Fire was the newest element John had full control over, and he knew he needed more practice to catch up with everything else. HIs training while in the Consolidated Soul Phase merely provided him enough control to bind with his totem- and he might have been lacking in that area even still. Certainly, it was one contributing factor to the results he got.
In front of himself, he held his sword. He could feel the flames, both their actual heat and the warmth of the spiritual energy, but he could not see them except through the distortions to objects behind them. The ethereal flames were certainly quite real, capable of burning whatever he pleased- and also things he didn’t wish to burn. However, that was where proper control came in. Standard flames were easier to create, even with the affinity his totem provided, but they were even more difficult to keep from affecting everything around them.
On a smaller scale- like with cooking- he could at least spread the heat evenly through things. That wouldn’t work with a cultivator, because they would have some defenses, and it wasn’t helpful regardless. If he was fighting something, the last thing he wanted was to heat them evenly. Instead, he wanted to burn something important. But at the same time, he didn’t want to set everything around him on fire. He was quite aware that every fire cultivator learned to control the spread of their flames- or learned about the consequences.
Personally he didn’t want to set the fields outside of Lunson aflame, nor did he wish to burn down the city. Both places were quite alright in their current state, and he would prefer to keep them that way. So he practiced his control in safety, experimenting with what would and would not set something alight.
“You really should attempt to advance soon,” John advised the merchant Viriato. “That is, if you have any ambition left in you.”
The plump man sighed, “It’s not so easy, you know? Or perhaps you don’t. But I’d given up on further progress a while ago.”
“Why attempt such radical first totems, then?” John asked. “It’s not simple to combine light and darkness.”
“I was young and foolish,” Viriato shrugged.
John raised an eyebrow. “Fools don’t survive such a thing. Though I will admit that without knowing where to go next, you left yourself in quite a predicament. Have you considered the totems I spoke about?”
“Some. Managing a balance of sorts with water seems possible but… difficult.”
“Most things worthwhile are,” John agreed. “Well, you’d better get on that soon enough. Don’t want to get passed up by street kids.”
“… What?” Viriato tilted his head.
In truth, it was quite unlikely for any of the urchins to surpass Viriato any time soon. Mostly because they were still in the Spiritual Collection Phase, and it would take more than a few months for them to reach the Foundation Phase. They didn’t have a good basis for their cultivation after all. Their bodies were weak and they hadn’t taken steps to prepare themselves for absorbing spiritual energy.
None of that was their fault, of course. Nobody had been teaching them, and they didn’t have a clan or sect to empower them. But now they could finally begin learning, and they absorbed everything John taught them like sponges. In a world such as this, every child would have some ambition to be something great, and no matter what path they took to greatness it required being a cultivator.
They were quite enthusiastic to learn from him, though reasonably a bit cautious as well. It was rather suspicious for someone to randomly help them, and in truth John did want something from them. That said, future loyalty in exchange for them having some level of control over their own lives seemed like a fair trade from his perspective. Ultimately, this was just roundabout sect recruitment.
Next was combat training.
“Remember, if you are able it’s usually better to flee from combat, especially if you don’t have any support. Even if you defeat one or two people… they might be part of some larger group that might seek revenge.”
John expected they knew this already- but he wanted to remind them so that their heads didn’t inflate with the idea that they might be able to solve their problems through violence. That would be true eventually, but for the moment it was a greater risk than before. With developing cultivation, people might begin to take them as a serious threat. That was something they couldn’t yet afford.
John was also looking around the city to solve another problem. For the moment, they were still in whatever ‘housing’ they could find. As their cultivations developed, they would technically be more able to handle sleeping on the streets… but they would also be less willing to. In short, since he intended to start a sect anyway, he needed more property.
At the moment outside the city seemed best, to give them room to grow. But that meant construction, and there were other connotations to consider. Setting themselves apart from the city might seem like they were against it, which wasn’t true. John certainly imagined that they would have conflict with various groups within Lunson, but he ultimately wanted what was best for the city, and most of the people involved.
The business of serving food to both cultivators and mundanes came with a decent profit. Nothing exceptional, especially considering that John was using not only his own time but also monopolizing Crystin’s. A Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator standing around as a guard was an expensive proposition. A business such as this could never hope to cover those costs, but it was just one step in a greater plan.
There had been a flood of new customers in the early days, but now he maintained a consistent and rather busy schedule during lunch and dinner. Viriato was one of the most consistent, often coming for himself and sometimes a few business associates. John was managing to perfect his recipes, providing variety and more carefully tailored choices of cheese and vegetables, as well as various condiments. It was food, after all, so the point was for it to taste good even if it also happened to contain a decent amount of spiritual energy like everything from Astrein. Most of it just didn’t come in a form usable to most cultivators.
John found it to be a waste to reduce things to single elements, as that meant losing more than eighty percent of the spiritual energy within the ingredients. But few trained in more than one element, and a minor boost in spiritual energy was better for most than none at all. There were other restaurants that served spiritually aligned food, but most were more expensive as they had to import from elsewhere. Very few would or could extract the unnecessary elements from the balanced mix that Astrein achieved.
Repeat customers were common now, but John still saw new faces frequently. Lunson wasn’t at its busiest except during tournament years, but it was still the largest city in the country, with a good portion of the traffic passing through it.
John felt a few auras he vaguely recognized, but he couldn’t remember from where. Perhaps the Green Sands or the Phoenix Forest? The small handful of individuals were all fire cultivators, after all. It was only after the group walked away that he clocked the origin. They had a similar feel to the alchemist Oden. Most likely, they were his apprentices.
Though John might not like the fellow, his apprentices were not him- and either way, he was willing to serve food to customers willing to pay. They didn’t cause any trouble, so he didn’t mind their presence.
A few days later, he got a visit from the other alchemist in town. Not Raul- though Raul did visit often enough. Durga, the woman in the secondary rank. She ordered a fire aligned burger, and John provided it.
She stood there chewing it, a thoughtful expression on her face.
“Not your style?” John asked.
“It tastes good,” she said. “But I’m a little underwhelmed by the spiritual energy within it. No wonder it was so cheap.”
John shrugged, “For better spiritual energy, I have to slay stronger beasts… and find ones that taste good. The other ingredients would have to match as well, and that’s difficult around here.”
There should be stronger bison around. Not too many people hunted them, despite their numbers. After all, without processing the spiritual energy it appeared just like normal meat. There weren’t exactly a large number of five element cultivators around- or even three element, which would be about the minimum to properly handle every element to some extent. And even if there were, most Soul Expansion Phase cultivators wouldn’t find it worth their time to do what John was.
There had been some intention that the burger stand was just to occupy his time, but John found himself growing attached. If nothing else, the practice of providing food for every element would be important for a growing sect, and if he could train a half dozen apprentices to balance the elements he wouldn’t have to personally involve himself all the time.
That was one goal, at least.
As one might expect from a mostly random selection of street kids, most of them were nothing special as far as cultivation went. There were a few exceptions, mainly the handful that had somehow managed to begin their cultivations without access to any proper training methods. There was also Ayhan, who took to cultivation with great enthusiasm.
Ayhan’s choice of cultivating the earth element first meant that John had one decent cultivator of each element he practiced. Was it a random coincidence? Only Barakat was much ahead of the others, now in the mid Spiritual Collection Phase. The air cultivator was also a bit older than the others, however.
None of the urchins were locked into an element just yet, though Barakat was in the process of searching for the air element totem that suited him the most. It certainly wouldn’t be unlikely to end up with a wide variety of elements cultivated, either. That said, John was also fairly certain that Ayhan’s choice wasn’t exactly random. He could easily pick anything except the light element to begin with, knowing John could help, but Ayhan had been asking questions about elemental affinities while doing his best to not look like he was glancing at Lir.
In short, John was fairly certain he chose earth to support the fire cultivator. Whether or not that would come to anything was unclear, but John was going to have to speak of the dangers of dual cultivation sooner rather than later. It was something people might hear about, and attempting it without properly understanding it was a risk. Adapting to a new partner took time, and the benefits didn’t show up immediately. Meanwhile, there was always the risk of one or both partners damaging their cultivations if someone slipped up.
Though from what John had seen, Lir still seemed oblivious to Ayhan’s infatuation. Maybe she would realize eventually, or he might actually say something. Either way, there should be some time before anyone tried anything stupid.
The last of the group to arrive were Sthitulf and Fulton, the water and darkness cultivators. Once everyone was ready, John began to address them. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you here. The answer is simple. I can see the desire for combat building up within all of you… and I am going to provide it.” John withdrew a number of simple spears from his storage bag. They were sturdy enough, but otherwise unremarkable. “We will begin training with these. Each of you one at a time against myself or Crystin. It’s too dangerous against each other. And then… when I have determined you are ready, you will hunt bison. You will be paid for the task, of course.”
The excited looks made John glad he was choosing to do this now. A few more days, and perhaps the energy filled youths might have chosen to make some poor choices. And he would be keeping the spears with him outside of training or hunting, at least for the near future. That should hopefully remind them not to fight, though they would have their own daggers and whatever else they managed to scavenge for protection. Rather than leaving them unprotected without the weapons, John chose to see it as forcing them to have caution.