There were a great many people visiting Elder Siekert for her ability to appraise enchanted equipment, but she did not bother to look over them one by one. Everyone lined up with the various pieces they had, including Anton and the others. “Quite a haul here,” she said, “Though they seem a bit weak.” She picked up and handled the first thing in the line- a sword- before moving on. “Interesting. Very interesting.” As for what was interesting, it took her some time to say. “Such basic enchantments, yet skillfully made.”
“Are they valuable?” one disciple asked.
“That depends,” she said. “If you wanted me to enchant any of this to be usable as weapons and armor, you’d do better to just start me with a hunk of metal.”
“Oh,” the disciple hung his head. “I thought since they came from an ancient sect…”
“I didn’t say they weren’t valuable,” Elder Siekert continued. “Just not… usable. I’ll buy them all!” she declared.
One of her apprentices was standing nearby. “I’m not sure if the Order would-”
“If they don’t think it’s worth it, the Order won’t last long. In that case, I’d do it with my own funds.” She looked around, “I’ll offer everyone a fair price. Each piece seems more or less equivalent, barring the materials. And if there were any forging manuals or the like, the Order would also be glad to reward you for them.”
“What do they do?” another disciple asked, “If they’re not usable and can’t be made that way…”
“That,” Elder Siekert smiled, “Will have to remain secret for the moment. Nobody will be forced to give up anything if they don’t wish to, but I swear to you they are no use outside of studying the technique for a situation… that should never happen.”
With little else to be said on the topic, people began handing over their equipment one piece at a time. Instead of tossing coins or the like to the disciples, Siekert simply handed out enchanted papers that could be exchanged for contribution points or equivalent value. If she actually had to hand out coins or the like it seemed likely that even a few storage bags wouldn’t be sufficient.
Anton turned in most of his goods as well, since he trusted the enchanter to deal with them all fairly- but he kept a well-balanced sword in hand and waited around for everything to be over. Once everyone else had left except Siekert and the apprentices running in and out with the piles of equipment, she focused on him. “You have something to say, I presume?”
“I have some insights to provide on the situation,” he said. Anton held the sword level in front of him, gathering energy. Not just any energy, but the mixed energy of Fleeting Youth. As he brought it to cover the sword like any cultivator would be apt to do, his hand twitched and his energy dispersed violently. The sword dropped to the ground, where Anton picked it up with his other hand. “I don’t know if Vandale spoke to all of the elders about a technique Everheart left behind, but it purports to draw upon the power beyond ascension… among other things.” He didn’t need to mention it also involved post-reincarnation things. Those who had been cultivators for a long time seemed to be concerned about future lives to some extent, but Anton was already quite satisfied with the life he’d had. If he could make this one better, he didn’t need an unknowable future.
“Your point being?” Elder Siekert looked at him neutrally.
“I just know the equipment must be made to fight… that. And of course, it should be obvious that it’s related to the downfall of the Luminous Ocean Society… and perhaps others nobody can recall.” Anton shrugged, “I just thought it would be useful to have some confirmation of your assumptions.”
“Mmmn. No wonder Vandale took a liking to you. Quite straightforward.” Elder Siekert shook her head, “It’s best if I don’t confirm or deny anything at the moment. If the Order as a whole should know, the information will be distributed. And of course, whatever Vandale chooses to share is up to the Grand Elder.”
“I almost forgot,” Anton said, pulling out the duality pill. “We found some of these. They don’t appear dangerous, but I was concerned about long-term side effects.” Masozi likely wouldn’t have been swayed by that possibility so he didn’t bring it up- but Anton wasn’t planning to give up some of his future in exchange for breaking through a month or so earlier.
She plucked the pill from his outstretched palm, looking at it, sniffing it, rolling it around between her fingers… and then handing it back to him. “It’s safe, if a bit faded. As long as you can handle the energy you can sense you’ll be fine. Nothing deceptive about it.”
“Thank you,” Anton said. “I need to learn to do that at some point.”
“You want to become an enchanting apprentice?” Siekert asked.
“Maybe someday,” Anton said. “I still have many other things to learn first.”
Anton held the first pill in his hands. He concentrated on where he would be distributing the energy, mainly around his head though of course some would disperse through his body as a whole. Once he finished breaking through to the twenty-first star, the second refinement of the head and the organs therein, his thoughts and senses would be yet another step clearer. He quite liked the thought of that, and was glad he’d done the same early on in his Body Tempering cultivation. But he could understand why others would prioritize differently.
He put the pill on his tongue, letting it begin to dissolve and run down his throat. As the energy hit his stomach and started to expand into his meridians and dantian he swallowed the pill. A quick flow of energy began to pour out of the rapidly decaying pill, and he circulated the flow through his body, concentrating on his eyes, ears, nose, brain, tongue, and little bits and pieces that connected everything. That included his spine, though some portions of that would better go along with marrow and bone refining.
Unlike normal cultivation, he couldn’t just stop at any moment. He had to make use off all of the energy he consumed, even when continued application made his body sore and his head throb with pain. He could distribute the focus to other parts, but deviating from the established technique of the Ninety-Nine Stars wouldn’t benefit him in the long run. Most things were as they were for a reason, and one thing that was certainly correct was focusing on the completion of one portion at a time.
As his body felt like it was reaching its limits, he directed the final portions of the energy into his dantian. It was quickly filled to maximum capacity, but he didn’t want diffuse energy to make use of later- and he had more still to deal with. He began to compress it into a smaller ball. Each star was much the same in that regard, creating formations of compressed energy that could be drawn upon as necessary. The initial construction was important, as even when the energy from them was depleted a structure remained behind to be filled up at a later time. More density was preferred. Anton was able to make use of some of the energy to force the rest into a tighter ball, but it felt somewhat wasteful. But he had more he could make use of. A stronger energy that could help pull it together, the power of Fleeting Youth. The more he made use of it, the more proficient he would be with it in the future, and the greater his connection would be to the futures he would never have.
When the twenty-first star was finally finished, Anton inspected it and found it was the best yet by a significant margin. It was densely packed but he could draw on it as needed without worrying about it breaking down permanently. The more he could achieve similar results, the better he would do with higher tier techniques like Falling Stars and Horizon Shot.
A variety of technique manuals and notes were splayed out on the table in Vandale’s observatory. He went back and forth between looking at them and looking up at the stars, either directly or through the telescope.
“You don’t have to just stand there,” Vandale commented to Anton. “It’s not like you haven’t already guessed at this secret.”
“I only surmised a few things,” Anton said, “I’m not sure how accurate I was.”
“To be fair,” Vandale waved his hand at the notes, “Neither am I. What do you actually know?”
“Just that the Luminous Ocean Society should have been destroyed by ascended cultivators… after they had prepared to fight them.” Anton frowned as he thought, “I wasn’t aware that those who had ascended could return. Then again, I know little about it beyond that it’s possible, and that Fleeting Youth draws from that source.”
“My information is not as much better than yours as you might think,” Vandale said. “However, I can say one thing. If ascended cultivators were able to return whenever they wished and display their great power… they would. For all that cultivators like to pretend to be above worldly matters, even the Frostmirror sect and those like them are more worldly than they’d like people to think. Those who ascend cut away their connection to their lives here, but it’s not possible to truly complete that and still remain the same person. There must be circumstances where they can come back here… or perhaps even to different worlds than the one from which they ascended.” Vandale gestured at the sky. “I told you about the other planets. It is perhaps possible that other worlds have cultivators like us, and that others carry those who have ascended. Or perhaps they are under a different sky entirely. I’ll never know for sure.”
“These techniques…” Anton looked down at the notes about the techniques from the Luminous Ocean Society. “They’re geared at fighting ascended cultivators?”
“Indeed. For the moment, the Order has classified them as forbidden. Not because we believe they have no value, but because publicly practicing these might be… problematic. We have no way to know if anyone is in contact with ascended cultivators. The one thing I do know, however, is that what happened with the Luminous Ocean Society and their peers will happen again. Likely soon.” Anton swallowed. “Not to worry,” Vandale said. “To a man my age, ‘soon’ is quite a bit longer than what even you might consider it to be. A century, perhaps a handful. Maybe it could stretch out for a millennium. I imagine as the time approaches it will become more clear.”
“What should I do about it?” Anton asked.
“What indeed? Can you do anything about it?” Vandale asked. “Can I? It is unclear. But I think… that you should continue what you are already doing.” Vandale placed his hand on the table with the techniques. “Though you had a different reason for it, we will need as many cultivators as we can get. Every person who can perform even the simplest of these techniques can disrupt the gulf of power, unbalancing those who use the power beyond ascension. In theory.”
“It certainly works,” Anton said. “I have access to a small sliver through practicing Fleeting Youth. The weapons, at least, are immensely disruptive- even just holding one.”
“How hard is it to overcome?” Vandale asked.
“I’ll admit that I haven’t put that much time into countering it. I presumed I would simply not make use of such equipment.”
“Understandable,” Vandale said, “But I think it would be best to try. Learn to counter it… and then perhaps we can come up with a way to counter that counter. After all, the Luminous Ocean Society wasn’t just sitting on their thumbs.”
Anton nodded. “I understand. I’ll put it on my list.” After smithing and weaving, he thought. He doubted he could master those in just a few weeks, but to get down the basic motions would be something else. If he could see what subtle differences in cultivation different crafts allowed for, he would perhaps be able to help many more people cultivate. And he really wanted to learn everything. Not just about cultivation, either.