Elder Cultivator 298

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It was common knowledge that cultivators were only good for causing trouble. Idalia knew that, but she’d still fallen for grandiose promises offered by a stranger. It only made things worse that so far, he’d kept his word. After an initial period of difficulty, she was starting to get the hang of cultivation. It really did make things easier. The tasks she did every day, carrying bundles of herbs to be dried or mixing and grinding powders no longer felt like hard work. Making use of natural energy to find things in the nearby forest was also much better than just using her knowledge and eyes. She could even pick out herbs buried under piles of leaves or tangled among other plants.

In return, she talked to the old man- Anton- instructing him on various herbs as well as the secondary requirements of her profession. People came to her as a healer in general, and when stitching and binding wounds was sufficient she could save poor families quite a bit of money. She could even afford to wrap up some pain killing herbs with the others due to how much Anton brought back from the forest.

“I hope you’re not wiping the place clean,” Idalia remarked on one occasion. “I need there to be some next season as well.” She could grow a small amount of the most useful herbs in her personal garden, but the forest’s bounty was much greater than anything she could manage.

“Don’t worry,” Anton replied, “I only take a portion from each area. I just cover a wide range.”

That was one of the things hardest to pin down about the old cultivator. He seemed to walk around like a healthy young man, but she never saw him move so quickly that he could scour the forest in the time he was gone. But unless he could magically produce bundles of herbs with dirt on the roots, that was what he had to be doing. 

She was getting the hang of using natural energy, but when she tried to get a sense of the man she felt herself blinded, as if dozens of bright lights shone on her. Even if her actual eyes were fine, her senses overloaded quickly. She wasn’t sure if it was some sort of retaliation for snooping… or if he was just like that. He’d indicated he was strong enough to kill Birita, but Idalia didn’t intend to rely on that promise. 

On the occasions where he trained her to fight, it was obvious he had an abundance of experience. The initial phases of instruction were for unarmed combat and staves, which suited Idalia just fine since she wasn’t planning to suddenly carry around a spear wherever she went.

He would demonstrate attacks, but when he used them in their ‘spars’ she couldn’t make heads or tails of the movement. “It’s not fair,” she complained. “You’re too fast.”

“Am I?” Anton asked. His tone clearly indicated that he disagreed. “Keep a close watch. Because this-” Anton’s fist was in front of her face in a moment, “Is no different from this.” He stepped back and threw a simple punch forward.

“I find that hard to believe…” Idalia responded. Those were her true thoughts, but it was also true that he would have no reason to deceive her about that. Unless he just wanted to show off, but in that case he could find someone other than a herbalist to outclass in melee combat.

The more she interacted with him using the same moves, the more she realized he was right. Of course he was, but she couldn’t believe how big the difference was between watching something from afar and having to react to it. And if she messed up, she would get hit by a fist that could shatter ribs at minimum.

Not that it ever actually did shatter her ribs. Anton didn’t seem to be the sort of teacher that found pain to be a useful teacher. His attacks always connected, but they would seldom leave anything more than a bruise that would last until the evening. Granted, some of those were seriously painful- but it also let her know that her body was recovering more quickly. 

Idalia wasn’t alone as Anton’s student. Though he spent as much time as possible teaching everyone personally, he was only one man. On regular occasions, usually a weekend when most people were off of work, he would organize group training sessions. There was a short amount of exercises, but they would usually lead into sparring shortly. 

“Your bodies will grow best by performing the actual movements,” Anton explained. “Which is why I have you all focus on training yourselves while at work in your daily lives. Your body will naturally develop what it needs. And while perhaps you might not need to fight, should the occasion arise you will regret not knowing how.”

Most of them were matched against each other for the spars. Anton would sometimes just watch, and other times he would spar against them individually. And then very occasionally, as a group. 

“At this time you might not have need of fighting together against a much stronger opponent, but it’s important that you know how different it would be.” Even when they used staves to extend their reach, Anton was always able to step in and strike them wherever he pleased. “It should also be noted that I could simply block all of your attacks without dodging. In fact, I could beat all of you without moving an inch, or making a single attack.”

Idalia wasn’t the combative sort, but a statement like that irked her. But Hiram was more easily drawn in by it. “Prove it.” Hiram angled his staff towards Anton, enshrouded with the uncomfortable energy he cultivated. He never used it against any of the others, but Idalia could tell how dangerous it was.

“Very well,” Anton said. He stepped towards the group, stopping right in front of Hiram. “Come at me, all of you.” He settled into a relaxed stance with his arms at his sides. “I won’t move from here. Come at me whenever you’re ready.”

Perhaps Hiram had been waiting for those words, or perhaps he had merely been psyching himself up. Either way, a moment later his energy flowed down his staff towards the end as he swung it over his head, bringing it down on Anton’s skull with a resounding crack. There was a cry of pain and Idalia briefly wondered if Anton had overestimated himself. But of course, that wasn’t the case. What had broken was not his skull, it was Hiram’s staff- and perhaps one of his fingers. The injured hands didn’t stop him from continuing to attack, spinning around in a series of kicks aimed at the old man’s sides. Every impact had a heavy sound, but it was like Hiram was hitting a brick wall. Except he might actually chip a brick wall with those attacks.

Not wanting to be embarrassed, Idalia joined in but was more conservative with her attacks. Only a few of them stepped forward at once, since they had long learned that too many people attacking in an uncoordinated manner just tripped each other up. Three people was close to the limit, because with four surrounding someone some were directly across from each other, which led to awkward situations when the target dodged. With five or more it just grew uncomfortably cramped, even when nobody was directly opposing each other.

Each blow of Idalia’s staff made her realize the gap between her and Anton- or any powerful cultivator. When they sparred Anton held himself down to their level, which even included things like his defenses. Thus, attacks that normally would feel like that had a real impact simply bounced off, and with nowhere else to go all of the force of the blow rebounded into the attackers.

Still, there were more than a handful of them. His defenses had to break eventually. That was the thought some of them had, and they put it to the test. But soon enough everyone was collapsed on the ground, unable to move.

“I don’t want to give you all the wrong impression,” Anton said gently. “Yes, you are weak… for now. To reach my level requires something on the order of decades of training. But instead of a looming fear, think of it as a caution of knowing your limits… and also what you can achieve, given time. After everyone has had some time to recover, we will be doing some tangible tests of strength, so you can see your progress in the upcoming months.”


She sensed them coming before they entered her shop. There was something about the way Birita’s thugs walked, like they owned the city… which they kind of did. And this pair stood out because they were cultivators. Mid Body Tempering, if her senses were correct. That meant their reserves of energy were at least double or triple her own, and their bodies tougher.

With one of them, the latter was obvious. Sasho filled the entire doorway as he stepped inside, and the very first thing he did was knock over a rack of supplies. He stepped forward, bending low, but Idalia just yelled at him. “Just stop it!”

He froze in place. “But… I knocked it over…”

The second figure stepped around him, patting him on the shoulder- which was as high as she could reach. “Don’t worry about it Sasho. I’m sure she can clean it up.”

“… Okay, Trix.”

Idalia sighed as she looked at the two of them. “What do you want? I already paid this month’s protection taxes. If you try to get more, you’ll just bleed me dry and I’ll have nothing.” That wasn’t quite true, since with Anton’s help her stores had significantly improved… but she wasn’t willing to give up more than she had to. Especially with half of a ruined shelf. The worst part was that Sasho didn’t even do it on purpose, as far as she could tell. He just bumped into things, which was why she had stopped him from reaching to pick it back up. Things would only get worse if he continued moving.

“Orders from the boss,” the thin woman known as Trix shrugged. “You’re the best herbalist around, and she’s got a special order. She wants you to get this umm…” Trix pulled out a rolled up sheet of paper. “… Tree Thistle. Says it needs someone who knows what they’re doing to harvest it.”

“Then why come to me? I’ve never even heard of it. I wouldn’t know how.” Idalia knew there might be consequences for refusal, but if she couldn’t do it things should be alright.

“Too bad,” Trix shook her head, “Because we come with instructions.” 

She tossed over the roll of paper, and Idalia reluctantly unfolded it. It seemed to have been a page ripped out of a book. It hurt to look at, especially with the various holes in it. “Let’s see here… deep forest, only grows where corpses lay.” Idalia shook her head, “What the hell sort of thing is this? I can’t do this. I’ll be devoured alive… and then you won’t get it.”

“You sure about that?” Trix said, stepping forward. “Because I notice you’ve taken up cultivation. Buuuut… it is true you don’t seem that strong yet. Which is what we’re here for. We’re to escort you. Look, you’re not getting out of this. The boss lady was very particular about having this thing.”

“Fine.” Idalia looked back down at the paper, continuing to read. “Must be uprooted whole and prepared on site by smoking the leaves and pulping the stem and flowers. Mind the spikes… dimensions… three to five meters?” Idalia’s voice cracked at that. “There’s no way…”

“That’s what Sasho here is for,” Trix patted him on the side. “We’ve got a big wheelbarrow too.”

“So if you know where this all is and how to deal with it… why involve me?”

“You think we know how to do any of that mashing and stuff?” Trix shook her head. “No way. And we also don’t know how to dig up stuff while keeping the roots intact. That seemed to be important for some reason.”

Idalia grimaced. If only Anton was in town… but he wasn’t, and even if he was she wasn’t sure if it would be good for him to show up next to Birita. Even if he really could take her out, Idalia knew that someone else could easily take over… and they might be even worse. “Fine. Where is it then?”

“In the deep forest, right?” Trix gesture to the paper. “In the shadows or whatever it says there.”

“Wait so… you haven’t actually seen it?”

“No, but it has to be there somewhere.”

Idalia frowned as she looked at the paper. It really didn’t have to be anywhere. The sketch on the page indicated it looked just like a milk thistle, but at several meters tall she would have noticed it had she gotten anywhere close. Not that she ventured into the deep woods, but just because something could live in the environment didn’t mean it did. And the thing about corpses… what was she getting dragged into?

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