Living in a mansion was a luxury that most merchants were not allowed. Only those that had numerous caravans and shops working for them had that opportunity. Most were content with and busy selling rather than spending.
Thomas Anderson was one of the few that could afford to spend all day and that meant he had a mansion.
It wasn’t an estate like those of Nobles, for he couldn’t own land. Only the building and that meant they had to live within the city. While it wasn’t an estate, there was a generous yard but anything he did with it would be confiscated by either Lord Beaumont and the Crown.
That unreasonable taxation didn’t apply to Nobles, who were allowed to profit from their land.
“What you’re doing is dangerous,” said Thomas, sipping on a cup of tea.
Despite his distressed tone, his expression remained the same.
“Just a grain of sand in a desert. It’s nothing new to me,” said Adrian.
“You’ve abandoned a peaceful life as the spoiled child of a king among merchants. Will you be content with living a life full of bloodshed and mortal peril?” asked Thomas.
“It happens to be the only one that lets me live forever,” he said.
“You’ll live for a thousand years. And what? You’ll spend half of it struggling to get to the next stage to extend your lifespan and the other half fighting for your life. Do you truly wish to live like that?” asked Thomas calmly, now his cup of tea on the small table between them.
They were sitting opposite to each other, on two comfortable chairs that were more along the lines of couches than chairs.
“Yes, I’m intending to do just that. If that means I’ll have to learn from him, so be it,” said Adrian.
“But that thing is a monster!” shouted Thomas, suddenly.
“A monster you made two deals with,” said Adrian, cold as a cucumber.
“I needed it,” Thomas hissed through his teeth.
“And I need a proper Master. One that doesn’t see me as a husband for their daughter,” said Adrian.
“Do as you wish,” said Thomas and he promptly stood up before buckling only a moment after that.
Adrian handed him his cane, which he accepted begrudgingly.
“Don’t worry. I’m not pissed off at you for selling my soul,” said Adrian after he turned around.
“It’s about her, isn’t it?” asked Thomas.
Adrian didn’t answer, for his father already knew it.
“It was to keep you alive,” reasoned Thomas, now his tone softer.
“I thought you saw me as a disposable bargaining chip,” said Adrian, “Since you sold my soul before I was even born.”
“There’s no reasoning with you,” grumbled Thomas and sharply turned around. Supporting most of his weight with his cane, he walked out of the room and made it a point to slam the door shut.
That was the end of it.
At least he hoped it would be.
With how dramatically his father exited the room, Adrian decided to remain in it until his father turned the corner. It would be anticlimactic if he, too, walked out of the room and started walking in the same direction as his father, for their rooms were on the same side of the house.
Right next to each other, in fact.
Or there was a better solution: leaving through the windows.
While he was considerably more durable than mortals, if he landed wrong while jumping down from the second floor, his ankles would most definitely be strained.
But he was confident in himself.
Adrian opened the curtains, looked at the streets below. It was already evening so it was dark outside. The estate had two lamps that were powered by Red Crystals, one of which would last for a month.
It was the equivalent of buying two horses or lizards as a ride every single month, which not many commoners could afford.
For a merchant as rich as Thomas Anderson, especially one that made a deal with the Shadow, it was no challenge. Even if his empire was built upon lies, it was an empire nonetheless.
He could smell fried food from across the street, which was why both Adrian and his father had rooms that faced the other side. While the smell of food was aromatic in moderation, it turned into an unbearable stench in excess.
It was more bearable on the ground as the wind didn’t carry the smell close to them, for there were other buildings that stood between the mansion and the diner.
With one leap, Adrian jumped out the window and floated down to the ground. It wasn’t like flight, but akin to a paper being dropped down to the ground, swinging from side-to-side until he reached the ground.
His feet lightly touched the ground and that was when his clothes as well as the rest of his body collapsed, like the weight he’d been storing away had just returned or as if the slowed-down playback of his fall was returned to its actual speed.
Most of the servants in the house were allowed to leave after seven, excluding the guard that stood watch near the entrance of the house.
To enter the house, you had to walk into a small chamber in which the guard sat and then enter through the door to truly be inside the house, and that was visible in the form of a room protruding from the rest of the mansion with the only visible door on this side.
Adrian didn’t enter the house, though.
Instead, he turned to the streets and pulled up his scarf.
He was planning on meeting his Master so he was already in his disguises: a loose and old white shirt that had gone yellow along with loose black pants, also known as ‘peasant garbs’ by the Nobles.
The only addition on top of that was a red scarf that he used to cover the lower part of his face, including his nose.
The guard’s duty was to keep people out, not keep them in, so there was no need to be sneaky with his escape. He just had to cover his face and no one would bother him.
No one cared what a peasant did if they weren’t stealing or making trouble.
Adrian’s destination was outside Blue Pavilion City, which he would reach after half an hour of light jogging. With how close the mansion was to the edge of the city, it wasn’t difficult to make it there.
The reason was simple.
Adrian’s father made everyone believe that he was a godly herbalist and could find priceless treasures from anywhere, but that was a lie. It all came from the Shadow’s treasury but his father no longer utilized his nonexistent talents after he built his company.
After working up a sweat, Adrian found himself near a river with nothing else in sight but the mountains that loomed in the distance and the moon that illuminated the land. With how nondescript the location was, the Shadow’s Tomb couldn’t be easily discovered.
Adrian didn’t know how his father found it but he did, and while that cost him his soul and mother, it gave him an excellent Master as well as talent in Cultivation.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Adrian jumped into the river and dove to the very bottom.
Instead of hitting the rocky bottom as one would expect, he passed through the illusion and landed in a tunnel that was lit up with torches that burned forever.
While dry, the stones that made up the corridor were round and smooth, worn from ages of water currents before the tomb was built. To his left was a dead end and to his right, the tunnel continued.
It led him to the Shadow’s abode.
After mere seconds of walking through the tunnel, he got to the end of it. There, at the end, was a cave. It was well-lit by the same endlessly burning torches that lit up the tunnel. Its size was larger than the Arena, which was a large building by most standards.
Gold and Crystals once littered the floor but they’d long since been pushed to the side or taken away by Adrian’s father. Among those many treasures were dozens of Spatial Rings, some capable of perfectly persevering priceless herbs.
Adrian’s Spatial Ring was from this collection but it was the most mundane one, for he couldn’t afford to draw too much attention.
“Ah, you have returned,” said a disembodied and raspy voice, coming from everywhere and nowhere. It was smooth and comfortable to the ears, much like the sweet words of the Devil.
“You’re supposed to teach me,” said Adrian fearlessly.
There was no fear in him, for he knew the Shadow couldn’t do anything to him… yet.
“I must know, child, why are you so intent on jumping into the belly of the beast?” asked the Shadow as it manifested its corporeal body before Adrian, appearing as a cloaked man made of darkness, “You will be mine once your life ends yet you wish to remain by my side even in life.”
Instead of legs, it had tendrils that slithered across the ground and instead of eyes, he had two smoldering cinders for eyes. Its movements were unnatural, as you would expect one that hovered from place to place rather than walking the distance.
His hands, though, were normal and cold as one of them caressed his cheek.
“I’m already in your mouth and you’ve shut your jaw the moment I was born. I just decided to struggle is all,” said Adrian and slapped away the hand, which dissipated into black smoke along with the rest of the Shadow’s body several meters away, now turned away from Adrian.
“So you truly wish to become my Disciple?” asked the Shadow, “Is this a trick you play at? If so, know that no trick can fool me.”
“If it truly was a trick, don’t you think that I’ve already fooled you?” asked Adrian with a snappy chuckle.
“I could strangle you to death here and now. Do not tempt me,” said the Shadow in one breath.
“Even Lord Beaumont would be no match for you, I am sure. But you cannot touch me, can you?” he asked.
“I’ll orchestrate an accident so devastating that you’ll wish you were dead!” said the Shadow.
“Also impossible, as per the terms of your contract,” said Adrian and he casually turned around, grabbed one of the Spatial Rings, and put it onto his finger.
Within it was numerous Jade Slips, each of which let him learn a technique instantly if he were to absorb the information within it but could only be used once before the writings on it disappeared.
Alas, each one took several weeks to absorb.
He wasn’t learning from the Shadow as much as he was using his resources to learn everything by himself.
For now, at least.
“You lack talent. You’ll never reach the Nascent World Genesis Stage,” said the Shadow as it turned into a mass of darkness and floated in front of Adrian, arms crossed.
“I will,” said Adrian nonchalantly.
“I gave you the measly talent of an Outer Disciple of a trashy sect. You truly think you have a chance?” asked the Shadow and once it leaned close to Adrian’s ears, it whispered, “You are destined to fail.”
“Giving and taking talents. That’s something you excel at, no?” asked Adrian as it slapped the mass away, forcing it to dissipate and form inches away, “What’s to say I won’t steal the talent of someone else? You make it sound easy.”
“Child, I’m an immortal,” hissed the Shadow.
“A dead immortal that can’t touch me,” said Adrian as he looked down at his palm, “Meanwhile, I can leave this place and collapse the entrance to your tomb. That means you’ll be locked in here until I die.”
“I’ve rotted in this hole for a thousand years. You think your puny lifespan will faze me?” asked the Shadow, more amused than agitated, “After your life ends, I’ll come back to life and finally take over this world. Doesn’t that pressure you? The mere prospect that your life is the last straw that’s holding me back?”
“Nope,” said Adrian casually as he fumbled through the rest of the Spatial Rings that had formed a mountain, “Cuz I’ll become immortal.”
“I told you, did I not?” asked the Shadow, “Your talent is meager. It’s impossible.”
Adrian paused and stared at it for a minute. No movement and no sound save for his breathing.
“You like gambling,” said Adrian.
“You have nothing of interest,” said the Shadow and grew in size to resemble a giant, as if trying to intimidate him.
That wouldn’t work.
“Not even your soul is yours to sell,” it added.
“I’ll give you this pendant,” said Adrian as he pulled the locket off from his neck.
He tapped a button at the top of it and it snapped open, revealing the painting of a younger Thomas and his wife holding a child. She was a blonde whose hair reached her lower back from the looks of it.
“You want it, right?” asked Adrian.
“Ha! Is that all? The mere last fragment of your mother? Why would I want with that?” asked the Shadow and cackled. It gradually grew louder until it shook the tunnel.
“You think it’ll be yours after I die,” said Adrian and closed the locket. He tightly clutched it in his fist and shook his head, “It won’t be and by then, I assure you that I’ll have collapsed the entrance to this place.”
“You wouldn’t dare lose it,” it said, “It’s her last fragment that does not belong to me.”
Adrian put the locket in his mouth, between his molars and he spoke, “I’ll do it.”
“You can’t collapse the exit!” it shouted.
“You said I wouldn’t be able to reach the Nascent World Genesis Stage. The Soul Refinement Stage is all I need to collapse the entrance,” said Adrian as he pulled the locket out of his mouth, “Then you’ll never get out, even if I die. Just one-hundredth of a soul short to rebirth.”
“Hateful brat,” growled the Shadow and shouted curses for several minutes while flying around the cave with immense speed until he recovered and stopped before Adrian, “What is it you wish to gamble on?”
“On whether I can become immortal,” said Adrian.
“That’s an easy bet to win, for me,” said the Shadow, and its featureless face somehow frowned.
“Not if I have better talent,” he said.
“So you wish to become the greatest prodigy there ever was,” said the Shadow and it shook its head, “Even then, becoming an immortal is difficult. It’ll require more resources than I have and it is more a matter of luck than talent.”
“No, not something as pathetic as you. I won’t die at all. That’s the kind of immortal I want to be,” said Adrian.
Contrary to Adrian’s expectations, the Shadow cackled rather than yell at him.
“You interest me, brat,” it said after it finished, but it shook its head, “That’s not a gamble. That’s a fool’s errand and I’m supposed to give you more talent?”
“It isn’t. It’s extortion that’s being labeled a gamble,” said Adrian.
“Ha!” the Shadow snorted, “I like your style, brat.”
It was calling him a brat instead of a child now.
Was that a good or bad thing?
“Fine, I’ll give you some decent talent. Reach the Nascent World Stage with this and I’ll give you something better. How about it?” asked the Shadow, “If you give up or if you stray from your Martial Path, I’ll take your soul along with that little trinket.”
Adrian extended his hand.
“You… you are gullible,” it said.
“Am I? Or are you?” asked Adrian.
“You don’t know your limits,” it said and after a slight pause, it added as it reached out its hand, “I don’t hate that.”
“But,” added Adrian, “If I do reach it, this trinket will shatter and the soul will disappear.”
The Shadow pulled its arm back.
“What?” asked Adrian, almost annoyed.
“I’m giving you decent talent. That means you can reach it before the age of five hundred,” said the Shadow, “It’s not a challenge. It’s a test of your willpower.”
That was surprisingly fair.
“Fine. I’ll store the fragment within myself and if I die, both my soul and hers will return to you. You can do that, can’t you?” asked Adrian with a raised eyebrow.
“Good, good. Those are good terms,” said the Shadow as it extended its arms again, but just before their hands touched each other, it dissipated and hovered as a black cloud, “But in the meantime, you’ll take this mirror with you.”
“So I can watch your foolish crusade,” explained the Shadow, to which Adrian nodded.
But he was no fool.
“On top of that, you won’t be able to make a deal with anyone that isn’t in this cave,” he said and the Shadow’s form visibly fluttered for a second but it reformed the next second as if he was trying to hide it.
Then their hands grasped each other and they shook once.
The moment they did, they were covered in a sphere of darkness that blocked out the light from the torches. The darkness then entered Adrian and it felt as if they were piercing through every millimeter of his body, invading it but not truly harming nor hurting it.
“You’re on the level of an Inner Disciple now. Use that talent well, brat,” said the Shadow.
“That bargain concluded nicely,” Adrian thought to himself, but the Shadow’s voice reverberated within his head to answer him.
“Indeed, it did,” it said.
What was that?