Being physically and emotionally available for his children was a good thing, but John also knew there was a point where being around all the time would be an annoyance. So with a reminder to Tirto that he could be contacted swiftly via the shadowhawks the Tenebach clan was breeding as messenger birds, he set off to return Ursel to the Amber Heart and himself to the Tenebach clan. Because even if he wasn’t the clan head, there were still valuable things for him to do.
The journey from the Shimmering Islands to the Stone Conglomerate was swift and relatively uneventful, if one did not consider the storms to be of relevance. And most captains weren’t willing to sail directly through the storms, so they barely even got shaken up.
Nobody was foolish enough to attack the waiting Tenebach clan carriage as they made their way through the Stone Conglomerate, so the travel was peaceful. John spent most of the time in peaceful meditation, where he felt he was still on the verge of breaking past a barrier to return his cultivation to a better state. Something was missing though, and he couldn’t quite pick out what.
When they arrived, Johannes Dalen came out himself to meet them. The head of the Order of the Amber Heart, Renato’s master, and the first individual in the Consolidated Soul Phase that John had met.
For some reason Ursel tried to hide behind John as he approached. And while her height might allow that, her width and spiritual energy weren’t doing her any favors.
Johannes Dalen grinned widely. “Young Fortkran, good to see you! And you as well, Crystin.”
John didn’t really consider himself young still, but even if he counted his previous life then his total lifespan as a cultivator wasn’t exactly old either. He was almost fifty in this body, which put him a bit past seventy total. He could easily live to two hundred at this point, so maybe he was young.
“Good to see you as well, Sect Head,” John bowed.
“It is good to see you out and about. Unfortunately my disciple isn’t here at the moment. He went off looking for his disciple, if you hadn’t heard. Say, you wouldn’t happen to have seen her anywhere, would you?”
“Well, unfortunately I haven’t been spending as much time with family as I should have lately,” John said. “But…” he stepped to the side. Not that it was actually required for anyone involved.
Johannes looked over Ursel. “You actually managed to get scratches and dents in that mountain steel armor. Impressive, in its own way.”
“… Hello, Sect Head,” Ursel said sheepishly.
“And hello to you as well.” he looked around the group. “I expect Renato to return shortly enough, as his leads obviously won’t be panning out.”
“Do you think he can fix it?” Ursel asked.
“The whole point of mountain steel is to be immutable, or as close as we can come. So I somewhat doubt he can fix it. Perhaps you should strive to make your own.”
“But I’m not strong enough for that.”
“Perhaps not yet,” Johannes shook his head. “But I am sure it won’t be terribly long either, with you already in the Soul Expansion Phase at the age most are just beginning to seriously cultivate.”
Wanting to see Renato, John decided to stay with the Order for some time. While he was doing so, he sought a private audience with the sect head. The Order of the Amber Heart were trusted allies, after all.
“What do you think of my cultivation?” he said bluntly. No doubt Johannes already suspected the few things he wouldn’t want to be common knowledge.
“It is… odd,” the man admitted. “Not just your choice to cultivate a cycle of elements, I mean. If I put in the effort I can sense the auras of… five totems. But I presume something went wrong with your advancement, as you don’t feel as strong as you should. Or as strong as you were previously.”
“I was hoping you might have new insights into the Ascending Soul Phase,” John said. “Or perhaps I might serve as a guide for you. About what to do, and what not to.” John began to explain his experiences. How he burned his dantian, and even spoke of the regrowth. “But I don’t seem to be able to gather more spiritual energy than an individual at the Spiritual Collection Phase.”
“That is quite interesting,” Johannes said. “Perhaps you are subconsciously limiting yourself to avoid further injuries?”
“I had considered that, but I don’t really know how to stop a subconscious process.”
“And you have been trying to let your power build up normally?” Johannes clarified.
“That’s right. But I can’t seem to figure out how I might break through to the next stage. The thing I’m most certain of is that I can’t attune to another totem.”
“I will admit that the Ascending Soul Phase still eludes my grasp,” Johannes said. “So even your troubles are beyond my current experience. Attempting to push myself would certainly result in my destruction. But if your spiritual energy and dantian aren’t what is holding you back, I would focus on other areas.”
“In a way I have been,” John admitted. “Though more out of a lack of any progress rather than intention.”
“Perhaps you should cease any conscious cultivation for a time,” Johannes said. “At worst, you lose a few months. I can’t say that it will certainly help, but if it’s not working…”
John nodded. “It makes as much sense as anything else,” he admitted.
There were plenty of things in this world to do besides cultivation, but usually they only occupied a small portion of John’s time. He had sufficient wealth to see plays and hear music, to engage in reading- though most reading inevitably connected back to cultivation- and to socialize to the limits of his tolerance. He watched others cultivate, mainly when they were sparring, but didn’t really see anything that would change things for himself.
So he waited for Renato to return, and fortunately his friend arrived within the month. Otherwise John would have had to return to the clan and help out, as it had been too long.
The silence between them spoke of the strain in all John’s relationships over the last several years. It was Renato who broke the silence first. “We had been quite worried about you. We haven’t had a chance to meet recently, however.”
“I would be quite pleased to meet with the club once more,” John admitted. “I hope we all remained friends.”
“A few bad years ending our friendship would mean it wasn’t much to begin with,” Renato said. “Tell me about how things have been.”
It was a story John had repeated many times now. His devastation after Matayal’s death, more or less hiding himself away from the world. And his motivation to still do something. But his attempt to advance his cultivation had taken a sour turn. “I may have rushed into it,” John said. “But I felt like I was prepared as I could be. Perhaps I didn’t have it in me.”
Renato shook his head. “If you were someone else, I might agree. But I know you. And with your mistake not killing you, I am confident you will recover. I must also say I am quite pleased to see my friend again, instead of… whoever you were the last few years.”
“Still me, unfortunately,” John admitted. “I can’t blame that on someone else. Just a worse version of myself.”
“So you said Master Johannes suggested you don’t cultivate. But I think that making use of your energy should still be beneficial. Perhaps in a spar?”
“Only if you go easy on me,” John grinned.
“I promise nothing more than limiting my power to the same level as yourself,” Renato said.
In the few years they had been apart, Renato had picked up a few new tricks. But John also had a new advantage over his friend, that of fire. It allowed his own style to be even more adaptable than before, avoiding the man’s use of raw power and surprising agility. Even as an earth cultivator, Renato could be quite quick. It was truly troublesome to deal with someone powerful and enduring that he couldn’t simply run circles around.
As they practiced, memories flooded back into John of earlier sparring sessions. He had the feeling he was approaching something important. But he wasn’t quite able to grasp it. Still, he had the feeling Renato was key- and his friend was willing to give him whatever time he needed.
“There’s something here,” John explained. “But it always remains out of reach. Perhaps a memory I am forgetting?”
“How far back?” Renato asked.
“Very near the beginning,” John admitted. “But sparring is revealing nothing.”
“Then perhaps we should fight over something,” Renato said. “A real prize, like our actual first meeting.”
Memories returned to John. The Crystal Caverns, and an urn. One that took on a spiritual presence, still living inside of him. One that separated earth elemental spiritual energy from bones. If he was able to advance his cultivation, it would have been quite useful in the Viridia Wildlands where they had more bones than they knew what to do with. But he had recognized that danger, and knew that wasn’t what he wanted.
John considered the battle. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt. What should the prize be, then?”
“If you win, I make a new set of mountain steel armor for Ursel,” Renato declared. “And if I win…”
“I can’t forge any materials of note,” John admitted.
“Then you give me that urn,” Renato said.
“I suppose that depends on if I can even separate it from myself.”
Renato nodded, “At the time, I doubt you could have done so. But now, it’s likely possible.”
“Very well,” John said. “I agree to the terms. But I suppose we will have to see if I can actually accomplish that.”
The urn was a relatively low level spiritual object. While it would be more useful for Renato because of his pure earth element cultivation, John was uncertain if it would be comparable in value. Then again, the bet was lopsided to begin with. Even if Renato tried to restrain himself, the truth was that his spiritual energy was still stronger and more plentiful.
Either way, John didn’t mind. If he considered it a payment for Renato’s recent instruction, it was honestly worthwhile.
He sunk deep into himself, looking for the other layers of himself. When he found the urn, he realized it had hairline cracks- most likely they had been worse not long ago. He could easily imagine what would have broken it.
Actualizing the spiritual object was simple enough. He had to be able to place things in it to begin with, so it only took some effort to materialize it in front of him. But that was one thing. Severing its connection to his soul was… also not that difficult. It only took a simple manifestation of his will. In truth, his lack of use had likely weakened his connection with it over the years.
With his bet viable, John and Renato began their battle. Many disciples of the Amber Heart were there to watch, and Ursel of course.
John’s sword whistled as it cut through the air, his daggers hiding in shadows as they attacked Renato from all angles. In turn, the heavy swings of Renato’s club forced John to pull his blows and dodge away with great frequency.
John truly was reminded of their first meeting. And just like then, Renato had the advantage. However, he didn’t have to worry about wearing himself out this time. Simply winning the battle would be sufficient, he didn’t have to fight his way back out of the Crystal Caverns- or worry about petty cultivators.
That meant John ultimately lost… and he didn’t mind it at all. He couldn’t say that Renato hadn’t held back his spiritual energy enough, nor did he have any other complaints. And he felt he was getting closer to something.
“A solid victory. Here is your prize,” John said, extending the urn.
“A worthy prize indeed,” Renato said. Then he turned to Ursel and tossed the urn to her. “Take this and stop eating that horrible sludge, please,” Renato said. “This is going to be so much better.”
“Hmm…” Ursel frowned. “But will it empower my body…?”
“There’s only one way to find out,” John said. Afterwards, he took Renato aside. “You could have said it was for her.”
“Then you wouldn’t have been as motivated,” Renato grinned. “And that was the main point. So, how do you feel?”
“Closer,” John admitted. “But not quite there.”
“I suppose we have to go into the danger zone of the Crystal Caverns then,” Renato said. “And break through to the next stage together.”
Ah, that was it. The true beginning of their friendship, forged in desperation. “I have the feeling that would be a poor idea for you,” John said. “And maybe worse for me. But I do have some insights to work out.”