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While it might seem like the Southeastern Stone Forest was home to only predators, that wasn’t possible even with large amounts of spiritual energy to support the inhabitants. On the smallest level there were bugs eaten by many things and herbivores that feasted on the various plants in the area. John simply had no reason to fight creatures that weren’t particularly strong or valuable and weren’t trying to eat him. Thus, they were ignored for the most part.
However, there were certain circumstances that just couldn’t be left alone. The tall spires of stone that made up the bulk of the stone forest were advantageous to anything with the ability to climb. There were some lemurs in the area that leapt from peak to peak, cute little fuzzy fellows with long tails. John was taking a break and watching one of the little guys scramble around and pick bugs out of the rocks. It was a delightful experience, one that was interrupted by a large snake coiling up the pillar beneath the lemur. It seemed quite unaware of the snake, and even if it noticed its camouflaged form against the rock below, there weren’t an abundance of places for it to flee.
John was sitting on a lower level than the lemur, but he quickly sprang into action. There was no time to do any proper climbing, instead he leapt forward towards the nearest pillar of rock. He kicked off of it, rebounding from it at an upward angle using his earth elemental spiritual energy. One hand threw a dagger towards the snake, but it simply rebounded off of the creature’s scales and defensive energy. Instead of distracting the snake, it did nothing but startle the lemur. He continued to climb upward by jumping between spires of stone, taking only a few moments to reach the snake. It was poised to strike the lemur, but as he leapt towards it the creature finally turned to face him.
It sprang towards him as he was flying through the air, and his sword collided with its fangs. Instead of cutting through it, they both rebounded. It was like trying to cut through rock… but if he was a normal human and not a cultivator. At his current level just normal rock hardly mattered, especially with his control of earth energy.
Both John and the snake fell down close to where they collided. John considered various methods but finally settled for allowing himself to fall directly instead of trying to latch onto the side. In fact, he even slightly accelerated himself. He gathered his energy at his feet, and when he impacted the ground he transformed it into something akin to a cushion. Dropping thirty meters was still not an easy feat, but it allowed his legs and energy to share the impact with more of the ground around him. Chunks of dirt flew off in all directions and he slashed upward with his sword towards the snake that hadn’t quite struck the ground. The impact nearly knocked his blade out of his hand.
The snake was larger than most of the others he had fought, perhaps a dozen meters long and a good half meter thick, powerfully built. Its fangs were long enough to pierce deep into him, but that wasn’t even necessarily how the creature would try to kill him. If it could wrap around him, it could crush him. He wouldn’t let it, of course.
Unlike the other varieties in this area, the earth energy was evenly distributed through the creature. It didn’t have any clear and obvious weaknesses and had scales hard like diamond. But John could work with that. The creature had rudimentary control over spiritual energy, enough for offense and defense, but it likely couldn’t handle anything complex. The creature coiled for another attack which John avoided by a narrow margin, for the purpose of still being able to attack. His sword was wrapped in mixed earth and darkness energy, a mixture of Clinging Affliction and Bite of the Gorgon. He barely managed to cut through the creature’s energy, but was stopped by its scales. Even so, lingering traces of his attack remained.
At every opportunity he continued to perform the same technique while making sure he defended himself properly. Normally the techniques needed to have an actual wound to work from, but for what he wanted just cutting through the energy was enough. Soon he landed a half dozen hits and tried to target the same areas again. When the constrictor once more tried to coil, it found a problem. Sections of its scales were locked together straight, fused into a single piece of stone rather than individual scales. That didn’t make it unable to attack, but it was much slower. That allowed John to gather his energy to focus on attack instead of worrying about defending himself as much, which allowed him to begin causing actual wounds. He focused on one area as much as possible, though his didn’t give up any opportunity to cause a wound.
The fight lasted at least half an hour, quite long as one-on-one battles of any sort went. John was beginning to become exhausted, running low on all of his spiritual energy. However, the snake was barely able to move. That probably had something to do with how its blood was being turned to stone. He didn’t have to drain a creature dry if he could block some major areas of flow. He thought the technique might work even better on larger creatures, if he could cause the damage to begin with.
The lemur was long gone by the end of the battle, but John wished it well in his heart. Then he began to dismantle the snake. Normally he would have only taken its fangs- the scales were far too heavy to be worthwhile. However, he was planning to be done with the Southeastern Stone Forest anyway. He could afford to carry some extra weight as long as he wasn’t bringing it with him for days or weeks. Despite how the scales were ‘hard like diamonds’ he wasn’t sure if they would work with Diamond Defense. He’d have to check the technique manual back at the clan.
“I think it’s about time to head back,” he said to Aydan. “Now I’m ready for the final push.” He wasn’t quite eighteenth rank yet, but that would just take time and spiritual energy. He might have been able to increase in rank in the Southeastern Stone Forest, but it seemed an unnecessary risk. If he was disrupted during the process he could harm himself, and though he trusted Aydan to protect him it wasn’t always possible to know what might show up. Some things were best for them to avoid.
Previously, John had attended clan functions whenever he was available. After all, he needed to be responsible. However, he currently had an excuse. Not just one to get out of doing things, but the best sort. Pushing his way towards Soul Expansion Phase was a big undertaking that he could reasonably be excused from anything for a few months. Achieving the eighteenth rank wasn’t terribly difficult, since it was inside the same Phase. Cultivating himself towards the peak of Foundation Phase where he was close to the nineteenth rank was harder.
All of the experience in cultivation he’d gained was necessary for him to get to that point, and though he had the guidance of his grandfather ultimately that last step was up to his own comprehension. Unlike the breakthrough to Foundation Phase, he didn’t have any prior experience from Fortkran at making the attempt. Everything at Foundation Phase had been his own ability… enhanced by the blessing of the guardian beast. But there were all sorts of advantages in the world, and he would take what he could get.
Since he was planning to choose an air element totem, he focused on the aspects of his training with Matriarch Kusuma. He focused on the way gasses and electricity flowed. That was the main thing about them, the flow. Earth, meanwhile, had no flow. At least, not a perceptible one. His abilities were much smaller scale than continental drift.
Earth conquered air. That was easy to see from that angle, as he could control how electricity flowed or resist being pushed around by winds. How air supported earth was slightly more abstract, and focused on areas of earth he wasn’t as focused in. Plants could be considered to be part of the earth element, and those grew from air. But there were more connections that could be made. John thought of how wind could shift soil around, one layer at a time. That wasn’t necessarily something that built it up to be stronger, but connections were connections.
The one that was most useful to focus on was how air aided the decomposition of things into soil. His second totem was one he at least internally called Compost. Though nothing matched entirely in the case of cultivation and spiritual totems, it was the idea that mattered. Organic matter broke down through the efforts of bacteria, either aerobic or anaerobic methods- with or without air. Though if he remembered correctly anaerobic bacteria just functioned without oxygen. There was much more to air than that.
John had searched through the third layer of the sea of spiritual totems for something that suited him. If he wanted to throw lightning or create great storms, he had many options. The important thing to remember was that any air element totem would aid with the various things he could do, it just mattered what he wanted to focus on. That focus… was still growth. Synergy between his totems.
He finally found something. A totem aligned with air but with elements of darkness to latch onto. When he thought of dark air, he thought of pollution first. John had no desire to have something like that be one of his totems. Even the most common smoke from wood burning would actually be more aligned with fire in some senses. It was quite clear to him that few totems were completely pure to one element. How could they be? They represented the world, and nothing in the world was just one thing. Not on any scale that functioned.
The totem he found was related to darkness for its obscuring abilities, the unknown factors that darkness hid. But really, it was just… mixed gasses with nothing completely dominant. Impure. But impurities weren’t necessarily bad. If one considered gemstones, many were interesting solely because of their impurities. They were what gave things color and life. In the case of air, humans did quite well without breathing pure oxygen even if that was basically all they actually absorbed. Plants, on the other hand, absolutely didn’t want pure anything. Unless carbon dioxide could be considered pure, but the very name was against it there. It was formed from carbon and oxygen, and plants used both. Probably more than that, but John didn’t have a biology degree.
As he studied the totem more, John found it rather funny. In a way, the totem was impure precisely because it was a standard sort of mixture of gasses. Being completely sure of its effects on cultivation before attuning to it would be difficult, since none of the records mentioned it as anything of note. However, he could gain information from his studies. First, it focused on gasses. That would still enhance his control over winds. He wouldn’t get as big of a boost in the area of electricity, but simply having an air element totem would increase his control over anything matching the air element. This mixture itself was nonspecific. A better word, perhaps, was adaptable. More importantly, it was able to grow. It might not focus on anything in particular, but on the other hand that also meant it could provide multiple things which he needed for his growth, and that of the Sapling of Darkness.
Ironically, John found himself thinking more about the name than whether or not it would suit his purposes. He couldn’t just call it ‘air’. Finally, he determined what he thought was the best word. Atmosphere. That’s what he really wanted, anyway. He had a plant he was growing, soil for it to grow in… and it needed an atmosphere to provide air. Simple. Almost boring… but he could already think of things he would do.
Ultimately, totem elemental affinity and tier mattered the most. It was only third tier, but that made it match his others to grow alongside them. He might not turn into a windstorm or be all about calling bolts of lightning from the sky, but if he grew strong enough and trained the right techniques… he could still do those.
Atmosphere. It fit his cycle of elements, and though he wouldn’t be bragging about it to anyone… he was satisfied. Now all he had to do was build up his cultivation and actually attune to it. As if it was that easy.