Advancing in cultivation was a mix between control of energy and mastery of particular aspects of cultivation. For Body Tempering, it was fairly clear what was being tempered, though specifics changed from person to person. In Spirit Building, things were more abstract. Anton could easily tell they were still very real, but even less specific than ‘muscles’. He had definitely tempered some of his muscles more than others, but he’d still completed the tempering of his muscles without issue. He honestly doubted that muscles on his face were of much use even if properly tempered.
The best part about the Ninety-Nine Stars was that while the choice of what to cultivate- especially for prime temperings- was quite open, it never fully put aside other aspects. His choices in Body Tempering still significantly influenced his current self, but as his cultivation grew he could continually smooth out any weaknesses he had. So instead of focusing too hard on exactly what he should cultivate in Spirit Building and the single prime tempering of the Seven Purifications, he just let himself continue to grow.
Having already cultivated Voice, he found it easier to organize his thoughts on what he wanted. Going for whatever seemed most useful in the immediate future was perfectly reasonable. He could reserve things that were ultimately important but not urgent for later.
Insight for reading enemies. He knew he would have to fight, and that wouldn’t suddenly stop happening in the future. Even outside of combat he was able to use it to great effect. Voice was his inner voice and thoughts, while his outer voice allowed him to influence others. It wasn’t anything so powerful as mind control, but he didn’t want to deal with the problems inherent in that field anyway. It was simply useful.
Emotion was next. While he found himself relatively stable at the moment, in personal situations he would be able to make better decisions if he could properly manage his emotions. That didn’t mean suppressing or ignoring them. Some sects managed their emotions in different ways- even to the extremes of letting certain emotions take them over or completely cutting themselves off. The Order preferred a more nourishing approach wherein the effects of emotions on decision making could be tempered as necessary. Anger or impatience would be managed such that improper snap decisions were prevented, while proper training would still allow appropriate responses in the same time frame.
Another aspect of Emotion was its effect on cultivation as a whole. It could be juxtaposed with Spiritual Connection as they related to different aspects of energy control. Spiritual Connection had much to do with reading the flow of energy, absorbing it, and controlling it outside the body. Extremely useful, but Emotion had effects on internal use of energy to grow cultivation.
It was a close choice between the two of them, with Emotion barely coming out ahead. In truth, it barely mattered. Not because the details of his cultivation weren’t important, but because in a few months he would be advancing to the other one either way. Each had useful immediate benefits, so he finally just made the choice.
After a week of training, he felt like it was the right one. This was one area his advanced age absolutely helped instead of hindering him. While those undergoing puberty experienced many emotions, a majority of those emotions were ultimately shallow. Anton had lived a full life, to the point he had experienced basically anything life had to offer, highs and lows of all sorts. Though the lowest lows came at the destruction of Dungannon, just prior to which he would have been perfectly happy to die peacefully and finish his life. Now, he absolutely wouldn’t let go of his hold on life.
The management of the technique library was primarily under the care of Elder Bristol Mason. Even with thousands of members in the order, she rarely got more than ten or twenty people per day at the technique library. An individual might ask for help finding a handful of techniques at once then study them each for a month or more before returning. A few seemed interested in studying absolutely everything they could, which she hoped was beneficial to their cultivation instead of confusing.
For the most part Anton Krantz fell into the former category. He’d studied a small handful of techniques over his year and some with the Order. After he returned from a journey he perused a few more, archery techniques and movement for the most part. Standard fare. Then he’d begun asking about Everheart, and forbidden techniques.
“What makes a technique forbidden, anyway? By the Order’s standards?”
Elder Mason might not entertain the questions from a young disciple, but Anton hadn’t even brought up the idea of seeing any of them. It seemed to be pure intellectual curiosity. “Same things as most, really. Danger to the cultivator or to society.”
Anton nodded. “I had a chance to see one of Everheart’s techniques. Candle Wax. A clear danger to the user, and the scroll laid it out quite clearly. Burning one’s life like a candle for temporary bursts of power. The way the description said not to seek out forbidden techniques… Everheart seemed to be trying to make people curious about more.”
Elder Mason smiled. “Yes. That was his way. He was quite fond of creating techniques that were forbidden, though he had his own standards. Nothing that was exceptionally cruel to others. Of course, half of his techniques were forbidden just because they were intentionally made to counter some of the prominent sects in his time. He was on passable terms with the Order so we don’t believe he created anything specifically to spite the Order, but he was fond of ways to disrupt cultivator’s internal cultivation methods. None of that is technically forbidden here, but if we found something specifically aimed at countering the Ninety-Nine Stars, it would probably get that treatment anyway.”
“Everyone has limits,” Anton agreed. “I’d certainly be happy to get rid of any anti-archery techniques.”
“I suppose we can’t lend you any of the distance closing techniques then,” Elder Mason grinned.
“… Actually I should probably study those.”
“It could be worthwhile. They’re basically just specific movement techniques focused on catching up with people and sticking with them.”
Anton nodded. “One last question. Do you ever recommend forbidden techniques to people?”
“Your question presupposes that we keep forbidden techniques on hand.”
“Of course you do,” Anton said. “Every technique is dangerous in some fashion. I could twist my ankle or break a leg if I messed up a movement technique. There have to be things besides life-burning, soul stealing, or consciousness overriding techniques that are simply too dangerous for general practice. Even the full version of the Ninety-Nine Stars isn’t freely available to everyone.”
“You’re right about that. We have different levels of availability. Even some truly abhorrent techniques kept to research counters.”
Anton nodded. “Speaking of counters, can I see some of those distance closing techniques?”
He didn’t continue to bring up the topic later, but Elder Briston knew he was still interested. Everheart was still corrupting people with his enthusiasm to this very day, it seemed. Though chastising Anton for his curiosity would be hypocritical. Everheart had so many good ideas. Or at least interesting ideas.
Less than a month since Timothy started talking to people again, Velvet felt him break through to the tenth star. It was so frustrating. She’d tried to watch him train, but there was nothing special about any of it. Some of it was even stupid. Running hundreds of laps around their compound had to be some sort of distraction so she would stop paying attention. Whatever he’d done with Anton when they went off together had to be the key to his continued growth, but Velvet didn’t have the confidence to stealthily follow behind Anton.
She’d tried it once. The way he turned around and looked straight into her eyes from a couple hundred meters away had shown her how impossible that was. Just a quick turn, a look, and then he continued walking as if she didn’t exist. As if she was nothing. Maybe that was true. He didn’t even look angry. Just nothing, as if there was no connection between them. Or her and the others.
He was right. Timothy might have grown slightly closer to her during the course of the mission in Ambati, but that all faded away afterwards. He talked more about Catarina and Anton than her even while they were on the mission. Then he’d sort of fallen apart when they were back, worrying about them. Somehow that got worse when they returned. Velvet thought that Catarina had done something like declare she found a lover on her journey, but apparently she’d just spoken about what they did. Then Timothy regretted not helping, even though he couldn’t have known anything.
It was stupid. Why did he even care? Maybe he just regretted missing out on whatever secret training methods Anton had. That had to be it. Even though he wasn’t exactly performing poorly, the entire trio that went on that journey returned at Spirit Building.
Her curiosity got the better of her. He’d said something she might be able to use. A knock on Anton’s door. Of course, he was almost there to answer it by the time she knocked. He knew she was coming. “Hello, Senior Anton.”
That smile. It had to be hiding something. But what was it? How could she get his secrets? “Velvet. Welcome! Do come in.”
He brought her tea. Nothing special about it, but she wasn’t going to complain either. She engaged in some smalltalk, then she got to her true purpose. “Earlier, you said you’d explain anything I didn’t understand.”
“I did.” At least he didn’t deny it. The fact that his expression didn’t change made her wonder if he was surprised or not. It was so difficult to tell.
“Then… tell me how you and the others got so strong so fast.”
“Certainly. Just tell me where you’re experiencing problems with your cultivation.”
Velvet took a sip of tea. So that was how it was going to be. He wanted to scope out her weaknesses. But could she get enough useful information out of him without giving everything away? She decided to try. “I’m currently trying to temper my bones, but sometimes it gets extremely painful. It’s keeping me from progressing.”
“I see,” Anton said. He appeared to take a moment to think. “Painful how?”
She wasn’t going to give away her weak points that easily. “It’s hard to describe…” Sometimes it was a burning fire. Sometimes it was as if she was a creaking tower about to snap. A brick at the bottom of a pile crushed under the weight of those above. “It just sort of… hurts.”
“In that case,” Anton explained. “I have a few helpful training tips.”
That was something, at least. Hopefully they would help until she got to the real secrets.