When everything settled down and there were a few years without any sort of major incident, Anton was almost confused. Not fighting for an extended period of time just hadn’t happened for him before. But the conflicts that had been happening couldn’t possibly continue, especially as they had escalated to involve the higher levels of cultivation. If conflicts had kept going at the same rate, in a decade or two there wouldn’t be any cultivators left at all.
The world wasn’t completely peaceful, of course. It was just that Anton had been embroiled in trouble very frequently since becoming a cultivator. A few whole years where he wasn’t seeking revenge or looking for a lost tomb or assisting allies in trouble was an unfamiliar but welcome break.
He kept himself occupied, of course. Straightforward cultivation occupied much of his time, but he took time for others as well. The change to Graotan was becoming obvious, with nearly a decade of his plan to teach cultivation on a wider scale. Only a small number of people ended up joining the Order, bolstering their numbers somewhat compared to how things were before. Even then, it could have been random fluctuations in numbers and those joining just so happened to have been people Anton introduced to cultivation.
Vincent or someone else might have found those very same people and encouraged them to cultivate. Anton hadn’t suddenly swelled the ranks of the Order, and the slight increase in number and quality of recruits was barely making up for those they had lost. It would still take decades before the Order could truly recover, especially considering the losses of Life Transformation cultivators.
But outside of the Order, throughout the rest of Graotan, there was a transformation. As people worked to make use of cultivation in everyday life, with Windrip and other places showing great success, more people became interested. Anton also developed more techniques for teaching people with low talent, enough to allow them to surpass the first two stars at a minimum. Many people could have joined the Order, reaching the third or fourth star or even beyond, but they were more interested in retaining the life they were used to. Except just a little bit more efficient in every way.
Even regular crops, tended to by people nurturing the land with energy, produced more than they would have otherwise. And in return, those crops improved the quantity of natural energy throughout the country. If nobody had been looking it might have been ignored, but Anton and Elder Howland determined it was between one and two parts in ten. Some places were more, and areas isolated from human influence changed less, but there was a real, noticeable improvement in less than a decade.
Cultivators had long lifespans, and were quite willing to devote significant resources to developing their sects. However, while what Anton was doing was significant, it wasn’t something most sects would care to replicate. They were able to develop their own land, making use of the entirety of the effort they put in. Higher level cultivators needed more than just a small increase from the ambient levels of natural energy to properly cultivate, they needed energy density several times the norm at minimum.
This was true even of the Order. Though Anton thought there might be a day in the future where the energy flowed freely between the Order’s lands and their surroundings, it wouldn’t be soon. At the moment, it would be a significant loss to the Order. And maybe they would continue to build the natural energy they had ever higher, though there were limits to that.
It didn’t really matter though. Anton wanted the Order to succeed, but he also wanted the everyday people of Graotan and elsewhere in the world to not have to fear cultivators. Cultivators didn’t suddenly stop causing trouble, but with a bit of cultivation of their own… people were willing and able to stand up to cultivators. It was rarely relevant in Graotan, with the peace always having been enforced by the Order. Intrusions from Ofrurg hadn’t happened in some time- the border security was still better than it had been and nobody in Ofrurg was planning to dip their toes into that trouble for quite some time.
Other places changed, though. Ofrurg a bit less than some, though Kohar’s continued efforts to weaken slavery was overshadowing mmore of the other changes. Anton didn’t spend so much time there, but he knew basics of cultivation were still spreading. The Ten Stars, as people were starting to call the incomplete technique. They weren’t members of the Order of NInety-Nine Stars, but they were still able to attain that technique, where many cultivation techniques had been kept secret for various reasons. Even though it was incomplete, it was more than most could have gotten access to.
The change in perception about it was important as well. To the average person, a cultivator was a warrior. They spent their whole life training to fight, only to use their martial prowess to gain resources to grow stronger. That was still generally true, but a smaller devotion to cultivation and lesser talent could still achieve something for many. Their fights might not be with weapons, but instead their blades might be plows in the earth. With energy, every task became more achievable.
Travels brought Anton to Cruhull, in northeastern Droca. More or less directly east from the Order, with a short jog to the south. There were no laws against teaching people to cultivate- not in any country Anton knew of- but some places were more friendly to his methods. It had been some time since he’d been back to Cruhull, and Anton wanted to check up on some things.
As he walked around the city, he was pleased to find that a reasonable portion of the inhabitants showed some signs of cultivation. It was less than a percent of the adult population, but that was a significant change from where it had been before, usually one in a thousand or less. The Ten Stars was not the only simplified, incomplete technique that existed. It was just that usually people didn’t spread cultivation knowledge freely. It seemed some local sect, at least, had determined that it was worthwhile to teach a wide spread of people.
Anton was also pleased to see a few people he didn’t recognize with a familiar energy. He hadn’t been around to teach them, and none of the others from the Order helping spread cultivation to everyone had been out this far either. He’d only been through when he passed through some time before. Perhaps some people had traveled, but from what he could sense throughout the city it was more than just casual teaching. Someone had been zealous about it.
That someone would be the highest ranking person with that same aura. There was a personal touch to it that Anton recognized, but he also felt something off. The power was that of the twelfth star, but things weren’t quite right. Anton realized he should have come earlier, but he couldn’t be everywhere at once, much as he might like to. Projections like Everheart’s were not so simple to make, difficult and resource intensive and usually not long lasting. They were also tied to a specific place, something Everheart seemed to not have overcome.
As he got closer to his target, Anton grew more certain that it was Leo. When he was finally close enough to sweep his senses over his body directly, he recognized the young man, no longer a teenager. It was Leo, which meant the other presence had to be Kit.
Anton’s feet brought him to some official looking buildings. City hall, it seemed. He spent a few minutes planning how he would get inside. He could just walk in- he didn’t sense anyone who could physically stop him- but he didn’t want to cause any trouble. However, he also didn’t want to wait with the others who were presumably lining up to get into meetings with various officials.
“Excuse me sir, are you Anton?” A well-dressed young man addressed him. It wasn’t Leo, obviously. Anton was focused on him and would have sensed the movement. He still noticed the man coming, but he had presumed he was looking for someone else as he stepped out of the hall.
“That’s right,” Anton said.
The young man looked at the bow on Anton’s back, ultimately choosing to move past that. “Your presence is requested by the vice-manager of city services. If you are available.”
“I am,” Anton replied easily. It would get him in the building, at least. And since he hadn’t announced his presence, there were very few in the building who would have known he was outside. And likely only one that knew his name.
Anton was brought inside, past a line of people waiting who seemed somewhat jealous to see him just waltz in. A few turns later, and he stood in front of a small office. Leo was inside, though almost unrecognizable from three years prior. His hair was longer, neatly trimmed but not shaved close. Instead of patches of stubble his face was clean shaven. His shoulders were broader, and he was taller. His clothes were nicely tailored, and decent material.
“Vice-manager of city services, huh?” Anton asked as the young man was looking up from the pile of papers in front of him.
“It’s not nearly so glorious as it sounds,” Leo replied. He gestured to a chair in front of his desk. “Come in, sit down. When I sensed you outside I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t exactly go running out on my own. So I sent Stuart. Thank you, by the way, that should be all.” The messenger nodded his head and returned out into the lobby. “Anton. You’re… even stronger than before. By a significant margin. My own progress seems insignificant now.”
“About that,” Anton said. “How did you reach the twelfth star?”
Leo grimaced. “More than a year of hard work. I guess I’m reaching my limit.”
“You don’t have the full technique,” Anton said. “So the fact that you continued to advance at all is impressive.” It was actually a shame that he’d managed to press forward. Now he’d probably have to unravel some of that cultivation if he wanted to do it properly. He had likely focused on forming stars without knowing what he should be tempering. Maybe he’d been tempering his body still, because Anton doubted he would randomly stumble into the mental aspects. Then again, perhaps he had.
“Is that what it was?” Leo said. “I just thought I was supposed to enlighten myself to the rest on my own.”
“There’s plenty of that to be had, but without the guidance of those before you… you’re going to miss out on a lot of important stuff.” Anton looked around the room. “So what do you do here?”
“Almost the same thing I was doing before. Clearing out piles of crap. Though fortunately most of it is on paper now,” Leo grinned.
“This was a pretty quick promotion,” Anton said.
“Not really,” Leo said. “I just recently got here, and the office of city services isn’t an especially fought after position. The old man who was the vice-manager here retired and as the person who knew the tunnels the best, I was pulled into this. Though they still call me in for the worst blockages, the kind nobody can get to. I deal with more than the sewers now, but it’s all about keeping the city together.” Leo frowned, “I hope you don’t mind that I taught some others how to cultivate. It makes for more effective workers.”
“I didn’t tell you not to,” Anton smiled, “And in general I’d encourage sharing knowledge.” Anton pulled something out of his bag. “Except for this. The full version of the Ninety-Nine Stars. I’ve seen enough to know you won’t abuse it, and it’s better than letting you screw up your cultivation. I assume you’re not interested in actually joining the Order?”
“I considered the possibility,” Leo said. “I wasn’t quite sure if they would accept me… but that wasn’t the reason I chose against it. I was doing necessary work here in the city, and though it was quite unpleasant I saw the benefits. I’m actually paid as well as the actual manager, given my extra duties.”
“I’m glad,” Anton said. “It’s good to see people doing actual work. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in power and want only violence.”
“I doubt you had trouble with that,” Leo said.
“I could have, at some points. Maybe focusing on killing would have been justified, but it wouldn’t have been good for me.” Anton shrugged, “I’m not going to deny being a warrior still, but I prefer to devote myself to other aspects.”
“It’s good to see you again,” Leo said. “I owe you my life, and Kit’s.”
“Glad to be back,” Anton grinned widely. “And whatever you owed me, it’s more than paid off by you becoming a functioning member of society. And teaching others to cultivate, actually. That’s something I’d like to encourage. Though do keep some discretion.” Anton unfurled the scroll in front of him. “I’d suggest tempering your Insight. Useful in a position like this. Just don’t share the completed technique without permission.”
“What about Kit?” Leo asked.
“Of course you can share it with her,” Anton said. “I was about to go find her anyway.
“She works at the herbalist shop-”
“About five blocks that way,” Anton nodded. “I can sense her.”
“… I thought my range was getting rather impressive.”
“Relax, you’re more than a handful of years and some important information behind. And your job doesn’t rely on you sensing things from far off.”
“I don’t know about that,” Leo replied. “I’d really like to pick out blockages without actually stepping down into the sewer. And maybe remove them, too.”
“You’ll get there. Just keep working at it. Though I might need to help you fix things up. You’ve taken a couple awkward steps in the dark, when I should have been here a long time ago to properly guide you.”
“You never owed me anything,” Leo shook his head, “A life like this was impossible without you, so I couldn’t ask for more. Though Kit would be furious if I didn’t at least suggest you stay for dinner.”
“Of course,” Anton said. “I’ll let her know you asked. And I don’t care what you think I do or don’t owe you, there’s no way I’m leaving you with a messed up cultivation. You’ll have to put up with me for a while.”
Leo grinned, “I guess we can do that.”