The eighteenth star was on the horizon. With some determination, Anton would be able to reach it. Strengthening the connection between body and spirit was the true beginning of the second half of Spirit Building, and he could already feel the changes without completing the eighteenth star. But he stopped reaching for it. The further he went in his cultivation before properly cultivating Fleeting Youth, the less he would benefit from it.
While to the current point Anton had found his own progression sufficient, he could feel his disadvantages from age accumulating. Having a good cultivation technique mitigated that, but he knew if he wanted to continue in his cultivation, he would have to concern himself with people like Anish from the Glorious Flame Palace. People who were at the peak of Spirit Building in less than five years. To match that he would have to accelerate the pace of his own training back to two months per star.
That simply wasn’t possible to keep up for two more years. And, while strict cultivation rank wasn’t everything, it was common that those who progressed quickly also obtained other advantages, powerful foundations and techniques that would augment their abilities.
Anton could continue as he was, and he might continue to be above average… but his aspirations didn’t end with simply killing a pair of men. He didn’t know if he could reach the level where he could change the world, but he was going to take every chance he had to improve himself. Even if it was particularly difficult.
The problem was that Fleeting Youth promised to augment his flow of energy. The question with what arose, and he didn’t know how to answer it. Training the body allowed it to store more energy and make use of it more quickly and efficiently. This was because the dantian and meridians were part of the body, bridging the gap between the fully physical body and the spirit. Energy was connected to both.
Every living thing produced natural energy, as well as some things that weren’t considered to be alive like certain types of stone or crystals. The augmentation to energy wouldn’t be coming from his body- he was already using that energy, and the technique made it clear that wasn’t what it relied on. Instead, the power came from age. That wasn’t a quality that seemed to lend itself to being drawn upon, even in the context of the other things Everheart did.
In a way, Anton could comprehend how there might be something to draw on by drawing on the value of something’s future. He couldn’t give an explanation for how it would be done, but if two pillars were both able to last a hundred years on their own, the idea that together either one of them could end up lasting two hundred years vaguely made sense. One of the pillars would merely appear to be intact. Or something like that. But with age, there was no future to pull against. After death one would merely…
It was strange to admit he didn’t know. Anton knew there were several theories as to what happened after death. Moving on to some sort of afterlife was one. Some proposed life simply ceased, the spirit fading into nothing. Another was entering the cycle of reincarnation to be born again once more. In fact, if he thought about it, life ending in nothing was more of an exception to the more common beliefs. So the question became whether he could draw on whatever happened after death.
And whether he should.
But as those thoughts passed through his head, he was able to reconcile why it wasn’t useful except at an advanced age. Creating a connection with something required closeness, and of course training that connection would take time. The requirements began to make sense, though he didn’t find that he was actually significantly closer to making use of the technique. But he felt he had passed an important hurdle. As for the rest… he would need to consult with others. Perhaps they would know about possibilities for what happened after death.
Dozens of scents tickled Fuzz’ snout as he sniffed the ground. He was smelling for something big. Some people might have said that big didn’t have a smell, and they were right. Sort of. Because if you went about it right, smelling for a big thing was just like finding it any other way- by there being more of it. More smell made a bigger thing. Sometimes. Not always, because if it were always true than skunks would be the biggest things, and they weren’t. Fortunately Fuzz had known to avoid them since that one time when he was a little pup. Rolling around in the dirt and rubbing his fur off on trees and splashing around in the water had barely done anything. It was awful. Almost as much as the death moss. But at least that led to having his current pack, which was good.
The one known as Elder Tshering didn’t want just something big. There were lots of those things around. It was entirely possible to find creatures larger than the boar overlord that they had eaten. Very tasty. An oversized elephant would do. But it wasn’t just about big body. It was about big energy. Another overlord, or something like it.
Fuzz almost buried his snout in the dirt. Sometimes traces of energy seeped into the ground and stayed there. He sniffed. Mmm, nothing here. But if he crossed something’s path, he would smell it. He smelled lots of things, but nothing that mattered.
Ooh, a bug! He ate it. Very crunchy. Usually they didn’t make them big enough to be a proper mouthful, but this one was at least part of a bite. There were those ants, but they were probably too big.
Sniff sniff. Oh! A person! And another person. Frequent tracks indicated there was probably a village or something nearby. They should go meet them. Fuzz liked people, though he found that people didn’t always like him for some reason. Even when he was being friendly.
Elder Tshering did not choose to involve himself in managing the Beast Forest because he was good with people, but he did understand that it was better to introduce yourself to the local populace before running around in their woods. He wasn’t sure if the group of several hundred people was properly in ownership of the area, but it was best to avoid conflicts.
At first glance, it had seemed like a group of traveling cultivators like themselves. Technically that was still true, but the scale of things was much different. The Ghameita tribe were nomadic and had several hundred members, nearly all cultivators. Most were in Body Tempering, but Anton took great interest in that aspect of them.
As for Elder Tshering, he didn’t care about it so much. After some assurances that they didn’t intend to cause any trouble, he was able to speak with one of the village elders, an old man in Spirit Building. “Have there been any problems with powerful beasts in the area?” he asked.
The old man shook his head. “No. In fact, it is perhaps the opposite here. We used to follow several herds around the area controlled by the Clear Lake Sect. The herds began to roam further and we eventually arrived here with the herds smaller and weaker. We have had to hunt more dangerous beasts as we pass through areas rather than our preferred quarries, but there has been nothing particularly dangerous.”
“Do you know what made the herds you follow change their patterns?”
“Not directly. It seems the herds were attacked by something, as we were regularly finding their members dead. The attacks must have happened at night, because we monitored the herds during the day and saw nothing irregular. Strangely, we even found some that had not been consumed at all, merely with puncture wounds that killed them and little more.” The elder bit his lip, “When we fed on the bodies, some of the villagers became sick. But it was clear that the animals did not die from a disease but an attack of some sort. A strange result.”
“Indeed,” Elder Tshering admitted. He continued to ask questions- about the nearby area and where they came from. It seemed the villagers of the Ghameita tribe had little interaction with the Clear Lake Sect except for occasional members who tried to join them. They rarely returned, except perhaps to pass through on their way to something else- as expected of cultivators. Many who chose to devote themselves to cultivation left their old lives behind.
It seemed the Ghameita tribe hadn’t been able to investigate more deeply. With herds to follow, they kept on the move. While they could make up for a day or two of lost travel, it was difficult on the weaker members of the tribe. Staying in the same area also meant they were able to gather less local food and had to rely on dried foods. In short, they were busy keeping their daily lives stable and had no time for much extra.
Getting directions to the Clear Lake Sect was slightly harder than Elder Tshering had anticipated. They had information it was to the north, but there weren’t any convenient rivers to follow to it. However, they were able to learn about a series of landmarks, and the group was on their way- the next day, after Anton had a chance to talk to them all about their tribe-wide cultivation practices.
As the group approached the area described by the Ghameita tribe, it became ever more clear that something was off. In areas so obviously brimming with vibrant plantlife it was expected to see large herbivores and predators. Instead, the majority of animals they spotted were smaller. As they approached closer to the Clear Lake Sect, they found some plants were dead or dying with no obvious cause. No blight or damage that anyone could find, simply once-healthy plants that had perished. These were subsequently being fed on by large swarms of insects, but for the most part the normal kind. Nothing that would be more than a nuisance to even a normal human.
With no clear results, they continued to press forward towards their destination. With the warnings from the Ghemeita tribe they kept watch at night. It was during Anton’s watch one night that their first real clues surfaced.
Everything seemed normal for the night, except for perhaps how quiet it was. With tempered senses Anton could still hear smaller animals moving around and the sound of various insects. At first he didn’t notice anything strange as the sound of insect wings grew louder. The pitch was a bit off, but any number of things could have caused that. But when he idly turned to look towards a particular droning sound that continually grew louder, he spotted something unnatural.
The moonlight revealed the figure of a mosquito- not the size of a knuckle or anywhere close to what he would expect, but closer to the size of a small dog, its body a half meter in length and its wingspan several times that. Without even stopping to think about it, he fired a shot at it. Though the creature noticed his attack coming and tried to move, his control over his arrows allowed him to redirect his shot, nearly splitting the creature in two as his arrow struck between its head and thorax. There was a loud crunch as his arrow pierced its carapace, but it fell to the ground.
The sudden aggressive use of energy woke everyone else, and soon enough Anton was showing them the giant bug. He held it up for them to see. “It was generally moving towards us. Perhaps it had no intention to attack, but… regular sized insects are bad enough. I think I might have spotted a few more in the distance, but they’re unfortunately difficult to distinguish from birds.”
Elder Tshering nodded, “An unnatural find, to be sure. More importantly… I sense a small amount of energy within it. Not directly its own, but from some magical beast it may have fed on. This may be connected to our problem… and even if not, I do believe it would be for the best to remove these creatures.”
“Gross,” Catarina commented as she poked it with her sword.
Fuzz silently concurred by not attempting to eat the body even after it was left alone and everyone returned to bed so they could be well rested for the morning.