After surveying the area around Helmfirth Rill, no more dangerous beasts were found. While no humans had been attacked, their very first actions were aggressive and territorial. Even if they were just defending their den- a possibility- Anton knew it was far too dangerous to leave them alive. Not that they had much choice in the matter, once it came to that. They arranged for information to be sent back to the Order. There might be rewards, but either way Anton found himself satisfied with the results even if he received nothing but the thanks of the village. The villagers certainly couldn’t afford to pay anything appropriate for hunting such monsters, and they weren’t asked to do so.
Once they moved on, Dungannon was not far away. Anton both dreaded and highly anticipated his return to his hometown. It was no longer his home, though. He couldn’t see himself living there again… even if it was in a different state.
It was with mixed feelings that he approached the village. He mainly experienced dread, anger, and sadness… but he also had a bit of hope. He was only returning because he had confidence in himself to begin vengeance against those who had wronged them… and salvation for those who still lived. Anton would have liked to come back in Spirit Building, maybe even the peak of it, able to wipe out the entire bandit group single handed. But he was willing to settle for at least having enough strength to begin.
The other two were quiet as they passed overgrown fields that had no crops and came into sight of the sagging and crumbled buildings of the city proper. Even those that had been relatively untouched by the fires were showing a year without maintenance, and the weight of early snows. Though he knew they were merely being respectful, Anton couldn’t stand the silence. “That was the home of Melinda, a seamstress. Best in the whole village. Across from her was Deo… possibly the worst baker in the world. But a wonderful man, regardless.” Anton wished he remembered every single one… but Dungannon wasn’t the same place anymore. He could barely recognize some of the buildings or what they had been. His memory wasn’t perfect, and while he’d known most everyone, some he’d merely not interacted with. He did his best, however.
Houses on the outskirts, workshops and stores and other nearby farms were all there. It was a place Anton had spent his whole life, and it had changed so much from when he’d first seen it… to when it last existed. It had been most of his world. There was the nearby forest and other towns, but they were only a small part of his life. But as they finally arrived at the former Krantz farm, he realized how small it was. Anton tried to introduce the farm, but he couldn’t.
“Is this it, then?” Catarina asked. “Where you lived?”
Anton nodded. He could at least do that. At least, until all of the memories flooded over him. He wandered about in a daze, unaware of anyone else… remembering. Janina had caught his eye in the city, but when she first came to visit him on the farm he remembered how she’d slowly come into view on the horizon. The first cow he’d helped give birth. Each field that slowly expanded. His own children, grandchildren, and more. A hundred years… and then everything was gone all at once.
His cultivation was still insufficient. Anton knew that. As he was now, he couldn’t handle any of the bandit leaders, even if they remained the same. “No more…” Anton spoke to himself. He wouldn’t allow it to happen anymore. Killing the bandits was something that needed to be done… but that wasn’t good enough. He couldn’t allow it to happen to anyone else. As he began to come back to his senses, he realized the stars were out. He couldn’t just try to be stronger. He had to be the strongest. He had to reach the peak of Ninety-Nine Stars.
No, that wasn’t it. That was the problem, wasn’t it? Anton was quite confident in himself in general, but as a cultivator in a new field he felt unsure. Even if just a little bit, he was thrown off. He hadn’t thought he could reach the peak of cultivation, but now that he had the determination he realized he was just a little bit off.
It was no good just to match those who had come before him in the Order. To reach the peak of Ninety-Nine Stars. The only proper goal was to go all the way. He shouldn’t be walking the path to ninety-nine stars, but to a full hundred. Or beyond. One hundred matched the limit everyone in the world knew about, a limit nobody had spoken about surpassing… but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. So whether it was a hundred or a thousand or all the stars in the sky… Anton would walk the path to reach it.
But he wouldn’t ignore the world around him along the way. That was the most important part. Cultivation was merely what would let him accomplish the goal. Not that it made it any less important to what he wanted. But he would be cultivating for himself, and for the world… and for all those who could not defend themselves from those who would abuse their power.
Anton breathed in. He felt like he hadn’t taken a breath all day. A ridiculous thought, but as his lungs filled up he felt refreshed as if it was his very first breath. Air swirled around him and natural energy circled and pulled into him. It was truly nothing compared to the control Grand Elder Vandale had shown… but so what? He might not be there yet, but he would be. Even if it took him a hundred more years. Or a thousand, or ten thousand. He wasn’t going to let time get the better of him.
Catarina and Hoyt watched from afar as Anton wandered in silence. He hadn’t responded to any of their prompting, but he didn’t just stand around stunned either. He went from place to place, taking it in. Even when it grew late, he moved around the ruins of his former home. Then Anton looked up at the sky, and both of them felt the energy in the area roil around him like a storm. For a brief moment his cultivation was hard to fathom… and then it returned to the feeling of its accustomed place in the eighth star of body tempering.
Anton’s head turned towards them, and he slowly approached. “Thank you for your patience. I believe I am done here. Tomorrow… we head for Ofrurg. It’s not far. I would not plan to fight anyone there. What I want…” Anton shook his head. “I shall merely buy the freedom of some, for the moment. But I plan to track down as many of those responsible as I can. If they move outside of Ofrurg, I plan to kill them.” Anton looked over the other two for their reactions, “Though there are some who will be too strong at the moment. I plan for only subtle inquiries into them.”
Hoyt shrugged, “I haven’t killed anyone yet. But I’ll have no compunctions about doing so to bandits and slavers. As long as we can confirm their involvement.”
“It might not be possible to track down only those responsible for Dungannon,” Anton said, “But as long as we can confirm the villainy of someone, I shall not be concerned as to who in particular they have destroyed the lives of.”
“What about those you’re going to free?” Catarina asked. “How will we keep them safe?”
“I have looked into the situation. Ofrurg may not be the most pleasant country, but they aren’t a lawless land. Their laws on slavery don’t allow for arbitrary kidnappings.” Anton shook his head, “Of course, very few care if people come from outside the country with no documentation, but once I obtain ownership of someone and free them, records will exist that prevent them from being enslaved again so easily. Of course, I plan to help them move into Graotan so that there is no opportunity to begin with. Even back to Dungannon, if they wish, but most likely further from the border. Though it should be more secure now, it would be better if they felt safe.”
Catarina nodded. “What about family?”
Anton sighed, “I am afraid to say that I have very little information on family. My plans are much the same. I can afford to set a number of people up in Graotan, and if I don’t have enough now, I can earn it. There are a few I hope will be simple purchases. Devon has been sold to an arena, which will be trickier… and he may not even still live.” Anton closed his eyes for a moment. “Then there is Annelie. She was… I thought she was my first great-grandchild, though I was apparently quite wrong about that. That would be your mother, and even you are older than her. She was sold to the Frostmirror sect. I have no information after that.”
Hoyt bit his lip. “If they care for good cultivators, she should be treated well. It seems you have talent for cultivation in your family…” he looked between the two of them.
“Perhaps,” Anton said. “Though we are but two in dozens, many generations apart. Hardly anything to draw conclusions from.”
Hoyt shrugged, “That’s still not actually that bad. Some of the sects are very picky about partners and don’t end up with top tier cultivators in two out of five generations.”
“Top tier?” Anton asked. “I’m merely in body tempering yet.”
“If you can say that again in the Spring, I might reconsider my thoughts,” Hoyt grinned.
“You should be more confident, Grandpa Anton.”
Anton smiled, “I’d much prefer not to be overconfident. But while I might not consider myself anything of the sort now… I will reach the top. That I swear to whatever it is that governs the lives of people.” A ripple of energy flowed out from him as he spoke, brushing over the two other cultivators.
“…wow,” Hoyt said. “I like that confidence. So while you’re not too far, I’d like to humbly request your guidance in the future.”
“Of course,” Anton said. “I shall always support you, such as I am able,” he inclined his head to Catarina, “You as well, of course. Even more so. Though your skill with formations far outpaces anything I imagine doing.”
“Maybe so,” Catarina said. “But you can always ask me for help, when you need a formation master. Or… apprentice, right now.”