It was unclear to Anton what he was supposed to do with an opponent who had thrown down her weapon but not officially surrendered. He was far enough away that he could afford a quick glance at her guardian off to the side, who merely tendered an apologetic look. The master of the Irvin arena rushed to his rescue. “Do you wish to continue the battle, Tonina Potenza?”
“No. I lost. But it wasn’t fair. I fought against an old man who’s been cultivating for like… a century!” She stomped her foot down pointing her finger at Anton. “I demand a rematch! Tomorrow! No- in one month’s time! I’ll be much stronger then.” She spoke that second part quite confidently, and Anton honestly wasn’t surprised. It was likely quite true that in one month she could be significantly stronger. That didn’t change anything, however. “So you refuse to honor the terms of the deal,” Anton said.
“It doesn’t count!” she demanded.
“Young mistress,” her guardian approached. “Let me speak to him. I believe we can come to a satisfactory conclusion.”
“Fine,” she stomped her foot and turned around.
Since any sort of official duel was clearly over, Catarina and Hoyt made their way towards Anton. “What a brat,” Catarina said.
Hoyt grunted, clearly not of positive opinion… but perhaps a bit more reluctant to voice his opinion in front of her Spirit Building guardian.
The man approached to a reasonable distance. “Anton Krantz. Were everything up to me, I would be happy to settle the matter here. But if the young mistress leaves in this state, the matter will become quite public regardless of my efforts, and the master and mistress of the Potenzas may not see things quite the same way. I assume you are still unwilling to give up your purchase? We can increase the offer even further.” Anton’s face told him everything necessary. “I thought not. Let me be plain. The young mistress is not far from Spirit Building. In one month, you will be unable to win against her. I know it is not fair, but it is difficult for you to refuse the rematch. In that case, it might be better to accept the offer at this time.”
“One month…” Anton stroked his chin. The step between Body Tempering and Spirit Building was a big one. Even if he reached the peak of Body Tempering and she didn’t even complete the first part of Spirit Building, their relative powers would swing in her favor. Her attacks really had carried dangerous force, and while he might still be able to win if he weren’t concerned about heavily injuring her… he also might die. The Order of Ninety-Nine Stars couldn’t stand behind him so easily with the distances involved. While the laws of Ofrurg theoretically protected him, he could be killed or made to disappear- and it wouldn’t really matter whether or not there were consequences afterwards. It was unfortunate, but laws didn’t apply to larger groups in exactly the same way. But he couldn’t give up now. “One month. We shall write up a formal contract.”
The guardian maintained an expressionless face. “Are you certain?”
“Very well. I have no wishes to go against the Potenza’s best interests… but that also includes avoiding public incidents as much as possible. If you will but give me a moment to track down the young mistress and prevent her from… publicizing events to her detriment.”
The contract was solid, and the terms quite reasonable. Though some of that depended on whether or not Anton was able to win in a rematch. The official terms now included the caveat that whoever lost would be the one to pay the purchase price of Devon. In short, if Anton won he would be quite pleased… and if he lost he would have no grandson and little money. But he also might be dead, and money was just money. While he could use that to redeem others, people weren’t just a price. He couldn’t refuse to try to help family just because he might lose the chance to help others. The most important part… was the result relied on his own actions.
He had one month.
The sound of a sword cutting apart the air and the sweeping of a wider bladed two handed axe were punctuated by the impact of blade, handle, and the energy covering both. Weapons clashed back and forth, colliding with each other and with the two wielding the weapons.
Anton gripped the sword tightly in his hands. The sword itself wasn’t much. Just a reasonably priced weapon with enough weight and durability. The swings weren’t elegant, but they were quick. With the advantage of two stars of cultivation, he mostly matched Hoyt. Or rather, he was forcing himself to match Hoyt. If he used his bow, he could win handily… but it wasn’t about winning. It was about what his body did. His body had trained to use the bow sufficiently, but he needed to temper his entire body once more. Unlike the initial tempering, every part of him had already undergone significant change. Even a similar amount of growth required many times the work- not least because the tenth star was a prime.
Catarina maintained a formation that would stop the two fighters from killing each other. It couldn’t fully prevent bruises and cuts and cracked bones, though for the most part they avoided injuries. And anything that Anton had, he pushed through the pain.
One month might be enough for him to finish the tenth star. Dedicated cultivation could produce great results. But stepping into Spirit Building… that was something else. Unfortunately, Anton couldn’t be certain whether he would find it difficult or simple until he attempted it.
One week passed. Then two.
“Grandpa Anton…” Catarina seemed to not know what to say. “I think… you’re pushing yourself too hard.”
He looked at her, his face determined, but with a slight softness showing. “But it hasn’t been enough. Do you want me to give up?”
“Well… no… but-”
“Grandpa Anton, you call me. Devon called me that as well. He will have the chance to do so again. To be free, not fighting for the entertainment of others.”
Catarina frowned. Clearly she wanted to offer an alternate solution, but could think of nothing. “What else can I do to help? I know my energy gathering formations aren’t good enough-”
“Don’t say that,” Anton said sternly. “They’re wonderful. Just what I need. But actually, that reminds me. Where did that end up…” he dug around in his bags until he uncovered a cloth wrapped around a small stoppered bottle, inside of which was a single round pill. “Here it is.”
“I thought… you took that already.” Catarina looked at the pill in his hand. “To break through to the sixth star…”
Anton nodded. “You did tell me to use it for that. But, I didn’t need it. Let me ask, how long did you think it took me to reach the fifth star- when I first achieved it.”
“A decade…” Catarina said.
“Be honest,” Anton looked straight at her.
“… a few decades.”
“Right. But at that point, it was half a year or so. I didn’t need it.” Anton looked at it, “But now I do.”
Catarina nodded. “I have money. We can buy more pills-”
Anton held up a hand to stop her. “If I thought it would ultimately help save a single life, I would not resist taking every coin from you and Hoyt. But this is a good pill. If we can managed to get another like it- which may not be available here- the next won’t be nearly so significant. Especially not taken at the same time. I am quite confident in reaching the peak of Body Tempering and forming the tenth star with this… and the help of a nice energy gathering formation.
Over the past few weeks, Anton had pushed his body to the limit. It was aching and bruised, strained and cut and perhaps just a little bit broken. Now it just needed a proper influx of energy… and that energy had to be properly controlled by him. If he pushed things too far, he could injure himself or even destroy his cultivation. But he wasn’t going to do that. After all, he still had another ninety stars to go after that, and so many other things to do.
Energy swirled inside him, in and out. Starting in his dantians it flowed through his meridians to the rest of his body. From his marrow out to his bones, muscles, tendons, organ, and skin then back in. His body began to heat up. It was a fiery furnace, a star… but as he continued he knew it was not hot enough.
He swallowed the pill. Even as it touched his tongue it began to dissolve. It was bitter, strong- foul. He wondered if it had gone bad over the months, but as it slid down his throat into his stomach he felt a surge of energy. Then he had no more time to think. The pill itself was like a small star inside of him, burning.
It spread throughout his whole body, and he felt like he was on fire. Then he was fire. He was heat and growth. He was the thing that burned, and not what was burned. The energy that resulted. Then he pushed, shrinking himself down to a reasonable size. The heat withdrew from his body, but the tenth star rested in his dantian, smouldering brightly as the others danced around with it. Everything hurt as he breathed out slowly. Now all he had to do was figure out Spirit Building.