What are cultivators? That was the question Anton was asking himself. Cultivators were people who made use of natural energy to temper their bodies and self. With that energy, cultivators could do amazing things. Cultivators were like the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars, guardians of the common people. They were also people like Maximillian Van Hassel, bandits and murderers. Mentors and slavers, farmers and oppressors. They were just… people.
That didn’t help Anton make a decision in the slightest. He was strong enough to be relevant on a local scale. Large enough towns were outside of what he could influence even with Catarina and Hoyt’s support. Even if they stepped into Spirit Building, the three of them could affect the lives of hundreds at a time but likely not thousands. But should they? Protecting people from danger was easy and unambiguous. When attacked by forest creatures, there was little room for ambiguity in Anton’s mind. Even if they did something stupid to provoke beasts, Anton considered the lives of humans more valuable than beasts. He might lecture people after he saved them, but he judged that value nearly unconsciously.
It was where he had to weigh humans against other humans that things became tricky. The bandits working with Maximillian Van Hassel- clearly guilty. He had no qualms about killing them when he got the chance. But the Iron Ring Slavers who bought those slaves in a place where slavery was legal but the method of acquisition wasn’t… how guilty were they? The people who then bought slaves from them?
Anton thought about what gave him the right to decide some people he could kill and others he couldn’t. To judge the value of one human over another. The answer he came up with was nothing. Similarly, nothing gave others the right to make that decision. Laws were decided upon by people, and different laws were made in different places. Sometimes the laws reflected the wills of the people- but some of the time the laws reflected the will of those with power. When both agreed laws were generally good, but following laws wasn’t inherently good. And if laws were supposed to represent the wills of the people, who were those people? Anton knew that the majority of slaves- those who weren’t broken down into husks- would say that slavery was unjust. But they would have no say in the laws, because they had no power.
So nothing gave Anton or others the right to decide what was right and wrong. Anton still believed that right and wrong existed. Good and evil actions might be intangible and it might not always be possible to know whether something was good or evil or some mix, but he knew it was unlikely to perfectly match his own decisions. He wasn’t perfect, nor was anyone he knew perfect. It was unlikely anyone could be. If there were gods, they were silent- at best speaking only to their own followers who had various levels of reliability.
If good and evil existed, he could only do his best to stay in line with them. If they didn’t exist, then doing whatever he wanted was perfectly fine. There was, however, definitely a line between doing whatever he wanted and doing his best to stay in line with what he understood as good. Because while Anton wanted to kill every bandit who came to Dungannon and found his thoughts on that fully justified, he also wanted to make them suffer at least as much as the villagers of Dungannon did. It might even be justified, but might wasn’t good enough. If he allowed himself to get so close to the line that he wasn’t sure which side he was on, he could easily find himself taking a few steps beyond it. Anyone could justify going just a little bit further to themselves.
So, if he was at least as justified as anyone else with judging the value of human lives, how could he do it? Slavery as it stood in Ofrurg was fully unjust, for it took someone’s life away as fully as killing them with no real justification. Of those who were enslaved because of crime or debt Anton was certain not all were enslaved fairly, if that was even possible. So he might be justified killing everyone who bought and sold and owned slaves, but even if he had the personal power to start doing that, there would be consequences. Unless he was all powerful- something untrue of even those at the peak of cultivation- there would be retaliations. Anton wouldn’t even really be able to blame people for defending themselves, no matter how evil their actions might have been before that. Nobody wished to die.
But if he were to value the slaves that would be saved higher than the slavers, what about those who would die as an accidental consequence of his actions? If he started a war, cultivators from Ofrurg and Graotan would certainly die. Were cultivators worth more than commoners? Anton’s initial thoughts were both ‘no’ and ‘yes’. Some might proclaim to weigh all human life equally, but Anton knew he didn’t. Family was more important than others. Those he knew were more important. Those he judged to be doing something of value or with the potential to do so held more value in his mind. He couldn’t change that, but at least he could consider it when he had time to think about his actions.
After sorting through those thoughts, Anton had made his decision. He considered the likely consequences of acting against those of doing nothing. How much risk was he willing to take? Could he leave men enslaved to die in the mines to protect himself and avoid conflict? He could, but he wouldn’t. If he had the personal power, he would slaughter his way into Khonard to save Devon. He should have faked some political power- in the sense that he wasn’t sure if the Order would have supported his threats and not that he thought they were incapable. But while he knew they wanted to avoid conflict, they weren’t entirely inactive. Others wouldn’t necessarily know the whole truth. Anton would prefer to actually have the Order willing to enter conflict for himself, but he had been fairly certain their response would have been limited. But he could have confidently said it regardless. If it had gotten him kicked out of the Order later, he could have dealt with that consequence. On the other hand, Anton wasn’t sure if that was something they would disparage. If he murdered in the Order’s name, that was something they would not stand for. If he simply intimidated people who were unreasonable, why would they care?
He was just hesitant. He knew the Order was good, because the people who made it up were good. Vincent had been trying to hunt down the bandits and had simply failed. The Order tried, but not enough. It was, frankly, something he could understand. The Order was old and tired. He’d seen it in many people, and very occasionally when nobody was watching he’d even acted old and tired.
By the time Anton finished sorting his thoughts, he was late for the meeting at the mine. But he wasn’t going to show up. Cultivators were known to be fickle, and he didn’t feel like talking to people he was just going to kill. He needed to make sure the others didn’t think he was crazy, because it would be really hard to justify himself by saying that he decided killing slavers was okay if nobody else agreed. He could also use others to keep himself on the right side of the line. Even if nobody knew where it was, everyone at least had a sense for the ephemeral thing. But after he talked to them and before he started shooting people with arrows, he had something else to do.
Oskar and the others weren’t the only slaves from Dungannon to be sold into the area. Anton was fortunate enough to have information from the Ears of the Fox that had led him to another. Even if nobody was alive to denounce his actions, Anton wouldn’t be comfortable staying in the area for whatever investigations happened. Thus, he had to find the others first. Oskar would have to wait, but he wouldn’t mind. Especially not when Anton showed him his wife.
According to the information, she’d been sold as a maid to a certain minor noble in the area. Nobility was a complicated thing, especially since it was generally trumped by cultivators, but in essence it was a rich family that had been so for many generations. They had some political power aside from their wealth, but because they did not produce strong cultivators they were ultimately limited. That was better for Anton, because sneaking into the house was much easier.
“I spotted formations around what is likely the master bedroom,” Catarina said. She spoke quietly, with a little bit of energy directing her words. They didn’t have access to a formal technique for private conversations, but they were experimenting with their own. At least their version would be quiet, if not immune to being overheard by cultivators. “Much more complicated than what I bypassed on the outer walls.”
One thing about having wealth for some time was that they’d been able to hire formation experts set up long lasting formations. They could arrange from simple alarms to defensive shields to even traps designed to kill intruders. “Do you sense any others?”
Catarina shook her head, “I don’t imagine anyone would spend so much money to protect their servants- and the formations on the wall would likely alert them to escaping slaves as well.”
“Then let us hope that Patricia is easy to find and retrieve,” Anton carefully opened his senses to feel for where people were while limiting how much he might be felt by the few cultivator guards. Besides the formations the area was less well defended than the mines, but he didn’t want to spark trouble if he didn’t have to. He wanted everyone to get out of Ofrurg alive.