There was some confidence to be gleaned from the fact that John was able to keep ahead of those at the Spiritual Collection Phase, even those attuned to the fire element. Many of those in the Foundation Phase pulled ahead, but he didn’t let himself get concerned with that. He had to focus on the mountain itself. Zolvolj was a grumpy volcano, and at its current moment it was having something like a minor eruption.
Rocks of various sizes continued to roll down the mountain, propelled by the shaking and other rocks behind them. Defending against those and the heat kept his energy constantly in use. The slopes continued to steepen until the only way forward climbing and the terrain was not something that could be run up or hiked for more than a short distance between cliff faces.
Climbing gave a small bit of advantage back to John. Sticking to a rock face was easy enough, and pulling up his own weight with muscles and energy was simple. He didn’t need perfect footholds and handholds, but if he needed them he could make his own. Fire elemental spiritual energy wasn’t so easily used for the same purposes, so John was able to avoid falling further behind those in his age range.
He pulled himself up over the edge of a cliff, his uncle Aydan following shortly behind. It was nice to have the sense of safety he provided, even if John could still get himself hurt or killed if he did something extremely stupid. He liked to think he was better than that, of course, but he might still do something moderately stupid.
A few moments of a break to catch his breath and channel heat into the ground were quite beneficial. He’d used perhaps a third of his energy, but he was leaning a bit more heavily on the earth side of things. It was hard to tell exactly, but he was also about a third of the way up the mountain. That didn’t mean he could make it to the top. He needed to conserve some energy for the descent, and as he went higher he would expend more energy per distance covered because of the heat and other obstacles.
John looked ahead, watching other run up slopes and climb cliffs. Some went straight ahead, others choosing to spend the time moving around to find an easier climb. If they were lucky the latter group would spend less energy and climb faster, but if they took too long it might not be so beneficial. Even fire type cultivators couldn’t sustain themselves indefinitely on the slopes of Zolvolj.
Case in point, there was a young man with blue hair around John’s age- somewhere in his early twenties- collapsed onto his hands and knees. It was clear he’d pushed himself too hard and too fast. The blue haired young man had fire elemental spiritual energy swirling around and into himself. He was recovering nicely, but he didn’t seem to have the will to get up. John watched him for a good minute, as he stared up the mountain without doing anything. John shook his head and ran up to him. He grabbed under an armpit and yanked him to his feet. “It’s too early to give up now. Don’t rush. You don’t have to win this time. Just get some experience for the next one.”
The young man looked at John. His eyes gleamed for a moment. They were a similar bright blue to his hair, not the normal blue of eyes but of flickering fire. He seemed about to say something as a response, but just shook his head.
“Good luck,” John said. “I don’t actually plan to be here next time, so I need to see where I can go.”
He wasn’t sure exactly what made him try to encourage that particular person. He saw others ahead who had pushed themselves too hard and early but felt no desire to stop to speak to them. John supposed that maybe he didn’t like the idea of someone giving up so easily when they clearly had the ability to go further. As a minor courtesy, he created more handholds and footholds on the cliff immediately in front of the blue haired young man. It was a bit of extra expenditure, but it was actually good for his own morale. Mentality was important for cultivation, so he felt it at least evened out.
Dealing with trembling ground, heat, and tumbling rocks had been enough to keep John quite occupied. However, now he was approaching areas with open lava flows. They weren’t fast, so he didn’t have to dodge them. He did need to navigate around them, however. If they weren’t wide, he could jump over to the other side. That wasn’t always the right idea, however, because he might just have to go back if there was another larger flow further uphill.
The way they spread out in little rivers of fiery heat meant that he couldn’t avoid them completely if he wanted to keep ascending. They crisscrossed all over the slopes, so he merely had to pick out the best routes. That meant not taking too long and not taking too much energy to avoid.
The biggest danger was when they drooped slowly over the edge of a cliff. Lava was extremely viscous, but it was still able to splash when it fell a significant difference. All it would take was a tiny bit of molten rock splashing onto his arm to make him regret everything. Actually, he could probably resist just a little bit- but it would eat through his energy in moments. He didn’t plan to test his hypothesis.
There was a nice climbing path up the next face in front of him. It wasn’t too vertical, even. One slight issue was that there was lava about to pour over the edge and down the cliff face. It was only ten or so meters up. John could tell any of the other climbs would be significantly more difficult, so he decided to redirect the flow.
His first move was a mistake. Lava was just melted earth, so of course he could control it with his earth energy. When his energy reached up and touched the front of the flow to try to push it over to the side, he was reminded that it was melted stone. A burst of heat poured back towards him through his energy. He immediately abandoned the branch of energy he’d stretched out to touch the fire. There went a significant expenditure to no effect.
John took a few deep breaths- the air was starting to become acrid, and he had to use his energy to protect the inside of his lungs from scalding. Most of his darkness energy was devoted to negating the heat in his lungs now. He couldn’t go that much further… but he wasn’t at his limits just yet. He hoped.
It would still be more efficient to redirect the flow and climb the path he had intended, though after his previous waste the net total would be lower. But if he could just do it right it could make up for some of the waste. The lava was creeping forward, about to spill over the edge. Instead of directly touching the lava with his energy- a foolish idea- he reformed the earth in front of it into a little channel going off to the side. There was little soil, so it was mostly carving rock… but he pulled stone out of the trench and created a little wall on the downhill side. The lava flow was redirected… for the moment. He wouldn’t expect it to hold for more than a minute or two, but it wouldn’t take that long to make the climb.
His hands and feet stuck to the wall, finding little crevices and places that stuck out naturally as he pulled himself up one bit at a time. At the top of the climb he came face to face with the flow of lava- or at least as close as he ever intended to. It was a nice, glowing orange a meter away from his face. Not flowing towards him still, thankfully, but he felt the heat as he pulled himself up. He quickly shuffled away from the lava flow.
As he took a stop to disperse heat he’d been collecting into the ground, he felt how hot the land below him was becoming. His energy was now below half, his lungs burned, his eyes were drying out. His water was running low, and what he did have was warm. He could go further but he still had to get down the mountain. This was sufficient. He found he’d managed to struggle a bit short of halfway up the mountain. There were a number of Foundation Phase cultivators he had passed on the way, some who were taking their time and some who were already heading back down. It was good enough. John took a moment to look around for anyone he knew. There were few of those. Tena was still in the Spiritual Collection Phase, so it was no surprise she was much lower than him on the slopes. Parallel with him on the slopes was Erik. Their eyes met and John was tempted to push himself just a bit further… but he wanted to return with dignity.
Climbing down cliff faces might be harder without energy, but John was able to twist together a bit of darkness and earth energy and trail his hand along with the friction that created to descend down any non-sheer cliff face. Since he was taking basically the same route back down, he was able to re-use handholds and footholds he’d made on the way up. John soon passed the young man with the blue hair, who was slowly making his way further up the mountain. John gave him a thumb’s up, then immediately regretted it. There wasn’t much response, but while it didn’t mean anything to Fortkran’s memories, that didn’t mean it wasn’t an offensive sign elsewhere. Well, he meant well and would probably never see that guy again if he thought it was supposed to be rude. Hopefully his low-energy smile had been friendly enough.
The further he got down the mountain the easier things became- though the lower his energy reserves were. He took his time, not too slow so he didn’t overheat but not too quickly either. He eventually made it back to where a crowd of people was waiting in just the condition he’d been hoping for. He was exhausted but still able to hold his head up high. He watched with a smirk as Erik was stumbling down the mountain, clearly having pushed himself too far to get just a bit ahead of John. Patrik was watching him with an impassive face, but he might actually have to help him down the last stretch. That would be just perfect.