Despite the name, a stone forest had nothing to do with a forest. John wouldn’t have put it past the world to have a forest made out of petrified trees, or even trees made of stone that could still grow somehow. Instead, it was just a place with vertical spiky rock outcroppings. The specific arrangement came with less visibility than a regular forest since they were basically wandering through a number of connected canyons.
John wasn’t alone. He rarely was, except when training in his personal quarters. However, he had more than just Aydan along with him as his guardian. The Southeastern Stone Forest was not too far from the Tenebach clan’s main location, and when he expressed his desire to train there a sort of expedition was formed. He was quite aware of the actual purpose. Despite the fact that he had been appearing in public for a number of things, much of the clan assumed he was much the same as he had been before. While they might have taken his improved behavior as a sign of growth, it was also possible to assume he was just better at hiding indiscretions.
More importantly, however, his cultivation had reached a more appropriate level for his age and standing. Because he had recovered from his loss quickly and even properly continued into the Foundation Phase, it was simple enough to let people assume that it had been on purpose somehow. There were rumors that he had done it to get a second blessing from the guardian beast- something he chose to neither confirm nor deny. The less he spoke of it, the better. Some mystery surrounding him was appropriate as the young master of the clan.
The contingent of those on the training expedition mostly contained youth in the late Spiritual Collection Phase or early Foundation Phase. There were also a number of mid to late Foundation Phase guardians including Ayden. They were all uncles or aunts of some sort, though the actual relation might be more distant than anyone he would have considered a relative in his former life.
Notable among the younger generation were Tempkeit, Magtel, and Crystin. John mostly took notice of Tempkeit because he knew him somewhat better, but he was also doing a decent job of progressing towards Foundation Phase. He seemed extra motivated to grow stronger because of the interest of Alina, and John couldn’t blame him. There was nothing inherently shameful about being weaker than a woman, especially in a world where cultivation negated any significant physical advantages men had. That said, men were still generally encouraged to be more active on the fighting side of things and cultivation level was strongly involved with that. If things were actually serious enough between the two, Tempkeit would need to be at least Foundation Phase to be considered as a marriage partner, at least by the Milanovic clan.
Magtel was an older cousin, though the difference wasn’t extreme. He was several years older than John, in his mid twenties. He was one of the better talents and had one of the upper levels of cultivation among the younger generation. At rank 14, that put him solidly in mid Foundation Phase. Considering his age, it was likely he would be able to reach Soul Expansion Phase. It could be quite a difficult step to overcome, but he certainly had the potential.
Crystin was a woman John would have been worried about if the internal politics of the Tenebach clan weren’t so stable. She was very close to the same age as him but was currently rank 13. Since each rank took longer than the last, the gap between them was bigger than it seemed. She was quite aware of Fortkran’s merely acceptable training speed given his position and she had no qualms letting her distaste be known. It had to be admitted that Fortkran probably deserved some of the snide comments she had, but it still ruffled John’s feathers. He was more dedicated to cultivation now, but that didn’t necessarily mean he would be stronger if he matched her in cultivation. She had a fourth tier spiritual totem. Two of them, in fact. Her first totem was from the fourth layer, so it wasn’t strange that her second was as well. It could even have been from the fifth tier.
While John was happy that he didn’t have to directly compete with them, he also had to put on a good showing in front of them. The whole thing wouldn’t have been arranged if his grandfather didn’t think he was capable, but John was quite aware that the current level of his spiritual totems was still holding him back. Perhaps he would need to make them grow more quickly. To that end, he was absorbing what fire elemental spiritual energy he could from the sun in the sky to form his own little internal sun. It was still pathetically weak, but it was something he could do to speed the process somewhat. It was unlikely he would be able to handle a higher proportion of fire until he got an appropriate totem, but he would still be able to increase its magnitude as his overall level grew.
The creatures suited to stone forests were those that did well with its peculiar terrain. There were a number of actual trees and plant life as well, but not enough to give much cover like a proper jungle. Instead, climbing and flying creatures were the most prominent. There were several forms of monkeys and dozens of types of wall-climbing lizards. All varieties of birds and bats likewise lived in the Southeastern Stone Forest.
Most of them were like normal animals. Nothing of interest for a cultivator to fight, merely creatures that survived by eating whatever was smaller than them and avoiding the notice of everything bigger to the best of their ability. It was just that things got significantly bigger if they were able to make use of the abundant earth elemental spiritual energy in some way. Thus, the group was hunting for rock lizards and stone snakes primarily. Unlike the things in the Crystal Caverns, they were still animals. They merely had tough skin and sometimes could make active use of energy.
John set out from the base camp they had set up, going in vaguely the same direction as Magtel. It would have been safest if they all traveled in one large group, but that was because any creature vaguely proficient in survival would know to avoid large groups. They wouldn’t get any training at all if everything ran away before they got close. Aydan followed behind, doing his best to conceal himself and his energy. John could only tell where he was because of his own affinity for darkness. Even then, if he didn’t think about it for a moment he would lose his sense of Aydan’s location and have to find him again. He was of course generally a handful of steps behind him, but not always directly behind him.
The creatures living in the stone forest generally blended in with the terrain, but picking them out wasn’t impossible. He was a cultivator, after all, so he could sense living creatures and how they were different from the rocks they clung to. That difference was more slight with some particularly advanced creatures, but they would generally not be too close to the base camp. Its location was chosen for a reason.
John managed to spot a lizard about as long as he was tall clinging to the grey-white stone walls of the ‘forest’. Once he noticed its presence its eyes gave it away, but if it remained still it was only a tiny area to pick out that didn’t camouflage it nearly perfectly. Whether the creature had intentions to ambush him as he walked by or not, he planned to fight it. He reached out with his spiritual energy towards it, but it moved before he could weaken the rocks it was holding on to. While it didn’t seem to hold any spiritual energy inside itself to use for special techniques, it could clearly sense something wrong when he tried to use it.
Because it moved, however, he got a better handle on its location. He tried to loosen the energy beneath it again as he threw a darkness charged knife with his free hand. Controlling two different types of energy for different tasks was difficult, but it was something he was going to have to get used to. Especially if he wanted to make use of more than two, because at a certain point if he could only use one third of his energy at a time he would be pretty ineffective. He didn’t quite get the speed or accuracy he wanted from either action, but the knife just scraped against the lizard’s tail. His energy cut through its hide, but it was just a small cut.
Though he’d been hoping for more, the cut only grew very slightly larger as Clinging Affliction did its work. He didn’t have much practice for it. If he didn’t get a direct hit, he would need to focus his energy all on whatever part would connect so he could make the most of it. Even though the attack was small, the lizard was clearly not pleased. It leaped off the wall, twisting in two directions as it sprang through the air. A quick use of Hidden Steps allowed him to avoid its many claws and its teeth while at the same time he performed a little counter, slicing with his sword. Once again he was practicing Clinging Affliction, and with a bigger wound he got a more serious cut imbued with more spiritual energy.
It wasn’t enough, however. He felt the energy continuing to cause damage, but just because it might kill the creature by the time it finished didn’t mean it was going to stop attacking him. John found he was much safer just trying to finish the creature off directly, not that he doubted that to begin with. It was a technique for when a small wound was all that could be accomplished, not some ultimate technique that was useful in every situation. If he were more mobile than the lizard was in its natural environment he might have tried dodging it for a while, but he preferred to find another opponent instead.