If it wasn’t a journey out of Ofrurg and back, Anton would have preferred to bring the five men away as soon as possible. However, a couple weeks here and there would add up quite significantly. Besides, just leaving them somewhere wasn’t his intention. He wasn’t sure if he could afford to set everyone up with a proper job and home, but he could at least give them some tools to survive. That included at least the basics of cultivation.
“The best part of body tempering,” Anton explained, “Is that even if you don’t intend to continue on the path of cultivation, it will still have clear benefits. I would like everyone to at least be able to gather and circulate natural energy before we move on. That will also give you some time to recover your strength.”
Pete and the others had been working hard labor on the farms. It wasn’t necessarily too far from what their daily lives had been, but with the duration and difficulty of labor increased, and the amount of food decreased. They weren’t starved, because that wouldn’t let them work at all… but they were certainly a bit undernourished, and had scars from the whips of the taskmasters. An unnecessary cruelty for the sake of ‘motivation’.
Of the five, Pete had the quickest initial success. With some guidance by Anton, he was gathering strands of natural energy within the first hour, slowly circulating small amounts of energy through his body. It would be good for him to move his body while he did so, but at his current point his concentration could only handle controlling the energy while stationary. The others took somewhat longer, and Anton had to gather energy for them to be able to sense it and take a small piece. He guided their flow, tracing the path through their body once… then letting go as they repeated the action on their own. The first day of cultivation would show few results besides pain, but if they could complete the first refinement of their body, it would provide benefits for the rest of their lives. They were still young, after all. If nothing else, work in the fields would grow easier. If they chose other professions- something Anton would blame them for not in the slightest- it would still help their daily lives to have increased health.
There were some questions Anton had. The Order freely allowed citizens of Graotan to study the Ninety-Nine Stars. Common knowledge was that cultivating was difficult. While that was true, the benefits for those who didn’t have the intention to fully devote themselves to cultivation still seemed significant enough. Anton knew the Order cared for the citizens of Graotan, and would prefer them to be more efficient in their everyday lives. Yet they only really encouraged those they found with talent to cultivate. Perhaps that was the problem. Creating a copy of a cultivation technique wasn’t trivial work, and those without sufficient talent might find themselves stuck at the very beginning. Most individuals would need guidance, as Anton was finding. That said, it would be of great benefit to Graotan if everyone could reach even the first star. Perhaps one teacher in each community could achieve what he wished for. Though he wasn’t sure how to get to that point either.
After a few days, everyone was comfortable enough with cultivation to control energy while walking at a slow pace. While they would certainly be less efficient, it was enough for the moment. Good enough that Anton could move onto the next stage of the plan.
“We need to earn money,” Anton stated.
Catarina held out a heavy bag of coins, “I converted all my contribution points.”
Hoyt smiled, “I can’t say I converted everything, but I can help buy the freedom of a few people.”
Anton nodded, “I would love to be stubborn and refuse, but I can’t say to someone, ‘sorry, you’re just not worth as much’.” Anton shook his head, “And that’s just those I know. But my point still stands. All of what we have now, we’ll just use up. Food and accommodations for travel aren’t free. Though I would love to find and free everyone this month, it’s impossible. Even so, we can earn money while we travel.” Anton showed the two the map he had, “Here in the northwest is Khonard. That is the last known location of Devon, one of my grandsons. He will be… easiest to track down. They have an arena there, and if he yet lives I would expect him to still be there. It’s a minor arena where only those without cultivation or of low cultivation rank fight, so he has some chance. But the route there is dangerous. There’s another route that’s safer but twice the distance, but the shorter one is to our benefit.”
“Because we can work as guards, right?” Catarina nodded. “How dangerous is it?”
“A difficult question to answer,” Anton said, “However, traveling with others will be safer than with just our group. Wild beasts appear along the route, sometimes territorial magical beasts. The danger shouldn’t be too great for us at late Body Tempering, but nothing is certain. The journey could pass with no fighting at all, in which case we would earn a basic rate. Otherwise, we fight alongside others and have higher earnings and more combat experience.”
“Sounds worthwhile either way,” Hoyt said. “Do you know the frequency of attacks?”
“It was hard to find specific details. About half of the travelers along the route encounter some sort of danger, though a portion of that is quite low in tier. Of course, I wouldn’t suggest it if I thought there were untoward levels of danger. We need to be alive to save anyone else.”
Caravans from Veron to Khonard varied quite significantly by travel pace and size. Those carrying valuable goods- including slaves- might travel with fewer higher ranking guards to keep the pace quick. Those with somewhat lower value goods that still needed to arrive in a timely fashion would gather together in larger groups to distribute the cost of hiring guards among them. After all, a caravan of twice as many people didn’t need twice as many guards if there were only incidental attacks by beasts to worry about. Even if bandits were included, a proportionately smaller increase in guards provided a significant deterrent. Ofrurg also cracked down hard on banditry inside of their borders, though just like the Order in Graotan they couldn’t completely eradicate the danger. Not without completely eradicating people.
While Anton was willing to pay to free those he knew from slavery, that was already the limit of how far he would support the system. He settled for a group that at least was not transporting slaves, though some of their workers were certainly enslaved. It wasn’t going to be possible to completely avoid slavery in a country where it was legal.
The head of the caravan guard was a dark skinned man with a strong aura. He sat outside near where a caravan was beginning to organize itself. It wasn’t just his cultivation in mid Spirit Building that made his aura strong, but also the way it was displayed. It was… sharp. Like an unsheathed blade, though as Anton and the others approached he didn’t feel a threat against them. “Greetings,” Anton inclined his head, “I hear we must talk to you to be hired for caravan security? We would also like to bring five non-combatants along with us.”
“I am the man you seek,” the man’s deep voice spoke precisely, with a hint of an Ambati accent. “Your names and specializations?”
“Anton Krantz. I am an archer. I can provide a demonstration, if you wish.”
The man nodded, writing something down. “In a moment. And you?”
Hoyt shrugged, “I focus on the axe. I can break through heavy defenses, if we encounter wild beasts.”
He nodded again, “And you?” he turned to Catarina.
“I wield a straight sword, but I am also an apprentice formation user.”
That seemed to catch his interest. “I see. We shall test if your abilities align with your cultivations.” He stood up from the table he was sitting at, “I am Ayotunde Idowu. I shall challenge each of you there, in that field, to test your skills.” He gestured, “First, the old man.” As he moved, he pulled a large sword out of a sheathe leaning on the table next to him.
He could have said the archer, Anton thought as he moved towards where Ayotunde gestured. But perhaps that was the point. To annoy him and throw him off. Ayotunde gave him a generous ten meters of separation to begin with. Enough he could certainly fire a few shots before the man got close. Anton had no belief he would defeat a man in Spirit Building even with a bit of range to begin with, but he could hopefully make a good showing.
“Make the first move,” Ayotunde said. “As you move, so will I.”
Anton nodded. With that permission and feeling the man’s energy defenses were in place he raised his arm as if to grab an arrow from his quiver, but instead moved his hand to the string, drawing a Spirit Arrow and firing directly towards the man’s chest. Ayotunde flicked his sword towards the arrow, but Anton very slightly pulled back on its momentum. That reduced its impact, but let it bypass his parry. The arrow did no damage to the man as it struck his energy, but it slowed him slightly.
Ayotunde was fast on his feet, and his long legs certainly didn’t hurt his speed. Anton fired two more quick arrows as the man moved, trying to track his exact motion. He would have liked to move away, but he couldn’t even move at half the man’s speed so it would be fruitless. Instead, he steadied himself for one final shot. Ayotunde’s sword came up, ready to sweep towards Anton- its power overwhelming but clearly restrained below the level of a Spirit Building cultivator- and the arrow flew forward. It curved upwards, striking the man’s wrist as Anton dodged to the side, shooting another arrow into the man’s side as the sword veered slightly off course, slicing smoothly into the ground. The arrow hit his side directly, but it couldn’t puncture a hole all the way through his energy.
Anton prepared to sweep out with his leg to throw the man off, but as he did so- “Enough,” Ayotunde said. “Your combat skills are sufficient.” He pulled his sword out of the ground, where Anton saw a clean cut in the dirt. He would have needed to expend all of his energy on defense to withstand that attack. “Next-” Ayotunde gestured to Hoyt.