In front of Anton sat a list. It was as accurate as he could make it… but it was possible he’d missed something or other. His memory wasn’t perfect to begin with, and at the time he could have been most precise, he wasn’t in a state to do anything to any level of accuracy. This was the list of those who were still alive… potentially.
None of his children were on the list, but that was understandable. They were old, like himself, and that meant they had little value as slaves. While the bandits had been somewhat unpredictable in their actions, taking everything of value was certainly consistent. That included people. Dungannon had not been large- a few hundred people- but Anton had buried most of them. Their faces, at least, he could picture in his mind… if not their names. Some had not been in a state he could recognize. At least fifty people had the potential to be alive.
Of those people, however, he only had information on a dozen. Some didn’t stand out enough to have information remembered about them when they were sold. Most went to mines or farms. Hard slave labor wasn’t good for anyone, but they could certainly survive since most were young and healthy. One went to a fighting arena. Devon was one of Anton’s younger grandsons, the son of his youngest daughter. The chances of him being alive were much more slim than anyone else.
Then there was Annelie. Anton had avoided learning about her fate in particular until he felt he had at least a little bit of strength. Her fate was known to a certain point. She’d been sold to the Frostmirror sect. The Order of Ninety-Nine Stars was a righteous group… and the Frostmirror sect was not. The only thing to say for them was that they also weren’t a demonic sect. But with the extravagant price they paid for her, Anton could hope they found some value in her being alive instead of otherwise.
Anton had exchanged contribution points for money, enough that he could buy the others he knew the locations of at a fair price, and even some extra. He destested the idea of supporting the slave trade with his money, but it was either that or fight an entire nation and their cultivators himself. That wasn’t something he could do yet. He considered for a moment. Somehow, his mind hadn’t had the doubt he expected. Was that what the problem was? He filed the thought away for later.
Though he could buy the freedom of a handful of people with what he currently had, Annelie’s price paid by the Frostmirror sect had been more than Anton had ever seen. More than the price the family farm had been worth plus every contribution point he’d gained exchanged for money. There was some sort of test for cultivation aptitude, and Annelise had something special in that area. Specific details hadn’t been obtained. Whether or not the particular thing found would be ultimately to her benefit remained to be seen. Anton had not personally experienced cultivators outside of the Order- except the effects of the bandit leader Kunibert and the rest- but he’d heard tales. Even accounting for exaggerations, it was clear that at least occasionally cultivation and cultivation aptitude were stolen by others. The actual effects for those attempting to take it weren’t always as beneficial as they might hope, but for the victim it was always death- or something that might as well be death. If the Frostmirror sect had such intentions when they purchased her… Anton shook his head. He couldn’t do anything about it now regardless. But he might be able to learn more if she was still alive.
He was ready to take a trip to Ofrurg. Perhaps he might save a few of those from Dungannon or track down some of the bandits he had basic information on. He might also acquire more information himself. The only problem was how to deal with Catarina. He didn’t want to bring her with him… but he couldn’t not bring her. As in, he was physically incapable of not bringing her. If he left without her she would just follow him. He considered a few options, but none of them made sense. If he just left without saying anything, she would almost certainly go to Ofrurg presuming that to be his target. Even if he could convince her he was just going on a mission to a specific place, when he didn’t return she would know. And he had no logical reason not to invite her. She was capable. Certainly, she was one star behind him… but that wasn’t so much as to hold him back in battle, and having additional hands would in fact be quite helpful.
Logic wasn’t everything. Wanting to protect family was quite a paradox, because Catarina also wanted to protect her ‘grandpa’. And though she wasn’t very vocal about her choices most of the time, she was quietly stubborn. Anton wasn’t sure what to do. Perhaps some cultivation would clear his head.
Northern creeper was a completely innocuous name for the spike covered vine Anton found himself dealing with. Its seeds were pods with sharp thorns going in every direction, and they had to be planted carefully by hand. It wasn’t hard physical labor that was required… but instead a certain level of energy defenses. Because while it was just a truly awful plant, its fruit could produce a potent medicine for cultivation. It was one of the main ingredients in tempering pills like the kind Catarina had given to Anton. That was quite understandable, considering the way it sucked up natural energy around it.
As Anton carefully put his arm deep into the plant where he might prune away some dead leaves, he cut a gash along his arm. While tempering his meridians had allowed him to handle larger amounts of energy, that wasn’t enough to just ignore the thorns. After all, it wasn’t an everyday plant. It absorbed natural energy from the world… and through its thorns in particular. Thus, his defenses were only half as effective at best. Hoyt had also moved on to the same work with Anton. Farming normal plants or even special herbs was just too easy, and hardly worth their time. It provided some contribution points, but this was worth more because of the increased difficulty and value.
Hoyt had one advantage Anton did not. He had already completed the tempering of his skin. Though he was a step behind Catarina at the moment, he was almost at the seventh star. Anton watched as the spikes slid along his skin without piercing through… unless Hoyt was careless.
As he carefully maneuvered his own arm, it came out bloody. He could wear armor, but patching it would take all the extra contribution points he would earn. Besides, the only thing left to temper was his skin anyway. While it wasn’t a pleasant process, it was actually quite beneficial to add this into his cultivation routine. His practice and some discussions with Hoyt were giving him some initial success in the area. Anton didn’t plan to remain in the Order for the months it would take to finish the tempering of his skin, but at least beginning the process in an optimal environment would help him later.
Hoyt, meanwhile, needed advice on tempering his internal organs, starting with his torso. He was young and strong, so he hadn’t found it a necessity to take care of them earlier. Anton envied that youth, but of course he provided the best advice he could. Among other things, it involved a lot of running. That took care of the lungs and heart, at least. He wished he knew that such an active style might be helpful when he first began cultivating, though he would have barely been able to make use of it. His body had been in a better state than his mind… but only barely.
Sometimes, one merely had to let themselves get stabbed with a thousand needles to clear their mind. Anton wasn’t sure if that actually helped, but he at least arrived at a reasonable idea. Both he and Catarina were sensible adults, and they could talk about things. And, if he didn’t get what he wanted and she insisted on coming with him… that would just give him more reason to be cautious.
Anton invited Catarina over. His living space was still mostly bare, but he had a sitting room with some chairs and a table, at least. “Come. Sit.”
Catarina did so quite obediently. However, she didn’t wait for him to continue. “Are we finally going to Ofrurg?” she asked.
Anton sighed. “Don’t be so eager to run into trouble. There will not be anything glorious or fun to be had there. Just… salvaging remnants of old memories. I hope to do what I can for a few people… and end the lives of a few others.” Anton shook his head. “I don’t want you to come with me. It’s too dangerous.”
“I know,” Catarina said. “That is why I can’t let you go alone.”
“I’m just an old man. If I die doing this… the world doesn’t lose much. You, however, have so much life and potential ahead of you.”
Catarina frowned, “People aren’t worth just what they can do and become. It’s also what they have done. You still mean something, for your past. And if we’re bringing up potential… are you not improving in cultivation? I know you are, and fast. I can barely keep up.”
“I don’t know how much longer I can last,” Anton said. “Can I even reach Spirit Building?”
“Can’t you?” Catarina asked. “I know cultivating extends your lifespan. Even if it doesn’t help as much for you… it’s not like you’ll die of old age in just a year or two. Not with a whole eight stars already.” Catarina stood up and leaned closer, “You’ve already outlived one of my other grandpas. You’re not just going to… fall apart.”
Anton didn’t have much else to say, but he wasn’t going to stop trying. “You don’t know any of those I plan to save. Don’t risk yourself for them.”
“So?” Catarina said, “I didn’t know anyone in Thuston. Neither did you. We still wanted to protect them from the beasts. And if you’re planning to save some family… aren’t they my family too, grandpa? Just because I haven’t met them yet…”
Anton sighed again. “If you aren’t going to listen to me, then maybe consider how your father and mother would feel if you died.”
“Maybe you should.” Catarina was certainly a lot more comfortable talking with him lately. She had quite a few things to say, apparently. “I know you can’t just wait around to be strong enough to do everything you want. But you don’t have to do it alone. If you still think it’s too dangerous… maybe that should stop you.”
Anton locked eyes with her. How did she get so stubborn? Maybe she inherited that trait from her parents. Or her grandparents. Or her great-great-grandfather. If that was the case… maybe he should invite some others along as well. Timothy should be easy to convince, though Anton wasn’t sure if Hoyt would have any reason to join. Were there any others he trusted? He hadn’t really developed his social circle much. Too much training. Or maybe not enough.