“Everything should be fine,” Catarina declared from the arena that was surrounded by a ring of drooping trees. “The formation is in good shape.” That was also her polite way of saying that it didn’t have any strange functionality. Though Anton understood her concern, she needn’t have bothered. Elder Varela was powerful enough to do whatever he wanted regardless. While the world had rotten apples like Tonina, Anton refused to believe that the world was so bad he would be killed for absolutely no reason. If it was, maybe he should just die. But he understood Catarina’s concerns. Catarina might feel a bit overprotective here, but outside of friendly territory she was a great asset.
Elder Varela’s droopy beard and long hair swayed in the wind as he stood across from Anton. “Here we begin a spar to know each other. Begin whenever you are ready.”
With the difference between early Spirit Building- not even the first full star- and mid Spirit Building, Anton had no reason to hold back. It would simply be impolite. His hands rapidly moved, Spirit Arrow forming and flying as he did so. Elder Varela merely held his ground without taking a step. Then Anton’s Spirit Arrow was swatted away- not by a hand, but by the old man’s beard. A second arrow was already on the way, but it met the same fate.
Anton hadn’t been sure what he expected, but it wasn’t that. Even so, Anton could feel the way energy twined itself in and around the beard and hair Elder Varela had. It was clearly practiced, not an improvised technique to make fun of him. The length of each allowed for a long, flexible limb that could block attacks from any angle. Counting beard and hair, at least two at a time.
A flurry of arrows going at different speeds curved across the arena. They arrived in pairs and triplets, but all were deflected without even getting close to an actual hit. However, Anton began to pick up on the finer details of how things moved. Ten arrows, twenty, thirty, forty. One hundred. Elder Varela kept his feet firmly planted. Anton was forcing him into harder deflection angles, where his attacks would force Elder Varela to expend more of his own energy. One hundred and fifty. A cluster of four arrows flew in from different angles, all accelerating at the end of their movement. Elder Varela’s hair flicked to deflect one from the rear. His beard split into two strands that batted away another two arrows. The fourth… he dodged. However, that was the first time Anton forced him to take a step. Another fifty arrows. Even being in early Spirit Building greatly increased Anton’s ability to store and control energy. After two hundred shots, Elder Varela was no longer able to stand still and occasionally dodge. However, his energy was brimming and Anton’s was two-thirds depleted.
“A fine display,” Elder Varela said. “But how are you on the defensive?”
The man was quick, his energy propelling him towards Anton in mere moments. Anton fired several arrows as he moved, but they didn’t find their mark. He held his bow in one hand and retrieved a handaxe. He might not be able to do anything to Elder Varela, but he at least wanted to defend himself. Elder Varela’s beard was like a third arm reaching out to strike at Anton as the Elder finally made use of his hands. Anton treated it as fighting multiple opponents. He did his best to predict the moves which clearly had the energy held back to levels he could handle. He could handle them, indeed, but he still found himself getting struck in the shoulder or receiving a scrape along his cheek as he dodged, parried, and chopped with his axe. Then the Elder’s hair got involved. It was a strange dance as Anton flipped about with as much agility as he could muster, avoiding the twisting and grasping hair as well as the striking hands and occasionally feet.
Then hair twisted around his arm, grabbing it. A palm struck his chest, shattering his defensive energy as he tried to pull away. Then it was over. His ribs were a bit sore like he’d let someone slap him, but that was all. Elder Varela held the smile he’d had throughout, “I must say, I learned quite a bit. How much closer did you get to the next step, hmm?”
Anton grinned in return, “I’m not far now, actually.”
“Wonderful! I wish I could say the same for myself, but… I aged this way while a cultivator. I’m a few decades older than you, but I’ve cultivated most of my life. As for you… you started recently. Very recently.”
“You could say that,” Anton confirmed.
“I can send a confident message, then. It’s almost a shame the Order won’t throw their weight around. Too cautious, I think. But for the most part, they’re a whole country away. For me, Khonard is just down the road. I’ll gladly send a message to tell the Potenzas to be careful with Devon. Because I can guarantee they’ll regret it if they don’t.”
“I appreciate your support,” Anton said. “It wasn’t my intention when I came here, but I will gladly accept.”
“Maybe it should have been,” Elder Varela said.
“What do you mean?” Anton asked.
“You’re the type who relies too much on yourself. I see you have some trusted allies as well, but you still want to deal with problems within your group.” Elder Varela looked between Anton and the others. “Does your Order know you’re in Spirit Building?”
“I’ve been on the road… so not yet.”
“When you return, you should push them to action. The Order of Ninety-Nine Stars is full of good intentions… and inaction. Too much concerned with the affairs of Graotan, and not enough with the world. I haven’t heard of them crushing an evil sect in decades, which used to happen on the regular. So tell them to act.” Elder Varela shrugged, “Or at least, ask why things are so. I can’t claim to know the internal affairs of your sect better than you, but that’s what I see.” Elder Varela stroked his beard and turned away, “Now how to begin that letter… ‘Remember that favour, Grigo?’ No, that’s awful. ‘Greetings and warnings’, not much better. ‘How would you like to be on the right side of history?’ Hmm, I like that one.” Elder Varela chuckled to himself as he walked away.
“I think that went well,” Lev came forward from where he had watched the spar. “I didn’t get to see you fight when you saved me. You’re… more than what I imagined.”
Anton shrugged, “He went easy on me. Still quite a big gap to overcome. I should learn how to fight people multiple levels higher than me…”
Hoyt clapped Anton on the shoulder, “If anyone can do it, I’d say it’s you. I like his advice about the Order, as well. The elders are mostly just sitting around maintaining the status quo. That’s what happens without a sect head, I suppose.”
“There’s supposed to be a sect head?” Anton asked. “I hadn’t heard about it. Can none of the elders agree on one?”
Hoyt shrugged, “Oh, they agreed. It’s just the agreement was that none of them were qualified. That was… decades ago. The latest news about it, really. So it’s quite natural to assume just the council of nine and ninety-nine were all there is.”
“What qualifies someone to be sect head? Grand Elder Vandale is at the Ninety-Ninth Star. If he isn’t qualified…” Anton puzzled over it.
“It’s not just about being strongest. Though a certain level of cultivation is important, leadership ability, ambition, many things are considered.” Hoyt shook his head, “The elders recognized their own shortcomings, but now it’s likely they’ll only consider the next generation.”
“We’ll have to keep our eyes open, then,” Anton said. “Maybe someone like Vincent. Recruiting is important, but I understand that more is necessary. But we should be moving on soon.” Anton waved to Catarina, Pete, and the others, “How was the spar? Did you learn anything?”
Pete came forward, “It was quite hard to follow. But I found myself inspired regardless. I hadn’t imagined that level of power. The-” Pete bit his lip and furrowed his brow, “The bandit leader was strong, quick, but he only fought those not his equal.”
“I learned a lot!” Catarina said, “The flow of energy from you and Elder Varela,” Catarina’s mind drifted away as she recalled it.
“And you, Hoyt?” Anton asked.
“I’m about ready to break through to the tenth star, actually. You think they’ll allow us into some high energy density areas?”
“We can always ask,” Anton said. “We don’t need to occupy them long.” Anton also replayed the spar in his mind. More than natural energy, the beginnings of Spirit Building felt more like he had to find the right state of mind. His mind was all over the place with worry sometimes, but constant training kept him focused. Constant progress was important. There was so much to do. Wrongs to right, mistakes to make up for. Anton honestly still didn’t know if he was going too slow or too fast. All he knew was that he couldn’t stop.