Some time later, Anton found himself back in Graotan. Not at the Order, or anywhere he’d focused on teaching cultivators. He’d been to Carran a few times before, and while he had technically done some teaching about cultivation while he was there that wasn’t the main reason for visiting. The main reason was visiting family. This time that definition would be expanding, at least in the official sense. Unofficially, everyone involved was already family.
Yes, while he might visit occasionally this time his trip to Catarina and Timothy’s hometown was for one simple reason- a wedding.
It had been a long time coming, even by the standards of cultivators. A full decade might have passed for those who met later in life, but Catarina and Timothy knew each other basically their entire lives. Timothy’s entire reason to cultivate had been to stay with Catarina, so it wasn’t a surprise in any way. They were just… slow about it.
Anton was with Flora and Jasper, Catarina’s parents. The path leading to Flora had been on the shorter end of generations, so she had technically been Anton’s first great-granddaughter- not Annelie. He just hadn’t known it. It was funny how, given enough time, generations could sort of flip on their head.
“It’s about time,” Flora said. “I thought I was going to be an old woman before Timothy proposed.”
Instead of mentioning that both herself and her husband were slightly more youthful now than when he’d first met them, due to their progress into late Body Tempering, Anton played along. “You know they can hear you, right?” he grinned.
“Good,” Flora held her head up. “Because they were making me worried.”
“You know,” Jasper leaned in conspiratorially, “I heard that Catarina was the one who finally proposed.” He turned to Anton, “What do you know about that?”
Anton shrugged. “Well, I suppose you could ask them.” It was, in fact, technically true that Catarina had been the one to make the proposal of marriage. It was just that Timothy had been setting up a whole big plan about it, probably too much as those plans never seemed to get completed. That resulted in Catarina asking when they were out on a mission protecting a village from some particularly troublesome beasts, instead of Timothy asking when they returned.
“Well, it’s fine,” Flora smiled. “But how long do you think it will be before I get grandchildren?”
“I suppose that’s up to them,” Anton said. The current times of relative peace were probably the best they were going to get, but things could change at any moment. But then again, they could have a significant period of peace. During Anton’s century of life before he became a cultivator, he had rarely heard of any large scale conflicts between cultivators. The recent events in Ofrurg would have been the sort to come to his attention, even if it wasn’t directly affecting Dungannon.
The actual ceremony was relatively simple. The only extraordinary thing about it was the variety of people who showed up from various surrounding countries. Ayotunde happened to be in the area, and many other cultivators the pair had interacted with came. That included a member of the family who had never encountered Catarina’s parents. Annelie made her way over from the Frostmirror Sect. While her general activities might be monitored by the sect, it was no more than any other member. They simply had vested interests in knowing where their valuable members were, in case something happened to them.
The only thing extraordinary about the wedding was the quality of the feast afterwards. Even the local vegetables and chicken provided by the Rileys were exceptional, as they used energy to enhance their work in the fields which ultimately made its way into the animal feed. At the current moment their cultivations were higher than most of those working in the fields at the Order had been, at least when Anton first arrived. Enthusiasm for the work had improved over the past decade, and Elder Howland had some more regular workers at higher cultivation levels- along with Hoyt and Anton, of course.
After the ceremony Anton ended up chatting with Kellan, Timothy’s father. “How’s the woodcutting business?”
“Honestly,” Kellan shrugged, “I spend more time taking care of the trees than I do cutting them. It’s so easy that I hardly even need an apprentice or animals to help me drag the tree back. But trees are slow growing. This next generation should have some exceptional quality wood, but otherwise my work is remaining steady.” Kellan stroked his beard, “I’ve already begun to buy up some surrounding land to expand where I can work, but I don’t want to push things too quickly.”
“You might come do some work for the Order,” Anton said. “Our forests are extensive enough that we have trouble maintaining them. Of course, there’s a bit of risk from beasts and the like.”
“I’ll consider it,” Kellan said. “But I honestly like a bit of a lazy life. I worked for this, so it’s nice to relax.”
“Ever think of remarrying?” Anton asked.
“Considered it some. Thought I was too old. Now I feel closer to my prime, and I might consider it. What about you?” Kellan asked.
“What? Me, remarry?” Anton shook his head. “I was with Janina so long that it would feel strange to be with anyone else. And it’s not like I’m filled with youthful desires anymore. Even with an extended lifespan, I’m still pretty old here.” Anton wasn’t sure if it was because of his late start on cultivation, his use of Candle Wax, or his cultivation of Fleeting Youth, but even as his cultivation continued to climb he wasn’t getting any younger.
He had the appearance of someone in their sixties or seventies, though with excellent fitness. His hair was almost certainly going to remain gray, and he was quite content with that. Maybe that was why, actually. His body functioned well enough, so he didn’t care about being ‘younger’ and all that entailed.
With a few more years under his belt, he found himself heading towards the midpoint of Essence Collection, the prime tempering of the forty-first star. Anton could feel the way his Essence was developing, focused on the promotion of growth. If he didn’t restrain himself around plants, one could almost watch them grow. Or if they had eyes like Anton’s, they could watch them grow. Effects on animals were less obvious, and he wasn’t sure of all the ways he affected cultivators he was teaching, but he was able to help people develop more smoothly. How much of that was his Essence and how much was just experience it was hard to say.
If it were possible for Anton to spend the rest of his life just roaming around teaching people about cultivation, or just learning about their professions, he would gladly spend the rest of his life that way. And perhaps he could, if he didn’t care about things actually continuing to function. Unfortunately even during times of peace, there were still troubles in the world. He also had a variety of favors he needed to repay to people. Just because there had been a coordinated effort to deal with affairs in Ofrurg didn’t mean everyone benefited equally.
The biggest risks had been taken by the Grasping Willows. As a relatively weaker sect- though their position was changing somewhat- their involvement could have easily harmed them. Indeed, they had suffered a few attacks and lost some members, though the proportional harm was not particularly more than any other group involved. They simply hadn’t been seen as a big enough threat to target… and their actual home was well defended.
Anton stood with Lev, who was now one of the strongest members of the Grasping Willows, looking at the plants that they were named after. “Do you really want these things bigger?” Anton asked. “Seems like it would make it difficult to move around safely.”
“That’s the point,” Lev said. “And members of our sect, at least those who are allowed in this area, will not trigger the willow’s defensive response.” To demonstrate that, Lev walked to beneath one of the trees, well within the grasping areas of the dangling branches. He even brushed against some, and they didn’t respond to the touch. “So bigger would be better, as long as the branches can still reach close to the ground. Even then, it could stop people leaping around during a fight.”
“I’m glad to help,” Anton said. “But I’m just one more person tending to some trees. You all know more about these than I do.”
“You’re not here for that, specifically,” Lev commented. “You’re here for something dangerous. More dangerous. There’s a big old grandfather willow out in the woods. We sometimes make trips there, but we’ve rarely gotten some good time studying it. Since it’s the basis of our cultivation technique, a trip might improve individual cultivations or allow for changes to the technique as a whole. Or we might learn how to grow bigger plants,” Lev shrugged. “It would be very helpful to have a strong cultivator like yourself present on a trip, especially with your ranged capabilities.”
“A grandfather willow, huh?” Anton squinted as he looked into the distance. “And it’s… much bigger than the rest? I haven’t really seen anything like that.”
“It’s not all that close to the sect,” Lev said. “About fifty kilometers. And the particular terrain makes it a lot more subtle.”
“Alright then,” Anton nodded. “So the goal is to, what, spend as much time as possible in the area, study the tree?”
“And the other plants around it. Maybe some of them contribute to its growth, or it was just lucky. Either way, it’s a good training spot for members of the Grasping Willow. Just not a safe one, or we’d have set up the sect there.”
Elder Varela had been around mid Spirit Building when Anton had first encountered him. Now the man was only stepping into late Spirit Building all this time later. Meanwhile, Lev had already surpassed him and was one of two Essence Collection members going along for the trip. The rest were mostly Spirit Building disciples, with a few peak Body Tempering disciples as well. In total, there were about twenty people going.
Elder Evo was the other Essence Collection cultivator, and along with Lev he represented the best that the Grasping Willows had to offer. They were much smaller than the order, and had no Life Transformation cultivators at the moment. They might yet have one in Lev, though it would probably be another thirty or so years before he would reach it, if he had the knack. Lev certainly had talent and motivation, but people reached their limits in between stages of cultivation for many different reasons. Life Transformation was a big barrier that the majority of cultivators would never surpass even with limitless resources.
Anton wasn’t sure if they were technically still in the Mossythorn Timberland. They’d been walking for most of a day, keeping pace with the Body Tempering cultivators. He supposed what the area was called hardly mattered unless he was planning to make a map.
The important change in scenery was the increase in grasping willows. While the sect had intentionally planted the troublesome trees in greater abundance near them as a combined defensive measure and cultivation aid, their current location was more natural. The plant-aligned cultivations of the others kept them from being attacked, and Anton was too strong for the plants to cause real damage to, but there were other annoyances as well.
Actual mossythorn vines, for example. They didn’t look like much, but if you walked through a patch of them you would find yourself with a myriad of tiny little thorns poking into you. Unlike western creeper they didn’t ignore defensive energy, but it was still something that needed to be avoided.
There were myriad poisonous plants, though most of them were only troublesome if ingested. The rest had pollen that needed to be avoided, but everyone present knew how to filter their lungs if necessary. Aside from a few other things, all they had to worry about were the beasts that could live in such a place. They ranged from small stinging insects and venomous snakes to bears the size of houses and snakes able to swallow a man whole.
Anton was able to lead them around most of the problems as they headed down into the valley that was part of the reason the grandfather willow hadn’t been visible from twenty kilometers away. He could see it now, still overtopping everything else even with its position deep in the valley. Given its size if it had been on relatively the same height compared to the Grasping Willow sect, he could have at least seen hints of it from there. The furthest branches were already overhanging them from kilometers away, drooping along the ground. Anton was very cautious of those, because while he would almost certainly be able to free himself it would be much more difficult than the more modest sized specimens.