As it turned out, I was among the last to receive artificial qi, not the first.
It wasn’t because I was an Experimentalist. Tong Xue was right when he predicted that the Experimentalists would be among the first to receive artificial qi. But the process wasn’t simple. We had to undergo a few tests in the academy’s medical laboratory before the scientists within began customizing artificial qi suitable for our respective martial arts. For example, the practitioners of the White Tiger Sect were given qi customized specially for lightning qi techniques users. That would differ for the fiery qi cultivated for disciples of the Red Phoenix Sect, they would require a different kind of qi. And even among those with similar elemental affinities – such as the disciples of the Nine Tail Fox Sect, they would require a different type of fiery qi.
The laboratory would have to specially customize qi for Nine Tail Fox Sect disciples as compared to those from the Red Phoenix Sect.
As such, the process of customization took time. Even though we each had our own turns, I saw and waited as the Traditionalists also went to get their qi tested and customized, and by the time everyone was done, I was the only one remaining.
“What? You still haven’t received artificial qi yet?” Tong Xue blurted out after returning from the lab. He frowned. “But I’ve already received mine, and I went in after you did!”
“Well, they haven’t finished customizing artificial qi appropriate for me yet.” I shrugged while maintaining a calm façade. However, inwardly, I was quailing.
“Hmm…even though I’ve already gotten mine…” Zhu Jiao was looking a little concerned as well. He was also frowning. “Did you talk to the staff yet?”
“Yeah. Same answer as always. The customization is not complete yet. Apparently the nature of my qi is a little strange, so they’re having problems synthesizing the appropriate artificial qi that would be compatible with mine.”
“That’s not good,” Ban Zhang muttered. “We’re all absorbing our artificial qi and the longer you’re made to wait, the further you’ll fall behind the rest of us.”
That was partly true. The absorption rate of artificial qi differed from person to person, but most people took several weeks, or even months to absorb the artificial qi provided and integrate it into their innate qi. More qi meant a better progress of cultivation, which would help them speed up in developing and mastering their techniques, allowing them to perfect their martial arts faster and earlier. The longer my absorption was delayed, the slower I would be compared to others.
However, there was also the theory that students would hit a plateau after absorbing so much artificial qi and remain stuck there. The rumored “limits of the human body” or cultivation ceiling, where you could no longer cultivate and become any more powerful because the human body just wasn’t physically capable of breaking through those limits. At that time, it would probably depend on one’s luck or talent.
But any higher than that – receiving three sexagenaries of artificial qi, for example – would virtually transform us into gods.
Well, that “us” didn’t include me for now.
“The middle school students only receive one sexagenary of qi, but the high school students will receive two sexagenaries, and depending on their progress, might get another sexagenary if they prove themselves.”
Ban Zhang was explaining to us something we already knew. Probably to show off his knowledge and habit of paying attention.
“But even so, there’s a problem, right?” Zhu Jiao looked a little concerned. “I heard rumors that the older you are, the more difficult it is for you to absorb vast amounts of qi. That’s why they’re not giving it to the adults except a selected few. I heard that a lot of the high school students have trouble integrating and absorbing that much artificial qi. Apparently it’s much easier for us middle school students to absorb it at an earlier age.”
“What about elementary school students?” I asked. “If the younger we are, then the more receptive we are to artificial qi, right?”
“Nope.” Tong Xue shook his head. “Elementary school students are too young and frail. Their bodies can’t endure that amount of artificial qi. We middle school students can barely handle it, it would be much worse for them. You know what happens if you try to force too much volatile energy into a single vessel, right? If the vessel is fragile, it would break if you force too much energy into it.”
“Yeah, I heard that just putting half a sexagenary of artificial qi into the elementary school students was already causing their bodies to rupture and break them down. They had to stop the provisions because it was deemed to be too dangerous.”
Ban Zhang nodded in confirmation. Tong Xue sighed.
“Well, it’s only natural. This is like the amount of qi you would get after decades of cultivation. Trying to put that much qi into a young, undeveloped, immature body would be catastrophic. Their foundation, constitution and physique aren’t developed enough for that kind of process. They need to strengthen their physiques and build a solid foundation first before getting that artificial qi. Otherwise they wouldn’t be robust enough.”
So there was no shortcuts in life. Artificial qi wasn’t a magic tool that just anyone could take and suddenly grow strong. There were optimal ages as to when one could receive and absorb it at maximum capacity, and if the recipient was too weak, he wouldn’t be able to handle that sheer amount of artificial qi. Worst case scenario, he might even die from it, his body ripped apart by from within the massive volume of volatile qi.
“Yeah, so you had best hurry up and pester them before your window is up,” Tong Xue told me with a grim expression. Ban Zhang snorted.
“Don’t exaggerate. Even with the delay, it’s not as if the academy lab would end up taking years to customize the suitable qi for Fei Wu.”
“You’ll never know.”
“Oi, don’t say such things and bring bad luck to him.” Zhu Jiao chopped the top of Tong Xue’s head, causing the latter to flinch.
“But how long has it been? Three weeks? Many of the more talented students have succeeded in absorbing and incorporating their artificial qi by now, especially the Experimentalists.” Zhu Jiao looked concerned.
“Yeah…almost a month now.” I shifted uncomfortably. “I honestly don’t know. I’ll drop by the lab after school today.”
“Make sure you do,” Ban Zhang told me sternly. “Otherwise you’ll get left behind.”
Well, that didn’t sound good. I had managed to haul myself back up to near the top after my hellish experience in the Abyss and surviving everything Sen Lin Forest threw at me, somehow surpassing even the talented Qi Fu Ren and defeating him in an official match. I had managed to obtain level 5, even. It would suck if everything got reset because of the introduction of artificial qi. Initially I thought it would be a great boost, but now it seemed that it would be the cause of my demise. After all that hard work and struggles, to fall back into obscurity because the scientists at Wu Ling Academy succeeded in synthesizing artificial qi…
How is this fair!?
Just when I thought things were finally looking up, a few months later, a new development came in and completely threw off my progress, setting me back to square one. Honestly, it felt as if even the Heavens themselves were trying to resort to all manner of despicable tricks and cheats just to put me in an overwhelming disadvantage.
I held my head and groaned in frustration. Feeling sorry for me, Zhu Jiao patted my shoulder encouragingly.
“Don’t worry. Once you receive artificial qi, I’m sure you’ll shoot up again. I know how intelligent you are, after all.”
“Thanks,” I muttered with a sigh. “I’m so grateful for your undying faith in me.”
“Hey, no need to be sarcastic.”
“I’m not being sarcastic, I am genuinely grateful. But I can’t help feeling frustrated.” I raised both my hands apologetically and bowed slightly toward a slightly miffed Zhu Jiao. His expression softened and he nodded.
“Yeah,” Ban Zhang stepped in. “I understand how you feel. Fei Wu must be feeling the most frustration out of all of us. So let’s be a bit more understanding.”
“Thank you.” I hung my head, but tried to suppress the anxiety broiling within my heart. I didn’t want my friends to worry, after all.
Tang Qi Hong broke in, having arrived with Lian Rou. She placed her hands on her hips, pursing her lips in annoyance.
“If they still don’t give you artificial qi soon, then I’ll personally stomp into the lab and kick all of their asses!”
“Wouldn’t that delay them further?” I muttered under my breath, but I appreciated her concern so I forced a smile. “I’ll be counting on you then.”
“Yeah! You can rely on me!”
Tang Qi Hong raised a hand confidently and smiled smugly. Lian Rou merely shook her head in amusement.
“It’s best if you don’t resort to such drastic measures, though…”
While my friends were discussing about this, I heard a familiar voice chuckle behind me. Spinning around, I narrowed my eyes when I caught sight of Qi Fu Ren. The bully was lounging in his desk at the back of the classroom, flanked by his two flunkies as usual.
“Oh, how pitiful,” he mocked me. “Poor little Fei Wu is unable to absorb any artificial qi? Looks like he’ll be kicked out of the academy at this rate.”
“Ha ha ha ha!”
“What a loser!”
Beside him, Hu Shuo and Ba Dao burst out laughing like the idiots they were, even though they probably had no understanding of what Qi Fu Ren was talking about.
Not that it mattered. Even Two Star Constitution cultivators like Hu Shuo, Ba Dao and even Tu Zi Yi had an advantage over me now, having been able to absorb and incorporate a sexagenary of qi. I was falling behind them at an alarming rate.
As for Qi Fu Ren, even though he had been expelled out of the White Tiger Sect, he had benefited the most from the artificial qi system. Apparently, the higher your Star Constitution, the more compatible you were with the customized artificial qi. Or perhaps, the academy invested more resources into customizing artificial qi for their more talented students. Even when disgraced, there was no denying that Qi Fu Ren was a gifted individual, with his Four Star Constitution. He could pick up other martial arts techniques faster and better than most students.
I frowned, suddenly reminded of something. Despite leaving the White Tiger Sect and no longer having access to the martial arts they provided, it didn’t seem like Qi Fu Ren had borrowed any new techniques from the library to learn. Instead, he seemed to be self-learning or developing new techniques from the White Tiger Sect techniques he had already learned. I didn’t know he was doing it, but if that was true, he was a lot smarter than I gave him credit for.
“Well, now’s your best chance to get revenge,” I replied. Even though I would most likely lose to the powered up Qi Fu Ren, I didn’t mind. I had contingencies in place to make sure I would surrender before he could deal lasting damage or kill me. But I was extremely curious as to what new techniques he had developed or learned. “Go ahead and challenge me to a duel.”
“Nah.” Qi Fu Ren grinned enigmatically. “I don’t want to seem like I’m bullying the weak.”
Everyone exchanged skeptical glances. Qi Fu Ren was definitely bullshitting here. He was known for bullying the weak, and he had continued to do so even after his defeat. Usually I had to step in and intervene before he hit his victims, but it would be a lie if I said that his bullying didn’t escalate. In fact, I suspected that he increased his abuse in order to vent out his anger and frustrations, continuing to target those inferior to him.
Was he afraid of me, or was there some other more insidious reason why he had refrained from challenging me thus far?
Perhaps he is working on a new technique and hasn’t perfected it yet. Thus he’s waiting until he has fully developed and mastered it, so that he can show it off in front of everyone and impress the teachers and principal.
That might even make them reconsider blacklisting him. After all, Wu Ling Academy was still a martial arts academy in the end. There was no way they wouldn’t prioritize the students’ strength and martial capabilities over all other considerations.
“Ha ha ha! You’re not worthy enough to challenge our boss!”
“Yeah! You’ll easily get crushed by his new…”
Ba Dao never got to finish his sentence. Qi Fu Ren rammed his elbow into his lackey’s stomach, sending him crashing into the wall and shutting him up.
What the…? I almost didn’t catch that movement…
Qi Fu Ren’s attack had been so fast that his arm had vanished into a blur and seemed invisible for a second. He most definitely improved a lot over the last few months, especially after absorbing so much artificial qi.
Watching him send a murderous glare at the sprawled Ba Dao, I couldn’t help but feel a chill run down my spine.
“Shut your mouth. Stop blabbering nonsense, you fool.”
Even though Qi Fu Ren didn’t raise his voice, his tone was frosty enough to lower the temperature of the classroom. Even the classmates who weren’t paying much attention to what was going on in the back had stopped to stare, chilled by the sudden display of violence.
“S…sorry, boss!” Ba Dao gasped, blood spilling from his mouth. Hu Shuo helped him stagger to his feet. “I won’t do it again!”
Qi Fu Ren merely fixed him with a glare and turned away with a dismissive snort. “See that you don’t.”
What the hell just happened?
I couldn’t help but shudder involuntarily at the sight. This was the first time I saw Qi Fu Ren exercise violence against his subordinates. Even though he had verbally abused them in the past, he hadn’t actually raised a hand against them. Ever.
That’s right…along with bullying other schoolmates more often, he seems to be meting out more violence toward his victims…
At first, I had thought his increasing abuse had been related to his frustration from being expelled from the White Tiger Sect and his disgrace, humiliation and rejection by Bai Ning Xue, that he was merely venting his rage on his victims.
But this…this was going too far.
“What are you looking at?!” Qi Fu Ren snapped as the class stared silently at him. Unable to handle his animosity, the class returned to whispering among themselves, but more than a few of them couldn’t help but glance surreptitiously at him.
“That was unexpected,” Tong Xue muttered.
“Qi Fu Ren is getting worse,” Zhu Jiao growled indignantly.
“He has always been this way, hasn’t he?” Ban Zhang replied, but he sounded unsure of himself. No one could confirm.
“I don’t like this,” Tang Qi Hong admitted softly as she cast a glance in the bully’s direction. “Qi Fu Ren is giving me the creeps.”
Lian Rou nodded and clung tightly to Tang Qi Hong’s arm, and the two girls supported each other. “Qi Fu Ren is starting to scare me.”
“I don’t blame you,” Zhu Jiao muttered. “But I find it interesting that he refuses to accept any official matches, and backs off whenever we intervene in his bullying. It’s as if he’s trying to hide something.”
“But what?” Ban Zhang questioned.
“New techniques, no doubt. Developing a trump card.” Tong Xue was studying Qi Fu Ren out of the corner of his eye, doing it so subtly that the latter didn’t notice him watching him cautiously. Must be something he picked up from the Smart Shadow Sect.
“In any case, we should just keep an eye on him,” I suggested. “And hope he doesn’t get into trouble or pick on others.”
My friends nodded.
While we were holding our discussion, another student stepped into the classroom, drawing our attention.
“Oh, Ning Xue!”
Zhu Jiao waved and greeted her as always. Bai Ning Xue nodded in acknowledgement, then coolly proceeded to her desk. I watched her momentarily, but turned away when I felt Tang Qi Hong’s glare on me.
What’s your problem? It wasn’t as if I was ogling Bai Ning Xue or something.
My curiosity was piqued because I heard that Bai Ning Xue had actually refused artificial qi. I wasn’t sure if it was true – rumors were rumors, after all, but many of our classmates had raised that topic. Zhu Jiao confessed that he knew nothing about it, and I wasn’t bold or blunt enough to ask Bai Ning Xue directly. I wasn’t even that close to her, after all.
But the rumors persisted, and she was the only other student other than me who still hadn’t received artificial qi. I wasn’t sure how true that was, but if it was true, then I found it weird. The scientists had already assured us and proved that artificial qi had no negative side effects or problems, and that it was essentially no different from normal, natural qi.
So what reason would Bai Ning Xue have to refuse artificial qi?
One possibility was pride. As a Five Star Constitution cultivator, it was entirely possible that Bai Ning Xue felt that she didn’t need to rely on something as convenient as artificial qi, and wanted to prove her superiority by surpassing everyone without it. She was fine with giving herself a handicap, and believed in her own ability to progress without receiving such miraculous stuff.
A second reason was that she didn’t trust the scientists and believed that there would be negative side effects. I didn’t blame her – deep within my heart, I still held the same kind of skepticism, that the process was still too early, that side effects might only show up later…years later, in fact. Long term side effects and the like. But even then, I had submitted to peer pressure and decided to go with the flow and follow everyone in accepting it. For Bai Ning Xue to stand against the flow and go against the majority, it could mean that she knew something we didn’t know.
That in itself disturbed me. Where did she get that kind of information? What did she know that we didn’t? Or was I overthinking it?
Curling my fingers into a fist, I stared at the electronic tablet on my desk and tried to suppress my raging uncertainties.
After class, a lab assistant came to knock on the classroom door and call me.
“Is Fei Wu here?”
“Yeah.” I raised my hand. He nodded and poked his head through the door.
“Do you mind following me to the lab?”
I felt my heart skip a beat. This must be it. The lab had finally succeeded in customizing the artificial qi suitable for me. Taking a deep breath, I tried to rein in my excitement and calmly rose to my feet.
“It’s finally your turn!”
My friends grinned and winked at them. I smiled back, and then picked up my bag before following the lab assistant out of the classroom.
“Um…so you’ve finally finished customizing artificial qi for me?” I asked the lab assistant as I shadowed him.
“About that…it’s best if you ask the chief for more details.”
The lab assistant sounded almost dismissive, cold or indifferent, which send alarm bells ringing in my head.
“You mean…there’s a problem?”
“I’m in no position to answer any your questions. As I said, it’s best if you ask the chief to explain everything to you.”
With that ominous reply, the lab assistant led me to the lab. I found myself escorted to the main laboratory room where they conducted tests and analyzed students’ qi. And apparently this was also the place where we received artificial qi.
Having received none before, I wasn’t very sure. I was only going off what my classmates told me.
“Ah, Student Fei Wu?”
The elderly scientist looked up from his equipment and smiled at me. But I could tell that his expression was a little strained.
“Sir.” I saluted somewhat stiffly. The scientist nodded and gestured for me to take a seat.
“I’m Ke Xue Jia,” the scientist introduced himself. I bowed respectfully.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Ke Xue Jia.”
“I’m sure you probably have an idea as to why you’re here.” Ke Xue Jia shifted uncomfortably as he glanced away from me. I nodded.
“…you’re still unable to customize artificial qi for me.”
“Well…yes.” Ke Xue Jia didn’t know whether to look relieved or not. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I assure you that the lab has been doing its best to synthesize the type of artificial qi that would be compatible with you. However…all attempts over the past month has failed.”
My shoulders slumped down and I sank back to my chair in despair. Even though I had already anticipated it, even though I had known this would be the case, deep down inside I had hoped that I was wrong, clung to the hope that there was at least one piece of good news, that I was mistaken somehow. And that last, remaining hope had just been snuffed out by Ke Xue Jia’s cruel announcement. He looked at me sympathetically.
“Is it because I’m a One Star Constitution cultivator?” I blurted out bitterly. Was that it? My lack of talent, because the Heavens had me born this way, that I could not compete with the others, with my more talented cohort?
“Well…no. It doesn’t matter how many Stars your Constitution has. Our artificial qi is designed to be compatible with anyone, regardless of how many Stars their Constitution has. Certainly, the less talent you have, the harder it would be for you to absorb the qi, and you would require more time, but it would still be possible to produce the suitable artificial qi compatible with your constitution, techniques and physique.”
I frowned. “Then why…?”
Ke Xue Jia looked at me curiously. “To be honest…it’s because of the nature of your qi.”
“Huh? The nature of my qi?” I blinked in bewilderment, not sure if I understood what he was trying to say. “What’s wrong with my qi?”
“Well…to put it simply, your innate qi is pretty unnatural. It doesn’t match any of the existing samples of qi we have before. There are a lot of traces of anomalous elements embedded within your qi, elements we can’t quite identify. It’s as if your qi is…polluted or tainted, for a lack of a better word. If we didn’t know better, we would have thought that your qi was a sample extracted from a demonic beast or magical beast.”
I gulped, my hands flopping down by my sides as I felt a chill.
So that’s why…
The desperate measures I resorted to in order to survive in the Abyss, to survive in Sen Lin Forest – while they had kept me alive and allowed me to escape certain death, they had backfired on me in the long term. I had consumed magical beasts and demonic creatures in order to sustain myself, and even absorbed and assimilated their qi to strengthen my constitution. Consequently, even a One Star Constitution cultivator like me could surpass my limits and lack of talent to rise momentarily to the top.
The ironic thing was that, in any other period, such an advantage would allow me to remain near the top and maintain my position in the rankings. Without the successful creation of artificial qi, I would not have been left behind and would continue to maintain my position while cultivating alongside everyone. This assimilation and absorption of demonic qi would have granted me a slight advantage and allowed me to keep up with everyone.
Unfortunately, I had been born in an era where artificial qi was invented. It was as if the Heavens were deliberately playing a prank on me, giving me a measure of hope to overcome my limits and lack of talent, only to cruelly snatch that all away and throwing me back to the bottom by granting everyone artificial qi. It was as if the whole universe had been conceived and contrived just to put me at an overwhelming disadvantage no matter what I did or experienced. The gods were determined to torture, abuse and laugh at me no matter how much I struggled.
I suddenly felt a tremendous hatred and resentment toward the heavens. I absolutely hated them, and wanted to destroy all the gods for being so unfairly cruel to me, for laughing and mocking me every step of the way.
“Our methods right now only allow us to synthesize artificial qi compatible with humans’ innate qi. I’m not sure why, but our equipment register you as nonhuman.” Ke Xue Jia scratched his head, baffled. “None of the scientists on the team understand what’s going on either. This is the first time we’ve seen a case like yours.”
I couldn’t help but flop down on my seat, deflated and defeated. No…I couldn’t allow myself to be defeated here. I couldn’t allow the cruel gods to win. I couldn’t allow myself to give in to such a cruel Fate.
“We’ve concluded that you present an anomalous case, a one in a billion…no, a one in a trillion, even. Your qi being tainted like this…honestly, it’s unprecedented. We’ll continue to study and analyze why your qi is so strange, but quite frankly, given our current technology, it might take years or even decades before we come up with a solution.”
“In other words, I shouldn’t get my hopes up,” I concluded wearily. The chief scientist hesitated and then nodded.
“I am very sorry,” Ke Xue Jia apologized again and humbly bowed his head. He had probably noticed the fury, frustration and despair welling up in me, his eyes darting toward my trembling, clenched fists. “But as it is right now, there is absolutely nothing we can do for you.”