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After the wedding ceremony and everything following it, John and Matayal were glad to leave the Green Sands and be back somewhere with reasonable temperatures. Just because they were capable of resisting the heat didn’t mean it was pleasant. As for training, they got all the practical experience they needed for some time from their efforts climbing Zolvolj.
“I appreciate the opportunities provided by visiting extreme environments,” John commented to Matayal, “But I’ve come to appreciate being able to leave whenever we want.”
“Agreed,” she nodded her head seriously. “I’d prefer to avoid repeating incidents similar to what happened in the Kelp Spire Forest.”
Every cultivator was aware that great trials brought great growth… or death. Though so far John had survived such situations, he wasn’t willing to bet that would happen every time. After all, every single person who perished had survived every trial before the last. Just being a transmigrator wouldn’t necessarily mean John survived. In fact, having already experienced death, he realized how easily it could come.
The two of them were currently taking advantage of some extra time to cultivate more gradually, unconcerned about pushing their cultivation forward at the utmost speed. The Tenebach clan had training areas that could support them both, and though Matayal wouldn’t grow quite as optimally as at home in the Shimmering Islands, she was already ahead of John. Closing the gaps between their cultivation would be advantageous for their efforts at dual cultivation.
They also spent quite a large amount of time involved in other activities that were often called dual cultivation. After their experiences they both agreed with the thought that it was better to fully concentrate on one of the activities fully. But they weren’t just having sex for fun.
As heirs to clans, they were both aware that at some point they would need to have children. They had decided together that the current lull in activity would be a good time to try for their first. Eventually they would need to have at least two- unless they wished to leave one of their clans without a proper heir. That wouldn’t be such a significant issue for the Brandle clan, as long as someone was properly appointed as a successor, but the Tenebach clan really needed someone continuing their main bloodline.
At the current time, their guardian beast Ciaritzal was strongly attuned to the specific traits in the main line. It might be possible to adapt if something went wrong, but if nothing else the Tenebach clan would be weaker for a generation. That was not something they could afford, especially with the reminder that old enemies still existed. While the Gastone and Boyce clans were currently removed from Marble County, they would certainly like revenge given the chance. And the instigators of the latest incident with them, the Society of Midnight, had also recently remembered the Tenebach clan. It was likely they had stronger members available, though if they gathered too many forces Marble County or perhaps all of the Stone Conglomerate would see it as signs of aggression. It was likely the Tenebach clan was safe from anything extreme for the moment.
In terms of strength, however, the Tenebach clan was growing in power. After the reverse empowerment ceremony, talent and fortitude had been revived in upper generations who had previously given it up. Many people were making up for lost years, though it wasn’t easy. Luctus was steadily advancing, but he had been surpassed by Matayal who had reached the twenty-fifth rank. John was still somewhat behind at the twenty-third. It was unlikely that John’s grandfather would reach the Consolidated Soul Phase before either of the younger heirs, but the fact that he might was a good sign.
Every single higher phase cultivator the clan had was a significant increase in their strength. Most of John’s peers were now in the Soul Expansion Phase, nearly rivaling what had for a time been the top ranks of the clan. In a decade or two John might find himself empowering the younger generation, but depending on how far his cultivation advanced in that time he might lessen any negative effects on himself.
Having surpassed the midpoint of Soul Expansion Phase, John was surveying for his next totem. Though he would not reach the next Phase and be able to attune another totem for some time, probably a matter of years still, John had to continue to get used to the pressure at the higher layers of the Sea of Spiritual Totems.
He was of course planning to continue in the full cycle of elements he had set himself upon. In that regard, he was looking for a fourth layer water elemental totem that would fit with the rest, and of course had sufficient growing properties. He had no reason to give up on his firm belief that his totems matching each other in power was the proper method, especially not since it had taken him so far already. Though there had been some struggles early, at the current time all of his totems were sufficiently advanced to not hold him back.
Fourth layer water totems were not insignificant. There were great lakes and icebergs and vast clouds of fog. Though Matayal mainly trained in the liquid version of water, it was capable of taking the other forms as well. That was how fire element was a support for it- melting ice into liquid water or boiling it into steam. Steam and fog weren’t quite the same thing, but were water in the air nonetheless. In the same vein, sufficient quantities of air element could just absorb water up to a certain point.
John continued to browse through totems, moving towards anything that felt right. WIth his core element still being darkness, there were totems that mimicked the depths of the sea. That included the darkness, pressure, and cold. Though he certainly recognized the power of that, it wasn’t quite what he wanted. Though John couldn’t have said what he was looking for, exactly. Just that nothing so far had been right.
Eventually his self returned to the awareness of his body, not because he was unable to resist the pressure but simply because he felt he had spent sufficient time. It wasn’t long before Matayal returned as well, but she looked somewhat more fatigued. She already had totems of higher levels, so it seemed best to her to push herself even more, and take advantage of the most powerful totem she could acquire.
“How did it go?” John asked.
“Nothing quite fits,” Matayal responded.
John moved over to flop on the bed which was almost as big as his room growing up as a child. “Same with me. There was one which seemed like the depths of the ocean. A now-familiar power, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted it.”
“It should fit well enough,” Matayal commented. “It seems compatible enough with your own traits, and matched with mine we would have a broader scope.” She say next to him on the bed, head turned towards him, “Of course, we have plenty of time before we have to make any decisions.”
“Yeah,” John nodded. “There’s honestly nothing really wrong with it.” He just had a dumb idea tingling the back of his mind. He didn’t even want to speak of it to Matayal, a woman he was so intimately linked with.
“Want to try again?” Matayal said.
“You can if you want,” John shrugged. “My spirit is exhausted.”
Matayal looked down at him and grinned. “I meant something else.” She rolled onto the bed to bring her face close to his, “Something more concerned with physical stamina.”
“Ah. In that case, absolutely. My body isn’t nearly so exhausted as my spirit yet.”
“I’m sure we can fix that,” Matayal’s lips touched John’s as her arm wrapped around his shoulder.
Despite the casual way in which Steve performed many social interactions, he was not unaware of various things about the way people behaved. It was just useful when they thought he was. He couldn’t declare himself a master of intrigue, but he at least was able to read people. Usually that was because he provoked rage from them, which was the easiest thing to understand, but he had more than a couple decades of experience in each of two different lives.
He was still having trouble determining if Yustina liked him or wanted to kill him, though. Nothing she said or did, directly, indicated the latter. She was friendly and open with him. But given how duplicitous Steve knew cultivators could be, and the fact that he’d discovered her secret, she might just want him gone. Even if she hadn’t been reincarnated, he would be a constant memory of her shame, climbing up a volcano and then failing at the very end because of a simple mistake.
It wouldn’t matter that many other people were around to see it. At least, many cultivators just took things personally. She might not like that he spotted her so easily, even if it was because he was in a similar boat. That of a person who had died but still lived.
“Whatcha thinking about?” she asked.
Steve’s eyes turned towards her. He could be at least a little honest. “Just wondering why you were still following me around.”
“Because you’re interesting. And because I wasn’t going to learn much more at the Milanovic clan without seeing more of the world. Despite my life before, I’m now looking at things from a different perspective.”
“I understand wanting to get experience, but you’re still in Foundation Phase. Not necessarily a good time to go wandering into the Darklands with a stranger.”
She shrugged, “I should break through before long. I could say the same of you. It’s not a friendly place for fire type cultivators, even if they’re in the Soul Expansion Phase.” She turned towards him directly, “It seems more like the place you’d go to ditch someone following you.”
While Steve wasn’t always honest about everything, he had been quite clear that he preferred to be alone. And it was true. “I wonder what gave you that impression. Maybe it was constantly asking you if it wouldn’t be better for you to go back?”
“And just leave you alone? I’ve barely even learned anything about you.”
“You don’t think knowing my biggest secret counts?”
“Not really,” Yustina commented. “You don’t seem to actually care about it. I feel like you aren’t here just to try to ditch me.”
Steve squinted his eyes as he looked forward along the path they were traveling. The Darklands certainly fit their name, though it wasn’t as if it was always nighttime. It was just a constant mist of darkness everywhere that limited vision to a shorter range. “I have a grudge with some people here and I thought it was time to get revenge.”
“Risky,” Yustina said. “Whether you go alone or not, as an outsider you’ll be easy to blame.”
“See, why would you risk yourself for that? I know you wanted to thank me for saving you, but you already did. You didn’t even know where I was going.”
“You were just interesting. So I was curious.”
“You ever hear the phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat’?”
“Noped,” Yustina admitted. “But even if it had, it didn’t stop me the first time. Why should I let it now?”
The most concerning part of that to Steve was that she really didn’t seem to care about the possibility of death. He wasn’t sure if it was a detachment from her new reality, a belief she’d just be reincarnated again, or some sort of suicidal nature. He just found it hard to believe that anybody would risk their life just out of curiosity. He didn’t even have much interesting to say about himself, despite being a transmigrator. Maybe his silence on some topics made him seem like one big mystery, but Steve was just Steve. Or Lucanus, when it was appropriate.
He should have just ditched her back in the Green Sands. He knew he could have outrun her if he wanted to. He had the training to not overheat, and greater cultivation. But he’d thought she’d eventually give up and turn back. Now, it was a bit too late to just abandon her. She might actually be in danger on her own.