The change in undergrowth as they moved out of the deep wilds was telling. From semi-regular fights with groups of first-floor monsters, the team started to see more individual groups. Over the course of the journey, wounds were healed and beast cores were used at a significant pace. Stolen bounty from the corpses of the Suey Ying tong attackers and the monsters they fought provided more than sufficient quantities for all their use.
If anything, what the group lacked was time, for they began travel early in the morning when dawn’s light had begun to spread and stopped only when darkness threatened to make further travel dangerous. In the few hours of darkness they had, the group turned to cultivating, healing, and pulling refined energy to bolster their bodies.
All those resources saw a significant change in Arthur’s own status. Able to do what he had set out to complete on the first floor, he refined his skill with the cultivation techniques he had purchased and increased his attribute points, pushing his reserves and comfort with his altered body to ever greater heights.
Having access to Uswah, and having her willing to answer his questions without holding back, helped him understand the new cultivation technique she had taught him. It improved his cultivation speed, leaving him with no Yang chi entering his body and causing pain or requiring purging. This change in particular was the one he most gratefully accepted.
A bare two days before they arrived at the beginner village—according to Uswah and Mel who knew the grounds surrounding the village much better than Arthur himself—he chose to survey his status once more. After all, it was about time to dedicate a point of refined energy.
“What do you think, my drink?” Arthur asked Uswah, leaning against the tree the pair had stationed themselves at for watch that night. He was not meant to be awake at this point, having the last watch of the day; but he felt the need to commit the point now before he slept.
“Enhance my Body further, or improve my Mind to keep the balance and get another trait?” Arthur said.
Uswah wrinkled her nose in thought. “If you were reaching your second transformation, I would say balance for sure.”
Arthur nodded. Second transformation happened at the ten-point range, where your average individual was three times as strong and fast as your average mortal. Raising all three attributes to ten points each triggered the second transformation period which refined the body further, increasing an individual’s strength significantly but also increasing the amount of Tower energy they needed to consume.
It was partly why certain individuals never progressed further, not wanting to be pushed too deeply into the endless grind of Tower climbing. With judicious contacts and money, it was possible to stay a low-powered cultivator in the real world. Reaching second, third, and further transformations saw a significant jump in strength but once one began that process, it was hard to stop Tower climbing in earnest.
Of course, some people had tried to game the system, building up points in one or two different attributes without crossing the threshold in other areas. In many such cases, the transformation would happen anyway. And in a few rare cases, where there was significant imbalance between cultivation techniques and the body involved, explosive and graphic endings occurred.
Often with innocent bystanders having to clean up the resulting mess.
Still, such imbalances were incredibly rare. So it was not surprising that cultivators often safely achieved second transformation with a significant difference between attribute points rather than a balanced stat allocation, since the needs of the individual—and various cultivation exercises and technique boosts—altered that equation.
Rumors were that after the second transformation, subsequent transformations were a little more arbitrary and happened at varying levels of improvement. They were roughly at the thirty-, fifty-, and one hundred-point range. Rumor also said there were up to seven levels of transformation, but threshold discussions at that level were clouded by speculation. Humanity just did not have enough cultivators at those levels to yield enough information, not even after so many years.
“Right, so not hitting my second transformation, the first threshold, and getting up there balanced, or close to balanced, isn’t a horrible idea,” Arthur said. “Though, I’ve liked having a higher Body stat. More directly impactful.”
“And there’s no guarantee things are going to be quiet for the next bit,” Arthur said. “Not when we get into the village. So upping my Body would be a smart thing to do. Makes me stronger, faster.”
“But increasing my Mind will improve how fast I can think, what I notice, my refinement speed.”
“Have lots of cores now.”
“Those run out, though.” A pause, then he tapped the pouch by his side. “I could also maybe take a trait to make better use of cores. Be a good long-term benefit.”
“What did you take?” he asked.
Uswah just stared at Arthur, making him shrug. “I know it’s rude. But you know a lot about me.”
“You won’t stop telling me.”
“I needed to for the training!” Arthur said.
Making a face, Arthur crossed his arms. The pair fell silent for a long time, Uswah continuing to watch the shadows, Arthur staring at her to make her crack. Eventually, she sighed.
“I took Calm Mind.”
“Oooh, classic. Really fantas-tic.” Arthur elongated the last vowel, just to make it rhyme before he tapped the side of his leg idly. “Our bodies . . .”
“It boosted the properties of the Yin chi, yes.”
Arthur leaned back, rubbing his chin. “Or I could go with something social. Maybe Empath or Truth Seeking or something like that, to help me read people and social situations better. Being the Clan Head and all that.”
“But it’s not much use if I’m dead. And I should try, at least, to be strong. That’s what all the Clan Heads out there are, right? Guild Leaders, Clan Heads, they’re all quite powerful.”
“More than one kind of strength.”
“Yeah, but . . .” Arthur paused, then shook his head. “No, you’re right. I guess I just want to be strong still.”
Arthur smiled at that, before he tapped the pouch by his side again. He had enough cores in there to get a second point, almost certainly. All they had to do was wait. In fact . . .
“Why don’t we just do that?”
“Do what?” Uswah said, frowning.
“Wait a little, let me cultivate and get my second point. I can then have the best of both worlds.”
“Too long. We’ve been gone for months,” Uswah said. “Our friends are waiting.”
“You all could go ahead?”
She shook her head violently at that suggestion, making Arthur raise his hands in acknowledgement. “Still, it’s not even a full day. I could just refine the energy and we could delay just by a day.”
“Or you could put it in Body and worry about the rest after you establish the clan,” Uswah said. “You could refine in a protected place, rather than out here.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess I could do that,” Arthur said. Still, while that seemed like a good idea, he had a feeling that their life was going to be significantly more complicated than just wandering in and putting up a new clan building.
Regardless, more strength was never a bad thing.
Making his decision—a decision Arthur had to admit that he probably made long before speaking with Uswah—he selected the refined energy in his body and pushed it towards his Body. Feeling it throb through him, ripping muscles and tendons apart.
Till he was stronger, faster, sturdier than ever.
Because, really, you never knew the kind of problems you could run into.