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Though directly absorbing insights from Vandale was far beyond Anton’s current capabilities, he was still able to receive some guidance in the old fashioned way. Conversations with the man were always enlightening, and Vandale clearly enjoyed them as well. Anton couldn’t match him in actual age, but there was a certain morbid connection between two men close to the end of their life speaking with each other.
While it was certainly possible Anton wasn’t at the end of his life, he had touched on that point, felt the completion of his life. That was something important if he wished to cultivate Fleeting Youth, but he still needed some time before he could complete the first step.
The question then became what he wanted to do with his life. Anton had no desire to grow in cultivation for the recognition he would gain. All the personal recognition he’d ever needed had come from his family and friends. He was quite satisfied with how his life had been. But he still needed power. Power to change the world.
A perfect world would look different for everyone. Even those Anton didn’t think were objectively incorrect about perfection could have reasonably different opinions on what was best. Of course, Anton also had to take into account the actual restrictions of the world. Simply having everyone be prosperous and with unlimited resources to do whatever they pleased was a fantasy, not a perfect world. But he could think of something better.
To him, a perfect world very much involved solving problems personal to himself. He understood that, but that was simply where his heart lay. He wanted a world where everyone was safe from the likes of Maximillian Van Hassel- and that included those who happily consorted with him. A world free of slavery, where every person had a chance to make something of themselves, become whatever they wanted. A world where the basic needs of everyone were properly provided for.
If he was happy to settle for a country, Graotan was truly not too far from his ambition. However, it was clear that it still didn’t meet his standards. The Order wasn’t perfect or unlimited in power. They couldn’t protect every person or solve all their problems, no matter how they tried. Nor was Anton sure if they should have to. He certainly believed that the power the Order possessed came with a duty to make the world a better place, but that wasn’t just doing things for people. It was empowering others to do it for themselves.
It didn’t have to be cultivation that provided the solution, but Anton couldn’t think of anything more clearly able to fill the gaps. As much good as the Order accomplished, they were basically forced to spend time counteracting the oppression of evil cultivators and the dangers inherent to the world. They were in a stalemate unable to make real progress. But if the people of Graotan were more able to defend themselves, that would allow the Order to do more. Yet the people of the Order had their own ambitions and goals. Even as a righteous sect, their members could wish to do more than just spending their time charitably.
Since he knew he could teach others to cultivate and the effect that was happening, Anton knew he could continue that path. That was ultimately what he wanted. Everything else would be a distraction, perhaps necessary steps along the way. If he obtained insights leading to other solutions, it wouldn’t suddenly invalidate his efforts along the way. He could be proud of what he was doing. As it was, he was just getting started- but he was only a measly few years into his new life as a cultivator. That was nothing. Anton was resolved to accomplish so much more.
A slow, deep breath out and in hardly made Velvet feel less nervous. She was standing outside Anton’s place. No doubt he would have noticed her already. She knew her worries were basically unfounded at this point. He wasn’t going to suddenly try to take vengeance for her past stupid mistakes. He wasn’t going to suddenly betray her. Her inner voice told her that was true, but there was always those stupid memories and the thoughts in the back of her head. They weren’t her, not anymore at least. Yet she couldn’t directly quash those thoughts. If she did, she thought she might break.
She felt she was improving. The sad thing about her progress in Spirit Building was it let her know how messed up people could be. She knew that every cultivator had internal issues to face, but she couldn’t help but feel hers were the worst. And she could blame herself for it.
Not just herself. She knew better than that. But she was certainly partly responsible for some of her own problems. Now that she was trying to overcome things, she wasn’t brave enough to go alone. Or to ask for help. So she took control. It was amazing how she could move around in battle with her two daggers, facing enemies left and right… but knocking on a door was hard.
She didn’t know how long it took for the door to open. An eternity, an instant… it could have been either or anything in between. But suddenly Anton was there. His presence was comforting, but in a way that made things worse. She didn’t know what to say. But apparently he did. “Velvet! Good to see you. Come on in. I’ll make you some tea.”
The tea was hot. It barely mattered on account of her tempered body, but it reminded her that the world existed around her. The scent of it was soothing and cleared her mind. Slowly. By the time she was on her second cup she was ready to say something. “I need your help,” Velvet admitted.
“Of course,” Anton smiled. “What’s the problem?” When Velvet didn’t answer, he picked up from there. “Stuck in cultivation? Giant magical beast you need help fighting? Secret realm you want help exploring?” Velvet could feel him judging her for reactions to any of those, but if the problem were so easy she wouldn’t be worried about it. He continued, “Disputes with friends? No? I’m going to need a hint, I think.”
“It’s none of that,” Velvet admitted. “I want you to come with me on a trip.” She said that, but couldn’t get to the part of why. It was stupid. A waste of his time. Anton had so many more important things to be doing.
“Sure. Can you tell me why? What for?” When Velvet didn’t answer, he got to the point, “Do we need to bring others?”
“No. Just you. No one else.”
“Okay. How far?” Anton asked. “I need to let people know how long I’ll be gone.”
“… within Graotan. A couple weeks at most.” Velvet bit her lip, “Don’t you want to know what for before you agree?”
“You need me, right?” Anton smiled, his face wrinkling. “Does it matter what? I can tell it matters to you so much you can’t even say it.”
“… It’s just stupid.” Velvet stood up, “I shouldn’t have asked. I’ll go alone.”
“Alva!” Anton called before Velvet started moving. The girl quickly ran inside, with Fuzz next to her. “I’m going on a trip.”
“You can’t come this time, I’m afraid. But there won’t be any fighting or anything you’ll really miss anyway,” Anton looked to Velvet as he said that. She nodded.
“Make sure to listen to Catarina and uncle Devon, okay?”
Anton smiled, “It’ll just be a few weeks. I’m sure you’ll be fine until then. Maybe you’ll even be at the eighth star when I get back, hmm?”
“Yeah,” Alva scratched her arm. “Tempering marrow is weird though.”
“Be careful with that, okay?” Anton rubbed her head.
“I know. I won’t overdo it like that time I snapped my tendon…”
Velvet had heard about that. Alva was clearly sincere about her admission as well. The look on her face showed she’d learned to be at least a little bit cautious. She realized she hadn’t actually been going anywhere, and that by the time she was out the door Anton was there with her.
“Lead the way,” he said.
She didn’t object. She did need him, even if the reasons were dumb. She thought cultivators were supposed to be able to do anything, but she couldn’t even go talk to someone alone. How pathetic.
It wasn’t too long before they were in north-central Graotan. Not terribly far from where they’d passed when coming back through Estary, but then again nothing seemed so far for a cultivator. Anton did note that they weren’t traveling as quickly as they could. He could tell they were nearing the destination because Velvet was dragging her feet more and more. He almost wanted to pick her up and carry her ahead, but as funny as that would be he didn’t think it would be good in her current mental state.
His attempts to get her to open up were mostly unsuccessful. He’d finally managed to get something of a straightforward answer the night before. He’d asked what she wanted him to do, so he could be prepared.
“Nothing. Just… be there.”
His understanding of her told him that was true. It wasn’t that she had chosen to waste his time by bringing him to do nothing. That was the whole point. As she said, she just wanted him to be there. He was emotional backup for whatever problem she was planning to face.
Velvet stood in front of her house. Well, it wasn’t actually her house. It had never belonged to her, and didn’t now. Maybe. She wasn’t actually sure about that, but it didn’t matter. It had belonged to her grandparents, and now it was in the hands of her aunt and uncle. She was reasonably certain she felt them inside, though she’d never felt them with real energy senses before.
She could just go in. She was strong now. But before she did she had to be prepared. She looked down at the daggers by her side. Even a regular person could realize their danger. That… wasn’t how she wanted to do things. She unattached them from her belt and dropped them into her storage bag. When she turned back to Anton she saw him preparing to do the same with his weapons. “Umm… right. Thanks.”
As she raised her hand to knock, Velvet realized she didn’t know what she wanted. She just knew she had to come here. And her inner voice told her if she did things wrong she’d just feel worse.
Confidence. That was what she needed. Or at least to act like she had confidence. She ‘confidently’ knocked on the door, folding her arms in front of her chest and raising her head. Maybe she should have just snuck inside. Confidence.
She was able to return to a reasonable stance when she felt someone coming for the door, letting it creak open. A face with a few graying hairs and wrinkles poked through the opening. “Oh. Velvet.”
“Carol. Aren’t you going to invite us in?”
“… of course.” The smile on Carol’s face was fake. Fake confidence. Velvet knew she couldn’t have recognized it before. “And this is?”
“My teacher,” Velvet said. “We’re just passing through.”
“I see.” Carol opened the door, and Velvet stepped in, brushing past her aunt. Anton followed along with her, though he maintained a friendly face. It wasn’t fake, either. Velvet knew that. Yet she also knew that it only represented a part of him. When it was time to no longer be a kindly old man, he could change without it feeling wrong at all. Carol led the way into a sitting room. “Bert, you’ll never believe who it is. Velvet came for a visit.”
A wide man who was also showing the beginnings of age turned to look. “Oh. Is that little Velvet? How have you been?” His smile was perhaps the fakest thing Velvet had ever seen, but it looked pretty convincing on the surface. “What can your Uncle Bert do for you?”
“Hello, Bert.” She could tell both her aunt and uncle noticed the lack of honorifics. She didn’t respond to the question, instead looking around the sitting area. Unfamiliar furniture filled it. “What happened to the rocking chair?”
“Got rid of it,” Bert said smoothly. “That old thing was falling apart.”
Velvet disagreed. Bert had never liked it, maybe because of the way her grandfather had made it creak on purpose. She thought it was funny though. She scanned the house with her senses. She kept up her facade of confidence, even though she didn’t even know why she was present. What was she here for? Did she want to stand up to her aunt and uncle, to see her old house again? Was there something else? Her senses swept through the small room that had been hers and now was full of junk, and out the back. It could be more than one thing. But how did she want to handle it?
She looked towards Anton, and felt his smile. It was a real smile, but it was only for her, she realized.
“I’m going to go take a look at my old room,” she declared. She doubted she would like how it looked, but she wanted to make a point. She just wasn’t sure who she was trying to make that point to.