The days progressed onward uneventfully. Alisha went back to work at the lord’s castle. Anand watched his shop and obsessed over tiny gems all day long. Gray continued to cultivate with spiritual stones every day. The process was slow and boring compared to using jade but it was his only option at the moment.
He spent a week and reached the 4th Level of the Spiritual Strengthening Realm without issue. It took a cumulative total of twenty-four kilograms of spiritual stones for this breakthrough. Nine kilograms worth of progress was from his prior mining activities and the rest were bought at market price. His fortune decreased again by a substantial amount and left him with a great sense of loss.
He still had so far to go. He needed so much more money.
Gray lay on the smooth wooden floor of his rented room. He stared up at the ceiling while in a puddle of sweat. His clothes were soaked from the latest exhausting session of practicing the Golden Body of the Bodhi. The secret ability was difficult and tedious, much more challenging than simply cultivating his spiritual sea. He lost focus frequently and was often frustrated to the point of giving up. Since the breakthrough during the battle with the bandits, he had made almost little progress. Apart from his hands, he only managed to refine the tip of his big toe with golden light. It was utterly useless unless he wanted to kick a boulder.
He wanted to keep cultivating but he couldn't. He couldn’t simply bull-rush through the levels in the Spiritual Strengthening Realm even though he had the money to do so. Following each breakthrough, it was paramount to stabilize the improvements and properly control the newfound strength. Not doing so led to an unstable foundation and a lack of understanding of one's body and how spiritual energy strengthened it. Practicing the Golden Body of the Bodhi was designed to address this issue. Others needed mentors and experts to guide them. All he needed to do was practice this secret art no matter how much he didn’t enjoy it.
Gray was frustrated but he wasn’t ungrateful. The Tome of Glorious Fortune was a supreme cultivation art and he was lucky to have it. If he had never met Xueling, his situation would have been much worse.
Jade Hill Town had two popular cultivation arts. They were sold by the lord, available to all as long as they had enough money. It was a strictly controlled business. As Alisha explained it, it was to control counterfeits and trash-quality arts from hurting the people. Cultivating wrongly was worse than not cultivating at all as that could cause gruesome injuries such as ruptured spiritual veins, congested spiritual gates, or even death from spiritual energy turmoil.
These two cultivation arts were separated into lower and middle stages. The lower-stage art was called Swift Fists and could be learned for two gold coins. It was the most popular one for the common people and they could enter cultivation with only one kilogram of spiritual stone.
The middle-stage art was called Wind Fists and cost fifty gold to learn. The benefit of the more expensive option was that it required fewer cultivation resources as one increased in level as well as a higher ceiling. People who cultivated the lower-stage Swift Fists could not get past the fifth level while those who practiced Wind Fists found their bottleneck at the eighth level.
These natural bottlenecks existed within all realms. The first to fifth levels in each realm was referred to collectively as the lower stage. They were easiest to traverse and lower stage cultivation arts at the strengthening realm were able to reach the peak of the lower stage given enough resources.
Next was the middle stage and this included the sixth to eighth levels. The gap between the fifth and sixth levels included a substantial increase in strength as well as difficulty. To reach it, it required substantially more spiritual energy as well as an understanding of one’s body and strength.
The result was that there were much fewer middle-stage cultivators compared to lower-stage cultivators. The ranks of the lord’s guards reflected this reality. Only those at the middle stage could become head guards. All the others had no rank, even if they were at the fifth level.
Finally, there was the upper stage which referred to the ninth and tenth levels. Just like the previous stages, there was a substantial gap between the eighth and ninth levels. The upper stage required real talent, tremendous resources, as well as an upper-stage cultivation art which wasn’t something publicly available.
According to Alisha, it cost around two thousand gold coins to raise an upper-stage expert using the lord’s upper-stage cultivation art, Jade Wind Fists. Only the most loyal guards were rewarded with such a privilege. The result was formidable guard captains such as Harsh Patel. They were the most powerful cultivators in Jade Hill Town. They were few in number but could only be beaten by other upper-stage fighters. A single guard captain could take on five head guards easily and it wasn’t even close.
If Gray had never met Xueling, he would have been forced to beg the lord for that upper-stage cultivation art. The thought of this possibility churned his stomach. Although Alisha could speak no ill of the lord, he didn’t quite believe her. He hadn’t seen anything to convince him otherwise.
Gray grunted tiredly and sat up. He went into a lotus position and circled the spiritual energy within his body, refreshing his exhausted muscles and aching tendons. At the same time, he examined his spiritual gates and spiritual veins. They were in perfect condition, the same state as the first day he started to cultivate.
With a trash-tier cultivation art, this would have been impossible. Such arts did not provide accurate instruction and damaged the practitioner’s body in the process. These methods were unable to properly refine even the relatively benign spiritual energy from spiritual stones. His gates would have filled up with scars that decreased their capacity to take in or emit spiritual energy. His veins would have stiffened from too many tiny tears and cuts, losing the ability to expand and contract given the situation. The damage was cumulative and permanent. It stunted future growth and created bottlenecks that were impenetrable.
This was the reason that all the top experts of the Jade Plains were stuck at the tenth level of the Spiritual Strengthening Realm. Even with the Jade Wind Fists, there was no chance for someone like Harsh Patel to reach the next Realm.
Crossing a whole realm and entering the next one was incredibly difficult. It wasn’t a matter of desire or effort. It required an evolution of one’s entire being. Someone at the Spiritual Control Realm was fundamentally different from those at the Spiritual Strengthening Realm. Aside from a massive increase in physical strength, they gained a comprehension of spiritual energy that was incomparable. To those stuck in the lower realm, it was a completely different world.
“Alright…” Gray muttered and stood up.
He was finished with cultivation and practice for now. His path forward was filled with challenges but he could only take it one step at a time.
He still needed money so he had to go back to what he knew best.
He was going mining again. And for that, he needed a new pickaxe.