Elder Cultivator 41

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Finding Timothy wasn’t difficult. They were neighbors, after all. Timothy wasn’t in his courtyard, but that actually made it easier. He was running around their little complex, so Anton merely stepped out of his door to see him as he passed by. “Timothy,” Anton smiled and held up a hand to ask him to wait.

Timothy stopped, but continued to run in place to keep his heart rate up. “Yes sir? What do you need?”

Was ‘sir’ better than ‘senior’? Anton wasn’t sure. But that didn’t matter. “Catarina and I are going on a journey soon. I would like to request your presence.”

Timothy’s face fell. “When is ‘soon’?”

“As soon as possible, actually. I’d prefer not to delay.”

Timothy scrunched up his forehead in thought. “I’d really like to but…” Anton waited for him to say what he wanted. “I already promised to help someone with a mission. We leave in a week, and the mission might take several more. I already promised to help…” Timothy looked quite disappointed.

“I understand. It is good to keep your word.” Anton tried not to let his disappointment show. It was foolish for him to assume that Timothy would have no other engagements. Just because he himself barely knew anyone didn’t mean that others wouldn’t be busy. That did mean the one he thought was a guarantee was actually out. “I hope your mission goes well for you.”

“Can you wait?” Timothy asked. “I know a month can be a long time, but I’d really like to help.”

Could it wait? It could… perhaps. But if he waited a month, it might never happen. He could wait a month… then what would another month to break through be? Then he might as well try to get to the tenth star. Another few months, and half a year would go by. The first few months of his cultivation he had no chance of doing anything, but now he could at least determine the full extent of what he was up against and perhaps save a few people. He wasn’t going to foolishly think he could challenge a Spirit Building cultivator or two at his current cultivation, but he had leads on weaker individuals. “It is best to not delay so long,” Anton said. “It won’t be easy to meet up with us, so I wouldn’t recommend it. I have no idea where exactly we’ll be.”

“Alright,” Timothy nodded, clearly still disappointed. “Sorry.” He waved and continued running laps around the area.

—–

Anton’s skin draped loosely around his frame. There was a time his arms had been thick with muscle, and though he was regaining some of that size his skin would still be oversized and wrinkly. However, he was able to change that a little bit. Intentionally tightening up his skin required quite a bit of natural energy, and while not normally a necessary part of the refinement process Anton knew it was necessary for himself. Reforging his body was difficult and sometimes painful, but also quite exhilarating. There was so much more he could do now, with or without energy involved. 

He was still harvesting northern creeper. The thorny plant required him to make the most of his manual dexterity as well as his energy control. They couldn’t just break off all of the thorns, since those were involved with the absorption of natural energy and thus the growth of the plants. Even slightly pruned plants showed significant decreases in growth. Elder Howland had shown everyone the difference. So while people might complain, it was only the normal sort of bantery way it was done.

Hoyt was working with the plants as well. That was why Anton had made sure to come for the day instead of leaving as soon as possible. He knew he should make some more acquaintances, but it was too late to meet anyone new at this exact moment. “Hoyt. Are you free in the coming weeks?”

Hoyt nodded, “I have nothing in particular. What do you need?”

“Well, I am about to set off on a mission and could use another companion.”

“Great,” Hoyt said quickly. “I’d be glad to go with you.”

Anton held up a hand. “Hold on now. I appreciate the eagerness, but I don’t want you to agree to something you didn’t mean to. It’s not an official mission. It’s something personal. No contribution points to be had… and perhaps quite a bit of danger. Though hopefully not the second.”

Hoyt shrugged, “You need me though, right? I’ll do it. It shouldn’t be something completely insane. If you knew we would die, I doubt you would go. Danger can be good training, and either way some travel would be good for me. I don’t want to stagnate in place. You said another, who else is going already?”

“Catarina.”

“Even better,” Hoyt said. “A mission with two of the rising stars has to end up worth it, somehow. I’m sure of it.”

“Timothy won’t be coming with us,” Anton clarified.

“Really?” Hoyt shrugged. “How unexpected.”

“He found himself with prior engagements, actually,” Anton explained.

Hoyt smiled, “That’s alright. I won’t change what I said. Even if there’s a bit of danger, we’ll all keep each other alive. I know you wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important for you.”

“Yes,” Anton agreed. It was important… but he had no clear idea of how much of it was for himself and how much for the others. It could certainly be both… but his mind couldn’t sort it all out yet. “We plan to set out in the next day or two. There is one more local thing to take care of on the way. Perhaps we could meet up in Edelhull.”

Hoyt nodded. “Just tell me a time and place.”

—–

Anton and Catarina stood outside a small dwelling in the middle of Edelhull. Anton just stared at the door, unmoving.

“What are you waiting for?” Catarina asked. “This is the right place.”

“I know,” Anton nodded. “I just don’t know what to say.”

“Does anyone ever know?” Catarina asked.

Anton sighed. “No. It never gets easier. But this is even harder than normal.”

“Stalling won’t help,” Catarina said. She raised her hand and knocked on the door. Then she stepped back. “Go on.”

Anton stood bravely in front of the door. Why couldn’t he just face down a charging boar or something?

The door opened to reveal a woman showing the signs of age. Her hair wasn’t fully grey, but she had age spots and wrinkles as well as the general tiredness of older folk. She still had a clear family resemblance, to both her grandmother and daughter and granddaughter. “Yes, who is it?” She looked Anton up and down, her jaw going slack. “…grandpa Anton?” Then she noticed Catarina. “Catarina?” Her eyes flicked between them. “How did the two of you find each other?”

“Fate,” Catarina declared. “Can we come in, grandma?”

Ashlyn smiled. “Of course, of course. I certainly wasn’t expecting to see either of you today… leastwise yourself, grandpa Anton.”

Anton sighed. It was actually much better when Catarina said it. She was so much younger. Then again, he hadn’t cared about being old so much before. It was only after things went wrong.

“So, how are things in Dungannon?” Ashlyn asked innocently. The way Catarina looked down and Anton’s pursed lips told her some of what she needed to know. “I suppose we best sit down.” She led them to a small sitting area. “Should I put on some tea?”  She got up to do that very thing, but even when she returned the awkward silence stretched on until Anton finally found some words.

“Disaster struck the village,” Anton explained. “I’m one of the lucky survivors, if the others can even be called that. Cultivating bandits from Ofrurg came into the area, killing and enslaving.”

“Oh.” Ashlyn bit her lip. “I heard about things like that happening out east. I knew it got bad but…” she shook her head. “We didn’t send many letters back and forth in so long. When did this happen?”

“Ten months ago, more or less,” Anton said.

“Oh.” Anton could see Ashlyn found herself uncomfortable. While she wasn’t suited to life in Dungannon, that didn’t mean her relationship with the rest of the family was bad. Just distant and infrequent. “Who…?”

“Not many made it,” Anton said. “I’m the only one to leave of my own will… I was out of town during the attack.”

“Can you…” Ashlyn turned towards Catarina, “You joined the Order, right? Can’t they do anything?”

Catarina shook her head. “They’re from Ofrurg. It’s not so easy. Some of the bandits are dead, though. We plan to kill more.”

“We?” Ashlyn looked at the two of them. “If they’re cultivators, who else? I know you aren’t…” her eye looked at Anton.

“I wasn’t. Now, I am.” Anton declared that flatly. “But I didn’t come here just to bring depressing news. I was hoping at least we could share some pleasant stories of the past, and let Catarina hear about what things were like. We only met by coincidence-”

“Fate,” Catarina declared.

“Or fate,” Anton shrugged. “But I was able to meet her parents. I know a bit about her life, but little about your part… and I’d like to explain everything that happened. Hopefully, more pleasant things than unpleasant.”

It wasn’t possible to cover decades of events in a single evening, but Anton and Catarina promised to come back. Anton resolved himself that at least Catarina would be able to do so. However, he also knew that meant avoiding trouble to begin with. His eyes and ears would be on constant lookout… and if his goals would lead them into danger they couldn’t handle, he would have to change them. Anton wasn’t sure if he would have just led himself into death without having to watch out for her. There was no way to know for sure. But now, he had to live and be strong… for more than just those far away.

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