He found it. The place was nothing amazing to most people, but it was what John needed. A thermal spring in the northwest corner of Astrein, as it started to lead into mountains. The area had only about half as much fire element as within the Phoenix Forest or Green Sands, but that was far greater than most of Astrein. Even so, it maintained the majority of the levels of other elements, each being their own small part of Astrein’s amalgamated whole.
John doubted that anyone else would find the area suitable for advancing to the Ascending Soul Phase. Even most Spiritual Collection Phase cultivators would find the spiritual energy lacking. But that was simply because of the mixed elements being difficult for most cultivators to untangle- and the fact that most only cultivated one or two elements.
When he broke through, he would cultivate five out of six elements. There was no point in considering failure. He was aware it could happen. Perhaps he was underestimating the Ascending Soul Phase. But he was going to make his attempt as planned, regardless of other factors.
He continued with his preparations, arraying around him a variety of objects. A fan of feathers nominally from a phoenix- though the Phoenix Forest had not had proper sightings of one in his lifetime. Most likely it was a lesser firebird, but the energy within it was sufficient. Adjacent to it was a length of wood from a dense tree, whose wood could burn for days in the right circumstances. Next to that was a bottled storm- lightning and condensed air. The lightning reached towards his hand from within the bottle as he placed, reminding him of a plasma ball. Next was a bowl of water produced by a sacred spring. It was visibly pure, but he knew there was more than just water within it to hold the density of spiritual energy. Then John had a black sludge, a sort of tar that would burn with a dense smoke that he obtained in the Darklands.
Along with those he had a moderately sized pile of every spirit element in various containers, except light of course. Adding light into his cultivation would be the most difficult step, but he had to reach the Ascending Soul Phase before he could even dream of that.
Without further ceremony, he began to circulate energy through and around himself, drawing it into his dantian. Waiting for him there were the totems he had already acquired. First, the Seed of Darkness that was now a vast tree growing in the center of his little world. Its roots spread deep into his source of earth. Compost, at its base level. It was fundamentally linked to the concept of soil as a whole, as the most useful soils for crops came from the breaking down of something else. Next was the atmosphere, air with all the impurities that came along with it. But what was waste product for one organism was life giving for another. Consider plants, many of which took in carbon dioxide and produced far more oxygen than they needed, which was then breathed in by animals and returned to its former state.
Surrounding the central island he had formed was a proper sea, teeming with false life. However, John’s totem was focused on the depths. Darkness and pressure, and survival in unlikely places.
Above all of those, not a totem but merely a weak gathering of spiritual energy, was a facsimile of a sun. Fire element, to provide warmth, energy, and change. Without a totem it was barely worth the effort to maintain it, except for the experience it had given him. This is the element he was working with today.
Elements flowed into each other, feeding each other. The only thing that stopped his spiritual energy from spiraling out of control was the relative weakness of fire, as the cycle had to pass through everything. While the allied cycle of earth, water, and darkness was quite effective, John knew that a cycle of the four core elements would be a step above. He just needed true control over fire.
As his spiritual energy filled him, straining his dantian to its limits, he moved his consciousness into the sea of spiritual totems. He was now familiar with the fifth layer, easily seeking out the totems he was interested in. There were two. The first was consuming flames. Darkness that would devour anything it came across. It would mesh well with Spiritual Energy Absorption. He almost reached out to form a connection with it immediately, but he held back. Was this what she would want?
He didn’t think so. Power was something she understood. It was both necessary and desirable for cultivators. But even then, there were proper ways to go about things. Choosing totems was not merely about what a cultivator wanted, but it influenced what they would become. While it wasn’t necessarily obvious as cultivators would choose totems they thought fit them, a totem was part of a cultivator and influenced their thoughts. Not with a consciousness of its own, but simply by what sort of person you became. John could take that power and make good use of it, but he held back.
He searched for the unassuming totem, able to find it only because he’d taken the time to memorize the aura about it. Dim flames… or perhaps it should be said that their light was hidden. Flames that would go unnoticed. And while it seemed impossible, John could say with certainty that on Earth that had been the most dangerous kind of heat. Accidentally touching the side of a boiling pot, one might immediately recoil- or the pain might not register for a moment. In the latter case, injuries were always much worse.
Was it right, to kill people in a subtle manner? If John had true qualms with that, he would have steered away from darkness long ago. If he was going to kill someone, the method mattered little to him, as long as he steered away from unnecessary pain and sadistic tendencies. And if he should not kill someone, that was its own issue.
John returned his senses to the outside world. He needed more than just the gentle bubbling pressure inside of him. He continued drawing in the surrounding spiritual energy. Spirit darkness thinned into strands and disappeared, earth cracked, water boiled away, winds whirled into nothing, fire burned away. Soon enough he would have more spiritual energy than he could control. But it might not be enough. He needed more.
The phoenix feather fan set alight the eternal wood, the bottled lightning created lichtenberg figures within the solid wood. The water spread the lightning around the log, widening the areas that were aflame. Finally, John ignited the tar, the smoke ballooning around him and even catching aflame itself.
He continued to draw spiritual energy within himself, circulating it through his body until his meridians cracked and strained. Within his dantian, the elements fed and grew at his direction. His body heated as he continued to make use of flames without a totem, and when he finally thought he would explode he dove into the sea of spiritual totems.
He raced toward his chosen totem, reaching out for the Consuming Flames… and letting them pass by. He didn’t know if he should or could control such a power. The Ethereal Flames were his choice, seeming to be almost nothing. An image of flames with the transparency heightened. While making the wrong choice of totem could spell disaster for him, he had to follow through with whatever choice he made.
John hesitated no longer, sticking his hand within the flames. They were almost cool- but he knew that was an illusion. He drew them into him even as his image was consumed by flames crawling up his arms.
The sun inside of him dimmed, yet its heat grew vastly. Seas boiled, forming storm clouds with raging lightning passing between them. The earth shook and trembled, cracking apart and revealing the roots of his tree. And then, a powerful bolt of lightning struck the tree of darkness within him. From the lighting flames grew and began to consume the tree. John was powerless to stop it. What could he do, as the elements fed into each other? The storms raged and grew, and the power within his dantian grew far beyond his ability to control.
The world turned white and then… his consciousness left him.
Waking up was good. That meant he wasn’t dead. Waking up filled with aches and pains, especially within his dantian, that was not nearly so reassuring. The last time he’d felt like this he’d driven off the road and died, only to wind up in the body of Fortkran Tenebach having just shattered his cultivation. And this time… he opened his eyes. They stung from smoke, but he was able to recognize the area around him. And his own body. Or at least… the body of Fortkran Tenebach.
Complete with damaged dantian. Blood dribbled out of his mouth, though it was barely noticeable in what remained of the thermal spring given all the other blood and mud and who knows what that now filled it.
Was this it, then? John shook his head. He didn’t even die properly. Pathetic. So much for thinking he was some sort of big shot.
But perhaps he spoke too soon. He might still die, after all. He could feel the remnants of his cultivation draining away, like water out of a sieve. What a shame.
Still, since he was conscious he might as well see it through to the end. He focused on his dantian, preparing to see the destruction within.
It was… about as bad as he anticipated. A devastated world where nothing stood tall. Small islands still poked their heads above the waves, but their surfaces were scoured by fire. Dim clouds blocked out the minimal glow of an already blurry sun. Within the depths, there were only rotting corpses and cracked sea floors. The air and water were filled with noxious substances. What could survive in such a place?
John let out a deep sigh as he returned to his external senses. It hurt to breathe, as he was scalded inside and out. The otherwise pleasant heat of the thermal spring reminded him of his wounds every time his blood pulsed within his body.
With his spiritual energy nearly gone, he almost didn’t notice someone watching. He just happened to catch a glimpse of a figure hiding behind a nearby boulder. A woman. He sensed no hostility from her, merely curiosity.
“This is what happens when you overestimate yourself and try to push yourself to a Phase you aren’t ready for,” he said. Speaking also hurt. So did standing up and reaching into his storage bag. It was… horrendously unorganized. Normally he would use a strand of spiritual energy to pull whatever he wanted into his hand, but he had to rifle through until he felt a box. Hopefully it was the right one. He pulled it out and found it did indeed contain his healing pills. He popped one into his mouth, letting it begin dissolving on his tongue before he swallowed it. It tasted… like nothing, really. Not with his burns. It didn’t even leave a soothing feeling behind, as he continued to feel only pain or numbness.
John wondered why he was bothering to try to stay alive. He couldn’t be of any use without cultivation. At best, he was a hopefully above average administrator. But without cultivation, anyone could kill him.
The fog cleared slightly as the woman turned to sneak away, black hair briefly swirling about. That reminded him of Melanthina and the rest. He was supposed to support them. Unfortunately, he’d failed at that pretty badly since Matayal’s death. And now he didn’t even have the spiritual energy to circulate the medicinal power within him, having to leave it up to his aching body.
Inside of him, the process of decay continued. The bodies of sea life broke down, and the ash that was once a great tree coated the remnants of the land. But perhaps if he had been in the right state of mind, John would have remembered that rot and decay came in large part to microscopic life… and that ashes could be perfect to promote new growth.