After Steve and Yustina left, there was nothing urgent on John’s plate. He wished that meant he had nothing to do for eight months, and he could just stay put with Matayal and wait for their children to be born, but instead it just meant he was occupied with longer term business.
There was some chance that things would become an immediate problem, but trouble could come from anywhere for a cultivator. When dealing with the Society of Midnight who hadn’t really interacted with the Tenebach clan for decades, they likely had some time. Even if they had been stirred into actions, it might still be months or years before they acted again.
To that end, it was better to disrupt their connections in the Stone Conglomerate in a subtle manner. If they didn’t know what had been discovered, it would be difficult for them to act to repair any problems the Tenebach clan caused.
Of course, Steve’s actions hadn’t been subtle. They knew information was stolen, but that didn’t necessarily mean they could pin down by who. Even if some of their members remembered ‘Lucanus’ from the attack before, the bit of uncertainty as to whether certain information went to the Tenebach clan should help. Hopefully.
At the moment John was banging his head against his task, trying to figure out what could be done. Unfortunately it wasn’t so simple as storming into a place and killing everyone. For one thing, the target in question wasn’t so simple. The Diamond Trading Company was large, with many powerful cultivators working for them. They operated mostly in the Stone Conglomerate, but had branches throughout surrounding countries. Starting a war with them would be suicide, and completely unnecessary.
It wasn’t as if the entire company had signed an agreement to work against the Tenebach clan, or to smuggle goods and people for the Society of Midnight. As they weren’t a clan or a sect, the way the Diamond Trading Company functioned was different. First and foremost was profit, wealth that would allow them to gather cultivation resources and equipment to their own benefit. While they were not above certain shady business practices, it wouldn’t benefit them to get into direct confrontations with people. That would make others more hesitant to deal with them.
Well, it wasn’t that they would avoid direct confrontations. They just wouldn’t start them. Trading companies were zealous in protecting their own members, as long as those members stayed within certain limits.
So the question before John was how to narrow down which people needed to be dealt with and how. If the question was before him alone, he would have no idea what to do. But that was what the advice of others was for. Matayal wasn’t suddenly incapable of doing anything even if she was going to avoid combat. And there was little point in having a clan if you couldn’t call upon those with expertise in different areas.
In this case, the first person was Fortkran’s father, Gerben. John hadn’t spent as much time with him as his grandfather Luctus, which was mainly due to their difference in focus. Gerben had been handling the administrative functions of the clan since before John was born, and quite happily at that. He wasn’t a fighter like Luctus, or like John had turned out to be. He had sufficient cultivation to perform his duties as clan head and not embarrass the Tenebach clan, but cultivation wasn’t his strong suit. John had surpassed him, with Gerben just having reached the Soul Expansion Phase sometime after the reverse empowerment ceremony.
John had spent more time lately learning from him, especially as his own time as clan head was coming up shortly. While his father wouldn’t leave him to do everything on his own, it was better to be capable of everything without him and then still have his assistance.
The two of them had a bundle of papers between them on a desk. “I’m pretty sure these three are the main connecting points,” John pointed them out. “The problem is dealing with them without drawing the ire of the Diamond Shipping Company. Some of them doubtless have rivals who would like to take their position, but getting people poised for that if there aren’t any close in power could take too long.”
“Let’s see what we have here…” Gerben was doubtless somewhat familiar with his own copies of the information, but they may have taken notice of different things. “Ayesha Saab, tied to equipment manufacturing. Bashkim Shehu dealing with trades of beast parts. Finally, Francescu Girard, tied to the ore trade. Two of them for certain, the third strongly hinted to be related. More time spent in the Darklands than absolutely necessary.” Girard nodded. “This is a good basis, though we’ll need to consider who they work with. Aides, partners, and other companies. Bashkim might hire certain hunters regularly, and Ayesha must have preferred smiths and the like.”
“Right,” John nodded. “I just don’t really know what to do with that information.”
“Well, there are a few things. First, while we don’t have sufficient evidence to convince the Stone Conglomerate or just Marble Country to act as a whole, nor enough to convince the company to take our word over theirs, we do have some allies who would listen. The Order of the Amber Heart has some significant sway in certain areas. With the Crystal Caverns just having opened up, that affects the trade of Spirit Stones and their use in equipment manufacturing.”
“Too bad I missed it,” John shook his head. “Would have liked to see it again. And it’s a bit late to have them restrict trading on what came out of there.”
“True, but there’s also the most goodwill for them just after such an event. We could come up with a plan and see if they are willing to go along. As for the second dealing in beast parts, disrupting that industry is difficult. We’d have to watch for specific openings. Perhaps something like that great lizard. They’d have to devote resources to something then fail to get it. Unfortunately, we’d run the same sort of risks ourselves.”
“Hopefully they wouldn’t be aware we were even intending to cause trouble,” John pointed out. “And if we can get someone else from their company involved less of the financial risks will be on us. Getting something big to travel through a different partner could change relative favor in the company. There’s always the option of taking out their most prominent hunters, but the individual cultivators involved might have problems with that, and if it significantly disrupts the whole company’s business…” John shook his head. The Tenebach clan had many people it could trade with, but even they did business with the Diamond Trading Company.
“As for the last one,” Gerben commented. “There’s a somewhat risky proposition that comes to mind. The Darklands aren’t known for being safe, so if a big shipment and someone with it disappears, it wouldn’t be that odd. But that has difficulties whether we try to pull it off ourselves or deal with others in the area. The Society of Midnight doubtless has rivals in the area, but if they gain knowledge of our guardian beast there’s no guarantee we wouldn’t simply gain more potential threats.”
“Ciaritzal is something special,” John nodded. “On that note, we could also more directly deal with some of the members of the Society of Midnight. If we can catch wind of any of the higher ranking members traveling relatively unprotected, we might be able to get more fragments of Ciaritzal from them. That would strengthen us while weakening them. But I wouldn’t expect it to be easy.”
“That’s right. After their defeat here and the events in Astrein, they might be more cautious. It could make them overly eager to cause trouble here, but even if they rush into something here dealing with an unknown number of Consolidated Soul Phase enemies is… a bit of a problem.”
The attack on the occasion of John’s wedding had been coordinated and involved a significant amount of the Society’s manpower, but the group had deep roots in the Darklands. If a group of their strongest members simply barged across the border into Marble County there would be an organized response, but the problem would be if they came across in smaller numbers and went unnoticed. Which was one of the main problems with their dealings with the Diamond Trading Company. They weren’t the only group that the Society had ties to, but they were the priority to deal with… somehow.
Whenever something of value surfaced, people tried to keep it secret. If the thing in question was on the established lands of someone who could deal with it, they might even succeed. It was when groups of people moved into areas that were without ownership or additional people were hired that word started to get out.
The Chalk Hills weren’t an especially prosperous region of the Stone Conglomerate. Given that the current world wasn’t in the habit of using the soft rock as a writing implement, the namesake of the area was practically without value. Likewise, the level of spiritual energy that could be found was lower than the average, meaning that on the whole their cultivators were weaker than other regions.
Thus, when exceptional circumstances arose, they were unable to deal with the problem themselves. If someone was smart then they had sold the information to others, but John couldn’t confirm anything except the information that had eventually reached them. Some sort of darkness element beast had crept out of the darklands through less populated areas until it eventually came to settle in the region. Something of significant strength, such that it would need at least a dozen Soul Expansion Phase cultivators to take it down. The Tenebach clan sent eight, but they weren’t planning to fight it alone.
John stood outside the door of an office in the adjacent Feldspar Fields, a somewhat wealthier region due to its placement along a practical trade route. That was where John had a meeting with Artsiom Esser, another member of the Diamond Trading Company, and a man who would greatly like Bashkim’s position. John was announced a moment later, entering the small office with Luctus following after him.
“Fortkran Tenebach,” the surprisingly young man nodded his head. He was hardly over John’s own age, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been odd for him to be in a position of note as John himself would soon be the official clan head. “And Luctus Tenebach, I’m pleased to have you here. Come, sit.”
For this meeting, John would be doing most of the talking. While his grandfather’s status was still higher, and his presence necessary for this particular excursion, John needed to be in the public eye as someone who had actual authority. Perhaps when he reached Consolidated Soul Phase people would respect him for his power, but if they already had a powerful image of him in mind then when he made the advance he would only seem all the greater.
“Thank you,” John said. After exchanging a few pleasantries, he moved on to the main point. “I’m sure you know why we’re here.”
“You’re interested in that beast,” Artsiom answered plainly. “Same as we are. What for?”
“Some of our members could make use of certain pieces to help advance their cultivation,” John said simply. He didn’t have to point out that his grandfather behind him was approaching the peak of Soul Expansion Phase. With his talent returned to him and even slightly enhanced, he was racing with John to determine who would be first among them. Given his age, however, it would be difficult for him to make the final step without something to push him over.
“We could also sell those same things to others,” Artsiom pointed out. “Why should the Diamond Trading Company work with you? We have people preparing for the task already.”
“That’s easy. Work with us and we practically make sure it gets into your hands. Yours, and not just the company in general. If you could swoop in and get something before Bashkim’s men arrive, then all of the merits go to you.” This single job likely wouldn’t be enough to secure Artsiom’s advancement, but if the Tenebachs focused too much on weakening their enemies and forgot their own benefit, they’d hardly be ready for whatever troubles next came their way.
Artsiom was a businessman, so he was of course going to negotiate with John over the possibilities of how they might split their prize. Without knowing what sort of beast it was they couldn’t go into exact details, but they could at least determine proportions based on how much each group was contributing in terms of manpower and information. John was willing to give a few concessions for the sake of being in the man’s favor, which would be especially helpful if they managed to get him to replace Bashkim. But if that failed, the Tenebach clan should still benefit from the deal.