With a certain level of exhaustion, initially falling to sleep was easy enough. However, John inevitably woke up to feel the burns all over himself. Though he’d avoided most direct hits from the fire, he’d still accumulated damage over the course of the spar. He applied some ointments all over his body, but he knew that cultivating would be the best way for his body to recover in the long run. The flow of spiritual energy would accelerate his healing… and he might even be able to improve his ability to resist fire.
Fire elemental spiritual energy was all around him, as expected anywhere in the Green Sands. The inn was cool enough inside, but the fire element was always within arm’s reach. John circulated his energy around his body and especially to the surface, the skin and muscles most affected by the burns. Reddened skin started to heal slowly, one bit at a time, and the dull throbbing pain lessened.
John focused on the interplay of his own spiritual energy and the fire element all around him. It was hard to make sense of what was happening on a larger scale… so he dove deeper.
“Damn!” John jerked his hand away from the hot griddle. He ran over to the sink and turned on the tap. He knew better than to touch a hot griddle, of course, but accidents happened in the kitchen. Just usually not to him. They couldn’t happen to him. If it happened to an employee, he’d tell them to take a day or two off. Shuffle around their schedule a little bit, and they still made the same weekly wage without having to come in with a scalded hand.
But he didn’t have days off. He was the manager, and he needed to work. He couldn’t just pay himself if he didn’t come in, and even if he did… who would run things? Nobody had been fit to replace him as assistant manager yet. He wasn’t sure if he was too picky, or just unlucky with the hires.
This time would be fine. The griddle wasn’t even on, just still hot. That was the thing about metal griddle and stovetops. They could handle so much heat, absorb it, but they kept it for so long as well. It built up and only slowly dispersed. It had simply been off long enough he’d been careless in his hand placement.
John breathed out slowly, expelling his breath that was theoretically full of impurities. More than just carbon dioxide? That wasn’t as clear. He’d put that on the ‘hard to tell’ part of cultivation for the moment.
Knowing things and remembering them were quite different. John knew that he wasn’t from his current world, but he rarely interacted with it mentally anymore. There was something about the memories he had while cultivating. Occasionally they belonged to Forkran, but usually they were his own. There was something to that. Experiences seemed to guide his cultivation, even if it wasn’t clear how. Not just practice cultivating, but anything. Sometimes it wasn’t obvious how… and sometimes he just was clearly reminded of a blatant detail.
Darkness and earth both absorbed fire. It wasn’t a problem to withstand it to a certain point… but beyond there his defenses didn’t help. That was because he never made use of it. The Seed of Darkness could only process a certain amount of fire elemental spiritual energy. Likewise, when he defended himself from fire with the earth element he wasn’t negating the fire. The heat still built up, not far from himself. He could solve that by carrying his defenses apart from himself, but that would be more energy intensive. That might be necessary, but that was basically just accepting weakness to fire. It was quite early to cultivate fire even if he eventually reached the full cycle of elements… but he might be able to at least improve his reaction to it.
Merely absorbing the fire element would burn him from the outside in. If he pulled it in and circulated it through his meridians, they would scorch. He might be able to slowly build up his tolerance, but that wasn’t sufficient. It would also require sustained cultivation for quite some time, where he would be better off cultivating the elements he had totems aligned with to directly improve his strength.
Experimentation… sometimes got a bad name. Scientists in laboratories generally didn’t just throw together random chemicals and watch as they exploded. They made explosions on purpose, usually. But experiments often involved not knowing what would happen… but having some idea about it. If one considered the periodic table, common table salt was sodium chloride, but other alkali metals could form similar compounds. Those weren’t generally edible salts, but with otherwise similar chemical properties.
In short, while John was planning to experiment with his cultivation… he had a good idea what was going to happen. And he would start slowly, in case it didn’t work as he thought. He began to pull in fire elemental spiritual energy from around himself. Just a little bit at a time, to not strain his meridians. Normally he would feed the energy to the sapling, but it was already near its saturation point for fire. Instead, he kept it removed, forming a small ball of fire in his dantian. It started with a pleasant warmth, as it should have. He continued to build it up a little bit at a time until it started becoming uncomfortable. Then he sat and watched it. Though it might perhaps superficially resemble a sun, it was more like a torch. That was what he could handle at the moment.
Heat poured off of the fire inside his dantian, warming the Sapling of Darkness and his second totem, Compost. They naturally processed energy, but as the heat suffused into them the process sped up. Sometimes too much, in ways that unbalanced the process. On the other end, the ball of fire would be too small to do much of anything and sputter out. Ultimately John found a proper limit and let things work as they would. Though he wasn’t actively controlling anything, the energy he absorbed slowly circulated through his meridians. Perhaps just a few percent of what he could do if it was intentional, it was like air currents circulating through a room. Would actual air element help with that? It was hard to say, as air elemental spiritual energy was quite sparse in the Green Sands and he had no way to convert much of anything to it. It was next in the cycle, but he was still at the beginning of Foundation Phase and quite far from Soul Expansion Phase and a third totem. Though he did find that he was approaching the eleventh rank of cultivation.
Subsequent sparring matches reminded John that he hadn’t actually found a way to deal with the buildup of fire element he experienced when defending against it. Mostly he just kept his defenses wider, further from his body. The Furnace Sect brought out incrementally stronger cultivators for him to spar with, not higher cultivation but with better spiritual totems. Eventually he found himself taking a loss, but that was quite reasonable. It was good to let them regain some face, since he hadn’t shown up just to crush their students. Frankly that would have been a terrible idea, because even if he had the elemental advantage there could certainly be people with higher tier totems than himself. While that wouldn’t necessarily make them win, it could lead to a significant advantage.
John was quite happy to let them obtain their victory and move on. It was only a matter of a few days, but the Milanovic group was also interested in moving on. Tena had also engaged in sparring with members of the Furnace Sect, but unlike John she was able to defeat people one rank higher than herself, at the peak of the Spiritual Collection Phase. Then again, she was from one of the best clans in the Green Sands, and the fiery arena suited her just as well as her opponents. John’s thoughts returned to the fight with the bandits. He hadn’t gotten to make much use of his energy absorption technique, but he could definitely fight stronger opponents making use of that. Just not so much against fire element cultivators.
It was quite comforting to be back in the carriage and traveling. It protected him from the sun, and he could continue to heal from his various burns as he cultivated. It helped that Tena and her guardians rode ahead in their own carriage, absorbing much of the fire element directly along the road and leaving behind more earth, which he could convert into darkness as well. As he cultivated, John considered several ways to make use of the buildup of fire. If he had a proper fire totem, he could control the energy and use it in a counterattack. Closest to being usable would be some sort of air totem, or just control of air to convect it away from himself. A small portion he could pull inside of himself, and that would grow with time… but that wasn’t sustainable in a combat situation. Perhaps the best defense was merely never giving the opponent a chance to attack. Not really possible in a spar, but in an actual battle he would have no compunctions about killing his opponent before they could react. That meant enhancing some of his darkness techniques, like Hidden Steps. Though mostly, John was just looking forward to removing himself from the Green Sands. Everything would feel so easy somewhere else.