Nearly three dozen ragged people were trudging through the wilderness northwest of Sarton. Their speed was hampered by the slowest among them, namely the various slaves freed from the manor. However, those same people remained determined to continue as long as they could, pushing themselves to keep up. Those with more cultivation carried heavier loads, mostly food, bedrolls, and tents. Much of it was repurposed from what they had at the mines, because even a poor blanket was better than nothing. There were also some nicer things to take as well as the weapons and armor.
The bodies had been disposed of inside the mine. It would take longer for them to be found that way, though it wouldn’t do much to hide their trail. Whenever someone came for the next shipment it would be obvious something was wrong. There was only so much that could be done to hide blood and damage, especially since they didn’t want to remain for long. None of the miners had a single complaint about their current situation. Oskar had managed to create a tight-knit community. It helped solidify it even more when they heard he had been offered the chance to slip off unnoticed and refused to go without everyone. Though they were now free, nobody quite felt it yet. Fleeing for their lives had something to do with it.
Though Anton, Catarina, and Hoyt had no trouble with the mere act of traveling quickly, they took more difficult responsibilities upon themselves. Hoyt constantly patrolled around looking for dangers. It was possible they would be found at any time, despite their efforts to hide their trail and chosen route. The first few times they camped it had been tense, as searching cultivators came close to finding them several times. The concealment formations held, however, and they hadn’t seen anyone in the past two days.
There were several reasons they might not have noticed anyone. Perhaps they disguised their passage well enough. Maybe the damage they had caused wasn’t considered worthwhile enough to continue to expend resources hunting them down actively. A couple dozen slaves probably wasn’t valued that much, though the cultivators they had killed might have sparked more concern. It was possible Sarton was simply arranging a more organized attempt, which might include a formation master who could see through Catarina’s efforts. At least part of the reason, however, was probably that they were traveling through the Black March Hills.
They were about as pleasant as their name indicated. When gathering information about the area to think of escape routes before they set everything off, they had heard the stories of a company of cultivators being slaughtered by denizens that lived in the hills, nearly down to the last man. What sorts of monsters inhabited the area was unclear, and the story of its namesake was so ancient it was hard to verify- but they were certainly dangerous. They’d already come across several magical beasts, nothing that the main three had to worry about but any sort of magical beast was enough to be a danger to those in the early level of Body Tempering.
On that subject, when they stopped for the night they didn’t just get to rest. That was when cultivation lessons began. Oskar and the miners had managed to achieve a level equivalent to the first star of Body Tempering through very messy methods that just involved taking in the overabundant energy from the mines. Oskar did have some guidance he’d given the others that allowed them to be successful, but it was mostly just dumb luck that allowed them to succeed. Anton began to instruct them in more proper methods of cultivation, though any aftereffects of their rocky start wouldn’t be clear until much later.
For the moment, they were bringing Lara along with the group. Her fate had already been decided, but leaving a body behind would only be a clear marker of their trail. They also didn’t want to carry a corpse with them, so she was restrained and forced to walk- or sometimes carried. Nobody enjoyed it, but even when they’d allowed her to leave she simply began to march back towards Sarton to turn them in. Anton had been able to confirm Catarina’s word on that- and it didn’t take any convincing to the rest regardless. She’d admitted she was the snitch to those who knew her, and the miners were quite grateful to Anton and the rest for saving them. Even though their life seemed to be in danger every moment, it was apparently no worse than working in the mines. And they were free- despite not really having many options available at the moment.
Sharp eyes aided by carefully handled energy looked ahead of the group. Anton had managed to complete the eleventh star shortly after they freed the miners. Despite the fact that they were fleeing through the wilderness with unknown forces at their heels, Anton was in one of the best mental states he’d been in during the last year. He was still worried for their survival, but he was doing something. It was dangerous, but not foolish or reckless. The fact that they’d made it this far indicated that they’d judged the situation appropriately. The response to their actions hadn’t been adequate to stop them, and now they had not only managed to save dozens but also weren’t rewarding those who were responsible for their predicament in the first place.
It made sense to peacefully buy up people from Dungannon to save their lives. Timidly keeping his head down and acting like slavers weren’t doing anything wrong could be effective… but the problem there was he was only saving a small portion of those he could see. How many hundreds were still forced to work in the fields around Veron and elsewhere? Of course Anton couldn’t repeat his current actions indefinitely and assume there would be no consequences, but remaining as he was wouldn’t have been good enough. His future actions would be more difficult- especially finding and freeing the last of those from Dungannon and whatever few members of his family still lived- but he judged the difficulty would be worth it.
He wasn’t going to just lead an army across Ofrurg. Even if the Order suddenly declared him as head and let him take every single elder, it would be far too costly. However, Anton would be certain to make use of the support he had in more than just training himself. He would ask for the Order’s help with political pressure. They might be reluctant to act or he might find his contributions insufficient, but he felt that he would do better that way than on his own- or with the help of just a few others like Catarina and Hoyt. If the Order was unwilling… he was certain that some other sect would be willing to do something. Spirit Building cultivators didn’t just grow on trees. Despite the fact that it had taken him not much more than a year to reach his current level, he knew people like him weren’t just everywhere. Convincing a new sect of his growth speed and potential might be rather difficult and despite its stagnation he still thought the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars was the right group to be a part of. Their core values were not something he would find just anywhere.
But before he could deal with any of that, Anton needed the people with him to survive the journey into Estary. Estary was north of Graotan and thus mainly northwest of Ofrurg, and one of the closest borders. They were also likely to be sympathetic to the plight of a group of fleeing slaves. The border itself would be a problem, but they weren’t traveling along the roads so Ofrurg wouldn’t be able to stop them and Estary would be able to ignore the specifics of where they came from. As long as they didn’t enter the country with cultivators hot on their heels, everything should be fine.
If they made it there alive. Magical beasts were a bit too common in the Black March Hills, and if they faced too many of them at once then the weaker members of their group would be in danger. There was a problem directly ahead, as well. In fact, all along the ridgeline in front of them. Anton was still trying to puzzle out the specifics, but he could feel the energy of magical beasts. Not just a few, either. Yet he couldn’t pick a single one out among all of the rocks in the area. It was only when he caught a glimpse of a rock moving that he figured it out.
Anton was relieved that it wasn’t actually a rock though. There were apparently places where the rocks themselves came alive, but in this case it was merely a collection of giant tortoises. Their shells looked like rock and would no doubt be extremely hard, but they still had heads and legs and everything else expected of a tortoise. That would include vital organs, if they could reach them. Their eyes were big enough. Anton would have to discuss with the others how best to try to avoid the creatures, though. He wanted to be prepared if they fought, but not fighting was the best option, especially with so many of the brown-shelled creatures.