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48 Cripple

The Devil tapped his fingers on the table. He looked cryptic and deep in thought. "Are you in?"

"Could I make it without Meridians?"

"Yeah, actually. There is a Dao of Mana that doesn't require Meridians. Kirin makes the best example. Don't forget you have Body of the Qilin, now."

Helial clenched his fists. The Devil was right, but Helial had a feeling that the Qilin's Skill could only work as a support, not as a life-changer.

Although he couldn't say where this feeling came from, Helial knew perfectly well that one day Meridians would prove necessary.

"After all," the Devil added after a look at Helial's reaction, "martial arts and physical strength aren't your strong suit. Your Mana Control is. See, your control could be considered top-tier even among the biggest wigs' pupils. Also, what's most terrifying about you is your age. I've already had pupils with such control, but they were way older than you. As an absolute, your Mana Control isn't so ridiculous. It's the fact that you exert it at fifteen that upsets me." The Devil straightened his black bangs, a hint of a smile on his lips. "You're in, then."

Helial thought of Lumia. Lumia was still too weak to stand her ground. He had to stand by her side. How could he abandon her?

He looked about himself.

They were on a clearing. All around them, the moonlight glowed like a milky ocean.

An eerie silence reigned, together with a deathly quiet.

One could only hear the sound of the cutlery that the Devil was still putting on the table.

"Waiting for someone to come cover?"

The Devil stopped and answered: "Kind of."

"I accept your challenge."

The Devil slowly turned. "Well, we have to find out if you're worth it first. I have two conditions," he started, "you pass my test and take a life for me."

When he heard he had to pass a test first, Helial furrowed his eyebrows. He remembered too well Kirin's test, that almost got him killed. That Devil, who inhabited his soul and seemed to have had access to all of his memories, knew that for sure.

The Devil looked indeed amused by the frown he saw on Helial's face, but thought it best to stop his mind from drifting too much.

"Nothing mortal. You're already a cripple, what's fun about killing you? I just need to make sure you have, like, the right attitude. Kyeheheheheh."

"What's at stake?"

"But… didn't the fact that I asked you to kill for me upset you in the slightest?" sneered the Devil as he turned towards Helial, this time completely.

"No," Helial cut short, "it's a fair price to me. Pick anyone but Lumia."

The Devil raised an eyebrow. "Taking one's life so easy a task for a kid?"

Helial set his eyes on the lawn. "I've already killed before. And what's my way out, anyway? A Devil is offering me the chance to get my Meridians back, maybe stronger ones than I had before. A life? It means nothing to me. Everything comes at a price. If these Meridians are worth one life, then I'll do what it takes to get them. I won't underestimate a Devil who's stronger than an Immortal. Let alone if this strength comes from the mere reminiscence of his original power."

The Devil curled up the corners of his mouth in an evil smile. "Looks like you've got some brains in there."

"Kirin. Kirin wouldn't let me go so easily after seeing all the Destruction that's in my Mana Seed because of you. Yeah, you already know why I grasped this two notions." Helial paused for a second and looked up at the sky full of stars. He clenched his fists. "Life and Destruction… you must have killed that shard of my Soul, or I wouldn't have woken up like this. If that Kirin was so strong, a shard of his Soul musn't be weak either. But you were much stronger than that, even in your current form."

The Devil kept gazing at him with a withering smile on his face. He swept his black bangs from his brow and laughed: "Not bad, not bad." He was about to go back to laying the table, but suddenly stopped. "What's at stake, right. Brand-new Meridians. You'll get the Meridians of a Demon, which means the Meridians of a Devil. The only difference is that those of a Devil let you exploit Destruction Skills way better. But they don't let out Life Skills either. This is a complicated matter though, so we'll bring it up again if you pass the test."

Helial looked slightly puzzled by his words, but made no sound and waited for an explanation.

"So, the price that must be paid to access the test is one life. Then you'll take the Mana Oath, and…"

Helial stood up, bit off his left wrist and let some drops of blood pour over his right palm.

Mana began to simmer all around and then twirled across the clearing in a small whirlwind.

Helial's black hair flapped in the wind, his eyes glistening with a divine light.

"Give me that power and I'll take that life for you," Helial cut short.

He finished delivering the Mana Oath and everything around quieted down. The storm died stillborn and the forest sank back into its deathly calm.

The description of a Mana Oath takes longer than its actual procedure. Indeed, it only took Helial a mere second.

A Mana Oath called the forces of nature as witnesses. To break it would mean to be befallen by a devastating calamity along with losing the use of Meridians. It would mean to become a cripple. Not even an Immortal would have broken a Mana Oath too light-mindedly.

"Good," the Devil nodded to Helial's decision. "But I'm not sure you can pass this test. Your nature… well… we'll see. Let's get down to brass tacks."

The Devil waved a hand and suddenly Helial felt an inner turmoil, like an endless desolation spreading inside his Soul.

"I just stretched your Soul's virtual space to the extent of the universe. No big deal, don't worry. It's just for me to test you," the Devil explained. "But first," he sighed, "let's sit down. I may have to break the Oath you just took. I don't wanna trick you. The point is, you're about to get involved in a bigger matter than you imagine…"

The Devil made two chairs appear in front of them. Helial sat down on one of them, his eyebrows furrowed. The kid gently sat down on the other one.

"You'll have to kill one of the people you'll love the most in your entire life."

"No life matters to me but Lumia's."

"Yeah. For now," the Devil shook his head. "This person you'll meet is extremely strong and no less talented than you are. This is no prophecy, just a matter of fact. I master a Divination Technique only possessed by two people in the universe. It allows me to determine one's Dao of Mana. This Technique let me discover that there is a loop in our universe, an error, a neverending recurrence of destiny. The person you'll have to face isn't Lumia, I guarantee you that. As well as I can tell you that you'll end up belonging to the forces of Destruction, one day. When the time comes, you'll be able to feel a love so pure it could heal the solitude of the strongest. And then you'll drop to the depths of darkness. You'll either kill that person, or let that person kill you. Kill her or spare her. Or…"

The Devil paused for a second and then went on, his voice being lower: "Or this will reoccur over and over again, as it already had. Over, and over, and over…" The kid clung his hand on to the pendant that hung from his neck. He sighed as he held it tight. "This legacy," he went on, "is way greater than you could tell."

"So what? I already own the legacy of the lords of Qilins," Helial said.

"How dare you compare that miserable sack of crap to me?! Qilins? Those sacks of cheap crap only exist because Mana didn't know how to shape the shit!

"My legacy is much stronger than a simple Qilin's. I created these Meridians personally. They are my legacy and you must never tell anyone where you got them from. Anyhow, if you're willing to accept this burden, you'll have the chance to erase the loop and finally break free," the Devil concluded.

"I hate destiny's guts. I despise the belief that something bigger determines our lives from behind the scenes. That something pulls our strings and cleanses our sins, our disgrace, our mediocrity. But…"

"You accept?" the Devil interrupted him impatiently.

Helial nodded.

The Devil didn't waste any more time and stood up, shrugging.

"Stand up then, it's time."

Helial stood up. The kid glanced at the sky, as though he could seize the whole universe with one glare.

Skill Activated:

Eyes of Ambition

The clearing disappeared, leaving space to a translucent platform that seemed to be gliding through space.

An uncanny light sparkled io the kid's eyes as his gaze began to glimpse flames soaring through the sky.

"I created this Skill many years ago, almost for fun. It allows me to catch sight of my own ambition. And others' too, if I want to."

The kid's eyes were a tsunami of black flames that engulfed the whole universe, as if in an attempt to swallow it up.

Every plant, plot of earth, mountain or planet was now covered in black flames. Only one recess of the universe was spared.

"Everything burns in the fire of my ambition," the Devil whispered, "yet I reached the very top just to realize that I was about to lose everything. My everything."

The black flames were engulfing the earth and the heavens like the circles of hell, as everything they touched glistened in bright black.
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