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A fist with the force of a charging bull hit Anton straight in the face. He was sent flying backwards, though despite how that looked it was actually the best result. That meant the force was nicely distributed instead of just focused on a single deadly point. It wouldn’t entirely stop his face from bruising later, and he still had to land properly. As the wall came rushing towards him he twisted his body so that his feet were facing it, and he landed much as he would from a vertical drop, though with some awkward forward and ground-facing momentum.
He wasn’t even fully on his feet when his opponent reached him, kicking him in the side. His body lifted off the ground slightly, and a kick from the other side tossed him back in the other direction. None of the attacks were powerful enough to truly break through his defenses, but it was shameful to be treated like a sack of potatoes. The attacks kept coming continuously, giving him no time to think between them. Which was, of course, the whole point.
Anton had only barely started to lift his hand to block the fist coming for him when it stopped, touching his nose. He sighed. “Have you been holding back or something, Hoyt?”
Hoyt shook his head. “It’s just the restrictions placed on you that make it feel so difficult. You’re not used to fighting without a weapon. Besides, you’re actually less effective than normal for another reason. You’re trying too hard not to think.”
“I thought that was the whole point of training Instinct,” Anton commented.
“Depends on who you talk to,” Hoyt said, “But as someone who knows you and has trained with you, Instinct definitely doesn’t replace thinking. What are you thinking about?”
“I was just trying to… not. I wanted my body to react to your attacks on its own. Is that not correct?”
Hoyt shrugged, “Again, I’m just one person… but even I don’t know how to not think. Besides, Instinct is just another thing. You’ll still need to think. Just try to focus on something else.”
The two of them went through several more iterations of training over the next several days with only minimal progress. Finally, they found what worked best for Anton. Since he wasn’t an expert in Instinct he still needed to be in the mental state of combat to make use of it. So they returned to sparring, with some special features thrown in.
Arms and legs moved swiftly, but the subtle movements of small joints or the waist sometimes made the most difference. Anton could deflect every strike, but if Hoyt got ahold of his arm even his slightly greater cultivation couldn’t save him. He had to use all of his concentration keeping himself out of a grapple he would likely lose. Then a rock hit him in the side of the head. Hoyt was kind enough to slow down slightly as Anton was thrown off, but he didn’t let Anton have the freedom to think about other things.
At the current moment Anton was able to avoid a simple rock about half of the time. Energy charged rocks he was slightly more successful with, as they were easier to notice. Anton had to admit that he wasn’t using Instinct as his sole method for dealing with the flung projectiles, but he didn’t like looking so sloppy. It was also not unreasonable, since relying on just Instinct later would doubtless get him killed.
The ones to throw the rocks had been Catarina and Timothy at first, but as Anton advanced in his training Velvet had taken to participating. She upped the difficulty too much with her stealthy, so she usually chose to abstain, but a certain small someone had picked up her technique. Alva didn’t have the bodily strength to launch a rock fast enough or with enough precision that Anton wouldn’t just have moved out of the way before it reached him even if he didn’t intend do, but with a little bit of stealth technique mixed in she nearly matched Catarina and Timothy. Some of that started with Anton wanting to make her feel like she was succeeding, but soon enough he was legitimately finding it difficult to avoid her attacks. Though as his level of proficiency in Instinct increased, he was better at avoiding every attack even when he wasn’t expecting them.
Even outside of sparring, It had become a sort of game where any of them could attack Anton at any time. Never anything serious, but even a touch counted as a loss. Anton lost quite a bit… until the point where he started doing the same. Hoyt was the only one who had trained Instinct so far, though Velvet was learning along with Anton. She was quite capable of training it without people pelting her with rocks while she focused on someone else, but that just made her experiences more valuable for Anton’s notes.
Though he was only at the fourteenth star, among their little group everyone had trained everything but Earthly Connection, the final piece of the first half of Spirit Building. Catarina was beginning her training in the area, but she didn’t have much to say at her current point. It was one of the least appealing possible purifications, since being in tune with others’ emotions didn’t inherently make one stronger. Yet Anton knew it still had value.
Insight allowed something similar, but it only related to surface level actions. It allowed people to predict someone’s movements yet lacked understanding their motivations. Likewise, Earthly Connection would theoretically allow for prediction of more long-term actions, as well as how groups as a whole would react. Anton was actually quite interested in that, but that was the very reason he was putting it off. He was considering taking it as his Prime Tempering. If it proved to be less useful than he anticipated, he could still put in more effort to catch up in other areas.
Time passed peacefully, with Anton often journeying back and forth between the Order’s main grounds where there was the highest concentration of natural energy and Windrip, where he could visit a growing and thriving community. Training himself was important, but if he let that community fail most of his effort would have been for naught. Though more than the community itself, the people were important. If they were truly satisfied to go their separate ways, he would not object- but the majority still remained with them. Only a few set out on their own, and of them Anton knew of two who were planning to teach other communities about how even basic cultivation could improve their lives.
The first thing that Anton was glad to notice was that he had started sensing cultivators throughout the rest of Windrip. He hadn’t forced anyone to teach others about cultivation, but he encouraged it. With how many were having success, they must have done more than just leave the basic cultivation manual with them. Anton knew he was fortunate to be the type that could get by without guidance, but most people weren’t. He wasn’t sure if that was even true of him anymore, because he would be at least a few stars weaker without what he’d learned from others.
“Welcome back, Sir Anton. It is good to see you again.”
Anton sighed. “Come now Ebbe. Just Anton.”
“Alright, Anton.” At least he dropped the formality easier. The square jawed man was large and talented enough at cultivation Anton thought he would have chosen to join the Order, but as he seemed quite happy where he was Anton didn’t continue to bring it up.
“How have things been going here?”
“The same as normal,” Ebbe nodded. “You have something to say?”
“It’s just… the road is a bit rough.”
“It is not hard for those with even a bit of cultivation, though it does make transporting animals difficult,” Ebbe admitted.
“That first part’s the problem. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but I can’t help but think more people would come see how things are here if the road was better.”
“Maybe we should work on it,” Ebbe conceded. “I’ll bring it up later. Or you could.”
“I don’t want to force things. I know my opinion carries great weight, but I don’t want to run things.” He didn’t even want to be a mayor when all of these people were just part of Dungannon. It was just that apparently people equated personal strength and leadership. Anton was willing to admit that people could have both, and even that cultivators could improve themselves in ways to become better at leadership, but he didn’t think he was there yet. Not really.
“Let’s stop standing in the fields,” Ebbe said. “Have a drink. We’re a bit low on the good things, but the well is plentiful.”
“I wouldn’t mind a drink,” Anton said.
Normally such a thing would be trivial and ignorable. Drop the bucket, wheel it up, pour it into a jug, drink. Easy. Even normal people had no trouble with that, cultivators even less so. Despite Anton feeling his age again, he wasn’t feeble. But something felt strange.
His hand grabbed Ebbe’s wrist before he even thought about it. “Wait,” Anton cautioned. The water tasted sweet and clean… but he had the feeling it wasn’t. With that feeling he actually brought his energy to bear, and found that Instinct hadn’t led him astray. The water was bad. It wasn’t at the level that would kill a man, let alone a village of cultivators… but it could certainly make them sick.
Anton had no problem exerting his influence for purposes like investigating the water. Within an hour someone was running into Stregate to get the water tested while many others were moving around the area looking for a source of contamination. Anton wasn’t familiar with poisons, but he didn’t think the well was poisoned. At least, not intentionally. The investigation would hopefully arrive at the same conclusion. If it was foul play of some sort… Anton honestly didn’t know what he would do. In such a case, he should probably ask Kohar for advice. She wasn’t just an expert on legalities, but also the proper way to handle such things. Back in Dungannon most conflicts were settled easily as they were honest mistakes- and when someone tried to cheat him in a business deal, he simply refused to interact with them again. Once everyone knew someone was a cheat, they didn’t last long.
He thought perhaps he should study law. By Kohar’s admission, she had been doing so for decades and still wasn’t able to cover everything in a single field. That meant it wouldn’t be easy, and he probably wouldn’t have the time. But getting at least a basic understanding beyond village laws could help him maneuver through tricky situations. More importantly, if he planned to push for change in Ofrurg he needed to understand what laws were required at what complexity to make a functioning society. He wasn’t a fan of complicated laws, but if they were too simple they might be insufficient.
What Anton knew for sure was that he grew bored when he wasn’t actively participating in events, and he decided to scout around the area. He was several times faster than anyone else, and within an hour he found a dead animal upstream of the village that was likely the source of the bad water. It felt the same, at least. He properly moved the half-eaten deer away from the shore. That would prevent the problem from worsening, but he didn’t know what to do to make the current water safe.
Fortunately, someone else did. Another reminder that he couldn’t do everything, even if he wanted to. Anton supposed he was sort of justified being set in his ways, but the longer he remained a cultivator the less the ‘old man’ excuse would actually apply. He needed to take a moment to examine which of his future goals he actually needed to lead himself. Killing Van Hassel was a given, but he wouldn’t mind giving the job to some Elders if the opportunity presented itself. Personal catharsis was nice, but he’d rather not risk his own life and that of his companions for something so ultimately meaningless.