Hunting bison was a fairly decent training method. Cultivators tended to fight both humans and beasts, and they were a fine example of the latter. Too large to beat with physical strength, too numerous to simply overwhelm with numbers. Some amount of spiritual energy, but not enough to directly overwhelm assaults by trained cultivators. Seeing a herd of them coming to trample you would certainly provoke some amount of fear, and see who was ready and who was not.
The initial moments seemed reasonable. Specifically, the disciples were wise enough to have stayed at the fringes of the herd rather than aiming for the middle. Barakat stood out front, standing tall with his spear held ready. The others flanked him in pairs on either side.
That held precisely until the initial clash. An explosion of wind burst around Barakat as he thrust his spear into the leading bison. His effort was sufficient to drive the spear into its body… but that didn’t stop it. It would certainly die in a few moments, but its momentum overcame his force. He flew backwards, and that nearly caused the others to break apart.
As it was, they had to step aside, splitting them into their respective pairs. Ayhan and Fulton ended up on one side, with Stithulf and Lir on the other. The first two settled into a defensive position, Ayhan providing the stability of earth while Fulton created a field of darkness around them meant to drive the bison away. That left Stithulf’s water and Lir’s fire. They didn’t coordinate well, with his bubble of water blocking her cone of fire.
Still, John held back and watched as the shielding allowed Sthithulf to be knocked to the side, deflecting the charging bison enough to let Lir dodge- though not entirely on purpose.
John only stepped in because Ayhan and Fulton were deeper into the wave, with no way to get out. The bison really just wanted to get away- which sometimes meant going through them when spooked- which was another reason they were a good opponent.
Rather than completely shielding the two, John deflected some of the approaching wave. Barakat had picked himself up, and joined them with the three fighting their way out of the rest in their way, preferring lighter thrusts to prod the creatures away rather than committing to full attacks.
Ultimately they brought down a few- the one Barakat had speared and several more injured in the charge that fell behind. There were sufficient injuries to make them understand the seriousness of the situation as well. Hopefully, that would temper their desire for battle.
While they would have to rest their injuries, John would be paying them well enough that they could afford to do so. Overall, he thought their performance was fine, though he would certainly have some constructive criticism and suggestions for future training.
John was impressed by Raul’s growth, though he was no longer limited so much by his cultivation as his knowledge as an alchemist. And while he might learn something by endless experimentation, that would require both time and a vast quantity of materials… along with a little bit of luck so that nothing went terribly wrong like producing a potent poison that he didn’t anticipate.
“I’ve sent Viriato off to find you some recipe tomes,” John explained.
Raul pursed his lips. “I am grateful, but that seems… unnecessary.”
“There’s more to alchemy than simply extracting and purifying spiritual essences,” John shrugged. “You won’t do much business if you can’t provide what your customers need. And if you expect them to stagnate in one place, then you can only expect their business to last so long. People will want healing salves. Temporary boosts in power. Cures for exotic diseases. You need to be able to provide those… or at least have a starting point to work from.”
Raul nodded. “Not too long ago, I had simply been resigned to barely keeping my shop open. It does seem like a waste to do a special trip for me.”
“I wouldn’t waste Viriato’s time,” John assured him. “I’ve sponsored him to pick out a variety of goods as he travels. It should be profitable for both of us.” There was only so much a single merchant could do, of course. John intended to gain the services of others as well, filling whatever needs were required. There was a purpose for specialists along with those that had broader varieties of goods.
Though John didn’t specialize in trading, he hadn’t managed a clan for over two decades without picking up a wide variety of related things. It wasn’t his job to purchase individual things, but managing overall finances let him know the balance of what they needed. There were always differences between various clans and sects, but there was significant overlap.
“What are your plans, sir?” Raul asked. “With Viriato, as well as Ayhan and the others?”
John shrugged. “Same as with you. I plan to establish myself here to take advantage of the unique properties of Astrein.”
“What if I leave?”
“You would have already,” John pointed out. “As for the street kids, most of them will have a stronger bond to each other. And if they have the ambition to leave, I can direct them to allies who can help them. If they want nothing to do with me instead, then I’ve made a mistake in picking them or how I acted,” John shrugged. “At some point a more formal arrangement will be required, but I can afford to lose everything I’ve invested so far if it doesn’t work out.”
Ultimately, John would be here cultivating regardless. If he did nothing else, he would mostly be wasting time. There were only so many hours a day one could effectively cultivate. John in particular was trying to be gentle on his dantian, letting his spiritual energy return to its former strength at a modest speed. Though how modest that speed was could be debated, given his previous experience and available resources.
Food wasn’t something that anyone could have a monopoly on. Just because John was the one to popularize burgers didn’t mean he was the only one who could sell them in Astrein, and he wasn’t interested in forcing a monopoly anyhow. A few others, seeing his success, added cheeseburgers or similar hot sandwiches to their menus. Personally, John didn’t mind that. He even visited some stalls and was planning to eat at some restaurants that were trying their hand at the food. His bison burgers were good, but not enough that he wanted to eat them every meal. At the very least he wanted some sort of variety. He could also take the best bits of the various iterations others made for himself, turning it into a virtuous cycle of tasty food.
Ultimately, John’s business didn’t suffer much for no longer being unique. He had a number of loyal customers, and he offered a service many others didn’t- customized spiritual energy types for cheap. While some tried it, there weren’t exactly a lot of multi-element cultivators around to make perfect replicas. Some might settle for an inferior, but that was perfectly alright in John’s eyes. And if his own product wasn’t up to standards, he’d have to improve it. It was still viable as training for his spiritual energy as well. Soon, he’d have some of the street kids helping… in decent uniforms.
Most of his days were passing smoothly, but John could smell trouble when it approached. Or specifically the stench of burning and sulfur. John spotted Oden walking down the street, along with two others at his side. One was a man not quite so old as Oden himself, and the other a significantly younger woman. From a surface level scan of their energy, John determined that the man and the woman were most likely dual cultivation partners… though perhaps partners wasn’t the right word. They were three ranks apart- with the man at the 24th and her at the 21st. That was a significant gap, but there were several possible explanations. It could be malice or lack of care on the stronger partner’s part, lack of skill, or simply a more recent development.
When they stopped in front of John’s stall, he remained unfazed. “What do you want to eat? We have a variety of options, and we can provide a balance of your preferred spiritual energy.” It was the job of those in the service industry to be polite to customers, even if they didn’t like them. That was a lesson Oden seemed to have missed, but he seemed to think himself above it.
Oden spoke firmly in response. “Two fire and one earth. Quickly. Our time is valuable. But make sure they’re fresh.”
“Of course,” John said, his hands already moving. Flames flowed from him to the grill, a small part going into the meat itself to balance the cooking exactly as he wished. His eyes never left the customers in front of him, and he maintained his pleasant smile. Less than a minute passed before he had three burgers stacked to their specifications, finishing at the same time. They took the food and turned to leave. As they were several steps away, John coughed. “Sir. You forgot to pay.”
Oden turned back to him, disdain in his eyes. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, but ultimately tossed a coin to John. Clearly intentionally just out of range for him to catch it. John made no move to extend his spiritual energy, letting the coin hit the ground. It was sufficient value, so he simply watched them walk away. John pulled the fingers in his left sleeve away from his hidden throwing daggers.
Once they were out of sensory range, he gestured Ayhan over, the youth watching from a nearby alley. “You can have that. I don’t actually want his money.”
“I just don’t want him to have it,” John said.
“I see,” Ayhan said, not at all bothered by bending down to pick up money off the ground. And John wouldn’t be either, in most cases. “I feel like that almost turned into a battle.”
“Perhaps,” John said. “What would you have done if it had?”
“I would have stood by your side, of course,” Ayhan said.
John grinned, “Admirable, but foolish. You’re far too weak for that.”
“Well I couldn’t leave you alone. Besides, your guard is here somewhere… isn’t she…?” Ayhan looked around.
John shrugged. “Who knows?” Of course, he was quite aware of Crystin’s location. He was quite confident in his battle prowess, but three Soul Expansion Phase cultivators in his current state would be more than iffy, even if their totems were nothing special. “You’ll learn what fights you can join eventually. For now, I will say I appreciate the thought but you absolutely shouldn’t attempt to participate in a battle where I am in any sort of peril. You’d be more of a liability than an asset.”
“I suppose so,” Ayhan sighed. “Kids like us will never be able to match people like you and them.”
“I didn’t say that,” John corrected him. He was also slightly offended to end up in the same category as Oden. “Do you happen to know who those other two were?”
“Not much more than their names,” Ayhan said. “They’re from the Platinum Tower Society, but so are most of those Alchemist Oden associates with. The man is Aghi. We all avoid him. The woman… Katerina, I think.” Ayhan tilted his head. “A Katerina? Maybe there were others? She doesn’t really bother us, but we still stay out of her way.”
“Best to keep that practice up in general,” John said. “You can avoid a lot of unnecessary conflict. And make people think themselves important, which can easily make them sloppy.”
“Umm… does that apply to…?” Ayhan didn’t seem willing to finish that.
“I get a big head sometimes too,” John shrugged. “That’s why I have people to correct me if I mess up.”
“That battle wouldn’t have been the problem,” Crystin suddenly said from next to Ayhan, causing the young man to startle. “But the ones after…”
“I know,” John shrugged. “But I also couldn’t let him get away with it.”
“Absolutely not,” Crystin agreed. “Though if you wanted, I could settle the matter privately.”
“No way,” John said. “When something happens, the whole city will be aware of it. They’ll lose a lot more status that way.” John smiled at Ayhan, then held up a finger. “Don’t be blabbing about any of this to too many people, okay?” Their conversation would be shielded by Crystin and himself, so random passersby wouldn’t overhear.
“Also, it’s lunch rush so start grabbing people to help,” John said, looking into the crowd.