Cultivators generally did not take long to prepare for a journey. Food rations were easily handled and planning a route was more about what dangers they thought acceptable rather than picking the absolute safest journey. With most of those who were going on the journey finding themselves in possession of storage bags handed out like candy in Everheart’s Tomb, everything was easier. Even if the absolute storage space in each bag was relatively small, each could hold the equivalent of what would otherwise be a bulky travel pack. Not that it was terribly relevant for a cultivator if they were carrying ten or twenty extra kilograms of weight, but the uneven distribution of it could result in less than optimal movements. Storage bags retained the same weight and size until they were full, making all sorts of things more practical.
Personally, Anton didn’t mind camping among the stars, with or without a tent. Most of the others preferred more pleasant accommodations, with at least proper bedrolls and coverings from the elements. But protecting themselves from exposure was hardly necessary, as they had no intentions to go to any extreme danger zones. In fact, most of Ambati would likely be uncomfortably hot, something more cover wouldn’t help with.
Alva had made the inevitable choice to join them. Pete had been able to vouch for her performance in actual combat, so at least Anton wasn’t worried she would freeze up. Fuzz would doubtless do his best to protect her, but carrying a static target would make them both vulnerable. Anton himself was going, of course. The group had pretty well solidified to also include Catarina, Hoyt, Timothy, and Velvet. Pete declined to go, as he preferred to stay with the Order and continue his studies of formations uninterrupted.
Oskar and Patricia were invited along as well, but they were staying behind because Patricia was pregnant with their second child. That helped explain to Anton how she had fallen so far behind in cultivation. She’d started later, but her talent was not terrible. The gap between the fifth star and the eleventh was quite significant- but if she had been limiting her cultivation on purpose, he understood completely. He had not himself delved into the topic, as he was never going to have any more children, but it seemed cultivation mistakes during a pregnancy could cause harm to the child. It was, after all, present inside the body and really quite vulnerable to any sudden changes.
Devon would be coming along, his cultivation having grown significantly with proper training available and the following period of time in Everheart’s tomb. He wanted more practical experience outside of controlled environments, and it was clear his choice of career was simply that of a combat oriented cultivator for as long as he could continue. The shared experience of loss pressed many of those from Dungannon to seek personal strength, and it was difficult to believe that any amount was enough.
The trip would also be an official mission from the sect. The Order didn’t just form whatever missions it wanted, they also accepted limited mercenary work from outsiders. The missions had to fall within certain parameters- fighting dangerous beasts to secure certain resources was a common one. For missions that would likely involve fighting other cultivators, there were further stipulations. The Order wouldn’t allow their disciples to be used as a simple army to suppress people. If there was no clear righteous cause to support, the Order generally had its disciples limit themselves to mostly defensive activities. In all cases, judgments had to be made about the situation- and if someone hiring the disciples was found to have knowingly misrepresented details, the Order wouldn’t be bound to a contract. They might simply demand the promised payment and leave, but in some cases it was appropriate to change sides in a conflict to punish their deceivers.
This didn’t mean that the Order was seen as unreliable- they maintained a steadfast and loyal reputation. They simply wouldn’t accept anyone hiring them dishonestly. While many sects disagreed with their beliefs on what was just and good, it would be impossible for them to say that the Order didn’t try to practice what they preached.
As part of being an official mission, there were some benefits. They could bring an elder along with them in an official capacity. Ambati as a whole was on reasonable terms with the Order, and they trusted the Order to restrain themselves within the borders of the country. In their case, Elder Tshering had been looking for an opportunity to go to Ambati and thus was willing to do so for a smaller portion of the proceeds. The country was full of dangerous beasts, and he particularly wanted to see if he could determine the source of those filtering through the lands into Graotan and the beast forest.
Anton was quite pleased to have him- especially because he’d recently advanced from the twenty-eighth star to the twenty-ninth, stepping into Constellation Formation- generally known as Essence Collection when not referencing a specific cultivation technique. His presence made Anton feel more comfortable about Alva’s presence, yet at the same time concerned. If anything that could actually challenge Elder Tshering appeared, they would all be in danger. Of course, it could simply be a matter of numbers. If the rest of them unified together and were willing to accept losses they should be able to defeat Elder Tshering- or more realistically someone on a similar level. The Order did its best to prevent intrasect conflict well before it could grow to the level of attempting to kill each other.
Three figures stood together on the walls of the Temitope clan, located in Tailoga in south-central Ambati. One was Ayotunde, the other two the people he referred to as ‘shrimp’ and ‘granny’. The two of them had continued through Graotan into Ambati, and had thus been the first to receive Ayotunde’s missives. Finding the offer of payment sufficient, they had already come to offer their services.
“I should have charged you for every time you call me shrimp,” Ross commented. “I could be a rich man. So why are you helping this clan anyway? You’re not a member or anything, and you’re not just being hired as a mercenary here.”
“During my earlier years, they did me a great favor. I owe them a debt. Besides,” Ayotunde said. “I do know many of those who live in this region. The Temitope clan is moderate enough, but the others that vie for control of the region will not be so conservative with their taxes on the common folk and lower cultivators. They are already excessive in the cities they control, I would not expect them to be more reasonable with anything else they get their hands on.”
“Why have a struggle for power now?” ‘granny’ Lera asked. “With three clans in the area the balance should be maintainable. Whoever makes the first move will be weakened, leaving the third to swoop in. What changed?”
“A beast overlord,” Ayotunde explained. “Though it is unlikely that it suddenly popped up. However, the beast lord has been more territorial, indicating it is protecting something. That could be either some sort of powerful natural treasure or even offspring. Young magical beasts from a strong line could fetch a fine price or be raised to aid a force in combat. If whatever is being guarded is significant enough, it can shift the balance of power in the region. The Olayinka clan was the first to take notice of the situation, beginning a buildup of their forces. The Temitope clan can’t necessarily ally with the Mwangi clan against them, so all build their own forces.”
Ross shook his head, “If it weren’t for our history, I wouldn’t want to get involved in a war where Essence Collection patriarchs are involved, even if they’re only barely worthy of that title. But then again, I’d rather work with reliable allies than random unknowns. I just wish we had more. Most of the people here are Body Tempering, early Spirit Building at best.”
“They’ve also snapped up most of the other mercenaries,” Lera pointed out. “Those who are willing to get involved, anyway.”
“I know,” Ayotunde nodded. “I am hoping… to receive the help of others. The Order of Ninety-Nine Stars. Or Anton, specifically.”
“That old man?” Ross asked. “He’s a fine archer, to be sure. But early Spirit Building is a bit… well, limited. I’d be glad to have him, of course.”
“You haven’t kept an ear open for the news, then. As of two months ago, he was at what they call the sixteenth star. Two steps higher than we left him.” Ayotunde smiled, “Did I not tell you I met him in late Body Tempering? Less than two years ago. The companions with him as well.”
“How did you hear of him?” Lera asked. “You have someone specifically watching for him?”
Ayotunde shook his head. “No. I just have my ear to the ground. Did you not pay attention to what happened with Everheart’s tomb?”
Lera shrugged, “Usually best to ignore it. Usually ridiculous nonsense or senseless deaths.”
“Perhaps,” Ayotunde said, “But Anton found himself receiving the highest prize in a little training based tournament Everheart set up. Over some late Spirit Building fellows- and the big deal is everyone had cultivated for less than five years. A pack of geniuses.”
“Oh,” Ross said. “I heard about that. They said the winner was only on a technicality. Something about ‘improving cultivation’ counting others’ somehow.”
“Even better, then,” Ayotunde said. “He can basically match any of us, and if Everheart approved his teaching methods? Perhaps we can learn something vital. My growth isn’t so rapid that I wouldn’t like a boost.” Ayotunde paused, “Oh this is mostly unrelated, but he cut off the hand of one of the prime disciples of the Heavenly Lion Sect.”
“… he seemed quite sane to me, when we saw him,” Lera frowned, her wrinkled face pruning even more. “But I suppose he’s part of the Ninety-Nine Stars. They’re a big sect as well. Bigger, probably.”
“But usually not crazy. These days, that is,” Ayotunde smiled. “I remember stories about the past. They used to shake things up- back in Everheart’s days. They’d see an evil sect and just stamp them out without thinking about it twice. No political maneuvering, just power.”
“Sounds like any violent overlord,” Lera commented. “Not sure I’d want more of those.”
“Perhaps,” Ayotunde agreed. “But if there are any, you want them on your side. Anton… that old man, he is not someone to ignore.” Ayotunde leaned forward onto the wall. “Though I have not yet received a response. He could be off doing something else crazy, or simply decline. Then we will just have to make do with what we have here.”
The three of them looked down at the Body Tempering cultivators training together. The Temitope clan had more than just them, but the scope of their power was limited. If they didn’t manage to get more assistance, they could only hope to hold on through the turbulent times without hope of coming out on top.
The paw of a lion, claws nearly large enough to cleave Devon’s torso in two, just barely scraped in front of him as he jumped back. The claws still carved some of the energy defending him away, a blow without blood but not without harm. In response, Devon stretched his arms out. Criss-crossing strands of energy erupted from him, wrapping around the swinging paw. If one looked closely, they would see the strands of energy formed chains with grasping spikes, a reflection of the same sort of weapon that had scarred him.
Devon chose the method of attack as a form of defiance. The chains and spikes that cause him pain wouldn’t be ignored, but overcome. He was glad to be allowed to study the Order’s cultivation documents, despite not practicing their cultivation method. While he knew it was a powerful technique, the strength provided by his method was well suited to him. After fixing some of the flaws, he found it well suited to manifestations of energy. His grandfather Anton’s Spirit Arrows were an example of the sort- though they were less strictly arrows than other manifestations might be. While the details of a weapon should be practical, the emotional connection to a more specific form could actually increase the power of something specific. Thus, the chains were more useful than mere sharp strands of energy.
The chains from Devon’s hands wrapped around the paw, but he couldn’t completely stop the lion’s momentum. It was a magical beast matching early Spirit Building, after all. He simply managed to make the chains dig into its flesh and slow its movements, resisting as it tried to pull him off his feet and then tried to leap on him to bite him.
However, with its movements slowed for even a few moments Devon received timely attacks from his companions. A simple slash from Timothy next to him slowed the beast, and two arrows from Anton found their way into its side. He was able to take advantage as it flinched away to leap onto its back and wrap the chains around its neck. The beast tried to throw him off, but he half-cut half-strangled it with his manifested chains. He had other weapons, but he found the manifestations to be the most satisfying. They were what he would use to kill Tonina, when he found the chance. To that end, he needed to improve their strength as much as he could.