At the conclusion of the battle, the one in the best shape was Ciaritzal, who was now more vigorous than before the battle. On the other end, aside from those who had perished, Kusuma and Deirdre were in the worst shape.
John checked on Kusuma first- she was immediately nearby, after all.
“Stop fussing over me,” she waved him away. “I’ll be fine.”
The fact that she could barely speak those words didn’t fill John with much confidence. Being conscious was more due to her stubbornness than any sign of health. John was particularly concerned about potential traces of poisons still in her system, since she was nearly drained of spiritual energy. If some trouble arose, she wouldn’t be able to purify herself. He didn’t think he could remedy the situation except for offering some air element to help replenish her. The quantities of such elements wasn’t exactly high in the Darklands.
Deirdre was another problem. Her body was surprisingly intact given the torrent of energy Cuah’arn’s egg produced during the explosion. That is to say, she was injured- but not gravely so. Not on the surface, anyway. She had directed as much energy as possible away from her companions, absorbing it herself- damaging her own cultivation in the process. The fact that she wasn’t dead was already a miracle, but she certainly wasn’t conscious. John regretted entrusting her with the egg to some extent… but it was also the case that she used it to take out the vice-head, Katla. Removing a powerful opponent from the battle had helped pave the way to victory.
The real problem, perhaps, was discussing that the egg could be used in that manner to begin with. Deirdre was old enough to make her own informed decisions, he supposed, but even offering risky maneuvers like that was problematic.
The Society of Midnight was looted, though after achieving their victory they took care to not unnecessarily damage the surroundings. That was part of the price for the aid of the Calamitous Swarm, and though John hadn’t been present for much of their involvement in the battle, they were quite helpful in reducing casualties of the alliance. A portion of the spoils was set aside for them as well.
The alliance did not stay long. While everyone could use some rest, rest in the Darklands was much less effective for those on the other side of the elemental spectrum. Several members of the Tenebach clan were assigned to Deirdre strictly to protect her from intrusion of darkness energy. Her body might begin to heal, but her spirit could not recover in such conditions. Kusuma wasn’t much better off, though air energy was not completely absent like light. After only two nights, they were back on the road.
The Society of Midnight had no doubt called for the aid of further allies- or those who owed them favors. Their destruction might give some an excuse to stay out of the way, but others might wish to take advantage of fatigued cultivators.
Despite previous business, it was decided that they would be returning along the same route. That would mean paying the Serpent Watchers a not-insignificant bribe, but it would also keep them out of uncertain territory. Whether the Serpent Watchers could be held to their word was another matter- preventing others from chasing after them aside, they might see the weakened army and push for further payment. John considered what he would do if that were to happen, and he decided the response would involve a particularly happy spirit beast hanging out inside him.
Though they were not aware of any significant enemy forces in the region, they remained cautious while traveling- setting up fortifications along the way. Renato and the earth cultivators had to work hard for that, but they were among those who could properly replenish their spiritual energy, since earth was aligned with darkness. The closer they got to the Stone Conglomerate, the easier it would be for them.
Instead of attempting to avoid the Serpent Watchers, they adjusted their route to run into them as soon as possible. This would give the Serpent Watchers less advance warning, and though it was possible that they had kept their soldiers actively on guard for more than a week, it was more likely that most were standing down or taking on other duties until they were called upon. Simply pushing through the territory would give them time to gather them- and catch up to the army that would be moving slower and on unfamiliar roads.
John met once more with Idartha- outside of the Serpent Watcher’s fortified areas, but away from the rest of the army with him similarly to before. “It is good to see you again,” John began. It wasn’t, of course, as they were basically being shaken down… but avoiding the conflict would be best. He didn’t want to be responsible for lost lives over a relatively small amount of money. The fight against the Society of Midnight had been more about survival and revenge- their wealth was mostly going to go to paying back what was lost in the attempt. Though they’d been successful enough that it would be somewhat profitable even after compensating families of the dead and allies. “As previously said, we have returned… with an offering of equipment and materials not tied down in what we need to function.”
“I believe we agreed on six percent,” Idartha said.
“Indeed,” John nodded. “And twelve percent in local coinage. We have set aside the portions already, though you are welcome to inspect the remaining wagons. I am certain you have an approximate idea of what we are bringing back with us.” Ultimately they had decided on six percent of what they actually got before the split with the Calamitous Swarm. It was slightly more costly that way, but she should have nothing to complain about. “We would prefer if you could be expedient about it, regardless. We have many people who wish to return to their homes without further conflict.” An excuse and a threat bundled together.
Idartha didn’t respond immediately. No doubt considering if she might push further. John’s face was set, determined. If she tried… he knew he likely couldn’t kill her before reinforcement from the nearby fortifications swarmed over him- and his side would back him up, turning it into a huge battle. John couldn’t do it alone- or with just Matayal- but Ciaritzal would be a deciding factor there. Would they be the type who wanted revenge for their leader, or who were cowed by her death? “Very well,” she nodded. “We will begin immediately.” John relaxed slightly. It seemed it wouldn’t come to that, but he wouldn’t fully let down his guard. Inside him, Ciaritzal felt slightly disappointed.
In the end, the bribe- for that was all it really was- went through without incident. They accepted the wagons set aside for them, and didn’t press for examining any storage bags. Ultimately it was a good deal for them- they had to do nothing to get paid what was likely more than a year’s worth of taxes from the nearby city of Kurgate. Whether or not they kept their promise to slow anyone following behind, at least they did not delay them much.
The Order of the Amber Heart split up shortly before the rest of the allied army arrived at the Tenebach clan. Their portion of the loot was already set aside, and they were only a short distance from home and would prefer to go directly.
John didn’t relax until they made it all the way back to the Tenebach clan’s land, even though he knew there would be more trouble waiting for them. There had been traps set in Ciaritzal’s lair, and the world wouldn’t be so kind to leave him with no business to resolve after such a duration of absence from his duties. Most of it could be handled by others, but some would need at least his opinion if not his personal involvement.
At least Matayal was with him. Even if the circumstances weren’t ideal, spending more time with his wife was nice. Being together for little more than two months out of the year was far too little. Yet moving either clan was impractical, as they both had alliances, and of course moving a clan was not so simple as one small family changing houses.
The Golden Tomb Guardians passed through immediately- aside from the issue of Deirdre who had yet to regain consciousness, they also asked for no share of the loot. They had their own longstanding conflicts with the Society of Midnight and could make little profit from things useful for those who practiced the darkness element. The small exception were a few items stolen from them in previous conflicts that had been recovered. They weren’t exactly selfless with their aid, and John knew that the Tenebach clan could easily be called upon in the future, but it was reasonable enough.
The Mulyani clan set off with approximately half of the forces from the Brandle clan, the other half staying behind with Matayal for a time. Kusuma was appearing to recover, and it would be good for her to get to somewhere with the proper air energy as soon as possible, so she could accelerate that recovery. The Stone Conglomerate was not that place.
Steve and Yustina stayed for a while longer, while the rest of the Milanovic clan returned. Once more the loot of the Society of Midnight was not directly useful, but they were closer to those who they could trade it with. Most of that would be left to the Tenebach clan, however- and payment would be returned in alternate materials or in future favors.
Given the circumstances, Ciaritzal didn’t move back into his cave. It was an old arrangement anyway, sensible at the time but not reconsidered as decades passed. Instead of a place outside of the Tenebach clan’s walls, he would have an underground area constructed. There was some talk about connecting those artificial tunnels to various sections of the clan, but in the event of an attack they could also be used by enemies- so that was still uncertain.
Ciaritzal didn’t require natural caves to begin with- it was simply a convenient place to store up darkness energy. The cave itself hadn’t actually had inherent affinity for it compared to any other cave. Its location also hadn’t done much to discourage certain naughty individuals from sneaking off into it, so having it in the center of the clan was more efficient.
There was still retaliation to consider for the mercenaries who had dared to enter the area, triggering the traps. The Order and the Tenebach clan were the overlords of Marble County, and they had made it quite clear any involvement with the Society of Midnight would not be allowed. Coming from somewhere else wasn’t a good enough excuse- they would be expanding their influence and making it clear that they were more than just local powers.
Eventually. After a good period of rest.
Of all the things John didn’t expect in the near future, towards the top of the list would have been a giant glowing bird landing outside the Tenebach clan. But that was what happened not two weeks later. The members of the clan were reasonably quite alarmed, and John was surprised as well. When it asked for John and Ciaritzal, he wasn’t any more surprised, but still somewhat confused.
Hoping he wasn’t about to go start a war with the Golden Tomb Guardians, John brough Ciartizal with him to meet Cuah’arn. As they approached, Ciaritzal spoke first. “We meet again… Cuah’arn.”
“Ciaritzal,” the glowing bird politely inclined her head.
Ciaritzal’s voice wasn’t exactly friendly, carrying a somewhat mischievous tone, but it was polite. “I do apologize for what happened last time we met. I was not given the choice.”
“I understand,” Cuah’arn bowed her head again. “All is forgiven between us for that incident.” Something about that implied previous grudges… but neither seemed interested in fighting at the moment. “I thought it would be rude to enter your territory without speaking to you in person, but my main business is with Fortkran.”
John smiled. While Cuah’arn was certainly intimidatingly powerful, she had also not intentionally harmed John. With Ciaritzal by his side he felt quite comfortable. “We meet again, and so soon. How can I assist?”
Cuah’arn stepped back, revealing a prone figure beneath her. Deirdre. How awkward. “I feel somewhat responsible for what happened to this one. I require the assistance of one who wields the darkness element with finesse… and who would not inevitable cause a catastrophic explosion should our energies mingle accidentally.”
“I see,” John nodded, “If you could explain what we will be doing, I will be glad to offer my assistance as I am able.”