The rooms for guests staying with the Milanovic clan were quite nice, where they could be. There was nothing to do about it being overly hot all the time- that was the entire purpose of the location they had picked. Other than that they were quite comfortable. The furniture had soft cushioning, made of fibers John didn’t recognize. It was likely something native to the Green Sands, since it endured the heat well. Certainly nothing with a low ignition point.
He sat with his uncle Aydan, enjoying glasses of cool water. The water felt like more of a luxury than all of the fine wines he’d gotten to consume- or mostly had consumed in memories he’d gained. Of course, there were some that were quite good, and if they were chill, he wouldn’t mind having a small glass of them if they were available. They wouldn’t last long, however, so it would have to be nothing he wanted to savor.
“It should indeed be a good training opportunity,” Aydan said about the Ascent. “It is likely to be less rewarding than the Crystal Caverns, as the chances of finding any sort of natural treasure are… minimal. But as long as you are aware of your limits, it should also be safer. You do not have any enemies of significant aversion to yourself here. Erik might wish ill for you, but it is unlikely anyone will cause trouble in such an open event.”
John nodded, “Hundreds of people climbing up the side of a volcano doesn’t exactly leave much hidden. That’s the whole point, though. I’d like to say I’d make it to the top first… but even among my generation, that is unlikely. Still weak to fire. That might be true until I reach Consolidated Soul.”
“Until? You sound pretty confident,” Aydan smiled.
“To be honest I have no idea,” John shrugged. “I haven’t found anything that really stopped me yet. Foundation Phase is slower, but I don’t have much experience with it either. So I’m not just… recultivating. It doesn’t feel that slow, though. It can be difficult, but that’s because I don’t spend extra time. I don’t know if I should, or not.”
“My advice won’t do you much good,” Aydan said. “I had little choice but to take the slow and steady path with my talent.”
“Right. I just have to not be a stupid hare.”
Aydan tilted his head. “Hmm? What do rabbits…?”
“The tortoise and the hare? Oh, right.” Strangely enough, he couldn’t remember an equivalent parable. Why was that? “Obviously a tortoise is slow and a hare fast, but they ended up in a race…” John explained the parable. “So the point is not to be arrogant and assume you’ve won before the end.”
“It is better to be a hardworking hare then. Fast and steady is the best. But, there must also be times of relaxation too,” Aydan nodded.
“Sure, but not before the race is over.”
“It doesn’t really apply to cultivation, though,” Aydan said.
“Why not? Well, I can sort of see…” John pursed his lips. “If you aren’t fast enough, you might not even make it to the end.”
“Not just that,” Aydan flourished his nearly empty glass, “But it presumes there is an end. While it applies quite cleanly to specific competitions, cultivation is not the same.”
“Isn’t it?” John said. “I’m not going to say it’s simple to surpass the demigod phase and become a god- or even if that’s a sensible name for those phases- but once you reach the end, that’s it.”
“Who told you that the sixth phase is the final one?”
“All of the cultivation manuals say so. Everyone I’ve talked to.”
Aydan nodded. “They might be right. But tell me, what cultivation phase were those people in? Those you spoke to, those who wrote it?”
“Well, Grandfather is at the Soul Expansion Phase, and I believe I read some writings from a Consolidated Soul expert.” John thought for a few moments, “But I suppose they were still a few phases below the limit.”
“Exactly. It’s hard to truly know if that is the limit or not. Though most will never even get close enough to glimpse it.” Aydan smiled, “Anyway, don’t forget that cultivation isn’t just you against the path. There are others along the way. I don’t suppose a hare will do much against a turtle, but a fast rabbit might kill a slow rabbit. Or something.”
“Maybe I could be a fast turtle,” John said. “Or just a hawk. Well, it’s not supposed to cover everything anyway. Parables are a bit too simplified for that.”
Standing at the base of Zolvolj, John thought it looked especially grumpy. However, apparently the particular amount of smoke and steam emanating from the volcano was the optimal amount for climbing. More or less.
He was having a hard time deciding what animal he’d like to be. A desert tortoise might still cook. Hares would just be burnt bunnies. Unfortunately he had no ability to be a hawk and fly over, and if he could do that he wouldn’t really need to train with the climb. He wondered how geckos handled the heat. They were good climbers. There were other lizards more known for being in the desert.
Or maybe he should just be a human. Hands were pretty nice. But he did need to pick a pace to move at. If he was too fast he’d wear himself out, but too slow and the heat- which he could see increased more towards the top of the volcano. He really, really didn’t like how well his eyes were able to pick out the heat and the fire elemental spiritual energy that was related to it.
Ayden stood nearby. The two of them were off to one side of the Milanovic clan, not really separate but not part of them. Then again, there were many little groups among the clan. Either actual factions or just friends who wanted to compete against each other. Most of the younger generation was present, and many from the older generation were along to serve as guardians. They were mostly there to prevent serious injuries if possible, and carry away those who reached their limits.
On either side of the Milanovic clan were many others from the Green Sands, as well as a portion from elsewhere. Most were the same proportions of cultivators he had sensed- a majority fire, some earth who were used to the heat, and then smaller groups.
John wasn’t exactly sure what starting at “The Rumble” meant, but he figured he would be fine if he just waited until everyone else started moving and went with the flow. At least he shouldn’t embarrass himself that way. While it was technically a race with prizes for the fastest, it wouldn’t be him. Maybe a race through the dark or something in his element, but this wasn’t it.
It was ten more minutes during which John began to get bored when he felt it. Then he saw it. Pieces of debris spewed out of the top of the old volcano, and lava began to pour down it in what looked from his current distance like thin rivulets. It wasn’t an eruption. If the volcano was actually erupting there would be quite a bit more happening. However, it was something like a mini-eruption. It certainly made the ground tremble beneath him. John had the feeling it wasn’t entirely natural but as others began running up the slopes, he did too.
The first part was quite easy. It was really just running. Running in heat up a slope, but it wasn’t anything like climbing yet. It did quickly get steeper. That was where earth energy became quite handy. He could make the terrain suit him better, and though he couldn’t affect the slope as a whole he could make sure he stuck to it as well as possible. The Rumble was just the start, however. It continued, repeating almost regularly. John looked at some of the more experienced people around. Neither younger disciples nor guardians seemed concerned. It should be normal, then.
John continued his normal ascent, and he just had to start dodging boulders dislodged from higher up. Perfectly normal mountain climbing stuff. If he believed movies, at least. And who wouldn’t?
There weren’t really that many boulders, but over the entirety of the slope there were certainly unnatural amounts of rolling rocks. Even small rocks could be a problem if they were going fast enough, but he could deflect the smaller ones with just the right sort of nudge of earth energy.
After twenty minutes of running up the slope it was steep enough that it really required climbing in many places. That seemed like the easy part. Earth energy was quite suited for the task, searching out good handholds and avoiding weakened places that would crumble underneath him. Legs and arms moved in tandem as his lungs burned. Maybe even actually a bit literally.
The physical exertion was something a cultivator could handle on its own, but the heat of the volcano was harder, especially higher up. Even the fire element cultivators were circulating their energy in special ways to protect themselves, or expending their energy and absorbing more. There was only so much they could cycle through, but that was mostly up to their aptitude.
John pushed the heat into the ground beneath him. That worked about as normal at first, but as he climbed more it had to go deeper and deeper to find cool enough ground. He knew his technique wouldn’t work forever, especially as they climbed higher. Aydan remained near him, the extra handful of cultivation levels he had making keeping pace with John rather easy.
As he looked up the mountain, John only felt that it grew taller and taller. Steeper slopes, more heat, boulders, and even direct flows of lava covered his sight. Even so, the sparkling green slopes beneath were quite a sight. He looked at the fire element cultivators- most of those with similar cultivations who were ahead of him- and shook his head. He couldn’t compete with people who were literally in their element and had done it before. He just had to do his best. He needed to use the competition to improve himself and at least appear decent while he did so.