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It was impossible for Anton to not be surprised by the results. Could he have predicted Everheart projecting people in danger outside the area to make him fail some sort of test? Absolutely. As for that being part of the actual test, he was a bit surprised.
“Was that the whole test?” Anton asked. “To see if I would help those people.”
“If you’re worried about there being more… no, it’s over. However, the test was seeing how you would react to waiting. If people were patient when there was no timeline or instructions not to leave. As for that part,” Everheart nodded to himself, “It was mostly for you. To see if you’re the kind of person you have purported to be. Definitely a pass.” Everheart jabbed a finger into Anton’s sternum. “That said, I think unrestrained compassion is an exploitable weakness. You’re not yet strong enough that you can afford to give up opportunities to possibly help others. You have to think about yourself.”
“So,” Anton thought for a moment, “When would I be strong enough for that?”
“Never!” Everheart harrumphed. “Even if you ascend. Perhaps especially then.”
Everheart held up a hand, “All I will say is that it’s quite real. And also that most people do kill themselves trying. Anything else, you’ll have to discover on your own.” As they talked, they walked back inside. “If this were a real trial,” Everheart commented, “I might fail your companions for not noticing my excellently placed decoy, or not noticing you sneaking out. But I suppose that’s my own fault for not amplifying the effects enough.” Fuzz met them at the foot of the stairs, jumping up to lick Anton in the face, and then Velvet.
As they passed by the training area, Anton saw the others in various states. They seemed a bit distracted. “Should we get them?”
“No point. This facility doesn’t have a huge pile of treasures or cultivation resources. All it has is knowledge… and that can be shared.”
Anton saw Catarina turn her head, but it seemed as if she couldn’t really make out him or Everheart. Yet she nearly tracked them with her eyes as they moved past. “Any reason you’re keeping this secret?”
“I like secrets,” Everheart simply commented. He led Anton through long corridors, past various rooms that may actually have once been trials of some sort, and into a small room that had a single bookshelf- half full. “Here we are. A bunch of personal notes, including on the topic in question. Improving general cultivations at the lowest level. Though the big secret… is to just try. Though thousands of pages of notes will be slightly more helpful than that, I suppose.”
Anton looked at the notes, some in stacks of individual papers, others in bound books, and the rest in rolled scrolls, but all carefully organized. He began storing them carefully until he came across one particular scroll. He was unable to hide his surprise.
Everheart stood by his shoulder, grinning. “Here’s a little secret about me. Sometimes, I lie about things.”
In Anton’s hands he held something titled “Fleeting Youth”. “This is… here?”
“A complete version, even. Perhaps not the best possible version, but that’s for you to suss out. Maybe find another copy elsewhere or refine it yourself,” Everheart shrugged. “But I’d like to think it has to be the best one, or I wouldn’t have destroyed my favorite lake to preserve it. Now it’s your problem.” Everheart nodded seriously. “By the way, you said you’d been to one of my tombs. You made a pretty convincing show of it, but here you are standing around… instead of running.”
The slight rumble convinced Anton to stop thinking and throw everything into his storage bag, with Velvet helping. The two of them checked the training room on the way, but apparently the others had taken note of the tremors as well and were standing at the bottom of the stairs- having not been informed the trial was over, they hesitated slightly.
“There you are!” Catarina said as she saw Anton. “I was worried something had happened to you up above, since I stopped being able to sense you clearly. But I had the feeling you were still around.”
“We can talk about it on the surface,” Anton urged. The stairs weren’t long, but by the time they were at the top of them water was splashing on them. It seemed the river had decided it was going to flow straight along that path instead of turning anymore. It hadn’t even truly begun to fill the empty basin of Rainbow Lake, but the hole was right along the path.
After everyone got up on ‘shore’ for the sake of avoiding getting splashed, Anton explained everything.
“Sounds like what we know of him,” Hoyt said.
“A pain in the rear,” Elder Tshering nodded. “But we’re done here, then?”
“I suppose so,” Anton said. “Thank you for staying around.”
“It’s good for us old folk to get out once in a while,” Tshering grinned. “I’m sure you understand the sentiment.”
Anton nodded, though he was always the sort who ‘got out’ even when people told him that he should let them do the work.
It was strange to watch the lake fill up slowly. It would likely take days or more, but now that it wasn’t being unnaturally held out of its existence… it seemed it could return. It was too bad that Everheart wouldn’t be able to see it. Though… Anton wasn’t entirely sure about that. There was no guarantee that the projection, at least, couldn’t remain for a while after everything broke down. That would explain all of the rushing and removal of whatever trials had been set up. It was hard to tell either way.
Anton just looked at everything he had. To read through it all, he’d really need a proper place to sit down, preferably protected from the elements. Some of it was just written on normal, unenchanted paper… or perhaps the enchantments had faded. The exception was, of course, Fleeting Youth.
A strange surprise. He’d already fully given up on it. If he couldn’t help others, he didn’t care about his personal power. But… nothing said he couldn’t have both. Except Everheart, he supposed, but the man admitted even that was a lie.
After quickly browsing it, Anton was able to understand the gist of it. It was… generally useless. For something that empowered those with advanced age, one would think that elders would greatly benefit from it. However, that was simply not the case. It required its user to advance in cultivation while training it to receive the benefits. That was what the explanation said, anyway. As for actually using it… Anton would need several days before he could even begin to do so. Everheart’s techniques could be tricky, but he’d never seen any of the things that took nebulous concepts and matched them against some sort of power.
Not a detailed explanation of the techniques, anyway. Everheart had commented about how he’d given up the lake to preserve the papers he now had, and the tomb had been running on the future of every reward people didn’t get. It was beyond the sensible standards of how one might use natural energy- creating physical effects that could otherwise exist. This seemed more like wrestling the laws of the universe and twisting them to suit his needs.
The group’s path through Ambati had brought them vaguely to the southwest region of the country. That was where the Temitope clan and Tailoga had been. Rainbow Lake and the region surrounding it was more to the north-west, though not particularly close to the border. Elder Tshering was primarily interested in the effects of Ambati’s fauna on Graotan. A beast overlord appearing in the southwest was liable to cause some change, but he thought there should be more. Ultimately everything was connected- but more direct routes for the creatures would be back in the northeast of Ambati.
Thus, the group was headed back that way. That had been the general plan anyway, and they were able to stick with it. The only difference was that instead of pondering notes left behind by a crazy man, Anton also had a technique that he had big claims about. And while Everheart was chaotic and often a liar, he was also extremely talented.
The first stage of Fleeting Youth was attuning himself to the concept of age. On the surface that was trivial. He felt the age in his body, even if he knew he had some years left in him because of improving his cultivation. Wrinkled skin, tired bones. Tempered muscles not quite as good as they could really be if he was young.
Cultivating the Ninety-Nine Stars, the next step on his path was furthering the connection of his body and spirit. In a way, that matched what he was trying to comprehend with Fleeting Youth. But while he felt the age in his body, Fleeting Youth also indicated the age in his spirit. Bodies would grow old and break down, but it seemed some of that was connected to the spirit fading. Cultivating strengthened both body and spirit, and thus a cultivator could live longer.
If he were being perfectly fair, Anton could claim to be a genius. Perhaps not one of the highest level ones in the entire cultivation world, but certainly he had the talent. He was more or less on par with others whose cultivation talents he thought highly of, so he had to admit that of himself. Whether or not his age was a factor to consider him better, he wasn’t sure. Nor did he think it mattered in the end. What mattered was… he hadn’t run into a technique that was hard before.
Certainly he’d put a lot of effort into practicing Spirit Arrows and everything else he’d learned. Piecing together Elder Kseniya’s difficult to parse words took great effort, and the time and labor he’d put into his training was great. But apparently, all of those techniques had been easy. Because he understood them, and was breaking his brain trying to understand Fleeting Youth. It made formations look easy. The worst part was that Anton felt he had the proper affinity, unlike with formations. Perhaps he was just fooling himself though.
Elder Tshering didn’t find it any easier. Though he wasn’t the type that would receive the most benefits from it, he had expressed interest and Anton had no qualms about sharing it among members of the Order. It wasn’t like he had to rip up the pages and eat them to gain the knowledge. Only two or three of Everheart’s techniques were like that… and Anton was pretty sure they were made that way out of spite.
“I understand being old,” Tshering grumbled, “I get the actual, tangible effects from that. But transforming that, twisting it around on itself to squeeze out latent potential just isn’t working. I’d say it requires a Life Transformation cultivator to learn it, but by that point it’s already too late, isn’t it?”
“Seems so,” Anton nodded. He actually found the slight strands of insight Tshering had on the technique- both spoken and gleaned from the Vessel of Insights- extremely helpful. He still felt as if he only had the first step or even just half a step into the long road of learning the technique, but it was something. He wasn’t going to give up on it, though. He felt the truth in its power… and he could be quite stubborn. Just because he found something actually difficult didn’t mean he couldn’t do it. If he were to ride with just what was easy, he wouldn’t have built up a whole multigenerational farm.
Some of the others asked to look at it, but since they were all quite youthful they really had no connection to the technique and were quite stumped at the outset. Even if Devon was closer to middle aged before he began cultivating, Anton was actually almost able to be considered young among cultivators at his rank. A hundred years for mid Spirit Building wasn’t that strange. There were many ‘elders’ younger than him, though they were elders more related to their duties regarding the sect.
Maybe that was it, Anton pondered. He had likely added ten to thirty years to his lifespan through cultivation. Even with burning some of that… he could have decades left. He wasn’t planning to rush to employ Candle Wax, but maybe he just wasn’t as close to the line as he thought. Though he had to admit that couldn’t be the only factor. He would just have to stick to it. He felt the eighteenth star creeping up on him… and wondered if that would pull him further from his comprehensions. He wasn’t even close to picking out what flaws the technique might have, either. But a few weeks wasn’t a fair attempt. He’d have to keep pushing himself, though he figured it was alright to silently curse Everheart for not providing better training guidance. Then again, if he understood correctly… Everheart hadn’t been able to practice it himself.