Very rarely would a group of thirty Essence Collection cultivators be gathered together at one time. Though the Order might have more than that technically present somewhere on their grounds, they weren’t often brought in for a single meeting. An exception would be a meeting of all the elders, but these particular individuals had few of the elders among them.
None of them knew what they had been called in for, though Grand Elder Matousek quickly answered their unspoken questions. “Normally, the Order isn’t in the habit of conscripting individuals for particular tasks. We tend to let the rewards speak for themselves, and let people fill in positions as they please. However,” the man paused as he looked over those in front of him, “I’m sure you are all aware that we are not in normal times. There are many issues yet to be resolved with the Twin Soul Sect and others who share similar temperaments. Not just here in Graotan, but elsewhere as well.”
Anton nodded to himself. He’d noticed many people going out on missions. He might have volunteered for some himself, but he was focusing on other areas. The initial plantings of various things he had obtained were being worked on by himself and Elder Howland, and he was planning to travel about Graotan checking on the various groups he’d started along the path of cultivation. Even if they were still maintaining everyday jobs, he planned to uplift them to a greater level. Unfortunately, it seemed like some of his plans might be interrupted.
“Now, don’t be too concerned,” Grand Elder Matousek said. “We’re not sending you off into some sort of battle. There may yet be some, but today, we are calling upon you to be guards. The borders of Graotan are kept secure thanks to many like you, but at the moment we are spread so thin we need all of you to just make up for those who are now occupied with other important missions. Even with you, we might be a little bit thin.”
Anton knew that a large number of people had been heading out on missions as of late, especially those with higher cultivations, but he hadn’t thought things would have come so far. He thought the Order was usually more cautious, and while he understood striking while the iron was hot, this seemed more extreme than usual. Of course, Graotan was usually more than safe. Though it bothered him to think of it, what happened to Dungannon was not a major security flaw on the scale of a nation- and the borders had been more closely watched in recent years. The only real incident had been when the Order intentionally drew an attack for the execution of of three criminals, one of which had been Van Hassel who was the leader of the attack on Dungannon and other places.
The Twin Soul Sect might have an unknown number of forces arrayed throughout various countries, but Anton didn’t imagine they would be able to easily gather up a combined force capable of threatening the Order, not with everything else going on and so many other sects trying to root them out.
Someone else in the room believed differently, and in fact had been working on a plan for an attack at the first possible opening. Because while it might be suicidal to attack the Order with the current state of the Twin Soul Sect, that didn’t matter as long as they died doing something meritorious. And being the insider who arranged such an attack would be an exceptional merit.
When Anton thought of the duty of a border guard, he had honestly though he would be going… further. At the very least, he would have thought he would be far enough to not see his house. And he technically couldn’t most of the time, but not because he was too far away. There just happened to be a mountain that got in the way. Technically that was the main thing that stopped anyone from seeing anything, but the important part was he could shoot his house with an arrow from his current position. He couldn’t guarantee being more accurate than hitting some part of his house or maybe his yard, but he really wasn’t far at all.
Ambati was to the west of Graotan, and while most of Ambati was neutral or even positively inclined towards the Order, every border had to be watched. That included the one just at the foot of the mountain upon which the Order had its main facilities. He wasn’t sure if it was fair that he got the cushiest job- where he could actually go home to his bet when he was off duty- but someone had to draw this location. He wasn’t the only one, either.
Border guards didn’t work alone. Along with a number of Spirit Building disciples, Anton worked alongside a rotating group of others, one Essence Collection member at a time. They were the most important, because their senses could range the furthest. Even with every cultivator in the Order, it was impossible to secure every piece of the border all at once… but they could catch the largest threats. Other disciples patrolling the roads as well as other sects could handle the rest. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it couldn’t be. It could only be good enough.
For the most part, Anton had little to do. However, even just watching for enemies approaching could be training. While it would be a problem if he pushed himself too far trying to sense them and exhausted himself, riding the line of expanding his senses to the limit while still preserving himself for the entire shift was a good practice, if a bit boring. But on a job like this, boring was better than anything else.
After a couple weeks Anton was well into the rhythm of things, when he sensed an oddity. He wasn’t quite sure if he’d sensed anything, but he had to carefully sweep his senses over the whole area without focusing on any one point to avoid alerting his target. He sensed it again, and knew there was a problem. Unfortunately, it was one he would have to wait to reveal. At least Grand Elder Vandale was still present, even if many of the others he trusted were away on missions.
“We know,” Vandale said matter-of-factly as Anton revealed a traitor in their midst. “Zajoc and I investigated every single person, you might recall,” Vandale’s grin revealed sagging skin and the weakness of age, but his eye still sparkled with life. “I do appreciate you bringing it to our attention, of course. I cannot claim to be perfect. But, we were already aware that Majken Albrecktsson was actually a member of the Twin Soul Sect. And that is all I will say on the matter at the moment.”
Anton was prepared to ask ‘why’, but Vandale had just said he wouldn’t answer. Besides, Anton was pretty sure he could figure it out on his own. In fact, he was pretty sure that they’d expected him to figure it out. It had seemed strange that he ended up with only a few of the different possible options. While the pairs were said to be arranged to cover weaknesses, Anton had the best sensing range of anyone and could have gone with anyone- but instead himself and a few others were the only ones paired with Majken, which resulted in them having fewer other partners.
Anton idly wondered where everyone was, and how long he was expected to be placed on guard duty. But they’d very specifically not called out a timeframe… perhaps because that might tip their hand.
Anton still had no name for the mother doe, and he wasn’t sure if he should. In theory, she could live just fine without him- especially since she had the energy to be a dominant force in the forest that entered the Order’s lands.
She was getting closer to giving birth, and while that might slow her down she was still strong enough that he didn’t need to worry. But he did, and he brought treats as well. The doe wasn’t particularly fond of the tubers from Ambati, but she liked some of the leafy plants he’d gathered even if they held less energy.
Some of what he brought was actually grown in Windrip, by those in the cultivator community he had started. It would be difficult to deny the effectiveness of what happened there, and while other places weren’t going quite so strong- either from less guidance by Anton or the particular sets of talents- it was becoming clear enough that Anton’s methods worked. Not just teaching people early cultivation, but also how to improve the overall amount of natural energy in an area.
As he’d long before discussed with Elder Howland, certain plants required abundant natural energy to grow. If an area was too weak they could deplete everything around them and still not grow, though if those tending them willingly gave what they gathered themselves they could supplement the demand. Once those plants grew, however, cultivators who consumed them could grow stronger. And some plants actually had a net positive output of natural energy, once they passed a certain threshold.
The area around Windrip in particular was showing great advancements, and if it could expand significantly enough… Anton hoped that the restraints around the Order keeping their own area of abundant energy could actually be relaxed. Ultimately, his goal was to build up all of Graotan to at least match the lowest levels of the Order. The natural energy would still be gathered to the highest density atop the mountain, but everyone else would have the same energy available as a disciple of the Order.
But that time was still decades off. Decades Anton hoped he would live through, but wasn’t certain of. He certainly doubted he would die of old age, but he wasn’t going to stay out of important conflicts just because he might be in danger. Especially an upcoming one, related to his mandatory guard duties.
Though perhaps her rate of cultivation was not the greatest among her peers, that didn’t stop Majken from being ambitious. Likewise, just because she wasn’t the stealthiest didn’t mean she couldn’t keep a secret. It was all about staying calm. The Twin Soul Sect wouldn’t have survived long if their members couldn’t handle themselves appropriately.
Majken couldn’t quite stop herself from getting a little bit excited about the upcoming event, but she had a good excuse. A new sword was sheathed at her side. It seemed only appropriate to spend the resources she had been building up while she could, as it would allow her to be more effective in the upcoming battle. And it wouldn’t be strange for a guard to want to purchase a new weapon either.
She had other abilities that extended beyond melee combat, of course, but from the perspective of the Order that would be her general area of speciality. And her real abilities could still be used with the weapon, just not with the glowing, obvious energy of the Ninety-Nine Stars.
Majken knew she shouldn’t disparage the technique so much despite the fact that it was technically incomplete. It was still far better than most available techniques. Even the Twin Soul Sect didn’t have an easy path to ascension, though it would never be easy. And Majken was well aware she wouldn’t have gotten to ninety-nine or a hundred stars on her own regardless.
Still, it was just so… blatant. While some people might occasionally restrain their energy, other members of the Order were like glowing beacons. One of those she was often placed on duty with was one of those. He was an old man known as Anton Krantz. An archer, and probably capable of causing quite a ruckus once he noticed people were coming. And that wouldn’t be long.
He was clearly ready to fight at any moment, his energy arrayed out from him in all directions. She was actually a little bit impressed that he didn’t leak away so much energy that he tired himself out, but he was able to maintain that state throughout the day. He was watching. Watching for people coming from the west. Maybe even the north or south. But he wouldn’t be watching for people coming from the east… directly behind him.
He was still in Essence Collection though. She had to make sure her first strike would take him out. For that, she needed to use her true ability. It only took a tiny instant to reveal her proper cultivation and empower her own attack, stabbing for his heart. Just one instant where she focused all of her energy into an attack. Which left her quite surprised when she very briefly saw an arrow flying through the air. It was strange though, because for it to have that trajectory it would have had to go through her. And who could have shot it?