It had to be admitted that having a good night’s sleep in a secure location was much better for a full recovery than furtively watching for enemies while you rested in the middle of the forest. Anton could feel a clear difference in the quality and quantity of energy he was able to retain when he awoke. As always, the sun was barely in the sky.
The guest houses had a little courtyard with a nice willow of the non-grasping variety in the center providing atmosphere. Anton took the time to perform his morning exercises. Improvements to his body were very marginal since he completed the tenth star. The first seven stars of Spirit Building weren’t targeted at the body at all, so he had to feel for himself what he could do to improve. In the past, he would have been more than content with his current body. It was noticeably better than when he was in his prime, at least in terms of what it could do… but he knew it wasn’t the peak of what a cultivator could have. It was still a bit old as well. Like a building having recently undergone renovations. It wasn’t the same as a strong new structure despite additional supports holding it together.
Training his insight was harder because it wasn’t just the repetition of a task, moving his body or circulating his energy a certain way. The energy circulation only went so far. Even fighting a shadow-enemy didn’t always help him improve. The problem was, he already knew what his imaginary opponent would do. No matter how he tried, he rarely managed to make it do something ‘unexpected’ that he could ‘react’ to. But that didn’t mean he felt as if he were stuck. Anton could feel his insight improving merely from exposure to people. There was more impact in the context of fighting, but observing the way people moved outside of combat wasn’t useless to him either.
Around the time Catarina and Hoyt awoke, Lev came to see them. He also looked somewhat more hearty, though his right arm was bound up in a proper cast and restrained to his chest. He’d decided to try to keep it, then. Good. Anton was worried it might have to be amputated. Then again, it might just be a hopeful gesture.
“Good morning to you all,” Lev inclined his head. He held out a heavy pouch with one hand, “Here is the sum total of the reward we can offer. The price of my mission, but also additional rewards from the sect for my life, and the information on a more serious concern in the area.
Anton graciously accepted. It was a significant total. The sect clearly valued their disciple or the information… or both. Cultivators didn’t have to be kind but inefficient or unwavering in ‘logical’ decision-making. “We were quite glad to provide our help.”
Lev smiled, “I do appreciate being alive. And not infested by that horrid moss. I spoke to Elder Varela, he said that he would like to meet you before deciding if he should offer you support. I can take you whenever you’re free.”
“Of course. I’m quite free right now. He wishes to meet all of us or…?”
“He also wishes to meet fellow cultivators Hoyt and Catarina, but he was especially interested in you, Senior Anton.” Anton smiled. At least he was actually in the next stage of cultivation compared to Lev and slightly deserved the title now. “Your… disciples? are free to explore this area of the sect if they wish.”
“I shall let them know. Then we should not keep the Elder waiting.”
The land of the Grasping Willows was quite pleasant, full of outdoor paths flanked by many trees between every building. It wasn’t as practical as the Order’s central complexes of buildings, though Anton was quite aware the Order had many natural areas available beyond the forest. There were small planters around the Order’s buildings as well, but the Grasping Willows had a higher proportion of ‘natural’ surroundings.
Instead of being led into an office or a sitting room, Lev brought the trio along some paths surrounded by bamboo and ominously looming willows to a large pagoda next to a lake. Long snow-white hair and an equally long beard trailed down towards the knees of the figure standing there, watching the lake. He turned towards the group, the trails of his hair and beard swaying in the breeze. “So you are the ones who saved my favorite disciple.” He laughed at Lev’s reaction, “Oh come now, everybody knows people have favorites, and usually who those are. It’s just old men like me who are confident enough to admit it.”
Anton laughed, “It’s supposed to be a secret though.”
“Don’t worry, we can have two or three and still keep some favorites secret,” Elder Varela took stock of the group, spending the most time on Anton. “Lev told me you ran into trouble in Khonard. It’s not uncommon. Too many people there, bound to be some bad ones. And they tend to spoil everyone around them.” He blew a puff of air from his mouth, fluttering his moustache. “Too many sects with thought only for strength. Not that it was much different when I was young.”
“I paid little attention to cultivators in my youth,” Anton admitted. “A foolish mistake, but I think many others have too little care for the common folk.”
“Everyone neglects certain aspects of the world. It is merely how much they fail to see the larger picture that changes.” Elder Varela shifted to look out over the lake again, “I’d say I see maybe half of what there is to see.”
Anton frowned slightly, “I feel like I might have to change my estimate down then, if you judge your own view of the world so.”
“Perhaps. It’s not something I can say. I might even be wrong about myself.” He remained quiet for a few moments, “I had the chance to cultivate the Ninety-Nine Stars, you know? I know some of those who are now elders. We Grasping Willows are much smaller, but I felt more suited to this. Besides, something felt off, which I only learned about later. You’re at Spirit Building, so you should know…” he glanced at Catarina and Hoyt.
“They either already know, or they could. They’ll be at Spirit Building soon enough either way,” Anton smiled at them, “I assume this is about the technique being incomplete?”
“It is,” Elder Varela shook his head, which wiggled his hair and beard. “I know as someone who hasn’t even gotten close to the peak it’s a bit arrogant, but I’d rather practice a developing technique like the Grasping Willow has rather than something known to be incomplete. It’s silly, right? At my current age, I don’t even know if anyone can really step beyond that point. But something inside of me said it wasn’t right for me. How about yourself?”
“I can’t say I had exposure to many cultivation techniques. This was the first I had access to but it absolutely is the right path for me.” Anton wanted to declare he was determined to reach the hundredth star, but it seemed a bit premature to announce to others. He would hold that in his heart for the moment.
Elder Varela remained in pleasant contemplation looking at the lake for a few minutes before he continued, “Young Lev said that you only recently broke through to Spirit Building.”
“Yes. There was a conflict, so it was a bit rushed.”
“I thought so. Something private. Lev wouldn’t speak of it.”
“I have reasons to keep the details private,” Anton said. “But my grandson is currently enslaved to fight as a cultivator in an arena.”
“A grandson. I suppose you lived apart?”
“No. I had not yet started cultivation at the time.”
Elder Varela raised a very bushy eyebrow, “A late start? Interesting. It is quite rude to doubt the words of a guest, but I find it quite hard to believe. However, I’m quite a believer in coming to know one’s opponent through combat. I would not force anything upon a savior of one of our disciples, but a spar can do some good for both of us, I might think. We have a training field with proper safeguards in place, though I’d like to think I have better control than to require that.” Elder Varela’s eye sparkled as he looked at Anton.
Since Elder Varela was in the middle of Spirit Building, there was no question that he could defeat Anton quickly if he showed no restraint. Anton was quite aware that he had some talent, but he didn’t have enough experience comparing cultivators to make up for such a large difference. Elder Varela would be the equivalent of at least the seventeenth star while he was still at the tenth, though his exact level was hard to judge compared to the Ninety-Nine Stars. “I would not mind, as I am also certain I could learn something from the experience. If it has any chance to help Devon, even more so.”
“We shall see,” Elder Varela said. “I can promise to leave word I would prefer your grandson remain in good health, but depending on what I might learn about you I may offer more.” Catarina tugged on Anton’s sleeve and whispered to him. “I might suggest learning techniques to speak to a single person, young formation expert. But we would not mind you inspecting the sparring field’s formations.” Catarina blushed, but that didn’t change her resolve to check for traps of some sort.