Elder Cultivator 71

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Being unable to affect his own circumstances was one of the worst feelings in the world. Pete was still extremely low in cultivation and had no combat experience to speak of. If anything actually happened while they waited, he would basically be helpless again. The best he could do was shuffle around the perimeter of their safe zone, checking the formation. He couldn’t even fix it if there was a problem. He certainly wasn’t going to do anything without talking to Catarina, because while he had a decent sense of how things were supposed to be he had merely a couple of months of experience. If he changed something that felt incorrect and instead broke the formation, he couldn’t make up for it.

He had no real reason to believe he could help with anything, but patrolling around made him feel better. He couldn’t even think about sleeping. Then he saw a flicker of movement and more importantly moving energy. He could still feel Catarina back in the center of their camp, but it wasn’t nearly strong enough for that anyway. It wasn’t James or Steven or the other two. But there was still one more thing it could be. The way it disturbed the energy… yes, it had to be Fuzz.

Even though he’d been watching, Pete barely had any idea what Catarina had been doing with the wolf. For a while she’d been carrying the thing in her pack, all bundled up nice and safe. Safe for both the wolf and the people. Fuzz couldn’t really hurt anyone if he wanted to, anyway. He was understandably nervous and snippy at first, but he couldn’t really… move. Whatever that moss had done as it ate into him messed up most of his legs. Personally Pete would have just left the wolf to die, or even finished it off quickly. Instead, Catarina had done something crazy. She started cutting formations into the wolf’s fur. At first it was to encourage healing but when she realized that wouldn’t be sufficient she started onto stranger stuff. Pete couldn’t say how, but somehow she’d made up for whatever was missing from Fuzz’s front right leg, letting it move. That was pretty recent, though. How could the whole beast be running off?

It was unlikely to matter that Pete attempted to be quiet as he followed after Fuzz. If he somehow avoided being heard- which was unlikely- Fuzz would still smell him. He wasn’t even sure why he was sneaking instead of calling the alarm. Though honestly, if the wolf wanted to run off what did it even matter?

He followed the obvious disturbances of energy, occasionally catching sight of Fuzz. The way he was moving was almost comical. Only his two front legs worked. If Pete had been guessing how he would move like that, he would have imagined someone crawling or dragging themselves across the ground. Instead, the wolf had his rear lifted in the air. Not straight above his head like someone doing a handstand, but just enough that his rear feet didn’t touch the ground. It seemed extremely unbalanced, but the grey-furred animal plodded forward continuously. Pete was a bit faster, though, and that was while trying to be stealthy.

Before he could catch up, he heard something. A whine. Had Fuzz hurt himself? It seemed likely. Then he heard a voice. “What are you doing, stupid mutt?” A woman’s voice. Not one he was familiar with. Maybe one of the women they’d just freed? Lara, he thought her name was. Then there was a growl. “Get out of the way!” then, “Let go!”

When he finally could see through the trees and underbrush, the dim moonlight revealed Fuzz grabbing onto the arm of a woman, with her attempting to pull away. He was no longer walking in his strange way, instead his rear was firmly planted on the ground. Pete’s first instincts were to rush forward and help Lara, but something felt strange. His feet didn’t hesitate to continue forward while his mind thought about it.

Ah, he figured it out. The woman wasn’t yelling for help, even though the camp was not far. On the other hand, Fuzz was gripping her arm firmly but not in a way that would damage her. She only got hurt as she kicked at him while he kept his jaws tight. If he didn’t know better, Pete would have thought the woman was trying to escape the camp. But she didn’t need to escape. Nobody had forced her to come. But instead of speculating, he supposed he could try to use words. “Fuzz! Let go of her.” Fuzz responded with something between a whine and a growl, but the wolf didn’t move. He continued his firm hold on the woman’s arm.

On the other hand, the woman startled at the sound of Pete’s voice. Her face was nervous as she turned to look at him. “Oh! Uhm… Peter. This beast is attacking me, please help!”

“Of course,” he said, stepping closer. “I can’t just pull him off without tearing up your arm. Try to hold still.” Pete was a bit nervous about folding his hands around a wolf’s jaw. Despite the cute name, Fuzz was a full-sized wolf. Or rather, he was a young version of an oversized wolf. He’d been a feral animal less than a month prior, and no matter how much intelligence he had that wouldn’t necessarily change. Cultivators had ways to influence animals, but Catarina was making up her own technique. She seemed talented, but he doubted it would work perfectly right away. Still, the way the scene looked to him… “How did you get all the way out here?” he asked as he made an attempt to pry apart Fuzz’s jaws.

“The beast chased me away from the camp,” Lara said, her voice faltering. Pete had to admit her emotional distress seemed genuine, and she was certainly afraid of Fuzz. 

But she was lying. The camp wasn’t that big, and he’d seen Fuzz leave. He wasn’t moving fast, and she would have had plenty of opportunities to call for help. Pete also knew that Fuzz had sharp teeth, and the fact that he hadn’t torn through the woman’s sleeves and punctured deep into her arm was because he was being gentle. But Fuzz also wasn’t helping the situation be cleared up either. Pete took a good grip on the wolf’s jaws while he inspected the woman subtly. Long sleeves, pants, boots. She was equipped in traveling gear they had purchased, not her own bedclothes or her servant’s garb. She was leaving. But why? They’d done nothing to harm her. She had to know she would be caught if she continued heading towards Sarton. Ah. Maybe that was it. “Come on Fuzz. I need you to be a good boy and let go.” Pete matched his muscles against that of Fuzz’s jaws. They were very close. Pete considered making use of energy, but he almost felt like if he pulled harder he would snap something on Fuzz. “Just let go and we can all go back to camp, okay?”

Fuzz was smart. Pete was certain that the wolf understood at least some of what he was saying. His jaws loosened and the woman pulled her arm out. “Thank you. Could you please take that beast back to the camp and restrain him?”

“Of course, I’ll hold onto him.” Pete put his arms around Fuzz’s chest under his front shoulders and lifted him up. He was a heavy thing, but Pete at least had the initial pass of Body Tempering done and had been decently strong to begin with. “Come on, let’s go.”

“You go on without me,” she said. “I need a moment.”

“Of course,” Pete said. “Take your time.” He turned around, still carrying Fuzz. Fuzz whined and wriggled, but he couldn’t get out of Pete’s grip. Pete walked away, leaves and sticks crunching under his feet while he listened behind him. Fuzz’s continuous whining didn’t help, but Pete understood the reason well enough. When they turned around, Lara was gone. “Okay boy. Let’s catch her.” If Fuzz was able to walk at a full pace he would have put the wolf down. Instead, he was still able to move more quickly even carrying the weight. He couldn’t say he was fast, but they weren’t slow either.

He first hurried back towards where she had last been. He couldn’t hear her, but Fuzz leaned very hard in one direction. All that snuffling he was doing must be for something, so Pete followed his ‘directions’. Eventually he caught up to the sound of running feet, and he caught sight of the woman. She wasn’t fast, but it was a bit hard keeping up with her while holding Fuzz. 

“You wait here,” he said, putting down the wolf. “I’ll be right back.” He didn’t stop to see if Fuzz listened, instead calling after the woman. “Where are you going?” Instead of answering, she instead started to sprint away. Not that he expected much different. He put his energy into his legs, the way he saw Anton and the others do when they were trying to move quickly. He almost toppled himself face first into the dirt, but fortunately managed to hold his position. His legs still did the majority of the work but he was enough faster to continuously gain on the woman. “Do you intend to go back into slavery?” No answer. But he wasn’t going to stop. He caught up to her and grabbed her around the waist, picking her up. 

She started screaming and yelling, kicking and biting at him. Some of that probably hurt, because while his energy was pretty weak it still provided a tough surface all over his body. Pete felt bad, but she was running directly towards Sarton. Whether she intended to betray them or was fleeing in the wrong direction he couldn’t be completely sure, but either way he couldn’t let her. He hoped nobody was looking for them in this area right now. The whole point of the formation was to hide their position, and now they were far outside of it. 

He started jogging back towards the camp, kicking sticks and rocks and leaves in a strange attempt to mask his trail. He had no idea if it would work, but it didn’t leave things any more obvious than he’d already been. About halfway back he saw Fuzz, doing his weird front-paws-only thing to move after them. When he saw they were both coming, he sort of waggled his butt and turned around back towards the camp. That was what Pete thought. Fuzz just wanted everyone to stay together. It wasn’t clear if he understood the danger or just wanted everyone to be a nice little pack.

The woman’s yelling woke everyone up, of course, and there was a lot of yelling and accusations going back and forth. Pete didn’t even want to think about all the things the woman he was carrying said about him. The men from Dungannon seemed to be taking Pete’s side, and they were all stronger than the rest. Things seemed like they might get violent but-

“Enough!” Catarina’s voice cut through everything else. A wave of energy made everyone reel on their feet. “Everyone quiet. We’ll hear things out one at a time. Pete, set her down.”

“Absolutely,” Pete said as he put her in the middle of everyone. He trusted Catarina to keep things fair.

“You-” Catarina pointed to Lara. “Share your side of what happened.”

“He tried to rape me!” Lara accused. “He pulled me out of the camp and-”
“I see,” Catarina cut her off. “Pete. Explain.”

“I stepped away from the camp because I saw Fuzz run off. She was out there, heading towards Sarton. Fuzz had a grip on her arm, trying to stop her from going.”

“The beast attacked me!” the woman exclaimed.

“Shut up,” Catarina said, “I didn’t say it was your turn to talk.” Pete had to admit that Catarina was being a bit biased. Fuzz was snuggling up against her legs at the moment. But that bias really helped him, so he didn’t complain.

“As I was saying… Fuzz wouldn’t let go. I finally managed to convince him to let go. She asked us to return to camp first, so I began to. But as you all might notice,” Pete pointed out. “She’s in full travel garb. She wasn’t forced to go anywhere. Anyway, almost as soon as our backs were turned she ran off again. Straight towards Sarton. Now, I can’t say she’s a traitor. Maybe she’s just got a bad sense of direction, but that was where she was going. You can follow our tracks easily enough”

“I see,” Catarina nodded. “You. Explain why you were going towards Sarton.”

“I wasn’t!” She pointed a finger towards Pete, ”He-”

Catarina’s sword was drawn and pointed at her throat in an instant, “Explain why you were going back towards the people who enslaved you and left on your own. Nobody forced you to be here. You know it’s dangerous for you to go out there, and you snuck away instead of just saying you were going off on your own. Why?”

Lara didn’t answer immediately, but another one of those from the manor did. “She’s the snitch,” the second said.

“What?” Patricia gasped.

“She’s the one who always told when we weren’t doing exactly as we should. I knew it. I just thought, if we were all going to be free it didn’t matter. But instead she thought about the stupid rewards she could get for being a traitorous bitch.”

“You have one last chance to defend your actions,” Catarina said. “Explain why you snuck away and headed directly towards our enemies.”

“Look, I- I didn’t trust you, okay? Sure, I was the snitch. I thought it would be better to run off on my own instead of staying around people I didn’t know. Okay? I just ran the wrong direction. It’s dark.”

“Fine,” Catarina said. She pointed with her sword. “That’s the direction you want to go.” Lara hesitated. “Go!”

Pete shook his head as he watched her leave. “I don’t feel good about this.”

“I don’t either,” the second woman said. “I don’t trust that snitch. Throwing around so many accusations…”

“I didn’t say I believed her,” Catarina said. “I just told her to go. Everyone else stay here and be safe.” With that, Catarina went off into the forest after Lara. Pete collapsed into a pile, various people comforting him and some of the women apologizing for their lack of trust. He was about to wave them away so everyone could start going to bed when Catarina came back into camp, carrying Lara. “She didn’t even go half a mile before turning back towards Sarton.” Lara was tied up and her mouth gagged. “So she gets to stay like this until the morning, when we decide what to do with her.” Catarina’s voice indicated how angry she was, each word almost stabbing into Pete and he wasn’t even the target of her ire. However, a calming feeling then washed over them. “As for the rest of you. Please, if you want to leave… just stay with us until we can get somewhere safer. We plan to take you out of Ofrurg, but if you want to strike off on your own somewhere…”

Patricia shook her head, “We know we can’t do anything about cultivators. We’re safest here.”

The mood of being freed was dampened by what had just happened, but several hours before dawn Anton and Hoyt arrived- with all of the miners in tow. That of course included Oskar, and the reunion of him and Patricia filled everyone with hope. So did the baby that hadn’t even seen his father until he was already several months old.

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