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Before Anton stepped too far, he reconsidered his actions. He looked at Hiram in front of him, and tried to compare to his own life. Hiram was like him, but not everything was the same. He had personally witnessed his wife killed, and lost his arm in the same incident. He had a known target with a location. He could go attack them at any time- which would of course get himself killed. He came seeking cultivation, but even the long, difficult path Anton offered was the ‘quick’ method.
The man might momentarily be suited to learn the Deathly Heart Technique due to his brush with death, but by Everheart’s rather reasonable definitions, it would be a forbidden technique on multiple levels. It had the potential to harm its user as well as others, along with being a risk if any of the Whispering Watchers who considered it their sole property noticed him. Anton didn’t think it was necessarily evil but… it was better to leave things be. No matter Hiram’s own willingness on the situation.
“Come with me,” Anton gestured to the man. While Idalia was quite used to Anton’s presence, taking advantage of her shop as a place to cultivate was rather unnecessary. Especially when simple isolation might do better, and thus he led them out of town. Anton kept an eye on Hiram’s missing arm, picking a few herbs to stave off any sort of infection. Anton could likely handle anything with his energy, but it was better not to do anything that might disrupt someone he planned to instruct.
Eventually, Anton found a nice pair of rocks on which they could sit, and did so one one himself, gesturing to the other. “I have heard about cultivators, but the stories of meditating in the wilderness I thought were… exaggerated.”
“Well now, neither of us have a convenient place other than this… and it’s better to avoid distractions. Cultivation is dangerous, you know.”
“I know,” Hiram said firmly. “But I’m prepared to accept the consequences.”
“That’s good,” Anton said. “But if I were teaching you how to wield a sword- which I might, at some point- we wouldn’t throw caution out the window just because it’s meant to cause harm. It’s much better to direct all of it to your enemies.” Hiram nodded gruffly. It was clear he wasn’t in a talkative mood, but Anton could hardly expect him to be. “First, you have to feel natural energy. For that, I find it’s helpful to focus on a particular aspect that could draw it to you.”
Anton began with the technique of the Glorious Flame Palace. He had permission to teach the basic form to whoever he pleased, and like other fire techniques it focused on a passionate drive. Hiram had that, and so Anton hoped to catch onto it.
The results were… much less than expected. At a certain level cultivators could sense affinity of others for cultivation, their talent. Anton was willing to admit that his first impression could have been wrong, when Hiram failed to connect with natural energy for a period of several days. Anton thought should have the talent, the way he’d felt it swirling about him when he arrived- an unconscious disturbance, but perhaps a coincidence that wouldn’t be repeated. Yet Hiram continued to have effects without conscious control or even awareness.
Anton tried a few other methods. Guessing what the man had been suited for was all well and good, but he didn’t have a plethora of techniques to choose from just for fun. People were all different, and expressed themselves in different ways. But nothing worked, even the Ninety-Nine Stars which Anton found was easy for most with any tiny spark of talent to begin, though not always immediately.
After two weeks, during which Anton would come to him every few hours to check on his progress, nothing happened. Perhaps he truly had no talent for cultivation. Anton had gone through everything in his arsenal… except the Deathly Heart Technique. It was only after much consideration- including repeated thoughts during that two week period- that Anton decided it was worth the risk. He had promised him cultivation, and he could see in Hiram’s eyes that if he couldn’t even begin the path… he would lose himself. Perhaps he would simply die, or get himself killed in a misguided attack on the Gray Rock Sect, but he could also do something crazy. Anton didn’t know what, but innocent people might get hurt. Anton would be able to stop him, but it would likely still result in Hiram’s ultimate death.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to find anything suited for you,” Anton said truthfully. “I have one more option, but it’s more dangerous than any of the others. In fact, I could say it’s quite… problematic. I need you to swear something.”
“What?” Hiram asked. “Do you want me to swear I won’t kill anyone with it? Because you know I can’t do that.”
“Of course not,” Anton said. “I’m not a hypocrite. Or at least I try not to be. But I do need you to swear to only use it righteously. And yes, that can mean killing. You just have to make sure it’s the right people.”
“Fine. I swear it.”
“I know you mean it, but that’s not sufficient. We have some oaths in my Order. Loyalty to us doesn’t apply to you, but the basic principles are the same. Swear to only kill oppressors of the innocent and those who are filled with evil- who harm others simply for their own benefit and have no consideration for the good of the world. To leave the world better than it was with your actions.” Anton could have come up with something longer and more flowery, but that was what he needed. As for whether Hiram’s ideas agreed with his own on the subject, Anton fully intended to have conversations with him about what he meant as they trained. If it even worked.
Hiram took a moment to speak, clearly taking some actual time to consider Anton’s words. “Very well. I swear to only harm those who oppress the innocent, those who are filled with evil. I swear to leave the world better for having me act upon it.” Anton could tell he meant it, in more than a transitory fashion. And he would certainly reinforce that in the coming days.
“Good.” Anton nodded, “For this, you must focus first upon the concept of death…” Anton explained the very basics of the Deathly Heart Technique.
Even as he did so, Anton partly hoped it wouldn’t work, despite his assurances that he would teach Hiram to cultivate. But only a short time later, within an hour, Hiram opened his eyes from meditation. “I felt it,” Hiram proclaimed, though Anton was already aware of that fact. Now that he had connected to natural energy, Anton might be able to guide him on another path, but it would hardly be the most effective route.
Even while he was focusing on his passion of teaching, Anton wasn’t neglecting his other purpose. He was mostly serving as a go-between for messages traveling through the area, a stable point of contact for the others, but it wasn’t nothing. That said, he didn’t spend all his time with the people in the local area, much as he would like to. Each individual could only handle so much disruption to their daily lives as they all had jobs to uphold. Except for Hiram.
Anton considered bringing him along, but Anton could go and return before Hiram would have made it anywhere. A journey of a few days for Anton might be weeks or more for a normal human- or one just beginning cultivation, the equivalent of the first star. It had been a shade more than a month since first teaching him the Deathly Heart Technique, and he was advancing disturbingly quickly.
Whenever Anton took a trip to spar with someone who needed to test their anti-ascension techniques, he worried for the man. There was a significant risk placed on the Hiram just for using the technique. But even after Anton explained in detail, the Deathly Heart Technique still suited Hiram, and the consequences had been accepted.
At some point, Hiram would either have to kill someone or start accumulating the side effects of the technique. Killing an arbitrary person was absolutely unacceptable, but Hiram’s dark temperament didn’t show signs of losing morality. There were plenty of targets nearby, and Anton had even convinced the man to think about the circumstances that forced those working under Birita to do so. If they enjoyed suppressing the local populace or openly killed people like the Gray Rock Sect that was one thing, but some might have been intimidated into joining to protect themselves. That didn’t excuse their actions, but it did mean that nobody should slaughter their way through the ranks of either groups without thought. That included Anton, but Idalia seemed content not to call him on that promise just yet.
In a perfect world, something like the Deathly Heart Technique should not exist. It would be completely unnecessary, and nobody would have the drive to need a technique of that sort to begin with. But the world wasn’t perfect, and that had to be dealt with.
Elsewhere, Grand Elder Kseniya had her eyes on the Whispering Watchers. Concerning news had reached her ears. Someone was looking for news on her favorite disciple. And it didn’t seem like the friendly sort of inquiries, either. The rumors said that a disciple of Elder Naheed of the Whispering Watchers had died at Anton’s hand. Kseniya had no doubt that it was true, but the acceptance of that fact also indicated that they had accepted the presence of the Twin Soul Sect among their ranks. Whether it was openly or simply by not choosing to eradicate them, Kseniya didn’t care. Both were equally concerning.
She had traveled a long distance to get her eyes on this Elder Naheed, but the territory of the Whispering Watchers was significant. Someone of Kseniya’s power might be able to get away with cutting across the corner of the territory, but actually crossing dividing lines or walls was another thing. And thus, Elder Naheed remained unseen. But probably not unsensed. There were only a few among the group that could be her, as there weren’t an excess of Life Transformation cultivators in the world.
The Whispering Watchers had three such cultivators that were on the boundary between early and mid Life Transformation. One was a man, and another was a bit more on the far side of the gap. From what Kseniya knew that led her to the final option, a woman with cultivation somewhat greater than herself. That did make it rather hard to act on the situation immediately, not that even Kseniya was crazy enough to storm a sect like the Whispering Watchers herself. Even if she could shoot at them from outside their territory.
Having taken note of the elder in question, or at least a representative sample of the practitioners of the same cultivation technique, Kseniya was satisfied. For the moment. But she was absolutely going to be talking to the other elders about what actions they might take against the sect. And not just for Anton’s sake. But… also for his sake. For some reason, Kseniya felt he was important. That could have been personal bias because he was an excellent archer, but if nothing else he was one of the members of the Order with the potential to reach Life Transformation. If he hadn’t started cultivation at such an advanced age, she might have even picked him out for ascension.
But he had, and he was quite deep in Everheart’s ‘Fleeting Youth’. Kseniya herself had dabbled in it, but she couldn’t convince herself to take the leap to actually practicing it. Knowing it would cut off her chance at ascension, slim as it was looking, simply didn’t sit well with her.
That was another thing about Anton. His abnormal background made him different than many others, as he had easily given up that potential- with full knowledge he was one of the geniuses who might make it. The reason hadn’t been just for temporary power boosts either, but because of a desire to protect people. He reminded her of Vandale, in fact- in a much different way than the man’s grandson. A stalwart guardian of the sect, though Anton wasn’t at the level of power to do such just yet. But if he could make it past the bottleneck of Life Transformation, he might surpass Kseniya herself in a mere thirty or forty years.