Despite all of the Twin Soul Sect members who had been defeated or captured at various points, none of them- not even the Life Transformation experts- had a copy of the cultivation technique on them. From the information that had been obtained, when there were physical copies they were kept in secure locations, away from the sects the members pretended to be a part of. Most recruiting was done by finding talented young cultivators to convert to their cause. If they were found to be unwilling, they were killed. It was unknown what portion of aspiring young cultivators died to the Twin Soul Sect instead of any of the world’s other dangers, but it was too many.
Anton could have been satisfied with the knowledge that the people on the continent of Aicenith were informed about their presence and working to eradicate them, but he would only be truly happy if they were gone entirely. Preferably with plenty of time left until the invasion, but it wasn’t even certain to be possible to wipe them out entirely. Not if only some people put effort towards it.
There was no way to predict what sects they might be part of, and even then they had to be individually scanned. A good portion of them ended up at higher cultivation as well, making them more dangerous.
Their combat styles often matched the sects they purported to be a part of, and even when their true cultivations were revealed they fought much the same. Some switched to different styles of attack that they found personally preferable, but there were hardly any threads to pull on to guess where they might be.
Except Anton had seen several making use of the same techniques. The gray spheres, which happened to have a name. They were one application of the power of the Deathly Heart Technique. It wasn’t a core cultivation style, but more of an additive secondary method like Fleeting Youth. In fact, upon studying it Anton felt it tapped into the same source as the power from beyond death. Without practicing it he couldn’t be sure if it also had the same side effect of disrupting future reincarnations. If it did, Anton presumed that Twin Soul Sect members wouldn’t practice it. But he had some reservations about trying.
The technique manual did mention negative side effects, but was decidedly vague about them. There was a method for avoiding them, but it wasn’t the sort of thing Anton was willing to do. It involved killing people, and while Anton was willing to do so for the sake of protecting people, it wasn’t the same when done to advance a secondary cultivation technique. Since people were going to die anyway, it seemed logical enough to try it out but… it felt like that would send him down a path he couldn’t recover from. It was something more than just killing people, and while many of Anton’s enemies doubtless deserved worse than death he wasn’t comfortable without knowing exactly what the effects would be. The technique manual itself was vague, not necessarily because the creator didn’t know but because anyone who was going to practice it likely wouldn’t care.
Studying the technique gave him some additional ideas to counter it- none of which involved trying to block the attacks. His earlier instincts had been correct. While it was possible to block the effects, it was difficult. Avoiding it was better, or in the case of the spheres of deathly energy detonating them at a distance was preferable. That wasn’t the only form it could take, either.
Techniques didn’t just spring out of the ground, however. They had a source, either a specific person or a sect of some sort. Some were so widespread that their origin had been lost, but this was not one of them. It was used by the Whispering Watchers, a sect of significant influence in the northern part of the continent. While they weren’t known as murderous psychopaths, they did get into conflicts as often as any large sect. It seemed they didn’t specifically go on killing sprees to train the technique, but conflicts would inevitably happen.
With the evidence of just a few of them being part of the Twin Soul Sect it was a step too far to assume there was a larger connection, but it did seem like a place that might appeal to them on a larger scale. Even if others shared Anton’s suspicions it wasn’t easy to investigate them, beyond determining in passing that at least many of their low level disciples were not part of the Twin Soul Sect. In theory they, like the other sects, were conducting their own internal investigations. They seemed to have officially begun that before the conflict with Swordmaster Rahayu. Either they hadn’t gotten to the few that joined that battle, had missed them somehow… or had chosen to ignore them. Anton chose to believe the latter, but he knew he was personally biased because of the Deathly Heart Techniques training requirements. But a bias didn’t mean he was necessarily wrong, either.
On his combined quest to learn every occupation he could- and thus know how to teach everyone something useful for cultivation- Anton found himself outside a herbalist. There was nothing particularly special about this particular place, except that it was nearby- and that the proprietor wasn’t a cultivator. In his time working the farm he had learned a number of folk remedies for various maladies, but he couldn’t be called a real doctor of any sort. Even if he learned everything this woman knew, he likely wouldn’t be able to do much with relation to what they encountered in Foulmarsh. Except maybe the stitching, but even then most people never learned to stitch someone from the inside out.
As he stepped inside, Anton was briefly reminded of Kephalos’ place, with herbs dangling from the ceiling in various places- but he found this place to be much more organized. And he recognized the herbs as more mundane things, with primary functions that were not poison. A little bell above the door signaled his entry, and a surprisingly young woman came out of the back. She was hardly older than Alva, and while that might not be considered young for a non-cultivator, it was still young to be an independent doctor known throughout the scattered towns and villages nearby.
“What do you need?” the dark-haired woman asked. “Salves for rheumatism, perhaps?”
“I’ll have you know I’ve always been much too stubborn to take pain treatment for such a minor thing. And I don’t have that particular problem at the moment.” He held up his hands, which while wrinkled had none of the joint problems he’d suffered before he achieved a certain level of success in cultivation. “I was wondering if you were interested in taking a temporary apprentice.”
She looked around the shop, “You have a grandchild that you want to learn from me? I have to say, a few people have vied for such a position, but while I could use extra hands I have certain standards that must be met. Hardworking, capable, a fast learner. And not above performing the mundane tasks of fetching herbs from the forest.”
“I’ve been known to do such in the past,” Anton nodded. “Good for building character. And necessary.”
“So…” she said slowly. “Where are they? I’d like to meet them.”
“All of my grandchildren are actually quite occupied,” Anton admitted. “I was interested for myself, actually. I assure you it will be worth your time.”
“I doubt it,” she said. “I have enough to deal with. No offense, but you’re not someone I would consider.”
“I can actually offer something quite worthwhile. You see-” Anton turned and frowned. “What poor timing. You have more customers coming.”
It was actually a few seconds before the door opened, the bell ringing as the door slammed open with unnecessary force. Almost enough to topple some things off the shelves. In fact, enough that a particular jar could have fallen- but it found itself held back with a gentle touch.
Three large men shoved their way into the storefront, stomping towards the counter she stood behind. “Idalia! You’re late on your payments to Birita.”
Idalia crossed her arms. “I don’t owe anyone anything. I own the shop and the land, and she’s not a tax official.”
“Sure thing,” one of the men said. “But you still have to pay protection money.”
“The only thing anyone needs protecting from is you. Now screw off before I call the guards.” Anton was watching her face closely. She was brave, determined… but also putting up a strong front. Anton was also aware that there were no guards within three blocks at the moment.
“Go ahead then.” The man leaned on the counter. “Call them. See if they get here before some sort of accident happens. Like something expensive falling.” He swept his hand across the counter, knocking a bundle of jars to the floor. A sound like clay and glass cracking rang out. “Get it?”
“I don’t keep much money on me,” Idalia kept her strong front, but Anton could tell she was concerned. “I can give you some bundles of healing wort that will help heal… accidental scrapes and the like.”
“We’ll take it back to Birita and see what she says,” the man continued to lean on the counter. “Bring it out.”
Her eyes flicked between the men, her shelves, and very briefly Anton. She wasn’t asking him for help, but she looked somewhat worried. Normally Anton would step up to help someone in distress, but he could tell she had a plan. She turned away and hurried into the back.
“Now then, I don’t recognize you…” the man turned to Anton. “But there’s a weapon tax in this area. Of course, if you’re willing to give up that bow on your back the taxes will be waived.”
Anton sighed. “This thing? I don’t think you’d want it. It’s cursed, you see.”
“Sure thing,” the man said. “But I’m sure we can handle it.” The man reached out his hand and grabbed the bow, trying to yank it away. Anton didn’t have to do anything and he was still only able to get it about halfway, twisting it over Anton’s head.
“Well, if you insist,” he shook his head. “If it gets into your hands, I’ll be free of the curse.” He reached up and unslung it. One thing about cultivator quality bows that was extremely nice was that they were able to stay strung pretty much indefinitely without damaging the string. It was a bit awkward to carry them that way, but he’d gotten used to moving around with a strung bow slung over his body. “Here it is, sir,” Anton handed the man the bow. It immediately crashed to the ground, and the man cursed. “Alas,” Anton sighed. “It seems the curse has bound it to me.” He lifted it up.
The man looked at Anton, and seemed about to demand something more, but Idalia came back. “Here’s your bundles. Now get out.”
The other two men picked up the bundles of herbs while the leader continued to stare at Anton. It only took a little push of effort and some fire in his eyes to make the man back down. “Pfeh. Cursed bows. We’re leaving, boys!”
They were out of the shop in a few moments, slamming the door the other way and causing more trembling. “Is it really cursed?” Idalia asked. “I don’t deal with curses.”
“You can decide,” Anton said, carefully setting it down on the counter. “Don’t worry, it won’t hurt to touch it.” As she began to poke and prod the bow, Anton talked about the incident. “Birita, huh? Don’t know her, but she sounds like bad news.” Anton was following the group with his senses, and wondered if they would go directly back to her… or shake down some more shops. “She and her men probably deserve the runs they’ll get from that healing wort.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Idalia said firmly.
“There’s nobody here but us,” Anton said. “And I’m sure it will be fine. It will be a few days later, so people tend to fail to notice. Gotta survive enough little injuries before you pick up on it… or just get told by the right healer.” Anton bent down and picked up the various glass and clay jars below the counter. “Here you go.”
“Wha- I thought they broke.”
Anton replicated the sound of cracking glass in the air. “Just a little mimicry. Easy enough to do with natural energy. I’m just going to be straightforward here. You have problems, and I could teach you to deal with them. In turn, you teach me, and we both win. But-” Anton held up a hand to stave off any protests she might have. “So I’m not holding something above your head, I’ll also offer at any time to kill this Birita and her whole gang, then be on my way.”
“I don’t… what?”
“I’m a cultivator, you see,” Anton gestured. “I’m interested in teaching that to people, and seeing how it can help enhance crafts like yours.”
“Birita is a cultivator too, I think,” Idalia said. “You should be careful.”
“Perhaps,” Anton said. “But that’s my problem. Just take some time to consider my offer. Both of them.” Anton picked up his bow.
“How heavy is that?” Idalia asked as he was going out the door.
“Don’t know. Couple hundred, maybe. Doesn’t matter much in either direction.”