The howl of a wolf carried through the air as Catarina sprinted through the trees. Fuzz had been scouting ahead, getting further and further from the rest of the group. Timothy and Catarina could have both kept up, but even mildly dangerous animals would be a threat to the handful of common folk they had with them.
There shouldn’t be anything dangerous to Spirit Building cultivators, but Fuzz was weaker than that. He was just a little wolf pup. Well, very big for a pup but still smaller than he would be when full grown.
His defenseless and weak form lingered in Catarina’s memory as she moved closer to where the sound came from. Soon she could sense his energy, but it was weak instead of vibrant. Closer, and she sensed a larger energy that was even more faded. Finally, she sensed another life, just before she came into view of the scene.
Blood was everywhere, soaking into the leaves and splattered across the bark of the trees. It took a moment for Catarina to figure out what one of the creatures was under all the blood and viscera. Some sort of large cat, bigger than a wolf. Its head might have been rib height on a human if it was standing.
It only took a moment for Catarina to find what she was actually looking for. Fuzz was there- along with a young girl somewhere around ten years of age wrapped around his bloody body. Was this Alva? She heard breath from both figures, but Fuzz sounded nearly as weak as when he had first been found- after the parasitic moss had been removed from him.
Catarina didn’t have any medicines or treatments specifically meant for wolves, but she had coagulants to help stop the bleeding, bandages, and needle and thread for stitching. She carefully pried off the unconscious child, relieved that none of the blood seemed to be hers- though noting a broken leg.
Though she had little in the way of real medical training, Catarina’s hands were swift and dextrous as she stitched closed the most grievous wounds. She traced her fingers along the patterns cut into Fuzz’ fur and above the new wounds without touching them. The practice of turning people into living formations was discouraged in Graotan because it often resulted in mutilations and death, but Fuzz had already been about to die.
Though he was visibly much worse looking at the moment, Catarina believed he was probably better off. His body was tempered with energy and though his durability had already been tested with his wounds, Fuzz’ recovery should be higher. His flow of energy wasn’t quite right, so she shaved more fur in an attempt to stabilize things. She had a feel for what was right, and some actual study on the topic now instead of what she had done spontaneously. When she was finished, if Fuzz wasn’t covered in blood Catarina almost would have thought he was having a nap.
The little girl had bags under her eyes and was thin. Wandering around in the forest for a week was bound to be exhausting. She was lucky the area was warm enough for her to survive the night, and that she hadn’t run into danger sooner. Catarina thought to let her rest, but they needed to set that leg sooner rather than later.
The first thing she did was cut down a small tree. A sword wasn’t the best tool for the job, but with the addition of energy it was like slicing through a soft cake. She carved out straight lengths of wood to use as a splint. She didn’t know if she should wake the girl up or set her leg while she was unconscious.
Finally she decided that waking up to pain wouldn’t be a good first impression. Catarina gently touched her shoulder to shake her awake. It took more than just a little effort, but eventually the girl’s eyes opened. “Hello,” Catarina said softly. “Are you Alva?”
Alva nodded, staring for a moment. “Who… are you?”
“I’m Catarina. I’m… hmm… it’s hard to explain. Do you remember your great-grandpa Anton? He sent me to help you.”
“Really?” her eyes grew wide. “What about mom and dad?” She sat up and winced.
“I don’t know,” Catarina admitted. “Listen, I’m going to have to set the bones in your leg. It will hurt, but it won’t heal right if I don’t. Okay?”
Alva bit her lip. “Okay.”
“Get ready.” Catarina really hoped it wouldn’t hurt that much. She let her energy flow into the wounded leg, grabbing onto the larger broken bones and with them the smaller pieces. It wasn’t a clean break, but if she could get it close there were bone-healing medicines for humans that she had.
Despite her best efforts to ease the movement of the bones, they made a snap as she moved them back into place and Alva cried out in pain. Catarina quickly applied the splints, wrapping them tightly. She realized she should have used painkillers of some sort. She’d spent too much time with cultivators who could push through the pain. Alva was doing her best, but tears streamed down her face. What medicines were bad to mix? Catarina could regulate what happened inside her own body, but Alva couldn’t.
She shook her head and held out a pill, a little ball of crushed and refined herbs. The most important thing was the bone recovery medicine. Hopefully the pain wasn’t too much now that things were properly set. “I need you to swallow this.” Alva nodded, sniffling, and Catarina floated it through the air with her energy. She knew it would taste bad, so she avoided letting it touch Alva’s tongue. When it got closer to her throat Alva swallowed more out of surprise than anything else.
She coughed and sputtered, sending Catarina into a panic until it subsided a moment later- and she felt there wasn’t anything stuck in the girl’s lungs. When Alva finished coughing, she looked at Catarina. “Are you… a cultivator?”
“That’s right,” Catarina said.”
“Can you teach me?”
An awkward question. She absolutely could- and would– but she didn’t know how much cultivation young children could do. Since Body Tempering was first, it was somewhat dangerous for those whose bodies hadn’t fully developed. Another danger was that during the teenage years hormones ran wild, disrupting thinking processes and increasing the chance of making a serious mistake that could lead to crippling injury. “Maybe not right away,” Catarina said, “But I will, when it’s safe.”
Moving Alva while injured was possible, but Fuzz was also unconscious. Instead of pushing them, Catarina gave Alva something to eat and started setting up a simple formation to protect the area.
It was nightfall when Timothy and the others finally caught up. Most of the others were exhausted, but elated to see Alva was found and relatively unharmed. Even those who didn’t have contact with her before were relieved to know a young girl was safe.
“I can’t believe it,” said a man with whitish-blond hair. “I thought for sure you died in the attack. And to learn you’re a cultivator…”
“I wasn’t,” Anton said. “And I only survived by chance. I was outside of town.”
Anton knew the former owner of a small restaurant was called Reuben. Though most of his food was raised and prepared by his family, sometimes when they visited the main part of Dungannon they’d gone to eat at his place. Maybe not more than yearly himself, but they knew each other well enough.
“In the giant snowstorm?” Reuben shook his head. “If it was someone else, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
“It was a bad winter. People were hungry.”
“Don’t have to explain to me. I know you well enough. A tough old guy, that’s for sure.” Reuben looked Anton up and down. “You look… younger? Maybe it’s just faulty memory, but you were a bit more wrinkled before.”
“Like a prune,” Anton admitted. “Cultivation helps somewhat.”
“I tried it once,” Reuben said. “Cultivation. Didn’t get anywhere in a couple years.”
“Maybe I can point you in the right direction,” Anton said. “It’ll be good for you to even get some initial success.” Anton looked over towards Kohar. “I’ve found comparing experiences to be very helpful to my own cultivation. I’d be glad to have you join us, if you’re willing.” She had enough time spent as a cultivator he knew she really should have useful insights despite being lower cultivation than him. Since she cultivated a different technique than the Ninety-Nine Stars he wasn’t sure if he could help her surpass Body Tempering, but he wanted to try.
“I would be glad to exchange thoughts,” Kohar agreed. “Because of my chosen path, I spend less time cultivating than I might like. Many find the study of law a waste of time, and trying to help others with it even more so.”
“It’s a most honorable choice,” Anton said. “I have some thoughts about helping strangers in some potential future where I solve all of my own problems first, but at the moment this is mostly just for myself.” He inclined his head to Reuben, “Sorry to say it.”
“Hah!” Reuben’s face spread into a wide smile, “I’m not going to complain about whatever reasons you had to help get me free. Besides, I know you have a good heart. You didn’t ask me to swear eternal loyalty to you or sacrifice my life or anything.”
“Oh, did I forget to mention that part?” Anton grinned.
It was nice, to be happy for a few moments, but he still had some of his most important steps ahead. He was absolutely willing to admit that his own family was worth more to him than other people, and Devon was waiting for him.