Not too far away from the group of fleeing former slaves the land was currently in a state of settling, roots returning to their position in the ground and trees bending back into their normal state. The signs of battle would still be obvious in the future, but it was proper to return things to the best state possible. The final segment of mercenaries intended to bring up the rear in the attack had found themselves grossly outnumbered.
Elder Varela would have liked to provide more public support for Anton and the rest, but the Grasping Willows still had to live in Ofrurg. Though he would have liked to rub his current actions in the face of others, some of the present company needed to remain unknown. There were a half dozen former gladiators among their company.
“Thank you for our freedom,” several of them came forward together, “With this, I hope our debt is repaid.”
“You never owed me anything,” Elder Varela shook his head. “It’s Lev who set you free.”
“Of course,” they agreed, “But your presence is what made it possible.”
“Perhaps,” Elder Varela refused to commit more than that. “Though in that case, Anton Krantz is more responsible than I. He is the one responsible for inspiring Lev, and would have doubtless freed you himself if he could bear the consequences.”
The former gladiators inclined their heads. “We will of course pay our respects to your disciple Lev… at a later moment.” They did their best to avoid looking sick or glancing in that direction.
Elder Varela smiled. “Good. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.” With that, he peacefully began to stroll towards his favorite disciple. He casually layered the dirt back where it belonged atop roots, and sometimes encouraged those roots to bury themselves deeper than they originally grew. He stepped over broken and twisted bodies, the likes of which weren’t sufficient to disturb gladiators who had fought to the death many times.
One of the mercenaries they had just fought was standing in his path, but he paid him no mind. He would be dealt with soon enough. Currently, Lev was placing his hands on another. He unceremoniously ripped his energy out of the man in front of him, leaving behind a ruined and half-hollow corpse.
“It works as well as you said it would,” Elder Varela admitted, “But I have to admit it’s a bit unsettling.”
Lev grimaced. “You instructed me to learn from nature. I simply emulated the most dangerous sort I was able to witness and fortunately survive.” Lev gestured towards one arm that still hung limply at his side. Elder Varela knew it was difficult to heal, but Lev had refused to try, leaving it as a ‘reminder’. “I still barely have control of anyone. I haven’t been able to get practice on humans before now.”
“Good,” Elder Varela said. “I doubt your savior would approve of you treating humans as just experimental toys.”
“I know,” Lev acknowledged. “I am quite aware that it is a horrid sight to behold.” With a stirring of his energy, another ‘body’ staggered over towards him. He spent some time looking over it, feeling the energy he had grown into what had once been a live person, then tearing his energy out and letting it collapse into just another corpse.
“Don’t forget to practice the traditional Grasping Willow methods,” Elder Varela reminded him.
“Of course. How do you think I get people to hold still?” Lev grimaced. “I don’t plan to use this very often. But this group should have known the full circumstances and still made the choice to accept this mission.” Lev looked at the remaining people he had to deal with and sighed. “I wish I could have spoken to Anton.”
“You made your choice. I think he would approve, but it was better for him to not know of it at the time. It might not seem like it sometimes, but the power of genuine truth is greater than deception. Those people you freed were entirely unconnected to him, and can stay that way.” Elder Varela rested a hand on Lev’s good shoulder. “I am proud of you for following your convictions instead of taking the easiest path with an early payoff.”
Lev looked around, “I’m not sure if I can look him in the face anymore.”
“Why not?” Elder Varela asked. “These people are just as dead now as all of those up ahead hopefully are. You didn’t even think to keep them around even though it would be useful in future battles. That shows your mind is in the right place, even if you’ve created a forbidden technique.”
“I don’t think I would have if I thought anyone else could practice it,” Lev injected his own energy into what had once been the nerves in his arm, raising it unnaturally. “But I doubt others would be willing to go through the same experiences.”
Elder Varela was using the nearby roots to relocate the bodies, stripping them of valuable weapons and armor while properly distributing them about the area so that they wouldn’t leave behind a hulking pile of dead bodies. Animals would be quite happy to eat fallen cultivators, but if they were all together the scavengers would squabble over them even if they couldn’t consume more than a small portion individually.
“Actually,” Elder Varela commented, “Speaking of forbidden techniques. Anton expressed interest in Everheart’s Tomb. That new one that revealed itself down in Floelor. I believe you should be inside the restrictions for participating. You should turn up yourself.”
“You think Anton will really be able to get inside?”
Elder Varela shrugged, “I think he’ll show up. Everheart’s formations are known to be fickle. New cultivators would almost certainly mean young for most, but he’s just the sort to let people like Anton into his tombs.” Elder Varela didn’t mention that he’d noticed Anton’s use of a famous forbidden technique by Everheart himself. Lev would likely not be happy to hear what the man did to speed them up when he could have potentially been present as an ally. Elder Varela fully believed Anton would have done the same with the addition of Lev, but he didn’t need to burden the young man with the potential idea.
“I’ll go,” Lev nodded. “I want to thank him again.” Lev thought for a while before continuing the conversation, “It’s strange that nobody has found these places before. Was Everheart that good?”
“He was,” Elder Varela confirmed, “I know that firsthand from my own master.”
“What about…” Lev stopped himself, then continued, “What about the rumors that he’s still alive?”
Elder Varela shook his head. “It’s been so long. Perhaps that was once the case. I do believe he faked his death many times to hide from his many enemies, but with the passage of time he must have now perished. Though I wouldn’t put it past him to have hatched a scheme to make sure those rumors continued to spread long after his actual death, just so the descendents of his enemies could never fully relax.”
“The Grasping Willow-”
“Barely existed when he was active. We’re talking larger sects… some of which he took with him at the end. Some simply never recovered, but won’t admit it.” Elder Varela shook his head, “I would prefer not to talk about those, but I do know the Frostmirror sect was an old enemy, like most of the region. They were just smart enough to make reparations before the forbidden technique maniac was pushed into a corner.”
Lev took some time to digest those thoughts, before returning to a more practical conversation. “What do you think the rewards of the tomb will be?”
“He managed to gather many resources and techniques. Hopefully some of those.” Elder Varela shook his head, “Otherwise it’s probably some great mess of a forbidden technique that would be better off never seeing the light of day, passed down onto someone with just the right factors to cause trouble with it.” Elder Varela shrugged, “Or there was the one time it was a pile of dirt. There was a big uproar about that one.”
No further trouble was encountered on the way to the border. That wasn’t strange, because there were only a finite number of cultivators. More importantly, the payment offered to attack the group couldn’t be unlimited. The Iron Ring Slavers had a great amount of wealth, but the amount of free cash they had to have after recent events was bound to be less significant. Since they mostly traded in non-cultivator slaves, there were limits on their wealth and influence.
There were also limits on how public their actions could be. If they made too big of a stir it would be the difference between people assuming they hired a mercenary group to kill people they just had conflict with and knowing they did it. An important difference when Ofrurg’s policies wouldn’t shield them from the Order of the Ninety-Nine Stars in the second case, nor even from the country’s internal laws. Whatever hand the Potenzas had was also limited by the same factors.
It was impossible to fully know why things ended up exactly the way they did, but Anton and the others hadn’t come into Ofrurg just hoping that they could succeed. Paying information brokers and using Kohar’s experience, they’d made a reasonable estimate of the backlash they could expect and determined they could survive it. They had been correct, though they still mourned the loss of some of their number. Just because they weren’t powerful cultivators didn’t mean the ones who died weren’t people.
Though the particular border crossing they were approaching was more out of the way and thus less traveled, the contingent of defenders was no weaker. That very out of the way feature could have otherwise allowed for slipping across the border unnoticed, and neither country wanted that. At least not when it was out of their own particular control.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly at the border with paperwork being processed normally, until the auras of several Essence Collection cultivators and the other arranged guards simultaneously bore down on the group. One of those cultivators was a stern looking man, and quickly made a declaration. “You are all under arrest for violation of Ofrurg law.”
“What violations?” Anton asked.
“They are numerous in quantity and varied. Now then, submit peacefully.”
Before Anton could reply, Kohar held up a hand. “It is required to state crimes for each individual in specificity.”
The man looked down on Kohar as much as he could from his position of similar height. “That will all be made clear in due time.”
Kohar shook her head, “You can’t arrest anyone without specific declarations in advance unless you obtain the approval of Graotan as well. It is not permissible to hold a group or individual on the assumption that you might dredge up crime in the future. Do you have any formal charges against any individuals? If not, you must let us pass.” Despite the large gap in cultivation, she held her head up high and spoke confidently. Anton smiled. This was her area of speciality. He knew she would do the best that any of them could manage.
“Very well. If you must know,” the man drew out the word. “The individual known as Anton Krantz is being detained for murder. Now submit to arrest.”
“Murder of who?” Kohar asked. “Such a vague declaration is insufficient.” She waited a moment, then continued, “Since you are unable to declare a single crime in specificity we shall be on our way.” She tried to step forward, but his presence prevented her movement
“There were over a dozen individuals murdered in the Potenza Arena in Khonard by his very hand,” the man declared. “We have their names.”
“Every charge was formally tried and dropped due to aiding and abetting unlawful imprisonment.” Kohar turned her gaze to look past the man, “Do you intend to let them imprison members of your Order with no justification?”
Auras clashed as the border guards from Graotan formally made themselves known. A much older but still very powerfully built man stood at the ready. “We do not intend to allow it. I trust you have something to justify your position?”
“Of course,” Kohar agreed.
The man from the Order turned his eyes to the Ofrurg guards, “That includes you, Ashok. I hope you prepared a proper case.”
The man known as Ashok snorted. “Of course, Baltassar. We would only do things properly.”
A quick comparison of the information proved his lie. Baltassar had heard their explanations and currently held documents that looked simply tiny in his large hands, comparing them for the dozenth time. “I find it surprising that you only have the immediate information one side declared on the scene, not even complete to the end of the day or from both parties. And that you managed to not hear a word of such a high profile case after another month. A case which, I might add, has been heard about on this side of the border already. I was just wondering if you would lie.”
“Of course you would take the side of a disciple of the Order, Baltassar,” Ashok remained confident and overbearing as he spoke. “However, this is a matter of the law of Ofrurg. You really wish to risk war over a few criminal disciples?”
“Funny that you should mention that,” Kohar said. “Because I guarantee a backwater border guard like you has no authority to even speak of declarations of war. When that information gets back to the rest of Ofrurg, I wonder what sort of reprimands will be made for each of your sects?” Kohar made a point of lingering her eyes on the two other Essence Collection cultivators.
They turned to each other, exchanging glances. Then they retracted their auras around themselves. “Ashok is acting on his own in that capacity. Our estimation is that you have provided sufficient proof to pass the border.”
Ashok turned to glare at the other two, but with the odds being between three-to-one in his favor at best, he backed down. “Fine. Go.” He waved his hand.
After they had been properly passed through the other side, Anton commended Kohar. “I knew you were a specialist in law, but your quick thinking and recall skills are remarkable. I don’t know the intricacies of certain laws as well as perhaps I should.”
Kohar nodded, “Thank you, though I will admit something now that we are well past the border. I might have fibbed a little bit on some of the details.”
“Oh?” Anton raised an eyebrow.
“While they might not have been able to restrain the citizens of Graotan on mere speculation… that law doesn’t technically apply to citizens of Ofrurg. But I didn’t think they needed to know that,” she grinned widely.
Anton laughed in return. “Seems like they should do some brushing up as well.”
“I’d prefer it if they did not. My job would be much easier if my opponents were ignorant.”
“Can we really get that man’s sect reprimanded?” Anton asked.
“Maybe,” Kohar shrugged. “Wouldn’t hurt to try. I’ll draft some letters.”
Anton smiled as they walked. Sometimes, it was nice to win a battle without anyone dying.