By Anton’s best judgment, Matija was the premier cultivator on Rutera, with the training of a proper Spirit Building cultivator and the actual energy of someone more akin to Essence Collection. Most Ruterans developed their energy subconsciously through the use of their devices, many drawing upon their own energy in some part. They were aware of this, they just hadn’t had the basis for consciously training natural energy. And because nobody knew where to start or had the combined inspiration, drive, and talent to succeed on their own it remained that way for a significant time.
There was also the matter of the lower levels of natural energy. In truth, the Ruterans had worked well with what they had, developing an effective system that overcame their natural limitations instead of being confined by it. It made Anton wonder what other lower realms had no cultivators to speak of, and no contact with the wider world. Perhaps most of them, at least in terms of contact. Even Ceretos had only rarely produced ascension cultivators for the majority of its history- with the probable exception of the Exalted Archipelago, intentionally kept separate.
Just like the other Ruterans, Anton was leading Matija through a modified version of the Hundred Stars. Not because he wanted to keep the main technique secret from them, but because they already had some level of natural energy and needed to focus on control more than growth, except in terms of their bodies. They weren’t weak, exercise and health allowing them to go beyond the normal bodily limits of non-cultivators, but they hadn’t undergone proper body tempering. The body was the basis of cultivation, and even Anton needed his body to hold together while he used energy. His meridians, at least, were continually tempered to support his cultivation. The rest he still trained, though not to the level of people like Ayotunde practicing the Western Steel Body, or Nthanda.
“I’m glad I finished Body Tempering,” Matija commented. “I’m not built for that sort of then. Contemplative techniques like Spirit Building really suit me.”
“Then you’re going to love the latter half,” Anton said. “You get to connect your body and spirit together.”
“… what?” Matija asked.
Anton shrugged, “Sorry. It’s impossible to get away from the body completely. That’s why all cultivators eventually grow old and die.”
“Even people like you?”
“Absolutely,” Anton said, “Though I can’t be certain of the time scale. Measured in centuries, to be sure, but will it be much greater than the peak of Life Transformation? That I cannot say.” Anton shrugged, “And starting old did me no favors in that regard. At this point, I imagine each star I gradually approach my end.”
“… is that okay?” Matija asked.
“Of course. As I said, everyone has to die. I’ve already accepted it a few times.”
“What about the afterlife?”
“I’m not certain there is one,” Anton said.
“I won’t remember it,” Anton shrugged. “I might miss the next few cycles, or maybe I’ll never reincarnate. But I already got two lives anyway.”
“Wait, reincarnation is real?”
“I have a dear friend who has just recently found himself incarnated in a new body, in fact,” Anton nodded. “And there’s an entire extremely unpleasant sect founded upon the certainty of it, though they twist the system to suit their own needs. Otherwise, they could not guarantee any memories- at which point, they might not really be the same person.”
“Okay but…” Matija seemed to be struggling with Anton’s bluntness. “You’re not joking, right?”
“I usually strive to make my joking clear,” Anton said. “I am quite serious on this.”
“This is… a serious revelation. Is it possible to meet this friend of yours?”
“I’m afraid not,” Anton shook his head. “He’s in the upper realms.”
“… but isn’t that just the afterlife, or whatever?”
“I wouldn’t call it that,” Anton said, “Since it does not require death to get there… and neither is coming from there akin to returning to life. It’s simply difficult, constrained by the tides of the world… and other limitations.” Anton shrugged, “If you’re wondering, it’s vaguely over there,” he waved his arm.
“Over there like… how far?” Matija asked.
“Something like dozens or hundreds of systems separate,” Anton said. “Could be thousands, but I’d imagine it’s on the low end. I don’t know if your instruments could be fine tuned enough to pick up ‘upper energy’ in that region but… actually… perhaps you could help with that.”
“How so?” Matija asked.
Anton held out his hand, cupping a small amount of ascension energy in his palm. “You could scan this. I am able to… borrow the tiniest portion of energy from there. If you could learn about this form of energy, you might help me learn about its properties, specifically how it makes travel difficult. At least some part of it is the shift between the different energies- cultivators really only function well with a purity of one or the other it seems. But I’m certain there’s more to it.”
Matija looked at the energy in Anton’s palm. “Can I touch it?”
“I wouldn’t,” Anton said. “I have control over it, but you won’t be able to feel anything and it would simply get you in the bad habit of sticking your hand into furnaces.”
“… I’ll get one of the scanners,” she said. “Actually, it would be better if you could come to our lab.”
Alarms rang out, screeching sirens and warbling bells creating a cacophony of noise. “Someone turn those off!” Matija yelled. “Everything is fine!”
“… Sorry,” Anton said. “I was simply curious and probing around. I didn’t think every sensor in the building would pick up my energy.”
“It’s fine,” Matija said. “It’ll get sorted out.”
During that process, a man came running into the room. “There you are!” he said to Matija. “I found it!”
“Found what, Fintan?” Matija asked.
“Those same fluctuations! The recent changes in the sun, matching the energy fluctuations in… uh… it’s Ceretos now, I think. This energy signature that blanketed the lab is a perfect match!”
Matija squinted, “Well, yeah. It should be.” She gestured, “This is Anton. You know, the one from Ceretos.”
“Oh!” the scientist known as Fintan performed an awkward sort of bow. “Pleasure to meet you, sir. Would it interest you to know that our star produced fluctuations just like your own? Maybe it’s some sort of resonance or-”
“It’s just me,” Anton said. “I connected to your star as well.”
“Oh.” Fintan paused. “I see.”
“I must ask though, when did you notice the changes?”
“It must have been… a year or so ago?” Fintan pondered. “I can get you the exact date.”
“Not necessary,” Anton said. “I suppose you noticed a recent spike in activity?”
“Boy did we!” Fintan said excitedly. “It was right after the invasion began! Everyone thought it was a coincidence but I showed them! Though… I guess it was just you, huh?”
“Correct,” Anton nodded. “Since I fought in the battle, I had to draw upon some of the star’s power. And also deepen my connection.” Anton looked to Matija. “Sorry, I might have neglected to mention this.”
“I’m going to be honest,” she said. “I’ve had my head so full of cultivation I can’t say for sure. But I kind of figured.”
“Please continue to monitor the situation,” Anton said. “I didn’t fully intentionally form the connection to your star, and while a cultivator’s instincts are usually reliable- and mine are that no harm will come to your star or system from my connection- they are not perfect.”
“Right,” Fintan nodded, “Actually it’s… pretty small, but distinct. Like someone threw a very thin screen over the sun. But the whole thing at once, so the finest sensors can pick it up. If they’re lucky, or looking specifically for it.”
“Good,” Anton said. “I wouldn’t want to cause trouble.”
“Hey,” Fintan shrugged, “If you have to do it to fight off space aliens, then it’s what needs to be done. Though I don’t actually have any authority to give you permission. Or deny it.”
“I receive a sort of informal acceptance from the president,” Anton shrugged. “I believe it is being kept secret from the public at large. Also… space aliens?”
“Well, obviously. What else could they be? Though I guess technically you’d be an alien as well, even though you look human.”
“I’m sure you might be disappointed to learn this,” Anton said, “But they will be very close to the same sort of human as you and I. Some prior event seems to have scattered humans throughout the galaxy and maintained certain features and connections. Though most seem to just accept it without knowing why.”
“Did we already know this?” Fintan looked at Matija. “I feel like we have to have heard some of this and I just wasn’t paying attention.”
“Our lab was privy to some of this information,” Matija said. “For the most part, information about cultivators and the upper realms is being verified and carefully distributed to the population. They deserve to know the truth, but that means not flooding them with half-baked or dangerous information.”
“On the topic of dangerous information,” Anton said to Fintan, “Why are you not cultivating?”
“Busy!” Fintan said.
“That might be one of the best and worst excuses I’ve ever heard,” Anton replied.
The trouble that the group in the Labyrinth ran into- and there had to be some sort of trouble- came in the form of worms. They at first appeared to be rather easy to defeat, despite their uncomfortable size of approximately three meters long. They seemed to have the ability to devour natural energy, but they weren’t swift enough to properly latch onto any of those present. Bisecting them resulted in a spray of acid that could be avoided, but their defenses were practically nonexistent so the task was easily manageable.
After they nearly finished defeating the wave of bodies it was noticed that some had snuck in behind the front lines somehow, and those were swiftly cut, stabbed, stomped and chomped. Unfortunately, the majority of those methods had the same result. Namely, the worms reforming into two or three new ones from the bodies. The main method that seemed to finish them off was the chomping- but that resulted in Fuzz and Spikes having acid dripping down their throats, so they weren’t eager to continuously repeat the process.
Hoyt began to incinerate the creatures, and that worked- if he fully completed the process. If he left behind a shriveled husk, they seemed just as capable of reforming as those killed in other ways. Or perhaps it wasn’t correct to say they were killed- because they could die, and just usually didn’t.
Ultimately, there was no such thing as an immortal creature, though the worms did a good job of appearing so. Their ability to ingest energy seemed to be marginally effective with it scattered about them, but it was clear they needed it to reform- along with a substantial portion from their internal reserves. The only part of them that seemed to be durable in any way was a strange form of dantian that was happily reformed into multiple pieces with a split of the energy.
Once the group learned this information, they focused on more methodical destruction of the creatures, overwhelming them or simply destroying the same individuals over and over until they could no longer reform. When they finally all shriveled away to nothing… Catarina prepared a formation that would drain every last drop of energy from the area just to make sure those things couldn’t come back.
They would have to be wary of more of that sort of creature deeper in… potentially stronger versions. Perhaps it would be a one time deal, but it was a significant expenditure of energy, and they didn’t want to be whittled away to nothing.
Now they just had to find their way deeper in- at least they presumed it was deeper. It was possible they were actually heading towards one of the outside walls, but the only thing that was certain was their goal was becoming more apparent, and that it was intentionally difficult to reach.