Time. When he had last been in Dungannon, his thoughts were about time. The time he needed to become strong enough to defeat Van Hassel and Slusser, and any others connected to what had happened. More than that, he’d promised himself to reach the peak of cultivation so he would have the power to protect what he needed to.
The experience wasn’t quite the same as before. It was full daylight, so he was unable to see the stars. Yet he knew they were still there. Of course, there was always the brightest star of all- the sun. It was the most prominent and powerful due to its close presence.
More than that, he had the heart to speak to others. It felt somewhat morbid to speak with Alva about the places they could no longer visit, but he hoped it would be good for her as they focused on the positive memories. It also gave Catarina a chance to hear about the members of the family she could never meet.
As he walked through the ruined buildings, the plants overgrowing the area, he realized something. Each building in its place conjured memories of how things had been, though they were but shells of their former selves. Like corpses strewn across the pavement. It wasn’t the same as leaving actual bodies to the elements, but he wondered if something should be done.
He had already gone against the idea of rebuilding the place. There was no point, except to try to catch onto an old life that had been lost. It was better to move past it. Still, that didn’t mean he couldn’t leave behind memories. But he thought things should be… better.
He looked around the area, and at the people with him. Along with Alva and Catarina were Timothy and a silent Velvet. “I know none of you signed up for this, but I could use some help moving things around. Cleaning up.” He reached into the rubble of one building, piling bricks while tossing hunks of half-rotten wood away. “I have a plan for this place.”
Catarina was quickest to get into a workflow, though Fuzz was perhaps the most eager about his duties. The wolf enjoyed dragging beams out of piles and out of the way. As they cleared away the first building to the foundation, Anton formed a small monument out of the collected bricks and stones in good repair. Carving into mundane materials was simple, and he left behind his memories of the buildings.
The project of clearing out a whole village was a monumental task for five humans and a wolf, but they were cultivators. They could carry much greater weights than normal folk, and were able to gather loose pieces with their energy. If they were willing to empty their storage bags, they could carry most of the destroyed remains of a small building. The hardest work ended up being picking out pieces that were still solid enough, and gathering materials for mortar to put together proper headstones and short snippets about the building and people.
The village itself was dismantled piece by piece, but in practice it was already nothing- leaving behind memories for others to share was the best legacy Anton could provide. Some day the carvings in the stone would fade as well and nobody would remember Dungannon, but he would give it its proper due. A peaceful village where people just lived their lives. If only every place could be like it- and remain that way.
Work was cultivation, and cultivation was work. Anton fully believed that. While it was indeed true that at certain points in cultivating the Ninety-Nine Stars little benefit would come from working the body, at all points it could be useful. As for those working with him, they were all in a stage where they could temper their bodies. Besides Alva, the others were working towards the eighteenth star, where body and spirit were connected. Shifting rubble wasn’t necessarily the best training method, but nobody complained. They were present for Anton’s sake.
At certain points, it was clear Alva had too much. Not of working, but of being in Dungannon with nobody around. It was a truly depressing place for the young woman to be. When she couldn’t stand it any longer, she would go out into the nearby forest to hunt. On occasion, Anton would go with her- showing her all of the best areas. He would tell her about animals he caught to eat for one festival or another, and even pointed out where he found the deer for the party after she was born.
Perhaps his particulars were wrong about which deer was when, but it still allowed them to share a portion of the past they had been separate for. Alva had been too young to go out into the woods hunting when the attack had happened. Even at her current age Anton would have said she was too young- but she’d been forced to grow quickly. Even if she lacked his experience, she was at least as physically capable as Anton had been close to his prime- and she had the use of energy beyond that.
Even though the group was able to clear several plots per day, it took them more than two months to cover all of Dungannon. In a way it was extremely speedy, but it was a time where they found it hard to smile. Yet there was still the satisfaction of doing good work and the bonding it allowed with each other.
Fleeting Youth. A technique that relied on the power beyond life, when all things passed. To Anton, it seemed almost as if it were made for him, or someone like him. But Everheart made so many techniques in different areas, there were bound to be several that matched any particular person. It was like he had tried to do everything in the world. Perhaps he had.
And honestly, if it had been made for him, it would have been easier to cultivate it. Now that he was close to properly completing the first step, he had quite a few notes. Some areas could have been more clear, and some weren’t quite right. Then again, could he really expect better from something nobody had ever truly practiced? The fact that it was basically functional was already astounding.
He could feel it. The power, sitting beyond the threshold. He knew that once he tapped into it there would be fundamental changes he couldn’t reverse. As for the power… at first, he doubted it would be much different from the time spent cultivating to a higher rank, one more star. But once he achieved that point, he should be able to cultivate Fleeting Youth and the Ninety-Nine Stars in parallel, the technique making up for weaknesses in his aging body. Nothing was stopping him now except how it would affect his cultivation as he went forward- and he wanted to make use of it while he strengthened the connection between body and spirit.
After Dungannon, Anton was so close… just a single step away. Perhaps if he could find the right spark of inspiration. And one of the best ways to get those was perilous situations.
In almost the blink of an eye, it was time to head to the secret realm in Droca, along with an even larger group of those from Graotan than had previously gone to Everheart’s Tomb. After all, that was just one of many- with somewhat known restrictions on who could enter- but this secret realm was a rarer opportunity, perhaps once in a few decades from what information had been gleaned through the barrier in place. In the wide world there might be more such opportunities in the same time frame, but travelling a few countries away or to another continent for such an event wasn’t always possible. For example, while this secret realm was open to everyone from the surrounding countries, sects from further away weren’t necessarily welcome. Independent cultivators were harder to filter out- but without allies, they were in a delicate situation. It was often difficult for them to compete with others, though they might form temporary alliances with each other or offer their services to a local sect, giving up a cut of their gains.
As they continued south into Droca, Anton realized why he’d had no encounters with cultivators from there. The land was poor, not completely barren but low in both proper soil and natural energy. The country was sparsely populated by both civilian and cultivator populations, though both were quite determined and hearty wherever they were. Their border security was merely a few late Spirit Building cultivators, but Anton gathered that was because Droca was also focused on the secret realm.
Though he had lofty goals to improve the world, Anton had to admit he hadn’t thought about much beyond the borders of Graotan. He wondered if Droca was always in its current state. Something told him that wasn’t quite right. The layout of plants and rocks, the flow of the sparse energy. He couldn’t be sure. When he went to ask some of the elders travelling with them, Elder Kseniya accosted him.
A translucent Spirit Arrow weaved its way through the trees, avoiding stray branches and large trunks in the way. The target was intentionally placed in such a way that a straight shot simply couldn’t reach it. As each moment passed, the energy of the Spirit Arrow strained. Soon it began to tremble- and then it struck a tree, stabbing around thirty centimeters into it. The remaining energy scattered, fading into nothing.
Anton breathed out slowly. It was one thing to keep an arrow flying over a long distance, it was quite another to guide it around obstacles he couldn’t see. As much as he rode along with an arrow in flight to guide it, it didn’t suddenly grow eyes or impart upon him new senses to guide it. Though the latter was sort of what his current exercise was about.
“More spirit!” Kseniya declared. “That’s your problem. Your senses should be one with the arrow. Your spirit must extend with it to crest the horizon!”
He understood about half of Elder Kseniya’s instructions. But understanding what she wanted and achieving it were different things. At least he got to watch her as well. He could gain some insights from that.
Anton wasn’t the only one present, though it seemed he was the only one specifically pulled away. Elder Kseniya didn’t mind if others watched or even made their own attempts, but she also made no effort to instruct them specifically. It was a bit uncomfortable to be singled out, but Anton couldn’t refuse her instruction even if he wanted to.
He recognized some of the others who came along. Marcio was the one he knew the best, but there were archers of different ranks. At the end of the traveling day Elder Kseniya was adamant in ensuring Anton could use Horizon Shot, or at least something like it.
Elder Kseniya shot one more time, a glowing bolt of energy streaking off into the distance. Anton’s senses couldn’t even feel where it impacted, but he had no doubt it was exactly where she intended. “That’s enough for now. Don’t forget to practice.”
After she was out of earshot- and then a couple minutes later in case her earshot was further than anyone expected- Marcio shook his head. “I wonder what it takes to get like that. I wonder, would I take genius in exchange for the ability to convey it to others?”
Anton shrugged, “I wouldn’t. But perhaps we just need to shoot another ten thousand or a million arrows to have the right sense of things.” Anton was quite serious about that number. If he didn’t fire his bow at least a hundred times per day, he felt like he hadn’t done it at all. After a few months that was ten thousand… and after a few decades it would be a million. Before he was a cultivator the amount he could fire his bow was somewhat less, and he had other responsibilities… but over many decades he felt he’d achieved somewhere around those numbers. But doing so as a cultivator was a whole other level. He looked at those gathered around, “Here’s what I learned. We can put our heads together to see if we’re missing anything but practice.”
While the others might reasonably be jealous of him for getting Elder Kseniya’s personal attention, the fact that he was quite willing to turn around and help the others easily smoothed things over. When he had been lower in cultivation than most of the others he was quite hesitant about offering advice, but in the world of cultivators there was little that was respected more than one’s actual cultivation rank. Given that he’d at least been an archer longer than most of the rest of them put together, they were quite willing to listen. While he might not be able to show them all the one secret to growing stronger, Marcio and the others could sense how working together was helping them improve. It wasn’t that members of the Order never worked together in the past, but Anton thought he had a pretty good knack for it. It didn’t hurt to have the Vessel of Insights, either.