During his time away, Anton had forgotten just how much of a difference there was between the quantity and quality of the energy on the Order’s grounds and that elsewhere. The boost was just what he needed to push through to the completion of the twelfth star. That was all there was to it, the majority of the real work having already been done. The part of cultivation where he gathered energy was just more of the same.
He looked up the mountain towards the peaks. The energy there had been much stronger to the point he could barely handle it. Now, he wanted to test how it affected him differently. But though he fully intended to go and talk to Grand Elder Vandale, he wasn’t quite ready and there were so many other things that needed doing.
He’d only been separated from Catarina a short time, though he supposed several months was quite meaningful to those who were young. It had been more than half of a year since he’d seen Timothy. The young man was at the ninth star, only a small portion short of the peak of Body Tempering. His cultivation progress was fine, but there was something… Anton shook his head. One thing at a time.
The opportunities to enter the Order were held monthly. Anton knew he might be able to push for those he knew to be tested earlier, but he didn’t want to show any favoritism. That wouldn’t help them in the long run. Besides, he had full confidence in Pete and Oskar. Some of the others were on track to third star and planned to join the Order as well, but those two were the most skilled in cultivation. Patricia, Oskar’s wife, was somewhat behind since she didn’t have a chance to cultivate until later. It seemed likely she would reach third star soon enough, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to join the Order. She would be able to stay with Oskar regardless- the Order allowed family and even a number of permanent guests.
Anton had considered bringing some of the others to train, but being able to reach the third star without relying on sheer quantity of energy was sort of the point of the tests. There was probably more to it, but Anton hadn’t actually participated. He would observe this time. He was certain the entrance qualifications had not changed in decades or centuries, like most other things. Though he had his complaints with the Order, he didn’t find that they were bad in how they handled things. He just thought they could be better. He might change his mind once he’d had more exposure to cultivators but he was not going to just assume those who were older knew better. They might, or they might not.
First he was going to find Elder Howland. He should be able to answer some of Anton’s questions, or at least point him in the right direction. The man wasn’t hard to find. He was always around somewhere, it just depended on which farming plot he was working with that day.
It had been nearly half a year since Anton had seen the man. During that time, he’d grown from late Body Tempering all the way to the twelfth star, significantly closing the gap between himself and the Elder. Elder Howland was only at the fifteenth star, so his status as an Elder clearly wasn’t for his cultivation prowess but his other usefulness. Not that Anton intended to mention that.
Charlton Howland was in a good mood. Hoyt had returned, in Spirit Building no less. Yet he still came to tend to the fields. Not just the more troublesome plants either, but some of the mundane ones. He could certainly earn more contribution points elsewhere, and having completed Body Tempering it wasn’t even really good training. Sure, he didn’t come by every day anymore, but he only needed to come by weekly to do as much as he’d been doing before he set off on his journey.
He nearly didn’t recognize Anton when he showed up. Trusting Hoyt’s word that Anton had reached the eleventh star was easy. Hoyt saw it and relayed the information. But the prediction that he would reach twelfth star in the next few months before he returned to the Order… had seemed somewhat unbelievable. Then again, it seemed likely barely a few months before that Anton had first joined the Order. What was another star or two when he’d gone from four to eleven in that time?
Of course, Howland hadn’t advanced a single star in that time. He was stuck waffling between training Voice and Spiritual Connection. That had been the case for quite some time, but he really didn’t need to advance any further to complete his duties. Managing the fields required more knowledge than cultivation, though some of the more troublesome plants required proper cultivation as well. The Order just didn’t keep anything too dangerous. Of course there were some herbs that could be misused as poisons, but they were carefully regulated. Other than that, the northern creepers were one of the more extreme examples of plants that fought those tending them.
But his own cultivation was not important. He was quite content with his own abilities. At the same time, he could praise the advancements of others. “Anton! It’s good to see you back. Here to work the land?”
“That was not my intention today,” disappointment must have shown on Howland’s face, “But I would be quite content to do so while we talk.” The man wielded a hoe like a fine spear, and he plucked weeds out from the rows like they were enemies he had to slay. It took a moment for Howland to find his voice and ask what important things he wished to speak about. “Oh, it’s just a few questions really,” Anton assuaged his worries. “Probably important, in the grand scheme of things, but not urgent. Where does natural energy come from?”
“The ground, plants, living creatures, and sometimes special features.”
“I see,” Anton sounded disappointed. “I was wondering how a place like the Order’s land here develops, with such abundant energy. Or places like the forest.”
Howland shrugged, “The answer is the same.” Was he unclear somewhere? “Cultivators and magic beasts make the largest difference in the short term, though certain special plants are good for longer term development and stability.”
At that Anton’s eyes flickered in thought. “Don’t cultivators and magical beasts drain the area of energy?”
“They can and do,” Howland confirmed. “Sometimes that leads to damaging the area. But that’s true of anything. Overeager boars root up the land, destroying it on a more mundane level. But humans are living creatures. They produce natural energy that can accumulate in an area. If managed properly, both cultivators and the land they live on grow together.”
“I had not considered that. I only thought of the animals and plants.” They had moved between several fields by this point. Some weren’t scheduled for work until weeks later, but that didn’t matter. Anton left alone the areas where others were working and focused on anywhere unattended. Howland worked along with him, but he didn’t feel he could keep up with Anton’s pace despite his higher cultivation level. “Why does the Order not do this elsewhere, then?”
“What do you mean?” Howland asked.
“There’s just this one location, shoved up almost against the western border of Graotan. It’s quite extraordinary, to be sure, but the rest of the country has but tolerable amounts of natural energy available.”
“Does it matter?” Howland wondered, “The smaller sects within Graotan maintain their own areas, and the rest is not populated by cultivators.”
“It could be, though.” Anton shook his head. “Why not expand the area?”
“The Order doesn’t have need of more land,” Howland explained. “Our numbers rise and fall as time passes, but we have an entire mountain and the forests for just a few thousand at any time. The area we control is already quite expansive.”
“That’s true,” Anton agreed. “But think of the border. The formation keeps intruders in and out, understandably. But it also keeps the natural energy controlled.”
“The Order is not entirely selfless. The benefits to the surrounding farmers would be negligible compared to our losses. We put in the work and reap the rewards.”
“I fully understand that. However, couldn’t the surrounding area instead benefit the Order? If the land adjacent grows more, it would contribute back to the Order’s land.”
“Alas,” Howland said, “It’s not quite so efficient. The maximum growth that would have on the surrounding area would not be enough to recoup the losses given any amount of time. If our numbers swelled and we had several times as many disciples, perhaps expanding would be prudent. But we can barely manage the area we have now.”
“It just needs to be tended to by cultivators, right?” Anton asked.
“Let me tell you about some thoughts I’ve been having. I think imagining ourselves as cultivators and the rest of the country as non-cultivators is perhaps merely limiting the Order.”
They talked for some time. Howland thought Anton’s ideas of how easy it was to teach everyone to cultivate were a bit exaggerated, but he had to admit that Anton had significant success in the area already. Howland couldn’t say it was impossible, either. Anton had much more understanding of non-cultivator activities and the benefits even small amounts of cultivation would provide them. Unknowingly at the time, some buried thoughts in Howland’s head slipped into place. He wanted more people to care about the land and not just think of it as something low level cultivators did for contribution points. He hadn’t even considered those outside the Order. From that point on, his cultivation would creep forward from its formerly stagnant status.