Over time, patterns began to emerge in relation to the attacks. Suspicions became confirmations as information was sorted, unrelated attacks being filtered out as much as they could. Weaker cultivators were being targeted. Not just that, but younger cultivators. Those with potential. Though those who hadn’t been promising students were rarely kept track of in fine detail.
There were more incidents than the one Anton was a part of where the attackers were defeated. Strangely enough, they seemed mostly unconcerned with preserving their own lives, and fought to the death rather than allowing themselves to be captured. Few cultivators had such fanatic loyalty to a cause, though if they thought there might be a worse fate in store for them if they were captured, choosing to die would make sense. In that case, though, they would likely be cautious about engaging in the attacks in the first place.
While capturing cultivators who were unwilling could be quite difficult, especially when they were always the attackers and thus thought they had the advantage, it did happen in a few incidents. Along with the bodies, it was confirmed that at least some of the attackers practiced the same type of cultivation as those in Black Soul Valley.
Yet none of them had so far been discovered in a city, going about their daily business. That meant they had to have some way to conceal their cultivation from others, or possibly allies. While cultivators might survive in the wilderness if they were strong enough, they would never obtain suitable weapons and equipment. Since there weren’t frequent enough robberies or unresolved incidents for such a large group to have raised up cultivators who were often in Spirit Building and sometimes Essence Collection, it was logical to assume they interacted with other cultivators without them knowing.
Tensions between sects were on the rise. Nobody liked their disciples being targeted, and those with grudges against each other were suspicious of reports that their rivals were also being attacked. Some groups took the opportunity to have their own conflicts, as any excuse was enough to push things over the tipping point in some cases.
Time continued to flow, no matter how much it would be convenient if it would wait. Anton was not concerned about it from the perspective of his own mortality. Even if he hadn’t come to terms with it long before, at the current moment he was still gaining lifespan faster than it was passing him by, though he couldn’t say by how much.
It took a year for him to go from the twenty-fifth star to the twenty-eighth, and now he stood at the precipice of Essence Collection. He felt as if he could step into it at any time, but there were dangers associated with certain increases in cultivation. In early Body Tempering, a cultivator was not necessarily skilled enough to control the energy they brought into themselves, making it one of the riskiest times. Yet crossing the borders between the stages had its own danger as well.
Each step represented an increase in quantity and quality of energy, and with that came more stringent requirements to control it. Anton had gone smoothly from Body Tempering to Spirit Building in a moment of crisis, but it was not usually the best way. Of course there were always the stories of ancient cultivator geniuses who always broke through when their lives were in danger, surpassing stage after stage. They might even be true- but just because someone accomplished something didn’t mean it was the best for them.
If stepping into a new stage was the difference between life and death, of course those cultivators who succeeded would be heard about. Yet all of those who failed would be forgotten to time.
Anton found the thoughts that most concerned him weren’t whether or not he could step into Essence Collection and control the energy there. They weren’t thoughts about his training with Ksenya, which continually pushed him further than he thought he could go. They were about people. Friends and family and those he didn’t really have a category for. Everyone he taught how to cultivate, some learning more quickly than others.
He also thought about those from different sects, and people he didn’t even know who were attacked and killed. What little information came to them from passing ships didn’t change anything. His mind was so focused on what he couldn’t do anything about, and all of his training in Emotion and Voice did little to settle his heart.
He almost envied those who cared nothing for the world like the Frostmirror Sect, but it was also his feelings for everything that inspired him to continue. And even the Frostmirror Sect was not entirely made up of heartless individuals. Despite what they liked to think, Anton was aware more than a few of them never truly completely severed their emotions. In fact, if they truly completed the task to the greatest degree they might end up doing nothing at all. It might seem purely logical to grow stronger and cultivate even without feelings being involved, but Anton didn’t think that would be the case. Logic on its own never gave reason to do anything, but simply guided one on what might be the most ‘efficient’ way to do so. But different minds could disagree even on what might seem like clear points.
Anton certainly didn’t intend to cut himself off from emotion, and simply suppressing his thoughts while he tried to break through to Essence Collection seemed like the wrong way. Yet he couldn’t simply wait for current matters to be resolved. He would likely need as much strength as he could get in the next few years.
Grand Elder Kseniya had dragged him off to the north, through Estary to some small outlying islands. The reason was quite simple. There wasn’t anything particular special about the area except for… nothing. That was what they were surrounded by. Kilometers of open ocean, with nothing in sight for him to hit. Not even land, for the most part, so he had no concern about doing everything at full power. Even if he targeted the water, at most he could only harm a few fish- but most of them swam deep enough his arrows didn’t easily penetrate.
“I need to go,” Anton simply said one day. He hadn’t completed the training to separate the two types of energy he gathered from Fleeting youth, he hadn’t broken through to Essence Collection, he hadn’t even mastered Horizon Shot to Kseniya’s standards. Though to be fair, that last one had extremely exacting standards. Anton considered it good enough for the moment to be able to fire an arrow to a place beyond his vision, even if it wouldn’t strike any particular target.
“Okay,” Kseniya said. That was it. No protests of any sort, warnings that he needed to complete his training, or anything else. “I’m sure they’d like to have me back at the Order anyway.
Anton didn’t think the training was a failure. He’d made great strides in the areas he was pursuing, but simply hadn’t been able to see any of them to completion as of yet. If only cultivation was so straightforward as putting up a barn. Every piece was created and put in its place, and then it just worked. But people weren’t quite like that. Or maybe there were just more pieces elsewhere that he didn’t know he needed.
On previous visits to Estary, Anton had just been passing through. The first time he was fleeing from Ofrurg, and then he passed through both going to and leaving the Luminous Ocean Society’s ruins. He’d more or less gone through the whole country once more without really stopping to see much, but this time he intended to stay a bit longer.
Sometimes Anton felt his focus was too narrow, sometimes too broad. However, he couldn’t help but look at the people of Estary as he walked past them. Nothing was particularly wrong with them, just as common villagers in Graotan lived their lives and would continue to do so. They grew up, farmed, practiced a trade, ran a shop, and everything else that humans did to occupy their time and survive to the next generation. He found nothing wrong with it, a good life. And far better than many in Ofrurg and other places where they might be slaves or face harsh environmental conditions.
But… it could be better. Life wasn’t just about work and income. Cultivating to be more efficient at your work ultimately wasn’t enough by itself- but the satisfaction of a job well done was one of many joys of life. Money was just bits of metal, but buying a present for a loved one who would love the gift as much as they loved you back was a wonderful feeling. Living a life without fear, beyond the normal ebb and flow of worrisome seasons and life events was ultimately something worth pursuing. And Anton felt that cultivation would help people do more of everything. And ultimately they would have less reason to fear the world.
Estary had a good relationship with the Order, but Anton wasn’t just going to go around teaching people the Ninety-Nine Stars cultivation technique on a whim. For one thing, he wouldn’t be there when people ran into problems. So instead of convincing common folk that they should learn to cultivate, he was more interested in the various sects taking up that burden. And if he had to convince them that ultimately the people and land would be improved to motivate them, he would do so.
Infinite Wisdom Forest was located in northwestern Estary, just a short way from the coast. Their name was rather grandiose, but they weren’t an arrogant bunch for the most part. Their name was not intended to imply that they had infinite wisdom, but that they were seeking it. Though he’d only listened to a few conversations with one of their elders who came to preside as a judge in the trial of Zvonko and the others, he’d been quite impressed by what they said. And while he didn’t expect to just be able to walk in and speak to high ranking elders, very few sects would turn away a cultivator at the peak of Spirit Building who wished to visit.
Though he showed up unannounced, the guards at the ceremonial entrance gate ushered him inside with few questions, except to confirm his origins. He was brought to see a man of similar cultivation, the peak of Spirit Building, though Anton guessed that he himself had been cultivating for significantly less time. “Elder Atwood, Elder Anton Krantz of the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars has arrived as a guest.”
“It is a pleasure to have a visitor,” Elder Atwood said, and from everything Anton could tell he met it. “To what do we owe the honor of your visit?”
“I wanted to consult with Infinite Wisdom Forest on a certain matter. Oh, and before we progress further… I should note that I am not technically an elder in the Order. There are a limited number of seats, thought I might hold one of them some day.”
“Titles matter not, compared to the cultivation and understanding of a person. What matter do you wish to speak on? I’m sure you could find someone interested in nearly any topic you wished to broach.”
“It’s something of a personal quest of mine,” Anton admitted. “It concerns the separation between those who cultivate, and those who do not.”
“Do go on,” Elder Atwood said with interest.
“Cultivators tend to remove themselves from the rest of society, either through physical distance or other methods. In many cases, it is a sensible approach. Cultivators must seek out places with high concentrations of natural energy so that they might grow stronger, and many such locations are too harsh for those who don’t cultivate to endure.” Anton paused to organize his thoughts. “Yet those who do not cultivate, even if that is because of poor talent, might still benefit from some minimal amount of interaction with cultivation. To most of those who do not cultivate themselves, those of us who do are mysterious and strange… and even terrifying in our power.”
“Fear of the unknown and greater powers are not uncommon, nor entirely irrational,” Elder Atwood commented. “But it is better to not cause such unnecessarily. Like your Order, we of the Forest try to grow connections to those around us so they feel like both of us belong.”
“I am pleased to hear that,” Anton said, “Yet I would wish for more. Many of those who do not cultivate, either because they have low talent or because they fear the danger, still might benefit from cultivating to a small degree. A stronger body allows one to be more productive in many arenas, and even a slightly extended lifespan could greatly affect some individuals.”
“I would tend to agree,” Elder Atwood said. “But I do not gather that you are purely speaking in hypotheticals.”
“Indeed you are right. In Graotan, I have been guiding a number of individuals through the early stages of cultivation. I have seen the changes that can make, even if most remain in early Body Tempering.”
“It must be a significant effort, to guide so many.”
“It can be,” Anton said, “Though in time I would hope that my personal involvement wasn’t required. If every community had several who learned everything most people needed to know about cultivation, they could continue to maintain a certain level on their own.”
“Interesting. But how would this be different from turning everything into a cultivation sect?” Elder Atwood smiled widely as they talked.
“Let me explain my thoughts,” Anton began. He had quite a few things to cover, and though he wasn’t sure if Elder Atwood or anyone from Infinite Wisdom Forest would actually do anything with those thoughts, at least someone was listening. If he failed here, at least he would learn something about how other cultivation groups thought.