Hoyt didn’t have the luxury of starting at range like Anton, which meant he had to deal with Ayotunde’s swift and sharp blade the moment they began. The Spirit Building cultivator was only holding back in terms of energy used, not technique. Hoyt used the momentum of his swings to parry the sword while dealing glancing blows to the man himself. However, he wasn’t able to break through Ayotunde’s defense. The dark-skinned man was restraining his attacks, but his defenses had the full power of a Spirit Building cultivator.
With a forceful swing, Hoyt knocked the large sword back to the furthest extent of Ayotunde’s reach, seeming to nearly knock the sword out of his hands. On the backswing, Hoyt aimed straight for Ayotunde’s chest. With a flash even Anton found hard to follow, Ayotunde’s sword had crossed in front of the two warriors. Hoyt’s axe was flying through the air and he had a shallow cut along his forearm. Hoyt held up his hands, “Ah… a feint. And I fell right for it.”
Ayotunde nodded, “Your skills are sufficient as well. Next… the girl. Show me your skill in formations.”
Catarina first displayed a concealing formation. Anton hadn’t been on the outside of one, and it was quite a strange experience. In one version she merely disappeared. It wasn’t quite perfect, because he could sense traces of her energy, but then again he already knew where she was. If he did not, he could easily miss her. The second version she hid not only herself, but the table Ayotunde had set up for his papers. The wider range allowed Anton to see slight visual flaws… but again, he knew where to look. If he were just passing by, he could easily overlook them. Ayotunde also tested Catarina’s barriers, ramping up the power of his attacks until he broke through.
“Good. All three of you pass. The payment shall be standard for a cultivator of your level, eighth or seventh… with the formation user being one higher, at eighth. Combat pay is extra.” Ayotunde produced contracts Anton was aware were quite standard. They were quite simple, as such things went. Obviously if they abandoned the caravan they would not get paid- though they could get partial payment if they had to depart the caravan along the way and properly got permission to leave. For the particular route they were going, it was unlikely to be relevant.
A tall man in fine clothes approached. His height limited the visual effects of his pronounced belly, which might have otherwise made him quite round. “Idowu! You’re not hiring more guards, are you?”
Ayotunde looked the man dead in the eye. “Caravan Master Wilbur. You tasked me with protecting the caravan. I am merely doing so.” Anton could see the sharpness in the man’s eyes… and almost feel it. The type of energy he cultivated was not a style Anton recognized, though he hadn’t been exposed to that many types of cultivators. Mostly those from the Ninety-Nine Stars and those he’d seen in Edelhull and Veron.
The tall man backed down. “Alright. Fine. But I think those you’ve already hired will be quite sufficient.”
“With the addition of these three, it shall be enough,” Ayotunde said agreeably.
The portly man sighed and turned to the trio of cultivators. “A pleasure to meet you. I am Caravan Master Frank Wilbur. I deal mostly in herbs and spices. Normally we do not hire so many guards, but we have quite a number of attached groups this time.”
“There are a dozen others,” Ayotunde explained, “Mid to late body tempering. Then an equal number of early body tempering and non-cultivator guards.”
“All for a dozen wagons. It seems quite excessive to me,” Wilbur shook his head, “But at least we’re splitting the costs.”
“Should trouble arise, you will be wishing we had more. No matter how many we have. They have five followers as well,” Ayotunde mentioned.
“Right. Have them bring two weeks of rations. We can supply that, of course, but it would cost you. We can handle the water for five more without issue. Now then, I have other things to see to.” The caravan master turned and left. Off in the distance he could be heard chastising some workers for how they had loaded goods, “You’ll unbalance the wagon with a setup like that!”
Ayotunde smiled at the group, “He is a fine enough man to work for, but he must keep the costs in mind. I too hope that we will not meet much trouble- but if we are to run into trouble we will need each of you.” He looked them over, “You cultivate the Ninety-Nine Stars, yes? I do not see many from your sect here. More in Ambati. I walk the path of blades, and cultivate the Western Steel Body technique.”
“I’ve heard of it,” Hoyt mentioned, “There’s a stronger focus on cultivating the body at every stage than many others.”
“That is correct. Many neglect the power of their own body in favor of the power of energy beyond the first stage.” Ayotunde shrugged, “It is not impossible to temper both. Just a bit slower.”
“I’d like to hear about it,” Anton said. “The Ninety-Nine Stars still considers the body during Spirit Building, but I’m sure the methods differ. Though of course I don’t have any experience at Spirit Building yet.”
Ayotunde grinned, “Many keep the secrets of cultivation to themselves. They do not know they have the key to treasures the other hold. I would gladly exchange thoughts with the three of you. The young ones have much potential…” Ayotunde frowned as he looked over Anton, “But you are much more difficult to read. You’re not an elder guiding the others, are you?”
Anton shook his head, “No. I’m just a disciple.”
“Hmm. Now I am very curious. But we must introduce you to the others.”
Anton didn’t find himself impressed by any of the other guards. It wasn’t that he expected them to be as strong as Ayotunde. Obviously they wouldn’t be, since they were still in Body Tempering, but their demeanors didn’t impress him. However, he knew they should at least be competent in battle.
The entire trip should be about a week in duration, if they did not run into any delays. Pete and the others walked along with the caravan, as did many others. The wagons could carry drivers and a passenger or two, but the majority of the space was reserved for goods. Anton, Hoyt, and Catarina were stationed together in the middle of the caravan. The first day had little of interest, but it was also one of the most unlikely points to encounter trouble.
At night, Catarina arranged the area around the camp into a bit of a formation. Without the ability to modify the wagons themselves or special materials to add power it was only able to have a slight aversion force to keep people and creatures away subconsciously, but Anton knew that should be sufficient for most cases.
Guards stood four shifts during the night, with Anton being in the second. There wasn’t much to do except look out at the darkness… and up at the stars. He could only do so much of the latter to prevent his thoughts from drifting away. Even if there probably wouldn’t be danger, he wanted to be as responsible as possible with his watch. Still, he could cultivate. He focused energy on his eyes and ears, picking out the sounds of myriad insects and the noises of nearby animals. His brain had to filter the large amount of stimulus he was receiving and make sense of it, and the more he practiced the better it was.
He circulated his energy through the rest of his body as well, and of course through the surface of his skin. He just needed some time or one more good push forward to reach the ninth star. Rescuing Pete and the others was emotionally satisfying, but the feeling was tempered by knowing there were so many more people still in captivity. Not just those he knew, but many others. The stars inside of him pulsed as he considered how strong he would need to be to change that. It couldn’t be just himself, either. One man couldn’t match a country. After all, even if he reached the very peak there would be others as well.
A bolt of golden yellow energy streaked into the woods, spattering into the forest floor below the feet of a wolf. The creature turned to flee, and so did those around it.
“… did you miss?” Hoyt asked.
“They’re just wolves. Hungry, maybe, but this is wild area. They should be allowed to live here. Now they’ll be a bit more wary of humans.” Anton shook his head, “And wolf tastes awful. I’m not carrying a carcass with me for a bit of hide, either.”
“I haven’t sensed any magical beasts,” Hoyt said.
“They don’t live close to the road,” Catarina commented. “But some of them might choose to come here. But I’d be more concerned about bandits. We have too many guards.”
“Wouldn’t the guards dissuade them from attacking?” Hoyt asked.
“Yes. But… the caravan master and guard leader Idowu must know the value of the caravan. They would not hire so many unless there is something of value. But perhaps nothing will happen.”
“You don’t sound convinced,” Hoyt said.
“Cultivators both prevent and attract trouble,” Catarina said. “Ofrurg feels like the sort of place that has more of the latter.”
“We’ll see,” Anton said. “Just remember to keep your eyes and ears open.”