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The execution was planned to take place in the eastern part of Graotan. At first it seemed like an odd location. The Order’s main location was in the southwest, and there was practically nothing close to where the execution was happening. It was just a small outpost with minor defensive formations. But the Order started showing how serious it was as it began to assign missions to people.
Nearly everyone received one of the missions. Anton was one of them, of course. The missions were mandatory with some exceptions, but Anton was tightly connected to the situation involved and thus entirely uninterested in refusing. He was assigned to a small little hamlet called Troutberk. It was more of a handful of farming families loosely knit together by proximity, really, plus a man who had made some deals with traveling traders and started a little shop.
“I understand,” Anton was doing his best to convince everyone properly. “This is everything to you. But this place won’t be anything without your family. You risk that- along with everything else- if you choose to stay.”
A stubborn old man- though not quite so old nor stubborn as Anton himself- frowned. “You think some big-shot cultivators are going to care about our little hamlet specifically? They’ll just ignore us.”
“They might,” Anton agreed. “But if they don’t, everything will be gone. And they won’t be in a friendly mood. Let me tell you a story. I’m sure you heard at least a little bit about the troubles years back. Bandits coming in from Ofrurg, raiding villages. Maybe they won’t touch here, but…” Anton talked about Dungannon. The hamlet wasn’t terribly far, but nor was it particularly close. It was actually closer to the border, but it was indeed small enough to be overlooked in most cases. No wealth in the houses, land, or people. But if the Order was right- and they had more information than just Anton himself did- there was a high likelihood of the Heavenly Lion Sect and perhaps some others trying something.
Anton could have easily pushed everyone to leave. It would be difficult for non-cultivators to resist the persuasion of voice, and the implicit fearful respect for cultivators would be sufficient to overcome their hesitation. But he had avenues for understanding as well. Nobody wanted to leave their home, worried that something might happen to it. That included their fields. The thought of losing a season of crops was more than most could bear. Even if they didn’t live season to season, they had little in the way of savings. They were also concerned about their few animals- it was difficult to take them, but they couldn’t just leave them behind.
Those were the surface problems, but Anton worked his way deeper. Some specific things were of sentimental value and couldn’t be replaced. While Anton couldn’t bring a house along with him in a storage bag, he could offer to help them with their smaller things. He understood it wouldn’t be easy for them, but the risk to their life was very real.
The biggest issue was that old man Abramsen’s wife couldn’t walk at all. They had no proper wagon or even a large enough cart to carry her and other things, and getting her up on a draft mule was out of the question. But that was solved easily enough with the aid of cultivation. With a bit of work putting together something like a chair Anton could strap on his back was easy enough. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable trip, but it might actually be more comfortable than walking.
The woman laughed slightly as Anton hefted her into the air and onto his back. She looked down at her husband and smiled, “If this fellow can do it, maybe you should be the one to carry me on the way back, hmm?”
“Good idea,” Anton said- only half jokingly. He wasn’t going to let a chance to teach a new batch of people about cultivation pass him by. Along the way, one family had trouble keeping a mule on the path. It kept trying to wander away- but a quick word from Anton fixed that. “Over here girl. Stay with us.” The mule obediently came back.
“Well I’ll be darned,” said her owner. “Can you teach me that trick?”
“It might take a while,” Anton admitted. Half of it was just knowing the right tone of voice, but the other half was related to Spirit Building. But being confident was key either way.
The little group from Troutberk eventually made it to the area set up for them, another day’s travel beyond the fort where the execution would be happening. With the area simply flooded with members of the Order, it would be impossible for anyone to reach them without the Order being able to provide a response. Beyond escorting villagers, everyone from the Order was likewise assigned to assist with protection in the coming days. The execution date was still two weeks hence, but something could happen at any point.
Anton took full advantage of having thousands of new people in the same area- even though the border with Ofrurg was relatively sparsely populated, dozens of little villages quickly added up. He wasn’t the only one trying to teach people cultivation, either. Vincent was still more interested in finding those with real talent, but he still wasn’t going to refuse to teach people who asked. There were others as well, beyond Anton’s inner circle. The movement was becoming a bit more popular, though it wasn’t widespread throughout the Order’s disciples yet. Though in a few years it might be, given they would have more incoming disciples who got a chance to cultivate from trying to teach everyone. Anton was still developing the methods to make that easier, but he was confident that everyone could reach at least a few stars. That was a serious benefit, compared to no cultivation at all. And old man Abramsen might actually be able to carry his wife around if he properly cultivated to the second or third star. Though that would take longer than the expected time frame- another three or four weeks would still be less time than it took pretty much anyone to reach the first star.
Though Anton wanted to stay with the civilians to keep them safe, he also had competing desires. He wanted to see the executions, and he reasonably should because all of this mess was related to him. Devon had also helped precipitate it. From a practical standpoint, the Order was expecting an attack and those with higher cultivations and those who could fight from a distance were placed where the epicenter of the action would be. As an archer, Anton quite fit that description.
He was still learning Horizon Shot, but his distance had improved. The actual range that it covered… that could wildly vary. Horizon Shot was both about distance as well as shooting at things that couldn’t necessarily be seen, and that meant extending senses to be able to lock on to some sort of energy. While there was no way Anton could properly sense everything at a kilometer from himself, if he focused on just a tiny sliver in one direction he was slightly better than vague forms. He could shoot an arrow that far as well, though that was hardly to the horizon itself. On flat land, the horizon was about five kilometers away. From a proper vantage point it was significantly further, and he was aware Elder Kseniya could shoot much further. At least several tens of kilometers. In that case… he wondered if she could shoot over the border from where they were.
“Which one?” she asked, grinning. “Because let me tell you, that western border is way out of my league. Couldn’t hit much to the north or south either.”
That answered his question pretty well- the borders to the north and south were at least a hundred kilometers away. Not being able to hit anything there pretty much implied she could get an arrow to fly that far, but nothing else. Like he could shoot a Spirit Arrow two kilometers- if he just wanted it to go. Wouldn’t even hit the broad side of a barn though.
Anton looked around, sensing the hundreds of cultivators nearby. It was more people than he’d ever seen so close together at the Order’s main facilities, even. “Can’t believe I’m responsible for all of this.”
“You aren’t,” Elder Kseniya said. “They are,” she gestured, not towards the prisoners but to the east. “The Heavenly Lion Sect and whoever put them up to this. Been pushing the Order more and more. It was time for us to finally show them what we think of that. I could have just made the decision to hand them over, you know? I’m not afraid of telling off our people when we go too far.”
“I think you’re somewhat biased towards me, though.”
“Hmm, am I?” she grinned widely, “Because if you were the kind of idiot who caused stuff like this without thinking about it, I certainly wouldn’t be. It’s not like my fondness for you can be separated from how I expect you to act.” She turned her head, eyes focusing. “There they are.” She raised her bow. “One more step and someone will regret it.”
Anton couldn’t see or sense anything, but he knew that buried among the trees at the far edge of his vision were several border checkpoints. That was one of the biggest reasons for choosing the dinky little fort they currently stood in- even with recent reinforcements it was still small. It was atop a significantly sized hill, bringing them well above the landscape surrounding them. There were few who could take advantage of the extreme distance to the same extremes as Elder Kseniya, but it would allow them to intercept any groups moving through the area.
An arrow appeared on Elder Kseniya’s bow, formed from the purest energy Anton had ever seen. Seeing her in training just wasn’t quite the same as active combat- and he’d only seen her fire a handful of shots up close in such situations. “Border’s closed,” she muttered as she shot. Anton did his best to sense what was happening, but the arrow went out of the extreme of his energy senses nearly instantly. His eyes tracked it a bit further until it was too small to make out, before a moment later he saw a tiny point of light as it exploded at the far end. It seemed things had finally started.
Almost as if there wasn’t someone regularly shooting arrows, the proper ceremony for the execution started. If anyone was planning to rescue Zvonko or the others, they were cutting things rather close. Actually… Anton supposed perhaps that was on purpose. Maybe they didn’t want to succeed at saving them. That would require them to have other achievable goals, of course. That could be simply killing as many members of the Order as they could or the random people they might have still presumed were between them and Zvonko. Or they were really late. Though it was quite reasonable for powerful cultivators at least in Essence Collection to traverse the distance from the border in a quarter of an hour. That would expend some energy they might want for battle, however.
Hopefully the Order was fully prepared. There were more things happening that he hadn’t been directly told about- not necessarily secret, but not things that every disciple would hear.
He was unable to sense any individual cultivators at the current distance of the approaching front, around twenty kilometers, but he was just able to make out a group. He might have thought it was just his mind playing tricks on him if he didn’t confirm it with where Elder Kseniya was shooting at a measured pace. He doubted she was actually causing much damage at that distance, not shooting every minute or so- even if sometimes she fired a handful of arrows in quick succession. He could feel that she was only making use of something close to what she could recover, so that she wouldn’t exhaust herself. Though her shooting was becoming more frequent as people approached… and it would likely become harder for people to defend.
“Got one,” Elder Kseniya noted. “Quite a pain, really. There are a few fellows who are making things difficult. They’re quite serious about this, it seems.” She pulled a physical arrow out of a quiver. It was black and covered in thorns similar to that of a rose. “But so are we.” The arrow streaked off into the distance with no visual effect wherever it arrived- but Anton felt a sudden shifting of energy on the other end. He couldn’t tell the effects just yet, but there was bound to be something significant, because Elder Kseniya smiled.