Staying in one place forever wasn’t necessarily good for training… and Barrett had some things he wanted to try. He always returned to where Nilima was staying, still the location of her former village with little more than a well. However, for the moment he was at a nearby lake- though perhaps nearby was a bit incorrect. It was about a day’s journey for a normal person, but it was close enough for him to reach within an hour easily enough. The lake was nothing special- it had farmers working nearby, and fishermen catching the lake’s native fish.
Barrett was far too heavy to float on water. His armor didn’t help, but his body’s density had surpassed the point where he could do so long before. He could still swim if he needed to, but it required a bit of special technique. Even if he couldn’t swim, he could walk along the bottom to reach another shore. He carefully stepped out onto the lake, and his feet sunk in.
He tried again. With energy or magic, it was easy enough to float on the surface of water. At a certain point, people could even fly- or stand on air. It took quite a large amount of effort, so it was rarely used in battle, but it could be done. Water was easy though. If he had energy, anyway. Sure, he could use magic. Even though he didn’t train in the right types, he could probably manage to push himself away from the water, spreading out his weight enough to float. But he wanted to step on the water.
Preventing control by others was relatively easy. Momentarily grasping with the power of the Metal Sea should have been more difficult… but maybe that was it. The Metal Sea was full of weight and pressure already. Restricting movement was something it already did, and doing it even more, solidifying a dense material… that was more normal. Then again, in battle sometimes there were flashes of insight. Barrett knew he’d had one at the time, but judging the difficulty of what he had done was hard while removed from the situation.
Ice was solid, and water was ice… so it shouldn’t be too hard to make water solid. Except when he tried… everything rebelled against him. If he solidified a small part, it wouldn’t hold still. If he tried a large hemisphere under him, it consumed so much of his stamina to make the attempt it wasn’t worthwhile. Barrett tried over and over again, earning some strange looks from those who passed by his section of the lake. Then his foot impacted a solid surface of water.
Well, he’d been thinking too hard. He wasn’t turning the water into ice, and therefore it didn’t matter how thin the layer he made was. He was thinking too much, trying to consider how ice might function… when he could just treat the surface like glass. Or… just a surface. He stepped on it, and that was that. Maybe not something he would need in a battle, or something novel that others couldn’t do… but a step towards understanding. The water held him up, and that was all that mattered.
Some of Nilima’s students had chosen to live nearby, setting up small shelters and even bringing animals and starting plots to farm. They needed to eat, after all, and none of those from the villages had abundant wealth to buy food- even if anyone had extra to sell. Nilima could have provided for them in many ways, but she had no intention to start a sect… and if they wanted to learn from her, they needed to be self-sufficient. She wasn’t planning to remain forever.
Barrett understood that, but he still had pity for some of the people. Yet he was aware that even those who came and seemed to be in the worst circumstances were still better off than some. Barrett wanted to help, but he couldn’t change every country. Maybe not even the entirety of this one. Still, he could at least do something simple. One day of the week he provided a meal, mostly from animals he hunted himself and wild herbs and vegetables. He could find buried food more easily than a regular person, and moved quickly… so it wasn’t too hard. Besides, running around in the wilderness counted as a sort of training.
Nilima didn’t spend much time one-on-one with her students, so the total number of them hardly mattered. Even after a year, there were still only a hundred students… which while not insignificant was also not very large. Then again, Nilima made no effort to recruit. She could have easily had many more people, if she went to them. But… Barrett could tell it had never been her intention to teach. People had asked, so she did. He encouraged them because he thought it would be good for her.
Nilima didn’t require any standards of her students. Or rather, there were no tests or duties or anything at all. They could sit and learn when she taught, or they could be elsewhere. Their own success and failure was on their own heads. Some found cultivation too difficult for one reason or another, either because they had the wrong sort of affinity or lack of will or not enough available time.
Those who really wanted to learn managed to do so. Barrett found some of the farmers were especially effective. They planted food and trained energy- berserk energy and gentle energy could both be used by them to make planting food easier, which meant they could either have more food or more time to cultivate. A beneficial cycle for them, if very difficult to begin. Some people only had a small number of seeds and very little else when they arrived, nearly starving… even with the help of Barrett’s weekly meals.
One by one, people either settled into a sustainable rhythm or left. That was the case with nearly everyone, but Barrett noticed one exception at least. There was a young woman that reminded him of Nilima- not particularly womanly, skinny, and determined. Yet her determination provided her little. She spent time scrounging for root vegetables to eat, planting what seeds she could obtain in a small garden she didn’t have tools to properly maintain. She would stay up late to cultivate, sleeping little. She survived, but barely. She just managed to maintain herself, because she made no progress in cultivation. At first Barrett wasn’t sure, but soon enough it became clear. She had no potential for energy cultivation. Probably not magic, either, though Nilima didn’t teach that. Barrett could… and occasionally he did so. He had first learned earth magic, and that was useful for tilling the soil and growing plants. The young woman listened to Nilima’s lectures, and when she found out Barrett was teaching she somehow managed to come to his as well… but she displayed no magical talent, no matter how she tried.
One day she came to Barrett, kneeling before him and pressing her head against the ground. “Please teach me!” she begged.
Barrett held out his hands. “I already teach magic. What more can I teach you?”
“That… you are strong.” She kept her head down. “The Mistress, she teaches energy, and radiates it as well. You teach magic, and I can sense it too but… I can’t use either. But you also have something else. When you stand on the trees or on the lake, and the strength of your body.”
Barrett inwardly sighed. He didn’t mind teaching Pure Body Tempering, but the problem was… people needed to have strong bodies to even start. She was so skinny and weak that she could barely do anything… and she didn’t have the nutrition to grow stronger. Barrett did want to give her more food, but at the weekly meals she never accepted more than anyone else, and no matter how she looked with hunger she would never ask anyone else for food. Still, Barrett couldn’t deny her the chance. He took the form for a pushup. “This is the form for a basic exercise to strengthen the arms and upper body muscles.” He demonstrated dropping down, “You must reach this point, with your arms like this, close to the ground, then push back up.” Barrett did so slowly and precisely. “Your test is to do twelve of these, right now. Once you start, you will have exactly one minute.”
Barrett stood to the side and watched. He wasn’t sure why he was doing things this way. Normally, he was a kind and nurturing master. But… something felt like this particular young woman needed something else. So he had given her an impossible task. “One… two… three…” Barrett counted her pushups and at the same time the seconds. “Thirty seconds. Five. Six. Seven.” The young woman’s arms trembled. She just didn’t have the strength to do it, and Barrett knew that. “Ten.” She collapsed to the ground, unable to hold herself up. Barrett shook his head, “Your time is up.”
She tried to beg him again, but she couldn’t even retain her previous posture. Instead, she managed to roll to a sitting position, holding her head down. “Please! Give me another chance!”
“Not today. Tomorrow… you can have another chance. Your test may be different.” That was the one thing Barrett could do. He didn’t want to provide false hope… and he didn’t have anything but his own eyes to assess her. What his eyes told him was that she was weak, with a body that had missed its prime opportunities to grow stronger. He was almost surprised that her willpower had been enough to even reach ten, but he knew for certain twelve was impossible. That was why it was the test. Barrett turned around so his face wouldn’t betray his concern, leaving her to do as she wished.