The journey up to the very peak of the mountain was hardly laborious at all, now that Anton was returning much stronger. The amount of natural energy was still unpleasant, but no more than that. It was like dealing with weather a bit too hot or too cold, though his body didn’t really know how to react.
Arranging for a meeting with Grand Elder Vandale was quite easy. Or rather, the man was completely booked for the majority of the day and devoted the night to watching the stars. Presumably he slept some, but Anton knew how little ‘some’ could be. He wasn’t much of a sleeper himself, and Vandale was several times his age.
When Anton requested to visit, the response he received was that he could come at any time during the first four hours of the night- and it was an open invitation. Seeing no reason to delay, he was going the first night after he asked. He was quite aware that it was an honor to meet with a Grand Elder, but though they’d barely interacted he felt quite comfortable. It was like meeting an eccentric acquaintance, one he wouldn’t mind having as a friend.
It was from quite a distance that he first felt Vandale. The man made no effort to hide himself, shining like a bright star atop the hill. In return, he found he had already been noticed. The way the energy danced over him it was clear it was keeping track of him. He’d only sensed a brief sweep the first time, though that may have truly been all there was.
The natural energy in the area wasn’t a problem for Anton, but he found it quite difficult to continue walking towards Vandale. He wanted to flee, recognizing a source of danger. But he knew better. There was no danger to him- not any different than there would be anywhere else around the Order. It still took quite the effort to actually enter the building. “I’m glad to see you are in good form, Grand Elder Vandale,” Anton greeted him.
Vandale turned, a nearly toothless smile on his face. His one eye pierced into Anton, once more judging him. “You present the same paradox as before. But now that I’ve personally felt your growth. Tell me, now that you’ve had time to consider. Why do you cultivate?”
“To get revenge for Dungannon,” Anton said. “To return those who were stolen away. That motivation is a sufficient for me to travel through Spirit Building.” Vandale showed some disappointment, but Anton was not yet finished, “After that, my target is more nebulous. You said that you would cultivate for the Order. Being who I am, that would not suit me. The Order is… good. But I am not so attached that I would use it as motivation. But,” Anton let the word linger in the air, “I certainly won’t be done with cultivation after I complete my short term goals. Unless I die on the path, I have more to do. Having traveled through Ofrurg, my horizons broadened. I grew up in a peaceful village, and for a time it was my deepest desire to return to that. But it’s already too late for me.” Anton smiled, “I could never be content, whittling away my time in a village. Not when I could do so much more. I liberated more than thirty slaves from Ofrurg. Yet it’s basically nothing. Do you know how many slaves they have?”
“Besides too many?” Vandale shook his head, “No. But I can guess. They have a population of tens of millions, and a not insignificant portion of that is composed of slaves.”
“At least one in ten, though most people don’t seem to interact much with slaves. They are generally owned by more wealthy individuals in numbers surpassing the rest of the country by far.” Anton shook his head, “They work them hard to undercut the common laborers and buy more slaves. It is both effective and terrible. So I’m going to free all of the slaves.”
“Every slave in Ofrurg, huh?” Vandale touched a wrinkled hand to his lips. “Ambitious.”
“Ofrurg first, then everywhere else,” Anton declared. “I might hit a limit, or reach the end of my lifespan, or die trying. But I see no reason to give up short of that.”
“You’ll upset many people with ideas like that.”
“Then I’ll kill them,” Anton said. “I’d prefer to have the Order on my side for that. I understand why you wouldn’t want to try to take on the world, but you think too much like cultivators. Things seem stable, and you don’t want the world to get worse.”
“Stability…” Vandale nodded. “It’s not so easy to give it up. Look at me, a guardian who doesn’t leave his post, the very symbol of stability.” Vandale gestured to himself, especially his missing eye and otherwise decrepit form. “I’d quite like for a powerful young generation to replace me and keep the stability.”
“You should know that won’t happen. Not just like that. The world is always changing. I… lived a full life, not as a cultivator but just as a man. I understand the desire for things to stay the same. But I also understand that it can’t happen. Fifty years ago, the Krantz farm was big enough. My children could help me work it and we would be quite content. But grandchildren would come into the picture eventually. Children and grandchildren alike moved away to seek their own lives, despite the option for stability. And I knew I couldn’t just leave the farm as it was. Staying just as things were was meaningless. Precisely because of those younger generations. Not everyone can accept just doing the same thing. And even if all of Graotan decided they want to keep things as they are, we’re not the ultimate deciding factor. Everyone else is, and that mostly means cultivators. Non-cultivators hardly get to decide anything. In that way, they’re almost slaves.”
“I…” Vandale paused. “Is it not a good life, here in Graotan? With unfortunate exceptions, the people are safe and prosperous.”
“Yes, but they could be more so. Both more safe, and more prosperous.”
“We don’t have the ability,” Vandale said. “Whenever we’ve tried, we merely overwork ourselves and leave weaknesses.”
“But you don’t have to,” Anton said. “The problem is not the efforts of the Order, really. It is, as I said, that the common folk are non-cultivators. If everyone in Dungannon had even been at the first or second star, things would have gone quite differently. You’ve heard, I’m sure, about the slaves I freed.”
“Yes. A remarkable achievement, that they have all surpassed the first star in just a few months.”
“I’m not sure if it is,” Anton said. “It was really quite simple to guide them. If a bit more time was taken, most could do it if they knew how.” Anton organized his thoughts. “The thing is, the strength and prosperity of every common person would be so much more with just the beginnings of cultivation. They just need to be taught. And it doesn’t have to be just by me. If one of moderate talent achieved late Body Tempering, with proper training they could do the same. It might take decades to really spread, but I think it’s worth trying.”
“I see. At least you acknowledge the time taken. I don’t know if I believe your words fully, but decades… is actually not so long. I might even be able to watch much of this attempt myself.”
The admission that Vandale had just low decades to live was concerning, but Anton knew he was already several centuries old. There was nothing unexpected there. In fact, when he was drained from rescuing Thuston, Vandale had felt like he might only have years instead of decades. “I’d like to try it, and I’d like the Order’s permission and assistance.”
“I do not think it would hurt. Some of the others might not like the idea so much, however. It is likely you will need to show results with just your personal effort. Though I would caution you, do not forget your own cultivation.”
Anton smiled, “Don’t worry. In fact, I think this would help me grow faster. There’s quite a lot to learn from people stumbling around at the beginning of cultivation.”
“Good to hear. Now then… you remember what I pointed out last time?” Vandale had already moved over next to the telescope. “You can get a different angle on some things. Come and see.”
With that, the topic moved to the stars- and that included the other planets in the system. If one considered the planets stars, which was often the case, then a system was actually somewhat analogous to Spirit Building. Anton liked that thought, that he’d stepped beyond the beginning but wasn’t yet truly far from home compared to the vastness of where he might reach. It was intimidating, but comforting at the same time.