Filimena finally made her advancement to the Foundation Phase. With her age, she wouldn’t get much further than that. But a few small ranks could make a significant difference in the life of a gatherer.
Her choice of totem was conservative and safe. Another water element totem, instead of something that would bring her on the path of a cycle of the elements. Such a path was ambitious, but in Astrein specifically John thought it was actually advantageous to split elements early on. There was no more water element for Filimena to gather just because she improved her cultivation- she might improve her extraction efficiency, but at most it would be half again as much. Adding another element would result in between double and triple ability to extract spiritual energy from the surroundings, depending on affinity and the like. But sometimes, common knowledge was the victor in these things… and it was better for her to advance in any form rather than lingering at her former cultivation.
In short, it was a poor move for those with nearly any ambition- but Filimena would prefer a comfortable life. And John was content to let her, if she was happy with that. At the very least, she would be better off now than she had been when they first met.
Even so, he’d hoped to get more from her potential to pick out things of value. At least he’d managed to convince her to give up a location she had found. She said it was beyond her abilities to enter the area, so it wasn’t worth much for her to hold onto the information. Even with her advancement into the Foundation Phase, she didn’t want to go there alone. But she also wanted to know if she’d actually come across something of value.
John didn’t mind indulging her own curiosity while at the same time taking the opportunity to profit for himself. And he wasn’t going to be unreasonable, as she would receive a fair split for her information and participation. Part of the value was the information of the place, but any resources had to be found and properly secured.
As for the location, it was a week’s travel outside of Lunson at Filimena’s slightly improved pace. There were no roads for most of the journey, as they basically only crossed through Lunson with a few smaller roads leading to towns and villages that mostly had mundane individuals. There were a few groups of cultivators established in Astrein outside of the capital itself, but they were a rarity. After all, they could easily get much more of their preferred spiritual energy elsewhere- merely a single country away, except for darkness which was two, though they’d only have to travel through the Stone Conglomerate in the narrow direction.
While non-cultivators might find travel difficult, cultivators generally went far out of their way to find the best conditions they could get- which sometimes meant compromises based on strength. There were a few places within Astrein where spiritual energy peaked for certain elements, and those tended to be occupied by some small sect or clan- but it was rarely more plentiful than the countryside of any aligned area.
They traveled vaguely northwest, where they would eventually reach the Blustering Peaks if they continued. Instead, their destination was far short in some foothills that might not even be connected to the further mountains.
“There are some rougher parts ahead,” Filimena explained. “You can see there are some modest peaks up ahead. On the far side, they are nearly unnavigable. Some of what I gather is on the far side so I hoped to find a shorter route…” She looked over at John, perhaps slightly nervous about giving up her secrets- but she should also be aware that they were relatively less valuable to him. Somewhat less than a year wasn’t enough to know anyone in detail, but John thought he’d proved himself to be a decent person. “That’s when I stumbled upon an isolated valley. It would be rather difficult to reach, if you didn’t know the route. And finding it by accident… well, I can only say it was a matter of fortune. I don’t know if it could be easily stumbled across.”
“You say we’re getting close?” John asked.
“That’s right,” she nodded.
“Curious. I can’t sense anything of note from here.” Normally, a place of high spiritual energy would stand out, but large quantities of earth and stone could quite easily block such feelings.
“The passage is narrow. Little spiritual energy flows out. I didn’t even notice until I was right upon it. And then…” Filimena shrugged. “I almost immediately left. I’ve been to the entrance several times, but I sensed beasts in the Foundation Phase and… some beyond.”
John nodded. If her words were accurate, such a place was of great value in Astrein- and would not be overlooked elsewhere, as even if other countries had Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators that would find such a place less enticing personally, they still had less senior members and disciples that needed training and resources of a certain quality.
They made their way through what was essentially a cave- except for that overhead a small crack led to the sky along their route. He still didn’t feel anything of note, but he expected Filimena to be telling the truth to the best of her ability.
And then there it was. As sudden of a transition as she had declared, though John supposed he was a bit further than she had been. She spoke of being just at the mouth of a hidden valley, while he could simply feel a higher density of spiritual energy compressed within the passage in front of them- and only barely if he stretched a wider opening.
A couple hundred meters later, and they stepped out into something quite dazzling. In front of John, the spiritual energy split into discrete zones, different elements dominating instead of the nearly unreactive mix that Astrein usually had. Though John did note that much like the wider world, there was an area in the center of the valley that was mainly neutral in elemental balance. Such a thing wasn’t a common sight- more likely a single or a few elements would become dominant and wipe out the rest- but just the same as extreme quantities of single elements would occasionally crop up, so would other rarities such as this.
“It’s beautiful,” John declared. “If it weren’t so far from any and all people, I’d want to take it over and establish my sect here.”
“I might suggest a secondary grounds…?” Crystin said. “You’ll want to keep it secure, regardless.”
The angle they were entering from put them nearly along the dividing line between water and darkness elements- everything was divided into allied elements, or the whole arrangement would have likely broken down rapidly.
“A good location for training,” John agreed. “But we’ll have to keep it secret.”
“I won’t speak of it to anyone else,” Filimena quickly said. No matter how kind John had been to her already, greed could blind people. It was reasonable for her to be nervous. If she was going to be removed, now would be the time- as they were far away from civilization and had confirmed the location, there wasn’t much she could do if she was betrayed by either of the other two given her relative cultivation.
“I believed you when you said it before,” John said. “But if you run into trouble and need to… please at least inform me that it’s happened.”
“There’s very little trouble for people like me. I try not to stand out…”
“Unfortunately, our association will still be noticed to some extent. We’re not so close I would expect my enemies to come after you, but it never hurts to be careful.” For the sake of secrecy, they had met up outside the city- going on a longer journey together
John was leading the group down the divide between elements. Water and darkness abounded on either side of them, though John had certainly encountered higher concentrations of both. But the valley’s elements were greater than the training rooms available in Lunson, without relying on gathering formations. Though there was a catch to that- this place was untouched, and John didn’t know if it would easily deplenish once used. It would require proper management, at the very least.
Above him, instead of opening wide to the sky, approximately half of the valley was under the surface of a larger dome or shell. John couldn’t quite tell if this had once been a large cavern where half of the roof collapsed, or exactly how it might have come about. But the exact arrangement had produced very interesting results.
Regardless of what it might have once been, beneath his feet now was a layer of healthy soil out of which grew a variety of plants attuned to the elements. There were a few pools on the water side with waterborne plants as well, but there were also bushes with juicy berries and general foliage. And of course, there were beasts within that would eat the plants- and the other beasts that ate them.
The dividing line between the elements didn’t seem to be in the territory of any particular beast, so they were able to make their way towards the neutral center unbothered. There was little in the way of obvious threats in the mixed area, but John kept himself alert. Especially when he noticed the signs of humans.
Nothing recent, but a fallen pillar here or there showed that it had once been occupied. And in the very center of the area, an overgrown foundation. There might have once been greater function to things, but for the moment it was merely vaguely reminiscent of what had once been around. There seemed to be no traps, either on the mundane side or through the use of formations. It was difficult to tell if there had been anything, with the current state of decay.
The former presence of humans didn’t tell John much about the origins of the valley, either. It could have been intentional, or simply found that way by the previous inhabitants. As for why it was empty, they could have been killed off by rivals or abandoned it when it was depleted for a time. Over the course of many centuries, it was easy for individual locations to fall by the wayside. Perhaps the sect that made their home here simply grew too powerful to care about a place of this quality.
From the center, John could more or less feel the whole valley or whatever he should call it. He could tell the vague levels of most of the inhabitants, and while he wasn’t completely certain about defeating all of them himself, he knew he would at least be able to flee.
“Why don’t we take advantage of what is available to us?” John asked. “Crystin, surely there must be something of interest for you back there. Meanwhile, I will bring Filimena to find her portion in the water element section. We’ll want to maintain the balance, of course, so we should be conservative for now.”
To fairly give Filimena a portion of the rewards here- even a tenth or twentieth part- would take more than a few days or even weeks. Then again, suddenly being burdened with too much wealth would not be good for Filimena. John intended to take control of the place in the longer term, so slower methods would be better for him as well.
If she had not been known to John, the exchange for the information would likely have been a flat rate. And while she would have little hand in securing the value for herself, their connection still meant he would wish to reward her properly. Among other things, that meant keeping her safe- both here, and back in Lunson. Or perhaps it would be better for her to retire and live somewhere else. How she chose to live would be up to her, but the most important part was not revealing more wealth than was reasonable for her cultivation, lest others try to take it. There was less recognition of valuable resources within Astrein, so what the locals had was valued higher, especially with their relative weakness.