There was a reason nobody had eaten anything like valley chomper before. The muscle was extremely dense and chewy. Anton wouldn’t have called it food or even edible. Ayotunde seemed to derive great pleasure from watching others try to eat it… though he also consumed it himself. Perhaps it was an acquired taste. Either way, it worked Anton’s jaw muscles to try to eat it.
Though the merchants and cultivators grumbled about being attacked, Anton found the lack of concern for the deaths to be rather disconcerting. Proper respect was paid for allies, and while he wasn’t interested in performing a nice ceremony for bandits it seemed strange to take so much death in stride. It wasn’t like the deaths Anton had experienced for most of his life, the deaths of time and disease. On the other hand… he had little emotional connection to the guards who had perished. He just thought that human life should matter more.
The promise of extra pay for the battle and the spoils of war did little to offset the sense of apathy. The rest of the journey gave Anton time to ponder on those thoughts.
Since there had been a reasonable chance that they wouldn’t encounter any actual difficulties, the fact that the rest of the journey went smoothly was expected, if not particularly relaxing. Anton kept his eyes and ears busy looking for further trouble until the signs of civilization were visible on the horizon. Anton couldn’t say that Khonard was much different from Veron, though its layout was quite different. Traffic was mostly expected to flow in from the east and north, instead of all directions like Veron. Their approach from the south came with fewer encounters of other travelers.
After collecting his pay, Anton found he made enough to purchase another one or two people from slavery. There was also a bit extra to be made from the sale of some of the bandits weapons and armor. If he made the same amount every week, within a year he could afford to free every villager of Dungannon who had been enslaved, if he could find them all. And in that same year… how many others would have to die? In a practical sense Anton should have been concerned that it eventually might be him… but he merely thought about the totals. Most journeys would be less dangerous and less profitable, but Anton could see why there were relatively few cultivators at the higher levels. Even if they had the talent, many would perish along the way. It was easy to say only the foolish or reckless would die, but it could also happen from bad luck. Then again, was it much different from a normal life? Anton was extremely unlikely to fall and break his neck or catch a sickness now that he was a cultivator, but such mundane deaths happened to people all the time.
But perhaps he was looking at things the wrong way. He should consider what good he did for the world, not what ill he failed to stop. Though the route they had taken was indeed more dangerous, several trips along the other route had a similar chance of danger. People had to travel between cities regardless of haste. So if he could prevent some death while earning money to redeem those he wanted to save, was that a bad thing? He just wished there were more things to do that didn’t involve violence. He already felt the desire to return to the Order where he could be more productive with his cultivation instead of merely violent. Then again, Anton supposed other sects had to have similar peaceful methods- but for travelers like him the jobs would clearly fall on the more dangerous side.
Inns came in various levels of cost and value. If one merely wanted a place to sleep, getting a roof over their head was simple. Anton had a bit more desire than that, but a simple room was not hard to get. On the other hand, there were more advantageously located inns for cultivators that were around higher concentrations of natural energy and might even have energy gathering formations. The first was more affordable, and since Catarina could at least provide temporary formations for the group the price was most efficient.
Combat allowed for quicker growth in cultivation, though it was balanced by the risks involved. Each of the trio had gained something from the battle. Hoyt had reached the seventh star not too long before, but he was making great strides towards the eighth star through his own efforts and Anton’s guidance. Even Catarina actually asked for Anton’s guidance, because she didn’t find herself naturally progressing as quickly while tempering her head. The problem was that she’d never really had to strain her eyes and ears for anything, and merely circulating energy only did so much. She was close to breaking through to the eighth star.
Anton found himself pushing towards the ninth star. The cultivation of his skin was nearing its peak, at least what he could accomplish. His skin regained a small amount of its youth, tightness and durability returning. Pushing himself beyond his limits was becoming almost a routine. With his eyes set far beyond Body Tempering, he cultivated with vigor and formed the ninth star. The next star was the real challenge. The tenth star was the third prime tempering and the end of Body Tempering, a recultivation of the whole body. Whether or not he could get past that point would determine his entire future as a cultivator. But there was no point in considering whether or not he could. He had to, therefore he would. That was all there was to it.
Pete and the other four from Dungannon were now past ten days into cultivating. By any measurement that was extremely new. Even the experience of battle did little for them, but Anton could at least sense changes to their body as they progressed through the first full body tempering. If nothing else they should be able to complete the first star, and that would improve the quality of their life. He wanted to give them the chance to seek their own futures… but it was unsafe for them to go off on their own just yet and nobody wished to remain in Ofrurg. He would lead them back into Graotan soon enough, but they hadn’t come to Khonard for nothing.
Devon should be in Khonard. The last information was that he still lived, fighting in an arena. That could change at any time, but Anton had to hope he’d lasted the last few months after he made it half a year. He still found himself nervous about it.
Khonard had several competing arenas. The title of grand arena shifted between the various arenas in the city, but the northeastern arena had not held that title in decades. It had gained a reputation as a more mundane arena where common folk could more easily afford to watch arena fights. Unfortunately, the fact that it didn’t display much in the way of cultivators fighting didn’t make it less lethal, since generally people of vaguely similar strength would fight each other.
Those who owned the arena generally placed their name on it, along with any titles. Thus, the northeastern arena was also the Irvin arena, with no other names. But despite it being the least prominent arena in the city, it wasn’t a place of no consequence. Anton felt the presence of several late Body Tempering cultivators throughout the arena, clearly guards and not visitors.
“No matches today,” the guards out front informed Anton and the others as they approached.
“That’s quite alright,” Anton said. “I’m actually interested in making a purchase of one of the combatants. Is the arena master or one of his assistants available?”
“You’d want the administration, across the street there. Everywhere else is off limits.”
Even during a day with matches inside passageways would be guarded, especially to stop slaves from getting out. Though a single one of the guards should be able to handle any would-be escapees if it came down to that. While forcibly freeing his kin might be a pleasant idea, it simply wasn’t practical even if they made it away from the arena. “We’ll go check there.” Having Catarina and Hoyt with him made Anton seem more important, at least he presumed so. At least he was clearly not a lone cultivator, and that could impact business dealings.
The offices across the street appeared quite pleasant, though Anton wouldn’t expect any less. They were similarly guarded, though with somewhat lower cultivations. More of a reminder than a barrier to attacks. Any foolish attempt at a heist of some sort would have city guards coming in moments, in addition to those from the arena itself.
An assistant sat in the lobby behind a desk, shuffling through some papers. He looked up as Anton and the others entered. “Welcome, what is your business with the Irvin arena? Do you wish to sign up to participate in battles?”
“Not this time,” Anton said. “I was hoping to purchase one of your combatants. Devon Gardner would be his name.”
“Of course, sir,” the man bowed his head. “Let me go check if the arena master is able to see you.” He returned a few moments later and gestured them down a hallway.
It was somewhat uncomfortable to sit down in a luxurious chair that he knew was funded by the blood of others, possibly his own kin, but Anton maintained as pleasant of a demeanor as he could in front of the arena master.
“So, you’re interested in buying Devon Gardner,” the man nodded. He was a large man, well muscled. He had reached the peak of Body Tempering by Anton’s judgement, though it was harder to tell with his cultivation method not being the Ninety-Nine Stars. “In fact, your timing couldn’t be better. He has recently advanced to mid body tempering, and we have few who are suited to match him. We would be quite happy to sell him to you.”
Anton was glad things wouldn’t be difficult, and even for Devon’s apparent gain of cultivation ability. He supposed it was natural to at least give people a chance to cultivate, because it could improve their performances- though he imagined they didn’t receive access to any techniques of particular merit. The downside was that he would certainly be more expensive. Still, Anton should have enough to cover the price… and he could borrow some from Catarina or Hoyt if absolutely necessary.