The ground shook, rocks tumbling down the face of Zolvolj along with rivers of lava. The last time Steve had been on the mountain, he was quite a bit weaker. He’d just recently transmigrated, and was relatively weak. He didn’t know if he could handle cultivation, but climbing the volcano had been the most commonly known option for getting stronger.
That knowledge wasn’t incorrect, but for an independent cultivation who was already doubting himself, Steve found that watching others succeed easily where he struggled simply demoralized him. He was about ready to give up on his life as a cultivator, thinking he couldn’t make it, but a small amount of encouragement from someone passing by had changed that.
‘You don’t have to win this time. Just get some experience for the next one.’
Those words weren’t anything profound, but they were enough. He had been adept enough with his fire energy to recover himself and continue going, one step at a time. Climbing had been difficult still, but small handholds and footholds left by those ahead of him allowed him to go further.
He hadn’t made it to the top, and certainly hadn’t maintained a speed that would win in a race. He’d gained familiarity with the terrain difficulties, hopping over lava flows and avoiding rolling boulders. The thing he learned most, however, was managing his own heat.
To nobody’s surprise, fire elemental spiritual energy was hot. Fire type cultivators had a great tolerance for heat, but it was still possible for them to overheat. Yet it was simple for them to cool down, once they learned how to do it.
Last time he’d not even been in early Foundation Phase. Now he was more than twice the rank and two phases ahead. That was a world of difference, with new totems and several times as much spiritual energy and ability to handle it.
At the first trembles of the mountain, he started to run, along with many others. Running up hill was a bit difficult when just relying on muscle power, but energy could make up for the extra force required and help handle the strange angles involved. It required some expenditure of energy, but on the face of Zolvolj Steve would be hard pressed to run out of energy as long as he was making any attempt to absorb some from his surroundings. Even the ground beneath his feet was hot, along with the air and the sun beating down on him.
Slight blue flames surrounded him as he ran, each breath causing a small flicker around his nostrils as he circulated energy into and out of his body. He would be running hot, but not too hot. Steve imagined his internal body temperature would kill normal humans, but there were barely any of those in this world.
There were a number of others who kept pace with him, leaping up small cliffs and quickly scaling those too tall for that. Lava flows liked to block their path, but jumping a few meters past them wasn’t a big deal.
When they came to a flow that was practically a river, thirty or more meters wide, most people circled around to the side. There was nothing wrong with that, but they would have to climb up a steep cliff face. Steve decided it was easier to just continue up the gentle slope.
Stepping onto lava was one of the things that everyone knew not to do, on Earth or in this world, cultivator or not. Steve felt pretty intense heat from it, but it wouldn’t matter as long as he wasn’t immersed in it. And while the lava was flowing like a river, it wasn’t the sort of thing you easily sank into.
He stepped onto it, keeping his running stride. As his feet hit the surface, he created a slight indentation in the viscous liquid. If he just stood still he might eventually sink further than that, but rock was extremely dense, liquid or not. As heat shot up his leg, he pulled it further, circulating the energy through his body and then breathing it out in a cone of flame. He was only on the lava flow for a couple seconds before he was off the other side, hardly enough time to truly overheat.
He reached into his storage bag and pulled out a waterskin. The water was still vaguely cool as it was kept away from the outside environment. Steve downed the whole thing before tossing it back into the bag. Humans needed water to function, and that included fire cultivators. Any time he began to sweat, it instantly evaporated off of his forehead. It was actually rather annoying, as it left behind itchy salt.
For a while, Steve was alone. Yet there was more than one angle to climb Zolvolj from, and he soon began to encounter others. He was still near the head of the pack, though some people were beginning to slow down. They wouldn’t sprint all the way to the top, after all. Even Steve wasn’t planning to do that.
Then he recognized some figures. No, that wasn’t quite right. He recognized the cultivation styles of some of the people. He honestly couldn’t say if he had interacted with those specific individuals or not before. But there they were, a pack of people from the Gleaming Sun Sect. And another from the Red Iron Sect. Oh, and the Cult of Green Flames. And the Kovalchuk clan!
Steve wondered for a moment if they were all working together, but they were interspersed with many others he was quite sure he didn’t know. Instead, it was simply the leaders of another pack who didn’t have to cross over the lava flow. Their paths intersected, and Steve decided it would be good to continue at his quick pace.
Without any provocation on his part, someone looked at him and pointed, yelling. That led more people to take notice of him, and soon enough there were groups quickly approaching. Steve wanted none of that. He had come for a nice, leisurely climb up an active volcano. Yet people were going to disrupt it over minor grudges.
And he doubted any of them were going to improve after this was all over. Steve angled himself for the nearest boulder, cutting as close to it as he could as it tumbled down behind him. He stored up more heat than normal, and when he cut through a small gorge he released all of his flame at once, leaving the walls and floor in one section just a little bit melty. The same happened after he climbed up a few spots, and the top of the ledge just happened to sag a little bit and glow orange as he left it behind.
For some reason, people started throwing fireballs at him. He hadn’t done anything to deserve it, but that was just how people were. Rude. There were beams of light as well, but as they had already been established to not be lasers there wasn’t much they could do to him. He certainly wasn’t going to look behind him, and there wasn’t a glut of reflective surfaces in front of him. Even volcanic glass wasn’t naturally shiny.
Speaking of which, his path happened to take him across a huge field of that. As he ran past chunks of it sprayed up as attacks impacted around him, leaving behind scattered bits and pieces- but that wasn’t his concern. He was just picking the fastest way to the top of the mountain.
His route next took him behind a lava fall. He spotted a really easy climbing path on the other side of it, and why bother running on top of lava when he could take a nice, open path underneath it as it flowed off the top of a cliff. That was the only time it moved quickly, since gravity quickly overcame all the sluggishness it had until it hit the ground below and stacks and folded in interesting ways.
Steve had to admit he was getting annoyed at the few persistent followers he had. When he reached the end of the lava flow he turned around, pressing one hand against the cliff face and releasing excess energy. For a few moments nothing happened- except a fireball tossed vaguely towards him impacting the ground near his feet- but then the cliff face sagged.
There was some cursing and screaming as one of the people chasing him had been behind the flow of lava which suddenly was going more directly straight down, but he hadn’t been able to see them. They were flashing lights at him, so he had his eyes closed.
“Whoops, didn’t see you there. I’d probably go get those burns looked at, they look pretty bad!”
If a Soul Expansion Phase fire cultivator died from getting a little bit of lava on them, they weren’t really deserving of that cultivation level. But it certainly did wonders from discouraging them in their annoying pursuit. Even if they had died, though, they should have known that climbing a volcano was dangerous.
The ironic thing was that people would probably be more eager to chase after him now, to regain their honor. But they wouldn’t have lost any to begin with if they hadn’t been the ones to screw with him first.
The rest of Steve’s climb up the mountain was more leisurely, and he didn’t cut so close to rolling boulders, flying gouts of mixed rock and lava from the peak, or even the thin bubbles of rock that barely covered some of the vents. If anyone had been following him and had accidentally stepped on a thin layer of rock that fell out from under them and thus fallen into a bed of lava, it would probably have been bad for them. But for the moment he was alone.
When he reached the peak, he was also alone- except for an old man at the Consolidated Soul Phase. “Greetings, senior,” he inclined his head. “It seems I wasn’t the first to reach the top after all.”
“You certainly were,” the man replied. “At least according to the structures of this little competition people have. I was already here at the start.” His eyes swept over Steve, “I hadn’t expected an independent cultivator to be first this year. Might I have your name?”
“It’s… Lucanus.” Steve was still Steve, but he understood having a name that fit in was still good. And though the original Lucanus didn’t have any say in anything anymore, it was only fair to keep some memory of him in the world as he made use of his body.
“Ah. You were the one everyone was yelling about,” the old man grinned. “What happened?”
“With who?” Steve asked. “Everyone just sort of spontaneously developed a grudge with me. Like the Gleaming Sun Sect, when all I wanted to do was get water but they decided to start something.”
“I see. And what else?”
“Well, everyone has their own things.” Steve pulled out another skin of water and started sipping it, sitting on a nearby boulder that was only a little bit melted. “I guess I have time to talk about it.” He looked down the mountain. “Ooh, looks like the wedding is done. Maybe I’ll see Fortkran up here soon.”
The top of Zolvolj was hot. That was John’s pure and honest assessment of it. Way too hot. There was nowhere for him to transfer the heat to, and even creating a breeze to whisk away some of it barely did anything. If it wasn’t for Matayal, he would have just given up. But her water energy absorbed the heat a little bit at a time. Unlike earth energy, the heat didn’t just build up forever. Eventually, the water energy was negated… kind of like it evaporated, and just like evaporation it took quite a bit of heat with it. That made the climb barely tolerable.
When they reached the top, they found many others there already. That wasn’t strange. John and Matayal were a bit late to start since they had been at the wedding, and they had a total of one experience making the trip between the two of them. But with their cultivations in the Soul Expansion Phase, they were quite able to make it to the top given some time and effort.
More than a handful of others were waiting at the top. There were a few scattered groups, though some were simply random individuals just near each other. Many people were tired, and there was a sort of ring of cultivators around the caldera, looking into Zolvolj, including some members of the Milanovic clan.
There was one particular group of disorganized looking fellows glaring towards someone else. That someone was Steve, sitting and chatting with a Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator.
“Oh, there he is!” Steve waved, “Fortkran! I knew you’d make it this time.”
“I appreciate the confidence,” John smiled and walked over towards him. “How was it?”
“Not that bad. I pushed myself a bit getting up, maybe went a little faster than I needed to, but I got up here pretty fast. Actually I-” Steve’s head snapped around, and John’s eyes followed the movement.
One of the cultivators from the Milanovic clan had been looking sort of woozy and tired as they stood at the edge of the caldera, but John hadn’t thought much of it. Of course people were fatigued after climbing the volcano in a rush. But he hadn’t expected them to fall unconscious and topple over the edge. Even with the reflexes of a cultivator, John couldn’t do anything but watch.
Steve wasn’t any faster, despite his lack of hesitation. He was up on his feet and running to the edge by the time the woman fell out of sight. It was a valiant attempt, but that was all the speed he could muster. He couldn’t catch her.
That was what John thought, and he wasn’t entirely wrong. But as he was running to the edge to try to see if he could do anything, Steve was already over it- diving headfirst into the caldera.