Since the spiritual energy could be felt all the way from the road, Steve had assumed that it would be close by. Just a short jaunt in the woods chasing after Yustina and they would be there, dealing with whatever dangers were involved. When it took longer than expected, Steve grew concerned. The fact that they could feel the fluctuations of energy from so far away meant it was quite powerful, which also meant that others would have noticed it. That included a higher grade of others seeking out the source of power.
“We could just leave,” Steve suggested. “No need to get ourselves embroiled in trouble.”
Yustina looked back at him, her momentarily short green hair swishing as she did so. “Why? Do you usually grow stronger by just sitting around doing nothing?”
“It’s dangerous,” he said.
“For who?” She raised an eyebrow. “For you? Because I know you’ve survived all this before. For me…” she shrugged. “I know your first impression of me was someone stupid and maybe weak, but I do have combat experience. More than you, I’d bet.”
Steve might have had little peaceable social interaction lately, but he still knew some things. Even cultivators could be prickly about their age, especially women. So he asked in a more useful manner. “What phase were you before?”
Yustina smiled, “Great Lake Phase.”
Steve shook his head. That was the problem with cultivators. Too many stupid names for the same thing. What the heck even was a Great Lake? With all the time spent in the Green Sands, he understood their nomenclature better. Soul Expansion Phase was also called Furnace for fire element cultivators. He hadn’t actually gone to the Shimmering Islands, but his first encounter with John had been close. Around there he’d at least heard some of it. Great Lake was… “Consolidated Soul Phase?” Steve asked. “Is that right?”
“Sure, you could call it that,” Yustina nodded.
“Great, but that doesn’t change your current strength.”
“Then we’ll need to work together, won’t we?” Yustina grinned mischievously.
Steve was well aware of what a pair of well coordinated combatants could do. John and Matayal were a powerful pair even at their wedding ceremony, when they’d only started training together for a few months at most. While their individual strengths were a large part of that, their combined efforts were a great enhancer. “We’ve never even fought together.”
“I felt your energy when you saved me from Zolvolj,” Yustina countered, “You can avoid burning me, and I can do the same with you… and everyone else here will be quite flammable.”
“I don’t think people like being called flammable,” Steve pointedly looked into the woods where he sensed several figures waiting.
“Then they should stop being flammable, or get out of our way.” Yustina held out her hand, green flames forming into a fire that danced back and forth. “Maybe they could find someone else to ambush or stop being cowards and pick their way to the source instead of lingering around the edge.”
Steve expected the attacks to begin as soon as she said that, but the group of hidden figures actually left. “Usually that doesn’t work,” Steve commented.
“In the Green Sands?” Yustina raised an eyebrow. “Nobody will admit to being afraid of a little fire.”
“Even earth element fools stuck around when I told them to get lost,” Steve commented.
“That’s because you saw their faces. They had honor or whatever to deal with. Darkness cultivators could care less… as long as you don’t actually know who they are.”
“I doubt it’s that simple,” Steve said. “Everybody’s born into a place, and a whole country doesn’t share one personality type.”
“The culture makes people care about similar things. And cultivation influences emotions.” As she spoke, they came to a section of cliff looking down into a valley. In just a few short steps their overall ability to sense the forces at play greatly increased.
Despite the dark fog permeating the valley, figures could be made out moving about. There were two prominent forces fighting each other as well as the source of the energy fluctuations in question. All along the walls of the valley grew a vine radiating the dark fog that filled the valley.
“Too bad,” Steve said with actual disappointment, “Neither of us can use this. Though I’m sure we could sell it to the Tenebach clan for a good price.”
“Know anything about the two groups.”
“Let’s see,” Steve looked carefully down below, trying to see any discernible features. “Black Scarf… Clan. And umm… the other guys would be the Dark Shadow Cult.”
Yustina looked at him in surprise. “Wow, you actually know who they both are?”
“Hmm?” Steve tilted his head. “Well, we have to call them something right? I think those names work perfectly well.”
Yustina snorted. “Of course. Just something you made up. Though I’d bet they’re not too far off from reality.” She bent down, looking at the closest vine. “What do you think this is good for?” she asked. “I can hardly make it out.” Green flames grew from her hand to light the plant producing the dark fog, which immediately caught on fire, the flames spreading down the wall of the valley in no time at all. At least a dozen heads turned towards where they stood, while many others continued their battles. “… whoops.”
As a city, Lunson stood out from everything around it in many ways. It was a city smack dab in the middle of fertile farming land, and while it would make sense for such a city to exist in some circumstances, they didn’t line up. From pretty much any point nearby it was easier to reach a major trade route that didn’t go through Lunson. The roads leading into it were little more than wide dirt tracks, and even inside the city it only turned into proper cobblestone directly around the arena.
That was the most substantial change from the surroundings. Most of Astrein was relatively weak in spiritual energy, or at least mediocre with no element dominating. The arena was charged with spiritual energy radiated by special materials and powered by spirit elements. They powered great formations solidifying the structure as well as for making a nonlethal tournament more or less possible.
As John and Matayal traveled through the rest of Astrein, the only cultivators they had encountered were passing through just like them, and mostly going to the tournament. The majority were from the Stone Conglomerate, since there were other routes, but a few were from further south. That included the Darklands and people brave enough to travel through or around them.
John had asked his grandfather Luctus about the Darklands, but even he was too young to remember when the Tenebach clan moved to the Stone Conglomerate. Luctus had been in the area during his life, but never on a long-term basis. With the energy gathering formations in the clan enough darkness elemental spiritual energy was available for training. While it did minimize the amount of things that were of particular use to the Tenebach clan, it also minimized their competition for the right kind of resources.
Since earth was allied with darkness, the Tenebach clan was by no means the only group that used darkness energy in the area… but what resources did come into the area were divvied up relatively easily based on each group’s wealth.
It might still have been better to live in the darklands except for Ciaritzal, the family’s guardian beast. The conflicts that arose from the Tenebach clan removing Ciaritzal from the Society of Midnight would likely have made the area inhospitable had they remained.
Besides the arena, an unsustainably large number of inns made up most of the rest of Lunson. It was John’s understanding that during non-tournament times, most of them lay empty. Ignored.
But of course it was time for a tournament, and that meant they were filling up rapidly. Finding appropriate accommodations for everyone was difficult. The Tenebach clan had made a number of reservations, but more people wanted to participate in the tournament than had been expected. Instead of refusing the participation of some, the Tenebach clan was willing to bring everyone along. John was glad for that, because otherwise his participation would likely have kicked someone out.
When John heard that the clan was having trouble finding the extra accommodations, he was surprised. There were so many inns that they couldn’t all be full… and truly, they were not. But the Tenebach clan had a certain reputation to uphold, and some of the places were so awful that John wouldn’t have stayed in them even in his previous life. The places were falling apart and full of foul smells of indeterminate origin.
John could have left finding proper accommodations to others. The responsibilities of the young master of the clan were for other things. However, in this case he participated because his position should contribute to their success. A random member looking for rooms for a few juniors was one thing, but the young master of the clan wanting to acquire more rooms was something else. The exact results were difficult to determine, but at least his presence was more likely to result in getting what they wanted.
The biggest problem with finding rooms was the sheer number of establishments and lack of clear communication. John never thought he’d actually miss the neon (no) vacancy signs from Earth. Some places had signs they hung, but whether or not they could be believed was another question. For the right people at the right price, free rooms might suddenly appear… or they might not.
John was feeling particularly motivated at the moment because all they needed were a few rooms for himself, Matayal, and their guards. Every inn promised security, but the actual quality varied wildly. And waiting for their guards to come to them or walking through town without were not good options either. Lunson didn’t have much in the way of city guards- for the most part they were normal people or low ranking cultivators who were paid to patrol the streets to prevent anyone breaking into places when it wasn’t tournament season.
While the Tenebach clan could certainly handle any problems that arose, it was better to not accidentally provoke an incident by appearing weak. With so many cultivators from all over and the stress from the tournament even before it started, trouble could happen at any moment.
The Golden Sky Rest had clearly seen better days, but while in places the paint was fading and chipped the walls were structurally sound and the staff appeared attentive. Unfortunately, that also meant that John was quickly turned down.
“We are sorry, young master Tenebach, but we have no accommodations suitable for you.” A young woman bowed her head in apology. “We wish you luck elsewhere.”
“The signs outside indicated that you still had several vacancies,” John pointed out.
“That is true,” the young woman kept her head respectfully bowed, or perhaps fearfully. “However, you would not find them to your liking. The Golden Sky Rest prides ourselves on our energy separating formations, but they are not versatile. The only remaining rooms are aligned with the light element.” The woman was a cultivator, though not a strong one. Still, it would be quite easy for her to sense a mix of darkness and water element cultivators.
“Light element specifically?” John asked. “Or do you have fire and air?”
“One of each, I am afraid,” she tried to keep her voice as light as possible, “Nothing you would find comfortable.”
“We’ll take them,” John said.
“…” the young woman was in a tough place. She couldn’t refuse to provide accommodations for guests, but it was clear they would be uncomfortable. She tried to stealthily look over her shoulder towards an old man she thought would be in the corner, but he was already on his way over to save her.
The old man radiated the light element, though not in an uncomfortable way. However, it provided a strange lighting John was only used to seeing in films and not in person. “You’ll be pairing off, I presume?” the old man casually swept his energy over them. At that level it was no more than a glance, not to the point he would be considered to be prying. “Those two water cultivators might benefit from the fire room. The other two will find light extremely uncomfortable.”
“It should be viable for training,” Aydan responded for himself and Crystin. “And we need not spend much time in it.”
The old man nodded. “Then you two… should do fine in the air element room.” He smiled, showing missing teeth- likely lost to battles rather than decay, given the pearly white nature of his remaining examples. “An interesting setup you have going.”
John openly displayed his darkness element, but that didn’t mean keen senses couldn’t pick out his actual cultivation. In fact, he felt a bit of similarity between himself and the old man despite their clearly incongruous choices.
“We would gladly take the rooms,” Matayal said. “We’re not here with the intention to cause trouble.”
“No. I should hope not,” the old man smiled. “I don’t imagine my establishment could handle the damage!” The jovial context made that last sentence less ominous than it might have been, but John could read the other meaning behind it.
“You shall have no trouble from us,” John confirmed.
“Then you shall have them,” the old man nodded, waddling over to behind a counter and pulling down several hanging keys. “I hope you make good use of them.”