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It shouldn’t have felt like an accomplishment to walk around in her own house. Though Velvet wasn’t sure if it was her home anymore. Nothing that made it home was there anymore. Her grandparents were gone. The room that had once been hers was indeed full of random things. Pots and vases and spare tables and chairs. Normal stuff for a house, but not her house. The only thing the same was the walls- and walls were the least important part of a home.
As for who owned the house… Velvet wasn’t sure. Her aunt and uncle had claimed it after her grandparent’s deaths. She hadn’t even thought to dispute it at the time. Now… with nothing left of what made it what it once was, it didn’t matter. The value of the house and the land were irrelevant to her.
Just to show she could, she stuck her head into the other rooms as well. The master bedroom didn’t have much interesting, just typical furnishings and a jewelry box on the nightstand. Her aunt followed along looking worried, while Anton just stood nearby.
Velvet avoided looking at Carol and Bert as she moved past them. If she stopped, she might do something she regretted. Petty vengeance would be easy, but would it make the world a better place? She doubted it. Now she had more than just the Order’s rules to worry about, because Anton cared. And that made her consider whether her actions actually made things better as well.
It was always in the back of her head that it might. That they deserved it. But at best, hasty actions would probably end up at a net neutral. She could always come back later. “I’m going out to the yard.”
The yard was small, just a little fenced in area. Only one tree she vaguely recognized, but she had no real attachment to it. What she wanted was… yes, she’d sensed it properly, buried under the ground. She shoved her arm into the ground, pushing aside the dirt with her energy and muscle. It was so easy. She grabbed something. Several pieces, really. They were the only piece dumped into the ground that still resembled much of anything. Even then, the details on the little wooden statue were faded. It would barely resemble its former self even if she put it back together. But it was something.
“What’s going on?” Bert asked as she once more moved through the center of the house. Velvet didn’t respond.
As she was about to reach the front door, her aunt reached out for her arm. “Where are you-”
Velvet brushed her off, using her energy so that she couldn’t wrap her hand around. She looked back, glaring. “Goodbye, Carol.” She continued walking out onto the road, past several more houses. Then she curled up into a ball around a corner. She looked up at Anton, “This was supposed to make me feel better.” She held the broken pieces of a childhood toy in her hand.
He sat down beside her. “Sometimes, it hurts before we heal. Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really.” What was she even supposed to say? “They’re just some people who I used to think were family.” She looked down at the wooden figure. She could feel how it aligned along the breaks. There were definitely pieces missing. But there had to be a way to repair it.
It wasn’t too long before she was ready to move again. It just hurt to remember her family. She hadn’t thought about them much in years. Except when she was trying to forget, and then the memories were always stronger.
“There’s one more place,” she said. “Just more memories.”
It was funny how short the trip down the road was. When she was younger it had felt like forever. It wasn’t just that she could walk faster now, but she also had the freedom to go where she wanted. Her destination was just in the nearby city of Cardend, an hour’s walk for a normal person.
The orphanage was right on the outskirts of the city. It was smaller than she had remembered. Certainly, it felt cramped. As one of the older children there hadn’t been much room. But its height had seemed intimidating, once. Looming.
She almost didn’t want to go in. It would be the same. Except, of course, the children inside would be different. They had been the real problem. She’d thought adults could see everything and were simply ignoring when the children were cruel to each other, but she now knew they simply couldn’t do everything. Maybe they could have done better though.
She looked to Anton. “What do you think of this? Is it safe to teach them to cultivate?”
Anton frowned. “A difficult question. Desperate children, still developing. Without anyone around to properly guide them, I imagine there would be many pitfalls. Even if there was…”
“People die in accidents all the time,” Velvet responded. “Those who are reckless, and those who are unfortunate. Children as well. But I doubt it would be safe unless they had a cultivator watching over them and keeping them in line.”
“Quite a conundrum,” Anton agreed. “I haven’t been a child for so long, I somewhat expect everyone to act like a responsible adult at all times. Even Alva… is quite reasonable, for her age.”
Velvet continued to stand outside the gates. “How long would it take to get here, if I moved quickly? A few days?” She frowned, “That’s too much time for regular visits. But I couldn’t give up cultivating at the Order.”
“If everywhere were saturated with natural energy, it would make it easier. I don’t think this is something that can change quickly. Maybe a few decades.”
Velvet nodded, “I can at least talk to the people running it. See if they’re really… doing their best.” She stepped through the gate, then turned to make sure Anton was following. Sensing him was one thing, but seeing his supportive smile was another. She could do this.
“Sorry to bring you all the way out here for nothing,” Velvet said after they left Cardend. “You could have been doing something important. You have so many people who need your help.”
Anton smiled, “You count too. And while I could help more people in quantity, I don’t know if I could do more for them. It’s not like I spend every second on others anyway. I cultivate, wander, ponder. I’m fortunate to be able to worry about people in general because those I know and care for are… stable. But when they need help, I’m glad to offer it. That includes you. I’ve seen how you changed for the better, and would prefer to keep you heading in that direction.”
“You shouldn’t have to help me with stupid stuff, though,” Velvet frowned. “It was just… walking. And talking to people.”
“Some things are harder for different people,” Anton said. “Personally, I find keeping patience for some individuals much harder than just filling them full of arrows. But having people around me that believe I’m a reasonable fellow helps me make more rational decisions.”
“Like shooting people full of arrows later?”
“Exactly. Sometimes it needs to be done.” Anton turned his head to Velvet to make sure she was paying close attention. “Don’t think your problems don’t matter. Everyone has a different life. I’ve only lived one, but I’m glad to be able to participate in others when given the chance.”
Tensions between Ofrurg and Graotan were increasing. The Heavenly Lion Sect wasn’t the only one bitter about Anton receiving recognition and reward in Everheart’s Tomb. Other sects didn’t like the Order simply because of its size and power, or because some of their rivals supported them.
Various parts of Ofrurg also took exception for having to admit wrongdoing in how they handled slavery. Those involved in the slave trade were especially bothered by Kohar’s continued efforts to hold them responsible for their actions. But she had managed to hit them in their wallets, and that was likely the best result anyone could hope for. At least, at the current point.
Anton was hoping to completely abolish the practice of slavery, but Ofrurg wasn’t the only place in the world that supported it. Just the one sharing the most border with Graotan. Of course, Anton had no expectation that he could accomplish that goal in just a year or two. As for other, smaller goals… perhaps those might be accomplished soon.
A secret realm had been uncovered. Unlike one of Everheart’s Tombs, a secret realm could be extremely large in scale. Everheart was but one person- but secret realms were often connected to ancient sects. They were often training grounds, opening only rarely when sufficient time had passed. Sometimes they contained resources left behind after the destruction of a sect- as the name implied, the realm could be hidden or unknown. If nobody knew where it was located or how to open it, the secret realm could be lost to time until the formations that fueled it began to unravel.
With great opportunity also came peril. Conflict between sects was often heightened inside secret realms, regardless of official agreements. The sheer size involved meant that people weren’t always around to see villainous deeds committed. Even so, sects and independent cultivators from all over would come to participate if the expected gains outweighed the risks. That would undoubtedly include certain people Anton wished to see again… for various reasons, good and bad. He had no doubt that the Heavenly Lion Sect and Anish in particular would be out for his head, but he had some people he wanted to find as well. It was unlikely that opportunistic people like Van Hassel wouldn’t show up.
Normally whoever discovered the secret realm would intend to monopolize it, but upon entering they found it still had a great seal. It would require more than just a single sect or two to participate to open it up. When more than just a handful of sects got involved it was impossible to keep secrets, so the common thing to do was make a public announcement to not draw anyone’s ire for trying. Whether or not Anton thought it reasonable, that was the way things were.
Together the sects and countries surrounding the area- Droca, an area to the south of Graotan- planned for a moment six months later. It was important enough for them to recall some of their scattered members from wherever they were for either the sect or personal matters.
The only issue Anton had was that it likely wouldn’t end up restricted to newer cultivators. That meant it was possible to encounter more Late Spirit Building cultivators and Essence Collection cultivators. Life Transformation cultivators might be present, but they were few in number and likely wouldn’t get involved in smaller battles. Still, Anton felt like he was somewhat on the weaker end of where he needed to be to feel safe. After all, three years of cultivation experience was almost nothing compared to some. Even if his cultivation advanced quickly, he couldn’t imagine competing with Essence Collection even if his normal allies were by his side.
But by three and a half years… well, he didn’t expect to suddenly catapult ahead. But he was confident in continuing to make improvements.
After three months Anton had to admit he’d still underestimated Fleeting Youth. He’d thought once he saw the path forward that he could stride along it just like any other. He’d expected to put forth hard work, but he hadn’t expected it to begin consuming his days and nights.
He still took the time to seek out others for discussion about cultivation- either to give them guidance or to receive some for himself- but he spent less time doing so. The same was true of other forms of practice, though he never fully neglected everything. He concentrated on connecting to the mysterious idea of after his current life. He reflected on his thoughts just before everything changed, when he thought he would die of old age. Happy, but at his end.
Closer. Each moment brought him closer to initial completion of Fleeting Youth, where he would actually be able to benefit… but he wasn’t quite there. He wondered if he had already spent too much time on it, instead of simply continuing with his primary cultivation technique… but worrying about his time was perhaps the opposite of what he needed to be doing. He needed to accept things. For that, he found himself once more at the edge of what had once been Dungannon. Not alone, though he had certainly tried to be.
He might have come to terms with some of what had happened, but he knew he couldn’t ever fully be free of what happened. In a strange way, he likely wouldn’t still be alive without the tragedy that had happened. It was probably for the best he hadn’t been allowed to go alone. He steeled himself, then took his first step onto the overgrown road, a few comforting presences behind him.