After the conversation John had with Lucanus a.k.a. Steve, Aydan had some questions. “So, this person… he is also a Transmigrator? Can you trust him?”
John thought about that, “I don’t have any reason not to trust him, if that’s what you’re asking. The probability that he would want to kill me or something is lower than any random person from this world. At least, we have something in common. To confirm he was a transmigrator, I had to expose myself as well. Though I’m not sure if it matters if anyone knows, at this point.”
“Perhaps not,” Aydan agreed. “Your position is secure enough, at least. You could simply end up with more eyes watching you than you find comfortable.”
“That’s going to be happening soon anyway, right? When I get my next totem, people will notice.” John smiled to himself, “Especially since I plan to immediately make use of it. Well, perhaps not immediately. But I don’t plan to wait that long before returning to the Shimmering Islands.”
“As a Soul Expansion Phase cultivator, that should not be an issue even without a larger escort.”
Though the two of them had the capabilities to hire a carriage, they walked. John was observing how people looked at him when he looked like a vagabond. He wasn’t completely concealing his cultivation, but unless people looked closely they might only feel he was in the Foundation Phase and assume it was early Foundation Phase instead of late. That was a significant difference, and generally resulted in people passing over him. In a way, it was a lesson in stealth, but instead of going unnoticed he tricked people into ignoring him. That was likely even better, since it took less effort and was less problematic if he was discovered. Not that he usually needed to be unnoticed.
As they moved, John absorbed the surrounding earth elemental spiritual energy, circulating it through his meridians into his dantian where it was purified. Though he’d been able to push his cultivation forward in the Shimmering Islands, being with an element that matched one of his totems was best for actually advancing in rank. Not that the improvement was enough to matter in just the time it took to return to the Tenebach clan. Once there, he cleaned himself up properly and set about cultivating with the benefit of energy gathering formations.
The first time John had seen a dead leaf on the sapling of darkness, he had been concerned. This was a totem, the core of his cultivation. He’d been concerned that any part of it dying meant he’d made a severe mistake in cultivation, possibly causing permanent harm. However, when that single leaf fell down and alighted upon his second totem, he saw what was actually happening. The leaf touched the ground and soon enough it was decaying into the soil. His sapling had matured to the point it was acting more like a real tree, and shedding leaves was quite normal for those. Even if there was nothing normal about this tree, leaves dying and feeding the ground was perfectly reasonable.
After those same leaves decayed, their nutrients returned to the sapling as the roots absorbed them from the surrounding soil, his other totem ‘Compost’. It still wasn’t a glorious or elegant totem to go talking about, but it was functional. The other minor elements he kept inside his dantian also fed into the two totems, slowly growing them. It was hard for John to say exactly when they broke the barrier between second and third tier totems. There had been an intermediate time when he was unsure which they would technically qualify as, but eventually he was certain they had managed the proper growth.
That was an important step, because finally his growing totems could directly match at least some of those who should be his proper peers. It was quite embarrassing to be the young master of a clan with only second tier totems, and it was exhausting making up for that weakness through other methods. His devotion to training and improving his techniques would now be even more valuable than before, but he wouldn’t need to rely as much on clever tricks to win. Though he knew he shouldn’t get complacent with just a small level of power. Being more efficient than his opponents would still be important.
Along with the growth of his totems, his cultivation grew to the seventeenth rank. He simply had one more to go before being at the peak of Foundation Phase, though he would still have to rise to the top of that rank and make the difficult step into Soul Expansion Phase. While his cultivation still continued smoothly, he knew he should be thinking about that step and making more preparations than just ‘keep cultivating’. Especially now that he knew others were relying on him.
The sight of the Southeastern Stone Forest was quite refreshing. John felt he’d spent far too much of his time cooped up inside cultivating, though it wasn’t that long compared to months outside on a rock in the middle of a stormy ocean. Still, he needed to be active… for more reasons than one. John wanted to gather some wealth for himself, and while he could certainly ask for funds from the clan, the less he relied on that the more he could feel that his accomplishments were his own.
Sure, the guardian’s blessing gave him a big advantage normal people didn’t have… but Fortkran’s memories showed that just having that wasn’t sufficient to be a good cultivator. John wasn’t going to ignore the advantages he had, but he wanted to at least make sure some of it came from himself. Though he was absolutely still going to bring his guardian with him out into a dangerous training ground. He didn’t relish the thought of getting into a situation where he was beset on all sides, fleeing wounded into a cave where he spent months recovering from his wounds. Usually, that would result in death. All of the stories about great cultivators who went through those struggles were just survivorship bias.
Combat experience was important though… which was why John was happily throwing himself at the various creatures of the stone forest. Instead of specific techniques, he focused on his sword forms and simple use of energy to attack their weak points with the most cutting power possible. The snakes that were nearly of segmented rocks were cut in two by him, gorgon cobras barely got off a single spit of their petrifying poison before having their heads lopped off, and even the few birds who swooped down at him with their claws were cut asunder.
When he found a specimen that was somewhat more valuable, he would harvest their best parts to sell later. He had thoughts of cultivating Diamond Defense, and for that he would need to buy valuable resources. It was unfortunate that none of the creatures in the area met the qualifications for that particular technique, but that was just the way things were. If valuable gemstones were common, they wouldn’t be valuable.
John’s primary purpose was to look for spirit beasts, those who had some manner of cultivation. That meant delving into deeper areas of the stone forest than he had previously been, and for that he was happy to have Aydan’s assistance. He now matched his uncle in cultivation, but having twice the fighting power was more than twice as safe. Aydan still outclassed him with his experience, so it was probably a bit more.
A gorgon cobra that had cultivation and one that didn’t weren’t all that different. John was already familiar with how to protect against their spitting venom, so doing so when it was propelled faster and better able to break through his defenses wasn’t too problematic. He did find that it tried to petrify his energy occasionally, but the effect was extremely minor. It did give him ideas, though. Since approximately half of his energy was already earth element, it being petrified merely made it a stronger defense until he softened it up. It was a bit harder to loosen up his darkness element, but he was able to deal with that after the creatures were dead.
Then he tossed the bones into his natural treasure. The urn he’s obtained in the Crystal Caverns was made to absorb spiritual energy from dead bones, and while there was a significant difference to be found between a pile of dead cultivating humans with bones bathed in dense earth energy for decades and a single snake, the freshness did something for it. It pushed his cultivation a bit forward with every beast, and he wasn’t just passively cultivating. John was certain he could reach Soul Expansion Phase just sitting back at the clan, but he knew simply absorbing spiritual energy would only advance his rank, and not have as much impact on his other abilities. Practically using his techniques in a fight and defending himself were important.
John sat back to back with Aydan atop a spiky stone peak, barely enough room for either of them to place themselves. It was actually a safer place to rest for the night than down below, because the only things that could reach them were the few flying beasts- which were not terribly common in earthen regions- and a few determined climbers. But sealing themselves in a cave would have been the safest. John picked the location because it had the most wind so he could work on his air element… and because it was nice. Sometimes, he just wanted to look out over beautiful scenery and pretend it didn’t have dozens of things that would try to kill him hidden all around.
“When I am able to perform the reverse empowerment ceremony, what will happen?” John asked. “Will you be boosted back to Soul Expansion Phase?”
“Unlikely. As for the full effects, that will depend on your skill. You talked to your grandfather about it?”
John nodded, “He emphasized control over spiritual energy. Honestly, I’m surprised he let me take this path with my cultivation. It seems like a risk to the clan to let me cultivate anything but pure darkness.”
“It could be,” Aydan admitted, “But perhaps not. At the very least, earth is allied with darkness. Your experience with diverse elements doubtless provides certain insights back to controlling darkness as well. I don’t know if I’d say you’re in any way deficient in controlling darkness, either. The only thing you lack is the full quantity of energy. From the other side, I can say that’s not wholly important. When I provided my energy for your blessing, the guardian still provided much of the energy.”
“…” John sighed, “I’m just worried I’ll mess it up.”
“I can say you’re a thousand times better than where ‘you’ were a couple years ago. You’ll do fine. It’s not like you’d have to do it immediately upon reaching Soul Expansion Phase, if you are unprepared. Though I’d trust your grandfather’s judgment on that. He performed that ceremony as well, you know.” John could sense Aydan’s smile, though of course they couldn’t see each other back to back. “He seemed confident you would be ready, did he not?”
“Maybe he just didn’t want to worry me.”
“Maybe,” Aydan said. “Or maybe you can just take it at face value. Here’s the thing. Even if you utterly mess it up somehow, the current young generation of the Tenebach clan will be sufficient to hold us together for several more generations. And having spent the most time with you, I believe you have the ability.”
“Thanks,” John said. “I’m probably just overthinking it.” He stood up. “Let’s go back to killing stuff.”
There were no concerns that somehow the Southeastern Stone Forest would suddenly run out of creatures due to some sort of overhunting. Everything propagated so rapidly already, and more importantly if human cultivators didn’t kill the beasts they killed each other at a similar rate. The abundant spiritual energy in the area allowed them to grow up from birth to a large size in record time. Instead of taking decades like a reptile on Earth, it might simply be a year or two, or for some particular specimens just months. Such was the power of spiritual energy.