While he made sure to put in the effort, John found that any real success with the fire element was bound to be a long time off. He would be much more effective once he had a totem, but conversely he needed to have a certain attachment to fire to be able to select a good totem. Resisting the pressure within the sea of spiritual totems was just the first step.
Besides needing that affinity, there was another simple reason. For years he had remained at the threshold between early and mid Consolidated Soul Phase. That was perfectly normal, but was a significant change from earlier rapid advancement. Yet if he had continued advancing even yearly, he should soon expect to be in the Ascending Soul Phase soon enough. Given that only one person had achieved that rank on record anywhere John had been, he shouldn’t expect it to be an easy process. Faramund had taken most of a very long lifespan to reach that point- long enough for many generations of the Tenebach clan to come and go. Expecting things to be quick was simply greedy.
It was fortunate he’d never really gotten to settle into his power. Whether the advancement was rushed by their attack on the Society of Midnight or simply coincidentally timed was unclear, but that level of power still made John shudder when he thought about it. Ciaritzal was nearly that powerful after having restored himself, but leaning too much on him would be a problem.
John had no reason to believe that Ciaritzal wasn’t planning to continue his alliance with the Tenebach clan- if he had, he’d missed the opportune moment- but ultimately the guardian beast had different thought patterns than a human. Relying on a single powerful individual was just asking for their forces to get whittled away regardless.
Ultimately, if John never advanced again and the Tenebach clan stagnated as it was for his lifespan… he had still been wildly successful. Even so, there was always a better future to look forward to, a world where his children were secure. And he was certain he could continue to advance his own cultivation given time and effort.
Dark storm clouds gathered atop the peak, crackling with lightning. For Kaimana, that meant a perfectly normal day. That was why the island had been chosen as the location to host the Mulyani clan. Such a storm carried more air element than water, and its previous occupants had not been strong enough to hold their position. Perhaps somewhere in the Blustering Peaks would have been optimal, but the competition had simply been too fierce. By the time Kusuma felt up for the challenge, it was too difficult to move a clan. Even one relatively small by such standards.
She took stock of the clan cultivators. Few had displayed great talent- at least, not enough to stand out from the others. That was unfortunate, but at least she knew their future was secure for a while due to alliances. The Brandle clan would swiftly come to their aid if called upon, and the Tenebach clan would do the same- simply from a further distance. Kusuma wondered if the lives of her descendents had been too difficult or too easy, for them to turn out so bland. Or perhaps she shouldn’t always compare people to herself. Mere decades before she’d been comfortable resting in the Soul Expansion Phase without more than the ambition of reaching her peak cultivation. Seeing the growth of youth had spurred her forward, but perhaps she’d put too much of herself in that rapid advancement.
Or just overestimated herself. She gingerly placed a hand on her belly. She knew that the Tenebach kid would have tried to help if he knew she had such a lingering wound. Perhaps he might have… but the risk that the burrowing darkness would have harmed him instead was too great. What did it matter to Kusuma if her life was cut short a few years, compared to the potential harm for a lifetime of someone with that talent? So the kid was nearly forty now… that meant he had a good century left to go, at least. Unless something damaged his cultivation he had an amazing future.
Truthfully, even if it had been removed Kusuma knew the darkness inside her had done the majority of its damage already. Her cultivation dropped from the mid Consolidated Soul Phase she had pushed herself to achieve back into the early phase. The lingering trouble was nothing compared to that.
Someone knocked on her door. She hadn’t called for anyone, but she supposed she’d been avoiding people lately. That was the sort of attitude that ultimately had people check up on you. “Come in.”
Asih was not who Kusuma had expected. A timid girl, hardly suited to the wild power of air. Her cultivation talent was not bad, but besides advancing her cultivation Kusuma had yet to see anything come of it. “Matriarch Kusuma. There are delegations from the Blustering Peaks here to see you.”
“Aren’t there always?” she asked.
“There are,” Asih nodded. “Few others come to our harbors. Many seek cultivation advice or brides.”
“Oh? Any catch your eye?”
“No. Their talent is insignificant, or they would manage on their own. I came to ask for permission to officially turn them away.”
“Do what you wish,” Kusuma said. “If anyone of note arrives, you can send for me. Otherwise… I don’t care.”
“Understood,” Asih nodded her head again, her expression neutral. “I will relay your words.”
Kusuma sighed as she closed the door behind her. Who was sending the girl on errands such as this? She watched her for a bit, but didn’t find her reporting back to anyone immediately. Kusuma returned her thoughts to the brewing storm. In the past she would have eagerly stood upon the tallest tower and fought the lightning, but she simply didn’t feel up for it at the moment.
“Of course you managed to advance before me once more,” John smiled earnestly as he once more met with Matayal upon Pualani. “I can only struggle behind you.” Then he shook his head, “I’m sorry, that makes it sound as if you do not put in the same sort of effort. What have you been doing?”
“The same as before,” she said. “Meditating in the presence of the sea god.”
“Any luck with communication?” John asked. “Or does it simply continue to sleep?”
“It sleeps. Not only that it… perhaps I should not speculate.”
“Why not?” John asked. “Speculate away.”
“It seems to be weakening,” Matayal said. “Though perhaps as my own power grew I lost objectivity in that regard. It could be due to its long hibernation, and not being a spirit entity I would assume it requires some sustenance. Or I could be mistaken.”
“We could find out,” John replied.
As they were preparing to leave, Tirto came to find them. That was not terribly odd, since he was quite fond of his mother. John tried to bond with him as well when he got the chance, but spending about half the year away separated from his children had made that difficult. He tried to avoid the urge to monopolize Matayal’s time during the two months of overlap they had so they could spend enough time with their children to make them turn out… normal? Or well adjusted, at least. There was no way normal was going to happen given various circumstances.
“I want to go with you,” Tirto said.
“You can’t,” Matayal said automatically. “It’s too dangerous.”
“… Foundation Phase cultivators go to the Kelp Spire Forest all the time.”
He had them there. He wasn’t a weak kid anymore. He was still a kid, but there were many adults weaker than him now. Early Foundation Phase was still relatively low on the totem pole of cultivators, but it wasn’t the level of a beginner.
John and Matayal exchanged looks. He gestured for her to speak, trusting her to make the right judgment. Her words meant more to Tirto, and she should be more familiar with the risks.
“You won’t be able to go with us into the depths,” Matayal explained. “That is too dangerous. However, if you wish to take advantage of the opportunity to train in the Kelp Spire Forest, that could be arranged. Your sisters might wish to come along as well.”
Tirto nodded. Perhaps he wasn’t pleased with that idea, but he also knew he couldn’t argue with it. And as far as siblings went, the triplets got along quite well. They squabbled sometimes, but that was normal. And for the sake of those watching over them, the fact that they weren’t always coordinated made it possible to deal with them. Just the more mischievous two caused a lot of trouble, and if Tirto were to ally with his sisters in shenanigans they could be an even bigger menace. Though the girls had gotten many of the most obvious troubles out of their system already.
“Will we get to fight?” Tirto asked.
“Yes,” Matayal nodded, “But you will need your guardians. The two of us will be bringing our own, naturally. It would not do for the young master of the Brandle clan to be easily subject to the random dangers of the world.”
Perhaps it wasn’t fair that those from powerful clans or sects had guardians that kept them from experiencing true danger, but life was never fair. And John and Matayal certainly weren’t going to risk their children’s lives for some perceived notion of ‘fair’. It was still a bit early for them to be getting practical combat experience- they were still not even teenagers, and would normally not have begun cultivating on any serious level. It was difficult and slow for those who were young, and there were other dangers as well. The triplets simply didn’t have the option to not cultivate.
When given the option to go on an adventure, obviously Ursel and Melanthina jumped at the opportunity. Thus, the excursion turned into a larger endeavor than previously intended. It was already something significant for the two clan heads to be going somewhere together, but with the heirs to the two clans going along as well, it required more security. At that point, they supposed they might as well organize a proper excursion, offering opportunities to other members of the Brandle clan.
That meant making use of more vessels, though they were not short on available ships. They had come into possession of some fairly decent ones in previous conflicts, and they’d always had some. The number of people involved meant that there would be no use for Captain Sohan’s services- the Wavecutter’s feature was its great speed, not capacity or comfort. Ships that could sail in a fleet were better.
Arranging for everyone took more time, and being required to go around storms likewise added on more days. It was an unfortunate chunk of John’s month in the area, but on the other hand he got to spend that time with his family… even if there wasn’t much exciting about waiting for ships to be readied or traveling on them. The triplets were already used to journeys back and forth between the clans, and a slightly different route didn’t add much excitement.
The fleet couldn’t moor directly inside the Kelp Spire Forest- taking larger ships there was dangerous- but they were able to anchor at a nearby island. That was another thing that took more people, watching the ships. It was unlikely anyone would get any ideas about stealing from them, but having the force to remind them was always the correct choice.
Instead of diving directly into the depths like they had planned, the two parents watched their children try to adapt to the new environment. Aggressive beasts roamed the waters, but near the surface the trio was capable of fighting against some of them. Tirto was the most effective underwater, while the other two did better on the spires themselves. It wasn’t quite land, though the spires were moldable by earth element techniques. That was both a benefit and a drawback for Ursel, since she could do more things but also had to make sure she wasn’t destabilizing a large structure.
Letting danger approach the triplets was one of the hardest things John ever had to do. He knew they were cultivators, but trusting his own assessment of their combat strength versus any incoming beasts was difficult. Both he and Matayal were likely guilty of pruning down the number of enemies too much… and even then, Ursel and Melanthina received minor injuries. At any moment either of the parents could have annihilated the attacking beasts, but keeping the triplets too safe wouldn’t be good for their futures. There wouldn’t always be someone stronger around to protect them.