Comfortable energy surrounded Vandale, and he was quite pleased to wake up. Certainly he had some complaints. He had wounds all over his body and he was fully drained of energy. Most seriously, he still had wriggling blackness trying to eat him from the inside out.
He sat up and his one eye settled on Anton. “Hadn’t expected to see you here.”
Anton shrugged, “Elder Peric logically extended your permission to see you at any time. But I can leave, if you wish.”
“Unnecessary,” Vandale smiled slightly. “It’s already too late to hide the extent of my injuries. The whole sect has to know by now, regardless.”
“Most of the news was swamped with more significant details, like the deaths of other Grand Elders. Four others, in fact.”
Vandale sighed, “I’d hope it would have ended with Kunibert and myself. But this wasn’t unanticipated. Matousek remained behind to make sure we at least had a Grand Elder. Now the Order will be replacing more than half of our Grand Elders.”
“The way you say that…” Anton said questioningly.
“Oh, I don’t expect to live through this. Maybe a couple years, if I push it, just to be stubborn.”
Anton shifted uncomfortably, “I’d hoped differently. This is dire news for the Order, in addition to my personal friendship with you. What happened?”
“I’m sure you’ve heard some sort of summary, but someone ascended. Almost stopped it. Wiped out a good portion of the Flying Blood Cult and that other group.”
“Speaking of them,” Anton said. “I presume those papers on your table have more. I did overhear they had some documents calling them Black Soul Valley. Or perhaps that was just the name of their location.”
Vandale looked at the papers, taking a deep breath of energy dense air and flicking them over to him. “The summary is… nothing. It’s unlikely that was the full extent of this group, and several high ranking members of the Flying Blood Cult weren’t present.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Anton noted.
“Of course I do. Might as well tell you now, instead of forcing you to wait decades to climb the ranks and learn about them when they’re still a problem.” Vandale shook his head, “The good news is a significant quantity of wealth was recovered. The bad news is all of the deaths, and more of them are out there.”
“Ofrurg is… in a tumultuous state,” Anton commented. “Sects from Facraona stormed in demanding answers that nobody had. Some places took exception to accusations… true or not. I believe the conflict is still ongoing.”
“Sounds about right. Listen,” Vandale said. “The Order is somewhat weaker right now, but I have high hopes for the upcoming generation. That includes you. And your efforts… might make all the ones following you something more. We’ll need that now more than ever, without me.” Anton nodded. “Not going to encourage me? Say I can make it through?”
“I believe in your willpower and ability to persist,” Anton said. “But I know death. I can feel its grip on you.”
“How much of that is flowery words?” Vandale asked curiously.
“Until now, at my current cultivation, I hadn’t felt it except as a vague idea. But I’ve been practicing Fleeting Youth quite vigorously, and I can feel a bit of the fires of life inside people. Bare as you are, I can feel the emptiness in you that should be filled.”
Vandale looked down at himself, his eye resting on the bandages around his chest. “Speaking of which, I shouldn’t delay cultivating any longer. I’ll need every bit of energy I can get to persist.”
“I’ll be going. Do you want me to tell anyone anything?” Anton asked.
“Just tell them to handle things without me.”
As he walked away, Anton felt the slow swirl of all of the energy on the peak around him. He had sort of expected a stronger pull, a rapid rushing of tides- but the way the energy was slowly but surely being pulled in reminded him of Vandale’s weakness, despite his vigor in the battle Anton saw and even his speech upon waking up. And a slow, measured approach was reasonable. Anton was also not the sort to rush.
But he did feel a bit of pressure to move quickly, on the larger scale of things. He still had one more duality pill to make use of, and it could help push along his next refinement of muscle and continued connection of body and soul.
The Order had enemies in more than Ofrurg- though Anton had little interaction with most of them. But in this time of weakness, they might wish to take advantage. The forces of the Order weren’t insignificant, even with recent losses, but the reminder that they could be defeated would encourage the wrong sort of people. It would likely be some years before his personal strength was relevant to the Order, but if he could help it those years would be less than another handful.
For shorter term goals, while he could not himself participate in the tournament in Facraona, he could ensure that those he knew would perform well. A sect with promising juniors was a threat, but also a valuable ally. As long as the balance of power shifted in their favor, it would be worthwhile. And being timid for the next several years could only harm the Order. Of course, Anton didn’t control the policy of the Order as a whole, but he could at least speak to some of those involved.
That included Kseniya. Grand Elder Kseniya, if the other elders had anything to do with it. Though her cultivation wasn’t as high as Vandale’s, at her point in Life Transformation it was difficult for anyone to match her- and she was a threat to any sect that wished to cause trouble. Very few had answers for attacks shot from a great distance. Some had archers of their own or others with ranged techniques, but they would have to choose between defending themselves or their juniors and fighting back, if it came to a battle.
They often encountered each other practicing archery. Though Kseniya had her own places, she would visit any archery range around the sect. Sometimes she gave guidance, sometimes she merely watched. One thing Anton noticed was that often her guidance was unspoken, in the form of several shots at a target. He had gotten pretty good at discerning what she meant with those, whether it was a correction of stance or control of energy.
“Still insisting on trying to use that bone bow?” Kseniya asked as he arrived at a long, mostly empty field.
Anton shrugged, “Whether I use it or not, I definitely have things to learn from the attempt.”
Even as he got close to the twenty-second star, his muscles strained as he pulled on the bow. He alternated between drawing it strictly with his muscles, a task he could barely accomplish, to adding his energy to bend it. Neither felt right, and he couldn’t find a happy in between either. But whether or not he would actually use it as a weapon, it was excellent for purposes of training. Even Kseniya didn’t deny him that point.
He felt the muscles in his upper body tense as he pulled the string and formed a Spirit Arrow. Despite the inherent power of the bow, he was unable to fully draw it- and thus it was less impressive than the one he actually used. But a few hundred shots with each several times per day kept him in practice.
At his current cultivation, Anton was able to keep the Vessel of Insights active a majority of the time. He picked up small little insights from all over the Order as he walked, but he’d also gathered some particularly tempting targets. Insights from Vandale and Kseniya were just asking him to devour them. But he was not so foolish as to try that.
However, he had something else. With the permission of several members of the Order, he had observed their cultivation of the Ninety-Nine Stars. These were Essence Collection cultivators, beyond the level of his current cultivation… but not so far ahead as Life Transformation. Simply observing them had given him some insights of his own, but they had their own gains as well, as many passing thoughts and insights would happen during a single session.
In the Vessel of Insights they were small thin strands, but filled with power. But not an inaccessible amount of it, unlike some of the others. At least, Anton hoped that wasn’t so. He had prepared himself to absorb one, and was ready to make the attempt.
The small bit of insight rushed into him, but he felt as if he were being forced out of his body. Instead of resisting, he went along with it, his consciousness expanding into space. A field of stars surrounded him, and planets as well. He’d seen the planets in the night sky- and more clearly through Vandale’s telescope- but he couldn’t fixate on the ones around him at the moment. It was just a rush of feeling. As his mind expanded, he realized he wasn’t starting from the world around him, but from the most condensed point of energy in someone’s dantian, the core of their energy. The planets weren’t true planets, but merely the suggestion of them. Yet he felt how profound cultivation could be.
Then he was back in himself. Anton couldn’t say he suddenly understood how Essence Collection cultivators worked, but the insight did make him think more carefully about the arrangement of his energy inside his dantian. Each star was separate, and kept that way such that they wouldn’t interfere with each other. Beyond that, they generally orbited around each other in patterns… but beyond the density and quantity of energy he hadn’t given it much more consideration.
With his recent efforts into learning more about formations and the strand of insight, he thought to put more into it. He knew that shifting around the stars inside of him couldn’t possible bring about the multiplicative effects of a true formation, or certain members of the Order would be inconceivably stronger than the others, but if he could attain more efficiency he would be a few percent stronger. By itself that mattered little, but each improvement in differing areas adding on top of each other was how a major gain was attained. And a little bit of power could make all the difference in injuring an opponent first, and pushing ahead for a resounding victory instead of a close battle.
As Anton slowly shifted his internal cultivation about, estimating where he might make improvements and then testing them, he wondered if it would help Fleeing Youth. If nothing else, being able to handle more energy would make his other efforts more efficient- but another thought came to him. Any time he wished to use the power of Fleeting Youth, the energy from beyond ascension and reincarnation combined, he had to gather it up- draw it into himself anew. If he could store some portion of that, he could significantly increase his power. The problem was that it wouldn’t happily sit in his dantian, unlike his ‘normal’ energy. It just wasn’t quite so cooperative.
Riding on the high of an improvement, Anton took the final duality pill. As he did so, he considered how each star related to his body. He knew each was created with relation to an aspect of his body, but few were localized except for the organs in the head. He couldn’t paint a picture or form a constellation that represented their connection to him. But on the topic of constellations, though the stars were often far disconnected from each other, people made mental connections between them and called them something. In a way, that made them real.
Anton felt the rush of energy from the pill. He’d grown used to them after taking the few he’d obtained, to the point that even if he had a handful more he doubted they would achieve the same results as the first. But this one would be enough to push him to the twenty-second star and beyond. And maybe he could absorb some more insights from those ahead of him- but not too far. Perhaps he could absorb them smoothly, or perhaps he would he find flaws in them. Or they might even find flaws in him. He was happy to deal with any of them, for he’d long accepted he was full of imperfections. Even if he was sometimes a bit stubborn and slow with fixing them.