As the words “Enjoy your camping trip” faded, Anton felt like something tugged on the back of his shirt. Anton frowned as he opened his eyes. Suddenly having everything feel normal was quite a shock, and so was finding his back against a tree instead of a white stone wall. And the fruit hanging from the tree seemed far too delectable. Anton looked at them carefully.
“Not everything is a trap you know,” came a voice from nowhere. Anton continued to inspect the fruit from a distance. “That includes this fruit, specifically. I just want to be clear on that. I can’t have someone who learned that technique just die here. Especially after I went to all that trouble to add a way to teleport you out.”
Anton grabbed a fruit and took a bite. His teeth broke through the red skin into sweet flesh below, and he swallowed. Energy rushed into him freely. That was a good sign. He just hoped it wasn’t poisoned. But Everheart could have just killed him or left him. He might as well trust him this far.
As he got to the center of the fruit, Anton found a core with a number of seeds. The core was harder to bite through, but still quite flavorful and brimming with energy. The seeds themselves had abundant natural energy. Anton looked over the tree in front of him. There had only been the single fruit hanging from its branches. He’d heard of several sorts that had very few fruit. Some said they only bore one fruit per century, but Anton doubted that. They would have died out long ago, the way cultivators went through things.
He took a good look at the soil around the tree. The tree itself wasn’t particularly tall, but very few things grew around it. It seemed it took the majority of nutrients, leaving only a few types of undergrowth with different needs around its roots. No other tree dared to grow near it, though some overshadowed it, hiding it from the light of…
Well, it wasn’t the sun. Because despite how high the ceilings were, they were certainly in a constructed underground area. Still, the light in the sky produced an energy reminiscent of the sun. It might even be the same energy, transferred to this place through some convoluted series of formations. That seemed like something Everheart would do.
Anton thought to look for another place to plant a seed or two. Then they could grow tall and strong into more trees of the same kind. They couldn’t be too close, though, or they would compete for nutrients in the soil an energy to absorb. Anton could feel the tree pulling in the natural energy around it now that its fruit was gone, beginning the long process to produce another.
Soon enough he found a place, but as soon as he was about to press a seed into the ground, he stopped. The seeds had enough energy in them that they could push him over the boundary between Spirit Building and Essence Collection. The thought was tempting, but he actually stopped because he remembered something. Something about Everheart, specifically.
Though he was currently meandering through a large forest, he hadn’t forgotten he was still in one of Everheart’s tombs. On the moon, even. The circumstances were slightly different, but he had the feeling the facility wouldn’t be lasting after they were gone. Just like the others. No, though he would like to give back to this forest, it was better to preserve the seeds for elsewhere. And he thought that there were probably other trees of similar rarity that could use some help surviving.
He wasn’t sure exactly when it happened, but sometime after he resolved himself to collect seeds from the area simply to preserve them beyond the inevitable collapse of the area they were in, he felt himself step into Essence Collection. If it had happened a day before he would have not found himself in nearly so much trouble… or perhaps he would have been taken more seriously and thus perished quickly. That was hard to say.
Since he found himself safe for the moment, he stopped. He hadn’t run into anyone else yet, and he needed to rest to help his side recover. He looked inward, still finding himself quite certain he’d just reached Essence Collection. He still hadn’t formed the twenty-ninth star, but he had begun the process. Essence Collection would consist of a set of thirteen and then seventeen stars, the next two primes. Unlike previous stages, each star was more nebulous. He took a look at the cultivation manual, reading through it once more. He simply needed to collect essence that fit him, and then refine it into some sort of focus.
Simple, if Essence were simply natural energy condensed into a more powerful form. It was that, but it was also more. He mulled through the few strands of insight he had, pausing as he saw Grand Elder Vandale’s and a few from Kseniya. Those were still too much for him to absorb, but Emma had a few he was going to absorb.
They were of very little help to him. Despite the fact that it seemed like she had cultivated the Ninety-Nine Stars to the stage they would call Constellation Formation inside the Order, as he absorbed the insights he determined that Twin Soul Sect members only half cultivated the style they displayed to the world. A greater focus was placed on the actual cultivation technique behind that. It was unfortunate that he couldn’t find any weaknesses in the few strands he absorbed, except that small tidbit.
It was unsurprising to Anton that the few pieces of information he got indicated that the Twin Soul Sect stole cultivation, both the energy and a mutilated form of their insights, from other cultivators. While it seemed possible for them to advance to the point of Essence Collection simply by their own training, eventually they would have to kill and steal. Not that any of them seemed reluctant to do so- even from each other, for the most part.
Anton stood up, after how many hours he wasn’t sure. The light remained the same, but since there was no real sun it might simply be constant. Either way, his side was healed somewhat and his cultivation stabilized in Essence Collection. He even had converted some of his stores of energy into the more powerful form of Essence, though it was difficult. He didn’t quite fully understand his connection.
While that might have seemed like a problem, the Ninety-Nine Stars manual indicated it was best if it happened naturally instead of seeking out a connection. Recalling what he was doing, he could have assumed it was some connection to plants and farming. He’d been a farmer all his life, after all. He didn’t think that was wrong, but it was also an incomplete picture.
He would have more time to ponder the specific details later. For the moment, he should explore the forest for whatever test was going on, and possibly other people. Preferably allies.
Timothy stood at the vanguard of the group, not that it was any different from normal. He was just more aware of his protective position. It was part of him now, since he’d reached Essence Collection.
With him were the usual group, Velvet, Catarina, and Hoyt. Anton was still missing, having never arrived through the doors. They had invited Chikere, but this time she had decided to strike out on her own.
He wasn’t sure if Chikere’s cultivation method dealt with the stage differently, but he had the feeling her essence was just ‘swords’. Her devotion was admirable, but Timothy didn’t have that same sort of tie to his weapons.
They were simply tools used for a purpose. A proper cultivator took care of their tools, but in the end they were simply objects. His sword and shield let Timothy protect people, sometimes proactively and sometimes defensively.
He scanned the forest around them, looking for enemies. He wasn’t as good of a scout as Velvet, and if Anton had been around anything he could notice would be spotted a kilometer away through the trees… but he had to at least try to contribute. He’d actually developed a pretty good danger sense, at least enough for him to react to unseen threats in time to protect his allies.
So far they had run into a six limbed and two-headed bear that tried to tear them apart, though that one wasn’t hard to spot. Fending off all of its attacks had been difficult for the time it took Hoyt and Catarina to chop off an arm, but after that it had gotten quickly more simple. By the time it realized it was in danger, Velvet had already hamstrung its rear legs so it couldn’t advance or retreat. The creature seemed edible, so they cooked it up. It was far too large to eat all at once, but they preserved much of it, the strong energy doubtless being something that would help them later. And of course some of it would be saved for Fuzz, but he wasn’t present at the moment. It was a bit too much for Alva and him to come to something focused on ascension. Though of course Timothy knew he wasn’t that close either.
Anton hummed quietly to himself as he walked through the woods, picking up seeds from every plant he didn’t recognize. Even the ones he was pretty sure were poisonous might have medicinal applications when properly handled. So far the forest had been fairly safe, though his experience had helped him notice some particularly dangerous plants around. The random ivy crawling along the ground was suspicious enough for him to be cautious, and the dead body of a rabbit nearby was a giveaway.
From what he could tell it had only brushed against a few of the leaves, suffering a fate much worse than just an itchy irritant like normal poison ivy. There were large blisters and sores that had to have developed very rapidly before the creature perished. Anton decided it was best to avoid touching anything with his skin. He pulled out a small box he had for just such situations. He stretched out some tendrils of energy to pluck some green berries and place them in the box.
Even with only brief contact, he felt something trying to dig its way through his energy towards him. What an awful plant. He’d have to carefully consider if he wanted to actually do anything with it. He hadn’t seen it down below, so it might have been wiped out. And he wouldn’t necessarily mind that.
His trail next brought him to a clearing with a small lake. A watering hole for animals in the area, no doubt. He decided to wait, uncertain if he might run into anything coming to drink. He didn’t need to hunt, but he would enjoy some fresh meat and wanted to see what lived in the area.
Among the creatures he was pretty sure he saw entirely regular squirrels, normal size with no energy at all, as well as a giant boar. He wasn’t in the mood for a troublesome fight, so he left the boar to its own. About an hour later, he saw a doe deer enter the clearing from his hiding place. It was a specimen of fine health, with a lustrous coat. Not only that, but he felt the spark of energy from within it. Such a creature would be a fine catch. If he estimated its value, it would be enough to fund the whole of Dungannon for a year just off the skin alone- it was of such a quality that a cultivator could certainly make use of it for something.
He raised his bow, preparing to fire. Fine dining for the near future and perhaps a nice set of boots and gloves, maybe even a jacket, was just one shot away. But before he finished gathering his energy, he released it. The doe was pregnant. It would be a shame to kill her before allowing her to birth the next generation. Though if he was right she would not survive long regardless.
Anton looked around, finding a large oak nearby. He carefully climbed up, plucking a handful of fist-sized acorns that were just about ready to fall. He could have shaken them off, but the noise would have startled the doe.
He walked carefully, avoiding making any noise as he approached. At three meters, one eye locked onto him. He slowly placed down an acorn and backed away, leaving them in a trail that was easily followed.
The creature moved cautiously, unsure if he was a threat. Anton wasn’t really certain about that either way. It was true that most of the animals he had raised had perished by his own hand, but at the same time most of them wouldn’t have been born, produced offspring, or lived nearly so long without his involvement. A deer was something that was normally not kept in captivity, but then again… Fuzz was a wolf, and Catarina had handled that easily enough. Anton wasn’t sure if he could bring this creature with him, but he wanted to try.