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The permanent population of Lunson had grown slightly, not just because of the presence of the Molten Sea but also because the surrounding countries were growing. It led to more than a few people spending more time in the generally neutral location, and a few hiding out from various factions. Though the latter would do well to avoid Lunson itself, since they were most likely to be spotted and nobody in Astrein could or would stop any powerful groups from exerting their will.
His spiritual energy concealed, John walked around the city picking up tidbits of information. Some of it did not seem relevant to him at the moment, but various people had different information to share. The Molten Sea was not the only one with longer term forces in the area- it also included allies they had picked up like the Righteous Flame League. That gave John more reasons to be subtle, because while he did not have anything closer to a real feud with the Molten Sea just yet, the Righteous Flame League would likely recognize him. John wasn’t looking to get hunted down, so he would do his best to avoid them. As for their presence, the locals didn’t have that much to say. They weren’t exactly appreciated, but they mostly paid for their stays, enough that the local innkeepers weren’t losing out on running their formations.
Some of the information he was most interested in was the location of outposts away from Lunson, but that information didn’t come up in casual conversation. Perhaps once he knew who he could trust and the same in reverse, John would bring it up more directly. For the moment, he was enjoying the change in scenery.
A thin coating of darkness pervaded everything, but instead of making the atmosphere gloomy John thought it was rather the opposite. It protected from things being too bright, toning down the atmosphere of his little world. If he wanted greater shade, he could rest among the roots of the tree of darkness, taking shade from its voluminous canopy. The earth beneath him, like most dirt, was recycled from living matter. It was just that in this facsimile of an ecosystem, there weren’t really insects and bacteria. So it had to make do with the spiritual energy dissolving and taking the components that matched it.
The air began impure, but that only supported the plantlife that John had improved upon after visiting the Viridia Wildlands. Around a slowly growing island was a sea, dark and deep. Its moisture provided something for the air, and the depths were filled with all sorts of pseudo-creatures. They fought and ate each other, leaving behind bits and pieces of refuse… but that too was part of how things were supposed to be.
Then there was the sun in the sky, a ball of fire element slowly growing in size. Though it produced something like light, there was nothing but the smallest traces of actual light element in the area. John had grown in his control over fire even without a totem, but keeping a constant amount of light was just too much at the moment. He would have an entire Phase to manage that, and since each one took more time to complete he was confident he could complete his objective. Assuming, of course, that he was able to advance at all in the Ascending Soul Phase. Hopefully, having the full cycle of the core elements would provide a boost.
John swirled his energy through the various cycles, augmenting each element with the previous and nourishing his totems. Their ability to grow was the most important feature, along with their particular elemental affinities. It had been many years in the Consolidated Soul Phase, and they were finally approaching the fifth tier in power. At rank thirty-five with one more step inside of the Consolidated Soul Phase, that was just about where he should be according to his plans.
He was quite lucky that it had worked out. He knew that. Whatever came from natural talent and intuition he was lucky to have. Being part of a sufficiently powerful clan was also good fortune. And using his inexperienced thoughts to develop a plan for his future that only required small modifications was also something he couldn’t have just expected. He was lucky, but so were the other survivors of the competition known as cultivation. It didn’t discount his efforts as mattering, because all the luck in the world couldn’t replace effort. The former Fortkran showed that.
The world shifted, pulsing with power. Roots and leaves swelled, the ground itself expanded. Instead of encroaching on the sea, the sea grew as well, reaching into the distance beyond the horizon. Swirling air picked up evaporated waters from the seas, depositing it on the land where much of it directly returned, while some was captured by the smaller plants. And the pseudo-sun pulsed, awaiting a totem that would allow it to properly exist.
Moving around with Crystin following him made John more obvious, but sneaking around alone would make him more suspicious. She was the most powerful of his guards, so it was a reasonable sacrifice to keep her present. The rest would be with him only when traveling out of the city, or if had good reason.
“What do you think of our progress?” John asked her.
Crystin shook her head, “I’m not even sure if we’ve made any progress. We will not be able to accomplish much on our own, and there aren’t any other major powers here that would work with us. All we’ve heard were mild murmurs of discontent.”
“And with that being visible on the surface, what do you think is underneath?”
“Well, I… more discontent, maybe?”
“Perhaps,” John said. “Or perhaps I am wrong, and we will find nothing. Not everything will lead to a useful result. In such a case, we will be returning to somewhere where your training will have an easier time.”
“I’m not concerned about a month or two…”
John shook his head. “Maybe not. But I’d like for everyone to have their best opportunities to grow as they see fit.”
The markets of Lunson usually had little of great value. Most resources were sold within the region they were obtained- cultivators would tend to gravitate towards a region that suited their cultivation method. There was some trade, such as between the Phoenix Forest and the Green Sands. Each had different types of fire attributed resources, and they both bordered Astrein- though the Green Sands only touched at a small point. Often, trade would flow through the Stone Conglomerate instead for their quality and safe roads.
Likewise, the Blustering Peaks and Wuthering Steppes would often pass through Astrein along the way, though there was a reasonable chance of trade passing through the Shimmering Islands and taking a southern route as well.
But occasionally something good would find its way to Lunson, with the seller looking for a deal there instead of moving on to a more favorable destination. Perhaps they needed quick money, or they found their time more valuable. Either way, the markets weren’t empty of cultivation resources of various levels.
John spent some time there, though the chances of finding anything worthwhile to him was quite rare. There was no local authority to protect people, so the merchants had to have their own strength or hire guards commensurate with the value of what they were selling.
On one such occasion, he sensed increasing levels of spiritual energy indicative of some sort of conflict. Not a proper battle, not yet at least, but an argument with tensions raised.
There were three individuals involved in the dispute. First was an older man with a respectable Soul Expansion Phase cultivation and dark skin. “That price is much too low!” he slapped his hand on his stall. “This is a genuine Fireplume, carried all the way here with my own hands. Gathering its roots and soil to put in a pot was not a trivial task, yet you offer merely half of my already reasonable price!”
“With a low quality product like that, you should be honored that I am willing to purchase it,” countered a younger woman projecting an aura of self-assurance. Perhaps it was justified, as her cultivation matched the older man’s despite him most likely having lived twice as long.
“It’s hardly a purchase at that price. I would do better just consuming it myself and hoping to break through to the Consolidated Soul Phase.”
That was when the third individual spoke up. “An old man like you trying such a thing would be a waste. You should accept her generous offer.”
John had already given the two a once over. The woman’s cultivation showed her to be part of the Molten Sea… and the other was from the Righteous Flame League. Regardless of how he felt about them, he had to consider their positions before getting involved in any way. Especially the Molten Sea, which was not in direct conflict with the Tenebach clan.
“You can either take my price or find something else,” the old man said.
“Unfortunately for you, I’ve now set my eyes on it,” the woman said. She reached out to grab the pot which seemed to have waving flames coming out of it directly.
The old man grabbed her wrist. “Pay the full price and there won’t be an issue. Or is your sect so poor?”
Flames sprung up around all three of them, hands edging towards weapons.
“Hands off the lady,” said the younger man.
If John had determined whether or not he was interfering, he would have mentioned how little robbery fit the ‘Righteous’ Flame League, or supporting those they were subordinate to doing the same. But instead he casually began to gather some energy. No need to reveal himself early.
The pair attacked simultaneously, the woman stomping the ground and tearing apart the streets, flames bursting upward and the man flashing light towards the older fellow.
John gestured towards the man from the Righteous Flame League, then made his own move, throwing a dagger he charged with lightning at the woman. Crystin understood his unspoken command, charging toward her target with her spear wreathed in darkness.
The flames and burst of light faded away with the woman clutching her arm and the younger man with a speartip at his throat. The temporary vendor had flames of his own protecting him, but there were some clear scorch marks.
“Who the hell are you?” asked the woman from the Molten Sea.
John took a deep breath as he stepped closer, circulating his energy. “The better question is who the hell are you? Robbing people in open daylight.”
John’s sword was out and half a centimeter into her trachea. “You’re nobody. Especially to a sect like yours.”
She pulled back, fire in her eyes even as blood dripped down her throat. She choked out a few words. “We won’t forget this insult.”
“Which we?” John said. “Your sect? Perhaps not. And I suppose the same is true for you. But that’s because you won’t have the chance.”
If she had immediately apologized, John might have considered letting her go, truthful or not. And while he didn’t enjoy bullying the weak, these two weren’t actually so pathetic as to be truly ignorable. And choosing to attack someone simply because they didn’t like his price, and in a pair, was something he didn’t want to allow.
Her head fell to the ground, and Crystin had thrust her spear along with his motion. Two cultivators were dead. The Tenebach clan was already at war with the Righteous Flame League. Tipping their hand and starting conflict with the Molten Sea wasn’t necessarily the right choice, but neither was just letting a man die. And John had kind of come to cause trouble.
“They were going to kill you,” John noted to the dark skinned older man.
“I know,” he said, hanging his head. “And now I must flee or their fellows will do the same.” He looked around the market, where dozens of eyes were watching. John felt their eyes as well.
“Let us escort you out of the city, to the north,” John said as he casually grabbed the storage bags and weapons of the two fallen disciples. Their clothing would serve as armor, but he did not have the time to strip them of it, and he didn’t want corpses in his storage bag.
The older man clutched the pot to his chest and nodded. “I am Suraj.”
“Fortkran Tenebach,” John introduced himself. “And this is Crystin. She probably didn’t want to save you.”
“I would prefer to not have an incident,” she said. “But since it happened, I am glad he is alive.”
As they stepped out of the open market into side streets, John cloaked them all in darkness, hiding their energy from any who would be searching for them.
“… This is not to the north,” Suraj noted.
“Obviously,” John said. “You can return to the Phoenix Forest via a roundabout path if you wish, but I have some people to pick up. You can follow us, or you can go your own way.”
“I think I am likely better off with you.”
“Depends on how fast you can run,” John grinned.