Everything had been properly explained to Hoyt before Anton accepted his final agreement. He didn’t want there to be any mysteries involved when Hoyt might be risking his own life to help him out, for no specific reward. Anton was still not comfortable talking about the subject matter, but since he was going to do something about it he had forced himself to talk.
Hoyt met up with Anton and Catarina in Edelhull- which was more or less outside the front gates of the Order. From there, they began to head east back along the route Anton had taken months prior.
“Ofrurg, huh…” Hoyt wrinkled his forehead as they walked. “I don’t know much about it, having grown up in the west. I grew up hearing about Ambati beyond the borders on the other side. Not quite so nice as Graotan, but a decent place.”
“Ofrurg’s reputation in the east is certainly far short of stellar,” Anton commented, “But we never expected anything to come from there.”
“You trusted the Order to protect you?” Hoyt asked.
“That… and we didn’t think cultivators would bother us. It’s not that we were naive to the ways of the world. In a full century, there was very little trouble. Perhaps the only mistake we made was thinking that it couldn’t happen to us.” Anton shook his head, “But what would we have done? We heard about other towns being attacked, but we did not look, nor help them. We couldn’t have, but beyond a shipment or two of food around the forest, we didn’t consider it much. It’s quite easy to get used to problems over there and never consider whether we should do something, whether or not it would ultimately affect us.”
“It’s not fair,” Catarina said. “You worked so hard, and they stole everything away. Including… family.”
“No. The world is not fair,” Anton agreed. “But perhaps we can take advantage of that. Maybe we can make things better than just some arbitrary fairness.” Anton laughed mirthlessly, “If we can affect the world at all. Look at us, two young folk on the rise, and an old man trying to hold onto a place in the world.”
“You deserve to have a place, Grandpa Anton.”
He smiled, “I appreciate the words.”
For the first half of the journey, they passed a large number of other cultivators connected to the Order. However, the further they got from the Orders lands, the fewer they encountered. Graotan was wider than it was tall, and they were headed to the furthest corner.
The journey was much more rapid than when Anton had been going in the other direction… even with some delays.
“Good day, sir,” Anton inclined his head to a man working in the fields. “We’re from the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars. Is there anything troubling your fine village here? Beasts, Bandits?” The Order accepted requests for aid from all of Graotan, but they also encourage their traveling disciples to offer aid, at reasonable prices. Some things people could wait weeks or months for a message to go to the Order and a cultivator to return… but some things were more urgent. A cultivator could earn contribution points at the recommendation of villages, as well. It wasn’t the best way to do so, but Anton didn’t care. That wasn’t the reason. He was simply not able to confine his worries to a small area any longer. He didn’t want to delay his current journey, but to pass by something on the way would be a shame.
“Not here,” the man said. “But I heard something… up in Helmfirth Rill they spotted some water monster, I think. Usually quite peaceful there.”
Anton had hardly realized they’d gone so far. Helmfirth Rill had taken him a week of travel in the other direction, as it was around a quarter of the journey from Dungannon to the Order’s headquarters. However, now he was a similar time in the other direction, and not far at all. “I appreciate your time,” he inclined his head, “Good fortune to you.”
Catarina spoke up when they were further away, “Didn’t you save a child from drowning in Helmfirth Rill?”
Anton laughed, “Just barely! I wasn’t so far from going down with him myself. I was just at the Third Star, and my body was… still feeling its age. A pleasant town. I hope this water monster is just a scare… or at least that they have avoided too much trouble.”
Anton’s eyes picked out Helmfirth Rill in the distance, and he once again focused his energy on his eyes. After tempering the organs in his head, he hadn’t stopped developing them. It was just an initial boost. All of the practice- especially with eye techniques- kept him growing. Without energy being involved, his eyes weren’t as good as when he was young. But he couldn’t hope for that. With energy… he saw better than he’d ever imagined possible.
His eyes scanned the bridge- much more sturdy than the temporary setup he’d helped with when he was last around. Past the bridge and then to the south was a small building he recognized. Outside, a man was working in some little garden beds. “Oh, I do believe that’s Darryl. I wonder if he’ll remember me.” Their feet crossed the bridge and turned towards the house. “Darryl!” Anton waved.
The man looked up. It took him a moment, then his eyes lit up. “Well I’ll be! Anton, isn’t it? You saved my nephew Jimmy in the spring.”
“Fortunate timing, that was,” Anton grinned. “Is he doing well?”
“Better than ever. And he’s taken up swimming. Though… these last couple of weeks he’s not been able to.”
“Is that the water monster?” Anton asked. “We heard about it in another town.”
“That’s right,” Darryl nodded. “Oh! Pardon me, I didn’t notice your companions. I’m Darryl, I’m sure you’ve heard.” He held out his hand.
“That’s a strong grip. You work in the fields?”
“Some,” Hoyt commented. “It’s a good way to cultivate my body.”
“I joined the Order,” Anton declared. “We’d be happy to help you with that water monster,” Anton patted the bow sitting unstrung in his quiver.
“Oh! I see you’ve gotten yourself a fine new bow. I’m glad. As for the creature, well, it’s hard to track down. The fishermen were noticing a lack of fish- and then some half eaten bodies washed past. Fish, mostly, but there was also a bear. Half a bear, maybe.” Darryl held his fingers splayed out, hands touching at the wrists. “It must have jaws like this to take out chunks the size we saw. So we’ve been keeping out of the river. It’s more trouble to draw all our water from the well, but people keep spotting a big shape. Mostly upstream, where it runs a bit deeper.” Darryl looked over Anton and the rest. “I wouldn’t suggest trying to fight it, but if you stay out of the water…”
“I see. We’ll ask if anyone else has more information. Do tell others we’re in town.”
In a place the size of Helmfirth Rill, it didn’t take long to speak to everyone. Description of the creature’s shape were inconsistent, but it was mostly noticed underwater as a large shape, at least man sized. Someone did have the ribcage of the bear that had previously been mentioned. It had an impressively smooth area of bone missing. Clearly there was something, though how a water creature got a bear… well, they did have to drink water.
“It doesn’t seem like any sort of natural creature,” Anton said. “Perhaps a magical beast or something exotic. It’s not afraid to attack large prey, and people could easily be next. If not here, maybe further up the river.”
“I agree,” Hoyt said. “We just have to find it.”
“We’ll start by looking in the deeper sections of the river, like they mentioned.”
Anton had the most experience tracking down creatures. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he knew what he wasn’t looking for. Deer and boar tracks didn’t matter, though he paid careful attention to them near the edge of the water. He hadn’t yet noticed any signs of anything being pulled in, but there was a lot of ground to cover.
“There,” Catarina pointed into the river. “The flow is different. Energy and water are all jumbled up.”
Anton squinted, trying to make out something in the water. With use of Hawk Eyes he could pierce the murk just enough to see something beneath the bank. Not a moving creature, but perhaps a den of some sort. “Good catch. I thought it was just a rock disturbing the flow.”
“Should we set up here and wait for it to return?” Hoyt asked.
Anton nodded, “I think that might be best. Though we don’t want to spook it away. I’m not sure if this thing frightens easily at cultivators… but if we simply force it to relocate elsewhere, the problem isn’t solved.”
“I can conceal us,” Catarina said. “I’m getting better at it. At least it should get close before noticing us, even if it’s a magical beast.”
“Excellent,” Anton said. “Now, we just need to keep alert.” He looked around. No tracks, even close to its potential lair. He wondered at that. Perhaps it was just fully aquatic.