Blossoming Path

Chapter 90: Fool’s Gold, Wise Decisions



Chapter 90: Fool's Gold, Wise Decisions

As the final moments of preparation ticked away, the air in the contestants' lounge thickened with anticipation. I clutched my scroll tightly, the additional ingredient I had chosen resting heavily in my mind—a bold choice, perhaps, but one that felt right.

Just as we were about to head towards the arena, Duan Jian sidled up to me, his smirk as polished as the gold threads on his robe. "Interesting choice. Seeking to balance the uselessness of pyrite with another useless substance? It seems your affinity for 'Fool's Gold' extends to your ingredients as well."

I almost rolled my eyes. So annoying and persistent. He was like a flea. Yes, a flea on a mangy dog – perfect. Imagining the puffy aristocrat as a flea soothed me, cooling me down as I prepared to response.

I met his gaze, unflinching. "A plan is only as good as its execution, Duan Jian. You should focus more on that, especially since you seemed to be floundering during the brainstorming."

His face tightened, the smirk faltering just a bit as if my words had hit closer to home than he cared to admit. Before he could retort, an official's sharp call cut through the tension. "Enough! All contestants, please proceed to the arena. We will be beginning shortly."

Duan Jian shot me a final glare before turning sharply on his heel and striding away. I watched him go, feeling a surge of determination. This was no time for distractions. Today, my focus was on the challenge at hand, not the petty squabbles of a rival.

The arena was buzzing as we entered, the atmosphere charged with a different kind of energy than the first round. The stands were filled not just with excited spectators but with many who carried themselves with an air of scholarly refinement. A few of whom I recognized as eliminated from the preliminaries and the first round. Their keen eyes and hushed, thoughtful discussions suggested a deep interest in the more nuanced aspects of alchemy. It seemed that the technical complexity of this round had drawn a crowd more appreciative of the intellectual rigor involved in our craft.

As they should! Unlike those uncouth folk who were here to ogle Bai Hua and Jingyu Lian. Hmph!

Assuming that this round would draw a more technically inclined audience made sense; after all, transforming something as deceptive and notoriously useless as pyrite into something of value was no small feat. It was the kind of challenge that separated true alchemists from mere potion brewers.

The arena was arranged meticulously for the competition, with twenty alchemical stations arrayed in an outward-facing circle around the crowd, and a rectangular judges' table at the center. Several distinguished figures sat at the table, their presence commanding attention, while Ma Hualong stood before them, outlining the rules of the Gauntlet with authoritative ease.

"Ladies and gentlemen, as we commence this round, allow me to introduce our esteemed judges from the Alchemy Association," Ma Hualong announced, his voice resonating through the arena.

Among the judges, two figures were particularly notable.

"Please welcome Elder Mingmei!" Ma Hualong continued, prompting a round of applause. An older woman in verdant robes stood, her gaze piercing and analytical, her grey hair meticulously coiffed into a bun. Her reputation preceded her; she was a figure I recognized immediately—not just by name but by the formidable aura she exuded.

Elder Zhu had often spoken of her with fondness. "Mei won't go easy on you just because you're from Verdant Lotus," he'd warned me.

She was his mentor, a titan in the field of alchemy who had left the sect to devote herself entirely to the craft, propelling the Alchemy Association's Pavilion of Arts to new heights without ever seeking the spotlight for herself.

Determined, I steeled myself to meet her stringent standards, knowing well that no personal connections would sway her judgment in this competition.

"And finally, please give a warm welcome to Elder Wei Lian!" Ma Hualong introduced the next judge.

A distinguished man with snow-white hair and piercing blue eyes stood up, acknowledging the crowd with a graceful nod. His robes, the color of moonlit silver, whispered of his status and influence. His features were quite striking. It's almost like...

I glanced at Jingyu Lian, I noticed an unmistakable tension in her posture. Her eyes, usually so composed, flicked towards Elder Wei Lian with an unreadable expression.

This was crazy! Blatant favoritism! How can a judge be directly related to a contestant?

However, no one seemed to mind or comment, so I just kept my inner thoughts to myself.

Grumbling along the way, I found my designated station containing all the requested materials I planned on working with for this round. And along with it, my requested ingredient as a reward for being the top five of the first round.

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The Sunfire Blade Grass.

The core of my most recent invention, the Ambrosia of Radiant Dawn. It was going to be the key that unlocks the pyrite's full potential.

Whether it was intentional or by chance, Duan Jian's station was as far as possible from mine. Perhaps to prevent any further sabotage attempts. Zhi Ruo and Tao Ren were adjacent to me, each absorbed in their preparations. The air was thick with concentration, the collective focus of my peers tangible as we all readied ourselves for the task ahead. Even though we were friends, none of us dared speak or talk during the hour we had to think of ideass. Time was too precious, to spend discussing with each other, especially considering how different our skillsets were as alchemists.

"Place your bets! The round will begin shortly!"

As the officials made their final checks and the crowd's murmurs swelled into a low roar of anticipation, I closed my eyes for a moment, centering myself. The task was clear, the objective set. All that remained was to execute my plan with precision.

I had many people's expectations riding on me! As well as the prizes, the fame and acclaim! I had to prove myself here, or I'd never be able to live it down.

The sound of Ma Hualong’s voice rang out, officially beginning the round. "Let the second challenge commence! You have two hours!"

As I started on my preparation, I selected the dandelion root and milk thistle first for their renowned purification properties. Each root was firm and earthy, promising potent effects. I laid out a small amount of cinnabar next, crucial for stabilization and ensuring the concoction would be safe for consumption. This delicate balance was key—too little could yield a volatile mixture, and too much would suppress the desired effects.

Around me, the arena was a hive of activity. Each contestant was immersed in their own world of alchemical crafting. Across the way, Tao Ren's workstation was a spectacle of its own. He had the pill furnace fired up, and the flames beneath it danced with an almost sentient vigor, reacting to his precise manipulations.

Catching my eye for a moment, Zhi Ruo was the picture of concentration, meticulously preparing his ingredients. We exchanged a brief, encouraging nod.

Turning back to my task, I took the dried Reishi mushroom, known for its properties as an adaptogen. It was essential for tempering the yang element in the elixir, allowing whoever consumed it to adapt gradually to the increased body temperature it would provoke. With practiced movements, I ground the mushroom to a fine powder using mortar and pestle, its earthy aroma rising subtly into the air. Followed by ginseng, moonbeam petals, and nightshade flowers.

With all the ingredients ready, I began the actual concoction. Pouring distilled water into the pill furnace, I infused it with my qi, gradually increasing the heat until the water bubbled fiercely, ready to receive the essence of the ingredients.

Next came the most critical part of the process—extracting the essence from the pyrite. Placing my hand on the metallic stone, I focused deeply, feeling for the core of the pyrite. Compared to when I first attempted essence extraction on metal, this was as easy as breathing. With a practiced push and pull of my internal energy, I coaxed the essence out, drawing it into my palm. Tiny beads of sweat pricked along my brow, not from the heat but the intensity of my focus.

All the late nights, the hours of training, studying, and preparing...It came to fruition right here.

Ma Hualong's voice broke through the murmurs of the crowd, tinged with surprise. "What we are witnessing is essence extraction, a formidable technique that once belonged to Master Li Tao of the Verdant Lotus sect. Remarkably, it has been revived by contestant Kai Liu,"

Ha! That's right! This crowd would undoubtedly appreciate me more than those of the first round. But this was just the beginning.

Steadily, I mixed the extracted essence into the boiling water, watching as the liquid took on a new character, a soft golden hue emerging. The process was delicate; each movement had to be precise, each timing exact. My focus was absolute, the noise and pressure of the surroundings fading into a blur. Only the elixir mattered now.

For the essence to combine properly into the water, I'd have to keep this up for some time. Just a steady flow of qi to keep the flame at the same temperature, along with precise stirring. Easy enough to do without thinking.

As I worked, I swept my eyes over the competition. It was hard to turn and see the others working at the opposite side of the arena with how the stations were positioned. Which meant I couldn't see competitors like Bai Hua and Duan Jian, but I could see Jingyu Lian working diligently on hers by turning my head to the right.

A subtle hum cut through the chatter of the crowd. Her station glowed brightly, catching the crowd's attention. Sigils and runes ran along her table inscripted onto a sheet of paper, glowing blue. I recognized them, but didn't quite understand. They were from my most difficult class at the Verdant Lotus sect, a concept I couldn't grasp with my current skills.

"Jingyu Lian is utilizing intermediate array formations with ease! It's remarkable to see such a technique being applied effectively, especially given that array formations of this complexity are usually reserved for more advanced alchemists with higher cultivation levels," Ma Hualong added. "It's no wonder she's the favorite to win the Gauntlet!"

Her hands moved in a blur, meticulously tracing symbols on the table, her brow furrowed with concentration. Sweat beaded on her forehead, her expression intense. It was unlike anything I'd seen before. Was she holding back this whole time? Why did she choose now, of all times, to display her skills?

Glancing towards the judges' table, I caught Elder Wei Lian watching Jingyu intently, a small smirk playing on his lips as he observed her work. His apparent pride in her performance was clear. Perhaps that was why Jingyu Lian seemed so harried.

Shaking off the distracting thoughts, I refocused on my own task. I wouldn't be so discouraged! I have weapons of my own, to bring me to the top!

The crowd's gasps had faded into a background hum, their attention now divided among the various alchemists' techniques being displayed.

I poured my qi deeply into the furnace, maintaining the exact temperature needed to fuse the essence properly with the other elements of the elixir. The distilled water took on a richer hue, the gold deepening as the transformation progressed.

"Contestants! You have thirty minutes left!"

I moved, made aware of the looming deadline. I added the ingredients carefully, favoring precision over speed. From Tao Ren's direction, I could hear flames rising and light from my peripheral, raising the temperature to an uncomfortable degree and shouting expletives. But I refused to take my eyes off my work. I was almost there!

Tweaking the recipe had some risks, but it was necessary to accommodate the two-hour time limit we had to make our concoctions. However, this meant my concoction wouldn't be as strong as the Ambrosia of Radiant Dawn, but I took that into consideration when thinking up what to make for the second round.

Duan Jian was right, in a way. Mixing together metal and wood-element ingredients was a fool's errand. But pyrite had a special quality; it's ability to ignite. This dual-element alignment of metal and fire gave it a unique edge. Because fire and wood elements are compatible, the combination not only reduced the risk of failure but also enhanced the yang properties of my elixir. This was crucial, especially considering the quick concoction time which might have otherwise limited its potency.

Contrary to Ma Hualong's words in the contestant's lounge, pyrite was far from useless. That was something many of the alchemists gathered here understood, and I was certain it would bring about Duan Jian's downfall. To call any ingredient without worth showed just how shallow his skills and understanding were of the alchemical arts. Of that, I was sure.

But I learned something during this competition. I never would've considered pyrite as a complementary ingredient to my elixirs until now. In fact, I had only scratched the surface of what I was capable of, and the Gauntlet allowed me to explore it.

The concoction laid before me, boiling softly in the pill furnace, still in liquid form. A metallic tang cut through the earthy aroma of my elixir, like the smell of blood amidst a blooming field.

In the final minutes, I meticulously bottled the completed elixir. Everything was within expectation. I revised and devised my recipe many times in my head, although the time limitation certainly made it so I couldn't fully realize the concoction's potential.

"TIME'S UP! CONTESTANTS, PREPARE TO PRESENT YOUR PRODUCTS TO THE JUDGES!"

It was showtime.

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