His mind once again came down from his state of connection with the sea of spiritual totems. He’d finally clawed his way up to the third layer for a few moments, confirming that with his spotting of the Claws of Darkness that Fortkran had used. He didn’t have long to look over other totems, but he got a strange feeling. He wanted to be as strong as possible in this world of cultivation, but compatibility was important. But there was something else tugging at him.
He was quite capable of attuning to any of the darkness element spiritual totems he could reach. That meant he should find one he liked on the third layer and accept that. But even though he could stay in the second layer for extended periods, he found himself drawn to the first layer. First layer spiritual totems were the weakest available. However, there were a subset of spiritual totems that could grow in power. In the first layer, the most well known were the elemental seeds. For those who couldn’t access totems of the second layer, they were ideal. With proper training, the seeds could sprout into elemental trees of the second layer and make up for the deficiency with enough time. It was less efficient than just selecting a spiritual totem of the second layer that had the qualities that suited the user required, but enough for those who couldn’t do better.
Yet John felt himself drawn towards them, even though he could reach the third layer. Was that something related to his perspective as an otherworlder? If so, was it good or bad? Tempering the growth of spiritual totems wasn’t exclusive to the elemental seeds, just more difficult. He didn’t want to go down the wrong path. So, he took advantage of his position to consult the strongest cultivator he knew. His grandfather, Luctus Tenebach.
He explained his thoughts. “… and I’m not sure how to pick the right totem. I know it is unwise to delay too long, but making the wrong choice affects my entire path of cultivation.”
Luctus nodded, taking in John’s explanations. “A difficult decision. Here is my advice. Continue thinking on your problem. A cultivator’s intuition can be very important, but you must make sure it is not a passing fancy. It is possible to take something suited to the user from a level below what the cultivator can achieve and make it just as good… but you must also determine that there is not anything else equally suitable and more powerful or you will waste your potential.” Luctus sighed, “You…” speaking of him as he was before was always an awkward subject, “The one good quality you previously possessed was confidence, if not skill, in cultivation. The Claws of Darkness were quite compatible with you. That may not be the case anymore, but I urge you to find something that fits so well. Once you have taken the time, I will be willing to consult with you on specifics of your intended spiritual totem.”
He nodded. “Thank you, grandfather.”
He had been hoping his thoughts were just a passing fancy. After spending more time on the third spiritual layer he found some darkness element totems that suited him even better than The Dancing Shadow. One didn’t have a name that he could find, so he dubbed it Peaceful Night. Then there was The Cave, a particularly appealing spiritual totem because it combined the elements of darkness the Tenebach clan was attuned to and the earthen spiritual energy of the Stone Conglomerate.
But John couldn’t help but find himself drawn to something that didn’t fit at all. It was tangentially connected to darkness, but it was a contradictory spiritual totem. Dubbed simply Foul Air in his guide, it was representative of certain sorts of unbreathable air that would build up in a mine. However, air was aligned with light and not darkness, which would make it particularly difficult to use. Added that he would have only very limited access to cultivation and combat techniques that worked with air type spiritual energy and he wondered why he couldn’t just ignore it.
He returned once more to the library. Dionsio, the Keeper of the Library, inclined his head. “Young master, it is good to see you return.” Dionsio was actually sincere about that… this time. John had tracked down most of the books he’d never returned, and now that he was more confident with his position he was willing to ask for advice on books. That made searching easier and made Dionsio happy, which was great.
“Thank you, Keeper.” John placed down some of the books he had borrowed. “I believe I am finished with these. As for what I require next… I recall reading about elemental cultivation paths. Single elements were most popular, of course. Then there were the aligned elemental cycles. Some cultivators also focus on particular weapons, and rely less on the elemental natures of their spiritual totems. I would like to read anything with more in-depth details on those sorts of things.”
Dionsio nodded. “Of course. Most of those will be in the limited section.” He took John to the back. As the young master of the clan, there were no parts of the library off limits to him. He was aware that there were a few books kept separately by his parents and some of the older generation, but he might even be able to get access to them if he had need. However, he had no desire to delve into any forbidden and dangerous techniques. “This one might do…” Dionsio pulled a thin book off the shelf and handed it to John. “And perhaps… this one.” He pulled out a larger scroll, clearly quite old. “If those do not have what you are looking for, this section here is most likely to have what you want, unless you change your method of inquiry.”
John nodded. “Thank you very much for your assistance, Keeper.” Being polite to people was good. Dionsio deserved the respect for his position or his knowledge or his cultivation, and all together even more so… but John was doing his best to respect the normal servants as well. He still gave them orders, of course, but that was their job. If he was going to take on the responsibilities of power he might as well get some of the benefits.
The texts Dionsio recommended had just what he needed. Though it was a bit hard to puzzle through the older scroll, it explained some details about cultivation paths that the small book was lacking in. Once he had finished perusing them, he set them down and considered. Was the decision he was making the right one? He couldn’t know. But he couldn’t pull himself away from the idea. In addition to single elemental paths, weapon paths, and aligned cycle paths, there was the idea of a full elemental path.
In theory, a full elemental cycle was one of the optimal choices. Nobody could say for sure it was the most optimal, but it covered weaknesses quite well. In theory. In practice… it was rarely so useful. It was difficult. Elements were aligned with each other in different ways. With light were fire and air, and darkness supported earth and water. Any of those triplets were compatible with each other. Crossing over the triplets, however, made things much more difficult. There were two methods, the paths of supporting and overcoming. Water doused fire, fire scorched earth, earth withstood air, and air controlled water completing the cycle. Light and Darkness could fit in at various points. In the other direction was support. Earth let fire grow stronger. Fire could heat water into different states, which led to clouds in the air, which could rain to feed the earth… and such.
It worked in theory. In practice, the beginning might be weaker… and even completing half a cycle required reaching the Soul Expansion Phase- which was where his grandfather currently was. At that point a cycle of aligned elements had completed, and a single elemental focus remained steady throughout. With proper resources and talent and some luck, the Soul Expansion Phase might be reached by John’s parents age or even a bit earlier, but the support of the cycle wouldn’t yet be showing its power and the lack of focus would dominate. The full cycle would require three more whole phases to complete… and it wasn’t clear if it would be stronger than the others. Perhaps more versatile.
Even so, John was willing to try it… but he hesitated because he had a more ridiculous idea. The texts he read presumed the cultivator would reach for the highest level of spiritual totem they could obtain. His idea was that picking the right totems from consecutive layers might support the path better. Maybe he was wrong… but he had a few in mind. But even if it worked… would it be better than anything else? He hated not knowing, and it would be too late to change his mind later. He couldn’t bet on his meridians being damaged just enough to allow him to repair them, recultivate, and pick a new totem and he didn’t know of any other way to start over. Plus there was the matter of time.
In his position as Fortkran Tenebach, he didn’t want to make important decisions all on his own. Even though it was his own cultivation, it didn’t affect just him. His grandfather hadn’t suddenly stopped being wiser, so even though he wanted to immediately run off and attempt his plan, he consulted his grandfather. He expected immediate rejection at the idea which had no basis in anything but intuition. It wasn’t like he was the first person to cultivate, and untold generations had tried what they thought was best.
“…” Luctus Tenebach remained silent after he finished his explanation. He was clearly thinking, so exercising patience was the right option. Finally, he spoke. “You have a truly ambitious plan. However, it will make you weak. Being weak and ambitious is a dangerous combination.”
Fortkran bowed his head. “I understand, grandfather. It was a foolish idea.”
As he turned to leave, his grandfather spoke behind him. “Strength is everything in cultivation. If you are weak, you will suffer and struggle, and you may die. You may work harder than anyone else for the same result. A more difficult path does not necessarily lead to a greater reward. But… I will not say your plan is entirely without merit. If you are wrong… you will be only half as strong as you should at the Foundation Phase. Maybe less. Consider this… when you make your choice.”