“Is this really the person who received the C-rank En?”
“Didn’t he get a useless [Reminiscence] skill?”
“Isn’t Dao Mei the son of a merchant? How did he learn to fight so well?”
I took short, ragged breaths while listening to the people around me, not sure what it is I should do next. I looked over at Dao Xing like I always did when I needed help, but he was still unconscious, lying on the dirt floor next to the beaten Mao Feng while the village elder watched over the two of them.
“That was certainly quite a spectacle,” Zhang Shi said, warmly smiling. “It seems we have a martial artist in our midst.” He started clapping, and the rest of the crowd followed, all tension broken. I grinned, unable to contain my pride. This was my first ever win in a fight. It was a glorious moment, both fleeting but sublime.
“Now,” Zhang Shi began, “who else wants to show their fighting prowess?” The crowd of students roared in excitement, with only several of them remaining calm, including Yong Qiang and Bing Meihui. I returned to being one of the onlookers once more and began to wonder to myself how I was able to attain such power during the fight with Mao Feng. Is the [Reminiscence] En hiding its strength? Or is there something I don’t know? I closed my eyes and felt the Primary En embedded in my dantian, replenishing the qi that I lost while I was creating my engraving. The fights between the students went by without anything else unexpected happening, with the few A-rank En users defeating those with B-rank En and conversely, the ones with B-rank En defeating the few C-rank En users.
Finally, it was time for the duel between the two S-rank En users in our class. Clouds gathered and trees swayed in the wind. Yong Qiang stepped up into the clearing, and Bing Meihui followed his lead, standing opposite of him. It was to be a fight between lightning and ice. I closely watched the two of them. Between the S-rank [Lightning Strike] En and the S-rank [Ice Touch] En, which would win in a real combat situation? Zhang Shi indicated for the two of them to start, and a bolt of lightning flew out from Yong Qiang’s direction, straight towards the head of Bing Meihui. The lightning was quicker than my eye could perceive. Suddenly, an ice wall was erected and blocked the sudden strike, a crater being melted into its side. The blonde prodigy ran towards Bing Meihui, causing her, after several seconds, to form an icicle in her hand, her eyes squinting in concentration. The icicle could be felt from here, such was the sheer cold it emitted.
Bing Meihui threw the sharp cone of ice and scarred Yong Qiang’s left eye, an injury that wasn’t enough to stop him. He flinched, his eye spraying crimson blood, but still continued to run. Bing Meihui cursed under her breath. He immediately reached out with his hand for her chest and managed to touch her, but a sudden armor of ice appeared where he had touched, freezing his hand and covering Bing Meihui in protective gear. A slight grin crept to her lips. I was impressed. So this was what Zhang Shi meant when he said that engraving tokens could be used defensively. Yong Qiang was startled but still activated his engraving, electrocuting the armor of ice around her but leaving her unharmed.
But then, she grew as still as a statue, and the ice around her began melting. Her eyes widened in surprise, but the rest of her body remained stagnant. With no sense of balance, she fell on the grassy floor.
“I win,” said her opponent, a deep breath being exhaled from his lips.
“How?” Bing Meihui asked, her cool demeanor changing into a look of slight panic. Yong Qiang looked at Zhang Shi.
“It was never said that using multiple En was not allowed, right, teacher?”
Zhang Shi nodded. “Good work using the B-rank [Paralysis Field] En in the same moment as when you activated the electricity saved in your engraving.” He looked around at the awed students. “For those who do not know, the [Paralysis Field] En is activated in a small area around its user, meaning that it affects both enemies and allies. There are several flaws to using this En. One problem is that you have to get really close to your opponent, and another is that it is very easy to neutralize.” He patted Yong Qiang on the shoulder. “Hui Gui Yong Qiang displayed a cunning mind for strategy, even if it meant he had to hide his En from his fellow classmates.” Bing Meihui regained the use of her limbs as Yong Qiang walked away.
Zhang Shi clapped his hands to get our attention. “We will take a break in our lessons for now, and return to the classroom once our injured students are adequately healed. Please give us a moment for this.” Most students weren’t severely hurt and were able to spring back to health fairly quickly, with Mao Feng already leaning on a tree. He was grumbling to himself while an entourage of boys comforted him, no doubt aiming to get in the good graces of the Mao family. Several students came up to me giving their congratulations, but most crowded around Yong Qiang, both an amazing fighter and someone who belonged to a powerful family. I walked over to the village elder healing my brother.
“Will he be okay?” I asked.
He looked up at me. “He’ll be perfectly fine once he gets moved to Hui Gui village’s hospital. And don’t worry, the village head will pay for any costs.” He smiled. “It would certainly help if you had a restorative En with you.”
“Maybe I’ll be able to get one someday,” I replied, slightly embarrassed.
Zhang Shi came over and looked down at the unconscious boy lying on the dirt floor. “We may have to give him his lessons tomorrow, unfortunately. There are quite a few things I wish to teach you all today, and the sun is about to set.” He stroked his beard. “Sorry for this, Hui Gui Dao Mei.”
“It’s alright,” I said. “Knowing him, he’ll probably be able to catch up quickly.”
“Very well then,” he said, turning to face the rest of the students. “Attention! We will be continuing our lessons in the usual classroom. Please follow me.” Zhang Shi started walking and we followed, passing through a series of trees and eventually finding ourselves in front of a rectangular building. There were flowers set in the front, grown with a diversity of colors, from red, yellow, blue, to green. Parents would sometimes come and beautify the area, a fact I knew all too well from the efforts my mother made to assist public services. We entered the classroom and sat in our regular seats, with our teacher standing behind the podium.
“I must ask you all something,” Zhang Shi said. “What did we learn today from fighting? Can anyone tell me?”
“To be strong!” someone shouted. Some students clamored in agreement.
“Maybe,” Zhang Shi mused, a hand on his beard. “We learned how to more effectively use our En in combat, surely. But this is not what I was thinking. What I am thinking is that we have learned that a conduit for using our En, namely, the engraving token, allows for a quicker release. What else have we learned? Hui Gui Yong Qiang?” Yong Qiang was raising his hand and stood up when his name was called.
“Yes, teacher,” he said. “We have also learned that it is dangerous to only rely on something like the engraving token in battle. Our bodies can only handle two or three of them at a time, and they will quickly run out when fighting. This is why we must also practice channeling our qi and activating our En the traditional way.”
“Well spoken,” said Zhang Shi. “And to do that, there are three components that must be paid attention to. Visualization, emotion, and cultivation. They are all quite simple to digest. Visualization just means that you have to have some sort of objective for your En, some impetus that warrants its activation. One must note that En, though not intelligent, are qi-filled entities that have life and cannot be thought of as normal tools. If I use my [Healing Mist] En with the specific purpose of healing someone, then it will work faster than if I use it for no reason at all.”
“Second is emotion. One’s emotions are important for how they will affect the stability of qi channeling, and maintaining equanimity in a fight is extremely important. Conversely, being able to knock your opponent off-balance by startling their emotions is a viable strategy.”
“Third, cultivation. If I am a rank three cultivator and am against a rank one cultivator, then I will be able to activate my En faster than my opponent nine out of ten times. One’s level of cultivation matters, however, these three components are all tied together by practice. Any questions?”
I raised my hand.
“Yes, Hui Gui Dao Mei?”
“Is it possible for someone of a lower rank to defeat an opponent of a higher rank?”
He nodded his head. “Yes, definitely. There are even stories of immortals being killed by cultivators in the mortal realm due to a sheer overpowering in numbers. Ambush tactics work the best when fighting against someone like that.” He winked. “As you may be able to tell, I have quite a violent past. Now, I have told you three things about the activation of En: visualization, emotion, and cultivation. But how is it that people cultivate? How do you increase the paltry pool of qi in your dantian? Most of you will have an amount of qi that won’t even be able to fill a small bowl, leading to quick exhaustion after the usage of En.”
Zhang Shi climbed onto the surface of the podium and sat in a lotus position. “The key is meditation. More specifically, you must be fully concentrated on breaking the walls of your dantian. To do so means that the pool of qi in your body must flow against the dantian walls and break them apart, slowly but surely. Once you have had a breakthrough to the next stage of your cultivation, you will know.” He gestured to us to follow him. “Try it out. I will join you in quiet meditation.”
I entered the lotus position he demonstrated and closed my eyes, focusing on the qi in my dantian. The dantian was like a spherical container, and a transparent liquid flowed in there. The water-like substance only took up a fourth of the container, indicating my position as an initial stage rank one cultivator. I focused on manipulating my qi, banging against the dantian walls and causing them to shudder. My body grew taut and I started sweating from my brow. Finally, a small part of the wall broke apart, and I relaxed, opening my eyes. I looked around the room and noticed that everyone else was struggling in the same way, though Yong Qiang seemed fine.
Zhang Shi exhaled a long gust of wind. “We will stop for today, as the sun is setting. Please practice this at home as much as you can.”
Mao Longwei stepped into an ornately built palace situated in the middle of Hui Gui village. It was large and designed with care, but not grandiose or flamboyant. He walked past the two guards in front of the entrance and went up the stairs. The orange-haired man knocked on the doors lightly, and a servant came out to greet him.
“Let me see the village head,” he said gruffly. “I have important business with him.” The servant bowed and gestured for him to enter. He marched to a room located in the center of the house and opened the doors. “Hui Gui Mao Longwei greets the village head.” He kneeled and clasped his fist.
“What do you need?” The man in front of Mao Longwei was shirtless and held rippling muscles. He was old and wrinkly, with his long goatee growing white and the top of his head containing not a strand of hair. But he had a powerful presence and a youthful vigor. He was sitting in the lotus position. “Is there something urgent happening in the village?”
“No, sir,” Mao Longwei said. “I was wondering if I may request permission to receive the [Speedy Growth] En from the locker of the immortals. As you know, my dantian was damaged while in the Barren Fields, and I need to reach a higher stage of cultivation in order to heal it. But I don’t have much time left, or at least, not enough time to break the current walls of my dantian.”
The village head’s face grew sullen. “I am sorry, Hui Gui Mao Longwei, but we cannot break the rules of the village no matter what. The En placed by the immortals in the sacred locker are to be given only to fifteen-year-olds meant to awaken their qi.”
“I believe that as an elder who has served for many faithful years, I should be allowed to receive some allowance for my unlawful actions.” Mao Longwei stared at the man in front of him meaningfully.
The village head thought for a moment but then sighed. “You do have a point. Ask your father if he will allow you to receive that En. If it is an immortal giving permission, then I will be fine with it this one time.” He gazed at Mao Longwei. "No exceptions will be made for anyone else, do you understand?"
Mao Longwei bowed low. “Thank you, sir.”
Bing Meihui entered her home. It was a dingy place on the outskirts of the village that was falling apart in several places. She dreaded hearing what her mother would say about her loss. Something about how she was a useless child that wasted the expensive clothes bought for her, or how she never should’ve been born in the first place. Her face twisted into a grimace, bracing for the worst. But her mother’s shrill voice didn’t emerge from the darkness. Instead, a towering man appeared.
“How—” she began.
“How did I get in? It’s not that hard to sneak past the guards when this place is literally on the edge of the village. It’s not like you get intruders all the time.” He had a gravelly voice that grated on the ears and carried a constant stench of alcohol. “Anyway, I wanted to see how my daughter was doing.”
Bing Meihui didn’t say anything. She hated her father but was also afraid of him, afraid of his strength. As a rank four cultivator, he would’ve been prestigious in this village, but since he was from the North, a place she heard from her mother was full of monsters and demons, he was only considered at the bottom of the barrel. Finally, she spoke.
“Why are you here?”
“What kind of father doesn’t see his daughter on her birthday?”
“You missed it,” she muttered.
“You missed it,” she said. A glow appeared in her dantian, located right below her heart, and she formed an icicle in her hand. “I have my Primary En now, and it’s an S-rank.”
He grunted. “The [Ice Touch] En is alright. Easily countered, though.” He pointed a finger to the roof and an ember appeared. “A [Firestarter] En that I found while killing bandits. Defeats ice pretty well.”
Bing Meihui frowned. “This isn’t a competition.”
Her father shrugged. “Either way, I hope your mother is doing well. I sent her out to buy groceries. We’re having a family dinner tonight.”
“And then you’ll abandon us like you do every year?”
He laughed at this. “You make it sound so harsh. I send you money as well, which I’m sure you’ve spent extravagantly on those clothes of yours.”
Bing Meihui flushed in embarrassment. “Either way, you only care for yourself. If you didn’t want to deal with the responsibility of having a child, then you should’ve never had one in the first place.”
“You talk big for a kid,” he said, smiling. “Don’t take it too personally. I have things to take care of in the North.” He reached for the top of her head, but she flinched and backed away.
Suddenly, the door to the hovel opened and a disheveled woman walked in. “Bing Meihui!” She grasped the girl by the shoulders and stared into her eyes. “I heard Hui Gui Yong Qiang beat you today? How could you lose? Huh? What do you have to say for yourself?” Her eyes were bulging out of her face and her forehead was covered with beads of sweat.
“Relax,” the man commanded. “Don’t scare her.”
“Welcome home, mother,” Bing Meihui said, her face turning gloomy.
I sat on my bed and slowly tore off pieces of my dantian walls by attacking it with my pool of qi. It was a strenuous process, and I tired of it quickly. Suddenly, a knock was heard against my bedroom door. I wondered who it was, but smiled when I thought about the likely suspect. He swung open the door and embraced me.
“I’m back, little brother!” he said, a wide smile on his face. Dao Xing hugged me tight before letting go of his grip. “I heard from the other classmates that you managed to defeat Mao Feng. Tell me about it, how did it happen?” I told him the story of how the [Reminiscence] En suddenly gave me a vision of something I had never seen before in my life, and he thought about it for a second, a finger on his chin. “This might be a rare occurrence of a low-ranking En being stronger than a high-ranking one. I’m mostly just guessing, though.”
His right hand suddenly clenched into a fist, and his face twisted in anger. “That Hui Gui Yong Qiang. I’ll get back at him someday for this, I promise.”
I grinned. “Of course you will, you’re my elder brother.”
“Ah!” He jumped up suddenly. “I have to review the material that I missed today. Can you help me out?”
I told him about the components of visualization, emotion, and cultivation, and how they all affected the startup time of one’s En. He understood my explanations instantly, and had already started meditating by the time I got back to my room from eating dinner. We cultivated in silence, finally dozing off when our exhaustion overcame us.