Sen spent several weeks trying to weaken the pills he was making. While he found that he could consistently reduce their potency, he couldnt reliably reduce the amount. Some of it was simply the unpredictability of how the ingredients interacted with each other. He could never fully replicate any method because the conditions inside the cauldron were simply too chaotic from one session to the next, even if he was making the exact same kind of pill. It went deeper than that, though. Sometimes, the limitations he put on tampering with the process would reduce the potency by more than half. Other times, the potency was only marginally lower, even when limiting himself in the same ways. Sen came to believe that there was simply more at work than he could see, some deeper level to the process that he could inadvertently touch but not directly control.
And he tried to see it. Attempt after attempt, he tried to peer into the depths of those alchemical mysteries. Every once in a while, he thought hed catch the tiniest flash of what was happening, but he eventually had to accept that he was at the limits of his perception. Maybe, after he advanced his cultivation again a few more times, he might have a chance. It seemed wholly unlikely that hed unravel those mysteries in time to be useful. He didnt even bother asking for advice about it. He could see that Fu Ruolan was thoroughly invested in his success. If she had seen those deeper pieces of the process, she would have told him about them to bolster his odds of success. If he was going to make the pills weaker, hed have to rely on a measure of blind luck to achieve that end. He hated it, but that was the reality in front of him. Denying it wouldnt do him any good, especially now that he was back on a clock.
Fu Ruolan hadnt given him a deadline. His body had done it for her. The fix she had used to stabilize him was starting to fail. Hed asked some pointed questions about it after theyd established a more amicable relationship and gotten some less-than-comforting answers. It was a one-time kind of fix, which at least made sense to him. The effects were so unnatural, effectively pinning him and his cultivation in place, that he assumed that there would be all kinds of limitations on it. Hed been right. A second attempt would, at best, damage his cultivation. At worst, it would leave him with a shattered body and broken mind. Its intended purpose was to buy a cultivator time to find a fix to a lethal problem. Hed gotten more than a year.
Now, he was noticing little things. Tiredness where he wouldnt have felt it before. Lingering aches in his joints. Problems that no cultivator who spent most of their time in an alchemy lab should ever be feeling. Worse, the symptoms hed been experiencing before would come back much faster than theyd developed the first time. It was another of the lovely limitations on the temporary fix. Sens rough estimate based on what Fu Ruolan had told him was that he might have a month left. When he drew that conclusion, his instinct was to keep it to himself. There was nothing anyone could do to help him at this point. Telling Falling Leaf and Fu Ruolan would just make them worry and hover, which would be distracting. Of course, it would be bad for him if they found out after the fact, and he knew that they would figure it out. He didnt know how theyd figure it out, they just would.
Shaking his head, he went looking for them. He found Fu Ruolan first. She was practicing with a three-section staff. Hed never worked with one of those before, so Sen paid close attention to what he was seeing. The three-section staff was a terribly versatile weapon from what Sen could see. While hed never want to try it himself, he could see that it would be useful for blocking, striking, and potentially even trapping someones limbs. He supposed that you could choke someone with it if they let you get too close. Hed have to be very cautious if he ever came into conflict with someone who specialized in the weapon the way Fu Ruolan did. Hed have to practice against her when he had fewer desperately pressing matters. She turned her attention to him after she finished what looked like a form. Sen inclined his head in respect.
Your friend is a frighteningly quick study, and Im rusty, noted Fu Ruolan. Im only keeping ahead of her because Im stronger and faster. You tell yourself it doesnt really matter but neglect a weapon for a mere fifty years and its like starting over.
Fifty years? asked Sen, trying to wrap his head around ignoring something for that long.
Stolen novel; please report.
It only sounds like a long time because youre so young. When you get to be my age, decades go by like that, said Fu Ruolan, snapping her fingers for emphasis.
Ill take your word for it. Im not surprised that Falling Leaf is a quick study. She picked up a lot of unarmed combat just from watching me train. Im pretty good because I practiced so long and so hard that its basically second nature for me. Shes a natural at it. A born fighter.
Fu Ruolan shook her head. Close, but not quite. Shes a natural predator. There is a difference.
Sen pursed his lips as he thought that over. Hed only ever seen Falling Leaf being violent when it was a life-or-death situation. Of course, that didnt mean she wasnt violent back on the mountain when he wasnt around. She was a panther back then, and she had to be hunting and eating something. It was easy for him to overlook that now that she looked human. But he suspected that Fu Ruolan had the right of it. Those instincts probably werent buried very deep. Maybe they werent buried at all, and shed just made a point of shielding him from it.
I guess thats true.
Dont look so depressed. Its not a bad thing.
No. Your fix for my situation is wearing off. I dont know exactly how much time I have left, but I cant keep experimenting. I need to work through the rest of the primer and then make the pill I need. Ill try not to overpower it too much, but its not going to matter if I dont make it soon.
Fu Ruolans lips tightened and her expression looked grim. If youve noticed symptoms, youve probably got less time than you think. You were in extraordinarily bad shape when I found you. Those symptoms will bounce back fast. A week or two, maybe three if your pain tolerance is very, very high, and then theres nothing anyone can do. Work quickly.
I will, said Sen.
You should tell Falling Leaf before you seal yourself in your alchemy lab.
Sen gave Fu Ruolan a slightly pitying look.
Theres no need. Shes standing over there, he said, pointing to a particularly dark patch of shadow.
Fu Ruolan gave the shadow a penetrating look until Falling Leaf stepped out of it.
How long were you there? demanded the nascent soul cultivator, only to be ignored. How long was she there?
Sen shrugged. Who knows? Falling Leaf?
The panther girls green eyes hadnt left Sens face since she stepped into the light.
Why are you still here? she demanded. You heard the madwoman. Work quickly!
Sen gave Falling Leaf a very proper bow and then strode toward the galehouse. He heard the two women talking as he moved away.
Im not really mad, you know? said Fu Ruolan.
Of course, you are. Youre training him. Only the mad do that, said Falling Leaf.