There was something to be said about not being in ‘enemy territory’ that made Anton much more comfortable. Fields still needed workers but they weren’t slaves and from what Anton could tell they appeared just as productive if not more so without people constantly watching for reasons to punish them. Though they could be even more productive if they were cultivating natural energy. Even the first level of body tempering would be greatly useful for common labor.
They were travelling with quite an oversized group. It wouldn’t be dangerous for them to travel with just themselves- several strong cultivators and a couple dozen others who could fight, though some had injuries that would make it difficult. At least everyone seemed on the path to recover after the treatments they received, plus two weeks of rest and cultivation. A cultivator could fully recover from most injuries besides lost limbs or organs given enough time, though Anton could do little to guide the others in that regard. His injuries had generally not been close to life-threatening, and his experience there was limited.
Even though they could travel with just them, it was better to sign on as caravan guards. Nobody needed their particular selection of beginning cultivators and a few stepping into early Spirit Building, but they found one group willing to hire them. They had to accept a minimal price that basically just covered the living expenses of the last two weeks, though that and food being covered was enough. Feeding nearly three dozen people could get expensive, and Anton couldn’t just go out into the woods and kill deer or boar as he pleased. Well, he could but he’d prefer to abide by local restrictions and those could change from area to area. He wouldn’t want to annoy a minor noble or a cultivation sect by hunting in their territory.
Anton had arranged for them to work with Brantley Siblings Transport, traveling along with Mervyn and Ebba themselves to Yedo, one of the trade centers to the west. It was quite possible this was the sibling’s only set of wagons, but he had heard they were reliable with their contracts. Having completed the bounty on the bandits made the two siblings more willing to take on the strangely large and imbalanced group.
Brantley Siblings Transport was carrying mostly heavy goods, metals and the like exported from Ofrurg, mainly Sarton. Many other goods passed through Valburgh but mined materials were the main export from northern Ofrurg. While good materials were valuable, whatever few bandits lived within Estary’s borders weren’t much interested in such heavy wagons. They weren’t reasonable to bring off the road to whatever camp or hideout they had and they couldn’t directly use the materials. That didn’t mean there couldn’t be attacks by bandits who thought the caravan carried something easier for them to transport, but attacks by wild beasts would be more likely. Large numbers could help discourage that, but the route went through some particularly aggressive scrubland. Various sorts of canines and larger cats lived in the area and while there might not be a frontal assault they could attack pack animals at night. Having so many people available to take watch was a benefit there, though the few mid-body tempering cultivators already signed up could likely have handled that on their own.
Mervyn and Ebba seemed experienced enough, both somewhere around their late thirties and early forties. Anton watched as they gave orders to the caravan, though they rarely had to do so. Their leadership skills might have been in question if their workers couldn’t manage to hook up the wagons each day and get them pointed in the right direction on the road. For the most part they directed people to groups who were having trouble for whatever reason. Sometimes animals were stubborn and didn’t want to be hooked up to a wagon on a given day. They always got it done quickly enough, but sometimes it took the more experienced handlers to get them to cooperate.
Speaking of animals, Fuzz was kept well away from the horses. He wasn’t causing trouble directly, but the horses understandably grew nervous around him. Catarina implemented a simple scent concealment formation into what he already had so that changes in winds wouldn’t suddenly remind the work animals that he was around. Fuzz barely even had much in the way of fur anymore with how many things were carved into his fur, but it didn’t appear haphazard like formations laid into natural surroundings. It was like being tattooed, without ink. When he asked about tattoos, Catarina informed him that she wasn’t ready to commit to anything permanent. That was sensible for a number of reasons.
Early morning training was the best in Anton’s opinion, but a bit impractical when traveling with a caravan. He kept training in the morning to a minimum, not enough to fatigue anyone. At night he alternated between groups that roughly split everyone in half. Those training on a particular day had group exercises to go through, but there was also a time afterwards reserved for individual help. Nobody learned in exactly the same way, and all of the miners needed different advice as they were converting to the more structured form of the Ninety-Nine Stars instead of their former ‘style’ which required being in very specific mines bursting with natural energy.
The servants like Patricia were the only group that hadn’t completed at least the first step of Body Tempering. Some of them were making great progress, though a few of them weren’t well suited for training that involved combat movements. If they were safe and sound in a city, Anton would have been fine adapting their training to their work, but he still believed basic self-defense skills could be necessary. Nobody really complained about learning to fight, since it would allow them to have a larger influence over their own future.
After a few days of travel, Anton found that a few of the caravaneers came to watch the training. He didn’t mind that, but the way they were sneaking around was somewhat disruptive. “You three can come out now,” Anton said, eyes flicking to all of them. Unsurprisingly, nobody immediately jumped out of hiding. They had at least that much understanding of stealth. But Anton could have picked them out without the benefit of his cultivation- sensing them with energy was just trivial. Anton formed three fingers of energy, extremely loose and without any real power. With that he poked each of the hidden figures on the forehead. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”
The first one out was a young man Anton knew worked with the horses. He sprang out from his hiding place and threw himself onto his knees. “I’m sorry great master, I didn’t mean to spy…”
The other two were a few years older, bulkier sorts who were involved with the heavier work. Anton pegged them for siblings or maybe cousins. They bowed their heads to the ground, “Please forgive us, master cultivator!”
“I’m only going to say this once. I’m not a master cultivator. My name is Anton. You may call me that, or instructor if you wish. The early stages of the Ninety-Nine Stars are not a secret, so there’s no need to snoop around. If you want to train, you may do so. As long as you’re not supposed to be working.” He didn’t want to upset the caravan leaders.
Just like that, he gained three more disciples or… whatever they were. In the following days more workers joined irregularly, but the first three were the most eager to learn about cultivation. They trained with Anton every minute they could, and made good use of his advice for how they could train while working. It was a fairly simple idea to let energy flow through the right parts of the body while working, but it took practice to really get it right.
Mervyn and Ebba even joined for a few sessions, probably just to see what everyone was getting up to. They had established positions as owners of a caravan, so it was unlikely that learning to cultivate would significantly change their lives, but Anton encouraged them to put in the effort regardless. It could make them healthier and able to live longer, if nothing else. While a person’s lifespan might extend only a few years per star that was assuming they were going to live close to the limits humans had to begin with. That wasn’t necessarily the case. The two of them weren’t inactive nor terribly unhealthy, but they could still be more physically fit. It would even make everything else they did easier, though not always by much.
Even the mid body tempering cultivators attended training with Anton. Since they were already significantly into their own cultivation techniques some of what Anton said was useless to them. However, except for a few extreme examples every cultivation method began with body tempering, and Anton’s experience and insight into it could be applied even to other techniques, at least to some extent. If nothing else working with a group encouraged them to continually put in the effort and not slack off.
With so many people Anton found it difficult to give personal guidance, but Hoyt and Catarina weren’t significantly behind him in cultivation. They had their own insights into different aspects of cultivation that were beneficial to people, and though Anton did his best to learn from them as well, he could never know everything someone else did or have all of the same experiences. On the path of cultivation even small experiences could greatly shape the way someone progressed with cultivation without them even knowing what it was that made everything slide into place.
There was one thing that was a problem. When people wanted to cultivate alone, they didn’t have enough copies of the Ninety-Nine Stars. They had only three, though Hoyt and Anton also both had the complete technique. Cultivation techniques weren’t just words that could be copied onto a page. Writers had to impart some of their insights into the words for readers to absorb. For that, experience was necessary… though having completed all of Body Tempering, perhaps they could recreate the basic version with sufficient quality. It still required good materials and special inks, but Anton thought to give it a try when they arrived in Yedo.