If not for some particular details, Anton might have found the area quite pleasant. Fresh mountain air and a nice breeze blew away dust outside of the mine, and the mine itself was quite pleasant to look at. The structures set up in front of it were quite plain but practical, but that was something Anton liked in buildings. Things used for a purpose. The slopes of the mountain around were covered in trees and various forms of undergrowth and lively with animals.
But the mine was manned by slaves. Anton wasn’t convinced that slavery was an appropirate punishment for crimes or debts, but at least he could understand the reasoning there. However, those who took others as slaves merely because they had the power to do so filled him with thoughts of what he might do with his own power. But he forced himself to calm and civil, despite the circumstances.
The taskmasters had lined up about a dozen slaves in front of Anton. They all looked relatively healthy and strong, but Anton was able to spot small scars. The way the slaves moved made it clear that some of them had been whipped- at least clear enough to Anton’s senses. Though they were doing their best to give off a good impression, Anton understood that was just how things worked.
There were a few he recognized among the group. If he recalled correctly the one with the square jaw was Ebbe. He recognized Oskar as well. He thought he recognized one other from Dungannon, but that still left several others missing. Was he too late? Were they sold somewhere else, or dead… or did he not even recognize their faces?
Anton did his best not to focus too much on any individual. Ebbe didn’t seem to have recognized him, but Oskar’s eyes flashed. There was a lot of anger there. At him? No. Anton’s insight told him the man was wound like a spring. Ready to spring for the nearest guard and strangle him, if he could. Somehow Oskar seemed to think that there would be a fight. Was he expecting Anton to…? Surely he had to know that his guards were cultivators. But then Anton felt it. It was small, hidden, but Oskar and the others radiated just a tiny bit of energy. Some form of cultivation, but well hidden. It wouldn’t be enough for them to matter, though.
“Hmm…” Anton said, trying to sound indecisive. “Yes, they do appear quite durable indeed. Just what I am looking for. If you could name a price, I will think on it and return on the morrow.”
“Of course,” the taskmaster said. He gestured to the guards, “Send them back to work. I’ll be speaking with the Senior inside.”
The taskmaster brought Anton into what he could tell was one of the few ‘luxurious’ rooms in the area. At least, it was comfortable enough. The prices the man names for the slaves was high, easily three times what he had expected. Clearly they’d understood there was something valuable about them in particular, but Anton doubted they knew they were cultivating. The strongest guard was in late Body Tempering, and cultivation fed directly into the ability to sense details of others. Anton was fairly certain only his training in Insight had allowed him to notice, but then again the guards had longer. Perhaps they were merely allowing the miners to persist with cultivation because they were weak enough. Anton thanked the man and promised to return the next day. That wasn’t untrue given his intentions, but it was certainly incomplete.
Catarina moved along with Anton. They didn’t move far, taking each step one at a time as Catarina kept them concealed. Mobile formations were difficult, so they were mostly relying on distance to make up for the deficiencies. There was a steep cliff at the rear of the encampment, and no guards watching from that side. In fact, only a single pair of guards was awake, watching the road. That was the only sensible direction for fleeing slaves to go, and they occasionally patrolled around the area. However, the unrestrained nature of their energy meant they were quite easy to pick out.
The two of them climbed up into the area when the patrolling guard was on the far side, quickly moving over to the door to the miners’ dormitory. Anton had easily been able to make out what it was when he visited earlier in the day, but he stopped at the door to feel more carefully for any sort of traps or alarms. It turned out to merely be locked from the outside, of little concern when he could manipulate the lock with his energy. It was only meant to keep slaves inside, after all.
He slowly opened the door, gesturing Catarina inside first. He stepped in silently after her as she used small flicks of energy to set up a small formation around Oskar. Anton kept his voice low, even inside the formation. “Oskar. Wake up.” The man’s eyes flicked open. Anton had been ready to cover his mouth in case he was going to make an overly loud noise, but it didn’t seem necessary. “You can speak… quietly.”
Oskar nodded. “You’re… Anton Krantz, aren’t you?”
“That’s right. I saw you and Ebbe. What about the others who came with you?”
“Dead,” Oskar said, “Within the first week or two. They couldn’t handle the pressure down there. They mainly just brought new batches of miners every fortnight.”
Anton frowned. “Bastards. Listen, I have enough money to buy you and Ebbe. I just wanted to make sure there weren’t more of you. I can buy you tomorrow and get you out of here.”
“No,” Oskar said firmly.
“What?” Catarina exclaimed, “You can’t want to stay here?”
“Of course not. It’s awful,” Oskar shook his head, “But I can’t just leave everyone else. You- both of you- are strong cultivators, aren’t you? You feel stronger than any of the guards. Can’t you just break us out of here?”
Anton and Catarina exchanged looks. After a moment, Anton answered, “I’m quite certain that is a bad idea.”
“Fine. Then leave me here.” Oskar took a firm stance, “I won’t leave without everyone else. And preferably the guards and taskmasters dead, but if we can get these men out that’s secondary.”
“If only things were so simple,” Anton said.
“Why wouldn’t they be?” Oskar said. “People from here ran into Graotan and enslaved us. If you have the strength, why can’t you just kill them and free us?”
Anton shook his head. “The world just isn’t fair, I’m afraid.” Anton could tell he truly meant he wouldn’t leave- and forcibly taking him away wouldn’t do either of them any good. “But… I’ll try to figure something out. Keep your head down until then.”
“Wait,” Oskar grabbed Anton’s arm as he turned. “I don’t want to force you into danger… but the guards have just a few shifts. During the day a pair stand outside the mines and some watch the road…” Oskar gave as many details as he had to Anton. “I suppose you know how they are at night well enough.”
Anton nodded, “We figured it out. I hope… we will meet again soon.”
By the time their conversation was done the guard patrolled once more- but they merely waited with their energy constrained for him to pass. Then they went back down and away until they wouldn’t be noticed.
Everyone was sitting around in front of Anton. That included Pete and the others as well. “I have to involve everyone in this decision. Even the five of you, since you should have different perspective.” Anton explained everything he knew about the situation, including possible personal danger and potential retaliation against Graotan. “I doubt it would turn into a war, but obviously people will die. Even if we leave no trail…” Anton shrugged, “So. What are your feelings? What about the taskmasters and guards? Do they deserve to die?”
“Honestly,” Pete answered, “I think they do. If they’re anything like where we were, they’re unnecessarily harsh. And if they’re working people to death, they’re worse. I can’t say I really thought about the others when you freed us. There were so many and I didn’t really grow close to most of them. I was just relieved to be free.”
Anton looked around, waiting for others to speak. Hoyt was the next to do so. “About the Order. They might not be pleased at killing people involved in what Ofrurg considers legitimate business. Not pleased, but I don’t know if they could find any moral fault either. I’m willing to go along with what you decide. I believe the Order will still shelter you inside Graotan no matter what, but it might not be the best political move. Ofrurg deserves to take some hits, though. We can’t just let them walk all over Graotan.”
“Catarina?” Anton asked.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I feel like cultivators aren’t supposed to just take injustices lying down. Even if we might get killed,” she shrugged, “I feel like we should do the right thing.”
“If only I knew what that was,” Anton said. “How much of myself and others should I risk? How far is too far?” Anton shook his head, “I will be honest. I would not feel a moment of remorse for killing any of these slavers. But the risk might be too high.”
“Don’t we just need a plan?” James spoke up. Most of those from Dungannon besides Pete were too intimidated to say much in front of Anton, but that didn’t mean they had no opinions. “Unlike with D- In Khonard, we have time. We don’t have to settle on anything right away. I don’t really understand the cultivation world, but much of it seems to be about might makes right. Even if you personally have a real sense of morality, I don’t think these people do. So put some pressure on them. Even I know the Order is strong enough to keep them out of Graotan when they’re not sneaking around. Maybe scare them. Either way, when we act it has to be decisive.” James sat there awkwardly for a few moments.
“You make good points,” Anton said. “It makes me think that I am not a good cultivator.” He held up a hand to stave off protests, “Oh, I understand I have the ability. But I’m an old man with cultivation. What have I done? Almost gotten killed by a beast tide, fought a few bandits, spent far more money than I really deserved…” Anton shook his head. “I spend time cultivating, but what have I done with my cultivation?”
“Saving Thuston was a great deed,” Catarina said. “And you saved these five, and the caravan.”
“I’ll accept the first two as significant,” Anton said. “But I feel like I could have done so much more if I just let myself. Even now, I’m thinking to myself- Do I let people get away with evil and others suffer so that I can have an easier time helping another handful of those I know? Instead, I feel like I should just… act.”
“We’re here whatever you do,” Pete said. “I appreciate my new chance at life, but I would not mind risking it for others.”
Everyone else concurred. Eventually, Anton was left with his own thoughts. He didn’t want to be a fool who rushed into things, and he didn’t think he was a coward, but some part of him was still thinking like a simple farmer. Avoiding conflict and trying to keep his little community safe and cohesive, just continuing to live life. He didn’t think that and of that was bad, but it wasn’t what he needed.