The moment I reached the Void, I realized that I had mastered the Aspect of Wind. Father had relied upon this mastered Aspect to bridge over the natural moat that separated Tier 4 from 5. His notes had briefly mentioned how to divide one's proficiency in an Aspect into distinct stages in order to track one's progress in it more objectively.
The three stages were: novice, adept and master. Father had achieved mastery in the Aspect of Wind and adeptness in the Aspect of Lightning while he was still a novice in the Aspect of Sharpness.
His descriptions of Oneness and the Void and the training methods he had used to reach those states were basically his personal way of comprehending the Aspect of Wind. In his notes, he had confidently acknowledged that his way wasn't the only way – and in all likelihood, it wasn't the best way either. But following it would allow Deimos and I to use his achievement as a springboard to reach mastery without having to waste a great deal of time and effort fumbling in the dark.
Actually, his method was a great deal more useful for me than for Deimos. Deimos had her own mindscape. She had her own mana and therefore her own mana signature. The training method that suited Father would definitely not be a perfect fit for her. It would, of course, be a great help but she would need to modify it to suit herself. As for me? Without a mindscape, the question of suitability didn't even arise. I could make full use of Father's notes. That was the reason why I had mastered the Aspect so fast.
My recent close brush with death had taught me several things. Serendipitously touching the threshold of the Aspect of Lightning while in my state of the Void had given me an inkling of the future direction of my cultivation.
As the pioneer – or, more appropriately, rediscoverer – of the system of external casting, I had been suffering from a severe lack of information. I had no idea how to proceed with my Cultivation. Without mana, I couldn't accumulate it to grow my Cultivation. Without a mindscape, I couldn't focus on crystallizing it into reality. Without the body of a Beast, I could not focus on tempering it. What was I supposed to do? It had been weighing heavily on my mind. Using auxiliary aids like a mind crystal were fine for a time but it wasn't a permanent solution. Let alone, the cost of that method was prohibitive.
But now, I finally had a goal to work towards. I had to improve my comprehension of the Aspects.
Now that I knew what to look for, bits and pieces of information I had neglected before popped into my notice. The foremost evidence was the fact that my contract markings had magically shifted from my skin into my mind, taking up the void left by my shattered mindscape.
Carefully inducing Deimos' and Phobos' marks, I realized that they granted a novice understanding of the Aspects of Wind and Darkness respectively. Ceres' mark – due to her special affinity – was a bit different from the other two. It not only gave me a novice level insight into the Aspect of Inflammation, it allowed me to tap into and control incense flame a bit. But that was extremely limited in nature, not even worthy of the adjective 'novice'. I could manipulate any smoke that was in the range of my perception but that was it. Unlike Ceres, I couldn't add any special attributes to the smoke or develop my own Aspects based on it.
That clued me in to the fact that I was restricted to the six basic elements – at least for now.
It also told me that the marks weren't a shortcut to power, or excuses for me to be lazy. They only provided novice level insights into the elemental Aspects, not the same level of insight the girls had. I was dead sure that Deimos had at least an adept level in the Aspect of Wind as well as Sharpness, none of which had carried over to me through the mark. At first, I had speculated that the stronger the girls became, the more my control of the elements would rise. I had even prepared to do my utmost to help them promote. The reason for that was because my control of the Wind was the strongest, followed by Fire and then Shadow. And that was the order of Cultivation height among my wives: Deimos, Ceres and then Phobos.
But, looking back, the difference was mostly due to my own preferences leaning towards Wind.
The marks were a beginning – a key with which to unlock the path of Cultivation. Ceres' speculation that the ancient Hominum cultivated with the aid of the blessings of their patron God seemed quite plausible. If the blessings were anything like my contracts, after the initial boost, the External Caster would have to work to comprehend the Aspects on their own.
Mother's compound affinity to water and light had affected me, giving me access to both those elements at the novice level. Studying her notes on healing had allowed me to advance my proficiency in the Aspect of Healing, the second Aspect subordinate to the light element, to the novice stage as well.
After mastering the wind, I had noticed that the ease with which I could influence wind mana had increased by leaps and bounds. I required much fewer runes in order to achieve the same effect. This greatly raised the speed of my spellcasting. A test Azure and I had conducted together had shown that I could also control a larger number of runes.
A direct measure of my strength could be obtained from the improvement in my Wind Bullet spell. Earlier, each bullet required two runes to cast. Now I could make do with one. Earlier, creating and controlling ten runes simultaneously was my limit. Now, I could form twenty. In short, the level of my utilization of the wind was at the level of a Tier 3 peak mage. In a region with abundant wind mana, I believed that I could rival a newly promoted Tier 4 mage.
Of course, in a true fight, relying solely on my Aspect of Wind would only guarantee me victory over an initial stage Tier 3 mage. If I wanted to promote my strength, I needed to gain insights into as many Aspects as I could so that I could take advantage of the inherent superiority of Tamers: versatility.
I had many ambitious plans for combining elements and even Aspects to form spells the world had never seen before, but for now, I needed to advance in an orderly fashion: learn to walk before I started running.
'And even before walking, I need to survive this tour of the Forbidden Zone first,' I thought as I defeated another ant that had blocked our way by encapsulating it in a bubble of vacuum and suffocating it.
This batch of ants was the seventh such group that we had met. As the route we had chosen led to the gestation chamber and hatchery of the colony, it was the most well defended. This level of resistance was expected.
While we took a short break to recuperate after the intense battle, I observed our surroundings. The tunnel was pitch-dark except for the fiery glow of the veins of fire stone running through its volcanic rock walls. The glow glinted off shards of obsidian that jutted out of the walls, lending the passages an unsettling vibe. It made me feel like we were within the belly of a beast and the sharp rocks were jagged teeth poised to shred us to bits.
As I gulped down some water from the canteen passed around by Teal, I prayed for Ceres' safety.
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