In theory, Anton could have wiped out Birita, the leader of this thug group. She and her thugs probably wouldn’t take long to kill, either. It was only a matter of whether or not it would be good for the residents of Arbington like Idalia. It seemed simple on the surface- Birita’s presence was negative, a simple drain on the honest workers in the surrounding area. It might even be strictly negative- many thugs got ‘protection’ fees but wouldn’t do anything if someone else caused trouble. Those were the cowardly ones, though, who didn’t maintain their territory long. If Birita was smart, she would at least keep others from causing the same sort of trouble in the area.
Yet it was pretty clear that overall, she was a drain on the area. If she had the intention to actually defend the area, she could become more legitimate somehow. Anton knew that to be true. She was an Essence Collection cultivator after all. Early Essence Collection, but that was still significant.
And thus the other problem. Anton could remove her, but what would happen then? It was unlikely that she had no connections of any kind. Whether to sects or other purely criminal cultivators didn’t matter, especially if they took issue with her death. What would happen to the people of Arbington then? Maybe Anton could protect them. For a year, even, and then they might be left alone. Or they could be killed the moment he left, either to return home or just because his sect called on him.
So for the moment she would stay. And meanwhile, he could learn from Idalia, and others in the nearby area. “Before we begin, I should make something clear,” Anton started off his explanation to Idalia. “I firmly believe you will be able to have success in cultivation, and that it will make your life better. But… it might also become harder at the same time. Even if you have no intent to fight, you could be seen as a threat.”
“You think so?” Idalia said. “You think someone would threaten to kill me? Because they’re already basically doing that. I won’t get away with bundles of cheap herbs for long, and eventually I’ll have no business.”
“I just wanted to make sure you’re aware of the possibilities,” Anton said.
“Enough,” she said. “And I’d rather at least be able to stand up to a couple thugs. They… do you think I could beat them?”
“Those three?” Anton asked. “If you learn to fight a bit, even the first stage of cultivation will be plenty. They had no cultivation, though I must warn you that some of Birita’s lieutenants do. And she herself is much stronger.” Fortunately, Birita controlled a big enough area that she might not notice a few incidents in Arbington. Anton had followed the thugs with his senses until they left town, and later confirmed she and her thugs didn’t have permanent residence in any nearby settlement.
“Then I don’t mind. Though it’s not a fight I’d like on my own.”
“My earlier promise still stands,” Anton said. “And I’ll be making similar offers to others as well. Unless you plan to keep me occupied for sixteen hours per day.”
“Surely not. Especially with the speed you came back with that basket of herbs,” Idalia gestured. “I’d have hardly made it to the edge of the woods. If I didn’t know better, I’d thought you prepared it ahead of time. But then you wouldn’t have much to learn from me, would you?”
“I do have some knowledge of herbs. I was a farmer and hunter in a rural village for some time. But I will admit not knowing what all of these are for.”
“We’ll get started then. You already know that particular healing wort and its side effects. Some of these are to address that, in case those thugs come back with some demands. Whether they know it was my doing or not, I’d best be ready.” Idalia picked through until she found one with red flowers. “This one’s for minor aches and pains. Not as good alone as when properly mixed with some other things.”
Anton listened carefully as she explained the basics of her profession. He especially focused on some of the physical aspects, how she ground things into powder. At first it seemed an easy motion, as leaves were quite brittle. When they weren’t dried, however, some could be quite tough. And repeating the motions was enough to make a person tired quite quickly. Not a proper cultivator, of course, but focusing on those aspects first would make Idalia’s life easiest. Even if she chose to give up on achieving a greater level of cultivation, she would be healthy and strong. She was young and healthy now, but when she got older her joints would thank her for it.
Not everyone was as willing to trust Anton as Idalia had been. He knew he could just display his abilities to stun or intimidate them into what he wanted, but he really preferred if they had a desire to learn. He wanted to teach as many people as possible, though without raising too much of a fuss. That sort of thing was difficult, but not impossible. Throughout the world, various people who were not cultivators made use of natural energy in small ways- in theory people who realized that and focused on it were the first cultivators. Attempting to cultivate without any form of guidance was dangerous and often fatal. After all, it only took a small mistake to damage the brain or the heart or anything important.
Such accidents could still happen with proper cultivation techniques, but that was usually due to the impatience of the students. Since Anton wasn’t teaching teenagers for the most part, his students had heeded his cautions much more readily than they might have otherwise. Not that they were perfect, but mistakes seemed rarer than what he’d heard was the average.
Anton had studied many crafts with others, and thus was able to more readily guide anyone. Given some time he could come up with some specific starting points for anyone, depending on what they needed. After all, his observations included asking them what they made the most use of, and those who would know best were the ones doing the work.
“You can use your energy to widen the effective size of the pestle, or focus it on particularly stubborn bits,” Anton explained. “But I would be cautious. Not only might you damage the tools, injection of natural energy into the herbs themselves might cause unexpected behavior. Generally an increase in short term potency, from what I know, but that includes bringing out normally inconsequential side effects.” Anton shrugged, “I have heard you can focus on the particular of what you desire to enhance, but I have not trained in that area.”
“I’d best be cautious then,” Idalia replied. “Wouldn’t want strange things happening.”
“If it helps, you will eventually be able to follow the effects of medicine inside your body. Or any foreign substance, for that matter. Cultivators have to deal with many bodily impurities, such as poisons.”
“You run into poisons often?” Idalia raised an eyebrow.
“Indeed. That includes the venoms of various beasts, including the sorts that don’t usually have them. Some cultivators rely on antidote pills, though the best of them seem to just draw the poisons into them to be expelled later. We can also force it out manually.”
“Seems like most medicines wouldn’t be needed much, with that healing ability you talked about. Focusing on one area and all that.”
“There are limits to what the body will do on its own. Though they can be transcended to some extent.” Anton shrugged, “Some people focus on tempering their bodies far beyond what others find practical. I would never discount bodily strength as an advantage, but I find focusing on using energy as I please much more effective.”
Having new students was great, and Anton was pleased that he found functional techniques that were suited for everyone. Even if most cultivation techniques had the same general process of tempering the body in all ways during their initial phase, some had elements they were suited to or specific attributes they focused on. Even the Ninety-Nine Stars, while capable of general effects, lent itself to pure expression of energy and aspects related to fire and light.
Even when Anton wasn’t planning to teach someone, he thought about what might fit them. Sometimes it was difficult to pick something out. Did a woodcarver need to focus on the strength of their body? Tempered skin would be useful as well, but honing the blade of their tools to be optimally sharp was also a factor. Sometimes it was better to simply have nonreactive styles that avoided unwanted side effects.
And sometimes, a style fit someone too perfectly. That was especially the case when it was dangerous. Anton had no intention to teach anything like Candle Wax to others- it wouldn’t be terribly helpful for most people, and would just result in them engaging in fights they shouldn’t. Focusing on a strong foundation was better.
But when a gaunt man walked into town, dragging a shovel behind himself, Anton saw a connection. The man was like himself, if not nearly so old as when he had begun cultivating. But the look on his face and the dirt on his clothes told Anton a story. The story of someone who had buried those they cared about, far too early. It was also a story of someone who was lost, looking for direction. But he wasn’t quite lost, as he marched determinedly towards Anton. Well, likely towards Idalia’s store, but they were currently in the same location.
The bell rang as he stepped into the store. His shovel got caught on the lip of the door, and instead of picking it up he let it drop, propping the door open. “I heard tales… that cultivation could be learned here.” He looked at Idalia, who was immediately obvious- but his gaze also found Anton, standing nearby. “Is it you, sir?”
“For what reason do you wish to cultivate?” Anton asked seriously.
“Revenge,” the man said.
“Against who?” Internally, Anton bit his lip.
“Birita. She made my life like this. But… I know she is strong. And only indirectly responsible. Have you heard of the Gray Rock Sect?”
Anton nodded. “Yes. They are local to the area, are they not?”
“In theory, they are stewards of this region. But in practice, they don’t have the guts to stand up to Birita and her thugs. Yet they have the gall to charge taxes in the region.” Those sorts of words were dangerous, but the man seemed far beyond caring what would happen to himself. “Their taxes on land were quite excessive, when combined with Birita’s additions. My wife… commented on the cowardice of their disciples as they came to collect. I tried to protect her from the retaliation but I got this…” the man gestured to his left arm- or lack of it, beneath a bundle of bandages. “So I’m going to kill him. And the rest of the sect, who won’t bother to stand up against worthless thugs. And then Birita.”
“Or you’ll die doing it,” Anton pointed out.
“Does it matter?” the man asked.
“It might,” Anton said. “If you bring troubles upon others, it matters quite a bit. What would you do after?”
The man shrugged, wincing as he moved what remained of his arm. “Does it matter? I know it would never happen.”
“You’d be surprised,” Anton said. “What would you do?”
“If I really accomplished all that…” the man slowly shook his head. “I’d likely seek out others who caused people harm while exerting useless authority.”
A dangerous ideal, but something Anton could work with. “Are you afraid of death?” Anton knew the answer, but the man had to say it.
“What difference would it make if I died? Perhaps it might have been better.”
The man could be excused some melodrama in his situation. “What about something worse?”
“Pain beyond your imagining.”
“Physical?” the man asked.
“Mostly,” Anton said.
“Don’t care. I could always just die.”
“Well then,” Anton leaned close. “I have something that fits you, but you might end up with… powerful enemies. If you have the patience, you might train something else for a bit longer. Oh, and this won’t be quick either way.”
“How long?” the man asked.
“For Birita? A decade, if you’re lucky, talented, and determined. I don’t know the cultivations of the Gray Rock Sect, but if they’re concerned about her… I’d expect something close to that if you’re fighting alone.”
The man snorted. “So long? Or perhaps it’s short.”
“Short,” Anton said. “And I do mean you have to be all of those things. But there’s a chance. Do you have a name?”
“Hiram,” the man said shortly. “What should I address you as… elder…?”
“I don’t have the honor of that title just yet,” Anton commented. “But you may call me Anton. Senior Anton, if you insist, but I don’t know if you’ll have it in mind to be respectful once you learn what plans I have for you.”