The area around Sarton had a number of mines, and in keeping with that many slaves working in the mines. From what information the group had gathered, there were also more valuable sorts of mines worked by cultivators. Stones containing natural energy and high yield metals. Those were generally worked by free laborers, since it required a certain amount of cultivation to work those mines safely. Keeping sufficient numbers of stronger cultivators on guards wasn’t profitable after a certain point. But the more mundane mines make liberal use of slaves, and some of those had connections to Dungannon. There were also some who had been sold to energy stone mines. Anton was concerned about their safety. It was a small mine with low yield, but using slaves meant they had a low life expectancy in such a place. Lower than normal, even. But it wasn’t possible to know for sure the status of everyone until they went to look.
From Khonard to Sarton was a safer journey than the route that had been taken from Veron to Khonard. It was well traveled and generally considered safe for cultivators, at least on the road. With that being the case, work as guards along the way didn’t pay nearly so well and Anton and the others opted to travel alone for greater speed. Pete and the others from Dungannon had all completed the first star with some proper guidance. They were also healthy, young men- so they could keep up a quick enough pace. Anton found they were faster than he was at early stars, at least.
A good portion of the journey was through the Mossythorn Timberlands, a stretch of forest that surrounded many towns and villages along the way. Out of precaution, Anton continuously scanned the horizon around them. In addition to looking for enemies, it also let him take in the sights of the nature around them. It was nice to be in gentle terrain where there was very little danger.
Anton paid special attention to the people they passed. Some of them were travelers going the other direction. Merchants or cultivators or a bit of both, for the most part. However, he was more interested in the regular people. The farmer out in his fields, the woodcutter tending to his lot, bakers and tanners, tailors and innkeepers. People going about their normal lives in peace. One of those had been him not all that long ago, yet it seemed strangely foreign. He’d worked the fields of the Order and even the Riley farm. The people were so… calm. As if they were safe. It was especially strange in Ofrurg, where people were sold into slavery. Just not arbitrarily where it involved their own citizens. An internally sustainable sort of peace, but tenuous. If the cultivators on Ofrurg decided they no longer wished to follow those rules, they could. Unlike Graotan, they already showed lack of value for human life.
Even the Order wasn’t expansive enough to fully protect Graotan. Was anywhere truly safe? Even cultivators could face stronger cultivators. Anton shook his head. These were just depressing thoughts. Even if no cultivators existed, nothing would be truly safe. Those in power would declare wars and convince enough others that they must be gone along with that everyone had to capitulate- or fight them. Conflict and danger were parts of humanity… but perhaps it shouldn’t be that way.
Even so, the citizens of Ofrurg were safe enough. Even as the foolish thought crossed Anton’s mind to take revenge on them for profiting from a system that had harmed him… that wasn’t what he really wanted. The people along the way probably didn’t even really have a choice. Anton was successful enough he could have moved to another part of the country- or a different country entirely- but relocation was quite difficult for common folk. It was only attempted by the desperate. But with all his dissatisfaction with the world, Anton doubted he could solve any of the problems he had. If he could… it wouldn’t be yet. While his thoughts were on a negative streak lately, the majority of his life he had been positive. It had been enough to just… live.
“He’s lost in thought again…” Hoyt whispered to Catarina.
“Yeah. Whenever he gets like that, he won’t say anything for hours.”
Anton laughed, “I can still hear you, you know. Just thinking about changing the world.”
“Completely lost in thought,” Hoyt nodded. “Spouting nonsense.”
“You think I can’t?” Anton leaned towards him.
Hoyt held up his hands, “I didn’t say that. We just have to take things one at a time. Not all of us are in Spirit Building already.”
“Won’t be too long,” Anton said.
It was indeed quiet for a time as they traveled along the road before Anton stopped at the top of a rise. He was looking straight ahead, into the forest instead of down where the road diverged from its course in front of them.
Catarina stood next to him and looked as well. “Is there a problem? Danger?” She squinted, “Every time I improve my eyesight, you go a step further. I don’t see anything.”
“Trails on the ground,” Anton pointed. “Far off the road. It shouldn’t be a danger to us.”
“… buuut?” Hoyt asked. “You don’t seem to be done with just that statement.”
Anton shook his head. “A recent battle. Not a lot of blood, but the area’s damaged. Someone was dragged away. Like I said, it’s far enough from the road it shouldn’t be a problem.”
It was a few moments of silence before Pete stepped forward and prodded him. “If you want to try to rescue someone, we don’t mind. Nothing says you can only help those you know.”
“I don’t like unknown dangers,” Anton said, “But, we can at least check it out. By we, I mean the three of us.” Anton pointed, “The five of you stay by the road. The current disparity between our cultivations is too great. We can’t protect you, and if we have to flee… I’d rather not leave you behind.”
“Ah, I hate to admit it… but I understand,” Pete nodded. “Don’t take too long.”
“It’s just a kilometer or two off road. We should be back in an hour, one way or another.”
Anton, Catarina, and Hoyt moved through the forest at a quick pace. They weren’t quite running, but they were going faster than the running pace of any non-cultivator. It wasn’t quite as elegant as Vincent’s movement, but then again Anton hadn’t seen him concerned about speed.
Soon enough they came to the area Anton had spotted. From up close, it was clear enough to anyone that something had happened. There was torn up soil everywhere and scar marks on trees, along with a lingering sense of energy. In addition to that, sticks and plant pieces were strewn about as foliage got damaged during the battle. Others might not be able to pick out the small trail of blood and the drag marks, though the heavy footprints in the area stood out like a sore thumb.
“What is it?” Hoyt asked, looking down at them. “Some sort of claw. A bear?”
Anton shook his head, “It’s big enough for that, but it matches a wolf. Four toes instead of five. Magical beasts, maybe. The forest here seems dense enough with natural energy. But whatever they fought… shouldn’t be dead. There’s not nearly enough blood, and even if they devoured it there would be signs.” Anton held his finger up to a scar on the tree, “And this is clearly a fresh cut by a blade. So it should be a person. I wasn’t entirely sure from afar.”
Anton led the way, though the others were only a few steps to either side. Enough to give each other room to fight, if it became necessary. There were several sets of wolf tracks, along with the one dragging the body. There were continued drops of blood… strangely little, for what one would expect of someone mauled by a pack of wolves. The three followed the trail until they spotted a cave. However, instead of approaching immediately they circled around to a relatively hidden location and watched.
“Dark inside,” Hoyt commented quietly. “But I can feel the energy. It’s not too powerful, but… multiple sources, I think. It’s not just a magical beast leading a pack.”
“That’s right,” Anton said. “But something still seems off. The cave is too open, even for large wolves… and though they have excellent night vision it’s too dark before it turns that corner. They definitely went in there, though.” Anton stepped slightly closer to the trail, still away from the cave entrance. “What’s this?” He picked up a small piece of greyish-brown moss. It had been elsewhere along the trail, and at the battle location. As he held it up to inspect… it suddenly jumped.
Sudden movement from moss- or any movement for that matter- was quite a surprise for Anton. Tiny hooks appeared on the edges of the moss as he dodged out of the way, and he felt them stick into his energy. He flung the bits of moss away from himself, unsure if it could do any more. A moment later, other moss along the trail began popping up, not exactly directed in its motion. That triggered more and more of it until it reached the cave and went inside. In return, out of the cave came a large wolf with bright yellow eyes. However, it moved strangely, and its fur was coated in large clusters of the moss. A small amount of blood on its fur indicated it had been involved in the battle… and it seemed quite interested in fighting another one. Its howl was harsh and ragged, but more echoed it from in the cave and around the area.