The more someone cultivated, the less conscious effort it required. Of course, to maximize the effectiveness of cultivation still required concentration. But even as he napped, John pulled in spiritual energy from around him, filling himself up and even refining it to a slightly greater level through the Sapling. To some extent, it even included the miniature sun inside of him, though its efficiency was less than a tenth that when he was conscious of it and managing its power.
A sigh escaped John’s mouth as he woke up from his rest. The carriage still rolled along with a pleasant lull… but along with consciousness came his awareness of the heat. It didn’t suddenly get better just because he was a little more proficient in cultivating. That said, the concentration of fire elemental spiritual energy was higher closer to the volcano. The fact that it affected him about the same as the heat when he’d first entered the Green Sands actually showed how much he had improved.
Outside of the carriage he could see buildings and sense cultivators. They should have arrived at the lands of the Milanovic clan. The slowing carriages confirmed his assumption. When they finally stopped, he stepped out of the carriage to be met with a strong breeze. Though the air was still warm, it maintained a cooling effect relative to the rest of the atmosphere. A slight smile crossed John’s face allowing his mouth to be filled with sand. So, that was how it was going to be. He had to defend himself from even the nearly-comforting breeze.
As he adjusted his defenses to divert the sand around himself, he thought he sat a smirk from Tena. Then her eyes flashed as she looked forward towards an approaching group. Three cultivators at the Foundation Phase- two middle aged men who were clearly guardians of the third, younger man. He was at the tenth rank, the beginning of Foundation Phase, just like John found himself. “Friends of yours?” he stage whispered to Tena. She rolled her eyes. Of course, the aggressive way fire elemental spiritual energy swirled around the group made it all clear.
“Tena!” the young man who led the way didn’t even put on a good fake smile. Either he wasn’t trying or needed to practice much more. “It is good to see you returned safely. We heard about the attack.” His eyes turned to John, who he had pointedly not looked at before. “And who is this?”
“One would think you could remember a name, Erik. It was in the message we sent ahead.” Tena stood as tall as she could against a cultivator two ranks higher- and more importantly in the next phase. “This is Fortkran Tenebach. He and his guardian assisted us during the bandit attack. They have come to stay as guests.”
“Really?” Erik raised an eyebrow. “They arrived just as you were attacked. What a nice… coincidence.” As he spoke, his energy bore down on John.
It wasn’t an attack… but it wasn’t not an attack. It was quite a commonly accepted practice to use the pressure of one’s cultivation to force another to capitulate. A socially acceptable form of attack, but still a form of aggression.
The heat around John multiplied with Erik’s energy. His recent practice immediately took over, and his earth elemental spiritual energy absorbed the heat and drove it down into the ground beneath. That ground was already warm, even deep. He hadn’t thought about that, but it made sense. They were on a volcano, after all. Even though he wasn’t able to bleed off as much heat as he would like and began to sweat profusely, he was holding his own.
“So…” Erik poured more of his energy into the oppression, “What dark plots does the Tenebach clan have here?”
John looked him directly in the eyes as sweat dripped down his face. Not very dignified, he was aware, but he held his gaze firm. As his sweat began to evaporate, he appreciated the cooling effect it had. He internally grit his teeth as he resisted the pressure with his earth energy, until it finally let up as he nearly reached the end of his energy. John breathed a sigh of relief.
“Nothing to say?” Erik smiled, confident in his suppression. Erik looked to Tena, “One should be careful when associating with outsiders.” With that, he turned around and began to walk away.
John immediately took a step forward and grabbed his shoulder. Up to that point, he had only been using his earth energy. His darkness elemental spiritual energy had been kept tightly wrapped up inside of him, and it was naturally inclined to hide itself. As John’s hand squeezed Erik’s shoulder, he spoke carefully one word at a time. “I have not yet responded to your baseless insinuations.” Hungry, chilling darkness flowed out of him and around the two of them. While the pressure on him had indeed made him sweat, it wasn’t from the strain of exertion. His earth energy had been nearly used up, but Erik had also used perhaps two-thirds of his own energy, as it was displayed less efficiently. “The Tenebach clan has no connection to bandits. We merely acted to assist fellow honorable cultivators.” John wanted to reach his darkness inside of Erik and tear out his spiritual energy, but his rational side told him that was just the heat messing with his head. A cultivator needed to be confident in their actions, but there was a fine line between confidence and arrogance. If he went too far, it would ruin any good relations they had build up with the Milanovic clan, despite Erik being from a different faction in the clan. He didn’t hesitate to tear away the energy on the surface, however. “I require an apology for your insults to the Tenebach clan.” His grip squeezed tighter as Erik tried to pull away.
A wave of heat rushed towards him as one of the guardians with him stepped forward. “That’s enough! Unhand Erik.” Before the energy could touch him, Aydan and Rurik held it away with their own energy- though either one of them could match him individually.
“A significant breach of decorum, Patrik. But this incident can be glossed over once Erik apologizes. Or you can do it in his stead.”
The second guardian seemed contemplating getting involved, but even with the addition of his energy they could only match the other two. The only chance to sway things in their favor would be to escalate to actual attacks.
John turned a paling Erik toward him, leaning close. “Apologize.”
“I-I-I-” Erik’s teeth were chattering as he tried to speak. “I ap-p-ologize for my insin-sin-uations against the T-Tenebach clan.”
John immediately withdrew his energy around himself, and let go of his grip. “Apology accepted. I continue to hope the Tenebach clan and the Milanovic clan can work together to the benefit of each other,” John’s face lit up with a smile. It was only as the other group pulled away and exited the courtyard that he realized his smile wasn’t a pleasant fake, but a genuine smile. Just not for reasons he was happy with. Was that aggressive darkness the former Fortkran, or something from the guardian beast? Had he been influenced by the teachings of the clan… or was that really him? He’d never had a situation where he could act in that manner on Earth. Being aggressive with customers, even terrible ones, would only result in bad publicity for the burger shop.
Tena watched until the group had left. “A solid display, but I imagine he’ll find ways to cause more trouble for either of us in the future.” She shrugged, “Not that you should have capitulated either.”
Aydan placed a hand on John’s shoulder. “If he is wise, that young man will pick other battles to fight.” He leaned in close to John’s ear, “Do be careful with how you display your power. The reputation of darkness users is already… lacking.”
John nodded. He understood that. A fire user could burn someone’s face off, but if he drained the color from someone’s face it made people uneasy. Then again, it made him uneasy too. Just not quite as much as he thought it should have. “If you have some private rooms available, I could use a moment.” The aftermath of the ‘battle’ was still flowing through him, and he didn’t want to miss a good chance to cultivate.
The Milanovic clan didn’t have many rooms suited for cultivating elements other than fire, but likewise those rooms they did have weren’t very frequented. One room was specialized for cultivating earth element and passed the fire element on to other areas. That was just what John needed- freedom from the heat.
He already had a small sun burning inside of him. Too large, even. He’d absorbed more fire into himself than intended, but perhaps that was useful at this moment. Heat flowed through him, but he also swirled with earth and darkness. Along with minor traces of other elements, he furiously circulated his energy through his meridians. Each cycle that it returned to his dantian it was absorbed by the Sapling of Darkness, purifying to another level before flowing back out into the rest of him. The cycle accelerated and the pressure inside of him built until there was a sudden expansion as he broke through to the eleventh level, the second level of the Foundation Phase. He released his breath, fire and smoke pouring from his mouth instead of a black goop.
It wasn’t a major step to go from the tenth to eleventh level, but it wasn’t trivial either. It showed he could continue advancing at a reasonable pace even in Foundation Phase. Advancing every month or two for the entirety of Foundation Phase was likely out of the question, but if he could do that he would surpass his parents in less than two years. They weren’t the peaks of cultivation within the clan, but as long as he could reach a level similar to them he would have long term security within the clan. That wasn’t where John set his eyes, however. At the very least, he wanted to match his grandfather at the Soul Expansion Phase.