The force of a small mountain narrowly reached over John’s head as he ducked beneath a stone club. His sword flicked out in a quick counterattack, scraping against hardened spiritual energy and causing sparks. He dove behind a nearby pillar, but the stone edifice barely slowed down the following attack. The horizontal swipe was followed up by a vertical, smashing into the ground while at the same time catapulting John into the air.
The eyes of the two combatants locked as John dangled in the air. It seemed Renato had learned some new tricks- though John had expected as much. Renato pushed off the ground, leaping towards John to bat him back into the ground. However, John twisted in the air, a swift gust from his air energy moving him out of the way of the attack. In return, he turned to throw several daggers at Renato, whose trajectory was more solidified. They could barely scratch the armor of hardened stone elemental spiritual energy he had, but John used all his techniques to slowly corrode it. If he could get in a good hit, he might gain the advantage.
The spar continued for a number of exchanges, but it was clear that John would be on the losing side. He was able to overcome the disadvantage of his air element spiritual totem being suppressed by earth by using other elements for direct defense, but the total level of his totems was still lower than Renato. His lowest was the fourth tier, and he had a fifth and a sixth as well. Renato didn’t neglect synergy between his totems, either. All of them catered to a straightforward and powerful fighting style.
After he gave up, John threw Renato a thumbs up. “Good fight! I’ll match you yet.”
Renato nodded, “Yes, it was an excellent fight. I’ll have much to meditate on.” He responded to John’s gesture with a raised fist, a symbol of solidarity. But not another thumbs up. Well, not everyone could be a transmigrator from Earth… or the parts of Earth that recognized that gesture.
John stayed at the Order of the Amber heart for a full week, sparring with the disciples… and some of the elders. It was strange to think how quickly personal power could grow in this world. There wasn’t much John had to compare it to from Earth. Comparing it to vaguely familiar things on Earth, he was in a senior management position in just a few years. If ‘management’ was replaced with ‘combat’.
Of course, just because he was in the same phase as many elders didn’t necessarily mean he matched them. The gap between the nineteenth and twenty-eighth rank was large, but even close to his own rank decades of experience with techniques could provide an advantage. Talent could overcome time in training to a certain extent, but it wasn’t as if ‘talent’ was one universal thing. Being able to increase in rank quickly had as much to do with the body’s aptitude and what resources were available to a cultivator as their comprehension abilities.
In short, John knew not to look down on old folk just because he’d caught up to them in rank. He might beat some of them, but just like those his age there would always be some stronger than him in some facet.
Due to being the young master of a powerful clan in the Stone Conglomerate and a friend of a favored disciple, John was given the honor to speak with Johannes Dalen, head of the Amber Heart. It was more than just a casual conversation in passing, but instead he received some instruction in relation to earth.
Though he was ‘only’ twenty-ninth rank, Johannes was still in the Consolidated Soul Phase, a full half phase ahead of John’s grandfather. Of course, there was a chance for Luctus to match him, now that John had performed the reverse empowerment ceremony, but the fact that the Tenebach clan would just match the Order if that happened was quite relevant. Having strong allies was important, and early Consolidated Soul Phase was about the limit of cultivators in the Stone Conglomerate.
The Stone Conglomerate wasn’t low ranking, but there were areas with more abundant spiritual energy and even areas hyper focused to specific elements. Greater resources were available in other locations, and even higher phases were reached by those at the top. John doubted that ‘demigod’ and ‘god’ phase were quite appropriate as names for those phases, but from the perspective of the Stone Conglomerate, perhaps it was true.
Though he had surpassed Aydan in power, John didn’t ask for someone else as a guardian. The relationship they had built up was solid, and it would be an insult to ask for someone stronger. The Tenebach clan didn’t have many who could serve as a guard for John regardless. More importantly… though he was currently still at the late Foundation Phase, Aydan wasn’t far from Soul Expansion. He’d been one of the first to receive the benefits of the reverse empowerment ceremony, returning his cultivation ability to where it should have been, if not better. He’d given up some cultivation and that wouldn’t immediately come back, but he could continue to cultivate to raise his level.
Perhaps if he were going into hostile territory John would have brought along additional protection, but he wouldn’t just toss Aydan aside. He wasn’t such a terrible person. Maybe Forktran would have been, but even if Aydan had no talent at all- instead of just having given up some of it for John’s sake- he wouldn’t want to be separated. There was something important about being able to work with someone for the long term.
Hiring a good employee was hard. If you got a good one, you never wanted to let them go. It was a bit different with family, but it wasn’t as if he was having to debate against family or someone competent. Since Aydan was both, asking him to part ways would just be foolish.
On the other hand, John didn’t want to restrict him. “Is there anything you would like to accomplish? Any ambitions?”
Aydan took the question seriously, thinking for several moments before replying. “Most of my goals are already complete. I wanted the Tenebach clan to be stable, to grow in power. Being here is accomplishing that.” He smiled, “And I’m quite happy with my bet on you. I hope for you to usher in a new age for the Tenebach clan.”
John sighed, “I don’t know if I know how to do that, but I’ll try.”
“I can tell you a secret,” Aydan leaned in conspiratorially, “Nobody knows how to do it all. At least you can provide a solid foundation… and if you let those who are competent with management actually do that, the clan should prosper.”
“I’d be quite happy to do that,” John admitted. “But I can’t help but wonder if I’m capable of much beyond swinging a sword and killing people.”
Aydan laughed, “At worst, you will match the majority of clan heads like that.”
John nodded, “Are you sure there isn’t anything you want for yourself?”
“… nothing that bears talking about at this moment,” Aydan said.
“So there is something. Well, tell me about it when something can be done. I can’t promise the world, but I can promise a swift sword,” John held two fingers apart and created a short arc between them, “And some lightning, if that helps.”
Aydan laughed, “It might. Who knows.”
Along the way to Dolomite Harbor, John didn’t encounter anything else of note. No wild beasts along the road or bandits, no people causing trouble in the establishments he was staying in, and no disasters. A few small earthquakes, but if a building in the Stone Conglomerate could be toppled by such a thing, it would have happened long before. Some could barely be felt, and only a few were at the level that felt like a train passing. Not that there were trains in this world, but there were plates to clatter.
Upon arriving at Dolomite Harbor, John found it just as impressive as before. The nearly sheer cliffs and wide stairs overlooking the harbor below weren’t suddenly smaller just because he was stronger. If anything, he still appreciated how far he had to go. As an individual he was still quite insignificant compared to a proper city, regardless of being at Soul Expansion Phase.
Since it wasn’t known ahead of time when he would be coming here, they hadn’t arranged for transport. Upon talking to the harbormaster about ships heading to Pualani, John learned that the Wavecutter would be porting in a few days. That wasn’t the only option, but given his previous experiences he thought it best to travel with them again.
One reason John chose to ride with the Wavecutter again was because of their speed. Though the ship itself was not particularly faster than any other, the design allowed it to go directly to a destination. As for what was stopping other ships from doing the same… it was the very thing he was looking for.
The Shimmering islands were beautiful and pleasant on good days… but with the water and air energies mixing throughout the area storms were extremely common. Quick to form, and quick to end.
On the previous trip John had rarely gone up on deck even during the more minor storms. Now, the boat was rocking back and forth from waves nearly its height with lightning striking near constantly- and John stood next to Captain Sohan on the deck.
It was only through John’s careful manipulation of the air around them that they were able to converse, with the high winds and near constant thunder. “It’s good to see you back, young master Tenebach!” Sohan grinned at him. “I see your cultivation has taken a huge step forward. Your path… well, it’s not one I would have tried, but I’m just a sailor trying to not fall off his ship!” Sohan laughed.
The man was a cultivator in the Soul Expansion Phase as well. His two earth totems and single water totem matched his desire to stand against the storms of the Shimmering Islands. John looked him over, “You’ve made some advancements yourself, in this past year.”
“Ha, it was but a single rank,” though he brushed it off, Sohan seemed content that his increase was noticed. “I’m not sure what you did to rise from mid Foundation Phase so quickly.”
“That’s simple,” John said. “I trained with Matriarch Kusuma Mulyani.”
Sohan grimaced, “I’ve… heard of her. She and her clan are not ones to be trifled with. I’ve heard that their training can be… intense.”
John nodded. “Oh, absolutely. I have no intentions to undergo it again. Though I’m not sure if I’ll be given the option.” Lightning struck the ship- but the lightning rods encased in the masts channeled the power through the ship. John was still impressed that the ship managed to hold together under all the stress, but he also knew it took a captain crazy enough to try it. But Sohan and the Wavecutter had earned a reputation for a reason. “If you don’t mind, I have some training to attempt.”
John made his way to the crow’s nest. Though the ship tilted alarmingly at some points, he found it quite reasonable as a starting point. While he could tie himself to the mast with some of the variously available ropes, he instead planned to rely on his own abilities to keep himself steady.
As the next bolt of lightning struck the central mast, he reached up, channeling some of it into him. Pure air elemental spiritual energy flooded his meridians and his dantian, the energy crackling through him. As it moved it almost bordered on fire, heating him from the inside. He guided it through his meridians and once it calmed down slightly, into his dantian. There, it joined the sky, flowing through the air. If only he had proper clouds to contain it, he felt it could step up another level.
But of course, it would always be best to have a supporting element. That was the whole point of completing a full cycle. He had no certainty that he would be able to accomplish the feat, but he knew he hadn’t reached his limits just yet. And with the current synergy between his totems, he was proud of where he was, and not just where he might one day be.
He reached out for the next bolt, peeling a slightly larger portion. He would likely have to expel excess energy he couldn’t store, but the process of capturing it and guiding it would be beneficial to him regardless. Besides, he had the feeling that if he couldn’t capture lightning his future would be difficult… and not from any enemies he knew of.