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Whichever direction John chose, his path would take him through the carved out paths of one of the encroaching groups. To the south, the Sky Islands were stretching across the close edge of the Darklands. To the north, the Molten Sea had cut right through the middle of Astrein- even taking Lunson under their control. Though that hardly mattered, unless they tried to do something to the normally neutral tournaments. But they seemed smart enough to not mess around with that- and their presence in the Prismatic Chambers had been much the same as anyone else. Perhaps a bit domineering, but not enough to make anyone move against them in a coordinated fashion.
And perhaps, like the other factions, John should have chosen to ignore them. But he was not the only one with feelings of indignation about them just extending into the region as they pleased. The whole point of his current tasks were to find others who agreed with them, supporting them. Sure, it would be easier to keep their heads down until these groups pulled out- they couldn’t stay extended as they were indefinitely- but then what would they do the next time someone took a domineering stance? The time after that? There might not be direct losses to the Tenebach clan this time, though the Brandle clan would lose a useful training tool if the leviathan was somehow damaged. It could be worth it to give it up… but the idea wasn’t seriously entertained for long.
John set out to the north, disappointed once more that Aydan would not be coming along. Aydan said he was content with how things had turned out- and perhaps that was true- but whether or not he’d come to terms with it, John’s uncle was dealing with adversity that had torn him away from his traditional presence in the clan. He would wind up losing his importance without his strength, though the respect others had for him should remain. The Tenebach clan was not heartless and cutthroat like some clans, mostly due to maintaining reasonable numbers instead of expanding at all costs.
There was a clear difference between the Stone Conglomerate and Astrein proper, more than just the fact that the hills and mountains gave way to open plains, or anything related to the tangible world.
“How do you feel?” John asked Crystin, who maintained her position as his chief bodyguard.
“In what regard? My health is in a good state, and my cultivation has been advancing. Slowly, but that is to be expected.”
“More on the cultivation side. And about here,” John gestured vaguely all around them.
“I feel like I am in a wasteland completely devoid of spiritual energy,” she said bluntly. “Though it is not taxing like being in a light-dominant region, I feel like my recovery here might be even slower.”
“Interesting,” John said.
“In what way?” Crystin asked.
“I definitely felt like that at first, but I am under a very different impression of the area.”
Though it was not flashy, John felt the area was quite vibrant with spiritual energy. It helped that he had skill with multiple elements, as he was able to discern the finely mixed elements- which combined might seem to be nothing. He was able to directly control two-thirds of the elements, and his control over fire without a totem had been improving over the years as he approached the peak of the Consolidated Soul Phase. Once he achieved the thirty-sixth rank there would still be the significant threshold between Phases, but he was no longer worried about attuning to a proper totem along with that.
“In the future, this might become the best place for me to train,” John commented.
“Off by yourself? Even if it is not terribly far from the Tenebach clan, it is still far enough that anyone who had a grudge against you could gather together and attack you without fear of reinforcements arriving.”
“Good point,” John said. “I don’t think I would even want to subject Matayal to this long term, since her solo cultivation would be limited.” Though not so much as she might have, as her totems gave her tastes of the other elements. Something she likely wouldn’t have done if not to be more compatible with him, and something he was continually grateful for. Unlike himself, her totems were all water-dominant with traces of other elements- whereas John’s totems were all dominant in a different element, with traces of darkness. Except for his first totem, of course, the pure tree of darkness. “I wouldn’t be in as much danger as you might think, though. If I was not defeated quickly, I would be able to retreat and replenish myself… whereas others would find that more difficult. Though I suppose if they were to expend spirit elements simply for the sake of recovery it would be a different matter.”
Though the Molten Sea controlled a slice of Astrein, they were mainly focused around a particular east-west road going through the capital. They also didn’t stop others from passing through- they just maintained a presence with frequent outposts along the way. Because of that, John only spotted a couple groups before they arrived in Lunson. There, they had a somewhat larger presence. But John was not concerned about them at the moment, because they would have no reason to harm him. Aside from a few skirmishes in the Prismatic Chambers, they hadn’t had actual conflicts- so as long as he didn’t do anything to change that, he could expect them to not even think about him as anything more than another person of high cultivation. Because of that cultivation his presence wouldn’t go unknown- and hiding it would make him seem even more suspicious if noticed- but they likely wouldn’t bother him.
Most of the time, Lunson was practically a dead city, at least as far as cultivators were concerned. They would only be around for the time directly surrounding a tournament. Thus, accommodations meant for them were largely open during any other time, and quite cheap as well. It was not difficult for John to secure an entire suite for himself and the modest group of attendants and guards traveling with him. John didn’t really need any of them- except perhaps the guards, if something went wrong. But it was best to keep up appearances.
“Our first order of business is to determine the situation,” John said. “Our information might be old or simply inaccurate.” They didn’t exactly have informants placed in Astrein. John didn’t ignore the events in the area, but no special care was taken to get information from what was effectively an empty country. He just took whatever those passing through brought along. “Because of the Molten Sea’s continuous presence, we might be able to get wind of their actual goals, instead of just assuming.” Just because John couldn’t think of any other reason they and the Sky Islands would both be interested in the area around the Kelp Spire Forest didn’t mean there was nothing. Perhaps some old sect ruins or the like where they hoped to glean something of great value- though they would have to be very well hidden, which would make it odd that the information could have traveled so far. Then again, the leviathan was much the same.
The main permanent population were farmers, a portion of those who ran the various inns, and merchants. The former were certainly most concerned with certain dangers, but were also least likely to interact with cultivators to any significant amount. John supposed that the innkeepers and merchants would be a better bet for information.
Odette stepped out of the tomb, one surrounding a guardian beast who had never truly been dead. It was still a useful structure, and keeping Cuah’arn’s existence secret was generally to the Golden Tomb Guardian’s benefit. The guardian beast aided in their cultivation in exchange for the same, the sect and beast working for each other’s mutual benefit- and defense, if it were to come down to that. That was becoming ever more likely day by day.
“Deirdre,” Zacharie called out to her. “Did she have anything to say?”
Odette shook her head. It was still weird, in a way, being called a different name. Even though it had been the only name she’d used for many years. “Very little. Just that we should remain wary of the encroachment of the Righteous Flame League… and the Luminous Harmony Sect. She will not be helping offensively against either.”
The Luminous Harmony Sect had almost killed her once. She’d survived that due to the help of what would be important allies in the future. Then she’d died during an important battle in a moment of self-sacrifice. The Society of Midnight had been stronger than anticipated, or perhaps Deirdre had been naive to think that she in particular would survive. Ultimately, she helped more from their side achieve the same goals.
That was who Odette wanted to be. And she’d felt quite good about how she’d been faking it so far. It was strange, being in a world of cultivation after her death, but she had a support group in the ‘club’. Three transmigrators like herself- strangely all speaking English which was still a point of mystery among them. And two reincarnators born in this world in this and their previous lives, instead of taking over the bodies of individuals who perished but remained relatively intact. Different experiences, but all knew death. Though in a way, the transmigrators knew death twice, even if once wasn’t themselves.
“What are you thinking about?” Zacharie asked.
“Just the Luminous Harmony Sect. Things would be so much easier if we’d been able to get rid of them years ago.” There she was, saying something like that as if it was easy. Or acceptable. But in this world it was. Killing people was part of the norm. Wiping out a clan or sect was an exceptional action, but it wasn’t that uncommon either. Usually, it was avoided because of the cost to the victors, and what that would mean for their relationship with other enemies. “Those little brats tied themselves to the Molten Sea, or I’d go do it right now.”
“Alone?” Zacharie grinned.
“Possibly,” Deirdre shrugged. “But I’d probably bring you as backup in either case. How went the negotiations?”
“About as expected. Everyone is waiting to see what might happen. For the moment, those who weren’t rolled over along their path were happy to be left out. And they don’t want to even mess with their allies. So they’d be quite content to let us experience more losses before they concern themselves with the imminent threat.”
Odette sighed. “At least there isn’t a large delay in mobilizing forces, unlike those of mundane armies.” Not that she knew much about those. They didn’t do much in the region since every country had sufficient spiritual energy, and back on Earth she’d stayed as far away from war as possible. “Too bad the Combining Luster Sect is so far away. Even if they’re a bit weaker, they could fill out our numbers.”
“We might call upon the Milanovic clan,” Zacharie said. “I’ve been talking about it with the sect head. Though that means getting our whole alliance involved, and escalating things like that might not be the best right now.”
“It won’t be long regardless,” Deirdre said. “Now that they’ve pushed all the way towards their goal, I expect things to escalate quickly from here.”
“That’s why we want to keep things minimal. Then, when they’re occupied there, we strike with full force and cut them off. Assuming we can, of course…” Zacharie shook his head. “They have more than a couple Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators just hanging around to back up their voluntary cronies.”
“Then there’s Asgeir and the League’s Sect Head, at minimum. If only we could bring Cuah’arn on the offensive…” Deirdre shook her head, “But I’m certain the Righteous Flame League would love to capture her. Hearing about what happened to Ciaritzal… I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.” Being ripped to pieces spiritually sounded just as awful as having it happen mentally. Persevering through that was something great. The same with Cuah’arn and her withstanding a darkness element claw lodged in her gut for a lifetime. Both had a mental fortitude she admired, and aspired to replicate. She couldn’t help but think about her death on the bridge. That was something she absolutely wanted to avoid.