“That’s the biggest ‘normal’ sized ant I’ve ever seen,” Anton commented.
Elder Tshering nodded. “And she keeps getting bigger. If they didn’t build extra wide tunnels for multiple ants to pass through at once, I’d doubt she’d be able to fit on the surface. But she makes the trip regularly enough, poking her head out to watch us as we watch them.”
Even though the creature they were commenting on was indeed ‘large’, the overall size was comparable to a single segment of a human’s finger. A very large ant, but smaller than many beetles and nowhere close to the size of anything cultivators generally were involved with.
“Strange,” Anton said. Does the queen usually leave the nest?”
“No,” Elder Tshering frowned, “Generally she just peeks her head out.”
“Should I be concerned?”
“Their movement ability is nothing concerning at the moment, and any Essence Collection cultivator should be more than durable enough if they wanted to chew on you.”
“They do appear to be approaching,” Anton commented. He decided to remain still, only moving his eyes to track the movement of the queen and the handful of others following along with her. Even without it being spoken he could feel Tshering’s curiosity as well as his desire to see what the strange behavior would lead to.
With people watching from all sides Anton didn’t feel the need to turn to follow the movements of the ant queen. Instead, he focused on listening for movement. It wouldn’t have been possible if there were any noise but a slight wind whistling through the trees and the sound of people breathing. Even then, the sound of muscles tensing and heartbeats were louder than the pittering feet of a few ants, though they became clearer as they approached.
The group took a long arc out of Anton’s vision before finally coming up behind him and crawling up the rear of his left boot. He was ready at any time to squash them if necessary. He didn’t think it would be, but dealing with creatures stronger than they appeared he didn’t want to be careless. Even if they couldn’t kill him, there were vulnerable tendons and ligaments that wouldn’t heal easily if damaged.
The weight of a few ants, even large ones, climbing up his leg was something he hardly felt yet seemed suspiciously familiar. If he hadn’t been focused on it he probably wouldn’t have noticed, but the way they made a direct line towards the magic bag on his left hip and crawled in suggested to him it had been done before. After they made their way inside, Anton shook his head, “Well, looks like the possibility I brought them accidentally has increased. What should we do about this?” Anton looked at Tshering seriously.
“A good question,” Tshering stroked his chin for a few moments. “It seems they either don’t care about being seen or don’t understand speech. Yet they bothered to move around behind you, so they might have some concept of stealth. I’m interested to see why the queen would come to you again. She might just wish to get out of this area- presuming they noticed the formations. But I can’t know without more information. Now I kind of want to just let it happen.”
“Seems a bit dangerous, even if I was the one who accidentally brought them here myself,” Anton commented.
“That’s right, which is why I’ll be coming along with you to help monitor the situation. This is my responsibility now. Though since I can’t focus on a single task all day and night, I would appreciate some help of a formation.” Elder Tshering’s eyes looked to Catarina, who was standing somewhat behind Anton. “Could you make something that would detect them leaving that bag and alert us?”
“Easy,” Catarina said. “Even if they do weird stuff with energy. Or maybe especially because of that.”
“Well,” Anton said, “I’ll be counting on the both of you. If they just wish to tag along and chew on my rations, I’m not opposed to having these ants along. And it’s better to know about them than to suddenly find stuff missing.” Anton’s eyes drifted down to his bag, “There’s nothing interesting in there right now though. Just boring rations. They might just come right back out.”
They didn’t, though. Catarina quickly added a few dangling pieces onto Anton’s magic bag that would produce the desired results- giving away they knew the ants were there, but they seemed content to ride along at the moment.
The journey continued quickly through the rest of Graotan, with no encounters of note. They simply passed citizens of the country and traveling cultivators with no excitement. Passage across the border was easy enough, if not terribly quick. Since they were relying on official documents to provide a good reason for their presence, the Ofrurg side gave them more than just a cursory glance. It was unlikely that their passage would have been denied without those documents, but they were meant to reassure the local sects.
It was inevitable that some information about their passage would spread. A group with six Essence Collection cultivators was noteworthy, after all. And some of them might have been specifically looked out for. Most of the direct grudges with Anton had already been resolved, but Kohar’s enemies were still mostly alive. After all, she had only cause financial and legal harm with her efforts, and those responsible hadn’t been so stupid as to directly come themselves to try to kill her.
A few years was unlikely to have made the Iron Ring Slavers or others forget about the penalties they’d been forced to pay for illegal enslavement, something they generally avoided getting caught for. More than that, her recent few years had been spent tying various groups to the Twin Soul Sect. While that group was significantly weakened right now, anyone who had been willingly working with them would find themselves in quite a bit of trouble. Even if some interactions hadn’t been strictly illegal, there were many sects who would jump at any excuse to get revenge. Some groups she’d been putting the pressure on would be very glad if she disappeared.
That was related to their current trip. With the right payments and bribes- the difference being the source- they had moved closer to the ability to achieve some big moves. They would be looking for help from the Frostmirror Sect because they were powerful, local, and could be reasoned with rationally. Glorious Flame Palace would be willing to pounce on anyone they had dirt on, but a few battles wouldn’t necessarily be as effective as some more subtle action. Though there would probably be battles as well.
The first stop on the journey was actually the Grasping Willows. They were a relatively small sect- though Lev’s climbing power was helping them grow. Anton wouldn’t have wanted to drag them into anything, but they were already involved through Elder Varela’s actions years prior. They had remained safe due to having some local allies as well as their lands being fairly defensible. It had been enough that nobody was willing to make any overt moves against them, at least.
The path to the Grasping Willows was the same. After a turn off of the main road between Khonard and Sarton, there was a stretch of road flanked by the titular tree the sect emulated in their cultivation. Anton felt they were larger, even in the last few years, but he could have been wrong about that.
They were welcomed at the gates, their arrival expected. It didn’t take long for Lev and Elder Varela to find them, since the sect was small and the arrival of so many powerful cultivators was easy to sense.
Anton looked over the two cultivators in front of him. Lev’s hair and beard were growing longer, but they were still very short compared to the white mane of Elder Varela. Conversely, the older man had grown perhaps a single step or two in the time Anton had known him, while Lev had grown rapidly and surpassed his master in cultivation. He was on the border of Essence Collection, while his master still remained in mid Spirit Building, though slightly closer to the late part of that stage.
“Good to see you both again,” Anton said.
“All of you as well,” Elder Varela nodded. “Any trouble on the road?”
“Not just yet,” Anton said. “I expect it’s still trying to catch up.”
“Good. Much more sensible than thinking you’re safe. We’ve been holding on here, but I’m worried. Nothing dangerous yet, but some folk are buying up all the best materials for us to train. I don’t know of anyone who needs the various seeds and plants we use, so I imagine it’s to spite us. They’ve driven up prices, so we’ve had to do without. Though that’s actually giving some of the disciples a different type of training.”
“We’ve always grown some plants,” Lev commented, “But some are consumed practicing certain techniques, so it’s more efficient to buy some as well. Now we deal with more of that internally. We’d do it all, but we have limited space.”
“At least inside the formations,” Elder Varela commented. “But I believe you’re here to help with that?”
Catarina stepped forward. “That’s right. And… I have an interesting addition that should be quite beneficial to you. Though not immediately. It won’t cost you anything, though.”
The current agreement with the Grasping Willows was that Catarina would help with enhancing and expanding their formations, with them covering the costs of the materials. Catarina would be paid for her efforts by the Order, and the Grasping Willows would be helping out with some things they needed. Overall the value probably went in their favor rather than the Order’s, but not to the point it would be a significant burden for the larger sect.
Catarina very much enjoyed working with formations. She especially liked ones that were different. Anyone could have slabs of rock and shiny metal, but people who could keep a copse of trees growing in just the right way to perform as a proper formation were a step above. The Grasping Willows mixed both, which Catarina supposed was the most efficient method… but she planned to lean them a bit more towards their planty roots.
From out of her bag she pulled a clump of moss. It was a hardy plant, and could live for quite a while without being rooted. It wouldn’t do much just sitting in a bag, though. Instead, she placed it on a patch of stone on the ground, where it would also do nothing. Nothing but grow.
“More moss?” Lev asked from nearby. He was not an expert on formations, but he was able to help maintain plants and among the higher ranking cultivators in his sect.
“This moss is much nicer than the kind we found you with,” Catarina said. “It just likes to grow, especially over stone like this. So you’ll let it.”
“And then what?” Lev asked.
“That’s it. Just make sure it sticks to what I have laid out here.”
“And the formation…?”
“This will be it,” Catarina said. “No inlaid metals, no carvings, no pillars. The runes will be formed from this,” she gestured to the lump, off of which she pinched a bit to place in another section. “Make sure to water it, and donating a bit of your energy wouldn’t hurt. Once it grows to fill out this area, spread it around the perimeter of the sect in the lines I have designated.”
“So the rock is… just a guide?”
“The moss will only grow on it,” Catarina pointed out. “Which is why we had you clear out random other rocks in the area. You’ll have to regularly clean up pebbles, but they should be easy to pick out. That’s why I picked this distinctive brown stone here.”
As far as materials went, stone that had no properties cultivators cared about was almost free. It wasn’t actually free, of course- it still took labor and transport, but it was cheap for cultivators. This particular rock wouldn’t withstand attacks from enemy cultivators, but if the rock itself could be damaged the formation had already been broken through anyway. At that point it was just as easy to break most stone, until the point it became prohibitively expensive.
It would likely require repairs by qualified formation experts, but the principles were easy to understand. The moss naturally grew to fit the stone, and it had the ability to channel amounts of energy that normally required durable and expensive materials. Since moss didn’t just appear from nowhere but took time to grow it wasn’t suitable for all applications, but as a supplement it was useful. And the Grasping Willows would treat the plants with the proper respect, instead of assuming that it would deal with itself.
“It spreads quickly,” Catarina said, “But it will probably still take a couple months. Until it covers the whole formation, assume it does nothing. Because relying on it would get you in trouble. And that means the little bits and pieces scattered about. Make sure they don’t get buried under leaves and the like. Along with Lev, the members who were trained in formations nodded their heads. “And with the other things I put together, I think my work here is done now. Our part is fulfilled- this moss is extra because I thought you’d take it seriously- so make sure to do yours.”
“Of course we will,” Lev said. “We’re not exactly fond of slavers here ourselves.”
“Great,” Catarina said, “Because I’d really rather not have anyone else with uncles and cousins and nieces and all of that being taken away from them just because someone thinks they can get away with it.”