After he knew Birita was aware of his efforts, Anton took some more precautions to protect people. It was already known that he was teaching people to cultivate, but she hadn’t taken action about that just yet. Showing too much favoritism for one individual might be a problem, though. They could be singled out and made an example. While such information might already be known, Anton avoided approaching people when there were watchers. He was becoming increasingly unsure of his policy to let things continue as they were, but the budding cultivations of his students and the information he now possessed brought a little confidence.
Birita’s thugs had better things to do than stand around all day watching for Anton- and they would soon learn that when they realized he never got within eyesight of them. But while they were wasting a week or two assuming they would notice him getting close, he was continuing to go about his business.
“This tree thistle,” Anton discussed with Idalia, “It shares the same properties as the milk thistle? Except increased in magnitude significantly.”
“I think so,” Idalia nodded. “Among other things, it’s supposed to be good for the liver.”
“Perhaps good for heavy drinkers?”
She shook her head. “Good for them? Probably not. Used by them… sometimes. But it’s better for them to stop. The side effects aren’t great.” After Anton explained Birita’s actions, Idalia shook her head. “That’s stupid. While it should theoretically help recover the damage to her liver to some extent, that’s only in moderation. Taking that much of anything is just going to act more like a poison. And… taking it while drinking is just asking to magnify the stomach issues it can cause. She has to constantly be feeling sick.”
“She appears to be quite irritable,” Anton concurred.
“It’s not normally the sort of thing that I’d say is potentially fatal, but huge swigs of the stuff I made?” Idalia grimaced. “Just how good are the bodies of cultivators?”
“Not that good,” Anton offered. “I didn’t feel her taking steps to filter it, either.”
“So… maybe she drinks herself to death, or bloats herself to death. Either might take a while. Then someone else takes over and continues everything.”
“Probably,” Anton agreed. “But in the course of those months you and the others grow stronger, a step or two at a time. I didn’t observe any sort of proper training going on in their camp, and that’s reflected in their lower ranking members. They’re not even trying to teach the ground-level thugs how to cultivate. You and the others already can deal with them.”
“Sort of, yeah. But even if we take them out, all it would take is her flipping out to kill us all.”
“So?” Anton asked. “What do you want me to do?” It was a sincere question, not some sort of deflection.
“I don’t know. Killing her now actually invites retaliation. If we can wait until she offs herself somehow, it might lead to a violent transfer of power that would weaken their position. If you could take out the right people… or we could sway some to be reasonable… it might work out.” Idalia sighed, “Because I do believe you’re right that someone else would probably just move in afterwards. And despite the expenses, at least people aren’t getting killed. Mostly. The Gray Rock Sect wouldn’t be a good replacement for her, though they might end up… about the same.”
Anton nodded. “That all sounds about right.”
“If you’re right and we could have Spirit Building people within a year… if we can just hang on that long, we could control our own destinies. If she dies. Either we can have you do it or… wait for the inevitable. Her doing it to herself, or pissing off some other cultivators.” Idalia frowned, “But if she’s going through that medicine so quickly, if it doesn’t bring her down she’ll run out. And then I’ll have to find more. Once was hard enough, and I think I got lucky. If there’s more, I could really use your help locating it.”
“Absolutely,” Anton nodded. “I’m quite happy to provide information. And protection where it’s necessary. If there isn’t more…”
“I kept some seeds,” Idalia replied. “I could grow some, but I have no idea how long it takes and it would either seem suspicious or be too expensive or both.”
“That also sounds right. If it really needs to grow on deep forests around corpses, I could also set that up.”
“I wish you could just stay here forever.”
“It would be nice, but there’s more to the world than here. I’d prefer if every part of it was improved as much as I could. And of course, I don’t have forever.” Anton clarified, “I’ll be returning to my home with the others soon enough. We never planned to be here any longer than two years at most, and we’re past six months.”
“I understand,” Idalia nodded. “Just make sure to let us know before you go. So we can be ready.”
“If I can, I will. At the very least, I can get a message to you.”
“I can’t believe they didn’t let us participate in the tournament,” Alva complained.
“It was for the purpose of empowering local juniors,” Annelie explained. “Prizes going to outsiders would defeat the purpose.”
“But why wouldn’t they let us participate just to fight?”
“It would complicate things,” Anish surmised. “And while you might be reasonable enough to actually mean you don’t care about the rewards, they have no assurance of that.”
“And why wouldn’t they fight us outside of the tournament?” Alva complained. “It’s not like I’m Chikere. I don’t cut people in half! Or kill them at all, when I don’t mean to.”
Annelie shrugged, “Technically neither does she. It’s just more often her intent. And her presence… has stirred up some of the sects here in the east. Something about their swords going missing. And of course there was the whole thing with Vianne.”
“But she was evil!” Alva grumbled.
“Her sect refused to believe that. They claimed the corpse was tampered with.”
“I bet they’re in on it,” Alva declared.
“Or just trying to save face,” Anish shrugged. When Alva glared at him, he sighed. “Well, it’s true. Some sects are quite adamant that none of them were traitorous members of the Twin Soul Sect, despite proof to the contrary.”
“I thought a bunch of the old fogeys here were supposed to have learned stuff from Everheart, but everyone’s so stubborn,” Alva shook her head. “It just gets worse with age!”
“Agreed,” Annelie said. “Our grandfather is still planting seeds of cultivation in the commoners here, even though he won’t be around to guide them for long. I doubt the world will be as good to them without him around.”
Anish frowned, “That’s up to them, isn’t it? At least they’ll have a chance to fight for a real position in the world.”
“Yeah!” Alva said. “It sucks to be weak and unable to fight back.”
“I know but…” Annelie shook her head. “Not everyone’s as lucky as us. To have the talent and proper teachers. Halfway cultivating might just feel worse.”
Anish took his chance to speak. “The elders of my sect would disagree. Even if they weren’t all able to reach the heights they imagined, merely having the capability to act with confidence to work towards their desires was enough. And… I suppose the rest of us are part of making the world a better place for such people to live. But enough of all that. What was the mission again?”
“Marauders. Reported by the Blue River Gardens,” Annelie replied.
“Isn’t this close to where your grandfather is?” Anish asked. “Do you think they’re the same ones?”
“No, we’re still significantly north of that. It’s just that the Blue River Gardens lost a few of their members in mysterious circumstances. They recovered the bodies of one group, but the others…”
“That’s a bit concerning,” Alva admitted.
“Yes. One among them was an Essence Collection elder. The two of us should be weaker, and Anish… not much stronger. This is primarily a scouting mission.”
“Do you think we should go ask for his help?” Anish asked. “It’s only a few days out of our way.”
“And then a few days back, and we’ve spent a week not looking for some people who could be alive. And letting the trail get colder,” Annelie pointed out.
“No, you’re right. It’s just I’m not great at stealth.”
“It’ll be fine,” Alva assured him. “I’ll sense people way ahead.”
“You’ve also gotten better lately,” Annelie commented. “Much more than most of the members of Glorious Flame Palace.”
“What can I say?” he shrugged. “Nobody likes dimming their fires. We’re trained to be extremely open about things. Though it’s not always as easy as it seems.”
One day later, Alva stopped them. “I found something. Or someone.” She looked around, her energy mimicking the movement of her eyes to some extent. “Or what used to be someone. I don’t sense anyone nearby, but we should circle around just in case. If they’re hiding on the far side, I wouldn’t necessarily pick them out before we were visible.” Alva bent down towards a broken branch, looking closely. Then she sniffed. “But I don’t think anyone’s been through here in a while.”
The three of them kept their energy restrained as they circled around, Alva in the lead with Anish one step behind to support her if something came up. He was the strongest of them, after all. A guardian of sorts, for the sake of improving the relationships between sects.
Eventually they found their way through the hills, until they came upon what Alva had sensed. A desiccated corpse.
“Disgusting,” Alva said, sniffing. “But… it doesn’t smell bad. It hasn’t started properly decaying. It just… looks like this.”
“Is there any chance this is the work of a beast?” Anish asked.
“No way. Beasts don’t rob people of their equipment.”
“Why not bury it?” Annelie asked.
“No respect for the dead,” Anish commented.
“Sure, but they had to know people would be looking for them, and it would be harder if they were buried, I think.”
“Because they weren’t planning to stay in the area,” Alva decreed. “The first group was further north. This is more recent.” Alva turned her head, surveying the land around them. “They were just passing through, and any delay in their presence being reported… was enough.”
“What does that mean?” Anish asked.
“It means we need to hurry,” Alva grimaced. “Because this should be someone from the Whispering Watchers. Heading almost directly towards grandpa.” She started sprinting down the hill to the south.
“How many?” Anish asked as he caught up to her.
“Just one. But one might be enough. The lingering energy doesn’t make it clear but… based on that elder…”
“Life Transformation,” Anish commented. “We know one of them had it out for him.”
“I can’t believe they’d just- ugh.” Annelie shook her head as she ran along with the others. “Maybe they want a war. Sending an elder to kill him, and all.”
Anish deliberately slowed his pace to subconsciously draw Alva back to a pace they could all sustain for what would likely be a very long day of running. “They might have assumed that he is also an elder, given some of his characteristics. It wouldn’t be such a political issue that way. If this is Elder Naheed, avenging a student would seem quite reasonable. Or perhaps they didn’t care if it was reasonable.”
“What about killing the people who saw them?” Annelie asked. “That seems like they didn’t want to be known to be present.”
“A good point,” Anish agreed. “We can take a short break to recharge when we get close to a significantly sized city and send out some messages… including to the Blue River Gardens, for what little good it will do them.”
Alva almost seemed as if she would insist that they run without stopping, but she knew that they could actually get there just as fast with the right breaks… and they would arrive more while more effective. The messages also might be critical… just in case things took the worst possible turn.