Though there were many periods of frantic danger on Cyclone Island, for stretches of days or even weeks there was little for John to do but resist a stiff wind and train to the best of his ability. He couldn’t focus just on his yet-unestablished connection to an air element totem, but instead needed to grow his earth and darkness energy as he drew on the power of the storms and powerful spiritual energy that lingered in the area.
Once he reached the sixteenth rank, however, John began seriously looking for what his totem might be. Transitioning to the third layer of the sea of spiritual totems was trivial- he had been able to reach it easily at the beginning of his cultivation and had experiences from Fortkran’s life, and now his personal power was much greater. To stretch his limits he pushed himself to the fourth and fifth layers for extended periods of time, though when searching for his next totem he always returned to the third layer. Something about his current path told him he needed a growing totem from the third layer instead of trying to reach further. If nothing else, he didn’t want to imbalance his cultivation by having an unequal totem. His first two were well on their way to advancing to the third layer, and John supposed he would reach that point before he even touched upon the eighteenth rank, the limits of Foundation Phase.
For the moment, he floated comfortably on the third layer, surrounded by seemingly endless space and uncountable totems. There had to be some sort of actual limit, but it mostly came down to knowledge and memory. He sought out air element totems, quickly ignoring those that didn’t suit his needs. A small tempest might be useful, but it wasn’t particularly associated with what he already had. More importantly, he wanted totems that could grow. While it might be satisfying to blast something with a bolt of lightning, he’d prefer something that matched his abilities. Though with any proper air totem he could make use of electricity- it simply affected the most efficient areas.
Logically if he were to continue with his current setup- a tree and composted soil, he would want something more on the side of air that revolved around gases rather than electricity. Real plants needed carbon dioxide, but spiritual totems weren’t necessarily following the laws of nature. He more specifically needed ‘air that the seed of darkness can use to grow’. He drifted towards totems that mixed air and darkness, black winds that drained the life from others and simply noxious smoke. A looming stormcloud, blotting out the sun. Stale air buried deep underground in the darkness. The latter was also associated with earth, but his intuition told him it didn’t quite suit the sapling.
Then the smell of salty sea air overwhelmed him and he returned his senses to his body, where he would be dealing with yet another storm. To the best of his ability he would channel wind and lightning around him without the use of an air totem. Every time he had to rely on his earth energy to absorb the lightning, to stabilize his body- but that also increased his proficiency in earth. His darkness was always there to absorb the elements and feed them to the sapling as much as he could. Sometimes, he would dive into the sea below where no light reached to dredge up some darkness mixed with water.
As ever, the instruction from Kusuma continued- both in demonstration and verbal guidance. His did his best, but could not break free from the need to have a spiritual totem to progress beyond basic levels of control. Days, weeks, and months continued to pass.
“That’s it,” Kusuma suddenly announced. “We’ll have to wrap up the training for now. The stormy season is coming, and you’re just not ready for it without a totem.
The announcement was abrupt and baffling, similar to some of the storms he had experienced. “We haven’t seen the stormy season?” he asked. “What was all that, then?”
“Warmups,” Kusuma smiled. She opened up the forgotten hollow in the rock that was Cyclone Island, revealing the boat in the same condition it had always been. “Come on, then. You can come back next year for some real training. If all goes well, perhaps even Aydan will be able to participate.”
John found that comment strange. His uncle Aydan had certainly been growing, but since he was purely using the darkness attribute he wasn’t well suited for protecting against air. He wasn’t particularly weak, but the storms were extremely powerful already and Kusuma had been devoting more protection to him. For him to resist something more he would have to advance to the Soul Expansion Phase. While John didn’t want to disparate his uncle’s talent… even with significant resources he wasn’t sure Aydan would reach that point in a year. He might reach the eighteenth rank if he did well, but stepping over a boundary could take several times as long as advancing a rank, if the situation wasn’t in the favor of the cultivator. Yet Aydan didn’t object, either.
“I feel like I’m missing something,” John admitted. “What do you know that I don’t?”
Kusuma nodded to herself. “That’s right. You weren’t the same person a couple years ago. It could very well have been left unsaid.”
“Indeed,” Aydan confirmed. “We had not yet told him. Actually-” his words were cut off by the sudden winds- both the ones Kusuma was using to push the boat and the countering ‘winds’ of the still air they pushed through. Kusuma laughed as they started heading back towards what was hopefully civilization. Eventually, though, Aydan’s explanation was pieced together by John.
There were deeper reasons besides stability behind why the main line of the Tenebach clan was the way it was. It also tied into why he had no siblings- even when Fortkran’s unhealthy proclivities became apparent, his replacement wasn’t immediately sought out. His parents could have had another child several years before.
But it wasn’t so easy. It all came back to the family’s guardian beast. It wasn’t just a source of endless blessings, but a conduit for power. Such power didn’t come from nowhere. Every generation or two the guardian beast’s power would wane. At that point, the older generations would give up some of their cultivation to empower it once more, and through it the upcoming young generation. However, it wasn’t meant to be a permanent forfeiture of power. Through a chosen vessel, the older generation could be fortified once more- without weakening the guardian beast.
That person was, of course, the heir of the clan. From birth, they were tied to the guardian beast in a way that developed throughout their life. It was only possible for one person at a time to be bound to the guardian beast, and the main line of the Tenebach clan was specially suited to foster that link without it affecting their cultivation.
John was left with many questions that he struggled to convey through the rushing winds. “How come I haven’t felt such a connection? What if it broke when I… died?” Kusuma was apparently aware of everything related to him, so being secretive was pointless.
“Don’t worry about that second part,” Aydan said. “The guardian beast confirmed the connection during your blessing. As for the connection, I am not sure. I haven’t had it myself. You would have to ask your grandfather about it- but it is not supposed to affect your cultivation.”
John found that he was able to wrap them both in a bubble of his own controlled air to make the conversation more feasible, and they hardly had to repeat anything or yell over the wind. “So what do I have to do?” John asked.
“Cultivate! However you find best for you, though I’m sure your grandfather’s guidance was also intended to prepare you. Once you reach the Soul Expansion Phase you should be ready. I don’t know all of the details, but I imagine it should be quite different from what I went through.”
John thought for a while. “So your… difficulties… with cultivation- are because of this empowerment ceremony for the younger generation?”
Aydan laughed, “That’s right. I don’t mind you saying I’m low in talent. It’s true, now. Though it’s not quite right. What do you remember of me before your transmigration?”
“Uh…” John scratched his head. “That is… I don’t really… not much. Just that you were an uncle of mine.”
“That was the whole point,” Aydan acknowledged. “Actually, I was in the early Soul Expansion Phase, the nineteenth rank- even after my contributions. I gave up more so that the guardian beast could give you a proper blessing.”
“… I’m sorry,” John said.
“Don’t be. You had no part in the matters leading up to that point. Once it was you, I’ve had no complaints with your dedication. I hope the reverse empowerment ceremony is a great success, of course, but it was a sacrifice I made willingly.”
There wasn’t much John could say. He didn’t know if he could do what his new family needed, but he intended to perform his best. But now he had more things to be nervous about rather than just his own cultivation.
Calling a woman many times his age by her first name seemed a bit impolite, but Kusuma wouldn’t respond if John called her anything else. Matriarch Mulyani just made her snort. “Kusuma. The trip feels longer in this direction for some reason.” John had been counting the days, and they should have arrived at Pualani already. The previous time it had been less than two full days, but it had been at least two and a half.
Yet he was certain they’d been heading in the correct direction. From the way she’d directly navigated to a single rock in the middle of the ocean, John knew Kusuma wasn’t the type to get lost, so he had to ask. “When will we arrive at Pualani?” Perhaps there were strong currents he was unaware of making their progress inconsistent with what he felt.
“Never,” came the answer. “At least, I’m not taking you there. We’re going straight back to Dolomite Harbor.”
“Is that so?” John asked. “Too bad, I wanted to show Matayal my improvements.”
“Ha!” Kusuma laughed, “Want to impress your fiancee, do you? Save it for later. It will be much more impactful if you come back with a Soul Expansion cultivation.”
“I suppose so. I expect her to reach that level before me, though. She has the talent and the resources.”
“True, but you’ll be able to shock her with your air element powers!”
John wasn’t even sure if that was a pun. But he understood something. “No, you’re right. I should wait.” While he might like to meet with Matayal again, his presence would be noted. The word would also travel to Anwar, and it was quite possible he hadn’t given up on things yet. John knew he was more ready to face him now, but with an air element totem- and all of his totems being at the third level- he would be much more effective. John could assume that with Anwar’s talents he would reach Soul Expansion Phase close to the same time and obtain another fifth or sixth tier totem, but John would be nearly a third stronger on the basis of his totems improving alone. Combined with being able to use an advantageous element against him, even if it was merely one totem out of three, his overall relative power should be a stunning change. John didn’t want to just eke out a victory- he wanted it to be decisive. Kusuma probably understood that as well.
While Kusuma might indeed travel faster than the Wavecutter, John understood why people sought out their services. Being on a proper ship was much more comfortable. Though ships were often said to be cramped, it was nowhere near the amount that three people on a simple boat were stuck together. They didn’t even have beds and any bundle of stuff to lay their head on was soaked with water. John could remove it, but the spray from the ocean would simply soak it again in moments. He couldn’t control the winds while taking a nap or properly sleeping, so his training did him little good.
At least he learned that Kusuma’s stamina had a limit. She didn’t sleep a wink for four days and some, but when they pulled into Dolomite Harbor she tied up her boat and waved him off before just falling asleep and snoring right across the hard slats.
He looked at Aydan who shrugged- and the two of them set off towards home. They’d been away for nearly a year- weeks of travel to Pualani and time spent there, then approximately nine months of time on Cyclone Island enduring harsh training. If John had purely focused on his cultivation level he might have reached another rank, but the skills with controlling air would be invaluable. He could simply improve his cultivation at home, where the resources and spiritual energy were optimal for that sort of growth.