It took some time, but John finally had a reliable method for his single element disciples to take advantage of Astrein’s particular situation. And it didn’t involve expensive formations separating the various types of spiritual energy. Indeed, they still had to struggle through the process of separating the spiritual energy alone. John thought that was a valuable skill, whether or not they were going to use multiple elements themselves. And the solution was ultimately very simple. Group training, preferably with one cultivator of each element.
It was much safer for unrelated individuals to perform than dual cultivation, because at most they were working with energy outside of themselves simultaneously. The worst they could do was waste spiritual energy and deplete the area for a while. There weren’t always perfect groups of six, but the more there were the easier it was to separate all of the mixed elements.
Some of his disciples, the majority of which were former street urchins, were choosing to go down the path of multiple elements. That meant they were generally more effective in pairs, or occasionally trios where they had a perfect match of all the elements. Only the foremost among John’s disciples were actually in the Foundation Phase, but others were approaching that point and thus practicing a second element to make the connection to their second totem easier.
Of the urchins, only Barakat was at the Foundation Phase, but most of the initial bunch were at the ninth rank, close to breaking through. Barakat had intentions to perform a cycle of core elements- leaving out light and darkness, he would still be a dominating force if and when he reached the Consolidated Soul Phase. Since John was the only exception in the region to reaching the Ascending Soul Phase- and only technically given what happened to his cultivation- it was quite rational to assume that the Consolidated Soul Phase was the limit, and even then it required some decent talent.
Beyond the disciples themselves, the newly formed Six Elements Crossroads had numerous business dealings within Astrein and sometimes going into neighboring countries. The most local was the food business. It was part training and part searching for profits. There weren’t just burgers, but other sorts of elementally aligned foods for those who wanted such, at relatively affordable prices. There was little so pure or high in spiritual energy to tempt those at the Soul Expansion or Consolidated Soul Phase levels, but perhaps they might expand to such if they could find a reliable source. The secret valley was a possibility, but keeping it a secret was going to take some work if they were too brazen with it.
Raul’s alchemy business was mostly monopolized by the sect alone, and while the work was not extremely varied as it consisted mostly of healing ointments and extracted elements, Raul did have the flexibility to procure ingredients for his studies. Being officially financed by the sect meant he couldn’t necessarily do whatever he wanted, but he had a steady budget not limited by monthly or weekly profits.
Viriato was in charge of most of the business involving sales, both within Astrein and in neighboring areas. It wasn’t just the stout merchant, of course. It would take more than a couple years to establish the sect as a trading powerhouse, but they did more than a nominal amount of business.
Along with the actual disciples of the Six Elements Crossroads, various cultivators who found themselves in Astrein for the long term were hired on as guards, where they also engaged in hunting and harvesting work. The difference between them and proper disciples was they didn’t have long term commitments, and their access to resources both in terms of training techniques and actual rewards was more limited. Some would eventually be offered positions as disciples, though it was important to determine if they could be trusted first. It wasn’t just about following orders, but also about acting within the code of ethics. John didn’t want to be the head of a sect of bullies. Though he also recognized that conflicts between cultivators were inevitable… especially in Astrein where the Platinum Tower Society felt threatened by anyone trying to establish themselves.
So far, everything had been going relatively smoothly. There still hadn’t been an opportunity for revenge for Raul’s shop, but on the other hand further conflict had been kept to a minimum. Occasional scuffles on the street without deaths or serious injuries. John wasn’t certain how long that would continue, but he hoped for it to last as long as possible. He wanted his position to be a bit more secure, at least.
Only the most trusted disciples were taken to the secret valley- but even they didn’t know how to get there. Not precisely, at least. That was because John and Crystin used darkness to conceal their path. It was better that the disciples couldn’t accidentally reveal it, and they were also protected against anyone following them. That would have to do until they were large enough to establish a permanent presence in the secret valley.
“There were a few herbs I had my eye on last time,” Raul said. “They should be ready to pick now… assuming they haven’t been eaten, of course. It’s hard to tell what beasts will do. Though at least a few of them are entirely unappetizing and dangerous unless handled properly.”
“Good,” John said. “My goal for this outing is to end up with at least another one or two Foundation Phase cultivators.” The sect needed more mid tier cultivators. And high tier as well, but Crystin was at least filling that gap for the moment. John was close to returning to the Soul Expansion Phase himself, though he had the feeling he would need more than just the last bit of spiritual energy to make that advancement. And while he might be wrong about the specifics, he would have an opportunity at the upcoming wedding to test his theory so he wasn’t in a rush.
The pair John was watching with the most interest- actually a pair now- was Ayhan and Lir. In their relative youth, love had bloomed strong and bright, though not without some effort from Ayhan. But now, they were already planning future cultivation together. Both intended a cycle of core elements- that was the preferred path for disciples, if they thought they could handle it. But as they were planning to manage it together, Ayhan was going to add the air element to his earth. Meanwhile, Lir was going to add water to her fire element. They could have stayed with allied elements for themselves, but making the step across that divide earlier would be beneficial if they could manage it. John had to admit it was a bit of a risk, since if either of them fell behind they might both be shackled. On the other hand, the opposite was true- one could pull the other ahead.
With their elemental choices, they would both be supporting each other instead of Ayhan one-sidedly supporting Lir. Not that she had ever taken advantage of that in a negative way- Ayhan was the one who chose his element to support her, and dual cultivation with a supporting element didn’t have to simply be one-sided. It was just a possibility.
John knew the path ahead of them would still be difficult, but he intended to support them as much as he could. Both with encouragement and advice for cultivation and their relationship. There was no guarantee that their relationship would hold together, which would ultimately cause a significant drawback for their future cultivation if they split up. But John wasn’t going to forbid anyone from trying. He’d given his proper cautions about dual cultivation early on, and from there people were responsible for their own choices.
Lir was sitting in peaceful meditation, and Ayhan intended to let her maintain that state. His own condition was much… sweatier. He had been fending off aggressive creatures as she meditated, and while they had chosen a fairly modest location it was perhaps slightly more popular than they had intended. This particular stream had all sorts of biting fish- which weren’t an issue as long as they stayed on land- and some lizard-like creatures that crawled out from the water.
Those had been relatively easy to deal with, as Ayhan was an earth cultivator. Sharp teeth were something he could block easily enough. The shambling fungus blobs that were currently causing trouble were another matter. He specialized in the more stone-oriented portions of earth, not plant or plantlike creatures. He very much did not want to figure out what their spores did, which was why he was glad for his limited control over the air element. He couldn’t really use it offensively, but he was at least able to mitigate the spores- and keep them away from Lir.
Unfortunately, he discovered that stomping one of the fungus blobs flat resulted in his heel sticking into one of the creatures- not only leaving himself open, but also providing a chance for two to slip by towards Lir.
Ayhan ripped his foot free, ignoring the boot and chunk of spiritual energy he left behind as he charged forward. He stomped on the ground, sending a wave of earth that pushed two of the masses apart. Along the way, he picked up a fallen branch that was vaguely sharp. Infusing it with earth energy, he tossed it like a spear towards the one on the left. His focus left him open to the one following after him which spewed a cloud of spores towards him. He kicked it away, sending it crashing against a tree, but his coughing slowed him. And the second one around Lir was about to reach her.
Ayhan reached out his hand, trying desperately to do something. Even if she wouldn’t die to a single attack, having her concentration disrupted in the middle of cultivation could be very dangerous. And he’d promised to protect her. But he could only watch as it closed the remaining distance before he did. Until… a bolt of lightning pierced into the creature. An explosion of spores burst out in the direction the lightning came from, though only for a moment before they ignited and the mass of fungus deflated.
Ayhan looked towards the source, and saw the sect head. “Thank-” he barely began to speak, when the sect head put a finger to his lips, gesturing to Lir. Then he made another gesture, miming deep breaths. Ayhan coughed. Right! He had to expel the spores from his lungs. He didn’t want to find out what happened if he let them linger.
He kept his senses alert as he inelegantly dragged the foreign contaminants from his lungs, having clumped them together like mud. It made an awful looking goop when he spit it out, but his lungs only hurt a little bit. Just as he was wrapping up, he felt the spiritual energy around Lir pick up. He watched her as her power pulsed.
And then her eyes flickered open. She took in the surroundings, and Ayhan’s current state. She smiled, “Thank you. It seems we underestimated the danger here. But if you’re up for it, after a short recovery I can return the favor for your own breakthrough.”
Ayhan nodded. “Thank you. And congratulations.”
“Soon enough that will be true for both of us, I’m certain.”
It took Ayhan until nearly the end of the excursion to achieve his breakthrough- and admittedly John might have delayed a bit to make certain that it would happen. But he couldn’t help but have a bit of favoritism to some individual disciples. Besides, nobody else was going to complain about extra time in the secret valley, where they could find resources of every element. And it was best for the sect that the actual disciples’ power was ever increasing.
John was going on a trip, after all. He couldn’t miss his son’s wedding. He also couldn’t leave Crystin behind, since she was family as well. John did plan to hire a bit of extra protection for the sect while he was gone, just in case. He also didn’t announce the exact duration he would be gone- the fact that he could return at any time would hopefully make anyone looking to act against him cautious. And since he had to eventually trust his sect to last on its own without him, at least for a few weeks, there wasn’t much else he could do except take proper precautions.
John would have to be back soon enough anyway. Not long after the wedding was the scheduled official opening of the sect. Specifically, a big ceremony they had been preparing for. The next month would be busy… but John knew it would all be worth it.