It didn’t take long for General Elling to realize that any battles involving Anton always went well for them. Anton wasn’t particularly trying to hide it, and even if he kept his output to something viable within Essence Collection, he couldn’t possibly tire himself out. And he refused to let people who didn’t deserve it die just because he wanted to keep information about himself safe. But enough people were injured that the common cultivators didn’t feel invincible. That was a good enough balance.
Elling never said anything to Anton about it. Perhaps he didn’t even know what to say. But their particular army was responsible for much of the push back against Stauso’s sects. Either they had to flee as soon as they saw the army on the horizon, or fight their way towards Anton’s hail of arrows.
But unlike some cultivator wars, neither side was motivated to attempt an extermination. Stauso wanted to raid and take what resources they could while weakening their rivals, but they didn’t want to fight to the death. Anton let people run. It was an effective way of managing how they would react, and ultimately it made his life easier. If some of their stronger members went all out to try to survive, Anton would have to reveal more than he intended. But as long as they were truly running away, his job was done.
Several years passed and they had officially taken back most of the border towns, where many of the refugees in Krosburgh were from. However, people didn’t feel safe moving back immediately. More than that, the particular group that Anton had set his eyes on had mostly joined up with the Order.
The low levels of natural energy on Poriza had greater effects on those attempting to reach higher cultivations. Most of the Order’s disciples grew fairly steadily, if slowly, for the first ten stars of Body Tempering. Over ninety percent of them were delayed at the peak of Body Tempering, some for multiple years. While the results were actually quite good by local standards, Anton knew the One Hundred Stars was better than that. It was a top tier method which had produced hundreds of Life Transformation cultivators over the past centuries. Even with mediocre talent, Anton expected at least half of all disciples to reach Spirit Building within a decade.
Even when he had first joined things had been better… but the levels of natural energy were much higher everywhere on Ceretos, even at such a time. A decade of effort from one sect to improve the planet’s natural energy levels was a drop in a bucket in terms of causing real change. Though Anton was proselytizing to other sects and seeing some results over the wider area of Vochaye.
As for his top prospects, the Salim family, each was lagging at the peak of Spirit Building. He expected them to reach Essence Collection eventually, but there were clear limits imposed by the state of the world.
Aykorkem was the first to pick up on Anton’s disappointment. Even if he didn’t say it, perhaps it was somewhat obvious. Though the angle she approached from he found quite interesting. “… Are there problems with your own cultivation, sect head?”
“Now why would you think that?” Anton asked, genuinely curious.
“Because you wish to see us enter Essence Collection… but you are not much stronger than that yourself. I know it is difficult to reach mid Essence Collection, but I thought a single star in fifteen years…”
Ah, how sloppy. Anton had not positioned himself as a talentless old man, but a wandering eccentric. “It is a prime tempering,” Anton said. “They can take some time.”
“Is it so much more difficult to advance within Essence Collection compared to the initial step?” She frowned. “No, perhaps it is more dangerous instead. That is why you wish to see us advance to Essence Collection before you make the attempt, is it not? So that you can see the sect secure.”
That was the thing about those who were smart. You didn’t have to lie to them, you could just let them come up with reasons on their own and they would be satisfied. But… “I don’t want to lie to you,” Anton said. “I came from a place with greater resources. So it is merely that my expectations are mismatched to the current state of things. It is not an issue with your talent or efforts. And about my own advancement… actually, I surpassed early Essence Collection some time ago. I simply wished to keep it concealed.”
“Others will notice,” Aykorkem said.
Anton nodded. He should probably reveal his forty-first star, at least, to show he had passed that point. Because while he wanted to take the time to build up the world, some of his ideas also involved worldwide cooperation… and a full display of his power. Or perhaps he should settle for the slow and consistent growth his knowledge could provide. Though ultimately, it would be up to the citizens of the planet. He would give them the option, once things were in a state where they could believe he was actually capable of following through on a crazy promise.
“I can ease up a bit, I suppose,” Anton said.
“Is there a reason you are hiding?” Aykorkem asked. “Enemies we should know about?”
A logical conclusion for why he would have left a position of wealth. “It’s not quite that. I do have enemies, but I am not here running from them. They certainly won’t be looking for me. I simply think that taking things one step at a time is better, and thus not appearing too strong. Don’t want people to believe I’m here to disrupt their positions of power.”
“But you are,” Aykorkem said.
“I intend to have all of Vochaye grow stronger,” Anton said.
“That will still upset some,” the woman said. “Cultivators at the top are used to the status quo, from what I understand.”
“Well then, I should hope they are wise enough to act reasonably,” Anton said. For their own sake. And because he would really prefer not to have to deal with things by force.
Drafts were only temporary. They couldn’t keep sects away from their business forever, not unless there was a desperate war taking place. But this wasn’t such a thing, just one of the unfortunate wars that was part of the ‘normal’ course of business. Anton didn’t have to like it, but he did accept it as part of the world… until it could be eradicated. But that was the sort of thing that took centuries, great unifying events, or both.
Anton pondered about pulling an Everheart. But while he could make something equivalent to some of his lesser tombs, it would take a great amount of time and effort. Better to spend all of that effort improving the world in direct ways. He didn’t just train the drafted soldiers in Vochaye, but also freely spread basic cultivation in nearby friendly- or at least neutral- nations. He was certain that the Ten Step Body manuals would be stolen by Stauso or somewhere else, but that was just one part of the equation.
Everything had to work together. Farmers in their fields, empowering their crops which bolstered them in turn. Workers and craftsmen performing everyday tasks to a higher standard. And while it was possible to force some individuals to cultivate and provide their energy for crops, it was inefficient if the farmers themselves didn’t grow stronger. Unless the sects wanted to have all of their highest ranking cultivators performing menial labor, they had to let the lowest among them grow stronger. Though either option was a win, to some extent. The world could really use more sect heads who knew how to get their hands dirty in a field.
Anton did his best to maintain an attachment to the lower level workings of people, both his sect and the world in general. If he did not, time could simply pass him by with a thought. Because while another decade or two was very little to him, time spent cultivating was growing to be a majority of Nasima’s lifetime. For the others, it was not an insignificant portion. Anton monitored everyone’s development as the Order grew in size to nearly a thousand, the vast majority in Body Tempering. By pure numbers, it was not far from the Order’s size when he had first joined on Ceretos. At least, it had only been a few times more.
As for its relative strength, it wasn’t too far off. The Order had influence throughout the country, but ignoring Anton himself they were still below the strongest sects within Vochaye. The Austere Chain Palace still held the top position, of course. But the Order had grown from nothing at all to become notable in just a single generation. Obviously there would be questions, so when Elling arrived Anton was not surprised at all.
“The Order of One Hundred Stars has grown magnificently,” Elling said. “Producing multiple Essence Collection cultivators beyond yourself in such a short time… the creators of your method should be proud.”
“I’m certain they would be,” Anton said. “It took many generations of refinement to reach this point.”
“I have the feeling you made some of those improvements yourself,” Elling said. “And others believe the same. Which is why the Sect Head of the Austere Chain Palace wishes to speak with you.”
Which one of them, Anton wondered. But he supposed he would find out soon enough. “Certainly. Name a date and time, and I will be happy to accommodate the request.” Anton liked Elling. But he wanted to make sure the young man and especially his sect knew that he was not beholden to them.
The answer was the real one. Anton had kind of expected to have a formal meeting with the nominal sect head first, but instead he was led to see their only Life Transformation cultivator, tucked away behind layers of formations for concealment and empowerment. The great underground hall she had made her own could be described as empty. It was occupied only by herself, the pillars supporting it… and a great many chains snaking over the ground in large piles, all of which connected back to the woman herself.
Elling himself didn’t even step foot into the room, simply gesturing for Anton to enter ahead of him. Anton stepped into the room and approached the dais upon which the woman was seated, seemingly in meditation.
“Anton Krantz,” the dark skinned woman said as he drew closer, her eyes opening. “You are very difficult to find information on.”
He shrugged, “I came from far away. That would easily explain why you have not heard much. But I have heard little about you in return. Not even your name.”
“I am Nyarai,” she replied. “Where are you from?”
“I spent some time in Kothon before coming here,” Anton said. It was not strictly a lie, but it was still a deception. It could be spotted, especially as Anton didn’t focus his efforts on learning how to improve his deception. Most likely, she could at least tell he spoke a technical truth.
The woman nodded, chains rattling with even that slight movement. “Indeed. My informants told me of your presence there. Though you did not seem to have much of a history before you were seen there. And… you are not surprised to see me.”
“I had some knowledge of your presence,” Anton admitted. “So, why am I here?”
“Because I can get a better measure of you in person,” Nyarai said. The whole time, her energy senses had been unabashedly focused on Anton. “The Order of One Hundred Stars. How many have you achieved yourself?”
“Not one hundred,” Anton said.
“What happens at one hundred, if I may ask?”
“Of course, it is ascension. That is the goal of most cultivators,” Anton said.
“A bold name,” she said. “It implies a guaranteed path to the peak of cultivation.”
“Only as far as the lower realms are concerned,” Anton said.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” Anton said.
“Indeed. But has anyone ever reached ascension with that cultivation method?”
“We were called the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars for the majority of our existence,” Anton admitted. “Until such a time as someone finally ascended.”
“An extreme rarity. A momentous occurrence, yet I hear of so few ascensions. Yet which sects and clans produce an ascension cultivator is logged carefully.” The woman frowned, “You are not an Essence Collection cultivator. Or your sect would be on our record. Of the seven presumed successful ascensions in as many centuries, none were from the Order. Thus, you could not have survived from such a time until now without greater cultivation.”
“Your speculation has merit,” Anton admitted.
“And yet I still find it flawed. I cannot properly determine your age, but that is not the only thing that confuses me.”
“What else is there?” Anton asked.
“Your accent. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s a mix of regional accents from all over Poriza,” Anton replied truthfully.
There was silence between them for some time. “What do you want?” Nyarai finally asked.
“I want my sect to grow stronger, but for that to happen I need to improve the abysmal levels of natural energy here,” Anton said. “It would benefit you as well, you know?”
“I am aware of how that would be beneficial,” Nyarai admitted. “But not how it would be accomplished. Or where you came from that you would be used to better. Unless…” she looked up. There was merely ceiling above them, but Anton still followed her eyes to the theoretical sky beyond. “Some of those feel like you, a little bit.”
“Some of what?” Anton asked.
“The stars. And they didn’t feel like that before,” she said.
“The natural energy brighter stars produce is much greater elsewhere,” Anton said. Perhaps he should just come out and admit it? “My power is based on that.”
She narrowed her eyes. Truthfully, Anton hadn’t explained why the feel of the stars would change. But Nyarai let it go.“Tell me how the natural energy of the area can be improved,” she said.
“I would start with farming,” Anton said. “Everything else flows from there.”