Elder Cultivator 253

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The last time Anton had been around Sarton, he hadn’t exactly spent much time in the city. It wasn’t exactly a destination focused on travelers, and he’d been quite busy the last time freeing slaves. He wondered if things would have gone better at that point if he knew Kohar, but thinking about it at least some of those he freed were legally enslaved. Which meant he was technically a criminal here, but only if anyone could recognize him. Nobody at the mines could, and the attack on the manor had been in the dark. Even so, he would avoid going near that area in case any of the guards recognized his energy.

He wouldn’t mind doing more of the same, but he knew he wasn’t strong enough to handle everything through combat. Not yet. He could deal with all of the low level mooks the slavers would have. Since they mostly dealt with normal humans, their own members and guards were usually not beyond early Spirit Building in cultivation. They still had connections to sects, however, who would pose more of a threat. 

At the moment he was on surveillance duty, which involved standing on the highest building he could get on without anyone complaining and looking around the city. The only thing that stopped him from seeing Sarton from edge-to-edge were the buildings being in the way. Likewise, it was very much frowned upon to lock onto people with energy senses in a city. Even so, he kept watch for trouble despite not knowing what it might be.

There might not be any trouble in the city. Anton wasn’t going to bet on that, but if the right people were bribed and enough muscle was in the area someone might try something. Anton was sure there would be hell afterwards whether someone succeeded or not, but if someone calculated the price was worth it to take them out it would be done. So he just had to be ready, since legal and martial retaliation wasn’t any good for people who got killed.

Nimble fingers tried to open a lock, ten blocks away. A tiny dollop of energy flew out, smacking the would-be intruder on the back of the head. Anton didn’t know the circumstances of the woman. Perhaps she had a justified reason to be breaking in, but he would lean towards that being unlikely. The woman flinched as she felt the touch, spinning around. She then darted off into the night. It likely wouldn’t stop her from further attempts, but Anton wasn’t around to solve the city’s problems. 

Other than that, few people were on the streets late at night. Sarton wasn’t a terribly large city, at least not compared to some Anton knew. Anton knew some people went unnoticed, but the streets nearby where they were staying were basically clear. He hoped things were going well beneath the ground as well, though he could only sense the closest parts of the sewers.


It was clear that someone had once had big ideas for Sarton, or maybe it was just that a number of rich people had been involved in founding it and didn’t want to have to deal with awful smells. Even with the poor maintenance since whenever people had put things together, it was still pretty functional. In most places.

The choice to be the one scouting out the sewers had been Velvet’s. It was practical, since Anton was most effective in wide open areas. Meanwhile, she did well in poorly lit areas and in close confines. 

Plugging up her sense of smell had made her efforts tolerable. The problem was remembering what things smelled like and guessing what things smelled like. It was still pretty awful. Velvet was pretty certain that nobody would want to trek through the sewers, and could have just left and assumed things would be fine. But this was her duty for the moment. Because she had to admit that moving through places nobody wanted to be was exactly the sort of thing assassins would do.

Velvet herself might not fear assassins. She couldn’t guarantee her own safety, but there were others who were more vulnerable. Kohar, obviously. Alva would likely be fine since Fuzz would doubtless notice someone coming. But even their strongest companions might not sense someone coming while they slept. No attempts to attack them had been made since the bridge, but that was why it was all the more important to keep vigilant now.

The tunnels beneath Sarton weren’t as numerous as in some places, but there was still plenty of potential to get turned around without defining features. The biggest thing Velvet used for navigating was the direction of the flow… when things did flow. Someone really needed to come maintain some of these places before there were problems. 

Then Velvet saw someone. That was the first person in several nights of activity, but she quickly followed after them. Anyone down in the sewer in the middle of the night had to be up to no good. They were good at hiding their cultivation too.

At least, Velvet thought that at first. But as she quickly began to catch up to them, even moving slowly, she realized she was incorrect. The man was navigating by torchlight, seemingly familiar with where he was going but not as quick as Velvet on the often-slick bricks. And from up close, she could tell he really didn’t have any cultivation.

A few twists and turns later, during which Velvet slowed down significantly to keep distance between her and her target, she found herself looking into a section of broken wall, behind which was a sort of dirt cave. It had supports made out of rotting wood. Perhaps it had been a tunnel during the construction of the sewers, or maybe it had another purpose long ago. But the current occupants were clearly something else.

Along with the man- who had wrinkles and hair that was beginning to gray- there were a number of other gaunt figures curled up in various places. It didn’t take much to make a guess at who they were. People down on their luck or escaped slaves, probably both. 

But definitely not anybody that would cause them trouble.

Velvet had no idea what to do with them. Anton might know, and if he didn’t he would probably make up a plan anyway. She knew that he didn’t like to ‘just throw money at people’, but these folk really needed it. She left behind a few coins and some food. Too much food would go bad, too much money might just get them into trouble somehow. Anything more than that could be dealt with in the morning. They’d certainly be suspicious of a pile of food left in the middle of them that they didn’t know the origin of, but if they were starving that wasn’t going to stop them.

She began moving around the sewers once more, trying not to imagine what certain clumps of refuse might smell like. Further away from the group she had found was probably better, as anyone up to suspicious deeds would probably stay away from them… or remove them. But she didn’t actually expect to find anything. And that night, she didn’t.


Anton was very glad that he needed less sleep as a cultivator. He was the sort of busybody who always kept himself occupied, and he felt much better about taking time to do things that interested him instead of things that needed doing if he had more time in general. 

Currently he was doing something interesting and important. Once more, he was with Elder Tshering and the ants. Normally they interacted with the queen the most, but for this particular task it felt more appropriate to try with the soldiers she had with her. The soldiers were much bigger than worker ants, but even so they were only about the size of his fingernail. Still well within the realm of normal ants. They were actually smaller than the queen, but they seemed like they would be more durable… or more replaceable, if something went wrong.

However, cultivators were capable of very fine control, which was exactly what he needed at the moment. He reached out with his finger and pressed down on one of the soldiers from above. It was a test of durability, though as soon as it bent its legs he relented. It actually took quite a bit of pressure to make it move. He could have easily crushed it, but that seemed unnecessarily cruel, especially if these were anywhere close to as intelligent as they thought.

The soldier skittered out of the way, but Anton put a finger in front to stop it. It could turn to either side still, but this was his only way to communicate he wanted it to hold still. He was once again very gentle, and this time the ant folded its legs almost immediately. Not the result he wanted, but it might do.

He looked over at Elder Tshering, then did the same motion with energy surrounding his finger. It was like a little bubble that extended the edge of his finger slightly- but even a couple millimeters would be significant on the scale of an ant. He pressed down on the ant and… nothing happened. At least, nothing that made sense. His energy sort of molded around the ant, but it didn’t press down on it. That was not how he expected it to function, given the seven years he had been working with energy.

Elder Tshering was producing similar results. Anton repeated the motion a few more times, before the queen came running over and pushed the soldier out of the way. What did she want? Perhaps she was protecting the soldier, though that seemed opposite of what should be done. But when the queen pushed against his finger, he figured it out. It wasn’t behavior that he would expect from an ant, but it seemed that it thought he was being affectionate. And perhaps the queen was jealous.

Since she had basically volunteered, Anton carefully touched the queen without energy. The tip of his finger sunk in slightly as he exerted a small amount of pressure, enough to be certain things would be safe. He tried once more with energy, which similarly depressed instead of holding the form he intended. 

Then he moved onto the thing they were actually testing. Even if this particular group of ants ended up being helpful, that didn’t mean the species as a whole was safe to have around. With their peculiar qualities and intelligence they could be extremely dangerous. But if they were particularly useful, they could take the risk.

Ascension energy surrounded Anton’s finger. Left unrestrained it would annihilate what he touched, but he kept it more or less passive. He pressed down on the queen and found the deformation on his energy might be even greater than with his normal kind. And the queen didn’t seem bothered at all.

He left a small ‘drop’ of energy for her and the soldier he’d been bugging as a reward. He generally thought of energy as something like a gas that he could change the properties of, floating around and insubstantial. But even if his only control over a bit of energy was to have it remain in place, the ants managed to slurp it up like it was a liquid, pulling on further parts of it to bring it into their hungry little mouths.

“Well,” Anton said, “It’s not a conclusive test. But initial durability indicates they remain unharmed by energy, including ascension energy.”

Elder Tshering nodded, “That’s extremely valuable. I had my suspicions, but if they can cause trouble to the right people…” Tshering nodded seriously.

There was a difference between being able to eat energy and not being squashed by it. The former was useful, but without the latter they could just be crushed. It would still require an expenditure of some sort, but they could be annihilated by the potential invaders if that happened. On the other hand, it made them more dangerous to everyone else.

In coming days they would be increasing the tests a little bit at a time. They might try cutting, which if controlled finely enough would simply leave a mark on the back of their target. If the ants ever flinched away they would know they’d hit a limit, but for the moment they seemed unconcerned. 

Anton pressed from the side, finding that unless his actual finger touched an ant his energy wouldn’t move them. It was as if they refused to interact with it at all unless they wanted to, though he knew it wasn’t quite right. For one thing, though it was a very small scale, he felt the same sort of disruption of ascension energy like the techniques from the Luminous Ocean Society. It was unlikely there was a direct connection, but they might have come from the same source, with the cultivators developing their technique from a similar sort of creature. 

Anton had another thought, and carefully gathered just a bit of the other type of energy he had. The energy from beyond death and reincarnation was even more insubstantial than the others, but he knew it was also quite dangerous as it could move through cultivators and greatly harm them. He expected to have no effect on the ants, but the moment he summoned some the ant queen skittered away.

Well. That certainly indicated something. He left a little bit of it sitting on the table just in case they were afraid of the unknown, but none of the ants moved forward to try to eat it and it slowly faded out of existence. Perhaps he had something that would affect them, but he didn’t know a way to confirm it easily without harming something. Maybe he could find some workers or other less-intelligent ants of their kind. Having a way to contain them would be useful, if something went wrong.

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