Elder Cultivator 77

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Though the information on the bandits took them almost directly to the encampment, they didn’t rush in and start attacking. Even if all of the information was perfectly accurate, it could still pose danger. The number of bandits and their progress in cultivation was more than at the mines, and while Catarina’s aid would certainly make up for some of that it was better not to just rush into anything. They weren’t in a rush, so watching from far away to scope out the camp was reasonable. It was extremely unlikely that any of them could see better than Anton, who was not only somewhat ahead in cultivation of their best members but also favored a technique to increase his eyesight. While doing nothing else he could keep Hawk Eyes active at the most basic level all day, and that was what Anton had been doing. Just as they were wondering if they ever left camp, he spotted several of them sneaking away early during the night.

“Figures,” he said. “They stay inactive during the day and sneak off at night. Should have expected that.” There was only a small group heading out, unless he’d missed others somehow. “Just three of them,” Anton looked to Catarina and Hoyt. “Can’t exactly let them go off on their own and just hope they behave.”

“We’ll stay here and keep watch,” Catarina said. “If they split up more, we’ll figure out what to do. If they spot us here…” Catarina shrugged. She’d put together a small formation that allowed for concealment and combat enhancement. “We’ll be fine. Though tomorrow we should bring some of the others. Whoever is best at combat.”

Anton didn’t like that. The reason was simple. While two dozen first and second star cultivators could indeed overwhelm a handful of mid Body Tempering enemies, their individual lives would be in danger. But Anton also didn’t like the thought of leaving bandits to go off and do whatever they pleased. “You’re right. We can ask if the others want to join.” They probably would, regardless of their own feelings. Anton didn’t know how to get around that, since it was simply loyalty to the group. He would at least make sure they knew how dangerous it was. He would have preferred not putting them into combat so early in their training, but they might be necessary. “I need to get moving.”

Stalking people was much the same as stalking animals. It was unlike tracking, since his target was already in sight. He just needed for them to stay unaware of him until he got close enough. Though he wasn’t sure if he wanted to kill them just yet. Just assuming the information they had was accurate didn’t sit right. So far all he’d seen was them camping out. If they planned to do something, however, he would be close enough to stop them before they could go through with anything. Even at a hundred or two hundred meters, it would only take a short moment for his arrows to reach them. 

With the way the three men he was following looked around, he almost thought he was compromised. However, they continued to regularly repeat the same actions, sneaking to behind a tree or a rise, looking for pursuers or foes ahead of them before moving further. Anton was fairly certain he’d concealed his energy well enough. Though his greater quantity of energy at a higher cultivation was more prone to causing disturbances, he also had greater control over it when he wanted to. The end result was a passable stealth ability that still relied on keeping distant.

He followed the trio to a small community. A village with a tall palisade meant to keep out wild animals- and probably bandits. There were several entrances to the village, and guards at each. The trio seemed to be confirming that information, though they didn’t speak except in whispers- and Anton was certainly not good enough to pick up such whispers from so far. He didn’t have a formal technique for hearing, and hearing was naturally worse than vision for long distances. 

Even in the dim starlight, Anton could make out one of the men well enough to be certain that he matched the description of a scout that had worked with Van Hassel. That matched the information from the bounty board. There was nothing wrong with that, but Anton couldn’t help but remain suspicious. They had too much information about these people for them to not have already been removed. Was there corruption? One border guard helping them out didn’t confirm anything for the whole of Estary. But if that was the case, why was the information accurate? Why post the bounty at all? It could be a trap, but for who? It shouldn’t be for Anton, because he should still be an unknown from their perspective. Only a few people knew what he intended, and he didn’t expect any of them to betray him. The closest would be the Ears of the Fox, but they had a reputation for professionalism. If he’d already started targeting this group he could understand if some sort of information group found something, but the bounty was there before he even reached the border. 

As the trio of bandits finished their scouting of the village- they seemed unwilling to approach the walls- Anton followed after them. He followed them back towards their camp and wondered if the same could happen to him. He hadn’t exactly been incautious, but he was presuming that one of those he knew about would be the only possibility. Someone in Body Tempering. But if there was someone with equal or higher cultivation than Anton, like Van Hassel or the formation master…

A single glimpse of someone in the woods behind him was all he got. In fact, saying he saw someone was incorrect. He saw the edge of what might have possibly been clothing. With so many trees in the way and it being dark, it was impossible to confirm anything. But Anton was convinced. Someone was following him. No, that wasn’t the only option. It could also be someone else watching the bandits who had noticed his presence. 

He took a circuitous route around the camp to meet up with Catarina and Hoyt. He couldn’t say if he’d lost the tail, but he did his best not to lead them to his allies. At the very least he knew Catarina’s concealment formation should keep conversation private, unless the extra was vastly more powerful than he imagined. In that case, there was little they could do about it. He told the other two about what he saw- including the tail.

“Should we give up on this?” Hoyt asked. 

“This figure doesn’t fit the description of the formation master or the leader, right?” Catarina asked. “That is, neither of them are particularly known for personal stealth. And if it had been a concealment formation, you would have either not noticed them or seen something else.”

“Correct,” Anton said, “They simply moved behind trees as I turned my head. But just because they aren’t known to have those abilities…” Anton shook his head. “Well, the methods of Van Hassel imply he isn’t skilled at tailing. But the formation master, Nirmal, is relatively unknown. I regret not getting the complete information from the Ears of the Fox. I’m mostly relying on the Order’s info. Probably reliable, but incomplete.”

“So what do you think?” Hoyt said. “Are they a threat to us, or a competitor for this bounty?”

“It wasn’t mentioned anyone else had taken the bounty. However, I’ve been watching the encampment closely. Unless they have a way to turn invisible- a technique or formations or something- they didn’t enter the camp. The bandits did a nice job of clearing out the area around it so nobody could sneak up on them.” It also made their location more obvious once people looking were close. “I don’t think the formation master is with them. Otherwise we couldn’t see the camp.”

“Unless it’s a decoy camp,” Catarina said. “But if that was the case, this entire group is the decoy. Or they’re doing something extremely complicated with people going in and out.”

“I can’t say that’s not possible,” Anton admitted, “Especially with my knowledge of formations. I didn’t really talk to Victor about what he found, either.”

“I think…” Catarina calculated, “It’s unlikely. I don’t actually know how one would accomplish what I saw. Compared to the formation at the border, where I just missed some functionality. Nirmal would have to be extremely talented in which case one would wonder why he was still in Spirit Gathering and not luxuriously working for some big sect. Raiding and slaving can’t be that profitable in comparison.”

“Even if it’s him,” Anton said, “If he’s not advanced past mid Spirit Building then we can fight him. We might need the others to hold off a good portion of the bandits though. I’d prefer to not act rashly. We’ll keep an eye on them another day or two. Though we might want to start setting up an ambush point. I know their likely routes if they plan to attack the village, and if they attack before we’re ready we can at least warn the village. Any of us should be able to travel faster than their group.”

“Great,” Hoyt said. “I think I’d like to train whoever’s coming with us in some tactics to take advantage of their numbers. We just have to balance that with having them close enough to be helpful but far enough not to be noticed.”

“I don’t think they’ll do anything during the day,” Anton said. “Maybe rest yourself and start them in the afternoon, then you can personally come here at night in case we need to act.”

“I’ll also scout out those locations you mentioned in the morning,” Catarina said. “Some formations might be better than others along particular routes.”

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