It was a sad world that didn’t have everyone working a job beneficial to themselves and society. Anton was aware that many people did not have the luxury of enjoying their work, but in a perfect world he believed they could find the right fit. There were some who even enjoyed the task of cleaning grimy sewers and holding together the underpinnings of a city. All of that turned on being able to perform a job properly and receiving reasonable compensation for their efforts, which Anton understood wasn’t always the case. Often the worst jobs, unpleasant conditions and low pay, went to those who had no other options left to them.
Then there were those employed as criminals, officially or not. Those who sustained themselves simply by taking from others in one way or another, without any benefit to society as a whole. Anton could not claim to know the whole of what caused people to fall to crime, but there were some basic features. First, it could be easy. Why work for a week when you could just take a coin purse containing all of that money in a few minutes? Some considered themselves more noble, taking only from those with great sums of wealth- but it was easy from there to push the boundaries and cause greater harm than intended to the world.
Sometimes crime seemed to be the only option. In a large city like Cruhull, Anton had to admit it was more difficult than a rural village. Even if one had learned proper survival techniques, what plants were edible and how to hunt… only a small portion of the population could survive off of the surrounding wilderness, assuming it hadn’t all been converted to farmland. And that it didn’t have any dangerous beasts who would hunt those on their territory.
It wasn’t possible for Anton to judge all crime, but he certainly had to be cautious about what he found was acceptable. Leo stole to keep himself and Kit alive. He couldn’t fault that, even if it ultimately harmed others who could not afford the loss of a coin purse.
Leo had stepped onto the path of cultivation on his own, if just barely. The question Anton had was whether he should help him advance further along that path despite his crimes. His insight told him Leo truly regretted his criminal lifestyle- not just because he’d gotten caught. But he might always change his mind in the future, as he grew in power. If he was able to do whatever he wanted, what would it matter?
Of course, any cultivator could turn down a dark path. There was no way to stop that. Anton’s thoughts to have everyone cultivate would simply mean they could match any with criminal intent and deal with them just the same.
He knew he was nowhere close to omniscient, but he felt good things about Leo. It was easy to take pity on a young man with nothing, but he felt no deception in the young man. And leaving him to fumble around with cultivation on his own would likely lead to harm to himself and others, including Kit. Anton had to at least make the attempt to improve things that passed in front of his eyes, even if he couldn’t solve every problem in the world.
“I don’t have long here,” Anton said. “We’re only staying for a couple days. Then we’ll be passing on. But… I have the intention to guide you and your friend in your cultivation.” Kit met the basic level of being a cultivator, even if the only energy she had absorbed was unintentional. Though she hadn’t said anything upon waking up, Anton could tell she had been looking for something to help Leo. He would bet that she wanted to make sure it was safe to consume- and ironically it would have been, for someone who had some control over their energy. “The two of you must take solemn oaths to only use what I teach you for good.”
There were special techniques to create a contract between cultivators, but they were unstable at best, requiring constant care and attention. Imprecise notions like ‘good’ were hard to enforce, while at best there could be some reaction from moving to a specific place or interacting with a specific object. Anton had no way to enforce anything, except to make sure the two knew that ultimately one path would be best for them.
“I will,” Leo said. “… if I am able.”
Kit nodded. She was half-hiding behind Leo, even though Anton had been the one who helped her stabilize the energy inside her. But who would trust a random old man anyway?
“Good,” Anton said. “First, you will need to come with me. Between two walls is hardly a proper place to train. I can’t stay with you for long or supply for your every need continuously… and I wouldn’t if I could. But I can help you with this.”
He practically dragged the two of them to an inn located in a different part of town. It wasn’t luxurious, but he felt it was dry and the beds free of pests as he washed over it with his senses. The innkeeper looked a bit unhappy to have two urchins in rags brought into his establishment, but seeing the weapons Anton carried he didn’t say anything.
Anton approached with a smile. He didn’t want to cause trouble. “Two rooms for these two, with meals. For a week.” Anton pulled out a small number of coins. “And baths.” The innkeeper looked relieved at that statement. Anton looked at the two of them. “Speaking of which, you should have the first of those right now. I’ll be back in a short moment with something better than rags.”
Using his energy senses he was able to take the measure of a person to a reasonable dimension. He wouldn’t be able to tailor them clothes with a perfect fit- partly because he wasn’t a tailor- but he imagined he could get them something better than they’d worn in recent memory. Or perhaps ever.
He quickly made his way to a tailor, picking out some of the ready-made outfits they had available. Sturdy material good for working in. And it would fit, as much as it needed to. As for shoes… it was a bit harder to find ones just right. But he was able to run around between several districts and be back before they finished their baths.
After having them change and making sure they had a meal, Anton had the two of them sit with him in Leo’s room. It was little more than a bed and a small table, but it had room for the three of them. As Anton pulled out a tome from his bag, Leo’s face told him something. Though he asked politely anyway. “Can you read?”
Leo shook his head.
“No,” Kit said with her head down.
“Well, everyone has to learn at some point. I’d like to say I could teach you to read in just a day or two, but that’s simply not possible.” Anton tossed the tome back into his bag. “So you’ll just have to remember what I show you, and help each other when I’m no longer around. Cultivation is all about energy. The natural energy that is all around us, in varying amounts. I trust the two of you can sense it?”
Leo nodded, but Kit looked hesitant.
Anton held up his hand, gathering a small amount and making it visible to the eye, with more radiating around it. “The energy I use flows from within my body. At a certain point you will produce some of your own, but mostly you will be absorbing it from your surroundings. And you use it for more than just this, but to improve your body.”
Anton began to explain things to them one step at a time. Just saying things didn’t seem to be useful to them, but showing them how he drew energy in through his meridians and condensed it in his dantian made them understand. Leo was eager to try, but Kit was hesitant.
“Why…” she asked falteringly. “Why are you helping us?”
“Because I want to,” Anton said.
“How does it benefit you?” she continued to question.
“I don’t believe you.”
There wasn’t much he could do about that. But Anton had a response that he thought might satisfy her. “Well, if you insist… it makes me feel good to help others. And in the widest scale of things, having more cultivators will benefit my cultivation. For you see, energy doesn’t come from nowhere. Neither does it just disappear upon use, becoming nothing.” Anton continued to explain. It was fairly simple on its surface to explain the aspect he most directly observed, with farming. Cultivators grew plants with the benefit of natural energy, the plants grew bigger and stronger and produced more. In Windrip he felt the effects in more than just the plants and ground, but the various goods and crafts produced by the people there and how the energy spread out into the surroundings, amplifying the area. It was still quite a bit short of the Order’s land, but in another decade or two it would at least be like the lower parts of the mountain.
Kit seemed satisfied with his roundabout explanation, except for one thing. “Why aren’t you teaching as many people as possible how to cultivate?”
“You think I’m not?” Anton said. “I’ve worked with hundreds of people in Graotan, and they’ve taught others. The two of you should be able to teach others eventually. Don’t be concerned that you’ll suddenly stop being special… you’ll have a head start, and being able to do practical things never stops mattering. As long as you are willing to learn how to do new things. Don’t just get stuck in a rut.” He didn’t doubt that they would be willing to learn- they just hadn’t had initial opportunities so far.
It was impossible to pack everything he wanted to teach them into a day. He also needed to spend some time looking for someone who needed work. Kit was still a bit weak from her bout with energy, but she should be capable in a couple days. Both were thin, but with a few days of food and body tempering they would show rapid improvement in their abilities. The most basic forms of labor required a strong body, and Anton just needed to find someone who would be willing to put up with them while they improved. Preferably he wouldn’t have to bribe them to do so, because he’d rather set them up with a reasonable boss.
It was early morning. The sun wasn’t even over the horizon. Leo and Kit stood outside with Anton. “So this is it?” Leo said. “You’re just going to go and… we’ll never see you again?”
“Who said that?” Anton frowned. “There’s no way you’re getting rid of me that easily. I’ll be passing back through here in a month or so to see how you’ve done.”
“… We might not be staying here anymore,” Leo said. “Though I’d hope we could avoid going back to… the other place.”
Anton had given them a few coins, but he had no intention to just throw money at them and presume they’d have no troubles. They had secured some work, and if they could keep it they should at least be able to keep a roof over their heads. A better roof than the one above the walls they’d been huddling between, obviously.
“I’ll be able to find you,” Anton said. “If you’re in or around the city.” After a few days he was quite familiar with their energy, and even in a city of over ten thousand people it wouldn’t be hard to pick them out. They couldn’t be out of the maximum range of his senses, though he might have to do a few passes around the city if they weren’t in the section he presumed they would be. Poor, but not quite the slums. “I wouldn’t try to teach anyone before then. Remember that it can be dangerous. If you feel any problems, it would be better to wait for me to return instead of pushing yourselves.”
At least both of them were old enough he didn’t have to worry about the same things as Alva. Speaking of which, she was coming to find him. “Come on grandpa. We’re going.” She looked at Leo and Kit. “Who are these two?”
“New students,” Anton said.
“Okay,” Alva shrugged.
Leo and Kit looked at Alva, clearly stunned. She was in Spirit Building, after all. The amount of energy she had was many times more than either of them- and she was clearly still a handful of years younger.
“Goodbye for now,” Anton said as he waved to them. “Don’t forget anything I said.” He especially was referring to how they should properly behave. He hoped that since they didn’t need to steal, they wouldn’t. Kit was helpful there, because she hadn’t wanted Leo to steal even to keep her alive… but young folk were volatile. He just hoped they didn’t get up to too much trouble while he was gone.
Arriving back with the travelling members of the Order, Anton also saw some other sects nearby. That included Cloudtop Summit, and Firdaus the enchanter. Anton looked forward to catching up on what had happened while they were apart. He took one last glance over his shoulder at two people many blocks away and behind some buildings, likely unaware of his senses reaching out towards them. He’d just have to trust that they would be fine for some time on their own. Hopefully, he’d handled everything in the right way.