It was humbling that they were found out while crossing the border, but that only reinforced what Elder Varela of the Grasping Willows told Anton. Even if he wasn’t strong enough to contend with the best yet, he could rely on allies. Granted, he hadn’t known the woman who helped in this particular case but he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. From what Hoyt had said, she could have been supporting them or just getting back at Yust, or Ofrurg in general. Probably both. Intentionally making allies in a receptive country would be a good move. That should have included the Order, but he’d been focused on all of the wrong things at the time. When he was told the Order would not or could not act, he hadn’t really pushed for more. Anton wasn’t sure if he could have convinced them at the time since he didn’t know what to say and was just a new Body Tempering cultivator, but he might have gotten something. Even a strongly worded letter could have been to his advantage if he hadn’t gone in so cautious, as if he had been targeted for some reason.
He briefly entertained a fantasy where he went directly to the Iron Ring slavers, using the pressure of the Order to have them buy back all of those they sold from Dungannon. Even in that fantasy his more practical thoughts butted in and forced him to take out a loan (in Graotan where he could get a reasonable rate) to pay for all of that.
And if it had gone perfectly… Anton looked at the group of people around him. Dozens of people he was now acquainted with would be slaves still. People from Ofrurg, Graotan, Estary, and everywhere around. Anton made sure to talk to each and every one of them one-on-one. Some of them were sparse with the details of how they became slaves, possibly because they didn’t want to think about it or perhaps because it had involved some sort of crime. Anton understood why they would be leery of mentioning those details and didn’t press them. He’d been fortunate enough to never have to choose between a life of crime or not surviving. Though now he was technically a criminal in a larger manner than any of them could have been.
Anton had no regrets for his actions except how it limited him in the future. Before he could enter Ofrurg again he would have to wait for things to settle down and get information on what they really knew. If there was a bounty with his face on it, it would make life much more complicated. Anton didn’t think the consequences would spread throughout the whole of Ofrurg, but it could be troublesome if he later had business in the north. Anton didn’t think he’d killed anyone important, and with how Ofrurg worked he’d likely be forgotten within the month. Though Ofrurg did crack down a lot harder on crimes within their own borders compared to what their citizens chose to do elsewhere. Hypocrites.
Of more concern was what the Order would think of what he’d done. Anton had no intention to break ties with the Order, and he didn’t think hiding his actions would be useful. Hoyt and Catarina could remain quiet about things, but the Order would wonder how he got so many people freed. Currently all of them approved of following along with him until they arrived in Graotan, though if some of them found opportunities on the way Anton would encourage them to take them. He couldn’t do much more than teach some basic cultivation and provide for them long enough for them to become established somewhere. Though it seemed likely that several of them planned to truly become cultivators.
Pete was currently undergoing the difficult process of tempering his meridians as the second star. If he succeeded it would be in great benefit as he continued to work with formations, and Anton was providing the best guidance he could. It still wouldn’t be easy. Anton did it quickly enough but he’d almost killed himself. Pete had a long life ahead of him still and could afford to be a bit more conservative with his efforts. Always being on the road doubtless wasn’t helping, but he wasn’t far.
Oskar was actually quite naturally talented. It seemed he’d never bothered making the attempt to cultivate, being content with his simple life. The tests the Order performed had passed him by because he lived and worked in small villages. Anton felt it was a shame. Vincent was so proactive about recruitment, but many people didn’t even know the real benefit that could be gained from cultivation. It was just a thing that they would never be able to interact with.
Currently, Oskar was rebuilding his cultivation. He’d managed to temper his body more or less equivalently to the first star so it was just about modifying his energy so his body could get used to the way the Ninety-Nine Stars felt. Anton was certain part of his success had been luck, but there was nothing wrong with that. Oskar worked hard and took the chances he had to.
That brought Anton back to the forbidden technique. He’d borrowed it to study, and he was quite certain he absolutely would not use it. He wasn’t even sure if he wanted to practice the techniques without actually activating them, because even that might cause him to age. The potential to burn up the remaining portion of his life for momentary power wouldn’t do him much good if he killed himself before he ran into danger. He agreed with its creator, Everheart, about its forbidden status. He did find some benefits from studying it, and he passed the insights he gleaned along to Oskar. It was up to him if he wanted to practice it further, but Anton was fairly certain some of the age he’d lost could be recovered. It was just his body was unused to the burst of energy and not that he’d burned away so many decades of his life in an instant. But… probably a single decade.
No, Candle Wax treated the cultivator’s life force as an energy source and Anton certainly had none of that to spare. As an auxiliary technique, however, it did teach him how to try to sense his life force. Anton wasn’t certain if that would be useful, but it was interesting enough he began to practice it.
The second half of Candle Wax interested Anton, as secrets dangled just out of reach often did. He would love to study it… but he had no intention to put in the effort to find it. There was no guarantee any copies of it actually existed. Anton didn’t know who Everheart was, but the scroll was hundreds of years old. Which technically could have made him not much older than Grand Elder Vandale. Maybe if he had time he would research Everheart at the Order. If they didn’t decide to expel him or something.
While searching for potential work along the lines of caravan guarding they had done in Ofrurg, they came across bounty notices. There was one that instantly caught everyone’s eye. Hoyt was closest and read it aloud. “Wanted: Group of eleven cultivators, cultivations from mid to late Body Tempering. Crimes: Illegal border crossing, suspected banditry.” Hoyt paused, “This is recent. They seem to have a location, as well.”
“Why hasn’t it been taken care of then?” Catarina asked.
The caretaker of the bounty board was standing nearby, and even though the question wasn’t directed at him he helpfully answered. “It will usually be taken care of by one of the larger sects within a week or two. And, because the recon has already been dealt with, the pay’s not generally considered sufficient. Nobody much cares to risk their life for something that will be handled by someone else.”
“I see,” Catarina said. “What if someone gets hurt before the sects deal with it?”
“It can happen,” the man admitted, “But border security has increased recently. They shouldn’t find any easy targets around here.”
“Does that increased security have something to do with Adrastea?” Hoyt asked.
“You met her, did you?” the man nodded. “There were a few incidents some years back. Then she transferred in.”
“What sort of incidents?” Anton asked.
“Banditry, slaving. It’s hard to believe Ofrurg is allowed to stand, but nobody really wants a cultivator war either. There are enough large factions that are perfectly ‘innocent’ except for how they benefit from letting things slide.” The man shook his head, “Anyway, senior Adrastea has really helped solidify the border.”
“What do you think?” Anton asked Hoyt and Catarina.
“We wouldn’t be doing it just for the money,” Hoyt said. “I think it should be manageable. We can at least get the details.”
“I agree,” Catarina said.
Anton looked to the bounty board caretaker. “If we could see more details, then. We’d like to know more about what we’re getting into.”
“Of course sir, we have a general location, some specifics on cultivation, and several sketches from those who have spotted them in the area.” The man looked through a few shelves behind him until he found the right bundle of papers. “Here you are. We’ll need those returned if you don’t take the job. Or if you wish to consider it longer you can make a copy.”
Anton’s eyes flashed as he looked through the papers. He couldn’t be sure, but some of the sketches matched the features of another he’d gotten from one of those he was looking for. It wasn’t too strange, since the information from the Ears of the Fox had mentioned he was still active but no longer in Graotan. Even if it wasn’t the right people, the information was detailed enough to confirm they weren’t just simple border hoppers. Anton would hate to kill people fleeing criminal injustice like himself.