One continual benefit Anton found of an ever-improving cultivation was the time it took to travel around the country diminished. The Order’s headquarters and the settlement in Windrip were about half of the country apart, and what would have taken him two weeks of travel was now down to a handful of days, depending on how much Anton wished to exert himself.
Windrip didn’t need him anymore, but he still liked to check up on it. The community there was both amazing and yet quite normal. Nothing was different from any other small town except the efficiency with which people worked, empowered by Body Tempering.
Anton passed between the fields, now completely certain about the increasing amounts of local natural energy. It couldn’t compare to any of the sects he’d been to, but the lowliest sects had at least decades of history. This was just a small community building up from practically nothing. While most cultivation sects would pick a place with already high natural energy to then build up, building up from a lower level seemed possible. Yet ultimately it only made a small difference- most people would never advance further than a few stars in their first years and even in the Order half of their members were still in Body Tempering.
That was the most important thing. The Order itself was very powerful, but its members numbered in the thousands. Here, there were already hundreds of low level cultivators. Without extra resources or powerful natural energy they might not go much further, but they were already as a group capable of resisting attacks on the level of what had happened to Dungannon. Anton understood that most people wouldn’t be quite so motivated to grow their strength in that way, but if this process took place over a decade instead of a couple years it would still transform the way of life in Graotan. Cultivation could allow the common folk prosperity and safety together.
Though he had no intention to cause a stir, it was basically inevitable that when Anton came to observe the people of the area around Windrip practicing cultivation. He stood out like a sore thumb with a cultivation in mid Spirit Building instead of early Body Tempering. More importantly, many of those who were cultivating did so according to Anton’s teachings- while they worked and made use of their bodies. Even those who focused more on mental tasks still had benefits to gain from Body Tempering beyond general health. Tempering the organs in the head allowed for clarity of mind and senses.
Rather quickly Anton found himself providing guidance to everyone he could. While they would eventually manage on their own, Anton knew that proper guidance would help deal with current problems while still making sure they had the proper experience for the future.
Some cultivators felt that sharing insights would stymie the growth of others, but Anton felt that it was simply when there were insufficient explanations. He had people put into practice what he told them, and just like any profession knowing what to do and how to do it was always beneficial. People apprenticing under grandmasters didn’t become incapable of growing on their own, unless those same grandmasters kept secret the important parts.
Strict improvements in cultivation were certainly beneficial to the people in the area, but Anton knew they needed proper motivation. More than just wanting to be good at their jobs, or strong. That would carry people for some distance, but when things got difficult they would just give up. Many people stopped after the first star, unwilling to push through to the second star and first prime tempering.
As long as they made that choice intentionally, deciding what they had done was enough or their skill was insufficient, Anton didn’t mind. However, except for the rarest people who were almost entirely incapable of cultivating he expected more than a single star to be reachable. He just had to draw out the proper motivation.
Anton himself cultivated to be strong. Strong for himself, strong for family, the former villagers of Dungannon, and now for more than just that. He didn’t necessarily care about the Order itself, but both disciples and elders were people he cared about. If conflicts came- when they came- he wanted to be able to help. And of course he still had some people to kill. Anton wasn’t going to bet that the Heavenly Lion Sect wouldn’t attempt some form of retaliation, and it’s not like he would find Van Hassel walking around Graotan where he would be easy to kill. For one thing, he was already a wanted criminal so if anyone found him it was likely someone would get to him before Anton, at least within the borders of Graotan.
One young man wanted to impress girls. That was a fleeting motivation for cultivation, but if there ended up being a specific girl his motivations could shift. Being strong enough to work hard to care for a family and protect them were powerful motivations.
Not everyone’s motivations were for others, though Anton resonated most strongly with those. Some cared only about themselves. That wasn’t necessarily as bad as it sounded. Caring only for yourself didn’t necessarily equate to a willingness to harm others wantonly for your own benefit.
There was a particular woman who, during his conversations with her, Anton determined simply had no one she felt close to. Yet she didn’t seem to desire any close friends, but was happy with just living her life. Cultivating to improve her work wasn’t a good motivating factor for her, either. What worked for her was actually the benefits to lifespan with the efficiency of her work only motivating her as far as it meant she could spend more time not providing for her physical needs. She enjoyed just spending time by a stream, watching it flow and listening to the trickling sounds. In the end, that became her primary cultivation spot, and she focused on a relaxed and long-term cultivation path.
Some people wanted to cultivate to use their strength to control others. They were usually the sort who already sought out cultivation independently. With everyone else around them cultivating their own efforts provided little benefit in relative strength- and the Order wouldn’t tolerate anyone misusing cultivation if things went too far. Preferably each town or city would be able to police itself, but general cultivation wasn’t so widespread that it would be feasible for everywhere. But Anton didn’t intend for things to remain that way.
Anton’s more relaxed rate of cultivation wasn’t exactly slow, but he still found that Catarina and Hoyt caught up to him in cultivation at the seventeenth star. They hadn’t been that far apart to begin with, and though Anton felt he rather smoothly completed his prime tempering of Earthly Connection, the next part of the Ninety-Nine Stars was harder for him. With some of his age having come back, tempering his body became more difficult. The eleven stars from eighteen to twenty-eight once more focused on the body.
The eighteenth star, twenty-third star, and prime tempering at the twenty-eighth star would all be focused on the connection between the body and spirit. There were the inherent connections, of course. A body did not function without a spirit. However, that connection could be strengthened. In practical terms, it allowed the body to be automatically fortified by natural energy rather than requiring active focus on how energy interacted with the body. When done properly, additional energy would be drawn in by the body itself and allocated to various parts of the body while still allowing the cultivator to handle and store the expected amount of energy in their dantian for the typical active uses. The remaining eight stars would be a retreading of the various body tempering stages with regards to how they individually connected to the spirit.
Though he by no means found himself at a dead end, Anton felt his progress had slowed. He sought advice from the elders, but in general they had been training that section of Spirit Building while young, and either surpassed it or stagnated. Elder Howland was the only one who Anton was able to view as a contemporary in that regard. The elder in charge of farming had not even completed the Seven Purifications, but a dam in his cultivation had broken during his conversations with Anton. He was actually slightly younger than Anton, but still experienced some of the effects of age on the latter part of Spirit Building. Together the two of them were exchanging insights- but it seemed it would just take them a bit longer.
With his personal cultivation in a less than inspiring state, Anton was motivated to pursue different goals. His final revenge was still off the table for the moment, unless he was willing to devote months or a year to tracking Van Hassel down himself, and even with his allies at his back he was wary of that conflict still. In fact, it was partly because of his allies that Anton wished to delay it. There was a reasonable chance that some of them might die in the conflict unless they were so fortunate as to get Van Hassel and Slusser alone without anyone else around and without any formations set up.
Everheart had drawn a map for Anton that should lead to notes on general cultivation improvement. It wasn’t a surprise that the man had the same thought, because it seemed he was extremely prolific in his efforts. He’d been extremely powerful and lived a long time, but the fact that one of his projections had knowledge of this location indicated it might be more than just casual notes. If it didn’t kill him, Anton knew it would be beneficial regardless of the helpfulness of those particular notes. The death part might still happen, but the notes from Everheart indicated it was only ‘minimally trapped’, at least if he followed certain protocols.
This particular location was in Ambati, and while Anton was still considering if it was the proper time to make a trip, he received a petition for assistance from Ayotunde. Personally, Anton found it far too formal of a request- but that made him take it more seriously. It seemed Ayotunde was embroiled in conflicts among clans in the region he was now residing in, with some of his family. Simply leaving wasn’t possible, so he was connecting with anyone who he thought might be sympathetic to his cause.
He was right to send letters to the Order. Just because he had been a mercenary didn’t mean that Anton and the others didn’t consider him more than just a temporary ally. He’d been prepared to help them even when dealing with the circumstances involved with basically fleeing Ofrurg. He had even posted a formal request to the Order, but it was basically unnecessary. Hoyt and Timothy separately came to Anton and brought it up. Catarina had been deeply embroiled in her studies so hadn’t noticed. As for Velvet, she was surprised when she heard about it. She hadn’t even thought to check for mail, having no acquaintances she expected correspondence from. She appeared quite touched that someone would specifically ask her for help.
There was only a single point of contention with the whole thing. It wasn’t that the section of Ambati where Ayotunde needed help wasn’t particularly close to Anton’s desired destination. That project could wait, if it needed to. No, it was something more.
“So, we’re going to go help Ayotunde, right?” Alva asked.
Anton saw where she was going. His first thought was to say ‘We aren’t going anywhere’. But it was hard to refuse her. He had practiced archery with her- more than just shooting at targets, but sparring. While her cultivation in mid Body Tempering was far insufficient to challenge him, it was hard to say she wasn’t capable enough to help in a battle. She knew Ayotunde as well, so refusing her the opportunity to help him seemed disingenuous- even if she hadn’t specifically received her own request for aid. “You want to come with us? If so, you’d better be certain. If you are relying on me to protect you… have no doubt that I will do so to the best of my ability. But know what the consequences of that would be. If you are unable to take care of yourself properly, it will endanger myself and the others.”
“I can protect myself,” Alva insisted. “And if it’s dangerous, I can run away. Even you can’t outrun Fuzz.”
Anton had to concede that point. The wolf was very fast, and capable of carrying Alva at that same speed. “Let me just show you something, then. If you need to flee to safety, you must make sure you’re actually out of the area of combat.” Anton took Alva outside- their courtyards were far too small for what he wanted. He held in his hands a new bow. The bone bow was still beyond him, but the one that had merely cost him five hundred contribution points was starting to limit his abilities. The bow he held in his hands was fairly plain in design, but it was made of a green wood and blood red string. It was nearly as tall as himself, being just short of the size certain longbows might reach for the sake of retaining some mobility. “How far can you shoot?” he asked Alva.
“A hundred meters,” she proudly declared.
“Is that so?” Anton shot an arrow across the empty fields to that precise distance, exploding his Spirit Arrow at the end to intentionally create a round impression in the ground. “Hit that spot, if you would.”
Alva formed her own Spirit Arrow. It wasn’t as sharp or as steady as Anton’s, but it was more than decent. Her arrow flew towards his ‘target’, hitting the ground several meters in front of it. “Wait, I can do better!” she shot another arrow and got closer, shooting slightly past it. “See?”
“That’s good,” Anton said honestly. “But you need a little bit more accuracy to declare that you can shoot at that range. But don’t forget that stronger cultivators can affect areas even further.” Anton strung an arrow, letting it fly before shooting another to follow it. Two hundred and fifty meters was not his full limit, but for the effect he wanted it was the best distance. Alva could see each arrow sequentially hit the same point, digging a deep line into the dirt. “A hundred meters might be a good range for you, but you could face someone who could throw a boulder a hundred and fifty, or shoot arrows three hundred. Keep vigilant until you are more than certain you are safe.”
Alva nodded. “That’s pretty cool. When can I do that?”
“I can try to teach you now, but honestly… I’m not even close to mastering this technique. You know Elder Kseniya? She can shoot over the horizon.”
Alva’s eyes widened. “No way. That has to be an exaggeration, right? Like saying you were a thousand years old…”
“It’s not. Though if we were to encounter a Life Transformation cultivator who wished to harm us, it wouldn’t matter. Fuzz wouldn’t be able to outrun even the slowest of them casually strolling.” Anton shook his head, “But do be careful about how far you think is safe. And think about if you can handle attacks like this, at least a little bit. If you decide you still want to join us… I won’t prevent you. But you have to be careful.”
Alva nodded and began to think seriously. Anton hoped she would choose not to come, but it was the sort of hope one had for the impossible to happen.