Fighting creatures influenced by earth elemental spiritual energy was useful for John’s techniques to grow. Some abilities were quite worthless to him, like that of the stone constrictors. Their use of spiritual energy was all for constructing their bodies, and John had no intent to modify his own physique. That was the sort of thing that could easily cause permanent damage if done wrong, and he would be much better off seeking an established technique. Even so by studying the creatures he gained some insight that would help him create stronger earth defenses, or at least more flexible ones. Earth elemental spiritual energy could harden like rock, and while that provided solid defense it also ended up limiting movement. Studying their joints gave him some ideas, though adding weak points into his defenses was something he should be cautious about. In that way it was much like joints in armor, and he’d prefer if the weaknesses in physical armor and his spiritual energy defenses didn’t align. But those were the parts that needed the flexibility the most. That was why he didn’t make his spiritual energy solid for the most part. It was rarely useful compared to just cushioning blows with spiritual energy. It was somewhat less efficient in receiving damage but had no particular weaknesses besides brute force.
A much more interesting and active technique was something he was developing based on the gorgon cobras. Their petrifying venom was quite something. He sought out more of them intentionally, though he didn’t engage more than one at a time. The very thing he was interested in was also the dangerous part of them. He gathered the venom, but it didn’t have the same effectiveness after the creatures were deceased. That was why he had to study how they manipulated spiritual energy when they were making the attacks. That very thing also taught him more about how to avoid stray droplets, since those became the largest concern. He could avoid direct attacks, but anything vaguely in line with the intended target was also at risk.
John tried using the venom on some of the creatures he fought. The results were ultimately disappointing. It didn’t remain potent for long outside of the venom sacs and his attempts to replicate the manipulation of spiritual energy by the creatures had only mediocre results. It wasn’t a complete waste of time, however.
If the venom lasted well in storage and remained potent on a blade John would have been able to use it to some extent, but even then it would merely be a consumable. There was nothing wrong with that, but gorgon cobras didn’t live in a wide variety of places. He would only be able to collect so much on his own, or purchase it for increasingly prohibitive costs the further he traveled. Not something worth developing a complicated technique for just to make the petrification actually work.
But he didn’t need to do that. He discovered he’d been going at it from the wrong angle. He shouldn’t have ever tried to use the gorgon cobra’s venom and its manipulation of spiritual energy to try to replicate its effects. John was quite aware rapid petrification was completely impossible with normal physics. And he was a cultivator, not a snake. The snake required the venom to replicate an effect it couldn’t produce with just its energy, but John couldn’t produce venom. He could, however, expertly manipulate spiritual energy.
The closest technique he had to what he wanted was Clinging Affliction. That technique was vaguely like a poison- get it in a wound and it continued to cause damage on a scale only vaguely related to the injury. Earth elemental spiritual energy wasn’t suited for the same sort of corrosive effect but it was perfect for the hardening.
John watched viper gorgons extensively. He watched how their venom petrified trees and the flesh of other creatures they fought, sensing the finer details with his spiritual energy. Sometimes it was difficult to concentrate quite like he wanted because of the little issue where they were usually trying to kill him, but he’d grown used to fighting them that he could handle it without using his full concentration.
Now he was trying to replicate the effect on the easiest target. He held a leaf in his hand, injecting earth elemental spiritual energy into it and willing the whole thing to harden. He took it between his fingers and it snapped. He supposed that was progress, because it had been a fresh leaf instead of a dry one. In fact, he didn’t actually want it to be hard stone. Brittle was perfectly fine. It was just unclear how much of an effect he’d managed. The color had barely changed over the course of a few minutes, which made it far too slow to use in combat. But that was only a first attempt.
The next four leaves he managed to work more quickly, with the final one taking only five seconds to turn grey. He was having some effect at least. However, when he tried to snap the leaves he noticed a problem. At least half the time he’d merely been creating a skin of stone on top of the leaf. It was hard to tell if he’d done that for all of them because sometimes the leaves would tear apart anyway, leaving just the stronger veins behind. They were barely petrified.
Veins. That was the key, wasn’t it? Gorgon cobras spit their venom, but that didn’t mean they didn’t prefer to inject it. It was just a secondary possibility. John inspected the effects on trees and the like. The petrification went deeper than he could currently manage, but only a few millimeters. That was significant, but only if he hit a critical point. Maybe sensitive organs like eyes or ears. Otherwise, it would just be damage to skin or fur and barely deeper. But the creatures that were bit were more thoroughly petrified with the venom injected into their bodies.
So John started with the veins of leaves. It helped that he could work from the inside out without really damaging them beyond the point that they were removed from a tree. He could work from where they had been attached up through the veins and out into the membranes between the veins. It was a bit harder at first, but that made sense. Controlling energy inside any other organism was always more difficult than attacking from the outside. After snapping a few, he found they were quite more sturdy than the other leaves. That wasn’t actually what he wanted. Preferably, he would make a more brittle stone. That might not always be the correct solution, but it would be easier to break through- or have whatever he targeted do that themselves. The exception for when he’d want that is if he wanted to weigh something down with a useless limb. Even if it was used as a bludgeoning implement, a completely inflexible limb would be easier to avoid. And, if it was made of stone, easier to deflect.
John had no illusions that when fighting an equally match opponent that he would be able to freeze an entire limb. No matter how good he got, that was unlikely. But if he could petrify the right joint or tendon, it could basically incapacitate a limb with just a tiny amount of damage. It came to mind that if he was attacking those places he could also just hit hard enough to do the damage with his weapon, but it was another sort of situation where it worked like Clinging Affliction. If he could make a fast but shallow attack that nobody saw as a threat but corrode or petrify with that, it could be greatly effective. It might also be effective on large beasts. Some things would barely register if you stuck a blade five centimeters into their arm, but if that counted as a trivial wound of some sort it would open the creature up to major secondary damage. He just had to make sure that it was more efficient than simply stabbing deeper. It would certainly be effective against creatures with regenerative abilities, since they could stop bleeding and seal up stab wounds sometimes in a handful of seconds. Nothing John was aware of actually healed instantly, but if he slashed something and the flesh on the outside clung together and didn’t continue to bleed, the actual relevant damage was lessened.
John tapped his current leaf against the side of a tree and it crumbled to dust. He’d managed to make it brittle and powdery, but he was fairly certain that was only because the initial density of the leaf had been low. It was unlikely to work quite so well on other things. A small hunk of bark had quite a bit more mass in it and seemed more solid for each bit of it. He continued transforming pieces of bark until he found an ‘optimal’ hardness to make them, the most brittle he could manage while keeping efficient. The bark snapped quite nicely, but the transformation of a piece as wide as his palm still took half a minute. That was with active effort, and if he wanted to do something like that in a wound he’d have to leave behind sufficient energy and take the loss of efficiency that came about from not touching his target directly.
For a week of work, however, John felt he was doing quite well. Even if the technique didn’t pan out, he had learned much about controlling earth elemental spiritual energy. He knew there were abundant teachers and techniques available to him, but he liked figuring things out on his own if he could. He could seek help if he got stuck.
Now he just had to practice the technique on something active. The lizards in the area should do nicely. Though they had tough hides and camouflaged well with the walls, they used most of the spiritual energy they absorbed to help them grow larger. Unlike the stone constrictors, they weren’t already made out of stone, so he should be able to transform them. He’d start with attacks wherever was easiest to hit so that he could get a hang of the process without worrying about striking a critical area.