Faint blood-red energy swirled around Strong River as he sat before the lotus meditating. The application of a healthy sprinkling of fresh blood had caused the Sanguine-thread Lotus to evolve a step further in quality and become a Half-Sanguine Lotus, its petals engorged in a commingling of fleshy pink and bloody red color.
Ebon Dirge could not help but reflect on how quickly a person could be turned to deviltry when offered immediate, tangible benefits. A common popular perception of devil practitioners was that they were crimson-dyed murderers without conscience who pursued the pinnacle of strength through constant slaughter. While that was true, it was also in a way false. Being well acquainted with the devil path, Ebon Dirge knew the way of this most intimately.
In reality, of every ten devils, perhaps at least seven were thorough cowards who lacked in the necessary patience and discipline to pursue other paths effectively. Devil path techniques did have their advantages in transforming plundered external energies into combat power and longevity, but those that pursued the path needed to forsake anything but the most solipsistic, self-centered view of the universe. People with such a mindset feared their death even as they disregarded the demise of all other living things.
While putting on his "kindly spirit grandpa" act for Strong River, Ebon Dirge quickly surmised that the boy's tendencies were not too distant from the typical mindset of a devil. His mindset was centered on his own weakness, his miseries, how hard the tribulations he had to face were... all that was in common was a thoroughly selfish strand of thought. Had Ebon Dirge truly been a kindly mentor, he would have steered Strong River away from that path and worked to purify him. Instead, he imparted the Passion Sublimation Technique.
The true emphasis of Passion Sublimation was not on the sublimation, but on the passion. Drawing strength from strong desires and emotions required the user to possess them. To a person with an ironclad will the technique was of no danger, but to the weak-willed it would become addicting, turning the user into a junkie that had to constantly seek out an ever-escalating panoply of experiences to fuel its power. Passion Sublimation students who lacked self-control would become adrenaline junkies, chasing the most extreme of feelings. To self-indulgent devil cultivators this was a fitting art, but it ultimately stoked greed, desire, and paranoia to an extreme level.
Ebon Dirge was not preparing a disciple here, after all, merely cultivating fruit for the harvest. Strong River's destiny was stronger than that of most mortals, but it was by no means an impressive one, and so for this first harvest Ebon Dirge was less concerned with careful cultivation and more concerned with discovering how his influence could affect fate. A virtuous saint or a depraved devil, both had greater destinies than the norm but the latter was far easier to nurture given the material available. Exactly how far could Ebon Dirge push this boy's destiny before it broke? Would raising a devil king in turn make a hero of even greater destiny appear? He was interested more in the answers to these questions than in the well-being of his subject.
This was not to say that the boy was entirely without his own gains. What had started as a skinny, pale youth with lank, dull brown hair was now a young man squarer of shoulder and thicker of limb, his skin a healthier, darker shade and his hair more glossy and lively, possessing a slight auburn sheen it didn't have even a hint of before. There was much negative to say about devils, but vanity was one of their typical indulgences; the Blood Devouring Palm's signature anomalous vampiric mouth concealed itself in the flesh when not in use, and the results of directly consuming the lifeblood of its victims left the user in the flush of youthful health.
Unseen to the naked eye, though, were more benefits. Between the energy drawn from the lotus and that devoured from the fleeing man, Strong River had continuously broken through two grades of his physique. As the ruddy sun descended, Ebon Dirge could feel him shattering the barrier of another grade as he drew in the blood-enriched essence of the enhanced lotus, continuing to draw in the energy without ceasing.
It truly wasn't a bad result for Strong River, breaking through the bonds of the 2nd stage of a Human Realm physique -- where he had been stranded for years -- all the way to the 5th stage in the space of a single afternoon. If he had been a few years younger, many mortal sects would have considered him a body tempering prodigy with that kind of result.
Ebon Dirge himself also had some gains in the several hours since he had awakened on this mortal plane. While Strong River benefited from the nourishment of the blood essence of the bandit thugs, Ebon Dirge had both improved his control over his soul as well as absorbed those of the thugs. The actual gain to his soul body was negligible, but with the souls came information that would help in pulling the boy's strings.
Ebon Dirge's basis in the soul arts lacked due to a deficiency of actual codified soul techniques. Since his soul was all that he had at this point, developing a greater understanding of his capabilities and limits was an integral part of surviving and thriving. While among these mortals he could crassly tear their souls apart to search them or temporarily wrest control of a body from its owner, these abilities were all too conspicuous in their effects and results.
A primary haul in this category was that he could influence minds to enhance emotions, perceptions, and beliefs. This wasn't really required for leading Strong River down the garden path, but when the thugs had arrived he had spent the course of the battle testing this. Injecting a seed of fear into someone who didn't fear a thing -- like the weak, kneeling Strong River -- would lead to rejection of the thought, while stoking greed -- like that of the thugs towards the conveniently present lotus -- or enhancing a newly sprouted fear -- like that of the thug witnessing the blood-masked visage of the now-threatening Strong River -- were absolutely effective means for him to put a finger on the scales.
Ebon Dirge wished for Strong River to derive his own murderous tendencies without having to fuel those externally, and so he decided to focus on making the thugs more life-threatening in order for Strong River to cross the threshold of self-justification. Keeping Strong River near the lotus so the thugs were both agitated by his movement and greedy on discovering the lotus enhanced their perilousness. Making one thug flee made Strong River have to accept that just beating the men wasn't enough to keep their silence and thus keep himself safe. All-in-all, these subtle influences were the details that would make a devil.
The moon, a crescent scythe sweeping the stars, rose and neared its peak as Ebon Dirge recounted his gains and allowed the boy to continue his absorption uninterrupted. Right as the moon reached its peak, at the point of ushering in the witching hour, the last of the red energy from the lotus was sucked out of it, a pure white lotus remaining shining the moonlight as Strong River's eyes snapped open.
Musing on the perfection of the timing -- was it destiny or coincidence, emptying the lotus at this exact moment? -- Ebon Dirge again adopted the kindly, doting grandfather mask of Mister Black. "Congratulations, young hero. From the second- to almost the sixth-grade of the Human Realm in half a day, this old man admires your tenacity and hard work." Buttering up a youth by giving them credit for something they had little to do with was a useful tool in maintaining trust.
Strong River rose to his feet, raising his balled fists and examining them -- a gesture Ebon Dirge noticed the kid did reasonably often -- and nodded, satisfied. "Thank you, Mister Black." The boy's eyes rose to the moon overhead. "I've been away from the clan for too long, though. I guess it's time I headed back." He sighed, giving a glance at the drained lotus as he turned and began his hike back through the fields.
A couple of minutes passed in silence before Strong River spoke again. "Mister Black?"
Ebon Dirge had been waiting for this. "Yes, my young friend?"
"About what happened back there..." Strong River massaged the center of his right palm with his thumb. "Is the Blood Devouring Palm really a good technique for me to use? It feels rather..." Strong River's inner voice trailed off, his grasp on his exact thoughts about it slippery.
"Terrifying? Evil?" Ebon Dirge offered.
"Yes. Evil. I felt so... powerful, so fulfilled when using it. Like there was an emptiness inside me that only it can fill. And it scares me. Aren't all the techniques like this evil? Am I then evil for using it?"
Ebon Dirge tsked. "No, Strong River. You have it wrong. It's a technique. Only the superstitious and the foolish classify techniques in such ways. Techniques are techniques. People are good, and evil, and everything in between." Ebon Dirge's kindly grandfather chided the young man, beginning to lead him gently down the blood-soaked garden path.
"But what? Is fire evil? It cooks our food, warms our houses, but it also can destroy your village. Is water evil? If you go without it for too long you perish, but too much of it and you drown. Evil is not in the practices of techniques, my boy. They're words on a page, circulations of energy, natural phenomena. Evil is within the hearts and minds of men, men like your bandit king here."
Strong River's brow furrowed in concentration as he tried to weigh Ebon Dirge's words before slackening with acceptance. "I guess you're right, Mister Black, as always."
The grandpa-voice guffawed, a merry chuckle. "Of course I am always right, young man. If the Blood Devouring Palm is used to subdue an evil man, to take his strength and use it for good, is it not then a righteous use? Don't let the optics fool you. Every cultivator has their trump cards in a battle, and they are all vicious tools of slaughter. That is what it means to cultivate, to tread a path where any who bar your way are cut down without mercy or remorse. Otherwise you'll just be another corpse along someone else's path of cultivation."
Strong River nodded. Relating anything to his personal well-being was a reasonably surefire method to get him to accept it.
The lights of the village where the Flowing Water Clan maintained their compound glowed ruddily in the distance in front of Strong River, the end of his journey back home now in sight.
"So, Mister Black, should I meditate instead of sleep now?" Strong River changed the subject, fleeing the hypothetical and the moral for the comfort of practicality.
Ebon Dirge transmitted a laugh, taking care to not let any derision seep in as Mister Black was a rather jolly kind of fellow lacking in venom. "No, no, you're not quite up to that yet, my young student. Soon, when you complete your tempering and transcend the realm of mortals to begin opening your meridians, then you can rise above mere human needs such as sleep. But for now, enjoy your sleep and your dreams, and know that you aren't far off from the reality of true strength."
"For strength to be no longer be just a dream... that would be wonderful, Mister Black." Strong River's mouth split into a grin.
"Yes... it will be wonderful indeed." And so the conversation of the two, one gullible young man and one vengeful old ghost, continued in the space of the young man's mind.
Meanwhile, far behind them, abandoned in the wan moonlight, a seven-petaled white lotus flower swayed next to a pond before disintegrating into a fine dust that the midnight winds blew to the eight corners of the world.
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