With John’s greater control- both his time of training and the fact that he currently had a fifth tier air totem- Cyclone Island was no longer a challenge all on its own. And that meant that it didn’t evoke quite the right feeling. The training with Kusuma had been pretty brutal… not cruel, but something that stretched his limits. So even if he only had a similar quantity of spiritual energy, it wasn’t sufficient.
Fortunately, Harta was there to help. And with the greater prosperity of the region in general and the Mulyani clan in particular, he was stronger than Kusuma had been. So while his training methods might not be as wild, he could at least amplify the gusting winds, as well as coating the limited footing with slippery water.
Every once in a while, John was catapulted into the water. During a storm there was some danger of him being dashed against the rocks… but he had control over water as well. Combined with Harta not augmenting the power of the storms after he was knocked away, and John wasn’t particularly worried. But he was finding some of that feeling.
After his dozenth or so time of being tossed head over heels in a single afternoon, John landed in the water and found himself face to face with something. Describing the creature wasn’t a trivial task. It seemed to have two heads, and a random assortment of fins around its body. Something like a turtle shell covered part of it, while the rest of its surface simply seemed like solid rock.
John knew he’d never seen this thing before… but it did feel familiar. It evoked memories of the leviathan… most of which weren’t good. Anger boiled inside John… but he quickly calmed himself. This creature didn’t seem aggressive at the moment… and the leviathan itself hadn’t been responsible for Matayal’s death.
Carefully, John pushed a small amount of water element towards the creature. He didn’t want to provoke it, as even at its current size it seemed rather dangerous. One of its mouths snapped closed on the spiritual energy, and the creature sprang forward. John thought he’d made a mistake, but it simply seemed to sniff him from up close. He was ready to blast its insides with lightning if it tried to swallow him, but it truly seemed curious. After a little while, it swam away.
When John climbed out of the water, Harta commented, “A child of the leviathan. How interesting.”
“Were you not attempting to raise one?”
“So far, they have all been… quite different in their anatomy,” Harta explained. “And as air cultivators, the Mulyani clan has only had limited success with ours.”
“Understandable,” John said. “Let’s take a short break before we continue.”
Storms and waves brought back many memories for John, but eventually he reached a limit. It wasn’t quite enough, but he’d definitely made progress. “I think that’s all we can accomplish here for now,” he informed Harta. “And we should get you back to the clan. I’ve already monopolized your time for too long.”
“That’s quite alright,” Harta said. “The Mulyani clan owes you more than a week or two.”
“You mean the Tenebach clan,” John said.
“Them too, but you in particular. You’ve been a good ally.”
Harta was a bit more conservative with both ship size- slightly larger and sturdier than what Kusuma had used- as well as the speed he propelled them at. Ultimately, that meant they had a bit more than a day, and plenty of time to talk. Though there wasn’t necessarily much to say. John spoke about the sect he was founding, and Harta agreed it was something worth trying. If Astrein was really an untapped resource, someone should take advantage of it.
Eventually, the topic of their conversation returned to the wedding. “Your son and new daughter-in-law seem happy,” Harta said. “And I’m saying that knowing full well that many are only going through the motions to support their clans.”
John nodded. “Yes. I think things turned out well… though there was a bit of a bumpy road along the way.”
“Emilia… she was engaged to Tirto, wasn’t she?”
John frowned. “Well… yes and no. It was kind of assumed that she would be. They got along well, but that might just have been that they both have pleasant personalities. I don’t think they would have been bad together but… there was conflicting interest.”
“Verusha,” Harta said.
“She pushes Tirto more, and ultimately he decided that was what he needed. I agree, though I will admit to having pushed him on the topic.”
“I think you were right, for the record,” Harta said. “A shame about Emilia though. She deserves someone suitable as well.”
“I agree,” John admitted. Then he grinned slightly. “Who were you thinking? Some other clan head?”
“Perhaps one with the air element? There’s no directly dominant element between them, but instead equal support.”
Harta sighed, the winds around them echoing his reaction. “She’s nice, but I’m too old for her.”
“Maybe right now,” John shrugged. “But in five years, that may not be the case. In ten or twenty, nobody will even notice. And it’s not like you aren’t young. You’re a cultivator. I expect you to be in your prime for quite some time. Though… she might not be ready to attempt another relationship soon.”
Or maybe she would be. After all, she’d had a couple years since Tirto officially called off their not-quite-engagement. She was still staying with the Brandle clan, and Harta wasn’t that far away, as such things went.
“You don’t need to rush anything,” John continued. “But you could at least talk to her. Get to know her as a friend. I’m sure you could use more, and the alliance could use more diverse friendships. Too many connections flow through the Tenebach clan, and myself.”
“Well… I suppose I’ll be in the area often enough anyhow,” Harta said. “I’ll certainly seek her out.”
“Good,” John said. “I’d prefer someone I know and like to be one of her suitors. She is my friend’s daughter, after all.”
This time at least, nobody would be making any assumptions about how things would work out.
Upon returning to the Mulyani clan, John found himself drawn in a certain direction. It wasn’t somewhere he had wanted to go, but he knew he should. During his time training, he had been remembering some things about Kusuma and his time with her, but it was more focused on himself.
As he found himself in front of her grave, at the very peak of the island, John remembered more about the person and less about himself. Kusuma was like an extra grandmother. A weird one, sure, but what was a family without a few colorful characters?
She was a powerful woman in more than just her cultivation, and she had given of herself freely to defend those she cared about. That included John’s and his family, with some of the related conflicts ultimately leading to injuries that she wasn’t able to recover from with her age.
His memories of her were predominantly positive, which was exactly why he couldn’t stop tears from rolling down his face. And why would he? Sometimes, you just had to remember even if it hurt.
But stirring inside of him weren’t simply emotions and memories, but his cultivation. Once again, it was a combination of the training and the people involved that had been a block on his advancement. Renato was still alive, so that had been a much more pleasant process… but John absolutely wasn’t looking forward to his return to the Consolidated Soul Phase.
After an hour or two- perhaps longer as it was beginning to grow dark- John’s cultivation settled into the nineteenth rank, the beginning of the Soul Expansion Phase. His recovery was proceeding relatively quickly, though obviously he would have preferred not to spend multiple years to get back to his former power. And no doubt he had more years to come just to reach the Consolidated Soul Phase, though he would be more powerful than the first time.
The same was true for his current state, as he was most likely stronger than he was at the peak of the Soul Expansion Phase. With totems a rank higher and an extra one completing the cycle of core elements, he might even beat himself in the early Consolidated Soul Phase. Though that was something quite difficult to test.
John thanked Harta and the Mulyani clan. He hadn’t been certain he would accomplish his next step in the time they had, but ultimately he had pulled through. He was quite glad for that as it saved him another trip at a later date… but he wouldn’t have spent more than a couple weeks there as he wanted to return to his new sect. Or rather, he needed to given the upcoming event.
The Wavecutter had continued to ferry John to the Mulyani clan, and Captain Sohan ultimately brought him and Crystin back to Pearl Landing. From there they had some days on the road within Astrein. John very much appreciated being back in the country, especially as they got deeper towards the core. As he was able to use the majority of the spiritual energy, he could feel a significant difference between Astrein and the Shimmering Islands.
He was relieved when they finally reached the sect grounds, finding everything just as he left it. But just because everyone was alive and well didn’t mean nothing had gone wrong in his absence. The news was… unfortunate. Not expected, but not really a terrible surprise either. It did, however, make John glad his cultivation had advanced. He would need every bit of strength he could manage.
Steve stretched as he entered the city of Lunson. Even after discussions with John, he didn’t really find much value in the local spiritual energy. Yustina was a bit better at separating out the spiritual energy given her former time as a water element cultivator, but Steve wasn’t much good at any of that. Not that it really mattered, since he wasn’t here for cultivation. Instead, he was here for a celebration. And he wasn’t even late. Technically.
If Yustina had come along, she would have gotten them there with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately, she had some business to deal with back in the Milanovic clan. She couldn’t be away for their daughter’s wedding and this, and Steve served as a representative of the clan just as well.
So here he was, walking into the city on the morning of the big event. Well, late morning. Early afternoon, maybe. It was quite possible the ceremony in the big arena had already started. There were certainly enough people around.
“Has it already started?” Steve asked some of those in the crowd as he passed through.
“Yes. It’s unlikely you will be able to get inside.”
“Nah, don’t worry,” Steve waved off the random person’s concern. “I’m a VIP, it won’t be an issue.”
Taking a quick glance at his cultivation, they nodded. “Oh, of course. I’m certain you will get in without trouble, unlike the rest of us.”
There sure were a lot of people. Steve was pushing his way through for a bit, but ultimately he found it easier to just jump up onto a roof. He wasn’t going to break anything, so even if it was a bit impolite it hardly mattered. He didn’t want to be late… or later for the founding of his best buddy’s new sect.
Some people in a uniform he didn’t recognize stopped him at the entrance of the arena. “Nobody in without an invitation.”
Their uniforms were weird. He’d have to talk to John about the ostentation. Seriously, he didn’t even know reflective cloth was a thing in this world. Steve didn’t know how this represented all six elements.
“I’m on the list, of course. I’m S- Lucanus, of the Milanovic clan.”
“You’re not on the list,” the man declared.
“You didn’t even look,” Steve said, beginning to get annoyed.
“I have it memorized.”
“Yeah, well, I’m here for the event and I’m invited.”
“I’m sorry senior,” the guard said. “But I can’t allow you to pass. The ascension ceremony is limited to specific guests. If you have an issue, you should take it up with Oden. But if he left you off the list… I rather doubt he forgot.” The guard bit his lip, perhaps thinking he shouldn’t have said that. But Steve wasn’t quite sure why.
“Who the hell is Oden? Isn’t that some kind of soup?”
“… This is alchemist Oden’s ascension ceremony. The event.”
Steve narrowed his eyes. Did he get the day wrong? He pulled out the invitation. No, it was right. “It’s not. This is the day for the founding of the, uh… the Elemental Roads sect. Or whatever.”
“I can assure you it is not.”
Steve heard clapping and cheering from inside. “I’m missing the important part. Let me past.”
“Senior, I am afraid I can’t-”
Blue flames coiled around Steve. “You can’t what?”
The man’s sweat was evaporating as quickly as it beaded up on his forehead- and everywhere else. He and the other guards had no choice but to step to the side as Steve strode forward. They didn’t even consider trying to attack him. What were a few Foundation Phase cultivators supposed to do against that?
Steve pushed past everyone, finding that the direct route led him directly into the lower area where the actual ceremony was happening. Well, John wouldn’t mind him showing up there. But when he stepped out, there was only an old guy and a few bozos Steve didn’t recognize.
“Who the hell are you?”
The old man turned to him, eyes aflame. Though the flames were rather… mediocre. “I am Alchemist Oden. And who are you, to interrupt my ascension to the head of the Platinum Tower Society?”
“Lucanus of the Mulyani clan. I’ve never heard of the Platinum Tower thing so you must not be important. Where’s my friend? His thing is supposed to be happening now.”
“I don’t care who-” Oden began. Then he paused. “The Mulyani clan?”
“That’s right. So where’s Fortkran? No wait, he’s just using John here.”
“John?” There was a definite recognition from the old guy. But before Steve could get anything, they were interrupted by someone running up.
“Lord Oden! The… uh… the main tower… it’s under attack! By the… uh… Six Elements Crossroads.”
“Oh!” Steve said. “I guess John moved the location of the ceremony. Well, see ya.”
“Stop right there!” Oden shouted. “You think you can just come in here? And you’re a friend of that fool?”
Eh. Steve was already late. He could spare a couple more minutes beating down this old dude in front of an audience. For some reason the guy seemed to think the early Consolidated Soul Phase meant something.