Picking out a good mark was important. Choose wrong, and there are consequences. Leo had been fortunate enough to avoid any major trouble so far, focusing on those who were distracted. He only occasionally got to target those with actual money, only occasionally making an attempt when they didn’t have any guards. The worst thing he could do would be to target someone being watched by someone else. He’d seen people lose a hand for that mistake.
Targeting cultivators was crazy. They could kill him and get away with it, or just catch him. They were strong and quick. But also rich. And he really didn’t have any other options. He would stick out like a sore thumb in the good parts of town, and the cultivators were just passing through. He just needed one good haul and he could buy medicine for Kit, and maybe more. Then he could stop stealing, and she could stop worrying about him. But she couldn’t worry about him if she didn’t recover.
There was no way Leo was going to target some of the people he saw. Groups of cultivators packed together in fives and tens, and some strong ones walking along as well. Just looking at some of them sent shivers down his spine. He could tell a cultivator just by looking, even beyond their clothes, but some of them were on an entirely different level. Especially lately. There was some tournament or something up in Facraona, and with Cruhull being the biggest city in northeastern Droca, it was normal that everyone would pass through.
But along with the strong ones came weak ones. Disciples of sects were no good, as they were being watched. What he was looking for was someone on their own, not too strong or important. There. An old man. Definitely a cultivator, from the feeling and the weapons he carried, both a bow and a pair of axes. Not someone Leo would even consider getting in a fight with, but Leo knew something about cultivators. If they were old and not terribly strong, they had no talent. That made them less important, and easier to deal with. Probably wouldn’t be as rich, but that was only by cultivator standards.
Leo kept an eye on him, making sure the old man was actually alone. He stopped to look at some of the nearby stalls, browsing the wares. That was perfect, but Leo knew the shopkeepers wouldn’t appreciate him taking from their customers. He had to find the right opening. Somewhere where the crowd was thick, the man concealed as he moved to the next place.
The man pulled a coin out of a large sack at his waist. Was it a gigantic coin purse? How extravagant. And foolish. He paid for a little necklace of some sort, barely worth anything. Just a trinket. Then he stepped away from the stall.
Leo’s legs moved swiftly, pulling a small blade. He gently placed his hand under the bag, making sure it wasn’t too heavy. The weight shouldn’t suddenly be noticed as missing. He didn’t feel much inside, so perhaps it was mostly empty- but even a handful of coins would be enough. It was too late to go back. He cut at the bag, but his knife slid off. With some quick thinking he sliced the strings holding the bag to the belt, hefting it in his hand and pulling the bag under his arm as he moved away.
Into an alley and behind some crates. No footsteps following, so he risked a glance back towards the street. The old man was still oblivious to his presence. He continued, winding through streets and back alleys as he got some distance. He opened up the bag and saw… nothing. It was empty. He almost tossed it down in disgust when he saw something strange. When he held it at a different angle, he could see deeper into the bag. Like, more than an arm’s length. He pulled the mouth wider to make sure he wasn’t crazy, and light sparkled on a pile of coins… along with some books? And a bow. An entire bow. In a bag.
He was dead. Once the cultivator found out he took his storage bag, Leo would be dead. But he hadn’t seen him… Leo reached his arm into the bag and pulled out a handful of coins. He debated throwing the bag away, but he just couldn’t. This was enough to live off of for the rest of his life. It would be a shame to just get rid of it without thinking. And he hadn’t been caught. It would be fine. Anyone could have taken it.
Just in case, he took a circuitous route to his destination, intentionally trying to throw off pursuers. He didn’t suddenly die when he was alone in a back alley, so he was probably fine. But he couldn’t shake off the feeling of being watched. He stood outside his first destination, then boldly opened the door.
It wasn’t a proper store, really. It stunk like a proper apothecary, but it was dingy and didn’t have any glass vials. Not that Leo had seen more than in the door of an apothecary. Where would he get the money for that? Actually, he had enough now… but he was already here. And while Old Haskell might be a bottom tier apothecary, at least he was honest.
“I need medicine,” Leo said.
“What for?” the pile of rags behind the counter said, turning to reveal a hunched old man with wide eyes.
“Someone sick,” Leo answered.
“What’s the sickness?”
“Uh…” Leo didn’t know.
“Rash? Fever? Vomiting? Any symptoms.”
“Fever,” Leo said. “It keeps getting worse.”
“How much?” Old Haskell asked.
“Got coin?” Leo held out his hand with a few coins in it. “Someone important?” Leo nodded. “Then you’ll want this. The best bitterroot I got. One packet a day for a week, even after the fever goes away. Or you can get something cheaper…”
“I’ll take it,” Leo answered quickly. He was handed seven small packets, and dumped his coins on the counter as he quickly left.
“Good luck!” Old Haskell called after him. “Mix it in a cup of water!” Leo didn’t stay to chat.
His feet swiftly carried him towards ‘home’. It was a roof over their head, at least, and nobody came to kick them out. It was a half step better than other places he had seen, even. He just had to slip into a winding series of alleys and find the right pile of crates. Make sure nobody was watching. But there was nobody. Then he slipped behind the crates into a hole in the wall.
Technically this wasn’t a room. It was some sort of hole behind the wall of some disused shop, but it was wide enough to lay down and long enough that two people could fit, if they folded their legs. Kit was wrapped up in their blankets, such as they were. Shivering and sweating at the same time. Even paler than she normally was, her dark hair matted on her face.
Leo needed a cup of water, apparently. He had a cracked clay one they shared. Kit was supposed to have drunk from it, but she didn’t seem conscious enough, and it was still mostly full. He leaned over her to grab it and pulled out a packet.
“I don’t think that will work,” a voice said from behind him. “It’s not that sort of sickness.”
His head whipped around to see the face of the old man poking in through the hole. Leo stood to take up the whole width of the passage- which wasn’t much. “Please, just let me give her the medicine. You can do whatever you want with me, but let me help her. Please.” Leo somehow kept himself from trembling, even though he was going to die. Or if he was lucky, get taken away to the guards never to see the light of day again. Losing a hand might be worse, in some ways, than dying. Kit would want to try to take care of him.
“You think I’m going to kill you?” the old man asked. “Probably shouldn’t have stolen from me then. As for the medicine, you can probably give it to her, but it won’t work.”
Leo shook his head, “Old Haskell wouldn’t cheat me.”
“Should be fine for a normal fever,” the man said. “But it’s not that. Too much energy swirling around in there.” His eyes narrowed, “You can feel it, can’t you?”
The old man was right. Leo had felt she was sick before she showed any signs. He just didn’t know what it was. “What’s happening?”
“Probably ingested something with too much energy. She go out into the woods lately?”
“What? No, she…”
He remembered a conversation. Asking about cultivators. Leo knew they needed special herbs to grow stronger. Though he didn’t know what any of them were. Certainly nothing that Old Haskell had.
“Well, it doesn’t matter.” The old man squeezed into the area with Leo and Kit. He had surprisingly broad shoulders for how wrinkly he was. Then he suddenly disappeared. It was only after the movement was completed that Leo realized he had hopped over him. As he turned around he saw the old man standing in the air over Kit. His ankles were braced against the wall on opposite sides, just wider than shoulder width… but there wasn’t anything he was standing on. Even so, he was bent over in that position, and pressed a finger to Kit’s forehead. “Hey. Wake up.” Her eyes fluttered open, weakly. “Follow along with me, will you?”
Leo felt him doing something. Cultivator things. Energy, flowing into Kit’s body. He couldn’t let him hurt her. He grabbed one of the axes from the old man’s belt and… froze in place.
“Be careful with that. You could hurt someone you care about. And I’m trying to help. Leaving her like this any longer would be quite dangerous.”
Since Leo couldn’t move an inch, as if strong hands were clamping down all along his arms and hands, he just waited and watched. He had to admit that the gentle flow of the energy didn’t seem like an attack. And… also that he had severely underestimated the old man. He wasn’t weaker than the majority of the cultivators who had been passing by, just more subdued. He hadn’t been showing off his energy, but now that he was making use of it Leo realized his strength. And he was prepared to die- he just hoped the old man really would help Kit.
“Just like that,” the old man said. “Make sure to follow that same pattern, and let it rest in your dantian, down below your stomach there. Gently now. Your body wasn’t really ready to accept an influx of energy.” A moment later, the old man was behind Leo again, having moved over him in the cramped space without him being able to react. And Leo was no longer restrained. “Now, about you.”
“I’ll do whatever you want,” Leo said.
“In that case, come sit outside. It’s very cramped in here.”
Anton looked at the young man in front of him. He was just short of adulthood, along with his sister… or friend. He didn’t feel a blood relation there, but he could be wrong. “What’s your name?”
“Alright Leo. Let’s start with why you thought it was a good idea to steal from a cultivator.”
Like that, he asked a series of questions that cleared things up. And at least the young man was smart enough to know it wasn’t a good idea. It was for Kit, though he’d sort of surmised that. Anton couldn’t fault someone for taking care of those they loved, but he disliked the method.
“I understand that work isn’t always easy to get,” Anton acknowledged, “But why, as a cultivator, did you think pickpocketing was the right idea?” By his reaction, Anton realized something. “You didn’t know?” Anton summoned up a bit of energy in front of him, making it quite obvious- but still invisible. “Normal people can’t sense energy. You stumbled into the beginning of cultivation all on your own?”
“I thought…” Leo shook his head. “I heard about cultivation. Gathering energy from the surroundings. So I tried to do it, but it didn’t work. I’ve always been able to sense cultivators though.”
Anton shrugged. It wasn’t the weirdest thing he had ever heard. And it wasn’t impossible to cultivate energy without a proper technique- after all, when it was first being developed fully formed cultivation styles didn’t fall out of the sky into people’s hands. “And the energy in the air around us? It’s quite dense.”
“Is it?” Leo asked. “It’s… always like this.”
Anton supposed that might very well be the case. “You haven’t left Cruhull, have you?”
“Energy density varies in different places. This city is above average in that respect. Now, I have a question. Do you want to practice a trade?”
“Can’t afford an apprenticeship,” Leo said. “Can’t even get a job, looking like this. Not that I have any skills”
Anton had to admit that he was quite the sight of rags and dirt. “I’m sure someone could use a strong young man,” Anton said, “But I’ll admit that your looks leave much to be desired. We can get you cleaned up and find you something at a warehouse, maybe.”
“I’m not really that strong…” Leo hung his head.
“Really?” Anton raised an eyebrow. “Ever arm wrestle anyone, in the last few years?” Anton looked at his skinny body. “But maybe you’re right.” Anton pulled out a hunk of dried fruit. Travel rations, rarely used especially since he was traveling with the Order. He’d catch up with them in a bit, but they were planning to stay in the city for the night anyway. “Eat this.”
Leo seemed to be hungry enough that he ate without question. Half of what Anton gave him, then he glanced back towards Kit.
Anton pulled out more. “Finish that. You can give this to her while I figure out what to do with you.” A troublesome project. He didn’t want to teach cultivation to someone who might use it for criminal acts, but it would be near impossible for the young man to turn his life around if he didn’t. Perhaps the young woman behind him would be key. She should be feeling better soon. She’d gone unconscious again, but for a proper rest instead of a fitful half-sleep with unbalanced energy inside her.