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After the completion of Anton’s conversations with Elder Atwood he met several others from Infinite Wisdom Forest. Their enthusiasm for teaching people to cultivate energy was not as great as his own, but he successfully convinced them to make some attempts with a small group of people. They were of course interested in the potential for the quantity and quality of natural energy to be improved, potentially removing the need to maintain some expensive formations around their sect.
Beyond the tuberous roots from Ambati, Anton had gathered a small collection of different sorts of crops that could be grown with only a small amount of natural energy, the sort that would gather and amplify it. There were even more he didn’t have possession of, but knew about and was trying to get samples of. No matter how good one thing was, it couldn’t simply be grown everywhere. Besides asking for a blight to overtake a country’s entire crops, the soil would be depleted if not left to rest or maintained with proper crop rotation.
Elder Howland of the Order helped fill Anton in on what things to watch out for in terms of exceptional plants. Some produced more energy while they grew, while others absorbed it- but ultimately it was possible to end up with a net positive amount. And even those plants that fully contained energy within themselves were still useful to cultivators as food or medicines.
The reason the scale of growing such crops was limited was simply from a lack of manpower. The Order was generous with rewarding contribution points for those who worked the fields, but they were limited both by those who chose to perform the work and the absolute numbers involved. Even the largest sects numbered in the thousands, and that was quite little compared to even the countryside surrounding a single large city.
Even if the crops weren’t necessarily of the extraordinary variety, they could be tended to more efficiently by cultivators who had stronger bodies. Even if oxen were plowing the fields, there was much physical labor for a farmer to immerse themself in.
Anton doubted that Infinite Wisdom Forest would care for his plan beyond increasing the availability of energy infused crops and spiritual herbs, but he hoped that was incentive enough for them to wish to make long term efforts.
Silence was pervasive in the observatory. Yet despite that, it wasn’t quite so awkward as it once had been. Hoyt sat patiently as he watched his grandfather slowly move and focus the great telescope. “Come, come, take a look at this.”
Hoyt stepped forward. Everything he was shown was interesting to look at. But this time, it was just blackness. “Is it focused wrong?” he asked. “I only see darkness.”
“Mhmm,” Vandale nodded, “Now feel it.”
Though it was only a very faint thing, the telescope amplified more than just the visual acuity of the stars. They had a sort of feel to them, but it was so minor as to be overlooked when not specifically sensing. “… still nothing.” Was this some sort of exercise to improve his abilities? Hoyt might not be so opposed to those, but he’d prefer to know if he was supposed to be training.
“Interesting, isn’t it?” Vandale smiled widely, “Nothing at all. Or even… less than nothing.”
“I don’t understand,” Hoyt admitted.
Vandale shrugged, “Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m of the belief that something is there. Devouring.”
“Is it a danger?” Hoyt asked.
“Not to us. The only celestial object of note is our own sun and the nearby planets. Everything else is simply too far to concern ourselves with. But it is interesting to look at nonetheless.”
Hoyt agreed. “It’s quite something to look at.” Even the blackness was so pure and rarely seen that it was almost beautiful. But he much preferred shining stars still.
Hoyt’s eyes locked on his grandfather. It was unfortunate that the void reminded him of something. There was some force attached to Vandale, draining him. He still could use a majority of his power, but Hoyt had managed to learn that if he used too much the power could break free, killing him or perhaps doing something worse. He knew his grandfather would choose to die before letting it harm others, but that was the problem. Just because Hoyt didn’t want him to pave his path of cultivation didn’t mean he didn’t want him to live.
“Listen,” his grandfather broke the silence. “I know you don’t want to learn Falling Stars from me. That’s fine. It’s not that great of a technique anyway.”
“It’s amazing,” Hoyt interjected.
Vandale held up his arm, “It might look it, but the first generation of a technique is never going to be its best. Even most of Everheart’s crap has been improved since his time. Anyway, the point was… I can still teach you other things about cultivation and controlling a fiery power like a star. It won’t even look like my other techniques.”
Previously, Hoyt would have refused. That would have been for several reasons, including stubbornness. But now, he found his stubbornness greatly diminished and even pointless. He was still not going to try to be like his grandfather though. “I’ll gladly accept.”
When cultivators could not resolve something quickly, it tended to drag on. From the perspective of the cultivation clans and sects, a single year was not long. The attacks felt more like a rapid flurry, taking advantage of the disorganized nature of the various groups. And disorganized they were, since despite the agreements between sects nothing truly bound the region together.
In a way, however, the attacks had some benefits. Though many youths with promising talent perished, the continued attacks forced different groups to work together to investigate. Black Soul Valley itself was still empty, just ruins that had been combed through many times in the past year. Yet clearly related cultivators still existed, some of them having fled from the battle but clearly they had enough members remaining that there had to have been more than one location.
Along with the suspicions on rival sects, with the information that the attacks made use of illusions some actually justified suspicions began to be formed. Those groups that were sensible were quite cooperative with trying to find the weakness of the illusory techniques used. Others remained stubborn, out of concern that they would reveal weaknesses of their own sect’s techniques in the process. That cast certain groups in more suspicion, but no moves against them had been made as of yet.
One very cooperative group was the Courageous Heart Clan. Their own clan’s techniques required their bloodline to perform properly, and there were features about them that easily put them above suspicion. There were many things that were possible with cultivation, but changing size in a permanent fashion was not one of them. With the Courageous Heart Clan being quite easy to verify as about half the height of a normal human and bodies from those who had been slain being around normal size, only the most extremely paranoid would conflate the two.
The problem was finding anyone with firsthand experience dealing with their illusions and surviving. At least, those who could describe how the techniques might work. There had indeed been juniors of illusion using groups who were killed, but they weren’t so common that they’d had one of the lucky few survivals.
That was the biggest factor. It seemed that this group was well organized to the point of rarely failing, and nobody could point to an incident where their specific plans had been discovered in advance. And people still didn’t know how to find them, despite the feel of their energy being known widely.
The best thing about wandering from city to city was stopping at roadside food vendors. At least, Chikere was a firm believer in that truth. Dumplings, sandwiches, pies, soups, noodles… all sorts of different things were available. The good ones you could smell from far away while walking down the road. In fact, most quality could be spotted from a distance. Fine buildings, fancy clothes, good swords… all usually discernible just from a single glance at any range.
This particular place had several of those things. The building itself was just slats of wood almost randomly held together, but the smells coming from the back were divine. Only a few passers-by were stopped under the overhang when Chikere arrived, but it wasn’t lunchtime. Well, it was lunchtime because she was about to eat, but not the normal time for a meal.
This place happened to serve fish without smelling fishy. A tremendous accomplishment in Chikere’s book. It did smell like frying oil, but that was something she considered good. She ordered a few filets when they got to her and wolfed them down. Delicious.
Her eyes roamed to other patrons of the establishment. They settled on a well-muscled old man. But the person himself wasn’t important. It was the sword at his side. Something was familiar about it. As she got close, she realized it looked like number ten. “Excuse me sir. May I ask where you got your sword?”
He looked over at her, grunting. “Eh. Blacksmith and enchanter in Sarton.”
Chikere waited for more details, but he was no more forthcoming than that. She simply nodded her head in thanks and began to walk away.
It was like number ten. It wasn’t the sword that the other one had been wielding when she got it, but it certainly was related. Forged by the same hand. The only question she had was whether number ten was the best the smith could do… or if there were better available. With at least three similar in quality to number ten, she would bet the smith was capable of more. It was just a question of affording it. But she could sell the old number ten if she had to, and of course there were all of the other swords that had dropped out of the top rankings that she sold a few at a time.
It wouldn’t do to flood the market, but that also meant she had a constant influx of swords. Other weapons, too. It wasn’t like only sword cultivators came after her head. Just mostly that type. They seemed to think she was showing off with all the swords hanging at her waist, and cultivators tended to be the arrogant sort. Some of them were smart enough to not actually try to kill her, though. She extended the same courtesy to them, if not to their pride.
Sarton. It was as good of a target as any. It had been a while since she wandered through Ofrurg. She just hoped the border guards weren’t the annoying ones that kept bugging her about where all the swords marked for the Eternal Sword Hall came from. There was really only one explanation, and they just wasted her time with the same questions over and over.
Natural formations were a strange phenomenon. A stick could represent a line or a more complex rune and fallen leaves could fill key positions, but for the most part larger trees and stones made up the majority of it. After all, if the wind blew and leaves fluttered away, it was hardly a formation but instead a random scattering of stuff.
Only in rare cases were natural formations really much of anything. When they were self-reinforcing, made out of durable materials, they could last for a long time. Catarina knew that people first studied natural formations to understand the more formalized formations they had now. She could see why… and she could also see why people didn’t still do it. It was tedious to look at every little leaf in an area and hope that nothing changed to disturb a small change in the flow of energy before an assessment was complete.
The trickiest thing was making something look natural while that wasn’t the case. Elder Rana had indicated that most of the time it had little value, except for luring someone into an ambush- but hiding formation flags was often easier. And if someone was so attuned to the energy fluctuations anyway, they could pick out either kind if they were looking.
Still, Catarina’s first experience with formations had more involved the natural or semi-natural kind. It had been something of a miracle that she’d been able to learn anything about formations in Carran. Her hometown hadn’t been much of anything special, but a nearby library actually had a few manuals on cultivation. Obviously they had the Ninety-Nine Stars cultivation technique, but they had a few other things as well. That had gotten both her and Timothy started.
As for why she’d studied natural formations, she simply didn’t have special materials. Created formations using natural objects wasn’t technically a natural formation, but rearranging local objects was a reasonable replacement for anything with proper materials when it was required.
Catarina now had the finances to make anything within a certain reasonable threshold, but she was still working on a formation making use of natural objects. It was strangely difficult to accomplish. Of course, Elder Rana reminded her that all of the anti-ascension energy formations were complex, and transferring them to a new medium was likewise going to be difficult.
Yet it wasn’t any harder than some of Everheart’s formations. They could get pretty complex and difficult to manage… with the capacity to go outside of the bounds of the user’s intentions. They crossed the line into forbidden territory in several ways, and Catarina was always cautious with them.
The biggest difficulty with the formations that were supposed to weaken ascension energy was testing them. Her grandpa wasn’t always around, and though they could use other formations to emulate the energy, it was both high in effort and expensive. There was a certain sort of feeling a formation master eventually got for how something would work, but there were still small details that could benefit from testing.
Catarina sighed. She hoped that she would have a long time before she needed these particular techniques. Or preferably, they wouldn’t ever be needed at all. But that was probably just a nice dream.