When he had first joined the Order, home had seemed so far away for Timothy. It was almost half the country, even if it was the short half. Yet now he could return home in just a few days. There were no specific obligations on his time, though through Anton’s encouragement he worked to earn contribution points, cultivating as he did so. It was hard to believe how much his life had changed… and how much it hadn’t.
He was so much stronger now. Not just his body, but the use of energy added so much more. He could choose to do almost anything now that he was in Spirit Building- though proper practice of a profession or craft would still require dedication of time.
Yet there was so much more, a world beyond anything he had imagined. It wasn’t secret, but information about cultivators wasn’t that widely known. Maybe that was for the best, since they were so much stronger than normal people. On the other hand, Timothy liked Anton’s idea. Everyone could cultivate at least a little bit, and it could do so much for them.
His father had only completed two stars of Body Tempering, but he was now able to find time to do other work besides woodcutting. There was only so much wood that Carran needed, and the area of woods he managed had a limit to how much he could reasonably cut. Most of his extra labor might have gone into helping on the Riley farm at one point, but they were now more capable of managing it all on their own, even with some small expansions. It was comforting knowing that his father and Catarina’s family could do more than just get by.
Six people ate together around a table that barely fit all of them. Even if productivity increased, it had been less than a year. A larger table wasn’t the most important thing on the list for the Rileys, since there were only two of them and often Timothy’s father. They also had no way to predict when three extra people would be in town.
“Catarina mentioned that you freed dozens from slavery in Ofrurg,” Jasper said between bites of a hearty stew full of vegetables and chicken. “It’s amazing to hear about.”
“There are so many more slaves, even among those I knew, but…” Anton allowed himself to smile, “We were able to do some real good. I’m not even close to done yet. Maybe I never will be, but I think I can live with that, as long as I make progress.”
Timothy knew that was hard for Anton to say, but he clearly meant it. The kind old man felt it was his responsibility to do whatever he could now that he had power. “I should have been there,” Timothy said. “I could have helped too.”
“You will though, right?” Catarina reminded him. “We’re going back.”
“Yes,” Timothy said, mostly to himself. “I’ll be coming with you. I made sure to have no other commitments.”
“We’ll be glad to have you,” Anton said as he finished his stew. “If all goes well, we won’t need to fight… but having another Spirit Building person around will be useful for negotiations regardless.” Anton turned to the three parents, “Your children won’t say it, but they’re among the fastest progressing cultivators in this generation.”
“We knew they were talented from the very beginning,” Flora smiled widely. “Just a couple years ago they started cultivating, and it seemed like they were immediately off to the Order to join.”
Timothy didn’t bring up how he was almost a full month behind Catarina- barely reaching the third star in time to take that month’s test. Then he’d failed the first time. It had been a sore moment, but Anton had talked to him about it. How he made mistakes when he was nervous and how in the end it just meant he had to try again. Timothy didn’t feel like he was worthwhile all the time- especially after not being around to help with the previous journey- but he supposed that didn’t matter as long as he could help those he cared about.
Jasper Riley continued the conversation, “Now the three of us are cultivators. Certainly not the fastest growing, but it’s changed so much. Our neighbors have been asking about it. We tried to teach them, but we don’t quite have the same ability.”
Flora nodded, “We didn’t want to cause any harm, so we were cautious. We had your notes, but they were mostly tailored to our struggles.”
“I can provide a bit more in the way of general notes,” Anton said. “It might not help some people past the first star or two, but there are big benefits to be obtained with just that. We’ll also be around for a couple weeks, so I can teach you myself. I have the feeling the two of you can reach at least the third star. You could even join the Order!” Anton grinned. “Not that you need to. You have a good life here.”
“We’re quite content,” Jasper admitted. “I believe we plan to remain a part of this community even if we achieve the third star.”
“Good,” Anton responded. “I’m glad. I think what Graotan needs is more cultivators just… living. There are certainly worthwhile benefits to joining the Order, but living a comfortable life is just fine. Now, did somebody mention pie?”
Timothy grinned. It was best for cultivators to eat a healthy balance of food, but occasional indulgences weren’t a problem.
Anton left behind several copies of the Ninety-Nine Stars as well as his notes for cultivating at Body Tempering. That should be more than enough for everyone for at least a decade. Most would find themselves unable to advance more than the first few stars with the standard amount of natural energy in the environment, even with guidance. If anyone reached the end of Body Tempering they would be best served by joining the Order- probably long before that point. If they wanted, they could still return to live in Carran, though few disciples lived outside the Order’s ground where it was easier to cultivate.
Flora was a bit ahead of Jasper and Kellan. Anton wondered if there was some sort of inherited trait for cultivation. If so, was it merely the determination to work hard and push through difficulties, or something else? The Order knew that children of cultivators were more likely to succeed at cultivation themselves, but he didn’t know if that was any different than the son of a blacksmith going on to become a blacksmith himself. Being raised around something came with familiarity and comfort. Anton had no interest in debating the specifics. Instead, he just let himself be happy at the progress. He would have liked to stay for longer, but he wanted to get back to Windrip, and his plans with Kohar Tolvaj wouldn’t wait forever. He was already doing his best to resist rushing back to Ofrurg.
It was clear that Windrip was the center of something amazing. Specifically, the dozens of former slaves that Anton had set up were constantly expanding. With a couple seasons of growth they were quite able to support themselves without any further help from Anton. In fact, they offered to try to pay him back. James was one of the first he’d freed, and he held out a bag to Anton. “Please. Take it. It’s not much, but you can use it to help free more people.”
It took a moment of consideration on Anton’s part. However, his training of Voice allowed him to express what he wanted with sufficient clarity. “I will not be taking your money. I fully understand your desire to pay me back, and to free others from slavery. However, that money can do more good here. If it is not needed for construction of further buildings-”
“We can take care of that ourselves,” James assured him.
“-then use it to help people, in whatever way you can. Windrip must have those who need aid. If not, then Stregate. Money might not be what they actually need, but that lets you pay for food, shelter, or to take the time to provide those yourselves.” Anton kept his back straight as he spoke, projecting his voice to all of those around. “There are no slaves in Graotan, but not all are prosperous. I will remind you not to keep the benefits of cultivation to yourselves. Teach others freely, as they remain in good standing with the community. Those with little talent can improve their lives, and those with undiscovered affinity for cultivation can benefit more.” Anton made sure to emphasize teaching those in good standing. Troublemakers would be the first to try to learn something to increase their personal strength, but for the community to be safe the rest had to have a base level of cultivation.
Every town and city already had ways to manage those who were somewhat stronger or more dangerous. A strong man with a knife could be a menace to any common person. Anton understood that giving them the chance to become stronger allowed for more potential danger- but those who would handle them could also become stronger. Anton wasn’t sure if there was a way to fairly choose who could and couldn’t be taught to cultivate in the end. Some of those who displayed good attitudes would go bad, and some of those not well thought of could do great good if given the chance.
“You don’t need to be guards for Windrip or Stregate,” Anton said. “If anyone is interested in that profession you can encourage them, but it is better if your group specifically isn’t relied on. If even a tenth of the population becomes first star cultivators and are willing to act to keep society functioning, a strong fourth or fifth star cultivator won’t be able to do much.” They might kill people, but so could that same madman with a knife. Society functioned so well because most people weren’t going to kill others. Deaths were more common among cultivators, but that had more to do with their common role as what were effectively wandering mercenaries rather than the fact that they cultivated energy.
After convincing James, Steven, and all of the others to use their money to pay forward his actions, Anton finished checking up on the rest of them. Anton was pleased that the little community he had founded attached to Windrip was doing well. They were quite determined to work together and improve themselves through cultivation, and while they certainly weren’t wealthy they were many times better than slaves if for no other reason than they could make their own choices. Meaningful ones, even.
Anton smiled to himself, thinking about what might happen if he freed every slave in Ofrurg. Utter chaos, probably. That was far outside of the scope of his current capabilities, but the idea stuck in his mind. A nice thought for what his goals might be after the next few years.