It was hopeless to sneak around everywhere and presume she would never be discovered. Anton would always pick her out and some of the elders had to have found her. But maybe his concentration would lapse and she would figure out what the secret was. The strange thing was that even though she spent all her time watching, they never did anything even close to secret. There was a whole lot of running around, and strangely enough working. Working fields by hand and even dealing with strange and exotic plants. That was something only Hoyt and Anton did much of, but she couldn’t see how it would help. They didn’t even cultivate any plant-related techniques.
Those in Spirit Building certainly spent less time training their bodies, but Anton kept stubbornly trying to shoot a bow that didn’t seem to bend. Velvet didn’t know what the point was. If he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t do it. Everyone cultivated, of course, using the natural energy in the area to improve themselves. But the Spirit Building cultivators also spent a lot of time sparring and a strangely equal amount socializing. Mostly with each other instead of the rest of the Order as a whole, but it was still strange how they continued to grow strong so quickly.
Maybe it was all a trick. However, Velvet didn’t believe they’d give up several weeks of cultivation time just to throw her off. Not when they could just… remove her. Anton had never told her to stop skulking about, and she wanted to know what it meant.
She briefly considered trying to bribe him. A foolish idea. Even performing menial labor he must have more contribution points than she could imagine, given the speed at which he worked. And he had gone on grand adventures, obtaining enchanted items. Her own mission to the jungle of Ambati had no way to match that. Yet she wasn’t strong enough to take something riskier.
Everyone was pulling away. Timothy had surpassed the tenth star and was properly stepping into spirit building. Catarina and Hoyt were on their way to the twelfth star, Anton clearly making progress toward the thirteenth. Even the new recruits were advancing faster than Velvet ever had.
Finally, Velvet understood. If only she had been able to come to some other conclusion, it might help… but instead she knew. It didn’t matter if she was told the secret, if it was openly practiced in front of her. She couldn’t do it. Anton knew that, but he wasted time with her anyway, giving false hope. It didn’t make any sense. And she knew it never would.
Anton’s eyes tracked the horizon. There was a disturbing lack of a certain skulking figure. She’d certainly been improving her stealth abilities, but not so quickly. For one thing, Anton was constantly improving his Hawk Eyes technique, and he had other techniques for various senses. No, she wasn’t suddenly successfully hiding. She just wasn’t around.
He hadn’t felt her cultivating when he left the complex. In fact, she hadn’t cultivated one bit in the last few days to the best of his knowledge. Perhaps her paranoia had reached a peak, and she would only do it when he was not around. He’d have to check.
But first, he had to replant this Screaming Root Bush. It was currently in a pot, and while it would benefit greatly from being planted in proper soil it didn’t understand that. It wasn’t a plant that thought in any sense of the word. It just resisted being unearthed, and created a horrible noise as it did so. The roots gripped onto the pot until Anton started to dismantle the vessel bit by bit. He protected his ears from the screaming noise with energy, a difficult task given the way it constantly shifted. It was good practice though. Dismantling the pot without harming the plant was also a useful exercise. Anton didn’t know what sort of strange medicine this plant would eventually be, but it was quite a difficult one to raise.
He created a bubble of energy around the roots as he shoved the plant into the soil where a hole had been dug. If it stuck its roots into the soil too high, it would be improperly buried- harming itself and anyone who walked nearby without protecting their ears. He held the roots still as he buried it up to the green leaves above it, pushing a pile of dirt with his free arm. Then he let it do as it would, which was to instinctively jab its roots into the soil all around it, greedily pulling in nutrients. It also needed to be watered immediately. That was a simple task merely involving pouring out a bucket, and then another when the ground immediately dried after the first. Then the soil remained slightly wet, and the thing settled down.
That was enough for today. He enjoyed caring for exotic plants, and found it quite helpful to his cultivation, but there were other things to attend to. He said his goodbyes to Elder Howland, whose cultivation seemed to have improved from the fifteenth star to the sixteenth. The seventeenth would be another prime tempering, but the farming elder was throwing himself forward with vigor. Just as it should be! Maybe his individual cultivation wouldn’t do much for the land, but it would be better than him not advancing.
Anton stood uphill from the little complex he lived in, close to where Elder Daniela had once stood, watching. She was probably around somewhere, doing the same. Anton couldn’t see any signs of Velvet in her courtyard. It was rude to look, but he felt the need to guide the foolish little girl onto the right path and for that he needed to find her.
His movements weren’t nearly so swift as Elder Daniela. It took him a whole minute to traverse the distance to the complex instead of merely a handful of seconds. That wasn’t surprising, considering she had thrice as many stars as he did. That put her a good few steps into Constellation Formation, though thirty-six stars was still far short of ninety-nine.
As he approached, he was able to pick up Velvet’s energy. It was jumbled and chaotic. For a moment Anton was worried she’d made a mistake in her cultivation, but she wasn’t doing anything with that energy. Which was good, because if it was circulated through her meridians and dantian in its current state she would certainly harm herself.
Anton knocked on her door. He waited a few moments, then knocked louder. The third time, he amplified the sound and his own voice. “Velvet? Are you alright?”
The answer was clearly ‘no’, but she didn’t give it. As far as he could tell, she didn’t even shift from her position. He could hear her muttering to herself, but the door and the distance were too much to make anything out.
“Velvet? If you want to be left alone I need a response. Otherwise I will assume you need help, and will enter.” Nothing indicated he had been heard. “I’m coming in.” It was rude, and probably against some rules, but he opened the door. It hadn’t even been locked, though he wouldn’t have let that stop him.
It only took him a few seconds to navigate to her. She was lying on her back in the middle of a hallway, staring up at the ceiling and muttering to herself. “Never figure it out…” he heard, “Not good enough…”
Anton frowned. This isn’t what he wanted at all, but he had the feeling it was his fault. Apparently her mind was so averse to the thought of trusting people that instead she had wholly misinterpreted his actions even when the answer was blatantly obvious.
She didn’t react as he walked over next to her, waving his hand in front of her face. She just blankly looked up at the ceiling. That wasn’t good. She needed help, but Anton didn’t know how. He didn’t think he could provide anything, but he also didn’t believe anyone else would do much good. He thought they’d been building up some small level of understanding between them, and someone unknown would not provide any help even if they had the proper expertise.
Or he could be wrong. But he knew he was going to try to help her on his own. That was what every part of him said was the right thing to do. It was his fault, even if not his intention. A fragile girl lay broken on the floor.
He let the words come to him on their own. “It’s okay,” he said. “You’re good enough. You made it this far.” He avoided saying something like ‘on her own’, though doubtless that was close to correct, despite his attempts at advice.
She didn’t visibly respond to his words, but she continued to mutter to herself. “Don’t understand. What’s the point? Running and talking and fighting…”
He didn’t think she could hear his answers, but maybe on some deeper level he would. So he did his best. “Training with others helps,” he explained. “They can point out your flaws, and help you. You can do the same for them.”
She repeated her thoughts, her questions. Her mind wandered randomly through ideas of insufficiency and lack of understanding. Anton continued to support her, the foolish girl, to the best of his ability.
Cultivators were tougher than the rest, but as the sun fell, rose, and fell again Anton heard her voice rasp more and more. His own throat was dry as well. He could go get water. It would only take a moment, and he would be back. Yet somehow he felt if he left her side he wouldn’t get another chance.
“… can’t trust anyone…” Those exact words, and things like them, were far too common in Velvet’s mutterings.
Anton had little he could do to respond. “You have to. It doesn’t have to be me. But humans can’t survive alone.”
Sometimes, he almost thought she heard him. But he could never get a consistent response of any sort out of her. She didn’t turn her eyes towards him and didn’t react when he was in front of her.
But he waited, sitting next to her, trying to help somehow. Maybe he wasn’t qualified. Maybe the Order had some solution for this, and he was just wasting his time, endangering her. But he couldn’t leave now.
He wasn’t sure how long it had been. More than a full day, probably two or three. It was then that something happened. It didn’t seem like much, but as he waved his hand in front of her she reached up and grabbed his wrinkled wrist. She squeezed with the full power of the ninth star of Body Tempering. The bones in his wrist were close to snapping after just a moment, but he couldn’t resist with energy. That could hurt her. He didn’t try to dislodge her grip as her eyes finally closed. The grip only seemed to tighten after that, and Anton grit his teeth. The second full body tempering had barely been enough to make his old bones sturdy enough to resist, and it wasn’t going to last forever. But what was a broken and squashed wrist anyway? As long as it wasn’t too bad, he could recover it eventually. That hardly mattered. He did hope she would tire soon, but her grip seemed more likely to break her own fingers than give up.