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Nobody was entirely willing to relax until they were several days from the border and in more populated areas. At that point, only the most suicidal of cultivators would be willing to make any attempt on their lives. Anton still kept the services of the mercenaries until the end of the week just in case. It was only money for peace of mind, and he couldn’t use money to buy that back if something happened.
Then it was time to settle all of his debts. Anton shook his head at the exceedingly large amount of money that had been flowing through his hands since he became a cultivator. Even in terms of productivity it made some amount of sense, but he had been ignorant of how much wealth disparity there could be between people. Instead of finding rumors about cultivators being exaggerated they had almost been undersold.
Ayotunde, Ross, Lera, and Elisa were paid partly with shares of loot from the mercenaries who attacked them. It was a not insignificant amount of money, but only two of them had enchanted bags of any sort. Though there was some appeal to carrying the entirety of one’s wealth on them, most cultivators actually didn’t do that. That was even true of Anton- some of his payment was drawing on bank accounts set up through the Order.
Kohar had been paid in an ongoing manner during her legal work, including expenses incurred for ‘legal fees’, most of which were bribes to make the process not take years or decades. Though they’d managed to legally emancipate a large number of people and force the Iron Ring Slavers to pay huge penalties, those penalties had ironically mostly gone towards the slave owners and not those wrongfully enslaved. Only small amounts were actually awarded to people insufficient to even begin to cover the wrongs committed- if money could cover such wrongs. Anton had set aside more funds to help set people up. Nearly everyone was planning to move to Windrip, where the first wave of freed slaves mostly resided. They had the option to go elsewhere, but most preferred to return to some sense of the former community they’d possessed.
It wasn’t possible for Anton to forget his friends from the Order. If he were to pay them mercenary rates for the entire duration of their efforts, he would bankrupt himself. They weren’t unwilling to help, but he made sure that the rest of the profits from sale of looted weapons and armor would go to them. If he ended up with just pennies to his name… he didn’t care. He could just work for more.
He did have one more expense he had to pocket, but it was perhaps one of the most important. He wanted to throw a giant celebration. Enough mourning had taken place to last the entirety of everyone’s lives, but a celebration of those who still lived and were now free once more was absolutely critical. It would symbolize the end of the first step of making things right. Anton planned to clear his mind of thoughts of the rest. Revenge would be found and he still had to confirm if Annelie was able to be happy, but such a momentous success could not go uncelebrated.
The previous group in Windrip had been anticipating the arrival of more kindred spirits, freed slaves whether they were from Dungannon or elsewhere. There was enough room for everyone to settle in, though it wouldn’t be comfortable long term. For the first week nobody would be spending time in their quarters anyway as everyone was busy with festival preparations.
Though they were under no obligation to help, Ayotunde and the other mercenaries were instrumental in transporting goods from the nearby city of Stregate and helping to set up temporary pavilions for the celebrations. There were even a few more permanent structures flung together like they were nothing. When Ayotunde could support the frame of one wall of a building by himself and they had dozens of other cultivators more than a single stage into Body Tempering, labor was quick.
Every person who was even vaguely a chef from the little cultivation haven in Windrip was involved in cooking, and even more people from the town itself and the nearby Stregate. Stew cooked for days, and tables were laden with pies, roasts, and dishes of every sort.
Despite the accelerated timeline for planning, the concerted efforts of everyone made everything work, even if it was a bit early in the year for the sort of celebration they were having. Spring crops had barely begun being planted, but the abundance of willing hands brought everything together in a timely manner.
Then on the day of the festival, it decided to rain just as the final setup was complete. Wind whipped the rain underneath the covered pavilions, soaking people and food. The atmosphere immediately turned sour.
That simply wouldn’t be allowed. Anton knew he was in no way capable of dispersing the clouds in the sky at his current level, but he could do something else. He grabbed a handheld pie and stepped out into the rain. He could have prevented the rain from touching his body, but not everyone could do that. He let it soak him and instead used his energy to draw attention to himself.
He held the small meat pie above his head. “Everyone!” he called upon the his training in Voice to not only carry the sound to the hundreds of people in the surroundings but also guide his speech, adjusting his tone where possible. “Today we celebrate freedom! Freedom for those who were taken as slaves, but also freedom for those who were born and remain free! Those of you who cultivate energy do so to improve your work, but also to keep yourselves free! Today, we celebrate- and we won’t let a little bit of weather get in the way!”
With that, Anton chomped into the soaked meat pie. It was squishy and disgusting and one of the best tastes he’d experienced in two years. If his life ended now he could die happy- but there were many times in his life he’d had that feeling. He’d lived past all of them, and intended to live to reach more in the future.
The first one to join was Ayotunde. He grabbed an entire roasted chicken and ran out into the rain, dancing around in a circle chomping into carried food with Anton like a pair of madmen. Catarina was next, but all of the stronger cultivators joined in almost immediately after that.
Fuzz dragged a whole roast pig out onto the soaking wet grass and started devouring it with Alva right next to him. Chefs began passing out bowls of steaming hot soup that people carried into the rain. People began shoving food into their mouths and running around wildly, exuberant in their freedom. Not everyone chose to run into the rain, but the rain and good spirit still came to them as they stood next to the tables.
More than just the former villagers of Dungannon and the other freed slaves were participating. People from the rest of Windrip and Stregate had come to join the festivities, and enough of them brough contributions of their own food that it was likely that everyone would be stuffed full for days.
It was a good feeling, Anton decided, seeing people happy. This was the thing that was most important. Hard work was necessary for the resources to allow this, and unfortunately battle was necessary as well, but it was all worth it in the end. With so many cultivators, even with small cultivators, the energy in the area was wild. Anton felt it flow around and through him. It wasn’t really organized in any conceivable way, but the way it flowed through people was invigorating. It was more than just a good feeling. By the end of the night Anton reached the completion of the fourteenth star, and while he imagined people who cultivated Spiritual Connection or something like it would have gained the most, he knew at least a half dozen of the weaker cultivators advanced as well, along with Ayotunde who was the strongest among them.
For a brief moment, Anton wondered how they might replicate the situation… but he immediately knew that the event was not something that could be manufactured artificially. He still intended to promote celebrations regardless, because the cultivation benefits were merely a nice convenience. Doubtless the relaxed atmosphere had simply eased the tension on accumulated energy. The Order already knew the benefits of occasional relaxation, though not everyone really seemed to take it seriously. Anton had ignored it, but he wasn’t in any state to truly relax more than a small amount for the last two years.
Dozens of people woke up in the morning, covered in mud with hangovers. Yet as they adjusted to the rising sun, the previous night’s joy eased their pain. Small groups of people tried to continue the celebrations to some success, but others went back to work on the fields. Anton was in the second group, and though they didn’t need his help at all he was able to accelerate some parts of it quite a bit.
Ayotunde also lent his powerful body to the cause. Anton could see he was no stranger to such work, but he was missing decades of experience if he wanted to keep up with Anton himself. “You worked as a farmer?” Anton asked.
“For a while,” Ayotunde admitted. “I was not too fond of it, but Western Steel Body understand that working the body is just as important as circulating energy.”
“I’d like to hear more about it, if it’s not secret. My body is a bit lacking… especially at the current moment.” The cultivation method of the Ninety-Nine Stars didn’t do anything in the way of cultivating the body in the first half of Spirit Building. While having completed the first ten stars would make a cultivator’s body sufficiently powerful, Anton’s use of Candle Wax had let his age catch up, and the first thing it hit was his body. He was able to compensate with energy and he wasn’t weak, but he didn’t feel like someone who’d cultivated his body so much either. He also sort of wanted to use that bone bow still, but that was looking even more unlikely with his current bodily power.
“There are many secrets I cannot share,” Ayotunde admitted, “But I still have things I can share that should help an old man like yourself.”
“I will do my best to respond in kind,” Anton nodded. He was getting more experience studying other cultivation techniques from working with Devon and Kohar. While he couldn’t alter their fundamental natures at his current level of experience, he still saw certain patterns that could be adjusted to better suit specific needs.
It was Anton’s desire to settle all of his family in Windrip, or possibly in Carran with Catarina’s family. He wouldn’t even mind if they wanted to stay in Edelhull or some other big city. He had more than a handful of adult descendants who were happy to choose a peaceful life. Anton knew he wouldn’t be able to spend as much time with them as he wanted, but he didn’t need to control their lives anyway. His great-grandchildren weren’t all able to be reunited with their parents, but in turn some parents had lost children. Everyone found new homes, and everything was basically as good as could be, given the circumstances.
Given his lingering injuries Devon settling down to live a quiet life would have been quite sensible, but Anton hadn’t really expected that. Devon was still intent to grow stronger in cultivation, and joining the Order was the best way to accomplish that. While the Ninety-Nine Stars was the primary cultivation method and usually superior to other choices, it wasn’t impossible for a cultivator to keep their old technique and be an official member. Devon had chosen to do so, though he intended to continue working with Anton to improve the basic method he’d grown accustomed to.
All of that was fine. The one thing that Anton didn’t want was to have a great-granddaughter not even in her teenage years declare she wanted to be just like him. Alva didn’t simply mean a cultivator, but she wanted to be a fighting cultivator. No matter how many times Anton explained that he would have preferred to live a peaceful life, she wouldn’t listen. It didn’t help that she was almost inseparable from Fuzz and that Catarina encouraged her decision.
For that, Catarina was the one who had to keep Alva in her home. Their courtyards merely had a single wall separating them, but he thought it would be better for Alva. He would still do his best to help raise her, but he was quite worried about that. Even if she had already completed the first star, cultivating too quickly at a young age could damage her. Anton paid very careful attention so that she would not harm herself, but he couldn’t be around all the time. That was as both a cultivation instructor and as a surrogate parent. He also couldn’t just bring her along with him, because she was exactly the kind to throw herself into danger when it appeared instead of staying somewhere safe. Her injuries in the battle hadn’t dissuaded her from that at all.
Anton sighed. Why did his descendants have to be so willful and difficult?