26 Platinum Key

Lex found himself lying on his back on an observation table in nothing but his undergarments. Marlo, after his usual outburst, had Lex brought to a first aid room that he had in his apartment. As if everything was very routine, two female nurses entered the room and began Lex's examination using various Spirit Tech. In a few minutes Marlo had a full report and was reading through it very seriously, though every time he saw something interesting he gave Lex a wide grin.

"Took quite the beating, didn't you?" Marlo asked, his voice at a normal level for once. "According to your cell activity, your body has already been healing for quite a while, and at an accelerated pace."

"Yeah, I took something quite expensive for that," Lex said, his voice still hoarse.

"Which basically means you were beaten up in even worse shape than you're in right now? And yet you made it back alive." Marlo gave Lex a wide grin and looked at him as if he were a parent, looking down with pride at his child. "What about the other guy? Did he make it? I must warn you, if your enemy is alive, you should prepare for retaliation."

"The other…'guys' are all dead. No one will be coming after me."

Lex closed his eyes as he felt relief. There was no chance he would be going back to Vegus Minima anytime soon. Not until he was much, much more powerful.

"Not bad, not bad," Marlo commented, as if it were the most natural thing to kill off one's enemies. "So if you don't need my help hiding from your enemies, what brought you to my doorstep I wonder?" Marlo's voice was unusually stable throughout all of this, which told Lex how seriously he was taking this.

Now was the moment of truth. Lex had to be convincing, and for the most part, he didn't have to lie. However, whether he could complete his quest to recruit Marlo would depend a lot on how the next few minutes went. He stayed quiet, lying there for a while. His expression changed quite a few times, from anxiety to anger to relief to reluctance. It appeared as though he was struggling quite a bit with what he was thinking. Ultimately, his expression calmed down and he let out a sigh.

"I did some research on you. You have a pretty excellent reputation, and all your students praise you quite a bit. Everyone who has worked with you has said positive things. If it weren't so, I wouldn't have had the guts to come to you with this. Otherwise, who knows, I might have come to you for your help, but ended up losing my life instead."

Marlo looked at the young man with an amused smile, but said nothing. There was another short silence before Lex continued.

"I had no background for cultivation, and no knowledge of it either. That is, until I encountered something quite magical." He raised his empty hand and showed Marlo, yet when he spun it once, a beautiful, platinum key appeared in his hand.

The key was not shining or glowing or anything of the sort to show it was special, yet just lying there in Lex's hand it had gripped all of Marlo's attention. He could instinctively feel that the key was not at all normal, and his instincts were telling him that he must have it. An old wound in his body, a testament to a time long passed, started aching again, as if hinting that the key was important to it.

Marlo's smile completely disappeared, and he looked at the key with extreme seriousness, yet he made no move. He was waiting for Lex to continue speaking.

"The key can take you someplace magical. Over there, I encountered someone who gave me tests. If I pass the tests I could be rewarded, but if I failed chances were high that I would straight up die. At first, I thought I could still complete them…" Lex looked at the key with reluctance and longing. "But I know now that I can't. So long as I have the key, I'll be tempted, and next time I might not be lucky enough to survive."

He held the key out to Marlo, as if indicating him to take it. "I can sell it to you, if you're interested."

Marlo did not reply immediately, but instead kept staring at the key. Now it was his turn to have various expressions show on his face, though in his case it was only a change from serious to mad grin and back.

"How do you know you can trust me? What if I kill you and take the key directly? Did you ever think about that? No one can give me a bad review if everyone who thinks negatively is dead."

Lex chuckled, as if he had predicted the question. "Of course I have, and I have already taken precautions. If I wasn't sure about getting out alive, would I come here, especially in such a beaten state?" In fact, Lex had made no preparations. From the moment the Inn had judged Marlo to be a good fit as a valet, Lex had dropped his guard against the man. Not to mention, Lex had looked him up on the Bluebird portal, and he did, in fact, have a stellar reputation.

Marlo nodded his head, and his grin grew wider, as if he was proud to hear that answer. "What do you want for it, and what does it do exactly?"

"When you crush the key, you will be taken to a different place where someone will give you a test. If you pass the test, you get a reward. If you fail but survive, you get sent back. I've already been there twice, the first time I got my cultivation technique and this time...well, let's say it will soon be worth the trip. But this is my limit, I know it. The only reason I survived this time was because of luck, nothing else. It's very hard for me to admit it, but I know I can't pass the next test. And it won't matter if I wait and raise my cultivation to go back, the test changes according to your cultivation. Having a higher or lower level makes no difference. So long as I keep the key, I know I won't be able to resist using it, and will most likely die. Better to realize the truth right now and take whatever benefit I can, rather than blindly chasing an unreachable dream."

Marlo nodded, as if appreciating Lex's thoughts. Knowing your limits was important.

"You can have the key for $50 million, as well as a weapon suitable for me. I know the price sounds high, but it's worth it." Lex had purposefully asked for a steep price. He had to give the impression that he really valued the key, and that he was very reluctant to give it up. Little did he know that his price seemed paltry to Marlo. Who could blame him? Lex had very little experience in the cultivation world and did not fully understand what little value money had. Furthermore, he could not feel the attraction the key had towards other cultivators. To him it was just a key, to others it was an unbearable enticement.

Still, Marlo did not respond immediately. He sat beside Lex and alternated between staring at the key and Lex, though he wore the most remarkable poker face Lex had ever seen - Lex could not tell what he was thinking at all.

Finally, after about fifteen minutes of deliberation, Marlo spoke, "You are both very wise, and very naïve."

This remark caught Lex by surprise.

"Your wisdom is in recognizing your strengths and weaknesses, your naivety is in assuming you understand the world and its complexities. You will, of course, only find positive reviews of me online, because most people who thought differently are already dead!" Marlo chuckled and patted Lex on the back, the strength of it shaking him to the core.

"Like how the cultivation world was hidden from the mortal world, the real face of the cultivation world is hidden from most cultivators as well. Unless your strength rises to a certain level, or you have a very powerful background, it's impossible for you to see the truth. Without seeing and knowing the truth, it's impossible for you to judge the real danger in a situation. You think you can trust me and trade with me, and have backups prepared in case things go wrong? You think you are in control of the situation, but the truth is your entire existence is dependent on a whim of mine. Even if I try to attack you, and you escape, a simple bounty from me and I can have your entire family in my hands. It wouldn't even take more than a few hours."

Lex's expression changed, and he stared at the giant warily. It was true; he made a very simple yet obvious mistake - he did not take into account that his family could be threatened. He still didn't doubt Marlo, since the System thought he would be a good valet, then Lex didn't doubt Marlo's character. Yet this was a good reminder that in the future, anything he does, he would need to take his family's safety into account as well.

"Take this as another lesson in self defense," the giant said, getting back up and then staring down at Lex. "I will give you an option. I can accept your offer, and pay you the money as well as the weapon, or I can forgo both of those, but bring you into contact with the true face of the cultivation world. I cannot say if knowing this will necessarily bring you any benefits, that depends on many things, but at least you won't be caught unaware."

Lex thought for a second, but he already knew what he was going to answer.

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