It wasn’t hard to spot Velvet sneaking around. She was better at it than Anton generally expected of people, but having an advantage of four steps of cultivation was a gap that was hard to close. Anton particularly cared about spotting opponents from afar, and he’d been expecting her. When he looked at her, she shrunk away like a startled mouse.
That girl had problems. He didn’t know what they were, or if he should even try to solve them. Doing nothing was definitely the wrong option, though. If he left her alone she would be a danger to others or to herself, perhaps both.
He didn’t appreciate her manipulative methods, but it seemed to be the only way she knew to interact with people. It was like she couldn’t even believe the things he said directly to her. So he would watch over her. He really hoped he could coax her into a person more fitting for the Order, because if not she would be a danger. He wondered if the Order knew. Probably- but he wasn’t just going to assume that. Nobody was perfect. He’d have to talk to Elder Daniela, and explain what he planned to do. But for the moment, he had a promise to fulfill.
Anton sat with Velvet in her courtyard and folded his fingers in front of him. He should probably start slowly. “Tempering your body isn’t just about dumping natural energy into it. That can work, but the more you understand the better you will do. You said training your bones hurts?” Velvet nodded. “There are several possibilities. You are likely trying to go too fast, too strong. Something that will certainly help is understanding your body and moving it.” Anton wiggled his fingers and made weird motions with his joined hands. “The hands are the easiest place to just feel a lot of bones. Almost a quarter of the whole number of bones are in them together. You understand?”
“Mmn.” Velvet had folded her hands together as well, but she was unenthusiastic about the process. “I know how many bones people have already…”
It was difficult to teach someone who didn’t want to be taught. She wanted his secrets to advancing in cultivation. But there weren’t any secrets. Hard work, a bit of luck, and then working with other people to understand the process. He might also include cultivating like a madman uncaring about your life, but he wouldn’t recommend that one for the long term. Otherwise he would have just suggested she push through the pain. There was a decent chance that would allow her to complete the ninth star- if she didn’t explode her bones.
“Watch the flow of my energy carefully.” Anton pressed his fingers together, tip to tip. He coaxed a strand of energy to flow up his right hand, along the right edge towards his pinky. He made sure it carefully weaved its way through the bone itself, then into his other pinky and down the other side to his wrist. Then up his left ring finger and down, flowing back and forth through all the bones in his hand, ending behind his left thumb. The process did very little for him- his bones were near the limits of what they could reach until the second half of Spirit Building. “Pay attention to each bone, and do it yourself. I will watch and guide you.”
Velvet looked at him suspiciously- in short, with the same look he’d seen from her almost all the time since he’d returned. Still, she slowly repeated his same process. It didn’t seem to be a lack of control that was holding her back, but rather what she did with it. She was nearly forcing the energy into her bones after they reached their limit, like packing a bag too full. Of course it hurt. Her face was strained, though she clearly tried to hide that. The process took her a lot longer, and she was sweating by the end of it.
“Good energy control.” The girl hadn’t properly followed his instructions, but she seemed in desperate need of reinforcement. “Now, with all that energy in your hands you need to move them.” Anton showed some methods of stretching his hands. “If you can do it while circulating even better, but for now we’ll settle for one at a time. Moving your fingers doesn’t directly affect your bones, but it will help. If you are careful, some light pressure on individual bones-” Anton squeezed one finger, “-can help the process. Start small, because if you push too far you just get broken bones. Trust me, it hurts.”
Velvet didn’t have any questions, just silently following his lead. That was a problem, because she clearly didn’t fully understand what he was doing. She just wouldn’t ask. Anton shook his head. He wouldn’t expect any real change in a single day. On that note, he made sure to remind her that the exercises he was teaching her also wouldn’t have immediate results. Hopefully she would be patient enough to wait a full week to see how it affected her.
After he finished that lesson, he had another handful who might need his help. Anton didn’t mind spending time teaching others because he learned quite a bit for himself- and he cared about them. Pete and Oskar both passed the test and could use some guidance. Patricia was able to live with Oskar, and she was also was interested in continuing to learn cultivation. Maybe the others living in the same area as them would join for lessons. Of course there was also Hoyt, Catarina, and Timothy. Timothy was pushing himself to catch back up, doing a good job of overcoming his feelings of inadequacy. He’d have a hard time overcoming Catarina since she wasn’t the sort to slack off in training and had talent, but he could at least reach close enough to be a relevant factor in battle.
Sometimes, curiosity overcame patience. Anton brought the bone bow to Elder Evan, who ran the armory. He was quite capable of appraising it, and he gave basically the same answer as Elder Byrne of the Misty Hill Palace, including close pricing. “I honestly can’t say if it’s a good bow,” he said, “But the materials and work are excellent. I’m certain Elder Kseniya could judge its actual practicality better.”
Anton nodded. He’d thought that as well, but he just wanted to see if Evan had any insights before that. Despite Elder Byrne’s general warning, he wasn’t concerned about anyone ‘snatching’ it away from him. The Order was a bit creaky and stiff in its age, but it still tried to follow righteous standards. And frankly, Elder Kseniya had to have a better bow.
There were a number of residences for elders in the same area as the rewards hall, the armory, and the majority of the training fields. Most business was handled in that area. However, many elders and disciples lived further up the mountain. Anton had the opportunity to do so now, but he wasn’t concerned about the amount of difference in energy at the moment. Where he was remained sufficient. Anton was certain that more powerful elders like Kseniya and any of the Grand Elders most certainly needed the increased density.
He found the atmosphere much less oppressive now that he was in Spirit Building, though Elder Kseniya’s residence wasn’t at the peak like the observatory where he’d met Grand Elder Vandale. He confidently knocked on her door. Doubtless she felt him coming, but whether she would come to her door was a different question entirely.
“Yes? Who is it?” Before Anton could respond, the door was quickly pulled open. “Ah. I have not seen you at an archery demonstration in some time.” She recognized him- and his absence. Anton was surprised at that. Then again, she seemed the sort to either completely ignore everyone she didn’t know, or memorize them all. So it was probably nothing special with him in particular. “Looking for private lessons?”
“Not at this time, Elder Kseniya” Anton said. “Though I suppose this is something of a related request. I am Anton Krantz, by the way.” He bowed. “I have recently come across a strange bow, and while Elder Evan was able to identify its properties he was unable to determine its efficacy as a bow. I know your time is valuable, but if you could take a look at it-” he wasn’t able to finish his sentence before the bow was in her hands. A bit rude, but he hadn’t really expected anything else from her.
“Come,” she said. She nearly disappeared from his sight as she moved through her house. Anton was barely able to close the door behind him and follow her into the back yard. A courtyard much bigger than his, and significantly longer in length compared to its width. There were formations set up, concentrating on several types of archery targets- the standard sort of block but not made out of straw, hanging targets, and some in the shape of a torso and head. She was looking at the bow curiously, and Anton was about to try to explain when she formed a string. Then immediately after that, a Spirit Arrow as she held the bow up in a proper stance.
It was the first time he’d seen the bow bend even a little bit, but it almost seemed to have no resistance in Elder Kseniya’s hand. There was a horrible sound that nearly toppled Anton off his feet as she released her grip and the string snapped, but not before it propelled the arrow forward. The arrow itself moved far quicker than Anton had anticipated, even having seen Elder Kseniya shoot before. She didn’t remain idle, moving to different positions and continuously firing arrows, her subsequent string holding strong. The sound of the bow twanging was sharp and echoed throughout the large courtyard. It was a good sound. After just a minute or so, Elder Kseniya was holding the bow in front of Anton. He held out his hand to take it, and she dropped it into his palm. “I hate it.”
“Too hard to draw. Time between shots is high.” Anton hadn’t really noticed a significant drop in her speed, but he could see that. “Power is reasonable. But forming a proper string splits the attention between that, bending the bow, and the arrow. Coating standard arrows in energy would barely help.”
“Oh. Thank you for your assessment. Do I-”
“You won’t be able to use it with puny arms like that,” Elder Kseniya declared. “Even at early Essence Collection, that darkwood bow you have would do better.”
Anton blinked. He didn’t even have the bow with him. But then again, of course she remembered his bow. He’d never even seen her glance at any of the disciples who watched her ‘demonstrations’, but she probably knew their bows better than their faces. “What if you pulled the bow with pure strength?” Anton asked.
Elder Kseniya looked straight into his eyes and poked his bicep. Despite how it looked, she confidently declared, “Don’t even think about it with those twig arms. And your back muscles…” she shook her head. “You’d tear yourself apart.”
“How do I train-”
“Shoot more arrows,” she said. “Maybe that will help.”
“Okay.” Anton just looked at her. He hadn’t really expected anything different, but it was still strange. Especially being treated like a skinny little kid, when he was none of those. “Do I owe you-”
“Don’t need anything.” She waved him away. “Now shoo. I have someone coming for lessons. Unless you want to?”
“Not right now,” Anton said. “I need to think first.”
As he was walking down the road, he saw a familiar face. “Marcio?” Anton asked. “Marcio Armani?”
“You… Anton Krantz, right?” the young man nodded. Anton noticed that he had gone from seventh to twelfth star since they first met. “Are you taking lessons from Elder Kseniya too? Because if you are, I’d really like you to explain to me instead. Her teaching skills are…” he shook his head.
“Some people are suited for different things,” Anton grinned. “I was just asking about this bow, actually. But perhaps we could meet up and talk archery. I’ve learned some useful tricks, with some practical experience.”
“That would be great.” Marcio paused. “You’re… twelfth star now?”
“As of the last couple weeks,” Anton nodded. “You look close to thirteenth now, correct?”
“…yeah,” Marcio shrugged, “I’ve made some pretty good progress. Some of your advice really helped, actually.”
“That’s great!” Anton said. “I don’t know too many archers. Don’t talk much with the other students, and Elder Kseniya…”
“Is Elder Kseniya,” Marcio nodded. “Speaking of which, I should hurry. She doesn’t much tolerate lateness.”