From the outside, there was no clear difference between Rouben attempting to cultivate normally and delving into a new technique. Even from a few feet away on Fuzz’ back Alva couldn’t feel any difference. What she did notice was the constant spiral towards familiarity, fragments of the Hundred Stars worming its way into Rouben’s technique. Except that wasn’t quite completely true. Some parts weren’t like they did things today, but whether the failures were from incomplete observation on Rouben’s part or something else she couldn’t say. Though that was the question they wanted to answer right now.
At the current moment, they had no time to stop for proper, comfortable cultivation. Yet to get the answers they sought he needed to practice Essentia Lockbox, and he didn’t have long. For his own safety, they also had to get him off world. After the bounty was turned in and some time passed it would be safe for him to return, if that was what he wanted, but at the moment nobody would believe he no longer had access to it even if it were true. Which it would be soon enough. Copying techniques that one didn’t understand was difficult, since it was more than just words on a page… but Rouben said that it was ‘deceptively simple’. Either way, he had to make the best copy he could before reaching their destination, so practicing from the original text would help him achieve that as quickly as possible.
There didn’t seem to be anyone hot on their trail- perhaps they saw what happened to the others and decided it was not worth it, perhaps they were simply further behind… or maybe they were better hidden. Alva hoped for the first, but there were always more cultivators willing to throw away their lives for the hope of a large gain.
Anton was personally quite glad that he was not in Nirmala’s position. Very few people were here to take any of his time. Instead, there were many questions about Rutera that were probably answered a dozen times to different people in different contexts. Cultivators had excellent memories and given their positions would certainly be paying attention, but it wasn’t appropriate for them to listen in on all conversations with the diplomats at all times. Thus, details about how the Ruterans worked were brought up many times, though the skill of the diplomat allowed her to mostly conceal her annoyance. Even he could only feel it faintly when something came up for the fourth or fifth time in a day. If she wished to, Nirmala might be capable of great deception. Perhaps she was, though none of the others gave away any understanding that things were not as truthful as possible.
Then there was Matija. Her purpose was partly to be a familiar figure, and partly to discern the differences in understanding that the two groups had. The individuals from Rutera did not cultivate in the same manner, and from certain perspectives could hardly be considered cultivators at all. Yet they did maintain the most important aspect, in some ways. They were still capable combatants, they simply relied on the support of devices… yet even then, they powered osme with their own internal energy.
Fortunately, Matija asking Anton to demonstrate his abilities provided opportunities. “I hope you don’t think I’m trying to pry into your secrets,” she said. “I’m just curious.”
“Some people would think less of you if you weren’t trying to pry into my secrets. But there is quite a lot I can demonstrate before we get to any of those,” Anton said with a smile. “Though I would like to see a demonstration in return. I imagine you would wish to keep the exact power of the weapons integrated into your ship secret, but at some point, if we continue interacting, we will compare combat abilities. Cultivation lends itself directly to martial prowess.”
He watched Matija’s reactions as he spoke. She did not seem overly concerned about the thought of potential violence, though whether or not that was because she trusted Anton or her own abilities he was uncertain.
“I see,” Matija nodded. “So should I… shoot you?” she kept her hand well away from her weapon as she made the suggestion.
“At some point, I would be quite glad to try it out personally. However, in the interest of safety… we do have training grounds with targets.”
“Of course,” Matija said awkwardly. “Why wouldn’t you.”
“What is a comfortable range for you?” Anton asked. “Something you can reliably hit to test the power of your weapon. We generally have targets set up in increments of fifty meters, as well as closer range targets at twenty-five.”
“… Fifty meters would be fine,” Matija said. “What about you?”
“I can shoot anything you can see,” Anton said. He could also shoot anything a significant distance beyond what she could see, but that didn’t need to be mentioned at the moment. “But for demonstration purposes one of the closer targets would be good, so you can observe it.”
Anton noticed that Matija walked much the same speed as a non-cultivator, or at least someone in early Body Tempering. She had been studying some of their manuals and was beginning to make real use of her internal energy, but she simply wasn’t used to a faster pace.
“Here we are,” Anton said. “Don’t worry about the targets. They can be replaced. Would you like me to go first?”
He understood that demonstrating combat capabilities might make people nervous, but even if they were to be enemies he thought that the Ruterans understanding some of what the local cultivators could do would be important. It would give them incentives to leave them alone. Though so far they simply seemed… intrigued.
He pulled out his bow, forming a Spirit Arrow and delicately drawing it back. He kept his arrow to a reasonable speed, not to make himself seem weaker but because he was unsure if Matija’s eyes could follow it. The arrow sunk into the target- went through it, technically. He just unraveled the energy once it came out the other side so it wouldn’t continue unnecessarily far.
“Oh, um…” Matija pulled out a device. “Is it… could I… do you mind if I scan you while you do that?”
“It will give you a better understanding, I presume? I think you should. It’s only fair. We scan you all the time.”
“You do? Oh, right.”
Anton demonstrated a few more shots, though he wasn’t hitting anything anymore. The arrow just made its way through the hole in the target.
“Hmm,” Matija said. “You made that hole? How do you determine the distance you shoot? Are there settings on your bow?”
Anton held it out towards her, “It is simply a very nice bow. The energy of my shots unravels when I wish them to.”
“… Can I hold it?”
“Of course. If you are able to accidentally hurt me with it I will be quite surprised. Especially without arrows.”
“It forms them though, right?” she said as she waved the scanning device around the bow. “What is this made of?”
“It is made from the Grandfather Willow,” Anton explained, “And I form the arrows.”
“This is just wood?” Matija said in confusion. “These markings…”
“They are for the enchantments upon it, though the majority of its potency comes from the material itself. Now then… what about you?”
“Me? Oh!” Matija nodded, handing him back his bow. “Thank you for demonstrating. I guess it’s my turn. You sure you don’t mind if the target is destroyed?”
Anton shrugged, “It’s just straw.” Nowadays all of their straw came from energy-bearing cultivars, but it was still relatively low value.
He watched as she pulled out the weapon. Her hand fit around it slightly differently than he might have presumed, and a single finger slipped into a small loop on the long metallic device. The internal structure reminded Anton of Grant’s cannons, though obviously on a much smaller scale.
Instead of firing a projectile, the weapon was actually much closer to functioning like Spirit Arrows. Matija gathered her energy, injecting it into the device as she pulled the trigger inside the loop. Though it happened in a very short time, Anton’s senses and reflexes were far beyond a normal human. He could see as energy was released from dozens of small holes, gathering together before forming a cohesive beam of energy. Matija hit the bullseye of the target, but the beam was wider than Anton’s Spirit Arrows and not perfectly centered so it caused a large amount of damage to the target, ultimately setting it on fire and leaving a hole perhaps five centimeters across.
Ultimately, he found it to be somewhat more powerful than he had expected for his estimated cultivation equivalent for Matija. The efficiency was also very high, with little energy wasted. “Impressive,” Anton said. “Perhaps someday you will show me your limits with that device.”
“Uh, maybe,” Matija said awkwardly. “Also, we would call it a ‘gun’. Or an energy gun, if we wanted to be repetitive. What about you? I’m sure that wasn’t the limit of what you can do.”
“Of course not,” Anton said. “But it is sufficient to know, is it not? Either one would kill a person, without some sort of defenses. I am curious to learn how yours works at some point. It does not have to be any time soon, of course. Once the proper level of trust exists between us would be fine. Now then… how goes your cultivation?”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “I… definitely have much more energy than a beginner.”
“You do,” Anton said. “It is simply that you don’t use it the same way. Nor intentionally cultivate it in power.”
“We do,” Matija said. “Just not the same way. Repeated practice is how we grow.”
“That certainly works,” Anton admitted. “But it could be quite inefficient. And it requires you to have specific pieces of technology functional.”
“Don’t you need your weapons and armor?” Matija asked.
“I can make the arrows,” Anton said, “And though it’s not as good, I can also make the rest of the bow,” he formed one between them, facing towards the targets of course, and demonstrated a shot.
“You… you… how did you do that without touching it?”
“It should be quite obvious. I simply concentrated some of my energy there. Perhaps we should practice your sensing, that would be the most useful here. And… perhaps back home it would be of value as well. I’m not sure what your devices tell you.”
“Quite a bit, actually,” Matija said. “Look at what it said about your bow!”
“Energy readings I understand but have no context for,” Anton said. “… Composition something? I don’t believe I learned that word in your language.”
“Elements. The smallest building blocks of things.”
“Ah yes,” Anton nodded. “I see. Though it’s rather general about some of the locations.”
“Well, it’s dealing with new arrangements. Too bad I can’t see the tree this bow came from.”
“Why not?” Anton asked. “It’s still there.”
“It is?” she asked, looking around, “Where?”
“The headquarters of the Grasping Willows. A decent journey, but Lev might be willing to take you.”
“He’s the Sect Head, right?” Matija tried to recall all the people she had learned about in the past weeks. “Similar to you?”
“Yes and no,” Anton said. “The position is slightly less honored because the Grasping Willows have only recently risen to prominence… but his personal power is generally on par with mine.” Anton left out that that varied based on where Lev was. That was a secret not his to share. Around the Grandfather Willow he imagined Lev would be stronger than himself… which was why if there was for some reason a bizarre world in which they fought he wouldn’t be getting within two hundred kilometers of the sect.
“… How far away is it?”
Given the significant effort in traveling between systems, the delegation from Rutera intended to stay at least several months. At this point, Anton would be willing to bet on longer since relations seemed to be trending in a positive direction.
“Depends on how fast you travel,” Anton said. For the moment, they were keeping their teleportation formations a secret. “I could get there in a few days, but if we provide transport it could take a week. Or if you were able to take your ship I can’t imagine it would take long at all.”
“It’s not really meant for atmosphere,” Matija admitted, “But the planet’s not that big. I don’t think I could get that authorization, though.”
“No, I imagine not,” Anton agreed. “But we can certainly bring you to see it.”
Matija pulled out a device, displaying an only recently familiar image. Ceretos, as a globe. “Where is it in relation to us?”
“About a thousand kilometers east by northeast,” Anton said. The image got closer as Matija did something with the device. “I see you already have it marked by one of those dots.”
“Dots? Oh right umm… wait it’s one of the anomalies?”
Anton shrugged, “If that is what you call them, I do not believe it would be inaccurate. It should be an area with divergent energy concentrations, at a minimum.” Anton was tempted to ask what they had noticed about the Exalted Archipelago, but that was a matter for a later time. Best not to drag anyone into issues- or cause some where there otherwise wouldn’t be any.