It was a big relief for Anton that they finished the battle without interference from the mysterious figure. He hadn’t been able to learn more about whoever they were after that first instance spotting them, though he’d had a few similar moments. His detection abilities were just on the edge of where they needed to be to pick out that particular person. He enlisted the help of Fuzz to memorize their scent, but he wasn’t sure about following the trail. He had a few tricks he’d used to try to make them reveal themselves. His most promising attempt he gathered much of his energy and tried to move it away from himself as if he were walking off away from his actual location. That had afforded him another glimpse as they moved, but that was it. Still just the edge of clothing. Not wanting to push his luck, Anton had gone on with the plan to ambush the bandits.
He’d kept a bit too much energy in reserve, and some of their allies were seriously injured. He couldn’t say that he would have been able to avoid that entirely if he didn’t hold back at all, because he’d still been quite effective and most of the injuries were earlier in the fighting when the bandits stabilized their positions right after the ambush. But he couldn’t spend too long thinking about what he had done right and wrong. He didn’t detect any serious mistakes, and he took much of the risk upon himself, fighting several cultivators at once. Well, he supposed he shouldn’t count the one he brought down with his first arrow.
While Catarina stabilized the injured members, Anton and Hoyt gathered the heads of the bandits that the bounty wanted proof of. It was a grisly task, but really the best way of proving they had killed them.
Though some of them had been involved in the attack on Dungannon- Oskar even mentioned he recognized one- Anton didn’t feel much elation. He had no worries about killing them, his inspections of their actions sufficient for him to agree with the assessment. It just wasn’t very cathartic. Only a handful of them had been connected to the attack, and there were so many more to kill, and so many taken into slavery yet unfreed. So, Anton only felt a little bit of satisfaction that he’d done good for the world. Then again, he’d pretty much known that revenge wouldn’t make him happy. Even though he’d previously only experience pettier forms of revenge, any satisfaction it brought was fleeting.
Even though the dozens he’d had a part in freeing from slavery were extremely grateful, he wasn’t the sort to base his life around praise and adulation. Though it did feel good. He just knew that wouldn’t be the driving force in his life. Revenge couldn’t be it either, because eventually he would be done with that. Perhaps he was a bit overconfident, but Anton knew he had to have assurance in himself to cultivate well.
That was something he was working on at the moment. For the twelfth star, he was cultivating ‘voice’. It combined inner and outer benefits. The outer benefits were improved ability to command- and more usefully in Anton’s opinion- to teach. Internally, it let him organize his thoughts and act with confidence. Both of those effects were still quite minor at his current level of progress, but he thought it was the best choice. While he could chase after purifications that would be most useful for combat power he wanted to prioritize some other areas so he didn’t lose himself.
As they travelled the half-day’s journey back towards Valburgh, Fuzz started acting up. He began with sniffing up a storm before he began alternatively whining and growling. Clearly he disapproved of something along the road. Anton didn’t see anything but there was no hurt in taking a look. Fuzz showed no signs of stopping, however. He kept pace with the rest of them, continuously sniffing.
“Whatever it is,” Catarina said, “It doesn’t seem to be too close.”
“I don’t see any strange tracks,” Anton said, “And we’re right along the road. So it should be a person. Since all the bandits are dead, it might be that mysterious figure.” Anton tried to ask Fuzz if that was the case, but he was fairly certain he didn’t get the right words across. Fuzz was an intelligent wolf, but he was still just a wolf. Even if he could learn to fully understand spoken language, he was still getting used to it.
Fuzz continued to whine as they entered the city. Catarina wasn’t the only cultivator who had taken a beast as a companion, but the gate guards reminded them that they were responsible for Fuzz’s behavior. Fortunately, he was well behaved- though Catarina followed right next to him ready to grab him just in case.
Before stopping by the bounty office they took their injured members to proper healers. The prices for their services were reasonable enough, but Anton was getting a picture of how expensive large groups of cultivators could be. On the farm people rarely needed patching up by a doctor, and especially not in groups. Adding on to that even basic equipment and prices were quite high. Though they did still have some energy stones they could sell. Doing so right at the border seemed ill advised, regardless of whether or not Estary cared about their origins, so they were keeping them for the moment.
Only the official members of the Order returned to the bounty office- along with Fuzz. Anton wasn’t entirely surprised when he began growling as they got close. As for what it actually meant, he supposed they’d have to find out. Catarina decided to pick Fuzz up under his front shoulders, just in case. It was a comical sight, his rear legs hanging almost to the ground. He didn’t resist her, though he did still turn his head eagerly for new scents, and the growling continued.
Anton stepped through the door first. The same man who had been there when they were first scoping things out was still there. “Here to claim the bounty on the bandits?” he asked.
It wasn’t entirely strange for him to know that. They had signed up for the task properly, and Anton had a suspiciously sized sack at his belt- fortunately not dripping blood. They’d already shown the gate guards the bounty notice. Still, he was quick to figure it out. It made even more sense when a middle aged woman stepped out of one of the back rooms.
“I told you they’d be coming soon,” she smiled. For all Anton could tell it was genuine, but since he was fairly certain she’d been the one sneaking around he still remained slightly skeptical. “I’ll take care of this one. Come with me, please.” She merely led the group to a small counter next to a door to one of the back rooms- not the one she’d exited. “If I could take the proof of the deeds, please.”
Anton really didn’t want to hold onto a head anyway. He and the others handed over the heads as Fuzz growled and whined. Catarina patted him reassuringly.
“Weren’t you watching?” Anton asked.
The woman just smiled, not actually answering. “Things do need to be done properly.” She moved into the back room for a few moments, returning with their payment. The whole process was quick and easy, “We appreciate your contributions to Estary’s safety.”
“Was this some sort of test?” Anton asked.
“All bounties offered are important for the safety of Estary,” the woman answered. However, she didn’t deny his idea. Anton wasn’t really sure who it was a test for, but the woman was clearly strong enough to take out that group on her own.
Anton didn’t think he would get much else, so he merely thanked her and left. They checked the bounty board for anything else, but there were relatively few and some of the bounties didn’t indicate anyone local. Anton did his best to remember the faces either as potential targets or some to avoid and report to the authorities, if they were too strong.
After they left the office, Anton spoke to the other two, “What do you think about all that?”
“I’d bet it’s a test for the younger generation,” Hoyt said. “And a sort of training opportunity. Let people experience live combat without too much chance of anything going wrong. It’s sort of what the Order did with the forest, though clearly that got out of control this last time.”
“A troublesome problem,” Anton said. “The older generations can take care of all the danger more efficiently, but that leaves those following behind them unprepared.”
“Also,” Catarina added, “If they are always seen to be occupied with smaller tasks, people can take those opportunities to cause larger trouble. If only a few of the stronger cultivators are occupied and nobody knows when, they’re a better deterrent.”
“A reasonable enough system,” Anton admitted, “It’s too difficult to perfectly assess and handle danger.” He was quite aware that cultivators weren’t perfect. They were still just humans after all, humans who could make mistakes with even broader reach than normal. Still, from what he could tell Estary had its head in a good place and was also at least decently effective. Graotan wasn’t bad either, but clearly there had been failures. Fixing a system that worked well for the most part without allowing other problems to crop up would be difficult. It was a good thing Anton had no intention to do it alone.