Major, sudden changes tended to leave Pete Sharman in a stunned state for a while. He didn’t think it would be much different for anyone else. After being captured and sold as a slave, that period was a few months. Most people in villages like Dungannon worked on farms at least part of the year. Being captured and sold as a slave was a dizzying turn of events that left him spinning for months. The sheer quantity of labor expected of him increased suddenly, and he had little time to think. Just work. Day in and day out. Work hard to hopefully avoid punishment, eat, sleep, repeat. The food was nothing much to speak of. Just enough to keep working and no more. The sleeping accommodations at least kept them from literally freezing to death at night.
He was resigned to that being his whole life, no break in the monotony or time to socialize with others. Combined with the lack of choice, everything just became worse. It dragged on forever, days blurring together and seasons turning.
Then he’d shown up. Anton Krantz. Or a man claiming to be him, anyway. Pete wasn’t going to complain, but the man didn’t quite look like he remembered. He’d expected someone… older? Everyone in Dungannon knew the Krantz farm, or at least knew of them. Pete was quite certain he’d seen someone with the same features he thought was Anton, but this fellow was… younger. Not young by any means, but merely old instead of ancient. Perhaps a son? Had one of the sons been named Anton too? That might be it.
It was awkward to ask, and they didn’t speak much in a casual manner. He wasn’t unapproachable, but… it was a strange situation. He bought them out of slavery, freed them on the spot. He promised to bring them somewhere safe… and began to teach them to cultivate. They couldn’t thank him enough, and he wouldn’t let them. Not too much, anyway.
“Just doing what should be done,” he said. “I’m trying to make the world a less awful place, for myself.”
That was what he said, and Pete didn’t have the mental fortitude to argue with him. Anton was one of those types, anyway. He’d do everything he thought needed to be done and not expect anyone to say a word.
Cultivation… he’d never expected to actually set foot along that path. He hadn’t even really known anything about it. It was a vague, mysterious thing. But when Anton explained what to do, Pete realized there was simply more to the world than he’d paid attention to. Maybe he just hadn’t known where or how to look. Natural energy was a strange thing… and while tempering his body was hard, it was no worse than a day out in the fields- and it felt better afterwards. He was improving himself instead of slowly wearing himself down.
Anton said they could do whatever they wanted. Maybe that was actually true, but Pete wasn’t sure what he wanted except that it wasn’t staying in Ofrurg. So he walked along the road with Anton and the caravan the cultivators were guarding. Some day he would figure out what Anton wanted… and maybe he could pay him back. Though it was a bit difficult to pay back your entire life.
In accordance with his own advice, Anton kept his senses on alert as much as was feasibly possible. During the day he scanned the sides of the roads for anything hiding in wait. At night he listened, mainly to the comforting hoots of owls and other sounds to be expected of night in a forest. The howl of wolves was some cause for concern, but they did not seem to be close and would generally avoid large groups of people. If magical beasts were involved then any standard behavior might be ignored, but speculating on every possible event that might happen was merely a waste of time.
There were too many places for things to hide in the trees, so Anton was somewhat relieved when the terrain became more rocky, with less ability for large trees and undergrowth to thrive. The road itself was wide enough to provide little concealment along its length, and it had been in good condition for most of the journey.
Catarina walked alongside the road, in the rough terrain. She kicked rocks about and dragged the sheath of her sword in the dirt. She cut branches off of trees and replanted flowers at her whim. Perhaps some of it was boredom, but Anton knew at least some portion of it had something to do with formations. Except when they camped at night, she didn’t actually have the time to complete a formation, but just because she couldn’t complete one didn’t mean she couldn’t think about how she would set one up in any given area.
Anton’s eyes landed on the road. From the middle of the caravan it was difficult to make out what was in front, but the constant practice was good for his technique. He didn’t see anything that stood out on the road… but perhaps that was the problem. It was too smooth. “I think I see something. I’m going to go talk to guard leader Idowu.”
Hoyt nodded, and Catarina’s eyes flashed. She began a more intentional series of movements where she stood alongside the road. The caravan kept moving, but Anton could move much more quickly than just horses pulling wagons.
Ayotunde obviously sensed Anton approach, turning his head to see him. “Yes? Is there something amiss?”
“I’m not sure, Guard Leader. But my eyes picked out a portion of road up ahead, it is… too flat? Not enough pebbles and irregularities. It could be a pit trap…”
Ayotunde turned his head back to the front, focusing energy on his eyes. While he didn’t have a formalized technique, he could certainly improve his vision a reasonable amount. “A pit trap? I think not. No, it’s something else.” He raised his hand calling out behind them, “Halt the caravan! Be on guard! The rear guard especially, check the back!” He gestured to Anton, “Hurry forward with me. I believe I have something interesting to show you.” Ayotunde ran forward at a quick pace, Anton falling a bit behind. The dark-skinned man stopped a dozen meters short of the spot Anton had seen, picking up a small boulder by the side of the road. It must have weighed as much as a man, but after he used two hands to get a solid grip and heft it high, he tossed it forward with just one hand. The boulder landed on the patch of too-perfect road… and exploded.
There was only an instant between when it touched the ground and when the ground fell apart. At the same instant, the boulder shattered into pieces. Anton merely saw great pincers the length of his arms retracting into the ground, their initial movement having been too fast to see. The ground itself was no longer perfect in the area, but the dirt shook and it started evening out.
“As I thought. A valley chomper, as expected. Which means-” howls came from behind the caravan, “-we should get back. Scavengers like to drive herds of animals into these, then feasts on whatever is left.” Ayotunde kicked up chunks of road as he sprinted back towards the caravan.
Anton followed at a slightly more conservative pace. If absolutely necessary he could fire from one end of the caravan to the other, but as his eyes picked out the wolves in the rear he saw they weren’t magical beasts. They were somewhat larger than he might expect, but they didn’t seem… healthy. They had sandy brown fur, mottled with patches of black, white, and grey- but with patches also missing randomly. Anton could just make out the ribs of some of the creatures. So far, they were merely barking and snarling at those in the rear, clearly hoping to chase them forward. The caravaneers had some trouble keeping the horses under control, but the rear guards were keeping the wolves at bay.
Then Anton’s ears picked up an extremely familiar twang and the sound of something cutting through the air. Some of the guards had bows, but the sound Anton heard was off the road. Anton’s eyes flicked towards the sounds with enough alacrity for him to yell, “Bandits!” with just enough time to give people half a second to react. Fortunately the dozen arrows claimed no lives in the initial volley. Though Anton could sense energy enhancing them, only one had the sense of an actual archery technique attached. That arrow struck the side of one of the other guards, but he’d managed to rouse some extra energy defenses with the warning. Enough to survive, at least.
Perhaps if they’d driven into the valley chomper, the chaos would have made the caravan completely incapable of defending themselves, but though some of the guards were out of place, they were able to react. Anton didn’t even have to move further to fire back at the bandits. His first arrow flew straight towards the ribs of a tall fellow among the bandits. They were ready for an attack, but perhaps not ready for the arrow to redirect itself as they leaned backwards. Anton had thought they would retreat that way, pulling away from him at the angle he was shooting. As the Spirit Arrow pierced into their ribs, Anton realized it was a woman. He supposed that made just as much sense as anyone else becoming a bandit, but it threw off his rhythm slightly.
Out from crouching behind larger boulders or from behind some of the wider trees came yet more bandits. They were far enough from the road that they couldn’t be easily sensed- and clearly they had trained to limit how much their energy was noticed- but that distance also meant they had to take time to approach the caravan.
With the woman he’d shot ducking back into full cover and clutching the hole in her side, Anton picked another target. It was a meaningless thought in the grand scheme of things, but Anton didn’t want the first person he killed to be a woman. As his second shot flew true into the sternum of one of the ‘archers’ somewhere in mid Body Tempering, his wish was granted. However, that shot drew the attention of the better archer among the group. Somewhere in late Body Tempering, perhaps even the peak.
As an arrow flew towards Anton, time seemed to slow in a moment of great concentration. He judged the trajectory of the arrow in a mere instant- compared to Elder Kseniya’s shots it hardly moved at all. His body still was a moment slow to react and it took a portion of his defensive energy with it as it passed, but he took no damage to his person.
Nobody else existed. The people in the caravan next to him would have to handle themselves. Even Hoyt and Catarina faded from his thoughts, though not consciously. He couldn’t think about them, or he would die. An arrow of his own was rapidly shot at the enemy archer, even as he tumbled off the road to where there was more cover. If he moved to stand on the boulder in front of him he could get a good shot but leave himself open. Instead he turned slightly, running in front of said boulder. He lined up his next shot as he moved, aware that his accuracy would suffer. Another arrow came in return, swirling energy betraying its presence but also signifying its deadliness. It flew just over his head as Anton continued running straight ahead- into a small dip that couldn’t be seen from the bandit’s angle.
A rock slammed into the guts of an approaching bandit as Catarina kicked it towards the oncoming group. It merely bounced off of his defensive energy, but it slowed him half a step. “I told you I wasn’t paranoid!” Catarina said to Hoyt. She pointed to another rock, “That one! Just throw it anywhere!”
Hoyt reached down with one hand to grab a rock the size of his head. While she said anywhere, what she really meant was away from where she’d been messing around to set up a formation, in the minute or so since Anton had said he saw something ahead. Hoyt wasn’t sure if the formation was working or if he was lucky, but the rock hit straight into the ankle of one of the approaching enemies, causing them to stumble. He ducked beneath an arrow from one of the archers, though most of them were approaching closer and drawing melee weapons.
Bandits were attacking from the other side of the road as well, but Ayotunde had turned that way the moment they appeared. Hoyt didn’t have the luxury of turning to watch, but several sources of energy had met Ayotunde… and then disappeared a moment later. That seemed to be a good sign. The rear of the caravan was still beset by wolves, but they weren’t especially eager to attack. They were merely holding a standoff with some of the guards there, tying up resources and three guards.
The first bandit to reach Hoyt found himself missing an arm as he tried to parry Hoyt’s axe. He would have liked to attribute that entirely to his own skill, but the bandit was slightly lower in cultivation… and had been sluggish with his control of energy at the last moment. The formation at work. Though the formation only covered the area immediately around Hoyt and Catarina, there were perhaps only thirty or forty bandits total. They outnumbered those in the caravan, but they were individually weaker than the best. Though that was only because they could count Ayotunde. He was fending off almost half of the attackers all on his own. That was a middle Spirit Building cultivator for you.
Hoyt readied himself for the next enemies to approach, standing close to Catarina and one of the other guards as she channelled her energy into the simple formation she had set up. There had been some dangerous arrows from someone late in Body Tempering… and Hoyt sensed that same energy further off the road along with Anton’s. Catarina obviously wanted to go help, but if she left the formation their side of the caravan would probably collapse.