The responsibility that had been thrust upon Varghese sometimes still put him off balance. Did he deserve to be the head of a sect? Even though it was merely a branch of a greater sect, that didn’t necessarily change his feelings. Instead, the greater weight of responsibility still wore down on him. What qualifications did he have, except coincidentally being the first person Anton spoke to?
When he asked, Anton had told him the qualifications were the same as required of any member joining the Order of One Hundred Stars. That is to say, the capacity to be a good person. There was more to it than a quick surface level judgment, but instead a detailed analysis required. Above all else, Anton valued growth- but not in the ways other sects might. He did not care to have genius disciples who rose through the cultivation ranks at great speed, but rather those who put in the effort to grow whether it was easy or not. More than that, those who would help others do the same.
But of course, that had little to do with morality, at least directly. Helping one’s self and one’s allies was not an act of goodness- it was one of basic functionality. Expending effort to help others, especially those who may never be able to pay back said effort, that was where things started. Altruism, in other words. Anton explained to Varghese that altruism was the basis of goodness. It was not enough to try to avoid harm. On the other hand, once one had other’s benefit in mind they would obviously do their best to do them no wrong.
Things weren’t always so simple of course. Varghese remembered a particular conversation. “Why are all of your instructions so… vague? It would be easy to accidentally cross a line.”
“Tell me, Varghese, would you prefer a definitive list? A compendium of laws.”
Varghese had nodded. “Of course. Written by you, with your great wisdom, I am certain it would benefit those who followed it greatly.”
“Certainly. I will get you a list of every single situation by the end of the day. And then tomorrow, when the world changes, I will write it anew.”
“Surely things do not shift so rapidly.”
“Perhaps not,” the old man had shrugged. “But tell me this. You would agree that stealing is wrong, would you not?”
“What about from an enemy sect? Or invaders from the upper realms?”
“Well, that’s not really stealing…” Varghese had begun to say.
“Perhaps not,” Anton said. “What about from a neutral sect?”
“Perhaps you have had conflict with them in the past. Or if it is the first time encountering them. What if you are competing for a prize. The corpse of a great beast, the fruit of an ancient tree. When is it right to claim it?”
“Whoever obtains it first in such a situation is the rightful owner,” Varghese had declared confidently.
“Very well.” Looking back, Anton hadn’t actually said he was correct about anything. Nor that he was incorrect. “And when they are the victors?” Varghese hadn’t known what to say. “If you can accept that, and the same of the others, then it is reasonable. But if snatching it away leads to a conflict that gets your disciples killed, is it still moral?”
“But we can’t just let people get away with threats when we rightfully have something,” Varghese said.
“And so…” Anton had spread out his hands, “What is the resolution? Is there a right or wrong? What is it?” Anton then let out a heavy breath. “Don’t get me wrong. Not all situations will be thus. Right and wrong surely exist. But in a world of conflict, it is rarely clear. And we have only postulated about one area. So while I can definitively declare a few things wrong in the vast majority of circumstances, and the same for things that are good, you must always weigh the benefits and harms to people as a whole.”
“I understand,” Varghese had answered with what he believed was the truth.
Now, he knew that he was missing so much. While Anton couldn’t answer every question, his experience could still guide Varghese. But right now, he was waiting on an answer. Usually, Anton was able to respond to his queries right away, but Varghese had been waiting for days. That was not so long in the grand scheme of things, but waiting longer to make a decision would also come with consequences.
It should have been a simple matter. He found someone in the markets stealing from the vendors. Or rather, intimidating them to make them pay ‘protection’ money. There were legitimate ways to go about something like that, but this was a scheme he concocted on his own, with the money flowing into his own pockets and likely no protection actually coming in return. Aspin had their own laws, but they also provided significant leeway for sects to handle justice on their own. Which was to say, powerful sects were almost above the law.
The problem was the group the young man was from. If it had been any other, Varghese could have made a swift decision. But he was a member of the Iron Plate Mercenaries. Now time was nearly running out, and he would have to make a decision on his own.
Except… he felt the pulse of energy that was him receiving a response. The personal communication device he had been given by Anton- a replacement, as apparently his first one had its connecting device destroyed- finally showed signs of a response. Varghese knew he should have been patient, but every day that passed with the individual in custody weighed heavily on him.
The response he got? “What do you think you should do?”
Of course it would be like that. Varghese tried to remember what he’d explained about the situation. He sent some more details first, before providing his actual response. “I would want to punish him. The situation does not seem deserving of death, but repayment of the losses and perhaps expulsion from the mercenaries might be appropriate.”
Fortunately, the response was swift. “Then why not do that?”
“I am worried about the harm to the Iron Plate, and our relations with them.”
“But you have not handed this individual over to them to deal with as they wish.”
Varghese sighed. He trusted Sharma and Vasudha, who led the group. He would generally consider them good people, but they still fell into the mindset of typical cultivators. “I am afraid they would make the wrong decision.”
“Then perhaps it is you who must guide them.”
“Is that it…?”
“I’m not going to tell you what to do. But I must ask, have you considered the other consequences of your choices?”
“If he goes unpunished the merchants will suffer.” Was that it? There had to be more.
It was like Anton was here, looking at him and watching his reactions. But he wasn’t. Was he? Varghese felt around with his senses. If Anton was watching, why did he care? Because he didn’t want to make a mistake. So he should follow Anton’s promptings. “There could be damage to the Iron Plate’s reputation. Further damage, I suppose.” And indirectly, the Order.
Covering it up… was definitely wrong. And only considering direct harm, it would be worse in the future if anyone found out. No, the largest issue would be allowing the troublemaker to continue as a blight. But because it concerned Sharma’s company, Varghese needed to convince him of that.
“I think I have arrived at a solution.”
“Good. And I am sorry about the delay. I was separated from my equipment briefly.”
Varghese understood. Actually, he should strive to not be dependent on the man. After all, something could come up that would bring him away for years again. And while he could theoretically still remain in contact during that, it would be much slower. Only good for longer term questions.
Sun glinted off of Chidi’s sword, though he noticed the sunrise from the warmth and the fact that his delicate formation crumbled apart as his blade sliced down. He was making progress but even factors like the sun being in the sky and whether it was behind hills or clouds would influence his formations. But if he was able to find a few stable moments, he could accomplish amazing things with relatively little of his own energy.
That was what it was all about. Efficiency. Swords were efficient because they concentrated power on a smaller area. That was the point of weapons, in general. Some got their use through momentum, but ultimately their only purpose was to be more efficient than bare hands. If they weren’t then they were not used.
Putting it another way, Chidi could cut down someone several times as powerful with him using only a portion of his energy, if he properly concentrated it around his blade and they weren’t able to properly defend. A thin horizontal slice on someone’s body was only a tiny fraction of them, and thus equally distributed energy defenses would be inadequate. And while all successful cultivators would react and redistribute their energy to some extent, the efficiency on their end was a factor. That was true until one cultivator could control an overwhelming power compared to others. Like, say, the difference between early Life Transformation and Integration. If Chidi were to use random examples that might get him killed in the near future.
But he wasn’t willing to give up. Rakiya might grow stronger over the years, but she would not advance proportionately as much as he would. A few more years and he would step into Life Transformation, while she would still be in the same general stage of Integration. Perhaps increasing the equivalent of another rank by the standards of One Hundred Stars while Chidi would grow several ranks and gain the power of Life Transformation.
He felt a presence nearby. “Aconite,” he waved. “I’m done. You won’t be interrupting.”
His wolf friend approached. “You grow strong.”
“Thank you,” Chidi said. “I am working hard.”
“Your studies in formations go well. But I believe you are missing one area.”
“What do you mean?” Chidi asked. According to Sithembile, he covered all areas of study- and he had his own practice with swords and redirecting the flow of energy using his blade.
“Do you recall how our parents met?”
Chidi pondered for a while. “It was in the lower realms, was it not? There was some sort of fungus or weird moss that took over bodies. Fuzz barely survived its removal.”
“That is correct,” Aconite agreed. “But then he grew strong.”
“He gained determination,” Chidi nodded.
“But not just that. His body was repaired… and augmented. Your mother’s formations gave him hope.”
“Oh. I remember,” Chidi said. “Personal augmentation formations. Mother steered me away from those, however.”
“Too young and inexperience,” Chidi admitted. “I would just hurt someone.”
“But you are neither of those now. You are far more experienced in formations than she was when she started.”
“I suppose that is true. I might be able to do something to myself…” Chidi thought for a few moments. “But that’s not what you want, is it?”
“My body is more durable,” Aconite said. “It could recover from minor mistakes more easily.”
“But I-” he didn’t want to hurt his friend. On the other hand, she wasn’t really asking for the sake of him training, was she? She had lamented the lack of a teacher here, though she only mentioned it rarely in recent years. But without that, her growth had limits. Limits that Chidi was surpassing on his own. “I could stand to learn in that area,” Chidi said. “I know where I would start, I suppose.” His mother hadn’t taught him much in the topic. But in a way, that was actually a good opportunity. It would show whether or not he could do the same as her and pave his own way. Even if it followed her example, without her directing him it would be his own thing. And as long as he was cautious, it should be an improvement for Aconite and himself as well.
Unlike Fuzz, she was not in desperate need of assistance. She was functional on her own. So he had to be a bit more cautious. It wouldn’t do to harm his friend. And even if she didn’t get upset, Spikes certainly would. Those teeth were sharp.