More than anything else, John needed strength to accomplish his goals. Personal strength would make it easier to gain and keep support more widely. The next step was reaching the Ascending Soul Phase. Even up until the Consolidated Soul Phase, he had been able to ask others for guidance- but now he knew no one who had taken the step ahead of him. Sitora was an exception, but he wouldn’t count himself as knowing her. Rather than being friendly, it was simply that she didn’t find it worthwhile for them to be enemies. They certainly weren’t close enough for him to just show up and ask for her most critical cultivation advice.
Not that John could reach her anyway. It wasn’t like he could just fly up to the sky islands. He’d have to already have contacts to bring him there. Though he did find it worth considering. The contacts, perhaps, but most definitely the thought of flight. It was a significant expenditure of spiritual energy, but he might be able to accomplish it with a proper technique. If he actually reached the Ascending Soul Phase, he might even be able to do more.
He had already exchanged thoughts with all members of the club. Deirdre and Steve obviously had no more experience than himself. Renato and Yustina, on the other hand, had both only made it to the Consolidated Soul Phase. Renato’s recollection of his previous life was apparently less complete than Yustina’s, but he had a strong core he’d grown from. Which made John feel much luckier to become friends with him early, and for his cultivation to miraculously keep up.
Without a clan, John doubted he would have gotten far at all. He also had to thank the support of his grandfather Luctus specifically. It would have been simple for the man to forbid him from attempting a full cycle of elements. Logical, even. At that point, Luctus had been the highest cultivation at merely the Soul Expansion Phase, so even assuming John reached that point… he would have had an unbalanced cultivation that didn’t fulfill any sort of cycle. In his case darkness, earth, and then air, with only air directly supporting another.
But now, he was only a single step away from completing the cycle of core elements and reaching the Ascending Soul Phase. A difficult step, to be certain, but if he couldn’t make it… then his journey would simply end here. Better such an end than hanging around like a husk of his former self doing nothing but hoping his children didn’t die.
He wasn’t going to take his advancement casually though. Currently, he was surveying the northern parts of Astrein for a good location. It had to be Astrein, because he wanted a balance of elements- but he also wanted to be closer to the Phoenix Forest, for the sake of tilting that balance towards fire.
He was already collecting condensed spirit elements to help with his breakthrough, but skimping on any step would be foolish. He planned to spend several years making preparations, but he couldn’t afford to wait too long or he would trap himself in a cycle of hesitation.
Tracking the leviathan was more of an excuse for Tirto to get away from clan affairs, as well as leaving behind certain individuals who preferred not to be at sea. But despite being an excuse, it was also an important duty.
“Keep the ship at this distance,” Tirto ordered. “Yonit, you’re coming with me.”
“Yes, clan head,” the older guard declared. Yonit was in the Consolidated Soul Phase, so he wasn’t coming along merely to make up numbers or to provide appearances. Tirto understood he was still not strong enough to stand alone.
The two of them dove into the water. It was a natural place for cultivators such as them, and also the only way to get a proper look at the leviathan. Though it occasionally approached the surface, it still generally stuck to the deeper areas of the Shimmering Islands.
Tirto didn’t bring them too close, instead circling at a distance. He was trying to understand its intent. It wasn’t just going to talk to him, of course. He wasn’t sure if it could- but if so, it certainly wasn’t interested. In fact, as far as Tirto had been able to dredge up it wasn’t really trying to do anything. It was just… living. And while that was the most basic goal for all life, it was somewhat more concerning for a creature of its size. It would sweep through wide swaths of ocean, eating anything that strayed too close- close enough to get drawn into its maw, specifically.
And yet, it also never completely drained an area of food. Nor did it consume absolutely everything. Along with the oddities living inside it, the leviathan still had various barnacles and shellfish that had lived on its ridges. More than that, there was a small ecosystem that traveled with it, dining on scraps left behind by the leviathan. Some fish directly attached to the leviathan to avoid being pulled in, others seemed to have developed instincts for when something was coming and positioning themselves in the right area.
Tirto couldn’t help but want to resonate his energy with the leviathan, learning from it. That had been true before his mother’s death… and afterwards, even though it had more or less been the cause… he took it as a sort of challenge. Not that he was going to try to control even a fraction of its actual power anytime soon. But he could get by with a facsimile. And with the creature awake, Tirto almost thought it was fond of him. At least, it seemed to take note of his presence most visits. The rest might be his imagination, a fantasy to make himself feel special.
A horn scraped against Ursel’s armor, actually causing a visible scrape as she was pushed back. She could only thank her master for making something so durable for her, and regret over each little irreparable bit of damage.
The horn in question was probably bigger than Ursel, but it came to a wicked point. The massive rhino continued forward as she was pushed back, intending to either impale or trample her. Ursel very much wanted to smash it head on, but she knew her own limits. Some day, perhaps. Until then, she needed to focus on what she could do.
Her knees bent, and a moment later she was rocketed into the sky- the image of a great bamboo shooting up beneath her. The rhino’s head flipped back as she vaulted just onto its neck, where she caught her balance. Then she stepped onto the rhino’s head, swinging her club down at the ridge over one of its eyes. Even if she barely caused any damage with her swing, the rhino bucked, trying to throw her off. But while it was powerful, its actual mobility was limited, and her earth energy helped her cling onto it. She had put down roots, after all.
Strike after strike, she continued to pummel the rhino’s skull. It continued to charge forward, trampling trees and trying to scrape her off on anything. But its own bulk got in the way, its horn protecting her from pretty much anything in front. Her position was sturdy as she was a deeply rooted tree on its skull.
Another swing and… hard bone cracked apart. The rhino probably didn’t quite understand what was happening, and its thick hide was still intact. But the damage left an avenue for Ursel to drive her energy deeper into the thing’s brain, a brain which was… somewhat smaller than her body. Which was to say, given the creature’s size, rather tiny.
Either because of her attacks or as a desperate last ditch effort, the rhino fell on its side and rammed skull first into a two meter thick tree- avoiding its horn. Ursel hadn’t been willing to give up her position, so she was shoved headfirst into that very same tree. However, it wasn’t like she was an earth cultivator for nothing. She was not just a stranger to the Viridia Wildlands, but had trained to control plants as well. That worked for real ones, of course, especially if she was trying to avoid hurting them.
She wasn’t quite sure how plants knew, but some had spiritual energy that would resist her in certain cases. This one was quite happy to soften up as her body rammed into it, its core turning relatively soft as the wood pushed away from her. Only relatively soft of course. Enough to not break her neck, but the impact was still enough to make her dizzy.
The rhino was worse off though. It was only twitching a little. Not wanting it to suffer, Ursel brought down her stone club once more, finishing it off. After she did so, she took a look at her weapon. Months of fighting without returning to civilization left her club in poor repair, missing chunks of material she simply couldn’t replace. It was a shame to give up Master Renato’s gifts, but on the other hand… he wanted her to be the best equipped.
She could probably make something out of the bones of this rhino. The ones that weren’t being used for other things, of course. She took off her gauntlets, rapping her knuckles against the undamaged horn of the rhino. Even without putting in real force, she could tell the difference in hardness between them. She would probably never truly reach such durability… but she could certainly work on it. The only questions was how to make use of this stuff, and whether it would hurt.
At least she had enough knowledge to know she wasn’t going to cause herself any permanent harm if she messed up. That would be bad, because she had so many things she wanted to do. And she knew people didn’t want to see her hurt either. But as long as it was just a little pain reforging her bones, she didn’t see the need for anyone to consider it their business.
Things had never been the same for the Golden Tomb Guardians, not after Cuah’arn revealed herself so publicly. Thousands flocked to them intending to be disciples, but most were turned away. At the direction of Cuah’arn herself, in fact.
The spirit beast had been around for centuries, after all. She was well versed in the matters of humans, and the deception they could hold in their heart. That was why Deirdre was glad to know both her and John. The transmigrated individual was a good friend. And pretty reliable, until recently. Steve was… well, reliable to be himself, at least. He was pretty straightforward.
“Do you think I should do something?” Deirdre consulted Cuah’arn. “He barely stays in contact with us anymore.”
“It has only been a few years,” Cuah’arn said. “For losing a mate, I think that is not a long time to mourn. Even for you humans.”
“Isn’t it? Every year is precious.”
“Perhaps,” Cuah’arn agreed. “But do not think as you would in your previous life. Even if John should hole himself up in a cave providing nothing more than basic sustenance to himself, he will live a full lifetime longer than in your previous world. A few years is an unfortunate loss, but not irrecoverable. Moreover, I imagine his recent travels are not for nothing. Better than locking himself up in that mutt’s house.”
“… I thought you liked Ciaritzal?”
A feathery wing tapped Deirdre on the head. “I show him only the affection appropriate for a longtime rival. Do not think there is anything more.”
“Really? Because Melanthina and Nik made it work.”
“An interesting pair, to be sure. But spirit beasts aren’t driven by the same desires as you humans regardless.”
Deirdre nodded, “I still wish there was something we could do. If Matayal was… still around… she always knew how to handle him. But he wouldn’t be like this if she was.”
“Have patience. Cultivators are resilient. Perhaps you will be surprised.”
“I hope so,” Deirdre said.