Though he had been extremely polite about it, it was obvious that Lev needed the escort back to the Grasping Willows. Even with the support of his energy he walked quite unsteadily. It wasn’t possible for cultivators to fully heal in a day, especially not without any miraculous medicines. Anton was quite willing to share what he had, but it wasn’t exactly suited for the precise purpose of regrowing bits that had been replaced by parasitic mold.
It wasn’t clear if Lev’s right arm would ever work again, and everyone silently agreed not to bring it up as they traveled. It wasn’t a long journey, but no day or meal was lacking in Lev’s expressions of thanks.
“I don’t know how I can ever repay you all,” Lev said. “You saved my life.”
“I’d quite like to say, ‘don’t worry about it’, but I do believe we could use whatever reward you could scrounge up.” Anton sighed slightly and looked wistfully off into the distance, “We experienced some difficulties that ended up with finances lost for nothing. We still have need of more funds in the near future, possibly more than anticipated.” Anton’s eyes settled on Pete and the others briefly.
“I’m not rich, but I did promise that pay for my mission,” Lev looked over the group. “You’re traveling away from Khonard? I assume the trouble was there.”
Anton grunted. “I made some miscalculations. Mishandled politics, overestimated myself.”
“You don’t sound like you’re from Ofrurg, though. Did you bet on yourself in an arena match? At least you’re alive.”
“Something like that,” Anton said.
“Hmm…” Lev thought for a few moments, “Elder Varela has some sway with people there. I don’t know if I’m worth enough to get him to try to cancel debts, but if you need more time…”
“That’s not quite the problem,” Anton said. “No need to burden yourself with it.”
“You saved my life though.” Lev continued to look over the group, “Is it someone you know? Enslaved and fighting?” Anton’s expression told him enough. “I’m sorry to hear that. If you failed to just buy them, they have to be a cultivator, right? That’s harder to deal with. I can at least ask, though.”
“I doubt he will be let free,” Anton said.
“Well, no.” Lev shook his head, “Elder Varela doesn’t have actual authority there. But he knows some people, and he’s mid Spirit Building which gives him more weight there. I’m honestly surprised someone would compete with you over a slave. People can’t really control slaves at Spirit Building, so their upper end value in an arena…” Lev shook his head, “I wouldn’t have expected anyone to be willing to make an enemy of a Spirit Building cultivator over a single person.”
“He wasn’t, when it started,” Hoyt explained. “Though that woman might have tried something regardless.”
“Oh. It was some time ago, then?” Lev asked.
“Two months. Just a bit less actually,” Hoyt said.
“A recent breakthrough?” Lev once again twitched as his right arm didn’t move how he wanted, so he merely bowed his head. “Congratulations. I know it doesn’t make up for a friend in danger, but it is still worthy of celebration.”
“I have not often been in the mood to celebrate as of late,” Anton said.
“I understand. So this… woman. She is backed by one of the powerful clans?”
“There’s an understanding not to speak of it,” Anton said.
“Hmm. Someone young then? Who thought they might actually lose to you…” Lev frowned.
“She did lose,” Catarina said. “Then she threw a tantrum.” Anton’s eyes sharpened as he looked at Catarina. “Sorry.”
“Ah… I believe I’ve seen her,” Lev said. “I promise not to speak of it. Except the part where you have a friend you would like to survive. Ah! There’s our road.” Lev smiled, “Soon we’ll be able to see the sect.” He pulled out his sword with his left hand, “The road’s a bit unkempt, so…”
“Beasts?” Anton asked.
“No no, nothing like that.” Lev’s eyes moved back and forth across the road before stopping. There was about a minute of silent walking before he suddenly swung his sword at the air in front of him, slicing through the hanging branches of a nearby tree.
“Should you be damaging the namesake of your sect like that?” Hoyt asked. “Those droopy vine-like trees are willows, right?”
“The Grasping Willow, even,” Lev nodded. “And we like visitors to reach our grounds. So we chop.”
“I see,” said Anton, looking deeper into the woods away from the road. “It quite makes sense. Not many birds here.”
“The smart ones stay away!” Lev said, “And the ones like that pigeon-” he pointed with his blade. The pigeon flew towards the branch of one of the willows, brushing against the dangling branches. As it did so, the branch suddenly curled up, sticking to the pigeon’s wing and wrapping around its body. The bird flapped its wings and made a racket. “See? Sometimes they even get grounded wildlife. Careless wolves and deer and stuff.
“Eep!” Catarina said. “They eat wolves?” She shifted her weight back and forth as she walked. “How do they know?”
“These plants just eat… everything. Including people, if they’re even more careless. We get some of our proper fighting style from ideas about them, and we also sort of just placed ourselves in the midst of them. Thus the name.” Lev gestured, “You can break off the branch if you don’t panic. But mostly the trees use anything that bumps into their branches.”
“Oh. Fuzz is safe then.”
“Who’s Fuzz?” Hoyt asked.
“Probably that wolf conspicuously placed in her pack,” Anton said.
Catarina smiled awkwardly, “Why would I- um,” Catarina stuttered to defend herself.
“It’s a serious responsibility. Not just raising an animal, but a wild beast,” Anton cautioned her. “Cultivators have more ability to handle a bit of misbehavior, but make sure it doesn’t harm others. If you’re not sure if you can do what’s necessary if things go wrong, it’s best to rid yourself of it now.” Anton shook his head, “But if you really want to try, you’d better study up on beast taming. If you even have any spare time.”
“I have… a little,” Catarina said. “I can do it.”
“Fine,” Anton said. “I trust you to be responsible about it. But I wanted to caution you.”
The rest of the trip was uneventful. The willows were kept back further from the road close to the entrance of the sect. Lev waved to the guards at the gates as they approached. “Hello! I’m back!”
“Lev!” One of the guards said, “We thought you’d be back a day or two ago.” The burly man looked over him from head to toe, “We’ll have to talk about what happened. And the rest of these?”
“They rescued me,” Lev said. “They’re from…”
“The Order of Ninety-Nine Stars,” Anton answered.
“I thought so,” Lev nodded. “But I wasn’t sure. I’ve heard good things about them. Though you probably hadn’t heard of us.”
Lev raised his ‘good’ arm. “Don’t worry about it. We’re a small sect. But I’d like to say we’re one of the more upstanding ones in Ofrurg, though not the strongest.” He looked to the guards, “Can we enter?”
“If you vouch for them. The elders will be eager to see you, thought you might want to first visit the healer.”
Lev shook his head, “Don’t think it’ll change anything. At least it didn’t reach my meridians.”
“You’ll have to tell me what ‘it’ is sometime.”
“I bet you’ll hear all about it,” Lev said. “Some really nasty stuff over there.”
They were waved through the gates. The guards still kept their eyes on the group as they walked around, but there wasn’t much else to watch out for besides them.
As they walked through the Grasping Willows’ territory, Anton found many similarities with the Order. The buildings were more practical than extravagant, despite cultivators generally being more prone to excess because they could afford it. Small fields were tended to by disciples of the sect- or at least cultivators with the same energy signature as Lev and the guards. From their demeanor and the fact that they were allowed to cultivate Anton found it unlikely for them to be slaves, though of course the workers ranged from people happily contented with their labor to those just doing it to get whatever rewards were offered.
“It’s not far,” Lev said. It was clear he was pushing himself somewhat, but this was their destination. “I’ll get you settled into some guest accommodations. I’ll report back about my mission, and get you that reward. Plus Elder Varela,” Lev shook his head. “Well, I’m sure you all want a bit of a rest too.”
Anton needed rest the least of any of them, but he didn’t mind some time to sit and think. When he’d had enough thinking he began to cultivate. Lev was certainly genuine enough, and he felt no malice from any of the others in the sect. Feelings like that became more tangible after he’d begun cultivating, and Spirit Building especially opened him up to new gut feelings. He was cultivating Intuition, which was one of the stars that related to other people the most strongly, so he was confident in his assertions. If he happened to be extremely wrong, he would kill his way out with the others… and write off Ofrurg for good. Still, he held onto the hope that there were at least some decent cultivators in the country, not too taken in with themselves that they forgot the humanity of others.
His mind returned to Devon. He couldn’t do anything to save him right now, but he would find the chance. One month was too short, but a few months… if Devon could hold out that long, Anton might be able to make the Potenza family reconsider. They would have already profited from him and if Anton could show he would continue growing stronger the family might choose to cut their losses- or rather, keep their profits. If they made the wrong choice, then he’d simply have to grow strong enough fast enough to save Devon anyway.
Then again, Devon might free himself somehow. Anton wouldn’t bet on it- he was confident in his grandson’s grit, but it would simply be harder to do from his side. Regardless, it was better to work on the problem from two sides rather than one. Anton wasn’t going to let him down again. His eyes flashed as he breathed in smooth natural energy. It was still quite early to complete the eleventh star, but Anton had an internal race with Catarina and Hoyt. He wanted to see if he could get there before they completed both the ninth and tenth stars. He was well aware that higher tiers of cultivation weren’t as quick, but he felt he could do at least that much. If not, at least he had a cultivation goal to aim for.