It was not unusual for people to track Anton’s movements. In fact, it would be strange if they didn’t. As a powerful cultivator, his movements were of great interest to many people. If the spies had been closer to his own perceptive abilities perhaps Anton would have assumed that was the case, but their glances were not directed primarily at him. Nor was the other most likely candidate the target- Lev. Yet Matija being the target was not actually unexpected either- and she was the one that the eyes landed on the most. A traveler from the stars was certainly an oddity, even with invasions being involved… but Anton had the feeling that not all of the glances were simply curiosity. Nor did he believe all worked for continental forces.
But… as long as no specific agreements were broken and nothing else happened, the Exalted Archipelago’s spying was simply to be expected. Anton did keep track of the various faces he saw, just to be thorough. It was impossible for the Ruteran group to stay private anyway- not with sects from both continents informed about them. Anton just wished he could predict what response the Exalted Archipelago would have.
There was nothing along the road to cause them actual trouble. That would have required a serious army, one which Anton could have picked out half a country away. Brogora wasn’t so distracted by the visitors that they weren’t taking care of their continental security.
Along the way, Anton explained his experiences in various towns and cities, as well as the previous relationship between Graotan and Ofrurg. For the majority of a century they had been at peace, but the early years of his cultivation dominated Anton’s memories.
“Just over there was where we first met,” Lev added to Anton’s details. “I was nearly dead in a cave, my arm full of parasitic moss planning to control and devour me.”
“It’s good that your arm has recovered now,” Matija commented.
“It’s not,” Lev said, letting it flop to his side. “The wounds are so deep and so old, I don’t know if it’s possible to fully recover. Nor do I know if it matters.” In truth, Lev had done more damage to himself with his early connection to the Grandfather Willow- his limbs basically didn’t work on their own. “I certainly can’t complain. I have methods to overcome my weaknesses, and power I could have barely imagined.”
“You met before that war?” Matija asked. “But wasn’t it a century ago and… you’re still young.”
Lev shrugged, “I certainly look young, don’t I? By cultivator standards… in fact, I might be. At least for my cultivation level. I’d be closer to middle age in pure numbers. I would expect to live at least another two centuries, if I am not slain.”
“I see,” she frowned. “Our lifespans have expanded as we grew more prosperous. Living to your age would not be an oddity but we would expect to look more like… more elderly.”
Anton grinned, “You were going to say more like me, weren’t you? How old would you say I am?”
“Given what Lev said… you should be at least two hundred, perhaps two hundred and fifty?”
“Much closer to the former,” Anton said. “But I’ll have you know… I looked like this when I began cultivating.”
“I’m pretty sure I began cultivating before him by at least a year,” Lev nodded. “Though my early progress was nothing remarkable.”
“I… don’t really know what I expected,” Matija said. “The way things are done here is quite different.”
“It is only through great practice that I did not gawk at your technology,” Anton said. “Different is absolutely the correct word. No doubt we can learn much from each other.”
“I am surprised how much you are willing to share,” Matija said. “We have been… more cautious than you.”
“That is understandable,” Anton said. “Personally, if I find people to be decent I would not wish to hide anything from them. But the full understanding of that takes time. Our initial interactions with your group were positive, but we’ve had some… trouble with unfamiliar individuals in the past.”
“The invasion,” Matija nodded. “That’s… concerning to hear about.”
“From what I understand, your world might not be of interest as a target,” Anton shrugged. “But I cannot say for sure without visiting.”
“Will you?” Matija asked.
“I… don’t know if that would be a good idea,” Anton said. “It is quite far.”
“Why would that-” Matija stopped herself. “Perhaps it’s better I don’t get an answer for that, actually.”
Soon enough they arrived at their destination- the Grasping Willows. Matija was not able to change her own energy signatures to blend in with them, though the smaller ones mostly relied on touch to grab their prey. The Grandfather Willow, meanwhile, was under Lev’s control- and along with Anton he was ready to protect Matija from any trouble.
She was suitably impressed by the Grasping Willows when they were demonstrated to her. When she entered the valley where the Grandfather Willow stood, she seemed confused. “Where did all the underbrush go? And all of the trunks?” She used her scanner to curiously observe the dangling branches, keeping herself well clear of the grasping appendages. Or at least what seemed to be a safe distance to her. “These are all… part of the same thing?”
Lev gestured towards the main trunk. “That’s right. The Grandfather Willow. It’s barely visible between all of the hanging branches, but it occupies this whole valley.”
Matija took out another device, presumably to help her see further ahead. “Whoa, you’re right!” Throughout that day, she excitedly scanned as much of the tree as she could- branches, roots, trunk, and leaves. “No wonder we could sense this from space!” she said.
Anton took Lev aside. “I appreciate you giving her this opportunity. I know there is some risk…”
Lev shook his head. “I understand that. But if they come to try to take it from me, I am certain you will be ready to help provide a proper response. And I believe in her sincerity as much as you do. As well as her understanding that the information will mostly be put to good use.”
“Mostly, huh,” Anton nodded. “I’d like to see this Rutera, but it’s a bit difficult, isn’t it?”
“I certainly wouldn’t go,” Lev said. “But I wouldn’t fly around in space either. I imagine being so far from your Assimilation touchstone would be a problem for you?”
“I… think so,” Anton said. “But I haven’t tested the limits, really. Distances away from Ceretos are difficult to comprehend.”
Deep within his own soul, Rouben finally found what he was looking for. He had expected something monumental, a great source of power. A vault of knowledge. But here it was, a tiny speck. And how could it be anything else while still keeping its secrets hidden. He hadn’t just searched for it, either. If his understanding of Essentia Lockbox was correct, he’d created this point of connection to something that should have been lost to him.
Now the trouble was opening it. In theory he could uncork this seal like a bottle of wine- and if he did so carelessly it might spray everywhere like the same. If these were really lost memories of his soul, he wanted to receive them gently.
The tiniest touch flooded his head with thoughts. Memories came to him of many things at the same time, yet he felt as if it was only a tiny fraction of what there could be. He retracted his touch, trying to settle the memories. Days of memories filled his head. Perhaps years, but not in a cohesive whole but scattered about randomly. Piecing anything together was difficult, but he managed to put something together with what he already knew. One important piece of information.
He slowly withdrew from within himself. His departure was soon- but before that he needed to answer the question of these strangely familiar individuals around him. Not just for them and because of the implicit threat of their presence, but also for himself.
His eyes opened. “I have an answer,” he said. “I am not sure if it is the one you want, but… the reason I know Falling Stars is because I created the technique.”
The intensity of the gazes upon him increased, especially the one known as Hoyt. He thought he remembered that face, though it didn’t quite fit. Perhaps it was merely someone else he knew. “Do you remember… what your name was?” Hoyt asked.
“It was…” strangely, that information hadn’t seemed important in the memories he possessed. Cultivation. A sect. People. But his own name hardly mattered. Even so, it was still there. “I think it was… Prospero? Prospero Vandale.”
The woman known as Catarina inclined her head. “It is good to see you again, Grand Elder Vandale. I had not expected this meeting to be possible.”
“Please, don’t,” Rouben grimaced. He was much more familiar with that name still, at least for the moment. “I don’t think I deserve such an unfamiliar honor for something I can barely remember.”
“Also…” Hoyt said, “It is awkward because you could be referring to me.”
That was it. For some reason, he’d had the feeling it was his own face. But it was his son- no, his grandson. “I… the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars is in the lower realms,” Rouben frowned. “How is it that any of you are here?”
“I think the answer is fairly obvious,” Hoyt said. “The traditional way. And it’s One Hundred Stars now, since the technique is no longer incomplete.”
“That’s… comforting,” Rouben nodded. “Though I can’t say I actually remember as much as perhaps I should.”
“I have no doubt you will remember more given time,” Hoyt said. “And practice.”
Over the course of the next few days, only a small collection of memories were recovered- but it was enough to confirm that he actually was Prospero Vandale reincarnated. An impersonator might know of large events, but personal exchanges that wouldn’t be noticed by anyone else were a different issue. Hoyt didn’t actually have many more of those than anyone else, by his own will, but he had latched onto some memories more tightly.
“We must be going now,” Hoyt said as a ship was landing. “We will pay for you to be taken off-planet. The ship captain is as trustworthy as they come. The rest of us have to resolve this bounty. And see if we can keep this technique out of the hands of the Twin Soul Sect permanently somehow.”
“He does lock up some things,” Vari said helpfully. “Perhaps we can convince him to do the same with this. Especially since it was stolen.”
The concealment formation they had been staying within while waiting faded away as they stepped out of it, and Vandale was taken away- with a plethora of different communication options. Even if he wasn’t fully the person they remembered, simply parting ways would be a terrible waste.
“Which one is your star?” Anton asked. They had returned to the Order, and Matija had wanted to look at the observatory.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint from here,” she said. “The skies are mostly the same, but I’m not used to seeing our star being there, you know?”
Anton nodded. “Only during the day. I believe I pointed at the right cluster, based on the direction you departed in. It should be one of the closer ones as well.”
“Yeah, but… I can’t really see that well either,” Matija admitted.
“Ah,” Anton shrugged. “A fault of ours, I suppose. The telescope is intended for use with eye techniques.”
“I just realized,” Matija said. “I can just look it up.” She pulled out a few small devices, placing one where her eye would be on the telescope. Anton could see information being pulled up on the others- images, even. “I only have access to the information on the ship from here, so it’s kind of difficult but… it should be that one,” she finally pointed.
There was nothing remarkable about the star. It was fairly bright- but it ought to be as one of the closer stars. “I see,” Anton nodded.
“And this is what your star looks like from Rutera,” Matija said. “Just let me find it. See?”
“I have to admit… familiar as I am, they’re not terribly different. A slightly different color and brightness, perhaps. “Though that should be normal, as humans do best in a particular type of world.”
“Yeah…” Matija nodded. “It’s weird that we’re all the same though.”
“It it?” Anton said. “I would imagine cultivators populated everywhere at some point in the long past. They have been traveling the stars for quite some time, after all. Just not in quite the same manner as yourselves.”
Matija grinned, “It’s funny to hear they use old-style ships,” she said. “But I’d really like to see one.”
“They’re not much different from the skyships,” he explained. “You could probably take a look at one of them.”
As she considered that, Anton thought about Rutera. He had a thought, but was unsure whether it could possibly work… or if he should try it even if it would. But that was for another time. For the moment, the trajectory of their current relations was positive. Perhaps in a decade or two they’d know Rutera well enough to think about going further.