Not terribly long after he began properly training Aykorkem, Nasima completed her first star. At that point, the risks of guiding her without her knowing the full truth were too great. And since it seemed difficult to leave just one member of the family in the dark, Anton included the grandfather Botros in the conversation.
“The techniques I’ve been teaching you over the last months are not simple tricks or manners of exercise,” Anton said. “Perhaps you might have already surmised, they are the beginnings of cultivation.”
Nasima’s response was rather interesting. “Yeah, I thought so,” she shrugged.
“And you said nothing?” Botros asked.
“I had no reason to refuse. Besides, it was a good opportunity I didn’t want to ruin.”
“Hmmn,” Botros grunted. “I would have preferred you to be forthcoming,” he said to Anton.
Anton nodded, “I can understand that. But I don’t know if it would have worked. Imagine yourself as you were. I find you, Botros, looking for work. Perhaps I say this- ‘I want you to become a disciple of my sect’. What would you have thought?”
He took a moment to think. “I would have considered it impossible,” he admitted. “More than just unlikely. Am I not… already too old? Why choose us?”
“Traditionally, younger disciples are preferred. For good reason,” Anton said. “It is certainly easier to begin when you are younger. But I knew it was possible because of experience. I personally did not begin cultivating until I was a hundred years old.”
“I see. I thought you were just a bit older than myself but…” Botros frowned. “I have the feeling that’s not true.”
Anton felt Nasima clumsily trying to feel his cultivation. “He would have to have grown stronger… very rapidly,” Nasima said. “I’m not certain I’ve felt anyone stronger than him in Krosburgh,” she said.
“I will teach you some proper techniques,” Anton said. “And etiquette. Some cultivators will be offended at you brazenly observing them. You, Nasima, have officially reached the first star. The completion of the first stage of cultivation. Continuing through Body Tempering, you will need to choose between strengthen your meridians, torso, head, muscles-”
“Muscles!” Nasima declared. “I don’t know what a meridian is, but I want to make my muscles stronger.”
“Finishing the list, there are bones, tendons, skin, and marrow.” Anton smiled, “Many people choose muscle, and it is not an incorrect choice.”
“What are meridians?” Botros questioned.
“They are the channels through which natural energy flows,” Anton said. “You should have some sense of them now.”
“You mentioned them first. Are they more important?”
“They are critical to all energy cultivation,” Anton said. “But they are also the most difficult. Most delay their cultivation until they have greater experience.”
“Most, is it?” Botros asked.
“That is correct,” Anton said. “The Order of One Hundred Stars- my sect- places special emphasis on prime temperings. The second and fifth stars, two refinements plus another three, are both part of Body Tempering. In general, I would recommend cultivating meridians for the fifth star.”
Botros nodded. “When did you do it?”
“For my second tempering. But I was in a state of desperation. Rushed. I didn’t care about the danger. In fact, I might have hoped it would kill me quickly.”
“I think I will take your advice,” Botros said. “What would you recommend?”
“For you… either muscle, or the organs of the torso,” Anton said. “For Nasima, muscle is a reasonable choice. But you don’t have to decide right now. And I should point out that you don’t have to continue cultivation. But I think you will find it quite beneficial.”
“Do we get to fight?” Nasima asked. Her grandfather frowned.
“It would be reasonable to teach you to defend yourselves. But I find it more practical to develop areas of ability in which you already excel. Or in which you wish to. Performing a craft or labor of any sort can be enhanced by cultivation, and smooth out your growth. I myself am a farmer.”
“I thought you were a merchant,” Botros said.
“I can be both. And I mostly deal in produce.”
“So all those heavy crates…”
Anton left the incomplete question unanswered.
“I want to fight,” Nasima said. “I mean, so I can protect people. Like dad.”
“All of you will learn what you need to in terms of combat,” Anton said.
Nasima looked around. “All of us? Wait, is it mom too? I thought I felt her snooping around.”
Anton smiled. A decent amount of insight, and making use of her energy senses without real training. Her eagerness for battle might be a problem, but Anton knew he could smooth over any troubles in that area. Either she would naturally come to understand at some point… or become strong enough. And Anton wasn’t going to claim that fighting wasn’t the ultimate solution for cultivators a majority of the time. He just thought other options should at least be considered first.
The timing was right for Anton to leave for a few weeks- enough to visit nearby systems. And one mysterious rogue planet. He still thought about Aipra regularly, even if he couldn’t do much to directly aid them. It had already been confirmed that the teams there could communicate to the outside world- though it took more energy from subspace, and some changes to their equipment.
Other than that, he visited uninhabited stars. Much of his efforts were focused on this region, and he knew they would be for some time. Increasing his number of bound stars in the area would benefit him in terms of travel speed even if he didn’t need the combat prowess. He had five available bindings, and planned to fill at least four of them over the next few years. He picked out a nice yellow-white star between Poriza and In’istra for his first in the near region besides Azun.
Years began to flow by as they often did even before he was a cultivator. He slowly recruited other disciples from Krosburgh, doing his best to promote the prosperity of the city even as more refugees came and went. He continued to plant seeds of growth- mostly metaphorically- among the people of Poriza though his focus was on the local branch of the Order. Soon enough all of the Salim family had reached Spirit Building, with Botros the slowest among them. But that should only be expected, as situations like Antons were the exception. That of great natural talent- whatever that was- a furious drive to grow, and enough luck to survive.
During that time, Anton also bound a nearby binary star system that was of some interest. And he kept in contact with Catarina about his potential plans, because of the people he knew she was the most likely to support something so crazy. He also needed practical advice on formations, because he could only know so much. He didn’t have the right affinity or time devoted to even compare to lower realms formation masters in the Life Transformation stage.
Aipra. A true anomaly as far as Anton was aware. Now that he was looking, Anton had come across more than a handful of standard rogue planets outside of subspace. But a place like Aipra not only existing in terms of simply having matter to form a planet, but even sustaining life… that was a unique situation. It was unlikely it would ever be known how it truly ended up there, though all of the most likely possibilities involved cultivators. Most likely more than the current populace, or at least higher in power.
It was clear to Anton that Nalini enjoyed his visits. It seemed that cultivators in her position spent much of their time resting for attacks by distortion beasts, or alternating between them. Anton didn’t know exactly how many there were, but he’d only seen a handful. There might be a few more he didn’t know of at all.
For a planet in such dire straits, it was amazing to produce even a single individual that could reach beyond Life Transformation. The planet made very efficient use of everything they had. It was simply required. They had a cooperative nature because if they hadn’t, they would have long been dead.
Even with Anton admitting that many cultivators outside their planet were not devoted to humanity as they knew it, they still accepted him and the teams. The years that had gone by brought with them little visible change. Looking at the metrics, it seemed that specialized farming techniques were producing a few percent more in terms of crops year after year. It could almost be random noise, except that because they kept large emergency supplies they knew very well what was being produced at all times.
Any improvement in overall natural energy would take more than just a handful of years to be seen. It would be very difficult to actually have a net increase, since in other places that power ultimately came from a local sun. Natural energy was ultimately reusable, or the planet would have long crumbled, but growth was limited to two factors only.
First was whatever pockets of natural energy they came across in subspace and that got drawn into their gravitational pull. The general background levels of natural energy were small but consistent. Then there was the biggest threat they faced- while also being their main source of anything new. Distortion beasts. Each one brought with it additional natural energy- and unfortunately, death and destruction. It was a cycle that was tenuously stable, but had managed to continue for a long while.
Though Anton’s initial desire was to help Aipra, aside from contributing in two battles and helping with distributing necessary supplies he had done little. Actually, from their perspective those might have been significant… but he couldn’t create a fundamental change in their system. The world just didn’t fit the methods he knew.
But he didn’t just visit them out of pity. They had things he wanted to learn. The same as the Scarlet Alliance group visiting them. Among other things, the cultivation of Nailni and the others could teach Anton a lot. It was a different path, but still valuable for them to exchange cultivation pointers. And Poriza knew more about devotion and communal cultivation than anyone else, by a great measure. Anton didn’t think he wanted to replicate that, nor did he have interest in recreating their social system. Because while it was functional, it was also restrictive. Everyone had to fulfill a role in society, though there was some leeway on which role.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of those roles were practical ones, with little room for arts or expression of any kind. It was not to say there was none. Even in the worst of circumstances, or perhaps especially in the worst of circumstances, humans would find a way to make art or music. But they had little time for it. Each day came with regularity, the world allowing little change for individuals from day to day.
They didn’t even have growing seasons. In a way, it was a boon- the lack of seasons meant they continuously produced fresh food, such as it was given the circumstances. Some of the plants that grew the best were inedible by humans, and fed to rare cattle or other livestock.
Anton brought up the idea of possibly leaving. Nalini’s reply was quite practical. “We spoke to your Scarlet Alliance about the prospect. It would be quite impossible. Should we lose a portion of our population, the rest would likely die. And while your people spoke of transport ships, it would be difficult to move more than several thousands of individuals at once. How many years would it take, even if it caused no disruptions?” She shook her head. “It remains nearly impossible.”
“I assumed so,” Anton admitted. “And letting a few individuals leave would simply cause discontent. The only true possibility would be if the world was prosperous… and then you wouldn’t need to leave.”
“Perhaps some day,” Nalini said, surprised at her own words. “Your formation knowledge and this technology are both quite helpful. Though it is slow for our people to dig deep for conductive metals, making use of what we already produced and cast off as unnecessary is an intriguing prospect. But what people seem to appreciate most are the improvements in insulation. A tiny bit of warmth is the most desirable thing we have here.”
Anton nodded. It was strange. Every time he thought of this place, it seemed like it should have been a symbol of despair. But instead, he was always uplifted. Stubborn endurance was not pitiable, but noble. Though prosperity was better still. Some day, perhaps. If Aipra could accept the changes. Anton was recently inspired to make big moves. Though he didn’t want to try too many all at once.