Like everything of value, putting together a merchant group or a sect or whatever John ultimately settled into would take time. At some point, John knew he would have to start bringing in money somehow. He couldn’t just draw upon the wealth of the Tenebach clan, especially if he wasn’t going to bring them any direct benefit. His own personal wealth had to last long enough. Though finding some sort of work might benefit him. Money, contacts, information, everything could mesh together if he found the right sorts of missions.
Did Astrein even have anything that needed cultivators to solve it? Dangerous beasts, perilous terrain… bandits? Realistically some of the latter could crop up anywhere, but Astrein wasn’t prosperous enough for any notable bandits to arise. By mundane standards it was wealthy enough, and the fields produced sufficient food to feed everyone cheaply. But the fact that little of value to cultivators came out of the area made it effectively poor, despite people being able to live comfortably.
Going from person to person asking his questions was the only way to get started, and John began right away with Filimena. “Dangers?” she asked in response to his own inquiries. “Nothing that I would really call that. Not near Lunson, at least. There’s a few poisonous plants, but they’re pretty easy to spot and they won’t hurt you if you just touch them. I wouldn’t go around eating brightly colored flowers unless you knew what you were doing, though.”
“I try not to,” John said. At most, he would absorb some spiritual energy from them on his own, everything else tended to require some processing.
John hadn’t expected Filimena to be particularly aware of greater dangers, if they existed. She would have remained local and safe regardless, as she didn’t seem the type to take much risk.
Next was Raul, the alchemist. “Dangers and the like…? There are certainly some valuable alchemical ingredients that are guarded by certain creatures, or extracted from them. Even here in Astrein, though nobody much thinks of the dangers. If you stick to the main roads- and nobody has any reason to do anything else just passing through- you don’t run into any trouble. Not that I would expect to find a Soul Expansion equivalent beast anywhere in this country, so with Crystin there… I doubt you’d encounter any risk.”
Actually, if the opponents were only a similar strength to the Foundation Phase, John imagined he would have no trouble as long as he wasn’t swarmed by them. Despite being technically in the mid Foundation Phase himself, he had fifth tier totems and a cycle of elements. Or two, though the allied cycle was sufficiently less powerful than the core cycle. But it was also much easier to achieve.
“Anything you need?” John asked.
“Not that I can afford to hire anyone for,” Raul shook his head. “Business hasn’t really changed that much. I sell a few things to you, and to Viriato. But there’s barely enough business for two alchemists in this city, and Oden takes more than half of it.”
“Did you ever try to become his apprentice?”
“I did, actually,” Raul shrugged. “Thought it would be nice to get some proper training.”
“What happened?” John asked.
“Didn’t pass. Wasn’t motivated to give it another go.” Raul shrugged. “I’ll just leave it at that for now. Anyway, the only things I would want are just for experiments. Nothing I’d get paid for so… I can’t afford to commission anything.”
“Perhaps you can get them yourself, once you reach the Foundation Phase. You’re not too far off now.”
“Still a bit nervous about attempting my breakthrough,” Raul admitted.
“One thing I can say… don’t skimp on your preparations. It’s not too much to rent an elemental separation room right now, if you think that would be beneficial. Or you could travel somewhere more suited for what you want. Perhaps the border between the Stone Conglomerate and the Green Sands?”
“I don’t know if cultivating in the middle of the wilderness is for me, though,” Raul grinned.
“Perhaps not. And there is little along the border but watchtowers, so you couldn’t expect to shelter in a settlement.”
“Don’t worry, master. I’ll figure something out.”
“Don’t forget you can ask for my help as well. Within reason.”
“Of course. Once I decide what I actually need, I’ll let you know.”
Finally was Viriato. “Bandits? Sure,” the plump man jiggled slightly as he waved his arms about. “And a few beasts in the wilderness, feeding off its preferred choice of cultivators. But I’d say the greatest dangers are here in the city.”
“Is that so?” John asked.
“It’s all people, after all. But as long as you pay the right folks, there’s not really any trouble.”
“I see,” John said. There wasn’t really any legal authority, but the city wasn’t uncontrolled either. “And I assume they fulfilled their duties and protected people while the Molten Sea was occupying the city?”
“Well…” Viriato shrugged.
“Figures. Everyone wants to be the lord of the land until there’s responsibility attached.”
John was trying to remember the particular group involved. The tournament was organized in part by the surrounding countries, since nobody trusted any individual group, but there was some local group that remained. “I can’t recall the name of the group,” John admitted. “But I assume it’s the same fellows who run the tournament?”
“That’s right,” Viriato said. “They currently go by the Platinum Tower. Sometime with Society tacked on there at the end. They tend to relax after tournament years, but before the end of the decade they’ll likely be starving for money again. That’s what happens when you only get very infrequent income,” he shrugged. “Though they get a steady trickle as landlords the rest of the time. Plus their ‘taxes’. They don’t tend to drain people dry, though, because then they’d have to maintain the land and buildings themselves… for a whole decade of emptiness. Wouldn’t make them look good come tournament time, and that means people spending less money.”f
“I do remember the name now,” John admitted. “You know how it is though. Outside of Astrein, people tend to think this place is less important.”
“They’re not wrong,” Viriato pointed out. “These fellows can’t be important anywhere but here, so they preferred to act as kings here rather than be nobodies elsewhere. And there’s not really much else to join up with, if local cultivators are looking for a faction.”
“I would expect people to go anywhere else,” John admitted. “What makes people stay?”
Viriato shook his head. “I was born here. It’s comfortable. And it’s not so easy to get welcomed elsewhere long term when your cultivation is mediocre. Expensive, too. Other than that, I don’t really know. What draws you here?”
“The spiritual energy. And I don’t mean that sarcastically,” John grinned. “I’m a cultivator of multiple elements. When taking them all into consideration, the spiritual energy here is denser than most places.”
“I see. No wonder you were interested in odd things. I had the feeling you weren’t quite what you looked like but your cultivation is… difficult to parse,” Viriato admitted.
“I will admit to not having the guts to combine light and darkness.” Yet. “However, given my experience I might suggest some possibilities for you to continue without unbalancing your cultivation. A second light or darkness totem would likely prove… unhelpful, I imagine.”
“Can’t imagine surviving that,” the merchant admitted.
“Something stabilizing might be useful. Obviously you have considered that, but I can say that one of the core elements should be able to match without necessarily unbalancing you. Something to keep your light and darkness separate while still permeable for when it needs to be.”
“I had considered a few options,” Viriato replied. “There was a mirror totem, but it was strongly light element. I’m afraid if I attune to fire or air, light will dominate and… annihilate part of me. The same with water or earth.”
John nodded, “The wrong totem, certainly. But I have some techniques for seeking out what you desire. In fact, almost anything you can conceive of is possible. Sticking with common totems carries little risk, but with how you already are… you’d need something special.”
“You’re right about that,” Viriato admitted. “I’ll consider my options. Returning to the original topic, however, I have heard of a few potential locations of value. Obviously rife with beasts of course, or whoever found it would have carried off anything worthwhile. Perhaps we could join together on a venture, if I learn of something good.”
“I wouldn’t mind that,” John said. “I’ll stay in touch.”
There was only so much cultivation advice one could give in casual conversation. It was a matter of understanding that went in both directions- John needed to understand who he was teaching, and they needed to trust he had their best interests in heart and the experience to help. Doubt was the easiest way to screw up cultivation, right up there with trying something that simply couldn’t work. There were no insights to be gained into how to accomplish the impossible. The improbable was another matter entirely.
The time spent with Raul had strengthened the bond between him and John, and the simple yet practical advice on dissecting elements from the greater slurry of Astrein’s spiritual energy and his advice on handling earth had increased Raul’s confidence. He had not insisted that any totem would be the best one for Raul, but instead helped him seek out what would fit best. Some earth totem akin to charcoal was only the initial thought, but Raul wanted precision in his flames.
Chalky powders had properties which with just the right conditions could quickly ignite even though they were considered stone. But he didn’t want explosions of power either. The earth element also included plant matter, but dried logs were too volatile even if they didn’t seem that way in the short term. Step by step they narrowed down what Raul would accept for his totem. They even considered a few water totems with the thought of controlling temperature, but he wanted to enhance his fire.
Ultimately, they swayed away from direct enhancement into the area of materials. Specifically, clear glass. Attuning to such a totem wouldn’t involve creating glass, or at least not directly out of spiritual energy, but it represented a highly purified and refined earth element. And as he worked with glass containers among other things in his alchemy, the totem could help him recognize flaws in the structure of his equipment as well as moderating the flow of his own power as it indirectly affected some portion of his work.
There were, of course, more direct applications of flame. But Raul wasn’t focused on getting the perfect totem. He wanted one that was sufficient. He wanted to be better, without restricting himself. Thus, a simple but functional totem should be suited for that purpose.
After having chosen that, Raul had to make the choice about location and preparations. Even with John’s offer to protect him, he had no interest in cultivating out in a field. Instead, he planned to settle for a simple room of the earth element. He was attuning to something new, so having a balance of fire and earth was less important for him.
And so, John was waiting. Though he didn’t expect anything to go wrong, he was waiting outside Raul’s chosen room. If there was a potential interruption, he would intercept it. And if something happened to the cultivator inside, he could quickly enter to try to assist him. Hopefully neither would be necessary, and if Raul’s preparations were sufficient he could reach the Foundation Phase.
But even though John had passed several Phases beyond that point, he still understood that even the Foundation Phase was not a trivial step forward. After all, Fortkran Tenebach hadn’t been completely useless as a cultivator. He had attuned to a third tier totem as his very first one, simply meeting with failure as he overreached for his second. That had ultimately been good for John and most likely the rest of the Tenebach clan, but Fortkran in particular had lost everything. John had taken every advancement seriously because of that… and still nearly killed himself attempting to reach the Ascending Soul Phase. Then again, he was fortunate to even have the chance. And then survive the aftermath.
He waited, minimizing his presence to not disturb his first disciple outside of the clan or their allies. Even within the Tenebach clan, he wasn’t the exclusive instructor of anyone- he gave generalized advice based on his own experiences and past leaders of the Tenebach clan. And his children had developed their own cultivations rapidly and often out of his presence, so he hadn’t often experienced the stress of waiting for another’s cultivation… success or failure, he wanted to be there for Raul. But success was many times preferred.