The merchant stood out to John before he saw the man’s goods or heard his pitch. Actually, the latter two didn’t help much. “Fantastic goods from the world over, all at unbeatable prices!” the man called out. His selection wasn’t much to look at, with barely even any quality spirit elements on display plus a few pieces of basic equipment.
But the man himself drew John closer. His cultivation was… not terribly impressive. Being in the Foundation Phase at fifty or more wasn’t much to speak of, though in Astrein in particular cultivators were simply less prominent. But the elements the man cultivated… were confusing. Because he had exactly two. Light… and darkness. And while John had seen the possibility of mutual promotion between the two elements in Nik and his daughter, the more likely result was destruction.
And if he had the talent to pull off the pairing with just himself, why was his cultivation still in its current place? John at first wondered if he was hiding something, but he at least couldn’t feel any hidden layers or deeper cultivation.
“What purity are your spirit elements?” John asked the man who had various containers on display.
The somewhat portly man’s eyes lit up at seeing a potential customer in front of him. “Ah! I’m glad you ask. These were all extracted by foremost experts. I have top purity elements, with a potency suitable for the Spiritual Collection Phase. Then for those interested in greater potency, I have a selection suitable for those at the Foundation Phase with a high purity. And if you need some suitable for the Soul Expansion Phase or later… just give me some time to speak to my contacts.”
Despite the initial puffery, the man ultimately told the truth of his products. His selection was nothing amazing, but the quality was still decent. But if there were any foremost experts extracting these spirit elements, then these were probably the castoffs they didn’t deem worthy of spending their own time selling.
John carefully picked up a few containers, perusing the wares. “Interesting. A decent quality. Do you have any mixed elements? Fire and water, earth and air…?”
“Alas, such combinations are unstable at best,” the man spread his arms. “A mixture of allied elements may remain in concert, but anything else would be inherently unstable. Unless you had a balance of the four core elements, or the whole six. But in that case,” he gestured around himself. “What is there to benefit, when such is freely present all around us?”
“What about light and darkness, then?” John asked.
Clearly understanding the question was about his own cultivation, the man shrugged. “Ah, something like this happens only with quite a bit of luck and youthful rashness. It is not as impressive as it might seem, because from here I have nowhere to advance. The life of a merchant suits me more than fodder for some sect, so here I am.”
“I see,” John nodded. “Who extracted these?” John asked. At first they all appeared equal, but he noticed a certain discrepancy among them.
“The majority of those with the potency of the Foundation Phase are the work of Alchemist Oden, and the others are his apprentices,” the merchant said.
John was surprised. The fire element wasn’t much higher purity than anything else. But in a way, that made sense. If this merchant picked out the better quality samples of the elements Oden was worse at, then he could make a set that matched fairly well.
“I’ll take these,” John said, putting a small sample of everything in a pile. He wasn’t certain if he would use them since he had a decent flow of hoary alyssum extract, and using individual elements wasn’t particularly of value to him. But he wanted to get to know this merchant better. “If I’m looking for you again, who should I ask for?”
“I am Viriato Magro, sir,” the merchant smiled as he accepted payment. “Are you interested in anything in particular?”
“Well, I am interested in those mixed elements,” John said. His spiritual energy wasn’t exactly concealed, but it blended into the background of Astrein fairly well. Not perfectly, but he would feel more like a darkness cultivator to casual observations. “If you happen to find anyone who produces anything like that, I’d be interested in hearing from you.” John almost wanted to directly recommend Raul, but ultimately that would just mean spending more for buying things indirectly. If some day he had an actual stake in Viriato’s merchandise, then things would be different.
John did wonder if Oden’s apprentices would be any good, but from what he knew their identities were secret. For his ultimate plans he would find out eventually, but for the moment he would continue his more casual survey of the wider situation.
Based on the regularity with which Filimena collected the hoary alyssum- and the quantities she’d had simply lying around when he’d first arrived- it really did appear to grow much like a weed. So as a single individual, he wasn’t worried about depleting the area too much.
Every time he purchased them from the old woman, she was somewhat doubtful about his willingness to pay, but she didn’t seem to be going out of her way to collect excessive amounts of the flower stalks either.
“If you find yourself with some free time,” John said. “I might go visit the lake to the northeast. Though it seems that all of Astrein has perfectly balanced elements, there are still little pockets of variation. Or if you can, you could visit the coast. Plenty of inspiration for what sort of totem you would want.” This was all part of John’s continued efforts to convince her of his sincerity in providing cultivation advice. The old woman had the potential to break through to the Foundation Phase, at least. No matter what she did after that, her life would be easier with the increase in cultivation.
Personally, John was hoping she would roam a bit further and find something even more useful to him than the white flowers. She seemed to have an unconscious sense for them, if nothing else.
“I find myself quite busy with my normal gathering and customers…” Filimena said. “But I suppose I do have a bit of freedom to take time off. I do have some regular customers who would be disappointed, however.”
“You could gather a bit more to sell through a reputable vendor while you’re gone. Or grab some kid to take over the business,” John shrugged. “Most of what you sell isn’t of particularly high value, and nobody could really dump everything you have somewhere and make off with a pile of money. Perhaps you lose a week or two’s sales on top of what you are already, but they’d at least find it easiest to sell it to your regular customers if that’s what you care about.”
“Hmph,” Filimena snorted. “Trust a street kid?”
“Are they any worse than any random adults?” John shrugged. “Of course, there is still the risk of losing everything you keep with them. Or if you find a good one, you can have someone managing sales so you don’t have to gather and sell your goods both.”
“There’s not really enough money to be made to allow for a decent split…” Filimena pondered, “But I’ll think about it.”
“And don’t forget,” John said. “If your cultivation improves, you can go a bit further or dig deeper to find things that are somewhat more lucrative. Or just do everything the same but a little faster.”
The utter devastation that had once been the state inside John’s dantian was now a much more cheery place. It didn’t exactly have the towering tree of darkness that had been a dominant feature, but instead he had a little forest. If he was being generous, anyway.
Regardless, John found it quite satisfying to see the changes that were taking place. The balance of elements within him fed into each other with little prompting on his part, to the point he could almost cultivate in his sleep. Perhaps he could, but it would be a very long road if he didn’t actively participate.
John returned his thoughts to his physical body, pondering the possibilities that Ursel had sparked in his mind. But at the moment, he didn’t really have much direction besides possibly refining his eyes further with darkness, specifically with the intent to deflect light rather than directly react to it.
As for his general cultivation, the potency of the alyssum extract was beginning to lose its shine, but that was at least in part because John simply needed more energy. He was now at the proper midpoint of the Foundation Phase, the fourteenth rank of cultivation. His own cultivation rank was improving more quickly than Raul, though he expected his disciple to reach the peak of the Spiritual Collection Phase within the next month. He was in the eighth rank now, but simply reaching the ninth rank wasn’t enough. One had to build up enough extra energy to bind a totem and of course have the fortitude to brave the sea of spiritual totems.
But Raul’s efforts on that end were promising as well. No doubt he would have managed the task himself within a year without John’s guidance, but John hoped he would not only prove more speedy this way but also secure a higher tier totem. Or one more fitting, since an unsuited totem of higher tier was of little value. Raul seemed to have settled on an earth totem, and John was teaching him to better control that element before he had a totem. Raul had some skill at drawing whatever elements he needed from Astreins conglomeration of them, but his personal experience was limited by his age.
John had no intention to forget those closest to him while he worked on his current plans. He was keeping in contact with his family and friends, though there had been very little of relevance to say so far.
But there was one person quite close he maintained constant contact with. That was Crystin, of course, in the role of his bodyguard. She was nearing the late Consolidated Soul Phase, and John felt she had the potential to reach the Ascending Soul Phase eventually. It might only be a handful of years or it might take decades. But even if it took a century… it would be a significant accomplishment for her personally and the Tenebach clan as a whole.
“Unfortunately I can’t give you advice on how to be fully successful with a breakthrough to the Ascending Soul Phase,” John said. “But I think a survivor’s advice on what not to do is still valuable.”
“I don’t plan to burn apart my own cultivation, don’t worry,” Crystin grinned.
“I would hope not,” John said. “But you could accidentally end up hiding it away from yourself, unable to be accessed. If you survive the process, I mean. Unfortunately we don’t have any elders to guide us to this stage, so we have to be the ones making the big mistakes.”
“Maybe we should seek out Sitora,” Crystin suggested. “She was… tolerable enough.”
“Can you fly?” John asked.
“Me neither.” Though he thought he might be able to manage it for a bit if he had the power of the Consolidated Soul Phase… and likely a proper technique. Otherwise it sounded like a good way to hit your head on things or fall from a great height without any natural energy to protect yourself. “It might be worth visiting the Wuthering Steppes to see if they have any contact with the Sky Islands, but I can’t imagine the price for a conversation with Sitora would be small, either. And we were never really friends, just allies because of a mutual enemy.”
Then there was the fact that she was a fellow transmigrator. That wouldn’t necessarily make her more favorably disposed towards him, however. It was just a point to consider.
“So what part would you say was the actual mistake?” Crystin asked.
“I don’t think I was necessarily too early,” John said. “Or even too forceful. Perhaps I was actually too slow to attune to my totem and gain control over it? Or alternatively, I should have foreseen the possible effects and laid the groundwork for them myself.” If he had intentionally split the island and spread the seeds of his tree, it would have hurt a lot less. And he could have done it in pieces so he didn’t lose a major portion of his power all at once. But that was a lesson he was lucky to survive to make use of, and he appreciated that fact at least.