The Grasping Willows were generous enough to allow usage of areas specifically made for breakthroughs. The highest energy density areas also had formations to gather it even further, though there were limits to what cultivators at certain levels could handle. Catarina and Hoyt were able to complete the tenth star, putting them just one step from Spirit Building. Anton also made use of training areas, but while he was able to push himself right to the edge of the eleventh star, he wasn’t quite ready. He wasn’t sure what he was missing, but he knew he shouldn’t try to push himself further. Though he might indeed form the eleventh star something would be insufficient about it if he forced it, Anton was certain.
Eventually the time came to depart and they prepared to say goodbye to Lev and Elder Varela, in addition to a few acquaintances they’d made. While it was a nice enough place even with the presence of the namesake trees that could be somewhat cantankerous, they couldn’t stay forever. If they were going to stay anywhere forever it would be the Order, but Anton was still quite aware of what they had left to do. He had a list. He was happy that he had been able to mark several people as rescued, but there was more to do. There had previously been an entire page devoted to Devon, though he’d burned it. There was no sense to be made of anything he’d put there. “Currently in possession of the Potenza clan in Khonard” was the useful information he had. Anything beyond that was just speculation and led to depressing thoughts, except a recent note. “Received helpful influence from Elder Varela of the Grasping Willows.”
“Thank you once again,” Anton said to Elder Varela.
The bearded man inclined his head in return. “You as well. We couldn’t possibly replace Lev. As for what I did, I can’t say how long it will hold. The actual results are up to you. But I believe you have the necessary potential.”
“Potential…” Anton shook his head, “Many people and things have potential that is never realized.”
“I wouldn’t start doubting yourself now,” Elder Varela said. “Just look at me. I might be stronger than you, but for how long?”
“It’s hard to say,” Anton answered. “I do not expect the next decade to be uneventful.”
“It won’t be,” Hoyt said.
Lev bowed with his one arm, “I will not forget all of you. I can’t fully pay you back yet, but I will.”
“It’s not necessary to do any more,” Anton said. “But if you find an opportunity to help others in the future, if it is within your power… that would be the best way to pay us back.”
“I can do that,” Lev said, “But I can at least save your life or something. Or maybe fight alongside you.”
Anton didn’t want to give away too much, so he merely nodded. “If we have need of you, we’ll seek you out.”
“I mean it!” Lev said. “I’m not done cultivating just because of this,” he gestured to his missing arm. “I might not stand up to someone equal to me in power, but I just have to get stronger than them.”
“That’s the spirit,” Elder Varela smiled. “But we should really let them be on their way. They seem quite keen to continue their journey.”
Everything with Devon had been a mess. If there was one thing that Anton learned from that, it was that even after a year a single day might still matter. He wasn’t going to rush either of the others in the training opportunities with the Grasping Willows, but he could push the group to move faster. Pete, James, Steven, and the other two from Dungannon were making more progress in Body Tempering. None of them were at the second star yet, but all had completed the first. They were relatively young men in good health, and picking up the pace was a reasonable form of training. Anton was aware of a half-dozen people who needed freeing from around the area. The latest information he had wasn’t recent, however.
Though Sarton was the largest city in the area, it was overall rather rural. Though he found it small now, it was about the size of Alcombey- the largest city he’d interacted with for most of his life. It was shocking how quickly perspectives could change.
The packed dirt road they were traversing had deep grooves from overloaded wagons coming from various origins. Their particular destination was one that had lighter output, but that didn’t make Anton less worried. “Do you think we’re too late?” Anton asked.
“No point thinking about it now,” Hoyt said. “Could you even have made it here six months ago? Besides, I can tell that people from Dungannon are tough,” he gestured to Pete and the others.
“That’s right,” Pete said. “I knew some of these fellows enough to know they wouldn’t give up. If they didn’t make it, it simply couldn’t be done.”
Catarina sighed, “I can’t believe they’re forcing normal people to mine energy stones. What are they thinking?”
Hoyt chose to answer that, “Probably that they want to get every scrap of value out of what they own. They don’t trust cultivators because they think they’ll act like them- and they know they’d steal from the mines, so everyone else would too. If people can’t cultivate or leave, what can they do? Even if someone hides a spirit stone for a while, they can’t use it.”
“Mmm…” Catarina voiced her displeasure, “How terrible.”
“I agree,” Hoyt said, “But this is Ofrurg. They chose to be like this. Well, cultivators took over and chose for it to be like this. Nobody with enough wealth or power cares, so this is how it ends up.”
“And the Order just lets it happen,” Anton said. “Maybe they have to. But…”
“The problem with the Order is trying to balance goodness and stability,” Hoyt shook his head, “They sort of reached the limit of what that can do. The last couple generations have been somewhat,” Hoyt pursed his lips, trying to think of the right words, “Low in talent, let’s say. Sure, there are a few with talent but not that many. It used to be that the elders on the Council were all Essence Collection. Though that was a century ago.”
“What happened to them?” Pete asked.
“They died,” Hoyt said. “As I said, a century. Cultivation can improve lifespans by several times. A few Grand Elders are hundreds of years old, but low hundreds.”
“Vandale is at his limit,” Anton said. “He’s the strongest guardian the Order has, but he can’t go anywhere. I understand why they don’t want to spark a war, but the results are… disappointing.”
“Gonna change it then?” Hoyt asked.
“… Yes,” Anton said, “I will.”
“How decisive!” Hoyt grinned.
“Words are easy,” Anton said, “But I have no idea how I’d actually do so, or if I can.”
“You have us to help,” Catarina said.
“We’re not much in the way of cultivators,” Pete said, “But if you’re trying to make things better, you have our support.”
“What is ‘better’?” Anton asked of nobody in particular. “I guess I’ll have to figure that out. But first… I do believe we’re here.”
Catarina frowned, “There aren’t even any Spirit Building guards.”
“Of course not,” Hoyt said, “They’re expensive. They don’t want to cut into the profits of the mines.”
“Indeed,” Anton said. “Now then, we’ll have the rest of you stay back a bit. Don’t want to spook anyone into thinking we’re attacking.” Anton walked a bit faster, “Hello there!” he called out towards the guards from about a hundred meters downhill of them.
“Halt there!” The guards called, “This mine is property of the Callahans!”
“I am quite aware,” Anton said, “I’m here with a business proposition. I heard these mines are quite difficult to work, and I’m looking for just such workers. If you have any who have lasted for some time, I might like to purchase them.” With that, Anton flared his energy a little bit. It was partially a threat, but more a sign of power- and thus wealth. “Do you have anyone like that?” The latest news was indeed that they hadn’t replaced workers in some time. It was unusual enough to take note, and Anton had half been expecting to find they weren’t operational. However, if their workers were instead particularly survivable… he might actually have a chance to find those he wanted.
The guards exchanged glances, “Wait there. We’ll go consult with the taskmasters.”
Anton waited as they turned to leave, but if they thought the distance was doing them any good they were quite mistaken. A hundred meters was quite close enough for him to kill either of them, being only somewhere in the middle of Body Tempering. In fact, it was almost optimal range for him to fight in general. He had no intention to do so, but taking stock of his potential opponents was still important. Besides, almost everything about Ofrurg made him touchy and prone to violence. Who did these people think they were to keep people he knew as slaves? Nobody should be slaves, but Anton couldn’t help absolutely everybody.