Dust flew up, as powerful feet stomped the ground, despite the heavy-packed dirt that made up the training grounds. Fire raged around the area as two cultivators faced off. With a flaming axe swinging towards them, the first instinct of a human was not to move closer- but that was the appropriate response if one wanted to get an advantage. At least when wielding weapons with shorter range, or none at all. Vari stepped inside of Hoyt’s range, lunging forward so his step back wouldn’t return her to the proper range. Her forearm deflected the throat of the weapon while her other arm wrapped around Hoyt’s arm to transition into a throw.
A moment later he was tumbling away, but Vari didn’t find that she came out ahead in that encounter. After all, her very energy was burning away, the fire spreading faster the more she tried to fight it. She only managed to extinguish herself by creating a solid barrier around her that didn’t ignite the same way as more free-flowing upper energy. However, that time lost her whatever advantage she gained from the throw- Hoyt was already back on his feet, uninjured.
“Alright, I surrender,” Vari held her hands up. She had the potential to do more, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to display her actual limits in front of prying eyes. That was why she was training with Hoyt instead of Kiran. Though attempting to monopolize the time of either of them would have been too much anyway. She could barely help them improve, being in a lower realm. There were other factors to consider with the fellow from the Hardened Crown Sect that made working with him too much inadvisable- since noticing either her connection to the Hundred Stars or her cultivation technique could be problematic depending on who it was.
“Pretty good,” Hoyt said. “Why didn’t you try to hold onto my axe?”
“Because I couldn’t have actually wrestled it out of your grip. And you were ready to kick me away.”
“Didn’t think I made it that obvious,” he shrugged. “Though I was thinking I might suggest something.”
“Carrying a weapon,” Hoyt said as he made sure nobody was listening.
“I do,” Vari shook her head. “I can’t just expect to choke someone out. I have daggers ready if I need them.”
“Something bigger,” Hoyt suggested. “That will make the daggers look like backup weapons, and make people less likely to suspect what you actually intend. You might even use it occasionally.”
“I’ll think about it,” Vari said. It was a good point. Deception was despised among the Harmonious Citadel… publicly, anyway. She wasn’t sure how much it was practiced internally without her knowledge. The way everyone practiced one weapon at least seemed honest, but only at the basic level.
“Greetings,” Anton was pleased to hear a strange voice speak after only a few hours. “We have translated the basics of language. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” Anton nodded. He noticed that they spoke into a device they had, and it spoke either to him or back to them. “That was pretty fast.”
“Similar start makes speech easier,” Matija said via the translation device. “Close stars, possible past.”
“That might be,” Anton admitted. “I don’t exactly know who came and went from Ceretos.” Talking more might not be fully understood, but perhaps it would help advance their understanding. And he could listen to what their translation thing thought he should be saying in their language, though he wasn’t going to assume it to be fully accurate.
“You…” Matija gestured vaguely, but Anton understood it to be about him moving things about.
“I move things with my natural energy, yes. Would that not be expected of cultivators like yourself?” Anton demonstrated with one of the empty packets that held water just to indicate he somewhat understood.
The reaction of the others indicated that perhaps they did not. There was some measure of surprise and unfamiliarity upon first meeting that Anton had chalked up to that, instead of assuming anything he was doing with cultivation was unfamiliar. Except perhaps surviving in the void of space, but it was a logical extension of power that should be understandable.
“You fly without… this,” Matija gestured around her. “Using energy.”
“That’s correct. I use natural energy to power what I do. You also use energy with your ship,” Anton gestured, “And the translator,” Anton pointed. “And for those… weapons?” he gestured to devices on their waist that had more highly concentrated energy.
“Yes. Everything uses energy. But not without this,” she said, indicating the device in front of her.
That was odd. They were certainly cultivators. Anton could feel the energy inside them, and he could feel them activating the translation device with it, though it had its own internal power as well. “You are cultivators,” he said. “Energy inside,” he pointed to himself, and then to Matija. “The same as there.” He gestured with his energy, but they didn’t seem to notice it, not clearly anyway.
It took a few moments for Matija to respond. “Yes. But energy is inside, not outside.”
It was a simple question, but even if they knew what it was the answer was not necessarily so simple. “That is… how it is.”
So they didn’t know how to do anything else. Curious. He would ask to see their cultivation techniques, but that was a bit forward and useless since he wouldn’t be able to read it. At best he might see meridian diagrams, but explaining cultivation techniques without clearly shared language would be impossible.
“You can do it,” Anton said. “See this?” he pointed to a little bubble of energy in his hand, holding up the little bag- the waterskin of strange material. He tossed one to Matija. “Try it.”
A few moments later, Anton felt a smaller version of the ships senses upon him. It was one of the smaller devices. Another member of the crew was aiming it at his hand as they tried to understand what he was saying and doing. He could still feel it activating, but now how it worked- or how they got the sensations from it.
“I will try,” Matija said. Despite that, she seemed to be having difficulties. He could sense her energy moving inside her, indicating she had control over it. The energy even flowed through the meridians in her arm up to her palm, but it just stayed there. Matija placed the waterskin on her palm… and then it exploded. More or less directly at Anton, since she was facing him.
Everyone seemed quite concerned, worried shouts and all that, but it only took a few moments for the metal ship to pull the smoke and particles of material out of the air. It seemed quite efficient, and Anton followed its motion through a very fine mesh that stopped the small bits before the air returned to the compartment.
As the smoke cleared Matija and the others were able to see again. It took her only a moment to look at Anton and prostrate herself on the ground.
“That’s entirely unnecessary,” Anton said, “Please stand up.” Since they hadn’t apologized to each other the translator didn’t really know what to say, but he got the idea. “Get up. I am unharmed. I am fine,” he gestured to himself as well as waving her up. One of the crew members had his weapon pulled out, pointed vaguely at Anton. Or at least he found it reasonable to assume that it was at him given the arrangement of the arm. He probably thought Anton couldn’t see it because he was behind him. No need to bring that up unless he actually tried something though. “Come on, get up,” Anton said to Matija as she looked at him cautiously from the ground. He held out a hand in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. He still had his little waterskin and held it out. “Want to try again?”
She was at some risk from that explosion, but he’d protected her and everything around them from the explosion and the potential bouncing around. It was interesting to see that happen, since these cultivators were clearly somewhere around late Essence Collection or early Life Transformation in power, but seemed to have limited control of natural energy.
Matija seemed to understand the extended arm was to help her up, and that Anton wasn’t angry. It would have been pretty rude to get upset over something he encouraged that was also obviously an accident, but on the other hand… he could see people reacting that way. Even if it had been a real threat to himself, however, he liked to think he would have responded the same way.
“Try again?” Anton asked, holding his hand towards her. “Yes?” he pulled it away, “No?” He returned it to a neutral position, his palm open as he floated the strange waterskin above it.
She cautiously reached out. “Yes. Try again.”
She held the waterskin on her palm and more slowly gathered energy, more cautiously. Then, after a moment, it began to float. Well, it more bounced erratically as she blasted it with energy, and then it tore to shreds a few moments later but… it was basically the same.
Anton could see her eyes widen, and everyone was excitedly talking at each other. The crew member who had pointed a weapon at Anton was no exception, having now returned said weapon to its sheath.
Matija remembered that Anton was present after a few moments of celebration, hugs and shouts of excitement and all that. She turned back to him and put on her more formal face. “Try. Yes.”
“You did it,” Anton said. “Good job.” He was getting close to the point he would try speaking their words. All of the new information was jumbling around in his head, but what was a couple rounds of body tempering for if it didn’t include perhaps the most important part? Cognitive abilities were enhanced by cultivation, which was necessary for the more complex subtleties of advanced cultivation. Focusing on multiple things at once was one of those improvements necessary for a cultivator.
Matija looked at her hand. “How?” she finally asked.
“It is normal,” Anton said. He tapped his head, “The mind controls energy, like these devices control energy. Have you not tried before?” Surely some must have. Even people randomly stumbling about with cultivation could learn something about energy control, and these people were many times more powerful than necessary to see results.
After another several hours that were productive in learning to communicate if nothing else, they had moved to something like a lounge- with couches placed in various positions. They had straps to keep people from casually floating away, and the room was rather crowded with only a few.
“So why did you come here?” Anton asked.
“To study the star,” Matija said. “Ceretos?”
“Ceretos is my planet,” Anton said. “That is just… a star. The sun.”
“Your planet? Is it close?”
Anton shook his head. “Not at this speed. We’re also going the wrong way.” They hadn’t continued accelerating once they got an appropriate distance from the sun, but they were still moving. Not all that fast, but nothing slowed them down either. “What about the sun did you want to study?”
“We noted strange energy fluctuations within the last few years. So we came to see it.” Matija frowned. “The change is… very similar to you.”
Anton shrugged. “It’s possible that it is not a coincidence. So what do you know about cultivation?”
“It was a legend,” she said. “At least the way that you are, and speak about it. We have a method to grow energy inside of ourselves, but it is not the same. Most of us can’t sense energy outside of ourselves either, except in vague terms.”
“Surely you must have tried to control things with energy, the way you control your machines.”
“I suppose?” Matija shook her head. “They mainly draw on us. We simply allow it.”
“If I may,” the crew member who had stood behind Anton spoke up. Anton had learned his name was Premysl. “There are talks of such power. I think many of us attempted such things in our youth to no effect.”
Matija nodded, “That is the same with me. But seeing you do it, I felt something. Does that make sense?”
“I suppose so,” Anton agreed. “I can’t say I did anything at all with energy without seeing or feeling it in action first.” Though maybe some of what he felt before he became a cultivator was subconscious and rare, it wasn’t as if he’d been completely cut off from cultivators for the first century of his life.
“Once we are stronger, there are cautions about the dangers,” Premysl said. “I hadn’t considered that projecting energy could be anything but uncontrolled chaos.”
Anton nodded, “Nobody’s born with a century of experience. All of you will be far ahead of myself in understanding the basics of our system. And I can see why nobody would search with great intensity for alternatives when you have something that works,” Anton gestured. “This ship is impressive. It functions like a complex formation with only the minimum number of runes.”
“I doubt they could use any more,” Matija said. “It makes use of pretty much everything runes can do.”
“Really?” Anton raised an eyebrow. “I will admit the very small mechanisms seem quite effective even without runes involved, but I would have thought that basic durability runes would be involved in the outer surface instead of an intensive field of energy. Though the materials themselves are astounding.”
From their expressions, perhaps they didn’t know more about runes than what he had, in which case he was even more impressed. It might do them quite a bit of good to learn, even from him. Or perhaps they had simply gone beyond the need for the things he thought they were missing. Sharing too much information might not be good, but they seemed friendly enough. If they were hiding ulterior motives beneath the surface, they were good at hiding them- though friendliness didn’t necessarily equate to goodness in the end. He’d have to get to know them more deeply to determine that.