Troubles didn’t just suddenly cease after winning a battle, even a critical one. There were various troubles that could occur if they were not careful, including conflict among the various sects. For example, the distribution of loot. The informal and somewhat rushed conglomeration of groups meant there was no strict agreement on how things would be done, but those tensions were eased by the Order and their allies from the other continent giving up the majority of what they should be entitled to based on their strength.
One exception there was Chikere, but it was hard for anyone to argue that Malachy’s sword should go to anyone else. If there were any issues, she was backed up by Million Sword Vault, who had much in common with her. It might help that she contributed numerous swords that were below her top one hundred to their cause. While they might not be suited for use by an Essence Collection cultivator, anything she picked up had some level of quality inherent to it.
Though the Whispering Watchers were now effectively dissolved, there was still much work to do hunting down those who fled- and the threats made against those who had supported them weren’t made idly. Other sects would fall under the combined might of the army. Anton might not have liked it, but he knew it was necessary- and there were reasonable heads that would limit any unnecessary slaughter. The death of any member of the Twin Soul Sect was absolutely necessary, though. All of those who thought of things in the longer term instead of the next decade or less would agree with him. Actually, though Anton would never condone it in any way, it was more logical to join them directly rather than be an ally of theirs… because they would inevitably betray anyone else when the invasion came. The one good thing they did seem to have was a bond of companionship for their actual members.
The follow-up efforts didn’t need everyone to be involved all together, and Anton had other things he wanted to do. More productive things. He was still convinced that battles were necessary to make the world a better place, but that didn’t mean it was his preferred method. Even if it was perhaps the fastest.
He still had things he wanted to teach in Arbington and the surroundings. He’d made some promises, after all, and it was the center of his movement to change the way people thought about cultivation on this continent. It would doubtless cause some conflicts in the future- but he firmly believed it was better to have a populace who could stand up against a sect and possibly overcome their rule than to tell everyone to keep their heads down and not achieve anything with their life.
“I don’t get it,” Trix shook her head as she frowned at the carefully arranged herbs in front of her. “This one cures headaches and causes minor gut side effects, and this one cures those side effects and only causes trivial headaches. Why is that not the right mixture?”
“Because,” Idalia explained, “The mechanisms they work through are quite different. The headaches caused by the second are from a different sort of imbalance in the body. And though individually the technical symptoms seem to match up, together they lead to worse problems as they react with each other.”
“Where do I put this?” a voice called from outside.
“Just outside the back door, thank you!” Idalia answered, as she always did to Sasho. It was only barrels and other sturdy stuff outside, and though he was quite helpful, he didn’t seem to have a good sense of where his arms and legs ended. Or his elbows. Or how much strength it took to open a door. Idalia wasn’t the only one having Sasho help out- she didn’t have nearly so many heavy things she needed dealt with as some, and he wasn’t good for precision tasks of any sort.
He’d been making some progress in a technique that Anton left for him, but he often needed help from others to understand it. Hiram, Idalia, and Trix were his go-tos for that purpose. Unfortunately, he’d been stuck on part of it the last couple weeks. Hopefully Anton would return soon, but Idalia knew there was no guarantee he would. If he was able, she had no doubt he’d be back… but having experienced the sort of people who were after him from an extreme distance, she thought that perhaps he might not. She had confidence in him, but upstanding people died all the time no matter how many people thought well of them.
“… I don’t think I’m going to be an herbalist,” Trix frowned.
“I should hope not. You hardly even pay attention. What about the other trades you’ve tried?”
“They’re… fine. I don’t know,” Trix shrugged. “Can’t I just be… a cultivator?”
“If you can get people to pay you to fight or stand guard all the time, absolutely,” Idalia smiled. “But I’m inclined to listen to Anton’s wisdom. It’s better to do something practical. There’s a lot to learn about how to make use of your body and mind from things other than fighting.”
“… And I’m not strong enough yet,” Trix mumbled. “I can’t believe that freaking Gray Rock Sect. They were so afraid of us and now they’re walking around like they own the place.”
“They were doing that before you came around,” Idalia said. “But their pause in overt activity seems to have given them the idea they have to make up for lost time.”
“Can’t you just poison them all or something?” Trix sighed, burying her face in the table.
“Of course not,” Idalia said. “I don’t have nearly enough for that. And I’d like to avoid getting any innocents involved. They’re stronger than we can manage anyway.”
“How are we even supposed to be able to catch up to people like that though?” Trix said annoyed. “If we can grow a certain amount in a year, so can they.”
“It’s about knowledge and teamwork,” Idalia replied.
“Yeah, and numbers.”
“Having greater numbers implies a level of teamwork, if anything is going to get done. But individual effort is important too. Speaking of which,” Idalia gestured. “Here he comes.”
The bell on the door rang as Hiram entered, a strong power tightly held around him. After a year of cultivating, he was on the verge of breaking through to Spirit Building.
“Tsk. What does he have that I don’t?”
“Determination,” Idalia quipped.
Hiram was close enough to overhear them and contribute. “And the fortune to witness a battle involving an exemplar of my same cultivation technique. Though from quite a long distance for the most part.” He didn’t mention the bit where he was able to steal some lifeforce, as that was a touchy area for cultivation techniques. “I’d like some more of the usual, please.”
“Already?” Idalia frowned. “Using this stuff too much can be bad for your health, you know?”
“I’m properly purging the remnants,” Hiram said. “And I don’t care about side effects.”
“You might not,” Idalia admitted. “But some of us would like to have you stick around. It would be good to have someone dependable.”
“I’m just going to be a killer,” Hiram retorted.
Idalia shrugged. “Need those too, at least as a deterrent. And unless you cut things too close… you should be prepared to live through everything.”
The first one Anton sought out was Hiram. There were several reasons, but the most important was that he was at the highest risk.
“Hello again,” Anton grinned as he approached the man outside of town.
“… Hello,” Hiram turned to see Anton. “Should I be worried that I didn’t sense you coming?”
“Probably not. You’re not at the point where it’s worthwhile to worry about people like me… and there’s something in particular about that.” Anton pulled a ring off his finger and tossed it to Hiram. “It’s enchanted with some energy concealing formations. It won’t do much if you’re active, but it’s good for avoiding casual scrutiny. And… sorry.”
“About what, exactly?”
Anton frowned. “Has the word not made it here? It should have by now. But I suppose what is big news for some gradually dilutes into being unimportant for people making an honest living. The Whispering Watchers have been basically dissolved.”
“And that’s bad?” Hiram raised an eyebrow.
“They were connected to some pretty bad stuff. The details exactly a secret but will take some time to explain, so I’ll do it later. But now they’re being hunted down. So I went to get you that,” Anton gestured. “I also have plans to get you in contact with several local sects. At least to the point they know you’re using a stolen version of the technique and aren’t associated with them. That’s safer now.”
“Weren’t they… a very strong sect?” Hiram asked. “The one who came after you was a Life Transformation cultivator. That is the peak of cultivation, isn’t it?”
“Before ascension, yes. And they were very strong. It took the combined efforts of many to cause the damage we did. But you shouldn’t need to worry about the full ramifications of that for… a few decades.”
“The time scales cultivators think on is strange,” Hiram said.
“Right?” Anton grinned. “I’ve been thinking that myself. Most of my life I thought season to season, with plans ahead for a year or two in the abstract. But working on a farm you can take things one day at a time. Concerning yourselves with larger scales changes things.”
He met up with others, though none were likely at elevated risk of peril except for Hiram. Sasho did need his help though. “Try it again,” Anton said, pointing to the boulder.
Sasho took a stance, clenching his fist and punching forward. Anton had to admit that the force required to cause it to explode was impressive, for someone only in late Body Tempering. “… I can’t do it,” Sasho shook his head as he looked at the pile of rubble in front of him.
“Don’t say that,” Anton shook his head. “Some things are hard for different people. Now, I can’t say I’m an expert on Body Tempering techniques, but I’ve gone past your stage at least.” Anton picked out a rock from the pile. “Try it like this,” he poked his finger into the rock, leaving an oddly shaped hole that ultimately ended up with a ring or wheel. He’d done a bit more to get it to look nice, but the idea was the same.
Sasho grabbed a rock and pressed his finger against it. He strained for a few moments before the rock cracked in half. “… I’m too clumsy.”
“That’s exactly what the training is about,” Anton pointed out. “If someone asked you to punch through a rock you could do it. Because you already know how. This is about finesse. The point isn’t to get it first try, but to improve yourself.” Anton hoped someone had use for broken bits of rock, but the farmer who wanted them removed from his field would be happy with smaller chunks. “Let’s try another time. You want to pierce through. You should focus more on your fist and in front of in instead of just around it. Here,” Anton gestured to a smaller rock, still the size of a man’s torso but just laying flat on the ground.
Sasho nodded, looking at his new target. He steeled himself, tensing his muscles and maneuvering his natural energy before punching downward. There was a horrible cracking sound as his hand impacted the rock, and Anton saw the man’s fingers and wrist were horribly mangled.
It only took him a single moment to figure out why. A butterfly had landed on the rock as he was punching. It wasn’t some sort of cultivating beast, just a normal insect- instead Sasho had caused the damage to himself. Otherwise, he would have shattered the rock and maybe hurt the fluttering insect.
“Let me take a look at that,” Anton said, snapping Sasho’s fingers back into place. Sasho was tough, and waiting for him to agree wouldn’t help. He winced in pain, but then it was all done. “What you did there was actually a very precise control of your energy. Unfortunately, it wasn’t concentrated where it needed to be. See here,” Anton kicked the rock, which caused Sasho to look at him horrified. However, when it broke apart it left a single pillar where the butterfly casually flapped its wings for a few moments before taking off. “We’ll have to spend some time figuring out the best method, but I know you can do it.” Maybe if he tied a bunny to the rock? But if Sasho messed up he was going to get hurt either physically or mentally. Maybe he could just paint something on. Well, he’d figure something out. At least Sasho wanted to learn, though Anton wished he had someone like Ayotunde around. The practitioner of Western Steel Body would be better for Sasho, he imagined. But Ayotunde was more than just a short trip away, so Anton would have to do well enough for the moment.