“I see you have a new bow since we last met,” Firdaus commented. “Hollowreed. Very springy.”
“Works decent underwater too,” Anton said. “As far as bows go, anyway.”
“That’s the caveat, isn’t it?” Firdaus nodded. “Everything’s got some limits. Like special forging techniques… very expensive.” Firdaus shook his head. “Maybe if I win a few rounds of the tournament I can do something. Cloudtop Summit will reward those who do well. That’s what this whole thing is about, showing off.”
“Same with the Order. Though that doesn’t have anything to do with me,” Anton shrugged. “I’m just here to provide moral support.”
“Can’t you…?” Firdaus smiled awkwardly, “Ah, right. I forgot the tournament is limited by age. Personally I prefer Everheart’s method.”
Anton laughed, “Don’t let anyone catch you saying anything good about him.”
“Hah. Everyone at least has to admit that he was effective, regardless of how much they liked him. And nobody who knew him will be around to say anything to me.”
Anton was fairly certain some of the Grand Elders of the Order had some sort of interaction with him, though it would have been near the end of his active period while they were still young. He was from a long time ago… the only reason he was so well remembered was all the trouble he caused and how many ‘tombs’ he left around. Plus the forbidden techniques. Really he just left a lot of stuff behind so people would be remembering him for a long time.
As they moved along, Anton felt the changes in Firdaus. It was more than just the improvements in cultivation since they’d last met a year and a half before, but a change to some fundamental parts of his cultivation. He still had the same sort of stormy feeling about him, as did the other members of Cloudtop Summit, but there was a new core holding everything all together.
And of course Anton couldn’t fail to notice his new spear. It felt as if he was holding a bolt of lightning in his hand, though it was much more structurally solid and lasting. He didn’t recognize the material exactly, but the whole thing was made out of a metal with a light blue sheen to it, haft included. The head of the spear was jagged back and forth like a bolt of lightning, with a wide guard sticking out to either side. It was not terribly oversized, as some cultivator weapons tended to be, but it was certainly a bit larger in size than most spears. The blade was not particularly thick but the whole spear was taller, perhaps closer in length to a pike.
Anton smiled, “I’m glad to see your cultivation has gone well.” Firdaus was about keeping pace with the rest of them, though he’d already been behind the equivalent of two stars or so and that distance had been maintained for the most part. But Anton was aware that anything close to the pace Catarina and the others kept was quite good.
“You’ve also done well for yourself,” Firdaus commented. “It’s impossible to say what difficulties might arise, but I’d expect you and the rest to reach Essence Building without too many complications.”
“Advancing to a higher realm always has its difficulties,” Anton responded. “But we have high hopes.” Certainly nobody seemed like they would suddenly hit a wall at the barrier to Essence Collection, just a couple stars away. As for Life Transformation… it was difficult to predict what would happen so many years away. On the farm he knew there were times of plenty, and also times of struggle. He hoped there would be fewer of the latter for himself and those around him. Though as cultivators, even most struggles could prove to make them stronger in the end.
With a year having passed since the big events in Black Soul Valley and the execution before that, Anton had reached the twenty-fifth star while the others were at the twenty-seventh. Though his technical cultivation level fell behind slightly, Anton was not concerned. In fact, he’d been holding himself back slightly in that aspect of his growth. Not too much, of course, because if he didn’t continue to progress in cultivation Fleeting Youth would never make up for the loss.
Even though he wasn’t gaining as much lifespan as the others, an extra year every few months equated to an ever-increasing lifespan. Until he got to the point where raising a cultivation level took longer than the time he gained, obviously. Anton wasn’t just throwing time away to keep closer to the threshold for Fleeting Youth. His training in that technique and efforts in other areas took a significant amount of time. Learning from others and teaching them were beneficial to his cultivation, but the higher his own cultivation grew the less he learned from assisting those at the early ranks of Body Tempering.
Ultimately, he only had so much time. If he spent all of it cultivating to improve his own lifespan and none of it interacting with the world around him, what was the point? His much younger peers weren’t single-mindedly focused on their cultivations either, but a smaller portion of their time was currently devoted to other things. But they had at least another eighty years to mess around with later, so it wasn’t an issue.
Thinking about lifespans and when people might ultimately die seemed somewhat morbid, but Anton liked to think he was practical. He’d reached the end of his life and basically been granted a new one in the form of cultivation. As far as he was concerned, everything he was experiencing now was extra. And though there were looming concerns about the future, the weight of seeking revenge had been lifted off of him after the execution. That didn’t mean Anton would suddenly be acting carefree, but he was able to focus on matters that pulled on his heart without wondering if he should be doing something else.
As with all countries, Facraona was just another semi-arbitrary border to cross. But borders were of significant concern to people, and more recent events had affected the landscape significantly. For perhaps a day of travel from the border, at the pace of cultivators, fields lay fallow and houses abandoned. At least, Anton hoped that most of them had been abandoned, but he was aware that that wasn’t the case for all of them. Several thousands of people had been captured and sacrificed in Black Soul Valley, or perhaps taken elsewhere at the same time.
Only when they began to see people working the fields once more did Anton feel at ease. Unlike in Ofrurg, most of the workers weren’t slaves. It was the unfortunate truth that some of them were, but to his understanding Facraona had more laws that regulated why and how people could be enslaved, the treatment of slaves, and even how long it could last. Since it was less profitable to own slaves, more farms were worked by individual families instead of being large plantations.
Along the road, they also saw patrols of cultivators. Not only was the tournament upcoming and thus people pouring into Facraona, but there were still concerns about security beyond that.
Anton felt the presence of natural energy throughout the area to be somewhat higher than in Graotan, and that implied that cultivators might be somewhat higher ranking as well- though that would depend more on the quality of energy in the actual sects territories and not the country in general.
Few of the patrols they met could have even been a hindrance to their group, but it wasn’t as if Life Transformation experts were just randomly strewn about everywhere. Without them they could be little more than a delay for a group like the Order had, if they were intending to cause trouble. But a myriad of lesser cultivators could eventually overwhelm even the strongest person. The patrols should at least be enough to make the people feel secure in their safety, tenuous as any such thing was in the world.
The cities they passed through were quite different. Anton was certain that the general functions of the buildings remained the same, but the architecture was different than he was used to. Facraona had many older buildings, largely made of stone that emphasized arches and pillars. This was intermingled with generally smaller new structures made of wood but trying to mimic the same styles, with overhanging porches and open courtyards. Some were even lacquered to have the look of old stone, but to a cultivator it was easy to tell the difference. The older building practically radiated age. Actually, Anton thought that a good many of them should have once had functioning formation, and maybe they still had a few remnants of such.
That didn’t include the newer buildings clearly housing cultivators, of course. They had the same styles, and a few were made of much more expensive marble compared to granite. Transporting massive intact pieces of marble must have been wildly expensive, even by cultivator standards.
The average population density appeared to be higher than in Graotan, and so did the general level of wealth. Given the presence of several large rivers and how it bordered the Shervista Ocean on the north, the amount of trade that flowed through Facraona was a huge contributor to that wealth. Yet as they walked through the cities Anton felt from afar there were still places of poverty and squalor. He wasn’t sure if it was ever possible to fully solve issues of poverty, but Anton knew people could be doing more. And from his understanding raising up the level of the lowest people would still benefit everyone else.
But not everyone looked to the far future, not even cultivators. Often they were only concerned with what benefitted them most in the short term. To that end, Anton was quite willing to put in the work to show his idea would work, and that everyone else was wrong. And if he failed… well, at least he would know he tried to make the world better, instead of just his own life.
The moment the capital, Zraden, came into view over the horizon it filled more and more of Anton’s vision. The first sight of it was not the city walls but in fact the looming presence of the arena, covering the top of the rise that the whole city was built atop. It was nearly a hundred meters high, and almost a kilometer wide. Even though Anton knew that the majority of the area inside was just empty space, the outer structure itself was impressive enough.
With each step more of Zraden came into view, from the top of the hill down the sides to the various other similarly impressive structures. The walls surrounding the city were only unimpressive when compared to the walls of the arena itself, twenty meters high at least. Anton was aware that the city and its surroundings housed more than a million people, the largest city he knew of. It made Edelhull feel small, despite that being one of the most significant cities in Graotan.
But the size of the city didn’t make the Order’s arrival less significant, except that they were but one of many sects. With the tournament less than a week away, most of those participating would have already arrived, or would be arriving soon. Nobody wanted to be late and miss out on their chance to take part in such an event. There were prizes for high rankings in each segment, though it wasn’t as if Facraona was just giving away wealth. The influx of cultivators would benefit them greatly.
Even as they approached the center of the city to find their accommodations, Anton sensed several markets they passed had enchanted goods. While members of the Order could obtain such things from the sect for contribution points or amassed wealth, having them be publicly traded was more of a rarity. But Anton had to presume that the expense of the cultivator guards surrounding the marketplace would be more than overcome by the profits. Not just sect disciples would purchase from them, but also independent cultivators.
It was easy to see that while the sudden aggression had surprised them, Facraona wasn’t so easily ignored. The cultivators of the Flying Blood Cult were notoriously crazy, and the other group in Black Soul Valley had been fully determined to die for the sake of the ritual. Though the information wasn’t public, Anton was aware that a cultivator had ascended during that event. One of the few times it had been witnessed. Facraona was still planning to retaliate against anyone connected to the events, but some of the sects in the country would be hesitant to fight against a group that produced an ascended cultivator, regardless of whether or not they knew about their potential return. After all, to have a cultivator ascend meant having peak Life Transformation cultivators, and likely more than just a few. With the damage to the Order, it was enough to give anyone pause.
But hopefully the tournament could bring some sense of normalcy and stability to the cultivation world. Though grudges might form in a tournament, it was also a way for sects to get out their aggression when conflicts weren’t deep enough to justify actually going to war with each other. It was a way to promote healthy rivalries while trying to weed out those that didn’t belong. It might even work for its intended purpose sometimes.