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One old man crouched in a devastated field, a blank expression on his face. Another stood nearby, watching. Sometimes it wasn’t the right moment to say anything.
“Why?” the first man asked. It was clear he wasn’t seeking an answer- as if there couldn’t be one. “Why me? Why my fields?” He reached down, picking up a handful of dirt. Sparkles of light reflected off fine grains among the soil.
Old man Abramsen was nobody of import. He was just another person living in Graotan, and thus there was no way his fields had been targeted specifically. Nor was there any benefit to those who did it. Properly ruining a field- with salt and some other strange minerals Anton could sense- was expensive, hard work. Several cultivators or one particularly powerful individual would have been needed to achieve what they did in the time available.
It wouldn’t do any good for Anton to tell him it was his fault- and that was only true in small part. Despite him being the spark that lit everything on fire, the Heavenly Lion Sect had been piling tinder and kindling as high as they could. But it was more than just them- the others involved simply hadn’t been sniffed out yet.
Abramsen laid down on his back, not minding the patches of mud in the field. “Maybe I should give up and die. I tried cultivating like you, but my progress is abysmal. There’s no way I can seek revenge on whoever did this, or even feed myself and my wife.”
Though he was dramatic about it, Anton felt he was quite entitled to his current stance. Honestly he expected more crying, but it seemed that Abramsen simply wasn’t capable of that at the moment. “Let me tell you a story,” Anton said, pulling up a log that wasn’t particularly nearby when he started. “About a hero on a years long quest for revenge. At the end, what do you think happens?”
Abramsen sighed, “He succeeds and lives happily ever after.”
“Perhaps,” Anton said, “But I intend to tell you a true tale. What happens is… nothing. Oh, the hero gets revenge on those who wronged him. There is a rush of feeling, of course. A satisfaction. Nearly as significant as collapsing into a bed after finishing up weeks of work raising a barn. Nothing compared to seeing a new child or grandchild.”
“Heh,” Abramsen laughed mirthlessly, “You think I can have children at this age?”
Anton shrugged, “Likely not. But let me tell you something. The hero of that story might indeed live happily ever after. But it had nothing to do with the revenge. What is the point? People died. Maybe it was good for the world, in the end. Satisfying. But not as personally fulfilling as that man wanted.” Anton looked around the fields. “But let me continue. You feel as if you have lost everything, do you not?”
“Even the house is gone. We’re living out of a tent. Fields are ruined. Got nothing.”
“Your wife feels the same way?” Anton asked.
“Certain she does,” Abramsen said. “The way she said nothing instead of happily joking as we passed by says everything.”
“Yes,” Anton agreed, “It won’t be easy to recover. We have a lot of work to do here.” He stood up to look around. “You use that pond for anything?”
“No.” Abramsen sat up slowly, first rolling onto his side. “Some years back a neighbor used it as a watering hole, but there’s more convenient ones now.”
“Looks fine to me,” Anton said. “Want a salt pond?”
“What, going to dump all the fields in there? With no topsoil left, won’t be much left of them anyway.”
“It’ll take some doing,” Anton said, grabbing Abramsen’s arm and pulling him to his feet. “Come on, I saw a shovel back there. Might as well get started fixing things up, if you’re going to make things better than they were. Have to say, I think that’s the best way to spite them.”
Old man Abramsen sighed. “I appreciate your efforts, but even if you help I have no seed nor much of anything else.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Anton said. “I’ve got a couple good kinds. Did you know there are plants that like salt? Drink it right up. As for the other, I hope you like potatoes.”
Abramsen scratched the back of his head, “Wouldn’t mind planting them. Maybe we can clear out some nearby woods? Nobody really knows who owns them. Could use ‘em for a bit, I suppose.”
“Sure,” Anton said. “We can do that too. Now then, show me what you’ve learned about cultivation.”
The Abramsens weren’t the only ones in Troutberk that had problems, but they got the worst of it. Other fields had been torn up and tossed about, but they could be resown normally. It was quite easy for cultivators to knock down buildings, and so the houses of the hamlet had been trashed- but whoever came through hadn’t understood the value of good strong tools. A majority of the ones they had to leave behind were still intact, not broken or stolen. There were still things that would be necessary for the rebuilding process, but it wasn’t too hard to obtain them. Just a quick trip to the next village over, or the one after that. That might be a day’s effort for some people, but Anton could travel more swiftly. And travel he did.
He popped up here and there about the villages as people began to return, buying or borrowing tools while providing much needed work for those whose homes and livelihoods had been damaged. There was a lot that could be said for someone who could raise up an entire side of a barn on his own.
But he didn’t just solve everyone’s problems. Anton could do the work of many people. Ten, twenty, thirty… it was hard to say. But there was so much to be done. “You need to spread your energy out more,” Anton said. “Along your whole body, not just on your arms.” Anton demonstrated with his own energy, making it as visible as possible for those who were new to cultivation. “Don’t forget to support your back in particular. And if you anchor to your legs like so, everything gets easier.” Anton took a deep breath. “Let the energy flow through your body, strengthening you.”
He did that for himself as well, especially focusing on his chest. Regrowing sliced up bones was hard work, even with a bit of special medicine. The nineteenth star mirrored the second star, which in his case was his meridians. He was quite familiar with various different sorts of energy and was making significant strides. It didn’t hurt that meridians were the part most inherently connected to the spirit to begin with.
It was fairly quickly that Anton ran out of seed for the tubers, but everyone who needed it got at least a little for their fields. The only thing Anton required from people was that they allow him to take some seeds from the final crops to distribute further. The tubers he’d gotten in Ambati weren’t exactly potatoes, especially with the way they grew bunched together in big root structures- but they filled the same sorts of purposes in dining.
They were hearty plants, but that didn’t mean raising them was without difficulty. After planting it was important to check for ravenous insects that might want to eat them- including burrowing ones. Even if the insects had no concept of natural energy, they were attracted to the plants that naturally absorbed it. The far eastern sections of Graotan weren’t especially gifted in natural energy either, so the act of cultivators working in the fields was necessary to give them a boost. They would still be much smaller than what had come up in Ambati for a few seasons at minimum, but sufficiently productive to feed people with enough to sell.
Before the first harvest people needed some temporary supplies, but some of those were provided by the Order. Some villages also had stores they had managed to keep safe- either because they were hidden or nobody came through. The rest Anton took upon himself to acquire through hunting or simply purchasing from further away. Even for a cultivator it got a bit expensive to contribute to feeding so many people, but what else was he going to do with his money? Buy a new bowstring?
He did need to do that, in fact. His bow didn’t work at all, and he still couldn’t reasonably draw the bone bow. Taking its string for his other bow would likely just snap it in half. But that didn’t stop him from hunting. If he needed to he could have caught animals with his bare hands. Disregarding he at least had axes, he had another method he was working on. If Elder Kseniya could call Spirit Arrows just what it was, then he could call it Spirit Bowstring.
In short, instead of using his energy to augment his pull on the bowstring, he used it as a replacement. While Spirit Arrows worked especially well because it eliminated the need to draw arrows from a quiver and simply condensing and sharpening energy would do well- and allow easy control- doing the same for a string was a bit more difficult. Anton knew it would still be better to have a string in place to augment. Technically that was true with arrows as well- but only if the arrows were of sufficient quality. Unlike strings, they were basically consumable. Even if they could be retrieved after battle, that wasn’t the case for all of them- and to make each one out of fine material rapidly ballooned in price. Strings were supposed to last for a long time, and his had. Until someone far beyond him had broken it quite by accident. But he wasn’t bitter about it. It’s not like he was thinking about taking revenge in great detail. Though that was because the one most at fault was already dead.
In short, Anton didn’t need a bowstring or arrows. Eventually he might not need a bow at all- current experiments showed that if he wanted to kill anything larger than a squirrel, he needed more than just his own energy control. Sharpening and condensing an arrow while also forming a rigid-yet-flexable bowshaft and all of the properties of a decent string… that was a bit beyond what he could do comfortably.
A veritable field of lotus flowers floated atop the pond. The flowers literally glistened and sparkled. It had been quite a bit of work to make that happen- first digging out mud at the bottom to make room for adding in the salty soil, and then managing for the other junk that was tossed in. Fortunately, mandrake lotus thrived in adversity. With nothing able to compete with them in salty and potentially poisonous water, they rapidly took over the pond.
“Now that I think of it,” old man Abramsen commented. “You never told me what we’re doing with these flowers. I’ll admit they’re a right beautiful sight, but for all that work I’m not quite sure what we’ll get out of it.”
“Is beauty not enough?” Anton smiled, “Because I have uses for them. Cultivator stuff. I’ll be buying them.” Anton held out a bag.
“What’s this?” Abramsen looked in the bag, raising an eyebrow.
“Payment. For all of these.”
“I’m not interested in accepting charity,” he said. “That’s hard to say after all you’ve done for me, but just handing me this much money…” he shook his head. “Especially since you provided the seed and did most of the work.”
“You want me to be honest?” Anton said. “That’s cheap. Consider it payment for letting me experiment with your pond and land. I’ll be making significantly more than that off of these.” Without a formal agreement, Anton was willing to concede more than he already had, but if he said how much he thought it would make Abramsen wouldn’t have believed him. It would sound like a scam. One little pond would make more than all of the Krantz farm in a year from many fields and animals. “In a few years these won’t grow here anymore, I don’t think. They’re rapidly desalinating the water. You’d have to live on the coast to grow these properly.”
“I won’t lie,” Abramsen said, “A lot of things about energy cultivation go quite over my head. But seeing these plants you brought… a little bit of special care, and they grow so much.”
“Just like people,” Anton smiled. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get any benefits here. A season to complete the nineteenth star isn’t bad.”
“Frankly,” the other man said, “It seems unreasonable. Here I am barely struggling to complete the second star, and you say it gets harder with each step.”
“Second is a real hurdle though,” Anton reminded. “The prime temperings take a bit more. You work hard though. Keep at it… and you won’t have to be surpassed by your wife.”
“Never thought she’d be able to do so much from a seat. You said she might be able to walk on her own?”
“No promises about that,” Anton said. “If it’s just weak muscles, she’ll be able to totter about with a bit more work. If it’s deeper than that, it would require the help of someone with proper medical training- regarding cultivators.”
“… sounds expensive.”
“Right you are,” Anton agreed. Then he clapped him on the back. “But hey, you can just carry her around if not. Aren’t you lucky?”
Abramsen laughed, “Maybe I am.”