Everyone was in high spirits as they were leaving Khonard. They were aware of the potential danger, but given how some of their lives had been over the past two years, they were happy to have the option to face danger instead of just living with what they were told. The spirit of happy reunion had diminished somewhat over the weeks they’d spent together after everyone met up in Khonard, but some of the joy still remained. It was a heartening sight, but it also made Anton realize something. He was barely one of them anymore.
That was not a change in any of the former villagers of Dungannon, but in himself. In most of them, he saw the desire to go back to lives they had before. All were grateful to be saved, and eagerly learned cultivation as a means to defend themselves, but most of them would go back to lives that resembled what they used to have. He didn’t blame them. That was the life he had desired and fulfilled for a century. Now he could no longer be content just living a good life. He had to make sure others were able to do so- as many as possible.
Revenge. That thought still existed in his mind, but he had ambition beyond that point. He might not live to fulfill either, but that no longer concerned him. He just had to do what he could- starting with bringing the rest back alive.
“Senior Anton,” a young woman, somewhere just around thirty years old, approached him. “I heard there was another group before us?”
Anton nodded. “It was not easy to find everyone. It took time.” He looked at Silren, trying to recall details about her. These people were more than just names on a list.
“Of course, I don’t blame you for the time it took. I was just wondering. My sister… was she with them?”
It was as he thought. She and her older sister had worked together as tailors. He bought a coat from them once. He remembered her. He also remembered the brothel where she had been bought. He shook his head. “She was not one of those that made it.” He’d been able to confirm her death. A terrible task, and every one hurt. Hearing the news from the others wasn’t any better. The majority of those brought into slavery had survived, but perhaps a tenth had died from ill treatment.
“Oh. Can I ask…?”
“Do you really want to know?” Anton asked. “There is nothing you can do right now but honor her memory.”
Silren hung her head. “I understand.”
“That… I did not mean to discourage you.” Even with training, what he said wouldn’t always be right. “You know she would want you to live your life in the way you are best able. But if you cannot let the thought go in the coming years, there might yet be something you can do. Not for her, but for others forced into slavery. You have a decent talent for cultivation. In time, you can be strong.”
“Like you?” Silren asked.
“Stronger than me,” Anton said. “At least… stronger than I am now. I have been fortunate to only only fight those who are relatively weaker. I am close enough to see those at the top, but to consider myself truly strong…” That was a problem he had to deal with. How strong did he really need to be? Spirit Building was a good step, but he couldn’t create the sort of change he wanted with just that. “It’s not quite good enough yet. But if you continue to cultivate, I am certain you will have the opportunity to do much good in the world with allies at your side.”
“I think I want that,” she said confidently.
“Then I will help you achieve it.”
“Hoyt. You’re on the right side. Elisa, the rear.” Anton was handing out orders. He was the highest in cultivation except for the mercenaries they had with them.
Protecting a large group of people was difficult work. Velvet wasn’t sure if they had enough cultivators. Only two people could go in each area. That assumed someone would be assigned to the middle with Anton, but nobody else could cover as much area as he could. But assigning someone to the middle would mean they had the mobility to support anyone. Velvet thought she was capable of that, and was hoping to be assigned there.
“Yes!” The young girl stood at the ready and saluted.
“I’m going to need Fuzz to be able to freely run about. Please stay with the others.”
“But- but I’m a cultivator now!”
Anton’s face was very stern. “That’s right. But you are barely at the first star. You have no more power than a strong man. You lack reach and training. You must let the cultivators at Spirit Building handle everything they can.”
Velvet knew that even Devon, near the peak of Body Tempering, was remaining with the others. Part of that was he had lingering injuries, but there was a significant difference between his level and those truly in Spirit Building. At the very least he needed to avoid being the first line of defense.
“But Fuzz isn’t in Spirit Building!” Alva complained.
Anton sighed. “He’s a magical beast. They work differently. Besides, he has experience in battle.”
“You have a weapon. If they get past the outer defenses, everyone will have to fight. Stay with the others to have a proper defensive line.”
Velvet knew that a defensive line would barely help against stronger cultivators, but using the advantage of numbers was all they could count on if it came down to those without strong cultivation fighting. Running wouldn’t be possible.
“Now then. Velvet.” Here it was. She was stronger than Kohar, so she had to be part of the defensive line somewhere. “You’ll be the scout.”
Velvet blinked. “What?”
“You’re to move around the area, looking for approaching threats. You have the proper skills.”
“Of course. You’ll be most effective that way. Your concealment skills are excellent, and they won’t be looking for you in particular.” Anton smiled reassuringly, “Even if I could hide myself as well as you, my absence would be noted. You’ve managed to keep a low enough profile that you should be unexpected.”
“Okay,” Velvet nodded.
This was what she wanted, right? Real responsibility? If so, why was it so hard to breathe?
No, Anton was right. She could do it. She just had to watch for enemies. By herself.
She sure hoped Anton was right, because it didn’t feel like it.
At night, they set up a defensive and concealment formation. That was through the work of Catarina and Elisa, a hired mercenary. The work of a formation expert wasn’t cheap, but having the entire burden on Catarina didn’t feel right. Anton knew she would happily do her best, and while her best was excellent she wasn’t perfect. It took time and energy to set up a formation, and having another expert would help with both. She didn’t even have Pete along as an assistant. The money would have just paid for a few other mercenaries anyway, and avoiding trouble was better than trying to fight through it.
The two of them worked together seamlessly. Anton wondered if it was a special form of understanding between them or simply their mutual knowledge of formations. Both of them had formation flags that would allow them to improve the effects of what they did by another level. With his current practice of Spiritual Connection Anton could feel the flow of energy changing as he was inside. He still didn’t have the sense for why it was changing as it did, but he thought he could at least find the best place to disrupt it. From the inside, that was. As he stepped out of the formation, he almost felt like he had been teleported. He couldn’t pick up even the slightest trace of energy from any of the others, and it looked just like an empty section of trees. He passed back over the border of the formation. He had been attuned to be able to pass through it, but he felt it flowing over him as he did so.
The camp was arranged to take up a modest amount of space. That made setting up the formation easier, and left fewer traces behind later. Simple tents were trivial to acquire, as well as practical bedrolls. The placement of those tents was dictated by the two formation experts, and that was especially important because people weren’t just sitting about. Everyone was cultivating- all of those who were new, anyway. If the Spirit Building cultivators were serious, they would hog all of the natural energy in the area. The difference of a week or two of cultivation wouldn’t be a big deal for most of them, the exception being Kohar who had just stepped into Spirit Building with the assistance of Anton and the others.
She had been fairly confident in her preparations to keep herself safe, but things had escalated in a way that was unintended at the Potenza arena. She felt safer leaving with them, and Anton had been happy to bring her along. Even if she wasn’t the strongest cultivator, she was enough to provide them an additional portion of safety.
Anton walked among the tents, feeling how people cultivated. Everyone had received personal guidance at the beginning of their training, which began as soon as they had met up with Anton or his companions. Catarina had quite appropriately been the one to teach Alva at the beginning. The staggered generations of Anton’s descendents had ended up with Catarina being older than Alva who was technically one generation back. Alva had learned a lot from Catarina, but it became clear she was not the same type as Catarina. Catarina was a patient thinker, and Alva was the sort who was prone to leap before she looked.
It was a good thing Alva had talent for cultivation, or she would have already damaged herself. It was already risky for her to be cultivating with her body not yet fully developed, but it wasn’t possible to exclude just her. There were several of her cousins about the same age that had thankfully been freed, but they took cultivation as a school child might reading. It was something they had to learn, and they took their time. That was probably the better attitude in the current case.
Fuzz was curled up around Alva as she sat cross legged. It didn’t seem that his presence disturbed the natural energy she was taking in, though Catarina’s formations allowed him to cultivate more like a human than a beast. For the moment he was peaceful, as he was the sort who was most energized while running around in the woods- an unintentionally beneficial method for cultivating the body. Alva was fine, the little bundle of energy at least being wise enough to listen to his cautions. When she learned he had cultivated his meridians second it wasn’t possible to dissuade her from the task, but at least she was willing to slow down slightly. Anton might have slightly fibbed when he told her it took him two months, but if he told her it was a month and a half he was certain she’d push herself for a month or less.
Anton followed the flow of energy to Silren. She was nice and steady. Her talent was at least on the level of Pete and the others, though knowing for certain after just a month was difficult. Reuben was next. Proper guidance had helped him begin cultivating, and while Anton doubted he would be treading new territory any time soon, he was diligent and capable of working with a teacher.
Devon didn’t feel like he was near the peak of Body Tempering as he cultivated. He could, but he was being properly cautious. He had been focusing on all of the wounded parts of his body one at a time, and now he was nearly healed. He would have wicked scars, even with medicines to minimize the damage, but his current reason to be gentle was because he was reorienting his cultivation. He had chosen to stick with his current cultivation method, despite its flaws. He mentioned insights gained from the battle with Moreno, and had declined the offer of specific help. So Anton made sure he wasn’t doing anything harmful to himself and hoped Devon was right about knowing what he had to change.
For a few hours, energy flowed in vortices around the internal part of the camp until it thinned out enough everyone was better off going to bed. They needed the rest anyway. Every day was a long one where they hoped they could get to the border before anyone looking to cause trouble caught up.