“Studying was never my forte,” Apexus confessed, not for the first time. Practical knowledge he acquired a lot easier than most people, but the moment things entered the absurd or the highly detailed, his mind refused to save it as reliably. He had first discovered this when Gizmo had taught him advanced math and a variety of other crafts had swiftly followed. To the humanoid chimera, knowledge that had no immediately apparent use was dull beyond belief.
The study of pressure points had been a half and half affair. Knowing where they were and how to channel ki through them to achieve certain effects, all of that had been useful. To learn their names correctly, and to write them out over and over again, that he hated.
“If we had more time, I would insist we fix this,” Maltos thought out loud, while tracing the lines drawn with his fingers. One after the other, he inspected the drawings that way, making sure his pupil had memorized everything correctly. “Good calligraphy reflects control and studied movements. It is rather surprising that yours reflects such impatience, considering the rest of you.”
Apexus had nothing more to explain or defend himself, so he just stayed quiet. This was the culmination of four days of work. During those four days, he had been tested eight times, once every eight hours, with an eight-hour break for rest. He had crammed every last scripture Maltos had presented to him into his core. More than once, he had wished he could just absorb knowledge the way he could biological structures. Not because that ability would have been outstandingly powerful, only to be freed from the torture of reading the same passages over and over again.
“Your memorization is satisfying,” Maltos continued on. “No mistakes.” He put all the papers into a neat stack. “Do you know why I had you write all of these down?”
“To make sure I understood?” Apexus returned with a question. For once, he was certain he did not have the correct answer. “Is that half of it?”
“About a quarter,” Maltos stated, with mild amusement. Seriously, he continued, “You will have to understand these by heart by practicing them. No, this action was taken so I can bind these into a book, after adding some notes of my own.” The old monk stared at his pupil. “I have made you draw the combination lines for all Martial Arts that I teach my pupils, Apexus. These four days were not for the Deathhound, they were for your life after that. With this book, you will be able to practice all that I know. It may be more difficult without further guidance, but it can be done even without me.”
Apexus was left without response, this time for a lack of words that carried the depth of his gratitude. Rather than stammer through any attempt, the Monk-in-training bowed where he sat, until his forehead hit the woven plant matter of the main temple’s floor.
“I will tell you right now what it does not contain,” Maltos stated, while the slime’s head was still lowered. “In the book, you will not find the Gate Techniques. They are too dangerous to be taught with written instructions alone. Should you ever desire to learn them, you must confide in me or, should I not survive or you be too far to reach me, another teacher. You must swear this to me.”
“I swear, teacher,” Apexus promised.
Maltos weighed those words for a moment. Once he deemed them proper, he told Apexus, “Raise your head. Now we continue your training properly.” After the blue eyes of the fox-eared humanoid were back on him, the lesson started. “Manipulation of focus points inside the body comes in two varieties,” he stated, “one is what you studied over the past few days. It is to channel the ki through the desired points, and then to arrive at a point where it becomes a Martial Art. Like many materials, from ore to honey, these different processes change much about the final result, even if it remains fundamentally the same Martial Art. What differentiates the schools of Monks is primarily which points are hit in which order. Let me demonstrate.”
Stripping out of his top, Maltos revealed his naked upper body. He had seen better days. The skin was not as firm as it used to be, the muscles had diminished, and age spots were visible all over, but the fundamental power he had once possessed still rippled underneath the slight belly he had gotten in his age.
He clenched his left fist. Its skin, down to the wrist, turned into a lead grey colour. Ki exuded in an aura of dark grey, rising like smoke from his skin. “This is the Ironskin Martial Art, Ashen March Style,” he revealed. “It favours offense and thus I rarely ever used it. I merely picked it up when I was sparring with a friend. I teach and practice the Ready Waters Style,” he clenched his right fist and the arm turned into the colour of polished iron all the way down to the shoulder, without any further visual effects, “it focuses on defence and mobility.” He relaxed his hands and the ki stopped flowing, ending both effects. “Those two were the same Martial Art, Ironskin is even practiced by Warriors and Knights. Both styles channel the ki through three physical and one magical focus points. The Ashen March variant uses the minors Shun, Makan, and Wendel and the major Warjen. The Ready Waters uses the minors Shun, Wendel, and Tempest and the major Malin. What is the primary difference?”
“The Ashen March’s major point is the single magical focus point. The Ready Waters uses Malin, which is a physical point that can also be used as a sensation point.”
“Correct,” Maltos nodded, having expected no less. “You can interchange which focus points you use and in which order, to achieve many different variances of the same Martial Art. Each Style has its own focus on certain points. Mastering several Styles is, of course, possible, but in the thick of battle you seldom have the luxury to pick from a library of different tools. Best to be proficient in a small selection.”
Apexus nodded once, only to signal his understanding. Then Maltos stood up, gesturing for his pupil to do the same. What followed from there was a lengthy and informative summary of the prominent points of the Ready Waters Style and what they were prone to do. After all of that was said and done, the lecture continued with a clear goal.
“The first Martial Art you shall learn is the Ironskin,” Maltos stated. “It is a universal tool that you can use to harden yourself against enemy weapons and also to reinforce the strength of your knuckles. After that, you will learn the Featherstep, the same technique I use to jump from canopy to canopy. With those two, you will have demonstrated control over your own pressure points. Afterwards, you will be taught the Pressure Touch.” Two raised fingers and the name were enough to indicate what that Martial Art was. “Few Monks specialize in it, but all learn it. Once you have a basic understanding of how to exploit enemy pressure points, I will teach you an offensive move: the Rippling Palm. Those are the minimum Martial Arts you need to master to use Flow Manipulation.”
“Teacher, I have a question,” Apexus spoke up, before the lesson continued. “What is the drawback to combining ki points randomly?”
“You mean to use Monk Martial Arts with a steadily mixing assortment, with no style in mind?” The clarifying question was met with a nod. “The drawbacks are twofold and both are obvious. You do not know what you will get and what you get may be harmful. Regardless, some Monks dabble in it. We call them Monks of the Gambling Path.”
“Gambling is very un-monkly is it not?”
Maltos blew air out of his nose and chuckled. “I sometimes forget your lack of experience with the wider world. Listen, a Monk is marked by self-control. Most Monks you meet are spiritual, finding their discipline in denial of worldly urges. A select few find their fulfilment instead in indulging the worldly in manners under their control. I will not pretend that I truly understand how they do it. There are also Sin Monks.”
“…That sounds oxymoronic.”
“In most ways it is,” Maltos responded, no amusement in his voice. “All Monks are people and all people are tempted by indulgence. You will, on your journey, be allured by many paths. Some because they are easy, others because they offer the pleasures of revenge or wealth. A Monk that falls to their temptations is a unique beast. They resemble a Berserker in the source of their strength, but their instincts are still under strict control. It is a very specific path with its own abilities and no one ever sets out to walk it. One falls or one does not. One breaks or one bends.”
Apexus considered that. Could he fall to a sin? Certainly, he could. There was wrath inside the slime’s core, rage regarding the wicked and those that would hurt those dearest to him. There was hunger, a vast gluttonous hunger, to devour entire forests from the largest game to the smallest blade of grass, just for the sake of eating. Those were two sins that he knew he could fall or relapse into.
Deep down, Apexus knew that, if he ever crossed the line of eating one of his haremettes, that he would not come back from that. Becoming a Monk had been a decision made in no small part to get a handle on that temptation. He had controlled himself in a situation overseen by Maltos. Who knew what dire straits the Omniverse held for them?
The hand of the smaller, older man came down on Apexus’ shoulder. “A Sin Monk is one that falls too deep to rise again. Don’t let it come that far. Die before then.”
“I will,” Apexus promised.
It was a crass demand, yet a normal one for a monk. To break from control into indulgence was the same as dying mentally, to this path of life and the rebirth that followed, not one considered to be worthy of continuation. Values were shattered in the process that were stronger than their claim to life. Thus, death was the preferable alternative.
“The Ironskin,” Maltos continued unabated, lifting his hand off of Apexus’ shoulder. “It is a Martial Art that utilizes Bone, Muscle, and Skin. Use of Skin Skills is a continuation of the muscles – you should not have an issue with it. You will learn the regular Ironskin first, then the Ready Waters Style.” The old monk stepped back, walking towards the large lotus flower to retrieve something.
While he did, Apexus concentrated on his left arm. Manipulating his membrane was a sensation he was more than used to. In the first place, the difference between his muscles, his flesh, and his skin was even less than in a regular person. All three were meat for most humanoids, some cases of scales notwithstanding. All three were slime, for Apexus, and all were deeply linked not just by a shared mana circuitry but the mechanics of his regenerative capabilities.
Although his membrane also was that of a demon. A Skinwalker, aptly named, that he had devoured after Apotho had pointed him towards it. While those circumstances were unfortunate, since that had been a ploy to make sure the slime, the tiger girl and the metal fairy were as far from each other as possible, the Growth itself had been an incredibly useful fixture. Outwardly it looked just like human skin, the colour and translucency could be changed, and it fused perfectly with additional Growths and worked with Apexus’ ability to thicken his membrane.
By making parts of himself denser, Apexus could store additional biomass without bloating out of control. Nowadays he stored that additional biomass in matter other than just his slime, like his bones or by deliberately increasing the size of his nucleus. Still, the fact was that Apexus had skin that was several times thicker than the average. With the lack of veins and such running through, it was more akin to blubber and the surface was already sturdier than regular skin – all of that without losing the tactile similarities.
Just pouring mana into it did succeed in making it stronger, but the proper Martial Art eluded Apexus. Notably, his skin did not change colour.
Maltos returned to his pupil with a sphere covered in razor-sharp blades in his metallically glistening hand. “A Monk is considered to have mastered the Ironskin when they can pass a bladed ball back and forth with their master twenty times without cutting themselves,” the teacher explained. “Usually, this test would be kept for when you are confident you can do it. With your regenerative abilities, we can pull it ahead. First, however, the basic Ironskin.”
Carefully, Maltos placed the ball on the floor and then took Apexus’ arm. He brushed off the naked arm of his pupil, tracing the bones. “Fundamentally, Ironskin functions by expanding the reinforced hardness of the bones to the skin, the muscles only serve as a medium where necessary. It is easiest to start where skin and bone are the closest.” Maltos tapped on the humanoid chimera’s knuckles. “Reinforce the bones here and then raise the energy to the surface.”
Apexus nodded and concentrated. He knew, from the first moment, what to do. Actually, doing it was a different matter. It was like knowing the way to solve a single side of a Rubik’s cube and going through the motions. After three minutes, spots of a simple, metallic colour started to show.
“Good start. Now, the difficult bit is to expand it. You need to get it all the way down to your elbow.”
That was the equivalent of actually solving the Rubik’s cube. An hour passed, of Apexus slowly, gradually, enveloping the entirety of his arm in a sheen of iron grey. Maintaining it was difficult, but not absurdly so. To do so in combat, while using other Martial Arts simultaneously, would be the true test. “What next?”
“Next, do the other arm,” Maltos instructed. “You need to be able to do this with all of your skin. Afterwards, you head home.”
“A break?” Apexus asked.
“I trust you to keep practicing while you see the others.”