It was well after dark when the two carriages pulled up in front of the gates to the Frostmirror Sect. Even so, the gate guards were ready and efficient. “Please state your business with the Frostmirror Sect,” one of the guards stated flatly. He was a young man, but he spoke clearly and precisely.
Though Anton knew they could sense their cultivations, a formal answer seemed appropriate. “We are the group from the Order of Ninety-Nine Stars sent to finalize a special mission. That includes Kohar, the woman of law.”
“You are expected,” the guard nodded his head. “One moment and I shall fetch the liaison assigned to you.”
Anton expected to wait anywhere between a quarter of an hour to a full hour, but as the young man popped into a nearby building and returned along with another man it seemed he really meant it.
“Greetings,” the middle aged man with dark skin and hair inclined his head. “I am Elder Jyothi. We expected your arrival to be soon, so I have been made available to guide you as necessary. Follow me, and I will show you to the guest quarters.” He turned around and began to walk, setting a pace that was more than a quick walk for the horses, but well within their capabilities.
“We might also need some… unplanned additional accommodations,” Anton began to explain as they moved along.
“For your captives?” Elder Jyothi nodded, “We can easily provide that. If they are relevant to the situation at hand, the Frostmirror Sect would request additional information.”
“They attacked us on the way, at the Great Bridge in Comvern Peaks,” Anton explained. “It seems unlikely they are unconnected to our business.”
“Were any casualties sustained to your party?” Elder Jothi asked.
“No, we managed to break through as one part of them tried to collapse or at least limit the bridge. The majority were moving in from the rear, though we noticed them in time to react appropriately.”
“That is good to hear,” the man said. “It is unfortunate that anyone would attempt such a brazen attack near the Frostmirror Sect’s territory, a problem we will have to address in the future. But since you seem to have come out ahead, I shall congratulate you on your effectiveness.”
Anton sighed internally. If the Frostmirror Sect leaned further from the righteous path it would be difficult for the Order to work with them despite their power. However, it seemed whatever logic they used to orient their actions had at least made them a tolerable choice as an ally. Their actual loyalty wouldn’t be in question- they would only form an alliance they knew would benefit them, and would work hard to make sure things worked as they should. Since the Order would likewise do their best to fulfill their end, it was a good partnership. Even if one side failed they would only be disappointed instead of ready to pounce on the other in a time of weakness.
Not that the Frostmirror Sect was above attacking weakened opponents, but they understood the power of good will, and betraying allies wasn’t worth the cost. Though the fact that it was structured that was why they were just tolerable allies. The Order wouldn’t betray allies because it was wrong, not because of some mental calculations.
Still, even if the path was winding, the fact that they overall made choices that were morally acceptable was sufficient. Anton hoped for some change towards his conception of righteousness, and perhaps that would come about through working with them. He knew Annelie was doing her part as well, though there was only so much influence one young cultivator could have. But in a few decades… Anton anticipated a shift towards the better.
Besides Elder Jothi as their guide throughout the Sect, the others they were to be working with weren’t immediately available. After all, though their arrival window had been anticipated, people weren’t just waiting around doing nothing. That gave the group a couple of days to do as they pleased, and for many of them that meant seeking out Annelie.
Anton was obviously fond of his ‘first’ great grandchild- at least the first he’d known of- and Alva was primarily excited about coming on the mission for a chance to see her cousin again.
The Frostmirror Sect had placed some limitations on her actions previously, but they were more willing to let her be unrestricted given her own cultivation advancements and that of her visitors. She had proven herself to the Frostmirror Sect, and they didn’t want to restrict their guests.
Though she didn’t have to bring them, Alva showed up flanked by Diana and Marsen. As Anton looked over them, he assessed their cultivations as well as more important things. Late Spirit Building for all of them- not that he’d expected much different- but more importantly he felt something real under their frosty exterior.
“Let us go out on the lake,” Annelie suggested. “It’s quite nice out there.”
Anton nodded. Implied, of course, was that it would be a safe place to talk. The Frostmirror Sect might not take kindly to him ‘corrupting’ the cultivation of some of their most promising recruits. There was a certain perspective where it was an appropriate concern, since messing around with cultivation methods could be dangerous, but the changes weren’t actually all that big. He’d just helped them apply some principles of the Ninety-Nine Stars to their own cultivation.
Once they were out on the lake, Alva waited in tense anticipation. Her previous interaction with her cousin had been… not the best. Most of that had been her own fault, of course, but she’d taken her anger out on her cousin and ended up knocking both of them out of the tournament in Facraona. She hadn’t exactly avoided her since then, but they also hadn’t ended up near each other. She was thinking about what she should do or say so hard she didn’t anticipate Annelie’s actions at all.
Her body reacted well before her mind did, so she found herself with her head above water but no concept of how she got there. She could only manage a blank stare at Annelie. Then Annelie began snickering.
“I can’t believe how easy it was to push you in! What were you thinking about so hard, hmm?”
“Oh…” Alva pulled herself halfway up onto the little boat Annelie was in, seeming to have trouble getting over it. “You know. Stuff.” As she stretched her upper body over the edge of the boat, thinking of grabbing Annelie’s ankle, she got a better idea. She shoved down and back on the edge of the boat as hard as she could, flipping it over instead of giving Annelie the chance to dodge her grab. That also ended up with Diana in the water, but that was a sacrifice Alva was willing to make.
After being completely dunked in cold water, it was easy to imagine that people would be unconcerned about being splashed in the face or dunked again. But the two of them quickly got into a brawl where they were climbing over each other and splashing each other, even to the point where they used energy to augment their attacks. It was all in good fun, but a serious tone from their grandfather stopped them.
“Girls…” Anton said, drawing out the sound and causing them to turn and look at him. He stood upright in his boat, looking at them sternly. Once they were firmly facing him, he kicked his leg out into the water in front of his boat, sending a wave over them. As they coughed and sputtered while holding onto each other, he chuckled. “Did you really think I’d let just the two of you participate in a splash war?” Then his eyes locked on another target.
Diana was treading water nearby. She had already flipped the boat back over, but climbing in wouldn’t change how wet she was- and the boats were only for convenience anyway. Any Spirit Building cultivator could swim all day even without making use of natural energy. Anton dipped his hand in the lake, coating it with a ball of water the size of his head which he flung at her. He grinned as she locked eyes with him, startled. Nobody would be excluded on his watch. He reached down to grab another in case she needed more provoking, but she responded wonderfully.
An instant later Diana popped out of the lake as she formed a pillar of ice beneath her. She spun on top of it, forming a swirl of water which she shoved towards Anton. Near-freezing water, colder than the lake around it, washed over Anton, Catarina, and Marsen. Their boat didn’t quite flip, but it was flooded and barely staying afloat.
By the end of the splash war, Fuzz had leapt from the shore where he was watching into the middle of the lake, unsure of how to participate in what was happening but very eager to do so.
It was impossible for anyone to fail to notice what was happening on the lake, so the rest of their companions joined them quickly enough. They had thought there might be some sort of private, mostly-family conversation happening but in the end even Elder Tshering and Kohar joined in on the fun.
As for what the Frostmirror Sect would think about such activities, Anton had a good excuse lined up if they asked. Splash fights were an alternative method of training that involved using the surrounding natural features to attack and defend in unexpected ways. It seemed Diana was actually best at that, and despite her former position as a grudging watcher over Annelie by her continued presence- now that Annlie matched her in cultivation- it seemed she was something of a friend.
Diana had at first been introduced to their particular little group because she simply failed to properly quash her emotions instead of doing it on purpose, but that was more a matter of personality than cultivation talent.
“Ah…” Diana said when she was back in the boat, quickly drying off with a surge of energy. “That was fun. We rarely get a chance to let some emotions show.” She looked nervously towards the shore. “Do you think we went too far?”
“I don’t see anybody who seems to have picked out that the three of you were also enjoying yourselves, if that’s your worry,” Anton replied. “The rest of us made enough noise to cover for the two and a half of you.” Anton locked his eyes on Marsen. The young man was slightly grinning, which was a good sign in Anton’s mind. That was about as far as he had gone in terms of expressing himself during the activities, but even the serious way he had participated was just his true personality shining through. He had real emotions inside, he just wasn’t the type to have them on display regardless of cultivation method.
Some unlucky souls on the shore got fully drenched as Fuzz realized that playtime was over and shook himself somewhat dry. It was amazing how much water a large wolf could carry… and he was still very wet. Anton was glad he hadn’t focused on his own sense of smell as much as some others, or he might have smelled him from the middle of the lake.
Alva and Annelie began to catch up with each other, though topics eventually broadened to their groups as a whole. Anton and the others had many adventures to recount, and the Frostmirror Sect members were the same. Eventually they came to some serious topics, the kind that needed addressing even if it wasn’t actually part of their mission.
“We’ve actually been expanding some,” Annelie said. “Inducting a few more people into our… whatever this is. Choice club, or something. People get freedom to have emotions and learn how to deal with them.” Annelie shook her head. “It’s hard. Sometimes I think it would be better not to have them.”
“Emotions can cloud your judgment,” Anton nodded. “But I would argue outside of combat, they should always be felt. Even if you ultimately go against what you feel, knowing what you feel is important feedback.”
Even though he did not practice the same cultivation style as the others, Anton still found himself able to give them pieces of advice. He was still ahead of them in cultivation, and that included the very important step of having advanced to Essence Collection. He couldn’t tell them how to do whatever would work for them, but guiding them to pay attention to whatever they truly wanted should set them on the right path.
Perhaps they wouldn’t find something that suited them just like Anton, but he was very comfortable in how he promoted growth. He wanted everything to grow- plants, animals, and people- cultivators and those who weren’t yet cultivators included. Teaching and nurturing were his cores, and he wasn’t going to miss an opportunity even if some disciples weren’t even part of his sect. Though he also made sure to not go too far and teach them something that would cause them trouble. He didn’t know all of them as well as he would need to be sure how his advice might affect them.
That included his own great-granddaughter Annelie, but he was working as hard as he could to fill in the missing gaps from the time they had been apart. And Alva as well, who was returning to her former level of closeness with her favorite cousin. Perhaps things wouldn’t be quite the same as when they were kids, but then again nothing in the world remained unchanged forever.