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During the course of their travel, Elder Tshering didn’t have to lift a finger except the one time an ambush predator thought he would be the best choice as a target. It was a greatly oversized cat, but clearly without the ability to sense energy. Elder Tshering restrained his energy so as to not simply scare off every magical beast in the surrounding area, but anything close enough to lay its eyes on him would still be able to sense his power.
Rarely in the past had Anton been successfully ambushed. While the forest around Dungannon wasn’t exactly peaceful, it had no ambush predators large enough to attack humans. After he’d started training Body Tempering, one of his earlier stars had been the organs in his head, which was where the major senses resided. He also trained Hawk Eyes archery and other techniques to boost his senses even more. It was good to match off against more challenging foes. The way the creatures camouflaged into the surroundings without the use of energy was particularly interesting.
If he could find Velvet, he might ask her what she thought. He could pick her out here and there, but ever since she’d started practicing her new stealth technique he struggled to keep up. It was one of the techniques merely forbidden by sects in the past because it was used against them. In short, it was too good. A technique that allowed her to slip past her surroundings without disturbing them was certainly not easy to learn, but after the months of practice she’d put in, he found himself impressed.
Fuzz was running back and forth, crossing in front of and behind the group. When he abruptly stopped and pointed his nose into the tall grass, Anton took his bow into his hands. Before he could compare the angle to determine exactly what was hiding, Alva had already taken a shot. An injured lion leaped out of the brush- a slim hunter, unlike the more voluminous males who seemed to do little actual fighting. Anton took a shot, his arrow digging deeper into its side than Alva’s. It wasn’t really a fair comparison, as he had a whole eleven stars more than her. Still, despite the fact that the cat’s leap was less than halfway to Alva, he wasn’t going to let it get unnecessarily close. If he had other opponents to worry about it would be one thing, but he wasn’t going to just leave it when he was able to act.
“Aww, I wanted to take it alone. Though it’s pretty tough.” Alva waited a few moments then urged Fuzz closer. “I think this is the same kind that’s part of my bow.” She tapped a finger to her lips, “Does this mean I can make a second bow?”
“If you find a good shaft and learn to properly handle the materials, sure,” Anton said. “Want to help me butcher it? We can see if there are any good tendons.”
“… I think I’ll pass for now.” Alva wasn’t exactly squeamish, but she preferred not to get blood and guts on her. She patted Fuzz on the head, “Good job sniffing it out. Can you teach me how to do that?”
Fuzz did a sort of bark, sniffing around the area with his head low. Alva followed him around, but Anton could tell she was just playing. Though he wondered if he should try to enhance his sense of smell. Something might hide from sight, vision, and even energy sensing… but smells were bound to leak out eventually. Scents were lingering instead of just having to be stopped in the moment. Having the ability to detect things by scent could be valuable, though as with any powerful sense it could also be a weakness. He’d seen normal wolves overwhelmed by certain plants in the forest, making them an excellent deterrent around their flocks. Though most wolves wouldn’t approach a farm unless they were starving anyway.
“How much longer until we get there?” Alva asked. She seemed impatient to arrive, though she was doing her best to keep herself occupied as they passed very similar terrain for long periods of time.
Elder Tshering was the one to answer that. “Two days, if we keep this pace. We’ll hit a road soon enough, and we’ll likely not encounter any more wild beasts.” He shook his head, “There hasn’t been much of note here, but I can ask about unexpected movements of beasts when we arrive. The locals should know more.”
Even though it had already been several years, the reasons behind the unexpected number of beasts that had appeared were still being investigated. For the moment the area was just being more carefully managed, but there were investigations into whether significant changes had happened elsewhere. The primary suspect was more from the north, but the circumstances Ayotunde had mentioned were a possible connection. Either way, they had plans to move around different parts of Ambati after they concluded the mission- to search for more about the beasts if necessary and to look for the facility Everheart mentioned. It was doubtless something dangerous to tackle alone. Anton hoped that Elder Tshering would stay with them, though that was up to whether he could be convinced.
As predicted, they soon enough arrived in Tailoga. The architecture was quite different from what Anton was used to, but houses were houses and cities were cities. It was easy to make out roads and businesses, and of course the locations of large clans. The Tempitope clan didn’t entirely control the city of Tailoga, but they had their hands in many things in the city and the area around it. Finding their way to Ayotunde merely took a short time, and he jumped down from the walls he was standing atop to greet them. They were actually tall enough to stop most cultivators, but going down was easier than up. Down came on its own. Normally Anton would have supposed such a fall would break a knee or two, but it seemed the Western Steel Body was quite suited for such stunts. He did leave a significant impression in the ground, though.
Ayotunde threw his arms out wide, “Welcome, members of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars. I hope your presence means you have accepted my request.” His eyes especially lingered on Elder Tshering.
Elder Tshering nodded, “That is correct. Assuming the scope of the task is as stated, we can enter into a proper agreement.”
“That is good,” Ayotunde nodded. “We can discuss that later. I am glad to see all of you came, including you, old man.” Ayotunde inclined his head to Anton. “And it is good to see a powerful king of the forest as well.” Ayotunde’s reference was likely to Elder Tshering, who was wearing some sort of bear. A portion of it, anyway, as it seemed the full pelt would have been several times his rather significant height. It seemed Ayotunde’s prevalence at nicknaming people didn’t just extend to those who were weaker than himself and peers. A dangerous choice, if he chose the wrong target.
Elder Tshering, however, grinned widely. “No doubt there’s a new king there by now, but this hide was particularly nice. See how sharp the claws are?”
“Hmm, very nice,” Ayotunde nodded appreciatively. “Let’s go now.”
“Why didn’t you invite me?” Velvet appeared next to Ayotunde. He started, pulling away in surprise. “I was there as well. In Ofrurg.”
“Oh. The spook. I did not think you would consider us more than acquaintances.” Ayotunde shook his head, “But you came anyway, did you not?”
Velvet narrowed her eyes, “Next time I won’t show up if you don’t invite me.”
“I understand,” Ayotunde nodded. “The services of a spook are very valuable. I won’t make the mistake again.”
He quickly led them inside the walls of the Temitope clan. Everything was very comfortable, but not excessive. The rooms were better appointed than the default ones in the Order, but they were powerful guests. Besides, the Order expected their disciples to make their own choices about which furnishings they needed, as it became relevant.
After everyone was settled in properly they went over the contract. Nothing particularly limited what the members of the order could do, but they didn’t have to participate in certain activities. They would work together with Ayotunde and by extension the Tempitope clan to protect them from attacks, and they would be accompanying them on expeditions, but how they accomplished their tasks was up to them. In short, they couldn’t be ordered around, but could settle conflicts however seemed best. Though they could make their own choices, it was made clear to both parties that the Order would do their best to assist, even if they had the right to refusal of specific orders.
Ayotunde did not care to dredge over the details- he accepted the Order’s promise, and the contract was merely a formality to him. Likewise, Anton and the others didn’t intend to leave him high and dry when he and the Temitope clan fell into trouble. It was merely for clarity about both parties’ expectations that they went into specifics.
Without any sort of formal introduction, the group from the Order was invited to a dinner, along with Ayotunde and the two other mercenaries. They barely had time to reacquaint themselves with Ross and Lera before arriving in the dining room.
Inside was a long table full of various dishes common in Ambati. Fruits and vegetables abounded, but the main focus was a whole roasted gazelle- an unexpected sight. Similarly unexpected was the wrinkled but regal woman sitting at the head of the table. Servants directed them to their places, and it was then that they realized that the entire spread before them was merely for the eleven of them, plus the woman already seated. Elder Tshering and Ayotunde were seated next to her, with Lera and Anton next. From there it generally continued to decrease by age and cultivation, with the exception of Ross who was still slightly stronger in cultivation than Anton and the others.
“Everyone, this is Matriarch Afi,” Ayotunde introduced her, then the rest of them- down to the end with Alva.
Alva was looking about with concern, unsure how she was supposed to eat, or when, among other things. Matriarch Afi spared her with a few words. “That is about all the formality I can handle these days. With us introduced, go ahead and eat however you like! Forks, hands, feet, I don’t mind.” The servants with her did their best to maintain neutral expressions, but with their low cultivations Anton could read them clearly. They weren’t entirely happy with her actions, but wouldn’t dare to say anything either. “If I wanted people to yell at me about formalities I’d have everyone else here. But then I wouldn’t have a chance to get to know the people this kid,” she jabbed a slice of fruit in her hand at Ayotunde, “thought good enough to recruit for our cause. Can you believe they tell me not to yell at people at the end of the table? How are they supposed to hear me if I don’t yell? They’re so far away. I tried to get them to make me a round table with a hole in the middle so I can be close to everyone, but then they would complain about me jumping over the table. How else am I supposed to get into the center, hmm?”
Ayotunde laughed, “That’s right, quite a problem.”
Elder Tshering nodded sagely, his arms crossed in front of him. “A conundrum indeed. Have you considered a horseshoe design? It could curve around you but still have that open space.”
“Oh, a good thought!” Matriarch Afi grabbed one of the haunches of the gazelle with a snatch of energy. “Everyone had a chance, no complaining now,” she grinned heartily, then opened her mouth wide, shoving the entire thing inside. Somehow it worked, without distending her expression. She chewed for a few moments until her mouth was empty in her one nod to politeness. “A horseshoe shape, huh. What do you think?” she waved the bone at Anton before cracking it in half to begin sucking out the marrow.
He was a bit hesitant to answer, because although she was friendly enough her cultivation was still enough above him it felt awkward. With the Elders from the Order he had a connection to them beforehand, but Matriarch Afi was unfamiliar to him except in the last minutes. He gave himself time to think by slowly chewing the seeds of a fruit he had in hand. “If there are too many people, it will still result in some being far away. But I can’t think how you would fix that without moving your seat.” She didn’t have to shout, of course. A cultivator could shape the sound of their voice at least enough to have it carry further without being too loud. Though if she truly intended to talk to those at the end of the table, they might not have the skills to answer in the same manner.
Suddenly, the Matriarch’s face became stern. “Alva!” Alva froze, one hand under the table. “You don’t need to smuggle something out of the dining hall, you know. We’ll make sure your companion gets fed.”
“Oh.” Alva slowly put her hand with a large slab of meat on her plate. “Fuzz gets very hungry.”
“You named him Fuzz? A good name.”
“Catarina named him,” Alva said. “When she found him in a cave of death moss.”
“Death moss? I’d love to hear about it,” Matriarch Afi nodded enthusiastically. “And about you. Not many cultivate so young.” Her eyes sharpened, searching across the table. “Tell me, are you and Catarina sisters?”
“Umm… Great-Grandpa Anton, what are we?”
“Cousins of some sort,” Anton answered.
“Quite a bit of family here, then. Do I sense Devon’s connection as well?” she seemed less certain about that one.
Anton nodded, “A grandson.”
“I’d love to hear all about how you ended up together like this. And with one cultivating a different technique, even. But first, this death moss.”
Anton did eventually share his story, and how his family came to be in the state it was, while Matriarch Afi shared about the Temitope clan. The history was a bit longer, but it was not too much unlike his own family’s story, except with more cultivation- not counting the recent years for Anton and the others.