Over the course of a week, many questions were asked to Anton and the others. Others got involved beyond guard captain Aaron, though the answers were always the same. Before the attack they didn’t know anything about the three, nor did they find anything revealing afterwards. It must have been a dozen times that Anton allowed his storage bags to be searched, though he’d kept everything from the Essence Collection cultivator he’d slain in the man’s own bags.
The investigation wasn’t the only thing that delayed the group- many people still had injuries to recover from. Even though cultivators often healed more quickly, a deep stab wound still didn’t suddenly recover overnight. Though after a couple days traveling wouldn’t have been difficult, if they were to end up in another battle… there was some worry about whether they would survive again.
During that week, Anton took stock of his spoils. The enemy’s bow… ruined. The string was good, but the bone bow Anton had couldn’t make use of it. He didn’t think modifying it to have a string would be the correct option. But he certainly wasn’t strong enough to use it consistently yet. Unfortunately the other man didn’t have a backup bow- like Anton, he hadn’t really considered losing his bow. Anton just liked to use the bone bow for practice.
It was a shame that so many good bows had been destroyed in Anton’s hands or related to him as of late. That seemed to be related to engaging in higher level combats with more powerful cultivators, where material strengths could be outstripped by energy.
His opponent’s armor hadn’t been all that much better than Anton’s own- at least if Anton included the diamondsilk layer he wore. With a big hole in the chest, it was of little use. Anton resolved himself to get a full layer of diamondsilk along with some upgrades in every department. He didn’t want his equipment to hold him back. With the wealth of an Essence Collection cultivator, in coins as well as in commonly traded and valuable materials, he had the potential to accomplish some of that. Though of course a good portion of the value had been in the two destroyed pieces of equipment. Anton wondered if parts of them could be reused for something.
The most valuable thing he gained from the battle wasn’t anything he could sell to someone. The closer he got to Essence Collection, the easier it was to constantly have the Vessel of Insights active. He kept it constantly supplied with any excess energy, and the natural energy in the area had been sufficient for it to be active during the combat. Being able to review his own insights as well as those of the enemy archer was a great boon.
Anton only hesitated briefly before pulling out the strands of insight from the man. Though his actual cultivation level wasn’t quite at Essence Collection, he should be able to handle the man’s insights.
The Vessel of Insights worked in mysterious ways. Nobody had been able to fully explain it, but it didn’t exactly capture the thoughts of cultivators. He could tell who an insight was from, the circumstances they were in, and of course the contents of the insight itself… but he didn’t get access to their deepest thoughts and motivations during that time. Instead, it was just a memory of him performing a certain action. Sometimes it was just a very tiny change in stance, a slight shift in how energy was circulated. Repeating parts of the battle from his own perspective also helped deepen his understanding of archery, as well as Fleeting Youth.
The insights of the enemy archer were harder to digest than his own as he absorbed them into himself, but they weren’t overwhelming. The level of energy that could be called ‘essence’ was actually easier to understand than what Fleeting Youth provided. Anton still had no ability to gather it himself, but he felt that once he completed the final stars of Spirit Building the insights would ease his transition to the higher stage of cultivation.
The investigation into the background of the cultivators quickly hit a dead end, but Anton secured permission for the Order to send someone to investigate them. Doubtless many others from Droca would be coming as well, interested in seeing who was causing problems. Guard captain Aaron swore he would keep them preserved… and that was the best Anton could hope for. It was possible someone might try to destroy the evidence, but it was also possible that there was really nothing to be found.
Yet the region didn’t have so many Essence Collection cultivators that one could go completely unknown. Surely something about the man would come up at some point, some connection. Though Anton had some guesses about what it would tie into anyway.
Caeus and Printza’s Iron Fist Sect wasn’t large, but it still had an Essence Collection elder. Though they’d previously been intending to make their own way back, after the attack they got in contact with their sect. It took longer to get a response, but Anton and the others were willing to wait. Instead of a messenger, the Iron Fist Sect sent a full delegation along with elder Nonus, several late Spirit Building cultivators and a smattering of disciples.
Though their primary purpose was to inquire about the attack, they did offer to escort the group to the Graotan border, before bringing their own disciples home. Everyone was fully willing to take them up on the offer, even Hein.
“I might want to look for work elsewhere now,” he explained. “Better to be somewhere I’m less needed than somewhere people might look for me.”
Anton nodded. “I’d rather not try to fight an Essence Collection cultivator again. Any change in the circumstances could have flipped that on its head.” The battle was extremely close, and he likely only survived because his opponent didn’t think Anton was a true threat to his life. It encouraged him to continue improving his skills beyond where his cultivation lay, but it might be better to never get attacked at all.
Though it took quite a while, Anton found himself back at Graotan’s border. He didn’t know any of the guards, but apparently they were expecting him. “We’re glad you made it back,” they said. “We’ve been keeping track of any disciples out on missions and the like. Many were at the tournament with Grand Elder Kseniya of course, but some were otherwise occupied or broke off for their own purposes like yourself.”
“Have there been many attacks inside Graotan?” Anton asked.
“Nothing that seems connected- only the usual rare incidents. However, our border security has already been on alert in the past few years.” The member of the Order speaking with Anton shook his head, “Sometimes it seems there aren’t enough of us, but we’ve managed to keep things secure.”
“Hopefully the upcoming generations of cultivators will swell your ranks,” Anton said. Even if most of those he was teaching wouldn’t be striving for high cultivation ranks, he knew that his efforts were resulting in more cultivators joining the sect. He might even start rivalling Vincent in numbers recruited to the order, though only on a year-by-year basis of course. Vincent had a large head start.
Anton actually passed by the Order to head to the border, making sure Nkiru made it safely there. It seemed incidents in Ambati were more rare. The origin of the attacks seemed to be more to the east. Not necessarily from Ofrurg… but it also could be presumed to be nearby. No particular country or even sect had obviously been spared from the attacks, though even the larger sects usually only had a few attacks on their members. Even so, it had been hundreds in total throughout the surrounding countries.
When he approached his home, Anton was first met by Fuzz. The wolf leaped over the fence surrounding the yard, bounding towards him and nearly tackling him to the ground. He seemed to have reached some sort of limit for how big he was going to be, but Fuzz was already large enough that his tongue covered a good portion of Anton’s face when licking it.
As he was wiping himself down, Alva came running over. “Grandpa! You were gone for so long, and then the attacks started.” She looked down, “Catarina said we couldn’t go get you.”
“I told you he would come back,” Catarina came up behind her. “See? Safe and sound.”
Alva looked Anton over. “Where’s your bow? Is that a new hole in your armor?”
Though he had it patched, the damage to his armor was still visible. “The answer to the second is yes. As for the first,” Anton pulled it out. “It got destroyed. Let me tell you how.” Anton greatly understated the amount of danger he had been in, which also involved not mentioning the cultivation level of his opponent. “In the end, we both destroyed each other’s bows.”
“You used the cool bone bow?” Alva said. “Awesome! But wait. You never actually said how strong they were. They sounded pretty strong. Peak Spirit Building?” Alva narrowed her eyes as she looked at Anton. “Or… maybe even early Essence Collection?”
Anton sighed internally. That was the problem with Alva growing her cultivation so well. It was hard to hide anything against someone trained in Insight. At least, Anton hadn’t bothered improving his own deception skills, except for maintaining a neutral face in combat so his opponent couldn’t take advantage of his emotions. “You think I could defeat someone in early Essence Collection?” Anton asked by way of deflection.
The question didn’t even slow Alva, however. “Of course! You’re the best!”
“Were they really?” Catarina asked, her energy probing him more closely. “You got injured. They must have been somewhere around there.”
“I could have gotten injured in a fight with a peak Spirit Building cultivator, you know. I’m not undefeatable.”
“Yes you are!” said Alva. “When have you ever lost?”
“I lose spars with Catarina and the others all the time,” Anton said.
“That doesn’t count,” she rebutted. “You’re never serious.”
“Neither are they. We don’t want to hurt each other.”
“Alva has a point,” Catarina commented. “If you really wanted to kill us, you have a significant advantage. Especially with that special energy.”
“You all have a counter for that, though,” Anton pointed out. “At least enough of one.”
“That’s right,” Catarina said, “But I’m betting the Essence Collection cultivator you fought didn’t. How close was it, really?”
Anton held up his thumb and forefinger. “About this close, really.” The distance between his fingers might have seemed far, but if he was actually talking about how far he was from a specific attack killing him, ten centimeters or less wasn’t much. While other attacks might get that close to hitting someone, dodging by a hair’s breadth didn’t necessarily mean someone was that close to dying.
Neither of his granddaughters- with different routes and number of people between him and them- let him be on his own for the rest of the day. Though since his injuries had already healed up there wasn’t really anything they could do for him. But he enjoyed their presence nonetheless. But Devon’s absence was telling, and caused Anton to have his own worries.
Grand Elder Kseniya had basically dragged Anton up the mountain. She plopped him in front of Vandale. “Guess what this one here did.”
Vandale looked at Anton with his one eye smiling.. “There are many things Anton could have done. I could spend hours guessing. But I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
“He killed an Essence Collection cultivator. Another archer.”
“Oh yes,” Vandale said. “I heard something about that. The information that came from Droca on that was incomplete. They focused more on the fact that a group of attackers was defeated than the details. I was going to ask for a more thorough report.”
“You don’t sound excited,” Kseniya said.
“Should I be?” Vandale smiled. “I’m happy that you lived, of course, but I’m not particularly surprised. Both of us accomplished something similar back in our time.” Vandale shrugged, “It’s the curse of having high expectations for someone.”
“I just thought I should tell you personally,” Kseniya said. “So when we went missing for a few months you wouldn’t be worried.”
“What?” Anton raised an eyebrow.
“It’s training time,” Kseniya said as if it were only natural. “And we don’t have a moment to waste.”