There was a strange thing among cultivators both young and old where they might hardly feel the passage of time. The last several months were only a tiny portion of Anton’s life, but he found that the same feeling of it passing by quickly didn’t apply to just him. It wasn’t to the extreme of closed door cultivation where people hid themselves from the world for months, years, or even decades at the extreme in a single span of cultivation, but repeating similar actions and cultivating while doing so accelerated the feeling of time.
Catarina, Timothy, Hoyt, and of course Fuzz were going to accompany Anton on his journey. He had asked them long before, and he would have had a harder time keeping them away than bringing them along. Even if the plan wouldn’t necessary result in the sort of journey that was the most beneficial in cultivation, all of them were willing to lend their strength to his cause.
A slight surprise came when Velvet came to Anton’s door. Before he could even say hello, she was talking. “I’m coming with you.” Velvet seemed to notice how improper her tone was, and repeated herself in a different manner. “I mean… I would like to come with you, if I may.”
“I only plan to be gone several months, at most,” Anton explained. “You should be able to step into Spirit Building shortly, and even complete the eleventh star without further guidance.”
“I know,” Velvet said, “But that’s not why. I mean, it’s not the only reason. You need help, right? You could use more allies, and as you said I’m very close to Spirit Building. Or… am I not good enough to help?”
Anton smiled. She needed the warm feelings, even if he was internally worried. “If you want to come along, I certainly won’t reject you. I don’t know what I might expect. Hopefully, it will be boring.”
“I doubt that,” Velvet commented.
“You never know. I’ve been known to get wrapped up in decades of boringness.”
Velvet shook her head. “You’re going into Graotan. Nothing is that simple. You’ll definitely have to free some people though… extralegal means. I’m the sneakiest person you know! I think.”
“Hopefully we won’t need to do any of that,” Anton said. “But I’d be a fool to refuse your offer. You have some talents the rest of us are lacking.” Anton had to admit he was somewhat stealthy himself, but there was a big difference between avoiding the notice of guards or distant animals compared to cultivators actively looking for you. Velvet had a chance against the latter- and a good one, since if he was the same cultivation Anton wasn’t sure if he could so easily pick her out.
“Great. So… I’ll go get ready.”
“I know you overheard, but don’t forget a tent. You might not technically need one, but it makes a big difference.”
Velvet sheepishly waved goodbye, Anton closing the door behind her.
He hadn’t asked her along because he didn’t want her to feel obligated. While she might owe him for aiding her cultivation, he also didn’t want to force someone into danger. There were other ways she could repay him, and Anton didn’t do what he did just to get favors from others. With her being the one to make the choice, she would hopefully be more reliable.
Travel to the Graotan-Ofrurg border was quick and painless. They ran into no trouble along the way, and Anton was pleased to see that Helmfirth Rill was getting along quite well. He was fond of the little town, unimportant as it was overall.
The border itself was still manned by early Essence Collection cultivators, three on each side. Despite being an entire tier below them, Anton found himself somewhat heartened by their presence. Ofrurg and Graotan were not on good terms, and the guards on either side were a show of military might. They only represented a small portion of the total forces of either side, but the point was that Anton was no longer so insignificant compared to them. He might not match them this year or the next, but he’d crossed the critical threshold of Spirit Building and still found himself progressing at a reasonable speed.
There was also something else. While the Ofrurg side match the Graotan side, Anton knew that the internal politics of Ofrurg weren’t so stable. He was better armed this time to achieve his goals, though freeing many slaves would still make him unpopular. That being said, those who managed slaves were generally no stronger than Spirit Building. Most slaves weren’t allowed to cultivate, and thus their total value was limited- not worthwhile for the strongest cultivators to personally handle. That and his preparations and allies gave Anton confidence.
The previous time they had crossed the border, it had been over quickly. Anton noticed that more care was taken on his current crossing, though the fact that the Graotan side also more carefully checked them indicated it was nothing to be concerned about. A group of four- nearly five- Spirit Building cultivators was something to take note of. That also meant more eyes would be on them, but Anton had already confirmed the trouble they had caused already was forgotten and nobody was looking for them in specific. They just had to be careful not to cause the wrong sort of trouble.
It was actually somewhat comforting to feel the eyes of the cultivators from Graotan follow them until they were far past the Ofrurg side of the border. He wasn’t just a newbie disciple anymore… though he recognized how far he still had to go.
Veron was exactly as it had been the last time he came through. There were still far too many slaves working on farms outside the city, and Anton knew he could do nothing about it. At best he could save a few. Individual slave owners might not be as significant of a threat as they once were, but trying to upset the whole institution would be suicide.
The first order of business was to get in contact with Kohar Tolvaj. The Red Willow Inn was helpfully painted the same color, and Anton was able to spot it as soon as they turned onto the right street. It was possible she wasn’t yet there- this was the earliest date she had said she would be around, but two people precisely meeting up across different countries might take some coordination.
The Red Willow Inn looked quite comfortable, but not extravagant. If Anton cared to, he could pay for more luxurious places for quite some time. For the equivalent of several weeks labor, he could spend a night somewhere with a proper energy gathering formation for cultivation. A waste of money. He was eager to grow stronger, but that didn’t mean he should be inefficient with his money. Perhaps if he was close to a breakthrough he would consider it, but for the most part he was fine with just a dry roof over his head and palatable food. He didn’t become a cultivator for luxury.
He walked up to the front desk. “Is there a Kohar Tolvaj here?” he asked. “She should be expecting me.” Anton didn’t know what her energy signature would be like, but it wouldn’t have mattered because one thing The Red Willow Inn did have was some privacy formations. He wouldn’t be able to casually sense the energy of anyone staying inside.
“One moment,” the man said as he reached for a drawer in the desk he was standing behind. “Your name?”
“Oh yes, she was indeed expecting you and your companions. Follow me.” The man led them up to the third floor, only briefly glancing at Fuzz, where he knocked on a door. “Honored guest, Anton Krantz has arrived.”
A short few moments later, a woman beginning to show her age opened the door. She should still be younger than Anton, though it might not be by that much since she was at the peak of Body Tempering. She could have gotten a late start like Anton, but he doubted it. With no barriers between them, their energies passively met. Anton didn’t know what he was expecting, but she knew he was a member of the Order. “Good timing. I have been here less than half the day. Come in.”
Velvet was the last one in and closed the door behind her. By that point, Catarina was already shuffling about the room curiously. Various thinking noises came out of her as she poked her head behind furniture. “Not too bad. They have decent privacy formations. I don’t see any significant issues.” She did slightly push a table when she thought nobody was looking, but other than that she left things where they were.
“A formation master, are you?” the brown skinned woman asked.
“Not a master,” Catarina said. “Not yet.”
“Modesty suits you,” Kohar smiled, “But I’ve seen those with less ability claim the title.”
“I haven’t even done anything,” Catarina said.
“You looked over the whole formation in a minute. That’s certainly an indication of your skill. And your cultivation and age are similarly impressive.” Kohar turned to Anton. “On that note, I do believe your letter said you were at the twelfth star, but if I’m not incorrect you seem to be at the thirteenth.”
“I was,” Anton said, “And I am. I wasn’t sure how well it would go.”
“I could have told you,” Hoyt said. “I knew you’d make it.”
“It’s not that I have no confidence in my abilities,” Anton said, “But we could have left early. Besides, a month or two…” he shrugged. “Could have been off by that much.”
“Congratulations on your advancement, then. I assume you have brought what I need?”
Anton nodded, “A full list. As much as it can be. As for the price…”
“I just need something to get started,” Kohar said. “Anything I do will require money to grease the wheels, along with legitimate fees. I can’t guarantee this will cost less than buying their freedom, but it will alter what hands the money ends up in.”
“I understand,” Anton confirmed. “I’m more interested in setting the precedent.”
“This isn’t going to make you many friends,” Kohar warned.
“I doubt it will be better for you,” Anton countered.
“I have methods to stay safe.”
“Doing this publicly should actually help,” Anton said. “The Order wouldn’t just stand by if something happened to us.” He’d gotten confirmation of that, at least. Nobody would be able to provide any excuses if something happened to them when they were following proper legal rules. Anton simply hadn’t known all the laws.
Kohar did. From what she had explained, it was important for slavers to keep documents. It was at least supposed to be a legitimate practice. Among those documents were enslavement history and reason for enslavement. While getting anyone to show those documents would be work, none of the citizens of Dungannon could have been legally enslaved. While the Iron Ring Slavers might get away with just financial penalties for their ‘carelessness’, Anton much preferred that method to paying for people. Kohar had also assured him that once it was proven the slaves weren’t legally owned, that would extend to later owners and they could thus track them down where otherwise they had to rely on information brokers. Even if they were reliable, they might have incomplete information.
The process wouldn’t be quick. Kohar expected it to take months- but that would still be faster than tracking down every person individually, and likely safer. Anton and the others wouldn’t just be waiting around though. Some things could be expedited. They also had other things to speak about with the Ears of the Fox. Anton didn’t expect that everything would turn out pleasantly, but they would do what they could.