It was unlikely that John’s performance climbing Zolvolj impressed anyone, but he found the results sufficient for his own purposes. He didn’t have a poor showing either and he was still working to recover his reputation after, well, Fortkran.
He sat with Aydan in a nice, moderate temperature underground chamber. They were having what was effectively afternoon snacks- it would often be called ‘tea’ if it was a meal, but neither of them were interested in having a hot drink. Instead, their olivine cups were filled with the coolest water they could get. John took a sip as he nibbled on some strangely spicy cookies. It seemed the residents of the Green Sands weren’t content with just one kind of hot. “I don’t think we have reason to stay much longer. I’ve learned most of what I can here at the moment. I’ve had enough struggling against people of similar cultivations as well.”
Aydan nodded, “I agree. You seem to have learned quite a bit, but there is only so much you can do of one sort of training before it diminishes in value. It might be useful to return here when you are stronger, but you have all of the experience we can reasonably expect for now.”
John nodded, “What about you? Were you able to improve your own abilities?”
“Somewhat,” Aydan explained. “Darkness only has an indirect connection to fire, in that they’re mutually destructive. I must confess that I mainly deal with the heat by overpowering it, but I certainly learned some from this trip. I came here before when I was younger, and I can say I’m much improved.” He took a sip of his relatively cool water. There were a few drinks that did well in constantly hot temperatures, but none of them were particularly pleasant for those used to life outside the Green Sands. “Did you learn anything else interesting?”
John shrugged, “Not that much. Just some of the internal politics of the Milanovic clan. I’m glad my position in the Tenebach clan is secure.”
“We learned a long time ago that internal strife greatly weakens the clan. There are sufficient opportunities for individuals to expand their power without stealing it from each other. Though it does not hurt that your grandfather is so powerful.”
John pondered for a few moments. Aydan had been trusted with basically everything. He knew John’s secrets, at least, which meant he was at least equal in knowledge of the internal affairs of the Tenebach clan. “How close do you think things were to a change when I… reset my cultivation?”
“If you had perished there, your parents might have tried to have another child. Another twenty years might seem long to you, but it’s not so big in the grand scheme of things. Personally, I am glad things turned out how they did. Just the right things changed after you reset your cultivation without causing too many problems for the clan.”
John nodded. He wasn’t sure if he was technically any better at cultivation, but he was more devoted and stayed out of trouble. At least the kind of trouble that made the clan look bad. There was a certain amount of trouble he was just expected to get up to, like the scuffle with Erik. Even almost dying in the Crystal Caverns was ‘good’. Cultivators who could survive more near death experiences were held in high regard.
Having learned a lesson from previous incidents, John stayed with the Milanovic clan until a contingent of them set out to the southwest to visit one of the cities. While two Foundation Phase cultivators traveling together were a formidable force, they could be overwhelmed with numbers if someone decided they wanted to take the risk for their wealth. They would almost certainly kill a large number of Spiritual Collection Phase cultivators before they died, but they had limits. If some Foundation Phase enemies were thrown in they wouldn’t have much chance. So traveling with a larger group- and perhaps more importantly members of a clan near their territory- was safer. It was likely that it was an isolated incident, but they still made sure to find another group traveling to the Stone Conglomerate. That was best for their personal safety.
John had grown somewhat used to the oppressive heat near Zolvolj, so it was almost soothing to be in heat near the extremes of what Earth could have. Then when they left the Green Sands, he felt almost strangely light. His control over his spiritual energy, especially that of the earth element, had improved greatly. Constantly needing that control was quite useful for training. While he’d certainly trained his control elsewhere, eventually he would grow tired and stop. But if he stopped in the Green Sands, he felt like he might have died. It was a good motivator- even if it was probably just going to be extremely uncomfortable.
Upon returning to the Stone Conglomerate, John took stock of how many people were cultivators. Almost everyone who had any sort of talent cultivated as much as they could, but there were clearly more non-cultivators. After all, they wouldn’t just die if they didn’t cultivate. John wondered how the children who weren’t from large clans lived in the Green Sands. Perhaps they didn’t. There were precious few reasons to live in the Green Sands if one weren’t actively cultivating. It could also be that the heat resistance would transfer to children. John was aware that not all bloodline traits were entirely inborn- a parent’s training could affect children they had afterwards. John wasn’t sure how that worked with genetics, but he accepted it as another layer he just didn’t understand completely.
It was quite nice to be back home, spending time in his own rooms and sleeping in his own bed. He also got to train in his own training chambers, tuned just for him. It had been attuned to focus on darkness by default, but some modifications had been made to gather more earth element as well. If John weren’t careful, he might find himself focusing only on earth. That was the most abundant type of spiritual energy in the Stone Conglomerate, after all.
But he knew that would be foolish. He had just returned from the Green Sands after all, and there were other fire attributed places. Just because he’d learned to handle the weakness earth had to fire didn’t mean he’d negated it. Darkness still fared better against fire- he’d just focused so much on earth because it was new and because it would be a shame to have half of his energy be useless.
If he still intended to go through with a cycle of elements, he needed to avoid neglecting any part of his training. Air would be next on the list, but he still had another seven levels before he had to pick a totem. It would be too late if he waited until he finished the eighteenth level, but he wasn’t in a rush. He browsed the third layer of the Sea of Spiritual Totems, but he found it difficult to spend too much time there. If he didn’t have specific requirements it wouldn’t have been too hard to find an air element totem that was strong- but he wanted something that could grow and preferably it would be multi-elemental as well. For obvious reasons, the details recorded on third layer air elemental spiritual totems were somewhat sparse in the Stone Conglomerate.
Since he was fully overwhelmed with the fire element in the Green Sands, John hadn’t had much chance to practice his self-made technique. However, his general increase in control of spiritual energy allowed him to have some improvements. He finally decided on a name. It wasn’t awe inspiring or inspiring. It was no Cat Hidden in the Darkness or Boulder Rolling Down the Mountain or Oriole Stalks the Mantis. It was just Spiritual Energy Absorption. He found that name preferable to Vampirism, both because of the negative connotations and because there just wasn’t quite anything like vampires in the world. There were a variety of blood-suckers, but he wasn’t inclined to name it after any of them.
John also took the time to learn some other techniques. Though the earth element was good for augmenting attacks and defense, in the right environment it was also a good way to control opponents. Sinking in the Mire, which was alternately titled Quicksand, was a regimented technique to control the ground. Turning stone into soft earth and allowing people to sink into it didn’t have to directly conflict with an enemy’s energy, so it was useful in many situations. Even if he could only sink one foot a centimeter or two, that could throw off someone’s stance significantly. Eventually he should be able to entrap people fully in the ground, but complete liquidation required either extreme power or some control of water as well. John was counting on eventually having the latter, but since he wouldn’t have a water element totem until the Consolidated Soul Phase he would have to assume he would mainly be using it as a fully earth element technique.
He also learned a darkness element technique. John found it strange that techniques that didn’t straightforwardly kill people were often taken as ‘dishonorable’, but that was just how darkness techniques were. The most straightforward things were techniques like Gravity Blade. Personally John felt no qualms as long as he didn’t plan to make people suffer unnecessarily. If they were fighting, why shouldn’t he do his best to win?
Clinging Affliction was one such technique. It was an augment for attacks, but rather than being made to simply crush through an opponent’s defenses and kill them, it was something extra he could add on after he broke through. Clinging Affliction left a relatively small amount of darkness energy behind in wounds, where it would then slowly continue to open the wound and disrupt energy flow. The trick was making it so people couldn’t just rip it away. It was also another thing that was difficult to practice. If he had a large attack made for breaking through defenses, he could use that safely enough in a practice arena- even if he went too hard his opponent should avoid major injuries. For Clinging Affliction to work at all, however, his opponent had to be wounded. It was also clear this particular technique would be painful- not pain for pain’s sake, but still not something he’d inflict on anyone who he wasn’t actually enemies with. But it didn’t have to be trained on people. John didn’t have the heart to use it on poor innocent animals, but there were some decidedly non-innocent beasts that lived in the world. Some even made use of energy. They would be the most appropriate targets for training.