Unlike the situation with the Tenebach clan, the situation in the Brandle clan had been official immediately. With the clan head deceased and Tirto of adult age, the role of clan head immediately transferred to him. Tirto couldn’t claim that things weren’t difficult, but in fact the responsibilities provided a nice distraction from… everything. That included thinking about his mother. They’d been close, of course. He was the heir to the Brandle clan, so she had been responsible for teaching him everything he needed to know from cultivation to clan affairs. But he would have liked a few more years. No, he had expected a few more decades. Even if he had taken over the official responsibilities, still having her around would have eased the burden.
But at least he wasn’t alone. Emilia remained around the Brandle clan, providing some level of emotional support. Whenever he needed it, she was available to just talk. It was something he couldn’t do with just anyone. His sisters, at one point- but he didn’t see them as often as he would like these days. Soon, perhaps, once things settled down. There was a lot of work to do after the incident with the Molten Sea, and that was not counting the leviathan itself.
Then there was the other issue. The door to his office burst open, despite it being officially off limits. But nobody was going to stop the currently red haired bundle of anger. “Hey! What’s the news?”
Tirto tilted his head looking at Verusha. Had he forgotten to tell her something important? She wasn’t really entitled to anything, but still… “I don’t believe there has been any news.”
“That’s the problem!” Verusha flared up. Tirto encased the area in a cooling field so she didn’t set any of his books on fire. “Tell me, do you know when my sister’s birthday was?”
“Of course,” Tirto nodded, “Emilia’s birthday was seventy-one days ago, and we had a celebration. You were there.”
He was beginning to see where this was going. “The situation is more complicated than you know.”
“What’s complicated about it?” Verusha asked. “It’s really simple. She likes you. You say you like her. Our parents approve of things, and it would even be good for your cultivation!”
“Believe me when I say I want to do right by Emilia, but that’s why I can’t marry her right now.”
“Then just propose! Set a date. If she has to wait another two or three years… at least she’d know.”
“Three years?” Tirto shook his head. “I don’t even know what’s going to happen in one. In three years I might be dead.”
“So what?” Verusha asked. “We’re cultivators. We live, and then we die- just like everyone else.”
“I know.” Tirto’s voice shook the room. “Do you think I don’t know about death well enough?”
“I-” Verusha’s hair faded in intensity. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-”
“Just go,” Tirto said. “The matters between Emilia and me will be solved by the two of us. She does not need you to advocate on her behalf, even if she is less vocal about her concerns.” But… he really should talk to her about it. He just didn’t know what to say.
Dreams. Dreams of the sea, of ocean waves. Of swimming and diving, consuming everything in his path. Dreams of power. At first, such dreams had been distant, as if viewed from afar, distorted and twisted. All he had sensed was a great figure. But gradually, he had grown closer and closer. Along the way, he had many nights where he simply took in the form of the great leviathan as he watched it. But eventually, he was inside of it.
Tirto woke from what should have probably been a nightmare. A thing of such great power acting as it pleased… it could easily destroy any part of the Shimmering Islands. Since its waking, a great number of ships had already been sunk. And yet, Tirto didn’t find it a cause for concern.
He wasn’t certain if the dreams he was having were real or not. Was there a true connection between them? Certainly, he’d tried to forge one, some years before. He still wasn’t sure if that was a mistake. The totem he’d connected to was powerful… but that was only the direct consequence. His mother had been with him and what he’d felt at the end… would she even have attempted that, had he not indirectly encouraged her to form such a connection?
Logic would not save him here. The fact that she visited alone, without him meant nothing. His interactions might have pushed her over the limit. The possibility of worse happening if she couldn’t make that connection likewise didn’t sway his thoughts. It was still his fault.
The face that looked back at John from the pool of water wasn’t exactly inspiring. Though Matayal had called him handsome, John imagined even she would have a hard time seeing him as such right now. Burning away the scraggly beard didn’t do much to change that. This was not the face of someone who inspired others. Someone with drive. Someone worthy of her love.
Instead, he had failed at her one request. Or at least… if it went well, it was hardly due to his own actions. The triplets were still the same people they had been before, just with the responsibilities of adulthood thrust upon them. Depending on the metrics used, he could pretend he’d been successful. They were healthy, their cultivations continued to grow with the years, they were prosperous. But very little of that had anything to do with John. Not after Matayal’s death.
Three years. And he’d done what, besides cultivating? No, in some ways cultivating was actually worse than not as it took him away from what truly mattered. What was power for? To John, at least, it was not meant to be the end goal. It was to be used for something. So increasing his personal power didn’t matter, if he had no intention to do anything with it.
Trying to remember his goals was difficult. Everything had involved Matayal, in one way or another. At the very least, in all of his plans she was there with him. No doubt they would have shifted as he came to understand what he truly wanted, and when he considered what she wanted.
Somehow, his steps had brought him back to Lunson. It was slightly more prosperous than before, due to trade between the Stone Conglomerate and the Phoenix Forest- but it was still an area most considered lacking in spiritual energy. From a certain perspective they were correct, but from another they were completely wrong.
The layout of the city had changed in the last decades. Even before the occupation by the Molten Sea and the subsequent retaking, shifts in the region also affected the city. So it wasn’t quite the same city as John remembered.
Even so, he could track the general direction he and Matayal fled after he provoked the Society of Midnight. That had nearly gotten them killed, but he was too proud to act in a reasonable fashion. Just because it was a flaw of most cultivators did not mean it should be excused. At that time, Matayal had just barely discovered her pregnancy.
Then, many years later, John had supported Suraj against the Molten Sea and the Righteous Flame League. The situation was not quite the same- an innocent life would have been lost had he not acted. But that did not mean there weren’t consequences, even if he had good intentions. Perhaps the Molten Sea would have manned a smaller force without the conflict, allowing for the defeat of Gesine without Matayal’s sacrifice.
To avoid getting trapped in a spiral of potential pasts that meant nothing, John focused on clearing his mind the way he best knew how. Cultivation, and the strain of diving into the Sea of Spiritual Totems.
Instead of some sort of enemy, John took the pressure of the Sea of Spiritual Totems for a boon, especially in recent years. In a way it was a warning. In another, it was a comfort. Being able to focus on that instead of worldly troubles was a wonderful release.
The fifth layer. What John desired was fire. Fire and growth. But there were certain traits he had been avoiding that he no longer shied away from. The way a fire grew best was spreading flames, the very act of burning itself. Burning, growing, devouring. An unstoppable wildfire. At times, John had considered various volcanically slated totems, as they matched with earth- and in some ways growth.
But the element at the core of his cultivation was darkness. It was the root from which everything else grew. Darkness had many functions. Concealment. Deception. These did not have to be negative features, though they were often taken as such.
He almost missed a totem that met his criteria perfectly because of that very hidden nature. His thoughts were focused on consuming flames, but he failed to consider certain possibilities. Igniting his enemies was tempting… but he hadn’t considered the way to make that most effective.
Dark flames. If one were to ask him what black flames meant, John might have considered a few options. Something akin to some sort of villainous hellfire. Perhaps flames with thick smoke to choke people out. Nothing pleasant, of course. Then again, nothing was intended to be pleasant when used against enemies.
This totem… its flames were barely visible. Nearly insubstantial. That was why he almost missed it. It felt far too weak to be among the fifth tier totems. But the Sea of Spiritual Totems wasn’t arranged as it was by any sort of human categorization. And while there was always the matter of compatibility to consider, higher tier totems ultimately had more power or at least unique functionality. John considered the flames, once they finally caught his eye. What did they do?
The answer he decided upon was nothing extraordinary. At least as far as spiritual energy was concerned, he could expect the flames to not stand out in any way. And rather than that being some sort of mistake, that was exactly their feature. The flames were dull not because they lacked intensity, but because they would not display intensity to the world. This was a hidden knife, an unknown danger. A poison, even, slowly killing someone without their knowledge. Of course, John doubted that most would completely ignore the flames despite their lackluster appearance. It was simply that he could expect people to underestimate the power they had. And at the current moment, that was rather appealing. It was that, or the Consuming Flames that used even spiritual energy as fuel. They were tempting, to be certain. Many days, John simply wished to turn the whole world to ash. But that was not what she would have wanted.
John returned to his body. He remembered one plan he had, even if the details had never been properly ironed out. Matayal supported it… and ultimately it would help accomplish her request. No, it wasn’t simply her request. The triplets were both of theirs, each parent loving them just as much as the other. John just didn’t have an idea for how he was supposed to take care of them.
But he’d figured it out. The disaster of the Molten Sea and even the intrusion of the Sky Islands had shown weakness in the region. And that hadn’t truly shown the limits of their power. Instead, it was simply factions directed by single powerful individuals among them.
Something like that couldn’t be allowed to happen again. For that, the region needed to stand united. To be stronger. And what better place to begin such a thing then right here where he was? A place that nobody valued, despite its great potential. John circulated four elements through himself, and small strands of a fifth. There was much to be gained in Astrein.
And he knew all the right people to build it into something great, the focal point of the surrounding area where cultivators of all elements grew in strength. Enough to resist any enemies they might come across. And who was better situated to begin such a transformation except John himself?