Ashlock was sorely tempted to refuse to help Stella and make her walk down the mountain while holding her head in shame. But as much as he wanted to embarrass her, it was a lower priority than maintaining the Ashfallen sect's mysterious facade.

The Redclaws had sworn an oath and had been diligent so far, but Ashlock knew their loyalty was born out of fear of the unknown. He could control them using his Star Core prowess, but he preferred to use the carrot-and-stick method.

This meant rewarding good work and punishing those who crossed the line. However, Ashlock had only been wielding the stick, offering little in the way of rewards. Now, after two weeks had passed without any rumors about the legendary pill, he felt he could trust them a little more. The question was: how could he reward them for their excellent work so far?

His system naturally came to mind—but his points were zeroed out due to his recent skill draw. Ashlock then realized something, he hadn't dabbled much in F and E grade draws, only really focusing on higher grade stuff.

"Wouldn't some F grade items work great as rewards to give to well-performing subordinates? A single monster eaten would fund each draw." Ashlock mused to himself as he looked over his system windows that floated in his mind, "I'm finally one of the strongest, if not the strongest, being in the Blood Lotus sect other than the Patriarch. If that demon decides to exit closed-door cultivation prematurely, my death is almost certain anyway, so it shouldn't hurt to waste some points for once and explore the systems draws more."

Checking on the wilderness, Ashlock found no monsters feasting on his sleep-inducing mushrooms. "It must be a slow hunting day. I'll check back later."

Ashlock then spent the next hour watching over Stella and Diana as they strode through the streets of Darklight City. Naturally, the two beautiful and mysterious women drew a lot of gazes, and it didn't help that they walked with two Redclaws in tow that kept a respectful step behind.

Compared to just a few weeks ago, the entire city was bustling with activity, and the people seemed far happier than they had been under the Ravenborn, Winterwrath, or Evergreens rule.

Although Ashlock had not explicitly instructed the Redclaws to treat the mortals of Darklight City differently from a usual cultivation family, the fact that the family was much smaller than the last three families seemed to have played a role in their more relaxed rule over the populace.

Stella strode ahead with a stern expression, and Elder Mo hurried to keep up. "Yes, Mistress?" he asked when she called him by name.

Stella snapped her fingers, and her 9th stage Qi swirled around them, distorting both the air and sound. Ashlock would have struggled to hear their conversation if he were not in a higher realm.

"Elder Mo, feel free to speak. Tell me about the preparations you have made so far."

"Certainly," he replied, and Elder Mo detailed the preparations as they walked. "We have contacted some old acquaintances in other families. They will bring their own alchemists to the tournament to ensure that whichever alchemist wins will be the true king of alchemists in the Blood Lotus sect, as the immortal naturally deserves only the best."

Stella abruptly stopped walking, causing everyone else to halt in the middle of the street. Her eyes blazed with fury as she turned to Elder Mo. "What in the nine realms are you thinking? We need the best alchemist in the city, not from the entire sect!"

Elder Mo nervously chuckled. "Please, Mistress, calm down. Darklight City is one of the largest cities in the sect, and many eyes are on us right now. We were the first to arrive after the Winterwraths and Evergreens were wiped out. However, many others had also prepared to come and claim the city after rumors spread of the Winterwraths' and Evergreens' destruction. Furthermore, with the heavens opening up, this area may be overflowing with Heaven's intent, creating a perfect environment for cultivation, making it an area of great interest."

"So, you're saying we can't keep the tournament a secret?" Stella stroked her chin.

"Yes, exactly," Elder Mo replied, rubbing his hands together. "It's better to invite them to the tournament and make it an open event than try to be sneaky and obscure it. Sometimes, it's easier to hide things by being out in the open."

Ashlock, who was eavesdropping on the conversation, understood the logic behind Elder Mo's words. Cultivators, especially those from noble families, valued face and respect. It would be better for the Redclaws to openly establish their rule over the region rather than trying to do so behind everyone's backs.

Stella seemed lost in thought, so Elder Mo continued, "Naturally, we did not mention your name or the Ashfallen sect. We advertised it as our Redclaw family giving back to the Blood Lotus sect and nurturing the next generation of talented alchemists. There may be rumors circulating among the upper echelons behind closed doors, but we can do little about that for now."

"Elder Mo, what you say makes perfect sense, but this needs to be handled carefully." Stella's eyes drifted over her shoulder and landed on Red Vine Peak on the distant horizon, "The tournament can be the perfect way for the Ashfallen sect to retain its secrecy in your shadow, but if we are exposed, you must understand that will be your end."

Before Elder Mo could reply, Diana interjected, "Stella, don't be ridiculous. The Redclaws' actions may deviate slightly from the original plan, but there is no way a family that has sworn an oath would be unfaithful to an immortal, right?"

"It's as Mistress Diana says!" Amber, a girl Ashlock recognized, exclaimed. "We would never betray you! Please trust us." She then prostrated herself in a deep bow.

Ashlock believed that Amber was telling the truth. He had spent a considerable amount of time monitoring the white stone palace through his spiritual sight. He had grown roots through cracks in the palace's loft and snuck through the floorboards to get his spiritual sight into the palace.

This was done so he could spy and listen in on the Redclaws and also in anticipation of when they finally learned to read the ancient language, and he could control a stick of chalk with telekinesis to communicate with the Redclaw Grand Elder.

"Fine. Continue with the plan Elder Mo." Stella said before striding away, followed reluctantly by the others. "Diana, where is the best place to find servants for hire?"

"We can show you—" Amber began, but Diana turned her ominously glowing blue mask towards her, causing the girl to fall silent. Diana then gestured towards the city center. "Past the airship station and academy, there is a higher-class district for wealthy mortals. It's the perfect place to find desperate, jobless servants."

"Good." Stella nodded, "Let's go."


Watching the group make their way toward the city center grew tiresome, so Ashlock shifted his thoughts back to the rewards. With other families coming, he realized the tournament's stakes had grown slightly out of proportion.

"I need to help the Redclaw family," Ashlock muttered to himself. "They are a small family and are lacking in almost every way compared to the others. They're bigger than the Winterwraths or Evergreens individually, but those two families combined to rule over Darklight City."

If the Redclaws were shown up by the other families and couldn't manage or protect Darklight City, Ashlock feared that another family would take over, ruining all his plans. Keeping the Redclaws' mouths shut had already been challenging, and he didn't want to waste more time convincing a larger family to work under the Ashfallen sect.

"Maybe this tournament was a bad idea," Ashlock grumbled, realizing he had underestimated the sect politics and should have given it more thought. "But at least I can control the situation better this way than if they all showed up unannounced on my doorstep."

"It's fine. The situation is salvageable," Ashlock thought to himself. "All I need to do is make the Redclaws look so powerful that nobody would even glance at Red Vine Peak, and instead, focus all their attention on the Redclaws."

The first step in making the Redclaws more powerful was improving their cultivation. They had recently stalled due to the lack of fire Qi-rich areas within Ashlock's roots or the reach of his {Eye of the Tree God}. Thus, he needed to improve the mountain peak for them.

Summoning his skill list, his new B-grade skill {Blooming Root Flower Production} caught his attention. Activating it brought up a menu that allowed him to select flowers, similar to his other production abilities.

"But these flowers are special," Ashlock mused to himself. His {Blooming Root Flower Production} skill allowed him to produce flowers on his roots instead of his branches, which was a crucial feature since his system treated his trunk and roots as two separate entities. Some skills only worked with his roots, while others worked near or on his trunk.

Moreover, unlike regular flowers that bloomed in summer and produced seeds for reproduction, Ashlock's skill allowed him to grow flowers immediately upon deployment on his roots, hence the blooming part of the skill name.

Ashlock browsed through the hundreds of menu options, realizing that the Qi cost of these flowers was high on deployment, just like the fruit and mushrooms. However, once they had grown, they could sustain themselves with the Qi in the air, requiring only a tiny bit of upkeep from him.

The main difference between his fruit production ability, which allowed him to create fruit with any size and color and add one of his skills to it, and this flower skill was that he couldn't add his own skills to the flower. In fact, most of the flowers were grayed out, meaning they couldn’t be selected, including one called the Blaze Serpent Rose.

When he tries to click on the Blaze Serpent Rose, he received a message.

[Can only grow flowers the host has analyzed]

Ashlock sighed, realizing that his flower production skill was limited since he could only grow flowers that he had analyzed before. "My fruit production ability is limited because I can only add skills I know, and the mushrooms consume much of my Qi to produce. Now, my flower production requires me to obtain the flowers first," he grumbled, scrolling through the list of common flowers that he recognized in the vicinity, but none of them had any fire Qi properties.

"The Redclaws might have some fire Qi flowers in their spatial rings. I should ask Stella to inquire about them when they return," Ashlock thought to himself, realizing that he needed to obtain these flowers to improve the Redclaws' cultivation.

Ashlock's gaze wandered over to the forest surrounding his mountain, where he planned to test his flower production skill with some local flowers. He browsed through the menu options, wondering how he could improve the area. The forest was dense with lush green trees, interspersed with scarlet-leaved demonic trees that turned the area into one of half-dissolved carcasses and buzzing flies.

"This place has become rather ominous, and these carcasses are scaring off any wildlife," Ashlock noted, surveying the forest. He could populate the area with bright flowers to distract from the misery or lean into the already-present spooky forest vibe.

After a brief debate, team spooky won in Ashlock's mind, and he decided to make the forest surrounding his mountain as treacherous and unappealing as possible to discourage people from wandering up his mountain. "I can then cover the Redclaw's mountain in bright red flowers to attract all the cultivator's attention like bees, while making the Red Vine Peak seem like an abandoned place of little interest."

Ashlock knew that cultivators in this world were attracted to glamour and shiny things, so why would they be interested in a lonely mountain when the sect was surrounded by thousands of miles of wilderness overflowing with fearsome beasts to hunt?

With that in mind, Ashlock found the perfect non-greyed-out flower in the menu, the Serene Mist Camellia, a small pink flower that converts water Qi into a mist that obscures it from predators.

Having seen these flowers dotting the forest, Ashlock knew they were partly responsible for the lush environment within the nearby forests. The Serene Mist Camellia attached to the top of trees and released a light mist that fell down and provided water to the foliage below.

After selecting the flower, the menu changed to ask where Ashlock wished to grow the Serene Mist Camellia. Naturally, he picked all the roots he had coiling around the hundreds of demonic trees littered throughout the forest.

As the pink flowers bloomed, Ashlock received a wave of happiness through the mycelium network.

"It seems they like them." Ashlock chuckled. It was a beautiful display, but he almost wanted to groan as his Star Core pulsed and shrunk slightly due to the immense drain on his Qi. "I might need to meditate for a few days to recover that expenditure, or I could go hunting."

The thought of meditating was boring, and the prospect of hunting netted him credits he could use to sign in. With that fleeting debate, his vision returned to the sky above the wilderness as he searched for a snack.

Because of the silence earlier in the day, Ashlock was surprised by the sudden wave of incoming beasts he saw. He wouldn't be surprised if it was an early sign of the beast tide. Most of the monsters were weak, consisting of giant demonic chickens charging and letting out weird screams from outside his view range. They were stampeding the bushes with his mushrooms, leaving them flattened and crushed.

"Fucking chickens ruining my gardening." Ashlock was lowkey pissed—those mushrooms had taken up a considerable amount of Qi, and he hadn't yet repaid the debt they had incurred through hunting. If he couldn't devour a good few of these low-cultivation realm demonic chickens, he had a week or two of meditation ahead of him.

Ashlock did get a bit of a laugh seeing all the Redclaw cultivators patrolling the walls freak out.

"Inform the elders!"

"Patriarch! Where is the Patriarch? We are about to be overrun!"

"Oh heavens, they can fly!"

"Back back! Run!"

One of the more seasoned elders present turned his back on the incoming threat, glanced toward Red Vine Peak, and calmly asked, just loud enough for all those around him to hear, "Immortal senior, please lend us a mere fraction of your strength."

Well, Ashlock was never one to turn down such a polite request from a diligent subordinate.

Using telekinesis, he ripped hundreds of leaves from nearby trees and sent them whooshing over the terrified Redclaw cultivators' heads, raining down on the hundreds of demonic chickens like artillery fire.

It was an absolute slaughter, but it didn't end there. Reality cracked like shattered glass overhead, and many tendrils coated in the purest of lilac flames slithered down to acquire the bodies and drag them away.

All of the Redclaw cultivators fell silent and stood on the Blood Lotus sect wall with expressions of unease as they watched the scene. Ashlock had no idea what they thought of his display, but he hoped he had made a good impression.

"Such destruction while limiting himself to the Star Core realm." The man who had asked for his help muttered while rubbing his chin, "What a terrifying individual. Did he even use a fraction of his power?"

Ashlock looked wearily at his dimming Star Core that had halved in size and silently wished the man's words were true. In actuality, he had used almost all of his Qi reserves to put on a show, but hopefully, the corpses raining from the sky into the central courtyard and forming a mountain of death would serve him well.

After sealing off the rift and ensuring the stampede was mostly dealt with, Ashlock metaphorically rubbed his hands in glee. Combined, the chickens wouldn't provide an awe-inspiring amount of points, but if he signed in after devouring each one, he could expect hundreds of new low-grade items, summons, or even skills.

What Ashlock hadn't expected was for his very first sign-in to reward him with a new F-grade summon.