultivators, usually sooner than later.
Zax, however, was born in one world, grew up in another and lived mixing them both, so knowing how to settle his issues was difficult than for most people.
Nevertheless, Zax did have two roughly the same examples of ones close to him who met the same lines and made their choice.
First was his big sister Zetsa.
Zax learned from her that she first met Grandmaster Kartion on the day of her participation in the Great Earth’s Core Pursuit. Grandmaster Kartion sought an apprentice that could convene the potential to follow his teachings.
Detecting young Zetsa among the many other participants, he tempted her with the allure of the first Earth’s Core she found, but when she tried getting it, he suddenly appeared before her with the Earth’s Core under his hoof.
Grandmaster Kartion wanted to see, will she scream, freeze in place, pass out or will she reveal assertiveness, unyielding spirit, rawness that he can refine.
Sure is, Zetsa attempted to snatch the Earth’s Core. And though it can be considered foolish, it was also the conviction that changed her life.
Afterwards, Zetsa had the same transformation that Zax experienced when Kartius accepted him as his apprentice. But unlike Zax, Zetsa almost never maintained closed friendships with anyone outside Grandmaster Kartion’s household and the exceptions were not a variable when she made her choice of which line to pick.
Zax could only watch from the side with knowledge of which was his big sister’s line, and assess if the way her life proceeds is enough for him, too.
The second example was his girlfriend Anet.
Zax knew Anet. He knows her better today than his childhood best friend Serah. And knows exactly what Anet’s take on either of the two lines is.
Anet’s life were more integrated with the common way of life than him, even when they were children and she got accepted into the best Martial school in El-Eden while he was rejected from all Martial schools.
As a student in a recognized institute that instigating primary Martial education, despite receiving the insights of the Martial path’s threshold, for Anet the feeling of learning in a Martial school, in preparation for a very different, very unique path, was still as if it was part of a whole which comprised every section of society she had been to.
Her outlook was influenced by her Mor, Don, who was a renown cultivators. She lived longer than non cultivators, and yet still had a family – not of her own, but the one she was born to and grew up in – and played a significant role in a system that meant something for everyone.
Anet may seem as someone who picked the atypical line, but in truth, her view was the same as those who picked the normal line, only with a rather extended path.
From ruminating of his big sister and girlfriend, Zax, first and foremost, was aware that much like for the fifth bottleneck of insight, he was not really in a rush to find the answers to these life changing questions.
His big sister was still young, barely thirty years old and could always have the chance for a fortuitous encounter that will brighten things that in the past she thought she eliminated, making them feasible.
And although Anet’s mindset was open for everything, she still strives for great achievements and does not care for putting other things on hold for as long as it would take her to reach her goals.
Zax averted his gaze from the sights above his Inner Panorama and closed his ears to the sounds that reverberated.
He was bothered, so he meditated for as much time he felt he needed, yet with consideration to the time he had left before the Martial competition. He also was not worried about other wondering where he went. Everyone who knew him, were accustomed to his, now and then, sessions of closed doors training.
Forty days later.
Zax pushed the rock that blocked the entrance to his cavern. Besides being hungry, everything about him was the same.
In forty days he was not able to have any enlightenment about the line that fit him. Each seemed to have beyond it things he did not want to give up, and how to mix them all like Anet or be optimistic and resolute like Zetsa had no effect on his uncertainties.
The best that he could do in the time he spent in the cavern was concluding that further meditating would not help him in any way. Right now he was in a juncture because of the fifth bottleneck of insight, and maybe after giving it the time needed for him to comprehend and adapt to it, when he will finish and view what changed he might see things differently.
Eden Formation, school principal’s office.
“Jalal, Muri-Mer, your cultivations are only in the Beginner and Intermediate phases of the Core Master realm. This, you know, will make it hard for you to participate in the Martial competition as loose cultivators. On the other hand, although the two of you have graduated, you still qualify to partake as your former school’s representatives. What are your decisions?”
“I will represent the school as the former leader of the Student Council Class”. The red haired girl, Muri-Mer, said respectfully. Despite graduating, she still was Don’s Tal.
“So will me, as the former leader of the Disciplinary Class”. The bald and unshaved man Jalal also gave his consent.
“Then it’s official now. The two of you, along with Susuya will be our three minor representatives, while Zax will take the position of the chief representative”.
The one who did all the talking was, naturally, Don. Apart from her, the current people in the office were the four she just talked to, vice principal Mizuri and superintendent Ten.
The two elderly men stood to the sides of Don’s tall backrest chair. The other four stood at the opposite side of her desk.
It was true; Zax was not going to be the only representative of Eden Formation in the up and coming Martial competition. In fact, he was not even the sole student to be titled as a “Pearl” anymore.
The other Pearl was none other than the youngest in the room, Susuya.
The great, great, great granddaughter of superintendent Ten, although not having a profound level of cultivation, in the handful years that passed became the best formations user Eden Formation ever cultivated.
As a fifteen years old teenage girl, it was admirable that in such a young age she managed to reach the Beginner phase of the Core Breaker level. However, this level of talent was not enough to consider her a cultivation genius. Moreover, in a Martial school like Eden Formation it was only so so.
But when it came to formations, Susuya was an unparalleled prodigy!
Her mist level might have been in the Beginner phase of the Core Breaker level, but her soul was cultivated to the Beginner phase of the Mist Master level. Generally, this, too, did not mean much, however, with just a Mist Master level soul Susuya was capable of erecting formations even the two graduates Core Masters and seniors of her could not withstand!
These days she was specially tutored by her great, great, great grandfather, though their relationship refrained from being that of a Mor and Tal.
“This year the Martial competition is being held in Tongguo. As I told you before, the Martial competition is an even that involves and calls upon the attendance of all three Supreme Rulers, but is kept discreetly from the general public. Therefore, before you leave here today and return two days from now, I would like to remind you not to discuss your participation with anyone”.
The four nodded. It was not the first talk about the Martial competition and its rules and not the second or third they received from Don, together or separately.
The Martial competition was an event that was held in one of Kingdom Earth’s three regions every fifty years. Unlike other grand events, only the highest echelon of Kingdom Earth was permitted to know about the existence of the Martial competition and only the families, schools and different groups that were really the cream of the crop could send up to five representatives to take part in the competition. Exceptions were independent cultivators who had no backing but at least broke through the second level of the Core Master realm. If their age was deemed appropriate with the rules, they could represent themselves in an attempt for the competition’s one of the ten wining places.
The age restriction in the Martial completion was forty five years old and below, as for cultivation restrictions, only independent cultivators had to meet them.
Why forty five years old or younger could partake in the competition was as unanswered question for all but the Supreme Rulers.
This age limit caused many to doubt the fairness of the competition. Then again, although on the Martial path forty five years were but a crumb, the quality of the cultivators who participated in the Martial completion only improved every competition, and the reason for it was well acknowledged by everyone who knew about the Martial competition.
To say it in short, each younger generation was always supported by its predecessors. In fifty years advancement in cultivation techniques, Martial techniques and even inherited blood – that is, the Seed inside the offspring of Mist Lord level experts or above – constantly occurred, benefiting new generations every couple of decades, around half a century or longer.
Lastly about the Martial competition… The types of minor and chief representatives were not so different. The latter only had the purposes of attracting all the fire and be the main face of whoever it represents. And until the competition will actually start, stuff such as its arrangement and prizes were concealed. The only thing certain was the prestige the ten first places will earn.
Zax did not care about the prestige he can gain or the one he could bring Eden Formation. If the other three representatives in his team aimed for it, then they could go ahead and do their best for the school.
What enticed and convince Zax to join the competition were two things. First, the experts Don told him that were not inferior to him. Second, the prizes, which according to Don, a member of the Dauch family whom supposedly knew a bit about the last competition’s prizes, would broaden his Martial path to a whole new realm!