No matter how much spiritual energy he fed the Seed of Darkness, it was happy to absorb it and trickle out more refined spiritual energy. The Claws of Darkness had required more work to refine spiritual energy, though with their position as a third layer totem the ultimate result had been stronger. Even so, John was happy to fill up his dantian with what he had.
Mostly out of curiosity, he attempted another circulation of his cultivation technique with the already refined spiritual energy. The most immediate thing he noticed was that the effect on his meridians was more pronounced. The darkness had a chilling effect as it passed through, not unpleasant but like a cool glass of water on a hot summer day. The more powerful energy was partly absorbed into his meridians, tempering them. That was a necessary part of passing through the levels of cultivation. Even if he could somehow obtain stronger spiritual energy immediately, if his meridians and dantian couldn’t handle it he would be in a bad state. He already had experience with that… trying to break through to Foundation Phase too early.
When the spiritual energy completed its circulation and returned to the seed, it once again absorbed it. The reabsorption was much slower, and the twice refined energy it slowly produced was only marginally different. Even so, every little bit counted for something. He continued cultivating until he had refined everything as much as he could, filling himself comfortably full of spiritual energy. Then he had other duties to attend to.
With his previous experience cultivating, it only took two weeks to pass through all of the early stages of the Spiritual Collection Phase. Soon enough he was at the fourth level out of nine. Not an impressive accomplishment given his age of around twenty years old, but at least he was no longer almost powerless.
The official story was that Fortkran Tenebach had an inspiration which caused him to choose to reset his cultivation and start over from the beginning. For all but the core members of the Tenebach clan- his parents, grandfather, and a pair of close uncles- that was the story they knew. Some might have suspected different, but they certainly wouldn’t mention it.
Now that he had a spiritual totem, he was able to spar with a wider variety of people. That started with cousins, and while it was somewhat humiliating to fight cousins a year or two younger than himself… they were about the right level for him to compete with. Some of them were at the third level but with second or third tier spiritual totems, and he had to admit that he was more or less matched with them. Sometimes inferior.
He tried not to let it bother him. He had to relearn everything. His fighting style was new, even to his old self, and he was used to being stronger… or not fighting at all, respectively. With a spiritual totem from the first layer, he found it hard to compete in direct confrontation. It was fortunate that he had access to all of the family’s library to pick out some technique that suited him. The first thing he had learned was a simple footwork technique, a more basic movement of a movement technique. Hidden Steps was the name, and it synergized well with the darkness element to make it hard to predict his movements. He was also studying a basic swordsmanship manual and spending time with trainers who had experience. He had yet to learn an actual martial technique with a sword, but he could at least coat his weapon in his spiritual energy to augment it, and he was more efficient about it now.
The opponent who matched Fortkran most closely was Tempkeit, a cousin just one year younger. He was similarly of the fourth level, and his spiritual totem was of the first layer. In short, he was considered a mediocre talent. Before John took over, Fortkran had thought nothing of him. Afterwards, he saw how hard he worked. Hard work wasn’t everything in cultivation, but even if strength was important a good personality was much nicer to have around.
Tempkeit didn’t take any defeat personally, and when he won he wasn’t overly domineering. His totem was known as the Shadowed Palms, and he fought barehanded as well as Fortkran could fight with a sword. Even so, there was a bit of something lacking. Of course, the power wasn’t much to speak for… but the more relevant part was the experience. It was likely there weren’t many good sparring partners for him in the past, so he had to train on his own. With his mediocre talent, he was also not able to get much time with any trainers. That was the harsh reality of the situation- the Tenebach clan didn’t have infinite resources, and so personal training was reserved only for those who would likely get the most out of it. As the Young Master of the clan, Fortkran had access to anything reasonable- and sometimes unreasonable requests, though John had avoided those as much as possible after taking over.
Spars with Tempkeit were much different than facing Matayal. She was in the Foundation Phase, and while she had limited her offensive capacity she kept her defenses. That meant Fortkran had to more precisely know the limits of his own strength as well as his opponent, so that they wouldn’t injure each other. There were people on standby if there was an accident, and they indeed occasionally injured each other, but with spiritual energy defending them they could reduce most of the damage.
Fortkran’s spiritual energy flowed around him in a thin layer. It wasn’t weak, just condensed. When a palm struck him the energy distributed the force of the blow around his body. In addition, he could absorb some of the attack’s spiritual energy. He found it was easier with the darkness element, especially of family members, but he could do it with anything he’d encountered so far. He hadn’t had the opportunity to test it with light elemental spiritual energy… but any such conflict would be quite destructive. As opposite elements, light and darkness would interact violently, more than any of the central elements.
His sword swept through the air, barely reflecting light from the mid-day sun. Tempkeit’s palm came up, his fingers sliding the blade up and over his head. Even without gathered spiritual energy his palms were empowered, able to withstand a moderate strike from a sword, with a small amount of spiritual energy and a sharp blade. Without using a weapon, his reach was less… but he was able to more quickly maneuver. In addition, the flow of energy around him was quicker. Fortkran wanted to force his sword back down, but the redirected momentum carried it up and by the time his energy redirected it he had missed.
His feet carried him back and away, but he still had to use his arm to block a palm strike from Tempkeit as he stepped forward inside his reach. He managed to gather enough energy that he would only bruise instead of breaking anything, and a small portion of the energy found its way to mingle with his own. He could use it, but it was a bit sluggish compared to the rest. He didn’t have any sense that it was trying to hinder him, but merely that he didn’t understand it as well. He figured he needed to get used to controlling it, so after taking a defensive stance and absorbing a few more strands of energy he gathered it on his sword.
It wasn’t really to the credit of the spiritual energy that he slipped his attack past the attempted parries and into Tempkeit’s chest, and it barely held enough to pierce through most of the energy protecting his ribs… but he would likely be better the next time.
Tempkeit stepped back. “You are victorious once more, Fortkran.” He bowed slightly. “I am afraid I have reached my limits for the day. I look forward to sparring with you again at the earliest opportunity.”
Something felt strange about how he spoke. It wasn’t that his words were false, but they still felt unnatural. Then again, his status was much lower… so being overly polite was quite reasonable. Perhaps in the future they might break down that barrier of caution and have deeper interactions beyond just sparring.
John found himself called to meet with his grandfather Luctus. Though the servant said to come at his earliest convenience, he knew that meant immediately unless he was in the middle of cultivating or perhaps having wounds patched up. He still wasn’t used to that, or the speed at which seemingly huge cuts could heal with medicines that had seemingly magical power. He didn’t have any indication that magic was real in this world, but cultivation was certainly magical even if it wasn’t magic. He was concerned about side effects of medicines, but he supposed that his body was also very different than on Earth. It would probably be fine. He knocked on the door, but even as his knuckles touched he got a response.
“Come in, Fortkran.” As he stepped into his grandfather’s room, he found him sitting at his table looking over some papers and having some tea. It was unlike any tea he had tasted on Earth, but it was certainly heated water infused with plants. Some of it he liked, and some he didn’t- though he was certain it was all ‘good’. “I have heard your cultivation is progressing rapidly.”
“Yes, grandfather. My… previous experience is quite helpful in that regard. I know how far I can push myself, and just being used to cultivating helps.”
“Good. Progress as much as you can. In two months, there’s a competition we will have you join in. Control of an area high in spirit stones is the prize.”
He knew something about such competitions. If cultivators fought directly over every opportunity, the various sects and clans would wipe each other out in just a few years. There was no point in losing a Foundation Phase cultivator just to get the resources to raise another. While there were certainly lawless regions where the strong could take whatever they wanted, the Stone Conglomerate was an overall peaceful place, with rules in place to prevent too much fighting. Tournaments were a reasonable replacement for fighting, and served to provide opportunities for younger generations. “I hadn’t heard of this before. Is this a new region?”
Luctus shook his head. “No.”
“… oh.” Even if he had been stronger before, he hadn’t been informed of the tournament. Perhaps it was just because it had been early, but he got the feeling even if he was going to be chosen to participate before, he wouldn’t know much ahead of time. Now he needed to properly prepare… and they felt it was better to let him know. “I will do my best to be as strong as possible when the time comes. What are the restrictions?”
“Below twenty-three years of age, and not yet in the Foundation Phase. There are other opportunities for your older cousins in the Foundation Phase, but you need not concern yourself with them.” Luctus shook his head, “Truthfully, there is very little value to be found in winning. However, it is enough to motivate more clans to participate, so a better appraisal of the younger generation can be seen. There might be some large sects looking for potential members but…”
“… I will not look like much, even if I do well. The benefits for joining most sects around here won’t be better than my position currently affords, regardless.”
“You understand. Perhaps if your plan works out as you intend, but as for the moment you appear to be mediocre to those on the outside. The most important thing is to understand your limits in the tournament. Even if you lose, we need to look good. If an opponent is too strong, surrendering early might be better. I’m sure you understand.”
“I do. Though I will at least attempt to surpass the first round or two.”