Note: Moved some stuff around. Technically the first half of this is now the second half of 116 (and all the legal stuff was moved later to this point).
Waking up was unexpected but welcome, except for the pain. Devon had made the unconscious mistake of trying to open both of his eyes, and his right eye protested the effort greatly. He thought he managed to avoid damaging it further, but he had to just grit his teeth for a while to help the pain dull. Speaking of dull pain, it was sort of all over his body. Why had he survived?
Recalling memories was much less painful than trying to move, despite the unpleasant nature of the memories. When compared to the current pain he felt the memories were worse, but they were also less real. He’d been in a match with Moreno. One where he was going to die. Yet just as he was defeated… Moreno fell. Anton! His grandfather had come back! He never really doubted him- but in the three days he’d been waiting for his scheduled death he hadn’t even considered that his grandfather might arrive. But he arrived just in time. That had to be a cultivator thing. Would have been nice if he was an hour earlier though.
He heard footsteps- and felt the auras of cultivators. Two strong ones. Anton and… one of his companions. He’d sensed it before, but they hadn’t had the chance to actually meet.
“Don’t try to sit up, Devon.” Anton’s voice came through the door, “Doctor’s orders.”
“Tch.” How did he even know he was trying? It just felt so awful to meet his grandfather flat on his back.
“I heard that,” Anton said as he opened the door. “Which is good. It doesn’t hurt to talk?” It was wonderful to see the face of his grandfather again, and to feel safe. If he could stand up he would be hugging the man- and if he wasn’t injured, he knew his grandfather would have his arms around him, nearly crushing him. Instead, Anton gripped his hand gently.
“No.” That was one part of him that really didn’t hurt, which was good. His one functional eye went to the familiar form of his grandfather… and a strangely familiar form of a young woman he’d never seen before. “Who is this?”
“This is Catarina,” Anton answered. “It would have been nice if I could have introduced you in happier circumstances, but that did not work out as hoped. But now that you are free- legally, if that makes you feel better- we have the opportunity. She is Ashlyn’s granddaughter.”
“Really? Amazing!” Ashlyn had left the farm while he was still young, but he remembered her somewhat. “That explains why she looks familiar.”
“It’s nice to actually meet you… uncle Devon?”
He smiled, “That’s probably the easiest thing to call me.” New family. He really wasn’t sure what to think about that, but he’d have plenty of time in the future.
“There are others waiting to see you later,” Anton said. “We’ve had great success with freeing those from Dungannon, but did not wish to overwhelm you while you’re injured.” Others were now free? More than before? Devon was almost crying now, but it hurt to even think about it. Besides, he’d spend so long just staying alive nothing felt quite real yet.
“I appreciate keeping things small.” Thank you for saving me, by the way. I don’t know if I said that.”
“I promised to return.” He said it as if it were so simple. Perhaps he didn’t even know there was exhaustion in his voice.
Devon’s eye turned to Catarina. For some reason, she was standing excessively close, her face now a hand’s length from his own, though she was looking over all of her head and torso. “Hmm…”
“What?” he asked. “Something wrong with my injuries?”
Catarina pulled back and blushed slightly. “Ack. Umm… sorry. It’s, uh…”
“It’s fine. I’m aware I’ll be badly scarred. I might not be able to move, but my energy is just fine. I can feel it all.”
“That’s not quite it… see Fuzz was really injured too…” she shook her head. “Nevermind. It’s probably a bad idea.”
“Well now I’m curious.” Devon really wished he could sit up or even turn his head without the dull pain greatly sharpening. Even turning his eyes hurt his right, as there were injuries on its surface.
Anton looked at Catarina for a few moments, then rolled his eyes. “She was probably thinking about turning you into a walking formation.”
“Like… a building?” Devon asked in confusion. “I know formations are the protective things on the cells.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Catarina said. “You’re not like Fuzz, so it would probably hurt to try. And I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t mess it up.”
“You know about formations, though?” Devon was quite curious. “I’m missing most information about cultivation, honestly.”
“I’m sure we can help with that,” Anton said. “While I can’t say I have much more experience than you, I had a much better learning environment.”
“Yeah.” Devon frowned, “Is that bitch dead?”
Anton shook his head. “No. I tried.”
“Good. I’ll kill her myself. Maybe. I’m stuck below the peak of Body Tempering.”
His grandfather’s face turned into a very wide smile at that. “I’d love to hear about it, and help you through. In fact, I could teach you a much better cultivation method.”
“I’m not sure,” Devon said. “I’ve come so far. I’d like to continue this path, if I can.”
Anton nodded. “A reasonable choice. And I should be able to help ease the journey somewhat. You don’t have to follow the prescribed methods exactly as written… though do be cautious.”
“That’s something I learned quickly.” The only problem was Devon wasn’t sure how well his body would recover. Some of the wounds were deep into the muscle. But even if he couldn’t continue cultivating, just being alive and somewhere relatively safe was wonderful.
Pack dynamics were getting more and more complicated since they met up in the big city. There were so very many new people! However, Fuzz preferred not to think about that. He was one of the members of the pack, friendly with the pack leaders, and treated very well. Not only that, he was now also a mighty steed to carry one of great import, a pup in the line of two of the pack leaders! Another from the line of Anton and Catarina. Surprisingly, not even the youngest, though she was even smaller than Fuzz himself.
The child known as Alva had started riding him around when he recovered from his injuries, as her leg had still been broken. However, the situation had been amenable to the both of them so they didn’t stop when she recovered the ability to walk on her own. Alva was very willing to hug him and scratch his fur, both of which were very pleasant. Her weight on his back was comforting and not too burdensome, though he certainly wouldn’t be able to fight with her riding him.
The pack seemed to be both very busy yet they also seemed to do nothing at all. He hadn’t remained in a big city so long before. Usually they continued to travel, or at the great and small homes of the pack he was able to run free in the wilds. Now, he had to have one of the pack leaders with him as he traveled about. Truly strange.
With everything finished, they were ready to leave Khonard- and Ofrurg. Every part of his list had been marked off- either confirmed dead, free, or missing with no way to track them. The one exception was still Annelie, but he couldn’t just go see her. The risk was too high, and there were many people he still had to protect. Besides, he’d received some very interesting information from the Ears of the Fox. An additional tidbit that found him in Khonard, free of charge. Or rather, they seemed to include it in what he’d already paid for.
A Tomb of Everheart was going to be opening. Many ancient cultivators had created fancy tombs to test potential successors of their techniques, if they didn’t have a sect or anyone specific to leave inheritances to. A last act of egoism to make them feel important, for the most part. Very few of them were actual tombs, though some had trusted friends actually place their bodies within or chose them as a place to die from injuries or age. Everheart had created many tombs. More importantly, Everheart made it clear that none of them were his. It was a Tomb for those participating. According to the information they usually weren’t entirely deadly, but they were unpredictable like the man himself had been. Tricky, difficult, frustrating, confusing. Also deadly, but not just that.
There were some restrictions on who could enter. So said the grand formation Everheart set up. That was also how people didn’t just enter when it was found. The exact details weren’t spread, but apparently it was for ‘new cultivators’. As a member of a large sect Annelie would certainly participate, or at least attempt to. Anton was also interested, though he doubted he would count as a new cultivator. He was a century old. Still, he might see her there… and he had many companions he would like to bring along. Before that, they had to be alive. That meant leaving Ofrurg. Staying in Khonard had been safe so far, but that wouldn’t necessarily remain forever. Nobody wanted to stay, anyway.
To leave, they needed to be strong. Five Spirit Building cultivators was a good start. Elder Varela might accompany them, and Kohar was nearly in Spirit Building and likely to be interested in leaving the country. Seven might be enough, but Anton would rather spend money to make sure. Devon was quite happy to give up most of the fines for what happened to him to help protect everyone, though Anton knew he could hire a few solid individuals with his own money.
What he wanted were mercenaries. Hiring from a company might have worked if he had a stable structure to rely on, but instead he thought to look for strong individuals. There were locations where free mercenaries looking for work gathered between jobs. They might petition sects for work, but when they weren’t on a job or hunting monsters or training, they would gather hoping to get a job. If they were lucky, they could make more money as an independent mercenary than as part of a company. If they weren’t lucky, they died.
It was quite surprising to feel an Essence Collection cultivator as he approached the building. Someone that strong could easily find a place in a sect or mercenary company, or both. They would also be monstrously expensive to hire. Maybe he’d ask, but for an escort all the way to the border… it seemed unlikely.
When he noticed a familiar aura he was surprised. When he stepped inside and got visual information of Masozi sitting at a table, he slowly approached. His ability with formations was still minimal, but Catarina had been helping him with Spiritual Connection. He could tell there were formations in the area, and he had to trust they were for secrecy between tables as he had been told. “I hadn’t expected to see you here,” Anton said.
“Hmm,” the man who had been Tonina Potenza’s guardian shifted in his seat. “I did expect to see you here. If you were smart. You shook things up quite a bit. Unsettled some… established positions.” Masozi held up a hand, “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t intend to take you as an enemy. I am here because the Potenzas care more for their daughter’s opinion even in her current situation than for good sense. Blame for her actions somewhat ended up on me, despite the fact that she specifically went behind the backs of her parents and myself. I’d rather be independent than demoted.”
“Sounds dangerous,” Anton commented.
“I don’t plan to be the only mercenary going on whatever mission I receive,” Masozi sat calmly with his hands folded in front of him. “I am smarter than that. Which is also why I hope we can leave any matters of the past behind us. I do not look forward to dying next year, or whenever it is that you surpass me in cultivation. I do remember quite well that you weren’t even at the peak of Body Tempering when we first met.”
Anton took a deep breath, then nodded. “Fine. Though we have personal history, your actions were no worse than any of many others in this country.” Anton leaned closer, “But I would think very carefully about what you do in the future and who you choose to support.”
Masozi shook his head. “In ten years, you will be an important figure… or a dead one.”
“I’m already past due,” Anton smiled. Then he turned towards another figure he’d noticed. There was a delay before recognition sparked in the man’s eyes.
He approached the dark skinned man, waving casually as he did so. Ayotunde slowly and obviously gave Anton the once over, his eyes and senses carefully appraising him. “You’re… stronger. Yet your body… and you’re far too much older.” Ayotunde shook his head. “I will not judge your choice of techniques. Forbidding useful abilities is only for those with the luxury to do so.”
“They’re unrelated,” Anton clarified. “My cultivation advanced more or less naturally, and the forbidden technique that re-aged me was simply necessary for recent events.”
“So you were the old man to cause trouble with the Potenzas. What an astounding change. The other two that were with you…?”
“Similar advancement, but less exposing themselves to side effects. I must ask, why are you no longer with the caravan? It seemed like a solid job.”
“It was, but the caravan changed hands to a fellow I did not mesh with. So I left. And now you are here to hire people for…?”
“A simple escort out of the country,” Anton said.
“Who else wants to kill you?” Ayotunde asked. “Besides the Potenzas.”
Anton shrugged. “Them, probably the Iron Ring Slavers, some wealthy slavers who don’t like change. I doubt all of them will cause trouble though.”
“Nobody important, then.” Ayotunde’s declaration seemed sincere. “I would be glad to offer my services for standard rates.”
“With combat pay extra?”
“It cannot be extra if it is guaranteed. If you were to have to pay proportionate to the danger, I am not sure if you could afford it. I would suggest offering a share of equipment sales- to myself and others. Anyone sent after you won’t be poorly equipped.”
“Reasonably. Who else here can you recommend?”
Ayotunde looked across the room, though he probably already had people in mind. “The shrimp and the granny.”
It wasn’t too hard to determine which two Ayotunde referred to. “I don’t suppose they have actual names?”
“Probably, old man, but why even bother?” Ayotunde smiled.