Neave was facing a stone golem. However, he wasn’t using true strikes or even a weapon.
He was fighting with his bare hands.
It had been a few days since he had started doing physical training. His arm and foot already looked the same as his other limbs. During these last few days, he had made immense progress. He had evolved his purifying bone marrow ability as well, taking a chance and hoping he was right.
And damn was he right. The ability evolved into pure blood. It not only purged every harmful physical substance out of his blood, but it also purged harmful qi. The reason why he ended up evolving the spirit power was that eating monster meat was a tremendous pain in the ass. Any time he ate monster meat, he had to consciously fight off the harmful qi. So even though absorb let him eat as fast as he wanted, he still had to slow down so he could expend all the harmful qi.
That was no longer a problem. The only thing he needed now was something that would let him unhinge his jaw like a snake so he could eat faster.
It was starting to sink in just how absurd his ability to round up monster cores was. Most cultivators that had spirit powers only took a second power either if they got their hands on a good one or if the evolution of their current spirit power was too unpredictable. Without the ability to round up the incredibly jagged and rough cores, Neave would have had to pass an utterly impossible spirit trial.
Even if he was just talking about absorb and pure blood, that would mean four size boosts from one and an additional two from another spirit power. With jagged cores, such a combination of boosts would have him going up against two abominids armed with countless venomous claws, stingers, and jaws that were both large enough to push him out of his spirit realm.
Even then, a four-times-evolved strength boost and a twice-evolved speed boost would have probably been more immediately useful. But this was almost definitely more useful in the long run.
Ever since Neave had started his training, he had been growing in strength at an utterly remarkable speed. He was already as physically strong as someone at the beginning of the iron path. That might not seem like a lot, but any cultivator that achieved strength like that without a spirit power dedicated specifically to boosting strength would be an absolute prodigy. Merely by the virtue of realizing that much potential, one could probably advance to the iron path anyway.
But his strength boost was far from the only thing he had gained. Everything from his toughness to the speed of his physical recovery, to the sheer additional endurance he had acquired had increased tremendously. Eating such a vast quantity of monster flesh all the time was a truly incredible tool of progress.
A lot of the powers he had gained have been surprisingly useful and this list included the steel nervous system. He had first assumed that would just toughen his nerves and make them more endurant to attacks or something. While it did do that, it also seemed to have allowed for much greater control over his body. Not just that, but his reaction time and the speed at which his brain processed information seemed to have also increased.
Neave knew that his monster flesh eating wasn’t an infinite source of power. Well technically it was, but the quality and quantity of meat you had to keep eating grew exponentially the more power you gained from it. While he jokingly thought of the snake jaw unhinging power, the more time passed the more he was seriously considering looking for something along those lines.
This idea wasn't floating around in his head for no reason. It kept popping up in his mind because he had a sneaking suspicion one of his powers could potentially provide him with something similar. Or at least something that could work as a substitute.
Currently, he resorted to chopping monsters up into tiny pieces and just swallowing those pieces whole, bone, and everything. Hell, he was even eating some golems just to see what would happen. Surprisingly, it made him a little tougher.
Even if swallowing it hurt like bloody hell.
Currently, his match against the stone golem was well over thirty minutes in. It was an almost humanoid stone golem, but its limbs weren’t the same size and the head was small and featureless. The ability that surprised Neave the most was rubber bones. He didn’t even have to care that it was stone he was punching. If any attack put too much stress on his fingers, they just bent a bit and then went right back to the same shape. Hell, regardless of whether or not he put 'too much' pressure on his fingers, he felt practically no recoil even when punching at full force.
Unsurprisingly, even at iron path strength, Neave still couldn’t just bludgeon a bronze-rank threat with his bare fists. Well not quickly at least. It was already cracked all over its body and Neave hadn’t been hit even once. He also wasn’t trying to destroy the golem, but he was rather just physically training his body. So pretty much he was treating a dangerous monster made of living stone as a punching bag. After he finished fighting the golem he was seriously tired.
Not tired from fighting the golem, but rather he was tired of doing such inefficient physical training. It wasn’t like he had any weights or anything, so sadly all he could do was free bodyweight exercises and sparring. He could do both for so long that he wasn’t sure he would ever get tired as long as he kept eating food.
Neave could probably do a million pushups if he kept eating food while doing them.
But he also wouldn’t get any stronger. Well maybe if he did a million he would have some benefit but it just wouldn't be very time efficient. These exercises helped a ton at first. And by ‘at first’ he meant in the first few hours of his training. The speed and power of his recovery under the influence of life force, aided by his extreme consumption of monster flesh very quickly made such training obsolete.
Neave used a true punch and he utterly obliterated the stone golem. His true strikes had gained a tremendous boost to their power now that his baseline strength had increased by so much. And another thing that seemed to have happened was that his spirit had also gotten more resilient. He wasn’t sure why, perhaps it had just gotten tempered by all the abuse? That could be possible.
And now it was finally time to test out his newly acquired power. He wasn’t going to use a weapon, not at first. He went to a nearby cave and then ran inside.
The first thing he saw was several stone golems and a couple of abominids here and there. He could sense quite a few of them lining the ceiling, likely bat variations. They could technically fly, but their flight was about as stable as Neave’s mental state.
He ran into the cave and used a true strike punch to obliterate a small stone golem. A slightly larger one with several long limbs walked up to him and started swinging. Neave dodged all of its strikes with ease and dispatched the golem with two solid strikes to the chest. Meanwhile, he was dodging the abominids and crushing those that got too close to him. These were still rather small and none of them were a large threat.
The noise roused the ones lining the ceiling and as they took flight and assaulted Neave he simply blew fire in their direction. It didn’t kill them instantly, but it did daze them and make them drop out of the air. Then he proceeded to dispatch them one by one.
He didn’t see the acid slime approach until it jumped at him. He dodged out of the way. It landed on the other side. Acid slimes were nasty creatures and not something that should be touched directly. So Neave just didn’t touch it directly.
He used the shockwave from a true strike punch to push the slime away and then he just burned it with his fire breath. While acid slimes or their horrifying evolutions were horrible creatures, if you could keep them at a sufficient distance they weren't the worst. Well, terror slimes could still squirt acid at you from afar, so maybe one should keep an extra sufficient distance. The further the better.
From deeper within the cave Neave spotted a giant centipede coming. These things were no joke, but Neave didn’t even take a single step back. It lunged at him and he swung his fist down in a karate chop, knocking the centipede’s head into the ground. As it got up he kicked its head, launching it upwards. Then he jumped and slammed his foot into its midsection, snapping something in the centipede and it dropped to the ground, dead.
That was when he spotted it. There was another monster coming from deeper within the cave. It looked like a statue brought to life.
A living statue.
“Oh, fucking hell.” The highly advanced golem lifted its hand and rocks near its feet sharpened to a point. The sharp stone spikes launched at incredible speed toward Neave. He could have used a movement technique to get out of their path completely, but he instead ran towards the statue, dodging the shards he could avoid and parrying or redirecting those he couldn’t.
None of them managed to hit him, only blowing past him and smashing into the wall behind Neave, whistling and pewing as they ricocheted off the hard cave stone. Once he reached the golem, he delivered a true strike to its stomach, a kick to its head, a spin-kick to its side then a triple combo punch to its torso. The ground was shaking and his spirit was faltering, but all his attacks only left relatively shallow cracks in the golem’s body.
But that wasn't bad news. Neave was positively surprised that he could deal any damage to the golem whatsoever.
The golem swung at Neave, every punch holding enough weight to crush his body, but none fast enough to hit him. The stone around Neave and the golem kept turning to sharp spikes that aimed at Neave but he quickly avoided them and continued landing attacks. He got a nasty cut to his right calf but he sealed it with life force almost instantly.
After dodging a kick, Neave saw his chance and crouched under the golem. Then he used a true strike to launch it into the air. As it spun around in the air, Neave set up a true strike kick and the stone golem landed right on his foot. He kicked it right back up into the air and it smashed into the ceiling, causing several large rocks to fall off and crash to the ground.
Then as it dropped back down again it received another, much, much heavier kick. It flew upwards so quickly it broke off a massive chunk of the ceiling and bounced down onto the ground. It still hadn’t broken into pieces, but the cracks ran deep. The golem twitched a few times and then finally stopped moving.
Neave breathed out a sigh of relief. Even he wasn’t fully confident facing gold-rank monsters. Those shards could have easily cut his body apart and if any of its strikes had landed he would have been blown to pieces. It took over a dozen rather heavy true strikes to finish it off.
Neave could fight against gold-rank monsters with relative ease, but only if he was a good fit against them. He didn't yet have a reliable ranged attack, so if ran into something like a noble lava golem, he would be screwed. For as long as the monster wasn't too fast, too tough, or inherently did too much damage to lower-rank metals or Neave's bare fists, such as in the case of a lava golem, then Neave could handle it with relative ease.
And Neave was very confident his spirit had gotten tougher somehow. There was no way he could have endured so many true strikes just a week ago. And their power… Neave was utterly baffled by how strong some of the strikes he dished out were. His additional body mass due to the muscle he’d built, as well as his general additional strength, had increased the potency of his strikes.
It wasn’t all that surprising that everyone who had seen him execute a true strike panicked. If they had ever witnessed someone who was actually at gold rank execute a true strike, they would have seen someone display a truly monstrous amount of power.
The more Neave fought the more he realized just how potent rubber bones was as a spirit power. He now felt only a tiny part of the backlash he used to feel when fighting bare-handed. Perhaps his additional toughness was contributing to that somewhat as well.
Neave dug out the core from the living statue. It was rather smooth. Not even close to round, but compared to most jagged pieces of spirit he saw daily it was quite a bit better. And the power was… Somewhat disappointing. It was just stone manipulation, a rather specific variant too. Not even close to the type of power he desired. For now, he was leaning into this route of physical enhancements.
It didn’t make sense to do anything else. His greatest power in combat was his skill. The only thing he needed was abilities that would synergize with his swordsmanship. A better body achieved exactly that.
Neave collected the spoils of war and brainstormed ways he could get stronger. He would have to find a more efficient way to train if he wanted to properly keep improving. He would keep training, of course, but he was getting rather greedy for more power, and inefficient, slow training was irritating him quite greatly.
“Oh. Wait. Wait a damn minute.” How had he forgotten! He could generate spirit!
Wait. No, I have to… No, could I?
Could he make a weapon?
Neave was no master blacksmith and he most certainly didn’t have the tools necessary. But he did have a practically infinite amount of spirit.
Any liquid could only acquire a single quasi-spirit. If you tried to melt a second monster core into a liquid that already had one melted into it, it just wouldn’t work. The size of a core mattered with spirit powers. But the only reason it mattered was that that meant it could hold a spirit power with a greater capacity.
Neave could make the monster cores as big as he wanted, but that wouldn’t change anything about the nature of the power that’s being held within. The spirit Neave produced was, for lack of a better way to put it, empty. When one acquired a spirit power from a monster core, their spirit effectively 'trimmed the fat' before it absorbed it. That was how it was possible to acquire only a 'singular' power from a monster core, as opposed to 'Enhanced strength (with a side of venomous claws, freaky eyes, green skin, and permanent hair loss)'.
But it sure as hell would matter when making a weapon. The bigger the core, the better the qi conductivity. Since weapons don't already have a spirit, there is nothing to 'trim the fat'. Melting a core into molten iron when making a sword didn’t work the same as taking the spirit power for yourself. Rather than grant that power to the weapon, it just made it adopt a nature similar to the nature of the monster the core had come from. More often than not, this was done with cores that have come from an iron golem or metal slimes.
The power that was then acquired was still singular, sure, but it was achieved not through cleansing all the other spirit, but rather by solidifying it and effectively granting the weapon the quasi-spirit left behind by the monster.
Neave quickly took out some of the crappier weapons from Kamella's ring. Then he put one of them out in front of him. He blew fire into the sword, trying to melt it. He ran out of fire but the weapon was just very hot.
He devoured a ton of the abominids lying around to regain his energy reserves then he tried again, this time from less distance. The heat hurt his face, but he fixed it with life force and endured. As the iron began melting, Neave concentrated and put a finger close to the melted part.
A thin tendril of life force seeped out of his finger and into the molten metal. The life force evaporated the moment it touched the sword. Neave sighed. Of course, molten metal wouldn’t be very conducive to life force. But wait… Neave produced a bit of liquid spirit. He connected the tendril of life force to the spirit. It was very draining on his willpower, but if he pushed his life force manipulation he could maintain the life force tendril connection.
Neave focused on the potential of this experiment. Qi enveloped the floating ball of liquid spirit and the tendril of life force holding it aloft. He moved the spirit to the saggy, molten piece of the sword. The liquid spirit flowed into the molten piece of metal.
Neave flexed with all his might and…
The metal started to move.
It had been a few days since Gabrias had set off in search of Neave. To his right walked a tall, bald and burly man. He had a massive sword strapped to his back and he was plated in beige armor. To his left walked a short brunette woman with a short sword sheathed to her side. She was wearing brown leather armor, but it was no common leather. And a few feet in front of him stood a man of average height. He wasn’t carrying any weapons. He had shoulder-length blonde hair and he was wearing simple cultivator robes.
All of these people were on the first step of the gold path. They weren’t rushing the search for Neave. While the three gold path cultivators weren't in too much danger, Gabrias wasn't safe at all. They had already run into several groups that were also looking for Neave and a fight had broken out once.
The three gold path cultivators practically had to babysit the relatively weak Gabrias, otherwise, their potential attackers would attempt to target him first, given that he was a weak spot in their group. And if they lost Gabrias, the prospect of finding Neave immediately got a whole lot less probable. Which was why Gabrias was completely silent.
These people were true warriors. The group that had attacked them was also on the first step of the gold path, but they had gotten utterly crushed in less than a minute.
These people were skilled warriors that had walked their way up to the gold path one step at a time. They had the skills, they had the equipment and they had the spirit powers. All three of them had only a single spirit power. But all of their spirit powers were evolved several times and they had effectively mastered their use in combat. Not just individually, but they were maximizing the synergy their powers provided.
Another reason why they were taking their time was that all the activity in the area had baited out a ton of monsters onto the surface. Nothing too dangerous, though, gold ranked at the highest, but that still meant they had to tread cautiously.
Gabrias still felt uneasy. He remembered the way that child had slaughtered the previous group. It was a sight he could never forget. Now he was going after him again. He knew that things were going to be very different this time. The last group was a collection of warriors at the first step of the silver path. The first step of the gold path was in an entirely different realm of power. And these warriors were exceptional even for gold path cultivators.
But some small, irrational part still dreaded the moment they reached the child. He just hoped that part truly was just irrational.
The Emperor had been sitting on his throne for days already. He was getting reports of quite a distressing situation.
The child was being hunted down by several larger sects, mercenary groups, and even some criminal organizations. He couldn’t use his authority as the emperor here, sadly. Even if he tried, he would just be giving away that he was interested in the child as well. He wished he could go off and just find him on his own, but sadly he was stuck waiting.
Waiting for those lazy idiots to show up. They had an unprecedented crisis on their hands, but he still couldn't expect a timely arrival.
Just as he was thinking of sending out another message, the air shimmered in front of him and a beautiful woman wearing red cultivator robes walked out into the throne room.
And right behind her, three others left the shimmering portal.
All of them cultivators of the diamond path.