Jin Tao sat within the verti-car, looking out of place. It wasn’t that he was unused to the car, of course. He was uncomfortable in his own skin.
For the last month he’d been tossing and turning, coming in and out of consciousness until finally waking up the night before. He still hadn’t been able to shake that feeling, the sense of being somewhere between sleep and wakefulness.
Everything that had happened since entering the Avenue has felt like a dream, every day stretching by like a year. It had been an eternity of pain, where his body struggled to absorb and persist against the poison of the Fantascia Genetica. He’d been ripped apart, and put back together.
He’d survived it mainly by virtue of his dogged willpower. He’d refused to let his body get the better of him. That wasn’t to say the painful experience hadn’t permanently burned itself in to his memory. When he final came around, he understood that it hadn’t been a nightmare.
Now it seemed the obvious, caught as he was in this fugue state it felt like time was flying by. The pain in his body was subsiding, replaced by strange sensations. He’d have flashes of cold, then searing heat. Sometimes his whole body would itch, and then that excruciating pain would come back. They would come in short-lived waves that tumbled over one another. It was like he was living in some strange illusion. He didn’t feel at all like himself.
At last, when he’d been let out of the life support pod and his feet touched the ground again, he could almost feel the earth’s vitality coursing up through his limbs. It was a sensation that was difficult to explain.
There were several things that were difficult to explain.
Not the least of these were the changes in his body. For starters, he was a good deal taller than he had been before taking the decoction. In the space of a month he seemed to have stretched at least two inches. His skinny frame had filled out. His muscles hadn’t grown larger, necessarily, but there was certainly more definition. He felt more… elastic, more malleable.
More than his looks, his personality had also undergone some changes – a normal reaction to the experiences and environment he’d been in for the last month. He’d grown up.
He unconsciously clenched his hands in to fists. His body, suddenly and ferociously, filled with wild power. It rose up from within him until it threatened to spill free, like a tsunami – a landslide, especially when compared with how limited his energy had been before. As his Discipline flooded him, threads of thin golden hair sprouted from his skin, and he stretched to over two meters. The dumb mutt from before released an aura of majesty.
Are these arms even mine? This power…
He allowed his newfound power to course through him for a good few minutes, before gradually allowing it to abate.
After awakening, he’d been subjected to a number of tests from Mika and Lin Guoguo. Though he’d been kept up most of the night from them, he didn’t feel tired. But that discomfort persisted, from last night until this very moment. There was still so much he didn’t understand.
Mika had told him all of this was normal. Any acquisition of power, especially so quickly, took time to get used to. He was told next he would be delivered to the Master, who would help him adapt to the changes and continue his training.
So it was that he found himself in the expensive verti-car, barreling through the skies towards who knows where. He had time to reflect upon his situation, and he was overjoyed.
He was ecstatic with his decision, one he knew to be right without question. Had it not been for the Professor, and his own hard work, he’d be nothing – just as he was before.
Now, though… now things were different. He had more power. He might need some time to feel comfortable in his own skin again, but the strength that filled him was a beautiful sensation in and of itself.
By the time he reached the training field, it was early morning. At some point during the journey – Jin Tao couldn’t remember – Mika and Lin Guoguo had donned a pair of silver masks. They walked with Jin Tao in to the training facility.
Someone was already there when they entered, and looked to have been waiting for some time. He led them from that point without any superfluous discussion.
The guide brought him to a group of familiar faces.
And of course he did. Wasn’t that the hateful pig-boy, Tang Xiao? And his sister beside him. He really couldn’t figure out how he could be so fat, while his little sister might as well have been a model.
There was also Zhou Qianlin, the school beauty, patron goddess of the broken hearted. Gu Yingying and Yan Ningya, talented female students in the mecha combat department, were also among them. Behind them, wasn’t that her brother Yan Zhanchen? He and his sister – along with Tang Xiao and his sister, Tang Mi – were praised as the strongest fighting duo in the NEU. Any time they teamed up in DreamNet, they racked up impressive scores.
Gathered around were others, and all of them were equally talented members of his school’s mecha combat division. Familiar figured, familiar names… they ran through his head as he looked them over.
It was strange though, he thought. Why did they all look so miserable?
Nearly every one of them was pale, with their faces pained and drawn. Some had black eyes, others looked like they’d been nearly drowned. A good number of them appeared to twitch uncontrollably, like they had the jitters.
What’s wrong with all these blessed ones? He thought. They look like mashed potatoes.
He managed, eventually, to draw his eyes away from the pathetic looking bunch. He spied five more people, situated in front of them. Three of them had golden masks, and two others hid behind silver, like Mika and Lin Guoguo.
Though they all wore masks, his eyes were instantly drawn to the man in the center. A nagging, familiar feeling tickled at the back of his mind.
They stopped a few feet away from Lan Jue. “Boss,” Mika said, “we’ve brought him for you.”
Lan Jue nodded, though when he spoke he addressed Jin Tao. “Fall in. First line, farthest to the left.”
The left flank… whether students or soldiers, he knew what that meant. Only the exemplary members got that spot. Right now that spot was occupied by Tang Xiao.
“As you command,” Jin Tao answered without hesitation, then trotted over. His heavy steps thudded loudly as he did so.
Lan Jue then turned his attention to the two girls. He spoke with Mika first. “You go ahead. Guoguo stays here.”
“Very well.” Mika’s answer was quick, but there was a hint of surprise. It was the first time seeing her boss this way, so cold and no-nonsense. But so manly! She desperately wanted to stay and see what was happening, but had no recourse but to obey.
Lin Guoguo veritably jumped in to action. Filled with excitement, she took up position behind him like the other silver-masked assistants.
Lan Jue faced the gathered students, and spoke to them next.
“I’m sure you all know our newest addition, Jin Tao. You know his reputation. However, starting today, he is one of you. Part of the team. He will train alongside you.”
Tang Xiao shot Jin Tao a sidelong glance. He wasn’t the least bit upset with the fact that the dumb-mutt had taken his position. Instead, his small, dark eyes were alive with sadistic glee over what his fellow Disciple was to experience.
Jin Tao was suddenly filled with a palpable sense of foreboding. He knew the look in that fat fox’s eye meant something nasty was on its way.
Lan Jue went on. “Now that we’re all here, pushups. Begin. No one stops till I say so.”
No one made a sound, no one dared complain. They fall to the ground and started their push-ups as fast as they could.
After yesterday’s torment, the students had only been given four hours of sleep before they were woken up. Whether physical or mental, they were all beat. In fact, they felt like they were on the verge of collapse. In the end, though, they persisted.
The most common style of push-ups helped define and strengthen the muscles of the shoulders, chest and triceps, with some work being done to the upper back. It was a fine exercise for full-body training.
For these kids, with their Talent and physical fitness, three to five hundred was just getting started. The problem – or, rather, problems – were the needles jutting out of them from various directions. Everyone had at least three, and they locked their Discipline away. That, in addition to the exhaustion they felt from the harsh treatment of the training, meant they were on their last legs. Some started to struggle after only thirty-five.
Lan Jue’s hand gripped a steel needle.
Again?! Is he kidding?!
The stabbing itself was a strangely stimulating. Not physically, but for the sense organs. But could this devil really be considering a fourth?
The push-ups continued.
The only one taking it in stride was Jin Tao. He was in better shape than he’d ever had been in his entire life. He was a blur, and by the one-minute mark he was approaching two-hundred without being out of breath. Only now was he beginning to feel a little flush from the exertion. His power flooded him, gave him power, so much so that he was afraid he couldn’t adequately control it.
Suddenly, there was a flash. Three quick bursts of… something. Jin Tao felt his body seize. Three shiny new needles sprouted from his back.
He remained there, at the high point of a push, frozen and flabbergasted. An Jue’s voice wafted towards him from behind. “Jin Tao is late, by an entire day. What you all experienced yesterday, he must endure today – and more, so that he can catch up.” As he spoke, a golden bolt of electricity struck Jin Tao. The young man had been in the process of rising to his feet, having shaken off the initial jabs. Now he remained still as a sculpture.
People are all the same; they want others to experience their pain, to exceed it. There was a sick, schadenfreude sense of comfort in it.
Seeing Jin Tao a victim of the devil’s lightning, and seeing him suffer the three needles as they had, immediately brought some solace to the beleaguered students. Suddenly the push-ups didn’t seem so bad.
Though they were operating on four hours of sleep, they didn’t feel weakened from it. They picked up speed, but none seemed to realize an important fact; no one cared how many they did. It wouldn’t make their future troubles any less terrifying.
It wasn’t long before the fourth needle was added to the third, and the boiling medicine water was reintroduced, for everyone. Jin Tao suffered the same fate, but no matter what Lan Jue threw at him, he endured.
That’s why one of the golden-masked monsters interrupted his steam bath with a fireball to the face.