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It was unclear whether anyone could truly read every cultivation technique developed upon a world, even after practicing the Ten Thousands Scrolls. Anton had certainly read through most of what Ceretos had to offer, but there could have been some unappraised gems that he missed. However, with the inclusion of techniques from the upper realms made possible by improved communications devices Anton had a steady if perhaps not infinite stream of options. He didn’t have the equipment with him that would actually print out a copy, but he could read things as they arrived.
Anton was contently looking at the device in front of him as a sword chopped down towards his head… then curved away, stopping just short of impacting the roof as Varghese pulled his blow. “Dammit. How are you doing this?”
“The point of the training is for you to figure it out,” Anton said. Deflecting the attacks purely with his energy would be trivial and perhaps unfair. His current technique was new and undeveloped with one obvious flaw. For the sake of the training, at least, Anton intended to keep that flaw even if he determined how to remove it.
Varghese struggled to pull back his weapon, though Anton wasn’t actively interfering. The young man took his sword stance, a textbook form that had at least the image down if not the essence. But what could be expected after a short time? Varghese had sufficient drive to continue his training. He also didn’t uselessly repeat his favored attack, swapping through thrusts and slashes and even moving around Anton despite the man remaining still in his sitting position. None of his attacks approached Anton, but it would be good practice for him regardless.
Now if only he would realize that it wasn’t a problem with his own techniques, but Anton’s. None of the attacks would slip through Anton’s defenses because they were swift or confusing or otherwise clever.
A booted foot kicked towards Anton’s face, not simply an expression of anger but part of a proper movement. Anton stopped the boot with one finger. “Half a point. You’ll only get full marks if you can hit me with your sword.”
Taking note of his success, Varghese immediately shifted his strategy. He flipped the sword in his hands, holding onto the blade and using the pommel as a bludgeoning instrument. Another real technique, and a reasonable enough variation to attempt, if rarely useful in battles between cultivators. It was only for when crushing force was required, and that could usually be accomplished with a clever application of energy. And in this case, it didn’t stop his attacks from being deflected.
Varghese stepped back, lowering his sword. “I have to go for today. I won’t be back for at least a few weeks. I have a mission. One with a decent enough reward to sustain my family for a while, giving me more time to train.”
Anton nodded. “Practical experience will be good for you as well. I cannot be anything more than a daunting sparring partner.” Properly winning a fight would be good for Varghese, building his confidence- and understanding. Assuming he survived, of course. Because he liked the young man, Anton was willing to put his finger on the scale should it prove necessary- but if he couldn’t manage to some extent on his own, he’d never go far.
The mission didn’t involve just Varghese. He was going along with the Iron Plate Mercenaries. It was both a mission and sort of a trial phase to see if he meshed with them. For cultivators of a certain power, they might accept them even if they didn’t quite fit- Varghese had just finished his second star, tempering his muscles for his first prime tempering. Even in the world’s current state, that didn’t make him anything special. He was just another early Body Tempering cultivator.
He met the group outside the mine they were supposed to clear. He recognized Captain Sharma, who had introduced him to the mission. “Greetings, Captain. I hope I’m not late…”
“Just on time,” the man said, leaning on his spear. His black hair had spots of white throughout, especially visible in his beard.
“This the rookie?” said a somewhat older woman. To Varghese she looked pretty ancient, except for by comparison to Captain Sharma. “He doesn’t look like much.”
“I just reached the second star in the One Hundred Stars cultivation method,” Varghese politely inclined his head. “It is nothing astounding, but my master said it is sufficient to begin my career as a warrior.” Taking stock of the other two, they were in early Spirit Building and late Body Tempering respectively. The other handful of mercenaries were spread throughout Body Tempering, mostly early and mid.
“One Hundred Stars? Never heard of it. Can’t be that great,” the woman replied.
“He’s still young, Vasudha. Cultivating at his age is still admirable.”
Varghese kept his thoughts about Vasudha’s ability to himself. He could have retorted by speaking about Master Anton’s power… but he was supposed to rely on his own name. It still irked him though, knowing that Master Anton was much stronger than all of them.
“Alright then,” Captain Sharma declared. “Formation masters want us to clear this cave of its inhabitants. Bears, among other things. Might be a tiger, or other cave dwellers. And don’t assume that they’ll be normal beasts. These likely have some cultivation, living in a zone of this density. And their muscle power will outdo most of you regardless.”
Captain Sharma led the way, his spear leveled in front of him. Then they came to branching paths. “Should have figured it would be something like this. Vasudha, take the rookie and explore the right path. I’ll take the middle. The rest of you go down the left.”
“Really, captain?” Vasudha sighed.
‘What? It’ll do you some good to have someone to take off the pressure. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself to protect him,” Captain Sharma’s eyes settled on Varghese. “Speaking of which, if you can’t handle something better retreat before you get hurt. Doesn’t help you look brave if you’re just dead.”
Varghese nodded. “Yes, captain.”
He silently followed Vasudha down the tunnel, keeping his eyes on her weapons. Two katars, clutched in either hand. A bit less reach than what his sword allowed, but if she was swift it hardly mattered. The most important was their quality or it suiting her style.
The mineshaft opened up briefly into a natural cavern. It wasn’t terribly large, but it did fit two bears. Though when they stood up, Varghese felt they fit less.
“You take the little one!” Vasudha said, charging forward.
Comparing the two and her trajectory, Varghese figured one of them was a bit smaller. But still quite intimidating. He readied his blade, pulse beating heavily in his body. This was it, his first real fight, outside of childhood scuffles. He’d seen some real battles at the end of the war, but he couldn’t even remember which parts were dreams or childhood fantasies.
Instead of rushing in, he let the creature come to him, using his sword as a barrier. When the bear tried to bat aside the intruding weapon, he tilted the blade to catch the paw, performing a draw-cut as he stepped back. The paw was a bit bloody, but it wasn’t as deep as he might have liked. It seemed to only serve to make the bear mad.
With a roar, the bear charged him- and something odd happened with his weapon. It was yanked towards the creature, almost pulling out of his hand. But he’d felt something similar in training recently, and the pulse was only momentary instead of continuous.
He stepped to the side, making as much use of the space as he could. He cut towards the bear’s neck, mostly digging into thick fur. The blood on his sword wasn’t enough for him to determine he got another cut or just the first one. As he wound up for another attack, his sword brushed up against a nearby stalagmite, sticking to it. The pull was strong enough that it took him a moment to pull free, earning him a claw across his shoulder even as he kicked against the bear to separate them.
Varghese focused, calming himself. He had stances meant for larger opponents, and for beasts. He just had to fight smart- and watch the room itself.
He called upon his natural energy, augmenting his muscles as he performed his strikes, staying on the move and making life as difficult as possible for the bear. He saw an opportunity to stab deep into its side, but didn’t want to risk his blade getting stuck. He went for a cut around the thigh, dancing and moving. Everything felt more real, using it with his life on the line. Finally, he felled the beast.
“Pretty slow, kid,” he looked up to see Vasudha leaning against the wall, the only visible wounds on her opponent directly on the neck, and not a scratch on her. “Come on, let’s go.”
Varghese nodded. “Say, Vasudha? What do they mine here?”
“Fancy rocks. This is an old mine, but the formation masters want some of the less practical things here. I think they called it magnetite? Pretty awful as any sort of weapon or armor.”
“It’s a rock?”
“A rock, an ore. Can be a metal. Gets other metal stuck to it.”
Interesting. And odd, because Anton didn’t wear any metal. And Varghese’s weapon didn’t stick to him, exactly. It was deflected, though also pulled into the area around him? It was difficult to explain, yet clearly related somehow. “… Do the bears eat the rocks?”
“That sounds dumb,” Vasudha remarked. “Why would you think that?”
“The one I fought did the magnet thing. Pulled on my weapon.”
“Weird. Well, I guess they might. Or it’s from living here.”
The young man returned from his first mission, alive and vaguely healthy. Anton didn’t even have to tip the scales, at least not for Varghese. He did for a couple others, determining that if he did nothing while watching and they died, he was responsible. Nobody should notice a needle-thin hole in anything, and the near death experiences would be sufficient for people to make their decisions between growing stronger or quitting combat.
“Where’d you go? How was the mission?” Anton asked, though he knew the answer to both.
“Up into the mountains. I think I learned something, but I can’t be sure.”
“Show me, then.”
Instead of starting with taking swings, Varghese carefully pointed his sword at Anton, negotiating the area around him. His sword quickly was drawn into the flow and pulled towards the ground, but he began to trace out the area.
Finally, he held his sword above himself, pointing down in a reverse grip and stabbed towards the top of Anton’s head. Anton caught the blade between his fingers. That was the weakness of this sort of field. Even if he caused it to work in a certain manner, it had a ‘low point’. He could move it around as he pleased, which might be the solution, but he was unsure if he could erase it entirely. “Good job,” Anton said. “I doubt you’ll run across this particular technique often, but scoping out your enemy’s defenses is an important skill. Sometimes you just need to swing harder to break through, but sometimes you can ignore it entirely.”
“That’s… surprising,” Varghese admitted. “Still, this technique seems good. Can you teach it to me?”
Could he? Anton supposed it would be possible. It would also be much more difficult without the benefit of being bound to a neutron star, but there was nothing incompatible with One Hundred Stars as a cultivation technique. People focused on many different aspects- light, fire, gravity, or just power. Why not magnetism? It was a part of stars, though often overlooked from afar.
“This technique is still in development,” Anton said finally. “However, I am sure it will not take too long to have a version you can attempt, if you are interested. Though it would take much of your natural energy.” Perhaps Anton could find a way to make it efficient. If it wasn’t constantly activated but momentary, that might be reasonable. And he could apply the same to himself, creating a powerful burst that was much closer to his inspiration, rather than this field that was weak enough a Body Tempering cultivator could almost stab through it. Though Anton was holding back there.