A couple weeks of training against the creatures in the Southeastern Stone Forest provided quite a bit of improvement for John’s abilities. Sparring against people could only go so far. Real combat against a variety of creatures provided valuable experience that couldn’t be gained by sparring or solo experimentation and meditation training. The element of danger was a factor as well, though John had to admit he’d probably never been in any real danger so far. But he wasn’t going to tell Ayden to leave him alone just so he could be in more danger. He doubted it would actually help in any way, and if he actually needed protecting it could be disastrous. While extreme danger was said to create geniuses, it also killed most people. Why should he risk being one of them?
Of course, John wasn’t content to just coast along with his family’s resources. Fortkran had been, but John wanted to be more than just ‘okay’ or ‘acceptable’. Of course, Fortkran hadn’t even been that all the time, mostly because of the other detriments he had. John’s mind went back to the Crystal Caverns. He’d separated from Ayden and almost died. Sure, he experienced a period of explosive growth. If he hadn’t, he would be dead. There was no way to guarantee the positive outcome, so he’d rather grow at a manageable pace. He didn’t have growing totems for nothing.
Upon reflecting back to the Crystal Caverns, he was reminded of the natural treasure he’d purchased and subsequently integrated into himself. He hadn’t made much use of it since that time, mostly because it didn’t do much. It was a pot… or an urn, really. It was meant to store things, but storing energy inside it did nothing except keep him from accessing it. The only thing that it had ever reacted to were bones. John had thrown some bones from the kitchen into it only to have them disappear with no effect. However, now he had bones from creatures imbued with spiritual energy. The results were… unspectacular. Unsurprisingly the difference between bones of cultivators that had been bathed directly in earth elemental spiritual energy for unknown decades and the bones of creatures that had lived a decade or two at most was significant. It did process the bones into some spiritual energy that was easy to absorb, but was otherwise of little use. In addition, since he didn’t take the time to remove the bones from the body of the creatures he ended up with what were effectively piles of mush he had to dump out of himself. Or in the case of the stone constrictors, piles of rocky mush.
Still, the fact that he could restore some amount of spiritual energy with that method wasn’t useless. The earth elemental spiritual energy extracted from the creatures was sufficiently nourishing to his second totem. The pile of compost wasn’t much to look at, but it was quite active. When he tried to see if he could use the remains of the creatures he was fighting- minus their bones- he was quite disappointed. It made sense that his dantian wouldn’t accept physical objects not contained by the natural treasure, but he was hoping that somehow the pot might convert the bodies into a more spiritual form. But it seemed to be just the bones. An oddly specific natural treasure, but that was the way they tended to be.
Along with his training John had continued to interact with the other members of the Tenebach clan who were training. They seldom actually needed his help, but nobody resented him taking some pressure off of them when they were fighting a group. He wasn’t stingy with the bodies either, allowing people to take whatever they pleased. The bones weren’t of much use to anyone, so those usually remained for him.
John made sure to show off a little bit in front of those who were weaker than him. After all, he wasn’t planning to just show how nice he was. He also needed people to learn that he was strong. Strong enough, at least. It would still take some time to catch up to Crystin and Magtel, but he was confident in his own rate of growth.
After finishing a quick battle with a gorgon cobra- John had no desire to study them anymore- he saw Aydan looking off into the distance. Of course, there were merely stone formations in that direction, but the placement of his head didn’t necessarily indicate he was using his eyes. Even though sensing with spiritual energy didn’t actually require heads to turn towards a target, it was an instinctive reaction among cultivators. Either Aydan felt no reason to suppress that instinct or intentionally chose to make it obvious.
John extended his own senses in the same direction. The feedback he got was merely large amounts of earth elemental spiritual energy. Fortunately he’d been training in the stone forest long enough to be able to filter that into different types. Otherwise he’d be hard pressed to find the creatures hiding all around the area.
In the end, finding what Ayden was looking at wasn’t particularly hard. It was just distant, so his senses didn’t pick it up automatically. He felt a mix of many different sources of spiritual energy, primarily earth but there were also a handful of sources of darkness mixed in. There was also something big. It almost felt like part of the stone forest was moving, but that wasn’t quite it. It also wasn’t entirely wrong, since whatever the thing was happened to be engaged in battle and he soon heard the sound of a section crashing to the ground. It was muffled at John’s distance, but still distinct enough.
“Should we go take a look?” John asked. He started moving in that direction immediately. If Ayden really thought they shouldn’t go he could turn back, but he only got a short nod from his guardian.
The two of them weaved their way through the stone forest as they approached closer to the source of the commotion. It became increasingly clear that there was a large battle happening, primarily between the large creature and some other native inhabitants, but it also included some cultivators. Members of the Tenebach clan.
The first thing his eyes saw were spikes of stone waving about through the air. They were quite similar to what made up most of the stone forest, but the makeup was slightly different. They were actually a bit more regular in shape. Soon enough John was able to get a better picture of what was happening as there just so happened to be a large open area where the fight was happening. Based on the half-destroyed sections of stone, it probably wasn’t so open when the battle began. The giant lizard seemed to have quite a bit to do with that.
The creature was of a size that made the other ‘giant’ lizards he’d encountered look small. The thing was probably six meters at the shoulder, with massive spikes of rock growing in a row down its back, atop its head and along its tail, as well as out of its elbows and other places along its limbs. Some of them seemed to be broken off, but beyond that the creature looked basically unharmed, even with several strong Foundation Phase cultivators fighting it. That didn’t count the other creatures who seemed to be taking its intrusion into their territory personally. There were quite a few things gnawing on the lower parts of the creature.
Magtel and Crystin as well as a few other younger members of the Tenebach clan were standing off to the side while their guardians fought. Magtel turned his head and inclined his head to acknowledge John. “Fortkran! Good to see you. It seems we’ve encountered the rare appearance of a thousand year lizard.” Though it was called that, it could have been anywhere from just a few hundred years to a few thousand. Depending on how long it had been alive it could be much more dangerous. That said, the spiritual energy it gave off was vaguely comparable to the Foundation Phase. It certainly had much larger stores than any of the cultivators present, but its output in any one area was limited. “It would be quite a prize to take it down. We’re still assessing its abilities.”
“If I might, young master,” Ayden was looking intently toward the creature.
“Go ahead and assist. I imagine the rest of us will be joining the battle soon,” John answered his unspoken question. “What have you learned so far?” John asked.
“Besides the fact that it’s gigantic? Not much,” Magtel grinned. “It seems to have little reaction to most attacks, doesn’t concentrate its energy for defense or attack- not that it needs to- and isn’t much bothered by darkness.”
Crystin elaborated, “It seems to have enough sense of everything while it can’t see that it hardly matters. A meter to the right or the left is a big miss for most things, but that’s about as accurate as it got anyway.”
“Any special abilities?” John asked.
“Not that it’s used,” Crystin responded, “Though one or two would be expected.”
“Shouldn’t have to worry about poisons on its bite or claws,” Magtel said.
“Right. We’d be dead either way,” John nodded. The thing moved quickly, not because it was particularly agile but just because it managed to bite and swing its tail at a proportional speed to what he’d expect from a smaller lizard. So, when it swept its tail… It flicked from one side of the creature to the other, creating a shockwave that made the earth tremble even when it didn’t connect with anything. “It seems to be putting quite a bit of pressure on the guardians. Do you know of anyone else nearby we should wait for?”
“I don’t believe so,” Magtel said. “This area’s a bit more dangerous so not many were hunting here.”
“Then we should get in positions.” John continued to watch the two story high creature rampage around. “Getting up onto its back would be ideal, though those with ranged attacks might prefer to keep some distance.” John didn’t have to take command of the situation, but he did have training on tactics and he was the young master of the clan, so he felt he should. “I suggest breaking through the other creatures around one of its rear legs and climbing our way up.”
Magtel and Crystin only hesitated a moment before nodding. At least that meant his plan didn’t sound completely stupid. They might not enjoy receiving orders from someone lower in cultivation than they were, but neither of them were appropriate to be in command either. If it wasn’t John, they’d just have to take orders from one of the guardians. The guardians were currently quite occupied, so John it was. And he would do his best to get everyone out alive- and not too injured. It wouldn’t be a good look if he led them into trouble.