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After finding their way through the excess limbs of the horrible beast, they did in fact find some usable portions of it. Most of the creatures it had assimilated were of little use, though some parts were of sturdier sorts of beasts that had some value. More importantly, the core body of the creature radiated darkness energy, though finding out exactly how to use each bit of it would take some work.
That wasn’t something John had to worry about though. Any powerful enough beast had value, and they had an agreement with Artsiom to deliver the beast. The important part of their mission had been accomplished, killing the hunters working with Bashkim and snagging the target for a rival.
“It’s probably for the best that most of this stuff is useless,” John gestured to the pile of limbs, “It’s a lot of space.” Storage bags were enchanted to carry more than a bag their size actually could, but there were limits on how much that could hold. Among other things was that it had to somehow fit into the bag, so the carcasses of large creatures couldn’t be stored in that way. Not without chopping them into smaller pieces, which only worked in certain cases.
“Quite right,” Luctus nodded. “We should be getting out of here. This cavern doesn’t seem particularly stable.”
John felt it shouldn’t collapse anytime soon, if at all, but there wasn’t anything for them to gain from staying. “We’ll have to be careful on the way out, in case there are some people waiting outside.” The Tenebach clan wasn’t an untouchable monolith, and they already had enough enemies. While Baskhim was working with their enemies and the hunters had been working for him, that didn’t mean they had no friends of their own. There was a big difference between being suspected of causing their deaths and actually being known as their killers.
As they found their way out of the caves, the sun was setting. That allowed them to make more subtle use of their darkness abilities to conceal themselves, though as far as any of them could tell nobody was around to hide from. They circled around the caves and found no signs of anyone but those who had already perished inside.
Though their schedule had been distorted by tracking the creature, they prepared to set up camp for the night. Just because they were darkness cultivators didn’t mean they wanted to travel at night. It was much too suspicious, and completely unnecessary.
Artsiom looked about as disappointed as John had been when he saw the somewhat usable parts of the creature. “I was hoping for one of those big shadow cats,” he sighed, “People like to make cloaks and stuff out of them. All we’ve got is some lumpy organs and weird veiny things.” Then he shrugged, “Well, a deal’s a deal. And better I have this than Bashkim. He already had some buyers lined up. Though I wonder if they would have been happy with this…”
“It’s more useful than it looks,” John pointed out. “This was a surprisingly strong monstrosity. Those ‘weird veiny things’ controlled a large number of various limbs pilfered from other creatures. They’re strong and flexible. Maybe you could make rope from them.” John didn’t want rope made from those, but if he were one step removed and didn’t know where it came from, perhaps he wouldn’t mind so much.
“I’ll figure something out. If nothing else, I can sell it to someone who wants to spend the time.” Artsiom nodded happily. “And it’s a step in the right direction. I just need to take advantage of this.”
“The Tenebach clan might be willing to work towards more mutually beneficial goals,” John offered. If Artsiom really did end up in a better position in the Diamond Trading Company, being in his favor would be helpful. It was always good to have more allies, and sometimes those allies didn’t even have to make use of swords. Primarily, anyway. Artsiom was a cultivator like most of the Diamond Trading Company, as personal power was still useful. And some of them built up wealth specifically so they could gather cultivation resources for themselves.
The fourth layer of the sea of spiritual totems was now quite familiar to John. The pressure that bore down on him was hardly noticeable, and he was able to spend a significant amount of time browsing for totems with good affinity for himself. Even if he had pretty much already made the choice, it was still good practice for the future.
There were two options, depending on the path he ended up on. If he continued along his path to bond with a water totem, he would be bonding with the Deep Sea. Though the actual depths of the sea had nearly been the death of him, he still had some fond memories- though none quite so fond as when he and Matayal had eventually escaped from it. The Deep Sea was of course also related to darkness- but could still be considered a primarily water element totem. It would benefit John in terms of concealing himself within water or creating crushing pressure, though just as any other totem he would still be enhanced in every category that fell within the same element.
Then there was the more radical option. Since Matayal was a water element cultivator, he could continue directly to fire with her taking place of that part of the cycle. That would benefit her more than him having a water element totem, as that would hardly benefit her in dual cultivation. Fire supported water, however, allowing transitions between states more easily. But the exact details weren’t as important as the fact that her cultivation could grow more quickly.
Of course, there were problems with skipping over a point on the path. John was fully confident that he and Matayal could cultivate just fine using her water totems, and indeed there would still be an excess of the water element, but the real issues would come if they weren’t together. John wasn’t going to worry about what would happen if she died. Anything that tried to kill her would have to go through him, so he didn’t really plan to survive without her. But there were other things that might cause them to be separated for extended periods. Duties to their clans, and likely also things relating to their triplets. Perhaps they might be able to move back and forth together between the clans most of the time, but the triplets would likely benefit most from remaining in one place. Which might be two separate places.
Sure, their clans could raise their children no matter where they were, but having neither of their parents around for extended periods of time didn’t seem like a good way to make well-adjusted members of society. Young masters and mistresses of various clans were already reviled enough when they were raised properly.
Ultimately the choice lay in Matayal’s hands. Perhaps it was unfair to burden her with such an important decision, but she was a key component of his cultivation in either case. And while John thought that a boost to both of their cultivations from the fire type totem was worthwhile, she was just as involved in that as he was. Even if it didn’t directly affect her, he still would have sought her opinion on the matter.
John went to find Matayal for no reason in particular. Except perhaps that was the reason. The point was, he wasn’t coming to her with a question or business or because he wanted to cultivate together. He just wanted to spend time with her- and the triplets, though he didn’t know if they would comprehend his presence or remember it. They were still developing, after all. Normal unborn children certainly would not have any memories, but they were anything but normal. Though strong elemental affinities didn’t necessarily indicate powerful cognitive abilities.
The Tenebach clan had always, at least by John’s memories, had a formation set up to condense water elemental spiritual energy. There were many visitors from the Brandle clan, and the Tenebach clan also hosted other water element cultivators. Earth, water, and darkness were allied, so they were the most common visitors. And those elements were all present together, with earth being the most plentiful in the Stone Conglomerate.
Because of her pregnancy, one of them had been modified to suit all of the triplets. The formation actually did very little with the earth element- it didn’t gather it, nor did it reject it like the ones for pure water element cultivation. It did gather darkness and water together in equal measure, which was enough to make all of the triplets happy.
John had thought to find her there, since it was where she was most comfortable, but he learned she had gone to Ciaritzal’s cave. Random members of their clans weren’t allowed to visit the area on a whim, but that was mostly for their own safety. Ciaritzal could be dangerous, and preferred not to be disturbed. But John and through him Matayal had developed a friendly relationship with the guardian beast.
He found her inside, slowly cultivating. Since the area was darkness dominant, she could not directly absorb much. However, one of their children was quite happily absorbing.
“How is she?” John asked.
Matayal looked up at him. “Quite happy. The energy here is much more… pure? I feel they all do better with only a single element about, even if I can filter strands to each of them in the training formation.”
“That makes as much sense as anything else. Are they progressing evenly?” John was able to sense them for himself, but it was better to get answers through conversation than invasive probing.
“More or less. The boy got quite a bit ahead back in the Shimmering Islands. The girls like it here in the cave and out among the ambient earth energy here. They’re much more active when exposed to a pure element, even if there’s no reason they shouldn’t filter one out just fine.”
John shrugged, “It’s actually pretty difficult for most. Astrein is thought to have low concentrations of spiritual energy, but it’s actually so thoroughly mixed that it’s simply insufficient for most people to make use of. Even those intending to go through a cycle of elements would find it difficult to get started there, I imagine.”
Though it was a friendly visit, the topic inevitably became cultivation. It wasn’t something they could get away from- Matayal even more than John at the current moment. Then again, the entire world was like that to various extents.
The triplets cultivated, and it was pretty much impossible to avoid focusing on them. Even normal parents couldn’t help but think about a pregnancy- parents with supernatural happenings were obviously more focused.
Several more months passed with most of the work being done in the background. The Society of Midnight was still a concern for the Tenebach clan, but they weren’t going to be dealt with immediately. As they tried to strengthen their position in the area through their allies, the Tenebach clan pushed back against them more directly.
Matayal’s pregnancy became visible to casual observers, and despite efforts to keep it somewhat secret it would soon become impossible. She was constantly under watch, but that wasn’t actually any different than John himself. As the soon-to-be head of the clan his safety was just as important as hers. While she might be an easier target at the moment, the clan’s defenses were already adequate. And a majority of the time John and Matayal were together anyway.
But the upcoming births were not the only highly anticipated event in the Tenebach clan. In fact, there was one that was perhaps more significant in some ways, at least from the perspective of random clan members. Luctus was edging closer to reaching Consolidated Soul Phase, the promised portion of the darkness element creature helping along with other resources the clan was gathering for that very purpose. Even if it was just a single cultivator, those groups with Consolidated Soul cultivators and those without were perceived differently. It would bring them to be more on par with the Order of the Amber Heart, which would place them at the top of Marble County.
And it wasn’t just public perception. A Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator was several times as strong as a Soul Expansion Phase cultivator. John had felt that difference himself, barely surviving a few blows. And once a group produced a cultivator of a certain calibur, the increase in power made it more likely that they would be able to raise more of them.
But just because Luctus was teetering on the edge of that Phase didn’t mean it would be easy to make that step. Sometimes the last millimeter was the hardest, and those who had ill intentions towards the Tenebach clan would likely do their best to prevent him from advancing. Times would get harder before they got easier.