A shapeless, tumorous mass of flesh, perhaps 2 meters in height and half that in girth, floats in a cylindrical, transparent glass tank in front of me. Tubes, filled with flowing, murky fluids, plunge deep into that mass of flesh at seemingly random spots, their other ends plugged into the whirring, blocky machines surrounding the tank, on each of which is encased a red jewel, glittering brightly. Scattered bubbles sometimes escape from the points where the tubes meet the flesh, as if this repulsive thing is actually breathing and living. Following the bubbles, tendrils of black blood slowly uncoil from its skin, growing and rising up through the water like algae taking root on an underwater rock and blooming to life. The tendrils don’t last long, though. Quickly, they dissipate and fade away, drawn with the water as it cycles out through the drain and in through the pump the tank is equipped with so as to keep it clean. Every now and then, a small shudder runs through the mass of flesh, making its folds and bumps quiver and shiver disgustingly.
That’s what it is.
However, regardless of how disgusting it is, that shapeless mass of flesh is the culmination of hundreds of years of research. Several generations of researchers have come and gone, pouring all their skill and all their craft into creating this one disgusting object.
“The fusion is stable?” I ask absently to the head researcher standing next to me in respectful silence.
“Yes, Lord Wayland. Even using AK-A-13’s blood as a base and catalyst, it took us a while to synthesize the correct compound that would inhibit rejection. I can only apologize for the delay. But…” The man allows himself a satisfied little smirk. “We’ve finally done it.”
Nodding, I take a step forward and almost stick my nose against the glass of the tank. Just gazing upon this monstrosity makes me feel unclean, so I close my eyes and try to feel for what I’m looking for with my soul force.
Soon, I find it.
A trickle of qi, seemingly without source, springing up from nothing, deep within the mass of flesh, where that malformed thing’s dantian rests.
A Well of qi.
As far as Wells go, this one is very weak, of course. The flow of qi it produces is slow and almost undetectable, even though the thing’s consciousness has been reduced to its most basic form and stripped of all its defensive instincts and shouldn’t display any resistance to outside investigation.
But as weak as it is, that flow of qi is steady.
The Well keeps creating qi out of thin air to nourish and sustain the mass of cancerous flesh that serves as its host body.
And we can siphon some of this qi for ourselves.
In essence, this disgusting thing is a self-sustaining, inexhaustible qi generator.
For the first time in history, qi is being produced by something that’s not an overgod. Real, usable qi, too. Not the Tainted ersatz the demons use for themselves. Something that humans can make use of. Something that humans can absorb and employ for their own benefits, without their soul ripping itself to shreds in abject suffering as soon as they come into contact with it.
An artificial, man-made Well.
And thus, my task is – almost – complete.
Harnessing the Taint to create the apostles was already a very strong start. We still have to see if their growth rate will remain as steep and steady as it currently is, but if it does, humanity will have gained the ability to muster up virtually endless armies of disposable cannon fodder.
Then, finding an antidote to the Taint – although imperfect and rife with side effects – was a terrific second achievement. Demons are one of the greatest and most pernicious threats to humanity’s continued existence. But if we can refine this antidote in massive quantities, gods will no longer risk death at the first injury they suffer in battle, like they do today. It will redefine warfare against demons, strip them of their greatest weapon, and put humanity in an impregnable position of superiority.
And yet, these two milestones pale in comparison to the one represented by this repugnant, overgrown tumor floating in front of me.
With this, humanity no longer lives on borrowed time.
And with this, my own position is set in stone.
Like the researcher next to me, I can’t prevent the corners of my lips from rising into a gleeful smile. The sheer happiness of witnessing a plan a millennium in the making finally coming together so beautifully is overwhelming.
And ‘beautiful’ truly is the word.
The sequence of events that lead me to this day could even be called miraculous. Determination turning into defeat, then into despair, then into hope, and eventually, rising up all the way into this magnificent victory. One could write a book about it all.
Indeed, I might as well say that this success only took shape during the past 300 years. The years beforehand mostly consisted of successive failures…
The fiasco with AK-A-13 which started it all had seemed like a terrible loss, at the time – and I suppose I still weep at the sheer waste of priceless resources – but if Thelyron hadn’t taken it away, it would have been disposed of like any other test subject and never would have ended up in the Planar Tower, never would have transformed into a full-blown demon, and never would have become the cornerstone of the whole project.
Really, if that bastard was still alive, I’d even go so far as thanking him. Because in the end, objectively, the damage he caused was a small price to pay to witness the completion of my goals.
Now, should I report to the head of the family and the elders?
After a few moments of consideration, I decide against it. I came to this remote and inconsequential little plane so that I would be left in peace, away from the bloody power struggles that plague the Godrealm. As it is, no one thought I would succeed in creating a Well, so I’ve been left to my own devices for the past millennium. If I suddenly return to the Godrealm and announce my success, my standing in the family and the odds of my being selected as next head of the family would be greatly strengthened, but at the same time, my competitors would be able to argue that my qi generator is still only a half-finished product.
And they would be right.
There are still too many issues that need solving.
This Well is only a prototype. A proof that artificially manufacturing such a thing isn’t impossible, like everyone believed.
“It needs to be stronger,” I say briefly to the head researcher without turning around. “More efficient.”
I can feel him nod behind me. “Of course, Lord Wayland. Now that we’ve got a stable, reproducible base on which we can work, that’ll be the next order of business.”
I turn back to face him and ask, “What problems do you foresee toward achieving this?”
The researcher – Hammon – rubs his chin thoughtfully, threading his fingers through his scraggy beard. “Hmm… Well, I see three different ways to improve the yield of our generator. One, increase the number of constituent apostles used in the creation of the generator. Two, increase the quality of each constituent apostle. Using higher ranked apostles should increase the amount of qi the generator can produce. These two first solutions are pretty much the same, really, except that they focus on either quantity or quality. Solution number three is to simply wait.”
I cock an eyebrow at the unexpected proposal. “Wait? For what?”
“For the generator to grow by itself, Lord Wayland. The mechanism behind it isn’t understood, yet, but we’ve noticed a slight increase in yield since the generator was first built, even though we didn’t effect any changes to it ourselves.” Hammon shrugs. “The generator appears to be growing by itself. Which isn’t completely unimaginable, since it’s actually a living being – or rather, an aggregate of living beings. It’s entirely possible that, for a Well, the process of generating qi itself is a form of cultivation.”
“That thing is cultivating?” I ask dubiously, glancing at the shapeless mass of flesh in the tank.
“It’s only a theory, Lord. We may be its inventors, but as I said, we do not understand everything about it, as of yet. Much study is still needed to grasp all of its secrets.”
I frown in thought. “I see. How long would we have to wait to see noticeable improvements in its performance?”
“Well, that really depends on how you define ‘noticeable’, Lord, and what use you intend for that generator.”
“I intend for it to power spells and aid in cultivation.”
“I see. Then, you would have to wait for quite some time, I’m afraid,” Hammon replies, shaking his head. “At the rate the generator is producing qi right now, and depending on the efficiency of the breathing techniques of the practitioner who would employ the generator, it would take dozens, hundreds, thousands of years to simply go up a rank. Powering simple spells would be more manageable, but it would be much easier for the practitioner to simply draw from his own qi reserves. To lower that to more acceptable durations would take… centuries, I fear.” Hammon hesitates for a moment before continuing. “As you might have already understood, Lord Wayland, the generator in its current state does not really fit your needs. It would only provide negligible benefits if used in combat – and that’s assuming you could bring it to the battlefield in the first place. Considering how cumbersome and fragile it is, this would be a dubious proposition, at best.”
That certainly comforts me in my idea not to report to the family, yet. I am absolutely certain my siblings would try to undermine my achievement by pointing out my creation’s admittedly obvious flaws. As long as I don’t have a practicable device, something sturdy and useful, there is no point in bringing any attention on myself, from the Adkins family or whoever else.
The head of the family is still centuries away from announcing his successor, in any case. As long as nothing untoward happens to him in the meantime, there is no point in my rushing this.
Even though it’s imperfect, the hard part is already done, after all, and the first step has already been taken. Now, it’s just a matter of working out the kinks.
“All right, solution number three is out, then,” I say. “Solution number one can be arranged by taking some apostles away from the army. This will hamper the war effort against the majin, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. Then, tell me what you need to make solution number two happen, and you will get it.”
Hammon scratches his head, looking uncomfortable. “Well, a way to make the apostles stronger… I’m not sure I’m the person to whom you should ask that question, Lord Wayland. You might have more luck with Ingram. I believe he’s in charge of the research into the apostles themselves, yes?”
“Ingram was at the second lab. He died in the explosion.”
“Oh. A shame,” Hammon says, not appearing particularly distraught by the fiery death of his colleague. “Well, if you want me to hazard a guess, Lord Wayland, I would say that grasping AK-A-13 would be our best bet. She was the key in the past, and she might be the key now, as well. We have enough samples of her blood and tissues, but through all those years, we’ve never been able to analyze her dantian, considering this would have resulted in her death. But now that I understand she’s become more target than asset and we no longer have to care about her well-being, it would be beneficial for us to harvest everything we can from her body. Even beyond her dantian, we might have missed other valuable parts.”
“Besides AK-A-13, I’m not sure where to start looking, to be perfectly honest. No, let me rephrase. I’m not sure where to start looking for a shortcut. Of course, we can and will continue our experiments on the apostles themselves. Slow and steady wins the race, as they say. What AK-A-13’s dantian would give us, is a push in the right direction.”
Certainly, I don’t want to leave that thing running freely around Caldera. Who knows what it could do? It should be too weak and isolated to present any threat to me or my plans, but at the same time, there are too many unknowns about its existence.
Eliminating it once and for all is definitely a priority.
But… not the first priority.
Let’s not lose sight of my long-term goals, here. As Hammon said, AK-A-13 is only a shortcut.
Now that its escape has become a done fact, there is no point in crying over spilt milk. Gareth can handle AK-A-13 on his own. I’ve learned through his periodic reports that he’s already messed it up at Fushia City, but it’s not out of my expectations that he would underestimate his enemy. Surely, he’s learned better since then.
Certainly, it would have been more convenient if AK-A-13 had been destroyed a few weeks back, before it could escape from the Planar Prison, but this time, it was I who messed up.
And the second lab’s explosion changed the game.
Even beyond the injuries I was dealt at the time, it was also a proof that my research facilities are vulnerable. And I will not jeopardize their safety in order to satisfy my personal wish to chase after a mere shortcut, a mere loose end.
What really matters is the third lab, even more now that the prototype is complete.
I will dispatch a few gods here to protect this place. In the meantime, my first goal should be to find the traitor who divulged the location of the second lab to the majin. If the same incident were to repeat with the third lab, the loss would be incalculable – on the level of Thelyron stealing AK-A-13 and sabotaging most of the project, 300 years ago, or perhaps even worse than that.
I suppose I could simply destroy the majin themselves – a traitor is meaningless if there is no one to betray us to – but genocide seems rather harsh, as a first response, even if there are more majin on other planes to soak up the losses I would inflict on their species here.
Yes, I’ll at least give it a try and see if I can unearth the traitor.
If it doesn’t pan out, I can always exterminate the majin afterward.