Having survived the onslaught of tortoises flinging themselves downhill and now being uphill of them instead, the group did… nothing. Not to the tortoises, anyway. They were certainly aggressive and dangerous, but that was exactly the reason there was no point in staying around to antagonize them further. When approached from uphill, they did indeed start moving away to the side and since they were able to continue without any serious injuries, they left the area. Besides, leaving them all basically healthy would make it much harder for anyone trying to follow them. It might take the tortoises some time to return to the top of the hill, but they seemed to be already doing so.
The Black March hills were the final barrier to reaching Estary, and while they encountered a number of other magical beasts none were sufficiently powerful or in large enough numbers to endanger the group.
Camp had been set up just outside the border to Estary. It was already late when they arrived, and they preferred to cross the border during the day. They had decided that officially crossing the border would be the best option, with a few caveats. They did have some escaped slaves. It was unknown if Estary would honor Ofrurg’s laws, but the bigger problem was Ofrurg’s side of the border. It was decided that Hoyt would cross the border with the legally freed slaves. He was chosen in particular because unless they had been seen while traveling- in which case their pursuers had gotten much closer than they’d thought- nobody could recognize him. There was a small chance Anton and Catarina could be recognized from the manor. Anton wasn’t sure if he could or should kill everyone there and while they had been quite far he couldn’t discount the possibility one of the guards had extraordinary eyesight and good memory. Hoyt couldn’t be recognized because everyone at the mines was either dead or part of their group.
While they had a break, Anton had something to talk to Oskar about. The man now had strands of grey hair among his dark brown, strands that hadn’t been at all grey the previous morning. “What was that technique you used?” Anton asked calmly.
Oskar sighed. He looked exhausted, more than anyone else despite having been actively in combat for the same duration. He shuffled through his pack and pulled out the scroll. He held it out for Anton to take. “I found it in the mines. A forbidden technique.”
Anton left him with his hand awkwardly outstretched. “I see. And you practiced it anyway?”
“Well… not really.” Oskar scratched his grizzled beard. “I thought to leave it alone. But I couldn’t help but keep thinking,” his eyes flickering over to Patricia, “Thinking that I might need more power than I had. I knew how strong the guards were. So I read it. But I didn’t practice it.”
Anton nodded, his face impassive. “That is probably the worst choice, from what I have heard.”
“What do you mean? The technique indeed had warnings, but it also said that if it wasn’t used there was no danger in studying it.”
“Of course,” Anton said. “But if you were going to end up using it anyway, it was better to practice it in safety first. Unless the technique can only be used three or four times total, it shouldn’t have this effect on you.”
Oskar shook his head, finally lowering the scroll. “I don’t know. It certainly implied it could be used somewhat more than that. It was… difficult to understand.”
“Do you want my help? I have no intent to take it away from you. I’ve had more access to different techniques for study, and higher cultivation levels assist with understanding techniques.”
“I’m not sure,” Oskar said. “If Patricia was safe- and Kevin too- I might just get rid of it. But if they need me, I’m not concerned about burning a little bit of my life force away.”
“Burning your life force?” Anton raised an eyebrow. “That would explain the sudden aging. If it is any consolation, it is likely that continuing to rise in cultivation should recover some of that.”
“Is that why you look so… relatively young?”
“That seems to be the case,” Anton said. “It seems that each star of the Ninety-Nine Stars has the potential to raise the user’s lifespan between one and three years, and similar totals are had at the same stage for most cultivation methods. So I may still live another decade, though it could be less. Little study has been done on the extension of lifespan for those who begin cultivating… late.”
“I don’t know much about it,” Oskar replied, “But I certainly heard it was difficult to begin cultivating when older. How did you do it?”
Anton shrugged, “It’s amazing what you are willing to endure if you don’t care if you die.”
“I understand,” Oskar nodded sadly. “I don’t wish to put you in danger, but I would like your thoughts on whether this technique will have any additional side effects.”
Anton smiled reassuringly, “I will do my best to help you out.”
Hoyt had no idea why he was nervous. He was quite capable of being independent. He had the papers from when he originally crossed into Ofrurg, and the documents for Pete and the others declaring them free. He didn’t feel like he would have been nervous if Anton were around. He couldn’t say the same for his real grandfather. Maybe he was just destined to be a follower. In that case, at least he could be standing behind Anton. But if that were the case, he at least had to be able to carry out a plan they’d put together on his own. Growing up with the shelter of the Order so nearby maybe hadn’t been that good for him.
Still, he felt justified in being nervous. While there was only one Essence Collection cultivator at this border, it was still nerve wracking. He was used to any he met being much more friendly, since they were usually part of the Order or at least friendly to them. There was another similar cultivator to match on the Estary side, but that did little to help.
If Hoyt had been able to ask Anton how he avoided being nervous, the answer would have been simple. It wasn’t that he didn’t get nervous doing things. He’d just come to accept that everyone did and some just hid it better than others. While eventually repeated experiences limited the number of situations a person would feel uncomfortable, there was always something new that could elicit the same feelings.
Hoyt walked into the small office. There was no point in waiting. The others came along with him.
“Papers, please,” a bored looking clerk said. He was technically a cultivator, but he appeared to be in his forties and was still somewhere in early Body Tempering. Which was why he had this job, instead of something more exciting. Hoyt handed over what he’d gotten at the other border. The clerk looked down at it, then picked up a little bell which he rang. Another more junior clerk came running, “Process these, please.”
Everything seemed normal. But there was a slight change on the clerk’s face when he read the papers. “What was that for?”
“We’re checking everyone crossing the border. There was an incident.” The clerk gestured to Pete and the other four. “Papers, please.” The only identity papers they had were the ones that declared they were freed slaves. He started looking through them one at a time. “These don’t match. These documents aren’t for cultivators.”
Hoyt bristled at that, “Are you telling me I’m not allowed to teach free people how to cultivate?” It was quite obvious to anyone who was willing to look that they shared the same cultivation style. Sure, Hoyt technically hadn’t been the one to do it, but the clerk didn’t have to know that. He didn’t like where things were going. Was that ‘incident…?’ This was the closest border and sending a message along the roads would have been faster.
His question was answered when two Spirit Building cultivators approached. They hadn’t been far away to begin with. Were they listening in? It was a security checkpoint. “We’ll need to do a thorough search of your group,” they said. Along with that, they extended their energy to press down on Hoyt and the others.
That actually made Hoyt stand more firm. This was just a battle without weapons or attacks. Nothing to worry about. “On what grounds?” Hoyt said, his voice brimming with confidence… and projecting forward with the aid of energy.
“Slaves were stolen from Sarton, and cultivators were killed.”
“I see,” Hoyt said. “What does that have to do with us? I purchased the freedom of all five of these men in Veron. That has nothing to do with anything that happened in Sarton.” He continued to project his voice past the men. He wasn’t sure if it would do any good, but sometimes the loudest voice won. And he wasn’t doing anything that could be considered an attack, unlike them. The pressure of their energy bore down on him and Hoyt had to admit it was hard to stand up to… but there were two Spirit Building cultivators against just himself.
“The men have no other proof of identity,” the clerk said, “Just descriptions aren’t a good enough match.”
That was enough to set off Hoyt. “Of course they don’t! Slaving bandits from Ofrurg stole them from their homes in Graotan. I followed all of your laws to free them. Now you’re attempting to brand me a criminal? The Order won’t stand for this.” Hoyt was currently making his cultivation very obvious. He couldn’t possibly defeat the two Spirit Building cultivators despite their relatively low ability. But he really didn’t believe they would dare to do something carelessly. While Hoyt agreed that the Order needed to be more active, it was also the case that they wouldn’t stand for any violations that could be easily proven. A young, peak Body Tempering cultivator wasn’t a nobody who would just be forgotten about if he disappeared at the border. Hoyt also got some confidence because he’d felt the senses of an Essence Collection cultivator sweep over him. Two, in fact. The one that bolstered his confidence was the one from Estary.
He felt the closer one approaching. Hoyt wondered if he had made a mistake. While the Order would certainly avenge him, he’d really rather still be alive. He did have one more card he could pull out but fortunately the Essence Collection cultivator from Estary had started to move at the same time. Quite a bit more quickly, as well. A heavy pressure bore down on him for an instant before it was lifted along with that of the Spirit Building cultivators.
“What’s going on here, hmm?” The voice of a woman spoke out right next to Hoyt. He hadn’t even noticed when she got there. As he turned to look he found her younger than he’d thought she would be. She looked to be in her thirties, and while Hoyt actually doubted that was her actual age, it showed she had advanced fairly quickly. Hoyt had no chance to answer, because there was another definitely older voice.
“Stay out of this, Adrastea.” The man in front of them was certainly older.
“My job is border security,” Adrastea smiled in response. “It seems to me your men are causing untoward trouble for this young man, Yust.” She spit out the name like it left a bad taste in her mouth.
Hoyt just tried to look small. He wasn’t sure if he’d made the right choice, but it at least made him more confident to have someone strong at his side. He just hoped their obvious personal conflict wouldn’t be trouble for him.