As the wheels of the carriage clacked along on the cobblestone road, John couldn’t help but stick his head out the window one more time to look back towards the Tenebach clan, even though it was now beyond the horizon.
He sighed. “I wonder if my parents had to go through this feeling when I was off to visit grandparents…”
“Your parents?” Matayal questioned. “Ah… from before. I imagine they probably felt the same way.”
“I didn’t have anyone trying to kill me though,” John shook his head.
“Or anyone protecting you,” Matayal pointed out. “Now calm down or you’ll get me worried.”
“I am calm,” John lied poorly. But he did sit down and begin to clear his head. A few years before, he couldn’t have imagined what he would be feeling like right now. So many things in his head telling him his children were the most important thing in the world, and he didn’t want to disagree. He just wished that his mind would let him choose what to worry about instead of it being everything he could imagine.
“It should only be a couple months at most,” Matayal reminded John. “I’d be more worried about the others trying to handle our children.”
“… Tirto is a good boy,” John finally commented.
Matayal grinned, “Don’t let the kids hear you talk like that. They might take it as a challenge. But the girls have been pretty good lately as well.”
“I feel like it’s because they haven’t been exposed to any new sources of potential trouble,” John shrugged. “But we can’t do much about that.”
The two of them weren’t just leaving their children behind to go on a vacation. They were headed for the Great Waterfall Reversal in the Blustering Peaks. Their intent was to use the phenomenon to break through to the Consolidated Soul Phase. They had both reached the peak of the twenty-seventh rank, taking advantage of their clan’s resources to optimize their cultivation as much as possible. As both intended to take on a water totem , the water elemental phenomenon was a good opportunity. Even if they failed to use it to break through, it would push them that much closer. If they succeeded, the natural environment would allow them to grow more all at once than any artificial training room they set up, saving potentially up to a year of cultivation and much expense.
The path to the Blustering Peaks led them through Astrein, the country north of the Stone Conglomerate where the elements were a neutral mix that was only marginally usable by cultivators. John and Matayal found it quite functional for their purposes, since together they had four out of the six elements. Even so, they had to filter out approximately one third of the natural energy in the area, the fire and light elements. Loose natural energy wasn’t going to be enough for them to advance their cultivation, but it was something to do while they traveled.
The other route to the Blustering Peaks would have taken them through the Shimmering Islands, and while the route was technically quicker it was more risky. The weather in the Shimmering Islands was quite troublesome but not ultimately a concern for them. However, as it drew closer to the northeast the storms grew even more extreme- such as those around Cyclone Island and Kaimana where the Mulyani clan made their home. The biggest difficulty was the actual border, where the seas met with the Blustering Peaks in unnavigable rocky shores leading to nearly vertical cliffs.
There were in fact a few established routes up and down the cliffs, but it was easier to climb the Blustering Peaks from another direction, where the slope began more gradually- and there was no concern about smashing a ship into rocks. Even if John and Matayal would be fine, any captain wouldn’t appreciate it- very few were crazy enough to go there, and it was only marginally faster from their starting location.
Eventually they arrived at Iclinas, where the carriages and drivers would be staying, waiting for their return. It was the highest point that there were settlements not made entirely up of cultivators, and John could already feel the air getting thin. From there on, their group would have to hike and climb towards the Grandcliff River, where the Great Waterfall Reversal would be taking place. It flowed down from a high peak, spilling over the slopes around it in a strange display of fluid dynamics. But that was almost normal compared to what they were going to experience.
Along with John and Matayal they had their guards, which included Ayden and Crystin from the Tenebach clan along with Livna and Yonit. But John and Matayal didn’t have just two guards each, and there were another four that would rotate out instead of having a permanent position. While being a guard wasn’t the most exciting position, it was a necessity. They didn’t want anyone from their clans to come under attack, but they were high value targets so it simply made sense to take what security they could.
Everyone was in late Soul Expansion Phase, so what would have been a very difficult mix between a climb and a hike was manageable. But the natural difficulties of thinning air and sheer cliffs were augments by supernatural winds, requiring caution from the group as a whole. John had an air totem so he was able to ease the burden on the entire group, and some of the others had undergone training to deal with high winds. Even so, it was a continual drain on their stamina. Like mountain climbers on Earth, they had to take breaks where they could. But much like in the Kelp Spire Forest, other cultivators had already carved out little caves in the area long before, providing places of shelter from the wind and growing cold.
John and Matayal cuddled together to warm up, and the rest had to figure out the limits they were comfortable with. For the most part they sat back-to-back, though there wasn’t much room for anything else in the small caves when a group of ten people was together. Especially since the further in they were, the less they had to deal with the outside winds.
“We’re almost there,” John commented to the group. “Once we recover our energy, we’ll deal with the last stretch.”
Aside from John, nobody else had abundant access to their primary element. Closer to the Grandcliff River water element was abundant, but where they were water and darkness elements were at ambient levels similar to Astrein. Enough for them to slowly recover, but not fast enough to not have to stop. Their total stores might have allowed them to complete the whole climb if they pushed themselves but there was no point in taking unnecessary risks.
If the only goal had been to reach the Grandcliff River, then technically they could be beneath it already- but nobody wanted to try to climb the cliffs with a river falling on them. As they approached the peak, they still had the most impressive fall above them. Water began to spray around them, some parts of it freezing into tiny drops of ice. When the crested the last edge, they were met with the sight of a waterfall a kilometer high, raining a mist of liquid and icy mist down on the area below it. Flows of ice extended through the waterfall as frozen passageways, but there were also streams of water that never froze alongside the icicles.
They were of course not the first cultivators to be present. Some of the locals trained underneath the falls year-round, and for a special event such as the Great Waterfall reversal hundreds of cultivators were in attendance, encompassing the entirety of the Soul Expansion Phase. Only a small number of brave or foolish Foundation Phase cultivators were present.
“Hmm.” John’s eyes landed on someone present.
“Hmm what?” Matayal asked. Her eyes followed his to a group of others. “Ah, I see.” Having heard about his previous indecent with Bora Kartal, she could guess what he was thinking to see him present. But of course, it also wasn’t unexpected. The Kartal clan was from the Blustering Peaks after all. If Bora was smart he wouldn’t cause any trouble- but if that was the case, he probably wouldn’t have caused any the first time. Even so, the clan had little excuse to act as John had caused no permanent harm, nor had he spread the word of what happened to cause Bora shame. “He has a very punchable face,” Matayal commented.
“Sorry, I have dibs,” John replied. “If he chooses to make it a problem.” For the sake of the others, John gave a quick overview of the situation. The Kartal clan should show some restraint to not end up in a war with another clan- or two- when it wouldn’t really benefit them, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t make things more difficult for them.
It was not terribly surprising that nobody from the Stone Conglomerate was present. While it also made little sense for fire element cultivators, John had almost expected Steve. But maybe him not being present was a good thing, as there was always trouble around him.
There had been some talk about Mulyani clan cultivators coming, but it seemed that neither them nor Brandle Clan members beyond those with their group were present. Matayal did spot a friend, however. She waved her over, but a man came with her. “Keahi, who’s this?”
The man smiled and introduced himself. “I’m Susila, Keahi’s husband.”
“Ah…” Matayal deflated. “Am I a terrible friend? I hadn’t heard about this at all…”
“We haven’t even known each other that long, really,” Keahi admitted. “Less than a year. And you’ve been pretty busy lately.”
“The triplets occupy quite a bit of our time,” Matayal admitted. “So how did you meet?”
“Her ship ran aground on my island,” Susila explained. “Well, where I lived. It’s not like I own an island,” he said a bit sheepishly.
John found a moment to interject himself. “It’s not like even the Brandle clan controls a whole island. Not any of the major ones, anyway. I’m Fortkran Tenebach, by the way,” John introduced himself. “I hope my name has at least come up…” he looked at Keahi.
“Of course,” she nodded. “I wouldn’t forget my best friend’s husband, even if she’s been neglecting me lately.” Keahi said that in a light tone, so it was clear she wasn’t that upset.
“I did hear about the shipwreck,” Matayal commented. “But you didn’t mention meeting a handsome young man…”
“Well, I didn’t know if it would go anywhere at the time…” Keahi shrugged sheepishly.
Susila was an independent cultivator of decent talent, much like Keahi. Both were currently in mid Soul Expansion Phase, which was more than respectable for their age. They weren’t able to match up to John and Matayal, but they didn’t have the backing to allow that. While Keahi had received some benefits to her cultivation from being Matayal’s friend, it wasn’t as if she was hanging on her coattails.
Since the Great Waterfall Reversal involved powerful amounts of water element, it was a good advancement opportunity for the two of them. While they weren’t even close to the Consolidated Soul Phase, they were hoping to break through to the next rank and solidify their cultivation there.
A strong gust of wind blew across the plateau where the gathering was taking place. It wasn’t much to worry about, but Keahi instinctively grabbed onto Susila’s arm. So she was still afraid of storms. John smiled slightly at that thought. Not every fear was rational, but at least she had someone she could rely on. Though John couldn’t fully judge the man’s character after meeting him for a few minutes, he had a good feeling about the couple. Good feelings didn’t necessarily mean anything in the long run, but they looked happy and comfortable with each other which was important.