Forming a connection with a spiritual totem could be a battle. When pushing oneself to the limits, moving to the deepest layer of the sea of spiritual totems, a cultivator could quickly exhaust themself. Yet for the third time, John simply reached out to the totem he wanted… and connected to it. He wasn’t fighting against the pressure of a layer he could barely reach. He could easily spend time in the fourth or fifth layer- the third was trivial by comparison. For a brief moment he wondered if it would have been better to push himself.
Then he felt Atmosphere fill his dantian. While he had previously gathered air elemental spiritual energy into himself, the difference between having a totem and not was monumental. Having a third tier totem made him more than four times as efficient, and the way his earth totem was empowered silenced his doubts. His earth and darkness totems were allied and didn’t interfere with each other, but finally having a directly supporting element filled him with confidence.
The growing Sapling of Darkness was starting to become something akin to an actual tree, and it happily absorbed the earth and air spiritual energy. In turn, it transformed the air and built up the dirt. As he cultivated, John watched several cycles of leaves growing and falling.
When things finally settled down, he stepped out of his training room. Unsurprisingly, he found a servant waiting for him. “How long was I in there?” John asked.
“Three weeks and two days, young master.”
John nodded. He hadn’t expected it to be short. Some of that time was building up his energy to be close to the nineteenth rank, and the rest was a mix between attuning to the totem and stabilizing the results. While it had been a simple and straightforward process, deep cultivation messed with the normal sense of time. “If you could inform my parents and grandfather that I have entered the Soul Expansion Phase.”
“Of course, young master,” the servant bowed his head, “Congratulations.”
John took the opportunity to walk around the grounds a little bit. He had somewhere over twenty years of memories of the place that weren’t really his, but the last couple of years absolutely were his. It really felt like home. He hoped his family back on Earth was doing well without him. Things had been shaky for a while, but things had been settling down. He just hoped his death hadn’t resulted in problematic expenses. Hopefully at least the car insurance would have given them something. But there was nothing he could do about it either way.
He turned to happier thoughts. Perhaps it was unfair to have the advantages he did, so that reaching Soul Expansion Phase was almost easy, except for all those times he nearly died and all the work he put in. Having a personal training area was quite something. He wondered if he could get air element added on. That seemed likely to be difficult, as the Stone Conglomerate was generally low on air elemental spiritual energy.
He had a quick ‘breakfast’, though it was nearly noon. The cooks would of course prepare him whatever he wanted at any time, though he did his best not to be overly demanding or picky. If he really wanted something in particular, he would at least wait patiently. Currently, he felt like loading up on eggs, sausage, and toast with butter and jam. All part of a balanced breakfast, if you ignored that many of them weren’t necessary at all for that balance.
After breakfast, he found his way to meet with his grandfather. Unless he was currently in the middle of an important meeting, John could walk right in. He could anyway, but he probably wouldn’t.
Even as he approached, the doors were opened for him. He saw his grandfather smiling inside. The doors were closed behind him, the servants exiting to give them privacy. “Good to see you, Fortkran… John.”
“Good to see you, Grandfather.”
“Soul Expansion Phase… you’ll soon surpass me, I think.”
“I’m sure it won’t be so easy,” John inclined his head, “Especially not with the benefits of the reverse empowerment ceremony returning talent to you.”
“Perhaps,” Luctus admitted, “Though I still took somewhat longer to initially reach Soul Expansion. It seems the cycle of elements is doing well for you?” His energy swept over John. He was actually at the point where he could prevent the inspection, but he didn’t bother to hide anything. “All third tier totems, now. Honestly, I’m surprised at your speed considering the difficult early path you had.”
“Thank you. About the ceremony… I hope having mixed elements won’t be a problem?”
“If it is, it was a mistake in my own judgment,” Luctus said. “You informed me of your plan and I agreed. But it should mainly require the ability to handle large amounts of darkness energy. You are capable of that, I believe?”
John nodded. Though he only had a single totem primarily associated with darkness, the other two were at least partially aligned. With how the other totems supported the Sapling his control wasn’t a problem, but he could only store so much darkness energy at once. Though even then, he could convert other elements into darkness if it was necessary.
“Excellent. I have some training for you to go through before we make the attempt. You can only make one attempt, it would be a shame to waste it for being unfamiliar with the process.”
The previous time he had been in the guardian beast’s cave, John didn’t remember there being so many candles. Then again, perhaps he couldn’t have seen them. Though the candles were lit, the flames from them were black, drawing light from the area. He could only see because of his connection to the darkness element and the power of the blessing enhancing his vision without light.
The guardian beast once again came to meet with him. “You’re back. So soon, even.” Its voice was barely substantial, though he supposed that fit with the rest of it. He could barely even make out a shape for it, vaguely animalistic reminiscent of a canine or feline of some sort. Even its outline didn’t remain in sharp definition but constantly shifted. It was strange, to see something dark and still unknown.
“Indeed I am. It may not seem like long for you, but for me… it is a significant portion of my life.”
“Yes… you are still young, even if we count your extra time.” The guardian beast circled around him. He could feel its eyes digging into him, almost literally. “Such interesting choices you have made.”
“You don’t sound as if you approve,” John noted.
“It is not my place to judge before we test you,” the guardian beast noted. “Now then, shall we begin.”
“Wait,” John said. “What is your name?”
He simply felt a smile on the creature’s face, despite being unable to distinguish any features on its head. Then it stepped into him. Cold darkness flowed into him, but he knew it wasn’t his job to resist but to channel it. The darkness mixed with him, pouring into him as he poured into it. However, he found the balanced moved towards it and his energy began draining.
All around him he felt a somewhat warmer darkness from the candles. The energy they produced easily filled him up as he was drained… but that wasn’t enough. John knew he had to take active steps in the process, not just sitting passively. He had the talent to control darkness directly, but he found it was more effective when filtered through the sapling. More than that, however, he knew he should make use of his other totems. Otherwise, why even bother with Soul Expansion Phase?
The air energy helped it to flow, but sometimes that flow became too fast. A dark river channeled through him, nearly flooding. Earthen barriers directed it, while the air actively encouraged that flow to clear the pathways for ever more energy. Darkness flowed through his meridians into his dantian where all of his totems and the guardian beast resided alongside the natural treasure he’d obtained.
It seemed there was no limit to the flow. Even as he drew upon it the darkness tried to sap energy away from him. He felt it numbing his senses, even internally. But he refused to let it win. He was in control. As much as anyone was in control during a flood, but he was putting up the fight.
As the flood continued he thought he might break down. His meridians might explode, or he might overfill his dantian and it would burst. The guiding earthen dams could shatter, letting it go where it pleased, the air currents pushing it around might sputter out. But he kept going, because he wasn’t willing to give up. Then, after it reached a crescendo… the flow began to slow. He wasn’t able to calm down immediately, but the frantic pace of things was slightly restrained.
He was barely aware of anything as he felt drained of all energy, except as the guardian beast slipped out of him it whispered one final word, vague sounds which his ears could just barely form into something like a name yet also simply a description of itself, a creature of darkness. “Ciaritzal.”
When he came to full consciousness, he was in his bed. Strangely enough, he’d hardly used it. Cultivation didn’t entirely replace sleeping, but he spent more than a few nights in his training room absorbing spiritual energy or even passing out on the floor- even though he could have gone only a short distance to his room.
Fatigue came over him all at once even as he opened his eyes, but it was the good sort. Muscle aches after a hard workout and of course the slight stinging of expanding meridians and dantian. He could feel the lingering traces of medicine, both for healing slight damage to his internals and to supplement his low energy. Yet he still felt empty.
That empty feeling wasn’t just because of the exhaustion, but also because his total potential stores had significantly increased. It wasn’t just another totem’s worth, but another totem that worked in concert with the others. A sort of multiplicative effect, though most of it would be similar in scope to others who reached Soul Expansion Phase. He just hadn’t realized the full scope of the differences until he really used his power.
Now he wanted to test it out in a fight. He might be able to spar with some of his cousins, but that wouldn’t be a real fight. There was a simple target in his mind. Anwar. John felt the stirring of air around him and the tingle of static electricity as he thought about the fight. Anwar would certainly be at or close to Soul Expansion Phase too, but John was completely confident things would not be the same as the previous time. He might even be able to obtain a straightforward win… though he had no intention to fight foolishly.
Among other things she had taught him, Kusuma had gone into detail about how to fight water element cultivators. That was the domain of air, after all, as a dominating element in that trade. She’d also gone over fighting against spears… again, not uncommon among water element cultivators. But she’d been able to very faithfully replicate Anwar’s fighting style as she sparred against John. He recognized that one the most of all she did. The message was pretty clear… and he had promised another fight. Though whether Anwar was aware of that was another thing.
It seemed like it was time for another trip. Hopefully, this one would result in him getting struck by less lightning. Then again, he did have an air element totem now. Perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad. Kusuma had also gone into excruciating detail on how to absorb lightning to further one’s own cultivation. He’d only done it several layers removed, but that was several ranks prior and without a proper totem. With that said, he would hope for a moderate amount of lightning on the way. It would be a shame to get too cocky.