“Now that you know of the three aspects a little more, come here, Zax”. Kartius got up from the carpet and walked to one of the two large jars.
Lifting the wooden sealing of one jar, the herbal fragrance in the cabin rose exponentially, so much that Zax took a step back and unconsciously covered his nose.
“Do you recognize this smell?” Kartius asked.
“It smells like a few of the plants that grow on the mountains that the Krikitory caretakers of the hot springs use”. Zax replied.
“In addition to one exceptional plant, the liquid inside this jar and the one next to it is the refined extract of the most potent medicinal plants that grow beside the mountains’ hot springs”.
From inside the jar Kartius retrieved a wooden watering cup by its long handle. “Remove your clothes Zax. To practice the bodily refining technique your whole body has to be rinse by this liquid”.
As the liquid spilled over Zax’s head and slid on his face a refreshing burning sensation aroused his skin and opened up the pores.
“Lower your hands to the sides and take a deep breath with your nose”. Kartius said as he rinsed him again.
Breathing the fumes that came out of the liquid, Zax felt the refreshing burning sensation spreading inside of his body like a ball of fire that he swallowed. Instantly, before the burning could cause adverse effects, the refreshing trait of the liquid cleansed his airway and filled his organs with virtue.
No matter how much air Zax took in this one breath, his lunges kept expanding and his chest kept rising.
“Now slowly release and repeat. Don’t try to reach the limit of your lunges, you may not feel it but they are already stretched beyond their limit”. Kartius guided and rinsed him a third time. “Let your muscles loose. Use your body’s senses to trail after the liquid, not your Soul Sense”.
The fourth cup was the last cup. Zax whole body, inwardly and outwardly, was bathed by the herbal liquid.
“That will take some time, however make sure to not move until I finish!” Kartius said sharply. His hands began to glow in his azure aura and in a manner, which seemed slow due to the after images, but actually was too fast, at least for Zax to behold properly, his hands formed strings out of his mist energy and knitted them into and egg like shape that surrounded Zax.
Zax watched as the enclosure his Master created become more and more opaque. Over an hour passed and Kartius was not finished, but Zax could already see nothing but the smooth azure membrane that surrounding him. As the procedure went on, the membrane compressed and shrunk from initially being a head taller and wider than Zax’s person to two to five centimeters from touching him.
Zax did not have fear from closed places, but being inside an impenetrable membrane for over three hours did take its toll. Fortunately, since he could not do anything else, it was suitable opportunity for him to train his soul. Two surprising things that Zax discovered before he started meditating were… even though the membrane was made by mist energy, he could not expend his Soul Sense beyond it and if he tried he got a strong feeling of being pressed by the membrane. Also, inside his consciousness was the herbal fragrance. It did not help him to break through the next level, but it did make it more comfortable to study the piece of spiritual knowledge from his subliminal mind.
As it so happened, the hours that passed were parallel to the number of cups his Master rinsed him with.
The membrane in its last phases of completion was the same as a second layer of skin. From being oppressive to being light to gradually merge with Zax’s body were the last three phases. Kartius finished and Zax could no longer see the azure membrane.
“What I embedded into your body is the nucleus of the bodily refining technique that my big brother developed, a formation that is called ‘Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement’”. Kartius introduced the name of the technique with great pride. “In knitting this membrane you should know that there is no one better than I, your Martial father. But as far as supporting you through the cultivation process… Know that from here on there is very little that anyone can do”. He picked up Zax clothes and gave them to him. “Get dress, the membrane absorbed the liquid. Your body is perfectly clean”.
Zax stopped meditating during the last phase of the membrane creating process. By then he also noticed that the membrane was doing something to the liquid, but according to how he saw it, it was more accurate to say that the membrane was feeding on the herbal liquid.
“Master, before you completed the membrane I could sense its fragrance in my consciousness and my body also felt refreshed, like after bathing in the hot springs, but now I don’t feel anything of the liquid. Is it because of the membrane?” Zax was disappointed. He thought that if he could maintain the presence of the sweet fragrance in his consciousness he could improve the speed of his soul cultivation.
“Instead of the customary pillars and channels that a formation needs to be executed, the Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement formation only need doses of the herbal liquid to function. This peculiarity corresponds to its class of difficulty, class S”. Kartius explained. “In the future, the further you will progress in cultivating your body, the more you will have to soak your body with the herbal liquid. For now, the amount of herbal liquid the membrane absorbed should be enough for you to reach level E with your body”.
Hesitating a bit, Zax still forced himself to ask. “Will it take long for me to reach E level Mist User with my body?” He remembered Zushi saying couple of months ago that Anet has already became an E level Mist User and he and Dane were not far behind. Regardless of their current relationship, Zax did not want to lag behind the rest of their former Earth’s Core searching group.
Reading his Master’s stag expression, Zax could only assume that what appeared on his Master’s face was a sort of a beastly grin. “Outside we’ll discuss it. You still have a lot more that you need to learn about the Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement and bodily cultivation in general. I’ll tell you over your first session of training. Let’s first step outside of the cabin”. Kartius said and headed to the cabin’s door.
As the door opened and Zax’s head popped outside after his Master, a familiar sight made him gasp. The cabin and its terrace were engulfed by a somewhat transparent layer of brilliant coating. Outside of the layer of coating was what shocked Zax. The cabin was surrounded by a smoky mist. From each direction Zax looked, the smoky mist sprouted from the ground like in the cave he entered to with the Brown Digger and found the Black Core. The only differences to the previous cave were in the density of the smoky mist and its color. It was doable to look as far as twenty meters into the cave from the safe spot on the cabin’s terrace and the color of the smoky mist was earth brown instead of lava like orange.
“Could… Could… it be that we are back in that cave…?” Zax stuttered. That accursed cave was the place where he lost his future as a Mist User. It was the last place in New Earth that Zax wished to be in.
“No”. Kartius answered. “But make a wrong step from here on and it could be just as worse!” He warned and placed his hand on Zax’s shoulder, holding him firmly. “The cabin is protected by a formation that I set. What’s around you is the place you will be training in till three years from now… Zax”, Kartius’s tone made his apprentice to avert his gaze toward him. “Use your Soul Sense to sense your body”.
Zax nodded and did as his Master instructed. With the additional perception of his Soul Sense Zax noticed something foreign attach to him like an invisible net. He did not bother to close his eyes to better concentrate on his Soul Sense’s finds, he did not need to. As a result, right as he probed deeper to figure out what the net actually was, although he already had an idea, Zax saw an azure glow originating from beneath his shirt and as he lifted it up there were on his abdomen seven azure glowing gates that started from his lower dantian and piled up to his clavicle.
Before he could ask his Master what were the seven gates, Zax discovered that the seven gates appeared not just on his body, but more vividly and majestically underneath his soul. As if his soul was the jewel crown above the uppermost gate!
“These seven gates represent the seven levels of the body. We, beast, number the levels the same way humans do. The lowest and first signifies level F and the highest and seventh signifies level S”. Kartius gave voice to his apprentice speculations. He stomped outside of the protective formation, into the brown smoky mist. “I won’t lie to you, Zax, in the current level of your body stepping beyond the protective formation is akin to entering a furnace and escaping the pain became impossible the moment the seven gates appeared in your consciousness”.
“That is, however, the main principal of the Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement, the principal of Pain. To be forged with as little impurities as possible pain is part and parcel. That is also what makes this technique the number one bodily refinement technique in all of New Earth. As for how exactly it works, you will be entitled to know only if you step outside and endure”.
‘All I have to do is endure pain and then my body will become the same as that of a Mist User?’ Zax swallowed a too familiar massive bulge of self scorn and contempt, which weighed on him for far too long, and occasionally surged from his stomach to be stuck in his throat. ‘Endure?’
In the past year he brought himself to believe that his life was meaningless if he could not achieve his goals, childish as they may be. His choice of training his soul before becoming a Mist User, which made him strong, and his choice of following the weird sensation to find the Black Core, which made him pitifully weak, were they not entwined with pain?
‘I will embrace it, Master!’ His words were kept to himself, but his state of mind also centered on complying with the recognition that he received from the one who kept referring to himself his Martial father!
Zax crossed the protective formation. Right away the inner and outer seven gates glow intensified ten folds. The pain was indescribably excruciating, robbing Zax of any sense of realism as he tumbled to the ground.
“Ah?” Zax faintly called.
The pain stopped.
Black luster gleamed in Zax’s dumbfounded eyes as black long spikes pierced from inside his body, not leaving one millimeter of visible piece of skin.
“Zax!” Kartius sprang for his Martial son’s aid. ‘These spikes!’ Kartius matched them with the ones from Zax’s story. Still, not caring for what they were, or maybe not having the time to care, an azure aura covered his right hand as he launched it to shatter the spikes. He could not afford second guessing himself; it was an unexpected development in a very sensitive time that could cost his Martial son’s life!
“Master!” In contrast to the first appearance of the black spikes, Zax was absolutely fine. Though the spikes also came out from his eyes, he could still see everything as if he watched the surrounding through Sun Stone glasses. Kartius, conversely, was on the opposite side of the spectrum of being fine.
Kartius’s right hand, with all of his Core Master might, was pierced by the black spikes as if it was an illusion. Kartius, whom felt nothing from the spikes within contact and even with his Soul Sense or mist, stared in disbelief at his hand. Heavens knows how tough it was. To be pierced like that… All he could do was slip his hand carefully from the spikes and step back as his Martial son stood up like the miserable Pincupine of the giant rodents’ family on two.
“Master, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!” Zax took what happened as his own fault. He fall backwards in shame as the black spikes faded and his appearance returned to normal, though unaffected by the scorching heat of the brown smoky mist.
“Be calm, Zax”. Kartius roared. His Martial son was near diminishing himself again by breaking his back. “My hand is fine, look”. He presented his right hand. It bled, the palm had two holes and one finger was almost torn off, but at the same time his hand was slowly healing. “More importantly, remember what I told you! If you still haven’t figured it, think of your worthiness for being my Martial son!”
Facing his Master’s rebuke Zax was speechless. He straightened up and toughened the look in his eyes. “Master… I don’t understand what happened, I didn’t do anything. The Black Core… it sent a pulse throughout my body and then the pain stopped and the spikes came out”. He solemnly explained.
Azure mist swirled around Kartius hand. He used his mist energy to hasten the healing of his hand. “Black Core… too bizarre… too bizarre…” Kartius murmured. “But it is also a proof, Zax, what the Black Core did prove my hypothesis that between you and the Black Core there must be a mental link!”
“But what now, Master?” Zax asked anxiously. “I’m outside of the protective formation and don’t feel pain at all… The bodily refining technique…” He gritted his teeth and held himself from plummeting into depression because of the scourge in his dantian. “It’s not working!”
“Hush, Zax”. Kartius mused. In the disarray that occurred, the seven gates sank inside Zax’s body. “Call up the seven gates again”.
The seven gates reappeared in turn on Zax’s abdomen. As they did, something shocking revealed itself.
“The first gate…” Kartius said and got closer to Zax. “No. Don’t move back. The Black Core did what it coveted, look”.
Looking below his navel, the first of the seven gates was glowing in black radiance. Furthermore, it seemed swollen compare to before and steadily keep growing in size.
“Is that good, Master?” Zax wondered. The expression on his Master’s face was difficult to deduce. Their bond was a meager couple of weeks old and while on the mountains his Master kept a noticeable distance.
“Good?” Kartius responded. “It’s blasphemy! How could it be so wicked? This terrifying Black Core… Forget about nearly cutting my hand off, it crushed and reconstructed the Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement that my big brother shed blood and tears for tens of years to develop, and made Heavens Looking Down On Earth changes!”
“Then… the Black Core did a good thing?”
Kartius sighed. “It’s still cultivating… Might as well tell you what I promised, Zax”. He referred to the profound method of the Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement. “You may sit or stand. Your body undergoing immense changes, until it will finish, I’ll tell you what to expect”.
As his Master chose to remain on his hoofs, so did Zax preferred to stand.
“The Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement follows three principals ‘Pain’, ‘Destruction’ and ‘Rehabilitation’. Pain is the main principal. Every living being that can endure pain has a certain threshold. Imagine a line that to the left of it written ‘can endure’ and on the right of it written ‘can’t endure’”. Kartius used his completely healed right hand to neatly sketch on the ground and even write in a human language. “’Can endure’ comprises all that you can endure, safely till your breaking point. ‘Can’t endure’ comprises only one thing, destruction”.
Kartius did not seem eager to relay to Zax the full detailed explanation now that the most essential principal of his big brother technique was shamelessly dumped. ‘Perhaps, as his Martial father I should count it as a blessing’. He reasoned with himself.
“The better the technique for refining the body, the more tormenting it is. However Inflicting pain senselessly in hopes for becoming stronger will result in nothing but self destruction. Practitioners must judge accordingly their limits when training, even more so when cultivating the body, since it differs from the other two aspects – its senses are dull. The principle of Pain pushes the practitioner to the brink of madness, to as far as to stand on the line with face forward the right side, not because it’s what cultivate the body, but for the indisputable fact that even the toughest steel have to endure the heat of the fire and the strikes of the hummer to remove its impurities and be forge into the greatest weapon!”
“Soul, Qi and mist, the foundation of every refining technique of one and the other is to circulate the aspects unique energies in a certain manner. The body cannot be forged that way. Since it doesn’t have unique energy, the circulation is more perceptible. The body, like steel, has to be broken to lose its impurities. That is the principal of Destruction. The longest you cultivate a bodily refining technique, in particular the Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement, the higher level of Pain you will have to endure. But, if you’ll recognize your threshold and know when to halt, Destruction won’t come to be at the cost of your life”.
“Master, how the ‘Rehabilitation’ principal works? Right now I don’t feel influenced by the principal of Pain, but I still dimly detect with my Soul Sense that my body is breaking and rebuilding itself, does that mean that I don’t have to endure?”
“Oh… finding out that you are not utterly cursed by the Black Core can really invigorate you”. Kartius felt like teasing. It has been a long time since he was a child and he usually spent time with his big brother or on his own, so he naturally forgotten how abruptly children can swing their moods. “Before I’ll proceed to Rehabilitation, you should know that Pain is not nuisance. Not for naught it’s the main principal, without it someone who trains in bodily refining technique cannot assert his limits and by practicing the Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement your thresholds expends significant, hence initiating higher level of cultivation. Then again, with the changes the black spikes made…”
Kartius sighed again. ‘Oh, big brother hard work…!’
“For now you should not be wary of the consequences of Destruction”.
“The principal of Rehabilitation is the rebuilding that you said that you feel. Far from being a simple healing process, it is the most complicated part in the creation of the Seven Stages Of Bodily Refinement formation. When the formation is done correctly it absorbs the herbal liquid so when Destruction comes to pass, Rehabilitation will instantly and meticulously reform the body stronger, purer than before. When the body starts to deconstruct faster than it reforms, it typically spells failure which interprets to permanent disability or death. For you, however, it only means that you should soak in the refined extract of the medicinal plants. As for the swollen lowest gate…”