I’m posting now several more chapters here, and of course the google doc link where you can read the whole thing and point at things that you think should be improved. The comments from the first post I think have substantially improved the readability of the first chapters: Give me more thoughts people!
Also there is a discord with very little conversation so far in it, but maybe you can start it.
I’m reposting the first chapter in its new version to see if people think it is no longer too preachy. I should note that it is certain to be a little preachy somewhere, that is the nature of this beast..
Anyways enjoy and criticize!
He jogged down the street to the intersection light, his mind full of arguments, ideas, and questions raised by the conference he was attending. The light was red when Isaac reached the intersection, but he looked to the left, and didn’t see any traffic approaching.
Without further thought he stepped fully out into the street.
Squealing brakes. A loud honking horn. Sound of wheels.
Isaac had a fraction of a second to see the big yellow van with the words ‘We Deliver!’ and a phone number hurtling towards him from the right.
There was a fraction of an instant when his brain recalled that the British drove on the wrong side of the street, and he should have looked in the other direction before stepping out.
Pain, but only for an instant.
Nothingness. An infinite eternity that did not last a single instant.
And then he woke up.
AN: Vote people reading this — do you like the idea of me cutting the prologue and starting with chapter one?
So I’d made a bit of a mistake.
Eh, kids, your parents gave you good advice when they told you to always look both ways before crossing a road.
Otherwise you might end up dead, and then wake up in a fantasy world with cool magical powers, lots of new things to learn about, and a couple of unpleasant problems. If there is one lesson I want you all to take away from my story it is: Look both ways.
But primarily in a metaphorical sense. You should always consider the possibility that you are wrong, and making a mistake.
However literally looking both ways is important, or else you might get hit by a three ton yellow delivery van.
Anyways I woke up again after dying.
I sat upon a mountaintop high and craggedly peaked. Very high. Like, planes in the sky high.
And I was naked.
Now, at this point, to the extent I was thinking anything, ‘hospital fever dream’ was of course the number one guess. I was not cold, not shivering, not really feeling anything about the weather except an awareness that it was low thermometer type weather. Given that I was naked and sitting on the very top of a frozen, snow covered mountain top, with gusts of wind blowing around me at tens of miles an hour, and I wasn’t cold — uh… that’s not how getting cold is supposed to work.
I could see incredibly clearly, details of brown craggy rocks on other mountain peaks dozens of miles away, snow leopards wandering around, goats, all the birds circling in the sky for a hundred miles.
I mean wow.
Once I’d read that Tiger Woods could see better than twenty-twenty after he got laser eye surgery. I suppose that is sort of like what this was like, except at least a thousand times more intense.
Really high up.
I’d had vertigo in my original life, and it sort of freaked me out a bit that I wasn’t scared of falling off the mountain side. From how far down below me the green valley beneath the mountain was, I shouldn’t be able to even breathe without help.
Something in my brain was aware that there was a low oxygen content to the air, and there was some other process that was automatic as breathing, that I was using to… maybe multiply, or intensify, or something the sustaining substance in the air so that I was safe at this height.
‘The sustaining substance in the air’.
That was the awkward phrase that went through my mind. Not ‘oxygen’. ‘The sustaining substance in the air’.
I think that was when I realized that something much weirder than a hospital fever dream might be going on. I was pretty sure that I’d never invent a made up scientific phrase that was that awkward for ‘oxygen’, even in my weirdest dreams.
Anyway, around me, in a very magical mumbo jumbo array was a particularly complicated folded ninth shape runic spell circle.
And despite the fact that I had no idea what the hell that description meant, or what I was looking at, I felt like I understood the weirdly entangled and braided giant circle drawn in what I also instinctively knew was my own blood around me on a flattened and cleared section of ground.
The drawing was sort of like a circle with a nonagram — nine sides — inscribed in it. The lines were made up of braided circles like Celtic necklaces, or the endless geometric forms of Islamic mosques. And then embedded in this were tiny letterings, symbols, pictograms, and endlessly intricate and fascinating structures that overlapped, and yet each was somehow perfect in its own way.
My own fucking blood?
Or anyways the blood of the dude who'd been running this body then — I was starting to realize that I had memories from this person before I was the one in control.
The whole ‘painting the snow with my own blood for a powerful magical ritual’ weirdness made it hard for me to properly appreciate the intricate artistry.
I mean, objectively impressive. His memories were starting to be available to me. The guy had spent two weeks preparing parts of it in his lab in his mage tower, because of course he had a tall mage tower, built out of a pale marble with pink veins. Then all of the intricate runes and spell work were magically folded into a tiny space, and then splotched out, and infused with his blood — that he could regenerate arbitrarily fast as a powerful cultivator — that was what they called magic users in this world — and then he made his own little mistake that had killed him.
Funny how we all seemed to be doing that sort of thing.
His error had been forced by a bad situation. It seemed like this island was going to be invaded by the ‘Celestial Emperor’, and he planned to kill the dragons that were the symbol of the island, and that everyone really loved. Also strip them of independence.
It was clear to the fellow that he thus had no choice but to do anything that might give him the power to face him, such as a dangerous ritual to open his fourth dantian, and gain the power of a celestial, even though he thought the ritual would kill him.
This guy thought he’d had no choices, he’d guessed that there was at best a one in three chance that he would survive this attempt to open his fourth dantian, and to become a celestial like the emperor. But that was the only way to defeat this enemy.
Even if he’d succeeded, the odds would be against his success, since the emperor had vastly more experience and resources behind him.
So the man had come here, used materials that I’d guess were worth the equivalent of between a ten million and a hundred million dollars to power the vast ritual, used magic to paint with his own blood the ritual circles, and then blew his mind apart.
I looked down at the hands. The hands were — to be honest — pretty similar to my own hands, except with a weave of extra scars and a faint glow from within a network of tattoos so thin that I would not have been able to see them with ordinary human eyes.
Doubly sad because I didn’t have the slightest intention of trying to fight in his war.
Risky bets often fail.
The former owner of this body had made such a failing bet.
Even if this body had successfully ‘opened the fourth dantian’, I was pretty sure that a sorcerer who'd spent a thousand years warring and conquering would be better at it than me, and I didn’t have any particular reason to care about the fate of the island, or the survival of the dragons. They weren’t my personal project.
I mean I do care. I’m unhappy when I hear about anyone suffering, failing to achieve what they want to, and simply not flourishing. But I have no particular reason to care more about helping people in Kenya than people in Singapore — it just was that I could do more good with the limited amount of stuff I have for people in Kenya, and they also needed more help.
I figured it was sort of like that here.
It would be best if I didn’t die. Not dying again… in a part of my mind that was completely untouched by philosophical concerns, matters of optimizing the world, or even how I looked in front of others, I was desperate not to die again.
And, fortunately, it didn’t rationally seem like it would be a good idea to stick around here.
This island was going to lose its war — with or without me. But I could grab everything that he’d owned that was valuable and easily portable, and then scram, flee, make a cautious withdrawal — get the hell out of dodge.
It was not my war.
I mean I wasn’t a pacifist or anything, but it just wasn’t my war.
At this point I will freely confess that I had a sense with some part of my mind that I was supposed to despite all of those considerations care about this war and fight in it.
But I didn’t want to.
It was scary and I might die, and besides there were lots of things I wanted to do to explore how magic worked, and to help other people now that I was powerful and had a huge range of things that I could do.
Perhaps there was some reason that simply did not occur to me for why this war was really important, and really mattered in a way that it would be super valuable to everyone, even people who weren’t born here if Yatamo won. If there was something worth me dying to be won, I’d risk it.
Otherwise I was going to bounce like Han Solo kept planning to..
Anyway, The guy whose body I’d gotten had been ridiculously rich, and he had a set of epic capabilities that were extremely valuable and with which I could make vast amounts of money — somewhere suitably far away.
Maybe dying and waking up here wasn’t the worst possible thing that could have happened to me: I’d spent the last years trying to earn as much money as I possibly could, and now I was going to do what I’d always planned to do if I ever got properly rich: Give it all away.
Well most of it. I certainly would keep some of his hoard around to have fun that had nothing to do with anyone else.
Without making the effort to recall the details from that fellow’s — Sesako had been his name — memories, I got a distinct sense that this world was at least as fucked up as earth was.
Maybe even a bit more.
There would be plenty of ways here to make the lives of impoverished, unhealthy, and underused human individuals better with the huge pile of gold coins and the giant store of expensive refined pills, power stones, finely enchanted artifacts, magically infused clothing, and just generally expensive stuff that he had — much of which had no actual purpose at all except to show that the owner could possess ‘the best’.
Now my heart was beating.
This was more exciting to me than now having magical powers and being immune to the cold, and able to keep my place easily despite the winds that were gusting over the mountain top at probably a hundred miles an hour.
And what about those other, more uncertain issues — what were the things that might destroy this world entirely? And what were the ways that it could, slowly and over the very long term, be turned into a true utopia?
I had a chance to really, and personally make a vast difference for a vast number of other people.
That was better than the eyesight that let me see anything I focused on in detail, a small city far in the distance at the foot of the mountains, the orchards, the fields of wheat around the feet of the mountain, a snow leopard climbing on an icy ridge after the track of a mountain goat ten miles away, the very curvature of the earth underneath the vast oceans.
Oceans that were bringing a mighty invasion force — spotted, tracked, detailed by spies.
Eh, no time to waste, no rest for the wicked, idle hands are the devil’s playthings. Also haste makes waste.
My mind held a clear map of the whole island, and while I couldn't see the capital city and my, or his… the tower, I knew exactly what direction to go. The capital city was almost five hundred miles away from here — which was the tallest mountain on the island, and also near the valley where the great dragons made their home.
It was an hour and a half trip for this guy when he flew and pushed himself, and about two and a half at what he thought was a comfortable pace.
From memories about warfare, where lots of weapons would be accelerated to super sonic speeds, the sonic boom was clearly a thing here, and thus the speed of sound also was. But it seemed like none of the cultivators were able to move nearly as fast as it.
I wasn’t sure how much of Sesako’s valuable stuff I could actually carry from the storerooms, but I caught from his memories that there were extra dimensional storage systems where anything that wasn’t magically delicate could be stuffed in great quantities.
Of course the stuff that couldn’t be stuffed in such superdimensional pouches was the most valuable, I’d have to figure out some way to take all of it with me.
Maybe a big crate that I could hold up while I flew away.
This guy was big on magical flying, and I could tell that I pretty soon would be too. A large fraction of his memories focused on flight.
In the air, chasing down birds, outpacing hawks as they swooped down at hundreds of miles an hour to snatch their prey, hurtling through clouds, flying calmly along next to the flapping wings of a fucking gigantic dragon.
It turned out that leaping off a cliff wasn’t quite as easy as simply knowing that I could safely do it. When I tried to leap off the craggy side of the mountain into the air to fly away from the mountainside, my own instincts stopped me.
I was so high up.
I imagined the fall all the way down the ridges and cliffs to the valley far, far below — broken body tumbling.
Crack. Crack. Bounce. Crack. Ba-ba-bounce. Crack.
And then as though it reflected some sort of contempt for ordinary mortals, an instinct from Sesako overroad that anxiety, as though his mind was still there, and still active somewhere in my new brain — how the fuck did that even work? — and I leapt off the mountain side.
With a series of loud whoops I soared higher, and higher, hurtling upwards towards the sun.
The instincts honed by more than a century of life controlled the motion.
My stomach leapt. The mountain receded beneath me. Everything became smaller.. I could see further and further, the world curving out beneath me as the point of the horizon went further and further away. The whole path of water around the island, many cities.
The island itself was shaped rather like Britain, except that the side that reminded me of Scotland was nearly as wide around as the other. There were two giant circular clumps of mountains, and in between was a low fertile isthmus, that was big enough for large cities on either side, separated by incredibly thin roads and thick farmlands.
And then glancing down at the mountains behind me, I saw the dragon.
Sleeping, huge, the tail curled around the giant body, and the wings pulled in, but it looked to be at least a thousand feet in length.
That dragon figured prominently in Sesako’s memories, with a mix of fond affection, religious awe, and actual friendship.
The dragons were the symbol of his island, they were the gods they worshiped, and whose blessings they begged. They were fed off a fraction of the proceeds of a million farms and a thousand prosperous trading expeditions.
An odd sensation of guilt rose in me while looking at the dragon sleeping far below.
It had been the knowledge that the emperor meant to hunt and kill the dragon’s in the mountains of Yatamo after he had reconquered the island which drove Sesako’s reckless attempt to force open his fourth dantian.
This was his body. It was his wealth I intended to appropriate for my own purposes. His people, and all that he cared for was going to be abandoned by me, and left to be destroyed.
It did not feel like the right thing to do.
There was that difference from the memories in my body that said the fourth dantian was open.
I might be able to fight this invasion to a stop.
A proper storybook hero would stay and fight no matter what the odds were.
If I was in a novel or a web serial, I’d stay and fight.
I ought to fight, and…
And if I succeeded, I would kill a lot of people. Most likely I would kill a moderate number of people, and then just die because having the memories and instincts of Sesako was not in fact at all the same as me being a great battle cultivator with a hundred years of honed skill and tested brutality?
So yeah, I could try to kill a lot of people so that food that could feed tens of thousands of humans would continue to be fed to a group of ancient, overgrown lizards — even if they were sentient lizards that didn’t make it necessarily a good use of resources.
The thing was, I had always wanted to use an important part of the resources I had in a way that benefit people who weren’t in any way connected to me, just because they were living people who would suffer or be happy, and who fell in love like I did, and perhaps enjoyed stories like I did, and who were deeply fascinated by things that I perhaps had never even heard about.
In my mind a part of being a good person means doing something for the common good, for everyone alive. Not necessarily doing everything in your power, but something non-trivial.
By normal standards Sesako was a very good person. He was selflessly focused on what was good for his nation, for his friends, and for those who he personally cared for.
He was ridiculously brave, hard working, disciplined, and he was generally generous and kind to those beneath him. He took his duties seriously.
All of these things are extremely important. And I admired him for them.
But it seemed like Sesako had nothing of that thing in him which I had in me, that made me care about someone, no matter who they were, and no matter whether I would ever even hear about them, just because they were alive and able to think and feel.
And that thing was a really important thing.
I could do more for people in general if I left. That was why I wasn’t doing an evil act by turning my back on Yatamo, and on Sesako’s goals, friends and desires.
This line of thought did not wholly satisfy me. I knew I was thinking in ugly circles. I again and again made excuses for myself and for my plan to abandon the place.
But whether I felt guilty or not, I was going to leave.
Flying, fucking flying!
I’m fucking flying!
Dying apparently wasn’t too bad.
I mean, it wasn’t for me. It probably would suck for you as much as expected. But I was one of the lucky few (or maybe most of us are, how would we know?) who was reborn somewhere that I could break the laws of physics.
The motion of the flight was effortless, controlled by those instincts that I got from the body.
Despite the hurry I felt in, I was having too much fun to really push the pace, so it took a bit more than two hours for me to reach the capital city.
As I came close, I finally was able to see the enemy ‘fleet’.
I can officially say, I was glad that I wasn’t going to be fighting that thing.
It looked like a floating volcano a mile high, ten miles circumference. It glowed red and huge plumes of smoke and steam were constantly puffed out from the cone.
How the fuck did the emperor do that?
All around the base of the mountain that slowly floated towards the city were tens of thousands of what looked like hot air balloons to provide buoyancy. There were a few ships sailing around it, as outer scouts, but the island itself seemed to be sufficient to move the occupying army.
It was enough land that while they’d still be at a modest disadvantage the emperor’s cultivators would be able to draw on and brace themselves with giant ley lines.
And I had the thought, ‘if only it could be destroyed…’. The thought seemed to be dragged out of that part of me that was still the man I’d replaced, an agonized moan of despair.
With well prepared defenses, it was simply not plausible for a group of external cultivators working from the deck of a ship to overcome a system of warding towers, not without an advantage in power, numbers, and resources substantially greater than twenty to one.
With the emperor’s giant floating island, and a great deal of patience, even odds of three to one would eventually triumph, and according to the spies in the harbor where the invasion fleet had been assembled, the force here included more than twenty sorcerers who had achieved a profound soul, five thousand with purified cores, and many tens of thousands with golden cores.
The cream of a continent, gathered together, and thrown into war against a single small island seated in the northern seas.
Jesus Fucking Christ.
I was glad it wasn’t going to be my job to fight this bunch.
Sesako probably would have gotten killed bad and been very dead if he had successfully unlocked the celestial rank, the fourth dantian, greater power than anyone but the emperor.
His tower was set high above the city, and there were thirty other similarly high towers, built similarly out of white marble, with runes etched in entrancing swirls around and around the external surface. The wardings and magic stored in them was an essential part of the defensive structure of the city.
On the other hand, the walls that were always a central part of fortifications in our world from the beginning of time straight up through world war one were completely absent. They also weren’t anywhere in Sesako’s memories — not even in his memory of history.
Walls simply weren’t something they did here.
Top level combatants had always been able to fly during the evolution of military systems, so combat looked different. Towers were still useful, because they were a place that looked out over the terrain where lots of wardings, equipment and magical batteries could be stored, and thus they provided a force multiplier, but a long fence of stone that anyone who'd awakened their spark and started concentrating their chi could hop over?
The city was delicately pretty — tree lined avenues, fine palaces, endless rows of tall brick buildings for the mass of the population.
The decorative scheme of the city didn’t quite match anything I’d ever seen. The buildings themselves were square and arranged in blocks, though the city as a whole formed a rough triangle inscribed in a circle of twenty great towers — this was a defensive measure, with one side of the triangle directly out onto the bay. However, the rooftops of the larger and more ornamental buildings had some great horns rising out of them, and a layering of levels that looked vaguely Japanese, but not quite.
It struck me suddenly as rather obvious that the decoration would not be describable easily in terms of the decorative schemes of earth, just like the Eastern styles in Japan were simply expressing a different vernacular of public architecture than Gothic churches and Baroque palaces of Europe, and once again the architectural schemes of India or the Aztecs were simply different.
The city itself was large and spacious, with a population of one and a half million that was stuck in my head with the tones of an old well memorized figure.
As I came near the tower I felt a buzz as the wards noted me, and recognized me as ‘Sesako’.
Get in. Grab all his stuff. Now my stuff. Get out.
The power emanating from the tower felt like the heat from a flaming fire in my magical senses. Ancient stores of magical essence bubbled out through the tower. Thickly constructed magical lines connected this tower to the others in the circle, and the ten set in another geometric pattern within the city itself. Like pipelines that could shift the stored power between the different towers to support whichever one was falling most heavily under attack.
The tower was humming, eager, full of vigor, and ready to fight under the command of its master.
A master who would not be there.
And then… a deeply unpleasant reality met me as I alighted on the top of the tower — following instinct, that was how he always entered and left his domain.
A quite pretty girl rushed out of its door onto the circular balcony as I reached it, dark hair, ivory skin, aristocratic nose, lips that made you think of music. She looked by the standards of earth to be college aged, maybe twenty or twenty one.
The detailed thoughts and memories that Sesako had about this girl flooded my mind.
She was his apprentice. Among other points: She was actually a little over thirty, so older than I was, or had been before I died. Hinete. She was not particularly powerful, and wasn’t advancing quickly to the point where she could break open her second dantian, but she was beyond brilliant with enchanting — that was what they called carving runes into objects that could be used to cast spells.
Sesako seemed to have a bit of a crush on her, but he mostly ignored it, both because he saw himself as mostly an asexual tool of his own deep goals — at least ever since a disastrous relationship when he was quite young (by which he meant his early forties), and perhaps more importantly, because the Yatamo culture viewed mentorship and apprenticeship relationships as almost sacred.
Note: They did not think that relationships between superiors and subordinates were generally unacceptable, a boss marrying his secretary, or even just sleeping with her on the side as his mistress, would seem perfectly normal to them. It was specifically teaching relationships which they viewed as serious in this way.
Hinete hurled herself with magically propelled force against the man who she believed to be Sesako, wrapping her arms around me and sobbing. As she buried her face in my shoulder she said, “Dead — I was sure you died. You were going to use that ritual — I thought you died.”
This was uncomfortable. And, uh, I didn’t really think it would be terribly politic if I just told her that he had.
“Stupid.” She angrily punched me. “Stupid.” Punched me again. “Stupid — don’t ever. Why didn’t you take me with you? — did it work?”
Ummmm… no, totally did not.
I really didn’t know what to say.
“Tomorrow morning. You cut it close.” She glanced towards the harbor with a flash of fear in her eyes mixed with determination. “They’ll be here tomorrow morning.”
I backed away from her awkwardly.
Hinete looked at me with her heart in her eyes. Of course it wasn’t me who she really was looking at — I was very aware that I was pretending to be someone who she cared for. A pretty girl hugging me like that made my hormones flood, but it would be wrong to pretend to her that I was Sesako in hopes of… something.
Anyway, I had to leave.
Get in. Get stuff. Get out.
One should always stick to the plan.
She started babbling, “I’ve tried to be useful — improving the wards for the tower — I had to undo the music creator we made last year. The mana flow into it Interfered with one of the cross stabilization patterns. You’d always been a bit unsure about how it would fit in with the defensive set, so I checked — I worked on the heavy hurlers for Fitzuki. Oh, and I helped update with more recent spells those old hurlers the council of clans built after independence to send out fighting teams instead of stones.”
I stared at her. Uh, good job.
It stood on the tip of my tongue. Sesako’s instincts again. He tended to praise his students effusively when they did well, even though he sort of suspected he might be able to push them further if he became the sort of cold brilliant teacher who the students were desperate to win an occasional, rare, nod of approval from.
“Everyone needs you.” Hinete added. “They asked, asked and asked where you were. All I said is that it was ‘important’. Fitzuki came by three times. Himself, not just sending messengers. And I think Kisako suspects that you deserted.”
The look she gave me was a warm smile full of trust, of conviction, of unshakeable belief in me. As though now that I — Sesako — was back, somehow we’d be able to stop that giant floating island.
“They all should flee.” My voice was cold and hoarse.
As the girl blinked at me, I stepped around her and into past the decorative heavy wooden door, painted on every inch with runes into the tower. “I must go to the storehouse, immediately.”
“Where were you? Was it really that ritual, to —”
I rushed down the stairs.
She shouted down after me, “Sesako — let me help. I beg you. Just let me help. I only want to —”
The whole tower on the inside seemed to be made out of a single piece of some marble, except it was not actually marble. Sort of like a giant hollow tooth.
Lines of runes curving around the staircase that went through the center of the tower were carved into the walls, and at each flight, the hall went off in two directions, with doors on either side.
The storeroom, with the vast amounts of gold, potions, pills, swords, armors, ingredients for experiments, and dozens of the music playing devices that Sesako enchanted as a hobby was at the bottom.
It was guaded by a big fucking door. Layers and layers of steel and a variety of other hard metals with enchantments carved into each bar. The cultivators here had easy access to very high temperatures, so despite not pushing scientific knowledge in general beyond a medieval level, they’d experimented extensively with high temperature metallurgy, and the ways to infuse chi into the metals.
I kind of suspected this door would be fine if you had a main battle tank pound at it for an hour or two.
But as I was the ‘true’ — ha! — owner of the tower, the magic recognized me, and with a push of the telekinetic power I’d gotten along with the ability to fly, I instinctually pressed the giant double door — each side weighing several tons — open.
There was an emotion in my gut, like something deep inside me was demanding I go up and hug that girl and tell her that I’d do what it took, and that she should stop worrying because she would be safe. I should do anything no matter how horrifying or dangerous to protect her, to protect the great one, to save the city and… to defeat that murderous bastard, the emperor.
These were not my thoughts.
Some part of Sesako was still alive, and that part desperately wanted me to fulfill his obligations, and to take care of those who he loved.
I slammed the door to the storeroom closed.
Was there a way to properly lock it now? I pressed my hand on the doorway by instinct. And instinct called forth a few sentences of gibberish, as I traced a motion with my fingertips over the surface of the door.
This shaped power, pulling for the third dantian, the profound one in my gut.
The fourth dantian was present, opened, the crimson power moved through it. I felt that, but could not control it.
And the door was locked.
So long as I willed it, no one else could enter this room, without destroying the walls and doors, which task would prove neither easy, nor cheap.
I had a sensation of panic.
She is not my apprentice. She is not.
This is not my war.
This is not my city.
These are not my purposes.
I will not serve my values by dying here.
See it was that simple. I had no duty towards these people, and —
It was easier before I met the girl. They weren’t really people then, just a mass of individuals. Now I’d met someone who was a specific individual who was counting on Sesako, trusting Sesako, believing that somehow Sesako would magically solve all their problems — he was famous for his brilliance, his capability, for opening his third dantian and gaining the extremely rare profound soul at a younger age than anyone else in the history of the island.
Damn, damn, damn.
It was like that yellow van, with a phone number and a promise of delivery hurtling towards me again.
I wasn’t going to get hit again.
There was a desperate panicked readiness to do anything necessary to survive in my guts. Didn’t matter. Fuck her. Fuck them all. I wasn’t going to die again.
I… I didn’t really recognize those thoughts as my own either, but I knew they were coming from the ‘me’ side, not the ‘Sesako’ side.
So instead of thinking, I looked around the rich walnut shelves and shelves and shelves, all stuffed with money, and things you could use to buy money.
I really wasn’t being selfish. I mean I was, but I was also going to act selflessly.
When I got wherever I was going, the portion of this pile that I’d be able to carry would be able to feed tens of thousands of hungry people for a couple of years, or maybe I’d buy pills to help thousands of people awaken their magical sparks. Or maybe I could hire several healers for years to cure diseases among the very poor.
Cause neutrality was a principle that I tried to use. My goal was to do the most good for other people, and not to do it in any particular way. Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, changing broken governmental systems, engaging in medical research, or working to prepare the world for future pandemics — I thought that each of these should be judged by the same criteria of what would make the biggest difference.
Anyway, even if whatever I eventually ended up doing wasn’t a perfect choice, it would be worth doing, because, no matter what cause I spent the money on, it would be better than just having endless piles of stuff sit in a tower.
Unless I accidentally caused a catastrophe of course.
I first grabbed the four magical bags that could store objects in some sort of hammerspace.
No… they were just bigger on the inside, not a real extra dimensional space. They also were made with heavy metal wiring, because the weight didn’t go away, just the size.
I opened several big chests pressed against the wall that were made out of a cold gray metal that glittered oddly in the light. In each case there wasn’t actually a physical lock that could be seen, instead there was a line sealed shut with spellwork that only responded to something in my magical signature. I wondered if it was probing DNA, but the memories Sesako had of how the spell worked just told me that it reliably identified the cultivator but he didn’t know in super low level details how it worked. Identical twins however could sometimes get through these wards, so that was a point for the DNA guess.
It popped open, with a hiss of air escaping
That was a lot of gold.
Anyway, there were also hundreds of cut jewels that had not yet been inscribed by enchanters. Bags and bags of them.
Fucking cultivators, I chuckled to myself. Always trying to get as much money as they could.
I started to get into the spirit of the thing, it was kind of like being Robin Hood.
Apparently being one of the greatest cultivators of a powerful trading nation was a good gig.
I filled up two of the expanding bags with the pile of coins from the chests— these bags only expanded the space by a factor of fifty, not an infinite amount. And they weren’t that big anyway.
Handful of gold, shovel it in. Shovel another handful. Another handful.
Lotsa, lotsa gold.
For some reason I started humming, “I've got to be a macho, macho man.”
As I worked I thought about what I would do with the money: It was a core idea in the group that I’d been part of on earth, before I died, that some ways of doing good were vastly more effective than other ways, and that if you actually were focused on changing the life of other people, rather than making yourself feel better, it was important to figure out what approaches to making lives better would help the largest number of people the biggest amount with the limited resources you had.
When one quarter filled with gold, the first bag weighed nearly a ton. No, really. Two thousand pounds.
Gold is extremely dense, so there actually was way more room in the bag, but this was close to the maximum weight that the bag could carry without any risk of the fibers snapping.
I then stuffed in on top of the gold an entire bookshelf filled with rare old books that all looked as fresh as if the manuscript copier had finished scribbling on them yesterday.
The books took up way more space, weighed way less, and were worth a lot of money, but much less than the gold.
Magically enhanced strength is very cool. I mean Sesako’s arms didn’t look like he went to the gym. Just firm and healthy. But he could lift a ton without a problem.
Well that was a start to ransacking the place.
I supposed the first thing I would do would be to flee to the second big continent. The one without the empire, and that was politically fragmented into five major states and thirty or so smaller units.
There was a country with lots of trade connections to Yatamo that seemed to be fairly rich due to the trade, but bordering lots of countries that were very poor. I’d go there and spend at least two months just talking to people before I made any large irreversible decisions about what to do with this big gold pile.
What were the biggest problems in the world? What were the ways that I could use the rare and intense power I now had to earn the most money by doing useful positive sum actions, rather than hiring out my magical ability as a mercenary whose job was to kill, destroy, and in strict static terms make the world a worse place.
There wasn’t a huge hurry to deploy the resources I’d have as quickly as possible, because while now was the only time I could help someone dying from a curable illness today, there would be someone else dying tomorrow, and while my goal was to stop people from starving, I had no particular reason to care which person was saved, so long as I saved as many people as I possibly could.
With both bags full I hefted them up.
In a general way I remembered from Sesako’s memories that these bags were so hideously expensive not because of the difficulty of the space expansion enchantments, but because of the difficulty of enchanting the materials so that they could manage the enormous concentrated weight without breaking.
This was incredibly fun: It felt like I'd just picked up a moderately heavy bag full of groceries — absolutely no problem to hold.
Instinct had gotten me this far, and I remembered that when he was carrying these bags, Sesako would loop them on his belt. So I did so, despite knowing that the weight would rip any fabric apart — and it would this fabric, except I instinctively started cycling some of the purple power in my second dantian — this was not sufficiently difficult to require the blue coded power of the third dantian, into the belt, so that I felt most of the weight on my hips, rather than the clothes feeling it.
After this I went through the rest of the store house, feeling calmer and happier as I went.
Packages of potions in foam like boxes, carefully designed to keep the glass vials from bumping against each other.
The bag I was putting them in was different from the other bags, less room in it, but with charms that dampened momentum.
If someone drank these potions they would get a burst of magical power — and of course they were blue. The red potions healed wounds, and restored blood. And purple potions did a bit of both.
Of course the color scheme matched the standard scheme in games.
Was any of this real — or was the simulation hypothesis correct, and was my presence here proof of that?
And should that question change my plans in any way?
Well cogito ergo sum.
So I existed.
And the only reasonable thing to do was to assume that everyone else in this world existed, and had experiences like my own, so whatever the underlying metaphysics of everything it was a worthy goal to try to help them live better, happier, more thriving and satisfying lives. To aid them in achieving their own goals as they understood it. To give them the power to control their own lives.
Basically to do good.
Potions, and piles of powder, bags of reagents, several lead boxes filled with what I was pretty sure was enriched uranium based on the memories Sesako had of it.
Magically modified deep metal. It made those who were not powerful sick, and it had a few weird niche uses, but not many. Sesako had bought some to experiment with a few decades ago, but forgotten about it when his interests had shifted elsewhere.
Another bag was filled with pills for helping cultivators break through the barriers in their development.
This bag had been enchanted so that each container with the glowing magical pills would be kept very far away from the others in the bag, no matter how the bag got squeezed or pressed — apparently if they got too close together they might blow up, or equally bad, lose potency.
In the end the stuff in that bag weighed less than thirty pounds, but it was probably as valuable in financial terms as the huge piles of gold in the two heavy bags.
Objects with layered enchantments could not be put in the space expansion bags, because their enchantments would interfere with the complex enchantments on the bag itself. That was also probably why the store room was its real physical size.
It was a big circular room, and I could feel running around the walls the thrumming of an enormous amount of raw power pulled up from the earth itself, unshaped by having been cycled through the dantians of a human cultivator.
This big circle of power I knew was directly underneath the leafy gardens around the tower.
I donned the most expensive — but not the most useful — suit of armor in the room, and attached three swords to the belt, and a variety of small, complicated enchanted devices that could sell decently well. I also grabbed to hold in my arms a long rectangular device that was basically a small cannon that used magic instead of gunpowder.
A phrase echoed through my head about how one must never create an enchanted device that drew directly on the power of the cultivator using it.
I looked around, scanning the room, trying to think of anything else I should grab. There was a pile of enchanted rings sitting out on a cushion, and I stuffed as many of them onto my fingers as I could manage.
Many of the enchantments on them conflicted, and it required an ongoing effort of magical balancing to keep the whole thing from exploding out. Whatever, I wasn’t planning to fight anyone, just sell this stuff.
One more look around.
Nothing else that jumped to mind as something I could successfully carry and sell.
A damned pity.
All of this was going to be destroyed or stolen by the emperor that was invading, and go to no good use. It would simply end up in the storehouse of another magically empowered noble who had no particular concern for the ordinary little people, and the lives they led.
I was doing the right thing.
Their wars were with each other; my war was with the ways the world itself was flawed.
I returned to the heavy door, removed the warding I’d placed on it which made it impermeable to anyone but me, and started up the stairs, weighted down only slightly by the two tons of extra weight hanging off of my belt.
Magic was cool. And I was going to have years, and years, and years to explore and use all the features of it.
Hinete sat on the stairs at the first landing.
She looked… lost. Disconsolate. “Sesako… is this because — is there any way I can help? — my life is worth nothing if it might save the great ones. If we can defeat that thing — just talk to me. Sesako, please…”
The pretty appealing face, rosy lips, and the desperation that arose again.
Whatever was left of Sesako was kicking and screaming at the thought of abandoning Hinete.
Maybe I could… invite her to come with me.
She was a brilliant enchantress already… The runic structures and devices she made could be sold for large sums, and perhaps she could help figure out some solution to the deeper problems that made the lives of the poor and non-magical miserable. I could —
I opened my mouth.
It was like I’d been kicked in the head.
That bit of Sesako left in me screamed at the thought of telling her that I… he… whatever… was a traitor. Of asking Hinete to be a traitor with him.
Such words could not be said.
Well then, I’d leave her behind, as guilty as I felt about leaving her, leaving this whole city, leaving all of this behind.
Her lips trembled. There were tears in her eyes. She said, “Sesako, please tell me. I can bear it.”
Without saying anything to her, I walked past the girl, and up the stairs to the roof of the tower.
She did not follow me.
I was glad.
Each step felt leaden.
But I needed to be far away from here before tomorrow morning. The giant island would soon be close enough that the cultivators could use it as their base to bombard the city.
I just wished I hadn’t met any of them.
I just wished that I hadn’t had to meet Hinete.
She made them seem like real people to me, rather than abstractions, statistics and numbers.
She was one person, I’d be able to help millions. It was like a trolley problem.
And that triggered my other memory — my least favorite memory from earth.
Loud car horn. Squealing brakes.
An instant of realization that I had made a fatal mistake.
And then nothing.
I didn’t want to die. If wanting desperately to live made me a coward, it made me a coward.
Anyways I couldn’t save this country from its returning feudal lord, not even if I tried as hard as I could.
I stepped out onto the balcony at the top of the tower, and I placed my foot on a little ledge in the balcony to leap upwards.
And I could not do it.
I tried to leap again.
I suddenly felt full of anger and rage.
An anger and rage that was not my own.
And a voice that was not my own sounded in my own thoughts, “I’ll not! You worthless craven cur! You scum! You cowardly cancerous vermin. YOU. SHALL. NOT. WIN.”
And suddenly the body I inhabited moved again, stepping away from the edge of the tower rooftop, and turning back to the door down. He stripped off the clashing rings as he stepped, dropping them to clink on the floor.
I could do nothing.
Sesako had control of his body again.
The rage that Sesako had used to force the parasitic ghost away from control of his body thrummed in every vein, limb, and artery.
His heart pounded.
That despicably cowardly— That vile. That craven. The gutless. That —
He’d destroy him, annihilate him, pulverize and expel him.
Soon as he had sufficient leisure and an absence of other demanding duties, he would torture and torment the parasitic spirit, and then he would destroy it.
Every last, small, tiny fragment of its residence in his person would be removed like the crabbed cancer it was.
Ensure that this threat never, ever could return — that he would always keep control over himself.
But in the beneath of Sesako’s anger was terror.
Though he was a cultivator of merely a hundred and fifteen years of age, he was one of the great Profound Souls of the world. Sesako was young for one who had opened his fourth dantian and achieved the profound soul, and he was no stranger to fear.
Sesako was a man whose sole determination was to be worthy, and to succeed against a world that was unkind, and often vicious. But at times he wondered: Was he sufficient?
He had such tasks placed upon the serving table of life and spread before him. They were difficult. And he feared that he was unworthy of his position, of the friendship which the matriarch of the Great Ones had given him. Those who he had been honored to call mentor had been amongst the great of the world, Akine, Takue, and Fitzuki. Three of the seven had guided his progress to his current talents.
And yet, was he worthy?
If another could seize control of his honed mind, how could he be worthy?
Sesako did not doubt that he was great and talented, but he feared that his talents would not be enough, for the tests of the world did not care to adjust themselves to his skill level. Life might happily hand a man a test he could not master, that where there was no possibility of victory, and then he would be dead.
Dead and those he loved would have lost their own hopes of victory.
Firmly and without excessive haste Sesako walked to his meditation room.
What had happened during the ritual to force open the fourth dantian that had allowed his body to be occupied by another mind?
Sesako’s expectation when he had begun the ritual had been simple: Death.
Oh — he’d judged that there was a fifteen percent chance that he would be able to guide the collapse of this untested and incompletely modeled ritual sufficiently well that he’d survive it’s failure without any crippling losses, and another fifteen percent chance that he would actually open his fourth dantian, like only one other before him ever had.
Instead he’d been taken control of by a worthless, writhing wraith who intended to abandon his duties, his position, the Great Ones, his nation, and everyone to whom he had promised his faith and protection. All for the sake of spilling his carefully piled up wealth out upon worthless persons to whom he had no connection, no allegiance, and no blood relation.
Yet… though Sesako wished to despise, and judge the man as worthless, there was something in him that could not help but respect him.
He wanted to fix this broken world, to make it unbroken, and he planned to throw whatever he had at the task of helping others simply because they existed and were able to suffer. That was enough reason. It was stupid — they had no claim on him. But it was impossible to actually, when he thought about it, despise a man who would give up his own resources simply so that others were happier.
It was open.
The fourth dantian was open!
Sesako sat down on the cushion in his meditation room filled with thousands of thin strands of paper on which the formulas for workings that would enhance the flow of chi had been inscribed. Everything about the room had been designed by the work of generations of cultivators with either complete or profound souls to enhance the flow of power.
He was only vaguely aware of it in his excitement.
The crimson power bubbled through the dantian, mixing around and around, building up. He tried to draw on it, to infuse it into the rest of his body, so he could begin to develop the fourth foundation.
It was impossible — to begin cycling this slowly burbling power could not be done while he kept the power in the blue profound dantian from spilling over madly and possibly fatally.
Sesako was not worried at first.
He was no stranger to difficult problems, to the struggle of seeing ways to make power flow that was different from its natural tendency. He had not become the youngest master of a profound soul in many hundred years in an instant.
Yet after twenty minutes a foul frustration began to build.
This felt different, as though there was a barrier that was perhaps more than simply conceptual to using all four powers at once.
So far as the world knew, only one man — the emperor — had opened his fourth dantian. And he had within twenty years gone from an obscure cultivator, cultivating in his mountain heights, to the ruler of an entire continent.
It was possible.
But not possible before tomorrow morning. He had made no progress.
There was no time.
Distant sensations spiked through his stomach, his chest, numbing his fingers and making his cheeks cold.
Sesako ignored that.
Power now. Needed.
But rage did not unlock the dantian. It had taken him three years after he opened his third dantian to fully master it. The fourth by expectation ought to take at least ten.
He turned his attention to the parasite.
To the body thief. To the wastrel who intended to spill all that Sesako was and owned away, like precious water into an endless desert.
It was a simple fact that there would always be poor and starving people, and if you can’t fix the problem, what was the point of destroying yourself to make it slightly better?
There was a set of barely sensible feelings, hidden thoughts, that existing that ought to have no existence.
It was there.
A sort of buzzing or itching that was soft, but it grew in intensity. In just the twenty minutes he’d struggled to access and control the crimson power in his fourth dantian, that itching had grown.
The problem came when Sesako attempted to set bounds, spells upon himself, enchantments on his own mind to ensure that the discordant note would never sing over his noble music again.
He worked at it. And worked at it some more.
And yet again stymied.
Like trying to grasp a gusting wind, or make a moonbeam into a physical thing.
Sesako’s confidence in his eventual success was undimmed. If he spent enough time — time measured in months rather than minutes — he could discover a more sure method than the simple superiority of his will over that of the other to lock him away forever.
No time. Damn. Damn. Damn.
That floating volcano, a mile high, a constructed thing of vast scope, belching vast clouds of steam.
This ritual, which had so far given him no addition to his destructive or defensive capacities, took three days of unconsciousness.
What had happened during that time which allowed this odd, despicable, and damnable creature to take a thankfully temporary control over the person of a grand cultivator?
The next task before he went out to confer with the Fitzuki upon what his duties were to be during the defense was to talk to Hinete and correct… whatever misapprehension she was under about his plans.
She was neither in their shared workshop nor in their private one. Sesako checked the dining room, knocked on her door, and then finally looked in the library — where she actually was.
A mournful tune of sitar music played from one of the musical stones they both delighted in enchanting.
It was the achingly beautiful song of loss and hope that she’d recorded when her uncle, Gakonga had played before the Great Ones for the summer solstice two years prior.
Sesako’s throat constricted. He remembered why it all mattered once more.
Her eyes lit up upon seeing him enter the room.
At first he thought — hoped — that she would hurl herself into his arms again, like she had when he had been under the control of the cancer.
Instead she stood off, and inclined her head. “Milord, have your plans changed, might I help you in some way?”
Emotion choked Sesako.
He felt an odd shame, but he still had to tell her.
She needed to know, in case the thief took control once more over his body. “Hinete, something happened to me which —”
She threw her arms around him suddenly. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“Whatever for?” He rubbed her back.
“I don’t know — you looked so odd. So different. But now you… you look like you. What was — I saw the scrolls. I know you tried to open the fourth dantian, what —”
“Something went awry during my attempt to achieve a breakthrough, and another spirit took control over my body.”
Voice quiet. Calm. Clear.
It took a dozen breaths before Hinete stiffened and drew back from him.
She looked at him with wide, scared, alert eyes. “But…”
“Now I am wholly myself. But I fear there is some possibility that the imposter may regain control — he meant to flee. To steal my wealth and my person, and flee the war.”
She pressed her hand to her mouth.
“You must understand — I shall need your help to lock away in the store room as much of what I own as possible, so that even if one day, by some slight chance, he steals my body, he will not be able to steal from those I care about that fortune — come.”
There was a slight unfamiliar sense of guilt as he led Hinete down to the storehouse that made Sesako angry at himself: There were many tasks which only a cultivator with the third dantian open could achieve, and he was particularly skilled at doing these tasks. The fees from such efforts were great and enormous fortune had been the result. It was his. He had every right to enjoy that which he had worked for. He was not obligated to give it to any one else. If he did not want to, that was his right.
Sesako knew how to construct a locking enchantment which would key the storage room’s lock to Hinete instead of himself. Obviously he could given time and effort still break through, but it would take at least an hour or two, and he was quite confident the imposter, if he ever gained control again, would flee as quickly as possible — and anyway, even with shared instincts, that ratlike cancer in his mind was less skilled, and less… intelligent than Sesako.
Not that any of this would matter — the likeliest fate was that he would destroy that which could be destroyed before the city was taken, and that which could not be destroyed would be eventually recovered by the emperor.
As they went down the stairs, Hinete asked, half breathless, “But did it work — are you a celestial now?”
Sesako grimaced. “Only to a half extent. I have opened the dantian, but I cannot access the power, and I have no time to experiment sufficiently to develop the skill to use it in battle. I knew this was likely when I attempted the ritual, but the difficulty is even greater than I expected — you recall when you fully opened your first dantian, and how simply because the power was there, it took time before you could use it.” Damn, damn, damn. “Tomorrow morning. We only have until then. If only…”
She pressed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
He knew that she believed in him. She believed that he would do his best, and that his best would be enough.
Sesako only believed that he would do his best.
They returned to the storeroom, and he just tossed the expanded sacks onto the floor. There was not really time to put everything carefully back where it belonged and undo the mess that the other had done.
He handed the pouch with the potions to Hinete. He mostly made them for sale, since they were of little use to him, as a profound soul could gather and maintain energies vastly greater than what could be stored and stoppered in a potion.
But it was only to the seven profound souls of the island that these potions were useless. Those infused with the blue energy of the third dantian were part of his duty to make, because they were strong enough that even a purified core with the second dantian and the purple core fully developed could benefit greatly from the additional power.
Rings tossed about in no order. The armor shrugged off and was replaced by a more useful piece. Everything in place.
He’d exhausted an important part of his supplies for the ritual… had it failed or succeeded?
“Everything we will give to the general defense,” Sesako said, and then the two of them began to gather amulets, defensive rings, hurlers, and staves..
“It seemed so odd. How you… he… was acting. But still — if it is an imposter, why was he able to use your power? He locked me out of the store room, neatly as you could, and…” Hinete shuddered.
Sesako wished he could hug her.
She hugged him.
But that was her prerogative, not his.
“Do not worry. He is full of faults, but not a violent man. I do not think he will seek to hurt you — I shall not allow him control again.”
That buzzing, that itch in the back of his mind, where the spectral spirit resided strengthened, minute to minute.
Sesako feared that it would make a lie of his promise.
“So far as it lies within my abilities to prevent,” Sesako amended, “He shall not gain control once more.”
Once they reached the door to the storeroom, Sesako ordered Hinete to place her hand on the door, and he then placed his hand over hers. “Use the Tirposian runic line, I will infuse your spell with power as it goes. Pay attention to the intention that you wish to control the door, that it belongs to you.”
Her eyes were wide and she nibbled her lip. Hinete was anxious and unsettled. But that was one of the things about her — she always tried to do what he told her to, and she always tried her best. It made her an excellent aid at work, and a good apprentice.
The hand motions were not as solid as his own.
She took joy in working out abstruse enchanting problems that even he could barely follow, rather than the endless cycling and repetitive drilling of magical gestures and incantations that were the central part of the training of a cultivator.
He should — for her sake — force her to practice more.
Even though she was by no means bad. Her fingers flickered through each meaning filled symbol, tracing them against the door. The hands were always precise, and vastly faster than any ordinary human could move their fingers. It was just…
She was slower than he’d been the day he unlocked his golden core.
And something in him had gradually come to want her happiness and success greatly, perhaps more than he had ever wanted anything else.
With each stage along the magical journey, the natural human process of aging slowed, until with his profound soul unlocked, Sesako aged less than one year for every ten. Though she progressed steadily — very fast even by the standards of most — Hinte was no exceptional prodigy. It would be several years more before she had reached a point where she could safely tear open the second dantian, and awaken her nascent soul. Each year of delay now would shorten the total length of her life by a year.
There was exceedingly little chance that she would ever achieve the rare profound soul — though how it was achieved was mysterious, even to those who had succeeded in opening their third dantian, and sometimes people who had shown no particular spark in their earlier stages would mysteriously break it open, and most of the most promising prodigies became caught and capped once they had perfected their purified core.
He should still make her work harder.
But it was impossible to deny Hinete the joy she found in enchanting.
Sesako feared that perhaps his selfishness was harming her. Once she had a nascent soul, the proper period of their apprenticeship would be over.
He did not want her to leave his tower. The five years since he had taken her as his new apprentice had been oddly happy and fulfilled. They had become close in a way he simply had not with the other apprentices he had taken.
Now, he thought he’d never been happier than during the last five years.
When Hinete finished the long array of finger drawn symbols, she pressed her hand against the door, and looked over to smile proudly at him.
His heart leapt.
He smiled back at her, and then with a quickly whispered incantation, the spell finished.
The door now saw Hinete as its primary owner, and it would not permit him to enter the room without her presence.
Sesako let out a long sigh. “Thank you. And… Hinete, should I… if I am dead and all hope is lost, promise me that you will take as much of the wealth here as you can, and flee, and go elsewhere and live. Swear to me that you’ll flee rather than dying in a hopeless fight.”
“I can’t… you know I can’t. I can’t leave you. You mean to die.”
“I cannot abandon Her.”
“And I cannot abandon you.” Her face was set and firm. She clenched her hands and jaw, as though she were prepared to endure any sort of tongue lashing or anger or abuse, but on this point she would not budge.
Sesako sighed. “Hinete, please — I am not being arbitrary, nor… you know that you can’t—”
“I am no great fighter. And I will not… I will not charge some brilliant brute with a purified core and a spear. Even if you die, I will not try to die. But I will not flee. Not even if you have died. Not while the great ones still live.”
“But —” Sesako wanted to shake her shoulders. To scream at her. “Please, I would be happier if —”
“This has nothing to do with happiness. We are amongst those blessed by the dragon. We are —”
“Don’t die. You don’t deserve to die. You don’t — and remember, everything in here is yours if I die.”
“But your —”
“I have no children. I have no parents. I have no one but a second cousin who I dislike. But I…” He brushed his hand softly over her cheek. “I care very much for you.”
Her color was high.
“I swear I will not risk myself without a chance of some success.”
“You will take what wealth I own. I will have no argument. And now I must go to confer with the council and the others of the seven.”
She nodded. “Should I continue to work on the wardings, or prepare more of the hurlers, like Fitzuki asked?”
“The hurlers. Fitzuki knows his business — he’s more knowledge of warfare than any other ten of us together.”
She nodded, and then they parted, Sesako to his work, and Hinete to hers.
When Sesako arrived in the vast high ceilinged room in the house of the clans where Fitzuki had established his headquarters, Fitzuki and Kisiko sat there chatting slowly.
“Not dead?” Fitzuki laughed with relief when Sesako approached him and Kisiko. “I’d thought we’d already lost one of us to a crazy nonsense leap. What were you about?”
“Hinete had the impression that you thought I’d decided to abandon us.”
“You? I know you too well for that. But that new apprentice of yours is a pretty creature. Nervous though — oh, I did ask her a great deal about what materials you seem to have taken with you. Confirming my hypothesis. Did it work?”
Before Sesako could answer, Takue entered the room. She had been his master during his apprenticeship when he'd only had a golden core, and he had worked closely with her and Akine once he’d fully developed the purple tinged purified core with the second dantian to get from their conversation hints about how he could achieve a breakthrough to a profound soul.
Takue looked at him, and for a moment Sesako could see the pure relief on her face. “You’re still alive…”
Then immediately she transformed herself once more into the firm and distinguished master of the magical arts. “Profound Sesako, you have been missing during a critical period of days.”
“I attempted a dangerous ritual to gain a power that might have saved us. However, the effort has not given me anything which might aid us tomorrow.”
It seemed like a deeply shameful thing to admit that he’d been possessed for several hours by a different spirit.
That buzz existed in the back of his head, growing slowly stronger, and it scared Sesako. He would triumph. His will had overcome that parasite once before, and it would overcome the will of the cowardly and worthless other every single time.
“Wanted to open the fourth dantian, eh?” Fitzuki rubbed the side of his head. “Ought to have brought someone along to see if they could stabilize the ritual as it failed.”
“The pattern I tried to use did not permit that.”
“Hmmmm.” Fitzuki clapped his hands together twice. “Deuced obnoxious — thought you’d die and didn’t want annoying speeches of goodbye, arguments about whether the military necessity suggested the risk or staying in the circle of the towers.” Fitzuki’s voice rose, with a flash of anger. “Next time, tell me. No matter how great you wish to be. I have been given command to organize this defense as best we might manage and I need to know who amongst us plans to play games.”
He’d spent around twenty years serving under Fitzuki after he’d fully developed his profound soul, in a sort of military apprenticeship now that his power had become great enough to make him an important military weapon. Fitzuki liked war and warfare, and he’d been the perfect teacher in that way. He’d fought endless wars helping those who fought against the emperor for free, and when there wasn’t a war with the empire dripping blood and draining chi, he hired out his talents to whichever king, council of grand cultivators, or master of all that he could survey in Seidne or Eporea was willing to offer the most to gain the services of the man acknowledged by everyone, including the emperor himself, to be the greatest war leader alive.
Despite his own high position, Sesako always felt a deep respect for Fitzuki. And he was more than two hundred years younger. “I shall.”
It took a bit of effort for Sesako to keep his voice firm and confident.
Fitzuki clapped his hand on Sesako’s shoulder, in a familiar yet commanding gesture. “Effort always has its value.”
Now Kisiko smiled at Sesako, “I too consider myself blessed to see that thou hath not perished. But satisfy my curiosity: With what ritual did you make the attempt?”
“A ninth level braided circle structure,” Sesako said laconically. He particularly did not want to describe the details to Kisiko.
“Hmmmmm.” Kisiko said. “I confess then to a sensation of the unexpected at seeing and hearing this good news of your undoubted survival. His great majesty, the emperor once discoursed to me upon the methods by which he was confident that others could not —”
“I don’t want to hear about what that murderous bastard told you.”
Kisiko shrugged and smiled. “I shall respect thy wish.”
While born almost six hundred years ago in a valley in the mountains of Yatamo, Kisiko had lived most of his life in the court of the emperor, and he had married one of the emperor’s daughters. Even after the emperor killed one of the Great Ones during his visit that started the rebellion, Kisiko had stayed in his court, until his wife who'd aged far faster than he had died. Only after that did he return to Yatamo to offer his services as a profound soul to the nation.
Sesako despised him for that continued service to the emperor. And he hated that he would have to admit his own failure to Fitzuki in front of Kisiko.
“I have another report to make that I must tell you.” Voice didn’t waver. Good.
Fitzuki’s face became serious. “Important?”
“I am not reliable at present. When I woke from the failed ritual another spirit had control of my body. He flew back to my tower, and intended to collect as much of the wealth stored in it as possible before fleeing the country.”
“Ah! A second spirit.” Kisiko nodded with interest. “That makes your tale one whose logic matches my own sense of reason and rationality. Thou ought not have made such an attempt without consulting widely upon the matter.”
Simply because there was a chance that Kisiko had some sort of remaining loyalty to the emperor, Sesako never would have asked him.
Fitzuki lapped his hands hard. “Possessed? Details.”
“Well I —”
“How did you regain control?”
“When he went to leap away from the tower, planning to abandon us, betray us, and betray the Great Ones, I was full of rage. In that rage I reached at the power flowing through us, and…” Sesako shrugged. “It was a sort of pulling, a shoving. And then I had control once more.”
“Hmmm. Hmmmm.” Fitzuki gravely stroked his long beard. “You are not certain that you can keep control?”
“No, if you think I cannot serve in the line of battle, and —”
“Nonsense. You are a vital asset. We’ll find a place. And in your tower — but damn. It is the linchpin of the south. And no one else can run the enchantments you’ve placed into it nearly so well. Damn. Hmmmmm.”
“Perhaps another of the seven?” Takue suggested. “And we shall have Akine observe you, and try to purge the other spirit. This is odd, I have never heard of anyone with any significant power being possessed.”
“It is because Profound Sesako strove beyond what was normal.” Kisiko said. “That brave and ambitious man whose desire is to reach beyond the ordinary will find himself in such a place and in such a situation where that which is not ordinary occurs.”
“No,” Fitzuki said. “We’ll staff the other towers next to you with twice the group — Sesako, my dear Sesako.” He pressed his hand against his forehead. “You had some sense that this might work?”
“Yes, though I expected to die.”
“Yeah. Still the odds are so bad against us, that any risk may have been worth taking.” He pulled his hand through his hair. “Still.”
“It is odd. The vibrations in your soul ought to have driven this possessing spirit off,” Takue crossed her legs under her and started levitating at eye level to the taller cultivators around her.
“So this ‘other’, this second mind, planned to take everything you own, and live as high upon your accumulated wealth as a great cultivator can — probably somewhere in Parleia?” Kisiko asked.
“Is that what you would do?” Came Sesako’s snapped reply.
“I certainly would not maintain myself in a line to die in a war which had nothing to do with me.Thou are a fool to expect that he would. Life is filled with far too much entertainment for it to be thrown away lightly — but as each of you can see, I am present. I will fight for the Great Ones also.”
Sesako stared at him. He still had a small suspicion that one day Kisiko would betray them. “No,” Sesako said at last. “His actual plan was to try to figure out the best way to help the peasants in Diet Vinh.”
“The spirit originated in Diet Vinh?”
“No, he chose that simply because they seem to be the poorest peasants.”
Fitzuki laughed. “I suppose if you want to help peasants it makes sense to pick the poorest ones.”
Sesako grunted. “It's all pointless anyways. Trying to help them — the world is organized in such a way that there will always be poor people. If you can’t figure out a way to change the very nature of reality, giving money to the poor is simply pouring a flood of water into an endless desert.”
“This fellow got to you a bit?” Fitzuki grinned at him.
“My duty is to myself, those who I love, and my nation — I fulfill my duty, he is a worthless thief who has no right to judge me for not doing something stupid and pointless.”
“So you think he should focus on trying to change how the world is organized, so that there are fewer poor people, rather than trying to directly give starving peasants food?” Fitzuki’s voice was sardonic and laughing.
“That is not what I said —”
Kisiko said, “It certainly is not impossible to make things so that they are better or worse — Behold: Yatamo is a blessed land where the life of the peasant simply is better than in Diet Vinh, or Paralei. If a man could change those sadly managed nations, or if they could make those whose leadership are honorable and capable be ruled yet better, they would be doing something worthwhile and permanent.”
“I agree,” Fitzuki said, “I never simply fought for the group who paid me the most money. I always wanted to have a sense that I was on a side which I would honestly prefer to win.”
“Why are you defending a thief,” Takue said. “Besides, there are already too many people in the world, and especially too many peasants. Simply over the three hundred years I’ve lived, I’ve seen the expansion of farmlands, terracing and the use of deeper plows. Marshes drained, forests cut down, and places full of animals destroyed. I do not wish to help feed them, not unless we can control their numbers. Otherwise the world itself will slowly become a worse place.”
With a groan Kisiko pretended to flop backwards in a chair that was not there, and he levitated himself so that he looked down on Takue. “Peasants are as worthy of concern as any with an awakened spark. The life of one who tills the ground, his joys, his loves, his children — that humble life is worth the same as your life. I say unto thee: To live, to be a human, that is a grand and a wonderful thing.”
“I know that village where you were born. It was the boundary of cultivation then, and now all the way up the mountain side the trees are destroyed, or turned into ordered and sparse forests for fuel and building material — that is what too many people bring. If I could have my way, we’d keep the population of peasants at a reasonable number.”
“And this is why I am glad thy way is unlikely to ever rule the fates of men.” Kisiko replied.
“Enough of this,” Fitzuki said sharply. “Sesako, can you hold the tower tomorrow despite your new friend?”
“I despise him. But I can hold the tower. His will is weaker than mine, and I shall remain in control.”
“Tetchy, eh?” Fitzuki laughed. “I’ll tell you why you dislike this fellow. You are scared that he is right and you ought to be doing something that you just don’t want to, and you don’t like the idea of feeling as though you aren’t perfect.” Fitzuki shrugged his shoulders. “Hold the tower, but tell that pretty apprentice to immediately send a message if you disappear, so that a team can quickly be sent to replace you, and manage what can be managed.”
“The tower is prepared for battle. I always keep it prepared for battle. As a great warrior told me once, a good warrior prepares before the battle, a great warrior rests, because he has already prepared.”
Fitzuki laughed. “Quoting me back to me. No, we have not informed the Great One of the situation. It was decided it ought to be you who speaks to Her.”
“Oh.” There was that pang in Sesako’s breast. That pain in his stomach. There was no path to victory.
Everything else was swallowed by this simple fact.
Even by sacrificing his own life, and all that he might ever be, Sesako could see no path to victory.