The ground trembled as several tonnes of rhinoceros charged towards Ursel. They weren’t a common creature, and she had to make her way to obscure corners of the Viridia Wildlands just to find this one. Her shoulders were set, her body braced for impact. In front of her was a figure of earth energy, unsuited to fooling even the most basic visual inspection.
Even so, the rhino took her decoy to be a proper target, lowering its horn then snapping back its head to impale… more or less nothing. Because of that, the rhino didn’t lose momentum, and continued its forward charge. Ursel spun her heavy stone club into the side of its head before it could properly react to her presence, sending it careening off target.
She sighed. “This thing barely even has any spiritual energy and yet it’s like this…”
The rhino turned around, barely fazed by her attack. Of course, she hadn’t been aiming for any sort of weak point. Instead, she was testing its strengths. That was what she was here for, after all.
Its bones were like steel, but with each swing of her club Ursel increased her power. Once, twice, three times she struck the creature in the ribs, taking advantage of its poor eyesight to dodge around it. Eventually they cracked.
“Not enough,” she shook her head. Perhaps they would be of some use in developing her technique, or maybe some part of the legs or horn… but she was going to have to find more impressive specimens. She even considered fighting them head-on, but decided that was just a little bit too much. She was out here to improve herself, not pick up a string of exciting new injuries. Though it did seem nice to not have to think about anything for a while and just brawl to her heart’s content.
If comparing himself to his sisters, Tirto would no doubt hear many different descriptors of himself. Calm. Mature. Responsible. And perhaps by comparison he was those things. Melanthina was certainly leagues more mature than she had once been- time and her husband had changed her, as well as the dictates of her position. Ursel was… still Ursel. Less intentionally mischievous, and instead generally less aware of how her interactions with the world would be perceived. Or perhaps at this point she didn’t care.
Tirto was still the responsible one, and he didn’t generally begrudge the idea. That was who he was. Willing to have fun, yes, but ultimately focused on his responsibilities as the young master of the clan- now the clan head.
Emilia took things seriously as well. She comforted him when he was down, and reminded him to take time to rest. She was warm and calming, like soaking in the sun on the beach. She took care of him, and he wanted to do the same in turn.
On a nice day like this, she was bound to be outside, taking in the sun. That was the best source of fire element in the area, after all- except for training rooms which were ultimately stuffy and restricting. Good for times of storm, but Tirto knew Emilia would rather be outside anytime the weather was decent. Same with him, except he wasn’t bothered by rain.
Emilia was laying back on an outdoor couch next to one of the clan’s ponds, her eyes closed, the sun soaking into her skin.
“Good afternoon. How are you doing today?” Tirto asked.
“Mmn.” She shifted, opening her eyes to grin at him, “Well, I was taking a nice nap.” She sat up. “Do you need me for something?”
“Not exactly,” Tirto said, sitting next to her. “I was just wondering if you’re comfortable here. I know the training rooms are rather boring.”
“Of course,” she said. “I don’t know if they will suit my needs forever, but my cultivation is progressing well for now. And later… dual cultivation will be beneficial. I doubt I will fall behind.”
There was the topic. Though Tirto should have expected it, as it was an assumed part of their relationship. “I’m not really in a good state right now…” Tirto said.
Emilia smiled, “Don’t worry. I’m not intending to rush you. Don’t listen to my sister too much, okay? Verusha might be impatient, but I can wait.”
Tirto nodded. “Thank you. Seems a bit unfair to you, though. I mean, drawing you away from your family when we’re married. And even during dual cultivation, I’ll be the one to benefit more.”
Emilia laughed, “Is that all? More worrying? It’s alright. You know, I already basically live here. You’re not gonna lock me up if we get married are you?”
“W- of course not!”
“As for family, my parents are never at home with the clan regardless. They’re roamers. Even when they’re having more children…” Emilia shrugged. “They come to visit occasionally, and Verusha will visit regularly I’m sure. I am quite at home here in the Shimmering Islands… or among any of our allies, really. As long as you don’t plan to move the clan to somewhere cold, I doubt I’ll have any complaints.”
“Move the clan?” Tirto shook his head. “No way. What would that even accomplish? The only thing I’m interested in…”
“A certain leviathan, right?” Emilia asked. “It’s still roaming around.”
“It’s a constant reminder of her,” Tirto shook his head. “But I can’t help but hope that it is a good thing, ultimately.”
“Then perhaps it’s your job to make it something beneficial, when you’re ready.”
“You’re probably right,” Tirto nodded.
Emilia was great. Which was why Tirto was beginning to be concerned that he was making a mistake. Everything was so simple, but his brain had to go and make things complicated. And the longer he waited, the worse things might be.
Within the Tenebach clan, there were several entrances that led underground. They were sealed, not for the sake of protecting what was below but rather for those who might choose to go below. Since he hadn’t been able to find his wife elsewhere, Nik presumed that was where she would be. He stood outside the stairway near their quarters, presenting a token that unsealed the doorway. Then he descended, step by step, into the deeper darkness. It was like sinking into a pool of lava, except instead of being hot all over it was more individual bursts of pain and sharpness. The fact that he was strong enough to survive immersed in lava for a short time didn’t make it any less of an effective metaphor.
The dense power below was both a product of the clan and a boon to them. Along with a small number of other creatures, including another burgeoning generation of shadowhawks, this place was the dwelling of the Tenebach Clan’s guardian beast.
Shadows twisted and flowed. A creature darker than darkness with the silhouette of a quadrupedal beast flickered in Nik’s vision. “Cultivator of light. For what reason do you descent into my domain?”
“Mighty guardian beast Ciaritzal, I come seeking the head of the Tenebach clan. Finding her nowhere else, I surmised she might be within your territory.”
“Oh yes,” Ciaritzal said. “Your wife is napping in a corner.”
“Is she at least on pillows this time?” Nik asked.
“She’s fully got her head on the floor,” Ciaritzal grinned, the shape of his nothingness warping with the familiar action. “I hope you don’t mean to pull her away from her rest.”
“No, I already had today’s meetings without her,” Nik shrugged.
“Hmm, good.” Ciaritzal inched forward, until he was nearly touching Nik. “Your resistance to darkness is commendable.”
Nik smiled back nervously. “Thank you. I wouldn’t make it very far in day to day life if I couldn’t handle a bit of darkness.”
The spirit of darkness withdrew, leaving only the generally discomforting darkness in the area. That gave Nik more motivation to find his wife, and so he followed the flow of darkness that he imagined would lead him to her.
Even as she slept, she subconsciously absorbed darkness. Just a small amount, but more than the shadow hawks in the area. Nik walked over next to her where she was sprawled out in the corner of a room. The Tenebach clan had carved out proper tunnels when they relocated Ciaritzal, if Nik’s recollection of their history was correct.
When his foot stepped next to Melanthina, her hand automatically reached out and grabbed him. Rather than her darkness element being uncomfortable for him, it was actually soothing compared to the surroundings. He let himself be pulled down towards her, sitting on the ground and then placing her head in his lap. She was still unconscious, but he felt her breathing soften nonetheless as he stroked her hair.
He slowly circulated his spiritual energy, and hers automatically reacted. Light and darkness danced together in a dangerous tango. Yet it was one he had come to greatly enjoy- and as they continued to cultivate to higher phases, Nik didn’t think it was particularly more risky than other forms of dual cultivation. Despite elements which were supposed to be completely incompatible, they made it work. Working with the wrong person would doubtless be a greater danger.
He smiled down at the content face of his wife. It was amazing what could happen within a few years- or almost a decade now, really. About half that time they had been bitter rivals, then when they actually had to work together things changed significantly. And now Nik had gone from being a decently talented cultivator in a light element sect to helping manage the affairs of the Tenebach clan. There were many things he couldn’t do for her, but he could take care of minor matters. During times of change like this, there was more to do. Though it wasn’t like Nik knew what a normal amount of stuff for a clan head was.
Then there was Melanthina’s father. Nik knew him, and so he didn’t necessarily blame him for what happened. But he was one of the contributing factors to Melanthina’s current troubles, instead of supporting her. On the other hand, Nik couldn’t say what was worse between losing a wife or mother. He’d never had the latter, and definitely didn’t want to experience the former.
“Mmm,” Melanthina’s eyes flickered open. “Morning.”
“Good evening,” Nik said in response. “You do know we could have pillows brought down here, don’t you? Or a proper bed?”
“Why do that when I can get a lap?”
Nik rolled his eyes. “Because then you wouldn’t spend hours laying on the bare floor. It’s probably not good for your neck or your back.”
Melanthina stood up, stretching. Her joints popped and she put a hand over her mouth as she yawned. “It’s fine, we’re still young. And we’re cultivators. So spending a few- did you say hours?-” Melanthina’s eyes grew wide with panic.
“Relax, I took care of all the visiting delegations. They probably weren’t important enough to meet with the clan head anyway, and if we decided to promote our relationships with them in the future, then directly working with you will be a step up for them.”
“What about the Darklands…?” Melanthina asked.
“It was just some smaller sects, remember? Don’t worry about it,” Nik said. “And it’s also useful to remind people like that that I am here and can explode them if they do anything stupid.”
“They probably don’t realize that,” Melanthina pointed out.
Nik shrugged, “Then I don’t really care. If they’re not even cognizant of basic elemental reactions, they’ll just be absorbed by someone else eventually.”
“Everything’s really done…?”
“Except dinner,” Nik grinned. “We can have them get it started at any point.”
“Thank you, I… I should be taking care of these things.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Nik shook his head. “What am I going to do, sit around cultivating all day? It wasn’t even that much work.” Though it was more responsibility than he was used to, he had always expected such burdens to increase as he improved his cultivation. He just thought he would be doing so as a disciple of the Combining Luster Sect instead of marrying into a clan of darkness cultivators.