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Everything was better when everyone was together. It made Alva and Catarina and Devon and Anton happy, and it made the members of the pack that weren’t of their blood happy. And the pack being happy made Fuzz happy. They also made him strong. The things Catarina did with his fur had grown into him and was a part of him now. She seemed concerned about that, but it didn’t bother Fuzz. He was stronger than he could have ever thought he would be. His teeth and claws were sharp, his legs fast and strong.
Even when things were bad, it was better for people to be together. Something bad had happened, but Fuzz couldn’t tell what it was. Every member of the pack was still alive and healthy, as far as he could determine. Devon’s energy changed, but change wasn’t necessarily bad. They didn’t seem worried about that.
So Fuzz didn’t worry about it. He just made sure to be as strong as he could be. Fuzz knew there were some things he could never do. Alva and Anton both used ‘bows’ and attacked from far away, but he couldn’t do that. But he didn’t need to, since they did it. He just needed to get within biting range- or a bit further than that since he learned how to extend his energy further. He was a big wolf, but for a few moments he could be a bigger wolf, with jaws the size of his whole body. Though usually that wasn’t necessary- very few things were big enough to need such a big mouth to bite them. And it made him tired.
Fuzz did notice that everyone was trying to practice one weird type of energy. Unlike everything else, it didn’t seem to do anything. Except sometimes Anton did something. He called upon a big power, a strong one. Then the strange energy made it fall apart. At first Fuzz didn’t know why they would want to break apart Anton’s power, but he figured it out. They were going to fight someone with the same power. It was a strange power, and the way they countered it was all swirly and weird. Fuzz couldn’t figure it out at all.
It was already bad enough that humans had different ‘meridians’ than he did. They had legs that were like his back legs, and arms that were kind of like his front legs… but the number and arrangement of meridians wasn’t the same. Humans had five fingers and toes, and they had meridians that went through all of those and to many places in their hands. Fuzz had four toes and meridians terminated in each of those and his foot pads. The way humans treated their arms and legs was also different, and they circulated energy around their body in mysterious ways that he couldn’t understand.
But Fuzz wanted to learn. Many of their techniques were used with weapons, and he had no intention to attempt those. He was able to augment his teeth and claws well enough. But they could run fast without just pushing their legs further and change their energy into fire or different sorts of things. He saw all sorts of things in the “Secret Realm’. The strange thing was, lots of people knew about it.
Another strange thing about the Secret Realm was Annelie. She smelled like a member of the pack, and Alva spoke with her like that, but she didn’t come back with them. Fuzz didn’t like that. She also got upset when he licked her face- at least when the other cold people were around. Fuzz still didn’t understand how human social interactions and energy techniques worked. They were both equally arcane, and he was still trying to figure them out. To do that… he needed Catarina’s help. He’d have to pester her until she figured it out.
“Enough!” Catarina said as Fuzz pushed against her. “We can play later. I’m trying to practice.” Fuzz whined and barked in what she thought was acknowledgement. “If you know that then why are you getting in the way?”
“Maybe he wants to spar too?” Alva said. “Is that it?” Fuzz barked. “Hmm… maybe it would be good to try to use the techniques even when not fighting against grandpa. So we get used to it quicker.”
“I supposed that makes sense,” Catarina acknowledged. “We don’t have enough practice in combat. Mostly, I just find it makes my attacks weaker since I have to include additional patterns of energy movement.”
“Alright boy!” Alva stood across the training field from Fuzz. “Come get me!” She readied her shortbow, firing Spirit Arrows towards Fuzz once he started sprinting towards her. Even with the whole length of the field she only got a few shots- and she weakened them as they impacted him, not letting them break through his energy. Then Fuzz was in front of her, and she wasn’t able to get away. Giant fangs surrounded her head. She reached up to pat his ears. “Yes yes, you win. Though only because I was holding back.” Fuzz pulled back. “Now go back over there!” Fuzz whined. “Well it takes me a lot longer to run across the field,” Alva complained. Fuzz shook his head, and whined again. “Something else? You didn’t really want to spar?”
She didn’t really get an answer before Fuzz dashed over towards Catarina, stopping before he ran into her. As she held her sword out in front of her, he nudged her hand. “What?” she said. “You want to spar with me instead?” Catarina shook her head. “That’s not really fair. It’s hard to match my energy to yours and have us both be safe.” He nudged her hand again, specifically. “What is it about that hand?” Catarina asked.
“I know!” Alva said. “You’re circulating the anti-ascension technique.” Fuzz nodded to confirm that. “He wants to learn it.”
“Is that it?” Catarina asked. “You want to learn… this kind of energy?” She specifically focused on her left while keeping her right her normal balance of energy. Fuzz nudged his face into her left hand. “Well… we can try, I suppose. Maybe with a formation… but I don’t want to overload you either.” She scratched his head, “Hah, for some reason nobody writes about augmenting a pet wolf with a formation. I have to figure it all out myself.”
In the world of cultivators, much of the news that travelled far was not good news. Except for specific important people, nobody was going to comment about someone breaking through to a new rank of cultivation or a sect having a good year of harvests or recruiting. Not beyond the borders of the nearby country or a smaller region therein. But when news was big enough- and usually bad enough- it could travel fairly far.
In truth Facraona was not terribly far from Graotan, even if Anton considered that the Order was mostly situated on the western end of the country. It just felt much further since Ofrurg stood directly between them, making it difficult to travel there directly. If he wanted to do so, he would have to go around to the southeast, through Droca. He would certainly travel there someday, but of all times not was certainly not the best with the recent news.
It wasn’t something that was easy to keep quiet. Even if it mostly concerned normal folk and not cultivators, mass abductions were something that got noticed. It was a larger scale than what had been happening in eastern Graotan, where a number of villages were ransacked over the course of a decade. Instead, in the span of a few months several dozen towns and villages, totalling several thousand people at least, completely disappeared. By the time any sects in Facraona heard the news and prepared a defense, the abductions stopped. Though Anton supposed that it wasn’t because a force capable of doing so without anyone escaping to spread the news- people only noticing when they didn’t hear from neighboring towns- would not be directly afraid of a group of cultivators ready to face them. After all, if news of their presence only arrived a week or two after they were gone, there was little threat. No, Anton’s opinion- and that of others he had spoken to- was that they had completed their goal. As for what they needed thousands of people for, there could only be speculation. It just couldn’t be good.
Anton’s first thought was Ofrurg. It was close enough, and they hadn’t in the past much cared about slavery. Yet the information that came from Ofrurg didn’t indicate the slave markets being flooded. That didn’t rule out the location, but it did rule out a familiar reason for similar activity. Actually, the slave markets were looking rather empty according to sources inside Ofrurg. It might have been unconnected, but if not… someone with great resources needed a vast amount of people. And being willing to cause such a commotion was also a concern. Ofrurg wasn’t a lawless place. Even slaves had a few rights, whether or not they were properly enforced.
None of the possibilities of what was happening to those people involved them living through it, whether they were being used for some sort of experiments or sacrificed for some foul cultivation technique. If it were the latter, it was actually somewhat confusing. Generally cultivation techniques that could advance with the deaths of others were more effective when cultivators were used instead of regular people. At least, that was Anton’s understanding. The energy of a few thousand regular people was just a few hundred early Body Tempering cultivators, or at most a few dozen Spirit Building cultivators. On the scales involved, it seemed safer to target smaller groups of cultivators. At the very least it would be easy to go unnoticed. Just because no information had reached Graotan about where the people went didn’t mean nobody noticed. It just meant anyone who noticed had been silenced, one way or another. Hundreds of people weren’t so easy to just drag around the countryside, and it was all along the border. Another reason to believe it was probably Ofrurg, though it could have been a sect just residing in western Facraona.
The thing that bothered Anton the most was that there was no target to stop. If the Flying Blood Cult was involved- and it wasn’t outside of the way they interacted with things, so it was them or someone similarly audacious- they didn’t just have a known location they could storm the gates of. Or a mysterious other group. Was there a connection to The Organizers and whoever was attempting abductions during the attack at the execution? Probably. But their locations were unknown too.
It didn’t seem too hard to Anton to just scour the whole country. Thousands of cultivators would certainly be able to find the Flying Blood Cult or whoever. But that was only feasible if Ofrurg as a whole decided to work together. And if the mysterious people were out in unclaimed lands and not just doubling up with some sect somewhere. There was no way every sect would be willing to have random cultivators investigate their grounds. And one or two sects wouldn’t be able to scour the countryside and suddenly reveal groups that had been hidden for quite some time already.
It was frustrating, knowing there were people even more brazen than Van Hassel- but also better at covering their tracks. Anton would love to put an arrow through any one of them, but before he could do that he would have to find them without any leads. So instead, he did the next best thing- cultivating. Spending months doing little more than improving himself when there were active problems didn’t feel good, but Anton realized that there were always problems with the world. He couldn’t reasonably be expected to solve all of them. But if he had to pick a category… it would be cultivators destroying the lives of those far weaker than themselves. He was working at the problem from both ends. He would gladly kill anyone he could who was involved in such work, and he was also in the business of making sure people weren’t incredibly weak. A group of cultivators might take out a hundred normal civilians without issue, but if each of those people had some cultivation? If they went beyond early Body Tempering into mid Body Tempering or later, a village was basically equivalent to a real army. If nothing else, it would make any battles longer and harder to cover up.
Anton shot an arrow through the head of an imaginary figure. He didn’t bother with targets most of the time, since they just got destroyed. He knew whether he hit or not. He was working on expanding his capabilities. He tried firing his bow while using Falling Stars at the same time, but besides the fact that he was still a bit weak to properly make use of Falling Stars, it didn’t feel quite right. But he’d figure it out. And then some people were going to suffer. Briefly, before they were wiped from existence entirely.