Countries were a simple way to represent something, though that something was not political unity. Instead, more were geographical descriptors, a certain confluence of elements. Those living within the area might feel protective of the whole area because it was useful to them, but there was rarely any incentive to protect others within the area. They were just competition- that was the reality of the world.
Even so, people still had reasons to unite. It could be more than just a sect or a clan, but a larger expansive alliance for the purposes of mutual defense- and ultimately, for establishing control of the strongest in the area. Marble County fell under the sway of the Tenebach clan and the Order of the Amber Heart, joint powers that maintained a good relationship… and had the advantage of needing somewhat different resources. If the Tenebach clan had been earth elemental cultivators, then things might have been different- though it would have still been possible for them to join hands.
Those thoughts brought John and the rest of the ‘club’- along with Matayal- back to the current matters. Powerful groups moving on the Sunfields and the Wuthering Heights. “It seems that the issues to the southeast are further removed,” John commented. “Both geographically and politically.” He looked towards Deirdre- or at least that was the name convenient to continue using. “I sense greater concern about the Molten Sea.”
“It depends on where they stop,” Deidre admitted. “There’s still quite a distance for them to cover before they even begin stepping into the Sunfields… the bigger issue is that if they’re working with individuals from the Sunfields, will they continue beyond that point or not?”
Lucanus- also known as Steve- tilted his head, “We’re also just assuming they can do this. Shouldn’t people be able to… stop them?”
Yustina placed a hand on her husband’s shoulder. “I know you’re not interested in the politics, but I’m sure it must have been mentioned in your presence that these places have produced Ascending Soul Phase cultivators.”
“So?” he shrugged, “We’ve killed one before.”
“One… not stabilized after their forceful advancement. And it took our combined efforts.”
“We’re stronger now,” Lucanus countered.
“Could you take one by yourself?” Upon seeing her husband’s face, she sighed, “That’s not a challenge.”
“You’re right,” he finally shook his head. “I probably couldn’t.”
“Don’t forget that none of our regions have regularly produced even Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators. This period of growth is a spike… and there’s no guarantee the Molten Sea or any of the sky islands haven’t gone through something similar.”
Lucanus snorted, bits of flame spewing from his nose, but he just nodded. John was at least glad that he could trust Yustina to keep him from doing anything stupid… alone, at least.
John moved onto the next step, “Do we have any information on the groups involved here? Whether they actually have Ascending Soul Phase cultivators, or information like that?”
“It’s unclear,” Deirdre admitted, “However, there should be at least one among the group from the Molten Sea, perhaps more. That would depend on if they’re a number of lesser sects under one greater banner or if they are a group of relatively equal strengths working towards some common goal. The latter is simply rare enough that it’s a concern they’re moving at all.”
“Unfortunately,” Yustina said, “Our information is also incomplete. Just that there have been rapid successes in taking over parts of the Wuthering Heights. The expansion is too aggressive to just hope that it stops.”
Matayal nodded, “The question then is if we are going to do anything immediately, either as individuals or as a group. It seems that the incidents are still too far removed to safely involve our forces. Thus, I propose that in addition to keeping watch on the situation, we prepare and train. Not just ourselves, but our forces. Our coordination was sufficient in the assault on the Society of Midnight, but there could always be improvements.”
John nodded, “Obviously I’m going to agree with you on that. It’s a shame we don’t have any air cultivators among our peers. Kusuma is… not young.” More importantly she’d never fully recovered after the incident in the Kelp Spire Forest, her cultivation seeming to stagnate as well. It was impossible to say if the woman would have pushed beyond the early Consolidated Soul Phase if that didn’t happen, or if that was always her limit. “We still need to include the Mulyani clan, of course. It would be a shame if our relations were only tied to Kusuma.”
“Is there a reason specifically for air?” Deirdre asked. “We’re facing air and fire cultivators, right?”
“He wants all six elements, obviously,” Renato said. “To cover any weaknesses. Just like he is doing with his own cultivation.”
“To cover weaknesses and to augment each other,” John pointed out. “You all have seen how that can work.”
“Fair enough. About the elements, however…” Yustina shook her head. “It is my understanding that the Molten Sea has abundant water element as well as fire. The sky islands ironically require earth element to stay afloat.”
“How does that work?” John asked.
“Some sort of gravity manipulation… along with natural minerals within the islands. Unfortunately, that’s all I know,” Yustina admitted.
“So we could be facing each of the four core elements,” Deidre nodded, “Though preferably not all at once.”
Matayal nodded. “Indeed. Hopefully, we have to only face one of them at a time… if we have to fight at all.”
“At least we don’t have to deal with light element,” John said. “Except perhaps those from the Sunfields. The question is the timeline. Should we expect trouble to escalate within the next few weeks…? Months? Years? I know conquering territory can take a long time.”
“If they manage to threaten any of us within weeks, we would do best to capitulate to whatever they wish,” Yustina said. “Unless they are planning to annihilate anyone in their path. With just months of time, if they do not have a specific goal in mind that they quickly reach and extract, they will be exposed to all around them. If they truly are conquering, it is most likely to be a matter of years. And perhaps these threats will be forgotten next year, replaced by others.”
“But we need to be strong enough to face them soon,” Matayal expanded the idea. “Because inevitably, there will be more threats of this kind.”
“Exactly,” Yustina nodded.
Not having a proper air cultivator was definitely an issue for some of their training. John was quite capable of many things, but the amount of time he spent training air techniques was less than a quarter- it was closer to a third of his time spent on darkness, then a sixth on each of the other three elements he had as well as fire and light combined. He simply wasn’t up to the same standard as the rest of them. In terms of darkness, however, that was his base. He could perform basically any function they needed darkness for, and if they really truly needed a pure darkness cultivator the Tenebach clan had a few options, including Aydan. Though he was somewhat older, there was a significant difference between one cultivator generation and two in terms of age, and that bled over into growth potential to some extent.
The core of their training was combining elements- augmenting individuals or bolstering their whole lineup. These were something they could only do when together. The fire pair were the lynchpins of the whole operation- partly because there were two of them, and partly because there was no air cultivator to be had.
Their position meant that Deirdre only had them to make use of as an associated element, at least without involving John who could fill many roles to some extent. But he could only do so much at once, which put those two as the official bridge between Deidre and the rest- and the link between Matayal and Renato.
Earth augmented fire. Renato had quite a bit of pure spiritual energy to offer, a wild force that Lucanus was absolutely able to capitalize on. He or Yustina could both filter that energy to her more preferred level of calmness. Yustina was the next step for working with Matayal- as a water cultivator in her previous life, her current style was still influenced by that. She understood the flow of energy Matayal would want, how much fire would benefit her and empower her to rapidly transition state changes within the water element. In a somewhat unintuitive way, it was even easier to make ice when augmented by a flow of the fire element. Yet it always took energy to make anything happen, so it wasn’t actually contradictory.
John stood at the opposite end of Deidre, his darkness element working smoothly with both earth and water- especially so as he held totems for those elements himself. He was also the most familiar with using the cycle of elements in battle, so he provided guidance in terms of insights as well as actual control of the flow in many circumstances.
Yet he found that, especially without a fire totem, taking a secondary position was usually best. He could be the start of the flow, empowering Renato and his earth element. Lucanus and Yustina were the next step, power flowing from them to Matayal or Deidre. It could go to both- with two cultivators in the line splitting it was reasonable. Yet there were always decisions to be made about the total flow.
They could focus on the four core elements, John acting as an air cultivator bridging the gap between Matayal and back to Renato. That was fine enough, but it left Deidre somewhat stranded. John could also attempt to work with her- though light element was still difficult for him- or she could simply work with the fire cultivators but whatever they chose, it could lead to imbalances.
Taking the position of air also meant John was potentially ignoring the allied cycle of water, earth, and darkness. He had no trouble working the flow of the core cycle and the allied cycle for himself, but when incorporating other people it was sufficiently difficult.
When they managed to attain a proper balance, energy augmenting energy, it could flow back into the cycle for a measure of continuous growth in power. With constant increases, one could wonder why they did not simply let it build up until they were as powerful as they wished- but that was far too naive of an idea. It became clear to all of them that even when they achieved a proper flow with any subcycles there was a limit, not a technical one but simply a matter of control.
In short, it was limited by the same things as any sort of power. When there was enough power in an area, it would become an uncontrolled explosion. Of course, it never actually got to that point directly. More generally, someone would slip up and leak out power, potentially breaking down the entire cycle and losing whatever energy the group had projected. That could happen in a violent manner, but they were adept enough to recognize their approaching limits and at least direct things away from themselves.
Even so, after one week of near constant training they could augment their power through more or less two cycles and maintain that level. Excess energy would be expended in one way or another- bled off on purpose or by accident. But in practical terms, if they could maintain such a state in combat, all of them would have increased power output that could be sustained. Ultimately, that was one of the deciding factors- total capacity was important, but if an enemy could drive a sword through your heart it didn’t matter how much energy either side had remaining afterwards. Though the cycle of elements was theoretically an efficient use of their power as well. The problem was maintaining a more complicated state in battle, rather than just the basics they had done already. The married pairs could manage with just the two of them, but it was always more difficult with those they didn’t actually dual cultivate with. And nobody was planning to actually open themselves up to a total of five others all at once. That was a level of synchronicity that was a pipe dream. Even if they trusted each other in general, that was the way they would get themselves killed or crippled.
The higher level cycle making use of joint formation tactics was quite sufficient. Not too much risk for a reasonable reward. That was the core of their focus for their training, though they also took advantage of the variety of elements at play to test each other’s weaknesses and grow in more traditional manners.