With each movement, the skin and muscles of John’s body cried out in agony. With the adrenaline during the battle he hadn’t realized how much the battering of waves could bruise him or how hard he’d strained his body. But he’d wanted to win. If it had been a real battle, his performance couldn’t have been much better- and he would have ended up dead. That was the problem, because while he understood he wasn’t strong enough to survive all on his own, he at least thought he could hold his own against his peers better.
He made the attempt to push thoughts of Anwar out of his head, but his brain kept coming back to them even as he began cultivating. Spiritual energy flowed into his meridians and soothed his sore muscles while also filling his nearly empty dantian. It was not entirely empty as it had been after the battle, his body naturally having absorbed some of the surrounding spiritual energy, but it was insignificant.
His body converted the primarily water energy into darkness and earth, refining them each time they completed a circulation. As he filled up on energy he grasped the feelings during the battle where he had pushed himself to his limits. Darkness and earth dominated, but he kept small amounts of the three other central elements to support the rest. His control over those elements was extremely limited without matching totems, but he was building up familiarity with them. So far he hadn’t encountered any light element cultivators except rare individuals he passed in large cities, and neither the Stone Conglomerate nor the Shimmering Islands were going to produce light element naturally. Even if he had access to some, he knew it would be foolish to try to incorporate the opposite element of darkness without even having an allied element for it to meld with. He would probably explode himself. Fire was already pushing it, and air only worked better because it supported earth.
Still, the two major and three minor quantities of energy worked together to build to a crescendo where his dantian filled more than it could handle. Yet he knew just how far to push it and how quickly with experience from previous ranks and intuition. Soon enough the pressure on his energy lessened as his dantian expanded, signalling his breakthrough to the fourteenth rank. It should have been happy, but instead it was depressing. Even if he were to fight Anwar one rank ahead, he wasn’t sure if he could win.
He sat up, even though it hurt. Currently, he was alone in his room, his wounds bound and already recovering. He wondered if other people were as disappointed in himself as he was. He should have won. His brain refused to accept the logic that second tier totems would obviously be suppressed by fifth tier totems, and his ability to put up a real fight regardless showed his ability. Those thoughts wouldn’t pass through his head in his current state, just the depressing ones.
Nobody was even around to see him wake up. Not that he should have expected that, but expectations and desires didn’t always align. Sitting up didn’t make him feel any better, so he collapsed onto his back and wallowed in his thoughts. Maybe he hadn’t taken the battle seriously enough. The idea that he didn’t have to win kept him from feeling the pressure before the battle, but afterwards it didn’t help with the feeling he should have. His declaration that Anwar had only won ‘this time’ wouldn’t mean anything if he couldn’t surpass him somehow. Perhaps he should have just stuck to traditional cultivation and reached for the highest tier totems he could manage, sticking to just the element of his clan. Or done different training. Or moved slightly differently during the opening move, or the final attack, or predicted his opponent better. Or anything.
Matayal entering his room broke him out of his thought spiral. He vaguely made out the knock, but when she opened the door and stepped inside, her comforting water energy stirred his thoughts towards her. She walked over to his bed and took his hand. “How are you feeling?”
“Terrible,” John said honestly. Maybe a little bit too honestly.
“Are your injuries worse than we thought?” Matayal’s water energy gently trickled across him from head to toe, reminding him how nice water could be when it wasn’t bludgeoning him. “You actually feel better to me. You broke through.”
“Yeah,” John said. “I did. But I still lost to that jerk. Just imagining his face makes me angry.”
“I agree,” Matayal said. “Fortunately we won’t be seeing it for quite some time. I took your advice and I have just returned from knocking some sense into him. He seemed to think that he couldn’t lose to ‘a girl’ even though I’m clearly stronger than him with similarly powerful totems and two ranks of cultivation more.”
“… I missed that? Maybe I would have liked to see his face, just for that.”
“Too late. He’s gone now. The Wibawa clan seemed to think my father would approve of their actions once Anwar showed his strength, but alliances aren’t made for just strength. It has to be something both sides actually want for it to last.”
“That makes me feel better,” John said. Just slightly, because someone else had to solve trouble he couldn’t handle. “I still want to beat him.”
With that the door was flung open violently, nearly bouncing back to its closed position. “Good news then!” Kusuma strode into the room. “I’ve been talking with your grandfather. You’re coming to train with me.”
“What ever happened to privacy?” John shook his head.
“This is a lesson that you can’t have privacy if you’re not strong enough.” Kusuma stood with her back straight, “Also the door was left ajar.”
“Right.” John had to accept that some of the older generation were just like this. It was sort of nice they were comfortable enough around him to be casual, but he felt it was maybe too casual. “You said training… with you?”
“Of course. Your grandfather explained your whole plan for a cycle of elements.” Kusuma snorted, a gust of wind blowing from her nostrils and creating a small whirlwind in the bedroom, blowing about loose items. “An audacious plan, but if you’re going to do it then it has to be done right. You grew up in an earth kingdom so you’re as familiar as you need to be with that. You just need time to grow your cultivation. But Luctus told me you did some lightning training. Let me tell you, where I’m from we have real lightning training.”
“That doesn’t sound like a good thing,” John quipped. “It doesn’t matter what training I do if I don’t survive.”
“Oh, don’t worry. We have ways to make certain of that. Your survival, at least.”
“I don’t suppose I can refuse?” John asked.
“Sure you can,” Kusuma said. “No point in training someone unwilling.” She turned around. “You’d just be useless.”
“I didn’t say I was going to refuse,” John quickly called after her. “I just wanted to know if I had the option.” He knew he was going to regret some of the results of his current actions, but if everything went well… he knew how beneficial it could be. He did need proper training with air, and more importantly at the moment… air overcame water. If he was able to achieve sufficient mastery with it, he would get a huge leg up on Anwar.
“Good,” Kusuma said. “If you’re willing to train hard, I’m leaving in two days. I just came for a quick visit.”
More like she had some idea what was going to happen. From what John had gathered, she also resided in the Shimmering Islands but was certainly not from Pualani. If she traveled for even a few days in each direction, she would have spent as much time traveling as visiting. “I’ll go,” John said. No point in being indecisive now.
His body barely hurt at all after those two days passed. The bruises were healing nicely, but the stabs and slashes would take longer. If he stretched his body wrong he would still hurt, but that was only for specific movements instead of any part of his muscle or skin. John barely had time to talk to anyone after he could walk around on his own before he was on another ship. It was a small boat and almost felt cramped with just Kusuma, John, and Aydan. While he doubtless wouldn’t need his uncle’s protection at the Mulyani clan, when he eventually made the return trip it would be good for him to have another person with him.
Interestingly enough, Aydan’s status as a guardian was becoming less necessary and less useful. He was still significantly stronger than John for the moment, but he was only rank sixteen. Even if his totems were a bit better, the gap between them was narrowing. Even with his uncle getting proper resources, his cultivation was slow to advance. John resolved to ask about that when the time was right. It wasn’t that he just lacked talent, but something more.
For the moment, John couldn’t think about that. He had to consider the small boat they were in. It had a single decently sized sail, but he doubted it would be fast. It also seemed like it would have trouble with large waves. John was slightly relieved when he realized that meant they had to go go around the storms, even if it meant it would take longer to reach their destination.
The boat slowly sailed away from Pualani’s flower shape and John wistfully hoped wherever he was going to train would be as pleasant of a locale. Then they suddenly started moving much quicker.
The normal winds in the area were enough for the boat to move at a reasonable pace, but Kusuma using her own Soul Expansion Phase air element to create tightly directed winds suddenly increased their pace, to the point they were practically skipping across the water. John had been on a motorboat on a lake with many waves, but while the front of the motorboat had sort of repeatedly slapped the water, their current situation was almost like flying. Half the time, anyway. Even a small wave sent them into the air for a dozen meters, then they slapped down onto the water again only to take off moments later.
John had been wrong. If Kusuma could keep up her current pace, no matter where she lived in the Shimmering Islands it wouldn’t take too many days to get there. John wondered what would happen when she had to sleep, but was afraid to ask.
Within the first hour they were already heading towards a storm, and John had already given up hope that they would go around it. “It’s coming up, kid. This time you should avoid messing with anything, but watch what I do very carefully.”
John thought it was understandable that watching anything was basically impossible when a constant wall of water was hitting you in the face and winds that threatened to tear him out of the boat constantly pushed on him, but he did his best anyway. He felt the way she manipulated her energy, how the wind in front of them split around the boat and even twisted to hit the sail from the rear.
Kusuma was a tornado of energy, constantly moving in and out and around her. When the lightning started he realized they didn’t even have anything to protect the boat, but of course he should have expected that just like everything else, Kusuma took that role. Lightning struck and was attracted to her upraised arms and the tendrils of guiding energy she raised above. It flowed through her in an instant, alternatively being absorbed and redirected away from the boat. Though each individual bolt was so brief that John barely got a glimpse of what was happening, he could see a repeated pattern forming in his mind with each bolt. When the lightning was directed inside of her, it traveled through her meridians in a path that wouldn’t normally be used for cultivation, a long and circuitous route through most of the body. He’d trained a little bit with stray bits of electricity from lightning on his own, but what he was seeing in front of him was on a completely different level.
Soon enough they were out of the storm, but not before giant waves that were surely sufficient to topple them were pierced directly through by the bolt of lightning that was their little boat.
John also got his answer for what happened when Kusuma slept. She didn’t. For at least forty straight hours she maintained her position, sometimes slowing but never stopping completely and always manipulating the winds around them. John thought they would still be going for some time, but then they stopped at a rock. Not an island, but a rock. It stuck up out of the water for a dozen meters and was basically a three meter radius cylinder, though not nearly so smooth as that. Kusuma tossed John and Aydan to on top of the rock before opening some sort of secret chamber in the center of the rock where she stashed the boat. Then she stepped out onto the water briefly and hopped to the top of the rock with the two others. “Here we are. Welcome to Cyclone Island. You’ll be living here until I decide you’re ready to go.”
John took a deep breath and reminded himself he needed to do this. “Alright.” It wasn’t like he had anywhere he could run, anyway.