To the north of the Stone Conglomerate was a country John generally didn’t pay attention to. Nobody did, because it had very little in the way of anything. There were people, of course. People would live everywhere, and it wasn’t exactly uninhabitable. It simply didn’t have much spiritual energy of any type, with none of them dominant enough to even list a type. In short, it was a neutral element country, but only if one were being generous with the descriptors.
That same negative made it a positive for one particular thing. It was neutral territory for a number of surrounding countries since none wished to fight there, and the land was not highly coveted by cultivators. Thus, it was easy enough to purchase sufficient space for a proper tournament. Expenses had to be incurred to allow for some safety measures for the participants, but the surrounding countries gladly contributed for the limited time they actually planned to use the tournament grounds.
The current tournament took place every decade, with the required age of participants less than forty years old. That resulted in most cultivators being able to participate two or three times during their careers. The particular timing on this tournament would allow John to participate twice, since he was now in his mid twenties. Again.
The forty year age limit still meant everyone involved would be ‘young’, since cultivators had extended lifespans. It also meant there was some possibility of Consolidated Soul Phase participants. Just because Johannes Dalen was the only clearly known cultivator at that Phase in Marble County didn’t mean that over the whole of several countries there wouldn’t be any who were significantly younger. In fact, given the current cultivations of many members of the Tenebach clan, it seemed likely that many of them would reach Consolidated Soul Phase by the time of the next tournament.
John knew it was unlikely that this particular crop of talents was limited to just his own clan or others he knew closely. It was a generally known phenomenon that there were rising and falling tides of cultivation governed by unknown forces. Possibly just random chance, but it could also be that having a few with sufficient talent allowed others to test themselves and grow stronger than they would have with more mundane opponents.
Either way, John wasn’t just going to assume that he and Matayal would top the tournament just because they were in the Soul Expansion Phase already. Another decade would greatly change their own cultivation, and there should be at least a few people at the peak of Soul Expansion Phase if nothing else. Stepping over the divide between phases could be the most difficult part, and there was no guarantee of accomplishing it in a specific timeframe.
The Shimmering Islands and Green Sands both bordered on Astrein as well, but further north were places John and Matayal had little interaction with thus far. Those immediately bordering Astrein were the Blustering Peaks, an air-dominant country, as well as a light-dominant country called the Sunfields. There were other countries beyond, of course, but John’s focus was on the light element cultivators. He might currently be unused to light element attacks, but light and darkness were both offensively effective against each other.
If he learned to deal with their attacks, he could counter with some of his own. Though he still had his other elements, and air would be perfectly neutral against light element techniques. As allied elements they could support each other, but didn’t particularly resist each other.
John had tried to find out more about light element cultivators after the incident in the Green Sands, but cultivators held their weaknesses tight to their chest. All he had to go over were old clan documents which were unfortunately vague and incomplete. Researching libraries in nearby cities hadn’t turned up much more, leaving him to fend for himself. If nothing else, he could be prepared for a flash of light. Eyes were probably the most effective sensory organs when they worked, but making use of his other senses would be a priority. Though he wondered if light might be used to overwhelm his energy senses as well.
There wasn’t much John and Matayal could do to prepare for the tournament besides their regular training. Not knowing what opponents they might face, the only thing they could do was shore up their weaknesses and improve their cultivation base. There had actually been some possibility that they would skip this particular tournament, but the timing worked out such that nothing more important was going on. Things were stable in both of their clans for the moment, so they set out for Lunson, the city in central Astrein where the tournament grounds were. The city wasn’t much before the arena had been set up, and the surrounding area was still just standard farming fields. But that was most of Astrein.
As they traveled north and reached the border of the Stone Conglomerate, it was quite easy to feel the decrease in earth elemental spiritual energy. It was quite similar to any other border between elemental regions in that regard. From the way everyone described it, John expected the amount of spiritual energy to fade into near nothingness… but it didn’t really get that much worse.
Of course, no single type of spiritual energy was available in sufficient quantities to fill up a Soul Expansion Phase cultivator. But the area wasn’t completely devoid of energy. Just not overflowing in it, nor was it dominated by any one thing.
With three elements John was cultivating, he still found the overall quantities a bit lacking. He had no need to absorb any more fire or water than he already had. But he did find something interesting. Though the Green Sands certainly had some amount of light elemental spiritual energy present, the fire overwhelmed it and made it impossible for him to distinguish in any useful fashion. With a nearly equal mixture of every element, however, John was able to separate out small quantities of light element.
Just touching it was uncomfortable. He didn’t know what he would do with it. The thought of adding it to the ecosystem in his dantian was unpleasant. He knew that eventually that was what he would have to do, but at the current moment he had a totem completely opposed to it and only one aligned with it. The completion of a great cycle of elements was the hardest part, and trying to skip ahead was likely dangerous.
But just like when he was first experimenting with fire element energy, he could still control a small portion of it without refining it inside himself. He would just be terrible at it. Inside the carriage he managed to make a small light source like a candle, but it faded after only a few moments. Certainly nothing comparable to a blinding flash, and he wouldn’t really be able to guess what other sorts of techniques could be done with light. Not from the energy itself, anyway.
It seemed that any last minute preparations wouldn’t be easy, but John at least would have more ability to recover after battles. Without making use of expensive stored elements, of course. He might still need to tap into his small supplies, but that would depend on the specific prizes on offer and the level of his competition. Too weak or too strong, and there would be little point in speeding his recovery between matches.
Steve was vaguely aware of the tournament happening in Astrein, but he found no point in going to attend. He likely wouldn’t win, since all the resources he obtained went directly into training and wouldn’t help him recover between rounds. He had no clan or country he wanted to fight for, so his presence wouldn’t matter much. And he had other things to do.
He could still use it to try to convince Yustina to go, though. “Wouldn’t the Milanovic clan like to have you at the tournament?” he mentioned to Yustina.
“You know I’m still in the Foundation Phase. That’s hardly enough to get a good place. Why, do you want to go?” she smiled.
“No. I was just hoping it might catch your interest.”
“It almost sounds like you’re trying to get me to leave without you,” Yustina laughed.
“Have I been too subtle about that?” Steve said. “I’m pretty sure I said it before we even entered the Darklands.”
“Don’t worry,” she replied, “I did hear you. I’m glad you want to protect me, but I’d rather not miss whatever you’re up to.”
“It would be easier without you,” Steve shook his head.
“It might,” she shrugged, “But I have my own skills to contribute.”
“I suppose we’ll see about that.”
So far, their travel through the darklands had been relatively uneventful. The sort of beasts that lived in the area quickly ran away when exposed to fire, so the infrequent attacks hadn’t been too dangerous. Most things preferred to run from fire, so that wasn’t really different from Steve’s normal travels.
Since they were keeping a low profile, they hadn’t run into any trouble with cultivators so far. Though the Darklands were a somewhat hostile place, it wasn’t so lawless that random travelers would be attacked inside of cities. Especially not when a Soul Expansion Phase cultivator was one of them. People would generally prefer easier targets if they had ill intent.
That didn’t mean Steve’s mission was going well. It was a difficult goal he had set for himself, gathering information without being too obvious about it. He had no doubt that many people would be quite upset knowing he was spying on them, and unlike many places he had been he was wary of what could be done to him. But he had a good reason to try anyway.
As they left another inn, Steve looked at it over his shoulder with a frown.
“Something wrong?” Yustina asked quietly. “Are we being followed?”
“I don’t think so,” Steve said. “It’s just… that’s the fifth place we’ve stopped and not once did anyone show up after us and try to buy up every room. Nobody was there at the same time as me when I bought those gauntlets, demanding they be sold to them.” He took a sudden step to the side, dodging around someone striding down the road carelessly. “Usually something would have happened by now.”
“That seems extremely unlikely. It hasn’t been that long. Things like that don’t happen all the time.”
“They do, though,” Steve emphasized. “At least to me.” He felt eyes on the back of his head, but he didn’t turn around to look. Better to not give an excuse.
“I don’t know,” Yustina shrugged, “You almost sound like you want it to happen. You could have just let him run into you.”
“I’ll have you know I’m not the instigator for the majority of the incidents I get involved in. People are just looking for trouble.”
Steve continued walking as the man behind him shouted, keeping his voice even as the conversation continued. “Responding here is just as likely to make him start a fight as not. What am I supposed to do about that, huh?”
“Maybe you’ve just got a punchable face,” Yustina suggested.
“Nobody even looks at me before starting trouble,” Steve said. The man behind them began running after them, but plowed into someone else on the way. Steve happily left that situation behind as they continued out of town.
“I still find your story difficult to believe,” Yustina said. “I’ve only heard your side.”
“I thought you would support the hero,” Steve rolled his eyes. “But I guess not.”
“Heroes can still make mistakes,” she said. “And you could just be reckless.”
They managed to avoid trouble all the way out of town. Things were going quite peacefully, and Steve managed a new record by the time they came upon strange fluctuations of energy in the wilderness. He wondered what the chances were that it was some sort of spirit beast or natural treasure that wasn’t already being pursued by other people. He thought to leave it, but Yustina was already moving off of the trail towards it by the time he finished appraising the situation.