The isolated valley was quite abundant in resources. Most likely, there wasn’t much competition for the beasts that lived there, but John couldn’t be entirely sure. They might be weakened by luxury, compared to their level of spiritual energy, but John was still going to take them seriously. The amount of power he had at his disposal was still limited, and he didn’t want to have to retreat for Crystin’s help.
After all, he was the one who promised Filimena he would guide her. It wasn’t that John was afraid of asking for help, but it would be rather embarrassing. He had an image to maintain.
“Feel free to take anything that’s ripe,” John said as they made their way further into the water element section of the isolated ecosystem. He picked a few berries for himself, but he intended to preserve most of what he had for later use. Among other things, focusing too much on a single element wouldn’t benefit him.
He had a destination in mind. The area of highest density of spiritual energy, and with the strongest individual source. Not simply free spiritual energy, but some sort of entity. It would be the most trouble, but also in control of the best resources. John was certain of that.
Filimena was conservative with what she took along the way. In truth, not everything overflowing with the water element would be beneficial to her- there were water element poisons after all. And there was a limit to what she could keep on her person, even with a storage bag. There was some amount she might be able to sell, but she also wouldn’t be able to keep a great amount of wealth or resources secure. John intended to make sure she got her fair share for providing the information, but that didn’t mean showering her with wealth all at once. She was barely in the Foundation Phase, after all.
They passed many pools along the way, concentrations of spiritual energy, but John was aiming for something bigger. The closest thing to a lake in the small valley, though it could also be considered a large pond. “Be careful,” John warned. Filimena nodded, also having sensed what was ahead.
They arrived at a crystal clear lake, with visibility to the bottom even in the shaded light from the overhang above. Of course, a complete lack of light wouldn’t have stopped John’s sight, but the point was that it didn’t take enhanced vision.
Though the lake appeared empty, that was not so. For John could sense something within it, just as it sensed him. John approached with caution, watching for what sort of move it would make.
It seemed the caution upon meeting something new didn’t extend to the water spirit, as the waters moved and rippled. Soon enough, crashing waves were charging towards the shore. John countered with a gust of wind, amplifying the air element with some of his internal water element. Lightning might be of use, but without a clear body to target it would lose some of its potency.
After a few more exchanges, John finally determined the extent of the spirit itself. It controlled the water element around it, but it had a particular amount of denser liquid around it. John could consider that it’s body, with the most dense spiritual energy within it being its source of power. It was akin to spiritual energy given life, much like some earthen creatures he’d dealt with before.
“… Can I help?” Filimena asked.
“You most certainly can,” John said. “We’ve only been testing each other. It’s about to get serious. What I want you to do is help with tearing away the denser layer of water. You can feel it?” Filimena nodded. “Good. Wait until my signal, when it is occupied with me.”
John stepped out onto the small lake, the necessary control to support himself almost miniscule compared to when he’d first tried something similar. He was quite confident in his ability to overcome the spirit with a dominant element, but he needed to test himself. The next wave he split with a gout of flames. It wasn’t enough to negate the attack, but he slipped forward as the waves crashed back together, trying to grapple him.
He moved closer to the spirit’s body, tracking it more by its feel than sight. If he was going to use fire to combat it, he needed to amplify it as much as possible. Water to air to earth, adding darkness for the minor cycle, then finally to fire. But power alone wasn’t enough. He needed control, concentrated flames. The next wave he stabbed a spear of flames into its core, tearing it apart as steam exploded from its midst.
Though John wanted to test himself, sometimes he just needed the most power he could leverage. The spirit tried to dive into the shallow lake as he approached, but a burst of air flowed from him, snatching it up and preventing it from retreating. The winds blew both the creature and himself towards the shore, though the spirit resisted the motion, dragging itself through the water and creating a powerful wake.
He knew it wouldn’t let itself fully reach shore, but John had brought it close enough for Filimena to join him. No doubt she could swim, but she was not such a powerful water cultivator that she didn’t function better with her feet on land. But her own control over water wrestling against the spirit was helpful. Meanwhile, John began to attack its main body, driving lances of fire through its shields and into the creature, boiling away some of its actual self.
He didn’t neglect using his control over water, either. Fire augmented water’s ability to transform states- including freezing, something the spirit was obviously unfamiliar with. Though it only took it a few moments to learn to melt ice, it was much less efficient than John. He swept his sword through the creature, lightning coursing off of it and cutting some of it away- instantly losing its form and returning to simple water.
With Filimena’s aid, the two of them tore it apart, leaving only the core of power. It might eventually form a similar active spirit around it if left alone, but it was a high level spirit water as it was. John gestured to Filimena, who took half of it, storing it in a flask.
“It is your reward, you know,” he said.
“Even so, I couldn’t take more than this…”
John nodded. “Very well.” He took the other half of the creature’s core. He could certainly use it to help his cultivation, but he thought he would do something better with it. It was unlikely removing a single creature would greatly destabilize the valley, even one around Soul Expansion, but he could still make certain of that. He began to spread bits of the spiritual water throughout the area, intending it to promote growth over the wider area.
He would be harvesting more things, of course, but he didn’t want to focus too much on one area. Especially as this was just an initial exploration, an assessment of the area as a whole. Which meant he would also have to go into the light element area… but it wasn’t as if that was impossible for him. It would just be uncomfortable, and he would be avoiding any of the stronger forces within.
Upon returning to Lunson, John was almost immediately beset by Ayhan. “Sir, you finally returned. You should come with me with haste.”
“Did something happen with the stall?” He had the disciples running the food stall while he was away. They were capable enough, and there was sufficient material for the time. He was also confident about entrusting them with the funds, after having spent more time together.
Ayhan shook his head. “No. It’s Raul.”
John frowned. “Something happened to him?”
“His shop,” Ayhan clarified. “Raul himself is unharmed.”
John exchanged looks with Crystin, who nodded. “Just give the word.”
John smiled in return. “I’ll decide after we assess the situation.”
Filimena came along with them as they hurried towards Raul’s shop. Once they arrived, it was pretty easy to see what happened. Shattered vials and crushed herbs. Raul was sitting in the center of things, just looking at it all.
“How long has it been?” John whispered to Ayhan.
“About a day… it happened while he was out.”
John clicked his tongue. If they had just come back earlier… things would be different. They could have prevented it, or more easily tracked down whoever was responsible. “You two stay with him,” John said to Filimena and Ayhan. “Crystin, with me.”
There was a faint lingering trace of spiritual energy. Fire, but it wasn’t clear enough to say for certain it was Oden, or even if it was Aghi, one of Oden’s apprentices, or some hired fire cultivator. Following the trail through the city, it got lost in the hustle and bustle of people.
“That’s the end of it, then,” John sighed.
“But we know who’s responsible,” Crystin pointed out.
“We do. But it will be inconvenient to act without proper proof. I don’t imagine we can get anyone to admit to seeing anything, but we might as well ask around.”
“You don’t want revenge?” Crystin asked.
John smiled. “I’ve already thought of a dozen ways. But I don’t want a war right now. If they were open about what they did it would be one thing. If they accept any prestige for this incident, we’ll tear them apart. But as long as they are afraid to act openly, it only hurts them more. That said, it’s not like we’re going to do nothing. We work with the darkness, after all.”
“Just like I said. They were afraid to act openly. But how many alchemists are there in this city? This wasn’t a robbery, they trashed everything. Because they knew we could track down his products if they took them.”
“Technically, there’s still Durga.”
“She’s not this stupid. Though perhaps I’m wrong,” John shrugged. “Should we go see her?”
Durga’s reaction told John everything he needed to know. Fear. Fear of him, and fear of others. And from her sparse shelves and the loaded trunks he could feel in the back of the shop, he really didn’t care whether or not she had been the one to trash the shop. If she did, it wasn’t by choice. Ultimate responsibility rested with Oden and nobody else.
“Your stock is a bit light,” John commented.
“That is true,” she replied. “But I don’t think you actually care. You never buy anything from me.”
“Why would I purchase from the second best alchemist in the city?” John asked.
Durga shook her head. “You never buy from Oden either.”
“I stand by my words,” John grinned.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m not planning to stay for long. I’ve received a good offer on the store, and I plan to move elsewhere.”
“I see,” John nodded. “I wish you luck. Perhaps you should talk to Viriato, he might know of opportunities outside of the country.”
“Thank you,” she inclined her head. “And… I’m sorry to hear about Raul’s shop. I wouldn’t-” she didn’t seem to have the words, or didn’t want to say them.
“It’s just stuff,” John shrugged. “Someone will pay for it eventually. Every single herb.” Including the one Oden had burned up in his own shop. John didn’t want to appear to be a pushover, but it wasn’t time for war just yet. Maybe in a few years, when they thought they had gotten away with everything. Though no doubt they would cause further trouble first. At least they weren’t stupid enough to act against his people directly. Raul was still technically an independent alchemist. Though John planned to change that officially.
“Someone came by with an offer to buy the building…” Raul chuckled as John returned. “Can you believe it?”
“Just now or…?”
“Yesterday,” Raul growled.
“Does it matter?”
“Absolutely. Because that’s the difference between an accessory member and someone who’s going to die when the time comes.”
Raul drew back slightly. “The papers are over there. I don’t quite remember her name.”
John nodded. “Join my sect officially. I wasn’t planning on it yet, but we might as well start moving people in. We can still have the grand opening later.”
The property on the edge of Lunson wasn’t anything amazing, but it continued for a significant distance beyond the city’s borders leaving plenty of room for expansion without having to worry about purchasing any more for a while. It was more or less livable already. And if Raul was going to move in, they could also start moving in the others. And Viriato could start making use of some of the warehouses there, if they had a proper presence.
John looked down at the letter he got and chuckled. Fortune and misfortune had to be taken in stride. He had already made some assumptions about receiving this letter, but he thought it would be later. After all, Tirto and Verusha had only been officially considering their potential relationship for a little over a year. John thought it would take them closer to the whole two and a half. But here it was, the official announcement of marriage, to take place shortly after Verusha’s majority.
Hopefully things had settled down there. The whole situation left Emilia in an uncomfortable place, but John still believed it was much better for things to be called off before marriage, instead of letting insecurities fester. Though he fully believed that Tirto and Emilia could have made things work, it was better not to force things and tempt fate.
John supposed the biggest surprise was actually on Verusha’s side of things, actually admitting to having real feelings. And so relatively ‘soon’. But then again, young folk tended to deal with everything faster. Hopefully, John could help them minimize the number of mistakes along their path.