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Zac wasn’t offended at Catheya’s disinterest in helping him in case of an auction-related conflict arose. Their relation was one of an employer-employee, where both used each other for benefits. Why should she stick her neck out? Zac definitely wouldn’t do so if she got herself in similar trouble.

The auction soon started up, but Zac wasn’t overly invested in the proceedings. He felt that if you had seen one you’d seen them all. He mostly enjoyed the incense as he swapped between chit-chatting with Catheya and reading up on the treasures up for sale.

A surprisingly large number of the wares were weapons and spell amplifiers such as staves, wands, or censers, and some of them reached prices far beyond what Zac had expected. Zac figured that getting a perfect weapon was something you’d prioritize from the get-go, rather than waiting until right before a trial.

There were quite a few pills for sale as well, but they were barely any better than the Dawn series he had already purchased. But they still reached pretty impressive prices, as there were always some people who were ready to pay a premium to get the best of the best. Zac bought some pills and talismans to compliment his stock but he started to get bored after a few hours.

But finally something interesting appeared.

“Next we have unique recipe pill sets, and there are five sets available today. Each set contains 25 pills, and we have tested their efficacy and can guarantee their effectiveness. The anonymous Alchemist calls them [Chainbreaking Pills], and they are a must-have for mortals and cultivators aiming to reach the late E-grade in one piece. Their effect is simple; they loosen the resistance of Cultivator nodes, resulting in a smaller backlash.

“These pills can save you time, and allow you to gain levels without worry inside the Twilight Ascent. We’ll start bidding at 25,000 E-grade Nexus Pill for the first set,” the announcer exclaimed.

A few cultivators immediately bid for the pills down at the public section, and the price rose by 1,000 E-Grade Nexus Coins one time after another. Zac definitely wanted these things, so he quickly bid 35,000, raising the current price by 6,000 E-grade Nexus Coins.

“Are you crazy? Why’d you want those kinds of pills?” Catheya asked as she looked at Zac like he was an idiot. “You might as well inject yourself with toxic sludge.”

“What?” Zac asked with confusion.

“The kind of pills that weaken the node walls are essentially poison. They are full of pill toxins. Look, not a single guest from the balconies is bidding. It’s just the wandering cultivators with more money than sense,” she explained. “Besides, their effect is almost negligible for the third-tier nodes in your head, the only place where it really matters.”

“More money than sense, I guess that’s me,” Zac smiles as he raised the bid to 40,000 E-grade Nexus Coins.

Pill toxins might be a problem for others, but not for him. It might force him to slow down his cultivation a few years to let his [Purity of the Void] Hidden Node cleanse the toxins, but it was completely different from wandering cultivators who essentially had no method to get rid of the toxins at all.

It was ultimately a low-cost gamble. He would save some time by making reducing the time it took to recover from breaking a node, and he would lose some time to rid himself of the toxins. If the benefits outweighed the disadvantages, then great. If not, he'd look for some other method to keep leveling without spending months in the sickbed from the backlash.

“How embarrassing,” Catheya sighed with a shake of her head. “The others know this balcony is mine. They’ll think I’ve lost my mind.”

“What others?” Zac asked.

“Scions of various clans,” Catheya shrugged.

“Who cares? Isn’t it only good if they think you’re an idiot?” Zac said as he raised the bid again to 55,000. “Makes them underestimate you.”

“Oh, so you’re helping me now, are you?” Catheya chortled.

“Exactly,” Zac nodded, his mouth widening into a grin as he won the bidding.

Zac bought the third set as well, which meant he now had enough pills to reach level 150 if the pills actually worked. Two small boxes arrived to the private seating area a few minutes later, and Zac happily stashed them both away in front of Catheya who looked at him like he was an idiot.

“Wait, is it for your followers?” she asked like she finally figured something out. “It has to be. A Draugr wouldn’t put something like that into their body.”

“How do you know, have you met all Draugr in the world?” Zac asked with a raised brow.

“Well, whatever,” Catheya huffed. “Your funeral.”

Zac only smiled and turned back to the auction. The next item he really wanted appeared twenty minutes later. The auctioneer started to sell off one Race-boosting item after another, and Zac eventually bought a withered branch holding three identical fruits which were called [Fruit of Awakening]. Zac chose them because while their effect was powerful, eating them supposedly felt like being ripped apart. Those with weaker constitutions would even die from ingesting them.

He was more than willing to exchange some discomfort for increased effect, and he gladly paid the 560,000 E-grade Nexus Coins for the trio. He already had a set of Pseudo D-grade pills that would do the trick as well, but those pills ultimately contained toxins. Zac might have his Hidden Node helping out, but why waste its effect on unnecessary things?

Zac also bought a set of Pseudo D-grade Leveling pills called [Aethergate Pills]. Their effect was supposedly 50% greater compared to the pills he had already prepared. That extra efficiency made the pills cost almost one D-grade Nexus Coin each, but it was definitely worth it. Others seemed to feel that way as well, which had resulted in a heated bidding war.

Of course, there was a limit on how much people were willing to pay for a leveling pill when they could just take a normal pill and then cultivate for a month or two inside a gathering array to make up the difference. As for Zac, he didn't have much of a choice. His foundations were almost absurdly heavy, and he required more than ten times the energy for a single level compared to an average cultivator.

If he didn't use the best of the best he might reach the point of immunity before he made any significant gains.

Catheya eventually got into the spirit of things and bought some items as well, though Zac could tell that her financial situation wasn’t as good as his. She immediately stopped when prices reached 20% over the expected price, meaning she either didn’t have the capital or willingness to overspend even when the Twilight Ascent was right around the corner.

Eventually, Zac couldn’t help but ask.

“If you need the items, why don’t you just overpay a bit?” Zac asked curiously. “Some of the items you bid on only rose by 30% or so.”

“Do you think everyone is like you?” Catheya said with a scrunched-up face. “My cultivation resources are mostly provided by the clan and my master, but my standard allowance is just 10 D-grade Nexus Coins a year. I have less than 300 Coins on me. And that’s considered pretty good. I don’t understand what your master was thinking just showering you in wealth like that. It usually does more harm than good, making you reliant on it.”

Zac couldn’t help but roll his eyes at Catheya, though it wasn’t really evident with his pitch-black orb for eyes. Only 10 D-grade nexus coins a year? That was 10 trillion nexus coins, a fortune that would eclipse some D-grade clans back in the Zecia sector. And Zac bet that if she really needed the money, it wasn’t like her Master would hold out on her.

“Maybe if the items were for myself and I really needed them,” Catheya added. “But the things I bid for was ultimately for followers. I have budgets I need to follow since I have hundreds of them back home. Besides, my people are all capable. They have their own money. And if not, they can go complete some tasks for remuneration.”

“I guess you’re right,” Zac nodded.

It was a good reminder. He had only spent a fraction of the wealth Leandra provided him, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep going like this. Currently, he was just spending without having any real income. It’d take millennia to make up what he had spent over the past week with Port Atwood’s current state of operations.

Zac being a Mortal also meant that he essentially had to fight fate with wealth. Where others could just cultivate, he had to risk his life and use treasures. He couldn’t keep using half his money on his followers. They’d have to rely on themselves on the road of cultivation. It was the same with most clans. After some basic welfare, the members had to fend for themselves.

A clan simply couldn’t stomach the cost of peak cultivation resources even for their greater talents, and there was no reason to do so. Even the greatest geniuses usually found themselves stuck at one bottleneck or another, often before they reached a level where they could actually contribute to the clan.

Meanwhile, hundreds of generations came and went for the Monarchs at the top. It was more cost-effective to breed more descendants since reaching the top usually required a series of unlikely encounters rather than wealth.

The auction kept going for a full eight hours until things finally stilled. Zac hadn’t made any big moves after getting the things he needed, except buying a few raw materials with strong Death-attuned or corrosive effect. He felt they were promising for [Love’s Bond], in case his problem was based on the feeding procedure rather than the materials.

He had also managed to get his hands on 5 E-grade Dao Treasures, though none of them were of any impressive quality. Even then, the bidding for them had been extremely intense, with even people on the balconies jumping in. They ended costing Zac over 20 D-grade Nexus Coins a pop, while the greatest ones put for auction surpassed 500 D-grade Nexus Coins.

Dao Treasure normally wasn’t anywhere near this expensive, but Catheya believed it was because of the Twilight Ascent. If Catheya knew that the trial would be based on the Dao, then so did hundreds of other factions. Zac wouldn’t be surprised if Catheya had been provided with a set of Dao Treasures beforehand, meant to go together with the [Life-Death Pearls].

Zac was a bit tempted to buy up every single Dao Treasure, but judging by the frantic bidding and Catheya’s warnings he’d probably get himself killed if he did something like that. Besides, Dao Treasures were meant mostly as fuel for him nowadays, not something that he wanted to dictate his whole cultivation. It was a bit of a flaw in his old cultivation, where part of his insights wasn’t perfectly aligned with his current envisioned cultivation path.

He had made great improvements, in the beginning, thanks to Dao Treasures and the Dao Funnel, but his Dao Seeds had contained all kinds of odd facets of his Daos that weren’t necessarily useful for him. Now that he knew what direction he wanted to walk, he preferred to gain the insights on his own and then incorporate them into his Fragments with the help of a Dao Treasure.

“The next section is starting soon,” Catheya said as the first part ended. “Remember, the intended buyers now will be Hegemons and Monarchs. Be careful.”

“I know, I know,” Zac nodded.

He didn’t care, as he was mostly staying behind to broaden his horizons.

The first item put up for sale was a Natural Treasure that Zac never had heard of before. It was called [Eternal Flash] and it was actually a lightning bolt suspended in time inside a purple crystal. The treasure's effects were as impressive as it looked; [Eternal Flash] could both improve the Affinity to the Dao of Lightning while also having a good chance of opening lightning-attuned Hidden Nodes.

It was an extremely good item, and it made Zac a lot more excited about the rest of the auction. However, he was a bit confused why an item like [Eternal Flash] appeared here rather than as one of the ultimate treasures on the first part of the auction.

“Didn’t you say the intended buyers were Hegemons?” Zac asked.

“What E-grade cultivators can afford treasures like these, except you? Something like this will go for over a thousand D-grade Nexus Coins,” Catheya said with a pointed look. “It’s still marketed for bigshots. If they have a particularly talented descendant or disciple, they might buy it as a gamble it'll provide returns in the future.”

The item unsurprisingly went to someone at one of the top levels at the price of 15,000 D-grade Nexus Coins, and one amazing item after another appeared soon after. However, Zac soon noticed a pattern.

“There are no treasures useful for Life- or Death cultivators in a place like this?” Zac muttered with surprise.

“Those kinds of treasures definitely exist. After all, there are plenty of treasures like that in the depths of the Twilight Ocean from what I hear,” Catheya muttered. “But those treasures won’t reach a public Auction this close to the Twilight Ascent. The bigshots have already snatched them up. But remember, every time you bid in this place, you might make an enemy of a Hegemon or even a Monarch.”

Zac nodded again. He had been careful to avoid bidding against any powerful-looking cultivators for this very reason. However, Catheya's warnings were slowly relegated to the back of his head as Zac saw a radiant treasure appeared on the stage.

“Next is an extremely rare item retrieved when the Radiant Temple discovered an unclaimed Ancient Realm two hundred thousand years ago. It was lost in the Twilight Ocean fifty thousand years later, and just recently rediscovered,” the Auctioneer exclaimed. “It is called the [Stone of Hope]. It is a one-of-a-kind accessory with a unique natural treasure as its core, further perfected by a natural Formation.”

Zac looked on with interest, as this was the first time he had seen a treasure coming out of an Ancient Realm. After all, those places didn’t even exist in the frontier sectors from what Zac had gathered. It was the same with Catheya as she slightly leaned forward in the chair with interest.

“It’s effect is simple yet marvelous. It protects your fate while cultivating, reducing the risk of powerful backlashes. Its main use was to provide help for Mortals on the road of cultivation, lessening the dangers of breaking open nodes. It is even effective when forcing open the final nodes, drastically reducing the risk of death,” the announcer said. “This tool can help your less fortunate descendants walk further on the road of cultivation, perhaps even reaching Hegemony and gaining millennia of longevity.”

Catheya sighed in disappointment as she leaned back in her chair, but Zac's reaction was definitely the opposite. This treasure was exactly what he was looking for, a far greater alternative to the nigh-useless [Shedding Mortal Coil-Array] he was currently relying on when breaking through. With his massive foundations he was already dreading the later stages of the E-grade. The recently acquired [Chainbreaking Pills] might be able to help out even though their effect seemed limited at the limited stages, but this particular treasure would clearly help all the way.

“The bidding starts at 5,000 D-grade Nexus Coins,” the announcer said, making Catheya release an expletive.

Zac could understand her disdain. Five thousand D-grade Nexus Coins to help push a Mortal to Peak E-grade? That was beyond extravagant, and there was unsurprisingly not a single bid even after half a minute. But the silence was like beautiful music in Zac's ears, and he eventually bid the 5,000 when no one stepped forward.

“Six thousand,” an ethereal voice countered after a short pause.

“Seven thousand,” Zac said without hesitation.

“Are you crazy?” Catheya wheezed as she slapped Zac's arm. “That is the Veilplume Monarch. I hear her youngest son is a Mortal. You’ll bring a calamity on your head if you insist on taking this thing.”

“Eight,” the voice answered, and there was an unmistakable sharpness to the voice.

“I must have it,” Zac said without hesitation. “What level is this monarch?”

“Early Stage I think, why?” Catheya asked with a frown.

“Your master can make her back down,” Zac slowly said as he activated the bidding array.

“First explain why, and then we’ll talk terms,” Catheya said as she thoughtfully glanced at the upper balconies.

“A common friend of ours desperately needs this thing,” Zac said.

“What? Who? Your attendant, the soul cultivator?” Catheya muttered. “No wait, don’t tell me?”

“Zac Piker,” Zac said. “Helping me is helping him, which in a sense is helping your Ancestor.”

“That crazy guy is a mortal?!” Catheya almost screamed. “How is that possible?”

"Nine thousand," Zac said into the communication crystal instead of answering Catheya, seeing as the bidding had almost run out of time.

Zac only shrugged upon seeing Catheya's glare, though he wasn’t as calm as he let on. He was playing with fire continuing bidding before he had secured protection. Hearing about the Veilplume Monarch’s situation, she might consider him bidding for this item as a direct attempt at cutting the life of her child short.

“Ten thousand. Little brother, how about giving me some face and letting this one go? I will remember the favor,” the Veilplume Monarch said.

The words were kind, but it felt like the temperature in the whole auction hall had dropped a few degrees. Zac knew he might be in trouble considering that the Auctioneer didn’t even dare speak up. Normally they’d intercede in blatant attempts at suppressing the bidding.

Catheya looked at Zac for a few more seconds, each moment feeling like an eternity until she took out a communication crystal. It looked like she exchanged just a few sentences, but Zac breathed out in relief when her furrowed brows relaxed.

“My master can deal with this,” Catheya said as a smile spread across her face. “But we will require something in return.”

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