Returning to the Crystal Caverns to complete John’s recollection turned out to be unnecessary. After all, it was one of the most important events in his life, a defining point in him surpassing the former resident of his body. That wasn’t the sort of thing anyone would forget… but memories faded with time, and triggering them was not always easy.
But now everything came flooding back, the dangers of the forbidden zone and the desperate desire to survive, to make something out of his new life. And right along with him had been his first good friend in this world- or rather, the individual who would become that. Because mere moments before he had been fighting Renato for a prize.
The whole reason they were down in the pit was inconsequential. Just some fools with a grudge. The Roldan and Boyce clans wanted to be more than they were, but they wouldn’t have gotten far acting against the Order of the Amber Heart even if John and Renato hadn’t survived. Though obviously it made a huge difference to the two of them personally.
John recalled the less friendly interactions with Renato and the shift to working together, including during their breakthroughs to the Foundation Phase. Then, as if he had opened a faucet inside of himself, he felt the nearly stagnant spiritual energy inside of him surge forward. He returned to the equivalent of the tenth rank in a few moments. The process continued for several hours with the eleventh and twelfth ranks returning to him as the cycle of elements inside of him continuously augmented the energy inside of him.
Then he felt everything slow, running up against another barrier. However, he felt this one was smaller. The step to return to mid Foundation Phase wasn’t so important as between the phases. In fact, John felt he could push through if he really wanted… but his subconscious prevented him for a reason. Indeed, looking inside his dantian he was fairly certain he needed more time for everything to grow.
Pushing too fast might lead to an imbalance, and John was already quite pleased to achieve practical proof that his cultivation was not eternally damaged. He hadn’t thought so, but remaining in the same state for months hadn’t exactly been encouraging.
After his breakthrough- or perhaps it was more of a partial recovery- John went to find Renato. The changes were of course obvious to his friend. “Looking better,” Renato said.
“Thanks to you, obviously,” John said. “Interestingly enough, the most important part seemed to be remembering the part where we were not friends. It makes what followed that much more valuable. And the struggles were an important part of that.”
“Glad to hear you could benefit from those same trials again,” Renato said. “Because I didn’t really want to see how the Crystal Caverns might react to us now. Though I suppose we might be strong enough to overcome any unfortunate resonance that might occur.”
John nodded. That particular style of danger zone might be more dangerous for those with higher cultivation, but that could only be true up to a certain point. At some point, absolute power and precise control would win out. Though it was best to not test such things pointlessly.
“I appreciate your help,” John repeated. “Especially after I’ve been less than a great friend the past few years.”
“Wouldn’t be much of a friend if I gave up on you when you were down. The same’s true of the rest of us. We were just trying to figure out how to make this happen.”
“I guess I just needed time,” John said. “But I probably should have managed with less.”
“Too late now,” Renato shrugged. “Can only move on from here.”
“Speaking of which, can we meet up with everyone? I need to hear how everyone’s doing. I’m sure I’m not the only one with problems.”
“Indeed. Different than your own, of course, but the world doesn’t tend to just stop and wait.”
Though the traditional methods by which cultivators solved problems were mostly out of John’s grasp for the moment- which was to say use of force- he found that actually quite freeing. There were some things he could do, and some he couldn’t. And that was fine.
“Some of the clans don’t like the Milanovic clan’s growth,” Steve said. “And they keep causing trouble. Which usually means getting us involved.”
“That’s because you’re quite good at causing and resolving trouble, dear,” Yustina said.
“Yeah, apparently,” he shrugged. “Personally I think I’m better with things on the personal scale. Though people don’t attack me in particular much anymore.”
“I would hope not,” John said. “He’s famous enough for people to know better.”
“Still happens, though,” Steve pointed out.
“Seems like the clan is holding up well at least?” John asked.
Yustin nodded, “We’re doing well, in general. Although I heard something involving your son…”
John shrugged. “I don’t really know what to say. We thought Emilia was a good match, but perhaps they were too similar.”
Steve chuckled, “At least we don’t have to worry about Verusha anymore. We thought she’d be continually causing trouble for our clan.”
“And now she gets to cause trouble for an entirely different clan,” Yustina finished.
“It’s not like anything is set in stone,” John said. “They’re just testing out the waters.”
“That may be the case,” Yustina said. “But for Verusha to even admit that she might like Tirto means she’s pretty much infatuated. And since he made the first actual move… it seems quite likely.”
John nodded, looking around. He’d already caught up with Renato, which left only Deirdre in their club. This particular group of people felt almost empty without Matayal, which was another reason he’d been avoiding his friends for the last few years. He wondered if they should be looking for more… but this really wasn’t the sort of thing that they wanted to fill up slots just to say they did. Even if they found reincarnators or transmigrators that might fill in their missing elements, it was more important that they trust them compared to any other qualifications. Though they still might want to expand their circles of influence in general.
Deirdre spoke her piece next. “We’ve been working on expanding the communication network, but it’s slow. Nobody wants to pay someone to pass along messages through their communities.”
John nodded. “It’s been slow to take off in the Stone Conglomerate as well. The large sects that would want to use it don’t want to pay the majority of the cost. And we were also having trouble with getting the right kind of cultivators…”
Passing along signals between towers was fairly simple in a land of light and fire cultivators, but in places dominated by earth, water, or darkness it became more complicated. Obviously it wasn’t practical to use a blast of spiritual energy that would be felt at a long distance, as the whole point was to be conservative. There was something to be said for more mundane setups involving mirrors, but that would take longer to develop and was more dependent on the time of day.
“The Tenebach clan is personally doing well with shadowhawks as messengers, but it’s still slow.”
“Seriously,” Steve said. “I miss calling people up anywhere at any time. Sending a message and waiting days or weeks for a response is awful.”
“On that note,” Yustina said. “We are developing a similar system for the Green Sands as well. Though it will likely only be functional along the more populated routes unless it becomes valuable enough to station people out in the middle of the desert.”
“At least they’d have plenty of free spiritual energy to train,” John said. “But it would be rather difficult to construct a viable tower.”
“That part’s easy here,” Renato said. “Solid ground and solid materials, plus vast engineering experience. Even the mountains aren’t that much of an issue as you just have to have a single tower at the highest peaks.”
John nodded. The main problem was transmitting a pattern of signals, and in only the right direction. Though even that was relatively easily solved. Just being willing to accept hiring cultivators from outside the country would be a big step, as they could hire a few dozens to hundreds of light cultivators for a menial job without issue. The difficult part was being able to trust them- and some of that was due to the natural divide set up between elements.
That did give him an idea. “We should focus on Astrein first. Land there is… cheap. And it’s easy to hire cultivators of all types. Passing messages from the Phoenix Forest or the Sunfields to the coast should be worth the expense.”
“Are you volunteering?” Renato asked.
To go to Astrein? With his current setup of elements, that was always true for John. “It would be something I could do, at least,” he said. “And I like it there.”
Yustina shook her head. “I still don’t get how you can function there. My experience lets me draw out water element as well as fire, but I still feel starved there.”
“With five elements, it’s one of the highest densities of spiritual energy I’ve come across,” John said. “Partially because nobody’s using it, and partially because more is able to saturate an area with a mixture that is more even.”
“Well, if you need some people we can send some disciples your way,” Deirdre offered. “You’d have to teach them to separate out light, though.”
“That’s either the one thing I don’t do… or everything I do,” John said. “Don’t you need your disciples around, though? I heard not everyone’s fond of Cuah’arn…”
“We’d only send the weaker ones. Good enough to make a flash of light and little more. They could learn something and move on. As for our enemies,” Deidre shrugged. “Detractors of Cuah’arn don’t dare to do anything to her face. And since she isn’t hiding anymore, her face can be anywhere in the country in a relatively short time. Would be good if we had an Ascending Soul Phase cultivator, though.”
“Wouldn’t that be you?” John asked. “As the most likely candidate, at least.”
“Maybe. Could be Zacharie, or Sect Head Lambert,” Deirdre said.
“I suppose,” John said. “But I don’t know if any of them have gotten advice on breaking through to the Ascending Soul Phase from a reliable source.”
“And we have one here?” Deirdre raised an eyebrow, smirking.
“Of course. I know exactly what not to do. Or at least… we can work that out together.” In truth, he must have been pretty close to the right thing, or his cultivation wouldn’t have survived the process. He only wished that if he was going to undergo a splitting and rebirth that it would have been on purpose so that he was prepared. That could have definitely gone better.
Before moving on to Astrein, John made sure to spend time with Melanthina at the Tenebach clan. One brief stint together of him being a decent father wasn’t going to make up for several lost years, and he wanted to assure her of his continued support.
She and Nik made a great team that didn’t really need him for the most part, but he still had experience. And some people still thought of John as the true clan head, so him attending issues they had himself made things easier on her.
And he had decades of valuable cultivation insights to provide, not as much time as his grandfather Luctus but he’d reached a greater height. Though there was much to gain from Luctus’ experience as a pure darkness cultivator as well, and the man had some potential to reach the Ascending Soul Phase. Crystin was the most likely after John, and Aydan would have been a good candidate as well before his injuries and death.
John had great hope for Melanthina and Nik as well, but of course they had to surpass the Soul Expansion Phase and reach the Consolidated Soul Phase before they could even think about it. It might only be a matter of time, but it was hard to say what could happen in a decade or two. John had seen so much change in just his time in this world. Stability might have been the norm, but these were times of upheaval, even if there weren’t crazy events every day.
John and Melanthina also interacted in less practical but just as important ways, joking about the trouble Ursel and Tirto had gotten themselves into. The former was ultimately expected, but Tirto’s was somewhat novel. With a promise that he would not be far, John then made plans for his trip to Astrein. If he just wanted to visit it would be simple, but he had actual tasks to accomplish.