A small form darted across the night sky, practically invisible. John wouldn’t even have noticed it if he hadn’t been coincidentally looking in that direction. He saw it descend and knew a new message had arrived. The shadowhawks were providing a valuable service, and they were intelligent enough they could be trained to deliver to multiple locations, instead of simply returning to one particular home. They weren’t the only option available, but the fact that they preferred to fly at night made them less obvious, and they were faster than any land or sea based delivery.
They still didn’t even come close to instant communication, but it allowed John to contact Matayal and receive a response within a handful of days rather than a few weeks. Contacting other allies was likewise important, even the Order of the Amber Heart which was quite close to the Tenebach clan. The hostilities with the Molten Sea had to be communicated to others, especially the Golden Tomb Guardians. Though they were already somewhat in conflict with them and the Righteous Flame League.
John found Suraj in the gardens, where the earth element was allowed to flow naturally. Much of the Tenebach clan’s land focused on amplifying the darkness element, but they had many retainers and allies who made use of the earth element. “How are you doing?”
“Quite well, thank you. It’s much more comfortable to recover here than Astrein.”
“What if I told you that Astrein has more fire element than this place by a significant margin?”
The older man looked at John, “I would think you were being insincere.”
“You can say liar,” John grinned. “But it’s true. If you could directly draw upon the fire element there, I imagine it would be more efficient than converting earth here. Though perhaps it is ultimately quite similar for you, as the amount of each individual element there is significantly less.”
The man nodded thoughtfully. “Given your rare style of cultivation, I will take your word for it. But then why can I sense it?”
“The whole place has entered a state of near-balance. None of the spiritual energy is concentrated, but naturally overlaps with the other element. Being sensitive to more of the individual elements, I know how to pick them apart if necessary.” Though John mainly just filtered out the light and the majority of the fire, letting the others sort themselves out inside his dantian unless he had a reason to intentionally separate them.
“Perhaps I could learn to make use of it, should I travel through Astrein again,” Suraj nodded.
“Speaking of travel, when do you wish to return to the Flame River Sect? We are able to obtain passage through the Shimmering Islands, and the Molten Sea has not acted so arrogant as to attack arbitrary vessels just yet.” Or at least not many. Matayal had spoken of increasing numbers of mysterious disappearances, though that could also involve the Sky Islands.
“Soon, then,” Suraj nodded. “Has the Fireplume been of use to you?”
The root cause of the incident could be said to be the Fireplume, though it could have been anything of value those particular individuals wanted. The actual value might not have mattered, as they could have demanded anything for free. John personally thought he’d arrived at the best solution, where people saw them make the attempt but get defeated. It would put the Molten Sea on guard, but there was another factor that might balance it out.
“I have found it useful indeed,” John said. He had ultimately paid slightly less than Suraj’s asking price, saving himself some of the price but more importantly buying favor with Suraj. He would be an important factor in drawing the attention of the Phoenix Forest’s sects to the situation outside their borders. “The energy is sufficiently gentle, yet vibrant.”
Suraj smiled. “Good. In hands other than yours, I would say a cultivator not of the fire attribute would waste such a thing. But I think that will only be technically true for a short time. Not to presume anything, but I believe a fire totem is coming in your near future.”
“The near future… well, perhaps it can be considered that,” John said. It might be a decade for him to reach the Ascending Soul Phase, or even more. Though that depended somewhat on if he got stuck on the threshold. That was part of the reason he was putting in all this work for elemental attunement ahead of time. He also needed to be able to connect to a fifth tier fire totem, and while he could resist the general pressure of the sea of spiritual totems he needed more.
In a cell nearly devoid of spiritual energy- but most importantly devoid of earth, fire, and water- the man known as Roshan sat in meditation. Perhaps he was focusing on the sea of spiritual totems, which could not be cut off from access by any methods the Tenebach clan was aware of. On the other hand, he might have been simply passing the time in the bare comforts he was afforded.
As a hostage, Roshan would not be comfortable… but because he had been cooperative, he was afforded more than the basic necessities. His wounds had been properly treated, even with some medicine to accelerate the process. He had a little writing desk, and his bed was nice enough. No doubt things were quite boring still, but that simply motivated him to hope the process would finish sooner rather than later. Though it was decent for a prisoner, it was nowhere near the finery that a Consolidated Soul Cultivator would come to expect.
“Have you received a response?” Roshan asked as John approached.
“Not yet,” John admitted. “Your letter is on the way, but we don’t expect a response for at least a few more days. Your cooperation will certainly speed along the process.”
They had carefully checked Roshan’s letter, of course, to make certain there was no hidden code within it. Not that it would necessarily help him even if he could add such information. There was nothing new to the Molten Sea except for what John wanted shared, specifically that Asgeirr fled while the two Molten Sea cultivators were relying on him to continue the battle. And though John sincerely believed that would have simply led to another loss, the idea that he could have helped would not only help with them underestimating his own power, but also helped drive a wedge between the allies. Asgeirr should have been the most motivated to win, but instead he fled. John had spread that news as far and wide as possible, before the Righteous Flame League could put in place their own narrative. He also emphasized their role in the attempted robbery of Suraj. He did want to turn people against the Molten Sea, but he also hoped there could be a peaceful solution to end their intrusion. Or at least one that involved less harm to the alliance that had built up around the Tenebach and Brandle clans.
“A pity,” Roshan said. “I would quite like to be out of here sooner. “If not that, why are you here?”
“I simply wanted to check on you and your accommodations. Someone of your status deserves at least that much respect.” This was the continuation of John’s plan to butter the man up. Though he was ‘only’ a mid Consolidated Soul Phase cultivator, he no doubt felt important. If he had been from some entity other than the Molten Sea, his relative status would be higher. John wasn’t going to say any of that, just do his best to influence the man’s thoughts in the way that was most beneficial to the clan.
Any clan or sect would have a dueling arena of some sort, and the larger the group the more they could customize. They were especially helpful for enforcing nonlethal combat, and they could also balance out unequal elements. Or make them worse.
Melanthina shifted uncomfortably in her seat. The arena was in its usual state like the rest of the clan, full of darkness element. For most cases, that would allow both cultivators to fight at optimum effectiveness and display their best results. After all, the Tenebach clan was a clan of darkness cultivators.
Here, one of the combatants was of the darkness element- but not part of the clan. The other, however, used the light element. It was totally unfair and unbalanced. Not to mention the darkness cultivators was older by a whole handful of years, and a rank higher. Yet the terms of the combat had been agreed upon.
She looked over at her father. Should she have made some official statement? Should she have prevented this?
“What is it?” her father asked.
“I…” she wiggled in her seat, “Was just thinking it was odd to see you behind me, instead of at the forefront.”
“Well, you’ll grow used to it.”
A simple and straightforward answer. Had he truly believed her? Melanthina was quite confident in her ability to deceive, but less so where her parents were involved. Or her siblings. They simply knew her too well, and she might also have hindered her own performance.
“They appear to be ready. You’ll have to announce the start.”
“Oh yes. Of course.” Melanthina stood, projecting her voice. “We gather here today for a personal contest between two cultivators. Disputes inevitably arise, and this arena is provided so they can be settled amicably.” Melanthina did her best to keep her bias out of her voice. Personally, she thought this situation had arose because someone had been butting into a situation he really had no say over. “On the one side, we have Viljar of the Ebon Crest. On the other, Nik of the Combining Luster Sect. Ready yourselves. Begin!”
She sat down and did her best not to clutch too tightly onto the arm of her chair. She at least hoped her white-knuckled grip was out of most people’s view.
“You should believe in him,” her father’s voice whispered in her ear. “You know him.”
“But what if-”
“What if’s don’t win battles,” he said. “Just relax.”
Sure. She would relax. It’s not like she would marry Viljar regardless. He was way too old. Also, she didn’t like him precisely because he pushed for this. She was relaxed. Her body? Relaxed. Mind? Relaxed. Everything? Relaxed.
She was pretty good at putting on a facade, at least.
The battle didn’t start off with a sudden clash, unlike many. Surprisingly, Nik didn’t even use his staff to fire a beam of light, one of his best moves. Instead, he only approached cautiously. That gave Viljar time to drag the tip of his spear along the ground, forming lines of power. He would form a zone of domination it would be very difficult to attack into, but easy for him to attack out of. What was Nik doing, letting him take his time?
About halfway through his efforts, Nik finally readied an attack. A simple beam, the moment of charging enough for Viljar to raise his own spear and extend darkness to match and destroy the incoming attack. But instead of finishing his crest immediately, Viljar took the opportunity to shift his stance, a fluid motion that resulted in the spear in his hand suddenly flinging forward. Even Melanthina could barely see the shift happening through the veil of darkness.
The spear pierced through Nik’s chest, and the arm of Melanthina’s chair cracked. Totally unrelatedly.
It was fine. Everything was fine. Especially since Nik still stood there, unharmed. Though the fact that the image of him there was a mirage had become clear when it scattered into nothingness for a moment during the passage of the darkened spear.
The spear returned to Viljar’s hand, carried back by his spiritual energy. He immediately returned to his crest. This was the time that Nik most needed to take advantage of to win this battle, though the rank difference between them and the arena being infused with darkness would be a problem.
A few more beams of light came from various angles, though Melanthina couldn’t pick out which, if any, were its proper origin. If she were in the arena, she could use some disruptive methods to pick that out… but she would not interfere in a match. Especially not to her own detriment.
Vijlar continued to defend himself, a cloak of darkness growing ever stronger around him. He finished his crest.
So that was it then.
A moment later, Melanthina couldn’t see. She retained her composure, not cussing up a storm in front of everyone present from a little flash. Actually, a little flash of light shouldn’t have done much to her. Her third totem really helped with that. The other darkness cultivators probably had it much worse.
Even so, it took a few moments to blink away the flashes, and she realized there was something she was supposed to say. Looking carefully at the scar that had once been a crest, she determined it was well and truly destroyed. Inside it, Viljar was no longer on his feet, or indeed conscious. She focused for a few seconds to make sure she was not hasty in her announcement, but there was no deception to be felt. Her probe was certain that Vijar was down. Nik was clearly confident of that, as he was standing visible just outside of the former location of the crest, looking at her with anticipation.
“Match complete. Victory, Nik!” Melanthina did her best to say that in an unbiased fashion. Hey, at least she didn’t cheer. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you, young miss Melanthina,” Nik said, projecting his voice. “In this moment of victory, I would like to make a request.”
“Go on,” Melanthina nodded.
“Melanthina. Will you marry me?”
She nearly exploded. Had he just asked…? Here? Now? But she had been planning- it didn’t matter now. She had to respond. But her voice barely squeaked out. “Help. Father. What do I say?”
“Well, I’m fairly certain the word you’re looking for is ‘yes’.”
“Yes!” Melanthina cleared her throat, properly projecting her voice instead of shouting. “Yes, I will marry you.”
She knew it was coming, but she’d been caught off guard by him being the one doing it. Then again, wasn’t it more appropriate, as the one of lower status?
Ugh. Nominally lower status, anyway. Which was kind of why she had wanted to be the one to ask. But she was kind of glad it ended up this way, even if her brain wasn’t functioning well at this exact moment.