The sky was full of bright stars. Though Anton didn’t have quite the same connection to them as Grand Elder Vandale, he appreciated them. Besides, thinking about the old cultivator gave him some perspective. There was no way the path to the peak was smooth and flawless. Anton knew he should consider himself lucky to have lost just money and his chance to free Devon. He didn’t lose an eye… or get killed. That meant there was going to be another chance.
He couldn’t change the past, but reflecting on it was helpful. Wallowing in it wouldn’t do him any good, but he could at least try to figure out what went wrong. In the end, he decided it was simply some of the regulars. Fear and arrogance. Anton himself had less trouble with those than others, but it was something he saw with people constantly. Making poor choices because of perceived potential danger. There was indeed some chance that the Potenza family would sent people to try to kill them away from the city if he had just gone through with the purchase of Devon. But if he was just going to trust in his own ability anyway, why not do it that way?
Accepting the one month challenge was stupid. He should have been able to set the time limit. He hadn’t even misjudged his own ability, just underestimated the difficulty of entering Spirit Building. Which was stupid, because Tonina needed another month to reach it from where she was, and Anton himself hadn’t even been at the peak of Body Tempering yet. He was right to believe he could reach it… and he’d even stumbled his way into Spirit Building during the rematch, but it wasn’t enough.
The real problem was it put the entire burden on himself. The problem was, he was usually capable of doing so. But things were more than what one old man could handle. He’d even known that… then ignored it. He had to go find Catarina and Hoyt. It was almost a shame that in his lifespan he’d actually made what he thought were a below average number of serious mistakes. Perhaps he might have more practice. Then again, it would mean less.
It was not hard to find them- they were the closest two with any significant cultivation, and there was only so many places they could stay in the inn. Anton was relieved the dining area was empty except for them. It was hard enough to say the words regardless. They both looked over as Anton approached. They might have expected him to still be lost in his unpleasant thoughts, but he simply didn’t have time for that. He couldn’t afford to pity himself for weeks on end. Once he was close enough, Anton threw himself onto the floor in front of them. “I’m sorry.”
Catarina almost recoiled. “I- you- um… you don’t have to apologize for anything. I said I wanted to help.”
Hoyt nodded. “Me as well. I understand needing a bit of time to yourself.”
Anton shook his head, still prostrate in front of them. “That’s not it at all. Though I do appreciate the space to think. I’m sorry for not… believing in you. I brought you both along, then tried to do everything myself. Like a fool.”
Catarina smiled awkwardly. “Grandpa… I don’t know if… umm-”
Hoyt interrupted, “You’re right, actually. You might be… very strong, but that doesn’t mean you can do everything yourself. Though I’m not sure if we could do anything in this case.”
Catarina squirmed. “I did… feel left out. Like I was just watching you grow stronger without me. But I accept your apology.”
“Oh right,” Hoyt said. “Me too. Please raise your head. It’s… really awkward.”
Anton slowly stood up. “It’s not good for my back either. I thought I’d get over all of this… maybe I’m just bad at Body Tempering.” He only received stern looks in response. “Alright, fine. I just thought the second full tempering would make me feel… actually young. But I was too far gone.” Anton sighed. “I don’t know where to go next.”
There was some awkward time of silence. Eventually, Hoyt spoke up. “How about the mines? There were some more on your list at the northern mines, right?”
Anton thought for a few moments. “That’s right, but… Pete and the others are still with us. I don’t know if we should drag them around forever.”
“I might be wrong,” Hoyt said. “But I think the best thing for them is to travel around with a cultivation master.”
“I don’t know if I would call myself a master,” Anton said.
“You’re in Spirit Building now,” Hoyt pointed out. “But it’s more in the manner of… one who teaches. You’re good at that. Speaking of which, any good tips for entering Spirit Building?”
“Hmm…” Anton stroked his chin. “Besides desperation? Not just yet. I’ll get back to you on that later. I suppose now, I should speak to the others. Might as well ask them what they want.”
“We want to come with you,” Pete said. “At least, I do. I still need to pay you back somehow… and I’d like to keep cultivating with your guidance. I’ve almost finished the first star. I can feel how much of a difference it makes. If I can grow strong enough to protect myself… I’d like to avoid anything like what happened in Dungannon ever again.”
The others nodded in consent. “We’d like to stay with you. Especially if you are planning to emancipate others. Each day… well, it would be better to free them as soon as possible, if you have the means. I know we were quite expensive.”
“That isn’t untrue,” Anton said, “But something important to know is that cultivators are very capable of making money quickly. It’s usually dangerous, but efficient. I have no reason to wait around now. At least, I feel somewhat safe traveling Ofrurg. If you do as well, I would welcome your company.”
“As long as we are with you,” Pete said, “I cannot imagine somewhere I would feel safer, especially with Hoyt and Catarina. The three of you are very strong.”
“Flattery won’t make training any easier,” Anton grinned.
In addition to training with and guiding the others, Anton had to cultivate himself. It kept him busy. Busy not thinking about the past. And, even though he’d messed up in an almost irrecoverable manner… Anton still felt somewhat freer now. He wasn’t sure about the confidence he felt in himself right now, but the confidence of others was keeping him going. Especially Devon. ‘I’ll be waiting.’ A simple sentence. He said it like it would be the next day… but perhaps he knew. Anton had offered some hope, and even though it was shattered, some still remained. Hopefully Devon would persevere while Anton pushed himself further forward. At least he’d been able to act this time, even if he failed.
But such thoughts didn’t help with cultivating. Visualizing the fight did. He replayed it over and over in his mind. Looking for flaws in himself and in Tonina. He couldn’t go back and repeat the battle… and demanding a rematch would dig him into another sort of hole. He couldn’t be mired down with that method of trying to free Devon, unless he could become much stronger. There had to be other avenues, even if he couldn’t tread them yet.
The biggest flaw Anton found in his own attacks was the lack of… deadliness. He’d killed only a small number of people. Before he became a cultivator it was none and on the trip from Veron to Khonard it had become two, maybe three or four. It was easy to think of bandits as not people, but they were. He couldn’t fathom what led them to those choices. Revenge he could understand, but he felt it had to be more a sense of desperation. Something had caused them to stop caring about human lives. The environment of Ofrurg was certainly quite capable of that.
Regardless of whether it was ultimately a good thing, Anton had little experience killing people. He never wanted to treat them like animals, but then again he had reasons to kill animals as well. Food and hides were practical and useful, and animals could be a danger. People weren’t quite like vicious wolves, but he needed to be decisive with his attacks like he was facing them. There were of course other flaws in his movements that he found, but those would be refined out by practice naturally, slightly faster for having noticed them.
Repeating Tonina’s movements in his mind was merely for the sake of practice. He had missed some of the intent behind her actions, slight feints to push him off balance. While she was an arrogant brat, she clearly had good teachers.
While he could circulate his energy as much as he wanted, Anton felt that Spirit Building especially required him to get practical experience. It didn’t just have to be combat though. Intuition wasn’t just about combat. That was just what all cultivation ended up leaning into. Predicting how people would respond to things in any situation could be useful in all sorts of situations. It wasn’t as if he would be able to read their minds… but then again, it was hard to fathom how it would develop towards the peak of cultivation. Anton certainly didn’t feel comfortable saying anything in particular was impossible. Just out of his reach for the moment. There was so much more growth he needed to achieve… and he couldn’t stop. He had too many things he had to do. If he accomplished them all he would just have to find more. The world wasn’t going to run out of problems on its own.