The triplets were in the uncomfortable state where communication with them was possible but very limited. To various extents they were willing to push the limits of what they were told not to do, depending on their individual personalities. Combined with their ability to get up to much worse trouble than normal children due to their instinctive control of different elements of spiritual energy, it was tough.
Tirto was generally the most well behaved. When he learned a behavior was forbidden he would usually avoid repeating it- and any failures seemed to be due to a lack of understanding or general forgetfulness. He was the one least likely to cause repeated trouble. The only thing he was stubborn about was swimming around in the fish ponds. He was used to the plethora of aquatic options available for him back in the Shimmering Islands, and was generally unhappy whenever he was not in the water for an extended period of time. This wasn’t so much a problem from John and Matayal’s perspectives, but it did make the job of caretakers more difficult.
Melanthina was the most intentional in what she did. She only very rarely did anything she’d been warned against, but that was only in the narrowest of definitions. She was rarely destructive, but often mischievous. She liked to hide things and was good at it. The first was a hairbrush, which she didn’t particularly like since her hair tangled easily. It was easy enough for Matayal to find it hidden behind and underneath things, but clearly intentionally placed.
As it seemed the parents who shared elements with the children were better able to influence them, John was sought out for Melanthina’s troubles most often. Though John and Matayal often took some time to dress their children in the morning, it was equally likely to be left to caretakers. They had duties to attend to and could quickly get tired of dealing with their own children. Of course, they still had to attend to them when there were issues.
John was called in by the caretaker Eurwen because of an issue with Melanthina. He entered the room, where she was dressed except for her shoes. “Melanthina,” he crouched down in front of her. “Eurwen says she can’t find you shoes. Do you know where they are?”
“No,” Melanthina liked poorly, her eyes flickering towards where they were hidden under the floorboards and shrouded in darkness element. Eurwen was a member of the Tenebach clan, but her actual cultivation talent was small. It was likely she was unable to pick them out.
“Is that so,” John nodded. He had a few decisions he could make. First was showing that he could always pick out the lie, but he had the feeling that something else might do better. There was no way to know for sure, but parents had to make some choice. “I suppose you’ll just have to go without.”
“…What?” Melanthina looked surprised.
“If we can’t find your shoes, you just have to not wear any.”
Melanthina looked briefly confused, and then grinned in a very not subtle manner. She’d gotten exactly what she wanted. Right until Ursel dragged her out to play in the garden and she found it was extremely uncomfortable running around outside without shoes. When her shoes mysteriously appeared where they were supposed to go the next morning, nothing more was said of it. John just hoped she’d learned the right lesson.
The last of the three was the biggest trouble in various ways. Saying it was better if Ursel didn’t exist… was impossible for John and Matayal. Not after having seen her smiling face. She was an awkward third child when they only needed two to take over the main line of the clans, but they were still glad she existed. It was just that some days they were hard pressed to remember that fact.
Unlike Melanthina, Ursel didn’t do anything intentionally. Unfortunately, she was extremely curious and exploratory. First there was the issue with the statue. John was glad she learned her lesson to not just take energy out of things without any harm to herself or others, but she was always finding new and exciting ways to get into trouble. One afternoon she decided she wanted to go for a walk outside, but instead of leaving through one of the gates where she would be stopped or at least given an escort, she burrowed under the wall.
That revealed an unexpected flaw in the security of the area, though it was more difficult for others to replicate than she made it seem. Burrowing attacks were quite standard in the earth-dominant Stone Conglomerate, but the defensive enchantments hadn’t been set up with the intent of restricting people who were on the inside. She didn’t register as an intruder either, so no alarms were raised.
The guards on the walls weren’t concerned about what Ursel did inside the garden, but fortunately the ones assigned to the neighboring sections of wall noticed her as she was walking away and followed after her, swiftly returning her back. It wasn’t clear how well she understood the following punishment where she was confined to the clan grounds for a few days, but she at least learned not to dig under the walls.
From then on there were specific watchers for the children even within the clan walls. They were pretty constantly around other people regardless, and there were always guards within a reasonable distance- but it was better if they didn’t have to watch those they knew were safe and instead could focus on actual potential threats.
After she had been safely tucked into bed, Melanthina lay awake, staring at the ceiling. If she closed her eyes she would fall asleep, and she didn’t want that. Instead, she carefully counted the minutes. Then she stood up, creeping over to the window. It was a bit of a risk to move so early, but it was hard to stay awake much longer.
For some reason there were guards outside her room now, which made things harder. Climbing through the window was difficult, since it didn’t open all the way and was too high. But Melanthina was determined.
Avoiding people was hard. While she was good at hiding herself, the actual guards were good at spotting her. She wasn’t supposed to be out at night, so they would stop her. The first four or five times she had done her best to figure out where they were, and now she tried to avoid them.
More than once she could have sworn she would be caught again. She would turn a corner to see someone looking toward her- and if she could see them, they could see her. Everyone could see better in the dark than her except Tirto and Ursel, who apparently couldn’t see at all.
All the gates were closed, but there was a grate across the stream that she was small enough to slip through at the edge, though it took a while to squeeze past. Then she was outside, but still not away from being spotted. More guards patrolled the area, and she knew there would probably be some guarding where she wanted to go.
She was right. The cave had two guards standing outside. Strong ones, almost as strong as her parents. The fact that she hadn’t been spotted yet was a miracle. She couldn’t sneak directly past them, but the cave opening was a bit behind them. If she climbed up on the ridge behind it she could drop down behind them.
It was pretty easy to go around and get up, but the top was a lot higher than she thought it would be. Ursel could climb down, but she used a different kind of spiritual energy to stick her to the wall. As much as Melanthina tried, she couldn’t do that. In the end, she found the least steep part and slid down, sending a shower of rocks along with her. The guards… didn’t notice. Even so, she held her breath as she snuck into the cave.
She had been here before, of course. With her father. It was the place with the most spiritual energy. Her kind. Darkness. It was full of it. She let herself absorb just a little to replenish what she was using to keep herself hidden. It was nice. But that wasn’t good enough. There was more, deeper in, and she hadn’t been allowed to go there. Her father said ‘later’, but later was a long time!
The path she traversed was clean and smooth, but she had to be careful because it was dark further in. Actually dark, like when she closed her eyes. If she focused she could see a little tiny bit, but it was making her tired to use so much spiritual energy and she was already up late. But she needed to see.
Then she saw it. A shape. That was all it was, because it couldn’t be seen. Though she felt it, as if it were part of the cave itself. Its power… was more than even her grandfather. She held her breath.
Then it spoke.
“It is dangerous for you to be here, young one. Why have you come here?”
“I… wanted to see.” Melanthina pressed herself back against the wall, as if it would somehow hide her from the creature in front of her.
“That will have to wait. Later.”
“Because I am dangerous.” The creature stepped forward, growling.
“… you don’t feel dangerous,” Melanthina answered.
There was a long pause. Then a response came. “That is because I am not hungry right now.”
“Should I bring food?” Melanthina asked.
“No. Just go.”
“… I’ll bring food next time,” Melanthina promised. “So you won’t be dangerous.”
She made it almost to the entrance to the cave when she ran into her father. “Are we going to have to tie you into bed?” he asked.
“You’re lucky Ciaritzal wasn’t hungry.”
“… it wouldn’t hurt me, right?”
“There are many things that would,” her father cautioned. “But… maybe Ciaritzal is an exception.”
“He gets hungry. Does he also get lonely?”
Melanthina gave her best look. “Can I feed him?”
“… if you can be good for a whole week, we can go feed Ciaritzal together,” her father said.
A week? But that was more than a day! This was going to be difficult. But she couldn’t help but want to try.
In the end, Melanthina was unable to sustain a full week of not getting into trouble until her third try, which meant she took two weeks total. But John was glad they did, eventually. Like himself, her affinity for Ciaritzal was quite high. It was more than just whether or not they got along, but whether she could draw power from him easily. If her affinity hadn’t been high enough, just being in his presence would potentially hurt her. John had followed her out of her room all the way to the cave to be certain of her objective, and if she had experienced any discomfort approaching he would have pulled her away. Melanthina didn’t learn well without consequences.
In this case there hadn’t been any directly, so the promise of a reward was dangled in front of her. John knew he was likely walking a thin line with spoiling her, but there were only so many ways to punish her that would be effective. Teaching her to be able to restrain herself would be a victory, especially since he and Matayal would be heading away soon. It might only be a few weeks, but the children hadn’t been without at least one of their parents for more than a day or two.
The parents didn’t have a problem with caretakers imposing discipline, but Eurwen and the others were still afraid of going too far given their own status. On the other hand, Luctus was busy and seemed liable to go easy on them. He’d been much stricter with Fortkran for good reason, but something about great-grandchildren had softened him. Gerben and Caelia, meanwhile, were mostly wrapped up in clan business and while they would be the most reliable they simply didn’t have the time.
In addition, there was another side to the reward. Melanthina needed to realize that Ciaritzal was dangerous. As the family’s guardian beast, and with her affinity, she was probably one of those least likely to be harmed… but it was still possible.
John carried with him a large pot, sealed at the top. Inside of it was condensed darkness elemental spiritual energy. It was something like artificial spirit darkness. It wouldn’t last long and wasn’t able to be absorbed by most cultivators, but it was suitable for Ciaritzal. Next to him, Melanthina carried a large bowl. Both arms were barely enough for her to lift it, and that was with her subconsciously using a bit of spiritual energy to prop it up.
The two of them made their way into Ciaritzal’s cave. “Set it down carefully,” John reminded Melanthina. There wasn’t anything in it that needed balance and it was quite sturdy, but she could hurt herself if she was careless. At least she seemed conscious of physical harm. “This next part is going to be a bit scary, okay? Just remember I’m here to protect you.”
Melanthina nodded. She didn’t seem nervous. While John would normally say that was proper with respect to the family’s guardian beast, it showed a lack of caution. She was safe and sheltered, never having experienced danger. This would be just a taste of it, but it might be overwhelming. It wasn’t something he wanted to subject a young child to, but Melanthina was mature for her age… and it should just be a little fright.
John unsealed the pot in his arms, which was bigger than his torso. He carefully poured some into the large bowl, liquid darkness settling into the vessel. Then Ciaritzal approached. Not being a physical beast, eating wasn’t a strict requirement. However, there were periods of hunger, more frequent during the period of reintegrating with lost shards of himself. What he desired most to devour was darkness elemental spiritual energy, in a manner much more violent than John could achieve with something like his Spiritual Energy Absorption technique.
That hunger could be felt, at least by cultivators. And those the triplets would only barely qualify as being in the first rank, they were excellent at sensing the particular elements they were naturally attuned to. John felt only a little bit of nervousness at the feeling, as he’d faced off against beasts with greater hunger- and actually directed at himself. Things that wanted to tear him apart. But while Ciaritzal wanted neither of those, he was hungry- and powerful.
Next to him Melanthina sat in her kneeling position, trembling. One hand unconsciously grabbed onto John’s sleeve. Ciaritzal approached, lapping at the spiritual energy- though the presence of a tongue did little compared to his natural ability to absorb the energy. John refilled the large bowl several times, until their offering was empty. Only then did Ciaritzal’s hunger fade.
Melanthina was quiet the whole time, including after they walked out. She seemed to be deep in thought. When they were almost back at the gates of the main complex of the Tenebach clan, she finally spoke. “… He was very hungry. We should feed him more often.”
Her hand still trembled as he held it in his, but John smiled at the strange compassion for a naturally terrifying beast of darkness. And it was a good way to introduce her to important duties… and pretend he was doing her a favor. “If you stay good, we can.”
He doubted that it would be a perfect solution, and she would doubtless search for things that didn’t get her in enough trouble that she wasn’t allowed to go, but that might actually be the best ultimate solution. There was no chance she wouldn’t get into a lot of trouble in her life, both of her own choices and because of her position. It was important that she be able to handle it.