The next weeks were filled with more boring yet stressful legal proceedings. Kohar had to make the utmost use of her legal prowess, and Anton was astounded at how many seemingly small circumstances could change things. Fortunately Kohar had been prepared for what they had done. Killing everyone in their path had always been the backup plan, it had simply been intended for a later time when Catarina, Hoyt, Velvet, and Timothy were all present. Tonina’s actions had forced them to act much earlier than intended.
The insurmountable extent of evidence on their side was helpful. First was the official courier who swore he delivered the first copy of the document directly to Tonina’s hands. Elder Varela had shown her the copy sent to him in the presence of several of her guards, and though they hadn’t read it his verbalized summary was remembered by one of them. Probably more than one, but only one admitted it.
Then there was the quarter-full arena. Not all of them had been able to clearly make out Anton’s shouting declaration, but out of hundreds of people they were able to track down a handful who heard clearly enough and could confirm that Tonina ordered the match to be continued. Once more there could have been more, but many likely feared reprisals from the Potenza family. There were also witnesses of Tonina’s destruction of the orders outside of the arena, and Elder Rocha had significant influence.
Not everything went smoothly. Both of Tonina’s parents had been out of town for business and were quite furious when they returned. They immediately started calling in favors, but the delay minimized their impact. They also brought counter charges against Anton and Elder Varela- the legality of slaughtering the guards preventing their passage was already settled, but there was another matter they attempted to leverage. The other slaves had broken out of the arena while they were there.
Kohar counterattacked savagely, at least as much as could be done by pulling up legal precedent. The accusation only served to slow down the whole situation. There were no witnesses of them being in that section of the arena, and there couldn’t be. All of the guards were dead. The freed arena combatants had been even more savage than the caged magical beasts that seemed to have been unleashed first to soften up the guards.
Despite cultivator’s patience for certain matters, legal proceedings weren’t generally one of them. The Potenzas’ influence only went so far when held against Elder Rocha. In the end they merely sufficed to keep Tonina alive. The sentence was a paltry three years of confinement and penalties that amounted to ten times what Devon had been sold for. The first was nothing compared to death, but not quite as worthless as it sounded. Proper confinement for cultivators involved a prison where there was no natural energy. If they could cultivate, it would hardly be a punishment at all. And while it was just three year, for a young woman like Tonina missing even a single year of cultivation would significantly weaken her compared to her peers.
“I owe you both great favors,” Anton said to Elder Varela and Kohar. “I promise to pay you back properly, if I can.”
“I will not refuse the offer,” Kohar said. “Your goals aligned with my own, but I will admit that there is more risk to myself than my normal business.”
“You painted a big target on yourself,” Elder Varela said. “I hope you’re ready. So many eyes are on you right now that I doubt you’ll immediately be in danger, but don’t let your guard down.”
“I was aware when I started all of this what the consequences might be.” Anton looked towards his other companions who had arrived during all of the legal mess. “In a way, I’m glad things turned out just like this, without any of your involved.”
Catarina hung her head, “I was willing to share the burden with you.”
“That’s right,” Hoyt said, “I wanted to fight with you.”
“I’m not saying you won’t still get to do that,” Anton pointed out. “Rather, nobody took notice of any of you. At least, not in the same way. It’s not so easy for you all to be unnoticed with, well… everyone.” There was quite a large number of people to bring along with them now, as each group had over a dozen freed people. “I do mean it about that favor, Elder Varela. I may have saved Lev by coincidence, but you called in a big favor to help Devon.”
Elder Varela smiled beneath his massively long beard. “Oh, don’t worry about not paying me back. I know the value of favors. I hope you don’t mind if I wait until you’re in late Spirit Building, so I can get a fair exchange.”
“That’s some confidence you have in me,” Anton laughed.
“How long?” Elder Varela asked, more seriously.
“What do you mean?”
“How long until you’re in late Spirit Building? I’m sure you have an idea.”
“… four to seven years,” Anton said.
“And that’s why I’m confident. You didn’t even consider not reaching that point. Yet here I am, stuck in mid Spirit Building. Just last year I saw you as you were stepping into Spirit Building, and now you are a solid three steps in.” Anton just smiled in response.
His muscles trembled as he pulled back his bow. Anton hadn’t felt such strain since he was first firing it, at the fifth star. He gathered his energy, forming an arrow. It flew forward, straight and true. He breathed out slowly. At least it wasn’t too bad. His body took the biggest hit from using the forbidden technique. He didn’t regret it one bit. If he’d been half a second slower, Devon could have been dead. What was a few years of his own life for that?
At least his energy was still strong and steady. Age simply didn’t affect his ability to use energy as much. It was somewhat more difficult to cultivate, but that seemed to be more related to the short-term aftereffects of Candle Wax rather than the increase in age. He’d used more energy than his meridians could comfortably handle.
He had so many ambitions left, and found himself in a strange state. He might actually be able to accomplish them, but he might also have to give them up for his other goals. If he had to die for the sake of Devon, sweet little Alva, and the rest he would not regret it. But if it came to it, he wouldn’t go easily. Anton couldn’t know exactly what trouble they might face on the way out of Ofrurg, but if they ran into no trouble at all he would wonder what sort of dream world he ended up in.
But just accepting the risk was foolish. What was all that money for if he didn’t spend it? There had to be mercenaries around. Anton wouldn’t put the lives of his companions over his own, but random people he was paying… absolutely. Though preferably the bolstered strength would protect everyone from serious danger.
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.