Elder Cultivator 254

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While many might have wished for a fire to warm their food, it was simply not a luxury that they could have. Cecilia sat with one arm wrapped around her legs, happy that they even had food. It had just appeared in the morning, with no idea where it came from. Some of their group thought it might be poisoned, but that didn’t dissuade anyone from trying it. If it was poisoned, they would just die. Probably better than living in the sewers, hungry. Though both were better than being a slave. At least, in the opinions of everyone present.

The sewers were warm enough. For the most part, the temperature rarely rose or fell by that much throughout the year. Along with the hidden nature, that was what caused the group to try to live in the sewers despite the massive unpleasantness.

Cecilia munched on a bit of bread, still held in the small cloth wrapping it came in. She didn’t want to get her dirty hands on the food and ruin the taste, even if it was a bit stale. A bit stale was the best thing she’d had in months. The best any of them had, unless someone wasn’t sharing. Though nobody in their group had enough meat on their bones to have gotten much they didn’t share.

“Hello there,” a loud, confident voice announced itself. Cecilia immediately wrapped up the morsel of food in her hand and leapt to her feet, keeping her back against the wall. She would have moved to flee, but the figure was standing in the only entrance. The others glanced around as well. “Bit dark down here.”

Of course it was dark. They couldn’t exactly light a torch, even if they had one. The air was already bad enough without burning away all the good bits and filling the rooms with smoke. And there was always the chance of a gas explosion.

Then suddenly there was light, as the figure held out his hand. Streaks of light lit up a wrinkled face, with eyes that seemed to have no end to their depth. Cecilia felt like she was falling into them as she pressed against the wall.

“Hmm, that didn’t go as well as I wanted.” The light brightened, and the man’s face was revealed more clearly. It was just an old man. Except for the fact that he could make light from nothing, he might have been ignored up above. “How is everyone doing today?” He looked around the room. His tone was… kind. But there was no way he was here for anything good.

Martin stepped forward. He was the oldest among them. The first to find this place, at least of those still alive. Sometimes there wasn’t enough food, and those with the weakest bodies faded away first. “What do you want… sir?” Martin’s voice was clearly trying to be firm, but he was tired and weak. And obviously afraid. Why wouldn’t he be? This was a cultivator, come to take them back.

“I just wanted to ask how you were doing. Did you eat well?” the intruder asked.

That voice was trying to lull them into letting their guards down. Cecilia bit her lip, trying to ignore the feelings coming over her. The thought of safety. Something they could never have.

“I promise you sir,” Martin continued. “We have nothing of value that you might want.”

“I know,” the wrinkled man answered straightforwardly.

Martin stiffened along with some of the others. “We won’t… if you try to take us back, we’ll just kill ourselves. They won’t pay you for someone dead.”

The old man sighed. “The world’s really beaten you all down, huh?” He looked each of them in the eyes. When he came to Cecilia, she felt herself weakening. The thought that he might actually be friendly started to worm its way into her heart. “I can’t blame you for that. It’s pretty awful sometimes.” He stepped forward, then sat in the middle of the room. “Some people like to take away everything from a person, and then reach for more. Personally, I’m in the business of causing trouble for those guys. So why don’t we help each other out?”


Most people would place a handful of escaped slaves living in the sewers as a pretty low priority overall. Even Anton didn’t count them as a high priority in the current situation. The fact that he was planning to see if any of them happened to have been enslaved illegally was a secondary matter. An excuse. 

That said, he could only slip away for about an hour each day. Each time he went down below he brought a meal for the group. And of course, he began to teach them how to cultivate. At first they didn’t believe him, but as they began to get comfortable with him and made some initial progress in their cultivation they began to trust him. It was difficult for them, with bodies weakened by harsh conditions, but a steady supply of food began to rejuvenate them and allow them to begin tempering their bodies, one little bit at a time.

After they began to trust him, it took some time for them to accept that he hadn’t been the one to provide them the first food, and to find them. “Velvet is not very personable,” he explained, “But she has a good heart.”

Since the young woman herself wouldn’t show up to take credit, there was little Anton could do even if people believed him. All he could do was pass along their thanks and how people were improving. That made Velvet smile, even if she tried to hide it. Caring about others wasn’t a negative trait to Anton, but it was reasonable that it would take more than just a handful of years to recover from over a decade of unpleasant upbringing. Betrayal by family had to be something that lingered with you for your whole life.

Anton himself was very lucky in that regard. He’d grown up in a decent household and been able to do work that was more fruitful the more effort he put in. The visual representation of growing a thriving farm had filled him with pride, until it was torn away from him. In a few short years of cultivation he was capable of much more than just taking care of such a farm, and he would have felt worthless if he didn’t share that with others. Cultivators liked to fight over limited resources, but most of them didn’t even consider simply trying to expand on those resources. The fact that empowering people to protect themselves and do more of whatever they wanted also should eventually lead to a better cultivation environment made Anton especially eager.

It turned out that two of the people had been illegally enslaved. The older man, Martin, had been taken when he was a young man. With decades of working as a slave before he escaped and then years of living a squalid lifestyle in the sewers, the original slaver group responsible along with his owner were no longer present in Sarton. Anton took note in case they survived elsewhere, but there was little Martin could provide for their immediate needs. Eventually each story of how slavery could be manipulated and abused would contribute to their efforts to change the laws, but for the moment they were targeting those actively causing trouble.

Cecilia was the other, a young woman who was very resistant at first. Anton specialized in his connection to other people, but she had rejected his help from deep within her heart. She still didn’t fully trust him, but he didn’t mind that so much. She was decent at cultivation, and should reach the first star within a month or two. Perhaps cultivating the Ninety-Nine Stars might make her less useful as a witness, since the Adamant Chain would doubtless claim she was unfit to testify, but that wasn’t a reason to hinder her cultivation. It was simply a reason to make use of every other method to crush them.


The weakest target, the woman who fancied herself a lawyer, was also the hardest to get to. She never walked around without an escort, and only ever went to and from the courthouse. The handful of Essence Collection cultivators were right out. Even if they could be handled, they’d put up enough of a fuss for the whole city to feel. 

The Adamant Chain was on its back foot, so they’d called in some favors. Rhys was one of those. If it wasn’t for a long history of working together, the Thick Marble Gang wouldn’t have stuck out their necks for them. Even as it was, they were charging extra. These weren’t a bunch of lightweights they were dealing with, but instead a group that continued to cause trouble. Their association with a powerful sect made things tricky too. They’d had to call in some muscle from some unsavory groups- and that was saying something, since the Thick Marble Gang got up to quite a bit, even if they publicly were the Thick Marble Group

Rhys was one of the founding members, so he very clearly knew their origins. Tearing up backstreets, ambushing people on the road, and dealing in the drug trade were all things they’d had as their roots. As they grew in size they added on more ‘legitimate’ business, including working for slaving groups to help with ‘acquisitions’.

Sometimes that was purely on the up-and-up. Even if someone was being enslaved for debt or a crime they wouldn’t usually just give themselves up. Someone had to bring them in in that case. But of course enough people were enslaved without trouble that it was hard to be employed full time that way. Especially when someone with lower cultivation would do the job for half the price.

That was where people like Rhys came in, people who were willing to find extra bodies that could be sold for a decent price. Where they found them didn’t matter, as long as it wasn’t easily traceable. A few people going missing from the slums or a village wouldn’t be missed, and people died on the roads all the time.

The young woman that was Rhys’ target would definitely be missed, but they weren’t planning to try to make her a slave. The final member of the group was a young woman in mid Spirit Building, which was a pretty impressive accomplishment. That meant she would be important, so capturing her would provide a significant amount of leverage. Ultimately it would probably result in a bloodbath to retrieve her, but Rhys wasn’t going to be around for that. He was going to capture her, turn her over, get paid, and leave the country. Unless they made him another deal for being involved in the fighting, which would also require convincing him they had a good chance to win.

Versus a handful of Essence Collection cultivators, it could be done… but Rhys wanted more than a simple assurance on their side. They’d need more.

But first he had a job to do.

The young woman was very alert to her surroundings, just like the rest of the troublesome group. She was an archer, but that wouldn’t matter if she didn’t know there were enemies until they got close. The problematic part was that damn wolf. She liked to ride it around the city, and the aura it produced indicated it matched her in strength. The pair of them together would be hard for Rhys to deal with quickly, and if he was discovered the whole thing would be ruined. 

But she wasn’t always with the wolf. Sometimes it went off with one of the other girls, and sometimes it even left the city on its own. Rhys thought about following it and removing it, but that would just tip people off. Besides, he didn’t want to traipse through the wilderness after a mangy, overgrown dog. Thing was missing fur everywhere, who knows what kind of diseases it might have?

Better to just leave it alone. The young woman was an archer, and there weren’t good places to practice inside the city. They needed a lot of space, and the young woman would sometimes head out with the old man. Maybe a grandfather, some elder in her sect. Though his status was weirdly hard to pin down, since some sources said he was just a normal disciple.

Either way, that old man had keen eyes. It was a good thing Rhys was good at acting innocent. He could always find some excuse or other for why he might be around, and he avoided following when any of the stronger members were present. 

But the only one leaving the building now was just the young woman. Alva or something. A quick bash over the head, a few broken limbs so she couldn’t cause trouble, and then she’d be dropped off for the Adamant Chain to deal with. They had some plan for how to leverage a hostage. If they forced the lawyer woman and her group to attack first, they could wipe this group out and smooth over the damage later with more bribes. 

Rhys walked along, blending himself in with the stone streets and buildings, feeling just like part of the scenery. Rocks could be many things. Durable, fanciful, or just plain heavy. But the thing that most rocks shared in common was that they were just rocks. Something people could pass over and ignore. Even a hunk of marble in the right spot was just scenery. Not that Rhys would do anything so stupid as to make a complicated pattern instead of just dulling perceptions. That kind of unnecessary flaunting got people killed.

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