"They say that it takes a lifetime to master a skill."
Aer kicked off the ground, flipping through the air before landing on a single extended finger. There, she remained perfectly still, a statue in the sea of swaying grass.
"To immortals, that means little."
She retracted the finger, hovering upside down for a moment before returning back upright with a gust of air. Her silver hair shimmered in the rays of the rising sun, blowing gracefully behind her in the morning wind.
"When your cultivation is high enough, almost anything can be accomplished without skill. It might take a lifetime to master what I just did if you stayed at this level, but at mine, it's as easy as... well, lifting a finger. However, when the playing field is evened, someone who has been practicing their entire life will always beat someone who's only relying on the strength of their mana."
Seira nodded, absentmindedly gripping the edge of the log she was seated on. She still hadn't fully adjusted to the weight of the world, and combined with the remnants of her mother's technique it was starting to dawn on her just how limited a mortal's body could be.
"Of course, this could be solved by simply getting more powerful than your rivals. Pills, elixirs, or even normal mana-infused food can accelerate your cultivation, letting you get away with being less skilled than your opponents. Eventually, though, you're going to be amongst your equals, and any gaps in skill will be revealed."
Next to her, Kiro furiously wrote onto a piece of parchment, and Seira smiled. After a night's rest and some food in his belly, at least he was starting to look a lot better. His mana glowed a healthy red in her spiritual sense, and the Saint's channeling technique was starting to solidify into proper channels. He was a real mystic now. She smiled even wider at the thought.
"Combat, of course, is the premiere skill that any mystic needs to learn. And while there are thousands of deadly techniques I could teach you, I want to first find what your existing styles are. For you, Seira, this shouldn't be that much of a problem, but for you two..."
Kiro winced, but Rynn just shook his head. "Honored Saint, I wish simply for the strongest technique I can perform. My existing style can go rot if it means a better chance at saving Mai."
The Saint frowned, and Seira thought for a second that she would punish them from speaking out of turn. Instead, the woman just shrugged, tipping her head towards them. "Fair point. I know how it feels to be helpless when your loved ones are in danger. However, even if you just want the strongest that you can handle, that requires me first measuring your ability. I don't know what you can do right now, and in order to train you effectively, I need to know your limits."
She pulled out a strange slab of runed stone, squinting at it for a second before clapping. "Ah! We finished just in time. Follow me, dear apprentices, and we can get to the actual assessment."
They rose from their logs, following their master away from the camp and over a series of winding hills.
"While we're walking, why don't I give you guys a brief history lesson on this world. Like I mentioned before, the Sect of Living Stone used to inhabit this world. They were a group of extremely talented runesmiths who were known for their experiments with living mana — oh, you guys don't need to know about that right now though. The gist of it is that they were working on creating immaterial objects with true life, and while they never quite succeeded, they still made quite a wonderful discovery."
"You see, the Sect of Living Stone was made primarily of mystics in the Third Circle. They had a deep understanding of both mana and souls, allowing them to make something that, while useless for them, was incredibly beneficial for their apprentices. By imbuing their will into the world itself, they were able to transform Bastion from a world of barren plains to an unrivaled training ground."
"Imbuing your will into an entire world?" Rynn stared at her, hanging onto her every word.
"Of course! I could do the same if I wanted, though I'm not as experienced as they are in the field."
Seira gaped, her respect for the woman increasing once more. For some reason, that seemed even more impressive than the Saint's fight with the matriarch. Except...
"Honored Saint, if this world is truly such a thing, what does it train?" Kiro stared at the ground as if trying to decipher its secrets.
"Combat, of course! What else?"
Seira gave her a skeptical look. "Honored Immortal, not to doubt you, but I don't see anything we could train against here."
Aer smiled, patting her on the back. "That's because it's all underground."
Seira's eyes widened, and the Saint continued.
"With a name like the Sect of Living Stone, you didn't honestly expect for their will to affect the outside of the world, did you? The sect, in their experiments with imbuement, managed to create a type of technique that would not only form itself into a fighter capable of executing basic martial arts, but also reform upon defeat. They were too expensive and weak to be useful in real wars, but by imbuing a large area of stone with the technique, they could make an infinite supply of regenerating enemies. Soon, they began imbuing larger sections of stone, making multiple enemies that could sometimes even work together. Like I said, it wasn't true life, but with these sprawling caverns of potential opponents, they were able to mimic the heat of battle without ever risking their disciples' lives."
They came to a stop just before the a plateau, and Aer turned to face them. "They called these dungeons, and Bastion was the greatest dungeon they had ever made. An entire world, full of stone creatures to train against and defend the world against invasion. They were confident that whatever happened to them, they would always be able to retreat to the safety of Bastion and train a brand new generation of mystics to retake the sect."
She lead them to the edge of the plateau, and Seira noticed that at some point during their walk, the lush grass had been replaced by rough, craggy stone.
"Then, they tried to steal an artifact from the then-Saint Zayne Worldsplitter. And, well..."
Seira gasped. Over the edge, the sky abruptly ended, and there was nothing but darkness. The void rushed through the valley, eroding its surroundings like a crack in reality itself. She had traveled through it once with Aer, but it had never seemed so vast.
Aer put a hand on her shoulder, preventing her from getting any closer. "Don't want you falling headfirst into the void, now do we? At least not until you're strong enough to go through on your own."
The Saint pulled out the runed piece of stone again, tapping it with a frown. "Huh. I could have sworn that it would have happened by now..."
Suddenly, the world shook, and Seira screamed. The sound of grinding stone assaulted her ears, and if it weren't for Aer's steady grasp, she might have fallen into the void. She gritted her teeth, berating herself for losing balance so easily. She was a mystic! She wasn't supposed to let herself be spooked by such little things.
Then, she noticed that just paces away, the ground had split open.
"This is the last stable entrance to the dungeon, and though it probably only has a decade or two left to live, for now, it's a perfectly suitable place to test your skills!