As the group of six finished the survey of the forest, it became more obvious that a variety of non-native creatures had moved in, quite recently too. The razorwings who were normally solitary creatures were living close together, almost in communal nests though not quite. Anton had no prior experience with them himself, but he had read how that was only common during or shortly after a group migration. They weren’t the only things, but they stood out the most. Anton also thought of the creatures around Helmfirth Rill, far out of their homes. He would mention that once more in their report.
“I’m kind of disappointed we didn’t find a beast king or something,” Hoyt said. “Though I suppose we wouldn’t have been useful if that was the case.”
Anton nodded. “We were only able to survey one section of the forest. Doubtless others will have similar findings elsewhere. It could be unrelated to the unexpected coordination, but it is notable nonetheless.”
“I can’t believe there were like a million giant ants living in the forest,” Timothy commented. “They have no business being that big. And yet they were also hard to hit.”
“… the mission in Ambati also involved creatures that weren’t native to the area,” Velvet spoke timidly, “I think. The scout thought so, anyway.”
Elder Tshering nodded his head. “All good information. We noticed quite a bit I wouldn’t have thought of just touring by myself. Which was the whole point.”
Real combat was useful for experience that could lead to improvements in cultivation. That was something that was known and discussed, but Anton found that comparing experiences with others had at least as much effect. He wasn’t suddenly going to shoot from the beginning of the thirteenth star to the fourteenth, but working with Catarina to understand Spiritual Connection helped him. He clearly didn’t have the same natural talent in that area as she did, but he was at least able to take advantage of some of her learning. Anton in turn was able to help Hoyt with his studies of Insight.
Catarina also worked with Timothy on Mental Liberation. It was impossible to say when resistance to mental attacks would be useful- just that at some point it would be. The choice to strengthen those particular defenses earlier was merely one of many available options, and all of the seven purifications were connected eventually. Choosing one particular thing early should make little difference in the end.
Velvet was progressing quickly, and given some time would be stepping into Spirit Building. She was a good example of how certain guidance could make a significant difference in cultivation. While the Order freely taught what they could, there was little personal guidance. Just matching people up randomly wouldn’t help though. Anton wasn’t sure if he was the right person to teach everyone, but he felt it was an area he did well.
The change in Velvet’s cultivation was merely a measurable benefit allowed by the other changes Anton had been observing. She had chosen to trust him, at least enough for him to help her. Dealing with her still wasn’t easy, but he didn’t feel she was purposefully doing anything difficult. She was still somewhat paranoid, and that wasn’t going to just go away over a few months. Interestingly enough, her combat style relied on having allies to fight alongside her. She would use concealment techniques so that she was unnoticed before attacking a critical location on a distracted enemy, usually to great effect. While this did result in more pressure on her allies temporarily, a quick defeat made it safer for them in the long run. Besides, she was under no obligation to allow herself to be a target.
The whole way she operated was interesting, if a bit depressing. Anton saw how she fought well with a team, but she never really tried to get along with them. Her only social interactions seemed based around avoiding anyone forming a negative opinion of her. While in theory that was a good thing, it also avoided a positive opinion forming- and eventually a neutral opinion might swing towards negative when her other unsavory traits. When she wanted something, her default thought seemed to be manipulating others instead of asking. That said, she had enough awareness of how people would react that it usually mattered little. Timothy had been an easy person to recruit as a teammate, and the only reason he was unhappy with the situation was because he’d accepted too hastily and been unavailable when his friends requested help. The situation with Hayden had gotten out of her control, but she hadn’t repeated anything like that. At the time Anton had been very angry- and then imprisoned. It had basically dropped out of his mind, but recently he’d actually gotten past it, letting go of the unhelpful anger.
It was almost depressing how good she was at stealth techniques. A woman so young shouldn’t feel the need to hide from everything. But that same youth was what made her actions forgivable. She wasn’t full of plots to steal techniques or overthrow the Order. She just wanted to survive. Anton understood that, though he’d long since passed the point where he considered his own survival important beyond what he could do if he continued living.
Her combat style fit into the team well enough, but it was clear she wasn’t part of them. With the exception of Fuzz, nobody was actively social with her. Fuzz was quick to accept her, and in turn she seemed quite fond of him. Probably because there was nothing he could want from her beyond simple scratching behind his ears.
There was no intention on Anton’s part to force her to fit into their group, but he did want her to be progressing in a better direction. Cultivation hardly mattered in that equation except for her own desires to control her life. Maybe cultivation would lead to her being content with life, but not without help. Anton couldn’t say he was the best at solving problems, especially where it involved young women. Janina was mainly responsible for troubles with their daughters and granddaughters, but Anton couldn’t just ignore the poor kid. What was the point of teaching everyone to cultivate if it merely made them live long, productive, and miserable lives. The people mattered too.
With the completion of another mission, Anton considered how best to spend his contribution points. He could just exchange them for money. He still needed it to free people, after all. He knew that was a foolish idea, though. While cultivators were capable of functioning in combat by relying on their own energy, proper equipment and enchanted items were still useful.
He could think about everything on his own, or he could just ask. He was glad he chose the latter, because Elder Evan was quite willing to offer him advice. “Your bow is still holding up, right?” Anton nodded, “Good, I thought so. With proper maintenance it should be usable until at least mid spirit building. Eventually you will find it insufficient for your needs, but the nightwood and black steel bow you have now makes the most of the materials. Now, if you don’t mind my asking, how many contribution points do you have available?’
“About… five thousand.” Anton had more than that, but he wanted to keep some in reserve. He’d been earning contribution points for several months since his return, and his cultivation level allowed him to do much more than before. The recent mission had been worth almost a thousand as well. He didn’t feel it matched up to saving a village, but then again it required a great bit more cultivation strength and more time.
Evan took stock of Anton. “Bow, defensive undershirt… you practice Spirit Arrows so an expensive quiver is of little use.” As he talked, he was leading Anton through the turning corridors of the equipment hall. “Here we are,” Evan gestured towards a door with ‘1000’, indicating the price items inside started at. “We can get you several things from here.” Evan stepped inside, reaching onto the shelves and tossing a pair of gloves towards Anton. “My first recommendation. Archery gloves. I know your skin is tempered so you don’t need any mundane version, but these are different. Specially enchanted to be used by archers. Well, any who need to quickly channel energy around their hands. Put them on and try creating an arrow.”
They fit snugly- even though he was quite certain they hadn’t been the right size when he first saw them. The gloves covered every finger without being restrictive like he might expect. The cloth wasn’t quite the lightness of diamondsilk, but the material was breathable and felt durable. His first arrow felt sluggish, as the material altered the flow of his energy.
“It will show its worth in practice. Come outside with me,” Evan gestured.
Once more Anton found himself at the attached practice area. His first shot still felt wrong, the arrow flying slowly. However, with each subsequent shot he noticed an improvement. It wasn’t the gloves getting used to his energy, but instead the other way around. The gloves drew energy from all around his hands for whatever he was doing. Anton was used to just using the three fingers that would be holding a spirit arrow to form it, but drawing the energy from around his entire hand allowed for every meridian on his limb to be involved. That certainly increased the potential output, but he wasn’t sure if he preferred it. He was willing to admit it was something he might try training on his own, but the gloves seemed unnecessary. However, after a few dozen shots he noticed how it amplified his shots just slightly even when he was using his typical method. It wasn’t possible for it to just get energy from nothing, but an increased efficiency was useful. He should have trusted that Evan knew what he was doing.
Without even asking if Anton wanted the gloves, Evan brought him back inside to try out several other things. He quickly discovered Anton didn’t like anything that reshaped his energy. Anton ended up with a second pair of gloves that simply helped condense energy moving through it for his arrows. Anton also ended up with bracers durable enough to deflect early Spirit Building attacks with proper technique, boots that maintained traction on any surface, and goggles that could enhance his vision even more. The goggles were a bit inconvenient if he was dealing with anything up close, but he could see fine details from afar without giving up the benefit of both eyes, unlike a spyglass. They also didn’t require use of his hands, which was important. There were still limits to how far he could shoot even if he could see, but he was learning to expand his range.
He had never been much for shopping, but Anton did like practical tools. He felt good after what he got- and he had plenty of contribution points he could convert into currency. He’d need that soon… but first he had to return to a few places in Graotan.