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In the world of cultivators, being indecisive was often worse than making the wrong decision. Though saving the old fellow Suraj in the markets might risk tipping the hand of the Tenebach clan- if it was not seen as a retaliation against the Righteous Flame League that had been openly hostile- it only slightly changed the timeline of hostilities with the Molten Sea. And they had been able to expand into the region far too easily, so it was time someone did something.
Sweeping by the inn to pick up the other Tenebach clan cultivators, John settled the bill and they were on their way. Ripples were spreading through the city and word of the incident would no doubt provoke a reaction from the Molten Sea soon enough. But though they were the most dominant power in the city, they didn’t control who entered and exited. No one did, really, and in many places there weren’t even proper walls. Nobody was financing anything that could stand up to cultivators, and the Molten Sea hadn’t contributed to such things during their stay either.
Thus, behind a cloak of spiritual energy obscuring darkness, the group left the city behind, traveling south towards the Stone Conglomerate instead of north like John had indicated. He didn’t expect to fool many people for long with that, but his main goal had been to get out of the city. Because the terrain was easy to travel, they were even able to bring along the carriage. If they’d had to, John wouldn’t mind abandoning it. He could have also used it as a distraction, but that would either mean it being caught shortly outside the city or sacrificing whoever would drive it. He preferred to avoid losses here if possible.
“Thank you once more,” said Suraj as they sped across open fields. “I did not expect them to be so brazen as to attack me in the open. I know the Flame River Sect has little esteem in the eyes of these Molten Sea sects, but for them to completely disregard my position as a factor…” he sighed. “Then again, I’m not even in the Consolidated Soul Phase. They have more than a few in the late Consolidated Soul Phase like yourself. And there are rumors of Ascending Soul Phase cultivators, but hopefully those are just rumors.”
“Hopefully,” John said. He recalled Faramund from the Society of Midnight breaking through, and how difficult it was to deal with him just at that threshold. On the other hand, his personal power had grown significantly since then, and so had his allies. If he fought alongside Matayal, he was confident in beating him with just the two of them at the current moment. But their enemies wouldn’t necessarily be in the first rank of the phase. “Going back to the topic of that Fireplume, I think your price was quite reasonable. I am actually interested in purchasing it myself.”
“What, this?” the old man gestured to the pot carried in his hands. “I couldn’t possibly charge my savior for such a thing.”
“It wouldn’t be right to receive it for free,” John said, “But if you insist once you feel more secure, I won’t reject it either.” It truly might be worth the price to save his life- it was going to be what Suraj lost his life for, after all. But John wanted to be a bit more decent than that, and Suraj might think he would be left behind if he did not give it up. So for the moment, he would hold onto it.
John stuck his head out of the carriage window, looking behind them. He had been hiding their presence, but he couldn’t truly erase the trail behind them. The ground was too soft, decent soil that was relegated to minimal use as it only grew mundane crops. He didn’t yet sense anyone following them , but he had no doubt they would come eventually. It was simply a question of the intensity of the Molten Sea’s response. Perhaps they might forgo a chase, but this was their best opportunity to strongly retaliate against the Tenebach clan. After all, they could potentially kill him here.
And while John understood the very real threat, he remained calm. He had Crystin by his side, and some reliable if less powerful other individuals. His own cultivation had reached the late Consolidated Soul Phase, and he was actually fairly confident fighting in Astrein, as he was able to use approximately four times as much ambient spiritual energy compared to most cultivators. The Molten Sea did train both fire and water, so he might only be double compared to them if they were able to separate the elements.
But he was ready to handle trouble as it came. He’d made his choice, and was ready to face the consequences. Though it seemed the Molten Sea was a bit slow, as there were still no signs of them after an hour.
Unfortunately the horses drawing the carriage weren’t tireless. Neither were the people riding inside. They continued along until the evening, avoiding the main road and settlements. They were heading for the closest part of the Stone Conglomerate instead of drifting more east towards Marble County, especially since there was a good bit of the Stone Conglomerate between them and home regardless. Simply crossing the border would change the dynamic, but it would also be at least another day of travel.
John was awoken in the middle of the night by the current watch. “Clan Head, riders are approaching.”
Nothing else needed to be said. There wouldn’t be any others coming along. John looked towards the horizon, where he spotted just the slightest lights in the distance. But even without them he would have been able to pick out the riders, due to the Tenebach clan’s darkvision.
“Suraj,” John said, waking the old man. “Be prepared. A battle is coming.” It might be possible to run- but only John and Crystin had a reasonable chance of escape. On the other hand, if they ran and were singled out to catch, they would be in a worse situation.
Leaving his senses open to feel out the enemy, he sensed someone familiar. “Pfeh. Asgeirr.”
What were the chances that he was in the area? Not that low, really. The Righteous Flame League had clearly thrown in their lot with the Molten Sea, and Lunson was the only sizable population in Astrein. It seemed the man had also managed to step into the late Consolidated Soul Phase, and was even the same rank as John now. But if they fought, things would be quite different from before. He’d had a fairly decisive victory in their first clash, with things only being closer in the Phoenix Forest because they fought in a fire-dominant area.
And if it had been only Asgeirr, John would have charged forward himself to finally be rid of the man. Instead, there were also three mid Consolidated Soul cultivators, and a handful of late Soul Expansion cultivators. That did put a bit of a damper on the options for retreat. Just the Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators could prove a serious danger.
“We’re going to try to draw them apart,” John declared. “Focus on taking out the Righteous Flame League. I’ll be more effective against the Molten Sea.”
John wished Matayal went everywhere with him. This bunch of fire cultivators would find themselves washed away. The Molten Sea would at best match up evenly, but fighting alongside John both of them were stronger. His synergy with other Tenebach clan members was at least a tier lower.
Crystin gave him a look as he edged away from the rest of them. He smiled back. “Hey, if you’re worried about me… take out your targets quickly.”
The odds were certainly slanted against them, at least on the surface. Two Consolidated Soul Phase cultivators for their one, the only area they were a bit short was the Soul Expansion Phase cultivators. Even that was only because of Suraj, or they’d be a near perfect match.
John prepared a special trick in front of their group, using just a little bit of earth and darkness energy. The end result was nothing that would appear to be a trap, as it was just effectively mundane potholes. Or whatever the proper name for small sinkholes in a field was.
Those wouldn’t do much to a Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator, but that wasn’t their purpose. Instead, they were for the horses. They were clearly a special breed, but while horses could be fairly quick, they also weren’t known for durability. John couldn’t guarantee a simple misstep would completely destroy a horse like their more mundane counterparts, but if he could limit their capabilities it provided more opportunities for a later retreat. If he simply ran now, they could run their horses ragged and then chase after him on foot, fresh and full of spiritual energy.
As the enemy got close, they had clearly caught on to the waiting presence. While the Tenebach clan members were reasonably well hidden, Suraj could only restrict his energy. And the Righteous Flame League was partially light cultivation, allowing them to pierce through some of the veil of darkness. Once they actually got close, they shone like the sun. How annoying.
John made the first attack, throwing a water element coated dagger at Asgeirr. It pierced through his spiritual energy, but couldn’t get through the protective collar around his neck. Too bad, it would have been nice if he went down immediately.
Then John circled off to the side. Immediately, Asgeirr and two others swerved towards him. That was bad for John, but good for the others, who would have a slight advantage in numbers, with similar cultivations.
John’s ploy only got two out of three horses in that group, but that was more than sufficient. Though the cultivators easily leapt off their falling mounts with no ill effects, Asgeirr ended up ahead of the pack by a small amount.
John clashed directly against him, sword versus spear as the man leapt from his mount. Swirling water and darkness crashed into fire and light. John had an elemental advantage with the water, and the others were mutually destructive… but the reason Asgeirr went flying back was the final difference, despite their technically matching cultivations.
All four of John’s totems were fifth tier. Asgeirr had only one. The others were third and fourth tier, and though they’d doubtless received some improvement from training, it wasn’t enough to advance their tier. It took a significant effort, where totems were not specifically selected for such an attribute.
Though John would have liked to follow up on Asgeirr, he had to retreat, sprinting away as the other two closed in on him. Both were from the Molten Sea, which meant John only had half an advantage on them. He could use water to suppress their fire, but they could control the water element as well so it wouldn’t do much. He did have air though.
He began to circulate his various elements, as well as drawing from the environment. If he was to sustain a battle versus three individuals, he would need to maximize his efficiency and recovery. And maybe he could flare some emotions to keep his opponents off balance.
“How Righteous of you, Asgeirr. First your sect attacks someone to rob him, then you come as assassins in the night.”
A lance of light stabbed through a position just to John’s left, where he’d shifted his voice to originate from. A new trick from Asgeirr, then, though John had assumed the possibility. And though the moon was dim, leaving only the stars to light the battlefield, that soon was irrelevant with the flames scattering everywhere, catching dry grass alight. The two members of the Molten Sea weren’t able to get a good lava pit going, however, as the topsoil only burned away instead of properly melting.
John gathered some darkness energy, recalling his daughter’s battles. She was much better at combating light than him, a skill that had only improved with her latest totem, but he hadn’t watched her and Nik try to kill each other so many times for nothing. And he’d trained with the Golden Tomb Guardians to overcome light element as well. His left hand was filled with a bundle of energy which turned into a bolt of darkness, much like the beams of light the Combining Luster Sect used. Asgeirr sensed it coming and blocked with only fire energy, but it wasn’t as if darkness was offensively bad against fire, and he staggered back.
John was going to need to do more than delay his opponents, however. Crystin’s part of the battle might conclude in the Tenebach clan’s favor, and in fact he was counting on it, but as bouncing waves of fire rushed towards him John knew he needed to injure some of his opponents to keep himself safe, and soon before he was worn down by their combined powers. He just had to do it without sustaining injuries himself.