Following instructions was easy. Ursel could replicate most earth techniques displayed to her in a reasonable time frame. Forging her own path was more difficult. Figuring out how to use her roots to infiltrate Mountain Steel had been a hard process. Part of it might have been master Renato not fully knowing how her ability could work- he didn’t have the same totems as her, after all. But regardless of the reason, his instructions had been limited, and it took longer to figure things out.
Then there was Diamond Defense. Easy to practice. Ingest a particular mineral, circulate earth element to dissolve it and distribute it throughout the body, focusing on the skin and bones. She’d done it quite young… without really having permission. But the cost was not in the difficulty or time, simply the materials themselves.
And she had no idea how anyone came up with that. Sure, her body and the materials were both tough, but she didn’t exactly have a layer of rocks all over her. Her skin was still very skinlike. So, how did anyone come up with that? And how could she apply that to more of her body, so she couldn’t get knocked about? The most troubling problem was definitely her brain. If it rattled about she could get a concussion, but messing with such a delicate internal organ was asking for disaster.
Master Renato didn’t have anything particularly helpful when she asked. “Generally, people will have a moment of inspiration. From there, they work out the details.”
Inspiration, yeah. How useful, but she wasn’t going to wait for that to just… appear. It wasn’t that Renato wasn’t trying to be helpful, but she needed something more. So she went to the one who always seemed willing to talk about cultivation in weird ways- her father. It took a bit of travel time between the Order and the clan, but the end results were usually worth it.
“How do people come up with things like Diamond Defense? Did they just eat a bunch of rocks until they found something that worked?”
“A good question,” he replied. “I would presume they studied the properties of materials, externally and internally. It’s possible it took generations of attempts before anyone was successful. Then again, they might have used more common materials and found success, if somewhat lackluster results.”
Generations. She wasn’t going to wait for that, plus she would have to start something. “What about other elements? What do they do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like to… augment their bodies?”
Her father pondered for a good few moments, “I honestly don’t know of any other such techniques. Perhaps the blessing? But that is a special case that also augments affinity. I imagine the darksight is connected to that more than a change in the body.” He stroked his chin, “I should ask Ciaritzal about it.”
“So nobody else does this?”
“I’m sure they must,” her father replied. “But aside from Diamond Defense, I don’t even know earth element techniques to do something similar. I wonder if they would be compatible, or undo each other.” He paused, “I assume you have a reason to ask this?”
“I was thinking of developing my own to help out my organs. Especially my brain. It’s a bit… squishy and weak.” She knocked on her Mountain Steel armor, provided by Renato, “This will protect me from most things, but I can still get knocked around inside it, and inside myself.”
“Perhaps you would do better with less rigid armor, then,” John said. “But I can see the appeal of something nearly unbreakable such as that. And having a more flexible body would be worthwhile… I’d be careful, of course. You’ve no doubt considered how you might harm yourself.”
Even if she hadn’t, he was giving her an opportunity to agree. “Yeah, though I’m not sure how to determine that until it happens.”
“Start small. Remember with Diamond Defense, it was a long process. If you absolutely have to try something, modify something… less important. Like a fingernail, even. Actually, it’s quite easy to modify the body- it’s doing so without harm that’s the issue. I can turn things to stone, after all. Would be trivial to do to myself, but my body wouldn’t still function afterwards.”
“That would be awful,” Ursel said.
“Agreed. So be careful. And I’ll see if I can find other techniques for you to compare with. Diamond Defense might be unique in its existence, but I can’t think of any reason it should have to be.”
John wasn’t certain if he should be searching through techniques while the whole alliance was at war or teetering on the edge of it- but if he were to wait for a time without conflict, would he ever get any cultivation done? Ursel had certainly piqued his curiosity. Was Diamond Defense singular among not only earth but all elements? Certainly, it was effective… but it wasn’t so complex as to be difficult to replicate. Though the expense was an issue. It wasn’t something a clan could afford for all of its members. Indeed, it was almost not worth the cost for himself and Ursel.
Passive defense was valuable, but the same effect could be achieved with good armor. Then again, it was most valuable precisely because it was inherent to the cultivator, not something that could be stripped away when captured or fatigued. And if it could upgrade a level higher, he could actually rely on it against opponents of his level instead of merely those weaker than himself.
What would it look like for other elements? Certainly, it should not involve transforming the body into liquid, gas, or flames. Such things were better left to transient techniques, instead of hoping that such a form could be made permanent. Diamond Defense did not make one stone or diamond, but rather simply more durable. Other elements should have benefits as well, but what?
As far as physical properties went water, air, and fire were all flexible. Light and darkness as well. Certainly they would not all be the same. What other properties did they have? Changing, free, consuming, concealing, revealing. Few of those fit a physical body. And what materials would be used? Presumably, that would still be necessary.
John shook his head. Before he could do any of this, he would need to find other examples. He certainly did not have time to develop a half dozen techniques all on his own. Perhaps once the triplets took over the clan functions, but that would be quite some time off.
Capturing several more messages from the Sky Islands did little except reveal that the same hand wrote all of those encoded in English. That didn’t prove much, but it was fairly reasonable to assume that few individuals would learn a language just for message secrecy. A traditional cipher would be more useful in general. Though if it weren’t for other transmigrators, it would have been hopeless to translate the missives. Not without capturing some sort of translation dictionary, which would be much more extensive than a cipher.
In addition to the difficulty of catching the messenger birds over the sea, there was also the issue that if they had too much success they would be found out. Some amount of loss was reasonable, but even though these particular birds weren’t durable, they were out of reach of most dangers. If too many disappeared, they might look into it.
As for the matter of a transmigrator among the Sky Islands in the past, it was of interest but ultimately unimportant. After centuries, their legacy would be all that remained, and whatever impact their presence would have should have taken place long ago.
Even so, John couldn’t help but take interest, hoping to find something revealing. Such as why it should be another individual speaking English. Even if he didn’t understand other languages, the very fact that they were different should have tipped John off should he encounter anyone else transmigrated. But either others didn’t speak old world languages, there was a string of four English-speaking individuals through random chance, or something else was going on.
For the moment, things had calmed down. That included the conflicts between the Golden Tomb Guardians and the Righteous Flame League, as well as any sort of open retaliation from the Molten Sea. However, the movement of people towards the Shimmering Islands indicated both the Sky Islands and Molten Sea were continuing to pursue their goals. Members of the lesser and greater alliances began to move as well. Moves could be made against both sets of intruders at any time… but they would have no doubt noticed changes and be ready. Nobody wanted to make the first move and likewise be the first to die, and many people were still foolishly hoping that the groups would just move out of the region.
They might, once one of them got their hands on the leviathan. Or they might decide to become permanent fixtures with whatever power they gained from such a success. That was something the region couldn’t afford to allow, but unfortunately they weren’t unified as a whole. Only small pockets under the control of groups of allied sects, though on a whole each country could be expected to work together against outside influence.
Because it seemed the critical events would be taking place in the Shimmering Islands, John and Matatayl returned there. The triplets as well, because though they would like to keep them out of a war, it would likely prove impossible. In such a case, it would be better for them to be accessible. That did leave the Tenebach clan low on manpower, but the Order of the Amber Heart could support them if necessary, as well as the larger Stone Conglomerate. It was currently prepared for trouble from the intruding groups that flanked the country.
John and Matayal watched the Kelp Spire Forest from afar. “They have to be aware of the other’s presence,” John said. “Do you think they will enter into conflict?”
“It’s difficult to say, without prodding. However, we have already engaged in subterfuges that would make them less willing to do so. That is the one situation we absolutely could not afford. On the other hand, it is entirely possible whatever they are after cannot be shared.” Matayal pondered for a few moments, “I’d have to imagine they are after some core of the leviathan’s power. Perhaps its heart, though I wouldn’t put it past such a thing to have more than one. As for attempting to capture the beast itself… with it fully encased in underwater mountains, it’s not exactly mobile. It seems impossible.”
“But if they managed it, it would bring massive change to the Shimmering Islands… and any territory they marched it through, if it was capable of leaving the sea,” John pointed out. “Just some casual breaths in and out caused massive vortexes here. The southern Shimmering Islands could be ruined if it actually moved.”
“I would not like to find out the effects,” Matayal agreed. “Though it does seem we will have difficulty resisting. The ranks of these powers are not merely made up of a single Ascending Soul Phase cultivator- or a few, if they have them.”
“True,” John agreed. “Though the Molten Sea’s Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators are as mortal as anyone else.”
“Including us,” Matayal said. “Though I still agree we cannot ignore this, I can’t help but think this might be an event we cannot overcome. Certainly, many of us will perish.”
“That is something I would rather not think about,” John admitted. “I have more I wish to do.”
Matayal smiled, “Everyone does. At least, those who have not given up on cultivation.”
“I have to at least make it to the Ascending Soul Phase… or conclusively determine that I cannot. Though more than that, I want to stay around to watch the triplets.”
“Nik and Melanthina are a sight to see,” Matayal agreed. “Though I’m personally more intrigued by Tirto and his attempts at romance.”
“I’ll admit I haven’t been able to see as many of those,” John said. “Do you think it would have been easier on him to have an actual arranged marriage?”
“I think this specific setup is performing just fine. He will be able to determine his own feelings. Though no doubt he would have managed just fine had it been chosen for him. He’s like myself in that way.”
“People can make mistakes, though,” John pointed out. “I mean, look who you almost ended up with.”
“The Tenebach clan would have worked with me somehow,” she said. “We would have come to an amicable solution for both parties.”
“I’m sure you would have,” John grinned. It almost certainly wouldn’t have involved Fortkran though. Even with all the difficulties entailed in finding a replacement.