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The remainder of the tournament seemed to fly by, as Anton had endless thoughts to digest. Some of them were simply observations about what sects did and didn’t show up. Obviously absent was the Heavenly Lion Sect, though it seemed a few of their former disciples did still participate. Just because they had been scattered didn’t mean they had stopped existing. Though from the various efforts that happened, none of those disciples knew or were willing to give up information about any others.
There was no way the Flying Blood Cult would be allowed to participate in any sort of legitimate tournament. There were bounties for the heads of any of their verified members. Neither did they see any members of the group from Black Soul Valley. At least, Anton hoped so. If they were participating, they had some other cultivation technique to use that perfectly covered up their energy fluctuations. He himself had only a vague idea of what they would feel like, but Grand Elder Kseniya had participated in the battle and would certainly notice them. If they were so foolish as to publicly come into view in Facraona, they wouldn’t have been able to accomplish everything they had up to that point.
Friends and allies like the Grasping Willows and those who sometimes fit the bill like the Frostmirror Sect and Glorious Flame Palace displayed their strengths in the tournament. The Eternal Sword Hall showed itself unrepentantly. They claimed- with evidence- that there was no actual collusion between them, the Flying Blood Cult, and the Heavenly Lion Sect. How strong that evidence was varied in the eyes of different people. Personally, Anton understood that at the very least they were arrogant to the point of being willing to ignore all sense of decency, especially in relation to Chikere’s incidents with them. She certainly provoked a larger response from them, but they really had been the ones to wrong her first. They were more on the group of ‘people to watch out for’ than the ‘absolutely evil and must be exterminated’ side of things.
Other than that, there were a few sects that the Order had longstanding rivalries with. It was on the borderline of being enemies, but there hadn’t been any wars… in the last century. Swarming Rat Palace was one of them, a group that was willing to push the extent of what they could get away with, and perhaps even exceeding the laws when they thought they wouldn’t get caught. Just because they had a history of negative deeds didn’t mean they were currently steeped in crime, but some of the same leaders were still in place. Marble Statue Hall were an excessively self-centered cult that never participated in any sort of righteous mission unless it specifically benefited them, and leveraged their power to gain benefits where they shouldn’t require compensation to participate in suppressing evil sects.
Along with studying the sects, Anton also had various insights about cultivation and archery, though he couldn’t be certain if any of them would ultimately benefit him or were just idle fancies he would end up dismissing. That would take time, like all of cultivation. Even if he was quick, he felt the gradual slowing as he approached Essence Collection. He felt he should be able to reach and surpass that hurdle- and once he did so he had more to gain from the Vessel of Insights- but nothing was certain in cultivation. Perhaps he would be unable to grasp some critical thought and get stuck.
But he had no intention to think about that. Everything was going well enough, and if his own cultivation ceased to advance, it hardly mattered to the world. And the world was ultimately what mattered, not one old man.
Sewers were an unpleasant place. The sort of place nobody would go to if they had any other choice, unless there was something for them to get out of it. That was never from the sewer itself, but the way it traversed around the city. The criminal underbelly of any city would make use of the hidden passage it provided, profiting off of its aversion to normal folk.
Torches were a danger in such a place, but Leo held one in his hand regardless. He needed to see where he was going. Hopefully if there were flammable gasses ahead, he would be able to sense it. He certainly wasn’t going to stumble around the sewers in darkness. He had work to do. All he had to do was go to the designated location. Two streets over, if he recalled correctly.
The stone was slippery under his feet as he walked, but he strode confidently. Cultivation was an amazing thing, making him feel invincible. He felt as if nobody could stop him no matter what he did.
His head twisted, looking over his shoulder. Was there someone down here, following him? No, it must have been a trick of the light. A failing in his senses. He was quite alone. Just as planned.
He found his way forward, towards a section of the sewer that was terribly unpleasant. Sewage flooded over the walkway and Leo plugged his nose with his energy while also wrapping his feet, keeping them from slipping while also remaining dry. Well, mostly. He always found later there were a few bits here and there that got through. Made his shoes wear out so much quicker. But at least he had shoes. The last month had been profitable.
He found the section he was looking for. It was hard to believe that anything but sewage would be left down below, but all sorts of things made their way down below. Sometimes that included little nooks and crannies where anything might be hiding. It could be a rat, or it could be something shiny and valuable.
Leo crouched down, grabbing something in the muck. At least it was worth all of this. He pulled his hand out and hefted his prize. Not bad. Then he felt it. He was being watched. He spun around, chucking the brick in his hand at the approaching figure… who ducked out of the way without even looking like he noticed. Leo began to sweat. Was this payback for something? Had he offended the wrong people? Who could hire a cultivator so strong? He couldn’t feel their energy, precisely, but that was how he could gauge how big the gulf between them was. Not that he was much of a cultivator himself. He’d only just recently attained the first star in the cultivation technique he’d been taught. He hoped it was enough.
He extended his torch, to better see his opponent and maybe momentarily blind them. “… Grandpa?” he said.
“Who’s your grandpa?” the voice responded.
“Uhm… sorry,” Leo bowed his head. “I heard several people call you that. Is it a form of address only for members of your sect?”
The old man standing in front of him snickered, smiling. “It’s only for my actual grandchildren. And great-grandchildren. And the rest,” Anton looked Leo up and down. “So, skulking around in the sewers, huh?”
“Uh…” Leo looked around. “It’s not what it looked like, I swear. I just work here! I can do as much as a whole crew at half the rate and still make a pretty good wage.”
Anton nodded, “Good to hear that. Most people are too proud to do menial work. Especially… here.” Anton looked down at the water. “There’s more than just that brick contributing to the blockage, you know.” Anton swept his hand, and with a rushing sound the water level started to drop rapidly.
“… I was going to get to it,” Leo said. “I can’t sense that deep in the water yet, and I don’t really want to… well, reach that deep into stuff.”
Anton nodded, “I’ll have to teach you a bit of energy projection. What about Kit? I didn’t pass by her.”
“She’s doing fine,” Leo said. “Listen, can we catch up somewhere else?” His energy reserves were weakening. He barely had any to begin with, and he’d walked quite a way while trying to keep sewage off of his new shoes. They were the only new ones he’d ever had, after all, and he had to treat them well.
“Lead the way,” Anton gestured.
“I have another couple places I have to clear out, actually,” Leo said. “There’s another blockage four streets that way, and one towards the downtown. Maybe two or three near there.”
“I see what you mean,” Anton nodded. “Got quite a bit of junk built up in there.” He pulled the bow off of his back, forming an arrow out of nothing. Leo could feel that one shot contained more energy than he had, maybe more than he had gathered during his whole time training. The arrow rocketed down the sewer paths, squeezing between grates and then turning a corner. “Done,” Anton said. “Don’t worry about those.”
“Uh…” Leo said.
“Look, I’m a man who values hard work. But you can do that any other day. It’s not a big deal to help you out once or twice.”
“I was just… is it really unblocked? How can you tell?”
Anton nodded, “It is. And you just have to get a lot stronger. It’s harder than finding a cultivator, I sensed you from near the edge of the city, but your sensing will grow rapidly as you form more stars. As long as you practice, at least.”
“… I see.” Leo couldn’t do much else than trust Anton. He really didn’t want to hang out in the sewers longer anyway. Maybe he’d pop down later just to make sure. But for now, he could change into real clothes. If he had another pair of shoes he wouldn’t even wear his good ones, but how was he supposed to afford those in a month? Even with the wages of two or three people.
“I only suggested it,” Kit explained as they sat at a tiny, cramped table in a single room. There were only two chairs, so Leo was standing. “He was trying to work in a warehouse, but he couldn’t outmatch the strongest men, even though they weren’t cultivators.” The room didn’t have much else except for a small cabinet with several dishes, pots, and two sets of cutlery, a stove, and two sleeping mats. It was a far cry from the inn that Anton had paid for, but it would also be extremely cheap.
“I just couldn’t wait,” he said. “I want to build up as much money as I can and get us to somewhere less crap. But we need at least a little extra money, in case one of us gets sick or something. And we could barely afford furniture, let alone a place to store it if we lost our housing.”
“You’ve been thinking about a lot, I see,” Anton said.
“Yeah. I always imagined what it would be like to live in a real place,” Leo said. “Apparently it’s a lot of work. But not so much that someone else couldn’t have helped us.” He shook his head, “But that doesn’t matter. With your help, we ate out fill for two weeks. I felt stronger every day. Still not as strong as the bulky sorts, though. Think I can match them after tempering my muscles?”
“Perhaps,” Anton said, “Though your build is naturally smaller, so it will take some time to surpass those naturally gifted in their best points. You’re still growing, though. Maybe your body will be able to catch up.” He tried not to look down on their poor surroundings. Honestly, the single room was several steps up from where they had been before. It was clean and fully sealed, at least. What he smelled of not-yet-cleaned dishes also indicated they were eating decent food.
“Cooking is hard,” Kit said. “But it’s so expensive to buy food that’s already been made. WIth a stove I can cook all kinds of things! Even though it’s mostly stew.”
“It’s only ever been stew,” Leo said. “But eventually we’ll have enough money to buy a big house with a cook and servants to do everything. Just you wait.”
If that was Leo’s ambition, it would be hard to accomplish it through the virtue of entirely necessary and practical labor jobs. Even if he did the work of a dozen people. Especially if he couldn’t read. “I’m glad the two of you are doing well. Any problems with cultivation? I’m sure you have a few questions, I was barely able to give you the bare bones last time. After that, reading.” Leo grimaced slightly, “I know it seems difficult, but you can hardly own a mansion if you can’t read. There’s more paperwork involved than you might think.”
There was a lot to do, but this time, Anton didn’t have to leave with the rest of the Sect, so he was considering staying at least a week. Maybe longer. He thought about sewing some seeds of cultivation throughout Cruhull. That… might be good, but ultimately it might cause trouble. He wouldn’t want people to think that the Order was trying to take over the country, and he wasn’t going to teach anyone a sub-par cultivation technique. Not that he really knew any others well enough to teach regardless.