The clang of hammer on anvil rang out at a steady pace. It struck repeatedly until it came time to quench the metal, steam billowing out of the bucket. Sweat dripped down Anton’s forehead, as this time he wasn’t just watching but making the attempt himself. It wasn’t anything marvelous, just a building nail. It was little more than a slab of metal that tapered to a point, but he was just beginning.
It was possible for him to completely negate the heat of a simple forge with his energy, but it seemed outside of the spirit of the work. Besides, if he couldn’t tolerate a little discomfort he would never have gotten good at anything.
When Grant had first started down the path of a smith, Anton had just started teaching him how to use energy. He’d barely reached the second star at that point, and while he had some experience as an apprentice his actual experience as a smith was limited. But with tempered muscles and the financial help to set up a forge, he’d begun his journey. Now, two and a half years later, Grant was nearing the peak of Body Tempering and had a steady flow of customers from Windrip and Stregate.
“It’s possible to fortify the inner portion of whatever you’re forging so that your hammer blows don’t push it too far,” Grant said, “Though it’s really better to achieve that with pure technique. If you really do flatten something too far, it’s possible to more directly alter the structure if you have to, but doing it wrong leaves the metal weak.” Anton nodded. Altering things on a small level took very precise and accurate energy control to last. “You use some muscles more than others, but the most important thing is knowing how much strength to use. Just swinging harder doesn’t help much, with normal metals. I haven’t gotten much practice with anything cultivators use.”
Anton continued to work with Grant, watching him smith. Most of his energy usage while doing so was internal, to improve his body as he worked. Anton had to bow to Grant’s expertise in what areas needed to be tempered properly, but he could provide some advice on how. He regularly visited Windrip to help people with their cultivation, but he was constantly learning new improvements. While many of them were extremely slight changes, they could significantly alter the future trajectory of a cultivator. For those who just wanted to live, it probably wouldn’t matter- and with just the core portions of the Ninety-Nine Stars people weren’t doing poorly. But Anton wasn’t happy with just settling for ‘good enough’. If people were willing to work with him to be their best, he would happily continue improving with them. And maybe he would be good enough to make things better than nails soon enough. Unlike a regular apprentice, he could afford to fix things if he messed up from trying to learn too quickly. He wasn’t going to be a burden on those he was learning from just because he showed up irregularly.
The next week, Derya took him out to the market. “The first part of weaving is picking good thread. It takes a practiced eye, but there’s more to it than that.” She had been an experienced weaver when he first helped her get set up in Windrip already, but cultivation had allowed her to take things to the next level. Since her work wasn’t as physically demanding as blacksmithing, she’d been cultivating more slowly after achieving the most useful portions of Body Tempering. “You can sense when a spool of thread has a weakness. I do not buy from those merchants who regularly have poor quality thread. What good is it to just look good on the outside?” She held up one spool to the merchant, a young woman, “This one’s bad in the middle, dear.”
The young woman took it and set it aside, “I’ll take your word for it.”
“You wouldn’t have to, if you would cultivate. You could pick it out for yourself.”
“Where would I find time for that?” she asked. “I have to be here all day or managing shipments or taking care of the house.”
“It’s not all sitting on your rear in meditation, dear,” Derya smiled, “It can be done at the same time as practical work. And it doesn’t always take many years. I’d be willing to bet you could sense bad thread by next spring. Sooner, if you have more talent than me.” She looked to Anton, “Anton’s the one who taught me, and he’s gone much further in just four years.”
“I doubt I could compare to a proper cultivator,” she kept her head low.
“You won’t know until you try,” Anton said, “And it will be good for your daily life to be more physically capable. You wouldn’t have to hire someone to unload wagons for you.”
The young merchant finally agreed to spend some time attempting to cultivate while Anton was in town. Anton wholly understood not wanting to take time away from work for unclear benefits, but soon enough he’d have the whole city cultivating if he could. Preferably people would be trained in cultivation once they were old enough, probably while they were apprentices. With Alva as an example it was clear that training from a younger age was possible, though it was still good to be cautious about it. If Anton had his way, Alva would just barely be starting cultivation and not finishing her second year.
Back at Derya’s workshop, she continued to explain weaving to him. “I could make my own thread, and sometimes I do- but time I spend on that I can’t be weaving, and I have to find the material still. I should probably hire some proper apprentices but not everyone wants their young girls to learn to cultivate, and I won’t have one who doesn’t. And of course the young men don’t want to weave.”
Weaving was much about patterns and repeated movements. Anton could remember things fairly swiftly, but it would still take time to get it down to habit. It would take quite some time to even begin to master even a couple of crafts, but spending the time allowed him to work on his goals of interacting more with common folk and teaching them to cultivate. Even if every person just reached two stars it would significantly change the way Graotan operated, allowing people to work more efficiently and to increase their prosperity.
A plain sword, unadorned except for a stylized guard, was held out in front of Anton as he readied himself for a spar. He had no particular intention to become skilled with swords, but increasing the variety of weapons he was proficient with wasn’t his purpose. The sword in question was the same one from the Luminous Ocean Society, the one which disrupted post-ascension energy.
Across from him was Timothy, since he was the one most defensively proficient. Anton had practiced to the point that the disruption from the sword could be overcome when simply holding it, but making use of his energy in combat was quite a different issue.
As the spar began, Anton mainly kept on the offense, striking with his sword continuously. Timothy wasn’t just letting him attack, of course. When Anton left himself open Timothy would counter, striking at his body. Though the attacks weren’t serious, Anton still needed to make use of his energy to defend himself. As for the energy on his weapon, he wasn’t using anything but the power of Fleeting Youth. Currently he was focusing on separating it into the different parts, since not all of it contained the type of energy he was intending to practice with.
Dense energy coated the sword as he feinted towards Timothy’s left side. When he held out his shield to deflect the attack, Anton flicked his sword around to the other side. Timothy’s right arm came up to parry the attack, and as their weapons clashed the sword was flung out of Anton’s hand, the energy dispersed.
It was difficult to tell how effective the enchantments were. Anton had little practice with the energy- not decades or centuries like he could presume those who passed ascension would gather. On the other hand, he only had a small amount of that energy. If the disruption increased with the quantity, it could be very effective. Likewise, the enchantments weren’t made to disrupt someone using the weapon specifically- it was supposed to be used against someone with the requisite energy. That would certainly make it more effective. In short, Anton was not yet experienced enough to give a proper showing of the efficacy of the enchantments, except to prove that they worked on some level.
There was as yet no indication if and when the next sort of attack by ascended individuals might be, but waiting would likely make any response too slow. If they got a decade of warning it would be pushing the development of proper counters- and thus improving the enchantments to be more effective. If they had a year of warning, they could only frantically have people learning techniques and enchanting weapons and armor. If there was no warning, they could only die helplessly.
Translation efforts were still undergoing, but it was clear that the Luminous Ocean Society had some sort of warning to make use of. More importantly, the Secret Realm seemed to be meant for training people with more than just the tower that had heavy energy pressure, and it was fully intact. While the Order didn’t have control over the area, and anyone could come and go as they pleased, they could make regular expeditions to the area as long as they brought elders for security.
“Again,” Anton said. He would continue until he was confident in maintaining his control without thinking about it… then Timothy would be the one with the sword. If Anton overcame all of that, learning the basics of the anti-ascension techniques wouldn’t be terribly difficult either. It was problematic that Anton was the only one, at the moment, who could make use of any ascension energy. It could take him years to be relevant in that regard, since a proper ascension cultivator would be beyond Life Transformation in terms of power, or perhaps matching it except for the denser form of energy- but that was still quite a bit out of his reach.
Vandale stood in front of Anton atop the peak, holding a small ball of energy in his hand. It was comparable in density to a smouldering orb in his other hand, though Anton could feel clear differences. “This is it, I’m afraid,” Vandale said. “In theory, I should be closer to the ascension energy and thus able to reach out for it… but it’s difficult. In theory this was what I was trying to obtain for so many years, and simply that act makes me unsuitable for Fleeting Youth.” His energy senses swept over Anton, “I see the practice of it is changing your core. You’re still making proper advancements in the Ninety-Nine Stars, but you feel different.”
“The ascension energy still isn’t part of me,” Anton said, “Nor do I think it can ever be. It’s more like stealing it… or borrowing it, since it’s quite willing to be under my control.”
“Energy doesn’t much care who controls it,” Vandale agreed. “Even this ascension energy is simply not easily accessed from where we are. But I imagine Everheart knew more about it than anyone who had not actually ascended. A shame he is not around to ask, but I doubt his answer would be helpful regardless. Though he might have yet left information around.”
“If he had a prediction on when the next event would be,” Anton said, “I imagine he’d reveal a ‘tomb’ or equivalent at what he felt was an appropriate time before it. Unless he ascended, in which case I would presume he wouldn’t have been interested in making it easier to defeat him if he ever returned. Even Fleeting Youth could have been completed before he became aware of those events.”
“Yes,” Vandale said. “I wouldn’t count on any results from him. But we just have to produce someone of our own like Everheart.”
“I’d never want to be like him,” Anton said.
“Oh, I didn’t mean an asshole. Just a genius,” Vandale tossed both balls of energy into the air, letting them unravel and explode against each other. “We definitely don’t need anyone with his personality. Just someone with the guts to make wide-sweeping moves. I’d be glad to try, but unfortunately I can guarantee I wouldn’t be able to see it through to the end.”
“… I’ll think about it,” Anton said.
“A bit too late for that, I think. It’s already begun. So do try to stay alive for the rest of it all.”