Graotan was a good country. Devon believed that wholeheartedly, not just because he was born and raised in Graotan but because he had traveled to others and laid eyes on them himself. It wasn’t just Ofrurg either. Obviously his experiences as a slave would negatively impact his opinion of the country as a whole, but even discounting that he found Graotan to be much preferable to the few others he’d been to.
Some of the goodness of Graotan was due to the fortunate fact that they had fertile land. When a country was prosperous, everyone could afford to be generous with each other. Devon believed it extended beyond that with all of the people working to hold up ideals that valued others.
Yet Graotan definitely wasn’t perfect. It was impossible for the Order to oversee every part of it, and even if they could, mistakes would be made. Negative elements would crop up every once in a while no matter how firm of a foundation was laid.
Though the majority of cultivators in Graotan chose to join the Order- the requirements weren’t particularly onerous and it had some of the best benefits- there were still other, smaller sects in the area. Most of them were wise enough to follow the rules set down by the Order. But some of them ignored them, or even completely went against them.
Even though its disciples provided security for the whole country, the Order did not impose heavy taxes. Most of their wealth was gained through the Order’s portion of the missions its cultivators were hired for, and long ages of accumulation. Some of that wealth was simply a good reputation, and this particular group was damaging that most strongly. But their discovery came about from villagers concerned about excessive taxation.
There was no good name for the group, since they were simply pretending to be disciples of the Order. The general population didn’t know enough about cultivation to prove them wrong, being unable to sense energy in any capacity. But from where Devon was, he felt it clearly. They were certainly cultivators, but their energy didn’t match the Order’s.
His current job was just to stand around looking intimidating. They already had the place surrounded, and the chances that nobody had noticed the group surrounding the structure were miniscule. It was likely that bringing a full group of Spirit Building cultivators was excessive, but the Order wasn’t willing to risk the lives of their disciples- even ones like Devon who was making use of a different cultivation technique.
He sensed some combat taking place inside, but the main force was large enough to handle the entire complement of foes. He was just supposed to stop- or delay- anyone trying to flee.
It wasn’t long before he sensed someone coming. He readied himself for combat, but he felt the cultivation of the Ninety-Nine Stars from within them. “Did anybody run this way?” a middle aged man asked as he stepped out the door Devon was watching.
“No, not yet,” he answered. “Maybe try over that way,” Devon gestured.
The man nodded and turned. That was when Devon’s chains wrapped around him. He wasn’t sure what the man had done to disguise his aura, but the group Devon had arrived with wasn’t so large that he would forget the faces of those with him, and this man wasn’t one of them.
“What are you doing?” the man said as he raised his own energy defenses too late, “I’m part of the Order!”
“We’ll see about that,” Devon said. His chains stiffened, pulling the man’s limbs into the positions where he had the least leverage. Even if he were to use energy he would tire himself more quickly than Devon. He twisted and turned, fighting with all of his might- but Devon just wrapped the chains tighter. When the man tried to slacken the chains by darting towards Devon, he found himself held at bay as the chains suddenly stiffened. Then Devon extended more chains to bind his legs together. Now all Devon had to do was wait. After he covered the man’s mouth to stop his protestations.
It seemed that the rest of the battles were indeed finished very quickly. Another member of the Order came out the door, this time one Devon recognized. The man took stock of the situation, looking between Devon and the man he had bound. “What are you doing?” he asked accusingly, lowering his spear towards Devon. “He’s a member of the Order. Why have you detained him?”
“He’s not,” Devon said confidently. Though he was beginning to have a few doubts himself. “At least, he didn’t arrive with us.”
“Mmph!” the man bound in chains tried to mutely defend his position, but another party approached.
“Devon’s right, Jacob,” said another member of the Order, wielding a bow. “This man was not with us. We should bring him before the rest and question how he was here, if he was not involved. If he truly has a good reason, the only thing damaged will be his dignity.”
“… right,” the one who must have been Jacob nodded. “But Marcio, he practices the Order’s techniques. And he’s clearly in Spirit Building… and this fellow here doesn’t use our style at all.”
“Judging people on the basis of their cultivation techniques?” Marcio raised an eyebrow, casually holding his bow ready to be brought to bear should he need it. “I’m sure Devon will gladly come with us, and we can see whether any of this has been a misunderstanding.”
“Right,” Devon nodded. “If I was in the wrong, I’ll happily apologize for the inconvenience and discomfort.” But he was quite sure he wasn’t part of their group.
Ultimately the man’s origin was one of the worst situations. Not for Devon, since he ended up justified in his actions, but for the Order. It might have been the worst, because someone emulating the Order’s energy signature, while worrying, wasn’t necessarily as bad as the man actually being a disciple of the Order. Which he was. A genuine disciple of the Order involved with the taxation scheme.
There wasn’t much to do but bring him back with them, wrapped in physical chains that restricted energy usage, and not just Devon’s manifestations. Devon wondered if he could replicate the energy restricting effect himself, but that was an exercise for another day. They simply had to bring back this person- as well as all of the rest that had lived through the battle- to receive judgment from the Order.
“Edwyn Behrend,” an imperious voice spoke out. “Given the preponderance of the evidence levied against you, is there anything you have to say in your defense?”
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” he declared. “Those villages offered tribute on their own accord.”
“An interesting argument,” said the judge, “But ultimately unconvincing. It was their very testimony that they offered payment only under duress, with the assumption that you were working with the blessing of the Order. In addition, the crime of encouraging others to impersonate disciples of the Order is quite serious.”
“It seems you had already made up your mind,” Edwyn grumbled. “What is my punishment then? Exile?”
“No. Exile is only appropriate in certain circumstances. For someone in your position, the appropriate punishment is death.”
“What? But none of the others-”
The judge’s voice boomed out over his. “None of the others swore to uphold justice in all forms and willingly betrayed those oaths.”
“I was just trying to make money,” Edwyn complained.
“The Order has many ways to make money.”
“Hmph,” Edwyn snorted. “Manual labor? Demeaning. Cultivators shouldn’t have to do that.”
“Honest labor has value to society, but if you found it so distasteful… the Order has many different kinds of missions to undertake.”
“So the choices were to work myself to death, or just die? I had no choice except to do what I did.”
“If you expect to be paid for providing no value to the world, we clearly failed in our assessment of you,” the judge inclined his head, “I apologize for that. But willful disregard of the rules will not be tolerated. You clearly went to some lengths to hide it, and the others have corroborated that you knew your sin. The sentence is final, stayed only for the appropriate time for exculpatory evidence to be presented, late as it would be.”
“You know nobody will come with anything,” Edwyn snorted.
“Indeed, we both do,” the judge narrowed his eyes, “But that is because we are fully aware of your guilt. But if we were mistaken, we would not want to rush an execution. And we shall abide by the rules even where the situation is clear cut.”
Kohar watched as Edwyn was dragged away. She almost felt bad. Not for him, in particular, but she had been the one to officially write the charges against all of those involved in the scheme. Usually she didn’t deal in criminal matters, since the prosecution of crimes would be handled by whoever ran a local area. Sometimes she had gathered evidence or consulted on laws, but rarely had she been the one bringing the formal accusations.
The punishments seemed somewhat harsh for some of those involved. Exile and being stripped of their position wasn’t much less than a death sentence, though she supposed cultivators could more easily handle that. Some of those involved seemed to have been sincerely unaware that they were doing anything other than properly collecting taxes, but they were still punished.
Of course, Edwyn had been the one to create the scheme to fill his own pockets. Yet there was little in the way of restitution coming from his possessions- it seemed to have flowed in and out of his pockets at the same rate. Money that had been spent on expensive wines didn’t exactly disappear, but that didn’t compensate the people of the villages that had given up their income to gather that money at the lowest level.
Mostly Kohar was disappointed at how little progress there was creating a larger change in the world at large. Laws were unequal everywhere, and the Order’s own strictures were one of the few that actually weighed against cultivators. Other places didn’t want to cause trouble with those who were strong and might have powerful connections, though the traditions of favoring cultivators weren’t always in writing. That was the problem, even if the law somehow became perfect, imperfect people would be enforcing it.
Kohar watched Devon leave. He didn’t appear terribly enthusiastic about the results either. Nothing was exciting about finding corruption. And what was worse, he didn’t even have a chance to talk to Anton after he returned. Simply finding out that he was safe was some comfort, but Kohar knew seeing people you cared about also mattered.
Terrible power with undertones of dread streaked through the air. It was just energy, but any power used as a weapon brought along with it the fear of death. And the origins of this particular energy were half intertwined with death.
The last time Anton had struck someone with a Spirit Arrow using Fleeting Youth’s power, it had pierced through their chest and exploded out their back. This time, even though no move was made to defend, it simply engulfed them in a cloud of energy, tearing up dirt and bending trees around the area.
“Not too bad,” Grand Elder Kseniya said, “But I still think that bow is awful, even if it’s power is decent.”
Anton lowered his bow. He wasn’t particularly far, but he squinted his eyes to look closely. As far as he could tell, she hadn’t even taken a single step back. So much for surpassing his cultivation phase. An Essence Collection cultivator should at least be able to scratch a Life Transformation Cultivator, right? He hadn’t felt her concentrate her defenses to any particular degree.
“I see several things on your face,” Kseniya commented. “But I’ll admit to not being a mind reader. So I’ll start with some things I think will help. First… you’re still not really strong enough to use that bow. And I do mean strong. It takes more muscle power than you can really manage. But beyond that… do you know what it feels like to get hit with that energy?”
Anton recalled facing off against strongly condensed energy. He’d actually been attacked by a Life Transformation cultivator, though the fact that he had survived hadn’t been related to his own actions. “It would be a sort of suppression, probably. But also… maybe a bit of unexplained fear?”
“That’s the problem,” Kseniya nodded. “If people are going to be suppressed by the pure force of the energy, they need to be crushed. If they’re going to be afraid… they need to be so afraid they can’t respond. But yours isn’t quite either. Explain to me once more how your technique works.”
“It takes advantage of my cognition about my mortality, and my closeness to the end of my lifespan, to draw upon the energy from beyond ascension and into reincarnation.” Anton thought for a few moments. “Ah.”
“Do you get it?”
“I’m pulling on two types of energy.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I noticed it because of those techniques from the Luminous Ocean Society. I’ve studied them more than you, I do believe. They quite easily interfere with what we believe is ascension energy, but that lingering feeling remains. They are so well mixed that I didn’t immediately realize they were not one and the same.”
“That’s what I get, I suppose. Trusting in a technique Everheart created but never practiced.”
She shrugged, “What can I say? Unlike… certain others… Everheart usually had no trouble creating clear instructions for making use of a technique. You certainly obtained the energy. So it failed to mention that you might want to separate the energies for different uses. That won’t even always be true. A mix might be good… if it’s on purpose, and not due to lack of effort.”
“I understand,” Anton said. “What’s next?”
“Just a thousand shots for a little warmup,” Grand Elder Kseniya said.
That was easy enough.
“Without using a bow,” she added on. “I liked hearing about that bowless technique of yours.” She quickly formed a bow out of energy, firing an arrow into the sky. “Just imagine if you break yet another bow.”
So that was it. This was punishment for destroying bows. As if feeling bad about it himself hadn’t been enough.