A fierce wind howled as it blew at Daniel's back, pushing his body dangerously close to the razor-sharp rocks of the mountainside. Daniel gave an exasperated sigh as he tried his best to fight back.
His whole body was trembling uncontrollably due to the exhaustion, and burning pain had taken over his limbs long ago due to his overexertion. Scarlet blood flowed from his mangled fingers and palms, covering the thick scabs that were forming and cracking in his hand nonstop.
His right arm was hanging uselessly at the side of his body, dangerous hovering over the ground that lied hundreds of meters away. Without being able to properly replenish his Qi, Daniel had lost the capacity to manipulate his crippled arm not long after he had started the climb.
He had been climbing with only his left arm and his legs ever since. To his desperation, he felt that if he didn't finish the climb soon, he would also permanently damage his left hand. After that, what would be left would only be the cold and indifferent embrace of the soft grass far below.
Daniel grunted in pain, not hiding the frustration and despair he felt. Even if the Guardian protected his life, it would be meaningless. Everyone else had surpassed him long ago, even after Daniel had had a head start. That was to be expected, but what bothered him the most was his uselessness.
When he saw the four inheriting disciples, Jake, Anna Hale, Reynard Stark, and Bren Alden fighting their way up with one another right below him, Daniel couldn't even help his brother by trying to hold the others back.
He couldn't control elemental Qi, and the swords he sent flying in their direction were simply ignored, being thrown away in the middle of the volatile elements and their chaotic attacks. He almost shared the fate of his swords as the impact of their attacks made their way up to where he was.
His brother tried to reach for him, but he decidedly shook his head. Now was not the time to have pity, nor to try to help those that would hold him back. Now was the time for his brother to worry only about himself.
The climb was all about that. Cultivation was all about that. A lesson that Daniel learned the hard way throughout his life.
He could only watch in dismay as one by one, all disciple surpassed him, even the youngest and weakest of them. The sour taste in his mouth would not go away, even if he already knew that this would be the most likely outcome.
Daniel gritted his teeth and stopped struggling against the wind. He let himself hit the mountainside and held back a grunt as the sharp rocks pressed against his chest. Still, even if they punctured his skin, they gave him the support he needed to move on.
He sluggish reached upwards with a trembling arm, fighting back against the pain and exhaustion as he firmly grasped another sharp rock. He listlessly raised his head, watching the vortex of clouds that hid the peak of the mountain.
It was still incredibly far away from him.
It was completely out of reach.
He felt something weighing down on his chest, and he suddenly had the urge to throw up. He almost let go of the rock he was holding with his left hand as his body suddenly convulsed, forcing him to stay in place, barely holding on.
A dry, weary laugh escaped from his lips. His throat was already sore from dehydration, and his voice was hoarse. It brought him even more pain, but he couldn't stop. In truth, it was quite a sad sight.
When he finally got a hold of himself and looked at the rock he was holding, he realized he couldn't feel his left arm anymore. He didn't even know how he was still holding on to the rock.
"God damn it." He whispered to himself, giving a wry smile. He stopped any and all attempts of continuing his climb, staying still in that exact same position. He had no idea how long he would manage to hold on.
He slowly looked down, gazing at the towering trees of the forest that now looked like nothing but dots in the distance. He was very sure that they were swaying with the wind, waving at him, inviting him to join them.
For a moment, Daniel considered accepting their call.
"Are you done?" A strange voice suddenly echoed in Daniel's ears, giving him a scare and almost making him lose his footing.
He quickly turned his head to the source of the voice, seeing a tall man dressed in white hovering next to him, as if the air itself was propping him up. His indifferent expression made him seem extremely arrogant, and his strange white hair and his piercing blue eyes gave Daniel chills as he faced the unexpected newcomer.
"As much that I don't want to say I am, I know the truth already." Daniel answered in an incredibly tired voice, looking like he would pass out at any moment. The moment the man appeared and asked that question, Daniel already knew who he was.
The man continued to look at him with indifference but slowly cocked his head, as if watching a mildly interesting ant. He didn't speak, so Daniel took it as a sign to continue talking.
"I suppose you already know the answer too, don't you?" Daniel asked dispiritedly.
"Of course I do. It is my responsibility to be able to properly assess such things." The man spoke with his crisp, grating voice that greatly unnerved Daniel. "Still, it doesn't mean I don't have to ask you why."
"Why bother with such meaningless questions? We both know that I already am at my limit. It is not as if I am giving up, or not giving my best. This is simply as far as I can go." Daniel said in an exasperated voice, lightly shaking his head.
"Even if you say that, a moment ago you were still trying to push forward. Why stop now?" The Guardian asked as he faced Daniel with a blank expression.
"Why are you so curious about that?" Daniel asked in a harsh tone. He was already in a terrible mood, and the Guardian was only pouring salt on his wounds.
"Because you made the best deal of all the people that passed by me in these Hellblaze Trials." The Guardian answered, still not showing an inkling of emotion in his face. His eyes, however, turned a bit less cold. Daniel could see a glimmer of pity in them, which made him even angrier.
"I see. I did think you sounded somewhat familiar." Daniel said dismissively, making the Guardian give a rare sight.
"Pride is not something people like you should hold on to." The Guardian said as his expression finally turned serious.
Daniel was taken aback by his words. His face darkened as his mind raced to give him an answer, but the words he desperately tried to look for never came to him. He couldn't help but admit the Guardian was right.
Even if Daniel had been shunned by his father, even if he had to struggle with all he had to attain the miserly achievements he had, he was still proud of himself. He knew that anyone else that faced the hardships he did would most likely have fallen short to what he managed to do.
Nevertheless, it was all for naught. Facing the harsh reality would have never been easy on him, it could never have been.
Lars Borgin might have taken a liking to the technique he developed to control swords with Qi, and Daniel might have managed to fight his way to the Inner Sect to slap his father's face, but that was it.
Daniel had reached his peak long ago, and it was simply not high enough.
In the grand scheme of things, he still meant nothing. He never would.
He would never be able to leave the mountainside, being stuck far from the ground and far from the peak. Inevitably, he would fall someday, joining all the others that never even tried the climb before.
The simple mortals that could only watch from afar as countless cultivators tried the climb, and countless more fell back to the ground. Daniel would never be anything but one of those people that they watched with fervor but ultimately meant nothing in their simple lives.
"The climb might gift you power, but it also brings you pain. Those that are not fated to reach the peak will get nothing but suffering out of it." The Guardian spoke lightly, but emotionlessly, as if he had said those words many times before. It was clear he was already numb to their meaning, numb to their effect on the people they were directed to.
"Maybe you should consider if the climb is truly worth it." The Guardian added, sighing yet again. "There is nothing wrong in seeking happiness instead of power and living a fulfilling life."
Daniel gazed at the Guardian with a strange look in his eyes. He didn't utter a word as he pondered for some time.
"Am I the only one left?" Daniel broke the silence after some time, furrowing his brows tightly.
"Yes." The Guardian answered simply. "All the others either fell or reached the peak. You are the only one left."
"I see." Daniel sighed with a pained look. In truth, he had been so absorbed in his own climb that he didn't even notice that other people fell from the mountain. Maybe they had been so far above him that he couldn't even see them before the Guardian saved their lives.
"Well, I can't climb further, and I can't safely return to the ground." Daniel spoke in a soft voice. "What now?"
"You still haven't told me your answer." The Guardian pointed out. For whatever reason, it clearly wanted to hear a clear answer from Daniel.
"My answer is mine alone." Daniel dismissed him without hesitating.
The Guardian shook his head at such stubbornness. He snapped his fingers, and the space around Daniel started to distort. It looked like Daniel had somehow changed his mind during the course of their conversation.
Or rather, he wasn't willing to admit what he felt to anyone else.
In truth, this conversation had shaken him greatly. Deep down, he knew the Guardian was right. Still, how could he truly find happiness?
If he joined the common mortals, he would outlive many generations of his own family. This was not something he would ever be willing to experience. He would rather die than outlive his descendants.
In the world of cultivators, he amounted to nothing, cursed to never be able to achieve a higher level. Even Amon, who was supposedly even less suited to cultivation than he was had been slowly surpassing him.
All Daniel could truly do was try his best to keep up with them. No matter how much pain it brought to him, no matter if it ended up destroying him, he couldn't stop. It was only thanks to the Guardian's words that he finally understood the terrifying thought that had been creeping on his mind ever since he gained some understanding of the world.
His happiness lied on the people he loved, and they were all ever so slowly leaving him behind.